The Number Ones: The New Vaudeville Band’s “Winchester Cathedral”
In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The New Vaudeville Band – “Winchester Cathedral”
HIT #1: December 3, 1966
STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks
Look. I try to be an open-minded music fan. I believe there’s good in every genre. I believe that, if you try hard enough, you can hear what the people who love the music hear in it. To claim that an entire wing of musical history is no good is to act in bad faith. But even I have my limits. There is at least one genre of music that sets my teeth on edge and makes me hate the world and everything in it. And that genre is British music hall. So: Fuck “Winchester Cathedral.”
Music hall, the ribald British barroom music that was popular around the turn of the century, had already had an impact on the American charts by the time the New Vaudeville Band came around; Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” was an adaptation of an old music hall song. And music hall’s influence would linger. Sometime around 1967, the Beatles got really into fucking around with music hall and made a bunch of records that continue to infuriate me to no end. But the New Vaudeville Band’s “Winchester Cathedral” is as pure a shot of old-school music hall as you’ll ever find in this column, and I hate it so much.
The New Vaudeville Band was the creation of Geoff Stephens, a London songwriter and producer who wrote big hits for some of his country’s most middle-of-the-road stars in the ’60s. The New Vaudeville Band wasn’t even a band; it was just a bunch of studio musicians. (Stephens would eventually form a band and tour it hard once “Winchester Cathedral” blew up. Future Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant would oversee them, because the world is weird.) “Winchester Cathedral” wasn’t meant to blow up. Stephens was just having fun dicking around with this terrible, terrible form of music. Singer John Carter (not the guy from Mars) did his best to sing like the old music hall star Rudy Valée (not the “Womp Womp” guy), to the point where he sang through his hands so that he’d sound like he was using a megaphone.
The end result is so obnoxious that it almost beggars belief. A bunch of tubas and bassoons fart around, backing up a whistling melody that will force itself into your skull for days on end. The rhythm plods along in a clumsy and graceless clompity-clomp. A few guitars — some fuzzy, some not — do folk-rock things, which do not make the music hall sound any more tolerable. Carter squeaks through his nose at the titular cathedral. He’s mad that the cathedral “just stood and you watched when my baby left town.” Carter thinks the cathedral should’ve done something to stop his baby leaving town, even though it’s a medieval edifice that doesn’t care about anybody’s feelings. It’s just so fucking dumb.
“Winchester Cathedral” doesn’t even seem like a real song. It seems like a joke song that you’d encounter on The Muppets. But it is real. It’s so real that it managed to knock two classic pop songs out of the top spot — it was #1 in non-consecutive weeks — and it kept Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow” out of the #1 spot. Everything about “Winchester Cathedral” just sucks. Its mere existence is ruining my day.
BONUS BEATS: One of the songs that New Vaudeville Band mastermind Geoff Stephens co-wrote was the pretty good “Lights Of Cincinnati,” which was a minor 1969 hit for the future experimental music titan Scott Walker. Here’s that: