(#14: 26 April 1958, 2 weeks)
Track listing: It’s All Happening/What Do You Do/Family Tree/Happy Guitar/Hair-Down Hoe-Down/Princess/Photograph/Thanks A Lot
(Once again, special thanks to Mark Grout for kindly finding this album for me within the environs of the town of Reading . This may well qualify as the shortest number one album; its eight tracks last for a combined total of 19 minutes and 19 seconds, which probably explains why it was one of the more elusive entries to track down since its length is not conducive to CD reissue, although I’m sure all the tracks will materialise on CD in some form or another in the fullness of time. In reality the Duke Wore Jeans soundtrack is a slightly extended 10-inch EP, but fifty years ago it qualified as an album, thus its appearance here)
The introduction to “It’s All Happening” is a useful shorthand for the rites of passage of British entertainers in the latter half of the fifties; it begins with an excitable, hiccupping Steele stuttering “Oh look it’s all happening!,” first alone, then with a double bass, then joined by his own acoustic guitar, but after that Light Programme trombones, strings and celeste – scored by Bruce Montgomery, Philip Larkin’s best mate at Oxford (and also a noted crime writer under the pseudonym of Edmund Crispin) – set the real scene; Steele is on his jolly way to becoming that holiest of post-war British entertainment grails, An All-Round Entertainer. He certainly succeeded in that ambition; at the turn of the sixties he would cease to trouble the charts – and pop - and proceed to a hugely successful stage and screen career, though as a performer never really progressed beyond the uncomplicated, jolly and toothy mucker-in. He did appear in the Old Vic’s 1960-1 season as Tony Lampkin in She Stoops To Conquer but otherwise has seemed content to amble up and down the lanes of smiles uncomplicated by doubt or complexity. His Don Lockwood in the stage version of Singin’ In The Rain was, three decades after the event, still a teenage Tommy besotted by dreams of being Gene Kelly (rather than the rather nasty, solipsistic viper that Kelly’s Don Lockwood really was). Half A Sixpence was his great triumph, first in the West End, then on Broadway and finally on film – the latter directed by George Sidney, the same man who had directed the movie of Pal Joey – but how airbrushed, how flushed of trouble or side, is his notion of HG Wells, let alone that of Arthur Kipps?
In a lot of ways The Duke Wore Jeans set Steele up for Half A Sixpence, though since its songs were written by Lionel Bart, Mike Pratt and Steele himself (under the pseudonym of Jimmy Bennett), its barbs are subtler and sharper. The bountiful spring in Steele’s step throughout “It’s All Happening” mirrors not only post-Macmillan optimism – no more war apologies or repayments, on with the future (“I heard them say they’re giving it away for free!”) – but also the exultant Steele pictured on the record’s cover, in a colourful and sunny field somewhere near Elstree (and probably on the site of the present M25), knowing that somehow this land, this life, this future, is now all his. This isn’t quite the picture presented in the film itself, which was a zero budget black and white production shot by what was just about to become the Carry On team – producer Peter Rogers, director Gerald Thomas, writer Norman Hudis and the aforementioned Montgomery on non-song musical duties – and a picture which seems to hark back to the thirties of Novello and Formby more than it anticipates the sixties of Lester and Boorman; the plot is as threadbare as the net curtains in most British homes at the time, a variant on the old Prince And The Pauper/Prisoner Of Zenda tropes – there are two Tommy Steeles in the film, a posh one more interested in being a farmer than marrying for money or title, and the commoner, honest guv/salt of the earth/what a North and South Tommy who for no logical reason bumps into his posh doppelganger and gets persuaded to woo June Laverick’s Princess in his place. With scant attention to plot development or even elementary logic, the Old Kent Road Tommy gets the Princess at the end and leads everyone in a knees-up which could have come straight out of 1928.
Steele is pretty much compelled throughout to hold the film together by sheer force of character and natural good humour (plus an excess of hamming to camera surpassed only by Cary Grant in Arsenic And Old Lace), and as for the songs, it’s fair to say that the writers’ wit stops them from falling into routine fare. The blindingly optimistic bounce of “It’s All Happening” works as a Home Counties precedent to Bobby Darin’s “Things” since despite the “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” gaiety prevalent (“I’m in love with everything!” “It’s the kind of day where nothing’s in the way of joy”) the song is less than sneakily about sex, with its multiple animal metaphors and its climactic “millions of couples mating,” culminating in a final, hello-David-Essex wink of “If you don’t believe it, take a look at ME!”
“What Do You Do” sees Bart setting off on the road to Oliver! as both Steeles are featured, discussing the ways and mores of their respective classes and how best to exchange places, an interesting, if aslant, comment on the actual societal slumming/closet cohabiting which would emerge into the public domain post-Profumo. Both address the matter like a pair of surgeons discussing and analysing a particularly unusual case; Posh Tommy comes off the more baffled (“Fish and chips and jellied eels is I diet I don’t understand”) while Common Tommy comes off with most of the better lines - “Noses stick up” he sings with a real sense of hurt, “’cos you don’t know what knife to pick up!” (Posh Tommy suggests concealing the act with a well timed “hiccup”), rhyming “debutanties” with “aunties,” responding to “at the races” with “barber’s braces” and sounding dazzled with joy at the prospect of “eating a banana down the Strand .”
“Family Tree” is (Common) Tommy’s big setpiece in the film, a Danny Kaye-ish set-up wherein he explains his own ancestry to the royal court, and he handles it comfortably with immaculate timing (“therefore it’s best for me to skip the boring part”), romping through a shaggy dog story involving Bill the Conqueror (“If looks could kill!”), Robin Hood, Sir Francis Drake (rhyming “Armada” with “bowlin’ ‘arder”), Nell Gwynne (with a highly dubious reference to “oranges that quenched the family thirst”), a great great great great grandfather who’s quickly skipped over (“The less we say about him, the better”), another one who “ran off with the Duchess’ maid” and who was “as nutty as the fruitcake they had for Sunday tea.” Finally, his grandfather, whose portrait stares down at him with a “shocking frown…as if to say nothing shocking ever happened at all”; the convenient nullification of an inconvenient past integral to Victorian values. Still, Steele’s pride is palpable as he returns again and again to the payoff (regarding his family tree) “But nobody ever had the nerve to cut it down!,” topped by a defiant Dambusters/Dragnet orchestral finale.
The next two tracks are outtakes from the 1957 Steelmen sessions and aptly seem to have wandered in from another record altogether (namely The Tommy Steele Story); “Happy Guitar” carries a strange Spanish/flamenco tinge but again Steele interacts well with Roy Plummer’s lead guitar (“You take a pick/Find a string!/Take it QUICK!/Make it SWING!” shrieks Tommy as though impatient to unzip), making with the instrument/sex analogies (“When I’m blue, she makes me grin!”), howling out non sequiturs – “YESSS!!” “So-o-o-o-ONG!” “It’s comin’ from my feet O-O-O-OHHH!!!” Meanwhile, “Hair-Down Hoe-Down” vocally verges on the demented, Steele screeching “You gotta let your hair DOWN! A-gonna a-LET a-IT DOWNNNNN!!,” much to the chagrin of the rather scared sounding backing singers who are wisely mixed well to the back of the mix. “We’re all moving out of that rut,” exclaims Steele, “and into that well known groove!” before concluding the song with a deep, cavernous, echoing “hoe-DOWNNNNN” coming from the bottom of a fathomless well.
After that extraordinary interlude we return to the business of the film. “Princess” is Steele’s big love ballad, though he sounds as small and scared as the Presley of “Don’t.” “Princesssss,” he seeps, “if you love me, I’m a Prince,” before wandering through the unlikely canyons of plot, still pinching himself with some defiance – “found you in the middle of a crowd,” his cliff leap of his downwardly descending “ties” in the line “Broke the ties that bound you,” his clenched “Stood my ground,” his final plea of “If you were poorer, I could be no surer you’re a Princess” and a whisper of “I’m your Prince” which barely rises into audibility.
“Photograph” sounds nothing less than a dry run for Bart’s “Living Doll” with the same dubious meme of sensuality at one remove, though Steele seems to have a good deal more sensuality about him than young Cliff did; “Photograph my baby,” he quivers, “Try to capture what she’s got,” before growling out a sensual “Bring out your camerassssssss” and trembling “Well, I want her picture close to me when I’m feeling amorous.” Unfortunately the tense, pregnant atmosphere is broken by the vocal intervention of June Laverick; from her photograph on the rear of the album sleeve it’s clear that she was made up as a kind of Shirley Jones clone – that irksome, deliberate anti-sexuality so redolent of the fifties – and her “singing” is barely singing, more or less offkey the whole way through and with that awful post-/sub-Alma Cogan non-technique of hiccupping misplaced emphasis (“I HA-WANT his picture CUL-OWSE to me!”). The bass clarinettist at song’s end is right to be sceptical.
After that it’s time for Steele to wrap everything up with the London Palladium-style finale of “Thanks A Lot” (“I’ve had a ball, and I’d like to thank you one and all”). After one sudden wrench of a scream (“I’ve had a BAAAAAAALL!!!!”) Montgomery leads the orchestra into an overemphatic “Knees Up Mother Brown” followed by a quick reprise of “Princess” – you can practically see the credits rolling – and that Dragnet/Dambusters timpani-dominant flourish again. The hills of Hertfordshire alive with the sound of ooer missus trumpets as Steele happily leaves Then Play Long and gets what he, and every other British entertainer of his time, wants; namely, a secure future.