[There are over 1700 words in this post.]
Learning at least one UK chart-topper for every year
I can sing and play at least one UK #1 single for every year between 1954 to 2013. This page documents how I got there, and a few reasons why.
I sing and play a bit
I sing and play a bit. I play rhythm guitar and rhythm piano. I took piano lessons for a year or two in the 1970s, around the age of 10, but I knew that I was never going to play Chopin or Beethoven. It was all about pop music for me back then, and still is. As soon as I could play all the chords I needed, and we had a few songbooks, I developed a small repertoire of 60s and 70s songs that I could play from memory (Beatles, Elton John, Elvis). And if I had the chords in front of me I could play along to most songs. I learnt a few chords on the guitar, and learnt how to do barre chords, and developed a slightly different but still small repertoire.
“The voice of an angel …”
I taught my older brother the rudiments of guitar tuning and chord patterns and he flew with it. He practised daily for years and eventually learnt hundreds of songs. He could work out the chord patterns of songs that we didn’t have in songbooks, something that I really struggled with. He worked out finger-picking while I never progressed much beyond strumming. In recent years I have summarized his playing in words that I wouldn’t have used as a teenager (you know what teenagers are like): “The voice of an angel and the finger-picking finesse of a guitar god”.
No instruments in the 1980s
Our old upright piano went so badly out of tune and took up so much space that it was offloaded sometime in the 1980s. My brother took our one serviceable guitar with him when he went to live in Spain in 1983. For many years we had no instruments at home that I could play, and I didn’t play anywhere else. In 1989 I bought a Yamaha PSR-37, the first affordable sampling (rather than synthesizing) keyboard and slowly built up my repertoire again.
Learning to play again in the 1990s
For 20 years I rarely picked up a guitar and at my god-daughter’s First Holy Communion in 1995, in Spain, the guitars were passed around and most of the guys sang or played something. I realized that I couldn’t easily transpose any of my piano repertoire to the guitar: there wasn’t a single song that I could play on the guitar. This is probably how things are for most people in the world but I was surprised at myself. Aged 14 I would have been able to belt out a few numbers but over 15 years later there was nothing I could play.
I bought a Fender acoustic the following year, from a guitar shop off the Charing Cross Road (not Denmark Street, the other side of the road). My mother wanted to buy it for me. It was the last birthday present she bought me before she died.
And I developed my guitar repertoire again. I had a piano repertoire. I can hardly walk past a piano without thumping out something (“What a wonderful world” is my usual opener – you can do it with or without vocals) but I wanted to make sure that if the guitars got passed around again I would be able to sing and play something.
I had Elvis and Beatles songbooks, some Disney tunes and could now afford a few more songbooks. Sometimes I would spend £15 or more on a songbook just for a handful of tunes. The Rod Stewart Unplugged Songbook was rather an indulgence (£15 for maybe 15 tunes) but I wanted the chords to “Maggie May”, “Reason to Believe” and “Handbags and Gladrags”. I still wasn’t skilled, patient or confident enough to work out the chords for myself. Even after working out a chord pattern correctly I’d want to check that I’d got it right.
The first time I went to New York City in 1999 I spent 45 dollars on a “Fake Book”: 1000 songs (melody lines, lyrics and chord patterns), from old show-tunes and standards from the 20s and 30s, right through to songs from the 1990s. I flicked through noting how many songs there were in there that I wanted to learn: Burt Bacharach and Hal David songs, Motown tunes, “Brown Eyed Girl”, “Always on my mind”. 45 dollars was a lot to spend on a single book (though it worked out at under 5 cents per tune). I did the equivalent of tossing a coin to decide whether to buy it: if it contained the Dorothy Moore song “Misty Blue” I would buy it, otherwise I wouldn’t. It does (words & music by Bob Montgomery) and it’s on the desk beside me right now.
Building the repertoire
Over the next 10 years and more I built up my repertoire, with no real pattern to it. I bought the Complete Bob Dylan Songbook and would learn individual songs or occasionally play along to a whole album. (I recall a quiet Sunday evening after my son was born, everybody in the house asleep and I played along to the whole of “Blood on the tracks”.) I went through that 45 dollar Fake Book repeatedly and learnt many of the songs that had prompted me to buy it. I printed out words and lyrics from the internet and learnt songs that way.
A pattern emerges, and a project
In 2012, as I was approaching a Big Birthday, and planning the party, I realized that my repertoire incorporated #1 songs from at least half the years of my lifetime. My “go to” songs, if I sat down at a piano, or someone passed the guitars around, were all UK #1s: “What a wonderful world” (1968, and 2007), “With a little help from my friends” (1968, 1988 and 2004), “Always on my mind” (1987), “Wonder of you” (1970), “Save your kisses for me” (1976), “Cum on Feel the Noise” (1973) or “Make me smile” (1975).
My brother and I would always try and find at least an hour to sing and play on the 2 or 3 times a year that we were together (here in London or in Spain). The only music on offer when my wife and I got married in 2001 was a very well-received performance by my brother and me, just us and our guitars. A few songs from our guitar-based repertoire were also #1s, like “World without love” (1964), “It’s not unusual” (1965), even “Where do you go to my lovely?” (1969) (though my more ambitious, or fool-hardy, preference for 1969 is “Heard it through the grapevine”).
So I decided that my repertoire should incorporate at least one UK #1 single for every year of my life, and extended it to include every year back to 1955, which Billboard magazine defines as the rock era. (It began when “Rock around the clock” became the first rock ’n roll song to top the American charts.) In 2017 I added Kitty Kallen’s “Little things mean a lot” to take me back to 1954.
“Give me a year and I’ll sing you a song”
I’m just about there. Some years were harder than others to find even one song that I wanted to learn and I am very grateful for cover versions. The 1990s and 2000s would be very difficult for me without the re-releases and cover versions that constitute most of my repertoire for those years.
A sample of the songs in my repertoire follows. I am reluctant to share the whole list (all 60 years of it) right now. I like the element of surprise. If you find me at a piano or with a guitar in my hand I will invite you to “Name any year between 1954 and 2013 and I’ll sing you a UK #1 song from that year”. But here’s how the list for 1970-1980 stands in February 2017. And because this little game represents something of a challenge to my memory and my musical ability there are some rules about what I sing, and how, at the bottom of the page.
The List (1970-80)
[The full list covers the years 1955-2014. This is a sample of the #1 songs I can play for the years 1970-80, with the names of the artists who took the songs to #1.]
1970 The Wonder Of You (Elvis Presley)
1971 Get It On (T.Rex), Maggie May (Rod Stewart)
1972 Amazing Grace (The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards), Vincent (Don McLean), Puppy Love (Donny Osmond)
1973 Cum On Feel The Noize (Slade), Merry Xmas Everybody (Slade)
1974 Everything I Own (Ken Boothe), Waterloo (Abba), Rock Your Baby (George McCrae), Lonely this Christmas (Mud)
1975 Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel
1976 Save Your Kisses For Me (Brotherhood Of Man)
1977 Don’t Cry For Me Argentina (Julie Covington)
1978 Up Town Top Ranking (Althia & Donna), Rivers Of Babylon (Boney M), Wuthering Heights (Kate Bush)
1979 Y.M.C.A. (Village People), I Will Survive (Gloria Gaynor), Sunday Girl (Blondie)
1980 Coward Of The County (Kenny Rogers), Together We Are Beautiful (Fern Kinney), Tide Is High (Blondie), Super Trouper (Abba)
In any given session (typically 30-45 minutes of singing and playing) the following rules apply:
I will sing and play at least 2 verses and 2 choruses of any song played, not necessarily in the style of the version that got to #1. There might be some or all of the following as well, but they are not guaranteed: intro, bridge, solo, 3rd verse, 3rd chorus outro.
I reserve the right to pass once: I can pass on the requested year if I feel too rusty on that year’s song(s) but I have to play a song from the next year that I’m asked for and I may not pass again in that session.
Terrific 2’s: once in any session I can substitute a song that was held at #2 for the requested year if I feel it is more suitable than the #1 song.
Substituting a US #1: once in any session I can opt for a US #1 from a requested year if I feel it is more suitable than the UK alternative(s).
I reserve the right to play the same song repeatedly if it was #1 in more than one year (for example, “Unchained Melody”, for any or all of these years: 1955, 1990, 1995, 2002).
Finally, for any year that has multiple songs I reserve the right to sing any song I like. You can request the year but not the song played.