The simple, long-lost thrill of researching popular culture of the past in the pre-Internet era is a subject that I've talked about extensively before - notably in the opening chapter of Not On Your Telly, and in a podcast about a copy of Halliwell's Film Guide that I once bought from the 'Withdrawn' box in my local library (it's a lot more interesting than it sounds, honest) - and yes, you guessed it, it's a subject that I'm about to talk about extensively yet again.
Back in the days when the closest evolutionary relative of IMDB was those books called things like Variety's Sci-Fi Enthusiast's Guide To Out Of This World Movie Credits From Space, which were produced to such high and exacting standards that practically every page had half line gaps in the middle of words, the absolute and almost inconceivably exotic researching holy grail was access to back issues of Radio Times and TV Times. Definitive, unarguable (well, sort of - but that's something that would come to light much later) records of what had been on radio and TV, who had appeared in and made it, and where and when it went out, and all of it without having to wade through interminable wittering about Project UFO first. Of course, if for some strange reason you did want to know about the UK transmissions of Project UFO, then you could find them in there too, but that's by the by.
Eventually, and more by accident than design, I did manage to locate a collection of bound volumes in the awe-inspiring city centre library; although they would later restrict access to dedicated researchers who were prepared to sign official-looking forms and then wait twenty minutes while the staff mysteriously disappeared and returned with the requested copies occupying about a sixteenth of the space on the world's squeakiest trolley, back then they were just sitting on a shelf and you essentially had the free run of TV listings from 1962 to date. Unfortunately this did mean that some prat had already gone through and torn out all of the pages referring to Doctor Who, or worse still carefully levered them out with a craft knife leaving damaging lacerations on all the surrounding pages too, but in all honesty that was really just a minor annoyance. There was so much more in there to find out about than the even by then already overdocumented Doctor Who, and that so much more was precisely what I was in search of. There was, if you will, so much more than TV Times in TV Times magazine. Except that doesn't really work as Doctor Who was in the Radio Times. But you get the general idea.
And there it was - Monday 3rd January 1966, 1.30pm on BBC1, an episode billed as '1: Peter The Postman' and described as 'For the very young'. To be honest, all of the handful of accompanying credits were details that I knew already anyway, involving names that were all too familiar from the clown-rotated credit scroller, but what was really arresting was the small accompanying illustration of the aforementioned Peter The Postman, and a single line in italics at the foot of the listing reading 'See page 19'. And on page 19, there it was - a full-size version of the artwork, featuring Peter Hazel standing atop the Music Box (although for some reason he had actually been drawn taller than it), accompanied by a short and noticeably hyperbole-lacking piece introducing the various characters, hinting at (though stopping short of explicitly stating) its status as the first truly independent production to be made for the BBC, and handily explaining the stop-motion animation process for the benefit of question-plagued parents.
Since then, for various reasons, I've done a good deal more research into Camberwick Green and its various sequels and spin-offs. Along the way I've got to see the original black and white 'pilot' version of '1: Peter The Postman' with its notorious animation blunder, waded through a stack of paperwork outlining the tedious contractual reasons behind Chigley's disappearance from the schedules for a couple of years in the late seventies, and even heard a Danish-dubbed version of the Welcome To Camberwick Green album (or, in old krone, 'Velkommen Til Grønærteby'). But none of this has ever matched the thrill of finding that small quarter-page introductory piece, and indeed that evocative artwork, probably produced in minutes flat for a magazine that by its very definition had the shortest of shelf lives, but which all this time later remains resonant with the 'feel' of a lost world of prehistoric broadcasting. Of course, so deeply ingrained was the show in the formative experiences of successive generations that we're actually overdue a politician proclaiming that we should "all try to be a bit more like the people of Camberwick Green". To which we should say fine, as long as they personally are prepared to be visited by the clown late at night.
If you were a science fiction fan in the days before box sets, 'webisodes' and kickstarter-funded revivals, you had to make your own entertainment in the long, long months between series of TV shows or instalments of film franchises. This usually involved throwing yourself in sheer frustration into impenetrable library-sourced novels by Americans with superfluous middle initials, radio serials with 'computers' that spoke in that tinny know-all female voice, interminable board games about trading intergalactic fuel stocks or something, and numerous other fondly-recalled bits of marginal interest rainy day 'space' substitutes that you can read more about in my book Well At Least It's Free. And of course, you would get to enjoy all of these things that you didn't really enjoy that much uninterrupted, whereas the second that The Tripods started again you'd be called to the phone to speak to a well-meaning relative who'd rung to 'make sure' you know 'that it's on', and have to miss half the episode politely responding to being asked if you were watching it.
One less widely acknowledged side-effect of all of this was that you were widely assumed, often incorrectly, to have no corresponding interest in popular beat music, and that as a consequence you would like it when there was a pop song about 'space'. And not even the actual themes from your favourite films or TV shows. No, the the ones that had embarrassing lyrics about 'galactic robot battles' or something and were performed on TV by dancer-heavy ensembles apparently dressed as extras from Come Back Mrs Noah. Here, then, are fifteen of the best chart toppers from out of this world...!
Sheila & B. Devotion - Spacer
Erstwhile cutesy teenpop Gallic chart star hooks up with Chic and reinvents herself by going absolutely induced magnetosphere with the Bacofoil-clad interplanetary stylings and a song about a gadabout lover so insatiable in his appetites that he whizzes off across the cosmos in pursuit of alien 'skirt' - the possibility that this is actually about Captain Jack Harkness should not be discounted - and rendered in the sort of bing-bong-heavy existential disco sound that ensures it still enjoys bafflingly enthusiastic Jackson Sisters-levels of popularity with hen parties to this day.
Dee D. Jackson - Automatic Lover
Swoosh-heralded I Feel Love-meets-Rock Follies robo-voiced Battlestar Galactica-bandwagon gambit which sounds as though it may actually be about the female protagonist finding ways of 'enjoying' herself during epic intergalactic voyages, but was nonetheless performed on TV with the assistance of the most unreasonable sub-CP & Qwikstitch attempt at a robot ever. And bear in mind this was at a time when it looked ridiculous next to Twiki.
Space - Magic Fly
France-originated enigmatic instrumental-only 'mystery band' in stylish post-Doctor Who And The Ambassadors Of Death colour-coded spacesuits equipped with shoebox-sized synths to denote 'future', whose stark dispersonalised ode to a winged insect doing all tricks like that Derren Brown would enjoy years of ubiquity as 'and that's Thursday... on BBC1'-type backing music, to the extent that the original solarisation-ahoy performances on Top Of The Pops et al became little more than a troubling Rondo Veneziano-like half-memory. Later had their name stolen by some bloke putting new lyrics to Well Jemima, Let's Go Shopping.
Mankind - Dr. Who
Incalculably uncalled-for boogied-up mangling of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop's finest hour by ad-hoc collective of unenthusiastic-looking session men, replete with nasty monophonic synth melody line, decidedly non-'canon' xylophone voluntary, and what is presumably meant to be a vocodered mock-Dalek offering such urgently-required clarifications as 'he journeys in The Tardis - through time and space!'. A novelty hit at the time but, in retrospect, probably the moment at which it all started to go wrong. And ironically, it would take another, later dance version of the theme to provide the moment at which it all started to go right again...
Sarah Brightman & Hot Gossip - I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper
The Everett-endorsed lingerie-almost-wearing 'racy' dance troupe led by Arlene Phillips push resident springy-haired space minx microphone-wards for an arse-waggling splits-abundant Points Of View-enraging tale of transgalactic soft-porn-shenanigans with one 'Captain Strange', given a cosmic sprinkling of Kremmen-esque 'space cruiser intercom' spoken word bits, samples from Also Sprach Zarathustra and the Close Encounters four note thingy, and a modish mention of one 'Darth Vader'. Subsequent to this success, an outer spiral arm-sized schism developed and while La Brightman strove for further chart success with the wheel-reinventing Adventures Of The Love Crusader and Love In A UFO, Hot Gossip attempted to leap on another sci-fi themed bandwagon with the similarly underachieving Space Invaders. More recently, Ms. Brightman has announced her intention to bring the lyrics one step closer to reportage by going into space herself for real. Rumours that America are planning to actually traverse the desert on a horse with no name sadly cannot be confirmed.
Meco - Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band
Hilariously camped-up soaraway Hanna-Barbera-end-sting-esque sashay through the main title theme from The Unyclopedia Of Rock (or, if raining, sci-fi's most overrated franchise) as it might have been heard in The Blue Oyster from Police Academy, replete with puzzlingly-sourced genuine article lazer blasts and R2D2 blipperings, intertwined with sidesplittingly sped-up version of Figrin Da'n & The Modal Nodes' signature show-stopper sounding as though it's come straight out of a space-themed Benny Hill chase medley where he gets his head stuck in a slightly out of proportion Darth Vader mask or something. Trioculous reported to be 'getting down' with immediate effect.
Duffy Power, Victy Silva & The CPO's - Disco Round The Moon
Sadly not online anywhere, this shameless cash-in was only available to avid scoffers of KP's virulently-flavoured modishly-monickered pasty round corn snack Discos. Masterminded by cheapo foodstuff cash-in supremo John Mears - whose other opuses include something called Moveaboutalot With Arthur Lowe And His Animal Friends, and, lest we forget, the single length version of Jon Pertwee's I'm The Noodle Doodle Man jingle - Disco Round The Moon features synth-toting library music powerhouse Cy Payne, middle-bit-of-BBC-variety-show-tastic session singer extraordinaire Victy Silva, and erstwhile UK rock'n'roller Duffy Power boogieing their way through such crisp-friendly numbers as Hot Dogs And Mustard and That's The Way The Cookie Crumbles, which audaciously combine junk food endorsements with occasional flashes of flying saucer-level sci-fi references. Every bit as sleazy, antiseptic and indescribably inauthentic-sounding as you're imagining, and frankly all the better for it. You didn't get this with your Smiths Football Crazy.
Manhattan Transfer - Twilight Zone
Jazztacular Wodehouse-meets-Vidal-Sassoon standard-belters perform their usual lyric-adding instrumental-vocalising magic on that all-too-familiar four-note guitar jabbing (and, more importantly, the creepy 'angry flute' bit that followed it) and do some Studio Line From L'oreal-anticipating jagged lines on their faces, and come up with a song that appears to celebrate the actual act of watching an episode of The Twilight Zone. The video, however, seemed to be more closely modelled on the opening titles of Sapphire & Steel.
Liquid Gold - Don't Panic
Vaguely Hitchhiker-infringing sub-Dooleys disco-lite I Will Survive-alike Eurovision hopeful with plenty of lyrical references to romantic turmoil but nary a mention of The Great Green Arkleseizure, falling on the same bird twice, or "that's nothing - anyone could have a Thing Their Aunt Gave Them Where They Don't Know What It Is". Not even a half-expected mid-solo quotation from Journey Of The Sorcerer. "You're a jerk, Liquid Gold".
Federation - Blake's 7 Disco
Pulp-purloined hold-music-tacular with added vocodered Federation Guard threattage (you can tell they aren't proper because nobody shouts 'CRIMOS!') attempt at shaking a few extra coppers out of the few remaining viewers of a once-mighty TV 'Space Opera' heading rapidly for cancellation, working on the strange assumption that what their devotion to the show was REALLY missing was the opportunity to bust a few moves in a disco that they'd be unlikely ever to go to and would be unlikely ever to play this record which is probably impossible to dance to in the first place. Sadly the planned tie-in album Disco Darrow remains in the vaults.
Chris De Burgh - A Spaceman Came Travelling
Post-prog Chariots Of The Gods-riffing sword-and-sorcery-horse-flogging dishwater-singer-songwritery alienned-up reimagining of the Nativity, full to radio-smashing point with dreary space-travel-as-seen-by-Nasir-from-Robin-Of-Sherwood imagery and 'meaningful' insight about how you and I could make a difference if only we tried etc etc etc. We thought he was dull enough then, but little did we know what was just around the corner. And that all-important message that said extra-terrestrial vagabond had to impart to us all? "A-a-a-aa-a-a-aa-a-a-ah", apparently. We could have heard that from Tony Parsons!
Adam Ant - Apollo 9
Post-Puss N' Boots shark-hovering panic-fuelled image reinvention for the man who had been the biggest name in pop only months earlier, opting for an ill-advised 'Adam Ant On The Moon!' makeover whilst slowly but surely becoming as musically adrift as Major Tom. Aside from an occasional countdown which gets abandoned at 'five' anyway, it's not really that musically spaced out, although the lyrics gamely try to equate NASA's largely unremarkable third manned mission with the antics of a flightly lady friend, and that famous cosmological phrase "yabba yabba ding ding", which weirdly coincided with the surfacing of more or less the same phrase in the hated theme song of hated eight million episode animated tweeness Dogtanian And The Three Muskehounds. Ahead lay Vive Le Rock...
Brian May & Friends - Star Fleet
Unlikely all-star re-recording of the hard-rocking end theme from the redubbed puppet escapades of Captain Orion and company, with May and Eddie Van Halen battling it out over who can contribute the most ludicrous guitar squiggling, and Roger Taylor (who, lest we forget, once recorded an album called Fun In Space) throwing in the odd PPA-esque bit of backing vocal chirruping. As the lyrics exist primarily to explain what's happening in the show you've, erm, just been watching, there's tons of refreshingly to-the-point stuff about sending a message out across the sky and 'the people back at Earth Control', while the video at least counteracts the expected extreme close-up May-emoting with lashings of hot suitmation antics courtesy of TV's top half-remembered big red robot, Dai-X.
The RAH Band - Clouds Across The Moon
Schmaltztacular Jupiter Moon-esque proto-It's-Cold-Outside-No-Kind-Of-Atmosphere calm-before-the-Star-Trek-The-Next-Generation-storm static-prone one way conversation between a lonely earthbound lady and her starship-employed Rimmer's Z Shift Gets It Clean beau, conducted to mercurial Barrowman-friendly jazz-funk-electro-pop backing with the 'twee' fader pushed up to maximum, and equally memorably enacted in a video apparently taking its pipes-and-stripy-tape visual cues from Galloping Galaxies!, only with that Hollywood bloke from Mannequin doing robot dancing in front of a telephone exchange standing in for Dinwiddy Snurdle. Ironically for a record set in the distant future, it doesn't get much more eighties than this.
The Firm - Star Trekkin'
Prank-friendly producers string together helium-voiced misquotes from Star Trek over the most subconscious-drillingly irritating tune in the entire history of recorded music, and watch in satirical satisfaction as it tops the charts for ice age upon ice age. Started off by infuriating all the humourless Trekkies who didn't like it when people didn't take it seriously, which made it immensely likeable, but then pretended they saw the joke and liked it all along and they got it more than everyone else got it ha ha ha its funny it is, which made it immensely detestable. Now likeable again on account of unparallelled ability to induce eye-rollment in rock bores. And indeed the sheer audacity of the video, made so cheaply and nastily that it probably went right round in the other direction and actually ended up unspending money.
Edelweiss - Starship Edelweiss
Long-forgotten widely-ignored follow-up to the bizarre KLF-inspired camptastic sample-fest Bring Me Edelweiss, with the thigh-flashing ladies and their less easy-on-the-eye male co-stars doing their own bit of Star Trekkin' across the universe for a Roddenberry-aping trip aboard the Enterprise, only with additional yodelling. The request to "beam me up to Mars", however, suggests they hadn't quite understood how it worked...
One of the big frustrations for soundtrack collectors of yore - and TV soundtrack collectors in particular - was that the commercially released versions of your top favourite theme tunes never quite matched up with what was heard on screen. The odd ill-advised funked-up abberation aside, they were by and large very close approximations, but were always sufficiently 'different' to cause the sort of frustration that could never be sensibly explained to anyone else; the guitar that came in just that bit further away from the beat, the shrill exotic wind instrument replaced with a more Pye Records-friendly session flautist, the abrupt ending jettisoned in favour of a repetitive and overlong fadeout, and so on and so on and so on and living in harmony they're the friendly enemies living in harmony they're the friendly enemies living in harmonOH JUST STOP. In some extreme cases, like that of Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased), the hapless punters wouldn't even have got any kind of variation on the original recording at all, with the few - and even in some cases lone - commercially available versions being shunted out by the yard by one of the many and unvaried faceless big bands and orchestras that specialised in such cheap and not always especially cheerful cash-ins.
One such cheap and not especially cheerful cash-in was the long-forgotten ramble through the theme from Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) released as a latterly-dizzying-sum-fetching single by Norrie Paramor & His Orchestra. This alone was enough of a holy grail for collectors (don't bother, though, it's rubbish); the spectral harpsichord tingling of Edwin Astley's original on-screen version was so far beyond the realms of availablity that people didn't even bother wishing that it would come out, and instead just contented themselves with muffled and hissy recordings they'd made from VHS tapes. Like so many other similarly great yet elusive pieces of soundtrack music, it was destined to gather dust on a shelf in some archive where nobody actually knew where it was, tantalisingly just on the edge of continuity-announcer-hijacked consciousness but seemingly destined never to find its way onto CD.
Late in 1996, however, some enterprising soundtrack collector decided they'd had quite enough of this nonsense, and wrote to 'QAnswers', Q Magazine's authoritative rock itch-scratcher extraordinaire, asking the intrepid ask-arounders if there was any way in which the original recording could ever be made commercially available. Surprisingly, the answer came back that the compilers of the Cult Fiction series were looking into whether the original Edwin Astley recording of Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased), spectral harpsichord tingling and all, could be incorporated into a collection of TV detective themes pencilled in for the New Year. Needless to say, the mere suggestion that they were looking into the possibility of licensing otherwise unavailable original original original soundtrack recordings led to all manner of excitement and speculation. By the twin laws of averages and diminishing returns any compilation series onto its sixth volume should have long since started to run the already flimsy concept into the ground - and Trackspotting of course couldn't even manage a single volume without doing so - but this news suggested that they were all set to outdo all of their previous and indeed not inconsiderable achievements. Whatever the next Cult Fiction album ended up being called, it looked likely to be the album that a great many of the series' fans had always wished existed.
When This Is... Cult Fiction Royale duly appeared late in 1997, it wasn't exactly a 'detective themes' album as such, but neither was it the throwback to now-badly-outmoded Tarantino-worship that the continentally-skewed burger-scoffing title suggested. So... what exactly was it, then? Well, the cover artwork, showing an old-skool petrol-guzzler, a foxy chick in a Paloma Faith-esque wallpaper-pattern jumpsuit, and what experts believe to be Matthew McConaughey's character from Dazed And Confused as rendered by a court artist who'd just been fired for being slightly too accurate, was giving nothing away, and the tracklisting appeared, on first glance at least, to be bewilderingly all over the place. The 'theme', if there could be said to be anything resembling a tangible 'theme' at all, appeared simply to be 'being the best Cult Fiction compilation of the lot', and it's fair to say that this ambitious benchmark was one that they ended up vaulting with ease. Whether by accident or design - well, come on, it's going to be 'design' isn't it - they had managed to gather together just about everything that a Cult Fiction devotee might concievably still want in the one place. Well, technically two places, given it was a double CD set, but you get the general idea.
In fact, This Is... Cult Fiction Royale was such a mighty collection of tracks that it was easy to miss the fact that a good thirty percent of them had already appeared on previous Cult Fiction compilations. And indeed sufficiently mighty that even when you did notice this, it hardly seemed to matter, though admittedly the fact that many were also appearing in full this time around did help a bit. Joe 90 (with 'wow' reassuringly intact), Hill Street Blues, The Return Of The Saint, The Professionals, Man In A Suitcase, Get Carter, The Champions, Avenues And Alleyways from The Protectors, Mission Impossible, Danger Man, The Man From UNCLE, Strange Report, The New Avengers and Tales Of The Unexpected (the only one of them still to be suffering from early-fade-out-itis) all show up for a repeat performance, but they're all such great pieces of music that you really don't mind hearing them again in a new context. On top of which, there's a couple of welcome surprises amongst their fellow returnees; the James Bond Theme is in its original Connery-era single-version guise as credited to (cough) 'Monty Norman', there's a thundering funked-up take on The Sweeney as recorded for mysteriously undiscernible purposes by library music mainstay Simon Wallace and alternative comedy's own piano-pounder Simon Brint (and yes, the alarming drumming may well be courtesy of Rowland Rivron), and as an entertaining white elephant there's the 12" extended version of a partially successful 'Big Beat' reworking of the original The Professionals theme by Blue Boy, which as you're probably suspecting by was indeed the less successful follow-up to the still-fantastic earlier-in-the-year hit Remember Me.
And what of that much-vaunted 'new stuff' that allowed for this equally much-vaunted 'new context'? Well, the two-disc set gets off to a barnstorming start with two previously-neglected instrumentals that had then recently been dusted off for renewed advert-fuelled popularity, Lalo Schifrin's car-bigging-up main title theme from Bullitt and Jean-Jacques Perrey's Lucozade-proffering early Moog gurgle-out E.V.A., alongside - more impressively still - the single version of John Barry's oddly ill-fittingly Cold War-evoking theme from ITC's most entertainingly ludicrous series of the lot, The Persuaders, which up until then had been eluding compilers on account of headache-inducing rights complications, with many a collection having to opt to use a dreary orchestral rendering in its stead. Yer Schifrin also makes everyone's day with Dirty Harry's scorching opening title accompaniment, which rumbles on ominously far longer than it has any right to before losing control and going wildly overboard with the blaring brass, yodelling backing vocal ladies and wah-wah disobedience, along with the more subdued On The Way To San Mateo from further along in the Bullitt soundtrack, while John Barry performs much the same honours with his oft-overlooked recurring Bond incidental instrumental 007. On the more obscure and televisual side, there's not only the shrill flute-driven funk workout that introduced a corduroy-clad post-Doctor Who Jon Pertwee grilling a team of b-list celebrities about an extended ripoff of Cluedo in Whodunnit?, Laurie Johnson's close-but-no-final-verse-trumpet-voluntary single-length reading of The Avengers, the surprisingly tuneful 'gritty' urban eighties orchestra-hit-driven intro from Dempsey & Makepeace, and The Les Reed Brass' top drawer cover of The Saint, there's also the Simon Park Orchestra's it's-a-lager-not-a-tune-tastic theme from Van Der Valk - probably one of the most frequently forgotten chart-toppers in top forty history - and even better still its even more regularly overlooked b-side; Distant Hills, better known to school-averse perusers of pre-daytime TV daytime TV schedules as the closing theme from Crown Court, and which is arguably worth the price of admission alone.
Yet amazingly, if we're extending the 'price of admission' analogy still further and indeed beyond the point where it really makes any logical or cogent sense, all of this above-alluded to musical fantasticness is really only sitting in those dusty display cases in the foyer that people just sort of wander past without taking much notice of, and what everyone really wants to see (or, erm, hear) is the main attraction; or, in less ridiculous terms, those excitement-arousing themes taken directly from the soundtracks of TV episodes. And they really are 'taken directly' - in the absence of easily sourceable master tapes, a deal was struck with the then-present rights holders of ATV/ITC's televisual output whereby they were literally dubbed from master copies taken directly from the archive, with the opening and closing themes as heard on screen bolted together into something at least approximating 'full length'. While this does mean that they're unavoidably presented here in trebly flat mono and there are some jarringly shoddy bits of editing on display - someone was clearly labouring under the misapprehension that Gerry Anderson's 'Century 21' ident was actually part of the UFO theme, whilst a butterfingered fragment of the sponsor message from the US broadcasts somehow found its way into the theme from The Baron - mere words alone cannot adequately express how much of a thrill it was to finally have high quality as-heard-on-TV copies of those two along with The Prisoner, Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased), Department S, Jason King, Stingray, Fireball XL5, Supercar, Space: 1999, Tiswas and Sapphire & Steel (or, as the back cover tracklisting has it, 'Steele'), complete with chattering teleprinters, screeching car u-turns and Patrick McGoohan thumping a desk crudely sellotaped over the top. Of course, dilligent detective work has since led to a great many compilations using the original tapes of all these and many more besides and in glorious properly mastered stereo to boot (yes, alright, and mono in quite a few cases too, but you get the general idea), with the result that in retrospect they make This Is... Cult Fiction Royale feel like a bit of a disjointed listen as a whole, but at the time it was a massive step up and indeed step forwards from the home-made cassettes that hapless soundtrack fans had been trying and failing to put together to their satisfaction for far too long.
Inevitably, with a compilation and indeed an archive-scouring endeavour on this scale, there are a couple of moments where This Is... Cult Fiction Royale doesn't quite hit the Century 21 Productions target. The perfectly decent but all-too-familiar single versions of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons show up instead of their superior on-screen readings - quite why they didn't take the opportunity to include the much-sought-after mock-bubblegum-psych oh-no-some-boxes-are-falling-quite-near-me closing song from the latter really is a mystery - although on the other hand we should be grateful they averted the weedier onscreen original of the Joe 90 theme in favour of the hefty Northern Soul-favoured single version, 'wow' or otherwise. Presumably because the rights were then owned by the same people as the erstwhile ATV/ITC shows, we get the horrendous beefing-up of the theme from The Magic Roundabout from the now quietly forgotten Nigel Planer-narrated episodes, though the most jarring plot-straying is saved for right at the end, when listeners get to 'enjoy' all seven bastard minutes of the the are-they-still-going-on-about-that-am-I-still-on-that-fecking-island moping-sax main theme from the show they could never quite stop trying to convince you that you liked, Twin Peaks, and more incongruously still Vangelis' complete and unedited Blade Runner Blues, which may very well be an astonishing piece of music but is not really one that should be taking up several decades at the end of two discs' worth of walloping drums and swaggering brass. Though if you did give up halfway through, then you'll have missed the suspiciously prolonged blast of silence at the end; 'hidden tracks' at the beginning and end of CDs were all the rage back then - indeed, it's quite possible that some have still never even been stumbled across - and what better way to end this collection than with the inattentive-listener-alarming actual literal binging and indeed bonging ATV 'zoom' jingle, blaring out as if an episode of Pipkins is about to start? Actually, why wasn't the theme from Pipkins on here? Yes, alright, moving on...
Although whether they were actually that good at going out on a high as individual compilations is open to question, This Is... Cult Fiction Royale really did end the Cult Fiction series on a high; presumably it was a commercial rather than artistic decision to finish the series here, but even so it drew a pretty satisfying line under two years and nine discs' worth of expertly-chosen tracks that most of the target audience had probably never even imagined they'd get to own on CD. And that wasn't even the end of the story; in 2004, Virgin saw fit to release The Best Of Cult Fiction, which collapsed highlights from the earlier volumes (though frustratingly no Eurovision stuff) onto two discs alongside a handful of newcomers and a couple of selections from Tarantino's later offerings, and a revised This Is Easy, replacing a couple of the original's more obscure selections with contributions from the likes of Serge Gainsbourg and Mike Flowers (and yes, they did take the opportunity to upgrade those horrendous re-recorded Burt Bacharach and Sandie Shaw tracks). Meanwhile, there was no updated Trackspotting.
So, This Was... Cult Fiction. A series of compilations that may not have had the era-defining cultural cachet of Now That's What I Call Music, the slick combination of chart hit crowd-drawing and collector-friendly obscure 12" mixes of Anthems: Electronic 80s, or the sheer FOR THE SAKE OF ALL THAT IS DECENT AND HUMANE HIT IT WITH A BIN of Summer Chart Party, but which still make for interesting and enjoyable listening today, and which more importantly went very well with your Britpop, your Loungecore, your unironic love of Eurovision, your alcopops, your liking for the sort of films that the 'cineastes' seldom enthused over, your back issues of Loaded that you couldn't bear to throw away, and your falling off a chair while attempting to impress 'That Becky'. Significantly, the exotic jazzy stylings and tendency towards chilled-out extended album-closers also went surprisingly well with an unexpected various-reasons-prompted shift in musical mood that happened shortly after This Is... Cult Fiction Royale came out... but that's another story.
What's actually quite good about when all things popular and cultural get a bit serious and stoneyfaced and stop-smiling-you're-spoiling-my-thesis - as Taylor Parkes is hopefully about to find out with a mighty reckoning - is that an infectiously grinning backlash can never be far away. Spend too long insisting that everyone show due reverence, and all you achieve is them showing due irreverence, pointing and smirking at the silly sub-Perkin Flump cloud-over-head 'sensitive' troubadours and their songs about home computers causing emotional disenfranchisement and a bird that fell in a bin.
How they opt to show this is usually by latching on to a style of music, old or new, that flies in the face of purported 'depth' and 'meaning' by actually being quite, well, tuneful. Not, it has to be emphasised, in a Peter Hatface-esque babble of drivel about Abba, Take That and 'pure pop', but through something that consciously rejects the prevailing leaning towards worthiness and virtuosity by being fun, uncomplicated and unarguably ever so slightly good. From Punk to Northern Soul, from Rare Groove to Alt-Hip Hop, to, well, Britpop and Loungecore, it's happened time and time again, and while many would elect to react to the Richard Ashcroft-fuelled long-facedness by embracing the Embrace-opposing dancefloor sounds of Big Beat and its more laid-back counterpart Trip-Hop, others would defiantly and two-fingeredly retreat further into the forgotten corners of popular music than even the Easy Listening boom had dared venture. And this, as you've probably already worked out, was where the next volume of Cult Fiction came in.
Even by these well-established esoteric standards, The Eurovision Song Contest may well seem like an unlikely area to have diverted into, but it's worth emphasising from the outset that, popularity-wise, The Eurovision Song Contest was adrift by entire continents when this album came out. Mainstream popularity and pop chart acceptance had long since trailed off, and ironic loltastic drinking-game-friendly reacceptance was still some way away, and as a result the Contest was lumbering on like some weird anachronism that was quite possibly too out of step with time, space and volcanic strata for anyone to even think about cancelling; it was just there because it was there, and as a consequence it would soon find some unlikely friends. Although the first stirrings of a resurgence in popularity were just about detectable, not least with the episodes of The High Life and Father Ted devoted to the Contest and indeed the following year's bizarre one-off special A Song For Eurotrash which saw the likes of Kenickie and Dubstar take on Eurovision-trouncing songs of yesterear, if anything its long history of weird and wonderful pop waxings and even weirder performers was at that point finding favour with the same sort of proto-Freakzone adherents of alternative universe musical oddities as, well, the previous instalments of the Cult Fiction series. How quickly and decisively all that would change.
Meanwhile, in addition to all those fearless sonic voyagers discovering that Video Video by Brixx was really quite good after all, there was a corresponding attempt by the UK at least to take this lull in stature as an opportunity to take it more seriously as an actual contest, fielding proper songs and proper performers for the first time in many years in an attempt to finally come somewhere other than third from last. The year before This Is... Eurovision came out, Gina G had restored some much-needed credibility with the filthtastic Ooh Aah... Just A Little Bit, and shortly after its release Katrina & The Waves would score a near-unprecedented landslide victory with Love Shine A Light, making it all the more bewildering that since then the UK has adhered unswervingly to the vote-oblivious format of blander than bland charisma-free nobodies casually mumbling in-one-ear-out-of-the-other witterings that sound as though someone has aspired to turn the middle eight from Taste Of Your Tears by King into an entire song. Anyway, the upshot of all of this is that while This Is... Eurovision might well seem like a bafflingly off-message choice for a fifth volume from this distance, at the time it really couldn't have made more sense.
What is surprising is that, the odd scattered compilation of recent winners and anniversary-prompted 'souvenir' album aside, this genuinely appears to have been the first ever attempt at putting together a proper Eurovision Song Contest retrospective. This does mean that there's slightly more of an imperative to chart a history than to reflect a scene, and as such, there are a disproportionate amount of 'big hitters' for a Cult Fiction compilation. The only problem with this is that far too many of these are erstwhile UK entries, and that not many of them are really all that good. Congratulations, Power To All Our Friends, Puppet On A String, Long Live Love, Let Me Be The One and Boom Bang A Bang - all of which not-so-coincidentally share the same sort of faux-'Swinging London' oompah arrangement - do not deserve to be placed up there with the best of their respective artists' non-Eurovision material (and yes that does include Cliff; and if you're going to pipe up with some nonsense about Power To All Our Friends being his 'Flower Power' phase, then I not-so-respectfully refer you to Throw Down A Line), though in fairness this sort of fare was par for the course in an era when most pop performers - including The Beatles - could envisage no greater aspiration than to be accepted as 'all-round entertainers'.
Instead - and surprisingly - you'll find more substance in the offerings from homegrown Eurovision heavyweights that aspired towards nothing greater than to be accepted as 'all-round entertainers' full stop. Despite what automatic knee-jerk memory might lead you to believe, Making Your Mind Up and Save Your Kisses For Me are actually perfectly listenable songs with surprisingly robust arrangements (and eagle-eared listeners who 'know these things' might well detect the handiwork of certain prominent session musicians), although The New Seekers' Beg, Steal Or Borrow still sounds simultaneously both twee and dreary, and its polished phased harmonies are pretty much Exhibit 'A' in The Crown Vs. The Horrible Cabareted-Up Mangling That Psychedelia Had Undergone By 1972; something that is all the more ironic when you consider that lead belt-out-ers Eve Graham and Lyn Paul had previously trod the boards with the now highly collectable The Nocturnes. Meanwhile, nobody has ever yet been able to reach a conclusion one way or the other about Lynsey De Paul and Mike Moran's wry-looks-across-opposing-pianos opus Rock Bottom.
When it comes to the non-UK Keynote Eurovisioneers, once again it's a largely positive state of affairs. Nicole's idealistic plea for world harmony A Little Peace still sounds exceptionally drippy, and indeed is impossible to hear without thinking of Syd Little in a wig singing "just like a taxi/with nowhere to park", but proves to be a good deal easier on the ear than it did back when it sat at the top of the charts for approximately three thousand years. Similarly, Celine Dion's Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi is actually quite enjoyable compared to her later overwrought helicopter-bound outpourings, and Johnny Logan's What's Another Year is bland but charmingly so; compare it to the hitting-self-with-tin-tray histrionics of his subsequent Eurovision winner Hold Me Now (also included here, worse luck), and indeed the contributions of his contemporaries Linda Martin and Paul Harrington & Charlie McGettigan, and it's easy to see exactly what went wrong in the post-Live Aid latter half of the eighties. In fact there's a lot of this sort of torch-song-goes-stadium-rock emoting on offer here, mainly because of how doggedly the UK in particular once adhered to this winning formula that never actually did much winning, and if truth be told it ultimately does little bar drag proceedings down.
It's when we finally get deeper into the rest of Europe and indeed deeper into the more obscure and cult-friendly areas of the Contest's considerable back catalogue that This Is... Eurovision really starts to get interesting. There's the vaguely melancholy and existentialist singalongs exemplified by the likes of Vicky Leandros, Anne-Marie David, Massiel, Severine and Milk & Honey (whose Hallelujah scores extra points for its potential to infuriate inattentive uptight Jeff Buckley fans), the blasts of high camp from Sandra Kim, Marie Myriam, Izhar Cohen, Belle & The Devotions and Baccara, and ancient Beatle-eradicated UK-proferred contributions from Matt Monro, Kathy Kirby and Mao Zedong's favourites Pearl Carr & Teddy Johnson, all of which still prove to be surprisingly enjoyable, doubtless due to the fact that they were clearly concieved as good songs first and foremost and then punted Eurovisionwards at a later date. Further unintentional Python evocation - who, lest we forget, were sufficiently comically infatuated with The Eurovision Song Contest to do an entire sketch based on it - comes courtesy of Clodagh Rogers' gloriously nonsensical ode to Zebedee Jack In The Box, and additional esoteric delights are to be found in Eimaer Quinn's full-on hardcore Robin-The-Hooded-Man-evoking 1996 winner The Voice, in Niamh Kavanagh's PWL-goes-schmaltz antics, and in an impressive smattering of underachieving UK entrants that takes in the pre-acting Samantha Janus, Medusa-haired Frances Ruffelle, and Cheryl Baker-essaying late seventies ad-hoc ensemble Co-Co, whose The Bad Old Days may have bombed on the actual evening but has since come to be regarded as one of the definitive Eurovision waxings. Sadly, this doesn't extend as far as including famously chart-averse 1990 teen wonder 'Emma' and her plea to Give A Little Love Back To The World (which, lest we forget, had pride of place on legendary-for-all-the-wrong-reasons compilation Summer Chart Party), but on the other hand it does mean we get to swerve 1995's Love City Groove by Love City Groove, an outfit who presumably set out intending to copy Freakpower but somehow ended up accidentally copying Beats International instead, so it's not all bad news.
For all that it might have been mocked in Father Ted, even in the episodes that weren't about The Eurovision Song Contest, Dana's unique collision of psych, folk and bit in the middle of The Two Ronnies that makes up All Kinds Of Everything is one of the best songs on this entire collection, but in all honesty it's a bit too obvious to count as one of those trademark listener-wrongfooting surprises that the compilers of Cult Fiction were wont to pull out of the bag. Instead, that honour must go to three absolute belters that you're decidedly unlikely to hear at your average cheese-and-pineapple-swamped 'ironic' Eurovision house party where everyone has to dress as a voting card or something. There's One Step Further by Bardo, a post-Dollar haziest-fringes-of-New-Romanticism boy-girl synth-pop duo that represented the UK in 1982, which surprisingly failed to win but was genuinely inescapable at the time, and led Smash Hits to tip the hapless twosome for great things that never quite happened. Then there's France Gall with Poupee De Cire, Poupee De Son, the galloping sound of Serge Gainsbourg waving the less savoury aspects of the pop industry back in its own face, which had then recently become something of a cult favourite on Loungecore-favouring dancefloors. And, best of all, the truly orbiting-in-its-own-universe Ding-A-Dong by Teach-In, the haunting other side of the coin to Beg, Steal Or Borrow's sludgy post-psych glossy meanderings, whose textbook tee-hee-hee-the-foreign-contestants-don't-stand-a-chance-on-Going-For-Gold-except-when-they-always-win Eurogibberish title cunningly conceals what is quite possibly the weirdest song ever written and recorded in the name of vote-driven technically-overambitious EEC-linking displays of televisual tunesmithery. 'Nul Points' to Trackspotting, frankly.
In some respects, This Is... Eurovision is the most difficult of the Cult Fiction albums to listen to straight through in a single sitting, as there is so little musical variance and so much upbeat banality that it can become incredibly wearing incredibly quickly, like being involuntarily serenaded by a relay team of John Barrowmans. As a wide-ranging overview of Eurovision as a 'genre', driven by enthusiast interest rather than statistics, however, it takes some beating, and is highly entertaining for dipping in and out of and indeed a great way of discovering some songs that you otherwise might not even have come across. Whether the UK will buck a longstanding trend and rocket to Eurovision victory on the 10th May remains to be seen at the time of writing, but on the basis of the actual song it doesn't seem likely. The Cult Fiction series, on the other hand, had one last bit of expectation-confounding to do...