227. ‘The Green, Green Grass of Home’, by Tom Jones

It’s become a bit of theme recently – every so often we take a pause from pop music’s race into the future to enjoy a good, old-fashioned ballad. First with Ken Dodd, then Jim Reeves, and now Tom from the Valleys.

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Green, Green Grass of Home, by Tom Jones (his 2nd of three #1s)

7 weeks, from 1st December 1966 – 19th January 1967

A soft, swaying intro precedes a tale of a man returning home, from a long time away. The old home town looks the same, As I step down from the train… And doesn’t Tom sing it well? There’s something in the Welsh waters… Why are they such good singers? Why is it Welsh Male Voice choirs, and not Geordie Male Voice choirs?

He runs towards his long-lost love, Mary: Hair of gold, And lips like cherries… And then he heads home: There’s that old oak tree, That I used to play on… It’s a heart-warming song for Christmas. One for all the family. Yes, it’s good to touch, The green green grass of home… Like most Tom Jones songs, it helps if you’re a bit drunk. I love the saloon-bar piano, that really adds a ‘last-call’ vibe. And, also like most Tom Jones songs, it’s a karaoke classic. Not quite ‘Delilah’, but getting there.

I love a song that tells a story, verse by verse. Just where has this man been all this time…? And ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’, like all good stories, has one hell of a twist. We break for a spoken-word interlude, in which the singer reveals that it was all a dream. And, who’s that? Why it’s the guard… And there’s a sad, old padre, On and on we’ll walk at daybreak, Again I’ll touch, The green green grass of home… Yep, plot twist: he’s getting executed.

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I love it. Either he’s been wrongfully convicted, which only increases the power of the earlier verses, or you’ve spent the last two minutes sympathising with a murderer. The little piano riff to end is this song’s version of a ‘badoom-tish.’ And I’m similarly in two minds about this record as a whole. On the one hand, it’s mawkish, sentimental mush. On the other, it’s a great one for belting out in the shower.

And to be fair, this was a mega-hit. Seven weeks at #1 is longer than any record in the past three and a half-years, since The Beatles’ ‘From Me to You’. And, as I mentioned earlier, I doubt that this disc being released over the festive season hurt its chances. The idea of a ‘Christmas Number One’ wasn’t really a thing this early in the charts, but I do wonder if the success of ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ set the tone for later, similarly saccharine, festive hits.

As for Sir Tom, similar to his first #1, ‘It’s Not Unusual, I think we have to look at him as existing separately from his chart contemporaries. His other big sixties hits included ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ and ‘Help Yourself’ – nothing baroquey or folky, or Beat-poppy about them. But… If you’re never in fashion you’ll never be out of fashion. Maybe it’s this refusal to follow trends that’s allowed him all his comebacks: his Prince covers in the eighties, and his huge resurgence when I was in high-school. Looking back, how on earth did a near sixty-year old man singing ‘Sex Bomb’ become such a thing…? And he will hit the top-spot once more, briefly, in forty-two years’ time. Which, unsurprisingly, is by far the biggest gap between #1 singles, ever.

189. ‘It’s Not Unusual’, by Tom Jones

Some songs take a while to build to a climax; others wallop straight in from the get-go. ‘It’s Not Unusual’, the debut hit from voice-of-the-valleys and now Knight of the Realm, Sir Tom Jones, falls into the latter camp. There is no climax here. Or rather, the song is the climax.

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It’s Not Unusual, by Tom Jones (his 1st of three #1s)

1 week, from 11th – 18th March 1965

Stabbing jazz-bar brass, and hand-claps. Pah-papa-Pah-papa… Your feet instantly start tapping. Then in blasts Tom… It’s not unusual, To be loved by anyone, It’s not unusual, To have fun with anyone… By God could Tom Jones sing. (And still can – let’s not kill him off before his time.) But when I see you hanging about with anyone, It’s not unusual, To see me cry… I wanna die…

Never has a song about a jealous and possessive ex-lover sounded so cheerful. Tom sees his girl around town – flirting, galivanting, generally having a good time – and it kills him. Why did they split up? Who knows? This isn’t a song for reflecting. Why can’t this crazy love be miiiiiiinnnnneeeeee…. he wails as we head into the break. I don’t know, Tom, maybe if you stopped snooping around on her like a creep…?

But it bears repeating: this cat can sing. Jones’s voice is not one you’d ever describe as subtle; but it’s super-soulful and packs a brilliant, throaty rasp. That miiiiiinnnnnneeee above is powerful, as is the way he lets loose at the end. It stands out for miles around compared to his contemporaries, and it is hard to imagine that he was only twenty-four when he recorded this record. Apparently the song was offered initially to Sandie Shaw, but once she heard Jones’s recording she felt it would be impossible to make a better one…

This disc races to an end in precisely two minutes, and it feels even shorter such is the galloping pace that it maintains. Over the past few months I had noticed that our #1s were getting longer. The Animals scored the longest by some distance – ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ reaching four and a half minutes – but ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ and ‘Yeh Yeh’ also pushed well beyond the magic three-minute mark. Tom Jones doesn’t hang about, though. He takes us back several years – to the days when a couple of minutes per song was the norm.

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Despite this being the very first hit for a fresh-faced young Welsh lad, it’s hard to imagine that Tom Jones was ever cool. Even when ‘It’s Not Unusual’ was sitting at number one in the charts, I’ll bet it was being bought more by mums than by their daughters. (Apparently, though, the BBC refused to play ‘It’s Not Unusual’ at the time, as Tom Jones’s image was too sexy…) Later hits like ‘Delilah’, ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ and ‘She’s a Lady’ did nothing to help his image. He’s remained steadfastly uncool throughout the decades, too. He was uncool when covering Prince in the eighties, and he was uncool when he scored a big comeback in the early 2000s with (shudder) ‘Sex Bomb’. There was a good reason he was Carlton’s favourite singer in ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.’

But who cares? Who cares if he’s recorded some absolute cheese over the years? Who cares if he looks like someone you wouldn’t leave your wife alone with for a minute? Who cares if, by this point, he’s gone beyond parody? It’s worked for him, and given him career-longevity that few can even dream of. Maybe that’s the key: start of uncool and you’ll never have to worry about losing it… Plus, whenever Tom Jones sings, he sounds like he’s having the time of his life. Love what you do, folks, love what you do. Tom’s got it sussed…