[Writing soundtrack: The Broken Family Band]
Before music there was comedy. I was in my very late teens before I began to develop even the vaguest of critical faculties regards music. Comedy though, that was always there. I think it is for everyone. Somebody leans over your pushchair and pulls a funny face. You giggle. Congratulations, barely out of the womb and you’ve just attended your first stand up gig. Also, I can’t tell jokes or stories myself, so I have always been awestruck by anyone who can. The skill it takes, I’m not sure can be learnt; the timing, the use of deliberate hesitations & digressions, the ability to engage the listener…it just amazes me. I used to work with a guy, now retired, who could turn a simple tale of putting up a curtain rail into a 45 minute epic which would leave you with cracked ribs. I lack the skills, I didn’t get the comedy gene, I don’t have funny bones.
I suppose my comedy education started just like everyone else’s, learning to see the difference between BBC & ITV sit-coms; Porridge, Fawlty Towers, The Likely Lads (good), Bless this House, Love Thy Neighbour, Mind Your Language (bad). I knew almost instinctively that there was a difference, something about the phrasing, the timing, the quality. That of course led to that surreal strain of humour that came out of the 50s and 60s, Monty Python, The Goodies, Spike Milligan’s Q series (my personal favourite, despite its occasionally border-line racism). Everyone, well every boy anyway, knew someone at school who had Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl LP, and knew the words of every sketch of by heart. If you didn’t, then it was probably you.
I find it interesting that ‘stand up’ as we know it today didn’t really exist when I was growing up in the 70s; not in grey old pre-punk England anyway. No, it was just fat blokes with regional accents telling jokes on The Comedians and Wheeltappers & Shunters. Knocking out the same dozen or so jokes that they had been telling for their entire careers, so it’s understandable that they had got quite good at telling them. Racism & sexism was considered okay for prime-time, and the careers of Bernard Manning & Jim Davison flourished as a result. Our parents generation thought it hilarious, probably still do. I’m sure I even laughed myself but have managed to edit it out of my consciousness following my politically correct re-education as a teenager.
‘What political re-education?’ I hear you ask. You know, when The Young Ones and the Comic Strip came along in the 80s with all of their PC ‘take that Thatcher’ liberal attitudes. What, you don’t remember that? The revolution being televised? Yeah, me neither, it was just a bunch of bored University graduates dicking about really wasn’t it. Funny though. I think the Young Ones facilitated my very first water cooler conversation. Not that we had a water cooler; or bike sheds for that matter, but you get my point. For a whole generation of comedy starved teens it was the first thing that actually belonged to us. It was snotty, crass, unsophisticated; slapstick and knob gags dressed up as Marxist polemic, and it was ours.
It was around this time that I also discovered the joy of the comedy album. It’s seems hard to imagine these days, when everything is so transient and ephemeral, that I would play these things over and over again, poring over the album covers with the same intensity as I would my Blondie albums. Just with a bit less of the confused teenage feelings elicited by the latter. It was the folk club raconteurs who first drew me in; Billy Connolly, Mike Harding, Jasper Carrot. I know he seems a bit of an arse these days, but Billy Connolly made me cry with laughter, no matter how many times I listened. My sixth form tutor, Mr Hobson, used to let me bring my Billy Connolly LPs in to play during morning registration. I think there was only me and him laughing. Then again he also used to let me off being late, which I nearly always was, if I could come up with a creative enough excuse; ‘I’m sorry sir, but my mates goat escaped’ being the most memorable. There was also always somebody who had that secret cassette as well, the one spoken of in hushed tones due to the level of its filth & depravity: Ad Nauseam by Derek & Clive. It’s levels of creative profanity still unsurpassed to this day.
Then in my later teenage years I discovered the American stand up comedians. Wow. There was a level of skill and sophistication here that made our end of the pier joke pedlars look like rank amateurs. The more edgy the better; Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor. Richard Pryor is probably the closest thing to a real comedy genius there has ever been. Forget his patchy film career and watch his Live on Sunset Strip performance and try to imagine how that shook the world of comedy in 1982. Bill Murray’s sardonic deadpan, John Belushi’s comedy wild man, the Americans were just in a different league. I inhaled Bob Woodward’s Wired, the tale of the fast life and premature death of John Belushi, a man who lived faster than any rock star. Now try to imagine Bobby Davro in the same story…
Sometime in the early 90s I had a real comedy epiphany. Having been out drinking with my mate Mark, and we ended up back at mine with the intention of continuing drinking whilst watching some crap TV, as you do in your early 20s. There was some standup comedy show on C4, comedian I’d never heard before, might as well give it a whirl. It was Bill Hicks: Relentless. It was like being slapped unexpectedly & repeatedly in the face with a wet fish. The confidence, the assured delivery, the subject matter; sex, drugs, rock n roll, politics, the Gulf War. It was stunning and unlike anything I had ever seen before. It hit me with the same force as seeing for the first time any band that I have come to love and obsess over. And obsess I did, tracking down anything I could by him and listening to it endlessly with the same rapt attention that I had with all those old Billy Connolly albums.
A strange dichotomy of opinion has arisen around Bill Hicks. He is seen in some quarters as a comedian who only really found fame amongst a certain breed of young hip indie kids, and is to a certain extent not held in the high esteem of many stand up comedians. But for those of us saw him live, there was nobody better. I was lucky enough to see hime twice before he died. The first time, at the Royal Northern College of Music, he was wild and profane but also warm and engaging, coming back on to do a Q&A with the audience after his main set. I think he was just high on finally finding an audience who appreciated him. The second time was at the Royal Exchange and it didn’t start until about 1am. I don’t know for sure if this was after his cancer diagnosis, my memory of dates is hazy at best, but it was Bill Hicks at his angriest. Ranting and railing like an old testament preacher, against everything he saw as being wrong with America, and the world. Not that he wasn’t funny, he was, hilarious in fact, but this time edgier like he just wanted to say everything he had left to say. A 1am gig, and having no money of course, meant staying in Kai’s chinese restaurant until 6am, dawdling over stir fried noodles and and trying not to catch the eye of any local gangsters, before grabbing a few hours sleep on Victoria station while waiting for the first train home.
So what brought on this unexpected reminiscence about my memories of comedy? After Bill Hicks died, I was searching for related stuff on-line. Now, this was still in the days of dial up modems, so as you can imagine, this was a slow and time consuming business. Eventually I stumbled upon a site run by his childhood friend Kevin Booth, detailing how they had set up a wildlife preservation charity in his name (Bill dug possums, who knew?). they were selling t-shirts, and videos and had been doing comedy concerts in Austin Tx to raise money. So half expecting never to hear from them again, I sent off a cheque for a t-shirt and VHS video of a tribute night held in a small club in Austin, which also contained a lot of previously unseen footage ~ Ninja Bachelor Party really has to be seen to be believed. Several months later, to my amazement, a package arrived containing said items…now sadly lost to the ages. However, it also contained a beautiful hand written card from Bill’s mother, Mary Rees-Hicks, thanking me for my donation and promising that it would be used for the good. I stumbled upon this the other day…and the memories came flooding back.
Wouldn’t you like to see a positive LSD story on the news? To base your decision on information rather than scare tactics and superstition? Perhaps? Wouldn’t that be interesting? Just for once?
“Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration – that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There’s no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we’re the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather.” – Bill Hicks