Music Radio Sixties

Domestic Substitution for International Hits

For a brief period in the mid-1960s In both Canada and Australia, a sub-industry grew up of local performers covering international hit records. In some instances the local outfit was able to record and release their version before the original single made it to the domestic market. This phenomenon was closely associated with the 1964 – 1966 “beat boom” era; earlier, the domestic groups, recording industry, and radio environment were still rather primitive and could not compete with international (particularly US) product, while later in the decade the premium placed on originality pushed the “cover band” to the fringes. Furthermore, performers realized that recording an original song would create much more net revenue than sending royalties off to a foreign songwriter.

In many cases, there was somebody in a group or a record company with “connections” in the UK or US, who would be able to jump on new (or even yet-to-be-released) records and ship them over to Canada or Australia so the local performer could get the jump on it. At other times, a worldwide hit song would emerge, attract dozens of quick cover versions, and a local radio station or promoter would have a financial interest in getting the cover aired rather than the original. There was also a little cottage industry focused on recording songs that major groups (particularly The Beatles) had not issued as singles themselves.

So at the time, many Canadians would be far more familiar with the local cover version and would not have heard the “original”. However, the dominance of US-based programmers in formulating “oldies” radio playlists in recent years means that Canadians have now memorized the “original” international hit version rather than the one they actually sang along to in the Sixties.

A classic example of this phenomenon is the well-known “Hang On Sloopy”, the #1 US smash from 1965. Almost everyone would now say, “oh yeah, that’s The McCoys, with a young Rick Derringer on guitar” covering The Vibrations’ 1964 original (itself a US Top 30 hit). But the fact is that, in Canada, The McCoys never dented the national Top 100 chart – that’s because Toronto’s Little Caesar and The Consuls had released their version (as “My Girl Sloopy”) two months earlier and made #3 in RPM’s Top 100, and #8 in the influential CHUM Toronto chart. Yet, in the 21st century, how often have Canadians been fed The McCoys’ version compared to Little Caesar’s?

A good example of the Beatles cover industry is Greg Hamon’s 1966 single of “Here, There, and Everywhere”, which made the Canadian Top 100. Since the song was never released by The Beatles as a single, Hamon (pen name of Greg Hambleton, noted Red Leaf producer and songwriter) was able to ride their coattails. The Stitch In Time, from Halifax, had a Canadian Top 40 hit with their version of “Got To Get You In To My Life” at the start of 1967; the song from mid-1966’s Revolver LP had not released as a single by The Beatles. A similar situation is “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong”, which made the RPM Top 40 in November 1967 for The Guess Who, while the original (composed by fellow Winnipegger Neil Young) was left as an album track for Buffalo Springfield’s first LP in 1966.

The British Modbeats (from St. Catharines, Ontario) kept busy scouring the UK record bins for songs to cover, and they picked a good one in The Spencer Davis Group’s “Somebody Help Me”. It had been a UK #1 smash upon its release in March 1967; The Modbeats’s quick cover entered the Canadian Top 40 in April 1967, peaking at #29 in May. It wasn’t until June that the original was released in North America, and with its impact pre-empted by the Modbeats, Spencer Davis stalled at #37. It may be noted that the Canadian market was diverse, so The British Modbeats may have hit in some cities and been ignored in others, while the later Spencer Davis Group single could be seen as “the hit” in places that hadn’t played the earlier version. 

New York group The Tokens had a substantial US hit with “He’s In Town”, beginning its chart run in August 1964. Within two months, English outfit The Rockin’ Berries had their version released in the UK, and took it to #3 there, as well as #11 in both Canada and Australia. In Canada, both versions were hits at the same time; The Tokens made #20. Ottawa’s The Townsmen revived it three years later and made the RPM Top 100.

One reversed situation was The Bradfords, who were an obscure UK group that emigrated to Canada and began touring and recording; their first and only Canadian chart entry was “Leaning On a Lamp Post”, which peaked at #33 in RPM in October 1965. Yet six months later, Herman’s Hermits had a worldwide (except UK) Top Ten smash with the tune; they made #4 RPM and #2 CHUM with it.

There was another odd situation in August 1966, when Canada’s The Carlton Showband and Ireland’s The Abbey Tavern Singers both charted simultaneously with the singalong Irish pub song, titled “The Merry Ploughboy (In The Green)” and “Off To Dublin In The Green” respectively. The Abbey Tavern Singers’ version had gained some exposure in a TV commercial, while the Carlton Showband (who had their own TV show) were quick to jump on it. So RPM simply co-listed both versions as they spent the next ten weeks climbing as high as #4 in the country. One or the other version was the “local hit” depending on where you were across Canada.

The Esquires (from Ottawa) covered the Buddy Holly chestnut “Love’s Made a Fool Of You” to great success in the fall of 1965, cracking the Canadian Top 20. Seven months later, the Bobby Fuller IV took their version to #26 in Billboard Pop, and Canadians put it to #22 despite having heard The Esquires so recently. This was likely that case that, in the fragmented Canadian radio picture, some cities picked up on The Esquires while others didn’t hear the song until the Bobby Fuller version got played.

Even Gordon Lightfoot got in on the act; his version of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” went to #3 in Canada in late 1965, whereas it wasn’t even released by Dylan until mid-66, as the b-side of “I Want You”. Similarly, Tom Northcott made #20 in Canada in mid-1967 with his cover of Donovan’s “Sunny Goodge Street”, while the original was on a simultaneous release as the b-side of “Summer Day Reflection Song”, a non-hit for Scotsman.

And finally, one of the strangest situations in Canadian 60s pop arose when The Royal Guardsmen (a Florida teen group) began to explode with their novelty “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” in December 1966. This was just over a year after Charles Schulz’s popular Snoopy cartoon had introduced the dog’s dream of battling the German WWI flying ace, Baron von Richtofen. Schultz sued the group over the use of the title character, so just in case, the group recorded a version entitled “Squeaky vs. the Black Knight”.  Squeaky was a “buck-toothed beaver” and “Red Baron” was changed to “Black Knight”, while all the other lyrics remained unchanged, as did the music. Released only in Canada while the US lawsuit was getting sorted out, “Squeaky” actually hit the RPM chart at #73 in Canada on Dec. 19, 1966. Squeaky and The Black Knight lyrics never made much sense without the “Snoopy” tie-in, and Canadians in border cities could hear the real thing on US radio stations. Meanwhile, Schultz won the suit and was awarded royalties but permitted the song to stand, and the “Snoopy” original had already begun to climb the US charts. With the issue resolved, Laurie quickly pulled the Canadian disc and replaced it with “Red Baron”, which continued its rapid rise to #1.