Iain Murray: Never mind the Phantom: give me the Shake ‘n’ Vac

Where have all the decent ad jingles gone? Lloyd-Webber’s efforts aren’t a patch on a rousing chorus of ‘Whitbread, Big Head, Trophy Bitter.’

Forget Greg Dyke. Forget David Elstein. Forget, if you can, Bruce Forsyth: the reason why TV is so bad today is that there aren’t any jingles.

It used to be said, and not entirely with tongue in cheek, that the best things on the box were the ads. And if the TV commercial was a three-act play in 45 seconds, the jingle was a symphony in miniature. Noël Coward was right about the potency of cheap music: it creeps into the mind, lurks insidiously in its depths and, every now and then, bobs unbidden to the surface. Catchy, infuriating and joyously trivial, the ad jingle merits at least a footnote in the history of popular music.

Some erstwhile admen made their reputations in jingle-land. Peter Marsh and Rod Allen, of Allen, Brady and Marsh, contributed the sonorous fanfare: “Carpets you can afford… by Cyril Lord.” Lord, it is true, went bust, but no one suggested this had anything to do with the refrain composed in his name.

Another Marsh and Allen creation was the loud and jaunty: “Whitbread, Big Head, Trophy Bitter, the pint that thinks it’s a quart!” Real ale enthusiasts may have pondered “A quart of what?”, but they still remembered the words and the tune.

Occasionally, a jingle was sung by someone famous. It was, I think, David Bernstein who composed “I’m going well, I’m going Shell, I’m going well with Shell, Shell, Shell”, and then persuaded the Old Groaner himself, Bing Crosby, to record the definitive version.

Vintage commercial ditties still linger in the subconscious of people now scaling the foothills of old age. “You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent” sticks in heads long since void of teeth. The Shake ‘n’ Vac is a dance tune still remembered by many who are today hard put to shake a stick. For some whose taste buds now run to the savoury, but no longer the sweet, the words “Fry’s Turkish Delight” are forever the lyric of a tune redolent of the mystic east.

Did jingles actually shift goods? Did “A finger of Fudge is all you need to give your kids a treat” persuade anyone to provide her children with that dubious pleasure? It doesn’t much matter and, anyway, the world is bereft of jingles. Where have they gone? Perhaps they are considered hopelessly passé in the age of the information superhighway. More likely, they have gone the way of tunes in general. Disco music, with a beat likened by Clive James to the sound of a moron hitting a bucket with a hammer, has all but eclipsed songwriting. And the songs that are written are sung in American English and almost entirely on the vowels, so that a monosyllable may be made to stretch over several notes. “Love”, for instance, becomes “lu-u-u-u-u-u-urve” – a style of fake soulful singing called melisma that’s as far removed as can be from the hit-the-notes-on-the-consonants style of the bouncy TV jingle.

Even those who are lauded and mightily enriched for their songwriting skills are second-raters. Andrew Lloyd-Webber is no better than first division compared with the premiership composers and lyricists of popular music such as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and many more. The jingle writers were drawing on a great tradition of American songwriting when they wrote their cheap music. Personally, I would rather hear a spirited rendition of “Whitbread, Big Head…” than anything written by Lloyd-Webber.

And yet there is still some enjoyment to be had from the use in commercials of snatches of songs by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee and others – proof, perhaps, that the advertising business still recognises the importance of song, even though it has lost the knack of originality.

But there may be hope. Scientists in the US have discovered that songbirds dream up new tunes in their sleep. The findings, based on the brain patterns of zebra finches, may lead to an understanding of how sleep acts on song-learning and composing. The head of the research team, Dr Daniel Margoliash, says: “Neuro-biologists have often found that lessons learned from weird and wonderful animals apply to all animals.”

So if advertising copywriters were wired up nocturnally to the Allen Brady and Marsh songbook, it is just possible that they might rediscover the lost art of jingle-writing. I do not, of course, intend any comparison between the brain of a copywriter and that of a zebra finch: one is much larger than the other.

Good news: as reported last week, the World Wide Fund for Nature is confident that the world will end in 2075 – a forecast that brought cheer to many a gloomster, but which may be too pessimistic by far. Anthony Blair says his personal mission to save the world through green policies was inspired by his son, Euan. Since it was Euan who inspired the Dome, we must revise our Doomsday predictions. Best estimates are that the world will end some time in January.


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