Spin a magic tune. Soul music for children? 1973
'It's the wolf'
'20 FANTASTIC NEW SONGS ABOUT YOUR FAVOURITE CARTOON CHARACTERS'.
This much-loved album is one of the strongest and in some ways strangest British records ever made for children. It had a big TV advertising campaign leading up to its release at Christmas 1973 and clearly ended up on the Dansette in many children's bedrooms. The soulful sunny syncopation of much of Spin a magic tune must have brightened up that dark UK winter for many a lucky child. The album also contains a range of more obvious aural signifiers of childhood (speeded-up high-pitched Chipmunk voices, exaggerated vocal characterisation, sound effects, talking/singing animals), but it's the soul, funk and general grooviness of Spin a magic tune that grabs the attention. So what do soul, funk and groovy music for children say about children? What do these genre styles communicate to them? In academic parlance, how does the soul/funk of Spin a magic tune construct a particular discourse of childhood, especially a British winter 1973 childhood?
Before we get on to the music, a little background about the album will explain how unusual Spin a magic tune actually is.
The twenty songs (count them!) were written by Brits Ken Martyne and Mike McNaught. McNaught had previously been a member of early '70s psych/jazz/funk groups Atlantic Bridge (hear their version of the Beatles' 'Dear Prudence' below) and the Henry Loather Band. Mike went on to work with Elton John, Harry Nilsson, Randy Crawford and others.
He writes a little about the album on his blog.
'there was a lots of pressure involved ... Ken Martyne and I had about two weeks to write 26 songs and get them recorded! However, with a tight little rhythm section of Dave Olney, Bobby Worth, Foggy Lyttle and yours truly, the talented Malcolm McNeil, a great group of session singers and Bob leaper and Ken Gibson making a brilliant job of the arranging, we managed to bolt it all together and ended up with, I think, 26 really tough little tracks.'
Whilst two of the 'favourite cartoon characters' in the album's strap line are two long-standing British favourites (Noddy and Rupert get two songs each), the other eighteen are US creations from either Looney Tunes (Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Sylvester, Wile E Coyote and Roadrunner, Speedy Gonzales) or Hanna-Barbera (Scooby Doo, Hair Bear Bunch, Penelope Pitstop, etc.). The characters have been seemingly licensed by Tempo Records, but the resulting songs bear no relation to the original show's theme tunes or music.
The songs on Spin a magic tune are linked together with a characterised story line about a boy, John, and his dog, Sampson, who can travel to the different places in the songs using a magic spinning top. The narrations take up around 17 minutes and push the album length to over 54 minutes which is a whole lot of audio to get on one 12 inch vinyl disc, and much longer than most albums for children.
And so to the songs.
Many have that lush, string and horn-laden, easy listening, slightly-funky, soulful vibe popular in 1973 as heard on records by the 5th Dimension (my nearest comparison), the Carpenters, the Stylistics, Elton John, the Jackson 5 and Gilbert O'Sullivan.
The 5th Dimension 'Up, up and away'
'It's the Wolf' (at the top of this page) has gutsy horns and bluesy guitar bends straight out of Stax studios and Steve Cropper's fingers. 'Rupert' sounds like a lost Northern Soul smoochy whilst 'Noddy', 'Scooby Doobie-Doo', 'Come along Sylvester' and 'I love Bugs Bunny' have that warm finger-snapping West Coast 5th Dimension vibe - the sound of sunshine!
'Come along Sylvester'
'I love Bugs Bunny'
There's wah-wah, fuzz guitars, and groovy psychedelic pop on the song about 'Wile E Coyote and Roadrunner'.
The album also features songs about characters largely unknown by UK audiences in 1973 (Motor Mouse and Autocat, Atom Ant). 'Space Kidettes' is a close cousin of Terry Callier's 'Ordinary Joe', it's that groovy.
There's some speculation about how much the two songwriters knew about the Hanna-Barbera and Looney Tunes characters. I'd be interested to know what brief they were given. The Hair Bear Bunch are written about as if there's just one of them, while Porky Pig has a deep voice and just wants to eat everything (do American's have a meal called tea?).
So if jazz music for children paints them as self-contained hipsters set adrift in a sea of adulthood, what does the soulful psychedelic pop of Spin a magic tune say either about or to children?
Some context helps. Whilst the songs on Spin a magic tune are well crafted, beautifully arranged and expertly performed, this is a white British take on the soul-lite and proto-disco (the hustle?) popular in the early '70s. As such, the sexualised thrust of Stax Records from a few years earlier (Wilson Pickett's 1966 hit 'Land of 1000 dances' for example), the Vietnam-era social realism of Norman Whitfield's Motown productions ('Papa was a rolling stone' by the Temptations 1972), or the urban toughness of the emerging Blaxploitation soundtracks ('Freddie's dead' by Curtis Mayfield 1972) are tempered.
In the UK, 1973 was a year of public strikes, IRA bombings, petrol rationing and the three-day week. Pop consumers sought refuge in the smooth middle-of-the-road pop of Peters and Lee, Dawn, The Osmonds, David Cassidy and the escapist glam of Slade, David Bowie, Gary Glitter and Suzi Quatro. The Wigan Casino opened that year; whilst offering a sense of community and all-night dancing, Northern Soul looked nostalgically back to the light, danceable and largely forgotten soul singles released before 1968's USA race riots, sparked by the assassination of civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King, and before public opinion had turned against the Vietnam War, before soul had got tough and turned into funk.
Spin a magic tune also doesn't capture the sheer wackiness, or the anarchic, gender-bending subversion of the music, voices and visuals of many cartoons popular at the time.
The Hair Bear Bunch theme
The Banana Splits theme
Bugs Bunny and Elma Fudd cross dressing
However, what Spin a magic tune does really well is to take the contemporary pop sound of the day, wrap it around the cartoon character brief that the song writers were given, and present it in a way that children could access, remember and enjoy. Rather than nostalgia, this was the sound of NOW, of teens and the wider pop-buying public. As such, Spin a magic child does not patronise children with the weirdly-adapted white washed pop-lite, folk or lullabies that often passes for children's music, but treats them as part of a community that spans a much wider age group. Whilst the cartoon theme roots the album in childhood, the music is forged from styles defined less by age, styles that have retained musical relevance to this day. This allows the album to grow with the child and to resonate with them as they age. I would argue that the best Looney Tunes and H-B cartoons do this too. Adults may (potentially) get more out of the cross-dressing bunny, the randy skunk, the wacked-out bears, and the subversive and empowered coquettishness of the female racing driver than children.
The great song writing, arrangements, playing and singing ensured that the songs were memorable, singable, and enjoyable ... all of the things that kept us returning as we grew into adult Spin a magic tune fans.
Fact fans keep reading:
The album was released on the UK-based Tempo Records (as catalogue number TMP9001). Tempo specialised in low budget albums for children through the 1970s and early 1980s, including two album spin-offs from the TV show Rainbow by Rod, Matt and Jane (Matt was Matthew Corbett of Sooty fame). The trio later became Rod, Jane and Roger, and later still, Rod, Jane and Freddy).
I've contacted Mike McNaught so I hope to update this post once I get a reply.
If you have any thoughts, information, memories or connection with the album, please get in touch.