The Return of Jilted John: Interview with Graham Fellows
It was the summer of 1978. Punk Rock was everywhere, and fans around the country all had their local heroes. If you came from London you had The Clash. If you were from Bolton, then you had the Buzzcocks, and anyone from Sheffield could claim Jilted John as their own. Many years later, Jilted John was revealed to be a character, created initially as an attempt at a parody of punk, but who none the less, briefly had a genuine punk-rock hit. The man behind this was Graham Fellows, who of course went on to create an even more iconic character, John Shuttleworth. But now, 40 years on, Jilted John is back, touring for the very first time. Ahead of his Sheffield O2 gig in October, Mark Perkins had a chat with Graham about Sheffield’s punk icon…
So ‘Jilted’ John is back! What can we expect from the shows?
It will be a night of fantastic punk rock. Well, a bit more like wimp rock perhaps. It’s a chance to relive that glorious summer of 1978. Which wasn’t all about ‘Summer Nights’ and ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’ and ‘ Dreadlock Holiday’ but also about Jilted John, which meant a lot to a lot of people, especially those who were called Gordon. People might think they are just going to hear the single but there was a whole album of songs from Jilted John that not many people heard, which I’ll be delving into. Plus there’s a new song, which will cover what has happened to John since then, and of course we’ll find out what became of Julie and Gordon. The support is from John Otway, which is perfect, as his ‘Really Free’ song was a real influence with its half spoken vocals. I’d never heard anything like that before.
How did Jilted John idea come about?
I’d left Sheffield and I was a Drama School student at Manchester Poly. In my first term there I picked up this guitar, which was lying around in the canteen, and wrote the song more or less in my lunch hour. I tuned it to an open tuning, put my fingers across the frets and just played some chords, which is why it has that really distinctive guitar riff. It started out as a parody of punk, but became something a bit deeper.
Punk was really about just making your own music wasn’t it. Not caring too much about how it sounded but just getting out there with your own songs, so as such, it did fit in with the punk ethic
It did, and in every sense it was a punk record. I made a demo in a small studio, made a tape for £25, and took it to a record company. Well, no, actually at first I took it too a record shop in West Didsbury called Pandemonium Records. I was very naïve, and just asked the guy serving if he knew any punk record labels I could take it to. He said “There’s Stiff Records, in London, but that’s a bit of a trek, Oh yeah, there’s one down the road in Withington, called Rabid Records.” So I just walked all the way to their office and met these guys who were sat around drinking coffee, which I didn’t think was very punk. They played it on a reel to reel tape player and they liked it. Most importantly Martin Hannett, the legendary producer of The Buzzcocks and, and who went on to produce Happy Mondays and Joy Division, liked it too. We rehearsed it in the cellar, went to Pennine Studios in Oldham and for £200 we recorded and mastered a single. John Peel was responsible for it becoming a hit. He loved it, and was the first to play it, and then daytime Radio One picked it up. I remember when I first heard Simon Bates play it, I thought ‘We’re on to a winner here’.
And I suppose there was pressure then to capitalise on the hit and bring out an album
Yeah. Ten weeks in the chart, up to number 4 – it was inevitable. EMI, who Rabid were licensed to, insisted on an album. In a way it was all a bit too quick, but I made an album, ‘True Love Stories’ What came out of it was really interesting, but was not what the fans of Jilted John were expecting. Musically it was so different from the single, which was partly Martin Hannett’s fault. He was getting into his own sounds. In a Julie Birchill review, she found elements of The Doors, The Zombies and Love – references I didn’t really know, but I knew it didn’t sound like Jilted John’s original hit. Without actually mentioning it, it was clearly set in Sheffield. Songs like ‘The Paperboy Song’ was based on my paper round on Malborough Road, and ‘Baz’s Party’ is about a real party that took place on Crimicar Lane. Not surprisingly the album didn’t do that well, and I soon went back to drama school. But fans of Jilted John have no need to panic. It didn’t disappear! It’s been reissued, with the original single, on coloured vinyl. It’s available online on my website and of course it’ll be available at the gigs.
So how did Jilted John turn into John Shuttleworth?
There were a few singles, and a Graham Fellows album, called ‘Love at The Hacienda’, which I’m very proud of, but none of them had any real success. One single was called ‘Men of Oats and Creosote’, in 1980, which is very rare, about men who keep mice, but I sang that as an old man. This was really the bridge between the two characters, and I came up with the Shuttleworth character in about 1985. I started by doing tapes for friends, playing the character, singing songs and people liked them. I was still doing a bit of theatre, and briefly became a milkman, but I started really doing gigs as John Shuttleworth in about 1991, and that was when it really started to take off on the comedy circuit.
After all the Jilted John celebration has died down, what does the future hold?
I performed ‘An Evening with Graham Fellows’ at the Edinburgh Festival, which is about all this and the other things I’ve done, and I’ll be continuing touring with that for a bit, and there will be a couple more BBC radio shows. The Shuttleworths at Christmas is returning this year and again next year, and I’m writing a book as John Shuttleworth. It will be published in time to coincide with a full John Shuttleworth tour in the not too distant future.