Sunday, 14 August 2016

Gnome Thoughts ... 38 (Toll the Bell for Minnie Dyer by Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks)

I thought this series of posts about David Bowie's musical inspirations had come to a natural end, but something I read online today demands to be recorded here. Searching for the Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks song Toll the Bell for Minnie Dyer, I happened across a transcript of Bowie chatting to fans in 2001. Asked if he likes the Carry On films and Kenneth Williams in particular, Bowie replies:

Ken Williams had a wonderful album out in the 60s, the name of which I can't remember. But it contained a delightful track track called "Minnie Dyer" which went something like: "sheewer deeyoooweeee Minnie Dyer...and her dum dum dum dum dum...." so there you are! My memory never fails me!
The memory may not be too detailed, but his sense of rhythm is certainly precise: the number of "dums" is spot on. And what makes this interesting is that the album, entitled On Pleasure Bent, was released in 1967 on the Decca label. I haven't been able to find the precise date of release so I don't know whether Bowie might have heard it before starting work on his debut album - released on 1st June, along with one Sergeant Pepper - but in a way that doesn't matter. The point is that it's an acknowledged connection with the "larky" songs of Rudge and Dicks.

The lyricist Myles Rudge's sleevenotes for On Pleasure Bent, declare:
TOLL THE BELL FOR MINNIE DYER is a folk song but not, for once, about political disturbances in our late lamented colonies. It tells of the love of a simple country girl for her bicycle.

Which seems precisely the right introduction. Here is Myles Rudge's lyric in full, corrected from an entry on the excellent mudcat site.
by Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks

She were dewy, Minnie Dyer, as a soft September morn,
With 'er cheeks as red as apples, an' 'er 'air as gold as corn,
But the wanderlust was in 'er and it caused a lot of talk
When 'er bought an old bicycle so 'er wouldn't have to walk.
Toll the bell for Minnie Dyer.
Tell the organist to play.
'Ad 'er not 'ad that flat tyre,
She'd be 'ere today,
She'd be 'ere today.

'Er went peddlin' round the village and 'er travelled near an' far,
And 'er lifted up 'er saddle and 'er dropped 'er 'andlebar,
So when she was comin' at you, it was not so bad at all,
But as soon as 'er went past, you 'ad to turn and face the wall.
Toll the bell for Minnie Dyer.
Fill the church from end to end.
Ev'ry member of the choir
Feels he's lost a friend,
Feels he's lost a friend.

'Er 'ad trouble with 'er steerin' but 'er didn't pay no mind,
Up in front 'er little basket and a big red lamp be'ind.
All night long 'er bell would tinkle and the old uns used to chat:
"Hark, my duck, 'tis Minnie Dyer - us do know what 'er be at!"
Toll the bell for Minnie Dyer
While the lads sing loud and clear.
Both the parson and the squire
Wipe away a tear,
Wipe away a tear.

'Twas a wonder and a marvel how her tyres stood the pace,
And 'er kept 'er puncture outfit in an unexpected place.
'Er could stand up on the saddle sort of acrobatic-like,
But there's one thing even Minnie couldn't manage on a bike.
Toll the bell for Minnie Dyer.
Tell the verger pull the rope.
'Er have gone to someplace 'igher,
Or at least we 'ope,
Or at least we 'ope.
Perhaps surprisingly, one mudcat contributor says of the song:
it mystifies me. It seems to be lacking a punch line. How exactly did Minnie die? What was the one thing that Minnie couldn't manage on a bike, and how did it (presumably) lead to her death?
In case there may be others who feel the same way the answer, I think, is obvious ... even though the fun - as in the description in the sleevenotes - is in not having it spelt out in the song. So if you already get it, please look away NOW.

Those familiar with an earlier post about the songwriting pair may remember their producer, George Martin, lamenting the effect that television had on the style of song Rudge and Dicks favoured:
People started listening with their eyes instead of their ears, and that altered what we were doing.
Several years on from their triumphs with Hole in the Ground and Right Said Fred, television must have had more of a stranglehold on the nation by the time On Pleasure Bent was released, but it doesn't sound as though there has been any dumbing down in the writing.

In brief, then, for the confused: Minnie's purchase of a bicycle has enabled her to become "friends" - yes, in that way - with just about the entire male population of the village, from the highest to the lowest, occasioning much gossip. I initially thought the suggestion in the song was that she met her end when ambition overtook her and she tried to perform The Deed while cycling, but as there is no mention of a punctured parson or caved-in choirboy lying by the roadside I think it's more likely to have been a case of the flat tire mentioned earlier.

And in answer to the bafflement of the mudcat contributor, I don't think there is a punchline as such. The wit of the song is in the gradual revelation of the number of Minnie's lovers, from choirboys to parson and even village squire, along with the inventiveness of the innuendo-laden description of the bicycle:
Up in front 'er little basket and a big red lamp be'ind.

'Twas a wonder and a marvel how her tyres stood the pace.
There is, however, a final twist at the end, in the half-acknowledgement that her conduct, however valued by the village's menfolk, may be viewed less indulgently by her Maker:
'Er have gone to someplace 'igher,
Or at least we 'ope,
Or at least we 'ope.
I suppose it's possible for a contemporary audience to find offence in this song - I don't know how old the use of "bike" as derogatory term may be, but Minnie is indvisible from her machine, and even if never spelt out in the song the association may have been intended.

Against that, it has to be pointed that she is remembered with affection rather than scorn. And the, the song is not dissimilar in spirit to Jake Thackray's later (1969) Country Girl. Like Thackray's heroine, Minnie could be seen as a life force, linked to nature ("cheeks as red as apples" - though, granted, the fruit does have a specific biblical connotation as well). 

Then again, maybe the opening lines are simply a case of Rudge's mischief-making. They suggest we are in for the kind of inoffensive bucolic idyll Lucky Jim's Professor Welch would have enjoyed but before long the rug is being gently tugged from under us.

The arrangement by Barry Booth, arranger and MD for the whole album, helps to lull us into that false sense of security. It is simple and sombre at the beginning before the mention of the bicycle brings in other instruments, and the arrangement continually evolves during the song. Having listened to it several times I have the ghost of a suspicion that there may be moments when it's too busy for Williams' vocal, but I wouldn't put it any more strongly than that; after all, this is not a laugh-out-loud-type comedy song in the Rambling Syd Rumpo mode.

And that seems to be reflected in Williams' vocal, too, which is appropriately subdued. It is a reined-in Rambling Syd, allowing words and music to do their jobs and not getting in the way: in short he plays it comparatively straight, and I would love to know whether there was any coaching there, given his excesses elsewhere. (Was his first crack at a line like "Wipe away a tear" quite so controlled, for example?)

Of the songs on Bowie's first album the one which I'd say is most like Toll the Bell ... is She's Got Medals. It might seem an odd one to compare but in both cases there is the sense that we're not being told everything. I suspect there is less potential for confusion with the Bowie song, however, as a loutish choir (Bowie doubletracked?) periodically reminds us about the unfeasibly large pair of clues in the song's title.

Listen to Toll the Bell for Minnie Dyer and the rest of the On Pleasure Bent album on Barry Booth's website here

Gnome Thoughts ... 18 on Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks here.

On the PopGeekHeaven blog here there is a post about Barry Booth's album Diversions; I note that it includes He's Very Good With His Hands with lyrics by Michael Palin. You can hear it on Barry Booth's own website here

Guide to other posts in the Gnome Thoughts series here.  

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