Russ Conway Day


The only time that I ever queued for annual limited edition vinyl bonanza Record Store Day was for the third event in 2010. I'd participated in, and quite enjoyed, the first two; this had involved nothing more arduous than sauntering along to an independent record shop that I'd been visiting since I was in my mid-teens (and you can find an article about my first encounter with it in Well At Least It's Free) in the mid-morning, picking up a couple of bargains, and generally appreciating the upbeat atmosphere and overall sense of celebration of old-fashioned record shops and their patrons. By the third event, though, Record Store Day was attracting a good deal more media attention, and bemused half-interested reports on the national news were suggesting that 'queues were expected'. As one of the records being released in very small numbers on that day was a brand new single by Blur - their first in almost seven years, and the first to really involve Graham Coxon for even longer - and I was very keen to get hold of a copy, it seemed sensible to err on the side of hype and turn up as early as possible.

When did I arrive early on the Saturday morning, there was indeed a small queue forming, and amongst the line of thirty or so people I noticed one person I knew very well, two others I knew by sight, and many more utterly unfamiliar and steelily determined faces that may as well have had the URL for eBay in front of their eyes. I'd joined the back of the queue and had literally only been waiting for about ten minutes when one of the shop's staff appeared from nowhere and called myself and the other three to one side. In a low voice, he informed us that they hadn't received any Blur, Stone Roses or Rolling Stones singles, and as that's what he had assumed the four of us were variously after, he didn't see any point in making us stand around in the rain for no good reason. We were, after all, regular customers; everyone else he had 'never seen before in my life'. Feeling weirdly relieved, the four of us then went off to have a coffee and, well, a laugh, leaving the mystery shoppers to come to blows over Live At Leeds by Pulled Apart By Horses.


Since then, I've had nothing to do with Record Store Day; not out of any pompous, pious or purist reason, but simply because it doesn't really have very much to do with how I would normally buy records. It's not really aimed at people like me but at a completely different demographic, evidenced by the increasing volume of what I would personally consider rip-offs or money for old rope, but which large numbers of others seem eager and delighted to get hold of; and if they do then good luck to them frankly, as that's what record collecting is all about. Despite what some columnists might have to say on the subject, it's not a case of other people invading 'our' world, but of that world being thrown open to the wider public for a single day, and in many ways that can only be a good thing. I'm aware that I've probably missed out on some quite nice items as a consequence - though not always; there were still copies of the Doctor Who soundtrack EP Sounds From The Inferno and Georgie Fame's R&B At The Ricky Tick easily available even a month later - but also at the same time have managed to steer well clear of shoddy rip-off rubbish. Who in their right mind would fork out a tenner for a coloured vinyl 7" of a Derek And Clive sketch that had already been released several times over, and not even one of the funny ones at that?

This year, of course, there are an unreleased Pink Floyd track and rare early David Bowie outtake on offer, but both of those should have been on recent pricey reissues and weren't so Ian EMI can get to fuck if he's expecting me to queue for two hours and then hand over eighty four million pounds on top of already extravagant purchases. Anyway, if you're a full time record collector on the three hundred and sixty four non-Record Store Day days, then you'll almost certainly have the patience, perseverance and keen observational skills to get hold of anything you wanted a couple of months later for considerably less money.


That's not to say I've been above making the odd sarcastic dig at Record Store Day and its patrons, though. When myself and Ben Baker did an Advent Calendar podcast based on forgotten Christmas Singles recently, one of our choices was Snow Coach by fifties piano-pounder Russ Conway (which, incidentally, you can find on the excellent compilation Saint Etienne Present Songs For A London Winter; and which, equally incidentally, you can find my review of here), the absolute epitome of the clean-cut pre-Beatles pop star whose records all sounded pretty much identical. Russ Conway is something of a recurring obsession of ours, and during the course of our genuinely affectionate discussion of his 'unique' musical stylings, the conversation took the following turn (warning - contains an heroic amount of swearing)...


Needless to say, there wasn't a one-sided Russ Conway exclusive on offer as part of this year's Record Store Day. Even so, as a pointless situationist prank making absolutely no real actual point about anything whatsoever, I thought it would be fun to try and find a Russ Conway record in an adjoining charity shop while everyone else was queueing up in the hope of getting hold of a pink 7" of Barbie Girl by Aqua. And, well, it was harder than you might think.

If you were looking for endless Blaster Bates albums or about seventeen million copies of that Break Through - An Introduction To Studio 2 Stereo thing, then your luck would have been in. In the market for an Elvis Presley compilation with a bizarre cover showing what appeared to be the HMV dog throwing 'shade' at him? Not that difficult to find. Album with Johnny Mathis forcing a terrifying green balloon with a face drawn on it into a youngster's hand? Some sickly-looking effort called Magical Mystery Man - A Children's Musical By Colleen and Charles Segal? That horrendous bulky Karaoke Party CD that everyone had at every party in the early nineties? A shelf of seven or eight Jeremy Clarkson books inexplicably but deservedly turned upside down? A complete collection of Stargate SG-1 on DVD? Then roll right up and you could walk away with the lot for about a quarter of the price of even the cheapest Record Store Day 'exclusive'. But - astonishingly, and indeed frustratingly - nothing by Russ Conway. Apart from a 1976 album featuring 're-recordings' of his hits, for which there is not enough NO in the known universe.


Three thoroughly ransacked charity shops later, I was starting to feel like a slightly less sociopathic Simon Quinlank (although some would probably argue more), but the hobby had to continue and a long player's worth of authentic Conway originals with the proper actual hit version of Side Saddle on it had to be found. Inevitably a number of things had already shown up that I did want, including a compilation by his hit parade contemporaries Steve & Eydie and a live album by space-age popsters Ferrante And Teicher as well as Ray Conniff's Hollywood In Rhythm which was worth picking up for the redhead on the cover alone, but still nothing at all by the China Tea hitmaker himself. Until, that is, I had the idea of rifling through the CD racks instead, and promptly found a Very Best Of featuring all of his hits and more in their authentic original versions. And all of them sounding exactly the same as each other, so much so in fact that twenty four tracks' worth of it started to feel more hallucinogenic through sheer repetitious weight of Pot Black Theme-resembling force than Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band ever quite managed.

It's probably possible to turn this into some kind of serious point about how it's increasingly easy to get hold of popular and modern music on vinyl whereas the forgotten and the neglected hits and misses of yesteryear can only be found on CD if you're lucky, but really, what would be the point? If you're enjoying the 'Vinyl Revival', then good on you frankly and please keep trying new sounds (especially if they're actually not-so-new sounds) instead of relying on what the broadsheets tell you that you have to buy. And in the meantime, everyone else keep rediscovering everything else. That way we might even get a Boys Wonder CD one day. Probably not for Record Store Day, but in all honestly, I'd probably queue for that.



You can find lots more about early pop music, early television and not-quite-as-early-but-still-early-ish radio in Not On Your Telly, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

A Fast Exciting All Action Game


Entrepreneur, engineer and inventor of the Spirograph, Denys Fisher was the creative driving force behind an enduring and very very 'British' toys and games company. No, seriously. You really don't have any idea of just how idiosyncratically regionally niche-targeted their output was. Despite being at least partly bankrolled by the vastly more internationally aware Palitoy - which in turn was at least partly bankrolled by American-as-they-come toy and game conglomerate Hasbro - Denys Fisher Toys specialised in securing the rights to what were in the main the most localised and parochial of cultural phenomena imaginable and creating toys and games around them. Famously this included the first ever range of Doctor Who action figures, less famously the official Roger De Courcey's Nookie Bear Ventriloquist Doll, and a staggering quantity of board games.

From sportsmen to disc jockeys, from disruptive puppets to inevitable gift books from well-meaning relatives, if a single child so much as recognised it in passing then Denys Fisher would rush out a board game based on it, and the less chance that the concept had of inspiring international licensing deals the better. Some of these, it has to be said, were of remarkably high quality and equally high concept. Others were very much not. Here then are some of the good, the bad, and the based around a scrawny old bastard...


On The Buses (1973)


It's easy to forget just how popular On The Buses really was in its day. Mainly because of its wince-inducing attitude towards women and minorities and the fact that it appeared to have left all of its jokes back at the depot, but even so, it's worth pointing out that it inspired no less than three hit feature films and - more importantly - a board game. Which, to be honest, is actually quite fun, involving little more than successfully collecting and dropping off three passengers without being interrupted by Blakey by means of dice, cards, a zany road map, and chunky plastic buses and punters. Denys Fisher specialised in making simple gameplay concepts into visually and often mechanically elaborate affairs, and you'd be hard pushed to find a better example of the phenomenon than this. Yes, that was me being nice about On The Buses. I 'ate you, Butler.


Harvey Smith's Show Jumping (1974)


1972 Olympic Equestrian Hero and tabloid-infuriating flicker-of-'V's'-at-judges lends his name to this curious gameplay mish-mash involving dice, cards and good old fashioned chucking plastic horses around a board in an attempt to attain the perfect Descending Oxer. "You can't get nearer to the real thing without taking part", says Harvey, which as non-committal aversions of endorsement go is right up there with "With Richard Hurndall you got a complete character".


Dad's Army (1974)


Cartoonish counters depicting the entire regular cast make their way across a military map of Walmington-On-Sea, upending Nazi insignias and replacing them with the good old British Union Flag. Yes, you did read that right, and owing to this uneasy combination of cuddly bumbling loveableness and blood-chilling verboten symbolism it's now almost impossible to buy or sell a copy of this game on leading auction sites. Honestly, it's almost as though someone was erring on the side of caution when it came to facilitating the dissemination of potentially and widely-acceptedly offensive and upsetting material and wanted to make sure they were doing the right thing by the overwhelming majority of their customers. What will Plastic Bertrand and those Eurocrats in Brussels think of next?!


It's A Knockout! (1974)


And if you want potentially troublesome artwork, look no further than the box of this over-complicated affair based on the popular BBC... whatever in the name of sanity it was, prominently featuring a certain disgraced celebrity splashed across a good third of the available space. Requiring substantial pre-game assembly and an assortment of 'mini-boards', the overall effect is a strange attempt at replicating the onscreen madness of people in cow costumes falling into giant paddling pools and audiences who seemed to make as much noise when silent as when roaring with laughter by pitting players against each other in flimsy approximations of such zany and madcap sports as tiddlywinks, target shooting and good old patriotic football, the latter presumably included with the aim of preventing them pesky remoaners from refusing to suck it up like good loosers and sneakily pretending it's actually Jeux Sans Frontieres. All of which is academic, frankly, as the latterday unpleasant associations mean that nobody is likely to be playing it anyway. Not that what came next was really that much better, mind...


Miss World (1974)


Yes, you too can experience the 'glamour, tension and excitement' of the outmoded beauty contest that people keep trying to inexplicably revive, as creepy-looking cheap plastic dolls make their way on a 'World Tour' around a board dotted with glamour, travel, money and men who 'know what to do', hoping to beat all the others to the 'Golden Spotlight' stage. In the nearest thing that can be found to fairness it is at least an ambitious and unusual three-dimensional gameplay gambit, and did include a black doll at a time when such a move would probably have provoked the average adherent of the Miss World contest to smash their head against a piece of paper until the blood spelt out a letter to the Daily Mail demanding that someone hurry up and invent Nigel Farage, but there's no getting away from the fact that everything about it is built on a solid foundation of wrong, and doubtless there were many ugly scenes that Christmas Day as inattentive relatives bought a copy for someone with a distinctly unimpressed mother. Possibly mindful of this, the following year's Miss UK variant scaled it back into a basic board and card game with even the slightest hint of strategy and intelligence involved, but at the end of the day we're still with the protesters flourbombing Bob Hope. If only there was an environmentally-aware peace-promoting cyborg with a roll-back arm around when we needed one.


The Six Million Dollar Man (1975)


Bostin' Steve Austin has his telescopically-eyed work cut out for him as there are three exact replicas of him on the Bionic loose, and the only way to prove that he's the real deal is by completing a set of Ludo-esque 'missions' on a game board. It's spinners, cards and Miss A Turn squares all the way without acheiving or including anything even halfway rivalling Denys Fisher's still-impressive range of Six Million Dollar Man action figures, but having the players genuinely not knowing which of them is the genuine article is a novel twist, and it was sufficiently successful to be followed later in the year by Bionic Crisis, a quasi-electronic effort that saw players attempting to revive a kaput Steve Austin by deciphering his circuitry without accidentally blowing a fuse. All in all, an admirable attempt to match the imagination and innovation of a forward-thinking TV smash, but even these two were essentially just a warm-up for the next Denys Fisher offering.


War Of The Daleks (1975)


Released just as Davros made his inaugural trundle across the screen, the 'second wave' of Dalekmania gave rise to this mighty effort, which was better than anything released during original 'Dalekmania' and possibly even better than any other board game ever. On top of a dazzlingly-illustrated sprung dancefloor-esque board of wedding cake thickness, comic strip 'rebels' make their way towards a Dalek Command Centre in the hope of destroying it, while eight excellently rendered chunky plastic Daleks (complete with utterly pointless and function-free revolvable head sections) rotate around exterminating any player that gets in their path. Even at the end there's one last twist, as when the infiltrated Command Centre literally collapses, there's a rogue component that could result in you blowing yourself up as part of the heroic quest and technically not really winning. Although Terry Nation would usually let any old bollocks go by in the name of squeezing a bit more money out of his creations, this was an of an unusually high standard for early Doctor Who merchandise, so we can only guess at how exciting an actual Doctor Who game based on Doctor Who itself would have been.


Doctor Who (1975)


Tom Baker counters! A blue plastic Tardis! Alien planets featuring dinosaur things biting chunks out of spaceships! 'Computer Printout' cards! A thrill-a-move race through time and space! All of which can only go so far towards disguising the fact that this is really just yet another Ludo variant, albeit with the Tardis allowing you to move - gasp - two spaces at once. One of the finest-looking items of seventies Doctor Who merchandise - and, lest we forget, available in two different box designs - but also one of the least satisfying to actually use for its intended purpose. Still more fun than Battle For The Universe, though.


The Guinness Game Of World Records (1975)


What would any self-respecting child want even less than a gigantic ton-weighing book crammed full of facts and figures about the world's biggest leaf? That's right, a board game that attempted to reflect its McWhirter-recorded contents by requiring them to answer arcane statistical questions about the best/worst/longest immersed and complete a series of Waddington's Games Compendium-esque sub-tiddlywink plastic 'challenges', as demonstrated on the box by a misleadingly awestruck Bristow-alike. Tailor made for parents who enjoyed shouting at you for 'not trying hard enough', this was less a game than an 'outward bound activity day' in your very own home in a handy cardboard box.


Are You Being Served? (1975)


Displaying more attention to the logistical realities of retail than the actual sitcom did, this gaudily realised suspiciously Cluedo-esque effort requires players to pick a character - yes, you can even be Young Mr. Grace - and thriftily stock up on clobber to flog in Grace Bros. This relatively sober gameplay design may not have been especially evident from the box, which featured Mrs Slocombe looking disapprovingly, Miss Brahms looking appreciatively, Mr Lucas looking lecherously, Mr Grainger looking analytically, Captain Peacock looking stoically, Mr Humphries looking alarmedly and Mr Rumbold looking lord-alone-knows-whattishly at a pair of ladies' pants.


Bruce Forsyth's Generation Game (1975)


His face may take up the lion's share of the box design - and there were two of them too - but there's no indication whatsoever that Bruce actually wants to play this game with you. Instead there's a model of the set complete with sliding doors, an oversized countdown clock and a series of fun-for-all-the-family challenges involving some flimsy plastic props, and not even a single plastic Brucie in 'thinker' pose to go with them. So, relatively faithful to the format of the show, but not really anything more significant than you could have made up when trying to 'play' The Generation Game at home on a wet Saturday afternoon. Or, as the host might have had it, "I'll just make a note of that... rip-off!". But at least you can still play it in polite society...


Jimmy Savile's Pop Twenty (1975)


Well, there's no getting away from this "great new game that captures all the excitement of today's pop scene", despite it involving little more than moving boringly around a board filled with Roy Wood-esque 'rockers', embarrassingly unrealistic 'fans' and cigar-chomping 'manager' figures in pursuit of 'gold discs', complete with a patronisingly excitement-free 'turntable' in the middle, and all of it suspiciously redolent of the perspective of someone who was determined to use 'the pop scene' to their personal advantage whilst neither knowing nor caring what it actually involved. So little surprise about their choice of celebrity endorsement, then. "Join in the chart-topping race and head for the Number 1 spot with Pop Twenty!", lies 'Yours Groovily' on the box. It's pleasing to surmise that few would have done even at the time.


James Hunt's Grand Prix Racing Game (1976)


The bad boy of Formula One gets his 1976 World Championship victory commemorated with his very own board game, involving natty plastic cars guided around a deceptively simple-looking racetrack via a complicated system of cards to determine speed, acceleration, petrol et al, with the winner being the first to complete the democratically nominated amount of laps. An accurate reflection of his celebrated skill and judgement on the circuit, all told, though sadly there were no cards to represent being booted out of £3,000,000 'lovenests'.


The George V. Mildred Dice Game (1976)


Quite what possessed someone to put TV's top dysfunctional sitcom couple on the box of a barely modified adaptation of enduring dice game Duell will have to remain a mystery. But that's exactly what this is, and nothing more. You'll search in vain for a 'FEED TRUFFLES MISS A TURN' square or a plastic model of Tristram's tyre-fashioned 'Space Station'. And this wasn't even the most inexplicable celebrity comedy tie-in released by Denys Fisher...


The Morecambe & Wise Game (1976)


For no readily obvious, sane or logical reason, Etic And Ern saw fit to lend their names and images to this perplexing variant on the Connect 4 formula which somehow involved flipping around Andy Warhol-esque images of their sunshine-requesting faces. Not exactly a popular feature of their BBC shows, it has to be admitted, although rumours persist that it may have been a weekly occurrence when they went to Thames at the end. Anyway, you can hear lots more about this game in this edition of Looks Unfamiliar.


Rod Hull's Emu Game (1976)


A fully operational glittery blue bird-skewed variant of the widely-bastardised proto Pac-Man Mr Mouth game, involving flipping counters into the rotating mechanical beak of TV's top Parky-twatter, replete with authentically luxurious fur. Sadly, despite the implications of the title and indeed his appearance on the box, Rod appears to have been otherwise engaged, doubtless lured away by the suggestion of green jelly. Either that or he'd been promised that there was another Rod Hull And Emu Game in the pipeline.


The Bionic Woman (1976)


Although spun off from The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman wasn't just a direct airlift only with hydraulic knockers or something, but a hugely successful series in its own right, with its own cast of characters, thematic obsessions, moral perspective and strictly observed limitations on bionic capabilities. This game on the other hand wasn't THAT far removed from the Six Million Dollar Man one, but it did at least kit out Jaime with a more complicated board, a more complicated set of interlocking assignments, and the unpredictable random appearance of Steve Austin, not always in a directly useful capacity. Sadly, The Bionic Dog does not show up demanding Bonio.


Bat-Man (1977)


Holy Rare Internationally Licensed Variants Of Top-Selling Board Games! Now almost impossible to find in a half-complete state for less than seventeen million pounds, this appears to have been a 'darker' rejigging of an existing American board game based on the Caped Crusader, with a standard board replaced by an overhead view of Gotham City, a handful of thoroughly expected 'constantly moving' villains on the run, and boring plastic pegs replaced with stand-up Batman and Robin counters which - excitingly - could be role-reversed by players as and when their individual skillsets were called on. Sadly, however, this was just pre-the Filmation series, so we don't get Bat-Mite popping up offering to help. Completists may also wish to seek out the All-Star Comic Action Heroes Game, which roped in several of their DC Comics pals to help but was otherwise more or less exactly the same.


The New Avengers (1977)


Gentlemen - we can reissue the The Six Million Dollar Man board game with the artwork changed... we have the technology! Yes, it's more or less the exact same 'mission'-skewed setup as before, only reconfigured to feature Steed, Purdey and Gambit taking on The Cybernauts alongside entirely canonical villains The Mad Major and The Scarlet Skull. Also apparently includes a 'unique' umbrella and hat-themed spinner. Yes, whatever you say, Denys. Not strictly a board game, but it's worth pointing out that this did come accompanied by The New Avengers Shooting Game, which is now worth a small fortune but was not exactly in keeping with the spirit of the series. And which, surprisingly, was not reissued to cash in on The Professionals instead. In fact, astonishingly, that doesn't seem to have inspired any board games at all. Presumably Bodie thought dice were 'namby pamby'.


Multi-Coloured Swap Shop (1978)


Despite the regulation cover-dominating photo of Noel, and despite the repeated artwork appearance of Posh Paws, this ambitious 'computer'-aping semi-mechanised affair audaciously concerned itself with the actual basic phone-in toy exchange framework of Swap Shop, rather than any acknowledgement of the pop groups, the interruptions from The Odd Ball Couple and Skip And Fuffy, or John Craven exhorting us all to take a look at some of Britain's disappearing wildlife. Thus it was that one of the very few tangible reminders of a genuinely revolutionary Saturday Morning show came to embody the very detail that the fewest people remember about it. Meanwhile, if you don't want your mind to liquify, try not to concentrate on the fact that most of the actual real life 'swaps' probably included all of the above games.


You can find lots more about old TV shows and ridiculous tie-in merchandise in Well At Least It's Free, available in paperback here or from the Amazon Kindle Store here.


Looks Unfamiliar #4: Stephen O'Brien - The Classic 'Four Calculators' Sketch


Looks Unfamiliar 4 - Stephen O'Brien

Looks Unfamiliar is a podcast in which writer and occasional broadcaster Tim Worthington talks to a guest about some of the things that they remember that nobody else ever does. Joining Tim in this episode is writer Stephen O'Brien, who wonders why he gets blank looks all round whenever he mentions Steven Moffat sitcom The Office, early 'lad mag' LM, eighties puzzle cash-in paperback You Can Do The Cube, KLF-affiliated early Stock Aitken Waterman act Brilliant, The Beachcombers and other last-minute ITV emergency schedule replacement standbys, and The Morecambe And Wise Board Game. No he's not making that last one up. Along the way we'll be finding out how many issues of 'Razzle And Wise' were published, how many characters Stefan Dennis can play on stage at once, and which seventies action serial is slightly less preferable to actually being at school.

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