421. ‘Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’, by Brian & Michael

Kicking off the next thirty #1s with a bit of a curio… It opens with a brass band and the sound of children playing. I’m getting a strong ‘Hovis’ ad vibe. But when the actual song starts… Where to begin?

Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs, by Brian & Michael (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 2nd – 23rd April 1978

Perhaps with a bit of context. The ‘matchstalk’ men, cats and dogs refers to the paintings of LS Lowry, a Manchester artist who had passed away a year or so previously. He painted industrial scenes of the north of England – factories, chimneys and smog – but also more intimate pictures of people queueing for fish and chip and going to football matches. All done in a very recognisable – some critics might have said ‘simplistic’ – style…

And he painted matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs… He painted kids on the corner of the street that were sparking clogs… (I have no idea what ‘sparking clogs’ involves – I guess it’s a Manc thing.) Now here’s the rub. This song starts off quite nicely. The first verse paints a picture (pardon the pun) of a northern childhood, in which the singers, Brian and Michael (who sound right Mancunian), wonder if Lowry painted them as kids, on the back of cardboard boxes, before he became famous. It builds up a bit of goodwill in me…

Which it wastes almost immediately. The brass band comes back, you see, and a children’s choir comes in. Not only that, the lyrics go a bit naff. Well, naffer. They tell the tale of Lowry’s trips to London, in which bigwigs patronise him by asking him to put on his flat cap. Worse follows… Now Lowrys hang on upon the wall, Besides the greatest of them all, Even the Mona Lisa takes a bow… When he dies, the ‘Good Lord’ mops Lowry’s brow, as he waits outside them Pearly Gates… To paint his matchstalk cats and dogs…

Putting aside the inaccuracies – I don’t think there are any Lowrys in the Louvre – it’s all a bit… provincial. A bit chippy. Only northern folk got our Lowry. Them soft southerners didn’t, never mind the foreigners… Take the first comment on the highest-viewed YouTube video of the song (it’s missing from Spotify – our first unstreamable #1 for a while). ‘Playing outside in the streets’, the commenter writes, ‘in the late 70s with no fears and no social media…’

Those were the days. The winter of discontent, electric meters, Jimmy Saville on Top of the Pops, Bisto with your tea… I’m more on the side of the 2nd commenter, who writes: ‘This has got to be the biggest load of shit ever produced’. OK, maybe I wouldn’t go that far (there’ll always be ‘No Charge’) but it’s a song that gets worse as it goes on. The lyrics grow more self-righteous, the kids choir more annoying in their ally-ally-ohs, and then to top it all off there’s a key change…

It’s been a while since we’ve had a pure, unexplainable novelty at the top. At least it’s better than the easy-listening sludge we struggled through recently. Or is it…? Brian and Michael were a duo from Manchester, and had been in the music biz since the sixties. My favourite thing by far about this whole record is the fact that Brian doesn’t even appear on it. He’d been replaced by a chap called Kevin a couple of weeks after the single had been released, and Kevin had to go along with the name…

They are still active, Brian/Kevin and Michael, but remain one-hit wonders. However, the choir, of St. Winifred’s School in Stockport, will be back to score a Christmas #1 as lead artists in a couple of years. Take this as an advanced warning… Start preparing yourselves. On a completely unrelated note, this is the 5th #1 of 1978, and already the 3rd to reference famous works of art. We’ve had an opera (‘Figaro’), literature (‘Wuthering Heights’), and now paintings.