Monday, 11 April 2011

Not Without a Fan: Peter Skellern


[unfinished; last updated Saturday 18th February 2017]




I have a soft spot for the recordings of Peter Skellern, going back to his earliest time on Decca, and as there doesn't seem to be any kind of extended article about his recordings on the net, this is is my attempt to write the kind of piece which I, for one, would want to read about this - what? Singer- songwriter? One hit wonder? Nostalgia specialist?

Perhaps "unnatural rocker" covers it best: the juxtaposition of  images above from a girls' comic may be accidental, but I don't think Mr Skellern was ever much of, nor much wanted to be, a teen idol.

All, or some, of these notions will be explored in the next few paragraphs (he said in a transparent attempt to lure readers onwards).

I've put off doing this, and have made several false starts - not sure why, except perhaps that it doesn't seem right to heap praise on someone who doesn't particularly seem to want it, or to be suited to the spotlight. I read once that he wasn't keen on live performances because of the slog of preparation involved. Not a very rock'n'roll observation, is it? Too human, and with too keen a sense of the absurdity of his position, to be any kind of convincing icon.

But that, for me, is the charm of many of his recordings, especially before he found a niche as one whose mission was to revive interest in the great American songbook.

I saw him live once, presumably before the professional linkup with Richard Stilgoe, at the Festival Hall in London. Probably around the mid eighties. It was enjoyable, but I went with the sound of that beautiful arrangement of Skylark from the Still Magic album ringing in my ears, only to find that it was a case of One Man and His Piano. No flashing lights - which is fair enough for the Festival Hall - but no brass, not even of any kind.

Which gives a hint about what I like in his recordings. His voice is not the most versatile instrument in the world, but perhaps because of that, Skellern and his collaborators' interest lies in the producing and arranging side of things. That first recording of Skylark (redone less interestingly on a later album) is a case in point: his vocal, as in big band days, is given a small slot in the recording, but the soaring brass and his piano solo contribute just as much.

That recording comes from Still Magic, recorded for the Mercury label in 1980, at a time when he had already shifted his focus to recording standards. Compared to Skellern (1978), the album recorded with the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, and Astaire, his 1979 tribute to the nimble-footed one, it's a slightly uneven mix of standards and poppier self-penned material, but there are wonderful moments.

In addition to Skylark, there is a version of Raining in My Heart which works perfectly - simply because it's taken straight: it's like an understated but wholly convincing acting performance.




But going back to his earliest days on the Decca label when, presumably, the intention or the hope was that he would become a major pop star (though whether he wished for it himself I don't know), there are all sorts of interesting details about his songs and their settings which ought to have alerted whoever cared about that sort of thing that Mr Skellern was unlikely to settle for being a pop balladeer.


Maybe they were alerted and that's why he parted company with the label - but then again Decca had a tradition of nurturing comic songwriters, which makes it a bit confusing. I can't find it now, but I did read online a while ago a blog or memoir by someone involved in Island Records (Skellern's first port of call after Decca) who admitted his company didn't really know what to do with his brand of musical humour.

I don't know. But what I do know is that Peter Skellern's Decca material has been badly served in the CD age. You can buy a very cheap compilation of tracks taken from several albums, but it's hard to get the original albums. A few years ago I did obtain, via what seems to have been the CD equivalent of print-on-demand, a copy of his debut album You're a Lady, but I don't know whether that is still available.

Anyway, probably the most useful thing I can do here  is to go through the albums in order and talk about the tracks which appeal to me. And then I shall guide the reader through the various compilations and indicate how you can reconstitute almost an entire album never, to my knowledge, released on CD.

Although I'd already heard what may have been the very first of many Skellern compilations, cashing in on a recentish hit, Hold on to Love, and featuring some remixed tracks from Decca albums (My Lonely Room, for example) in 1976, my first proper inkling that Skellern was rather more than The Hit came when I bought a tape (takes you back, dunnit?) of his album Holding My Own a year or two later.

This, contained within a Donald McGill-style sleeve, was wall -to-wall comedy, a mix of his own songs and what appeared to be faves of his, by Frank Crumit and others. This was his last album proper for Decca, and I wonder whether the absence of anything resembling a pop ballad hastened his departure from the company.

But this is messing up the chronology, so before discussing Holding My Own more fully, let's go back to his solo debut, the You're a Lady album. It was the idiosyncracy, and the intimacy, of the song Every Home Should Have One which first struck me. It felt both like as though had been dashed off in ten minutes and that it was personal, revealing and - well, distinctly un-rockstar-ish. It had a bit of soul-searching which wouldn't, I suppose, be altogether out of place in some self-lacerating rock confessional:

    Am I growing hard,
    Or is there still some heart left in me?

But details like

    I wanna be great on TV,
    Embarrass everybody - including me

suggested someone who had retained a foot on firm ground. There is even

[... at which point the above version of this post grinds to a halt. Below is my second go -but because the wording is different - I wasn't simply correcting the above - I can't work out what to delete. Maybe one day. And the odds are that if you've read this far you will want to read on anyway.]


I have a soft spot for the recordings of Peter Skellern, going back to his earliest time on Decca. He may not have loomed quite as large in my teenage years as Donovan or Jake Thackray but I acquired most albums and still find pleasure in listening to them. And as there doesn't seem to be any kind of extended article about his recordings on the net, this is is my attempt to write the kind of piece which I, for one, would want to read about this - what? Singer- songwriter? One hit wonder? Nostalgia specialist?

Perhaps "unnatural rocker" covers it best - though that's more about what he isn't. The above juxtaposition of  images (front and back covers of a 70s girls' comic) may be accidental, but I don't think Mr Skellern was ever much of, nor much wanted to be, a teen idol.

In fact, that publicity shot suggests a man who, having elected to speak at a public gathering, has just realised he doesn't have a thought in his head. Peter Skellern may not actually have inspired terror in canine-loving moppets, but he is not David Cassidy, nor was meant to be.

A brief biography presumably approved, and maybe even written, by Skellern, puts it like this:
For the past 25 years he has gone his own way, ignoring the fads and fashions of the music world. His wholly idiosyncratic musical vision has encompassed everything from playing the standards of the 20s, 30s and 40s whilst being accompanied by brass bands to the writing of, and acting in, "Happy Ending" a TV series of mini-musicals in the 70s and 80s to musicals for children in the 90s.
For me, in the late seventies and early eighties Skellern was part of my whole Donovan/Jake Thackray thing. You know the rules - or you do if you're male. You hear a song on the radio or maybe borrow an album, like it, and before you know it you're committed: you have to buy up, tape, or otherwise get to hear, everything recorded by that person.

You are, in short, a Dono-fan, Thackrayite, or equivalent: Skellernatic, perhaps. And you write letters to Disc and Music Echo or Sounds castigating those members of other tribes who have dared to speak out in favour of their idols. Whose angry ripostes will be published in next week's edition. And so it goes on.

And that - without too much of the letter writing - is what I've been ever since I came across a tape of Holding My Own, his third (and last) album proper for Decca. A milder strain of Skellernaticism, perhaps but one which has lasted. And that seems sort of fitting: it's music which is more likely to provoke a wry smile or an affirmative nod than frantically flailing arms and screaming.



If I were tracking my personal discovery of Peter Skellern's music systematically, I ought to start with a 1975 compilation calleed Hold On To Love (above), which I suspect was Decca wringing what they could out of their departing star, as it came after his three albums proper for the label, starting with You're a Lady in 1972. Like that debut, it was named after a recent hit - and it included The Big Hit, so must have attracted quite a few casual buyers.

In 1976, however, not yet having developed a sense of commitment to the artist, and knowing only The Big Hit, I borrowed Hold On to Love from my local library in Steelopolis-as-was, and what most struck me was a lushly orchestrated, tender ballad, My Lonely Room - possibly, given his later penchant for standards, a quote from Porter's Night and Day:
In the roaring traffic's boom
In the silence of my lonely room
I think of you ...
I suppose what was happening on the track (remixed from its original appearance on his first album, so maybe the release wasn't wholly cynical) was related to what gave the Big Hit its appeal - until slightly diminished, for me, by overfamiliarity, anyway.

An appeal which, I think, boils down to this. Skellern's voice doesn't or didn't have a great range, so - and I have no idea how much was down to the producers, arrangers or the artist's own wishes - the backing provided a crucial subtext, the brass band on The Big Hit representing his soaring hopes when the actual voice strained, just as the melancholy and beautiful orchestral arrangement on My Lonely Room did something of the same. Certainly his singing of the lines on My Lonely Room -
For I floated high on silver wings
And felt the rush of spring
- needed that additional - well, I can only say uplift which the backing provided.

Maybe the arrangement was a little too much on that occasion (I haven't consciously compared the two mixes - I'm not, y'know, obsessive or anything), but Skellern's voice seemed to invite such experimentation: he didn't have the equipment to be all about bravura vocalising.

Which, in his case, has been rather a good thing, leading to considerable adventurousness in the arrangement/production side of things over the years in his work for Decca and beyond. The embedded you clip below has been deliberately miniaturised as - trust me - the images don't add much:



Another Skellern recording I particularly like is his first attempt at Hoagy Carmichael's Skylark (a favourite composer of his, whose singing voice likewise had its limits). It comes from the Still Magic album (Mercury) and his lead is relegated to a small section in the middle - what used to be termed "vocal refrain" on the labels of old dance band 78s. Instead it's the piano solo and the and soaring brass (two small groups, I believe) which are the main attractions.




I remember Skylark particularly fondly from the days of hernia-inducing walkmans: a cassette of Still Magic (which, our relationship having deepened by this point, I had been emboldened to purchase) used to accompany me on late night walks to clear the head during my final months of study at university (hey, I was listening to Pet Sounds too). And the elation of completing my final exam will forever be associated with a moment in the recording, a sort of squeal of pleasure..

Skellern later rerecorded it for an album which alternated Hoagy tunes with numbers associated with the Inkspots: perfectly acceptable but - without that backing - not quite so good.

Talking of which, I recall my disappointment on the one occasion I went to see him live, at the Royal Festival Hall, probably around the late eighties or early nineties. Above all, I imagined the delight of finally hearing the full might of Skylark, unfettered by the sonic limitations of what used to be known as musicassettes.

Alas, no band: just one man and his piano. And I mean, this was the Festival Hall. Or the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Or the Purcell Room, or whatever. At any rate, I do remember that there seemed a fair amount of room to the untrained eye. Then again, perhaps I ought to have been warned when Skellern once complained in an interview that he didn't much like playing live: all that preparation.

No, not very rock'n'roll at all. For one of his album covers Marc Bolan might be pictured atop a tank; Peter Skellern, whether literally, in Judy comic, or metaphorically, was always in a tanktop.



Well, not always, as evidenced below. Which reminds me that we're drifting away from the quirky side of his output, my ostensible subject, so let's dive into Holding My Own, whose ready-when-you-are-Mr-McGill cover immediately proclaims he's not playing the pop balladeer PR game anymore:


From a Judy spree, as you might say, to a jeu d'esprit.

Still reading? On the back sleeve (I no longer have the tape) I think he asks God to bless someone - possibly a member of the Decca company who allowed him to go off in this new direction? Or whoever got him the gig on the long-gone Stop the Week on Radio 4, where I suspect some of the self-penned selections on this album originated?

But maybe the most important thing about the album, his third and final LP proper for Decca, is that there is nothing much resembling a love song in the whole collection. The earlier LPs, You're a Lady and Not Without a Friend, may have their comic or bizarre moments, but this is wall-to-wall frolicking.

And, innuendo aside, that title suggests that this collection may be more representative of his musical tastes, or his roots ("my own"), than some of his earlier ventures. Let's have a look at the track list, with vinyl-type division:
Abdul Abulbul Amir
Up For The Shoot
The Streaker
The Tattooed Lady
She Had To Go And Lose It At The Astor
Skin 'N' Bone

Honey Chil'
Society Ladies
That Is The End Of The News
Vicarious Vestments
Uncle Sam
The End Of The Show

You can find out more about Abdul Abulbul Amir here, but the main point, I think, is that it describes, at a lesiurely pace ("By this I imply you are going to die"), a fight to the death, like the decorous destruction one of those Laurel and Hardy films carried to its logical extreme.
The most famous recording is by Frank Crumit, which is presumably what inspired Skellern, who adds his own multitracked backing voices to his recording, and his lead comes into its own here: the song may not be a great vocal stretch, but his rendition has what seems precisely the right balance of Northern gormlessness and wry amusement.




That same balance can be found on another non-original, That Is the End of the News.


This was originally performed by a pigtailed Joyce Grenfell (above) in a 1945 Noel Coward revue, but although there is one direct reference to the end of the war, the song is a kind of evergreen point number, topical as I write:
We've been done in
By the mortgage foreclosure
And Father went out on a blind,
He got run in
For indecent exposure
And ever so heavily fined
 Skellern doesn't emulate Grenfell's accent, but the same sense of innocence and lunatic optimism is there - although, again, he seems to be outside the song at the same time, inviting us to share his enjoyment of the situation's ridiculousness, aided by the introductory verse, sung rather more knowingly:
We are told very loudly and often
To lift up our hearts,
We are told that good humour will soften
Fate's cruelest darts
So however bad our domestic troubles may be
We just shake with amusement and sing with glee.

That recording, which I think may even have been released as a single, has considerable historical importance: Richard Stilgoe (one of Jake Thackray's successors for point numbers on the Beeb) heard it and was greatly taken with it, leading ultimately to a long-lasting musical partnership and several live albums.



The Tattooed Lady and She Had to Go and Lose It at the Astor are delivered in similar style. I think both are non-originals (though not quite as original as "She Had to Go and Lose It at the Altar", as the sleeve of one CD compilation has it).

Re the inky personage, there are many songs similarly named, but this is not Groucho's famed celebration of Lydia, nor yet the Paddy Roberts ditty ("Oh I was a bit of a lad I admit..."). I won't give a link for lyrics, as these sort of sites tend to have lots of pop-ups, but I've seen it credited to "O'Keefe" and listed as being recorded by Billy Cotton with Alan Breeze ("Breezy") singing.

Ah: investigating further, it looks like it originated in 1934 or 1935, or at any rate was sung by Wallace Beery in the film O'Shaughnessy's Boy around then - see the imdb entry here, though I suspect it's more likely that the Billy Cotton version would have been the one Skellern knew.

You can find a trailer for the film (song not included, alas) on the Turner Classic Movies website here - which is perhaps more than enough information on the topic, though I must draw your attention to the pleasing line when the husband discovers his wife's infidelity:
He yelled: Never dampen my bathmat again.
Not sure whether Mr Skellern would wish to be compared to Benny Hill (about whose limitations I have written in the context of a post about another comic singer, here), but the sleevenotes for the Golden Hour of Benny Hill album praised his ability, as a singer, to know just how to point up, or perhaps simply signal his relish in, the innuendo in a seemingly corny song. I don't have the notes to hand, but I think it's what Skellern does as well, in this song and others:
Mother Eve in the garden of Eden
Knew the serpent the same as the lass
But this girl might have kept
From temptation except
For a terrible snake in the grass.


Perhaps it would be more appropriate to cite Gracie Fields as an influence: she has a similar ability to suggest innocence while simultaneously inviting the audience to laugh at that innocence.


If you can find it, I particularly recommend the above CD (EMI/Conifer) of her work, even though it's pricier than many of the public domain issues. Sound quality is good - ie less evidence of sonic processing than elsewhere - but the real selling point about the recordings selected is that they include about twenty minutes of her live performance at the Holborn Empire, enabling you to hear that outside the confines of the studio, she is remarkably free with some numbers, sending them up, relishing them, seeming utterly careless and playful as she sings. Here is a clip from another souce found on youtube:



Her range and boldness clearly exceed Peter Skellern's - she can sing an affecting music hall or parlour song like Three Green Bonnets straight -but it doesn't seem too fanciful to suggest a connection: Bury, Skellern's birthplace, is only a few miles from Rochdale. Here is a spotify link for that particular Fields album, if you can access spotify.

And maybe -  though I admit this may be straining things a bit - there could some slight connection between Skellern and another piano man of note. In the first edition of The Sound of the City (and maybe in later ones as well) the late Charlie Gillett had especial praise for the singing of Jerry Lee Lewis (which I'm sure Mr Lewis saw and sees as nothing less than his due, but that's a post for another time). Gillett singled out his ability to sing, as it were, in inverted commas, never wholly abandoned like Little Richard but "almost always" with "an edge of detachment or even cynical derision", never quite buying into this "love" business:

 This detachment [says Gillett] enabled Lewis to pace his records, and control his audiences at live performances, with a finesse few rock'n'roll singers showed. He would have needed only Chuck Berry's flair for writing songs to be a comparably important figure.
Love that "only."

Anyway, I'm not saying Peter Skellern is quite like that, but his singing, on Holding My Own and elsewhere, does seem to have a sense of detachment particularly suited to material designed to elicit both laughter and sympathy. It's also true, I think, of Our Jackie's Getting Married on the You're a Lady album (which I'll discuss later).

[update Sep 2011: I have just read, in the section on Gracie Fields in Richard Anthony Baker's recent and highly recommended book on the rise and fall of Variety, that Fields was specifically guying the melodramatic aspect of the song Out in the Cold, Cold Snow in the Holborn Empire recording, so she too was distancing herself, becoming a commentator on, some of her material.]

I think, though Charlie Gillett didn't make the comparison, that what Jerry Lee does is different in kind from the gleeful sendups by Fats Waller of inferior material. As with Gracie Fields, there's a sense of Peter Skellern being bound up with the songs: there is affection involved. 

She Had to Go and Lose It at the Astor is credited to Don Ray and Hugh Prince and was recorded in 1939 by Harry Roy. Herewith a youtube clip of Skellern's version:



Some of the numbers on Holding My Own are more conventionally comic with a capital "C". Take the broad satire of the self-penned Up for the Shoot, for example.
Here we all are breakfasting in our pyjamas
Tiring of holidays in the Bahamas
Initialed slippers, kedgeree or kippers,
We're all such gentleman farmers
This, I suspect, is one of his contributions to Stop the Week.

For those who don't remember that Radio 4 programme, it was what could seem an infuriatingly cozy group discussion hosted by Robert Robinson, with the same nucleus of guest chatterers each week. At its best, however, it felt like listening in on clever friends, talking delightfully, mostly about trivia. I wrote to the programme a couple of times about some topic or another in what strained to be a similar mode; the first letter elicited this response from Mr Robinson:
Dear Mr ------,

Delicious!

yours sincerely,

Robert Robinson
 But I have to admit my faith waivered a bit when a later note provoked precisely the same one-word response ... which calls to mind a former colleague whose catch-all response "Food for thought!" saved him the bother of actually reading his charges' musings.

But then again Mr Robinson didn't have to respond at all. And he was a good essayist, whose work is worth seeking out. The Dog Chairman and his autobiography, Skip All That, are probably easiest to find, though I used to have a paperback of his earlier pieces from the Observer or the Sunday Times. He also wrote a pretty good detective novel in the manner of Edmund Crispin, Landscape With Dead Dons, and I still remember the phrase he used in a written account of his TV interview with Nabokov: between takes they were speculating about the Rev. C.L. Dodgson and with
a smile which was full of bad news
Nabokov (unlike Sting, stress the second syllable, as in that idiomatic Scottish expression of contempt: "You anes gie me the dry ...") opined that "there was a lay in it somewhere."


Robert Robinson died at the age of 83 in 2011; an appreciation by Stop the Week regular Laurie Taylor on the occasion of his retirement from the quiz can be found here.

Another Skellern song, which I imagine was for Stop the Week, resembled the work of the other musical contributors to the programme such as Instant Sunshine, except that there was an extra bit of grit: he was, after all, uniquely placed to judge those into whose sphere his minor celebrity status had propelled him.
When society ladies show me to their friends
They kiss my cheek - but that's where it ends
For although I'm a Name, it's not quite the same
Cause I'm no one, no one but me.

They try very hard to be down to earth
And talk about things I should know
But after a time they succumb to their wine
And their breeding begins to show
When the matrons warn him off their deb daughters, the song ends with what might be called a note of triumphal regret:
I'll never be Mark Phillips, try as I might
Cause I'm no one, no one but me.

But perhaps the most enjoyable self-penned numbers on the album are neither satirical nor confessional but ones I'd label purely silly, in which the lyrics seem largely an excuse for the gleeful messing around with the musical sounds of several decades ago.

Skin 'n' Bone is a case in point. There's a certain amount of innuendo and heavily ironic sexual boasting - he's clearly inhabiting a Formby-type persona - but the whole is just so jolly and cheering (complete with speeded up backing vocals) that you (or I, anyway) succumb. Here's a poor sound quality youtube clip which nevertheless gets the Formby connection:



Ditto with Uncle Sam, stranded on a desert island but so in thrall to jazz-crazed rhythms that he muffs an opportunity to escape:
Uncle Sam grew sad at heart
He knew he'd be there forever
But he'd still alive cause he was smart
And the natives ... weren't very clever.
So when ships came into view
The morse code he'd play
But he never got far
Cause he'd get carried away
... cue the Skellern piano, unable to resist swingin' them familiar notes. And a chorus of Skellern's own speeded-up voices provides hilarious accompaniment.



Honey Chil' is, I suppose, an early tribute - of sorts - to the group later celebrated on the album Stardust Memories, namely the Inkspots - and the phrase "Honey Chil'" is, of course, associated with their bass singer (may Unca Marvey, whose knowledge I have plundered so often, forgive me, but I can't remember his name right now).

Either way, the joy of this track is he gives the lyrical side of things precisely the amount of attention it deserves - which is to say practically nil: the pleasure is in the back and forth between Skellern's bass voice and, once again, a multitracked self-backing group. And the good news is it's the uptempo, lightly swinging Inkspots he's affectionately nodding towards, not the group suffocating in sentimentality (as parodied by Spike Jones and His City Slickers) - or possibly the early, jazzier Mills Brothers in Tiger Rag mode. Or a bit of both groups.

Actually, maybe I'm being unfair about the lyrics, which are a catalogue of calamities:
Twenty years have passed since then
And things got slowly worse
Mother got evicted from a slum in town
And came to join us first

Then my brother from Milwaukee went and lost his doggie
And didn't even ask if he could stay
He just walked in, cool as a cat, and asked to stay the night
Oh, Honey Chil', you know that just ain't right.
And there is an early George and Ira Gershwin song called My Cousin in Milwaukee so it's just about possible that, as in My Lonely Room, Skellern is making another allusion to the greats - even though, from a cursory reading of Ira's lyrics this may not have been the pair's finest three minutes.

Vicarious Vestments, which sounds like it might also come from Stop the Week (or That's Life, or Nationwide), is a bit heavy handed - by which I mean it's a "proper" comedy song, a point number, such as might also have appealed to Richard Stilgoe, poking fun at clergy rather too concerned with outward appearances:
 Still, at least in my own congregation
I can dress in the fabrics I want
Velour in the vestry, chantung in the crypt ...
And my terylene trunks in the font.
But I do love the final song, The End of the Show. Annoyingly, this the one song missing from my reconstituted Holding My Own: if you buy the cheapo Very Best of Peter Skellern CD and the slightly rarer Singer and the Song CD you have most of the Holding My Own album, did you but know it; but this send up of finale-type songs has to be found elsewhere. There is a massed choir of Skellerns, but the words are as hackneyed as possible.
There is no end I know
Like the end of a show
When the orchestra's packed up and gone
There is no peace I find
Like the one left behind

When it's time to lock up and go
 Before the curtain's down
One last look around
There's no end like the end of a show.
Now, this is not exactly clever wit, and I initially thought: maybe he's talking about, you know, doing it - so "before the curtain's down" maybe meant before clothing was put back in place (after, y'know, doing it) - but again, the arrangement (more multitracked Skellerns and a wonderfully portentous spoken interlude) is more than enough in itself.

And the context of the song - coming, as it does, at the end of a series of ditties which have been less than unabashedly solemn - is part of the comic effect. Because what he's been doing on the Holding My Own album is the antithesis of those superfatted sentiments.

Could The End of the Show also have been intended a farewell to his then record company, a sort of half-concealed two fingers? I dunno. But as leavetakings go, it's a good 'un: not a ha'porth of genuine sentiment and yet filled with a kind of daffy conviction at the same time. Conviction in the simple enjoyment of recreating an outmoded, overblown style.  Fun. That's the word I'm looking for. You remember fun, dontcha?

And that may be the key to Skellern's work, something which has informed his musical choices, not just in Holding My Own, but more generally. In an autobiographical documentary series simply called Peter Skellern and transmitted on the BBC in the eighties, he had this to say about his musical upbringing:
The great thing about being brought up an unsophisticated mill town that nobody ever said this is good music or this is bad music because nobody knew that there was a difference. There was something dark and mysterious called Highbrow but that didn't concern us; that was for snooty people. All the rest was music - and its worth was not assessed by content but by effort involved in performing and enjoyment upon hearing. In other words, music was for pleasure. People played instruments or sang in choirs as a means of relief, of escape from a very drab world full of coal lorries, cotton, heavy machinery, linoleum, public baths and Sunday School, the mothers' union, public transport and opticians' waiting rooms. 
Which just leaves The Streaker, a bit of vaguely ragtimey fun. Listeners to CDs compilations featuring this track will miss the extra frisson afforded my experience of it on the cassette version of Holding My Own: at times it sounds as though the tape is about to be chewed up or preparing itself to unspool.

You won't be in any sense enlightened or transformed by listening to Holding My Own. It is unlikely that Skellern ever made any claims for it along the lines of Pete Townshend for Tommy, but it  is beguiling and entertaining throughout and that's aplenty for me. It does indeed sound like someone happily going his own way - although whether that's linked to the Decca recording contract running out, I couldn't say.

Anyway, following my own path of discovery, let's go back a bit. I think that after Holding My Own I sought out his debut album, named after The Big Hit. On its release, one track had even been played on one of the late night Radio One programmes, presented, I think by Alan Black and Ann Nightingale (aka Ian and Avril). The song was Our Jackie's Getting Married so I suppose that must have actually been my first exposure to Skellern's unromantic side - or his willingness to engage with the prosaic reality of attraction, anyway. Again, the lyrics were sort of throwaway, as the mucky little swain paints a picture of what he wishes to get up to that evening:
No one will see us, I'm quite sure of that
And if they did, say we're looking for my cat.
Later, the lad's family meet his intended and imagine the wedding:
Ooh, intit smashin', I'll have a new hat
And Dad'll get his suit pressed - just fancy that!
The angelic choir sounds like it has a female component (though Skellern was eventually to realise that tjhe backing voices worked best when they were all provided by him) and the song ends with what sounds like Jackie's vision of marital bliss, and a kitchen-sink type arrangement, with angelic chorus, church organ and piano:
And when it's over and we're all alone
We'll cuddle up
In our own little home
This recording sounds like a case of having your cake and eating it: if the lyrics are (gently) sending up a stereotypical Northern family's excitement about a forthcoming wedding the arrangement appears to endorse that excitement. There doesn't seem contempt here: he is the dopey boyfriend, but you get caught up in the song: it seems affectionate, and the mockery is light, as though he's watching a film or a sitcom which has more than a grain of truth in it: tender contempt, in Dennis Potter's phrase (that was how he said one ought to look back on one's past - though he stressed the importance of the tenderness).

Listening to the song again, I'm not sure whether it was to be taken as describing an actual planned wedding, or whether it's meant to be all in the mind, ie the narrator's frantic castle-building as he imagines the contact to come "I want to see you ... Behind the bus shelter soon after dark".

But I think part of the appeal of the song is the sheer lack of imagination of the narrator, as he can't seem to get beyond the drab details of the wedding arrangements:
There'll be a commotion about who's staying where
Uncles and aunties and gran will be there
or the vision of married life already quoted (the cuddling up). It is, in short, a child's eye view or rather - for those who know their Corrie - a Kirk's-Eye View. A clear signal, early on, that Peter Skellern was about more than straightforward love songs.



Another rather odd ditty on the debut album struck me, when I finally obtained a copy (tape again): Every Home Should Have One. This gave the impression of being a sort of diary entry, going off in unexpected directions. Idiosyncratic, intimate, Every Home Should Have One felt both like it had been dashed off in ten minutes and that it was personal, revealing and - again, distinctly un-rockstar-ish. It had a bit of soul-searching which wouldn't, I suppose, be altogether out of place in some self-lacerating rock confessional:
Am I growing hard,
Or is there still some heart left in me?
But details like
I wanna be great on TV,
Embarrass everybody - including me
suggested someone who had retained a foot on firm ground. And - as some later songs (America Keep You Well on the Hard Times album) were to do - it seemed to be (whether or not it actually was) about his family, and expressed an ambivalence about the past, and the wisdom of leaving the security of home, which was not altogether unlike that of Ray Davies. Like Davies, too, in songs like Autumn Almanac, this seemed to be a composition of stitched-together fragments, leading to a section which sounds like it would benefit from orchestration, before dying down.



Also on that first album, Manifesto is a seduction song ("Oh be mine, Babe, tonight") propelled into lunar distances beyond logic by its arrangment, including a banjo well to the fore, and a percussive effect which sounds like, and probably is, the clicking of his tongue against the roof of his mouth. 

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All Last Night is a simple ("Baby you lied ... Baby I cried") and catchy song deliberately given an overblown arrangement - but the trick is the way it steals up on the listener.

Which may be a good moment to mention Andrew Pryce Jackman, credited with arrangements on the first album. I don't know how their collaboration worked, or the role of the producer, but the results are highly pleasing. A biography of Jackman, here, who died in 2003, doesn't make clear whether he was involved in Holding My Own or Skellern's other Decca album Not Without a Friend, but he arranged the Skellern album with the Grimethorpe Colliery Band as well as Astaire, a tribute to he of the nimble tread (and similarly narrow vocal range, although beloved of songwriters for his meticulous preparation of material).

And surfing for more information about possible work with Peter Skellern, I see  from now-inaccessible review in Gramophone magazine that arrangements on the Still Magic album, presumably including Skylark, were by Skellern but with Jackman's help with the orchestrating. The reviewer notes the presence of Equale Brass - "quintet—no brass bands this time" - and the London Saxophone Quartet. Possibly both feature on Skylark. And there is a comment on Skellern's vocalising, which could equally apply to Astaire's:
His may not be the most fluent of singing voices, but it has great charm and sensibility.
Which seems precisely right.

But this is getting the chronology of my personal discovery of albums mixed up once again. Around 1979 I bought a tape of Not Without a Friend, the second Decca album - produced, I believe, by Derek Taylor. This included some numbers already familiar to me from the Hold On to Love compilation, but what struck me most was Hymn Song, which came over as a kind of self-reckoning, with a beautiful, memorable detail to reassure himself that there had been at least one solid achievement could be noted:
Once in a momentary kiss
I found your love alone
And  although his vocal is, on this occasion, what you might call impassioned, again it's the unexpected element in the arrangement - in this case the counterpoint of a choirboy singing a faimiliar hymn - which gives the recording its power.

Sadly, this is not on any of the CD compilations that I know of, but I urge you to seek it out if you can. I think there was a legit print-on-demand CD of the album but don't think it's available now; the vinyl can be found for sale on a well-known auction website and elsewhere. Here's a youtube clip which sounds dubbed from vinyl:



Before going further with Peter Skellern's career, maybe now is a good time to indicate what compilations are currently available on CD - but not before saying it's a great pity that his albums for Decca have not been issued in their original form on CD - or rather are not currently available. I did in fact buy You're a Lady - again, I think it may have been a print-on-demand situation - which had a few extra tracks shoehorned in at the end. But Holding My Own, as far as I know, has never been made available on CD.



But here's the good(ish) news: you can get a chunk of the Holding My Own tracks on a very cheap and widely available CD entitled The Very Best of Peter Skellern (above) on the Spectrum label.

1. Hold On To Love
2. You're a lady
3. The tattooed lady [Holding My Own]
4. Too Much I'm In Love
5. Society ladies [Holding My Own]
6. My Lonely Room
7. Our Jackie's getting married
8. Vicarious vestments [Holding My Own]
9. Skin and bone [Holding My Own]
10. Make It Easy For Me
11. Uncle Sam [Holding My Own]
12. No more Sunday papers
13. A sad affair
14. Piano rag
15. Up for the shoot [Holding My Own]
16. Big time Indian Chief
17. Honey chil' [Holding My Own]
18. Sleepy guitar

 As you can see, you get a sizeable chunk of the Holding My Own album, albeit mixed up and randomly arranged. Now combine this with the tracks on The Singer and the Song, another CD compilation on Spectrum which I think is out of print but fairly easy to obtain cheaply secondhand:



1. You're A Lady         
2. Abdul Abulbul Amir [Holding My Own]      
3. Lean Back And Let It Happen       
4. Georgia Moon           
5. She Had To Go And Lose It at the Astor  [Holding My Own]      
6. Our Jackie's Getting Married    
7. The Streaker [Holding My Own]       
8. Hold On To Love       
9. Rockin' Chair           
10. Manifesto       
11. Somebody Call Me Tonight           
12. Send My Heart To San Francisco           
13. All Last Night           
14. That Is The End Of The News [Holding My Own]

Which mops up the remaining Holding My Own tracks - apart, annoyingly, from the sublime The End of the Show. For which you must obtain the Right from the Start compilation - but please don't bid for the copy currently available on a well-known auction website (the auction ends on 2nd May) as I'm bidding for it. [Sadly, this ruse didn't work.] 


The rest of this compilation  mostly repeats tracks on the two collections above:

   1. You're A Lady
   2. And So It Passes
   3. My Lonely Room
   4. Our Jackie's Getting Married
   5. The Streaker
   6. Manifesto
   7. Too Much,I'm In Love
   8. Hold On To Love
   9. Lie Safely There
  10. Make It Easy For Me
  11. Keep In Your Own Backyard
  12. She Had To Go And Lose It At The Astor
  13. All Last Night
  14. The End Of The Show

This actually has a compiler credited - Tony Watts - and may be an earlier collection than the two others, as a vinyl version was also issued. I quite like the idea of pairing All Last Night and The End of the Show. And assuming no one else bids, I will have obtained the Holding My Own album (plus a lot of other Skellern Decca recordings) for around fourteen pounds - ie the grand total for those three CDs.



In a purely selfless spirit, I may as well draw your attention to Sentimentally Yours, another cheaply and currently available CD of Peter Skellern's work, this time of his Mercury recordngs, taken from the Skellern (red rose against colliery), Still Magic and Astaire albums - and the last-named, not currently available on CD, tends to go for big bucks on that well-known auction et cetera. The superior first recording of Skylark is included, although the mastering on this CD seems unusually quiet.

1. Too Much I'm In Love
2. Raining In My Heart
3. They Can't Take That Away From Me
4. Still Magic
5. Love Is The Sweetest Thing
6. Isn't This A Lovely Day (To Be Caught In The Rain)
7. Where Do We Go From Here
8. Continental (You Kiss While You Dance)
9. When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful
10. Skylark
11. Deep Purple
12. Over Her
13. Way You Look Tonight
14. Two Sleepy People
15. You And I
16. Cheek To Cheek
17. While I'm Away
18. Sweet Words
19. Put Out The Flame
20. Night And Day

It's a pity, however, that neither the Mercury nor the Decca albums are available on CD - or easily available - in their original form. Is it related to the non-teen idol thing? Would these simply not sell in sufficiently large quantities to justify their release? Is it that Skellern has always produced well crafted but disparate work and is therefore perceived as hard to market?



After leaving Decca, he went to Island Records - rather more hip - and released an album called Hard Times, complete with reinvented image as sleazy bootlegger (as in prohibition era). I think I recall him on Top of the Pops, and I bought the album, but it was certainly a rather odd mix of stuff, including what sounded like (I don't know whether it was) another autobiographical song, Goodbye, America Keep You Well - this time about his brother leaving home. I don't think it was a commercial success. I can't find it now, but I came across something on the web by someone involved with Island who suggested that Decca, with its reputation for comic songwriters, would have been a better home for the album. 

There are links with a couple of ex_Beatles: George Harrison contributed guitar to the song Make Love, Not War, and three years later Ringo Starr recorded his own version of Hard Times. Presumably Ringo was alerted to the song by his former bandmate. I don't know how Skellern hooked up with Harrison but it would be pleasing to think it was through a shared love of Hoagy Carmichael. 

After Island, Skellern moved to Mercury where, after Kissing in the Cactus, which I haven't heard, he produced the three albums sampled in the Sentimentally Yours compilation: Skellern, Still Magic and Astaire.

Actually, this would be a good moment to link to a discography, here, which has all the solo albums in chronological order - just scroll down the page a bit and click on each title for track listings. 

There is more to say about Skellern's work, but for the moment I will note

 I bought tapes of String of Pearls (big band settings) and Lovelight; I chiefly remember the latter for a notable extended piano solo on These Foolish Things. At some point in my beloved, and late-lamented, Cheapo Cheapo Records I bought a CD of Stardust Memories, his Ink Spots / Hoagy Carmichael tribute. The sound is beautiful, so it feels wrong to describe as a no-frills recording. But there are no concessions, no rocked-up versions of these standards: the album doesn't seem to be about chasing fame but celebrating  these artists with as much craft and love as he can muster.



I began this piece with an image from Skellern's brief period as a teen idol of sorts. You will find many photographs online which seem to suggest various doomed attempts by record labels' publicists to cast him in one role or another. 


  

 

 But none of 'em seem wholly convincing to me: he looks too ordinary, too selfconscious to be any kind of star. To borrow his own phrase in that BBC documentary series, Peter Skellern is a creator of music for pleasure - and that's it. 

I remember once, when he was being interviewed about some small acting role he said, "I don't think Tom Conti needs to be worried yet." The remark was perfectly pitched for a lighthearted Radio 2 interview - indeed, it may well have been coined beforehand - but it doesn't seem fanciful to see a greater truth behind it: for all his considerable musical talent Skellern is an everyman, not a star. He is most definitely lacking in that quality which Anthony Newley attributed to himself: glitz. And while that means he has never ascended the stratospheric heights of a Newley (or an Elton John, say, to keep things in the rock field) the best of his work has a quiet conviction. It's not self-penned but I'm drawn back to Raining in My Heart from the Still Magic album. No posturing, no gimmickry, but a reimagining of the Buddy Holly classic, making us see unfresh what is undoubtedly in the lyrics, and which feels every bit as valid as Holly's original recording. Or consider the beauty of that arrangement of Skylark on the same album. Or Hymn Song: "That once in a momentary kiss ..."


Sadly, at the time of revising this piece in October 2016, it has been announced that Peter Skellern is terminally ill. I have fitfully tried to write a much more extended version of this post, covering every song in exhaustive detail, but it has been difficult - I suppose because really I want to say the same thing again and again, and there isn't much point in that. Better perhaps, just to encourage the reader to seek out his work - and to hope that at some point his Decca albums will be released in their original form on CD. 


Until that happy day, I thank Mr Skellern for the pleasure his work has given me over the years.

12 comments:

  1. Re "My Lonely Room" video.Nost of the "Peter Skellern" videos on you tube mostly show just the CD cover of a cheopo compilation. The problem in compiling a video (just using Windows Movie Maker) is how to make it interesting to the current video generation (believe me, I just prefer to listen to the track and let my imagination provide the visuals...it was the way I was brought up). So apologies for the visuals on this video, scouring the web to obtain suitable pictures was a time taking task and not always succesful.
    Apologies for the quality of the audio on "Skin and Bone" as well....I had to use my "much used over nearly 40yrs" LP ( I did obtain it on CD a few months later!...too late!).
    Enjoyed the article, though, nice to see something like this on t'internet at last.
    Looking forward to it's completion and mention of the "Oasis" LP

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  2. Now I feel (moderately) guilty for my ungenerous assessments - maybe that'll be a spur to finally finishing this post. Maybe.

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  3. You - I mean me - make me sick. Why don't you - ie me - either finish this or delete it?

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  4. Or at least tidy it up, why don't you?

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    1. just leave it as it is please, a piece of mr skellern also must have had scratches

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  5. To the readers of these comments who aren't me: Sorry, there is another project which will be taking up most of my time for the forseeable future. But there's a substantial amount of information or uninformed thought, or what you will, in the above post anyway, even if it's not neatly rounded off.

    I note that since my last revision Robert Robinson has died.

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  6. don't worry its fine
    we need to persuade someone to digitise the albums for us
    keep the faith

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    1. gla you didn't delete it after all - there is little enough about this brilliant,talented singer-songwriter as it is. I'm only sorry he seems not to perform nowadays as he can knock most of these present-day discoveries into the proverbial. I have transferred all my vinyl onto cd, including some mentioned as hard to find (I have been a fan for most of my life)and they are all now on the ipod, so never far away from me.
      Thanks for all the info about Peter that I didn't know before - it's all bookmarked for eternity now on my mac.
      All the best
      Malc.

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  7. Great to read some background to Peter Skellern.My musical knowledge and appreciation is minimal but he speaks to my heart and I have enjoyed listening to him for more than 40 years.His musical ability is fantastic but understated and offered with humility. Such a rare mix! And his personality shines through; the warmth and gentleness with that touch of innocent naughtiness - I love it! So thank you,Peter,for a delightful musical soundtrack to my life. x

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  8. Wonderful to see that someone else appreciates Skellern. Much underrated and misunderstood. Especially good to be able to hear my favourite Skellern number, "Hymn Song." "One drop of rain leaves more of a stain than I." Too true. I have "Not Without A Friend" and numerous other Skellern LPs (including the delightful "Holding My Own"), but can no longer play them. Have looked desperately for decent CDs of his work, but have found just a couple of fairly inane compilations. Perhaps I shall have to buy a record player again!

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  9. Have a listen to the Radio 4 Extra re-broadcast of Peter Skellern on "The Tingle Factor" with Robin Ray from the early 1990s http://bbc.in/28SI3gf (not sure how long it will be available). He chose "Hymn Song" as the track of his he would like to have seen better known. Also, I wrote a short blog post on the instrumental "Cold Feet" from the Still Life album here: http://bit.ly/28VtT1q

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  10. Thank you for all this information. I once possessed 'Hard Times' but seem to have lost it. I am really trying to get hold of 'Goodbye, America Keep You Well', but I cannot find it anywhere. But thanks again - excellent music.

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