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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. 1
    fivelongdays on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Oooof!

    You’ve been in fine form over the last two entries, a hell of a lot of fun to read. More songs you really don’t like, please!

    Aaaanyway, I remember this comic relief – I was nine, and living with my parents – and this is the only comic relief song I can actually remember. Well, the chorus, anyway. And even then, I have a feeling I have the tune and/or lyrics amazingly wrong.

    Not sure whether it ploughs the depths, and as I’ve said I’ve only the vaguest recollection, so I shall refrain from marking it…for now.

  2. 2
    lex on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Haha I had never even heard of this, even though I’d gotten into pop music (but not yet the charts) at this point! I had no idea it had even existed. Ignorance, bliss &c, it seems.

  3. 3
    Mark G on 31 Mar 2011 #

    An off-the-cuff remark from Jonathan Ross on the previous Comic Relief night, led to this.

    Good points of it: It ended the idea that Hale and Pace were alternative, and eventually ended them also. All we remember them for is the ‘sort-of’ funny takeoff of the Krays, which was done better by Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson back in the Comic Strip days.

    Also, the idea that comedy songs were actually funny by default. The idea that a bad song would still sell well and get to number one was ended with this one, the usual “one single after” offset applies.

    Will think of other ‘good things about this’ later..

  4. 4
    flahr on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Ben Elton! Punt and Dennis! Gosh!

    Sleeve gives it the appearance of a double A-side. Was it?

  5. 5
    Mark G on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Never heard the VicWood song, so, no.

  6. 6

    Best thing about this: when I er re-found it via the internet, the wag offering it had filed it under BLUES

  7. 7
    Tom on 31 Mar 2011 #

    #4 not according to Everyhit but can anyone else shed light on this? Poor Victoria Wood.

    #2 the sole mitigating feature of this is that it left SO little footprint on the charts, pop culture etc. I’m pretty shocked it got to #1 but it was a very odd year.

    I have not even dared try and find the video for it.

  8. 8
    logged-out Tracer Hand on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Referring to one’s head as a “conk” bothers me so much that I couldn’t finish listening to the song.

  9. 9
    flahr on 31 Mar 2011 #

    But they’re not, they’re referring to one’s nose :)

    Oh, right, verdict. Er, unsurprisingly I hadn’t heard it before, and unsurprisingly it’s not very good. It’s overlong, not very funny, overly repetitive, and doesn’t have Punt and Dennis in the video enough. Still I cannot take against it too much (perhaps because I wasn’t listening to the words and have no idea at all how Hale & Pace are) so we’ll say 2 or 3.

    I can OFFICIALLY REVEAL that “The Smile Song” a) did exist b) was not brilliant, though was better than “The Stonk”.

  10. 10
    Tom on 31 Mar 2011 #

    A head in this lexicon wd be “bonce” surely.

  11. 11
    Chelovek na lune on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Nicky Campbell was elected Rector of St Andrews University round about this time (a couple of years before I started there), following in the footsteps of, among others, John Cleese. By all account Campbell was a great disappointment as Rector, never getting involved in the way expected of him (essentially, in the manner of Ancient Scottish Universities – not really anything quite equivalent south of the border as far as I know: representing the interests of students in University board meetings, and preparing other iniatives for the benefits of students, all washed down, this being St Andrews, with healthy layers of often recently invented tradition, dressing up, and much Latin). Essentially it appeared that he couldn’t be arsed to treak all the way up to St Andrews to do anything and ended up resigning before his 3-year term was over (being replaced by the mutton-chopped puck-the-foping QC who(often seen on the front page of the Scottish edn of the Sun, barely even heard of England) who doubled up as the Chairman of evil incarnate FC, ahem I mean Glasgow Rangers – other nominations for evil incarnate are available).

    Clearly “The Stonk” bears the same relation to comedic records as Campbell did to rectors of Ancient Scottish Universities. Not even living up to what minor promise it might have had.

    Must point out that a fair bit of the new order at R1, etc, came by way of Bannister’s GLR days, as well as from independent stations. Although it must be said that Chris Morris annoucing that Heseltine had died, or that the Pet Shop Boys were teaming up with Myra Hindley to record a cover of “Little Children” meant that only went so far…

    Bit of a crap year culturally, 1991, innit?

  12. 12
    Chelovek na lune on 31 Mar 2011 #

    I suppose one thing to be thankful for is that Haysi Fantaysee had wrapped up their career before “Comic Relief” was invented.

  13. 13
    pink champale on 31 Mar 2011 #

    “stonk” is a really awful word for a start. and hale and pace were dreadful. and comic relief records (apart from george) are always dire. but still it’s worse than you’d guess.

  14. 14
    Matthew Perpetua on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Good lord. As an American I had never heard this before, but then went to YouTube and was just awed by how terrible this song is.

  15. 15
    Tom on 31 Mar 2011 #

    #12 mea culpa, I was thinking of GLR as an independent, which it wasn’t.

  16. 16
    wichita lineman on 31 Mar 2011 #

    I’ve been dreading this, as this is the first number one I actively avoided – I’ve never heard it to this day. Finally, for science’s sake…

    Errr… not what I was expecting. Bad Jools boogie… could go down a Chas & Dave route? No… oh, Jesus, the jokes are so lame… it’s ENDLESS!!!

    The last line is maybe the worst joke I have ever heard in my life.

    A piece of my soul just died.

  17. 17
    Alan not logged in on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Their enduring cultural contribution beyond helping to kill DrWho: they are sampled on that Colourbox track (or is it two?)

  18. 18
    Tom on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Trivia Time: Hale And Pace are one of three acts (that I can think of) who have had a number one and were in the original run of Doctor Who.

    (The star-happy nature of 00s Who means the number has shot up, and for the first time includes people who have made good records.)

  19. 19

    It’s actually pretty rigorously consistent in its non-funniness: the newsreader gag that opens makes my skin creep*, and the way it ends (which mercifully I have temporarily forgotten)** is as bad. And even without the clumsily spaced profusion of predictable novelty gags over the top of it, the music itself is impressively perfunctory. I’m pretty allergic even to the Rocky Horror Show, and in terms of rock&roll pastiche this is many many MANY hellish layers beneath.***

    *Doesn’t help that it reminds me of Sue Lawley announcing Dick Emery’s death, when she quoted one of his famous catchlines (“Ohh you are awful” etc) inadvisedly attempted to mimic DE’s voice.
    **PLEASE DON’T REMIND ME
    ***I do actually feel vaguely sorry for H&P, who — almost alone among light entertainers — seem to have been shown the door not for unsavoury activity, but because everyone (strangely belatedy) agreed they were just crap. It must be humiliating, like being suddenly dumped by someone who had for many years professed their total adoration.

  20. 20
    Mark G on 31 Mar 2011 #

    #18, The Beatles have appeared on Dr Who.

    Admittedly, it was a contemporary clip, but the source film got lost so that episode is the only surviving fragment of that particular Beatles performance.

  21. 21
    thefatgit on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Again, I’ve not knowingly heard this. I will give it a go after work, and report my findings. I’m now wondering if Tom would be subjecting himself to imminent torture if, unlikely as it may seem, this particular example had stayed top of the pile for 16 weeks?

  22. 22
    Tom on 31 Mar 2011 #

    #21 no! – this is actually the review where I’ve listened to the full track least – I think I’ve only managed 3 plays through and will be very happy never to play it again.

    #19 the closing joke – well, the topic of the closing joke – was probably the butt of comic routines during the Goon Show era. There’s something doggedly uncontemporary about the whole record.

  23. 23
    Chelovek na lune on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Hmm, the refs to Dr Who (of which I have *never* seen even as much as half an episode in my life, as far as I know) bring to mind Harry Enfield’s “Loadsamoney” record, with its Timelords-inspired daleks chanting “Bish! bosh! loads of dosh! exterminate…” or something like that

    That song seems like light-handed avant-garde genius compared with this, Harry Enfield as Oscar Wilde, Hale and Pace as William Hague and Ed Balls.

  24. 24
    Billy Smart on 31 Mar 2011 #

    So, picture the scene twenty years ago, quite possibly to this very day. Imagine, if you will, the figure of my eighteen year old self, depressive with slight manic tendencies, highly serious, embittered, seeing out his calamitous A-Level days at school, not knowing where he would be headed beyond that.

    I’m in the sixth form smokers’ room that Friday morning, looking out onto a fairly small grass courtyard. The school has arranged an event for Comic Relief Day, a giant game of musical chairs played by the whole lower school. And the music for this event is that year’s hilarious Comic Relief single, ‘The Stonk’ by Hale & Pace & The Stonkers;

    “Let’s STONK! Put a red nose on your CONK!”

    (Music stops. I watch some twelve year-old shove each other roughly about, while good-natured/ preoccupied teachers are unaware of how the children are using this jolly exercise to settle scores with each other. The music starts again)

    “The boyos are all stonking in the MALE VOOIICE CHOOIIR!”

    I think that this might have been the absolute low point of my entire life up to that point. Later that evening, I did go to a packed Comic Relief gig at the New Cross Venue – Lush, Blur & Moose! – so the day wasn’t completely bad.

    Hearing this again on Pick Of The Pops last week, ruining an otherwise rather splendid chart (Scritti & Shabba, Bandreas, REM, Mondays, Pet Shop Boys, Roxette), reminded me of this regrettable record’s extreme ability to leave the listener feel sullied and despondant for about quarter of an hour after hearing it.

  25. 25
    Billy Smart on 31 Mar 2011 #

    #18: Hale & Pace, Ken Dodd and… ?

  26. 26
    wichita lineman on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Also in H&P’s oeuvre: The Ginger Song, The Bollocks Song, The Scouser Song (“bit dated now, but still funny, especially if you know any Scousers!” says one youtube viewer)…

  27. 27
    punctum on 31 Mar 2011 #

    I used to bump into Hale and Pace regularly when I worked at St Mary Abbots Hospital, since they used to do their mock-vox pop filming in Wright’s Lane, just around the corner; at first outside the old Penguin Books HQ, and then somewhat further up the street following the Rushdie affair. Neither doctrinaire alternative comedy nor squarely mainstream, their rather hard-centred brand of humour was at its most popular in the first half of the nineties, with a drastic falling off in popularity more or less coinciding with Blair’s election victory. Make of that what you will.

    As you’ve probably already gathered, it was Comic Relief time again, and the heart immediately sinks as the jolly drums and Jools Holland piano make their way into “The Stonk” which, as already noted, musically sounds like a Rocky Horror Show outtake; indeed you can more or less sing “The Time Warp” to it, and Norman Pace admittedly doesn’t do a bad Meatloaf impression.

    Nonetheless the song is crammed with the usual forced merriment – as Kenneth Williams once said of the Royal Variety Performance, it is like watching the inmates of a concentration camp trying to make the best of the situation (and lines like “microwave a pussycat for your tea” indicate Spitting Image sans politics or laughs or point) – and its chorus of “Let’s stonk/To the rhythm of the honky tonk/Stick a red nose on your conk,” later joined with inevitability by backing vocals of “stonky, stonky, nose on your conky” and producer Brian May on shame-free guitar. To list the exhaustive and numerous ways in which they conspire to make the word “stonk” synonymous with “fuck,” and for you to read such a list would be a waste of both our time. In the video they dressed and pranced like a Streatham Blues Brothers tribute act. Wasn’t 1991 supposed to sound “like something out of Buck Rogers” (Dean Martin, pp Nick Tosches) rather than a polite, cleansed Max Miller?

  28. 28
    Tom on 31 Mar 2011 #

    #25 Windsor Davies plays a footpad in Evil Of The Daleks. And actually there’s a Flying Picket in the same episode as Ken Dodd, which brings the average up a little w/o recourse to Beatles footage.

  29. 29

    To dig a bit into *why* the BBC handed over so much screen-time to these two, I suspect the problem is — once again — the downside of the rise in effective nichemarketing. If old-school all-family light entertainment is dead — and whether or not it was killed by alt-comedy, it was worn utterly threadbare — what do you put in its place? Meaning: how do you fill its timeslot, to similar audience-number effect?

    H&P was an early attempt at an answer — but their employment really just demonstrated the scale of the loss of confidence in long-standing vaudeville values. Most alt.comedians utterly disdained these — and weirdly, they continue to do so, even as they colonise more and more of the equivalent viewer-share. H&P clearly didn’t disdain this ethos, but where for example Barrymore carved out a zone round his own gifts, they seemed stuck, cluelessly, between sensibilities.

    More recently — and far more effectively, numbers-wise — the answer to the conundrums has been the reality shows and celebrity talent competitions. And of course we live in an age where “the kind of music your gran likes” has to take account of the fact that your gran was a topless body-painted Hendrix groupie at the Isle of White festival, and WAY wilder than you’ll ever be…

  30. 30
    wichita lineman on 31 Mar 2011 #

    NOW! watch: The Stonk was on Now 19, disc one, placed between Kylie’s What Do I Have To Do (mmmm… nice sequencing) and 2 In A Room’s Wiggle It.

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