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.