179. ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ by Roy Orbison

In comes an intro that isn’t messing around… Sturdy, confident drums… Then Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun… An intro that builds – a layer added with every repetition – until it morphs into a chain-link of a riff.

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Oh, Pretty Woman, by Roy Orbison (his 3rd and final #1)

2 weeks, from 8th – 22nd October / 1 week, from 12th – 19th November 1964 (3 weeks total)

And then in comes that voice. The Big O. Reigning it in a little compared to his last, full on operetta of a #1 single, ‘It’s Over’Pretty woman, Walkin’ down the street, Pretty woman, The kind I’d like to meet…  Now, let’s pause for just a second. That ‘I’d’ right there, twenty seconds in, makes or breaks this song. ‘I’d like to meet…’ suggests that he’s been a little unlucky in love. Make it ‘I like to meet…’ as some sources do claim, and the singer suddenly becomes a player, a predator, and the song a little icky. I’m going to trust that it’s an ‘I’d’…

Anyway. Roy’s just hanging out, chilling, watching the girls go by. Pretty woman… I don’t believe you, You’re not the truth, No-one could look as good as you… And then a spoken Mercy! that is truly sublime. Pretty woman, Won’t you pardon me, Pretty woman, I couldn’t help but see… That you look lovely as can be, Are you lonely, Just like me…? He may be ogling and approaching passers-by, but he’s a perfect gentleman about it. Plus, he’s lonely. There’s a tenderness to this song that lifts it above other stalker-anthems like ‘I’m Walking Behind You’ and ‘Every Breath You Take.’

Then, though, Roy does something that even he probably can’t get away with. The grrrrrooooowwwwllllll. Let’s pretend the growl never happens, OK? We get to the bridge – a real fifties rock ‘n’ roll throwback – that seals this record’s place among the greats. Pretty woman, Stop a while, Pretty woman, Talk a while… while the drums roll, and a piano tinkles.

As with ‘It’s Over’, ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ stands out against the musical landscape of 1964. It could have been a hit five years earlier, or ten years later. I’m not sure you could say the same of ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’. The Roy Orbison renaissance (the Roynaissance, if I may) of ’64 is probably the most pleasant surprise in a spectacular year of pop music. Though to be honest, he hadn’t been anywhere, and had been scoring big hits throughout the early sixties. It’s just that none of them had made it to the top of the charts.

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We get to the climax of the song, and an already brilliant song is elevated even further. The rules of pop music never applied to Roy Orbison, and he bends them to great effect here. He serves us a cliff-hanger, similar to the one he dishes up at the end of ‘Running Scared’. The woman doesn’t stop, and he’s left disappointed. He slows it down, in his trademark talking-singing-freestyling style: Don’t walk away, Hey…. OK… If that’s the way it must be, OK… Then another moment of perfection – But, wait… Cut to the same drumbeat that opened the song. What’s that I see…? She’s turned around. She’s coming back! Of course she’s coming back. Was there a woman alive who could resist the Orbison charm?

I, as I’m sure you’ve realised, love this record. It’s a Rolling Stone Top 500, Rock n Roll Hall of Fame kind of record. A song that nobody can say a bad word about. I love Roy Orbison too, and still remember getting his greatest hits as a Christmas present back as a kid. Perhaps with the exception of Elvis, no other star of the fifties and sixties had an identifiable image like Roy Orbison. Dark suit, dark glasses, guitar, quiff. It’s up there with Michael Jackson’s hat and glove, and Madonna’s pointy bra. You may think it’s superficial; but it’s a hallmark of the very best pop stars.

Following this, Orbison suffered some pretty lean years in terms of chart hits, and some unimaginable tragedies: he lost his wife and his two eldest sons in the space of two years. But, as with all the greats he came back – The Travelling Wilburys, ‘You Got It’ and all that. And then, just as his comeback was picking up speed, and in a twist befitting one of his greatest ballads, he had a heart-attack and died, in 1988, aged just fifty-two. He’s a legend – plain and simple. The songs that defied convention, the operatic voice, and the dark glasses. The Big O.

171. ‘It’s Over’, by Roy Orbison

Out of nowhere, the Big ‘O’ is back. Enough of this new-fangled ‘Beat’ nonsense, he says. It’s been a little too happy at the top of the charts recently; a little too much positivity going round. Roy is here to change all that.

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It’s Over, by Roy Orbison (his 2nd of three #1s)

2 weeks, from 25th June – 9th July 1964

This isn’t any kind of reinvention. Orbison hasn’t updated his sound to keep up with the kids. Last we heard from him, over three and a half years ago, it was with ‘Only the Lonely’. Now, ‘It’s Over’. And if you held any hopes that that might just be a misleading title, then the opening line crushes them. A guitar gently strums… Your baby doesn’t love you, Anymore…

And so we embark on a song absolutely drowning in melodramatic heartbreak. Roy O excelled at this kind of OTT emoting. Lines like: All the rainbows in the sky, Start to weep and say goodbye… and Setting suns before they fall, Echo to you ‘That’s all, that’s all’… are both ridiculous and perfect. While in the build-up to the chorus, when he sings She says to you, There’s someone new, Were throu-ou-ough… and then, just for good measure, another We’re through! Goosebumps.

I had never heard of a ‘bolero’ before researching this song, but it’s a term that’s been used to describe what Orbison was doing in ballads like these. A bolero being, in Latin music, a piece that ‘builds’; and in pop music a song that builds to a climax without the traditional verse, bridge, chorus structure. Not that ‘It’s Over’ is strictly a bolero. There is a latin flavour to the insistent guitars, and the occasional castanets, but there is a reset halfway through, after the first three It’s overs… For a true taste of Orbison-bolero, check out the equally sublime ‘Running Scared’.

By the end of the song, you’ve come to a startling realisation. The Big ‘O’ is bloody loving all this heartbreak. For a start, this song is written in the 2nd person – he’s singing about another person’s despair. He’s the angel of heartbreak swooping in through some poor guy’s bedroom window, as his wife slams the door behind her, singing And you’ll see lonely sunsets, After all… And then we get to the climax. It’s over, It’s over, It’s over! But it’s not. Oh no. Pause. One final breath. And Jeezo. That last It’s Over! No chart-topper, before or since – and bear in mind that we’re on around 1300 by now – has had as dramatic and emphatic an ending as chart-topper #171.

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As I wrote above, this was Roy Orbison’s 2nd number one after a near four year wait. Under normal circumstances, a four year gap between chart-toppers is nothing special. But for him to span these four years, which saw Elvis kill off what remained of rock ‘n’ roll and The Beatles et al launch a musical revolution, is pretty impressive. His contemporaries at the top when ‘Only The Lonely’ was there were Ricky Valance, Cliff and Johnny Tillotson. And he’s done it without compromise. This record is The Big ‘O’ doing what The Big ‘O’ does best, and for its two minutes and forty-seven seconds you could be forgiven for forgetting that anything has changed. Back when The Beatles and The Pacemakers landed on the charts, I compared them to a meteor, killing off all the musical dinosaurs. But I forgot about Roy Orbison. I now have a mental image of him coolly lifting the meteor up with one arm, stepping out from under it and dusting himself off. And re-adjusting his shades, of course.

Interestingly, he’s the first American-that-isn’t-Elvis-Presley to top the charts since Ray Charles in July 1962. The Beat revolution has been, up to now, a strictly British affair. But that’s going to start slowly changing. As for Roy, it’s certainly not over. Not yet. He’s got one final #1 left in the tank, and it might just be his signature song.

Follow along with my Spotify playlist:

108. ‘Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel)’, by Roy Orbison

Now this is more like it! As we try to wash the memory of that last chart-topper from our minds, a dose of the Big ‘O’ will do nicely.

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Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel), by Roy Orbison (his 1st of three #1s)

2 weeks, from 20th October – 3rd November 1960

Dum-dum-dum-dumbee-doo-wa, Ooooh-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah, Oh-woa-woa-woa-ahhh… Only the lonely… We haven’t heard many catchier intros in this countdown, have we?

Only the lonely, Know the way I feel tonight, Only the lonely, Know this feelin’ ain’t right… This is how you do heartbreak in a pop song. It feels somehow significant, the fact that this was the song to depose ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ from the top of the charts. As if Roy Orbison had listened to Ricky Valance and his saccharine mulch and said ‘Hold my beer…’

Everything about this song feels like an upgrade from ‘Tell Laura…’ – the voice (that voice – one of the most unmistakeable in pop history), the lyrics, even the backing singers. But to paint this record solely as the yang to ‘Laura’s yin would be unfair. This is a great track in its own right, deserving of a place in this countdown regardless of the record it knocked from the top spot.

It’s a rock ‘n’ roll record, but with the operatic flourishes that were a trademark of Orbison’s career. There are the fluttering violins that dance around the end of each line, the deep bass drum that marks out the bridge – there goes my baby (dun dun dun dun) – and, of course, that high note at the end. His voice, which has been deep, and fairly manly, up to now, rises with each of the final lines: Maybe tomorrow, A new romance, No more sorrow, But that’s the chance… wait for it… youuuuuu gotta take… As someone who has listened to Roy Orbison for many years this almost passes me by as standard – that’s what he sounded like a lot of the time – but you have to remember that this was his first big, international hit. People in October 1960 didn’t know who he was, and they wouldn’t have heard the high note coming. The chart nerd in me feels compelled to point out that ‘Only the Lonely’ took what was, at the time and until 1985(!), the longest ever climb to #1 in the UK charts (eleven weeks) This was a slow-burner, a word-of-mouth hit that you heard about from your neighbour over the garden fence – ‘Have you heard that new song by the guy with the high-pitched voice…?’

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Turns out that this mix of rock ‘n’ roll rhythms with operatic touches and emotive, melancholy lyrics was Roy Orbison’s new trademark, after an earlier rockabilly phase that had brought him limited success in the US but had failed to register over in Britain, and the record-buying public lapped it up. His next release, for example – the OTT ‘Blue Angel’ – makes ‘Only the Lonely’ sound stripped back and subtle. I bought my first Big ‘O’ Best Of at the same time as I was getting into Buddy, Chuck and co., so we go way back. He can be something of an acquired taste at times, but once you get him; you won’t forget him.

And we’ll hear from him again in a few years’ time – when he’ll stand up to the Merseybeat tsunami with a couple of his best known songs – but until then I’d recommend checking out his early sixties classics: the aforementioned ‘Blue Angel’, ‘Running Scared’, ‘Crying’ (as made super famous by Don McClean), ‘Workin’ for the Man’ and ‘Falling’ (a song that, to this day, I can’t work out if I like or not but which definitely shows off his unique voice).

We seem to be settling back into a nice rock ‘n’ roll groove in the autumn of 1960, this disc following on from the likes of ‘Please Don’t Tease’, ‘Shakin’ All Over’ and ‘Apache’. In fact, ‘Only the Lonely’ is something of an amalgam, of this new, easy goin’ rock ‘n’ roll and the string-laden, percussion-y chart toppers from earlier in the year – ‘Poor Me’, ‘Why’ and so on. A new type of pop song, perhaps? A subtle little game changer? We’ll see. Onwards!