IN CONVERSATION - Mike Batt (Part One - Wombles, Writing and Watership Down)

IN CONVERSATION – Mike Batt (Part One – Wombles, Writing and Watership Down)

Mike Batt, who releases his career retrospective The Penultimate Collection this month, is an extraordinary man. There is little doubt that he is best known for the ‘pop’ version of those loveable, fluffy inhabitants of Wimbledon Common, but quite apart from all that, he’s charted in his own right, written hugely succesful hit records for the likes of David Essex, Alvin Stardust and Katie Melua (the latter of whom he also discovered) amongst others, conducted orchestras, most notably the LSO, helped write the key song from one of the biggest stage musicals in history, and scored films. Oh and of course the small matter of writing a million seller from a classic 1978 animated film. He’s also one of the most interesting people I’ve ever interviewed, so I’ve had to break it down into two parts…

Good afternoon Mike. How are you coping with the lockdown?

Mike Batt: I’m ok thanks, because I do most of my work at home anyway. The thing about what I do… a lot of it’s organisation, a lot of it’s writing, and a lot of it’s arranging, so it probably takes me about a month to write a day’s worth of music for an orchestra to play, or the band. That’s just arranging, never mind writing it! So I’m at home a lot anyway. Touring is another thing – I’ve had to cancel gigs, the whole month in Germany that was gonna happen, so all of that HAS affected me greatly…and things like income will be affected of course. But day to day, I get up, go to my computer, switch it on…it’s just like any other day, except I can’t go and jump on the tube, or get in a car and have lunch with someone, or have a meeting. And that’s one of the things that normally makes you feel that life’s moving forward – you might be discussing an exciting new project, or that kind of thing.
I’m much better off though – I don’t mean financially – but in terms of the daily grind, I’ve got almost TOO much to do. In fact, I think I’ve been busier since lockdown began!

You’re one of my earliest musical memories, actually – my mum used to buy me those Pops For Tiny Tots records, and the first band I ever saw live…was The Wombles!

MB: Well if you went to one of those rather dodgy stage shows…

I did!

MB: Yeah…they were horrible, I mean, I hated them! You would have been too young to have known…I knew they were being licenced, but I really opposed it, and we ended up in litigation with the people who put them on. I mean, to you as a child, it would have been a delight, but…was it in the seventies?

Yes, around 1974.

MB: Yeah, well we didn’t do live gigs, so it would have been a fake lot you saw! But what’s a fake womble after all? We’re ALL fakes.

Ha ha, that made me think of when I told a friend of mine that The Wombles were the first band I ever saw live, and he asked me “…but was it the REAL Wombles?” – I couldn’t stop laughing at that!

MB: And of course, it COULDN’T have been the real Wombles, because as we all know, the REAL Wombles are busy up in Wimbledon common!

Ha ha brilliant. What are your fondest memories of that time?

MB: I think, apart from the fact that The Wombles was my first big hit after five years of being in the music business…I was 23 years old, and I’d been doing this heavier stuff, doing more interesting orchestral stuff, and suddenly I got this Wombles job, which was a bit of light relief at the time, and suddenly, WOW, it explodes right in my face! And I’d always said to myself that if ever I have a hit, the first hit I have, I’m gonna follow it up! And I absolutely followed the art of following up a record; it just happened that, instead of it being something like ‘Bright Eyes‘, the first hit I had was ‘The Wombling Song‘. The GOOD news is that I really enjoyed doing it. So I had this moral obligation – to myself – to follow it up. I’d watched how The Four Tops followed up ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There‘, and I’d studied how The Beatles followed up THEIR first hit single – I watched EVERYONE – how they followed up, you know, how do you NOT become a one hit wonder? And that’s why The Wombles had eight hits!

And they were great records! I always argue that they were great, if people laugh when I say my first gig was The Wombles.

Well it’s very nice of you to say that. And I’m finding I DO get more love for them as I get older and they’ve become further away from the present tense, because my contemporary critics, who were all between 20-23 years old, writing for the NME, the LAST thing they wanted to do was support some kidzy widzy act, so I got it in the neck, you know? But as you get a bit older and THEY’VE become a bit older and aren’t critics anymore, the younger critics have come in and they’re going “Ah, these are pretty good records actually!” And I’d like to say, without any worry about sounding big-headed, that I agree with them!

Well that’s great to know! And as part of my prepararation for this interview, I watched an old episode of Top Of The Pops where you were performing ‘Summertime City‘ (NB – Batt’s only ‘solo’ hit), surrounded by Pan’s People. You really did look like the cat who’d got the cream there…

MB: Oh I knew those girls anyway. I have fond memories of standing around in those Womble costumes, ready to go on Top Of The Pops, lots of times, every other week, really, because back then, if you had a record going up the charts, you could go on every other week. You couldn’t go on EVERY week. But we ALWAYS had a record going up the charts then, around 1975, so I got to know those girls pretty well – they were always limbering up before they went on to do their bit. And you’d have Slade there, or maybe David Bowie, and we’d all be hanging about in the dark, waiting to go on for our slot. When I did ‘Summertime City‘, again I was just about to get back from doing The Wombles, to being more of a serious artist and writing the kind of solo albums I set out to do, but then along came this theme tune (to Seaside Special). I was just intending to be producer and writer – that was all I set out to do. I wasn’t even going to sing it, but then when we got into the studio, none of those boys had a strong enough voice – I mean, they were perfectly in tune, but not very strong, so I sang it myself. I remember saying “Look, if I’m trying to be seen as a serious artist, shouldn’t I put Fred Bloggs on it, or some other pseudonym, instead of my real name?” but they convinced me not to, and it went top five, so it was a case of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star for a while, with the emphasis on ‘little’!

Did you ever crave more of a ‘pop idol’ lifestyle? One where you were chased down the street by screaming fans or anything like that?

MB: Well I think ANYONE who gets into it would, so it would have been nice. I wouldn’t have got into it at all if I didn’t want to be Cat Stevens! But you know, in other places, like Australia, Holland and Germany, I DID become that person who had some big solo albums. This NEW album, even, is Record Of The Week on three of the big German radio stations. So I’m a bit like Jekyll and Hyde – and I don’t mean in personality; it’s just that, in the UK, really I’m known as Mr. Womble, and you might get people in pubs saying “Ah, but did you know he also wrote ‘Bright Eyes’?“, whereas in, say, South Africa, I’m just Mike Batt, the musician – the artist.
I mean, I admit I was never David Bowie – I had SOME theatricality but not to that level. And he had the sense, when ‘The Laughing Gnome‘ was a big hit, to never do another one like that, whereas with The Wombles, I did several! But I do have quite a few friends who are, for want of a better word, ‘rock stars’, and one or two have said “Wouldn’t it be lovely if I was allowed by my audience to do what I want to do?” – that’s the bad news about being an icon, you have to very carefully navigate your career path without pissing your audience off! I remember talking to one of these icons, not mentioning any names, but he said “I’d really like to do this, but my audience won’t forgive me if I do” and I remember saying “Come on, look at me, who am I? You’re this big, cool rock star and I’m Mike Batt. I do whatever I want..,and you daren’t!

See, it was YOU who was always the cool one! And a few years after The Wombles, my mum took me and my brother to see Watership Down at the cinema. Obviously that was a very sad film in places, and I remember when ‘Bright Eyes’ was playing, I daren’t look af anybody because I had tears streaming down my face, and I didn’t want anybody to see. But then I glanced at my mum and brother and THEY had tears streaming down THEIR faces as well! When you wrote that, had you seen the film yourself, or were you kind of writing it ‘blind’?

MB: No, it was written two years before the film. They wanted it before they started to animate. I wanted to do a score. I wasn’t really a fan of the drawing but I was very aware that they didn’t want it to be like a big, fluffy Disney film, they wanted it to be realistic, and because of that, they were very anti having songs in it, and even if they did, they would want a big name score writer. I remember this one producer, who I’ve never forgiven, was particularly against it. So ‘Bright Eyes‘ actually got chucked out of the film three times. And when you’ve recorded something, at such great effort, with Art Garfunkel…well, when they chucked it out, that’s when MY tears came, I can tell you! But eventually they put it back in, and the rest is history. About ten years later, I had dinner with that producer, the one I’d never forgiven, and he said “Mike, thank GOD you wrote that song – our film was dying on its arse, and your song saved it!

Part 2 of this interview continues on Monday.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.