Archive for the ‘comedy’ Tag
As the TV series Steptoe And Son drew to a close, Harry H Corbett sought to release his debut solo album, a collection of traditional British folk songs and music hall tunes.
Harry H Corbett,
Only Authorised Employees To Break Bottles,
Ra Records RALP 6022,
First broadcast as a pilot episode in January 1962 as part of the BBC’s Comedy Playhouse, the TV series Steptoe And Son was an unlikely but immensely popular hit. Should anyone need reminding, it was set in a dilapidated and decrepit junkyard and featured a father and son who loathed and mistrusted each other. The series ran for twelve years, with a five year break between the black and white and colour episodes, finally ending on Boxing Day 1974 with a Christmas special. Spawning a number of vinyl albums, radio episodes, foreign adaptations, live shows, tours, and two big screen spin-off films, by rights the two stars of the show Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H Corbett could have (and should have) cashed in on their enormous fame and mass appeal when the series came to an end. If Harry H Corbett for example, had wanted to release a novelty single or two, or maybe a full album of daft comedy songs, then I’m sure that no-one would have blamed him. I’m equally sure that there would have been a record buying public eagerly waiting to receive such comedic recordings. Harry though was a man with strong convictions, and he clearly wanted to take his career in a different direction.
Harry H Corbett was no stranger to comedy records. At the beginning of Steptoe-mania in 1962, he had released the suitably rag and bone themed up tempo single Junk Shop. Wilfrid Brambell’s own much more maudlin but similarly themed effort Secondhand followed in 1963. Wilfrid Brambell seemed content with his sole foray into a recording studio, but Harry H Corbett certainly wasn’t daunted and released a number of other novelty singles during the ‘60s. While none of those records would trouble the charts (something of a running theme around here) the two stars of the hit sitcom would have better luck as part of a double act. The single Steptoe & Son At Buckingham Palace was a live recording of their 1963 Royal Variety Performance, released as a fund raiser for the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund. Reaching number 25 in the charts over Christmas 1963, it was also released in Australia and New Zealand, helping to build the sitcom’s popularity outside of the UK. Over this period two Steptoe And Son soundtrack albums also made the charts, with 1963’s Steptoe And Son LP reaching an impressive number 4.
Way before all of this mass adulation and chart success, Harry H Corbett was but a jobbing suburban repertory company actor. Born in 1925 in Burma where his father was a sergeant in the Colonial defence forces, the young Harry was sent back to England aged only 18 months after his mother died of dysentery. Initially he lived with his aunt in Ardwick, Manchester, and then later in Wythenshawe on what was then the largest council housing estate in Europe. After serving with (and later deserting from) the Royal Navy during the Second World War, Harry returned to Manchester where in 1948 after a series of menial jobs he gave into his childhood dreams and joined the Chorlton Repertory Company.
In 1951 a production of Ewan MacColl’s play Uranium 235 saw the much more radical Theatre Workshop share the same theatre as Harry’s Chorlton Rep. It was one of the workshop’s members, David Scase, who persuaded Harry to turn away from the safe world of rep and take a chance with the various militant communists and left wing actors that made up The Theatre Workshop. Formed in post-war Manchester by Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl, both veterans of previous radical left wing theatrical ventures, the company saw drama as a means of communicating their fanatic revolutionary fervour to the masses. Soon after Harry joined the resolutely northern troubadours though, the chance came for the Workshop to secure a lease on the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London. Joan Littlewood seized the opportunity and took the company south to fight her insurrectionary battles with the West End elite, while Ewan MacColl left to concentrate on his career as a folk singer. Harry went to London and The Theatre Royal, a place where he and many others would make their names with Joan Littlewood and the plays staged in her legendary personal East End fiefdom. Absent though he was, departed Workshop member Ewan MacColl would also have a lasting influence on the career of Harry H Corbett.
Collaborating with folk song collector and performer AL Lloyd, Ewan MacColl released a 1955 album The Singing Sailor on the Topic label. Although Lloyd and MacColl (and even the concertina player Alf Edwards) were credited on the sleeve, Harry H Corbett’s then not particularly famous name was omitted. But there he was, lurking away on side two of the album, holding his own with the two giants of the contemporary folk scene. Even though most shanty songs are largely a series of gruff salty bellows followed by an even gruffer saltier shout by way of a response, Harry’s lone track Blow the Man Down was a competent enough example of the genre to earn a place on the record, as well as on several reissues and compilations of the MacColl and Lloyd sessions over the years. So, to return to the narrative began much earlier, it would seem that some twenty years after this record, Harry H Corbett reflected on his brief but satisfying career as a folk singer and felt the need to revisit his early triumphs. Rather than release yet another novelty record on the pop charts at the very height of his fame, he would instead return to the world of sea songs and folk, with a bit of vintage music hall thrown in for good measure.
The only problem with a much-loved popular comedian wanting to record an album of traditional folk songs and obscure music hall numbers, is of course that no major record company would ever see anything remotely commercial in such a venture and want to be responsible for releasing it. Had Harry returned to singing silly songs about second hand furniture or battered bric-a-brac, then I’m sure he could have found some outlet for his muse, but folk songs were a different prospect. Hence why Harry instead found a home on the obscure Torquay based label Ra Records. Owned and run by Tony Waldron, with a roster of artists including local football clubs, brass bands, holiday camp entertainers, and most importantly many Devon based folk acts, it was a perfect fit. There were no marketing departments to please, no publicity budgets, no targets to meet, just an enthusiastic record label owner hobnobbing with a TV star, producing a great album and having a whale of a time in the process.
Backed by Ra Records regulars Faraway Folk, everyone does seem to have a jolly time. The album kicks off with the title track Only Authorised Employees To Break Bottles which is the only original track on the disc, written by Harry H Corbett and Tony Waldron. This is the nearest the record ever gets to downright comedy nonsense, narrating an unlikely tale of an unemployed Corbett being told by the labour exchange to grab his tennis racquet and head down to Hackney. Naturally assuming he is to be employed as a pro tennis player, which I’m sure must happen all the time, his overhead lobbing skills are instead needed to smash glass down at the bottle works. Again, I’m sure that must have happened all the time back in the 1970s. It’s a jaunty novelty number and Harry is at his most Steptoe-like as he tells the story. The only downside is the rather annoying chorus which is repeated over and over again. It goes something along the lines of, “cringle ingle bingle bong, ingle bingle bangle bong”. I hope I spelled that correctly. After you’ve heard it shouted once over the jarring sound effects of breaking glass you’ve probably heard more than enough.
From the world of traditional folk there are tracks such as The Fillin’ Knife, a song adapted by Dominic and Brendan Behan from the Irish street ballad Hand Me Down Me Petticoat. Where the original deals with a woman in a Magdalene Laundry bewailing her lost soldier love, the newer version is more concerned with the more mundane travails of a jobbing painter. Side one is also home to the Jacobite anthem Johnny Cope, which celebrates a rare victory for the Stuart supporters at the 1745 Battle of Prestonpans. Side two sees more traditional folk in the form of the Liverpudlian maritime favourite Maggie May, and the Cornish miners’ ballad The Sweet Nightingale. On the shanty Captain Kydd Harry eschews all maritime heaving and toiling and instead delivers the song as an extended Robert Newton style piratical audition piece, snorting, snarling and growling away over nautical sound effects of waves and seagulls. One can almost see his wooden leg pacing the poop deck and catch a faint whiff of stale herring and tar in the air.
The music hall is well represented too with tracks such as the cockney anthem Your Baby Has Gone Down The Plughole. Most memorably recorded by Cream on their album Disraeli Gears, the song has long been a warning not to wash skinny babies in sinks, and also to the dangers of mind altering drugs and how their misuse can lead to drummers taking lead vocals on rock albums. Household Remedies is another music hall tune written by Harry Randall and Edgar Bateman, which became a popular hit in Dorset for no readily apparent reason. Originally entitled It’s A Wonder I’m Alive To Tell The Tale, the song’s message of unlikely cures for toothache, bile and boils is brought alive by Harry in his lively jaunty version.
Cushy Butterfield, the Geordie music hall classic is also there, written by George Riley who is most famous for his Blaydon Races. The album finishes with the comic masterpiece The Night I First Played My Macbeth, originally written by William Hargreaves in 1922 and made famous on the music hall stages by Billy Merson. Harry acquits himself well on this old favourite with his stentorian Shakespearean monologue, puffed full of starchy pretensions, delivered in spite of various heckles and asides from other characters, all of course played by Harry.
All well and good, but the truly unique appeal of this album is that Harry H Corbett chose to deliver all of these songs, traditional and music hall alike, in the regional accent from whichever part of the British Isles they originated. So Johnny Cope is blessed with a Scottish accent, Household Remedies with a West Country burr, and Fillin’ Knife with an authentic Irish brogue. Most work quite well but the Geordie accent on Cushy Butterfield seems to wander around the far north east of Burma as opposed to Tyneside, while the cover of Irish broadside Jack Of All Trades is inexplicably covered in a Caribbean accent over a calypso rhythm. Which is just wrong on so very many levels.
Where the accents work, they work very well but not all hit their mark. Only Authorised Employees To Break Bottles was a brave attempt by an established star to experiment musically and to try something different to what was expected of him. Harry and the Faraway Folk toured the album around the UK with some success and I can only wonder what audiences must have made of Harry’s various accents. On the off chance that the tour took him to Birmingham, here is Harry H Corbett singing I Can’t Find Brumagem, a lament for a lost West Midlands buried under various Bullrings and Spaghetti Junctions:
Despite leaving The Goon Show after just two series, Michael Bentine found many more outlets for his crazy sense of humour and ever active intellect.
It’s A Square World!,
Parlophone PMC 1179,
As anarchic and as offbeat as the ground-breaking The Goon Show was, for the decade it was broadcast it remained very much the creation and cherished troubled child of Spike Milligan. Despite various collaborating writers working on the show over the years, and sometimes despite even the absence of Milligan entirely, it was his anarchic vision, creative imagination and fierce determination that drove the show to succeed, to the detriment of his own mental and physical health.
The other Goons were never idle during this period of success though. Peter Sellers forged the foundations of a stellar movie career and Harry Secombe found his niche as a singer and performer of some note. The only Goon to have been frustrated by constraining his ambition and talents to fit in with the vision of Spike Milligan was Michael Bentine. After a mere two series of The Goon Show, Bentine left amid a fair amount of acrimony and more than a little press speculation about his motives and the possibility of his future career outside of the group. Fans need not have worried though, as over the years the singular talents of Michael Bentine found many unusual and creative outlets.
His background was certainly exotic and unusual. As if having a mother from Westcliff in Essex was not exceptional enough, having a father from Peru certainly was. Michael Bentine’s father Adan Bentin, was the son of a silver miner and former President-elect of Peru. Sent to England to study engineering Adan was refused permission to fight for Britain in the First World War, so instead used his engineering skills to develop aeronautical innovations of his own devising, and rather obliquely, to run a music school where he met his wife and Michael’s future mother Florence. After the war, Adam (as he was now known) was offered the chance to help build a new Peruvian air force. It was back in Peru that Michael was conceived and from where in 1922, his parents returned to England in an effort to make sure that their son would be born British, as is only right and proper.
Afflicted in his early childhood by a severe stammer it was not until Michael Bentine reached Eton that, with the help of a sympathetic master, he was able to start conquering his speaking difficulties. When the Second World War broke out Michael, like his father before him, was refused permission to serve in the RAF due to his Peruvian dual nationality. Jobs as a photo journalist, and a jobbing drummer followed before Bentine decided to capitalise on his new found confidence at public speaking, and try his hand at acting. It was in October 1942, during a production by Robert Atkins of The Merchant Of Venice, that the RAF finally decided it needed Michael’s services, seeing fit to arrest him without warning as a deserter. Despite the potential ignominy, Michael Bentine remained proud to be the only British serviceman to be arrested while wearing doublet and hose for over four hundred years.
After the war, during which he eventually managed to fly in a plane, Bentine like many of his contemporaries found gainful employment at London’s Windmill Theatre. Appearing on bills with Harry Secombe and his novelty shaving act, Bentine’s act was no less bizarre. Lectures were delivered in a non-existent language of his own peculiar devising, and various props such as a walking stick, a rubber chicken, a bow and arrow, and finally the back of a broken chair were all used in Michael’s idiosyncratic and inventive new brand of comedy.
That brand of innovation and love of a good prop remained evident in many of Michael Bentine’s successful TV series over the years. Props, models, outlandish stunts and clever visual effects played a large part in the popularity of the It’s a Square World TV show which ran from 1960-64, and became even more integral to the later Michael Bentine’s Potty Time which starred an army of small puppets (known as Potties) all voiced by the vocal skills of Michael.
Those same ingenious and inventive ideas are also present on the It’s a Square World album which was recorded in 1962. Aided by Parlophone’s resident wizard of sound George Martin, Bentine plays with technology, sound effects and soundscapes as easily as he played with visual imagery on television. Not simply a comedy album of material transferred from one medium to another, the record is a resourceful and innovative exercise in its own right, and one which takes full advantage of the medium. All voices are the creation of Michael Bentine, and other than the extremely valuable input of George Martin’s alchemy, the record is an extraordinary and masterful solo effort.
From the opening introduction, the possibilities of using sound for comedy are explored as Michael Bentine is unchained from his cell and dragged hesitantly before a microphone. The listener is then led on to the opening track of The Horse Show, complete with reverberating public address system and of course all the requisite sound effects of audience appreciation and snorting galloping horses. The plucky Brit who demolishes the course and smashes through the fences is praised while the crafty but highly competent Italian who glides gracefully over the jumps is treated with scorn and contemptible derision. As a piece of satire it is relevant today and still just as funny.
Some of Bentine’s other ideas which were no doubt satirical and highly imaginative back in 1962 sound highly prescient today. Take for instance the Ice Cream Commercial, one of many mock adverts which break up the longer sketches. The premise of having curry-flavoured ice cream was probably quite novel at the time. Nowadays it’s probably the proposed business model for a multitude of potential trendy hipster ice cream parlours. The Holiday Commercial with its proposal that tourists visit a coal mine is now, thanks to the death of the UK’s coal industry, another example of Michael Bentine’s comic yet prophetic prognostications coming true. Even if these days tourists do not have a ton or two of coke dumped on top of them as proposed in Bentine’s sketch.
Elsewhere on the record, there are more satirical masterpieces such as the exploration of the possibilities of Dingleweed as a commercial crop. A crop that is so pointless and purposeless that it is grown only in order to grow ever more dingleweed. There are also sketches that exist solely for amusement, such as Tower Of London in which elderly and confused Beefeaters exchange keys amidst much clanking and creaking of sound effects. The record also sees a Geneva Convention of nations speaking unto nation in various nonsensical Bentine languages, interrupted by a succession of misplaced phone calls all searching for a sultry siren named Gladys.
There are also sketches which play with the medium of broadcasting. Tracks such as The Shrdlu neatly parodies wildlife documentaries with their months devoted to recording pointless animals being attacked and eaten by other pointless animals, in this case the ravenous Prairie Kumquat.
Michael Bentine also collaborates with his TV show writing partner John Law on the quite brilliant Football Results which sees a sports announcer’s excitement rise as the possibility of a pools win appears. He is let down by the dismal efforts of Huddersfield and Barnsley, and soon returns to reality with an audible and gloomy acceptance of the fickle nature of fate. The track earned a deserved release as a single along with The Astronauts as a b-side. Equally inventive, the premise for this space age track sees a Russian lunar mission adopting ever more complicated composers’ names instead of the usual NATO phonetic alphabet. Complete with humming of arias and unsolicited interference from the Americans, Michael Bentine plays each part with gusto and perfect timing.
Michael Bentine is often overlooked when The Goons are discussed. His part in that particular anarchic ground-breaking show may have been small but it was vital. The forty years he spent working outside of the Goons were never idle though and were filled with incident and innovation. Whether Michael Bentine was dabbling in various aeronautical innovations, leading the first hovercraft expedition up the Amazon, investigating the paranormal, or creating fondly remembered TV series, he approached everything with absolute enthusiasm, imagination and passion.
Here then is the last moments of the not particularly missed Desert Shrdlu, a creature exceeded only in worthlessness and irrelevance by the Prairie Kumquat.
Who would have expected an album recorded in a small Welsh rugby club would create a major superstar of 1970s comedy?
Live At Treorchy,
One Up OU 2033,
Nationalism can do odd things to people. I don’t feel there is anything intrinsically wrong with believing your nation to be a fairly decent place full of thoroughly decent people leading highly decent lives. That nation of yours is going to be there every time you gaze out of a window or open your door, so you might as well try and like it, or at least feign some sort of passing interest. It is though, a short step from believing your respective country to be the best and by far the most decent, to experiencing a strong desire to conquer the known world and subjugate all other nations until they reach your required state of taste and decency.
Along with wanting to vanquish all the people of the world, nationalism also seems to bring with it certain other odd desires that are not entirely natural. Take for instance the sudden urge to address huge baying crowds from a balcony. Or the need to adopt emblems and insignia, and to wear stylistically improbable items of clothing. With their crisp black shirts, natty armband accessories, leather jackets, polished metallic eagles and shiny knee-length boots, nationalists have always managed to look stylish and cut a certain dash while they attempt to vanquish their foes and crush the peoples of the world. Apart from Nicola Sturgeon of course, who manages to look like a school dinner lady all dressed up for a night at the bingo.
Striding about the stage of some random Welsh town hall, adorned from head to toe in red with matching scarf and hat, Max Boyce certainly looked the part of the ardent nationalist. Add into that equation an enormous rosette the size of a cart wheel and a giant leek that was taller than Max himself, and you have the living embodiment of Welsh nationalism and its greatest ever comedian. Even Hitler or Mussolini in their prime would have felt underdressed and a tad shabby watching Max Boyce in his prime.
It wasn’t always like this. The covers of Max Boyce’s first two albums In Session and The World Of Max Boyce, both first released in 1971, show him in his pre-giant leek days. His chunky knitwear adorned with hues of brown and beige, his hair long but tamed, Max looks every inch a jobbing folk singer. By 1974 when Live At Treorchy was released, Max Boyce’s amazing transformation from folk singer to the very personification of Welshness was well under way. Gone is the brown woollen uniform, replaced instead by the ubiquitous leek and Welsh rugby wear that he would make his own. The leek is just a regular vegetable at this stage, and Max’s hair is still un-permed, but the puckish grin shows that he is well on his way to becoming the most Welsh person to have ever walked the valleys or waved a daffodil in anger. With the exception of 1977’s The Road And The Miles…, which sees Max flirting with rock superstardom in denim flares and a shirt open to his navel, the red and white clad rugby obsessive was a look that would serve him well.
Much of the appeal at Live At Treorchy comes from the instant rapport between Max and his audience. Born in 1943 in the mining town of Glynneath, Max Boyce worked in the mines himself and his tales of hard toil and of the emotional release offered by rugby and beer come from the heart. There is no affectation or effort to ingratiate himself with his audience. It is simply a man at home in his surroundings and the response of an audience who recognize one of their own. The material and topics Max sings about are instantly familiar to his crowd.
Much of the material on Live At Treorchy makes reference to Welsh rugby, which enjoyed a period of exceptional skill and dominance during the 1970s. I could devote a doctoral thesis to investigating whether it was the dominance of Welsh rugby which gave rise to the mass appeal of Max Boyce or vice versa. Suffice to say, the album both begins and ends with rugby related comedy, with only a few non-rugby related songs included to prevent the audience from rising from their chairs in a frenzied state of nationalism and marching immediately on London to overthrow the government.
Opening track 9-3 tells for instance of the 1972 defeat of the mighty New Zealand All Blacks by the Carmarthenshire club side Llanelli. The match is still talked about and mythologised forty years on and the details are now a matter of sporting legend, but Max Boyce explores much more than just the minutiae of the match. He tells of the atmosphere that the match generated, the camaraderie and mass elation that the result provoked, and of the Felinfoel beer induced revelry that caused many a headache and absence from work the next day. And probably the day after that as well.
More rugby tales follow on The Scottish Trip which relates more about the experience of travelling to a match than it does about the enjoyment of watching the match itself. It is a tale of hard working men bonding on a rare day off, and also of the scarcity of toilets on the motorways of the early 1970s. A similar track Hymns And Arias finishes the album, telling this time of a trip to Twickenham, detailing the songs sung and the various ways the Welsh got one over on their English hosts. It is a rousing crowd pleaser on which to end the record, with the line ‘Wales defeated England’ inevitably earning the loudest, most raucous cheer of the night.
Less drunken tracks, such as The Outside-Half Factory, relate a tall yarn of Welsh rugby players being constructed deep below the ground, hidden from the scheming gaze of English rugby league scouts. There is also Asso Asso Yogoshi, a cheerful tale of glib casual racism blessed glossed over, that despite its obvious affection for the touring Japanese rugby side and their brave sporting spirit, is just the sort of song that gives the 1970s a bad name. Wales has yet to issue Japan a formal apology for the track…
Astonishingly though, there are songs which are not about rugby or annoying the English. The Ballad Of Morgan The Moon is a long rambling story/poem which tells about how the eponymous Welsh inventor made it to the surface of the moon in a coal powered rocket fashioned from an old winding-engine.
The non-rugby songs also showcase the serious side of Max Boyce. Duw It’s Hard is a reflective lament for the lost pit in Max’s home town of Glynneath which generates a moment of genuine pathos amidst all the musical merriment and rugger. Max is honest enough to acknowledge that life in the mines was tough and full of hardship, but the replacement of the pithead baths with a supermarket imbues the song with a reflective sadness at the inevitability of change and the loss of communities. Ten Thousand Instant Christians is another reflective number which marvels at the empty chapels dotted around Cardiff on the day of a rugby international, while inside the stadium hymns such as Calon Lân and Cwm Rhondda can be heard ringing out with such faith and devotion.
Did You Understand? is a track written about the 1972 colliery strike, the indifferent decision makers in power and how the nation’s sympathies with the striking miners faded over time. With its portentous piano chords playing over Max’s piercing vocal lament, it is a powerful moment of social commentary that reveals the folk club origins of much of Max Boyce’s act.
For all its parochial Welsh charm, Live At Treorchy achieved great success for Max Boyce outside of his own safe heartland of support. The blend of working class humour and gentle comedy saw the album sell by the thousands, spending 38 weeks in the charts and reaching number 21 in the run up to Christmas 1975. The follow up album We All Had Doctors’ Papers achieved even greater success becoming (so far) the only comedy album to have reached number one in the UK charts. Which, given the competition, is quite an achievement.
To end then, here is Duw It’s Hard, Max’s wistful farewell to the mining industry that made him and thousands like him into proud Welshmen.
Before becoming a global TV megastar, British comedian and actor Tracey Ullman enjoyed a brief but spectacular career as a pop starlet.
You Broke My Heart In 17 Places,
Stiff SEEZ 51,
Many years have passed since Tracey Ullman first found fame in the BBC series Three Of A Kind alongside Lenny Henry and David Copperfield. The fast-moving sketch show ran from 1981 to 1983 and made stars of all three of its young talented cast. After three series, Three Of A Kind finished and they each went their own individual and idiosyncratic ways. David Copperfield managed a brief career as a children’s comedian before becoming a staple of ‘where are they now?’ documentaries. Lenny Henry proved he could do a lot more than eat condensed milk sandwiches on Tiswas while impersonating David Bellamy, but the really shining megastar discovered during Three Of A Kind’s short ephemeral run was undoubtedly Tracey Ullman.
After Three Of A Kind ended Ullman appeared in Girls On Top, an ITV flat share sitcom which also gave early exposure to future comedy luminaries Ruby Wax, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, alongside veteran actress Joan Greenwood and her flea-bitten stuffed dog. Important for proving that women could actually be funny without the need to snog Bob Grant or pile on the pounds to play the role of a frumpy wife, Girls On Top was a significant moment in comedy. While it shared many similarities with the boys only sitcom The Young Ones, it was distinctive enough and original enough to prosper on its own merits.
Between series one and two of Girls On Top, Tracey Ullman was far from idle and resting on her many laurels. She appeared in films such as Plenty alongside Meryl Streep and Sir John Gielgud, and in Paul McCartney’s musical oddity Give My Regards to Broad Street. She also found time to record two music albums and release a collection of infectiously catchy and popular hit singles. Little wonder that when it came to record the second series of Girls On Top, Tracey and her TV producer husband had already decamped to Hollywood to plan her next move in achieving global domination.
After a faltering start in the US, a show reel compilation tape sent to comedy producer James L Brooks was enough to earn Tracey her own eponymous prime time TV show. The Tracey Ullman Show premiered on Fox in 1987 and was an instant hit. Rarely off the screen since, Tracey’s American TV shows have been incredibly popular over the years, winning her seven Emmys in the process and granting the world its first brief crudely animated glimpse of The Simpsons. Tracey’s shows have not enjoyed a similar level of exposure in the UK though, and all but the most dedicated of Brits will have managed to keep track of everything Tracey Ullman has made in the US over the last thirty years. Americans are probably unaware of her achievements in the UK though, that is if they are even aware that there is a place called the UK.
Prior to her move to fame and fortune in America, Tracey Ullman made quite a reputation for herself as a recording artist. Her first single release was the lively bouncy pop froth of Breakaway in March of 1983. Written by Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheeley as the b-side of Irma Thomas’s 1964 single Wish Someone Would Care, it immediately set the tone for all Tracey’s subsequent single and album releases. Nostalgic and exuberant, Breakaway is a pounding retro gallop that never lets up, like a Motown hit pumped full of mescaline. It justifiably opens Tracey’s debut album, an album which has many treasures equal to Breakaway to explore.
The collection of love songs that makes up You Broke My Heart In 17 Places are all rendered in Tracey’s distinctive high pitched tones, backed up by a host of keen electronic musicians and singers including Kirsty MacColl, The Flying Pickets and Clare Torry (famous for screeching and wailing like an over emotional walrus through Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky).
Few songs manage to match Breakaway’s blistering pace, if such a thing is even possible. The album slows down immediately for the second track, a cover of Chris Andrews’ Long Live Love which provided a memorable 1965 number one hit for the shoe eschewing Sandie Shaw. Side one continues with a leisurely stroll through Wayne Carson Thompson’s Shattered, and The Dells song Oh, What a Night before picking up noticeably for a breathless tongue twisting sprint on a version of Reunion’s Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me). Seemingly name checking every recording artist and record company of the previous three decades in a babbling three minute mini-epic, Tracey manages to cling on to the song with her sanity intact and finishes the job with credit.
Side two continues with yet more cheap frothy bubble-gum pop tunes, starting with Move Over Darling, a swirling great cuddle of a song and a great start to any 12 inches of vinyl. A cover of the Doris Day film track, Move Over Darling provided Tracey with a number eight hit over Christmas 1983.
Another hit from the album came in the form of They Don’t Know, released in September 1983. Amongst all the vintage tracks They Don’t Know does stand out as a cover of a much more recent song. Originally released as a single by singer songwriter Kirsty MacColl in 1979, a strike at the vinyl pressing plant put paid to Kirsty’s hopes of a chart entry and the record disappeared from view. Tracey Ullman’s version managed to make it to number two and remains her biggest chart success. With Kirsty MacColl providing backing vocals on Tracey’s version, the success second time round must have offered some consolation for her initial thwarted attempts to release it.
Elsewhere on side two, Tracey also trills across a bold drum led cover of Bobby’s Girl, originally recorded by Marcie Blane in 1962, and a cover of (I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence Dear by Blondie, another female led act that knew the value of vintage elegance and how best to bring class to a classic cover version. The title track You Broke My Heart In 17 Places reunites Tracey with Kirsty MacColl, who as well as writing the song also produced it for her friend.
The album You Broke My Heart In 17 Places is an affectionate pastiche, faithful to the enduring spirit of its many cover versions without ever being a straight copy. The modern arrangements and careful production imbues all the songs with a new energy and life. The LP is a homage to the joys of cheap poular music, to insubstantial love songs and the various agonies of romance. Whether the songs covered are from the 1950s, 60s or 70s, You Broke My Heart In 17 Places somehow evokes a stylish halcyon period of the early 60s, a time that may never have really existed. Oh and it’s a cracking record!
Tracey’s second album You Caught Me Out, released in 1984, contained more spirited cover versions and chart hits for her. Sadly, since then TV and film has dominated Tracey Ullman’s career and not pop music. The legacy is quite something though, who can fail to enjoy the vivacity and energy of that very first single Breakaway?