Review: 'There Is Business Like Show Business' — off-beat music Special

Posted May 13, 2012 by Alexander Baron
Who would want to write a song about a photocopier, or about a tractor? More to the point, who would want to commission one? Ask Will Young.
Could this be the Ford Motor Company s vision of a tractor driving man? Hmm.
Could this be the Ford Motor Company's vision of a tractor driving man? Hmm.
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Will Young is better known as a singer-songwriter, but in this half hour programme made for BBC Radio 4 he moves into the presenter's chair - something many famous names do on occasion, especially musicians. The programme he presents is a fascinating if somewhat off-beat collection of songs and the stories behind them. While most songs are written in some sense for the public, some are not.
The first song presented here is Tractor Drivin' Man, which was written for the soap opera, Emmerdale. No, not really! It was actually commissioned by the Ford Motor Company for a 1961 musical, but not one for the ticket buying public. This particular song was written for the launch of a new range of tractors, but it was not until the TV comedy writer Steve Young (no relation) happened upon a souvenir recording in a secondhand record shop that the world realised what was going on. Understandably, this was one industrial secret every company would want to keep. Songs of this nature were used to motivate sales staff - if you can believe that - and were strictly private.
Young told Young: it was almost twenty years ago that while writing for The Late Show With David Letterman (as he still does to this day) this and other songs were used in a cameo spot on the show in which Letterman would hold up a strange album, play a bit and make a snarky remark about it.
Another song was My Insurance Man, and another was an ode to a calculator salesman.
For some reason, these (frankly awful) recordings struck a chord with him, and he began actively seeking them out. What is perhaps surprising - and embarrassing for those concerned - is that they were commissioned from the top composers and performers of the day, such as Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, who wrote Fiddler On The Roof.
Is it possible that anyone could write a song dedicated to a refrigerator? Unfortunately yes.
The really bad news is that just as we gave the Yanks the Beatles, they gave us the industrial musical; there was a 1973 show for Lyons Ice Cream, which played for one night.
Arguably the worst of these at times quite disturbing musicals was the Converters Inc show The Spirit of '78 which featured a song called I Never Enjoyed My Operation More. This was produced to promote disposable surgical garments.
This programme has to be heard to be believed. Or not, as the case may be.
There Is Business Like Show Business is currently on iplayer for those unfortunate enough to receive it.
In case you don't recognise it, the title is a pun on There's No Business Like Show Business, a song by Irving Berlin.