Category Archives: writing

The King and I — my Elvis Marathon.

Pleased to have one less thing in common with the Wonder Stuff, I do love Elvis. I love the hillbilly cat and the jumpsuited entertainer, and to prevent disillusionment I find it fairly easy to avoid watching the films — it’s not as if they are in heavy rotation on our mainstream channels these days. A love for the King is an isolating love these days. Elvis has become a rubber hat and plastic sunglasses, a jumpsuit and a remix opportunity. Elvis has become, like every dead musical artist worth remembering, a tribute and moneymaking sinkhole.

And I’m as much to blame as anybody, I own an officially licensed Blue Hawaii Hawaiian shirt (see what they did there?), an ‘Elvis pig’ (in mitigation, a gift), and book-after-book both scurrilous and fanboy. But I love the King, it’s where me and Chuck D part company (“Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me”) and one of the few touchstones that I’m sure I would have with bum-sex comedian Frank Skinner (who paid silly money for a shirt that may have belonged to EAP).

It’s a love based on the iconography as much as the music, the belts and glasses as much as the sultry vocals, That’s The Way It Is as much as the Carson show and really; ’75 as much as ’56. We’re around the 33rd anniversary of the death of Elvis Aaron Presley, and if there’s anything more undignifying than “dying on the toilet” it’s Elvis Week 2010. A week long excuse to bombard fans with emails for inglorious tat: Jailhouse Rock Flip Flops, the Elvis Hot Sauce Sauce Gift Set (including Elvis Don’t Be Cruel Hot Sauce), the Elvis and Dale Earnhardt Fantasy Race Car Magnetic Guitar Bottle Opener and left over Elvis Week 2009 Golf Balls. But, there’s still the music. In October a new Elvis Complete Masters 30 CD set is being released at the paltry sum of about £573.78 plus shipping, containing all 711 master recordings and a hundred or so rarities — no better way to make sure that it’s the music that matters.

Elvises

I couldn’t justify a pre-order for that, but I could beg and borrow all studio recordings released to date—and I can listen to all six hundred and ninety-eight of them in order. I could do the listening bit as I was ill with a stodgy cold and home alone as my other half was away to visit friends for the weekend—had she have been in situ there would have been no chance of getting through it in a sitting. A ferociously opinionated music fan, Jules has banned many of my favourites from play in her presence, mainly what she calls “wimpy indie music” (The Smiths, Belle and Sebastian, Black Box Recorder amongst them) but my recent obsession with listening only to covers of the Stones’ Satisfaction didn’t go down well either.

So I did, I loaded them all into iTunes, ordered by recording date as best as I could, from 1953’s My Happiness to 1976’s recording of Way Down (a posthumous Number One in the UK in 1977). That’s 1.2 days according to Apple. I started at 1pm on a Saturday, with intentions of attempting it in one go.

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One Sunday, and Saturday, with Sidie

I really can’t put my finger on where I first came across Frank Sidebottom, logic would dictate that I’d have spied him on one of his regular appearances on Number 73 but there aren’t any memories I can dredge up. I know I watched it every so often, but apart from the theme tune there’s nothing on any cortex I can connect to, maybe the ungodly presence of both Sandi Toksvig and Neil Buchanan has led to a form of repressed memory syndrome.

I guess it may have been one of the famous (how many other TV guest spots have songs written about them?) Match of the Day episodes — both when Altrincham were doing “well in the F.A. Cup” — or perhaps it was when he was booted from The James Whale Show, I used to watch all sorts of crap. Getting the Spanish archer from what was such a disorganised show was an achievement that later touring partner Charlie Chuck never managed, proof perhaps of an anarchy of spirit belied by the colouring pens and deference to his elders.

I don’t remember the first time I saw or heard Frank Sidebottom, it’s sort of like he’s always existed. But I do remember the first time I met him, or Chris Sievey to be pedantic.

The battered leather aviator’s jacket didn’t identify him, nor did the mess of black oiled curly hair or the ever so slightly bulbous nose — mind you I had absolutely no idea what Chris (as opposed to Frank) looked like at all. However there were no other middle-aged men sitting outside New Street Station with luggage big enough to house a Casio keyboard, and the boxy suitcase had a suspicious papier-mâché head shaped bulge. “Chris?”, I said. It was him

The Reading Festival has always been the strangest mainstream gig in the British summer calendar, a three-day festival where the rock hangover meant that it was completely possible to go and find yourself after two days of indie’s finest suddenly confronted with a sea of plaid shirts and not a single discernible tune. So that’s the reason I was in the comedy tent that Sunday evening in 1995 and instead of seeing Neil Young muscularly backed by a lumpen Pearl Jam, was shouting “spiders!” in an attempt to put off the apparently arachnophobic singer. Frank was leading that, and I was as smitten as one man can be with another who has a perfectly spherical fake head.

Variery Is Back poster

So that was why, almost ten years later I’d bullied — apparently — the man out of semi-retirement to play a hugely shambolic gig upstairs in a pub in Moseley. We, mate Gavin and I, were intent on “bringing back Variety” and after one, equally shambolic but way less good, night (band, comedian, raffle, bingo essentially) we’d decided that the only act that could top it was Timperley’s finest. I’d stumbled on a fantastic set of arty pictures of Frank online and established a route in via the photographer.

So, after a gushing phone call in which the subject of money was only lightly touched upon, Chris reckoned that Frank would be able to make it, that he was looking to get back into showbiz, and that £250 and a cut of the door was plenty.

As I drove him to the venue he talked non-stop: about other gigs he’d done in Birmingham, asking after Dave Travis, about Tony Wilson and the Channel Four show Remote Control. There was one anecdote about how he’d made an African tribesman Frank and it hadn’t gone down well with the director, it was brilliant stuff that I couldn’t do justice even if I could remember it.

The show was the most disorganised I ever saw Frank perform, crawling along the floor pushing his suitcase, interrupting my weak-assed comedy turn as a camp NUM shop-steward (don’t ask), going off after a couple of songs so as to encore all night — fantastic. He even pinched my backing band Wedge Grundy and the Big Rons for a medley of hits where they didn’t know the chords. That was okay though, because Frank didn’t know the words and it became the funniest jazz-funk work-out I’ve ever seen — as well as the only one I’ve ever watched all the way through.

Frank at the Pat Kav

Frank was out of practice, not unprofessional, although Chris had definitely had a good drink. We had too, the night was wet with booze, and I even — whisper it — got to try the head on, it didn’t fit. At this stage I hope it doesn’t break any illusions to tell you that without the head it was Chris, with it, Frank. Supremely method, but there was one other piece of preparation — Chris would wind electrical tape around his nose, presumably to get the nasal voice just right. I didn’t have the heart to mention that it made almost no difference to pitch or rhythm.

After the gig we went to the curry house over the road, where Chris held court. He ordered twenty-seven poppadoms, as the World Record was “twenty-six actually” — he’d apparently eaten twenty-five in an restaurant before where he was told of the record: “I could have  eaten two more but… I couldn’t be arsed”. He then picked up the tab for the whole crew, costing almost all of his fee I’m sure.

But the best Chris moment didn’t come then, nor the next day when he regaled us with tales of Manchester City which drinking shandies made with coke instead of lemonade, nor even when clinking with bottles of Bacardi Breezer he climbed into the back seat of Cookie, our bassist’s wreck of an MG for a lift back to Timperley and promptly fell right asleep. No, the story that I’m proud to tell most happened back at Woody (née-Wedge)’s flat where there was nothing but Prince’s Purple Rain that would satisfy him — it was played many time that night, and the following morning too when Chris discovered that he needn’t have slept sitting on a stool in the kitchen “oh you do have other rooms then”.

I only met Chris that once although we talked on the phone and over email a bit, most recently to arrange a slot for him on my radio show. But when I heard of the cancer I was upset, and upon hearing the news yesterday I felt an hollowness that I can only match with deaths of people I’ve known and really cared about, so I think I was touched. I saw Frank quite a bit though, each time at a bigger and better organised gig: Little Civic, Jug of Ale, Wulfrun Hall and on Manchester’s Channel M and heard him in recent months on Manchester Radio Online. He’d finally got that second Greatest Hits compilation out, the marvellous E,F, G. & H, and seemed to be heading back to something like his peak.

me and Frank

In truth he was rediscovering an old audience, one with more opportunity to enjoy him and more money to pay, rather than developing a huge new one — but it was growing again and he was playing regularly again.

More importantly he was creating again, I’ve been searching iTunes over and over these last weeks waiting for Three Shirts On My Line (his World Cup anthem) to go live for download. At the moment it hasn’t yet, but there are Internet People awaiting to propel it into the charts.

Frank never got to do Guess Who’s Been On Top Of The Pops, although he outlasted the programme, and while the power of the number one has long since faded you can bet that Frank Sidebottom would have loved it. He was pop all the way through.

A giant of light entertainment, and a man I’m proud to have spent time with. You know I am, I really am.

Thank you.

(John Robb’s tribute is well worth a read, as is ex-Oh Blimey Big Band-er Jon Ronson’s article for the Guardian of 2006, video of the Variety Is Back gig does exist, I shall try to dig it out.)

The Passion of the Cripes

If you’ve watched an England game on telly this World Cup, apart from a feeling of ennui matched only it seems by Emile Heskey as he spends another match mostly inhaling the pitch, you’ll have gained two things:

Except that they’re sort of the same thing. One is an ex-player’s easy statement on a team’s failure without having to do such things as explain tactics, the other a Danish lager PR machine’s attempt to associate themselves with football, without having to understand anything about it bar the jingoistic assumptions made by sections of the press.

Passion is an odd thing, it’s the only piece of the gamut of emotional reaction to sport that advertisers and the media will attempt to engage the public over. You’ve seen John Barnes, a player torn apart by the press during his playing career for a perceived lack of it held up as someone to connect over just how much of it he has. If it can be whipped up to involve some cheap nostalgia so much the better. Barnes’s appearance is linked to the current wave of re-imagining the golden era of Italy 1990, there’s even a film out One Night In Turin based around the tournament — with the tears and kisses and penalty misses that do nothing so much as remind me how much the video from only twenty years ago has degraded.

It’s not quite how I remember that World Cup, the headlines were about how bad things were, not how memorable. It existed as one of the great last sorties of English hooliganism abroad, there was constant footage of it raining plastic glasses and plastic chairs in picturesque squares all over Italy. The film is based on a book by Pete Davis called All Played Out (now re-issued as One Night in Turin), which is a fantastic, if depressing, read about how Planet Football is divorced from all reality and the lives of the fans. Davis quotes a distressed Englishman — no doubt dressed in too-small shorts and one of those headache inducing plastic flat-caps we used to have — after a disappointing draw against North African opposition: “fight you bastards” he says “like we fight for you”. Sound familiar? The film doesn’t touch too much on that.

Do players really have less passion now than two decades ago, and if so can that role-call of famous English help. Can a naked-from-the-waist (up, thankfully) Jeff Stelling inspire, does our greatest living World Champion — The Power — chucking a ‘good arra’ mean anything to our current team? I’m not sure it goes far enough, these are media savvy young men who will assume well wishes from the stars of stage and green (and have you noticed Steve Davis CGI’d into recent transmissions?). What they need is inspirational figures alongside them when it really counts.

It’s said that the great Liverpool team of the 80s could afford to play Sammy Lee as they “could have covered for Thora Hird at left back”, never mind a player who’d just been transferred a little above his ability. So with that in mind, can’t the England team cover for the lack of experience or fitness of a sententious Englishman who will lead them in all things passion?

If Beckham can travel without being fit to play, surely the presence of a great who can play (without them being able to really play) is a possibility. And we could stick them on the wing that Gerrard doesn’t seem to be using anyway.

Of the advert crew, we have to excuse Dames Holmes and MacArthur for FIFA are not enlightened enough to allow a female winger, but surely Ian Botham could do a job? Beefy is so English that supposedly preferring the charms of the West Indian dressing room to that of his own team hasn’t dampened his iconic status, and he had a few games for Scunthorpe and Yeovil too.

He can’t do everything of course, but not every game needs so much of the passion and we have a lot of national treasures around. An easy qualifier against the Faroes for example might only need the passion of a Bradley Walsh or a Jonathan Wilkes, a friendly against a local side pre a tournament could be the opportunity to rest the big guns and use a Duncan Norvelle or a Stan Boardman (who pioneer Fat Ron Atkinson used extensively in the build up to big Villa games in the nineties).

A vital qualifier away in Turin might be the time to use Brian Blessed, where you could use a home game to blood David Mitchell, maybe he and Robert Webb could be twin raiding wing-backs.

Roy Race knew all about the power of celebrity, and also blow-driers, when he picked Steve Norman and Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet for Melchester. Imagine the faces of the opposition when we bring on The Actual Mayor Of London for a corner. And BoJo has experience.

It’s the World Cup and we need to show that passion, so we need to lay every card we have. Princes William and Harry were in the stands on Friday, and the dressing room after — luckily before anyone touching cloth came in to ask to use the bog — why were they not in the room before, kitted and booted, three lions over their royal right-nipples ready for battle. Where their ancestors lead England into the breach, they could be leading Aaron Lennon onto the bench and playing themselves.

Forget Gaddafi’s son somehow making the Libya side (and oddly the squad at Sampadoria), forget Kevin-Prince Boateng. We might just have found a use for our Royal Family, just not Fergie in charge of the sponsorship deals please.

Fiction

I don’t write fiction much, haven’t for years, but I decided to see if I could knock something out for Tindal Street Press‘s Roads Ahead compilation. The brief was simply a “substantial short story”, which I took it on myself to write overnight — as tight to the deadline for submission as possible.

Turns out, I made the longlist, but not the actual book — so here it is for anyone who might want to have a read: Get The Bus.

What made me weird

I know I’m weird, most people are but it takes a bit of self awareness and a sort of forthright bravery to admit it. Inspired by this blog post, here’s five things that made me weird:

Monty Python — or the realisation that humour didn’t need to be dumb at least.  It’s probably the ‘Marxism Today‘ sketch that helped me decide that there we no barriers between “high” and “low” culture.

That has lead to me annoying the hell out of people I’ve been in bands with, and made my writing a mess of references that only I would get all of – but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Grammar School — grammar school taught me a lot of things.  Some, like atomic numbers are only useful in quizzes and particle physics (of which I do very little). Some,  such as my firmly held beliefs about how wealth and influence is handed around, have proved very useful indeed. Some, such as how it “taught” me to be uncomfortable around women (by being a boys school) weren’t so much use. But being an outsider, poorer, from a different area to my school and most of the boys there, made me able to do stuff on my own — to start stuff that was interesting and to form networks around that. Spectrum fanzines, then music and football ones were things I wouldn’t have got involved with had I been “popular”.

Bad Wisdom — Bill Drummond and Mark Manning’s book (know now as ‘The Lighthouse on Top of the World, since the second book in the trilogy came out). It’s a mess of fact, fiction, rumour, lies, spunk and shit. It’s probably my favourite book.

Birmingham in the 80s — there was very little to do in Birmingham in the eighties. Actually, I’m sure that there was very little to do in Britain in the eighties, particularly outside of “normal trading hours”. The “very little to do” lead me to be the sort of person that creates stuff, that doesn’t stop at having an idea but does it.

The Manic Street Preachers — before the internet, the only way you found out about new things was through your friends, but that took ages. One quicker was was the music press, but while you might find out about bands from, say, Simon Price — the real cultural horizon expander was the stuff that bands were into. This was of course, back when bands were into stuff. These days the music press just covers the latest conveyor-belt stage-school “indie” nothings beloved of Blair’s 50%.

The Manics, and yes we’re talking up-to Holy Bible era Manics, spewed working-class intellect like no other band before or since  — yes it was partly six-form iconogrpahy, Ché, Plath, etc, but for a young boy mistakenly taking science classes it was a valuable in to the world of culture. And self-harm, and military fatigues as fashion.

What made you weird?

Outer Circle Psychogeographical Report

I spent eleven hours on the 11C bus on the 11/11/08. This is a psychogeographical report, it’s not a tale of the trip nor an attempt to map or really delve into areas along the eleven route. I’ll get to that later, I think. I’m not interested in mapping this, only in the most general sense of how places connect together and it doesn’t mention the bus itself much. Other than a method of transport its main function was to provide both the structure and lack of control for the journey. Despite the three circuits, thoughts about the places are combined into one loop.

The stops in King’s Heath are bad, squashed together 11 and 35 on a pavement not wide enough to support a queue, it forces that particularly British type of hanging away from each other. Holding back, as you would have to make the decision to interact, even if only to be polite. Even squeezing onto a packed bus gives you a feeling of space, how can humans together give off that aura of dampness when it hasn’t been raining?

Birmingham is really green and lush in places, the mature trees either side of the road can fool you into thinking nothing happens, that people wash cars clean of that tree gloop and have special machines for either sucking or blowing leaves subject to preference. Riding on the top deck you feel the need for those heavy suburban curtains, the drives where the parked monster truck acts as a barrier.

Where shops appear they don’t seem to be planned, the ‘party shop’ in Stirchley on the Pershore Road seems to whimper “celebration” rather than shout. It’s falling into itself, does it open? I don’t know. It has competition, the area thrives on the vibe of balloons and peculiarly dull glitter. Even the charity shops, the copy shops, the functional shops hide a stash of party poppers beneath the counter. In the pubs it’s perpetually New Year.

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Gwen Stefani at the NIA

Gwen Stefani (yes, I know, not my usual thing, a return of a longstanding agreement from the last time I dragged my other half to watch Belle & Sebastian or somesuch) is not averse to using the odd bit of popular culture – in the first half hour she’s played songs that piggy-back on Topol and Julie Andrews – so when she tells us she went to the zoo yesterday, I’m immediately thinking a hip-hop mash-up of Julie Felix is on the cards.

Turns out she really had gone to the zoo, held a baby monkey and fed the elephants. She tells the crowd this and is a bit nonplussed that we don’t cheer the zoo (and all the staff she’s invited to concert) loudly. What she doesn’t realise is a lot of us are trying to work out which zoo she’s been to. Dudley Zoo, for a start doesn’t have any elephants.

While she’s off for another costume change, leaving vocal duties to Bowie’s long-time bassist Gail-Ann Dorsey, I’m thinking Drayton Manor? No elephants there either.

While she’s fitting in an incongruous ballad, but refusing to sing anything from No Doubt, I’m thinking Wipsnade? She can’t think that’s in Birmingham.

While she’s rampaging through the audience, scaring the shit out of security (she got right up the back of the arena), running while singing the one that goes “You know we’re cool” that sounds like Belinda Carlile, I’m thinking Chester Zoo? Nah.

While the fibre glass goats (I’m not kiding) are put away and another lacklustre ballad stutters with breakdance interludes, and you start to wish for the return of The Go Go’s (actually I pretty much aways think that), I’m thinking – surely not London Zoo? No elephants I don’t think, and wouldn’t she have invited the keepers to the Wembley Arena gig.

While she encores with What You Waiting For and I remember why for all the GIRL, GIRL, GIRL fake hip-hop posturing and the sad demotion of ska in her affections she’s still a cut above most pop acts, I’m thinking Twycross.

Twycross. It has to be.

logic failure in folk tales

I’ve been worrying about what some fairy stories are teaching our young. In particular wildly inaccurate versions of the food chain, where they seem to suggest that any animal will consume a smaller one.

The old woman who swallowed a fly is a case in point, the fly seems to be an accident – I mean I don’t know why she swallowed a fly, but you’d think it unlikely that she did it on purpose.

The spider, well again an accident perhaps? I remember reading in some horrific fact revealing magazine that you swallow a number of insects and arachnids while you sleep. Then again, she apparently swallowed the spider to catch the fly – possible, but misguided to say the least. The spider will have to spend ages spinning an in-stomach web. It can’t be good for her.

A bird is a little more stupid. To “catch” the spider you might have poured a load of hot water down your neck, like you do when there’s one in your bath. Or simply caught it under a glass and thrown it out of the window.

The cat I understand a little – what better way to get rid of a bird than a cat? She might have thought ahead a little and swallowed a scarecrow, but you can’t get it right all of the time.

The dog is where the food chain stuff starts to get odd. Dogs just don’t eat cats on a regular basis, in fact I’ve no idea which animal has the dog as its main predator, but it has a lot more chance of being ‘the dustbin’, or ‘the can of dog food’ or even the chav baby than the cat.

Next she swallows a goat, no mean feet. But what makes anyone think that a dog will be disposed of by a goat – I know they eat anything, but… I’m worried for her mental health as well as the physical implications. The governments obesity drive is well founded if this glutton is anything to go by.

You may have wondered where Shergar has got to, and carry on wondering. The woman has swallowed a horse, but I doubt it was that one. No problems with this you might think, after all the French do it all the time. Okay, but why? In history, as far as I’m aware there have been no recorded incidents of horses disposing of goats.

The woman’s dead, of course, and that has to be a good thing – removing her from the gene pool.

And the less said about that woman with the pig the better.