Russ Abbot – Party animal
I Love a Party
K-tel ONE 1313
Russ Abbot has been knocking around the world of British light entertainment for over fifty years. He seems to have weathered the vagaries and vicissitudes of fame better than most of his contemporaries during that time, and the fact that he is still omnipresent and inescapable on TV and the stage is testimony to his chameleon-like ability to adapt and evolve with changing tastes and fashions. Not for Russ becoming a bitter complaining old comic, forever reminding people of his 1980s heyday and his decade long run as a star. No, for Russ has moved on many times since then. He is an established musical star, a dramatic and comic actor and a comedian of some note. Russ Abbot is that rarest of people, the last perhaps of a select dying breed. He is, speak it softly, a true all-round entertainer.
Born in Chester in 1947, his nascent entertainment career began in a succession of local bands. Eventually as a comedian/drummer (a potential Keith Moon of Deeside in the making) the Black Abbots formed around him in the early 1960s. The big break for Russ and his band came, as so many big breaks did back then, courtesy of Opportunity Knocks. The band were a winning act back in 1969 and were rewarded with a series of record contracts on minor labels. Their subsequent string of records never really did justice to the talents of the band and by the mid-1970s their carefully constructed act was in danger of disappearing forever.
Salvation however came when the band switched emphasis from able lead vocalist Clive Jones to madcap drummer Russ Abbot. Odd pop combos and comedy novelty records were all the vogue during the 70s and Russ fitted the bill perfectly. Within a few short years his blend of tightly crafted musicianship and knockabout comedy had reversed the fortunes of the band and raised them from nowhere to become at least the equals of The Grumbleweeds and The Barron Knights. Okay, that may sound faint praise, but round these parts, praise doesn’t come much higher.
Russ had perfected his comedy routines on shows such as Who Do You Do? And for a while at least Russ Abbot the budding comedian existed alongside Russ Abbot the manic drummer of the Black Abbots. All that changed in the autumn of 1979 when Freddie Starr invited Russ to appear with him in the ITV show Freddie Starr’s Variety Madhouse. Luckily for Russ, Freddie was (and probably still is) a teensy bit restless and far too odd to stick at something as safe and conventional as a Saturday prime-time family-orientated TV show. After just six episodes Starr quit the show, leaving LWT with a large gaping hole in their shooting schedules. When the show returned in the spring it was simply entitled Russ Abbot’s Madhouse. The annals of TV history attest that Russ’s big chance had arrived and he seized it as firmly as he could.
The show was a great vehicle for Russ’s talents. The Madhouse appealed to all ages and was perfectly suited for the coveted Saturday evening slot still fought over by broadcasters today. Its manic unrelenting blend of slapstick humour played out by a vast array of broad and grotesque comic characters led to huge audiences. Reversing the disastrous trend of jumping from BBC to ITV, as pioneered by Morecambe and Wise and The Goodies, Russ moved from ITV to the BBC in 1986 and went on to even greater popularity and acclaim, making stars of Les Dennis and Michael Barrymore in the process. Oh and of course Bella Emberg!
Russ’s first solo foray into vinyl came in 1982 when he released the single A Day In The Life Of Vince Prince, a concept piece built around the popular aging Teddy Boy Madhouse character of the same name. The single crept into the nether regions of the charts but wasn’t a great hit. This slight success must have heartened and inspired Russ, for a full Madhouse inspired album was released with the backing of LWT a year later in time for Christmas 1983. Such things are addictive and as Christmas 1984 approached Russ Abbot must have been eyeing a follow-up, for that is when he launched his most successful and sustained assault on the UK hit parade.
Sadly Atmosphere was not an attempt to cover the posthumously released Ian Curtis penned Joy Division song of the same name. Which is a shame as that truly would have been one of the finest pieces of crossover music ever committed to vinyl. Instead Atmosphere was an inspired piece of nonsense disco pop composed by the triumvirate of Ben Findon, Eddie Tucker and Stephen Rodway. They were an unlikely set of songwriters who had first met as they penned hits for Billy Ocean back in the early 1970s. Ben Findon had a solid background in nonsense disco thanks to his work writing for the Nolans, while soul musician Tucker and producer Rodway brought technical skills as well as that essential ear for a hit. Rodway would go on to production and remix duties for the likes of the Spice Girls and Pulp, but Russ Abbot was his big break. Something he probably doesn’t mention too much these days.
Despite the relentless catchy nature of his potential disco hit, Russ missed out on the Christmas number one. In retrospect Christmas 1984 wasn’t the best year to attempt to top the charts. The small matter of Band Aid rattling their collecting tin for charity managed to keep even the big guns of Wham! and Paul McCartney off the top slot. Amidst that company Russ stood no chance. With great, grimly determined persistence Atmosphere loitered around the charts like a disgruntled Christmas guest who has decided he might as well hang about to see what delights Easter holds. Eventually the insanely addictive disco madness of Atmosphere prevailed and by February 1985 it climbed to number seven. Russ Abbot had a top ten hit!
The song inspired two follow-up singles, plus a follow-up album that included all three single releases in an attempt to monopolise the charts for Christmas 1985. The LP I Love a Party performed respectably, enjoying a top 20 slot over the festive season. It is a curious mixture of original Findon material alongside covers that span the generations of popular music. I wouldn’t say that any of the covers truly succeed. They are inoffensive and enjoyable, and all of them are imbued with the infectious upbeat tempo that Atmosphere established as Russ’s popular hit-making signature sound. Some are established novelty hits (YMCA and Una Paloma Blanca) while the others are a mix of easy listening classics (When You’re In Love With a Beautiful Woman) combined with a few contemporary hits (Uptown Girl) and various efforts by Russ to tackle the canon of popular music (the amiably pleasing Beach Boys’ Medley that ends the album).
I could have picked from any of the above tracks to close my ramblings, but I felt that my discerning readers would relish the chance to indulge in something other than the obvious de rigueur choice of Atmosphere. So here for your pleasure is Russ tackling the power-soul of Stevie Wonder with Happy Birthday. I have always thought that Stevie’s version, as good as it is, does play down the Martin Luther King inspired lyrics, hiding them behind virtuoso musicianship and a wall of heavy funk. The civil rights aspect of the song always felt like some guilty secret intent, subtly masked so that the song could be played every time a provincial travelling disco needed an unchallenging topical hit for the birthday girl for whom they were hired. So here, stripped of any form of that silly virtuoso musicianship and showing off, is Russ Abbot with his pared down and touching tribute to Martin Luther King. I am sure Dr King would approve of his efforts. Russ Abbot’s period on vinyl was brief but it was spectacular.
Further Russ Abbot hagiography at: