Stardust and Coaldust
For various reasons I've been thinking about brass bands lately. Maybe it's a spin-off from my (by now doubtless wearying) fanboy crush on Hiroo Nakazaki's euphonium work with Maher Shalal Hash Baz. But I've also been digging out lots of Elvis Costello's 80s stuff, and the New Orleans brass on Spike, not to mention the mournful backing to 'Peace In Our Time', exacerbates the melancholy I always feel whenever Coca-Cola deploys the 'Holidays Are Coming' tag for its cultural jihad. On a smaller scale, the select list of great rock tuba moments has to include Lou Reed's 'Goodnight Ladies' and Syd Barrett's 'Effervescing Elephant'. Above all, I rather overreacted when The Full Monty (proto-Thatcherite pseudo-prostitution, naff gay subplot, Prince Charles likes it, tired disco) made number 34 in that Channel 4 list. And Brassed Off (anti-Thatcher rants, political commitment, dastardly loan sharks, the awesome majesty of Pete Postlethwaite's cheekbones, brass bands) ended up precisely nowhere.
Brassed Off was meant to herald a brass band revival, in the way that The Big Chill reminded everyone about Motown, and O Brother Where Art Thou? made bluegrass trendy. It didn't work, of course, but maybe the genre had had its chance in the 70s. The Brighouse And Rastrick Band made number two with 'The Floral Dance' in 1977, but the cleverest use of this profoundly English sound was made by the singer/songwriter/pianist Peter Skellern. A mainstay of light entertainment shows such as The Two Ronnies, Skellern was too pug-ugly for international stardom, but possessed a gentle, slightly yearning voice that echoed Fred Astaire, Mel Torme and Nat 'King' Cole. Much of his repertoire was based on 1930s songs such as 'The Way You Look Tonight'; but rather than doing the standard supper-club schtick on the likes of Gershwin, Berlin, Porter and Kern, he added a dolorous, lovelorn tug to his treatments. Even more oddly, on several tracks he made the apparently incongruous juxtaposition of jazz-influenced standards with coal-fingered brass, giving a unique texture to hits like 'You're A Lady' (1972) and 'Love Is The Sweetest Thing' (1978), which spotlighted the mack daddies of the oompah scene, the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. When Nat 'King' Cole sang, you imagined he had a nicely chilled bottle of Dom Perignon tucked under his piano stool; Skellern surely had a crate of Mackeson's and a bucket to hoick into if the coaldust got too bad.
Today, Peter Skellern can still be seen, popping up on Songs Of Praise and acting as straight man to that other 70s oddity, Richard Stilgoe. There's no place for genre-defying oddballs in today's homogenous charts, but that's not to say Skellern's left no influence. He perceived a meeting point for the brittle, camp wit of Cole Porter and Noel Coward with the bleakly beautiful stoicism of a Northern socio-cultural tradition that knew its end was nigh. Four years after Peter Skellern had his last hit, Johnny Marr knocked on Steven Morrissey's door. Now if those guys had worked with the Grimethorpe Colliery Band instead of the Hated Salford Ensemble, they might have actually got somewhere...
© TIM FOOTMAN 2001