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

Friday, 3 February 2023

Toy Boy Tunes

Born on 9 October 1947 – John Lennon’s seventh birthday - Sir Roderic Victor Llewellyn (better known as ‘Roddy’) is a British baronet, garden designer, journalist, author, and television presenter best known for his eight-year relationship with Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, the younger sister of the late Queen Elizabeth II.


They were introduced, at the Café Royal in Edinburgh in 1973, by Lady Anne Glenconner. At the time, Roddy was a gardener and, at 25 years old, a full 17 years younger than the princess.


The much-publicised relationship was a factor in the dissolution of the princess's marriage to the Earl of Snowdon. In 1976, photographs of Roddy and Margaret in Mustique appeared in the press, and Roddy was outed as Margaret’s ‘toy boy’. Llewellyn issued a public statement, saying that ‘I much regret any embarrassment caused to Her Majesty the Queen and the royal family, for whom I wish to express the greatest respect, admiration and loyalty’.


The Queen was not happy, according to Princess Margaret’s authorized biographer, Christopher Warwick, who said that ‘The Queen didn’t approve of Roddy or of the relationship, and she thought that in all of this Roddy business, her sister was behaving badly.’ However, Lady Glenconner would later tell Vanity Fair that, ‘After Princess Margaret’s funeral, the Queen, she said, ‘I’d just like to say, Anne, it was rather difficult at moments, but I thank you so much [for] introducing Princess Margaret to Roddy ’cause he made her really happy.’ Personally, I find it difficult to believe that our later monarch would say ‘’Cause’, but there you have it.


At the height of their eight-year relationship, Roddy was persuaded to spend a few days in a recording studio. The results were issued as Roddy by Philips in 1978. According to the note, in Roddy’s own handwriting, on the reverse of the sleeve, ‘Like lots of other people I have always wanted to make a record, and I feel very fortunate to have now done this. We all had a lot of fun recording the album – hope you enjoy it too.’


He may have ‘always wanted to make a record’, but there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that he would not have had he not been at the centre of a high-profile scandal. Musically, it’s slick, synthy, lightweight stuff, but the simple fact is that Llewellyn cannot sing. There’s a difference between bumbling through a few bars of a song at home and standing in front of a microphone in a professional studio, attempting to cut a hit recording. The voice is too mannered, too thin and too flat. I’m sure he did have ‘a lot of fun’, and today, with a little touch of autotune and a more forgiving backing, he might have gotten away with it, but when you’re crooning along to what is essentially the soundtrack to a seventies sitcom there’s no room to hide.


Produced by Tony Eyers, who specialised in recording musak-versions of standards for the foreign market (including Reggae Music Played By Tony Eyers, and Tony Eyers Plays Beach Boys, both issued in Sweden in 1977) but will be best known for writing I’m On Fire, a hit for 5,000 Volts, featuring the voice (if not the face) of Tina Charles.


By the beginning of 1981, Roddy and Margaret were through and, on 11 July 1981, Llewellyn married Tatiana Soskin, a daughter of film producer Paul Soskin. The couple have three daughters, Alexandra, Natasha, and Rosie.


In 2009 Roddy succeeded his elder brother David (better known as ‘Dai’), to the Llewellyn baronetcy. Roddy and Dai had a difficult relationship, and barely spoke to each other after the elder Llewellyn talked to newspapers about his brother’s relationship with a royal. 25 years after his relationship with Margaret had ended, Roddy Llewellyn told the Daily Mail that he still could not bring himself to forgive his brother’s ‘betrayal’. Dai dismissed him as a ‘snob and a resentful, chippy little twerp’, but the brothers were reconciled shortly before Dai’s death.


Now aged 75, he’s still working and he’s still singing. Apparently, when he went to meet actor Helena Bonham Carter, while she was preparing to play Princess Margaret in the Netflix drama series The Crown, ‘He started singing a song in my kitchen,’ she revealed to the Sunday Times. ‘He came to tea with me and Harry [Treadaway], who plays Roddy. He was so fun and warm — that’s what she needed. He’s very musical.’ Well, I’ll leave you to make up your own minds there, with a couple of tracks from Roddy: Missing Her Again and Crazy World.




Download Missing HERE


Download Crazy HERE

Friday, 27 January 2023

Ol' Blue Eyes's Bark

Frank Sinatra is one of those singers who always gets a pass, the commonly-held belief that he was a great singer makes him seemingly untouchable when it comes to the kind of folk – like me – who write about bad music.


But that’s a shame because there are some truly horrific examples in the Sinatra canon, a couple of which I offer up for you today.


Singer and actor Francis Albert Sinatra (born 12 December 1915), known as the ‘Chairman of the Board’ and ‘Ol' Blue Eyes’, Sinatra was one of the most popular entertainers in the world. He began performing in the mid-1930s, performed with bandleaders Harry James and Tommy Dorsey and, after signing as a solo artist with Columbia Records in 1943, became the idol of the bobby soxers, selling out venues and starring in the weekly radio show Your Hit Parade (more about that later).


He also forged a highly successful career as a film actor, appearing in 60 movies and winning an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor in From Here to Eternity in 1953. Among his screen credits are the hugely popular musicals On the Town (1949), Guys and Dolls (1955), and High Society (1956). He left Columbia and signed to Capitol, releasing critically acclaimed albums including In the Wee Small Hours (1955), Songs for Swingin' Lovers! (1956), Only the Lonely (1958), and Nice 'n' Easy (1960).


Sinatra left Capitol in 1960 to start his own label, Reprise Records, and released a string of successful albums: through his lifetime he sold over 150 million records. Sinatra may be best known for his string of classic performances, from Fly Me To the Moon to Strangers in the Night and, of course, My Way, but he also recorded a significant number of clunkers during his career, especially in the early years. While with Columbia he was often at loggerheads with Mitch Miller, then head of A&R at the label. It was Miller who insisted that Sinatra record the execrable Mama Will Bark, as a duet with shapely starlet Dagmar, which Billboard dismissed as ‘a silly novelty piece [which] proves that Dagmar is better seen than heard’. Legend has it that Sinatra was so angry with Miller that he never forgave him: when the pair passed each other in a hotel lobby, Miller extended his hand to greet the singer, but Sinatra snarled, ‘Fuck you! Keep walking.’


Then there’s Sinatra’s version of Woody Woodpecker. In the 1940s Sinatra was starring on the radio show Your Hit Parade and, as a consequence of this, was often called on to perform songs that were doing well in the charts that week… one of which was Mel Blanc’s Woody Woodpecker, a major hit in 1948. Although Sinatra’s lacklustre performance of this monstrosity was never supposed to be released, in 1974 British budget label Windmill Records put it out on a collection of Sinatra rarities, I’m Confessin’, and the recording has been in circulation ever since.


He made the occasional misstep during his Capitol years too: take, for example, the ridiculous version of Old Macdonald (awful, but admittedly better than Elvis’s stab at it, and his 1960 campaign song High Hopes With Jack Kennedy. That’s not to say his later career was free of faux pas. His disco version of Night and Day is truly horrible (the disco-fied All or Nothing at All was more successful, but still nasty), as is his cover of Paul Simon’s Mrs. Robinson, where Sinatra alters the lyrics (most egregiously the line ‘Jesus loves you more…’ becomes ‘Jilly loves you more…’, and confused an entire generation) and attempts to turn a rather wonderful pop song into a big band swing number.


Outside of his recording career, Sinatra’s somewhat colourful personal life included turbulent relationships with wives Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow, and rumours of his association with mob bosses followed him his entire career, leading to his being investigated by the FBI for his alleged relationship with the mafia. He became one of the best-known members of the Rat Pack, an informal group of Hollywood stars and recording artists that originally included Sinatra, Errol Flynn, Nat King Cole, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (Bacall and Sinatra were set to marry following Bogart’s death, but Sinatra called the wedding off after shortly after the couple became engaged, in mid-1958), but is probably best known for its Las Vegas iteration, of Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. In 1963 his son, Frank Junior, was kidnapped and Sinatra paid $240,000 ransom for his safe return.


He died, aged 82, in May 1998, leaving behind an incredible body of work, including the two songs I present for you today, Mama Will Bark and Woody Woodpecker. Enjoy!


Download Mama HERE 

Download Woody HERE 

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