One of the things that makes the pop charts more fascinating than carefully curated lists of “important” records, like Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, is all the junk that filters through. That’s not an insult — junk may not be particularly well-written, and it’s often annoying, but at its best it embodies the careless vitality that makes rock and roll so exciting. The very fact that junk hits aren’t so-called timeless classics makes them snapshots of the transient tastes of a lost age. And for one week in 1965, the single that best captured the state of American pop taste was a 17-year-old English kid and his beat group covering an old music hall hit. Less than two minutes long, consisting of little more than three choruses and a time-killing guitar solo, “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” feels barely substantial enough to pass for a B-side. Like “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” before it, the single didn’t even merit release in Herman Hermits’ native country. (Unlike “Mrs. Brown,” this doesn’t feel like an oversight.) But the record’s exotic Cockneyisms, old-timey flavor and unshakeable chorus were enough to buoy it to the top of the US charts in August. What better time for a nice repetitive song that takes no effort to learn quickly than the mind-dulling heat of late summer? It’s cheerful and a bit funny and tailor-made for group singalongs. Eventually it’ll wear out its welcome, but it’s so slight that it can be cast aside without guilt.
Certainly there are better records — better Herman’s Hermits records, even — more deserving of the number-one spot. But compared with the horrors of past novelty chart-toppers, “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” is downright pleasant. The band is charming enough, Peter Noone doesn’t oversell the joke, and the whole thing ends quickly. Better a tossed-off piece of junk than a record that’s ponderous or bloated or a self-serious attempt at social relevance. Squint and you can maybe even detect the seeds of punk in its stripped-down insouciance — after all, the Ramones did quote “second verse, same as the first” in “Judy is a Punk.” But is “Henry VIII” a good record? Even the band probably thought of it as nothing more than a bit of filler that got lucky. 5
Hit #1 on August 7, 1965; total of 1 week at #1
141 of 1011 #1’s reviewed; 13.95% through the Hot 100
Herman’s Hermits were sort of the kid brothers of the British Invasion, and, as such, were often treated as a band to be mocked or manipulated. Singer Peter Noone was 16 when the group had its first hit, half a decade or so younger than most other beat groups and a full 11 years younger than Freddie Garrity. Unlike their peers, the Hermits hadn’t dug through crates for imported blues records or paid their dues in sketchy German clubs. But Animals producer Mickie Most recognized the group’s fresh-scrubbed innocence as an opportunity to diversify his portfolio, pairing Noone’s child-actor cuteness with a poppier, less R&B sound designed to appeal to young girls. Rather than trying to sound American as possible, Herman’s Hermits emphasized their Manchester roots, treading the same music hall boards as Freddie and the Dreamers and singing in their own accents (or, sometimes, a put-on Cockney one). The experiment succeeded; the group became one of the most successful imports of the British Invasion, racking up more top 10 hits in the US than in their native country and briefly reaching near-Beatles levels of sales and popularity. The group only netted a single UK number one with “I’m Into Something Good,” not coincidentally the most American of their hits: a Goffin/King song marrying Beach Boys harmonies to a Motown beat. Meanwhile, many of their biggest American hits – both US number-ones, as well as “Leaning on the Lamp Post” (#9) and the Ray Davies-written “Dandy” (#5) – were never released at home, where they’d likely have been laughed off as too old-fashioned, too English, for a credible beat group. But, as with Freddie and the Dreamers before them, this acute foreignness just made Americans love them more.
“Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” sounds even less like a rock song than “I’m Telling You Now,” as befitting its origin in a 1963 television play called The Lads. The most prominent instrument is a guitar, yes, but it’s been muted to sound like a ukulele or a banjo; the bass and drums are shoved so far down in the mix as to be barely audible. The shuffling jauntiness of the instrumentation seems at odds with the song’s lyrics about the end of a young romance, but, like Noone’s straightforward, unsentimental reading, it’s an attempt to hide raw emotions behind a pleasant face. Despite his feelings for the girl, the narrator accepts her lack of reciprocation without kicking up a fuss or pleading for her return, anything that might embarrass her or make her feel guilty. Because he refuses to emphasize his own heartbreak, our hearts break for him. But even more than a song about the loss of first love, “Mrs. Brown” is a song about learning that two good people aren’t always good together, that no matter how much he loves her he can’t make her love him back. That the narrator needs to confide in his ex-girlfriend’s mother reminds you he’s still a kid; that he handles the rejection with dignity and considerateness shows he’s becoming an adult. For all the ridicule Herman’s Hermits got for being teen idol lightweights, it’s their very youth and lack of tough-guy posturing that makes the song. “Mrs. Brown” could easily have been a jokey novelty; instead, it’s a rather touching reflection on growing up. 7
Hit #1 on May 1, 1965; total of 3 weeks at #1
134 of 1008 #1’s reviewed; 13.29% through the Hot 100
A rundown of every #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, starting from the top (1958) and progressing in order. Ratings on a highly subjective 1-10 scale. Comments perpetually open. Supposedly published weekly.