When is a record label not a record label? When it’s BBC Records, the Corporation’s audio branch, which started life as BBC Radio Enterprises.
The history of BBC Records is a fascinating one, as the corporation – ever mindful of their remit as a non-commercial public service – were slow to exploit the commercial potential of many of their hit shows. Sound tracks of comedy favourites such as Not Only But Also, The Goon Show and Hancock’s Half Hour would be licensed to established labels such as Decca, Parlophone and Pye Records.
BBC Enterprises’ Records & Tapes division came into being in 1967, and their output initially consisted of instructional and educational recordings, but in 1970 they tentatively dipped a toe into the water of wider commercial concerns with a 45 single of themes from the first of their hugely popular, prestigious, historical dramas, The Six Wives of Henry VIII. This is where Top Of The Box comes in.
A comprehensively catalogued and richly annotated discography of BBC Records’ singles output may seem foolhardy, insane even, but this is what vintage telly archivist, researcher, blogger and author Tim Worthington has done with his most recent book, Top Of The Box.
Tim Worthington has assembled a discography of BBC Records’ wildly eclectic 45 output, which ranged from TV themes and spin-offs that bothered the charts, such as the timeless Doctor Who theme (released in numerous configurations) and a raft of singles inspired by EastEnders’ first flush of success in the mid ‘80s, through to cheerfully amateurish cash-ins on the back of wildly popular shows – as anyone who remembers Noel Edmonds and company’s ‘Swap Shop’ supergroup Brown Sauce will recall – through to more esoteric fare, from folk madrigals to spoken word discs.
“This all really started off as a filler article for an online magazine that never really took off, where I talked about some of the odder early releases on the label.” Tim says. “After that I was sufficiently intrigued to want to catalogue the whole of their output – which wasn’t as easy or straightforward a task as it might sound – but I wasn’t sure what to do with the list once I had it. I tried making shorter blog articles out of it, covering specific trends in their output, but that never really quite worked and I was already spotting a possible ‘narrative’ to the label. Once I had the idea of making it into a 7″ sized book, that was that!”
For the early years of the label’s inception, its singles output mainly consisted of themes from its most popular shows re-arranged for commercial consumption, from the bittersweet and evocative theme song for “Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads” by Highly Likely, to endless iterations of the Doctor Who theme tune with an ever-changing array of B sides (most renowned being Peter Howell’s “Astronauts”, a pounding slice of electronica worthy of early Human League or Jean Michel Jarre). Just the titles alone will give pangs of nostalgia to anyone over a certain age, with themes from everything from The Duchess of Duke Street, The Water Margin and Grandstand, to The Changes, The Body In Question and The Great Egg Race.
The joy of the wilfully eclectic and random nature of BBC’s 45 output is, I suggest, that it was a lot more off the wall than a bona fide record label. Tim concurs. “The key thing is that it didn’t operate like a bona fide record label – it simply existed to put out what viewers and listeners might have bought on the back of a successful programme. In that sense it’s like a bewilderingly esoteric time capsule; all the shows that were successful or controversial in their day but have since been forgotten, talent show winners who didn’t go on to do anything of note at all, pieces of music that barely justified their twenty seconds on screen stretched out to single length. Part of the fun of this was that it wasn’t just writing about music, it was delving into a lost world of home entertainment too.”
Along these lines, I wondered what hidden gems Tim had uncovered as part of his exhaustive research. “I’m really very fond of the early releases involving a band called Trane, who were used for all kinds of BBC projects around this time; they did an EP based on the radio soap Waggoner’s Walk, and a jaw-dropping reworking of the theme from the drama serial Spy Trap. Richard Denton and Martin Cook, who did a lot of early electronic theme tunes, did five singles over about as many years that are all absolutely fantastic. On The Move by The Dooleys, who were an actual chart act that seem to have been forgotten now, is a very charming number. And best of all there’s We Wanna Be Famous, an alarming fake punk single recorded by the That’s Life team as part of a sting. It’s so bad and wide of the mark that it’s actually a work of genius.”
For every five-star collaboration such as Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen’s “Edge of Darkness”, as classy, transatlantic and A-game as the drama of the same name, there’s Justin Hayward and Tony Visconti’s “Star Cops” theme “It Won’t Be Long”, from the equally forgettable show. We have the “Ayatollah Song/Gob On You” 45 by the cast of Not The Nine O’Clock News, which failed to duplicate the massive success of its parent show, despite having the luxury of a punkish picture sleeve. There’s other home-brew manufactured sensations such as Swap Shop spin-off Brown Sauce’s “So You Want To Be A Winner”; Keith Harris & Orville; Grange Hill’s “Just Say No”, and Saturday Superstore talent show winner Claire Usher’s “It’s ‘Orrible Being In Love When You’re Eight And A Half”.
The unlikely success of Brown Sauce is something to ponder: “I think I Wanna Be A Winner is interesting in terms of its background rather than as a song! In fact it was hard to determine exactly how and why it came about, and I was watching Swap Shop at the time that it did. Very interesting combination of an ambitious presenter in Noel Edmonds who was enthusiastically using children’s television to get him where he wanted, but without short-changing the viewers, and a slightly out-of-his-time pop star in BA Robertson, who tried to combine music, acting, comedy and probably even synchronised swimming at a time before there was even really such a thing as ‘cross platform’. Very strange to think how forgotten he is now – he was everywhere when I was a youngster.”
What you get with this book isn’t just the factoids but also the fall-out. Who knew that the twelve inch single of “It’s ‘Orrible” was one of the lowest charting 12″ singles of the 1980s, or that Claire had a follow-up single that didn’t even dent the Top 75.
What’s most fascinating about this volume, as it itemises release after release in chronological order, sprinkled with Worthington’s commentary offering context on each release’s parent series, some wry commentary and arcane trivia, is how, as the Beeb enters the aspirational 1980s, BBC Records somewhat over-reached themselves by attempting to not only meet public demand for melodies from well-loved, popular shows, but also dared to surf the zeitgeist and manufacture its own commercial successes.
It’s at this point that Tim’s Beeb 45 chronology peaks and the bubble bursts, as we’re confronted with an array of singles inspired by the success of EastEnders – “Something Outta Nothing” by Letitia Dean and Paul Medford, the culmination of a ‘battle of the bands’ storyline deliberately contrived to expand the EastEnders brand into other media; closely followed by Nick Berry’s hit single “Every Loser Wins” and, in 1986, Anita Dobson doing a Dennis Waterman and ‘singing de feem toon’ with the classically awful “Anyone Can Fall In Love”. What’s clear from this section of Tim’s compendium is the only winner was Simon May, who instigated all of the above EastEnders toe-tappers but also got another freak hit out of another soap he was affiliated with – yuppie-yachting boardroom drama “Howards Way”, with its vocal theme (featuring Marti Webb on vocal duties) just skirting the top 10.
I suggested to Tim that the Eastenders tie-ins, with its script editors and Simon May collaborating to manufacture opportunities for spin off records from the show to consolidate its popularity, marked a fatal changeover from BBC Enterprises being cheerfully haphazard to more market-driven and anticipating viewers’ tastes.
“It actually goes back a little further than that; I think Denton And Cook, who broke the top thirty, were their first ‘stars’, and also Peter Howell from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who they pushed really heavily on account of viewer response to his music. And, erm, Keith Harris and Orville. But you are right in that it changed when they started trying to second-guess what people would latch on to, rather than just spotting opportunities from shows that were already in progress. Simon May did some remarkable pieces of music but I think the overexposure meant that even the public got sick of him very quickly; certainly the hostile reaction to his Holiday theme would seem to suggest that. After that, the label sort of lost its direction completely.”
So, in essence, what we have is a kind of alternative history of the changing tastes and styles of the BBC’s mainstream presentations, as essayed by the bigwigs of BBC Records & Tapes, who as often as not didn’t have their fingers on the pulse as were stumbling blindly, with occasionally surprising results.
There would be one last stab at cross-platform media success, in the form of glove puppet Edd the Duck’s 1990 single, ‘Awesome Dood’, which failed to trouble the charts. Did this sound the death knell for BBC Records’ chart-bothering status? Over to Tim:
“It was really more to do with the changes brought on by John Birt which left little room for this kind of eccentricity – the Radiophonic Workshop fizzled out not long afterwards too – but when it comes to Awesome Dood, I think for once the public were right in not getting behind a novelty single. And bear in mind this was the same label as Orville’s Song!”
This is just a taster of the intelligent, witty and droll commentary that informs Tim’s cataloguing of BBC Records’ bizarrely wayward singles history. Top of the Box is partly a useful document of the BBC’s changing relationship with its audience; a testament to the capricious nature of television culture itself; and a fact-filled cornucopia of info and trivia for pop cult obsessives.
This book is one of those strange cases where you didn’t realise you needed such a title until it existed, fulfilling all those nerdy needs of seeing a transient, disposable culture documented and itemised for posterity. To paraphrase Zammo and friends – just say yes.
You can purchase Top of the Box by Tim Worthington here: http://www.lulu.com/gb/en/shop/tim-worthington/top-of-the-box/paperback/product-22456063.html
Tim Worthington’s blog can be found here: http://timworthington.blogspot.co.uk/
Author bio: James Gent has contributed to several acclaimed publications devoted to cult and popular television including 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die, You & Who: Contact Has Been Made and Blake’s Heaven: Maximum Fan Power. In 2014, he wrote the biography for the official Monty Python website.