Question – what genre is “Delilah” even in? It’s not really pop music, except in the literal sense that it was “popular” – “Delilah” was the sixth-biggest selling single in the UK in 1968, though even with those figures it didn’t propel it to the top of the charts. So popular but not really pop music in The Beatles or The Kinks sense of the phrase. It’s probably a ballad and maybe even a power ballad, a peculiar genre that simply won’t die and will provide steady incomes to everyone from Bonnie Tyler to Guns’n’Roses. It’s definitely a singalong, but is “singalong” even a genre? Probably not.
Like previous entry “Downtown” it’s largely orchestral in its construction rather than being based on the typical guitar-bass-drums set-up the majority of songs in 1968 were but “Downtown” doesn’t remotely sound like it belongs to the same genre as this ode to love, betrayal and murder. Indeed, in some ways songs like “Delilah” represent their own genre, and fellow Welsh leatherlungs Shirley Bassey neatly falls into this category – whatever it is – as well. The reason for all this genre questioning is simple – “Delilah” really isn’t like much else in the charts throughout 1968. It’s a year dominated by folk-rock, psychedelia, soul and the start of heavy rock. This song was held off the top spot by “Lady Madonna” and, um, Cliff Richard (“Congratulations”, which to be fair had the benefit of being the UK’s Eurovision entry that year – the UK lost to Spain by one point, so “Contratulations” but not, you know, contragulations). Yet it was vastly successful despite being so apparently rootless.
Of course, some of the song’s success can be put down to the person belting it out. Tom Jones has more power in his voice than most small countries could muster collectively and the sheer volume and strength of his performance go a long way to selling what is, in truth, a faintly ridiculous premise. Jones had plenty of hits under his belt by this point in his career, including a Bond theme which similarly utilises the unstoppable force of his voice, but “Delilah” is… well, it’s quite something. The lyrics to “Thunderball” don’t make a lot of literal sense and skate by on the power of Jones’s performance, but the lyrics to “Delilah” involve a man passing by his girlfriend’s house, seeing her in flagrante with another man, so he kills her because he feels slighted and waits for the police to turn up and arrest him while asking forgiveness from his now-dead ex. Pretty catchy theme for a number two hit, right?
Much of Tom Jones’s performance obscures this, not because he’s not singing it well but in fact quite the reverse. He sings it so well it’s hard to actually concentrate on what it is he’s singing because the performance is so captivating. There are few voices in popular music quite like Tom Jones. It’s also vastly melodramatic – it’s hard to imagine a more melodramatic song really, and the melodrama of both the lyric and the delivery also slightly detract from the subject matter. It’s a dark subject matter, but it’s also clearly and demonstrably preposterous, and Jones’s performance leans heavily into this. It is, in other words, absurd in the most entertaining way possible. “Delilah” remains a favourite of Welsh rugby fans but in 2014 there was an attempt to get the fans to stop singing it at matches because it trivialised the murder of a woman. Talk about missing the point. If you’ve reached the point where you’re taking “Delilah” at face value it might be time to go and have a quiet sit-down and consider whether appreciating music is really for you.
Tom Jones wasn’t the first person to record “Delilah”. PJ Proby was, a year earlier. Go and have a listen to it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05araiOJNwM It’s almost exactly the same, except for not being remotely the same. The instrumentation is largely the same, even down to odd choices like the mariachi trumpets. The tempo is the same. Proby’s version ends with a flurry of those Spanish-or-Mexican sounding trumpets and fades out whereas the Jones version has that magnificent final note but other than that the songs have way more similarities than they have differences. PJ Proby sings the song decently. But Jones performs the song and it makes all the difference in the world. Key elements of the song here are singalong (the “why why why” and “my my my” refrains in the chorus) but nobody quite sings them like Jones can, and the difference between the two versions of the song show just what a difference choosing the right performer for the right song can make.
Here’s Jones, giving it laldy on TV a few years after the song became a hit. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S87jWwzvwd8 Just look at the way he’s performing it. He can barely keep the grin off his face. This is someone who loves performing this incredibly daft song, and it comes across in every second of screen-time – it’s downright charming. And that’s precisely what this song needs, not someone who can competently turn it out but someone who can invest in it. It would be a tough call to say whether “Delilah” is Tom Jones’s defining song, though it’s certainly one of them alongside “It’s Not Unusual”, “Thunderball” and a handful of others. But if it’s not quite his defining song then it’s certainly a song that defines a lot about him. The voice. The melodrama. The ability to take almost any subject and make something of it.
And theres’s the fact that Jones almost always comes off simply as a nice guy – he can sing about murdering a lover who laughed in his face when caught cheating but come on. It’s Tom Jones! The 1973 performance above encapsulates that – he’s singing about a tragedy but he can’t repress the cheeky glint in his eye while he’s doing it. And that’s fine – Jones has always come across as a pretty likeable person in real life (well, until he grew that goatee and much of his self-awareness and humour rather evaporated) and it’s that charm, energy and enthusiasm that comes through on the song and truly animates it. And most of Jones’s songs, really. It’s just so clear how much he loves performing, and whether it’s a turned-up-to-eleven murder ballad like “Delilah” or something sweetly sentimental like “The Green Green Grass of Home” you can be certain that the now-Sir Tom Jones will be giving 110% in his performance and will never, ever give anything less. And you can’t ask for more than that, really.
What Else Happened in 1968?
Since we’re talking about singalongs it’s the year of “Hey Jude”, which is also the most popular song of the year though it’s deposed by Diana Ross and The Supremes in the U.S. charts. The number two most popular song this year is the peerless “What A Wonderful World”. Led Zeppelin play their first gig and Brian Jones plays his last with the Rolling Stones. Crosby, Stills and Nash get together, as do King Crimson. The Velvet Underground give us White Light / White Heat, a salutary warning to producers everywhere, and the Delfonics release their first album, La La Means I Love You. One of the icons of rock and roll, the Gibson Flying V, debuts so brace for a lot of strutting in the near future. Johnny Cash is At Folsom Prison and also marries June Carter. Tyrannosaurus Rex release their debut album, the snappily-titled My People Were Fair and Had Sky In Their Hair… But Now They’re Content To Wear Stars On Their Brows. At the other end of the spectrum the Beatles release The Beatles. Syd Barret exits Pink Floyd to be replaced by Dave Gilmour, and James Brown makes his famous television appearance appealing for calm following the murder of Martin Luther King. The Who being recording Tommy, Janis Joplin goes solo, and Peter Tork bails out of the Monkees. And the musical Hair debuts, which means the Age Of Aquarius dawns upon us whether we like it or not.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
Yes, it’s not a riot of quality at the number two spot in 1968 as far as the UK goes, unless your idea of “quality” is “The Mighty Quinn” or “Cinderella Rockefeller”. There’s a very high turnover – including our old friend Mr Humperdinck, who’s reduced to being “A Man Without Love” – but most of it is, bluntly, trash even though right at the end of the year we get “Build Me Up Buttercup” by the Foundations and the sweetly stupid “Lily The Pink” by the Scaffold. Across the pond things are a bit better – Aretha Franklin’s cover of “Chain Of Fools” for one. Aretha’s awesome – the song not so much. On both sides of the Atlantic Union Gap put in time at number 2 with “Young Girl” (it makes it all the way in the U.S.), a deeply worrying song that I don’t think you could get away with these days. Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs Robinson” peaks at number 2 in the States but honestly I’ve never really gotten the appeal of Simon & Garfunkel (“The Sound Of Silence” apart). I mean, we could have talked about Richard Harris’s beyond-hilarious “MacArthur Park” but… maybe not. “Classical Gas” also peaks at number 2. I shall say no more.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
3. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
4. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
5. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
6. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
7. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
8. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
9. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”