JAMMY SMEARS – IVOR CUTLER (1976)
The big bang, the sound of medieval voices, the fate of the dinosaurs – unfathomable mysteries all. No one came any closer to unravelling the late Ivor Cutler’s brilliant mind – I once had a shot myself but more of that later.
Whatever label might have been pinned to him – singer, writer, humourist – none was appropriate. He was all of these things, none of them, more than any of them. It would, for instance, do him a screaming, simplistic disservice to peg him solely as a comedian – the old saw around comedy records is that they don’t bear repeated listens but this, of course, depends entirely on the strength of the material; it was the laugh-out-loud (NO acronyms here) stuff which reeled me into Ivor Cutler’s world on the eve of my teens and it retains its potency every time.
But the layers and nuances later became more and more apparent. There was bewilderment, dread, folly, sordidity, resentment and rage – loads of rage. The father and son trapped in a pulverisingly repetitive diet in Gruts For Tea are in as mutually ruinous a relationship as Albert and Harold Steptoe; the unfortunate bearer of The Curse of smelling like the kitchen sink is shunned even by the Friendless Society, and the stern environment of Life In A Scotch Sitting Room is claustrophobic and, on occasion, simply terrifying.
The names of Beckett and Kafka are frequently evoked when this aspect of Mr Cutler (as he preferred to be called) is explored, with some justification, but he actually sits at a midpoint between them and PG Wodehouse; they rarely admitted any but the briefest shafts of light but Wodehouse was incapable of being sombre; one of his finest creations was Roderick Spode, a thinly-veiled Oswald Moseley spoof in whom fascism was summarily and thoroughly satirised by the simple expedient of being made utterly ridiculous.
His genuinely unique vision went a long way towards his equally unique status of being embraced by the more leftfield tendency of the pop world while, as a proud and long-standing member of the Noise Abatement Society, having little in common with it. His late ’50s/early 60s broadcasts on the BBC Home Service – the forerunner of Radio 4 – made youthful Beatle ears prick up in much the same way as the Goons, leading to his biggest exposure in Magical Mystery Tour, appearing as Buster Bloodvessel in the film in which the world’s most beloved pop stars bemused their audience like never before. The circle was completed the same year when his Ludo album was produced by George Martin, whose Goons work had attracted the Beatles to sharing a studio with him.
In the ’70s, Ivor stood incongruously yet fittingly alongside Gong, Henry Cow and Hatfield and the North, in the ’80s with the Smiths, the Fall and the Woodentops at Rough Trade – and Robert Wyatt at both, appearing on Wyatt’s masterpiece Rock Bottom and having (Go And Sit Upon The) Grass covered by him. All of which prompted John Walters to ask in 1983: “Are you surprised to find yourself – once again – groovy?” The characteristically deadpan reply: “I suppose I must always have been groovy,” the inverted commas so pronounced they needed no spelling out, certainly not with synchronised middle and index fingers.
The genius – I don’t use the word lightly – of Ivor Cutler was to locate acute humour even in the most desperate situations – the existential despair of a saucer realising it’s a saucer, the vengeance of a waiter whose feet have been sacrified for a diner’s platter. Not for nothing did a manic cackle become one of the Cutler trademarks.
That cackle isn’t to be heard on Jammy Smears but pretty much every other signifier of the Cutler genius is there. Lest I’ve made it all sound too bleak, there’s plenty that may not be out-and-out wacky but is out-and-out funny and also has a great deal of warmth. When introducing people to Ivor Cutler – a selfless act of real generosity – I recommend you start with Big Jim. A desperate plea from a drowning man goes unheeded because his beguiling voice is too much of a distraction. Then move on to Lemon Flower, a devastating account of lemon juice’s destructive acidic powers which was my party piece for more years than was sensible. Choose either of the episodes from Life In A Scotch Sitting Room, an irritation-free soap opera where a walk in the country fails to deliver the slightest enlightenment on nature and the brain-nurturing power of a diet of herring is tested by a highly singular curriculum.
Ivor had himself previously been a teacher but chafed against a system which required – and would continue to do so until the early 1980s – the brutal administration of corporal punishment; even teaching at Summerhill, the ‘free’ school renowned for giving adults and children equal status, constrained him. What educational system could accommodate a febrile imagination capable of producing both the terse, stern fable of The Turn and the splendidly silly A Wooden Tree?
Beyond his familiar, if unlikely, place as a Peel and Kershaw fixture, I loved seeing Ivor Cutler appear in unexpected places – reciting Gruts For Tea on The Innes Book Of Records on early evening BBC Two (itself an improbable slot for former Bonzo Neil Innes), on flyers for ‘Teatime Special’ readings which I saw being delivered door to door by someone scarcely any older than my 12 years (he dropped one and I grabbed it for myself), in an anthology of nonsense, where How To Make A Friend and The False God nuzzled alongside entries by Spike Milligan and Edward Lear – and in Who’s Who, where he rubbed shoulders with nobility, captains of industry, High Court judges and senior politicians. A contact address was listed – and, in January 1983 , I boldly took the chance to send him a card for his 60th birthday.
A reply came, written on a shopping list and generously accompanied by a pack of stickers which, if swapped with Eno’s Oblique Strategies, could produce intriguing results, festooned as they were with sustaining messages such as “oh you lovely postman!” and “funny smell.” Another sticker on the envelope proclaimed optimistically: “Esperanto is catching on.” It still hasn’t quite stuck but could we give it a shot and see if it works? A postcard had him perched on his basket-bearing pushbike and a speech bubble in that childlike scrawl so familiar from his record sleeves informed me he was off to join Hell’s Angels, whose chains would wilt when faced with the might of the Glasgow Dreamer. All a warm and generous gesture he was under no obligation to make, even overlooking my adolescent impudence in addressing him by his first name and signing off with the description I had offered of him – “a sort of hero.” Not wishing to be a burden to a brilliant mind , I didn’t send another card – to my lasting regret.
In my card, I had lamented that, along with one of my TNPC colleagues, I was a solitary Cutlerite but was assured I wasn’t alone – we could meet many kindred spirits at a CND rally. Sure enough, I’d come across like-minded souls as the years passed and, following Ivor’s death in 2006, at the age of 83, two motions of tribute were tabled at the Scottish Parliament, garnering between them the signatures of more than 40 MSPs from all parties, some of wouldn’t be seen within a very long range of an anti-nuclear demo.
There have been assorted covers – by Jim O’Rourke, Roddy Frame (who loosely adapted Everybody Got, a disquieting meditation on taboos from the album under discussion) and, most recently, Yorkston/Thorne/Khan. All sincere, affectionate and serviceable homages – but none in that inimitable, bottomlessly lugubrious voice. And uniquely so far among our TNPC choices, it genuinely is all about the words. There’s a range of styles on offer – boogie-woogie on Bicarbonate Of Chicken, Eastern European folk on Rubber Toy (a nod to Ivor’s Hungarian roots – his family is said to have arrived in Britain with the name Kussner) and, on the Scotch Sitting Room episodes, the skirl of bagpipes imitated on the harmonium, an instrument he did as much to proselytise as Nico – but these are very much supporting, the canvas on which pictures of wit and acuity are painted. For more illustrations, see the smudged and freckled works in Ivor’s books by sometime Private Eye cartoonist Martin Honeysett – all the rage, fear, warmth and, yes, absurdity of the works is there.
Speaking of supporting, a quick mention of guest artist Phyllis April King, who strews Jammy Smears with wondering sketches of nature, alongside Dust, which delivers a sinister punchline to its reflection on everyone’s least favourite houseguest, and The Wasted Call, where an argument over answering the phone ends up probing far deeper questions.
In his NME review of Ivor’s 1983 album Privilege, David Quantick offered no quotes “because I do not wish to spoil it for you.” I’ve endeavoured to do the same here with Jammy Smears and the entire Cutler oeuvre- and anyway, its brilliance still leaves me tongue-tied. Hear the lot for yourself – privilege is the word all right (PG).