Civilians Don’t Freeze Clapperboards

train spotters

I’m at a pub quiz. Me and my colleagues from work, Quiz Team Aguilera, are doing pretty well. Between us, we have a lot of bases covered: geography, football, varieties of lettuce, the names for the different parts of a dolphin. But now it’s the entertainment round, and my buttocks are suitably clenched.

‘Question one,’ booms the host, leaning on a box of crisps. ‘In what year was EastEnders first broadcast?’

Cue muttering and furrowed brows from every team, including mine. ‘Hmm, it was 1980s wasn’t it?’ says one. ‘Yeah, definitely 80s. About…1987?’ replies another. I let a suitable number of seconds tick by before piping up:

‘It was 1985 I think.’

Thankfully there’s no further quibbling and 1985 goes on the paper, securing us the point. But inside I cringe at myself for adding that little cowardly qualifier: why did I feel the need to say ‘I think’ afterwards?

Not only did I know full-well it was 1985, I also knew the exact transmission date: February the 19th. Not only that, but I knew it was originally meant to start a month earlier. I also knew the date when it was re-scheduled from 7pm to 7:30pm. I knew the dates of the initial recording block and the date the first set of promotional photographs were taken on the set at Elstree. I also knew that one of them featured Jean Fennell, who was originally cast to play Angie Watts before Anita Dobson got the role. I knew that one of its original working titles was Square Dance. I also knew that, when you write the word EastEnders, the official style guide stipulates you must always capitalise the second E.

And the thing is…I hate EastEnders.

My team-mates were, of course, highly knowledgeable. They knew that Billy Bonds made his League debut for Charlton Athletic, and they knew that summercrisp lettuces have larger leaves than butterhead ones. They also knew that the middle bit of a dolphin’s tail is called the median notch. But that’s fine: that’s healthy, ooh-it’s-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue trivia. Stuff that can be cheerily laughed off as ‘useless information’. But knowing obscure stuff about a TV show you don’t even like? Knowing the dates? That’s just weird.

Most of my non-work friends are experts in ‘wrong’ things. They know what is commonly denounced as Far Too Much about pop culture, and they know it on a scale most folk would find decidedly odd. Whether it’s Candy Flip’s discography, the aspect ratios of WC Fields shorts or the logos for different brands of knock-off Baileys, they’re the people to ask. Two of them wrote a 600-page book itemising and cross-referencing every single sketch from the Radio 4 satire show Week Ending, a project so brilliantly insane in its ambition and scholarship that I strongly believe it should be the third compulsory tome on Desert Island Discs.

I’m always incredibly comfortable in their company because we respect and celebrate one another’s obsessions; we concede how ridiculous our interests might be, but we never deny or play down the passion that drives them. And unless we’re genuinely uncertain about something, there is never a need for a nervous ‘I think’.

But you can’t always hang out with those people. A lot of the time you have to mingle with, to use the word Hollywood actors apparently employ for those who don’t work in the biz, ‘civilians’. Normal people, with (gulp) normal interests.

I’m very awkward among civilians, particularly when pop culture subjects come up, because I don’t know the rules of their game. When a civilian asks ‘Have you seen any good films lately?’, are they expecting me to pick from a shortlist of approved Netflix fare, or can I be truthful and say ‘I’m really looking forward to the Blu-ray of Otley’? Sometimes, when civilians visit my flat, I sense their bafflement at the teetering towers of what can only be described as ‘physical media’ cluttering my coffee table. It would probably be more socially acceptable to collect Nazi memorabilia.

It’s not that civilians hate geeks – it’s that, within civilian circles, there are acceptable types of geekery. Sport is obviously fine. Cars? Also OK. A performative love of books? Almost mandatory. Cooking? Fill your geeky boots. Below that, there are types of geekery which are partially tolerated because they’re recognised eccentricities: civilians know what a ‘record collector’ or a ‘Star Wars fan’ is, even if they might roll their eyes at the notion; they’re ‘standard nerds’, to quote the term Denholm Reynholm uses for Roy and Moss in The IT Crowd. Geekdom is tolerated, but it has to be palatable or at least apologised for with an ‘I’m afraid I’m a bit of an anorak’ disclaimer.

Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons rings true with civilians because he ticks all the stereotypical boxes: arrogant, quarrelsome, unattractive, boring. A more nuanced or sympathetic portrayal of geekdom would just require too many footnotes. Characters in dramas (especially soaps, including 1985 favourite EastEnders) rarely have any interests in audio-visual media, except in the most generic sense possible – there’s just no time. If Ian Beale was seen encoding a VHS copy of Reggie Bosanquet’s Private Spy, imagine the back-story required to explain it.

There are also boundaries in terms of genre. A civilian will tolerate a Harry Potter fanatic having their photograph taken at King’s Cross station (they may even have done so themselves), but they’re going to eye me very suspiciously if I tell them I get equally excited about the spaghetti house from Yoko Ono’s Rape.

Tim Bisley, Simon Pegg’s character in Spaced, is a good example of the unthreatening  ‘everyman geek’; the nerd who isn’t really a nerd. He likes science fiction and cult movies, but in a framed-poster-on-the-wall, being-able-to-quote-the-dialogue way. He’s a big fan of Blade Runner, yes, but he’s not going to contact the Ridley Scott archive and ask to look at the camera floorplans. He’s so mainstream he probably watches ‘making of’ DVD featurettes without freeze-framing the clapperboards.

When it comes to pop culture, the bar for being a ‘massive fan’ of something is generally very low. If someone says they’re a ‘massive Monty Python fan’, for example, that usually means they’ve seen Life of Brian twice. This is true even with people who present themselves as uber-geeks and appear to embrace esoteric info with fervour. I remember listening to Adam Buxton interviewing Michael Palin and gradually becoming dismayed by the obvious limitations of his Python knowledge: ‘Stop asking him about the bloody films’ I kept thinking, ‘Ask him about Mortuary Hour rehearsal sessions, or the strange dialogue at the start of Decomposing Composers.’ To most listeners, however, the chat was no doubt more than trainspottery enough.

Even with science fiction monoliths, there are unspoken rules about the kind of geekery that’s acceptable. I got blank looks from Doctor Who fans recently when I asked why the 3-disc Shada boxset only contains 45 minutes of studio rushes rather than several hours of it. ‘Why would anyone be interested in sitting through that?’ the fans replied.  I wouldn’t mind, but these are the same people who write long blogs discussing the fluting on the Tardis windows.

But maybe this is the nature of geekery. It’s not a linear spectrum from normal to weird, but a complex collection of overlapping and intersecting knowledge-pockets, each with their own boundaries and rules of social acceptability. Some info can be laughed off in an I-think-I-heard-it-on-QI type way, while others are just too niche for comfort.

Something else to mention about the pub quiz: I might have known the start-date of EastEnders, but I was also under the erroneous impression that ‘Quiz Team Aguilera’ was a brilliantly witty pun that my colleague had coined on the spot. I only found out later that it’s a standard pub quiz name and about as original as naming your dog Fido. Everyone in the room knew this except me. So who was the geek there and who was the civilian? On different levels, we were probably each playing both roles.

I think.








A Lobster in the Quality Street: Revolution 9 at 49

White Album Side 4

Something extraordinary happened 49 years ago. Thousands of children got a piece of avant-garde art for Christmas.

They didn’t know it, of course, and neither did their parents. They didn’t know it when they felt their stocking, they didn’t know it when they tore off the wrapping paper, and they didn’t know it when they eagerly placed it on the family Dansette. But as side four of The Beatles’ latest LP drew to a close, there it was: the ultimate uninvited guest. Some may have reached for the stylus in horror, many probably never played it again, a lot of dads no doubt said ‘Isn’t Billy Smart’s Circus on now?’…but they all heard it at least once. Never mind Molotov cocktails at the Sorbonne – including Revolution 9 on a number one pop album was the real revolutionary act of 1968.

The Beatles’ eponymous album, later colloquially known as ‘the White Album’, was a departure in all sorts of ways. How exactly do you follow Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, their game-changing chart-topping monolith from the previous year? Possibly by doing the complete opposite. In contrast to Pepper’s riot of colour, their new record bore an ‘anti-design’: an almost totally blank white sleeve, one where even The Beatles’ name was barely visible. The music itself was just as fulgent, but gone was Pepper’s intricacy and sheen – this was a looser, more ragged affair; bits of studio chatter weren’t always edited out, bum notes were left uncorrected, rough edges remained unsanded. Gone too was the sense of The Beatles as a harmonious quartet: it felt like (and on some tracks it genuinely was) four soloists performing separately under one fab umbrella.


The Beatles’ humour took a darker turn on the White Album too: from Lennon sneering at zealous lyric-combers on Glass Onion to McCartney’s Beach Boys pastiche in praise of the USSR, from Harrison’s scathing satire Piggies to Starr’s ‘you were in a car crash and you lost your hair’. The subject matter of the songs also involved a degree of misdirection: Julia is about Lennon’s mother, Martha My Dear is about McCartney’s sheepdog, Sexy Sadie is about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and Blackbird is…probably just about a blackbird. But, strange though the individual songs are, what makes them stranger still are the sublime-to-the-ridiculous (and vice versa) juxtapositions; catchy singalongs are contrasted with more unsettling offerings, while heavier tracks are immediately followed by more soothing fare. The kid-friendly Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill swerves into the earnestly adult While My Guitar Gently Weeps, for example, while Long Long Long is very much the calm after Helter Skelter’s tinnitus-inducing tempest.

Revolution 9, however, is in counterpoint not only to everything else on the LP but to everything else in The Beatles’ catalogue. It’s an audio action painting; a sonic banquet groaning with sounds, some created and some scavenged; a swirling, twisting maelstrom of wow and flutter. Fragments of symphonies and choral motets jostle into one another like angry ghosts, while disembodied chatter and abrasive sound effects (crying babies, crackling fires, beeping car horns) crash in and out. Themes are constantly introduced and reintroduced, most notably a loop of a voice eerily reciting ‘Number nine, number nine, number nine…’


McCartney, who had co-designed the White Album’s cover, had been the member of the group most overtly interested in experimental music. In 1966, he was the Beatle with a copy of Frank Zappa’s Freak Out! under his arm and a ticket to a Cornelius Cardew concert in his pocket. Their (still-unreleased and still-unbootlegged) 1967 creation Carnival of Light, recorded for the Million Volt Light and Sound Rave at the Roundhouse, had largely been his baby, and he’d nominated Karlheinz Stockhausen’s face for inclusion on the Sgt Pepper cover montage. It’s ironic, then, that he had almost no involvement in Revolution 9, and later argued it should be withdrawn from the finished album.

The piece was primarily the work of Lennon (albeit with Yoko Ono as his backseat driver and Harrison as his game accomplice), who put it together while McCartney was on Apple business in New York. It’s unclear whether this was simply a case of Lennon being impatient with the idea and striking while his muse was hot, or if it was a deliberate attempt to steal McCartney’s ‘I’m the avant-garde one’ thunder. Probably a bit of both. ‘McCartney has, in recent years, made efforts to change the public image of him as the cosy domestic Beatle and of Lennon as the great radical experimenter,’ David Quantick notes in his book Revolution: The Making of the Beatles’ White Album. ‘He has a point. On the other hand, he didn’t make Revolution 9.’


Revolution 9 was not original. There had been tape collages before. In their podcast Something About The Beatles, Richard Buskin and Robert Rodriguez identify three specific compositions which foreshadow the piece: John Cage’s Williams Mix (1952), Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge (1955), and James Tenney’s Collage #1 (1961). Ian MacDonald in Revolution in the Head also suggests Stockhausen’s Hymnel (1967) may have been an influence. Their similarities to Revolution 9 are startling in some ways, but they also sound nothing like it; they feel somewhat self-aware and studied in a way that Revolution 9 never really does. Despite its nightmarish execution, there’s a freeness and naivety to The Beatles’ creation – it certainly doesn’t feel like an intellectual exercise for its own sake, and its use of collage (particularly the audio representation of violence and war) doesn’t feel crass or too on-the-nose.

Moreover, the sounds aren’t always what they seem – what’s often believed to be the sound of revolutionary chanting, for example, is actually an American football match (‘Block that kick! Hold that line!’), while the sinister voice intoning ‘Number nine…’  is from a Royal Academy of Music examination tape (to this day, the announcer has never been identified).

The whole piece, in fact, isn’t without Beatley jokes. The title itself is a pun, referring – like one of their earlier album titles – to a revolving record. It’s also, depending on whether or not you include McCartney’s ‘Can you take me back where I came from?’ link (and admittedly the CD gives this notion short shrift), nine minutes long, while the snippet of dialogue at the start, with a barely audible Alistair Taylor and George Martin talking about claret, lasts nine seconds. The White Album was also, in the UK at least, their ninth album; their ninth revolution.

Also in contrast to Cage and Stockhausen, it feels like a very personal – almost autobiographical – work, one that some see as very moving. Ian MacDonald talks about how the ‘wavelength-wandering radio-babble [resembles] the sound an infant might have apprehended in a suburban garden  during a typical post-war summer’, and I think this is key to understanding – if not unlocking – what Revolution 9 is really about. Lennon himself recommended that people listen to Revolution 9 in the sunshine as well as the darkness: ‘See if you still think it’s about death then.’

On the cult TV site Roobarb’s Forum, broadcaster Bob Fischer – whose show on BBC Radio Tees I heartily recommend, by the way – once wrote about Revolution 9 in these terms. With his permission, I’ve reproduced his fine summary here:

Bobby Rev

Revolution 9 used a long coda from Revolution 1 (the shuffly ‘unplugged’ jam which would later be rocked up and re-recorded for Hey Jude’s b-side) as its template; Revolution 9 was shaped like papier-mâché around Revolution 1 until most of the latter was unidentifiable or obscured. As such, it isn’t simply a whimsical assemblage of random noise – as Fischer identifies, it has a definite shape and structure, and a lot of thought has clearly gone into the positioning of the various elements. It’s hard to tell how ‘storyboarded’ the piece is, although Ruskin and Rodriguez note how Lennon, as the auteur of the piece, almost seems to be adopting a movie director role; he steers the action and selects the shots just as McCartney had done on Penny Lane.

People sometimes quip ‘How can you tell when avant-garde art is bad?’, and ‘the absence of structure’ is as good an answer as any. Lennon and Yoko’s Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins (released one week after the White Album) is, to me, an example of poor avant-garde art because the cacophony is not being configured in an interesting or inventive way. Revolution 9, in contrast, feels sculpted, the same way Love Me Do was sculpted.

Despite this, Revolution 9 is probably the most loathed track in The Beatles’ catalogue. Even those who call themselves massive Beatles fans (inevitably the same types of people who roll their eyes at the use of sampling on hip hop records) often boast of skipping it, or moan that the band could have substituted two or three Proper Songs in its place. A perennial topic on Beatle forums is ‘How would you edit the White Album down to a single disc?’, and Revolution 9 is the inevitable omission from nearly everyone’s fantasy tracklists. When Beatles fans discovered the album wouldn’t quite fit onto a C90, most of them didn’t have to think too hard about which track they could happily live without.

It would be faux-naif to ask why Revolution 9 isn’t a karaoke favourite, but what’s always puzzled me is why people who love previous examples of Beatles weirdness hate it so much. The obvious answer is that the likes of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and I Am the Walrus are, despite their oddity, still banging tunes. You can still sing along; Britpop bands can do cover versions for Mojo magazine; French clowns can adapt them for dance routines. Revolution 9 ‘simply doesn’t belong’ on a Beatles album is the usual argument – put it on Two Virgins, fine, but Beatles albums should contain Actual Music. ‘It’s like finding a lobster in your Quality Street’ I remember one person saying.

But The Beatles had been putting lobsters in our Quality Street for a long time. For those under the age of 60, it’s near-impossible to imagine just how radical Love Me Do felt in 1962; how raspy and raw it must have sounded; how rudely it must have cut through the easy-listening fug of the time. It’s also forgotten now that She Loves You was subtly original in pop terms simply because it was sung in the third person. There was the feedback at the start of I Feel Fine, the fade-in at the start of Eight Days a Week, the sitar on Norwegian Wood, and later there was the use of tape loops on Tomorrow Never Knows and Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite!, the fake ending on Strawberry Fields Forever, and the terrifying orchestra-orgasms on A Day in the Life. They weren’t the first musicians to do these things, but they were the first to really make them work within a mainstream pop idiom. Revolution 9 was simply the logical extension of what they’d always done; it would have been a step backwards to not do it.

Revolution 9 may not be recognisable as a pop song, but it’s still on a pop album. And there lies its genius. It’s one thing to perform avant-garde music before a self-selecting crowd of chin-strokers, but quite another to top the charts with it.


I sometimes get concerned that The Beatles’ legacy is being ‘de-weirded’. Their studio innovations seem to be played down, with the group gradually being rebranded as ‘just a great rock ‘n’ roll band’ whose ‘classic songs will live forever’. Conceivably one of the reasons for Carnival of Light’s continued non-appearance may be that it simply doesn’t fit in with this narrative – a narrative reinforced, in everything from the Rock Band video game to the Eight Days a Week documentary and the Hollywood Bowl reissue, that solid songwriting and musical chops are what really matter. Even the 50th anniversary remix of Sgt Pepper seemed to stress how much of the album was played live, while the eventual release of the Let It Be film will no doubt focus on how they could ‘really play’ up on that rooftop.  49 years after children unwrapped Revolution 9 for Christmas, what do we have now? Elbow covering Golden Slumbers.

So next time you play the White Album, don’t skip Revolution 9. Turn it up. In fact, play it nine times in a row. Right now, there’s too much Quality Street in the world and not enough lobster.

adam eve


Zappaland the Hard Way

zappa pic

‘Play one of his records and you get an argument’
Ben Watson

‘I like Zapp, not Zappa – so please quit your jibba jabba’
Hot fucking Chip  

One of the questions I dread being asked is ‘What kind of music do you like?’. As emergency exchanges of small talk go, it always makes my heart sink. The thought of listing random singers and bands makes me feel like if I’m back in the school playground, terrified of pledging allegiance to the wrong character in Whizzer and Chips, but replying ‘Oh, all sorts really’ is going to make me sound both dismissive and dull.

However, I’ve hit upon a perfect response, which is this: ‘All sorts really, but my favourite is probably Frank Zappa.’

Firstly, it’s true. Frank Zappa really is my favourite. He’s fabulous. If I could only listen to one artist’s music for the rest of my life, then without hesitation I’d make a beeline for his (admittedly gigantic) back catalogue. But it’s also the perfect answer because it brings the interrogation to a close: most people know Zappa’s name (which means the questioner’s satisfied, and there isn’t the ‘Sorry, who?!!?’ splutter you’d get if you said Einstürzende Neubauten or early Kleenex), but, because most people generally know pretty much nothing about him, the chat will have safely moved on to the weather in no time.

In fact, there are usually three basic responses you’ll hear upon dropping the Z-bomb in polite conversation:

  1. ‘He’s dead isn’t he?’
  2. ‘Crazy guy! Took loads of drugs! Haha. Didn’t he name his daughter Fridge Magnet?’
  3. ‘I’m more of a Captain Beefheart man myself.’

The first one is sadly true. The second is bollocks. The third means you’re probably talking to Johnny Cigarettes from the NME.

As ever, I’m not going to write The Definitive Frank Zappa Story here. It’s far too complex, and there are many books and documentaries out there. The best introduction to his music is undoubtedly Ben Watson’s Complete Guide, and for advanced students I can’t recommend his earlier tome The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play enough. I haven’t read Barry Miles’ biography, but I hear it’s refreshingly non-fawning. If you want to judge for yourself what Zappa himself was like, then going down a YouTube rabbit-hole of his TV appearances is a hugely enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

What interests me is a simple question: why isn’t Frank Zappa better-known, and better-liked, than he is? Why don’t more people ‘get’ him?

I ‘got’ Zappa almost immediately, when a friend of mine made me a cassette compilation. Compiling Zappa is a tricky endeavour: his catalogue is not only colossal (he put out 62 albums in his lifetime, and to date a further 47 collections from the archives have been released posthumously), it’s also wildly diverse in terms of genre. Official best ofs therefore tend to play it safe by discarding the jazz, orchestral, electronic and spoken-word stuff almost entirely and plonking the most radio-friendly rockers one after the other, perhaps with a token instrumental or ‘funny’ track at the end. His material is also hard to edit, both technically and conceptually – as with Monty Python, his albums use segues and thematic continuity in a way that really isn’t conducive to a greatest hits collection.

In contrast, my friend – who knew Zappa’s work backwards – suspected it was precisely these awkward aspects of Zappa I’d find appealing, and therefore thought there’d be little point in softening the edges. After all, if you’re going to be put off by strangeness, then Zappa isn’t going to be your thing anyway, so what would be the point? The tape was chronological, and I can still remember the brilliantly-edited opening sequence: Who Are the Brain Police?, Call Any Vegetable, Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance, Lumpy Gravy (‘Excerpt’!), Peaches En Regalia…halfway through side one, I was hooked.

zappa albums

You might be wondering why it’s been three months since the last blog post. It’s because, in preparation for this piece, I re-listened to his entire catalogue in order. And it’s been a joy. Some albums are of course better than others, but – astonishingly – there are no real stinkers. Every single one is different too, from the snorky silliness of the early Mothers material to the growling Gibson solos of the 70s belters, from his discordant dalliances with the London Symphony Orchestra to the concrète crispness of the Synclaviar years. But what’s interesting is that there isn’t really a career arc as such: pretty much everything Zappa came to create is all there on his 1966 debut Freak Out!, an expansively sprawling LP (a double, no less) which almost works as a mission statement:

You’re probably wondering why I’m here
And so am I, so am I

Just as much as you wonder ’bout me being in this place
That’s just how much I marvel at the lameness on your face
You rise each day the same old way
And join your friends out on the street
Spray your hair and think you’re neat
I think your life is incomplete
But maybe that’s not for me to say
They only pay me here to play

The first half of Freak Out! doesn’t frighten the horses, at least not immediately – a lot of it arguably wouldn’t sound out of place on a Nuggets-type compilation of garage-rock whimsy. Tony Blackburn could easily play Wowie Zowie or Any Way the Wind Blows on Sounds of the 60s and the Radio 2 switchboard would probably remain untroubled. There is, however, a ‘something’s not quite right’ feel to the songs, a sense that all is not well in Zappaland and things are about to get progressively stranger. Which indeed they do, and eventually we reach the insanity of Help I’m a Rock and It Can’t Happen Here, the latter pulling off a rare feat – that of being funny and frightening. Paul McCartney cited Freak Out! as an influence – initially on The Beatles’ still-unreleased creation Carnival of Light, and later on the Sgt Pepper album. There’s certainly more than a touch of The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet (the cacophonously bonkers ‘ballet’ which takes up the whole of side four) in the outro to Lovely Rita.

zappa money cover

If I was to pick one of his albums, however, I think it’s his third release We’re Only In It For The Money where he got everything right. It’s almost a ‘best of Frank Zappa’ album, in the sense that it showcases everything that made him great: it’s satirical without being prescriptive or polemic; it pillories pop music while simultaneously celebrating its absurdities; it uses the recording studio as an instrument in itself; it’s funny, angry, political, baffling, unsettling, and – most importantly – it doesn’t skimp on the tunes.

I adore the way it pours scorn on the gormlessness of the hippy dream (‘I will love everyone, I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street’) while at the same time offering something which was, even in 1968, sonically radical. I like the way it swerves in different directions, never staying in the same groove for too long – at one point almost literally so, as a snarling stylus deprives us of a sunny surf ditty. As soon as the listener starts thinking ‘Ah, they’re doing that kind of thing’, we’re immediately transported somewhere else entirely. ‘You think you know everything’ he sings on The Idiot Bastard Son, before immediately adding ‘Maybe so…’

But there’s so much to love in Zappaland, not least because he wrote complex and experimental music with a pop ear. Anyone can create bad avant garde noise, but he managed to create avant garde noise which was catchy. He also had the technical chops to create musical jokes and really make them land – the ‘Society of Motion Picture  and Television Engineers’ line from Baby Snakes is probably my all-time favourite Zappa goosebumps moment.

zappa ruth

He also worked with so many extraordinary musicians. It’s hard to decide what I love more – the petulant bark of Motorhead Sherwood’s sax, the shiver and shake of Ruth Underwood’s marimba, the honeyed tonsils of the brilliant Ike Willis…they’re all incredible, mainly because they had to be. Zappa’s music isn’t easy to play. In fact, a lot of it’s hard even to hum. Try it with Peaches En Regalia right now. (You think you’ve got it, until you realise you’re doing the theme from Z Cars.)

There’s a stubborn, sometimes adolescent, cynicism in much of his work, but my re-listening project reminded me just how warm he could be too. For someone with clear disdain for the conventions and pretensions of the rock world, there was a part of him (quite a large part, I would venture) who was totally at home there. Watch footage of his concerts and you see a captivating showman, a stage entertainer every bit as good as Mick Jagger or Freddie Mercury. You can sense Zappa’s warmth in interviews too, where he’s endlessly patient in the face of the same terrible questions. He played the curmudgeon, but always with a reluctant twinkle in his eye

So…why don’t more people ‘get’ him? Assuming they’ve heard his music, I think there’s five basic reasons:

  1. He’s too weird
  2. The nose
  3. They haven’t heard enough
  4. The lyrics are ‘problematic’
  5. The fans

The first one is understandable enough – not everyone wants to be challenged by music, less still bludgeoned over the head by it. Music is to tap your feet to to, it’s to cheer yourself up, it’s to put on in the background while you descale the bath. Some people aren’t especially ‘into’ music, the same way I’m not especially into falconry or beach volleyball.

But what’s curious is that Zappa’s most prominent critics are often people with otherwise wildly eclectic musical tastes. Zappa doesn’t just divide people in the way you’d expect him to – he also divides weirdos. He divides people you’d think would like him. I’ve never been entirely sure whether this is because Zappa is simply too weird even for them, or because he’s weird in The Wrong Way.

Zappa worked in many genres, but he never really set up camp in any of them, which meant there was always an element of pastiche to whatever he did. So is it the apparent lack of ‘sincerity’ that people loathe? In their eyes, will he forever be (to use the phrase Zappa imagined critics might use for him) ‘the Ronald McDonald of the nouveau-abstruse’?

A track like Joe’s Garage should, you’d think, please anyone who likes 10cc or Steely Dan, yet it never turns up on ‘ultimate driving rock classics for dads’ type CD compilations. A piece like I’m the Slime should delight prog fans, and yet Rick Wakeman has yet to introduce it on Friday night BBC4. Perhaps we’re back to the ‘something’s not quite right’ factor, and this might explain why Tony Blackburn doesn’t play Freak Out!’s bubblegum piss-takes on Radio 2 – the listeners would somehow be able to detect the sneer.

Zappa’s work doesn’t just pull in different directions – it’s almost as if he relished a degree of self-sabotage. If he released a pop track, it would be in a fiendish time signature that was impossible to dance to; if he produced an orchestral work, he’d give it a rude name that people at the Proms would be too embarrassed to read out. There’s certainly a lot of ambiguity in his work – for example, I’ve never been able to work out how seriously the apparently earnest protest song Trouble Every Day is meant to be taken. In Zappaworld, nothing fits into neat boxes, and this is something that always annoys music critics – they want to know who someone is, and in which cabinet to file them. Maybe this is why so many people prefer Captain Beefheart – the wild and crazy guy they know how to label.

beefheart zappa

Stuart Maconie, who presents the BBC radio show The Freak Zone, is a big fan of ‘weird’ music but isn’t a big fan of Zappa. And this brings us onto point two. Asked what it was that bothered him about the great man, Maconie said it was mainly the nose. Or, more to the point, the fact that he was always looking down it: ‘He always had that look…one that seemed to be saying ‘I’m so much cleverer than you’.’

My immediate retort would be that, well, Zappa is cleverer than most of us…but I know what Maconie means, and I can understand why it might be off-putting. In Zappaland, Zappa himself is never the butt of the joke; he’s the cross dad at the disco; the man who drinks coffee at the LSD party, the guy at the love-in with a tape-recorder and a notepad. He’s a self-satisfied armchair sociologist who thinks his job is to ‘document’ and make fun of his inferiors. Everyone else is a buffoon, but not frowning Frank.

Well, that’s sort of true, and sort of not. We’re Only In It For The Money always strikes me as a record made by someone who not only fully accepts his contradictions and hypocrisies (ie, mocking a scene he was undeniably a part of) but also enthusiastically embraces them. He sneered at a lot of stuff, for sure (fer sure), but he also found a lot of his targets genuinely funny, and again I often infer a certain affection – most notably in the audio tour diaries, as laboriously curated on collections like You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore and Playground Psychotics. In terms of ‘looking down on things’, though, one thing I do find disappointing with Zappa is his disdain for disco. Here, I always felt he fogeyishly missed the point of a scene which was, unlike flower power, genuinely revolutionary in terms of its racial and sexual politics.

To his credit, Maconie does still play Zappa’s music (nose and all) on The Freak Zone, and he’s probably the only person on the UK airwaves to be doing so.

Which bring us to point three. When people say they hate Frank Zappa, how much have they heard? And where on earth did they hear it?

Zappa never had hit singles in the UK, although a few of his albums dented the charts. Zappa-haters often make an exception for Hot Rats, which made number 9 in February 1970, considering it to be his ‘only good’ album. I’ve never really understood why that is: it’s relatively conventional by Zappa standards, I guess, but only in the same sense that Waiting for Godot is Samuel Beckett’s poppiest play. My suspicion is that they make an exception for it because it’s the only one they’ve really listened to.

You see, I think Zappa-haters’ knowledge is generally based on a very small pool of tracks. Listen to a Zappa album on Spotify, and the ‘you might like this’ suggestions at the end are always the same ones: Dirty Love, San Ber’dino, Willie the Pimp, Bobby Brown Goes Down, Valley Girl, Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow. It never throws up selections from The Perfect Stranger or two minutes of Jimmy Carl Black complaining about cheese. When people say they hate Frank Zappa, what they probably mean is ‘I hate the seven Frank Zappa songs I’ve heard’. Which is fair enough (I’m the same with Adele), but I wish people were exposed to a bit more in the first place.

Freak Zone appearances aside, you don’t hear Zappa on the radio – and, in the UK at least, you never really did. Even John Peel appeared to be in the ‘I prefer Beefheart’ camp, although Andy Kershaw gave him a spin occasionally. If you hear a track, it’ll be on an unusual occasion – I remember Mark E Smith being a guest on Mark Radcliffe’s 6 Music show a few years ago and choosing Absolutely Free as his favourite record. Even on a station that tirelessly (and sometimes tiresomely) prides itself on its musical eclecticism, the track still had to be contextualised and set up as a special treat – it couldn’t simply be slipped in between Lust For Life and Making Plans for Nigel. I remember Nicky Campbell played a pleasing selection of tracks (including some relatively obscure cuts) when he interviewed Zappa in 1991, but this was partly because Zappa’s ‘difficulty’ was in itself under discussion.

Which brings us to point four. Oh dear. Put the kettle on, this might take a while.

zappa sheik.png

Zappa’s approach to sex and race troubles a lot of people, and this is perhaps because the approach – once again – isn’t easily categorisable. He’s clearly no idiot, so his engagement with misogynistic and racist tropes and language must be satirical, right? You’d hope so. But again, we’re in Zappaland here.

In my younger days, I had what I thought was quite a good rebuttal to the charges against 1979’s Jewish Princess, a song which – on the face of it – appears indefensible:

I want a nasty little Jewish princess
With long phony nails and a hairdo that rinses
A horny little Jewish princess
With a garlic aroma that could level Tacoma
Lonely inside…well, she can swallow my pride

I need a hairy little Jewish princess
With a brand new nose
Who knows where it goes
I want a steamy little Jewish princess
With over-worked gums, who squeaks when she comes
I don’t want no troll…I just want a Yemenite hole

The offensiveness here seemed, even by Zappa’s standards, so brazenly outré (or in Nick Kent’s words, ‘feckless’) that I didn’t even entertain the idea that it wasn’t satirical. How could it not be? This was the guy who’d written the woke-tastic Thing Fish, for god’s sake.

So I looked at the song as it appears in context on the Sheik Yerbouti album, sequenced immediately after the terpsichorean tragedy Dancin’ Fool. Now Dancin’ Fool is sung in the first person, that of a lousy dancer (‘One of my legs is shorter than the other and both my feet’s too long’), and ends with the sad character in question chatting up a woman: ‘Wait a minute , I’ve got it, you’re an Italian! Huh? You’re Jewish? Oh, love your nails…’ Could it be, I wondered, that Jewish Princess is sung by the same ‘Fool’ character, and that Zappa was mocking the casual anti-semitism and misogyny of a lonely businessman – one who, failing to get anywhere on the dancefloor, might lie alone in his motel room and fantasise pathetically about ordering a sex worker on room service? One fact seemed to support this theory: Jewish Princess also followed Dancin’ Fool on the original live recording on which Sheik Yerbouti was based, and there is no record of it ever being re-performed in isolation.

It was a good hypothesis, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was trying to convince myself as much as anyone. Was I just making up excuses because I thought ‘with a garlic aroma that could level Tacoma’ was a brilliant line? (Which, you must admit, it is.)

Zappa’s own defence of the song was frustratingly ambiguous. ‘Unlike the unicorn, such creatures do exist,’ he told Spin magazine in 1991, ‘and deserve to be ‘commemorated’ with their own special opus.’ ‘I didn’t make up the idea of a Jewish princess,’ he told Playboy in 1993, ‘they exist, so I wrote a song about them. If they don’t like it, so what? Italians have princesses too.’ In The Real Frank Zappa Book, he related how he’d received fan mail from Jewish women saying ‘Finally there’s a song about me’. This was often his defence for such songs: it was ‘anthropology, pure and simple’.

In my younger days, I liked the fact that he refused to justify himself. As I got older I gradually found his response a bit glib and annoying, and I wished he’d clarified his position better. Was he crediting his audience with the intelligence not to have the satire spoonfed to them? Undoubtedly, but he was also using explosive topics for frisbee practice, and his irresponsibility bugged me. The ‘Ah, but actually he’s lampooning stupid white men’ defence has, of course, long been a cake-and-eat-it way of excusing all manner of grim fare.

During my re-listening process, I winced at his lyrics rather more than I would have liked, and Zappa doesn’t exactly make a defence (if you wish to make one) easy. After all, the ‘actually he’s lampooning stupid white men’ argument works perfectly well with his parody of Peter Frampton’s I’m In You, but seems rather tenuous when it comes to The Legend of the Illinois Enema Bandit; it works fine with Wet T-Shirt Nite, but not so well with Jumbo Go Away. The latter was one of the few tracks Ben Watson took exception to, eventually summoning up the courage to tackle Zappa on it directly:

Watson: Here’s a…yes, I’ll dare ask it: Was it necessary to be quite so cruel to Jumbo?
Zappa: Why?
Watson: It’s the only song of yours that really upsets me – because you talk about hitting her.
Zappa: Well I’m not the one who’s gonna hit her. That’s a true story.
Watson: That’s the reply I use to a lot of your songs to my friends. I say, ‘This is documentary of people’s behaviour.’
Zappa: Guy’s name is Denny Walley, it happened.

The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, pp548-549

There’s something about Zappa’s reaction here that feels obtuse and disingenuous. He knows full-well what question is being asked but pretends not to; he knows that the mere truth of the incident is not what Watson’s objecting to; he knows that ‘it happened’ doesn’t always justify playing something for laughs. Even when Watson offers him an escape route, Zappa appears not to hear it.

One of Zappa’s most maddeningly ambiguous songs is also one of his most popular – the chart-topping (in Sweden and Norway at least) Bobby Brown Goes Down. On this, Zappa seems to delight in disorientating and winding up the listener:

Hey there people, I’m Bobby Brown
They say I’m the cutest boy in town
My car is fast, my teeth is shiney
I tell all the girls they can kiss my heinie

The nice liberal listener is tapping his toe so far…

Here I am at a famous school
I’m dressin’ sharp ‘n I’m actin’ cool
I got a cheerleader here wants to help with my paper
Let her do all the work and maybe later I’ll rape her

Woah, thinks the nice liberal listener. Hang on.

But before he has time to spit out his tea, we continue with:

Oh God I am the American dream
I do not think I’m too extreme
An’ I’m a handsome son of a bitch
I’m gonna get a good job and be real rich

The liberal listener breathes a sigh of relief. Phew, it’s OK, he thinks – it’s a satire on white America and toxic masculinity. I know where I am now.

But then he hears the rest of the song. And has to have a very confused lie-down.

Bobby Brown Goes Down can indeed be read as a satire on white America and toxic masculinity, and you can make an argument (with a totally straight face) that it’s a feminist piece. But it deliberately makes life difficult for you – almost line by line, the target of the satire seems to change, the same way a piece of music might change key. Bobby is clearly an unreliable narrator, much like the Fool in Jewish Princess.

Or is it just a thinking man’s rugby song? You decide.

zappa bobby

The final objection might be why people find Zappa’s lyrics hard to stomach even if they accept the satirical intent: the bloody fans. It’s hard, after all, to argue that Bobby Brown Goes Down is ironic feminist satire when you’ve got 500 fratboys boorishly braying along to it. Indeed, a lot of Zappa-haters seem to cite a bad experience with a sycophantic fan as a contributing factor – someone who was convinced that everything Frank produced was unconditional genius.

Zappa fans can indeed be awful, the same way Python fans can be awful, the same way fans of anything can be awful. But most of them are perfectly lovely. In 1998, me and my friend (the one who made me the cassette compilation) went to see The Grandmothers – aka Jimmy Carl Black and Bunk Gardner – at the London Astoria, and it was a pleasingly idiot-free evening. In fact, I often find Zappa fans far more agreeable company than Zappa-haters. In my bookselling days I sometimes made compilations to play instore, and it was always gratifying to see how affectionately his stuff was received by the public. ‘Listen to the urgency of those trumpets!’ I remember someone remarking about Montana; it was so nice to hear someone actually talking about the music.

Zappa died in 1993, and inevitably I often wonder what kind of music he’d be producing today. The age of reality television, social media, the alt-right, Donald Trump, etc seems almost tailor-made for Zappa treatment, perhaps too much so. Would he think ‘That’s what everyone’s expecting me to do’ and instead do the total opposite? Who knows. I once had a horrible dream that Zappa came back from the dead and recorded a song about social justice and safe spaces called ‘Snowflakes’. (Thankfully I woke up before I heard it in full, although I remember he rhymed ‘problematic’ with ‘car’s an automatic’.)

What’s heartbreaking about Zappa’s death isn’t just that he’s no longer making music – it’s also that, despite spoiling us with endless material from the vaults, the Zappa family now appear to be split in two. This is largely (in fact, from what I can tell, entirely) because of a bizarre clause in his widow Gail’s will which gave ownership of the estate to Ahmet and Diva but not Moon and Dweezil. To this end, Dweezil has to ask his younger siblings’ permission in order to play his father’s music.

This is desperately sad, because – to echo Howard Stern’s words – I’ve always really liked those kids; I’ve always loved how funny and unscrewed up they seemed. The 1982 chat show appearances, when Frank and Moon were plugging Valley Girl, are some of my favourite TV moments of all time, and I’ve always found Dweezil’s commitment to keeping his father’s name and music alive incredibly touching. The ‘Zappa Family Trust’ now seems somewhat ironically-named.

zappa family

So…why don’t more people ‘get’ Zappa? Perhaps the truth is that I don’t either. Not totally. But in a way, I quite like that. I enjoy the fact that I’m not fully in on the joke. I enjoy the fact that I don’t get all the references, and probably never will. I enjoy the fact that Zappaland is largely unsignposted. Maybe that’s (and this seems a suitably paradoxical note to end on) what makes me a Zappa fan.

Anyway. What kind of music do you like?


Hospital Records

(Content warning: Contains descriptions of medical treatment/experiences, including circumcision, that some may not wish to read.)


‘It’s like bedlam in here. Old men keep falling out of bed.’

Adrian Mole

My first visit to hospital was in 1979. I had a dodgy mole on my foot requiring swift removal, and Leicester Royal Infirmary was charged with the task.

Being five years old, my memories are inevitably hazy. I remember arriving at the battleship-grey ward and being shown to a crisp-white bed. I remember my parents presenting me with a box of multi-coloured Kleenex, the sobriety of the occasion justifying a degree of modest luxury. I remember granny smith apples and orange squash being placed by my bedside, and I remember them both being confiscated by the sister so they could be ‘shared out fairly’ (which they never were). I remember the plastic bracelet with my name on, and I remember thinking it would be a good idea if people wore them in normal life. But mainly I remember the fish pie.

You see, I didn’t like fish. I was what they used to call a ‘fussy eater’, and fish in particular freaked me out. Sadly for me, I’d arrived on a Friday, and Friday meant fish – buried under potato, admittedly, but fish all the same. Worse, the pie in question was billed as a special treat, one my wardmates were visibly looking forward to – I think some of them were even banging their cutlery against the table in anticipation. It’s alright, I consoled myself – mum and dad will explain to the nurses that I don’t like fish. It’ll be fine.

But no. Mum and dad had, with an apologetic wave, fucked off. The visiting time bell had tolled, to be replaced by the clank and squeak of a stainless steel food trolley. Portions of pie were duly scooped out and everyone except me enthusiastically tucked in. I didn’t consciously know it, as I gingerly poked at the least fishiest lumps of mash I could find, but this was an early lesson that certain things – not least my parents – wouldn’t always be there.

Later that afternoon, anxiety got the better of me and I voided my bladder rather spectacularly. I went puce with shame, but remember being shocked that the nurse didn’t seem remotely surprised or disgusted. ‘Ah, Michael’s had an accident! We all have accidents!’ she smiled breezily, reaching for the mop.

If fish pie wasn’t to my infant taste, surely the notion of a general anaesthetic should have posed an even greater threat? Oddly, I wasn’t especially troubled by this, or at least I don’t remember being so. What I do remember was the slightly odd non-sequitur between me and the anaesthetist as he prepared the syringe:

‘Have you ever been scratched by a cat?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ I replied proudly. I had once tormented my grandparents’ tabby by repeatedly yelling ‘MIAOW!’ sarcastically into her face. After about half an hour of this, the tabby (understandably enough) chose to issue a final written warning.

‘No?’ replied the surgeon. ‘Well, it feels a bit like this.’

Pure Samuel Beckett. Although it was another early life lesson – namely, that people in authority often aren’t listening to you. Especially when you’re talking about cats.

A few weeks later, a nurse came to our house and removed the stitches. My mother put them in an envelope and wrote ‘Stitches from Michael’s foot, 1979’ on the side, like it was a jar of marmalade.


My second hospital visit was in 1980, where an onset of phimosis (look it up – in fact, don’t, at least not at work) had necessitated a particularly unkind cut. I was old enough to be worried, but thankfully too young to really anticipate the full horror.

Circumcision for medical reasons is pretty common in children, but at the age of six I obviously didn’t know this. Something told me it was a rude operation, a shameful procedure that I should keep very very secret indeed. A ‘naughty complaint’, to use Graham Chapman’s phrase. I think I wisely told my schoolfriends I was having my tonsils out.

No such angst from the hospital staff, of course, who had seen it all before. Gallows humour was the order of the day. ‘Don’t worry, you won’t miss it’ I remember a doctor reassuring me, ‘although if you do, I’m sure your mother can knit you a new one.’ I remember waking up one morning to discover the latest joke by the nurses: my teddy bear Derek now bore two steri-strips over his groin in a comedy cross.

On the first night, my parents were bustled out of the ward abruptly, just as they had been before fishpiegate. Before I had time for the confused tears to well up, a consultant sauntered in, barked at a young nurse to draw the heavy turquoise curtains, and ordered me to lie on the bed and lower my pyjama bottoms. Petrified, I did as I was told.

As the nurse held up my doomed penis for inspection and the consultant furiously scribbled away on a clipboard, I screamed and sobbed, a display both of them seemed to find ludicrous. ‘Anyone would think I was doing the operation now!’ he joked, and the nurse (without loosening her grip) giggled. I would have joined in their laughter, had that not been exactly what I was thinking.

I don’t remember much about the operation itself, except that the porter whistled the theme to Only When I Laugh as he wheeled me into theatre. You might remember the disturbing lyrics to this tune, as mournfully intoned to the accompaniment of a Somme-style harmonica:

I’m H-A-P-P-Y
I’m H-A-P-P-Y
I know I am, I’m sure I am
I’m H-A-P-P-Y

‘Do you watch that show?’ he asked. ‘Funny isn’t it?’

I nodded sleepily. I didn’t feel much like Peter Bowles at that point, although I had to admit I was jealous of his dressing gown.

only when

I remember more about the day afterwards, when I was forced to take a bath under the supervision of a student nurse. ‘Ooh look…there’s the blood!’ she helpfully informed me at one point, gesturing towards the vermilion clouds now billowing between my legs. (Thankfully at this point the porter didn’t come in and say ‘Have you seen Carrie? Funny isn’t it?’.) This experience naturally unsettled me, and I didn’t dare peek at the handiwork in question for weeks.

The third operation in 1981 was the best because…well, it didn’t happen. I was inducted as usual and given my plastic bracelet. My granny smiths and orange squash were once again carefully arranged by my bedside (and once again later confiscated), and I spent the night listening to the rattle of a nearby radiator – a comforting sound I always associated with municipal buildings. But my operation – this time to correct hearing problems – was cancelled. Hooray, I could go home. The only downside was that I had a crush on the patient next to me, a girl with an impressively-autographed cast on her tractioned leg. I remember telling her the fish pie story and she expressed solidarity by theatrically sticking her fingers down her throat. I was slightly sad to leave her side.

The real upside to the 1981 visit was that my parents had bought me loads of post-op presents, ones I obviously didn’t deserve but got to open anyway. These presents included a chemistry set, a piece of Lego spaceware (a shovel buggy I believe) and a copy of Joe Dolce’s then-current hit Shaddap You Face. The latter is a record which, to this day, never fails to make me happy (and indeed H-A-P-P-Y).

shovel buggyshaddap

My fourth visit was in December 1984, a week or so after the Band Aid single was recorded. I know this because Strawberry Switchblade were on the cover of Smash Hits – a decision editor Mark Ellen now cringes at, but I think he made exactly the right call. The calming presence of Jill and Rose certainly got me through the first night anyway.

This time I was to have my tonsils out, and thankfully my friends had forgotten the white lie I’d told them four years earlier. I was furious when I found out the date, because it meant I missed out on an unimaginably exciting school outing – namely, a trip to see Ghostbusters. Bah!

I was listening to Gary Davies on Radio 1 playing Queen’s Thank God It’s Christmas when the porters arrived for me. Rather discourteously, they had arrived just as he was about to announce the new Top 40. Reluctantly replacing my headphones, I settled back down in the pillows – I was an old hand at this now.

A few minutes later I was in theatre. ‘Relax, and count down from ten’ the anaesthetist told me. ‘By the time you get to five, you’ll be asleep.’ I found the idea of knowing the precise point of my departure slightly disturbing, but I did as I was told and began counting. As I did so, I turned to my side and stared at a skull-and-crossbones on a bright yellow bin.

I kept staring. Strange, I thought…I’ve counted down to zero and I appear to still be awake. The room was swimming so I knew something was amiss, but I was clearly still alive. What had happened?

It was only when the surgeon’s friendly face appeared in front of my eyes that I realised: the operation was over. The yellow bin hadn’t been there before – I was in a recuperation zone where I’d been unconscious for hours. It was a very strange experience; of feeling that I was in the past, present and future at the same time. For a few seconds, I thought I was the new Doctor Who. Then I was sick.

The nurses were brilliant on that stay, particularly the one who entertained us by miming along to Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s The Power of Love – I can still see her mouthing ‘Cleaning my soul’ into a bedpan. My wardmates were a Cool Kid who insisted he was going to stay up late and watch Quincy (a request obviously given very short shrift by the nurses) and a boy who cried himself to sleep every night. This time I did feel slightly more like Peter Bowles.


Fast forward a very long time – to a Saturday in January 2014, in fact, and I’m picking up a box at work. Unknown to me, there is a tiny shard of broken glass inside, one with my name on it. I feel a cold sting in my left hand, which becomes a full-on Carrie situation within seconds. With my hand crudely cocooned in kitchen roll, I take a bus to A&E. I sit down in a busy waiting room, where I can’t help noticing that most of my fellow invalids are wearing jodhpurs.

The gash looked very nasty indeed, but once cleaned up it’s rather pathetic – nonetheless I’m given stitches, a tetanus booster and a pamphlet on ‘wound management’. Before I’m sent on my way, the doctor asks if I’ve ever had a cholesterol check.

Oh fuck, I think. This isn’t going to end well. And indeed it doesn’t.

A few days later, I’m in another waiting room, this time for a blood test. A few days after that, I’m called into the surgery and my doctor tells me I have type 2 diabetes. Of course I do. Here are some leaflets you may find helpful, she says: one about your eyes, one about your feet, one about your penis (oh god, not again), one about not eating too much cheese. Oh, and you’ve got to take three pills a day. Three?! Yes, although the upside is that you don’t have to pay for them.

Looking back over all these stories, the ‘Where would I have been without the NHS?’ question is an inevitable one, as chilling as it is banal. Back in 1979, I certainly wasn’t asking who paid for all that fish pie.

Defending the NHS, of course, shouldn’t be a controversial or divisive stance, but it’s increasingly become one. It was depressing, for example, how Danny Boyle’s wonderful NHS tribute at the 2012 Olympics was dismissed by certain people as ‘politically correct’ or an example of ‘virtue signalling’. Yes, they seemed to be saying, we all think the NHS is a good thing, but (to quote Nurse Mills in The Singing Detective) we don’t have to talk about it do we?


That being said, there’s a certain ‘sad piano’ attitude to the NHS that isn’t very helpful either. You hear this sad piano a lot on hospital documentaries (unless it’s one about OCD, in which case they use a ‘funny’ pizzicato harp), and it’s a score that doesn’t really suit the tales I’ve told above. Even on programmes which are notionally about NHS underfunding or mismanagement, the tone is always a depoliticising one, bringing everything back to a world where we wipe our eyes at selfless surgeons and refer to nurses as ‘angels’ with a ‘calling’. This is not only sentimental, it’s disrespectful – these are healthcare professionals dealing with (in all senses) shit, and it’d be nice if a truthful version of their day could be depicted.

A few years ago, when the charcoal wasp (qv) was visiting me a bit too often, I sought the help of therapy and – miraculously – I got it. 12 weeks of CBT, totally free of charge. Not everybody is as fortunate, and I have strong criticisms of the tick-boxy, how-depressed-are-you-on-a-scale-of-one-to-ten way sufferers are assessed for such treatments. But this is a reason to protect the NHS and seek its improvement, rather than an excuse to dismiss it as an untenable 1940s dinosaur.

You see, it’s not really enough to be ‘proud’ of the NHS, or to talk about how ‘lucky’ we are to have it. The words feel appropriate, but they suggest a certain complacency about the service’s immortality; a sense that – like our parents – it’ll always be there. It ignores the fact that we only have an NHS in the first place because people (a) fought hard to set it up, and (b) fight hard in 2017 to keep it standing.

nurse protest.jpg

So this Thursday, you know what to do. Don’t let the cunts tear it apart. Let’s ensure that, unlike my granny smith apples and orange squash, things really are shared out fairly.

I’ll leave the closing words to Michael Rosen, whose poem These Are The Hands (written to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the NHS in 2006) are displayed at the entrance to North Middlesex Hospital. It’s a brilliantly unsentimental piece, doffing a cap to hospital staff without patronising them, and rightly acknowledging that most of the work in healthcare is anonymous and unsung. As I attend my annual retinopathy screening, I always try to read it before the eye-drops kick in:

These are the hands
That touch us first
Feel your head
Find the pulse
And make your bed.

These are the hands
That tap your back
Test the skin
Hold your arm
Wheel the bin
Change the bulb
Fix the drip
Pour the jug
Replace your hip.

These are the hands
That fill the bath
Mop the floor
Flick the switch
Soothe the sore
Burn the swabs
Give us a jab
Throw out sharps
Design the lab.

And these are the hands
That stop the leaks
Empty the pan
Wipe the pipes
Carry the can
Clamp the veins
Make the cast
Log the dose
And touch us last.

Free Samples: How I knew, even as a child, that the rock bores were wrong about rap

‘With a thrill in my head and a pill on my tongue…’ – Spandau Ballet, True

It’s February 1991 at the Dominion Theatre and Simon Bates has just implored us to put our hands together. The Who’s Roger Daltrey is about to walk onstage. Not to sing (thank goodness), but to present the biggest Brit Award of the night – The Cure are being honoured as Best British Group, and we’ve just seen archive clips of them in action. ‘That was what it was ALL ABOUT – live rock and roll!’ he gushes, gesturing to the huge screens.


‘When I was asked to present this award’ he continues, with a somewhat world-weary air, ‘I had visions that I could be presenting it to a sampler and a drum machine…’

The audience titter into their Taittinger. How ridiculous! This is the Brit Awards, after all, which is of course about Real Music on Real Instruments by Real Men. Preferably white men, ones with a functioning knowledge of Foreigner’s discography. Not your girly synth pap, which is just pressing buttons innit. Good old Rog, telling it like it is. Go on, do the joke about how the word rap has a silent C.

Now of course Roger Daltrey has always been a berk. ‘Mind yer backs!’ he once quipped when introducing the Village People on Top of the Pops. But there are a few things which are interesting about this appearance, and why I think it’s a key moment in British pop history.

Daltrey’s fogeyism was misplaced for several reasons. Firstly, denouncing sampling as late as 1991 is a bit odd, since that particular ship had long sailed (I think The Orb took turns as captain). Secondly, The Cure’s most recent album at that point was Mixed Up, an album of oldies reconfigured into dance tracks. And thirdly, let’s look at the nominations: The Beautiful South, The Stone Roses, Talk Talk, Happy Mondays, Soul II Soul. Presumably only the latter would fail to gain Roger’s ‘That’s what it’s ALL ABOUT!’ seal of approval. Neither rock, nor indeed roll, was an endangered species. For the average rock bore, there was nothing to cry into your Travelling Wilburys pillowcase about.

But there’s a further reason why Daltrey’s attitude is irritating, and it’s based on his fundamental misunderstanding of (a) what sampling is and (b) why it exists. To explain this, I have to go back to my childhood. And for this, we have to travel – not, sadly, to Frankie Knuckles’ studio in downtown Chicago, but to my bedroom in suburban Leicester.

oadby old.jpg

Many people have written about the history of sampling in music, and I’m not going to summarise any of those fine tomes here. Not only because it would be pointless, but because the analysis normally (and, I guess, inevitably) comes from the perspective of chin-stroking adult hindsight. Even if the author was too young to frequent illicit warehouses and scoff MDMA omelettes for breakfast, the narrative is always written from the perspective of those who were. It’s seen through the eyes of the DJs, the performers, the punters. Nobody ever asks the people whose main exposure to Stakker Humanoid or Jack to the Sound of the Underground came c/o whistly medium wave Radio 1.

I was born in 1974, which meant I was slightly too young for many groundbreaking music movements: punk, post-punk, 2 Tone, early hip hop, Joe Dolce. Actually, I think I caught the tail-end of the last one. I tuned in (literally) circa 1983, and one of the first bands I remember being gobsmacked by was Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

frankie smash 2

Frankie were a rude band. I knew this because Radio 1 had banned their single, but I kept scratching my head as to why. I listened to Relax ad nauseam, trying to work out what the dirty bit was  – it can’t just be the word ‘suck’ surely? My only conclusion was that the incomprehensible vocal bits at the beginning and end (‘Mur-hur-hieeyah’ and ‘Tibe-a-tibe, a-tibe-a-tibe’ respectively) were the offending sections, and when I grew up I’d understand what they meant. But there was something else which made Relax an exciting and controversial record: it wasn’t a song.

I knew what Proper Songs were, and of course I loved them. They were ditties like Karma Chameleon and Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, with clearly-defined verses and choruses and wacky bits halfway through (which I later learned were called middle eights). They had guitars, keyboards, drums, and – if you were unlucky – Judd Lander on harmonica. They lasted about three minutes and then there was an ‘ad lib to fade’ as Smash Hits always called it.

Relax, produced by Trevor Horn for the glorious ZTT label, seemed to break most of these rules: it was a chant, but not a singalong one – even the ‘When you wanna come’ line (just why did my parents tell me to turn it down when my grandmother visited?) wasn’t delivered the same way every time; scraps of vocal came in and out, seemingly at random; it seemed to have a middle eight but no obvious verse or chorus. It was all about the texture of the sound – an explosion of exciting noise. And yet…it still had a structure. It had a beginning, middle and end – just not necessarily in that order.

Over the next few years there were countless singles which puzzled and thrilled me in the same way – records which seemed to break the fettered notions of what a pop single ought to be. One early oddity was Malcolm McLaren – not his superb Duck Rock (which I only discovered later), but Madam Butterfly, which fused dialogue, pop vocals and opera into a baffling six-minute epic. ZTT created another masterpiece with the Art of Noise’s Close (to the Edit), a ‘song’ made up mainly of car exhausts and creepy people saying ‘dum’ and ‘tra la la’.  (I was too young to notice the joke: that this piece of cutting-edge industrial futurism was in fact a trad 12-bar blues.)


I also remember being a big fan of the Conway Brothers’ bonkers single Turn It Up (‘Came here to smoke, but the volume is a joke – turn it up!’), finding something unsettling about its slightly-askew vocals but not being able to put my finger on exactly what. And yes, I thought they were singing about cigarettes.

I adored Doug E Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew’s single The Show, particularly the strange bit where they suddenly broke into a section of The Beatles’ Michelle – I remember Smash Hits adding a disclaimer as to why they were not allowed to transcribe this section of the lyric. Again, this was exciting. My big song of summer 1986 was Bang Zoom (Let’s Go Go) by The Real Roxanne and Hitman Howie Tee, a piece that brilliantly juxtaposed lo-fi Brooklyn hip hop (‘Don’t get in my hair – just dance, Mr Fred Astaire!’) with soothing soul interludes and dialogue from Looney Tunes cartoons. And of course there was Paul Hardcastle’s magnificent 19 – a song which is often mocked now (and indeed then), but I vividly recall the shock when it came out in April 1985, and even today I still scratch my head at how exactly it was made. A pop single with just talking? Were you allowed to do that? (I was too young to remember If by Telly Savalas.)

doug e


When house music started troubling the Top 40 in around 1986, it was the minimalism – not that I knew the word – that thrilled me. The starkness and purity of the sound; the petulant refusal to break into a ‘proper tune’ with a guitar solo and a sax break. Listening back, I now realise how avant garde a lot of those records were, and how much they sound like modern classical music, but of course I didn’t have that baggage then. Certainly nothing quite prepared me for the likes of Jack Your Body  by Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley: ‘What a strange number one!’ I remember Wincey Willis exclaiming on TV-AM, and I didn’t disagree.

Curiously, one record which didn’t especially impress the 12-year-old me was Love Can’t Turn around by Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk, a track which is often cited as house music’s ‘New Rose’ – the one that kicked everything off in terms of the genre transitioning from the clubs to the charts. I found it rather dull, and it didn’t occur to me until later how important it actually was. But when you’re a child, ‘importance’ is the last thing you care about.

Then there were the mash-ups. Pump Up the Volume by M|A|R|R|S, Beat Dis by Bomb the Bass, Paid In Full by Eric B and Rakim, and of course The Theme from S’Express. It thrilled me the way these records took bits of dialogue and musical snippets from umpteen different sources and weaved them together into singles which felt holistic and self-contained. The Theme from S’Express, in particular, is a beautifully crafted creation, to the extent that it’s hard to imagine how any of its constituent parts could ever have existed independently.



The odd thing about these singles, one that’s never really talked about by adult critics, is that they were ultimately seen as novelty records. Which of course is what they were, in the original sense of the word. As a result, a lot of them topped the chart, or at least got very near to doing so.

To understand their impact, you need to remember what Radio 1 was like in the late 80s. This was a station which didn’t let women broadcast in daylight hours until 1990. It was a dusty, beige place, and its DJs were mostly awful people whose Radio Times billings boasted that they’d be playing music ‘mainly on compact disc’. Its dreary Classic Albums documentary ran for five long series and only two of its editions didn’t feature a white male rock band. Even the good eggs on the station had a touch of the woodwork teacher about them: I remember Peter Powell playing a dull Ultravox single one morning in 1986 and saying, as if by way of apology, ‘I should stress that we’ve just played the dance version.’

The likes of Pump Up the Volume not only stood out but blew away the cobwebs, the same way Love Me Do must have done in 1962. This isn’t a story you’ll necessarily get from people who, at the time, were 23 and off their face at the Haçienda – it’s a perspective that can only come from those who were ten years younger and doing their homework to Bruno Brookes. And what gets forgotten is that this is how most people experienced the music. House was, in fact, very well-named: most people didn’t leave their houses to hear it.

r1 roadshow.jpg

As the 80s ended, my love affair with all this music faded slightly. I enjoyed the squelchy sounds of acid house in the autumn of 1988, but as a ‘movement’ it felt less fun – there was a seriousness to the acid era that felt, despite the ubiquitous smiley yellow faces, slightly snooty. The music was also getting more anthemic, and I’ve always loathed anthems – few things make me feel more exhausted than someone shouting 400 times that they’re going to take me ‘hiiiigh-er!’. By the rave era in the early 90s, when I was actually old enough to go out of an evening, I’d lost interest completely.

Part of this, of course, was due to changes in copyright law. The magpie mischief which fuelled masterpieces like De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising (an album which, due to the rights headaches involved, is still only available on physical formats) suddenly became impossible. Instead, artists might be allowed to use one Stevie Wonder loop if they wrote a nice letter and paid the appropriate fee. Which took the excitement out of it, no matter how much ‘hiiiigh-er!’ they promised to take us.

I’ve tried to present these records roughly chronologically, but of course the timeline (as with all pop timelines) is messy, and I gradually started to discover the antecedents. It’s incredible, for example, to hear Kraftwerk doing what essentially sounds like house music on The Man Machine in 1978 – a record I did in fact know at the time, because I took part in a junior school dance routine which involved wrapping ourselves in black bin-liners and marching about to The Robots. I’m not sure how I managed to wipe that from my memory.

But you can obviously antedate it far further than that, and I enjoyed doing this as I got older: records like Sophisticated Boom Boom by the Shangri-Las (1966) or Here Comes the Judge by Pigmeat Markham(1968) sound so much like late 80s/early 90s hip hop it’s actually slightly unnerving. (Seriously, look them up on YouTube.) As for sampling, I remember when I learnt that the ‘flute’ at the start of Strawberry Fields Forever was actually a mellotron, an instrument which played recordings of flutes on tiny bits of tape – a sampler in all but name. You hate that song as well do you, Roger?


I also became interested in classical and electronic composers, people like Delia Derbyshire and Steve Reich, who would manipulate found sounds, household objects and tape loops to create music from other planets. I discovered Stockhausen and Berio and Cage, and realised that what I thought was original had all been done at least 30 years beforehand.

Except the 80s stuff was original. Because the context was original. The Beatles didn’t invent the use of tape loops, but they perfected a way of using them within pop songs; similarly, the hip hop and house pioneers took the techniques of the past, and used it create an artform which was, as mainstream entertainment, subversively original and often alienating. To this day, house music and hip hop remains divisive – it hasn’t quite been invited into the Music Snobs’ Hall of Fame, the way punk unquestionably has. Eric B and Rakim are always skipped on Pick of the Pops.

This is essentially what Roger Daltrey didn’t get. He made the category error of thinking that ‘a sampler and a drum machine’ are things that exist outside of music, when in fact they were the tools which were keeping it alive.

‘But it’s cheating! They’re using music which isn’t theirs!’ the rock bores often say, ignoring the countless riffs that their favourite millionaire bands have nicked from blues musicians who died penniless. But that’s obviously OK, because those people were using guitars rather than turntables. And it was white musicians fucking over black musicians – we can’t, of course, have it the other way around.

That, Roger, is what it’s ALL ABOUT. Now, what are you going to sing for us?

daltrey twat




The Comedy Universe

‘Sounds of laughter, shades of life, are ringing through my opened ears
Inciting and inviting me
Limitless undying love, which shines around me like a million suns,
It calls me on and on across the universe’

John Lennon on heroin, 1968

fawlty camera

I’m a big fan of Fawlty Towers. Not a very original declaration, I know, but I love it. Quite clearly the finest sitcom ever made. Like The Beatles, it’s probably underrated if anything.

But there’s one rubbish thing about it that’s always bugged me: its title.

It is, with the possible exception of The Daily Politics and Have I Got A Bit More Old News For You, the worst title ever coined for a television programme. And the fact that the show itself is so magnificent only makes it more painful. What were Cleese and Booth thinking?

For a start, it’s not even a pun. There’s no such surname as Fawlty. It’s a single entendre; an innuendon’t. Its like Ronnie Barker’s character in Porridge being called Norman Stanley Cryminell, or Michael Crawford playing Frank Keepsfallingdownthestairs.

But here’s what irks me most: why did the young Basil never change his name? He’d presumably been mercilessly mocked for it throughout his bog-washed childhood, so it’s not as if he’d be unaware of its risibility. Why didn’t he change it by deed poll to something less embarrassing, like Basil Smith or Basil Tompkinson or Basil Hitler? One might speculate that he’d become proud of the surname and had decided to defiantly reclaim it – fair enough, but then that brings up another issue: why did Sybil agree to take the name as well? And not only that, but agree to name the fucking hotel after it?

I briefly wondered if, perhaps, the word ‘faulty’ simply didn’t exist in the Fawlty Towers universe. Maybe we hear the Fawlty/faulty pun but the characters don’t? Nice theory, but it’s not true – in the episode Communication Problems, Mrs Richards (now that’s another sensible surname Basil could have picked) refers to it directly: ‘The manager’s faulty?’ she barks at Polly. ‘What’s wrong with him?’. Which is an understandable reaction, seeing as it’s NOT ACTUALLY A NAME.

This got me thinking about comedy universes in general, and how they never really bear close scrutiny, even when the comedy itself is excellent.


The universe yesterday, sharing a joke

John Shuttleworth, for example, is one of the finest comedy characters ever created. Graham Fellows’ sublime performance is so utterly believable that there’s a part of me which adamantly refuses to believe the character doesn’t actually exist. I feel the same way about Dame Edna Everage and (in his early years at least) Alan Partridge. These characters sometimes feel more real than real people; surreal in the original ‘beyond realism’ meaning of the word.

And yet there’s a conceptual flaw behind them all. With Shuttleworth, it’s a simple one: his songs are really good. They’re not only catchy, but musically inventive and lyrically witty. As tunesmiths go, he’s as good as Paul McCartney. If Shuttleworth really existed, he wouldn’t still be living in a suburban house posting out cassette demos and being managed by his next door neighbour – he’d be huge. At the very least, he’d have a lucrative career writing ad jingles. For the joke to work, Shuttleworth has to be a ‘failure’, but for entertainment purposes the songs can’t actually be bad.

I’ve seen Shuttleworth in the theatre and the crowd has quite rightly roared throughout. But who are we, the audience, in this fiction? Do we exist outside of the Shuttleworth universe? No, because Shuttleworth responds to our reaction; he doesn’t say ‘Hang on, why do you all know the words to Pigeons in Flight?’. Nor does he acknowledge the incongruity of him playing a sell-out residency in a major London venue. So what is the conceit?  It doesn’t work. Except of course it does.


On Dame Edna’s chat show, the guests simultaneously play along with the idea that the character is real and giggle along to remarks that they’d only find funny if they knew full-well she wasn’t. Again, the presence of the audience complicates things – who are they? They laugh at Edna, but they (as characters in the universe) would presumably only attend the recording if they (as characters in the universe) genuinely thought Edna was talented and worth seeing.

Indeed, in the Edna universe, the joke rests on the premise that Edna is simultaneously a megastar and not a megastar: on one level, the joke is about her delusions of grandeur and lack of self-awareness, and yet…she still has a primetime ITV chat show boasting big-name Hollywood guests. Those guests play along as if she is a megastar, and yet the programme is only funny because she isn’t.

dame edna

There’s a running joke in Alan Partridge’s chat show Knowing Me Knowing You that the programme is constantly losing viewers. But if Knowing Me Knowing You really existed, it would be a massive so-bad-it’s-good cult hit; millions would tune in to see Alan’s latest gaffes and disasters. We, as viewers, have to willingly suspend our disbelief here, or the entire conceit collapses. And again, the studio audience plays two roles: they operate both as extras (applauding the guests and being in shot during certain scenes) and as outsiders who laugh at a remove.

What’s odd is that sometimes these universe issues are a ‘problem’ and sometimes they’re not. My friend has always been amused by the Mr Bean exam sketch – not just because it’s superb, but because of the implied back-story that Mr Bean spent three years studying mathematics. Possibly with Rudolph Walker marking his trigonometry assignments. Another friend of mine once talked about how the cast of Hi-De-Hi! were clearly never briefed on whether they should remain in character during the ‘You have been watching’ end credits. It is, after all, unclear whether it’s Spike Dixon or Jeffrey Holland holding up the rubber octopus as if to say ‘Do you remember the laughs we had with this six minutes ago?’.

In contrast, I’ve always felt slight dissatisfaction with the Brian Pern mock documentaries: its universe often feels inconsistent, specifically in regard to how famous Pern and Thotch are meant to be. If Pern is meant to be a crap version of Peter Gabriel, he wouldn’t have the clout to do half the stuff he does, but if he’s meant to be well-loved then half the jokes don’t work. Also, we now live in a world where pretty much every dinosaur from every music genre is respected as a legend/national treasure, but Pern still seems to be set in a world where such people are routinely mocked.

I’ve also always had a slight problem with The Rutles. Neil Innes’s pin-sharp pastiches seem to belong in a different film to the broad gags coming out of Eric Idle’s mouth.

But it’s in sitcoms where comedy universes are particularly interesting. On one of the commentaries for the 1980s Channel 4 sitcom Chance in a Million, lead actor Simon Callow talks about how sitcoms exist in ‘a sort of never-never land’. He was responding to the notion of sitcoms ‘dating’, arguing that the programmes are never really set in the present to begin with – instead, they’re set in a slightly woozy mixture of the past, present and future, a bit like A Clockwork Orange or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. I’d cite Bottom as a good example sitcom here – a show that’s notionally set in the 1990s, but also seems to co-exist in an alternate reality which feels more like the 1950s.

I think Callow hits the nail on the head with ‘never-never land’, and it partly explains why comedy universes ‘work’ even when they theoretically shouldn’t.


Found this earlier. Promotional photo. Thought it apt.

Chance in a Million, in fact, is a fascinating case study. It was a conscious attempt by writers Richard Fegen and Andrew Norriss to semi-lampoon the conventions of traditional sitcom by making coincidence itself the central joke. When you no longer have to contrive plausible reasons for coincidences to happen, interesting things start happening – a bit like how entire ‘worlds’ are visible when you look at a speck of dust under a microscope. You can do jokes that you couldn’t do in a more naturalistic show.

As a (slightly strange) child I always used to wonder two things about sitcoms. Firstly, why do the characters never laugh at the funny lines? And secondly, what happens after the programme ends? And indeed before it starts? Is their life normally ‘serious’, but only funny within that 30-minute window? Or is their life constantly funny and we’re privileged to experience a tiny sliver? Are they like refrigerator lights, where we cannot determine if they exist after we close the door? If Del Boy falls over in an empty wine bar, does anyone hear him plummet?

As a  comedy fan, I’ve pondered on these questions all my life, and I think my conclusion is that comedy is a bit like opera.

You see, in an opera, the characters sing throughout, but at no point does anyone say ‘Why are we all singing? Wouldn’t it be easier if we just talked normally?’. This is because, within the universe of the opera, the characters don’t hear the singing as singing. To them, it sounds like spoken dialogue – only we the audience can hear the music. I think comedy operates the same way: characters in a sketch show or sitcom don’t hear the jokes as jokes, and if they did then the comedy universe would implode.

It’s why I’ve always had a problem with ‘serious bits’ in comedy shows – they always feel like an imposed genre-change. I used to think ‘comedy’ and ‘serious’ were two sides of the same coin, but I’d now go further and say they’re the same thing. After all, we generally only bother to make jokes about things which (in a broad sense) trouble and terrify us  – there’s a good reason why there are countless jokes about death but very few about rainbows. We primarily laugh at stuff we take seriously, so to suddenly have a ‘Let’s get serious’ moment feels not only redundant but also a nonsensical category error.

It’s also why I have a problem with comedians doing adverts. Not for earnest Bill Hicks reasons (although I still think he had a point), but because I think the comedy universe and the ad universe are incompatible. Adverts are, by definition, humourless: even if they’re really funny (and many are), they’re still existentially humourless. Lots of you will be howling at the screen now, but hear me out. You’ve come this far.

Within the universe of an advert for Colin’s Crabsticks, the one thing the comedian cannot say is ‘Colin’s Crabsticks are bloody awful’. Their job in the ad is to carry the message that Colin’s Crabsticks are brilliant. That’s what they’re paid for, and that’s what they do. Even in ‘ironic’ ads, the message is still a positive one: ‘Buy this, it’s good.’ As something of a romantic comedy fan who believes a comedian’s job is to blow raspberries at the king and say ‘That’s not true’, something about this always sticks in my throat. A comedian in an ad is no longer a comedian. Or, to quote George Constanza in Seinfeld, ‘Worlds are colliding!’

fry ad

Fry and Laurie in their famous sketch about building societies being wonderful 

But anyway, that’s all we’ve got time for on ‘What the Fuck Are You Talking About, Mike?’.

Now that really would be a good title for a show.





TYPICAL BLOKE: The day I did a runner from the Slits

slits colours

‘A walk in the park can become a bad dream’ – Bananarama, Robert de Niro’s Waiting

Last time, I indulged in some sickening name-droppage when I talked about my private audiences with Ivor Cutler. By way of contrast, I thought I’d write about the time I completely failed to interview Ari Up from the Slits. And indeed completely failed in my first (and to date only) rock journalism ‘assignment’.

A bit of background. I knew very little about the Slits until I was 25. By that age, I’d long lost interest in music, particularly new stuff. I tried hard, but my arms remained goosebump-free. After all, hadn’t everything had been ‘done’ by now? Surely  we’d passed peak pop long ago?

The fact that jaded twentysomethings have felt this way ever since The Andrew Sisters split up didn’t shake me out of this mindset. In fact, it used to irritate me when people my age were still breathlessly evangelical about new music, particularly when they rolled out that dismal phrase ‘There’s loads of great bands out there’. I always expected them to add ‘Apparently’ afterwards, because I suspected they were trying to convince themselves more than me.

You see, I used to love pop as a kid because it was an escape hatch. It was a sliver of fun after your maths homework; a chink of light at the end of a dentist appointment; a chocolate rush after your liver and cabbage. It’s no coincidence that one of the most enduring 1980s clichés is that of neon lighting – florescent tubes spelling out the Top of the Pops logo, or perhaps a suitably exotic word like ‘COCKTAILS’. But people forget why such images existed and endured in the first place: it was because normal life in 80s Britain was dusty and battleship-grey. These day-glo flashes were the exception. It was undoubtedly the same for 70s kids – Noddy Holder’s glittery top hat glittered ever brighter in the candlelight of the three-day week.

By the time I reached my 20s, this counterpoint no longer worked. Music now seemed as drab as life itself. Few genres depressed me more than Britpop, which seemed backward-looking in the most joyless way possible; people archly pastiching bands from the past, but without any sense of fun – like the Rutles without the gags. Even the pop stars themselves didn’t look like they were enjoying themselves, and they often looked slightly annoyed to be famous. Why would I want to listen to them? I wanted records which took me away from the hum of the office photocopier – not ones that sounded exactly like it.

Then one night in 1999, during a TV documentary celebrating John Peel’s 60th birthday,  I saw this lot:


The grotty 16mm footage – originally from The Record Machine, an October 1978 edition of the BBC arts strand Omnibus – captured singer Ari Up, guitarist Viv Albertine, bass player Tessa Pollitt and drummer Palmolive raising hell in a London squat. To the accompaniment of Shoplifting   – the finest song ever written about stealing cheese – the band jump up and down on beds, try on junkshop clothes, dance sarcastically, masturbate sarcastically, take the piss out of each other, gob at posters of Rod Stewart and gleefully rip up ABBA album sleeves.

The latter felt strangely refreshing at a time when we were all meant to throw aside such snobbery and doff our caps to the rock bores and easy-listening giants of the past. By the humourless 90s, there was no such thing as ‘the mainstream’ and ‘the counter culture’ – it was all just ‘great music’, and we were urged to put away our childish tribalism forever. Hey, we can all like everything now – all that matters is whether it’s good, right? I always felt there was something drearily conservative about this phoney open-mindedness, this self-conscious signalling of one’s eclecticism. It was a wag of the finger disguised as a V-sign; a party pooper masquerading as a party popper. In contrast, here was a reminder that pop music used to be…dare I say it, a bit of a laugh.

The goosebumps were suddenly back. And they’d been provoked by a band who split up 17 years earlier. I had discovered the Slits.

But what also made me sit up was Peel’s words following the clip:

If I was to make a list of the ten best sessions of all time, the [first] two Slits sessions would be in that top ten – they were just mesmerising. Their inability to play coupled with their determination to play…the kind of conflict between these things was magnificent.

which I think sums them up brilliantly. That said, the claim that they ‘couldn’t play their instruments’ was always a bit of a myth, and probably one inevitably rooted in sexism. Sid Vicious, after all, wasn’t exactly  Julian Bream. Watch early footage of the Slits (eg, in Don Letts’ fascinating but near-unwatchable cinefilm The Punk Rock Movie) and it’s clear they could bash out a tune just as well as the average Rut, Buzzcock or Voidoid.

By the time of the Cut album, they were tight and disciplined musicians, and often inventively avant-garde ones too. On Ping Pong Affair, for example, spoons are struck against ashtrays to create both percussion and a sort of druggy in-joke. Ari Up was an astonishing, octave-straddling vocalist, and I really don’t know why she isn’t as famous and critically acclaimed as Bjork.

I won’t spend this blog wittering on about the history of the Slits. Better writers than me have done so countless times. It’s a story you can read elsewhere, and it’s a very odd one – for example, the fact that Ari Up was John Lydon’s stepdaughter will always be something of a mindfuck in punk’s messy timeline. If you want the full story, Zoe Street Howe’s Typical Girls? The Story of the Slits is the place to go, as is Viv Albertine’s excellent memoir.

All I’ll say is that I immediately loved them, and this was mainly because they didn’t seem to belong to any obvious genre. Unlike the Britpop dullards, I couldn’t spot their influences. It was pop from another planet.

Were they a punk band? Ari Up always dismissed this label. ‘If we’re punk,’ she once asked, ‘why are we always written out of punk history?’ It’s a fair point, and it’s also worth remembering that they never actually made any punk records. Those 1977/78 Peel sessions, made while Palmolive was still on the drums, are the only hi-fi recordings of ‘the Slits Phase 1′ – by the time they made Cut as a three-piece in 1979, both they (and punk itself) had moved on. They took elements from reggae and African music and from the likes of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, but there was tons of other stuff going on. Even within the ever-expanding diversity of the post-punk/new wave scene, categorising the Slits’ sound is almost impossible.

slits mag

They were always visually arresting too – it’s certainly hard to find a photograph of them where they don’t look in some way spellbinding. The famous image on Cut, showing the statuesque trio, bare-breasted and caked in mud, standing outside a picturesque rose-covered farmhouse) remains one of the world’s most extraordinary record covers. Most punk bands were satisfied simply snarling by a brick wall, but the Slits were doing something more complex and ambiguous, fusing sex and violence in unsettling ways. It’s the kind of image Mick Travis in If…. would have hidden under his pillow.

‘Come on then, if you’re hard enough’ was the intended message according to Albertine, but even that war-cry contains a sly double entendre. In the same way that Throbbing Gristle made dance music that was impossible to dance to, the Slits had seemingly made a pin-up you couldn’t pin down.

slits naked cut.jpg

One afternoon in 2009, when I’d been a Slits obsessive for almost exactly a decade, I was contacted by a bloke from the music website God Is In The TV. A writer of theirs had been taken ill, so would I go down to University College London next week and review the all-new Slits for them? The band had recently reunited, or at least two of them had – Ari and Tessa were back in the saddle alongside three younger protégés, one of whom was Hollie Cook (daughter of Sex Pistol Paul). Sure, I blurted. I’d seen this new line-up several times by now, and the idea of penning a review tickled my ego. Oh, the bloke added, can you interview them as well?

The tickle quickly turned to something else. I think it was blind terror.

You see, I’m not a music writer. In fact, I’ve always been simultaneously envious of rock journalists and glad I don’t have their job. Partly because writing about music – particularly about what music sounds like – is a difficult skill (one that the ego-tickle had made me forget I didn’t possess), but also because I don’t think I could pull the right faces. In the dressing room I’d either be a starstruck loon or an embarrassed uncle. I’ve written before about being blasé meeting celebs when working in London bookshops, but in an interview situation the dynamic’s totally different – you’re not in control.

And apart from anything else, how exactly was a nebbishy bookseller like myself meant to hang out backstage with the a rock band, particularly the bloody Slits? My mind raced back to that Omnibus footage. Maybe I was to suffer the same fate as those ABBA sleeves? Maybe I was to be their Rod Stewart?

When the day came, I was a gibbering bag of nerves. I think I spent most of it in the toilet, which I guess was pretty punk. What on earth was I going to ask them? The sage advice ‘Never meet your heroes’ continually rang in my ears. I cringed at the image of me standing there timidly in my glasses while they cackled and jeered and spat into my notepad, possibly while making satirical remarks about my penis. I mean, I’d seen what Toyah had done to that poor policeman in Jubilee.

At the very least, I imagined they’d stare at me like this:

slits new.png

But somehow I made it to the venue. I gave my name at the desk, and shortly afterwards an ents officer came down to meet me. The one good thing about tonight was that I was doing the interview before the show, which meant I could at least enjoy the gig afterwards. He took me down several corridors and up endless flights of stairs, before we eventually arrived on some kind of scaffolding gangway – it was (and I’m not sure why this popped into my head) a bit like the one I’d viewed the wreck of the Mary Rose from on a school trip.

‘Ari, I’ve got a guy from the press here’ the ents officer said cheerily.

I looked over the gangway into a makeshift dressing-area, and…there she was. Ari Up herself – lying on a chaise longue quietly reading a novel.

‘Hi,’ I said, greeting her in much the same way that I’d greeted the Mary Rose.

‘Hello,’ she said, in much the same way that the Mary Rose had greeted me. ‘Are you from the radio?’

‘No, I’m, um…writing for a website.’

‘A what?‘ She sounded tired.

‘A website. God Is In The TV.’ I grew puce. Somehow I didn’t think Lester Bangs had this sort of trouble.

‘Can we do this afterwards?’ she said to the ents officer, before turning to me again and pointing at her throat. ‘I need to save my voice, you see.’ She took a swig of Evian.

‘Yeah, no worries’ I heard myself say, as if I had any kind of choice, my heart sinking at the realisation that my ordeal would be prolonged. Come on, bring out the rubber sheeting and get it over with.

‘If he comes back after the show, he can talk to me then’ she said. It was like I was on Jim’ll Fix It.

‘Yeah, cool, no worries’ said the ents officer, jangling his keys in a come-on-let’s-go type way. And we left. But as we did so, Ari said goodbye and flashed me one of the sweetest and kindest smiles I think I’ve ever seen.

This was the last I saw of her. The post-gig interview never happened, and I never met the rest of the band. To cut a long story short, the security guard (understandably enough) didn’t believe my ‘I’m here to do an interview’ story and wouldn’t let me backstage. I called the ents officer repeatedly, but all I got was ents voicemail. A better, more punk-rock anecdote would involve me scaling a fence and breaking into the dressing room in defiance – I’m sure that’s what Julie Burchill and Nick Kent would have done. But no, not me. The evening was over.

Had I been snubbed, or was this just bad organisation on everybody’s part? A part of me didn’t really care. As I walked from the venue, I felt warm clouds of relief soothing my veins as the autumn air cooled my sweat; the interview probably would have been a disaster, or at the very least an anti-climax. I’d never been more pleased I wasn’t an actual rock journalist – mainly because, if I had been, I’d probably have been sacked.

I just kept remembering that smile.

Just over a year later, Ari Up was dead. I didn’t know it at the time, but she had terminal breast cancer when I spoke to her. The zen-like dressing room now made slightly more sense – why would she have wasted her precious time talking to someone like me? The gig, of course, was as riotous as ever.

My review is still archived  on the God Is On The TV website. Looking at it again now, the puce hue returns to my cheeks. It’s almost impossible to write about music without using all the obvious clichés; in fact, the harder you try to avoid them, the more of them you use. I see I praise Tessa Pollitt’s ‘faultless bass work’ (because obviously I’m an acknowledged expert on how to play the guitar and can spot a stray finger immediately). I also notice I couldn’t resist getting in a little dig about the support acts being ersatz. My jadedness with ‘new stuff’ has never really gone away.

Mortifyingly, I end the review by describing Ari Up as ‘a performer who, literally and figuratively, enjoys stripping to her knickers only to reveal further knickers underneath’. I have absolutely no idea what I meant by this, but please get in touch if you have any theories.

I hope Ari’s at peace now. She was a legend, and I hope this article has – to some extent at least – warmed her ghost.

ari up now










(The incomplete) Ivor Cutler at the BBC

ivor drawing.jpg

As an appendix to my previous blog on Ivor Cutler, I thought I’d attempt to assemble a chronological list of Cutler’s BBC radio and television appearances. Oh yes.

At the moment, this is only a skeleton guide. There’s stuff missing. An awful lot. At the moment, I’m relying mainly on the BBC’s Genome site for information – it’s a superb resource, but it has a few drawbacks. Firstly, it only lists what was physically published in the Radio Times, so I’ve only been able to list appearances where Cutler was (a) scheduled and (b) billed. His first TV appearances were on Cliff Michelmore’s Tonight programme, for example, but right now I have no details on them. Secondly, scanning technology is never perfect, meaning that the likes of ‘Ivro Cvtler’ will fail to be picked up by the search engine. To do the archaeology properly, I’d need to visit the BBC’s Written Archives Centre and go through all the programme-as-broadcast sheets.

But it’s a start. My hope is that this guide will gradually get fleshed out as more information comes to light. If you know immediately of any glaring omissions, please let me know. (My thanks already to Justin Lewis for the Whistle Test tx date.)

Even with the gaps, it’s an interesting guide. His major radio work (Cutler the Lax, A Wet Handle, Jelly Mountain et al) are fairly well-known, but it surprised me how many one-off radio oddities he did – often erratically scheduled late at night on Radio 3. I didn’t know he and Phyllis King did a show together in 1981 before King Cutler, for example. It’s also pleasing to know that he was in the first full-length programme broadcast on BBC2.

A few notes. I chose not to include ‘needle time’ appearances  (eg, ‘My Disposition’ in the first edition of Blue Jam, or the clips used in Radio 4’s Archive Hour ‘Stuff and Nonsense’), restricting the guide to original/exclusive appearances only. I also decided not to include all of the BBC7/Radio 4 Extra repeats.

I’ve listed the Radio 1 sessions separately, and for this information I’m indebted to the research of Ken Garner. His 1993 book In Session Tonight (revised and expanded as The Peel Sessions in 2007) was described by John Peel himself as ‘an extraordinary work of scholarship’ and he wasn’t wrong.

So anyway. Strap yourself in.

1 (i). RADIO


Home Service, Mon 8pm (7:30pm from 1960)
Sometimes repeated later in the week as HOME ON SATURDAY

Note: Cutler was often billed as ‘Ivor Cutler of Y’Hup’ or ‘Ivor Cutler of Y’Hup, OMP’. This 60-minute show ran from April 1959 to July 1962 – these are Cutler’s billed appearances, with the titles listed if known:

26/10/59: First Love
9/11/59:  Egg-Meat
16/11/59: Coughing Competition
23/11/59: Gruts for Tea
30/11/59: Windpipe MacDonald
7/12/59: The Way
14/12/59: Turkish Bath Play
21/12/59: Gruts for Tea
28/12/59: New Nose
4/1/60: Fish-Fright
11/1/60: The Tureen
18/1/60: Grass Seed
25/1/60: Bespoke Children
1/2/60: The Prisoner’s Secret
22/2/60: Unknown
29/2/60: Songs of an OMP
7/3/60: Songs of an OMP
28/3/60: Songs of an OMP
11/4/60: Songs of an OMP
25/4/60: Songs of an OMP
9/5/60 : Songs of an OMP
23/5/60: Songs of an OMP
13/6/60: Songs of an OMP
20/6/60: Songs of an OMP
27/6/60: A Red Flower
11/7/60: A Beserk Leg
31/10/60: A Steady Job
14/11/60: Spoon Control
21/11/61: A Distant Pain
28/11/60: The Feather Field’
5/12/60: Cold Potato
19/12/60: Scratch My Back
2/1/61: The Embarrassed Handywoman
9/1/61: I Want to Join
16/1/61: Letter from a Grannie
23/1/61: The Footkerchief
20/2/60: How to Make a Friend
27/2/61: The Hoorgi House
6/3/61: The Human Awl
3/4/61: Dirty Dinner
1/5/61: The Impressario
8/5/61: Old Cups of Tea
29/5/61: The Ouch-Stoppit Merriman Quartet
5/6/61: The Thinker
19/6/61: The Jamme-Beanabody Affair
10/7/61: The False God
17/7/61: The Tum-Tum Reader
16/10/61: Shapely Balloon
23/10/61: A National Disgrace
30/10/61: Beatrice and her Dirty Knees
6/11/61: The Fickle Sago Scrooper
13/11/61: Jellypocket
25/61: The Distant Pain
15/1/62: The Aimless Dawn-Runner
22/1/62: Push-Kidney
29/1/62: Agitated Pianist
5/2/62: Two Weary Professionals
19/2/62: Mary’s Drawer
5/3/62: The Aggressive Onion Seller
26/3/62: Suskia Copier
2/4/62: The Youthy Rubbish Judger
23/4/62: Not Again!
7/5/62: Frontways Flute
28/5/62: Meaty Bones
4/6/62: The Bemused Woman-Chaser
11/6/62: The Jeopardised Farm
18/6/62: What’s Your Price
25/6/62: Venus in Room XVIII
2/7/62: Nothing for Sale

Note: Re-recordings of some of these pieces were included on the 1986 album Gruts.

4/12/61 (30m)
Third Programme, Mon 7:30pm

Broadcast over one week, 6/1/64 – 10/1/64 (5x15m)
Home Service, Mon-Fri 10:30pm

23/5/70 (45m)
Radio 3, Sat 6:45pm

4/4/73 and 11/4/73 (2x40m)
Radio 4, 9:35pm

4/1/79 (20m)
Radio 3, Thur 10:35pm
(Repeated 23/2/79 and 14/8/79)
Note: Released on the 1986 album Gruts

7/12/79 and 8/2/80 (20m)
Radio 3, Fri 8:20/8:15pm)


Broadcast across four consecutive nights, 21/6/80 – 24/6/80 (4x10m)
1. ‘…the Mermaid’
2. ‘…the Mole’
3. ‘…the Princess’
4. ‘…his Dad’
Radio 3, Sat-Tue; various times around 10:30pm
(Repeated weekly, 14/11/80 – 5/12/80)

Broadcast over Christmas 1981 (6x various durations between 5m and 15m)
1. ‘…a Barber’ (22/12/81)
2. ‘…a Paper Seller’ (24/12/81)
3. ‘…a Storeman’ (26/12/81)
4. ‘…a Small Holder’ (28/12/81)
5. ‘A Miner is Approached by Ivor Cutler’ (30/12/81)
6. ‘A Sheet Worker is Approached by Ivor Cutler’ (3/1/82)
Radio 3, Tue- Mon; mostly 8:55pm (final show 7:15pm)
(Repeated 30/10/82 – 4/12/82)

Note: For both runs, each edition is billed with its own separate title. The final two programmes don’t fit with ‘Ivor Cutler and…’ but are clearly part of the same series.

Note: All ten pieces were released on the 1986 album Prince Ivor.

22/5/81 (30m)
Radio 3, Fri 7pm

19/12/81 (45m)
Radio 4, Sat 11:15pm
(Repeated 6/1/82)

20/3/83 (20m)
Radio 3, Sun 3:40pm
Note: Released on the 1986 album Prince Ivor.

17/11/84 (20m)
Radio 4, Sat 9:30pm

5/3/87 (20m)
Radio 3, Thur 7:40pm
(Repeated 29/12/87)

30/3/89 (15m)
Radio 3, Thur 9:35pm

11/1/90 – 15/2/90 (6x30m)
Radio 3, Thur; various times around 9:30pm
(Repeated by BBC7, 17/1/08 – 21/2/08 and 20/9/09 – 25/10/09, although individual episodes were first included on Comedy Winners, broadcast 11/8/07, and Tom Robinson’s shift as Comedy Controller, 22/9/07)
Note: Programmes originally given numbered billing as ‘King Cutler I, King Cutler II’ etc.

(‘…minutes in the archives!’)
27/7/90 – 10/8/90 (3x15m)
Radio 4, Fri 11:45pm

2/8/91 – 16/8/91 (3x15m)
Radio 4, Fri 11:45pm
(Repeated 10/4/92 – 1/5/92)

4/10/91 (40m)
Radio 4, Fri 4:05pm

12/6/93 (10m)
Radio 4, Sat 12:15pm

20/7/93 (90m)
Radio 5, Tue 8pm)

Broadcast over one week, 30/5/94 – 3/6/94 (5x15m)
Radio 3, Mon-Fri; various times around 9:30pm
(Repeated by BBC7, 15/7/08 – 26/8/08)

16/5/96 (35m)
Radio 4, Thur 12:25pm
(Repeated 12/7/97)

Broadcast over one week, 20/5/96 – 24/5/96 (5x15m)
Radio 3, Mon-Fri; various times between 8:55pm and 9:30pm
(Repeated on BBC7, 7/11/08 – 5/12/08 and 13/8/09 – 10/9/09)

10/9/96 (60m)
Radio 4, Tue 3pm

9/11/96 (30m)
Radio 4, Sat 11:30pm

Broadcast over one week, 2/6/97 – 6/6/97 (5x15m)
Radio 3, Mon-Fri; various times between 8:50pm and 9:30pm
(Repeated by BBC7, 8/7/08 – 5/8/08; one episode also picked by Armando Iannucci for BBC7’s Comedy Controller sequence, 24/1/09)

26/6/98 (150m)
Radio 3, Fri 5pm

4/2/03 (30m)
Radio 4, Tue 11:30am
(Repeated 8/11/05 and 26/3/06, and by BBC7 on 14/10/07)

9/2/03 (30m)
Radio 4, Sun 4:30pm
(Repeated 15/2/03)


ivor flat.jpg

These are Cutler’s Radio 1 sessions (recording dates in brackets) as listed in Ken Garner’s The Peel Sessions. I haven’t listed the tracks – if you want those, buy the book.

Note: Genome lists Cutler as a John Peel’s Night Ride guest on 9/5/68 (Radio 1, Thur 0:05pm).

7/5/69 (Wed 8:15pm; rx 5/5/69)
27/2/71 (Sat 3pm; rx 15/2/71)
24/11/71 (Wed 10pm; rx 8/11/71)
25/9/73 (Tue 10pm; rx 3/9/73)
28/11/74 (Thur 10pm; rx 14/11/74)
14/10/75 (Tue 11pm; rx 25/9/75)
31/8/76 (Tue 11pm; rx 17/8/76)
17/8/77 (Wed 10pm; rx 10/8/77)*
12/4/78 (Wed 10pm; rx 3/4/78)
27/2/79 (Tue 10pm; rx 20/2/79)
22/4/81 (Wed 10pm; rx 15/4/81)
3/3/83 (Thur 10pm; rx 23/2/83)
22/2/84 (Wed 10pm; rx 15/2/84)
15/7/85 (Mon 10pm; rx 30/6/85)
21/5/86 (Wed 10pm; rx 11/5/86)
15/6/87 (Mon 10pm; rx 9/6/87)
6/7/91 (Sat 11pm; rx 9/5/91)
15/12/91 (Sun 11pm; rx 31/10/91)
8/1/93 (Fri 11pm; rx 25/11/92)
8/1/94 (Sat 2pm/4:30pm*; rx 16/11/93)**
29/4/95 (Sat 5pm; rx 8/3/95)

*Released on vinyl by Strange Fruit, 1989

**A joint Andy Kershaw/John Peel session, shared between the two shows on the same afternoon

After the mid 90s, it gets a bit messy. The following appearances are listed on Genome but not recorded by Garner:

8/4/94 (Fri 10pm): A live appearance on Peel’s show as part of Sound City

16/7/95 (Sun 10pm): An Andy Kershaw session

1/4/96, 2/4/96 and 3/4/96 (Mon/Tue/Wed 10pm): Peel sits in for Mark Radcliffe – Cutler listed as a guest

Seven further Kershaw sessions (the last three for Radio 3), although some of these may have been repeats:

21/7/97 (Mon 10:40pm)
12/11/98 (Thur midnight)*
17/6/99 (Thur midnight)
29/7/99 (Thur midnight)
2/11/01 (Radio 3, Fri 10:15pm)
22/3/02 (Radio 3, Fri 10:15pm)
6/12/02 (Radio 3, Fri 10:15pm)

*Garner lists a session recorded on 12/6/98 and broadcast across various Peel and Kershaw shows (tx dates unknown). This was possibly one of them.


ivor black hat.jpg

TONIGHT with Cliff Michelmore
19/2/57 – 18/6/65 (40m)
BBC TV, weeknights; originally 6:05pm
Cutler’s appearances unknown

LET’S IMAGINE: ‘A World of One’s Own’
2/2/62 (35m)
BBC TV, Fri 1:30pm

Fortnightly 14/6/62 – 23/8/62 (6x25m)
BBC TV, Thur 5pm

21/4/64 (25m)
BBC2, Tue 7:30pm
Note: Part of BBC2’s postponed launch night – originally scheduled for 20/4/64
(Repeated 6/12/64)

SIX: ‘Diary of a Nobody’
12/12/64 (35m)
BBC2, Sat 10:10pm
Note: Cutler composed the music for this Ken Russell adaptation.
(Repeated 23/9/67)

5/2/65 and 3/9/65 (2x30m)
BBC2, Fri 9:15pm and 9:35pm

15/6/65 (25m)
BBC1, Tue 5:05pm

27/12/65 (30m)
BBC2, 9:30pm

13/1/66 and 9/7/66 (2xc40m)
BBC2, Thur/Sat 11:25pm/11:20pm

26/12/67 (50m)
BBC1, 8:35pm
(Repeated on BBC2, 5/1/68 and 21/12/79)

17/9/72 (?30m)
BBC2, Sun 11pm

1/12/74 (25m)
BBC2, Sun 10:35
(Repeated 24/1/76)

12/10/81 (25m)
BBC2, Mon 10:25pm
Note: Filmed performance of ‘Gruts for Tea’

1/11/84 (15m)
BBC2, Thur 2pm
Cutler’s ‘Meal One’ is the featured story
(Repeated 27/5/85, 27/10/86, 31/3/87 and 28/11/88)

3/6/86 (60m)
BBC2, Tue 6pm
Cutler performs ‘Shoplifters’ and ‘My Wee Pet’

24/12/86 (55m)
BBC2, Wed 10:50pm)

29/8/99 (65m)
BBC2, Sun 9pm

19/3/05 (100m)
BBC2, Sat 9:10pm

15/4/05 (60m)
BBC4, Fri 10pm
(Repeated 16/4/05, 30/12/05, 24/3/06, 26/3/06 and 11/11/06)

15/4/05 (30m)
BBC4, Fri 11pm

ivor painting.jpg





Ivor My Engine

It had been a bad day at the bookshop. The boss was in a stinking mood, the heating was broken, and there was a huge pile of Schott’s Miscellany in need of new stickers.

Looking up, I noticed an old codger loitering by the reference section. He sported a tartan cap with a sunflower in the brim, and was studiously leafing through the latest Who’s Who. Oh god, I thought, another local loon – I’m really not in the mood right now. Catching my eye, and perhaps feeling I was owed some kind of explanation, he raised his head and said only one thing: ‘Just checking.’

It was no longer a bad day at the bookshop.


My first experience of Ivor Cutler was a common one: it was on the Radio 1 John Peel programme, for which he recorded 23 sessions (a record narrowly beaten only by The Fall and, in various guises, David Gedge). 1991 had already been a pretty good year for Peel sessions, showcasing everyone from the Charlatans to the Shamen, Bongwater to the Ragga Twins, Helmet to Dr Phibes and the House of Wax Equations. I used to tape them religiously and compile elaborately felt-tipped cassettes of highlights. It  was the sheer variety of artists that mainly thrilled me, but nothing had quite prepared me for Ivor Cutler. Out of my radio came this slightly unsettling Govan voice, crooning the following over a doleful piano:

Why is your coat so thick, Joe?
Why is your coat so thick? It seems thicker every day.

“What’s it got to do with you?
That’s the way I like my coat.
My coats have always been thick.”

What’s the material called, Joe?
You told me yesterday but I forgot.

“I’ve forgotten too.
But I’ll tell you the colour – it’s a darkish blue.”

Oh don’t go on, the colour’s grey –
It’s only the light from the street.
Do let’s go for a walk, Joe,
I’d like to stretch my feet.

Why is your coat so thick, Joe?
Why is your coat so thick? It seems thicker every day.

It was deeply strange, but I found it hard to put my finger on precisely why it was strange. Even allowing for Peel’s famous each-record-completely-different-from-the-one-before-it eclecticism, Ivor Cutler was unusual. With the precision of his inflexions and the daringness of his silences, it was as if Radio 1 had – unlike my cassette deck – been put on pause. It was as if the weather had changed. ‘Ivor’s great at dreich’ Billy Connolly once said, referring to the Scottish slang for drizzle.

But the thing with Ivor Cutler was that you had eclecticism within eclecticism. He didn’t seem to fit into any one box. He wasn’t a ‘cosy’ poet, but he wasn’t an overtly ‘alternative’ one either. He was neither John Betjeman nor John Cooper Clarke; neither Pam Ayres nor Patti Smith. His work was very funny, but it seemed to carry a peculiar weight on its shoulders that the work of other ‘humour poets’ (even the very good ones) often didn’t.

In his world, nothing was quite what it seemed. The cover of his 1976 Jammy Smears LP sees Cutler bare-chested, apparently in a southpaw sparring pose, as if he’s snarling ‘You talking to me?’ into a mirror. Look closely, however, and his fists aren’t actually clenched. His face is melancholic and afraid, like a haunted figure in a Samuel Beckett play. His boxing shorts are pyjama bottoms.

ivor jammy.jpg

Cutler was Scottish and  Jewish, although he seemed to contradict Arnold Brown’s famous joke about these being ‘two racial stereotypes for the price of one’.  I often tried to piece together his ‘story’, but it was a slippery one. Who exactly was he? His recollections and observations were rooted in Scotland, but they also seemed to take place in a bigger, far woozier world. He belonged to Glasgow, but also to other planets. This is, after all, a man who was once grounded by the RAF for ‘dreaminess’.

It’s interesting, listening to Cutler’s early work (his first three records are currently available on CD as An Elpee and Two Epees), how his delivery arrived almost full-formed. Those 1959/61 recordings have a slightly more Milligan-esque knowing wink, and you can hear how they wouldn’t have frightened too many Home Service horses, but it’s still the Cutler we know. As far as I can tell, he’s an artist with no juvenilia.

As the years rolled on, the voice (and face) became unmistakable – when it comes to TV ‘hauntology’, he was exactly the kind of weirdo you’d expect to see popping up on Late Night Line-Up, Whistle Test or The Innes Book of Records. He was also terrific as Mr Bloodvessel in Magical Mystery Tour (‘I am concerned for you to enjoy yourselves, within the limits of British decency…if you know what I mean’), although it always annoys me how much they underused him dialogue-wise.

As he grew older, Cutler’s work – like Samuel Beckett’s – matured into a sort of crisp minimalism, and his imagery became even odder and more oblique. Here’s his 1991 prose poem Seaweed:

Sometimes it’s a bit difficult to determine where a woman’s face ends and the air begins. As though flesh and air shared the area, like high tide and low tide.

So when you lean forward to kiss her, your lips touch sand, or else they plunge into the sea. It’s always a surprise.

I prefer sand, with a bit of bladderwrack on the lip.

The phrase ‘flesh and air shared the area’ is brilliant there. Cutler doesn’t just have a poet’s eye – he peers intently at the world, and at language, as though through a jeweller’s eyepiece.

It always comes back to that voice, though – a voice that works very well on the page, but only if you already know what it sounds like. I remember when Cutler was about to collaborate with some indie band, the NME reported a telephone conversation between him and the singer. Sadly I can’t recall the name of the band, but I vividly recall the transcript:

SINGER: When shall we meet?
IVOR: Well, what time do you surface?
SINGER (Laughing): Well, we don’t usually surface till about ten!
IVOR: In that case I shall meet you at nine.

I also remember a Radio 4 announcer asking him about his plans for Millennium Eve: ‘I’ll climb over my books and try to get into bed,’ he said. ‘Then I might sneer.’

Much as I adore his poetry, the autobiographical Life in  a Scotch Sitting Room and Glasgow Dreamer monologues are probably my favourite works. I love the line about the family eating herrings, about how they’d wolf down the batter first ‘to take the edge off our appetites so we could eat the herrings with respect’. I never tire of the story about his father taking them for an instructional walk (‘There are lots of thistles in Scotland – we were soon well-acquainted with them’). And I’ll certainly never forget the line ‘I extended my puny finger and sank it into his fluted scrotum’. How much of it was true autobiography, and how much was invention? Again, Cutler blurs the lines.

I remember one winter I got ill with a fever (‘hugging the wall to escape the worst effects of the fresh air’) and my company under the blankets was the Life in a Scotch Sitting Room Volume II album, recorded at the 3rd Eye Centre on Sauchiehall Street in 1977. It remains one of the most blissful evenings of my life. Never mind listening to Pink Floyd on acid – you should try digging Ivor Cutler when you’ve got flu.

ivor scotch.jpg

When I moved to London and began working at Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road, I got used to seeing incredibly famous people. When you work in London retail, you very quickly become blasé about talking to celebrities – they’re just part of your daily routine. I could fill a whole book about my experiences behind the counter, serving everyone from Clare Grogan downwards (or, if you like, Rod Liddle upwards). I could tell you about the time a grumpy Ken Dodd asked me to look after his suitcases or the time Nicole Kidman pushed past me on the stairs. I could tell you that Michael Heseltine and Jerry Sadowitz were both very friendly but Harriet Harman wasn’t. I could mention the week I served three different Doctors Who. I could recall the day a heavily-masked Michael Jackson generously tipped the security guards with chocolate but then had his credit card declined. Only two celebs have ever really made me truly starstruck, though: one was Tom Courtenay (who asked where the  Anglo-Saxon dictionaries were), and the other was Ivor Cutler.

Foyles stocked quite a few of Cutler’s volumes, a selection of which had just been republished as miniatures, and Ivor (who lived locally) would periodically pop in to see how they were getting on, a bit like a restless gardener tending a greenhouse. I remember the way he first introduced himself: ‘I’m Ivor – would you like me to sign anything?’ he said, carefully dismounting his bike. ‘I’m apparently Scotland’s foremost poet.’

During my time at Foyles, I got to know Ivor quite well. He’d come in fairly regularly, and I often volunteered to work in the poetry section in anticipation of his visits. He was somehow frail and full of beans at the same time. His official live performances were rare, but I had a private audience with him every week; he’d hang about by the till reciting poems, stories and songs, most of which seemed to be world exclusives. I remember one time a police helicopter could be loudly heard overhead and he ad-libbed a routine about the ingenious methods he was using to escape capture.

Did I discover ‘the real Ivor Cutler’? Not really. Or if I did, he was the same chap who’s on the records. He did confide that he didn’t think John Peel should be wasting his time with Home Truths, but that’s the closest I’ve got to gossip. It was very odd talking to him ‘out of character’, though – he usually had a smile playing on his lips, and I suspected that, like most eccentrics, he was fully aware of the eccentricity-buttons he was pushing. (How long had he planned that ‘Just checking’ line? Had he used it before?) I’ve always felt the same way about John Peel, Alan Bennett and Vivian Stanshall – there’s a trick to making all that quotability seem natural. Which isn’t to say that any of those people are frauds; quite the opposite, in fact – they’re simply very skilled at speaking the truth.

His visits became gradually less frequent, and I last spoke to him about a year before he died. As he left, he handed me a sticker (as he often did), which read ‘To remove this label, take it off’.

To most of my colleagues he was ‘that weird Scottish poet guy’. To me, he was…well, that weird Scottish poet guy. But he brightened up my days anyway. There’s certainly a lot less dreich in the world now he’s gone. (Or a lot more, depending on how you look at it.)


I was always touched by how protective he was of his own books, which is why it maddens me how little of his stuff remains available today. Most of his poetry and prose is long out of print, for a start, the tiny volumes he signed in Foyles now commanding colossal sums. The albums have fared slightly better, although not all of them are available – the material’s all owned by several different labels, so even an Essential Ivor Cutler compilation may be a problematic endeavour. The Peel sessions, however, are surely long-overdue the boxset treatment.

What really puzzles me is why nobody’s ever commissioned a proper Ivor Cutler anthology. Not necessarily the collected works (which would be a glorious doorstop) , but a ‘Selected Poems’ volume at the very least. This goes back to what I was saying before about me being unsure of Cutler’s status. Is he considered a ‘proper’ poet? How is he viewed by the gatekeepers of the literary canon? It’s hard to get any real frame of reference, but his absence on the bookshelves remains scandalous.

With this in mind, I advocate that every January 26th we should celebrate Cutler Night. We toast Rabbie Burns on the 25th as usual, but the next day we raise a class to Scotland’s other national poet. And instead of haggis, neeps and tatties, we tuck into egg meat, gruts and pickled knees.

All within the limits of British decency, of course.

ivor big.jpg

If you know what I mean.


How to Cook Eggs

three eggs.jpg

Eggs. Yes, eggs.

About ten years ago, my wife and I were big fans of the UKTV Food series Market Kitchen – a sort of low-rent version of the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen – hosted by the twinkly (and very posh) Matthew Fort. Discovering that they shot the series down the road from us in Camden, we applied for tickets to be in the ‘audience’.

I say audience, but in reality we were more like stooges: during the ad breaks, we were endlessly shuffled around the tiny studio like ballroom-dancing extras in a costume drama, the production team trying in vain to disguise the fact that there were only nine of us. But we were more than happy to comply, whether an item required us to lounge about on sofas tucking into jam roly-poly or to sit awkwardly on patio chairs and prod at bits of quiche.

market kitchen fort.jpg

Matthew Fort (left) and Tom Parker Bowles, about to prepare daffodil surprise

I was initially asked to sit at the ‘breakfast bar’, where Brian Turner was later to be cooking duck. Around us were rustic crates groaning with fruit – all real, but covered in so much furniture polish that the crew issued a heath and safety warning saying we should on no account attempt to scrump anything. I tried to adopt a casual elbow-on-the-worktop pose. If anybody gave me a lemon pie, I was more than more than ready to say ‘Mmm, you can really taste the lemon’ with appropriate feeling.

Matthew Fort was buzzing about the studio, convivially chatting to everyone, and eventually he came over to us. His opening line was about cheese – specifically whether one should refrigerate it or not. Fearful that I was being tested, I said that I did indeed refrigerate cheese, but always brought it to room temperature an hour or so before serving. This was a lie. Fort seemed impressed, though, which gave me a gust of confidence. I then heard this come out of my mouth:

‘But do you put your eggs in the fridge?’, I asked, my carefully-positioned elbow wobbling slightly. ‘That’s the big debate.’

Yes, ‘That’s the big debate’. Only ten minutes on a daytime TV show and already I’d perfected the lingo. Maybe later I would ‘go on a mission’ to find out what ‘the people of Britain’ thought.

Fort said he didn’t put his eggs in the fridge. If I’d been quicker, I would have said ‘Does your butler do it for you?’, but my dalliance with razor-sharp media bantz was over. He started to mingle elsewhere and I wondered if I’d touched a nerve. After all, cooking always comes back to eggs. When Delia Smith devoted three whole episodes of her 1998 series How To Cook to the subject, she was roundly condemned. Come on, Delia, everyone knows how to cook an egg, they said. What next – how to boil water, huh huh huh.

Well, a lot of people don’t know how to cook eggs. More to the point, knowing how to cook eggs is essentially about knowing how to cook full-stop: if you can master eggs, you can master anything. Well, maybe not Brian Turner’s duck.

So the purpose of this blog is to give you my foolproof methods for cooking eggs the four basic (or, to quote Basil Fawlty, extremely different) ways: boiled, fried, scrambled and poached. You may have other methods, and you may disagree violently with mine (perhaps you may even throw eggs in protest), but they’re my methods and they’ve generally served me well.


Boiling has one disadvantage over other egg-cooking techniques: without x-ray vision, you can’t monitor how well they’re doing. There are, after all, few things grimmer than cracking open the shell only to find a rock-hard yolk or (far worse) gloopy uncooked white. As with baking, timing is everything – you can’t just wing it. But the following usually works.

For a hard-boiled egg, put the eggs in a pan of cold water and bring to the boil, then take the pan off the heat and leave for eight minutes. When the eight minutes are up, put them in an ice bath or run them under very cold water. This will set everything nicely, but won’t produce the pebble-like powdery yolk that UKIP voters probably get nostalgic for; the yolk will have a slight squidge, meaning that it’s perfect in things like caesar salads but will also be firm enough to slice or chop.

For a soft-boiled egg, bring the water to a boil first, then add the eggs. Leave them boiling for five minutes, and then it’s cold shower time. This will produce a solid white with a creamy yolk tailor-made for dipping.

And if you’re doing the latter, do it properly, with the appropriate ‘theatre’ – ie, make some buttered soldiers. Get some decent bread, as well – I’m no snob when it comes to the cheap stuff, but floppy soldiers are a bit…well, I’m reminded of Malcolm Tucker’s line about the marzipan dildo.

You’ll need salt, too. Just a pinch at the top and it’s nom city.

egg soldiers.jpg


There are three main methods here: sunny side up, over-easy, and exploded.

The exploded method (intentionally breaking the yolk and cooking it on both sides – a bit like an unmixed omelette) is fine if the egg’s going in a sandwich or will be otherwise disguised by other foodstuffs, but it’s not pretty. I knew a hipster food stall which would break the yolk at the end of the frying process, after which it would be poured onto hamburgers and bacon butties as a kind of sauce. Whoever came up with that method clearly remembered this revolting shot from Withnail and I:


Sunny side up (where the egg is only fried on one side and the yolk sits proudly naked on the top) is difficult to get right. Lots of otherwise excellent eateries do it badly because it’s a tricky balancing act: the white has to be fully set on the top without being overcooked on the base, while the yolk must remain not only runny but piping hot as well. A disastrous sunny side up egg has a burnt bottom and slimy raw white surrounding a tepid yolk.

So how do you do it? The best method is to baste the top with the oil as it’s cooking. But do so gently – spooning huge amounts of boiling fat directly onto the yolk will not only cook it far too quickly, it’ll also lose that lovely orangey-yellow glow. Take a teaspoon and slowly baste the outside of the yolk rather than the yolk itself. Keep the temperature at medium too, so the process is nice and steady. (In order to spoon up the oil easily, you’ll inevitably have to add more oil than you really need, but that’s life.)

Sunny side up is tricky, but worth it. After all, few savoury dishes aren’t cheered up by sticking an egg on top.

egg wok.jpg

Over-easy is when the yolk is covered with a thin film of ‘white’ (it’s not actually egg-white, the surface of the yolk just turns that colour) while the yolk itself remains soft. This can be achieved by flipping the egg and cooking it for a  few seconds, but there’s obviously a strong chance here that the yolk will break – a better method is to use the basting technique again, but with oil gently applied to the yolk itself. The advantage with this method is that you can be sure that all of the white is cooked; the disadvantage is that it doesn’t look quite as attractive on the plate, although you do of course have the delayed pleasure of breaking into it.

eggs toms.jpg

A quick word about oil. Sunflower’s the best, I think. I never think olive oil works that well with eggs, unless you’re having a huevos rancheros party. Butter’s no good either – it burns too easily, and the nutty flavour isn’t really what you want.

Oh, and frying pans. There’s no real getting away from the fact that you can’t successfully fry eggs in a crap pan. It’s a miserable experience, the eggs will fall to bits, and the bloody thing will take an eternity to scrub clean. So if you really love fried eggs, you need to invest in a decent non-stick pan. They’re pricey, yes, but they’re also essential for:


There are countless methods for scrambling eggs. The Australians tend to do them in a very omelettey way, folding together the mixture into a sort of egg duvet, whereas Delia Smith (working from an old Savoy recipe) famously caused mass nausea with this tribute to Salvador Dalí:


I’m not keen on either, to be honest. I’d say perfect scrambled eggs ought to be somewhere between those two extremes, and ideally look like this:

scrambled eggs.jpg

(Yes, including the bacon.)

There are two basic rules: keep the heat low and don’t stop stirring. But as with all rules, these come with footnotes: I find, in order to avoid the Dalí experience, the low heat needs a quick boot up the arse every so often and the spoon needs an occasional rest; this means the eggs firm up slightly, allowing them to be broken up and stirred again. And go easy on the butter too: yes, you need a generous knob (forget my fried egg advice – butter is an essential here), but too much and you end up with babysick. On no account use milk or cream.

The important thing to remember – and this is something chefs endlessly wag their fingers about – is that scrambled eggs continue cooking after you take them off the heat. So get them to the point where they’re not quite as firm as you like them, then remove the pan and continue stirring. (You can always return it to the heat if you’ve removed it too soon.)

This is the point where I add the salt and pepper. Some chefs warn that adding salt to the egg mixture before (or during) cooking can make the eggs watery – I’m not sure if this is actually true, but I tend to add it afterwards anyway. You should be tasting the eggs for seasoning at that point anyway.

You need robust, well-toasted bread with scrambled eggs, I think – it certainly needs to withstand the wetness of the mixture. So again, no Mother’s Pride.


This is the trickiest of all. I thought for years I couldn’t do them, until I hit upon the three basic rules. And none of them involve those annoying silicone pouch things.

Firstly, always use fresh eggs. Older ones don’t poach well. I mean, don’t stress out giving your eggs the witch-dunking treatment with bowls of water or anything – just avoid using eggs that have been hanging around in Matthew Fort’s larder for ages. Buy some new ones.

Secondly, use simmering water. If you dump an egg into a raging boil, it’ll break up immediately and you’ll be fishing annoying strings of white out of your saucepan for hours. Poaching isn’t the same as boiling – it’s meant to be a gentle method.

Thirdly, use the ‘whirlpool’ technique. Stir the simmering water in a brisk circular motion and then immediately drop the egg into the centre. (I usually crack it into a cup first, which is slightly quicker and easier.) At first, it’ll look a bit of a mess, but you’ll quickly see the egg shape forming – there’s something particularly pleasing about the final moment, when the last few strands of white wrap themselves snugly around the yolk. Leave this for about four minutes, and you’ll have the perfect poached egg – here’s one I made earlier (on the day Donald Trump was elected, actually):

Some people recommend adding vinegar in order to stop the egg breaking up, but I’m not so keen. Mainly because it makes the egg taste of vinegar.

So there we are. That’s eggs for you.

Next time on cookery corner: Brian Turner’s duck. Because that’s the really big debate.