Remembering Alma Cogan

I’ve covered 342 #1 singles since starting this blog. Some have been classics, some have been terrible, some have been by the most famous acts in pop music history, some have been by acts unknown to me until that moment… One of the singers I have been happiest to discover on my journey, is the singer of the 35th UK #1 single, Alma Cogan.

Born in East London in 1932, she went from singer-in-residence at a hotel, to the biggest British female star of the fifties. ‘The Girl with the Giggle in Her Voice’ – a nickname she earned after bursting into laughter during an early recording session – with huge frocks and a healthy pair of lungs – to listen to her early hits is to lose yourself in unpretentious pop perfection. Of which ‘Dreamboat’, her one and only chart-topper, is perhaps the perfect example.

(You can read my original post on it here.) Voted Outstanding British Female Singer by NME readers four times between 1956-1960, she scored hits throughout the decade by covering standards such as ‘Mambo Italiano’ and ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love?’, ‘Little Things Mean a Lot’ and ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’. Being a popular singer in the fifties and early sixties meant that she also recorded her fair share of novelties – ‘Never Do a Tango with an Eskimo‘ – and showtunes. But she sings them with such a twinkle in her eyes that you forgive even her cheesiest moments. Here she is, belting out ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ from ‘Oliver!’ (Apparently the part of Nancy was written with Cogan in mind, and she does have a fantastic cockney rasp in her voice, compared to other more stage-school actresses who have played the role.)

The swinging sixties killed off her chart-topping days, as they did to many stars of the fifties. But there is a fascinating coda to Alma Cogan’s career – her friendship with The Beatles…

Cogan’s star was waning and the Fab Four’s was on the rise, but they would still meet at the same TV recordings. She was the first person that Paul played ‘Yesterday’ to, and she allegedly had an affair with John. She also tried to relaunch herself back into the charts by covering some of the bands hits – her ‘Eight Days a Week’ is a particular moment of overblown brilliance.

For whatever reason, she couldn’t seem to reignite her singles career – in the UK at least – and died tragically young from cancer in 1966. She was just thirty-four. Which terrifies me, as I am thirty-four and I have neither enjoyed a decade-long singing career nor had an affair with a Beatle… Just what have I done with my life?

Here’s one of Alma Cogan’s later TV performances – a cover of ‘The Tennessee Waltz’ – as introduced by her (supposed) lover John Lennon. They do flirt quite heavily in this clip, I must say…

And if that doesn’t leave with a smile on your face, then I don’t know what medication to recommend…

Alma Cogan, 19th May 1932 – 26th October 1966

272. ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, by The Beatles

Well then. For one last time, for the 17th time in just over six years, for the 67th, 68th and 69th weeks in total… The Beatles top the UK singles chart.

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The Ballad of John and Yoko, by The Beatles (their 17th and final #1)

3 weeks, from 11th June – 2nd July 1969

Coming so hot on the heels of ‘Get Back’ – only 1 week of Tommy Roe splits them – ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ sounds like an off-cut from the same recording session. It’s a bit rough and ready, there are the same squiggly guitars that we heard on ‘Get Back’, the same country-rock feel… Famously it features only John and Paul, no George or Ringo. I know it didn’t happen like this, but I do like to imagine the pair – the most famous song writing partners in British rock history – waiting behind after all the others had gone home for the day, putting their ever-growing differences aside and recording one last smash hit in a semi-lit studio.

As the title suggests, this is the story of John and his new wife Yoko, and the story of their marriage. They tried to get married in Paris, managed to do it in Gibraltar, and honeymooned in Amsterdam, in the face of some stiff opposition. All told over a simple riff, with Lennon’s vocals growing ever angrier as the verses rattle on.

I get about half the references… Drove from Paris to the Amsterdam Hilton, Talkin’ in our beds for a week… = the pair’s ‘Bed-In’ against the Vietnam War. The newspapers said, She’s gone to his head, They look just like two gurus in drag… = Lennon’s feelings of victimisation around his divorce and his new, foreign wife. The way things are goin’, They’re gonna crucify me… A cheeky reference to Lennon’s remarks from a few years earlier, about The Beatles being bigger than Jesus.

Other references are more obscure. The trip to Vienna, eating chocolate cake in a bag is a reference to their ‘bagism’ phase, where they wore bags over their heads in a statement against racial prejudice (everyone looks the same in a bag, right?) The fifty acorns tied in a sack? That took some digging, but is apparently about a pair of acorn trees that John and Yoko planted in the grounds of Coventry Cathedral.

And then there’s the blasphemy. The Christ! that kicks off every chorus – I always enjoyed shouting it out in the car as a kid – with the final one being particularly venomous. Perhaps predictably, this caused a big kerfuffle in the States, with several radio stations at best bleeping the word out or, at worst, refusing to play the record at all. The BBC avoided it, too. 1969 is truly becoming the year in which swearing makes it to the top of the charts, after Peter Sarstedt’s ‘damn’ in ‘Where Do You Go To…’ Meanwhile, in Spain, ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ caused controversy not because of the Christ!s but because of the references to Gibraltar being ‘near’ Spain. As far as Franco was concerned, Gibraltar was very much part of Spain, muchas gracias

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Is it slightly disappointing that this song is the final Beatle’s record we get to hear in this countdown? Before writing, I would have said yes; but the more I listen and the more I find out about this record, I’m not so sure. It’s John at his spikiest, it’s Lennon and McCartney reunited, it’s quite funny in places… Sure it doesn’t sound much like The Beatles, but what Beatles #1 since 1966 has? Plus, the riff that closes out ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, the final notes of their final number one, is lifted from an old rock ‘n’ roll number, ‘Lonesome Tears in My Eyes’, by Johnny Burnette, which The Beatles, or The Quarrymen, used to play way back in the early days. Which is lovely.

I was going to rank all The Beatles 17 #1s in order of preference, but to be honest I can’t face it. I’d need a spare half-day to decide… Of course, this isn’t their final hit single. ‘Come Together’, ‘Something’, ‘Let It Be’ and ‘The Long and Winding Road’ are all still to come. Abbey Road hasn’t been released yet. But, the limitations of this blog are clear: if it doesn’t get to #1 then it doesn’t get a look-in.

And, of course, John, Paul and George will pop up many, many more times in this countdown as solo stars, as part of new bands, in re-releases and in amongst charity singles, well into the 2000s. There is only one man we need to bid farewell to here, then. Ringo. He will go on to achieve great things without bothering over the trifling business of topping the pop charts; namely narrating ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, and becoming the most influential voice of my pre-school days… (apologies to my parents.)

270. ‘Get Back’, by The Beatles with Billy Preston

For the penultimate time – shock! horror! – it’s the Fab Four. And this time they bring with them a riff that can only be described as chugging…

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Get Back, by The Beatles (their 16th of seventeen #1s) with Billy Preston 

6 weeks, from 23rd April – 4th June 1969

The Beatles, since they left the Merseybeat days behind them in 1965, have gone trippy, gone heavy, gone epic. This time they’ve gone country. The guitar licks that shimmer around the main rhythm are pure C & W, while the lyrics take us straight to the wild west. JoJo was a man who thought he was a loner, But he knew it couldn’t last, JoJo left his home in Tucson Arizona, For some California grass… (Drug references! We have drug references in #1 singles, people. What a time to have been alive!)

Alongside JoJo we find sweet Loretta Martin, who thought she was a woman, but she was another man… She, or he, or they, also needs to get back, back to where she once belonged… All the girls around her say she’s got it comin’, But she gets it while she can… Pretty risqué stuff, I’d say, even for 1969. Though perhaps I just have a dirty mind.

Having not listened to it properly in several years, ‘Get Back’ is a much weirder song than I remember. There’s those lyrics for a start, then there are the squeaking noises and Paul McCartney’s very nasal, Kermit the Frog style vocals. There are also lines where he sounds close to laughter. Theories abound as to what the hell it’s actually about, including it being a satire of anti-immigrant views. I like John Lennon’s theory, though, that the get back to where you once belonged refrain was a McCartney dig at Yoko Ono.

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Although it’s their sixteenth chart-topper, this record is a Beatles ‘first’ for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, it’s their first and only single to officially feature another musician. Technically this is ‘The Beatles with Billy Preston’, as he contributes the funky keyboard solo – for my money the song’s best bit. It was also the first, and only, Beatles’ #1 to enter the charts in top spot, rather than climb there, which means they finally match Elvis and Cliff’s achievements from the start of the decade.

And, though we may be scraping the barrel here, it’s the only Beatles’ single to feature a spoken-word section. Before the final chorus, the riff tightens and Loretta is urged, once again, to get on home. Your mummy’s waiting for you, Wearin’ her high-heeled shoes and a low-necked sweater… And that’s that. Looking at The Beatles’ post-1965 #1 singles… you can’t claim they ever rested on their laurels. Every one is different, every one a work of art in its own way (even ‘Hello, Goodbye’.)

‘Get Back’ also, significantly, puts The Beatles out clear in the UK #1 singles leaders table. They now sit on sixteen while Elvis, for so long miles out in front, has fifteen. The Shadows are on twelve. Cliff is on nine. The Stones on seven. No other act so far has more than four.

Finally, this is the 4th Beatles chart-topper in a row to have had Paul as the lead writer. Was he carrying them by this point? Or was he just writing the stuff they knew would sell? John will have the final say, though, when he gets the credit for their final #1 single, coming up very, very shortly. And it was he who had the final word when they closed their final ever live performance, from the roof of the Apple studios in January ‘69. ‘Get Back’ was the very last song they played, before the police spoiled the fun, with Lennon thanking their impromptu audience and adding: “I hope we’ve passed the audition.”

263. ‘Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da’, by The Marmalade

Our first #1 of 1969, which hit the top just as the New Year’s bells rang out. Throughout January it was locked in a bit of a jig with our last chart-topper, ‘Lily the Pink’. Both records replaced one another at the summit. And when you listen to this disc, that makes sense…

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Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, by The Marmalade (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 1st – 8th January / 2 weeks, from 15th – 29th January 1969 (3 weeks total)

For ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ is cut from the same silly, music-hall cloth as Lily and her medicinal compounds. This is another strange tale – the tale of Desmond, Molly and their market stall. Desmond says to Molly girl I like your face, And Molly says this as she takes him by the hand…

You probably know what comes next, because this is a song by a very famous band, from a very famous album. Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, Life goes on, Wo-oah… La-la how the life goes on… Yep, it’s the fifth cover of a Beatles’ song to make #1 in the UK, following on from ‘Bad to Me’, ‘A World Without Love’, ‘Michelle’, and hitting the top only a couple of months after the last one, ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’. Add these to the Beatles’ fifteen #1s, and that’s a cool twenty chart-toppers for Misters Lennon and McCartney. (Listen to the original here – John apparently hated it.)

Out of the previous covers, I’d say that this has most in common with The Overlanders’ ‘Michelle’. It’s a perfectly functional copy of the original, one that adds nothing new into the mix. It still bounces along on the same ska-ish beat, Desmond still buys Molly a diamond ring, Molly still does her pretty face and sings with her band in the evening – they still have the drag verse at the end – but it’s basically karaoke.

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In fact, the bits I like about the original ‘Ob-La-Di…’ are the cut from this. They don’t shout ‘Bra!’ in the chorus, instead changing it to ‘woah’. There’s no ‘ha ha ha ha’ between the bridge and the third verse, no plinky-plonky piano. Plus, at the end they change So if you want some fun… to So if you want some jam… Because, I’m guessing, they were called The Marmalade. So actually, they’ve taken an average song, and made it worse. Oh well.

And it’s sung in a very strange, slightly Indian, slightly Scouse, slightly Fagin from ‘Oliver!’ accent. The Marmalade were from Glasgow, but that ain’t no Glaswegian… It’s tough, I know, to assess a song like this on its own merits, having been familiar with The Beatles’ version since I was about eight. It’s fine, but coming so soon after Cocker’s outrageous interpretation of ‘With a Little Help…’ it falls pretty flat. The Marmalade would, to be fair, have several other, self-written Top 10 hits through to the early seventies. They were no one-hit wonders.

P.S. Before we finish, it’s worth noting the reggae-ish undertones in this disc. Last year we had the first ska-tinted number one from The Equals, while the ‘Desmond’ in this song was apparently inspired by Desmond Dekker, one of the first reggae stars to make it big in the UK. The ‘Bra!’ in the original was apparently meant to be more like ‘Brah!’ – ‘brother’ or ‘friend’ in West Indian patois. Nowadays Paul McCartney would probably get savaged for such cultural appropriation… What it all means is that reggae has arrived at the top of the charts, just in time to add yet another layer to an amazingly diverse musical decade.

P.P.S. This is the 19th disc to have two (or more) separate runs at the top since the charts began sixteen years ago. Amazingly, it will be the last disc to have a return to number one (without being re-released) until 1993!

260. ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, by Joe Cocker

I recently did a series of posts on cover versions of #1 songs – previous chart-toppers that had been reimagined in different ways by different artists. ‘Different’ being the important word – a good cover version should bring something new to the table. What’s the point in releasing a karaoke version of the original? And while we have had plenty of cover versions hit number one already, this one takes the concept to another level.

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With a Little Help From My Friends, by Joe Cocker (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 6th – 13th November 1968

The Beatles’ version of ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ had been released the year before, on the ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club’ LP. Joe Cocker, a British blues-rocker who had been around for a few years without enjoying much chart success, took it and made it his own. It’s slower, heavier, longer, downer and dirtier… Re-acquaint yourself with the original here, then settle in for the Cocker treatment.

It begins with a distant organ, as if you were standing outside a church before evensong. It’s an ominous build-up… You’re ready for something to happen. Then wham. Guitar! Proper hard-rock guitar. Hendrix and Clapton kind of guitar. The type of guitar that’s been nowhere near the top of the charts before. It’s bombastic, and outrageous. It makes you want to make devil-horns and punch the air.

The lyrics are the ones you know. What would you do, If I sang out of tune, Would you stand up and walk out on me…? But it sure isn’t Ringo singing it. Cocker’s voice is husky, and soulful. He delivers the lines late, squeezes the words in before the next one comes along. The backing singers, so important in any version of this song, sound like a gospel choir: How do I feel at the end of the day…? Are you sad because you’re on your own?

The best bit is the bridge – the Do you need anybody… bit. The guitars go super heavy and crunchy, like a motorbike revving up. The second time around, especially, when Cocker howls and the backing singers soar and we launch into the final minute of a mini rock-opera. I know we’ve had a lot of soul number ones in recent years – The Small Faces, Chris Farlowe, Long John Baldry and more – but this takes it to the next level.

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It kind of sounds a bit like a jamming session, or at least a live version, and that really adds something to the song. They captured lightning here. They would never have been able to re-record this exactly the same – it’s too raw, too intense. It lacks the polish of a regular #1 single, but you’re oh so glad that it somehow managed to have its week in the top spot

As I mentioned, it’s another long number one. You wait years for a #1 single that lasts longer than five minutes, then three come along at once. And that’s not all that links this to the previous two #1s. We’ve now had a number one recorded by The Beatles (‘Hey Jude’) replaced by one that was produced by a Beatle (‘Those Were the Days’) replaced in turn by a number one written by The Beatles. In case you’ve lost count, this is the fourth Beatles cover to reach the top in the past five years. They may have been reaching the end of their career as a band, but their grip on the charts wasn’t weakening.

We end in a frenzy of organs and guitars, as Cocker ad-libs over the fade-out. Phew. It’s not a subtle re-interpretation, I will admit, but for me it works. I knew this record by reputation, but it’s been great to give it an in-depth listen. ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ is a song that will pop up another two times in this countdown, and I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that neither of the upcoming covers are fit to lick this one’s boots…

Joe Cocker will only have one more Top 10 hit, until the early-eighties when he will record ‘Up Where We Belong’ with Jennifer Warnes for the soundtrack to ‘An Officer and a Gentleman.’ From Sheffield, but sadly no relation to Jarvis Cocker, he was still scoring Top 20 albums in the ‘00s and the 2010s. He died in 2014.

258. ‘Hey Jude’, by The Beatles

Buckle up and make yourselves comfortable, cause we’ve hit our longest number one single yet. One of the longest ever. Seven minutes and ten seconds of Beatlesy goodness.

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Hey Jude, by The Beatles (their 15th of seventeen #1s)

2 weeks, from 11th – 25th September 1968

It starts off in beautiful simplicity. Just Paul and a piano. Hey Jude, Don’t make it bad… Take a sad song, And make it better… You’re there, in the studio. You can picture his face as he sings. Remember, To let her into your heart, Then you can start, To make it better…

I love the way the instruments are slowly added into the mix. Before you know it there’s a tambourine, a guitar, then backing vocals and Ringo’s drums. Hey Jude, Don’t be afraid, You were made to, Go out and get her… It sounds like an encouragement to a friend, to go and get the girl he loves, but it was inspired by John’s separation from his first wife Cynthia. Paul wrote it to comfort their son Julian (Julian – Jules – Jude). John, however, claimed that it was about him, and that the song’s lyrics were Paul’s blessing to him and Yoko Ono. Others still – mainly McCartney’s exes – have claimed that it was written about them. Who knows? A great song means something different to everyone.

And this is a great song. I’ve always liked the bridge best: And anytime you feel the pain, Hey Jude, Refrain…  It’s almost, without wanting to sound hopelessly pretentious, spiritual. Pop music as hymn. If I were religious, I’d go to churches where they sang ‘Hey Jude.’ I gave Paul McCartney a hard time in my post on ‘Hello, Goodbye’, and I stand by that, but here… His voice grows ever more soulful. It’s something else – it’s undeniable.

Just over three minutes in we reach the bit that means this record will live on for ever more. When the waves finally lap over the last bit of unsubmerged land left on earth, the final sound man hears will probably be the coda of ‘Hey Jude’. Na-na-na… Nananana! Nananana… Hey Jude! It lives on at karaoke nights, in pubs, outside pubs, in football stadiums… And you can see why. It isn’t hard to remember some ‘nananana’s. Whatever language you speak. Nananana.

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(‘Hey Jude’ was the 1st single released on The Beatles’ own Apple Label)

I had forgotten – having not actually listened to ‘Hey Jude’ properly for years, how crazy Paul goes over the coda. He riffs, he scats, he howls and yells. By the end he sounds as if he’s properly lost it. This was recorded at a particularly difficult time in The Beatles’ history: John spending all his time with Yoko, Ringo temporarily leaving the band… Maybe he was just letting some frustrations out.

The song starts to fade a full minute and a half before it actually ends. Does it really need to be over seven minutes long? Probably not. But at the same time: why the hell not? By this point in their careers, The Beatles could do whatever they wanted. ‘Hey Jude’ is a full two minutes forty seconds longer than the previous ‘Longest #1 Single’ title-holder, The Animal’s ‘The House of the Rising Sun’. You could play the shortest #1 – Adam Faith’s ‘What Do You Want’ – almost five times before ‘Hey Jude’ plays once. As far as I’m aware, it is still the 4th longest #1 single ever, and won’t be displaced as the longest until 1998, when Oasis will release their cover version… sorry, their completely different song… ‘All Around the World.’

And so we reach the end, finally, as the nananas fade and we are left to return to everyday life. ‘Hey Jude’ is a song that has entered the fabric of British life, of our national identity even… Paul McCartney plays it at most of his concerts, as a tribute to his long-dead song writing partner. It’s only right that it hit number one, but it seems wrong that it stayed at the top for just a fortnight. In the US it tied for the longest-ever run, at nine-weeks. That seems more appropriate. A long old run in pole position, for a long old song… Na-na-na-na!

Listen to all the previous, much shorter, #1 singles here:

241. ‘Hello, Goodbye’, by The Beatles

We round off 2019 with the final number one from 1967. Top of the charts fifty-two years ago today was…

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Hello, Goodbye, by The Beatles (their 13th of seventeen #1s)

7 weeks, from 6th December 1967 – 24th January 1968

… of course it was. Who else? (As a kid, listening to ‘Pick Of The Pops’ on Radio 2, we’d always have a contest in the car to guess who would be number one. And if it was a chart from the sixties I’d always guess The Beatles because, well, the odds were with you.) And, speaking of being a kid, ‘Hello, Goodbye’ was one of my first favourite Beatles hits. But, to be honest, it’s appeal has faded as the years have gone on, and as I’ve gotten older and more cynical.

You say yes, I say no, You say stop, And I say go, go, go… Oh no… It’s a song that explodes into life – no waiting around. You say goodbye, And I say hello… A song about an argument, about two people that are deliberately disagreeing with one another. One says ‘high’, the other says ‘low’. So on and so forth. It’s tempting to read into it – is it a seemingly nonsensical, childish pop song documenting the start of the slow break-up of the world’s biggest band…? Or a glimpse into the marriage of Paul McCartney and Linda… Actually no, that theory is dead in the water – they didn’t marry until 1969.

McCartney did write this one, which I think is probably quite obvious. It’s got that slightly irritating chipper-ness to it that shows up more often in his solo work, once John wasn’t around to check his worst impulses. Lennon reportedly didn’t care much for ‘Hello, Goodbye’, and pushed for ‘I Am the Walrus’ to be released instead. If only… (‘Walrus’ was the B-side.)

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But, but, but… I’m making it sound as if I hate this record, when I don’t. Beatles’ ‘average’ is still pretty good. I like the backing vocals, which remind me of ‘Help!’ in the way that they sing different lines to the lead, and the reverb on the Why-why-why-why do you say goodbye-bye-bye-bye… And Ringo’s drumming is great on this. The outro, though… The Hare Krishna-ish Hey-la-hey-bah-hello-ah… Nah. Not for me.

Perhaps this is the Beatles playing it safe, worrying that they had spooked people too much with their much more avant-garde stuff: ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Penny Lane’, ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘All You Need is Love’. Playing it safe with a huge Christmas hit – their 4th Xmas #1 in five years. It’s just that, for the first time in ages, a Beatles song doesn’t feel like a step forward.

But, what do I know? ‘Hello, Goodbye’ gave The Fab Four their joint-longest run at the top of the charts, tied with their debut #1 ‘From Me to You’. (It has to be mentioned, though, that charts were often repeated for a week over the Christmas and New Year holidays in those days.) It’s also fitting that 1967 ends with a blockbuster number one. It’s been a quick year to get through, with lots of long runs at the top from Tom Jones, Engelbert, Procol Harum and now The Beatles. It’s one of the very few years in chart history where every single #1 stays there for longer than one week.

It’s also fitting that I end 2019 by thanking everyone who has read, liked and commented on this blog over the past twelve months, and wish you all a very happy new year. See you all on the other side… 1968 awaits!

My #1s playlist:

235. ‘All You Need Is Love’, by The Beatles

The top of the British Singles Chart has just endured its longest Beatles-less spell (at least, you know, until they split up and stop making music) but they are back! Though you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a completely different band.

The Fab Four were killed off a year or so ago. Since then they’ve hit #1 with the string drenched ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and the kids’ singalong ‘Yellow Submarine’. Before that came the bass-heavy garage of ‘Paperback Writer’. Both big steps away from the Beat sound that had made them huge. This single is another massive leap away, even compared to their innovation of ’66. This single opens with the French national anthem…

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All You Need Is Love, by The Beatles (their 12th of seventeen #1s)

3 weeks, from 19th July – 9th August 1967

Because, why not? They’re The Beatles and they can do whatever the hell they want. ‘La Marseillaise’ doesn’t last for long, and soon we swing into a simple ditty. Love, love, love… and a mantra. Nothing you can do that can’t be done, Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung… On first listen it sounds like a hippy-dippy, peace (man!) anthem for the Summer of Love. But, actually… Nothing you can know that isn’t known, Nothing you can see that isn’t shown… It’s kind of negative. ‘Why bother?’ seems to be the message…

John Lennon allegedly kept the lyrics simple, as the song was to be debuted on TV screens around the globe for ‘Our World’, the first ever global tele-link. But, Lennon being Lennon, I sense a bit of needle in there. A bit of sarcasm, maybe? It’s definitely not as straightforward as it sounds. He later described the lyrics as ‘revolutionary propaganda.’ The chorus, though, is simplicity in action: All you need is love… Love is all you need.

Like ‘Good Vibrations’ – a record that spurred The Beatles on to greater experimentation – ‘All You Need Is Love’ jumps around all over the place, from national anthems, to drunken jazz in the chorus, to an electric guitar solo, to stabbing strings, with some music-hall ‘All together nows’ for good measure.

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And then there’s the finale. Where it all just goes a little bit mental. We get horns from Bach (meaning the 18th Century composer has influenced two #1s in a row!), a snippet of Glen Miller’s ‘In the Mood’ and, naturally, ‘Greensleeves’. From revolutionary France, to WWII mess-halls, to Tudor England in one four minute pop song… And there are snatches of two other Beatles’ classics as well: ‘Yesterday’ and ‘She Loves You’. (Opening up an interesting sub-category: #1 singles that feature in other #1 singles…) All the while the band and guests whoop and holler until the whole messy shebang fades from sight. It sounds like the best party you’ve never been to.

Where to start analysing this? Why even bother? I certainly don’t feel qualified to go into any more detail. With other bands, and other singles, you can see where they were coming from, what they were trying to do, even how you might have done it better. Not with this song, not with The Beatles. It’s unthinkable, really. Throwing out singles that most bands would have built whole careers around, willy-nilly. Here’s ‘She Loves You’, there’s ‘Help!’, watch you don’t trip over ‘Eleanor Rigby’, or ‘Ticket to Ride’ over there in the corner… You’d like a song for a lame TV show? Here’s ‘All You Need Is Love’. And ‘Yesterday’, the song that they reference here – the song that has been covered over 2000 times, the song that has been voted ‘Best Song Ever’ on several occasions? They stuck that away on Side 2 of an album. Oh, The Beatles… Beatles, Beatles, Beatles…

But, just so that they don’t go getting too big-headed, too full of themselves – Paul and Ringo definitely read this blog, right? – I feel compelled to add that when they next appear in this countdown, it’ll be with what I personally think is the worst of their seventeen chart-toppers…

222. ‘Eleanor Rigby’ / ‘Yellow Submarine’, by The Beatles

In my intro to The Beatles’ last #1 – ‘Paperback Writer’ – I said that it was a definitive split away from ‘The Fab Four’. This latest chart-topper from the group, then, is an even greater stride away from the mop-top days.

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Eleanor Rigby / Yellow Submarine, by The Beatles (their 11th of seventeen #1s)

4 weeks, from 18th August – 15th September 1966

The first side of this double-‘A’ disc contains a song that features no guitars, no drums, no nothing apart from strings. It’s a story about two people: Eleanor Rigby, who lives in a dream and wears a face kept in a jar by the door, and Father McKenzie, who writes sermons that nobody will hear and who spends his nights darning socks… We are a million miles away from ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, and that was barely two and a half years ago!

It’s a horribly sad song. Just start with the main refrain: Ah, look at all the lonely people! Then delve into the details. The images. Eleanor sweeping confetti from the floor of a church, after a joyful wedding party has been and gone. The priest and his socks. Eleanor’s funeral, at the end of which Father McKenzie wipes the dirt from his hands and walks back to church alone. No-one was saved…

The characters are fictional, although Paul McCartney has at times been ambiguous when asked about them. The grave of an Eleanor Rigby exists in Liverpool, very near to where Paul and John first met as teenagers. She died in 1939, aged just forty-four, and it does seem slightly too much of a coincidence. But then again, if you were going to invent a fictional old woman’s name, Eleanor Rigby wouldn’t be a bad shout.

Real or invented, Eleanor’s song races along on tight, menacing violins – the story told in barely two minutes. It’s a vignette, a moment in time. You can imagine Paul McCartney viewing the churchyard from the window of a double-decker bus, Eleanor sweeping the church steps, Father McKenzie waiting for the congregation that will never come, and then going home to write the song. Just what is it about? A study in loneliness? The decline of Christianity? A comment on the misery of post-war Britain? The more you listen to it, the more important ‘Eleanor Rigby’ sounds. And the less like a chart-topping record. Only The Beatles could have taken this song to chart success. Largely because only The Beatles were capable of writing pop songs like this.

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They were also the only band capable of writing songs like the one on the other side of this disc. We flip the record, and move from the sublime into the ridiculous. As if they thought that ‘Eleanor Rigby’ might be too much of a departure, too avant-garde, and so wanted something childishly reassuring to go along with it. But, in its own way, ‘Yellow Submarine’ is every bit as arresting…

Let me state right here right now – it is impossible to truly hate ‘Yellow Submarine’. It might be irritating, cheesy and pointless… but there’s a loveable nugget buried in there. Perhaps it’s because ‘Yellow Submarine’ is often the first Beatles song people ever hear as toddlers. I think also, for me, it’s the fact that Ringo sings it. There’s something wonderfully soothing about Ringo’s voice. It’s got a melancholy tremble that contrasts nicely with the song’s stupidly optimistic lyrics. Plus, his voice always reminds me of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, which was my favourite TV show as a sprog.

In the town, Where I was born, Lived a man, Who sailed to sea… Ringo and chums sail out to find the land of submarines. They live a life of ease, beneath the waves… The end. It’s a complete novelty. The silliest, most childlike chart-topper since ‘(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window’ from way back when. To pair this with ‘Eleanor Rigby’ reminds me of when Elvis paired ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ with ‘Rock-a-Hula Baby’, times ten.

But hey. I like the bit where the band begins to play, and the use of goofy sound effects as the sub gets its journey underway, and the final verse, with the shouted, distorted backing vocals. The band must have enjoyed recording it, as they went and endorsed a whole movie based on the song. The cartoon ‘Yellow Submarine’ is probably one of the iconic Beatles images, along with Sgt Peppers and the EMI stairwell pictures.

Of course, this being The Beatles, the lyrics to ‘Yellow Submarine’ have undergone intense scrutiny. Just what is it about, man? Is it an anti-war statement (Yellow Nuclear Submarine?) Is it an ode to a hippy commune? The band themselves, as they usually did, stated that it was just a children’s song about a big, yellow submarine. Nothing more, nothing less.

So, there you have it. Two completely bizarre songs from the biggest band in history, at the height of their powers. There’s an arrogance to them releasing this disc – in them saying to their adoring public: ‘Here, get your pretty little heads around this!’ And it marks the start of a mini-hiatus from the top of the charts for The Beatles. Their next release, another very famous double-‘A’ side, will (gasp!) not make #1, and we won’t hear from them until almost a whole year has passed. By which time they will have taken another supersonic leap forward…

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217. ‘Paperback Writer’, by The Beatles

If you can draw a line in the sand, between early-era Beatles #1s and late-era Beatles #1s – if you really want to locate the moment when they stopped being ‘The Fab Four’ – then I’d say this is it.

BEATLES PICTURED IN PHOTO RELEASED BY CAPITOL RECORDS

Paperback Writer, by The Beatles (their 10th of seventeen #1s)

2 weeks, from 23rd June – 7th July 1966

There’s the echoey, layered intro – Paperback writer, writer, writer… A simple, harder than anything that’s gone before, riff. A filthy bassline. It’s not a clean line in the sand – it’s not as if The Beatles hadn’t been getting progressively heavier, cooler, druggier with every chart-topper since ‘I Feel Fine’ – but this does feel like a significant step away from their earlier days. 1966 would be the year of ‘Revolver’ and their last ever stadium concerts.

The biggest difference though, for me, comes in the lyrics. All their previous #1s have been boy-meets-girl, girl treats boy well or badly, pop songs (with the exception of ‘Help!’) ‘Paperback Writer’, however, is a song about a, well, a paperback writer, written by Paul McCartney after he was challenged to write a song about anything but ‘love’.

Dear sir or madam, Will you read my book, It took me years to write, Will you take a look…? It’s a song in the form of a letter – our very first epistolary chart topper? – from a wannabe pulp-fiction writer, presumably living in a cramped attic, to some unnamed publishers. It doesn’t, to be honest, sound like a very appealing read: a dirty story of a dirty man (whose) clinging wife doesn’t understand… And the unnamed writer doesn’t sound like much of an artiste: I need a job and so I wanna be a paperback writer…

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It’s actually quite a funny record, satirical even. The hero of this trashy story also wants to be a paperback writer, while the book is already a thousand pages long, with more to come in a week… In the background, the other members of the band harmonise, in falsettos, over the French nursery rhyme ‘Frere Jacques’.

It’s also a short record, just over two minutes long, which sounds loveably rough and ready, as if it were knocked out in one take over a single afternoon. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s probably The Beatles’ heaviest chart-topper, and a song that’s always felt like a bit of an anomaly in their discography. Although, if you think the lyrics to ‘Paperback Writer’ are a big change of pace, their next #1 will be about an old woman who cleans churches…

Before we finish, let’s just pause to notice that the past three chart-toppers have gone The Rolling StonesFrank Sinatra – The Beatles… has there ever been a more illustrious run of #1s?