Back in the sixties, everyone who made a record wanted a big pop star hit and don’t you kid yourself otherwise. Comedians were no exception, and while the primary purpose of their records – though not always – might have been to make people laugh, they were always propped up by songwriters, producers and session musicians with an eye on rotation BBC Light Programme play and a steady stream of income, and a lot of the resulting records turned out far better than they had any right or reason to be.
Here’s a playlist featuring some of the the hidden beat, jazz and psych highlights chortling away in the discographies of everyone from Mike And Bernie Winters to The Goodies. There’s tape-fiddling from George Martin, unexpected Kinks covers, late-night satire, ahead-of-the-game parodies of psychedelia, a protest song against Mods and Rockers, and a rare chance to hear Professor Stanley Unwin performing with a a full honkity-blow jazzlopper…
Bernard Cribbins – Ringing On The Engine Bell (Parlophone, 1964)
With songwriters Ted Dicks and Myles Rudge, Bernard Cribbins released several robust comedy pop singles in the early sixties, including this jazzy job-swapping sequel to Right Said Fred with a raucous clanging tale of dangerous driving, bothering traffic wardens and rescuing cats from trees. It’s George Martin’s imaginative production, turning varispeeded fire alarms and screeching brakes into part of the backing, that really stands out; his imminent tape-fiddling studio experimentation with The Beatles arguably starts right here. The single was withdrawn by Parlophone due to a technical fault so you’ll have to track it down on Best Ofs.
You can hear me talking about Ringing On The Engine Bell on (Music For) The Head Ballet here.
Peter Sellers – After The Fox (United Artists, 1966)
Neil Simon provided the script for the poorly received 1966 crime comedy caper After The Fox, a rare misfire for Peter Sellers at the height of his cinematic fame; the fact that it lampooned real life directors and critics can hardly have helped its box office performance. The moody and sinister minor chord-driven proto-psychedelic title theme, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, is more satisfying. The Hollies duet with an in-character Sellers in a call and response questioning of ‘The Fox’ and his motives, which the actor approaches in a refreshingly restrained performance suggesting he was treating as a pop song first and foremost.
Peter Cook And Dudley Moore – The L.S. Bumblebee (Decca, 1967)
First heard in the 1966 Christmas Special of the duo’s BBC1 sketch show Not Only… But Also… as part of a ‘Swinging London’ parody – which also featured John Lennon as a toilet attendant – this ahead-of-the-game pastiche of psychedelia is sometimes mistaken for a Beatles outtake. In fact it was performed by The Dudley Moore Trio and intended as a send-up of Pet Sounds; they also mimed to it mocking early Cream publicity photos. It’s a highly effective number in its own right with hilarious interjections from screaming babies and the ‘Pete’ and ‘Dud’ characters; the latter’s explanation of the dangers of hallucinogenic drugs on the b-side is also well worth hearing.
The Goodies – Taking You Back (Decca, 1974)
Taken from a 1973 episode of The Goodies in which Bill, Tim and Graeme find themselves custodians of Camelot, this wild rocking ode to the joys of Time Travel is drenched in effect-swamped guitars and thundering bass courtesy of top session man Chris Spedding. It could easily be mistaken for the genuine article but that’s hardly surprising; the trio’s extended slapstick film sequences were frequently backed by fantastic psych, funk and prog workouts written by Bill Oddie, the original tapes of which have sadly since been mostly lost. The Goodies would go on to score a string of funk-based novelty hits, often with unlikely influences drawn from Oddie’s esoteric listening habits.
You can read more about my love of the music from The Goodies here.
Bill Oddie – Nothing Better To Do (Parlophone, 1964)
Before forming The Goodies, Bill was a jobbing comic and writer who also fancied himself as a potential pop star, releasing a string of creditable soul-influenced straight singles and the album Distinctly Oddie. This protest song against Mods and Rockers and their Bank Holiday seafront punch-ups is one of his best efforts, with clever and pointed lyrics, ringing guitars and menacing brass accompaniment. Believing that the endeavour might backfire and the opposing youth tribes would end up singing it mockingly to each other, the BBC restricted airplay for the single, resulting in the first of several unlikely pop controversies for Bill.
Mike And Bernie Winters – Fallout Shelter (Oriole, 1962)
History has not been kind to the brothers and their traditional double-act, but there was a time when they were one of ITV’s biggest draws with a keen eye for popular culture worth sending up. Both were also accomplished musicians, which gave their songs more instrumental weight than many of their contemporaries. Recorded for a notorious cash-in label, this swaggering riposte to smug individuals stocking their nuclear hideout with all mod cons features honking saxes, walloping drums and lyrics that would probably have been better suited to Scott Walker, and is far stranger – and creepier – than it has any right to be.
Harry H. Corbett – The Green Eye Of The Little Yellow God (Pye, 1963)
Hidden away on the b-side of the more conventional pop number Like The Big Guys Do – which featured a cameo from Thank Your Lucky Stars’ Janice ‘Oi’ll Give It Foive’ Nicholls – this lavish setting of J. Milton Hayes’ 1911 Music Hall staple was an early Tony Hatch production. Mixing beat group stylings and faux-Eastern orchestration, it’s a nicely complimentary setting for Corbett’s expressive reading in full Harold Steptoe mode, with amusing diversions to compliment the lyrical twists. Also, just when the listener is starting to get fed up with the backing singers’ endless chirruping of ‘Mad Carew!’, Harry handily yells at them to shut up.
Millicent Martin – Gotta Lotta Lovin’ (Parlophone, 1963)
Broadcast between 1962 and 1963 – when it was taken off-air due to political pressure – the BBC’s late-night topical satire show That Was The Week That Was broke new ground both with its humour and its presentation style, making no effort to disguise the fact that it was taking place in a television studio. As well as forming part of the sketch troupe, Miliicent Martin also performed a – frequently provocative – topical song each week. This surprisingly suggestive number tackling the rise in office romances was originally heard on screen in December 1962; produced by George Martin, this beefed-up jazzy powerhouse found its way onto the b-side of the show’s theme single.
You can find more about my love of the That Was The Week That Was tie-in books and records here.
Lance Percival – End Of The Season (Parlophone, 1966)
Appearing alongside Millie as a regular on That Was The Week That Was, Lance Percival specialised in improvised topical calypsos and unsurprisingly tried his hand at a couple of pop singles. Released almost a year before The Kinks’ own version, this earlier and more uptempo take on Ray Davies’ lament for a lost love who went with the Summer and the economy featured more pointed and satirical lyrics that poses the intriguing question of what project the song was originally intended for. Ray’s crunchingly psychedelic attack on television stardom for Private Eye gag-writer Barry Fantoni, Little Man In A Little Box, is also well worth tracking down.
Stanley Unwin – Goldilocks (Pye, 1962)
Perhaps best known now as the narrator of Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake by The Small Faces, Stanley Unwin and his invented language ‘Unwinese’ were all over television and radio in the sixties, and arguably never better captured than on his album Rotatey Diskers With Unwin. The album was promoted with this single featuring a different take on the story of Goldyloppers And The Three Bearloaders, with Stanley backed by a jaunty jazz quartet which complement his linguistic trickery well; he always claimed that ‘Unwinese’ was inspired by jazz riffs and this gives him a nice opportunity and a solid beat with which to prove it.
Buy A Book!
If you’ve enjoyed this, you’ll enjoy Top Of The Box, a guide to every single released by BBC Records And Tapes. Top Of The Box is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. You can find a feature on Stanley Unwin’s collaboration with Gerry And Sylvia Anderson The Secret Service in Well At Least It’s Free, a collection of columns and features. Well At Least It’s Free is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. To be fair, you’re probably best off heading for a cafe to avoid that couple from Gotta Lotta Lovin’ anyway.
Auntie Takes A Trip is a playlist showcasing the weird and wonderful corners of the BBC Records And Tapes back catalogue; you can listen to it here.
You can hear me on (Music For) The Head Ballet talking to Paul Abbott about Ringing On The Engine Bell by Bernard Cribbins here.
It’s Not Hard To Find, You’ve Got It In Your Mind is a feature on my lengthy hunt for the music from the early series of The Goodies; you can find it here.
I’ve Heard Of Politics, But This Is Ridiculous takes a look at my obsession with tracking down the That Was The Week That Was albums and singles (and books), and you can find it here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.