Perfect Sound Forever

Mary Hopkin


The Apple Records years: 1968-1971
by Kurt Wildermuth
(August 2021)


Thick chords strummed or arpeggios delicately picked on acoustic guitars, lyrical bass lines, counterpoint cello rhythms, and a high, sweet voice floating on top.

Nick Drake, right?

No, but if the sublime Welsh singer Mary Hopkin had been a brooding Englishman, and especially if she had died, and even more especially if she had died by her own hand, the music she recorded for the Beatles' Apple Records in 1968-1971 might have the stature of Drake's.

Hopkin is revered, but she doesn't have a cult. Partly that's because in those years she didn't write her own songs. And partly it's because some of her material--or rather material apparently foisted on her by Svengali producers--was on the sugary or sentimental side.

She is best remembered for her hit version of Boris Fomin and Gene Raskin's celebration of nostalgia, "Those Were the Days," as in "Those were the days, my friend / We thought they'd never end." Whether you perceive this faux-cabaret recording as old-timey or timeless, it stands as a textbook example of pop crafted for the radio of the late 1960s, as elaborately arranged as your latest technopop confection but for quite different purposes.

A testament to the longevity of "Those Were the Days" is Dolly Parton's version, recorded in 2005 with Hopkin as guest vocalist. This tribute seemed long overdue, since on tracks such as 1975's "Love Is Like a Butterfly" Parton came across as a dead ringer for Hopkin. It's touching to think of this American entertainment juggernaut and cultural touchstone keeping the Welsh singer in mind.

But we must remember that Parton's taste is fallible; she has recorded her share of schlock. And just as the Parton newcomer must separate the good from the bad, so the listener dipping a toe into Hopkin's legacy may find the original "Those Were the Days," still touching after all these years, distorted when it's grouped with Hopkin's less natural-sounding material. Consider her version of Irving Berlin's "There's No Business Like Show Business." This song was simply not the best fit for her, and the result suggests the awkwardness of Julie Andrews backed by Blood, Sweat & Tears. If this were the first Hopkin song you heard, you might not listen further.

But you probably wouldn't start with that one. If you've heard of Hopkin, you may know "Those Were the Days" from oldies radio; or if you're an aficionado of late-'60s pop, especially folk-pop, most especially sung by women; or if you're a Beatles fan interested in the band's byways.

Guilty on all three counts, I became a Hopkin fan as a teenage Beatles nerd in the late '70s. In the early '90s, I loaned a friend a compilation tape of acoustic-based songs. I'm sure it was all worth hearing, but the only thing I know it included was Mary Hopkin's "Fields of St. Etienne." For my friend, the tape's standout was this heartbreaking ballad, a faux chanson about love lost to war, where you can almost synaesthetically feel the singer wandering through the fields, then travel with her through past scenes with her lover: "He was going / never knowing / he would not return." I'd always found the recording arrestingly beautiful (and I mean the original version, decidedly not the overbearing orchestral one released later, against Hopkin's wishes, as a CD bonus track). But I couldn't say much when my friend asked, "What can you tell me about Mary Hopkin?"

In the early '90s, as you might remember, we didn't have the Internet to fill us in on Mary Hopkin's story. Since now you can read up on her as easily as I can, I'll just provide this quick summary of her start: After recording some Welsh tracks for Cambrian Records in 1968, Hopkin appeared on the UK TV talent show Opportunity Knocks to perform one of those tracks, a version of Pete Seeger's classic "Turn Turn Turn." That appearance led to Paul McCartney's signing Hopkin to Apple, where he produced her first few singles. These included "Those Were the Days" (McCartney knew a perennial when he heard one), his sprightly composition "Goodbye" (sonically a companion to "Come and Get It," the song he gave to the Apple band Badfinger), and "Que Sera Sera" (the song made famous by Doris Day; Hopkin's version sounds like the bridge between McCartney's early solo recordings and today's lo-fi bedroom pop, such as by Beabadoobee). McCartney also produced Hopkin's first album, Post Card (1969). Hopkin reportedly disliked some of the material on that album as much as she disliked "Goodbye" and "Que Sera Sera."

For convenience's sake, we can divide Post Card's fourteen tracks into three groups. The first group would be '60s pop: the British folk of Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan's "Happiness Runs (Pebble and the Man)"; the bopping "The Honeymoon Song" (written by William Sansom and Mikis Theodorakis and recorded by the Beatles in 1963 for the BBC); the bouncing "Young Love" (by Ric Cartey and Carole Joyner, originally recorded by Cartey but more famously done by Tab Hunter and by Sonny James; Hopkin's version bests them all); the Left Banke-like "Prince en Avignon" (by Jean-Pierre Bourtayre, whose songs had been recorded by Francoise Hardy and France Gall); and the circusy "The Game" (by the Beatles' producer, George Martin). The second group would be the more theatrical numbers: the prewar English music hall of Ray Noble's "Love Is the Sweetest Thing"; the faux Jazz Age of Harry Nilsson's "The Puppy Song"; "Show Business"; and--depending on whether you have the American or the English pressing of the original LP--either "Those Were the Days" or the straightforwardly lovely rendition of the Gershwins' "Someone to Watch over Me." (The 1995 CD reissue of Post Card includes both of them and much more.)

Most impressive is the third group. On these stately, acoustic-guitar-based folk tracks, the Welsh lass seems most at home: Donovan's gentle "Voyage of the Moon" and mournful "Lord of the Reedy River" (both infinitely more captivating than the composer's twee originals--and I say that as a Donovan fan); E. J. Hughes's harp-and-choir-angelic "Y Blodyn Gwyn"; and the chamber-string-enhanced "Lullaby of the Leaves" (a Tin Pan Alley number by Bernice Petkere and Joe Young) and "Inch Worm" (a Hollywood number by Frank Loesser, and seemingly a McCartney favorite, since in 2012 he recorded it on his standards collection, Kisses on the Bottom--but his version is nowhere near as good or haunting as Hopkin's).

Post Card's combination of pop, standards, and folk could easily pass for someone's, such as Norah Jones's or Rickie Lee Jones's, low-key collection in 2021. The result holds up so well decades later because of the taste and talent displayed throughout. If the material reflects McCartney's guiding hand, the recordings generally demonstrate unexpected sonic restraint. A bit of plucked bass might momentarily suggest the Beatles or his solo work, but generally McCartney avoids the trap of "Goodbye" and doesn't impose his sound on Hopkin. Instead, he imbues the proceedings with a sophistication and an underlying somber drone that his music has employed only on scattered tracks (1977's "Mull of Kintyre," for example, though that's far grander than anything here).

Well worth seeking out are some McCartney-produced flip sides to Hopkin's singles from this time. For "Fields of St. Etienne," again, I recommend the spare version, which appeared on Hopkin's 1972 Apple greatest hits, Those Were the Days. Also on that album was "Sparrow," where the slightly overbearing choir is worth enduring for the atmospheric finale, as the choir draws out a note while slinky sax accompanies the lines "A saxophone is moaning / I rise and step into the cool night air." Not on that album was "Jefferson," where Hopkin comfortably goes country, anticipating or perhaps even inspiring Dolly Parton's embrace of her music. All three of these gems--written by Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle, a songwriting team hired by Apple--are collected on the 1995 CD of Those Were the Days.

Included there as well are Hopkin's singles produced, post-McCartney, by Mickie Most, who had produced recordings by the Animals, Herman's Hermits, Donovan, and Lulu. Most brings Philamore Lincoln's "Temma Harbour" a pleasant groove that probably sounded very nice on the radio. Very much of its moment is Tony Wilson, Errol Brown, and Margaret Wilson's "Think about Your Children," which offers advice such as, "Don't let the ways of hate / Weigh the world down . . . Help them love one another" and suggests the 5th Dimension covering "Hey Jude." Finally, John Carter and Geoff Stephen's "Knock, Knock Who's There" ("could this be love that's calling?") became the worldwide pop hit that Julie Andrews never knew she had--and, my cheekiness aside, probably never wanted.

Hopkin hated the Most singles. Certainly the most comfortable-sounding of all her Apple recordings is what came next: the album Earth Song / Ocean Song (1971). Just as Hopkin's pop singles don't prepare you for the overall loveliness of Post Card, so even the combination of singles and first album doesn't indicate the musical, emotional, and intellectual richness of Earth Song / Ocean Song.

The album was produced by Hopkin's one-time husband, Tony Visconti, best known for his work on so many glam/art-rock classics by T. Rex and David Bowie. Here, he and guitarist Ralph McTell, bassist Danny Thompson, and guitarist/banjo player Dave Cousins give Hopkins rich layers of rhythm over which to deliver stirring, haunting, and resonant melodies. The sound world suggests "Que Sera Sera" stripped down, flattened from round pop/rock into the expansive woodsmoke-in-the-fall-air sound Jethro Tull achieved on Songs from the Wood (1977) and Heavy Horses (1978), but without Tull's grough hard rock and bombast. Plus, there's not a hint of theatricality. It'd be a desert island disc if more listeners knew about it, the kind of thing indie people--fans of Joanna Newsom, Sufjan Stevens, and Vetiver, for example--would fall over themselves praising were it released now.

On the opener, Gallagher-Lyle's "International," Hopkin straightforwardly delivers a Christian message: Hey, Jesus, let's take the Gospel "international." Non-Christians may find this sentiment off-putting, but should fear not, because the mission will be "rational." More importantly, the instrumentation sets the pattern for the rest of the record, with acoustic guitar and bass colored by a light string arrangement (think the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" with vastly less drama). Kevin Peek and Brian Daly are the guest classical guitarists on this one. Here and throughout the album, the Pop Arts String Quartet's arrangements are by Visconti.

On Harvey Andrews's "There's Got to Be More," loping bass provides punctuation to propulsive strumming--the percussionless folk equivalent of jazz musicians' "cooking"--while Hopkin plunges, uncharacteristically, in celebration of moving on. Another Andrews song, "Martha," features the bass as lead instrument, finding its way through the rhythms, as strings bordering on dissonant add to the "attack" and Hopkin delivers a portrait of a twisted person who feeds on others' despair. Strings venture into the baroque, and Hopkin sounds formal yet conversational on Cat Stevens's "The Wind," about someone struggling to find a place in the world.

On McTell's "Silver Birch and Weeping Willow," banjo contrasts with plucked guitar and light strings, as the singer comes to terms with disappointment. On McTell's cast-iron folk ballad "Streets of London" ("Let me take you by the hand / and lead you through the streets of London"), Hopkin conveys sympathy for the down-and-out without getting treacly or preachy. She brings the same matter-of-fact contemplativeness to David Horowitz and Tom Paxton's majestic, poetic "How Come the Sun," in which the sun, moon, and stars don't show, possibly because they or God feel distaste for the human world.

"Earth Song" and "Ocean Song," both by the obscure songwriter-turned-artist Liz Thorsen, end sides 1 and 2 respectively. The first is an existential meditation in which Hopkin employs some Joni Mitchell-esque swoops. The second is a paean to connection, where "You've found a friend to take you to the end of the ocean," as a farewell fadeout of gentle guitar and harmonies carries you off into the distance.

The album's capstone is Mike and Reina Sutcliffe's cryptic anthem "Water, Paper & Clay," with lyrics that bring to mind the modernist poet Wallace Stevens:

Water, paper and clay
Air to carry you
And fire to burn the way

The album's recurrent nature imagery and references to the elements suggest a song cycle or even a concept album.

And here's where Nick Drake comparisons really apply: Hopkin, Visconti, and musicians weren't aiming to just make a record, and they certainly weren't creating a product. They were lovingly, breathtakingly crafting a timeless work of art that delivered verities and encapsulated what Hopkin was about as a singer and perhaps as a person. There may not be a hint of autobiography in these lyrics, but you feel as though you're connecting with a vocalist who has let down her guard within a private place you're allowed access to. It's intimate yet formal, deeply felt but not confessional. Hopkin never seems fragile, though, and that's where the Drake comparisons stop. On his final album, Pink Moon (1972), Drake ventured into the darkness, alone with his acoustic guitar, and he never saw the sun again. Hopkin clearly chose light and life.

While still on Apple, she released a few more Visconti-produced songs. They're now bonus tracks on Earth Song / Ocean Song and Those Were the Days, and they represent more of a mixed bag than the original albums. Harvey Andrews's spare "When I Am Old One Day" could be Nick Drake or a folk-informed eccentric such as Julian Cope. McTell's "Kew Gardens" takes English folkiness into hokiness, with the titular park's griffins smiling and crying. The arrangement of Bernard Estrada and Martine Habib's "Let My Name Be Sorrow" goes over the top, burying Hopkin under soaring orchestra and choir that suggest Phil Spector's free hand on the Beatles' "The Long and Winding Road."

After Apple, Hopkin went on to solo recordings. She worked with bands. She sang backup on Bowie's "Sound and Vision," from Low (1977). She made guest appearances, as on the wordless, ethereal "Rachel's Song" on Vangelis's Blade Runner (1994). Her independent releases are available at www.maryhopkin.com, and all of her post-Apple work is ripe for chronicling by some enterprising Hopkin devotee or for picking through by a record label wanting to assemble an anthology.

Hopkin's BBC recordings have not been officially released, but a YouTube contributor performed a loving act of public service by compiling them in a ninety-minute video. For about the first forty minutes, Hopkin sounds like a '60s pop chanteuse, with a bit of Joan Baez and a bit of Broadway. Apart from her own hits, she delivers somewhat schmaltzy songs as part of the Eurovision song competition.

Then comes "Ocean Song," and the transformation is striking. Accompanied only by acoustic guitar and simple strings, Hopkin suddenly matures from popster/folksinger to intensely focused balladeer. She delivered the lighter fare perfectly well, but her lovely voice deepens as it digs into layers of expression. At the end of "Ocean Song," the DJ seems truly moved when he announces, "Only one word for that: beautiful."

"Beautiful" comes readily to mind in listening to Hopkin's Apple recordings. "Exquisite" applies to the best of them. Some voices seem made for specific purposes: Aretha Franklin's to shout triumphantly, Barry White's to croon seductively, Loretta Lynn's to deliver down-home truths, and so on. Mary Hopkin's high, crystalline voice embodies a purity of spirit that is aware of tribulation in the human world but chooses to look for calm, especially in nature.


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