When I started Popular I wrote an introductory piece which nicked Raymond Williams’ ideas of emergent, dominant and residual trends, and argued that the charts were fascinating because they’re a quasi-artificial space in which all three can bump and boil. “Mouldy Old Dough” is residual in a cultural sense – it’s harking back to knees-up piano parties and the stomp and clap of pub music – but it also really sounds like residue. There’s something curdled about it, odd and off, like Winifred Atwell tunes left in the damp. This isn’t old music lovingly preserved and recreated, it’s old music stuffed in a boxroom or a cellar, left to rot and ferment until its queasy return. Its title is literal – the stuff of former pop gone bad.
So what was it doing at the top of the charts in 1972? I can make a guess as to the real reasons – the irresistible conceit of a mother and son band, the gleeful rhythmic attack and the way it plays off the plaintive woodwind melody, and of course that horrid arbitrary growl of a hook, the missing link between Steptoe and Johnny Rotten and just far enough back in the mix that it might be a tramp wandering into the recording studio (and the record being built around him, Gavin Bryars style!). There’s almost nothing like it, which can sometimes be a happy reason for a hit.
But novelty records are also when pop lets its guard down. The hits surrounding “Mouldy Old Dough” in the list of number ones might tell us something about how kids in the 70s – the ones who bought records at any rate – posed, loved, fought, crushed and dreamed. But this dredge through the silt and leaf litter of English pop seems to burrow into something broader and deeper: the decaying country itself, sinking into post-Imperial dementia, singing old songs to itself as the batteries run down and the lights go out.
That’s one story of 1970s Britain – shabby, backward-looking, falling to bits. It’s the version that post-Thatcher politicians have broadly endorsed, and not having been alive in 1972 it’s a version that’s coloured my impression of the period. From my childhood a few years later I remember – or I think I remember – that things were greyer and more ramshackle and washed-out then. For me “Mouldy Old Dough” is unshakeably evocative of this never-known time.