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Mar 11

HALE AND PACE – “The Stonk”

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#662, 23rd March 1991

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”.

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Comments

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  1. 101
    Rory on 5 Apr 2011 #

    @96: other than The Young Ones (an Oz number one as previously discussed), here are the Comic Relief singles that charted in Australia:

    Bananarama’s “Help!” spent six weeks in the charts in 1989, peaking at 25.

    The Pet Shop Boys etc. “Absolutely Fabulous” spent 13 weeks in the charts in 1994 and peaked at number 2.

    The Spice Girls’ “Who Do You Think You Are/Mama” – 14 weeks in 1997, peaked at 13.

    Westlife’s “Uptown Girl” – 16 weeks in 2001, peaked at 6.

    I suppose I’d better say something about “The Stonk” now…

    I’d never heard it before, and have still only heard it the once (viewing that very wobbly video on YouTube with the caption “Hale and Peace – The Strong”); on the strength of that, I have to say it’s a hell of an earworm.

    I remember Hale and Pace from their brief run on Oz TV in the early 1990s; MikeMCSG @59 had it right with the comparison to Little and Large, I reckon. Pretty blah stuff, and I didn’t watch them often. I can definitely see how playground-craze levels of exposure to this would inspire dark thoughts, but there are other number ones I find far more irritating – “Star Trekkin'”, the Jive Bunny trio, Renee and Renato, even Bombalurina (which was also new to me when we encountered it here). The words are ridiculous, in a not-particularly-amusing way, and the “stonky stonky” bit is annoying, but the music didn’t bother me too much, with the guitars offsetting some of the house-band-style blandness. I gave it three, but expect that repeated exposure would drive that down.

  2. 102
    Triffid Farm on 5 Apr 2011 #

    Having read the comments for a week before hearing the song, I came to the Worst Number One Ever with more relish than trepidation, and I was a bit disappointed to be honest. Its a modestly under-performing honky tonk, but not even close to a St Winifred’s style tailspin of nausea. The video at least is has early nineties face-spotting for diversion, and Hale and Pace are rather less smug than I had remembered. (The YouTube video gained about a fifth of its 17,000 views over the past week, by the way.)

    Repeated, forced listening would make the repeated, forced jokes grate far worse of course, and I really can’t work out why this seemed to make no impression at all at the time. I was very, very aware of comedy at the time – perhaps I categorized it as outside of listening material. But anyway, it didn’t, and I’m unscathed.

    It starts as a three or so for me, with points deducted for each misfiring joke. So it might get to a 1, but mainly on technicalities.

  3. 103

    There should be — perhaps there already is? – a technical term for comedy material that just gets funnier with repetition, and the stuff that collapses very fast in the other direction.

  4. 104
    punctum on 5 Apr 2011 #

    Respectively they are to hancock and to elton.

  5. 105

    Did Eltoning really induce INSTANT deterioration though? Plainly he entirely wore out his welcome, esp.his stand-up stuff.

    (Obviously I am leading up to a “yes thin blue line was INDEED reliably funny” discussion here)

  6. 106
    wichita lineman on 5 Apr 2011 #

    Hmmm… Blackadder doesn’t deteriorate with age.

    Maybe to Hancock and to Rik?

    My reckoning this to be the worst of the one-out-of-tens to date is based on repeat exposure. It certainly starts as a mediocre boogie, gets progressively less funny, and more irritating, and I really get scared at the thought of hearing it again.

  7. 107
    Erithian on 5 Apr 2011 #

    Nobody involved in Blackadder has done anything as good since – discuss!!

  8. 108

    Miriam Margolyes!

  9. 109
    Mark G on 5 Apr 2011 #

    Hugh Laurie…

    (I’m winning already)

    Stephen Fry has done a few books and TV shows and that…

  10. 110
    Cumbrian on 5 Apr 2011 #

    @107: Is this not a bit like saying: “Nobody involved in the 1966 England World Cup winning side has done anything as good since”? It’s a fairly high bar to set.

    Besides which Miranda Richardson was in the, pretty great, Made In Dagenham last year.

  11. 111
    wwolfe on 5 Apr 2011 #

    I love this phrase: “The record’s gravity well of crapness is so powerful…” I guess Thatcher had her Major as Reagan had his Bush the Elder.

  12. 112
    Kit on 6 Apr 2011 #

    “never seen any Hale and Pace (they were briefly on TV here in the early 90s” & “remember Hale and Pace from their brief run on Oz TV in the early 1990s”

    –surely they must have been on for ever and ever, as they kept touring here OVER and bloody OVER right up until two years ago? I didn’t keep track because they were awful, but I think of them having been ~around~ as a hideous cultural presence for ages.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-io0JQMIFY

    http://www.abc.net.au/thingo/txt/s1234037.htm

  13. 113
    Kit on 6 Apr 2011 #

    (oh god: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BleGJWPtWXk&NR=1)

  14. 114
    Kit on 6 Apr 2011 #

    Anyway, despite that, this never made it over here at all, though I gleaned from Smash Hits or NME that it was fairly uniquely horrible. 20 years later, it’s nice to have that so roundly confirmed.

    @6 – “Blues” is actually the default genre in most ID3 tagging programs, no meta-japery there.

  15. 115
    Rory on 6 Apr 2011 #

    @112 I guess it’s possible they hung around on our screens – I just remember them as an early-90s thing. I have no memory of that “h&p@bbc” thing, and I was watching Oz TV in 1999-2000. Maybe I’ve repressed it all.

    Edit: Shudder.

  16. 116
    Kit on 7 Apr 2011 #

    Ha, there you go!

    I’m sure “h&p@bbc” didn’t make it here; the title would stuff it for overseas sales generally, and especially to AU commercial FTA, where the national broadcaster is seen as “BBC South”

  17. 117
    flahr on 8 Apr 2011 #

    I guess Tom’s work at oneweekoneband is the reason for the slight delay, but still I think it’s for this job he’s the best man ;)

  18. 118
    Tom on 8 Apr 2011 #

    Yes – the combination of OWOB, the Music Diary Project, a column and actual work has pushed poor C****** H***** to one side. Normal service resumed next week!

  19. 119
    Mark G on 8 Apr 2011 #

    Charlie Harper got to number one?

  20. 120
    Kit on 16 May 2011 #

    Just fished some spam out of my inbox for H&P – hey! – touring Australia again.

    http://premier.ticketek.com.au/dbimages/sfx72632.jpg

    And promising sweetly that it’ll be the last time. I don’t buy it from KISS, I don’t buy it from Farnham, I don’t buy it from a junkie boyfriend and I don’t buy it from you.

  21. 121
    Al on 10 Jun 2011 #

    Hale and Pace – as someone said at the time, ‘the only known comedy double act with two straight men’

  22. 122
    flahr on 20 Apr 2016 #

    I suppose this is the place to mark the passing of Victoria Wood. Even though she was on the B-side it feels a little inapt.

  23. 123
    weej on 20 Apr 2016 #

    As mentioned upthread, The Smile Song is about a thousand times better than The Stonk, even if it isn’t particularly funny. Since I last visited this thread someone has been kind enough to post the video on Youtube, so you can all check it out this time (though I would suggest it isn’t exactly her best work, so please don’t take it as representative if you arent familar with her)

    here it is – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XF9IO6LU8cA

    Also an obligatory “fucking hell 2016, give it a rest”

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