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.
There weren’t many heroes in the Vietnam War. There weren’t many battles, either. It wasn’t a war of hills that needed to be held until reinforcements arrived. Instead, it was a confusing miasma of death, a morally fucked meat grinder where people ran around, not sure what they were supposed to be doing, trying not to die. This had to be a hard thing for the people of that time to wrap their heads around. Before Vietnam, Americans could say that their country had never lost a war. After it, and during it, they had to rethink the entire idea of what war even was. And one of the ways that they negotiated that new paradox was by sending a cheerily tragic, deeply dumb death-song up to #1 for a couple of weeks.
The war depicted in “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero” isn’t the Vietnam War. It’s apparently supposed to be the American Civil War, though the song itself never quite makes that clear. That lack of specificity isn’t an accident. “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero” is supposed to be an eternal story of military sacrifice, the kind of thing that can apply all across history. It’s not, of course. It’s an incoherent delusion, and it’s also a ferociously obnoxious piece of songcraft.
“Billy, Don’t Be A Hero” came from Mitch Murray and Peter Callender, two long-tenured British songwriters. (Ten years before “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero,” Murray co-wrote another #1, Freddie And The Dreamers’ “I’m Telling You Now.”) They gave the song to Paper Lace, a Nottingham band who’d just won the TV competition Opportunity Knocks. Paper Lace wore Civil War uniforms to lip-sync the song on Top Of The Pops, and it went to #1 in the UK.
Just before Paper Lace could release the American version of their single, an American band came in and released their own version, effectively blocking Paper Lace’s version of the song from getting any kind of foothold in the US. (Paper Lace’s version eventually peaked at #96.) The American band in question was Bo Donaldson And The Heywoods, who’d formed in Cincinnati in the mid-’60s.
This was one of those Dave Clark Five situations, where the person out front of the band name isn’t the singer. Bo Donaldson played trumpet and keyboards, but his mother Bea basically put the band together and released their early singles on her own label. She eventually found a job at Dick Clark’s Cincinnati office, and she helped the band get booked as the opener on Dick Clark’s Carnival Of Stars tour in 1968, which led to further opportunities. Later, the Heywoods toured with the Osmonds and went to work with the veteran producer Steve Barri, but their real smart move was swooping in on Paper Lace by recording an even-worse version of an already-terrible song.
“Billy, Don’t Be A Hero” is one of those doomed-romance story-songs that used to do so well on the Hot 100. You can probably guess the contours of the narrative just from the title. A young man, all fired up with patriotism, signs up for the military, but his girlfriend cries on his shoulder: “Billy, don’t be a hero / Don’t be a fool with your life / Billy, don’t be a hero / Come back and make me your wife.” In the logic of hack storytelling, she might as well have glued a bright blinking target to Billy’s face. The second she tells Billy that, Billy is as doomed as the days-from-retirement partner in the ’80s cop movie. She would’ve saved everyone a lot of trouble if she’d just cut Billy’s throat while he was waiting in the enlistment line.
Billy, of course, finds himself in a battlefield situation and immediately, without hesitation, decides that he does want to be a hero. He’s immediately gunned down. And when the military writes to the girlfriend, letting her know that Billy died a hero, she throws the letter away. That final line — “I heard she threw the letter away” — is the one elegant songwriting trick in the entire story. It introduces a hint of ambiguity, a creeping sense that maybe this whole war thing was never worth it, that military heroism only means death. Or it would introduce those things if either Paper Lace or Bo Donaldson And The Heywoods had any idea how to sell it.
For a young-doomed-love tragedy, “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero” is positively jaunty. In the Paper Lace original, the drums are a military march, while the sprightly whistling riff seems designed to evoke memories of Bridge On The River Kwai. But singer Philip Wright seems to have just a smidge of pain in his voice. That’s not the case with Heywoods singer Mike Gibbons, who meaninglessly chirps his way all through the song.
If anything, the Heywoods’ version of the song is even more stupefyingly chipper than the original: slightly faster, slightly tinnier, slightly less engaged with the realities of human interaction. Gibbons delivers the “threw the letter away” line with all the dramatic force of a toddler recounting an episode of Paw Patrol. It’s an irritating little nothing of a song made even worse by its pretense of wrestling with heavier subjects. And I’m blaming post-Vietnam denial on the song’s success mostly because I can’t think of any other fucking way to explain it.
The Heywoods only scored one more minor hit, and it was with another vacuous cover of another British band’s not-great-in-the-first-place original. In this case, it was Candlewick Green’s “Who Do You Think You Are,” and it peaked at #15 later in 1974. The Heywoods struggled on for a few more years before finally breaking up in 1980. They might’ve snaked Paper Lace, but Paper Lace got the last laugh. They’ll show up in this column soon enough.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s John C. Reilly, as Dewey Cox, singing a disco version of “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero” in the extended version of a scene from the 2007 movie Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story:
THE NUMBER TWOS: The Stylistics’ achingly romantic Philly soul ballad “You Make Me Feel Brand New” peaked at #2 behind “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero.” It’s an 8.