Max Bygraves – I wanna tell you a nursery story

Before the Singalongamax years, Max Bygraves enjoyed a string of novelty hits, culminating in the 1961 album Nursery Rhymes For Grown-Ups.

Max Bygraves - Nursery Rhymes For Grown-Ups

Max Bygraves – Nursery Rhymes For Grown-Ups

Max Bygraves,
Nursery Rhymes For Grown-Ups,
Decca LK 4401,
1961
——————————

The chances are, if you visit any random charity shop a good many of the crusty vinyl offerings (normally entombed within a plastic tub under battered jigsaw puzzles and ceramic dogs) will be various efforts by Max Bygraves. And the chances are that most of those Max Bygraves efforts will be of the ‘singalong’ variety. Now, not many people can be credited with inventing an entire musical genre but Max Bygraves did just that when he launched his 1971 album Sing Along With Max onto a largely unsuspecting world.

The formula was simplicity itself. Invented as a birthday present for his mother back in November of 1970, Sing Along With Max was a compilation of easy going classics of yesteryear. The record was packed with the sort of tracks that appealed to the elderly and bemused, reminding them of happy carefree days warbling tunelessly away around a dilapidated pub piano as powerful incendiary devices dropped gaily from the sky like cherry blossom in spring. Max’s great innovation was to sing only the instantly recognisable portion of his chosen song and then move on quickly and seamlessly to another as the piano plonked away. If anyone disliked a song or failed to recognise it they simply didn’t have time to notice or complain. This ploy also meant that around thirty tracks could be crammed onto each album. Punters certainly got their money’s worth with Mr Bygraves.

Pye record producer Cyril Stapleton came up with the ‘Sing-A-Long’ phrase for the project and marshalled together the Tony Mansell Singers to record the album and sure enough the gold discs rolled in. For the next seventeen years Max accrued discs sprayed with various precious metals until his bedroom wall must have resembled a high-end hubcap warehouse. Each subsequent release gloried in ever more unlikely and exotic titles. Max’s discography is adorned with many curiously named gems such as LingaLongaMax, Congalongamax, Discolongamax and Singalongamax-mas. All of which are probably available for 50p or less in your aforementioned local charity shop.

There was though life for Max Bygraves way before his innovative pop records kept him busy, and cheerfully singing along with any out of copyright material he could find for decades on end. His first taste of recording success came after a particularly triumphant 1950 Royal Variety Performance. After the show Max simultaneously signed a contract for three years of pantomimes with Tom Arnold, a five year recording deal with His Master’s Voice and took up a BBC offer to appear in a new radio ventriloquism show called Educating Archie. What a profitable day that turned out to be.

While the concept of a ventriloquist appearing on the radio may sound a bizarre concept, Educating Archie went down a storm with young listeners. At its height Archie’s fan club boasted some 250,000 members while the show regularly earned over 15 million listeners. Appearing on the show also proved an astute move for many an aspiring comedian over the years. After Max’s stint as ‘tutor’ to the wooden-headed boy, the likes of Tony Hancock, Benny Hill, Beryl Reid, Harry Secombe, Dick Emery, Hattie Jacques and Bruce Forsyth all attempted to enrich Archie’s life.

Max’s recording career with HMV had kicked off with Cowpuncher’s Cantata in 1952, and his novelty songs proved a popular part the show. So much so that Educating Archie’s resident singer, a 14-year-old Julie Andrews, was unceremoniously booted off the series to make way for amiable Uncle Max. Archie could be a ruthless employer.

The Educating Archie years saw Max release a number of annoying/inspired Wally Ridley produced novelty songs throughout the 1950s; including wonders such as You’re A Pink Tooth Brush, Tulips From Amsterdam and Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzenellenbogan By The Sea. The songs appealed to the show’s young audience and made Max Bygraves a regular in the music charts.

Coming in between those early novelty hits and the later singalong years, there was one remarkable album which polished Max’s silliness to appeal to a more sophisticated adult audience. His 1961 release Nursery Rhymes For Grown-Ups was an inspired contemporary appraisal of the state of the UK, much like Leslie Crowther’s Songs For Swinging Children later in the decade, but with the added wit and intelligence of lyricist Leslie Bricusse as a very definite bonus.

A star of the 1954 Cambridge University Footlights Revue, which also starred Jonathan Miller, Leslie Bricusse went on to write to a string of successful musicals and film scores. In 1961, the year Nursery Rhymes For Grown-Ups was released, Bricusse also collaborated with Anthony Newley on the musical Stop the World – I Want to Get Off. Their partnership would enjoy many successes over the years and see a number of notable triumphs such as the theme for Goldfinger and the Nina Simone favourite Feeling Good. Unlike Anthony Newley, Max contributed little to the musical or lyrical aspects of the album, but the similarities in the chirpy cockney singing styles of Newley and Bygraves are pronounced.

The songs on Nursery Rhymes For Grown-Ups come thick and fast, some such as Georgie Porgie, Simple Simon and Mary Had a Little lasting less than twenty seconds. As the album title suggests, the tracks are all based on children’s rhymes but the lyrics are uniformly adult with a recognisably early 1960s setting. The Grand Old Duke of York for instance sees the peer open his stately home to the public to pay off death duties, something which became all the rage in the 60s as places such as Longleat shipped prides of lions into gardens once only enlivened by topiary and an occasional urn.

Following the lead of Constantine II of Greece, Ex King Cole is a Riviera-dwelling deposed head of state living a playboy lifestyle. The Three Nice Mice meanwhile are a hep rodent jazz combo and Oranges and Lemons becomes an ever so slightly sexist celebration of drunken women and their tipples of choice, employing a whole cocktail cabinet full of imaginative dipsomaniacal euphemisms.

Other contemporary takes on childhood favourites see Barbara Van Peep become a millionaire sheep magnate marrying (after ‘fleecing’) a succession of rich men for their money, while Sing a Song of Spacemen tells of a female astronaut over a jazz riff adorned with suitably stellar guitar effects. Darker aspects of society are explored too in tracks such as Rock and Roll Baby which warns aspiring young pop stars of the fickle nature of fame and fortune. Similarly Twinkle Twinkle TV Star notes the desperately limited abilities of certain media celebrities, stretched thinly over ill-conceived television spectaculars. With the problem still rife today it seems few heeded Max’s advice back in 1961.

Max Bygraves would never be this creative on a record again, although he would go on to earn a great deal of money from singing and recording. Leslie Bricusse went on to many triumphs, including Oscars for his work on Doctor Dolittle and Victor/Victoria, a Grammy for What Kind of Fool Am I? as well as nominations and praise galore.

My particular highlight on Nursery Rhymes For Grown-Ups (and there are many) is the wonderfully swinging and superbly silly Baa, Baa Beatnik, a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the thoughts and affected mannerisms of a particularly dim and pretentious hipster. Like demented hipsters from the 50s to the present day, the nuclear conflagration that bookends the song and presumably destroys him is well deserved. So here he is, swingalongamax! Like crazy man.

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2 comments so far

  1. princeasbo on

    I would have said Mitch Miller was responsible for the Sing Along With… conceit. A fill decade prior to Max’s original contribution, he had a very popular US TV series “Sing Along With Mitch”, see here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054564/

    Indeed, so popular, even Mad magazine notoriously parodied it: see the court cases section here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mad_(magazine)

    • downstairslounge on

      Max was a bit of an egomaniac. In his book Stars in Their Eyes he does make some grand claims about how he invented music in general!


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