"Freak out baby - The Bee is coming!"
'Comedy is the new rock'n'roll!' was a popular journalistic cliche in the early nineties, but Peter Cook and Dudley Moore had done much to deserve such a tag almost three decades earlier. Although they came to prominence as part of the stage revue Beyond The Fringe along with the hardly degenerate Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, Cook and Moore were a lot more 'hip' than the vast majority of their peers; they hung out with pop stars and trendy actors, were able to parody youth culture and pop music in an incisive and unpatronising fashion, and even managed to score a couple of hit singles of their own. [Plug Time! This later formed part of the opening chapter of my history of comedy on BBC Radio 1, Fun At One]
First heard in the 1966 Christmas Special of their BBC TV sketch show Not Only... But Also..., and released as a single the following January, The L.S. Bumble Bee was one of the few that missed the charts; ironic, as it was by far both their most effective pop parody and best single overall.
Written for an extended sketch lampooning the then-current fervour around the Carnaby Street-centred 'Swinging London' phenomenon, The L.S. Bumblebee was intended as a parody of the exciting new 'psychedelic' sounds that were drifting out of the capital's live music venues on a swirl of paisley-patterned mist. Unlike other attempts at celebrating the scene, most notoriously Roger Miller's England Swings (not only written and sung by an American, but also labouring under the misapprehension that the most noteworthy facet of this technicolour explosion of arts and culture - which, lest we forget, "swings like a pendulum do" - was a preponderance of policemen), Cook and Moore's spoof newsreel feature showed that they had enough of an understanding of what was going on to be simultaneously excited and irritated by the whirl of media attention, and were thereby able to mine some first-rate humour from it.
Lyrically, The L.S. Bumble Bee is essentially a send-up of the decidedly unsubtle 'subtle' references to various non-prescription substances that were beginning to find their way into the lyrics of pop hits such as The Small Faces' My Mind's Eye. The psychedelic 'insect', it is claimed, allows its disciples to "hear with my knees, run with my nose, smell with my feet" and other amazing feats of altered perception, hilariously punctuated by the duo chiming in with gasps of astonishment in 'awestruck idiot' voices (particularly great in response to a mention of top far-out combo "Alf Herbert & His Marijuana Brass, with their hit waxing 'Spanish Bee'"). It's entirely possible that the chart failure of the single was down to nervous radio programmers feeling uncomfortable with its content - even without the words 'psychedelic' and 'druggy' showing up, it's pretty explicit stuff - and deciding that even despite its obvious comic intent it was a little strong to inflict on the average fan of Cliff Bennett & The Rebel Rousers.
If anything, the musical accompaniment is even further 'out'. An odd rumour has grown up over the years that the music for The L.S. Bumblebee was written and recorded by The Beatles, and given to Cook and Moore to use as they saw fit. This seems to have no basis in truth whatsoever; apart from the fact that it doesn't even sound like The Beatles, but does sound like The Dudley Moore Trio, Moore did discuss the recording session in a couple of interviews, revealing that Cook lost his voice halfway through and, more tellingly, that the song was always intended as a parody of the Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys rather than The Beatles. It's certainly possible to detect more than a hint of Brian Wilson's Psychedelic Barbershop Quartet about The L.S. Bumblebee, and given that the Beach Boys were then being hailed by the UK music press (unlike in the US, where Pet Sounds was largely ignored on release) and had a far greater influence on the paisley-shirted bandwagon-jumping hordes than any American adherents of overlong improvised blues jams ever did, it's probably better to take his word for it rather than that of the 'Beatlologists'. [It's worth pointing out here too that there's nothing in Mark Lewisohn's exhaustive history of Beatles recording sessions that could account for this story]
The backing - which, as noted before, bears some strong similarities to other Dudley Moore Trio efforts (notably the tremendous Love Me from the Bedazzled soundtrack) - is performed in a straightforward 'beat group' style, but embellished with what would soon become recognised as psychedelic hallmarks; droning organ, tons of over-the-top sound effects (including seagulls, a crying baby and a car screeching to a halt), and what sounds like somebody scraping the strings inside a piano. It's also dominated by a downbeat and mysterious melody, reminiscent of The Zombies' She's Not There, Herman's Hermits' No Milk Today, and other similar songs that probably unintentionally predicted the psychedelic sound.
In fact, The L.S. Bumble Bee did a fair amont of predicting itself. It's staggering to think how effectively they managed to nail the sound of British psychedelic pop, given that the song was written and recorded in the Autumn of 1966; before Traffic had even released Paper Sun, let alone the hallucinogenic free-for-all that followed the release of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. While hardly indicating that Cook and Moore were psychedelic cheerleaders themselves - as has been well documented elsewhere, they shared an enthusiasm for more mundane forms of intoxication - it does at least suggest that they were hanging out at the right venues and lending a keen ear to various late-night pirate radio shows.
If there is a downside to The L.S. Bumble Bee, it's that the visuals aren't anywhere near as exciting as the actual song. It's a fair bet that most viewers who weren't lucky enough to see Not Only... But Also... the first time around will have heard The L.S. Bumble Bee long before they ever got to see the Swinging London-satirising sketch that it hailed from, and doubtless will have formed tantalising mental images of Cook and Moore waving their arms around in front of flashing lights and rotating shapes whilst a line of go-go dancing girls in swirly body paint writhed behind them. Instead, in something of an anti-climax, all we get is the two of them politely lip-synching in Nehru jackets whilst pretending to hand things to each other in a factory sequence.
The b-side, punningly entitled The Bee Side, is a four and a half minute Pete & Dud dialogue that sees them "take the opportunity of these few grooves at our disposal to give you a solemn warning against the dangers of the drug traffic - this peril that lurks in teenage haunts where beat music pulses out into the night, keeping vicars awake and old ladies jumping out of their beds continuously". This takes the form of a series of case studies of respectable members of society who fell victim to the illicit thrills of the hallucinogenic experience, including a scientist previously noted for his work in the field of pouring milk on mice, and a critical assessment of artists who have drawn influence from mind-bending substances. Probably largely improvised in the studio, it does lack the structure and wild escalation of the 'proper' dialogues, but as throwaway sketches go The Bee Side is a strong effort, particularly the cautionary tale of a man left so ravaged by his experiences that he ended up believing himself to be a rake ("the only time he moves is when somebody treads on him, and he jumps up and bangs them in the eye"). It's only a pity that this was never extended into a full-blown Pete & Dud item, although how comfortable the BBC would have been with any such sketch is open to question.
Unfortunately, The L.S. Bumble Bee/The Bee Side isn't very easy to get hold of nowadays. For some peculiar reason, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's considerable discography has been not so much shabbily treated as almost completely ignored by the reissue market, with the majority of album tracks and single sides unavailable in any format. The L.S. Bumblebee itself has seen reissue as part of Acid Drops, Spacedust And Flying Saucers, a four-CD box set compilation of UK psychedelia put together by Mojo magazine, but if you already own the more obvious tracks on this admittedly well-thought out compilation and aren't that tempted by the other material - and that's assuming you're interested in the first place - it's a rather expensive way of getting hold of one rare track. Even the episode of Not Only... But Also... that it appears in is rarely glimpsed, on account of the boring legal nonsense surrounding John Lennon's guest appearance in a couple of sketches. [We still don't have a Cook & Moore box set, nor indeed any repeats of the Lennon-featuring Not Only... But Also...; yeah, cheers Yoko]
But if you still want to fly to the land where my hand can see and my eyes can walk and the mountain talks to me, and are happy to risk the dangers of keeping vicars awake and old ladies jumping out of their beds continuously, both tracks can be heard at the brilliant Peter Cook fan site The Establishment. [Or you can watch the YouTube video below...!]