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Spitting Image

Phil Pope

The Spit's musical director and composer of the cretinous Chicken Song, Phil Pope, coughs it all up for Jim Betteridge

Phil Pope, musical director of Spitting Image, composer of the cretinous Chicken Song, knows a bit about Pop — and all of it's bad!

Spitting Image' is basically about taking the piss. It has been known to make a telling political observation or two and it certainly isn't opposed to a spot of meaningful social comment. But basically it points out the ridiculous wherever it can be found, and the Popular Music industry is as good a place as any for that.

Philip Pope is responsible for the Spitting Image musical micky taking; he's written and performed in the radio series 'Radio Active', the comedy group The HeeBeeGeeBees and the TV series 'Who Dares Wins'. With Spitting Image it is his job to walk the thin line between pastiche and plagiarism, to write, produce and often perform songs in the general musical styles of an artist, but not criminally similar to any actual copyrighted tune.

He comes from the same stables as Rowan Atkinson and indeed trots out a similar line in ironic banter and wit. He read 'French, Latin and pornography' at Oxford and appeared in the highly regarded 'Oxford Review' at the Edinburgh Festival the year after ol' Rubber Face: a truly classical training for the mainstream-alternative comedy circuit. Having suitably abused the best education tradition can offer, the same company took to the road, touring the fringe with a show that was to become the basis for the satirical radio review 'Radio Active', which in turn was to become the birth place of The HeeBeeGeeBees.

"It was really a piss take of local radio," recounts Philip. "Local BBC stations thought it was aimed at commercial radio, and commercial stations thought it was aimed at BBC locals — and still do. I don't suppose many of your readers will have heard it because it was put out on Radio 4 — obviously perfectly suited and well placed by the BBC: when you're doing parodies of commercial radio and Pop groups, it's certainly best to put it out in the living rooms of retired colonels in Cheltenham."

The ironic edge in Philip's voice was now turning to mild irritation.

"BBC 1 have always declined to take it on the grounds that they have their own funsters, and certainly Steve Wright is a great fan of our programme, or judging by the contents of his programme he is; a lot of his ideas are very similar. Not that I'm bitter, of course (laughs). But anyway, because it was based around radio it was natural to have piss-takes of Pop music. The basic idea came from Richard Curtis who writes for Rowan Atkinson, and from that came the Bee Gees parody, Meaningless Songs In Very High Voices. It was conceived at a weekend-long party in ZarBruken in Germany around the time of 'Saturday Night Fever', and everywhere you went they were playing the Bee Gees; it just seemed so ridiculous, especially after 20-odd bottles of local Pilsner. So we all started sticking our fingers in our ears and whining in falsetto, and so were born The HeeBeeGeeBees. We did an album, 439 Golden Greats, which went silver over here, and we toured the UK to packed houses; then we took the show to Australia where the album went gold. We've toured Australia three times now; we like it; it's warm and sunny, there's good food, you don't have to worry about Art because they're Australian... perhaps I shouldn't say that."

Then again, he has said worse things that he didn't actually mean. If he writes the music, who writes the words?

"As far as choice of material goes, the Spitting Image producer John Lloyd, who also did 'Not The Nine O'clock News', is at the head of a rather large and hopefully democratic pyramid. As far as scripts go he is the central figure. Next in line is the Script Editor Jeffrey Perkins (also producer of 'Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy'), and they work as a selection team. As far as the lyrics go, people do send stuff in, but there's a nucleus of about six people who come up with most of the ideas and then John and Jeffrey make their choices."

So here is a man whose education seems best to equip him for reading mottos on company crests and ordering meals in French restaurants with minimal embarrassment. How has he come to be a musician? What is the secret of great parody writing?

"My actual musical education was very limited: piano and clarinet lessons. The clarinet is, of course, particularly well suited to Pop — Benny Goodman parodies, Acker Bilk satire and so on, it's absolutely perfect."

He is, of course, joking, although it isn't always easy to tell, his face a picture of sober sincerity. Now he's mildly serious again.

"I suppose theoretically the simplest way to write musical parody is to take the original score and hold it up to a mirror, or hold it upside down or something, and write its opposite. But obviously I don't actually do that; it's just something weird and dreadful that happens naturally. You tend to recognise certain chord structures in most songs, it's only with more complex or difficult songs, or with artists whose work I don't really know very well, that it might be necessary to look at something more analytically, as someone who knew something about music might. Do you know much about music?" he asks with just a hint of wariness. "I mean, are you a musician?"

I tell him I 'do a bit' and he modestly suggests that I could probably do his job, but unfortunately it somehow falls short of an offer of employment. He continues his explanation.

"I generally try not to parody one individual song but rather to get a general feel of the artist's style. Sometimes the lyrics will have been written for an actual song, as with the We Are The World/We're Scared Of Bob number, in which case it is more difficult not to be dangerously similar. It is surprising how different you can make the melody and chords, though, and still keep it easily recognisable, as long as the feel is maintained. If you're just trying to parody an artist in general, it's possible to amass lots of different elements without getting specific. It's just like with the puppets where they take one aspect of the person and exaggerate it to make it comical; I try to do the same with a musical style. It's very hard to have an actual musical joke; it wouldn't be quite the same if you took away the words and just left the music. I mean there are very few people who look at a manuscript and laugh — although some people do when they look at my manuscripts.

"The best parodies tend to come when I know the artist's work well, and ironically enough there is that old thing of there being an element of tribute or flattery in parody. I listen to the radio a lot in the car. I tend to forget where I live and so I often find myself driving around late at night waiting to remember. With the Phil Collins number there are elements of three or four songs in there: Sussudio, In The Air Tonight, One More Night, but I don't tend to get that specific, I just listen to a lot of someone's music and then write something that incorporates the overall feel.

"The vocals are probably the most important element. Readers of your magazine might actually listen more to the arrangements and the way a song's been written, but most punters will just listen to the voice and say, 'That's a nice tune'. There's the occasional shrieking with Phil Collins and with the Bee Gees its the clamps in the underpants, the high voices, the breathiness, the overwhelming sincerity and the feeling when you're listening to them that they are staring wide-eyed into the middle distance.

"But with many successful artists you find that they are constantly changing elements of what they do. Prince, for instance, is always recognisable for the growl in his voice, but on one album he didn't use any bass; Peter Gabriel on one album didn't use any hi hat. You have to make sure that the aspect you're parodying is current."

If indeed it is flattery, the fact is often cleverly disguised behind a shroud of highly personal abuse, and yet when it's accurate it is undoubtedly hysterically funny. Phil Collins' apparent reflection of the turmoil of his own personal life in his songs might have seemed a little sensitive to bring to the attention of millions of viewers worldwide, but no; 'I'm so lonely, Fame is just a myth, I've lost my wife, And I look like... Mel Smith', I enquire as to whether or not any victims get upset or threaten litigation.

"I don't really know. I don't think Phil really meant those letter bombs he sent. Whenever I've been in the same room with him he's always seemed okay. Reactions are all exaggerated by the media. I think most people who make it onto 'Spitting Image' as puppets have a good enough sense of humour and don't really mind, except politicians, who generally take themselves so seriously. It's actually something of an accolade; we've parodied the greats — Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Barry Manilow — you don't get on unless you're exceptional.

"And because the shows generally only go out once, there's not a great deal of money involved, so no-one's too interested in trying to get a piece of the action, as it were. From that point of view it's all a matter of interpretation of the copyright. The lines between plagiarism, pastiche, parody and passing-off (where you profit from pretending to be someone else) are very thin, but certainly we've had very little trouble with that, and no-one's been successful."

What about bad taste? Some people thought that of the Band Aid parody, We're Scared Of Bob, in which it was suggested that the artists only participated for fear of Bob's wrath should they refuse.

"Yes, that was very difficult. Several people had been coming up with ideas for that kind of song; in fact a journalist who had just done an interview with Bob Geldof had apparently suggested to him that someone should do a comedy record of We Are The World, and he had apparently said, 'Yeah, great. Get out there, make people laff, as long as you get the fooking monnie'."

Philip had dropped into a very convincing Irish brogue for this; just one of his hysterically convincing impersonations. Then he was back to his 'unpretentious, but definitely cultured' self.

"So she came to me saying that she had the official blessing of the Band Aid Trust, and that we should really do something. So I went around all the comedy writers from practically every show I'd done and asked them if they could think of a funny angle on Ethiopia. Predictably there was much shaking of heads, sharp intaking of breath, and basically no-one wanted to touch it. It was like trying to get rid of stolen goods. A few sketches did come in, but they were all considered too risky or tasteless until the boys came up with the idea that actually went out on air, which was that all the artists were happy to sing on the recording but mainly because they were scared of Geldof, who by this time had become famous for his direct outspoken approach to things and people."

What about arranging and demoing?

"I tend to write one or two parts out if there's any really specific musical joke to be put in, but I find that people who play their instruments well will come up with something better than you can write anyway. I have a small studio with a colleague called James Simpson where I often demo things, but we very rarely try to go for master quality. It's a B16 with a Soundtracs desk; we've got an OB8, a DX-7, an RX11 and a few toys like the REV-7 and some old flangers and things — just like everyone else really. We also have a Steinberg sequencer for the Commodore 64 which is very useful when time is pushed, which it very often is. The master is done at Central TV in Birmingham. We take it very seriously, we insist that we record it on the set of 'Crossroads'. That's actually true because, although they've had the equipment for some time, they haven't yet managed to finish building their studio. Hopefully it'll all be there for the next series."

Having spent so much time studying and recreating the essence of Pop music, had Philip managed to derive a hybrid formula for the perfect Pop song?

"I did some music with Steve Brown for a show called 'The History Of Rock', for which we wanted to write a number of non-specific Pop/Rock songs, and somehow we came up with the idea that the two most successful forms of music in the Western world are Country and Reggae. So we decided to create a new form of music called Country Reggae: the drummer played a simple straight rhythm with the occasional reggae crash, and the bassist played a combination of roots and fifths with off beats, and so on, and the result was very catchy. So I suggest that if anyone wants to make a fortune they should get into Country Reggae.

"The Chicken Song was intended to be non-specific, even though it came out rather like Black Lace. We'd tried a Northerners' holiday song some time before, called Booze and Shag and Go To Loo, sung in a Yorkshire accent with a more direct lyric; 'Booze and shag and go to loo, that is what we're going to do', and so on,"

It makes The Chicken Song sound like high art.

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Dread at the Controls

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Feelers On The Dealers

International Musician & Recording World - Copyright: Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.


International Musician - Aug 1986

Interview by Jim Betteridge

Previous article in this issue:

> Dread at the Controls

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> Feelers On The Dealers

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