Thursday, 20 October 2016

Odd Songs #007: Toast And Marmalade For Tea

As I've mentioned before, "Odd Songs" isn't really a very good name for this series - it's more just songs that I like for one reason or another - but I'm sticking with it, mainly because changing it would break the links that are out there in various places on the internet. However, this one truly is a real oddity - and I think the first that I've thus far written about that wasn't actually a hit in the UK charts - so "Odd" is a good fit on this occasion.

So here it is, one of (in my opinion) the best and most unusual examples of psychedelic pop ever recorded; the Australian band Tin Tin's "Toast And Marmalade For Tea":

Aside from it having a unique sound - certainly I've never heard anything else like it - it's got a really interesting backstory and links into the output of a bewildering amount of other artists. There's so much related stuff going on that I don't think I've quite got my head around it all, so this is going to have to be a pretty simplified version of its story. But prior to moving onto that, I'd like to look at the events - and there were a lot of them - leading to its eventual release.

Prior to becoming the band Tin Tin, Steve Groves (the writer of the song) had been in a number of bands in Australia with some mild success. To begin with, he formed The Kinetics in Melbourne in 1965, with a line-up of Groves (vocals, guitar, harmonica), Johnny Vallins (guitar, drums, clarinet), Ken Leroy (bass) and Ian Manzie (drums, piano, banjo). The Kinetics released a couple of singles in Australia, the largest of which was "Excuses", which hit #19 on the local Melbourne charts in 1966, but narrowly missed out on the national Australian charts:

Clearly influenced on the beat groups popular at the time, it's a fun song, but certainly a far cry from the later Tin Tin output. Two further singles followed (again, released only in Australia), but neither achieved even the minor success of "Excuses". Following their third and final single (which reached #29 on the local charts in July 1967, but did little nationally, Vallins left the band and the remaining members changed their name to The Trap, although no recordings were issued under this name and The Trap split in 1968.

This is where Steve Kipner enters the story. He was previously leader of the band Steve And The Board, another Australian band who had a minor pop hit in Australia with "The Giggle-Eyed Goo"). Written by Steve's father Nat Kipner (who also produced) and guitarist Carl Groszman, it was initially released in late 1965 but didn't achieve its success until it was later picked up by Spin Records in 1966; Nat Kipner was a big cheese at Spin Records, which almost certainly had something to do with this. It's another classic (although surprisingly spiky - almost garage-rock like - for its time) piece of beat-band pop:

It was at this point that perhaps the most significant piece of the Tin Tin story comes about. Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb (along with their younger brother Andy and older sister Lesley) had emigrated with their parents from the UK to Brisbane, Australia in 1958 and the three elder brothers had actually formed a band that same year as a three-piece tight harmony group (the BGs; the Bee Gees name not being coined until 1963). Depite sporadic appearances on Australian TV in the early 1960s and regularly releasing singles during the early to mid-sixties, they made little impact on the Australian market. However, Nat Kipner signed them to Spin Records in 1966 (and Steve Kipner subsequently became good friends with the three Gibb Brothers, often singing backing vocals on their recordings). On Spin Records, The Bee Gees had a major hit with the Barry-Gibb penned, Nat Kipner-produced "Spicks And Specks" (#4 on the national Australian charts in 1966, then - when released elsewhere in early 1967 - a #1 in New Zealand, #3 in the Netherlands, #28 in Germany and #56 in Japan). Even at this stage of their career, I think it's very much recognisable as a "Bee Gees tune":

(As an amusing side-note, the Bee Gees were disillusioned with their lack of Australian success and decided to return to the UK, hoping to build a career there. They only learned of the success of "Spicks And Specks" during their return ocean voyage in January 1967, a point by which they were committed to their return to the UK (in late 1966, Hugh Gibb - the brothers' father - had sent demos to Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who subsequently passed them on to his then business partner Robert Stigwood, who was very interested in securing their services). On arriving back in the UK, the brothers auditioned for Stigwood, who secured them a five-year deal with Polydor Records in the UK and Atco in the US, so beginning their first period of worldwide success (Maurice, Robin and Barry having by this time been joined by younger brother Andy, along with Vince Melouney (guitar) and Colin Peterson (drums).

Meanwhile, back in Australia, Steve And The Board had split in May 1967 and Steve Groves and Steve Kipner formed a vocal harmony band, Steve & Stevie, in 1968. Just one single, "Remains To Be Seen", was released later that same year:

Shortly afterwards, the duo reunited with former member of The Kinetics, John Vallins to form the short-lived Rombo's World. If Rombo's World released any output, I can't find it; sorry about that.

Following this, Groves and Kipner relocated to the UK in 1969 to form the band Tin Tin. Maurice Gibb introduced them to Robert Stigwood, who signed them to a one-album deal with Polydor. At this point Groves was taking care of vocals, guitar and percussion, with Kipner playing bass guitar, harpsichord, mellotron, percussion, piano, electric piano, tambourine, as well as singing); they had no official drummer yet, so in addition to their other duties, both Groves and Kipner played drums on their first, Maurice Gibb-produced album (with Gibb also adding some bass, mellotron, harpsichord and organ on about half the tracks). This, their self-titled debut album was eventually released February 1970, but a (non-charting) single, "Only Ladies Play Croquet" was released ahead of the album in May 1969:

Also on the album was the song that this post was supposed to be about (I knew I'd get back to it eventually!), "Toast And Marmalade For Tea". Initially it comprised only nursery rhyme-like verses by Steve Groves, the intention being that he and Kipner would collaborate on a chorus to complete the song, although this never actually came about; the verses were simply repeated throughout with alternating backing and chord changes. A demo, consisting only of guitar, piano and vocals was recorded by Groves and Kipner in June 1969 prior to Maurice Gibb calling them into the studio the following month to re-record a version intended for the album.

The studio in which this version of "Toast And Marmalade For Tea" was recorded did have a drumkit, but it was apparently largely broken, so Steve Kipner created a drum track by manually pushing down on the pedals, as well as supplying vocals and piano. As with their other tracks, Steve Groves also featured as vocalist (completing their trademark harmonies), in addition to playing guitar and using various things found around the studio to add some odd little sound effects here and there. Maurice Gibb - with a broken arm, no less - provided the bass track and Gerry Shury - seemingly a hired hand for this track and a couple of others on the album - was responsible for the orchestral arrangement, thus completing the track.

Of course, that makes it all sound like a fairly straightforward piece of psychedelic pop, which it patently isn't, due entirely to the wobbly piano melody. It's this aspect of the recording that sets the song apart, giving it an entirely unique sound. And the best bit about it is that it was created by accident, due to a studio engineer accidentally leaning on a tape machine, so warping the piano sound as the final recording was being put together.

Although the album was not a success on its initial release, the band obviously had faith in it, releasing "Toast And Marmalade For Tea" as a second single. It got some airplay in the UK, but wasn't a chart hit here; however, it became quite a major single in the summer of 1971, reaching #10 in Australia and #20 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the USA. At some point prior to this, Geoff Bridgford had been recruited on drums and in May 1971, John Vallins (bass, guitar, vocals) reunited yet again with Groves and Kipner, presumably for touring duties; the unexpected success of the single led to a support slot with the Bee Gees on their 1972 US tour.

A further album, "Astral Taxi", was released by the band in late 1971, from which Tin Tin's only other hit, "Is That The Way", was taken:

Whilst it obviously shares some of its musical DNA with their trademark hit, it didn't make such a big impression, reaching just #59 on the US charts.

Tin Tin eventually disbanded in 1973, but that's far from the end of the story, as unusually for such a minor, long-forgotten band, the major players all went on to greater success:

- Steve Groves returned to Australia as a singer-songwriter - and later leader of The Steve Groves Band - co-writing (with Brian Dawe) "On The Loose (Again)", which won the Australian Popular Song Contest (the Aussie equivalent of Eurovision, I guess) for the popular actor/singer Marty Rhone in 1976. Both the Rhone and Groves versions of the song were hits in Australia simultaneously in early 1977; here's the Steve Groves Band version:

- Steve Kipner went on to co-write several massive hits for other artists, including "Hard Habit To Break" (co-written with John Lewis Parker), a #3 US hit for Chicago in 1984 (#8 UK) and "Physical" (co-written with Terry Shaddick) for Olivia Newton-John (an absolutely massive smash in the US, holding the #1 position for ten weeks in 1981-1982). Much later, as one of EMI's most prominent songwriters, he also co-wrote "Genie In A Bottle" for Christina Aguilera, winning the Ivor Novello award for "International Hit Single Of The Year" in 2000.

- And finally, John Vallins teamed up with Nat Kipner (who, as I'm sure you'll remember was Steve Kipner's dad) to write "Too Much Too Little Too Late" for Johnny Mathis & Deniece Williams, a #1 hit in the USA (also #3 in the UK, #2 in New Zealand, #6 in Australia, #9 in Canada) in 1978.

When I embarked upon this post, I thought it would be a nice, easy little curiosity that wouldn't take very long. I've left out a whole host of stuff (most notably the Brian Epstein/Beatles/Robert Stigwood connections, which probably warrant a whole book just to themselves) and it's still taken the best part of an afternoon to (attempt to) get the basic story down straight. And I'm not even sure I've succeeded in doing that!

Usually I end these things with some cover versions, but there don't appear to be many of them out there, but here's one from Stardeath and White Dwarfs which quite nicely captures the spirit of the original:

And - as I'm sure you'll be relieved to read, assuming you've made it this far - that's all I'm going to write about this curious song.

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