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Feb 06

ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK – “Release Me”

Popular63 comments • 10,065 views

#230, 4th March 1967

“Release Me” spent 56 weeks on the UK charts, but its position in modern pop history is as a footnote – the single that kept The Beatles’ “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” off number one, an injustice so apparently staggering that it’s often the first case cited when critics want to cast disdain on the entire singles chart, or the public who help create it.

I’m not going to argue that “Release Me” is a better record than the Beatles’ one – because it’s not – but I was interested in exactly why it gripped the charts so hard. Listening to it on the train home tonight what struck me was its directness – “Release Me” is a three-minute divorce plea, never cruel but frank, reasonable and allowing no way back. I can’t offhand think of another huge hit which had tackled that sort of subject – break-ups yes, but the word “release” implies a contract. (The line about “your lips are cold” suggests that the lady might be dead, but Engelbert doesn’t play it goth!)

A quick bit of research turned up a couple of intriguing facts. During the mid-late 1960s the median age of first marriage was at a historical low point – the lowest it would be through the entire 20th centry, barely over 21 for women and 23 for men. I can think of a few possible reasons for this – higher affluence, increased sexual pressure, earlier puberty – but whatever the reason the median age had been falling since the end of the war. So the generation of teens who had been buying cheap gramophones and records by the ton in the late 50s had also been getting married earlier than ever.

The divorce rate, meanwhile, was rising – it hit a post-war low at the turn of the 60s and then increased sharply every year since. In 1969 the Divorce Reform Act was passed, making “irretrievable breakdown of marriage” grounds for divorce and cutting the legal barriers which had made it such a difficult (and humiliating) experience. It came into force in 1971 and the divorce rate skyrocketed. It almost trebled over the next three years, suggesting that there were a lot of unhappy marriages which could now be mercifully ended.

A lot of young people in the mid-60s, in other words, were caught between a pressure to marry young (for whatever reason) and the ever-increasing possibility that this decision need not be irreveraible. In 1967 though, divorce was still difficult even if it was more common, and it’s hardly a surprise that in these circumstances “Release Me” struck a massive chord. The particular genius of the record was its slow, soothing arrangement – too stark and the lyrical pill would have been entirely unsugared. As it is, for someone in the agony of a failing relationship, Humperdinck’s appeal to reason might well have seemed like a sympathetic and necessary shoulder.

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Comments

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  1. 31
    Michael on 14 Dec 2006 #

    Engelbert Humperdinck never had enough the respect and recognition he deserved! Apart from his star on the Walk of fame, Golden Globe for Entertainer of the year and 5 Grammy Nominations, Honorary Degree in Music – University of Leicester UK and his fanbase who’s the largest in the world by 8 million members !!! He’s truly a wonderful all round performer and a voice to die for. I’ve met him several times and he is really lovely. He is one of the last real performers who can entertain an audience just with his charisma, stage presence,voice and a good band. HE IS TOTALLY AMAZING :-)

  2. 32
    Bettylu Wight on 18 Jul 2007 #

    Michael 12/14/06
    You are so totally on the ball. There will never be another Engelbert Humperdinck, who can hold a sold out crowd in awe of his charisma and stage presence for 90 minutes. He is an awesome entertainer and knows how to hold his audiences in the palm of his hands. He probably won’t be around too much longer, how can a man go for 40 yrs with his talent and not eventually need a rest. God bless the man who has entertained so many and bought good music to us all.

  3. 33
    l on 24 Jul 2007 #

    The song was stolen, and I know who really wrote it.

  4. 34
    l on 24 Jul 2007 #

    Question to think about… he wrote it in 1946, why was it not recorded until 1953, 7 years later, something that was such a big hit? According to another site, it was because he couldn’t find anyone to record it????

  5. 35
    l on 24 Jul 2007 #

    …and it took 3 men to write that (short) song?

  6. 36
    Andy Pebworth on 15 Nov 2007 #

    My father was one of the writers “James Pebworth”. They song was sold to person unknown for a “SONG”. In was practically stolen back in the 50’s. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the sale sometime in the late 80’s or early 90’s.

  7. 37
    pat carroll on 10 Dec 2007 #

    As I remember “Please Release Me” was background music on a Westinghouse Studio One episode. Early 50’s, don’t recall who the singer was. But I do recall anyone watching the episode remembered the catchy, melancholy song. That had to help its popularity. Any way to find out what year and who sang this?

  8. 38
    wichita lineman on 21 May 2008 #

    A pedant writes…

    Re 14, I’m sorry to report that Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields got stuck at 2 in the NME chart as well. Number 1 in the US though which counts for more than a little.

  9. 39
    and everybody elses Mark G on 22 May 2008 #

    # 19

    I was all “Wha? When? how?” until I saw it’s some other Mark G…

  10. 40
    DJ Punctum on 22 May 2008 #

    I have now heard the Esther Phillips version which unsurprisingly knocks the ‘Dinck into the cockiest of hats.

  11. 41
    Tim on 22 May 2008 #

    And the Johnny Adams version is also amazing – it’s hard not to love a record which starts with that kind of vocal fireworks.

  12. 42
    Dan R on 9 Jun 2008 #

    <>

    I had distinctly mixed emotions reading that.

  13. 43
    richard thompson on 20 Jun 2008 #

    Englebert sang Penny Lane years later on a Beatles tribute show, at the time the Beatles single seemed too off the wall as I read in another magazine.

  14. 44
    Matthew on 14 Jan 2009 #

    I enjoyed listening to this a fair bit, which is more than I can say for “This Is My Song” which I only managed to stomach 2 minutes of. You people are just anti-sentimental, which is a perfectly reasonable philosophy, but I don’t think you should be surprised when sentimentality romps home to the top of the charts: I, and many other people evidently, enjoy a good wallow now and again.

    Kind of glad this kept another Beatles opus from #1, even if they *are* the best band in the history of pop they’ve been so overexposed that yet another essay on how they can do no wrong is completely superfluous. Give me a bemused Englebert-inspired rumination on marriage and divorce rates in the 60s any day.

  15. 45
    AndyPandy on 14 Jan 2009 #

    I much prefer Petula at least her song is well crafted and has at least a bit of something bordering on continental sophistication (she was after all already a married to a Frenchman and a resident of France by the time of ‘This is my Song’). ‘Release Me”s Working Man’s Club balladeering is just redolent of a tipsy stagger around a late 60s or early ’70s Butlins dancefloor after the kids have gone to bed in a fug of Double Diamond and Players No 6.

  16. 46
    wichita lineman on 14 Jan 2009 #

    Careful Andy, you’ll get me to reconsider it with that description. There’s no drunken emotion on offer here. His emptiness of heart and soul is so obvious, I can’t bear it. Has anyone mentioned Johnny Adams’ version yet?

  17. 47
    crag on 14 Apr 2011 #

    DESERT ISLAND DISCS WATCH:

    Alec Jeffrey, scientist(2007).

  18. 48
    Lena on 12 Oct 2011 #

    Be seeing you: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.com/2011/10/only-everything-beatles-penny-lane.html

    Thanks for reading everyone!

  19. 50
    Lena on 18 Oct 2011 #

    Small but mighty: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.com/2011/10/flower-power-vince-hill-edelweiss.html Thanks for reading, everyone!

  20. 52
    Billy Smart on 5 Dec 2011 #

    TOTPWatch: Englebert Humperdink thrice performed release Me on Top Of The Pops;

    9 February 1967. Also in the studio that week were; Gene Pitney, Herman’s Hermits, The New Vaudeville Band and The Tremeloes. Jimmy Savile was the host.

    9 March 1967. Also in the studio that week were; Keith, The Alan Price Set, The Nashville Teens and Vince Hill. Jimmy Savile was the host.

    23 March 1967. Also in the studio that week were; Manfred Mann, Sandie Shaw, The Small Faces and Whistling Jack Smith. Simon Dee was the host.

    None of these editions survive.

  21. 53
    wichita lineman on 5 Dec 2011 #

    Billy, any idea what the Nashville Teens song was? I’m a bit obsessed with their version of All Along The Watchtower (the first electric version as far as I know), though I know it won’t be that. I’m sure it’s their dreadful name that stops them from being re-assessed.

  22. 54
    Billy Smart on 5 Dec 2011 #

    #53 ‘I’m Coming Home’ – any ideas? I thought that 1967 was a bit late when I wrote that!

  23. 55
    wichita lineman on 5 Dec 2011 #

    Oh, it’s good, same song as He’s Coming Home by Beverly Ann, a Wigan Casino hit (written by two of the Flowerpot Men but NOT John Carter!). Here’s Beverly Ann’s version, the NTs’ one isn’t on youtube:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISJMtG7T14g

  24. 56
    Paulito on 13 Dec 2011 #

    So, Tom: would you have been awarding Strawberry Fields and/or Penny Lane a ’10′, had it not been for Engelbert’s rude interruption? I jus’ gots ta know!

  25. 57
    Tom on 13 Dec 2011 #

    My hunch is that SFF is a 9 and PL a 7 or 8 individually – but the compare’n’contrast loveliness of the double-act might have been enough to push them up.

    Sorry for lack of updates by the way – under the work hammer.

  26. 58
    punctum on 26 Dec 2011 #

    TPL: it’s 1975, and Abigail’s mother is still searching for that old reassurance derived from other people’s misery.

  27. 59
    lonepilgrim on 19 Jan 2014 #

    meanwhile at the top of the US chart, another day another hit for the Stones, as noted here

  28. 60
    lonepilgrim on 26 Jan 2014 #

    one week into Englebert’s run – another US number 1 is here and now the Stones are gone, as noted here

  29. 61
    lonepilgrim on 12 Jun 2014 #

    Englebert didn’t prove a barrier to the Fab Four over in America – as noted here

  30. 62
    lonepilgrim on 29 Nov 2015 #

    time seems to slow to a crawl in Englebert’s arrangement – he sounds as if he’s singing under hypnosis and/or while heavily medicated. It doesn’t help that the lyrics are so passive either. Horrible.

  31. 63
    lonepilgrim on 29 Nov 2015 #

    time seems to slow to a crawl in Englebert’s arrangement – he sounds as if he’s singing under hypnosis and/or while heavily medicated. It doesn’t help that the lyrics are so passive either. Horrible.

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