Col Howarth chats to the brilliant comedy giant John Hegley about glasses, spuddy fun and moments of passage.
‘The first stuff I did was busking. I used to busk when my girlfriend Pam ran a flea market stall around the north. The first one was in Hull, and I went out and I sang. As I remember it, it was outside a shoe shop and it was the first time I saw people smiling. The women behind the counter would come to the window and I remember they were smiling at me busking. That was about 1976/77.
‘I joined (children’s theatre group) Interaction in 78 as a musician and an actor, and I remember that sometimes the children were laughing, and I thought it was nice that they laughed’.
'I then joined a company called Soapbox which was similar to Interaction, and then went to the Earth Exchange. This is when Tony Allen and Tony Green said I should try my songs down the Comedy Store, which I did. That was about 1980/81’.
These were the early days of alternative comedy when the very Tonies named above, alongside the likes of Alexei Sayle, Keith Allen, Rik Mayall and Ade Edmonson, were dragging stand-up comedy kicking and screaming, sometimes burning, sometimes covered in blue paint, away from its traditional set-up-and-punch roots, which all too often had racist or sexist overtones.
In 1980 the Comedy Store was still housed above a strip club in Soho. Whilst this fresh subversive movement was taking shape, clubs were often rough and ready, where spots and a few free drinks would be offered to anyone who would dare to turn up and give it a shot. The bill would offer a variety of acts.
‘With the Comedy Store, if you had a guitar, but someone else had been on before you with a guitar, then people would say, oh, not another one with a guitar. You would want to be first on with a guitar. They were calling those the new variety gigs because everyone was looking for a varied bill.’
Being a poet, singer and an actor, and as variety was the order of the day, did being an act with so many strands stand you in good stead?
There weren’t so many opportunities then. I was still performing on the streets and when you are on the street you don’t really see yourself as an act. It was scraping a living.
‘I considered myself a singer rather than a poet then. The poems came about one day in Covent Garden. I remember it was cold. I went down there and I took a tambourine. I spoke some of the songs because I wasn’t really good enough to sing them acapella, and that was a move towards poetry. Also Jenny in Soapbox had seen this poet. She described his poems as kind of like a jumble sale, and then I wrote a poem based on what she said called The Jumble Sale. So the poetry came about through a number of strands really.’
There is a lovely story included on John Fleming’s excellent blog thejohnfleming.wordpress.com which describes a rather rough comedy club somewhere in east London in the early 80s. In this account, there were often drunk and aggressive skinheads knocking about and on this one occasion, whilst the comedy club was running upstairs, a gang of lads had been egging each other on to go up and shake things up a bit. Eventually one did and, pumped up, walked into the club only to be met by our very own John Hegley on stage reciting a poem about his spectacles.
This proved to be too much for the would-be attacker, who could only react by doubling-up with laughter, tears streaming down his face. The story has it that the guy made his retreat back to his pals, after which they didn’t bother the club again.
By the time John had started to perform poetry on stage he had already made musical waves along with his four-piece band The Popticians. Described by City Limits as The Duran Duran of the cabaret world, only they’re not Tory, The Popticians played the variety circuit with John as frontman and often compere for the evening. It was their live performances that got them noticed, and before long they were recording a John Peel Session in July 1983 (a second followed in Nov 1984), from which they lifted their first single Mobile Home / Spare Pear, recorded and released via their own label Off The Kerb Records.
I defy anyone to listen to the ear-worm that is He’s In Love With a Brown Paper Bag and not be singing it, humming it or whistling it for days after. Whilst his delivery brings to mind a blend of Elvis Costello and Ian Dury, the themes of those tracks are John Hegley through-and-through. Songs about paper bags, glasses, mobile homes, scoutmasters: day-to-day heroes and objects made immortal through song, and of course poetry, where dogs, Luton and above all, the humble spud are showcased, celebrated and given the same grandiosity and majesty as a Hollywood hero.
by Robert Bermingham and Richard Robinson
The Observer stated that ‘John Hegley is to potatoes what Wordsworth has been to daffodils’.
‘The spud is pretty grand in itself really. And specs. And that is how I was identified. I remember when I used to go to the launderette. The woman who used to do the service wash: for a while she used to label my wash the boy with glasses and I remember the day it changed to the man with glasses. That was how I was identified.
'There is something about the pre-emptive strike, like Jo Brand used to say something about being larger as soon as she went on stage.’
The Independent described John as awesomely mundane.
'I like that. It’s a downbeat comment. It’s also intelligent isn’t it.’
And he has also been hailed as the Spike Milligan of our times.
‘I remember reading his stuff actually. When I was at university. I remember thinking this was poetry that was accessible and that comments on the every day. He is definitely an influence.’
Accessibility and every day are reasons that John cites John Cooper Clarke as being a big influence too.
John’s poems are vignettes that frame the normality of life. They bring the blur of the everyday into glorious focus. His poems are not just designed to make us laugh, though many of them are indeed hilarious. Many are beautiful, painful, heart-felt, romantic stories of awkward love, alienation and the beauty found in glamourless relationships, and routines played out by ordinary people who blend in.
This is lyrical poetry, wordplay and an observation and celebration of life. Always respectful. Just listen to John reciting Out On The Buses from Peace, Love and Potatoes (speaking of Elvis Costello, is that a nod?). It is heart-breaking right up until the final word. Outside of the public performances, John takes poetry into schools and continues the work with kids that he started way back with Interaction and Soapbox.
‘I do a lot of education work and try to get kids creative and inventive. I also like to get them to draw, as they have been drawing longer than they have been writing haven’t they. It’s always interesting to get them colouring in too. I also did a thing called Mental Spaghetti, working with people who have had some dealings with the mental health system. There’s no real difference between those workshops and the stuff I do in schools. It’s good to get people thinking about something like a potato. Our own perspectives on the potato. Potato perspectives. Potato perspectacles. You know. Let’s just have some spuddy fun!’
And then there’s the not so small matter of the live shows. As we speak (2015), John is looking forward to taking to the stage at the Bloomsbury Theatre with the Panic Brothers (Richard Morton, see our feature here, and Reg Meuross), as well as another front-runner of the 1980s London alt-comedy scene, ex-Comic Strip member and founder of The Fabulous Poodles, Ronnie Golden.
‘The three Rs! Reg, Ronnie and Rich! I haven’t seen Rich and Reg play for ages and I really love their Bivuoac song. They sent me a copy of the lyrics which was really nice of them. I am very interested to see what they are going to do and it is nice to see that they are back together again.
‘With Ronnie, we used to be on at the Comedy Store and he was always fantastic. He gave me a Fabulous Poodles single that I really like called Toy Town People.’
For a number of years The Fabulous Poodles were a firm favourite of John Peel‘s. They were in fact Chuck Berry’s backing band for a time and supported the likes of The Ramones and Tom Petty. Whilst Ronnie himself appeared in the Young Ones, The Fabulous Poodles appeared on the Old Grey Whistle Test.
‘It will be good to be amongst other musicians. There might be four guitars on that night but hopefully nobody will say not another one.’
John’s Bloomsbury Theatre event is one in a series of Panic Brothers Presents... shows. which have showcased the talents of none other than Phill Jupitus in a reprisal of his Porky the Poet role, as well as Jo Brand. Future shows, to be hosted at The Convent Club near Stroud, will feature such comedy giants as the brilliant Jo Caulfield, Mike Gunn (see our feature here) and multi-award winning legend John Moloney (see our feature here).
I for one aim to be in the font row for the lot!
‘In that case I’d like you to wear a flower so I can see you’.
For more information about John Hegley’s events, publications and news visit: www.johnhegley.co.uk.
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