The story of a novelty record cashing in on a passing TV commercial fad.
In the strange world of the novelty record, little is more throw away than the quick cash-in on a passing fad. The ephemeral nature of the pop song is perfectly captured by records that cease to be relevant almost as soon as they are recorded, rushed out before the world moves on. Be it comedy commentary on social issues, the sci-fi-themed pop of the Star Wars era or simply a record churned out by some here today, gone later today chancer who has experience passing fame through tabloid exposé or reality TV, these records are odd slices of historical record that we can later look at with astonishment and confusion.
Take Cats U.K., a four-piece female band whose entire existence was due to two words uttered in a TV commercial back when TV commercials still had some cultural importance. The ad in question was a 1977 commercial for Campari, where a sophisticated-looking beauty was asked by her smooth suitor “were you truly wafted here from paradise?”, to which she replied in a Cockney accent, “nah, Luton Airport”. The woman was Lorraine Chase, who was a real Cockney model and – much like the later Boddingtons campaign with Melanie Sykes – the wild hilarity of it all was due to the apparently unbelievable idea that beautiful, stylish people could possibly have working-class accents.
The ad was a huge hit, of course, Chase was propelled into an actual celebrity – the sort that saw her on panel shows like Blankety Blank – and the catchphrase, as it quickly became, was repeated ad infinitum up and down the country until the campaign finished and everyone forgot about it. The window of opportunity to cash in on it was, of course, limited and by the time that Cats U.K. came along in late 1979, you might think that the moment was gone.
Cats U.K. was formed by Paul Curtis – a would-be Eurovision Song Contest writer – and songwriter/failed pop star John Worsley, who wrote the song Luton Airport and tried to persuade Chase to perform it. She wasn’t interested, though – she probably didn’t need the help of a throwaway pop song to boost her career at that time. Instead, lead singer Bea Rowley was hired and backed by three other singers including Deena Payne, who years later would appear with Chase on dismal British soap Emmerdale. The band was christened Cats but soon had to tweak the name thanks to a Dutch band already using that moniker.
Luton Airport was a thin track that had little connection to the ad – after all, how could you stretch that into a musical narrative? But the tune isn’t completely awful and Rowley does a decent enough Cockney performance and if we were to be very kind, we might describe the song as a poor man’s Squeeze track. It reached number 22 in the charts, which meant a Top of the Pops appearance but was probably not what everyone had hoped for.
The band managed a second holiday-themed song, Holiday Camp and a third single 16, Looking for Love – neither was a hit. Cats U.K. had run its course and was confined to the dustbin of history. There has not been a clamour for their return on the nostalgia circuit.
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