It is impossible to mistake the looks of genuine joy and affection on the faces of the various ‘celebrities’ assembled for ITV’s 1984 Audience With Billy Connolly. One half of Saint and Greavsie is laughing too much to start a slow handclap about the onstage absence of an acoustic guitar, nor did the members of the cast of Coronation Street storm out of the studio stony-faced because The Big Yin failed to play any Humblebums songs. If Jimmy Tarbuck felt short-changed by the lack of any traditional material, he chuckled big time and held his peace. TV-AM weather girl Wincey Willis refrained from screaming ‘Judas’.
Most of the carefully hand-picked punters followed conventional showbiz wisdom, encouraged by the man himself, that being in a band (The Humblebums) with Gerry Rafferty had convinced Connolly to lay down the banjo, quit the Carter Family covers and ditch writing original songs to concentrate on comedy. Given the shrill, raucous reaction to classic routines like The Incontinence Troosers and The Big Slipper this seemed to have been a wise career move. In the years that followed, with Connolly established as one of the most popular entertainers in the world, his musical legacy has become increasingly undervalued.
The larger problem about the nature of Connolly and Rafferty’s relationship in The Humblebums is that everything at the time was viewed through the lens of singer-songwriters. The early 1970s was the era of the solo Beatles, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, James Taylor and early Elton John. Low-key introspection and intensity ruled the day. This meant an arduous quest for perfection in the studio and an often-cursory attitude toward the needs of a live audience.
Five years earlier Connolly hung around various Glasgow pubs looking for licensed premises that permitted musical revelries rather than had you shown the door for ‘persistent singing’. He checked out the Glasgow Folk Centre and stood elbow to elbow with Archie Fisher, Arthur Argo, Bill Barclay, Danny Kyle, Alex Campbell, Robin Hall, Jimmie Macgregor, John Martyn and Bert Jansch. Most of these founding fathers watched over or inspired Connolly in his early days floundering around in the Glasgow folk scene.
Even though he only spent a relatively short term in office, you could make a strong case for Connolly joining Matt McGinn and Hamish Imlach on the Scottish folk equivalent of the commemorative monument for past presidents at Mount Rushmore. Carved in granite and set in South Lanarkshire and not South Dakota, the retitled Mount Drinkmore would feature McGinn and Imlach depicted from head to waist to include beer bellies and paunches. At night, with the light diminishing over High Blantyre, the mountain would rumble with Matt’s insistent laughter and those strange gusts of wind that accompanied Hamish’s brusque on-stage patter. Hell mend any unprepared English tourist up there at night in a T-shirt and flip-flops.
It was in some smoky bar that Connolly first met guitar player and fellow country enthusiast Tam Harvey. The duo began to play together as The Humblebums. McGinn and Imlach did their bit to get the new boys noticed, gifting gigs and spreading the word to the movers and shakers that booked folk clubs all over the UK. The Humblebums’ early dates included Irvine, Forfar, Paisley, Aberfeldy and Dunfermline. They headed south on many occasions, turning up at The Topic in Bradford, The Highcliffe in Sheffield, Doncaster and even The Troubadour in London. This itinerary resulted in too many nights spent crashing in an assortment of flats and bedsits. Connolly, ever the connoisseur, recalls: ‘I’ve slept on so many carpets I can tell you the difference between Wilton and Axminster. By taste.’
There’s lot of lovely pickin’, grinnin’ and breezy bluegrass-playing on the debut Humblebums LP, First Collection Of Merry Melodies. It contains Why Don’t They Come Back To Dunoon?, a paean to the pleasures of that rather ropey Clyde coastal resort featuring a lovely lyric which laments ‘a nightlife that stops in the afternoon’. Connolly also displays some dexterous banjo playing on a carefree version of The Carter Family classic My Dixie Darling. If Hank Williams was the bard of the backwoods, then the Carters were the Hillbilly Brontes. Including this slightly outré cover is an example of Connolly’s sound musical judgement.
The Humblebums can be heard in fine form on Archie Fisher’s BBC Radio Scotland programme My Kind of Folk. Introduced as ‘humorous balladeers and comic raconteurs’, they chat and play tracks from the current album. Connolly warmly recalls the time just after Merry Melodies’ release: ‘It was a great feeling when it came out. I felt like Elvis. I’d got an LP, because in those days when you got a record contract you were in the newspapers. Today, buskers have got CDs.’ Merry Melodies consists mostly of Connolly originals. His songs tended to incorporate both tender ruminations and gentle sentiments, Give Me Just A Little Of Your Time being probably the best example.
Connolly and Harvey continued to tour. These zesty ruffians spent lost weekends in Arbroath, or hung out at the Scotia Bar, and Connolly could often be found feeding his Axminster habit crashed out at Topic Records supremo Bill Leader’s flat in North Villas, Camden. Things changed for The Humblebums when they adopted a local sing-songwriter called Gerry Rafferty at a gig in Paisley. Harvey quickly felt surplus to requirements and had moved on by the time it came to record the next album, The New Humblebums.
Connolly’s writing begins to blossom. Everybody Knows That remains one of his best songs, the bathetic description of Zsa Zsa Gabor (the oft-married Kim Kardashian of her day) being ‘the world’s greatest actress’ is worthy of Ray Davies’ tender glance along Hollywood Boulevard in The Kinks’ great Celluloid Heroes. And, again like Davies, he keeps an eye out for the ordinary guys, showing real compassion toward the likes of Joe Dempsey who’ve ‘been and gone’ before most of us have even noticed them. Connolly’s louche, dotty performance on Silk Pyjamas is worthy of Viv Stanshall himself.
Instead of dwelling on an insurmountable gulf in musical talent, the online review site Allmusic charitably points out: ‘Put together in a single unit the pair are barely distinguishable. The important thing is, at no point does one listen and start imagining chalk and cheese’, before noting, ‘Connolly is an excellent singer, but at least on this album, his songwriting is rather spotty and derivative. The next and final Humblebums album would feature a stronger set of tunes from Connolly, who sounds like he’s discovered The Kinks’ 1966-68 albums in the interim.’
My Apartment, the leading track on 1970’s Open Up The Door, gets a Beatles groove from a prominent piano riff and a mixed-up, yet strait-laced lead vocal from Connolly. Throughout the LP he gets to display a variety of musical influences, turning his hand to tender travelogues like the title track and Mary Of The Mountains or the Mungo Jerry/Medicine Head stomp of Harry.
Mother might not be the best song of that name released in 1970 (Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band masterpiece takes that honour) but there’s a Gormenghast meets Mills & Boon mood to the lyric before a noisy ending featuring a brief guitar wig-out and a few primal screams from Connolly. The solo came courtesy of Bernie Holland who was in Jody Grind, Patto and Bluesology with Long John Baldry.
Holland wasn’t the only interesting musician to back up Connolly. An established member of English folk-rock royalty, Barry Dransfield, channels his inner West Virginian fiddler on the C&W romp Oh No, Pentangle drummer Terry Cox was on hand in the studio and, for a band assembled for a Humblebums Radio One Top Gear session in 1970, the jazz bass guitarist Daryl Runswick. I might be going out on a limb here, but I’d suggest Runswick might be the only musician to play with both Billy Connolly and Ornette Coleman.
The Humblebums Mark 2 should not be seen as a source of embarrassment for Connolly or Rafferty. By the time they decided to call it quits they weren’t a highly dysfunctional combination of acoustic troubadour and high-risk raconteur (Ralph McTell and Richard Pryor?). They’d just released a couple of fine albums, were greatly admired by their peer group, playing in increasingly large venues and to international audiences.
At this late stage it is unfair to expect that Connolly will surprise us with a cache of new songs or make any chilling valedictory statements like Cash, Cohen or Bowie. Those sorts of dark messages were never Connolly’s strength. His whole life is defined by a life-affirming, restless energy. Maybe it’s best just to join the worldwide audience he has attracted since he first sang his songs for us and laugh and applaud the funniest ever Scotsman.
Shug Hanlan is currently completing Becoming The Big Yin, a book exploring the early career of Billy Connolly. He is published by Kerfuffle Press but his greatest hit remains Hi Bonnybrig And Other Greetings.