‘Terry Wogan said it was the worst thing he’d ever heard!’: Brian May, Sugababes and more on hitting No 1

Popping to see Jagger, collaring Captain Tom on daytime TV or taking their dad’s advice – these artists share how they topped the singles charts

Connie Francis, Who’s Sorry Now? (1958)

I was all set to give up music for a scholarship at New York University. Then my father suggested that if I sang Who’s Sorry Now? – a song from 1923 – with rock’n’roll triplets, it would appeal to grown-ups and younger buyers. I hated it. I thought the song sounded “square” and right up to the last minute I didn’t want to record it. I went into the session with every intention of running out of time, but halfway through I asked the rhythm section to provide a stronger beat. I sang louder, and that second half is what most people recall. After I sang it on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand it took off in the States, but in the UK there were only two TV channels so it was entirely down to radio plays. Being No 1 felt overwhelming, but I’m continually amazed by the reception given to what’s been called “the ultimate revenge song” by younger generations. Just recently it’s been used as Disney’s Cruella trailer and in Don’t Worry Darling, starring Harry Styles, which amazes me. Connie Francis

Chris Farlowe, Out of Time (1966)

I knew the Stones before they were the Stones. They’d come along when I was playing London clubs with the Thunderbirds. A few years later we rekindled our friendship and I signed to [Stones manager] Andrew Loog Oldham’s label, Immediate. One day Mick Jagger said, “I’d like to write some songs for you, Chris.” He sat down in his house, played a couple of numbers for me on guitar and one of them was Out of Time. A month later we were in the studio with an orchestra. Jimmy Page played on it – he was a session guitarist before starting Led Zeppelin. One night I watched England win the World Cup on telly in the pub, then I played a gig in Wales with an unknown Tom Jones. The following morning my mother woke me to say “There’s all these photographers at the front door.” I went down in my pyjamas and they told me I was No 1. I’m 82 now and still performing. I played the Palladium last year. If I didn’t play Out of Time they’d throw bottles at me. Chris Farlowe

Lieutenant Pigeon, Mouldy Old Dough (1972)

We were a serious experimental group called Stavely Makepeace but started making novelty instrumentals for a giggle. We recorded Mouldy Old Dough in Rob Woodward’s mum Hilda’s front room in Coventry. She played piano and Rob told me, “When we get to the chorus bit, just growl ‘mouldy old dough’.” At first, it died completely. Then a Belgian TV news programme used it and we went to No 3 in Belgium. After that it snowballed. We sold two million copies worldwide and spent four weeks at No 1 in the UK. At our first Top of the Pops I watched Marmalade laughing through their slot because off-camera their roadie was baring his arse at them. So when we did our Christmas show we had a drink, dressed as pantomime characters and put a decoy pigeon on the piano. You can hear our laughter on the broadcast. The song gave us a good few years and there’s a box set out next year. It didn’t sink in how big it was until I was gazing out of the night train and the chap from Decca said, “Each of those lights represents someone who was watching you last night.” Nigel Fletcher

Joe Dolce, Shaddap You Face (1981)

I’d sold my house and moved with my wife and kids from Ohio to Australia to try and make it. It was tough. We split up after a year, but within six months I met the love of my life and had a No 1. I’m Italian-American, and wrote Shaddap You Face from memories of growing up in the kitchen, where everyone talked in broken English. When I first performed it, drunken crowds shouted “Hey!” after each line, so I put that in the song. I recorded it in a studio owned by Mike Brady, who’d had hits, He said “This song’s gonna be a monster” and released it first. In England, Terry Wogan said “This is the worst thing I’ve ever heard”, so the song got lots of attention. CBS flew me over to do three TV shows and by the time I left, it was already No 3. It went to No 1 in 11 countries. In the UK it kept Ultravox’s Vienna off the top for three weeks, which drove Midge Ure crazy, but [keyboard player] Billy Currie said, “That’s a good song. I wish we’d written it.” Joe Dolce

Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody (1975 and 1991)

Bohemian Rhapsody was clearly a very important song for Freddie [Mercury], about transformation. It wasn’t unusual for him to come in with various sections of something he’d been working on and tinkle on the piano. When we put it all together the record company said “We can’t get a six minute single on the radio.” We refused to edit it. We had a sort of launch before it was mixed. Kenny Everett stole a rough cut and played it on the radio, and it turned out it was radio friendly because it got everyone’s attention. We hadn’t liked doing Top of The Pops because they made you mime on podiums, so in three hours we made the video which became a huge talking point. We’d just reached No 2 with Killer Queen, so took the chance that if Bohemian got to No 1 they’d have to show it. The single spent nine weeks at No 1 and there was such a celebratory feeling our manager made us lovely gold plaques. After Freddie’s passing it was the Christmas No. 1 for a second time, raising £1m for the Terence Higgins Trust. Young people think it’s always been there, like Beethoven or [Elgar’s] Pomp and Circumstance. Freddie would have loved that. Brian May

Sugababes, About You Now (2007)

I recently found one of my journals from when I was 12 years old and one of my goals was to have a No 1. I was such a dreamer that it didn’t feel like that much of a surprise when it really happened. About You Now was our sixth and last. We’d normally co-written but that song came to us from Dr Luke and Cathy Dennis. It was quite American-sounding, whereas we’d always sounded British. Dr Luke was quite rigid about the sound and I fought for my ad libs, but it’s a very catchy song. After it was No 1, I suddenly read that I was out of the group. Nobody had told me. I had a long time to unpick it, but I’ve worked through any feelings of betrayal and I don’t associate the song with any sadness. It’s a reflective, romantic song that takes on a more nostalgic meaning now we’re back together [as the original trio]. Onstage I’ve noticed that we’ve been singing it to each other. I’ve been able to pause to take it in, because you can’t relive those moments. Keisha Buchanan

Gabrielle Aplin, The Power of Love (2012)

I’d been doing YouTube videos in my bedroom, then I signed to Parlophone. It was all very exciting. I was asked to pitch for the next John Lewis Christmas advert, which was huge then. Everybody loved them. I went in the studio on the Saturday and submitted the song for the Monday deadline. They’d chosen the Frankie Goes to Hollywood song with a very specific brief: “no lyrics on this bit” and so on. I wanted it to sound wintry, but not negative. When we did the advert, the snowman animation hadn’t been finished, so I was singing to this little red circle, but I loved it. I was buzzing when the song went in at 36. Then it started climbing the charts, the label showed us a graph which showed we were trailing Bruno Mars. My manager said, “Well, your graph is wrong.” Waking up to discover I was No 1 was crazy. I was 20, but it gave me a platform for my own songs. I’ve got a new album out in January and I’ll always be grateful for that opportunity. Gabrielle Aplin

Captain Tom Moore, Michael Ball and the NHS Voices of Care Choir, You’ll Never Walk Alone (2020)

I was poorly with Covid and saw Captain Tom on TV walking round his garden to raise money for the NHS. Then I got him on my radio show and he was amazing. BBC Breakfast asked me to sing a song to celebrate his 100th lap, so I sang You’ll Never Walk Alone over Zoom. I could see him singing along so jokingly said “Tom, we should do a duet.” Then I thought, “Could we possibly do that for his 100th birthday in three days?” I had a backing track from a previous recording. Tom read the lyrics like a poem but kept bursting into song. I sang in my bedroom. We had about 200 socially distanced NHS choristers. Everything was done remotely: we finished it at 3.30am and it went live on Zoe Ball’s show within hours. When we were neck and neck in the charts with the Weeknd, he tweeted his millions of followers asking them to get Tom to No 1. The song raised £33m and Tom loved every minute. I’d only managed No 2, 34 years previously, but it wasn’t about me. It was a spontaneous, precious moment, a man nearing the end of his life who was able to do something extraordinary. Michael Ball

Contributor

As told to Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘Ultimately, you’re in the hands of the public’: has streaming killed the one-hit wonder?
A passing chart sensation is still a matter of magic, and in the age of TikTok it seems there are more contenders than ever

Rhian Jones

16, Nov, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
‘I’d be stupid to stop it now!’ The man with the only complete collection of UK No 1 singles
Dave Watson is the proud owner of 1,404 chart-toppers. He looks back on three decades of tracking down obscure vinyl records – and reveals how he copes in the digital era

Safi Bugel

18, Nov, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
The 100 greatest UK No 1s: 100-1
Look back on our complete countdown of the greatest UK No 1s, from the Beatles to Baby D, and So Solid Crew to Suzi Quatro

Ben Beaumont-Thomas, Alexis Petridis and Laura Snapes

05, Jun, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Brian May was 'near death' after suffering heart attack while gardening
The Queen guitarist said doctors found three blocked arteries after he experienced a ‘small’ heart attack

Laura Snapes

25, May, 2020 @11:39 AM

Article image
Brian May blames meat-eating for rise of coronavirus
Queen guitarist and new vegan says ‘eating animals has brought us to our knees as a species’ despite source of pandemic still unclear

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

15, Apr, 2020 @9:03 AM

Article image
Brian May taken to hospital after tearing buttock muscles while gardening
Queen guitarist says ‘I won’t be able to walk for a while’ after injury during lockdown and lambasts Boris Johnson over coronavirus

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

08, May, 2020 @7:51 AM

Article image
The UK Singles Chart is 70. Is it time for it to retire?
Once the top 40 was the undisputed soundtrack of a nation. But in an era when you can have a platinum record that gets to No 81, does it even make sense any more?

Alexis Petridis

14, Nov, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Diana Ross, Queen and Lin-Manuel Miranda to play Party at the Palace
Saturday evening’s three-hour event at Buckingham Palace will include musical theatre and pop stars

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

03, Jun, 2022 @3:12 PM

Article image
Queen and David Bowie recorded Cream covers in Under Pressure sessions
A new interview with Roger Taylor and Brian May reveals the existence of recordings born from a boozy Swiss jam session

Laura Snapes

11, Mar, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
Brian May’s 3D pictures capture Queen in all their pomp
Guitarist’s latest volume of stereoscopic images shows the making and touring of News of the World 40 years ago

Maev Kennedy

28, Oct, 2017 @8:00 AM