MOST ONE-HIT WONDER ACTS disappear without a trace. But the creator of ‘Jilted John’, a top ten smash in 1978, the brilliant comedian, actor, writer and singer Graham Fellows, arguably went onto bigger and better things — notably the fictional singer-songwriter John Shuttleworth. Everyone remembers ‘Jilted John’ with its “Gordon is a moron” refrain but few bothered to listen to the accompanying album True Love Stories, knocked out in haste and produced by Joy Division producer Martin Hannett. This is a shame as the record is a skilfully crafted concept album incorporating a variety of musical styles and witty, often poignant, lyrics expressing the trauma of being a teenager, but from a British working class, rather than urban American, perspective.
I spoke to Graham Fellows about his 1978 album Teenage Love Stories at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough in December 2022.
MARK GOODALL: Teenage romance and sex have been constant themes in rock’n’roll and pop music and this record seems to be about that, but from a more ‘ordinary’ perspective. Was that intentional?
GRAHAM FELLOWS: I was always aware of how pop songs used terrible generalisations in the lyrics like “ooh baby I love you” and “you take me to heaven”, things that you wouldn’t say in real life. I was fascinated with songs that actually spoke in the vernacular, using real teenage language. I suppose a novelty song like Mike Sarne’s ‘Come Outside’ was an attempt to do that. Or even The Small Faces speaking in real voices on some of their songs and the bits of chat in between. Then punk came along, and I was inspired by John Otway’s ‘Really Free’. I loved that song even though it was absurd with outlandish, strange lyrics. The half-spoken/half-sung delivery really chimed with me and fitted into the ‘punk’ ethos. The song ‘Jilted John’ was about teenagers meeting in real spaces like bus shelters and going to the chip shop, because that’s what I remember.
MARK GOODALL: There’s that bit of ‘real’ party ambience at the start of the LP…
GRAHAM FELLOWS: Well, that was to set up [the track] ‘Baz’s Party’. That’s me doing every single bloody voice! Which is interesting, because later when I did John Shuttleworth, I did all the voices. In fact, there’s a proto-John Shuttleworth voice there with the man in the newspaper shop! I tried to do the girls’ voices, but I wish I’d used varispeed. I think for Shirley (the woman that picks John up) we used varispeed but for Karen it’s rubbish. I can’t believe they let me get away with that! Then again, the producer, Martin Hannett, bless him, was sitting there stoned and thinking more about which weird noises he can put on the music. I do wish we’d found a woman or girl to do the girls’ voices, but it was probably a matter of time and my own vanity. Take ‘In the Bus Shelter’ or ‘Karen’s Letter’ with Steve Hopkins. Great backing track but I just read a letter over it and fucking ruined it (sings mockingly “Oh John, I really love you”)! What was I thinking? There’s also a nod to some kitchen sink films like A Taste of Honey. Julie Birchall said in her review that it made her think of Una Stubbs and Susan Hampshire vying for Cliff’s affection in The Young Ones.
We did it in a week at night. I was at drama school and in a big theatre production so we must have got a discount. The ‘Jilted John’ single was recorded on an 8-track but EMI allowed us to splash out on 24-track for the album, which I think was a mistake. If we’d stuck with 8-track, and the limitations it forces upon you, we could have made it more like the single and sold a lot more.
MARK GOODALL: Yes, I think I was disappointed when I heard the LP compared to the single, but now the music seems quite sophisticated with complex chord progression and rhythms like the rumba on ‘Birthday Kiss’…
GRAHAM FELLOWS: I’d fallen out with Bernard Kelly who was my ‘Bez’ if you like. He played Gordon the Moron and he was a good person to bounce ideas off. We fell out, ironically, over a girl! He had his own fan club and it pulled us apart. We had a hit single and did Top of the Pops, but we drifted apart so he wasn’t involved in the album, which was a real shame, because, as someone my own age, he would have countered some of the ideas of the older guys. Steve Hopkins was a big influence on that LP because he played with Martin Hannett in The Invisible Girls and was in John Cooper-Clarke’s band. His ideas were great, but they took it a long way from punk. John Scott was a very good guitarist and played bass and guitar on the single and the album but he didn’t get on with Martin Hannett, so his parts were fewer than they should have been and even mixed down a bit.
MARK GOODALL: I suppose that Martin Hannett was not really a guitar person- he preferred synthesizers…
GRAHAM FELLOWS: He liked weird noises. He annoyed studio engineers because he would suddenly press something which made a loud bang just to see what happened and where he could harness it.
MARK GOODALL: What were you thinking in terms of the music? Its’s hard to square the single and the album.
GRAHAM FELLOWS: Well you can’t! I was eighteen when I wrote most of the songs and only just nineteen when I recorded them.
MARK GOODALL: Were the lyrics more important than the music?
GRAHAM FELLOWS: I came up with the lyrics and words on a guitar, as that’s all I had. They would have worked fine as ‘punk’ arrangements. Actually, I have some of the rehearsal tapes and they sound rough and ready — really nice. It all became a bit too polished. The drummer that we had for the single was dropped and Martin Hannett decided he wanted this very ‘sixties’ style drummer, Alex Sidebottom from The Distractions. He was pretty good, but part of me wishes that we’d kept the original line-up.
It is what it is. I was told to write an album and got very inspired by this story of John’s girlfriend Karen running away, which is based on real life, as my sister Sally ran away to London when she was fifteen and her boyfriend went after her and couldn’t find her.
MARK GOODALL: The problem with comedy is that people don’t take it seriously! They don’t appreciate the skill that it takes to make it work. Jake Thackray for example…
GRAHAM FELLOWS: [Does a brief and very accurate impersonation of Jake Thackray.] My dad loved Jake Thackray!
MARK GOODALL: You wanted the album to be more punk?
GRAHAM FELLOWS: There’s no doubt I was a part-time punk! I was a drama student who couldn’t play the guitar. You probably know the story, but I found a guitar in the refectory, and someone tuned it to chord, so I could play it with one finger. And that’s how I came up with the riff for ‘Jilted John’. I didn’t even know what the chords were, but I had a pretty good sense of melody, and I could write lyrics.
I think I was in love with Steve’s synth parts. People said it was going to be a hit musical in the West End, so I probably went down that path. There’s a song [on the album] called ‘Fancy Mice’ which a lot of people love and I like it now but at the time I thought it was the most ridiculous thing ever written because it’s full of obsessive detail, all made up, although I used to breed mice! Then you’ve got ‘Baz’s Party’ mostly based on true experience and it shows. The details like “I’m drinking as fast as I can / While we all sing ‘Telegram Sam’”. I remember that from Sally Woodhead’s party at Crosspool in Sheffield when we were fourteen, with cider flowing etc.
It’s funny because we called it ‘Baz’s Party’ but I never went to a blokes’ party, it was always girls that had parties…
MARK GOODALL: Unlike most rock songs about teenage love and sex it rings true…
GRAHAM FELLOWS: I think by the time I did the album I was aware of Squeeze and ‘Up the Junction’. I thought: “God I wish I’d written that”. I wrote a song for the Love at the Hacienda LP (Graham Fellows, Wicked Frog Records 1985) called ‘I Live at Cathy’s Now’ which was my ‘Up the Junction’. I guess they were ploughing the same furrow…
… let’s nail this: suddenly you have a hit single and the record company say they want an album in three months. So you write like fuck. We already had the ‘Birthday Kiss’ which we did live a few times with that rumba type rhythm which the drummer came up with. ‘Going Steady’ was going to be an A-side which is probably a better song — it has a chorus! ‘Jilted John’ has a chorus but it only happens once! You see, I didn’t know about song writing. With songs like ‘Shirley’ I was actually trying to get serious, a fantasy of an older women kidnapping me!
MARK GOODALL: Do you change your mind about your own songs?
GRAHAM FELLOWS: Oh God yes. There’s a song called ‘True Love’ which I thought at the time was amazing and put out as a single. I cringe at it now because it’s me trying to be a ‘singer’ and its embarrassing! I lose the Jilted John persona (sings some lines). It’s me trying to be like Spandau Ballet or something.
If you’d seen an early gig of Jilted John it was whole concept with the anorak and everything. I had this intro in a Yorkshire accent:
My name is Jilted John
My music is for everyone
And if it doesn’t turn you on
You must be a moron
Who sings backing vocals
I thought that it was clever, not doing it in a southern accent, because then I would switch to [cockney accent] “Take it away boys!” All the punk records you heard on the radio — Sex Pistols, The Clash, Eddie and Hot Rods, Vibrators — were sung in a southern accent, so that’s me taking the piss. It was written as pastiche but once it was produced and played by John Peel it captured the imagination and became more artistic and had more depth.
There was a punk ‘sound’, but I’ve espoused a punk ethos throughout my career. So, John Shuttleworth uses a punk ethos: I record at home, I do it cheaply, I edit my films with iMovie. That’s punk, but not ‘fashion’ punk. Punk — musically — was too limited for me. I was more into The Only Ones and Patrick Fitzgerald where there was more intelligence and thought. But I’ve always liked the Buzzcocks and adopted some of his [Pete Shelley’s] mannerisms and his voice, the sort of ‘not tough’, wimpy ‘I’m a teenager — I’m hurting’ thing and I liked that more than the snarling ‘I’m an antichrist’. Johnny Rotten was what I think of as a ‘fashion’ punk, but then you have to create a persona when you front a band and that’s what I did with ‘Jilted John’ with the anorak and with the hood and everything.
I think of True Love Stories as an extravagant sketchpad of a lad learning how to write songs. It just happened to be released and apparently influenced bands like Pulp and Blur and academics like yourself are now discussing it! Great, but I never intended or hoped for that.
MARK GOODALL: Can you see a line connecting Jilted John with John Shuttleworth?
GRAHAM FELLOWS: I would say the ‘Paper Boy’ song is a bit John Shuttleworth isn’t it? He could have sung that!