Lily the Pink, by Scouse comedy, poetry and music act the Scaffold, was the first novelty song to become Christmas number 1, but as detailed in Every Christmas Number 1, it was certainly not the last instance of this very British phenomenon.
The Scaffold began with the friendship of entertainer John Gorman, and musical performer Mike McCartney (younger brother of Paul). Together with poets Roger McCough and Adrian Henri they formed the revue known as The Liverpool One Fat Lady All Electric Show back in 1962.
By 1964 Henri had left and they had become The Scaffold. As they rose in popularity, McCartney changed his stage name to Mike McGear, to avoid accusations of using his brother’s name to become famous during Beatlemania. However, considering the rise in popularity of anything from Liverpool, it’s fair to say the link won’t have harmed the trio.
In 1966 they signed to Parlophone (label of The Beatles) and released their debut single 2 Days Monday, but it was their third 7″, Thank U Very Much, that first troubled the top 10. Its popularity endured into the 80s thanks to a long-running adveritsing campaign by Cadbury’s Roses, usually at Christmas.
McGough and McGear released an eponymous album without Gorman, featuring cameos from Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell, Paul McCartney and Graham Nash, in May 1968. The Scaffold’s eponymous debut LP was released only two months later and was a live recording of mostly McGough’s poetry and McGear and Gorman’s sketches. And then came Lily the Pink.
The 1968 Christmas number 1’s origins lay in a drinking song called The Ballad of Lydia Pinkham. Pinkham was a real person, and in the 19th century she invented and marketed a herbal-alcoholic women’s tonic for menstrual and menopausal issues. She was ridiculed at the time, but the drink still exists in an altered form to this day. Versions of the ballad were doing the rounds as far back as World War One, with lyrics poking fun at Pinkham’s drink and its alleged uses.
The Scaffold’s version had completely rewritten lyrics by McGough, Gorman and McGear, adding a cast of unusual characters to make it more child-friendly, and also in-keeping with psychedelia, with the tune sounding reminscent of the Victorian music hall. The characters they described were largely in-jokes – ‘Mr Frears has sticky out ears’ refers to Stephen Frears, who had once worked with the trio and is now one of the most highly regarded film directors in the UK. ‘Jennifer Eccles had terrible freckles’ came from the song Jennifer Eccles by The Hollies.
Speaking of which, Graham Nash provided backing vocals, along with Elton John (still Reg Dwight at the time) and Tim Rice, and that’s Jack Bruce from Cream on bass.
I remember Lily the Pink from childhood, and I enjoyed it back then. It’s bloody irritating now, though, and the in-jokes, probably only funny to The Scaffold and a few others at the time, are not funny at all now. The chorus will, sadly, stay with you forever. And ever. And then just when you think Lily has died and gone to heaven, she comes back to haunt you forevermore. The bit where the chorus comes back after she’s died is good fun though, I’ll give them that. Incidentally, it was produced by Norrie Paramor, formerly responsible for Cliff Richard and Frank Ifield. This was his 27th, and (I think) final number 1.
In 1969 The Scaffold recorded their memorable theme tune to Carla Lane’s long-running BBC sitcom The Liver Birds. The following year they were given their own children’s series, Score with the Scaffold. With the advent of decimalisation, the trio were responsible for providing tunes for a series of five-minute programmes to explain how the system would work. That same year, they teamed up with collaborator Andy Roberts (I’ve had a drink with Roberts, and he’s a bloody nice bloke with some great stories, he’s also in one of my favourite sketches of all time, here.) Vivian Stanshall and Neil Innes of the defunct Bonzo Dog Band and various waifs and strays to form Grimms.
As Grimms toured up and down the country The Scaffold continued. They had their first hit since Lily the Pink with Liverpool Lou, recorded with Wings, in 1974. Although there may have been tension after McGear left Grimms due to a bust-up with Brian Patten, The Scaffold parted amicably in 1977, although there have been brief reunions here and there since.
Following a few more singles in the early 80s, McGear retired from music, reverted to his family name and became a photographer and author. Gorman was a regular on Tiswas and the adult version OTT until the early 80s, when he moved into theatre. McGough has remained in the public eye, and is considered a national treasure thanks to his children’s poetry.
After three weeks at number 1, Lily the Pink was overtaken by The Marmalade’s cover of The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, but only a week later it returned to the top of the hit parade again for a further week.
1968 had been a particularly unusual and random year for number 1s. The decade was nearly over, and by the time we get to the end of 1969, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones will have had their last number 1s.
Written by: John Gorman, Mike McGear & Roger McGough
Producer: Norrie Paramor
Weeks at number 1: 4 (11-31 December 1968, 8-14 January 1969)
Race car driver Phil Andrews – 20 December
Scottish field hockey player Pauline Robertson – 28 December
Author David Mitchell – 12 January
Scottish snooker player Stephen Hendry – 13 January
Welsh poet David James Jones – 14 December
Athlete Albert Hill – 8 January
Writer Richmal Crompton – 11 January
17 December 1968: A case with tragic similarities to the murder of James Bulger in 1993 came to a close with the sentencing of 11-year-old girl Mary Bell from Newcastle upon Tyne. In May and July that year she had murdered two young boys, one with her friend Norma Bell, who was acquitted. Bell recieved a life sentence for manslaughter. She was initially sent to the same secure unit as Jon Venables, one of Bulger’s killers. Bell was released in 1980 into anonymity.
14 January 1969: Sir Matt Busby, legendary manager of Manchester United FC for 24 years, through good times and tragic times, announced his retirement.