Savoy Rock’n’Roll—
Manchester’s Alternative Pendulum of History

b y   S t e v e   M a n f o r d

Record Collector, November 1999 (Unpublished)
Steve Manford in conversation with Michael Butterworth and John Coulthart

Left: Michael Butterworth and PJ Proby at The Cutting Rooms, Manchester, during The Waste Land sessions, 1994

LURKING JUST BENEATH the mainstream of Manchester's music culture like a badly filled-in cholera pit, Savoy have released some of the most bizarre, genre-defying records of the past fifteen years. Indeed in the pages of this magazine, Peter Doggett described their records "... as close to the sound of civilisations collapsing as anything I have ever heard". At Savoy's instigation, standards revered by the intelligentsia have been ruthlessly dismembered, international superstars have had their noses well and truly rubbed in it, while T S Eliot's greatest poem has been revitalised by a trouser-splitting rock'n'roll icon.

Already infamous by virtue of publishing books and comics so extreme most of them were banned as soon as they hit the shelves, Savoy's quixotic tilt at the record industry has its origins in the unlikely setting of a working men's club in Harpurhey. This was where Savoy supremos, Mike Butterworth and Dave Britton, discovered former rock star PJ Proby playing his old hits for beer money. Mike takes up the story.

"Initially we wanted to write his life story, but what we quickly realised was that he was still in great voice, he still had great presence and he was still very anarchic. So we decided to work with him."

Motivated by the reclusive Britton's love of "rock'n'roll in its purest form" and a desire to feed this spirit through a filter of radical literary ideas (and Captain Beefheart), Britton and Butterworth let Proby loose on a peaceful field of grazing sacred cows. The first fruits of this unholy union were the Tainted Love and Love Will Tear Us Apart singles. Recorded at Suite 16 Studio in Rochdale, the sessions were problematic, as Mike recalls.

"Proby was quite mercurial, but the combination of him and the band was a bit too much and we couldn't make it work. Tainted Love and the live version of Love Will Tear Us Apart were the only time we got a live band together. It was total chaos, but it still sounds great. In those days Proby was useless after 4 o'clock because he was too pissed, and having to cope with the band was a nightmare. But we took advantage of the chaos and deliberately introduced more elements into it—like the detuned synth—to make it sound even more demented. Proby loved it. He likes getting up people's noses and he especially liked the fact that Love Will Tear Us Apart was this revered artifact that he could trample all over."

Wisely ditching the band, Savoy took Proby to Pink Studio in Liverpool, to record a cover of Bowie's Heroes. It should have been straightforward, but Proby was having relationship problems and as a consequence was even more out of control than usual. Unsubstantiated stories involving copious quantities of alcohol and firearms still circulate about the session. Mike relates a more sober version of events.

Heroes"Proby sang Heroes and the b-side, The Passenger, to his absent girlfriend, completely ignoring Bowie's meaning in the former, of it being a song about the Berlin Wall, then informed us that he was going to join his father in the sky. We didn't really know him that well so we weren't too sure whether he would take a gun to himself. So we mixed the whole record as a funeral dirge thinking that in a few days he could be dead."

The results are stunning. Proby's anguished vocal annihilates Bowie's glacial take on the original, while the eerie a cappella rendition of Iggy Pop's The Passenger still raises hair on the back of the neck.

The Savoy story goes further than their involvement with Proby. Between recording a version of Anarchy in the UK and demolishing the odious '80s standards, I'm On Fire and In the Air Tonight with Proby, Savoy used their connection with sound engineer and arranger Steve Buckley (pictured below) to experiment with different voices and personalities. These included two friends who would go on to play pivotal roles in Primal Scream and the Happy Mondays.

Steve Buckley"We'd used Denise Johnson and Rowetta as session singers and noticed that they really sparked off well together," says Mike. "They were marvellous, lovely, bubbly and mischievous, ad-libbing all the time. So we decided to see if they could ad-lib a whole song; in the event they gave us two dirty songs, Shoot Yer Load and Golden Showers."

The record was eventually credited to Meng & Ecker, two super-violent characters from Savoy's Lord Horror comics, and became a surprise hit on the New York HiNRG scene.

Another Savoy release connected to their publishing arm is the Jessie Matthews sings Reverbstorm CD. Written by journalist Paul Temple and featuring Sue Quinn on vocals (not the old music hall songstress, Jessie Matthews, as billed), Reverbstorm is a searing slice of hysterical Wagnerian Northern Soul. Savoy were so impressed that they started a series of comics under the same name and gave three versions of the track away as a free CD with issue one.

"The only comic ever to have it's own signature tune," claims John proudly (John is occasional Savoy frontman and one of Savoy's main artists on the comics). "Dave liked Paul Temple's lyrics, so he and Mike got that traditional Northern sound with all this bizarre Schopenhaurean prose on top of it that runs contrary to this fantastic tune. The conjunction of those two things make it a great piece of berserkery."

Raw Power and Blue Monday are two examples of Savoy taking a song and trying to match it's spirit while doing something radically different. In the case of Blue Monday this entailed using the lyrics of Springsteen's Cadillac Ranch over New Order's bleeps and burps. The vocals on both these tracks are credited to Lord Horror, but the actual singer was Bobby Thompson, second lead vocalist with pre-Beatles Mersey rockers Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes. In Savoy's opinion, The Dominoes were the only band that could match the power of the Americans. Britton had originally wanted Kingsize Taylor himself, but Kingsize was (and probably still is) running a butchers shop in Southport and nowadays refuses to have anything to do with the music industry.

Another interesting feature of these records are the sleeves. Raw Power displays an alleged quote from Prince Charles on taking cocaine, "...the best people used it and are still using it." Blue Monday features a cartoon of 'God's Cop' and Savoy's former nemesis, former Chief Constable James Anderton, having his head blown off whilst uttering racist obscenities.

Savoy had tweaked the tiger's tail with Blue Monday, but with the Hardcore: M97002 (the numbers were Dave Britton's identity during a brief sojourn at HMP Strangeways) they stuck it in a blender. The song itself is a rambling sojourn encompassing hip-hop, heavy metal and intentional 'mistakes', with Proby drawling some of the most blatantly offensive lyrics ever committed to vinyl. Savoy dubbed it "The last rock'n'roll record made in England", but the real attention grabbers were a press release and a Butterworth-penned libretto, which announced that the special guest vocalist duetting with Proby was none other than Madonna.

"The rationale behind that was when she appeared on Channel 4's The Tube at the Hacienda in the mid-'80s, she did a secret session with Proby. It was vaguely feasible and a lot of people who had read the press release but had not heard the record were taken in."

"Madonna in Porn Record Row" screamed the front page of the London Evening News. "Sheer Filth" squealed The Daily Star. The nation chuckled at the audacious scam. Predictably Ms Ciccone went batshit and threatened multi-million dollar legal action. But despite the bluster, the lawsuit never materialised.

"Madonna realised that if she pursued the matter she would end up the worse for it," gloats Mike.

Another release dogged by controversy was the innocuously titled Savoy Digital Angst. The idea stemmed from Britton's love of The Wolfe Tones' blend of sweet folk music and revolution. Unsurprisingly, Savoy ignored the 'sweet' and 'folk' bit but kept the 'revolution'. John explains:

"The track Bobby Sands is set to the music of The Sash, which is a Protestant anthem, so the whole thing is totally at odds with itself. The reason Dave and Mike went for the sound was that the miners were on strike at the time and there were loads of bands marching through the streets of Manchester. They wanted a march feel with that snare drum sound. Proby liked it 'cos he sympathised with the Republican attitude and it had guns in it. They used God Save the Queen because the Protestants would hate it being a send-up and the Catholics would hate it because it was the British national anthem. It's also, bizarrely, technically illegal to record an unauthorised version of God Save the Queen. The whole record is just a potpourri of Irish mania and Establishment-baiting."

PJP in the studioIn recent years, Savoy's dwindling finances have restricted releases to a pair of compilations, Savoy Wars and PJ Proby: The Savoy Sessions. However the silence was broken this year with two new spoken word CDs, T S Eliot's The Waste Land and Savoy's own, highly controversial, Lord Horror. Both releases feature a cleaned-up Proby and, alongside Heroes, they are the best things Savoy has produced.

"Proby has an amazing talent for characterisation," says John, "something that no one had taken the opportunity to exploit on record before. He talks a lot about hanging around Hollywood, getting bit parts in B-movies and acting in general has a big attraction for him. Jack Good obviously spotted this early on which is why he cast Proby in Catch My Soul, Good's musical version of Othello. With The Waste Land he wanted to read it John Huston style, which was a great, intelligent choice on his part. It worked brilliantly, it lends a more melancholy feel to the poem. The Waste Land is a poem of fragments, many of which are the voices of different characters; this was something he coped with as well, if not better, than a professional actor, especially for the sequence with the women nattering in the pub."

"The Lord Horror reading gave him similar opportunities. On the intro he wanted to be like Walter Winchell, the American radio broadcaster; again, another smart choice. Later on he does some great voices for Horror's old musician friend, Izzy, and the whining, Pachuco tones of the Frogmen. I think doing these recordings made us all realise how much of his talent had been criminally overlooked in the past. There's always been too many people around him who only want to hear another crap rendition of American Trilogy or Proud Mary."

As to the future, plans are afoot to record a tribute to maverick property tycoon Nicholas van Hoogstraten, with Sue Quinn again taking vocal duties. Unfortunately, there are no plans to record with PJ Proby again. "Proby thought everything we did was shit," Mike grins. "But we would definitely work with him again."

Despite Proby's reservations, the records he and others made with Savoy remain some of the most glorious, offensive and preposterous that you are ever likely to hear. In the words of Rob Chapman (from his Mojo interview with Proby and Savoy):

"Savoy has made rock'n'roll sound alien and unsafe again, just like it should be."

Amen to that, brother.

For more pictures from the Waste Land and Lord Horror sessions, see the Proby in the studio picture galleries.

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