There can be few bands that have, without ever exploring new genres, changing their look or experimenting with their sound, enjoyed quite the long-lasting appeal and enduring popularity of The Wurzels. Comedy or otherwise. Still gigging, still releasing records and still boosting cider sales after an incredible 45 years, what The Wurzels have accomplished is nothing short of remarkable.
Adge Cutler and The Wurzels,
EMI Records SK 6126,
While they are best remembered for the remarkable run of hits they had in the 1970s and in their recent 2000s renaissance, the story of The Wurzels began many years ago. Back in 1966 in fact, when a jobbing young labourer named Alan John Cutler returned to England from an unsuccessful time spent looking for work in Spain. Although he had been out of work he had been far from idle. For Adge (as he was known to his friends) was from Portishead in Somerset and had composed a few amusing ditties in his broad local dialect during his spare time. On his return to Somerset, Adge’s repertoire of silly rural songs was enough to secure a handful of local gigs. From small acorns do mighty wurzels grow…
Britain has always had a soft spot for novelty acts and for songs sung in regional accents. The likes of Norfolk’s Singing Postman, Berkshire’s Pam Ayres or Glasgow’s Andy Stewart stand as testimony to the bizarre affection people from the UK reserve for silly songs sung in unusual dialects. Logic would seem to dictate that such impenetrable regional twangs would render a song almost utterly incomprehensible to those from outside a small geographical area, and commercially unappealing to anyone who wasn’t related to the singer or a close personal friend. But such is the nature of our odd little island that a distinct local accent and a nonsensical whimsical song can often be the launch pad for a long and successful career. And so it was with Adge. He soon progressed to playing gigs around the country, including Liverpool’s famous Cavern Club.
Adge’s fame spread even further when he was invited to play on the West Country regional television network TWW, as part of their appropriately named The Cider Apple TV show. Suddenly pubs were no longer large enough to accommodate the number of people that wanted to listen to the amusing local lad and his bucolic songs about muck spreaders and tractors, and so Adge graduated to playing larger clubs and theatres. Securing himself a manager to cope with the increased workload, Adge then needed a backing band to bolster his sound. And so, in June of 1966 while the rest of England were busy winning the World Cup, Adge Cutler set about recruiting a drummer, a bass guitarist, a banjo player and a accordionist. And so it came to pass that the enduring legends that are The Wurzels were born.
Before pursuing a musical career, Adge had had many jobs: market gardener, civil engineer, labourer, nuclear power station worker, road manager for Acker Bilk and cider farm worker. Now that may sound like the various plot lines for a season of The Simpsons, but it was his time spent working at Coates cider farm that was to be the most significant inspiration for Adge and provide his passport to fame. Drink Up Thy Zider had been written by Adge many years before as a song suitable for rousing a pub full of drunk West Country drinkers. Simple in form and catchy enough to sink into the brain even after a few gallons of high-octane scrumpy, the song soon replaced more familiar pub standards in Adge’s repertoire and became something of a local favourite around Bristol and Somerset.
With his strong regional support secure and his new backing band behind him, Adge was now ready to cut a single and Drink Up Thy Zider was the logical choice. Under duress from Adge’s manager, the sympathetic and understanding EMI producer Bob Barrett took the odd bunch of yokels under his wing and signed them up (he would in fact go on to produce The Wurzels for the next twenty years). When the single was released, it proved to be much more popular than anyone could have dreamed of. Far from being just a minor regional hit and an obscure dead-end in musical history, it became a national bestseller. The single crept out of Somerset and into the UK national charts at number 45 in February of 1967. An extraordinary feat for a début release from a glorified pub band fuelled solely by cider and strong cheese, rather than the more fashionable drugs of the day.
The resulting debut album was released in the wake of the single’s success and, like its predecessor, also made its mark on the pop charts of 1967. The eponymous album Adge Cutler and The Wurzels was recorded live in The Royal Oak pub in Nailsea and was an unqualified triumph. All the songs had been composed and gradually refined by Adge over many years. All he in effect needed for the recording was an appreciative audience and a decent backing band, and luckily he had both.
The songs on the album seem to fall into one of three main categories. First there are the musical geographical travelogues. A clever conceit, for while the songs themselves are certainly jaunty, catchy and uproarious in their own right, by cramming in as many place names as is possible in three minutes they make an instant impact on the cider addled crowds. Songs like When the Common Market Comes to Stanton Drew (with its morbid dread of garlic, wine, pasta and Belgians), Pill Pill, Tanglefoot Twitch or Chew Magna Cha Cha perhaps best showcase this style. Reading like a rural gazetteer set to music, the songs must have seemed instantly familiar to a half-cut horde of straw covered scrumpy fiends, like some arcane half-remembered folk songs handed down from generation to generation.
Secondly there are the comic songs, not necessarily wholly devoid of place names, but certainly full of schoolboy glee, cheeky innuendo and clever wordplay. These songs ,such as Twice Daily, Thee Cassent Kill Cooch, Hark at ‘ee Jacko and Mabel Mabel retain much of the appeal of music hall about them. Indeed, in many places they would not have sounded out of place bursting forth from the mouths of those masters of naughty lyrics such as George Formby or Max Miller. In fact Twice Daily was considered so naughty by the BBC when it was released as the B-side of Drink Up Thy Zider, that it was immediately and unceremoniously banned.
And thirdly there are the songs which reveal Adge’s folk roots. The Mixer Man’s Lament, a tale spoken from the heart from a genuine former cement mixer, is a clever working song in the true folk tradition. Had cement mixers not been a modern invention you would swear it was an ancient 17th century ballad collected by an eager itinerant archivist like Cecil Sharp.
Well, those fields won’t plough themselves, so to play us out today I have selected Adge Cutler and The Wurzels performing The Champion Dung Spreader. Recorded in the studio as their second single, this is the live and far superior original. Can’t you just smell the silage?