Saturday 9 December 2023

Christmas Cavalcade 2023 - Part One

You will have to forgive me for the paucity of posts this year, it's been a busy one. One of the unfortunate byproducts of aging is having to deal with health issues (in others as well as myself), the death of family and friends (and friends who have become family), and life in general: this year I have published my latest book, moved house twice (which resulted in putting my entire record and CD collection into storage for six months), made several 'live' appearances and have been beavering away on my next tome. So, apologies for so few blog entries during 2023; I hope to make it up to you in 2024.

But it's almost Christmas, and what would this time of year be without a handful of festive failures for you? that's right, it's time for the first installment of the annual Christmas Cavalcade! Hold on to your Santa hats...

First up is both sides of a 45 issued in the US in 1975, the first of two singles issued by The Whales Featuring Rathbone and His Tuba. Their debut was this bizarre, and utterly pointless cover of the 1958 hit from David Seville and the Chipmunks, namely The Chipmunk Song, backed by a cover of a 1948 number originally popularised by singing cowboy Gene Autrey, If It Doesn't Snow on Christmas. The Whales' schtick was to do the opposite of what the Chipmunks had done so successfully, namely instead of speeding up the vocal track to sound like tiny furry creatures, the producers of this dreck (Mickey Joe Yannich and Bobby Lee), slowed the vocal down to suggest the sound that a huge, lumbering ocean leviathan might make. Unsurprisingly this and the follow-up, I Want to be the Only Whale (to Graduate From Yale) were not hits, and the Whales sank without a trace.  

And talking of Chipmunks rip-offs, the year after Alvin and Co had their big breakthrough, Capitol Records retaliated with Dancer, Prancer and Nervous (the Singing Reindeer) and their debut offering The Happy Reindeer. Like the Whales, these three also issued a second 45, coupling The Happy Birthday Song with I Wanna Be an Easter Bunny. Capitol clearly thought they had a hit on their hands, even issuing a promotional EP featuring the voice of Nervous introducing segments for regional radio play, but although The Happy Reindeer was a modest hit, the follow-up failed to chart and that was the end of that. Incidentally, the B-side of The Happy Reindeer, Dancer's Waltz, was simply an instrumental version of the plug side.

So, enjoy these three tracks for now... there will be more soon!

Download Chipmunk HERE

Download Snow HERE

Download Happy HERE

Sunday 26 November 2023

Like a Pig in Mud

Now, I realise it has been quite some time since I last posted on the blog, but I have been rather busy! We're currently in the middle of our second house move in less than six months, and hopefully by the time most of you read this my husband and I shall be happily ensconced in what will be our forever home.  

I've also been publicising my latest book, Queer Blues, and a lot of my time has been taken up writing my next book - more about that as we get closer to publication day.

But I have been remiss: It's been months since I brought you any silliness, so here is something that will hopefully keep you all happy until this year's Christmas Cavalcade begins.

I found this particular disc recently when looking around for something I had not previously played on my WFMU programme, The World's Worst Records Radio Show. Happily, this little treasure of well-meaning Christian pop was discovered more than a decade ago by our friend and song-poem collector Bob Purse, and posted on the now-defunct WFMU blog... is that serendipity or synchronicity?  

I really don't know where to begin with this nonsense. Don't Be Left Behind, Pig in Mud (II Peter 2:22), and Look at The Mess were all written by G.M. Fretto, and issued in 1984 on a three-track EP credited to Farinella-Siena-Fretto. The same three tracks also turned up on the 1986 album by Mi'Chelle Nelson, Don't Be Left Behind. Messers Gerald Fretto, Joe Farinella and Mark Siena all appear on that record too, although this time Siena is credited as Mark Sena. Both album and EP were released by G.M. Fretto Records - the only products, as far as I am aware, ever to appear on the label. 

Based in Rochester, New York, Mister Fretto and his crew specialised in a peculiar jazz/God rock hybrid. Instrumentally, the opening track Don't Be Left Behind has elements of jazz, funk, and progressive rock, and is accompanied by some ill-fitting lyrics about spiritual redemption. The title, one assumes, comes from the idea that should you not have sought absolution for your sins you will be left behind when God (in whatever form he or she chooses) decides to revisit our planet and gather up the faithful. 

Judging by the subtitle, Pig in Mud (II Peter 2:22) is clearly based on a bible verse. The verse itself is indeed quoted in the lyric: 'A dog goes back to its own vomit, and a pig that is washed heads back to the mud,' or somesuch. I'm sure it's all very important and meaningful, but frankly, to this atheist it is simply baffling. The final song, Look at The Mess is the most 'traditional' of all three songs, but even this has odd, discordant backing vocals that add an unsettling note. It is all very peculiar.

Searching Discogs you will find no further releases from Farinella-Siena-Fretto or from Mi'Chelle Nelson, and neither Joe Farinella nor Mark Siena appear to have recorded anything else. However, as Jerry Fretto, our man has issued at least three albums of Christian praise, the most recent being the 2012 collection The Joy Ahead. He had a period of ill health following his last album but happily is still around today, as is Mark Siena, who now works at the Calvary Chapel in Niagra; sadly I could find no trace of  Joe Farinella, but I hope he is healthy and well.

Here are all three tracks from the wonderfully odd EP by Farinella-Siena-Fretto: enjoy!

Download Behind HERE 

Download Pig HERE 

Download Mess HERE

Friday 25 August 2023

Here Come the Mad Hatters

One of those albums that is forever turning up in ‘bad album cover art’ lists, for years I had assumed that the sole album by the Mad Hatters (or the Mad-Hatters, as they appear on the disc’s labels) was the product of some evangelist folk duo.


How wrong I was.


I had presumed, you see, that the crucifix-like symbol emblazoned across the artist’s ensemble had some sort of religious connection. Now, thanks to the ever-wonderful Thrift Store Vinyl YouTube channel I know better. It is, in fact, the logo of the National Tuberculosis Association, for the Mad-Hatters (or the Mad Hatters) album – believe it or not - is a collection of ‘comedy’ songs about tuberculosis. 19 of them, some under a minute long, with titles such as I Had Tuberculosis, T B Girls, Soft is the Voice of a Fungus and the singalong hit Pneumonoultramicroscopic-silocovolcanokoniosis.


A product of the Greene County Tuberculosis Society of Springfield, Missouri, the album carries no date, but I would suggest it pre-dates Van Morrison’s T B Sheets by a couple of years. The cover mentions Admiral Asterbloom, a character from US comic strip Mr. Abernathy, which ran for three decades from 1957, and the song Pneumonoultramicroscopic-silocovolcanokoniosis references Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from the soundtrack to the 1964 film Mary Poppins, so it would be a fairly safe bet to say that the album dates from no earlier than 1965 and, judging by the quality of the cover – one of those old-type US covers with a slick pasted onto a blank white cardboard sleeve – I would suggest that it was most likely issued before the end of the decade.


But who were the Mad Hatters themselves? Were they two nurses – or volunteers – working on a Missouri TB ward who thought they could raise a few dollars by selling an album of their silly songs? No doubt a few copies sold, as it turns up for sale now and again, but not many I would assume. The album originally came with an insert offering people the chance to purchase more copies at $3.25 apiece; I wonder how many actually took them up on that offer?


As usual, if you have any more information please feel free to share it. In the meantime, enjoy a couple of tracks from the brilliantly bonkers The Mad Hatters.


Download I Had Tuberculosis HERE

Download Nurses Marching Song HERE

Friday 11 August 2023

The Greatest Record Buy in the History of the Business, Apparently

According to whoever wrote the Discogs blurb, ‘Hit Parader was a music magazine. Which also sometimes produced rare EP's and 7" vinyls [I could stab them just for using that utterly unnecessary ‘s’]. These records include coversongs. The covers are very well done and are very close to it's original artist. The names of the different artists who sung these tracks are unknown. For a reason. These records were made as a statement to the music industry; that the record prices are too high. They wanted to show that it could be done cheaper with the same quality’ [sic].


True, there was a magazine called Hit Parader. A pop music monthly, it ran from 1942 until 2008 and printed song lyrics, articles, pin up pictures and the usual teen fare. There was clearly a link between that and the label – both were based in Derby, Connecticut, and the discs were advertised extensively in the pages of the magazine - but that’s about where the truth in the Discogs description ends. 

To claim that the covers featured on the Hit Parader Records EPS are ‘Very well done and are very close to [the] original artist’ could not be further from the truth. Sure, some are more than passable, and not unlike the quality of the UK’s Embassy label, which put out copycat covers of pop hits in the 1950s and 1960s. However, frankly, many of the cover versions featured on these EPs are nothing short of diabolical. So cheap and shoddy as to be embarrassing.

I would seriously question the notion that ‘These records were made as a statement to the music industry’, and that the magazine ‘Wanted to show that it could be done cheaper with the same quality,’ too. The records were not produced to ‘stick it to the man’, but to make money, and the quality is nothing like as good as that of the similar product marketed by a major label. 

The label began, in the late 1950s, as Song Hits, offering six covers of recent chart singles by anonymous performers for ‘The giveaway price of just 69 cents’, as their own advertising claimed. Handily, readers of the magazine could pick up the latest disc at their newsagent. Similar schemes had existed since at least the 1930s: Hit of the Week and Durium, both launched in the early 1930s, were flexible records sold at newsstands in the States, but by the 950s and the advent of the 45, hard vinyl records marketed in this way were becoming more popular, and far cheaper to produce.


Hit Parader Records may have started with good intentions, but by the time the beat boom came around they had all but given up. In early 1964 they issued an EP containing a cover of I Want To Hold Your Hand that is so abominable it defies belief: it should not surprise you that I featured this very same recording on this very same blog five years ago. This very same cover version would turn up time and time again, issued by a number of different budget and cash-in labels and credited variously to Billy Pepper and the Pepperpots (on the album Merseymania), the Liverpool Beats (on the eponymous album issued by Rondo records), and others including the Beats and the Mersey Beats of Liverpool (not The Merseybeats). Confused? You should be.


Anyway, here are a couple of tracks from the Hit Parader label: from HP-31, issued in 1964, is a reasonable version of Leader of the Pack, complete with the most pop art, Joe-Meek-esque bike smash I’ve ever heard, and from 1966, a wonderfully naïve version of the Beach Boys classic Good Vibrations. You can find the version of  I Want To Hold Your Hand and read all about Billy Pepper and the Pepperpots HERE 

If you tune in to the World's Worst Records Radio Show next Wednesday (August 16, Episode 231) you'll hear me play Good Vibrations, alongside a truly ghastly version of the Trashmen's Surfin' Bird. 




Download Leader HERE

Download Vibrations HERE

Saturday 3 June 2023

Beyer Than Die Beatles

It's been a while... my apologies for the (quite literal) radio silence of late. It's been a busy few months, with a new book about to be published and a house move taking place, so I hope you'll forgive me.

I am indebted to the lovely Miss Mei for bringing Klaus Beyer to my attention. German outsider artist Beyer, born in Berlin in 1952, has been making music for decades, but is probably best known for his bizarre reworkings of pretty much the entire Beatles canon.  

Working from home, Beyer began deconstructing the Beatles in the 1980s, taking their original recordings to pieces, removing the original vocals, and adding his own off-key ramblings. It's a karaoke car crash, leaving enough of the original song intact so that even the casual listener would instantly recognise it, before that same listener is beaten around the head by the onslaught of Beyer's voice. It is both unnerving and fascinating.  

Looking not unlike the late Daniel Johnston (who, of course, also adored the Beatles) Beyer - and his tape deck - has been performing live since 1985; he has performed in Brazil, Namibia, France, Austria, and Iceland, and has even played the legendary Hamburg club the Indra, the very same place that the Fabs made their German debut in August 1960.  In his spare time, (while working by day in a candle factory) he made short animated films and did some bit-work in German films, but it was for his all-consuming passion for the Beatles that he achieved fame (of sorts). 

Have a listen to a couple of examples of his work and see what you think.


Download Hey Jude HERE

Download All Together Now HERE

Friday 31 March 2023

Chou-Chou-be-doo, Where Are You?

In the mid-1980s, a young Belgian singer, known only as Baby Chou-Chou (occasionally credited as Baby Chouchou), released a half dozen singles in their own country – all of them awful and all worthy of a place in the World’s Worst Records Archive.


This singing moppet was initially presented to the world as a genderless star of the future - on some of their 45 sleeves Chou-Chou is styled as a girl, on others they look more boyish, possibly subscribing to Eddie Izzard’s maxim that ‘They’re not women’s clothes. They’re my clothes.’ The genderfluid outlook was enhanced somewhat by the choice of material, with songs such as Je Ne Suis Pas Une Fille à Papa (I am Not a Daddy’s Girl).


But she was a young girl, related in some way to Sicilian singer Di Quinto Rocco, born Rocco Befumo in May 1949; apparently, he chose the ‘di Quinto’ prefix as he was fed up with always coming fifth in singing competitions. According to Discogs, Baby Chou-Chou is Rocco’s Goddaughter, but I believe she may actually be his niece: at one point in the 1980s, he was performing with said niece, Christine Befumo, who now appears to be working in Italy and no longer involved in showbusiness. I have not been able to verify yet if Chou-Chou and Christine are one and the same, there is absolutely nothing about her on the ‘net or in any of the press archives I subscribe to, but I suspect as much.


The majority of Baby Chou-Chou’s output appeared on the Little Star label, a company that specialised in singing kiddies and that appears to have been owned by Di Quino Rocco. Other ‘singers’ (and I use that word advisedly) on the label include pre-teen boy Filippo Di Curto, the teeny winner of a kiddie talent show Pamela Chiffi, and Franco Befumo, Di Quino’s son. Most of the songs issued by the company were written (or co-written) by Rocco Befumo.


Rocco’s greatest successes came when he was singing with children. In 1980 his record company, Philips, paired him with a young girl singer called Cardillo Giusy for a ghastly single, the sugary and sentimental Je t’Aime Bien Papa (I Love You, Daddy), that the duo also recorded in Italian as Ti Voglio Molto Bene Papa. In 1981 the pair followed this up with the equally saccharine Bonne Fete Maman, and even to this day, Di Quinto Rocco can often be found performing alongside a pretty, albeit adult, woman. It made perfect sense to him to attempt to turn Baby Chou-Chou into a star. It’s just a shame that she, and the other children on his label, were so hideously untalented.


Anyway, until more detail can be uncovered about the young lady herself, here are a couple of tracks from her discography, namely the A-side of her 1988 single (her last, I believe) La Bière Aux Chocolats and, from 1986, On m’Appelle Belle (They Call Me Pretty).




Download Biere HERE


Download Belle HERE 

Friday 10 March 2023

Charlie Barlow Sings!

Alan Stratford Johns (born 22 September 1925) first came to prominence, here in the UK at least, in the mid-1950s, in a string of small parts in movies and theatre, before hitting the big time as Detective Inspector Charlie Barlow in the long-running BBC police series Z-Cars and its many spin-offs.


Johns grew up in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and served as a deckhand in the South African navy during World War II. After the war, and following a short period working in accountancy, he became involved in amateur theatre. In 1948 he bought a one-way ticket to Britain and learned his craft working in repertory theatre at Southend-on-Sea. One of the first roles he was offered was in a Christmas musical, which he turned down as he felt he did not have the vocal chops. He did, however, stay with the company for almost five years, and during that time changed his name, dropping ‘Alan’ and becoming known, simply, as Stratford Johns.


Early film appearances included a bit-part in the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers (1955), and, in 1957, he made his British TV debut in the Associated-Rediffusion series Destination Downing Street, but it was as Barlow that he would become one of the most familiar and popular faces on British television. Charlie Barlow appeared in five TV series, four as the star: Z-Cars (1962–1965); Softly, Softly (1966–1969), Softly, Softly: Taskforce (1969–1972), and Barlow at Large (1971-1975, retitled Barlow in its final seasons). The character appeared for a final time in 1976, in the series Second Verdict.


Johns’s film appearances include 1970’s Cromwell, with Richard Harris and Sir Alec Guinness. Later roles included appearances in the George and Mildred movie, the 1980 big screen version of the popular sitcom, and in Ken Russell’s 1988 films Salome's Last Dance and The Lair of the White Worm. His many stage credits include Daddy Warbucks in the original West End run of Annie, and the Ghost of Christmas Present in the stage adaptation of the film musical Scrooge.  Guest appearances on TV include The Avengers, Department S, Doctor Who, Great Expectations, Blake's 7 and I, Claudius. He can be seen, alongside Clare Grogan and Moly Weir in the video for Young at Heart, the 1984 hit by Scots band The Bluebells. One of his final roles was in the TV series Heartbeat.


Outside of acting, he and his wife (and her aunt) ran a hotel and bar for actors in St Martin’s Lane (which opened during the 1950s and closed in 1976), and in the mid-1960s there was a popular photographer used by members of the acting profession, the Stratford Johns Studio, in Marble Arch. He was also the author of the children's book Gumphlumph, which he read on the children's television series Jackanory and narrated for album release.


But that’s not why we’re here, is it? We are here because, in 1965, he released an album Stratford Johns Sings, on His Master’s Voice. A selection of ballads which, as he himself admits in the sleeve notes, were chosen ‘quite deliberately’ because they were ‘square’. It’s a delight: Johns’ stentorian voice blasts its way through 14 songs, including Summertime, Beautiful Dreamer, and How to Handle a Woman. In other hands it could have been awful; somehow Stratford Johns Sings manages to be charming, if a little amateur and vainglorious. It’s clear, though, that the actor knows his limitations: on the back cover Johns writes about how he has taken singing lessons but that he realises his voice has been somewhat ravaged by too much drinking and smoking. He even enlists his children, offering their opinions on his vocal abilities. The producer of the album goes unnamed, but I’ll lay you a pound to a penny that the man behind this was Norman Newell, one of EMI’s in-house A&R men, whose career I touch on in my book The Velvet Mafia.


Johns died on 29 January 2002: his wife, Nanette Ryder (the daughter of actors Morris/Maurice Parsons and Mona Ewins), who he had married in March 1955, outlived him by four years and two days.


Here are a couple of tracks from Stratford Johns Sings: You Stepped Out of a Dream and You Do Something To Me. Enjoy!


Download Stepped HERE

Download Something HERE

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