350. Ray Stevens – The Streak (1974)

Think of the fads of the 70s and you’ll likely think of spacehoppers, rollerskates and lava lamps. But what about all the naked men and women that made the headlines for streaking at sporting events? This was still popular during my childhood in the 80s, and I just assumed it was something that happened every now and then because, well, people are silly and it’s funny to take all your clothes off and run around until you’re caught (I imagine). I didn’t realise until now it became a ‘thing’ in the 70s.

There were examples going back way further though. In the 15th century, the Adamites protested the Holy Roman Empire’s morality by running naked through their Bohemian village. Apparently, the Quakers revived the pastime in the 17th century. Modern streaking started up in the free and easy 60s at US universities, and peaked in 1974, with a streaker at the Oscars and ever more elaborate and organised stunts taking place.

That February, one of the most famous sporting streaks happened at the England v France rugby match at Twickenham Stadium, when an Australian named Michael O’Brien decided to take to the field with his genitals flapping in the breeze. The subsequent photo of the police covering his bits with a helmet became iconic, and kickstarted all the UK sport streaks that followed. So novelty song and country singer-songwriter Ray Stevens’ opportunism paid off when he decided to immortalise streaking in song.

Ray Stevens was born Harold Ray Ragsdale on 24 January 1939 in Clarkdale, Georgia. His love of music began with his first piano lessons, aged six. At 15 he formed an R’n’B band called The Barons, and three years later he enrolled in Georgia State University as a music major. That same year he released his first material as Ray Stevens on Capitol Records’ Prep Records, but his cover of Rang Tang Ding Dong sank without trace. Further material was released sporadically over the next few years.

In 1961, Stevens signed with Mercury Records and began to get noticed for his novelty songs. With titles like Jeremiah Peabody’s Polyunsaturated Quick-Dissolving Fast-Acting Pleasant-Tasting Green and Purple Pills, that was always likely. The politically incorrect Ahab the Arab was a number five hit in the US in 1962, and Harry the Hairy Ape reached number 17 the following year.

But Stevens also wanted to release serious country material too, and so he signed with Monument Records in 1968 and Mr Businessman followed, giving him his first US hit in five years. He also released the first version of Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down by Kris Kristofferson (later a hit for Johnny Cash). Novelty songs still could do well for him though, and Gitarzan reached number eight in 1969.

It was in 1970 that Stevens’ career went up a notch. He was working in Nashville when his gospel-tinged ballad Everything Is Beautiful, preaching against racism and extolling tolerance of others, became huge, topping the US charts and reaching number six in the UK – his chart debut over here. He kept on dabbling in novelty songs though, notably Bridget the Midget (The Queen of the Blues), a UK number two in 1971. Interesting to see how Stevens could preach about a better world in his country material, and then make cheap jokes in his comedy material… a sign of the times, perhaps.

Stevens was on a plane flicking through a magazine when he came across an article on streaking. He thought it would make a good idea for a comedy song and made some notes. Some time later, he woke up one morning and streaking was all over the news – 1973 and 74 were peak years in the US for the phenomenon. He quickly finished The Streak and recorded it ASAP for maximum topicality.

The naked truth is, The Streak is dross. Over a hoedown-style backing, Stevens plays a news reporter interviewing a redneck (also Stevens) at various disturbances caused by ‘The Streak’. Despite the redneck shouting ‘Don’t look Ethel!’ every time the naked guy appears, Ethel has a gander, and by the end, she’s joined in the streaking. Do you think that sounds like a bad record? Try listening to it.

So many things annoy me about The Streak. The tacky production, the ‘boogity boogity’ backing vocal on the chorus, the kazoo, Stevens’ cliched characters, the childishness, the canned laughter. If you have to add canned laughter to point out where the jokes are on a comedy record, there’s something wrong. This makes Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) and even My Ding-a-Ling look like high art by comparison. I can’t think of a single positive thing to say about it.

To be fair to Stevens, at least he wasn’t a one-trick pony. In 1975 he just missed out on another UK number 1 with a country cover of jazz standard Misty. Two years later, his final UK chart entry saw him cover Glenn Miller’s In the Mood in the style of a clucking chicken under the pseudonym Henhouse Five Plus Two. I listened to five seconds here and had to stop.

But I can just about forgive Stevens all this because in 1981 he sang Cannonball, the opening song to the celebrity-packed car chase film The Cannonball Run. It’s not just for nostalgia reasons either, this is a great song!

Stevens’ last serious album Me, was released in 1983. He’s concentrated on novelty material ever since. He opened his own theatre in Branson, Missouri in 1991 , which lasted two years, and he began selling videos to his old songs, The Streak among them (guess what, it’s awful). In 1996 he received thousands of sympathy cards after online news of the wrestler Ray ‘The Crippler’ Stevens confused fans. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1999, but he beat it and received a clean bill of health.

Stevens’ love of comedy and videos found its natural home online on YouTube, where he posts cheap novelty songs with equally cheap videos declaring his outspoken political views. One I found, Obama Nation from 2012, slates the then-President. Abomination/Obama nation, get it? Hmm.

Written & produced by: Ray Stevens

Weeks at number 1: 1 (15-21 June)

Births:

Radio presenter Natasha Desborough – 21 June

Meanwhile…

15 June: The National Front clash with counter-protestors in London’s West End. The Red Lion Square disorders resulted in the death of 21-year-old Kevin Gateley, a university student.

17 June: A bomb explodes at London’s houses of Parliament, damaging Westminster Hall. The IRA claimed responsibility. 

309. T. Rex – Telegram Sam (1972)

After the success of their second number 1, Get It On in the summer of 1971, T. Rex released possibly the first glam rock album, Electric Warrior, in September. It featured some of Bolan’s best material, including Jeepster and Cosmic Dancer. T. Rextasy was peaking.

After their contract with independent Fly Records ended, they signed with EMI. It didn’t stop Fly from releasing Jeepster as a single though, and it would have been Christmas number 1 that year, were it not for Benny Hill’s Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West). Despite this probably being rather embarrassing for the sensitive Bolan, he’ll have been buoyed by the success of the renamed Bang a Gong (Get It On) in the US as 1972 began. And the band were back in their studio to work on next album, The Slider.

Telegram Sam was the first fruits of that LP to be made public. Showcasing their new beefed-up sound, it featured Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman on backing vocals once more, along with producer Tony Visconti. It was inspired by Bolan’s manager (and drug dealer) Tony Secunda, Bolan’s ‘main man’.

It may have enjoyed a two-week run at number 1, but Telegram Sam is the first sign of Bolan’s well beginning to run dry. Yes, the sound is heavier, but it’s really just Get It On all over again, only not as good. And the lyrics, where they used to sound inspired and were never less than interesting, are Bolan-by-numbers. He reels off a list of bizarre characters – in addition to Sam, there’s Bobby, Golden Nose Slim and Purple Pie Pete, who are all excuses to come up with increasingly bizarre rhymes. Take Pete:


‘Purple Pie Pete Purple Pie Pete
Your lips are like lightning
Girls melt in the heat’.

Not great. The self-referencing line in the last verse, ‘Me I funk but I don’t care/I ain’t no square with my corkscrew hair’ is better, though.

There’s still great stuff to come from T. Rex at this point, their fourth and final number 1 Metal Guru among them, but here was a sign that Bolan was happy enough to stick to a limited formula and while that was fine for now, he’d soon be behind his contemporaries.

Written by: Marc Bolan

Producer: Tony Visconti

Weeks at number 1: 2 (5-18 February)

Births:

Footballer Darren Ferguson – 9 February
Footballer Steve McManaman – 11 February

Meanwhile…

9 February: Prime Minister Edward Heath declared a state of emergency as a result of the miners’ strike. A three-day week had already been imposed, and power supplies were turned off for many for nine hours from this day.

307. Benny Hill with The Ladybirds – Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) (1971)

1971 was a real mixed bag of a year for number 1s. There was early glam, reggae, pop, a former Beatle, and bookending the year were novelty songs by two popular TV comedy stars. The Christmas number 1 belonged to Benny Hill, a once much-loved comedian who became incredibly unfashionable before his death in the 80s. But in 1971, people wanted saucy innuendo in their comedy, and Hill was one of the best at that.

Alfred Hawthorne Hill was born 21 January 1924 in Southampton. His father and grandfather had both been circus clowns. After Hill left school he worked at Woolworths, a bridge operator and a milkman. It is unknown whether he drove the fastest milkcart or not.

In 1942 Hill was called up for World War Two, and trained as a mechanic in the British Army. He also served as a mechanic and searchlight operator in Normandy before being transferred to the Combined Services Entertainment division before the war ended. Having decided a career in showbusiness was for him, he changed his name to Benny Hill in honour of his favourite comic, Jack Benny.

Hill struggled on the radio and stage, but found his home on TV, achieving his big break after sending scripts to the BBC in 1952. The Benny Hill Show of the 50s wasn’t that different from its 80s version, a mix of music hall, parody and bawdiness. Bar a few brief spells with ATV between 1957 and 1960 and again in 1967, he remained with the BBC until 1968.

Jackie Wright, the little bald man who Hill liked to slap on the head, joined his troupe in the 60s. I hope his head was insured for all those decades of slaps.

Within that time he also appeared in films, most notably Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and The Italian Job (1969).

The Benny Hill Show became a Thames Television show in 1969 and ran intermittently for 20 years. It is this version he is mostly remembered for, gurning and saluting away next to scantily clad girls, running around to Boots Randolph’s Yakety Sax. This very British show became popular overseas too, with Hill acting as an ambassador for the famous British seaside postcard brand of humour.

Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) began life as a song on a 1970 edition, as you can see here. Most of the double entendres are in place, with only small differences like Ernie’s age being 68 rather than 52. Releasing records was nothing new for Hill, who had been releasing comedy singles sporadically since Who Done It in 1956, and Ernie was just one of the tracks that made up his Words and Music album, released earlier that year. It’s unlikely he had an inkling as to how popular it would become.

Inspired by Hill’s time as a milkman for Hann’s Dairies in Eastleigh, Hampshire, the song is written as a Wild West-style ballad about the adventures of Ernie Price, whose milk cart is pulled by horses, sung by Hill in a comedy Cornish accent and joined by his regular backing group, The Ladybirds. Ernie and bread delivery man ‘Two Ton’ Ted from Teddington are feuding for the heart of Sue, a widow at number 22 Linley Lane. Cue the smut.

I can remember Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) being played to me at school when I was pretty young, and most of the innuendo was lost on me, despite growing up watching Carry On films. Looking at the lyrics now, I can see that’s because it’s not actually very rude at all. Granted, there’s reference to crumpet, and these lines are a bit saucy:

‘He said you wanted pasturised
Coz pasturised is best
She says Ernie I’ll be happy
If it comes up to me chest’

But other than that, Hill manages to skirt anything too risqué. And that might be why it became so big. If anything, it’s more a song for children in the style of 1968 Christmas number 1 Lily the Pink, so timing had a lot to do with it. I can’t imagine adults sat around listening to this and laughing hysterically in 1971… perhaps 1961, but I may well be wrong. And it certainly doesn’t make me laugh in 2020, yet it still has a certain charm… a relic of a bygone age, perhaps helped by the promo film above, co-starring Henry McGee and Jan Butlin.

What doesn’t make me laugh is the fact that one of our worst ever Prime Ministers, David Cameron, has declared this one of his favourite songs ever on more than one occasion. But you can’t blame Benny Hill for Brexit.

Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) held firm for four weeks, even stopping T. Rex from having three number 1s in a row with Jeepster. Hill only released one more single, Fad Eyed Fal in 1972. Meanwhile The Benny Hill Show rattled on, with a film compilation of highlights from 1969-73 called The Best of Benny Hill released in cinemas in 1974. Despite some old-fashioned racism poking fun at the Chinese, this was unbelievably still being shown every now and then until recently.

As the 80s dawned, the show began to feature the ‘Hill’s Angels’, sexy ladies who would dance and appear as comic foils for Hill. But this was the decade in which such ideas looked increasingly outdated as alternative comedy grew ever more popular, and acts like Ben Elton led the way as the media began to disown him.

Looking back, the campaign against him seems too aggressive. Yes, he had enjoyed a good innings and it was high time he made way for more PC, sophisticated comedy by the end of the 80s, but the likes of Elton suggesting he was to blame for people being raped and violence against was unfair. More often than not, Hill was being chased by the girls, not the other way round… ok, all their clothes fell off… but still…

The Benny Hill Show was finally taken off air in 1989. A quiet, private man when the cameras were off, he disappeared from the public eye completely.

It looked like he might be due a comeback in 1992. Thames began airing edited compilations of repeats due to public demand, and he was on the verge of signing with Central Television, but his health failed him. He had a mild heart attack that February, and on 22 April he was found dead in his armchair in front of the TV. Hill had died aged 68, two days previous, and one day after another old-school comedy giant, Frankie Howerd.

Written by: Benny Hill

Producer: Walter J Ridley

Arranged & conducted by: Harry Robinson

Weeks at number 1: 4 (11 December 1971-7 January 1972)

Births:

Socialite Tara Palmer-Tomlinson – 23 December
Singer Dido – 25 December
Conservative MP Philip Davies – 5 January

Deaths:

Footballer Torry Gillick – 12 December
Scottish footballer Alan Morton – 12 December
Pilot Charles C Banks – 21 December

Meanwhile…

29 December: The United Kingdom gave up its military bases in Malta.

30 December 1971: The seventh James Bond film – Diamonds Are Forever – was released. It saw Sean Connery return to the role after George Lazenby declined to come back.

4 January 1972: Rose Heilbron became the first female judge to sit at the Old Bailey.