Despite his love of Jazz and his devotion to the Blues, George Melly was Rock ‘n’ Roll. He defined the phrase ascribed to a lifestyle of social rebellion and hedonistic excess way before the music ever even existed. He was arguably Britain’s original ‘Punk’, and as a teenager at the end of the Second World War he came perilously close to being court-martialled by His Majesty’s Royal Navy on a charge of ‘distributing anarchist literature’ among his fellow conscripts.
Yet, to me and perhaps to most children of the 60s and 70s, Good Time George was always just some fat, old, posh bloke who would roll up on ‘Parkinson’ a few weeks before Christmas, in one of his loud stripy suits and a rakish fedora cocked at the now internationally recognised official angle of jauntiness that George, himself, helped to calibrate. He would share some bawdy showbiz anecdotes, make toes curl in delicious amusement and plug his annual residency at Ronnie Scott’s, before camping up ‘The Peanut Vendor’ or some other jazz or blues standard with the house band.
That was all until one afternoon in the early 1990s, when, in an Oxfam shop close to Liverpool University, I paid a metaphorical song for a dog-eared assortment of some of the quite fantastic and mostly autobiographical books that George Melly had written. I quickly became a fan, both of George and of his writing, and it is quite difficult not to if you have any sense of humour, an appetite for life and enjoy a well turned phrase.
He defined the phrase ascribed to a lifestyle of social rebellion and hedonistic excess way before the music ever even existed.
George’s irrepressible personality, wit and humanity shine from every page that he ever wrote; even from those of ‘Hooked’, his surprisingly engaging memoir detailing a life-long passion for fly-fishing. I have never felt even the slightest inclination to fish, ever, yet even so, neither have I lead what anyone could describe as a sheltered life. However, to this day, Allan George Heywood Melly remains the only man who I have ever even heard of who set off into adult life as exclusively and enthusiastically gay and then became rampantly and more determinedly heterosexual as he got older. I’m familiar with life lived in the opposite direction, having had a close friend, a successful musician, who suddenly lost an understandably voracious enthusiasm for being able to sleep with as many beautiful and desirable women as was humanly possible when he met the man of his dreams and eventually married him. But George was ever the rebel, albeit one with an impossible abundance of charm. He was an original, a one-off and quite possibly the poshest Scouser ever to have drawn breath.
Melly was a charismatic and enthusiastic live performer right up until his death from lung cancer in July 2007. He enjoyed rather than preached the blues gospel ‘as it is now and ever shall be’, preferring to pay his homage via the sincerest form of flattery towards his great heroine, Bessie Smith, rather than as a devoted disciple and earnest recording artiste. His recorded legacy serves as a memento for those fortunate enough to have been enchanted by the unique magic of his live shows.
A legendary drinker and raconteur Melly busied himself away from the bandstand too; working as a writer, journalist and commentator for various publications and radio programmes as well as appearing on countless TV chat shows and taking part in many a late night arts discussion. He was The Observer’s film and TV critic for many years as well as its first ever pop music critic. He wrote about and lectured on art history, specialising in Surrealism, and for many years provided the satirical story-lines for the Daily Mail’s uncharacteristically bohemian cartoon strip, ‘Flook’, which was created and drawn for 35 years by his great pal, Wally Fawkes, the former clarinettist with Humphrey Littleton’s band.
George wrote his main autobiographical trilogy backwards; starting in 1965 with his recollections from London’s underground jazz scene of the 1950s in ‘Owning Up’. This could well have been subtitled ‘Sex, Drugs and Trad Jazz’ and is essential reading for anyone drawn to the legends of rock music’s later excesses in the 60s and 70s. His three and a half years service in the Royal Navy, when he found himself conveniently stationed in London at the end of the war, are the subject of ‘Rum, Bum and Concertina’ written in 1977. As the title suggests and in contrast to the traditional sailor’s pursuits of ‘Wine, Women and Song’ the book covers a period in George’s life when he indulged his homosexuality to the full, something that he typically insisted was made so much easier by a smart naval uniform. It was during this period that George became involved with London’s fledgling Surrealist movement, which in turn led to his brief dalliance with anarchism. He later confessed that this came from the overwhelming urge to irritate his senior officers aboard ship as much as possible rather than from any affinity that he felt towards the Surrealists’ anarchist founding father, André Breton.
George was ever the rebel, albeit one with an impossible abundance of charm. He was an original, a one-off and quite possibly the poshest Scouser ever to have drawn breath.
George’s upper middle class childhood in the Lark Lane area of Liverpool is the subject of 1984’s ‘Scouse Mouse’, my personal favourite of all his books. It recounts a happy childhood in the 1930s and the many delightfully eccentric people to whom young George found himself related. He traces most of his passions and interests in later life back to their origins in his childhood, including his love of art, which he attributed to many happy Sunday lunchtimes spent in the grand surroundings of his art-collecting aunt’s home at Sudley Hall in Aigburth.
Three other books which make equally fine introductions to the old ‘tart’ are; ‘Mellymobile’ (1982) – An irresistible collection of articles that he originally wrote for Punch in 1974 as he re-discovered his love for life on the road while touring with John Chilton’s Feetwarmers and a young student audience which adored him. ‘Hooked’ (2000) – Nominally dedicated to one of his other life-long passions; fly-fishing. Hooked is also the story of George’s privileged up-bringing and well-to-do family holidays in Wales as a child. The only non-autobiographical book in my recommended half dozen is the seminal ‘Revolt Into Style’ (1970), the first credible analysis of pop culture made by somebody who was a part of it. Melly’s documentation of Britain’s earliest teenage tribes and post-war pop culture explosion was considered still relevant enough to be made a set book for anyone studying for a degree in Media and Cultural Studies during the 1990s.
Other titles in the Melly bibliography include: A Tribe of One: Great Naive and Primitive Painters of the British Isles (1981) - Great Lovers (1981) - It's All Writ Out for You: Life and Work of Scottie Wilson (1986) - Paris and the Surrealists (1991) - Don't Tell Sybil: Intimate Memoir of E. L. T. Mesens (1997) - Slowing Down (memoir, 2005)
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