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May 08

THE WURZELS – “Combine Harvester (Brand New Key)”

FT + Popular93 comments • 6,599 views

#390, 12th June 1976

Much like “No Charge”, this wears an idea too thin: but at least it’s a good idea. Spotting the potential for Wurzelisation in the ramshackle whimsy of Melanie’s “Brand New Key” was a stroke of pop genius that deserved the reward of a No.1. “Combine Harvester” kicks off with surely the best (or maybe worst) innuendo to grace a chart-topping record and rides a wave of sheer goodwill until at least its third verse.

The Wurzels had only turned to this kind of pop adaptation because original Wurzel Adge Cutler had died – his original comic folk songs had made the band a West Country hit and with no songwriters to replace him, “Combine Harvester” was the beginning of a new and narrower remit for the band. Given a national stage, the bumbling yokel humour the group trade in as much reinforced stereotypes as mocked or indulged them, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that “Combine Harvester” is one of the more thoroughly enjoyable comedy records we’ll be meeting.

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Comments

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  1. 1

    cyderpunk! call it by its name

    (my memory of the wurzels at shropshire young farmers’ discos at around this date — not that i went to more than a couple, but my sister went to a lot (then best-friend = farmer’s youngest daughter) and will confirm this — is that the “reinforced stereotype” was no kind of an issue! it was considered funny and silly and the point was to get utterly blasted anyway)

  2. 2
    Tom on 5 May 2008 #

    Yes I phrased that a bit clumsily – the fault was not remotely that of the band, my experience was simply that Surrey kids liked the Wurzels partly because they thought West Country peeps were idiots.

  3. 3
    Billy Smart on 5 May 2008 #

    Yeah, you wouldn’t want to put it on to listen to, but when you occasionally come across it by chance then it does cheer rather than grate, I find. A particular pleasure is how the accents fit around the lyrics; “Wooiiygoddabrandnookombynehaaaarvestur” etc.

  4. 4

    actually it just struck me that the cartoony west country accents might also have signalled “simpleton yokel” to shropshire rural kids — the thick shropshire accents (in all their subtle variations) are easy to mis-reproduce as mummerset if you have a poor ear, but are actually quite unlike em

    even within shropshire there’s a bit of “those wem folk are odd, not like us clun people”, tho it’s more jokey than not i suppose

  5. 5
    rosie on 5 May 2008 #

    Ah well, you had to be there you see. ‘There’ in this case being the smoky back room of some Brissle pub, or preferably cider house. (Don’t know when

    Unfortunately I really only have anecdotal evidence for this because I didn’t blow into Bristol until eighteen years later, but Bristol is that kind of place and Adge Cutler is revered even now. His Moonlight on the Malago is not easily forgotten – the Malago being a river, or more like a ditch, in South Bristol full of rusty supermarket trolleys and other detritus.

    And there’s the rub – this could only really be a product of Bristol, a city that can’t make up its mind if it’s in Gloucestershire or Somerset; a hard-edged and gritty urban landscape with a popular bucolic image. The paradox is being milked, as it were, for all it was worth.

    Of course, with a novelty record like this it’s always worth looking to see what’s on the B-side – I don’t know what it is in this case, but an innocuous A-side often provided cover for something lustier on the reverse.

    Meanwhile, its first week of tenure was one of those watersheds in one’s life. On the first Saturday, which as it happens was the Saturday of the Lord’s Test against the West Indies and the day was completely washed out – an irony in view of what was to come, I was invited to a graduation party at the Reading University Boat Club. It drizzled all evening. I was being chatted up at one point by a public school type who mysteriously vanished when I revealed that I was a friend of Chris’s from Welwyn Garden City and left me wondering what the hell I had done. I was naive in the social niceties. On the following Monday, another dank drizzly day, I left Reading to go to Liverpool for the last time, to get my PGCE results (I passed, and so had a job to go to in September) and to collect the last of my belongings. I wouldn’t see rain again until August Bank Holiday, in Hull. On Wednesday I returned to Welwyn Garden City on one of those nightmare train journeys that took hours on a packed train whose air-conditioning had failed on a baking hot day and which was diverted via Leicester. No fun at all. And I was home in time to help my parents move to Reading on the Friday. Busy busy busy…

  6. 6
    CarsmileSteve on 5 May 2008 #

    perfect timing, i’ve heard this blasting from several cars full of exeter city supporters over the years (usually after a victory, and often in dagenham for some reason) and today we have reached the play-off finals for the second year in a row. “i am a cider drinker” has had more of a life on the terraces though…

  7. 7
    intothefireuk on 5 May 2008 #

    So here we have yet another folk-related comedy record. My best friend’s parents, despite not hailing from the West Country were keen followers of this stuff esp. The Wurzels & The Spinners (no not the Detroit ones). Luckily the nearest I got to seeing them were live concerts on the telly which told me all I needed to know (not being big on communal singalongs). I was just that bit too young for this to be a song you could drunk and sing-a-long to and just that bit too old to find it funny on it’s own merits (or maybe I just didn’t understand West Country ‘humour’). Certainly didn’t get the tractor/hay innuendo at the time – and that does seem to be the best bit listening to it now. Despite that it doesn’t seem much more than just ‘quaint’ now.

  8. 8
    Kat but logged out innit on 5 May 2008 #

    My primary memory of this song is New Year’s Eve 2001/2 when we were playing ‘Wurzels Pass The Parcel’ at my mate S’s house. Every time the Wurzels’ Greatest Hits stopped, you unwrapped a layer and did the forfeit. Whilst most of these involved drinking a certain beverage derived from apples or speaking in a Wess Cunnry aksen forra mainer ovva vreenin, one resulted in accidentally smearing Nutella all over the walls of S’s newly painted extension. Her mum went proper mad at us.

  9. 9
    rosie on 5 May 2008 #

    American readers may wish to be reminded that the cider spoken of here is not the innocent beverage that goes under the same name across the pond.

  10. 10
    Doctor Casino on 5 May 2008 #

    It’s hard for me to hear this as just a comedy record in its own right, rather than a parody of “Brand New Key,” a song able to be cute, suggestive, and human without simultaneously mocking any of these things. This just reminds me of the sub-sub-sub-Weird Al type re-writes that radio stations will occasionaly foist on the public.

  11. 11
    Tom on 5 May 2008 #

    I think it’s quite a loving version of Brand New Key though!

  12. 12
    Rob M on 6 May 2008 #

    Now this was a surprise, because I don’t remember this getting to number one. I remember it being everywhere at the time – I’m sure Billy Smart will let us know of appearances on Crackerjack etc – but number one? Surely not? Also at the time I hadn’t heard “Brand new key” so for me this was the original, and when I got around to Melanie’s song a few years later I was a mite confused. But then I was only 6, so… that’s my get-out clause for everything really. Anyway, always preferred “I am a cider drinker” myself.

  13. 13
    DJ Punctum on 6 May 2008 #

    In 1966 the West Country spurted forth the Troggs. Ten years of watering down later, we end up with the Wurzels.

    I am unsure whether this qualifies as a happy or sad ending.

  14. 14
    Mark G on 6 May 2008 #

    “I drove my tractor through your haystack last night”

    Take THAT, Led Zeppelin!

  15. 15
    DJ Punctum on 6 May 2008 #

    Which one, though?

    Plenty of laffs to be gleaned from the line “I threw my Pitchfork at your dog to keep quiet” I guess.

  16. 16
    lex on 6 May 2008 #

    [i]my experience was simply that Surrey kids liked the Wurzels partly because they thought West Country peeps were idiots[/i]

    Surrey kids were otm.

    I hate this song like I hate all comedy songs, when I hear it or even think about it I can feel my mouth automatically curving downwards into a grimace, the opposite of a laugh. I don’t have anything against funny shit obv, my problem is that this song ~isn’t funny in any way~.

  17. 17
    rosie on 6 May 2008 #

    Adge Cutler and the Wurzels were, I believe, around on the Bristol pub/folk club circuit long before 1966. I’d imagine an evening spent with them was an evening well-spent – that’s certainly the reputation they had. What this kind of thing does very well is prick the bubble of those who take themselves far too seriously. A bit like Viz comic I suppose.

    Rough cider was having a revival at the time and even spreading away from its roots to some degree. There was an anti-corporate consumer backlash going on – no doubt punk was part of this – and Camra were in the forefront against the bland uniformity being imposed on everything, and for the small independent breweries and local pubs with individuality and often live music by local bands who couldn’t or wouldn’t want to get a more orthodox venue booking. The backlash fizzled out in time and the megacorporations tightened the vice-like grip of the ‘brand’. This I consider a tragedy when I view the ranks of cloned ‘bars’ that have muscled the individual pub from most towns.

  18. 18
    Matthew H on 6 May 2008 #

    A primary school playground anthem, and no worse (or better) than that.

    I was a Lincolnshire sophisticate at the time, so had no idea what was going on with all those yokels.

  19. 19
    Matt DC on 6 May 2008 #

    My mum’s family are all from Bristol and my uncle went on tour with the Wurzels at some point in the late 70s. There is a story about a very drunk Wurzel being quizzed by a policeman when their car was pulled over and giving him some lip, mercifully he was in the back and not actually driving.

    It’s possible this story has been embellished into something more cartoonish than it actually was, but over the years has mutated into policeman essentially going “allo allo allo, what’s this then? Can you tell me why you’re not driving this vehicle?” and Wurzel slurring “I can’t reach the pedals from here”. I have never found this story as amusing as the people who tell it to me.

  20. 20
    Erithian on 6 May 2008 #

    Nice to see what a pleasant ride the Wurzels are getting on this thread. I quite enjoyed it at the time, bought the single (the B-side, since Rosie was asking, was “The Blackbird”, which my Dad absolutely adored: “‘E be up yon wurzel tree and Oi be after ‘ee … With a gert big stick I’ll knock ‘im down, Blackbird I’ll ‘ave ‘ee!”). But maybe we’d had one too many novelty number ones around this time, and it was good to see normal service resumed a couple of weeks later (with an absolute belter, as we’ll soon see).

    Now, something else Rosie alluded to. The official date given for the Wurzels’ arrival at number one is 12th June, but the Tuesday when the chart was announced was the 8th, so it was still at the top on the 20th, the start of the period which made this year memorable. In the words of a post on a thread I found when checking this out,
    “…on 20 June a high developed over the SE of the UK and this drew up very hot air from the Meditterenean. This was the start of a remarkable heatwave where temperatures were 30+C every day until the end of the month. The London Weather Centre recorded a maximum of 34.8C on the 26th, and Southampton recorded a maximum of 35.6C on the 28th. The weather was uncomfortably hot for those who work in offices as most did not have air conditioning. Nights were particularly uncomfortable with minima as high as 20C.”

    Anybody who “was there” will remember not only the underground summer of punk, but a sweltering period when the temperature was even taken into account when marking exams.

  21. 21
    Rob M on 6 May 2008 #

    This thread’s bringing it all back for me. I’d forgotten about the summer of ’76 – standpipes in the street, sharing baths etc. The only reason I remember the standpipes so well is that I crashed my bike into one, injuring myself quite nastily.

    My comments on here are pretty tenuous really, aren’t they?

  22. 22
    DJ Punctum on 6 May 2008 #

    More interesting than the arrant piece of tripe that was and is “Combine Harvester Open Brackets Brand New Key Close Brackets.”

    Lex OTM here.

  23. 23

    bah youm city boyz youm think youm know everthing oi’ll wurzel ee good GET OFF MOI LAND

  24. 24

    (ps not a shropshire accent, that)

  25. 25
    DJ Punctum on 6 May 2008 #

    I note that the summer of ’76 also saw a return to the top five of Somerset lad Mr Acker Bilk with his heartrending “Aria.”

  26. 26
    Erithian on 6 May 2008 #

    Indeed Punctum – and other songs that bring back that summer include Starland Vocal Band’s guilt-free pleasure “Afternoon Delight” and Jimmy James’ “Now Is The Time”.

    Meanwhile the Wurzels found diminishing returns with “I Am A Cider Drinker” (spoofing “Paloma Blanca”) and “Farmer Bill’s Cowman” (“Kaiser Bill’s Batman”). Eventually the dual cash-in on another 70s obsession that was the singles “I Hate JR” and “I Shot JR” proved that the joke had worn off. But I’d still spend a drunken night in their company.

  27. 27
    Erithian on 6 May 2008 #

    Oh, and Number 2 Watch – Macca still had to wait for a post-Fabs UK number one as “Silly Love Songs” was held off by the Wurzels.

  28. 28
    vinylscot on 6 May 2008 #

    It was a pretty terrible time for novelty number ones, wasn’t it. Maybe it’s a regional thing, but I didn’t really find this all that amusing, after hearing it once or twice. The idea of what they had done was rather more amusing than the end product. (Perhaps Melanie was being clairvoyant when she released her 1971 songle “What Have They Done To My Song, Ma”)

    DJ Punctum, talking about “Aria” were you aware of the earlier Italian language vocal version by Dario Baldan Bembo – it was played a lot on 208, but never quite made it. It was pretty powerful, and sounded like it could have crossed over, like Drupi’s “Vado Via”.

  29. 29
    mike on 6 May 2008 #

    No Adge Cutler, no credibility!

    The Wurzels-plus-Adge had been a familiar fixture on the telly prior to Adge’s passing, and so it was a surprise to see them back, Adge-less, and more successful than ever. Melanie’s “Brand New Key” was a relatively cool and funny choice, and it was a shame that they lurched downwards in terms of later source material.

    Has anyone heard the double-sided single that The Wurzels recorded with British Sea Power a couple of years ago, in which each covered a song by the other?

    (At around the same time, BSP were also collaborating with the avant-krautrock act Faust, and so there’s a pleasingly perverse path to follow there, even if it does come across as a little too self-consciously perverse on BSP’s part.)

    On her first major tour of the UK, Macy Gray performed a cover of “Brand New Key”, to baffled winces all round. Someone really should have put her in the picture beforehand…

  30. 30
    DJ Punctum on 6 May 2008 #

    Yeah, my mum’s got the Dario Baldan Bembo 45 which I think with more BBC airplay could easily have been as successful as a certain European number one that’s shortly due to come up.

    The Acker one I remember specifically because I was doing Grade IV clarinet at the time and I had to learn the tune (in two different fingerings aargh)!

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