Back in February, I wrote a piece for The Guardian that told some of the history behind the record. More of the tale appeared in this month's issue of Record Collector magazine, but the whole story has not been told until now. It's a long read, but if you're interested in the truth behind the incredible Kay,Why? then grab yourself a cuppa and read on.
For LGBT people, and especially for gay men, the summer of 1967 offered much promise. The new Sexual Offences Act (which introduced some of the recommendations of the decade-old Wolfenden Report) had just been passed, meaning that homosexuality – well, homosexual acts between two consenting adult males aged over 21, in the privacy of their own home at least – was no longer a criminal offence, and the atmosphere was filled with a palpable sense of change for the good. Hippies in kaftans with flowers in their hair walked the streets of London barefoot, and around the world people were protesting for equal rights and an end to war. Love was indeed in the air: the Beatles told a global television audience that it was all we needed, and it felt like the world believed them.
As the summer of love turned first into autumn and then winter, a strange little record issued by a tiny, London-based independent label appeared. Very few copies were sold, but it has gone on to become one of the most sought after, and highly cherished, examples of typically British camp humour. Its origins have been debated in books, online and in academic papers, but for more than half a century no one has known the true identities of the musicians behind this disc, with their Beatle-y ‘ooohs’ and camp archness.
There is a fairly good chance that the men behind Kay, Why? had heard of California’s Camp Records, a label that issued a dozen ribald, under-the-counter singles and two albums between 1964-65. Claiming to employ the talents of ‘Hollywood TV and screen personalities’, they also used silly pseudonyms to hide the identity of writers and performers – Byrd E. Bath, the Gay Blades, Sandy Beech, Rodney Dangerfield (no, not that Rodney Dangerfield) – and the titles of their releases, including Homer the Happy Little Homo and Florence of Arabia leave little to the imagination. But Kay, Why?’, and the flip, I’m Not Going Camping This Winter, owe more to the British school of campery than its US cousin.
The disc was the only release from Thrust Records (fnarr fnarr), based at 494 Harrow Road, London. Now a flat above a fast food takeaway, at that time it was also the address of Eyemark Records, a tiny independent record label that had previously issued I Got You by Sheil and Mal, a Sonny and Cher parody from actors Sheila Hancock and Malcolm Taylor, and the album Recitals are a Drag by legendary drag ball organiser Mr. Jean Fredericks. To add to this eclectic roster, in December 1966 the company announced plans to launch Railwayana Productions, a series of field recordings of train sounds, an odd and potentially suicidal move considering that the Beeching cuts were in full swing and steam was being replaced by diesel.
Eyemark (or Eye Mark as it occasionally appeared) was set up by Mark Edwards, a former BBC cameraman who was moving into music video production, and Malcolm Taylor, an actor, stage director and acting coach. Taylor also ran, with his actress mother Margaret Taylor, an employment agency, Domestics Unlimited, providing work for ‘resting’ actors and musicians, and one of the musicians he was finding work for was Eric Francis, singer with a four-piece psychedelic rock group from Fulham, the Purple Barrier. ‘It was a good way to earn a little money when we didn’t have any gigs,’ says Francis. It was through Taylor that Francis met Edwards and introduced him to the rest of the group (Francis and Purple Barrier drummer Alan Brooks had previously been in The Wanted, with David Bowie’s future guitar maestro Mick Ronson), and Edwards quickly became the band’s booking agent and de facto manager.
The Purple Barrier recorded one (unreleased) single for Eyemark before, in 1968, changing their name to the Barrier, to avoid any confusion with Deep Purple, friends from the same part of London, who had just issued their debut 45, Hush!. In the spring of 1968, the Barrier issued their first single, Georgie Brown, co-written by Mike Redway, who the previous year had sung the closing theme for the James Bond spoof Casino Royale, Have No Fear, James Bond is Here. Georgie Brown was backed with a song that has gone on to become a psychedelic classic, Dawn Breaks Through, composed by Francis and bandmate Del Dwyer. ‘”Georgie Brown” was absolutely horrendous,’ says Francis. ‘We didn’t want to do it and it didn’t represent what we sounded like. It did nothing over here, thank goodness, but it proved popular in some other countries, which meant that we had to go and do TV shows to promote it in places like Belgium and Germany. We absolutely hated it!’ Booked to appear on a TV show in Belgium, the band were horrified to find brass instruments laid out for them to play. ‘It had an oompah-band backing,’ Francis explains. ‘There were tubas and trumpets and god knows what in the middle of the floor of the studio, and they expected us to play them. We were just a four-piece pop band! We were on the show with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, and they were so talented, they picked these instruments up and they were away. We ended up miming to the record, and they played alongside us.’
With his connections Edwards was also able to get the Barrier included on a pilot for a new BBC pop show, featuring Julie Felix, and had them slated to perform the title song for a film starring Terry-Thomas and Phyllis Diller, The Pubs of London, which was never made. Georgie Brown did well enough for Philips to sign the band, with Eyemark and Mark Edwards staying on as producer.
Could Mark Edwards be Eileen Dover, or perhaps one of the two singers featured on the disc? Edwards was a man fizzing with ideas, many of which would involve his own small circle of gay friends. As well as running his record label, he was also working on a music video project for TV broadcast around the world, filming acts associated with songwriters Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, including Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, and The Herd. The giant Philips corporation offered financial backing for the project, and Edwards produced clips for several Philips acts, including Dusty Springfield, Manfred Mann and Esther and Abi Ofarim. When not on tour, Francis would often get involved in the filming, and he and Edwards worked on a number of projects together, including the Bee Gees’ television film Cucumber Castle. ‘At one point, we were probably doing 60 or 70 percent of this country’s pop promotion films,’ Francis states. ‘The kind of thing they would show on Top of the Pops when the band were not available.’
With companies in Japan working on a viable home video system, Edwards and his backers were discussing how they could make these half-hour music compilations available to home consumers, almost a decade before domestic video players became available. When Philips withdrew their backing, Howard and Blaikley stepped in, forming a new company, Video Supplement, with Edwards. Their first project together – announced in February 1971 - was to be a half-hour special entitled the Festival of Light. That does not appear to have been successful, however they did produce one programme, Europop, in early 1972 that featured The Electric Light Orchestra, John Kongos Lindisfarne, Mott The Hoople, and Slade.
As well as participating in Edwards’ video project, Howard and Blaikley were also involved with Eyemark Records, writing Uh!, the A-side of the Barrier’s second single, and debut for Philips, as well as the follow-up, Tide is Turning. Their distinguished, decades-long careers include two UK number ones, Have I the Right? for The Honeycombs (produced by Joe Meek) and The Legend of Xanadu for Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich (for which Edwards and Francis shot the promotional film), as well as more outré material with a decidedly queer theme. They even wrote for Elvis. I contacted Ken and Alan to ask if they knew anything about Kay, Why?’, but they informed me that neither of them was involved.
That might have been the end of it, but, just a few days before Christmas 2021, I was contacted by Eric Francis, lead singer, occasional fire eater, and one of the principle songwriters for the Barrier. Eric told me that it was they who provided the instrumental backing for Kay, Why?. ‘At the time of recording we had no idea what it was for other than the fact it was for a comedy record,’ he recalls. ‘Mark Edwards was responsible for the production and distribution, but he had nothing to do with writing or performing on it. Howard and Blaikley, although they were connected with us as a band, had nothing to do with it either.’
Kay, Why? was recorded in early November 1967 at Olympic Studios, Barnes, where just a few months before the Beatles had put down the backing track to the anthemic All You Need is Love, and its B-side Baby, You’re a Rich Man. Other acts including Led Zeppelin, Queen, the Rolling Stones and David Bowie would also use the studios before they closed their doors in December 2009. The Purple Barrier performed on the instrumental track for Kay, Why?, but were not involved with the vocal. After finishing the session, they were off to Europe on tour. ‘We were told it was for a comedy record,’ says Francis. ‘There was no fee involved, we just did it as we were all mates, and we were missing by the time they came in to do the vocals.’
So who wrote the songs and performed vocal duties on the disc? ‘It was written and performed by Roy Cowan and Iain Kerr,’ says Francis. ‘They were a talented duo who, in the late 60s and early 70s, performed as “Goldberg and Solomon”, a comedy Jewish version of Gilbert and Sullivan. Iain also played piano on “Georgie Brown”, and he’s on “Shapes and Sounds” and the Howard and Blaikley song “Uh!”. He was just a nice chap who was always around. Iain and Roy were at the session, but they didn’t record their vocals at the time. No one was more surprised than we were when we finally got to hear it!’
Not long afterwards, while Barker and Kerr was performing at a London night club – ‘The kind where you pay five shillings for a glass of water and extra for the glass’, he later recalled – they were introduced to Roy Cowan. Cowan, born in Hampstead, London of Russian parents, had trained to be a rabbi but discovered his knack for writing parodies of hit songs while serving in the army. The budding song satirist, who had previously written lyrics for Charles Aznavour among others, impressed Kerr with an on-the-spot parody of Moon River, entitled Chopped Liver, and an immediate, and lasting, partnership was formed. As well as working with Cowan, Kerr continued to perform in clubs and hotels in London, becoming friendly with visiting US stars including Bob Hope and Sammy Davis Jr., and was regularly featured on the popular BBC radio programme Music While You Work.
The pair wrote songs for Kerr’s nightclub act as well as for other artists, including both sides of the 1966 45 issued by septuagenarian cabaret singer Miss Ruby Miller, Daphne Barker’s aunt. They also wrote My Poem For You, the B-side to Mike Redway’s James Bond single, and Cowan wrote the lyrics for the huge international hit A Walk in the Black Forest. Perhaps the most bizarre commission came from tractor manufacturer Massey Ferguson, who had the pair compose a full opera for the company, that was staged in a corn field in Greece in front of sales delegates from around the world.
‘We met Mark Edwards and Malcolm Taylor at a recording session for Philips,’ Kerr explains. ‘They liked what we were doing and asked if we had anything else. I said, “well, we’ve got this song called “Kay, Why?”, but we need a backing group. That’s how we got the Purple Barrier. They were very good, but the Brothers Butch were terrible! The band were very good, very professional, and Mark and Malcolm both liked “Kay, Why?” so we let them get on with it and didn’t ask questions. We had a very friendly relationship with the boys, and thought that they were trying their best.’ With no promotion, sales of ‘Kay, Why?’ were tiny, but it was for their unique take on Victorian light operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan Go Kosher, that Cowan and Kerr would achieve international fame.
As Goldberg and Solomon, the pair recorded their first album, for Edwards and Eyemark, the same year as the Butch Brothers tracks were laid down. The Tailors of Poznance (subtitled the Best of Goldberg and Solomon, Volume Two) featured actress Miriam Karlin, star of the hit TV show the Rag Trade, who Kerr had coached for her role in the hit stage musical Fiddler on the Roof. Karlin also recorded a pair of Howard and Blaikley numbers that year for Eyemark, which were licensed to Columbia. Various sources have suggested that the pair had intended to issue a prequel – The Chandeliers: the Best of Goldberg and Solomon, Volume One – but Kerr denies this. ‘There never was a Volume One,’ he laughs. ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’s first opera failed [the music for Thespis is now lost]; they didn’t have a “number one”, and we decided that we would not have a “number one” either.’
Kerr was also involved in another Eyemark release around the same time: QPR – The Greatest, performed by Queens Park Rangers footballer Mark Lazarus. ‘I did it because I was asked!’, he says. The flip side features what is probably the most peculiar, psychedelic football anthem ever recorded, a song called Supporters - Support Us, credited to the Q.P.R. Supporters, of which, says Francis, ‘I have heard it suggested many times that it may be something to do with us, but not guilty!’ A third Barrier single, again produced by Eyemark for Philips, was issued when the company demanded a follow up to Uh!. Howard and Blaikley produced The Tide Is Turning, a track from the latest Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich album, and Edwards provided the B-side, A Place in Your Heart, but although the Barrier recorded the vocals, none of the band actually played on the disc: ‘The tracks were laid down while we were on tour in Germany,’ Francis explains. ‘We came back and we were told “this is your next single”!’
Very little – if anything – was done to promote Kay, Why?, and by December 1967 Cowan and Kerr were in Johannesburg, with their show An Evening With Goldberg and Solomon. Kerr recalls the trip well. ‘Roy and I went out to South Africa on the ship the Windsor Castle,’ he adds. ‘Halfway through the journey were invited to drinks at the Pig and Whistle, the crew’s bar. They had decorated the bar out for us, and as we went in there were two fellows miming to our “Kay, Why?” record!’
By 1970 Eyemark was no more, but by that time, Edwards had already moved on. ‘For a while I took over the office,’ says Francis. ‘I was running an entertainment agency, Amberlee Artists, with a guy called Ray Perrin.’ Francis had left the Barrier, who would continue on for another couple of years with a different vocalist. ‘It was all very amicable,’ he explains. ‘In fact, I was at the audition to replace me. They found a guy called Ian Bellamy… He was a very good singer. Better than I was!’ Francis made one more single with Howard, Blaikley and Edwards, the bubblegum novelty Alcock And Brown, credited to The Balloon Busters, but by now Edwards had signed a five year production contract with MCA records for a husband-and-wife team he managed, John and Anne Ryder, and the pair scored a hit in several overseas territories with the Marty Wilde/Ronnie Scott-penned I Still Believe in Tomorrow. The Eyemark back catalogue was taken over by a new company, Amberlee Records Limited, headed by Eyemark’s former sales manager John Peters (initially based at the same address: in 1973 they would move across the road from the former Eyemark offices), who would continue the railwayana series and expand into organ recitals. sadly the company chose not to reissue Kay, Why?
Edwards’ hit his peak as a producer in 1970, with Curved Air’s debut album Air Conditioning; that same year Eric Francis managed to score a number one hit in Japan, with the band Capricorn, and another song from the team of Wilde and Scott, Liverpool Hello, but apart from the occasional session (including one for soul singer Doris Troy, then signed to the Beatles’ Apple label) that would be his last shot at stardom. ‘By 1971 I had a small baby, and I decided to get out. I had been a professional musician for about ten years,’ he says, ‘But I would have been better off financially stacking shelves in Morrisons. I did some driving for a car hire company; one of my customers was Greg Lake, the bass player with Emerson, Lake and Palmer, which was a bit embarrassing because he was a mate!’ Edwards would later manage (well, mismanage would be more accurate) gay singer-songwriter Steve Swindells, who in turn would go on to work with Hawkwind and Roger Daltrey among others. ‘Mark Edwards was beginning to drink too much by the time we split from him,’ says Eric Francis. ‘He died quite a few years ago after throwing away what could have been a good career.’
A few years ago a peculiar digital release turned up on Amazon and iTunes, coupling both sides of Kay, Why?’ along with the very similar sounding The Girls In the Band and Bald, a pastiche of Age of Aquarius, the hit song from the free love musical Hair. This MP3 EP also included three other songs, one of which was Waltzing with Hylda, from Cowan and Kerr’s mid-70s revue Slightly Jewish and Madly Gay. Credited to the daisy Chain Duo, Kerr now admits that the performers are Cowan and himself. ‘Roy and I went to see the Boys in the Band [it opened at Wyndham’s Theatre, Leicester Square, in February 1969], and I had coached Oliver Tobias for his role in Hair.’ The plan had been for a second Brothers Butch single, but this did not materialise. ‘Roy and I were extraordinarily busy at the time,’ he recalls.
Indeed they were. During the decade following the recording of ‘Kay, Why?’, Goldberg and Solomon recorded three further albums and toured the world, playing several return seasons in Australia and South Africa and appearing in front of more than 1,000,000 people in more than 200 venues. The curtain fell on their highly successful act when Cowan died of a heart attack, aged 54, in Sydney in June 1978; at that time the two men had been working on a musical based on the life of Ruby Miller, alongside her niece Daphne Barker. That same year Malcolm Taylor - the actor who co-founded Eyemark Records and later teamed up with Howard and Blaikley to write a novelty single for actor Wilfred Bramble - gave up acting and songwriting for a seat in the director’s chair. He would go on to direct many episodes of TV serials, including Coronation Street, Crossroads and EastEnders. Taylor died in January 2012. The Barrier’s drummer Alan Brooks is no longer with us, neither is guitar player Del Dwyer (Brooks and Dwyer would both later become members of cult r’n’b band the Downliners Sect) who sadly passed away at the end of December. Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley continued to have a massively successful, if somewhat eclectic, career and are both still around today, and records by the Barrier have become some of the most sought-after from the British psychedelic era: a copy of Georgie Brown in its ultra-rare picture sleeve sold in 2020 for over $1,500.
Kay, Why? appeared at a time when LGBT people in Britain were beginning to find their voice. It may not have changed the world, but despite its commercial failure, it is an important footnote in the history of LGBT music. ‘We were aware,’ says Kerr, ‘That we were sticking our oars out and making a few ripples.’ Those ripples would soon become waves.