The tale behind the song: Those Were the Days

1 May

Mary Hopkin: those were the days… of floral prints

It’s Eurovision season again, which is a tenuous hook for introducing an article about “Those Were the Days” – an evergreen hit for Mary Hopkin who, of course, represented the United Kingdom in 1970. Alas, it wasn’t with this number, an old Russian folk song. If it had been, she might have sent Ireland’s Dana packing. Instead, she came second with the rather dismal “Knock Knock, Who’s There?” She’s never made any secret of her dislike of this typical old-school Eurovision ditty.

The following article was from a long-running series called Songscape, which I contributed to the now-defunct Singer magazine for several years. I’ll be posting a selection here during the next few weeks. I note that I referred to Mary’s spasmodic returns to recording. Happily, in the interim, she has been back in the studio – and the album (You Look Familiar) she made with her son, Morgan Visconti, a couple of years ago proved that her golden voice is still in fine fettle.

Those Were the Days

If you like your nostalgia tinged with a dose of world-weariness, “Those Were the Days” is guaranteed to send you into a reverie populated by your own loved and lost, tempered with a dark veneer of experience. It’s a folk survival anthem in a minor key, occasionally betraying its somewhat lugubrious, fatalistic Russian roots before rallying itself for that instantly recognisable, bittersweet refrain that harks back to more carefree times.

The melody of “Those Were the Days” is possibly an ancient Russian folk tune, although some sources claim it was written by a pair of Russian songwriters towards the end of the 19th century. Its early history is traced on Pat Richmond’s fascinating Mary Hopkin website, which includes an audio link to a native interpretation by Rada and Nikolay Volshanivovs.

But the song was probably first heard more widely when it was sung by Maria Schell in the 1958 film adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov. Around the same time, the great American folk composer and songwriter, Gene Raskin, encountered it and produced the English lyrics we know today.

Raskin and his wife, Francesca, kept it in their repertoire and when they appeared at the Blue Lamp club in London in the mid-1960s, Paul McCartney heard it and stored it in his memory bank. A couple of years later, he retrieved it and suggested it as the debut single for his protegée, the Opportunity Knocks winner and new Apple signing, Mary Hopkin.

Armed with a voice as pure and true as anything that has graced the charts in the decades since, and a plangent arrangement that featured various strings – including a Hungarian version of the dulcimer – and a boys’ choir, Hopkin scored a huge international hit and secured her own place in pop history.

On paper, it shouldn’t have worked. Hopkin, a vision of youthful innocence with her unspoilt folk-singer’s soprano, was hardly a convincing prospect for lyrics imbued with the hard-learned lessons of life and the wages of experience. But somehow, she got to the truth at the heart of the words and made them her own. The recording, as evocative today as ever, never leaves you doubting that the lonely woman she sees in her reflection is really herself.

Both Hopkin and Sandie Shaw recorded “Those Were the Days” in a number of different languages for the international market, singing phonetically in the custom of the time.

Shaw’s Italian, French, German and Spanish efforts have recently resurfaced, nicely packaged, on a series of compilation CDs. Unfortunately, they trade the subtleties of the Hopkin arrangement for the brassy oom-pahs that tended to characterise so many of her records. Despite her valiant efforts, she always seems to come second to the band.

When Hopkin recorded the song, perhaps she was already anticipating how quickly life in the mainstream recording industry would stale. To the regret of her contemporary fans, and plenty who have discovered her since, Hopkin turned her back on a commercial career after a couple of albums. She has made only spasmodic returns to public performance, always on her own musical terms.

Those Were the Days, Dolly-style

How touching it is, then, to hear a familiar voice among the harmonies for the title track on Dolly Parton’s album, Those Were the Days. Parton, an immensely likeable, serious musician, almost claims the song for her own. But she had her people call Mary’s people, and Hopkin’s tones – remarkably undiminished by the years – shimmer through the proceedings in delightful memory of times past.

Three of the best

Mary Hopkin, Postcard, EMI

The 1968 worldwide hit is still fresh and arresting after all these years. A concert version is also available on Live at the Royal Festival Hall 1972, released on CD by Mary Hopkin Music.

Dolly Parton, Those Were the Days, EMI

One of the highlights of a jewel-studded album from an artist who, beneath the wigs and the front, just keeps on getting better. Hopkin guests on the harmonies.

Sandie Shaw, Pourvu que ca Dure, EMI

Interesting collection of Shaw’s French language recordings, including “Le Temps des Fleurs” (“Those Were the Days”). She races the band all the way to the finishing line.

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