Sunday, April 29, 2012

David McWilliams: The Days of Pearly Spencer

The pop-star career of David McWilliams ... was all but over by 1968
said his Guardian obituary:
Yet, by then, he had released one record, The Days Of Pearly Spencer, that was a domestic flop, a continental hit - and has been a cult record ever since.
The Independent (in an obituary now to be found on a McWilliams fan site) explains why such a striking single was a flop in Brtiain:
"The single that will blow your mind, the album that will change the course of music" trumpeted full-page adverts in the New Musical Express alongside enthusiastic quotes from journalists and other pop impresarios comparing the 22-year-old McWilliams to Donovan and Bob Dylan. 
Unfortunately, back in 1967, Radio 1, the BBC's new pop network, didn't add "The Days of Pearly Spencer" to its playlist, maybe because Solomon was also a director of Radio Caroline, the pirate station just outlawed by the Marine Broadcasting Offences Acts passed by Harold Wilson's government. 
Nevertheless, the single was played incessantly and defiantly on Caroline while stations in continental Europe picked up on its strange "phoned-in" chorus and pastoral arrangement.
Young admirers of that tribune of the people Tony Benn may be surprised that it was he, in an earlier incarnation as Anthony Wedgwood Benn, the Minister for Technology, who got the pirate radio stations banned.

The Days of Pearly Spencer may have flopped in 1968, but I was aware of it on British radio only a few years later. Wikipedia says it is about "a homeless man McWilliams had encountered in Ballymena," but I have always seen Pearly Spencer as a criminal figure, like Pinkie in Brighton Rock, whose time and luck is running out. It's odd the things you read into songs.

And the song was a hit in Marc Almond in 1992. He released a note-for-note cover, but bizarrely gave it an upbeat final verse that made nonsense of the mood of the song.


Niles said...

Well, I have to say the phoned in chorus has a very strange effect on the cat.

Jonathan Calder said...

Come to think of it, Pearly Spencer would be a good name for a cat.

Gary said...

interesting...I vaguely remember this song in 67 - the year I came to Canada age 17- and have never heard it on any radio here. God I miss radio caroline!!! I used to listen to them in 66 while living in France. Gary