There’s been a lot of 50th anniversary celebrations of classic rock ’n’ roll in recent times – well, it gives Mojo a chance to put the Beatles on the cover of their magazine yet again. And I like an anniversary as much as the next fan. But 50 years? What’s that got to do with pop music?
If we’re to celebrate the passage of the years, surely we should spin back 45rpm. And, happily enough, if we go back 45 years, to 5 January 1974, we find one of the best top tens in British chart history.
As Britain entered the uncertain world of the three-day week, beset by an oil crisis and a miners’ strike, these were the records that the nation chose to accompany them into the gloom…
1. Slade, ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’
Yes, I know the endless playing of this has made it more annoying than exhilarating, and I know it’s not one of their very best songs. But still, if you recapture the original impact, it’s a damn fine piece of work, the most English Christmas classic there is, with its drunk Santa and its rock ’n’ rollin’ granny. What wasn’t wasn’t apparent at the time – as it became the fastest-selling single ever in Britain, with half-a-million advance orders – this was also the beginning of the end of the group’s reign as Britain’s biggest pop group: it was their sixth and final #1 single.
The standard explanation of the commercial decline is that the band spent too long trying to make it in America and neglected their home audience, only returning with the downbeat (though quite good) movie Flame. But there was another factor: the way that the group had drifted from its roots. ‘Working-class heroes is all right but we’re driving around in limos now,’ reflected bassist Jim Lea, later in 1974. ‘We’re still working class in that we come from that background – it’s just that we’re having to change a bit.’
Consequently, there’s something of a nostalgic feel to this. ‘I wanted it to be a working-class British Christmas song,’ explained Noddy Holder. ‘It was also a real antidote to what was happening in the country at the time. We were right in the middle of a disastrous period politically. There were power cuts every day and half the workforce seemed to be on strike.’
2. The New Seekers, ‘You Won’t Find Another Fool Like Me’
Also coming to the end of their big years were the New Seekers. This would make it to #1 later in the month, but there was only one more top 5 single to come.
Making hay while the sun still shone, they turned in their finest three minutes, with a song that could have been country but – with an immaculate tenor-sax-led arrangement by the great Gerry Shurey – instead came out as a kind of 1930s pastiche. The jaunty music is entirely at odds with the downbeat lyrics about betrayal and neglect, maybe even abuse: ‘You won’t find another fool like me … who’ll sit around all night and wait … and close their eyes to so many lies.’
‘Of course, after the Seekers, there were the New Seekers,’ George noted in Men Behaving Badly. ‘But I found them rather raucous.’
3. Gary Glitter, ‘I Love You Love Me Love’
You may never escape the Slade and Wizzard records in this chart for as long as you live, but here’s something you probably won’t ever hear again, unless you so choose. Because it seems unlikely that Gary’s reputation is going to be rehabilitated sufficiently that his music will return to the public sphere. And if it is, it’ll be the rock ’n’ roll stuff that gets heard, not his love songs, which sounded a little warped even at the time.
In other hands – say, those of the Bay City Rollers – this would have been nothing more than a lightweight recreation of JFK-era American pop, with its cliched I-vi-IV-V chord sequence. But here it oozes sleazy exploitation. ‘They tried to tell you I was not the boy for you,’ declares Gary, a matter of months away from his thirtieth birthday but still playing at being a teenager. And although the age of his partner was unspecified, you got the impression she was younger than he.
It’s also, lest we forget, a great pop single.
4. Wizzard, ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’
If it hadn’t been for Slade releasing their single, this would have been the Christmas hit of the year. The last two Wizzard singles had reached #1 – easily outselling Roy Wood’s former comrades in the ELO – and they were on a roll. After ‘Ball Park Incident’, ‘See My Baby Jive’ and ‘Angel Fingers’, the material here was a little thin, but even when Wood wasn’t on top songwriting form, he could still pull off a decent single: a slight idea delivered with such bombastic chutzpah that the glee is irresistible.
Equally irresistible was the credit for backing vocals by the Suedettes and the Stockland Green Bilateral School First Year Choir, with additional noises by Miss Snob and Class 3C.
5. Alvin Stardust, ‘My Coo-Ca-Choo’
Alvin Stardust’s debut hit had been as high as #2 a month earlier, and was taking its time as it slowly slid out of the charts. It was an odd piece of work, released before Alvin even existed. Its only begetter was Peter Shelley, who had set up Magnet Records with Michael Levy and wanted to flex his muscles: ‘To get the ball rolling, I decided to invent an artiste and record a one-off single I wrote, produced and sang.’ ‘My Coo-Ca-Choo’ was the first record to come out on Magnet.
Shelley made the first TV appearance himself to promote the single (dressed in Pierrot costume on Lift Off, though sadly the footage hasn’t survived), before casting around for someone to play the part. A couple of British rockers from the 1950s, Marty Wilde and Vince Eager, both turned down the opportunity, but another veteran, Bernard Jewry, then working under the name Shane Fenton, volunteered his services and became Alvin Stardust. He decided to drop the Pierrot concept in favour of black leathers, an outfit that looked a little familiar. ‘People write and say I’m copying Gene Vincent with the clothes and style of singing,’ admitted the newly incarnated Alvin, ‘and the only answer I’ve got is: yes!’
So it was him that we saw on Top of the Pops, but not his voice on the single. Mind you, there was little discernible difference when he did get to sing on the next releases.
6. Marie Osmond, ‘Paper Roses’
This is the only non-British entry in the top ten (the New Seekers had a couple of Australian members, but they were definitely a British group), which is a tribute to the strength of home-produced pop in the era. The 14-year-old Marie Osmond’s debut release was a revival of a 1960 country hit for heterosexual American star, Anita Bryant, and if it’s not as good as the original, it’s still quite attractive. Not a patch on Donny’s work, of course, but then few things in the world of teen-pop were at the time.
As Denim were later to observe: ‘In the 70s there were Osmonds, there were lots of Osmonds, there were lots of little Osmonds everywhere.’ Which is very true.
7. Leo Sayer, ‘The Show Must Go On’
In America, the singer-songwriters of the early 1970s tended to be dull folky-country types, all earnest and authentic. The British equivalent, on the other hand, was a much more quirky creature, making room for the likes of Gilbert O’Sullivan, Labi Siffre, Peter Skellern and Leo Sayer.
The latter was quite a thing when he first emerged, with no obvious relationship between his physical appearance and the noise that emerged from his mouth. Once he went to America in 1976, he got much more mainstream, but some of the stuff on the first two albums – working with producer/arranger/co-writer David Courtney – was impressive, and this debut hit single in particular was stunning. As Courtney saw it, it made such an impact because the public ‘hadn’t seen anybody who looked like him, they hadn’t heard music that had this strange combination – Leo was a big Captain Beefheart fan, I was a really big Beatles fan’.
The fact that Peter Shelley’s Pierrot costume hadn’t caught on meant it was available to launch Leo, making much more sense when allied to his song about being strangled by showbiz. ‘I’m a masochist,’ Sayer said. ‘The clown never knows whether they’re laughing at him or with him. He just hopes they’re laughing with him. It suddenly becomes a very lonely situation when they laugh at him. All of a sudden, that changes everything.’
8. David Essex, ‘Lamplight’
‘Rock On’, David Essex’s debut collaboration with producer Jeff Wayne, was so extraordinary a record that it’s tended to overshadow their other work. But there are half-a-dozen classics on the first three albums they made together, which is half-a-dozen more than most manage. This was the second hit, and features an even better vocal performance, breathy and mannered and slinking into falsetto at the least provocation. He was a fabulous singer. And still there’s this splendid idea of putting out leftfield oddities, when a nice ballad would have been a more obvious way of making the most of such a beautiful face.
In case it’s not obvious, I tend to see both Leo Sayer and David Essex in their early days as exponents of glam rock, with their emphasis on theatricality, their tales of alienated outsiders and reluctant stars, their evocation of old musics. And this is the side of glam that I like most: the side where the self-dramatizing bruised romantics hang out. It wasn’t all bricklayers in make-up, you know.
9. Mott the Hoople, ‘Roll Away the Stone’
I’m aware, though, that not everyone has such a wide-ranging definition of glam, so here’s an unmistakable, noisier example of the genre, complete with the spoken-word interlude about the ‘rockabilly party on Saturday night’. Glam did like to refer back to the 1950s.
Following their breakthrough with ‘All the Young Dudes’, 1973 was a good year for Mott, with hit singles in the shape of ‘Honaloochie Boogie’ and ‘All the Way from Memphis’ preceding this. But, like Slade, they were another band of the people who were losing touch. Arriving at the studio to begin work on their new album, The Hoople, in January 1974, bassist Overend Watts turned up ‘in my ’58 Cadillac Eldorado and asked the uniformed doorman where I could park. He proceeded to go mental at me for owning a huge flash car, which used an obscene amount of petrol and “ruined things for the poor people”.’ Society was polarizing fast.
The version of ‘Roll Away the Stone’ on that album, incidentally, isn’t too good. The single had been the last hit to feature Mick Ralphs on guitar, and his work was replaced by Ariel Bender for The Hoople.
10. Roxy Music, ‘Street Life’
Marco Pirroni of Adam and the Ants once told me of his joy at hearing this for the first time, as he was going up the escalator at Big Biba. Now that is glam. And so was the song, defiantly rejecting the economic misery and social woes of the nation:
This brave new world’s not like yesterday,
It can take you higher than the milky way
This was the opening track on Stranded, the first Roxy Music album after the departure of Eno (and the best record in their discography). Sadly, Eno’s solo debut album, Here Come the Warm Jets, released in January 1974, was not accompanied by a single – in a well-ordered world, ‘Cindy Tells Me’ would have been on this list.
But the most striking absence from this chart is actually the work of Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, whose songwriting/production partnership sold more singles in Britain in 1974 than the Beatles had ever managed in a single year. Maybe next time.
Another take on this top ten, by Jonathan Calder,
can be found on the excellent
Liberal England site