Following Johnny Preston’s Running Bear, the charts took another strange turn. ‘King of Skiffle’ Lonnie Donegan was back, but skiffle wasn’t. It burnt out not long after his second number 1, Gamblin’ Man/Puttin’ On the Style in 1957. So what style was Donegan putting on now? Sadly, it was music hall.
My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer) had its origins in the song My Old Man’s a Fireman (On the Elder Dempster Line), which was a student’s union song in Birmingham before becoming popular with soldiers during World War One. Donegan and his band would perform this on stage, and at some point some foolish A&R man told him he thought it could be a hit. The band adapted it, and once they had enough to work with, decided to record it.
My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer) was credited to Donegan and his road manager Peter Buchanan. After its original release, Beverley Thorn also received a credit. Thorn was in fact a pseudonym for Leslie Bricusse, who was soon to enjoy a fruitful writing partnership with Anthony Newley. Why Beverley Thorn? No idea. The single was recorded live at Gaumont Cinema in Doncaster, Yorkshire, on 20 February, and released a month later, hitting the top very quickly. Why? Again, no idea.
The fact a man responsible for pioneering music like Rock Island Line and Cumberland Gap should become best known for such a dire song is criminal. My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer) should have remained a live skit and nothing more. Now obviously, it made him number 1 for a third time, and opened him up to a new audience, but the release shocked hardcore skiffle fans, and did his credibility no good at all. I have to side with the skiffle fans. I’m no purist, and I have plenty of time for comedy songs too, but I can’t hear anything funny here at all. For example:
‘Lonnie: I say, I say, I say!
Lonnie: My dustbin’s full of lilies
Les: Well throw ’em away then!
Lonnie: I can’t: Lily’s wearing them’
Clearly music hall still had a place in the 60s. In fact it was still popular into the 80s, judging by the success of the BBC’s The Good Old Days. Also, Donegan released this at exactly the right time, as, with Adam Faith and Anthony Newley scoring two number 1s each, cockney singers were clearly the in thing. But that craze died down very soon, and by 1962, as several of the acts inspired by him began to make waves, Donegan fell out of favour with mainstream audiences, and he turned to producing instead.
In the mid-70s he temporarily reunited with the rest of the Chris Barber Band, but was waylaid by a heart attack in 1976. Two years later, his album Putting On the Style featured re-recordings of his old tracks, with backing from big names such as Ringo Starr, Brian May and Elton John.
By the end of the millennium, Donegan had the reputation of a music legend, appearing at Glastonbury Festival in 1999 and becoming an MBE in 2000. However, he had continued to suffer heart problems, and passed away on 3 November 2002 at the age of 71.
Lonnie Donegan has been one of the revelations of this blog for me. Although highly-regarded at the end of his life, I feel he should be considered more important for his influence on British music. Had it not been for his incendiary recordings and shows in the mid-50s, The Beatles, The Who and Led Zeppelin may not have existed, and we may have been permanently stuck with the safe pop and easy listening that was so popular in 1960. Cumberland Gap was a very close runner-up for the best number 1 of the 50s, as I stated here. It’s best to remember him for that, and look upon My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer) as a bad joke that got out of hand.
Written by: Lonnie Donegan, Peter Buchanan & Beverly Thorn
Producers: Alan A Freeman & Michael Barclay
Weeks at number 1: 4 (31 March-27 April)
Athlete Linford Christie – 2 April
Soprano Jane Eaglen – 4 April
Presenter Jeremy Clarkson – 11 April
Chef Gary Rhodes – 22 April
Duran Duran drummer Roger Taylor – 26 April
Author Ian Rankin – 28 April
1 April: A Mr Bill Griggs of Northampton began marketing Dr Martens boots on 1 April.
8 April: The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh had their second son christened as Andrew Albert Christian Edward.
17 April: The music world was shocked when US rock’n’roll star Eddie Cochran, who was touring Britain, was killed in a car crash in Wiltshire. There’ll be more on him in a future blog.