In August 1978, Jilted John
went to number 4 in the UK singles chart, made three appearances on Top Of The Pops and many more press appearances, received a silver disc, released two more singles and an album, ended up with the 29th biggest selling single of the year and perhaps most importantly gave rise to the deathless chant 'Gordon is a moron'. Find out more on these pages...
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“So here I am, all alone,
in my bedroom, with my chips, feeling, SAD”
Punk span off a handful of novelty hits, songs like ‘Banana Splits (Tra-La-La)’ ‘Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps, Please’, and any number which had to have been written and recorded with tongues planted firmly in cheeks (viz: virtually everything the Sex Pistols and Sham 69 did). But the pick of the bunch has to be Jilted John’s eponymous tale of teen angst, rejection and confrontation, underpinned by its wickedly infectious “Gordon is A Moron” chorus and featuring perhaps the most poignant line ever to grace a Pop song, “I was so upset that I cried all the way to the chip shop."
And if Jilted John had left it there, just the one killer single (NB: its flip, ‘Going Steady’, was just as good), it would still have been one of the outstanding records of the Punk era. No question.
But somehow, Jilted John's prometheus — 18-year old, Manchester-based, Shefﬁeld Polytechnic drama student Graham Fellows — managed to conjure up a whole album as well! And to complete a near-perfect body of work, the LP turned out not to be merely an exercise in cynical opportunism, but a slice of genuine inspiration, arguably the finest concept album of its era (despite what Fellows himself thinks!)
Yet like so many of R&R’s best stories, Jilted John’s very existence owed everything to a fragile combination of luck, inspiration and sheer chance. As Fellows recalls: “It all came about by naiveté really, I'd written a couple of songs and I wanted to record them...so I went into a local record shop and asked if they knew any indie or Punk labels. They said there were two, Stiff in London and Rabid just down the road. So I phoned Rabid up, and they told me to send in a demo."
“We did the demos with the late Colin Goddard - of Walter & the Softies - on guitar, and the drummer and bass player of The Smirks, I took it along to Rabid, who loved it...so we re-recorded it a few days later, at Pennine Studios, with John Scott playing guitar & bass and Martin Zero (aka Martin Hannett) producing. Martin did a great job creating the vocal choruses and that bass pattern before the ‘here we go, two, three, four’ bit."
Rabid issued the single (TOSH 105) with the artist credit to Jilted John, taken from the title of the B-side (“...originally, l was going to be called John Thomas!").
However, although ‘Going Steady’ was the designated A-side, Piccadilly Radio began playing the flip, following which a couple more local ILR stations also began to pick up on. The disc then began to move, and ‘Jilted John’ was hastily re—promoted as the topside.
Fellows even played a handful of gigs as his Jilted John alter-ego: “I think we only did about six or seven... all in Manchester. Although to be totally honest, I only really did those to get an Equity card!" By all contemporaneous accounts these were shambolic - if fairly amusing — affairs, Fellows decked out in Jilted John's best quilted anorak, coming on all nerdy, geeky and awkward, with Bernard Kelly doing his Gordon The Moron routine: “Bernard was my 'Baz’, really...but he was also a big musical inﬂuence — he knew far more about Pop music than I did - and he was a really important part of the live presentation. He’d do a moronic dance, some finger-jiving, and then just stand there in a catatonic state. He even had his own fans, and eventually started doing gigs on his own."
Rabid, meanwhile, had got their marketing act together, using the sleeve pic of ‘John’ clutching the ubiquitous bag of chips, looking sad, with ‘Gordon’ and ‘Julie’ sneering behind him - as an effective promotional tool. it began to sell heavily in the North-West and NME soon picked up on it, Tony Parsons designating it ‘Single Of The Week’ status in late May. Then, just weeks later Paul Morley penned a typically OTT piece in NME on the Manchester scene, homing in on Rabid and Jilted John in particular, viz: “... a classic... a wondrous hybrid of the heartfelt pessimistic perception of Shelley and the blow-dried innocent optimism of Child. This is an everyday, ordinary tale of everyday adolescent infatuation, and yet it is conceived and performed definitively: a Pop drama, no less. Ultimately, absurdly, there is too much intense accessibility for it to be a commercial success, even if it had the backing of a major label." It continued to shift in increasing numbers and eventually showed up in an unofficial indie listing compiled by Record Business researcher Barry Lazell — who promptly fell in love with the disc and played it repeatedly in the ofﬁce, eventually persuading the mighty EMI Records that it might be worth a punt. Next, John Peel got into it and began plugging it heavily on his Radio One show — at that time the ultimate badge of critical acclaim. EMI ﬁnally reissued it on their EMI International label (EMI INT 567) the ﬂrst week in August, and sat back whilst it emphatically proved Paul Morley’s prognostications wrong.
‘Jilted John’ eventually peaked at #4, shifting nearly half a million units, and for two or three months Fellows was everywhere - he even turned up brieﬂy in Coronation Street, chatting Gail Tilsley up in a cinema queue. He also made a memorable TOTP debut: “That ﬁrst one was great. The band were superb, and Bernard’s dance routine was terrific. It was years ahead of its time...quite arty... deconstructed, even. Mind you, the next time I did TOTP I forgot the words!" It also allowed a rare photo opportunity with Debbie Harry (“and I got a snog off her!")
Early interviews fielded Fellows and Kelly in tandem, and consisted largely of the former winding the interviewer up, convincing them that he really was Jilted John, a naive, anorak-wearing nerd — an abject failure with girls, who was better off breeding fancy mice.
Although NMEs Morley wasn't taken in, less tuitive Melody Maker, Sounds and Record Mirror hacks gleefully printed the nonsense that Fellows fed them. But as to where he was really coming from, in a rare moment of lucidity he'd told Money: “In February of this year I bought an electric guitar for £17.50. I can't play so I tuned it open and got ﬂat chords to write my songs. I just went ‘Shoo ooh ooh shoop’ and a tune ﬂowed. The single was the first thing I wrote,..It came in an afternoon of sheer inspiration. Then Bernard came round and played ‘drums’ on a Monopoly box... ”
The LP — when it finally arrived, in December - was a revelation. A genuine concept album, with recurring themes and musical phrases, shapes & patterns, it remains Punk's supreme triumph. It’s riddled throughout with classic, throwaway couplets, notably in ‘Baz's Party’: “All the boys have got brightly-coloured shirts/ and all the girls are in mini skirts/each hoping she's the sex-i-est/we're hoping our Sta- Prest stay pressed”; “I'm drinking as fast as I can/ while we all sing ‘Telegram Sam’; “There's a boy puking up in the lavatory/his name's Baz/ it’s his party”. But there’s loads more of ‘em, everywhere: “Barry is my mate/and we can sup/two bottles of cider each and still stand up”; “One summer's day in 73/I looked in the mirror and it terriﬁed me/what I saw was right out of place/bumﬂuff and acne all over my face”; “I know that being an adolescent/is not particularly pleasant”; “I got up at half-past six/and had two Weetabix”. Priceless!
But ironically, to this day Fellows remains ambivalent about the LP: “To be honest, I was disappointed with it - particularly that re—cut of ‘Jilted John’. It all sounds so over- arranged and overproduced. Not Punk at all. By the time we did the album, Martin's musical taste had changed...he’d decided he didn’t like John Scott's guitar after all, so he kept John's contribution to a minimum. Instead he went for a far more commercial feel, using all the keyboards...Steve Hopkins played those. Consequently, the album ended up sounding very much softer than the songs had sounded at the rehearsals.”
“Then again, I think I was taking it all a bit too seriously... there was no—one to step back and say ‘hang on, don’t let's do it like that, let’s do it like this.’ That's where I missed Bernard - he and I had fallen out. We'd had a ﬁght at a gig one night. Stupid, really, but you do daft things when you're 19. If he’d been around for the album sessions, I'm sure it would have come out different...more like I would have wanted.”
A couple of points which have always intrigued me are (a) why, when the story is set in the North-West, does Jilted John sound like Robbie from Eastenders, and (b) why was it that those superbly goofy girls’ voices were so obviously done by a bloke? (thus rendering the girls so spectacularly thick). Fellows recalls: “John's accent was a bit of a problem... we just hadn't really thought it through, I suppose. The original single was intended as a straight send-up of Punk, and all the early Punk records I'd heard came from London (affects cockney accent: 'Ere we go, one, two, free’). I just went along with that... and we stayed with it for the LP. I did all the Voices myself — I was a big-headed bugger in those days, thought I could do everything - and I probably just didn't spend as much time on the girls’ voices as perhaps I should.” But the bottom line remains that you just don't release an LP a week before Christmas unless it's White Christmas — and in the final analysis only NME allocated it much more than a passing nod, giving it to a teenaged Julie Burchill to review. Astonishingly, La Burchill didn't deliver the expected hatchet job, and although she affected sniffiness about a couple of tracks, she readily acknowledged the LP ,for the flawed classic it patently was (although being Burchill, she of course got well carried away, drawing inane musical comparisons with then-cult bands like The Doors, The Zombies and Love). Nonetheless, as she observed, “Unlike most Pop singers who attempt to hang on to their adolescence John is fresh out of his, and throughout Side One is clinging to pre-pubescence like a dying man. He does it well.” She went on to gush: “Side One is remarkable for its memory/imagination/honesty” singling ‘Baz's Party’ out for special praise, adding “Side Two is a concept within a conceptette, and towards the end it actually gets great. ‘Karen’s Letter’ is a soapy yet serious killer, a deserter-girl's lament read by John in choicest Shangri-Lamonologue, whilst ‘Shirley’ has the most brilliant music, like The Seeds‘ one and only riff, high on reserved English desperation instead of dumb acid. The last quarter of this album is actually stupendous... ”
However, by the time his follow-up single ‘True Love‘ (b/w ‘I was A Pre-Pubescent, EMI INT 577, Jan '79) was out, Fellows was back at drama college, his Jilted John persona already behind him. Consequently, with no artiste available to promote them, both the album and the single stiffed (the LP ended up selling around 15,000 units). Sadly, ‘The Birthday Kiss’ (b/w ‘Baz's Party’, EMl INT 587, April '79) fared little better (a scandal, that shoulda been a Number One!), ditto the three cash—in singles, Gordon The Moron‘: ‘Fit For Nothing’ (Rabid TOSH 111, Spring '79) and Julie & Gordon’s ‘Gordon's Not A Moron’ and ‘J-J-Julie (Yippee Yula)’, both on Pogo. Ironically, the Julie & Gordon releases were very nearly the subject of legal action from Rabid, although Fellows himself was tickled that anyone was sufﬁciently impressed to want to do an ‘answer disc’.
Meanwhile, those of us who'd had the foresight to blag/buy/nick the album the first time around have cherished it over the years, occasionally running off cassette copies for less fortunate friends who’d missed out on it (NB: noted Jilted John fans include Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albam, Mark Lamarr and the bloke from Carter USM. The most miserable period of my life was when the ex-wife effected custody of all my records. Took me years to track down a replacement copy - and I was never able to get another Mice & Ladders game!
And what of Jilted John himself? Well, Fellows of course eventually re-emerged with a rather more resilient character, John Shuttleworth, the self-styled ‘worst songwriter in the world’ and the star of many a BBC TV and Radio series. However, Graham has recently devised a new character, Brian Appleton. A Rock musicologist and part-time lecturer in media studies, Brian — from the West Midlands — delivers a lecture on the true history of R&R, with Brian himself as the unsung hero (“He's the Forrest Gump of R&R”).
by Roger Dopson, with special thanks to Graham Fellows, and also to Richard Bucknell Management, Tosh Ryan, Dave Wilson, NME, Sounds, Music Week, Alex Lilburn, John Galpin, Frank Lea.