26 March 2018

Ten Years of Left & To The Back - Things That Make You Go "Hmmm"

Over the last ten years this blog has covered songs which, while not awful, have certainly been unusual and unexpected. Perhaps they've featured a celebrity from children's television apparently singing about masturbation, or the singer of the "Rupert The Bear" theme going on about the wonders of the space age in a pie-eyed manner for ICI Pharmaceuticals, or a sixties garage band screaming their tribute to a particular brand of socks...

Here's six entries which, for one reason or another, took me aback when I first found them.

1. Mick Robertson - Then I Change Hands (CBS)

"Magpie" presenter Mick Robertson was something of a poster-boy for British children's television in the seventies, and it was solely as a result of this - and certainly not, by anyone's confession, his vocal talents - that CBS Executive Clive Selwood signed him to his independent production company to immortalise his essence on wax.

Unfortunately for Robertson, various other executives at the record label weren't enthused about the project, and didn't put their all into the marketing and promotion of his singles. Their enthusiasm might perhaps have been more notable if "Then I Change Hands" didn't appear, on the surface at least, to be a ditty about compulsive masturbation. It's actually a creepy and compelling listen, which sounds more like a nineties effort by The Auteurs or Baby Bird than a 1975 single made by a "TV dreamboat". The arrangement, managed by production genius Richard Hewson, is also extremely well done. But a hit single? While the early seventies had a greater than usual tolerance for interesting art rock ideas, this didn't stand a hope. Not until Pulp's "This Is Hardcore" was put out as a single in 1998 did such a rich arrangement accompanying such an uneasy idea bother the mainstream again.

2. Lemon Men - I've Seen You Cut Lemons (Polydor)

"I've seen you burn children... and leave them to diiiieee..." Right you are then, mate.

All is not really as it appears with this single, and its morbid and uneasy atmosphere probably only makes sense within its intended environment. The Sean Connery directed play of the same name - about a man who lived with his unstable bi-polar sister - was playing at a London theatre at this time, and the tune was released in conjunction with its launch.

Connery's influence really couldn't make the play a hit, though, and it closed after five nights, meaning this single was irrelevant and severed of all context within days of its release. Its sole purpose since seems to have been to confuse record collectors like me who have unexpectedly found a single about someone's unstable sister scalding children nestling in the remainder racks.

3. Carpetbaggers - Sorry (Page One)

The Allied Carpets jingle "Allied for carpets for you!" burst its way out of many a television in the seventies and eighties, its instantly recognisable cheeriness helping to make the carpet retail outlet a huge success.

By 1982 Larry Page seemed to think that it might be a good idea to create a hit single around the jingle, and for reasons known only to themselves, a group of session men bashed out a version that sounded as if it had been covered by Sparks. If you've ever envisaged the Mael brothers stalking around carpet warehouses on industrial estates pulling faces at the browsing customers, this single is probably for you. Apparently that wasn't a huge demographic in 1982, though, and it completely flopped.

4. Don Crown - Budgerigar Man (Orange)

"Budgerigars they are my friends!/ You may laugh but they understand me" Don Crown informs us at the start of this single, and as openers go, it's tricky to top that one. Absurd and self-aware all at once (he seems to understand immediately that the first line is going to meet with mockery, so references everyone's pshawing with the second) he's already got us by the short and curlies. The rest of the song is a bit psychedelic as well as slightly Disneyfied and Bob Dylanised all at once, making for a unique and yet actually surprisingly enjoyable brew.

Until he recently retired, Don Crown was Britain's premier budgie busker, working with his birds at sites across England (and, in particular, London). An eccentric and fascinating man, he arguably deserved more fame than he got, but his act was possibly rather too niche for mainstream consumption.

5. The Saucers (aka Keith Chegwin and Maggie Philbin) - Spring Has Sprung (BBC)  

Strange though it may sound to 2018 readers, Cheggers and Maggie were no strangers to the charts, having had a hit (with Noel Edmonds on gurning duties) with "I Wanna Be A Winner" in 1981.

"Spring Has Sprung" attempted to capitalise on that early promise, and BA Robertson penned this song for them which - amazingly - is actually quite good. Filled with catchy synthetic twittering noises, a nagging chorus, and Maggie Philbin sounding rather seductive, it sounds like a slightly less elaborately produced Dollar record and was a very unfortunate flop indeed. Had it charted, who knows where their pop career might have gone next?

6. Dora Hall In General (Various Vanity Labels)

I'd like to think of Dora Hall as being the Queen of "Left and to the Back". Married to a millionaire disposable picnicware mogul in the USA, he threw an astonishing amount of money into her dreams of superstardom, issuing giveaway records and (later on) videos. No money was spared on the production and arrangements, which usually featured musicians as notable as the Wrecking Crew. As a middle-aged woman her moment for popular music stardom had obviously passed, but hundreds of discs were issued regardless.

While Dora Hall's voice isn't something of incredible strength, the records are often better than you'd expect, and some are actually pretty damn good. In particular, "Pretty Boy" and her cover of The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" - both featured on the blog - are fascinating. It's only when you see video footage of Hall hobnobbing with stars like Frank Sinatra Jr on her own paid-for cable TV special that the cringeworthy elements of the exercise start to kick in - but even then, there's not an absence of fun.

Before the internet or vloggers were even 'a thing', Dora Hall barged her way on to people's screens and record players on her own terms and seemed to have a whale of a time doing so.

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