Among the Christmas hits that dominate the airwaves and form the soundtrack to any visit to a supermarket, garden centre or restaurant from mid-November onwards, one of the less commonly heard is Wombling Merry Christmas, which was a Top Ten hit in 1974, riding that year’s wave of popularity of the furry eco-warriors and their pre-news TV show. At one level, it’s just another identikit Christmas song of the sort that has been churned out over the years: a catchy tune, with cliché lyrics overlaid with sleigh bells. And of course in 1974, a 7” single was a perfect stocking filler for children who had fallen for the lovable litter-pickers and their music. It couldn’t fail at the time, but is now too often overlooked.
But listen again, or to any of those songs performed by a band of men dressed in furry costumes, and there’s a lot more to it than just a novelty song. Yes, it’s got all the Christmas clichés, but there’s more than a touch of class about the melodic progression, the orchestration and the production. It bears the unmistakable hallmark of the versatile musician Mike Batt, who wrote, produced and sang all those Wombling songs and a whole lot more besides. He’s one of those musicians whose versatility and breadth of musical skills mean that he risks being overlooked or regarded as a lightweight: not cool enough to be a respected rock musician, not serious enough to be a respected classical musician. This is a pity in my opinion, and his work over five decades merits more recognition than he gets. A bit like Wombling Merry Christmas.
Take those Womble songs for a start. Batt’s ability to write and produce songs in any style shines through: from the theme of the TV series came their debut single, The Wombling Song with one of the best melodic introductions I know, played on the French horn, hardly a staple instrument of pop and rock. He's fond of featuring more unusual instruments in his songs, a bit like another of my heroes, Roy Wood.
Batt followed that initial success up by cleverly exploiting the Womble craze while it lasted, with a series of pastiches of musical styles. Remember You’re a Womble with its violin hook, is a country square dance; Minuetto Allegretto dares to rip off Mozart of all people, while Wombling White Tie and Tails cleverly evokes the Hollywood of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. And of course there’s the already mentioned Christmas song. Novelty songs all of them, but a clear indication that their writer/ producer knows his music across a very broad range of genres.
Since that lot, we haven’t actually heard Batt much. He released one single in his own name, the theme song for a mid-seventies TV series Summertime Special - it's another “annoyingly good” song called Summertime City, but then concentrated on writing, arranging and producing. If you know your 70’s and 80’s pop, you’ll be familiar with all the songs, but you may be surprised to learn of Mike Batt’s involvement in at least some of them. In 1975, he turned a traditional folk song, All Around my Hat, into a big hit for folk band Steeleye Span, then in 1979 he wrote and produced Bright Eyes for the film Watership Down, giving Art Garfunkel his biggest solo success. Bright Eyes is the archetypal Mike Batt song, characterised by clever chord progressions that somehow tug at the heart strings and clever use of that most bitter-sweet sounding of instruments, the oboe. It always reminds me of one of my favourite French songs, La Montagne by Jean Ferrat, an achingly sad eulogy for the rural way of life lost in the late rush to urbanisation in post-war France. You don’t need to understand French to get this song, and even if like me you do speak French, you won’t understand all the lyrics, but you’ll get the feel of it. Like Bright Eyes, it just sounds sad and wistful.
Mike Batt certainly knows how to write a sad song. If you want to wallow in your misery after a failed relationship, try any one of these three Mike Batt compositions from the early eighties, all written for established artists: Please Don’t Fall in Love by Cliff Richard, A Winter’s Tale by David Essex and I Feel like Buddy Holly by Alvin Stardust. They won’t cheer you up, but they’ll put your sadness into music, never mind words, and assure you that however unhappy you are, someone else has been there as well and made a damn good tune out of it.
Talking of good tunes, you probably didn’t know that the main theme from Phantom of the Opera is in part a Mike Batt song. But it is, and in this case it was the lyrics, not the tune, that he co-wrote. And he also produced the Steve Harley/ Sarah Brightman version of that song, which served as such an effective trailer for the show.
Then there’s Katie Melua. Although her success is often rightly credited in large part to the late Terry Wogan’s championing of her work on his breakfast show, it was Batt who wrote much of, and produced her debut album Call off the Search. And the break-out single, still her best known song, Closest Thing to Crazy, is archetypal Mike Batt. It’s a sultry, jazzy song that sounded like a years-old standard as soon as it came out. One of those songs that you think you know the first time you hear it.
Perhaps that’s the thing about Mike Batt. In some ways, his music is a bit derivative, but what’s wrong with that if it’s done so well? He’s so good at writing in so many styles that he risks being seen as a jack of all musical trades, lacking in specialist talent or originality. He certainly deserves to be regarded as more than just “the man behind the Wombles”, but those songs alone deserve a lot of credit. I wish you all a Wombling Merry Christmas.