Oct 07

PAPER LACE – “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero”

FT + Popular81 comments • 5,174 views

#346, 16th March 1974

There’s a sensibility here that’s completely vanished now from British pop. Death ballads aren’t exactly thick on the ground these days, but it’s the combination of death, jauntiness and theatre that’s really become alien – the drumbeats and penny-whistles, the big matey chorus, the sudden slowdown when Billy’s girl gets the (hardly unexpected) bad news. It’s a particular kind of sentimentality, absolutely unafraid of corn. You still find this kind of storytelling and broad emotional brushstrokes in country music sometimes (though from my skimpy knowledge of country, it’s declined even there) – and “Billy” might make an OK country song. There’s one line at least – “I heard she threw the letter away” – which could hit hard if it wasn’t so oversold. As it stands, “Billy” is an emotional non-starter – and it was probably ridiculous to most even in 1974, war or no war.



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  1. 1
    Billy Smart on 15 Oct 2007 #

    I think that a useful point of comparison might be The Ballad of the Green Berets by Sgt. Barry Sadler. Once you’ve heard that, you’ll never forget it, believe me! At the climax of that song, the young widow vows to raise the infant son of the dead soldier to follow in his footsteps… it feels as though it was written by Euripides, though scarcely of the same literary merit.

    In contrast, ‘Billy’ is a mild-mannered sort of thing, but with a very agreeable arrangement to these ears, with its proplusive bassline, martial drumbeats and whistling. Its cumulative narrative makes it one of those rare things – a song with which I’m as familiar with the second chorus as the first one – which must show that its effective in its storytelling, if nothing else.

    Does the mention of “the soldier blues” mean that this is an American civil war song? I’ve never been entirely sure.

  2. 2
    intothefireuk on 15 Oct 2007 #

    Propelled to the top of the charts with a winning stint on good old Op Knox (again) ‘Billy’ is a pretty lame record from start to finish. Production doesn’t exactly sound top notch either although if you’re looking for an mp3 of it watch out for the even worse re-recorded versions out there (without the female vocal interventions). Not sure whether the idea behind the band dressing in American Civil War Union battle dress was either to re-inforce the time period of the anti-war lyrics or deflect away from any currently waging wars implications.

    One slightly unusual aspect of this band was the fact they had a singing drummer – and you don’t get many of them at number one. In fact considering that their first single went to number one in the UK and their second, number on in the US it’s pretty amazing that they have largely been forgotten about.

    For some odd reason I always thought this group spawned the bastard offspring ‘Black Lace’ but I can find no connection between them so that is at least one crime I can’t accuse them of.

  3. 3
    Marcello Carlin on 15 Oct 2007 #

    One of the rare instances where copycat US/UK cash-in cover versions worked the other way around; usually Jimmy Young triumphed over Al Hibbler, or Craig Douglas over Sam Cooke, but on this occasion Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods did a Xerox cover and went to number one in the States, much to Paper Lace’s chagrin.

    I can’t remember whether they tried for a legal no-spoiler-covers veto on “The Night Chicago Died” but ironically that went to number one in the States and stopped at number three here.

    Anyway, it’s the first of several 1974 number ones to deal with the subject of death and quite the worst; the whole thing stuck in my gullet at the time and given the Northern Ireland situation at the time it seemed in quite spellbindingly bad taste, but then (as with several other number ones still to follow, and not necessarily in the same year) its success may have owed something to a general, languishing nostalgia for The War when Britain Faced The Hun And Mattered etc.

    No doubt this will occasion another infuriated post from co-writer Mitch Murray but such are the risks one runs.

    I also note that in the same year Three Dog Night had the big American hit with “The Show Must Go On” rather than Our Leo.

    Mike to thread please to confirm that Paper Lace were the first (and only?) Nottingham act to get to number one.

    Also – just who was that female voice on the chorus or was it one of the lads doing a rather strangulated falsetto?

    In terms of OpKnox ’74 you also of course had the doomed Lena Zavaroni and the less doomed (I believe now retired) Candlewick Green whose “Who Do You Think You Are?” – written by the hugely underrated Jigsaw songwriting team of Scott/Dyer – really ought to have been a much bigger hit, either by them or by Saint Etienne. But New Faces had emerged and was slowly taking over; their first triumph comes later in the year.

  4. 4
    Tom on 15 Oct 2007 #

    Did war widows get government letters in the Civil War era? No reason why they shouldn’t I guess but it feels like a 20th century custom.

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    Tom on 15 Oct 2007 #

    Bo and the Heywoods did “Who Do You Think You Are?” too – clearly he was a big Op Knox fan!

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    Tom on 15 Oct 2007 #

    Also – wrt Opportunity Knocks and New Faces – was there a fuss made in the rock press about this stuff, comparable to the grumbles about Reality TV you get now? I don’t think I’ve seen the 70s talent shows and their enviable hitmaking records brought up in arguments about Pop Idol, X Factor etc.

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    mike on 15 Oct 2007 #

    Mike to thread please to confirm that Paper Lace were the first (and only?) Nottingham act to get to number one.

    Yes, the first Nottingham Number One – but not the last, although we’ll have to wait another 18 years for that one.

    Two Number Ones in 55 years is a truly pathetic result for my adopted home city, where “Name Ten Successful Music Acts From Nottingham” has become our considerably more taxing (and warranted) local variant on “Name Ten Famous Belgians”.

    However, at least we can claim one more Number One for our county – and as fate would have it, that honour goes to Mansfield’s Alvin Stardust, making it a never-to-be-repeated two-in-a-row for the plucky East Midlands.

    (Note that ALL “Name Ten Successful Music Acts From Nottingham” conversations include the phrase “…and Alvin Stardust was from Mansfield!” Them’s the rules.)

  8. 8
    mike on 15 Oct 2007 #

    Also – wrt Opportunity Knocks and New Faces – was there a fuss made in the rock press about this stuff, comparable to the grumbles about Reality TV you get now?

    No, because it was trumped by the general albums vs. singles snobbery, which continued to hold sway until punk came along.

    Example: Genesis got into terrible trouble for DARING to have a HIT SINGLE with “I Know What I Like”, which was seen as unacceptable “selling out”. (Little did they know!)

  9. 9
    Marcello Carlin on 15 Oct 2007 #

    There wasn’t too much specifically aimed at the talent shows, but the criticism tended to get absorbed into what was certainly a general anti-teenpop consensus at work in the ’74 inkies and monthlies – particularly when the Rollers started to roll – with the usual this isn’t real music/soul passion honesty not plastic teenybop pap (“plastic cocktail crap”‘s elder brother)/more Doobie Brothers/Little Feat/Ducks Deluxe/Bad Company/Steely Dan/ELP (oh yes) schtick. Even Cockney Rebel got the backlash round about this time. See some of the Quick Before They Vanish columns which a young Paul Gambaccini penned for the NME at the time for incidences of supreme snobbery. Apart from specifically marked teen mags (and even within them) you didn’t have any poptimists to offer the counter-argument. And when the NME published their first all-time Top 100 Albums list that spring, it was largely white and mostly bearded boys all the way.

    On a separate note, in 1974 we saw the debut of the series The Family – the official beginning of British reality TV.

  10. 10
    rosie on 15 Oct 2007 #

    Is there such a thing as a good death song? Actually I think there is, and we’ll be discussing one soon if only obliquely. But I disagree with Marcello that this is the worse death song to top the charts in 1974.

    To be really bad, it’s got to make me squirm. This doesn’t manage to do that, in fact it leaves me firmly indifferent. I don’t care for it, but there’s nothing that makes me want to savage it particularly.

    Funnily enough, I’ve just been listening to Fairport Convention’s A Sailor’s Life, which treats a similar theme. At over eleven minutes it was never a chart contender but surely it shows Billy up for what it is; an irrelevant cipher.

    Mike asks: “Name Ten Successful Music Acts From Nottingham”

    Can’t name ten but I’ll offer Ten Years After. (What is it about those parts for making people change their names to Alvin?)

  11. 11
    Marcello Carlin on 15 Oct 2007 #

    Ah yes, the second Nottingham number one – who, irony of ironies, topped the chart with a quickfire cash-in cover version of an international hit.

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    mike on 15 Oct 2007 #

    And “Billy” doesn’t exactly hold up too well next to June Tabor’s version of “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, either.

    Don’t know whether this has been mentioned before, but Paul Gambaccini also went on record as describing 1973 as pop’s “annus horribilis”, particuarly with reference to its Number Ones.

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    Tom on 15 Oct 2007 #

    Thematically the record it reminds me of is New Order’s “Love Vigilantes”.

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    Billy Smart on 15 Oct 2007 #

    Re: Nottingham, I can only think of the Tindersticks… and Nottingham Forest, though that was a collaboration with Paper Lace.

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    Marcello Carlin on 15 Oct 2007 #

    “Love Vigilantes” – the view from the other side, so to speak…and there is another number one to come in the nineties which tackles the same topic from the same aspect and is possibly the most underrated of all number ones. But more about that when we get there.

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    mike on 15 Oct 2007 #

    Doobie Brothers/Little Feat/Ducks Deluxe/Bad Company/Steely Dan/ELP

    And also, at around about this time, Humble Pie/Wishbone Ash/Uriah Heep/Stone The Crows/Vinegar Joe, with the big Pub Rock hype just looming around the corner (that’s yer previously mentioned Ducks Deluxe + Bees Make Honey/Brinsley Schwarz/Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers/Kokomo etc). ELP were also just about to get their first music press backlash, with Brain Salad Surgery.

  17. 17
    mike on 15 Oct 2007 #

    Ten Successful Music Acts From Nottingham:

    1. Paper Lace
    2 [*** 1992 Spoiler Alert ***]
    3. Tindersticks (but only after they moved to London)
    4. Stereo MC’s (ditto, and only two of them)
    5. Alvin Lee out of Ten Years After
    6. Su “can I do yer chalet?” Pollard
    7. Imaani (2nd in Eurovision, 1998)
    8. The bass player in Hepburn (who ended up on the cosmetics counter of Boots in the Broadmarsh Centre a couple of years later)
    9. Six By Seven
    10. Chris Urbanowicz out of the Editors

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    Marcello Carlin on 15 Oct 2007 #

    11. Pitman?

  19. 19
    mike on 15 Oct 2007 #

    Successful? :-)

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    Marcello Carlin on 15 Oct 2007 #

    At one time in the ILM pantheon of stars he was second only to Andrew WK.

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    mike on 15 Oct 2007 #

    (Oh, but I forgot Bent.)

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    Marcello Carlin on 15 Oct 2007 #

    Just as well Michael Caine didn’t; choice quote from him in this month’s OMM about his new chillout compilation: “When I tell people that the most romantic track on the album is “Swollen” by Bent they think I’ve gone potty!”

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    Waldo on 15 Oct 2007 #

    I know for a fact that one or two of you have been champing at the bit for this one. As have I. Paper Lace emerged from the “OpKnox” citadel and accepted this Mitch Murray/Peter Callander number, which is a good and clever pop song by any standards, for release. There will be many commentators, no doubt, who will be perhaps too quick to insist that this is all about Vietnam and that poor doomed Billy was an all-American lad who found himself over there and volunteering for what was alas a suicide mission. Back in the States, his sweetheart has her worst fears realized and in an impotent and hopeless gesture for the loss of her true love throws away the letter from the army notifying her of his death and of Billy’s heroism thereby. Et voila! A perfect vehicle for the anti-war lobby to get their teeth into.

    But here the parade is pissed upon. The fact of the matter is the group sang this number dressed as US Union soldiers (“The Soldier Blues”) and I am sure that Murray and Callander, an arch MOR writing team and very British, did not have the continuing tragedy in south-east Asia particularly in mind when they penned this song. If you listen to the lyric, Billy was hell bent on signing up when the army hit his town on a recruiting drive, despite his girl sensing danger from the offset. Cards on the table. It was the American Civil War, stupid, and that ends that argument. However, having decided that, there is clearly nothing to stop free-thinking individuals sponsoring their own allegorical interpretation and maintaining that Billy was indeed one of those wretched young men, whom Paul Hardcastle was to allude to several years later in a far less subtle manner. Not many Britons did, I would argue.

    Enter onto the scene second rate American warm-up band Bo Donaldson and The Heywoods, who obviously sniffed the hatching of a golden egg from all of 3000 miles away and promptly mugged Paper Lace by rattling out their own version of “Billy” especially for the folks back home. The American public naturally had no doubt as to the story, or at least the meaning, of this song and handed the interlopers a quite monstrous number one hit as a backdrop to that hated conflict.

    Annoying though it was, this hostile takeover had a delightful footnote which was most odd. Murray and Callander provided tucker for Paper Lace again and by cracky did they strike the jackpot this time! The song, of course, was the wonderful “The Night Chicago Died”, for me simply one of the best pop songs of the decade. As Timmy Bannockburn used to say: “I remember dashing out to buy that one!” Here there could be no confusion. The song was about Al Capone and nothing else. In the UK, this follow up to the monster which was “Billy” did not provide similar dividends and the disc peaked at number three, which wasn’t bad but nothing like it deserved. But meanwhile over the pond (sorry, Mike!) in the States wonderful things were happening. Representatives of Paper Lace, having learned their lesson from last time, released TNCD before Bo Donaldson or any other stateside magpie could pinch it and suddenly this pleasant hard-working little act from “Opportunity Knocks” found themselves with a number one hit in the United States. A wonderful piece of success for these boys from Nottingham and very well deserved.

    Mind you, a rather amusing addendum to TNCD concerned the opening lines, chanted in a half-whisper explaining that “Daddy was a cop on the East Side of Chicago…” As citizens of the Windy City were quick to point out, whilst Chicago’s South Side was indeed infamous during Prohibition and that the city also boasts a North and West Side, there was and is not alas an East Side, as if one was minded to travel east out of the city, the only destination possible is the depths of Lake Michigan. One could only conclude that Daddy was with the Coastguard. To rub salt into this rather embarrassing geographical (rather than historical) wound, which was Callander and Murray’s fault only, the then Mayor of Chicago, who didn’t see it this way, blamed Paper Lace and lampooned them. Affronted not only by the East Side faux pas but also by the song in general, coming courtesy of ignorant foreigners, he announced that his city had been slighted and declared the band “nuts”. He was probably right but what a blinding record!

  24. 24
    Marcello Carlin on 15 Oct 2007 #

    In contrast, “The Black Eyed Boys,” Paper Lace’s third hit single, sounds like the theme tune to a failed Comedy Playhouse pilot starring Gordon Peters and Jenny Lee Wright.

  25. 25
    mike on 15 Oct 2007 #

    I had, and have, a somewhat conflicted relationship with “Billy”. Part of me thought, and thinks, that it’s naff and crap – while the other half enjoyed, and enjoys, getting sucked into the rather well told story. This might therefore be an early personal example of a (deep breath) Guilty Pleasure.

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    Waldo on 15 Oct 2007 #

    Editor’s note – My “sorry” for the “pond” reference should have, of course, been addressed to Mark and not Mike, two horses of a different colour to be sure. Sorry both.

  27. 27
    mike on 15 Oct 2007 #

    Oh, that’s OK, Waldo: I have a fatal attraction for “o’er the pond” myself. It fair rolls off the tongue!

    (And just you wait until the early 90s, when I start blethering on about “jackhammer beats”… it’ll clear the room in minutes.)

  28. 28
    Marcello Carlin on 16 Oct 2007 #

    It’ll be interesting to see how many of us are still there for the early ’90s; I suspect the Lexes and Kats of this world will have taken over by then.

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    intothefireuk on 16 Oct 2007 #

    Re: 3 – Jigsaw of course won’t be bothering us here but their ‘sky high’ is an undisputed guilty pleasure in my house at least.

    Re:28 – I will endeavour to stay the course but at the current rate of updates it could be another few years before we reach the dizzy heights of the 90s.

  30. 30
    rosie on 16 Oct 2007 #

    There’s a hiatus in my pop awareness coming up, as I spent three months of 1974 in Canada where there wasn’t much on the radio (except, deliciously, almost constant reruns of Hancock, the Goon Show, and Ronnie Barker’s sadly almost forgotten Lines From My Grandfather’s Forehead.) But the one thing I do remember from that summer was The Night Chicago Died playing everywhere, not only on the radio but in the malls and the fast-food joints.

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