Henry Cooper packs a musical punch
Chevron Records CHVL 113
What do boxers do when they stop boxing? Sadly for most of them the answer seems to be to wait for about ten years, fritter away all the money they earned during their brief and possibly illustrious career, then return to the ring to be brutally battered about the head by hungry young men many years their junior for the promise of a few more paydays before they finally collapse in the corner of the ring, washed-up for one last time, puffing wheezing and gasping as any glories or brain-cells they once had disappear forever.
Very few boxers manage the smooth transition to ex-boxer and if someone as magnificent and powerful a fighter as Mike Tyson can fritter away an estimated $300 million and end his days in a series of failed comebacks and appearances in WWE wrestling bouts what hope is there for mere mortals?
In the UK boxing legends come along so rarely, it seems that when they do the British public take them to their collective hearts, displaying large amounts of genuine affection and warmth for men whose job is ultimately to strip down to the waist and batter another human being until they fall over in an unconscious heap of spit and broken cartilage. Chief among these great pugilistic British heroes is Sir Henry Cooper OBE, a grand sounding title for a former boxer but an indicative measure of the affection he is held in.
Born in 1934 in South London, Henry and his twin brother George were both young amateur boxers, turning professional shortly after the war. Henry showed the most promise and after a series of wins against well-regarded heavyweight title contenders he was given a shot against the young Cassius Clay. Before he became world champion and before he became the legend that was Muhammad Ali, Clay was still a mighty challenge but Cooper managed to knock Clay to the ground with his trademark left hook.
A dazed Clay only managed to continue the fight after being saved by the bell and some underhand skulduggery from his trainer Angelo Dundee. Clay fought back and ultimately a cut above Henry Cooper’s eyes stopped the fight. Clay went on to take the title from Sonny Liston the following year. Cooper had another shot at Ali in 1966, this time for the world title, but another loss meant that was it for Cooper and his dreams of conquering the world. Henry contented himself instead with holding the British and Commonwealth European titles, in itself no mean achievement. A controversial final fight against Joe Bugner in 1971 saw Henry defeated and he made the decision to retire. It can’t have been an easy decision, but Cooper stuck to his word and never boxed in anger again.
So what do you do after a short but glorious career that sees you win the heart of the nation and twice receive the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award? Well for Henry Cooper, salvation came in the unlikely form of a cheap but powerful-smelling aftershave: Brut from the house of Fabergé. Appearing in an endless series of adverts alongside the likes of fellow sporting legends Kevin Keegan and Barry Sheene, Henry would exhort aspirational young men in outrageous orange-hued flared trousers across the UK to ‘splash it all over’ and immerse themselves from head to toe in the powerful and none too subtle aromas of Brut. A generation obeyed him for fear of receiving a savage left hook and by the early 1980s Britain was covered in a great stinky and impenetrable purple cloud, thick with the heady, musky, intoxicating and almost unbreathable aroma of Brut. Even to this day, Christmas stockings in the UK will continue to bulge for dads of a certain age thanks to Henry and his relentless marketing of a cologne that could comfortably mask the stench of a few dozen angry goats.
Indeed on this 1979 recording from Woolworth’s cheapo budget label Chevron, Henry Cooper’s photograph appears ‘by courtesy of Fabergé Inc’ and yes, there on the cover he can be seen clutching a vial of the precious pungent scent, its powerful nostril-destroying odour evident even from a thirty year old photo. The record itself thankfully contains no further references to the ubiquitous male grooming product, but it does contain an awful lot of faux cockney singalong nonsense. Thanks must go to Max Bygraves for pioneering this peculiar form of musical nonsense, but for the uninitiated how best to describe the unique charms of the genre.
Well, basically it is an attempt to recreate the experience of being in a London pub around closing time when someone who can’t in all honesty actually play the piano, and who can remember no more than the first two bars of any song, attempts to entertain a pub full of very drunk people by seizing control of the pub’s out-of-tune piano. Luckily the customers being entertained can normally remember no more than the first few lines of any song and can’t actually sing anyway, so no great lasting harm is ever done. In that sense I suppose the record succeeds. Henry obliges with the first few lines of two dozen (loosely defined) cockney singalong classics, repeating them if necessary should the running time fall short. He can barely sing, that much is evident, but as noted before he doesn’t really need to. It is enough that he sounds authentically cockney and working class, the guy thumping the piano like an enraged ham-fisted Liberace and the close harmony singers swamping Henry’s tuneless ramblings will cover up any mistakes or lulls in proceedings where the record listener may wonder what on earth else they could or should be doing with their time.
To recreate the chirpy party singalong format, the record doesn’t pause or cease until the end of each side. The music comes in a continuous aural assault that is designed to keep a party swinging, hammering home the need for constant fun and amusement on pain of death or assault by pickled eggs. It is therefore quite a laborious task to attempt to isolate a single track from the 24 on offer, but attempt it I have. Here with judicious pruning and subtle use of the fade effect, here is Our ‘Enerey at his most obviously cockney, singing the creaky and ancient Marie Lloyd music hall standard Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way aka My Old Man (Said Follow the Van). Sock it to us Henry!