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Sunday, 1 July 2012

No sleep 'til Penzance

The ‘Top of the Pops’ re-runs have now reached the summer of 1977, when the likes of the Stranglers and the Sex Pistols were riding high in the charts. Those heady days are often written about, but sadly there is one hugely influential (but massively under-rated) band that is sometimes overlooked when historians are reminiscing about that golden age of musical and cultural transformation.
I’ve long considered it to be a travesty of lazy criticism to have pigeonholed The Wurzels as a mere novelty act. Readers of a certain vintage may recall those trailblazing glory days when they broke down the musical barriers in a way that Milli Vanilli, Black Lace and Radiohead could only dream about.

Their number one single from June 1976 'I've got a brand new combine harvester' celebrated the arrival of new technologies at a time when the industry was trying to arrest the decline precipitated by the Devon strawberry famine of 1973, while the follow-up 'I am a cider drinker' was a serious study of the effects of alcohol abuse on workers in the Cornish agricultural industry.
Rock historians are invariably split on the topic of The Wurzels. Their music is multi-layered and full of delicious lyrical ambiguities, but they have also suffered for this cleverness. Some may recall the late-seventies controversy when their albums were banned in the southern states of America after lead singer Tommy Banner claimed that God was over-rated. He later retracted the statement by claiming that he had merely said that ‘cod’ was over-rated, but by then it was too late. The band had become front page news all around the globe, as hundreds of angry bible-bashers burned piles of Wurzels albums and threatened violent retribution. Only the intervention of the UN cultural ambassador Barbara Streisand stopped things getting really ugly. Those were strange days indeed and one can’t help but wonder whether the young Johnny Rotten might have been influenced by the anarchic events.

It’s probably fair to say that The Wurzels never really recovered from that setback, although in his seminal work on the band -'Adventures in Cider Space, Volume 1’- Charles Shaar Murray actually traces the start of their artistic decline to their ill-advised decision to re-launch themselves by jumping on the short-lived 'Scrumpy and Western' bandwagon in the mid-eighties.
Their trailblazing glory days may be behind them, but there is at least a glimmer of hope that The Wurzels may yet return to the epicentre of pop culture. The blogosphere is currently in meltdown with tantalising rumours of a forthcoming collaboration with Jessie J. We can only live in hope.