“Are They Gonna Leave the ‘Nanas on it?”

Steve Williams on the music of Comic Relief

First published April 2001

Comic Relief is naff. “Stonking” this, “great big” that – most of the stuff that the event has brought us is hardly subtle. So it’s appropriate that one of their fund-raising tools is the genre that thrives on naffness – the comedy record. Nobody plays any of the Comic Relief records anymore, but that’s not the point – the idea of Comic Relief is that you give them your money right now, and never mind if the end result is not classic comedy. The comedy record is a useful format, cos a daft lyric or catchy chorus can get lodged in your brain and constantly remind you to give money. And hey – at least they’re better than the Children In Need records (Bruno and Liz! A remix of the Floral Dance!) But the Comic Relief singles themselves have changed, as the TV spectaculars have, since the formation of the charity. Let’s dig them out and give them another play – hell, it’s for a good cause.

Of course, the night of comedy on television was one of the last aspects of Comic Relief to fall into place – before the first show, in 1987, we’d had a stage show, a book, and two records. The first single, and for many people the best, was Living Doll, a collaboration between Cliff Richard and The Young Ones. This set the formula for the first few singles – a popular singer or band, performing a well-known track, backed by some comedy stars who could arse about on the B-side and in the video. There’s a plan here – Cliff and the Young Ones really were poles apart, and putting them together meant that Cliff fans and comedy fans could buy the same single. It also meant that it was actually a proper song which stood up to repeated listening – not just some comedians making a racket – and it came with a video that TV couldn’t get enough of. Released in March 1986, it entered the chart at number four, and a week later had disposed Diana Ross’ Chain Reaction at number one, a position it held for three weeks.

The single nowadays stands up surprisingly well – for my generation, there’s real nostalgia hearing it again, and I still know all the words to all the jokes (“It’s the instrumental break/Great, Cliff! Which instruments do you want us to break?!”). But the best part of the single is the B-side – a lengthy sketch with the Young Ones messing about in a recording studio. What’s interesting is how well the humour translates into a sound-only format, given the many visual aspects to the TV series. This wasn’t that hard to pull off, given the character’s fantastic delivery (Ade Edmondson’s voice as Vyvyan is always funny) and the good use of both the concept (Rick – “This is called the flip side, cos in a minute I’ll go, Oh bloomin’ flip, let’s get on with it!”) and the format – so there’s a very long fight sequence which seems to go on for hours. And Rick gets a saxophone stuck up his arse. The track ends with them performing the song they’ve written for the B-side – a raucous guitar introduction, followed by a wimpy sing-along:

“All the little flowers are happy
All the little birdies are too (tweet-tweet)
Everything in the garden is lovely
And we hope you are too-oo-oo-oo-oo
If you’re happy we’re happy
And if you’re sad we’re sad (boo-hoo)
But now it’s time to end this song
Cos it’s so [BEEEP] bad”

The track ends with Vyvyan blowing up the recording studio. A fine end to the original, and probably the greatest, Comic Relief single.

The next time some comedy stars ventured onto vinyl was Christmas 1987. This time, the record sleeve had something new to tell us – it launched the first ever Red Nose Day, on 5 February 1988. This is the first example of a record released to tie-in with a major Comic Relief event – before then, Comic Relief was a series of projects that were released at various times, but now there was to be a date every year (then every two years) that most Comic Relief activity would be based around.

The Christmas single just heightened the naffness – a comedy record was uncool enough, but to do a comedy Christmas record was even worse. How could you go into a supermarket in December without hearing it? Thankfully this was one of the more listenable Red Nose efforts, a cover of Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree performed by Mel and Kim – ie, Mel Smith and Kim Wilde. As before, Kim got on with the business of singing the song, while Mel messed about in the video and took charge of the B-side. This was a long sketch set in a recording studio, with Mel bullying a choir into accompanying him in a rendition of Deck The Halls, before being totally upstaged by them. In the end, he fires the choir and decides to sing the whole song on his own, but then gets terribly self-conscious and offers up a joke about mince pies before leaving the studio. The A-side was accompanied by another “amusing” video, starring Curiosity Killed The Cat as carol singers, and Griff Rhys-Jones memorably appearing in a “gooseberry” role – “green and surrounded by pricks”. Comic Relief got a Christmas number three and some more money to add to their swelling coffers.

1989 saw Red Nose Day established in its regular biannual slot in March. This was accompanied by a big fund-raising drive, with spin-off merchandise (red noses, car noses, T-shirts, et al) and, of course, a tie-in single. For the third single, Bananarama were drafted in, thanks to French and Saunders’ parody of the trio on their show. With Kathy Burke portraying the Other One, they went off to Stock Aitken and Waterman and laid down a cover of Help! This further illustrated the fact that the Red Nose records were made by the best people available – Pete Waterman was responsible for the production of the single.

Help! is not the funniest Comic Relief record, or the most memorable, but at least the video’s quite good – French, Saunders and Burke shadowing the ‘Rams dance routine, a format they reused a couple of years later. This also led to one of the best moments of that year’s TV marathon, where Bananarama – never the most polished performers – had terrible trouble trying to perform the song with several hunks and three comediennes. What’s disappointing about the single is the lack of a comedy B-side – the other track being simply Bananarama performing Help! as a straight cover. This has helped, perhaps, make it a record that remains fairly listenable (and danceable) 12 years on. Alas, though, the ‘Rams had famously never had a number one, and this didn’t break that tradition – making number three. Mike Smith introduced Jason Donovan on that year’s TV show as “The man who’s keeping Help! off number one”.

1991 saw a change – instead of an old song being covered by a chart act, helped out by comedians, we had a new song performed by comedians, helped out by chart acts. The 1991 record was a double A-side, both tracks being written and sung by acts well known for their musical comedy credentials – Hale and Pace and Victoria Wood. One side had Gareth and Norman inviting us to Stonk, and the other had Victoria’s Smile Song. The Stonk is not a song many people have fond memories of – although a number one, it isn’t played very much anywhere, because it is perhaps a more overt “novelty record” than the others. The track is very old-fashioned, with some terrible lyrics and old-style tinkling pianos, and of course Hale and Pace have a terrible image these days anyway. At least the sleeve is amusing – if only because it informs us that the track was produced by Brian May, features Tony Iommi and Dave Gilmour on guitars, and drums by Cozy Powell, Roger Taylor and Rowan Atkinson.

The Smile Song is better, although also dated to a large extent – the track is simply Victoria singing, but each verse is a parody of a musical genre; cheesy teen pop, opera, rap and a power ballad, and Victoria dresses up appropriately in the video. It stands up to repeated listening more than The Stonk, though, as Wood’s comedy songs tend to do. However, a better use of the aural medium came from the same year’s Big Red Tape, a half-hour cassette introduced by Smashie and Nicey from the studios of Fab FM. They linked archive comedy songs and stand-up material, and the whole thing works really well. It was only available from Our Price branches, though, so probably nobody has ever heard it.

Before the next Red Nose Day, there was a sort of “mini-Comic Relief” in 1992, which involved a two-hour TV programme looking back over the charity’s work, and another record. Conveniently, there was an election of the time, and Rowan Atkinson joined the band Smear Campaign and Bruce Dickinson to make a Mr Bean-fronted version of Alice Cooper’s song Elected. Atkinson arsed about in the video, but it wasn’t a great record, and without a proper fund-raising drive it hasn’t been as well-remembered as the others, and was the lowest charting – only getting to number nine. Still, it was a nice little top-up for the Comic Relief funds.

It was back to the well-known acts in 1993. Right Said Fred were probably the band who best summed up the ethos of Comic Relief – crowd-pleasing, popular and silly. They performed the newly-written song Stick It Out (subtlety being the band’s strong point, of course) and were joined by a host of celebrities to chip in one-liners on the single and appear in the video. This is another novelty record, to be honest, and not one that stands up to repeated listening – but then, who listens to I’m Too Sexy et al anymore? It did its job and made it to number four, but maybe the idea of the innuendo-filled joke single had run its course.

So 1995 saw a change, one inspired by the TV marathon. One of the major parts of the programme had always been the aid films, which tried to show not just what was wrong with the developing world they were supporting, but what was going right thanks to Comic Relief’s help. One of these aid films in 1993 had consisted of such uplifting footage backed by the song Love Can Build A Bridge, and this was very well received indeed. So for the next single, the charity assembled some heavyweight talents to perform a version – seemingly unaware that the song had been used for another charity record (in aid of Rwanda) about three months before. Cher, Chrissie Hynde and Neneh Cherry were roped in to sing, and Eric Clapton played guitar, and it got to number one. It’s not a great record, obviously, but it seemed to work at the time – although many people seem rather cynical about it now. Still, good to see that the charity were able to go into a new direction and not just rely on the same old stuff.

Then there was another change in the Red Nose record concept. The Spice Girls released their first album in late 1996, and featured on it was an uptempo disco track called Who Do You Think You Are? It became the fourth single released from the LP, and it was decided that all the proceeds would go to Comic Relief. And there was the tie-in single for 1997. This was a real change; the first Comic Relief single to not be produced especially for the event, the first to have no specific Comic Relief content on the single, and the first to appear on a group’s album. It was also a double A-side, the other track being a further Spice Girls track, Mama.

The video made interesting viewing, though, and this is where Comic Relief came into its own. The idea was that a Spice Girls tribute act would accompany the group in a performance, and an all-star cast was assembled; Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Kathy Burke, Lulu and actress Llewella Gideon. As with all Comic Relief songs, the video was guaranteed a lot of TV airings, and with the Spice Girls’ fanbase, it was a sure-fire number one. The Spice Girls repaid the favour and made several appearances on the TV programme – including the memorable moment where Jonathan Ross, Lenny Henry and Griff Rhys-Jones spent a very long time kissing every one of them.

The idea of a popular chart act making the Comic Relief single was then carried on in 1999. Boyzone were perhaps the biggest act around at the time, and their cover of Billy Ocean’s When The Going Gets Tough was the official song of the event. Again, a number one was almost guaranteed, and more comedians were enlisted to appear in the video, but where were the jokes? Ah well, at least there was a specially recorded B-side, Alison Moyet performing What A Wonderful World. But this is not really what you’d expect from Comic Relief, just latching on to a bandwagon and not really doing much that was creative.

In 2001 it was more of the same: this time Westlife doing a cover of Uptown Girl. On the plus side, it was also a sure-fire number one, and thus raised loads of money for the charity. And it’s a pleasant enough song, yes. But it seems to be the case that the great Comic Relief single, combining music with some inspired comedy, is a thing of the past. Instead it’s a bland chart act performing a bland ’80s cover.

So, what’ll it be in 2003? Hear’Say doing The Only Way Is Up, probably. We’ll give more money to Comic Relief if it isn’t!