The bizarre lost world of 1970s cabaret pop

The internet may have closed the gap between past and present, but some bygone eras are still hard to believe. Alexis Petridis revisits the strange, lost world of 1970s cabaret pop

Nothing can really prepare you for the sight of Mrs Mills in full flight on The Morecambe and Wise Show. A huge, terrifying woman in a huge, terrifying floral print dress, she pounds remorselessly at a piano, performing Yes Sir, That's My Baby while aiming an equally remorseless rictus grin at the camera. The footage I'm watching comes from 1973, but it seems to hail from much earlier. It's like something from the height of the Blitz, and, like a lot of things that passed as entertainment during the second world war, it's hard to imagine anyone enjoying it without the incentive to merriment presented by the Luftwaffe raining death from the skies on a nightly basis. But the audience in 1973 audibly love Mrs Mills. They're singing along.

These days, we like to think we have our musical history down pat. Pop culture has been obsessed with nostalgia for years. It often seems as if there's no aspect of the 60s, 70s or 80s that hasn't been subject to a revival: nothing is too arcane to have avoided being dusted down and retooled in post-modern style. Furthermore, some people have argued that the rise of the internet means we live in something called the constant present, that there can be no such thing as nostalgia in a world where virtually everything has been archived on YouTube or blogs or P2P sites: you can't feel wistful for or startled by a past you can access with a click. Without wishing to sound deliberately contrary, I'm fairly certain people who say things like that haven't been subjected to the sight of Mrs Mills recently.

In fact, Mrs Mills is an extreme example of that rarest of things: part of an entirely forgotten pop phenomenon. You might call it "cabaret pop" if anyone mentioned it these days, but they don't. Its cast was a curious ragbag of 60s leftovers, unctuous balladeers of both sexes, "foreign" acts wielding bouzoukis or punctuating versions of Tie a Yellow Round the Old Oak Tree with cries of "Olé!" (testament, presumably, to the increasing popularity of package holidays in the era) and boy/girl vocal combos peddling a kind of winsome, antiseptic pop that sounds utterly alien to modern ears. Its audience was huge. Some cabaret pop made the charts – the New Seekers, Peters and Lee – but its true home was on the light entertainment TV shows, filling in the gaps between sketches on Morecambe and Wise or Tommy Cooper's Half Hour, which explains why I'm sitting with a vast pile of DVDs trying to unearth a genuinely buried part of pop history.

The cabaret scene lurked just below the surface of British pop in the 60s and 70s, a hinterland of uncool to which you got packed off when you could no longer keep pace with the then-dizzying speed at which rock and pop developed. You can see them on these DVDs, the artists swept away – by Merseybeat, psychedelia and glam. Some of them were former legends who would become legends again: Dusty Springfield, belting out a song for Morecambe and Wise in the midst of the slump that began with the commercial failure of Dusty in Memphis and would only end when the Pet Shop Boys stepped in; Roy Orbison, looking as lost as you would if you were Roy Orbison and you found yourself on The Wheeltappers' and Shunters' Social Club, sandwiched between the Krankies and a Bavarian folk band, who have their set enlivened by compere Bernard Manning holding up sign that reads: "FREE HESS". Others are clearly here to stay. Craig Douglas, a British Pat Boone, tipped as 1962's big pop star by an NME unaware that the Beatles were about to release Love Me Do; Freddie Garrity, once of the Dreamers, reduced to doing an act that centres on his declining fortunes; the Bachelors, whose brand of cosy MOR folk was done for when Dylan went electric.

But if a lot of artists ended up here by default, then a lot clearly set out with it as their destination, viewing it not as the end of a downward slide but as a golden path to fame and fortune. It seems unlikely that any of the seemingly limitless supply of female vocalists in floor-length gowns and their swarthy, sideburned male counterparts were aiming to distract Nick Kent's attention away from Hawkwind and the New York Dolls.

A look at the singles chart in the 60s and 70s helps you to understand why these acts existed. The early 60s were a rare time of musical consensus. The moptop-era Beatles and the groups that followed in their wake seem to have charmed the entire nation: to the casual observer, no one appears to have been buying anything else. But then pop music moved on, into perhaps the most accelerated period of development in its entire history. These days, we tend to view the years 1965 to 1968 as a high watermark of daring creativity, greeted with untrammelled delight at the time: after all, who wouldn't prefer Jimi Hendrix to Gerry and the Pacemakers? Look at the charts, however, and the answer seems to be: loads of people. The shift from pop to rock, and all the things bound up with it – drugs, dissent, the rise of the counterculture – clearly horrified as many record buyers as it delighted, and they responded by buying music as far from the cutting edge as it's possible to imagine. The incident in which Engelbert Humperdinck's Release Me kept Strawberry Fields Forever off the top of the charts wasn't an aberration, it was part of a trend. By late 1969, the predominant style in the UK singles chart is reactionary gloop. The Stones' Honky Tonk Women and the Temptations' Cloud Nine are fighting for space not just with Englebert, but with Clodagh Rodgers, Ken Dodd, Joe Dolan and Karen Young.

By the 70s, the reactionary gloop had codified into something approaching a genre, almost all of whose participants are lost to history's dustbin, which makes watching the "musical guests" on light entertainment shows a truly baffling experience. What became of Bruce and Peter Davis, whose version of Homeward Bound makes Simon and Garfunkel's original sound like the Stooges? Or the Pattersons, a folk-pop combo cursed with a guitarist who looked disconcertingly like Jimmy Carr? A band called Design are invariably introduced as "top recording artists Design", but you search the internet in vain for any evidence of their top recordings. It's tempting to dismiss the whole lot as terrible, but after a while, you start to develop a feel for the stuff. At one extreme there's the Brotherhood of Man, some years away from their Eurovision triumph, and relatively raw and raunchy, at least by the standards of their peers. At the other, there's a band called Splinter, whose big number has lyrics apparently written by someone in the throes of a terrible psychiatric episode: "Spring! The spring! I am like the spring! We are as fresh as the spring! We are fantastic! We are terrific! We remind me of us!"

You're struck by how utterly cut off all this music seems from anything else happening at the time. There's not the vaguest intimation of glam rock or soul or singer-songwriterisms about the artists' sound or appearance. Children's TV was packed with pop music in the 70s – Lift Off With Ayshea, Supersonic, Get It Together, Shang-A-Lang – but a decade after the Times approved of the Beatles' Aeolian cadences, it's clear that no one working in light entertainment considered rock or pop music suitable mainstream entertainment for adults. When the Three Degrees appear on The Wheeltappers and Shunters, all hotpants and inoffensive Philly soul, the audience look aghast and baffled: you'd have thought Kraftwerk had just come on and played Autobahn in its entirety.

Even more astonishing is the way the musicians have shut themselves off from pop's recent past. You might have thought at least the Beatles' oeuvre had swiftly attained standard status, that Yesterday or Something might be precisely the kind of thing the balladeers with the shag-pile sideburns would gravitate towards, but no: it's still clearly considered too racy. During my light entertainment marathon, I hear two Beatles songs. One is courtesy of Little and Large: Syd Little sings Till There Was You while Eddie Large interrupts him doing impressions of Deputy Dawg. The other is Can't Buy Me Love, performed by the Morton Fraser Harmonica Gang: three men huffing away accompanied by a dancing midget in a wig.

As the 70s progress, as David Bowie moves from being Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke, as flares give way to drainpipes, cabaret pop stays the same. Its practitioners look and sound the same in 1977 as they did in 1971, unless you count the arrival of the Nolan Sisters as a major breakthrough. Design are still being touted as top recording artists, blonde women in floor-length dresses still ask "What are you doing the rest of your life?", provoking the answer: I'll probably be sitting here watching someone like you sing something like this.

But if it doesn't change with the times, it unwittingly tells you something about why the times changed. From a distance of nearly 40 years, punk can be hard to grasp: not the music, but the spitting and the swastikas and the fuck-everything nihilistic rage. But when you're drowning in light entertainment pop, you start to get an inkling of why so many people were so eager not just to listen to the Sex Pistols – that's obvious – but to indulge in all punk's unsavoury gestures. It's partly because anything, even dressing up like a Nazi and coming home covered in someone else's flob, was more entertaining than staying at home and watching three men play harmonicas accompanied by a dancing midget in a wig, and partly because, judging by what constituted mainstream popular entertainment in the 70s, not one of the previous decade's supposed revolutions had affected wider popular culture at all. The youth culture of the preceding decade seemed to have failed: to anyone watching the TV, Britain still looked trapped in the 1950s.

I'm starting to get pretty angry myself. There's a limit to how much of this stuff a man can stand, and to how many times you can fast-forward through what looks like a hilarious Morecambe and Wise routine to get to Anita Harris singing The Look of Love in a manner that suggests The Look of Love is something she's just seen on the telly and didn't much care for. Right at the end of the 70s, cabaret pop does change slightly: you start getting a disco beat behind some of it, and if you're never going to confuse the results with Chic, it sounds pretty heady compared with what's gone before. But it was changing too slowly, too late. It had always looked hopelessly square to anyone with an interest in rock and pop; now it looked hopelessly square compared with the music that was beginning to crop up on other light entertainment shows. The Kenny Everett Video Show was on ITV: instead of top recording artists Design punctuating the sketches, the former Radio 1 DJ had top recording artist David Bowie singing Boys Keep Swinging.

It went and it won't come back. People like to say, a little peevishly, that The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent represent a return to the days of Old Fashioned Light Entertainment, but I can tell you, a little peevishly, that the artists on The X Factor look like the very acme of sophistication and bleeding-edge musical excitement compared with cabaret pop. Imagine that: music that actually makes you appreciate Simon Cowell. I put the DVDs away, safe in the knowledge that music's past can still be a foreign country, whatever people tell you.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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