Friday, 4 March 2011

Captain Kipper's Clipper (Hypnotone Brain Machine Mix)

Play Away, the first track on Music From BBC Children's Programmes, was sadly not subtitled A Dub Symphony In Two Parts. Instead, the tracklisting revealed, it was built up in true 12" version of Tainted Love style from two shorter tracks known as 'Theme' and Superstition. The first of these, it was not unreasonable to presume, must surely have been the Play Away theme song itself; a song by then so well-known, and indeed so utterly chronologically distanced from its original intended purpose, that it had transcended its small-scale small-screen origins to become almost an alternative National Anthem of sorts. Or at least it would be in a world where Andy Pandy's Coming To Play (Tra La La La La La) had supplanted Land Of Hope And Glory.

For the benefit of those who only know the song from the strangely uniform repertoire of parents trying to sing their offspring into submission, the Play Away theme song was invariably heard at the close of the show with Jonathan Cohen pounding out a few nifty jazz piano chord rolls, and the cast struggling with oversized comedy props bearing their names. Usually Brian Cant took the vocal lead - only fitting as he was the main driving force behind the show - which is why it came as something of a surprise to discover that this earliest known reading was sung, and indeed originally written, by Lionel Morton. And that's not all - in place of the more familiar arrangement there was a looser, more improvised setting based around stand-up bass, percussion, and what appeared to be somebody twanging a ruler on the underside of a desk.

The version presented here, I would later discover, was actually rather bluntly hacked down from a much longer recording on the Bang On A Drum album, omitting numerous jazzy melodic touches and an entire middle eight; in its truncated form, however, it did have the advantage of sounding uncannily like the sort of song Oasis would start droning out a year or so later (from the point of view of this narrative rather than from when Play Away started... come on, keep up!), only with slightly more verbose lyrics and slightly more imaginative instrumentation. More significantly, it was 'retro' in a sense that the aggressively backward-looking Gallagher brothers could never hope to replicate or even appreciate... but we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves there. There's a whole second half of the track to get through first.

So, with the Play Away theme over, the stand-up bass deftly folded back on itself like the way The Stone Roses used to segue between Where Angels Play and Shoot You Down in their live shows, and led straight into Superstition, sung as a duet between Lionel and Toni Arthur, though written by Cohen cohort Peter Gosling and strangely absent presenter Carole Ward. You're probably already way ahead here and formulating your own joke about it not being a cover of Stevie Wonder's identically-titled homage to the Sportsnight theme music, but believe it or not that wouldn't actually be quite as much a joke as you might think. For this musical namesake is similarly swathed in wah wah-heavy jazz-funk inflections, and similarly lyrically concerned with debunking folklore nonsense that "may or may not happen", though Mr. Wonder's failure to include Brian Cant and Chloe Ashcroft doing some inter-verse spoken word ridiculing of never-walk-under-ladders hokum is his loss, frankly.

Due in no small part to its lack of gaudy hallucinogenic puppets, Play Away isn't quite the first show that you'd think of when attempting to break through to a pop-cultural elevated dimensional plane of seventies pre-school television esoterica, and yet just one track in to Music From BBC Children's Programmes we'd reached somewhere that, while not yet quite drifting in a space free of time (nor indeed rollerskating around a lake) somewhere between Diamonds & Pearls and Screamadelica, had succeeded in evoking it both musically and visually (after all, what are those spoken comic exchanges if not a reflection of the show itself?) in unexpectedly funk-inflected fashion. Then an all-too-familiar electronic sting blasted the whole experience into space.

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