Today, I want to talk to you about an album. One of my favourite albums, and almost certainly the greatest cult-punk-adolescent-romance-narrative-concept-album ever released. But first, some background.
A lot of people know the song “Jilted John” by Jilted John, even if they don’t know it by name. Chances are, they probably think it’s called “Gordon Is A Moron” or “The Moron Song” or something like that. It sounds like this:
It got to number four in the UK charts in 1978, was performed live on Top of the Pops on no less than three occasions, and is rightly held as one of the greatest and most memorable singles of the late ’70s punk/new wave era. But for most people, that’s where the Jilted John story ends – as a one-hit wonder, a novelty record and nothing more. What most people don’t know, however, is that “John” actually recorded an entire album. And, what’s more, it’s a masterpiece.
Jilted John was, of course, the alter-ego of a young comedian and singer-songwriter named Graham Fellows – who would later go on to create the peerless John Shuttleworth, and appear in adverts for Yorkshire Tea. In its original form, the eponymous song was actually the B-side of a Rabid Records single called “Going Steady” – in which a not-so-jilted John told of his love for girlfriend-of-two-months Sharon – but on the radio, it was “Jilted John” that gained greater currency, and the single would eventually be re-released by EMI with the sides flipped. In the wake of the single’s success, Fellows and super-producer Martin Hannett regrouped to create an entire album. It had an absolutely fantastic romance-comics-spoof cover, came with a free gift of a “Mice and Ladders” board game, and was called True Love Stories.
Although the album was – by the standards of the single – something of a flop, it’s retained its status as something of a cult favourite. And I absolutely love it to pieces. So if you’ve never heard it – or, even, heard of it – before, allow me to introduce you to its genius…
The first track on the album is called Baz’s Party, and… well, wait. Let’s hold on and back up a minute. Nowadays, if you’re listening to the album, you’re probably listening to the 1999 CD re-release – especially since that’s the version on Spotify, iTunes and so on, and since, unlike me, you probably didn’t go digging through eBay to track down the original 12″ record (with the “Mice and Ladders” board still intact inside, fact fans!) And that version of the album has a couple of additions on it – notably, opening with the very first Jilted John song of them all, Going Steady.
And it’s good that it does, really, because Going Steady is a fantastic song, and makes for a much more welcoming opener. It’s criminal that it never made it onto the album’s original release in the first place – particularly for some reasons that we’ll come on to later. Here it is:
The feel and mood of this track set the tone for the rest of the album – although musically, it’s quite different from the keyboard-heavy arrangements that Hannett brought to the production of the album, having been recorded almost a year beforehand. John is young and naive, a wide-eyed innocent, declaring after two whole months that when he and Sharon have “saved up, we’re going to get maaaaa-rried”. Even if the word “Jilted” weren’t in his name, we’d know this happiness couldn’t possibly last – but for now, his feckless charm is endearing.
Although it makes a great opener musically, though, Going Steady doesn’t actually fit chronologically into the narrative structure that, as we’ll see, True Love Stories has at its core. Then again, neither does the actual album opener, Baz’s Party. That song initially creates a jarring effect if you’re listening to it on the re-release – because it opens with a snatch of “Going Steady” heard on a record player at the titular party, while a supposedly teenaged female voice – actually, quite obviously, Fellows himself – declares it to be a “great song” and asks for it to be played again when it finishes.
Baz’s Party, although funny (“I’m drinking as fast as I can / While we all sing Telegram Sam / And now the boys are dancing to / The silly dance / That skinheads do”), is a touch silly and slight, and probably doesn’t help assuage the initial impression that this is going to be just another “novelty” album. Neverthelss, and although it may appear earlier in the track listing than it’s chronologically supposed to – the version of John that it features surely comes from around track four or five – what it does achieve is establishing the style and tone of the character (even though arguably, on the re-release, Going Steady has already done this better). It also has a truly killer final line:
There’s a boy puking up in the lavatory
His name’s Baz –
It’s his party…
It’s from the next track, however, that our chronological narrative begins, and the concept album starts to take shape. I Know I’ll Never is a minute-and-a-half long call to arms sung by a younger John, as he declares in the brilliant opening lines:
I am reckless and I am shoddy
I’m an adult in a child’s body
I’m twelve years old and I rule O.K.
And I know I’ll never reach pu-ber-TAY!
Having already been introduced to “Baz” in the preceding track, he’s referenced here as John’s best friend too – “Barry is my mate and we can sup / Two bottles of cider each and still stand up” – suggesting for the first time some kind of continuity between the album’s songs. This is carried forward into the next track, something of a companion piece titled I Was A Pre-Pubescent. The first properly “narrative” song on the album, this track tells John’s life story from birth up until his early teens – the main points to take away being the early death of his father and subsequent departure of his mother, and the fact that he and his sister were consequently brought up by their gran (although this fact creates its own continuity problems, as we’ll see).
Having re-emphasised the previous track’s message of just how much John enjoyed the simplicity of pre-adolescent life, however, …Pre-Pubescent ends on an alarming note:
One summer’s day in ’73
I looked in the mirror and it terrified me
For what I saw was quite out of place:
Bum-fluff and acne all over my face
I tried to speak, but when I spoke
All that came out was a croak
My voice had broken
I was a… pubescent, and it was sad
Following John into adolescence, though, is merely a cue for the album to hit its high point. There’s already been a tone that I’d describe as distinctly Adrian Mole (although obviously the album predates Sue Townsend’s novel by a few years) in the tracks up to this point, but it really comes to the fore in Fancy Mice. This exquisite song is a five-minute long opus in which, across a succession of increasingly laboured rhyming couplets, John barely pauses for breath. To attempt to describe it further would fail to do it justice, however, so all I’ll do instead is present it to you in its entirety:
Of many, many brilliant details in this song, perhaps my favourite is the fact that John’s chosen name for his first pet mouse is Jane. If you like, you can just see this as being because “Jane” is quite an easy name to rhyme with a lot of words – but I prefer to think of it as a clever piece of storytelling detail, recalling that Jane was the beloved girl that John sat next to in primary school in I Was A Pre-Pubescent.
Unfortunately, after this masterpiece is when the album goes on to hit arguably its one major misstep – and it’s with the inclusion of a re-recorded version of Jilted John. It’s not that the song itself isn’t brilliant – and it’s certainly arguable that to have excluded it would have damaged the album’s chances of commercial success even further – it’s just that it really doesn’t fit. Having been re-recorded to fit in more with the production style of the rest of the album, it’s sapped of a lot of its original power and ramshackle charm – and although a theoretical relationship with Julie could be fit into the album’s narrative somewhere, it seems odd that the next track, The Birthday Kiss, is about John breaking up with Sharon – who, unless experiencing the re-released version of the album, the listener hasn’t heard anything about yet. It would seem to have made far more sense to have Going Steady (either in original form or re-recorded) show up at this point, and if Jilted John had to be on there it could always have served as track one. But hey ho. In the MP3 era, if we want to put together our own versions of favourite albums, it’s not like we can’t do so.
Anyway, none of this should detract from the magnificence of The Birthday Kiss, which is easily the flat out funniest song the entire album has to offer – a tale of unadulterated heartbreak at the youth club disco, culminating in this superb half-sung, half-spoken recounting of John and Sharon’s final conversation:
She said, “Let me explain, John!”
I said, “There’s nothing to explain, Sharon!”
She said, “I think there is, John!”
I said, “No there isn’t, Sharon. And anyway, my bus is here. So you can go back to Colin now…”
“Listen,” she pleaded, “I don’t fancy him! I was just giving him a birthday kiss!”
And I said “Oh yeah? For ten minutes? In the rain? I don’t believe you!
“Anyway, it’s not even his birthday!”
Although if there’s one problem with this otherwise perfect track, it’s that it throws up an odd continuity error – I Was A Pre-Pubescent had already established that John’s Mum and Dad were absent and deceased respectively, and that he lived with his gran. Going Steady had also made reference to this – despite being recorded beforehand – with the line “And my gran says you’re dead nice”. Although The Birthday Kiss does mention John’s gran (countermanding the earlier comment with “Anyway, my gran didn’t like you, she said you were dead common!”), the opening line states “I’ve just come back from the youth club / Mum and Dad are watching telly…” Which, in an album so otherwise carefully constructed, is a little odd to say the least.
The Birthday Kiss ends the first side of the original 12″ release – and it’s an appropriate break point. Because the entire second half of True Love Stories is an individual narrative of its own – a concept-album-within-a-concept-album, even. While the first half of the album had rattled through the first fifteen or sixteen years of its hero’s life, the second side tells a chronologically shorter, but significantly more detailed, tale. It starts with The Paperboy Song, as a now post-O-levels and newly-on-the-dole John ruminates on how much nicer and simpler things were when he was an early teen with a job delivering papers. Once again, that Adrian Mole-esque feel comes to the surface, particularly as John describes one of the highlights of his job:
At number forty-four
Lived a girl called Wendy Moore
And I sometimes saw her getting dressed
Through the window on the second floor
And once, I wrote her a rude letter
And put it in her Jackie
Well she stopped buying it
Called me a git
And told her brother to attack me…
The song culminates with, oddly, a short dialogue piece as John goes back to his old newsagent’s to ask about getting a job. The newsagent – also voiced by Fellows – tells him that, unfortunately, there are no jobs going; but the plot of the second side of the album is kicked off nevertheless, due to John’s meeting the new assistant, a girl named Karen (er… also voiced by Fellows).
The next track, True Love, sees the album venturing into a different direction musically – it’s cheesy as hell, but there’s a lot more depth of construction to it, and even Fellows’ vocal performance seems to have deliberately changed tone, reflecting the now-older John. Karen “her”self even makes a brief singing appearance right at the end, too.
With John happy in love with Karen (his experiences with Sharon apparently not having taught him a sage lesson about jumping in with both feet), the album continues to get odder and odder. First, there’s In The Bus Shelter – an instrumental piece, with spoken dialogue over the top, as John and Karen, well… sit in the bus shelter, watching the world go by and eating crisps. That’s really all there is to it. It’s probably at this point that the decision to have Fellows do all the female voices feels its most misguided – but as with most of the album’s eccentricities, it’s carried along on a wave of innocent charm.
All is not as well in John’s world as he imagines, however, as we learn from Karen’s Letter – which, like In The Bus Shelter, is a spoken word track over an instrumental backing. This time, it’s a horrified John reading a quite literal Dear John letter from his beloved – who has decided to run away to London and find a job as a chamber maid in a hotel. He’s given hope, however, by the assertion that her actions have got nothing to do with their relationship – even though we the listener know that they surely must. This is conveyed in brilliantly subtle fashion by the portion of Karen’s letter that references her cousin Denise, who “ran away when she was engaged to Terry”. After all, why else make reference to a jilted fiancé if similar motivation isn’t also on Karen’s mind?
Apparently not noticing this, however, John follows the one natural course for a lovelorn teenager in the late 1970s – he hitch-hikes down to London to follow her. And this is where things get really weird. A second non-musical dialogue interlude sees John hitching a lift with a well-spoken older woman (I think this is Graham Fellows doing the voice yet again, but I can’t be entirely sure) – but that’s only the start of a whole new misadventure, as time has moved on when the song Shirley starts up, and we find out that… well, listen to the track yourself:
For a moment this almost feels like it’s going to be the beginning of an entire story-within-a-story – but sadly, the album’s rapidly running out of space. It’s a shame, as you can’t help but feel an entire third side could have been spun out of John’s adventures in London. Instead, however – without even learning exactly how John managed to escape the clutches of Shirley – we find in the album’s closer Goodbye Karen that he’s already given up on his quest:
For two whole days I’ve looked for you, Karen
I’ve been everywhere in London
But I can’t find you anywhere
And now I don’t care
I’m going back home
There’s just time, however, for a moment of reflection that suggests our hero might actually have learned something from his escapade:
If it’s true
I mean the world to you
You would have let me know
And asked me to go… with you
And so, with a plaintive repeated refrain of “Goodbye, Karen…”, ends the Jilted John story. Although the CD re-release would tack on the single release of “Jilted John” – as well as two cash-in tracks by Bernard Kelly’s “Gordon the Moron” that don’t really merit much discussion (despite Kelly’s ever-present and oft-stated influence on Fellows, these particular tracks simply… aren’t very good) – that would be the last we’d ever hear of John, Karen, Sharon, Baz and the rest. It seems sad that they should be consigned to this solitary cult album, forgotten by all but the most avid of followers – and that Fellows himself would have to wait until the John Shuttleworth days before being recognised as the singer-songwriter of profound genius that he undoubtedly is (he did put out a solo, non-character-based album in the ’80s, but that sank with even less trace than True Love Stories).
But then, with a name like his, John was always going to be jilted by the world, wasn’t he…?
You can listen to True Love Stories on Spotify, or buy it stupendously cheaply from Amazon and iTunes. In case the rest of the article didn’t make it clear, that’s something I highly recommend you do immediately.
Postscript: Although True Love Stories appeared to be the end of Jilted John, it wasn’t quite. In researching background and audio content for this article, I discovered two little gems. First off, a track called “Mrs Pickering”, recorded in 1978 – presumably as an unused cut from the album – but eventually issued on a 1980 Rabid Records compilation called The Crap Stops Here. And secondly – and somewhat oddly – an entirely new song performed when Fellows briefly revived the character for a performance at the Big Chill festival in 2008, titled “Keira Knightley (Eat Your Dinner)”:
It’s terrific, but sadly it didn’t herald a new era of Jilted John material…