ON THE TRANSISTOR RADIO:
OF THE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL ERA
Pop Novelty records – we loved them, didn’t we?
from the Goons to the Goodies,
from Charlie Drake to Jasper Carrott,
they’ve tickled our chuckle-muscles,
and how tickled we were…!
Any survey of UK comedy records of the Rock ‘n’ Roll era has to start with the Goons. Not only because their “Bloodnok’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Call” c/w “The Ying Tong Song” was a September 1956 ‘New Musical Express’ no.3 – below Doris Day and Anne Shelton, and a few positions above Elvis’ “Hound Dog”, but because it sits at the ignition-point of a web of interconnections into Pop culture that leads directly through to the Beatles and beyond. Yet bizarrely, that wasn’t the oldest record to chart. 20 December 1975 saw Laurel & Hardy at no.2 with “The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine”, originally featured in the 1937 movie ‘Way Out West’, but gathered as part of a comedy compilation from which it was championed on Radio One by John Peel. The original film-clip shows Stan Laurel miming to the deep bass voice of Chill Wills, with the last few falsetto lines – after he’s been hit on the head by Ollie’s mallet, by Rosina Lawrence. A fitting extension to the duo’s long and distinguished career. But the Goons should be the starting point.
“The Ying Tong Song” is brilliantly timeless insanity, virtually impossible to evoke in flat text, it shifts through a sequence of gentle soothing orchestration, into an operatic lullaby his mother used to sing as she tucked him in when he was ninety-three, interrupted by Spike Milligan’s ‘who what that bum?’, directly into a nonsense sing-along chorus, a rasping horn break, an angelic voice, a rude raspberry… disrupted by an explosion, hasty footsteps dashing into the adjoining room – ‘LOOK OUT!’ another explosion, after which they sing in posthumous speeded-up voices. At a time of dull buttoned-down conformity the Goons radio-show was a force of chaotic anarchy, virtually incomprehensible to adults, but just as much a vital release as the incendiary insurrection of Rock ‘n’ Roll itself. Largely the manic creation of an inspired Spike Milligan, with co-conspirators Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers, the radio episodes form a kind of embryonic adolescent counter-culture, a style of absurdist surrealism featuring “The Search For The Bearded Vulture”, “Ten Thousand Fathoms Down In A Wardrobe”, “The Dreaded Batter-Pudding Hurler (Of Bexhill-On-Sea)” and “The Mystery Of The Fake Neddie Seagoons”, routines imitated by schoolkid listeners including John Lennon, the future Monty Pythons… and me. An earlier single – “I’m Walking Backwards To Christmas” c/w “Bluebottle Blues”, hit no.4 in June 1956. There had never been anything remotely resembling the Goons, and there never would be again.
But Peter Sellers went on to have a couple of duet hits with the very wonderful Sophia Loren with whom he was filming the romantic comedy ‘The Millionairess’ (1960). Originally intended for – but omitted from the soundtrack, they were taken instead from the 1960 ‘Peter And Sophia’ album. For “Goodness Gracious Me” – a no.4 hit on November, ‘conceived and instigated’ by none other than George Martin who also carries producer credits, Sophia is the patient in love with Sellers’ examining Doctor Ahmed el Kabir, done in exaggerated Asian accent. Her heart goes ‘boom-biddy-boom-biddy-boom’ in his presence. Was it racially offensive? Possibly it could be retrospectively interpreted that way, at the time it was purely seen as evidence of Sellers’ talent for amusing mimicry. “Bangers And Mash” – no.22 in January 1961 has Sellers as the Cockney Tommy who marries the Italian Sophia, but he prefers simple English home-cooking to her macaroni and minestrone.
There’s an irresistible sixties Pop-culture gravitation connecting George Martin, the Goon’s electronic experimentation with bizarrely edited sound effects, and the Beatles, which result in Peter Sellers’ no.14 hit reading of “A Hard Day’s Night” in December 1965, delivered as a Shakespearian soliloquy. Granted, at that point, anything with a Beatles-link was likely to chart. Comedy actress Dora Bryan had already got to no.6 with “All I Want For Christmas Is A Beatle” in December 1963. While the Beatles connection extends into the Peter Sellers movie of Terry Southern’s novel ‘The Magic Christian’ (1969), which had Ringo following him around like a big amiable dog.
By which time Harry Secombe had returned to the charts with the syrupy sentimental mush of “This Is My Song”, with Wally Stott’s string arrangement taking it up to a high of no.2 – despite a rival version by Petula Clark at no.1, at the same moment that Jimi Hendrix and “Strawberry Fields Forever” were charting. The song is only salvaged by its being composed by an ageing Charlie Chaplin, the century’s first and enduring comic genius, as an almost fitting deliberate eulogy to the nostalgic ideal of romance. And yet the Goons were not quite finished. “The Ying Tong Song” was reissued in July 1973, when it climbed back into the charts, as high as no.9, illuminating a new generation with its inspired madness.
Novelty records have a long history. A catchy tune, a nonsense lyric – ‘mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey,’ that briefly but persistently stick in the brain, and it’s a fad, even in sheet-music editions. “The Sheik Of Araby” was written in 1921 in response to the success of the Rudolph Valentino film ‘The Sheik’, and became an early jazz favourite notably performed by song-&-dance star Eddie Cantor. In a unique constellation of connections, the Beatles perform it as part of their failed Decca audition, with George Harrison taking lead plus John and Paul adding silly-voice interjections. Accelerated by the potential of studio technology to create amusing effects, as well as by the ingenious radio drama and comedy department’s ability to conjure vast mental images through the strategic manipulation of evocative sounds, the 78rpm single, and then its 45rpm successor became the perfect accessible low-budget vehicle for novelty. Including the speeded-up voices of – for example, the 1958 US no.1 “Witch Doctor” by David Seville (the real-life Ross Bagdasarian) and his spin-off creation the Chipmunks. In the days before VHS – the first home-recording technology, the only way to hear favourite comedy routines over and over again, was through record albums. And before video killed the Radio Stars, the 45rpm single offered the useful career bonus of a marketable promotional opportunity.
Most comedians made records. Tommy Cooper had “Don’t Jump Off The Roof Dad” (1961), issued through the small Palette label. Punctuated by Tommy’s infectious laughter, he sings about how ‘Daddy came home from work tired,’ and after a particularly arduous day he decides to end it all with a suicidal leap from the roof, only for his kids to shout up at him, concerned not for his welfare but for the damage he’ll cause to mother’s petunia flowerbed below. They advise him to drown himself in the local park instead! Only Tommy Cooper could make suicide funny. The ‘Two Of A Kind’ Morecambe And Wise recorded one of their most popular comedy routines – “Boom Oo Yata-Ta-Ta”, written for them by Sid Green and Dick Hills, but shaped and evolved through a series of performances. Eric decides to go solo as a leather-clad Pop singer. Ernie says no, he needs a backing group, who just happen to consist of him, Sid and Dick. Although it doesn’t work out quite as intended, until the group take lead vocals and Eric is no longer required. ‘It’s tough at the top’ he complains into the fade-out groove. Popular, but neither Tommy Cooper nor Morecambe And Wise actually chart.
‘The Lad Himself’ Tony Hancock and his ‘Hancock’s Half-Hour’ regular guest-voice Kenneth Williams had singles together – the 1963 Galton-Simpson penned “Wing Commander Hancock: Test Pilot” – in which the airborne Hancock discovers mechanic Ken still sitting on the airplane fuselage, and Ken’s solo “Hand Up Your Sticks” (Decca, 1961) written by Peter Cook – in which Ken rehearses his lines in order to rob a bank, but messes up with ‘hold hands, this is an up-stick’ during the raid itself. Both are clever and extremely funny, they receive plenty of radio airtime, but are essentially comedy routines, not songs, and hence don’t bother the chart compilers.
Unlike the diminutive Charlie Drake, popular enough to star in his own front-cover ‘Radio Fun’ comic-strip (art by Arthur Martin), with his ‘Hello, My Darlings’ catchphrase. He was first levered into the chart by an opportunistic cover version of Bobby Darin’s US novelty Rocker “Splish Splash” which reached no.7 in September 1958, winning out over Darin’s original. Relaxing in the bathtub – with watery sounds, he doesn’t know there’s a Rock ‘n’ Rolling party going on below. He follows it with another cover, this time taking Larry Verne’s US no.1 “Mr Custer” – a comedy song about a cavalryman reluctant to ride into the ill-fated Battle of Little Bighorn massacre. Taking elements from its style as his starting point, “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back” was co-written by Drake himself, with a Johnnie Spence arrangement and George Martin production sheen. The story-song of the boy who was ‘a big disgrace to the Aborigine race’ forms a complete self-contained audio comic-strip in itself, with the kind of sound effects – the exploding Flying Doctor’s plane, and silly voices – the annoyed kangaroo, that prefigures “Yellow Submarine”. It peaked at no.14 during October 1961. He followed it with “I Bent My Assegai”, a similar scenario transplanted to an African setting.
In order to demonstrate their All-Round entertainer versatility, Music Hall stars frequently finished their sets with a song. Hence the biggest-selling comedy star of the sixties, bizarrely, was the Squire of Knotty Ash – the tatiffilarious Ken Dodd, although his numerically-impressive string of nineteen Top 50 hits are only laughable in the broadest sense of the word. The tickling-stick wielding Liverpool star discovered an alternate career as a romantic balladeer of big overblown cheesy Italianate dirges, starting with the pre-Beatles “Love Is Like A Violin” (no.8, July 1960), then going on to dominate the chart at no.1 for six weeks with the execrable “Tears” through October 1965 while Manfred Mann, the Yardbirds and Small Faces had to be content with lesser positions below it. In his defence, one of his TV shows has Doddy warble his November 1965 no.3 hit “The River” in its original impeccable Italian as “Le Colline Sono In Fioro”, only for him to hastily produce a lyric-sheet to then sing it in English. How tickled we were. With his theme-song “Happiness” Ken Dodd was still touring and performing until his 11 March 2018 death.
But when it came to strict comedy-records, naughty mischievous Benny Hill not only took the cover of the ‘Radio Fun Annual’ (1960) but was still around in 1975 for the cover of ‘Look-In’ with ‘The Many Faces Of Benny Hill’. With only mild innuendoes, “Gather In The Mushrooms”, a song sung ‘in the modern idiot’ with accompaniment directed by Tony Hatch, gave him not only his debut hit (no.12, February 1961), but a first outing for his joke about bathing in ‘pasteurised milk’ – ‘I’ll be happy if it comes up to my chin.’ “Transistor Radio” (no.24, June 1961), co-written with Hatch (under his ‘Mark Anthony’ guise), is even better. Taking the fad for portable music, Benny’s attempts at love-making are consistently thwarted by interruptions from his girlfriend’s radio, allowing him to spoof various current music styles. She first tunes into a speeded-up Chipmunks-Pinky & Perky insert, then an Elvis voice ‘I do not have a wooden heart, I have a wooden head’, followed by a ‘Two-Way Family Favourites’ announcer making dedications to ‘Ngia Gooki of British Honduras, Umbongo Appledory of New Guinea, and Fred Glockenlocker of British Hartlepool’, and – in Jimmy Jones “Handy Man” falsetto style, ‘you told me you were just eighteen on the telephone, I thought that you meant eighteen years, but you meant eighteen stone’. The record’s punch-line closer is that when she turns to him with romantic intentions in their honeymoon hotel room, he asks ‘ere, where’s the radio?’ to her dismissive retort ‘Music he wants!’.
A more complex character than surface impressions suggest, Benny insisted on writing his own material, unlike many of his contemporaries. Which worked well during these inventive early years of his career. The next hit single – “Harvest Of Love” (no.20, May 1963), is an innuendo-laden rural romp, ‘I’m gonna sow the seed of deep devotion, fertilize it with emotion, water it with warm desire, and then I’ll reap the harvest of love,’ adding cheekily, ‘if the wife ever finds out she’ll kill me.’ By 1965 his “I’ll Never Know” was an affectionate Doo-Wop parody, and with the arrival of the ‘Protest’ boom, he was singing “What A World” while wearing a mop-top wig – ‘now the folksinger came from America, to sing at the Albert Hall, he sang his songs of protest and fairer shares for all, he sang how the poor were much too poor and the rich too rich by far, then he drove back to his penthouse in his brand new Rolls Royce car,’ a snipe at Bob Dylan just that’s as acutely perceptive as Chumbawamba’s “Give The Anarchist A Cigarette” would be decades later.
But as the pressures and demands of fresh TV series intensified he fell back increasingly on the racial stereotypes and the sketches in which an attractive girl’s clothing gets ripped away to reveal designer underwear, resulting in speeded-up chase sequences through the park. The comic potential of repellent old men letching after beautiful younger girls may have a history that goes back as far as the ribald humour of ancient Rome, but it set Benny Hill up as the most obvious target for the more idealistic non-exploitational New Wave of comedy. His career suffered, and has never fully recovered, although he retains a cult following in the most unexpected of places. Dolly Parton plays his “Yakety Sax” chase theme during her Glastonbury set, and Rapper Snoop Dogg cracks up laughing while he describes how he loves to watch the sketches in which Benny slaps ‘Little’ Jackie Wright on the bald-head. Yet there’s a sense in which Benny Hill gets the last laugh, when his single “Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West)” topped the chart – no.1 for five weeks through December 1971, above T Rex, Slade and the mighty Who. Reprising his line about bathing in pasteurised milk, ‘Ernie, I’ll be happy if it comes up to my chest’, the story of Ernie facing off in a Western-style duel with Two-Ton Ted from Teddington for the love of a widow known as Sue, ends with the sound of ‘Ernie’s ghostly gold top a-rattling in their crate’. I hated the record’s success at the time. After the sensational evolutions of music through the build-up last few years of the sixties, it seemed a poor portent for what was to come in the new decade. Looking back now, I quite enjoy its harmless silliness.
For the era of ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ (1973), ‘Hotel California’ (1976) and ‘Rumours’ (1977), no suburban ‘Abigail’s Party’ was complete without the comedy album revolving on the front-room stereogram turntable, usually either Monty Python or Billy Connolly. For less confrontational evenings there was always the more mild-mannered humour of ‘The Two Ronnies’ – Barker and Corbett, with their amiably twee repertoire of amusing songs. But Python records sold like Rock albums, with all the generational cult following once enjoyed by the Goons. Fans recite sketches word-for-word, the Dead Parrot, the Five-Minute Argument, Spam Spam Spam and Spam. Inevitably there’s a hit single, in the belated shape of Eric Idle’s curiously whistleable existentialism. “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” is sung during the crucifixion scene of ‘The Life Of Brian’ (1979) – ‘life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it, life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true, you’ll see it’s all a show – keep ‘em laughing as you go, just remember that the last laugh is on you.’ When reissued as a single it became a no.2 chart hit, 26 October 1991, and despite all the Moody Blues Prog-Rock profundity posturing, this could just about be the most philosophical truth ever committed to vinyl.
Connolly albums were a private pleasure that involved liberal naturalistic use of ‘adult’-content four-letter words, something you couldn’t hear elsewhere, outside of demolition-raconteur ‘Blaster’ Bates or Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown. The Big Yin started out as a Glasgow Folk musician, with Gerry Rafferty (and originally Tam Harvey) in the Humblebums, recording three albums for Transatlantic alongside near-hit 1970 single “Shoeshine Boy”. Solo, his freewheeling between-songs banter expanded in exact ratio to the reducing song-content. Seemingly unscripted, rampaging off into expletive-laden improvisational forays, his huge albums included ‘Cop Yer Whack For This’ (1974) – done live at the Glasgow ‘Kings Theatre’, and ‘Get Right Intae Him!’ (1975), at the Glasgow ‘Apollo’, which spun-off the Tammy Wynette-spoof “D.I.V.O.R.C.E” which took him to no.1 for the single week of 22 November 1975, more in recognition of his contagiously enjoyable performance than for any incidental cleverness involved, burbling with laughter at his own bleeped-out tale of taking his dog to the vet. Although he followed it with another parody, “No Chance (No Charge)”, no.24 the next July, his future lay in movies and TV rather than hit singles.
Meanwhile, Tony Blackburn introduced Jasper Carrott on ‘Top Of The Pops’ (28 May 1975), to lip-synch his no.5 hit “Funky Moped”, recorded with the full Brummie Jeff Lynne ELO mafia on hand to play back-up. This Shangri Las-referencing refutation of the Heavy Rock ‘Born To Be Wild’ Biker-chic was the acceptable ‘A’-side way of navigating around the BBC ban on his even more popular “Magic Roundabout” ‘B’-side, supposedly a filched advance-script in which Dougal and Dylan speculate about Florence’s ‘horizontal pleasures’ and her Toy-Town promiscuity with Noddy. The audience instantly pick up on and respond to each sniggery in-joke about the innocent children’s animation with a disturbing familiarity.
With the advent of ‘Alternative Comedy’ The Young Ones found it necessary to hijack an unsuspecting Cliff Richard – who may have assumed the anarchic foursome to be some kind of tribute act, and a more knowing Hank Marvin, in order to return “Living Doll” to no.1 (5 April 1986), as a Comic Relief charity single. Although Nigel Planer’s ‘Neil’ took Dave Mason’s “Hole In My Shoe” – with lyrics that even his fellow Traffic members considered a tad risible, and tipped it over into pure comedy with very little added effort, equalling Traffic’s chart place by taking it up to no.2 (21 July 1984) just below “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
But – unless we’re compelled to include the Wombles, it was the Goodies who proved to be the biggest comedy chart act of the period with five hits promoted by regular ‘Top Of The Pops’ spots spaced between the December’s of 1974 – with a bowdlerised version of ‘Rugby Song’ “Oh Sir Jasper” reconfigured into “Father Christmas Do Not Touch Me” (no.7) and 1975’s “Make A Daft Noise For Christmas” (no.20). Although they share histories across an impressive spread of radio and TV projects with Marty Feldman and various Pythons, including ‘I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again’ and ‘At Last The 1948 Show’, their own series – launched on BBC2 in November 1970, was more wacky than subversive. It was a kind of sit-com flaunting Monkees-style surreal touches with bits of stop-motion animation (including the rampaging ‘Kitten Kong’), dismissed as a ‘kid’s programme’ by John Cleese in a guest appearance – as the Genie, in ‘The Goodies And The Beanstalk’ episode.
The trio enjoy their biggest Pop moment with the “Funky Gibbon” spoof dance-disc (no.4), romping around the TV-studio stage making knuckle-dragging monkey sounds. Principal songwriter Bill Oddie urges ‘will you give me an oooh? (to an answering ‘Ooooh’), will you give me another oooh? (‘Ooooh’), and will you give me an oooh? (‘oooh’), now put ‘em together, what’ve you got (to much manic ‘Oooh-oooh-oooh-ooohing’)’. “Black Pudding Bertha” (no.19) saw them trading Simian behaviour for hugely exaggerated flat-hats and northern accents, ‘when she starts to dance she shimmies like a plate of tripe’ sings Oddie, as backing-voices Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor chant the ‘tripe and cowheels, tripe and cowheels’ chorus. With their tagline ‘We Do Anything, Anytime’, there was much harmless fun to be had on their Goodies-bicycle made for three.
It’s worth remembering that despite virtually inventing the cars and girls Rock ‘n’ Roll genre, the most respected guitarist and songwriter in the history of Rock, Chuck Berry’s only UK and US no.1 hit was with the silly suggestive nudge-nudge novelty of “My Ding-A-Ling” in 1972, a song that even Chuck himself was subsequently too embarrassed to play live. While Lonnie Donegan’s Music Hall “My Old Man’s A Dustman” with its drop-in comic gags – recorded live at Doncaster’s Gaumont cinema not only gave him a massive million-selling single and his final no.1 in March 1960, but virtually destroyed his credibility as Skiffle King. But Pop singles have always been an awkward contradiction of art and commerce, as well as being a novelty impulse-purchase, a disposable souvenir of passing fads and transient trends. There have always been comedy records, from Mike Sarne (“Come Outside”, with Wendy Richard, a 1962 no.1) to Bernard Cribbins (“Right Said Fred”, with George Martin magic, no.10 in 1962), from Ray Stevens (“The Streak”, no.1 in 1974) to Russ Abbot (no.7 with “Atmosphere” in December 1984), which gave way to TVs Spitting Image (“The Chicken Song” written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, no.1 in 1986) or the Firm (“Star Trekkin’”, no.1 in 1987). Or even – gulp, “Mr Blobby”, the Christmas no.1 for 1993 from Noel Edmunds inexplicably popular ‘House Party’ show. Popular. Forgotten. But also tangled up in ludicrous memory of time and place. Old singles found in dusty boxes stashed away in the loft. Oh yes, I remember that one, it was fun. That’s more than enough.