Songs For Swingin’ Sellers (Parlophone 1959)
by Paul Hamilton
Playing this LP again, the first thing that strikes this listener is how quiet it is in comparison to The Goon Show. The second thing that strikes this listener is how little it has dated in comparison to The Goon Show. Songs For Swingin’ Sellers is a virtuoso display of Peter Sellers’ astounding vocal gifts and a unique insight into his personal sense of humour, a world away from Milligan’s all-shouting, all-screaming scripts. Sellers is alert to the felicities and nuances of spoken language to a precisionist degree and moulds his vocal chords like a sound-sculptor. The invented voice can often bear no trace of its creator, unlike modern practitioners of the craft like, say, Steve Coogan (whose failing-battery vibrator burr is detectable in his myriad of vocal disguises). Staying on the technical aspects of this record, what amazes is how Sellers managed to play two, three and sometimes more characters on each sketch when multitracking and overdubbing was, if no longer in its infancy, then still believing in the tooth fairy. High praise indeed to producer George Martin on this, his second album for Sellers.
The record kicks off with the swinging big band jazz of You Keep Me Swingin’ and ironic indeed that, for an album by Radio’s Man Of A Thousand Voices, the first vocal one hears is not him at all. It’s the singing bus conductor Matt Munro, for contractual reasons crooning under the risque alias Fred Flange. All well and good but, ahem, sorry for asking but where’s the joke? Enter Sellers in his normal, pleasantly bland voice, muttering “Delightful, delightful” in the direction of the departing Flange, and rambling inanities about “rhythm and melody” that were, thirty years later, sampled by Big Audio Dynamite. He then attempts to play the song himself on his ukelele, realises with a “hmm” that he is not producing show-stopper stuff so wanders off, though not before promising to “come back to that, if I may”. Indeed he does, in the middle of Side Two, giving the record a thematic unity. This device was used again by George Martin for the LP Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and it’s tempting to see Songs For Swingin’ Sellers as a dry-run for that Beatles landmark, noting Sellers’ open-the-Bombay-doors sitar extravaganza Wouldn’t It Be Loverly as a template for George Harrison’s Within You, Without You. When Sellers reappears with his ukelele, he performs, enchantingly, I Haven’t Told Her, She Hasn’t Told Me (But We Know It Just The Same). This music hall hit was a personal touchstone for Sellers. There’s private footage of him singing it in a Beatle wig at a party, and then more publicly on the Michael Parkinson chat show and in his magical 1973 film The Optimists.
Another glimpse of his private tastes is apparent at the end of his Lonnie Donegan lampoon Puttin’ On The Smile where, over an urgent skiffle accompaniment, he (in his alarmingly accurate Lenny Goonegan persona) riffs, “I’m just a great big ol’ square, man - an’ you know, man, sumthin’, I dig Brubeck - and I like Ed Thigpen - and man - and Charles Parker - and everyone one else around”. Was it by accident or design that Sellers should proclaim his jazz heroes and then pull the plinths from under their freshly-erected statues with the balloon-bursting “and everyone else around”? This concentration on the tongue tripping up the speaker abounds throughout the LP; it’s not, in general, a laugh-out-loud production. The enjoyment comes from sly, mischievous, almost subterranean means and how the use and abuse of language exposes our worst facets - self-importance (Lord Badminton’s Memoirs, wherein a privileged, complacent fart eulogises his father’s generosity in doling out baskets of potato peelings and rotten apples to the penurious unfortunates on his country estate), pretentiousness (The Critics will ring alarm bells for any viewer of BBC2’s Newsnight Review: Relish Irene Handl’s description of an artist using “angular fragmentation of pigment in order to consummate his all-pervading sense of hermetic anarchy. It’s as simple as that!”) and so on.
John and Roy Boulting claimed that Sellers initially rejected the role of Fred Kite for their scabrous satire I’m All Right, Jack on the grounds that he failed to see any jokes in the script. Songs For Swingin’ Sellers debunks the assertion majestically. Sellers had an incomplete education, true, but he was not the working class philistine caricature depicted by the towering twins. In truth, there is only one joke-reliant track, Common Entrance (where a Peter Sallis-like father visits the public school Cretinby), and it’s the one true lapse in quality. Authored by Frank Muir and Denis Norden, its smart-alecky Q and A style (”Is [the fire escape] examined every week?” - “It’s used every week.”), despite excellent readings by Sellers as father, headmaster and sundry schoolboys, comes over as merely slick and calculated, easy to admire, hard to love.
In Shadows On The Grass, Sellers hands the microphone to Irene Handl who, for nearly seven minutes, holds court as a faux-posh horny widow. A mostly-improvised piece, Sellers provides solid but unobtrusive support for Handl’s inspired witterings, nimbly and imaginatively encouraging her on. Again, it’s not going to cause any busted ribs, but it is exquisitely played and succeeds in being, beneath the amusing language mangling, an original heart-rending moment of two lonely old people seeking companionship and affection in a world that’s passed them by. Who would wish them ill?
Sellers expertly combines sympathy and malicious cruelty in his self-penned number We’ll Let You Know. A terrible old ham actor (Sellers’ wicked parody of Gielgud) is auditioning at a theatre with a burst of Richard III, which he promptly forgets. “Oh… He’s forgotten it all now,” the director mutters in the stalls. He is joined by the producer and they lewdly allude to an actress, ignoring the sorry sod on the stage. The dismissive, casually vicious manner of the director (”Get him out of here,” he drawls) is offensively funny but, such is the care imbued in Sellers’ performance of the ludicrous old actor, that one can laugh at him whilst simultaneously feeling sorry for him. It’s a unique juggling act with our feelings, and here Sellers presses all the right buttons, pulls all the right strings.
Remember him this way.
This is an edited version of an article which appeared in Vinyl Obscura section of Kettering 6