PICK OF THE POPS – CHRISTMAS 1968There really are no better conditions for assessing the charts of years gone by than lying carelessly across a generous sofa in the warm and cosy front room of the family home on Christmas Eve, clad in my dressing gown and pyjamas, sipping a glass of Warnink’s Advocaat (ah, decadence; ah, decidedly guilt-free pleasures and no trademark) and generally feeling content with the world – so much so that it has taken me a week and a half to get around to writing it up (no computers in Bothwell, you see).Adding to the comfort was the fact that the Christmas Eve Pick Of The Pops was a two-hour special focusing on the Christmas of 1968, the first real Christmas I remember; I was four years old and my main present was a sky-blue Petite typewriter – the first step to here. In addition it was a bloody good Top 20, and with two hours to spare I heard it in full, together with a rundown of the top ten album chart which reminded me about everything else that was going on over on the other side (Electric Ladyland! Beggars’ Banquet!! The White Album!!! Er, The World Of Mantovani!!!!). Give Dale his full two hours…it does make a difference!20. Dusty Springfield – Son Of A Preacher ManAt Pauline Fowler’s funeral on Monday’s later episode of EastEnders they played “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” as the curtains prematurely closed on her coffin; a clever choice in terms of the related plot, with Dusty’s climactic “Believe me!” arriving in tandem with the police. There was quite a lot of Dusty music scattered about the radio and TV of Christmas, and the overwhelming feeling was one of renewed awe at the quietness and softness of her none-more-real passion. Her voice persuades (Hal David compared her voice to “fine malt whisky”), comforts, declares. She makes everything around her melt and combine, even Jerry Wexler’s Memphis hothouse from whence came “Son Of A Preacher Man” and its deathless parent album – when you listen to her singing “Breakfast In Bed” its double meaning is never more evident, nor more persuasive. The performance is proudly passionate but also sexy as true sex should be – that little nod at Hendrix’s vocal style when she rolls her tongue around the title near the fadeout. She made my Advocaat taste like the purest nectar.19. Isley Brothers – This Old Heart Of MineAs near as a holy testament as pop gets in my world – “And if you leave me a hundred times, a hundred times I’ll take you back” – its spring and bounce intact, its subtly insistent rhythm never allowing you to rest. “This old heart weeps for you” – that incomparable, near-androgynous vocal of Ronald Isley as powerful as it was on “Twist And Shout” or “Harvest For The World,” and the first shot in Dave Godin’s single-handed endeavour to reclaim the pop charts for Motown in particular, and black music in general. In addition, one of the first Northern Soul crossover smashes. The words are “the beginning of time,” and also “I’m yours whenever you want me.”18. Barry Ryan – Eloise“Everything in there, including the kitchen sink,” said Dale approvingly (and unsurprisingly so, since POTP frequently uses Ryan instrumental interludes, particularly from “Eloise”’s demented follow-up “Love Is Love,” as links between records). Twins Paul and Barry Ryan were the Bros of their day, but by 1968 they were slipping and needed to think of something else. Overcome by “MacArthur Park,” the Ryans turned up at a party hosted by Richard Harris and Jimmy Webb, wherein a drunken Paul Ryan proclaimed that he was in the process of writing songs in the same epic style. He hadn’t actually written any at that time but soon got around to doing so. The reconfiguration of the act had Paul in the Brian Wilson role of songwriter, with Barry doing the singing.“Eloise” I recognised as a titanic monster at the time and it has stayed with me ever since. It is so ludicrously over the top that one blinks repeatedly at Barry’s gasps, screams and whoops (particularly the latter on the fadeout, where he nearly predicts Tim Buckley of Starsailor), at Johnny Arthey’s Grand Guignol arrangement (two drummers but no guitar) and at Bill Landis’ luxurious production, not to mention the theatrical pauses, rallentandos and accelerandos. But Barry makes you believe in his hapless plight (which if analysed really comes down to sexual frustration) by the sheer force of his more-than-evident sincerity. In its naked grandiosity “Eloise” stands as the missing link between Scott Walker and Meatloaf, and it also set the tone for an increasingly bizarre string of singles and albums which the Ryans continued to put out well into the seventies. The feeling that we have perhaps lost something important in the interim is emphasised by the fact that “Eloise” with its playing time of five minutes and 35 seconds, is exactly as long as the single edit of Spandau Ballet’s “True.”17. Jeannie C Riley – Harper Valley PTAA rather odd record to hit big in Britain, since it’s so intrinsically American, and Deep South American at that, but it stands up as an agreeably forceful performance very much in the vein of an angrier “Ode To Billie Joe” – her spitting out of the “p”s in “Peyton Place” and “hypocrites” is especially and deliciously venomous, and the ceaselessly nagging guitar behind her (Joe South?) digging the heels in just that little more bloodily.16. William Bell & Judy Clay – Private NumberOne of the best uses of the timpani in pop, beating its huge and bursting heart as Bell and Clay alternate between tension and liberation, uncertainty and commitment – the lead-up to the release of “Baby baby baby” is immense indeed and verges on the deepest of soul, even by Stax’s profound standards. God, this is a good chart – compare to December 1967, with its Val Doonicans and neutered Long John Baldrys, and it’s a pivot shift, if not quite (yet) a continental one.15. Turtles – ElenoreIn its chorus it sounds more like Roy Wood than Roy Wood, and there are similar methods of subversion at work here; satirising the teen love song as they go along (“You’re my pride and joy etcetera,” “Even though your folks hate me”). I found their Happy Together album on cassette just before Christmas – 50p out of the Trinity Hospice Charity Shop on Clapham Common; the fools were giving it away! – and its invention is remarkable, from its Sgt Pepper parody sleeve (featuring the stoned Turtles gurning at the front and their displeased besuited parents looking down on them from the rear) onwards – no wonder Flo and Eddie eventually hooked up with Zappa (though to my mind they far outdid him) and even less wonder that they provide the fantastic backing vocals on “Hot Love,” “Get It On” and so forth.14. Tom Jones – A Minute Of Your TimeOh dear, and we were going along so well. My mum loved it of course (though she hates Jones with the beard, referring to him as “Dracula”) but as a year-ending, would-be chart-topping ballad it lacks the universal “appeal” of “Green Green Grass” or “I’m Coming Home,” doesn’t really go anywhere, and thus missed the Christmas top ten entirely (though his previous single, the ghastly “Help Yourself” was still scuttling around in the listings, back up to #31).13. Lulu – I’m A TigerPoor young Lulu. Where Dusty got to go to Memphis, Lulu – whose biggest international hit was relegated to B-side status in Britain – had to make do and mend with trite pap like this; even if Marty Wilde did co-write it, “Kids In America” it most certainly is not.12. Bandwagon – Breaking Down The Walls Of HeartacheOh glory glory! Early Britsoul classic usually thought to be a Northern Soul crossover, though the clubs didn’t start playing it until after it had been a hit; singer Johnny Johnson leaves you in no doubt whatsoever about his determination to fight his way back into the world of the living (“BRICK BY BRICK!” he roars). The record is endless climax, bold, brassy and bountiful. Brilliantly covered (at about 300 mph) by Dexy’s Midnight Runners a dozen years later on the B-side of “Geno.” And it got me off the sofa.11. Malcolm Roberts – May I Have The Next Dream With You?Terrible open-the-freezer-door/light-the-candles/After Eights and Babycham MoR ballad which sounds as though it had been written in 1928 with that equally terrible recorded in the bath echo prevalent on MoR records of the time. Roberts’ light tenor doesn’t visit any interesting places (he notably ducks the high C finish at the end) but it is bizarre to think that he went on to write, among other unexpected hits, Edwin Starr’s “Contact.”10. Gun – Race With The DevilAs near to a lost classic as can be found in this list – it almost never appears on sixties compilations – this is prototype heavy metal with a brilliantly absurd full orchestral accompaniment as Paul and Adrian Gurvitz holler and howl their way through imagined post-Arthur Brown Satanic marginals. Adrian G returned to the charts in 1982 with the markedly milder-mannered “Classic” and its terrible rhymes (“attic” and, um, “addict”).9. Fleetwood Mac – AlbatrossIt’s worth remarking on the unusually high proportion of instrumentals in this particular top ten; three in all (if you discount the wordless grunts on “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly”) while more than half of “Race With The Devil” is vocal-free. I cannot realistically account for this, apart from the prog-rock/pop crossover still being in partial force, but certainly the success of “Albatross” – still the only UK number one single by any manifestation of Fleetwood Mac – seems to have been directly attributable to a nature film used by the BBC as a link between programmes on TV. The template is pure Shadows (I imagine Hank and Bruce kicking themselves, and maybe also each other, repeatedly and furiously over not thinking of it first) out of Santo and Johnny’s “Sleep Walk” but the monotone, deep thud of Mick’s drums and the bluer coolness of Green’s guitar locate its astral ambitions in the dark, dank basement of the blues.8. Hugo Montenegro, his Orchestra & Chorus – The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (Il Buono, Il Bruto, Il Cattivo)Some evidence that Morricone must have listened to the Shadows – or at any rate Duane Eddy – as those low-slung twangs spiral like abandoned albatrosses across deserts of ahuman whistles, lamenting harmonica, choral swells and unattributable foreground grunts. Montenegro didn’t have to do much to it except add a backbeat, so it’s not that far away from Fatboy Slim remixing Pierre Henry.7. Marmalade – Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da“The Beatles,” my mum said approvingly, even though she knew it was Edinburgh’s finest – although no Beatles single was released for Christmas 1968, there are three Beatles-connected singles in this top ten, including the Christmas number one. And even at this late stage artists were still trying to get hits with speedy covers of album-only Beatles tunes. Singer Dean Ford keeps the mock-JA accent and it all chugs along agreeably enough if life is long enough for agreeable.6. Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band – I’m The Urban SpacemanTheir only hit single (they generally tended not to go in for singles) boosted by McCartney producing (as “Apollo C Vermouth”) and their regular appearances on the pre-Python children’s TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set, and maybe one of the saddest of all hit singles; Neil Innes singing over a jaunty post-psych banjo, tuba and ocarina about how great and hip and perfect he is before coming to the final “Here comes the twist/I don’t exist,” which is immediately answered by a chorus of kazoos and the forlorn twanging of a tailor’s dummy. Worthy of Syd Barrett, as is the heartbreaking B-side “Readymades.”5. Love Sculpture – Sabre DanceThe second-longest single in this list, clocking in at 4 mins 49 secs, and essentially a showcase for speedy, keen 16-year-old lead guitarist Dave Edmunds – the rampage through the Khachaturian hardy perennial was their rabble-rousing, crowd-pleasing set-closer – though the studio recording was speeded up for added impact; an early indication of Edmunds’ later and more ambitious productions.4. Des O’Connor – 1-2-3 O’Leary“Games I played with Mary” and it gets worse. Entertainment as light as light entertainment could be; though Des does keep a commendably straight face throughout, this is where the Morecambe and Wisecracks begin.3. Nina Simone – Ain’t Got No…I Got Life/Do What You Gotta DoTalk about contrast…”Ain’t Got No” was the first hint of the Hair phenomenon, but as with everything else she touched, Nina makes it mean something else, eight months after the King assassination (as indeed she does with the Jimmy Webb tune, though it was “Ain’t Got No” which got the airplay and the sales). The sea change became ever more apparent; in January 1969 Simone briefly had three singles in the UK Top 40 simultaneously. That wouldn’t have happened even three months previously.2. Foundations – Build Me Up ButtercupIf you have to do bubblegum soul, this is how to do it; cheerful and inspiring in all the right ways, and not a Northern Soul staple, but it surely does sound like one. Ooh-ooh-oohOOH!1. Scaffold – Lily The PinkThe Scouse performance art troupe featuring McCartney’s brother, a distinguished contemporary poet and a future Tiswas presenter (not to mention Tim Rice on backing vocals) galloping their way through their cheery kids’ singalong about a 19th-century medicinal compound whose inventor kills herself by swallowing paraffin, and nothing to do with drugs at all, honest mate. Even the obligatory novelty Christmas number one is of a different order. Christmas and 1968 – what a combination it was, and still is.
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