If ever there was a psychedelic one-hit wonder, it was The Smoke. Not that My Friend Jack was much of a hit when it was released in February 1967. The BBC banned the song, and only strong support from pirate radio raised it to the giddy heights of #45 – although it fared better in continental Europe.
The BBC may have turned a blind eye to the connotations of the group’s name, but the line “my friend Jack eats sugar lumps” was a trip too far – since the underground community had a well-known predilection for using sugar cubes to ingest Lysergic Acid Diethylamide-25 (that’s LSD to you, me and the News Of The World).
After moving down to London from Yorkshire in early 1965, The Shots (as they were then called) were briefly taken under the wing of millionaire businessman Alan Brush, before his collapsing empire led them into the clutches of Ronnie and Reggie Kray.
Keen students of contemporary pop music (ahem!), the Krays were starting to dabble in pop management, before being sidetracked by more pressing matters (extortion, torture, murder etc).
But the chance to have a stake in a group called The Shots was just too good an opportunity to pass up and the Krays signed the band to an exclusive management deal – only for the band to find their bookings suddenly drying up.
When The Shots contested the contract (brave lads), the twins retaliated by slapping an injunction on them preventing them from recording or performing.
Blithely unaware of the Krays’ reputation, The Shots ignored the paperwork, innocently continuing to record with producer Monty Babson at Lansdowne Studios.
In the summer of 1966, they started work on a song that would become their defining release and a nudge-nudge-wink-wink acknowledgement of the counter culture’s use of acid.
On being presented with the single by the newly re-named The Smoke (another clear drug reference, though their official line was that it was a tribute to the band’s adopted home city), EMI chairman Sir Joseph Lockwood was appalled, insisting that the lyrics made the song too hot to handle. After a furious row, singer Mick Rowley backed down and replaced some of the overt drug references with a toned-down, travelogue-style lyric.
Even with its watered-down lyrics, My Friend Jack was still the most blatant espousal of the burgeoning drug culture thus far. Seizing the opportunity to bait the authorities, the pirate stations played the track incessantly – unlike the BBC, who were probably driven to their ban by a News Of The World exposé which shrieked the headline “This Disgraceful Disc”.
The single topped the German charts for several weeks and was covered there in the 70s by Boney M.
John ‘Zeke’ Lund