I've been listening to Barry Booth's 1968 album Diversions a lot recently. I first heard it on Stuart Maconie's excellent Radio 6 show The Freak Zone, where it was featured as an album of the week. In some senses a product of the psychedelic era, as the cover art would certainly suggest, in others it stands wholly apart from it. The 'beautiful people' are only seen in the background, on the streets below the flat where the model builder in 'He's Very Good With His Hands' constructs his kits, for example. The songs do share the preoccupation of the age with childlike adults and dreamy nonsense rhymes, however. The lyrics were written by Terry Jones and Michael Palin and sung by Booth, who also plays piano and sings. He has a pleasant, lightly pitched voice with pronounced Yorkshire vowels at times, but was modest about his abilities and never sang on disc again. He has worked as a musical arranger for many people, including Roy Orbison, John Renbourne, Bert Jansch (The Avocet, I wonder?) and not forgetting Rolf Harris (and according to his website, Tim Buckley - bloody hell). The arrangements on this album use brass and strings to very good effect, and he plays some fantastic piano, producing some great baroque lines with a firm right hand, sounding like some of the modal jazz players of the 50s and 60s at times inflected with hints of English folk melodies(the beginning of The Problems of a Simple Man, for example). The distinctively evocative fanfare-like opening of The Hottest Day of the Year also illustrates his innovative ear for unusual and yet still tuneful melody. The drums sometimes betray his background in televison music, sounding like they come from a musical number on The Two Ronnies, or some other Ronnie Hazlehurst piece of BBC Radio Orchestra smoothnes, but frankly, what's so bad about that?
The songs themselves partake of the British penchant for wistful melancholia. Some are simple nonsense rhymes, with a whiff of Edward Lear about them. The Kings Thing particularly appeals to the childish side of my sense of humour, with a gnome-like voice (a la David Bowie's Laughing Gnome) constantly interrupting with a 'pardon?' to Booth's increasing consternation (he finally sighs 'I don't believe it - why don't you just listen?') Others share Ray Davies's love of depicting everyday English eccentricities, but without the satirical edge which much of his songs of this period possessed. Indeed, lying beneath the surface is a sense of deep sadness and even incipient madness which threatens to overwhelm many of the repressed or depressed characters we meet. There's Vera Lamonte, who dreams of a glamorous life as a famous trapeze artist, courted and admired by the wealthy and famous, a life which she never led. Instead, she lives a nocturnal existence in a flat, lonely and uncared for, her dreams interrupted by the boiling kettle. Or there's Henry Smith (in 'Henry Smith Addresses a Butterfly') who wishes he could be a butterfly, bringing happiness into other people's lives, instead of being stuck with his own gloomy existence ('the sadness of Smith'). It is the dream of the happy,carefree simpleton which crops up in other songs of the era, such as The Small Faces 'Mad John' or Neil Innes' 'How Sweet To Be An Idiot'. Then there's Henry Watkins, in 'The Hottest Day of the Year', who overcomes years of timidity by first taking off his bowler hat, then his worsted suit and just carrying on from there, 'til 'his shirt was divested and he was bare-chested'. Fortunately for him, this unburdening of his repressions, which could be seen as a breakdown, is greeted with cheers, and he runs happily off over the park grass. Henry Dupont is not so fortunate. This purveyor of fruit and veg in the markets of Marseilles (the inevitable accordion accompanies the song, of course) is taken away by 'six Israelis and a Turk', his head full of dark visions which perhaps stem from the war (was he indeed a collaborator?) There is also 'A Concise History of Harry Shoes', the eponymous character of which is generally agreed by everyone to be 'the man with very poor taste', the details of which are delineated in the song before his demise is noted. Of this, nobody has anything to say, at which points Booth sings (and Palin writes) 'I think that's very poor taste'. The sense of melancholia and disappointment at life's failure to match the vague dreams which youth promises are summed up in 'After the War', when 'things were supposed to be different', but in actuality swiftly revert to ennervating routines (days on the allotment and cycling trips to Worthing - Jones and Palin are great at capturing the telling detail). The dream of moving from the flat above the bakery to a house in Kew (of post-war upward mobility, in other words) merely leads to boredom. There is even a flirtation with suicide, a la Brief Encounter, in the marvellously titled 'The Last Time I Saw You Was Tomorrow', although, as with many of the songs, it turns out that we are seeing the world through the eyes of an incurable dreamer for whom the barriers between reality and fantasy frequently collapse.
In case I'm making this all sound rather depressing, I should emphasise that this is far from the case. One look at the pictures on Booth's entertaining website show that he is clearly a man with a great sense of fun. I suppose a good analogy would be with The Beatles' Eleanor Rigby (or Yesterday) whose lyrical content is bittersweet but is made exhilarating by its melodic power. A lot of the music here is very upbeat, as well. The songs pull off that tricky balance of being happy and sad at the same time. There is a strong absurdist undercurrent, which also manages to juggle the delightfully silly and the reflective. This is best heard in the song 'Mole', a slightly aggressive address to a member of the titular tunneler set to a particularly groovy piano line. The lyrics consist of an interrogation over whether he misses various random aspects of human life which pass him by down in his burrow: football on Saturday, washing the car, catching the early train, cocktail parties, waiting in queues. It is another litany of the everyday which leaves us thinking he's probably happier off down underground, all things considered. The final track on the LP, 'Sad Jolly Song', sums up the ethos of the record, a nonsense song featuring maidens and sycoraxes with a chorus which I find myself humming (possibly even singing in more absent-minded moments) as I cycle about town. It even allows the final words to have a very Yorkshire flavour (Palin and Booth allowing their roots to show). So, altogether now: 'Hey do, hey dee, life is full of misery/Hey do, hey dum, isn't it just, by gum'.