Popular

23
Nov 04

THE SEARCHERS – “Sweets For My Sweet”

Popular5 comments • 2,353 views

#155, 10th August 1963

There’s a weird discrepancy in this song between the verses, which Tony Jackson sings as if he’s keen to get them over with, and the chorus, which the group attack with a lot more enthusiasm. I suppose the band knew a hook when they heard one – the rest of the record is just travelling from A back to A again. The other thing that sticks out is Mike Pender’s 12-string guitar, the high summer sound which has launched and tracked a thousand hopeless crushes (generally in later and other hands than Pender’s, though). Beyond that, it’s flimsy.

ELVIS PRESLEY – “(You’re The) Devil In Disguise”

Popular5 comments • 2,171 views

#154, 3rd August 1963

A song which hinges entirely on its formal cuteness – pert pluckings for the ‘angel’ sections, breakneck rock’n’roll for the ‘devil’ bits. Compared to the cruder thump of the Mersey sound even the speedy bits are still a little restrained but essentially the conceit works and “Devil In Disguise” ends up one of Elvis’ more successful 60s hits. Slow/fast breakdowns in a pop song are a low, manipulative trick – but hardly ever an ineffective one. Good handclaps, too.

22
Nov 04

FRANK IFIELD – “I’m Confessin'”

Popular5 comments • 1,917 views

#153, 20th July 1963

Frank’s last bow seems a good time to think about yodelling. It’s not as prominent here as on some of his hits, but he gets to bend the lungs a bit at the end of some verses.

I haven’t run a survey on it or anything, but I’d guess that people now would see yodelling in pop music as either weird or a bit naff. So what happened to it? Listening to a CD called the Ultimate Yodelling Collection at the weekend, I was reminded what a good way it is of expressing loneliness as well as liberation. Historically it’s been as associated with the Appalachians as the Alps. The only problem with yodelling is its flagrant artifice – there are few vocal techniques that are so utterly and obviously a technique, an aesthetic choice, undisguisable as a natural or spontaneous response to a lyric.

The fate of yodelling as a pop technique is a microcosm of an overall effect I think the 60s had on pop. Blues and gospel-derived singing forms – heard as more directly connected to a singer’s self-expression – flourished. More theatrical tricks and styles – the yodel, the spoken interlude, the intricate harmonies of doo-wop – fell away as the decade progressed. All have had their moments in the spotlight since, but often as novelties or self-consciously ‘retro’ turns to earlier pop styles. The 60s were a time of thrilling, explosive diversity for pop music, but Frank Ifield’s commercial demise reminds me that there were standardising forces at work too.

So here’s to Frank Ifield, whose “I’m Confessin'” is a strong, straight-backed performance of a sweet song, yodels and all.

GERRY AND THE PACEMAKERS – “I Like It”

Popular9 comments • 1,930 views

#152, 22nd June 1963

More jollity from the Mitch Murray Merseybeat hit factory. Vigorous to the point of being smackable, “I Like It” is a cute song nevertheless. All the chin-tickling and tie-straightening is neatly, evocatively specific, and deserves a lighter treatment than it gets: “I Like It” should be as flirtatious as its coquettish object. As it is Gerry Marsden yells, nudges and winks his way through a record which gets old well before its two-and-a-bit minutes end.

19
Nov 04

THE BEATLES – “From Me To You”

Popular19 comments • 3,814 views

#151, 4th May 1963

Merseybeat was the fad that changed the world. Or at least it changed the world this blog cares about. Of the 20 number ones after “How Do You Do It?”, fourteen were by Liverpool groups or singers, and a fifteenth was written by The Beatles. As for the old order? Elvis Presley had 9 #1s in the first three years of the decade, two in the rest of it. Cliff stuck around but his lock on the top three was broken. The teen balladeers of the early 60s? Kaput. And so on. By the time the Merseymania died down, leaving the Beatles legends and everybody else with a free pass on the revival circuit, pop’s cast was different.

What about pop’s sound, though? That shifted too, but not as quickly or completely – from 1963 to today, records get to No.1 which could credibly have been chart-toppers before Merseybeat. Wholesomeness, big sloppy ballads out of films, deference in the face of a string section – these things never went away. But nevertheless something is different in British pop after ’63. If I had to sum up what Merseybeat brought to the top of the charts I’d say it boils down to two things: voice and aggression.

I’ve mentioned British accents a lot on Popular because I think they’re important – British pop pendulums all the time between valuing transatlantic mimicry and valuing rougher regional voices: this is a legacy of Merseybeat. The early-60s vogue for exaggerated London voices was a kind of dry run for Merseybeat but the absurd Cockney stylings of “Poor Me” et al lacked a certain amount of conviction. The scouse voices on Merseybeat hits are always naturalistic.

And their naturalism is backed up by the aggressive playing. Merseybeat, like skiffle, was a small club music and even if technique was valuable it was rarely shown off: what counted was energy and pace. There had been aggressive music at the top of the British charts before (“Great Balls Of Fire”!) but generally played by Americans (and so not connected to a British experience of live music) or incorporating safer comic aspects (Lonnie Donegan – and the wider homebrewed skiffle movement was I suspect more or less by ignored by record companies).

Merseybeat had its own ways of defusing the aggression but crucially they aren’t so much part of the records. The well-kept and cheeky public image of most of the Liverpool groups may have been a put-on but it made their mass appeal less threatening. When I talk about ‘aggression’ of course it’s all relative – most Merseybeat records sound pretty cuddly now, but at the same time there’s generally more bite than in earlier pop – though often at the expense of subtlety: a change is not always an improvement.

I’ve talked about Merseybeat because it shouldn’t be reduced to The Beatles, even though they were its commercial motor. The Beatles are the sole cause, though, of another meta-effect: from this point on the well-known pop songs outnumber the lesser-known. British pop history doesn’t start with them, but they are its 1066 – the point at which the traditional curriculum really gets going. The language of pop before the Beatles is obscure in places – it’s hard to know what a Vera Lynn record might have meant to the people who bought it; it’s harder to work out how to take a Guy Mitchell song today. The Beatles’ records, and what came after, are still not often speaking the language I hear in the pop I love today, but they are intelligible. (If you want to push the linguistic metaphor, 60s pop and rock are like Latin – a dead language which still has vast taxonomic and institutional weight.)

Popular up to this point has been for me a trip through an unfamiliar region with occasional reassuring landmarks. That changes now: the roads are better trodden. The chances of me making a howling mistake are lower, the chances of me falling back on received wisdom higher. Self-indulgent asides aside, though, I’ve a song to deal with.

“From Me To You” is crisp, catchy and hip – more of that fashionable harmonica; throaty Everleys harmonies; a teasing lyric; a no-nonsense beat that accelerates thrillingly into the chorus; and shouting. It’s the shouting where a line is really drawn – that last “if there’s anything I CAN DO”, where the harmonies break and reform and the sense of mates playing this stuff in real time is most compelling.

GERRY AND THE PACEMAKERS – “How Do You Do It?”

Popular22 comments • 2,894 views

#150, 13th April 1963

The first Merseybeat number one and what’s changed? Not much – “How Do You Do It?” is a brisk slip of a song that could have been a hit for any of the beat boom stars since 1960 or so. The only real novelty is Gerry Marsden’s scouse accent, especially on the middle eight (“like an arrow…”) – I love hearing strong British voices singing pop songs, and the 60s is obviously a heyday for them. There’s some strong piano work towards the end of the record, but otherwise there’s not much to “How Do You Do It?”. It’s a witty enough take on frustration with all the impact (and all the repeat value, alas) of a DIY advert.

THE SHADOWS – “Foot Tapper”

Popular10 comments • 2,649 views

#149, 30th March 1963

Slightly anaemic end to the Shadows’ run of number ones, the title illustrative of reduced ambitions: from the exotic vistas of 1960 to a little something to get the toes going (follow-up sadly not called “A Nice Tune You Can Whistle”). Feet do indeed tap but the liveliest thing about this record is the vigorous workout the drumkit gets – a spark is definitely missing.

18
Nov 04

CLIFF RICHARD AND THE SHADOWS – “Summer Holiday”

Popular9 comments • 3,112 views

#148, 16th March 1963

I’m writing this on one of the dampest, greyest, most uninspiring days of the year; the kind of day people imagine when they think of “British weather”. I don’t imagine February 1963 was much nicer: a canny release date choice for Cliff and company, making this dandelion-light song sound wistful and hopeful.

In ’63 the concept of a “Summer Holiday” abroad (let alone driving around Europe in a customised bus, like Cliff does in the film) was slowly turning from jet set dream to mass-market reality. “We’ve seen it in the movies / Now let’s see if it’s true” – this is a song about new prosperity, new possibilities. That’s why it struck such a chord, and that’s probably why it endures as one of Cliff’s signature tracks.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the songs where his matey big brother persona grates least. I’ve been generally harsh on Cliff Richard because (especially in his ‘romantic’ singles) he often turns the winsome knob way too high, but with the harmless breeziness of the early 60s about to be shunted mostly to one side I can afford a little generosity.

15
Nov 04

FRANK IFIELD – “The Wayward Wind”

Popular3 comments • 2,074 views

#147, 23rd February 1963

The wayward wind was no longer all blowing in Frank Ifield’s direction. The harmonica splashed all over this track is surely a response to the Beatles’ liberal use of same on October’s “Love Me Do”. On both songs the instrument stands for freedom – romantic in the Beatles’ case, metaphysical in this ode to wanderlust. Unfortunately Ifield sings the song like a suspiciously butch scoutmaster – you half-expect a percussion track of slapped thighs, and when his voice breaks into a yodel the effect is rather unfortunate. That’s not to say “The Wayward Wind” isn’t good. In fact it’s a very funny record: Ifield’s hearty bellow, the yodelling, the hostage-to-fortune title and the stirring music make for a preposterous package. Campy fun now, but this is where Ifield (ahem) blew it.

JET HARRIS AND TONY MEEHAN – “Diamonds”

Popular27 comments • 7,131 views

#146, 2nd February 1963

The saturnine Harris and fresh-faced Meehan were ex-Shadows, and even though they didn’t write “Diamonds” its curious structure makes it sound like the work of people keen to cram as much as they can into a short time in the spotlight. The record switches between extended drum solos (Meehan), lonesome country atmospherica driven by moody bass runs (Harris), and an incongruous chunk of horn-led jive. Frankly it’s a bit of a mess, but a very entertaining one, with a character and bite their former band were beginning to run out of.