Jan 06

JIM REEVES – “Distant Drums”

Popular38 comments • 4,487 views

#224, 24th September 1966

The lullaby pace hides a strange mix of emotions: encroaching doom, self-conscious nobility, hustling chivalry and honeyed reassurance. It’s a manipulative song – the guy’s off to war and he wants to get the girl before he goes – and it sounds almost nostalgic for war, and I think it’s a failure. Reeves’ voice has smoothness but no kindness and the ghastly bugles break any spell he’s managed to weave. But it sat at Number 1 for 5 weeks in the middle of one of pop’s most vibrant years so it hit some kind of button. As the success of death songs in the 60s and 70s show there was a steady market for fated romance, and what fates it here is adult duty not teenage folly – maybe that helped “Distant Drums” find an audience, or maybe it got the balance between sad and seductive usefully right. Even if so, there’s not much use for it now.



  1. 1
    Anonymous on 12 Jan 2006 #

    And it kept My Generation off number one! It’s a horrible song. Even the Big O couldn’t polish it.

  2. 2
    Tom on 12 Jan 2006 #

    (It was “I’m a Boy” it kept off #1. And “Bend It!” by Dave Dee Dozy Beaky Mick and Titch, who I’m sure were equally infuriated.)

  3. 3
    Anonymous on 12 Jan 2006 #

    Doctor Mod said:

    Although this is a US disc, I have never–NEVER–heard it. I think that Jim Reeves would have been confined to Country-Western radio stations by the mid-60s, and I never listened to them. My understanding, though, is that in the UK, just about anything and everything that was “popular” (i.e., not “classical”) music was rather lumped together in “official” (i.e., not “pirate”) radio programming. (Correct me if I’m wrong.)

    There is also the political element here–and, yes, there is a matter of politics involved–that would not have been exactly welcome on youth-oriented US radio in 1966. Granted, there were still some (and mostly in C&W music, which in the US leans to the right) who wanted to romanticise war, but the message being broadcast on pop/rock stations was quite the opposite.

    But lest we forget, Reeves had died shortly before this was released. There’s nothing like dying to make the public buy your music…..

  4. 4
    Anonymous on 12 Jan 2006 #

    The comment about the song’s popularity in the States having been hurt by its political content seems to make sense. But then I remembered that Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets” a huge #1 hit that same year – in fact, wasn’t it the biggest-selling single of 1966 in the U.S.? Maybe the fact that “Green Berets” and “Eve of Destruction” could both be huge hits within twelve months of each other is a good indication of how divided public sentiment was about the Vietnam War.

    That doesn’t explain why “Distant Drums” was #1 for five weeks in England, though.


  5. 5
    Tom on 12 Jan 2006 #

    He’d died two years before, so I’m not sure it’s a posthumous halo effect at work.

    “Distant Drums” isn’t anti-war but it’s not pro-war either: the war is what’s splitting the couple apart after all. It’s sufficiently ambiguous that it might have appealed to undecided romantics, or those on either side of the debate.

    In England I wonder if the gentle stateliness of it hit a nostalgic chord – a generation who remembered the sacrifice/nobility/duty/etc. of WW2 and responded to a song evoking that?

  6. 6
    Rosie on 12 Jan 2006 #

    I don’t know if it was nostaligia for WW2 but this was the sort of record that was much requested and played on Two-Way Family Favourites – which of course was all about families divided by military service, albeit in peacetime.

    My own family wouldn’t have been untypical (here we return to those people in Aberdeen, Welshpool, Wolverhampton and, by this time, Welwyn Garden City. Sunday lunchtime meant a family dinner with Two-Way Family Favourites on tbe radio. Even today I can’t hear “With A Song In My Heart” without tasting lumpy Bisto gravy and soggy brussels sprouts – something I still detest as much as Jim Reeves.

    I wouldn’t want to knock TWFF too hard though. It was there I first heard th likes of Nat King Cole and Blossom Dearie, and though I didn’t care for them at the time I love them now!

  7. 7
    Anonymous on 13 Jan 2006 #

    Doctor Mod said:

    I suppose I was just maundering about a song I’ve heard *about* without ever actually hearing. And the only reason I’ve heard about it was it’s success in the UK.

    I think what I was driving at was the reason I’d never heard it, even though I listened to pop/rock radio stations at every conceivable minute of the day back then. War-related sentimentality didn’t play well with my generation in the mid-60s, and US radio was very commercial–there were also a wide array of stations to choose from in Southern California. As to whether this had anything to do with the song’s popularity in the UK, I haven’t a clue. I can only say that it’s just one of those things I find utterly enigmatic about the UK charts–not to say that there isn’t plenty of hit-record weirdness on this side. But what Tom says (about WW2 nostalgia) does make sense, and I presume that “Distant Drums” (like “Tears” the year before and some other things coming up) must have sold to a great extent to an older generation.

    I stand corrected about how long Reeves had been dead before the song came out–it goes to show how little I actually know about it.

    I am painfully aware of “The Ballad of the Green Berets”–indeed, one Los Angeles rock station that dared play it was the target of protests until they took it off the air. It was good to know, what with the broadcast embarrassment of riches that was L.A. radio in the mid-60s, that you always change to another station when that song came on.

  8. 8
    rjm on 13 Jan 2006 #

    This one sent me straight to my reference books. Just like Doctor Mod, I’ve never heard it, or of it. It did make 45 in the US chart, though, which is actually pretty respectable for a country record at the time(it was #4 on the country charts). Things haven’t changed all that much, today most country records barely squeeze into the top thirty.

    I think the big difference between Reeves and Sadler that gave Sadler the edge (besides the fact that he was around to promote the record) is that Green Berets is more like a folk song than country (though it’s more like somethng you’d make up in the rec room than either). No doubt some people took it as an answer to all those long-haired folkies shouting about the war.

  9. 9
    Anonymous on 13 Jan 2006 #

    I too was under the impression that this singles success was due to Jim boys passing. I still feel it was sold as a post-humous release and the fact that it ‘sounded’ like an epitaph must have helped. Needless to say it was definitely the older generation who propelled it to number 1 (as they did previously with Doddy and would do with Engel)probably because radio playlists on the BBC light programme were still aimed at that market (no Radio 1 yet). I also agree that 2 way family Fav. & gravy are inextricably linked.


  10. 10
    Anonymous on 13 Jan 2006 #

    ITF is right on about radio markets and playlist . Having been in UK & Canada during this period can confirmthat the youth tageted radio was in USA & Canda whereas radio in UK ( the Beeb )was much more gener-all audience.
    Reeves would have been on the country dial in North America – and unless you were in primarily rural area – you wouldn’t have heard it !
    Brian in Canada

  11. 11
    Chris Brown on 13 Jan 2006 #

    Hiya guys. I’ve finally got round to linking this blog so I thought I’d put my nose round the door.

    This is way before my time, but when I tried to be a student in Lancaster [Lancashire, not Pennsylvania] a decade or so ago, every charity shop in the city seemed to have a big stack of Jim Reeves LPs. And there were a lot of charity shops there.

    I did once see this described as “Britain’s first posthumous Number One”, which evidently isn’t true, but it is interesting that the previous ones both entered the charts within weeks of the maker’s deaths.

  12. 12
    Joe Williams on 14 Jan 2006 #

    This is definitely not anything to do with the ‘dead rock star’ phenomenon. Between Jim’s death and ‘Distant Drums’ he had 5 other UK hits, reaching numbers 6, 18, 13, 22 and 17. Clearly in this case it was the record, not the death, that made the hit.

    The previous posthumous Number Ones that Chris refers to (Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran) both hit the top within a couple of months after the artist’s death, and both were the first record after the event.

    Up to 2 months tends to be the typical period for ‘dead rock star’ Number Ones – Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, George Harrison, all fit this trend.

    Having thought about all that, I’m now trying to think of people who had a big hit just after their death which didn’t make it to Number One – the only ones I can think of are Otis Redding and Sid Vicious, and I’m not sure Sid really qualifies. Any others?

  13. 13
    p^nk s on 14 Jan 2006 #

    ian curtis maybe?

    not necessarily relevant to any of the arguments being made abt this particular song, but in John Miller Chernoff’s informal study* of which artists are (or were) popular in West Africa in the 60s and 70s, ‘Gentleman’ Jim Reeves places very highly indeed — comments recorded in this study (about why they like what they like) suggest that he was blessed with a ?natural radio voice?, meaning that the subtle distortion of broadcast transmission enhanced rather than effaced the easy perfection of its tone

    *an appendix in JMC’s African Rhythm and African Sensiblity, which i recommend anyway, quite apart from its detail on reeves

  14. 14
    Chris Brown on 14 Jan 2006 #

    Roy Orbison is the other really obvious one. Also, what about Johnny Cash (he only had a Number 39 hit, but that was his first Top 40 single in 27 years)? You could also add the Charlatans, who had their biggest hit a few weeks after Rob Collins died.

  15. 15
    Frank Kogan on 14 Jan 2006 #

    It did make 45 in the US chart, though, which is actually pretty respectable for a country record at the time

    And is sure better than “My Generation” did.

  16. 16
    Frank Kogan on 14 Jan 2006 #

    I’ve never heard “Distant Drums.” Consensus on this comments thread appears to be that he’ll have to go.

  17. 17
    Marcello on 15 Jan 2006 #

    This post has been removed by the author.

  18. 18
    Anonymous on 17 Jan 2006 #

    Boo Hiss Distant Drums, we want Good Vibrations… come on Tom!

  19. 19
    Anonymous on 17 Jan 2006 #

    Jim Reeves was big in Jamaica, too, and a favourite of Bob Marley, among others. Here’s his role in the invention of hip hop, from a piece about Kool Herc:

    “Cindy and Clive’s father, Keith Campbell, was a devoted record collector, buying not only reggae, but American jazz, gospel, and country. They heard Nina Simone and Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole, even Nashville country crooner Jim Reeves. “I remember listening to Jim Reeves all the time,” Clive says. “I was singing these songs and emulating them to the fullest. That really helped me out, changing my accent, is singing to the records.”

  20. 20
    Anonymous on 18 Jan 2006 #

    Doctor Mod says:

    My conscience would not, in the long run, allow me to use ignorance as a shield–I would never tolerate it from a student.

    So I listened to “Distant Drums.”

    It was everything I expected and worse. Perhaps I’ve heard enough of that particular genre over the years to realize that there’s something rather predictable about it–only it turned out to be more stickily sentimental than even I had imagined.

    Marcello’s comment about what people in Aberdeen and Tamworth were actually listening to gave me pause to wonder. Were people in Carson, California (an unattractive little industrial suburb about twenty miles out of Los Angeles) really listening to this–and I never heard it?? Well, maybe. But I suspect they were really listening to “all-American” pop, playing their Elvis and Four Seasons records (they liked “real men,” not ones with long hair) and tuning out the Beatles, Stones, etc. As for me, I was playing Revolver and blasting “Out of Time.”

    Speaking of the latter, strange how a “9” got four comments and a “2” got twenty. It must tell you something, but I’m not sure what.

  21. 21
    Rosie on 18 Jan 2006 #

    Doctor Mod, It probably tells you that the review of Out of Time was quickly followed by something else, whereas Distant Drums has been allowed to mature like a good parmesan. Probably keeping us in suspenders for the next one.

    I do remember Distant Drums, but that doesn’t make it any less dull and pedestrian, even within a genre I have little enthusiasm for.

  22. 22
    Anonymous on 19 Jan 2006 #

    Maybe, if we are quiet , Tom will give us another treat !

    I also recall That King of the Road garnered record setting response, too. But I don’t want to get into that again….

    Brian in Canada

  23. 23
    Lena on 23 Jan 2006 #

    The next song…whoa, we may have to wait. It’s a doozy.

  24. 24
    Chris Brown on 31 Jan 2006 #

    While we’re waiting…

    I read in a book over the weekend that ‘Distant Drums’ was the first UK chart-topper written entirely by a woman. I bet you never knew you didn’t know that (er, unless you did know it).

  25. 25
    Mark Gamon on 4 Feb 2006 #

    2 points????????????

    I’d have given it minus 5.

    There are a lot of people in the UK who think country music is ‘country and western’ and like to gather from time to time, wearing stetsons and bad skirts, to demonstrate their line-dancing skills. They were there in the 60s, and they came over all maudlin when ‘Gentleman Jim’ died, forcing us to endure a couple of years when he never seemed to be out of the charts.

    They’re with us still, mostly congregated in East Anglia, and they wouldn’t know a Steve Earle record if it leapt off the deck and bit them.

    Frankly, Tom, I think there are some records you should just skip altogether. This was one.

  26. 26
    DJ Punctum on 18 Aug 2008 #

    Interesting theory proferred by Roger Daltrey on Capital Gold’s From The Bottom To The Top yesterday (the chart was 4 Dec ’65, “My Generation” was #2 behind the Seekers) apropos who bought all those Jim Reeves records and similar MoR-country offerings of the period; he ascribes a good deal of it to the post-war community of Irish immigrants who came and settled in places like Manchester (including, I note, the families of both Morrissey and Marr) but of course, as I think I said in the original comment I made on this record, country was the number one brand of popular music in Scotland – certainly in West Central Scotland where I grew up – and there was a huge demographic who loved Gentleman Jim and all he stood for.

  27. 27
    Carol in California on 31 Jul 2009 #

    The captivating thing about this song is Jim Reeve’s wife was named Mary and the song seems to predict there soon to be ill fate. The distant drums were not calling him off to war but calling him off to Heaven. The first time I heard the song I immediately thought of the above interpretation and not of a man going off to war. Anyway, it’s a great & timeless song and Jim Reeves was an amazing singer!

  28. 28
    crag on 14 Apr 2011 #


    Ivan Mauger, Athlete(1970).

  29. 29
    Lena on 19 Sep 2011 #

    And in the opposing corner: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.com/2011/09/you-cant-play-that-on-bbc-part-1-who-im.html Thanks for reading as ever!

  30. 30
    AndyPandy on 19 Sep 2011 #

    Re 26: That demographic: men (his records seemed particularly popular among men) of working-class backgrounds born in the 1920 and 1930s, wasn’t just restricted to people of Irish or Scottish descent and extended over the whole of Britain – being borne out by the kind of sales figures that made things like this such big hits.

    He was probably my dad’s(a working-class man born early 1930s)favourite singer and from memories of growing up this type of country music always kept a massive audience with other blokes of similar background and age. I chattec to many such people men at work and in the pub over the years who loved this type of music. Similarly a look at Jim Reeves videos on youtube will show many people about my age dedicating his songs in memory of their fathers.

    re28: I remember Ivan Mauger (pronounced Major) as a speedway rider in the 70s – I suppose he’d fit right into the above demographic too.

  31. 31
    wichita lineman on 19 Sep 2011 #

    I went to a talk about Dalston’s Four Aces club, and the panel were reminiscing about how 1970s pub jukeboxes in Dalston, Clapton and Stoke Newington would be equally divided between Jamaican and Irish singles. Sat in the middle, equally popular with both sets of clientele, was Jim Reeves.

    This is a dull record. He’ll Have To Go isn’t; lyrically it’s quite shocking for a major 1960 hit. He may be acting the ‘gentleman’ but you know that Jim is in the vicinity of the bar, maybe even in the phone box across the street, his fists clenched.

  32. 33
    lonepilgrim on 5 Feb 2013 #

    meanwhile, at number 1 over in the USA, a familiar song in a version unfamiliar to me – to be cherished here.

  33. 34
    lonepilgrim on 28 Feb 2013 #

    and at the same time as this, another song Reached out for the top of the US chart – a little bit ahead of its UK success – as celebrated here.

  34. 35
    lonepilgrim on 6 Sep 2015 #

    Distant Drums sounds like the sort of thing that would pop up on the BBC Light Programme in the pre-Radio 1 days. I can see it appealing to those who’d lost loved ones in previous conflicts but it sounds virtually comatose. Perhaps the youth vote was split between the varied bands vying for attention and this took advantage.

  35. 36
    Jim on 17 Aug 2020 #

    Please listen to this song again. Its profundity will become clearer to you as your own life progresses and ultimately unwinds.

  36. 37
    Jeff Palmer on 25 Apr 2021 #

    The stately pace and the passionless vocals from Jim mean that I can’t go any higher than 3/10 I’m afraid.

  37. 38
    Gareth Parker on 20 May 2021 #

    A tad ponderous, but I would go with a 4/10 here.

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