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.
In retrospect, the amazing thing about Paper Lace, Nottingham American-history jumblers, isn’t that they got to #1 once. It’s that they almost got there twice. Paper Lace were the first act to record “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero,” the halfassed tearjerker story-song that briefly conquered America. Paper Lace took the song to #1 in the UK, but as they were planning the song’s American release, a band of cheery Ohio goofs called Bo Donaldson And The Heywoods recorded their own cover of “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero,” and that’s the one that made it to #1 in the US.
But Paper Lace, undaunted, managed to climb to the top of the American charts barely two months later, with another story-song that romanticized the armed conflicts of America’s past. Apparently, Paper Lace knew exactly what the country wanted during the chaotic summer when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. However briefly, Paper Lace had our number.
Paper Lace came together in 1967, and they spent a few years playing covers on the Nottingham nightclub circuit. In 1973, after trying out and being rejected once, Paper Lace got themselves onto Opportunity Knocks, an enormously popular UK talent-competition show. They won, and the songwriters Mitch Murray and Peter Callander offered them “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero,” a jauntily tragic number set during the American Civil War. When that song took off, and when Bo Donaldson And The Heywoods snaked Paper Lace’s stateside success, Murray and Callander wrote and produced another song for Paper Lace — this one set during the Chicago gang wars of the Prohibition era.
In terms of actual American history, “The Night Chicago Died” is a straight-up travesty, a gleeful mangling of anything even vaguely resembling facts. The song is extremely loosely based on the story of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the 1929 murder of seven members of Chicago’s Irish North Side gang. On that morning, four unknown gunmen — presumably associates of Al Capone and his South Side Italian gang — disguised themselves as police. They lined the North Siders up in a parking garage and executed all of them. Capone, who probably had the assistance of the actual Chicago police, used the event to seize control over the city’s underworld.
In the Murray/Callander version of the story, that massacre becomes a massive gunfight between Capone’s forces and the Chicago police. Capone “called his gang to war with the forces of the law,” and the gunfight continued until “the last of the hoodlum gang had surrendered up or died.” One onlooker claims that “’bout a hundred cops are dead.” But the narrator’s father, a Chicago cop, escapes unscathed, to the relief of his fretting wife. Also, this version of the story takes place “in the heat of the summer night,” not on Valentine’s Day. And it all happens in “the streets of the old East Side,” which is notable because Chicago has no East Side. If it did, it would be in Lake Michigan. (There is a city called East Chicago, but it’s in Indiana, and there’s never been a massive gangland gunfight there.)
Murray and Callender had never been to Chicago when they wrote “The Night Chicago Died,” and they based the song entirely on half-remembered details of old gangster movies. Years later, Murray hilariously admitted that he and Callender were “a little careless with our research.” They also claim that they wrote the song for British audiences, who presumably would’ve been as clueless as they were. Paper Lace sent a copy of their single to Chicago mayor Richard Daley, who hated it, writing an angry letter back. (Daley to Paper Lace: “Are you nuts?”)
Personally, I kind of like how absolutely shameless the song is. Murray and Callender aren’t willing to let a little thing like actual American history get in the way of the story they’re trying to tell. And the song is as big and rude and noisy as this ridiculous tale deserves. The song flies in the face of the silky, genteel pop music of its day. It’s big and brash and proudly boneheaded. There are sound effects — sirens, ticking clocks, gang troops chanting (?). There are kazoos. There are drums that never stop pounding. And that’s that massive fuck-off chorus, a monstrously catchy rush of verbiage that doesn’t care how many of your brain cells it kills when it implants itself.
My old boss Chuck Eddy once wrote that “The Night Chicago Died” is “the first rap record ever to top the charts in what the record refers to as ‘the land of the dollar bill'” — an assertion as giddily ahistorical as “The Night Chicago Died” itself. There’s something maybe slightly raplike in the way singer/drummer Philip Wright brays out the lyrics, breathlessly and happily recounting the story of how 100 of his father’s colleagues were supposedly gunned down. But “The Night Chicago Died” is more of a genre unto itself. It’s a stupid song, but it vigorously commits to its own stupidity. It relishes that stupidity. It makes a meal out of it.
Amazingly enough, “confused American history buffs” did not turn out to be a lasting career path for Paper Lace. Shortly after landing “The Night Chicago Died,” Paper Lace got into record-label disputes, and half the band left. (A trivia tidbit that I’m dumb enough to find entertaining: The band briefly employed a guitarist named Carlo Santanna — no relation.) Paper Lace finally officially broke up in 1980, though they predictably reunited in the years that followed. In fact, right now, there are two competing versions of Paper Lace out on the nostalgia circuit: Paper Lace and Phil Wright’s Original ’70s Paper Lace.
“The Night Chicago Died” happened to hit #1 just over a week after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. Maybe “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero” and “The Night Chicago Died” landed the way they did, in the midst of the loudest political scandal in American history, because they glorified a kind of American heroism that suddenly seemed to be in short supply. Maybe they called back to simpler times. Or maybe they were just dumb, catchy songs that people liked. Someone who was actually alive during that time would know better than me. But brother, what a time it really was. Glory be.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from Stephen Frears’ 2000 movie High Fidelity where Jack Black sings “The Night Laura’s Daddy Died” to the tune of “The Night Chicago Died”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Yo La Tengo’s sloppy cover of “The Night Chicago Died,” from their 2006 fundraising collection Yo La Tengo Is Murdering The Classics, an album that is now approaching Me First And The Gimme Gimmes levels of ubiquity in this column: