Jon Kutner’s 1000 Number Ones tells a story about “Get Off Of My Cloud”. The song was played on Juke Box Jury, and host David Jacobs complained that he couldn’t hear the words properly. Told of this, Keith Richards remarked that perhaps he was going deaf, and maybe he should “stick to songs like ‘Tears'”
The list of number ones is a series of snapshots, different moods flickering across the face of pop. Sometimes the moods seem to be in sharp contrast, even conflict. But is the conflict something genuinely felt in the lives and tastes of the people buying the records? The list reflects different audiences, different markets. Often those audiences must hardly give one another a second thought. When Eminem sits next to Bob The Builder on the list, there’s no sense that their respective buyers were locked in combat. In the early 90s though, when I started liking dance music, there was a sense of conflict about the charts – resentment of older stars clogging them up, suspicion and fear of the ‘faceless’ newcomers.
How far do the worlds of Ken Dodd – a Liverpool comedian with a line in old-fashioned ballads – and the Rolling Stones – a London group with a line in outrage – overlap?* The Stones were notorious. Their series of well-pitched gestures (a surly JBJ appearance, an arrest for pissing against a wall) were downpayments on a greater breakdown their music and performance promised. They had infected the wider consciousness, and part of their message was that the ideas of a ‘wider consciousness’, of ‘public opinion’ were fragile and phoney compared to an individual’s will.
And Ken Dodd? Ken Dodd was an entertainer. Hardly any Stones fans would have bothered with his record. But Dodd represented something else: ten years after rock and roll it was obvious that being an ‘entertainer’ was the acceptable ambition for pop musicians – doing showtunes and ballads, working the variety hall circuit, enjoying a comfortable income and a respectable degree of nostalgic fame. It had happened to Lonnie, it was happening to some of the Merseybeat guys, Cliff Richard was still having hits but the hits were wholesome all-ages stuff. George Melly, in Revolt Into Style, suggests that the Beatles broke the mould but it seems to me that in 1965 this was up in the air: they were Royal Variety darlings, and behind the scenes they were talking about comic songs as a way forward. Ken Dodd and his ballads and even his tickling stick were still a believable endpoint for a pop career.
The conflict between Dodd-ness and Stones-ness seems real to me, and not limited to these two records, or acts. The charts are one place it would play out; Juke Box Jury another; the radio, the music press, the shops, others still. By 1965, radio in the UK had already fractured, with Radio Caroline and fellow pirates representing Stones-ness and the BBC Light Programme holding out against it. By the time I was aware of pop music the fracture was official, had become the resolution of the conflict: light entertainment, still including Ken Dodd, did this stuff. Pop and rock, still including the Rolling Stones, did that stuff. It was hard to imagine that they had ever been opposed.
“Tears”, the best-selling single of 1965, is a 1920s tune reverently performed. Designed to send an audience home content at the end of a show, it is unashamedly nostalgic – Dodd, whose voice is unexceptional but not grating, takes no risks and there’s never a hint that this might be a pastiche. The arrangement is stately and courtly. Clearly “Tears” could have been a hit when the charts started, though as it happens the fashion for lavishly arranged ballads helps it sound not entirely out of its time. And Keith Richards is right – Dodd’s enunciation is smarmily clear.
“Get Off Of My Cloud” takes the blueprint established by the Stones’ last two Number 1s – smart-mouthed, hooky embellishments on a riff – and muddies it. The murky vocals that offended David Jacobs are deliberate, of course: mumbling is a classic threat tactic, it puts you on the back foot, forces you to let your guard down, ask what someone means, enter their world a bit more. And once you’re in Jaggers world? He kicks you out. “Don’t hang around cos two’s a crowd” – “Get Off Of My Cloud” is a second episode of the “Satisfaction” sitcom but this time Jagger’s negation is all-encompassing. So what’s a Jagger fan to do? Sympathise and pretend that he’s not in the ‘you’ Mick wants off? Worry knowing he is? Or kick Jagger off his cloud and sing the song himself? The band are having a fantastic party but the song isn’t a call-to-party, because it’s someone else’s party that keeps Mick awake. Maybe yours.
*(A question for informed readers: would the retail outlets for these singles have been the same?)