Monday, 28 June 2010

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Hot Hits 6



(#94: 7 August 1971, 1 week)

Zoo De Zoo Zong/River Deep, Mountain High/Banner Man/Me And You And A Dog Named Boo/When You Are A King/Pied Piper/Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep/Tom-Tom Turnaround/Don’t Let It Die/Black And White/Monkey Spanner/Co-Co

The Geoff Boycott Bat appeared courtesy of Lillywhites Limited, Piccadilly Circus, W.1, the bikini was supplied by Nelbarden Swimwear, the double entendre is obvious and we can identify at least one demographic who might have bought albums of this kind. Having sat through the album, I am very tempted to leave my comments there, but as a writer with a conscience I owe an explanation of this curious phenomenon to overseas readers or those too young to have experienced early seventies consumer Britain. There are two further albums of this ilk – but from a parallel and far more famous series – to follow shortly in this tale, and the understandable kneejerk questions “what?” and “why?” require some answers.

Where they have all ended up is perhaps an easier question to answer than where they all came from; trawling through boxes of spent vinyl in charity shops unearths dozens of editions of what one might call “diet” editions of music; Sounds Like Sinatra, A Tribute To The Carpenters, Salute To Nat “King” Cole, and acres of Hallmark, Pickwick, Embassy and Music For Pleasure “soundalike” compilations of hits. The latter were not a particularly new development in 1971; indeed Embassy had been issuing turn-on-a-dime budget albums of quickfire robot covers of recent hits for a decade. The other corporations eventually followed suit; the Hot Hits series stemmed from EMI’s budget subsidiary Music For Pleasure, a joint enterprise set up in the sixties between EMI and the publishers Paul Hamlyn whereby competitively-priced, quickly-recorded, off-the-peg albums could be sold in bookshops, supermarkets, newsagents and even chemists – i.e. with a target audience of people who generally didn’t buy, or couldn’t afford to buy, records of music as a habit and weren’t too fussed if what they did purchase wasn’t quite the real thing. Although actual EMI artists did appear on these budget compilations – Capitol stars from the fifties such as Sinatra and Martin, and eventually the likes of Herman’s Hermits, the Animals, Matt Monro, Lulu and even Pink Floyd (the odds-and-sods compilation Relics, perhaps the only indispensable MFP issue) and the Beatles – the emphasis was generally on easy-on-the-ear mood music (tinkling pianos, summery Hawaiian guitars) or re-recordings of famous stage shows; the MFP Sound Of Music release shifted a quarter of a million copies, so in business terms it was a shrewd move.

In the late sixties, via the Australian ex-male model Bill Wellings, the Hot Hits series came into being. The premise was simple; scan the recent charts, pick twelve hits, hire session singers and musicians to record covers with the aim being to sound as close to the original record as possible, and release albums on a rapid turnover basis. I well remember seeing these records in Woolworths, John Menzies, Boots the Chemist, etc.; strategically placed close to the checkout counter in the manner that bread produce about to expire has its price marked down in the supermarket – the ideal solution for someone who didn’t necessarily have the money to buy twelve separate singles. Well, as ideal as the industry at the time would allow; the ideal solution would of course have been for a discount-priced compilation of the original records by the original artists, but record companies were fiercely competitive and unwilling to collaborate – the Now age was still at this point a dozen years away – and moreover were over-protective, arguing that such compilations would divert sales from their artists’ current product.

So in seventies Britain, one was expected, still, to make do and mend. “Can you tell the difference between these versions and the original?” was MFP’s chief pitch, and you wouldn’t have had to be Charlie Gillett to be able to discern the difference immediately. But, to these records’ target audience, it didn’t seem to matter; you could stick it on in the background, or on the radiogram in the next room, and it sounded like a reasonable facsimile, even if close, attentive listening revealed the processed emptiness of the enterprise. The only reason why such records are appearing in this story – and I thought hard about excluding them, or simply mentioning them and quickly moving on, but a writer’s conscience is a strong thing – is that chart compilers the British Market Research Bureau, having learned nothing from their experiment of two years previously, when the summer of Woodstock and moon landings was soundtracked by Ray Conniff and Jim Reeves, again altered the rules in order to allow budget-priced albums into the main chart.

Thus we arrive at Hot Hits 6, an album which some might say fully deserves having a cricket bat swung at it, although the main emotion it engendered in me was frustration and befuddlement, not just at the cumulative feebleness of the record, but at a situation where such flaccid and downright weird songs could access a singles chart from which “Me And Bobby McGee,” “What’s Going On?” and “Clean Up Woman” had been excluded. For example, there is Blue Mink’s “Banner Man,” where a crowd go up a hill, stand still for a bit and walk back down again, all to an Orange Lodge march soundtrack – was this a disguised commentary on the Troubles? – and the queasy accordion-dragged lullaby of White Plains’ “When You Are A King.” It is an unusual and rather flat choice of songs – the kind of offensively inoffensive wallpaper Dale Winton might spin on Radio 2’s Pick Of The Pops – mainly either written to order for other acts (some of whom, like the aforementioned Blue Mink and White Plains, existed only in the studio), or revived oldies (only Hurricane Smith’s disturbingly plaintive World Wildlife Fund anthem “Don’t Let It Die” can rightly be said to have been written and performed by the same artist) and together assemble a convincing argument as to why, and how sorely and urgently, glam rock was needed. Only one song – “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep,” arguably the most disturbing of these dozen tunes – made it to number one in the singles chart; many peaked in the mid-range of the Top 20. To show that Brian Ward’s BWD Productions, the company who supplied MFP with Hot Hits content, could sometimes call it wrong, one song was not a hit at all.

That latter starts off the album; “Zoo De Zoo Zong” was composed by the ubiquitous Rogers Cook and Greenaway as a one-off single for Twiggy; as the model was then starring in Ken Russell’s thoroughly misguided film of The Boy Friend, no doubt it was felt that the obvious route to a hit was twenties pastiche, complete with fiddle, banjo, tuba and “Lazy Bones” paraphrases. The unnamed female singer reveals some immediate problems with pitching, which recur throughout the record (most painfully on “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep,” which she unaccountably delivers in the style of Sandie Shaw), but disaster makes itself apparent when a booming male spoken voice intrudes: “MIGHT AS WELL SING ALONG,” he intones gloomily, like Valentine Dyall forced to be a Butlin’s Redcoat. His chat-up patter (“Pretty face…a bit skinny, though”) is lamentable, and while the song is at least in part aware of its own ridiculousness (“I’d rather have Moon in June, Spoon in June”), things go from bad to worse as the chat-up merchant wanders randomly through various accents, seemingly at will, from Cockney to sub-Reg Presley West Country via Ireland.

There really isn’t much point in going through the other eleven tracks in detail; none is exactly bad, as in slipshod or amateurish (since “amateur” would imply that the musicians were enjoying themselves doing this), and the arrangements are thoroughly professional, as are the two male session singers, neither of whom is easily identifiable. There is talk of the likes of Elton John, Dana Gillespie, Rod Stewart and Tina Charles being involved in these albums from time to time, but the female singer (although sounding a little bit like Sunny of Sue and Sunny fame) definitely isn’t Tina, and although the mellower-toned male lead does a good Allan Clarke (“When You Are A King”) and a better Peter Noone (“Tom-Tom Turnaround”) – even if neither was a Hollies or Herman’s Hermits disc (the latter was an early Chinn and Chapman effort, a doomy country ballad – albeit with a happy ending - written for Australian folk group and Opportunity Knocks winners New World) – there are, I suspect, no to-be-famous names involved in this record, but rather rep reliables of the session singing world – Tony Steven, Danny Street, Ken Barrie? – ready to turn up, do what’s needed, get paid and go home.

These recordings are…efficient. “River Deep, Mountain High” is based on the Supremes/Four Tops cover version, and despite an early miscue (“Stronger”) and the omission of half of the second chorus, the track is professionally done. The Roger Cook impersonator on “Banner Man” makes the word “ran” sound like a constipated Bee Gee and the harmonies on the second chorus are particularly limp, although the lead trombone is rather more lugubrious and pronounced than on the original. Lobo’s “Me And You And A Dog Named Boo,” one of a deluge of VW camper odes to newly-found freedom, sounds numb (the original has Kent LaVoie sounding surprisingly like the Canadian singer/songwriter Michel Pagliaro).

The three reggae tracks do demonstrate how slow British session musicians were to adapt to new rhythms; “Pied Piper,” an ominous transatlantic top five hit in 1966 for the recently departed Crispian St Peters, was revived by Bob Andy and Marcia Griffith five years later, but the rhythms here, even with Johnny Arthey’s Willesden Strings chart (reproduced fairly faithfully), are sluggish and lacklustre, and the voices thoroughly anonymous (so much for “you…masquerading”). Worse still is the attempt at “Black And White,” the anti-racist folk anthem of the fifties revived by the reggae group Greyhound (and a US number one for Three Dog Night in 1972, after singer Danny Hutton chanced upon the Greyhound version). Here the male lead really does sound like a West End second lead during his lunch break; clearly he would much rather be tackling Sunday In The Park With George but his boisterous, theatrical vibrato cuts the song’s sentiments dead. His future is neither black nor white, but an anaemic beige. But even this comes on like the finale of Into The Woods in comparison with the truly lamentable take on Dave and Ansil Collins’ “Monkey Spanner” – essayed by, I think, the same singer – which crawls along in the manner of a newly amputated snail.

By the time we crawl out of the professional wreckage of the version of Sweet’s “Co-Co,” the game really is up; this is little more than recorded karaoke, or the music which a real Partridge Family might have played at your local community centre, or a soundtrack to make you feel as though you’ve been in a dentist’s waiting room forever. The tactics are subtle but strike deep; the cumulative effect is one of diet pop, something which looks and tastes like actual pop, but with all the flavour and individuality ruthlessly squeezed and processed out of it. There is no individual character to any of these recordings, nothing to link the listener to the singer or the song, no fat, no flavour, no oomph. It is merely there, in the middleground, for people who couldn’t afford or, worse, didn’t want something better and truer. There are those survivors who were active in the music business in Britain during the fifties and sixties who will still claim that albums have always been a con trick, a lever to support a single past its sales peak. Here is the strongest evidence in support of that rather forlorn argument; a record, literally by nobody (the “VARIOUS ARTISTS” credit at the top of this entry is a generosity on my part and reads better than “ANONYMOUS”), which doesn’t appear to exist for any other reason than to make a quick buck. As I say, many still think that’s all pop has ever been. If I felt that, of course, there would be no reason for writing this blog. But this record, and all the others like it, which still litter shops of the forgotten and the rejected, suggest premature death; a world where nothing does matter except for the implacable market and a public ready to take whatever scraps are thrown at them. And, as already mentioned, there are two more of these to do, at the expense of other, more deserving entries. Where did I put that cricket bat?

6 comments:

Marcello Carlin said...

I've had a few further, more informal thoughts about this.

Mark G said...

I'd answer *that* question with:

Bear in mind that the average UK hifi's sound quality was not much better than a knitting needle attached to a cardboard box, so not only did less discerning listeners feel they were getting a bargain, but even Charlie Gillett would be hard placed to tell stork from butter on one of those.

Marcello Carlin said...

It was mostly the venerable Bush radiogram that you saw in households around the time; my mum still has hers and it still packs a bit of a punch sonically, I have to say. In stork/butter terms – the Hurricane Smith one maybe?

Also, as several other readers have commented, the packaging of these albums was subtly deceptive to make buyers think they were getting the original versions, especially if you were younger; you’re not necessarily going to know the difference when you’re ten or eleven.

Good debate warming up on LiveJournal and I’ll be expanding on those ideas in entry #96.

david said...

I bought the first two Hot Hits collections. You shouldn't underestimate the appeal of the covers to a testerone fulled thirteen year old. Oh, and those Elton covers definitely exist. There's a whole CD of them, including versions I remember well from those 2 albums. Never went near a 'Top of the Pops' compilation though...

thriftyvinyl said...

excellent stuff - its a pleasure to read some serious analyis of these records. incidentally i have an unaccountable fondness for the Hots Hits version of Johnny Reggae (in Vol.8)- my defaced copy here;
http://thriftyvinyl.wordpress.com/2009/10/12/hot-hits-round-8/
looking forward to part 3...

Martiblartfast said...

I remember buying Top of the Pops vol 29 (I had to look that up on a website http://topofthepopslps.weebly.com). I was eleven and didn't have a clue that they were covers, I just knew that I liked the songs and I could afford it. I took it round to my cousin's to play it. Anyway, whilst Roll Over Beethoven was on my older cousin stuck his head round the door and shouted "what the bloody hell is that?. When I told him it was Roll over Beethoven he replied "No, this is Roll over Beethoven" and put on ELO's version. I was almost blown off my feet at the difference in power between the two. I grew up that day.