The Infinite Jukebox: The Tams’ ‘Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me’

A discussion at work, behind my back, mentioned TAMS, which means certain equipment in a Telephone Exchange. It also meant an old memory for me of when The Tams got to no. 1 in the UK in 1971.
Almost fifty years later, I still can’t understand it. ‘Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me’ was a Sixties obscurity, and if The Tams were known for anything, they were known for the song ‘Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy’. That had a bit of swing to it, you could imagine people dancing to it, and if that had charted, I’d have put it down to Wigan Casino, Northern Soul and all that stuff I didn’t understand until many years later.
But not ‘Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me’. It’s a slow, repetitive, song, to a shuffling beat, about not wanting to get involved with a girl notorious for taking up and dumping young men, who’s now looking at the singer. It’s style lay somewhere between doo-wop and non-Motown soul, without leaning far enough in either direction.
What drove it’s sales, I have no idea, then or now. It slowly climbed the top 30, eventually reaching number 1, for three weeks, after which The Tams themselves arrived in Britain to promote their unexpected success, and were given the unique accolade of a Top of the Pops performance, after the record had slipped down from no. 1.
That’s what’s showing below. You may wish to take note that the group was a five-piece, lead singer and four backing singers, one of whom looks not quite all with it, and who disappears from the stage halfway through the song, to everybody’s puzzlement.
I hated it at the time, and I don’t say I like it now, outside the purely nostalgic aspect. For some reason, there is an incredible range of mostly unsuccessful 1971 music that appeals to me, as anyone following my Lost 70s posts will already know.
But what qualifies this strange song for a slot on The Infinite Jukebox is a history that only I may remember.
In those far-off days, the Manchester Evening News used to publish a Top 10 singles every week. Though I read it each week, I thought little or nothing of it because it was usually nothing more than a mirror of the BBC Top 10, the chart everyone used to rely on. But it must have been based on local sales because, one week in the summer of 1971, I was shocked to see two new entries that were not only not even in the BBC Top 30, but of which I’d never even heard.
The first of these, in at no. 3, was Curtis Mayfield, with ‘Move on Up’, which would chart several weeks later, and eventually peak at no. 12. The other was The Tams, and this shot in at no. 1!
I don’t think they stayed more than another week each and then normal service was resumed but I was intrigued by the presence of these two songs, so against the run of the mill. But you couldn’t just whistle up songs when you wanted them in 1971, you had to wait for Radio 1 to play them (in the evenings, I would try to get Radio Luxembourg, after Radio 1 shut down at 6.00pm, whilst my mate Steve C swore by Radio North Sea International, which I could never raise a signal from).
And these two songs started to get airplay, they hit the National Chart, and the Tams laboured but got to no. 1, displacing Diana Ross, and then being overtaken by Rod Stewart.
Some years later, I was told a story that I have no means of checking, but with the evidence of that MEN Top 10 I have no reason to doubt. Each year, a travelling fair came to Cringle Fields in Levenshulme. These were parkland and playing fields adjoining Errwood Road, diagonally opposite Levenshulme Girl’s School, the opposite number to Burnage High School for Boys, where I attended. We’d drive past the Fair, in Mam’s car, or on the bus, though I never went to it, and if I wanted to travel there, it was about five minutes on the bus. I met my old friend Linda for the first time in five years opposite Cringle Fields, in August 1971,to which I owe a couple of lifelong friendships.
But the 1971 Fair had been and gone by then. The guy who chose the records to blare out had picked an obscure Sixties track to play, over and over again. People started to ask what it was and where they could get it. It shot to the top of the Manchester charts. The action persuaded the record company to re-issue it. Sales picked up nationally. The result we know.
That’s the story as I know it, and I have the memories of the facts that underline it. Not a million miles from where I lived, on a road I travelled incessantly. I suppose it could only have happened in 1971.


No more N.M.E.

I bought it this week

Another response to a passing, but this time not of a person but a magazine, or maybe even an institution. This week, the N.M.E, the New Musical Express has printed its last print copy and will henceforth only be out there on-line. It’s the end of an era.

Or rather, it’s the end of a great many eras, hundreds of them, thousands even, one for each of us who, at any time were hooked on listening with intent. It’s a bit like dear old Peely,in that there’d be a time when they were essential to your life, but then you’d change and he’d change, and you’d find yourself breaking up that old weekly or nightly date and it was over.

My era was 1972 to 1986: I doubt I’ve bought as many as five issues since, and none in over fifteen years now. That takes me back to the days when there were still five music weeklies: Melody Maker, N.M.E., Record Mirror, Disc (and Music Echo) andĀ Sounds. I’d drifted through 1971, sampling each of these, before deciding theĀ N.M.E. was closest to my tastes, only to find, when it started dropping through our door every week, that it had just a couple of weeks before, undergone a radical repositioning, and gone Underground, and Prog.

And that suited me. and I got to go all through the raw passion, anger, excitement and energy of Punk, then New Wave, and post-Punk.

And then we got to the point where they started tagging Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’ as the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ of the Eighties, and I knew that it was all over. Other people had their eras to enjoy: my time had been served. But it had all been so good whilst it lasted.

But I have to salute the N.M.E. for changing my life. That was what it was setting out to do, all the time, but in my case it succeeded in a completely unexpected way.

You all know I’ve been a lifelong comics fan, and that enthusiasm has meant many things. Comics have taken my imagination to places it could never have guessed without them, they underpinned the first period when my inchoate urge to write spilled over on an audience that applauded my efforts and built my self-confidence, I made friends and met and talked with people I’d never otherwise have known. And it is at least plausible to say that without comics coming back into my life after I grew out of them in a tried and trusted manner, I may probably never have met the woman who became my wife.

I’ve told the story before: January 1974, queuing in a newsagent, chancing to see a rack of American comics, being moved by idle curiosity to riffle through them and finding the only possible comic I would have bought, reopening the floodgate and determining my fate.

But without the N.M.E., without three articles by Charles Shaar Murray, in the back of the paper, in the back end of 1973, the one fancifully but articulately comparing the development stages of rock’n’roll with that of comics, and two follow-ups about how Batman and Captain America had changed to meet the modern world, my memory would not have been reset. Without that, if I even see it at all that January after, there is not the merest of idle curiosity that draws me to that rack. I don’t see, let alone buy, that pivotal comic, and everything afterwards turns into a maybe.

So that’s why I remember N.M.E. with fondness. And for the writing, guys, especially CSM, and Nick Kent, and Mick Farren, and Tony Tyler, and Max Bell, and Paul Morley, and I can forgive you for discovering Danny Baker but not Tony Parsons, and we’ll gloss over Julie Burchill, ok. Plus the guy who did the Crossword.

All gone, my era gone, but never to be forgotten, those of us who were there, and all those multiple whens that we were there for, ligging as hard as we could.

And The Lone Groover too.

The Infinite Jukebox: Janis Ian’s ‘At Seventeen’

This isn’t just a song, it’s a world, a Universe. It’s soft, ungentle, mellow, yet bitter beyond words, though Janis Ian’s voice stays quiet, and patient throughout. But it’s patience in the face of the inevitability, undemanding, uncomplaining, yet quietly determined to take you inside, to show you the life that too many people, overlooked, unthought of, are forced into leading by chances never offered, by love that never even sees you, let alone dismisses you.

‘At Seventeen’ came out in 1975, just in time. If it had appeared a couple of years earlier, I doubt I would never have heard it then, but this was the year Commercial Radio burst onto the scene across Britain, brash and bright and determined to outdo the stodginess of Radio 1 that, seven years on from its inauguration, still hadn’t been accepted by the BBC, and as a consequence was so easy to pass, Commercial Radio didn’t even need to go out of the middle lane.

I mean, they could broadcast all evening, whereas Radio 1 still had this gap from 6.00pm until 10.00pm where Radio 2 took back the frequency, so I could listen to Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio all evening, if I wanted. And in the evenings, when different shades of music were allowed to play, I would hear this song by Janis Ian.

All I knew of her was that, back in 1967, she’d had this surprise hit in America with a song called ‘Society’s Child’, about an interracial relationship, which was a really hot subject back then, and frankly not that much further advanced in 1975: we still had ‘Love Thy neighbour’ on the TV back then. I didn’t get to hear ‘Society’s Child’ then, and not for many years later. Janis Ian had written it when she was 14. By the time it charted, at the third time of release, she was herself 17, but it wasn’t about anything like that experience that she was singing about now. It was long ago and far away, and the world was younger than today, and the combination of that limpid, clear guitar and that quiet, regretful voice led us into a world that many of us had never seen.

This was especially so for the male half of the audience: I don’t doubt that there were hundreds of thousands of girls of all ages who recognised the unfairness of school, of factions and groups, the advantaged looking down on the unadvantaged, the cruelty of the beautiful towards the plain, the desperate loneliness of finding that no-one can or will look at you, or offer to take you out of this prison, even for a night.

But though it was an eye-opener for me, it wasn’t by any means a foreign country. Though the cruelty was sharper, and the hurt deeper, I understood, recognised more of this than I cared to admit in 1975, when I was nineteen. The valentines never came for me, I was always among the last chosen for games of football or cricket, I was just as much the ugly duckling boy as Janis Ian described herself as being the girl. The only difference was that I was spared the pain of never being asked, because I was supposed to do the asking, only I didn’t know how to ask, and there was no-one there to ask.

It was supposed to be easier for girls then, and that’s what I thought it was like, and Janis Ian took me inside a world in which it was just the same and worse. We all want, we all need, but not all of us can have, because there are laws that exist on no statue-books that rule such things out for us, and this song speaks for all of us, because it speaks with both resignation at the knowledge that we are forever excluded, and the clear-eyed determination to explain without accusation how we are thus crippled.

The song drifts. There are distant touches of strings, quiet horn measures, but still it’s that carefully picked guitar, and the unobtrusive, shuffling rhythm that makes four minutes into a life and a lifetime. The meek shall inherit the earth, if that’s alright with the rest of you, but it never works out that way. It’s your earth, and you’ll never remember to make room. I marvel that we don’t scream more loudly, that all we do is quietly remind each other of how we understand, but part of being the meek is that we are not given much to screaming, even in frustration.

It was long ago, and far away, the world was younger than today, and 1975 is certainly long ago, but it’s never that far away, not the lonely evenings spent in my bedroom, listening to songs like this, and never even meeting the girls to whom this applied, seeking that comfort that comes in solidarity, and maybe sometimes finding that we are what each other are chosen for, instead of condemned to. Some songs remain alive, far beyond what you wish for them. In a hundred years time, Janis Ian will still be speaking the truth of many girls and boys. She will still play on, in Infinite Jukeboxes in the minds of those who have never known what a Jukebox was, or represents.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Chieftains’ ‘Mna na h’Eireann (Women of Ireland)’

I don’t understand this music.

I’m not Irish, I have no Irish in me. It isn’t in my heart or my soul, or in my deepest memories that spring from race and place and culture. I’m always and forever an outsider, a visitor looking on as if watching a ceremony he’ll never understand. This is music played in a circle, the musicians facing inwards, and those for whom it is played are within that circle.

If I analyse it, it’s a single, lamenting melody, sweet, brave and complete, played over and over, as instruments join and leave, a complex of sound, in, around and between that slow tune that you might think easy to learn.

But long before that last whistle carries the melody to its final, extended note, my cheeks are wet with tears, because something responds, to beauty, to sorrow, to myth and legend, and finally to exclusion.

The Infinite Jukebox plays music like this, sometimes, in the lateness, when all is still. And my yearning joins with this.

The Infinite Jukebox: Amen Corner’s ‘(If Paradise is) Half as Nice’

On the Infinite Jukebox, one song often leads to another, especially if you use YouTube in between. The ‘la-la-las’ of Stevie Wonder led me to the ‘la-la-las’ of Amen Corner, which is another example of that lovely Sixties song enthralled by the ecstacy of pure love.

Amen Corner were a Welsh seven piece – vocals, guitar, bass, drums, organ and two saxophones – who had six hits from seven singles between 1967 and 1969, when they broke up. They were the perfect example of the band signed because of their quality and growing popularity, only to find themselves pressed to abandon the kind of music they’d formed to play in favour of a more commercial sound.

Amen Corner had two very bluesy hits in 1967, reaching nos 12 and 24 respectively, before bowing to pressure and recording a cover of The American Breed’s ‘Bend Me, Shape Me’, in a much rougher, aggressive manner that gave them a big hit and made lead singer Andy Fairweather Low into one of the pretty boy pop pin-ups of the late Sixties, alongside The Herd’s Peter Frampton and The Love Affair’s Steve Ellis. They had another top ten success with the pounding ‘High in the Sky’, before leaving Deram for Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate label, and scoring two more top 10 hits in 1969. The band ended on an unsuccessful cover of ‘Get Back’ (a strange choice given that the song had already spent six weeks at no. 1 that year from The Beatles.)

The first of those two 1969 hits was ‘(If Paradise is) Half as Nice’. It was an immediate (pun) success, charting at no 19 in its first week and going straight to no 1 in its second. It’s the lightest and least typical song Amen Corner recorded, the most commercial, and it’s an instant dream.

It’s about love, and like ‘My Cherie Amour’, it’s that love that is never spoiled by having to deal with the realities of sex.

Fairweather Low lays it out immediately. If Paradise, he says, is half as nice as heaven that you take me to, then who needs Paradise? he’d rather have her. It’s a simple, but heartfelt statement, and the song needs and asks no more. It’s the same idealisation, the same wish dream. A look from her eyes, the touch of her hand, these are all that he needs to send him into an ecstacy.

But like Wonder, Fairweather Low has already said clearly what the song means in the chanted ‘la-la-las’ that introduce it, the band in chorus, overlaid by Fairweather Low’s distinctive teenage falsetto yelp. But where Wonder was wistful and yearning, his love a Goddess glimpsed from afar, never to be touched, Amen Corner are singing with joy and celebration, the ‘la-la-las’ a cry of ecstacy going beyond mere words.

And the music lifts that up. The intro is underpinned by acoustic guitar and unobtrusive rhythm, with the organ joining in and the two saxes blowing a simple riff as Fairweather Low’s voice soars alone into the words. And the band holds itself in, respecting the lightness of the song. They’re solid, and the saxes riff beautifully in the limited role they’re given, but this is about the voice.

And where Wonder lives, breathes and dreams a woman he has never met nor ever will, Fairweather Low’s vision is a real woman, she is in his life, and whilst she’s still on the same pedestal that Wonder erects, he’s within her notice: she sees him, she’ll touch him (probably only his sleeve).

But it’s what he wants, and all he needs. When he sings about Paradise being half as nice as being with her, he’s not speculating, he’s convinced that it will be, that nothing else can compare with the nearness of her. And the song soars, and the band repeat with him those words-that-aren’t-words, and we soar with them.


The video above shows Amen Corner performing this song in 1969. Whilst browsing YouTube, I found the video below. The guy on stage, the old man in the three-piece suit, with the glasses, all but bald, with a fringe of near-invisible hair round the back of his head, doesn’t look like she should be anywhere near a stage. You would look at him for a long time before you took him for a rock or pop star. But he’s Andy Fairweather Low, and he’s going to sing ‘(If Paradise is) Half as Nice’, and the band aren’t going to reinforce his voice, it’s all going to be softer, and slower, without the energy, but after so many years, the idea of being there to hear that song sung again, to be uplifted by it and to be reminded of how once we could think of love, brought tears to my eyes of envy for those who did experience this. Listen and weep for what we once were.

The Infinite Jukebox: Stevie Wonder’s ‘My Cherie Amour’

There was a gentle argument going on behind me at work, early in the afternoon, about music. Both the guys involved are less than half my age, but one of them was saying, “What’s wrong with Motown?” I interjected to state that, depending on which year you select as your cut-off point, there is nothing wrong with Motown.

A couple of minutes later, the argument had narrowed to Stevie Wonder. Listening in, the one further away was specifying two songs in particular that he hated, ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours’, and ‘I just called to say I love you.’

Once again, I butted in to say that whilst I agreed absolutely on the latter of these two, the Stevie Wonder song that does all the business and then some, is ‘My Cherie Amour’. They looked at me in some bemusement, as if they knew nothing about the song.

How can anyone not know this song?

At work, YouTube is accessible but inadvisable, except during breaks. But I found myself singing the song very softly under my breath, and looking up the lyrics to refresh my uncertain memory. But I didn’t need any memory for that sweeping introduction, those eager la-la-las, establishing both the melody and a sense of yearning that sweeps through the song.

There’s a girl, Stevie’s cherie amour. His burst into French, the language of romance, establishes that his feelings are on an ethereal plane. He doesn’t know her, he’s never met her, never spoken to her, but he sees her and because he sees her, he loves her.

She’s a beautiful girl, and he worships her appearance. But she never notices him. She’s lovely as a summer’s day, but she’s also distant as the Milky Way. He’s been near her, in public, but she’s never noticed him. His dream, his hope, is that someday, she will see him, how can she not realise he is there, surely she will someday pick him out of the crowd, and choose him to share the world she inhabits.

This song is fifty years old, though it sounds like a fraction of that time, if any, has passed. Wonder sings lyrically, and purely. he’s never spoken to her, and it seems that he never can or will, unless she picks him out. There could be thousands of reasons for his inability to speak, for the distance between them that he, alone, can never bridge.

But Wonder’s singing is that of a man in a dream. And dreams can be spoiled by being brought into the real world. She may be a bitch when he meets her, she may reject him on sight. He doesn’t know, nor will he ever know, for she is an ideal and he will keep her as an ideal, never to be touched, never to be kissed or held, unless she chooses him in the same way he’s chosen her, by sight and insight.

All of this is informed by the song. Fifty years on, it wouldn’t be possible. Wonder would be thought of as a creep, or maybe a danger. Here, he’s a lovestruck dreamer, and she’s his dream. It’s that Sixties innocence once more. Nothing more is needed than that, someday, he shares the little, distant cloud she occupies.

All of this we hear in the song, but it’s there in those wistful ‘la-la-la’s that introduce the music for us to understand before even a word is sung. They’re our passport into the fantasy, into the soul of ourselves and our wish to find someone to worship. Stevie Wonder tapped into that, and he sang it from the heart, and we hear it that way every time we hear it.

No, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Motown!


Reflecting on Retro Xmas

Though I put the blame on the distraction of feeling pretty bloody lousy, especially in the light-headed stakes, it still came as a bit of a shock to realise that it had taken me until late on Tuesday evening to check the previous Friday’s new single chart.

Normally, I wouldn’t mention it, except that the new chart has a number of statistical oddities and, dare I say it, records?

In the week after Xmas Day, there were no less than 43 Xmas singles in the Top 100, including five in the Top 10, three of which were in the Top 5. This week, every single one of them has dropped out of the Top 100. In the case of Wham!, who were at no 2, this is the single biggest chartfall since the whole shebang began.

And, presumably for related reasons, it’s believed that this is the first chart without a single record going down since the days when we didn’t used to have a chart between Xmas and New Year, and technically every single was a non-mover.

It amazes me that I still find such things fascinating. But I do.