Number ones in charts not used by British Hit Singles, 1955-2004.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

ELVIS PRESLEY - "Stuck On You" (Melody Maker and Disc number one, April 1960)

It's been a hard task returning to this project, so depressing is it to think that this country could have been spared the humiliation (in all senses) coming from Iraq, let alone Blair's pathetic concessions to Murdoch intimidation over the EU constitution, had we taken a different route out of the impasse of the dying imperial British culture - Dennis Potter's "glittering coffin" - 44 years ago. The image of 1960 for me will always be suburbanisation and the assertion of a stronger American influence on British society than ever envisaged before - it was a classic denial of how things were changing that Lonnie Donegan's "My Old Man's A Dustman" kept Cliff Richard's "Fall In Love With You" off the top that spring even as Macmillan was cancelling the Blue Streak missile, because Cliff embodied the spirit of the year, the sound of Cheshunt, Stevenage, Harlow, the aspirational Hertfordshire new towns where the mythological white working-class Cockneys of Donegan's music-hall throwback were increasingly moving out (the July 1959 Pathe pictorial which proclaims of Stevenage that "here, then, is the town of the future - a town planned to the last detail for 80,000 of the citizens of tomorrow!" is key here, and remember that Macmillan visited both Stevenage and Harlow in the run-up to his landslide election). True, private schoolchildren could still be portrayed in an incredibly anachronistic pre-war way - check Carol Ann Pearce's extraordinary "We're In The Sixth" (http://elidor.blogspot.com/2003_09_01_elidor_archive.html) and remember that the Billy Bunter TV series was still going - and it was still possible on Sunday 9th October this year for the BBC TV Epilogue to be entitled "The Glories of our Blood and State", but very nearly everyone knew by now which way the wind was blowing.

It was amid this climate - the mass culture rapidly taking in the changes he'd unleashed in his own cult four years earlier - that Elvis Presley returned from his Army service in early March 1960, in the process stopping off in Scotland while his plane refuelled, his only ever visit to the UK (itself memorably evoked in 1986 by the ITV "Dramarama" production "Waiting For Elvis"). His comeback single came with what was, at the time, a pretty much unprecedented rapidity (at least that's the impression I get - it may be wrong ...) from recording to release; taped in Nashville on 20th-21st March, the song was released in the UK as soon as 1st April.

At the time the almost instantaneous release must have had an incredible feeling of speed and modernity about it; inevitably that hasn't survived the years but the song is certainly far superior to the insulting knockoff "Party" (see this blog passim). It's nothing special, though; a fairly predictable, generic, Jordanaires-backed (I'm guessing) halfway point between his own trademark vocal tics and thrusts and the bland teenbeat dominant at the time - a sound so firmly fixed in the mainstream that whatever outsider's impact it may ever have had was now dissolved not so much through Presley's army service as through the simple passage of time; now, it was Perry Como's "Delaware" which *didn't* sound like "the norm". As a composition "Stuck On You" is determinedly unspectacular and though Elvis' voice would get worse, it never transcends the now-received cliches - the "wild horses couldn't tear us apart" line is clearly the best moment but even that is nothing you'd even dream of putting on repeat. To his old fans at the time it must have sounded vaguely disappointing and sophomoric, but it wasn't about the Army, it was about the withering of rock's "rebelliousness" amid the consumer boom of the time, an inevitable process. I don't think I'll ever change my view that Presley's extraordinary turnover of (official!) UK chart-toppers in 1960-62 was more "by default" than anything else, but he did do better in this era - unfortunately he also did a million times worse.

As for "Stuck On You" itself, I think it merits a (5)

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

EVERLY BROTHERS - "Bird Dog" (Record Mirror, Melody Maker and Disc number one, November 1958)

Something weird was going on here - for several weeks this was number one everywhere bar the NME, who listed Tommy Edwards' "It's All In The Game" at the top. 46-year-old technicalities aside, this is a driven, lusty piece of analogising, country cliches fused seamlessly into rock'n'roll redefined seamlessly as the new pop music. It's hard for me to describe how well Don and Phil's voices work, because I've known them practically all my listening life (longer than I've known practically anything recorded and released in my own lifetime, for example), but even a relatively generic Everlys record like this sounds more contemporary than almost anything else of the time - this still sounds like pop music in a way that, say, the Kalin Twins' "When" doesn't, Elvis' "Party" sure as hell doesn't (and probably hasn't since about 1963). Keeping the excitement going over the fadeout as the Everlys do with the reprised "He's a bird" refrain seems particularly modern - once the state of the art, covering all bases in a way others could scarcely have envisaged, the Everly Brothers have outlived most of their more modish contemporaries in that listening to a song like this still feels like more than a nostalgia trip.

JOHNNY OTIS SHOW FEATURING MARIE ADAMS AND THE THREE TONS OF JOY - "Ma (He's Making Eyes At Me)" (Record Mirror and Melody Maker number one, January 1958)

Now this is more like it - another UK-only hit, but this time out we sensed the best in American music. The teen screams come in right at the start and recur right through and by God do they sound like they mean it, losing themselves in enthusiasm. Then Marie Adams hollers "Mama", and then we get 2 minutes and 24 seconds that never miss a beat, never skip an opportunity, never miss an opportunity to excite and thrill. Johnny shouting "that was real cool, Marie!" and then upping the fever with a chord change for the reprise is particularly great, but it seems futile to pick out individual moments. And this is where Emile Ford got the backing vocals for "What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For", as well!

Probably kept out of mainstream US charts by the effective apartheid of their radio system and indeed much of their society at the time, this is a great example of the sheer power and greatness of R&B in all its forms and definitions (just listen to the "oh yeahs" at the end of the record - they're clearly all having such a great time that they could go on forever, but they also have the pop sense to know when to stop the repetition), and it says a lot about the good side of Britain in the 50s that it could see through the divisions and appreciate this kind of hair-on-end magic. It's a good R&B record, yes ... but it's a *great* pop record. "Mama, he's kissing me!" - those words may sound innocuous now but it wasn't always so, and they never sounded like they meant the world quite like they do here.

ELVIS PRESLEY - "Party" (Melody Maker number one, probably November 1957)

Never released as a US single - you get the impression that, with album sales still very low in the UK at this time, and lower still for rock'n'roll artists, RCA were lifting rather half-arsed tracks from Elvis' huge-selling US LPs so as to meet the huge demand for Presley product in an essentially singles-buying market (this was only his second single released on RCA after they launched their own label in the UK, the previous one being the equally anaemic "Teddy Bear" - previously his singles had come out on the HMV label). It's certainly hard to believe that this was intended as a single, because it sounds very much like it's been knocked off in fifteen minutes just to lazily flesh out an underrunning LP side. The locked groove at the end - OK, it's really nothing of the kind, but I like to imagine things like that - seems to have been added purely to bring the song up to 1'30", and it's more exciting than most of what precedes it. Already by this time the sound was getting tiresomely generic and the Jordanaires - who I can never recall liking ever, even on the ballads where some insist they "fit" better - bring down whatever zest may still be in Presley's voice. It's the sort of record which could only have sounded exciting if you were bored by Lyons Corner Houses; in Fast Food Britain it sounds not only boring but borderline unpleasant. Nothing here to challenge my view that Elvis is generally overrated as a performer, though it gets better later on ...

LOU BUSCH AND HIS ORCHESTRA - "Zambesi" (Record Mirror number one, circa February / March 1956)

Well, we know this one, given a bloke-with-a-bare-chest-down-the-pub treatment by the Piranhas some twenty-six years later as a follow-up to their take on Elias and his Zig Zag Jive Flutes' magical piece of South African exotica (a hit before people in Britain were generally particularly concerned about apartheid, you understand) "Tom Hark". This is obviously cod-African as well, given the most audacious Hollywood treatment imaginable - this is purest Picturegoer magazine, a postcard of "Around The World In 80 Days" (the Mike Todd version, of course) jollity that became a standard. Somehow it makes me think of Hawaii (the place, not the High Llamas album). The flying orchestral flourish which opens the song, the chiming bells on the melody when it comes back halfway through, the "doo-doo-doos" which follow soon after ... really we're still not that far from Guy Mitchell's "cokey-nuts and fish from the sea". And just as Tom was right to change his mind about that, so would anyone dismissing this as played-out kitsch be missing an instinctive sense of fun and the ability to sum up an era in a sense which will become history pretty soon but right now is still breathing with life. 48 years ago Lou Busch had both.

FRANKIE LAINE WITH THE MELLOMEN - "Cool Water" (Record Mirror number one, summer 1955)

Little if anything from the 50s dates as badly as Western melodrama, which is why Laine, the leading UK chart artist of the pre-rock era, has faded from the consciousness so utterly. I'm very vaguely familiar with this song, perhaps from one of the many C&W / 50s-based compilations my parents listened to when I was a sprog - turns out it was never an American hit and was aimed mainly at the UK market, so it fits somewhat with the C&W exotica whose appeal in Britain at this time Tom was writing about in his entry for Jimmy Young's "The Man From Laramie". In this context it's always hard for me not to think of Britain's tragic lost years - the period when we lost the chance to be in at the start of the Common Market and, put simply, backed the wrong horse, realising correctly that the imperial British culture was dying but finding the wrong way out of it. As a song, it's nothing I'd choose to listen to but it passes the time adequately - the Mellomen (whoever they may have been) signal the title phrase ominously, Frankie treads the pioneers' paths, the British people find the wrong way out of the glittering coffin, the Republican Party feel they've got the right deal out of it, and the 50s generation feel a certain nostalgia, ambiguous or otherwise (and, hell, I had a fixation on old Western imagery when I was about 7, before then coming to regard such things as a mid-century cultural nadir, so I've got a history here as well ... probably it's the earlier tendency winning out over the later one in my indulgent late-night mind which prevented me giving this song 3 or less, as I thought I was going to do).

AL HIBBLER - "Unchained Melody" (Record Mirror number one, circa June / July 1955)

Four official number one versions not enough? Well, never mind four number one versions in forty-seven years, there were four versions in the Top 20 *simultaneously* in 1955 - such was the way of things even in America before rock'n'roll, teenbeat and the resultant cult of personality put the emphasis firmly on the singer not the song, and it could easily be the case in Britain even in the early 60s (Jimmy Justice and Craig Douglas outselling the Drifters, etc). As for non-English-speaking countries, native-language cover versions proliferated and competed with the originals to an extent quite unthinkable for decades now.

"Unchained Melody" is so ingrained into the collective subconscious that it's hard to imagine it as a new song, but in 1955 it clearly had the smell of an obvious hit about it - its melody resonant, its lyrics universal - and back then that meant multiple cover versions. Les Baxter and even Liberace took it into the UK charts, but the big battle was fought 'twixt Jimmy Young's curiously unconvincing, cod-cowboy campfire acoustic arrangement and Al Hibbler's lavishly orchestral US version - the stumbling-to-find-your-way imitation and the real deal, in mid-50s cultural Transatlantic terms. In the NME Jim came top, but in Record Mirror Al beat him out, and clearly Al's version knocks JY back into the blue remembered hills he came from, a clear, convincing reading which makes "I'll be coming home, wait for me" sound momentarily more than cliche, makes me imagine it sounding fresh, however unthinkable that might be now ("God" at 2'29" sounds particularly sharp and resonant). It's not punchably smug and shite at all (for that see R. Green, J. Flynn, G. Gates and, indeed, S. Cowell), it's not melodrama tainted by history (for that see P. Spector, B. Medley, B. Hatfield) - in time, Tom Ewing will have to deal with all the above. Me, I'm just glad I got a fairly definitive piece of mid-50s pre-rock luxury-pop.

DEAN MARTIN - "The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane" (Record Mirror number one, circa February / March 1955)

Teething problems affecting a new chart - in the NME this record only peaked at #5, with the Ames Brothers' version of the same song peaking one place lower - probably made this record the first of the Other Ones. I hadn't recalled this cosy little 50s jaunt (the only other song in this list I don't think I know, "Cool Water", follows very shortly), but when the typically cod-Italian hook came in I had a definite sense of childhood memories, even though I wasn't born until 25 years later - blame my mum for listening to the Frances Line era of Radio 2 so much in my youth! It's a familiar arrangement for those of us who grew up with pre-rock pop as a constant soundtrack, which I get the impression Tom Ewing did not (although I could be wrong here), and others of my age generally did not because they had younger parents than mine - definitively Hollywood Italiana of the type Martin specialised in - and for me it evokes as much the nostalgia of my mum's Housewives' Choice compilation LP and the David Jacobs show fifteen years ago as it would evoke for others a different kind of nostalgia, one known by me only through old Hollywood reruns on the one hand or British Transport Films' "A Day Of One's Own" on the other.

The tease-ending, so typical of the time ("and she's only nine days old!" delivered with much the same shit-eating self-satisfied expression that you get from people who say "a-a-and of course the washer-upper only had one arm!" when reminiscing about Robin's Nest) was no doubt ridiculed in the 60s as a classic example of the sexlessness of the 50s, the era's hiding of vital questions behind cheesy denying grins yada yada yada, but whatever cultural threat it may have posed has now surely vanished into ancient history (this is half a century ago after all - when I first started following pop music that meant the Battle of Britain not the recording of "Rock Around The Clock", and that means something). Like Dean Martin's persona itself, this record is as smarmy as they come, but glossy 1950s pop was often a whole lot worse. Fair to middling seems like the best place to start, somehow.

Brief introduction necessary. I'm over-educated (in the "minds" of one axis of cultural compartmentalist know-your-place scum), thick (in the "minds" of the other axis of cultural compartmentalist know-your-place scum), and my name is Robin Carmody. Some may know me from http://elidor.blogspot.com, some may not. But this is specifically for those who know Tom Ewing's Popular project, a fantastic piece of radical populism (crypto-Thatcherite in some senses, but I can live with that) which can be read at http://www.freakytrigger.co.uk/popular.html. This blog is for, quite literally, the Other Ones - the records which topped charts other than those used by British Hit Singles and related Guinness publications (NME from November 1952 to March 1960, Record Retailer / Music Week from March 1960 onwards). It's a long, varied list, not least because the RR chart wasn't used on the radio or in the top-selling music papers for most of the 1960s (Record Retailer being predominately a trade paper right from the start) and there are certain records - most obviously "Please Please Me", but "Stranger On The Shore" and "Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown" also spring to mind - which topped every chart bar RR in the 60s, while some records generally now described as number ones (notably "Shakin' All Over" and "Three Steps To Heaven") didn't top the charts anywhere bar Record Retailer. As a result of Gambaccini and the Rice Brothers' choice 27 years ago, the RR chart has been given more retrospective importance for the years from 1960 to 1969 than it actually received at the time (in 1969 it became the official chart, compiled by the British Market Research Bureau and used by the BBC - before that the Beeb used its own compilation of various music paper charts which did not bring the RR chart into the equation until 1966, and Radio Luxembourg used the NME charts).

Record Retailer became Music Week in the early 1970s, and while its chart has remained the official one for most of that time, questions have been asked about its methods - we all know about the Pistols in '77 (they're coming up in this blog, incidentally, because they did make it to the top of the NME survey) but it has frequently been claimed that certain records popular among British Asians, which don't make the official charts because they sell only in certain areas and in specialist shops where sales are not registered by the chart compilers, actually outsell certain singles which make the official Top 40. Meanwhile it has often been suggested of late that the official charts will cease to be purely based around singles sales and will adopt other elements, perhaps an airplay factor as in the US - to this end I am acknowledging songs which have topped the commercial-radio-syndicated Smash Hits Chart, the first of its kind in the UK where a song can hit number one without a single having been released, as on the Billboard Hot 100 (the old ILR Network Chart, which was really just the official chart in a different order, is being included, but the Pepsi Chart / Hit40UK of 1993 onwards cannot be included here because it has always taken the official chart positions for the biggest-selling records - initially the Top 10, latterly only the Top 3 - so it simply replicates the official number one).

To clarify (and this intro really is fucking boring, it will get better after this, I promise you) I'll be writing - in a modified version of the Popular style, with the same no-consistency-intended system of marks out of ten - about all the songs which did not top the charts used in British Hit Singles but did make it to number one in:

Record Mirror charts (1955-62 - after that RM used the Record Retailer survey)
Melody Maker charts (1956-69 - it carried on after that, possibly into the 1980s, but I have no idea which singles topped the MM charts after '69 without topping either the official charts or the NME survey)
Disc and Music Echo charts (1958-67)
NME charts (1960-88)
MRIB Network Chart (1984-93 - after that MRIB continued to compile a chart but it received very little media exposure and I do not intend to feature any songs which may have topped that chart without leading the official one)
MRIB / Music Control Smash Hits Chart (5th January 2003 to date)

Data taken from the NME Book of Charts and other NME publications and from the 2003 edition of British Hit Singles. The 1955-69 alternative number ones I'll be writing about can also be read at http://uproar.fortunecity.com/galaxy/399/extranoones.htm. Thanks as ever to my friend Colm O'Rourke for supplying me with the 1990-93 Network Chart number ones when he had the NME Book of Charts and I didn't!

Now, is that a naughty lady I hear ...?

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