Thursday, February 21, 2013

Ivor Cutler

Ivor Cutler is perhaps one of the most original and unique talents to emerge on the British cultural scene in the latter part of the 20th century. A performer, poet, humorist and author, his work has transfixed successive generations during his near fifty year career. His admirers have included such luminaries as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, John Peel (for whose Radio One show Cutler had the accolade of recording over twenty sessions) and a succession of highly influential musicians such as Robert Wyatt.

Ivor Cutler was born in Glasgow on 15th January 1923. His parents were middle class reform Jews and the young Cutler was the victim of anti-Semitic teachers during his formative years. At the age of 15, Cutler renounced the Jewish faith and sought alternative spiritual enlightenment. He later recounted; "I began to visit various churches on Sundays as I wanted to see if I fancied any. I found one Unitarian church that I liked best; but when the Unitarian minister saw me, a new face, he ran up and wanted to engage me in conversation. I had to act as quickly as possible and left immediately."

At the age of 16, Cutler toyed with the idea of following in his brother's footsteps by joining the medical profession, but the outbreak of the Second World War, coupled with Cutler's revulsion at the idea of having to practice experiments on live animals if he entered medical school, curtailed any ambitions to be a doctor. The teenage Ivor started work with Rolls Royce making engines for Spitfires until 1941 when he joined the RAF to train as a navigator. The training lasted twelve months before Cutler was dismissed from the Royal Air Force, as he later put it, "dreaminess." He spent the remainder of the war as a Storeman and First Aid officer for an engineering company.

After the war, Ivor Cutler decided to become a teacher and also enrolled at Glasgow College of Art studying painting and sculpture. As a teacher, Ivor Cutler embraced new "progressive" teaching ideas, involving "alternative" methods of education to enlighten children, leading in 1951 to him teaching at A.S. Neil's "progressive" school "Summerhill" before moving on to teach for the Inner London Education Authority in 1954, which he was to continue to do until 1980. Children were a constant source of inspiration to Cutler, in whom he found a refreshing honestly and innocent logic. During his lessons, Cutler used art, music and humour to inspire his pupils. It was during this period that Ivor Cutler began to develop his talent for writing prose, poetry and songs.

With the aid of a tape recorder, he began to record stories, improvising them as he recorded. Poetry then followed, with Cutler taking his inspiration from jazz. "I would go to a jazz concert and just let the music come through me and write nonsense poems, so that one was listening to the noise of the words rather than the meaning," he later recounted. "I wouldn't allow my intellect to get in the way. After six years I found certain sounds more to my taste than others and I gradually began to use actual words. I didn't settle down to really composing until I was 34. I was a school teacher; I had a wife and a couple of kids. I wanted to be a painter and I thought I wouldn't be able to leave teaching because I needed the money. So I thought, 'I'll compose a song and somebody else can sing it and I'll just cash in on it and then I'll be able to leave teaching.' Pathetic, isn't it? For about three years I wrote songs and went around to Tin Pan Alley and gave about three songs to each person with a stamped addressed envelope. They'd send them back in a couple of weeks so they wouldn't hurt my feelings. Eventually, in 1957, I said the seven words that changed my life; 'Perhaps I ought to sing them myself.' One day I went to see a music publisher called Box & Cox and the boss man there was a fellow called Boxy. I was dressed up all peculiar, a big bag on my back with paintings in it and a dirty old duffel coat. I put on a deadpan voice and said, 'I understand you buy songs here.' He said, 'Yes,' carefully. I said, 'Would you like me to sing one of my songs for you?' He said, 'Yes.' It was five o'clock in the evening, he had a fire going, and he was relaxing. So he got one or two of his chums and pointed to a piano that was against the wall and he sat behind me. I said 'I've got different songs. It could be a funny one or it could be a serious one.' He said, 'Oh, play what you like.' So I sat down and played this funny one. I carried on to the end, turned around, and Box was lying on the floor, his face purple. I said, 'It's OK, you can laugh.' He said, "We get some funny people in here and they would be terribly hurt if we laughed, because they see themselves as being very serious.' So he took me on as started me in my music career."

Ivor Cutler's first professional engagement as a performer took place at "The Blue Angel" in Islington in 1957. Although he later described the performance as "an unmitigated failure," this did not deter him from trying to further his career as a performer and writer. In 1958 he auditioned his work for BBC Radio which led to him making an appearance on the programme "Monday Night at Home" on the BBC Home Service. His stories and songs (backed by his self-accompanied Harmonium playing) proved popular with listeners and Cutler made regular appearances on "Monday Night at Home" between 1958 and 1963. This popularity led to Cutler's first foray into the world of making records when he recorded the EP Ivor Cutler of Y'Hup for Fontana Records in 1959 (Y'Hup being Cutler's own fictionalized self-sufficient island). The seven songs he recorded were an early indication of the direction his work would take over the next ten years. Although embryonic, the Cutler sense of surreal humour was very much evident.

He continued to enjoy regular appearances on radio, where his stories sometimes caused controversy. He would recount how he was stopped in the street at this time by a man who yelled "I hate you! But I've always got to listen to what you're going to do next!"

Ivor Cutler's next record release came in 1961 when he signed to Decca Records to record the album Who Tore Your Trousers?, a fine collection of stories and songs that demonstrated just how far Cutler had taken his extraordinary talent over the eighteen months since his first vinyl release. Decca, and their "spoken word" A&R head Hugh Mendl, had an appreciation for the esoteric arts, and there Ivor Cutler found a sympathetic and receptive ear to his work. Wonderful pieces such as "Grass Seed," "Egg Meat," "A Warning to the Flies" and "Muscular Tree" (all of which appeared on Cutler's debut album), found a wider audience and led to more appearances on stage and on radio. A further series of recordings were made for Decca which appeared as the EP Get Away From the Wall at the end of 1961, another fine set of recordings which included the superb "Gruts for Tea" and "The Tureen." At this time Cutler's work found favour with the new rising generation of British satirists, including Peter Cook, at whose Establishment Club Cutler made appearances.

The sixties also saw Cutler's work go into print for the first time and saw three of his poems included in Faber's Book of Scottish Verse. He came to a much wider public in 1967 when he was persuaded by fan John Lennon to appear as "Buster Bloodvessel" in the Beatles film Magical Mystery Tour. Cutler had first become acquainted with The Beatles when Paul McCartney made contact with him following a radio broadcast where he had heard Cutler's harmonium playing. Fascinated with the sounds he heard, McCartney asked to meet the man responsible for such original work. Cutler later recounted; "McCartney heard a song that I sang, 'I'm Going in a Field,' He got in touch with me and invited me along for a meal and asked me about it. He said 'You know there's that chord in that song.' I said 'Oh yeah, it's a major second.' Anyway about six months later I got invited to be in Magical Mystery Tour and I discovered I was known by John Lennon too." The same year Cutler recorded the album Ludo for Parlophone Records, with Beatles producer George Martin and he found himself acquiring a younger audience.

His association with the emerging "underground" scene was enhanced further by Radio One DJ John Peel championing his work via a series of wonderful radio sessions for his programme, the first of which was recorded in 1969. Recording at least two sessions a year, Cutler became the darling of a new breed of musicians who invited him to appear on their albums. His first guest appearance was on Neil Ardley's album A Symphony of Amaranths released on Regal Zonophone in 1972. In 1974 he appeared on the album Rock Bottom by ex-Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt, which also led to his first encounter with Virgin Records for whom he to record a series of albums beginning with Dandruff in 1974. The ensuing years saw Ivor Cutler write and publish prose and poetry for both adults and children and to sporadically record and perform whenever he felt the muse.

Now 81 years old, Ivor Cutler lives in a small second-floor flat in Parliament Hill Fields in London. Despite his frail health he staged a performance at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall in February 2004 to great warmth and acclaim. A member of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society and the Noise Abatement Society, Cutler still admits to suffering from the neuroses that served as an inspiration to him over the past fifty years.

With this collection of Ivor Cutler's earliest commercial recordings, his first three vinyl offerings appear on CD for the first time. The stories, songs and prose featured herein reveal the beginnings of the talent and genius of Ivor Cutler, a Scottish treasure.

-- Mark Powell

Ladies and gentlemen, for your listening pleasure, Ivor Cutler.

An Elpee And Two Epees (Decca)

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