The Utterly Strange Sounds of Peter Wyngarde
Around these parts, Wyngarde is revered for his role as Jason King, the swingin’ international man of mystery, adventure novel writer, and part-time espionage agent he played on the series Department S and, later, in his own spin-off series, Jason King. The man spent his days solving unsolvable mysteries, penning potboilers, wooing ladies, drinking champagne and scotch for breakfast, and puzzling over which of his many puff ties to wear with his silk lounging robe. This despite the fact that Jason King was, shall we say, something less than a Greek god to behold. But he carried himself with such panache, such style, and such biting wit and arrogance that it’s hard not to see his charms, if only from a somewhat campy aspect.
Anyway, if King wasn’t your style, there was always his Department S colleague, Stewart Sullivan (played by Joel Fabiani). And we can’t really say enough about his other colleague: analyst, computer wiz, and second most beautiful woman in espionage (Emma Peel is secure atop the heap, after all), Annabelle Hurst (Rosemary Nicols). But none of them had the bizarre yet undeniable appeal of Jason King, who was the perfect blend flamboyant dandy and hard-drinkin’ lady’s man — it’s the sort of thing that might happen, say, a screenwriter comes up with a swingin’ Romeo superspy then gives it to a gay man to interpret — which is what Wyngarde was, and what he did.
Riding the tide of popularity his portrayal of Jason King brought him, Wyngarde was approached by RCA with the prospect of recording an album. Getting popular TV personalities to record albums was all the rage, and when they promised Wyngarde complete creative freedom, he agreed. And thus we start down the road toward infamy.
The album was completed, released, then yanked from shelves almost immediately in an air of blistering controversy. Expecting, one assumes, some frothy concoction of easy listening and perhaps go-go rock, RCA execs and fans must have been taken aback when they spun the record and found it to be a bizarre collection of musical cues in multiple styles accompanied by Wyngarde — or more accurately, perhaps, Jason King — rambling on and occasionally talk-singing about a variety of topics. Sex, mostly, though. There was indeed some easy listening cocktail groove thrown into the mix, but he doesn’t restrict himself in any way. At the center of the controversy was the song “Rape,” which would be offensive if it wasn’t so goddamn weird. In it, Wyngarde/King babbles semi-coherently about how the style of rape differs from one country to the next. Not content to simply offend in that aspect, it throws a racist “Chinaman” bit in for good measure.
The rest of the album really veers into left field. The “song” “Hippie and the Skinhead” begins with Wyngarde, accompanied by some music, opening the paper and reading a letter written by a couple skinhead girls explaining various factual errors in the paper’s recent article about skinheads. As the letter draws to a close, Wyngarde suddenly launches into a country-western style song about queer bashing.
The rest of the album is just as strange, with Wyngarde talking and pseudo-singing, occasionally flying into fits of boiling rage, occasionally adopting bizarre character voices. Even in the permissive atmosphere of 1970, the album was considered too much to bear — not so much because of the one song, but because of the whole thing just being to artistically confounding. RCA pulled it off shelves and did their best to pretend it was never recorded. In 1975, Wyngarde was “outed” as a homosexual — even though his homosexuality was well-known amongst his peers, where he occasionally adopted the name Petunia Winegum. The ensuing scandal and “moral outrage” saw the man shuffled to the margins of the public consciousness, much like his album. In 1980, he appeared behind a metal mask as Klytus in Flash Gordon, but his career never fully recovered from the 1975 scandal.
Collectors have been searching for and trading the elusive album for years. While finding the album was not that difficult (the Internet makes it all so easy), affording the album was well beyond my means. Although there were labels looking to re-issue the self-titled record, contractual wrangling, cold feet, and other tangles always got in the way. Until 2009.
Out of the Closet, Out of the Shadows
Through some Herculean dedication to the cause, British label RPM managed to secure the rights and re-release the album on CD in the United Kingdom, retitled (appropriately) When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head. While some people would consider buying a CD re-issue no proper accomplishment when compared to searching for the vinyl, all I really wanted to do was own and listen to the damn thing, treasure hunt and exorbitant LP prices be damned. So I made the purchase, actually knowing very little at the time about the album other than that it had disappeared almost as soon as it had been released, and having only heard one track, the more or less conventional (when compared to songs recorded by other TV stars — Nimoy and Shatner, for example) “Neville Thumbcatch.”
You know that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Belloq screams, “It’s beautiful!” right before his head explodes? Well, pretty much. When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head is indeed a study in profound weirdness, the recorded LP equivalent of a drunken ramble at the end of a night of secret society decadence and debauchery delivered by a man who is at once embracing and lambasting his ladies’ man image while struggling with the fact that his heart’s just not into being a ladies’ man. The opening track, “Come In” starts about like you might expect the album to start — with a splashy bit of adventure series music right out of the ITC production library. But that quickly fades, and we are greeted by Wyngarde drunkenly singing in French then introducing some woman/us into his bachelor’s den. Still, if you knew Jason King, this isn’t really out of character, and the unsuspecting listener couldn’t be blamed for thinking this was just an in-character intro to more conventional tracks to come. But when Wyngarde tells this unseen lover (actually, it could just as easily be a man, but for the line about a beautiful dress, and even then…), “Here’s to a pleasant evening… and a few surprises,” he speaks the truth.
“You Wonder How These Things Began” is a strange spoken word “mood setter” accompanied by medieval style lutes. And then comes “Rape.” Returning to the brass-and drums action music that began the album, the song adds female screams and pleas, guttural roaring of the word “rape,” then launches into Wyngarde’s “international rape 101” lecture. On the surface, the song is obviously full of things to offend. But taken in the context of Wyngarde’s semi-secret personal life, it could just as easily be an indictment of the “might makes right” machismo that makes rape such a tragically common crime. Like everything surrounding Wyngarde and Jason King, it’s hard to extract any cohesive “philosophy” from the swirling mix of emotion.
Nothing else on the album is quite so incendiary, though it remains plenty weird. Musician Vic Smith did the arrangements, and he seems to be having a good time indulging every bizarre whim and fancy; here sparse and minimal, there symphonic and melodramatic, elsewhere Sgt. Peppers style baroque-pop. And all the while Wyngarde talks on like some psychotic stream-of-consciousness poet, at once sad and enraged. Beneath the weirdness is a chord of bitterness, frustration, and melancholy, Laugh with it, laugh at it, and then all of a sudden you’ll realize that, campiness aside, something just isn’t quite right. It’s as amusing as it is oddly unsettling, especially once you get to the closing track, “April,” the jaunty strings-and-“picnic beneath the veranda on a fine summer day” style music of which can’t mask the stinging final message.
It’s hard to pick anything out as a favorite. The album works more or less like a long suite rather than individual tracks, and the gestalt experience is more important than the separate pieces. The cover of “Neville Thumbcatch,” as I said, is the most conventional song, but it’s still quirky. I quite like “Once Again (Flight Number 10)” as well, being a sort of Ulysses-style stream-of-consciousness rumination on everything from existential loneliness to the kid who won’t stop picking his nose.
If you are a fan of Jason King, then the album is essential listening. All things considered, it really does sound like the kind of thing one would hear if one spent some time with Jason King, who (especially in his own spin-off series) always boasted an air of world-weary bitterness beneath his promiscuous frolicking. For those unfamiliar with Jason King, the album is a harder sell, though if you enjoy exploring the unusual world of celebrity vanity projects and utterly strange cult albums, you should be mightily satisfied. All others need tread lightly and with trepidation into these waters, though. You may never emerge again. And even if you do, you might be wearing a silk dressing gown and lavender ascot.