26 March 2010

"So how does it feel to make a grown man want to die...?"

You Little Thief by Feargal Sharkey. A big, brassy song that made the Derry singer a rather famous piggy-in-the-middle while also giving him a final UK Top 10 hit.

The story is well-thumbed, but just in case you didn't know... Maria McKee wrote A Good Heart when she was a teenager about her failed tryst with Benmont Tench, a keyboard player in Tom Petty's band, the Heartbreakers. Sharkey sang it and took it to No.1 in the UK. Then he recorded this, written as a riposte by Tench, and reached No.5 with it.

You Little Thief has a marvellous introduction, with that little preface of piano giving nothing away before this rumpus of a brass hook kicks in and immediately stays in your mind. Sharkey then does his usual heavily-accented delivery in that unique, raucous tone of his.

But back to the piggy-in-the-middle stuff. McKee had written A Good Heart, a song which to me seems to be dominantly negative but with a few bones thrown, after Tench and she had split. Then Tench responds with this, a song with little in terms of respite. He calls the subject not just a thief, but a savage, a nightmare and, worst of all, a whore. And, of course, there were no hard feelings, as there were no feelings at all. She obviously got to him.

One assumes there was no coincidence involved in all this. Sharkey got the McKee song and sang it, and was then sent Tench's composition and was brought very much into the picture what was going on here. McKee was an unknown jobbing songwriter as far as Sharkey's audience was concerned and therefore couldn't be choosy about who made a success of her art; Tench was a background artist and perhaps in a stronger position. Either way, my belief is that Sharkey knew exactly what he was doing and saw a chance for decades of dinner party conversation and pop trivia questions long after his singing career had faded.

The other intriguing thing is the rapidity of it all. I don't know when either song was recorded, but A Good Heart was issued in the UK in October 1985 and got to No.1. You Little Thief was out within three months of that, and both appeared on Sharkey's eponymous solo album. So Tench evidently wrote his riposte when McKee's song was still unknown, rather than seeing an opportunity for an easy few dollars. He must have been really riled by her if he wasn't even remotely inspired by filthy moolah. How Sharkey ended up with both songs when each was as unknown as the previous one becomes more of a mystery.

The video to You Little Thief showcases the truly luxuriant hair that Sharkey had cultivated for himself by the time of his mid-80s comeback. When he brought out Carl Smash's Listen To Your Father as his first solo single in 1984, Smash Hits interviewed him and used a "before and after"-style comparison of the moody kid in the Undertones with the stylish, well-groomed pop star of now. They clearly wanted to remind those old enough to remember just how little pride in appearance was deliberately taken by working class new wave bands of the 1970s, as Sharkey was in a tatty jumper and was covered in zits. The contrast was obvious. Underneath was a quote from the interview: "If someone had said to me at 16 'You'll end up a successful musician', I would have laughed in their face."

Sharkey gamely sings You Little Thief through the video while his two ultra-hairsprayed girly drummers bash away simultaneously behind him - they should have had just one drum each, like whenever Jon Moss went on Top Of The Pops with Culture Club and they couldn't be arsed to drag the whole kit in for just one mime - and those Women's Army Corps recruits (at least, I think that's what they're supposed to be) go up and down the staircase pyramid, one footstep per beat. The brass section is, as was customary for all guest brass sections of the 80s (see TKO Horns here too), utterly barking, leaving even the most naive pop kid wondering how on earth they can play such a bigshot hook while waving their trombones around like flags.

You Little Thief entered the charts at No.26 and instantly climbed to No.5. A second consecutive No.1 looked possible from such a huge rise but there was an even bigger climber above it - Dire Straits had gone from No.30 to No.4 with Walk Of Life - and so it got no higher, spending only one more week in the Top 10 as a whole. Feargal Sharkey would not grace the Top 10 again - indeed, only one more UK Top 40 hit would follow, and that was five years away. Also about five years away was Rodney Trotter giving estranged wife Cassandra a copy of Sharkey's latest LP for her birthday ("I bought her some earrings and a Sheargal Farkey LP") so at least he is semi-immortalised in overrepeated sitcoms too. There's even a moment when Cassandra is playing the LP, though presumably for the same PRS-related reasons that used to give radio stations nightmares in the 1990s, she removes the stylus within five seconds.

The B side, by the way, of You Little Thief is a delightful tune called The Living Actor. It was on the TV Cream Top 100 B Sides, so good is it.

A last thought. At my weekly 80s night, I will occasionally, if the mood is right, put A Good Heart on during the final half hour when people are too drunk and knackered to dance at full pelt and prefer to sway gently while singing very loudly. It is totally ideal for that, in fact, and the chorus often raises the roof. However, a nice couple who come in regularly and natter to me all night about music always threaten to fall out with me when I play it. There is, apparently, something that disallows Undertones fanatics from liking anything Feargal Sharkey did once he left the band. I haven't asked, but I assume this includes the Assembly too. I might stick Never Never on after A Good Heart one week and see if I emerge from the premises alive.

I have never played You Little Thief at the 80s night however, as it is simply not well known enough for a commercial 80s crowd. Perhaps I should.

24 March 2010

"Can you empty the ashtray?"

Bill Hicks would have had a field day with this. "I can't kill anyone in a car because I'm smoking a cigarette - and I've tried. Turn all the lights off and rush them, but they always see the glow..."

Having banned smoking in all public places, now the Government is being urged by the medical profession to ban smoking in cars. This is to protect children from passive smoking within a confined space.

Have these people never heard of a contraption called a window? They're great. They're pieces of toughened glass that allow you to see what's going on outside. Even more impressively, there is a button underneath it - or, in older vehicles, a windy knob thing - that allows you to open the window and let in fresh air.

For generations, adults who light up in cars have wound down windows to let the smoke from both fag and lungs escape and thereby not stink out the interior of the car too much. And, as unsophisticated as it sounds, it tends to work really rather well.

Smoking in cars is potentially more dangerous for the driver alone, who has to control the wheel and other buttons and levers while with a tab on. When I smoked and drove, I found it made no difference to my ability to hold a steering wheel properly, and the removal of one hand to put the cigarette between your lips was no different to using a hand to stifle a cough or do the considerate wave at another driver who has just let you through. The only time you got into a slight panic was if you accidentally dropped the fag. Oooh, fun and games then, believe me.

But the medical people have no apparent agenda to stop drivers smoking for the benefit of the immediate safety of everyone in the car. That doesn't sound like priorities to me. It just sounds like another way of bashing smokers for daring to take up a legal habit that raises a fortune for the Government.

Cars are private spaces and very well ventilated and it's nobody's business to tell anyone within one whether they can enjoy a quick drag or not. Presumably, were this proposal to become law, the car industry would get uppity about having to change their meticulous interior design in order to remove the now highly-illegal ashtrays.

Just as with the smoking ban in pubs, which has ruined the pub industry more than any other single thing, the medical lunatics are dictating to our lawmakers what is best for people, rather than letting us live our lives. The best irony of all this is that as ex-medical students, these doctors aren't exactly averse to 20 Embassy a day.

22 March 2010

"Shut your face, toilet mouth!"

Norman Stanley Fletcher, the habitual criminal who sees arrest as an occupational hazard, and one of sitcom's greats. Beyond the scripts and the expert facility to make comedy from desperation, the reason I like him so much is that he took Ronnie Barker miles away from his comfort zone.

As marvellous as Barker was, he was also a very safe performer. He was the light entertainment king, renowned for writing and performing in sketches that specialised in silliness and puns and playing characters that were buffoonish and very much family-orientated. He never swore and only went risque by "accident" (such as the bloke who specialised in pismronunciation - oh snigger, he kind of said "piss"!) and openly disapproved of anything approaching toilet humour.

I have no idea what he thought when he first saw the script for Prisoner & Escort, the Seven Of One edition that introduced us to Fletcher, but I assume it's a credit to Clement and La Frenais that he agreed to do it. Sometimes the insubordination within a script is worth it if it is very well written. You can't imagine Barker ever believing that taking a slash in a petrol tank would be funny enough for him to consider until he was given that script.

Once he was in and it was such a success that the BBC demanded a series, Barker would have had to work harder than at any point in his career. He had to play a character that was, to all intents and purposes, a genuinely bad one. He was a thief, a wisecracker, prone to a potty mouth and unedifying prejudices, grouchy, selfish. This was as dramatic as Barker in his pomp could ever have been, despite the many laughs within, and while he rarely needs help to be outstanding, on this occasion the scripts were never short of flawless and authentic and, presumably, helped him relax into the part despite the material reservations.

Porridge is, without exception, fantastic each time you see it. Fewer episodes were made than we realise, and Barker is sublime throughout, of course. I assume that he just took on the role as someone he acknowledged existed, even though Fletcher's character, mannerisms and habits represented everything Barker didn't like in other people's comedy. He swore (well, he used the expression "don't let the bastards grind you down" and we all knew exactly what "nerk" really alluded to, while "scroate" is one syllable away from being waaaaay beyond Barker's expletive comfort zone) and issued insults, made threats and read pornography. Fletcher's brilliance came as much from these foibles as it did from his wit, experience and ability to smart-alec his way out of situations and get an intellectual highground over Mr Mackay. In the end, one suspects Barker appreciated the quality of the role without ever really finding it fun to do.

The television-watching public are a little one-dimensional at times, and I reckon Barker was frequently stopped in the street asking how he can be so joyful and child-friendly with his silly outfits, comedy accents and quirky news stories with his diddy partner on a Sunday evening, and then appear so surly and vulgar under the brown hair dye in midweek. But so good is Fletcher that sometimes it's easy to forget that it's the same Ronnie Barker who was the king of family entertainment on television at that time.

This isn't to say that Porridge isn't family entertainment. The concocted synonyms for swearing and the absence of proper prison violence does sanitise it enough for kids to watch it, both back in the 1970s and now. It remains a pre-watershed programme when the digital channels and BBC2 repeat it - indeed, it is on in the daytime a lot now - and barring the odd flash of Patricia Brake's bra, I can't recall too much that would take it to the point of corruption of minors. And despite watering down of prison life necessary for sitcom, it doesn't glamorise prison life at all. It would be harder to make Porridge today, were we to believe the stories about prison conditions now compared to the indignities and squalor of the 1970s.

Barker was proud of Fletcher all of his subsequent career and life, even reviving him in 2003 (albeit momentarily) in that Life Beyond The Box mockumentary. Yet he wasn't remotely representative of what Barker stood for as a comedy performer, and one recalls Not The Nine O'Clock News satirising the Two Ronnies over Barker's dislike for "smutty" alternative comedy while writing and performing his own sketches that "nearly" mentioned sexual acts and bodily parts but just went "woo!" a lot at the optimum moment. Norman Stanley Fletcher is arguably the greatest legacy Barker left us, and yet also the character's success was as much despite Barker as because of him.