From pop to orchestral and Katie Melua to The Wombles, English singer-songwriter Mike Batt’s long and varied career in music is celebrated in a brand new double album, The Penultimate Collection, writes Nick Benson.
Spanning five decades, British singer-songwriter Mike Batt’s extraordinary musical career is a storybook full of incredible tales and characters, including the much-loved group of furry eco-warriors, The Wombles.
Batt once said: “I thought that if life was like a Mars bar and you cut it up into little slices rather than eat it in one go, you’d get a lot more out of it.”
He must have access to an awfully big piece of confectionery, as his unique career has plenty of tasty slices – singer-songwriter, composer, musician, record company boss, conductor, arranger, record producer and author.
As well as being a solo performer in his own right, the roster of artists he has worked with is the cliched Who’s Who of music’s biggest names across the entire spectrum of performance from heavy metal Hawkwind to the rather cuddlier aforementioned Wombles, with Art Garfunkel, Katie Melua, David Essex, Roger Daltrey, Vanessa Mae, Steeleye Span, Elkie Brooks and Cliff Richard, amongst many others.
With so much going on and so many big names, Batt’s career could easily be the subject of a blockbuster movie but, while that may happen one day, for now fans will have to make do with an amazing new Penultimate Collection double album containing 36 tracks highlighting his work as performer, composer, arranger and key British musical figure.
The collection acts as both an incredible career retrospective and an illustrious CV, showcasing both Batt’s original solo material, as well as his own recordings of hits he wrote for other artists, including Bright Eyes, the Watership Down theme originally sung by Art Garfunkel; A Winter’s Tale, a 1982 hit for David Essex; and I Feel Like Buddy Holly, a 1984 hit for Alvin Stardust.
The collection, which contains contributions from Colin Blunstone, Bonnie Tyler and Family’s Roger Chapman, features Batt’s work from the classic feelgood pop of Summertime City, his number four hit from 1975, through his hugely successful Wombles hits and orchestral pieces, to two brand new recordings.
While disc one houses the familiar hits, disc two is an eclectic collection of more boundary-breaking tracks including early singles, oddball instrumentals and compositions that give an insight into the imagination and adventurous spirit of his work.
Summertime City, theme to the BBC’s variety show Seaside Special, has only been released once since it was a hit.
“For many years, despite its success I looked back on it with embarrassment but now I am proud of it as a good, strong pop record. I insisted that Sony ‘delete it forever’ and the rights to the song reverted to me. So this is the first time (apart from the MB Music Cube) that it has been released since 1975,” said Batt.
There’s also an early pre-Womble solo single, Your Mother Should Know, recorded when he was just a teenager.
“It’s 19-year-old me doing a cover of this great little Beatle song using a Vivaldi-style string approach. The lead fiddle player is Jack Rothstein, and we recorded it at Wessex Studios in London. This very nearly became a hit, getting played extensively on Radio 1,” revealed Batt.
Batt’s long-term passion project, the musical The Hunting of the Snark, is represented by three songs, Children of the Sky (with a guitar solo by George Harrison, recorded at his home studio in Henley), Waiting for a Wave and The Vanishing.
“That one features the voices of Sir John Hurt and Sir John Gielgud (narrating) and Julian Lennon, Deniece Williams and myself, with Maggie Reilly at the end as the Voice Of Hope. The orchestra is The London Symphony Orchestra,” Batt recalled.
The collection also celebrates Batt’s musical discoveries, including Georgian-British singer-songwriter Katie Melua, whom Batt signed to his small Dramatico recording and management company in 2002, when she was only 18-years-old. The album includes Batt’s take on Melua’s 2003 debut single, The Closest Thing To Crazy, and her first top five hit as a solo artist, 2005’s Nine Million Bicycles. Both tracks were penned by Batt.
Providing an insight into his songwriting inspirations, Batt recalled how he came up with the idea for Nine Million Bicycles while he was on a trip with Melua. “She and I were visiting Beijing, where we had both performed on a TV show. A tour guide said: ‘There are nine million bicycles in Beijing’, and I turned to Katie and said: ‘That’s a song title!’ I wrote it as soon as we returned to the UK, and it went to number three in the UK singles chart,” he said.
And of course, there are numbers by another of Batt’s discoveries, The Wombles.
“Some may say The Wombling Song needs no introduction, but it has one, courtesy of four unison French horns. It was my first-ever hit. This is of course the main theme to the Wombles TV show, and was the first of about 50 songs about the famous eco-warriors,” he said. “I count the Wombles tracks as ‘Mike Batt’ tracks because they are indeed just me singing with a session orchestra; usually with Chris Spedding on guitar and Clem Cattini on drums.”
• The Penultimate Collection by Mike Batt is available now digitally and as a two CD album on Dramatico Entertainment Ltd.