A Dance to the Music of Time — “Those Were the Days”

A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music (and also try my hand at music criticism). It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me joy or makes me think hard enough, I’ll do it on the spot.

The Song: “Those Were The Days”
a 1968 single by Mary Hopkin
reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart

When I was about five or six, my parents bought this double compilation of folk songs called “Let’s Folk”. (Knowing how many people from Hong Kong forget the “l” in words, the title seems an absolutely hilarious choice these days.) The night my mother bought it home, we sat in the living room for hours, listening to countless bands from yesteryear whilst trying to decipher the lyrics. I asked my mother many deep questions that night, things like “how do answers blow in the wind?” or “why are Mr. Simon and Mr. Garfunkel so interested in a fair from Scarborough?” My mother responded to most of these queries by telling me to pick another song from the tracklist, and the matter was quickly forgotten for another decade or so.

Another question sprang up in my mind, however, when she cued up Bobby Vinton’s version of “Those Were the Days”. This time, it wasn’t the lyrics themselves that mystified me — it was the person singing it. How did my mother know all the words? Weren’t all these songs new, weren’t we both listening to them for the first time? Surely she wasn’t that hip? Mum would tell me later on that this song wasn’t new at all, that she had listened to a woman called Mary Hopkin singing it when she was my age — but it was still a very strange experience, to realize that music existed 30 or so years ago (and to realize that my mother once had a childhood), and that she would remember it so clearly and with such fondness.

Times pass. It’s now February 2020, and my English Studies MA is going nowhere. Pandemics and protests hold Hong Kong in a vice-like grip, forcing most of us to remain at home. Desperately bored and looking for something to do, I decide that I shall listen to all the American, British and Australian chart-toppers of history and mark them out of 10, in a slavish attempt to get some sort of pop culture into my brain. Scrolling down the UK list for 1968, I find endless Beatle songs and Beatle covers — and what’s this? “Mary Hopkin, ‘Those Were the Days’, 5 weeks”.

The memories start to float to the surface once more. I know the song word-for-word, having played it on repeat in the olden days, but as I grew up it kind of took a backseat, relocated to the chaotic backwaters of my mind as geography and chemistry and Modernist writers rushed in to take pride of place. Hearing about this song again — especially the fabled Mary Hopkin version — made me nostalgic, takes me back to those simpler times. It made me think, well, “those were the days”. And that made me think about the year I’ve had in general, of getting into pop music, of thinking about the position it has in our lives…

Well, anyone who’s read my musical blogposts over the past year know where this is going. Make yourself comfortable, guys, it’s gonna be a long historical read.

Chapter 1: When You Were Young

History lies at the heart of our discussion of “Those Were the Days”, a song that already had a long and varied backstory before making its way into the Mary Hopkin songbook. It certainly has that ancient, hallowed feel, one which can only come from a traditional folk song like the Tetris theme tune. But while that one is a Russian folk song, “Those Were the Days” — or to give it its original title, “Дорогой длинною” (“The Long Road”) — isn’t even a century old. My grandmother is older than the original, and nobody calls my grandmother part of the folk tradition, do they?

This version, originally sung by a chanteuse from Georgia, doubtlessly has many merits, and any interested commenters are welcome to write their own 4000-word thinkpiece on it — but it doesn’t really sound like the song we’re discussing today. The melody is all different except for a brief snatch of the chorus, and there’s a tinge of romance within lyricist Konstantin Podrevsky’s words which you can’t find in the versions we know. It’s tempting to bypass it entirely, but even in these early days, we can find the grounding feature, the one thing that allows us to draw a line from “The Long Road” to Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days”: nostalgia.

Nostalgia in music comes a long way: all of us have, at some period in our lives, looked back on our better moments, and perhaps in times of trouble we have longed to return to such a time, to feel those exact same happy feelings again. Coupled with a well-chosen, melodramatic melody (like “The Long Road” — or something similar to it), the potential is there for a heartbreaking performance, one that brings tears to everyone’s eyes. That’s what the original did, with a narrator looking back on the nights they spent dashing through the snow with their loved one; and that’s what Eugene Raskin’s English lyrics start with too.

But Raskin digs deeper into this feeling of nostalgia: he understands that it isn’t just a feeling that you have all to yourself. On the contrary, it’s something best performed when there’s someone to share your memories with — for then it becomes a collective memory, one where you can reinforce your shared belief in “the good old glory days”, however hazily defined they might actually be. So instead of actually translating the lyrics, Raskin’s new ones push forward the communal aspect of the whole thing: “once upon a time, there was a tavern/ Where we used to raise a glass or two”. We’re here to drink and scratch each other on the back, ladies and gentlemen: there’s never going to be any deep reflections coming from us tonight.

Why is the tavern Russian, though? I have no idea. Perhaps the Russians, being expert drinkers, seemed to Raskin more likely to have a good time in a tavern. In any case, the Limeliters’ version — the first version of the song released in English — features an arrangement that emphasizes the Russian influence, placing the listener squarely inside an Eastern European tavern with rousing harmonies, balalaika-sounding guitars and a moody minor key.

In an instant, you are brought into a countryside tavern, where the folk are all raucous, welcoming, eager to have a good time. That in turn intensifies the feeling of community: we’re not listening to a group of polished, polite young men singing in a club. We’re listening to a rowdy crowd of peasants belt out tales of their past glories, a la “Fiddler on the Roof” — and because the lyrics are so vague, sooner or later we believe, like the audience in a Peter Pan play. We fold ourselves into their song, believing that we, too, can actually have a stake in this great singalong, this great remembrance of things past where “we lived the life we choose, we’d fight and never lose”. Whenever you listen to the song, you can’t help but put yourself inside that tavern, believe that you’re ensconced in a safe bubble where the past reigns supreme and nothing can touch you. And that, to us, is all that matters.

Unluckily for the Limeliters, their version wasn’t a hit — people just weren’t looking for this type of folk. So while their version faded into obscurity, Eugene Raskin took “Those Were the Days” on the move. On the European continent, he and his wife sang it in clubs and taverns, and it was in a London nightclub that a certain Paul McCartney happened to hear them sing it one night…

Chapter 2: The Art of McCartney (and Hopkin)

Unless this is your first visit to my site, in which case welcome and good luck, you will probably know that I am fascinated by the Beatles and by Paul McCartney in particular. One of the most interesting things about Paul is how, by the time he was my age, he was already writing hit songs for other artists and helping to produce their hits. (Less charitable people might say he was sticking his hand into these bands’ affairs, and they’d be equally right.) One of these people was the 18-year-old Mary Hopkin, gaining a name for herself as a folk singer: upon signing onto the Beatles’ newly established Apple Records in June 1968, McCartney set himself about the task of turning her into a star.

One wonders whether Paul chose this song because he already felt the hand of age creeping up on him. Although only 26, he was already capable of writing songs that understood great pain — this was, after all, the man who’d written “Eleanor Rigby” two years prior. (He was my age when he wrote it. What on Earth am I doing with my life?) It is no exaggeration to suggest that he was already old beyond his years, and that he understood what it meant to long for happier times. Indeed, that might have been on his mind as he lined Hopkin up to sing this song: his engagement to Jane Asher irrevocably destroyed, his bandmates unhappy with his newly domineering approach to recording. He was making it bad; he faced an uphill battle to make it better.

But the choice of singer seems a miscalculation. To deliver a convincing narrative about wisdom, lost potential, nostalgia, you need someone who sounds like they could’ve experienced all those things. In other words, few of us would have picked an 18-year-old girl from the country to sing “Those Were the Days”: it feels like the ultimate contradiction, every syllable a declaration of war against the experience and melancholia demanded by the lyrics. Sure, if she was a good enough performer, then you might have been able to hear emotion in the lyrics — but that would have been down to the listener. What could this naïve young woman have brought to the table?

As it turns out, it’s by virtue of Hopkin being a relative newcomer to the scene that “Those Were the Days” reaches its full potential. That record sleeve up at the top, with Hopkin on the cover, tells the casual buyer all they need to know: here is a fresh, young, and carefree face, one that has never known hardship. She is the ultimate expression of what we look for when we get nostalgic. I’m not suggesting, of course, that Hopkin’s youthful appearance is the sole factor behind the single’s success. But the promise of youth is central to connecting with the buyer: we all want to feel young again — while at the same time retaining all our wisdom. Conventional wisdom informs us that this is impossible, yet here is Mary Hopkin, the very embodiment of that paradox: young on the outside, yet hiding infinite wisdom within.

We have this tendency, in movies and in literature, to have the little child be the key to the whole mystery. They cannot be that simple-minded, they MUST know something we don’t. But that view hides the innate perceptiveness of young people, of the way they take in the world: they look, they imitate, they learn. And McCartney and Hopkin knew what they were doing: having immersed themselves in the world for so long, they realized that success lay in simply giving people a good time — one best provided by allowing listeners to hear themselves within a wizened singer. And so: this song, this singer. The stars were aligned.

Chapter 3: I Heard You Call My Name

The first thing you notice about the 1968 version of “Those Were the Days” is how much more determined it sounds. Every previous version is sparse in their production, with nothing more than a piano or a guitar filling in for instrumentation. The melodies are slow, ponderous, a recollection happening in real time. There is ample space for the listener to let each line sink in. By contrast, McCartney and Hopkin quicken the tempo right out the gate, and immediately grab your attention with the lightly strumming balalaika and guitars.

It’s a determined and purposeful charge: much more polished and produced, yes, but no less authentic and rustic. You already feel that you’re in a tavern in Russia, you already sense that there’s something epic and foreboding coming your way. With a few lightly strummed rhythms, you are already in that Russian tavern — alone, ready to remember. The mood turns sombre, making way for Hopkin’s voice — a high-pitched breath of a voice, so distant and so timid that it seems ethereal, an otherworldly projection. It tells you that “we used to raise a glass or two” in this tavern, that you and it somehow have a shared past, a glorious past. But it doesn’t seem authentic: this can’t be us, can it? This innocent voice, this childlike woman can’t represent the full spectrum of our experiences… can she?

Maybe she doesn’t. That doesn’t matter. She already has your attention. And once she has that, she runs with it: slowly but surely, she colours in the emotions within her performance. Or maybe it’s still the same voice we heard at the beginning, but now we notice a few more details. The elongation of every word in the chorus’ “those were the days”, the subsequent emphasis on “my friend”. We begin to believe that she’s actually our friend, the connection begins to reveal itself. And then she vocalizes: it’s nothing more than a simple “la la la” bit, but it’s something not found in previous versions, and in that moment, we suddenly want to join in. We might not remember this girl, we might not remember everything with clarity. But she sings simple, she sings happy. She is who we want to be right now. It’s tempting to join in —

— but we don’t. We need more proof. Not only does she have three more verses of it, she also has more tricks up her sleeve. Cue the rest of the tavern.

We don’t notice it at first, but gradually other instruments creep in: the clarinet, the banjo, the other folkloric instruments. And at the back of it all, a thumping, rousing beat that sounds suspiciously like a crowd, stomping their feet in unison to a catchy tune. It feels as if more and more people in the tavern are joining in, drawn in by this young singer, caught up in her magic. She offers you the promise of immortality via nostalgia again and again: “we’d sing and dance forever and a day”, “we’d fight and never lose”, and it becomes ever more infectious, ever more difficult to resist.

And then, suddenly, the children join in. At the risk of pulling us out of our experience of the song, I have to say that the positioning of the children’s choir is a master stroke. Yes, Hopkin might sound young and immature — but put her against a bunch of children, almost babyish in their intonations, and she immediately sounds like the adult in the room. Not only that: she sounds like she’s actually leading the children. Even as they grow in volume, you can still clearly hear Hopkin’s voice within the hubbub, heading the charge. Suddenly you’re presented with not just one innocent voice — everywhere you turn, you hear how much good company you’re in. By the time the chorus comes round a third time, it’s no longer a song, but a rousing call to action. Missing out on all the fun is simply unthinkable.

Yet the straight-up nostalgia that Mary Hopkin promises within this song comes with a price. Whereas all other versions remember that it’s a constant part of the chorus, the line “for we were young and sure to have our way” only appears the first time she sings the chorus. After that, it disappears forever, replaced with the limp and unconvincing “those were the days, oh yes those were the days”. Shortly after, the third chorus ends but the children’s voices continue to echo, and the tune bounces back and forth just a bit too long. You instinctively feel that something is going terribly wrong. Yes, it really is nothing more ominous than a key change, but that nagging feeling stays in the background, refusing to go away. And that reveals the disappointment inherent within nostalgia: the confidence it brings back is always fleeting. The good times you’ve had/are having MUST end, sometime, someday, and reality, sadness, is always waiting in the wings.

Hopkin knows it too. You can sense the vulnerability building within her performance. She sounds almost funereal in the final verse, clutching at straws when she sings “for in our hearts, the dreams are still the same”. That line is not a triumphant assertion of self, or at least she doesn’t sing it like one. Instead, it’s filled with irony, hesitation, desperation: we’re still friends, right? Tell me that you’re still the same person underneath all your social baggage. Tell me, please, that you haven’t changed. There is no answer: she simply peters off.

But this is a tavern. Sadness doesn’t last forever. And so Hopkin tries again: slowly at first, but then the instruments and the children crowd in. Then all at once she regains her voice, her footing, and she bursts forward for one last hurrah. As she sings the final “those were the days, oh yes those were the days”, you can practically imagine her standing exultantly on the tallest table, fist in the air as people dance around her. It’s thanks to her that the illusion holds firm, and that we end up believing that those were, indeed, the days.

Chapter 4: Beatlebum

As I’ve mentioned above, I already knew this song when I was a little boy. Back then, of course, I didn’t understand why my mother loved Bobby Vinton’s version of it so much: I had no memories to speak of, no time I wanted to look back on. It was catchy, yes, but so were the dozen other songs that I knew from the collection. Over time I even found Vinton’s rousing chorus irritating, his cocky pride at the time a violation of my deeply Christian ethics. So I left it behind for years, cut my ties to it and never looked back.

I dreaded revisiting “Those Were the Days” when I was going through the chart-toppers list, thought I was going to cringe through — FIVE WHOLE MINUTES? O, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? What did I do to warrant such torture? I moaned and griped for a while before actually sitting down to listen to this one. To my surprise (and slight dismay), I found myself really liking it: the completely different production, the much more subtle and colourful performance from Mary Hopkin, and also just the general catchiness of the whole thing. Hers was energetic, innocent, and much more wistful. I’ve revalued the Bobby Vinton version since, and grown to hold it in grudging admiration — but my favourite version is still Hopkin’s, who perversely manages to convey melancholia much better than a middle-aged veteran of the genre does.

I can’t say what it is exactly that draws me to the Hopkin, though. Yes, I’m given to frequent bouts of nostalgia: I look back on good things I’ve done, lovely times I’ve spent with my friends, and I’m a sentimental guy at heart. But I don’t think I like songs simply because they call up the past for me — when I listen to pop music, I actually like songs that are easy and light, not ones that will drag me under every time. Maybe it’s just that it’s very well-produced: the Russian atmosphere works to create intimacy, and Hopkin’s voice is so crisp and clear that it’s genuinely a pleasure to listen to. Or maybe it’s a wonderful song to bounce around and stamp your feet to: it doesn’t take long for the marching beat to get to you, for you to get swept up in the happiness of things. “Those Were the Days” has been used as a football chant and as a commercial jingle (and, less auspiciously, as ambient music for actual executions) — if you need some background noise to do something epic, you could do worse than pick “Those Were the Days”.

But there’s also another force at play, and it’s one that worries me. Specifically, there’s a part of me that wonders if I like this song simply because Paul McCartney was involved. (Hopkin’s version of “Those Were the Days” was released the same day as “Hey Jude”, and actually sold better than the latter in the UK. Imagine being the song that outsold “Hey Jude”.) I started loving the Beatles in 2018, still do today, and over time my love/bias for McCartney has only grown. Faced with something that he had a (significant) role in creating, is it possible that I have let my irrational love take over, that I am potentially ignoring the flaws within this piece?

But perhaps that does “Those Were the Days’” composer, Mary Hopkin, Eugene Raskin and an injustice. I may not pick up on the nostalgia subtext every time, but this is still a wonderful song, one that has a beautiful melody with a lovely set of lyrics to match. It’s grand, it lifts your spirits, and is a great little piece of pop perfection. In that aspect, it might just be the perfect way to cap my 2020…

Conclusion: Forever and A Day

This piece goes out a couple of hours before 2020 hands over the baton to 2021, a transition which will doubtlessly be greeted with relief across much of the world. Everybody’s had a hard year: politics, famine, COVID-19. In these dark times a lot of us have looked back on the innocence of 2019, trying to find a glimmer of light within so-called “normality”. So when it came to finishing off the year with a thinkpiece, this one jumped out at me and refused to let go: a song about nostalgia, the hopes and the letdowns we all face, a song that assured you that there was still life in us no matter how badly the world had treated us — it seemed only natural to write down my thoughts on it to send off 2020.

But that’s not the only reason. My life in the past year has revolved around pop music. Way back in the beginning, I mentioned how I was rating countless chart-toppers, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg: I’ve written a whole short story cycle based on songs I find interesting, and I’ve done more than a dozen pieces like these where I try to get to the bottom of why I like a particular song. I’ve devoured quite a few books on pop music (well, the Beatles, mostly) and become a fan of music blogs. (I’ve even wanted to start my own #1 series, though my friends have been understandably less enthusiastic than me.) Further on out, I’ve also posted more on my blog than the previous three years COMBINED — a frenzy of words, an ecstasy of feeling as I throw myself into the double worlds of music and books. It’s been a very, very busy year of writing.

I’m still going to write these thinkpieces come 2021: I’ve got five or six in the burner as I finish this one up. But just like Mary Hopkin’s performance, I have real life to return to, a world of duties on the horizon. Much as I’d like to do this for ten thousand more years, I’ll have to cut down on writing what I want for some time — and I’ll be honest, that stings a little, to have to reduce my output on the blog for a bit, and be a responsible adult once more.

But this is a piece on music, after all, and “Those Were the Days” is still much more than a pretext to rambling reflections on days gone by. So much of it represents pop music at its most fascinating, the things that got me interested, however briefly, about pop music in the first place. An imagination of people and places, empathy through a few simple words. The ability to touch people, make people feel things, and above all have a wonderful time. “Those Were the Days” offers all that and more. In terms of qualities of pop songs, it simply ticks all the boxes.

So as I round up my piece and call it a day, I have one question left to ask: how does time revolve around “Those Were the Days”? Is it a song that deals with past, present, or future? A case can be made for all three: it’s definitely set in the present, without which you can’t have nostalgia; yet that nostalgia for the past sets us up for a vision of the future too, giving us strength to rediscover our spirits and our starry notions. Perhaps it’s fairer to say that “Those Were the Days” is a work that floats, like its narrator (and perhaps its singer and producer), above time itself: it reaches far and wide, takes you on a journey in both space and time, and — in the end — leaves you feeling just a little older and wiser than before. Just like pop music, then.

If you’ve made it thus far, then thank you for reading for the past twelve months, and I sincerely wish on you all a better year than the one you’ve left behind. I’ll leave you with another McCartney-Hopkin collaboration, one that really sums up the whole situation I find myself in these days. See you all around soon, and have a happy new year!

(Honestly, why this got overlooked in favour of “Her Majesty” is beyond me.)

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