Hurrah, it’s election month! Again! The general election in February had failed to produce a majority, so – after a judicious bit of public spending – prime minister Harold Wilson went back to the country. Sadly, he couldn’t this time count on the support of Leo Sayer, who was now making enough money that he worried about higher taxes: a vote for Labour would be like ‘cutting my own neck off,’ he explained. Despite which, Labour increased their share of the vote a little, gained eighteen seats, and ended up with a very marginal majority of three MPs. And this was the top ten for the week ending 19 October 1974.
- Sweet Sensation, ‘Sad Sweet Dreamer’ (Pye)
A British soul band reaching #1 is a big deal. Especially when they’re the first to achieve the feat. So let’s salute Manchester’s Sweet Sensation, an eight-piece outfit, fronted by the lovely voice of Marcel King (1957–95).
They began on the club circuit, and the earliest mention I can find of them is in June 1972, appearing at the Victoriana, Liverpool, billed as ‘Fabulous Soul Band Sweet Sensations’. They returned to the venue in July, and in August, they were at the Senate Club, Peterlee (which also hosted the Chants and Emile Ford that month).
The advert for the July gig at the Victoriana includes a note reading: ‘Now fully recovered’. I don’t know what they were recovering from, but they were clearly a little unlucky. In January 1973, their van overturned on the A34 as they were returning home from a gig in Southampton, injuring six of the band. A couple of years later, their road manager was in court admitting that he’d stolen money from Marcel King’s hotel room.
Despite the car crash, they were back on the road by late-summer 1973: you could catch them at places like Mr George in Coventry (admission: Ladies 35p, Gents 45p), Bailey’s in Doncaster, Bloomers in Yardley, and the Boney Hay Working Men’s Club, Burntwood.
In April 1974 came their big moment, an appearance on ITV’s New Faces. By this stage, they’d recorded their first single, ‘Snow Fire’, written and produced by David Parton for Pye Records, and though it didn’t get anywhere, it did attract the attention of the great Tony Hatch, who signed them up on a production deal. Coincidentally, he was also one of the four judges that week on New Faces, which, as he pointed out, might look like a conflict of interest. They won – they deserved to win, despite competition from the Reg Coates Experience – and went on the final in July, where they were beaten by comedian Aiden J Harvey. (Also appearing in the final were Art Nouveau, whose single ‘See You, Ma’ you may remember.)
They’d got enough publicity that they were chosen to support the Bay City Rollers at the Liverpool Stadium later that month, which must have been a tough gig for what was essentially a cabaret act. More usefully, they went back into the studio, this time with Tony Hatch at the controls.
The result was this genuinely great single, again written by David Parton, and one of the few British records to hold its own against the sweet soul then coming out of Philadelphia. The debut album is worth hearing as well: the songwriting is competent rather than inspired, but the arrangements are creative, the production is strong, and above all, they could sing.
- Ken Boothe, ‘Everything I Own’ (Trojan)
One of the best songs David Gates ever wrote, improved immeasurably by Boothe’s precise phrasing. The music in this Top of the Pops version is more basic than on the record, which makes it seem even more sincere.
- Slade, ‘Far Far Away’ (Polydor)
From the opening drum salvo, this is just sheer perfection. However great the big rockin’ hits were, it’s surely Slade’s finest single. Not only the song, but the music – the blend of Jim Lea’s plodding bass and Dave Hill’s distant lead guitar – and the extraordinarily atmospheric production by Chas Chandler. I’m not sure that Chandler ever gets quite the credit he deserves, so here’s guitarist Dave Hill giving him just that:
He was fully committed to us. You’ve got to put a certain amount of trust in your manager, and Chas had been through the scene, he’d obviously suffered in the past from bad deals himself. But he certainly had the knowledge and he had a good team.
I have a fondness for my old manager. He would be looking at what the genuineness of it was and how it would work, money wouldn’t be the first option. He had feelings, he could recognize a good song.
There’s a difference between someone who works in a record company, some of the A&R people, they don’t have an inward reaction to some things, they just don’t know: they’re going on trends and things. But visionaries are different, someone who can bring something different out. And with Chas, I put it down to experience.
Chas came into our lives and he helped us make it, but he never walked around and said to people: ‘Oh if it wasn’t for me, they wouldn’t have made it.’ He always said: ‘If it wasn’t me, it would have been someone else who’d have got them.’ Because he believed that we had the talent.
But Chas had the commitment and the belief and that was also needed, because when he was punting us in London, a lot of people couldn’t see it. They thought: ‘Are you alright there, Chas? I can’t see it.’
- Peter Shelley, ‘Gee Baby’ (Magnet)
A year or so back, Shelley had invented Alvin Stardust, and even tried out the role himself, before recruiting Shane Fenton (born Bernard Jewry) to front the project. That suggested he was reluctant to perform in public, but this marked a change in career, putting him in front of the cameras in his own right. There were limits, though, as he told the papers:
I only sang ‘Gee Baby’ because it didn’t suit Alvin’s style. I shall be singing some nice, corny songs that I’ve written for Christmas, but you won’t catch me waltzing around the country on pop tours. I’m too busy.
I think it’s a sweet little replica of JFK-era American pop. If you were told that it was an old Bobby Vinton song, and that Donny Osmond had covered it, you wouldn’t have been surprised. And in my world, that’s high praise. The original production on the single is, of course, far superior.
It eventually proved to be a big hit. There was no rush, though – it was released in July and took two months to reach the top 50.
- John Denver, ‘Annie’s Tune’ (RCA)
Yes, yes, we’ve been here before.
- Leo Sayer, ‘Long Tall Glasses’ (Chrysalis)
Look, I know Leo’s remembered these days as a lightweight pop figure, too bouncy and bubbly for his own good, but he was a serious artist and he was taken as such at the time. The NME Readers’ Poll at the end of 1974 saw him voted in as Most Promising New Name (British), which is not a bad achievement when you consider that he out-polled Queen, Mike Oldfield, Nazareth and Blue (not that one). In the International category, he was beaten by Golden Earring, but did push PFM into third place.
The sound quality on this version of his second hit is pretty ropey, but I’m going for it because Sayer is normally seen as a solo act, and actually he had a damn fine band around him. As seen here, they could be quite raucous, as was appropriate for the raw power of the man’s singing. This is as good a piece of driving country-rock as you’d meet in 1974. If you want a more conventional performance, here he is on German television.
- Rod Stewart, ‘Farewell’ (Mercury)
It didn’t stay in the popular consciousness the way some of his other hits did, which I think may be Rod’s fault. The music is nicely ragged, but his vocals just don’t swing. Still, there was a new single by the Faces coming along in a few weeks.
- Andy Kim, ‘Rock Me Gently’ (Capitol)
Well, he’s Canadian, which puts him a little outside the territory of this site, but it’s still worth noting that this is almost irresistibly catchy: a disco-lite take on Neil Diamond. The original recording is better, but here you do get the Top of the Pops Orchestra trying to get the hang of a funky clavinet (at 2’10”).
- Gary Shearston, ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’ (Charisma)
Similarly, Gary Shearston was Australian, whose first hit at home had come back in 1965. But this was from his Dingo album, which was recorded in Britain, and it’s simply magnificent. ‘The best single to hit my turntable in a long time,’ according to the Liverpool Echo reviewer Peter Trollope, ‘deserves to be #1’. He was right. The song, obviously, is impeccable, even by Cole Porter’s standards, but the laconic voice takes it to world-weary places Ethel Merman never imagined. And the violin that kicks in at 2’05” is gorgeous.
- Andy Fairweather Low, ‘Reggae Tune’ (A&M)
Almost as good as Gary Shearston’s only hit was the first single from Andy Fairweather Low’s debut solo album, Spider Jiving. The record was produced in America by Elliot Mazer – with Henry McCullough on guitar and some top session players including the Memphis Horns – and it was Low’s re-entry into the business after a few years away, his attempt to reinvent himself: no longer a teen idol in Amen Corner, but a mature singer-songwriter.
To be honest, the album wasn’t deeply inspired. It did, however, have some good moments, including this track, so easy-going and infectious that you’d have to be a very grumpy grouch not to smile. The lyrics appear to be a reflection on how he got stitched up by the music industry the first time round, but don’t let that worry you: it’s the feel that counts. Be warned, though, that it’s not very roots, as the Reading Evening Post noted: ‘It’s not really authentic, so the reggae freaks won’t really take it to their bosoms.’
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