I often wonder if all humanity wants is funny noises. Or noises which think they’re funny. Like a cat spellbound for hours by a stray thread on a carpet, I suspect we still have very simple tastes and are easily pleased; although few records strive as hard to please me and fail as spectacularly as “Bridget The Midget”; so perturbed was Lena at the thought of having to write about it that she passed the assignment on to me.
That is perhaps not an entirely fair condemnation. I thought the record was hilarious when it was in the charts and I was seven; with the possible exception of Simon Cowell, I am hard pressed to think of any adult who would find it funny. And yet that was the record’s core audience in 1971; it was a much requested item on the BBC radio show Junior Choice, whose immense popularity at the time accounts for several otherwise inexplicable major hits of the period. So pervasive was the affection for it that the title became a nickname for the headmistress in Grange Hill at the opposite end of the decade.
That was the story in Britain, at any rate; in the States, the record peaked at #50 in charts where, for a contemporaneous while, the late Janis Joplin achieved the posthumous double; number one album (Pearl) and number one single (“Me And Bobby McGee”). The latter did not even make the UK Top 50, in common with “What’s Going On?,” “Clean Up Woman” and “Mr Big Stuff”; but only the redoubtable Marc Bolan, with “Hot Love,” stopped “Bridget” from going all the way here.
Stevens, from Clarkdale, Georgia, is one of the least palatable figures in the last half-century of pop; close examination of his initial run of US hits reveals a similar infantile fascination with capital F “Funny” (“Ahab The Arab,” “Gitarzan,” “Jeremiah Peabody’s Unending Novelty Song Title”) and, from 1968, the inevitable, earnest craving to be simultaneously taken seriously; hence sententious pieces of social non-comment like “Mr Businessman” or gloopy God-bothering singalongs like “Everything Is Beautiful” (a number one in a 1970 America in need of reassurance) or “Turn Your Radio On.” Against that, it must be noted that he made the first recording of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and, in his alternate role as producer, writer and arranger at Monument Records throughout the sixties, helped and encouraged many important names, including Brook Benton, Dusty Springfield and Dolly Parton.
The latter is particularly relevant since the speeded-up “Bridget” sounds remarkably like Dolly, and that perhaps is the only interesting thing about the record. It does cause a feeling in the neighbourhood of sorrow that a record which clearly involved a lot of complex work and application (singing “Bridget”’s lines at drawn-out half-speed to make them sound normal when speeded up, multiple overdubbing, etc.) has so little of merit about it. She is two feet tall, tap dances on the side and has a backing group called “Strawberry And The Shortcakes,” while Stevens does some unconvincing white soul hollering and slows his voice down to 16 rpm to play the would-be lecherous stage invader.
But there is no payoff, no provoking point of actual laughter – despite “Bridget”’s strange periodic giggles all the way through the record - and therefore no purpose, other than (like the David Seville/Chipmunks hits) to please those who imagine that voices speeded up are in themselves funny. From this distance, it looks like a tongue stuck out at Joplin’s memory, and at soul music in general – the record this actually recalls most strongly is Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips Part 2,” a genuinely revolutionary (and genuinely funny – “What key? What key?”) record which, unsurprisingly, did nothing in 1963 Britain. You might argue that things like Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go” and There’s A Riot Goin’ On represent the kind of reaction this record deserves.
However, Stevens proceeded to more hits of both stripes, peaking with 1974’s abysmal “The Streak,” before eventually succumbing to telemarketing in the nineties and regrettable, if not surprising, far-right drum-banging from the late noughties onward. The problem is that something like “We The People” is as expertly put together and choreographed as “Bridget” – and there is the ultimate danger in believing too fervently in funny voices.
Next: a club classic from Argentina.