Ade Edmondson: Punk Rock... With pipes?
- Credit: Archant
Ade Edmondson will be performing in Gloucester this month with his band, The Bad Shepherds, playing punk classics with traditional folk instruments. It’s a career change he takes very seriously, as he explains to Katie Jarvis
I needed money ‘cause I had none
I fought the law and the law won (twice)
The Clash, I Fought the Law
If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
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Even mindless violence seems boring today.
Vyvyan, The Young Ones
So, I’m interviewing Adrian Edmondson on the phone, and what do you think we’re talking about?
Go on. Call out.
“Bottom?“ Well, yes. Ish.
“The Young Ones?” Slightly.
“Celebrity Masterchef?” Umm. Not really, actually.
“Music?” No points there. That’s a given.
The correct answer is, of course, the Stoics. Socrates. Marcus Aurelius. Epictetus. And, OK, yes. It is a bit of a surprise to me, too. My list of pre-prepared questions was initially lacking in issues concerning cosmic determinism and human freedom. More, if I’m honest, suited to the sort of dialogue that produced:
Woman: Which one of you is Mr Hitler?
Eddie: That would be me.
Woman: Ooh, any relation?
Eddie: Well... I’ve got a mother.
Woman: No, no, I meant to Adolf Hitler.
Eddie: Yes that’s her.
But that’s down to my narrow-mindedness. It’s a fascinating conversation. We start off talking about the similarities between punk, folk music and comedy. (Be patient. I’ll come back to the music part when we’ve dealt with the Stoics.) The thing is this: it might look at first glance as if Ade Edmondson has swerved direction. A handbrake turn, even. Waving a not-so-fond farewell to being funny and taking to the stage, instead, with his band, The Bad Shepherds – a surprisingly appealing blend of punk, new wave and folk.
But, when I think about it, it’s not really a swerve at all. Punk, folk and comedy have a lot in common. After all, comedy is also about protest, isn’t it?
“I think anger might be a better word for a lot of what I’ve done,” Adrian Edmondson says, in that voice – his real voice – that embodies calm rationale.
So what is he angry about?
“I’m actually trying to get less angry,” he muses. “I’ve started reading philosophy. As in the Stoics. Because it’s not good for you, anger, all the time. The thing about Stoics is that they teach you that you can train your responses to things. When people talk about gut reactions and the red mist rising, these are things that you can train not to happen.”
It means, he says, that you should work out what you can control, and what you can’t – id est what other people think; what they say; what’s happening outside yourself. “You can only really control your own thoughts; your own reactions.” He pauses. “I’m doing a really bad version of Stoicism here.”
No, no; you’re not. This is interesting. So all that anger that came out as comedy in Bottom? All that nihilism – that rubbishy Turgenev/Nietzsche-type stuff – and the violence?
He thinks about it for a moment. “The reason I’ve had my best performances doing music rather than comedy – the most intense experiences – is that (at least in the way we did it) comedy is quite an aggressive pursuit. It was a kind of battle with an audience. Whereas music is about including the audience. You meet in the middle.
“I can think back through lots of events that I’ve witnessed, lots of comedy gigs and lots of music gigs, and I can’t remember the emotion of any comedy one. It’s quite ephemeral; you laugh and then you go home. Whereas I can remember Lou Reed in Sheffield City Hall in the 70s because I can remember the feeling that I had.”
Put like that, comedy seems so one-dimensional.
“The older you get, the more pathetic it is. Comedy has become really weird. So joyless. Everyone seems so desperate in the comedy world. It all looks like they’re trying too hard.”
On paper – even glossy magazine paper – that sounds a bit bitter. But he doesn’t come over that way at all. Even when he says that his only regret is not stopping the Bottom live shows a bit sooner – “because I was doing it for the money in the end” – it just has an honest ring to it. He could have stopped it but didn’t. Where was Marcus Aurelius when he needed him?
What he is doing, apart from winning Celebrity Masterchef with a faultless menu (celeriac remoulade, followed by sea bass stuffed with scallop mousse, and a strawberry and caramel dessert with shortbread, in case you missed it. (Though he himself claimed he was off to eat baked beans on toast afterwards)) is embarking on his latest tour with The Bad Shepherds.
They do lots of different stuff but, if you want a flavour, then google their version of I Fought The Law or No More Heroes. (‘Warning’, their official video cautions, ‘there is a glimpse of sandal about 10 minutes in’.) If you didn’t realise that The Clash were a group of Aran-clad folk singers named Paddy, then you’ve seriously misunderstood early punk.
Oh, hang on. We’re not doing comedy…
So. To be serious. It is genuinely amazing how these songs gain a new lease of life with The Bad Shepherd treatment. Slow them down, add mandolin, pipes and fiddle, and punk really does become folk: it sounds fantastic.
“It’s the luck of being born when I was,” Ade says. “These are the songs of my late teenage years; it’s great to be able to play them in a way that makes sense when you’re in your 50s and in a way that makes sense to other people in their 50s. Our treatment of them pushes the lyrics right to the front. A lot of people, bizarrely, don’t recognise the words when we sing them; they don’t understand what a song like Down in the Tube Station at Midnight is about until they’ve heard a different version.”
He has, he says, always been a manqué musician; but it was after a drunken night out that he awoke one morning to find he’d accidentally purchased a mandolin. True story?
“Yes, true. I’ve got loads of instruments but that was the first mandolin I’d ever picked up. It was like a Eureka moment. I worked out the chords for London Calling and it just sounded so different. To suddenly find something you thought – Oooh! People might want to hear that – was phenomenal.”
His fellow shepherds are Troy Donockley on Uillean pipes and Andy Dinan on fiddle. “Uillean is the Irish for elbow: elbow bagpipe. Very sweet-sounding with a kind of legato feel, as well. The Irish pipes and the fiddle have been a stalwart of traditional Irish music for hundreds of years. I always knew I liked that sound because I’d met Troy years before – he used to play the pipes with a prog rock band called Nightwish. They’re from Finland and they’re huge. No one’s heard of them in this country but they go on world tours and fill out stadiums. It’s bizarre.
“There are some sounds that attack you emotionally rather than intellectually, and that’s what folk music in general feels like to me. An awakening of stuff I already know. It sounds really pompous.”
Again, actually it doesn’t.
He talks about how it drives him mad that no-one on British radio will play any of their tracks with pipe and fiddle on it. (They’re happy to play other Bad Shepherd stuff; just not the very ‘Irish’.) “It’s fear of upsetting people; fear of being too weird.
“I was watching telly last week and I noticed that One Direction were on BBC every morning. I thought, Is this what Britain is really about? Fair play to them: of course they should be on. But not every bloody day of the week. Telly should be pointing in darker corners.”
He and his wife, the comedienne Jennifer Saunders, now have their first grandchild, one-year-old Fred, who’s also being introduced to the joys of music. “He’s allowed to touch anything I own so I keep putting things in front of him. I’ve got a little charango – a Peruvian ukulele, which makes a very high-pitched noise. He seems to enjoy hitting that.”
Umm. Grandchildren; sandals; Irish pipes. What would that lovable psycho Vyvyan make of it all?
“I was thinking recently about the Pythons, who were my heroes. They stopped doing comedy at about my age actually, and there’s a reason for that. There’s more to life than comedy. Comedy is too ephemeral,” he says.
Now, philosophy… That’s a different matter.
“There are all sorts of philosophy clubs I’m about to join,” he says, enthusiastically. “There’s one in Notting Hill and one in Bloomsbury. And there’s a few pubs that occasionally have philosophy evenings…”
Article from the November 2013 issue of Cotswold Life.
Katie Jarvis is a regular contributor to Cotswold Life; follow her on twitter: @KatieJarvis