...Diversions! is one of the hidden treasures of late 60s British pop - a witty, gentle and quintessentially English collection of words and music cloaked in a series of ornate, baroque arrangements so beloved of the immediately post-psychedelic UK studio sound. Let's hope, then, that this first-ever reissue - assembled with the active co-operation of the artist, by the way - manages to redress the balance somewhat and introduce a few new converts to the album's considerable charms.from David Wells' cover notes for the CD release.
Cover Notes for CD re-release
Even those of us who love the period could be forgiven sometimes for feeling that, over the last few years, every obscurity from the late 1960s has been disinterred, dusted down and re-evaluated by fans and critics alike. Nevertheless, a few releases of genuine quality from this over-analysed era remain ignored, unknown and, it would seem, resolutely buried. The 1968 album Diversions!, a solo album from the otherwise anonymous Barry Booth, is a case in point: only the fact that the lyrics were penned by Terry Jones and Michael Palin has ensured the album any kind of place in the history books, and that merely as a brief footnote in the Monty Python’s Flying Circus story, where it nestles alongside such deathless Python-related vinyl projects as Funny Game, Football.
Which, aside from being a bit of a shame, is also rather curious. For Diversions! is one of the hidden treasures of late 60s British pop – a witty, gentle and quintessentially English collection of words and music cloaked in a series of ornate, baroque arrangements so beloved of the immediately post-psychedelic UK studio sound. Let’s hope, then, that this first-ever reissue – assembled with the active co-operation of the artist, by the way – manages to redress the balance somewhat and introduce a few new converts to the album’s considerable charms.
Barry Booth began a lengthy and varied career in the arts by training at the world-famous Royal Academy of Music in London, where he studied composition, harmony and counterpoint with Patrick Savill and pianoforte with Leslie England. He then spent two years as the musical director on a variety of pop package tours in the early 1960s, including a stint as MD for Roy Orbison in mid-1963 on a bill that also included the fast-emerging Beatles. Orbison was sufficiently impressed to appoint Barry as his personal music director, though Booth was also employed as the arranger/MD on the long-running TV series Five O’Clock Club, which featured the Alexis Korner Band. During this period Booth and Korner co-wrote an award-winning cinema commercial jingle for Bri-Nylon, while Booth (together with co-author Nat Joseph, better known as the boss of the Transatlantic label) also penned a song that was recorded by Orbison.
Booth was continuing to make a living as, in his own words, “a jobbing musician" when he first came into contact with a couple of Oxford graduates – Terry Jones and Michael Palin. After a directionless start (Palin’s first post-university job had been as the presenter of NOW!, a trendily-titled teenage pop show broadcast through 1965/6 by Television Wales West), Terry and Michael had recently established themselves as a promising writing partnership, working together on The Late Show (for which they had written and performed a pastiche of Antonioni’s Blow-Up), The Frost Report and Late Night Line-Up, the resident arts show on the new ‘culture’ channel, BBC2.
It was on the last-named show that the hitherto-divergent paths of Barry Booth and the Jones/Palin team first met in 1967, as Terry Jones now recalls. “Late Night Line-Up was an instant crit of programmes that had been on that day, and also previewed shows that would be on the following day. One Friday evening they brought me in to do a comedy review – we did some stuff with musical accompaniment, and Barry was employed on that side".
The peripatetic pair of Jones and Palin had previously been approached to write a musical, The Love Show, which was to be based on the sexual revolution of the mid-60s. Sadly that project had just been aborted (no pun intended) when Booth asked them if they would be interested in writing lyrics for him. Working independently of each other, the two men quickly came up with the goods. "I did have one or two things already written that I thought would fit the bill", admits Jones. "Henry Smith Addresses A Butterfly was some verse that I had lying around, and Sad-Jolly Song was initially meant for a children’s book that I’d written but which was never published". One or two lyrics were new, however. "After The War was inspired by my father, though it was mainly fictional – he didn’t have a lisp, for example! I’d written it after coming across a telegram that he’d sent during the war to reassure us all – "After the war we’ll go and pick blackberries again", that kind of thing."
So did Terry have serious aspirations in terms of songwriting? “Aspirations is too strong a word, but I’ve always enjoyed it – I wrote a few songs for Wind In The Willows a few years ago. Poetry was my first vocation really – it was only writing verse that kept me going through childhood!"
By way of contrast, Michael Palin’s contributions were all written specifically for Booth, with one song in particular still holding strong memories for its author. “Barry said that Roy Orbison would be coming over, and he might be interested in recording anything that we could write that was suitable. With that in mind, I wrote The Last Time I Saw You Was Tomorrow, which I thought had the kind of heartwrenching drama that he specialised in! I remember Barry taking it to Orbison’s hotel room and playing the demo for him. I could scarcely believe it – he was playing my song to Roy Orbison, who was up there with the Beatles as far as I was concerned. For a while after that, I did allow myself to entertain delusions of a songwriting career!"
With pop lyricists like Paul Simon, Ray Davies and Lennon/McCartney achieving a level of profundity that was entirely lacking in the traditional hit record, there was, of course, no reason why a couple of university graduates couldn’t make their mark. “It was an exciting time", admits Palin. “Pop songs had become more than just romantic ditties for teenagers at parties. A character sketch like Vera Lamonte obviously owed a debt to people like McCartney, but there are lines in it that would have fitted nicely into the monologues that I used to perform at Oxford."
Duly setting their work to melodies, Booth recorded a quartet of numbers quickly and cheaply, adding his own guide vocals to what were purely intended as rough songwriters demos (which is to say that the demos were rough, not the songwriters). Though he’s not quite sure of the circumstances, one set of recordings somehow ended up in the possession of Pye producer Tony Hatch. Probably the leading UK A&R man of the era, the not easily impressed Hatch was immediately smitten – not just by the songs, but by Booth’s vocals and skeletal arrangements. “They weren’t the kind of thing he was normally associated with", admits Booth. “I can only think he was looking to broaden his horizons. But what surprised me was that he wanted to sign me as a performer – all I’d wanted to do was place the songs with someone else. I certainly didn’t consider myself to be a singer, so I had fairly mixed feelings about the whole thing. Apparently Tony Hatch went home to his wife, Jackie Trent, and told her “I’ve just met the coolest guy ever! I’m offering him a recording contract, and he’s not bothered at all!" But it really wasn’t what I was looking for."
By the end of 1967, reluctant vocalist Booth had entered Pye Studios with a total of fourteen songs. With Hatch as producer and Barry himself as musical director and arranger, the musicians (including such experienced hired hands as Pentangle’s Terry Cox and the ubiquitous Herbie Flowers) set to work on a collection of witty, urbane songs that were occasionally reminiscent of a number of contemporaneous acts – “End of the Season"-period Kinks, Giles Giles & Fripp and Deram-era Bowie spring to mind, though any singer/songwriter/pianist performing erudite material to an orchestral backdrop clearly has more than a little in common with Randy Newman – but really occupied their own thoughtful, highly idiosyncratic territory.
As might be expected from their pedigree, the lyrics were particularly impressive, with a level of erudition and wit that, notwithstanding the likes of Ray Davies, were still uncommon in British pop. At turns bittersweet (the moving After The War), joyous (Sad-Jolly Song), atmospheric (The Hottest Day of The Year), sympathetic (A Concise History of Harry Shoes, with its neat twist-in-the-tale ending) and self-analytical (Somebody Make My Mind Up, which surely addresses the diffident dilettantism of Palin’s early career), Diversions! would be of interest were it purely a collection of verse.
But there is much to commend the album on a musical level as well: the charming Mole, a suitably sultry The Hottest Day Of The Year and the opening track, He’s Very Good With His Hands, all contain consummate melody lines bolstered by some splendid chamber pop arrangements, while one or two playful touches - After The War leads off with the opening piano motif of Georgie Fame’s recent hit “The Ballad Of Bonnie and Clyde", while “Henri Dupont" employs a suitably Gallic accordion backdrop – confirm that it wasn’t only the lyrics that were tongue in cheek. Mention should also be made of Booth’s resolutely English vocals which, despite the artist’s reservations, are excellent throughout – it’s not difficult to imagine a young Peter Gabriel listening to Diversions! with a light-bulb glowing above his head (I’m speaking figuratively, of course).
Supported rather optimistically by a single release (He’s Very Good With His Hands b/w The King’s Thing), Diversions! appeared in the opening weeks of 1968, housed in a fabulous Beardsleyesque sleeve design from Barbara Fry (wife of Martin Fry, a sousaphone player who’d been a friend and colleague of Booth’s at the Royal Academy of Music). The album received a commendation in Punch from Miles Kington who, clearly noting the wry, baroque Englishness of the album and its sympathetic, slightly skewed vision of suburban life, included it in a double review with the Kinks’ latest. Kenny Everett was also an admirer, inviting Barry onto his Sunday morning show on Radio One to discuss his work, while Michael Palin recalls that John Peel played He’s Very Good With His Hands on his influential late night show Top Gear and “said some very nice things about it".
But despite a second single midway through 1968 (The Hottest Day Of The Year b/w Vera Lamonte), Diversions! disappeared without trace, presumably not helped by the fact it was, as far as Booth was concerned, essentially a studio project (“I didn’t want to tour it", he now confesses, “though I was put under quite a lot of pressure"). By this stage Palin and Jones had moved on to the cult TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set, which led in turn, of course, to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Briefly reunited with Palin and Jones as the composer of the theme music to the duo’s post-Do Not Adjust Your Set TV series, The Complete and Utter History of Britain (“He wrote a wonderful intro", Jones recalls fondly), Barry Booth continued to work behind the scenes on a wide number of disparate projects. He acted as MD/arranger for a couple of Rolf Harris
vehicles, the TV series Rolf On Saturday OK? and the radio series Rolf’s Walkabout, also working in the recording studio with Harris, Kenneth Williams, Topol, Roy Orbison and a variety of Transatlantic label acts including Bert Jansch, the Johnstons, John Renbourn and Pentangle. In addition to writing songs for various TV, film and stage shows (including material for The Two Ronnies and the Sir Alec Guinness film Hitler: The Last Ten Days), he has also appeared as guest conductor in concerts of his own music with the symphony orchestras of London, Vancouver, Hamilton, Knoxville, Wellington, Christchurch and Queensland. He also appears frequently as guest solo pianist with the BBC Concert Orchestra.
As can be seen from the above CV, Diversions! was clearly just that – an entertaining but unscheduled diversion from Booth’s chosen path as he percolated through the soft white underbelly of the music and arts world. But sometimes the most unexpected and unlikely stops are also the most rewarding: for the right ears, Diversions! is a hugely enjoyable experience.
With special thanks to Barry Booth, Terry Jones and Michael Palin.
John Shuttleworth unplugged... full of fragile, Northern soulMOJO, April 2002
Sometime composer of music for ur The Two Ronnies puts tunes to lyrics by Michael Palm and Terry Jones? Could work...
That Diversions a deliciously quaint ‘chamber pop’ album peopled by would-be trampoline artists and reserved office clerks — has only just been exhumed seems criminal. First out in 1968, it was produced by Tony Hatch, who wanted to mould TV/film composer Booth as a pop idol. Booth’s misgivings about his voice made him reluctant to tour and the album became marginalised. If the phrase ‘John Shuttleworth unplugged’ seems pertinent, the pathos is more transparent here, and Booth’s baroque strings and colliery brass-imbued arrangements evince a serious talent. Jones and Palin’s picaresque lyrics are superb, and the voice that so concerned Booth is full of fragile, Northern soul. Apparently, he offered The Last Time I Saw You to Roy Orbison, Palin briefly entertaining fantasies of a songwriting career.
...plaudits from Kenny Everett to John PeelRECORD COLLECTOR, April 2002
As musical director for Roy Orbison, among others, Barry Booth was a reluctant pop star for this obscure, Tony Hatch-produced period piece from 1968 - where it would've remained were it not for the preMonty Python Terry Jones and Michael Palin contributing the wry lyrics.
Reissued for the first time, the baroque ditties are whimsical and ornate, with backing musicians including Pentangle's Terry Cox and bass ace Herbie Flowers. A single, 'He's Very Good With His Hands', is reminiscent of the Marquis Of Kensington's aristocratic 'Changing Of The Guard' and won plaudits from Kenny Everett to John Peel. But it eluded commercial success, as did a second single, the appropriately atmospheric 'The Hottest Day Of The Year'.
'Vera Lamonte', a soft jazz shuffle, recalls 'End Of The Season-period Kinks, while Booth's vocal on 'The Problems Of A Simple Man' is similar to Cat Stevens' early Deram work. A charming curio for 60s scholars and Python completists alike.
...a testament to the spirit of the Sixties - deeply felt, humorous and bizarre.UNCUT, May 2002
Cult classic from 1968 with lyrics written by future Monty Python stars Terry Jones and Michael Palin
A solo album from an otherwise anonymous artist (Booth spent toe bulk of hs career creating music for television), Diversions! is a surreal, quintessentially Englisn take on baroque orchestral pop. A musician on BBC2's Late Night Line Up, Booth met the up-and-coming partnership of Jones and Palin in 1967 and suggested a collaboration. Working independently of each other, the two writers provided lyrics for the 14 songs here.
A demo tape reached the ears of renowned Pye producer Tony Hatch, who immediately snapped up these tremulously cooed, skewed songs about balsa-wood kits, Post Office queues and suburban mediocrity. Despte a glowing reception on its release, Booth's reluctance to perform or to tour meant that the project soon disappeared into obucurty. Unbelievaby re-released here for the frst time ever, the album is a testament to the spirit of the Sixties - deeply felt, humorous and bizarre.
Lyrically impressive, with a Kinks-like quality, the album is full of pop-hooks that also reflect an early Bowie style.TV ZONE, issue 153
Featuring songs by ex-Monty Python stars Michael Palm and Terry Jones, 'Diversions' is a Sixties 'paisley pop' rarity. Paul Rigby spoke to singer Barry Booth and writer Terry Jones to discover more about this curious release...
ONE OF THE ODDEST discoveries of recent times, the album 'Diversions', was buried in the dark depths of the Sixties psychedelic movement but has attracted recent attention because of its Monty Python connections. Although eventually written by both Terry Jones and Michael Palin, the story of the album begins with Barry Booth, who had played on the same bill with a young group called The Beatles and has written songs for the legendary Roy Orbison.
Having garnered the experience and confidence that comes from writing a song for a living legend, Booth moved on to theatre (as musical director for the original Grease, starring a young Richard Gere) and the BBC, appearing on popular shows featuring Rolf Harris
, Tom Jones and Topol.
Whilst attached to the BBC, Booth met up with Michael Palm and Terry Jones, as Jones remembers. "I was working for a BBC2 show called Late Night Line-Up, writing funny material for the Friday night show. Mike was performing the funnies and Barry did the music. I think it was the first time Mike and I had written lyrics specifically for a record although we had had songs recorded at Oxford — songs we’d written for revues.
Booth set Michael and Terry’s songs in demo form, which somehow fell into the hands of Tony Hatch who promptly offered a bemused Booth a contract.
"I thought he would place them with somebody and get them to record the songs because he was the A&R man for Pye. I had no idea that he assumed that I would actually record them," Booth says. Jones had similar foggy intentions regarding his lyric writing.
"Well I never intended to be a recording artist if that’s what you mean. But I love the idea of songs and lyric writing."
The final album, Diversions (now re-released via Sanctuary Records) is a collection of quaint songs featuring Booth’s suitably warbly voice (the liner notes compare it to ‘early Peter Gabriel’). Lyrically impressive, with a Kinks-like quality, the album is full of pop-hooks that also reflect an early Bowie style. Two singles were released from the album; ‘He’s Very Good With His Hands’ and ‘The Hottest Day Of The Year’, a song about a streaker.
Full of promise and packed with potential it may have been but the album, upon release, promptly died. Booth has a theory about that.
"I’m not sure if Pye was on its last legs at this time but, when the record first appeared, I was concerned that the record pushers, who get the record played and placed, were primarily interested in pushing glasses in the pub. Which meant that the resultant album remained a pretty well kept secret." As did the album’s original artwork.
"It’s beautiful sub-Beardsley work but was stolen from the I art department at Pye. The art was created by Barbara Fry, the wife of Martin Fry, a sousaphone player I met when we were students who later found fame with The Temperance Seven Band."
TERRY JONES’S initial experience with the recordable medium bore fruit when he later became involved in the aural side of Monty Python, "I think the change of medium was seen as a fun challenge rather than a problem," remembers Jones. "It meant having a good time with sound effects and so on."
Probably Python’s most innovative use of vinyl was the popularization of the double track technique utilized within Monty Python’s Matching Tie And Handkerchief. It was Jones’s idea.
"...although my original thought was to have five tracks — so that when you first played the LP it would only last about five minutes and you’d say ‘That was a bit short!’ Put it on again and get something totally different and then different again."
After Jones had the idea, the Python team discussed the technicalities of it. -
"I then discovered that the same principle had been used in the 1930s for a novelty record, which was a commentary on a horse race. You put the record on and were supposed to take bets on the - result because you never knew which horse was going to win."
Jones mastered the record at Apple and spent days "or rather nights trying to get it to work but the installed recording machine had a 'variable pitch' which meant that the angle at which the track went towards the centre hole varied, which added many technical problems.
"We were told that if we could find an old Sd) machine we might be able to tracks as we wanted but, alas, we couldn’t so five tracks sadly turned into two. The other idea of mine that I was rather pleased with was the crossed out cover for Another Monty Python Record. That started a sort of fashion for crossed out things."
Jones even hinted at a possible store of unreleased Python work, gathering dust.
"I think Andre Jacquemain, who recorded most of our stuff, has got a hoard of unreleased material. I seem to remember he circulated a tape of some of it a couple of years ago. Some funny, some not..."
Barry Booth - Now that's what I call musicMiles Kington in The Independent, 27 February 2002
BARRY BOOTH - Now that's what I call music
'None of your supermarket rubbish - all hand-grown, farmers' market, organic kind of songs'
SOMEWHERE IN my stack of LPs I have an old record of Pete Allan singing songs co-written by him and Clive James. I know it is an old record, because hovering in the background on the sleeve photo, behind a bearded and sprouting Atkin. you can see a rangy dive James with a full head of hair and that hasn't been something you could see for a long time.
It was recorded maybe 30 years ago, round about the late 1960s. and it reflects exactly the kind of stuff I was buying then - quirky well-written songs with a bit of flavour about them. None of your supermarket rubbish - all hand-grown, farmers' market, organic kind of songs. which is why I liked people like Randy Newman, and Alan Price, and the Kinks, and the Bonzo Dog Band and... well, nobody else really because there weren't any other people like that.
Am I right in saying that they don't have songs and bands and performers like that any more? I fear I am. No quirkiness, not much humour and not a lot of hand-carved songs, which I guess is why Pete Atkin arid Clive James are needed back on the road again, and why there is still a continuing interest in such people as Flanders and Swann and Tom Lehrer, and why you can still get the Bonzos in a boxed set.
But there was always one LP that nobody ever mentioned, which I bought when it first came out in 1968 and which I still think was as quirky and attractive as anything from that period, and that was Diversions, by Barry Booth. The reason I bought it then was that all the lyrics were written by Terry Jones and Michael Palin, and I wanted to see what kind of lyric-writers these two comic chaps would make.
Pretty good, was the answer, but interestingly different. Terry's lyrics were more whimsical and skittish, with songs that tended to start:
O little butterfly
I wish that I
Could be more like you
Instead of being Henry Smith
And over five foot two.
Even when Terry was more sinister, he was still playfully sinister, as in his song about Henri Dupont...
For years, unspotted, Henri Dupont
Wheeled his barrow in Marseilles,
But at last fate overtook him
And they came to take him away.
Wheeled his barrow in the market,
Rose at six and went to work,
But at last they came to get him,
Six Israelis and a Turk...
Michael Palin was more domestic, with songs about men who are good with their hands, or a husband coming home to listen to his wife's teatime monologue ("I'll Listen"), but also interestingly introspective and moody ("Just get up in the morning and get back into bed...") or even worried about life:
Somebody make my mind up
Time's running out
Shall I buy the next round
Shall I live underground
Shall I be an actor
Shall I write a book?
Somebody make my mind up...
And he did become an actor, and he did write books...
But actually what really sweng the LP for me was Barry Booth's music, which was as quirky as the words - lovely melody lines that went round the wrong corner and came back again, odd changes of time signature, fruity piano and arrangements, as well as his own sweet, oddly high voice. It must have been a good record, because for 30 years the tunes have been running through my mind, and at odd moments I find still myself singing things like:
After the War
Things were to be so different
A flat above the bakery with metal window frames
A job with boundless prospects
And teach the children games
Which comes from from Terry's sad, sad song, "Alter the War".
It is very unfair to try to arouse readers' interest in a record that has been out of print for 30 years, so I can triumphantly reveal that Diversions has just been reissued on CMRCD4O4, on Castle Music Records, which is part of Sanctuary Records.
I learn from the notes that Barry Booth never intended to sing on the record, and when urged to do a tour to publicise it, politely declined. He has never, as far as I can make out, sung again, but has stuck to composing and playing.
If only his example had been followed by some more famous performers...
Buy the CD from Amazon.co.uk