Musician and singer Kevin Coyne (27 January 1944 – 2 December 2004) was never as well known as he should have been. Alongside albums like Marjory Razorblade, Matching Head and Feet, and Millionaires and Teddybears there are a number of lesser known classics waiting to be heard. There is not enough space here to mention all of them. But I will bring a few to your attention.
Elvira: Songs from the Archives 1979-83
Elvira is a collection of songs recorded in October 1979 and released in the mid1990s. It is about the life of Elvira Barney a society hostess. In the 1930s she murdered her violent boyfriend. She escaped the hangman through her rich connections reflecting the class-ridden hypocrisy in British society. However Kevin saw Elvira as a victim. Rejected by friends and living a nightmare life, in a narrow-minded male dominated world. Her life was tragically short and she died in isolation.
In these songs Kevin takes us through Elvira’s life from childhood to her death. They are stark solo pieces, sung with acoustic guitar, except one song where Bob Ward accompanies. Stand Up For England opens with lyrics about domestic abuse and the horrors that go on behind the mask of wealth and respectability. Listening to this song it would seem that Elvira was something of a rebel, who tried to speak out about the cruelty and abuse that she saw going on around her. “I ask questions, I get no answers”.
In another song The Long Arm Of The Law Kevin sings about the dark side of celebrity life. The loneliness, hostility and rejection that someone faces when they have been shamed by society. The songs on this record have much relevance now. The issue of women going to prison after killing their violent husbands became topical in the 1990s. Many campaigners sought supsended sentences for women who killed their husbands after experiencing long-term domestic abuse.
Elvira was originally intended to be a stage play but Kevin couldn’t find a woman singer to play Elvira. I wonder who he had in mind for the part? On YouTube there is a version of the song Elvira sung by a band called Gogo’s Box.
The archive songs were recorded in 1983 but were never released. This was a time when Kevin’s mental health was in poor shape. Some of the songs like Rambling German Blues can be a bit unsettling. However other songs like Born In 1944 show Kevin’s blues story-telling. These songs paint a picture of what Kevin was going through. They were tough times, but Kevin eventually got through and found happier times.
At The Last Wall/ The Unknown Famous
The first half of this DVD is a Kevin Coyne concert from October 1982. It was performed in the Tempodrom, (a circus tent by the Berlin Wall). The film starts before the show with Kevin playing an acoustic version of Children’s Crusade. We then see Kevin and his band, (Steve Bull keyboards, Dave Wilson drums, Steve Lamb bass, Pete Kirtley guitar) arrive on stage for a sound check.
Kevin takes us through an inspired performance. I find the renditions of Sunday Morning Sunrise, Children’s Crusade and the then new song Nothing Seems To Matter to be particularly powerful. After the last song A Loving Hand, Kevin rips the backdrop fabric and leaves through the gap. We then see Kevin and the band out in the Berlin night. The audience can be heard calling out for an encore. Kevin and the band return to play Old Fashioned Love Song. Then we see the crowd going out into the rain, and a shot of Kevin in his dressing room. Over this we hear an instrumental version of Children’s Crusade played by Wolfgang Widder.
The DVD gives an insight into Kevin’s stage performances. These were difficult times. Kevin’s marriage was falling apart, his music was being ignored in Britain, and his drinking was getting out of control. However I saw him on stage a number of times in the early 1980s. He gave some inspired and emotional performances.
The Unknown Famous was made during 1997. It features a happier Kevin Coyne who had moved to Germany and given up drinking. Here he talks about his life his music and his artwork. The film also features Kevin at a gig in Paris performing the Big Joe and Mary Williams blues spiritual I Want My Crown. This features guitar accompaniment from Friedl Pohrer, a musician who Kevin often worked with during this period.
The Adventures Of Crazy Frank
This CD from 1995 is the story of knockabout music hall comedian Frank Randle who influenced Kevin’s on-stage humour. Kevin described Randle as “a drunk driven mad by drink”, an experience Kevin could relate to.
Randle was born out of wedlock in Wigan in 1901. The taboo around sex outside marriage fired his comedy, but it also got him into a lot of trouble with the censors. However he refused to compromise. It is said that his appearances in court became almost as frequent as his appearances on stage. He was intent on breaking through the inhibitions of his generation. Some people considered him to be mad.
During the Second World War Frank Randle and fellow comedian Rob Wilton were in the home guards. Wilton because of his age and Randle because he failed his medical. Both men made comedy about life in the army and influenced the popular 1970s television comedy Dad’s Army.
Born Crazy opens the album with the lyrics: “Everybody talks to me like I’m completely mad, they whisper in corners ‘he’s out of control, the devil’s captured him and eaten his soul’.” We start on Frank Randle’s troubled life journey. In the raw blues of The Devil Calling we find him alone in his hotel room getting drunk as the devil bosses the show along. In I Stood Up he has a spiritual vision and sees angels. There are rays of sunlight coming through dark clouds. In Playing The Fool we find him clowning around on a drunken Saturday night, while his life is falling apart. Kevin sings “Not much left of me now, just powder and paint”.
Heart Of Hearts finds Frank Randle desperately clinging to a love that he is frightened of losing. In the following track Perversions he questions whether his addiction to drink has a cause or is just a perversion. As we near the end of the record Time For Tears finds Frank Randle in hospital. “Time for tears in a world where all is smiles.” Then Blast Of Glory finds him ignoring doctors’ orders to take care and Never Ending brings Frank Randle’s story to a close, turning into an angel he flies away.
On this record Kevin is accompanied by Friedl Pohrer, guitarist Keili Keilhofer, drummer Werner Steinhauser and keyboard player Henry Beck. On its release this record was greatly overlooked in England. I don’t remember seeing any reviews.
Frank Randle made his last film It’s A Grand Life in 1953. The film featured a young Diana Dors and Trinidad born piano player Winifred Atwell. However by the 1950s music hall comedy was becoming unpopular. In 1955 Frank Randle became bankrupt. Then after years of alcohol abuse he was hospitalised and died in 1957.
Many comedians that have made us laugh over the years have lived troubled lives. This record tells a sad story, but also a story with hope. As Kevin says in the sleeve notes “Frank Randle is a man who believes there is a heaven somewhere and expects to find it.”
To find out more about Kevin Coyne visit www.kevincoyne.de and www.kevincoyne.co.uk
There is also a Kevin Coyne FaceBook page keeping his memory alive at www.facebook.com/kevincoyneofficial/ and a wikipedia page at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kevin_Coyne