The Wombles by Bill Pitzonka
In 1974, the British charts were awash in glam rockers and toothy teen idols. Rising somewhat surprisingly above this glittery sea to claim Music Week's Top Singles Act of the Year was a group of furry, burrow-dwelling litter-gatherers—the Wombles. And just like the Archies before them, the Wombles made the leap from printed page to pop playlists via the power of television.
British author Elizabeth Beresford was walking on Wimbledon Common with her children when she was inspired to write about “the tidiest creatures in the world” which “go round clearing up the rubbish which has been left behind by people.” The Wombles debuted in 1968, and the adventures of these cuddly recyclers proved so immensely popular that two further volumes followed: The Wandering Wombles in 1970 and The Wombles At Work in 1973. That year, Filmfair acquired the television rights and commissioned Mike Batt to write the theme song.
The classically trained Batt had been a member of the chamber rock group Hapshash & The Coloured Coat, which recorded for Liberty /Imperial in 1967. He had since written numerous commercial jingles, arranged and orchestrated many a pop recording session, and released several high-quality budget-label cover albums. He waived the flat fee offered and instead wrangled the music rights to make the Wombles an authentic recording outfit, taking on all the creative duties—writing, arranging, producing, even performing all the vocals. To help him get into character, his mother made him a Womble suit, which he wore for an entire week.
Batt notes that "the first album [Wombling Songs] was really just character songs and background music for the television series." Though he dismisses the album as "rather twee," it did feature the group's first and longest-running chart single, "The Wombling Song," which hit #4 and spent 23 weeks in the British Top 75.
"The second album [Remember You're A Womble] was really the first proper album for the Wombles as a group," Batt beams with justifiable pride. Indeed it spawned three sizable and musically disparate hit singles: the title track was a rockin' call-and-response number with a highland jig break that hit #3; the sax-driven reggae of "Banana Rock" limboed up to #9; and most surprisingly, "Minuetto Allegretto"—an authentic Mozart minuet complete with period orchestration—waltzed up to #16. By this time, the Wombles were also making personal appearances as a five-member group in full costume—Orinoco on vocals and sax, Wellington on lead guitar, Madame Cholet on bass guitar, Great Uncle Bulgaria on violin, and Bungo on drums. In addition to performing as Orinoco, Batt somehow managed to corral stalwart session guitarist Chris Spedding (who would later produce three cuts on the Sex Pistols’ album) to suit up and strap on a flying-V guitar as Wellington.
The Wombles set off to conquer America in the summer of 1974. CBS Television aired Womble shorts on Captain Kangaroo, and Columbia Records issued a slightly revamped version of the Remember You're A Womble album for their stateside debut. The first single was the spot-on Beach Boys homage "Wombling Summer Party," a tightly edited version of "Non-Stop Wombling Summer Party" (down to the title). Despite the overtly American theme, the single only wombled halfway up the Billboard Hot 100 to #55 in August. "Remember You're A Womble" was quickly issued as the follow-up, but it was the last Wombles recording released in the U.S. Batt still regrets that "Wombling U.S.A.," which he had written specifically for the American market, was never released—even in the U.K.
Back in Britain, the Wombles capped off 1974 with the Spectoresque "Wombling Merry Christmas"—a #2 hit and their highest-charting single. The parent album Keep On Wombling was released in the new year. Its first side was a concept suite, which followed the adventures of Orinoco, the sleepiest Womble, through a series of dreams.
The Wombles’ fourth album Superwombling arrived mid-1975, and proved that Batt was adept at maneuvering his fictional charges through any musical style he pleased: Barbershop harmony ("Down At The Barbershop"), spaghetti Western ("The Orinoco Kid"), James Bond themes ("To Wimbledon With Love"). He even cast them in a classic Hollywood musical (complete with tap dancing) for the single, "Wombling White Tie and Tails," a #22 hit. The follow-up "Super Womble," their sort-of stab at glam including a wheezy harmonica solo and varispeed chorus, leapt to #20.
They closed out the year with their final charting single, "Let's Womble To The Party," a swing-style number that stomped up to #34. By this time, Mike Batt's talents were being sought after by all manner of artists, including Steeleye Span and Kursaal Flyers. He even issued his first (and only charting) solo single, "Summertime City," which was the theme for, as he puts it, "a dreadful series called Seaside Summer." So dreadful, apparently, that despite its #4 chart peak, he refuses to allow the track to be reissued.
As for the Wombles themselves, their television series ended after the second season. They did manage one last hurrah on the big screen—the film Wombling Free for which Mike Batt rehashed major portions of their existing repertoire. As a symbolic parting gesture, he issued the tuneful single "Rainmaker" in 1976, credited to Wellington Womble as a solo artist, to signal the breakup of the band.
Mike Batt went on to record a string of adventurous solo albums (Schizophonia, Six Days in Berlin) which have made him perennially popular in Germany. And while the Wombles never gave him a #1 single, he did top the UK chart in 1979 thanks to another group of furry burrow-dwellers from children's literature: He wrote, arranged, and produced Art Garfunkel's hit "Bright Eyes," from the animated film of Richard Adams's rabbit-warren-as-human-condition parable Watership Down. It stayed in the pole position for six weeks and was the year's biggest selling single. Batt also wrote a full-scale musical based on Lewis Carroll's The Hunting Of The Snark, which played at London's Prince Edward Theatre in 1987.
1998 marked the silver anniversary of the Wombles’ U.K. television debut. To commemorate the occasion, Columbia Records and Reader’s Digest both issued CD retrospectives of Wombles hits. Columbia even rereleased two singles, "Remember You're A Womble" and "The Wombling Song," which both hit the Top 30. A new series of Wombles television programs was commissioned, and Mike Batt, as busy as ever, found time to come up with new material for his old "bandmates." Twenty-five years later, the Wombles are still cleaning up.
The Bay City Rollers by Carl Cafarelli
Teen idols seem to have a built-in obsolescence, virtually guaranteeing a short career for any artist whose primary appeal is to a fickle preteen female market. For the self-consciously hip, the teen idol tag carries a stigma beyond easy redemption, and the artists who cater to this market risk being forever branded as uncool.
In this context, no band was less cool in the '70s than the Bay City Rollers, whose management went so far as to tout this harmless Scottish quintet as the “next Beatles.” That claim may seem ludicrous now (just as it did then), but the Rollers were nonetheless one of the biggest pop phenomena of the decade.
We'll dispense with the standard rap on the Bay City Rollers' tartan-clad teenybop image and all the hype. At this point, suffice it to say that the Rollers were an often-underrated, occasionally (if infrequently) terrific power pop group.
The Bay City Rollers began circa 1967 as an Edinburgh, Scotland cover band called the Saxons. The Saxons included brothers Alan and Derek Longmuir, on bass and drums respectively, with singer Nobby Clarke. That trio remained through various Saxons line-ups. Seeking a more American-sounding name, a pin was struck randomly into a map of the United States. The pin landed on Bay City, Michigan, and the Bay City Rollers were
The Bay City Rollers' first single, a cover of the Gentrys' "Keep On Dancing," became a # 9 British hit in 1971. But follow-up singles, including an early version of "Saturday Night," were comparative flops. By now, Clarke and the Longmuirs had been joined in Rollerdom by guitarists Eric Faulkner and Stuart "Woody" Wood. Clarke himself soon quit, to be replaced on lead vocals by Les McKeown.
The Rollers didn't play on any of their records until "Bye Bye Baby," a cover of the 4 Seasons' hit. Rollermania took Britain by storm, and was eventually exported to America via a new, McKeown-sung version of "Saturday Night" (a song which directly inspired the Ramones' own chanting "Blitzkrieg Bop," believe it or not).
The Rollers' recorded legacy is a mixed bag, offering a fair amount of drippy ballads and some bona fide rockin' pop. Bay City Rollers is notable mostly for "Saturday Night." Rock N' Roll Love Letter contains four of the group's best power pop tracks, "Money Honey," "Rock And Roll Love Letter," "Wouldn't You Like It" and "Too Young To Rock & Roll." "Wouldn't You Like It," in particular, is a dynamic power pop number that should have been a single.
Alan Longmuir was replaced by Ian Mitchell on Dedication. Produced by Raspberries veteran Jimmy Ienner, Dedication suffers from weak material, including very lame attempts at Beach Boys and Raspberries covers, but is redeemed by the rockin' Faulkner-Wood "Rock 'N Roller," a reasonably cool cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want To be With You" and a superb reading of Vanda and Young's terrific "Yesterday's Hero." Mitchell then split after a scant six-month stint; his replacement, Pat McGlynn, didn't even stay that long.
As a quartet, the Rollers released the slick It's A Game album as an attempt to bridge the adult and teen markets, eschewing both standard teenybop ballads and power pop. Instead, it offers an unlikely melange of Manilowesque crooning, disco styling and even a cover of David Bowie's "Rebel, Rebel."
Greatest Hits represents the final cash-in at the end of the group's commercial reign. A perfunctory best-of, it includes the American singles, both hits and misses, but omits essential LP tracks "Wouldn't You Like It," "Too Young To Rock & Roll' and "Rock 'N Roller." Arista reissued it on CD in 1991.
In 1978 the group (with Alan Longmuir back in the fold) starred on NBC in a Saturday morning kiddie TV show produced by Sid and Marty Krofft and released the forgettable Strangers In The Wind. When the TV show ended, McKeown split.
Duncan Faure, formerly of the South African group Rabbit, was McKeown's replacement. The group changed its focus, dumped the tartan outfits and teen image, and shortened its name to simply the Rollers. Elevator was the result, the most aggressive-sounding album the group ever made. Granted, there's nothing on Elevator to equal "Rock And Roll Love Letter," "Wouldn't You Like It" or "Yesterday's Hero," but it is far more consistently listenable than any other Rollers album. Key tracks include "Elevator," "Playing In A Rock And Roll Band," "I Was Eleven," "Turn On The Radio," "Instant Relay" and "Who'll Be My Keeper." The resulting sound could be compared to the Babys, or a more AOR-oriented version of the Records. If nothing else, it shows the Rollers as contenders, if not quite the next Beatles. It stiffed horribly, and was the last Rollers album issued in America.
The rare and little-heard Voxx is reportedly a contract-breaking set of odds and ends (if not sods). Ricochet follows in Elevator's footsteps, but is not its equal. The original group reportedly got back together in the mid-'80s for a reunion concert, and released one synth-dominated album, Breakout, before splitting again. [This writer has never heard either Live In Japan or Breakout, but we're told that the former is a triumph and the latter a tragedy.] A later version of the group, still featuring Faulkner and Wood, released Bye Bye Baby, a pathetic collection of remakes of old Rollers tunes. It is surely not representative of how one might wish to remember the Bay City Rollers.
That neither the Bay City Rollers nor the just-plain Rollers were the next Beatles is hardly a startling revelation. Maybe they were the next Herman's Hermits, or the next Banana Splits. Who cares? No matter how many self-appointed arbiters of hip despised the Rollers, there were nonetheless others who thought they were... well, kinda neat. Dee Dee Ramone was a Rollers fan; according to Johnny Ramone, the Bay City Rollers were a much bigger influence on the Ramones' brand of pop-fueled punk than anyone would have ever thought likely. And Nick Lowe's "Rollers Show," whether parody or pastiche, had to have some affection behind it.
Evidence for the Rollers' case still survives in the grooves. A quick spin of "Wouldn't You Like It," "Yesterday's Hero," "Who'll Be My Keeper," "Too Young To Rock & Roll," "I Only Want To Be With You," "Rock 'N Roller," "Saturday Night," "Money Honey" and "Rock And Roll Love Letter" makes a convincing argument for the Bay City Rollers as power pop savants.
And, perhaps more importantly, there are thousands of grown-up little girls who will cherish a memory of the Bay City Rollers forever. For that, even by itself, the Bay City Rollers were cool.