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Page last updated at 12:53 GMT, Thursday, 3 June 2010 13:53 UK

The Unswinging Sixties

Classic pop, reappraised by the Magazine

A Radio 2 chart this week has revealed that many of the biggest selling singles of the 1960s were decidedly square, daddio. Welcome to the flip-side of the ultra-hip decade.

If a film-maker wants to transport you to 1960s Britain, you can bank on hearing a Lennon-McCartney tune, or something from the Rolling Stones - possibly even the Hollies. You don't tend to hear buck-toothed comedian Ken Dodd.

Tony Blackburn

Yet a 1965 Dodd hit, Tears, was the third-biggest-selling single of the decade, an analysis of record sales unveiled this week has revealed.

He is not alone - the best-sellers of the Sixties include healthy dollops of yodelling, crooning and clarinet-tootling among the recordings that are now part of the rock canon.

Just as the majority of Beatles fans were not peeling off kaftans to take LSD on Carnaby Street, a large part of the British record-buying public wasn't listening to the Beatles at all.

Here are five of the least groovy but most popular artists of the Sixties.


Given the Liverpudlian performer's propensity for pulling funny faces, those unfamiliar with Tears might expect to hear a comedy number, or at least a pastiche of someone else's record.

Ken Dodd

But Dodd's tickling stick is nowhere to be seen or heard. Tears, also known as Tears For Souvenirs, is a very straight ballad in which Dodd beseeches an estranged lover to "forgive and forget / Turn our tears of regret once more to tears of happiness". It's from an era when an all-round entertainer like Dodd would send the audience home with a gently-crooned oldie.

Originally recorded by American bandleader Rudy Vallee in 1929, Tears spent almost half of 1965 in the charts, sat at number one for five weeks, and held off many songs that are more familiar to 21st-Century ears.

Dodd took a ribbing from his groovier contemporaries. "All the pop groups, they couldn't find things bad enough to say," he told the BBC in 2007. "This was a middle-of-the-road song, and none of the rock-and-rollers could get in. I kept them out and I got a golden disc. It's on two million now."

Actually, DJ Tony Blackburn, who presented the chart of Sixties best sellers, gives the sales as "over a million", rather than two million.

It was a different kind of inaccurate figure that saw Dodd return to the headlines in 1989, when he was tried for tax evasion.

"The tax people still write to me," he told BBC Liverpool last year. "I got one of those brown envelopes the other day."

"Self assessment?" he added. "I invented that."


One of the few singles at the top of the list to break the Dodd-Beatle Liverpudlian lock is Engelbert Humperdinck's Release Me.

Engelbert Humperdinck
The Last Waltz (#11)
There Goes My Everything (#23)

This one is a touch more modern than Tears: it's a 1946 country-and-western ballad by Eddie "Piano" Miller.

Humperdinck - who was once Arnold Dorsey, an apprentice engineer from Leicester - had his stage name chosen for him by his manager, Gordon Mills.

"'Who the hell is that?' I said. 'I didn't know he was the composer of [opera] Hansel And Gretel and he died in 1921."

Mills also managed another crooner, Tom Jones, and there was a sense that the Welsh client was getting the better material. Songwriter Jimmy Webb sees Humperdinck's success as testament to his talent, telling Billboard magazine: "While the other singer was getting the pick of the songs, Engelbert was doing almost as well with the second-rate songs."

In fact, in this chart, Humperdinck does better: three in the top 25 to Jones's one. And Release Me has lived on, as the theme to the Fast Show, as an enduring favourite at funerals, and as the answer to the pub quiz question "What kept Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane off number one?"

This success earned Humperdinck the opprobrium of rock purists; he has since "atoned" by recording Penny Lane, but has yet to turn his attention to Strawberry Fields.

His home remains the middle of the romantic road, but he has made other incursions into rock, including Aerosmith's I Don't Want To Miss A Thing and, for the Beavis and Butt-Head movie, a number called Lesbian Seagull. He reflected on its lyrics: "I believe in choices, and whatever you want to do, you do. Whatever makes you happy, do it."


It took more than one big break for the Beatles to break big. In 1962, the band was given the chance to join The Tommy Wallis and Beryl Xylophone Team supporting yodelling crooner Frank Ifield at the Embassy Cinema, Peterborough. They did not impress.

Frank Ifield
Lovesick Blues (#29)

Though that may sound incongruous now, the chance to play with Ifield was one any act with aspirations would jump at: he was and remains one of the 1960s' biggest sellers.

Ifield developed the trademark catch in his voice as a boy. While milking cows in rural Australia, he heard hillbilly yodelling on the radio and recorded his first disc aged 13.

His biggest hit combined the style with another song from his childhood: I Remember You started life in a 1941 musical, written by Johnny Mercer, allegedly to woo a married Judy Garland.

Frank Ifield was born in Coventry before his family emigrated down under; after returning to the UK, he competed in A Song For Europe in 1962 and 1976. Which might explain why, in record-collecting circles, he is best known for an odd American LP.

The record label Vee-Jay, who owned the rights to four Beatles songs, concocted an album on a "British" theme with those four tracks and some Frank Ifield material. The resulting release - Jolly What! England's Greatest Recording Stars On Stage - contained an unfortunate misnomer in its sleevenotes: "It is with a good deal of pride and pleasure that this copulation has been presented."


It is not the Seekers' transatlantic hit Georgy Girl that sees them in this list, but their number ones I'll Never Find Another You and The Carnival Is Over.

The Seekers
I'll Never Find Another You (#38)

Continuing the mild Australian invasion of the UK charts - see above and below - the Seekers arrived in Britain from Melbourne as the house band on a cruise ship.

Under the guidance of Dusty Springfield's brother Tom, they spent 120 weeks on the charts with a string of vaguely-folkish harmony pop recordings.

Lead singer Judith Durham is a rare female voice on the top 60 list; it also neither includes any Motown recordings, nor any tracks by The Who, The Kinks or Bob Dylan.

The Seekers' biggest hit, The Carnival Is Over, has a history that makes Dodd's 1920s ballad seem contemporary by comparison. If you hum the catchy melody, you are humming a 19th-Century Russian folk song about Cossack Stenka Razin, who led a peasant rebellion in 1670.

It is, so far, the only song to have been covered by both Boney M and Nick Cave.

The band was not immune to Beatlemania, recording, perhaps inevitably, Yesterday before the breakaway New Seekers had an enormous hit with I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing, promoting, like the Beatles before them, Coca-Cola.


Had Rolf Harris's Two Little Boys been released a few weeks earlier, it would probably feature even higher in the decade's top twenty: it was the last number one of the 1960s, but went on selling in 1970.

Rolf Harris

Rolf had been part of Sixties pop since the beginning: his Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport was a top-10 single in 1960; he wrote new lyrics in 1963 and performed it with the Beatles on the radio show From Us To You: "Cut your hair once a year, boys / If it covers your ears, you can't hear".

There is no real consistency to Rolf's Sixties hits: the Aborigine-themed Sun Arise; the calypso-inspired wobbleboard workout Kangaroo and Two Little Boys, the story of a pair of friends who play war games and then, as adults, fight in a real war.

Two Little Boys is perhaps the one with the most enduring legacy (see link, right). A turn-of-the-century music-hall number with echoes of Nelson dying on HMS Victory, it's among the few Sixties tunes that Margaret Thatcher enjoyed and one which Rolf re-recorded in 2008 with a Welsh male voice choir to mark the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I.

The simplicity of the lyric makes it applicable to any war. Rock legend has it that John Lennon sent Harris a telegram to congratulate him on getting an anti-Vietnam song to the top of the Christmas hit parade. Whether you buy that interpretation, it's certainly a feat none of Rolf's countercultural counterparts managed.

Smashed Hits is compiled by Alan Connor.

Below is a selection of your comment.

Even the bizarre and unadventurous hits mentioned here were a vast improvement over the mind-numbingly boring rubbish churned out in the fifties! I view the sixties as a period of experimentation rather than innovation, in music and other areas of art.
Chris Whelan, Bracknell

A very interesting piece, although it induced in me whatever is the opposite of nostalgia. The UK singles charts were always a good home for novelty records and dreadful crooners...what about Benny Hill's Fastest Milkman in the West and the likes of Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Andy Williams. The truth is, there was a different demographic at work here -- the mums and dads. Your buyers of "underground" records didn't bother much with singles and tended to buy LPs instead.
Clive, Sydney

What the writer doesn't seem to realise is that all the "hip" music was not sanctioned or encouraged by radio or TV at that time. That's why you had your Rolf Harris or your Ken Dodd at the top of the hit parade. All the interesting music was underground - records that were promoted by hard working touring bands. Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Cream - you name it - they didn't get any airplay at the time.
Ken Hickmott, Burlingame, California, USA

I wasn't around in the 60's, but neither were my peers and it always irks me to hear people say how today's music is so much worse. People just forget what the charts were actually like.
Colin, Toronto

So the majority of the Great British public liked rubbish music in the 60s, and so it remains, check contemporary charts for details. The majority of people don't really care for originality or credibility, that's how Simon Cowell has become so wealthy - give the public what they want! Junk!
Ad, Hereford, UK

You are quite right middle of the road ballards did do well in the 60's. The point was 'mum and dad' still bought records then and record sales were not dominated by the under 25's as they are today. The real innovation was 'progressive rock' and 'underground'. After 1968 no self respecting 20 year old would be caught dead watching ToTP's or listening to Tony Blackburn.The 'Hit Single' meant very little to them LP's were the thing particularly after the Sergeant Pepper album.
Kevin Gray, Harrow

I am haunted by some of those awful songs.I guess that such gems as "Little White Bull" and "She Wears Red Feathers and a Hula Hula Skirt" will pop into my head and stay for days throughout the rest of my life. No wonder we welcomed Elvis and the Beatles with such enthusiasm.
jim scott, Ashland, Or. USA

Perhaps the reason these artists did so well was that they were talented. The music of the 1960's was fun music. The tunes were simple, foot-tapping and you could hear the words. They didn't try to be PC, or make a point. The supposed singers didn't shriek or scream, the rhythm was not a monotonous thump, thump. Today it is possible to buy mush of the music of that era. What is churned out now will be forgotten in ten years.
Pete Hodge, Up Holland

Let's not forget the inimitable Pinky and Perky in this illustrious line up! Although the Beatles and the Stones were in the charts on a regular basis for the majority of the sixties, one should also consider that during this time, there would also be other high flying acts occupying the charts; there wouldn't be just the Beatles for example at number one in the top forty and then thirty nine blank spaces in the rest of the chart would there? BBC 4 have shown some cracking clips of various sixties acts, not all of them are hip to look at but capable of a catchy tune or a powerful message.
Charlie Smith, Nottingham

But in the 60s most teenagers didn't have much money to buy records. I remember cringing at most of these but parents, who did buy records, loved them.
T Williams, Yorkshire, UK

Having grown up in the period, I never thought of the music of the sixties as swinging or 'unswinging', it was just a very creative period encompassing many genre's and performed by artists of all stripes. Nowadays, I long for that variety in music of the present day but find it sadly lacking.... or perhaps its because you become more selective as you age!
Malcolm Sutton, Burnaby, British Columbia, CANADA

This comes as no surprise to those of us who were around at the time.

I was playing in a band which progressed from a Cliff & the Shadows type group in 1963, into a Stax style group in 1966. We had wonderful adventures touring Europe & Israel. However, all the boys in the group had Mums & Dads at home who had been in the war. They had been liberated financially in the 1960s prosperity boom, and loved to buy their middle of the road music favourites to play on their record players & radiograms. Ken Dodd, Matt Monro, Frank Ifield. They just loved it. Even if their sons were rocking it up or playing Otis Redding songs in Denmark & Germany!!
Kevin, Glossop

This article failed to point out that in the early 60's, those that enjoyed real rock were too young and too poor to buy records, these, so called, chart toppers were purchased by our parents who grew up on Big Band. The BBC refused to play Rock,except by house bands, until pirate radio forced them to change. Payola was rife, so entertainers from other fields could purchase a hit. Once we were old enough to have discretional spending the ridiculous era of music faded into obscurity. There is a huge gulf between those born before WWII and those who came after, it still exists today.
Peter, Expat on the US west coast

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