Terry Wogan – Waking up to whimsy
Now a respected and much-loved broadcaster, Sir Terry Wogan was once merely an ambitious young DJ intent on subjugating the entire planet and enslaving its population. And here is the soundtrack to his plans, a collection of whimsical songs and ditties that would have played on a loop while we pitiful workers slaved away, deep underground in his sinister mining operations…
Terry Wogan Sings,
Philips 9109 223,
Somewhere in the bowels of BBC Broadcasting House the dignified septuagenarian gentleman, Sir Terence Wogan, sits in a well-padded leather armchair, nestled by the fireside in a cosy oak-panelled drawing room. Covered in a thick layer of dust and with a faint musty aroma swirling around him, Wogan seems to smile gently at the memory of some half-remembered jokes as he drifts in and out of slumber, quietly mumbling to himself and emitting the occasional snicker. But don’t let that air of faux decrepitude fool you.
For Sir Terence is ready at a moment’s notice to be coaxed out of his stupor, should he be required to lend his whimsical avuncular gravitas to a charity telethon or to an impromptu radio broadcast addressing the nation. He may appear to be a slumbering teddy bear fuelled by biscuits and Horlicks, but underneath that well-crafted façade there still lurks the ambitious young cub from Limerick who conquered British broadcasting so completely.
Terry Wogan has now settled into his role as respected elder statesman of radio. His listeners over the years have grown old with him and represent a formidably staunch and loyal army of elderly fanatics. Woe betide anyone who defames Sir Terry, for the wrath of his TOGs (Terry’s Old Geezers or Terry’s Old Gals) is mighty and fearsome. There was a time though, back in the 1960s, when unbelievably Terry Wogan had not even set foot in a broadcasting studio. After leaving school he had settled into a steady yet unchallenging job at the Royal Bank of Ireland. For four years the young Wogan had gradually settled into a life of golf and cashiering and looked to be heading for a career well away from showbiz.
What changed history and robbed a rural Irish bank of an avuncular teddy bear of a bank manager, was a job advert in the Irish Independent. Radio Éireann were offering training courses for on-air announcers and Terry, bored with counting loose change and pounding bits of paper with a big rubber stamp, saw his chance of escape. With the aid of some suitably clever fibs regarding his ability to speak Gaelic, he passed the audition and earned his place on the radio station’s training course. Part-time radio work was his reward and after the heady thrill of broadcasting The Cattle Market Report to the farmers of Ireland, Terry soon realised that banking could no longer offer him the fulfilment he sought. After that revelation, he never looked back.
In 1967 Wogan sent a tape of his Irish show Terry Awhile to the BBC and was rewarded with spots on the recently launched BBC Radio 1 and 2. Initially, amidst all the seasoned pirate radio stalwarts such as Tony Blackburn and Kenny Everett, Wogan was an unknown quantity. After making his mark on radio he soon graduated to TV presenting with Come Dancing. After he bagged the coveted breakfast show slot on BBC Radio 2, Wogan’s ascent was assured. Soon he was famous for his ubiquity more than his broadcasting talent. Wogan was soon popping up everywhere much to the amusement of satirists and comedians everywhere. Soon though, even this level of ubiquity would be eclipsed…
The 1970s, as I have noted many many times, were capable of making the most unlikely of records into hits. In 1977, a date now known forever as the year of punk and disco, none other than The Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band had a major success with their version of The Floral Dance. It is fair to say that it was neither disco nor punk, but it was a hit alright, spending thirteen weeks in the charts and selling over half a million copies. Had it not been for the multi-million selling Mull Of Kintyre hogging the number one slot for so many weeks, the tuba and trumpet players of West Yorkshire would undoubtedly have had a Christmas number one.
The Floral Dance was, and presumably still is, a Cornish folk dance written in 1911 by Katie Moss and has many verses detailing how various lads and lasses enjoy themselves around that neck of the woods without the diversions of modernity to distract them. With much revelling and cavorting, it’s a joyous and carefree sort of folk number, but the brass players of Rastrick naturally missed out the lyrics entirely such is their passion for a well tuned trombone.
This omission was noticed by Terry Wogan and every time the record was played on his radio show, he made up for their careless deficiency and gleefully sung (well, spoke) along with the record, turning the instrumental back into a folk song. Many listeners subsequently confessed to Terry that they had only bought it because they though he had sung on it. So he did just that and released his own version of the track in January of 1978, with the brassier version still lingering around the charts as well.
Terry’s clear stentorian bass tones lend an authoritative gravitates to the wistful and inconsequential nonsense of The Floral Dance. His version was good enough to break into the charts, reaching number 21, and guaranteed him a couple of unlikely appearances performing on Top of The Pops in a pair of elegant blue flares. It also guaranteed him an album. Ah the 1970s! Such innocent times.
Terry Wogan Sings, or Terry Wogan’s Greatest Hits Vol 2 as the album was wittily subtitled, did not fare quite as well as the single that inspired it. A follow up single Me and the Elephant also disappeared without troubling the charts and that too is to be found on the album. On that track, Terry moved on from his Cornish folk experiments and instead tackled a maudlin crooner’s favourite. Still mostly speaking his way through the lyrics, he occasionally manages to attempt a note but for the most part ambles through the song in a vaguely American-sounding accent.
In fact a lot of the album sounds like an attempt to sound American. Fellow Irish recording artistes U2 have based a large part of their career around that so I won’t blame Wogan for trying. A lot of his efforts sound distinctly odd and betray a certain inkling towards country music on the part of Mr Wogan. On Sixteen Tons, a curious arrangement of a Merle Travis classic, Wogan adopts gruff vocals that couldn’t terrify a toddler, over the sound of a funky keyboard. The same electronic wah wah is to be found under his American accent on a version of Mike Redway’s Sitting in the Sun. On Flash of Fire, Wogan lets rips with a distinct American twang on a 1976 Hoyt Axton country track. Various country classics such as the Bacharach and David Story of My Life and Lucille are also tackled and if you’re not convinced Wogan is from the American mid-west rather than the Irish, well then you have a heart of (blarney) stone quite frankly. There are attempts at covering the Bee Gees Words and a fair old stab at mangling the novelty nonsense of Offenbach’s Gendarme’s Song but Terry Wogan Sings is by and large a lost country classic, one that will probably remain that way until the mayor of Nashville redefines what country music actually is.
And so, for a taste of country music Wogan-style, here is the Togemeister himself grumbling away to the sounds of Merle Travis’s Kentucky mining song, Sixteen Tons. Which coincidentally, is precisely the weight of Bailey’s Irish Cream that Wogan managed to put away while broadcasting from the Eurovision Song Contest over the years: