When The Levity Breaks

Whatever innovations the emergence of 'serious' rock in the late sixties may have brought with it, they certainly didn't include an abundance of zany knockabout slapstick horseplay.

Back when pretty much everything in the charts was still seen as 'pop', 'pop' itself was in turn still largely seen - at least in the UK - as essentially an offshoot of Light Entertainment. Many of the biggest pop acts - including, at least initially, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones - actually still played the variety circuit, and most fancied themselves as 'all round' entertainers who could raise a chortle as easily and efficiently as they could inspire a dance craze. Even beyond the more overtly comedic likes of Freddie And The Dreamers and The Temperance Seven, you will still find a far broader vein of humour running through the average sixties popular beat combo's discography than you would do for any randomly selected act at pretty much any point since then.

The Beatles, of course, treated almost every appearance they made as an excuse to make with the sarcastic wit and surrealist interchanges, while The Kinks rightly considered themselves to be every bit the equal of the stars of the 'satire boom'. The Move, The Who, The Hollies, The Small Faces, Manfred Mann, Lulu and many, many others routinely filled out their albums and b-sides - and sometimes even their a-sides - with out and out tomfoolery. Jimi Hendrix apologised for long solos in his lyrics, recorded humorous outer space travelogues for b-sides, and once told Neil Innes that he believed that he and The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band were 'doing the same thing'. David Bowie tried to make his name with a fairly notorious bit of speeded-up silliness, while Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd were never a couple of extended improvisations away from half-chortled whimsy about scarecrows and gnomes. And was there ever an entirely serious Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky Mick And Tich record? From Cilla Black and Herman's Hermits to The Waltham Green East Wapping Carpet Cleaning Rodent And Boggit Extermination Association, everyone had their novelty songs, their comedy routines and their jokey accents, and if we tried to list every single slapstick caper film featuring a sixties UK pop act we'd be here all day. And probably still not get them all. Even The Dave Clark Five might have cracked a smile once or twice.

It would be a mistake to say that the arrival of more 'serious' rock did away with humour completely. You'll find quips, wordplay and situationist musical pranks aplenty on any given Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin album, to name but two, but the difference by now was that they almost uniformly traded in subtle and sophisticated humour that you had to be looking for to find. In fairness, a fair few of the leading lights of Prog Rock had been plying their trade in unsuccessful beat bands since the mid-sixties and may well have got all of that out of their system by then; Ritchie Blackmore, for example, was probably in no hurry to repeat the Joe Meek-instigated publicity stunt tomfoolery he'd endured as a member of The Outlaws. In addition to that, the Glam Rockers had already adopted the more visual elements of pop-slanted humour into an equally updated and visually baffling take on the phenomenon. At the end of the day, though, they were dealing with audiences who wanted to think about the music, man, and no doubt spotting one of Pete Sinfield's witty lyrical conceits after 'seeing' the haunting existential dilemma of the cover of In The Court Of The Crimson King was an afternoon well spent in early seventies Ladbroke Grove.

Unfortunately, this fundamental shift in the music-to-laughs ratio has resulted in far too many of the emergent 'serious' rock acts being written off as pompous and humourless bores who considered themselves above such trifling concerns as levity, when in reality the majority of them were nothing of the sort. This is especially, and especially unfairly, true of the handful of bands that paved the way for said emergence, which is why we're going to be taking the opportunity here to say a couple of words in defence of Cream.

Hang on a minute, you're probably not unreasonably thinking. Weren't Cream the virtuoso blues purists who started all of this 'Robert Johnson is real music' tediousness and did that twenty seven million hour concert that gets shown on BBC4 every three minutes? Well, yes they were, and to be honest Ginger Baker's entertaining yet dismissive curmudgeonliness and Eric Clapton's dreary stadium rock boreathons and boneheaded declarations that Enoch was 'right' - which he was still refusing to entirely recant as recently as 2007 - have done little to help the band's cause. Yet believe it or not, all of this came surrounded by subsequently critically-ignored outbursts of levity and absurdity. Dressing up as convicts and park-keepers, miming on television with tennis racquets, writing a jokey song about catching an STD from a groupie with the chorus "WAAA-AAAAAA-AAA-A-ARGH!!", dancers in bear costumes, the very clearly Spike Milligan-inspired likes of SWLABR and Pressed Rat And Warthog, the scarcastic scorn-pouring of Politician, finishing off a hard and heavy album with a psyched-up close-harmony stroll through that Your Baby Has Gorn Dahn The Plug'ole thing and so much more besides, especially in the earlier days when they remembered to keep everything under four minutes long. And then there's the small matter of their debut single.

Even the most dedicated and in-depth 'rock guides', not to mention Eric Clapton biographies, tend to gloss over poor old Wrapping Paper. At best it will be described as 'low key', 'atypical' and 'barely featuring Clapton's guitar'. At worst it will just find itself on the receiving end of a barrage of disdainful bafflement and rhetorical demands to know what they were thinking, usually backed up by a typically forthright quote from Ginger Baker. A more accurate description, however, would be a charming and wistful Music Hall pastiche - a good six months before The Beatles got in on that particular act - with some nifty rolling piano and a sublime instrumental break where Clapton trades slide guitar licks with a cello. It was written and sung by Jack Bruce, but if Clapton and Baker had any issue with it at the time, then it certainly wasn't apparent in their joyous and enthusiastic backing vocals. Sadly, as it stalled at number thirty four, we can only guess at what Tongue Tied-esque antics they might have been planning to mime to it with on Top Of The Pops.

Wrapping Paper was also very clearly deliberately intended to be low key, atypical, Clapton-deficient and all the rest of it, as it was equally clearly deliberately intended as a joke at the expense of the more humourless contingent of their audience. And yes, they did have one already; Cream may not have released a record yet, but if you look back through the music press over the latter half of 1966, you'll find all manner of feverish articles about this brand spanking new 'supergroup' formed by three highly talented refugees from popular live acts, crammed with wild speculation about how loud the drums would be, how many centuries the guitar solos would go on for, and just how thrillingly dull and purist they would be. Small wonder, then, that they would choose to launch themselves on the world with a misleading bit of whimsy. In fact, around the same time, you could find similarly over-eager predictions being made for the similarly conceived Traffic, whose immediate diversion into soul-jazz with heavy psychedelic pop overtones must have caused similar alarm amongst the Clapton Is God brigade. Oh well, at least they could have consoled themselves with the ferocious rampage through the blues standard Cat's Squirrel on the b-side.

Sadly, we never did find out whether Wanderin' Sandy made it back to the house of old times, nor indeed whether he trod the weeds down. Overlooked and unloved, Wrapping Paper never made it onto an official Cream album and has even been omitted from some reissue campaigns, which is a shame as it really is a hugely enjoyable song, and strong evidence of just how downright peculiar mainstream pop music was getting in the mid-sixties. It's about time that it got wrapped up again and re-gifted, frankly. Well come on, this whole article is about unsophisticated humour. What were you expecting?

You can find more about Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and company and their various escapades on late-night BBC2 in The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society, available in paperback here, from the Kindle Store here, or as a full-colour eBook here.