It is June, 1997
Six weeks earlier Anthony Charles Lynton Blair had found himself elected to Parliament as the leader of the (New) Labour Party and had taken up residence at number ten Downing Street as Prime Minister.
Soon after that Noel Gallagher would arrive for a drinks reception in a chocolate brown Rolls Royce.
The thrill was gone.
The Britpop dream was dying.
The cool had been replaced by…something else.
There were still some highs to come but they were really just the last gasps of a scene that had already lasted longer than any of us could ever have imagined.
Things were becoming darker.
There was still hope.
Back in 1995 I had stumbled across a single by a chap called David Devant.
The single was “Cookie”.
It sounded a bit like Sparks.
And early Bowie.
I really liked it.
The problem was that there was a lot going on in 1995 and it just wasn’t possible to keep in touch with every band that drifted into your field of vision or to make any sort of long term commitment to a band…I didn’t have A band, I was banding around. Don’t judge me. I was young. Nobody had ever explained the concept of safe listening to me. If they had then maybe I would have settled down with David Devant and lived happily ever after.
It would be March 1997 before I reacquainted myself with David.
It turned out I had got things wrong.
There was no David.
Well, there was but he was dead.
He was a dead magician.
The band were in fact the energy, the soul, the ghost of David pursuing a career in popular music via “The Vessel”.
His dead wife was involved in this caper as well.
You shouldn’t be.
“The Vessel” was Mikey Georgeson, an impish genius of melodies.
“Ginger” was a funny song but, crucially, it was not a comedy song.
Is there anything worse than a comedy song?
Of course not.
I remember going to see Stewart Lee once and on the stage there was a guitar. Lee is an incredibly gifted comedian and writer…he is genuinely intelligent too. He is one of my favourite performers. I’ve seen him live several times and always loved it…but not that night. It was the guitar. I knew there was going to be a song and that, rather than do something earnest, he was going to sing a “funny” song. I didn’t like that idea one little bit. I couldn’t relax. Eventually the show reached its climax which was, of course, a funny song…he can play guitar, he has a pleasant voice, he has an incredible musical knowledge and a sincere passion for it but this wasn’t a touching homage to his heroes or a sincere musical performance; it was a comedy song and it was rubbish.
“Ginger” is a funny song…a clever song…but it is not a joke.
It has a warm heart.
It is about being different.
It is about being an outsider.
It is about bullying and bullies and the bullied.
“Have you got plans in your head,
You wish they’d all go drop dead…”
I connected instantly.
I did have plans in my head. I had always had plans in my head. I was going to be a writer. I was going to be a singer. I was going to be…someone. The problem was all of the people who stood in the way of these silly dreams saying things like, “These are silly dreams”.
I wished they would all go drop dead.
It must have been reviewed in the Melody Maker or N.M.E because I don’t remember seeing a video for it on the Chart Show but I do remember seeing “The Vessel” for the first time; the Elvis hair (wig), the obscenely tight trousers, the pencil moustache. He looked so…incredible, weird, otherly. I fell hook, line and sinker.
Strangely I didn’t connect this with “Cookie” which had gone missing…maybe I gave it my girlfriend or some girl I wanted to be my girlfriend. Using it’s weirdness and obscurity to make me seem cool, hip to the beat and weird in an attempt to woo. It didn’t work. Nothing ever worked.
A few weeks later, at the start of June, a second single arrived called “This is For Real”.
This was, astonishingly, weirder and better than “Ginger”.
It had bagpipes.
It was all about Alan’s mum and dad…and Josephine and Shirley…who had murdered their lovers…that little situation didn’t work out well for their dad.
I don’t think there is any metaphor being employed or deployed here.
I think it is just a strange, silly, slightly wonky little pop song…like “The Laughing Gnome” but good.
What was becoming increasingly obvious was that David Devant and His Spirit Wife were making me think a little more than most bands. There was the whole concept behind the name…a nod, an ode, a hymn to vaudeville, a loving look back at a time that was very different to the one they existed in. It was backwards looking but not in an attempt to recreate or mimic what had gone before, instead, it seemed, it was a prop, a tool, a vehicle that they could use for something slightly grander than being another Britpop band. Or any sort of band.
I had a feeling that maybe this was something more than pop music.
I don’t know if I can say it.
People come over all peculiar when you say it.
I have to say it.
This was pop as art.
Pop made by an artist.
Or art made by a popist.
It was, I think, high-brow masquerading as low-brow.
Or maybe it was low-brow masquerading as high-brow.
Or it was all a bit of a lark?
A situationist prank wrapped up in a situation comedy about a pop band?
I may be overthinking.
Or not thinking enough.
“He is a dead conjurer. She is representative of your spirit wife, my spirit wife. She is the inner muse who sends us a tingle down our spine. We want to become icons and, musically, we are just about the history of pop music.”
(The Vessel, Channel 5, 1997)
That is how Mikey Georgeson attempted to explain David Devant and His Spirit Wife to Jonathan Coleman.
To Jonathan Coleman.
It takes a certain type of confidence, or madness, to use a magazine feature on national television to sell your art-pop/pop-art vision like that.
At around the same time I also saw The Vessel grate a carrot on “Alternative Nation”.
Yes I did.
It wasn’t just the band’s story that contained magic, the music was laced through with the sort of divination and wizardry that comes only from those rare moments of pop alchemy when base materials like a drum kit, a bass guitar and a lead guitar are infused with some other element and BIFF BANG POW…pure pop gold.
Debut album “Work, Lovelife, Miscellaneous” arrived in the middle of June and it was everything one could have hoped for. Twelve songs made from story telling, melody, melancholy, joy, nonsense and hope. Twelve songs that, after only one listen, you would never be able to forget. Each one a little nugget of pop gold. Each one capable of making you smile, laugh, dance and then lift the needle so that you could do it all again.
Each one with a line, a word, a turn of phrase that sticks and unsticks you;
“Monsters and ghoulies and manifestations”
“Do you feel born out of time? Does all the world seem behind you?”
“People in glass houses…seldom through parties.”
“Love comes in many guises…she can see through walls and see through disguises.”
“Piss off let’s play charades.”
“When you gonna go for it? What have you got to show for it?”
“Read my mind and what you’ll find will help us leave the world behind.”
“You put your best foot forward, you break a leg…what came first, the chicken or the egg?”
“Don’t ask me what I’m doing. There’s no career that I’m pursuing.”
“There’s a situation vacant, if you need to earn some bacon, or you just need something to do to pass the time.”
“Up the airless mountain, to the final dawn…”
Songs about death and romance and fame and relationships and family and loneliness and connecting and…more.
Songs of love and wonder.
Crafted with the care and attention to detail of an…artist.
There is that word again.
It shouldn’t really be a surprise of course, Georgeson is an artist. A real one. A painter. An illustrator. Using various mediums to present various ideas. He may even be, whisper it, a bona fide eccentric.
This is a compliment of course.
Like Edith Sitwell but operating in pop and not modernist poetry.
Much as I love so many of the Britpop bands, and so many pop bands in general, it is difficult to imagine any of them saying something like this;
“I believe in magic and the power of following passions to lead to instances of backwards causality. In his autobiography there is an illustration of Devant making a ghost disappear ‘in front of a critical audience’ which, as a title alone, has parallels to painting pictures if you ask me….About the time Harry Pye first suggested time was right for a Devant themed show, I was sorting through some books I hadn’t touched since they had come into my possession via my polymath cousin, Ricky Rhubarb. The first chapter of the first book was a sketch of Augustus John basically saying he was a bit hit or miss but when his work clicked ‘one stares at it with amazement as if this were a Maskelyne and Devant trick and one saw a box floating in mid air’. My jaw slackened and I read on to discover the next chapter was a poetical tip toe through the dichotomy of magic and science. Reaching for my lighter I found it gone. Coincidence? No I don’t smoke any more.”
(“My Magic Life”, Exhibition Catalogue, 2008)
Read it again.
A carefully constructed joke…a pull back and reveal.
But there is more too…inspiration, art, magic.
That was what set David Devant and his Spirit Wife apart, the fact that while there was very definitely light on the surface there was also a parallel universe in their work. There was an attempt to reinvent the wheel of pop by the careful use of, and manipulation of, the norms of the genre. To create something fresh from something that was in danger of becoming stale. A shove towards anomie…breaking down the societal norms of popular culture and replacing them with something new, different and magical. Listening to “Work, Lovelife, Miscellaneous” now, twenty-two years later, is like stepping into a ballroom from a different era…things sound familiar and yet remain indescribable, untouchable.
Incredibly this is only a tiny part of the tale.
There were other songs before “Work, Lovelife, Miscellaneous”.
There were other songs after from David Devant and His Spirit Wife.
Then there were the live shows…and shows they were.
And Mr Solo.
And Mikey Georgeson and the Civilised Scene.
Oh…Glam Chops and Carfax too.
We will get to all of that at some point I’m sure.
It’s time this tale were told.
If The Vessel chances upon this I hope he knows that there are still people who want magic…who hope that we haven’t heard the last ever song from him, who want once more to don our spirit specs.