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Ivor Cutler

Scotland’s comic idiosyncratic answer to poet laureate Sir John Betjeman, VIVIAN STANSHALL and er… an off-kilter JAKE THACKRAY, the irrepressible and madcap humourist IVOR CUTLER (in lieu of Will Fyffe) was never happier than telling tales – accompanied by his indissoluble harmonium – of life in a “Scotch” sitting room. Probably his biggest claim-to-fame came with his bit-part in The BEATLES’ Magical Mystery Tour movie of late 1967, playing the role of bus conductor Buster Bloodvessel long before the name was associated with the ska revival (a la BAD MANNERS). CUTLER’s fans included BILLY CONNOLLY, Bertrand Russell, Radio 1 disc-jockey/patron John Peel and, of course, LENNON & McCARTNEY.
Born 15th January 1923 in Govan, Ivor was brought up in the tenements of the largely industrial/docklands area of Glasgow and was educated at Shawlands Academy. He subsequently worked for Rolls Royce during WWII and spent time in the RAF as a navigator, before he was dismissed on the grounds of being “too dreamy and absent-minded”; he served out his time as a storeman with an engineering company. Having moved south to London in the early 50s, the canny CUTLER (poet/humourist/cartoonist) began a career in teaching at A.S. Neill’s Summerhill school in Suffolk.
In 1959, “bleak musical philosopher” Ivor featured on a Radio 4 special, entitled Monday Night At Home, which was wryly observed by producer Ned Sherrin. On the back of a triumvirate of releases that comprised EP’s `Of Y’Hup’ (1959), `Get Away From The Wall’ (1959) and debut LP, WHO TORE YOUR TROUSERS? (1961) {*7}, there was TV work for the comical upstart on The Acker Bilk Show and Late Night Line-Up. From `Pickle You Knees’, `Who Tore Your Trousers James’, `Gruts For Tea’ and `Grass Seed’, Ivor the not-so-terrible was pushing the boundaries of comedy, although it was no picnic in the park for those who’d brought the marmite. His own individual obscuro appeal and potential was again noticed while working as a cartoonist for The Observer and Private Eye.
The beatnik-to-psychedelic 60s was ideal for eccentric characters, and the colourful CUTLER never seemed out of place among the beat groups of the day. In 1967, as his part in the aforementioned Fab Four film approached, Parlophone Records invited the IVOR CUTLER TRIO (augmented by bassist Gill Lyons and percussionist Trevor Tomkins) to work with legendary Goons/BEATLES producer George Martin on the LP, LUDO {*8}. Seventeen tracks/vignettes of the vernacular Ivor’s morose-to-whimsical wisdom, `A Great Grey Grasshopper’ (a failed 45), `The Shapely Balloon’, the jazzy `Mud’, the horizontal `Shoplifters’ (about lifting shops!) and the upbeat `I’m Happy’ – stating gleefully “and I’ll punch the man who says I’m not” – just about summed up the playful humour of the surreal Scotsman.
On par with the aforementioned STANSHALL (who also featured with the BONZOs in that BEATLES film), CUTLER became a regular turn on the John Peel Radio 1 programme from 1969 onwards, and by the mid-70s, was touring alongside SOFT MACHINE and ROBERT WYATT (“Rock Bottom”), et al. While a post-BONZO DOG BAND Vivian side-lined by churning out `Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead’, CUTLER was about to launch his third LP, DANDRUFF (1974) {*7}, his inaugural album for Richard Branson’s – then – avant-garde label, Virgin (home to HENRY COW, GONG and the aforesaid WYATT).
A proudly bald geezer now in his 50s and probably unaffected by the subject matter in question, Ivor was joined on several short slides by poetess Phyllis April King (`Hair Grips’, `Men’ etc.), while the record’s weirdest wonderments were the two picturesque episodes of `Life In A Scotch Sitting Room’, the Jamaican-jesting `Trouble Trouble’, and the crooning `Face Like A Lemon’.
1975’s VELVET DONKEY {*7} continued the manic milarky as CUTLER and his harmonium (with guest FRED FRITH on viola) un-tinned some oddly peculiar poetry; sang or spoken with his usual polite Caledonian burr. `Life In A Scotch Sitting Room’ was again reprised as if ready for a Peel session and, placed in among the heather-strewn elements of `Nobody Knows’, `The Curse’ and `Go And Sit Upon The Grass’ (“Grass” subsequently borrowed by WYATT), Phyllis had reign over several numbers including the 6-minute finale, `The Stranger’.
Defiantly up there with one of the funniest comedy-rock LPs of all time, JAMMY SMEARS {*9}, was the bees knees (or indeed `Squeeze Bees’). Every track a meticulously-crafted work of comic art from a man who should’ve been down the pub reading the morning papers, one would be more in tune with pseudo-boring family life in the Caledonian countryside (“thistles”, “patches of grass”, “fresh air”, etc.) by way of further chapters of `Life In A..’). Complemented by the hazy world of Phyllis as she recollected (`A Linnet’, among others), Ivor introduced the listener to “nature” and `flies” on the jollity of `Jumping And Pecking’, the almost romantic `Beautiful Cosmos’, the crazed tongue-tied `Barabadabada’, and the side-splitting story of a drowning man in `Big Jim’ (ditto the “pit-falls” of `Surly Buddy’). Thirty pieces of silver (or indeed, gold), maybe lovers of Topol could be offended by `Rubber Toy’ (Ivor’s parents were Jewish immigrants), but by the old-timey musical-addled `A Wooden Tree’ and the fragile `Everybody Got’, CUTLER was re-writing his own, individual folklore.
Why Virgin Records couldn’t see out the release of LIFE IN A SCOTCH SITTING ROOM, VOLUME 2 (1978) {*9} – recorded for Radio Clyde at the Third Eye Centre, Glasgow – was baffling, but it was indeed Harvest Records’ gain.
Ivor stopped teaching in 1980 and joined the ranks of Rough Trade Records (following the path of ROBERT WYATT), although with 1983’s collaboration with unknown chanter Linda Hirst, PRIVILEGE {*6} was shy of his idiosyncratic brand. Ambient musos turned producers DAVID TOOP and STEVE BERESFORD allowed Ivor to stray into his netherworld of fantasy-land characters, but too often, his maniacal message was lost. True, there were further episodes of the surreal “Sitting Room” sagas, but all seemed contrived and retrograde, given that Ivor and Linda were supplementing the set with one profound single side, `Women Of The World’. Long-time acolytes of the inventive Ivor would be only too happy to hear the man back again.
1986 unfettered two charming Rough Trade albums that brought a cheer to CUTLER fans old and new. For GRUTS {*6} the decision was to recall and re-record “Ludo” pieces such as `I’m Happy’, `Mud’ and `Darling Will You Marry Me Twice’, whilst the double-helping of Radio 3 play excerpts (from January 1979 to March 1983) accompanied the not-so-royal-like PRINCE IVOR {*6}. His template tampered with by way of 10-15 minute extensions that didn’t quite reveal his quintessential quirkiness, the bubble had burst – for now at least!
CUTLER continued to write on occasion (children’s books, poetry books and one on philosophy: Befriend A Bacterium) and, in May 1997, the pensioner surprisingly turned up on the now-famous Creation label (home of OASIS, RIDE et al) with a comeback 83-track spoken-word set, A WET HANDLE {*6} – also the name of his fourth series of Radio 3 night-time shows.
Later that month, CUTLER took part in the Meltdown Festival at London’s South Bank, alongside performance artist LAURIE ANDERSON and her hubby LOU REED. Not content with one comeback, Ivor cut his second in the space of a year: A FLAT MAN (1998) {*7}. Projected by the unclassifiable `Jam’ – “what’s your favourite jam? Traffic jam!” – and the unadulterated `What Have You Got?’, `One At A Time’, `Gorbals 1930’ and “Sitting Room”-ish family reunion, `Ep.1 Doing The Bathroom’, CUTLER was cooking with gas again. Of all people to even attempt a CUTLER song, American avant-gardist JIM O’ROURKE virtually made `Women Of The World’ his own around the same period.
CUTLER was both surreal and unhinged, a comic genius, aged, but down-to-earth and side-splittingly funny. An avant-garde artiste in every (non)-sense of the word, who preferred to listen to jazz legends KEITH JARRETT and THELONIUS MONK, Ivor signed off from Planet Earth on 3rd March 2006. Several years on, the title of a National Theatre of Scotland play, The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler, just about said it all.
© MC Strong/MCS 2002/GSM // rev-up MCS Aug2016

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