❉ This set is an audio time capsule of a world before the sea change comes, writes Chris Browning.
“This box set aims to contextualise the records that George Martin produced before he met the Beatles and how that would help craft the music that the band would revolutionise popular culture with forever. And it does so brilliantly.”
First, a disclaimer: I was a very weird teenager. I know a lot of teenagers are weird, because it’s a time of your life where you feel nothing makes any sense, but even by the standards of teenage weirdness I was very, very weird. I was very bullied, a not-quite scholarship boy at an all boys private school, my parents were incredibly religious and I had undiagnosed autism. So I was, if you like, prime material for a weird adolescence.
One of the weirdest things I believed was that somehow the fact my bullies liked pop music meant that said music was somehow responsible for their bullying of me. This was mainly based around the fact that my worst bully, a full-blown psychopath who I had run-ins with for ten solid years, was utterly obsessed with the Smiths and Morrissey. And because he kind of dressed like Morrissey, with the quiff and everything, I assumed that somehow this Smiths lot must be part of the cause of him being so utterly shit to me all the time. So I went on a pop strike. I was about eight, watching Top of the Pops and precociously/insanely declared to my mum that these modern pop songs were wasting perfectly good notes and melodies on nonsense and just decided there and then to avoid the whole shebang.
What followed was about nine solid years of listening purely to the following things: classical music, early sixties records, jazz (especially dixie revival, which handily sounded like the good early jazz records of Louis Armstrong et al but without the hint of danger and heady exoticism) and lots and lots of novelty records. My favourite records as a fifteen-year-old would have been by Spike Jones, Flanders and Swann, Gerard Hoffnung, The Pasadena Roof Orchestra, the Goons, Stan Freberg, Edvard Grieg and Georges Bizet (with a bit of Doctor Who soundtracks thrown in as a contemporary bit of spice). The music taste of a madman.
Anyway I say all this because, quite frankly, George Martin: A Painter In Sound – Pre-Beatles Productions & Classical Influences was designed for that madman. My dormant fifteen-year-old, sulking that I now listen to modern beat ensembles and whatnot would be overjoyed by it. The general theme is to contextualise the records that George Martin produced before he met the Beatles and how that would help craft the music that the band would revolutionise popular culture with forever. And it does so brilliantly. But it’s also my teenage music taste in all its ramshackle glory.
I’ll zip around the box set a bit, so strap in. Let’s start with my own personal teenage equivalent to the Beatles, the Goons. I was introduced by my dad on Christmas Day 1986, a wide eyed ten-year-old immediately bamboozled by the volume of gags, puns and ridiculousness pouring from Spike Milligan, and brought to life by him, Sellers and Secombe. There’s A LOT of Goon related material on this, and already you can see why they were such an influence on the Beatles. Spike would make absurd demanding requests of his producers, and they would deliver – is there that much difference from Spike asking for a “sound effect of two lions walking away, bumping against each other. If you can’t get two lions, two hippos will do” and Lennon asking for Tomorrow Never Knows to sound like it was being chanted by a thousand Tibetan monks?
There’s a whole Goon Show episode here, Tales of Men’s Shirts, albeit with the necessary buffers of the BBC’s own Louis Prima, Ray Ellington, and the harmonica stylings of Max “Conk” Geldray edited out. These edits have always slightly blunted the effect of the episodes because Milligan’s ideas were so manic and full on that a couple of minutes of breathing space allows you to recover for the next onslaught. There’s also the entirety of Bridge Over the River Wye, a slightly stilted collaboration between Sellers & Milligan and Peter Cook & Jonathan Miller, which never quite works because of the absence of the studio audience. I have a lot of fondness for this record, mainly because my late and very lamented Latin teacher (yes, I was that boy) Mr Vogel taped it for me and I still have his annotated version in my collection.
Harry Secombe is the only Goon not otherwise represented here, probably because Secombe’s solo work was almost entirely his usual light operatic fare. Sellers’ infamous duet with Sophia Loren is here, as is his collaboration with Fred Flange (aka Matt Monro), but Sellers’ greatest ON THIS is his record with Irene Handl. Handl seems to bring the best out of Sellers and Shadows on the Grass is a total joy.
Milligan is represented by Sewers of the Strand and the glorious You Gotta Go Oww! (sung as Count Jim Moriaty), backed by the Alberts who are the bridge between the Temperance Seven and the Bonzos. Milligan and Sellers collaborate on the fantastically ramshackle Unchained Melody (mostly “sung” as Bluebottle), but I am personally very glad that the occasionally forgotten Goon, Michael Bentine, gets a moment here too, with Train Commercial: The Astronauts.
As much as Milligan revolutionised comedy in the fifties, Beyond the Fringe did the same in the sixties. There’s a healthy clump of extracts from the shows here, albeit somewhat disappointingly not including any of Dudley Moore’s musical contributions (I’d have plumped for Little Miss Britten, which is a masterpiece). We also have comedy tunes from the recently-departed national treasure Bernard Cribbins (although, again I’d have contributed one of his rare excursions into straight ballads, the beautiful My Resistance is Low.) There’s also some “comedy” from Peter Ustinov, who for me is an anathema to everything I find funny in this world. Not even a genius like George Martin can make these self-indulgent pieces raise anything less than rising fury in me.
Flanders and Swann are represented as themselves and with the light operatic version of The Hippopotamus Song by Ian Wallace. The originals are obviously the best, and the collection nicely combines the dafter songs with The Armadillo which has one of Swann’s loveliest and most melancholy melodies. Flanders is so often the focus of the duo because as a lyricist he was frankly a genius, but Swann’s music has always been my favourite thing about the double act because it’s unobtrusive to the gags, but also has a lovely British strain of melancholy to it. The Slow Train is genuinely one of the saddest and most perfect things ever recorded.
The rest of the box set falls into either classical or light music/early forms of the pop song. I was particularly taken with Kenneth McKellar’s version of what is most famously known as the opening song for the Wicker Man, suggesting a somewhat endearingly staid fifties version with Diana Dors in the Britt Ekland role and Lionel Jeffries as Howie. Basil Kirchin is here in his earlier big band form, Bert Weedon tries his hand at doing Les Paul, Ron Goodwin contributes some not very skiffly skiffle and the peerless theme to the Margaret Rutherford Marple movies and Frank Chacksfield`s Tunesmiths do a glorious version of Little Red Monkey, which I mainly know from the novelty version performed by the Take It From Here cast (this version is much, much better). There’s a handful of Temperance Seven songs too, who I as a teenager considered the coolest band going.
We also have both sides of the Ray Cathode single, George Martin’s collaboration with Maddalena Fagandini of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Time Beat sounds like that most beautiful thing, a British Esquivel, while the B-side – Waltz in Orbit – is very much a snapshot of the sort of area that the Radiophonic Workshop would take, but with a smidgeon more pop than we normally would expect. There’s also a disc of his classical music productions, which are absolutely beautiful and completely makes sense of his arrangements for the Beatles. This was a man who was clearly as able to work with session musicians as he was demanding geniuses such as Spike Milligan.
The opening of John Schlesinger’s 1963 film of Billy Liar opens with the camera crawling around Bradford of the early sixties to the sounds of British radio of the era. The music includes pop, light jazz, light classical and is an amazing sonic snapshot of the world in which Billy Fisher lives and struggles to exist within. It’s one of my favourite moments of British cinema ever, and this box set really feels like it fulfils the same sort of territory – an audio time capsule of a world before the sea change comes. The most astonishing thing is that George Martin managed to mould both the music before and the revolution itself. If nothing else this record makes you realise that if you just focus on his achievements with the Beatles, you’re missing some beautiful, crazy, glorious records.
❉ Various Artists: “George Martin: A Painter In Sound – Pre-Beatles Productions & Classical Influences” (El Records ACME366CDX) was released 16 December 2022 from Cherry Red Records, RRP £20.99.
❉ Chris Browning is a librarian but writes and draws comics and other strange things to keep himself out of trouble: he can be found on Twitter as @commonswings but be warned he does spend a lot of time posting photos of his cats.