Times were bad. Bad enough that Harold Wilson – still the prime minister, though not for much longer – made a television broadcast urging us to ‘give a year for Britain’ in the battle against inflation and unemployment; we needed ‘harder work’ and ‘national self-discipline’. In the courts, six men were wrongly sentenced for murdering twenty-one people in Birmingham the previous November; the actual killers have never been prosecuted. Meanwhile the New York Times printed an obituary to Hercule Poirot, after it was announced that Curtain, his final case, was shortly to be published; it had been an impressively long career – when he made his first appearance in print, fifty-five years earlier, Poirot was already retired and in his mid-sixties .
This is the top ten for the week ending 9 August 1975.
- Typically Tropical, ‘Barbados’ (Gull)
Willesden in North London isn’t renowned as one of the rock ‘n’ roll heritage sites. It gave us the great Johnny Kidd in the 1950s, of course, and the rapper/comedian Doc Brown in the 2000s, but in the decades between it was notable chiefly for being where Jeff Calvert and Max West were based when they had their moment in the sun.
‘Barbados’ was a cheery, catchy little record in which Captain Tobias Wilcox welcomed us onboard a Coconut Airways flight to the eponymous island. If that was an absurdly aspirational destination at a time when we were still getting excited by package holidays in Spain, Calvert at least had been there, as he told the press:
Dad was playing on a cruise ship and I went along for the ride. The cruise took us round the islands and one of the stops was Barbados.
The cruise was two years ago and we wrote the song last summer and recorded it in November. The demo was going to be accepted by Trojan Records, but Gull approached us with a better offer.
Gull wasn’t an obvious home for a lightweight novelty single – earlier releases had tended more towards the likes of Arthur Brown, Judas Priest, Axe and Isotope – but the distribution (through Decca) was sound, and the single was a surprise #1.
The follow-up was ‘Rocket Now’, on which Captain Tobias Wilcox was recast as an astronaut. It was released in October 1975, which – as the West Lothian Courier accurately noted – was ‘a bit silly because it’s not typically tropical weather any more, so this band will be filed away under “One Hit Wonders” (pity)’. And indeed ‘Rocket Now’ wasn’t a hit, partly because the summer was gone, and partly because it wasn’t much good. ‘Barbados’, though, was a genuine winner, as it showed when the Vengaboys took it back to #1 in 1999 under the guise of ‘We’re Going to Ibiza’.
Calvert and West also recorded unsuccessfully in other identities, as Captain Zero for ‘Space Walk’ (Gull, 1975), and as Black Rod for the 1979 election single ‘Rockin’ in the House of Commons’ (EMI). The latter features the fine couplet:
I’m in love with an MP’s daughter.
Her old man’s into law and order.
- Bay City Rollers, ‘Give a Little Love’ (Bell)
I like the Bay City Rollers. They made some really good pop records, which is why they were rated by the likes of the Ramones. But this one, I’m afraid, was rubbish, easily the worst single they’d yet released.
Clearly, someone had decided that the fans wanted a sing-a-long sway-a-long bit of sub-Paul Anka teen balladry – and equally clearly, they were right, since the record spent three weeks at #1. But, dear Lord, it’s thin gruel. Two short, melodically repetitive verses with banal, cliched lyrics, and a chorus of equally stunted ambition. At best it’s 90 seconds of material.
In the hands of the Ramones, that would’ve been fine, because it would only have lasted for 90 seconds. But here they pad it out by having the chorus sludge round and round and round again.
- Stylistics, ‘I Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)’ (Avco)
Obviously, one doesn’t begrudge a truly great band doing well. But it remains a mystery why this poorly produced, mundane track should have been the Stylistics’ biggest hit in Britain – next week it’d start a three-week residency at #1. In America, on the other hand, it failed to make the top 50.
- Smokey, ‘If You Think You Know How to Love Me’ (RAK)
They’d been around for ages. As Kindness, they released a Love Affair kind of single, ‘Light of Love’ on RCA back in 1970, but they didn’t play on that and no one much noticed its existence. (Though the Liverpool Echo did review it: ‘Sloppy lyrics, delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.’)
Then they got a gig backing Peter Noone, who’d just left Herman’s Hermits and had had his first solo hit with ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’. And they also signed to Decca, releasing a trio of equally neglected singles: ‘Oh, Julie (Oh, Oh, Julie)’, ‘Let the Good Times Roll’ (both 1972) and ‘Make It Better’ (1973). They did play on these, but the reviews were no better: ‘A poor imitation of Slade,’ said the Reading Evening Post of ‘Let the Good Times Roll’, which was not entirely unfair. They didn’t really have much of an identity yet.
But they were getting there, as singer Chris Norman remembered:
We were doing a lot of harmony things, like people like Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Eagles. And we were dressing like in denims and all that stuff. As opposed to a lot of people at that time who were like glam-rock and glitter and getting painted faces and stuff – we weren’t into that.
Elsewhere in the pop world, Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn – the most successful writing/production team of the day – were getting tired of being labelled a bubblegum factory and wanted to get themselves a credible albums act. They signed Kindness, renamed them Smokey and put out Pass It Around (1974), an album mostly comprised of band originals, though the title-track – also the single – was a Chinn-Chapman song.
It didn’t really work, as Norman acknowledged:
It was a bit naive. We weren’t really as ready for it as we thought we were. And I don’t think Mike Chapman was ready for making albums that sounded like that. It was a bit contrived sounding when I listen to it now. Some tracks were alright on it, but there were a few that were a bit twee.
Radio 1 passed on the single, nervous of its nudging drug references. (‘The good albums bands in those days were the ones who used to smoke pot and all that. So that was the idea, to suggest to people that that’s how we were.’) The group did appear on The Old Grey Whistle Test, the first Chinnichap act to be so honoured, but the single didn’t make the charts.
Failure wasn’t the kind of thing that either Chinnichap or RAK Records were used to, so there was a hurried overhaul, ‘going back to more of the harmony, acoustic side of what we did’, and the result was ‘If You Think You Know How to Love Me’.
I liked it a good deal then and still do. I’m not entirely convinced by the lyrical claims – I don’t really believe that that they walked ‘on the wild, wild side of life’ – but the band were no more implausible in the role of romantically doomed outlaws than many others. And it works because it’s a rather lovely production, and because Chris Norman’s voice finally had the setting it deserved.
(Incidentally, the spelling was Smokey at this stage. It was only when Motown’s lawyers raised their eyebrows that it was amended to Smokie.)
- Bee Gees, ‘Jive Talking’ (RKO)
They hadn’t had a hit since 1972, either here or in America, and they were looking like they’d had their time. ‘We’ve been through all the stages,’ reflected Barry Gibb. ‘Struggling and then hitting it big; we’ve split and re-formed; had number ones; toured the world…’ Then they went to Miami, got a little bit funky and suddenly they were back on top again. This slinky, slightly sleazy, track was the lead-off single from one of their best albums, Main Course.
- Linda Lewis, ‘It’s in His Kiss’ (Arista)
She’d been around even longer than Smokey, seemingly destined never to make it big. She appeared in the movies A Taste of Honey and A Hard Day’s Night, debuted with a good version of ‘You Turned My Bitter into Sweet’ (Polydor, 1967), was a member of the Ferris Wheel on their second, self-titled album, performed at the first Glastonbury, and sang backing for David Bowie and Steve Harley.
The Melody Maker tipped her as a breakthrough star for 1972, but her first three solo albums produced just one top 20 single between them, in ‘Rock-a-Doodle-Doo’ (1973). And then came this, a hackneyed choice of cover perhaps, but it is the best version of the song and one of Britain’s first great disco records.
- Brian Hyland, ‘Sealed with a Kiss’ (ABC)
- Sensational Alex Harvey Band, ‘Delilah’ (Vertigo)
There’s a pattern emerging here. Because Smokey and Linda Lewis were mere newcomers compared to Alex Harvey. He’d made his live debut back in the mid-1950s skiffle boom, and had been releasing records for a decade before this, his first hit single.
By now, he was fronting the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, one of the greatest rock acts of them all. Three albums had come and gone, though, without establishing them as a chart act; not even the Phil Wainman-produced splendour of Next (1973) had worked.
Harvey wrote some good songs, but – to my eyes – the group really specialised in slightly unexpected cover versions, from ‘Giddy Up a Ding Dong’ to ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’. (Back in 1969, he’d recorded a storming version of ‘Jumping Jack Flash’.) Their other great strength was on stage, the most naturally theatrical act in an era of theatrical rock. Which meant that this live version of the old Tom Jones melodramatic murder-ballad was – in retrospect at least – the obvious choice for a breakthrough.
Unlike Jones, Harvey sounds like he might actually be a crime-of-passion killer, but that didn’t stop him hamming it up something rotten in performance. It’s magnificent.
- Judge Dread, ‘Je T’Aime’ (Cactus)
Which reggae act had the most hit singles in Britain in the 1970s? Well, obviously it was Alex Hughes, under his nom de ska Judge Dread – nine top 50 hits, from ‘Big Six’ (1972) to ‘Up With the Cock’ (1978). And not one of them was ever played on Radio 1; not once was he invited onto Top of the Pops.
The standard format for these records was a decent, if unimaginative, reggae backing over which Dread recited saucy versions of nursery rhymes and the like: ‘Two old ladies, sitting on the dock; one put her hand up the other one’s frock.’ That kind of thing.
This one was a slight variation. Inevitably, the backing is a decent, if unimaginative, reggae version of the Serge Gainsbourg song, but this time Dread and an anonymous woman engage in some wonderfully unconvincing dialogue that sounds like the opening scene to a heavily censored Danish porn film that’s been badly dubbed into English. ‘I’ve always wanted to meet you,’ the young lady purrs. ‘Oh, really,’ he replies. Then, after a pause: ‘Why?’ It’s a fair question.
Anyway he shows her his, she shows him hers, and he’s horrified. ‘You’re not even a proper woman,’ he expostulates. ‘You’re a geezer dressed up! You’re one of those, er, trans, er, what do they call ’em? Transvestites.’ And a male voice replies, ‘Oh, come on dear, this is 1975.’
It’s not an argument that cuts much ice with Dread. ‘Come home and give me love, please,’ the man pleads, and Dread replies: ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you bloody love. I’ll give you the rough end of a pineapple.’
- Johnny Nash, ‘Tears on My Pillow’ (CBS)
I refer the honourable member to the answer I gave some weeks ago.
previously in Revive 45: