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Badly Drawn Boy

A one-man vehicle for the highly-charged but eccentric Damon Gough; described as a NICK DRAKE or BURT BACHARACH for the post-millennium IKEA generation, the slacker multi-instrumentalist pretty much succeeded in making the concept of the scruffy singer-songwriter acceptable again with his characteristic woolly-hat headgear. And for a time in the first half (and a bit) of the 00s, BADLY DRAWN BOY drew in a large fanbase, large enough for several moderate hits and a handful of critically-acclaimed chart albums.
Born Damon Michael Gough, 2 October 1969, Dunstable, Bedfordshire, he was raised in Breightmet, in Bolton, Lancashire. The BADLY DRAWN BOY nom de plume was said to have come to light around 1995 after watching early-70s TV toon star (Sam and) The Magic Ball at a friend’s party in nearby Trafford. Damon first initiated his weird brand of gnome-ish psychedelia when he self-financed (alongside graphic designer Andy Votel), a platter on their own Twisted Nerve label.
Released in September ’97, the lo-fi 7-inch `EP1.’ consisted of five short pieces led by `Riding With Gabriel Greenburg’ and `Shake The Rollercoaster’. The following April, `EP2.’ unveiled the first drafts of `Thinking Of You’ and `I Love You All’ – there was still a lot of work to be done. A subsequent alliance with XL Recordings (home to The PRODIGY) led to the unimaginatively-titled `EP3.’ in November ’98. Another in BDB’s leftfield-like coda that finally made the more discerning music punter sit up and listen, `Spooky Driver 2’ and `I Need A Sign’ showed that the man was not a flash in the pan; Manchester’s DOVES would provide the backing on 7-inch freebie and CD-single bonus, `Road Movie’.
Prior to this, Gough had contributed the track, `Nursery Rhyme’, to the acclaimed UNKLE album, `Psyence Fiction’, whilst the almost mini-set proportions of EP, `It Came From The Ground’ (bookended by the Votel version), stalled any headway into the charts due to rules.
The same couldn’t be said for conventional minor hits, `Once Around The Block’ and `Another Pearl’; tasters from the long-anticipated debut set, THE HOUR OF THE BEWILDERBEAST (2000) {*8}, a Top 20 entry that was essentially a mixture of NICK DRAKE’s quiet, cello-driven folk and idol’s SPRINGSTEEN’s poor-man’s blues. Three Top 30 singles followed this Mercury Prize-winning album: namely `Disillusion’, a re-issue of `Once Around The Block’ and `Pissin In The Wind’, with the latter video starring iconic actress Joan Collins.
BADLY DRAWN BOY duly put his artistry on the line by cutting a full-on soundtrack as his next release, an increasingly rare career move in these times. ABOUT A BOY (2002) {*7} was music for the adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel of the same name, a romantic/coming-of-age saga by director Paul Weitz with which Gough’s flittering acoustica dovetailed perfectly, especially on the hit singles, `Something To Talk About’ and the gorgeous postcard-pretty preview, `Silent Sigh’. While it was possible to pick out a roll call of classic reference points for Damon’s buoyantly resigned style, suffice to say he usually transcended them all to create something unique, and something uniquely British.
The combination of instrumentals and handsomely skewed sketches presented here was no exception, and while the latter were hardly a departure, they insinuated themselves with an awkward, urban-rustic determination. The majority of the maddeningly brief instrumental cues were haunted by the winsome orchestral aesthetics of erstwhile NICK DRAKE collaborator Robert Kirby, though BDB still pulled a couple of knotty – and unlikely – funk and jazz-influenced jams out of his tea-cosy, before rounding things off with a rumbling festive extravaganza (`Donna And Blitzen’) that PHIL SPECTOR would’ve been proud to call his own.
Some of the soundtrack’s spare grace would’ve been useful on third serving, HAVE YOU FED THE FISH? (2002) {*6}, an L.A.-recorded opus criticised for its sonic flab. Nevertheless it did feature three big ticket singles: `You Were Right’, `Born Again’ and the light and airy and almost SAINT ETIENNE-like, `All Possibilities’.
Slightly referencing a bygone MEDICINE HEAD dirge, 2004’s ONE PLUS ONE IS ONE {*6} was BDB’s third consecutive Top 10 album; an Andy Votel-produced return to form skipping between eclectic updates of late 60s/early 70s Island Records acts (i.e. JETHRO TULL, NICK DRAKE, The INCREDIBLE STRING BAND et al) and “Bewilderbeast”-ian ballads such as the children’s choir-enhanced single, `Year Of The Rat’.
A switch of labels to E.M.I. (Astralwerks maintained their previous link), the Top 10 BORN IN THE UK (2006) {*6} was BDB’s answer to his hero SPRINGSTEEN – although not a universal mindset among reviewers. With only one stand-out moderate hit, `Nothing’s Gonna Change Your Mind’, several of the piano-led songs were something akin to a time-honoured Andrew Lloyd Webber and/or PHIL SPECTOR.
“About A Boy” seemed a distance memory when BADLY DRAWN BOY returned to celluloid soundtrack activities via IS THERE NOTHING WE COULD DO? (2009) {*6} – sub-titled “Music Inspired By The Motion Picture: The Fattest Man In Britain”. Damon’s experience in this trade had stood him in good stead, and in The DIVINE COMEDY-ish Baroque pop of `Welcome To Your World’, he just might’ve procured a shoo-in hit had the album not been dispatched on Gough’s own independent.
If retirement was BDB’s previous plan, then a second set was surely contradictory. 2010’s IT’S WHAT I’M THINKING (PART ONE – PHOTOGRAPHING SNOWFLAKES) {*6} was another tentative and fragile opening minor chart gambit; this time for One Last Fruit Records. In recent years, Damon had watched hopelessly as the likes of RICHARD HAWLEY and STEVE MASON had usurped his chart status. And trying something more serene, soulful and philosophical; i.e. up until the lush orchestral `Too Many Miracles’ and `This Electric’, Gough presented something closer to “Bewilderbeast” – but with no cigar.
BADLY DRAWN BOY’s third Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, BEING FLYNN (2012) {*5}, saw him reunite with director Weitz and branch out into equal parts quasi melody or dark classical motifs. The film was based on Nick Flynn’s “Another Bullshit Night In Suck City”, so indeed it’d be hard work to give the score an impression of half-full rather than half-empty. Despite its pessimistic kudos, the singer-songwriter somehow managed to give each song a different coating; best examples: `I’ll Keep The Things You Throw Away’ and `The Smile Behind Your Face’. Seven years down the line, there were still no signs of a follow-up.
Smile Behind Your Face’. Seven years down the line, there were still no signs of a follow-up.
Then almost out of the blue the man with the woolly hat – who’d cameo’d in an episode of Cold Feet in 2017 – slipped out a comeback Top 40 set, BANANA SKIN SHOES (2020) {*8}. Cut with a selection of co-producers including Youth and Gethin Pearson, awol singer-songwriter BADLY DRAWN BOY extended his lyrical range of work-in-progress odes to include some nifty soft-rock, breezy brass and choppy hip-hop; the opening title track had two of the three elements. The jangle-pop-meets-Motown-tinged `Tony Wilson Said’ reflected one of Manchester’s best-loved sons, whilst break-up song `I Just Wanna Wish You Happiness’ bode a fond farewell to a former love-of-his-life. The shimmering and shimmying `Is This A Dream?’, `I’m Not Sure What It Is’ and the bossa nova-enhanced `You And Me Against The World’ recalled his “Bewilderbeast” halcyon days, however they were by no means the best bits – that honour would go to the fragile `Note To Self’, the pseudo-psych `Colours’ and the bittersweet `Funny Time Of Year’.
© MC Strong 2002-2009/GRD/LCS-BG // rev-up MCS Sep2019-Jun2020

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