The unlikeliest of pop stars, their artistic tentacles stretched far and wide throughout the 60s and 70s cultural landscape
The popular culture of the 60s and 70s rarely, if ever, leaves me stuck for ideas for a new post. Ideas sometimes come in the most unpredictable of places, however. For example, while on a leg of the North Coast 500 of Bonny Scotland last week, just outside Durness on the far north-west corner to be precise, a short shuttle to the UK’s most northerly point, Cape Wrath, my lovely wife and I went into a cafe within an artisan craft community and at the counter were a pile of very expensive looking photography books. ‘Help yourself‘, said the assistant, ‘They’re free.’ So, of course, I did, not even the threat of a contribution from HRH Prince Charles on the book jacket was enough to put me off. The book was entitled, ‘Mike McCartney’s North Highlands.’ Now this struck a chord with me. Could this be the same Mike McCartney who was once Mike McGear, younger brother of Paul McCartney, lead singer and composer of 60s pop and comedy group The Scaffold and later GRIMMS? On further examination of the inside cover, it surely was! And this got me thinking whilst driving our camper van through the breathtaking scenery of that part of Scotland. There really was more to The Scaffold than just Lily The Pink. As far as 60s credentials go, few could compete with The Scaffold, whether you liked them or not. They appeared on everything from Top of The Pops to The Basil Brush Show to cutting edge satirical comedy and poetry shows to ads for insipid beer to public information films to gigs at the prestigious Talk of the Town in that London and even their own TV series! For a few years at the end of the 60s until the early 70s The Scaffold were everywhere.
The Scaffold were Mike McGear, who changed his name from McCartney to create a bit of artistic distance from his older brother Paul although it was the worst kept secret in showbiz, Roger McGough and John Gorman who all met in Liverpool in the early sixties. Rather than a pop group, were really a poetry/drama/comedy/musical act so beloved of the Edinburgh Fringe at the time and they appeared there many times before becoming well-known. They were originally called The Liverpool One Fat Lady Electric Show. ‘Two Fat Ladies‘ being the bingo call for the number 88, so as they lived in Liverpool 8 they became ‘One Fat Lady.’ But that wasn’t going to work long-term so they became The Scaffold after the classic French thriller starring Jeanne Moreau, Lift To The Scaffold. It’s often forgotten that it’s a rather grim name for such a fun group. So far, so bohemian, but that was about to change.
They were spotted at the Edinburgh Fringe and eventually signed for The Beatles‘ label Parlaphone Records and were even managed by Brian Epstein for a while. But it’s when they became famous that their story really begins…….
I remember quite well the first time I saw The Scaffold. Although I can’t be 100% certain, I’m pretty sure it was on an edition of that late 60s early Saturday evening floppy cheeseburger of ‘chat,’ Dee Time (much more on this strange beast to come). I’ve narrowed it down to November 4 1967 and they appeared singing their soon-to-be first hit, Thank U Very Much. It’s a song still remembered by anyone over the age of 50 due to the infectious nature of its chorus and has been used on all sorts of ads ever since. Must be nice in terms of royalty payments. Note the phonetic use of ‘U’ in the title, a few years before Slade’s deliberately poor spelling was even thought of. Clearly there was something a little different about this group.
They looked like the most unlikely of pop stars but the song rocketed to No. 4 in the hit parade and made them a household name (although few households have a scaffold in their living room, I’d imagine). Written by McGear, the line ‘Thank u very much for the Aintree Iron‘ continues to confound those trying to work out what this item actually is. McGear refuses to explain and many increasingly odd theories have been propounded. One bizarre suggestion was from someone who claimed to have heard McGear explain that it was a reference to Brian Epstein who lived in Aintree and he was a cockney rhyming slang ‘iron hoof.’ This sort of language was not unusual in the 60s, of course, and might have explained why McGear is so reticent to explain its meaning. But McGear refutes this theory completely as Epstein didn’t even live in Aintree and I believe him. I can’t help but think, though, it’s something rude or even defamatory hence McGear’s reticence to reveal its meaning. But the mystery rumbles on to this day and there’s nothing like a good mystery to keep the memory of a group alive.
Their follow-up Do You Remember, written by McGear and McGough, didn’t have the catchiness or singalong quality of Thank U Very Much and only reached No. 34 in the hit parade. Talking about remembering, I also do remember seeing them performing this in white tuxedos on the almost forgotten Roger Whittaker children’s TV show, replacing Crackerjack during the summer, Whistle Stop. I really wasn’t too impressed with this waxing although to listen to it now the lyrics were very different to Thank U Very Much and were very sixties and very Roger McGough to say the least. Nice!
Sun was high So was I Clouds were low Down below….
But their musical zenith was just around the corner and in November 1968 Lily The Pink was unleashed on an unsuspecting world. It roared to No. 1 all over Europe and Asia and spent 4 weeks in the top spot in the UK and a massive 25 weeks in the chart. I even had the single! Again, it was that singalong quality that made it so successful and as a song, everyone who lived through that era will remember it and be able to recite a couple of verses. Although they had a couple of minor hits over the next few years, it’s not just their chart successes that make them interesting, I feel. It was only after Lily The Pink that The Scaffold, in my view, became really interesting.
Between 1969 and 1973 The Scaffold were ubiquitous throughout popular culture. For example, they were regular guests on a range of TV variety shows, often sharing these shows with some strange bedfellows.
I’ve already mentioned The Scaffold’s possible first ever TV appearance on the 4 November 1967 edition of Dee Time but their appearance on the same show a year and a half later happened to be the day before the Apollo moon landing astronauts returned to Earth. This would explain TV astronomer Patrick Moore’s appearance on the show but not legendary British actor Wilfrid Hyde-Whyte. Whether The Scaffold performed a song is unknown but they were up against the variety might of Genxculture favourite Clodagh Rodgers and one-hit-wonders Zager and Evans who were on their way to the No.1 spot with ‘In The Year 2525.’ A suitably space-age song for a suitably space-age edition of Dee Time. The weird juxtaposition of guests on Dee Time was a regular aspect of the programme and Genxculture will be returning to this strange variety melange very soon.
As well as Crackerjack and Whistle Stop their TV appearances were regular and they performed on many wide and varied TV series of the 60 s and 70s including Top of The Pops (obviously), Ready Steady Go, The Golden Shot, The Basil Brush Show (excellent!), Doddy’s Music Box (Excellent!) and the 60s alternative to TOTP pop show All Systems Freeman with Fluff Freeman.
In early 1968 The Scaffold were the resident musical act in all five episodes of a virtually forgotten satirical late night (or at least late in those days) Saturday show entitled ‘At The Eleventh Hour.’ Billed by the Radio Times as ‘An end of the week look at the world or an end of the world look at the week.’ It was similar in content to That Was The Week That Was‘ and, from the little I remember of it, it was a slightly more demanding watch. Roger McGough also appeared as ‘himself’ reading his poetry. As well as The Scaffold it starred a young Miriam Margolyes and Oz magazine’s Richard Neville. 60s radical or what? The show also featured a Ray Davies of The Kinks penned current affairs song every week. He is quoted as saying that it was one of the most enjoyable jobs he ever had as he was given the topic for the song on Thursday, wrote it on Friday and it was recorded by the show’s singer, Jeanie Lambe, on Saturday and he received £25 per song. Lot of money in those days! Sadly, most of the songs are lost and most of the programmes have been inevitably wiped although it’s said two episodes are still intact in the BBC archives. I have a vivid recollection of Roger McGough reciting a poem entitled ‘At The Eleventh Hour‘ at the end of one of the shows. Pretty audacious TV even in 1968. Interestingly, on a BBC viewers’ feedback programme of the time called Talkback, hosted by, of all people, the legendary sports commentator David Coleman, At The Eleventh Hour was accused of being blasphemous! Sounds great but it was the sixties and fifties attitudes were still fairly prevalent.
They recorded the theme song to a curious film starring Warren Mitchell called All The WayUp in 1970. The story of a ultra-ambitious business man and zealous social climber featured an excellent cast included Richard Briars, Kenneth Cranham and, Genxculture favourite, Adrienne Posta. Recently shown on the always excellent Talking Pictures TV, it was a waste of everyone’s talent including The Scaffold’s. But a film soundtrack allowed them to tick off yet another genre.
In 1971 they were given their own BBC children’s TV series, Score With The Scaffold. This allowed their anarchic side to emerge more fully and this was hugely popular with kids. But, you’ve guessed it, no episodes of this show still exist and I have only a few memories it. The main one being the theme tune which was a version of their single 2 Days Monday from 1966 and the chorus, ‘Is everybody happy? You bet your life we are…‘ Rather chillingly, a guest on the final show of the second series was friend of The Royals and various politicians, Jimmy Savile….
In early 1971, as a precursor to decimalisation, The Scaffold were asked to write and record five short songs to help people get their heads around this fundamental societal change. The 5-minute programmes entitled ‘Decimal Five‘ went out straight after Nationwide each weeknight. The establishment tones of newsreader Robert Dougall explained how the new monetary system would work and The Scaffold sang the short ditties as aide-memoires. It’s strange that so many people still remember these one-line songs. The ones I remember were ‘Use your old coppers in sixpenny lots, meaning old pennies could only be used in multiples of six after Decimalisation Day on February 15 1971. Also One pound is a hundred new pennies, which might seem like stating the bleeding obvious now but was quite a quantum leap in thinking for people then. Even Max Bygraves released a decimalisation single!
Not content with one Public Information Film they were also asked to do another about the more prosaic subject of turning right safely whilst driving. The refrain ‘Nice and easy gets you there‘ became a very seventies grim juxtaposition between two young people dying horribly in a car crash and the alternative scenario of the young man being successful in his sexual conquest. And it was all down to being able to turn right safely.
But as well as PIFs The Scaffold were also happy to make a fast buck from a bit of TV advertising. And who could blame them! To the tune of Lily The Pink they advertised Watney’s Pale Ale in their trademark white tuxedos in 1969, changing the lyrics of their blockbuster hit slightly. Inevitable, I suppose and I hope they got paid a packet. And it does look quite strange now to see famous people drinking alcohol in adverts.
When Carla Lane wrote the long running series Liverpool-set comedy series The Liver Birds it made sense to have a Liverpool group do the theme tune. And who were the Liverpool group of the moment in 1969? Why, The Scaffold of course and their self-penned theme is still strongly identified with that long running series.
The Scaffold’s association with The Beatles didn’t end with Mike McGear either. Mike was one of the individuals taken along on the legendary The Magical Mystery Tour (See posting below) and it was McGear who recommended The Bonzo Dog Doodah Band to Paul when he was looking for an act to perform in the strip club scene of the film. The Scaffold had worked with The Bonzos before and worked with them again after they‘split up’ in the early 70s as GRIMMS. Roger McGough even wrote the bulk of the dialogue for Yellow Submarine but, for some reason, was uncredited. Now if that’s not interesting, I don’t know what is! However, he is reported to have received £500 for his contribution, a pretty tidy amount in the 60s but I still think I’d have liked a credit. The Scaffold also sang backing vocals on various Beatles‘ albums, often uncredited.
The Scaffold never really split up properly, they just became involved in their own particular interests. Roger McGough worked with The Mersey Sound poets Adrien Henry and Brian Patten, became a prolific and hugely successful writer of poetry, eventually began presenting Poetry Please on BBCRadio 4 (which he still does) and is now President of The Poetry Society. John Gorman appeared in a number of 70s films such as Up The Chastity Belt with Frankie Howerd, Alan Parker’s excellent ‘Melody‘ and Terry Gilliam’s ‘Jabberwocky.’ He eventually joined the cast of Tiswas, went on to write and appear in the adult version OTT and continued to write scripts for Chris Tarrant. Mike McGear (now McCartney again) had a relatively successful solo career, formed GRIMMS with the great Viv Stanshall and the sadly recently departed Neil Innes and later devoted his time to photography.
All have reformed at various times to perform as The Scaffold and all are happily still very much with us.
They may not have looked or even sounded like pop stars but what an amazing and hugely enjoyable cultural trip they had.
He may have been largely forgotten but his music is remembered by everyone
It continually surprises me just how connected the showbiz world of the 60s and 70s was. So many of the posts below seem to feature the same people in the most bizarre of circumstances. And it isn’t, by any means, only Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart, but even he has another walk-on part in the story of the man who composed the soundtrack for 60s and 70s Britain.
No one under the age of 40 will know who Tony Hatch is. Few people over the age of 40 will remember him. But everyone will know his music as it has been omnipresent within our popular culture for over 60 years. Still very much with us, Tony Hatch should be remembered as penning hit records, film scores, advertising jingles and of course, TV themes. He was even the very first nasty talent show judge. Tony Hatch, we salute you!
Starting out as a tea boy with a London music company at 16, he subsequently joined Top Rank Records and was producing acts as diverse as Bert Weedon (‘We are normal, we dig Bert Weedon‘), Adam Faith and Carry On’s Kenneth Connor. Before long he was writing songs and this where the legend that is Tony Hatch really began.
Writing under the pseudonym Mark Anthony,Hatch wrote ‘Messing About On The River’, a hit for Scottish singer Josh McCrae. At this time he was also writing and producing for the Pye label’s American roster which included Chubby Checker,Connie Francis, Pat Boone and Big Dee Irwin. During the early 60s when The Beatles and the Liverpool Explosion were dominating popular culture, on his first trip to Liverpool he discovered a band called The Searchers, who were named after the classic John Ford western, and wrote Sugar and Spice for them, giving the group their first huge number one hit.
As a producer at Pye he worked with some of the greats and not so greats of the 60s music industry. Some of his more interesting collaborations included Benny Hill (great), Bruce Forsyth, Norman Vaughan (not so great), French crooner (and brilliant jazz guitarist) Sacha Distel and the bafflingly successful Craig Douglas (see The Lost World of TV Ventriloquists).
He also worked with The Overlanders, who reached Number One in 1967 with a cover version of The Beatles ‘Michelle‘. They were one of the few bands to cover a Lennon/ McCartney song which The Beatles hadn’t released as a single themselves, at least not in the UK. This song won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year ahead of such easy listening classics as The Impossible Dream, Born Free, Somewhere My Love and Strangers In The Night.
Hatch, with his writing partner of the time, soon to be his wife, Jackie Trent also composed ‘Joanna‘ for the great Scott Walker. Achieving a chart high if No. 7 it helped re-launch Walker’s career after he split from The Walker Brothers, who, of course, weren’t brothers. This was a time when serious artists like Scott Walker might collaborate with easy-listening supremos like Hatch but he would also sing Jacques Brel as well as his own compositions. In fact, it’s a measure of the weirdness of 60s and 70s variety that Walker would perform Brel’s ‘Jackie‘ on The Frankie Howerd Show in 1967, or Jimi Hendrix would perform Purple Haze on It’s Lulu or Dizzy Gillespie would perform Be-Bop jazz on The Golden Shot, all in the early 70s. Strange days.
But it was his collaborations with Petula Clark in the mid-late 60s which really made his name. ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway,’ ‘The Other Man’s Grass,’ ‘I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love‘ and the all-time classic ‘Downtown‘ were all huge hits. Many written with Jackie Trent, it was a hugely successful period for Hatch.
If any song is to be associated with Tony Hatch it would have to be Downtown. As a song it still sounds fresh and immediate today, evoking the atmosphere and excitement of a busy metropolis. The song, not surprisingly, was written while Hatch was in New York and the title certainly suggests a busy American city, the word ‘downtown’ not really being common in the UK, which only added to its uniqueness. He supposedly wrote it with The Drifters and Ben E. King in mind and one can see that collaboration really working, even though Hatch denied ever offering it to them. But Petula Clark made it, pretty much, her theme song and it has been covered by over 150 other artists including Frank Sinatra. It was only stopped getting to number one in the Hit Parade by The Beatles at their popular zenith with ‘I Feel Fine‘ which sold a gargantuan 1.42 million copies and is the fourth highest selling Beatles‘ single. Interestingly, playing guitar on the Downtown recording session was a young session musician called Jimmy Paige.
But as well as his huge successes with Petula Clark, Hatch also had a fairly lucrative and still hugely memorable sideline in writing TV themes. Everyone, and I mean everyone, in the UK during the 60s and 70s remembers Tony Hatch theme tunes. Many of which are still synonymous with the programme they were written for, and many of his themes are remembered long after the programme has been forgotten. And it this element of his work which, for me, raises him to legendary status.
I have written previously in this little blog space of how certain TV programmes of the 60s and 70s were more popular than they deserved to be at the time and endured, mainly due to a killer theme tune. Van Der Valk would never have been as successful, I feel, without the brilliant Eye Level by The Simon Park Orchestra or the wonderfully expansive theme for The High Chaparral which provided such up-market packaging for a fairly humdrum 70s western series. Some of Hatch’s themes did this for many 60s and 70s series.
It’s nearly 60 years (yikes!) since Crossroads hit our screens and for many of a certain age (i.e. me) it is still a memorably bad but much missed series. If a straw poll was taken of people who are aware of Tony Hatch and his work, and there are many, this, I feel, would be the piece of music he will always be associated with, whether he likes it or not. I wouldn’t imagine he’d be too happy about this given the scale, quantity and quality of his output over the years but, as Harry Worth would say, there it is. This does not diminish his achievements in any way but everyone is remembered for something. I have written about the amazing Crossroads and its iconic theme elsewhere in this little blog space (See Standing At The Crossroads of (TV) History) so won’t dwell on it too long, but this is the theme of themes. Memorable, catchy, melodic, unusual (in it’s use of the oboe and harp) and absolutely totemic. It was even re-worked by Paul McCartney on his Venus and Mars album and this version was eventually used occasionally for particularly sensitive conclusions to episodes (and there were plenty of those!). Thematic genius and, I’m sure, a nice little earner for Tone.
And he repeated it again in 1972 for Emmerdale Farm (it’ll always be Emmerdale Farm to me), still played every weekday night to this day and, of course, Neighbours in 1985, composed with his then-wife Jackie Trent, which isn’t played every night anymore, but anyone from that era could still sing the opening few lines, even if they didn’t watch the programme.
And there was, of course, The Champions. Now, I loved The Champions. At the time. Having watched a few episodes recently I couldn’t help but feel the premise of some secret agents having super powers endowed after a plane crash in the Himalayas was silly, not to say repetitive, and the plots formulaic. You waited for most of the one hour episode until the moment when they used their super powers. The rest was pretty humdrum. Despite being very popular it, surprisingly, only lasted two series and 30 episodes between 1968 and 1969. I always thought Alexandra Bastedo (Sharon MacReadie), a great favourite of adolescent boys, was a bit mealy-mouthed and too sweet to be wholesome and William Gaunt (Richard Barrett) a touch miscast as he looked and behaved a little like an Assistant Manager in a Building Society. But that’s just me in my boring maturity. However, humming Hatch’s theme in my head still gives me a feeling of excitement and anticipation like it did then when The Champions was broadcast all those years ago. For an 8 or 9 year old this was a big weekly event. Bizarrely, and we do like bizarre things at Genxculture, in 2007 Guillermo Del Toro was reported to be writing and producing a screenplay for a big screen adaptation of The Champions. Sadly, to date, nothing has come of it but that would have been interesting. Very interesting.
In those 60s and 70s days when football was severely rationed, and all the better for it, we were sometimes thrown some crumbs of football highlights on a Wednesday night along with the odd boxing match, although I can’t really remember any other sports being broadcast, on Sportsnight With Coleman presented by the legendary David Coleman. Tony Hatch’s theme tune caught the excitement of the cut and thrust of competitive sport perfectly as the floodlights in the opening credits blazed brightly over the sporting arena. Like so many of his other themes, anyone of a certain age will remember this from the first couple of bars with the anticipation of being able to watch some grainy monochrome floodlit football footage on a Wednesday night a real treat. As Tony himself once said, “With an action show, you need an action theme.‘ and he gave us that here in spade loads.
He also composed the theme to long-running BBC 2 sociological documentary series Man Alive. Few will remember the programme but everyone will be familiar with the theme music. Other memorable series in which Hatch contributed the theme included suave Gerald Harper upper-crust vehicle Hadleigh and proto-type Holby City teatime daily serial from the late 60s, The Doctors.
Of course, no one’s perfect and he was responsible, again with Jackie Trent, for the awful Mr and Mrs theme. An awful theme for an awful programme. Hosted by ‘Mr Border TV’ Derek Batey, it permeated the myth that all married couples were deliriously happy and knew everything about one another. ‘And does he have any filthy disgusting habits that really irritate you?’ Derek would giggle as her husband was led to the soundproof box. My favourite question on Mr and Mrs was when some poor dolt was shown four different types of ladies’ shoes and asked, ‘And which of these lovely shoes would your wife prefer?’ How would he know, for crying out loud? He could see the £47 jackpot disappearing before his very eyes. I wonder how many couples’ marriages ended in divorce when it became obvious they knew nothing whatsoever about each other? And lovely hostess Susan Cuff would always sign off with, ‘Take care. Lots of care’ giving the game away that their core audience was probably not in the summer of its life.
What really brought Tony Hatch to the public’s attention, however, was New Faces which took over from long-running talent show Opportunity Knocks in 1973 and was the first show of its kind to feature a panel of judges. Tony Hatch was one of the original judges and quickly became TV’s first Mr Nasty due to his honest and forthright comments on many of the performers. In those days New Faces‘ judges had to give points out of ten for ‘Presentation,’ ‘Content‘ and ‘Star Quality.’ For a troupe of Russian Dancers (a perennial favourite of talent shows) one week Tony Hatch awarded them zero for ‘Star Quality‘ which caused gasps from the studio audience. But he was right. They were hardly going to set the showbiz world on fire but I’m sure they’d get the odd gig in a church hall. The performers were also kept on camera when they were receiving their feedback, which often made for excruciatingly uncomfortable, but entertaining, viewing.
It’s important to remember a couple of things in relation to current talent shows, particularly the dreadful X Factor. Tony Hatch actually knew about music having worked in the industry all his adult life. Unlike the venal Simon Cowell who knows nothing about music but does know how an act (and TV programme) might make him money and Louis Walsh who only knows about…..well, I’m not sure what he knows. Tony Hatch didn’t humiliate the contestants by featuring the poor deluded ones who couldn’t sing for the delectation of the viewing audience. He was constructive and did actually offer advice. And, unlike Cowell, he knew what he was talking about.
Tony Hatch aside, the New Faces’ judges were an odd bunch. Made up of old variety stagers like Ted Ray and Arthur Askey, a few token ‘with-it’ members such as record producer Mickie Most and then-DJ Noel Edmonds, showbiz insiders like Genxculture favourites Crossroads‘ matriarch Noelle Gordon (a Hatch connection here!) and amateurish teenage pop show producer Muriel Young, the father of Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart’s 17 year old wife, manager Jimmy Henney but also Ed ‘Stewpot’ himself (he didn’t half get around)! But then the line-up just became surreal (or rather even more surreal). TV agony aunt Marjorie Proops, Hammer Horror actress Ingrid Pitt, dog-food advertiser and Liberal MP Clement Freud and, quite unbelievably, ‘clean-up-TV’ campaigner Mary Whitehouse! Eh? Tony also wrote the very popular theme music for New Faces entitled ‘Star‘ which was sung by ex-wild man of rock and former lead singer of The Move, Carl Wayne which became a minor hit.
You’re a star, superstar
On you go it’s your finest hour
And you know that you’ll go far ‘cos you’re a sta-ar
A verse almost everyone could recite in those days.
In later years Hatch’s marriage to Jackie Trent ended acrimoniously after he ran off with her best friend and after living for many years in Australia he moved to Menorca, Spain where he still lives. In 2013 he was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and about time too.
For every Downtown, Hatch also had a Mr and Mrs and for every Crossroads he had a Neighbours but the fact is, these songs and tunes still endure after all these years and no one encapsulated a particular time in music like the great Tony Hatch.
What was it with 70s radio DJs? The size of their egos (and bank balances) were in inverse proportion to their knowledge of music.
For a medium which is about playing popular music to the masses there can be no individuals less qualified to deliver this seemingly uncontroversial melodic diet to our pop kids than 70s DJs. Where did it all go wrong? Well, it went wrong from the day of Radio One’s inception on September 30 1967 when a smooth-voiced male of indeterminate accent welcomed us to ‘the wonderful sound of Radio One,’ and proceeded to play Flowers in the Rain by The Move. It was all downhill from there.
To understand 70s DJs you have to separate them from the music they played because most had little interest and even less knowledge of music. They had no discernible accents, they talked incessantly without really saying anything, they rarely referred to the music other than to introduce it as ‘the sensational sound of…….’ They all had their own platforms but every one sounded the same. A few DJs had their own schtick, but generally the shows were all the same and the vocabulary used was the same but the voices just sounded slightly different.
Radio was just a useful peg to hang their cloak of moronic banter on and the records they played merely allowed them to take a breather, but they still managed to talk over the beginning and end of every record. A real pain when you were poised over the radio speaker with the microphone of a cassette recorder.
Over the years the cult (yes, I said ‘cult’) of the personality DJ just grew. The programmes were about them, people wanted to hear them, some deluded people even wanted to see them. Thousands turned up to see The Radio One Road Show during the summer months, although I would argue that if you were young and on holiday in Cleethorpes, Margate, Blackpool or Morecambe, then of course you’d go and watch it. What else was there to do?
To be fair there were a few DJs on Radio One in the 60s and 70s who actually did like music and were able to be knowledgeable about it and discuss it. John Peel, of course, fought a life-long rearguard battle to keep non-mainstream music alive on R1 but he was tucked away at the end of the day throughout the week. In the end he sort of joined them by presenting TOTP and various other R1 frivolities but he could never take that look of distaste off his face in any photograph or the heavy irony from his voice.
A mucker of JP’s was former RadioLuxembourg DJ David ‘Kid’ Jensen who styled themselves ‘The Rhythm Pals‘, almost to remove themselves from the morass of blandness elsewhere on R1. Although sounding like a slick Canadian presenter (which he was) Jensen also championed new music on his Saturday morning show and certainly was responsible for helping new acts be successful in the UK. He was the first to play regularly Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits in 1979 and achieving a high of No. 8 and the rest is pop history. He also was almost single-handedly responsible for the success of Althea and Donna’s classic Uptown Top Ranking, transforming it from an obscure reggae song on a tiny label into a worldwide smash. Like Peel, Jensen’s show was on a Saturday morning so as not to frighten the weekday audience who, they perceived, wanted a diet of bland, anodyne banter and unchallenging soft pop.
There were other 70s DJs who really did like music and were able to talk about it on-air. The excellent Stuart Henry, Johnnie Walker (who eventually left as he was completely pissed off with the gerontocratic culture), Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman with his Saturday Rock Show and Paul ‘The Great Gambo’ Gambacini, for example. At the time, for young people just becoming interested in music like myself, Wonderful Radio One was the only music radio available during the day, the crackly sound of Radio Luxembourg was available at night given a decent tailwind, but it wasn’t that much different. The DJs that were broadcasting from Luxembourg would, inevitably, be the DJs broadcasting on Wonderful Radio One eventually. So I became a Wonderful Radio One listener through necessity. It was the only place to hear current popular music and, to be fair, if you knew where to go, there was non-chart music to be found in various places around the station.
What has become clear to me about these disembodied radio voices is that, for most, that is all they are. My research has revealed there is precious little of any interest to say about many of these individuals, but I suppose that just goes with the territory. What was I expecting?
So, in no particular order…..
Peter James Barnard-Powell joined wonderful Radio One in 1977, like so many other DJs , after a stint on Radio Luxembourg. Over the next few years he glided smoothly through the various DJ slots upsetting no applecarts or stirring up any hornet’s nests. However, his innate BBC conservatism occasionally manifested itself through the permasmile and verbal superlatives. One such incident was on his Sunday morning show where he played The Smiths’ excellent new single, The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. The title of the album the track came from, The Queen Is Dead‘, was just too much for Pete’s establishment background and he launched into a mini-diatribe about how tasteless and unnecessary this album title was. Well, he had his CBE to consider!
John Peel also talked about PP’s bourgeoise attitude to anything new or different when he gave an interview to the Glasgow Herald in 2004.
Peter Powell was a dick, I’m afraid. It was Peter who came to me and told me that I shouldn’t be playing hip-hop when I first started playing that because it was the music of black criminals.
Unlike so many other wonderful Radio One DJs, he did have some semblance of a personal life. And what a cast-iron showbiz, Radio One personal life it was! In 1990 he married BluePeter and Wish You Were Here’s Anthea Turner in a mainstream media match from tabloid heaven. The more cynical might even have seen it as a C-list PR set-up. She had even been in a previous relationship with castle-dwelling Radio One elf Bruno Brookes, which, according to some outlets, was less than harmonious to say the least. Mind you, he had had a ‘very public’ relationship with Keith Chegwin’s sister, Janice Long. Anyone might think this was a C-List PR set-up……..
Powell is now a very successful manager of bland, mainstream morning TV celebrities (are there any other type?) including Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan and Richard and Judy. He still continues to manage Anthea Turner and I hoping he’s doing a better job of it than when they were married, though recently, you have to say, he’s taken his eye off that particular ball.
The first voice heard on WonderfulRadio One on September 30 1967 and still very much around the airwaves. Blackburn is probably the DJ most associated with Radio One during the 60s and 70s. Like so many of his Radio One colleagues, his middle-class BBC credentials were as solid as his indeterminate middle-England accent. He set the tone for Wonderful Radio One, describing every record as ‘a smash‘, ‘sensational‘ or ‘poptastic,’ which, incidentally was the title of his gossamer-thin 2007 autobiography. Backed by his faithful but irritating hound Arnold, Tony Blackburn has filled pretty much every presenting slot and is still broadcasting with the BBC, although slightly less effusively.
Tony conducted much of his private life over the airwaves during his mid-seventies marriage to lovely actress Tessa Wyatt. I have a vivid memory of Tone using his radio platform to lambast some tabloid journalist who dared to question Tessa Wyatt‘s acting credentials, motivating him to take a few minutes breather from playing records to read out her CV, just to hammer his point home. But Radio One DJs could do that in those days, they were so powerful within the corporation (more examples of DJs abusing the airwaves coming up).
Tony was well-known enough to secure parts in pantos each Christmas and it was during the power cuts of 1973, when a power cut happened during his panto performance, that he took to the airwaves to say that the miners should go back to work as it was ruining people’s enjoyment of his art. In later years he admitted that a broadcaster should keep their political allegiances to themselves, while at the same time admitting he had no great love of unions or the TUC.
Sadly, his marriage foundered when the lovely Tessa got a part in Alan Partridge’s favourite TV sitcom Robin’s Nest (‘Needless to say, plates got broken and Robin got annoyed!’). The chemistry between 60s and 70s TV stalwart Richard O’Sullivan and Tessa was not just confined to the restaurant kitchen and poor old Tony almost had a breakdown on air as a result.
To be fair to Tone he has championed soul music for many years on the radio although it’s more The Stylistics and Diana Ross than The Temptations or Isaac Hayes. But credit where it’s due. Few people in the media in those days were playing black music regularly.
Much to his annoyance, he was lampooned savagely in 1978 by Binky Baker and The Pit Orchestra whose single Toe-Knee Black-Burn was played widely. To add insult to injury said Binky Baker just happened to be Annie Nightingale‘s husband. Bet Radio One Christmas Parties were swinging after that.
Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart
Edward Stewart Mainwaring or should I say Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart has the bizarre ability to pop up in the most unexpected of places in this little blog space. Mainly because he turned up in the most unexpected of places within the 60s and 70s media, never quite reaching the pinnacle of the profession.
Although, in my humble opinion, he was a terminally dull man, this didn’t stop him become something of a Radio One legend, but it, of course, went with the territory. Despite this, his career was certainly more interesting than many of the other Radio One bozos.
Like most of his Radio One colleagues his middle-class credentials were solid, private school obviously, his dad a Treasury solicitor. He came to Radio One via a Hong Kong radio station and pirate radio. There is no evidence that he was particularly interested in or knew anything about music before he became presenter of Junior Choice on Saturday mornings. Silly jingles (‘ello darlin‘), Terry Scott with My Bruvver,Clive Dunn‘s Grandad, Sparky’s Magic Piano (radical), The Laughing Policeman and loads of birthday requests set the tone for this unchallenging BBC offering which he presented for 12 years.
But Ed ‘Stewpot’ was never satisfied. A 6 year stint on Crackerjack between 1973-79, where he looked perennially uncomfortable, the Holiday programme with his lovely young (very young) wife Chiara, figurehead of kids’ version of TV Times, Look-In (la-la-la-la-la Look-In!) with ‘Stewpot’s Newsdesk‘. A failed attempt to become a BBC football commentator through entering a competition where he was up against Ian St. John amongst others in 1970, and various other hosting roles including the intriguing Exit! It’s The Way Out Show with a pre-Blue PeterLeslie Judd as hostess in 1966 and as a panellist on ITV talent show New Faces all helped pad out Ed ‘Stewpot’s‘ CV.
He even provided the posh male voice on Lynsey De Paul’s 1973 number 14 smash, Won’t Somebody Dance With Me. According to LDP she was hit by a bus as a child (what’s funny about that?) and spent three months in bed and grew so fat no one would dance with her at junior functions. Ed ‘Stewpot’ seemed to fit the bill though. Why? Well, read on…..
In 1971 Ed ‘Stewpot‘ was invited to a friend’s house, Jimmy Henney, fellow New Faces judge and manager of the great Glen Campbell, and the door was opened by his 13 year old daughter, Chiara. Thirty year- old children’s radio show presenter Ed ‘Stewpot‘ later wrote in his autobiography:
I arrived at 7pm and was greeted at the door by what I can only describe as a 13 year-old apparition. She was simply stunning!
Even more stunning was the fact they were married four years later and Chiara was given the day off school to attend the ceremony. But it was 1974, it was ok! The marriage eventually ended some years later when she went off with a golf pro.
Ed ‘Stewpot‘ was an Everton fan as he constantly reminded listeners on Junior Choice. What’s more interesting though, he was Everton F.C.’s guest supporter on BBC’s Quizball in 1966. I’m not sure how good he would have been at quizzing but I think he was probably a ‘Route 2’ man, as he was for most of his career.
Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart continued to broadcast at the BBC as well as many of the radio stations that ended with the word ‘Gold.’ He’ll be remembered as a DJ who didn’t seem to want to be a DJ and a nearly man who didn’t quite reach the heights he wanted to, a children’s radio and TV presenter who seemed rather awkward in the presence of children (or at least most children), a sports fan who was never really given the opportunity to be one on air and a radio and TV ‘personality’ who didn’t really have that much of a personality.
Diddy David Hamilton
How tickled I am…..
Diddy David Hamilton‘s career changed almost as often as his hairline. Sidekick to Ken Dodd (hence the ‘diddy), Tommy Cooper and Benny Hill, on-screen announcer on Thames TV, as well as the official announcer at Fulham FC’s Craven Cottage football ground, for which Mohammed El Fayed paid him a whopping £1000 a match! Like Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart, Diddy David Hamilton was a voice which suited Wonderful Radio One. At the age of 35 he got his own afternoon show in 1973 and stayed there until 1986, when, at the age of 48 he left acrimoniously, lambasting the BBC due to their ‘geriatric’ music policy. Was he championing punk or did he feel German abstract electronica was being ignored or maybe he felt too few rock-a-boogie beat groups were being sidelined by the DLTRadio One pop panel. We will never know, unless, of course you read his autobiography, The Music Game, which might be a bridge too far. How bizarre, though.
Diddy David has appeared on pretty much every British TV quiz show (Blankety Blank, Celebrity Squares, The Weakest Link), variety shows (Ken Dodd, Benny Hill, Dickie Henderson, Cilla Black, Morecambe and Wise), comedy concept shows ( The Golden Shot, Quick On The Draw, Give Us A Clue, The Generation Game) and even news shows ( Nationwide, Northern Life, Today) and he walked the gamut of worthy, high quality TV (Clive James On Television) as well as the nadir of TV ‘entertainment’ (An Audience with Jim Davidson). He is even one of a small select band of celebrities who have appeared on Monty Python’s Flying Circus (the others being Lulu, Ringo Starr and BBC newsreader Richard Baker).
He also hosted, up and down the country, many of that most 70s of TV spectacle, the beauty contest. Miss Westward, Miss TV Times and Miss Thames TV, amongst others, all benefitted from the Diddy David Hamilton smooth treatment. He was the host in velvet jacket, frilly shirt and huge dicky-bow who gigglingly asked the searching questions as the contestants, in their swimsuits, shivered in an icy seaside wind. ‘And what will you do with the £500 if you win this contest?’ leered Diddy David. ‘I’d like to travel the world, David, and put my mother through parachute school.’ ‘And thank you Yvonne from Basingstoke. Big round of applause!’
In short, Diddy David has been around a bit and maybe that autobiography might not be the stretch it initially seemed.
It’s hard to believe, I know, but Radio One DJs were seen during the 70s as glamorous, ‘happening’ people and having their finger on the pulse of the nation. Unfortunately, the pulse they had their finger on was one of a very old, very conservative, very easily pleased old man. Unless you were Jimmy Savile, DLT or even Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart, but that’s another story… Those wonderful people at Talking Pictures TV showed an obscure British film some months back from 1979 called Home Before Midnight. The story of a 30-something pop music composer who met a girl at a club, fell into a wild passionate affair with her, only to find out she was 15. Oops. Although the film had some interesting points to make, the representation of women was pure 70s. In an early scene the main character is entering a very fashionable, up-market London nightclub when who does he meet coming out? Why it’s man-about-town, sexy and charismatic record spinner, Diddy David Hamilton, with a tall, scantily- clad young-ish girl in tow. A conversation ensues between Diddy David and the main character along the lines of ‘What you doing with this one then, you old charmer?’ etc. During the exchange the young girl says nothing, just stands there, pouting and she is only referred to in the third person. This was clearly the director’s idea of depicting the glitterati of late swinging London, and a short, balding 41 year old radio DJ was supposed to epitomise this vibe. Clearly, Jonathan King wasn’t available.
To be fair to Diddy David Hamilton, his CV is pretty impressive and he’s worked with many of the Greats, albeit in a superficial way most of the time.
Just don’t try to make out he was ever glamorous or a babe magnet…..
Dave Lee Travis
Where to start?
Well this arbiter of the young record-buying public’s music taste was Pipe Smoker of the Year 1985. And that’s about as interesting as it got with DLT.
In an interview with Q Magazine not long after he ignominiously resigned ‘on air’ for maximum dramatic effect but with sadly few people really noticing, Dave Lee Travis insisted that he be known as a ‘broadcaster.’ This was his way of trying make out what he did (i.e. talk reactionary inconsequential crap for 3 hours till he was relieved by some other moron), had so much more gravitas than most gave him credit for. In fact, he was really a DJ, a disc jockey, someone who plays music for the enjoyment of listeners. Unfortunately DLT and many of his colleagues had, over the years, changed their job descriptions into cults of personality. The shows were not about the music but about them. Their jingles, their wacky comedy items, their zany quizzes, their name-dropping, their references to tabloid news stories and their private life revelations. Oh, and some records.
Out of all the many purveyors of daily drivel at Radio One, DLT, The Hairy Monster, was probably the most loathsome and summed up the utter puffed up, self-aggrandising nature of those gargantuan egos. The blind rage he felt when the purge came, courtesy of Matthew Bannister in 1993, resulted from, what he believed, was his untouchable status due to 26 years believing he was bigger than the station. Not only had he occupied pretty much every prestigious presenting spot but he also sat on the Radio One playlist panel which decided what the listening public should be allowed to hear. This is the same man, as John Peel observed at a party DL:T was throwing, who possessed no records in his vast Buckinghamshire mansion and was now arbitrating on which artists should be allowed to be heard over the airwaves.
Dave was never slow to let the listening public know his views on many issues of the time. During a newspaper strike in the 80s, for example, a newsagent rang in to compete in a quiz DLT ran on his show, the silly ‘snooker on the radio’ he thought was so hilarious. ‘Is there anything you’d like to say to the strikers who are affecting your livelihood?’ enquired The Hairy Monster. ‘No, not really,‘ replied the newsagent. ‘I quite agree with their grievance.‘ Nice try Dave.
He even had a hit record in 1976 with the ‘comedy’ parody of C.W. McCall’s hit of the same year Convoy. Along with fellow forgotten Radio One DJ Paul Burnett, whose schtick was comedy voices, under the name Laurie Lingo and the Dipsticks they got to a nose-bleed inducing No. 4 in the charts with Convoy GB. The song was as funny as the group’s name. DLT looked menacing in his mask, the sort of guy you wouldn’t want to meet up an alley on a dark night. Especially if you were a woman. But that’s another story.
Shortly after he left Radio One (just before he was pushed) he scouted around the media looking for anyone who might listen to him. It seemed that now that he had left the station, few people were really that interested. It turned out that listeners are only interested in who happens to be on the radio at the time. There didn’t appear to be dedicated DLT fans, which must have come as a shock to the Hairy Monster. Eventually Q Magazine gave him an outlet to vent his spleen and in a bizarre, often hysterical, ego- driven interview he let fly.
Top of the Pops is full of shite. There’s no guiding light anywhere. There’s nobody like me to say ‘Hang on. You’re doing this all wrong.’
And, of course, DLT always had his finger on the nub of youth so he must know what he’s talking about.
John Peel observed accurately in the 70s that Noel Edmonds was never bothered about being a DJ as he, like so many of his colleagues, had no particularinterest in music. It was really just a stepping stone towards what he really wanted to be: a TV presenter. Peel was usually pretty spot on about these things and I could leave things just there as every knows about Deal Or No Deal, The Late, Late Breakfast Show, Crinkly Bottom, Gotchas, Telly Addicts and god knows how many other shit Edmonds’ vehicles have sullied our TV screens. But Edmonds was responsible for an aspect of Wonderful Radio One that’s almost forgotten and it was something that really spelled the beginning of the end for Radio One as we knew it.
Edmonds burst on to the Radio One big league when he replaced Blackburn on The Breakfast Show in July 1973. Like so many other DJs he’d graduated from Radio Luxembourg and had been noticed presenting various weekend shows and filling in for the likes of Kenny Everett. I can remember being quite sad when Blackburn had left The Breakfast Show as I had always listened to him as I was getting ready to go to school. I’d been given my first radio as a birthday present in November 1971 (Coz I Luv U by Slade was at number 1) and I had become a Radio One addict, well, in my defence, there was nothing else to listen to. Quickly, I realised there was more to this Edmonds than I had, at first, thought. He had some ‘zany’ characters such as Flinn The Milkman and Desmond Duck. He was really quite anarchic, or so I thought at the age of 13. He was a resounding success and Blackburn must have been raging as he only had his faithful hound Arnold who could only woof, woof for company. It was probably the first radio show, in this country at least, in which the comedy took centre stage. And to be fair, it was pretty good although now I think ‘What about the music?’ which had taken a back seat. With every other DJ it was their mindless banter, with Edmonds he was curating a show and he had seen the way radio was heading, sadly. With all the items on his show he must have been working flat out, or had a team of people working flat out to prepare it all.
My favourite Edmonds’ item was The Golden Guillotine. I can’t really remember why it was called that other than at the end of the routine you’d hear the guillotine blade fall and a head bump on the ground. In fact, it was just an elaborate pun on a record he was about to play. He’d tell a story and the punchline would be the title of the song or the artist performing it. The only punchline I remember was about a burglar trying to break into a house and attempting to dislodge the glass in the window so he could gain entry. ‘And finally he….freed a pane.’ Cue Band of Gold by Freda Paine. Well, it amused me at the time.
He even did a public information film for The Blood Transfusion Service in he mid-70s.
Punter: How are you feeling Noel?
Edmonds (in the process of giving Radio One blood): Fine. Quite, quite fine.
But with success comes hubris and before long Edmonds was racing cars, living on a huge estate and commuting in a helicopter. He would regularly be photographed in a one-piece monogrammed flying suit, helmet and goggles against the backdrop of a glistening chopper. ‘My busy lifestyle demands this mode of transport,’ he’d tell us. This included ferrying performers to Wembley for Live Aid in 1985. Despite DLT dabbling in stock car racing, Edmonds took radio celebrity to a whole new plutocratic level. In fact, Noel Edmonds is the person DLT wishes he had been.
To be fair, Edmond’s stratospheric rise only began properly after he left Wonderful Radio One. But it was here he really showed some talent although, like the rest, music only got in the way.
When he left Wonderful Radio One in 1983 it was never going to be the same again. It wasn’t enough for DJs just to turn up every day, spin records and talk shit, although this did continue, obviously. But DJs had got too big for their boots, too rich for their own good, too secure in their tenures, too outspoken in their views, too obvious in their lavish lifestyles. Waiting in the wings was a certain Mr Matthew Bannister who was about to throw a molotov cocktail into the sherry party that had been Radio One.
Although Steve Wright, strictly speaking, is an 80s DJ, I felt it worth mentioning him as he is the ultimate example of a DJ weaned on the moronic diet of Radio One in the 70s. In a Comic Strip story from the 80s two DJs are having a conversation, one with dyed blonde hair and clearly middle-class and the other played by Nigel Planer who is a little more rough and ready. ‘I’m currently working around Esher,’ says the posh jock ‘and I’ve met Steve Wright.’ ‘You’ve met Steve Wright!!!’ says Planer incredulously looking off into the middle distance. ‘Dear god……dear god….’
If ever anyone mastered the black art of talking without saying anything it was Steve Wright. I’m convinced if you ever had a private conversation with Steve Wright he would talk in the same inconsequential manner as he does on radio. In other words, there are no hidden depths to him. What you hear on the radio is the way he is.
The radio love-child of Tony Blackburn, Peter Powell and Kenny Everett, if that were possible, as two-dimensional characters go, some of the ventriloquists’ dummies featured in The Lost Art of TV Ventriloquism (see below) were more human. A man so superficial he is almost translucent. Although, ironically, there is much more to Steve Wright today than when he arrived at Wonderful Radio One in 1978. Sadly for him, this is only corporeal.
Steve Wright has been the great plagiarist. Nothing Steve Wright has ever done on the airwaves has been original, despite his claims. He is still known to travel to the US today to purloin things he hears US DJs doing on their shows and then maintains they are his ideas. That said, these ‘ideas’ are hardly pulling back the boundaries of radio.
Arriving at Wonderful Radio One in 1978 he supposedly introduced the ‘Zoo’ format which really just means he had a couple of bozos doing the show with him. This was something he brought back from the US where it had been happening for years. He was described as being ‘anarchic,’ ‘zany’ and ‘irreverent’ but, in fact, he was, and is still, deeply conservative and is the natural progression from Blackburn, DLT and Peter Powell in terms of blandness. His ‘madcap’ characters such as Mr Angry, Damian the Radio One Social Worker and The Old Lady certainly padded out his programme and, no doubt, some people found them funny but he was really just copying Kenny Everett who’d been doing this years before and much more cleverly.
In 1994 Wright won Radio Personality of the Year as voted by Sun, Daily Mirror and Record Mirror readers. Not a great return for so many years of broadcasting despite him constantly reading out letters he receives which invariably end ‘Love the show, Steve.’ To describe Steve Wright having a ‘personality’ is certainly stretching the point and it is no surprise that very little is known about Wright’s private life. He makes out it’s because he prefers to be secretive about it but I suspect it’s because there really is nothing else to know.
He’s the robotic Radio One DJ taken to its inevitable conclusion in some weird Science Fiction story by Philip K. Dick. He is really only a voice but has become a totem for a type of DJ who dominated the airwaves during the 70s and are now remembered, at least a few of them, for reasons unrelated to music but entirely related to their gargantuan and unhinged personalities.
How Steve Wright survived the Bannister cull in the 90s is anybody’s guess, although he did disappear from Radio 1 for a while before returning to Radio 2. Maybe he blended into the studio background and no one noticed he was there but given his years of activity, one can’t but wonder if there really is so little to the Wright backstory as there appears to be. In a tabloid article I read some years ago Steve Wright was described as a ‘pop expert‘. Never has a title been so abused given his show revolves around that malevolently trivial pentagram of Radio One, the tabloids, The One Show, Twitter and celebrity magazines such as Hello and OK.
To try to conclude this article on a positive note, Steve Wright is the end of an era of banality, blandness and boring conformity. Few young people will listen to Wright and think, ‘That’s what I want to be,’ but inevitably something just as horrendous will replace it. And in Radio One‘s case during the 90s it was the appalling Chris Evans, arguably a more unhinged ego than the individuals discussed above. So much for progress but that’s life, I suppose. Crucially we have Radio 6 Music now, the station Radio One should have been all those years ago. And we have properly brilliant presenters like Stuart Maconie, Mark Radcliffe, Annie Mac, Trevor Nelson, Steve Lamacq, Lauren Laverne and Shaun Keaveney and others who not only can discuss music knowledgeably but also -and how radical is this- like it!
Now just don’t get me started on local radio DJs…….
The singles charts are no more but is this a good thing?
The way we listen to music now has changed in a way no one could have imagined 30 years ago. Spotify, Deezer, Youtube and iPod were just fantasies in a mad science fiction writer’s crazed mind. To sit down at a small computer and, within seconds, start listening to a piece of music you hadn’t previously possessed is mind-blowing to someone like me who grew up in the 60s and 70s and listened to music in a way that is now completely obsolete. And I actually miss this anti-diluvian system of music consumption in many ways but, although, deep down, I know that the revolution has been good for music fans in so many unimaginable ways (maybe not so much for artists), I miss hugely that fulcrum of musical information, the nexus of any week’s pop knowledge, that perennial pivot of pop power, the weekly singles and album charts.
Now I know charts still exist and are probably still issued weekly by some anonymous data company somewhere and are based partly on record sales (although who buys new music from a shop nowadays?) but, more importantly, ‘downloads.’ Any young person looking at these charts will get an idea of who’s hot and who’s not at the time, but nothing like in the same way we did 30 or 40 years ago. To a music and knowledge obsessed teenager like myself (who couldn’t get a girlfriend), the charts were pure gold in so many ways and guaranteed, literally, hours of analysis, interpretation, scrutiny and downright, old-fashioned enjoyment. And why was this? Read on if you’re not already mindnumbingly bored by the subject…….
In the 1950s singles were really just a way of publicising an artist’s new album by releasing a single track from it. Someone somewhere had the genius idea of compiling a chart of the best sellers and the record industry never looked back. It tapped into a youth market that maybe couldn’t afford to buy albums and a whole new musical culture was created. The element of competition between artist, the emerging fan bases, the ease by which many groups and singers could more easily get themselves known and the developing TV and radio mediums all aligned at the same time to give birth to the institution they called The Hit Parade. We all knew they were manipulated, tampered with and generally orchestrated by the record companies but we didn’t really care. The singles charts were here to stay! (for a long time at least…)
My first recollection of the singles charts was in 1967. We had a brown and white Bakelite radio that my mum would listen to in the morning to what was the forerunner of Radio 1, The Light Programme. She loved a record by Anita Harris (a 60s and 70s variety stalwart and still very much with us!) that was played quite regularly called Just Loving You and I remember very clearly how excited she got when she heard it had got to number 30 in the charts. To me number 30 seemed nothing special but in later years I realised getting into the top 30 meant selling a shitload of records, thousands in fact, unlike today when you can get to number 1 by getting a dozen downloads. Anita Harris eventually got to a nose-bleed- inducing number 6 and spent a staggering 30 weeks in the top 50. That was the moment I knew there was much more to the charts than met the eye. A few months later I began to take more notice of what was being played on the wireless and have a vivid memory of absolutely loving Hole In My Shoe by Traffic. My passion for weirdness and psychedelia in music was well and truly inspired from this moment.
There were three things to look forward to every week at the age of about 15. The first was Friday at 4.00pm when school finished and the whole weekend stretched before us, secondly, Saturday night at the youth club when I could rub shoulders with girls of my own age, none of whom were interested in me obviously and Thursday when the music papers were available in newsagents and the new updated singles, albums and US charts were published. Never has so much vital information been condensed into such a small space. The movers, the non-movers, the bubblers, the fallers, the number of weeks on the chart and the new entries. All had to be digested, analysed and assessed, which could take a while and I would read NME, Sounds and Record Mirror from cover to cover. Luckily time was something I had plenty of.
The charts sat in the middle of a triumvirate of media outlets, TV, Radio and the music press, each having an effect, although not necessarily an equal one, on the following week’s chart. Radio One, of course, had the chart rundown on a Tuesday but it was the music papers’ charts that really allowed some deep analysis to be undertaken.
As a young person in the 60s and 70s, you were severely limited as to where you could hear, not just the current hits, but any popular music at all outside of TOTP and Radio 1. You might hear a record being played on a juke box in a cafe, Blue Peter occasionally featured unthreatening bands such as Freddie and the Dreamers (see The Beatles of Uncool below)or flute-driven soft rockers Vanity Fair, you might run up a shockingly high (but mercifully unitemised) phone bill by ringing BT’s Dial-A-Disc service, a friend might show-off by playing you a current single they’d bought or you might catch someone playing a tranny in the street, but that was about it. Slim pickings to say the least and so you were at the mercy of TOTP and Radio 1 whether you liked it or not, but, at that time, you did tend to like it because you knew no better.
For most people it was Thursday night at around 7.00pm that allowed them to engage with the pop charts. Top of the Pops had replaced the musically and stylistically superior Ready Steady Go in the mid-sixties, purely because TOTP based their show on the pop charts and RSG just featured acts that were ‘hot.’ If you didn’t have a song in the charts, you weren’t on TOTP. And everyone knew that an appearance on TOTP would, almost certainly, have a massively beneficial effect on the artist’s disc. To be invited onto TOTP was most artist’s dream as it was often the making of them, as the majority of the millions of TV viewers every Thursday night probably didn’t listen to the radio and certainly didn’t read the music press. And although many young people who attended live TOTP shows tell a different story, the show came across on TV as vibrant, happening and exciting and everything an up and coming act would look and sound good on (despite miming). Around this time during the early 60s many young people began buying records purely on how a band or performer looked on TOTP. It was also the case that most young people, including myself, for a while believed that the charts couldn’t lie. If an act got to number one, then they must be good and they’d want to be a part of this movement of fandom and would buy the record. Of course, it didn’t take me long to understand that this was really not the case and I quickly realised Middle of the Road, Esther and Abi Ofarim, Peters and Lee, Des O’Connor or Cilla Black were neither good nor fashionable. But millions of people still bought their records!
The influence on the charts of TOTP cannot be underestimated. But another huge and, I would contend, insidious influence on the singles charts was wonderful Radio 1. From its inception in 1967 it was always staffed by a bunch of guys (and it was mainly guys) who could have been our rather sleazy uncles, with a few exceptions. Throughout the 60s and 70s Radio 1 decided each week which records should be placed on their all-important ‘playlist.’ This playlist pretty much decided which records were going to be successful and which were not.
These DJs were generally selected on their ability to talk utter bollocks incessantly rather than on their musical knowledge and having an interest in or knowledge of music was not really encouraged. It was clear that the important element of most Radio 1 shows was the DJ banter between records rather than the records themselves. The music was really only there to give the DJs a breather. Of course, there were a few exceptions to this rule. The great John Peel obviously, Johnny Walker (who eventually left because he got pissed off with this culture), the virtually forgotten but excellent Stuart Henry, Kid Jensen, Paul Gambacini and Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman with his Saturday Rock Show. Those apart, it was a litany of middle-aged guys who loved the sound of their own voices, their funny characters, amusing quizzes, hilarious jingles (What’s that Arnold?) and wacky tabloid news stories. But their influence on the singles chart was terrifyingly significant!
John Peel told a story of being invited to a party at Dave Lee Travis’s huge mansion (they all lived in ‘mansions’ apart from Bruno Brookes who lived in a castle). The first thing Peel did when he went to someone’s house was go and have a look at their record collection. He spent some time searching from room to room before realising that DLT, the ‘Hairy Monster,’ Pipe Smoker of the Year 1982, self-styled arbiter of pop culture, possessed no records whatsoever or even a sound system. I watched one of those excellent Friday night music documentaries on BBC 4 some months ago, Charts Britannia, which showed footage of the Radio 1 panel which selected records for its playlist each week. On this panel sat a number of men and women, most over 50 and some well into their 60s and one Dave Lee Travis. It’s little wonder Peters and Lee, Cliff, Cilla and Des did so well in the charts in these days. I once saw Radio 1’s ghastly Steve Wright described in a UK tabloid as a ‘pop expert.’ That single sentence put me in a bad mood for 3 years. (Much more on 70s DJs to come at Genxculture).
That said, the singles charts, the top 50, was an archeological dig of the good, the bad and the hideously ugly. And that’s what made them so fascinating.
The singles charts were a melange of the great, the quite good, the horrendously awful, the bizarre, the inexplicably successful, the shocking, the revelatory, the jaw-dropping weirdness, the utterly amazing and, sometimes creating a frisson of excitement, the banned. Take the following randomly selected, but musically significant, edition of the NME singles and albums chart of May 22 1976 for example. Within this mid-70s chart exists, I would argue, all the above categories of hit single but it also offers a revealing template for society at that time as every chart did to varying extents.
We can quickly bypass the number 1 and 2 singles as little more needs to be written about Abba, other than, as The Guardian‘s Pete Paphides observed accurately, ‘If you don’t like Abba, you don’t like pop.‘ Little also needs to be said about Abba wannabes Brotherhood of Man with their bland and irritating Euro winner Save Your Kisses For Me. But it’s the nether regions that always held the greatest interest. Have a look a little further down the top 10 and at 9, up a massive 10 places, is Andrea True Connection with the wonderful disco classic, More, More, More. For me, this was the quintessential single of that very trashy period we called the mid-70s. Now Andrea True was actually a porn star and the publicity pics for her record were a little racy, and taking the record’s lyrical content into account, this was a catchy, beautifully produced, trashy record that epitomised that era.
But if you want to know How I really feel Get the cameras rolling Get the action going Baby you know my love for you is real Take me where you want to Then my heart you’ll steal
In short, superb!
Remember what I said about the ‘inexplicable successes? Well check out numbers 20 to 22. On its way down from a high of 4, Convoy GB by Laurie Lingo and The Dipsticks and on its way to Number 1, Combined Harvester by The Wurzels. What have both of these records got in common? Correct.
But would you Adam and Eve it? Laurie Lingo and the Dipsticks just happened to be our old pal, the hairy cornflake, DLT and his partner in musical crime, Radio 1’s forgotten DJ (must have kept his nose clean) Paul Burnett. As a comedic parody of CW McCall‘s 1976 blockbuster Convoy, it was about as funny as a burning orphanage. And it raises the perennial question, who bought that shit and did these people actually think it was funny? Laugh? I thought I’d never start.
The Wurzels were originally Adge Cutler and The Wurzels had appeared on the iconic 60s chat show Dee Time (much more on this to come) before settling comfortably into ITV afternoon easy listening shows (the ones you watched when you’d skived off school for the afternoon) in the 70s, particularly The Great Western Music Show (I think it was called) until Adge sadly turned his sports car over in 1974 and they became The Wurzels. Combined Harvester was a parody on Melanie’s 1972 No.4 hit Brand New Key and although they may have overstayed their welcome in the charts over the next few years, this was, I suppose, a fairly decent comedy record if you liked that kind of thing.
She’s a fine looking’ woman and I can’t wait to get me ‘ands on her land…..
Interestingly, one of The Wurzels came from Penicuick, Midlothian. Fancy that!
Also falling into the embarrassingly bad and ‘how did that ever get into the charts ?’ category, Reggae Like It Used Be by Paul Nicholas nestles in the middle of this triple decker of trash. I have written in much more detail about PN in Rubbish Songs, Inexplicable Hits section of this little blog, specifically about the even more irritating Grandma’s Party. Needless to say, this was also rubbish.
And notice within the ‘Bubblers’ a certain Judge Dread and his latest waxing The Winkle Man, on its way to a high of No. 35. Judge Dread had 8 top 40 hits in the 70s, none of which were played on Radio 1 or TOTP. His songs were Reggae-inflected rudeness , two of his later minor hits being Up With The Cock and Y Viva Suspenders. You get the idea. Which just goes to show the record buying public loved something a little risqué, whether they had heard the record or not, and it was probably not. There was a certain type of kudos achieved by surreptitiously revealing a Judge Dread record to your pals in the same way you might by conspiratorially display a copy of Playboy from its hiding place under your bed. Up until a few months ago I had never heard a Judge Dread song. In December of 2019 I attended a Bad Manners gig in Edinburgh and in support was, believe it or not, a Judge Dread tribute act who reeled off his ‘Big’ hits from soup to nuts. He was really quite good.
Judge Dread was probably only ever outdone in the chart rudeness stakes by Ivor Biggun and The Red Nosed Burglars with their 1978 No. 22 smash, I’m A Winker, and they were very insistent that this was a misprint. Strangely, wonderful Radio 1, DLT and the septuagenarian pop panel failed to add this to the Radio 1 playlist. Turned out Ivor Biggun was Doc Cox from Esther Rantzen’s awful consumerist show, That’s Life. He couldn’t even stop himself being slightly rude on that show either, given his TV name. Mind you, they were obsessed with rude-shaped vegetables. But rudeness aside, records that were not on the Radio 1 playlist rarely made it into the charts unless they had some notoriety.
Anyone casually perusing this chart from 1976 might notice just how many MOR records peppered the top 30, songs that were written in committee as vehicles for various MOR acts. In fact, out of the top 30, well over half could be described as easy listening or middle of the road. There is nothing in this chart that is particularly threatening or might scare the horses. Brotherhood of Man, Cliff, The Stylistics (who really churned out the bla’ hits in the 70s), Bellamy Brothers, Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, Frankie Valli, Stylistics clones Sheer Elegance (rubbish name), the overwrought Eric Carmen and just creeping into Top 30, the lovely Tina Charles with yet another song that sounded exactly like I Love To Love. We even have a young Midge Ure and Slik encroaching into chart territory with the bombastic but certainly not fantastic Requiem. With the exception of the legendary Isaac Hayes, some interesting experimental pop from Diana Ross and a bit of ultra-smooth soul from the wonderful Gladys Knight, there is little in this chart to excite any young person with an interest in music.
But hang on a cotton-pickin’ moment! Who’s that making such an unholy row around that adjacent temporal corner? Why it’s The Sex Pistols and their punk pals! Come to save us from being smothered by marshmallow light musical blandness. Hurrah! It just takes a cursory glance at this particular chart to see that things had to change. The charts had be wrested back from the terminal Radio 1 mediocrity that controlled them, that had almost turned da kids into The Children of the Damned (and I don’t mean Dave Vanian and Rat Scabies. Yet). But that’s what the singles charts did. They provided a template for our society at any given time. And irrespective of the blandness quotient, they still provided hours of analytical fun. I would go as far as to argue that any chart from the 50s until their ostensible end in the early 90s could be analysed meaningfully either sociologically, economically, politically, musically and, of course, aesthetically, which is where the fun would really begin.
As mentioned previously in ‘Rubbish Songs, Inexplicable Hits‘, anyone in the public eye could have a hit record, irrespective of whether they could sing or not. There was an unpleasant alliance between ‘celebrities’, Radio 1, some record companies and TOTP. When a ‘celebrity’ (a word I’ve always hated due to the implication that those people should be ‘celebrated’) was ‘hot’ someone would approach them from a smallish record company and suggest they make a single. The celebrity would, through one eye see pound signs and through the other mainstream pop coolness. How deluded they usually were. But because these bozos were well known, they could guaranteee being placed on the septuagenarian Radio 1 playlist and a spot on TOTP. If they could get that, they were made (for a short time at least)! The combination of Radio 1 playlist repetition, exposure to 20 million viewers on a Thursday night along with the TV show they were famous for was irresistible to many gullible sections of the record buying public. Hence we were subjected to the likes of:
Telly Savalas of Kojak fame who got to No. 1 in 1975 with a shocking version of Bread’s ‘If‘
David Soul of Starsky and Hutch who had five, that is FIVE, top 20 hits between 1976 and 1978
Windsor Davies and Don Estelle of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum who got to No. 1 with Whispering Grass (doubt we’ll ever see that show again)
Dennis Waterman of Minder who scored twice with I Could Be So Good For You in 1980 and the embarrassing What Are We Gonna Get ‘er Indoors in 1983
Dick Emery who crept into the top 50 in 1973 with ‘Ooh You Are Awful’
Russ Abbott got to a nose-bleed inducing No.7 in 1984 with the irritating Atmosphere. I remember watching TOTP when the video was premiered and I sat there waiting for something funny to happen, after about 2 minutes I realised it was serious. What a let-down.
Radio 2 DJ Terry Wogan‘s version of The Floral Dance with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band. Like Telly and Shatner he couldn’t sing so spoke the lyrics. Either way he shouldn’t have bothered.
And the less said about Robson and Jerome, of the Soldier, Soldier military drama serial, the better. Unbelievably, they sit at No. 9 in the chart of most successful singles EVER with Unchained Melody selling an eyewatering 1.85 million copies! One of the hard and fast rules of the singles charts always was, ‘The blander the song, the bigger the hit.’ Thus, also in the top ten all-time sellers were Boney M (twice), Queen, Elton John, Wings and John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John
During the 80s various actors from Aussie soaps Neighbours and Home and Away, in the days when those programmes were particularly popular here, tried their luck in the UK charts while the going was good for them. The vast majority being dreadful with Stefan (Paul Robinson) Dennis achieving the nadir of Aussie pop with Don’t It Make You Feel Good in 1989. But even that got to no. 16!
The charts even provided a home for sports people, particularly footballers to try their hands at something very different to kicking a ball around. For all of them (and I mean all of them), they should have stuck to putting the boot into opponents rather than into the charts. The first footballers to strike chart gold was the oddly tuxedoed 1970 England World Cup Squad who bawled out their, albeit, quite catchy tune on TOTP, Back Home. This got to number 1 probably because of its novelty value as no football team had ever featured in the charts before.
It began a trend for international teams as well as club teams to record songs which, presumably, only their own fans ever bought. That was enough for many to creep into the charts. Probably the type of single of any genre which has the least, if any, aesthetic value. Even Boney M and Queen singles have more.
Not content with football teams trying for chart success, some individual footballers were puffed up enough to think they might have a chance of pop career. In the front row above, sandwiched between Big Jack Charlton and Alan Mullery, we see West Bromwich Albion’s striker Jeff Astle. On the strength of the EWCS smash hit he released a solo single called ‘Sweet Water‘ but he, sadly, choked on the bitter taste of failure. The single missed the charts completely, a bit like that sitter he screwed past the post against Brazil a few months later. But not so Mr Kevin Keegan in 1979 when he reached number 31 with Head Over Heels in Love written by Smokie’sChris Norman. Or Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle, or Glenn and Chris as they chummily wanted to be referred to, whose ‘Diamond Lights’ got to No. 12 in 1987. Probably not the worst song ever to appear on TOTP but their performance is one of those ‘watch through your fingers’ moments.
But the charts often throw up (and I chose those words carefully) such moments as these. One of the often unadmitted joys of the charts is watching a single or act you particularly dislike moving inexorably towards the top ten. The Bay City Rollers at their peak had a 14 year old me almost ripping up the music papers in disgust. When something has this effect on you it must have a lot going for it. Or when a particular favourite has a head-to-head race to get to the top spot first, such as The Sweet v Gary Glitter or Slade v David Bowie. And to spot early a single no one else had noticed edging its way up the hit parade towards Numero Uno, to have given your pals the SP on it and told them to watch this one go was hugely enjoyable. Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits in 1977 was a good example of this type of slow-burner, having been played regularly by David ‘Kid’ Jensen on his Saturday morning show on wonderful Radio 1, before anyone had even heard of Dire Straits. Or Althea and Donna’s brilliant Uptown Top Ranking which similarly slowly nosed its way up the charts after an inauspicious start. Chart moments like these proved there was a discerning record buying public out there, a public who weren’t just content to listen to Queen, Boney M or Cliff. And the singles charts highlighted such behaviour in a way that bolstered your faith in other music-loving people of all ages.
The charts also provided the basis of many in-depth discussions which wore long into the night. Did a particular band or single ever get to number 1? What was the best number 2 single ever. How many David Bowie top 30 singles can you name? Which was the most successful Motown act? How many number 1s did The Stones have? What was the weirdest single ever to get into the top 10? What was the worst number 1 ever? And in the days before you could access some of these facts on a phone, some of the debates could go on for days, even weeks. Of course, anyone with even a passing interest in the charts will remember that in 1980 Ultravox’s overblown electronic classic Vienna was kept off the top spot by Joe Dolce and Shaddap Your Face. Although I was big a fan of Ultravox, sometimes the charts didn’t lie and the best song did get to No. 1. And that’s why I loved them.
I’m told some form of singles and album charts still exists but it really isn’t the same. Music consumption is completely different today. People no longer wait with baited breath on a particular act’s new release or track its progress inexorably up and down the hit parade. Or argue with friends which particular track from a new album is the strongest single. Or feel that warm glow of satisfaction when a favourite act surpasses someone shit like Brotherhood of man, Bay City Rollers or Queen in the charts. But music of all genres and periods is still listened to, downloaded, streamed, pirated and, for some odd people (like myself) even played on record players. Thankfully, music is still very much alive and kicking, I’m happy to say, in its many different incarnations.
It goes without saying that in the early 60s everyone in the world was aware, to varying extents, of The Beatles. Certainly in the UK they dominated music, culture, the media and even, to a degree, politics. But there were many other acts around and, because of The Beatles, a few acts from Liverpool enjoyed a huge amount of success, known as The Liverpool Explosion. Some deserved it, such as Gerry and the Pacemakers and some were just incredibly lucky to surf in The Beatles‘ wake (yes, I’m looking at you Cilla and Tarby).
One band who certainly benefitted from The Beatles‘ success was Freddie and the Dreamers, who although seen as being part of the Liverpool explosion were actually from Manchester. They even had a pre-fame residency in Hamburg in the very early 60s and for a short time during the early to mid-sixties Freddie and the Dreamers seemed ubiquitous, they were never off the telly, had a string of hits, even number 1s in the US, and had legions of screaming fans. This was quite incredible for a band who could not have been more different to The Beatles.
Everyone liked Freddie and the Dreamers. They were the sort of band that even your elderly relatives liked because their music was jaunty, melodic and inoffensive and Freddie Garrity even had a pleasant singing voice. But what set Freddie and the Dreamers apart from other bands was… he leapt up and down! This was their USP. As well as Freddie leaping around The Dreamers had a whole repertoire of jerky dance movements. This meant they were safe to feature on Blue Peter, Top of the Pops and Sunday Night at the London Palladium and wouldn’t frighten the horses like some of those other hairy, druggy, dirty bands like The Tremeloes or The Hollies.
Between 1963 and 1964 they had 4 top ten hits including ‘I’m Telling You Now’, which was also a number 1 in the US in 1965, and ‘You Were Made For Me.’ Their fame in the US in 1965, though brief, also led to them being touted for a TV series co-starring Terry-Thomas which would have pre-dated The Monkees but this, sadly, came to nothing. And it was their comedy element which led to them appearing in a few British films and also secured a long running TV series for them in the late 60s.
The late 50s and early 60s saw an explosion of British films aimed at the emerging teenage market. Film companies desperate to get in on the act rushed out, often threadbare, vehicles for singers and bands who just happened to be popular at the time, often fleetingly so, and in many cases these featured acts were no longer popular when the film was eventually released. In 1965 Freddie and the Dreamers were given their own star vehicle, Cuckoo Patrol, in which they played a troop of boy scouts who inadvertently get involved with some criminals planning a robbery. The results were, unfortunately, not hilarious as ten out ten film reviewers on IMDB rated it 1 star out of 10, some of the more positive reviews referred to it as the ‘worst British film of all time.’ Harsh maybe but having viewed it, it is pretty poor although with a few odd redeeming features which may not have been obvious when it was released. Recently The Independent called it ‘Terrifying.’ For some reason, I can maybe guess why, it was shelved for two years and only released in 1967, a couple of years after Freddie and the Dreamers had had their last hit. The film experiments with their often anarchic sense of humour which would be utilised more effectively in a TV series launched a year later. It was also reported that some American states banned the film, not for being truly awful but for belittling the Scout movement.
The very fast moving world of 60s pop also saw them appear in 1965’s Every Day’s A Holiday, set in a holiday camp it was a vehicle for unexceptional crooner John Leyton who’d had a couple of monster hits including Johnny Remember Me two years previously. Also starring Mike Sarne whose big number one, the intensely irritating Come Outside, was three years old. The film itself is a strange but enjoyable romp which does evoke the seemingly carefree world of the sixties holiday camp and the perfect platform for Freddie and the Dreamers to hone their musical comedy skills as a bunch of chefs. Needless to say chaos ensued…! The film also featured such well-known 60s and 70s comedy faces as Richard O’Sullivan, Liz Fraser, Nicholas Parsons and an uncredited Danny La Rue.
In March 1964 at the height of their success they headlined an episode of that weird Genxculture favourite, Sunday Night at the London Palladium (Catch it on Sunday nights on Talking Pictures TV, you won’t regret it). The host Bruce Forsyth, as he was about to introduce them, said ‘They’re here!‘ without even mentioning who exactly he was referring to, suggesting this was a very hot ticket indeed, to the high-pitched squeals of some of the audience. After playing a medley of their big hits Freddie announced to the well-heeled Palladium audience, ‘Welcome t’Labour Club!’ Nice one Freddie. Almost as good as John Lennon’s exhortation to ‘rattle your jewellery‘ a couple of years previously. They went through a series of their song and dance numbers with the band at various times falling on the ground and being picked up again while Freddie bounded acrobatically back and forward across the Palladium stage. Their act looked exhausting.
Freddie was an unlikely sex symbol. At 5’3” with glasses like the bottoms of milk bottles (he did actually work as a milkman before his success), he leapt about on stage to the joy of the , probably slightly older female, audience. Keith Richards once even referred to him, rather disdainfully, as ‘A certain English leaping gentleman‘. The band were no great lookers either but what they lacked in sex appeal they made up for in anarchic humour and silliness. After their initial chart success they worked constantly in pantos and summer seasons and, oddly, in their own TV series Little Big Time.
Starting in 1968 on Wednesday afternoons Little Big Time was a children’s variety show which exploited the comic abilities of Freddie Garrityand The Dreamers, particularly guitarist Pete Birrell who turned out to be a comic genius. The comedy was chaotic in a good way and extremely daft, similar in many ways to the brilliant late 60s pre-Python for children, Do Not Adjust Your Set. The end of the show always had the band fighting over who was going to press the button to start the end credits rolling. It was funny, it really was. It also featured some quite strange variety musical and magic acts. Interestingly, one of the writers for the first two series was Andrew Davies who became a screenwriting household name and went on to write a range of original TV series such the excellent and greatly underrated A Very Peculiar Practice and a host of Hollywood films. In series 2 a story was introduced about Freddie entering a world ruled by, often quite scary, machines called Oliver in the Overworld. The story was surreal and strangely compulsive not to mention slightly disturbing. True groundbreaking children’s telly. This series eventually replaced Little Big Time and only featured Freddie without his Dreamers. Sadly, only one episode of this long running, fairly revolutionary, series is thought to survive.
Freddie and the Dreamers continued to tour with various line-ups and Freddie appeared on a number of TV programmes as himself, including the inevitable Wheeltappers and Shunters, sitcom Dear John (as well as the US version) and the even more inevitable Heartbeat, where his unlikely role was as a drug dealing DJ. He gave up performing in 2001 after he was diagnosed with emphysema and died in 2006 at the age of 70.
Freddie and the Dreamers were different to The Beatles in just about every way but for a short glorious time in the early sixties, they were just as famous.
A household name in the 60s and 70s, Jake Thackray’s bawdy lyrical brilliance deserves to be resurrected
While watching yet another episode of that surreal 60s and 70s experience Sunday Night at the London Palladium last week from 1974 on the wonderful Talking Pictures TV, compere Jim Dale sat at the front of the stage and sang a ballad entitled Lah-Di- Dah. He explained it was a song about a young man being taken by his girlfriend to spend a day at the home of her awful family. Dale didn’t say who wrote and originally performed the song but within a few bars I instinctively knew it was a Jake Thackray song. The gloomy ballad gives no indication that there is any humour in the song unless you were really listening to the lyrics but the structure and rhythm was unmistakably Thackray. Whenever the line ‘..and I’ll bill and coo with your gruesome Auntie Susan.. is delivered, you know this isn’t a straightforward love song. The line about her dad ‘ ..and I’ll have to grit my teeth when he goes on about his rup-ture….‘ puts the tin hat on it. This is classic Thackray, all delivered in a wonderfully lugubrious deadpan. The SNATLP audience seemed to pay attention politely but never was a titter heard. Poor Jim must have known he was casting pearls before swine, but good on him for trying to do something that didn’t require sequins and high-kicking Tiller Girls.
Few people in the audience watching this bizarre festival of ‘variety’ schlock would have recognised a Jake Thackray song if they’d met it in their soup, but for nearly 20 years throughout the 60s and 70s Thackray was a regular performer on a range of TV variety shows. His first appearance was on ITV’s The Braden Beat, latterly Braden’s Weekafter it transferred to the BBC. A comedy and consumer affairs vehicle for Canadian Bernard Braden, as well as Thackray the show also featured Peter Cook and the recently sadly departed Tim Brooke Taylor. After the show was cancelled in 1972 due to Braden spreading himself too thinly and advertising margarine on ITV, which was tabloid headline news, Thackray continued to add a bit of class to the successor to Braden’s Week, the shockingly downmarket That’s Life.
I remember clearly watching him on various shows during the 60s and 70s and finding him quite intimidating. Was he meant to be funny? His lyrical mastery was still beyond me as a juvenile, but I knew there was something about him that was different. His lugubrious manner, clipped diction, deadpan delivery and was he really saying what I think he was saying? And that was an important element of his genius, the inspired and unexpected vocabulary, the hilarious grotesqueness of his subject matter, the laugh-out-loud one-liners, the preposterous characters, not forgetting the whimsical beauty of many of his ballads. There were other artists who wrote humorous songs but they laughed along with the audience (Lance Percival anyone?), ruining the effect. Thackray left the audience to make its own mind up and often he was just too quick and clever for it. In fact, after his first appearance on Braden’s Beat the TV company was deluged with complaints but slowly he won people round.
He also contributed regularly to The David Frost Show and even Frost Over America. I wonder what the Yanks made of his songs about cross- dressing nuns, his roly-poly girlfriend and suburban female devil-worshippers?
Coming from a fairly authoritarian home background in Leeds his dad, Ernest Thackray (what a wonderful Thackrayan name!) was a village policeman. Sent to a Jesuit college in Wales, Jake Thackray went on to study Modern Languages at Durham University and moved to France for a number of years to teach. It was here he was introduced to the chansonniere musical tradition, particularly that of Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel, which influenced his music for the rest of his life. His lyrical style was even thought reminiscent of Noel Coward, something which Thackray reportedly hated. But his Yorkshire roots link him more, I believe, to that of Alan Bennett, another Leeds native, and Bennett’s deadpan humour can be heard regularly in his songs. Or maybe it was the other way round….
His bitter-sweet stories can also be traced to later northern songwriters such as Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker whose subject matter was very similar. The Smiths’Girlfriend In A Coma or Pulp’sBabies are songs that seem very much influenced by Jake Thackray. The Morrissey line, ‘..I still love you.. only slightly, slightly less than I used to..’ from Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before is pure Thackray. During the 80s he was accused by some of misogyny with regards to some of his lyrics about women. It’s fair to say that a song which begins ‘I love a good bum on a woman, it makes my day..’ (On Again, On Again) does suggest a negative stereotype but that has to be set against other writers and comedians of the time. To witness Jimmy Tarbuck or Ted Rogers‘ routine on SNATLP would certainly be watching something misogynystic, so to criticise Jake Thackray is not seeing the wood for the trees. But for most of his songs he was singing in character, although maybe much of the subject matter was of the type that interested Jake Thackray. But bollocks to that, he was clever, funny, unpredictable, fascinating and unique and he was no Harvey Weinstein, that’s really all that mattered.
But balance that against his song The Hair of the Widow of Bridlington, about a widowed woman who takes control of her life again, and the accusation of misogyny is just plain wrong.
She found that she could please herself
She could, could the widow of Brid
Swim in the sea when she felt hot
Stay in bed when she did not
And she began to laugh a lot
She did, she did, she did
To sing and dance and laugh a lot
She did, did the widow of Brid
The Hair of the Widow of Bridlington
The excellent Ian McMillan, poet and broadcaster also from Yorkshire, even wrote a stage show about Thackray entitled ‘Sister Josephine Kicks The Habit‘ referencing one of Thackray’s most celebrated and typically strange songs, ‘Sister Josephine,’ about a nun in a convent who appears to be a male burglar on the run from the police, although this doesn’t seem to bother the other nuns.
No longer will her snores ring through the chapel during prayers
Nor her lustful moanings fill the stilly night
No more empty bottles of altar wine come clunking from her cell
No longer will the cloister toilet seat stand upright
Or even the bizarre nature of The Castleford Ladies’ Magic Circle about a group of middle-aged, middle-class ladies who meet up every week to practise devil-worship. A scenario only a crazed but brilliant mind could come up with.
Their husbands potter at snooker down the club
Unaware of the devilish jiggery-poke and rub-a-dub-dub
While Elizabeth Jones and Lily O’Grady
And three or four more married ladies
Are frantically dancing naked for Beelzebub
The Castleford Ladies’ Magic Circle
After all this they go dutifully home to their boring husbands in time for ‘cocoa and The Epilogue.‘ If this isn’t a song about women taking their lives by the scruff of the neck and doing something that pleases them, irrespective of how bizarre, then I don’t know what is. And did the Pythons get their idea for The Batley Townswomen’s Guild’s interpretation of The Battle of Pearl Harbour, amongst other re-enactments, from this song?
And as for Isabel Makes Love Upon National Monuments, it sums up just how irreverent, iconoclastic and downright funny he could be.
Many a monolith has seen Isabel
Her bright hair in turmoil, her breasts’ surging swell
But unhappy Albert, so far denied
The bright sight of Isabel getting into her stride
After his tragically early death in 2002 at the age of 64 the musician Momus described Thackray as ‘..surprisingly sexy, sexist, smutty, saucy in such a sixties way.’ Where does one end and the other begin? It was the way it was then and we know better now, but we’re also capable of putting it into context, and it does not diminish his brilliance one iota. The same could be said for Benny Hill, criminally ignored nowadays as if he was a sex offender. His lyrical virtuosity was on a par with Thackray’s although maybe heavier on the ‘sauciness‘. Not neccessarily a bad thing.
She nearly swooned at his macaroon
And he said if you treat me right
You’ll have hot rolls in the morning
And crumpet every night
Ernie: The Fastest Milkman in the West
Thackray died far too young of kidney failure in 2002 aged 64 and his latter years were not kind to him, but one of his earliest songs ‘The Last Will and Testament of Jake Thackray’ let his public know that mourning was not his bag.
I, the undermentioned, by this document
Do declare my true intentions, my last will, my testament
When I turn up my toes, when I rattle my clack, when I agonise
I want no great wet weepings, no tearing of hair, no wringing of hands, no sighs
No lack-a-days, no woe-is-me’s and none of your sad adieus
Go, go, go and get the priest and then go get the booze, boys
His early death was extremely sad but he left a raft of brilliantly funny, clever, unique and often lyrically beautiful songs that never fail to raise a smile.
One of the longest, strangest, most groundbreaking trips of the 60s
It may have scandalised the Great British Viewing Public but Magical Mystery Tour was one of the longest, strangest, most groundbreaking trips of the 60s
All light entertainment is only one step away from surrealism.
Antony Wall: Editor of Arena
Anyone who didn’t live through the sixties will not know just what a big deal The Beatles were. They dominated every aspect of culture, and not just popular culture. They were mentioned in every TV show and sitcom, every news magazine programme, loads of documentaries were made analysing their effect on society, you could buy Beatles-related tat in every shop, they even turned up in Disney’s 1967 The Jungle Book in the four vultures (Disney wanted The Beatles to voice these characters but some reports claim they were unavailable and some claim Lennon was dead against it as it trivialised their music).
The UK of the 60s was a very conservative country in its attitudes, beliefs and morals. Up until 1966 many people were prepared to accept The Beatles, as their music was amazing and appealed to a wide range of the general public, not just kids. But the UK was not ready to embrace psychedelia, surrealism or experimentation. Britain was a meat and two veg nation and you could keep your fancy French Nouvelle Vague and Italian Post Neo-realism, thank you. Films such as Antonioni’sBlow Up had just been released, Spike Milligan had been making bizarre and hilarious comedy for years and ground-breaking music had been created by The Beatles themselves on Sergeant Pepper. As Thunderclap Newman so rightly observed only a couple of short years later, there was definitely something in the air.
And something had also been happening in the British film industry and much of it revolved around Dick Lester who directed The Beatles‘ first two films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Lester eschewed conventional narrative and loved to inject his films and TV productions with an anarchic humour and surreal look. His previous productions included the unconventional A Show Called Fred with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers and The Running, Jumping Standing Still Film, a goon-like short comedy film also with Milligan and Sellers. As fans of off-beat comedy it’s easy to see why The Beatles saw Lester as a good fit for their first cinematic adventures. For Help! Lester brought in writer Charles Wood, who had co-written that most 60s of films The Knack…And How To Get It‘ in 1965 before going on to write the screenplay for Milligan and John Antrobus’s anti war surreal classic The Bed-Sitting Room. The Running, Jumping, Standing Still film, which was a favourite of Lennon’s and he brought in Dick Lester on the strength of this. One wonders if the band had brought in Lester to co-direct there might have been more of a structure or even editorial rigour to MMT, but, then again, it would not have been The Beatles‘ unadulterated vision. In fact, Dick Lester had advised The Beatles to write, direct and produce their next film after Help! themselves.
I remember vividly going with my mum and younger brother to see Help! when it was released in 1965 at the Astoria picture house in Corstorphine, Edinburgh. My mum would have been in her late 20s at the time and I know she quite liked The Beatles music, we even had a couple of Beatles LPs sitting on the radiogram at home. But we left the pictures with her thinking it was a lot of rubbish. The Beatles had started to leave many of her age group behind. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. They were beginning to move from pop to experimental and psychedelic rock, a move they would complete with the release of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. And it was at this point in their career that things were changing profoundly in all sorts of ways. They were becoming the adult-orientated Beatles rather than the unthreatening cuddly mop tops so beloved by teenagers and many adults.
They were at the peak of their creative and financial powers. They could do what the hell they wanted, when they wanted to do it, who they wanted to do it with. In short, they were invincible. And then Magical Mystery Tour began to hatch out in Paul’s mind. When Brian Epstein died just before MMT they no longer had this sounding board, an arbiter of what might be successful and what might not. Rumours abounded that the relationship between the Fab Four and Epstein weren’t great but one wonders if MMT would have got off the ground with Epstein on board or, if it had, it may have looked quite different. We will, of course, never know.
It’s generally accepted that it was McCartney’s brainchild and, mostly unknown to the general public, cracks had begun to appear in the band’s relationships. John was beginning to resent Paul trying to take over the direction of the band, Paul was unhappy that the other members were becoming so obsessed with the Maharishi, George was becoming very frustrated at the few songs of his that were being included on their albums and Ringo was starting to feel sidelined as he had not contributed much to the various projects over the past few years. Paul, therefore, thought that MMT, the music but particularly the film, would keep the other Beatles away from India and help them focus on a new creative venture, unfettered by producers, directors or managers, now that Epstein was gone.
The idea was influenced by a number of things. Paul had heard of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters while in San Francisco, a group of hippies who drove around the US in a psychedelic bus promoting the wonders of LSD. He also had fond memories of mystery bus tours from Liverpool during his childhood, as did all the Beatles. The idea of a mystery tour really appealed to him particularly as it could incorporate the changing social drug scene and the fact their experimentation with LSD was at its peak. The metaphor of a ‘magical mystery tour’, driving around the English countryside with a busload of strange and not so strange people, waiting for something to happen, improvising dialogue, making it up on the hoof and filming it all just sounded incredibly exciting. A druggy, psychedelic journey into the unknown with the filming rule book being thrown out of the bus window was what ensued. And what a long, strange trip it became.
The band had already laid down some tracks which the film was built very loosely around, and some of those tracks were crowbarred into the narrative. The title track was a Beatles classic, one of the Beatles’ best in my book, which was packed with witty drug references that only those ‘in the know‘ would get. It begins with John Lennon referencing the fairground barkers of Victorian times entreating the public to ‘Roll up, roll up!’, but what exactly was he suggesting we roll up? In the 60s many will have known exactly what he was talking about. ‘The magical mystery tour is waiting to take you away…‘ and he wasn’t wrong. As well as using sound footage from The Third Programme’s production of King Lear, The Mike Sammes Singers were also chucked in to provide laughter and exaggerated singing as well as a shit-kicking brass section. And don’t underestimate Ringo’s superb drumming! Other Beatles classics such as The Fool On The Hill,I Am The Walrus, Blue Jay Way and Your Mother Should Know pepper the film and appear in various often unannounced ways.
Paul McCartney was quoted as saying, ‘Magical Mystery Tour ‘.. was the equivalent of a drug trip and we made the film based on that‘. But it didn’t take a genius to work all that out and maybe this was one of the problems. Most ordinary people having no experience of LSD or drug culture, would just have seen it as a mess, and that wasn’t far from the truth, but, for me, it was no less enjoyable for being a mess.
The film was also packed with Beatles’ music old as well as new. At one point a fairground organ plays She Loves You, an orchestral version of All My Loving is heard and Hello Goodbye is played over the credits. Sixties band Traffic were commissioned to perform their psychedelic classic Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, also the theme to a 60s film of the same name, but the footage was never used.
The programme was originally offered to the BBC who couldn’t believe their luck and agreed immediately. Some reports claim other TV companies turned it down and Paul Fox, the Controller of BBC 1, says he made all the running to have the film broadcast. Here was something that could be put out at Christmas that would knock ITV out of the ballpark. They paid £10,000 for it and today that would be about £153,000. Not exactly a King’s Ransom and certainly not a lot to The Beatles who definitely wanted the film out there.
It was scheduled to be broadcast at 8.35pm on Boxing Day 1967, sandwiched between This Is Petula Clark (with a script written by Graham Chapman of all people) and Norman Wisdom film The Square Peg. On BBC2 more refined viewers could have watched a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Titipu starring the legendary Harry Worth, Hattie Jacques and, in a small part, a young John Inman and on ITV The Benny Hill Show followed by the film ‘Waltz of the Toreadors‘, a vehicle for Peter Sellers. In short, The Beatles were up against the TV establishment, so did they ever have a chance? Up against that it was always going to be better to fail with a bang than a whimper.
Despite Paul Fox claiming he didn’t see the film before it was broadcast, McCartney told of how the BBC cut the scene where Buster Bloodvessel romances Ringo’s Aunt Jessie on the beach. Why this was done was never properly explained says McCartney, other than it was ‘too weird‘.
Even that week’s Radio Times‘ write up about MMT is oddly vague, suggesting few people at the BBC had actually seen it.
Yes this is it. Probably the most talked about TV film of the year. It is by The Beatles and about The Beatles. The story? A coach trip round the West country reflecting The Beatles’ moods and launching a handful of new songs.
Radio Times December 1967
The quirky cast assembled for the film was certainly diverse and definitely interesting, reflecting the band’s offbeat sense of humour and nostalgic feelings.
First up, Victor Spinetti had become a Beatles mainstay having appeared in both A Hard Day’s Night and Help! as well as co-authoring the stage version of Lennon’s book ‘In His Own Write.’ The only actor to appear in all three Beatles films, he had supposedly been offered the part in A Hard Day’s Night because George’s mum really liked him. Spinetti appeared in many comedy programmes, most significantly in 1968-69’s It’s Marty with the great Marty Feldman. In the 70s he was also The Mad Jaffa Cake Eater in the TV ads. There’s Orangey!
Cult poet and performer on the harmonium Ivor Cutler had come to The band’s attention after being spotted on BBC 2’s Late Night Line-Up. He had been discovered in 1960 by Ned Sherrin and appeared in some unlikely variety vehicles such as The Acker Bilk Show. He was championed by John Peel who brought him to the attention of a younger listening public and his hang-dog demeanour and eccentric manner was exactly what MMT needed. Billed as Buster Bloodvessel, the name was eventually adopted by portly lead singer of Bad Manners, and to this day he is still Buster Bloodvessel. A MMT reference that still exists over 50 years later. Cutler is particularly good in his MMT scenes.
Nat Jackley grew up in the music halls and was an established comedy performer. According to Wikipedia ‘..his trademark rubber-neck dance, skeletal frame and peculiar speech impediment made him a formidable and funny comedian.‘ Sadly for Nat his featured performance sketch, Nat’s Dream, was cut from the final film but he appears in many crowd and interior bus shots. Out of all the characters and actors in this film I find him the most intriguing. The most experienced and traditional performer in the whole cast I would love to know what he thought about the whole experience. All I’ve ever read about him was that he found the unscripted nature of the whole project difficult. For someone with his background it must have been like performing on another planet.
The magnificent Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band (more on them later) was recommended by Paul’s brother Mike McGear (as he was known at the time). As a member of The Scaffold, who had had pop success in the late 60s and early 70s, McGear had worked regularly with The Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band many times. He knew they were the kind of musicians The Beatles would appreciate and such was the case. The Beatles became such fans that McCartney would eventually produce their huge No.1 hit ‘I’m The Urban Spaceman‘ as Apollo C. Vermouth.
Another interesting performer whose best bits ended up on the cutting room floor was accordionist Shirley Evans. Although hailing from Birkinhead it’s difficult to know why The Beatles decided to include a female accordionist in their psychedelic film. My feeling is it’s just because there was something about it that’s quite funny. Many of us grew up with a family member who played the accordion and many singalongs, particularly at New Year, were had. It’s an instrument that, even in the late 60s, had become very unfashionable, if it ever was fashionable, and it was probably the nostalgic quality of the instrument that appealed. And there’s something intriguing about an attractive girl playing it. John Lennon even wrote an instrumental track for her, Shirley’s Wild Accordion that, sadly, was never used in the film. The track was allegedly pressed but never released and is still much sought after by Beatles record afficionados.
Finally the photographer was played by restricted height actor George Claydon. In one scene he is under the camera blanket as he takes a picture of some of the trippers. He emerges from under the blanket with the head of 1966 World Cup mascot World Cup Willie. And it turns out he actually played this character during the ’66 World Cup. A lovely 1967 cultural reference and an excellent bit of trivia, I think!
A number of scenes filmed at the time did not make the cut after editing. One of them featured Music Hall favourite Nat Jackley in a sequence titled ‘Nat’s Dream‘ where we see him walking around Newquay and bumping into a bevy of bikinied beauties. It all takes place to an accompaniment from Shirley Evans on accordion playing the Lennon written ‘Shirley’s Wild Accordion.’ The scene, I think, is funny, old fashioned and wonderfully quirky culminating weirdly (how else?) in The Atlantic Hotel outdoor swimming pool. The other deleted scene featured Ivor Cutler on harmonium singing ‘I’m Going In A Field.’ For me, both scenes deserved to remain in the completed film and no explanation, to my knowledge has been given as to why they didn’t make the cut. At a neither short nor long running time of 52 minutes both scenes would have taken the film up to a more conventional 60 minute mark which would not have been a problem showing on TV or in the cinema. Can’t help but think they missed a trick there.
My own memory of the film on that Boxing Night of 1967 is clear but short. There had been huge anticipation for the film and I remember being quite excited about it. Within a few minutes it became obvious this was not going to be another AHard Day’s Night or even the more enigmatic Help! My clearest memory was of Ringo yelling at his Auntie on the bus and then it cutting to the scene in the restaurant with her, Buster Bloodvessel with John, who had had a dream about this scenario, as Pirandello the waiter, shovelling spaghetti onto their table and her giggling uncontrollably. Until I saw the film again many years later I was convinced it was crisps that were being shovelled on. But, back then I watched it on a small grainy-pictured black and white telly, as the vast majority of viewers did, and I’d never come across spaghetti that wasn’t out of a tin, so it was an easy mistake to make. It was at this point, however, my mum had had enough and switched channels, I have a feeling to the G and S Harry Worth operetta. I was quite disappointed as I had been loving the anarchy of MMT, and even at that young age, I appreciated seeing something that was just different from the usual formulaic tosh.
It’s not difficult to work out why the film was a complete flop in the eyes of the Boxing Day audience. The obvious reason was its unstructured, scattergun approach to narrative and much of its self-indulgence. Although not a problem for me, the great British Viewing Public were not ready for that, and probably still aren’t. To be fair, in those days ITV broadcast Harold Pinter plays at peak viewing times, but they weren’t that popular. Ken Loach had released Cathy Come Home the year before which had employed a naturalistic approach to narrative and even used non-professional actors and although completely different in tone, MMT had used similar techniques. Tony Barrow, the Beatles’ Press Officer at the time, had said that the film was made to be viewed in colour and BBC 1 did not broadcast in colour at that time. Only BBC 2 broadcast colour programmes but precious few people had colour receivers anyway. And he had a point. A deliberately psychedelic experience must be viewed in colour, that’s what psychedelia is all about. So viewers missed out on a huge, vivid, sensory element of the film. Whether that would have saved it from the savaging it received though, is unlikely. But had it been originally released in cinemas, this might have made a difference. It would have been predominantly younger people and Beatles’ fans who would have gone to see it and fewer older, more conservative viewers would have and maybe the criticism might not have been quite so brutal. In the early sixties one theatre critic described Harold Pinter as throwing a Molotov cocktail into the sherry party that was British theatre. I would argue that this is what The Beatles did to British television, only it was a huge spliff they threw in and most viewers didn’t know what to do with it.
I believe that The Beatles had, inadvertantly, invented a new genre of film. A type of film where the narrative is fluid, where characters that seem to have little in common are allowed to shine, where nostalgia meets surrealism in the most striking of ways, where the comedy of juxtaposition is allowed to happen naturally, and where narrative sense isn’t the absolute aim of the artistic endeavour, all performed in an explosion of colour and unfettered joy. What we were watching was not unlike a British Fellini film. With some bizarre, offbeat and psychedelic but visually stunning Beatles-at-their-best musical interludes thrown in and we have an artefact that people had not seen before but would become commonplace in years to come.
I’m fully aware that I’m discussing this film over 50 years after its release and, of course, attitudes and approaches to film-making and viewing have changed massively. There’s also a chunky layer of nostalgia propping it up for people like myself. But this was how The Beatles wanted to be seen, wanted to be judged and share their weird vision with us. It subsequently influenced many future writers and film-makers. And it should be remembered that new genres are not defined in one moment but MMT certainly lit the blue touch paper for many of the looser narrative, more abstract films that followed.
There was a refined taste that existed within our society for the unusual, the strange, the drug-influenced fantasy. Not long after MMT, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was launched on an unsuspecting audience and, after a quiet opening period, exploded into our consciousness. Comedy would, thankfully, never be the same. And it’s no coincidence George Harrison was a huge fan of Python and Ringo even made an appearance in Monty Python, with Lulu of all people, in Series 3, Episode 2 on October 26 1972. In 1975 the Python team looked into the possibility of the almost forgotten MMT being the support film to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Although the two parties met on a few occasions and both were quite keen for it to happen, the idea fizzled out, which was a shame as the two films would have complimented each other beautifully.
And there’s another aspect to it that I don’t feel has ever been really developed. The British public thought they knew The Beatles personally, such was the Beatles stranglehold on popular culture, they also thought they ownedThe Beatles. The band were so ubiquitous that if they stepped out of line they were defying you. And such was the case with MMT. The public felt The Beatles were putting two fingers up at them, we’re The Beatles and we can do what we want and there’s nothing you can do about it! ‘Well, we’ll see‘ replied the Great British Public. The same happened when John went off with Yoko. The public hated that. Not only was she Japanese, but she was ugly and weird and we don’t want her in our family. Yoko was the most horrendously reviled and ridiculed person on British TV during the late 60s as she was not deemed good enough or beautiful enough or ‘normal’ enough for one of ‘our’ Beatles and she was, of course, blamed for splitting the band up. No wonder John decided to go and live in America. The same happened with McCartney. Linda was also thought to be below what he was capable of. Why couldn’t he have married that lovely British Jane Asher? And MMT was really the beginning of the backlash. The public didn’t want to see The Beatles change or progress, they just wanted their cuddly mop-tops. Maybe MMT was their way of saying ‘Fuck You.’ And who could have blamed them? This is why MMT is so essential and so brilliant. It was The Beatles from start to finish with no interference and it was where the more switched on, more sophisticated music fan was at the time in the UK and that’s why I love it.
The former NME writer Charles Shaar Murray summed it up for me. ‘Magical Mystery Tourevokes an era when society still seemed to be opening up rather than closing down‘, but, unfortunately for The Beatles, much of society was a long way from opening up quite enough, and in many respects it still hasn’t. But it was a magical trip for me and as far as the critical savaging went, I don’t really think The Beatles gave a shit.
So for those who get it, just roll up, sit back and enjoy the trip.
How David Bowie exploded into the public consciousness on a rubbish children’s TV programme
The Age of Bowie by Paul Morley, a sublime and personal account of the life and work of David Bowie written shortly after his death, eschews straight biography but is a superb forensic analysis of what was and is Bowie’s genius. What was it that drove this chameleon-like maestro and how did he constantly keep the listening (and viewing) public on its toes with such decadent ease? Although hugely subjective, (what biography worth its salt isn’t?) it highlights many of the key moments in Bowie’s career putting them into context with regards to superstardom, musical genius, amazing collaboration and inspired PR brilliance. His role within 20th and 21st century culture is plotted intriguingly and the final chapter will bring tears to a glass (spider’s?) eye.
Any such consideration of Bowie’s multi-faceted career will inevitably have Bowie fans (like myself) quibbling about certain aspects and moments from his career that, arguably, should have been included, but this is not only a compliment to Morley but to Bowie also. How could any one person’s opinions on Bowie be definitive? Although not a quibble, I felt Morley maybe missed a trick by only referring to Bowie’s monumental appearance on Top of the Pops in June 1972 performing ‘Starman’ but I would argue his first TV appearance introducing this classic song three weeks previously was just as fascinating but for very different reasons, and deserved analysis. Not only was this performance bizarre, provocative and utterly compelling, it was also the first time I had set eyes on Bowie and I remember the moment so clearly and vividly as if it was a flashback in a Nic Roeg film.
One’s childhood memories in the adult’s mind is usually a series of snapshots, albeit vivid snapshots with some more vivid than others. ‘Everyone remembers where they were when they heard about Kennedy’s assassination’ has become a cliche for the over 60s. Although certainly aware of it, I remember Lee Harvey Oswald’s killing better, although Kennedy’s funeral remains clear in my memory. Maybe because it was broadcast live in this country in the middle of the afternoon. A very rare event in those days. For the over 50s, however, ‘Where were you when you first set eyes on that other-worldly creature David Bowie?’ is probably a more relevant question and certainly one I could answer with a high degree of accuracy.
Since his death we have been bombarded with TV programmes and publications detailing his life and work in extra-fine, forensic detail. Something I’m not complaining about. Keep them coming! But, for me, it all began one dull tea-time in the summer of 1972 when my attention was drawn to something on the screen which seemed utterly alien to me. That’s because it was.
The date was Thursday 15 June 1972 and ( as I have since found out thanks to that wonderful thing they call the internet), pre-dated his seminal appearance on Top of the Pops by three weeks.
Lift-Off with Ayshea was an ITV alternative to BBC’s Top of the Pops. It was inferior in almost every way and it did occasionally get some decent guests but mainly it was dedicated to the up-and-coming and going nowhere artist. They were cheaper and more available and ’cheap and tacky’ were words which ran through Lift Off like the writing in a stick of Blackpool rock. And at this time Bowie was cheap, he’d have done it for nothing, and he was certainly available. But, unknown to my 11 year old sensibility, something strange and momentous had begun to happen here…
Lift Off was a children’s programme, unlike TOTP which had a slightly broader target audience and went out later in the evening at around 7pm. It was produced by the doyenne of the ITV children’s TV department, Muriel Young. As well as Lift Off she produced similar pop-oriented tea-time kids shows throughout the 60s and 70s such as The Bay City Rollers’ imaginatively titled ‘Rollers’, carbon copy vehicles for Marc Bolan, Moondogs (!?) and Arrows. With the exception of the Rollers who had hit the peak of their success at the time, few of the bands amounted to a hill of beans. Moondogs came from nowhere and swiftly returned there, although Arrows had a couple of minor hits in the charts including ‘Touch Too Much’ but are remembered mainly for writing the anthemic ‘I Love Rock and Roll’, eventually picked up by Joan Jett and the rest is, of course, royalty history. Certainly this song will have kept the only still-living member of Arrows, Alan Merrill, in a fairly comfortable lifestyle for his remaining tenure on this earth.
And who (of a certain age) could forget Young’s other music show operating on a budget of old pennies, the mind-numbing awfulness of ‘Get It Together’? Sadly not me though I’ve tried. Starring Roy North, Mr Roy, early sidekick to the great Basil Brush, its theme tune had the excruciating effect of a stick insect burrowing its way into the brain. ‘Get it together, all together, yes we’ll have a good time…’ Lady Grinning Soul it wasn’t.
The template for each subsequent Muriel Young pop series was invariably the same:
A never-changing set festooned in stars and tin foil. (They probably used the same set for all of the above-mentioned shows.)
A small studio audience of fans whose shouts and screams sounded hollow within the cavernous studio. Occasional cutaways tried to make out there were hundreds of them rather than the 50-60 that were actually there.
Three to four minute sections comprising lip-synched songs and awkward ‘comedy’ routines.
Animated sequences of fans shouting and clapping to separate the live sections.
A special guest, usually someone occupying the lower regions of the charts or some unchallenging has-been like Vince Hill or Clodagh Rodgers, followed by a scripted ‘informal’ chat with the stars of the show. Even greater awkwardness ensued.
A ‘big’ closing number in which the small band of fans had their sound amplified to suggest excitement. A few, only a few, were allowed to run on to the stage to ‘mob’ their heroes.
With the exception of Lift Off, purely because it occasionally featured some interesting guests, the only other Muriel Young series to pass muster was the 1977 series ‘Marc’ starring Marc Bolan, sadly in decline from his early seventies zenith. His quirky and spaced-out personality just about carried it through. The final section of the 1977 first and only series featured Bolan duetting with his great pal David Bowie, who had just performed his new single, a ditty entitled ’Heroes.’ This closing section is notable for two reasons. Firstly, during the duet, Bolan became entangled in his guitar cord and fell off the stage to Bowie’s great amusement. It went against the predictable nature of the series that they kept this moment in. Which was nice. And secondly, it turned out to be the last performance Bolan would ever give, dying tragically in a car crash a few days later. Bowie had flown in from Berlin specially to record the show. The planned second series, of course, never happened.
Lift Off ran from 1969 to 1974 and each episode featured three or four live acts plus a couple of cover versions by Ayshea herself. She was probably the first and only Asian woman to feature in her own TV series during the 70s. At the time she was desperately trying to be a pop star and had been taken under the wing of Roy Wood, no less, who was doing a little more than just producing her, as rumour had it. As well as being a backing singer on Wizzard’s ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’ she eventually went on to appear in Space 1999 and a few other series without ever repeating the success she enjoyed with Lift Off, where she was a household name, at least with da kids.
Other than the Bowie episode I have only sketchy memories of other acts on Lift Off. To be honest, I was only slowly becoming interested in pop in the early 1970s. I did watch TOTP most Thursdays, mainly because it preceded Tomorrow’s World which my dad liked. I had also discovered BT’s (or whatever they were called then) Dial-A Disc service. The Spotify of its day, it required the listener to dial a particular telephone number and listen to a single specific track from the current top 10 which was played on a loop for 24 hours. God knows how much it cost to listen to but luckily itemised phone bills were a few years off. I had also bought my first single with my own money, ‘Theme From Shaft’ by the legendary Isaac Hayes. A record I am hugely proud of, still possess and still love. My second single purchase was ‘Mouldy Old Dough’ by Lieutenant Pigeon.
One band who appeared on Lift Off With Ayshea and I have a very clear memory of was Slade, unmercilessly taking the piss out of Ayshea as she attempted to interview them. Dave Hill kept brandishing his guitar during the interview shouting ‘Super Yob!’ For the first time I quite warmed to Slade, hitherto finding them to be a little bit scary. And a mirrored top hat was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I recently read that Noddy Holder constructed this ground-breaking titfer himself from a job-lot of budgie mirrors he’d bought. Diminishes the magic a little…
But I digress… Back to Bowie.
Thursday 15 June 1972 is a day notable only for Ulrike Meinhoff of the Bader-Meinhoff Gang being arrested in West Germany and the ‘new’ Bowie’s first appearance, to my knowledge, on British TV . Very seventies. I didn’t always watch Lift Off because even at the impressionable age of 11 I found it a little bit patronising and a big bit amateurish. But here I’m sitting in our living room, alone, at our house of the time in Relugas Road, watching what will have still been a black and white telly and the opening credits begin to roll. I have no idea who else appeared in this episode because my mouth almost fell open when Bowie suddenly flashed up on the screen. The opening to Lift Off showed each of the artists appearing looking at the camera for a few seconds. Like a cross between a Warhol screen test and the closing credits to Hi-De-Hi, they would stare awkwardly and vacantly at the camera. ‘Who’s that weirdo?’ I thought, narrowing my eyes. A tentative Bowie looked straight at me. Dark spiky hair, makeup, crooked teeth, oddly inappropriate name for such a bizarre looking creature. And what was so strange about those eyes? Even in black and white his exotic-ness, though that’s not the word I used at the time, screamed out from the screen. It was a bit like the ghost crawling out of the TV screen in the Japanese horror film, Ring. But the artlessness of his demeanour, uncharacteristically not quite knowing what to do when the camera was suddenly pointed at him, looking vacantly out at the viewing public, seemed utterly at odds with the body he inhabited and image he projected. With a little trepidation I decided I had to see this.
I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t heard of this guy, not even Space Oddity, and suddenly he’s thrust before an audience of children at Thursday tea time. When one thinks of Bowie’s sexually charged image during this Ziggy period, felating Mick Ronson’s guitar for example, it was an audacious choice for the morally buttoned-up Ms Young to foist before a youthful audience. But 60s and 70s telly was like that. Didn’t Scott Walker sing Jacques Brel on the Frankie Howerd Show, didn’t Dizzy Gillespie play Be-Bop jazz on The Golden Shot, didn’t Jimi Hendrix force It’s Lulu to overrun, cutting into The Black and White Minstrel Show? Strange days indeed.
When Bowie eventually performed ‘Starman’ it was (another) revelation. His music wasn’t ‘way-out’ after all. It was actually….brilliant! And that bit when he looked into the camera and pointed his circling finger straight at you-oo-oo. It was a watershed moment. I had been brought up to believe long-haired, dirty weirdos were exactly that (even though I loved The Beatles, but they were different) and here’s this alien on telly and I love this song. I still found him a little bit scary but what the hell.
Three weeks later he appeared on TOTP. I don’t have the same vivid memory of watching this at the time but I think I did. He seemed much more confident performing here than in the garden shed studio of Lift Off. Here there was a proper audience, a more professional setting and much livelier vibe.TOTP has been criticised for many reasons but it did generate a tangible feeling of excitement, an urgent and immediate tone which may not have come across in the studio but certainly came across through the cathode ray tube. Bowie and his band unsurprisingly seemed much more energised and at ease here.
Watching this performance back on YouTube one has the feeling that this was one of TOTP’s most significant moments. However, it was always an amusing experience as a viewer just to watch members of the TOTP audience, particularly if the artist featured was crap. The ones who are really ‘getting down’. The ones who think they may be spotted by a TV producer or Model Agency and might be thrust to superstardom overnight. And, of course, the ones who just liked seeing themselves on telly. In this seminal performance by Bowie and The Spiders it’s worth looking out for a lad dancing at the back of the stage in a tank top. Little does he know he is witnessing the genesis of one of the major artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. An artist so ground-breaking, innovative, imaginative and influential, announcing his arrival to the world in a performance that will remain iconic and totemic to this day. But all this lad wants to see is his own ba’-face in the monitors above them so he slides back and forward along the stage, at one point suddenly emerging in-between Bowie and Ronson’s deliberately ambiguous embrace during the chorus, grinning from ear to ear having achieved this feat of media manipulation and self-aggrandisement. For me, this is all part of that phenomenal moment. The idea that this anonymous lad in his tank top was present at, possibly, the most memorable TOTP of all time and was blissfully unaware of what was happening in front of his upturned eyes (as most of us were) just adds to the impact of the experience. Where is that lad now? He will now be in his mid-60s and, if still alive, what must he recollect of that night in June 1972? I think we should be told.
I had no idea if this alien was going to be successful. I had no idea he was the writer of the wonderfully jaunty ‘Oh You Pretty Thing’ sung by the wholesome and toothsome ex-Hermit Peter Noone, a hit in the previous year. I had no idea Bowie had even played piano on that record. But a few weeks later ‘John I’m Only Dancing’ was released and it was clear this extra-terrestrial was no flash in the pan.
For many years it was thought that the footage of Bowie on Lift Off with Ayshea had been wiped like so many other monumental TV programmes in regular acts of cultural vandalism by TV companies. Recently it was announced that the Lift Off footage had been unearthed, as a viewer, quite unbelievably for the time, had recorded his performance from the TV using computer tape. How could he have known? Although in a very degraded state this footage is, allegedly, in the process of being restored. If successful, for me, this is the most valuable of all Bowie films being the first performance of his breakthrough song and on a children’s TV show to thigh-length boot. Although the TOTP performance a few weeks later is, quite rightly, seen as his calling card to the world it’s that moment tucked away on a children’s TV show that, I believe, is the most pivotal and I feel privileged to have witnessed it and even remember it. Popular music ch-ch-changed from that day on. (Sorry..)