1972 was a particularly strange year in the singles chart. Glam rock was yet to totally take over the charts, and some real oddities not only did well, they became huge. The year’s biggest seller was a bagpipe cover of Amazing Grace, and the second was this dirty knees-up from experimental musicians recorded in a living room, featuring the tuneless growling singer’s mum playing honky tonk piano. Mouldy Old Dough would rank highly in any chart of the oddest number 1s of all time. It’s also the only one to feature a mother and her son. It’s also the sound of a nation having a nervous breakdown.
Singer Rob Woodford and drummer Nigel Fletcher had been playing in bands since 1963. Woodward, under the name Shel Naylor, recorded for Decca in 1963 and 64, and one of his singles was One Fine Day by Dave Davies of The Kinks.
By 1969 the duo, obsessed with mad genius producer Joe Meek’s productions, were making recordings in the front room of Rob’s mother Hilda’s house, under the strange name Stavely Makepeace. Their first single was (I Wanna Love You Like a) Mad Dog. Their 1972 single Slippery Rock 70s found its way into the Edgar Wright 2007 comedy Hot Fuzz.
Deciding that things weren’t weird enough, they teamed up with bassist Steve Johnson and Hilda to create an outlet for their tendencies to create novelty tunes. Why Lieutenant Pigeon? Why not?
This debut single sank without trace on its first release at the start of the year, as their manager said it would, but somehow it was picked up for use as the theme to a Belgian TV current affairs show, and it went to number 1 there. Decca decided to give it another go, then Radio 1 DJ Noel Edmonds loved it, and it’s thanks to him in part that it did so well.
Opening with woodwind from Johnson, Lieutenant Pigeon’s debut Mouldy Old Dough initially sounds like a children’s TV or sitcom theme, until Hilda’s relentless piano takes over. One of the most unlikely number 1 band members ever sounds like a stoned version of Winifred Atwell. So far, so bizarre. But then it gets really messed up when Rob starts singing the song’s title. I say ‘singing’… he sounds like a tramp on turps. Apparently ‘mouldy old dough’ was a play on the 1920s jazz phrase ‘vo-de-o-do’, but it fits the feel of the song totally. The whole thing conjures up what many imagine when they think of the 70s in the UK. A rotting, brown, smelly, seedy old mess. You know how Pet Shop Boys’ Opportunities is always used as a soundtrack to 80s montages on TV? This should be used for the 70s.
But this is no bad thing. How incredible that this was a number 1?! That the Top of the Pops crowd of kids can actually be seen getting down to this swamp song in the clip above? We’ll never see its like again, that’s for sure. The group look like they can’t believe their luck, especially Rob as he growls ‘Dirty old man’.
Lieutenant Pigeon even managed another hit when they reached number 17 with Desperate Dan, also in 1972. It’s almost exactly the same, but not as good. They reached number three in Australia in 1974 with a cover of I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.
The original incarnation decided to stop touring in 1978. Johnson reformed Lieutenant Pigeon with a new line-up in the 80s. These days the original duo still record as Lieutenant Pigeon and Stavely Makepeace, creating jingles and releasing music on their website. Hilda, who looked very old in 1972, was actually only 56 at the time (everyone looked older than they should have in the 70s). She died in 1999, aged 85.
Written by: Nigel Fletcher & Rob Woodward
Producer: Stavely Makepeace
Weeks at number 1: 4 (14 October-10 November)
Actress Samantha Janus – 2 November
Actress Thandie Newton – 6 November
Rugby player Danny Grewcock – 7 November
Broadcaster Douglas Smith – 15 October
16 October: The first episode of Yorkshire Television’s rural soap Emmerdale Farm was broadcast on ITV. Before they shortened the title, it was a much more gentle drama, like a bleaker version of The Archers.
19 October: Royce Ryton’s play Crown Matrimonial premiered at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London. Concerning the abdication of Edward VIII, it was the first time a living member of the Royal family (Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother) had been represented on stage.
22 October: England football team goalkeeping legend Gordon Banks suffered a serious eye injury in a car crash in Staffordshire.
23 October: Access credit cards were first introduced as a rival to Barclaycard.
6 November: The Government introduces price and pay freezes to counter inflation.