VARIOUS ARTISTS – Climb Aboard My Roundabout!: The British Toytown Pop Sound 1967-1974

What is “Toytown Pop”? The label, coined by fans and collectors, refers to the more mundane and child-friendly aspects of the psychedelic era and psych pop movements. It is chiefly concerned with everyday life, shops, buses, swings in the park, and has an obsession with being home in time for tea. In terms of lyrical concerns and overall concepts, you’d be hard pressed to find anything more…1967.

For those who aren’t regular visitors down the rabbit holes of cult 60s pop, The Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’ is a good example of this musical niche with its busy narrative driven by people and casual observations, and to a lesser extent, the optimistic tone and bounce of ‘Good Day Sunshine’ could also fit the remit. Obviously, due to licencing agreements and costs – as usual – you won’t find The Fab Four anywhere on ‘Climb Aboard My Roundabout’, but Grapefruit Records has unearthed a whole world of other treats to ensure that this three disc set is a very comprehensive journey through Toytown, and is never less than interesting.

From the top tier of relative obscurities and cult-ish gems, Cardboard Orchestra’s ‘Zebedy Zak’ provides brilliantly off-kilter thrills via a McCartney-esque rumpty tumpty, on a tune loaded with quirky pop vocals and huge orchestral flourishes. Its use of brass is very much rooted in the late 60s, hovering somewhere between a weird psych cut and an outing by the BBC Light Entertainment Orchestra, but the bounce within the melody is pure Beatles, with easy comparisons to be made with tunes like ‘Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da’, and there’s even occasional grandiosity that’s inspired by ‘I Am The Walrus’. Despite a faintly ridiculous fairytale set up, vocalist Mark Wesley really sells the piece with an enthusiastic vocal that’s part wide-eyed neo-psych wonder, and part children’s TV performer. In terms of multi-layered pop, this is one of the great “lost” singles. Despite having a deal with major label CBS in ’69, this pretty much sank without a trace. It’s inclusion here pretty much validates this anthology’s existence on its own.

More brilliant 60s pop comes from Persimmon’s Peculiar Shades who manage to make Hollies and Simon & Garfunkel-esque sounds feel other-worldly on their 1968 cut ‘Watchmaker’, a recording that smartly applies mechanical clock ticking sounds to create a rhythm, over which the band applies a world of warm bass, folk rock guitar and echoing harmonies. The lyrics are a world of childlike wonder as the tale of the watchmaker at work slowly unfolds, but in true late 60s fashion, there’s also a spooky unease. In this case, that comes from a few weird sounds that have clearly been influenced by Pink Floyd’s seminal ‘Bike’. This is light popsike at its finest – two minutes of joy that continues to give rewards on each successive listen.

Tapping into a solid R&B groove where chopping guitar lines are pushed forward by a dancing bassline, Astronaut Alan & The Planets’ ‘Cellophane Mary Jane’ (penned by ‘Grocer Jack’ legend Mark Wirtz) sort of sounds like a distant cousin to The Equals, at least musically. Lyrically, it’s a different matter; it’s slightly trippy vibes scream late sixties, and a fey vocal – sounding like John’s Children man Andy Ellison impersonating a cheeky Steve Marriott – accentuates the number’s twee qualities. It isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary – the late 60s was awash with similar fare – but it comes with enough charm to make it stand. Even if record buyers seemed less than convinced at the time, when heard decades after the fact, it’s a more than likeable slice of pop that deserves a little love. Not to be confused with the white, right wing rapper, Kidrock were a short-lived 70s pop outfit whose sound typified bubblerock (a strange hybrid of throwaway bubblegum pop and wistful psych-y nature). Their ‘Bang Bang’, as featured here, isn’t as immediate as their better known ‘Rock A Bye Blues’, but between some well arranged vocals, a piano that occasionally seems to have designs on being a harpsichord and a melody that would be better suited to the early 70s orchestral pop phenomenon, it has a confidence that shines. While it mightn’t be as obviously “Toytown” as Cardboard Orchestra, its wide-eyed naivety is enough to make it fit nicely here.

It’s hard to resist a band named Frabjoy & Runcible Spoon, and thankfully, their music is as fanciful as their chosen moniker. ‘It’s The Best Seaside In The World’ isn’t shy in playing up that McCartney rhythm (as later adopted by Jellyfish on tunes like the superb ‘Ghost At Number One’), and pushes a clean bassline to the fore, much in a way that Macca might have chosen himself. Over the strident rhythm, you’ll find elements of bar room piano played with a jazzy lilt, guitar strums of a soft pop persuasion, and a strangely alluring vocal where the lead cries and soars as if delivering a wistful number from an old stage musical. It’s almost everything you’d hope for from a band that would kickstart the careers of two men who’d soon become grand pop perfectionists as members of 10cc… [The complete Frabjoy recordings were finally released via Cherry Red Records in 2022.]

A cult classic that should be familiar to many aficionados of the 60s anthology, Idle Race’s ‘The Skeleton & The Roundabout’ is made of pure brilliance. It screams sixties psyche-pop like very little else. Loaded with a music hall rumpty tumpty rhythm played at full pelt, future ELO megastar Jeff Lynne and his company go about their merry way with a cheeky, theatrical lyric and vocal delivery to match, while the keyboard heavy music is augmented with great string stabs – pre-figuring Jeff’s next decade – and stereo splits go haywire between the speakers, shifting between the left and right channels with abandon. A mispronouncing of “skellington” stokes up the fun and everything rattles along in a soft drugs inspired frenzy until the band sound almost dizzy.

Best remembered for their flop garage-psych jam ‘Fathers Name Is Dad’, Fire’s ‘Magic Box’ is presented in a demo version, but aside from being a little distorted, plays like a fully formed slice of pop. Its multi-layered arrangement makes great use of a busy piano on an arrangement that hovers between garage and neo-psych, finding a little space for rising vocals a la Pink Floyd’s ‘Apples & Oranges’ and borrowing heavily from the school of the Blossom Toes’ world of kitsch along the way. The piano gives the track a real heart, but it’s the late arrival of a very 60s sounding lead guitar which makes it really shine. The music’s so good that it’s entirely possible to overlook the vocal, which has the effect of making half of it sound more like a melodic noise than a committed performance, but whichever way you slice it, this is a great four minutes. Described in the sleeve notes as “banal”, Fruit Machine’s ‘Cuddly Toy’ veers close to light entertainment filler and the bubblegum pop of White Plains, but it’s sub-McCartney arrangement – with strident piano and gleeful use of brass – has it’s own charm. This 1968 side sounds like a radio hit; it has huge harmonies wielding a shameless “la la la” chorus which isn’t a million miles away from something that could have been appropriated for a sit-com theme at the time, a melody that rises and falls as effectively as an Idle Race cut from the time, and a sugar-sweet charm that typifies the Toytown movement, recognisable at least retrospectively.

Compilation regulars World of Oz make a very welcome return here with ‘Peter’s Birthday’, a hazy pop fever dream that throws flutes and other heavy orchestration over a phased vocal and elements that are shamelessly pilfered from ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ and ‘I Am The Walrus’. Despite being absolutely derivative, it’s still quite lovely. There’s a charm in the way this band use expensive orchestration to their advantage and clearly know their way around a strong vocal or three. Psych rockers Tomorrow, meanwhile, will always be best remembered for being an early vehicle for future Yes star Steve Howe and their track ‘My White Bicycle’ (later covered by TV comedy hippie Neil Pye for his brilliant ‘Heavy Concept Album’), but there was always far more to the band. ‘Auntie Mary’s Dress Shop’ is a little thin sounding and a little over reliant on faux harpsichord sounds, but there’s enough in its faux Moody Blues schrick to entertain. Keith West – he of Grocer Jack fame – delivers a suitably fey vocal to introduce all manner of fictional royalty calling upon the seamstress, and an increasingly busy arrangement evokes a late 60s open-minded approach to music making that’s sure to please anyone keen to immerse themselves. If approaching this for Howe’s input, though, you should prepare to be disappointed: the future prog rock lynchpin is relegated to a run of clanging chords in a sub-Dave Davies vein, adding nothing distinctive to the track in question.

By 1971, Gilbert O’Sullivan had found fame as an introspective songwriter. Dressed as an urchin from the 1920’s, he captured imaginations singing songs about writers’ block (‘Nothing Rhymed’) and suicide (‘Alone Again, Naturally’), before diving head first from the cliff of smart song writing by offering the misogynist ‘Get Down’, the flat out, already outdated sexist mantra ‘A Woman’s Place’, and peddling absolute tat like ‘Ooh-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day’. Before the hits, Gilbert released a handful of flop singles, including ‘Mr. Moody’s Garden’, a strange George Formby pastiche played on a tack piano. Musically, it’s a little empty, often relying on a repetitious clang, and the effect of treating Gilbert’s voice to make it sound as if sourced from an older recording is of its time, but lyrically it’s quite pleasing. A narrative surrounding an old man, curious children and a flight of fancy suggesting Bill & Ben could live in every back plot really captures a Toytown aesthetic in a pure and simple fashion. The New Generation’s ‘Sadie & Her Magic Mr. Galahad’ doesn’t think too far outside of the box in terms of 60s pop when welding a Lennon style verse to a busier chorus, leading to a performance where bits of old Kinks melodies are layered with extra harmonies and a clanky piano. For all of its predictability, though, it has the makings of a late 60s charmer, making its relatively forgotten status seem a little unfair.

The Syn (featuring future Yes man Chris Squire), offer something very quirky with ‘The Last Performance of The Royal Regimental Band’. This shelved recording from ’69 suggests that someone within the had some grand ideas, since they are joined by a full marching band, bring the brass, pomp and circumstance that comes with such things. At the heart of this musical parade, vocalist Steve Nardelli recalls how “nostalgia fills the air with this victorious regimental band” and there are times when the rest of The Syn might as well not have bothered showing up for work. However, there are flashes of psychedelic cool thanks to Andrew Price Jackman’s harpsicord solo and Squire occasionally popping up with a jazzy bass fill. Dating from the same era, ‘Mr. White’s White Flying Machine’ features members of The Syn backing Ayesha, and the mix of showtune grandiosity and sunshine pop works brilliantly. With Squire’s punchy bass work carrying the bulk of a melody behind a confident vocal, it immediately catches the ear. Once the rigid rhythms are intercut by light entertainment brass, aeronautic sounds and bits of disjointed piano, there’s a very busy feel, but it’s brilliantly arranged in a way that shows off The Syn’s musical range very effectively. Both are great additions to this set, and if either appeals, then checking out The Syn’s anthology ‘Flowerman’, a disc that brings together all of their surviving recordings, is highly recommended.

Adding something a little different to the Toytown sound, The Bullring’s ‘Birmingham Brass Band’ opens with some deftly arranged harmony vocals suggesting a love for baroque pop and bands like The Left Banke, but then takes a swift left turn into a world of pure novely where marching bands, brass and fake sounding Brummie accents come together in a really heavy handed way. The result is like discovering a dusty relic from an old broadcast of Junior Choice. The brass is quite nice in a marching parade fashion, but the vocals are annoying and the one note joke – assuming it is one – is in danger of wearing thin in record time. Nevertheless, it’s a curious old 7” filler, but quite how CBS Records expected this to be a hit in an era of ‘All Right Now’, ‘Black Night’ and ‘Paranoid’ is anyone’s guess. Also from a file marked “where the hell did that come from” is Kenny Everett’s ‘And Now For A Little Train Number’, a brass heavy, rumpty tumpty Move-esque ditty that champions the hobby of trainspotting. Cuddly Ken doesn’t have the kind of voice that would have made him a genuine pop star, but there’s plenty about this whimsical ditty that suits his very British approach, and the music – brilliantly arranged, wavering between light psych, inventive pop, and something from a BBC light entertainment sketch – is just lovely. If you ever wondered what Kenny did in the years before he became a popular DJ on Capital Radio and an anarchic TV fixture much loved by many for breaking Terry Wogan’s microphone on Blankety Blank, this will be an eye-opener. It’s far better than it had any right to be, and for many a popsike fan, it’ll supply a very welcome distraction.

In a time just before Slade hit the big time, the fledgling band dabbled in a heady mix of garage rock and hefty guitar driven pop rock. On their ‘Beginnings’ LP (credited to Ambrose Slade) Holder and company mix original cuts with a couple of well chosen covers – they were one of the first bands to tackle a Zappa tune – and ‘Knocking Nails Into My House’ hints at the kind of stompers that would make their name, yet at the same time, clings onto a late 60s naivety. The riffs clang heavily in relation to a lot of the material within this set and Noddy’s voice is instantly recognisable, but scratch below the surface and a few neo-psych sounds and a tale of “a man in a van” sets everything in place as a dark cousin to ‘Right Said Fred’ by the legendary Bernard Cribbins. It’s narrative connects it to the Toytown theme very well, even if the music isn’t an obvious fit. Whichever way you approach it, it’s a welcome reminder of a great band finding their way, and if it gets a few people to revisit the early Slade catalogue, then that’s even better.

Pop band Harmony Grass represented a last throw of the dice for British R&B band Tony Rivers & The Castaways (featured on the excellent ‘Halcyon Days’ box set) and with the name change also came a musical shift into something a bit less traditional. ‘Happiness Is Toy-Shaped’ (a b-side from ’68) is hardly shy in advertising its Toytown theme – even if no-one really knew that at the time – and musically, its mid-tempo groove is more than typical of the latterly-labelled subgenre. There are things about the arrangement that are great – you’ll find brass on loan from sixties easy listening fare, a melody that’s jaunty and a few harmony traits stolen from Brian Wilson – but it isn’t as good as it should be. The recording sounds a little too cluttered in places and a little too distorted in others; it’s hard to remember anything more than the harmonies and rhythm once the track ends. It’s obvious why the band were never a huge smash, especially when part of a landscape full of similar sounds.

Best known for their seventies hit ‘Sky High’, Jigsaw’s ‘Mr. Dream’ is a brilliant aural experience where bubblegum pop comes loaded with all kinds of cheeky effects and a melody that could’ve been a sitcom theme; Riot Squad’s ‘Toy Soldier’ brazenly steals bits from Small Faces’ novelty elements and yet more inspiration from Bowie’s Deram tat to convey yet more soft drugs oddness, and The Good Time Losers venture forth with a banjo driven jaunt that could easily be The Move in a sinister guise, before taking a left swerve into a world of brass and quirks. All of these could be seen as brilliant or mildly irritating depending on the listener’s mood, whilst regular compilation fillers Wimple Witch sound as if they’re broadcasting from the bottom of a pond on the weird and wavering ‘Lollipop Minds’, a tune that takes non-committal bass and places it against a really unsettling falsetto vocal. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but experienced decades later – and in a less colourful world – it just seems weird for the sake of it. It isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just not the kind of thing you’re likely to put into rotation for regular listening when so many others tackle popsike sounds in a more accessible way.

A particular oddity from the singularly named Christopher plays like a half-arsed leftover from Bowie’s Deram sessions. ‘Sharkey’ tells the tale of a neighbourhood scallywag – a window breaking, petty thieving, dirty trousered wrong ’un who “annoys the houses”. Beyond a weird synth intro that sounds like a forerunner to a Schools & Colleges theme tune, it offers nothing of genuine interest. The rumpty tumpty, heavy rhythmic approach is predictable to the point of annoying, and the lyrics are just trashy, making Bowie’s own ‘Uncle Arthur’ sound positively ground breaking with its sub Anthony Newley schtick and well arranged woodwinds. For those wishing to subject themselves to Dayyy-vid doing that kind of thing, there’s time enough on this journey, and exiled from the other Deram recordings, ‘Uncle Arthur’ still stands as the ultimate in late 60s novelty. If nothing else, at least it isn’t the bloody ‘Laughing Gnome’ again. He’s well on his way to Eastbourne by now, and a good thing too.

Taking an unexpected acoustic path, The Tots shamelessly recycle an old Andy Pandy melody on ‘Time To Go Home’, and despite the plea to “pack up your toys, all girls and boys” making a syrupy conceit seem especially cloying – even halfway through the first listen – a world of vocals deftly applied in the Crosby, Stills & Nash tradition suggests there was a great talent being wasted within these session players. In terms of pure curiosities, Londoner’s Dragonmilk are among this compilation’s most interesting. Their ‘Mr. Nice Guy’ might sound like a folk rock affair that pre-empts the evil ‘Matchstalk Men & Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’, but dig beneath the grimness and the track suggests a band who might have been capable of some great shiny pop, and the harmonies here present an outfit who would take a meticulous approach to their studio creations. In an age where they could have joined Pilot, Jigsaw and White Plains in the bubblegum stakes, it seems odd that they missed the boat: their sole album appeared in 1977, was available via mail order courtesy of The Times newspaper and featured educational songs for children. That probably wasn’t their long term career goal…

Studio marvel Mark Wirtz is heavily represented in this trip through Toytown. His solo tune ‘He’s Our Dear Old Weatherman’ shamelessly plays up theatrical quirks with a off-key choir, a kazoo orchestra and a cheeky faux cockney vocal, all used to bring a busy musical backdrop to life. It can be hard to hear past the busier vocal elements, but some superb strings and a jazz bass go a long way to showing how good an arranger Wirtz was at the time, and similarly, the corrected version of ‘The Story of Sad Simon & His Bugle’ captures a grandiosity that few in pop used so well at the time. Here, some brilliant orchestral elements are offset by an out of tune piano and wordless vocals, working through melodies that would have suited The Hollies in the late 60s. As you’d probably expect, there’s time here to revisit Mark’s best known composition ‘Grocer Jack’ (aka ‘Excerpt From A Teenage Opera’) too. There won’t be anyone interested in this set who’s never heard the track before, but to exclude it purely through over-familiarity would have been churlish, since along with ‘Penny Lane’, it conveys that Toytown Pop mood so easily.

Joining the unfamiliar, the cult and the odd, you’ll also find a bunch of tracks from artists that’ll already be a part of any self respecting record collection. The Kinks’ ‘Phenomenal Cat’ sounds like a childrens’ storybook come to life, complete with frivolous flute, and a post-Winwood Spencer Davis Group whip out a sitar and rattling rhythm on ‘Time Seller’, serving something that would now be considered a classic had it been recorded by The Kinks… For those still not worn out on wanton quirks, the Bonzos borrow a child friendly melody, a harpsichord and marching band on ‘The Equestian Statue’. It’s actually pretty irksome – often sounding like a sheer novelty for the sake of it – but most listeners will be glad that it isn’t just another piece of tiresome racism from Viv Stanshall, passed off as humour.

The rarities within the set are few, and a lot of the material has previously appeared on many other popsike compilations (including the excellent Cherry Red single disc release ‘Hello Everyone: Popsike Sparks From Denmark Street 1968-70’), but this 87 track set is compiled with love and sequenced in such a way that it makes the old feel new and exciting again. It’s a journey through a past that’s never less than fascinating, despite having a tendency to waver towards novelty. Even though it’s unafraid to pass off a few obvious duffers along the way, it’s an in depth collection that promises the more casual 60s pop/psych fan a whole world of fun. Wavering between politely strange and brilliantly whimsical, this box set is highly recommended.

August/September 2022