Feb 06


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#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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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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:


  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 59
    lonepilgrim on 19 Jan 2014 #

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

  9. 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

  10. 61
    lonepilgrim on 12 Jun 2014 #

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

  11. 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.

  12. 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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