Is Gordon a moron? Forty years on, Northern Soul finds out
There’s a scene in the episode of Coronation Street that went out on New Year’s Day 1979 in which Helen Worth as Gail Potter is waiting outside a cinema in Manchester for a date with her boyfriend Brian. He doesn’t show, and when a young man who’s also been stood up offers to accompany Gail inside, she declines.
The character of ‘Young Man’ was played by the 20-year-old Graham Fellows, who was at something of a crossroads at the time. Not five months earlier, Fellows had a hit single, Jilted John, flying high at No 4 in the charts – Top of the Pops appearances, snogs off Debbie Harry, the lot. A full Jilted John album, released just weeks before his Coronation Street cameo, was less successful and Fellows wasn’t sure what his next move would be.
Nor did he particularly enjoy his new-found fame. Speaking to Northern Soul on the occasion of the single’s 40th anniversary, Fellows says: “In Manchester I was recognised everywhere I went, and I wasn’t very comfortable with that. I wasn’t equipped to deal with it. I’d had this big hit record and then when I went back to drama school I felt everyone was being a bit weird with me.”
The theatre studies course brought Fellows back down to earth with a bump. “We were doing Greek tragedy and we all had to wear badly fitting loincloths and stand there occasionally chanting ‘Agamemnon!’. That put me off acting a bit. I’d always thought I wanted to be a classical actor, but suddenly I’d been turned onto writing songs. I got one of those four-track cassette Portastudio and I just wrote songs all the time when I should have been learning my lines.”
So how had Fellows come to this turning point in his career, and what happened next?
Born in Sheffield in 1959, Fellows gravitated towards Manchester in his teens to develop his interest in acting, winning a place at Manchester Polytechnic’s School of Theatre. The course was based at the Horniman Theatre in the suburb of Didsbury, which had formerly been a cinema, and the Capitol Theatre TV studio operated by ABC. Famously, during the live broadcast of an Armchair Theatre television play in November 1958, actor Gareth Jones had a heart attack and died mid-way through. Fellows recalls: “There used to be a ghost in the cellar which people said was that actor and on occasion claimed to see.”
In the Horniman canteen, there was a guitar which students were welcome to use during breaks. Fellows had a love of music but no gift for playing instruments. “Some kids could play and would. I’d be a bit embarrassed because I couldn’t. One day I was sort of strumming the guitar in the canteen and someone who’d seen me struggling said ‘there’s half a chord there anyway, so just tune it to open G and then put your finger across’. I did that, and I just came up with this little riff by putting a finger on the fifth fret. I was a keen punk fan, but not that keen that I couldn’t take the piss out of it. I thought it was quite silly as well, a lot of it. So, I wrote this sort of parody of punk.”
This became Jilted John, a spiky, lone-lorn ditty about a young chap who loses Julie, his girlfriend, to Gordon, a moron. Outside of the college canteen, the first person Fellows played it to was his friend Bernard Kelly. “Bernard was a proper punk who lived in his own bedsit in West Didsbury. We did a demo of Jilted John on a cassette player [circa December 1977] with me strumming on an unplugged electric guitar and him tapping a rhythm on a Monopoly box.”
Though still evolving, people seems to like the song, and in early 1978 Fellows paid for a better-quality demo at Smile Recording Studio in Sale, with a full band in tow. “I took that demo to a record shop called Pandemonium Records on Lapwing Lane in West Didsbury. Naively I said to the guy behind the counter ‘do you know any punk labels that I could play this to?’. And he said ‘well, Stiff Records in London is the big one – but there is one down the road in Withington called Rabid’.”
Fellows duly walked with his demo tape over to Rabid Records, to play it to label boss Tosh Ryan and his cohorts. “They looked more like hippies than punks, but really it all took off from there.”
By March 1978, Fellows was at Pennine Sound Studios in Oldham with producer (and future Factory Records alumnus) Martin Hannett, recording a professional single version of Jilted John for Rabid. Hannett suggested some touches of his own, such as a nifty bass riff, but in the event the single’s distinctive drumbeat came from a surprising source. Fellows remembers: “Originally the drummer had quite a fancy fill to play into the song, but the guy who owned the studio – and I could be wrong but I’m sure he was the drummer with [family-based MOR pop act] The Dooleys – he came in and said ‘no, no, don’t do that, just go [imitates the terse whack we now know and love]’. And he was right, because it’s very simple.”
Rabid issued the Jilted John single in March 1978 with another Fellows song, the wonderful Going Steady, as joint A-side, but it was the tale of John, Julie and Gordon that caught all the attention. By the end of the summer, Jilted John had been reissued by EMI and Fellows made three memorable appearances with the song on Top of the Pops, complete with his pal Bernard Kelly dancing as ‘Gordon’.
“It’s like art imitating life, but me and Bernard ended up having a falling-out over a nice girl from Wythenshawe called Helen. I see him now and again but we’re not the friends we were sadly and he’s not going to be appearing at The Dancehouse. Unless he wants to come along and get up and do his ‘moron dance’ – he’s very welcome to.”
The Dancehouse is the Manchester venue for this year’s Jilted John 40th anniversary tour (marvellously, the same building was formerly the cinema featured in Fellows’s 1979 Coronation Street cameo). There were only a few Jilted John concerts back in the day, and in more recent years Fellows has performed a couple of festival sets as the character with a full band. “We’ve done the odd one-off gig, but this is the first ever Jilted John tour. The first and last – I won’t be doing it again.” Audiences will be able to hear a special brand-new song. “It’s a kind of up-to-date recap on what Gordon and Julie are doing now and where Jilted John is in his life, what he’s been doing since the record.”
For the most part though the shows will centre on songs from the sole Jilted John album, 1978’s True Love Stories, which was sorely undervalued at the time. Initially, Fellows had considered continuing to mine the idea of songs about forlorn love with alliterative character names. He did some work in that direction, but the world never got to hear Stoodup Stephen, Trendy Wendy, Packed Peter or Chucked Charlie. Instead, True Love Stories was a glorious – yes, say it – concept album, with new songs telling the tale of young John’s love life pre and post-jilt and Fellows performing every character. It too was by producer Martin Hannett, with keyboard contributions from his cohort Steve Hopkins, though at the time Fellows wasn’t happy with how it turned out.
“Basically, Martin took it off into an area that he was interested in and made it his own. It must have been partly me, but the keyboards started to dominate too much really. Steve Hopkins wasn’t a punk musician at all. If only we’d retained some of the punkiness of the single I think it would have been a more successful record commercially. But it is what it is.”
Fellows doth protest too much. Several of the songs on the album, like Baz’s Party, The Birthday Kiss and At The Bus Shelter, are little gems; warm, evocative, funny, well-observed glimpses of 70s Northern romance that wouldn’t have shamed a young Victoria Wood.
For all its merits, though, the album failed to sell, and Fellows decided that the Jilted John project was over. He went back to his studies while continuing to explore his new-found interest in songwriting. In due course more acting jobs followed, including theatre work, a role in Morons from Outer Space and a seven-episode run as a different character in Coronation Street. There were also occasional records released under his own name, including the cherishable Love at the Hacienda album from 1985. In the same year, though, Fellows created what would become his signature character. “For years it kind of dogged me – was I a musician or an actor? – and probably both crafts suffered as a result. In ’85 I was living in a house in Didsbury, and I started mucking around with this keyboard and created John Shuttleworth. I thought, right, now I’ve got a character that meshes the two, acting and music.”
Shuttleworth became a whole new chapter in Fellows’ career. The older, more DIY-fixated John won’t be appearing as part of the Jilted John tour, but Fellows is currently playing live shows as himself under the banner Completely Out of Character. As such, he’ll soon be back at Manchester Dancehouse again, doing songs and revisiting characters from throughout his career. “In the show I have elements of John Shuttleworth as well as Brian Appleton, Dave Tordoff and Jilted John. I talk about the characters and even slip into them as I play guitar and a bit of harmonium.”
In part, the Completely Out of Character shows are marking the release of Fellows’ new album Weird Town, the first released under his own name since Love at the Hacienda. It’s a fine, reflective piece of work, with open-hearted songs about growing up in the 70s (Diary of a Skinbird), Manchester in the 80s (She Was Held Together by Cigarette Smoke) and playing host to young actors on the way to fame and fortune (Mark Rylance Was My Lodger). There’s even a cover of a song by the mighty Mik Artistik in the form of Car that Makes a Bus Sound.
“I’m a big fan of Mik,” Fellows says. “That’s a very good song and I think he doesn’t always realise when he’s written a good one. It was almost like I was saying to him ‘listen, this is what you could do with your songs’, because the lyrics are so incisive and refreshing and unusual, but well-crafted.”
“My solo show seems to be entirely about Manchester really, because that was a big influence on me. I was there for ten years, from ’77 to ’87. I left when my mum was dying, and my dog had just died, and I was quite sad. The Smiths were really the backing track to Manchester then. I remember hearing Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now and I was like ‘yeah, I am, I’d better get out of here’. So, I moved to London. And got even more miserable.”
Fellows’ Completely Out of Character show includes one of his earliest John Shuttleworth songs, You’re Like Manchester, a surprisingly touching hymn to the city which was widely shared on social media after the Arena bombing last year.
“There’s a line in there that might puzzle some people – ‘you’re as pretty as that city in Autumn too’ – because it’s not really a town you associate with trees. But because I lived in Didsbury then, there was the Marie Louise Gardens and the Mersey and there were lots of trees, so I was thinking more that bit of the city, really.”
The Jilted John: Ere We Go, 2…3…40! tour dates include Sheffield O2 Arena on October 19 and Manchester Dancehouse on October 20, 2018.
Fellows’ Completely Out of Character tour dates include Manchester Dancehouse on November 8.
Fellows’s Weird Town album is available now.
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