A tribute to CP Lee
Christopher Paul ‘CP’ Lee, who has died aged 70, was a man whose whole life was driven by enthusiasm.
Born on January 19, 1950, he grew up in Didsbury and made his public debut as a teenager at a Fallowfield folk club in order to impress a folk-loving girl he fancied. It got him nowhere – with the girl, at least. His passion for music and skill as a player just grew and grew, though. In May 1966 he went to see his hero Bob Dylan play at the Manchester Free Trade Hall and was astonished by the force of the newly gone-electric band (not to mention an audience member loudly calling Dylan “Judas”). Then, in March 1967, Lee had a chance encounter with Jimi Hendrix outside the BBC’s Top of the Pops TV studio, back when it was filmed in a converted Methodist chapel in Rusholme. They chatted about Dylan. At the time, Lee was wearing a makeshift kaftan, formerly a brown dress discarded by his mother.
By then Lee had formed his first band, the psychedelic Jacko Ogg and the Head People, quickly succeeded by Greasy Bear which he was later wont to describe as “Didsbury’s answer to the Grateful Dead”. A full folk-rock Greasy Bear album was recorded, only to go unreleased for decades. Instead, Lee moved on to form Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias, presenting acid parodies of the musical trends and stylings of the day. A seriously popular live act, the Albertos toured relentlessly right across Europe, releasing three albums and a handful of singles. Their punk spoof Gobbin’ on Life was so accurate that it’s often included on serious punk compilations. It was drawn from the Alberto’s stage production Sleak, written by Lee, which was a considerable success when staged at the Royal Court. This in turn lead to the band making an out-there TV sketch show, Teach Yourself Gibberish, in 1982, only for Granada to re-edit it and air it in a children’s late-afternoon slot.
After the Albertos fell apart, Lee spent some time living in London before returning to Manchester to lick his wounds. He met the love of his life, Pam, in the bar of the newly-opened Cornerhouse arts centre. He studied for a PhD at Salford University and went on to be an unconventional, inspirational lecturer in the university’s film department for the next 23 years.
The truth is, though, that it’s impossible to convey who CP Lee was and what he did with just a trot though his CV. He continued to follow his mad enthusiasms in every direction, whether they involved the career of Lancastrian comedy giant Frank Randle, the loopy low-budget films of Cliff Twemlow, the art of ventriloquism or the painting and selling of bespoke Russian dolls. He developed a marvellous one-man show in which he reincarnated Californian jazz hipster Lord Buckley. He wrote and presented Radio 4 documentaries on subjects such as Buckley, Tiny Tim, Burl Ives and the Northern Soul movement, as well as the legendary 1964 UK Blues and Gospel Tour which saw Sister Rosetta Tharpe being filmed singing on a disused train platform in Whalley Range. He was also a popular and accomplished broadcaster and ‘talking head’, perhaps most memorably in last year’s Frank Sidebottom/Chris Sievey documentary Being Frank (that’s Chris, at home in in his nightgown). His love for playing music never faded, either. Down the decades he created and performed with a whole variety of bands and appeared solo at Chorlton Folk Club right until the start of lockdown in mid-March.
Chris became a acclaimed published writer, too. His book Like the Night is the definitive account of the epochal Dylan gig he’d attended back in ’66, establishing him as an esteemed Dylanologist and starting the process of identifying the source of that ‘Judas!’ heckle. Shake, Rattle & Rain was essentially a buffed-up version of his doctoral thesis, a definitive history of the Manchester music scene that’s been much imitated but never bettered. In particular, it’s a riposte to those who crack on like the scene began the night that the Sex Pistols played the Lesser Free Trade Hall (Lee wasn’t there, incidentally, he was away on tour with the Albertos). As Lee’s book demonstrates, the scene had already been shaped by the factors such as the city centre soul nights orchestrated by music obsessive Roger Eagle (who Lee knew well), shattered by the wholesale shutting-down of clubs and venues by Chief Constable John McKay (Lee had insight into this, too. His dad was on the police force) and then rebuilt by the co-operative body Music Force (of which Lee was part).
He was pretty nonplussed by the film 24 Hour Party People, having initially helped out with research for it. At the time he remarked that Tony Wilson’s “novelisation” of the film was “not to be taken lightly – it should be hurled against the wall at great speed”. Lee knew Wilson well, having taken the Cambridge graduate under his wing and acquainted him with the local music landscape when Wilson came back to Manchester. He was close to legendary producer Martin Hannett too, having gigged with him during the early 70s. Whereas Hannett produced the Joy Division tracks on the 1978 A Factory Sample EP, the label’s debut release, Lee produced the EP’s John Dowie tracks. He parted ways with Wilson and Factory when the Haçienda opened, later explaining that “There was no falling out. I just didn’t like clubbing.” (He also laid claim to coining the slogan for another key independent label, Stiff, namely “if it ain’t Stiff it ain’t worth a fuck”.)
Lee published his own memoir, When We Were Thin, recounting many of his adventures in the music world. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny, though many choice stories didn’t make the cut, reserved for recounting over a pint. Some were jaw-droppingly scandalous and gossipy, while others were intimate, bleak and heartbreaking.
He was a fascinating, often contradictory character. A brilliant raconteur who could also be rather shy, someone who loved to be the centre of attention but was unfailingly generous and kind. Intelligent, wise and effortlessly funny, he seemed equally at ease discussing the dark side of human nature or enrapturing a child with his ukelele playing (he became a fine dad to Nick and Tom). A genuine font of knowledge, he seemed thrilled to share it. He had a knack for self-promotion and his Zelig-esque tales sometimes needed to be taken with a helping of salt, but he was nevertheless a figure who deserved to be better respected. When he curated a compendium of Manchester bands for Ace Records, released last year as Manchester: A City United in Music, only the hardest of hearts would have resented him for including four of his own songs (not least Gerry and the Holograms, cooked up by Lee and John Scott, which – cough – ‘anticipated’ Blue Monday two years early).
For my own part, I spent my student years listening to Chris’s regular cult film review slot on Mark and Lard’s Radio 1 evening show during the early 90s. By the end of the decade I’d met him around Cornerhouse and bonded over a mutual love of Beach Boys rarities. (I even ended up taking ownership of the films he’d reviewed on Radio 1 in the form of a plastic washing basket full of VHS tapes.)
I’ll treasure happy memories of Chris’s Hollywood of the North coach trips, taking in sites of cinema-related interest around Manchester, including a surprising number of pubs; of visiting the delightfully chaotic office he shared with his oppo Andy Willis at Salford University (officially Adelphi A103, but widely known as ‘the Love Shack’); of seeing a band comprising Chris, Bob Dickinson and John Scott serenading my son’s Christening party with a ripping version of Cocaine (All Around My Brain). And I’ll certainly treasure telling Chris and Pam that I loved them, on the way out of their door one night when they’d got me smashed on absinthe.
It was an absolute pleasure and a privilege to have known him. Here’s wishing you love, peace and tranquillity, Dr Lee.
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