If there was such a thing as a history of taxi drivers, I would have earned my place in the index as the worst ever. I knew the way to nowhere, and my car kept breaking down.
And that is how, sitting waiting for my next job, I came to write Car 67.
As a cabbie, I was Driver 67 – Car 67 was my call sign. Except I never got a call. I was so bad as a cabbie, I never earned enough to pay the rent on the radio. So it was, dreaming of life with a radio, that I imagined the call sign, “Car 67, Car 67, where are you?” And within minutes, there it was, fully formed in my head. The story, the hook, even the tune.
I drove straight home and picked up my guitar before I could forget it. I demo’d it on my trusty Revox reel to reel.
My brother-in-law came over to listen to it. He said, “It’s missing a middle eight.” And he came up with a chord sequence to which I then added the lyrics: “To tell you the truth, I had a bad bad night…..”
For 35 years I resented this song. I never intended to write a novelty song, nor, obviously, to become a one hit wonder. But last year, my friend John Williams tore me off a strip, telling me to “get over it” and start using the ‘brand’.
And then I got to thinking. For all its apparent simplicity, the talent involved in this record is quite staggering.
For a start, my brother-in-law is Pete Zorn. If you haven’t heard of him (no reason you should have, unless you’re a music nerd) Google him. This is a guy who can bring a guitar, a bass, the whole sax family, a flute, a tambourine, and his voice onto a stage and be a match for pretty much any musician.
The drummer was Richard Burgess, who later went on to do many notable things, including playing with Landscape, having hits with Einstein A Go Go and Norman Bates.
The engineer was Simon Heyworth, who never, not even once, mentioned that he’d been co-producer on Tubular Bells.
And then there was Bill Zorn, Pete’s brother, who wrote the B-side, Communications Breakdown, which made a massive contribution to us getting played on the radio (I’ll explain). Bill is a phenomenal banjo player who now fronts the legendary Kingston Trio, constantly touring America.
We made the record for £800, and it sold over half a million copies. £800 was cheap, even in 1978. So the record company made a lot of profit. Did we get our royalties? What do you think…
And how did we get it into the charts? Back then, you needed Radio 1 and I wasn’t about to hang around waiting for the record company to do the business. I got the hottest plugger in London (the guys you employ to get radio play) and instead of a fee – which might have been £500 – I offered him the publishing on the B-side. That eventually earned him about £10,000, nearly a year’s salary.
Even so, he was slow off the mark. After a couple of weeks of nothing happening, I chased him around London. (He was, honestly, hiding from me). Eventually, I tracked him down to his gym, and cornered him in the sauna. There’s nothing like being bollocked by a naked man when you’re bollock naked in front of a bunch of other men with their bollocks out. Within two weeks Car 67 was Record Of The Week on The Kid Jensen Show. And off we went.
Because I was a journalist, well known in the music industry, the publicists decided to shroud The Driver in secrecy. This led to a lot of speculation. Some of it was obvious – I was Jasper Carrott in disguise. Some of it was ludicrous – I was Eric Clapton having a laugh.
But when the call came for Top Of The Pops, I was outed.
Before we did TOTP we were selling 5,000 copies a day. After, the orders came in at 20,000 a day. That was a number one, right there. I went down to the south of France, to the MIDEM music festival, fully expecting that when the chart was posted up on the Tuesday, we would be Top 3.
When Tuesday came around, we had dropped to number 11. Bruce Welch was standing next to me. The Shadows were in the charts with Don’t Cry For Me Argentina and had moved up.
“Bloody hell, Bruce,” I said. “How many f****** copies did you sell last week?” About 10,000, he said. What, a day? No, in the week. “Mind you,” he said, “they were all through Woolworths”. (Woolworths sales had a massively disproportionate effect on chart position back then).
Turned out, when I ranted at my label, that they were third in the queue at the pressing plant, and had managed to squeeze only a fraction of the 120,000 orders out of the plant and into the shops.
So: not just a novelty record; not just a one hit wonder; but not even a Number One!
The final sting in this tale is that while we were promoting this record, Pete Zorn got a call to play sax on a session with one of his regular stars. (Pete contributed that great sax on the ‘outro’ of Car 67). Because he couldn’t make the session, he suggested Raf Ravenscroft.
Have you guessed what it was yet?
Of course you have. It was Baker Street, by Gerry Rafferty. That could have been Pete, that could. (The solo was written by Rafferty, not vamped on the spot, as some would have you believe.)
Meanwhile here is a very nice appreciation of Car 67 by someone who dismisses the novelty value in favour of something a little more interesting. For which, many, many thanks.
Great story, Paul, as always. I remember you bringing the track in to my then manager’s office in Denmark Street, and we all thought it was a smash. When I saw you on TOTP in ’78 I literally jumped out of my chair shouting, “It’s Paul!” A weird throwback to 1963 when my sister used to shout “It’s Paul!” at the telly, though that was at the only slightly more famous Mop-top version.
You should post the Top of the Pops video. You look so young and sweet, despite the fake(?) moustache! And do tell us the story of Headlights … what was that about?
Definitely a fake moustache! Story of Headlights coming up in a few weeks, promise. You might be surprised.
You’re more than welcome, Paul, and thanks again for allowing me to host the track.
I wish I’d spent more time writing and editing that blog entry, if I’m honest. There are just some months when you have to write a few entries on the fly or write absolutely nothing at all. However, I do stand by my overall assessment of the track. The word “novelty” is misappropriated a lot, I find, and often randomly thrown in the direction of one-hit wonders or tracks with a particular gimmick in them. Like Keith West’s “Teenage Opera” singles, there’s far too much care and attention to detail in “Car 67” (and melancholy) to dismiss it as a jokey production line gimmick. There are no weak links in the single at all, and it’s a brilliant piece of songwriting.
This comment is from David who hosts the Left and to the Back website which discusses rare and unusual songs from the vaults. There’s a link in my last paragraph, above. And thanks David for your very kind words.
Apart from my job on Music Week I was never remotely involved in the business of recording records. But one of my perks was that I did got to go to several Midems. What fun I had! When I remember it I’ll tell you how I ended on the yacht of a famous American pulp fiction author courtesy of a beautiful lady.
I think you do remember, Mike. You’re just teasing us!
Well Paul it all came flooding back yesterday in the pub. As production editor my job was to accompany a big bundle of Music Weeks hot off the press to the Palais de Festivales. I used to arrive around lunchtime Wednesdays. I wasn’t under any obligation to hunt down stories so I spent the time enjoying myself, ie drinking mostly. One year some record company PR invited four journalists to a very posh nightclub. I was one of them. Mysteriously three ladies soon joined us. I’m pretty certain the PR organised it although they were not hookers. Quick as a flash the three other journalists were chatting them up leaving me sitting out like a sore thumb. But then one of them disappeared. It wasn’t to the bathroom – he was gone too long. So I started chatting to the girl he was with. We spent the evening dancing and drinking. Then we got a taxi back to the centre of Cannes and she took me out onto the huge yacht of millionaire pulp fiction writer Harold Robbins. How we got to it I don’t know. Maybe it was tied up at a pier. I’ve no memory of what happened on the yacht and I don’t think I met Harold Robbins. We then a got a taxi back to the lady’s apartment. She told me she was one of Robbins’ assistants/secretaries. Anyway she invited me in. One thing led to another and we ended up in bed together. But, alas, nothing happened. She appeared to be in a deep sadness over the loss of her previous lover. I left the next morning and never saw her again.
It occurred to me as I was writing this why had she a flat? Why wasn’t she living on the yacht? I don’t mind relating these stories anymore because I’m 73 and it simply reminds me of the great times I had in the swinging sixties. Maybe there’s a song somewhere in it Paul?