There’s a convention among obituary writers to celebrate the life, to gloss over the unfortunate flaws and omissions, and stress the positive aspects of the life we’ve lost. We are all people. We all do stupid inadvisable things. We are part of the human family. Songwriter Les Reed died 15 April 2019. Yet how is it possible to ever forgive and forget the appalling “Delilah”? It was no.2 on the chart – below the Beatles “Lady Madonna”, for two weeks from 30 March 1968, and went on to define Tom Jones’ career as a vocalist, and Les Reed’s as a writer. Barry Mason sketched out the lyrical structure around Reed’s title and narrative, in which the character sees himself as betrayed, waits until the break of dawn for his love-rival to leave, then stabs her to death. It could feasibly be argued that it follows the English murder-ballad Folk tradition? And yes, we retain a nostalgic affection for the old garish paperback cover-art where the vampish jezebel drives men to lusts of uncontrollable passion. But we knew no better back then. Yet this unreconstructed tale celebrates violence against women, while perpetuating the old discredited gender-roles of male control-possessiveness and the female as madonna-whore. It is best treated, as it was by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, as a grotesque cartoon. That it’s audience tend to be predominantly the very women who should be most offended by its message, who see him as in some way a ‘real’ man, opposed to the post-modern wimp in touch with his feminine side, and themselves as perhaps capable of exerting charms sufficient to excite murderous passions in the brute male heart, is one of the conundrums that must baffle and confuse gender politics.
He was born in Woking, Surrey 24 July 1935. An accomplished musician playing jazz piano around London night clubs, following the obligatory National Service stint, Leslie David Reed joined the John Barry Seven in 1959 in time for the group’s resident stint on BBC-TVs ‘Drumbeat’, with band spots as well as backing guest Pop stars, including a lucrative link-up for hit singles and tours with Adam Faith. With the explosive arrival of the Beat Boom, Reed hooked up with Geoff Stephens as a writing partnership, and scored with the catchy up-tempo “Tell Me When” for the attractively bland Solihull-based Applejacks, which peaked at no.5, 18 April 1964 on the ‘NME’ chart. Then “Here It Comes Again” for the appealing harmonies of the Fortunes which went one better, all the way to no.4 (6 November 1965). So far, so good. There was also “Leave A Little Love” for Lulu, and “There’s A Kind Of Hush” – a soft-core late chart hit for Herman’s Hermits in 1967, soon lucratively revived by the Carpenters. The syrupy plaintive Music Hall styling was replicated for a new partnership with Barry Mason, which took the big-ballad “Everybody Knows” into the Top Ten for the Dave Clark Five. Although Rock was evolving, and bands were now expected to originate their own material, by now Les Reed was a jobbing songwriter and arranger with a portfolio of successful compositions.
Then there was Tom Jones. Although he consistently claims Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard as role models, his breakthrough came at a time when hair was getting longer, Mod R&B was becoming more raucous, and he already represented an out-dated concept of unsubtle masculinity. He’d recorded with Joe Meek – two failed singles “Little Lonely One” and “Lonely Joe” which only served to increase his paranoia about Gay people, then he made a quite respectable Rock ‘n’ Roll shot at Ronnie Love’s “Chills And Fever”, before Les Reed teamed with manager Gordon Mills – a former member of the Viscounts vocal group, to write “It’s Not Unusual”. Rejected by Sandie Shaw, the bump-‘n’-grind song took Tom Jones to no.1, and for Reed formed the basis of a mutually beneficial teaming with Mills stable of artists. Their song “The Last Waltz” topped the chart for six weeks through September 1967, closing nights at Mecca Ballrooms and Locarno’s across the UK, in direct opposition to everything we think of as the ‘Summer Of Love’.
Englebert Humperdinck, under a number of guises including ‘Gerry Dorsey’ had been hanging around the fringes of Pop for some time. There’s an argument that – when it comes to public taste, a movement towards the extremes in one direction provokes a backlash towards the other, creating a polarization. With Pop dominated by hard relentlessly angry and aggressive young bands like the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Small Faces and the Pretty Things, a contrasting soporific tedium provides counterbalance. Who even waltzes anymore? Since Chubby Checker released dancers from strict time with the Twist – then the Locomotion, the Mashed Potato and beyond, the only time you get to see partners matching steps is on TVs laughably sequinned ‘Come Dancing’. There were oldsters who sagely advise that, learn to dance and you’ll fit in at any social function. And maybe something like the ‘Court School Of Dancing’ was a useful place to pick up girls. But already the world was moving on, it would be more important to know how to Macarena, Time-Warp, Gangnam Style or Floss than it was to waltz. Yet here was this tired old tuxedo’d crooner, this relic from antiquity, with the dull dull dull sing-along dirge around an antiquated Mills & Boon concept of romance. Pete Townshend was virulent in his hatred of this easy-listening invasion clogging up ‘our’ charts. He argues there should be another separate Top Twenty listing for properly relevant teen hits, anticipating the Indie charts that were still a decade away. Yet there was worse to come.
Elvis Presley could never quite get to grips with the British Invasion. Despite being rooted in the same raw R&B, Blues and Rockabilly traditions he’d used at ‘Sun Records’, he could never come to terms with their hair – although his own sideburns had created ructions, or their casual drug-use – although he’d been necking pills since his first Deep-South tours, or what he perceived as their effeminacy, but most of all, he couldn’t understand their sense of humour. By contrast, he could see, recognise and understand exactly what tight-trousered Tom Jones and Humperdinck were doing. It offered a rivalry he could deal with. And Elvis’ rich baritone lifts Geoff Stephens with Les Reed’s “Sylvia” above its schmaltzy potential.
Cheerfully likeable Des O’Connor had toured as compère of the 1958 Buddy Holly UK tour. As a comedian, quiz-show host and inoffensive butt of Morcambe & Wise jibes he was a reliably acceptable TV-face, but the Mason-Reed partnership inflicts his maudlin “I Pretend” all the way to no.3 in the singles chart in August 1968 (no.1 in rival ‘Record Retailer’ chart). And for every “To Make A Big Man Cry” co-written with Peter Callander and cut by PJ Proby, there was a banal “Tears Won’t Wash Away These Heartaches” for tatifillarious comedian Ken Dodd. And there was Kentucky-born Solomon King too. It sometimes seems that Les Reed, with his various co-writers, was keeping the flag flying for every uncool unhip person who found themselves sadly out of step with the new decade. Progress and experiment never figured in the equation. While everyone else was out chasing the holy grail of the next big Pop fad, he reasoned that squares buy records too, and happily put time in reverse to simpler less demanding days.
Even veteran Donald Peers, a star of the 1940s and 1950s with “If I Knew You Were Comin’ Id’ve Baked A Cake” and “In A Shady Nook By A Babbling Brook” unexpectedly found himself back in the top ten all the way to no.3 in March 1969 (in ‘Record Mirror’), courtesy of a Les Reed rewrite of Offenbach’s theme from ‘Tales Of Hoffmann’ restyled as “Please Don’t Go”. How could such anachronisms still exist in our shiny new counter-culture world? Les Reed was a jobbing songwriter. Perhaps there was even some satisfaction in gifting this venerable Welch Dance-Band Variety star with a final flourish of recognition? But as more and more singer-songwriters were becoming self-sufficient in material, Reed placed his songs where they could be most effective. He got hits where he could find them. And despite the derision of self-styled hiperati, those very-mainstream lyrically-unimaginative songs sold in their millions. A lot of people must have enjoyed these smooch-along anthems.
Otis Redding recorded “I’m Coming Home”. The Four Tops and even Marvin Gaye cut their takes of “It’s Not Unusual”. But oh mercy, there was even Manchester-born Malcolm Roberts with his frilly-front supper-club shirt and dickie-bow. Co-written with Barry Mason, Reed’s bromidic “Love Is All” got him to no.11, 20 December 1969, by sticking relentlessly with the formula that had already served him so well, with those same strings, the same low-operatic tenor, the same sickly sentimentalism oozing predictable lifts towards the same predictable emotional chorus. The mind-numbing limp lifeless vacuity is impossible to bear. I’d gladly take a thirty-second burst of the Electric Prunes over the entire Les Reed back-catalogue.
Even accepting the deference that obituary writers usually employ, and even after all this time, can we ever forgive him for “Delilah”? Emphatically no.
BY ANDREW DARLINGTON