An interview with Ivor Cutler
It’s 1997, the tail-end of Britpop, and one of the more idiosyncratic – but enduring – talents to emerge during the first British beat boom has just been signed to Creation Records.
But this is no rediscovered mod icon or grizzled rock survivor. This is a 74-year-old Jewish Glaswegian poet, humorist and songwriter more at home with the Noise Abatement Society than the hipster denizens of Camden’s Good Mixer.
Ivor Cutler – for it is he – may seem an unlikely label mate for the likes of Oasis and the Boo Radleys. But this isn’t his first brush with the cutting edge of youth culture. The former teacher’s unique blend of deadpan whimsy and peculiarly profound surrealism brought him into the orbit of the Beatles, while frequent sessions for John Peel made him a favourite with generations of hippies, punks, indie kids and beyond.
Mr Cutler – I am informed before the interview that this is his preferred form of address – went on to appear in ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ as bus driver Buster Bloodvessel, and his stories, poems and songs became a perplexing and hilarious staple of Peel’s radio shows. At the time I spoke to him, he had just been signed to Creation for the re-release of his George Martin-produced 1967 album ‘Ludo’ and was preparing to record ‘A Wet Handle’, the first of what would be two new Creation Records releases.
I call him at his London home, thrilled beyond belief to be a one-man audience for those familiarly soothing tones.
And we’re off. Mr Cutler is an engaging interviewee, only occasionally becoming distracted as he watches the comings and goings outside his front window (‘Oh! There she goes on her bike again!). You can almost hear the twinkle in his eye as he muses owlishly on his long and much-heralded career as one of the great British eccentrics.
First order of business, though, is the ‘Ludo’ reissue. Was he happy to see it given a new lease of life?
‘I’m thrilled to bits,’ he says. ‘Especially to hear my young, strong voice. We spent six months rehearsing it, so we knew exactly what we were going to do before recording. George Martin, who produced it, complained to me. He said: “There’s no point in my being here.” I suppose I am a bit of a perfectionist. I was more so in those days, when I was less sure of myself.’
Already a regular performer on TV and radio from the early 60s onward, Mr Cutler’s association with the Fabs came about after a certain young Mr McCartney happened to see him on TV: ‘Paul heard me on Late Night Line Up and got in touch with me. He loved the song he had heard me sing. I discovered that John Lennon was a fan of mine, too. There was an interview with him in the Sunday Times and George Melly asked him who were the influences in his work. I was one of the four.’
Despite his Beatles associations, Mr Cutler credits John Peel with giving him his most faithful following, saying: ‘I think about 90 per cent of my audience now have started off with Peel. The other 10 per cent are people who remember me from 1960.
‘But now I have a new book of poetry out, and I’m doing a record of that with Creation. I asked them if they would like to do it, and said I would stick a bit of harmonium in between the poems. They said yes, to my astonishment. I was very pleased. I am probably about 40 years older than anyone else on the label. I think they were all fans of mine. I’ve heard that Creation is the cool label to be on, so I’m very amused.’
And did Creation’s biggest stars tickle his fancy? Sadly not.
‘I got them to send me a tape of Oasis. It wasn’t for me at all. When it comes to that kind of music, I’ll stick to the Beatles.’
Age, though, is a state of mind as far as the eternally child-like Mr Cutler is concerned.
‘My body has gotten old, although I still go round on my bicycle, but I think I am still the child I was right from the start. I have this theory – and it’s not unknown – that all creativity is the desire of the creator to deal with the neuroses that they went through when they were little kids. I suppose my neuroses must be deeply entrenched, because I’m still creative.
‘There’s also the desire for attention, which is a very common one. It comes from when the next baby comes into the world and you suddenly discover you are no longer number one.’
He pauses when I ask how much seriousness is disguised under his playful body of work. ‘I am a great tease,’ he admits. ‘Underneath, the goodies are lurking. What I don’t know, and I don’t suppose I ever will, is the nature of the seriousness underneath. People hearing it don’t know either, but you feel you are being communicated with in a way which is deep and true.
‘The work is quite open and simple, but a lot of people are unable to enjoy it. They feel threatened by it. They feel I am coming along and kicking away all the important things in their life which give them their self respect and they can’t accept me because I’m trouble.’
Time is running short. The woman on the bike has sailed past Mr Cutler’s window a few more times. He concludes by patiently outlining his approach to his work.
‘I had to ignore the intellect. I don’t like British poetry. I hate the way I am being communicated with. The way I write poetry is basically to get the intellect out of the way so that the unconscious can come out. I have shown the Cutler technique to 36 people and 31 were able to take advantage of it. It has become a crusade to me. I feel I am sewing the seed…’
Ivor Cutler: 15.1.23 – 3.3.06.
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