So, what exactly was I hoping that Music From BBC Children's Programmes would prove to be? A sudden shift from the here and now into the more kaleidoscopic hues of all those gaudy seventies-forged programmes lurking tantalisingly on the fringes of the memory. An hallucinogenic vista wherein musical innovation was Freddie Phillips bashing out a scary disjointed chord, cultural context was the BBC not being able to afford anything more than lone presenters in 'white void' studios, and the nearest thing to eroticism was thigh-length-boot-favouring Play School/Play Away folkie Toni Arthur. Something, essentially, of the same impact, magnitude and transcendental capacity as that moment in old films when they suddenly switch from black and white into colour.
Or, if you want to be figurative about it, a sonic evocation of the moment when Black And White Andy Pandy turned into Colour Andy Pandy. Metaphorically and literally. For while it wasn't actually represented on Music From BBC Children's Programmes, the colour remake of Andy Pandy that hovered around the Watch With Mother schedules in the mid-seventies was a defining representation of the esoteric televisual sub-universe that I was hoping that this album would somehow break through to. Made on ropey oversaturated film stock, and with a disconcertingly 'different' Teddy to boot, it had been an all-too-familiar sight on the small screen for a number of years but now was almost completely forgotten, to the point where people actually accused me - and in fact sometimes still do - of having just made it up. In the days before clip shows and the like, nostalgia for the television of the seventies in particular was almost like nostalgia for something that never actually happened. But it did happen, and like Lee Mavers and his legendary belief that somewhere out there was an antiquated console with real sixties dust on it that could make the umpteenth re-recording of Doledrum match the sounds that he was hearing in his head, I was convinced that this album with real seventies Space Dust on it was the key to the sounds I was still hearing in my head.
True, a note of alarm had been sounded by the sight of those genteel youngsters on the cover, and true, some half-expected inclusions appeared to be missing while other less palatable-looking offerings took their place, but if we were ever going to reach this apparent higher plane of consciousness wherein all was bliss and enlightenment and psychedelic waves emenated from that opening titles drawing of Barnaby standing next to a gramophone, it might be an idea to actually listen to the album first and find out. Before we do, though, there's a couple of details worth establishing about its contents. Firstly, the tracks were almost entirely drawn from existing BBC Records And Tapes releases, many of them devoted to individual shows. Yes, there really was a full length Crackerjack (no, don't) album and you'll be hearing all about that in due course. The second point is that said highlights have been arranged into a series of cut-and-shut medleys combining several individual tracks - or even in some cases truncated edits thereof - into one long prog rock-esque suite; sometimes this works, and at other times it makes absolutely no sense at all.
If you want a clearer explanation of the whole perplexing process, then look no further than the first track on side one. Play Away was a programme that came about almost by accident, when the BBC found themselves making more money from their overseas sales of long-running pre-school programme Play School - of which more later, though in the meantime you can find my big massive expanded history of it in Not On Your Telly - in 'kit' form (i.e. foreign broadcasters would recieve scripts, films, and a duplicate Humpty decked out in 'poison' colour scheme) than they knew what to do with. Enough spare money, in fact, to pay for a whole new programme, and the resultant stroke of genius was to give the Play School presenters - most of whom were failed or failing singer-songwriters and stand-up comedians - a timeslot aimed at a slightly older audience where they could dole out puns, whimsy, improvisation, mild satire, custard pies and singer-songwritten songs to their heart's content, under the leadership of the seemingly indefatigable Brian Cant and accompanied by a bunch of equally career-diverted jazzmen led by the piano-pounding Jonathan Cohen. It was, if you will, the 'free jazz' of the BBC's children's output, though thankfully when they got to record an album - the first of four, in fact - in 1973, they left the AMM-style scraping cellos at home.
Instead, what they came up with was a combination of extended comedy sketches, improvised one-liners, party game-friendly instrumental hi-jinks, and a selection of musical solo showcases, ranging from nonsense songs to - naming no decidedly out-of-place covers of If I Had A Hammer - traditional numbers that somewhat gave away the frustrated folky ambitions of certain presenters. Thus it was that two tracks from the first Play Away album ended up bolted together as a curtain-raiser to Music From BBC Children's Programmes. And it was two of said frustrated folky presenters, promisingly, that were taking the helm for main vocal duties here - Lionel Morton, the elaborately-coiffured former lead vocalist of The Four Pennies who had come to Play School and Play Away fresh from a less than chart-troubling attempt to reposition himself as a post-Penny Lane 'Carnaby Street' popster, and Toni Arthur, moderately successful setter of geniune witchy runes to music who claims to have been earmarked for presenting duties when a male producer spotted her performing in glittery purple hotpants. A claim that, judging from the cover of the Play Away album, may well have had basis in fact.
As much as I may have been hoping for the album to have much the same reality-blurring effect as Screamadelica, Play Away, the first track on Music From BBC Children's Programmes, was sadly not subtitled A Dub Symphony In Two Parts. Instead it was built up from two shorter tracks known as 'Theme' and Superstition. The first of these, obviously, is the Play Away theme song itself; invariably heard at the close of the show with Jonathan Cohen pounding out a few nifty chord rolls while the cast struggled with oversized comedy props bearing their names. Although Brian Cant usually took the lead vocal in the show, Lionel Morton does so here, which is perhaps only fitting as he actually wrote it. And that's not the only difference - in place of the more familiar arrangement is a looser, more improvised setting based around stand-up bass, percussion, and what appears to be somebody twanging a ruler on a desk. What's more, the the version presented here, as I would later discover, was actually rather bluntly hacked down from a much longer recording on the Bang On A Drum - Songs From Play School And Play Away album, and not actually from the original Play Away album itself. This omits numerous jazzy melodic touches and an entire middle eight, ending up sounding weirdly like a lost Oasis song, only with slightly more verbose lyrics and indeed slightly more imaginative instrumentation. Incidentally there were numerous re-recordings of the Play Away theme on the various albums that followed - and a truly awful AOR-ed up arrangement for single release, which you can read more about in Top Of The Box (you probably won't want to hear it though) - but they never bettered this inaugural reading. Even in this heavily truncated form, it's still the best by some considerable distance.
The second half of the track is taken up by a complete and unedited Superstition, this time actually drawn from the Play Away album, and sung as a duet between Lionel Morton and Toni Arthur, with comedy spoken interjections from Brian Cant and Chloe Ashcroft; it was, however, written by strangely absent co-presenter Carole Ward. No doubt you're already formulating your own wisecrack involving Stevie Wonder's similarly-titled (and indeed recorded the same year) ode to the joys of not walking under ladders, so you'll probably be surprised to find that this isn't quite so much of a joke as you might think. This Superstition is similarly drenched in wah wah-heavy jazz-funk inflections, and indeed similarly lyrically concerned with debunking folklore nonsense that "may or may not happen", though Mr. Wonder's failure to include Brian and Chloe doing some inter-verse ridiculing of adherents of such hokum is his loss, frankly. You'd be forgiven for thinking that the above is in some way exaggerated for comic effect, but in all honesty it isn't; whether by accident or design, Superstition is a startling example of early seventies Rare Groove-esque funk and one that is highlighted as a hidden treat by numerous 'break'-crazy Blaxploitation-skewed websites. And that's not the only time this will be happening as we make our way through the album. Anyway, as sentient leakages from lost televisual and musical universes go, this is a fairly good start and bodes well for what lies beyond. And, simultaneously, before and right here and right now. Hedge And Mo existed before 'mindfulness', you know.
Due in no small part to its lack of gaudy hallucinogenic puppets, Play Away isn't quite the first show that you'd think of when attempting to break through to a pop-cultural elevated dimensional plane of seventies pre-school television esoterica through the sheer will of force of remembering old children's programmes alone. Yet just one track into Music From BBC Children's Programmes, we're already forcing open that Barnaby-shaped breach in hyppereality like a rubbish Torchwood villain. And it's a neat coincidence that Torchwood should get a mention right there, as the very next track opens with an all-too-familiar electronic sting...
Top Of The Box, The Complete Guide To BBC Records And Tapes Singles, is available as a paperback here or an eBook here; a sequel covering the albums is coming soon!