Dubious British Pop Reviewed with the Release of Bubblerock is Here to Stay!

The British Pop Explosion 1970-73

The 1970s were arguably even more absurd musically than the 1960s. Fashion ranged from resolute beige to blinding pink glitter bombs and the music followed suit – it’s why Top of the Pops 2 repeats set Twitter on fire – it seems implausible that such clashing, experimental, frighteningly dull and thrilling music could appear in the same ten years, let alone the same top 40 chart in the same week. Maybe there was too much music. Labels were able to take a punt on any old nonsense, the cost of pressing a few copies on vinyl at the end of the run of a sure-fire hit being minimal and the door open to you to ‘have a go’ whether you were a hairy oaf from Morecambe or the little girl who makes her grandma cry by singing ‘Silent Night’ at Christmas. Fuck it – in for a penny etc.

Bubblerock is Here to Stay!, the new three-disc set from Cherry Red, shows how tremendously leaky the net was that was cast to ensnare a record-buying public who felt safer than any time before to nail their colours to the mast and declare their love for a track whether or not the rest of the world agreed with them or not. The assembled songs here are indeed bubblegum – disposable, transient, yet addictive and perhaps even tongue-staining, they neither outstay their welcome nor wipe their feet on the way in. Taking their cue ostensibly from the bands of the mid-60s who were a mixture of 2-hour drop-ins at their local studio; local acts who saw the recording session as their chance to prove their obvious might to the wider world; studio and management constructions – manufactured bands, if you will, which satisfied the middle-aged exec’s curiosity and desire to exploit a short-lived chart fad that needed satiating urgently, the examples of British pop glory gone strange brought together here are not Black Sabbath nor T-Rex. Why they aren’t is tricky to explain.

Blue Mink, featuring here with a track you’ll immediately recognise, ‘The Banner Man’, a salute to the Sally Army, are session musicians to a man, Led by Roger Cook (who co-wrote I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing and a hatful of other hits alongside Roger Greenaway), bassist for everyone, Herbie Flowers and Madeline Bell (sound of British Gas’ “Wonder-fuel GAS!” If you didn’t sing that as you read it, I really can’t help you any further) were not looking for an opportunity to play the Hammersmith Odeon. It was a wonder they found time to phone in a couple of albums over their lifespan, which though scattered with massive hits like ‘Melting Pot’ (“Oh Lordy, Lordy, mixed with yellow Chinkees” – c’mon Mr Sheeran, where’s the cover version?) It was absolutely nothing more than having a laugh with some like minded mates and paying off the gas bill for the next two years. Who wouldn’t take the dosh and remain anonymous?

Some names are slathered all over this set like butter on a fat man’s toast – Mickie Most; Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman; Jonathan King; John Carter – all genuinely deft pop craftsmen but with an insatiable thirst for success at any cost. If they had a song tucked under their arm, you were going to hear it, like it or not – genuinely, it didn’t matter, so long as you’d paid your three shillings to find out. Some names here you will know – Mark Wirtz (of Teenage Opera infamy here appears as part of The Matchmakers, whose ‘Turn Me On’ is disgraceful behind the bikesheds fumbling action); Peter Gabriel (reduced to singing, over a wah-wah-wah yawn “Cool sun/turn the heating on”); Elaine Paige (her single with the band Sparrow, made up of co-Hair performers is an early warning of her later harrowing career); obvious big players The Sweet and The Tremeloes and less likely stars such as pie-loving footballer Jeff Astle, Viv Stanshall and Jon Pertwee.

Yes, there is novelty – some intentional, some accidental. Lieutenant Pigeon are the perfect example of how British 70s pop worked. A side band of Coventry experimentalists Stavely Makepeace, da Pigeon were somewhat born out of frustration, a silly doss around roping their old piano-playing nan which only took off when their track, ‘Mouldy Old Dough’, was used as incidental music on a Belgian news report. Stupid idea, haphazard execution, perverse chain of events and there you have your hit. ‘Dirty Old Man’, included here having originally appeared on their hastily cobbled together album is daft bordering on offensive and yet is as valid a piece of work as anything appearing in the February 1973 hit parade, which saw Focus rubbing shoulders with Status Quo, The Partridge Family and Gary Glitter.

Jonathan King – under the guise of The Piglets and shoving poor old Barbara Kay forward as singer, recorded ‘Johnny Reggae’, the almost disgustingly catchy bubblegum pop approximation of the reggae sounds which were taking potential shekels out of King’s hands, proudly celebrates its transience, “What’s ‘e like, Mavis?” never likely to enter pop lexicon as pure-spun gold lyrical content. In a similar vein, ‘Don’t Stick Stickers on my Paper Knickers’ by X Certificate manages to alienate both the Caribbean community by pissing all over reggae as an art form and our Euro neighbours when introducing a bloke doing an appalling French accent at the end of the track. King casts his magic throughout this collection, such as on the track ‘Loop di Love’ by Shag, a complete steal from a short-lived hit in the Benelux which he squirted with his gobs of sexual suggestion. As was his wont, and fair play to him.

25 years on from the sounds in this collection, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty wrote the book, “MANUAL: How to Have a Number One Hit the Easy Way”, having themselves employed a number of stunts and techniques in various guises as The KLF over the years but back in the day, it was pretty clear-cut, even without instructions. Viv Stanshall, appearing here as Vivian Stanshall and Gargantuan Chums (namely John Entwistle and Keith Moon) recorded an inside-out version of Elvis‘ ‘Suspicion’, just in time for Christmas – but for Clive Dunn‘s ‘Grandad’, it would doubtless have had a decent crack at lining his pockets for years to come.

There’s not too much troubling the middle of the road here – the quality in fairly firmly terrific or diabolical. Pete Dello and Friends‘ ‘Harry the Earwig’ is misjudged whimsy of a style which suffers from too much being thrown into the pot and not of it being any good; Peter Skellern‘s ‘Our Jackie’s Getting Married’ is the worst attempt at a Northern accent by a man ironically from the North that you’ll ever hear. Elsewhere, there is are some truly joyous songs – Christyan’s ‘Nursery Lane’ is tear-jerkingly anthemic and vomits key changes like they’re going out of fashion; Jackie Lee’s ‘Rupert’ (yes, the theme to the animated series) is so heavily pregnant with happiness you wonder why it isn’t played on the radio every day; Jon Pertwee’s ‘Who is the Doctor?’ is both utterly straight-faced whilst flicking V’s at the BBC throughout and ‘Sunday Girl’ by Dunno (formed quickly that when asked what they were called, they responded…well, y’know) is Turtles-esque California hatched in rainy Belfast.

Much of ‘Bubblerock is Here to Stay!’ Is absolute hokum – I mean, all of it is, isn’t it? Ladies and gentlemen dressing up, standing in front of hairy knob-twiddling men and making noises to try and make money…and often succeeding. This should be an embarrassing footnote to art but instead shows how life-affirming music is – ridiculous and magnificent, somehow setting out to turn on a sixpence and cash-in on short-lived trends yet remaining socially important and musically excellent over the passing five decades, these tracks are as adventurous, awful, brilliant and pointless as anything released before or since.

This review originally appeared on Altfeed.org

Buy the album here

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