My Life Story

TrackAlbum / Single
TriumphantMornington Crescent
The Lady Is A TrampMother Tongue Mother 3T
Funny PeculiarMother Tongue Mother 3T
Stood Amongst FriendsMother Tongue Mother 004T
AngelMornington Crescent
The Dice ManSex And Violins
SparkleParlophone CDRS 6450
Suited And BootedThe Golden Mile
Welcome To My ArchipelagoParlophone CDR 6464
Walk/Don't WalkIt Records ITR 007

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My Life Story photo

My Life Story

 

Contributor: John Hartley

My love stands triumphant
My love stands triumphant
My love stands triumphant
My love lies down …

For a short while in the mid-1990s it seemed as if British alternative bands could do no wrong, and at one point in this golden age My Life Story could probably claim to have been the biggest band of the Britpop movement. Fair enough, this had more to do with the dozen main members of the band (or ‘The Company’ as they are described in the sleeve notes for second album The Golden Mile) than any major impact on the British charts, but you have to make the most of what you’ve got, don’t you?

The band’s vision was set in the eyes of Jake Shillingford and at times the numbers would swell by any combination of at least twelve further performers. Triumphant, from the band’s debut album Mornington Crescent, is as bold a mission statement as any of the tracks from My Life Story’s three albums and a perfect introduction to their sound: ‘Sex and violins’, with a bit of brass and opera thrown in for good measure.

My Life Story entered my record collection and thus my life thanks to a combination of the burning desire to buy something untried in Newcastle’s RPM records, a need for something to fill the gap left by the then-hibernating Band of Holy Joy, and an eye-catching sleeve. I had picked up from skim-reading the music weeklies that orchestration was a key feature of the band’s repertoire so the purchase of second single proper Funny Ha Ha (a self-released single had been released several years previous to their widely-accepted debut, Girl A, Girl B, Boy C) seemed to tick the boxes I needed to fill. Better than the A-side however was B-side The Lady Is A Tramp. True, there were guitars crashing but these were well behind seeping and soaring strings and rampant horns. Combined with lines like “Tube trains and London taxis/Kissing her is like licking a battery”, the single inevitably became a regular fixture on my trusty old record player.

Momentum for the band building, it didn’t take too long for a third single to appear. You Don’t Sparkle (In My Eyes) had already shown its face as a B-side to Girl A…, but a ‘radio edit’ of the track would lead proceedings, with a quintet version bringing the 12″ single to a close. Sandwiched in between was further evidence of potential greatness in Shillingford’s songwriting. For all the brash and bold swagger that would come to be associated with My Life Story, they were not without their softer side. The first hint of this had already come in the form of a slower, plaintively-piano-led version of that second single, this time entitled Funny Peculiar.

Further evidence would come in the form of Stood Amongst Friends: strings, harpsichord, and “In the chandelier of life her bulb it shines the brightest/And if it ever dimmed its light then he’s the best electrician in the business”. Romantic writing at its best, wrapped in a musical blanket that lasts less than a hundred seconds.

Like the previous three singles, My Life Story’s debut album Mornington Crescent would be released on Mother Tongue Records, a small independent label based fittingly in Camden, just one stop north of the London Underground station that gave the album its name. Two stops south of Camden on the Bank branch of the Northern Line lies Angel, the station about which the album closer was named. Angel conjures up images of damp-ridden, musty bedsits lit by candles, oil lamps and decorated by shelves of musty old paperback novels, this is quite possibly My Life Story’s finest recorded moment. Warmly staccato strings paint a musical landscape against which a cocktail of anxiety, lust and love is laid out: “Human is the moon on a bedsheet sky of white/Down below the trains were rattling through the night”, and then, with a full two and three quarter minutes still remaining, the rest of the band join in, opera singer as well, to bring the whole caboodle to a glorious crescendo that wouldn’t be out of place bringing a classic kitchen-sink drama to its supreme conclusion.

My Life Story provided the soundtrack to interminable coach journeys from Manchester to London for a couple of happy months in 1995 before I chose to follow my heart and move to the capital city. The streets may not have been paved with gold, but they did lead to gigs at which the The Golden Mile embryonically emerged. So many great songs, too many to even release across two albums it transpired. Whilst I had self-congratulating thoughts as Checkmate’s “Now the pawn takes queen” line weaved its way into my National Express-buffeted ears, I knew I was taking the biggest gamble of my life thus far.

A couple of months later My Life Story performed The Dice Man at London’s Astoria 2 and I was able to congratulate myself on my self-congratulatory journeys. Of course, My Life Story were not the reason I moved to London, but they did seem to be spot on in their commentary of my life story at that point. Ultimately, The Dice Man was deemed surplus to requirements for the album but it remained the song I looked forward to most in their live set. Unsurprisingly, despite never being otherwise released, it is not remotely out of place on the band’s ‘Best of’ album.

Midway through their gig at Camden’s Jazz Café in the summer of 1995 Jake Shillingford announced that this was, potentially, the last ever My Life Story gig although, given the number of record companies present to watch, he rather hoped it wouldn’t be. In the mad major-label rush to sign any indie band worth squeezing into the developing ‘Britpop’ cliché, Parlophone would win the right to release records by My Life Story in all the necessary multi-formatted special edition cloaking they could muster. Holographic CD? Tick. Five bonus reasons why he loves her? All present and correct. Picture disc poster pack and Top Trump cards? Why ever not? By now I already owned four different versions of You Don’t Sparkle (In My Eyes); thanks to Parlophone I now owned a further three, with ‘Concert Hall’ and ‘Jazz Club’ versions appearing as B-sides to the re-recorded Sparkle. Lucky it was a fantastic song then, from the introductory reversed acoustic guitar strum through humming strings and brassed punctuation via a tale of “the greatest living singer stuck inside a damp bedsitter”.

Surely he didn’t mean himself? There was always a hint – sometimes more – of self-reference in Shillingford’s lyrics and on its release The Golden Mile was filled with confidence and bravado to match the size of the band. Suited And Booted, another live favourite, was perhaps the epitome of this. Never in danger of accusations of under-dressing for their gigs, here was the musical match to the bold and glamorous personality of the band. Perhaps indicative of this is that a second version of this heavily-scored cinematic onslaught of words and music would be later released as a B-side and described as the ‘overdressed’ version. It was hard to listen to this song and not picture Shillingford getting ready for a weekend night out. In fact, it wouldn’t have surprised me if the ritual described was how he went about taking his laundry to the dry cleaners.

The B-side version of that track can be found on My Life Story’s final release for Parlophone, a cover of The Stranglers’ Duchess. It was joined by alternative versions of two other tracks, plus three new songs. Perhaps ‘new’ is stretching the point a bit though. In the record company rush for sales and chart placings, multi-formatting was rife. This of course had its pros and cons; more money for the dedicated fan to spend, but potentially more songs to hear. My Life Story released one album and five singles for Parlophone, with a combined total of 40 different tracks spanning these releases.

Unsurprisingly this would take its toll on the band. Emerald Green appeared as a B-side to Sparkle. By the end of the band’s career they would have released five other variations on the same theme. Even they seemed to be getting bored with it, with one such version being titled Emerald Green Blah Blah Blah. However, amongst the rubble can always be found items of rare beauty, and so it was with Welcome To My Archipelago one of the supplementary tracks to fourth single from the album, Strumpet. “The crumbs of comfort have gone stale …” sings Shillingford, and you can almost feel the loneliness of success as he continues: “Every man’s an island: welcome to my archipelago … the skimming stones have killed a swan”. The holy grail of the major label deal was not all it was cracked up to be, and Parlophone’s insistence on releasing Duchess against the band’s wishes proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

As quickly as it was upon us, Britpop dissolved into the musical ether, the music press tiring ever quicker of their own fads. My Life Story would return, battered and bruised but not beaten by their experiences. For their third album on It Records they were now down to only four fully-paid up band members, a smaller budget, and a decreasing relevance to the British music world. However, the quality of the songwriting was not completely lost, and Joined Up Talking would spawn three singles with their own smattering of B-sides to add to the My Life Story canon. Perhaps the girl in question on Walk/Don’t Walk is a metaphor for the band’s career as Jake watches her “Disappear through the bottom of an empty glass”. There remains defiance however, as he demands she/it does not walk out, but walks back. A perhaps simplistic take on what would prove to be the band’s final release but here is a song as good as any of those recorded previously, with a hook-lined bridge to match any from the band’s heyday.

My Life Story ceased to be a going concern after their third album, although have reappeared from time to time in raucously celebratory reunion gigs, invariably in the capital (it can’t be easy co-ordinating a band of 12+ on a nationwide tour, to be fair), with both best-of and rare/B-sides albums being released in the twenty first century. For lovers of wide screen, cinematic, sweeping bombastic pop, My Life Story could be the answer to your dreams. For me, they’ve left me with some belting tunes to soundtrack the start of my adult life proper.

 

Sex & Violins (The Best Of My Life Story) is an 18 track best of CD released in 2006.

Megaphone Theology (B Sides & Rarities) is a 40 track 2CD set released in 2007.

 

My Life Story facebook

My Life Story fansite

Drowned In Sound on My Life Story 2015 Tour

Andy Cassidy talks to Jake Shillingford (Penny Black Music, 2012)

Sean McManus interviews Jake Shillingford (1996)

My Life Story biography (iTunes)

John Hartley is the author of “Capturing The Wry”, an autobiographical tale of the unsigned side of the music industry, published by i40Publishing and available here. After spending the best part of twenty five years trying to write the perfect pop song he has also turned his attention to writing about those who have done a much better job at it. He tweets as @JohnyNocash and gives away his music, generally for free, at Broken Down Records.

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