445. ‘One Day at a Time’, by Lena Martell

Oh, OK… Well, this is perfect. After all that blather in my last post about a new-wave, technicolour era, as we prepared to dive head first into the eighties… This comes along.

One Day at a Time, by Lena Martell (her 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 21st October – 11th November 1979

I had forgotten, you see, that the British nation has a weird obsession with country and western music. Had forgotten that in amongst the explosion of new sounds topping the charts during the last year or so, that actually the most consistent sound of the seventies has not been glam, or disco, punk or synth-pop… It’s been C & W. From the decade’s 2nd #1 ‘Wand’rin’ Star’, through Dawn, Tammy Wynette, J.J. Barrie (shudder) and Kenny Rogers… to this.

One day at a time, Sweet Jesus…! We’ve had sentimental country, country with lonesome men and stoic women, folks returnin’ from war, from jail… But until now, we had been spared this. Christian Country. Show me the stairway, I have to climb, Lord for my sake, Teach me to take, One day at a time… Lena is struggling in this modern world, so she looks above for guidance.

One thing I knew about Lena Martell is that she and I are compatriots. Yep, the steady stream of country hits in the UK was, for some reason, largely fuelled by us Scots. Something about their hard-drinkin’, rough-livin’ ways appeals to us… (no comment) Martell is the second Glaswegian to have a country #1, after Billy Connolly. And she does, to be fair to her, put on a good southern twang. But while Connolly’s ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E.’ was a funny piss-take, ‘One Day at a Time’ is painfully earnest. Truth is, I am a sucker for this kind of country schmaltz. Musically, this is fine. If she were singing about her good for nuthin’, cheatin’ man, I’d be all in. Unfortunately, this record is lyrically rancid.

In the final verse, she goes full ‘Daily Mail’ comments-board. Oh Lord, she moans, what’s the world coming to? Well, Jesus you know, if you’re looking below, It’s worse now than then… Cheatin’ and stealin’, Violence and crime… I’m going to be careful here, as I don’t want to offend anyone’s beliefs… But I’m pretty sure even the good Lord above would have been offended by this crap.

‘One Day at a Time’ was originally released by a Marilyn Sellars in 1974, and has been recorded over 200 times… Mostly by country singers I’ve never heard of, though I see both Tennessee Ernie Ford and Brotherhood of Man have had a crack. Meanwhile, this disc gave Lena Martell her one and only chart hit. She did, though, have a long-running show on the BBC, sang with Frank Sinatra on her US tours, and was releasing country and religious albums well into the 2000s, until she retired following heart surgery.

Fair play to her, then, for having a career that many can only dream of. As for her chart-topping, one-hit-wonder moment in the sun, though… I think I can sum it up in two words: Sweet Jesus!

312. ‘Amazing Grace’, by The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards

So, um… Our next number one single, from the spring of 1972, is… *checks notes*… a bagpipe instrumental.

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Amazing Grace, by The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard (their 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 9th April – 14th May 1972

I really don’t think I can write anything interesting about the record itself. It is literally just the well-known hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, played by a military band. There have been plenty of outliers hit the top of the charts before this – singers and styles that have stood out like a sore thumb against the sounds of the time – Russ Conway’s piano, Frank Ifield’s yodelling, traditional ballads from the likes of Ken Dodd and Des O’Connor. None, though, have stood out as much as this.

Why was this a huge, five-week #1 single? There must be a story behind it. ‘Amazing Grace’ had been recorded in a popular version by American folk singer Judy Collins in 1969, whose arrangement the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard copied. Hers was a statement against the Vietnam War, part of the late sixties counter-culture that gave us ‘Woodstock’ and ‘In the Year 2525’. Meanwhile, Johnny Cash, Rod Stewart and Aretha Franklin all recorded their own versions of the hymn in the early to mid-seventies.

Is it that simple, then? A record by some soldiers – albeit not ones directly involved in any conflict – appealing to a public that were seeing images of war on their TV sets every night? I’m not a religious person, but ‘Amazing Grace’ is a spectacular piece of music, one that touches somewhere deep within. It’s one of the best known songs in the English language, and so for it to appear at the top of the charts in some form seems apt, though it was apparently much more popular in American churches than in the UK.

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A bit of history: ‘Amazing Grace’ dates from the 1790s, instantly making it one of the very ‘oldest’ chart-toppers. Its writer, John Newton, had been a slave trader whose ship ran aground in a storm. This caused him to reassess his life, become a clergyman, and write this hymn about his experiences: Amazing grace, How great thou art, That saved a wretch like me… In the 1800s it became an abolitionist anthem and then very popular in African-American churches.

My problem with this record lies not in the religious-ness of it, or that it’s old-fashioned… My problem is with the bagpipes. I am Scottish. Yet I hate the sound of bagpipes. Something went wrong, somewhere, and I malfunctioned. It’s like being a cat that has no interest in pieces of string. Where most people hear a heart-tugging call from the misty glens and shimmering lochs; I just hear a shrill banshee-shriek. Listen to the first five seconds of this record: the drone and then the shriek. It’s not pleasant.

I enjoy it more when the brass section takes over in the second half of the song. But by the end we’re back to the lone piper. Except pipers are never really ‘lone’: they’re ten-a-penny on Edinburgh’s street corners in summer, quite often blasting out dirges like this. In conclusion, then, I’m with the stuffy old Director of Bagpipes at Edinburgh Castle who, when this record hit the charts, summoned the Pipe Major of the Royal Scots for a dressing down. How dare he demean the venerable bagpipe by featuring it on a pop record! Sadly for him, and all bagpipe haters around the world, ‘Amazing Grace’ is not even the biggest hit record of the 1970s to feature the instrument… Sigh.

296. ‘My Sweet Lord’, by George Harrison

I wonder what the odds were on George Harrison being the first Beatle to score a solo chart-topper? You would have assumed it’d be Lennon, who was releasing solo stuff before the Fab Four had even split, then McCartney, with his knack for a pop hook. Then again, George had been getting more of his songs included on their albums from 1968 onwards, and some of the Beatles’ most famous late-era tunes are his – ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Something’, ‘Here Comes the Sun’… So maybe it wasn’t such a surprise when he hit top spot less than a year after his former band’s last hit.

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My Sweet Lord, by George Harrison (his 1st of two #1s)

5 weeks, from 24th January – 28th February 1971

And in the end, it wasn’t even close. We are still seven years from a #1 by Paul, and nearly a decade away from one by John, by which time he’ll be dead. Anyway, to the song… There’s something quite ominous in the opening acoustic chords, contrasting nicely with the goofy, tropical, lead guitar riff.

My sweet lord, Mmm my lord, I really want to see you, Really wanna be with you… His voice sounds great – angelic, but gruff and growly when it needs to be. Really wanna see you lord but it takes so long, My lord… First things first, then – is this a religious song? On the face of it, yes – especially when the hallelujahs come in. And does he want proof of God’s existence or, like Clive Dunn before, is he anticipating death? (George Harrison and Clive Dunn asking the big questions at the top of the charts, who’d’ve though it…)

It’s not your typical pop song – no verse, bridge, chorus here. It’s more of a growing chant, a five-minute long mantra, that ascends through several key changes. Now, you can’t ever go wrong with key changes, but at the same time it’s a song that doesn’t really go anywhere. Maybe that’s the intention; but for me it leaves something wanting. ‘My Sweet Lord’ is a song that I loved without really considering why, and I do still really like it, but the more I listen to it the more I wonder if it’s as great as they say…

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Sacrilege? Maybe. Halfway through the Hallelujahs become Hare Krishna’s and other snippets of Vedic prayer. Which answers our earlier question – yes, it is a religious song. Harrison was big into his Hinduism at the time and by combining it with Christian elements he wanted to make a statement on the follies of sectarianism. We all worship the same God at the end of the day, right? (No!, shout all the atheists in the back.)

It ends on a high, like a gospel choir singing it up to the rafters. Among the backing instruments and singers you can hear Ringo, Billy Preston (from ‘Get Back’), and Eric Clapton among others. You might also hear hints of ‘He’s So Fine’ by The Chiffons… Harrison famously lost a copyright case that ruled he had ‘subconsciously copied’ the melody. (I really like this cover by The Belmonts – minus Dion – which splices the two songs together, with lots of added kazoo.)

‘My Sweet Lord’ was on Harrison’s epic triple album ‘All Things Must Pass’ – a shackles-off moment in which he stepped out of Lennon and McCartney’s combined shadow. He would continue to have commercial success throughout the seventies and eighties – by himself, in the supergroup The Travelling Wilburys – and then in the nineties with the two remaining Beatles. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed, though, that this is his ‘1st of two #1s’… The other? A re-release of ‘My Sweet Lord’ just after his death in 2002. Till then then, George…

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197. ‘Crying in the Chapel’, by Elvis Presley

Well, well, well. Look who’s back. The man with the most #1 singles ever (then and now), whose every release was once guaranteed several weeks at the top of the British pop charts, assumes his rightful place. Bow down to The King.

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Crying in the Chapel, by Elvis Presley (his 15th of twenty-one #1s)

1 week, from 17th – 24th June / 1 week from 1st – 8th July 1965 (2 weeks total)

He’s taken a break from his ever-diminishing run of lame movie-soundtracks, to get all holy on us. Elvis does gospel. You saw me crying in the chapel, The tears I shed were tears of joy… he croons, over a simple guitar strum – reminiscent of ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ – and a tinkling piano – reminiscent of ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’. I know the meaning of contentment, Now I’m happy with the Lord…

This is by far the most overtly religious chart-topper yet. In fact, the only others to have referenced The Almighty and his Gang were ‘Answer Me’, way back in 1953, and ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, from Christmas 1957. But this isn’t a preachy, buttoned-up number. This is Elvis we’re talking about, and he’s in his element. He whispers, he purrs, he croons, while the way he lowers his voice for the …just to sing and, Praise the Lord… line would get even the most pious of nuns a little hot under the collar.

No, Elvis is enjoying himself here. I once read a description – I can’t remember where – of Elvis’s gospel records as being sung as if ‘The King was trying to blow the pearly gates from their hinges’. You can imagine him striding up to God and asking him to make some room on the throne…. But not here. Elvis keeps it low-key on this disc. Actually, his vocals aside, it’s pretty dull. I always skipped this one back when I had his Greatest Hits on heavy rotation.

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But it is in keeping with what has been a very eclectic 1965. We’ve had ballads, country-pop, Latin soul, some cabaret-pop and some Phil Spector Wall of Sound gloss. And now some gospel. While it’s easy to say ‘well, only someone like Elvis could take this to #1’, bear in mind he hasn’t been drowning in hit records recently. This is his first chart-topper for two years; while he won’t reappear again until the 1970s. His recent hits before this one included ‘Bossa Nova Baby’ (#13) and ‘Do the Clam’ (#19). This record got to the top for reasons beyond Elvis’s fading star-power. Maybe it was Christian-power…? Church-goers heading out in force to get what is basically a hymn-in-disguise to the top of the charts? It worked for Cliff in the ‘80s and ‘90s…

It would also be remiss to suggest that Elvis was attempting some kind of reinvention here. He was always, in fairness, a deeply religious man, and had released his first gospel album, ‘His Hand in Mine’, years before. (‘Crying in the Chapel’ was actually recorded way back in 1960, but for some reason never saw the light of day until five years had passed.) He’d go on to release several more before his death, including the seminal ‘How Great Thou Art’ in 1967. Nope, it seems that this was simply one of his few gospel singles that caught on with the general public. It’s a million miles away from the swinging sixties, and you know what, that’s fine for a couple of weeks.

It’s interesting, looking at Elvis’s discography, to see how he seems to have been much more appreciated by British audiences come the mid-sixties. Between ‘Surrender’ in mid-1961, and now, he scored just one Billboard Hot 100 #1 – ‘Good Luck Charm’. Across the Atlantic he racked up seven, including this one. You can’t help but feel that Britain got this the wrong way around – all the early classics, your ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Don’t Be Cruel’, were US chart-toppers. Whereas in the UK we waited until the ‘Rock-a-Hula-Baby’ phase to go truly Elvis-mad. Definitive proof of this, if it were needed, can be found in the fact that the abominable ‘Wooden Heart’, a 6-week UK #1, didn’t see the light of day in the States. The Americans got that one spot on!

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