99. Lonnie Donegan – My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer) (1960)

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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!
Les: Huh?
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)

Births:

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 

Meanwhile…

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.

61. Lonnie Donegan – Gamblin’ Man/Puttin’ On the Style (1957)

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Puttin’ On the Style/Gamblin’ Man, was the first ever double A-side to top the charts. It wasn’t until The Beatles and Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out in 1965 that this became an official phenomenon… in 1957, an intended B-side could become known as the A-side simply because it was requested more in the shops. Double A-sides must have simply had equal requests (which is why the next few years contain many Elvis double-A-sides).

Donegan’s second number 1 release was also the first live recordings to reach number 1 in the UK (recorded at the London Palladium), and the last single to rule the charts issued exclusively on the 78 rpm format. The 7-inch, 45 rpm format, which had first been released in 1949, had become the norm.

Gamblin’ Man, credited to original performer Woody Guthrie and Donegan, starts off much gentler than Donegan’s previous incendiary number 1, Cumberland Gap. A tale of a no-good gambler stealing the heart of a mother’s girl, at first Donegan’s trademark bleat is laid over a casual strum. However, just before you start to wonder when Donegan lost his fire, the song picks up, and like Cumberland Gap, it gets faster and faster, Donegan stumbling over the words as he tries to keep up with another blistering performance. The song ends with Donegan’s drummer smashing down repeatedly on the drums. No number 1 had ever ended like this before.

By comparison, the traditional number Puttin’ On the Style is rather sedate. It’s not without it’s charm, however. It’s a cheeky strum-along, offering a wry look at how youths show off to impress – perhaps Donegan’s attempt to charm the older generation, who might have been scared off by the skiffle movement? It is perhaps a sign of things to come for Donegan, whose next number 1, several years later, appalled skiffle aficionados. And me.

A genre like skiffle was, like punk, never supposed to last long before it burnt out, but it had left its mark. The genre would not make it to number 1 again. Meanwhile, one of music’s biggest superstars had been troubling the upper reaches of the UK top 30 for quite some time, and the top spot was about to finally be his.

Written by:
Gamblin’ Man: Woody Guthrie & Lonnie Donegan/Puttin’ On the Style: Traditional

Producers: Alan A Freeman & Michael Barclay

Weeks at number 1: 2 (28 June-11 July)

Births:

Singer Marc Almond – 9 July
Comedian Paul Merton – 9 July

Meanwhile…

6 July: Scouse teenagers John Lennon and Paul McCartney met for the first time at a garden fête at St. Peter’s Church, Woolton. Lennon’s skiffle group, The Quarrymen, were performing when McCartney arrived for the afternoon show, and they were introduced to each other afterwards by mutual friend Ivan Vaughan. McCartney tried to impress Lennon, performing Eddie Cochran’s Twenty Flight Rock while The Quarrymen set up for their evening set. It must have worked as at the end of the night, Lennon decided he should ask McCartney to join the band.

McCartney had left before their second set, but one of the songs they performed was Puttin’ on the Style.

57. Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group – Cumberland Gap (1957)

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It’s only now that I finally get just why skiffle was so influential. There had been no number 1 like Cumberland Gap before. At 40 seconds in when Lonnie Donegan moves the song up a gear and it enters a breakneck speed, going so fast that he becomes breathless, you see why a genre that was fashionable for such a brief time inspired a generation of great musicians. It has been argued that Cumberland Gap was the first punk number 1, and it’s a very strong argument. This is a million miles away from Here in my Heart.

Lonnie Donegan was born Anthony James Donegan in Bridgeton, Glasgow on 29 April 1931. The son of an Irish mother and a Scottish father, the Donegans moved to East Ham in 1933, but he was evacuated to Cheshire to escape the Blitz.

He bought his first guitar at 14, as World War Two came to an end. He took a keen interest in jazz, folk, country and blues. Trad jazz bandleader Chris Barber had heard he was good on the banjo and asked him for an audition. Donegan had never played a banjo, but bought one and passed the audition anyway.

In 1952 he formed his own band, the Tony Donegan Jazzband, and after opening for blues musician Lonnie Johnson, Donegan took his first name in tribute. By 1953, he was in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen with Barber.

During the intervals of their shows, Donegan took to providing a ‘skiffle break’. The name derived from a New Orleans term for house parties that were organised to pay the rent. These interludes soon had the crowd more excited than the main sets. Donegan, with backing from a tea-chest bass and washboard from other band members, would play storming renditions of old blues songs by Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. It’s very likely that Cumberland Gap was among this material. It was only a matter of time before Donegan broke free and went solo.

Easily the oldest song to reach number 1 to date, Cumberland Gap‘s origins are shrouded in mystery. It’s an Appalachian folk tune that likely dates back to the latter half of the 19th century, but I’d put money on it being Woody Guthrie’s recording that Donegan was aware of. Originally concerning a mountain pass at the juncture of Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky used by migrants in the 18th century, Donegan has fun with the lyric, referring to the county in northwest England instead and claiming the Gap is ‘Fifteen miles from Middlesborough’.

Despite Rock Island Line coming first, and being understandably perhaps the most famous skiffle song ever, I think I prefer Cumberland Gap, maybe because of the fact I’ve been comparing it to number 1s that came before, which can only amplify how good it is, or perhaps due to the wordplay. There’s not a lot of difference between the two, which is why skiffle didn’t last long, but that doesn’t really matter. Both songs create an almighty racket on such basic instruments, don’t outstay their welcome, and show so much other material from the time as being out-of-date and too restrained. And it still sounds fresh, unlike Rock Around the Clock. You can see why Bill Haley soon started to look old-fashioned, and Donegan’s DIY ethic was bound to become more inspiring. Skiffle’s inspiring qualities were instant. By this point, John Lennon had formed The Quarrymen, and during Donegan’s next run at the top, Paul McCartney had joined the group.

Written by: Traditional

Producer: Alan A Freeman

Weeks at number 1: 5 (12 April-16 May)

Births:

Author Nick Hornby – 17 April
Cricketer Graeme Fowler – 20 April
Actor Daniel Day-Lewis – 29 April
Comedian Jo Brand – 3 May
Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious – 10 May

Meanwhile…

15 April: John Bodkin Adams shocked the nation by being found not guilty in court. It is still believed that Adams was a forerunner of Dr Harold Shipman, and may have killed over a hundred patients, but that political interference caused him to be set free.

20 April: Manchester United retained the First Division title in the Football League, but lost against Aston Villa in the FA Cup final on 4 May, narrowly missing out on becoming the first team to win the double that century.

24 April: The first broadcast of BBC astronomy series The Sky at Night, with the legendary Patrick Moore at the helm.