❉ Huw Thomas reviews a bird’s eye view of early ‘70s pure pop. Music snobs, look away!
“If you’re going to be in the music business, you gotta make hit records. If you can’t make hit records, you should fuck off and go chop meat somewhere.” So says Mike Chapman of the triumphant pop writing partnership Chinnichap in the liner notes for Bubblerock Is Here To Stay! The British Pop Explosion 1970-73, a new release from Cherry Red imprint Grapefruit collecting the daffy ditties that once competed for your pocket money. This 3CD set provides a bird’s eye view of early 1970s UK studio-bound pure pop, a time when many of the stoney-faced rock set had veered away the pop singles playground. Music snobs, look away!
Often these songs pair daffy, playground lyrical content with eccentric productions. Less bubblegum, more… err… Toffo or something. The “bubblerock” moniker may sound particular, but many strains of popular music are present. There’s the East End reggae of X Certificate’s Don’t Stick Stickers On My Paper Knickers, the shoebox country of West Brom centre-forward Jeff Astle’s Sweet Water and the boppity-boppity doo-wop of Summer Wine’s Living Right Next Door To An Angel. Sugary confections all, but impossible to dislike.
Distant top-ten dwellers like Pickettywitch, Blue Mink, White Plains and Middle of the Road are all present. Despite their successes, these acts have not benefited from the streaming age with its standardised 70s playlists. “It’s a shit business”, indeed. Middle of the Road’s Samson and Delilah (which gave them their final chart placing at number 26 in 1972) is a rather cute ditty in the Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da mould. Like Soley Soley, it’s a much better record than that chart-topper of theirs. Blue Mink’s The Banner Man is glorious, with mellifluous bass work from Herbie Flowers. By rights, it should evoke Britain in 1971 to the general public as much as Hot Love or Maggie May. Even David Essex’s slippery hit Lamplight hasn’t had the radio afterlife it deserves; its inclusion on this set will remind anyone who may have forgotten just how bold and unorthodox Essex was.
There’s so many should-have-been-hits on here, too. Why didn’t the public who bought the First Class’s Beach Baby bother with Dunno’s Sunday Girl, an infectious sunshine pop single from 1973? Why was Fickle Pickle’s California Calling, a winning slice of vaudevillian McCartney-esque piano pop, destined for obscurity? In another universe, Vivian Stanshall’s rollicking version of Elvis’s Suspicion was 1970’s novelty Christmas chart-topper. In this one, it was out-Dunn by Grandad.
The Tremeloes’ 1972 single I Like It That Way came off the back of an impressive run of hits and it has all the makings of another. It’s a seriously catchy record with Len Hawkes and the recently-departed Dave Munden trading vocals. It has all the good-natured fun of the best Tremeloes hits, but it failed to chart. A shame – I can imagine it making a good football chant.
Bubblerock Is Here to Stay takes its name from a 1972 album by Bubblerock, one of many aliases for the singer-songwriter, record producer and convicted child sex offender Jonathan King. King’s influence runs through this set, with 15 of the 85 tracks being written or produced by him on his UK Records label. This would certainly be a poorer set without these songs, but it’s hard not to feel uncomfortable at the unabashed celebration of King alongside so-called “perv-pop” (coined in the liner notes). There’s a dissonance in hearing King’s version of the teen pop classic It’s My Party followed by Jackie Lee’s theme tune to The Adventures of Rupert Bear. Still, perhaps there’s a sense of humour to the sequencing. On disc one, King’s Gay Girl is immediately followed by Lieutenant Pigeon’s Dirty Old Man.
Few songs could sum up this set’s remit more perfectly than Hotlegs’ Neanderthal Man, one of the strangest things ever to grace the UK Top 5. The song emanated from a drum recording test with the vocals bleeding in from beneath a hulking beat. Hotlegs (10cc as they was before they was) refused calls from Philips to make the vocals, audible only if you squint your ears, louder. The result is a record both universally catchy and antagonistic.
Other early projects from Gouldman, Stewart, Godley and Creme feature on Bubblerock; Travelling Man by Tristar Airbus is an unmistakeable Graham Gouldman song, while all four members made no musical effort to disguise their identity on a 1973 cover of Da Doo Ron Ron issued under the name Grumble – it sounds straight off their debut album. The most obscure 10cc nugget here is Kev & Lol’s Hello Blinkers, written as a signature tune for Manchester club Blinkers and pressed as a promo for club members in (probably) 1970. Even the most fervent fans probably won’t own this one.
A particularly lovely inclusion is Our Jackie’s Getting Married by the great Peter Skellern, the flop follow-up to his major hit You’re A Lady. Based around an out-of-tune piano and incorporating a brass band, a sped-up choir and (eventually) Guildford Cathedral organ, Skellern weaves a very Lancastrian tale of the titular Jackie getting engaged, with soundbites from his mother (“Isn’t it smashing, I can get a new hat / And dad’ll get his suit out, just fancy that”). It’s just as romantic as the hit it followed but in an entirely different way. Those of a certain age will remember Skellern, who died in 2017, as the pianist with a ghostly voice who often appeared on television, but his work has never truly received the widespread attention it deserves. Perhaps Our Jackie’s Getting Married will prick up some ears.
There’s no shortage of great songwriters on Bubblerock. Clifford T. Ward is included with the jaunty Circus Girl. It’s one of his most charming songs but it is rarely heard, originating as it does from his unsuccessful debut album Singer-Songwriter. Bill Fay appears with a previously unreleased demo from 1972, a 1950s-styled gem called I Can’t Hide. Even Nick Drake is represented through an unlikely ska cover of Mayfair (a song he never released himself) by Millie of My Boy Lollipop fame.
Perhaps the most fun track on this set is Jon Pertwee’s Who Is the Doctor, released on Deep Purple’s label Purple in 1972. Pertwee contributes a wonderfully silly spoken-word performance over a backing that melds the Doctor Who theme tune with the boogie stomp of glam rock. For Doctor Who fans, this is a well-known but little heard curio and it is an inspired inclusion here.
Ultimately, Bubblerock Is Here To Stay! pays the greatest tribute to the era it celebrates. It shows the UK pop scene of the early 70s to be stranger, quirkier, more fun and more interesting than any radio station would have you believe.
❉ Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.
❉ Huw Thomas is a musician and writer from Radnorshire, Wales. His special interests include Northern Irish band Cruella De Ville, Cardiacs, Back to the Egg and Oh No It’s Selwyn Froggitt. He tweets as @huwareyou.
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