Things not looking too good right now? Let’s take a nostalgic trip back to the world of April 1975. This month, the Vietnam War ended after around 1.35 million people had been killed; a further two million Vietnamese would subsequently flee the communist regime. In neighbouring Cambodia, the Khymer Rouge emerged as victors in the civil war; genocide would follow, with up to two million deaths – a quarter of the population – in the next five years. Meanwhile, civil war broke out in Lebanon; by the time it finished in 1990, an estimated 150,000 had been killed. Oh, and there was a military coup in Chad.
And this was the top 10 in Britain for the week ending 26 April 1975.
- Bay City Rollers, ‘Bye Bye Baby’ (Bell)
- Bobby Goldsboro, ‘Honey’ (UA)
When this was first released in 1968, it reached #2 in the British charts and was the world’s biggest-selling single of the year. Why a re-release should have suddenly taken off in Britain again just now is unclear, but it started a trend of revived hits.
I like it a great deal. This is death-disc schmaltz at its very best. And I love some of the lyrics: ‘She was always young at heart, kinda dumb and kinda smart.’ Try, in your mind’s ear, to hear Joey Ramone singing that, and you’ll see how splendid it is.
Being an American record, it’s beyond the scope of this site, but if you want to read more (and you do), the place to go is the Pismotality blog, which has a splendid analysis.
- Sweet, ‘Fox on the Run’ (RCA)
The Sweet had stumbled a little recently. In the later months of 1974, their best record, ‘The Six Teens’, had spent just one week in the top 10 and its follow-up, ‘Turn It Down’, had failed even to make the top 40. The kids were drifting away, and the band hadn’t managed to shift their appeal to an older market: their album Desolation Boulevard (now seen as their best work) was released in November 1974 and failed to make the charts. In short, they needed a hit.
It was a record-company executive who decided that the answer lay in one of the group’s own compositions, ‘Fox on the Run’. It was an album track on Desolation Boulevard, a heavy piece of work with an extended guitar solo, but the executive reckoned that, it if were re-recorded, it had the potential to be more commercial. Unfortunately, Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, the writing/producing team behind the band’s hits, were away in America at the time, so the Sweet were sent into the studio to produce their own version.
It wasn’t intended to be a split with Chinnichap, but when the single restored their chart fortunes, that’s how it worked out. The band had shown that they could write and produce a huge hit on their own. As guitarist Andy Scott remembered:
We went in and recorded it on our own. Next thing we knew, the record company wanted to release it, and Chinn and Chapman were being telegrammed in America: ‘We have the new Sweet single.’ They were back here before you knew it, they heard the single and – whether they liked it or not – they had to agree there was an on-going situation.
Now instead of patching it up and saying, ‘Regardless of whether we write it, you write it, we produce it, you produce it, we might as well all still mix it in,’ I think there were egos to be played here. We just made a final decision to go: Well, everything we do from now onwards, we stand or fall by it. And the production company took a back-seat and very rarely interfered.
I don’t mean to say they were right not to interfere. They were probably wrong, because remember their livelihoods were there as well. They might as well have pitched in sometimes and said, ‘You haven’t got a commercial enough single’. Especially when it got to the later years, with the Off The Record album which basically stiffed everywhere except Germany.
‘Fox on the Run’ was a really great single. Not much of a song – and the album version is a bit dull – but the 7-inch was a terrific performance and production, as though they had complete, arrogant faith in the material. It went to #2 here and ended up being a top 5 hit in America as well. (People tend to remember T Rex and Slade vainly slogging away in an attempt to break America, and forget how well the Sweet did over there.)
- Peter Shelley, ‘Love Me, Love My Dog’ (Magnet)
Just as schmaltzy as Bobby Goldsboro, but sadly lacking the death-disc element. Still, it’s a nice piece of countryish pop.
This is the first of two singles that Magnet Records had in the top 10, which is pretty impressive for a small independent that had only been around a couple of years. Regrettably, though, it wasn’t the start of anything, but an ending; Shelley left the label he’d co-founded shortly afterwards. Though there was good stuff to come (Matchbox, Darts, Bad Manners), Magnet was never quite the same.
In the short term, the label’s biggest star, Alvin Stardust, was still on contract, but in Shelley’s absence, his next single, ‘Sweet Cheatin’ Rita’, was written and produced by Roger Greenaway instead. Consequently, it was competent enough but lacked the imaginative spark Shelley brought to the early Alvin records, and it became his first single not to reach the top 20. It was going to take another six years and another record label (‘if it ain’t a Stiff, it ain’t worth a fuck’) before he returned to the charts.
- Jim Gilstrap, ‘Swing Your Daddy’ (Chelsea)
A shame, of course, that he’s almost entirely remembered for this one hit (#10 in the US, #4 in the UK), but on the other hand, what a fantastic thing to be remembered for.
- Mud, ‘Oh Boy’ (RAK)
It was a time of pop bands breaking away from their creative teams and striking out on their own: first the Rollers, then the Sweet, and now Mud. In this latter case, though, no one really noticed at first.
Mud had actually negotiated their departure from Chinn & Chapman and RAK Records by the time this came out, and their new recordings would henceforth appear on the Private Stock label. But they were a very hot property right now: ‘Tiger Feet’ had been Britain’s biggest selling single in 1974, and the band had ended the year at #1. In those circumstances, RAK were understandably reluctant to let go, so they kept on releasing singles, drawing on their already recorded material.
Mud themselves weren’t overjoyed by this, as bassist Ray Stiles explains:
We felt they were trying to mess us up. But they couldn’t do it, ‘cos they were hit after hit after hit. The first one they released, of course, was ‘Oh Boy’, which went straight to #1. We were freaked out when we heard it was coming out, ‘cos we thought it was a great album track, the kind of thing we’d mess around with, but it shouldn’t be a single. We thought: they’re trying to mess us up, they’re trying to kill us. And it went bang straight to #1. Oh well.
Stiles is right: it really wasn’t an obvious choice as a single, but the release turned out to be a stroke of commercial genius. The band were so big that it was bound to be played on the radio, and at a time when the Rubettes, Kenny et al were producing teen versions of rock ‘n’ roll – just like Mud had been doing in 1974 – a slowed-down close-harmony arrangement of a Buddy Holly classic stood out spectacularly well. Guitarist Rob Davis:
We were totally into harmonies, from years before, we were into the Beach Boys and all of that sort of vibe. On ‘Oh Boy’ Mike Chapman’s singing with us. I thought we did something different with it.
And the woman who provides the spoken-voice segment? Ray Stiles again:
Rob and I produced a girl-group called Ellie. We met them some years before on the cabaret circuit. Ellie Hope was the lead singer – Rob’s actually married to Chris Hope, her sister – and she did the female voice on ‘Oh Boy’. And when we did Top of the Pops, she came on dressed as a charlady with a broom and all that. Ellie of course went on to be the lead singer of Liquid Gold.
- Minnie Riperton, ‘Loving You’ (Epic)
A shame, of course, that she’s almost entirely remembered for this one hit (#1 in the US, #2 in the UK), but on the other hand, what a fantastic thing to be remembered for.
- The Goodies, ‘The Funky Gibbon’ (Bradley’s)
Goodies records are a bit like those of the Wombles – they don’t get the critical acclaim the music warrants because the lyrics aren’t serious. But both Bill Oddie and Mike Batt were gifted songwriters with a penchant for pastiche, and they deserve more credit.
Of the two, Oddie was the funky one. I interviewed him once, in his home studio, where there was a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Prince, the man he cited as his great musical hero. That’s the kind of thing he liked. This is him on ‘The Funky Gibbon’:
You won’t believe the musical pretensions that went on in my head. I listened to a lot of jazz and funk, and that period of the ’70s for me was fantastic – it was really the era when fusion started. The people I liked were Sly Stone and early Parliament, and I listened to what was happening in jazz at the time, when Miles Davis was coming up with some very interesting hybrid music.
With ‘Funky Gibbon’, I started off – it’s almost unbelievable considering how stupid the song is – trying to get the feel of a Miles Davis track, I can’t remember which, probably just after Bitches Brew and that sort of era: some really choppy Miles Davis-type rhythm, again with a Sly Stone influence.
We had marvellous musicians on those sessions, but they couldn’t get it. They knew what I was sort of trying to do, but I probably listened to that sort of thing more than they did. It was driving us nuts, so we sent the drummer and the bass-player and the guitarist home. I had a keyboard player called Dave Macrae, who’d played with Matching Mole and Robert Wyatt and people like that – governor player – and he started playing some clavinet, very Stevie Wonder-type feel to it, and I said: ‘That’s fine, could you do a synth-bass on it?’ And then I literally started whacking the top of the grand piano. So the rhythm-track of ‘The Funky Gibbon’ has only got me and Dave on it – he plays clavinet and synth-bass and we miked up the top of the piano.
Then we got the horn section of Gonzales playing a Memphis Horns-type thing. It was lovely for me to be able to use musicians I liked and try to reproduce sounds which I also listened to. And then I put the stupid song over the top of it. The idea that all that effort went into ‘The Funky Gibbon’!
It sounds like Parliament on a bad day, or something like that. That kind of thing. I think subconsciously people feel it – this was always my theory about it, I thought: I want the music to sound good or authentic, whatever style it happens to be in.
I think he’s entirely right. If, instead of ‘Sick Man Blues’, they’d put an instrumental mix on the B-side, that version would be a cult favourite.
They performed it on Top of the Pops and that version’s surprisingly good, possibly even better than the record, because the vocals are mixed down a bit. And also because Oddie flouted Musicians Union regulations that said vocal artists had to be accompanied by BBC players:
It always amused me that no one could play ‘The Funky Gibbon’ except Dave Macrae. It’s actually really hard, a really busy clavinet part. When you did Top of the Pops in those days, you were supposed to use the orchestra, and I thought: they’ll never play it.
So I said to Dave the first time we did it: ‘Would you mind coming to the studio because we’re gonna have trouble with this?’ And we dropped the music down in front of the Top of the Pops guy and he went: ‘H-h-hah, I can’t do this.’ And I said: ‘That’s alright, I know a man who can.’
This was the group’s one success in America, getting to #79 in the charts (‘which gave me some small satisfaction,’ noted Oddie).
- 10cc, ‘Life Is a Minestrone’ (Mercury)
Often easier to admire than to love, 10cc were an odd band. Somewhere between Wings and Steely Dan, I like to think. Certainly this one is, and I think it might be their most fun single – big and bouncy and full of really pointless jokes around place-names (‘I’ve had an eyeful of the tower in France’). It was written by Eric Stewart and Lol Crème.
It was also their first release on a new label. They’d originally been signed by Jonathan King at UK Records, but were looking for a better deal. Mercury heard ‘I’m Not in Love’ and immediately signed them to a five-album deal with a million-dollar advance. But they held that song back for the next release.
The footage linked to above is the Top of the Pops appearance, but with the original record – it’s the best version I know, even if the visuals don’t match up for the ending.
- Susan Cadogan, ‘Hurt So Good’ (Magnet)
Long before the rest of the country caught up with him, Pete Waterman was already a big figure in the Midlands. He started out as a singer with mid-1960s Coventry bands the Pilgrims and then Tomorrow’s Kind before becoming a club DJ. In the early 1970s he was the resident DJ at the Locarno Ballroom in the city and ran a record shop called the Soul Hole, and his reputation grew sufficiently that he took up an additional role in A&R at Magnet Records. Which is where he took this record when he heard it.
The song was made famous by Millie Jackson, but this is the best version by a huge margin. It was recorded in Jamaica, produced by Lee Perry, and had a small release in Britain on DIP International, before Magnet made it a hit. (I’ve linked to the record, incidentally, because although the Top of the Pops version is perfectly okay, the rhythm there is more literal and it lacks the atmosphere of the original.)
The follow-up was ‘Love You Baby’, recorded in England, produced by Waterman and written by him and Peter Shelley. It sounded like it as well. Waterman had fabulous taste in music, but he was no Scratch Perry, and the song is ordinary: if you’d been told that was a Paul Anka B-side from 1960, you’d have believed it.
previously in Revive 45: