Friday, 7 September 2012

Piggy Bank Love or A Babel of Green Shields

This Bonzos track hasn't attracted much attention - perhaps not helped by coming immediately before I'm Bored on the Gorilla album. But it's a good 'un, I think, and worth consideration here.

When I first heard it I quite wasn't sure where to place it. Who or what was it parodying, precisely? I think I've seen the Beach Boys mentioned somewhere, presumably because of the high voices, but it seems more like Penny Lane territory - though The Equestrian Statue does that more comprehensively.

Perhaps its main interest is as a gently mocking social commentary of sorts. The idea is easy to grasp: the suitor will put up with his bride-to-be's scrimping and saving for her dream of domestic paradise, will play the game on the big day, smiling for the camera - provided she is freer with at least one thing. (Though I'm not quite sure whether he wishes her to put out in the meantime or whether the guarantee of pleasures to come is enough.)

It's not the most complex lyric, although there is one section which is difficult to pick up when heard rather than read:
She dreams of cheap land, children,
Towels ...
At least I heard what sounded like "cheap and cheerful towels" - which goes with the Green Shield stamps, so it made sense. But maybe the point is that the things in her cosy vision are of equal value to her, and so come tumbling out, undifferentiated, in the lyric:
She dreams of cheap land, children,
Towels labeled his and hers
Plaster ducks in pairs
Flying up the stairs

Hmm ... are those ducks a cliche too far? Would they have been perceived slightly differently in the late sixties? I'm not sure, although "flying up the stairs" is a nice touch, suggesting they're practically alive, Disney-style, in her eyes - and "pairs" may even suggest she sees them united in wedded bliss themselves, wafting their way to their own duck version of the paradise which eventually awaits her up those stairs. And the detail
We'll make her mother happy
With tinted photographs
Of our wedding day
is a pleasing one too. The song is not a searing indictment of marriage, exactly, but it is a neat expression of differing male and female attitudes towards marriage which recalls films like A Kind of Loving and is not far removed from Thelma and Bob in the (later) revival of The Likely Lads.

I don't have sleevenotes to check, but from what I've seen online this is an Innes composition, not an Innes/Stanshall collaboration, which does make sense: there are no surreal elements a la My Pink Half of the Drainpipe. But it does sound like Viv Stanshall taking that weedy, high-pitched lead, possibly with Neil Innes doing the "some of" bit at the end. And the throbbing sax is clearly the male part (so to speak), the desire underlying the fiance's apparent subjugation throughout the song.

At which point I thought I'd exhausted all I had to say until I began looking up "Greenshield library." I thought this referred to Green Shield stamps, and vaguely thought that she must have been part of some fanatical group of marriage-minded women encouraging each other to save up these precious gift-procuring tokens.

But Boots the chemists used to run libraries and there would be a sticker in the form of a green shield affixed to their books:

 You can read more about Boots libraries here, but the key details are:
A green shield in the window of the store indicated that it was a branch with a library. The books were bound specifically for Boots with a green Boots shield on the front [which] was crossed through when the books were sold.

Boots libraries flourished in the days before council-run libraries were of a high standard (time for a comeback?), and advertisements made a point of referring to the (physical) cleanliness of their books, which suggests that whatever stock most councils had was less than pristine.

A Boots library famously featured in the film Brief Encounter (who, after all, could imagine Celia Johnson soiling her hands with some grubby state-provided tome?) but I didn't realise that Boots libraries were still operating well into the sixties, though they were starting to be phased out by then:
Paperbacks were becoming cheaper & council run libraries were starting to emerge. There was also pressure to use the shop space for more profitable purposes. The last branch closed in February 1966.
So Piggy Bank Love was ever so slightly out of date by the time Gorilla appeared, but "Greenshield library" would have been a reference the original purchasers of the album would probably have understood.

The other possibility is that Neil Innes intended a conflation of the two meanings, the hoarding of Green Shield stamps testament to her fanaticism about saving, the Boots Library job indicative of her wish to be surrounded by clean objects ...

No, doesn't really convince me either. Boots Library it is, then, with the probable association of cleanliness, which would tie in with the neatness of his and hers towels: don't pass me any of your nasty germs, thank you very much.

Interesting to note that it's also where Thelma Chambers, the future Mrs Ferris, worked, Well, no, not in a Boots library, but you can't imagine she would allow any tainted tomes to remain in circulation for long.

The other thing to consider is Neil Innes' attitude to all this. The mockery is gentle: the male seems to be goodhumouredly putting up with her pretentions and the need to play a part ("Smile all day, that's okay"). It's not unlike Jake Thackray's song Lah-Di-Dah, although one major difference is that Thackray lists the humiliations the swain must suffer in far greater detail, such as the ordeal of conversing with his father-inlaw:
I'll be polite to your daddy,
Frightfully lah-di-dah,
Although he always bores me to my boots.
(I love you very much.)
And so I won't boo and hiss
When he starts to reminisce
I won't drop off, I won't flare up;
The runs he used to score
And how he won the war, cross my heart,
But I'll have to grit me teeth when he goes on about his rupture.
And while the man in Piggy Bank Love is undoubtedly bustin' a gut for his nookie, there is no clear indication otherwise of his attitude to the woman he is about to marry. Lah-Di-Dah ends with the promise of nookie, but the modification of the recurrent line "I love you very much" suggests tenderness too:
When we're off on our own
No more lah-di-bloody-dah
I promise, we just won't have the time
We won't have time for such,
Such fancy pantomimes.
(I'll love you far too much.) 
So what am I saying, then? That Thackray's is the better song? No, they just have different strengths. Lah-Di-Dah is more complex lyrically, but Piggy Bank Love's appeal is partly in the production: it is a proper sixties pop number, with effete harmonising in the middle, and extra bite provided by the saxophone, hinting at rawer emotions, frustrations, just below the surface of the antiseptic dream of order and happiness. And you could argue that means that the tension between what the two of them expect doesn't need to be further explored in the lyrics.Possibly. Alternatively, you could argue it's slightly underwritten.

But what is, I think, fairly definite is that Piggy Bank Love's production is a better fit for the song than Lah-Di-Dah's. You can find acoustic versions of Lah-Di-Dah on youtube but the original recording almost swamped Jake Thackray in strings. Ralph McTell has said that such arrangements probably inhibited Jake's singing, but the effect on the listener is of being browbeaten: it's harder to enjoy the comic details when they are being underlined as we go along. To end, that original studio recording of Lah-Di-Dah and, finally, Piggy Bank Love itself.

Lyrics and chords for Piggy Bank Love here. Ditto Lah-Di-Dah here. Jake Thackray appeared on The Innes Book of Records singing On Again! On Again!; you can see it here.

Oh, and while Bonzos-minded, I note that "Legs" Larry Smith is to be Spencer Leigh's guest on On the Beat on Saturday 13th October 6pm, findable thereafter on BBC iplayer for one week.

The last time I heard Mr Smith being interviewed was around the late seventies on Radio Clyde in the middle of the night. He had released a cover of Springtime for Hitler and it was the subject of some drunken discussion on Jim Waugh's Nighthawk show - not that Mr Waugh had imbibed; there was another guest who was getting quite heated about it, and there followed one of those circular non-debates, so  characteristic of dwellers in the Kingdom of Wine, about the precise meaning of "pastiche" and whether that word was being used to excuse offence. The kind of interview/discussion, in other words, which wouldn't have passed muster in the daytime but whose pointless repetition seemed entirely suited to the wee small hours. I suspect the On the Beat will be more staid - unless, by an incredible coincidence, that same belligerent other guest on the Nighthawk programme has also been invited.

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