19 October 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 18 (Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks programme)

Have just listened to, and thoroughly recommend, "Right", Said Ted and Myles, which can be heard until October 26th on BBC Radio 7 by going to the page here, where you can even find a link to my earlier entry about the pair (it seems I constitute the "buzz").

The programme, presented by Philp Glassborow, was first broadcast in 2004 and appears to be drawn from a single interview in which Myles Rudge (lyrics), Ted Dicks (music) and Bernard Cribbins were all present, plus some additional contributions from George Martin.

But this is not going to be a review so much as a noting of points in the programme which have a bearing on this series of posts: in other words, how do these songs fit alongside those of Alan Klein and others of that era?

First of all, unlike Klein - or Bowie, for that matter, who was in beat combos before his debut album - rock'n'roll antecedents are very much what this sophisticated twosome don't got: they came from a background of writing for revue.

 Dicks had trained as an artist then went to the Guildhall School of Music. Myles Rudge was an actor who "fetched up in Salad Days" where, sometime during his four year stint, boredom pushed him into writing for radio, where he first met Ted Dicks. (Note the prestigious record label, above, for the original cast recording.)

Their future producer, George Martin, had already made comedy records with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan - such as the two in post 15, in fact. Attending a revue to assess its comedy album potential, he saw Cribbins perform a fok parody written by the pair, asked for more, and Hole in the Ground was born.

Given what Alan Klein said in the Spencer Leigh interview (here) about all the Cockney songs around at the time he wrote What a Crazy World, it's interesting to note that Cribbins, asked whether the characters in Hole in the Ground "were somehow of their era, of that time in the sixties," replies "Not particularly," seeing the song's navvy and city gent simply as ageless comic stereotypes:
It was just a contrast like black and white, up and down. And fun to do: you were given a chance to show off with a couple of voices [...] Little character sketches set to very nice tunes.
There is a case (of sorts) to be made for the song as a kind of muted social commentary, linked to the times, and the representation of the working class in the media: at the song's climax, after all, an officious member of the middle classes appears to have been murdered by the workman whose point of view we are invited to share:

It’s not there now, the ground’s all flat
And beneath it is the bloke in the bowler hat
And that’s that
But making such a case is, I admit, greatly helped by avoiding the issue of tone. A contributor to the songfacts website, here, sees it as 
a  mini satire on the perceived class division of British society [...] which was still fairly pronounced in the early 60s
but the writers themselves don't make any particular claim to satirical intent or riding in the vanguard of social change: Flanders and Swann's roughly contemporary The Gasman Cometh ("It all makes work for the working man to do") is mentioned by Philip Glassborow but not really taken up, whether by Cribbins or the others.

Instead, they place themselves within a tradition of what they call "larky" songs - a tern used throughout -  stretching from Noel Coward, Joyce Grenfell, Flanders and Swann (also produced by Martin), George Formby, Max Miller, "the early Vivian Ellis" (so probably including Me and My Dog, for all AA Milne's protestations) all the way back to patter songs and music hall songs, especially those which "tell a story, very complete, A to Z," like The Boy in the Gallery.

(The above clip from the mid sixties features Helen Shapiro singing part of the song in a film called A Little of What You Fancy, a slightly odd mix of melancholy documentary - Mark Eden wandering silently around derelict theatres - and slabs of Players Theatre performances, but well worth a watch and currently fairly easy to obtain on DVD; read more comments on the imdb website here.)

"Larky" is a term which could also apply to some Beatles songs such as When I'm Sixty Four, in which George Martin speeded up Macca's voice to get a Formby effect - and it was, incidentally, a number later recorded by Cribbins. Asked whether there were "a few flavours from Dicks and Rudge in the Beatles," Cribbins agrees, comparing A Windmill in Old Amsterdam (inspired by Dicks hearing street organs there) to Yellow Submarine: both work very well as "house numbers" for panto (the community singing at the end with songsheet).

Martin himself says that learning how to employ sound effects on the records of Sellers, Milligan and Cribbins was "great training" for Submarine, singling out the ease of working with Dicks' and Rudge's
very clever lyrics and quirky melodies, which hung together so neatly, leaving plenty of space for us to create a sound picture. All we had to do was add the right sound effects and musical arrangements.

And it seems it wasn't only Martin who was picking up a trick or two: the suggestion is made that Anthony Newley's 1962 recording That Noise (clip here) on rival label Decca was by way of an homage - to put it charitably - to Martin's work on Right Said Fred.

Regarding Chris Welch's remark in the seventies about toe-tapping whimsy being cast aside, all those present seem to accept that this particular sort of song has indeed long gone out of fashion, which Martin attributes to the rise of television:
I think the fun thing in music stopped, really, with television. I think television changed everything, because people started listening with their eyes instead of their ears, and that altered what we were doing.
A remark which presumably stems from the fact that much of Martin's early career was about capturing two of those pure radio creatures, the Goons, on record.

When Dicks and Rudge themselves are asked whether they thought the Beatles had "somehow absorbed something of the larkiniess of your songs," Ted Dicks says it's "a very moot point":
They evolved from their own background into something completely original, new and different -
But Myles Rudge interjects at this point with a comment which suddenly places the pair alongside the similarly frustrated Alan Klein, despite their different backgrounds - and, explicitly, Martin's later charges:
Where I can make a connection is that prior to our fifteen minutes of fame songs that were coming over from the States were dripping with sentiment, weren't they, and June and Moon and all that sort of thing - the thing about our songs you could say that they, that there was a raw honesty. And the same could be said, I mean as a musician, the same thing could be said about the Beatles they came from the streets of Liverpool and their stuff was really down in the streets, [aimed] at the kids and anybody.
While I believe Hole in the Ground and Right Said Fred are miniature masterpieces, I'm not sure "raw honesty" is the first phrase which would spring to mind when considering the work of Dicks and Rudge. Although the Cribbins folk song parody and Kenneth Williams' Pardon Me Sir Francis, both played in the programme, have a comic earthiness they still seem to belong to that slightly rarified pre-Beyond the Fringe world of revues (and both, indeed, may do so: we're told the Williams song,  on an album (below) otherwise newly written for Williams by the team, had been "prepared earlier").

What's the difference betwen the two approaches? Jonathan Miller summed it up by saying something to the effect that revues tended to say: "Wouldn't it be funny if ... ?" and Beyond the Fringe said: "Isn't it funny that ..." In other words, Miller's generation pointed out what was wrong with society whereas the old school shows were more interested in amusing juxtapositions and tended to inhabit a more self-referential, hermetically sealed theatrical world.

Then again, so what? The songs have bite on their own terms.

Which is just about all I have to say on the matter. Oh, except to expound my theory of boredom as the major driving force for the early British pop scene.

 Well, it was actually the theory of that honorary Goon, Eric Sykes, who once claimed boredom was the key to creativity, and that the army's generous provision of the quality explained the outpouring of talent from so many ex-servicemen like Sellers, Milligan, Secombe et al, Sykes' reasoning being that for want of anything else to do in the evenings, the violinist will practise his violin and so on.

So maybe all the artist has to do in order to tap into a wellspring of creativity is find an equivalent spirit-sapping experience. And I know everyone goes on about Hamburg as the Beatles' training ground but I seem to remember reading that Macca had a job in a factory very briefly and the group was essentially a strategy for avoiding such a brain-numbing experience again.

Perhaps not ... but I'd still like to suggest that Alan Klein's thirteen weeks of Butlins and the Rudgery-drudgery of Salad Days, not to mention an irritation with the bogus American sentiments overwhelming the charts, resulted in songs which - as Philip Glassborow says of Hole in the Ground and Right Said Fred - have "passed into the national consciousness, not just as phrases but as attitudes."

1 comment:

  1. An excellent programme, and a thoroughly complementary blog here. Well done - such dedication is commendable!