Ivor Cutler, the Mild Man of Y'Hup

Friday, 22nd October 2010

Originally written for the Heroes edition of Culturedeluxe magazine

Spike Milligan once dedicated a book of his children's poems to 'the unsung genius of Ivor Cutler, who but for the public's total lack of appreciation would be a very rich man'. It may have served as his epitaph - for every confirmed Cutlerite there are a good hundred people who have never heard of him. Yet Cutler performed poetry and song for nearly half a century, he remains the only artist to appear on BBC Radio One, Two, Three and Four and recorded more sessions for John Peel than anyone else bar The Fall. Perhaps that's it, The Fall aren't exactly mainstays of provincial record collections either.

Ivor Cutler was born in Glasgow on 15th January 1923 and did not actually begin composing until the age of 34. In fact, his debut as a performer of his even then peculiar songs, poems and abstract narratives came about because nobody else would. So was born the trademark sound of a wheezy harmonium interspersed with Cutler's lilting brogue, imparting whimsical stories about feeding meat to eggs or songs beseeching the listener to 'pickle your knees in cheese'. It's no wonder then that he had spent his working life up to that point teaching primary school children; a suitable forum for a sublimely ridiculous mind such as his. This included a spell at the famous Summerhill school in Suffolk, where children are free to educate themselves, along with many years in London inner city schools.

In the late 1950s, Cutler was invited to perform his work on the BBC Home Service's 'Monday Night at Home' programme. He appeared regularly over the next four years and released two EPs and one album's worth of material. The debut EP was named Ivor Cutler of Y'Hup - a mythical island he laid claim to living on - and featured seven tracks including the aforementioned 'Pickle Your Knees'. This was quickly followed up by the Who Tore Your Trousers? LP and the Get Away From The Wall EP which boasted such favourites as 'Egg Meat', 'Gruts For Tea' and 'The Tureen'.

These recordings became popular among fans of similarly surreal comedy such as BBC radio's The Goon Show and, upon hearing a Cutler broadcast in the mid 1960s, Paul McCartney invited him to make an appearance in The Beatles' experimental jigsaw Magical Mystery Tour. As large parts of this much-maligned, psychedelic hotch-potch were improvised, it gave Cutler free-reign, in character as Buster Bloodvessel – a name of his own choosing - to expose his craft to a worldwide audience. This association also led to Cutler re-entering the recording studio – Abbey Road studio in fact, with the celebrated 'fifth Beatle' George Martin at the mixing desk - for a new album 'Ludo', credited to The Ivor Cutler Trio in which he was joined by bassist Gill Lyons and percussionist Trevor Tomkins. Martin apparently hated working on the record, and Cutler later stated that this was because he was given no input into it, reducing him to a simple button-pusher.

While McCartney's attempts to crossover Ivor Cutler to the mainstream would ultimately fail, 'Ludo' remains easily his most accessible record. Alongside his ever-present harmonium (resplendent on the psychedelic haze of 'I'm Going in a Field'), Cutler also played piano adding a jauntiness to such absurdist comedy as 'I'm Happy', 'A Suck of my Thumb' and the devilishly ludicrous 'Cockadoodledon't'. Meanwhile fans of Cutler's sprawling tales of children's fantasy were catered for by 'Mary's Drawer' and a long-awaited sequel to 'Egg Meat' in 'The Shapely Balloon'. By the late 1960s he had also gained a most influential fan at newly-created BBC Radio One and in May 1969 he recorded the first of twenty one sessions for John Peel.

“John Peel has a show on Number One on which he plays the latest gramophone records.” said Cutler once. “He put one of my records on, and a few days later there was a cloud of envelopes coming in. But some people like Cutler, and some people don't. One man called in and said 'Hey! Get rid of that guy! He's driving me nuts and his voice is making my wife's hair stand on end!' I gained a whole new audience thanks to Peel,” he continued, “much to the amazement of my older fans, who find themselves among 16-to-35s in theatres, and wonder where they come from.”

These almost annual sessions led to a series of new albums in the mid 1970s, released through Virgin, compiling some of his best new work, many written with his partner Phyllis King. 'Dandruff', 'Velvet Donkey', 'Jammy Smears' and a number of fantastically driech recollections of his Glasgow childhood were released and retold sporadically until their compilation and publication as 'Life in a Scotch Sitting Room Volume Two' in 1984. In typical Cutler fashion, there had been no volume one.

These grim yet endearingly tall tales probably remain the most celebrated of all Cutler's work detailing such wonderful scenes as Ivor and his family enjoying 'a trip to the seaside' from their sitting room by gently rubbing a few grains of sand in their hands with their eyes closed while salty spit was blown into their face. They also detailed Cutler's regular comeuppance both verbally and physically at the hands of his tough yet fair grandparents. A fantastic live performance of the work at Glasgow's 3rd Eye Centre was recorded and released in 1978 showing Cutler at his most raw, frequently corpsing in uncharacteristic fashion. The 1984 published version was accompanied by suitably grotesque illustrations from Private Eye cartoonist Martin Honeysett and the pair collaborated on further releases 'Gruts' and 'Fremsley' compiling some of Cutler's best loved prose.

He also wrote a range of children's books, perhaps the best known being the Herbert series, a boy who changed shape on a daily basis into a different creature and appeared on children's TV show Rub-a-Dub Tub as a storyteller. But Cutler would remain the darling of alternative Britain and his next releases would prove this as he briefly rubbed shoulders with The Smiths, Primal Scream and Oasis on indie labels Rough Trade and Creation in the 80s and 90s. Indeed it was, again, a surprisingly young audience that watched and cheered him on through 'Cutler's Last Stand', his final performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall aged 81. He retired shortly after and died on 3rd March 2006 garnering feature obituaries in all major press as the nation mourned his passing and fans, including a range of celebrities, swapped their favourite Ivor Cutler stories – every one typically irreverent.

I selected Ivor Cutler for our Heroes issue for many reasons: his truly unique style, his ever-present sense of humour, his humanity and his astounding body of work. I did not hear Cutler until 1998 when, during a Beta Band mix on Radio 1's Breezeblock show, the ludicrous strains of 'Barabadabada' filled my ears with tales of running away with a saucy grin from a man with woollen eyes. It took me another three years to discover the identity of the writer and performer of this song and another five to track down his back catalogue. His askance glances cast at life and ability to turn the otherwise mundane on its head through little more than the introduction of a contrary idea is a constant influence on my own work. To achieve a tenth of Cutler would be something but it'd be rather messy, you'd probably prefer to achieve a whole one.