Since the early part of the 20th century the British public were fascinated by eastern culture which they thought of as exotic, erotic and sometimes comic. Schoolboys adored the sun-drenched adventures of The Arabian Knights, Lawrence of Arabia and Tutankhamen’s tomb raider Howard Carter. Mid-century middle-aged men became rather hot under the tab collar when exposed to the middle-eastern mid-riffs of hip-shaking belly-dancers, while London Palladium audiences would howl with laughter at the fez wearing, knobbly knee, sand-dancing antics of the highly popular comedy trio Wilson, Kepple and Betty.
This album opens with gentle humour from another beloved threesome The Beverly Sisters, who saucily sing about secret liaisons “down by the pyramids”. As the Bethnal Green girls harmonize, we can easily imagine them wearing diaphanous veils and harem pants while sand-stepping in unison around a cardboard cut-out sphinx during a BBC TV variety special.
Gloucestershire genius Joe Meek’s technical wizardry enhanced many Britxotica recordings as his progressive skills perfectly suited the experimental nature of the music. Working on Yashmak with Latin bandleader Chico Arnez, aka Streatham born bassist Jackie Davis, he creates a strident mix of bongos, drums and finger symbols in an attempt to conjure up an authentic Arabian atmosphere. He achieves this brilliantly, a considerable accomplishment as it was engineered in Pye Studios, just off the Marylebone road.
20 yr old whiz-kid string arranger Charles Blackwell worked under the guidance of Meek and soon became sought after for his beefy production sound, heard on many hits including Kathy Kirby’s ‘Secret Love’ and Tom Jones’s ‘What’s New Pussycat’. Here, in mashed-up Britxotica fashion, he combines the 1920 composition ‘In a Persian Market’ with something unexpected, England’s latests dance craze, The Twist.
Born in Whitechapel to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Solomon Schwartz began composing from the age of 12. Changing his name to Stanley Black, he achieved enormous success on both sides of the Atlantic with lush orchestral arrangements. Black was also one of the first English artists to release a long playing record and explore Latin American rhythms. The 1961 album ‘Exotic Percussion’ contains a myriad of inventive instrumentation, his cover of ‘Caravan’ is a gem of dramatic seduction while ‘Miserlou’ is an eruption of frenzied bongo mania.
The Arabian style of Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan’ and the hit musical ‘Kismet’ were highly influential on British musicians. Johnny Keating produced dynamic results by fusing pulsating rhythms with jazz while Reg Owen added kazoos to create a quirky Goon like instrumental. In contrast, Laurie Johnson, Tony Osborne and Philip Green blended percussion with orchestral scoring to evoke cinematic spectacle. Both ‘Call of the Casbah’ and ‘Marrakesh’ feel like thrilling Saharan adventures while ‘Baghdad Bazaar’ evokes the rug buying bustle of an Iraqi shopping centre.
Arabesque beauty Yana’s stunning looks and exotic charm proved irresistible to audiences who encouraged her one hit ‘Climb up the Wall’, which she sang in the epic movie ‘Zarak’, to climb up the charts. Although her real name was Pamela Guard, Yana’s allure was authentically eastern, being born and bred in Romford, Essex.
Crooner Kenny Day released a few 45’s on Top Rank, from jazz ballads to romantic teenage pop. His ‘Sheik of Morocco’ is a slightly popcorn novelty number written by Bob Merrill, lyricist of the musical ‘Funny Girl’. Sensitive Dorset born Roy Tierney was only 18 when he recorded ‘The Lonely One’ and according to the disc’s informative sleeve-notes, was expelled from school for his love of theatre before becoming a cabaret singer and ardent Budgerigar breeder. This sultry track was produced by Ivor Raymonde with a simple bongo led backing and tucked away on a B-side.
Ray Ellington, the mixed race son of a black American music hall entertainer and Russian mother, was raised in Kennington as an orthodox Jew. He wrote and performed swinging, humorous, Louis Jordan style jump jazz with a combo whose upbeat, electric guitar led sound proved inspirational with early rock and rollers. His 1959 release The Sultan of Bezaaz is a typically Britxotic mix of comedy, rock-n-roll and Persian pop delivered in Ellington’s boisterously cheeky manner.
The advent of the Beatles and their stoned love of fashionable Indian styles, caused interest in Middle Eastern music to wane, with songwriters only occasionally exploring the genre. The Rolling Stones used up-tempo Arabian rhythms on ‘Paint it Black’ while Led Zeppelin went slow, dark and deep on ‘Kashmir’. However, British audiences still preferred their Eastern exotica to be far less serious. Lads loved jumping around as Madness sang ‘Night Boat to Cairo’, students would forever ‘Rock The Casbah’ and girls, like the Beverly Sisters 30 years before, couldn’t resist the urge to get in a line, turn sideways and ‘Walk like an Egyptian’.
Camden Casbah. 2016