The Wombles

TrackAlbum
The Wombling SongWombling Songs
TobermoryWombling Songs
Remember You're A WombleRemember You're A Womble
Minuetto AllegrettoRemember You're A Womble
Non-Stop Wombling Summer PartyRemember You're A Womble
Wimbledon SunsetRemember You're A Womble
Womble Of The UniverseKeep On Wombling
The Orinoco KidKeep On Wombling
Tobermory's Music MachineKeep On Wombling
Wombling Merry ChristmasKeep On Wombling

The Wombles photo 1

The Wombles were: Orinoco (Mike Batt – vocals, piano); Wellington (Chris Spedding – lead guitar); Tomsk (Les Hurdle – bass); Bungo (Clem Cattini – drums); Tobermory (Simon Chandler-Honnor – keyboards); Madame Cholet (Rex Morris – sax); Great Uncle Bulgaria (Paul Peabody – violin) (See ‘Comments’ for further clarification on the lineup … Ed.)

 

 

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Wombles playlist

 

 

Contributor: Rob Morgan

Christmas 1994. It was the first time that Paul and I had got drunk together. We had met properly earlier that year when my work section was merged with his work section on 22nd July and after some time circling the office and admiring each others’ musical knowledge and interests, he had replied that yes he was interested in forming a band when I asked. It was just a kind of hunch. Soon the Cloud Minders were formed – a duo to begin with, making each other tapes of influences and old songs we had written, plus working on new songs together. Bouncing ideas off each other, working on my four track on demos. All sober activities. But as we were working together we both went to the works Christmas meal at an Italian restaurant. We sat beside each other and just chatted all night. Can’t even remember what food I ate which is unusual. But we both got tipsy and happier and defences were dropped and somehow one of us mentioned the Wombles. Keep On Wombling was compared to Sgt. Pepper. We marvelled at the varispeed games of Tobermory’s Music Machine. We wished we had all the albums we used to have. And we ended the night drunkenly singing “We wish you a Wombling Merry Christmas” outside St Woolos Cathedral. It was quite a night.

Christmas 1974. The first Christmas I can properly remember. Waking up in the orange wallpapered box room in a three bedroomed house in Leeds, feeling excited. Seeing the stocking at the bottom of the bed. Opening the presents there, the selection boxes and the toy guns and assorted junk to be discarded after a week or so. Then moving downstairs to the presents under the tree, the important ones. One was 12 inch square, a size and shape I was familiar with from my parents’ record collections, which I could look at but not touch. I ripped off the wrapping paper and saw my first album. It was Remember You’re A Womble. And I was ecstatic.

The Wombles owned 1974. They had five hit singles, three of which were top 5 hits, spending a total of 69 weeks in the chart. Their three albums of that year were all top 20 hits too. In an era of glam rock flash, prog rock pomp and teen heart-throbs, those furry creatures from Wimbledon Common took over. It was quite a sight. They were on Top Of The Pops, and any other light entertainment show you could shake a three-day week candle at, even popping up on Cilla Black’s Christmas Special in December to plug their latest single.

Elisabeth Beresford plaque

In a way the success of The Wombles was inevitable. The litter obsessed creatures first appeared in print in the children’s books written by Elisabeth Beresford in the late 60s, and the move to television was certain to happen once FilmFair became involved. The stop motion animation short films were an immediate success in 1973, narrated by Bernard Cribbins, and with the warm woody theme tune playing at the beginning and end of each five minute episode, conveniently broadcast at 5:40 each night, right before the BBC News. That clarinet melody wormed its way into the memory banks, alongside the words (you can all join in if you want):

Underground overground, Wombling free
The Wombles of Wimbledon Common are we
Making good use of the things that we find
Things that the everyday folks leave behind

There, in less than thirty words, is a synopsis of the Wombles; you know where they live, what they do, and why. Perfect theme tune writing.

The Wombles photo 2

London, June 2011, photo Carsten Windhorst

 

The man behind the song – and indeed The Wombles – is Mike Batt. By 1973, he was a well known figure behind the scenes in the pop world. Initially signed to Liberty Records as a performer and songwriter, he soon became head of A&R there and ended up producing early albums by the Groundhogs and more. When he was offered the task of writing the theme tune for the TV films, he refused the £200 fee and asked for the character rights for musical production. This gave him more scope to create songs around the characters in the book which would prove to be a brilliant decision.

There’s a tentativeness around the first Wombles album, Wombling Songs. Of course there’s the TV theme song engraved on the minds of everyone of a certain age, but there’s more. A little character development with songs and setting the scene for worldwide Wombling with Wombles Everywhere. But there are odd influences. Wellington Womble could musically be a minor song from Tommy. Exercise Is Good For You could be the Banana Splits. The Wombles’ Warning has hints of musical theatre (and advice to avoid the mushrooms). Tobermory with its harpsichord and orchestral arrangement shows signs of late 60s baroque pop, an offcut from Teenage Opera perhaps? There’s a vaudeville feel to a number of these songs, which is fair enough considering what was expected. A fine debut then, reflecting the background of the creator.

To support the release of The Wombling Song as a single, Batt donned a Womble suit as Orinoco for Top Of The Pops, joined by other Wombles. Behind the furry costumes were a crack team of some of the best British session musicians such as drummer Clem Cattini (Bungo) and guitarist Chris Spedding (Wellington), complete with Spedding’s trademark Gibson Flying V guitar. These musicians became more noticeable on the second album, Remember You’re A Womble.

The title track, Remember You’re A Womble, was the first single from the album and an absolute classic. It sounds like a party – there probably was a party going on at the time – call and response vocals on the chorus brings the audience into the song, the country fiddle is just one of the many hooks, and the sax solo is pure glam, a throwback to the 50s and a nod to Andy Mackay’s work in Roxy Music. It was in the top ten on my fifth birthday that May and I loved it.* The second single, Banana Rock, was a lighthearted tribute to West Indian music which quite frankly I didn’t understand at the time and feels slightly odd now. It’s the accents I suppose. Different times. But the music has an irresistible stomp with crunching chords and honking sax. And I always felt the little horn figure in the middle of the chorus was a nod towards Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. Third single, Minuetto Allegretto, was officially the first single I bought. I have a distinct memory of buying it in Leeds city centre and hurrying back to our Datsun Sunny in the high rise car park, opening the bag and checking out the CBS label, and recognising it from my father’s Mott The Hoople records. The song itself is sweet as candy; an homage to Mozart with a pun-filled lyric.

As for the album … it’s a definite step upwards from the debut, less reliant on orchestral or baroque pop and more of a band sound. There’s a party atmosphere in a number of songs, not only the title track but also The Womble Square Dance and Non-Stop Wombling Summer Party. Womble Burrow Boogie is a bluesy hoot (duck quacks and all), the slide guitar solo halfway between Dave Edmunds and Jesse Ed Davis. Wombling In The Rain hints at Philly soul string arrangements. Wellington Goes To Waterloo has waves of mellotron and acoustic 12 strings like the best soft pop of the era.

There are two highlights on this album which really show Batt’s skills at their best. Wimbledon Sunset is barely two minutes in length but weaves a melancholy melody across arpeggio acoustics, a sweeping orchestral arrangement and a harmonised refrain of “Underground Overground”. It’s a throw back to the melancholy of Batt’s unheralded classic song Fading Yellow from the start of his recording career. On the other hand Non-Stop Wombling Summer Party is a loving Beach Boys tribute, full of “Ba-ba-ba” backing vocals, Good Vibrations keyboards and nods to I Get Around and other BB classics. It’s very strange listening to this song as it evokes a strong memory of it being played at home on the day I left hospital in 1975, after a three week stay in Leeds General Infirmary for a series of eye operations. Feelings of being pleased to be home, the presents waiting for me, the curtains drawn in case it was too bright for me, the Wombles playing in the background to make me feel at peace, and oh no not the eye drops … But well that’s just me, you know.

What I now realise about Non-Stop Wombling Summer Party is that it is extremely clever. While the audience of children would probably not understand it as a pastiche of the Beach Boys (by this point I knew only Good Vibrations from Alan Freeman’s History Of Pop and Surfin’ Safari from a K-Tel 60s Hits), the parents of the children would have acknowledged this. It’s a recognition of the audience being more than just the children who are nagging their parents to buy the records, but adding something for the parents to appreciate as well. There would be more of this in the future.

1974 closed with the third Wombles album Keep On Wombling and accompanying single Wombling Merry Christmas. This was their most successful single and quite deservedly so, only being held off the number one spot by Mud’s Lonely This Christmas. This was the era of great Christmas singles from Slade, Wizzard, Greg Lake and more and Batt makes his Christmas song stand tall alongside these classics. It’s a true glam stomp again, rocking quite hard for a pop single, wailing sax, sleigh bells and chugging guitars. This was the sound of my Christmas 1974, at least until I opened my presents on the 25th.

Keep On Wombling does not disappoint. Was it their Sgt. Pepper? Well maybe. Side one of the album or tape … Actually, I’ll share another memory here. In early 1975 my parents brought home a new present for my brother and I. It was a small black Crown radio cassette player. It was mono, it had a little microphone on a stand to record ourselves (and we did, I can assure you), and to have something to play on it, we were given Keep On Wombling on cassette too, which was soon nestling up to Tubular Bells in my small but perfectly formed tape collection. So, Keep On Wombling is another formative album for me, which does make it hard to be truly objective about it. Where was I? Ah yes, side one …

Side one is subtitled “Orinoco’s Dream (Fantasies of a sleeping Womble)” and again taps into childhood fantasies – Orinoco is a spaceman, a West Wild hero, a jungle explorer, a conductor and more – all reasonable dreams for children like myself. The music is richer and more nuanced too. Womble Of The Universe plays with reality in the manner of Space Oddity, but also nods to Also Sprach Zarathustra in its arrangement. The Orinoco Kid is pure Morricone …

Well they sent someone to meet me
Name of Big John Womble Wayne
He threw his cigar on the ground
As he stepped down from the train
I stood up on my tiptoes and I looked him in the chin
I said please pick that litter up and put it in the bin

… and the arrangement of The Hall Of The Mountain Womble is grand yet funny too:

Side two is equally fine, starting with another throwback – The Wombling Twist is full of 50s vim. Wipe Those Womble Tears From Your Eyes is a heart-wrenching country styled ballad. Invitation To The Ping-Pong Ball could be an outtake from Here Come The Warm Jets and the side closes with the Christmas single. But stuck in the middle is Tobermory’s Music Machine, a magical song full of inventive sound effects, catchy melodies and speedy word bursts in the verse. If this song was by anybody else it would be recognised as an early 70s great. But no, it was the Wombles and so it was ignored or looked down upon by critics. But what do they know?

If 1974 was the year of the Wombles then 1975 was somebody else’s year. Maybe three albums in twelve months was too much. New singles like Wombling White Tie And Tails and SuperWomble barely scraped into the top 20, while the fourth album, Superwombling, didn’t reach the album charts at all. Phoney Womblemania had bitten the dust. To be fair, Superwombling wasn’t a patch on the previous album. There were more genre exercises such as The Womble Shuffle, Down At The Barber Shop and The Empty Tidy-Bag Blues which were ok, but a song like The Myths And Legends Of King Merton Womble And His Journey To The Centre Of The Earth seemed baffling to me, even though it’s clearly a nod towards Rick Wakeman. But as a six-year-old I didn’t realise that. Know your audience. Even the James Bond spoof, To Wimbledon With Love, seems tired and jaded.

After that album it was all over for the Wombles. Creative differences? Backstage squabbles over who was tidying up after the gigs? Who knows. Whatever the reasons, the Wombles split up in 1976, and Wellington had a brief solo career (one single – Rainmaker – during the drought of 1976). There was a film and a soundtrack but those passed me by at the time, I had moved on, the world had moved on and so had Mike Batt. In 1975 he produced Steeleye Span’s album All Around My Hat, with attendant hit single title track, whose jogging rhythm had some resemblance to Remember You’re A Womble. Once he had written Bright Eyes for Art Garfunkel to sing on the Watership Down soundtrack, his reputation was sealed and his long and distinguished career in the music industry continues to this day.

So let’s go back to 1994. After waking with a hangover, I was determined to find the Wombles albums which had somehow disappeared from my collection. It wasn’t that difficult – Paul still had two of them which helped the cause, and I found the other missing albums in second hand shops around Newport. It was quite a Proustian rush of nostalgia listening to those albums again, and with some kind of perspective I recognised more of the influences and tips of the hat to different genres. I was a Wombles fan all over again.

The Wombles carried on being broadcast by the BBC into the mid 80s, even if the musical act had long since dispersed across Wimbledon Common. In the CD era there were a number of compilations – The Best Wombles Album So Far in 1998 and The W Factor in 2011 – and there was a reformation too. The Wombles collaborated with Roy Wood to create the Christmas behemoth I Wish It Could Be A Wombling Merry Christmas Every Day in 2010 and performed at Glastonbury the following year. Will the Wombles return? I doubt the demand is there frankly.

There is no more discerning audience than children. Mike Batt’s genius was to create songs which not only kept the children happy but also extended the universe of the Wombles, while having the musical and lyrical integrity to keep the parents interested too. I’m not expecting a Wombles revival based on this article, and maybe you will dismiss this as the thoughts of a nostalgic 50-year-old writer with too much time on his hands, but the skill, humour and sheer joie de vivre within the music of the Wombles shouldn’t be discounted due to the circumstances of their furry existence. They seem to be written out of history these days. Recently, Radio Two’s Pick Of The Pops had the opportunity to play Minuetto Allegretto in a 1974 chart rundown, but of course they didn’t. The Wombles were as glam as the Sweet, as quirky as Eno and as much a part of the early to mid 70s music scene as anyone else – to dismiss them as trite bubblegum is unfair and belittling to the people behind the music. Sometimes children have a better more intuitive understanding than adults.

Wishing you a Wombling Merry Christmas.

 

 

* Old Curiosity Corner – Spike Milligan released a cover of Remember You’re A Womble in 1976 as sung by Eccles and Bluebottle. It has to be heard to be believed. And yes it’s on YouTube.

 

 

Mike Batt official website

Tidy Bag: Remembering The Wombles – full of fascinating facts & trivia

The Wombles biography (Apple Music)

Rob Morgan writes about the music he loves for a number of websites including Everything Indie Over 40 and his own blog A Goldfish Called Regret – he also creates podcasts. He tweets @durutti74.

TopperPost #827

8 Comments

  1. Bill Roberts
    Dec 23, 2019

    Thank you for an excellent read Rob, clearly written with great affection and love of Mike Batt’s work!
    Wombling White Tie And Tails, Minuetto Allegretto and Banana Rock were my faves, and Remember You’re A Womble reminds me of a school French trip as one of the teachers wouldn’t stop singing it!
    I had 3 Wombles posters on my bedroom wall for some time (Wellington, Tomsk and Great Uncle Bulgaria) but they were replaced in time by Kim Wilde and Soft Cell, I must have become confused 😂
    Good idea to avoid Robin Le Mesurier and his issues, he never grew cannabis on Wimbledon Common and it also messed up Rod Stewart’s US tour as I recall!
    Never heard the Goons take, remarkable! And brilliant comparison of the Wombles and Steeleye Span. Five stars!

  2. John Hartley
    Dec 23, 2019

    Lovely stuff Rob! A very evocative read.

  3. David Lewis
    Dec 23, 2019

    Chris Spedding? Wow.

  4. Mike Batt
    Dec 24, 2019

    Thanks for this well-informed and entertainingly written piece, Rob. It’s one of if not the first in-depth commentary about the Wombles output. I’m interested that you think Superwombling was the weakest album; to me it was the pinnacle. I guess it’s all in the ear of the beholder! I always felt the first album (Wombling Songs) was rather twee, but it was early days and written before any success had been achieved – not even the first single. Low budget, too! Sadly, so many people only think there was one song. I went on Heston Blumenthal’s show a couple of years ago as a 70’s guest (along with Noddy Holder and others) and they captioned me as “composer of the Wombles theme tune’). Never mind- I am very proud of my work with the Wombles and we had a lot of fun in the costumes, all made by my Mum. Final footnote, your identification of the personnel is only partly correct, in that you name the session players, none of whom appeared in the costumes except Spedding (once). Robin Le Mesurier was the costumed Wellington on TOTPs with a Flying V just like Chris’s! I played all keyboards so i’m Unaware of the named keys player you mention. Simon is a new name to me; I also don’t recognise “Paul” on violin! But your article is much appreciated and as I say I think it’s the first serious journalistic study of the output from “go to woah!” Thanks for your interest and for giving my work proper consideration! All best, Mike
    (The lineup caption represents poor editorial research picked up from an unverified source so it’s good to have your clarification Mike. Thanks for that … Ed.)

  5. Frederick Harrison
    Dec 24, 2019

    Superwombling is the album Mike was given an expanded budget to make and so he brought the players to recreate the sound of the swing era/musicals on Wombling White Tie & Tails. Plus the LPO and choir on The Myths of King Merton Womble and His Journey to the Centre of the Earth. The problem was that it followed Keep On Wombling – sort of like the way Magical Mystery Tour (US album – not the UK EP) followed Sgt. Pepper. Plus he was working with Steeleye Span around the same time – even recruited them as Wombles to promote the Superwomble single. Moreover, after Wombles Ltd. mounted the poorly received pantomime shows which many people assumed were live Wombles performances, the result being that Wombling Merry Christmas stalled at #2, Mike wanted to move on and cut back on the number of Womble releases. A fifth Wombles album – with more of a classical music feel – was sketched out, but then abandoned. Wellington’s solo single Rainmaker was announced by Caroline Coon as a Wombles split with Wellington leaving the band, citing the usual creative differences. That same week the seminal 100 Club concert with the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie & the Banshees, and Chris Spedding with the Vibrators took place.
    The Sex Pistols cited the Wombles as an example of what was wrong with the UK charts (never mind that Chris Spedding produced their first demos). But it was later revealed that the Ramones covered the Wombles’ Exercise Is Good For You in their early gigs. So the Wombles can claim to be both inspiration and motivation for punk rock.
    Even better, the Classic Albums video series did an episode on Nirvana’s Nevermind and there’s a clip where someone states that “Kurt wanted to bring the underground overground.” Seriously. I had quite a giggle at that.
    Comparisons can be made between Wombling Songs and the Kinks Village Green Preservation Society and the Zombies Odessey [sic] & Oracle. I asked Mike Batt if he had the Kinks Waterloo Sunset in mind when he wrote Wimbledon Sunset and Wellington Goes to Waterloo (first song about trainspotting, if I’m not mistaken!) and he replied that such was not the case.
    I discovered the Wombles at the tender age of 21 so I got the pastiches right away. Look Out for the Giant might be the best ELO song Jeff Lynne never wrote. The Womble Burrow Boogie conjured up memories of the Bonzo Dog Band. Womble of the Universe you could easily slip into an Elton John mixtape.
    Connections with the Beatles and other artists/band go far beyond what you can imagine. Check out my website.
    Thanks for writing the article – it is good to have someone else confirming that there’s more going on in the Wombles’ music than one would assume from simply looking at a photo of the band. Just remember – dressing up in furry costumes and pretending to be a band began with the Beatles in Magical Mystery Tour.

  6. Peter Viney
    Dec 24, 2019

    No one expects the unexpected! I loved this piece. Paul McCullum (bass) is cited on Zoot Money’s website as an “original Womble”, and was introduced as such by Zoot when I saw them together. John Wetton had toured Romania with Paul McCullum in 1968, backing Helen Shapiro, as their first ever professional job. John told me he ran into Paul as a Womble when they both played Top of The Pops.

  7. Dave Stephens
    Dec 24, 2019

    Nice one Rob, and immaculate timing.

  8. Andrew Shields
    Dec 25, 2019

    Perfect piece which brought back a lot of memories.

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