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.