Sunday afternoon in the late '90s I wandered onto Brighton's
Palace Pier to grab a breath of sea air. I heard strange
sounds emanating from Horatio's, the tacky pub near the
pier's end. Curious, I took a peek inside. In front of a
half-empty room, four white haired men in thick corduroy
trousers, granddad shirts and red neckerchiefs were laughing
their way through a song detailing attempts to knock a blackbird
out of a tree. The singer had a thick Somerset accent and
as the gig progressed it became clear I was watching the
Wurzels, the real live Wurzels, who I recalled from my childhood
when their No.1 hit 'Combine Harvester' was ubiquitous.
It also became obvious very fast that they were as snappy
and entertaining a comic live act as one could hope for.
This was surely a cult in the making.
decade later the Wurzels renaissance has bloomed. They're
established as one of Britain's premier student draws, a
band whose jovial self-styled 'Scrumpy'n'Western' music
can pull concert crowds with ease. Their 'Greatest Hits'
is released to coincide with a new version of 'I Am A Cider
Drinker' fronted by TV King Of The Jungle, Tony Blackburn,
and, after 40 years giving free publicity to the drink,
they finally have a cider named after them, Thatchers' “Wurzel
the Wurzels story begins when the chorus of 'Drink Up Thy
Zider' popped into the head of one Alan John Cutler in 1958.
Cutler, known as Adge after his initials, had tried many
professions, including a stint as Acker Bilk's road manager,
but by the mid-'60s he was at a loose end. He thought that
since the Beatles had gone global with the Mersey sound,
he might have a crack at representing his native West Country
in comic song. Through Bristol agent John Miles his new
band, clad as yokels and named after the root vegetable
mangelwurzel, signed to EMI. Their single, 'Drink Up Thy
Zider', became a regional hit, later adopted as the anthem
of Bristol City FC, while the album, 'Adge Cutler And The
Wurzels', recorded live and raucous at The Royal Oak Pub
in Nailsea, did equally swift business. Longest serving
Wurzel Tommy Banner joined on accordion in 1967, all the
way from Scotland.
"Adge drew up a three month contract on an old jotting
pad," he laughs, "I grew up in a place called
Penicuk in the sticks. The Edinburgh folk called us 'tewchters'
which is the Scottish equivalent of country bumpkin, so
I understood what The Wurzels were about."
longterm Wurzel Pete Budd joined in 1973 but in May the
following year tragedy struck. "I went for my pint
on a Sunday and one of the lads I drank with said, 'Can
I have a word?'," recollects Pete, "I thought,
'What's he want – to borrow money or something?' but,
instead he told me Adge Cutler had been killed in a car
accident'." The Wurzels went into shock. Pete continues,
"Our manager said, 'You can walk away, if you want,
or you can put your backs to the wheel and really go for
it'." They went for it. Less authentically folky than
before, the new Wurzels parodied contemporary songs, 'Wurzelizing'
them, miming them for fruity comedy. The second Adge-less
album struck gold in the form of its title song.
Harvester was just an album track," says Tommy, "but
the recording engineer, Tony Clarke, who at that time was
recording Sky and John Williams, said, 'You've got a smash
hit there, a number one that shows the world what you do
– it's perfect'."
Harvester' went on to sell a million and The Wurzels became
pop stars, beloved of children and regulars on television
throughout the mid-'70s. It was their moment in the sun.
They entered the comic consciousness of the nation and have
since been referred to in the humour of Bill Bailey, Steve
Coogan and others –even Robbie Williams is a fan.
'80s and '90s were not so good. "We did let it go a
bit," admits Pete. "We had no management or direction."
The band scraped by. Pete ran a pub and Tommy went into
finance but their core fans didn't forget them.
"Farmers love our music," says Tommy, "We
played a lot of farms for weddings and anniversaries, and
we still do the Young Farmers' AGM every year."
the 21st century dawned The Wurzels gained a new management
team and suddenly they were back in business. Remixes and
dance mixes appeared, even reaching the lower reaches of
the charts, and the band started popping up on TV again.
They have since become little short of a national treasure.
Or at least a West Country treasure.
songs on this album date from all three major bursts of
Wurzel activity. Material such as the lovely 'Ferry To Glastonbury',
and the comic gems 'Shepton Mallet Matador' and 'When The
Common Market Comes To Stanton Drew' are rerecorded songs
from the Cutler years, marinated in their folk heritage.
Then there are the breezy pop pastiches from the mid-'70s
such as 'Combine Harvester', 'I Am A Cider Drinker' and
'Farmer Bill's Cowman. Lastly comes evidence of The Wurzels
transformation into a premier league student cult band,
from their covers of Travis and Oasis to the Faliraki disco-bar
bounce of 'Ooh Arr Just A Little Bit'.
for me, after seeing them on Brighton Pier I bought albums
from charity shops and researched their history (Did you
know they had a No.1 in New Foundland, Canada, with 'The
Blackbird'? Or that the Pope paid them tribute after seeing
them in 1982?). I also attended more gigs, including a weird
Wurzel mini-festival out in the country. They were never
less than a great fun night out, usually involving lashings
of scrumpy. I also noticed as time passed that the audiences
were growing bigger. Finally, I recently met Pete and Tommy,
still mates after all these years, overflowing with anecdotes
about everyone from Bob Marley to Arthur Askey. I have to
admit that in fifteen years as a music journalist, they
were only the second act I've ever asked to sign an album.
I am the proud owner of a 'Combine Harvester' LP marked,
"To Thomas - Wurzel Fan No.1 ooh Arr – Tommy
Banner & Pete Budd'. And who could ask for more than
put the CD on and have "a laugh and a good stomp"
as Pete Budd would say.