Kevin Coyne

TrackAlbum
HypnotismNobody Dies In Dreamland
MarleneMarjory Razorblade
Eastbourne LadiesMarjory Razorblade
House On The HillMarjory Razorblade
Marjory Razorblade SuiteI Want My Crown: Anthology 1973-80
Mona, Where’'s My Trousers Beautiful Extremes
I Really Love YouBabble: Songs For Lonely Lovers
Sun Shines Down On MeBabble: Songs For Lonely Lovers
Sugar Candy TaxiSugar Candy Taxi
UndergroundUnderground

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Contributor: Andrew Shields

Although he never had the commercial success that the quality of his work deserved, Kevin Coyne (who died in 2004 and whose 70th birthday it would have been today) left behind a remarkable artistic legacy which, in my view, establishes him as one of the best English songwriters of his generation. Furthermore, Coyne was one of the few songwriters (Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen are the only other names that spring readily to mind) who extended the subject matter which rock music could cover. Unlike them, however, Coyne’s work centred on giving a voice to those who are often voiceless in our society – those genuinely marginalised groups like the homeless, the mentally ill, the unglamorous addicts, and all those people, who for whatever reason, were alienated from the societies in which they lived. In this respect, perhaps the key influence on Coyne’s song-writing was the period that he spent working as a social worker, and subsequently, as a drugs counsellor, from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s.

In describing their lives, however, Coyne’s hard-edged wit and his often abrasive style ensured that he could never be accused of sentimentality. Instead, his work displayed both a clear-eyed clarity and an instinctive empathy towards the characters he described in his songs. Like Ray Davies of The Kinks, Coyne also had the ability to draw deft character sketches which, in the space of a three to four minute song, could carry more weight than did many a short story or novel. In addition to this, Coyne also had one of the great voices in the history of British rock music – one which combined extraordinary power with enormous sensitivity. In his early career, Coyne also recorded a large number of excellent gospel, soul and blues covers (the great versions of I Want My Crown and Sea Of Love on Marjory Razorblade stand out in this respect), and one of the great strengths of his music was his ability to combine such influences with (again, like Ray Davies) the influence of the English music hall tradition and of contemporary avant-garde music.

My first selection here, Hypnotism, comes from the CD of home recordings from the early-1970s, Nobody Dies In Dreamland, released by Coyne’s family last year. The song foreshadows many of the themes that would be central to his later work, but, in itself, it is a remarkable study of extreme loneliness. At the time that Coyne made these recordings, he was already combining part time work as a drugs counsellor with the pursuit of a musical career with the band, Siren. Shortly after Siren split up in 1972, Coyne released his debut solo album, Case History, with John Peel’s short-lived Dandelion record label. Although uneven, the album did contain some fine songs, among which Mad Boy is a personal favourite. However, it was his next album, Marjory Razorblade, which was to establish Coyne’s reputation as one of the outstanding songwriters of his generation.

The album introduced a wonderful set of characters, all of whom could be included among those whom the great Australian writer, Patrick White, described as the ‘burnt ones’. They are almost all ‘misfits’, ‘loners’ or ‘oddballs’ of one description or another whose lives are portrayed with Coyne’s usual mixture of empathy, clarity and wit. The songs also stand out for his outstanding eye for detail – ‘the tea and lemon ice’ which the old ladies have on Eastbourne beach, the ‘red bus’ at the gate of the asylum described in House On The Hill, the Mayor dancing with his wife ‘for the first time in their lives’ in The Chairman’s Ball, and so on.

While I could have included many other songs from the album here (Talking To No One, Old Soldier, Jackie and Edna, The Chairman’s Ball and Good Boy probably deserve inclusion in a list of Coyne’s best songs) I have tried to limit my selection here to those songs which give a good representation of the qualities of the album as a whole. Of these, Marlene, one of Coyne’s most accessible and catchiest songs, should probably have been a hit while Eastbourne Ladies was later to be chosen by Johnny Rotten as one of his favourite songs of all time. In my opinion, House On The Hill is probably Coyne’s greatest song and stands out as one of the few great rock songs dealing with mental illness.

The album also established the template for Coyne’s later musical career and the themes dealt with in it were ones which he was to explore further in the thirty or so albums which followed it. For example, the song Mona, Where’s My Trousers, which I have included here, is a powerful portrayal of a child who fears punishment for having lost his duffel coat at school. From this minor incident, however, Coyne goes on to build up an extraordinary portrayal of the interior world of a child who is being mistreated in various ways by different adults. These are not all specified here, which, in this instance, adds to the power of the song. This concern with childhood and with the after-effects of his own Catholic upbringing was a constant theme in Coyne’s work from the very beginning.

Throughout his career, Coyne had the reputation of being a brilliant (and sometimes confronting) live performer. For this reason, I have included the live version of the Marjory Razorblade Suite (BBC ‘In Concert’ 1974) to give a taster of what he was like on stage. Unfortunately, I never got the opportunity to see him live but I am assured by those who did that his reputation as a great performer was very well-deserved.

After Marjory Razorblade, Coyne’s greatest album was, probably, Babble, which he made with the German singer, Dagmar Krause. Along with Lou Reed’s Berlin, it is, perhaps, the greatest exploration of a dysfunctional relationship in rock music. Rather like, say Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks or Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks it is a difficult album to make selections from as it works so well as a whole. However, I chose the two tracks here as they seemed to fit so well together on the album itself. One of the great strengths of Babble is the brilliance with which Coyne shows the way in which two extremely ‘damaged’ people are attracted to each other. The way in which he deals with the complicated ‘mind games’ in which they engage within the relationship is also masterly.

The last selections I have included here are from two of Coyne’s later albums. Sugar Candy Taxi is a wonderful miniature, which includes a guest appearance from Al Capone (Coyne’s son, Robert, has included a fine cover version of it on his excellent debut album, Woodland Conspiracy). Underground from his last album is one of Coyne’s greatest songs in which he deals with his impending death with the same mixture of bravery, wit, artistic integrity and brutal honesty which had characterised this great artist’s entire career.

Kevin Coyne website

Kevin Coyne biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #179

4 Comments

  1. Colin Duncan
    Jan 27, 2014

    Great article on Kevin. I was lucky to see Kevin Coyne twice at different ends of his career. Both shows were great – the first one with a band, the second playing solo – great communication with the audience. I’ve wondered over the years why Marjory Razorblade was not a world seller. I still play it regularly today and the songs you mentioned from the album, which are not on the list are great. You could have a list of ten songs from Marjory Razorblade. Perhaps he never got the huge commercial success he deserved because he could not be pigeon holed; he wrote for the theatre, painted and wrote books; and also his move to Germany. Also I’ve wondered if the fact that Marjory Razorblade was a double album hindered the breakthrough. Anyway, it’s up there in my list of great British albums. Thanks for the article.

  2. Pincus
    Jan 27, 2014

    Although I am prejudiced, I think you needed to include something from One Day In Chicago.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Jan 27, 2014

    Thanks for the comments. Would like to have included songs from more Kevin albums here (he wrote so many fine songs), but tried to pick a representative sample of his work…

  4. Hilda Fernhout
    Jan 29, 2014

    I first saw and heard him totally unexpected at the Amsterdam Melkweg…and I was dumbstruck….until then I had never heard of him…I have been a fan ever since !

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