M1-23 George Melly

M1-23 Sounds That Saved My Life


I am sitting here devastated, tears running down my face, having just watched the harrowingly beautiful documentary, “George Melly’s Last Stand.” So pitifully few people have watched it, I suggest you go there immediately and drink in the glory of this man, his final super-courageous days, and his angelically brave wife Diana. And please leave comments – Diana may well read them. The vast, high-tech internet can get deeply personal at times.

Phew!  OK, on with the blog.

With respect to all 106 Miniatures artists – this is my absolute favourite Miniature. Perhaps the fact that it has no words and no melody has allowed it to retain its freshness since the day 33 years ago when I lugged a Revox round to George’s Ladbroke Grove house and encouraged him to kneel and bellow into his piano. We even went into his garden to find a brick to hold down the sustain pedal so the strings would resonate under the impact of his rich, pickled voice. George was extremely polite and relaxed that day. Very quiet (till the recording started), respectful and professional. Or perhaps he was just really hungover. Anyway, apart from the minute when he roared out the Ur-Sonate (from what I do not doubt was an original printed edition received personally from the author, or his son) he was genial hospitality all the way.  He didn’t even try to seduce me while I was occupied taking these photos of him:


This performance for me is definitive, and shits all over that recorded by the author of the Ur-Sonate, Dada artist Kurt Schwitters. George knew Kurt’s son, photographer Ernst, and  in a letter to me described him as “an awful little shit.” (click to enlarge this partially-concealed insult):

Other versions include:

Kurt Schwitter’s version

Jaap Blonk’s version, with real-time typography

At the Music Biennale of Venice in 2011

An echoed, surround-sound version

A computer, speaking the text

See what I mean? George shits all over them. Definitive. You know when someone has really nailed a number. Like this morning, I was out shopping in Tokyo and heard one of my favourite daft jazz songs in a store – “The Flat Foot Floogie (with a Floy-Floy).” It was a really grooveless, crap version of the song – I mean, why did they bother? As compensation, all I could hear in my head after that was – for me – the definitive version of this song, by Ray Ellington, who I’d heard performing on the Goon Show in the late 50’s. (Aside: in 1979 I chanced upon Ray at my acupuncturist’s and stuttered out my admiration of him). I hastened home and ordered Ray’s album, “That’s Nice!” and managed to at least hear a short preview of his version to erase once and for ever the utterly drab version I’d heard earlier today. By the way, the title means “A flat-footed floozie or whore (with venereal disease).” That’s nice, eh? The original from Slim Gaillard is maybe even more definitive – but when you’ve grown up with another version since you were a kid, well you know how it is. (The wonderful Slim, who invented “Vout” the ultimate jazz language, chatted with a very amused and appreciative George years later in this program).

Much more than a jazz singer, as this ultra-short intro suggests (and as this idiotic 1959 interviewer seems to deny), George impinged upon my life first via his books. “Owning Up” (1965 – later released expanded to a page-turning trilogy) – a jaw-droppingly wild and frank account of his early years as a trad jazz singer – gave this (at that time) teenager some vicarious thrills as well as insight into what made the British jazz and art scene go round. Of course by that time, being over 20 years younger than George, I was already getting into rock rather than jazz. George’s next book “Revolt Into Style” (1971 – the title later used as a song title by Bill Nelson) was an erudite, but not too academic, analysis of the artistic, musical and cultural changes that had occurred in the 60’s, with particular emphasis on the careers of stars such as The Beatles. George was a Liverpudlian, so he had a special insight into their massive significance as pop icons. The book was brilliant for feeding my head in the way the Beatles and many others (Who, Hendrix, Zappa, etc., etc.) had been feeding my heart and soul marvellously for most of the previous decade. How rare and special to find a book that brimmed with the same kind of raw passion and fiery intelligence as the LP’s I treasured. George also turned his hand to film criticism, and even film script writing.

He was at the centre of the mod swinging London scene and this informed his first film “Smashing Time” (1967) with iconic British girls Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave. Three years later he wrote the screenplay for  “Take A Girl Like You,” a book by Kingsley Amis which became a feature film directed by Jonathan Miller (give yourself an hour or so to watch this link, it is extraordinary) and starring more British icons, Hayley Mills and Oliver Reed. But these were light pieces of trendy fluff (I imagine George would have agreed) which doubtless justified their existence by helping him to maintain a joyfully boozy, randy lifestyle. 1967 also saw George reading kids’ stories by Beatrix Potter, on the long-running (31 years) TV program “Jackanory.” As it says on another website, “Everyone who was anyone had a go,” and in lieu of a clip of George (none could be found) here’s a charming but brief clip to explain the program.

Dabbling in acting didn’t get George very far – perhaps his most entertaining, if hammy, moment was as a hack movie director in Dusan Makavejev’s extraordinary, anarchic “comedy” “Sweet Movie” (1974). Over the years there was the odd bit part, but little of any interest compared to the invariably engaging way he introduced, was interviewed in, sang in, or narrated  TV programs. A fine example of the latter is “The Secret Life of Edward James”, a 1978 TV biography of a little-known surrealist art collector. Another is this clip from Film Club where he talks about his favourite director, Luis Bunuel.

With production help from the Beatles’ publicist, Derek Taylor, George engineered his musical comeback in 1972 with his album “Nuts.” George was no cissy when it came to double-entendre album titles. For my sins, I only saw him play once, at the National Jazz, Blues and Rock Festival in Reading in 1974. This marvellously eclectic bill included the dreary, hairy Barclay James Harvest, the punk-before-punk Winkies and the acerbic but heartfelt Kevin Coyne (later to become another Miniatures artiste). I took along an 8mm camera and tried (with little success) to shoot George and others in the fast-fading light. He was a dandy, as usual, striding, glass in hand through the happily stoned longhairs, sharply kitted out in a striped double-breasted suit and this fetching coyboy, sorry, cowboy, hat:

During “Frankie and Johnny” he proceeded to remove his cowboy boots and place them on his shoulders, faking a soixante-neuf (as at 1:30 in this vid). All done with such fun, vigour, verve and aplomb that sleaze didn’t enter into it – it was just George being George, and we all laughed uproariously.

Punk rock? No problem. George breezed into that world with ease (as did I, a wonderful epoch – the last I spent in England). He both commented on and sang with The Stranglers, who wrote the song specially for him.

All through these years George maintained his love for, and deep knowledge of, surrealist art, getting to personally know Magritte and surrealist art dealer E.L.T. Mesens among others, and helping to sell (as well as buy) works by the likes of Picasso. These stood him in good stead in later years when he could sell off an artwork or two and afford to buy a country house with its own stretch of river where he could fish. Luckily for me the handpainted Magritte tailor’s dummy – a gift from the artist – was still in his home the day I recorded him.

George’s colourful life ended as he had lived it. With flair, fun, and love. When he began to slow down, due to lung cancer and other nasty illnesses, he refused medicine, carried on with the liquor, and wrote a book about it. Finally, at his funeral, accompanied (naturally) by a raucous jazz band, he was carried in a cardboard coffin gaily painted by his family and bearing a love poem he wrote to his wife, Diana. In one of the many obituaries, she was quoted saying “I wanted to kill him.” It was no idle remark – she actually meant it and almost did it. He was no joke to live with – well not all the time – as her book “Take a Girl Like Me” explains in painful yet forgiving detail.

For those who want to “sing” along with George’s miniature – here are the “lyrics” (as prepared for a lecture on avant-garde music I recently gave at a museum in Japan):

And to end, this very Georgian story from a noted music journalist friend: George was at a party, standing next to Mick Jagger. George comments that in old age Mick’s face has acquired a great number of wrinkles. Jagger replies dismissively, “Oh them – they’re just laugh lines.” Comes the retort, “Mick – nothing can be that funny.”

Bugger it – here’s an encore!

Next up: a prelude to discipline?

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