My articles

The Salford Lads Club – and The Smiths

After penning articles about ‘The Room’ and Ivor Cutler, the only ambition remaining was to write about Morrissey, Marr, Rourke and Joyce. I was trying to find a different angle as so many words had already been printed about the band and their continuing musical and cultural influence. I knew it was unlikely that there’d be any untold stories but I could at least attempt to explore a neglected alleyway.

A chance presented itself when I heard that Stephen Wright was planning to take portaits of fans outside the iconic Salford Lads Club. As a teenager, I’d had a huge ‘Queen Is Dead’ poster on my bedroom wall and those archways behind the boys had somehow become part of my life. I didn’t see it in person until I moved to Manchester and spotted it by chance when I was stuck in traffic on Regent Road. It was an odd experience, having this building which had come to represent a host of emotions and memories now transformed into a landmark on my daily commute.

I chanced my arm and got in touch with Stephen Wright to see if he’d like to be interviewed about taking that photograph. He was friendly but a little reticent; he said he was happy for me to write something but that he didn’t want to be the focal point of the piece. Mark Ellen thought I should find a good story in there somewhere so I set off with my friend Mark Epstein – who took the photos of Leslie Holmes in the Smiths Room and Stephen Wright in the published piece – to speak to fellow fans and volunteers at the club. I had no idea what the result would be but it turned out to be better than I could have imagined, mostly thanks to the charming Leslie (who introduced me to Jim Rice who took the initial call from Rough Trade) and the editing skills of Mark Ellen.

I’ve added some more of Mark’s unused shots at the end. I really wanted Word to publish the photo of the mysterious parcels addressed to Morrissey that often turn up in at the club but there was no room. Mark Ellen forgot to credit Mark for his pictures in the magazine but, ever the gent, helped to get him a photographer’s pass for a Bruce Springsteen gig, an ambition of Mark’s for years.

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from Word Magazine 111 – May 2012

‘The Manchester Mecca – Fans restage the epic shoot The Smiths weren’t allowed to make’

Jim Rice, has been a volunteer at the Salford Lads Club for years. Back in September 1985, he remembers taking a call from London’s Rough Trade Records asking permission to use the place for a photo shoot.

“I said, Yes, but you’ll have to tell us who it’s for. He said, ‘Sorry, we can’t tell you.’ I asked if it was The Hollies – Allan Clarke and Graham Nash were both members and they used to rehearse here in the early ’60s – and he said, ‘Oh, no, no, not The Hollies! I can’t tell you who it is. If I did you’d be inundated by fans.’ So I said, Well if you don’t tell me I won’t give you permission, and put the phone down. And the next thing we know, Morrissey and the gang turn up, do the shoot outside without permission and that’s it. But as it turns out, it’s been a good thing for the club.”

The picture became the inner gatefold sleeve image of The Queen Is Dead. When asked about it at the time of the record’s release, Morrissey recalled theatrically that “we took our *lives* in our hands getting that photo. While we were setting up, a gang of ten year-old girls came and terrorised us. Everyone in the street had a club foot and a vicious dog.”

Initially the Salford Lads’ Club weren’t happy about it. The building had been opened in 1903 by the scout leader Lord Baden-Powell to keep local boys “off the streets” and encourage them to become “good and worthy God-fearing citizens” via such improving leisure pursuits as “draughtsbagatellebilliardsgymnastics and a boxing ring”. They even ran camping holidays in Aberystwyth for club members (Graham Nash went on one in the ‘50s, as did Eddie Coleman, the youngest Manchester United footballer killed in the ’58 Munich air disaster). Anxious about the association with impenetrable local rock group The Smiths, the club’s management instructed their lawyers to write to Rough Trade declaring the “inclusion of the photograph may generally cause any person listening to the record to attribute the material to the club, its committee or its members … we would cite for example the reference in the song Vicar In A Tutu to the singer being engaged in stealing lead from a church roof, or indeed the very title to the album itself and the tenor of its title song.”

Their negative view of the unsought publicity was reinforced when Smiths fans began chipping off pieces of the building’s Grade 11 listed brickwork and leaving graffiti on its walls. And as it’s on the corner of St Ignatius Walk and Coronation Street,  they were worried the latter’s street sign would also become a target. It wasn’t until Leslie Holmes became the club’s manager 11 years ago that the connection with the band was embraced. In 2004 a “Smiths Room” was opened to exhibit memorabilia, artwork and messages from fans such as Ryan Adams. Over the last decade, the place has received mysterious parcels from America addressed to Morrissey. “We’d collected five or six of these and when he last played in Manchester, someone took them down and handed them over. We’ve not had any for a while and thought they’d stopped,” Leslie gestures to the top of a tall bookshelf in the archive room, “but recently we had another one… .”

The Lads Club is now a tourist destination fast approaching the stature of the Abbey Road crossing which has helped raise crucial funds and extend its global profile. Another volunteer, Archie Swift MBE, remembers seeing the picture on a café wall in America; when he informed its proprietors of his association with the place, they breathlessly tore up his bill.

On 3 March, Stephen Wright returned to the Salford Lads Club after inviting Smiths fans to turn up and be photographed for a show Manchester’s Holden Gallery. These new prints will be exhibited alongside the originals he took on that chill winter’s morning on 13 December 1985. Johnny Marr clearly looks like he wishes he had a thicker jacket, Morrissey wears a cardigan and an enigmatic half smile – a Mancunian Mona Lisa – and the picture captures the Northern working-class kitchen-sink cinema aesthetic the singer had deftly engineered when choosing the artwork for the band’s record sleeves. There are echoes, too, of Jurgen Vollmer’s famous snap of four girls at a Hamburg fairground in the early ‘60s (where he photographed The Beatles), a shot the band later used for the reverse of The World Won’t Listen and, more recently, the cover of a box set of remastered albums.

Stephen was a 25 year-old Smiths fan who’d sent some of his live pictures of the band to Rough Trade and Morrissey liked them enough to choose him rather than a more established rock photographer. “I just took the photo,” he shrugs 27 years later, “though I wish I had a commission on all the fans’ taxi fares here from Piccadilly Station.” His invitation had enthused about the possibility of “tattoos, quiffs and flowers”, and there’s evidence of all three – though it’s too cold to bare much flesh, the Mancunian drizzle is flattening the more extravagant tonsorial constructions and gladioli are out of season.

Around a hundred fans turn up, a testament to the band’s ageless and classless international appeal. Among them are Ross from Glasgow who calls it the “Holy Grail”, and Hilary from Gloucestershire who’s been making the pilgrimage as often she can for the last 15 years. She calls it her spiritual home: “If I ever get married, I want to get married here.” Noel and daughter have made the short journey from Whalley Range. He went to the same church as bassist Andy Rourke when they were kids. His daughter’s only half the age of the original picture but insisted on coming here today too. Her favourite Smiths songs are Ask and Meat Is Murder – “though that song’s a bit depressing,” she frowns. She’s given up meat for Lent and likes Morrissey “because he loves animals, particularly cats”.

The gospel according to… (part 1) is at Manchester’s Holden Gallery until 5 May. Limited edition pictures available from www.smithsphotos.com

Some of Mark Epstein’s unused photos – http://www.markepstein.co.uk/

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Ivor Cutler

For those unfortunate souls unaware of Ivor Cutler, he was a poet, musician, artist, actor, teacher and eccentric. We had corresponded sporadically since the late 1980s and I’d often thought I should do something with the lovely letters and postcards he’d sent. Taking some confidence from having my piece on The Room (see below) published,  I got in touch with Mark Ellen. He’d had a similar relationship with Viv Stanshall and responded with his customary enthusiasm.

After a few revisions, he emailed me to say that it would be in the following issue “…as long as Neil Young or someone doesn’t kark it”. When I wrote back expressing my wish that Messrs Bowie, Reed, Young etc all stayed fit and well, he replied “Tragically, of course, as an editor, I do the opposite.”

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from Word Magazine 102 – August 2011

‘Signed, Sealed, Diverted’

Gavin Hogg was so enthralled by Ivor Cutler that he wrote him a letter. And thus began a curious correspondence. 

A stranger came up to me at a student party in Solihull in ’87 and said “If your breasts are too big, you will fall over – unless you wear a rucksack”. It was an Ivor Cutler poem. I’d never heard of him.

I found a few of his LPs and quickly became obsessed with this extraordinary character. His first record, released 50 years ago now, was titled “Who Tore Your Trousers?” and included a track called Egg Meat, the tale of a young boy, desperate to go to the ironmongers on an errand for his mum, to buy “egg meat” to feed to the eggs that live in the dark under the bed. It made you feel uneasy without quite knowing why. Another track, A Warning To The Flies, Ivor introduced as a “military insect song”. It’s about a man trying to tempt flies down from his ceiling. “We’ll walk across the ceiling in a way that’s so appealing,” they tell him, “‘til the suckers in our feet run dry”.

In the pre-internet days, the thrill of discovering anything about Ivor was addictive. I read somewhere he’d appeared in Magical Mystery Tour and bought the video immediately – and there he was, playing the part of Buster Bloodvessel, the dour bus conductor who falls in love with Ringo’s Aunt Jessie. The more I uncovered, the more fascinating he became. And he could be just as eccentric as his songs and stories. A frequent visitor to Regent’s Park Zoo, he would swap the cassettes at the information posts for ones containing his own lugubrious compositions about the animal in question. He was a committed member of the Noise Abatement Society and believed in Voluntary Euthanasia. As a primary school teacher he would instruct the children to come to the front of the class one at a time and insult him to the best of their ability. He saw this as a way of making the pupils more comfortable in confronting authority.

Quite where this came from you couldn’t be sure, but rare interviews revealed considered himself a lesser being who’d had no encouragement or support. “Every step in my development had somebody saying “no!” or “that’s stupid!” He never felt that his mother really loved him and, for that reason, almost killed his kid brother in a jealous rage. Like the comedian Arnold Brown, Ivor was Scottish and Jewish (as Brown quipped, “two racial stereotypes for the price of one”) and this added to the sense of being an outcast. Loneliness and sadness permeated his unmistakable voice; melancholic and world-weary yet with a twinkle at its edges. When asked about the creative process he described himself as a medium, channeling the work unconsciously. His compositions could be about anything – there are songs and stories about talking birds, men with woollen eyes, how to overcome “fish fright”, vendors of second-hand cups of tea, insects and wooden trees. The listener’s typical reaction tends to be either bemusement, a wistful sadness or laughter.

Ivor was born in Glasgow in 1923, the middle son in a family of Jewish Eastern Europeans who emigrated from Poland in the 1890s. He joined the RAF in the war and was sent to Canada where he trained as a navigator but spent too long gazing at the stars and clouds and was deemed “too dreamy”. While working as a teacher at the famous progressive Summerhill school in Suffolk in the late ‘50s, he had a chance meeting with Ned Sherrin. Cutler made an impression on him and Sherrin booked him for a week on the TV programme, Cliff Michelmore’s Tonight. From there he began appearing on the BBC’s weekly radio revue Monday Night At Home performing his stories and songs. John Peel invited him for a session in 1969 and he was a regular fixture at the Maida Vale studios ever after. Only The Fall racked up more Peel Sessions than Ivor Cutler.

He acquired many admirers. Paul McCartney was attracted by his “childlike wonder of the world”, and later fans include Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand who loves him “because he was a real outsider”, John Lydon, Idlewild and Alan McGee. Billy Connolly said “the world needs Ivor Cutler in order to think differently”.

Following his guest spot on his friend Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom LP and appearances on The Old Grey Whistle Test and The Tube, Ivor built up a small but loyal student following. Andy Kershaw was the ents officer at Leeds University in the early ‘80s and as a fan was keen to get him up to Yorkshire to play a gig. He rang and offered him £400. “There was silence at the other end,” Kershaw remembers, “then his voice – ‘Offer me less’.” Three hundred, Kershaw shrugged? “Done and done!”

After finding only crumbs of information about him, I tried to interview the great man for a fanzine when I was 17. Having got an address though a friend of a friend, I was forewarned I should only address him as “Mister Cutler”, not by his first name, or he would be angered by the informality and unlikely to respond. He replied politely to my rather bizarre line of questions – What do you think about Andrew Lloyd Webber? “Nothing”. What is your favourite meal? “Boiled flank of beef and three veg” – and signed off “I wish your fanzine success even though pop and rock music make my life a misery”. When he’d received the finished issue he wrote: “It came home to me what being your age means. I was working at Rolls Royce on aero-engines, sensitive as hell, a number one pain in the arse at home, suicidal, rejecting religion, going dancing to find girls. Thanks for bringing it back.” We continued to write to each other sporadically for the next decade.

A letter from Ivor was a beautiful thing. He often decorated the envelope with drawings and included lots of stickers. They were small self-adhesive labels printed with oblique messages like “True happiness is knowing you are a hypocrite”, “Kindly disregard”, Slightly imperfect” or “A fly crouching in a sandwich cannot comprehend why it has become more than ordinarily vulnerable”. When I told him that I was leaving England to teach in Italy, he sent me a special envelope of stickers which he renamed “Teaching Aids”. It was a lovely gesture and part of me regrets never attempting a lesson based on the mental state of flies between slices of buttered bread.

His letters contained similar aphorisms that would come to him as he was writing. In one letter he wrote: “There’s a lot to be said about getting a bunch of traumas when you’re a kid. You spend your life dealing with them in useful and interesting ways. ‘A man spent his life seeking pleasure but he only got satisfaction’ Copyright: Ivor Cutler, 1999. I just made that up, just now.” Sometimes he would write about events that I’d have loved to witness first-hand. “I was on BBC2 on the first evening in a show with the Alberts and Professor Bruce Lacey. I was cast as Lord Reith, founder of the BBC. I was covered in cobwebs and they worked a creaking machine when I moved. It made me decide not to be an actor”.

His releases became more frequent during the 1970s and ’80s and he recorded for Virgin, Rough Trade and, finally, Creation. He continued to appear on BBC Radio and performed concerts sporadically. John Peel once remarked that Cutler was probably the only performer whose work had been featured “on Radio 1, 2, 3 and 4”. When he passed away in 2006, he left behind carbon copies of much of his correspondence as well as paintings, drawings, sculptures, unpublished poetry and tapes of unreleased music and spoken word. The reception room of his home contained a number of pieces of ivory cutlery, deliberately intended as a pun on his name.

His sons, Jeremy and Daniel, have set up Hoorgi House, a label dedicated to Ivor’s works. They’ve re-released a couple of his albums on CD already and plan to bring out some of the unheard material. “The BBC started recording Ivor reading his children’s books in his last three or four years,” Jeremy told me, “but they’ve mislaid it all. Of course the earlier Monday Night At Home tapes were erased, sadly. A lot of people ask about the complete Peel Sessions  – hardcore Cutler fans who want every recording with all the slight variations might be interested but I don’t know if everybody would want five CDs of that stuff.” There are also plans to stage an art exhibition and produce a biography. “Lots of people are interested in him as an eccentric character but no-one’s really done a serious job on his work,” Jeremy explained. “We’re hoping to find a literary agent soon.”

Fifty years on, Ivor Cutler continues to enchant and delight. He could have been talking about his own unique appeal with these lines from his poem, Creamy Pumpkins. “The world needs dreamers, heads like creamy pumpkins … seeing, where others face an empty flat wall.”

The CDs “Privilege” and “A Flat Man” are both available from http://www.hoorgihouse.com

“Looking for Truth with a Pin” is available on DVD from all good retailers.

 

The Room

The phenomenon of the film ‘The Room’ continues to grow. Greg Sestero’s book will be published this Autumn by Simon & Schuster and promises to lift the lid on the process of making the movie. For those of you yet to experience the film, here’s a piece I wrote for Word Magazine a few years ago which should serve as an introduction. Thanks to John Naughton for editing advice and enthusiasm.

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One night in October 2009, a hundred like-minded souls gathered outside the Hyde Park Picture House.  In the foyer they were given viewer guides, instructing them what to shout at the screen at certain moments and a handful of plastic spoons. The lights dimmed and the film began. Every time two of the characters announced they were ‘best friends’, the crowd loudly updated the running total. Whenever the camera alighted on a piece of cutlery-related artwork, plastic spoons rained down upon the screen. As the characters in the movie began throwing an American football, a few audience members transformed the cinema aisle into a miniature Rose Bowl while the rest  hollered their approval. One hundred and fifty attended the next screening, 190 the one after.

The Room made its quiet debut in 2003 with a limited theatrical release in Los Angeles. Although the film took less than $2, 000 on its first run, a lone billboard which stood in the city for some years intrigued enough people to generate a buzz and midnight showings became increasingly popular. Audience rituals were created and have followed the movie on its many screenings across the world.

Now The Room has attracted a small but devoted number of celebrity fans in the UK. Charlie Brooker called his attendance at the UK premiere “possibly the most unique movie-going experience of my life”.

Father Ted creator Graham Linehan described it to me as “the gift that keeps on giving”. His viewing count is now into double figures, after first watching the DVD on his own.

“I kind of enjoyed it, but for some reason it didn’t hit me. Then I watched it with friends who provided a running commentary and I realised that it’s an absolute goldmine. It was like watching improvised comedy. There are so many parts that will become your favourite scenes. It’s a classic film in that every scene is memorable”.

Written and directed by Tommy Wiseau, its leading man, The Room is rapidly establishing itself as the cult movie of the new millennium. The wafer-thin plot centres around a doomed love story between the trusting bank worker Johnny (Wiseau) and his manipulative fiancée Lisa (Juliette Danielle). She begins an affair with Mark, Johnny’s best friend and things are altered forever.

Initially viewers are entertained by the dialogue (actor/comedian Peter Serafinowicz described it as seemingly “written by an ATM”). Almost every line is comedy gold but “The bank saves money and they are using me and I am the fool” and “I just can’t figure women out – sometimes they’re just too smart, sometimes they’re flat-out stupid, other times they’re just evil” give you a flavour. The audience is kept intrigued by the many random and unexplained events. A drug pusher turns up with no warning and almost shoots someone and yet, after his two minutes on screen, is never seen or mentioned again.

The internet has been central to the film’s success. There are Facebook groups, an online store selling Tommy Wiseau talking dolls and T-shirts, a site detailing upcoming global screenings and footage of crowd rituals, fans’ re-enactments of favourite scenes and musical tributes.

And as Wendy Cook of The Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds says; “Cinemas love it because when you’re trying to persuade people to come out instead of watching a film at home, anything that makes it more of an event is essential. Every instinct says that you should be quiet in the cinema so it’s a bizarre night out.” Audience participation for The Room is comparable to ‘Withnail & I’, ‘Rocky Horror’ and a particularly boisterous screening of ‘The Sound of Music’.

But the lasting appeal of the film comes when you begin questioning what you’ve just watched. Was it really made this badly – or is it deliberately funny? Why are so many characters never introduced properly? Why are the cameras out of focus so often?

Described in its own trailer as possessing “the passion of Tennessee Williams” and by Wiseau as a “black comedy”, it plainly falls short on both fronts. The actor/comedian Marc Wootton who featured Wiseau in an episode of his TV series, ‘La La Land’, thinks “Tommy believes it’s a truly moving film.” He adds, “I feel sorry for him as he has to pretend it was made as a comedy. I wonder how he really feels about the reputation the film now has”.

Wiseau is a mysterious character, as tight-lipped as to where he got the $6-7 million to make the film as he is about his background. In interviews he professes to be happy as long as people are enjoying themselves and whatever his original intentions, Wiseau is delighted with the film’s success, making numerous appearances at US screenings (he’s even rumoured to be working on a 3D version).

For those yet to watch it, Marc Wootton suggests studying the “football in tuxedos” section which he describes as “a lesson in how not to edit”.
Graham Linehan advises: “Don’t watch it on your own, see it with a few friends who you find funny and just talk about it. Towards the end, when that bloke appears who’s not been seen before – when I see him I get a little thrill. Or the woman who says ‘Oh hi Johnny, I didn’t know it was you. You’re my favourite customer’. Oh, and pay attention to the scene in the café that has absolutely no purpose and has two couples ordering coffee before Johnny does. Most directors would have cut that out – but not Tommy!”

For further details of UK cinema screenings go to go to http://www.theroommovie.com/uk.html

The DVD is currently only available as a Region 1 disc from America

Tommy Wiseau appears in episode 6 of Marc Wootton’s ‘La La Land’, currently available on DVD

One comment on “My articles

  1. […] Word Magazine (??/03/11) (scroll down for scans) […]

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