The Infinite Jukebox: Mary Hopkin’s ‘Those Were The Days’

Sometimes you can hear a song a million times, or so it seems, before you finally understand what it’s really telling you. I was listening to Mary Hopkin on an old Tom Jones Show, singing her massive debut hit, the Paul McCartney-produced ‘Those were the Days’, that never fails to amuse me at how it so unshamedly steals a Ukrainian folksong called ‘Davny Chasny’ (not that I knew that until thirty years later). It was so big a success that even I heard it at least a dozen times, whereas a year later The Archies would spend eight weeks at number 1 and me completely oblivious to it.
It’s taken me decades to appreciate just how good a singer Mary Hopkin was, such a sweet, clear voice, and for a young girl how wide her interpretative range. ‘Those were the Days’ is a song that drips with melancholy, that absorbs disappointment, failure and nostalgia, all of which Hopkin’s voice holds within a surface that seems to be light and airy, and she eighteen years old and how can a girl of that age understand nostalgia of that kind? But she does.
It’s a very simple song, just four four line verses, each separated by that eager chorus that harks back to when things were better, when hopes and dreams were higher, that no longer exists. Even in the opening verse, when the magic of those days is at its most solid we are living in the past. Once upon a time, but not a fairy-tale time, a piece of our youth, somewhere real and grounded that might as well be mythical now.
There was a tavern where we used to raise a glass or two. It’s a place of memory, and already Mary is urging us to remember, how we used to while away the hours, and how we would imagine all the great things we would do. Oh yes, this tavern is more than bricks and mortar, bottles and glasses, this tavern was this place because of the people who came there. Buildings can and do survive, though not always, but the people and the times are always ephemeral.
And they’re gone now. Those were the days, days we thought would never end, in which we so casually sang and danced, believing in eternity then, and the lives of our own choosing, not lives pressed upon us by fate and circumstances, days where we would win out, our battles foregone conclusions because, well, just because they were. Because we were young and sure to have our way.
The chorus has told us that this idyll, this hope didn’t last. Now Hopkin alludes to what has happened. How the busy years went rushing by us, how we lost our starry notions on the way. If by chance she were to see him in the tavern, for make no mistake Mary is singing to a particular someone, all they’d do would be to smile at one another and repeat what is becoming her mantra. Those were the Days. The past is gone, walled up, no longer relevant to the now, and we will neither of us hurt ourselves by pretending otherwise.
Time passes, an unjudgeable period, years of disillusion, getting on with a life out of which all belief has gone, endurance and existence rather living. This unknown period takes us to last night. Mary has stood before that tavern again. What has led her there, how long it has been, what has been that lost time between then and now is as much a mystery as what brought the past down. Is it just chance? Or is something deeper drawing her, driving her?
It might, whatever her motive, be a mistake. Nothing seemed the way it used to be. You can never go home, always a stranger goes in your place. The reflection in the glass is strange: it is Mary, but is it really her? Is that lonely woman really me? The great question. Those were the days…
The third chorus gives us time to pause and reflect, not just on this tavern that was once such a place of warmth, but upon all of our lives and how we lose things and people as we go along. So few things really are forever and a day, and you cannot go home again.
Or is there still hope? The music lifts, gathers strength, energy, brightness. We don’t need the words to tell us what Mary has decided, it’s in the sudden exultance of the music, the decision not to give up. Through the door, she sings, I heard familiar laughter, and how would she have heard that without she took the chance and opened the door inside, opened the door into the past. And, o glorious, I saw your face and heard you call my name. And it is not about distance, indifference and the damage of a parted path, for o, my friend we’re older but no wiser, and in our hearts the dreams are still the same…
I listen and I dream as well, and I hear the siren call of what used to be and which always feels better than what is and I try to imagine the gift in an eighteen year old girl who isn’t old enough to have a past to go back to in wonderment yet shows in her voice that she understands all of it already, and that in itself makes this song something of great importance and seriousness. And then I see clearly what this song is really about.
Some songs smell the wind, they see the way the tide is rising, they are pointers towards a future that we can’t yet know. I don’t know if Paul McCartney meant this metaphor or if it came from his unconsciousness when he chose this song for the young Welsh chanteuse, but this is no mere tavern this song is written about. Paul McCartney is seeing the Sixties coming to an end. He is seeing the collapse of optimism, of the dream that things would go on getting better, that we would continue to change the world in the image of peace and love.
He is telling us that we will be lost, will lose, that maybe for some of us in small and isolated pockets a world will still exist where our dreams will remain alive and tenable. But ‘Those were the Days’ is nostalgia for an age we were even then still living, warning us to brace ourselves, because before we knew it they would be the days we could only look back on and never regain.
La da da da, di di…

2 thoughts on “The Infinite Jukebox: Mary Hopkin’s ‘Those Were The Days’

  1. “Dorogoy dlinnoyu” (Дорогой длинною)
    Was written by Boris Fomin in the early 1900’s with words by the poet Konstantin Podrevskii. The first known recording was by Alexander Vertinski,

    An American Gene Raskin wrote the lyrics for the song “Those were the days” he used the melody only from the song “Dorogoy dlinnoyu” it is not a translation

    This is one of the nicest articles I have read on Those were the days, I have been a fan of Mary Hopkin since 1968 and have always been irritated by the way writers/journalists criticise her age when it comes to being ‘qualified’ to sing this song, I have always replied with this.
    “Looking back with fondness or longing, to a place in your past is ageless, one does not need to be old or have had pain!

    There is a Welsh word “Hiraeth” which translated into English can mean “a longing” “a yearning” even “home-sickness”

    For me Mary Hopkin sang “Those were the days” with hiraeth 18 or 118 age doesn’t come into it.”

    1. Thank you for those kind words and for filling me in on the background of the melody. I’m slightly confused however over the original song. I’m familiar with the Ukrainian folk song ‘Davni Chasny’ as recorded by The Wedding present, which is obviously ‘Those were the Days’ chorus: was that also lifted from ‘Dorogoy Dlinnoyu’? I don’t myself remember Hopkin being criticised as being too young to sing this song, but I do find it remarkable that she so perfectly captured, and embodied the feeling so thoroughly: a sign that she was an exceptional talent even so young.

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