I remember a few years ago reading an interview with Chris De Burgh, the Irish singer of “The Lady in Red” fame, when he compared his songwriting and live performance talents to those of Bruce Springsteen. Chris seemed to be the only one who didn’t laugh when the claim came out in the press.
In John Shuttleworth’s eyes, Mr Shuttleworth is probably the equal of a cross between Billy Joel (referred to during these performances as “the master”) and Howard Jones who sang thoughtful ballads to the accompaniment of an electronic keyboard back in the 1980s. Now this comparison is not quite as much a stretch as the one made by the Irish balladeer but it is still an interesting one. And you don’t have to go far to see that many agree with him. A quick trot through the listeners’ review section on Amazon point out the importance and poignancy of his lyrics. And sure enough at his concerts like these at the Ambassadors Theatre, London, a volume of his lyrics is on sale under the title “Honed Lyrics”. Now books of collected lyrics have previously been the territory of the exalted few (Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and, somehow, Sting) so there can be no question that Mr Shuttleworth like Mr De Burgh takes his own art seriously.
This is, of course, however where all comparisons end because John Shuttleworth, exists principally in the mind of Graham Fellows and yes, we are all in on the joke. You take Mr Fellows (in a previous incarnation the adolescent would be punk rocker, Jilted John) add a red polo neck and a brown leather box jacket from a bygone decade and you have John Shuttleworth.
And this is a joke that has run and run and finds its latest expression in the current tour, “A Man with No More Rolls”. Shuttleworth takes the stage wearing a detachable frill to the front of his shirt and a peculiar hat and cape as he takes on the role of Oliver Cromwell to condemn those in the audience for their sins.
At the conclusion of the song, Mr Shuttleworth obviously feels that this abrupt condemnation deserves a word of explanation. The tour, he explains, was originally to be called “A Man with No Morals” but a mistake in communication between John’s sole agent, Ken Worthington, and the local print shop led to the current title and so the show has become a condemnation of the change of bread-eating habits in modern Britain – a land where the traditional roll and bap have been set aside for ciabatta, peshwari naan, and seeded batch. The main offender, of course, is “Peter’s bread” which is eaten with the awful humus which is dirty.
The show, once you have had accepted these parameters, and entered into the mind of a middle-aged man from Sheffield with a set of values all his own, hangs together very well. We enjoy songs about the changes in modern society which are inevitably backward steps, like “Mutiny Over the Bounty” – a lament about the removal of the cardboard sleeve in the chocolate bar’s packaging. There are songs about social manners like “I Can’t Go Back To Savoury” about a man who has begun his pudding when he finds that actually there was more main course to be had. And songs which highlight the madness of modern society like the one about buying a toaster for 99p on e-bay.
Ironically, the only moment in the show which doesn’t quite blend is the cartoon about Oliver Cromwell which opens the second half. In stands up very well in its own right (voiced by Shuttleworth, drawn by the man who drew Henry’s Cat and directed by the ghostly presence of that man Fellowes) but despite its tenuous link with the first song, it somewhat distracts from the cogitating on bread-related matters and the significance of those matters in the decline of modern civilisation.
After his two sets, John Shuttleworth, returns to the stage to give us a selection of his greatest hits – Pigeons in Flight, Christmas Orphan, Y-Reg – we have heard them all at some stage tonight.
It is only as you step out of the theatre door and head for the tube station in the snow that you realise how much you have been taken up into this one man’s fantastic and singular view of life and now are stepping back out into the “real world”.
In the year we lost Chris Sievey and his alter-ego, Frank Sidebottom, it is good to still have some alternate versions of the world to step into at a moment’s notice. Long may Mr Shuttleworth continue at the peak of his profession.