Skip to main content

The Gentle Power of Song

I came across this piece on the late-1960s psychedelic band "The Gentle Power of Song", and of course the marvellous "Constant Penelope" track on YouTube:

Describing the origins of the band, author (and founder/manager of the band) Marcus Bicknell remembers "Six choral exhibitioners at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, singing male voice medieval and renaissance church music under Peter Tranchell, a musical director known for his wit and musical innovation, were not discouraged from extra-mural activities." And the rest was history, and fuzz guitar.

We'd love to hear from Marcus and others in the band whether PAT was anything other than "not discouraging"? Did he have any musical input? We see in one programme listing:

"Sergeant Pepper: Peter Tranchell’s Psychedelic Hearts Club Band" and "Bullocks" - was the latter by any chance the unique "Seven Bullocks Escaped"?

The full article

[Here reproduced in full in case doesn't survive]

Written by Marcus Bicknell, founder and manager

Fab Cab

The Gentle Power of Song has its origins in the chapel choir of Caius College, Cambridge, and a vocal cabaret group Fab Cab in the period 1966 to 1969. The Gentle Power of Song went on to record to LPs and a single for Polydor and was on the artists on the first ever pop music show broadcast in colour nationwide across Britain.

Six choral exhibitioners at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, singing male voice medieval and renaissance church music under Peter Tranchell, a musical director known for his wit and musical innovation, were not discouraged from extra-mural activities. In late 1966 they took to singing Yale Song Book classics, other barber-shop songs, psalms with rather un-religious lyrics and pop songs from the Beatles, Beachboys and others at parties and May Balls. This group, Fab Cab (derived from “fabulous cabaret”) was usually six a capella singers drawn from a group of a dozen choristers led by John Potter, David Sloan, Marcus Bicknell, Alan Fairs, Chris Cole, Chris Johns and Hugh Dibley. Their 40 minute set would include their theme tune, based on the Batman theme, selections from their various genres of unaccompanied singing, and one or two spoken sketches or anecdotes. Comparisons with their much more celebrated neighbours, the Kings Singers, are inevitable, but Fab Cab was more pop and much less serious.

The first written record of Fab Cab are publicity sheets dated February and April 1967 when Marcus Bicknell (supported by Chris Johns and Chris Cole) had started touting for engagements for the group. The publicity was along the lines of “Fab Cab – give you party a lift with the best cabaret in Cambridge. Fab Cab – your fave rave.” The Cambridge paper Varsity carried small ads for Fab Cab on Feb 18 and March 11 1967. The group played the Volunteers Ball 11 March and Caius May Ball 13 June 1967 at which the programme was

  • Fab Cab theme tune,
  • When Pa Was A Little Boy Like Me (Yale),
  • Sergeant Pepper: Peter Tranchell’s Psychedelic Hearts Club Band,
  • Bullocks,
  • Here There & Everywhere (Beatles),
  • White Show Blues (Yale),
  • Barefoot Puppet (from the Sandy Shaw hit),
  • Moanin’ Lady/Humble/Mandy (our medley of Yale songs),
  • When I’m 64 (Beatles),
  • When I Was a Little Freshman/Air Hostess/Prince Charles (Psalms with much modified lyrics)
  • Seargeant Pepper reprise
  • Cuckoo
  • Fab Cab theme tune.

Scattered among the singing in the June show were two jokes, Hugh’s “Georgey Porgey” and David’s “Uck”. Clearly some of the media did not sample first-hand the excellence of the music; Patricia Hodgson’s write-up of the “Small, smooth and sumptuous” Caius May Ball contains the remark “Finance must have been carefully balanced for 8 guineas, perhaps by offsetting Annie Ross with the Fab Cab”. Little did she know. The May Ball talent booker was one Marcus Bicknell.

It was at this May Ball in June 1967 that Richard Hill saw Fab Cab and relayed his excitement to Clive Woods at Polydor. Richard Hill and John Hawkins were the composers and impresarios which made the Gabrieli Brass so well known and the stage show Canterbury Tales so successful). Richard could see the value of choral harmonies in a pop setting and he set about creating the concept of the Gentle Power of Song and booking recording studios in the summer for the six singers and the Gabrieli Brass as backing. The single and an album of carols (Peace, Polydor 583017) were both completed before the new term started in September.

On November 17 1967 the single (Cat No 56211) was released, Constant Penelope, “based on a medieval poem with a full rhythm backing and swinging harp and brass” reported the Cambridge News.
“Lovely, young and fair,
No-one with her can compare,
And let all women strive to be
As constant as Penelope.”
That “medieval poem” is claimed, in the publicity blurb, to be an “anonymous 15th century ballad” but were surely the work of Richard Hill. He had created much of the lyric content of the long-running West End show Canterbury Tales, which also gave thousands of theatre goers the feeling of medieval authenticity!

Gentle Power of Song

The Polydor publicity material listed the six members of the group as follows:

  • Hugh Dibley, who is 22 and resides in Sussex. A tenor, Hugh left Cambridge a short while ago and currently works as an estate agent in Hanover Square.
  • John Potter, a 20 year old tenor who is at this moment studying in London to be a professional singer. He apparently has no fixed abode.
  • David Sloan, aged 21, a third year undergraduate at Caius who is studying to be a doctor.
  • Marcus Bicknell, a 19 year old second year undergraduate who combines physical Anthropology with organizing freak-outs and being secretary of the group. Another Baritone, Marcus lives in the Kings Road, Chelsea.
  • Chris Johns, aged 22, who is bearded, bass, and has just finished reading music at Cambridge.
  • Alan Fairs, who is 20, occasionally lives in Glasgow, reads economics, frightens babies and is the bass-baritone.

The Polydor record company publicity machine swung into action and significant press activity accompanied the release in the second and third weeks of November 1967. The Observer “Back Page” on 12th November has a picture of the six singers titled “Six serious singers, making medieval commercial sound”. The London Evening Standard and music papers New Musical Express and Record Mirror also carried the story.

The list of singers on the record mentions that Hugh, John and Chris left Cambridge in the summer of 1967. For publicity shots and live appearances by the time the single came out, Robert Kirby, Peter Chapman and Martin Nelson were already standing in. On December 23rd 1967 The Gentle Power of Song appeared on top-of-the-ratings “Dee Time” hosted by Simon Dee on BBC 1 nationwide television. This featured Dudley Moore, The Herd (with Peter Frampton of course), The Gentle Power of Song (singing the B side, Court Garden Party and a Christmas Carol finale), Tim Andrews and the Alyn Ainsworth Orchestra. The single Constant Penelope reached 74 in the UK’s Christmas Hot One Hundred. Heady days for the choristers.

The album of carols, Peace, was released for Christmas the same year. Richard and John’s arrangements of some less-well known carols were sung to the six part choral harmonies of the boys and interspersed with wonderful readings by Martin Starkie. The LP did well and was released in the USA as The Holly & the Ivy on Polydor’s parent company label Deutsche Grammophon (DG 136 551) and re-released as DG/Polydor 3335 311 in 1978.

In the spring of 1978 Richard Hill had completed his arrangements of well known vocal pops songs and the boys were back into Chappells recording studio in London’s Mayfair (where Paul McCartney and John Lennon were in the neighbouring mixing studio and listened to the gentle Power of Song pop songs). The result was Circus, also on Polydor, catalogue number 583 034, featuring songs like Rag Doll, This is Dedicated to the One I Love, Till There Was You and a couple of originals by Hill and Hawkins (Jonathan Mortimer Brown and She’s a Lady). Pre-promotion for the June 1968 release included another nationwide TV appearance, on BBC 2 Late Night Line Up on February 22 1968, the first pop music show to be shown in colour.

The scrap book goes quiet after June 1968 and the Circus album did not do as well as the medieval single and the carols album Peace. The singers continued to play parties and balls in Cambridge and London but for most of them the academic year 1968-1969 was finals year which meant some studying to do. Robert Kirby was busy bringing on the career of Nick Drake, including doing the arrangements for his first album. John Potter was carving out a career in modern classical singing, Alan Fairs at Worcester Cathedral. Marcus Bicknell was eyeing a career in the record business.

Constant Penelope also turned up on a compilation LP, New Rubble Volume 4: Utopia Daydream (Past & Present/Radioactive; CD). “The Gentle Power Of Song’s ‘Constant Penelope’ treats The King’s Singers scholarly choral style to a lighter-than-air pop ditty full of parping French horns and a distant fuzz guitar line seemingly played by somebody who wandered into the wrong studio.” Said

Without YouTube, the Gentle Power of Song might have been forgotten. In 2008 Jimmy Wall (jimmytheferret on YouTube) put up a video of Constant Penelope playing on a turntable ( ) and contacted Marcus. He wrote “I think it’s the juxtaposition of the harmony and the fuzz guitar that makes it appealing, and when the occasional single comes up for sale it usually goes for a decent sum. Did you record any other items like this? Congratulations on becoming a collectable sixties artiste!”.

Is this how legends start?

Marcus Bicknell – December 2008

Feel free to use our Facebook page to discuss & ask any questions you have about this artist, a fellow PsycheHead is sure to have the answer.