The happy news this Christmastide was the revelation that Labour MP John Stonehouse was not dead after all. He was feared drowned when his clothes were discovered on a Miami beach last month, but on Christmas Eve, he was found by Australian police, who detained him in the belief that he was Lord Lucan. He wasn’t. He was a middle-aged man who’d engaged in dodgy business deals and had decided to do a runner, in the hope of starting a new life with his secretary.
This is the top ten for the week ending 21 December 1974
- Mud, ‘Lonely this Christmas’ (RAK)
‘Everybody wants to make a Christmas song because everybody wants to make money,’ said Mike Chapman, as he unveiled ‘Lonely this Christmas’, the new single by Mud. ‘I suppose it’s a bit of a rip-off, but young kids today haven’t hear that old Elvis sound. I think they’ll like it.’
Guitarist Rob Davis, on the other hand, saw it as being a natural evolution of their stage act:
When we did our live thing, we used to do a little Elvis medley in the middle, and Les would do the big Elvis mimic thing. He’d sound just like him and he’d send it up, and I’d play all the Scotty Moore guitar solos. And Mike Chapman saw this and said, ‘Oh, we have to make a record with you sounding like an Elvis impersonator.’ And that was it, ‘Lonely This Christmas’.
- Bachman–Turner Overdrive, ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ (Mercury)
Well, it’s a classic, of course. Where would Smashie and Nicey have been without it? But the BTO were a Canadian band, and therefore beyond the remit of this site. Except to note that this was their first British hit and it was widely predicted to herald a big career here. It didn’t happen.
- The Rubettes, ‘Juke Box Jive’ (Polydor)
Still here from last time…
- Barry White, ‘You’re the First, the Last, My Everything’ (20th Century)
And Barry was here last time, as well.
- The Wombles, ‘Wombling Merry Christmas’ (CBS)
This is the best Christmas single of the 1970s, and that’s an objective fact. Mike Batt’s on fine songwriting form, Chris Spedding’s on guitar, and all is well with the world.
It was big, but it could have been bigger, had the brand not been damaged by complaints about shoddy, third-rate Wombles stage-shows that December. There were several of these, run by Bill Kenwright (formerly of Coronation Street, later of Everton Football Club), and the kids weren’t impressed by the Wombles on offer. ‘What a load of rubbish,’ protested a 12-year-old. ‘They aren’t even fat.’
There were hundreds of such complaints, and the Liverpool show, booked for two weeks, closed after just two days, while the Belfast production saw a stage invasion by angry punters. ‘I feel sick,’ said Kenwright, adding that the distress had ruined his Christmas: ‘I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat.’
Mike Batt was even more riled:
I always had this problem, that I didn’t own the character copyright – I only owned the rights to use the characters for the pop group, but they had the rights to a theatrical show. They did this show without any permission from me, decided to cash in on it.
They did nine simultaneous stage shows, not gigs but musicals. They had one director and nine casts all in this one rehearsal room, rehearsed this really awful show, gave them a load of crap costumes and told them to go out and do it.
There was uproar ‘cos everyone thought they were going to see a Wombles pop group, and they weren’t: they were going to see a stage-show, but nobody pointed that out. You go to see the Wombles, you want to see the Wombles pop group, you don’t want to see a load of other Wombles. And yet the other Wombles were out of my control.
When we were going towards #1 with ‘Wombling Merry Christmas’ in late-1974, we were selling 30,000 records a day. The nearest contender was Mud with ‘Lonely This Christmas’, who were doing 15,000 a day. So we knew we’d be #1. And that story broke on the front of the Daily Express, I think it was. The reaction was that our sales suddenly dropped to 15,000 a day, Mud overtook us in a week and they were #1 and we were #2. And that made me think: right, that’s the end of it. I stopped it in the middle of 1975 and that was it.
Still, the band had sold more singles in Britain in 1974 than any other act. Which is as it should be.
As a trivial footnote, one of those rogue Wombles was David Van Day, yet to find fame with Guys ‘n’ Dolls and Dollar. In December 1974, he played Cousin Yellowstone, an American Womble, in the Manchester production. Members of the pit band for that version of the show later turned up in Sad Café.
- Ralph McTell, ‘Streets of London’ (Reprise)
It was one of Ralph McTell’s earliest songs, first released on his 1969 album Spiral Staircase, and already much covered by the time he brought out this re-recorded version as a single. Here are some words from the Cheshire Observer: ‘“Streets of London” is an oft-murdered song about the under privileged who live under our noses – and as a thought-provoking song leaves the rest of the goodie-goodie material far behind.’
- Elvis Presley, ‘My Boy’ (RCA)
This may be a controversial opinion, but I think this is one of Elvis’s greatest ever records. I love ‘My Boy’ with a passion that is (I mean, I’m not entirely stupid) almost entirely the result of it being my first exposure to the mighty power that was Vegas Elvis. But even without that personal element, I still think it’s a late-era masterpiece.
It was a French song originally, but Phil Coulter and Bill Martin wrote some English lyrics and Richard Harris recorded it in 1971. Harris’s version is what you’d expect: middle-of-the-road pop that plays it straight. But Elvis goes to new places altogether.
To start with, the arrangement is huge, displaying not a hint of the saccharine sensitivity demanded by the lyrics, and Elvis responds in kind, imposing his will on the building storm. He sounds like a heartbroken bull, bellowing out the words as he tries to convince himself that he’s doing the right thing, even though he has to acknowledge his life hasn’t turned out how he’d hoped it would.
Where the Richard Harris version is standard sentiment, this is pure melodrama, the musical equivalent of Todd Slaughter’s acting, and it’s magnificent. Because at its best, melodrama is the concentrated essence of drama, trying to conceal emotional rawness with convention.
- Disco Tex and the Sex-o-Lettes, ‘Get Dancin’’ (Chelsea)
It’s big, dumb and – thanks to the contributions of Sir Monti Rock III – very camp indeed.
- Gary Glitter, ‘Oh Yes, You’re Beautiful’ (Bell)
Gary’s last single for 1973 had been a slow one, (‘I Love You Love Me Love’), and had reached #1, so he went for a variation on the same theme this year. Not a Christmas song as such, then, but certainly intended as a Christmas release, even it did come over more sleazy than festive. (Though, on a seasonal note, it’s a little surprising that Bernard Matthews never made use of it for his marketing.) There’s also a live version that I rather admire – not quite as camp as Sir Monti Rock III, but not far off.
- Hello, ‘Tell Him’ (Bell)
This was a terrific record. The song, written by Bert Berns, was first recorded by Gil Hamilton (aka Johnny Thunder) in 1962 with an arrangement that sounded like a Clyde McPhatter release of the time, but the hit came in the form of a girl-group classic by the Exciters. More recently, it had been covered as a glam stomp by the Glitter Band on their debut album, Hey! But Hello’s version was the best, and was helped by the band’s youthful image. They didn’t change the gender of the lyrics, which was presumably meant to direct the message to an audience of girls, but which actually came across as a rent boy’s version of the Pretty Woman myth.
So who were Hello? Bear with me, because I need to introduce our next speaker…
David Blaylock went to school with members of the Zombies, and became that band’s road manager. It was through these connexions that he got to know Russ Ballard, who played with Rod Argent after the Zombies’ break-up. Here’s Blaylock to pick up the story:
Russ Ballard and I got on well so we thought we’d form our own company. He had a friend who had a recording studio, so we thought what would be good would be to get a band that could be a platform for some of Russ’s songs and record them and get them a deal.
We decided to do that in ’71 and no sooner had we decided to look for a band than Russ’s brother said he’d seen a little band of 15-year old kids playing and that they’d be ideal. So we contacted them and they set up in their front room in Wood Green and we thought they were great, and so we signed them up. They at that stage were going out to play gigs, doing top twenty covers. We recorded a couple of tracks with them and I placed them with Bell Records.
The first two singles were ‘You Move Me’ and then ‘Come On’ in ’72. Nothing happened on those first two. They got some play – old Fluff Freeman played ‘You Move Me’ a few times, in fact he even came down and saw them playing at a school in North London. And Dick Leahy, who was running Bell Records at the time, was very into the idea of Hello, he really wanted to break them.
Argent had ‘Hold Your Head Up’ and Russ Ballard didn’t have the time to continue, so Dick Leahy said: let’s get another producer involved, and I know one who’d be right for Hello: Mike Leander.
So we had a third single, called ‘Another School Day’, which he produced and that almost happened. That bubbled away, sold a good few thousand but it didn’t actually chart. They were so keen to break it they even did a bit of TV advertising for it. They really tried hard with it.
Leander was involved with a company called Rock Artists Management – they had an agency and a management company as well as a production company – and for a period of time he and I co-managed Hello.
Mike Leander said one day, ‘I’ve just recorded “Tell Him” with the Glitter Band on an album, and I think that could be a single for Hello.’ And that was what happened. We did it with Leander, and by that time we were gigging on national tours with Gary Glitter, and that gained us quite a bit of prominence. A lot of their stagecraft was learned there.
Postscript: Following the huge success of Slade and Wizzard at Christmas 1973, there was a deluge of Christmas releases by big name acts this year. Among those who missed the cut were Showaddywaddy, whose stomptastic ‘Hey Mr Christmas’ only got to #13, George Harrison’s ‘Ding Dong, Ding Dong’ (#38), the Scaffold’s ‘Mummy Won’t Be Home for Christmas’ (did not chart), and Gilbert O’Sullivan’s ‘Christmas Song’ which, reckoned the Daily Mirror, ‘has a strong chance of being the #1 this year’ – it peaked at #12.
previously in Revive 45: