It is quite incredible looking back that the persuasive Mike Alway succeeded, like the Larry Parnes of Barnes he wished he was, in selling his idea of using the identity of historical characters to the gifted individuals he collected together for the él roster. And there is no doubt that él was home to some talented types who somehow agreed to subsume their own individualism and adopt various roles or at least specific names.
Among these was The King of Luxembourg, a part which was brilliantly acted out by Simon Fisher Turner, who in many ways was everything the provincial Alway was not, which made them a perfect pairing. Simon’s story has been told many times, and it is easy enough to look it up, but the wonderful thing is that his life in the music world has taken in so many seemingly diverse aspects.
At él he was perfectly placed to play the King, fronting a series of recordings that are a glorious mix of mad, mod music hall and Bowie’s Pin-Ups, like Privilege scripted by Simon Raven at his most outrageous, and really showing up all that stuff that came later with Suede, Blur, Pulp, et al. There is glorious footage available of Simon in character as The King shooting the agate, like Johnny Angelo in his full pomp, performing ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’ for an adoring audience. This piece of film is apparently a tantalising part of footage Derek Jarman shot while the él package tour was on the road in Japan where the label had many fans.
Simon had close links to Derek Jarman, and is probably best known for his soundtrack work for some of Derek’s films. Indeed, él released as an LP Simon’s beautiful score for Caravaggio 1610, And perhaps that is the enduring legacy of the label, with Simon camping it up singing old Monkees, Turtles, Go-Betweens, PiL, and TVPs numbers, while simultaneously making some very moving, very adventurous music for experimental films.
Well before él Simon was already involved in playing parts and tricks. Arguably his would-be teen scream idol role for Jonathan King was an illusion, while later there was the mischievous Deux Filles episode with his creative partner Colin Lloyd Tucker at the start of the 1980s where they created some decayed pastoral soundscapes, hiding behind the identities of two doomed French schoolgirls, which Richard King writes evocatively about discovering and immersing himself in while working in a deserted record shop, shrewdly placing their Silence and Wisdom set alongside Virginia Astley’s From Gardens Where We Feel Secure.
The team of Turner and Tucker were also behind the debut Would-Be-Goods single, which on one side featured the punky rush of ‘The Hanging Gardens of Reigate’ which strays into Shena Mackay suburban territory, and delightfully in her novel Heligoland there is the curmudgeonly old poet Francis Campion whose works include the collection The Hanging Gardens of Penge.
The Would-Be-Goods story goes along the lines that mad Monochrome Set fan and something-in-the-city Jessica Griffin would be good marketed somewhere between Joan Greenwood and Nancy Sinatra, singing in very precise, posh, deadpan tones, a little like Twinkle or Virna Lindt. The funny thing is that, in a very él way, Jessica turned out to be a far better songwriter, lyricist certainly, than the original Alway concept, and her output got better with age.
The Camera Loves Me, the LP Jessica and her sister made as Would-Be-Goods for él is great fun, and was produced by Keith West, presumably an Alway hero, whose ‘Excerpt from a Teenage Opera’ was once continually played on Radio 2 so many of us wayward boys and girls will have absorbed it by osmosis growing up. Several of the songs on the LP were arranged by Julian Henry of The Hit Parade, who was once a music journalist and became a very successful public relations professional, working for Simon Fuller, Spice Girls, Brand Beckham, while simultaneously continuing with his hobby of making music, releasing records on labels like Sarah.
Another él project Simon Fisher Turner attacked with gusto was masterminding the extraordinary recordings of Bad Dream Fancy Dress, a duo who took the spirit of the chorus of ‘mysteries’ in Lionel Bart’s Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be into the post-punk age, along the way creating a fantastic one-off in ‘Discotheque’ which could easily be a lost ZE minimal mutant disco track from the very early 1980s. The LP Choirboy Gas really should have been turned into a musical. As, indeed, should The Red Shoes by Anthony Adverse, which was composed and created by Louis Philippe, with an affectionate nod of the head to Powell & Pressburger.
The role of Anthony Adverse was played by Julia Gilbert, once a member of Cherry Red minor characters Five Or Six, and she did it brilliantly, particularly as her voice is suitably strident, perfect for a West End stage, a little like the great Anita Harris or Mari Wilson at her best. And she looks perfect on the cover of the LP, posing with a foil in full fencing regalia. But it is the words and music of Louis Philippe that makes it really work, including ‘London, My Town’, one of several classic songs Louis has written about the metropolis.
Louis is in many ways the cornerstone of all the él activity, working with The King of Luxembourg and releasing a few LPs in his own name. His music may be said to belong to a tradition that takes in XTC, Scritti Politti, Aztec Camera, Microdisney, Prefab Sprout, Lilac Time through to Belle & Sebastian and The Clientele (with whom Louis worked as an arranger). But it is far more interesting to consider his compositions in a wider context of 10CC, Art Garfunkel’s Breakaway, Neil Sedaka’s Hungry Years, Dean Friedman, Andrew Gold, Gilbert O’Sullivan, the early Labi Siffre records, Colin Blunstone on his own and with The Zombies, Beach Boys, Monkees, Bee Gees, Nilsson, Kinks, and so on, which could all be wild projection.
Where Louis’ work gets really interesting is where he brings in more diverse elements, strings and things which zing and spark like Van Dyke Parks, and very intricate vocal arrangements which are not just a nod to Brian Wilson but very much in the great French tradition of the Blue Stars of France, Les Double Six, and Swingle Singers, and then there is the Free Design, Spanky & Our Gang, and so on.
The records Louis made in the years immediately after the demise of él are among his most adventurous, even if it would be some years before they were heard in the UK thanks to a Cherry Red salvage operation. The Rainfall and Jean Renoir LPs Louis made with Dean Brodrick are delightfully and quietly experimental, with adventurous arrangements of vocals and odd percussive elements among the pianos and strings. Moving on from these, Louis rediscovered pop, working with jazz bassist Danny Manners, on 1993’s Delta Kiss which features the fantastic and very exotic ‘Haida’ with its rhythmic patterns, wordless vocals, and jazzy guitar colouration.
This led to Sunshine which was an early production by the great Bertrand Burgalat, and the record as a whole is an out-and-out pop delight. Proceedings even got gently and insistently funky on ‘Rafaella’, took in the Bristol blues on ‘Heaven’, and ‘L’hiver te va bien’ has elements of what Stereolab would later do on Dots and Loops and Cobra and Phases Group with the sunkissed Brazilian gently rolling waves of melody and the oblique balladry.
It was Bertrand Burgalat who later gave Louis the chance to make a record with Jonathan Coe. For the epigraph of What A Carve Up! Jonathan had used some of the lyrics from Louis Philippe’s song ‘Yuri Gagarin’, a big favourite of his, and so it transpired that Louis and Jonathan became firm friends in real life. Jonathan’s The Closed Circle would later be dedicated to Philippe Auclair, Louis’ real name. And along the way they got to make music together, releasing the enchanting 9th & 13th collection of spoken word and music on Bertrand’s Tricatel label.