“So many people have lost all the mystery of music”
If you name your independent record company after the name of a funeral director whose name has been verified in an acclaimed work of British literature from the 1950s, then, according to British songwriter Vinny Peculiar, you not only signal your wares to a particular group of people with a particular cultural mindset, but also set yourself a trap by being recognized by fewer and fewer people over the years. The fictional funeral director, Shadrack & Duxbury, plays a central role in Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 novel Billy Liar. The main character, real name William Fisher, is trapped in a fictional Yorkshire town and works as a humble employee for Shadrack & Duxbury. He spends his time dreaming of glory and success in London, much like any teenager who wants something, anything, beyond the boredom and constraints of provincial life.
Vinny Peculiar, born and raised in rural Worcestershire, understood this. So was Alan Wilkes, who in the mid-1990s moved from his rural Worcestershire home to Liverpool and Manchester, quickly settling in the cultural heart of these two cities. Many recordings were made during this period, but nothing was released. The groups he was in, Wilkes said, were waiting to be discovered and signed. It happened to some of his peers, he admits, but never to him. He was a late comer in releasing solo music (in 1998 now known as Vinny Peculiar and in his early forties he released his debut album, Gone) and he said that when it came to to write songs, he only looked for an angle to distort it.
The results are best viewed as an amalgamation of 1960s pop shots, sardonic humor (he has been described, with some justification, as the “Tony Hancock of pop music”), heartwarming memories and full nostalgia. of life and self-aware. Wilkes is, of course, a cult artist who is unlikely to have much commercial success, because that’s how it is. That reference to Billy Liar? “The professions section of my Facebook page has ‘Office Clerk, Shadrack & Duxbury undertakers’, but of course some people don’t know the reference at all. I get messages saying it must be horrible to be surrounded by all this death. Those who know the benchmark, however, understand it and support my music, but it’s a tricky thing to try to maintain a presence.
He should know. Although he knows and works with former members of The Smiths (Mike Joyce, Andy Rourke) and Oasis (Paul Arthurs), and is held in high regard by anyone who recognizes the value of classical pop music , it seems that maintaining a presence is always a problem. . Like many musicians – and not just his generation – Wilkes’ creativity and business paths vary widely.
“I got really used to being a foreigner, so I tend to get involved in a variety of music-related activities. For example, this afternoon I’m doing a ukulele workshop for six year olds in their elementary school. And in the mental health sector, I give workshops on creativity and self-confidence. It’s fun, sure, but it’s a far cry from working on my own songs, and I guess life is a bit of day to day. It’s true for so many artists now. In Manchester there are so many bands that have to do this. A fairly well-known group, he says, sleep on each other’s sofas. “They are absolutely skinny. They’ve spent all their money on equipment, recording and rehearsing, and when they go on tour they lose money. He knew Elbow before covering himself in commercial clover (they were each signed to the indie label from Mancun, Ugly Man Records). When he got to know them, he says, “it was a bunch of tramps on the street. . . Seriously, the days of making music full time for a living are over for many musicians. “
Like Vinny Peculiar, Wilkes has released over a dozen solo albums, the best of which are conceptual. Yet from 2016 Silver Meadow: Institutional Fables (about her experiences working in the NHS mental health services) and 2018 Return of the Native (about her return, after a relationship ended. long-term, in his native Worcestershire) in his new album, Artists Only (mostly on contemporary visual artists), he also incorporates intensely personal autobiographical elements of growing up, falling in love and falling in love and insightful what could have been.
He says he sees everything he does “as a work in progress and a process” and that “elements of autobiography always enter the songs, whether or not they are themed around a specific idea. . The thing with Artists Only is that I wrote quite a few songs about the artists – I consider Rothko to be the visual equivalent of Sonic Youth – and I was a little afraid that I would end up copying and pasting their lives into songs. The songs on the album are therefore, in a way, linked to my life as well as to theirs. He’s the kind of person, he admits, who revisits the past not necessarily with enthusiasm but with more thought than concern for the future. “There’s a solace in that, and in trying to make sense of this and our place in this thing called life. It sounds pretty bad, but it’s true.
Between albums I’m no different from anyone else – I have moments of huge doubt and questioning
Wilkes is also one of those rare songwriters who can wring genuine, pathetic smiles from ordinary memories. Personalized commonplace, he says – be it from The Kinks’ heyday to the powerful but short-lived Pulp’s reign – is the only thing songwriters have to offer. Mixed in with the stories of mundane life, it’s a rare honesty – though he thinks some songs fail to capture that the way he originally wanted to. “I listen to Artists Only again,” he offers, “and I know there are a few songs where I could have nailed the punchlines, but I just went to the bar and I couldn’t be mad. It can happen sometimes. I try to bring in a bit of humor, which I think helps as well. “
Like many low-key artists, Wilkes / Peculiar is waging what some might reasonably think is a battle of Sisyphean proportions. A long-haired, bespectacled father and grandfather in his early sixties, he’s nowhere near what money-hungry labels, streaming services, or music promoters expect from musicians. And yet, an air of courage hovers above his shoulders. “I am calmly determined,” he admits, half timidly, half affirmative. “Between albums I’m no different from the rest – I have moments of enormous doubt and questioning. I wonder why I invest so much time in what I do, why I spend half the night polishing an idea, but I go through these moments.
The new year sees a little more of the same as the old. Concerts, he says, will hopefully increase as 2022 progresses. “Venues and promoters don’t really want to risk small gigs, so I think maybe it’s better to do less but promote it.” Self-promotion is the thorn in the side of many musicians of all ages, he adds wearily.
“It seems if you don’t hammer your social media hard enough, everything just blows up really quickly.” He wants so much to improve himself to shamelessly plug in his music. “I’m still aiming, but I fade away a lot. In Manchester not too long ago the Musicians Union ran a class on using Twitter, and the guy was saying tweeting about 12-15 times a day would start to make a difference. An air of innocent disbelief passes over her face.
“He gave people ideas about what to tweet about – variations on a theme, I guess. And then he said if you had the money you could buy thousands of likes and followers for not that much. It should be a simpler process, and I mean this in a psychological way, but it isn’t. I think for musicians there isn’t much to tell people how good the music or the album is. People just have to find it somehow. Without being the old guy here, so many people have lost all the mystery of music we had when we were kids.
He looks over the edge of his glasses. “There’s no intrigue these days – they’re taking it over.”
Artists Only, by Vinny Peculiar, is available for purchase at vinnypeculiar.com. It is also available on the usual streaming services.