POP MUSIC / John, Paul, George and Bugs Bunny: Jim Phelan's your man for daft Beatles records. Martin Kelner couldn't believe his ears

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For most of us the knowledge that the comedians Little and Large once recorded a version of the Beatles' 'I've Just Seen A Face' is enough. We are unlikely to feel impelled to use three minutes of our leisure time actually listening to it. But Jim Phelan did. More than that, he quite wilfully returned the stylus to the beginning of the track and listened again, to categorise and time it. Then he listened a third time to check there was nothing he missed on the first two hearings.

This is clearly rotten work Jim is involved in at his basement in East Dulwich, but given the continuing fascination of the Fab Four, someone was bound to do it sooner or later. That said, interest in the exploitation of the Lennon and McCartney songbook by unlikely acts would appear to be a somewhat limited field. Apparently not, according to Jim. When his company, Exotica Records, released a collection of 26 unusual versions of Beatles songs last May, and invited suggestions for a possible second album, a tidal wave of letters, records and tapes swept into south London from all over the world. Russian Beatles, Japanese Beatles, Hungarian Beatles, psychedelic Beatles, bhangra Beatles, trad jazz Beatles, folk Beatles, bagpipe Beatles.

They are still arriving at the rate of 10 or 20 a week - a 1977 version of 'Fool on the Hill' by Icelandic singer Bjork, the same song by Bugs Bunny, jugband 'Lady Madonna' by Jugular Vein, 'Let It Be' performed as Charlie Chan, 'Hey Jude' in the style of Bela Lugosi, 'She's Leaving Home' by the Baja Marimba Band, a Beatles medley by Father Guido Sarducci, and a version of 'Imagine' by Joan Collins that drips syrup on to the turntable.

If we think of the Lennon / McCartney back catalogue in terms of geese and golden eggs, in much of the material Jim works with the gold is inexplicably absent. He is now producing three follow-up albums - Exotic Beatles Volume Two, Beatles Psychedelia, and an album consisting of 20-odd different versions of 'Yellow Submarine'.

He is confident he can match the weirdness of the first album, which included such well-known interpreters of the Beatles' work as Dickie Henderson, Edmundo Ros with Caterina Valente, the Metropolitan Police Male Voice Choir, the 52-Key Verbeek Fairground Organ, and Derek Enright MP.

Derek Enright MP? 'I was listening to a parliamentary debate on some aspect of education in which Nicholas Fairbairn mentioned that Derek Enright was a classical scholar who was able to perform a Beatles song in Latin, so we invited Derek into the studio to do his version of 'Yellow Submarine', 'Habitamos sub vitreo'.' The MP has asked for his royalties to be sent to his favourite rugby league team, Featherstone Rovers, neatly illustrating how John and Paul's work reaches into unexpected areas.

The art critic Brian Sewell was another unlikely contributor to the first album. Jim heard him say in a radio interview that he was looking for new projects and immediately snapped him up for bizarre recordings of 'I Wanna Be Your Man' and 'Her Majesty'.

When not engaged in Beatle archaeology Jim, who is 45, designs record sleeves for a number of independent labels, and the techniques he brings to his own albums are clearly those of the pop artist. In his pre-Beatles work, the Flair and Bend It] football albums, a 1960s description of George Best's dream home or a snippet of Brian Moore commentary would segue seamlessly into a cheesy old soccer song.

'It was through the football records I came to the Beatles exotica,' says Jim. 'I had a Liverpool sequence on one of the albums in which the Kop Choir sang 'She Loves You', which prompted one of my correspondents to write with details of other unusual versions of the song. There cannot be a country in the world that didn't have a crop of Beatle imitators. We had French, Spanish and Brazilian Beatles on the first album, and now a correspondent in Hungary has sent me an LP by a group called the Bootles - the Hungarian Beatles.'

Budapest's own fab four only fail to gain inclusion on Exotic Beatles 2 by virtue of their competence ('They sound quite good - an uncannily accurate Paul'), but there is plenty more material from which to choose. Jim reckons to have around 2,000 tracks filed somewhat haphazardly in his basement, which looks like a lively teenage boy's bedroom might if his mum had left him alone in it for, say, 25 years. It's the kind of room - Jim's wife and young son live in more ordered surroundings upstairs - where you have to move the box of back copies of the Beano and the old Stenhousemuir programmes to get to the early 1960s Beatles imitators.

These include Billy Pepper and the Pepperpots with their album More Merseymania, including two Beatle covers and eight original compositions which, according to the sleeve notes, 'will undoubtedly become standards in their own right'. Standards like 'Baby You Can Do Do Wrong', 'Won't You Come Out Tonight', and 'Don't Tell Me You Don't Know'.

This is not the only inaccuracy on the Pepperpots' sleeve. BP and the Ps are described as 'exciting new Liverpool discoveries', but we can reveal that not only had the band been no nearer Liverpool than a studio in London W1, but Billy Pepper is not really his baptismal name. Bill Shepherd, a hard-working musical director of the Sixties and Seventies, was the man behind Le Pepper. He later went on to produce the seminal 1970s album Father Dear Father with Patrick Cargill.

Jim has several similar albums of session men pretending to be beat groups. A Tribute To The Beatles - 12 Fabulous Beatle Hits Sung And Played By The Ginks is typical. 'What I look for really is a Beatle song given a different slant, something bizarre, exotic, or with a charm all its own, that will make people sit up and take notice.' On that basis we can be fairly sure Little and Large won't make it through to the album. But given that pretty well every major artist, from U2 to Liberace has covered a Beatle tune and that every Beatle song has been covered, even 'Revolution No 9' performed psychedelic-style by Kurt Hoffman's Band of Weeds, selection is difficult.

Jim discovers new tracks every day. I do not help by turning up with a version of 'Let It Be', performed Chipmunk-style by Chevy Chase. However, Jim is delighted with a truly awful record I found in a second-hand shop, 'Ob La Di, Ob La Da Polka' by Johnny Prytko and the Connecticut Hi-Tones. We have struck pewter.

Exotica Records, 49 Belvoir Road, London SE22 0QY.

(Photograph omitted)

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