Jul 07

TONY ORLANDO AND DAWN – “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree”

FT + Popular70 comments • 7,032 views

#329, 21 April 1973

Tony Orlando, banged up for unspecified badness, whiles away his time inside by fooling about with his organ (Bontempi if I’m not mistaken) and dreaming of the yellow ribbon his lady-love will hang out to show she’s waited for him. But when the day comes he finds – sorry to spoil the punchline – a hundred ribbons tied on! The sly old dog. It must be the moustache.

(Or are they all meant to be from the same woman?)

One of the minor philosophical problems of pop is this: why is one catchy song delightfully so and another infuriatingly so? Dawn make an important contribution to the debate by suggesting implicitly that the difference may well lie in the enthusiastic application of cheap bastard organ all over a track, deep-sixing any chance of emotional bite with a grinning rinky-dink flourish at the end of every bloody line. Tony Orlando being a self-satisfied goon obviously doesn’t help either. Obnoxious.



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    Marcello Carlin on 20 Jul 2007 #

    And still with a score at least three times more than it deserves!

    “Tie A Yellow Ribbon”‘s catchiness has maybe less to do with the arrangement, such as it is, but of the pivotal nature of its times; the song rang true, or was made to ring true, for homecoming Vietnam vets, even though it’s about someone being released from jail (maybe for stalking the woman downstairs in his previous number one?) and the immediate profusion of cover versions from every tottering crooner and MoR rep reliable – Bing Crosby to Val Doonican and even to Donald Peers – all with the subtext that “hey, in this long-haired age they can still write songs the way they used to,” i.e. pre-rock. It was a reactionism (which is also one of my concerns with the danger of this being adopted by the GP mob. Sometimes tack is just tack) which blinkeredly denied the now.

    That having been said, the profusion of versions I heard from crooning Bontempi organ-wielding “entertainers” in Blackpool at the time suggests that the facility of the arrangement had its perks; note how something like the Specials’ “Do Nothing” with nearly the same instrumentation and a chord sequence at right angles to “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” exudes a different atmosphere and qualitative level altogether.

    Huge, orchestrated ballads as of old were not as common, or at least confined to Opportunity Knocks contestants; US number ones from Maureen McGovern and Vicki Lawrence did not register in Britain at all. So there was perhaps a cost-cutting, oil crisis-anticipating economy at work here, as well as a sense of solidarity (he’s just like us! We can identify with him! You never see Engelbert in Britain these days!) which stretches back to The War.

    This is the only number one common to both Britain and the States in 1973, and also the year’s biggest transatlantic seller – it was still on our Top 40 in early 1974 – by apparent virtue of standing against everything else that was happening in that year.

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    Rosie on 20 Jul 2007 #

    The musical equivalent of polystyrene packing material. Next business please!

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    Alan on 20 Jul 2007 #

    In my head the bounciness of the tune does feel a bit too relentlessly perky. i’ve always associated it with Save All Your Kisses for Me and the theme tune to Ask The Family.

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    marcello sez pivot of the times, and that’s surely a lot of what this hit rode on — the sense of a divide in culture, on the back of the dragging-on war (and the moil of politics that came with this), in the aftermath of unprecedented cultural upheaval (“one morning after the 60s” is joan didion’s pinpoint-precise name to conjure the disjointed feeling) — but i think there’s actually a bigger unity between its content (and maybe its sound) with the expression of an attitude to this sense-of-pivot

    viz: that the years of turmoil have themselves been — for many record-buyers — a kind of exile or prison sentence, when the world was out of joint and made no sense and things were wrong: hurrah things are going to be as they were, and yes it IS sort of my fault (orlando as the voice of “proper pop”) that i got put away but i’m BACK BACK BACK, and well — enter tinny jauntiness — let’s have ourselves some non-weirdnik fun eh? and almost the thinness of the sound itself expresses the flimsiness and self-delusion of all of this, but the listener wants to delude themselves, bcz things HAVE been horrible (whosever fault it was)

    (this makes it sound like i think it’s a GREAT WORK OF ART — expanallations of unity generally do — when i totally don’t; what i mean is, it chimed exactly with a sensibility at a particular time, not just in mode or “genre”, but in content and tone, and that sensibility was widespread, and understandable if wrongheaded, and the degree to which it was grabbed at tells its own story: i find it an inexpressibly sad song, bcz it daren’t go near what tom calls “unspecified badness”, it’s about the wan remains of unconditional loyalty, and its reveal has a kind of inexplicable dementia to it, where pathology is disguised as validation)

    yr pal, t.w.adorno b4 his first cup of coffee

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    one more thing: i think the unanimity which which “three years in the slammer” became a metaphor with soldiers off at war speaks to a kind of anti-govt smallholder libertarianism — sullen and even reluctant in terms of expression, sort of stout-quiet-yeoman-KingMob-against-the-king — which is distinct from what we generally associate with the 60s uprisings

    while it overlapped and crossed-over in the 60s, it was by the mid-70s very much detaching itself, not least bcz the student left were already on the way to greater freedoms and powers, and this other much larger group was actually left further behind (and portrayed as ridiculous) — cf the final scene of EASY RIDER, and project that two decades up to the constituency for anti-clintonism

    (what i’m getting at is that the counter-counter-culture was not primarily the stuffily respectable and quiescent: in some ways it was more lawless, more chaotic, and more resentful) (ok we’re getting a bit far from dawn maybe, but i don’t think so, i’m just not explaining my feeling very clearly — *SHOUTS FOR MORE COFFEE*)

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    this is americarmodism w/o the stats isn’t it — i shut up now

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    Waldo on 20 Jul 2007 #

    Marcello beat me to the punch. There is not a doubt in my mind that Orlando found himself in the boob because he simply would not leave his downstairs neighbour alone, attempting to play away from his regular girlie, whom he now begs for mercy in this most crass of manners. Naturally she forgives the bugger. I truly detest this rubbish and it says everything that my Edwardian father loved it and demanded that we fucking bought it. He was particularly charmed by the ending when Tony sings “I’m coming home, um-hum!” Well, I was appalled.

    Please do not dwell on this one, Tom. People might start to get nasty.

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    Marcello Carlin on 20 Jul 2007 #

    Man like Sinkah absolutely on the spot there, and makes it all the more frustrating that “Yesterday Once More” stopped at number two here since that seems the precisely confused, knowingly naive mirror to “Yellow Ribbon” – Karen listening to oldies on the radio, not quite understanding how or why the world SHE knew has (literally) gone to pot, trying to sound enthusiastic about the old sounds coming back, even if only via her head, but knowing deep down that it just cannot happen. It’s the best song about Watergate I know of, all the more so because they didn’t know they were writing it about Watergate. Twenty years on her ghost will turn into Ellen Burstyn in Requiem For A Dream.

    From a British perspective I would line this up (not necessarily in the context of a firing squad) with things like Singalongamax – and yes, Mr Bygraves was another “Yellow Ribbon” coveree – and it was the same dislodged post-war populace wanting things the way they used to be before all Those Hippies/Teddies/Immigrants/Terrorists/Trade Unions/Bloke Two Doors Down/Delete Where Applicable came and ruined everything they “believed” in.

    Another opportunity to talk about this in about five number ones’ time when we come to something which usually gets tossed in the same chicken basket as “Yellow Ribbon” but speaks to me in an odd but logical way which Orlando could never manage.

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    Marcello Carlin on 20 Jul 2007 #

    Alan I fear you may have your Robert Robinson game shows mixed up here – I think you meant Call My Bluff, whose theme does have a relatable perkiness; Ask The Family’s theme was “Acka Raga” by John Mayer and Joe Harriott off Indo-Jazz Fusions!

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    jeff w on 20 Jul 2007 #

    I was too young to understand the Vietnam metaphor at the time this was a hit. Up to a point I didn’t really get the lyric at all, not understanding that in the US, buses aren’t things that take you from village/suburb to market/town centre but long-distance Greyhound type services. Let alone the social and economic status that being forced to use a Greyhound bus to get oneself home implied.

    All I knew was that this song seemed to hang around at or near the top of the charts for far too long, a fly in the glam rock ointment. I didn’t hate it as such, only its ubiquity.

    The other association I have with this song is cheap package holidays. Marcello mentions Blackpool. By 1973, our family could afford to go for a week to Mallorca in the summer – and this song (and its follow up, “Say Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose”) conjure up vivid memories of evening entertainment in the lounge areas of foreign hotels.

    Orlando as “self-satisfied goon” is a bit harsh btw. He was a trouper for whom success came late in the day, and he wasn’t going to waste his opportunity to milk every second of his time in the spotlight. An icon for all those struggling lounge singers in cheap hotels abroad, in fact.

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    Marcello Carlin on 20 Jul 2007 #

    I must admit that I never quite grasped the subtext of Orlando’s subsequent “Who’s In The Strawberry Patch With Sally?”

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    Alan on 20 Jul 2007 #

    good catch Marcello! i did mean Call My Bluff of course.

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    Tom on 20 Jul 2007 #

    Thanx for the Ask The Family info too – I was mesmerised by that theme as a tiny, will track it down.

    Did someone else cover “Acka Raga”, the title sounds really familiar somehow?

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    Marcello Carlin on 20 Jul 2007 #

    Shocking Blue certainly covered it round about “Venus” time. I have the feeling that there may have been some Big Beat-type remixes doing the rounds in the nineties. The original Indo-Jazz Fusions album is still available on CD and a total classic.

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    Tom on 20 Jul 2007 #

    Shocking Blue! I thought so. I heard it when I was rustling up potential Dutch entries for the Pop World Cup – a futile task as the HATAZ dumped me from the competition because Twenty4Seven was TOO REAL for them :(

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    Billy Smart on 20 Jul 2007 #

    Not even Tony Orlando himself thought much of the song. From the Guardian obituary of producer Hank Medress, 25 June, 2007;

    “With a new partner, Dave Appell, he formed Dawn, led by Tony Orlando. Their hits in the early 1970s included Candida, Knock Three Times and Tie a Yellow Ribbon, whose sentimentality so repelled Orlando that he at first refused to sing it. He was persuaded when Medress assured him: “If you record this song, you’ll work for the rest of your life.” The song sold several million copies and inspired the custom of using yellow ribbon to remember or welcome home prisoners of war, notably on the occasion of the return of US hostages from Iran in 1981.”

    The only tolerable version of this song that I know of comes from the 1973 Warwick LP ‘Stewpot’s Pop Party’, an attempt to create a 45 minute party for small children on disc. The slightly bewildered vocal inflections of ‘Sung by the Children’ almost make the song haunting and poigniant. ‘Almost’ meaning that they make you think about how it could be.

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    Marcello Carlin on 20 Jul 2007 #

    Bill, are you seriously proposing that Stewpot’s Pop Party As Advertised On TV is the British Langley Schools Music Project?

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    it’s funny because it’s true!

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    Billy Smart on 20 Jul 2007 #

    It is certainly an album that you keep on coming back to, though it doesn’t have anything like the same sense of artistic integrity as the Langley Schools. For those of us who were children in the 70s, its extremely redolant of the sort of thing that adults thought we would like. There’s an additional pleasure in hearing familiar songs with sound effects of cheering children and the Stewpot theme interpolated.

    The moment when Stewpot asks “Alright children! Who here likes Gary Glitter?” is, once heard, never forgotten.

    And its got a handy set of cut-out party invitations, that I still use photocopies of as a grown man.

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    Marcello Carlin on 20 Jul 2007 #

    That moment may qualify as the most chilling in all of pop even before I’ve heard it!

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    DV on 20 Jul 2007 #

    You are all rightwingers. I love this song. There aren’t enough good-timey tunes about people have been a bit naughty and gone to jail but still have someone at home who wuvs them and is looking forward to when they have paid their debt to society.

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    Waldo on 21 Jul 2007 #

    The crime for which Orlando was banged up I can forgive. This song, I’m afraid I can’t.

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    intothefireuk on 22 Jul 2007 #

    The plinky-plonk intro should tell you everthing you need to know about what you are about to endure. So a mediocre melodic setting for a cheesy lyric about an old lag who is expecting his old lady to have saved herself for him isn’t something I can really have any empathy with at all. The Vietnam angle makes at least some sense whereas the reasons why it stayed so long at the top and in the charts in the UK completely eludes me. Consider also that during its stay at the top there were also these tunes hanging around the charts :-
    Drive-in Saturday – Bowie
    20th Century Boy – Trex
    Hello Hello I’m Back Again – Glitter
    Pyjamarama – Roxy
    Love Train – Ojays
    Crazy – Mud
    Why Cant We Live Together – Thomas
    Feel The Need In Me – Detroit Ems
    Killing Me Softly – Flack
    Brother Louie – Hot Choc
    No More Mr Nice Guy – Alice
    God Gave Rock n Roll – Argent
    Hell Raiser – Sweet

    Although they may not be to everyones taste it beggars belief that so inane a tune as TAYRRTOOT can fend off this lot.

  24. 24
    Marcello Carlin on 23 Jul 2007 #

    See my post above (number 8) which I think sums up the reasons for its all-conquering success; it certainly did capture the wider market of people who didn’t actually buy records, or hadn’t done so for about a decade.

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    Erithian on 23 Jul 2007 #

    And indeed of intothefireuk’s list, “Hello Hello I’m Back Again” and “Hell Raiser” were the two records held off at Number 2 by Dawn.

    I love Tom’s concept of the hundred yellow ribbons being from different women! A whole new aspect to the song. I also enjoyed, though it’s a little stretched, Marcello’s reading of “Yesterday Once More” as a post-Watergate song. Such a pity the Carpenters won’t be troubling us in this series.

    Yes, this was the era of “Singalongmax”, and just as rock’n’roll was being profitably revived, not least by the next Number 1, many of the “oldies” were having career revivals too – and the reason I can look back fondly on the likes of Perry Como and Andy Williams is that they were having quality hits in among yer Sweets and T Rexes, without the annoying tweeness of Dawn (that’s why I’ve retrieved Perry from my late mother’s record collection). Indeed the very first performer of a UK Number 1 single, Al Martino, had a sizeable hit with “Spanish Eyes” this year.

    Oddly enough I remember Stewpot reading out a request where a kid had meant to say “can you please play Gary Glitter” but instead wrote “can you please play with Gary Glitter” which again has a whole new overtone these days.

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    Marcello Carlin on 23 Jul 2007 #


    Yes, the “Here In My Heart” man came back into the top five in ’73 with “Spanish Eyes” – originally recorded in 1969 and a very small hit then, but revived thanks to persistent Radio 2 play and the Johnny Fontaine factor – maybe Diddy David Hamilton didn’t want to find a horse’s head in his bed? ;-)

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    Waldo on 23 Jul 2007 #

    Wasn’t Diddy David still at Radio One in 1973?

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    Marcello Carlin on 23 Jul 2007 #

    You’re quite right, he was – it was very difficult to tell the two apart in those days, at least in the daytime. As I recall most of the music he played was re-recordings which the artists had to come into Broadcasting House to make for obscure Musicians’ Union/needletime reasons. Even Jimmy Young was still on Radio 1 until the autumn of ’73 I think. It would have been Wogan then.

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    Waldo on 23 Jul 2007 #

    I used to have a Radio One book at about this time. Some of the photos were glorious. The funniest was one of D.D Hamilton sitting at his turntable at a Radio One Roadshow with two lucious nubiles on either side of him decked out in Radio One t-shirts. The girls were lovely but couldn’t have looked less out of place sat next to that hobbit, who was ludicrously sporting something approaching a Sly Stone hair-do. That was 1973 for you.

    As for Ed Stewart, even his show’s name “Junior Choice” sounds a bit humpty these days. What with “Morning Town Ride”, “Mooorrrnnning!!” and “Hello, Darling!” things certainly boded ill with or without Paul Gadd references. And those bloody mice running around that Dutch windmill and Mitch Murray howling away at “Down Came the Rain”… I can recall the day of the 1973 Wimbledon Mens Final and Stewart having a rant as the partipants were both from Eastern Europe, a Soviet and a Czech. This allowed Ed to say something on the lines of this was “The Iron Curtain Final” and that nobody cared. I was always rather mystified by that one.

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    Marcello Carlin on 23 Jul 2007 #

    Sounds about right for top Tory DJ Stewpot; wasn’t ’73 the year all the top tennis players boycotted Wimbledon because of money disputes? No doubt that gave rise to throaty ranting on Stewpot’s part about bloody striking miners and they’re all Commies but then Roger “Neither The Queen Nor The Duran Duran One” Taylor made the ’73 semi-final so obviously Britain Was Great Again.

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