Those were the the days: Mary Hopkin sings her signature song on a very strange choice of set
It’s hard to believe that more than 40 years have passed since a Welsh teenager with a melancholy, angelically crystalline voice and a curtain of blonde hair won a British TV talent show – Opportunity Knocks (how quaint that now seems compared with the global machine that is X Factor today) – and secured a substantial chart career that lasted into the early 1970s.
The name Mary Hopkin will be forever associated with the Paul McCartney-produced “Those Were the Days”, a fatalistic traditional folk song, probably originally from somewhere east of the Urals, which gave her a number one hit. Hopkin was an important early signing for the Beatles’ iconic Apple label.
A blast from the past: Mary Hopkin sings Temma Harbour, produced by Mickie Most, on Top of the Pops in 1970
She went on to work with Mickie Most on a number of hits and represented the United Kingdom in the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest. But while she came second with “Knock Knock, Who’s There?”, the experience of singing a song that she has never made a secret of loathing only added to her growing distaste for the manipulation of the music industry – and a lack of influence over her own career that was the lot of most young female singers at the time.
Although she continued recording intermittently through the 1970s and 1980s, much of Hopkin’s subsequent work was within the collaborative security of project bands Sundance and, later, with Peter Skellern and Julian Lloyd Webber, Oasis (long before a pair of Mancunian brothers changed the trajectory of British rock with a group of the same name).
Hopkin seemed bent on putting as much water between her and the days of her greatest commercial success as possible. And although there have been occasional snippets of new work in the intervening years, interviews became rare and accordingly, she acquired a reclusive, increasingly enigmatic reputation – not unlike that of Kate Bush.
Now, she has released a fascinating new album (You Look Familiar) written and produced in partnership with her son Morgan Visconti – and it’s a treat from start to finish, not least because those pristine vocals are utterly undiminished by the years. But it is also a work of real, thought-provoking depth that references Hopkin’s folk roots (“Chime” is the most overtly folk-accented track) and influences as she relates a sequence of rounded, modern stories, from the opening track (“America”) with its tale of the young stowaway heading East to the uneasy warnings of “Eve’s Revenge” and the easy, resigned chug of “Dog Eat Dog” – a catchy pub song.
Intriguingly, many of the arrangements are cradled in infectious, synth-style riffs, beats and echoing overlaid harmonies (some courtesy of daughter Jessica Lee Morgan, a singer in her own right) that often create a retro sense of lush 1980s electronic pop.
But don’t be seduced simply by the sound. Piercing barbs lurk in the lyrics, reminders that Hopkin now has the lifetime of experience that she was only able to hint at as the 18-year old singer of “Those Were the Days”. There is darkness and stinging cynicism, too. I don’t know who she had in mind, writing “Heaven Knows”. But even if her target was personal, the stinging words could equally apply to higher, more public figures and I can think of one or two politicians who would be usefully caught in their firing line.
I love “People Say”, a wise and touching account of an unexpected encounter that could lead to something more, the motherly advice of “Walk Like Me” and the epic, hypnotic forebodings of “Pretenders”. With You Look Familiar, Hopkin has emphatically shaken off the shreds of nostalgia and reminded us of a voice and pedigree that have much to offer in 2011. Don’t leave it so long next time, Mary. We’d like some more – and soon.