❉ A carefully-crafted collection celebrating a prestigious career spanning more than five decades.
Many artists receive both warm praise and damning dismissal during their illustrious careers. Few seem to have unintentionally been on the receiving end of both quite like Mike Batt, who is credited with writing some of the most well-regarded songs of stage and screen, but also has the furry noose of The Wombles hanging around his neck which is often used for cheap shots.
Of course, The Wombles are brilliant, and that’s a hill I am more than prepared to die on. What Batt achieved with music inspired by Elisabeth Beresford’s cuddly creations should not be mocked: indeed, Superwombling is one of the most underrated concept albums of the 1970s (fight me).
But Mike Batt is so much more than “The Wombles guy”, with a prestigious career spanning more than five decades behind, and no doubt still in front of him. Chances are, if you’ve gotten this far into this review, you’re in complete agreement on that fact, but here to cement that legacy is this 2-disc, 36-track ‘Best Of’.
Mike Batt – The Penultimate Collection hits the ground running with the joyous Children of the Sky. Taken from Batt’s cult classic West End musical The Hunting of the Snark – the track features a full concert orchestra, a delicious guitar solo from one George Harrison, and luxurious narration from Sir John Gielgud and Sir John Hurt, no less.
And that’s par for the course here: as numerous high profile artists have flocked to work with Batt over the years. There are several songs across this collection which have etched themselves into the public consciousness, even if the version you’re hearing might not be the one you’re most familiar with.
Bright Eyes, immortalised by Art Garfunkel for the animated classic Watership Down, was the best-selling single of 1979, but has always suited Mike Batt’s velvet vocal chords better, and quite rightly, it’s the songwriter who gets to shine here. Similarly, Cliff Richard had a top ten hit with Batt’s Please Don’t Fall in Love – but it’s Mike’s version that holds up best after all these years.
Then there’s A Winter’s Tale – a #2 hit for David Essex written by Batt with Tim Rice that’s become a festive perennial; Alvin Stardust’s #7 ballad I Feel Like Buddy Holly; and several big hits originally made famous by Mike’s former protégé Katie Melua, such as The Closest Thing to Crazy and the behemoth Nine Million Bicycles, the latter of which is one of the two new recordings in this collection. Plus, of course, there’s Batt’s only chart hit in his own name – the warm, Wombles-esque Summertime City – which remains an absolute bopper.
Speaking of the Wimbledon Common favourites, they’re not entirely absent from the set. Three choice Wombles cuts (all amongst Batt’s favourites) are present, though there’s no sign of hardy perennial Remember You’re a Womble. And while those of a certain age will wax lyrical about The Wombles oeuvre, there’s a whole generation of children who will forever associate Batt’s voice with the credits to CITV classic The Dreamstone. The beautiful theme song, Better Than a Dream, is joined here by another track from the long out-of-print soundtrack album – the triumphant Into the Sunset featuring none other than Bonnie Tyler.
There’s also room for lesser known compositions that more than hold their own with the ‘classics’. Railway Hotel, taken from the 1977 album Schizophonia and later covered by Andy Williams, is a subtle gem, whilst 1982’s synth-pop ditty Love Makes You Crazy is the polar opposite: an absolute sledgehammer of dystopian concepts with an insanely catchy melody that feels like it could’ve been a huge hit for Gary Numan, Phil Oakey or David Bowie at the time.
Then there’s the lilting Waiting for a Wave – a soothing composition from 1980’s Waves album – and the sprawling nine minute prog-rock epic Six Days in Berlin (Part One), recorded at the legendary Hansa Studios. Then there’s the moments where you can really appreciate Batt’s skill as a composer of extended suites, such as 1977’s The Fires of Rabat, 1979’s Tarota or 1998’s Aspidistra Suite (2nd Movement). There’s probably an alternate universe where he’s a mainstay of Hollywood film scores like Hans Zimmer or Danny Elfman have become, and I’d love to know what we’re missing out on from that timeline.
It’s not all perfect. Roger Chapman, of progressive rock band Family, features on two tracks, and has a love-it-or-loathe-it vibrato delivery that takes a bit of getting used to. His unusual style isn’t really to my liking, almost spoiling the otherwise fun symphonic rock-number Imbecile, but is far better suited to the soft rock ballad Run Like the Wind. And there’s a couple of tracks here and that I’d have happily traded for a couple of other Batt compositions which didn’t make the cut, such as the sublime but rarely heard B-side, Children of the Storm, which is languishing in digital purgatory, having never been reissued on CD or download.
But these are minor quibbles. What we’ve got here is not meant to be a complete collection of Batt’s long and varied career – indeed, even the enormous sixteen-disc Music Cube collection in 2009 couldn’t fit everything in. Yes, there are some who will bemoan the lack of some of The Wombles biggest hits, or even the frankly bonkers Dreamstone track The Urpney Song featuring vocals from the unlikely trio of Ozzy Osbourne, Billy Connolly & Frank Bruno.
What we have instead is a carefully crafted collection of, frankly, the more serious side of Batt’s illustrious career: one that places him rightfully as one of Britain’s finest composers of the last 50 years, from sumptuous orchestral scores to enormous pop hits. And with a title like The Penultimate Collection, it also illustrates that he’s not finished adding to his legacy just yet.
1. Children Of The Sky
2. Bright Eyes
3. The Winds Of Change
4. Lady Of the Dawn
5. Railway Hotel
6. Imbecile (feat. Roger Chapman)
7. Please Don’t Fall In Love
8. Love Makes You Crazy
9. A Winter’s Tale
10. Soldier’s Song
11. Better Than A Dream
12. Into The Sunset Duet (with Bonnie Tyler)
13. The Closest Thing To Crazy
14. Voices In The Dark
15. Nine Million Bicycles
16. Caravan Song
17. Caravan Theme
18. I Feel Like Buddy Holly
19. The Ride To Agadir
1. Waiting For A Wave
2. Six Days In Berlin, Pt. 1
5. On Watership Down
6. The Fires Of Rabat
7. Summertime City
8. Your Mother Should Know
9. It’s Only Pain
10. Tiger In The Night (feat. Colin Blunstone)
11. Run Like The Wind (feat. Roger Chapman)
12. The Wombling Song – The Wombles
13. Minuetto Allegretto – The Wombles
14. The Orinico Kid – The Wombles
15. The Aspidistra Suite (2nd Movement)
16. The Walls Of The World
17. The Vanishing (feat. Julian Lennon, John Gielgud, John Hurt & Maggie Reilly)
❉ ‘Mike Batt: The Penultimate Collection’: Digital Album Release May 8th 2020; Physical Album Release June 26, 2020.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Paul Holmes ran alternative comedy site The Velvet Onion for eight years, and has written for Arts Council England, Music News, various theatres and the rock band Queen. Follow him on Twitter: @didymusbrush