The Infinite Jukebox: Mike Batt’s ‘The Ride to Agadir’

Though he’d been around since the Sixties, and his beautiful, fragile, psychedelic song ‘Fading Yellow’ would go on to exemplify a very long series of compilation albums delving into that nebulous and overlooked genre called ‘pop-sike’, the first time a major audience, including me, ever heard of Mike Batt was when he recorded ‘The Wombling Song’ and took the theme music of a five minute children’s stop-go animation show, broadcast in the Magic Roundabout slot, onto Top of the Pops, and as high as number 3.
Some things are unforgiveable. My ex-wife, who was then working as a legal secretary with one of London’s top Solicitors firms, knew him as a client and reported that he was a very nice bloke indeed, but that still doesn’t excuse him.
My ears were barred to anything Mike Batt produced, not that that was of any avail, given that The Wombles went on to no less than two years of music success, wall-to-wall Radio appearances and daft TOTP performances, one of which featured Steeleye Span as the warm bodies inside the Womble costumes, and I had no means of getting away from them. I also shrank from Batt’s only hit under his own name, the theme to a BBC Saturday night variety show, ‘Summertime City’, which also reached the top 10. Further proof, as if I needed it. And I still can’t stand the records, even now, so long removed from the influence of the progressive music my mates were playing at me then. There are some Pales from which you can never return.
I wasn’t to learn about ‘Fading Yellow’, or a tiny handful of songs contemporary to it, the knowledge of which would have confused me even more had I known it in the Wombles era, until the 2000s, but some time in the late Seventies, I chanced to hear a song on the radio. Maybe I was aware that Batt was producing albums of serious material, seeking an adult audience, or maybe I was completely clueless. I was still reading the New Musical Express weekly, though with diminishing enthusiasm. And I still wouldn’t have given you tuppence for anything Mike Batt did.
But I’d heard this song. It was called ‘The Ride to Agadir’. It was completely unlike anything I’d ever heard from Batt, and it was a million miles outside anything I would ever have expected. In short, it was great.
The song opens with a long a capella section, Batt multi-tracking his voice to produced a choral sound with a sharp edge, austere and serious. The lyrics set the tone for what is to follow. The song is set in Morocco, during the Riff uprising of 1925, when the Muslim tribes fought fanatically to try to overthrow their Colonial French rulers. Yes, we’re talking the same background as the famously popular semi-operatic musical, The Desert Song, first filmed only four years later.
But whereas that was all about the Pimpernel-esque Red Shadow, Batt was aiming for a more serious treatment. He’s depicting the Riffs from within, their passion, their determination, the religious imperative behind their striving for freedom from foreign rule, and that is the centre of the song.
The a capella introduction lasts for over a minute, Batt’s use of fomalist language, wrapped in the geography of the place, setting a tone the song maintains throughout, and reflecting the seriousness of the Riffs’ cause. A later verse will use the same technique to present the lethal ability of the desert riders: Though they were waiting, and they were fifty to our ten, they were easily outnumbered by a smaller force of men. As the darkness was falling they were soon to realize, we were going to relieve them of their godforsaken lives. And he repeats: We were going to relieve them of their godforsaken lives.
Though the reality was probably as brutal and berserker as you can imagine, the words, and their relish in their poetry, somehow cleanses the experience. These are men who are not merely on a secular mission but on a divine one, following Allah’s will. Oh yes, it’s easy to quote Mark Twain about God and the religions he has inspired, Batt’s gift with this song is to draw us inside the heads of men we will never wholly understand, in a time we can no longer conceive, yet who are as familiar to us as any Christian soldier we sing of, driven by dedication to what they perceive as being beyond them.
As for the music, when Batt brought it in it was with a rock guitar and a solid, direct, driving beat, overlaid with woodwind and later brass and strings, combining in a powerful fashion to suit the intention of the words. We could wait no more, in the burning sands on the ride to Agadir. The harshness of the music, its unstoppable, relentless urgency, reflected the purpose of the Ride.
Listening to it now, in 2022, there are aspects of the production that could be made much tighter, and sharper, carving the music and the singing into a steelier, even more powerful display, using what’s been learned since 1977 when the song was recorded. It feels of its time, and the time’s limitations, yet it is still a great and powerful thing, that captures something I would have said was way beyond the abilities of Mike Batt and in respect of which I was completely and utterly wrong.
And still the ratio between those who know ‘The Wombling Song’ and those who know ‘The Ride to Agadir’ is still probably many thousands to one, and as low as that because, to my shock and amazement, the song was covered by Boney M in 1981. The arrangement is largely faithful to that of Batt, though the beat is naturally more rhythmic, the rock element de-emphasised and there’s this repeated intrusive bit where the one guy in the group (who never sang a note on any of their records) intones ‘Ride, ride, ride, ride, ride, ride to Agadir’, as if the listeners won’t know the title of the song if it isn’t spelt out to them (come to think of it, with their audience…)
It’s actually completely listenable and probably the best thing they ever did, not that that’s a high bar to cross. But you really do need to listen to Mike Batt, exclusively, and immerse yourself in something that cut through all my prejudices like Ryan Giggs against a packed Arsenal defence.

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