This reputedly shifted a million copies, not an easy thing to do even when the singles market in Britain is booming. If you do manage it it’s down to one of two things – either you’ve united the British pop-buying market in approval, or you’ve managed to break out of it and get people who don’t generally buy singles (or even records!) to pick up your disc.
Clearly “Dustman” achieved the latter – reaching out to a broad audience of music-hall nostalgics and variety-show fans. The music-hall was dying if not dead by 1960, having hit a steep decline with the rise of the cinema. Shorn of the audience’s boozing and flirting, the ribald style of music hall was kept alive by light entertainment – the winking not-quite-naughtiness you hear on this record was still a going concern when I was a child, showing up every time some interminable, deferential Royal Variety Performance reached a musical number. When I first heard “Dustman”, that was the context I immediately fitted it to – its roaring audience for me will perpetually include a gin-pickled Queen Mum.
In 1960 it would hopefully have seemed fresher – surely the million owners of the record will have given the thing more plays than I can stand to (An unbridgeable cultural gap is summoned up in the delighted squeal from one audience member when Donegan says “flippin'” at 0’31”). Unlike, say, George Formby’s big hits, “Dustman” in 2004 is a remorselessly unfunny record. Donegan was a natural showman but his sledgehammer timing here is pretty excruciating – the pause before every punchline which is further telegraphed by i) being sung in a ‘dirty’ voice that sounds a bit like Roland Rat, ii) gouts of audience hysterics. Formby, to continue the slightly unfair comparison, delivers his punchlines straight, moves smoothly into the next verse and leaves the audience a split-second to work out by themselves just how filthy he’s being.
Donegan can fairly be accused of making an awful record – the sniffy charge of ‘selling out’ that hangs around “Dustman” is easier to counter. Donegan’s affinity with music hall was always apparent – the ‘two old ladies’ bit of “Cumberland Gap”; the whole of “Putting On The Style”. It was hardly surprising that he’d try his hand at more straightforward comedy numbers: the only shame is that “Dustman” is more awkward and has less wit than any of his skiffle hits.