For all that they might have gone on about their collective fear of typecasting, the various 'classic' Doctor Who lead actors didn't half jump at the chance of an in-character tie-in appearance. Whether it was Jon Pertwee tussling with Aggedor at Glorious Goodwood, Tom Baker dispensing pseudo-scientific facts about his favourite best aliens on Animal Magic, or Colin Baker going on a ride at Blackpool Pleasure Beach for some reason, costumed-up 'canon'-taxing guest spots were a regular and recurring feature of Doctor Who in its original incarnation. Even Richard Hurndall got to do his "and greetings to you from The Time Lords!" gibberish on a couple of occasions, though nobody has ever been quite sure about what character he was actually 'in'. On rare occasions the companions got in on the act as well, particularly on Crackerjack (don't) for some reason, and that's not even getting started on Celation from The Daleks' Master Plan guest-presenting Points Of View.
Sadly, Celation's little chat - if ever a chat as was - with Robert Robinson no longer exists, but at least it was actually recorded and televised in the first place. During the sixties, before anyone really had the means or indeed the inclination to preserve them in any form, there were literally hundreds of tie-in appearances - particularly at the height of 'Dalekmania' - that came and went and faded into hazy memory with only the odd press cutting to prove they happened, from stage plays to charity events to pop single-plugging to visitors at a Daily Mail-sponsored exhibition being ferried past a collection of Doctor Who aliens in a 'Brainy Train', whatever one of those was exactly. And then there was William Hartnell's disconcerting enthusiasm for making appearances at airfields.
Presumably as an adjunct of his previous starring role in long-running ITV sitcom The Army Game, Hartnell appears to have been invited along to air shows and open days roughly every three minutes, and he also appears to have never turned any of them down. Quite often he would show up in character and costume as The Doctor, sometimes with Daleks in tow, and there was even a vague accompanying 'mini-adventure' narrative of sorts; after his speech is interrupted by an 'Anti-Magnetic Device', The Doctor discovers that the Daleks have constructed a 'fort' on the airstrip, and dashes off to alert his good friends at the RAF who promptly unleash a couple of torpedoes and blow the malevolent interlopers sky high. Terry Nation's feelings on this somewhat off-agenda use of his creations are sadly not recorded, although the escapade did usually involve the nobody-would-ever-suspect-a-thing deployment of a 'double' for Hartnell during the more action-packed moments, which was at least in keeping with the usual mode of practice for his actual television adventures.
Needless to say, very little evidence of any of these events now remains, apart from - staggeringly - some full colour cine camera footage of one of them. On Saturday 18th September 1965 – the same day that Trap Of Steel, the long-lost second episode of the decidedly Dalek-free Galaxy 4 was transmitted by BBC1 – TV’s Doctor Who William Hartnell took part in an RAF Finningley air show along with some Daleks. Well, we say ‘Daleks’, but that's a very loose interpretation of the term. Anyway, we may not have the sights and sounds of that thrill-packed day, but the few existing seconds of moving footage give us a good idea of... well... not very much at all really.
In an unexpected new twist to the big news story of 1963, William Hartnell arrives at Dealey Plaza; controversy and debate will subsequently rage over whether The Thin White Crochety Old Man was giving an 'inappropriate' salute or simply waving to a fan.
Dangling from a helicopter due to some unspecified 'mini-adventure' plot detail, Hartnell's stunt double puts in an unconvincing bid to secure the role of the next Milk Tray Man. Meanwhile, down on the ground, you can just about make out one of the 'Daleks'. Looks pretty convincing from this distance, doesn't it? Well, just you wait.
With full strength undiluted 'Dalekmania' taking full effect, the crowds are clearly enthralled by the unfolding spectacle. So much so, in fact, that they haven't noticed The Queen arriving to take a look. She preferred The Voord anyway.
After someone realises that the audience would probably feel a bit short-changed without one, some sort of cage box thingy that we're probably best off not knowing the real purpose of is hastily redecorated as a vague approximation of a 'Tardis', which some high-spirited youngsters promptly attempt to upend. Clayton Hickman is reportedly 'concerned' by this turn of events.
As everyone knows, Daleks should only be demonstrated to youngsters by qualified experts in lab coats, and the organisers of the air show have gone one better and added to an already star-studded bill by persuading The Prof from Vision On to do the honours. Here he is also introducing some young attendees to a haphazardly repainted diving bell with random number labelling and some kind of lurid red jagged symbol on top. Meanwhile if anyone can identify that crater-festooned planet, please get in touch.
"But how did the Daleks get up stairs? Eh? Eh? The stairs? How did they get up them? Eh?". By walking on their feet. A fact so widely known and recognised that these two youngers cannot even be bothered turning their heads to have a look.
The most convincing Dalek yet achieves speeds in excess of 234.9mph, before breaking off and heading for Brand's Hatch, where it effortlessly beat Lorenzo Bandini and Graham Hill into second and third place.
In a neat bit of cross-promotion, The Mystery Machine tows two reconfigured shuttlecocks past the awestruck crowds. How this fitted into the 'story' is anyone's guess, frankly.
And finally, the fun family day out concludes with a precision-targeted explosion in which everyone's favourite TV villains are seared from existence in a torrent of smoke and flame. In fairness, it's amazing to think that any visual record of an event of this kind exists at all, let alone in colour. In equal fairness, it's also amazing to think that this and many, many, many other examples of harmless yet decidedly off-message ridiculousness were signed off, approved and authorised where nowadays they would be sent packing at the very first hint of a Brand Awareness meeting. Honestly, providing a bit of cheap and cheerful extra-curricular entertainment for average everyday mainstream viewers of a popular television show - what a thought. It's almost worth writing to Points Of View about.
You can read more about Doctor Who's early extra-curricular activities, including a little-known radio appearance by the Daleks, in Not On Your Telly.
While Alan McGee’s failure to transform Primal Scream, Saint Etienne, My Bloody Valentine and Teenage Fanclub overnight into globe-straddling millionaire megastars was almost entirely down to both the ultimately uncompromising nature of their music and, in most cases, the varyingly ‘difficult’ nature of the artists concerned, it is still true to say that any such ambitions were decidedly at odds with an industry that was heavily weighted against allowing independent labels to succeed on their own terms.
Indeed, there was some suggestion around this time that The British Phonographic Industry felt that it was time that the troublesome independent sector was brought into line. Amongst several moves seemingly intended to weaken its constitution and assimilate it comfortably into the mainstream were a series of showcases for indie bands in 1991 under the banner ‘The Great British Music Weekend’, from which no participants seemed to walk away with anything short of serious misgivings, and a concerted push to replace the Independent Chart with a wider Alternative Chart, which would have allowed major label million-sellers like Nirvana to dominate at the expense of smaller scale acts; this latter ambition was seen off by a particularly sustained rebuttal from the NME. If the independent sector was to retain its integrity, then clearly it would have to stand apart from any attempts to get it to play by everyone else’s rules.
Perhaps sensing all of this, on 12th February 1992, The KLF brought the curtain down on the artier end of indie music’s association with the mainstream in fine style. Rumours had been circulating for some time that the million-selling yet defiantly uncoinventional dance music duo were struggling with the pressures and demands of the industry and their unexpected and indeed unprecedented level of success, and that Bill Drummond in particular was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Reports had filtered out that the follow-up album they were working on, tentatively titled The Black Room, combined solidly commercial hooks with hardcore techno and ugly guitar noise. With a likely award for Best British Group in the offing, The KLF were booked to open the 1992 Brit Awards, the annual music industry corporate bash notorious for lavishing more attention on money men and high earning artists – even if they hadn’t released a record in several years – than on any actual developments in the music scene. For two erstwhile punk rockers and art students who had already developed a serious grudge against the industry ‘suits’, the temptation to create havoc was too great to pass up.
Instead of the expected high-concept spectacle, the audience were treated to a flashing blue police light and Drummond – walking with the aid of a crutch – announcing "this is television freedom" before yelling the lyrics to their previously radio-friendly singalong 'Stadium House' chart-topper 3am Eternal at a ferocious speed, accompanied by hardcore punk-metal band Extreme Noise Terror, and closing the performance by firing blanks at the audience from a machine gun while the band’s publicist Scott Piering announced "Ladies and Gentlemen – The KLF have left the music business". The audience had in fact got off lightly – only at the very last minute did Extreme Noise Terror manage to talk Drummond out of catapulting a dead sheep into the middle of the parade of expensive evening wear.
The final close-up of Drummond – who would subsequently devote himself exclusively to art and writing (though occasionally with musical elements) – shows a man clearly feeling like a huge burden has been lifted from him; the audience – apart from classical conductor Georg Solti who had laughably walked out in ‘protest’ - simply clap out of politeness with disgusted expressions, although a longshot reveals veteran agit-prop singer-songwriter Billy Bragg applauding with great enthusiasm. Rarely has the distance between art and commerce been so neatly – if accidentally – encapsulated. It would be left to bands more willing to play the game – amongst them Blur, Suede and Pulp, who in time would all have their own hair-raising escapades at The Brits – to pick up the baton a couple of years later.
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Well, that last instalment was very definitely One We Made Much More Boringly. Anyway, we're not going to be spending any more time than we have to on Blue Peter. Instead, it's time to move on to track four of Music From BBC Children's Programmes, and a show that is probably going to end up being discussed in such depth and from so many different angles that it will most likely leave you feeling as though the coverage of John Noakes and company was almost insultingly fleeting.
It's been journey of somewhat mixed fortunes through Music From BBC Children's Programmes thus far, remaining resolutely rooted in the shallow end of any hoped-for psychedelic blast of retro-iconographic pre-school far-outness, with only the Play Away team and their bubblegum pop funkateering really coming up with the Toffo-infused psychoactive goods. Throughout all of this, though, there have been hopeful and continual references to other more suitable shows - and one in particular - that would not merely fit the theoretical bill but blast all thoughts of that jolly stylised sailing ship out of the water in a shockwave of primary-coloured stop-motion puppetry and badly aligned end credit slides. But as Barnaby has yet to put in an appearance, it's time to turn instead to the show that played Chemical World to his For Tomorrow - The Magic Roundabout.
The Magic Roundabout, as doubtless most of you reading this were aware already, began in France in 1963, where it was known as Le Manège Enchanté. When the BBC bought the series for transmission in 1965, they decided not to go for direct translations of the original scripts - which had a more simplistic and educational quality that was sort of lost in, um, translation - and instead roped in Play School presenter, absurdist, jazz enthusiast and all round Father Of Emma Eric Thompson to make up his own storylines and characters based on what he thought was happening onscreen. The result was a surreal and dryly humorous exercise in Zen-based storytelling set to distinctively offbeat visuals, which remained lodged in a pre-news slot at the tail-end of the BBC's children's schedules right up to the end of the seventies, and infamously found as much favour with adult viewers as it did with its target audience. Sometimes with good reason, sometimes with decidedly less than good reason, but we'll get round to all that in due course. More to the point it was, in its own unselfconscious way, about as psychedelic as the BBC's children's programming ever got (discounting Zokko! as a 'bad trip'), though again this was much misunderstood and again we'll be coming back to that in due course. For the moment, all you need to know is that The Magic Roundabout was, give or take the occasional power struggle with Barnaby and Mr. Benn, the high watermark of exactly the sort of sub-cerebral mindset that I was hoping to unlock within Music From BBC Children's Programmes' grooves. Though not by means of chemical assistance.
Let's get the tedious bit out of the way, then. The Magic Roundabout, so conventional 'wisdom' has it, was at best the acid-frazzled creation of someone who had scoffed a hazardous quantity of hallucinogens and had 'seen' the hat-sporting pink cows lurking on the periphery of human sensory awareness, and at worst crafty pro-drug propaganda for the under-fives with Dougal cast as a sugarcube-scoffing acid visionary, Dylan as a weed-smoking layabout, Mr Rusty as a cart-toting pusher in the mould of Bubbles from The Wire, the Roundabout itself as a giant psilocybin mushroom, and Ermintrude/Brian/Zebedee/The Train/Delete Where Ohhangonaminute somehow representing 'speed', however that works exactly. Notice, however, how this perfect fit analysis invariably omits Mr McHenry, Florence, Paul, Basil and Rosalie, not to mention Penelope The Spider and Tweet & Tweet Tweet. Notice also, more importantly, that there is absolutely no truth in this nonsense whatsoever, and no amount of nudging and winking from third-rate standups nor indeed bare-faced insistence from 'talking heads' on clip shows will ever make it so. If you were alighting on these pages hoping for some zany lolz about how they must all have been on those crazy drugs!1, then please go elsewhere and take that bloody Half Man Half Biscuit song with you.
What all this sub-Michelle From Dazed & Confused rumourmongering annoyingly obscures is that, well, The Magic Roundabout really did chime with the times. Like all of the best 'accidental psychedelia', from Colour My World by Petula Clark and The Great Jelly Of London to The BBC Schools Diamond and Bedazzled, it was made in all 'straight'-ness but still allowed itself to be influenced by the fashion, design and style of the day, and as such ended up more effective in its kaleidoscopic otherworldliness than many more humourless and contrived attemps at 'being psychedelic'; this was even more true of the Thompson-reworked version, which was far from averse to throwing in chortling references to countercultural totems. What's more, it had across-the-board appeal, drawing in as many appreciative adult viewers who understood the idiosyncracies of Thompson's wit as it did target audience members fresh from taking their Pelham Puppets Dougal for a 'walk'.
Oddly enough, it found itself unexpectedly chiming with the times in the early nineties too. Not only were Channel 4 screening some previously unseen episodes with writing and narrating dutes taken on by Nigel Planer, but it had also been adopted on a more iconographic face value by the post-Acid House 'rave' generation - who, let's face it, were so blatant in their 'E'-centric hallucinogen propaganda that they didn't need to look for any 'hidden' messages anywhere else - not just as fashion-appropriate t-shirt fodder but also in musical terms. No less than three superb examples of neo-psychedelia - Too Much Fun by The Chillin' Krew, Summers Magic by Mark Summers, and Everlasting Day by, erm, Magik Roundabout (who also apparently did a cover of The Porpoise Song that nobody seems to have heard) - either making lyrical references to or sampling the theme music of The Magic Roundabout. But could it chime with the times a third time? Was that all-too-familiar eighteen-note refrain what was needed to forge a psychotropic pathway to Cheggers Plays Zen and obliterate all memory of sodding Barnacle Bill?
If you've ever heard the original French theme music from The Magic Roundabout, or rather Le Manège Enchanté, you'll know that, much like the show itself, it's broadly similar to the version you're familiar with, but at the same time subtly yet significantly different. It's built around the same chords and melody but is performed at a much slower pace, and is bolstered by some very sixties organ work and an arrangement not unlike that of a Françoise Hardy record. At one point it even had lyrics, sung as a duet between Margote and Pere Pivoine (or Florence and Mr. Rusty in 'old money'), which basically just do little apart from describe how a roundabout habitually turns round but at least it sounds nice and exotic in the original French. Later on, for some reason, the producers saw fit to replace it with Pollux (or 'Dougal' in old money) singing a bland song with a peg on his nose about how he was "friend of all adults and children", which sounds about as far removed from a Françoise Hardy record as you're liable to get. Even if she was to stick a peg on her nose.
The earliest Eric Thompson-redubbed instalments did use an instrumental version of the original theme arrangement, but avoided the temptation to hastily pen some mechanic rotation-centric lyrics in favour of swapping it for a manically sped-up reworking that sounded like it was being played on a steam-driven barrel organ held together with springs and on the verge of exploding. The only resemblance that this would bear to a Françoise Hardy record would be if you were to play one at 16rpm while throwing your record player down the stairs. This would stay in place for the entirety of The Magic Roundabout's run, and while the original versions featured dozens of admittedly rather inconsequential songs, Thompson preferred to leave the 'clean' instrumentals on the undubbed film prints simply as vocal-free backing music, and get on with the more serious business of wisecracking about mouthy tea-strainers forming unions. Though he did once see fit to incorporate a self-recorded approximation of Dylan and Brian jamming an instrumental cover of Rainy Day Women #12 & 35. No, really. How and why said worryingly haphazard everybody-take-cover arrangement came to be used for the BBC versions, and indeed where it came from in the first place, are questions to which there seems to be no straightforward answer. There's not even an easily identifiable artist credit, more a confusion of series creators and music publishers and what appears to be some initials too, so it's not so much a research dead-end as something that gives you a headache just by looking at it. But it was used at the start and end - and sometimes in the middle - of close to four hundred editions of The Magic Roundabout, so small wonder that it's come to be so firmly embedded in the national subconscious, and indeed so powerfully evocative of a surreal kaleidoscopic mindset that all of those tedious rumours about it being 'about drugs' could only hope to even begin to hint at.
And here it was, at the start of the fourth track of Music From BBC Children's Programmes, poised ready to evoke that selfsame surreal kaleidoscopic mindset without the aid of psychotropic substances or a peg on Mireille Mathieu's nose. But would it work? And, more to the point, what made up the remainder of that fourth track? Well, the theme from The Magic Roundabout may last little more than thirty seconds, but within those little more than thirty seconds - helped in no small part by the trebly audio-strobing sound quality - there is an entire quasi-hallucinogenic lost world of gaudy crudely-animated entertainment and black and white Radio Times pages. It's a very different kind of psychedelia to that usually ascribed to The Magic Roundabout by tedious drug bores who insist that it's all a drugs analogy about about drugs (drugs), and this ability to tap into 'the past' of popular culture - a phenomenon that itself, ironically, is also becoming a thing of 'the past' thanks to pop-cultural artefacts of yore actually tending to be available these days rather than hovering on the haziest fringes of the collective memory - is, well, exactly what I was hoping that Music From BBC Children's Programmes might provide.
So, how are we scoring so far on the putative, fictitious and not entirely logically applicable Sort Of Chart Rundown Thing-O-Meter Of Just How Pan-Cultural Retro-Symbiotic Music From BBC Children's Programmes Actually Is, then? Well, Mary Mungo & Mindfulness-Pickers, what we have so far is roughly half of the tracks hitting the desired Professor Jordan's Magic Soundshow-esque mark, a couple more sort of but not quite doing so, and one not doing so at all. It's all starting to resemble a Derek Griffiths-slanted take on Tinkerbell's Fairydust, the legendary elaborately-named UK Psych band who recorded the fantsatic singles Twenty Ten and Lazy Day (b/w, coincidentally enough, In My Magic Garden) and an unreleased album, which was the stuff of minor musical holy grail-related speculative music press agogness until it actually eventually was released, and turned out to be a collection of nice-enough-but-nowhere-near-as-good-as-the-singles harmony pop covers. Mind you, it did have a naked fairy on the cover, which at least holds slightly more visual appeal than those loathesome youngsters from the cover of Music From BBC Children's Programmes.
As mentioned several millennia and a lot of references to France Gall ago, though, The Magic Roundabout was merely the first half of the fourth track of Music From BBC Children's Programmes, and if it had acted as a sort of retronostalgic knight in shining armour galloping up to smite Blue Peter, then the cavalry were also about to appear on the horizon, riding on the footplate there and back again...
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! In the meantime, you can hear me talking to BBC Radio 4 about The Magic Roundabout here.
You can tell Those Children From The Cover Of Music From BBC Children's Programmes that it's safe to come out from behind the sofa now. The Doctor Who medley has finished, and it's time instead for the theme music from the exact the sort of programme that appealed to gentrified Shrivenzale-fearing swots. The sort of programme that has always polluted any attempt at waxing psychedeli-nostalgically lyrical about children's television of the past. The sort of programme it was always tacitly dictated that you ought to be watching, as opposed to the sort that you actually wanted to watch. The sort of programme that was an unwelcome trade-off against the thrills of Battle Of The Planets and the laughs of Rentaghost. The sort of programme that was, well, Blue Peter.
Let's be absolutely blunt about this from the outset. Yes, you might have enjoyed it, and nobody's arguing with that, but if we're plotting a star chart rendered in Goodies Font typography where the constellations form representations of Mr McHenry and Farmer Barleymow inside a larger strobing swirl of psychedelically-hued cosmic flares, then Blue Peter has no place on it. Yes, it was popular, yes, it was long-running, and yes, it may have to be grudgingly accepted that its live nature sometimes led to immensely watchable moments of cat-goes-berzerk-and-pushes-John-Noakes-backwards-over-couch hilarity, but none of that can do anything to counter the fact that, in this context at least, Blue Peter is to all intents and purposes an Engelbert Humperdinck accidentally included on the bill of a 14 Hour Technicolour Dream.
You either loved Blue Peter or you hated it. And if you hated it, it was a dull teacherish Reithian exercise in instructing you in what you should be interested in, populated by over-enthusiastic presenters and suffering from a disconcerting over-devotion to retelling the story of The Stone Of Scone. No doubt many of those who loved it, and TV Cream's Steve Williams in particular, will have stopped reading by now, but please be assured this is no idle and opportunistic exercise in Blue Peter-bashing. Well, it is a bit, but the cold hard fact of the matter is that, station of origin aside, Blue Peter had little in common with the more absurdist and chronologically adrift shows that it might have been hoped were to be found on Music From BBC Children's Programmes, and yet was - and still is - always the first to get mentioned whenever anyone sought to evoke memories of children's television past, with reminiscences about 'double-sided sticky tape' and 'makes' that nobody ever made and the Time Capsule and That Sodding Elephant and when Princess Anne joined them for something or other as if anyone ever cared about that in the first place anyway just generally getting in the way of rightful Chegger-skewed revelry, leading to no end of Barnaby-fuelled resentment towards Peter Purves and company. What was more, while Doctor Who had proved a welcome and musically pleasing diversion from the path to Play Away-soundtracked enlightenment, Blue Peter came equipped with formal if jolly stiffly orchestral theme music that literally belonged to another age. All of the hopes that had been pinned on Music From BBC Children's Programmes were, it seemed, rapidly fading. The Day Of Those Children From The Cover was upon us.
Still not convinced? Well, let's consider this in slightly less critical and slightly more pseudo-scientific terms. Many years ago, probably while Music From BBC Children's Programmes was still on general release, the BBC used to use flag up their daily children's television schedules on a caption slide in an horrendous navy/mustard/white colour scheme. On either side of said schedules were a set of illustrations featuring iconography from some of the more popular and enduring programmes of the day, complete with two archaic-looking children gazing up at them in gleeful awe. On the left were the Play School house and Zebedee from The Magic Roundabout, and on the right were Scooby Doo and - you knew it was looming on the horizon - the Blue Peter boat.
"So what?", you're probably thinking. "It stands to reason that they'd slap a few random representations of view-enticing shows onto an otherwise bland-looking schedule which probably had bloody God's Wonderful Railway in it on top of everything else, without even considering that in the far and distant future someone would use it as a flimsy springboard for launching into yet more unwarranted Blue Peter-bashing". And yes, in the conventional sense, you'd be exactly right, but consider the contrast more in terms of the cognitive associations of this juxtaposition. The shows on the left are precisely those that would appeal to the more arty and cerebral subsector of the audience, who had 'seen' the free jazz influences of Play Away and became consumed by pre-school existential rumination on the modern condition and its relation to the pop-art ethics underpinning the Play School toys, doubtless growing up to cultivate an obsession with French cinema and sixties pop music and indeed with regaining para-psychological access to the lost 'white void' studio of the mind. Whereas those on the right pointed towards more of a sense of structure and order and academic rigour, with precision and achievement and fresh-faced fun taking precedence over angst-ridden doodling intended to somehow 'take down the government'. In a sense it really is the whole 'Left Brain/Right Brain' theorem writ large, only the wrong way round, and with more Barnaby.
And so it was that if you went through childhood with the imprinted image of a Franco-English stop-motion bear seared into in your subconscious, Blue Peter was merely something that Other Children Liked. Its adherence to formality and achievement and unobtrusive modes of dress, not to mention its obsession with historical facts and figures and ever so slightly patronising exploration of 'foreign' cultures, was sometimes more than the unfocused creative mind could cope with and as such simply rejected. Others may have had their Bring And Buy Sales and free entry to the Natural History Museum for Blue Peter badgewinners, but this was a world you could not understand and were not invited into anyway, forced instead to stand peering through the window with Mr Davenport from Rentaghost. It is worth mentioning at this point that there is something of a misconception that those who were barred from entering the Blue Peter party automatically sought solace in Magpie, the ITV counterpart that folk legend would have you believe was something tantamount to a 'roller disco' in comparison. However, that's ignoring the fact that underneath its more modish trappings, Magpie had much the same obsessions as Blue Peter - almost as if Brotherhood Of Man had decided to go 'New Wave' - and the last thing you wanted was to replace something you didn't like with more of the same in trendier jackets. You can read more about that here, incidentally, and only some of it wildly contradicts the preceding sentence. Of course, Magpie did have one very significant thing in its favour, but we'll come back to that in due course.
No matter how enviably classy a complete run of Blue Peter 'books' - never 'annuals'; the whole argument encapsulated in one word right there - may look on a bookshelf now, back when vintage Blue Peter wasn't actually vintage, it was the prim and proper diametric defuser of any theoretical Fingerbobs firework lit by Keith Chegwin. And here it was, slap bang in the middle(ish) of the first side of Music From BBC Children's Programmes, poised to do exactly the same thing again. So, yes, it's time for the Blue Peter theme. And the original orchestral pre-Mike Oldfield one at that. Much as we might prefer to avoid it, it's there on the album and has to be listened to if we want to get to The Electric Kool-Aid (Made By Windy Miller's Cider Press) Acid Test, so let's just get it out of the way and move on.
The Blue Peter theme is a jaunty re-arrangement of Barnacle Bill, written by one Ashworth Hope and definitely not to be confused with the rather off-colour traditional sea shanty of the same name, and similarly not to be confused with the programme's closing theme Drum And Fife, which is apparently an entirely different tune despite sounding almost identical. The version included on Music From BBC Children's Programmes, as used onscreen from 1958 to 1979, was performed by the New Century Orchestra and conducted by Sidney Torch, who perhaps better known as creator and mainstay of Radio 2's Friday Night Is Music Night. It sounds pretty much as you remember it, from the opening drum roll to the shrill sign-off. It's jolly but formal strings and woodwind all the way, and as it had its origins in the world of 'proper' orchestral composition, there isn't even a hastily-written weird-out 'middle bit' to enjoy, just more of the same with occasional variations in emphasis. It's nice enough as far as it goes, and it would be a brave person who suggested that it was anything less than a pleasant and jaunty light orchestral piece, but it just doesn't belong on Music From BBC Children's Programmes. Well, actually, in a literal sense it probably has more claim to be on there than any of the other inclusions, but in a more esoteric and hypothetical sense it's a real fish out of water, redolent of an earlier age of ration books and Calling All Workers and whistling postmen and, well, children's TV of the late fifties; and, let's be honest, Blue Peter had done little in the way of modernising since then. It's worth reflecting on the fact that, had this been Music From ITV Children's Programmes (and oh for such an album to exist), we we would have got The Spencer Davis Group's pseudonymous swirly Hammond dancefloor-friendly Magpie theme song instead. Musically and indeed aesthetically the Blue Peter theme has little in common with the two preceding tracks, nor indeed what might - hopefully - follow. Still, it could have been worse. At least it wasn't the brass band rendition of On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at that bookended outward bound Blue Peter spinoff Go With Noakes.
We came looking for something akin to The Walham Green East Wapping Rodent And Boggit Extermination Association appearing on Cheggers Plays Pop. We left, as ever, under the disapproving gaze of those clean-cut youngsters who didn't like that uncouth popular beat music but knew everything there was to know about getting up at six in the morning to do their bugle practice, recite the Kings and Queens of England in both chronological and dynastic order, and then get to work on the latest Blue Peter 'make'. The effect was somewhat like finding Edwelweiss by Vince Hill in the middle of side one of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and this fading of the psychedelic dream will get worse before it will get better.
As you may remember, it was customary for each track of Music From BBC Children's Programmes to be made up of several shorter tracks segued together. In the absence of Drum And Fife, there was nothing else obvious to pad Barnacle Bill out to track length with and so BBC Records And Tapes had to scour their archives for something tenuously suitable, eventually opting for a version of Kum Ba Yah credited to 'The Girl Guides'. BBC Records And Tapes were an eccentric outfit at the best of times, but in their first couple of years of operation they apparently compiled their output by cutting up a copy of the Radio Times, throwing the pieces up in the air and using the first five words that landed as the basis for an album title. Hence alongside the more expected fare like Jackanory story albums, Morecambe & Wise sketch collections and BBC Radiophonic Workshop shenanigans, you'd get the likes of Sir Peter Ustinov Says: How To See Jupiter Through A Telescope, Whither Paraguay? A Musical Journey In Speech and Sound Effects No. 874: Steam Train Buffet Cars Of Old Shropshire, none of which are quite as much of an exaggeration as you might be thinking. And yes, there was a Test Card album, but more on that later. Needless to say, they would pile any passing musical ensemble into a recording studio, and so it was that this non-location specific collection of 'Girl Guides', under the supervision of one Hettie Smith, came to record an album's worth of campfire standards including Hol' Yo' Han', Mr Banjo, Images And Reflections and Tingalayo, better known to erstwhile viewers of the BBC schools' programme Music Time as that peculiar song about a donkey that eats with a knife and fork, which was released in 1971 as Singing Along With The Girl Guides, complete with a disturbing cover depicting a terrifying mutant Guide. They also may or may not have released a single on the label except it might actually have been a cover of the Doomwatch theme but nobody's quite sure, though you can find the full story of that in Top Of The Box.
Presumably as part of the 'improving' remit, Blue Peter was always given to allowing members of the Guiding and Scouting movements to demonstrate their 'gang show' antics in the studio, most infamously resulting in a shower of Guides being menaced live on air by an out-of-control campfire while, hilariously, singing If You're Happy And You Know It, so the connection kind of writes itself. Sadly there's no crackling flame effect to enhance this performance, just a terminally dreary performance of a terminally dreary song, rendered in that 'ghostly' looming-from-out-of-nowhere style much beloved of The Cliff Adams Singers on Sing Something Simple. Of course, there's a whole subgenre now devoted to the unexpectedly spooky and spectral folky sounds of throwaway background music of yesteryear, which presumably accounts for the bafflingly inflated sums Singing Along With The Girl Guides now changes hands for. But spooky and spectral folky is not what we're looking for here, let alone jaunty orchestral nauticisms, and Blue Peter has once again succeeded in intrusively disrupting an hallucinogenic vista that should be backward sitars and the shopkeeper from Mr Benn as far as the eye can see. But wait... is that the sound of the cavalry, galloping up on a 'Tricy-bus'?
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!
If anyone ever did actually watch Doctor Who from behind the 'sofa', then it's a fair bet that the second track of Music From BBC Children's Programmes would have sent them scurrying right back there. As the upbeat sound of the Play Away cast getting down home and funky about opening umbrellas indoors fades out, in comes that electronic sting familiar to an entire generation for following countless instances of Tom Baker doing his 'alarmed' face while a booming voice announced that there was nothing he could do to stop their plans now.
Yes, it's the original version of the Doctor Who theme music, although not quite the original. Over the course of the Doctor Who's up-to-then ten year history, The BBC Radiophonic Workshop's original arrangement had been regularly rejigged as and when successive production teams elected to wield the time-honoured 'new broom'. It had been bolstered by the addition of new-fangled electronic 'spangles' as the fans insist on calling them - which is especially confusing when you're in the middle of an already all-over-the-place narrative that has already made several mentions of the sweets of the same name - and indeed that aforementioned cliffhanger-enhancing sting. It had been remixed into something approaching a rough approximation of stereo, and the full-length Tardis take-off effect had been pasted into the background halfway through. And even that's just the obvious rememberable-off-the-top-of-your-head stuff. In short, although the same basic original recording was still there somewhere underneath it all, in many ways it was actually a different version to the simpler, sparser one that had bookended episodes in the black and white era.
By the time that I got hold of Music From BBC Children's Programmes, of course, this version of the theme had been completely replaced three times, and Doctor Who itself had been cancelled. This slightly older arrangement positively reeked of slit-scan title sequences, seemingly endless multicoloured scarves, dodgy CSO sequences, Target Books, The Giant Robot, and hazy ancestral memories of Jon Pertwee and The Brigadier. This was, basically, the sound of Doctor Who How It Used To Be. Yet, for all that certain 'fans' might like to grumble about how it was better in their day when it was all photographic blow-ups of fields around here and you could get to the Blackpool Exhibition and back and still have change from half a shilling, even then there was a sense that Doctor Who How It Used To Be had never really gone away. Yes, so there were only about three old stories out on video and you needed to take out a second mortgage to buy any of them, but outside of that there was a whole industry founded on exploiting Doctor Who's archival adventures, from books and magazines to scale model Ice Warriors and the iconically purposeless Build The Tardis ("Your own time machine... without scissors or glue!"), and if you threw a Dapol Tetrap hard enough chances are it would have hit an album that had this theme arrangement somewhere on it. Though not the original original, which got a single release back in 1964 but had since all but vanished... but that's another story. This one, of course, had also been released as a single, with an oddly-named and oddly-chosen b-side that we'll be coming back to to boot, but you'll find the story behind all of that in Top Of The Box.
Music From BBC Children's Programmes wouldn't live up to its title without it, but in a sense the original-but-not-the-original version of the Doctor Who theme is something of an interruption to proceedings. Or at least the kind of proceedings we were hoping for here. There's plenty that it does evoke, regardless of whether a you are a fan or not, but rather fittingly that's something for another time and indeed another place. Like here, for example. Anyway this isn't quite the whole story, as the Doctor Who theme segues straight into its markedly more nostalgia-nirvana satisfying companion piece The World Of Doctor Who, but we've already covered that in some detail in the first instalment so it's probably best to just move straight on. To another similarly long-running show, which has enjoyed something of a close relationship with Doctor Who. And an even closer relationship with those two frightfully well-spoken youngsters on the cover of Music From BBC Children's Programmes...
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!
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!
So, Music From BBC Children's Programmes. Which, in fairness, was what I was originally looking for when all that jazz business got in the way. Like all good stories, this starts once upon a time. Like no other stories ever, let alone any good ones, this also starts with some incidental music from Doctor Who. Yes, I know some good Doctor Who stories start with incidental music from Doctor Who, but let's not get too self-referential just yet. There's plenty of that to come.
So anyway, let's travel back in time to November 1988, when Starburst, the long-defunct monthly bible of all things sci-fi and fantasy and impenetrable stuff about some artwork thing you didn't understand, were running a review of the newly-released barrage of orchestra hits that was The Doctor Who 25th Anniversary Album. In tandem with a general inability to decide whether they thought it was any good or not, the review also incorporated a brief history of the countable-on-one-hand commercial releases of Doctor Who music over the years. Alongside the expected namechecks for the various theme single variations and the two volumes of Doctor Who - The Music, there was also mention of something called The World Of Doctor Who. This exotic-sounding oddity cobbled together from bits of early seventies incidental music was, reportedly, originally the b-side to the theme from Moonbase 3, the famously dull 1973 adult drama about the scientific realities of space travel, and which later, as they oh so casually remarked, "found its way onto a Music From BBC Children's Programmes album".
That remark, as tantalising and casual as it may have been, was more than enough to send one particular pre-Internet imagination into overdrive. Not so much over The World Of Doctor Who per se - though admittedly they did make it sound like some kind of Brian Wilson-style 'Pocket Symphony' rather than a load of screechy effects flung at a half-hearted funk backing with the Roger Delgado-heralding 'Master Theme' tacked onto the end - but rather more over the possible potential contents of said casually-referenced album. This would, some hasty Pertwee-skewed mathematics suggested, date from some time around the mid-seventies. In other words, the exact timeframe that played host to all those hazily-recalled first-awareness-of-television fringe-of-the-memory shows that had retreated so utterly and intangibly into 'The Past' that you might as well have just made them up. Something that, in the case of Rubovia, I was regularly accused of actually having done.
What transcendentally obscure delights might be found within its grooves? Rentaghost? Cheggers Plays Pop? Ragtime? Barnaby? Whichever still unidentified programme it was that ended with footage of dandelion seeds being blown away whilst a disembodied voice ominously intoned "one o'clock... two o'clock" and so forth? The tracklisting just kept writing itself, in ever more evocative and exciting post-Glam pre-Punk ways. And indeed the cover just kept drawing itself too, an ever-fractally-evolving psychedelic splurge with Dylan The Rabbit, Mr Benn and indeed 'Cheggers' thrust listenerwards through the magic of clumsy graphic design. Music From BBC Children's Programmes, it seemed reasonable to assume, was the key to the gates of some sort of retro-nostalgic nirvana, with a bit of Doctor Who incidental music thrown in for good measure. If some of those jazz albums had been mind-expanding, then this had to be completely off the psychedelic scale.
Eventually, quite by accident, in a true moment of zen I found without trying what I'd long since lost sight of the fact that I was actually searching for. For there, in a charity shop, inadvertently yanked out of the decaying carboard box alongside a Johnny Dankworth LP, was a white sleeve bearing what appeared to be a certain near-mythical title rendered in the same sort of font as that old-skool stripey BBC2 '2'. Yes, it was Music From BBC Children's Programmes. At long, long last. For a second I stood transfixed by the cover. Then I tried to actually decipher the weird visual jumble, made up of a headache-inducing Grog-On-Blue-Peter-Boat graphical nightmare of a load of programme logos all piled on top of each other. Some of these could just about be breathlessly made out, and gave exciting pointers as to what might be contained within. An excitement that was immediately tempered by the ominous presence of two bland and well-mannered youngsters in the bottom left-hand corner.
Until a long-overdue getting-with of the times in the mid-eighties, the BBC were always irritatingly fond of using clean-cut, fresh-faced young innocents - frequently toting toy trains for some reason - as iconography for their children's output. Presumably this was intended as a reflection of the improving Reithian values that children's shows like Blue Peter, Treasure Houses and The Song And The Story were supposed to embody; by which logic we can only conclude that Zokko! would have been represented by some unkempt screaming incoherent kept locked in the airing cupboard for their own safety. These were kind of youngsters who would dutifully watch BBC Schools programmes even when they weren't at school, singing along enthusiastically to Music Time yet all the while failing to appreciate the unanticipated joys of that frenetic AOR instrumental that accompanied the 'dots', or the sprightly flutey theme from Watch, or indeed its easy-on-the-eye presenter Louise Hall-Taylor. The sort of children who made it past the opening titles of Go With Noakes. The sort of children, in short, who could potentially ruin this most mythologised of albums with their thoroughly non-malign influence. Come on in, they seem to be saying, it's all good clean fun here. You'll find nothing to trouble or disturb you. Apart from possibly The World Of Doctor Who.
But we were already in way above our heads. I'd spent too many hours and seen too many Mario Lanza album covers to be dissuaded now. There was a potential doorway to retronostalgic nirvana here and I was waiting for someone to say "ready to knock, turn the lock", and no amount of sepia-toned goody two shoeses were going to stand in my way. It was time to actually listen to Music From BBC Children's Programmes.
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!
I'm quite often asked how and when I cultivated my obsession with sixties jazz. I'm equally often asked why I did, and how come nobody staged an intervention. Well, as bewildering as it might sound, it all started with an album called Music From BBC Children's Programmes.
Technically, and notably less bewilderingly, it actually started when I was trying to find a copy of that particular album. For reasons that we'll be going into over the next couple of posts - and believe me, we'll be going into them alright - I had become ever so slightly fixated on finding a copy. The only problem, albeit something of a serious one, was that this apparent Noah And Nelly In The Skylark Of The Covenant wasn't exactly easy to track down. BBC Records And Tapes had deleted it from their catalogue many years beforehand, so simply walking into a shop and buying it was out. It wasn't really the sort of thing that second hand record shops bothered touching with a bargepole at that point either, so simply walking into a second hand record shop and buying it was out as well.
The only hope, it seemed, was endless rooting around in charity shops. But these were the days before fund-raising joints wised up to the financial potential of a copy of Bringing It All Back Home with a huge coffee mug ring on the cover, and all 'Long Players' tended to be flung haphazardly into the sort of shabby corner-shoved cardboard box that required anyone who'd been within ten feet of it to be treated for trichodermic mould inhalation. And even if you had managed to circumnavigate the weird characters standing at awkward angles whilst perusing the same Decca Stereo Sampler tracklisting for hours on end and got to flip through the contents, whilst carefully avoiding the urge to punch Mario Lanza in his irritatingly recurring cardboard face, there was no guarantee that you'd actually find an album that hadn't been smeared with peanut butter and used as a makeshift trouser press by its previous one careful owner. What you did sometimes find, though, in amongst the miles upon miles of James Last, Bert Kaempfert, Ray Conniff, Johnny Mann, Nina And Frederik, Nana Mouskouri, Johnny Mathis, Manuel And His Music Of The Mountains, Mario Lanza, Mario Lanza, Mario Lanza and Mario Lanza, was an unusually high proportion of sixties jazz records. Presumably the genre afficionados hadn't quite got around to appreciating the merits of vibe-heavy breathy-lady-voiced Modern Jazz with world music inflections and touches of sitar-and-backward-tape experimentalness yet, because this stuff really did just used to sit there untouched, with the intriguing-looking tinted sleeves and elongated typefaces seeming to become more and more appealing as Barnaby's Heavy Concept Album seemed to become more and more elusive. After a while, it seemed churlish not to give a couple a try.
This was, it turned out, an entry into a very different sort of secret world to the quasi-psychedelic retro-heavy nirvana seemingly and tantalisingly promised by Music From BBC Children's Programmes. It was similar how you'd always thought jazz sounded as a youngster - albeit in the mould of those piano-syncopating characters that showed up in the middle of chat shows, rather than stripy-blazered 'ragtime' loons like those planks who did the music for Harold Lloyd's World Of Comedy and indeed exhorted us all to "laugh a while", "dig that style" and surrender to the comic value of "a pair of glasses and a smile" - but spiralling off in all manner of unexpected directions, with vibraphones and electric organs to the fore and full of smooth instrumental textures, modal chord changes and wild improvisation that evoked some lost Beatle-John-Lennon-Meets-Dalek-era world of arty sophisticates slipping into hip modernist joints serving terrifyingly strong coffee. Even beyond the expected likes of Georgie Fame, Gerry Mulligan, Johnny Dankworth And Cleo Laine and Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger And The Trinity, and half-familiar names like Mike Westbrook and Michael Garrick, there was a whole alternate musical universe of just-out-of-view sounds to explore. There was Blossom Dearie, who sounded on her That's Just The Way I Want To Be album at least like some hip Kohl-eyed psychedelian that the cover photo confirmed she was most definitely not. There was the entertainingly-named Tubby Hayes, whose frantic impressionistic 'sound pictures' seemed almost too fast for the vinyl to keep up with. There was The London Jazz Four, whose underappreciated Take A New Look At The Beatles succeeded in making even the overfamiliar likes of Michelle and I Feel Fine sound like totally fresh compositions. More exotically, there were the bossanova-toting likes of Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto, and the deeply hallucinogenic raga experiments of Wolfgang Dauner, The Dave Pike Set and, of course, The Joe Harriott And John Mayer Double Quintet.
All very exciting, but in the words of another charity shop find from around the same time, "nice though this be, I seek yet further kicks". And where soft drugs and soft porn lead some on to harder drugs and harder porn, the hapless jazz addict will find themselves drawn towards ever lengthier and more abstract ventures until they arrive at that point of no musical return - 'free jazz'. No, this doesn't have anything to do with Jools Holland And His Boogie Woogie Big Brigade playing for the benefit of non-paying passers by. It's a style of jazz where improvisation takes precedence over melody and structure, and the players dispense with such trivialities as chord sequences and tempo and literally 'play how they feel'. It's complex, it's challenging, it's intellectual and it gives you an air of depth and sophistication. The only problem is that a good deal of it is basically an unlistenable racket. And yet even that sounds like Mantovani covering Take That's most commercial single next to the... well, you can't really call it 'music' of a certain band responsible for a certain album with a certain yellow lorry on the cover.
You may struggle to pick out a discernible tune in the wilder works of Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus, but AMM pretty much dispensed with the whole notion of a 'tune' altogether. This fluid collective were regulars on London's mid-sixties 'psychedelic underground' circuit, where they donned lab coats and turned the scoffing that free jazz was 'just noise' to their advantage, recruiting someone to 'play' the transistor radio alongside conventional instruments and doing away with anything resembling riffs or melody to concentrate on creating evocative soundscapes with names like Later During A Flaming Riviera Sunset and After Rapidly Circling The Plaza. Yes, there are moments when the screeching and scraping can all get a bit too much. Yes, there are moments when it sounds like a BBC Sound Effects One Hundred Best Parking Buses With Knackered Brakes album has been dropped on the floor and smashed and then haphazardly glued back together. And yes, there are moments that can only be described as sounding like a goose, browbeaten and exhausted by the relentless cacophony, is weakly pleading to be allowed out of the room. But if you're in the right mood, it can be quite an entertaining listen. Although it's not exactly one to break out as 'mood music' for a first date.
Free Jazz - it may be 'clever', but it's not big. And what's more, as the spectre-at-the-feast that was Derek Griffiths yelling "doo dk'n dk'n doo da dooda dadooda, do do do do do d'doooo!" kept naggingly reminding me, it was an improvisation too far from the real musical holy grail; as indeed the above overlong and overcomplex write-how-you-feel free-form shenanigans have been from the point that I'm supposed to be getting to. As Sun Ra And His Arkestra jetted off further into some kind of sax-wailing cosmos, Bod And His Friends were wandering into a horizonless green void. And I was somewhere in the middle, still rifling through those hazardous cardboard boxes in search of Music From BBC Children's Programmes.
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! And as a special bonus treat, here's myself and Ben Baker talking about Take A New Look At The Beatles: