"I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman"
Whistling Jack Smith
What kind of title is this? Who Was Kaiser
Bill? Where's the Boy Wonder?
...a remarkable UK pop tune from 1967
performed by Whistling Jack Smith. There are no vocals,
just instrumental backing to a great deal of jocular whistling. The
whistling is apparently the work of the Mike Sammes Singers and the
record producer. A cheery, almost militaristic number that could only
have been made in Britain in the sixties. The record was the
brainchild of two Rogers: Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway. It reached
#20 in the Billboard charts and #5 in the UK charts. Following its
success, an artist was appointed to 'be' Whistling Jack Smith, and an
album was released, but the success of 'Kaiser Bill' was never
So what's with this Batman
stuff? To the rescue:
A batman (or batwoman) is a soldier or airman
assigned to a commissioned officer as a personal servant. A batman's
duties often include: acting as a "runner" to convey orders from the
officer to subordinates; maintaining the officer's uniform and
personal equipment as a valet; driving the officer's vehicle,
sometimes under combat conditions; acting as the officer's bodyguard
in combat; other miscellaneous tasks the officer does not have time or
inclination to do. The action of serving as a batman was referred to
as "batting." In armies where officers typically came from the upper
class, it was not unusual for a former batman to follow the officer
into later civilian life as a domestic servant.
OK, so just who was this
batman? Wikipedia says:
John O'Neill was a professional musician born in
County Durham, England to Irish parents. He was famous for his
whistling abilities and was also an accomplished trumpeter. He is
widely believed to have had a hit single with I Was Kaiser Bill's
Batman credited as Whistling Jack Smith (a play on "Whispering"
Jack Smith). However the exact nature of who Jack Smith was is unsure;
certainly in TV appearances an actor lip-synced whistling to a backing
track, and some sources attribute the single to British Decca/Deram
producer Noel Walker, as producer and performing artist.
But wait! What about "Kaiser Bill?"
Forget stately Wayne Manor. The real question
here is why Kaiser Wilhelm II, emperor of Germany and king of Prussia,
would have needed a small-b batman (a British soldier assigned duty as
servant to an officer) in the first place. And when that's settled, we
can work on the question of "Who was Whistling Jack Smith?"
The name is a send-up of singer Whispering Jack
Smith, soft-spoken because of an injury sustained in World War I; many
of the noises are made by the Mike Sammes Singers, well-known in
Britain but in the USA perhaps best-known for being the parents of the
kids chanting on John Lennon's "I Am The Walrus", and the leader of
all the whistlers was recording producer Noel Walker.
The tune was originally titled "Too Much
Birdseed" (!) and was concocted by Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway,
previously of the Kestrels; their song "You've Got Your Troubles"
(also produced by Walker) became a major hit for the Fortunes, and as
"David and Jonathan" they did a successful remake of the Beatles'
"Michelle" in 1966.
Everyone at Decca, owner of the Deram label,
seemed surprised that this little ditty became a hit, and in an effort
to keep the hype going, the label designated singer Coby Wells, real
name Billy Moeller (brother of Tommy Moeller of Unit Four Plus Two),
already signed to Decca, as the "official" Whistling Jack Smith for
Greenaway and Cook would go on to write many
other songs. Perhaps their biggest hit was "Long Cool Woman In A Black
Dress", the Hollies' crunchy Creedence pastiche.
Billed as an instrumental, I Was Kaiser
Bill's Batman actually contains
one word, uttered by Noel Walker: curiously, it's "Hey!" on the
45 and "Oy!" in the stereo mix.
There. I hope that's clear now.
The song without lyrics
that was actually
banned from airplay in 1958!
A lot of people don't remember the song
or the artist. Link Wray and
his Ray Men created an overdriven, distorted electric guitar sound for
their recordings, and are credited with having invented the power
chord, which some say led to heavy metal and punk rock music.
Once again, we turn to Wikipedia for
the story behind the title of this unique hit instrumental:
In 1958, at a
live gig of the D.C.-based Milt Grant's House Party, attempting—at the
urging of the local crowd—to work up a cover sound-alike for The
Diamonds' hit, "The Stroll", they came up with an eleven and one half
bar blues song titled RUMBLE which -they first called "Oddball". The
song was an instant hit with the live audience, which demanded four
repeats that night. Eventually the song came to the attention of
record producer Archie Bleyer of Cadence Records, who hated it,
particularly after Wray poked holes in his amplifier's speakers to
make the recording sound more like the live version. Searching for a
title that would hit home with radio listeners, Bleyer sought the
advice of Phil Everly, who listened and suggested it should be called
Rumble, as it had a rough attitude that reminded him of a
street gang. Rumble was slang for a "gang fight."
The menacing stalking sound of
"Rumble" (and its title) led to a ban on several radio stations, a
rare feat for a song with no lyrics, on the grounds that it glorified
juvenile delinquency. Nevertheless it became a huge hit, not only in
the United States, but also Great Britain, where it has been cited as
an influence on The Kinks and The Who, and Jimmy Page among others.
Jimmy Page cites the song in the Davis Guggenheim documentary "It
Might Get Loud" and proceeds to play air guitar to the song in the
movie. Pete Townshend stated in unpublished liner notes for the 1970
comeback album, "He is the king; if it hadn't been for Link Wray and
'Rumble,' I would have never picked up a guitar." In other liner notes
in 1974, Townshend said, of "Rumble": "I remember being made very
uneasy the first time I heard it, and yet excited by the savage guitar
The complete story of Link Wray is a compelling
one and a good read for any rock fan, regardless of age. You can check
it out at
page on Wikipedia.