Groovy Uncle’s new record is full of marketing opportunities for the right copywriter: ‘Would you like A Clip Round the Ear?’ being chief among them.
It’s a phrase that immediately recalls a bygone era of casual violence exacted in retaliation for minor juvenile misdemeanours (ah, those were the days!), which fits perfectly with the nostalgic sound and feel of Glenn Prangnell, Suzi Chunk et al’s latest outing.
Groovy Uncle has long been an outlet for Prangnell’s love affair with sounds of the sixties. But here, there is almost as much in the lyrics as there is in the music to draw you back to the past. It should come as no surprise; the album was born out – partially at least – from conversations Prangnell had with his parents about their memories of growing up.
And so we get songs like the album opener, ‘Mrs Saywell Says’, ruminating on the mental decline of a primary school teacher, and ‘Oil and Colour Man’, featuring the glorious nonsensical vocals of Hand of Stab’s James Worse, painting the portrait of a creepy door-to-door salesman (“Poor old Stan, the oil and colour man/he hasn’t had the pleasure of you yet”).
And, though there’s little to set other songs in a particular time and place, the album’s other character based songs seem to remember some time gone by as well.
Maybe it’s just because ‘Our Gary’s No Fool’ shares such a thematic similarity with The Kinks’ – and later The Jams’ – ‘David Watts’ that we can infer this historical difference. Then again, it’s very unlikely Ray Davies would have ever dreamed of coming out with a potty mouth lyric like “While the other’s knuckle down/Gary’s writing fuck all down” when describing his particular schoolboy prodigy.
‘Invisible Man’ recalls past times too – not least through the melancholic lyrical references to The Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’ (“to the wedding no one goes/where they’re heading no one knows”). It’s full of small town what-would-the-neighbours-think claustrophobia, describing – in the most veiled of terms – a girl getting pregnant and fearing the consequences.
But this is an album of two halves – or, more accurately, one-third and two-thirds. While ‘Gary…’, ‘Mrs Saywell…’, Invisible Man’ and ‘Oil and Colour Man’ give detailed sketches of fascinating characters, the remainder of the album reflects more traditional lyrical constructs.
On the face of it the remaining songs – the bulk of the album – are standard ballads, torch songs and similar poppy ephemera. ‘I Thought it was about Time’, complete with a vocal performance from Suzi Chunk that gives Minnie Ripperton a run for her money, is a confession of love (“It’s taken me forever so I hope you listen” – a theme recalled later in ‘Things I’ve Been Meaning to Say’.
A few songs later, Chunk channels her inner Dusty with ‘I Really Wouldn’t Know How’, narrating the life of a perpetual pessimistic procrastinator (“When I spy the end in sights/I never know where to begin”). This bookending theme reappears in ‘The Scheme of Things’ (“Your reminded me how we reached the end but we missed the start”), raking over the ashes of a dead relationship.
Then, in ‘Now Your Pain is Over’ (a potentially dangerous choice of title for the album’s final song), dead relationships spark observations like ‘grief is a tireless wretch/as old as it is new’.
What stands out from this musical gallimaufry is a common theme of undesired circumstance; the old John Lennon line about life happening to you while you’re busy making other plans. Mrs Saywell’s decline is the result of a series of unfortunate life events; the unnamed girl in ‘Invisible Man’ finds her life turned upside down upon falling pregnant.
Elsewhere, the ebb and flow of life and love leaves characters from songs bemused and confused when things don’t work out the way they thought they would.
The powerlessness prompts lines in the suitably Lennon-ish ‘Above my Station’ about how:
It’s not as if we chose our fate
Life just simply happens
We are, it seems, somebody’s means
to someone else’s end.
There are hints of a desire to take action, chiefly on ‘The Moon and Back’ (mercifully not a cover of a Savage Garden tune). Amid a glorious fug of dirty, dirty funk, Chunk snarls and swaggers with lines about how those “with an axe to grind…don’t need to thank me this time”. The song is a rare example of assertion (to the point of mindless bravado) – of championing underdogs and undermining champs.
But ‘The Moon and Back’ is the exception that proves the rule. The more common sentiment is what we find in ‘Got Up and Gone’, released as a single last year: “enthusiasm has malfunctioned/normality has rusted and blown”.
Despite the bombast of the brass and the explosion of energy, it’s a relentlessly glum assessment of a situation that permeates the album in various ways.
It’s almost like the universe has conspired to give us all a collective clip round the ear…
Find out more about Groovy Uncle and a whole splendid array of other Medway bands and artists in my book, Do It Yourself: a History of Music in Medway.