Rubbish Songs, Inexplicable Hits

The history of the charts is littered with records that are just awful, but who bought them?

Life’s like that, isn’t it?

Sometimes it’s the really shit records that lodge in your memory, the ones that leave you gasping. Incredulous as to who actually bought these records. I’d really like to meet those people, see what they look like, find out what makes them tick, ask them to articulate what it was that motivated them to commit such an act of wanton cultural vandalism and then berate them publicly for their appalling lack of taste and intelligence (Yes, I mean you Queen fans). Sounds a bit Nazi, maybe, but you know what I mean.

Often these records are one-hit-wonders that squeezed into the charts by virtue of some twist of fate, something in the wind that carried them out of the pit of obscurity that they richly deserved to be consigned to forever. And yet… sometimes their awfulness provides us with a frisson of perverse pleasure in the same way some people get pleasure from sado-masochism. It’s strange how a straightforward exploration of an awful hit can mutate into something even more hellish. A bit like the thing in Quatermass that just kept growing and growing into some unspeakable ghastliness….and you couldn’t help but watch.

So here is my random list of dreadful hit records. There is no order or structure to the list, I will just continue to add others when I have the misfortune to remember them at inopportune moments. Please feel free to make suggestions.

No.1

Naughty, Naughty, Naughty by Joy Sarney (1977, No. 26)

I chose this one-hit-wonder as it tells the story of, oddly, a woman’s desire for a violent misogynist called Mr. Punch. It has Mr. Punch performing diabolically in the background, has no discernible melody or musical structure, has an intensely irritating faux reggae beat and, unbelievably, outsold The Damned, The Sex Pistols and The Clash in 1977.

Joy Sarney was a session singer from Southend but the individual who provided the Mr Punch voice, or ‘Professor’ as all Punch and Judy performers are called, is unknown. That said, I distinctly remember both the lovely Joy and the ‘Professor’ being interviewed on Radio 1’s Newsbeat at the time the record was in the charts. ‘And what do you know about making a pop record?’ was the probing question offered by the giggling interviewer. ‘Absolutely nothing!’ replied the Prof to great hilarity.

As is often the case, however, a further exploration of the record unravels a rather interesting MOR backstory (at least, to the likes of me…). The waxing was the only hit ever for Alaska Records, which was owned by one John Schroeder. Now this character reportedly ‘discovered’ Helen Shapiro and wrote two of her first hits, Don’t Treat Me Like A Child, (which nowadays sounds a bit dodgy given she was only 14), and the formulaic Walking Back To Happiness, which got to No 1 and for which he received an Ivor Novello award in 1961. His CV becomes a little more interesting in a bizarre way, when in 1959 he produced the UK’s entry to the Eurovision Song Contest, Sing Little Birdie by Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson. Although coming second, the song gained widespread prominence when it was mentioned in the Monty Python sketch ‘World Forum’, in reply to the question, ‘What won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1959?’, Mao Tse Tung answered ‘Sing Little Birdie.’ In actual fact, it didn’t win which just adds a bit more to this truly brilliant Python sketch.

In 1965 Schroeder teamed up with band leader Johnny Pearson at Oriole Records and between them formed Sounds Orchestral who released 14 preposterously successful albums of easy listening orchestral arrangements of well known pop songs and film and TV themes. Johnny Pearson is a moderately interesting figure. As well as being the leader of the Top Of The Pops Orchestra for 15 years, he helped launch the career of Cilla Black (well, nobody’s perfect) and was musical director for a number of Dusty Springfield shows in the 60s (much more like it). He also had a top 10 hit in 1973 with the wistful instrumental track ‘Sleepy Shores‘, theme tune from the BBC1 Welsh village doctor series starring the great Nigel Stock, Owen MD. (A bit like Doctor Finlay’s Casebook, but in Wales). He arranged Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love which became the TOTP theme throughout the 70s.

Alaska Records also brought out an opportunistic version of Paul Simon’s The Boxer by 70s Liverpudlian boxing favourite John Conteh. Like 99.9% of Alaska’s releases this record also did not chart but it’s an interesting reminder of one of the ubiquitous personalities of the 70s. As well as being one of the figures on the front cover of WingsBand On The Run,’ LP, Conteh also appeared in 70s films ‘Man At The Top‘ and, strangely, ‘The Stud‘ with Joan Collins in a career low.

But back to the execrable Naughty, Naughty, Naughty. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Punch and Judy shows will know it as a rather sinister and violent seaside attraction dating back to the 1660s (Samuel Pepys mentions the first one in his diaries). Features of the act include dropping or hitting the baby, Judy and Punch battering each other with the ‘slapstick’ (some saw this as domestic violence) and included malevolent characters such Jack Ketch, the Hangman, a ghost, a skeleton and the devil. At one time Mr Punch even had a mistress known as ‘Pretty Polly.’

The odd lyrics even suggest domestic violence.

‘He’s been in trouble with the law for Grievous Bodily Harm..

His temper’s just for show..

I’m his puppet but he won’t pull my strings

But it was the 70s.

The most intriguing interpretation of the lyrics was one from an ‘anonymous’ contributor to an internet message board discussing the song. ‘I always thought this was a very rude record about anal sex – it’s all there in the lyrics “That ain’t the way to do it” – “Oh yes it is!”. Also the singer’s name Joy Sarney (ie joy sandwich) must be a clue.

And after that, there is nothing else that need be said.

No. 2

Little Girl by The Banned (1977, No. 36)

Get that nutty singing drummer!

Now the first thing to say is that this isn’t a particularly bad record, the song is actually quite good. But everything else about it is phoney.

Released just after the zenith of punk, it tried to jump on the bandwagon and made a pretty damn poor job of it. The song was originally released in the US in 1966 by Syndicate of Sound where it reached number 5.

A bunch of prog rock musicians, some of whom were in the medieval ultra-prog group Gryphon noticed that Punk and New Wave records were selling more than they were, so decided it was worth a punt to pretend they were (ageing) punk musicians and release a record.

So using the Observers’ Book of Punk Rock Credibility as a guide they found a song that sounded vaguely ‘punky’, they went down the Kings Road and secured some second-hand jackets and thin ties, they bought some fashionably ironic sunglasses in Debenhams, had their shoulder-length hair cut and, hilariously, gave themselves punky, anti-establishment names.

  • Paul Aitken (Drums and vocals) became Paul Sordid (Very rebellious!)
  • John Davie ( Bass) became John Thomas (fnaar, fnaar!)
  • Richard Harvey (Guitar/vocals) became Rik Mansworth (see what he did there?)
  • Pete Airey (Guitar/vocals) became Pete Fresh (not so good)

They even came up with a punning anti-establishment name for the group, on The Band/ Banned, as well as pretending to publicise their anarchistic credentials. Laugh, I thought I’d never start. And this, ironically, was what punk was created to oppose.

But at least they only got to No. 36.

No.3

Renta Santa by Chris Hill (1975, No. 10)

At a stretch I can understand why some misguided people, though not many, will have parted with some cash to have a copy of numbers 1 and 2 in this list of Hit Parade ignominy. I cannot, for the life of me, however, understand who would have bought this pile of reindeer shit for their record collection. It got to number 10 in the days when singles shipped bucketloads, so it must have sold thousands!

I have to admit to an unnatural hatred of Christmas records. Maybe it’s just the fact that you are bombarded with Chris De Burgh‘s quasi-religious bollocks A Spaceman Came Travelling in any branch of Morrison’s you might wander into in October, or Mary’s Boy Child burrowing into your psyche while buying tins of Chappie in Tesco’s on Guy Fawkes’ Night that gets on my festive tits. But it’s also the cynical opportunism of Christmas singles. Gullible people used to buy them just because someone was wearing a Santa hat and beard on the cover.

Chris Hill, a DJ when DJs were intensely irritating i.e. Steve Wright, Peter Powell, Bruno Brooks etc. Mind you, they still are) came up with the gossamer-thin idea of creating a comedy record through the use of clips from other records. He got another idea (which he called ‘the other idea’) that if he mentioned the words ‘Santa‘, ‘Christmas‘, and ‘Reindeer‘, suckers would buy it in their thousands. And he was right. He even repeated the confidence trick the following year with Bionic Santa, tapping into the popularity of the Six Million Dollar Man when everything seemed to be ‘bionic.’ And that also got into the top ten! Had he been a year earlier he would, no doubt, have released Kung Fu Santa using the same clips and the same tired old format, but just chucking in the word ‘Grasshopper‘ here and there.

I know I’m being very critical about the cynicism of this record but I’ve not even mentioned the worst aspect of it yet. It’s painfully, excruciatingly, mind-numbingly unfunny. It’s so unfunny it could have been written by Steve Wright. Or Michael McIntyre. Or him from Mrs Brown’s Boys.

In short, about as funny as a burning orphanage at Christmas.

No.4

If by Telly Savalas (1975, No. 1)

I know these are supposed to be about bad records but sometimes ‘bad’ can be perversely good. And there’s something about this record I find compulsive, in the same way you can’t help looking at a crash on the motorway. You know you shouldn’t…

It’s always been a showbiz rule of thumb that if you become well-known, even for a short time, you have to make a record. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, and probably most importantly, a record producer somewhere will see the main chance of making a stack of cash for a minimal amount of work on someone who is ‘hot’. Secondly, the artist’s management will see it as a good way of getting the artist ‘out there’ and cementing his/her popularity and thirdly, if the record is successful there could be a whole series of lucrative hits and maybe even an album! So, in short, records released by famous people are nothing to do with artistic integrity.

The three-TV channel decades of the 60s and 70s meant that if an artist became popular thanks to the show they were in, they became VERY big indeed and such was the case with Telly Savalas and his hit show, Kojak.

Image result for telly savalas pontius pilate
Did you laugh at my record, bozo?

Telly Savalas was already an established Hollywood actor having had starring in roles in The Birdman of Alcatraz (for which he received an Oscar nomination), The Greatest Story Ever Told as Pontius Pilate (which Hollywood actor wasn’t in that?) and as Blofeld in the excellent On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. His decent roles dried up a bit in the early 70s and TV was beginning to dominate people’s viewing habits. Then Kojak came calling and he became a phenomenon. Kojak was really nothing special as New York- based detective serials went, others such as McCloud, Tenafly, McMillan and Wife and Banacek were in competition. But Savalas made the role his own and from 1973 it became required viewing for a winter’s Saturday night for nearly ten years. Whether you liked it or not.

Clive James commented on the Kojak phenomena and observed:

Telly Savalas can make bad slang sound good and good slang sound like lyric poetry. It isn’t what he is, so much as the way he talks, that gets you tuning in.

And it was his catchphrase that really caught on. ‘Who loves ya baby?’ sounds even cliched today. You can imagine how tiresome it became in the 70s. And his penchants for lollipops, which apparently were, in real life, a way of trying to get him to curb his smoking. The programme also ramped up Theo’s super-attractiveness to women with him having a glamorous, often non-speaking, ladyfriend driving him around in a sports car every week. Telly Savalas was as popular as Kung Fu and Glamrock combined in the 70s.

Image result for kojak
Stick to lollipops, Theo

So a record was only a matter of time. And it was country music producer Snuff Garrett, who had worked with Sonny and Cher, Tanya Tucker and Nancy Sinatra who stepped in to give the public what, he thought, they wanted. But hang on a cotton-pickin’ moment. Telly can’t sing a note! Not a problem. He can use that big, sexy, New York voice to speak the lyrics.

This slight hitch had come up before. At the height of Star Trek‘s popularity in 1968 William Shatner was enticed into a recording studio only to find he was tone deaf. In desperation he was asked to deliver the lines in a suitably faux Shakespearian style, which he, of course, was only too happy to do and the rest is camp history. In fact, one track from his album, the wonderfully titled, The Transformed Man, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, was voted the worst Beatles‘ cover ever by a Music Choice 2003 poll. Had these people no sense of irony, for God’s sake? These are just a few reasons why this album is really worth listening to.

Image result for william shatner the transformed man
I am William Shatner and I am a serious ac-tor

It may be ridiculed today, as it was on its release but in Q Magazine’s list of the 50 worst albums of all time it only reached a fairly impressive 45. A couple of tracks stand out. Mr Tambourine Man has to be heard to be believed and there is some serious acting going on in It Was A Very Good Year.

Better than Dylan’s version

But back to Telly.

The video that accompanied the record is particularly excruciating. Telly stands there, puffing on a cheroot, lip-synching badly, in front of an enormous Amazonian blonde, so white she’s almost translucent. Just how does she keep a straight face? How did he keep a straight face? And every so often Telly has to look to his left just to catch his cue cards. My favourite bit is just after the line ‘..and when the world was through…nnnnnn.’ What could he be thinking of? But he just about manages to take it seriously, so good on him!

Now it would be unfair to describe Telly’s effort, Bread’s If, as one of the worst covers of all time, but it is pretty awful. He got away with it in 1975 because he was riding an irresistible popularity wave, but anyone listening to it now and knowing nothing of Kojak would wonder what the hell was going on.

Telly’s waxing spawned a comedy parody at the same time of If’s release by a couple of, jokers is quite the wrong word, we’ll call them bozos called Yin and Yan which actually got to no. 25 in the charts and was, arguably, worse than Telly’s effort. The problem with comedy records is they’re not funny and this was a prime example. Particularly American comedy records. But, due, sadly, to Telly’s mega-fame, even this execrable attempt was relatively successful.

But a talking record only has so much mileage and his follow up to the super-successful ‘If‘, pretty much bombed. The formula was exactly the same, an MOR classic, this time You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, with Telly’s sultry vocals and a Mantovi-type orchestral strings backing. But the great British Telly public had had quite enough of this type of opportunism and it reached a high of 47.

And if you take the piss I’ll blow your brains out

Kojak lasted another 3 years until it reached its, probably overdue, sell-by date. Telly’s career slowly declined and he even narrated a British travelogue series entitled ‘Telly Savalas Looks at...’, his beady eye taking in the exotic landscapes of Portsmouth, Birmingham and Aberdeen.

Image result for telly savalas looks at

Many other actors released awful singles in the years that followed but few did bad quite as stylishly as Telly, though.

No. 5

Grandma’s Party by Paul Nicholas (1976 No. 9)

A particularly embarrassing TOTP performance with Legs and Co dressed as grandmas. Unpleasant.

It seems rather churlish to condemn such a prolific and, in many cases, noteworthy artist like Paul Nicholas, but this is a truly dreadful record.

Released in 1976 which was a pretty dire time for music (see above) it was his third release in a row which made it into the top 20, starting off very poorly with Reggae Like It Used Be (how did it used to be?), becoming worse with Dancing With The Captain and hitting the depths with Grandma’s Party.

Even before this scraping of the musical barrel Paul Nicholas had already had an impressive career. His first abortive attempt as a pop star in the early 60s included being discovered by Screaming Lord Sutch and joining his backing band The Savages. He then went solo, recording an unsuccessful single entitled ‘Over The Wall We Go‘, written and produced by a struggling young musician called David Bowie. He then made it into West End musicals including starring roles in Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar amongst many other musical shows. He played nasty Cousin Kevin in Ken Russell’s film of The Who’s Tommy in 1975. And then he decided to try for a pop career again…

Image result for paul nicholas cousin kevin
Nasty Cousin Kevin

Someone in his management company obviously thought he needed an image and the bowler hat and cane was introduced. As a musical actor this probably wasn’t a bad idea but such performance props often result in a certain type of music. And such was the case here.

Image result for paul nicholas

Next, a couple of writers were brought in to come up with suitably light, undemanding material that would appeal to the Top of the Tops teenage audience. Step forward, British pop writers Bugatti and Musker. During their career B and M (or The Dukes as they were sometimes called) wrote songs for lightweight artists such as Sheena Easton, Cilla Black, Twiggy and The Nolans. But on a slightly upmarket note they also wrote songs for Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, Eddie Kendricks and Chaka Khan. But Paul Nicholas‘s efforts were very much at the superficial end of the MOR scale.

It’s noticeable that Nicholas’s three hits were of a similar nature, unchallenging, slightly melodic and allowing him to perform his schtick with the bowler hat and cane.

Grandma’s Party was irritating for a number of reasons. Firstly, its melody was gossamer-thin to the point of being undetectable, secondly it sounded exactly like his previous other hits and, most heinously, it perpetuated a number of myths. What kind of saddo could possibly be excited about going to party thrown by their grandma? How could it ever be described as the ‘event of the year‘? Don’t they ever get out? And would a party guest be playing the saxophone whilst simultaneously swinging on the chandeliers? Who is this grandma who has chandeliers in her house anyway? Imelda Marcos?

I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t ring true for me. And it stank of yet another opportunistic attempt at making money through the least amount of effort for the maximum return. (See various records above).

On the strength of these awful records Paul Nicholas received the Granada TV Order of the Poisoned Chalice. His own Muriel Young– produced tea time pop show! (See Bowie: The First Time). Running for only one series it featured a few decent guests such as Wings, Jimmy Cliff, Thin Lizzy and Darts but it was never going to launch him to pop superstardom and he eventually returned to the more familiar waters of West End musicals and TV sitcoms. Everyone of a certain age remembers Just Good Friends although, like me, they may not have watched it. But what about Two Up, Two Down from 1976? Starring Nicholas and his TV wife the (very) unlikely Su Pollard (Su Pollard?!), it ran for only one series.

Image result for paul nicholas two up two down
Two Up, Two Down: Unlikely……

In his defence, this record was probably the aesthetic nadir of a long, particularly prolific and successful career and he is still performing. But I prefer to remember him from this time as nasty Cousin Kevin.

He was so much more likeable.

No.6

The Carnival Is Over by The Seekers (1965 No. 3)

A Mighty Wind!

I really couldn’t stand The Seekers. Even now when I see them they make me feel irritable. To be honest I could have chosen pretty much either of their 8 top twenty hits between 1965 and 1967 but I picked this one mainly because it’s so DULL and it’s got a NICE melody and it sounds exactly like all their other hits and it’s a complete dirge! That should be enough to be getting on with.

What has caused this pathological dislike of The Seekers though? Who could possibly take offence at this nice, well dressed, clean and wholesome group of Aussies? Well, me for one. And it’s exactly because of that, their niceness, the anodyne nature of their music. It’s the sort of band your grandparents would like because they played NICE tunes and they looked NORMAL (you know, suits, ties, short back and sides, Laura Ashley dresses).

It’s because of pictures like this that I hate The Seekers

They were the sort of band that stopped more interesting acts breaking through in the mid-sixties by releasing anodyne, unthreatening, harmonic fare, like this utter tosh.

Lead singer Judith Durham was born to be featured on the cover of Woman’s Own. She had this very affected vocal style and I think she really fancied herself, thought she was a cut above every other singer in the charts and the media feted her because she seemed so NICE and NORMAL. And those awful summery dresses she wore! Her megalomania was indulged by all the media attention she received. Inevitably, she decided to go solo in 1968 and she subsequently had one No. 38 hit and that was the last we heard of her. For The Seekers the carnival really was over.

Ba’ faced Judith before she left

And then there was the guy (in fact, his name was Athol Guy– silly name) on double bass who wore those big 60s glasses and sung backing vocals. People at the time used to think he was Judith Durham‘s brother, but he wasn’t. It was one of these many popular misconceptions that went around in the 60s that no one really bothered to check out whether it was true or not.

And a guy called Keith Potger who played guitar. Now he may have been the most irritating of all because when they, mercifully, decided to split up in 1968 he clearly believed the world wouldn’t be able to survive without The Seekers. So he set about forming The ‘New’ Seekers, as if the old Seekers weren’t bad enough. Now don’t get me started on The New Seekers, mainly because I will return to them as they deserve their own space in this bitter litany of blog obliquity.

To be fair, most of their songs were written by ace tunesmith Tom Springfield, brother of the amazing Dusty and ex-member of The Springfields. And Georgy Girl (1966), from the very interesting 60s film of the same name, was a great tune which got to No. 2 in the US and No. 3 in the UK, was even nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song. Co-written with Jim Dale (of Carry-On fame) it lost out to the legendary John Barrie and Don Black‘s easy listening classic ‘Born Free‘, a song that became Matt Monro‘s theme tune (more on Matt later). But Georgy Girl was so good it was the production that raised it from the mundane and most bands would have been successful with it.

Get back to you soon. Matt!

For their return to Australia concert in 1967 200,000 turned up at the Sydney Myers Music Bowl in Melbourne to see them! But I suppose there wasn’t a huge amount of competition in Oz at the time. That said, their farewell concert in the UK was broadcast live by the BBC and 10 million tuned in.

The Best of The Seekers LP knocked The Beatles (white album) off the top of the album charts and stopped the Rolling Stones getting to No. 1 with Beggars’ Banquet. In all, it stayed in the charts for 125 weeks. Which just goes to prove that musical maxim, the blander you are, the higher you fly..

What used to really drive me nuts was when I’d be watching Top of the Pops in the mid-60s. The Seekers would come on and my grandparents would always say. ‘Now they’re a nice, clean, well-dressed group and that’s a nice song. Why don’t you like them rather than those other dirty buggers?’ ‘Because they’re fucking shit!!!‘ I’d repeat over and over in my head.

I’m not sure I ever got over it.

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