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Aug 06

MARY HOPKIN – “Those Were The Days”

FT + Popular37 comments • 6,570 views

#259, 28th September 1968

If you want an illustration of how much closer together the pop world of the 1960s seems compared to today’s, consider this sequence of events:

1. Teenage girl wins reality TV talent show.
2. Member of most famous and respected band in the country offers her a contract on an extremely high-profile new indie label.

Naturally, Opportunity Knocks fame and Beatle patronage combined to make “Those Were The Days” a colossal hit – six weeks at number one to “Hey Jude”‘s two. I think it would have been a hit without the backstory, though – it’s a winning commercial combination of the unusual and the instant, a study in contrasts. It has an immediate chorus – if this wasn’t a standard before 1968, it certainly became one, I heard it everywhere when I was growing up – and verses that reward careful listening. You could sing – even shout – along to it, but the arrangement, reflecting the song’s Russian origins, is delicacy itself. It’s a wise song sung by a child, and a song about lost and recovered potential sung by someone being rewarded for her own potential, and a song about going to the pub sung by someone barely old enough to drink. These are all gaps through which magic could sneak.

Perhaps because of its familiarity, though, it slips by me very easily: I have to concentrate quite hard to catch the nuances in Hopkin’s performance and in the production – those shivery, ghostly backing vox on the return-to-the-tavern verse, for instance. And then I listen to something else, and when I go back to “Those Were The Days” I have to listen all over again to notice what I like about it. The only time it made me actually feel things rather than notice them was when I read the lyrics and connected them to what I do with my friends in pubs: the schemes and dreams in the song sound rather grander than plans to make giant boiled eggs, but this is a difference of degree not kind. So there’s something about it, or about me, that stops it connecting with me when I actually hear it. I wish I liked it more, in fact.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    Marcello Carlin on 13 Sep 2006 #

    Hopkin was/is essentially a folkie at heart, though her Banquo’s ghost cameo on Bowie’s “Sound And Vision” a decade later is still startling. Presumably you’ve got the Those Were The Days Apple compilation, which is a useful reminder of how many other factors there were to her music once you get past The Hits.

    A word also to Richard Hewson for his very ingenious arrangement, with different instrumentation for every verse and chorus a la Randy Newman on Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” around the same time.

  2. 27
    Alan Connor on 12 Nov 2006 #

    Important Resurrection Watch: just read this piece on Mark Thatcher in the LRB (subs reqd) and felt it needed adding:

    Equatorial Guinea had the bad luck to come to independence under Macias Nguema, whose rule was so terrible that a third of the population was either killed or fled. Though he had people garrotted, buried alive and beheaded (and their heads stuck on poles), the detail that sticks in my mind is his having 150 people executed to the tune of ‘Those Were the Days, My Friend’ played over stadium loudspeakers.

  3. 28
    Steve on 8 Feb 2007 #

    I was about 9 y/o at the time, but I remember hearing this song on the radio when my dad was getting ready for work. To this day, I still love to hear it every now & then. It’s the “Russian” styling I love so much. It probably has influenced the range of music I like to listen to: from classical to lo-fi & electronic jazz… Thank you MaryH for the nice memory!

  4. 29
    terry on 7 May 2007 #

    I have a copy of this on apple single
    apple 2 produced by paul mcCartney in 1968
    those were the days and turn turn turn
    its going on ebay if anyone wants it
    or email me at tay4457 @ yahoo dot co dot uk

    leave out the spacesthough
    regards
    terry

  5. 30
    Matthew on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Maybe this held the number one spot three times as long as Hey Jude because it’s three times as good? It makes me a little trembly inside every time I hear it: like a previous commenter, I had a big thing for aching nostalgia, and thereby for this song, when I was a small child. I think it taps into something really primal, which the cynical constructed-ness of Jude doesn’t do for me. God, I’m doing a really bad job of swallowing down my Beatles-bile.

  6. 31
    Waldo on 27 Oct 2009 #

    Yes, X-Factor 1968! Twiggy was the counduit for getting Welsh Mary from Hughie to Macca and thus onto Apple. I can’t really say I ever took to TWTD, I’m afraid. It’s an insipid little dirge and Mary’s vocal is more than a little annoying. The melody of the chorus, however, was another one taken up as a footy chant. At the Bridge, Chelsea go behind and the visiting fans are suddenly serenaded with: “There’s..only..one way out, There’s only one way out, There’s only one, There’s only one way out!…”

    I think the follow up “Goodbye” was a good deal better and just failed to also top the chart, as did her rather fey little Euro entry “Knock Knock Who’s There?” In between there was “Temma Harbour”, which I thought was a lovely little song.

    The next time I came across Mary was in a TV commercial for Blue Band margerine, a product for poor people.

  7. 32
    Mark G on 28 Oct 2009 #

    I remember that, wasn’t Tony Visconti in it as well?

    Anyway, I remember the variation in lyric when Scotland/”Ally’s tartan army” were knocked out of the World cup, and the fans who had got themselves to Argentina were all “We want our money back, We want our money back, We want our mon, We want our money back”…

  8. 33
    crag on 14 Apr 2011 #

    DESERT ISLAND DISCS WATCH:

    Lord David Cobbold, Owner of Knebworth House (2010).

  9. 36
    lonepilgrim on 2 Oct 2016 #

    this is another song like the Bee Gees ‘Message’ that I found almost overwhelmingly sad as a kid. The idea that the good times I was enjoying with my friends and family would one day be swept away was particularly terrifying. It’s a great tune with a rich arrangement that prevents it from sounding too folky.

  10. 37
    Phil on 3 Oct 2016 #

    #36 – gosh yes; I remember getting a real shiver at the spooky bit near the end, when the narrator initially doesn’t recognise her own reflection because she’s grown old without realising it. Which says something for McCartney’s writing – and the unforced sincerity of Hopkin’s delivery – when you consider that I was eight years old at the time.

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