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Jan 02

The Cottage Industry Of Moments

FT/4 comments • 11,152 views

For a while *everyone* wanted a part of Britgum, its determined lack of modishness making it an ideal force for the career resuscitation of 60s survivors such as The Fortunes, whose two previous hits (“You’ve Got Your Troubles” and “Here It Comes Again”, epic and orchestrated both) had shone some way above the beat boom detritus of 1965. Their autumn ’71 comeback “Freedom Come, Freedom Go” manages to bring social comment into the format without sounding forced or strained: it’s the sound of London on the cusp, the upper-middle-class (“Daddy is a doctor / Mother is a debutante / Pillars of society / Living in a mansion somewhere in the country / And another in Chelsea”) getting down to the sounds of reggae from the estate just a mile away over in the safe Labour seats, gradually breaking down ancient class divisions as the effects of the 60s seep into life as most people live it. Fascinating social history, and there is no trace of a smile, let alone a grin, on my face as I write that. Their fourth and final hit, “Storm In A Teacup” from early ’72, bursts with reassurance if any sign of heartbreak might appear on the horizon, its chorus of “It doesn’t matter, no it doesn’t matter” being everything I, just sometimes, wish was true.

But glam was here. It had the hipness bubblegum fatally lacked (The New Seekers and their ilk would swiftly turn the remains of bubblegum into family singalong pop at its smarmiest) and the rock edge to appeal to kids already rapidly discarding bubblegum partly through age and partly through a sense that it was, already, too innocent for a society whose certainties were rapidly crumbling. No wonder The Sweet, whose oft-ignored early singles – especially the particularly fine “Funny Funny” – had fitted perfectly into the cycle, rapidly jumped ship and got (awesomely) heavy. You couldn’t have called “Rock ‘n’ Roll Part II” bubblegum even before it was tainted by our knowledge of its perpetrator’s activities: it’s Gary Glitter’s one bearable record, and it has a hook to kill for, but is still too much of a bleary, laddish chantalong to count. But the genre’s highest peaks still awaited, strangely: its death throes as the real world caught up with it bled with greatness.

Daniel Boone’s “Beautiful Sunday”, British bubblegum’s biggest international hit but a smaller UK hit in spring ’72 (only Number 21 – the tide was turning) than it would probably have been even six months before, is a jewel, a timelessly, wonderfully obvious chord sequence the basis for a single that breathes with a love of and excitement for life, every push on the kickdrum in the euphoric chorus a sign of zest for a day’s simple enjoyment, without any hint that driving to and from your day’s pleasure and relaxation might even contain anything sexual, let alone anything depressing, tedious and ugly. It’s a cliche, but we’ll never hear pop music like this again – just look outside for proof.

Stephanie De Sykes’s “Life Is A Beautiful Book” – a flop that really
should have got somewhere – is the best Promotional Pop single ever. Written
simply to be played at the start of programmes on ATV every day, accompanied by a soft-focus film of rural images (bird, girl, sheepdog, that sort of thing) it means nothing in itself, and would be of little interest without the film. With it, it becomes a fantastic statement of just what this company wanted to tell you that life was like, and we can only think in amazement that people believed them.

Paper Lace’s “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero” is wonderful but the theme of war – however absurdly melodramaticised it is – is itself a sign of bubblegum’s essential innocence being attacked from all corners. Perhaps inevitable, then, that the cycle ended later in 1974 with Tony Burrows, the best exemplar of the ubiquity of session singers and musicians within Britgum, singing on First Class’s “Beach Baby”. As this fantastically-proudced slice of Californian fantasypop – orchestra, brass, lavish vocal harmonies, already a tribute song to a vanished era at the time – fades out in a heat haze of sound and US radio DJ voice right at the end, you get a definite feeling that British bubblegum pop is over. What remained of it was now *pastiching itself*, and paying tribute to the American pop of a decade or so before, rather than being gloriously unselfconscious and picking up on what was hot at that moment, always a sign that a genre has reached the end of line.

And indeed that was it, really. While singalong mid-70s pop had its comparable moments (notably the extraordinary film of scorched earth and Blytonian children surrounding Noel Edmonds at the Radio 1 Roadshow in Newquay in August 1976 over the intro to Jimmy James and the Vagabonds’ heartbreakingly naive “Now Is The Time”) the world was no longer the place for this kind of pop. Concepts, ideas, money and production values were now essential (even the Bay City Rollers, however old-fashioned they seem now, were about image) and there was no turning back.

This isn’t nostalgia (I wasn’t there) nor is it yearning (the idea of leaving today behind is repulsive to me) nor is it any sort of attack on how pop is created and produced now (I love it) but it’s affection and appreciation, and a recognition that, sometimes, all the learned texts and important works and vital knowledge in the world tells you very little about an era, and the most inessential little piece of ephemera can tell you absolutely everything.

Comments

  1. 1
    Doctor Mod on 30 Sep 2006 #

    I love it. Never was this neglected subgenre ever so well defined–and appreciated. Perhaps the sheer Britishness of it kept it from going over quite so well in the US, but I think it represented a finer form of pop than its US equivalent. The best songs (e.g., Edison Lighthouse’s “Rosemary,” The Flowerpot Men’s “Moment of Madness,” Jefferson’s “The Colour of My Love”) were beautifully crafted examples of pure pop, admirable in and of themselves.

    They expressed a sense of youth and innocence without having to resort to the nursery, as most of their US analogues did. Then and now I find the idea of prepubescent children (Jackson 5, Osmond Brothers) expressing adult or even adolescent sentiments semi-obscene at worst and inane at best. The BritBubblegum voices were those of individuals of an appropriate age, and thus could address both teen audiences and young adult ones as well. I may be wrong, but somehow I think that this is what pop is supposed to do.

  2. 2
    son of haggart on 14 Oct 2006 #

    Thanks for a thoughtful of summary of an era I leave though in my pre and early teens. I loved that White plain stuff even though I knew in my heart it couldn’t last

    Tore your shirt again, fighting in the rain

    With whats-his-name

    Shoe-black on your face, you’re really a disgrace

    Mummy smiles and all the while

    Because she loves you

    She will worry so

    And if you’re good you know

    That when you grow to be a king

    Never do a thing

    Four and twenty blackbirds sing along

    Royal gifts they all will bring

    When you are a king

  3. 3
    ian on 19 Nov 2006 #

    Thank you, never thought I`d track down a discussion on a era i still rememebr with fondness. Anyone one remember `Tintin` and the lyrics “toast and marmalade for tea, sailing ships upon the sea….?”

    Good times,

    Ian.

  4. 4
    wichita lineman on 28 May 2008 #

    Yes, Tin Tin’s greatest moment sits nicely alongside When You Are A King. There seems to be endless amounts of this stuff that hasn’t been compiled. I love Tony Burrows’ solo 45s Melanie Makes Me Smile and Every Little Move She Makes on Bell. And one gem that has been digitalised is the Tony Hazzard album just re-issued by Rev-Ola – it has spot-on versions of Listen To Me (The Hollies), Fox On The Run (Manfred Mann) etc. by this under rated writer.

    It was a bit of a golden age and the perfect genre for Brit songwriting teams too: Cook/Greenaway, Macaulay/McLeod, Arnold/Martin/Morrow, Fletcher/Flett, Hammond/Hazelwood, and John Carter with a few collaborators (Alquist, Stephens, Lewis and Shakespeare (his missus). Denmark Street was the Brit Building.

    I always think of this genre as ‘soft pop’ rather than ‘bubblegum’, maybe because the Kassenetz/Katz school of writing always seemed so cynical and short-term; the UK stuff generally seemed much more crafted.

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