The BBC TV show Later was sometimes ridiculed for being a bit on the muso side. But - with the exception of The White Room - it was as good as TV pop shows got in the 1990s and it did have its moments, amongst the best of which was the appearance of Denim, when they did 'The Osmonds' and 'Middle of the Road'. That was the first time I'd heard Denim and - apart from the joy of seeing Lawrence again after the disappearance of Felt - I, like everyone else, was totally blown away by the music. 'The Osmonds' summed up the experience of the 70s like no other song ever has, and 'Middle of the Road' was an anthem like we'd never heard: for the first time ever, someone was reclaiming 'Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep' not only as a classic pop song but as a badge of pride. If you ever felt that the critical consensus on rock & roll history was limited, predictable and stultifying, this was the song for you.
At around the same time, the group Middle Of The Road were re-forming and drummer Ken Andrew says that Denim's song gave them great encouragement. For so many years they'd been either ignored altogether, or else cited as creators of one of the worst records ever, that anyone celebrating their achievement was worth having on board.
There are many artists whose recorded work is entirely eclipsed by their first hit - Mungo Jerry spring to mind - but not many have had to live with a legacy like that of Middle Of The Road. They were a Scottish pop group working in Italy when they got a deal with RCA and were offered a song written by Lally Scott. 'Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep' had already been a hit for its composer in Italy, but his record company - Phillips - were reluctant to release it abroad. Scott was drafted in to produce Middle Of The Road's version, but the group weren't keen on his ideas: he wanted to give the song a soul treatment, while they argued that it was such nonsense in the first place, that it couldn't be taken seriously. 'We were as disgusted with the thought of recording it as most people were at the thought of buying it,' says Ken. 'But at the end of the day, we liked it.'
The same was true of most of Europe, however much everyone you know will now try to deny it. 'Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep' hit the British charts in June 1971 - picking up sales as holidaymakers returned from Europe - and spent the next 34 weeks in the top fifty. During this extraordinary run, the group also notched up two more big hits: the not very good 'Tweedle Dee Tweedle Dum' and the much better 'Soley Soley'. 1972 saw three more minor hits and that - although elsewhere there were still hits to come - was the end of Middle Of The Road's success at home.
This means that we missed out on the group's best work. There was 'Eve', a proto-feminist anthem with lyrics by the vastly under-rated singer Sally Carr, there was an anti-protest song 'Blind Detonation' and - best of all - there was 'Union Silver'. Listen to this song today (if you can find a copy) and you'd swear it was influenced by Abba during their 'Fernando' period. Except that it was recorded three years earlier than 'Fernando'. If there was an influence, it was the other way round and - given Middle Of The Road's popularity in Scandinavia - it seems not implausible. (In fact as a solo artist Agnetha Faltskog had covered the song under the title 'En Sang Om Sorg Och Glädje'.)
As the hits faded in all markets, Middle Of The Road signed a new deal with DJM and attempted to relaunch their career with a 1975 single 'Hitching A Ride In The Moonlight', which I haven't heard since the time, but which I remember liking very well. Lack of promotion, however, ensured its early demise. By now, the group had split with its original management/production team and was rapidly losing its direction. It came as no surprise when they split.
The explosion of glam just a year after Middle Of The Road first entered the charts meant that their role has tended to be forgotten; so to balance the neglect of hindsight, here's Nicky Chinn in 1972: 'I think they have played an exceptionally important role because they, perhaps more than any other group, have helped to bring back the pop melody.' If you really want to see the rebirth of British pop in the post-Beatles era, this judgement is worth remembering.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the original line-up re-formed to work the revival circuit. A subsequent split in the ranks has left two separate bands using the same name - clearly to the detriment of both. The genuine article is the incarnation featuring Sally and Ken, who recorded a new collection of their old songs in 1997. They're still playing, mostly in mainland Europe, and if you go along you won't be disappointed - they still do 'Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep', though it must be said they also do a version of 'Radio Ga Ga,' which is taking a love of nonsense songs too far.
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Middle of the Road have a surprise #1 hit