From Clive Dunn’s Grandad in 1970 to the St Winifred’s School Choir’s There’s No One Quite Like Grandma in 1980, the singalong pop of 70s Britain is generally dismissed as naff, sentimental, unstylish and just plain bad. Can these songs so firmly sewn into the fabric of British life really be so awful? Don’t they have something to say about the era they came from? That was the inspiration for my book In Perfect Harmony: a serious look at family favourites that have been derided by the critical minds of the day as, to use one embittered songwriter’s colourful description, vomit.
Britain in the 1970s was beset with ballooning inflation, national strikes, angry debates on European integration and fears of an environmental apocalypse – a bit like 2020s Britain, in fact. Amid all this, Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody was the anthem of the 1974 three-day week, the Wombles responded to 1976’s punishing drought with the eco-disco hit Rainmaker and the Brotherhood of Man’s 1970 ballad United We Stand was the rallying cry for an emerging gay rights movement. They were socially significant, in other words. Here are 10 more socio-political singalong smashes.
1. Middle of the Road – Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep (1970)
As package holidays opened up the continent to working-class families for the first time, and Ted Heath lobbied for Britain’s entry into the common market, a former Scottish hotel lounge band found themselves in Italy, marooned and penniless. In desperation they recorded this cheerful tale of parental neglect. It sold 10m copies. Why? “It reminded people of their holidays,” suggested drummer Ken Andrew, of a transcendentally fluffy slice of nonsense that represented the British dream of European integration.
2. Millie Small – Enoch Power (1970)
While serious blues rocker Eric Clapton would drunkenly support anti-immigration firebrand Enoch Powell at a 1976 concert, Jamaican teen-pop sensation Millie Small had made a comic riposte to the Conservative MP’s racist doom-mongering six years previously. Against a cheerful ska beat, Millie sings about leaving Jamaica to work in Powell’s Wolverhampton constituency while dreaming of a time when “all men will be brothers”, turning the feared Tory hardliner into an object of ridicule in the process.
3. Edison Lighthouse – Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes) (1970)
After songwriter Tony Macaulay realised the biggest problems in rock were the rockers who played it, he came up with Edison Lighthouse; a made-up band led by session singer Tony Burrows – who also fronted fellow made-up bands the Brotherhood of Man, Pipkins and White Plains. Macaulay and co were pop’s equivalent of the aliens in the legendary advertisement for Smash instant mashed potato who fall about laughing as one of their number describes the old-fashioned potato-preparations of idiotic earthlings. Pop, like food, was becoming processed.
4. Lieutenant Pigeon – Mouldy Old Dough (1972)
Bashed out by home-recording enthusiasts Rob Woodward and Nigel Fletcher in Woodward’s parents’ living room in Coventry – and featuring his 59-year-old mum Hilda on piano – this rattling pub singalong turned Lieutenant Pigeon into Britain’s first mother-and-son No 1 chart phenomenon. It also represented the closing of the generation gap forced open by the 60s counterculture in being loved by kids, mums and dads and grandparents alike. Incidentally, Lieutenant Pigeon is an anagram for genuine potential – something Mouldy Old Dough had in spades.
5. Lynsey de Paul – Sugar Me (1973)
North London’s de Paul was a glamorous figure who was so outraged by her former boyfriend Sean Connery saying it was OK to slap women that she did a kiss-and-tell on him and gave the money to Erin Pizzey’s domestic violence charity Refuge. She and fellow mainstream songwriter Barry Green wrote this 1940s Gypsy jazz-influenced slice of sensual, escapist pop for a simple reason. “The 70s were bloody depressing,” said Green. “So we were doing major key songs that looked at the past through rose-coloured glasses: those were the days, my friend.”
6. Hector – Wired Up (1973)
In the 70s, pop singles were aimed predominantly at kids for the first time and Portsmouth’s Hector were duly marketed as the world’s first naughty schoolboy rock sensation. It went horribly wrong when, during a performance of junk shop glam classic Wired Up on ITV children’s show Lift Off With Ayshea, singer Phil Brown’s dungarees split down the middle. “I was praying the kids at home couldn’t see my underpants,” he said. “They were purple with green spots.”
7. The Sweet – Teenage Rampage (1974)
Moral campaigner and inveterate self-publicist Mary Whitehouse had been searching for a new crusade when this fell in her lap. Claiming that a raucous rocker about kids all over the land gaining the upper hand would foment revolution at a volatile period in the nation’s history, Whitehouse wrote to the BBC’s Lord Trethowan to demand its immediate ban. He replied that Teenage Rampage was completely harmless on account of being “totally empty of real content – like all too much pop music”.
8. Jonathan King/The George Baker Selection – Una Paloma Blanca (1975)
A package holiday perennial and a hit for both one-man pop factory King and Dutch MOR band the George Baker Selection, Una Paloma Blanca is a reflection on the price of freedom dressed up as a harmless summer favourite. It was playing on the radio when Gary Gilmore, an American double murderer who became a cause celebre after demanding his own death sentence, was driven to be killed by firing squad in 1977. None of that stopped comedy bumpkins the Wurzels stealing the tune for their ode to West Country life, I Am a Cider Drinker.
9. Tina Charles – I Love to Love (1976)
The latter half of the 70s saw the rise of suburban disco – dance music for stressed adults needing respite from a climate of national strikes and economic hardship. An early example was this massive hit for east Londoner Charles, who two years later went on a promotional tour of sex romp The Stud, the ultimate suburban disco movie, with its star Joan Collins. “It was two worlds,” she said. “An IRA bomb went off outside Harrods in the very place I had parked my car, just as Joan Collins was telling me: ‘Always wear a hat in the sun, darling. It stops the skin from ageing.’”
10. Dollar – Shooting Star (1978)
Dollar are proof that credibility is based on image, not content. After being booted out of cabaret band Guys’n’Dolls, Thereza Bazar and David Van Day reinvented themselves as a sexy blond duo who looked as if they had just stepped out of a salon. They were critically derided, but on this dreamlike concoction Bazar layered her backing vocals up to 50 times, creating a celestial haze of sound that set the template for 80s electro-pop. Bazar was creatively brilliant but she would never be given her dues in the way, say, Kate Bush was. Such is the lot of the singalong star.
• In Perfect Harmony: Singalong Pop in 70s Britain by Will Hodgkinson is out now on Nine Eight Books (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
• What’s your favourite derided mass-market 70s hit? Let us know in the comments.