It has quite correctly dominated the current affairs agenda since the news broke on Wednesday afternoon. The death at the tragically young age of 62 of the comedienne and actor Victoria Wood has prompted a wave of heartfelt tributes, eulogising both the person and her talent in the manner which naturally we never quite manage to do when they are around to appreciate it.
Victoria Wood’s comic abilities were most commonly expressed through prose, be it stand up routines or longer form acting performances in shows such as “Dinnerladies” but for a long time a core part of her act consisted of musical performances. She was a female Steve Allen, capable of sitting down at a piano and knocking out a piece of comic doggerel, most of her songs along similar themes to her standup routines, dealing with the perils of being a bright yet tragically all too human British female of a certain age.
This once led her to one of the few commercial deals of her life, a series of TV adverts for the short-lived One-Cal umbrella branding for diet soft drinks. For a generation of children like mine, too young to stay up for her adult comedy series, this was our first proper introduction to the witty Lancashire lass. Singing at a piano on a floating island, attended to by swimming waiters.
So it may surprise many people to learn that Victoria Wood once performed a Number One hit single. But that is because it has all but lost to history.
March 1991 saw the broadcast the third of what has now become a biannual series of Comic Relief charity telethons. The event also established once and for all the tradition of releasing a tie-in pop record to coincide with the event. The previous Comic Relief tracks had seen comic talent team up with ‘proper’ pop acts along for the ride, The Young Ones joining Cliff Richard, Mel Smith teaming with Kim Wilde and “Lananeeneenoonoo” (French and Saunders along with a pre-fame Kathy Burke) teaming with Bananarama. For 1991 however the comedians were to go it alone for the very first time.
Everyone remembers the 1991 Comic Relief single The Stonk by Hale and Pace. For a start it formed the theme of the night: Comic Relief 1991 was officially subtitled “The Stonker”. Secondly the track still had some superstar input with no less a musical giant than Brian May of Queen producing the single and supplying a suitably epic guitar solo in the middle. Still for all that the song wasn’t particularly good, lacking much in the way of jokes or wit and reliant on some surprise celebrity cameos to give it even something approaching novelty value. No matter, it flew to Number One in short order in its third week on sale, topping the charts with immaculate timing in the aftermath of the telethon. For sure though nothing approaching a classic.
Yet on what was ostensibly the single’s b-side was a much better track. It was called The Smile Song. Its performer? One Victoria Wood. A rare foray into not only long-form songwriting but also mainstream pop for the star, the track was actually rather brilliantly done. During the course of the record she parodied a dizzying array of musical styles, performing in turn as The Pet Shop Boys, Kylie Minogue, a hair metal band who are most probably Poison, the Turbo B era of Snap!, Janet Jackson, Vera Lynn and finally herself. It even had a video, one which was rarely aired and was truly only seen by most on the night of the event itself.
So why has The Smile Song been largely confined to the dustbin of history? Well the problem is that the singles chart ignored it completely. There is no reason why it shouldn’t have been listed, plenty of double-sided singles with a different artist on each side had charted in the past – eg the Wet Wet Wet/Billy Bragg pairing on With A Little Help From My Friends/She’s Leaving Home in 1988, or the 1993 release Puss/Oh The Guilt which featured The Jesus Lizard on one side and Nirvana on the other. But the dual billing had to be at the explicit request of the label and London Records who released the Comic Relief track omitted to do so.
So this is how the single appeared in the printed listings in Music Week:
And (in its dying weeks *sob*) Record Mirror:
Needless to say the chart record books, and indeed the Official Charts Company’s own archive follow suit and list Hale and Pace alone. I confess I was surprised to discover this earlier today. My own memories of the time, and indeed the lists of Number One singles that I was lovingly compiling even as a teenager regarded the Comic Relief single as a true double-sided hit and with Victoria Wood given the equal billing she was surely entitled to.
Victoria Wood, the modern day comic genius, the female star who forced her way onto television and into the hearts and minds of fans the nation over not through dogma, tokenism or quotas but simply because of her own unique talent, did indeed once record and release a Number One hit single. But one which circumstances dictate has been all but forgotten. There seems to be no better tribute to her than to acknowledge it here today.
STOP PRESS: earlier on Thursday I received this communication:
— Barry Davies (@BarryDavies80) April 21, 2016
Leaving aside the extraordinary news that the commercial radio network chart of the time did at least have some use after all, it is worth noting too that the listing here also acknowledges the presence on the b-side of the re-released Clash single of Rush by B.A.D. II (which was also unacknowledged by the CIN chart). Leaving aside the Mick Jones connection to both, this actually means that in the week the Comic Relief single was topping the charts the first and second best selling singles in the country were double-sided hits featuring four different acts in total. Which surely has to be unique.