Gilbert O’Sullivan

PETER SKELLERN

 

Peter Skellern, the Bury-born musician, songwriter and producer who died yesterday at the age of 69, is probably still best known for his 1972 hit single, ‘You’re A Lady’, which first brought him to prominence. But it would be wrong to dismiss him as a light-touch, middle-of-the-road troubadour ;- throughout his long and varied recording and performance career, Skellern was consistently diverting, always weighing-in at far more than the sum of his parts, of which there were many.

From Lancashire in the North-West of England, he trained as a classical musician and, as a young graduate from the Guildhall, originally served as a church organist in Bolton. And there are subtle traces of those credentials throughout his work ;- religion and faith became far more prominent themes during his later career. But much of his earlier material – his first five albums, especially – is characterised by a deft lyrical touch and a droll sense of the local and the ordinary and he was a consummate storyteller, both on record and off. His live solo shows were punctuated by tall yarns and short, sharp references, loaded colloquialisms and a wizard’s touch at the piano. And, to this end, in 1978 he took the fabled brassband from the works at Grimethorpe Colliery in Yorkshire and into the studio and, ultimately, onto the soundstage at Top Of The Pops to accompany him perform ‘Love Is The Sweetest Thing’. Three years previously, that same band had featured on Roy Harper’s epic ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’.

Like Gilbert O’Sullivan, it would be wrong to dismiss Peter Skellern as either a curiosity or a novelty and, parsing his considerable and diverse back catalogue, his influence extends as far as Morrissey’s lyrical dash and The Divine Comedy’s broader canvas. Indeed while Neil Hannon has frequently cited his long-standing affection for Jeff Lynne, his material actually owes far more to some of Skellern’s sweet, often self-deprecating parlour songs like ‘My Lonely Room’, ‘Where Do We Go To From Here’ and ‘Still Magic’ than it does to the more formidable, power-house sound of The Electric Light Orchestra.

Peter’s ambition always stretched far and wide :- he had the musical range and raw ability of Jimmy Webb, particularly in terms of composition and arrangement, and the lyrical touches of Alan Bennett. And so a typical live show or compilation album might lurch between Astaire-period, brushed-drum jazz to layered popular ballads to pithy, kitchen-sink smart-alecry like ‘Our Jackie’s Getting Married’, ‘Every Home Should Have One’ and ‘My Ideal Home’. Crisp and wry tunes from the drawing room that, beneath their bonnets, were knitted around sturdy melody lines and wide-ranging, ambitious production.

I saw this for myself at close quarters during two exceptional live shows that Skellern played in Cork city during the mid-1980s, the first of which I recorded on a portable Walkman and played to within an inch of its life for years afterwards. From my hard-backed chair deep within the city’s merchant and toff classes in one of the ballrooms in The Metropole Hotel in 1984, I watched on in awe as he gave a performance masterclass to an audience of four hundred or so during a typical set that went on for an eternity and that covered a vast range of genres and styles, pickled throughout with an easy, well-worn patter. One of his favourite yarns, the punchlines to which invariably rebounded on himself, involved the the English singer, Peter Sarstedt, best known for ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely’ [who himself passed away last month] and with whom Skellern was consistently confused.

He was back in Cork again the following year, this time in the infinitely less velveteen surroundings of Connolly Hall, but this time to a far larger and clearly more diverse audience. That show, which is easily among the best and most memorable I’ve ever seen, will forever be recalled for the fact that it took place despite a serious power outage in the middle of the city that plunged the venue and the streets around it into complete darkness. The show was delayed for an hour before Skellern eventually took to the stage carrying a lamp and proceeded to rip the night up, playing without amplification for the guts of ninety minutes, during which he projected his voice magnificently all over the vast hall.

As usual, he skirted around some of his own easy listening standards, adding a touch of jazz or a light classical piece when the mood, and the evening, took him. From ‘The Continental’ to ‘Love Is’ through ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’, a couple of rag-time instrumentals and, stunningly, a magnificent reading of Debussy’s ‘The Girl With The Flaxen Hair’. And, with every note and flourish, reminded the partisan audience exactly how, for years, he’d enjoyed the unfailing devotion of Terry Wogan’s BBC radio audiences.

As well as his own body of work, Skellern was a frequent collaborator too, most notably with his friend Richard Stilgoe, with whom he wrote and released several records and toured regularly. And of course in 1984 he recorded and released an album as a member of Oasis, a five-piece that also featured the Welsh singer, Mary Hopkin and cellist Julian Lloyd-Webber among it’s number. That eponymously titled record, which can be filed under ‘easy listening’, saw the light of day a full ten years before ‘Definitely Maybe’ and features mostly Skellern compositions, the magnificent ‘If This Be The Last Time’ foremost among them and which, in its own way and to these ears, is just as magical as ‘Live Forever’.

I’ve long adored Skellern’s work in all of it’s guises and, in particular, his regal command of orchestration and the scale and ambition of his arrangements, the beauty of which are often lost behind a lazily-formed portrayal of him as mere fodder for the slacks, slip-over and high-waisted trouser set. As someone reared on the raw wonder of the likes of ‘And So It Passes’, ‘You’re A Lady’, ‘Still Magic’ and ‘My Lonely Room’, I defy anyone to tell me that he isn’t a far greater and unlikely influence than many of us might have imagined ? Himself almost certainly included.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE SMITHS. AND MY MOTHER.

 

I was born, luckily, to a mother who adored music. I remember many occasions during my childhood when she’d power up her old record player – and it was very definitely her record player – and stack it with a variety of old 7 inch singles and all manner of albums. It was my mother who bought me my first record – E.L.O.’s ‘Shine A Little Love’ – and it was her devotion to daytime music radio [she was the housewife in ‘housewife’s choice’] that re-inforced the message and exposed me to all kinds of wonderful. I had no idea at the time, of course, but the rose was being sown ;- in my mother’s world, and later in my own, those who didn’t have music in them just weren’t worth the effort. They were queerhawks, so you went there lightly.

 

She introduced me, one way or another, to The Beach Boys, Marianne Faithful and The Beatles. She was appalled then, as she is now, by the more lurid aspects of rock and roll and was especially suspicious of David Bowie, outwardly at least. ‘That fella doesn’t know if he’s a man or a woman’, she’d regularly say, more to get a rise out of my father than anything else, I imagine. But she ran an honest and good home and, over the years, heartily welcomed many a passing musician who dossed down for the night. ‘How’s the boy from Into Paradise ?’, she still asks. ‘Is he still doing the music ?’.

 

I started secondary school in 1980 and, like my friends, was happy in the haze of the chart hits of the day. I was keeping a close eye on E.L.O, who were still regulars on the hit-parade and who I had now adopted, carefully collecting their new releases while dipping into the bargain bins in search of their older material. At home, various compilation albums – often advertised on television and usually released on either the K-Tel, Telstar and Warwick labels – also helped to broaden my knowledge and expand my breath of reference. And it was here that I first got my ears around the likes of The Sweet, Mud and Gilbert O’Sullivan, all of whom I still love.

 

But it was all a bit different with The Smiths. From the off I felt I was operating a bit more illicitly and under my own steam ;- not like any other love, this one was different. I saw them for the first time on a European-wide music show, late one weekend night on RTÉ, alongside another British group called Immaculate Fools, featured as part of a broader event showcasing emerging bands from countries throughout the continent. The short video clip captured the group performing their new single in a shed filled draped with flowers ;- I noted the name in my head and, on a Saturday morning some weeks afterwards, located a copy of ‘This Charming Man’ upstairs in Eason’s on Patrick Street in Cork.

 

 

The Smiths are still one of my favourite bands ever – as are E.L.O. – and, like everyone else who fell under their spell, changed forever the way I listened to music and what I expected from it. I’ve written about them extensively over the years because a] everybody else has and b] there was always so much to write about ;- to music writers, oiks and pseuds everywhere, they were a gift that just kept on giving. We’ll post some of those longer pieces here over time, but in the meantime …

 

In November, 1996, the French music and culture magazine, Les Inrockuptibles , issued a one-off album, ‘The Smiths Is Dead’, to mark the tenth anniversary of the release of The Smiths’ third studio album, ‘The Queen Is Dead’ [which was actually unleashed in June, 1986]. The magazine asked ten of it’s favourite bands du jour to cover a track each from the acclaimed album ;- and so The Frank And Walters did ‘Cemetry Gates’,  The Trash Can Sinatras took on ‘I Know It’s Over’, The Divine Comedy performed ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, The Boo Radleys did the title track and so on and so forth. It sounded excellent in theory but, in reality, was far from it ;- some bands should just stay uncovered.

 

 

I used the opportunity of the Les Inrockuptibles release to write an easy Sunday Tribune column on October 20th, 1996. As well as re-cycling some of my own well-worn observations on the band , I asked four people – some I knew well, some not at all – to throw a light on the band by selecting their own favourite Smiths song. I didn’t ask one woman for an input, and it never once struck me that this was odd. One of the most common misconceptions about The Smiths was that their audiences were exclusively male, and from across a very broad class spectrum. And besides, I spent much of the 1990s boring other men to tears with intense theory about Morrissey, Marr and ‘the split’, most of which I’d lifted from a long-lunch I’d had with Johnny Rogan, author of ‘The Severed Alliance’ in The Long Valley bar in Cork in 1994.

 

That Sunday Tribune column, which ran under the headline ‘The Smiths : forging an identity’, most of which we’ve re-produced in full below, was merely an extension of some of those boys-club conversations. And I’m still not sure if this was a good or a bad thing.

 

Originally published in Sunday Tribune October 20th 1996

Ask Me. Ask Me. Ask Me. And Me. 

 

There was a time and a place when everyone had an opinion on The Smiths. To many of us they were the defining popular cultural force of our – or indeed any other – generation. To others they were maudlin and self-important which, of course, suited our notions anyway and served only to make us respect them even more. And right now, ten years after the release of arguably the last decade’s most important and pivotal album, ‘The Queen Is Dead’, they are once again very much at one’s elbow.

 

That both the band and the record have endured for so long is a tribute to their own stubborn vision and to the intensity of blind faith they culled from a heretofore beaten and tired generation. Peddling a blatant gang mentality, they played on their own terms and quit while they were ahead by laps.

 

In hindsight The Smiths were the academic soundtrack of our adolescence, a conversation piece and a salvation of sorts. In Morrissey’s words and all through Johnny Marr’s masterful songs, we saw a world of underdogs and inadequates, the clinical antidote to New Romance, beach-pop and synthetics. They dealt in smug, knowing one-liners and, naturally, we believed their every word.

 

The Queen Is Dead’ made itself known to us some ten years ago, quite possibly the last record we have ever awaited so eagerly. But by this time we had already swapped-off that part of our vinyl stack which pre-dated ‘Hand In Glove’. The first ever line to their first ever single went :- ‘Hand in glove, the sun shines out of our behinds’, the gorgeously arrogant intent that was to become par for The Smiths. And that was our first taste of ‘real’ or ‘proper’ music.

 

My friend Dónal Dineen, a television person and writer, spent his adolescence on a farm in Rathmore, County Kerry, taking his social cues – like far too many of us – from late-night radio and bad weekend television. ‘My favourite Smiths song’,  he admits, ‘is ‘This Charming Man’ because sometimes the best songs have the best opening lines, and this one opens spectacularly. I first heard this song, which opens ‘Punctured bicycle on a hillside, desolate. Will nature make a man of me yet ?’ having cycled to a youth club teenage disco in Killarney. Suddenly, the whole world made sense’.

 

But The Smiths made their own rules, pushing their boat out far beyond the beyond. By the time of ‘The Queen Is Dead’ they were articulating, through popular music, with guitars and with words, everything we’d long suspected but could never actually admit. Nick Kelly, boy-wonder rock-kid at The Times, remembers the record like it was yesterday. ‘My favourite Smiths song is ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, he pops, ‘because in it’s time it gave a certain hope to all of those pale boys at teenage discos that couldn’t quite muster the courage to either dance or flirt. It should be made required listening for all teenage boys going to their first school disco’.

 

In many respects of course, The Smiths were grossly out of time and out of kilter and yet they were very quickly essential, if only because they stimulated our every sense. Marr’s songs, even ten years on, stand any time-test, a truly spectacular and prolific canon that, with it’s sheer scope and ambition, dominates an entire musical era like a blanket on a cage. Morrissey’s words, meanwhile, have long-since become biblical and Eddie Bannon, this town’s funniest new comedian, remembers them fondly.

 

‘My favourite Smiths song is ‘Panic’’, he says. ‘The one where the chorus goes ‘hang the D.J., hang the D.J.’. Its basically a memory-linked thing – although having said that, I just also despise disc jockeys. But I can remember seeing them on television, on The Old Grey Whistle Test, I think, and just being completely entranced’.

 

But by now of course, just before and certainly during ‘The Queen Is Dead’, Morrissey had assumed legendary status. Not only were his band on a very definite roll but they had long-since become a large-scale mainstream alternative, albeit one that very truly irritated our parents, sisters and, it appeared, the tabloids. This, in our book, was well cool. Morrissey gave spectacularly good copy to anyone willing to listen, and the further he pushed, then the quicker he became a celebrated cause. And we, blindly and bizarrely, just loved him.

 

Gerard Crowley is a free-lance cartoonist. ‘My favourite Smiths song, for several reasons, is ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’’, he says. ‘Not only does it have a gorgeous sleeve [later banned] but the song is suitably downbeat. Up-tempo songs generally make me depressed, and this is truly beautiful. Johnny Marr’s mandolin wouldn’t be out of place on the ‘Cinema Paradiso’ soundtrack. It’s that good’.

 

All of which leads – in a circular and misty-eyed way, I know – to this. At the end of this month, the French rock music monthly magazine, Les Inrockuptibles, celebrates one of popular music’s most important anniversaries with a tribute album of odds and ends ;- ‘The Queen Is Dead’ as played and shaped by a quirky bin of fans and opportunists. And while most tribute records largely say nothing to anyone about either self or life – often no more than record-label hi-jacks and credibility cash-ins – it’s pretty cool to at least see something from our own petty histories come back and shame us and enthral us in equal measures and in all of the best possible ways. It’s weird, I know, but they really probably were our very own Beatles. That, at least, is my excuse. 

 

THE ESSENTIAL SMITHS :- MY SUGGESTED 20 GOLDEN LIGHTS

 

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ From ‘The Queen Is Dead’ album [1986]

Accept Yourself’ From ‘This Charming Man’, 12-inch single [1983]

Rubber Ring’ From ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’, 12-inch single, [1985]

This Charming Man’ Single [1983]

Sheila, Take A Bow’ Single [1987]

The Headmaster Ritual’ From ‘Meat is Murder’ album [1985]

This Night Has Opened My Eyes’ From ‘Hatful Of Hollow’ album [1984]

William, It Was Really Nothing’ Single [1984]

Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What  I Want’ From ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ single, [1984]

I Won’t Share You’ From ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ album, [1987]

Cemetery Gates’ From ‘The Queen Is Dead’ album, [1986]

Well, I Wonder’ From ‘Meat Is Murder’ album, [1985]

Is It Really So Strange ?’ From ‘Sheila, Take A Bow’ single [1987]

Hand in Glove’ Single [1983]

I Know It’s Over’ From ‘The Queen Is Dead’ album, [1986]

Asleep’ From ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ single [1985]

Death Of A Disco Dancer’ From ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ album [1987]

Shoplifters Of The World Unite’ Single [1987]

Reel Around The Fountain’ From ‘The Smiths’ album, [1984]

Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ From ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ album, [1987]