I’m Dreaming of a White Bicycle

While searching for half-remembered short films on the theme of public restrooms last month (see In the Can), I ran across a parody of “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” posted last fall as a commentary on the trans* bathroom con-troversy.

The performer, Christopher Trautman, explains:

This song was recorded in North Carolina. The only State in the United States that passed a law specifically directing that the restroom you use must be based on the junk you possess. It was later repealed after a national embarrassment campaign [led] by Comedy Central where they opened a food truck called Bone Brothers Barbecue in downtown Raleigh and discriminated against everybody who they determined to be gay… which was everybody.

That barbecue pi—er—bit, which aired on The Daily Show in 2016, was by Roy Wood Jr., assisted by Jordan Klepper. It’s hilarious and is, mm…, cued up below.

“The Restroom Door Said, ‘Gentlemen’” is of a certain vintage, however. It’s from the 1988 album Twisted Christmas by rock radio personality Bob Rivers. (Trautman changed a lyric or two in his version.)

This is of interest to me because Rob Berg and I did our own “God Rest You” reworking during the Iran-Contra-versy in 1987.

Neil’s Noel

Meanwhile last month, I decided to binge on an early ’80s Britcom, The Young Ones. It’s an acquired taste, the premise being a look into the lives of four student roommates: an aspiring anarchist (Sociology), a long-haired hippie (Peace Studies), a literal metalhead (Medicine), and a slick grifter (undeclared). Slogging through the insults, violence, chaos, squalor, and subpar production values there are fringe benefits of social satire, the absurd and surreal, puppets, and pop groups that pop up in eleven of the two seasons’ twelve episodes, including Madness, Motörhead, Rip Rig + Panic, Dexys Midnight Runners, and The Damned.

Neil's Heavy Concept Album cover
A copy of OZ magazine (London, Apr ’68) is draped over the rim of a toilet that contains a Ronald Reagan cutout. The magazine cover is in the form of a sticker that readers could post. “We can’t afford advertising,” wrote the editors.1

Young Ones actor Nigel Planer, in his gloomy hippie character of Neil Pye, had some pop spinoff success in a 1984 collaboration with Dave Stewart (not the Eurythmics musician). Neil’s Heavy Concept Album was packaged like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, complete with cutouts sheet insert (but sans gatefold sleeve), the front cover featuring daisies, a red orb, and pointed hat à la the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request. Neil’s sleeve set is littered with LPs: Caravan’s In the Land of Grey and Pink, Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Eric Clapton’s Derek & the Dominos In Concert, and the Saturday Night Fever OST (and yes, There Will Be Disco). When I came upon the disc, I didn’t know Neil from Adam: Young Ones wouldn’t air stateside until 1985. But among the album’s twenty tracks I did recognize Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” along with Incredible String Band’s “A Very Cellular Song.” So I bought it.

One of the album’s two singles actually climbed the charts. Dave Mason’s “Hole in My Shoe” had been a No. 2 hit for Traffic in 1967, and Neil’s version reached that same spot nearly two decades later. I got the 12″ extended “paranoid version,” backed with “Hurdy Gurdy Mushroom Man” (written by Planer with Simon Brint and Rowland Rivron of the comedy duo Raw Sex). On the sleeve, Neil writes, “I wrote all the lyrics, except somebody said they’re exactly the same as the lyrics of a song which has got exactly the same tune and also happens to be called ‘Hole in My Shoe’ by Dave Mason. I must have had a backwards premonition.” It won a BRIT Award for best comedy record even as Planer was up against his Young Ones costar Alexei Sayle, who played the students’ landlord and other bit parts in the series.

Nigel Planer wins Best Comedy Record at the 1985 BRITs for “Hole in My Shoe.” Look for Frankie Goes to Hollywood in the audience at 0:56; they won Best British Newcomer. One of the cutouts in Neil’s Heavy Concept Album insert is a T shirted teddy declaring “Frankie Goes to Glastonbury,” likely a reference to the town’s New Age reputation rather than the music festival of the same name. Frankie’s “Two Tribes” kept Neil’s “Hole in My Shoe” from reaching No. 1.2

This is a long way of making a Christmas connection. In the course of watching Young Ones I recalled letting two seasonally themed discs slip through my fingers back in the day. One was the second 12″ single from the Concept Album, “My White Bicycle,” which had been British band Tomorrow’s debut single, also in ’67. Neil’s flip side features the song’s “Xmas Rip-off Mix.” I got it by mail order last week.

Neil’s version of “My White Bicycle” stalled at No. 97 in 1984. Tommorrow’s 1967 original never charted at all.

The other Christmas disc I passed up was Erasure’s version of… you guessed it… “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” (the “You” being swapped with “Ye”). Last week I mail-ordered a 7″ two-song promo version, the B-side being a Vince Clarke/Andy Bell original, “She Won’t Be Home (Lonely Christmas).” It has a white label and a pink-and-black sleeve with roughly the same design as the band’s second album, The Circus. What I’d seen in the bins back when, however, would have been a 12″ single packaged under the unlikely title of Crackers International Part II. I hesitated and never saw it again.

Crackers International ostensibly was Erasure’s 1988 Christmas EP, but it actually consisted of three different records—a 7″ and two 12s—all of which were vehicles for the band’s song “Stop!” in three versions. As I wrote three years ago (see Careless Whisper):

As I understand it, artist appearances on the television show Top of the Pops were based on their standing in the U.K. Singles Chart, and so to boost unit sales (and standing) record labels would issue multiple editions of a single, mm…, single hoping that fans and collectors would buy each version.

Unlike in the U.S., EPs were considered singles in the U.K. Part II eluded me because it was a “very limited-edition, seasonal pressing,” as explained by Wikipedia.

May All Your Bicycles Be White

“My White Bicycle”—Xmas Rip-off Mix or not—deserves more attention. It’s the near-title of a memoir by music producer Joe Boyd.3 He writes that Pink Floyd had “outgrown” his weekly UFO Club events in Camden by April of 1967. (Boyd produced Floyd’s first single, released that March.) The next month he brought in Tomorrow, which was, with Floyd, one of the earliest English psychedelic bands. That same month Tomorrow released “My White Bicycle.” It had been recorded in Abbey Road Studio 1 while the Beatles worked on Sgt. Pepper in Studio 2, and they were visited by John Lennon according to Wikipedia (without attribution). The two bands apparently shared audio engineer Geoff Emerick. Tomorrow’s second single, “Revolution,” preceded that by the Beatles by a year, and their only album contains a cover of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” They were featured on the very first Peel Session that September 21. Other acts on the UFO stage during its nine months: Soft Machine, Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Crazy World of Arthur Brown, The Social Deviants, The Graham Bond Organisation, The Move, Procol Harum, The People Blues Band, Denny Laine, Pretty Things, Alexis Korner, Fairport Convention, Eric Burdon, Family, Incredible String Band, Aynsley Dunbar, Dantalian’s Chariot, The Exploding Galaxy, Jeff Beck, Ten Years After, as well as the films of Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, Bruce Connor, and events by International Times newspaper (an issue of the latter featured on the Heavy Concept sleeve).4

Tomorrow drummer John “Twink” Alder writes that “My White Bicycle” was inspired by the free two-wheeler sharing scheme in Amsterdam by anarchists known as Provos. Alder had received a Provo badge by an owner of his beloved clothing shop Granny Takes a Trip.5 Telling vocalist Keith West (né Hopkins) about this, they visited the Dutch capital. Later West and his old chum Ken Burgess wrote “My White Bicycle.” Bike sharing is commonplace in cities today, but at a price, as Neil notes, barely facetiously, in the intro to the Extended Mix.6

I said there’d be disco…
Tomorrow guitarist Steve Howe went on to join Yes in 1970. Here he couples “Raga” with the chorus of “My White Bicycle” on his Remedy Tour in 2004. Twink Alder recalls: “The main guitar theme of ‘My White Bicycle’ comes from what we were listening to at the time [Ravi Shankar and Gabor Szabo]. So our influences were Indian mainly. Steve may have picked up on that with the riff or he may have just pulled it out of the air, I don’t know. It’s like a droning sitar sound.”
The mono version for your listening pleasure. To my ear the reengineered stereo version sounds too artificial.

From the lyrics:

Policeman shouts but I don’t see him
They’re one thing I don’t believe in
He’ll find some charge but it’s not thievin’7

Hmm…

Yes, I’m dreaming of a white bicycle. Mass transit could be free of charge, and include carbon-free options like the white bikes, but instead we prioritize death over life.

Oh, and Tomorrow did a Christmas album. Sort of. Released by Twink in 2000, it was their set from a December 22, 1967 show at the Olympia London (8 p.m. to 6 a.m.) called Christmas On Earth Continued that featured many UFO bands, including the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Eric Burdon & The Animals, The Who, The Move, The Pink Floyd, the Graham Bond Organisation, The Soft Machine, Sam Gopal Dream, Paper Blitz Tissue, Jeffrey Shaw & The Plastic Circus, Keith West and Tomorrow, as well as John Peel.

Notes
  1. OZ London 11 (Apr 1968), archived at University of Wollongong, Australia.
  2. U.K. song ranking history is available via Official Charts.
  3. Joe Boyd, White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s, London: Serpent’s Tail, 2006.
  4. Boyd, 155–156.
  5. In that same mini memoir, Alder explains the critical role of clothing from Granny Takes a Trip in Tommorrow’s career—the same role as clothing shops on Kings Road would have on Billy Idol a decade later. See my Idol Not Idle.
  6. Neil’s connecting the white bicycles with the Roundhouse is curious because that venue was the last home of Boyd’s UFO Club, in Aug and Sep 1967.
  7. Lyrics to this song floating around the web are amusing, but that may be due to the fact that Nazareth covered the song in 1975. “He’ll find some charge but it’s not thievin’” is rendered “Find some judge, but it’s not leavin’” or “To find some charge but it’s not leavin’.” “The lamp post hangs its head in disgrace” is rendered “Lift both hands, his head in disgrace.”

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