Diggin' The Dankworths

George Martin. Joe Meek. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Nowadays you'll find cheerleaders for just about every once-overlooked Brit-based sonic pioneer of the pre-Rubber Soul era, and rightly so. Even Freddie Phillips and his Trumptonshire-traversing hammer-ons, though in fairness you'll probably actually have to read something written by me to find that.

But who's singing - doubtless with over-elaborate vocal extemporisation - the praises of Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine? Well, given that the general public's entire image of them seems to be based on The Two Ronnies impersonating them every single week with jokes seemingly based on two other performers altogether, probably very few people. So it's time to put a stop to that nonsense. Before they settled comfortably and deservedly into middle-bit-of-Pebble-Mill-At-One ubiquity, Johnny and Cleo were amongst the first to mess around with concept albums, global rhythms, pre-synthesiser electronic keyboards, sound effects, multimedia, reverb, spoken word comedy bits and much more besides, most of it in glorious mono to boot. So join me as we take a stroll through some of the highlights of their jaw-droppingly prolific early output, all of which is almost as exciting as The Exciting Mr. Fitch himself...

Experiments With Mice (1956)

One of George Martin's first productions, as Johnny reads out his absurdist Beat Poetry reworking of the saga of the Three Blind Mice, relocated to a recording studio and zigzagging in and out of different Modern and Trad Jazz styles as they try to avoid being assailed by a 'cat'. Packed with sound-effects and verbal and musical in-jokes, and it's not hard to see how George got from here to being so creatively efficient in the studio with those Beatle Boys. Back in the days when putting together a good 7" single was an infinitely bigger deal than even thinking about releasing an album, this climbed to Number Seven. Stitch that, 'Murs'.

Soundtrack Music From 'The Criminal' (1960)

A no-holds-barred look at prison life starring Stanley Baker as an inveterate pilferer with a penchant for racecourse cash boxes should usually call for frenetic Crime Jazz, and that's exactly what we get here with the likes of the swaggering Riverside Stomp and the alarmingly haphazard Freedom Walk. Those in search of the full experience will also be wanting Cleo's moody theme song Thieving Boy, with remorse-lust lyrics co-penned by none other than Alun Owen, which was released as a standalone single backed by Let's Slip Away, her more wistful and optimistic curtain-raiser for the same year's big-screen version of Saturday Night And Sunday Morning. It's also worth noting that this soundtrack dates from Dudley Moore's brief spell with the Johnny Dankworth Big Band, which doubtless proved a source of great amusement to Peter Cook.

African Waltz (1961)

The EP of the Big Pop Hit, featuring not just the shrill 3/4 foot-twisting top ten smash title track, but also percussion-hefty Mod dancefloor filler Chano, swaggering Soul Jazz slow-groover Moanin', and the original version of the original theme tune from Honor Blackman era The Avengers. Although it's hardly on the same level as Laurie Johnson's subsequent more celebrated Steed-accompaniment (though, to be fair, few TV themes actually are), only the most blinkeredly cloth-eared of Popular Beat Music-averse Archive TV obsessives could realistically deride it as a load of old rubbish. And unfortunately, there are a lot of them out there. Still, some decidedly more funky types clearly thought it was something approaching lost fabness...

What The Dickens! (1963)

With the aid of an all-star horn-honkin' line-up including Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott, Johnny takes an impressionistic instrumental trip through the collected works of Charles Dickens, improvising across the pages of The Pickwick Papers, The Old Curiosity Shop, Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield, though sadly there was no accompanying EP based on Sketches By Boz. Inspired by the 'feel' of the source novels, it's like the soundtrack to some sadly non-existent Swinging Sixties-era Dickens biopic, with highlights including catchy street-saunter Little Nell, and Pickwick Club, which is so warm and quirky that you can just imagine Tupman and Snodgrass taking their boots off in front of a roaring fire with hilarious social faux pas consequences. It's probably more useful than the average A-Level Study Guide too.

Shakespeare And All That Jazz (1964)

Not to be outdone, Cleo also turned her hand to the exciting new world of Literary-Jazz crossover, and came up with an entire album's worth of adaptations of Iambic Pentameter into Iam-bee-ba-ba-doo-bah-be-dah-dic Penta-mah-da-doo-da-de-dam-eter. The Bard may only have been the fifth greatest wordsmith of history (after Dickens, Douglas Adams, PG Wodehouse and Richard 'Skinhead Escapes' Allen), but this is every bit a worthy companion piece to What The Dickens!, with highlights including the surprisingly riqsue (well, by 1964 standards) It Was A Lover And Her Lass, Scottish Play-summarising breathy Jazz Cellar epic Dunsinane Blues, and the suitably chilly Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind. Much beloved of English teachers desperate to prove to their charges that they were still 'with it'.

Beefeaters (1964)

Originally composed and recorded as the theme for long-forgotten ITV X Factor template Search For A Star, a talent show that reportedly discovered future Doctor Who companion Wendy Padbury, this wild jazz stomper was later picked up as theme music by a certain Pirate Radio DJ, and - with the judicious addition of 'barks' from Arnold The Dog - subsequently became, as over-literal hern-ing bores will never tire of pointing out to you, technically the actual first record heard on Radio 1. Which makes it something of a weird coincidence that the not-that-dissimilar b-side was entitled Down A Tone.

Sands Of The Kalahari (1965)

Only two tracks were released from the soundtrack to cinema's most edge-of-the-seat baboon-plagued desert trek, but what tracks they were. The massive-sounding yet inappropriately jaunty title theme waltz is pretty much the musical embodiment of a time when British Cinema could do no wrong, while the moodier and more reflective flip Night Thoughts showed up in a key scene but was perhaps still, erm, a little too jaunty for the on-screen action. You'll find the movie itself on Film4 every couple of minutes, but unfortunately there's still no sign of a release for the full score.

Little Boat (1965)

More 45-only action (though the a-side later appeared on the fabulously 'Pipe Down, Blokes'-themed album Woman Talk, which you can see the fantastic cover of below); Cleo's chart-scraping translation of Bossa Nova favourite O Barquinho is fab enough, but it's the b-side you should really look out for, with its percussion-rattling piano-smashing ode to the charms of some heart-fluttering cocktail-swilling ski-jumping Jeff Winger-esque aesthete who apparently has his own personal brass band to fanfare his entrance, but not any tangible hint of a first name. All in all, not altogether surprising that this didn't make it to the album...

The Zodiac Variations (1965)

While Cleo was musing on gender-politic rumblings, Johnny got a bit cosmic with this set of twelve impressionistic Late Night BBC2-friendly instrumentals based on the purported characteristics of the dozen chronological subdivisions of everyone's favourite dupe-fleecing hokum. From his musical findings, we can deduce that while Librans like to chill out with a hefty book and a good strong coffee, Aquarians are rather more fond of doing a dance in front of a mirror with a glittery top hat and cane. Though I would say that, being a Taurus. TV's Catweazle will mayhap be pleased to hear that this rotating plastic demon also includes a 'thirteenth' star sign sign in the form of ecliptic-straddling medley Way With The Stars.

The Idol (1966)

We're heading into the sadly all-too-brief Golden Age of Dankworth/Laine film soundtracks now, with this obscure number starring Michael Parks as a pranksterism-friendly hip'n'happenin' art student with a 'thing' for whatever they called MILFs in 'old money', and John Leyton as a disapproving best friend/son. Not quite the lost classic that it might sound, if we're being honest about it, but the frug-tastic party scene-friendly musical contributions deserve a bit more exposure than the film itself.

Modesty Blaise (1966)

She'll turn your head, though she might use a judo hold! One of cinema's most glorious psychedelic messes scorches the projector when Monica Vitti puts in an impenetrably-accented turn as the pulp paperback spy as she shags, hallucinates and assassinates her way across Europe, in pursuit of some stolen diamonds that haven't actually been stolen yet. Nosebleed-inducing pop-art mayhem with a soundtrack to match, from the ridiculously camp and overblown title song featuring the vocal talents of long-forgotten pop hopefuls David And Jonathan, to the overdriven wasp-trapped-in-Farfisa thrills of The Willie Waltz. The sort of film that can nowadays get you No-Platformed for liking it, though in mitigation the b-side of the single version of the main theme features the more politically acceptable strains of the swaggering vibe-heavy blare that introduced The Frost Report, the perfect accompaniment to David Frost holding up a microphone to a Keep Left sign and doing a 'sceptical' face.

Fathom (1967)

And if you weren't quite tutting enough yet, get a load of Raquel Welch as a military skydiver in an impressively cantilevered lime green bikini, trying to recover a stolen nuclear detonator whilst dodging a bull intent on stealing her bra, and Richard Briers occasionally saying some lines in the background. This all a tad more subdued, sultry and samba-tinged than the walloping Modesty Blaise score, but somehow you get the impression that the music wasn't really one of the most prominent points here.

The $1,000,000 Collection (1967)

It wasn't just pop that went a bit psychedelic over the summer of 1967, and here Johnny treats us to a series of Prog Jazz-anticipating 'sound paintings' inspired by his favourite pieces of pricey modern art. It's a strangely under-acknowledged fact that the UK Jazz community were the most enthusiastic and profligate patrons of the pop artists, op artists and photorealists, and Johnny and Cleo actually owned Derrick Greaves' Two Piece Flower, as seen on the album's cover and sketched out here in a catchy experiment with plucked strings. Also well worthy of their purported price tag are the kaleidoscopic sleighbell-underpinned frost-on-the-windows salute to Thomas Kinkade's greetings card-esque Winter Scene, and a Late Night Line-Up-evoking beatnik jive rumination on Modigliani's Little Girl In Blue, which is certainly more cheerful than her miseryguts expression should warrant.

Off Duty! (1969)

The Prog Jazz leanings continue with an album of covers of recent genre favourites including Charlie Barnett's Skyliner and Gerry Mulligan's Bernie's Tune, alongside an alarming reworking of African Waltz and the blaring Dankworth-composed American sitcom theme-esque mini-suite title track. Also on board is a seriously funky reworking of Holloway House, an early effort from little-known piano-pounding jazz trio leader Laurie Holloway, later to furnish many an ITV Saturday Night Light Entertainment show with a near-identical theme boasting the exact same eight-note ending as each other.

Portrait (1971)

Cleo treats us to interpretations of a handful of her recent soul and jazz favourites, amongst them a soaring rampage through Aquarius, a peculiar bit of architectural satire on Model Cities Programme, a reworking of Bossa Palma Nova from the Fathom soundtrack, and best of all, a rip-roaring blast through Northern Soul stomper Night Owl. Snorted at by purists, apparently, presumably while spinning round and not having much imagination.

Lifeline (1973)

We're now in proper full-on Test Card Funk territory as wah-wah guitars and slap bass wallop their way across the stereo mix, and the entire second side taken up with some sort of suprious Journey To The Shopping Centre Of The Earth-style musical narrative, which is really just an excuse to indulge in some seriously heavy extended grooves. Meanwhile, over on the first side you'll find Johnny's legendary theme for Tomorrow's World, a tune so aware of its own brilliance that it takes an entire three opening fanfares and a Hammond Organ voluntary before it sees fit to properly get going. Also worthy of note is the accompanying non-LP single Bitter Lemons, featuring a wonky Sly Stone-inspired groove underpinning some abrasive trumpet that appears to be being played underwater.

Movies 'N Me (1974)

An updated re-recorded rifle through Johnny's soundtrack back catalogue, taking in extracts from deleriously obscure sixties Brit Movies like Darling, The Servant, Return From The Ashes and more, including the first ever outing for his main title for controversial gorilla suit-facilitated mental breakdown comedy Morgan: A Suitable Case For Treatment, sadly still not available in its original form (though the contemporaneous cover by Manfred Mann's Mike Vickers is well worth checking out). The break-festooned whipped-up-tempo take on Modesty Blaise was later sampled by Gorillaz, but the real highlight is Look Stranger, his inappropriately funky theme for BBC2's long series of grainy ruralist-pluralist documentary films about beardy blokes in coastal towns lamenting how they don't make them new-fangled fishing nets like they used to or something. Who'd have thought it? For a similar discrepancy between theme music and on-screen action, see Telford's Change, released as a single by BBC Records And Tapes around this time (and also covered in Top Of The Box!).


Johnny's utterly bonkers theme from early seventies ITV children's show The Enchanted House, a maddeningly catchy yet disconcertingly topsy-turvy tune welded to a wall of tuned percussion. You can read more about The Enchanted House in my book Not On Your Telly, but the show itself hasn't been seen anywhere since the early eighties, and even the trebly recording of the theme that was on YouTube seems to have disappeared now...