“Charley says always tell your mummy before you go off anywhere.”
In 1991, this valuable lesson from a 1973 animated series of public information films called Charley Says became part of rave history. Sampled in The Prodigy’s debut single ‘Charly’, where we also hear the mangled meows of Charley the cat (voiced by radio and TV host Kenny Everett), the words still bring a rush of nostalgia to dance music fans everywhere.
Liam Howlett, The Prodigy’s founder, had noticed early morning replays of 70s cartoons when he came in from nights out. After one such night, Howlett recorded Charley Says – an instructional series created by the COI, the government’s communications arm – off his TV on to tape. He combined the sampled dialogue with a distinctive revving synth captured from a Roland Alpha Juno 2 keyboard, and then distorted the results. Beatboxing was lifted from the last track on James Brown’s album I’m Real, ‘Godfather Running the Joint’, but the pitch was changed and spliced with Charley’s warbled voice, while Bobby Byrd’s foundational ‘Hot Pants’ break is overlayed with the hardcore piano riff.
The track propelled The Prodigy into the charts but proved divisive in underground scenes. The band was criticised for mainstreaming and kid-ifying rave, and Howlett was unsuccessfully sued for his use of the sample. Headlines such as ‘Did Charly kill rave?’ emerged, but copycat tracks sampling children’s television programmes proliferated. The Smart E’s ‘Sesame’s Treet’, a song channelling the childlike rave sound, similarly rocketed up the charts.
Not just in Charley Says, the relationship between nostalgic youthful sounds and an eerie adult threat was central to the disturbing effect of many of the COI’s public information films (PIFs). Throughout its 75-year history, the paternalistic agency left an imprint on the national conscience and consciousness, its warnings veering from idiomatic sloganeering towards the realm of slick state-sponsored horror.
Often PIFs evoked the viewpoints of children and, by doing so, horrified them, wagging a finger at impending dangers in the world around them. The most successful of these were repeated more frequently on television than just about any other screen content, so it’s no surprise that they’ve continued to have a hold on the minds of generations of children and young adults whose behaviours, notions of public safety and creative output have been shaped by this state messaging.
The furore ‘Charly’ inspired has now largely been forgotten, but the admonishing voice of the PIF has continued to inspire and be reappropriated through the imaginations of many different musicians from the late 80s onwards.
Scottish electronic musicians Boards of Canada have used children’s sounds and PIFs widely to create an eerie seam through their music – they even take their name from Canada’s equivalent state filmmaking arm, The National Film Board of Canada. Their 1998 debut album, Music Has the Right to Children, explores childhood nostalgia using synthesizers and filtering samples from Sesame Street (again) and North American public information films. In their early explorations of children’s sounds, they sampled a vinyl called the Golden Hour of Children’s Television.
In a collection of recordings called Old Tunes Vol. 2, they created a track called ‘Sir Prancelot Brainfire’, which covers the theme tune from The Adventures of Sir Prancelot, a 1970s children’s cartoon voiced entirely by Peter Hawkins, a COI veteran known for voicing Joe from the animated 1960s and 70s public information film series Joe and Petunia. With unsettling impact, this song is intercut with dialogue from the softcore porn film Summer of 72 (1987).
After Boards of Canada, the influence of public information films filtered down into the hauntological aesthetic, with a whole strain of lo-fi ambient electronic music – typified by the releases of the Ghost Box label – riffing on the weird televisual past. Instructional voices with clipped RP accents interplay with warped, increasingly abrasive sounds. Contributing to the trend, the BFI’s 2010 film project MisinforMation married visuals from public information films with ambient electronics and intense drone sounds.
This unexpected afterlife in electronic music shows how the meanings of the original COI material have shifted through time. Along the way, its sounds have been transmuted and reinvented, from the voice of warning to a soothing refrain of comfort.