OK, what you have to remember is that this blog was never intended as a chart of ‘my favourite songs’ –although it might act like that at times- but rather as a kind of guilty inventory of ditties that have featured in the autobiographical snapshots that make up the fairly messy songline of my life. And they don’t come much guiltier than this one.
I think I have mentioned already that as a postwar ‘you’ve never had it so good’ working class kid I was surprisingly spoiled with regular gifts of singles to play on the new record player (in my memory very few Saturdays seemed to pass when my indulgent parents would not buy me a ‘45’ of my choice from their shopping trip –on the bus of course –to Bargoed or Blackwood). Still, there were some records that were more special than others: I believe that for my ninth birthday I received as my main present this disc – ‘Speedy Gonzalez’ By Pat Boone. While we’re at it, to add to the shame, let’s also remember and confess that for my previous birthday (8th) my main gift had been ‘Transistor Radio’ by Benny Hill.
Oh, discerning reader, you might already have made the connection: both of these were ‘novelty singles’ as I think we might now term them. What tickled and entertained the nine year old me about ‘Speedy Gonzales’ I can only now guess at. Certainly I had no notion of the cartoon character on which it is based (I am presuming that now –am I right?); and the whole mild racism of the Mexican stereotype meant nothing to me then of course.. So maybe I was amused by the funny squeaky voices in the same way as I might have been amused by Pinky and Perky and Twizzle on early 60s TV? Did the very unintelligibility of the foreignness seem a bit of tickly fun? ‘Hey Roseeta, come queek –down at the canteeena, they giving green stamps with tequeeela!’ And I presumably chuckled at all this with absolutely no knowledge of what it meant – Green (shield) stamps I knew about, yes, but ‘ tek-eela’ (fly-killer?), no idea –and probably ‘canteena’ likewise.
I could go easy on myself and say, well, I was very young after all… But still my susceptibility to this sort of thing seems mildly depressing to me now. In fact I can picture a whole stream of novelty singles stretching from Tommy Steele’s ‘Little White Bull’ (I even wrote to Children’s Favourites to get this played on the radio…) through ‘Ello my Darlings’ (Charlie Drake) and Bernard Cribbins’ songs ‘Right Said Fred’ etc. Even something like James Darren’s ‘Conscience’ (‘Ah-ah-ah this is your conscience speaking..’) another 45 which was one of the proudest in my collection….through to the Barron Knights and their parodies of pop bands in the mid sixties. And if all of that is depressing, this next thought is even more so: that all pop music is a kind of novelty single –a kind of lowest common denominator fun, cynically mass produced from a commercially driven industry eager to exploit the short attention spans, the need for quick titillation, for undemanding hooks, refrains and gimmicks for the new disposable-income generation in the postwar decades. All of it –the parade (the literal parade – the ‘hit’ parade) of three-minute singles, churned out by (at the classier end of things!) the Brill Building –Klein and Goffin, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weill et al; at the cruddier end, some cynical entrepreneur with capital to hire a studio, some backing singers, cliché-stringing pen, and the means of production. Pete Waterman and the ilk that preceded, and follow in that wake.
Speaking of which, let me take a minor detour for a moment to talk about another Pat Boone record we had bought –the very first in fact – ‘Sugar Moon’, and bought as a larger 78-rpm single in that thicker, harder, more brittle plastic that was used then. I think I had pointed out to my parents for purchase (‘I’ll have that one’) almost randomly –maybe I liked the sound of the title, who knows, maybe even the assonantal rhyme of ‘Moon’ and ‘Boone’? I found it on youtube the other day and listened. The song could have been constructed by Tin Pan Alley computers (had such things existed then) with its predictable, bland, melodic construction, its ragbag of romantic clichés, its verse-bridge-verse format, its syrupy ooh-ing sessions singers behind Mr. Boone, its plinky hammered piano chords in 6/8 (?) dullness, and ubiquitous sixties bits of sax attempting to flesh it out to a fatter sound. Selling it well, aren’t I? Its saving grace is its modest brevity –today equally inane pieces of muzak are dragged out to twice the length. But I played it; and must have liked it? …
Woe is me. If you want to pile on the agony, you could even say that a distinctly ‘novelty’ single – ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ was even my way in to appreciating Joni Mitchell. Yikes.
Where does this leave us once the gloom of this realization has settled? Always good to face up to reality. The wonder of it is that despite it all –the crassness, the formulaic commercialism, the cynical exploitation of low appetites and lazy listening, somehow, somehow and sometimes, something of value squeaks through. Sometimes the form can transcend the silliness of novelty and touch the spirit like art can do; or can harness some kind of common humanity in a narrative or a symbol, as the best of folk tale and folk song can do.
Or, presumably, I wouldn’t be bothering to write these things… would I?