‘Nuns quivered at the naughty bits!’ The story of trailblazing gay pop song Kay, Why?

Show caption The Brothers Butch, AKA Iain Kerr (left) and Roy Cowan. Photograph: Courtesy Iain Kerr Pop and rock ‘Nuns quivered at the naughty bits!’ The story of trailblazing gay pop song Kay, Why? Unknown to many, this hilarious slice of high-camp 60s psychedelia is a sought-after cult classic, made when being gay was still taboo. Its secret creators speak for the very first time Darryl W Bullock Tue 15 Feb 2022 14.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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For LGBTQ+ people, and especially for gay men, the summer of 1967 offered much promise. The Sexual Offences Act had just been passed, meaning that homosexuality – at least, homosexual acts in private between two consenting adult males aged over 21 – was no longer a criminal offence, and the atmosphere was filled with a palpable sense of change. People were protesting for equal rights and an end to war. Love was in the air: the Beatles told a global television audience that it was all we needed, and we believed them.

As the summer of love turned into autumn and winter, a strange little record issued by a tiny, London-based independent label appeared: the innuendo-laden Kay, Why? by the Brothers Butch, its title a riff on the leading brand of water-based lubricant. Very few copies were sold, but it has gone on to become one of the most sought-after and highly cherished examples of British camp humour.

Backed with I’m Not Going Camping This Winter and penned by one Eileen Dover – a wonderfully silly pseudonym that would befit a drag queen – Kay, Why? was not the first queer pop record, but it was one of the earliest, and most blatant, to be issued in the UK. Performed in high camp style by two outré queens, the song laments how the eponymous Kay has “made a mess” after being given “a little squeeze … why did you slip through my fingers? Ooooh!”

The Brothers Butch: Kay, Why? – video

Despite turning up on various collections over the years, including the Jon Savage-compiled Queer Noises 1961-1978: From the Closet to the Charts, no one has been able to uncover any of the people involved; since it was issued at a time when an admission of homosexuality would badly damage a career, it’s hardly surprising that they chose to remain anonymous – until now.

Kay, Why? was the only release from Thrust Records of 494 Harrow Road, London. Now a flat above a fast food takeaway, at that time it was also the address of Eyemark Records, a small indie label that had previously issued the likes of a Sonny and Cher parody from actors Sheila Hancock and Malcolm Taylor, an album by legendary drag ball organiser Mr Jean Fredericks, and a series of field recordings of train sounds.

Another of the musicians on the books was Eric Francis, singer, guitarist and occasional fire-eater with a four-piece psychedelic rock group from Fulham, the Barrier (their records have become some of the most sought-after from the British psychedelic era, with a copy of single Georgie Brown in its ultra-rare picture sleeve selling for more than $1,500 in 2020). The band performed the instrumental track for Kay, Why?, and after finishing the session left for a European tour. “There was no fee involved,” says Francis. “We just did it as we were all mates.”

Great balls of fire … the Barrier. Photograph: Courtesy Eric Francis

So who wrote the songs and performed the vocals? This was Jewish musical duo Roy Cowen and Iain Kerr, who performed as Goldberg and Solomon, a comedy version of Gilbert and Sullivan. Born in Edinburgh, Iain Kerr was brought up in New Zealand, where he gave his debut performance, billed as the Wonder Boy Pianist, at the age of four. In 1961 he returned to the UK with his cabaret partner Daphne Barker, and after becoming a hit on the London circuit they released an album of risque songs, Banned!, in 1962, which was indeed banned by the BBC.

Born in Hampstead to Russian parents, Cowen discovered his knack for writing parodies of hit songs while serving in the army. The budding song satirist impressed Kerr with an on-the-spot spoof of Moon River entitled Chopped Liver, and an immediate, and lasting, partnership was formed.

The pair wrote material for Kerr’s nightclub act as well as for other artists; Cowen wrote lyrics for Charles Aznavour, and to accompany the easy listening tune A Walk in the Black Forest, which had been a No 3 hit for Horst Jankowski in 1965. Perhaps the most bizarre commission came from tractor manufacturer Massey Ferguson, who had them compose a full opera, staged on a beach in Greece, in front of company delegates from around the world. As well as working with Cowen, Kerr continued to perform in clubs and hotels in London, becoming friendly with visiting US stars including Bob Hope and Sammy Davis Jr, and was regularly featured on the popular BBC radio programme Music While You Work. Now 88, and still a lively, engaging raconteur a decade into a fight with Parkinson’s, Kerr has never spoken about his involvement in Kay, Why? before.

An advert for Goldberg and Solomon, Roy Cowen and Iain Kerr’s Gilbert & Sullivan spoof.

He met Eyemark’s Mark Edwards and Malcolm Taylor at a recording session, who asked if they had any other songs, and then paired them up with the Purple Barrier. “Mark and Malcolm were anxious to exploit their new venture in the record industry,” says Kerr. He and Cowen, meanwhile, “were passionate about the English language and delighted in the art of double entendre. We had fun playing with words. Roy’s natural wit could take two words like Kay Why, build a sad little story about the break-up of a relationship, and turn it into a hysterically funny song that had audiences in stitches. In all of our parodies and original songs we gave the audience the choice of which way to take it.”

Despite the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, life was hard for LGBT people, and no mainstream pop act would come out publicly until the 1970s. Arrests for importuning, or “cottaging” in public toilets increased, and plain-clothes police officers took to hanging around gay-friendly pubs, procuring arrests through entrapment. But such an obviously gay song as Kay, Why? was not a political statement. “I don’t think we ever had time to consider whether we were brave or subversive, we were too busy entertaining,” says Kerr. “Our audiences were by no means only gay; wherever we went, we played to people of all backgrounds. Many a time we had nuns out front – we could see their wimples quivering at all the naughty bits!”

As Goldberg and Solomon, the pair recorded their first album for Eyemark in 1967, the same year as the Brothers Butch tracks were laid down: The Tailors of Poznance, featuring Rag Trade actor Miriam Karlin and subtitled the Best of Goldberg and Solomon, No Two. “There never was a volume one,” Kerr laughs. In December that year they sailed to South Africa to perform their show An Evening With Goldberg and Solomon. Kerr remembers: “Halfway through the journey were invited to drinks at the Pig and Whistle, the crew’s bar, and as we went in we were delighted to find that two members of the crew had chosen to honour us by miming as the Brothers Butch. They had gone to a lot of trouble to rehearse and learn the lines. We were both thrilled.”

Kerr was also involved as co-writer and pianist in another Eyemark release, QPR – The Greatest, by Queens Park Rangers footballer Mark Lazarus: “I did it because I was asked!” The flip side features what is probably the most peculiar, psychedelic football anthem ever recorded, Supporters – Support Us, credited to the QPR Supporters. Rumour had it that the Barrier, who backed Kay, Why?, created this. “I have heard it suggested many times,” says the Barrier’s Eric Francis, “but we’re not guilty.”

Francis managed to score a No 1 hit in Japan with the band Capricorn, but apart from the occasional session that would be his last shot at stardom. “By 1971 I had a small baby, and I decided to get out,” he says. “I had been a professional musician for about 10 years, but I would have been better off financially stacking shelves in Morrisons. I did some driving for a car hire company. One of my customers was Greg Lake, the bass player with Emerson, Lake and Palmer, which was a bit embarrassing because he was a mate.”

An advert for Kay, Why? in Gay News. Photograph: Darryl Bullock

Then, five years after Kay, Why? was released, an advert appeared in the recently launched fortnightly newspaper Gay News. “Have a Thrust for Christmas” it announced, before promoting the more seasonal I’m Not Going Camping This Winter as the main track. By that time the Gay Liberation Front had been established for two years, Britain’s first Pride march had taken place, and pop stars including David Bowie had helped make androgyny big business. Perhaps the world was finally ready for Kay, Why?, but in the end very few copies were sold, and the record again drifted into obscurity. Over the ensuing years it began to pick up notoriety among collectors, helped along by a digital reissue in 2007, with copies changing hands for hundreds of times more than the “60p for one copy or £1 for two” advertised in Gay News. There had once been plans for a second Brothers Butch single, but this did not materialise. “Roy and I were extraordinarily busy at the time”, says Kerr.

Indeed they were. During the decade following the recording of Kay, Why?, Goldberg and Solomon released three further albums and toured the world, playing several return seasons in Australia and South Africa. The curtain fell on their highly successful act when Cowen died of a heart attack, aged 54, in Sydney in June 1978. Kerr continued to work: for 25 years he was the resident pianist at the May Fair Hotel in London’s West End, and in 1997, at a celebratory dinner hosted by Sir Peter Ustinov, he played in front of the Queen.

Kay, Why? has also endured, since its appearance at a time when LGBTQ+ people in Britain were beginning to find their voice. “We were aware,” says Kerr, “that we were sticking our oars out and making a few ripples.” Those ripples would soon become waves: Kay, Why? may not have changed the world, but despite its commercial failure, it remains an important footnote in the history of British psychedelia, and in the story of LGBTQ+ pop.