Taking a Trip: Marty Wilde’s “Abergavenny”

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #55)

By the late ‘60s, Beatlemania and the Summer of Love had delivered a one-two punch to the careers of many artists who were stars earlier in the decade. As TV impresario Jack Good put it, “they were all-round entertainers with nobody left to entertain”. Some attempted to update themselves by donning paisley-print tunics, flashing the peace sign, and jumping on the psychedelic bandwagon – but, more often than not, the music that resulted was cringeworthy.

It would be easy to label Marty Wilde’s ’69 album Diversions as an example of that desperate opportunism, but that label would be wrong – because from the start of his career Wilde had demonstrated a chameleonic ability to adapt.

The former Reginald Smith burst onto the scene in the late ‘50s as part of manager Larry Parnes’ stable of evocatively-surnamed teen idols. He quickly became a dynamic live performer — his rival Cliff Richard admitted, “I wasn’t very good. Marty would have been far better to place the crown on” – and regularly appeared on high-profile TV pop shows. But producer Mickie Most astutely observed, “[h]e struggled because he was always doing other people’s songs…and it wasn’t until he wrote ‘Bad Boy’ [in ‘59] that he started to create his own thing.” However, in ‘59 Wilde married his wife Joyce, thus alienating the female teenage fans that expected their idols to be single and (theoretically) available.

His string of UK Top 40 singles ended in ‘62, after which, he told a BBC interviewer, “it wasn’t just me, it was a family to support. I used to really sweat – I’ve got to get this money for the mortgage, what am I going to do?” He continued to sporadically record and perform, including a stint in the mid-‘60s with The Wilde Three (himself, Joyce, and future Moody Blues member Justin Hayward). But he also simultaneously developed a solid career as a songwriter. In late ‘68, three of his songs were on the UK charts at the same time: Lulu’s ‘I’m a Tiger’, Status Quo’s ‘Ice in the Sun’, and the Casuals’ ‘Jesamine’. That success gave Wilde the opportunity to create Diversions, all of which was his own songs – and that led to his unlikely hit single ‘Abergavenny’.

Shockingly, Diversions has never been released on CD or reissued on vinyl – which is all the more shameful because of its musical versatility and consistently strong songwriting. (The audio of most of its tracks can be heard on YouTube.) Admittedly, its cover with Wilde in mirrored sunglasses and sideburns, surrounded by swirling colorful figures and patterns, looks like your bog-standard “squares with beads on” record. And while Diversions is not completely “psychedelic” – the softer songs such as ‘Any Day’ and ‘Lullaby’ are no threat to the likes of Blue Cheer – the more adventurous numbers such as ‘Zobo (1871-1892)’ and ‘Jesamine’ can hold their own against many better-known tracks from the same period.

‘Abergavenny’ manages to be both contemporary and retro, in the style that Rob Chapman calls “psychedelic music hall”. Its jaunty marching-band melody, with brassy orchestration by Peter Knight (who had just finished conducting the orchestra on the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed), bounces alongside cheerful lyrics about a happy day out, with knowing winks to “trips” and “paradise people”. By ’69 perhaps some audiences had had enough of faux-Edwardian ditties, as the song failed to chart in the UK, but ‘Abergavenny’ became a Top 10 hit in Australia and also charted in several European countries.

‘Abergavenny’ found its biggest success in North America, following in the footsteps of earlier Anglophiliac novelty tunes like the New Vaudeville Band’s ‘Winchester Cathedral’. Heritage Records, Wilde’s US label, released ‘Abergavenny’ under the artist pseudonym of Shannon – an odd decision, since ‘Bad Boy’ had been Wilde’s only North American hit and a minor one at that – and further burdened the single with possibly one of the cheesiest 45-rpm sleeves ever. Nevertheless, ‘Abergavenny’ reached the Top 50 in the US and Canada, and was a Top 25 Adult Contemporary hit in the US.

‘Abergavenny’ was then adapted into a wide range of foreign-language cover versions – many of which didn’t directly translate the original English words, but instead built on the melody’s evocation of fun and festivity. Claude François, who wrote the French-language song that became ‘My Way’, reworked ‘Abergavenny’ as ‘Les Majorettes’ (the YouTube video of his TV performance of the song, with dancing girls and baton twirlers, is definitely Shindig!-worthy viewing). Another version in French, ‘Le Cirque’, came from Québecois pop star Normand Gélinas. There were versions in Italian (Samuela’s ‘Aria di Festa’ and Antoine’s ‘Abracadabra’) German (Ilja Richter’s ‘Ich Hol’ Dir Gerne Vom Himmel Die Sterne’), Spanish (Karina’s ‘La Fiesta’), and Swedish (Ewa Roos’ ‘Kebnekajse’). There was an exotica version by Arthur Lyman, a rocking Hammond organ rendition by Harry Stoneham, and even an accordion version by the Dutch trio The 3 Jacksons.

But possibly the quirkiest cover version came from Brazil in the mid-‘80s, where ‘Abergavenny’ was reworked into ‘Pa-Ra-Tchi-Bum’, a cheerful song about watching a parade, for the children’s TV show Balão Mágico. The five young stars of the show – one of whom was Michael Biggs, the son of fugitive bank robber Ronnie – became a musical group, Turma do Balão Mágico (the Magic Balloon Gang); Michael Biggs described them as “Brazil’s first boy band”. The group’s albums collectively sold more than 13 million copies, and ‘Pa-Ra-Tchi-Bum’ was featured on their final release in ‘86.

Two other songs from Diversions were released as B-sides to unsuccessful ’69 singles by Wilde. Then, apart from a few singles in the early ‘70s and the occasional compilation album, Wilde’s own recording career was largely dormant as he focused on writing and producing records for his son Ricky. In ‘73 Wilde signed to Magnet Records, co-founded by his songwriting collaborator Peter Shelley. He turned down the opportunity to record ‘My Coo-Ca-Choo’, and the song was passed along to his former Parnes stablemate Shane Fenton – who, as Alvin Stardust, had a huge hit with it. Wilde instead re-invented himself as glam rocker Zappo and released the single ‘Rock’n’Roll Crazy’, telling Record Mirror that he wanted people to buy the record because they liked it “rather than because of having a following”.  But ‘Rock’n’Roll Crazy’ was dire even by glam-rock standards, and it sank without a trace; Shannon made one last appearance in ‘75 with an equally unsuccessful Magnet single, ‘Come Back and Love Me’. Wilde rediscovered his commercial mojo in ‘81 when he co-wrote ‘Kids in America’ for his daughter Kim; he has subsequently continued working with her and his other children, and performs regularly on the nostalgia show circuit.

‘Abergavenny’ is a charming song, and Diversions is an unjustifiably overlooked album. Considering that much worse material from the same period has been re-released, a reissue of Diversions on CD or vinyl is long overdue, so that a new audience can appreciate its scope and brilliance.

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