When easy listening ruled

A sight to strike terror into the hearts of hippies back in 1968

In the mid-70s, I started work on a musical that never came to pass. It was to be called 67-68, and would celebrate a peak of pop music creativity that would never (I suspected even then) be equalled.

I went back to the Music Week offices – where I’d worked for seven years previously – to research the charts.

In my memory it was all Beatles, Whiter Shade of Pale, psychedelia, Jimi Hendrix. For spice and dancing we had Otis Redding, Motown, Arthur Conley, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and The Rolling Stones.

In reality, as I went through the charts, it turned out it was mostly Tom Jones, Val Doonican, James Last, Engelbert Humperdinck, Bert Kaempfert, Des O’Connor, Donald Peers (Donald Peers!!!) and Guantanamera.

And Ken Dodd. The top selling single of 1965 – the year of Rubber Soul, of Satisfaction and Eve Of Destruction – was Tears, by Ken Dodd. Dodd was primarily a comedian, and had his own BBC TV show. But he also had 12 top 30 hits, including Tears, which hit the top spot, and is the UK’s 33rd best-selling single of all time, with 1.5m sales.

In other words, easy listening ruled.

Us young’uns weren’t really paying attention to all that, except when Engelbert kept Strawberry Fields from getting to number one. That was bloody irritating. But generally, we lived in a pop/rock/psychedelia bubble and never noticed that our parents were buying more records than we were.

Back then, singles sold in their hundreds of thousands, even millions.

At the height of flower power, Engelbert Humperdinck's Release Me stopped a record-breaking run of number ones for the Beatles.
At the height of flower power, Engelbert Humperdinck’s Release Me stopped a record-breaking run of number ones for the Beatles.

Today the charts are all niche, and 20,000 copies will get you in the top 10. Charts are always going to be a reflection of what gets played on the radio. Since Radio 2 went rock and pop, there’s no outlet for ‘easy listening’ as we knew it.

German schlock that opened Doors

Not only as we knew it, but also despised it. One day, I went to Polydor records to meet The Doors. I noticed stacks of James Last and Bert Kaempfert albums in the foyer. I laughed at the German schlock that looked so out of place. Clive Woods, the Press Officer taking me to meet Jim Morrison told me, very sternly, “These are the artists who earn the money that enables us to sign the people you like so much; who don’t sell nearly so much.” Whoops!

And as if to illustrate the point, neither Morrison or any other Doors turned up that day. “Bloody amateurs,” said Mr Woods. His subtext being, you could rely on James Last and Bert Kaempfert not only to make records that sold by the truckload. But also you could rely on them to turn up for meetings as well.

Any love I might have had for The Doors disappeared a few weeks later when they also failed to turn up at The Roundhouse for a gig I was supposed to review. So, not only meetings; but also gigs.

Meanwhile, another oldie from the middle of the road was about to have his biggest hit. Donald Peers had had his first ‘hit’ when there wasn’t even a chart to be top of. He was very popular with British audiences through the 40s and 50s. By 1969, already in his 60s, he should have been a dinosaur.

But, and this exemplifies the age we want to gloss over with our sex, drugs and rock’n’roll memories, here is Donald Peers on Top Of The Pops in February 1969, with a record that reached number three. And in case you think, well, it’s just an anomaly – yes, it kind of was. But on the same show were Glen Campbell, Cliff Richard and Peter ‘Bloody’ Sarstedt (sorry, that’s just me). Easy listening was King. Get over it.


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