“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.