Three months into the Labour minority government, and things were starting to settle down in Spring 1974. Not that everyone was happy, of course: the Daily Mirror was alleging that the likes of Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Hugh Scanlon were plotting a left-wing takeover of government that would turn Britain into a European version of Salvador Allende’s Chile. Meanwhile the Ulster Volunteer Force exploded car bombs in the Republic of Ireland on 17 May that killed 33 civilians.
This is the top 10 singles chart for the week ending 18 May 1974.
1. The Rubettes, ‘Sugar Baby Love’ (Polydor)
Vocalist/guitarist Alan Williams and drummer John Richardson had been in an East End band called the Medium back in the mid-1960s, before forming a duo Baskin & Copperfield, who released a few singles in 1970–71. They weren’t successful in this incarnation – despite a Top of the Pops appearance singing ‘The Long and Winding Road’ – but both went on to make a living as session musicians, playing on hits for Carl Douglas, Lynsey de Paul and Barry Blue. They were also the nucleus of Barry’s live group, the Blue Band.
And then they became the Rubettes, though it was a bit of an accident.
Wayne Bickerton and Tony Waddington (another couple of 1960s also-rans, formerly in the Pete Best Four) wrote ‘Sugar Baby Love’ as a possible Eurovision entry, but when that didn’t work out, they offered it to Showaddwaddy, a young band from Leicester who’d won a talent show co-sponsored by Players No. 6 cigarettes and Polydor Records – Bickerton and Waddington were among the judges. Showaddywaddy turned it down, and instead it was recorded by a collection of session-men and put out under the name of the Rubettes.
It did nothing. For months it languished outside the charts, until a stroke of luck saw the act invited onto Top of the Pops as a last-minute replacement for Sparks (see below), giving them their big chance. ‘We did Top of the Pops and two or three weeks later it was #1,’ as Williams puts it.
There was some confusion about who actually sang on the record. According to Williams, he recorded the original lead vocal, but his contribution was subsequently replaced by the singing of Paul da Vinci. ‘He did a great job,’ Williams admitted later; ‘probably better than I did – he had a much more powerful voice.’ In the time between release and success, however, da Vinci had signed a solo deal with Penny Farthing Records, and when the record took off, Williams was invited to front the band instead.
They looked great, in matching white suits and white caps, the latter in tribute to Gene Vincent. ‘I always loved Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps,’ said Bickerton. ‘In many ways it was what you grew up with as a musician, the style of music that you were playing, and it was being regurgitated, if you will, in the early ’70s.’ There was an added bonus to the outfits. ‘At the time my hair was down long,’ remembered Williams, ‘and it was all tucked up underneath our hats. I wasn’t gonna have my hair cut, just in case, you know?’
This record, of course, went on to inspire one of the best Auteurs songs, ‘The Rubettes’ (1999).
2. Abba, ‘Waterloo’ (Epic)
Had ‘Sugar Baby Love’ got onto the Song for Europe shortlist, and then been selected as the UK’s Eurovision entry, it would undoubtedly have lost to the biggest winner of them all. Abba’s Eurovision performance was okay, but it was the studio version that elevated the band to stardom: the sub-Roy Wood production made it much more palatable to a world still enthralled by glam pop.
3. Peters and Lee, ‘Don’t Stay Away too Long’ (Phillips)
Lennie Peters had been around for ages. His first single came out as far back as 1963, and the following year The Stage was talking about him ‘having terrific star potential’. He made a living on the cabaret and club circuit, but it wasn’t until the spring of 1973 that things really started moving. By now he’d formed a double-act with Dianne Lee: he sang and played the piano, she looked decorative in the Art Garfunkel role. They won Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks for eight consecutive weeks, off the back of which their debut single, the warm, country-ish ‘Welcome Home’, went to #1.
For my own Peters and Lee story, we have to flash forward a decade to February 1983 (or thereabouts). They hadn’t had a hit in eight years, and were reduced to playing Clacton-on-Sea off-season. Indeed, they weren’t actually the original Peters and Lee anymore: Di had left and Lennie had found a replacement. But he was always the main draw anyway, so a few of us took a trip out from London to see them, and very entertaining they were too, even if the audience was somewhat thin on the ground.
And then, just before the closing number, Lennie tried out a few jokes about ethnic minorities in Britain. ‘There’s so many of ’em round my way,’ he began, ‘that I feel a snowball walking down the street.’
Well, we were in a good mood and we figured that maybe this was a slightly ill-judged gag against himself, given that he was blind. But the next couple of jokes left no such room for interpretation, and culminated in him telling us that if the Labour Party won the next election: ‘They’ll let another 80,000 of the bastards in every year.’ This wasn’t jokes any more, just politics. And then he launched into the opening chords to his biggest hit: ‘Welcome home, we-e-el-come…’
It was very, very peculiar, and it did kind of take the gloss off the evening. After the show, we went backstage to remonstrate, and one of our company – my friend, Jenny Syne, who is sadly no longer with us – was allowed into his dressing-room to explain that he was very much out of order.
Whether it made any impact, I wouldn’t know, since we didn’t go to see him again. But the whole episode made it hard to listen to Peters and Lee again without being reminded of that moment.
4. The Bay City Rollers, ‘Shang-a-Lang’ (Bell)
The following words are taken from an introduction I wrote to Alan Longmuir’s autobiography, I Ran with the Gang (Luath Press, 2018):
The string of hits in 1974 that heralded Rollermania, weren’t oldies, but they weren’t far off. ‘Remember (Sha-La-La-La)’, ‘Shang-a-Lang’, ‘Summerlove Sensation’ – these were songs that deliberately conjured up a bygone era of American pop, a time when the music was simple and direct, and when drugs and politics had yet to manifest themselves. They were nostalgic snapshots of cherished teen summers, remembering the days when the band began to play and we all began to sway – those of us, at least, who were all in the news with our blue suede shoes.
Which was slightly odd. Because these were records aimed at an audience for whom nostalgia was not an option. When the glam acts had referenced the early days of rock ’n’ roll, it had made some sense; certainly it had made sense for the artists themselves, all of whom remembered those times, and some of whom (Alex Harvey, Alvin Stardust, Gary Glitter) had been releasing records back then. But for Rollers fans, there wasn’t a great deal to remember. Nor was there, for most, anything much to escape from: strikes by miners or power-workers might damage the economy and disrupt the lives of adults, but for kids they also meant there’d be power-cuts, which were fun because you could have candles at breakfast-time…
Alan’s book was written by Martin Knight, for whom it’s a bit of a departure. You’ll know him best for his volumes on sport, and you’ll know he’s a proper writer, who takes his job seriously. That’s unusual in the world of teen-pop biogs, and I certainly never expected to see a book on the Rollers that gave the band the attention and respect they deserved. I Ran with the Gang is much recommended (once you get past my introduction).
5. The Wombles, ‘Remember You’re a Womble’ (CBS)
This was the second Wombles single, and the one where it all clicked into place. Never mind the TV theme, this was a proper band now, with Chris Spedding on guitar, Clem Cattini on drums, Ray Cooper on percussion. And at the heart of it, the great Mike Batt, writing instant classics in pretty much any style he turned his hand to. Like ‘Waterloo’, this one again owed a great debt to Roy Wood’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach to glam pop.
The records weren’t exactly met with critical acclaim, though Batt eventually came to terms with that:
I think the people who were serious at the time – the Bob Harrises and John Peels and the taste-makers – a lot of my contemporaries looked down their noses a little bit and said: oh yes, he’s very talented and it’s all very clever, but of course it’s just the Wombles. And over the years that was something I had to put up with.
I think that underneath it all I’ve probably always resented that. But then you ask for what you get. If you dress up in a Womble costume and leap about, you must expect your music not to be taken seriously.
6. Wizzard, ‘Rock and Roll Winter (Loony’s Tune)’ (Warner Brothers)
And talking of Roy Wood, here he is, celebrating the transition from spring to summer with a song about winter. He could be a contrary bugger at times. This single ‘is about his best yet,’ according to the Liverpool Echo. ‘It is tailor-made for the juke boxes of the charts and proves how much Roy knows his way around the recording studio.’ Yep.
7. Paper Lace, ‘The Night Chicago Died’ (Bus Stop)
Having finally got themselves a hit single with ‘Billy, Don’t Be a Hero’, Paper Lace didn’t hang around and got out the sequel as swiftly as possible. It was another historical piece by the writing-production team of Peter Callender and Mitch Murray, set this time in the Chicago of Al Capone. As was pointed out at the time, the history was deeply flawed, as was the geography – Chicago doesn’t really have an East Side. But it was a fine piece of pop, and even sold half-a-million copies in America. If this had been by 10cc, it’d be remembered with much greater respect.
8. The Chi-Lites, ‘Homely Girl’ (Brunswick)
In my estimation, the Chi-Lites were second only to the Stylistics as the best American vocal band of the 1970s. Eugene Record had a beautiful voice and was responsible for writing and producing most of the hits. The group’s sales in Britain were a bit sporadic, though: this was their first top 10 single for two years, since the mighty ‘Have You Seen Her?’ dropped out the charts in March 1972.
Part of the reason for the patchy sales here was perhaps that they didn’t often come over to promote the records. Which meant we ended up with Pan’s People on Top of the Pops, rather than the band themselves. And I was never a fan of Pan’s People and their interpretative dance. (Ruby Flipper, on the other hand…)
9. Sparks, ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us’ (Island)
Ron and Russell Mael were also American, of course, but they were always Anglophiles, and in 1973 they relocated to London, where a new band was assembled. This was the debut release of the new line-up and – however fine the first two albums had been – this was in a different league, with a beautiful glam-gloss production by Muff Winwood. Its progress was not as smooth as might have been hoped, though, as Russell later explained:
We were with Island and there was this real big push to try to make ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us’ work. There was resistance initially because it’s a pretty unique song, but they were making a bit of headway and by a few lucky breaks the song got into the charts and we were offered Top of the Pops.
So we went to re-record the song and the producer of the show, a guy named Robin Nash, came down to meet us. A very British gentleman, and he says, ‘Hullo, Robin Nash, Top of the Pops,’ and I went, ‘Hi, I’m Russell from Sparks,’ with my best American twang. And he said, ‘Oh, oh excuse me, I must make a telephone call.’
And they pulled us off of the show, because they’d assumed we were British. But we weren’t part of the Musicians’ Union here, so we were removed from Top of the Pops that week and replaced by The Rubettes.
Island went through all the proper things that apparently they were supposed to have done before and a week or two weeks later they allowed us back on Top of the Pops. But because ‘Sugar Baby Love’ was so popular also, we got to #2 instead of #1. Because of that snafu, that’s why we didn’t have a #1 at that time.
10. Alvin Stardust, ‘Red Dress’ (Magnet)
It’s not as well loved as ‘My Coo-Ca-Choo’ and wasn’t as big as ‘Jealous Mind’, but this is my absolute favourite of all Alvin’s work. The guitar arrangement is extraordinary (it’s Big Jim Sullivan at his best), and the lyrics are wonderfully dumb:
I’m not your brother
You’re not my sister
Oh Lord above
You’re a girl and I’m a mister.
Knock that, if you dare.
previously in Revive 45: