Reg Presley: Singer with the Troggs whose song 'Love Is All Around' sold millions of records
Wednesday 06 February 2013
Reg Presley was the singer and principal songwriter of the Troggs, the group that put the Hampshire town of Andover on the pop map with 1966's "Wild Thing". He was also the member best placed for a solo career and a retirement rich in material comforts, principally through Wet Wet Wet's No 1 revival of Presley's "Love Is All Around" – written in under 20 minutes one Sunday afternoon – for the soundtrack of Four Weddings And A Funeral in 1994.
Accepting three Ivor Novello awards for this, Presley remarked in his Long John Silver burr, "I've hardly had time to get in my runner beans." He had become a master at playing up to the public persona of homely old Reg with his bucolic metaphors. The most tangible consequence of his red-letter year of 1994 was a huge swelling of Presley's bank account, a compensation for the lean years that followed the Troggs' farewell from the UK Top 50 in 1968, a few months after the original "Love Is All Around" had peaked in Top Tens on both sides of the Atlantic.
As well as moving to a self-designed mock-Tudor pile on the edge of Andover – where he had emerged as something of a town patrician – and founding a film company, Four Corners Vision, Presley ploughed back much of the Wet Wet Wet windfall into becoming as synonymous with crop circles as the late George Harrison with Krishna Consciousness. This was instanced by his film short about the cornfields in and around prehistoric monuments near Marlborough and his lectures on the extra-terrestrials he believed were responsible for at least 20 per cent of the vast patterns that still appear overnight. His theories were nutshelled in Wild Things They Don't Tell Us (2002), a remarkable book with an intellectual depth on a par with a university professor rather than a former bricklayer from Andover.
The youngest of three sons of local café proprietors, Reginald Ball first sang in public as half of a duo with a fellow Andover secondary modern pupil in a town centre auditorium during 1955's summer carnival week. Then he took saxophone lessons before playing guitar with the Incognitos, a skiffle combo omnipresent at local talent contests.
By 1964 he was an apprentice builder, moonlighting as bass player with the Troggs, a rhythm-and-blues outfit. This edition of the group had all but disbanded when, using the same name, Ball and drummer Ronnie Bullis joined guitarist Chris Britton and, on bass, Pete Staples. Persuaded to sing unencumbered by an instrument, Ball's nasal baritone proved not unattractive, even oddly alluring.
After a debut single, "Lost Girl", flopped, "Wild Thing", a cover of a US regional hit written by Chip Taylor, began charging towards the top of the UK chart. One day on the building site he worked on, Ball – soon to assume his stage alias – heard it on a workmate's transistor radio. He downed tools and made a frustrated telephone call to the band's manager, Larry Page. By the evening the Troggs were on a weekly wage as professional musicians. Within weeks Page had kitted them out in the pyjama-like uniform suits that would define the group's image for the rest of the decade after "With A Girl Like You" – a Ball/Presley original – went to No 1 at home, as "Wild Thing" had done in the US.
Next came "I Can't Control Myself", whose line "your slacks are low and your hips are showing" in the first verse made it the first censored record in Australia, and restricted airplay elsewhere. The controversy did no harm as it came to within an ace of pole position in Britain. The follow-up was the subdued "Anyway That You Want Me", as unlike "I Can't Control Myself" as it could be.
While "Anyway That You Want Me", had been written by Chip Taylor, the group could argue with some justification that their front man was now one of Britain's most bankable songwriters when Presley did it again with "Give It To Me".
This and other early discs sold millions internationally too, and were a foundation for a post-Top 40 afterlife that embraced many intriguing tangents, most conspicuously as special guests on David Bowie's Midnight Special – his US-only TV spectacular – in 1973, and a link-up with REM for the 1991 album Athens Andover that was regarded as either ersatz REM or how those who hadn't heard much of the Troggs since "Love Is All Around" might imagine them sounding a quarter of a century on. Yet, "The Troggs Tape", a widely circulated illicit recording of a cross-purposes studio discussion, freighted with unconscious humour – lingers for some as the group's most memorable cultural statement during this period.
Presley ventured on to the big and small screen, notably via a bit part in Hearts Of Fire, a movie vehicle for Bob Dylan, and a role as a supermarket manager in a Ruth Rendell Mystery on ITV. The Troggs remained revered as one of the last unreconstructed British beat groups by such disparate artists as Jarvis Cocker, Billy Childish – and, of course, Wet Wet Wet. Presley sang the Scottish band's arrangement of "Love Is All Around" on Sixties Sing Nineties (1999), a collection of turn-of-the-century hits by 1960s luminaries.
Following a series of strokes and the diagnosis of lung cancer, he ceased stage performances at the beginning of 2012, and gave his blessing to the Troggs continuing with guest vocalists. The Troggs had been among few vintage acts who were rated in the punk explosion for their take-it-or-leave-it attitude on the boards, the starkly functional guitar-bass-drums-vocals set-up and the thrilling margin of error. "Punk rock?" smiled Reg Presley, "We invented it!"
Reginald Maurice Ball (Reg Presley), singer, songwriter, actor and writer: born Andover, Hampshire 12 June 1941; married 1962 Brenda Taylor (one son, one daughter); died 4 February 2013.
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