Here, he talks to Anita Awbi about snogging Debbie Harry, forgetting his lines on Top of the Pops, the merits of modern folk and the shortcomings of George Formby.
How did you start out? Were you drawn to music or comedy first?
Probably music, but subconsciously I think the comedy was always there. I’ve tried many times to write serious songs but they come out a bit weird. I seem to write comedy naturally.
Why do you think music and comedy work so well together?
Historically, I don’t think they do! I would say music in comedy songs is traditionally a bit crap. I mean, even the great George Formby, it’s all, ‘Here comes a comedy song’ because of the way he plucks the ukulele. I like people who work against that. Someone like Ian Dury and the Blockheads – he wrote comedy songs. Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick is a comedy song but its disguised with beautiful music.
Was it Flanders and Swann who did Mud Mud Glorious Mud? There’s another example of, ‘Look, here comes a comedy song’. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it makes me think it’s more interesting to write a song where the music is really straight. I mean, I’ve written a few like that, like I Can’t Go Back to Savoury Now. It’s an epic ballad!
It’s filtered down – it has to. There is definitely a cluster of, ‘Here comes the comedy song’ writers. But songwriters like John Hegley have influenced me. And John Otway. I think, musically, people are influenced by all sorts of things. Take Mitch Benn on Radio 4. His speciality seems to be writing comedy songs that pastiche every kind of song ever written – which is very clever. I used to do a little bit of that pastiche, but it’s an art form in itself and Mitch Benn has definitely got it.
What is your starting point for a song? Do you start with the jokes or the tune?
I tend to start with a title, or a premise, for example, two margarines being in the fridge at the same time and that being an uncomfortable situation. But then I start thinking of the jokes that could be within that. The song Y Reg started with a joke, ‘Don’t keep asking me why Reg, it just happens to be that year’. Then the tune for me arrives quite early on. I can’t write a whole lyric without a tune. Sometimes if it all goes horribly wrong I write a new tune to fit the lyrics. If it doesn’t all come together within a couple of hours then, as my old friend Brian would say, it’s a stillborn song. Some songs die in infancy, some flourish to adulthood, some are stillborn.
I’m thinking John Shuttleworth is pre-disposed to a ballad…
One of the problems for John Shuttleworth is he’s quite restricted now by the organ. I could switch organ but I’ve done songs on every pattern it has! It’s got a hundred, but only really about 40 of those are usable. I’ve written about 100 songs on that keyboard and sometimes use the same beat. Some beats are funnier than others though, or just cooler. I don’t think too hard, I just sense whether things should be a ballad or bossa nova.
Do you think writing character-based songs are more difficult than writing about something more personal?
Yes it is. I find writing in character a lot easier. It’s almost a formula now. I know how John Shuttleworth is going to react to everything, a messy table top or whatever. To write a song about how I’d react to something I’d have to think a bit harder. Isn’t that sad? And weird! I think John Shuttleworth - and my other characters too - has an instantly distinctive vocabulary, for me and the listener. It’s easier for me to write that and easier for the listeners to cotton on.
I guess it’s about the character boundaries you’ve set, isn’t it? Building up a caricature…
Yes. It was the same with Jilted John to some extent too. The song kind of came before the character was created. I had to create a character to fit the song as it were. I guess it’s my acting training, but I’ve always felt more comfortable hiding behind a character.
There’s more of my father in John Shuttleworth than me. But having said that, as I get older, there’s more of my father in me! There’s your answer.
So you’re gradually turning into John Shuttleworth?
Yeh, I guess so! There are other people in John too. My ex’s mother and father both feature in John Shuttleworth’s make up.
You mentioned stillborn songs earlier. Is there a point where the joke wears thin?
Yes there is, and that’s the sign that your song isn’t working on enough levels. It’s got to work on at least two levels. It’s no good just repeating one simple image. A song like [sings] ‘Oh dear what can the matter be? Anita is stuck on the lavatory’ – now that’s a funny image! But it’s a better song because of the images in the next two lines, ‘She was there from Monday to Saturday, Nobody knew she was there’. That’s more evocative. It makes you think. Why did no one know that Anita was there? Did she live alone? Had she become ostracized from the community?
The best comedy songs have a few layers, and musically they should too. One thing people have said about Shuttleworth songs is that they have a nice tune. I like to think that’s my influence! Often I’ve written a song for me and I’ve had to give it to John. And example is the Man Who Lives on the M62, or You’re Like Manchester, You’ve Got Strange Ways.
Do you find it hard not to laugh when you’re recording?
I find it very easy not to laugh because by the time I’ve rehearsed and recorded it, the joke has gone. It’s quite nice if you can still laugh at it.
Do you enjoy the recording element or is that just a means to an end?
I love recording. The thing I’m most proud of is the multi-track recording; having a whole load of people in the room together talking but its just one person. That’s done through multi-track recording with a technique I developed myself. It took a while to do, but that’s what I use in my radio shows. Each character has a separate track and really it follows the same principle as music. With music, you put the bass on one track, the guitar on another. In music, all of the tracks have to be laid down separately but they work well together collectively. It’s the same with the voices.
[puts on Ken’s voice] No, it’s just me talking in a silly voice! Except for the ladies. There’s a bit of vary speed on them. I’ll record them slower and then put them up to normal speed so they sound a little bit higher and a little bit quicker. I think it’s what’s been done for years, with Pinky and Perky. It’s about getting the right amount of vary speed.
Do you record other more personal material? Or do you only get inspired by your characters?
I did an album in 1985, which is still my only one. It got a lot of plaudits and is quite popular in Japan apparently! It’s British indie 80s music, but I can hear everything that’s wrong with it and would love to do another one. I’m getting lazy I guess. It’s something that’s definitely on the middle burner but it may go towards folk. I’m getting increasingly interested in folk music. Rock music doesn’t particularly interest me. Lyrically, modern folk music seems to have a lot more to say and you can hear the lyrics! People like Arctic Monkeys have a lot to say, but so often people aren’t bothered, they just want a beat. Watch this space. I’m hoping to put an album out in the next two years.
I’ll have to have a listen to your first one…
Yes, it’s still available. You can buy it on eBay for 50p! But you haven’t got time to listen to it – you’re too busy interviewing people…
Yes it is. I think I sound a bit too wimpy on it! I’ll be more raucous next time.
How did Gordon is a Moron go down at the time?
Well, people liked it. Oh, but there was a band at the time called Renaissance. They had a big hit called Northern Lights. It’s a lovely song. It didn’t get as high as Jilted John in the charts although I think it deserved to. The woman Annie Haslam, who was the singer of that song, slagged me off mercilessly to the Melody Maker saying they shouldn’t allow rubbish like that on Top of the Pops! I think she missed the point. The song was just a bit of fun! It was a comedy song. I was heavily inspired by Really Free by John Otway. It was trying to be a slice of life from modern Britain. It was supposed to be funny and also interesting.
What is your abiding memory of having a hit with Gordon is a Moron?
The third time I performed it I forgot the words on Top of the Pops! I’d probably not recovered from snogging Debbie Harry from Blondie! It was a set up. A publicity shot. But that distracted me… It’s terrible they axed that show. They keep saying they’ll bring it back. They’ve got to. Pop died when that did.
What was it like working with Martin Hannett on that record?
I was very young, only 19 at the time, so was trying to appreciate all his wonderful weirdness. I found it a bit frustrating at times. I was quite a straight drama school student and Martin and me were kind of thrust together because he was the producer for Rabid Records. Everyone who came to Rabid Records worked with Martin. I could tell he was a really clever guy and quite inspired at times. He’d sit twiddling knobs and chuckling to himself. A lot of the time he was quite vague, but he was also very kind.
Martin was great, just too many drugs. He definitely made my single. We went into his studio in Oldham and only have the ideas we went with are on it. That bassline in the middle bit he thought of, and he thought of the voices fading in on the ‘Yeh yehs’ – nice little touches.
Watch the video to John Shuttleworth's classic I Can't Go Back to Savoury Now:
M interviewed Graham for the You're 'Avin' a Larf! comedy feature.