❉ Huw Thomas takes a trip to toytown – a splendid time is guaranteed for all.
Did Cliff Richard ever go psychedelic? No, but he went toytown.
Forget LSD; in 1967, British pop went barmy for earnest character songs and Salvation Army band skiffle beats. The Beatles’ material about childhood streets and lonely people was hugely influential on scores of young musicians, some of whom – Nirvana, Blossom Toes, Kaleidoscope – embraced a tweeness that firmly set the British arm of psychedelia apart from the American variety. Cliff was one of many respectable stars who embraced the thin-end of the multicoloured wedge: fresh from panto with Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd, he recorded the decidedly oompah-oompah The Day I Met Marie while Sandie Shaw, barefoot and tiptoe, stoically took the schlager-styled Puppet on a String to Eurovision success. Some young upstarts, like David Bowie, turned their back on rock music altogether in favour of Anthony Newley and tuba.
Others – Kenny Everett, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band – had a good laugh about it. This music, informed by Edwardiana and music hall but not necessarily psychedelics, was dubbed “toytown” in the internet era and has long deserved official recognition as one of those posthumous sub-genres like sunshine pop and sophisti-pop. Now, Cherry Red imprint Grapefruit have issued the first-ever legitimate collection, Climb Aboard My Roundabout! The British Toytown Sound 1967-1974, and some of the track titles describe this music better than anything I could write – Mrs. Murphy’s Budgerigar, Uptight Basil, Mister White’s White Flying Machine, Lavender Popcorn.
As the first official collection of a sub-genre most have never heard of, Climb Aboard My Roundabout! has something to prove. Compiler David Wells was a child of the 1960s and his instincts are our guide. He considers toytown’s catalyst to be Penny Lane, with its dayglo arrangement and admittance of ordinary folk – the barber, banker, fireman and nurse – into pop parlance. Many of the tracks across this set’s three discs bear the influence out; the irresistible plinky-plonk rhythm turns up in Dave Christie’s Love and the Brass Band, Jigaw’s Mr. Job and the moody It’s the Best Seaside in the World by Frabjoy & Runcible Spoon – Godley and Creme to you and me.
There is a blueprint for this set in A Trip to Toytown, a popular unofficial compilation that has circulated online for years. Many of its standout tracks, such as Turquoise’s Tales of Flossie Fillett, Timothy Blue’s Room at the Top of the Stairs and Octopus’s gorgeous Phoebe’s Flower Shop, appear here. There are naturally some omissions such as Billy J Kramer’s Town of Tuxley Toymaker and Peter Lee Stirling’s Goodbye Thimble Mill Lane, but the scope of Climb Aboard My Roundabout! is likely to impress any fans of the bootleg.
One of the key figures in this set is Mark Wirtz, the Abbey Road auteur who built an aural Trumptonshire through his Teenage Opera concept. Several highlights are from the ultimately aborted project, including the Keith West hit Excerpt From “A Teenage Opera” and a never-before-released full version of stomper What’s Good for the Goose. (For more on Teenage Opera, click thru to check out We Are Cult’s interview with Keith West from 2021 – Ed.) The set also showcases the work of other studio town planners such as Jeff Lynne and John Carter. Lynne’s The Skeleton and the Roundabout gives this release its title and the arrangement leaves no doubt that he and his Idle Race bandmates were fans of The Magic Roundabout. The children’s television connotations continue with Carter’s Time to Go Home, a grown-up’s take on the closing theme from Andy Pandy.
Is all of this a bit sickly? Absolutely not. Climb Aboard My Roundabout! is expertly sequenced and the productions are often as ramshackle as they are sugary. Close your eyes and you’re watching not a technicolour dance sequence but a murky film insert. In true fairy tale fashion, many of these songs are deceptively sweet. Take Ice Cream Man by Kidrock, which combines a delectable arrangement (cellos, twinkling bells, singing schoolchildren) with an arguably questionable lyric (“Waiting in the dark outside the park in his yellow cart / all the little children leaving school see the ice cream man”).
John Pantry’s affecting Glasshouse Green, Splinter Red sounds like a dainty Bee Gees-type gallivant but even the Gibbs never sang about the death of a lonely gardener (“Once he dreamed and now he’s dead / glasshouse green, splinter red”). Similarly dark is The Bitter Thoughts of Little Jane by Timon, about the violent intentions of a forgotten kid. It’s a wonderful song, even if Timon sings a bit like lugubrious Jake Bugg. Then there’s Dave Matthews’ Uncle Henry’s Magic Garden, which really spoils the birthday party – it concerns a child murderer.
It is perhaps the tracks most removed from the rock scene that really mark this collection out. Selections like Gilbert O’Sullivan’s delightful Mr. Moody’s Garden, a favourite on Kenny Everett’s Radio 1 show, have more to do with Watch with Mother than rock & roll and prove the usefulness of toytown as a term. Everett’s own And Now for a Little Train Number is a splendiferous thing, a regal ode to trainspotting. Uncle Arthur, from the David Bowie album that doesn’t get invited to boxsets, sounds about as far from the UFO and Marquee as you can get. The failure of Bowie’s debut album is frequently attributed to it being unleashed on the public at the same time as Sgt. Pepper, as if two albums couldn’t be successful at once. Uncle Arthur’s inclusion on Climb Aboard My Roundabout! not only demonstrates that Bowie wasn’t alone in his pursuit of the twee and homespun, but also that he was willing to go further than most. Another Bowie song, the Venus in Furs-inspired Toy Soldier by the Riot Squad, fits the toytown remit less comfortably despite its title. (For more on Toy Soldier and David Bowie’s other “slipped discs”, click thru to read this We Are Cult piece from 2017 – Ed.)
There are some selections on this set I wouldn’t personally consider among the most representative of the toytown sound, but saying that almost feels comical. It’s slippery to quantify what is and isn’t toytown; after all, it’s all in the mind, you know. There are plenty of welcome surprises; Ambrose Slade’s Knocking Nails into My House, written by one Jeff Lynne, could hardly be described as delicate, but that Penny Lane-style skip beat and vertical melody make it a worthy inclusion. Cliff Richard, by the way, doesn’t feature, but his mates the Shadows do with Dear Old Mrs. Bell, a typical “poor old pensioner” song of the era (see also: Manfred Mann’s Harry the One-Man Band, Tomorrow’s Colonel Brown, Barry Booth’s Vera Lamonte).
Ultimately, Climb Aboard My Roundabout! The British Toytown Sound 1967-1974 might be Grapefruit’s most enjoyable boxset yet. Almost everything here sounds like it could play over the end credits of Here Come the Double Deckers! – and that’s a great thing! There’s certainly scope for a sequel, perhaps incorporating the likes of Freddie and the Dreamers and Trevor Billmuss. For now, this is a joyful collection for those who like their pop quaint, twee and scooped out of a jar by Aubrey Woods in a bowtie. All aboard!
❉ “Climb Aboard My Roundabout! The British Toytown Sound 1967-1974” (Grapefruit CRSEGBOX119) was released by Cherry Red Group, 28 October 2022. Click this affiliate link to order and help out We Are Cult at no extra cost!
❉ 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.