Wisecracking Wizardry
Shop Around 15
The Ace family of labels has just reissued the two Radiators (From Space) LPs in handsome facsimile (limited) editions of the original Chiswick releases. For those that don’t know, the Radiators (from Dublin actually) were a non-league punk outfit who hinted at and occasionally achieved magnificence. Their immortal single 1977 'Enemies' (“desolation angels in a junkyard of lies/secret thinkers spitting in their eyes …”) is one of the 500 greatest, but it’s their second LP Ghostown I particularly love. Produced by Tony Visconti it hints at a group stretching towards an ambitious magnificence that is beyond punk orthodoxy. The closing suite of songs ('Kitty Ricketts'/'Song of the Faithful Departed'/'Walking Home Alone Again'/'Dead the Beast, Dead the Poison') is strange and striking, as the titles imply, and more Brecht/Weill than speeded up r’n’b. It’s sad that the leading light here, the brilliantly named Phil Chevron, is better known as a member of the Pogues.

The Radiators’ early songs, like many of the punk groups’, were often about the media. Indeed their first LP is called TV Tube Heart. The TV motif seems to be running through a number of books too, and it’s being used in a way to recapture lost youth, and draw some sort of comparison between what was got away with on TV in the past, compared to what TV gets away with now.

Part of this motif seems to be the 1970s TV dramatisation of Sartre’s Roads To Freedom. I am sure this was in Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters Club, or was it? The irony here is that Coe is the best example to contradict this school of thought. The recent dramatisation of The Rotters Club was great, though how much of this was down to the Le Frenais/Clement team, which is itself synonymous with some of the best of ‘70s TV (Porridge/Likely lads etc)?

A more explicit use of the TV motif is in Murphy’s Favourite Channels by John Murray, which was published last year by Flambard. Murray, as a writer, is our best kept secret, and should be celebrated as widely as Coe rightly is. Better than anyone right now he uses absurd humour to make some deadly serious points. And in Murphy’s Favourite Channels he revisits the dramatisation of Sartre’s Roads To Freedom.

Now I’ve never actually seen that (though I have coincidentally rediscovered the Young Disciples’ Road To Freedom). That’s perhaps not surprising. On one hand I would have been knee high to a grasshopper when it was broadcast, and it doesn’t sound the sort of thing my torn asunder family would have sat down to watch. On the other, I have a history of missing the best of TV. In fact it’s only in recent weeks I have caught up with some of the great serials/TV dramatisations like The Edge of Darkness and The Singing Detective.

So what about John Murray? I don’t know. Maybe it’s me, but I don’t get the impression John Murray is a household name, but he’s certainly should be even if it ruins him. Let’s be bold and say he’s our Jim Dodge. I stumbled across John Murray’s Jazz etc in our local library (before it closed down for a year long refurbishment ­ grrr!). I took it out because it looked intriguing. It was. He does for Cumbria what Shena Mackay does for South London. He captures something strange amidst the outwardly normal. He has an ear for how people speak, and an eye for how we act. He clearly is torn between love and hate for the homelands he exiles himself in. And he loves words.

Oh how he loves words! Playing games with words. Which somehow makes me think of the Tom Tom Club’s 'Wordy Rappinghood'. What a gorgeous song that still is. Certainly one of the 500 Greatest, yes. And of course you know now you have your reissue of Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s Mambo Nassau that the much missed Lizzy’s work with Steve Stanley out at Compass Point provided the blueprint for the Tom Tom Club’s exotic mix. The sun’s shining today so the Tom Tom Club is an ideal soundtrack.

John Murray’s ways with words and wisecracking wizardry are best seen on Murphy’s Favourite Channels (though I am reading his John Dory and that is an absolute joy). Quite simply the book tells the story of his anti-hero’s using TV as a channel (sorry!) for this. Which I am sure is not going to make you rush out to buy the book. The chapters alternate between satellite channels being flicked through (to represent life in the shadow of 9/11 and the impact of foot and mouth on Cumbria) and the more traditional terrestrial channels down the years (to tell how Murphy got to where he is). And all of it is provokingly funny and oh so real.

I forgot to mention I bought Murphy’s Favourite Channels in our local Oxfam for £1.49, and left it lying around for ages unread while more obvious pleasures took precedent. Ironically I loved it so much I ordered what I thought was a nice cheap copy of his John Dory on the ‘net for a few pounds only to see the seller had got it for 30p in what I bet was a charity shop in a cheaper part of the country.

Not that I mind. I love the fact I keep stumbling across John Murray, and hope you get the chance to do so too. Something else to stumble across is the unexpected pleasure of Until Death Comes by Frida Hyvonen, which is out now on the Concretes’ Licking Fingers label. It’s another strange pleasure. Deceptively simple but provocative songs that are ostensibly voice and piano, but which are as twisted and beguiling as the best of Laura Nyro’s, Dory Previn’s, and Janis Ian’s, and praise doesn’t come any more fulsome than that. The whole package is perfect, if perfectly strange, and I’ve played little else since it entered my life.

And one song is called Djuna! which makes me want to reread Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood. I bet that’s a book John Murray loves.

© 2005 John Carney