Monday, 28 February 2011

The Party Is About To Begin

Before we go any further into the realms of Music From BBC Children's Programmes, there's just one more detour that needs to be made - and, let's be honest, there've been so many detours even before just getting this far that one more is hardly going to make much of a difference - as there's a couple of things that you need to know about the tracklisting. Firstly, although this was completely unknown to me at the time, its contents were drawn from existing BBC Records And Tapes releases devoted to individual shows. Yes, there really was a full length Crackerjack (no, don't) LP and you'll be hearing all about that in due course. The second thing is that said highlights have been arranged into a series of cut-and-shut medleys combining several individual tracks into one long prog rock-esque suite - sometimes this works, and at other times it makes absolutely no sense at all. And the first such medleyfied track was devoted entirely to Play Away.

A bit of background - Play Away was a programme that came about almost by accident, when the BBC found themselves making more money from their overseas sales of long-running pre-school programme Play School (and there's background on that to come) in 'kit' form (i.e. foreign broadcasters would recieve scripts, films, and a duplicate Humpty decked out in 'poison' colour scheme) than they knew what to do with. Enough spare money, in fact, to pay for a whole new programme, and the resultant stroke of genius was to give the Play School presenters - most of whom were failed or failing singer-songwriters, stand-up comedians and the like - a timeslot aimed at a slightly older audience where they could dole out puns, whimsy, improvisation, mild satire, custard pies and singerwritten-songs to their heart's content, under the leadership of the seemingly indefatigable Brian Cant and accompanied by a bunch of equally career-diverted jazzmen led by piano-pounding Jonathan Cohen.

It was, if you will, the 'free jazz' of the BBC's children's output, though thankfully when they got to record an album - the first of four, in fact - in 1973, they left the AMM-style scraping cellos at home. Instead, what they came up with was a combination of extended comedy sketches, improvised one-liners, party game-friendly instrumental hi-jinks, and a selection of musical solo showcases, ranging from nonsense songs to - naming no decidedly out-of-place covers of If I Had A Hammer - traditional numbers that somewhat gave away the frustrated folky ambitions of certain presenters.

Thus it was that two tracks from the first Play Away album ended up bolted together as a curtain-raiser to Music From BBC Children's Programmes. And it was two of said frustrated folky presenters, promisingly, that were taking the helm for main vocal duties here (with comical spoken interjections from Brian Cant and fellow non-folky type Chloe Ashcroft) - Lionel Morton, the elaborately-coiffured former lead vocalist of The Four Pennies who had come to Play School and Play Away fresh from a less than chart-troubling attempt to reposition himself as a post-Penny Lane 'Carnaby Street' popster, and Toni Arthur, moderately successful setter of geniune witchy runes to music who has always claimed to have been earmarked for presenting duties when a male producer spotted her performing in glittery purple hotpants. A claim that, judging from the cover of the Play Away album, maybe well have its basis in fact.

Though it wasn't obvious at the time, it was perhaps no coincidence that I should be preparing to rediscover the music of Play Away and its contemporaries so shortly after the release of Prince's Diamonds And Pearls, a song so uncanny in its sonic resemblance to Play School's musical numbers that there must surely be a copy of Bang On A Drum hidden away somewhere in Paisley Park, and Primal Scream's Shine Like Stars, a song that I would later describe as "for all people might like to talk about the presenters of old children's TV shows having been 'on drugs', the actual sound of what might have happened had Jonathan Cohen been force-fed powerful hallucinogens". And this album, I hoped, would break through to sonic vistas way further out even than those of Screamadelica. But what was that all-important first track actually like...?

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