In America, President Richard Nixon announced his resignation and was replaced by Gerald Ford. Meanwhile in Britain, there was growing concern in some quarters about a supposed drift towards socialism. Tony Benn, according to SAS founder Colonel David Stirling, posed a ‘realizable threat of a magnitude this country has never faced before’. Which is why we needed volunteers to step forward to fight for Britain when the crunch came.
And this was the top 10 for the week ending 10 August 1974.
- George McCrae, ‘Rock Your Baby’ (Jayboy)
What an extraordinarily influential show Top of the Pops was. And maybe we didn’t realize quite how much power it exerted until the summer of 1974. But then in mid-June of that year, members of the Association of Broadcasting and Allied Staffs took strike action against the BBC, hitting a whole range of shows, from the Corporation’s coverage of Wimbledon through to Panorama and Nationwide. And caught up in the battle was Top of the Pops, which went missing from our screens for a month, only coming back this week.
In its absence, the charts changed dramatically. The kind of acts who had been favoured by the BBC in recent times – glam and teen pop – were deprived of their customary exposure and struggled for sales. ‘The marketing shifted,’ remembered John Springate of the Glitter Band. ‘What happened was people weren’t hearing records on Top of the Pops, they were hearing them in discos, so suddenly disco started coming through a little bit more than usual.’
The Sweet, for example, released their epic masterpiece ‘The Six Teens’ and it proved their least successful record since 1971, spending just seven weeks in the charts and peaking at #9. Suzi Quatro’s ‘Too Big’ didn’t make the top 10 at all.
Here, on the other hand, was one of the great beneficiaries. George McCrae had already reached #1 in America with the breezy beauty of ‘Rock Your Baby’, but its success in Britain was by no means assured. It was the lack of competition that gave it a leg-up.
As an historical footnote: we still had strong local newspapers in these days, and some of them ran their own charts, compiling information from their region. And so our friends at the Thanet Times could report in mid-July 1974 that ‘Rock Your Baby’ had ‘taken the almost unprecedented step of entering the chart at the top. The reason: Mike Burns of the Aquarius Record Centre sold 250 copies during last week, and 150 of those in just two days.’ According to a Facebook post from 2011, Mike Burns was then still DJing in the Thanet area.
- The Three Degrees, ‘When Will I See You Again’ (Philadelphia)
And this is another record that signalled the advent of the disco era. Admittedly, the Three Degrees had had a couple of British hits earlier in the year, but where ‘TSOP’, their dance collaboration with MFSB, had got to #1 in America, here it didn’t make the top 20. ‘When Will I See You Again’ was an easier sell in Britain – you could play it on Radio 2 without frightening the horses – but even so its huge success was largely thanks to that technicians’ strike.
- Stephanie de Sykes with Rain, ‘Born with a Smile on My Face’ (Bradley)
Up to this point, Stephanie de Sykes had mostly worked as a session singer, but she was a personable young lady and in mid-1974 television came knocking. She got a regular gig singing mildly humorous and satirical songs on the first series of Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life!, which ran through that summer (she ‘tries to emulate Millicent Martin,’ sniffed the critics), and she also had a five-episode role as pop singer Holly Brown* in Crossroads, where this song was first heard. ‘I only sang the song once on TV and two weeks later it was in the charts,’ she said. ‘You’ve got to respect the power of television.’ The single rose rapidly to #2 and, had Top of the Pops been on air, it would probably have reached the top.
Stephanie was accompanied on the record by the close-harmony group Rain – Chas Mills, Alex Keenan, Simon May – with whom she also did some prestigious cabaret shows. Big things were expected of the act; The Stage confidently predicted that they would fill the gap left by the shock split of the New Seekers three months earlier. That didn’t happen, however, and they never reached these heights again. The next releases – the lacklustre ballad ‘Everyday There’s Another Tomorrow’, the junkshop glam of ‘Only Love’ (recommended, if you like that kind of thing) – sank unnoticed.
Maybe it was that we already had a blonde 26-year-old pop star in the shape of Lynsey de Paul, and one was enough for the market of the time. There was, allegedly, some rivalry between the two women, though their supposed spat looked very much like a publicity stunt. Lynsey told the papers that she didn’t like Rain’s version of her song ‘Golden Day’, which was used as the theme song to gameshow The Golden Shot. ‘I was going to ask if I could re-record the song myself, because it’s so bad,’ said Lynsey. ‘I’m very angry.’ And Stephanie retorted: ‘Poor Lynsey! I do wish someone would convince her of how very beautiful she is. Then she would realize that she doesn’t need to say dreadful things about her friends to get her picture in the paper.’
Anyway, there was just one more hit to come, when Holly Brown returned to Crossroads in 1975 to sing ‘We’ll Find Our Day’ for the Wedding of the Year.** Thereafter, de Sykes mostly returned to session singing, while Simon May, who’d written ‘Born with a Smile on My Face’, went on to a career that would most famously include writing the EastEnders theme tune.
Incidentally, May had originally offered this song to Jimmy Tarbuck – hence all that stuff about life being a pantomime and the need to embrace the life of a clown – but Tarby turned it down. Which was good news for the rest of us, because he’d have got nowhere near the sheer joy that de Sykes brought to it. I loved this record at the time, and still do. The highlight of my very sparse experience of DJing was filling the floor of a fashionable Islington bar with Stephanie’s greatest hit, circa 1998. And even now, the message of the piece rings true:
Forget the politicians,
The gloomy headlines,
* Not to be confused with Polly Brown, as the former Pickettywitch singer was at pains to point out. ‘I can’t understand why the television company had to choose a name so similar to mine,’ said Polly. ‘It is most annoying.’
** Between Meg Richardson and Hugh Mortimer (as if you didn’t know).
My thanks to LondonLee on Twitter for correcting an error in this section.
- The Stylistics, ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New’ (Avco)
A slow smooch for the end of the evening? This was the one you needed in the summer of ’74. This is the very pinnacle of the Stylistics’ fabulous career, a stunning piece of work that features tenor Airrion Love as well as the familiar beauty of Russell Thomkins Jr’s falsetto. And Thom Bell never (as far as I know) turned in a better arrangement. The full-length album track was even better.
The Stylistics were in a slightly different category to George McCrae and the Three Degrees – they’d already had a couple of ten 10 hits in Britain by this stage – but still the disco wave helped them on their way.
- The Bay City Rollers, ‘Summerlove Sensation’ (Bell)
The Bay City Rollers never got the credit they deserved for their very likeable pop singles. Critics disapproved not only of the screaming fans, but also of the fact that Phil Coulter and Bill Martin wrote the songs for the band and didn’t let them play on the records. I’m not much fussed about this sort of thing myself, but we should certainly give credit to those who did play the music. So here’s guitarist Chris Rae explaining who was in the studio when these early hits were made:
Clem [Cattini] was on most of the Bay City Rollers’ records, Cliff Hall was always on piano by my recollection, the bass was nearly always Frank Macdonald but sometimes Les Hurdle, the guitars were nearly always me, but there were two of us and it was either Joe Moretti or Alan Sparks. And that’s probably it.
And then the band would turn up to add the vocals, as singer Les McKeown explained:
It’d be probably me, Eric, Woody and Alan, sometimes Derek would be there too – and we’d usually do a lot of the backing vocals first, then do the lead vocal, then do any additional backing vocals. That was all the band, but the track had already been made. I mean, you had some good musicians there. Really brilliant.
Although Les, as the featured singer, was happy with the process, there was, inevitably, some tension between the session men and the rest of the band. But the producers, at least, appreciated the contribution of the studio players. Chris Rae again:
Phil Coulter was very fair to us. After we did all the Rollers tracks, they did a TV show called Shang-a-Lang, but they actually used all our tracks. What used to happen in those old days was if they used the tracks they’d say, ‘Look guys, is it okay if we use your track on Top of the Pops or this, that and the other,’ and you’d get the money for not being there. Which was fine, and we got paid. But the Rollers never paid us, even though they were using our tracks on the whole of that series. And it was Phil who went to the Commissioner of Oaths, I think, to state that it was us who was on it and we actually did get paid.
- Mud, ‘Rocket’ (RAK)
Unlike the Rollers, Mud did play on their hits. Well, after the first couple anyway. This is guitarist Rob Davis:
The first two singles [‘Crazy’ and ‘Hypnosis’] were manufactured records. We just sang on them, we didn’t play on those first two. Which we objected to completely, but I think it was just from a quickness angle – they got the track down with session musicians, and we just went down and sung on the track. They thought we were good live, but they thought we wouldn’t work in a studio.
And I think we had to remake one of the tracks for television, we had to play on it, and they were that impressed with our playing they went, ‘Wow, you’re playing on the next record.’ Which is what we wanted.
And bassist Ray Stiles:
People always used to say to us: ‘You didn’t play on your records, it’s too good for that.’ And it was a back-handed compliment because we did play on the records. We didn’t play on ‘Crazy’ and we didn’t play on ‘Hypnosis’ because we were still contracted to play all these clubs. And when they wanted to go in the studio, Nicky [Chinn] and Mike [Chapman], to make our records, we weren’t there. We couldn’t be, we had to work. We were still on twenty-five quid a night to live. As a band.
So they went in the studio and put the tracks down, and we all came down and sang. So we didn’t play on them, simply because that’s the way that it was – we could not be there.
But from ‘Dynamite’ onwards, oh for sure we played, we played on everything. It was ‘Oh it’s too good, who played the guitar on there? Mud couldn’t do that.’ And Rob played it all, because Rob was, and still is, a very fine guitar-player.
- Sparks, ‘Amateur Hour’ (Island)
The follow-up to ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us’ was another great piece of skewed glam, a delightful tale of fumbling sexual inexperience. This was its peak position in the charts, and again it feels like it suffered from the BBC technicians strike, because – as Russell Mael later pointed out – Sparks relied heavily on television to sell their strangeness:
We noticed in hindsight that TV was such a big factor for us, because one of Ron’s major strengths in visual image is kinda ‘less is more’. And you could have massive close-ups of somebody – he could raise one eyebrow and that would freak out the entire nation. That’s a pretty valuable medium.
We’re learning now how much of an impact those early Top of the Pops things had on people. People say they would leap behind their couch when Sparks came on, and peer over the top of the couch to see if ‘that man’ was still staring at them on Top of the Pops. Because Ron really genuinely frightened people, and to know you’re having that effect on a nation, a modern industrial nation, is a pretty powerful tool in your hands.
You might also want to check out the teen madness inspired by the group at the time – this is them performing ‘Amateur Hour’ in concert.
- Wings, ‘Band on the Run’ (Apple)
Well, you don’t need the likes of me to tell you that this is a great single. The B-side in Britain was the theme to The Zoo Gang.
- The Drifters, ‘Kissin’ in the Back Row’ (Bell)
Still here from the last time we looked.
- The Hues Corporation, ‘Rock the Boat’ (RCA)
And finally, here were Californian trio the Hues Corporation to confirm that disco was upon us. Or, if you believed the Liverpool Echo, the success of this single was evidence of the continuing success of the Northern Soul scene. Whichever, it’s still a fabulous record. That chord progression of G to A6 is so simple and obvious, yet so distinctive that no one else could use it again without echoes of ‘Rock the Boat’.
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