As explained earlier, I prefer 45th to 50th anniversaries when it comes to pop music: it seems more appropriate. So here’s the top ten from 45 years ago…
On the last day of February 1974, the country went to the polls in an election that was neither expected nor strictly necessary. The Conservative government of Edward Heath had been in power for less than four years, and still enjoyed a comfortable majority in the Commons. Even when a large number of Tory MPs failed to back Heath on his single biggest policy initiative – Britain’s entry into the European Community – the bill was still passed, thanks to the support of sixty-nine Labour rebels, led by Roy Jenkins.
But the economic crises kept on coming. The massive oil-price rises after the Yom Kippur War in late 1973, were aggravated by a miners’ strike that led to the chaos of the Three-Day Week. At which point, Heath lost patience and went to the country. The issue, he said, was who governs Britain: parliament or the trade unions? But the answer was unclear. The Conservatives got more votes but fewer seats than Labour, and neither got a majority. Jeremy Thorpe wanted the Liberals to get into bed with the Tories, but his members weren’t up for it, so instead Harold Wilson formed a minority Labour government and began the process of appeasing the trade unions.
The last chart of February showed none of this. It was full of stompy glam and MOR standards – and, of course, it was all the better for it.
1. Suzi Quatro, ‘Devil Gate Drive’ (RAK)
There was no doubt that 1974 belonged to the songwriting and production team of Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn. They seldom got critical approval, but some respectable types approved of their work, including Brian Eno:
John Peel and I are starting a campaign to increase public respect for modern pop producers like Mike Leander and Chinn and Chapman because we believe them to be doing something very interesting. Certainly as important as Phil Spector was to the Sixties.
The thing with Chinnichap is they were genuinely good at the job, creating different (if closely related) sounds for each of their acts. The task is a bit like the art of comedy scriptwriters, drawing on the personality of the performer and articulating a semi-fictional character, and if they weren’t quite Clement & La Frenais or Galton & Simpson, they were maybe Esmonde & Larby.
‘Do you think Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn could have written “Devil Gate Drive” if it wasn’t for me?’ Suzi Quatro asked, rhetorically. ‘Who the hell was going to sing that? They never just wrote songs and gave them to people. They crafted the song for the group.’
This was her fourth hit and her second #1 (following ‘Can the Can’ the previous summer) and she’s right: it’s hard to think of another act from the time who it would have suited better, or who could have sold it more convincingly.
2. Mud, ‘Tiger Feet’ (RAK)
So here’s an exception to the above. It’s another Chinnichap classic – the biggest of all their hits and the best-selling single of the year. Mud, however, were never intended to be this rocky. The first two hits (‘Crazy’ and ‘Hypnosis’) with their youth-club tango rhythms, had been only moderate successes, but then had come their stroke of luck. The Sweet turned down Chinn and Chapman’s song ‘Dyna-mite’ (they got ‘Teenage Rampage’as a replacement), and Mud were offered a chance at recording it instead. It broke them into the top 5 and established a new sound for the group. This is bassist Ray Stiles:
Mike Chapman always liked to sing and play on our records. Rob Davis used a Fender guitar and a Fender Princeton amp, a little amplifier that was very easy to overload and distort, and Mike would have a Les Paul Gibson and the same Princeton amp. And the idea was they would just turn them full up and play it, and it was like a carpet of distortion.
And here’s guitarist Rob Davis:
Mike was a really creative guy. He used to play rhythm guitar with us while we were doing the tracks. He’d make you feel like he was in the band. He was great.
3. Alvin Stardust, ‘Jealous Mind’ (Magnet)
Just as ‘My Coo-Ca-Choo’ left the charts, the second single was released under Alvin’s name. This time the man on the record was the same person as the man on the TV, but you’d be hard pushed to tell the difference: the former Shane Fenton copied perfectly the breathy, hiccupping style laid down by Peter Shelley. And it’s almost as good.
4. The Wombles, ‘The Wombling Song’ (CBS)
At a time when politics and society in Britain was deeply polarised, there was a surprising lack of engagement on the part of pop music. There were, though, some honourable exceptions, most notably the eco-warriors of Wimbledon. ‘Wombles are organized, work as a team,’ they sang, displaying their solidarity with the comrades in the trade union movement.
This was their first of a string of hits, and they ended 1974 as the biggest-selling singles act of the year in Britain, but only because songwriter/producer Mike Batt had such faith in the act:
I always felt with The Wombles that if it broke, I’d be able to have another hit. But of course it was very difficult to convince the record company that this was the case, because in fact they didn’t think the first one was going to be a hit. They had no idea they had a hit act on their hands.
So getting their attention in the first place was one of the biggest problems. Which is why I had my first Wombles costume made, so that I could walk into the record company offices and show them that they did actually have an artist as opposed to the concept. My mother made it for me for that purpose.
5. Lulu, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ (Polydor)
I know this is heresy in some quarters, but I much prefer this version to David Bowie’s 1970 original. It’s such a satisfying piece of pop, with much the same thick, chugging texture as Pin-Ups – largely because it was made during the sessions for that album, with the same band, and with Bowie’s sax all over it. Lulu’s drag-gangster image was fabulous, and her deadpan vocal didn’t even attempt to make sense of the lyrics – which simply makes them even more unsettling than they had been. Bowie’s coaching apparently involved telling her to smoke more cigarettes before recording: wise advice for all would-be singers.
6. David Bowie, ‘Rebel Rebel’ (RCA)
This may be heresy as well, but I disapprove of the inclusion of ‘Rebel Rebel’ on Diamond Dogs – it ruins the dark, sleazy architecture of Bowie’s best album. As a single, however, it was terrific, a swaggering Stones rip-off built around the best-known guitar riff he ever used. I still think it’s a bit shabby that he couldn’t be arsed to write a second verse, but the rap over the extended outro is wonderful: ‘You’re a juvenile success because your face is a mess’ indeed.
Chris Welch reviewed it in Melody Maker: ‘Sullen-faced lads in overcoats and girls with prison camp haircuts will dance sternly to its machine-like beat, occasionally clicking heels and raising their arms in obedient salute.’
The B-side, incidentally, was ‘Queen Bitch’ from three albums back – RCA were shocking with their exploitation of fans.
7. Andy Williams, ‘Solitaire’ (CBS)
The original recording was by Neil Sedaka and counts as British, because it was made at Strawberry Studios in Manchester with musical accompaniment by the future 10cc. But it was this Andy Williams cover that turned the song into the standard that it became. Very fine it is too. Crucially, Williams shifted the perspective to the first-person, which brings out all the self-dramatizing self-indulgence inherent in the words.
And it’s a great lyrical image. The evocation of playing-cards in pop music generally take us into the melodrama of gambling, rather than the lovelorn world of onanly the lonely, so it’s a neat conceit. Though that does rather depend on you knowing that Solitaire is indeed a card game, which we didn’t at the time: here in Britain, in those benighted pre-Microsoft days, we called one-person card-games Patience. Solitaire was our name for the game more properly known as Peg Solitaire. But we got the point.
Obviously, everyone knows the subsequent version of the song by the Carpenters, with Karen on particularly brilliant form, but of the dozens of other versions, I’d like to draw your attention to performances by Brett Smiley and by Gallon Drunk.
8. The Hollies, ‘The Air that I Breathe’ (Polydor)
This was the first top 10 hit for the Hollies since ‘I Can’t Tell the Bottom from the Top’ four years earlier – they weren’t exactly hot when they recorded their cover of a song from an Albert Hammond album (he co-wrote it with Mike Hazlewood). It’s my favourite outside their psych-pop albums from 1967, Evolution and Butterfly, and since neither of those produced any singles, I guess I must think it’s their best single. The fussy finger-picking of the original is replaced by a lumbering arrangement, and with Allan Clarke on lead vocals, it matches the slow-burning style of ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’, but without the solemn preachiness. Apart from anything else, that’s a great opening line: ‘If I could make a wish, I think I’d pass.’
As with ‘Solitaire’, there have been dozens of versions, the best of which, of course, is by k d lang.
9. Diana Ross, ‘All of My Life’ (Tamla Motown)
I have nothing to say about this track lifted from Ross’s 1973 album Touch Me in the Morning. The writing, the arrangement, the production – they all sound like they’re not quite finished. If Motown thought it was any good, presumably they would have released it as a single in America, but they didn’t. Mostly harmless.
10. Love Unlimited Orchestra, ‘Love’s Theme’ (Pye)
One last heretical opinion: I’m not very fond of Isaac Hayes. When he was writing songs for other people, he was terrific, but those albums with the 10-minute-plus mock-symphonic versions of Bacharach & David songs? I really can’t be doing with that stuff. I fall asleep before I’m seduced. But when Barry White nicked the formula and turned it into artificially sweetened pop – that was my kind of music.
Barry had a couple of hits in Britain in 1973, but this was his first to reach the top 10, an instrumental released under the name of the Love Unlimited Orchestra. Not that there was any doubt about who was responsible. The piece was written by White, and the subsequent album – Rhapsody in White – had his picture on the sleeve, accompanied by the slogan ‘Arranged and Conducted by Barry White’ in big letters. The back of the sleeve added that the record was produced by him and that he was also responsible for the Art Concept. (Of these credits, the ‘arranged’ claim was a little overblown: the small print showed that arrangements were by White and Gene Page, and I think we all know who was doing the heavy lifting in that partnership.)
previously in Revive 45: