Jimmy Webb

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Paddy Met Jimmy

 

I’m not especially good at staying in touch with my friends and Dave Heffernan, among several others, will attest to that. It’s a good year when we catch up a couple of times socially and yet, for all that, I’ll still think nothing of seeking him out for advice and tapping him up, usually out of the blue. He’s probably one of the few people I actually listen to but it’s a wonder how he puts up with me.

 

It was music that first brought us together and it’s music that still dominates many of our conversations. Dave has made plenty of excellent music television and radio during a distinguished career in broadcasting, both in front of house and behind the sticks. And, like one of his peers, Mark Cagney, he also boasts one of the finest record collections in the country, the extent and scale of which is beyond impressive. He puts this lesser man to shame.

 

There was a time, way back, when Dave and myself enjoyed a much different relationship. As one of the four presenters on the 1980s RTÉ Saturday morning kids show, ‘Anything Goes’, alongside Mary Fitzgerald, Kathy Parke and Aongus McAnally, Dave’s weekly music bulletins were a vital and necessary watch. For twenty odd minutes every week [often twenty very odd minutes], just before lunch, RTÉ would go off-message and open up it’s doors to a broad church of musicians and performers, many of them unknown or from the left-field. And I was there, religiously, for most of those broadcasts.

 

Like all of the best television, those inserts often seemed at complete odds with their surroundings. Routinely, the tall, imposing shadow of Aonghus McAnally – in his mis-matched red and yellow shoes or his magician’s gloves and hat – would cast itself across a sublime ballad performed live in Dave’s corner of the studio by a renowned American songwriter who was just travelling through town or by an emerging young buck with a head full of steam. And that just added to the experience :- over thirty years later, the devil is in the detail and the tunes.

 

It was live on ‘Anything Goes’ that I first clapped eyes on Billy Bragg. He played a couple of spunky live numbers and spoke at length about his customised green guitar and about serving in the army while, dotted around him on the studio floor, was the guts of a local youth club or scout troop who’d come for the earlier part of the show and who couldn’t wait to leave the premises. It was in conversation with Dave on ‘Anything Goes’ that I first heard ABC’s Martin Fry talk eloquently and at some length about one of the greatest albums in the history of British popular music, ‘The Lexicon Of Love’, an interview during which Fry offered his English Literature degree to his host. The Blades and Thin Lizzy were perennial favourites too and turned up regularly over the course of the show’s lifetime and I can remember appearances by other local notables like Tokyo Olympics, The Vipers and Tony Koklin.

 

And it was on ‘Anything Goes’ that I first encountered Prefab Sprout, a band about whom I’ve bored many folk to distraction in the years since. As the video for ‘Don’t Sing’ was rolled, and as the nascent Newcastle band got busy on a local beach, the impact was immediate and the connection was instant. Many, many music videos at this time were filmed on beaches where, more often than not, something was set on fire at the end. Prefab Sprout were fresh-faced and wind-swept on ‘Don’t Sing’ and the song itself – erratic, a bit wordy, brilliant – required little by way of added drama. The only fire here was a metaphorical one and I’ve adored Prefab Sprout ever since.

 

I was in Manchester with a friend of mine and his older brothers some weeks later to see United play West Ham in a non-descript league game in the old First Division. Back in April 1984, in the days before routine Ryanair flights and the corporate annexing of Old Trafford, Manchester was a dank, deprived city with two well-supported and perennially average football sides and a pretty serious music scene. We’d arrived in Manchester during the early morning after an over-night ferry from The North Wall in Dublin and, killing the many hours before the 3pm kick-off, I bought the ‘Don’t Sing’ single and the ‘Lions In My Own Garden [Exit Someone]’ E.P. from the HMV shop on Market Street. I protected my purchases fiercely on The Streford End later that afternoon as a United team, featuring Frank Stapleton, Kevin Moran and Paul McGrath among their number, ground out a loveless 0-0 home draw. We were back in Cork by tea-time the following evening ;- the long return journey made bearable by the prospect of getting ‘Lions In My Own Garden’ onto the turn-table at home.

 

After the curtain came down on ‘Anything Goes’, Dave and his twin brother, Gerald, founded their own company, Frontier Films and, as one of the early movers in the Irish independent television production sector, Dave went on to make some pretty serious documentaries for the international market on the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder and The Velvet Underground. And he’s still at it. A forthcoming project of his for RTÉ One, ‘Music On D’Telly’, pulls a diverse range of archive clips from RTÉ Television’s considerable music catalogue, from right across the ages and the genres. Fronted and scripted by Pat Shortt, the series features one particular insert that’s as remarkable a watch and listen now as it was when I was first alerted to it almost 25 years ago. So how and why did Paddy McAloon duet with Jimmy Webb, backed by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra playing an arrangement scored by George Martin, in a studio in Dublin in September, 1991 ?

 

‘Eye on The Music’ was an early 90s live music show, produced and directed in the main by the RTÉ grandee Ian McGarry, with help in the trenches from Niall Mathews and Adrian Cronin. The ambitious eight-part series, fronted by Bill Whelan and made by RTÉ’s Entertainment Department, ran on RTÉ One on Sunday nights from October, 1991, and brought together a wide range of local and international acts to perform with the country’s most powerful orchestra and to discuss their work and influences with the programme’s host. Ostensibly Bill Whelan’s concept, he also scored and conducted almost all of the orchestral accompaniments and, among those who graced the sound-stage in Studio One in Montrose during the run were acts as diverse as Tanita Tikaram, Elmer Bernstein, The Trio Bulgarka, The Pale, Engine Alley, Míceál Ó Súilleabháin, Altan, The Corrs, Louis Stewart, Mark Nevin, Lloyd Cole and Beverley Craven.

 

 

Four years before Riverdance, which he composed, and a decade since he’d written, with Donal Lunny, the far-ranging ‘Timedance’, the original sister-piece that featured during the interval at the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin’s R.D.S., Whelan was a formidable and multi-tentacled presence around the Irish music scene. Born in Limerick, he’d trained and qualified as a barrister but it was in music that he’d started to make an imprint. In the years immediately before the ‘Eye on The Music’ series, he’d served as resident musical director on RTÉ’s ‘Saturday Live’ series, a pre-cursor to what later became ‘Kenny Live’. He’d studio produced a variety of acts too – U2, Stockton’s Wing and Planxty among them – and, on ‘Eye on The Music’, brought a considerable influence and a wide frame of reference to bear on the bookings, which he over-saw with John Hughes who, among other things, was then working as manager of an emerging pop act called The Corrs.

 

Whelan had been a long time admirer of Jimmy Webb’s work and the two shared a past of sorts ;- back in 1969 and 1970, and while still in school, Bill  contributed to the soundtrack of a Richard Harris film called ‘Bloomfield’, and it was during this project that the pair first met briefly. But it was on September 24th, 1991, that their relationship was kick-started in earnest when Whelan welcomed Webb into the RTÉ studio complex for an appearance on the second of eight episodes of ‘Eye on The Music’. Mingling with them in the green room that evening were the show’s other guests ;- Altan, Don Baker and the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra.

 

Born in 1946 in Oklahoma, Jimmy Webb has long been considered one of the great American songwriters, routinely garlanded by the industry – if not always by critics – for a canon that includes ‘Galveston’, ‘Up, Up And Away’, ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ and ‘Wichita Lineman’, among hundreds of others. But it was another of his own compositions, ‘The Highwayman’ – a song that had first featured on his 1977 album, ‘El Mirage’ – that he performed for ‘Eye on The Music’. It wasn’t until Glen Campbell covered ‘The Highwayman’ in 1979 – on an album of the same name – that the song generated popular cross-over traction.

 

Born in 1957 in County Durham in the North East of England, Paddy McAloon was – by September 1991 – established as one of the most distinguished and arresting British songwriters of his generation. As the creative backbone of Prefab Sprout, he’d recently dropped the band’s most ambitious album to date, ‘Jordan – The Comeback’, which was toured with an augmented backing band and a full range of bells and whistles. McAloon had also been a target for the bookers on ‘Eye on The Music’ and, through the offices of a London-based agent, agreed to travel to Dublin once Jimmy Webb – a long-time influence – had also been confirmed for the series. Indeed Webb’s presence on the list of confirmed acts on the series also helped to snare Lloyd Cole’s participation.

 

Watching the clip again, twenty four years after it was originally broadcast, it’s difficult not to be humbled by the quality of the performance. It’s a duet in every sense, both men bringing divergent styles to the party and, in so doing, creating a magic that’s far more than the sum of it’s parts. The playing is soft and warm and, with Paddy’s soft tenor leading Jimmy’s rich baritone, there’s a real sense that the young wizard has the older sorcerer under some kind of a spell. It’s hard to believe that Webb, sporting a full-bodied mane and McAloon, wearing a Lee Van Cleef moustache, had never performed together previously or, indeed, that they’d only just met for the first time. Time and a lack of budget meant that there was no prior rehearsal ;- the magic happened on the studio floor on the day of the recording.

 

As well as being a masterful writer, Webb is also an exceptional player but here, against a lavish orchestral accompaniment scored by the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, that Webb brought with him, his playing is far more restrained. And, to this end, he is absolutely in concert with McAloon, who tenderly finger-picks the primary guitar parts while, behind them both, the Concert Orchestra – conducted on the night by Bill Whelan – takes on the heavy lifting. But to these ears at least, the most alluring aspect of the performance is McAloon’s vocal. His is a voice that’s often taken for granted within the full Prefab Sprout artillery ;- in the thirty odd years since I first heard him sing, I don’t think it’s aged a jot.

 

Prefab Sprout’s body of work, spread erratically over the decades, features many lyrical references and structural genuflections both to Jimmy Webb and to what we can, for the sake of reference here, broadly claim as ‘country music’. This is most obviously manifest on the band’s 2001 album, ‘The Gunman and Other Stories’ – particularly on songs like ‘Streets of Laredo’, the Jimmy Webb-laced ‘The Gunman’ [which was first performed by Cher on her 1995 album, ‘It’s A Man’s World’ – alongside Paul Brady’s ‘Paradise Is Here’] and, it goes without saying, ‘Cowboy Dreams’, which Paddy wrote for Jimmy Nail’s BBC television series, ‘Crocodile Shoes’. Further back, a cover of Jim Reeves’ ‘He’ll Have To Go’ was an early live staple that featured as part of the ‘Don’t Sing’ package while the band’s second album, ‘Steve McQueen’, opens with the banjo-and-harmonica-romp, ‘Faron Young’, a song named after the American country singer best known for ‘It’s Four in The Morning’. And among the numerous highlights on ‘Jordan – The Comeback’, the two-song Jesse James suite is a particular stand-out.

 

 

‘The first record that really made me love music was ‘Wichita Lineman’, Paddy McAloon told Rolling Stone’s David Wild during a long interview in 1991. ‘I still think it might be the greatest record I ever heard. It’s not that I yearn for the past, but when I listen to records like ‘West Side Story’, ‘Pet Sounds’ or any number of Jimmy Webb or Beatles records, I’m not sure what any of us have to show that’s an improvement on that basic model’.

 

And he’d have copped a wonderful earful of Webb in full flight, up-close, while in RTÉ. As well as ‘The Highwayman’, the American also performed another of his own songs, ‘Adios’ – one of four originals he’d composed for Linda Ronstadt’s 1989 album, ‘Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like The Wind’ – for the show. During a technical delay in the studio, and with the audience already in situ, Webb’s U.K. agent, Terry Oates, who had accompanied his act to Dublin, asked Bill Whelan if he’d like Webb to play anything to help fill the space and appease the crowd. And so Webb performed, for Whelan, McAloon and the 100- strong assembly, an on-the-fly version another of his songs from the ‘El Mirage’ album, ‘The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress’. That performance, sadly, was never captured on film.

 

Having covered ‘Wichita Lineman’ himself over the years and having repeatedly declared his heart to Webb’s music in numerous interviews, McAloon finally committed his affections to wax on the last Prefab Sprout album, 2013’s ‘Crimson Red’. ‘The Songs Of Danny Galway’ is a love-note to Webb’s work that opens with specific reference to their 1991 appearance in RTÉ. ‘I met him in a Dublin bar, a sorcerer from Wichita. A wizard and his baby grand, a range of powers at his command’, the song starts, before baldly stating the long- standing impact of the writer on our hero. ‘Like a stone into a well, I fell under their spell. The songs of Danny Galway’.

 

That recollection – and the depth of feeling that scaffolds it – contrasts sharply, one imagines, with Paddy McAloon’s memories of a previous appearance in RTÉ back in 1988 when, plugging the ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’ elpee, the band mimed listlessly to ‘Cars And Girls’ on The Late Late Show. With Paddy and Wendy Smith lip-synching badly, Martin McAloon, the bassist, looks like a stage hand who’s found himself on a live television show by accident and who’s hoping that, by ‘acting cool’, no-one will notice. And it’s difficult to blame the band for their indifference, given that they’d been introduced by the host, Gay Byrne, with typical disdain. ‘They have a very, very odd name, so they have. Very odd. In this very, very odd world of rock and roll’, he claimed, with the kind of insight he routinely reserved for musicians and young bands.

 

In a parallel world, Bill Whelan would have turned his back and gagged.

NOTE :- ‘Music On D’Telly’, presented by Pat Shortt, is scheduled to start on RTÉ

One on Friday, October 30th next at 8.30PM.