Rock on with Cannon and Ball
Cannon and Ball
Music for Pleasure MFP 50561
The extraordinary 50 year showbiz career of Cannon and Ball started in one of the least likely places imaginable, namely a factory in Oldham. Two of the factory’s welders, Robert Harper and Thomas Derbyshire, were both part-time club singers and struck up a rapport while working there. They formed a double act singing on the Northern club circuit as the Sherrell Brothers and later as The Harper Brothers. As comedy became more and more a part of their act (supposedly because comedians could command more money from the clubs than a straight singing act) Thomas and Robert again changed their stage names, renaming themselves Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball. An unlikely sounding pair of surnames, but enough to fool me as a young child…
Clearly they were not brothers. They looked and sounded completely different, and had very different personalities. Tommy Cannon was the straight man of the act; a sensible, domineering, stern authoritarian figure whose job it seemed was primarily to control the impish malevolent Puck that was Bobby Ball. Bobby was a wire-haired attack-poodle of comedy, perpetually belligerent and angry (at what we never quite found out), as willing to assault Tommy as he was willing to smash up the orchestra, knock the cameraman’s teeth out or punch the entire audience senseless. It doesn’t sound like a winning combination I know, but their Zen influenced yin and yang like talents for mastering both order and chaos eventually won over the hearts of a confused and slightly wary nation.
Cannon and Ball’s big break came in 1968 when, fresh from the clubs, the nascent comedy duo appeared on Opportunity Knocks. Their big break then vanished in a puff of apathy as they finished in last place, probably behind a singing dog and a postman who juggled live rats, as always seemed to happen on Opportunity Knocks. They retreated back to the clubs, but the duo’s dogged perseverance was to pay off eventually. Ten years later in 1978, after occasional appearances on The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club to pay the mortgage, they were rewarded with a slot on Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night. One thing led to another and in July of 1979, the duo were granted their own Saturday prime time slot on ITV.
Overnight success after twenty years of hard graft followed. The combination of the stern and ever calm Tommy Cannon coping manfully with the angry irate goblin Bobby Ball and his humorous attempts to attack everyone he saw, like some insane comedy Rottweiler, was a winning one. As was the catchphrase used by Bobby Ball of ‘Rock on Tommy’. I still have no idea what it actually meant, but a catchphrase that is short and unfathomably inane is always sure to win over the affections of the British public. As testimony to their popularity Cannon and Ball’s sketch show enjoyed a ten year run on ITV. There was a sitcom spinoff (Plaza Patrol), the inevitable merchandise and live shows, and most unbelievably of all, a full length cinematic feature film, The Boys in Blue featuring the mattress-stuffing haired legend that is Suzanne Danielle.
So what of the record? Well it has to be said, there isn’t much actual comedy on it. Most of it consists of straight songs, built around the gravel-coated vocal talents of Tommy Cannon, with only very brief interruptions by his scowling rabid poodle-headed sidekick Bobby Ball. The album was produced by Geoff Gill, former drummer with York-based psych pop group The Smoke whose most famous hit was the trippy 1967 hit My Friend Jack. He shares writing credits with Brian McGladdery from the prog group Oscar, as well as a certain Robert Harper. The more awake of you may recall that as the real name of Mr Bobby Ball. Between them Ball, McGladdery and Gill write all the original material with the rest of the album being made up of cover versions of popular songs that alternate between the curious and the bizarre.
All bodes well for a classic comedy album as the LP starts though. Cannon and Ball ease gently into proceedings with the theme to their ITV series Together We’ll Be OK, followed by the Harper/McGladdery/Gill original Crying. Both these songs feature duets from Cannon and Ball, the first is delivered in what could generously be called a harmony, while the second is a frantic melange of insane Ball bellowing and ranting, comic banter, casual bickering, silly voices and some growly Cannon vocals. The comedy is largely abandoned after that.
Hold Me in Your Arms is a saccharine ballad that spreads sentiment onto the turntable in big thick dollops of coagulated emotion, courtesy of a gently swaying children’s choir plus more primordial growling from Tommy. Everybody’s Making it Big But Me is the first of two Dr Hook covers on the album, here embellished with the inevitable annoying banter and crude wisecracks as well as the a prime example of psychotic behaviour from Bobby Ball. Clearly, what the randy suburban housewives’ favourite Dr Hook always needed in order to achieve true megastar status, was to have someone shouting, “Shut your face Tommy” over their songs. Side one is rounded off with Let Me Rock You, another alternately warbling and growling Oldham ballad from Tommy, followed by Bandido, a Bobby Ball written effort in which Tommy sings forlornly of his past as a rebel and outlaw on the wide dusty plains of Greater Manchester, his earnest gruff growls betraying all sorts of wistful yearning and longing. He also seems to be accompanied by a novelty speaking dog, straight from the studios of That’s Life, that can bark the phrase “Run, run” on command. Odd.
The second side is more of the same really. Bobby Ball has one outing on a maniacal breakneck stomp through the children’s classic Nellie the Elephant but its largely Tommy’s record. The one other stand out track is Remember the Stars which compares Cannon and Ball to the golden Hollywood stars of yesteryear while implying that no woman is safe from their sexual charms. Scary stuff. The record ends on a low note with the downbeat track This Time. By now anyone hoping for a comedy album has probably wandered off home, as it seems has Bobby Ball.
A largely comedy free album from a highly successful comedy act at the peak of their powers and fame. What else could I play really but Nellie the Elephant? This perennially popular children’s favourite was written by Ralph Butler and Peter Hart way back in 1956 but seems ideally suited for our madcap chums Cannon and Ball. Rock on Tommy!