Some time ago, I was in talks about a possible tie-in compilation album for Top Of The Box, my book about all of the singles released by BBC Records And Tapes (still available from here, incidentally). For various reasons this never came about, although if any enterprising individual from an astute reissue label – particularly the ones that I regularly buy the output of, hint hint – is reading and is interested, I still think it’s a good idea with a lot of mileage so the Contact page is just at the top of your screen there. Anyway, part of the ‘shopping list’ that I was given to work with was “the full-length Play Away theme with the ‘give me a ‘P’…!’ bit at the start”. This, it has to be said, was a bit of a problem, as the Play Away theme was released in a baffling variety of versions over the years, full-length and otherwise, none of which quite came close to meeting that description. While much of this is moving away from Top Of The Box and towards the in-progress sequel looking at the label’s albums, we’re going to be taking a look at that baffling variety of versions right now. So, just as long as you’ve got time, let’s P-L-A-Y, Play-a-way, Play Away-a-Play-Play-Awa… or, alternatively, just get on with it.
Written – and on this occasion sung – by presenter and former chart star Lionel Morton, the Play Away theme song first appeared on Bang On A Drum – Songs From Play School And Play Away in 1972. Despite the Humpty Hi-Hat-hitting implications of the astonishing cover photo, this was largely conceived as an outlet for the post-psychedelic folky singer-songwriter frustrations of various presenters of both shows, backed by a tight jazzy combo led by resident pianist Jonathan Cohen. Sounding as that description suggests somewhere between The Mike Westbrook Concert Band and Pickettywitch, it’s much more of a proper ‘album’ than it’s ever been given credit for, and has been widely plundered by dance music artists for samples.
This has meant that Play Away has been overshadowed by the more break-tastic likes of Early In The Morning and Bang On A Drum itself, which is a shame as this is a really good version, helped in no small part by the fact that at this point it was still just ‘a song’ rather than a permanent fixture in the repertoires of fun-cheerleading parents who remembered neither the words nor the tune and later inebriated fortysomethings on their rare bi-monthly night out on the town. Driven by a small orchestra of those percussion instruments that make funny twizzing and warbling noises, it’s a laid-back jazz-folk reading that sounds like someone ‘doing’ Nick Drake in a school music lesson, with copious amounts of short instrumental voluntaries. Much of these – and several verses – were later edited out for the more widely heard version included on the compilation Music From BBC Children’s Programmes, which removed a good deal of the charm but did at least reveal how much it sounds like every song ever written by Oasis.
The first actual Play Away album followed early in 1973, and featured a similar if slightly stripped back version of the theme as part of a medley with Michael Finnegan, London Bridge Is Falling Down and Pop Goes The Weasel. Like the rest of the album – notably Superstition, which has erroneously found its way on to Blaxploitation rarities compilations (no, really) – it has an energetic street corner funk vibe, but it’s also shorter, lacks the jazzy flourishes, features retooled lyrics about ‘party time’, and the vocals are shared out between Lionel, Brian Cant, Toni Arthur and Chloe Ashcroft, some of whom sound like they were pretty much partied out by that stage of recording. 1975’s Play Away – Hey You! featured the theme song twice, complete with that much-vaunted call-and-response intro, but in a severely truncated version clocking in at barely forty seconds, awash with ill-advised tricky harmonies and overall performed in a disinterested ‘do we have to?’ style; apologies to Lionel, Toni, Brian, Julie Covington and the assorted musicians if they really were giving it their all, but it honestly doesn’t sound like it. 1975 was also when Lionel saw fit to re-record the full song – with an uncredited cameo from Brian – in a slick rocked-up AOR style for a single, completely with a tuneless squealing guitar solo and bizarre new verses about singing in a dentist’s waiting room and minding your ‘barra’ delivered in a ludicrous fake cockney accent, which despite its obscurity really isn’t the one you should reach for first for a compilation.
Perhaps feeling that there had been enough marginally different versions of it by that point, the team surprisingly left the theme song off Ready Steady Go!, the 1977 soundtrack album of the Play Away stage show, and it similarly failed to show up on either 1981’s Hello! or 1984’s Singing In The Band. Even so, four separate renditions (and a fifth edit, which frustratingly is the one that compilers normally reach for first) within an extremely short timeframe doesn’t exactly make for an easy selection. Personally, I’d go for that first one from 1972. Which of course doesn’t have that all-important ‘Give me a ‘P’…!’ at the start… but you can always shout that yourself, can’t you?
Top Of The Box, the story behind every single released by BBC Records And Tapes, is available from here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks