Category Archives: Music

John Fleming’s Weekly Diary – No 25 – COVID in Glasgow, Indians in Moscow

… CONTINUED FROM DIARY No 24

My natural rhythm was Go to sleep quickly, Wake up slowly…

SUNDAY 5th JULY

All the way through my life I have only very very rarely been able to remember any dreams I had at night – maybe once every six or eight months if I got woken in mid-dream. My natural rhythm was to go to sleep quickly and wake up slowly, so I guess I rarely woke up during the dreamy bit.

Now – I guess because of the kidney/calcium problems which landed me in hospital a few weeks ago – I wake up at least once an hour during the night; sometimes I wake 11 times, my throat parched dry, having to drink water.

And I am aware of my dreams.

I never realised dreams were so visually detailed and, certainly in my case, have an ongoing narrative. Sometimes I have a detailed scenario which picks up one night where it left off the previous night. I know that because I am aware of it happening during the night and realise it is happening.

What the dream/dreams is/was/are about, on the other hand, I can’t remember when I wake up… because I have a shit memory. I am just – now – aware I have them.

Now the boring bit… You may want to skip on to Tuesday, which is more interesting…

MONDAY 6th JULY

I had a telephone appointment with the Kidney Man from my local hospital at 1240. He eventually rang at 1437.

“Sorry,” he said. “IT problems earlier.”

My calcium level when I went into hospital was 3.2 instead of 2.6 which it had been last October. And 2.6 is the high end of ‘normal’ – Normal is 2.2-2.6. It is now 2.4 (as of 22nd June).

My kidney function, which had been an OK 62 last October and a very-much-not-OK 19 when I went into hospital, was 34 when I left hospital.

It is now (as at 22 June when I had a blood test) 44.

Which doesn’t worry the Kidney Man: “The calcium level can affect the kidney function, but the kidney function can’t affect the calcium level.”

The calcium level is now fine and the kidney function should return to normal. Last time, I was told a kidney function of over 60 was OK for a man of my age. So 19… 34… 44 is going in the right direction.

The blood test on 22nd June, like the Petscan before it, was OK.

The parathyroid glands (which create calcium and are tested via the blood test) are normal.

The Kidney Man does not know why I am waking up 8 or 10 or 11 times a night with a dry mouth. But he is not worrying. When I asked him, he said: “I don’t know”.

This genuinely reassured me. No bullshit waffle.

“You are,” he added, “a mystery.”

If only I were a performer, I could use that as a strapline on a poster.

He is going to arrange a face-to-face with me at the start of August which will include another blood test. Doctors love blood tests.

Beautifully-written, word-perfect vignette of current reality

TUESDAY 7th JULY

The UK is slowly, tentatively, opening-up bit-by-bit after the coronavirus lockdown.

Scottish comedian Scott Agnew is, like all other stand-ups in the UK, unable to perform because no venues are open. This morning, on Facebook, he posted a beautifully-written – I think word-perfect – vignette of current reality – in Glasgow, anyway.

With his permission, here it is:


Popped out to pick up a spot of breakfast at the wee roll shop at the end of my street – first time since March…

Wee roll shop wummin: “Oh a fucking stranger returns I see! Where the fuck have you been?”

Me: “Eh, I’ve been in lockdown like everyone else.”

RSW: “I’ve been here four fucking weeks. No’ fucking hide nor hare aff you?”

Me: “Well when I looked along you never looked open.”

RSW: “Well I wouldnae have looked open if I was shut cause you never move yer fat arse oot the hoose in the mornings anyway unless you’re coming tae me. Was it Tesco ye were getting yer sausages? Aye. So where the fuck have you been? First week I was open I’m thinking I’ll see that big fella – nothing – I’m just thinking he’s an ignorant basturt.

“Second week I’m thinking, this cunt must be deid cause I minded you’d been on that flight back fae Australia – and that was the last I seen ye. There’d be all sorts fae all parts with fuck knows whit oan that flight. And I thought, that’s him had that virus and now he’s deid. Then I thought ye cannae be deid cause yer a comedian – ye’d have heard about that in the papers. Then I thought, well he’s no’ a famous comedian so the papers probably wouldn’t bother their fucking arse about ye.

“So I says to my daughter cause she’s got you oan that internet to check if you were deid. So I says – see if that big fat comedian fella is deid. And here ye wurnae deid.

“Do you know I stood in here wan Friday and had wan customer! Six pounds I took – it cost me more to turn the fucking lights oan.

“So here we are four weeks later and ye turn up noo, turns oot ye ur nothing but an ignorant basturt.

“Two roll and square son?”

© copyright Scott Agnew 2020


Keith Martin being very itinerant…

WEDNESDAY 8th JULY

I mentioned to itinerant TV voice-over artist and one-time choirboy Keith Martin that the post-lockdown openings are (understandably) slightly eccentric.

As I understand it, Christian churches can open for private prayer provided you maintain social distancing but synagogues and mosques cannot open yet because they are more sociable in their celebrations. And, although Christian churches can open, there can be no singing for fear of spreading the coronavirus.

“You can’t sing,” Keith told me, “but you can hum the hymns, provided you keep social distancing.”

“You are joking,” I said.

“No,” he replied. “That’s true.”

And, while I haven’t been able to find out definitively, I think he might be right.

THURSDAY 9th JULY

Continuing the musical theme, today I stumbled on a video of the great and much-lamented (certainly by me) 1980s band Indians in Moscow.

I posted this on my Facebook page and the highly-esteemed Andy Dunlop, President of the World Egg-Throwing Federation but a man with wide-ranging knowledge well beyond the aerodynamic properties of farmyard products, pointed out to me that Adele Nozedar – the vocally talented lead singer of Indians in Moscow – was now an author, food writer and forager, whose books include The Hedgerow Handbook, The Garden Forager and her most recent book Foraging with Kids.

She has come a long way since singing about Jack Pelter and His Sex-Change Chicken, a classic track in my vinyl collection.

Readers of previous blogs may recognise Andy Dunlop not just as the esteemed World Egg-Throwing supremo but as the man who has a friend with a dog called Rigby whose calcium problems mirrored my own. I feel my own fate is intertwined with Rigby’s.

“How is the dog?” I asked Andy today.

“He is fine,” Andy replied. “Doing well. Very happy.”

I am reassured, if only temporarily.

A US man unfairly maligned by a UK woman?

FRIDAY 10th JULY

My historic certainties are being undermined week-by-week.

First, there was the fact that Chou En Lai, did NOT say in 1989 that it was too soon to know if the French Revolution of 1789 had been a success. (See a previous blog).

And, today, I discovered that George W Bush did NOT tell Tony Blair that “the trouble with the French is they have no word for entrepreneur”.

It seems that Blair’s spin-doctor Alastair Campbell denies it ever happened and suggests that MP Shirley Williams might have put it in a speech as a joke and the idea snowballed.

“This book will probably save your life. Unfortunately,” says Charlie Brooker

SATURDAY 11th JULY.

My multi-talented chum Ariane Sherine chose today to mention she has not one but two projects coming out soon.

Her new book How to Live to 100 is published on 1st October this year…

And – under the name Ariane X – her first solo music album is being released on 12th February 2021. Why that date? Because it’s a palindrome date:

12.02.2021

… unless you are an American and get your dates back-to-front for no sensible reason – For you it is February 12, 2021.

Duran Duran were an early musical influence

Ariane describes the new album as “pop/electric/dance” with influences “including Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, St Etienne, Massive Attack and loads more.”

There are five early, rough instrumental demo tracks on her new ArianeX website. “Vocals, harmonies, guitar, hooks and fills to be added…”

The songs, she says, “are all about my violent childhood, mental illness, suicidal ideation, but also happiness that my life is so beautiful now…”

An extract from the lyrics show they ain’t gonna be no normal trite Moon-in-June songs:

I believe in Russell’s teapot, I believe in Occam’s Razor
And I believe that vaccines are humanity’s saviour
I always look to science to provide me with my answers
And I don’t believe that prayers can ever cure any cancers

As far as I know, there will be no horns on Ariane’s upcoming album…

… CONTINUED HERE

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The Tiger Lillies’ live launch party for COVID-19 Vol II – and Russian fans

The Tiger Lillies (Photograph ©Daniela Matejschek)

A couple of weeks ago, I chatted to singer/songwriter Martyn Jacques of The Tiger Lillies in Berlin, where he lives, about the release of their second album about the COVID-19 pandemic – COVID-19 Vol II, now available on Bandcamp.

Tonight (Friday 19th June) they are having a live launch party for the album on YouTube.

Well, that’s the simple description of it… It is actually more complicated than that, as fellow Tiger Lilly Adrian Stout, who is currently living in Athens, told me in a FaceTime call…

Adrian Stout (Photograph ©Andrey Kezzyn)


JOHN: So you’re doing the live launch party tonight. You sit in Athens, Martyn sits in Berlin. You play live with each other, just like a stage show. That’s easy, then…

ADRIAN: In an ideal world, that would be how we do it and we have tried to, but the problem is the online audio delay…

I have to physically shift the audio to compensate for the delay – sometimes it speeds up; sometimes it slows down. So I have to do lots of tiny little edits to get everything in sync with Martyn.

We set up a Zoom meeting. So we both see each other on-screen. Then Martyn plays, but he doesn’t listen to me. He just plays without any headphones. And I listen to him, so I play along with him. It would be better if he could hear me, but he doesn’t need to. If he tries to hear me, he hears me half a second late, so he can’t really play with me. He can see me – he can see what I’m doing – he can react – but he can’t hear me.

The Tiger Lillies’ latest album – COVID-19 VOL II

So I drop in my audio afterwards in post-production and then I make a video which I send to him and he watches it.

As far as I’m concerned, I am playing with Martyn live but, because of the half-second delay, I have to compensate for that afterwards.

It IS a live performance. I actually am playing along with Martyn live…

It’s just I have to do some post-production stuff to sort out bits that might be half a second out.

Martyn says it feels like a ‘real’ gig to him. He is performing. He can see me. He doesn’t necessarily need to hear me. He’s performing in his own world most of the time. Martyn is in his own reverie of performance and I play with him.

It is kinda the same thing we do in a concert, but we are doing it in two different countries.

JOHN: So the online audio signal on Zoom can both slow down and speed up within the same recording?

ADRIAN: Yeah. The video is buffering. It’s speeding up a little bit; sometimes it slows down a little bit. I have sometimes had to move individual notes to get them in time with Martyn on the faster songs… to get it musically where it should be. I think it’s to do with the way it streams across the internet. It drifts. Sometimes the link just disappears while he’s playing. It is quite skittish.

It took me six or eight hours to adjust the one-hour performance you’ll see tonight.

The globetrotting Tiger Lillies in Berlin…

JOHN: Is it in the nature of Zoom to do all this skittishness?

ADRIAN: It’s not really designed to do what we’re trying to do with it.

JOHN: It must do your head in. 

ADRIAN: It is quite frustrating. 

JOHN: Perhaps this is the future of worldwide performance.

ADRIAN: I’m not convinced. It’s a stopgap during the pandemic.

Last week, there was a bar here in Athens that put on a live gig. The band was in the bar and the bar was open so people could stand outside watching it from about 2 or 3 metres away. But I have to say I didn’t feel very comfortable. It felt a bit risky.

JOHN: Risky? I think The Tiger Lillies actually played during a riot in Athens?

ADRIAN: In 2011, there was a big protest movement going on in Athens about the Greek financial bailout. The demonstrators basically occupied the central square opposite the Parliament. It was like a whole camp. It was like M*A*S*H. There were about 10,000 people or more. They had field tents and there were people there manning it 24-hours a day.

They asked us if we would go down and play a few songs for them. As we were playing, there were people rioting, storming the police barricades. People in combat gear. Molotov cocktails being thrown. The police were returning that with tear gas and rubber bullets. You could smell the tear gas coming in. It was like a cross between M*A*S*H and the First World War. It was a very surreal concert to play.

JOHN: So, in the middle of all this anarchy, The Tiger Lillies are playing with painted faces?

ADRIAN: Well, a lot of the demonstrators had put this white stuff – Maalox – you drink it to treat heartburn and acid indigestion – they had put it on their faces to protect themselves from the gas. So they all looked like they had white-painted faces as well.

JOHN: At one time, The Tiger Lillies were described as a comedy band.

ADRIAN: I think maybe when we first started we a bit more of a comedy band. I joined in 1995; within about two years, we were in our comedy phase. It was lots of jokes; lots of props.

Previously to that, we had played to rough pubs in London where we had to try and play loud and fast and hard to be heard over the noise of the audience – that was sort-of our punk phase. There wasn’t a lot of room for nuance.

Whereas, around 1997, when we started playing in smaller cabaret-style venues and theatres in Germany and so on, we felt we could stretch out a bit so we could start telling stories they might actually listen to and we started buying loads of props – those whirly things you whizz around and little battery-powered dogs that would flip over. We had a song called Car Crash about Princess Diana and we had a Barbie Doll and used to drive it off the stage.

Then we moved into Shockheaded Peter, when we moved into a more theatrical kind of world. We also did a circus show – with contortionists and acrobats and all that sort of stuff. But when we started doing Shockheaded Peter more full-time, we dropped a lot of the props, because it became crazy to carry round suitcases with little bits of plastic in them.

Martyn was always writing new songs, so the material was always moving on. We’ve moved on continuously. Each phase only lasts about six months. We must have done about 45 albums by now.

JOHN: Is COVID-19 ripe for comedy?

ADRIAN: Black comedy. The whole affair has been rife with it. We had the whole toilet roll debacle which we used for a song in the first album. And now we have Donald Trump telling everyone to ingest bleach and we got a song out of that one as well. But this album is definitely more serious than the first one because the situation is a lot more serious. The first one was more absurdist. 

In the first phase, it was the public who were acting bizarrely. In the second phase, it’s the governments that have been behaving bizarrely. This album is a lot more about loss – more tragedy in it. Martyn is a bit more riled-up. Angrier. Seeing a lot more injustice.

JOHN: I hear The Tiger Lillies have a following in Russia and Mexico. That’s surprising.

ADRIAN: l think any place where they’ve had a significant amount of death and tragedy and they sort-of drink themselves through it as well. We’ve been big in Russia since the 1990s, really. We used to go there a lot and still go there a couple of times a year and play to a couple of thousand people. 

There’s lots of underground stuff going on in Russia and I think the waltzes are very like the oompah stuff. Russians love ska music. It’s very similar to traditional Russian folk music. There’s a whole punk/ska scene there. The death oompah stuff we do goes down there very well. 

There is a band called Leningrad who covered some of our songs in the 1990s and that’s how they got to know us. The singer Sergey “Shnur” Shnurov. – he’s like the Shane McGowan of Russia – did some gigs with us and we did an album with them. So we’re quite well-known in the Russian underground punk/ska world.

JOHN: I’m surprised there’s a musical connection.

ADRIAN: It’s like the Czech polkas – like military bands playing polkas.

Mexican mariachi stuff all comes from Central European marching bands and the Central European thing is something we mine a lot. Lots of Austro-Hungarian soldiers went over to Mexico in the 19th century. There was Czech-Bohemian music over in Texas and Mexico.

And they love us in Mexico. It’s the whole accordion/death thing and the make-up. I would have thought they’d seen it all before, but they seem to think it’s wonderfully charming and flattering for us to be singing songs about Mexico with accordions

JOHN: But to get back to the point of this blog – your launch party tonight on YouTube at 7.00pm UK time (8.00pm CET)… It’s free…

ADRIAN: Well, yes, but we would hope they would donate the £10 entry fee.

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Kunt and the Gang with Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris and the Yorkshire Ripper

I try to make these blogs fairly immediate. But, in this case, I have failed miserably.

After trying and failing two or three times to meet up online during the early days of the coronavirus lockdown, Kunt (of Kunt and The Gang – is there any other?) and I eventually chatted via FaceTime on 14th May – that’s almost a month ago now.


JOHN: What have you got on the wall behind you?

KUNT: It’s my memorabilia… Look… Here… I got this on my final tour: it’s a signed picture of Rolf Harris, some saucy seaside postcards and…

Kunt in front of his wall of memorabilia… Saucy postcards, a famous family TV star and Kunt’s book

JOHN: Who’s in that picture on your Facebook page? The Yorkshire Ripper and Jimmy Savile and…

Kunt performs in front of the Yorkshire Ripper, Jimmy Savile and Frank Bruno… in Hitchin…

KUNT: On my final tour, at a gig in Hitchin, they said: “Have you got an image you want projected behind you?” and I said, “No. not really, but it’s a shame not to have something projected,” and so we used that one. It’s one of my favourite photos. It’s Jimmy Savile introducing Frank Bruno to the Yorkshire Ripper.

JOHN: He’s a nice man is Frank. Did he know it was the Yorkshire Ripper?

KUNT:  No. he was completely hoodwinked into it. So there’s Frank shaking hands with The Ripper and Jimmy Savile is in the background just looking all pleased with himself. The thing I like most about that photo is that it was obviously years before all the stuff came out about Savile and he’s there in I think Broadmoor with a great big cigar and, behind him, there’s a NO SMOKING sign. That says all you need to know about Jimmy Savile in that one photo, smoking, introducing the Yorkshire Ripper to Frank Bruno.

I also love the fact The Ripper is in a late-1980s/early-1990s shell suit. Savile must have just taken it in on that visit and said: “Here, Pete, just slip this on. This’ll suit ya.”

Kunt’s latest Bumface book – free to download

JOHN: It’s been so long getting to chat, I’ve forgotten what you are plugging. Is it your children’s book Bumface Poohands and the Coronavirus Pandemic Lockdown?

KUNT: No, I’m not actually plugging anything. That was weeks ago I done that.

JOHN: Look, I’m an old man; I’m sick; I’m not going to last much longer. There’s COVID-19 around. Help me out here. Make up something surreal. Are you plugging your nightly online show Kunt’s Korona Klub?

KUNT: No! I’m not plugging it because I don’t want other people tuning in to it. I like the people who are tuning into it already, because they’ve been with it for kinda 45 nights and, if you tune in now, you just won’t understand what’s going on because it’s sort of developed its own lingo.

JOHN: You don’t want my blog readers? I’m shocked and saddened.

KUNT: A couple of ‘em are alright but the majority of ‘em I wouldn’t give the time of day.

JOHN: You’ve started drinking early…

KUNT: It’s to take the edge off doing FaceTime with you. I don’t really like doing FaceTime. I don’t wanna plug anything, John. I don’t like plugging things; it’s a bit shameless, ain’t it?

JOHN: Shameless? Have you listened to any of your songs??

KUNT: Well, they’ve got their own integrity. But it’s a different type of integrity.

JOHN: What sort of integrity would this be?

KUNT: One that I sort of tell meself is alright.

JOHN: Which is?

KUNT: It’s morphed over the years.

JOHN: On whom did you base this moral code? Heinrich Himmler?

KUNT: Are you comparing me to Heinrich Himmler?

JOHN: No. He was an underling. You’re more Hitler.

KUNT: Well, I have got a moustache, so there are some similarities. Though not a very good one. It has a bit of mascara on it.

JOHN: Why have you got mascara on your moustache?

KUNT: Because it’s flecked with grey. I’m going prematurely grey.

JOHN: So the ego has landed? You have done pretty much everything. What is there left? You’ve done books, albums, stage shows, become a cult Kunt…

KUNT: I think I’m gonna fake my own death from COVID-19 to make it current and then I’m going to surruptitiously put the thousands of CDs I’ve got stored round me mum’s house on eBay, but in dribs and drabs. It’s the perfect time to hold a funeral and get away with it.

JOHN: Does it have to be a fake death? It would be better if it were real. I could get people to kill you. As a favour, obviously – mate’s rates.

“This is my actual hair. There’s rumours about it being a wig.”

KUNT: John, this is my actual hair.

JOHN: Eh?

KUNT: There’s a lot of rumours about it being a wig.

JOHN: Don’t mention hair to me. Why did you write a children’s book anyway?

KUNT: I’m not plugging it.

JOHN: So it started because…?

KUNT: I went round my mate’s house one day and, on his fridge, he had this picture pinned up of this character with an arse for his face and these poo hands. I asked: “What the fuck is that?” And he said, very matter-of-factly: “That’s Bumface Poohands.”

He said: “I just do these little drawings and leave ‘em in me daughter’s lunchbox to make her laugh.”

JOHN: Has he ever read any books on parenting?

KUNT: No. My mate told me: “He’s a down-at-heel character who ends up in all the situations.” So I said to him: “Have you ever thought of making it into a children’s book?” and I… well… Well, it was just an excuse to meet up every few weeks. We’ve got about a dozen books written now and half a dozen illustrated and we’ve put two out – Bumface Poohands: A Birthday Surprise and Bumface Poohands: A Snowy Day and now we’ve just put this Coronavirus one online as a free e-book.

JOHN: How is Bumface going?

KUNT: It’s going alright. Bumface Poohands and the Coronavirus Pandemic Lockdown seems to have landed quite well. I’m quite happy with it. It sort of tells a story of what we’re kinda stuck in at the moment… in a fairly jocular way, compared to how bleak things actually are – and it seems to kinda cross over with adults and kids.

But Bumface Poohands is like everything I do. I always think Oh! This’ll be the thing that crosses over. But it never is. The ideas I have always have a very finite amount of people who are gonna like them. I thought at one point that Bumface Poohands would be my retirement plan, but now I’m looking at alternative arrangements.

JOHN: If you have 12 new ones written and 6 illustrated, it may yet still happen. JK Rowling approached every sensible publisher in London with Harry Potter and they all turned her down – quite rightly. It’s a ridiculous idea: a boy wizard in this day and age! No-one is going to buy that. Totally uncommercial. But then she got a publisher and now everyone is drowning in dosh.

KUNT: Yeah. I can just see Bumface Poohands becoming the new Harry Potter… It’s never gonna happen, John.

The great showman’s autobiography…

JOHN: Well, you’re a great lyricist; you write great tunes; if you drop a few of the ‘cunts’ and ‘fucks’… You are an Essex boy made good… or bad. Rags to riches story or whatever…

KUNT: But I came from a working class, aspirational middle class family. There’s no story there. It’s not rags to riches.

JOHN: What’s it been like round your way?

KUNT: It’s been strange round here. My mate’s doctor died and the landlady at one of the local pubs. But, other than that, it feels like it’s all kinda happening in London and the cities, not Essex.

It’s like it’s happening somewhere else.

JOHN: I think I have enough for a blog there.

KUNT: I don’t think so.

JOHN: I think so. I will craft it into a thing of fascinating beauty and riotous fun.

KUNT: I don’t think so, John. I read the last one you did.

JOHN: Have you ever had anyone write a brilliant, incisive piece on Kunt and the Gang?

KUNT: No. Anyway, a brilliant, incisive piece wouldn’t really be right for Kunt & the Gang.

JOHN: Then I’m the ideal person for you.

KUNT: Just make it sound better than it actually is, John, and then it’s maybe worth this awkward FaceTime.

JOHN: Do you still feel awkward?

KUNT: You haven’t put me totally at my ease… Heinrich Himmler?

JOHN: This might not get posted in the next two days. I might be sleeping.


Exactly one week later, I was taken into hospital for seven days with low kidney function and high calcium problems. I don’t blame Kunt. Not totally. But I did think it might be a good excuse for taking so long to post this blog.

He finished his nightly Kunt’s Korona Klub shows on YouTube with Episode 58 on 31st May.

Last night, 8th June, I got an email from Kunt. It read:

“How you keeping John, not chasing you up, just seeing how you are?!”

I took this as a veiled threat – he lives in Essex – and I had run out of excuses for my laziness in transcribing our chat. I did not think the fact I currently have constipation would be justification enough.

On a cheerier note, he added: “I’m going to start a new monthly YouTube show called The New Normal in a few weeks time… 

“In one section, Down Meme-ory Lane, I turn investigative journalist and hunt down people whose image became a viral internet phenomenon…

“In another, I’ll Be The Judge of That, I adjudicate over petty Facebook disputes and make a ruling as to who has been the biggest cunt…

“And there is going to be a continuing serial drama following the inhabitants of ‘Yewtree Close’… a bit like Neighbours for sex offenders.”

The man is unstoppable.

 

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The Tiger Lillies release their SECOND album about the COVID-19 pandemic

Dark Weimaresque British singing trio The Tiger Lillies celebrated their 30th birthday last year and today have released a new album COVID-19 Volume II on Bandcamp having already released COVID-19 Part 1 on BandCamp on 10th April with a semi-live launch party on YouTube on May 1st.

The Tiger Lillies won an Olivier Award in 2002 and got a Grammy nomination in 2003. Wikipedia calls them “the forefathers of Brechtian Punk Cabaret”.  I first saw them in, I guess, the mid-1990s, when incorrigible performer Tony Green insisted I go see them at the monthly London event Torture Garden. (It was a surprise to me, too.)

So I thought I would have a chat with composer/singer Martyn Jacques about the new Tiger Lillies album while maintaining a discreet coronavirus social distance of around 580 miles – He has lived for the last ten years in Berlin. We talked via FaceTime.


JOHN: You live in Berlin and the other Tiger Lillies’ founding member Adrian Stout lives in Athens. That sounds a bit complicated.

MARTYN: Well, with this job, we’ve been travelling around for 30 years and you lose the link with the UK. In the end, you don’t have to live in only one country. We’d be doing a gig in Prague one weekend, the next weekend a little tour in Greece, the next weekend in Berlin. You don’t have to live in London, though I don’t think it would have worked if we lived in America, cos that’d be too far. But, with Europe, we could live anywhere.

JOHN: You’re planning to turn your COVID-19 song cycle into a stage show…

MARTYN: We did a show called The Rime of the Ancient Mariner 

and, for that, we had two screens – one in front of us and one behind, with all these projections. We had this really amazing, hot artist – Eugene Cavill from the Lebanon – he did the artwork for the new album – and he’s got all these drawings of the virus with people dying, severed limbs and stuff; it all looks sort-of psychedelic. So I thought we might use that two-screen idea again for a COVID-19 stage show.

JOHN: COVID-19 is very of-the-moment.

MARTYN: It’s what we do. We write about what’s going on. We write about unpleasant things. We’ve written songs about rape, paedophiles, pretty much everything really that’s unpleasant.

JOHN: Well, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera is unpleasant. The song Mack The Knife is appallingly nasty in the original lyrics.

MARTYN: Exactly… Even things like Punch & Judy. It’s abuse. A man kills his wife and his baby. I did an album on Punch & Judy

and did Mack the Knife.

Basically, I really like to write about very unpleasant subjects. I did an album on zoophilia, Farmyard Filth which was about having sex with different types of animals. I write about the most unpleasant things all the time. I did Cockatoo Prison – a whole album about prison inmates, but trying to sympathise with them.

I’ve spent 30 years writing about unpleasant, nasty things so, for me, it’s actually very very easy for me to write about COVID-19 now. It seems there’s no-one else writing songs and making music about it. I am perfectly suited to write horrible songs about this very unpleasant disease.

JOHN: Do you think writing about lots of sick, dark stuff is somehow cathartic for you? It gets it out of your system?

MARTYN: I suppose so. But I think what really gets it out of my system is performing it in front of an audience and taking people on a journey. Sadness and beauty and grotesqueness.

And… I’m not doing that any more because of the coronavirus lockdowns. It’s a very weird time for me. Very strange. I’ve spent the last 30 years travelling around the world making people laugh and cry in theatres and now, all of a sudden, I’m not doing it. That’s a bit of a shock to my system.

You are a writer, John, and, even though this horrible virus has occurred, you can still write and be creatively satisfied. Whereas, with me, the main thing I do is write songs but the other thing I do is go out onto a stage and perform them. That’s what I’ve done for most of the last 30 years. And I can’t do that any more. So it’s quite traumatic to suddenly have that happen.

JOHN: So half of how you satisfy your creative urge has been suddenly taken away…

MARTYN: More than half, probably. Writing all these songs is an outlet but the writing is not really where the outlet happens. The outlet is when I’m in front of an audience of people, actually singing the songs.

JOHN: Your lyrics tend to be about horrible things, but you tend to also include bits of humour.

“Your lyrics tend to be about horrible things… but you tend to also include bits of humour…” (Photograph (c) Daniela Matejschek-38)

MARTYN: Well, black humour is just waiting to be exploited in horrible things. I’ve used black comedy a lot through the years. I have literally had audiences weeping with laughter and then suddenly I start singing a song which is really, really sad and there is no humour in it. People are waiting to carry on laughing but then there’s nothing funny and now I’m not joking.

It’s something I’ve done through the years that has been a great source of pleasure for me. To take an audience on a journey where one minute they’re laughing and the next minute it’s sad.

JOHN: Marilyn Manson played a Tiger Lillies song at his wedding in 2005 and other fans include The Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening and Mel Brooks, who made The Producers

MARTYN: Yes, that is one of my favourite films. 

JOHN: Sort-of bad taste, but acceptable…

MARTYN: Yes, being Jewish, he has the edge on me there. At one point, I was going to do a show called Three Hitlers. Probably about five years ago, on my Facebook page, I put up all these pictures of Hitler – but pictures of him with, like, make-up on, transgender Hitlers, make-up, lipstick. I put these up and… Oh, the hate! The hate! I got so many hate messages. It made people so angry. I pissed people off so much.

JOHN: Was annoying people enjoyable?

“It made people so angry. I pissed people off so much…” – “Was annoying people enjoyable?…”

MARTYN: It wasn’t so much enjoyable. But it was fascinating. There were about maybe ten really good pictures of Hitler in drag.

It took Facebook quite a long time – three or four weeks – to get on me. I was putting up the pictures and getting all this hate. My thing is I try to create argument and debate when I do things like this. And there were all these other people saying: “Actually, there is nothing wrong with this. It is actually taking he piss out of Hitler” – Which I was.

It was fascinating to see all these people standing-up for me. And all these people hating me.

JOHN: What did Facebook say?

MARTYN: Well, they threatened to ban me.

JOHN: Why would making fun of Hitler be against their rules?

MARTYN: Well, you know what Facebook are like. They’re a bunch of chickens. They’re sheep. Cowards.

JOHN: I think your favourite artist is Hogarth. He is in much the same vein as The Threepenny Opera.

MARTYN: Definitely. And John Gay – The Beggar’s Opera – Macheath (Mack the Knife) is in that. It’s all the same thing – Hogarth, The Beggar’s Opera, The Threepenny Opera – it’s all about the street. Nasty, unpleasant things going on.

JOHN: I think you described The Tiger Lillies as an “anarchic, Brechtian street opera trio.”

MARTYN: (LAUGHS) That was probably Ken Campbell. Did you know him?

JOHN: I met him a few times. Didn’t know him. Ken Campbell influenced everybody.

MARTYN: He directed the first show I ever did. Fungus The Bogeyman at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. He was crazy. He was always nice to me. But, God! He used to make some of the actors in Fungus The Bogeyman cry; he used to make them weep. I remember once coming round the corner at the Belgrade Theatre and there were three actors all in floods of tears with Ken Campbell.

I stopped and looked and he said: “Keep… walking… Martyn…”

I don’t think he liked actors.

JOHN: So what next?

MARTYN: I’m doing an album about Sigmund Freud at the moment.

JOHN: The man or the ideas?

MARTYN: The ideas.

JOHN: Is that sick enough for you?

MARTYN: (LAUGHS) Yes. He’s very odd. Very strange. Really weird, actually. Pretty sick. Pretty dark.

… MORE ABOUT THE TIGER LILLIES AND THE COVID ALBUM HERE

The Tiger Lillies – COVID-19 VOL II – released today on Bandcamp

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Dave Brooks, RIP – astonishing original

Dave Brooks with his sons and daughter (Charlie on right)

I was asleep today – about 11 in the morning-  when Martin Soan phoned to tell me Dave ‘Bagpipes’ Brooks – an early member of The Greatest Show on Legs – had died, aged 72. Dave’s son Charlie Brooks had announced on Facebook that his father died at the end of last week.

Charlie wrote: “He passed away end of last week. They broke the mould when they made him. Here’s to all of you who played music with him, loved him, got exasperated with him(!) and had fun with him over the years. With the coronavirus situation, we don’t know what will happen with the funeral at the moment.” 

(Charlie lives in Oregon; Dave lived in the UK.)

“At some point, there will be a moment to remember Dave and it will involve music and a few drinks.

Dave playing at Charlie’s wedding (bride & groom on left)

“Charismatic and occasionally cantankerous, but always quick with a joke and someone who definitely lived by his own rules, for better or worse. He was also a brilliant musician, starting as a jazz sax player in the 1960s, then becoming a piper.

“Going to miss you, Dave… everyone is unique, but they truly broke the mould when they made you. They say you can’t choose your family, but if I could, I’d choose you again. So sad I didn’t get to say goodbye. Love you.”

Martin Soan remembers: “Dave joined The Greatest Show on Legs very early on…

“I don’t know what year or indeed how we came to meet him in the first place, but he was a valued member and was a very funny man indeed.

“Going on tour with ‘The Legs’ wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea: it was a hand-to-mouth existence and a lot of anarchy to put up with, but he fitted in without any trouble and sometimes led the way in outrageousness. 

(L-R) Malcolm Hardee, Martin Soan, Jools Holland, ‘Digger Dave’, Dave Brooks (Photograph supplied by Martin Soan)

“I performed with him a few times in later years and we both slotted in where we left off. It was simply natural to perform and hang out with him.

“His temperament was sunny and always even but also he was very educational (important when spending long hours in a van), He introduced Malcolm Hardee and me to garlic, which Malcolm hated… He knew what was happening politically and, of course, musically expanded our minds… Above all, I will always remember his wicked sense of humour and infectious laugh.

“He excelled on stage and personally made sketches of ours complete and perfect and, after he went his own way, we had to drop the routines he had made his own. The Human Scottish Sword Dance and Dirty Ol Men were his sketches .”

In 1981, Dave performed The Human Scottish Sword Dance with The Legs on ITV’s ratings-topper Game For a Laugh

I myself met him, I think, only twice, maybe three times: clearly my loss. As well as having an original sense of humour, he had wide talents. 

He was wonderful on the Highland bagpipes (and saxophone) playing Irish Traditional and Scottish Traditional music and jazz with many other artists including Joan Armatrading, Graham Bond, Elkie Brooks, Phil Collins, George Harrison, Dick Hecksall-Smith, Manfred Mann, Count Dracula and The Barber of Seville. Probably also Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

He played weddings with Sikh dhal drummers

He had an 18-month run in London’s West End as a piper in the stage production of Brigadoon (where he had his bagpipes sent to sleep for 100 years) as well as appearing in the BBC TV production of People Like Us and in the movie Loch Ness.

He also performed and played bagpipes on the alternative comedy scene with Arnold Brown, The Greatest Show on Legs, John Hegley, Marcel Steiner (Smallest Theatre in the World) as well as Keith Allen (whose record company, Dave said, still owed him £60!).

In the US, he was a founder member of infamous band The Don Wannabes.

Back in the UK, he played various Scots and Irish piping at weddings, funerals and divorces and had his own Irish ceilidh band Sham-Rock, sometimes appearing playing the bagpipes with them as the Green Man, dressed in a suit of leaves. He claimed he was thinking of branching out. He is on whistle in this video…

For Asian weddings, he appeared playing bagpipes with Drummers Delight – two Sikh dhal drummers.

On 29th July 1996, the Corporation of London prosecuted him at Hampstead Magistrates’ Court under an 1890 by-law for “playing a musical instrument (his bagpipes) on Hampstead Heath on three separate counts. This was despite the fact that Dave had been playing his pipes on the Heath for an hour every morning for 15 years without any complaint from anyone.

As part of Dave’s defence, solicitor George Fairburn cited the legal precedent of Jimmy Reid, Highland Bagpiper, who, on October 2nd, 1746 – after the Battle of Culloden – was charged with playing an instrument of war and insurrection. Jimmy stated that his Highland pipes were a musical instrument not an instrument of war (which sounds reasonable). But the Lord Chief Justice of England overruled the original jury’s not-guilty verdict and dismissed their later plea for mercy by declaring that the bagpipes were indeed an instrument of insurrection. On the strength of this, Jimmy Reid was hanged, drawn and quartered.

After the Battle of Culloden, they were “an instrument of war””

Dave Brooks said that if his Highland bagpipes were an instrument of war – as stated by the court in 1746 – then now, in 1996, his Highland bagpipes remained an instrument of war and insurrection and could not possibly be a musical instrument as charged. 

The 1996 judge – Stipendiary Magistrate Michael Johnstone – said that the case of James Reid and his Highland bagpipes was a gross miscarriage of justice – a point not picked up by the press at the time – and then bizarrely threatened to have Dave Brooks and his Highland Bagpipes charged with bearing arms on Hampstead Heath. He said that, if this interpretation was accurate, Mr Brooks could be charged with carrying a dangerous weapon on the Heath and the penalty could be a prison sentence rather than a fine. He asked the bailiff of the court if he was ready to take Mr Brooks, Highland bagpiper, to the cells below the court never more for his bagpipes to be heard,.

Dave was found guilty on three counts of playing a musical instrument and fined £15 on each count plus £50 costs. 

In his summing-up, the magistrate said: “In time of war the bagpipes are an instrument of war and in peace they are a musical instrument”. He dismissed a petition of 2,500 signatures collected around Hampstead by people who liked the Highland pipes. 

Dave with his Scottish military weapon

The Corporation of London as a token gesture gave consent for Mr Brooks to play his bagpipes for one hour, three mornings a week on the bandstand at Parliament Hill Fields. He was also given permission by the management of Alexandra Palace to play his bagpipes in Alexandra Park anytime, which he then did regularly in return for playing his bagpipes at various charity functions for them.

Stipendiary Magistrate Michael Johnstone, in delivering his judgment, conceded that many might not consider the bagpipes to be a musical instrument, although he said he was not saying it was one.

When Dave’s case first came to prominence and he became a cause célèbre in piping circles, the College of Piping in Glasgow offered some words of comfort: “Well, if they hing you, dinnae you worry. We’ll compose a fine lament to your memory!’’

Tracks on subsequent albums released by Dave included the evocative Birds Eat Turds, a flute and pipe combination of Irish and Mauritanian songs like A Chailleach do mharrias me/Arts Plume and the classic Did They Come From Outer Space? No. They Came From Hendon Central.

RIP an original.


Here is Dave Bagpipes Brooks playing Auld Lang Syne…

…and playing solo bagpipes with an Indian theme…

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John’s UK Coronavirus Diary – No 6 – 86-year-old Lynn Ruth Miller is angry

Globetrotting American comedian, author and occasional burlesque dancer Lynn Ruth Miller is very pissed-off at being forced into a total lockdown in London. She has written about her recent trips in this blog (Search for her name). And she was due to perform in Europe, Scandinavia, the Far East, Australia and North America in upcoming months, but has had to cancel. Now she is VERY annoyed. She explains why in this open-letter plea to Westminster… which she rounds-off with a 90-second song…


In 2020, there are more people over the age of 65 than there are under the age of 5 – a ratio that has never occurred before, according to Deutsche Bank (and they should know; they are German).

And now the UK government has kept all of us over 70 confined to our homes in a lockdown.

That is blatant ageism at its worst.

Why? Because the powers that control us are looking at everyone through the wrong lens. 

They are evaluating each of us on the basis of their own preconceptions about age instead of accessing the quality of our immune systems.  

It turns out that the older you are the more resilient you are to illness.  

The current coronavirus pandemic has actually affected men aged 40-60 disproportionately along with people who have compromised immune systems.

But that isn’t me.

And I am stuck in the house.

Let’s face it. I am old…very old.  

When Google tells me it will take me ten minutes to walk someplace it always takes me twenty.  If I would dare to drive a car, I would never go over 20mph. In a car, I would keep the turn signal – the indicator signal – on just in case I have to make a right turn. I can’t say Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers any more. I look like an un-pressed rag and I have more hair on my chin than my foo foo.

But I am healthy, filled with energy and I have an exciting life… or I did until I was told that – just because I am old – I need to get someone else to do my shopping and I damn well better not get on a bus.

For some people over 70, this is not a hardship. They live in homes with other people. But I am alone… no partner, no children, no pet to care for… just me. The government now allows me one solitary walk a day and no-one to hug. And that is endangering my psychological well-being.

Now, I respect rules. I do not want to infect anyone and I do not want to be infected. I stand 2 meters away from people when I walk and I cover my mouth when I cough. But, when I see some 69 year-old guy in a Zimmer frame sailing off to Sainsbury’s, I can’t help but think: Why can’t I go there too?… and not at 7am when not even the birds are awake.

Psychology today says that without the boost of oxytocin that comes with physical touch, elderly individuals may end up feeling more stressed and their physical health may suffer. In fact, people who are affection-deprived are less happy, more lonely, more likely to experience depression and stress and, in general, in worse health. They have less social support and lower relationship satisfaction.

I’ll bet you legislators never thought of that when you told us to stay home, did you?

So for the sake of my well-being and my desperate need for a cuddle, I suggest everyone over 70 should be awarded a puppy and a loving visitor.  

In my case I would prefer a toy boy – You know: someone in his 70s that can still think at best.  

At the very least, I want him to have a couple of teeth left.

Think about that, all you legislators, while you are giving away money to small businesses and independent workers.  

Money helps but, when you cannot leave the house to spend it, a hug can be worth ten visits to a psychiatrist.

You just might save even more lives that way than you are now by locking us in our living rooms.

I have written a song about it:

… CONTINUED HERE

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John’s UK Coronavirus Diary – No 3 – What it feels like to have the virus…

We are advised to wash our hands for at least 20 seconds (Photo by Nathan Dumlao via UnSplash)

SUNDAY 29th MARCH

I woke at around 0530 this morning. I live with my grandfather. He had been out late last night and upstairs, from my bed, I could hear him opening the front door downstairs, then coming up the creaking wooden stairs. Then I woke up. There was a strong wind outside making creepy noises. My grandfather died in the 1970s.

Most supermarkets now have an hour at the beginning or end of the day set aside for older people and/or people in vulnerable categories and/or NHS staff. I was in the local Iceland store this afternoon and got talking to a man at a safe distance across a frozen food cabinet. He told me he lives in Pimlico and, last week, someone was mugged in Pimlico and their NHS pass was stolen. Apparently true. Just the NHS pass.

MONDAY 30th MARCH

Yesterday afternoon, I had a FaceTime chat with a friend’s 8-year-old daughter. It lasted 1 hour 19 minutes and she is the most sensible person I have talked to since the coronavirus crisis started. Facebook and Twitter are awash with self-pity and paranoia.

The number of known UK deaths from COVID-19 was announced today as 1,408.

Things perked up later when the extraordinarily talented Romanian entertainer Dragos Mostenescu posted the first in a series of videos about his family and being self-isolated by the coronavirus crisis.

TUESDAY 31st MARCH

In the current coronavirus crisis, we are told only to contact our GP (local doctor) in a real emergency.

Most things in life depend on your viewpoint. Take this online posting from an Online COVID-19 Mutual Aid Group in an expensive area of London:


Hello, my wife and I have been asked by our GP to self-isolate as we are showing symptoms of a viral infection. Our problem is we do not know any neighbours being newish to the zone who can shop for us and we require dog food. Our dog has IBS – Irritable Bowel Syndrome – so she can only eat pasta and veg (broccoli, cauliflower & sprouts). If anybody can help with this plea we would welcome your contact. Many thanks.


The reaction of the person who told me was: “Honestly! People!  So well connected they’ve actually seen their GP! Human beings can’t get pasta to eat let alone dogs! Middle Class entitled First World problems! Give the dog some bloody dog food, not vegan muck and it’ll soon feel better…”

A website satire not too far from reality

That reaction seems pretty reasonable to me. But, seen from the point of view of the isolated couple in a new neighbourhood, caring about their dog, their plea is not unreasonable either.

The NewsThump satire site reported a fictional outbreak of people sticking things up their bottoms from boredom.

This might not be a total fantasy. Many years ago, a friend with a friend who worked in the A&E Department of a hospital told me Saturday nights had a high incidence of this type of thing including people misunderstanding the physical nature of fish… 

Fish can only go one way…

You can stick a (small) fish head-first up your bottom but – remember they have scales – you cannot pull it out… Result… a visit to the local hospital’s A&E Department… And people think coronavirus is bad…

WEDNESDAY 1st APRIL

Back to reality today. A Junior Doctor in the NHS Tweeted: “Last night I certified far more deaths than I can ever remember doing in a single shift. The little things hit you: a book with a bookmark in, a watch still ticking, an unread text message from family. Pandemic medicine is hard.”

The number of daily coronavirus deaths in the UK in the last 24 hours has increased by 563.to 2,352.

A friend who lives in central London, who was ill for a week or more and is just-about getting over it emailed me:


I have definitely had it, John. Without a doubt. All the symptoms – fever for the first week, complete loss of taste/smell, dry cough, aching all over. The GP more or less confirmed it on the phone. The fever comes back sporadically. But the worst thing is not having a working nose.

I’m sure I got it on March 8th when I went to an event with my two girlfriends who also got ill at the same time as me. One is now in hospital.

There is no guarantee that one can’t get it again but the hope is that, like with other viral illnesses, I will have immunity. If there were an antibody test, I would take it.

No masking the truth… (Photograph by Ashkan Forouzani via UnSplash)

The medical people are definitely mentioning the effect on taste and smell, certainly in the things I read and my and my friend’s GPs both said that’s the clincher. It is quite different from losing your sense of smell with a cold. It is just total. If you gave me two slices of bread, one spread with Marmite and the other with Nutella, I could not taste the difference.

Smell is a useful sense – I am only now realising how much I rely on it. I can’t smell whether food has gone off, whether something is burning in the oven, whether a tee-shirt needs washing. With food I never used to throw things out on the Best By or Use By date – if it smelled OK, I would eat it. Now, not so confident.

I am fine now except nose and the odd night fever. I think once over it, one is over it. It takes a couple of weeks. If you get lung complications like my friend (and another friend who is so weak he can’t get from bed to loo and hasn’t eaten for ten days) it’s fucking horrible, but I didn’t thankfully.

My cousin only has loss of smell but the two people who work for him also got it (at the same trade fair) – both young. One got a light dose like me; the other (53 years old and a fit runner) floored by it.

One can see that if one is old or infirm, this would see you off. Some friends who are Junior Doctors are very frightened of it as they’ve seen so many people with it.

Martin Soan practises his planned ascent of Mount Everest

THURSDAY 2nd APRIL

I am desolate.

Comic Martin Soan had planned an ascent of Mount Everest tomorrow. Now he has called it off. Only a week after he called off a concert at the Albert Hall.

Possibly just as well, because a recent article in The Smithsonian Magazine reported that there are over 2,000 bodies on Mount Everest – so many that they are now used as landmarks for climbers.

These are the facts you pick up when you are isolated in your home and only allowed out very occasionally.

“I am quite happy it’s low, but have no idea why”

FRIDAY 3rd APRIL

There are 3,605 confirmed coronavirus deaths in the UK now: 684 in the last 24 hours.

The normal resting heart rate for adults over the age of 10 years, including older adults, is between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm). Highly trained athletes may have a resting heart rate below 60 bpm, sometimes reaching 40 bpm.

My resting heart rate (according to my Apple Watch) is in the low 50s – around 53/53/54. I am no athlete.

I am quite happy it is low but have no idea why.

SATURDAY 4th APRIL

On Wednesday, my friend in Central London had mentioned another friend who was so weak “he can’t get from bed to loo and hasn’t eaten for ten days”. He was admitted to hospital last night, diagnosed with COVID-19 related double viral pneumonia.

Another friend who lives in rural tranquillity in Sussex tells me she has heard tales (by telephone) in the village about joggers hassling walkers, spitting and coughing near people etc etc.

I had to tell her that Borehamwood, where I live – administratively in Hertfordshire but really on the edge of London – has always seemed to me to be surprisingly not anti-social.

Borehamwood – “It is really culturally an Essex town”

It is awash with secondary schools and Yoofs and it is really culturally an Essex town, but there is almost no graffiti. I think the aspiring anarchists must go somewhere else to be anti-social… Not something they can do at the moment, so I dunno where they are. There is no particular sign of Yoofs on the streets.

All I can imagine is that they are staying at home snorting cocaine or shooting-up heroin – both allegedly normally available in town – but this lockdown must surely have screwed the coke, crack and smack distribution system and it sure as hell must have put burglars out of work – everyone is always at home now…

These are grim times for the crime biz…

But the good news is my friend who had lost her sense of taste and smell reports back: “I had smoked salmon for lunch today. And it tasted fishy!!!!!!

… CONTINUED HERE

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Kevin McGeary on Chinese melodies, WH Auden and life after coronavirus

In yesterday’s blog, I chatted with Northern Irish born musical performer Kevin McGeary about how and why he started writing Chinese-language songs. This is Part 2 of that conversation…


JOHN: Are you worried one night there is going to be a knock on your door and a Chinese man will be saying: “We have been reading and listening to your work in Beijing…”?

KEVIN: If it happens, it happens. Isn’t there an old expression: If you’re gonna tell the truth to people, you’d damn well make ‘em laugh, otherwise they will kill you? Fortunately most people find my lyrics funny, so they don’t get that offended.

JOHN: You have a following in China?

KEVIN: I have fans, because the vast majority of pop songs there are just love songs or patriotic songs. My style is so different: just a massive slap in the face to the idea of being populist; so some people really dig it… You know the theory of The Second Dancer?

JOHN: No.

KEVIN: When you just start dancing in the middle of the street, people think you’re a madman. But, if someone joins you, then you’re a bit of a flash mob.

I had been writing songs in Chinese for over three years by the time I got my Second Dancer – Jennie Li who was an opera singer, a Mandarin-teacher and an academic. When the China Daily were researching their article about me, they interviewed her.

Another person who really liked my songs was a literary translator called Bruce Humes, who loved the satire.

I don’t often get a chance to perform my Chinese songs in public now, because I live in Manchester and there aren’t many Chinese people who come to English-language comedy club nights.

JOHN: You sing your English language songs at the clubs?

KEVIN: Yes – and occasional covers of Kunt & The Gang songs.

JOHN: Have you tried doing covers of his songs in Chinese?

KEVIN: I did a Chinese version of Women Love a Bastard. The Chinese title is the Chinese expression ‘Men aren’t bad. Women don’t love’ and it’s just too catchy not to write a song.

JOHN: So, you have released two albums in the last two weeks: one English-language, one Chinese-language. What next?

KEVIN: I’m going to dust off, revisit and rewrite some old songs from the back catalogue to provide the backbone for a new album. In the meantime, with all this coronavirus solitude, I’m going to step aside from comedy music for a bit and record an album of film soundtracks… The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, The Magnificent Seven, Once Upon a Time in The West, Rocky, The Great Escape.

JOHN: In one music video, you seem to be wearing a cowboy shirt.

KEVIN: The song was called I Hate Hunan The Least. When a foreigner wants to become famous for writing Chinese songs, they will usually cover a Chinese love song or sing a Red song – something glorifying China or the Communist Pary. So I thought I would turn the idea on its head… I Hate Hunan The Least mentions every province and then the chorus is I Hate Hunan The Least – just to subvert all those suck-ups who try to endear themselves to the Chinese people.

JOHN: I seem to remember the Chinese, when I was there, had a rather worrying love of Country & Western songs.

KEVIN: Yeah, John Denver is huge there… Patsy Cline…

JOHN: Dolly Parton?

KEVIN: Yes, Dolly. She’s big.

JOHN: Yes… but there seems to be something about the Chinese accent that makes it good for Country & Western.

Are you regionally popular in China – popular in one bit but not another?

KEVIN: I don’t know.

JOHN: You are still persona grata? You could still go back to China?

KEVIN: Oh definitely.

JOHN: You should do a tour.

KEVIN: Well, to get a visa to tour is… In the mid-2000s, Björk ruined it for a lot of people because she gave a concert in Shanghai and, at the end of one of her songs, she shouted: “Free Tibet!”… So now they are very strict about who they will allow to perform.

JOHN: I was at a concert in Chongqing in the 1980s which had lots of musical acts and, if they liked the act, the audience clapped. If not, total silence. Did you ever perform to large audiences in China?

KEVIN: Yes, but not my comedy songs. I was invited to play Chinese-language songs in large halls to a family audience as a sort-of token Westerner – the sheer novelty of having a foreigner sing in their language. I would play whatever was in the Chinese charts at the time.

JOHN: And the clapping?

KEVIN: Yes. I think they were genuinely enthusiastic – and they would throw flowers as well.

JOHN: How did you get your head round the different tone structures of Chinese songs?

KEVIN: As a teenager, most of my musical heroes were the 1990s Britpop acts like Pulp and Blur, so it took a while to grasp… the Chinese put a really strong emphasis on melody. The melodic steps are qi-cheng-zhuan-he (起承转合)- wise-step-spin-unite.

So bands like Radiohead or the Manic Street Preachers would never be that popular in China because they don’t follow this strict melodic structure. But something like The Carpenters – they are really good with this melodic structure.

It’s very important to gain mastery of that four-step melody before you write songs in Chinese.

“It’s very important to gain mastery of that four-step melody”

JOHN: So is Country & Western structured in a Chinese way?

KEVIN: It is, because the melodies tend not to be very subversive.

JOHN: What is a subversive melody?

KEVIN: Most things by Radiohead. A lot of Leonard Cohen stuff. Bob Dylan isn’t popular there at all because, well, he can’t really sing, for a start.

JOHN: I suppose Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and Radiohead share a drone sound. But why is Country & Western more attuned to their tastes?

KEVIN: I think it’s just the simplicity, the universality. I would not say Country & Western is particularly Chinese-friendly; it just has that universality to it. A purity.

JOHN: Who were the big Western musical heroes when you were there?

KEVIN: Kenny G, the saxophonist, is massive. Boy bands like the Backstreet Boys are really popular, even among 20-something guys. Justin Bieber.

JOHN: You must have this schizophrenic creativity to do a Western album AND a Chinese musical album…

KEVIN: There’s one song where the lyric is basically Tell Me The Truth About Love by WH Auden, slightly changed, and there is an English version and a Chinese version of that.

Some of my Chinese songs are melodies that have been kicking around in my head since I was a teenager – ones I never quite found the right English lyric for.

I have been writing songs in English since I was 14 and I’m very aware of the figures whose footsteps I’m trying to follow in – Paul Simon and Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. But I think one of my big strengths as a Chinese-language songwriter is that, aside from going to karaoke, I was largely pretty ignorant of whose footsteps I was following in. So I had that freedom to explore and generally be unaware of what rules I might be breaking.

JOHN: Might you go back to China?

KEVIN: I was seventeen when 9/11 happened, and twenty-four when the Global Financial Crisis toppled the economic superiority of the West, but this is the first time – the coronavirus pandemic – I have been so directly affected by an international upheaval.

The virus originated in China, but that country appears to be over the worst of it while Europe and North America could be six months away from starting to revive their industry. During the inevitable recession, I may consider returning to East Asia to ride out the lean years.


THERE IS A TRAILER ON YOUTUBE FOR KEVIN’S ENGLISH-LANGUAGE ALBUM …

AND THERE IS A TOTALLY UNEDITED AUDIO VERSION OF MY CHAT WITH KEVIN ON THE PODBEAN WEBSITE HERE.
IT RUNS 42 MINUTES.

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Kevin McGeary on writing satiric Chinese-language comedy songs

I talked to musical performer and writer Kevin McGeary about how and why he came to “write controversial songs in the world’s largest authoritarian state” (his own turn-of-phrase). 

He got in touch with me because he had read my blog chat last November with Kunt & The Gang.

Coronavirus conversations via Skype are becoming the norm. He was self-isolated in his flat in Manchester while I was self-isolated at my home in Borehamwood.

Kevin McGeary talked to me from Manchester via Skype


JOHN: In the last two weeks, you’ve  released an English-language album TMItastic and a  Chinese language album 失败博物馆 (Museum of Failure), both humorous. How are they different?

KEVIN: My English comedy songs are often foul-mouthed and use a lot of swear words, though not to the extent of Kunt & The Gang. My Chinese songs tend to be offensive in a different way: they satirise Chinese culture and society. The Chinese ones are PG-friendly. They are not sweary; they are more satirical. They satirise aspects of society like wealthy men who keep mistresses. There are entire villages in China where pretty-much everybody is a ‘kept’ woman.

JOHN: Presumably you could not sing these Chinese songs in China… The authorities would take exception to them.

KEVIN: Well, my initial wave of creativity in writing Chinese songs came just before Xi Jinping took over as President. Under him, censorship of the media and the blocking of websites has got a lot stricter. But I used to busk in China; I used to perform on the streets singing my songs in Mandarin and people were very friendly.

JOHN: Are there loads of buskers in China?

KEVIN: No, not at all.

JOHN: So you must have been stopped, surely. They have Party people on every block, don’t they?

KEVIN: Urban administrators, yes. But they’re not really very powerful and they’re only there to stop violence or actual crime. I wasn’t committing a crime and I got away with it because my stuff was so off the wall. 

Kevin McGeary busking in Shenzhen (Photograph by Jesse Warren for China Daily)

JOHN: You were in China for…

KEVIN: …for eleven years. The first 3½  years, I was teaching English. I studied the language very hard, so I was conversant within a year and could read a newspaper within two years. 

The second year, I lived in a small city in the middle of the country in Hunan Province – the equivalent of living in Arkansas or Oklahoma.

The only form of entertainment, really, was karaoke: I went almost every night and that’s where my Chinese songwriting grew.

JOHN: And, after you finished teaching English…

KEVIN: I worked on a  newspaper for two years – the Shenzhen Daily. Then I left China, but I missed it, so I went back 2014-2018, working for a massive Chinese company Midea who make home appliances.

Kevin McGeary on GuangdongTelevision

JOHN: Not a creative, artistic job, then…?

KEVIN: Same as Kunt & The Gang, I don’t expect to monetise my creative work, so I need a steady job that gives me the material basis to be creative. You can’t be creative if you don’t have a roof over your head and clothes on your back.

I started writing Chinese-language songs in November 2008 and, in February 2012, it just suddenly struck me to start writing comedy songs.

When I started writing songs in Chinese, I had only been learning the language for 18 months, so my pronunciation was not perfect and also the novelty of having a white person singing in Chinese meant most people were just laughing at my attempts. After a while, I realised I had to turn this weakness into a strength. If people are laughing at my attempts, I might as well try to make people laugh. That’s how it started.

JOHN: Is satire a good idea in China?

KEVIN: Well, people are more open-minded than you would imagine. There was a feature in China Daily about my songwriting; I also performed and was interviewed on Chinese television.

JOHN: So being offensive is OK?

KEVIN: A lot of my stuff is beyond bad taste. It’s too silly to even be offensive.

JOHN: You don’t have any problem getting your music heard online in China?

KEVIN: I didn’t originally but, within a year of the Beijing Olympics – which was supposed to be China’s ‘coming out’ party – they blocked YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Back when blogging was big in the early 2010s I had quite a popular blog with a decent audience – tens of thousands of hits for a video – but now, with the internet being more heavily censored and pretty much all Western websites blocked in China – the New York Times, the BBC – it’s harder now to get my stuff heard. 

JOHN: So how do you get it heard? What sites do you put it on?

KEVIN: Youku and Tencent and QQ – Chinese-owned video-sharing sites which are the equivalents of YouTube. Youku is owned by Alibaba; QQ is owned by Tencent. They are not as censorious as some people might imagine. You can get almost anything on there unless it’s sexually explicit or violent.

JOHN: The Chinese love Yes Minister, don’t they? And that satirises bureaucracy. So there must be a liking for taking the piss out of your own system – though keeping low-key about it!

KEVIN: Definitely. I think Yes Minister was a vastly superior show to The Thick of It because, for a start, the characters are a lot more likeable… and there’s a lot more subtlety. When the Chinese criticise the regime, they tend to be very subtle about it.

For example, when the #MeToo movement broke in 2017, all internet posts with the Mandarin phrase for ‘Me too’ – ‘I also am’ – were censored. So the way to get any subversive message across was to use the image of a bowl of rice and the image of a rabbit. Because (in Chinese) ‘mee’ is the word for rice and ‘to’ is the word for rabbit. So ‘mee-to’ sounds very similar to the English expression. If you do that, you are not breaking the law.

JOHN: Very subtle.

KEVIN: Yes, images of Winnie the Pooh were banned because there was this paranoia he looked like Xi Jinping.

JOHN: In a sense, you must have had to change your ‘self’ to live in China. What terrible Western habits did you have to drop?

KEVIN: There is a lot more subtlety to the way people communicate in China. In a country like America or Australia, where people came from different parts of the world and they grew as a nation state in a very short time, the only way to get by was to be very direct. But, in China, a much larger percentage of communication is unspoken. So much is about context and reading between the lines. Criticising people as individuals is generally very taboo in China.

JOHN: Are you worried one night there is going to be a knock on your door and a Chinese man will be saying: “We have been reading and listening to your work in Beijing…”?

… CONTINUED HERE

… There is a taster for Kevin’s Chinese-language album 失败博物馆 (Museum of Failure) online…

… There is a YouTube playlist for the album HERE

… AND THERE IS A TOTALLY UNEDITED AUDIO VERSION OF MY CHAT WITH KEVIN ON THE PODBEAN WEBSITE HERE.
IT RUNS 42 MINUTES.

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Dragos, “the David Jason of Romania”, on comedy styles and the revolution…

Dragoş Moştenescu first appeared in this blog back in 2017 and in 2018,

When I try to explain who Dragos is, I tend to say he is the Romanian equivalent of UK TV star David Jason with a touch of Elton John. In other words, he is indescribable – in a good sense! We are talking an international level of top entertainer here.

On Sunday (15th December) he is performing his full-length stage show All Aboard for Christmas! in London, so we met up at the Soho Theatre Bar for a chat. Towards the end, we got interrupted by another performer…


JOHN: You’ve already performed All Aboard! at the Leicester Square Theatre in London and at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. So now you are going to stage it…

DRAGOS: …every three or four months. My next aim – which turns out to be not that easy – is to find an agent – I don’t expect to be ‘big overnight’! – Someone to provide work at least constantly. Perhaps not daily but maybe weekly. What I do is very suitable for let’s say private parties – playing the piano; my Elton John thing. ..

JOHN: Corporate gigs you would be ideal for.

DRAGOS: Exactly. I am realistic.

JOHN: What would be a good step for you?

DRAGOS: A three minute song on a morning TV show. Three minute songs on radio shows. Three minutes here and there.

JOHN: You are more of an hour-long solo show performer but you can also do 5 and 10 minute spots…

DRAGOS: Yes. If you have 5 minutes of material, it is very difficult to extend it to 10 or 20 minutes; but, when you have 60 minutes, it is easier to extract 5, 10 and 20 minute routines. But they are different styles.

JOHN: (I NAME ANOTHER PERFORMER) does great one-hour shows and, in fact, I’ve seen (THE OTHER PERFORMER) do brilliant two-hour solo shows, but they are never going to be on BBC TV on Live at the Apollo, because The Apollo wants gag-gag-gag, punchline-punchline-punchline.

Five-minute acts tend to be full of quick gag punchlines.

DRAGOS: Exactly. It is very difficult to catch the audience within five minutes and keep them. You need to use one-liners and I respect that and salute it. But, when you are doing a 60-minute show, you cannot have the audience punched every minute. You have to bring people into the story… A beginning, a punchline or two or three and sections and an end and maybe you draw a conclusion from the story. The pace has to be different.

The trend is for stand-ups which I am not… entirely.

What I want now is not even money. I want people to be aware I can bring an hour of ‘light’ entertainment and people will go home more content, more relaxed and re-charged like a battery for work the next day.

JOHN: You must have had to learn what sense of humour British audiences want. 

DRAGOS: When I came here, I didn’t use any of my Romanian routines. When I first started in Britain, one routine I had was about people lacking money and being in a shopping mall where money was flying around but it didn’t work with the audiences. People were laughing reluctantly. They didn’t relate. 

Someone told me: “Everybody in the world needs more money but it is not an issue for us. We are not that poor. Not comedy audiences. They can put food on their tables. They can travel around the country or even the world. So people do not personally relate to being poor in comedy routines.”

But the rent in London is not low and audiences can personally identify with that. So I have a song about it and, at the end, I have sometimes had standing ovations. Especially if there are a lot of young people in the audience. They identify – Shared house, high rent, poor living conditions.

Dragoş created, wrote, produced and starred in Romania’s first television sitcom after the Revolution – La Bloc

JOHN: What is the sense of humour in Romania?

DRAGOS:
We still tend to laugh about what British people used to laugh about 20 or 30 years ago – the disabled, drunken people, less-minded guys…

JOHN: Punching down.

DRAGOS: Exactly.

JOHN: And now, in Britain, we punch up not down.

DRAGOS: Yes. But, on the internet, I have seen shows from 20 or 30 years ago and it was the same here in Britain. People laughed at different things then.

JOHN: Did Romanian TV charge after Ceausescu was overthrown?

DRAGOS: Under Ceausescu, there were only three hours of television per night.

JOHN: And that was mostly about what Ceausescu had done that day.

DRAGOS: Yes. And occasional Romanian movies. And, once a week we had an international – specifically American – film. That is why Romanians speak English with an American accent. The only foreign languages we heard were French, a bit of Russian and a lot of American.

JOHN: And television after Ceausescu…?

DRAGOS:
He fled with his helicopter and his entourage on 22nd December 1989 and landed at a cabin in the mountains. But he was captured and he and his wife were shot on Christmas Day.

JOHN: And, after that, television changed…?

DRAGOS: The revolution caught them unprepared. They had no regulations about what you could show on TV. They transmitted an uncensored Romanian film with nudity at 8 o’clock at night and…

(…AT THIS POINT, PERFORMER NARIN OZ ARRIVED IN THE SOHO THEATRE BAR…)

JOHN: (TO NARIN) Do you know Dragos? You should go and see his show at the Hen & Chickens on Sunday.

NARIN: I can’t. I’m filming in a horror movie. I play Death. I’m the villain.

JOHN: That’s typecasting. It’s the evil eyes. Dragos is the David Jason of Romania. Ask him something.

Narin Oz unexpectedly arrived during my chat with Dragos at the Soho Theatre Bar in London

NARIN: What’s your background?

DRAGOS: I graduated in engineering from the University of Timișoara, where the Romanian revolution started. in 1989.

JOHN: You were there?

DRAGOS: Yes. I was there in the beginning. Things expanded dramatically. Within four days, there was blood on the streets. We didn’t have weapons. We had the mentality at that time to go out bare-handed and, as they say, bare-chested. But I wasn’t that crazy. When things changed and became quite serious, I ran. I ran and I was kind of a prisoner in the students’ area.

Nothing was working. Not the public transportation, not the trains, not nothing. I was blocked up to about the 24th December. The spark was on 18th December and rolled over and smashed all the country, but it ended up in Bucharest within two or three days on 21st of December and, on 22nd, Ceausescu fled, then was killed on 25th. They call us religious people, but we killed our leader on Christmas Day: come on!

NARIN: So your show is about Romania…

DRAGOS: No. Not at all. I just put all that in brackets – what I just said.

NARIN: Those are very big brackets. Is it a tragedy or a comedy?

JOHN: It’s not a comedy show as such. It has comedy but with lots of music. It’s like an old-time variety show but solo.

DRAGOS: Though I think, when you walk away, you have some ideas and a conclusion maybe?

NARIN: Are you singing?

DRAGOS: Yes. Singing and playing the piano and comedy.

JOHN: Songs you have written yourself.

DRAGOS: Ten songs written especially for the show.

JOHN: And a bit of Elton John.

“A serious piece of music… an impersonation of Elton John.”

DRAGOS: Yes. That is a more serious piece of music. I do an impersonation of Elton John. (HE SHOWS A VIDEO ON HIS PHONE)

NARIN: You’re a bit of a legend.

JOHN: He is. Twenty years daily on television. Multiple series. And he wrote and produced and starred in this sitcom which…

DRAGOS: That was the first sitcom ever in Romania because, before 1989 and the overthrow of Ceausescu, we didn’t have such entertainment there. Then, after ten years of importing Seinfeld and Married With Children, we started our own sitcom on Pro TV – a private one, like ITV here. It lasted for ten years and 524 episodes.

JOHN: Produced and written by you…

DRAGOS: Well, there was a whole team of writers…

JOHN: But mainly you…

DRAGOS: Yes, because I created the idea; so I was like the head writer; I would re-touch and revise a little bit and I also acted in it.

NARIN: So, why did you come here? You were known there. You had everything.

DRAGOS: Yes, but I felt I needed somewhere to go and something to do NEXT. When you become very comfortable within your situation, that can lead to lack of inspirational creativity.

I have built up this new stage show and now I am struggling to get it going because I am in-between worlds.

Romanians in Britain would come to see me but, when they find out the show is in English… Not many have perfect English, especially the guys who just come here to work, to get some money to build something back in Romania. In London, there are doctors, lawyers and others who have been here about ten years and speak good English, but…

NARIN: Why don’t you do a Romanian language show?

DRAGOS: I have. But it’s not what I came here for. When I address things in English, I have to have a British audience. And the non-Romanian, English-speaking audience do not know me at the moment. I’m not complaining.  This is the normal way to do it. To build a new audience. 

NARIN: You could do, say, a 4-day run with two shows in Romanian and two in English.

DRAGOS: I could, but doing the same show in English and in Romanian doesn’t work. The topics are slightly different. With the Romanian shows I have to be very specific with Romanian references and culture. Every other month, we have a 2-hour Romanian show with various acts.

But I want to move on, move up.

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