When I tell people I’m doing this blog they usually ask me what my favourite ever number one is. I have a stock answer – “Come On Eileen” – which is true often enough to pass muster. They also sometimes ask me what the worst number one ever is. No shortage of candidates, here! We’ve seen some of them already: the mawkish horror of Saint Winifreds, the gross precocity of Little Jimmy, the pathological bonhomie of Mallett. But “The Stonk” holds a special dread for me – it’s the only number one whose badness induces a reflex physical response, a kind of skin-creeping sensation of shame and repulsion. In the age of the Internet, your disgust reflexes can harden pretty easily – I’ve seen goatse and tubgirl and met them with a jaded shrug, but something about this forgotten little record just gets me in the guts.
What’s odd is that I can’t predict when the flight reaction will kick in: sometimes it’s the rhythm track built on farts, sometimes I get as far as the “come quietly” joke. In between is a hellish obstacle course – the impressions section! The comical accents! The worn-out surrealism! The grim truth is that “The Stonk” achieves a critical mass of badness for me where elements which on paper don’t sound particularly awful jump out as infuriating simply because you’re too busy guarding yourself against the worse stuff. Just now I played it and felt myself crumple inside at the “stonky stonky / conky conky” backing vocals. The record’s gravity well of crapness is so powerful that I’ve for years assumed terrible jokes from other Comic Relief records – like Right Said Fred’s 1993 effort “Stick It Out” – were in fact in “The Stonk”.
Hale And Pace were an odd case, though. What was going on in British entertainment around this time – what had been for a while – was a sort of generational handover. You saw it gathering force at Radio 1, which instigated a rolling purge of the old guard (DLT, Blackburn) and replaced them with self-consciously edgier presenters from independent radio. And you saw it in comedy, where the “alternative”, Comedy Store crowd were fast becoming an establishment, shouldering aside a lot of the old school comedians. But what people forget in these stories of overthrow was that there was also a compromise phase – people carving out careers by dressing up the old orthodoxies in the trappings of the new, and often ending up more dislikeable than both. On radio the best example was Nicky Campbell – in his own mind a fearless investigative presenter and man of substance, in most other people’s an even smugger version of Simon Bates. And I think Hale And Pace fit into this transitional bracket too – they were ordinary blokes, ex-teacher mates who made each other laugh and turned it into a career, but they’d come up via the alternative circuit.
Problem was, they weren’t funny. This Wikipedia list of “recurring sketches” from one of their final series gives a flavour of them. “London cabbies / Waiter(s) with “black pepper” / Are you nervous… nervous now? / Curly and Nige (1) in the garage (2) at the DIY shop / American sheriff and his deputy / Rappers with baggy clothes / Yorkshiremen / Crime boss and his muscle / Two redheads who copy the end of what people say / Trainspotters / Elderly gentleman who can’t swear / Meditating man who wishes for things to happen”. Now, if you boil any sketch show down to its elements it’s not going to sound great but this comes across as a particularly bum-clenching experience, a mix of stereotypes, easy targets, and kneecapped running jokes. The overall impression is one of will-this-do laziness, pervasive mediocrity, like the first idea anyone had went into the script and there was an end to it.
And this is basically what I can hear in “The Stonk”, too. Hale And Pace are cut off from even the very mild daring of an evening show – the “microwave a pussycat” line here, which sticks right out, is a reference to their most notorious sketch. Instead they’re tasked with making something fun for all the family, and so they take the most basic, shopworn elements of British comedy – bum jokes, impressions, wacky juxtapositions, silly voices – and throw them together with nothing even approximating wit or skill. Brian May gives the track a raucous lift but can’t stop the pain. If you want a record which shows how exhausted, directionless, mirthless and desperate British pop culture – and, sod it, Britain – could seem in the Major years then you won’t find a better example than “The Stonk”.