Peter Brough’s father was a successful ventriloquist, who frequently appeared in variety shows around London. Having left school in 1931, Peter Brough worked at a department store in Bayswater, whilst developing his own ventriloquist skills. By 1941, he was described as “England’s Most Successful Young Ventriloquist” in The Sevenoaks Chronicle. Praise doesn’t come much higher. His success led to him regularly appearing on radio before a live audience and in 1950, he launched a programme called “Educating Archie”. The conceit of this show was that a succession of tutors were hired to educate a young child, called Archie Andrews. The list the supporting actors is a compendium of the greatest post-war British comedians: Tony Hancock, Dick Emery, Benny Hill, Hattie Jacques, Bruce Forsyth, Harry Secombe, Max Bygraves, Irene Handl and Beryl Reid. At one point, Julie Andrews played Archie’s love interest. The writers of the show included Eric Sykes and Marty Feldman. Being a ventriloquist on radio worked very well for Peter Brough and he regularly achieved audiences of 15 million but in 1958, he took his show to ITV and the close-ups provided by TV exposed his limitations, with viewers complaining that they could see his lips moving. He retired from show business in 1961, taking over his family’s menswear business. He married twice and his son by his second marriage, Chris Brough, became Cat Stevens’ record producer and also married TV presenter Ayshea Brough.
Exactly what this has to do with “Educating Archie”, the last song on “Born To Sing: No Plan B” by Van Morrison, is hard to fathom. Six years after this album, he released an album called “The Prophet Speaks” which has a picture of Archie Andrews with him on the front cover.
The lyrics of “Educating Archie” include “They filled his head with so much propaganda. Entertainment on tv and all kinds of shite. What happened to the individual, when he gave up all of his rights?” The whole song is a diatribe against “the man”, the corporate, capitalist system that controls everything that we think, everything that we feel, everything that we do. The picture of Van Morrison telling Archie what to say fits in with his diatribe of curmudgeonly complaints about how we have lost our voice, how we are all oppressed, exploited, mistreated and tyrannised. Or rather, how Van Morrison is oppressed, exploited, mistreated and tyrannised.
“Born To Sing: No Plan B” is full of magical music and unhappy lyrics. The title track includes the lines “Man can be king, seems to have everything, but it comes with a sting when you were born to sing.”
“If In Money We Trust” contains “When God is dead and it’s not enough, in what do you trust when it’s not enough?” In “End Of The Rainbow”, Van Morrison sings “So much for capitalism, so much for materialism. Every penny now has to be earned. Everyone now has to be at the coalface. Try taking coals to Newcastle, you’re going to get burned“. “Open The Door (To Your Heart)” includes “Don’t you think I know who my enemies are. Their slip is showing and their door is ajar. Well, this time they pushed me too far. Open the door to your heart”
Van Morrison said that the album is about “the worldwide preoccupation with money, materialism, income equality, and the greed that has poisoned society. I’m not proselytizing, it’s not some kind of manifesto. Songs are just ideas, concepts, and you just put the mic there and go.”
Musically, “Born To Sing: No Plan B” is excellent and a very pleasant listen. The album was released on Blue Note, a label that specialises in jazz music and the music on the album leans more to jazz than some of Van Morrison’s other albums. He is equally happy singing jazz, R’n’B, skiffle, pop, mystical folk, soul or gospel and it’s an enjoyable experience listening to his six piece band, recorded live in Belfast. The band includes Christopher White, who joined Dire Straits for two years in the mid 1980s’. Van Morrison plays alto saxophone, piano and electric guitar on the album and his voice is unsurprisingly imperious. As a fan since 1969, I find it easy to forget how inspiring his voice can be. An online newspaper that I’d never heard of called “The A.V. Club” summed it up perfectly by writing “His voice remains in sturdy form, all rumble and husk, and his once sinuous cadence feels wizened, not weakened, by the occasional arthritic crick“. Most songs feature great vocals, excellent saxophone/trumpet/trombone solos and lyrics.
“Born To Sing: No Plan B” was Van Morrison’s 34th studio album and he has released another nine albums since 2012. Put that alongside seven wonderful live albums and his body of work is extraordinary. I haven’t listened to “Born To Sing: No Plan B” since its release over 10 years ago but, listening to it today, has reminded me why his art is so important to me. Now, should I get hold of those two albums I refused to buy because of his unconventional stand on COVID?