Sunday, 16 November 2014

Whatever happened to novelty singles?

The 'C' word is fast approaching (no, I mean 'Christmas') but something is lacking...

Once upon a time (he said, Grimm-ly) there would always be a novelty single to look forward to, but that trend seems to have died away. Even dubious cover versions have disappeared. Granted, Justin Bieber might well be reluctant to release a cover of I Shot the Sheriff on the grounds that plenty of folks in authority might believe him and have him arrested (now, there's a thought for your Santa wish-list) but that still doesn't explain the lack of silly songs.

Even though this used to be something of a seasonal event - the 1970's were welcomed by Benny Hill's Ernie, for instance - the further back in time you go, the more frequent the silly song appeared, threat of snow or not.

Two of my earliest musical memories - and before you say it, the record player had been invented then, and no, it was not still called a 'phonograph' - by many, anyway- were Bernard Cribbins singing about a Hole in the Ground and Right Said Fred a shade over fifty years ago. It wasn't just a quirky British phenomenon either - in 1963 the American Allen Sherman tanked (sorry) his way up the charts with Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah. Nor was it a genre only approached by comedic talent - Sophia Loren 'duetted' on Goodness Gracious Me with Peter Sellers even earlier. I won't dwell on Clinton Ford's Fanlight Fanny, though, for more reasons than I care to mention.

And people wonder why I have such an eclectic taste in music...

It used to be a case of novelty songs for their own sake. My teenage years, the seventies (nineteen, that is, thank you very much) saw a plethora of silliness. The Goodies had their Funky Gibbon not long after Chuck Berry was (hit) parading his Ding-a-Ling, the Barron Knights were still Live In Trouble and Judge Dread had a string of 'big' hits (Big Five, Big Six, Big... well, I'm sure you get the picture).

These were releases, as I say, for their own sake, but some songs were released in order to allow novelty 'B' sides some air time - Jasper Carrott 'sang' about his Funky Moped to bring a rather more risque Magic Roundabout to our ears and almost anything by Dr Hook & the Medicine Show displayed their B-sided comedic roots (The Millionaire, anyone?). Some were issued to blatantly advertise the singers' presences elsewhere - think 'The Wombles' and, if you're feeling suicidal, 'The Smurfs' - which was advertising by any other name and probably the only chance for such an activity on the BBC in the UK.

Then there were releases that were topical comedic takes on life as it was being lived back then. Ray Stevens sang about The Streak which in the weirdest way seemed to bring a certain level of 'okay-ness' to the act of getting your kit off and dashing about the streets, supermarkets or for the truly adventurous, televised sports events.

The Monster Mash brought laughter (and truly awful impressions) to the whole Halloween business and even marriage break-ups were made vaguely amusing by Billy Connolly's cover of D-I-V-O-R-C-E (and possibly, for wildly differing reasons, his parody of Village People's In the Navy, which for Connolly was In the Brownies).

That decade ended and a new one started with Chas & Dave Rabbitting (when maybe they should have listened to Joe Dolce's advice when he sang Shaddup You Face), and at a time when The Monk's offered me sound advice through the dubious medium of Nice Legs, Shame About the Face.

From the eighties onwards we have seen a more raucous, less whimsical, edge enter the novelty market although The Firm's Star Trekkin' was firmly based in taking the rise out of topical entertainment and the Pogues' Fairytale of New York with the sadly missed and absolutely brilliant Kirsty MacColl at least addressed Christmas. We saw Spitting Image advise us to 'Climb Inside a Dog and Behead an Eskimo' in the Chicken Song, but were able to balance that through the advice of Monty Python, although to Always Look on the Bright Side of Life isn't easy (although probably a lot easier than it is to 'Hold a Chicken in the Air and Stick a Deckchair up your Nose' - thank you once again, Spitting Image). Living Next Door to whoever Alice is, begat a certain question if you believe Roy 'Chubby' Brown, although anyone who waits for twenty-four years probably can't answer even the most direct of inquiries.

The novelty song seems to have slowly given way to the charity single. Hale & Pace began the nineties with The Stonk for charity but in recent years these types of single have become closer to straight covers, no matter that the recordings are by comedians - think I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) (you wish...), Is This the Way to... (ok, ok, I'll let you off that one), Islands in the Stream, or, appropriately, Help.

Some are certainly decent pieces of music - the BBC themselves are currently extolling the virtues of their own licence fee with a none-too-subtle but really rather good cover of the Beach Boys' classic, God Only Knows featuring lines and chords from the great and good such as Stevie Wonder, Pharrell Williams, Elton John, Brian May, Chrissie Hynde and Paloma Faith (spot the odd one out for me - and yes he is male, white and has dubious hair - but not (normally, anyway) a curly barnet).

 I'm not so sure that these charitable - and other - covers and arrangements really qualify as 'novelty' records although there are still some eminently laughable tracks out there (anything by One Direction springs to mind) and I'm not for a moment yearning for the return of the likes of the Ying-Tong-Song or Bangers and Mash - but... surely some act, somewhere can come up with a vaguely witty way of telling me what I need to do with my turkey next month?

And by the way, I genuinely used to own copies of The Goodies' suggestions - Father Christmas Do Not Touch Me, and Stuff It - both viable for the turkey, I guess, but I've already taken novelty note of them...

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