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  • Tony Harris

MISSING IN ACTION


There cannot be many chart artists who could count collaborators as diverse as LL Cool J, Sandie Shaw, Billy Joel and theme tune wizard, Ronnie Hazelhurst. If you then added Burt Bacharach, the Gipsy Kings, Frida from Abba and the Scotland World Cup Squad, you' probably think it was somebody you should recall much more readily.


However, despite an omnipresent chart career across the turn of the decade from 1979 into 1980, barely a ripple is ever raised for B.A. Robertson.


He was a Brit nominee, an Ivor Novello nominee and on every BBC TV show imaginable. He was articulate - a theme that marked out his songs also - and so was given his own show "BA in Music". I loved all his singles, even the non-hit "Flight 19", about the ill-fated USAF pilots that went missing flying across the Bermuda Triangle. Strange subject matter but it did make #1 in Iceland apparently.


Yet you never hear his songs on oldies radio or compilations and he has from the spotlight faded away.


I bought his first single on the strength of the cover which was a cartoon of him flanked by the historical figures he would feature in his first hit, the magnificent "Bang Bang" in which he compared the wretched romantic fates of Antony & Cleopatra and Samson & Delilah to his own whilst also bringing in Sherlock Holmes and The Marquis de Sade. It sounded like something from the excellent "Horrible Histories" - though I doubt they even know who Johnny Frewin is, either.



He may have appeared a rather unlikely pop-star but his song was ineffably catchy and in the summer of 1979, it could not be escaped.


As it happens, this was not his first visit to Top Of The Pops as back in 1974, he had appeared as a session keyboardist backing Cockney Rebel on one of their finest three minutes "Mr Soft". It is difficult to ascertain if he was on this recording below as so many have been wiped. He did however play on some of the band's recordings too as well as writing the B-side to "Come Up And See Me".



I could not wait for his second hit single and duly trotted down to Woolworths for my copy of "Knocked It Off" - which I always thought was about a football player coming off the subs bench but was actually a much more ironic commentary on his own sudden rise to success. He had already released two albums and recorded with a host of other artists after all.


This sense of knowingness was carried on into his third hit - and I'll be honest, it's my favourite - "Kool In The Kaftan" which was actually another jaunty number that satirised fashion trends and the speed with which they can be jettisoned. There are some authentic psychedelic references and effects together with one of the best 45 covers you could ever find that made it a really exciting package - it was a gatefold cover that opened up into a v-sign waving cartoon of B.A. himself.



At the time I had no idea who Scott Mackenzie was nor should it be said, cami-knickers or winkle pickers, but it seemed quite nice for a fairly recent Beatles convert to hear sitars in the charts. I can still recite the entire lyrics.


What has always seemed so appealing to me about his singles was that they were always very narrative driven - little complete stories in themselves that were full of character. They were very theatrical and he himself took on the persona of a rather blokey Greek Chorus full of observations and asides.


You would not have been surprised to hear them in a musical. Indeed he had also been writing for other artists, most notably Cliff Richard, and had actually delivered one of his great later hits "Carrie" - another great storytelling song.


As if to compound his "cleverness", his fourth hit "To Be Or Not To Be" was a pop song about The Bard of Avon himself, again littered with references and in-jokes. Unlikely hit material for sure - and to be honest, not entirely politically correct these days - but unavoidably catchy.



By now, this musical wit of Robertson's brought him to the notice of the BBC where he was a sometime presenter. Famously, he is shown having a rather heated ding-dong with the fiery Annabella Lwin from Bow Wow Wow in an interview on his show - less well known is that she didn't storm off but the edit is constructed to make out she did.


Certainly, his unlikely stardom combined with his knowing intellect seemed to accelerate Robertson's disappearance from the charts as he appeared a man more and more out of step with the musical scene around him. perhaps this was best displayed in the rather unfortunate duet of PJ Proby's "Hold Me" with Maggie Bell which could be the foundation for Scotland's late claim versus both the Philippines and Japan to having invented karaoke.


At this point, he seemed happy enough to leave the pursuit of chart action for fear, it would seem, he would outstay his welcome - "We Have A Dream" with the Scotland squad notwithstanding.


That was not the end of his musical journey by any means. He seemed to write every light entertainment theme going for the BBC - Swap Shop, Saturday Superstore and Wogan to name a few. He would also join with Mike Rutherford and write many of the major Mike & The Mechanics hits, including "The Living Years".


By now, he moved to Hollywood where he became just about the most connected musician going as he was brought in to oversee Disney musical projects. At this point, he introduced Tim Rice to the studio and so was born "The Lion King" soundtrack.


There are doubtless many myths about whatever happened to B.A. Robertson and his going missing in action like the afore-mentioned "Flight 19". Clearly, he is a man who has simply preferred to keep out of the limelight having not especially enjoyed his time in it and good luck to him with that. He always seemed a good natured performer who was more than prepared to avoid to taking himself or what he did too seriously.


Robertson has written more successes than many but been only too happy to turn his hand to a whole host of different genres - themes, soundtracks, musical plays. Some may be on the side of novelty but far more are not. He seems much more in keeping with the old Tin Pan Alley style of writer - and I mean that as a compliment. Sometimes, he probably did just "knock it off".


However, on one of his brief emergences into the public domain, one of the journalists who covered his show called him "the Scottish Springsteen". Despite a passing resemblance, I suspect Robertson would think this as laughable as anyone. For myself, I think he might have been more aptly dubbed "Scottish Ian Dury" - now I know how incendiary that might be but really there is an intelligence and wit in his writing that could easily have made "What A Waste" or "Reasons To Be. Cheerful Pt 3". Admittedly, it has less of a groove but is just as ironic, just as knowing and just as unlikely.


And, when I'm in the mood for smart pop, he is just as likely to be on my turntable still.

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