15 January 2009
It's been one of my aims since starting this blog to upload a compilation of novelty tracks. For decades, "novelty pop" has been a phrase which has been spat out in disgust by critics and consumers. If it's sent to journalists for review, it's generally stuffed straight into the bin or given a few savage sentences milking the supposedly sorry affair for as many laughs as possible.
In many respects, though, novelty tracks are the undiluted, raw essence of pop music, overpowering in their melodic punches, the sheer force of which repels a great many listeners. They were around before rock and roll even existed, in the guise of feelgood numbers about the most ridiculous nonsense imaginable (fruit seemed to feature a great deal, for some reason) and later covered by the Bonzo Dog Band. Then when rock music came along, they were swift to adapt, incorporating the sounds and noises of a gigging electric band, but still retaining the same basic rules. There are several key things most novelty tracks will have, although they won't necessarily contain all of the below:
* A jokey catchphrase or lyrical hookline - and the more frequently it can be repeated, the better. Novelty pop loves to take phrases or slogans of the day and make them its very centrepiece, and the composers seem to continually have their ears to the ground and their eyes on television shows to steal whatever they can. Where this isn't possible, a totally surreal, meaningless and yet somehow pleasing sentence will frequently suffice.
* The earworm factor. It has to be insanely, ridiculously catchy, like some kind of supernova pop music - as subtle as a brick in the face. It will sink in on the first listen alone, and then generally be destroyed by radio DJs who won't realise when the joke is over and everybody's had enough. Novelty pop does curious things to your brain, but that doesn't make it evil, just very effective at its job. You'll still remember "Star Trekkin'" note and lyric perfect long after you've forgotten what the verses to Madcon's "Beggin'" sound like.
* A slightly quirky attitude. Oddness abounds in novelty tracks, and they'll tend to emphasise eccentricity in a way that 'normal' pop hasn't really done in some time now. So Lieutenant Pigeon will happily invite their mother to play ragtime piano with them and have a stuffed pigeon sat on the drumkit. The KLF created a talking American police car for "Doctorin' The Tardis". Christ almighty, even The Tweets (not featured here, you'll be relieved to know) pranced around in giant bird costumes on Top of the Pops. Random curveballs are the novelty song's prerogative, and if they don't do it with the image, then by God they'll try to throw some odd sound or beat into the mix at some point. A good novelty record should stick out like a sore thumb in the chart rundown if it gets that far, but despite this will usually have got there by being playlisted. The normal rules seldom apply, which is why at the height of Madchester one of the biggest Christmas hits was "Donald Where's Your Troosers".
* Never out-stays its welcome. Radio DJs may play it ten times daily, and the appeal may wear thin as a result, but the track itself knows its sledgehammer effect will be massively reduced by being five minutes long. Good novelty is kept short and sharp, and if you feel you want to stick it on again immediately afterwards, then its job is especially well done.
Besides the above is also another tier of novelty pop, consisting of spin-off songs involving TV themes or characters, or actors or comedians attempting a serious career as musical artists. This kind of music doesn't always adhere to the rules laid out above, although, much like its session musician cousin, it is invariably never considered fashionable however effective the end results are. In fact, frequently sales are also disappointing. Vic Reeves "I Will Cure You" really might just as well never have existed as an album for all it gets talked about now (almost never) and yet in terms of production and wit it's a complete gem. And nobody bothered to buy any Kenny Everett records until he went into character on "Snot Rap" - missing out on a few sunshine sixties gems in the process, which are so under-referenced most people fail to realise they even exist.
Above all else, be cautious of just what is disparagingly labelled "novelty". "Popcorn" by Hot Butter, for instance, is a marvellous early piece of electronic music which the more tedious synthesiser experimentalists of the era couldn't have come up with. Compare and contrast their output, if you want - even the very poppy Jean Michel Jarre didn't manage to create sounds so effective and music so hook-laden at the same time.
Some of the below is huge fun, and frothy thrills abound - you won't want to hear other tracks more than a few times. That's fine. This is an excuse to have some fun rather than to sneer at the output of the people behind these discs. Longevity shouldn't be expected, and these aren't lost classics - but they are great diversions, for many different reasons.
A few points/ excuses. Firstly, I've tried to provide the year of release and label in the notes below, but it hasn't always been easy. Most of these songs are from my own collection, but quite a few have been sourced elsewhere, and as these records are seldom talked about even online, it's hard to find the missing information. Secondly, the sound quality may vary, for which I apologise. Thirdly, quite a few of these were hits, which breaks this blog's rules. However, this is fair in this instance (because I say so). Most of them won't have been played on the radio since the last week they sat in the Top 40, will have been unloved and untouched by classic rock radio, and ditched into Oxfam by their owners during the first major house move.
Now... enjoy yourselves. It's later than you think.
1. Denim – The New Potatoes (Emidisc – 1997)
There are precious few better tracks I could think of to kick off this compilation. Straight off Denim’s “Novelty Rock” album of B-sides and studio offcuts, “New Potatoes” manages to encapsulate everything that’s great about novelty tracks in a very short spintime. There’s ludicrous, childish humour, stupid voices, dated synth noises, and a tune that may very well earworm you to death. It sounds like a musical theme from a failed and outlandish eighties children’s TV show, but the entire concept of the adventures of some new potatoes seems to have come solely out of Lawrence’s demented mind rather than that of a television executive.
More to the point, Lawrence was one of the first musicians to speak out on behalf of the novelty or bubblegum record in the music press, attempting to turn what was considered a source of endless naffness into a virtue. Our cause was his cause first.
2. Big Cherry – Come In Bonzo (Penny Farthing – 1973)
Mind you, Big Cherry’s bizarro B-side “Come In Bonzo” is no less ludicrous, where the lead singer assumes the role of a disgruntled cockney canine grumbling on in detail about the finer points of his daily life, pissing up lamp-posts and eating cheap dog food included. Lyrically, there’s some rather classy comic lines in this track, which for what was an apparently off-the-cuff flipside to a bubblegum track is quite unexpected. Denim, it’s safe to say, would probably have given away their box of Bell 45s to have thought this one up.
3. Mike Melvoin – The Ballad of John and Yoko (Dot Records)
From the album “The Plastic Cow Goes Mooooog”, this analogue synth reimagining of The Beatles single is wobbly, freakish and slightly uneasy sounding, everything the original wasn’t, in fact, catching The Beatles during their “back to basics” phase as it did. Mike Melvoin is usually a jazz pianist, but the one-off Moog album he released is actually a cheering listen provided its not swallowed whole in one sitting. Be careful with your dosage, now.
4. Jumbo – He Goes Blah Blah (Accion – 1972)
This Dutch single describes the endless trials and tribulations of parenthood in direct and insistent terms, referring to sleepness nights, and most especially toddler nonsense-speak. “He goes blah blah/ he goes blah blah/ he goes blah blah/ he goes blah/ he is making mummy mad” runs the chorus. Minimalist genius, if you ask me.
5. The Who – Waspman (Track – 1973)
And here’s where the shit potentially hits the fan with a lot of casual surfers who might land on this page due to a Google search. Defending myself in advance of any attacks from rock purists out there, I fully appreciate that The Who were not in any sense a “novelty band”. Tucked away on the b-side of “Relay”, however, lies this little gem which really couldn’t be described in any other way. In it, Keith Moon spends three minutes making buzzing noises and saying “sting!” in a camp voice, whilst Roger Daltrey passionately cries “Waspman!” in background.
The idea for the track apparently came about when Pete Townshend observed Keith Moon running up and down the asile of an aeroplane wearing a baseball cap with a propeller on it and a stripey yellow and black top, doing impressions of a wasp for the entertainment of the passengers. That particular image makes this an even more pleasing, although no less absurd, three minutes.
6. Lurch – The Lurch (Capitol – 1965)
Spin-off singles from comedy series are of course standard novelty fare, and this particular Addams Family effort unexpectedly flopped on its release. That’s an undignified way to treat a single which attempts to teach you how to dance like Lurch, complete with bemused sounding commentary from the butler himself. Well, you’d be bemused as well if a bunch of teens turned up at your creepy residence demanding you show them your non-existent moves.
7. Lieutenant Pigeon – Gordon’s Rainbow Wranglers
No novelty compilation would really be complete without The Pigeon treating us to some Joe Meek inspired ragtime about nothing of any significance whatsoever. This track seems to be coercing a chap called Gordon to shake his rainbow coloured Wranglers, which predates Trevor and Simon’s antics by several years at least.
8. The Timelords – Gary In The Tardis (KLF Communications – 1988)
When the KLF’s Doctor Who and Gary Glitter sampling, proto-mash up single “Doctorin’ The Tardis” climbed the charts giving Drummond and Cauty their first hit, they hit upon the idea of having a Gary Glitter vocal version as a limited edition. And this is it – some readers may find the concept of Glitter asking “Do you wanna touch me?” rather uncomfortable, but for these people the ‘skip’ button exists.
9. Alexei Sayle – ‘Ullo John Gotta New Motor? (Spring – 1982)
Novelty and spin-off singles are generally regarded as being the preserve of naff light entertainment, so it’s genuinely surprising just how many of the alternative set in the eighties seemed to flock towards the recording studio to mixed results. “’Ullo John Gotta New Motor” is a bafflingly bare, repetitive piece of work during which Sayle barks out deranged slogans and cockney banter. It’s not as good as you remember it, but it’s still worth a few spins, and is possibly to Spinmaster Plantpot’s career what The Everley Brothers were to Lennon and McCartney.
10. Bad News – Bohemian Rhapsody (EMI – 1987)
And long after Sayle gave up on the idea of bothering the music industry, here are three of his ex-cohorts (Mayall, Edmondson and Planer) parodying a crap heavy metal band to accompany the Comic Strip spoof documentaries “Bad News” and “More Bad News”. It’s difficult to know what they were trying to achieve here – unlike Spinal Tap, this is the work of a band so unspeakably awful they would never have been signed. It’s also impossible to understand how they seem to have dropped several levels of proficiency since the bogus rockumentary aired. “Masturbike”, “Bad News” and “Warriors of Genghis Khan” had considerably more musicality and oomph to them than this.
Questions about plot continuity aside, this is possibly the worst rendition of the Queen song ever recorded.
11. Snuff – Theme From “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?” (Deceptive – 1996)
Snuff frequently managed to pack out venues with their punk cover versions of popular television adverts such as the “Shake n Vac” theme. TV themes were also something of a speciality, and this is handled with the same set of heavy hands, and a brilliant Chucklevision inspired “To me, to you” lyrical reinterpretation. The sound of two birds being killed with a very weighty stone.
12. A Tribe of Toffs – John Kettley is a Weatherman (Neat – 1988)
“They invented the Arctic Monkeys!” scoff lots of internet wags, which of course is patently false. What is curious about this record, though, is that it probably did suffer from the ill effects of Indie snobbery. Had it sold 500 copies and got John Peel airplay, there’s little doubt that somebody on Tweenet would probably be singing its praises and talking about its delightful charms right now. Because it got on Children’s BBC and charted within the Top 40 instead, it’s since been forgotten about. Consider balance restored.
13. Vic Reeves – Summer of ’75 (Sense – 1991)
From the “I Will Cure You” album, Reeves and Mortimer here aggressively tear into their folk parody with far more effective teeth than Shane MacGowan’s. Includes an utterly marvelous description of al fresco pissing.
14. The Firm – Arthur Daley (‘e’s Alright) (Bark – 1982)
Ask who recorded this in a pub quiz, and inevitably 95% of all correspondents will answer “Chas and Dave”. Incorrect. This was a minor hit and the work of the people behind “Star Trekkin” and (less favourably) Grahame Lister’s “Fish and Chips in Spain” which I’ve already spat out with disgust elsewhere on this blog. This unofficial tribute to the “Minder” series is notable for being more humorous and jaunty than the official single “What Are We Gonna Get For ‘Er Indoors”, which was lamentable.
15. The Majamood – 200 Million Red Ants (Twirl – 1966)
Proof positive that twee shambling records were around long before C86 was a twinkle in the fringe-obscured eyes of a thousand Gillespie clones, “200 Million Red Ants” is the biggest load of nonsense I’ve ever heard commited to seven inch vinyl, but it’s so absurdly gloomy in its delivery that it doesn’t deserve to languish in complete obscurity. The prospect of a mass invasion of red ants seems like a probable affair in the Majamood’s capable hands, although they don’t sound as if they’d be much help in such a crisis.
16. Velodrome 2000 – Bobby Gillespie is a Virgin (Bluefire – 1998)
And talking of Bobby Gillespie, this childish playground taunt of a track analyses the likelihood of the man having had zero sexual action in his life. “Whassa matter Bobby, are you afraid of GIRLS???!!” they sneer. There will be people out there who will argue this isn’t a ‘novelty’ track but a ‘twee’ one. Please ignore them. Velodrome 2000 may well be a twee band, but this is jokey crowd-pleasing and sloganeering at its best.
17. New World – Scheherazade (Saga)
A session musician’s workout from the budget label Saga’s “Golden Trumpet” compilation album, I have nothing to say about this particular piece apart from the fact that I have no idea what anyone involved with it was actually trying to achieve. It’s almost terrifying.
18. Robin Workman – I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do (1976)
More moog action here, only this time of an Abba shaped variety. Taken from the album “Moog Plays Abba”.
19. Larry Grayson – Shut That Door (York - 1972)
Novelty singles from light entertainers litter the seventies like endless bits of shrapnel. Hell, there’s even a Rod Hull and Emu one out there, and Emu doesn’t actually make any noises on it (as indeed he never did) so Lord knows what his function in the studio was. A Bez-like vibemaster, perhaps?
Larry Grayson, of course, is far from silent here, wittering away throughout this record, effectively managing to wear out all the catchphrases he used in his career across its playing time. It’s actually quite charming and harmless, and infinitely better than the studio work of many of his peers.
20. Tiny Tim – Daddy, Daddy, What Is Heaven Like? (Reprise – 1968)
I can’t help but feel guilty about bracketing Tiny Tim as a novelty artist. His debut long player “God Bless Tiny Tim” is actually a piece of heavily arranged absurdity which outshines many supposedly serious pieces of work from the same era, but then for the purposes of this compilation we have to assume that ‘novelty’ isn’t necessarily a dirty word. From the aforementioned disc, it’s hard to tell whether “Daddy…” is a sweet and innocent exercise or something much, much darker and meaner than that.
21. Ambrose and His Orchestra – The Sun Has Got His Hat On (1932)
Seldom heard in its original and uncensored incarnation, this is evidence that one decade’s novelty hit is another decade’s piece of political incorrectness. You’ll seldom, if ever, hear the lyrics as they’re meant to be sung, and that’s all I’m prepared to reveal at this juncture.
22. Miss X – Christine (Ember – 1964)
And at the other end of the spectrum, here’s a song which was considered “racey” at the time which would barely cause anybody to bat an eyelid these days. Performed by Lionel Blair’s sister Joyce, this was a very minor hit at the time.
23. Kenny Everett – A Little Train Number (Deram – 1969)
It’s peculiar to hear Kenny Everett singing a song about trainspotting in an entirely serious, non-comedic way, backed by a jaunty brass section. It’s actually a fine piece of pop music and utterly joke-free zone with affectionate references to Birmingham station and “watching British Rail pass painlessly through the heart of Britain”. Ah, well maybe that little line might be a stab at ironic humour, or perhaps a reminder of how much things have changed since its release.
24. Mud – Flower Power (CBS – 1967)
Novelty hippy cash-in records came flying out on to record store shelves in the late sixties, and before Mud found their (tiger) feet, that’s what they treated us to with “Flower Power”. It’s monumentally contrived, and failed to launch their career – but there’s still a lop-sided silliness to it which is more charming than grating.
25. Peter Wyngarde – Neville Thumbcatch (RCA – 1970)
The jury is still out for me where actor Peter Wyngarde’s “When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head” album is concerned – albums containing jokey songs about rape should generally be considered skating on thin ice by anybody’s sane standards – but this cover of The Attack’s psychedelic non-hit heightens the absurd nature of the original through its deadpan delivery and peculiar arrangements.
26. Peter Fonda – November Nights (Chisa – 1967)
This cover of Gram Parsons’ song has the actor singing rather weakly and uncertainly, but it adds to the frail nature of the lyrical subject matter. Fonda wouldn’t really bother us with much else on vinyl, and this isn’t a bad standalone attempt.
27. Leonard Rossiter – Rising Damp (Chips – 1980)
Back in the land of the bona-fide spin-off single, it’s a pity Rossiter didn’t grace TOTP with this Miss Jones seducing piece of disco, but there again… perhaps it’s best that we stop all this now before the fun runs completely dry. I hope it didn't.
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