Billy, Don’t Be A Hero (Paper Lace)

Here’s a good pop trivia question; on week-ending 6th April 1974 what was unique about the top three songs in the UK singles chart? OK, a bit tough, I’ll give you a clue and tell you that number three was Emma by Hot Chocolate, number two was Billy, Don’t Be A Hero by Paper Lace and at number one was Seasons in The Sun by Terry Jacks. Still no idea? Ok, they were all on the subject of death. The previous three weeks Paper Lace had been number one and that is our subject this week.

What was also unusual was that the song was written by the British song writers Mitch Murray and Peter Callander and Paper Lace never scored in American, however, a cover by Bo Donaldson & The Heywoods topped the Billboard singles chart a feat which usually happened the other way around.

Paper Lace had been formed by the lead singer and drummer, Phil Wright, and the bassist, Cliff Fish in 1969. The other members were the guitarists, Michael Vaughan, Chris Morris and, sounding like a tribute act, Carlo Santanna. They became the house band at Tiffany’s in Rochdale, Lancashire.

Three years later the songwriters, Mitch Murray and Peter Callander, formed their own label, Bus Stop, but they didn’t pick up passengers with their first releases. In line with their story-songs The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde and I Did What I Did for Maria, they wrote one about a cabin boy, Billy, Don’t Be A Hero, but then changed the setting to the American Civil War. Mitch Murray wanted to give the song to a major artist, but Peter Callander’s wife, Connie, saw Paper Lace win Opportunity Knocks and told Peter about them.

The song carried a powerful, anti-war message and about a guy who heads off to war against his fiancé’s advice. When she realises he’s determined, she tells him to stay safe. His dangerous mission got him killed and the fiancé receives a letter telling her that her beloved Billy had died a hero, which is exactly what she asked him not to do.

The song sold over three million copies and has brought both Murray and Callander extra income as it has featured in the American TV shows ALF and Get A Life as well as the movies Priscilla, Queen of The Desert and Reservoir Dogs. It even appeared in the first ever episode of Friends.

Once it had topped the UK chart, the record label was considering releasing it in America but decided against it when they found out that a cover by Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods had already put it out and within a few weeks topped their chart. Unlike Donaldson, Paper Lace had more than one hit. The follow-up was another Mitch Murray and Peter Callander composition, The Night Chicago Died which peaked at number three here, but did go on to top the chart over there. There was one further hit, The Black-Eyed Boys reached number 11 later the same year. Four years later they changed record labels to Warner Brothers and had one final hit when they were teamed with Nottingham Forest FC and coming up with the gem, We’ve Got the Whole World in His Hands.

The comedian and campaigner Spike Milligan made media appearances saying how significant this record was and how he admired the poignancy of its pay-off, “I heard she threw the letter away.”

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