Poised on the brink of superstardom, Billy Connolly released his 1974 album Cop Yer Whack For This to an eager and appreciative audience.

Billy Connolly - Cop Yer Whack For This
Billy Connolly – Cop Yer Whack For This

Billy Connolly,
Cop Yer Whack For This
Polydor 2383 310,
1974

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If there is one thing everybody knows about the pre-fame Billy Connolly, it is that he was once a welder in a Glaswegian shipyard. By Connolly’s own admission, those five years spent serving his apprenticeship at Stephen & Sons, did precious little to develop either his comedic or musical ability. Although to be fair, they also did very little to develop his ship-building ability. Today those years spent on the banks of the Clyde represent only a brief fleeting moment in his life. Since then, Connolly has spent fifty glorious years as a comedian, actor, musician, legendary wit and Weegie raconteur.

Remarkably, there was life for Billy Connolly even before his stint in the shipyards. Born in 1942 in Anderston on the north bank of the Clyde, Connolly left school aged 15 in 1957 and took his first job delivering books for John Smith’s academic bookshop in Glasgow. The following year he swapped books for bread, delivering orders for Bilsland’s Bakery. Billy quit the delivery jobs in 1960 and with a clutch of engineering certificates somehow obtained from his otherwise unproductive school years, joined the shipyards as an apprentice welder.

During his time at the shipyards Connolly remained restless and unfulfilled. A stint in the Territorial Army first gave him the taste for performing, singing songs and playing his banjo to amuse his part-time comrades in arms. By 1964 Connolly and his banjo had become a regular on the Glaswegian folk music scene, playing venues such as the Atlantic Folk Club in Clydebank, and the Scotia Bar on Stockwell Street. Around this time, Connolly formed his first band, the wonderfully named Skillet-Lickers, followed by the equally wonderfully named Acme Brush Company.

In 1965, after completing his shipyard apprenticeship, Billy travelled to Biafra in Southern Nigeria where he worked building oil rigs, afterwards travelling to Jersey where he worked on the construction of a power station. Arriving back in Glasgow with money in his pocket he took the brave decision to walk out of the shipyards for good and follow a musical career. Connolly formed The Humblebums with guitarist Tam Harvey and set about cementing his place on the local music scene. After a gig in Paisley the pair were pestered by a young guitarist who insisted on showing them some songs he had written. The duo expected little but indulged the earnest musician. The young man was Gerry Rafferty and Connolly and Harvey were both immediately impressed by the brilliance of his abilities. Rafferty joined the band there and then.

Such was Rafferty’s brilliance that Tam Harvey, unable to keep up with the increased professionalism in The Humblebums and unwilling to follow the direction they were heading, soon left. Rafferty and Connolly recorded their debut album in 1969 for Transatlantic Records, initially as The New Humblebums in deference to the departed Harvey. Soon though it was Connolly who was beginning to feel the pressure of performing professionally in a group containing the brilliant singer/songwriter Rafferty. While Rafferty took time to perfect his lyrics and melodies on stage, Billy found himself compensating by filling in the space between songs with ‘funnies’. His rambling yarns and inimitable humorous tales of urban life were soon the highlights of his stage appearances. Billy’s skills were clearly leading him from playing second billing as a musician and towards top billing as a comedian. In 1971, after the third Humblebums album, Billy Connolly once again took his banjo and walked out of steady employment towards an uncertain future.

After a debut comedy show in Musselburgh, Connolly wisely decided to leave folk music behind for good and embarked on a second apprenticeship, this time gigging through the working men’s clubs of Northern England before taking up residency once again in Glasgow. Connolly’s fame spread and it was not long before Transatlantic Records saw a chance to capitalise on the appeal of the comedian they had once had under contract as a folk singer. Recorded live at Glasgow’s City Hall, Billy’s debut solo album Live was released in 1972 and proved popular enough to earn an immediate follow up.

Billy Connolly’s second LP Solo Concert was released in 1974 and was an audacious and entirely untypical comedy album. Recorded live at The Tudor Hotel, Airdrie, rather than the conventional two sided gag-heavy comedy album put out by most other comedians Solo Concert was a rambling double album that featured coarse Glaswegian language, lengthy vulgar anecdotes as well as sizeable amounts of blasphemy thanks to Billy’s notorious Crucifixion sketch. It was also, again untypically for a comedy record, a monster hit, spending 33 weeks in the UK album charts and reaching number eight. A change to a major label soon came and Polydor helped to maintain the upwards trajectory of Billy’s ever increasing popularity with 1974’s Cop Yer Whack For This.

After a bout of heckler bating to quell the querulous rabble gathered in the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, the album starts in a very Glaswegian tone with Three Men From Carntyne. Written by the Fife folk singer John Watt, the song warrants some ad-libbed audio subtitles from Connolly for the record buying public as the three titular men ‘went to join the parish’, or sign on the dole. It soon settles down into a simple guitar led stomp through East Glasgow life, before a slight punchline is delivered. It is though a joyous journey.

Billy Connolly’s act at the time is well represented by the ensuing album. There is for instance, the rambling stand up material represented by Lucky Uncle Freddie (a suitably daft tale of a war hero), Tam The Bam (about STD clinics and fearful teenage groping) and What’s In A Name (a wonderfully painted and fully realised picture of oddly named children frolicking in the idyllic picturesque highways and byways of Govan and Partick).

There are also fairly standard stand-up jokes such as Funny Thing Religion which tells of a Jew wandering through Ulster and which throws in a fairly usual Irish gag into the bargain. Billy also delivers sketches such as Late Call in which he preaches a spoof religious sermon, attempting to explain the mysteries of life in terms of ashtrays and sardines before recalling his inadvertent encounters with eager ladies of the night in Glasgow’s Blythswood Square.

Traces too can still be found of Billy Connolly’s folk roots. On Cripple Creek he plucks his banjo competently through the traditional Appalachian folk tune. It is a serious and sustained piece of musical virtuosity that seems lost amid so much comedy. The same could be said for Sergeant, Where’s Mine? This sober reflection on a squaddie’s bleak experiences in Ulster, contrasted with the glamorous promises of the recruiting office, is a fair reflection of the kind of protest music that Connolly specialised in back in the Glasgow folk scene of the ‘60s.

The best track is saved for last though. These days Billy Connolly’s novelty banana boots are an exhibit in Glasgow’s People’s Palace museum. Back in 1974 they were just another stage prop. As explained in the track Scottish Highland National Dress, wellington boots were an essential piece of all year round fashion for the inhabitants of Partick. It is therefore only right that one of Glasgow’s finest comedians celebrates the sartorial history of his home city in the exuberant singalong that is The Welly Boot Song:

The official Billy Connolly website:
http://www.billyconnolly.com/

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