Writers of the Popular Song have never had to put too much thought into the subject matter for their compositions. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, approximately 95% of all pop songs tended to be broadly concerned with affairs of the heart and matters arising. The corridors of the Brill Building would ring with earnest declarations of everlasting love, unrequited love, or the demise of love. That was until Monday, 13th February 1967, when the Beatles released a single that changed popular music forever. “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” sounded like nothing that had gone before it. Simple, lyrical affirmations of affection were replaced by John Lennon‘s impressionistic, proto-psychedelic dreamscape and Paul McCartney‘s pin-sharp observations of the minutiae of suburban Liverpool. We were far from “Love, love me do / You know I love you.” From then on, it was simply not good enough to rhyme “moon” with “June”. All over the world, nervous lyricists were desperately looking for a word that rhymed with “milliner”.
The latest micro-genre compilation from Cherry Red, Climb Aboard My Roundabout! scoops up 87 examples of songwriters turning away from love and lust and towards an idealized, overly innocent version of urban Narnia. Dubbed “toytown pop” this sugary, fey, but occasionally fascinating movement regularly appeared in the British singles chart between 1967 and 1974. A typical example could easily be identified without hearing a note of music. If the band had a cute, lengthy name and the song had the word “toy” in the title or was named after a missing chapter in The Wind in the Willows, it was a safe bet you were in the ballpark. The movement didn’t set the whole world alight – possibly the parochial nature of the subject matter meant that only the UK seemed to really warm to songs about drinking tea and eccentric shop owners. Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” would be an exception if it hadn’t been written in 1965. In the US, musicians seemed more interested in lengthy, psychedelic freakouts with less importance placed on a narrative.
Climb Aboard My Roundabout! analyses this surprisingly durable genre in forensic detail. Over three packed CDs, neatly augmented by a thorough and learned booklet, you get examples of the good, the bad, and the just plain inexplicable. No stone is left unturned, from big names (David Bowie, the Kinks, Slade) to no-hit wonders like Persimmons Peculiar Shades and Wimple Winch. The collection starts with Jeff Lynne’s pre-ELO vehicle the Idle Race’s “The Skeleton and the Roundabout”. If your favorite ELO tune is “The Diary of Horace Wimp”, you’ll probably love it. All the appropriate components are in place – the jaunty rhythm section, the nursery rhyme lyrics, and the random fairground-inspired noises are all front and center, but it’s still pretty inconsequential. That’s the bottom line for almost everything here. Everything is nicely crafted, but it fades away like cotton candy moments after the song is over.
The collection does throw up some gems. Did you know that way before Robert Richie changed his name to Kid Rock and made a career out of being a trailer park version of Eminem, there was already a British band of the same name? I doubt if Mr. Rock would ever start a rap with the immortal line “Riding down the road like a giant toad / In ‘Mother Goose'” as his namesake predecessors did in “Ice Cream Man”. I’d pay good money to hear him cover that.
David Bowie’s contribution is “Uncle Arthur”, an amusing curio from his Anthony Newley worship phase. You’ll be relieved to know that the titular Arthur eventually leaves his wife (possibly due to her poor culinary skills,) goes back to live with his mother and ends up working in the family shop. Just a few years later, Bowie was belting out Velvet Underground covers in platform boots and a sequinned leotard – an impressive career move.
It’s not all fluff. Godley and Crème, masquerading under the unwieldy moniker of Frabjoy and Runcible spoon, contribute “It’s the Best Seaside in the World,” a gorgeous piece of pop that really should have been a hit. Although many examples of toytown pop could be found propping up the lower reaches of the UK single charts, only one – Keith West’s “Excerpt From “A Teenage Opera” really made an impression. That’s a real shame, as many of these tunes would have sounded great on AM radio.
There’s something strangely beautiful about Climb Aboard My Roundabout! Individually, many tunes sound twee and saccharine, but when they’re appreciated en masse, something rather magical happens. The listener ends up longing for a simpler time when it was OK to dress up as a toy soldier from the 18th century and sing a song about a wayward shopkeeper accompanied by a harpsichord. Maybe the time is right for a compilation like this – after all, it seems that young people worldwide have adopted rainbows, unicorns, and cute plushies as totems. Could this three-CD set, celebrating a minor musical genre from over 50 years ago, be the flagship document of the zeitgeist? Probably not, but it’s a lovely thought. As a collection of songs, Climb Aboard My Roundabout! is pretty good. As a cultural archive, it’s invaluable.