Sunday, 6 December 2020

Interview: Mike Batt talks Wombles, Roy Wood and their Christmas collaboration

#1,550: Believe it or not it's twenty (20) years since Roy Wood teamed up with Mike Batt to combine their iconic Christmas classics "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day" (#4 in 1973) and "Wombling Merry Christmas" (#2 in 1974) to produce "I Wish It Could Be A Wombling Merry Christmas Every Day" hence Yours Truly KJS thought it a good idea to talk with acclaimed singer/songwriter Mike Batt about the history of the project, The Wombles (naturally!), his new career retrospective album and much more in the latest addition to my exclusive series of interviews for elo beatles forever (elobf). Here's hoping that you enjoy reading it!

KJS: Thank you Mike for taking part in this interview with me for elobf! Let's start at the relative beginning. For many people of my generation, The Wombles remain a fond memory of a time when things seemed a little more innocent than they are today. How did your involvement with the musical entity that is The Wombles come about?
MB: I had left my job as a A&R man at Liberty Records because I didn't think it sat well with being an artist on the label (which I was) – and also because I wanted to do freelance arranging and production and learn my craft – arranging, conducting and producing. I had an agent for commercials and she sent me to these people at the production company, Filmfair, who were making The Wombles for the BBC. They asked for a tune but I suggested a song might be a good way to introduce some of the characters. So that’'s how I wrote the first song, "The Wombling Song" – Underground, Overground – and part of my deal with them was that I could take the character rights to promote records and write about the other characters.

KJS: Looking at the Official Chart Archive, The Wombles enjoyed a phenomenal career with eleven Top 40 singles and five Top 30 albums between 1974 and 2000. This must have been tremendously satisfying for you. What was it like being the mastermind behind the mask, so to speak, of such commercial success?
MB: As they were my first hits, it was exhilarating. I was 23 and had been in the business for 5 years, since I was 18, without having a hit, but building a good reputation in the industry. I had vowed that if ever I was lucky enough to have a hit, I would follow it up successfully. So I studied the art of "following up". Coincidentally, instead of all the prog rock and other stuff I did, my first hit was with The Wombles. I followed "The Wombling Song" with "Remember You're A Womble" – and we were off! Of course it was a joyous time because I have an overdeveloped sense of humour but it also presented an obstacle when I wanted my solo albums to be taken seriously afterwards. That happened outside of the UK where I became well known as a serious artist - but in the UK I’ll always be "Mr. Womble". Even now, answering this question!

KJS: For me, "Wombling Merry Christmas" remains one of the festive hits that still gets the foot tapping and brings a smile to the face even now here in 2020. Coming a year after Roy's epic hit with Wizzard, how did you approach writing and producing it?
MB: It was the year after Roy's hit. I loved the pseudo-Phil Spector OTT flavour of Roy's record and there are things in my record that are deliberately inspired by his. The shuffle rhythm for example, and the low saxes – which were in turn echoes of the Phil Spector Christmas album. It was written very quickly, I think they (CBS – now Sony) gave me 6 weeks to write and produce the whole album. I have always worked quickly anyway, but I remember this being particularly adrenaline fuelled!
Photograph used by permission (Mike Batt/Republic Media/Claire Williams)
KJS: You're ­an acclaimed singer/songwriter/producer/composer/author/director and you've "conducted more orchestras than you can shake a stick at". You've crafted such beautiful songs as "Bright Eyes" for Art Garfunkel and "The Closest Thing To Crazy" for Katie Melua amongst many, many others. Where do you rank your work with The Wombles within your career?
MB: I'm as proud of "Wombling Merry Christmas" as I am of "Bright Eyes". I would have liked to have had more hits as a solo artist (without my Womble head on!) – but the older I get and the more I hear it said by others, the more I believe that The Wombles weren't far away from The Beatles in terms of quality of work. I know that's a big claim, and it's stretching it a bit. But there was only one of me, – and 5 of them, including George Martin!

KJS: Fast forwarding a few years, when did you start considering that "Wombling Merry Christmas" could be combined with "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day" into a new song encompassing both identities? Was it your idea or that of Roy or was it a mutually inspired decision?
MB: It just came to me as a suitably silly idea, and I rang Roy and Noddy Holder to see if they'd like to do a three-way mash-up. Noddy wasn't having any of it, but Roy came down to my place and we got on with making it!

KJS: How did you and Roy go about merging the songs together? I'm guessing that you had to make difficult decisions as to which portions were retained and which were set aside. How long did the recording take to complete?
MB: On the first day of the time down at my house in Farnham, we just sat together and butchered the two songs together. "What about keeping this bit of mine, and then going into that bit of yours?". Roy was great to write with. He was quite prepared to jump from one chord to a totally unexpected other chord, against all the rules, which I sort of like anyway, but he was "who cares? If we do it, they’ll believe it".

KJS: What was it like working with Roy in the studio?
MB: Such fun. He brought his own stash of vodka and Red Bull (no drugs!) – to lubricate the sessions! We just "made" the record. We were both very confident producers, and respectful of each other. Just two pals, no inhibitions. I remember him saying "I think it needs some tambourines, – grabbing two tambourines and gaffer-taping newspapers to his legs so he could go in and do a take, smashing the tambourines against his legs. He smashed them so hard I realised why he'd used wads of newspaper! We decided it needed strings so I wrote them overnight and the players came to my house the next morning.

KJS: Had you crossed paths with Dr. Wood before this project?
MB: He was a member of the "Society of Distinguished Songwriters" which still exists but we hardly ever see him at our dinners these days. That's how I first met him. The first time I actually saw him in the flesh was when The Move played Southampton Civic Centre and I was just a teen audience member. (He was young for a band member and I was old for a schoolboy!). They were brilliant!
CLICK HERE to view the official music video for "I Wish It Could Be A Wombling Merry Christmas Every Day"
KJS: "I Wish It Could be A Wombling Merry Christmas Every Day" came out just before Christmas 2000. It was Dramatico's first CD single release and reached a respectable #22. Were you happy that it nestled so nicely in the UK Top 30 at the time?
MB: I was happy that it was a hit but the Greatest Hits – that we spent a lot of money advertising – bombed so I lost a LOT of money. It was quite frightening. I nearly had to sell my house. But I've been there a few times in my life. Luckily, I managed to survive via creating my band The Planets, (who went to #1 in the classical charts for 3 months) and then Katie Melua. Never on the ropes for long!

KJS: The music video looked like fun! Did you enjoying filming and participating in it?
MB: It was fun. We did it at the local TA Hall. I got a big green screen background and edited it all together afterwards.

KJS: As someone who considers "I Wish It Could be Christmas Every Day" as perhaps the finest festive song ever constructed, I must admit that I also find "I Wish It Could be A Wombling Merry Christmas Every Day" similarly pleasing to the ear for obvious reasons! Did you intend the string arrangements to add the almost ELOesque feel to the song – quite apt considering Roy's pivotal role in the creation of ELO?
MB: No – I always just write just what I want for strings. ELO never came into the conversation. To be honest I love Jeff Lynne's ELO but I think the string writing is a bit "obvious" (maybe because Roy and Jeff didn't arrange for strings themselves) – and nothing like my own style. #Just saying. He and Roy are still brilliant, and both heroes of mine.

KJS: Here's a tough question: What would be your favourite Beatles, ELO and Roy Wood tunes?
MB: Beatles, – probably things like "Things We Said Today" and "I'll Follow The Sun". But I love 90% of what they did. ELO, – "Wild West Hero" is a favourite. Roy, – so many, but I love the freshness of the early work like "I Can Hear The Grass Grow" and "Fire Brigade".

KJS: Here in Yours Truly 2020, you've just released "Mike Batt: The Penultimate Collection", a 36 track overview of your career. Please tell us about it and how folks can get hold of a copy?
MB: It's a collection of tracks from throughout. My life, a couple of tracks from each of my solo albums, three Wombles tracks, some newly recorded tracks and also hits that were hits in other countries but not here (like "The Ride To Agadir" and "Lady Of The Dawn" which were massive overseas but because of The Wombles, never got played here. There are versions of me singing "Bright Eyes", "A Winter's Tale", "I Feel Like Buddy Holly", "Please Don't Fall In Love", "Nine Million Bicycles" etc. – in other words, the hits! It's available from Amazon and any other stores, and a signed one can be obtained from www.mikebatt.com/shop
KJS: And finally ... what's next for Mike Batt going forward?
MB: I'm involved in a project with a French artist. Top Secret. He's unknown, but we are devising a strategy to launch him with "other media" as well as an album, because relying on record sales and streaming is a mug's game these days! It’s quite exciting work and I think I've written some of my best ever songs for it. I'll be doing some touring next year – here in the UK if restrictions are lifted and definitely in Germany between the 22nd and 27th November.

elo beatles forever (elobf) recommends Mike Batt and "The Penultimate Collection" to those enlightened folks who enjoy the music of Roy WoodWizzardJeff Lynne's ELOThe MoveThe Idle Race'Brum Beat'The Beatles and related artistes.

*** Until next "Time" in the elobf universe ... KJS ... 06-Dec-2020 ***

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