From mid 2003 until early 2012 I was employed as a lecturer in Popular Music Studies at a very large metropolitan university in Liverpool in the UK. I was based in the Art and Design Academy where we had the part-time musician, full-time beat poet and world-renowned wordsmith Roger McGough as our Honorary Fellow. McGough was very stately and walked around the building with an aloof air, as you would expect from a much decorated (OBE & CBE), 70-year ‘national treasure’ poet. He’d studied for a French degree in my hometown at the University of Hull. This is the very same university where poet Philip Larkin worked as a librarian. Obviously there is something about Hull that brings out the poet in people. One day I walked into the staff print room to find McGough on his hands and knees at the base of a large Hewlett Packard printer, as if praying. Jammed in the printer was large A3 piece of paper: I’m guessing this piece of jammed paper contained his latest poem? He was bright red in the face, swearing profusely, it didn’t rhyme, while pulling with all his might at the jammed page. I was incredibly impressed with how many percussive expletives he was able to shout out; he was not fazed at all by my entrance. McGough rose majestically to his feet, regained his composure, pushed his glasses back up onto this bridge of his nose shouted one last “FUCK YOU”, kicked the printer, slowly turned and left the room sans le papier. It was kind of surreal.
Another UK based, but much lessor known poet and musician, is Vinny Peculiar (aka Alan Wilkes). Although his poetry and music are nowhere near as well known as Roger McGough’s work I still regard him as an under sung national treasure. In 2014 the Irish Times newspaper described Vinny as “the missing link between Roger McGough and Jarvis Cocker but with the wittiest lyrics this side of Wreckless Eric”. Being a huge fan of all three artists this is very high praise indeed. He’s released eleven albums over the years but it’s the 2002 release, on Ugly Man Records, Ironing The Soul that I’m rescuing.
Ironing The Soul is a beautiful album of kitchen sink confessional outsider pop, which is dedicated to his dead brother Melvin Wilkes (1961-2001). The other ten albums are definitely worth a listen but Ironing The Soul is his magnum opus. This album is a rare beast because the arbiters of style and taste (reviewers) all hailed it as a masterpiece, yet the general public completely ignored it. Vinny didn’t get the attention he so rightly deserved with this album and I bet he loved that. The music on this album is considered problematic because it doesn’t neatly fit into a genre rather it straddles a few. At 50 odd year’s old the cool kids don’t dig him, his music is too odd for the mainstream and his wit is way too intellectual for most people. This album has limited appeal abroad because it’s too quintessentially English. Over the last decade and a half he’s managed to release an original album every few years for a very small but highly appreciative audience who recognize his awkward brilliance. He’s a kind of warm hearted but much more likeable Morrissey of The Smiths.
If you want his full life story then listen to track one (Flatter and Deceive) on Ironing The Soul, it’s all there. In brief, before his re-location to rainy Manchester in the north west of England, Vinny was born and raised in the Worcestershire village of Catshill. The music of his local church, he endured a Methodist upbringing, was his first love but 70’s Glam Rock soon put an end to all that. After flunking formal education and spending an eternity on the dole he trained as a mental health nurse and worked in long stay psychiatric hospitals with some challenging patients. He ended his long-standing relationship with the NHS some years ago in order that he might go and search of everything he’s still looking for. Much of Vinny’s work is autobiographical, the songs are remarkably candid, honest, witty and with a laugh out loud absurdity while at the same time they are poignant and self effacing. Ironing The Soul is a pretty unique album, the songs make you laugh then cry and think all at the same time, you really do need to hear it.
Ironing The Soul is of personal interest to me as I was present during its recording at Hug Studios in Liverpool. I was working with Liverpool management and record company Hug who at the time managed the bands Space and Sizer Barker. We all shared the same manager, offices and studio complex. Sizer Barker and I were located in the downstairs studio at Hug while Vinny was recording in the upstairs studio. Over the period of a few months during 2001, I watched and listened as Vinny’s music was transformed from rough vocal and acoustic guitar demos to a fully finished album. Instrumental in this transformation was producer/engineer Rob Ferrier. Ferrier’s official title does not reflect his true role on this record. He opened the creative gates allowing Vinny to come crashing through. The true beauty of this album is that it fully captures his world of oblique, tortured punk poetry nostalgia. This album gives a deep insight into his strange world because every song is stuffed to the gills with melody and eccentricity. All the songs on this album are clever, funny and wonderfully weird. As album producer, Ferrier channels all of Vinny’s eccentricity and barbed wit into something strangely compelling, and in turn transforms him into some sort of unlikely, heroic pop star, the type they just don’t seem to make anymore.
During the 2001 recording sessions at Hug Studios it was a very interesting to observe the creative process. The technical production on this album is the old fashioned analogue type, which perfectly suites the material being captured. Vinny’s guitar playing and songwriting are second to none mixing Americana chord changes and instrumentation with the ear for a good tune. Through a lens of guitars, mandolin, lap-steel, cheap synths, glockenspiel, egg whisk, spoons, handclaps, immaculate arrangements and compassionate production, Vinny’s music is brought to life. Throughout this album Vinny is complemented with the addition of various musicians included ex members of The Smiths, Oasis, Aztec Camera and The Fall. Ferrier’s production and arrangements complements the material perfectly. Effects are subtle; the album expands across the full audio spectrum and is beautifully dynamic in a pre-MP3 way. Production isn’t laid on with a trowel; it’s understated and acts in the same way as light seasoning is added to a recipe to bring out the true taste of a great meal.
Track four, One Great Artist, is a fantastic example of how Vinny takes the ordinary mundane everyday events of the world and twists them into something magical and unique. I distinctly remember being in Hug’s shared kitchen area when some kind of semi-joke argument broke out about how the studio kitchen was only big enough for one great artist. Of course Vinny took this and constructed some ridiculously bizarre lyrics about great painters, “There’s only enough room in this kitchen, for one great artist and that is me”. With existential angst he also states, “I’m not afraid of dying in obscurity”, which is both very scary and totally accurate. The other band in the kitchen that day, Sizer Barker, where invited into the studio to add “art school chorus” backing vocals on this track. Standing in the recording studio with Sizer Barker that day repeatedly shouting “One great artist” into a microphone is a memory I’ll forever cherish.
There’s a fabulous anarchic elegance to Vinny Peculiar’s music, which is both thrilling and faintly unsettling. Uncut Magazine hits the nail on the head when they wrote, “If Tony Hancock had made pop records they’d have sounded like this”. The ten songs on Ironing The Soul are a beautiful blend of Americana, indie-pop and busker-punk, they create an almost George Formby like world of oddity and human frailty, and the self-deprecating veracity of his lyrics never fails to hit the intended spot. Ironing The Soul is a triumph of creativity over commerciality; the general public’s loss is our gain. This album takes an obscure view of the world and makes it a much better place and I think that that’s a good enough reason to rescue this album.