Another feature of the charts which has been lost to time is the idea of multiple artists releasing the same song around roughly the same time. In this case we have the Number Two hit “Do You Want To Know A Secret”, a comparatively slight Lennon/McCartney* number from the debut Beatles album Please Please Me, which Billy J Kramer knocked out as a single the same year that album was released.
The Beatles version doesn’t even scrape past a two-minute running time – Kramer’s version extends that by a whole eight seconds. They even share the same producer, George Martin overseeing Kramer and his slightly drafted-in backing band The Dakotas. Indeed a deal with Parlophone and Martin was a condition of The Dakotas playing with Kramer at all – they only agreed once the contract was inked and it kind of shows (it’s worth noting in passing that the Beatles version is considerably better produced despite it being the same person responsible for both versions). The Beatles hit the top spot an astonishing four times in the in singles charts that year and none of them were “Do You Want To Know A Secret”, though it did eventually make it to Number Two in the U.S. charts in 1964. In other words, in 1963, when just about anything with the word “Beatles” attached to it would sell by the bucketload, even Brian Epstein – never a man scared of flogging dodgy product – and the band didn’t think this was worth chancing as a single.
With good reason, too. In this case it’s instructive to compare the Beatles version with the Kramer version. To be frank, the Kramer version just isn’t very good, though it does very clearly delineate why so much of 1963 reduces to The Beatles and then “pretty much all other recorded music”. Kramer’s version starts off with the faux-melodramatic “you’ll never know how much I really love you” while a strummed guitar underneath shudders to try and provide some feeling or sentiment, just as the Beatles version does. But in Kramer’s version it’s being played straight. On the Beatles version, with Harrison’s light vocal taking lead, it’s clearly being sung by someone aware of the silly, slightly corny nature of the material. Harrison is, in point of fact, somewhat taking the piss where Kramer just sings it as-is. And that’s the two versions in a nutshell. The Beatles version is funny, Kramer’s version is sincere. In that battle, The Beatles win hands down. “Do You Want To Know A Secret”, in the hands of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr, is mocking a style already redundant and about to be annihilated. In Kramer’s hands, it’s a sweetly delivered paean to faintly teenage-sounding gossip. In 1957 it might have been remarkable, or at the very least compelling. In 1963 it feels so long ago it might as well be like comparing silent movies with talkies.
Well, and then there’s the playing. Turns out that the Dakotas aren’t all that fantastic as a backing band anyway. Listen, especially, to drummer Tony Mansfield completely fail to land the transition from the snare being on the beat to it being on the off-beat at “say the words you long to hear”. Starr makes it sound so utterly effortless it’s practically off-handed (making things sound effortless is one of Starr’s strongest points as a drummer, in fact). Mansfield just can’t manage it with the same casualness and sounds like he stumbles every time the break comes up. He’s not alone though – the other big thing that’s lacking here is the bass. McCartney’s bass is all over the Beatles version, but – perhaps unsurprisingly – he captures the very 50’s feel of the material with ease. Genre pastiches are one of McCartney’s great strengths and it is, again, easy to under-estimate just how much skill it takes to make them look so easy. The bass (well, some of the bass) is present in the Kramer version, but it feels almost mechanical – there’s no ebb and flow to it and it lacks McCartney’s breezy delivery.
Kramer himself has a voice well-suited to this sort of material – it’s a bit winsome though not a poor fit for the song, but there is again the sense that Kramer is a bit out of time. If his career had started a few years earlier he’d have been perfectly in synch with the mood and music of the time. In 1963, he’s already yesterday’s man even as he’s scoring big hits with this sort of song. Tellingly, the Kramer version of this song is taken at a faster lick than the Beatles version – that ought to give it more energy but it achieves exactly the opposite, smoothing out the song’s genre origins in favour of something that sounds like everybody else. Any Mersey Beat band could have recorded this version of “Do You Want To Know A Secret” and have it sound like this – there’s just no colour or personality to the recording. This could be Gerry and The Pacemakers. Or the Dave Clark Five. Or Freddie And The Dreamers. Or any one of a hundred other copycats.
By contrast, only The Beatles could have recorded their version. It’s full of humour and good cheer (Lennon and McCartney are audibly grinning doing the intentionally-dumb “doo-da-doo” backing vocals), it doesn’t at all take itself seriously, and just relaxes and enjoys being a two-minute knockabout designed to give Harrison something to sing on the album. It’s not that Kramer’s version isn’t remarkable, it’s that it often barely even manages to be ordinary.
It might seem somewhat unfair to compare the Kramer version to the Beatles version. After all, who comes off well, especially in 1963, in comparison to The Beatles? But it’s worth remarking on simply because this really isn’t a good single, but it is a representative one. The charts are going to be flooded with this kind of stuff – a fair few of which will also be written by Lennon/McCartney – and it’s the sort of hack-work cash-in that’s still around. One break-out hit inspires a multitude of copycats until the seam is worked out and we move on to something else. That’s what Mersey Beat was. A trend that was inspired by the arrival of one band that no other band was able to equal. Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas certainly weren’t up to the task. They’d have a few more hits then peter out around the middle of the decade, their one-trick pony finally taken to the knacker’s yard. Their version of “Do You Want To Know A Secret” all-too-well captures why they weren’t able to survive. And why the writers of the song were.
* Look, I know they’re McCartney/Lennon on Please Please Me before the more common usage takes over on With The Beatles, but I’m sticking to the most well-known version for the sake of simplicity and to not look like too much of a pedant.
What Else Happened In 1963?
The 60’s have arrived! But, also, they very much haven’t! The Beatles are the big news this year, obviously, with those four number one singles and a number one album with Please Please Me. And then another number one album in the shape of With The Beatles and its iconic half-light cover. Not bad for a year’s work. Elsewhere though, its remarkable how little has changed. The album charts are still full of schlocky leftovers from the Long Fifties in the shape of Dean Martin, Pat Boone and Tony Bennett. Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra have albums out too, as does Sammy Davis Jr. But there are signs that things are starting to shift. Elvis doesn’t even crack the top five songs of the year – no surprises that number one is The Beatles with the ebullient “She Loves You”, but number two is the Kingsman’s “Louie Louie”. Get used to that riff – it ain’t going anywhere. Mersey Beat takes off in earnest, though listing all those bands would probably use up the whole of the internet. The Beach Boys have their own stab at joyfulness with Surfin’ U.S.A., Bob Dylan releases one of the most influential albums of all-time, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and Thelonious Monk releases the simply dazzling Monk’s Dream, so jazz is still very much A Thing. But, most importantly of all, one of the most glorious piece of music humanity has ever produced in millennia of existence is released in April of 1963 – Boots Randolph gives us the timeless, peerless, immortal glory of “Yakkity Sax”.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
Elvis started the year at Number Two with “Return To Sender”, not his finest work but not bad as far as post-drafting material goes. If you want some irony he was being held off the top spot by Cliff Richard… Richard himself spent a couple of weeks at Number Two with the blandly bland “Summer Holiday”, a bland hit which is very bland indeed. In some ways Richard is an interesting figure, having had approximately a bajllion hits across half a century, not one of which is genuinely well-regarded, and has had virtually zero impact on popular culture – a rare feat indeed (to be strictly fair, it’s not like popular culture has ever had much of an impact on him either). Anyway, no. The Crystals at least bring something a bit more interesting with “And Then He Kissed Me” for fans of Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound. Gerry And The Pacemakers, one of the least awful Mersey Beat groups, spent quite a few weeks occupying the Number Two slot with a number of different singles, one of which was their now-a-standard football-worrying “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Pass. Anyone remember the twee, forgotten “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto? No? Then let us quietly move on to 1964…
1. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
2. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
3. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
4. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”