❉ The post-punk polymath’s Elektra trilogy, re-evaluated by Tim Worthington.
“Perfectly happy to play the ‘fame game’, B.A. Robertson turned in Top Of The Pops performances that were always the talk of the playground the next day, enjoyed a successful association with Swap Shop, and wrote a number of well-remembered TV themes. Given his one-time ubiquity, the fact that he has since almost entirely disappeared from the public consciousness is bewildering.”
Poor old B.A. Robertson never really quite fitted in. Initially emerging in the mid-seventies, he was caught in the middle of perhaps the most significant – if over-romanticised – upheaval in pop music history, and never quite worked out which side of the fence to fall on. He had the sharp and witty lyrics and nimble song writing skills of the New Wave solo trailblazers, but all too often swamped them in arch references and over-burdened rock’n’roll-inflected arrangements. The playful confrontational attitude of his peers, tempered by occasional flashes of attitudes to sexual politics that really ought to have been left behind. A sharp and distinctive look with a hairstyle that was rapidly adrift of fashion. Too punk for prog, too prog for punk. Literally Kool In The Kaftan.
Yet it was precisely this square peg in a round hole status that made him, at least for a certain audience, the ideal star for the time. Perfectly happy both to play the ‘fame game’ and to play up for the cameras, he turned in the sort of Top Of The Pops performances that were always the talk of the playground the next day.
He enjoyed a particularly successful association with Noel Edmonds, frequently assuming the comedy stooge role in his TV and radio shows, and collaborating on a number of musical ventures. He wrote a number of well-remembered TV themes, including the longest-serving one for Wogan, and even wrote and performed in sketches on the defiantly post-punk BBC2 teen sketch show Dear Heart. Although the quote marks are imperative here, he was the ‘punk’ that it was OK for young children and old ladies to like, and given his one-time ubiquity, the fact that he has since almost entirely disappeared from the public consciousness is bewildering.
Presumably accidentally, the cover of 1980’s Initial Success more or less underlines this confused positioning, depicting B.A. in skinny tie and sharp neon suit in the middle of artwork straight out of late-period Hipgnosis. Featuring no less than four hit singles – Bang Bang, Kool In The Kaftan, Knocked It Off and To Be Or Not To Be – across a mammoth fourteen tracks the jokey intros and rigorous adherence to sub-XTC arrangements can get a bit much, and the more understated moments like Goosebumps come as welcome relief.
However, the album’s real strengths are in the tracks that are intentionally quirky and comic from the outset, rather than the ones that throw in gags that have you reaching for a history book halfway through; the frantic condensed history of drumming Eat Your Heart Out Sandy Nelson, the scathing class war disdain of England’s Green And Pheasant Land, and the genuinely brilliant Here I Sit, a postmodern meditation on trying to fill up the second side of the album with no money or resources left, complete with impatient sonic interjections from the studio engineer. Aside from the superior single version of Goosebumps and a couple of live tracks, the various b-sides and outtakes included on this reissue basically condense everything that’s good and bad about the album into a single song. There is also room, however, for The Portsmouth Sinfonia’s predictably baffling reading of Bang Bang, which shows that at least someone at the time got what he was trying to do.
Boasting a far more Grange Hill-friendly ‘scrapbook’ cover, 1981’s Bully For You also benefits from a more controlled and varied sound, with particular highlights including the cleverly worded Saint-Saens, and Flight 19, a real-life missing plane mystery repurposed as a pointed and dramatic swipe at a recent slew of sensationalist and exploitative ‘mystery songs’.
For many, however, the main attraction will be the theme from Maggie, the fondly-remembered BBC2 early evening drama series about a fiercely independent teenager standing up to her controlling parents and their suspicions of her sense of ambition. This time the album comes accompanied by a generous helping of fascinating bonus tracks, including genuinely amusing Starsound send-up BAR’s On 45, the punchier on-screen version of Maggie, a monologue performed by Sheila Steafel as Margaret Thatcher as apparently used in his live shows at the time, and an almost-there-but-not-quite demo of his Swap Shop theme. One surprising absentee, however, is any form of B.A. Robertson-performed version of Carrie, a hit he had written for Cliff Richard around this time. It’s worth remembering this blood curdling song about missing teenagers – a dark cousin to Maggie if you want to get pretentious about it – the next time someone sneers at B.A. for being smug and/or ‘zany’.
By 1982, the momentum was starting to slow, and the words ‘change of direction’ must have been looming large by the time that R&BA was released. Featuring his last big hit as a performer, propulsive Maggie Bell duet Hold Me, it’s the most listenable as an ‘album’ of the three, although this is something of a mixed blessing as the loss of the quirky edges also strips his music of a lot of its distinctive character.
As well as the harder rocking single version of Hold Me, the bonus tracks also include a superior piano demo of album highlight Legislate For Love, an instrumental demo of the Saturday Superstore theme, and a live version of his Scotland World Cup Squad song We Have A Dream, performed in a knowingly disdainful manner that might make you look at the original in a new light. Might.
Listening to these three albums from this distance, it’s easy to get a sense of someone who was so focused on being a post-punk polymath that he neglected to channel as much focus into his actual music. Yet that would be missing the point entirely – it’s genuinely surprising to list the many and varied successes B.A. Robertson enjoyed in the early eighties, and in many cases it’s these extra-curricular activities that he’s actually remembered for. The fact that he chose to do so in Light Entertainment and children’s/‘youth’ television rather than somewhere more ‘meaningful’ probably provoked – and still provokes – a bit of snobbery as well. These albums were only really part of a much wider career, and need to be looked at in a wider context. Happily, these reissues and in particular the bonus tracks give us a long overdue opportunity to do so.
❉ B.A. Robertson’s solo albums ‘R&BA’, ‘Bully For You’ and ‘Initial Success’ are out now as Deluxe Editions from Cherry Red Records, RRP £9.95 each. Click here to order them from Cherry Red: https://www.cherryred.co.uk/artist/ba-robertson/
❉ Tim Worthington is a writer, blogger and occasional broadcaster. His books include Fun At One, the story of comedy at BBC Radio 1, Not On Your Telly, Higher Than The Sun and Top Of The Box. Tim also wrote the booklets for Network Distribution’s Sapphire & Steel and Children of the Stones DVD collections. Check out his new homepage for more information.