“The Beatles were in the studio next door,” says Pete “Peanut” Langford. “And Paul asked if we wanted to hear the song he’d just written. I said, ‘Can you hurry up please Paul, we’ve only got half an hour left…’.
“It was Hey Jude, we were the first outside the band to hear it.”
How did it sound? “It didn’t blow us away, but it didn’t have the strings or anything. It was just Paul on an acoustic guitar…
“I introduced him to our session piano player, a guy called Reg Dwight…” Or Elton John as we know him now.
The Barron Knights are pop nostalgia personified. The only band ever to tour with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the only band Princess Anne is ever known to have asked to join…Their comic pop parodies sold by the million and yet, as we shall see, they only managed to offend John Denver…
They formed sixty years ago in Leighton Buzzard. “We prided ourselves on our musicianship and harmonies,” singer and guitarist Pete, 77, tells me. “We wanted to be like the Coasters.”
The Daily Express changed all that. “My Dad always had the Express, and there was a front page about bringing back conscription – the paper was very keen on that. And I thought, what would happen to pop groups if they got called up?”
The result was the band’s first hit, Call Up The Groups, written by Pete on his mum’s kitchen table, which parodied hits by the biggest bands of the time. I Wanna Hold Your Hand became I Wanna Wear It (hair) Long, while Freddie Garrity was imagined singing ‘Please don’t pick on me/I’m only 5ft 3…’
“We tried it out live at a social club in Baginton. The audience all stopped dancing and came around the stage to listen,” Pete says.
Within three weeks of release, the single had sold half a million copies. Record company Columbia/EMI wanted more. Cue Pop Go The Workers, which imagined high-flying stars being forced back to work, and Merry Gentle Pops, an all-star Xmas party parodying Donovan, Marianne Faithful, the Hollies etc.
“When we did Top Of The Pops other acts would ask if we’d do them next,” Pete chuckles. “Leo Sayer was keen. Ian Dury too.”
Dury once said, “No group has made it until the Barron Knights have spoofed them.”
US acts weren’t so sure. Country star John Denver was appalled by Heaving On A Jet Plane (travel sickness kicking in after 15pints and a curried egg). “It was Number One in Australia when he told his publisher to get it withdrawn,” says Pete.
Billy Joel was equally unimpressed by their parody of The Longest Time, which involved waiting for a Scotsman to buy a drink.
The Beatles and Stones were fans though. The Barron Knights toured with the Fab Four twice, after Beatles manager Brian Epstein saw them live in 1963.
“Before that, we were playing dance halls in Scotland for £20 a night and had only seen their name on posters. I told Paul we’d thought they had a funny name. He said, ‘We saw your poster and thought the Barron Knights was a stupid name for a band’.
“They were so lovely and friendly. Paul was like your next-door neighbour. George was very quiet, the kindest guy. Ringo was the comedian, always funny. And John was sarcastic but in the nicest way.
“He was always playing pranks. On tour, we had to finish our set in a blackout. We’d whip off our guitars and run off stage then the lights would come back on to reveal the Beatles. Only John grabbed Butch Baker, our lead guitarist, so when the lights came on he was still holding him and laughing his head off.”
Like the Beatles, the Barron Knights learned their trade the hard way playing four sets a night in Hamburg clubs, where they performed with Little Richard and the Everly Brothers.
The Stones loved being sent up by them. “They weren’t like their publicity at all,” says Pete. “They were extremely nice, especially Bill Wyman who bought his first electric bass after he saw us live at Aylesbury Town Hall in 1961.”
Supporting the Stones meant they had to get to venues early because of hysterical fans. “We had to tell the girls we were all staying in a different hotel so they wouldn’t invade after the show. They went crazy for Mick.”
As a novelty act, the Knights didn’t attract screaming girls themselves but they still sold out 1500 seaters as headliners.
When Pete married Veronica, his wife of 56 years, in 1964 the happy couple couldn’t leave the church. “They opened the big double doors and the churchyard was packed with hundreds and hundreds of people,” he says, still sounding amazed.
Fans included Princess Anne who asked “Have you got a spare white suit? I think I could join your band; I know all your songs well.” And Princess Alexandra who wanted to know why Pete was called Peanut (it stemmed from playing US Air Force bases where they got asked to play The Peanut Vendor – “I became ‘the Peanut guy’,” he laughs.)
The Who’s Pete Townsend wrote a song for them, Fat Lazy People, which contrasted complacent, overweight adults with wirier youth, but it flopped. Apart from one minor success in 1968, their hits dried up for eleven years.
“EMI didn’t re-sign us in 71, and we didn’t have a label until 1977. We played CBS a £175 demo and they released it as it was!”
Live In Trouble, their parody of Angelo (‘Long ago, outside a chip shop in Walthamstow…’) went Top Ten. Their next hit, A Taste Of Aggro, was their biggest ever and included their Smurfs send-up as escaped convicts – “What were you in Dartmoor for?” “We borrowed a safe from the bank next door…”
Pete is the only original member left. Lead singer Duke D’Mond died in 2009; the others retired. He continues to perform sporadically with the latest line-up – their next gig is in January – and relaxes playing golf.
Which modern artists would he send up? I wondered.
“Today’s music is totally different,” he says, momentarily glum. “There are no sing-alongs any more. We’d have a real problem.
“We’d have to find a subject and parody it to a classic. I think Britain needs a new Barron Knights to keep us all laughing.”
*Dreamboats & Petticoats: Music That Lives Forever (4CDs / £12.35) is released November 6 on Decca Records.