The Brilliant Corners
|Track||Album / EP / Single|
|Teenage||Somebody Up There Likes Me|
|Jim's Room||SS20 Records SS25|
|Trudy Is A Squeel||SS20 Records SS27|
|Why Do You Have To Go Out With Him|
When You Could Go Out With Me
|McQueen Records MCQ2|
|Growing Up Absurd||Growing Up Absurd|
|Meet Me On Tuesday (folk version)||Cheesey 7CMP 5|
|I Didn't See You||Joy Ride|
|Trust Me||Somebody Up There Likes Me|
|Always On A Sunday||A History Of White Trash|
|Heaven Inside Her||Hooked|
The Brilliant Corners: Back row (l to r): Winston Forbes (lead guitar), Dan Pacini (trumpet), Bob Morris (drums) Front row (l to r): Chris Galvin (bass), David Woodward (guitar, vocals)
Contributor: John Hartley
One day, when my fortune is made and I can lie back in the warm afternoon sun overlooking the gentle waves of the British coastline, I will write a musical. It will be the musical that started forming in my head since the late 1980s, before Ben Elton had forced ‘We Will Rock You’ upon us and before Benny and Bjorn had tarnished the name of Abba with ‘Mamma Mia’. The musical will be written as a kitchen-sink drama in the classic tradition of ‘Spring And Port Wine’, ‘A Kind Of Loving’, ‘Saturday Night And Sunday Morning’ for three reasons: firstly they were the tales I was reading as a mid-to-late teenager, secondly because they were largely filmed in my home town and those similar to it, and finally because the songs that would be included were – are – the musical equivalent of these great stories of ordinary lives of ordinary people in ordinary towns. People like me; people like us. Just swap Bolton for Bristol. The songs would be exclusively written by The Brilliant Corners.
There is a decent and informative history of The Brilliant Corners here and there is little point in rewriting it. So this is a brief synopsis. Davey Woodward sang, played guitars, and wrote songs – possibly autobiographical, certainly very eloquently. Chris Galvin played bass. Bob Morris played drums. They were joined at various times by Winston, Phil and Paul (guitarists all) as well as trumpeter Dan. Three mini albums, three full albums, several singles and EPs were released over a period of ten years, all with noticeably different styles, all with equal quality. Two compilations have been released. But never mind that; back to the musical.
Perhaps inevitably the scene would be set with Teenage, one of the two most-likely introductions anybody ever had to the Bristol band’s catalogue. (We’ll come to the other later, but you may possibly already have guessed.) For me, the song evokes memories of lying on the grassy slopes of the school playing fields as a lower sixth former, wondering if the handful of fifth and sixth formers from the Girls’ Division of our school had seen my mazy run down the right wing of our imaginary football pitch cut short by a brutal waist-high tackle that scythed me down mid-surge, whether they had been concerned that it took me minutes to get back up and hobble off the pitch, if any worry had bubbled that I might need some attention, medical or emotional. No. Of course not. “Nothing ever happens and I guess it never will” sings Davey Woodward, and he is right. In the musical our protagonist – it’s not me, let’s call him Woody, for convenience’s sake – is lying on his bed, surrounded by contemporary posters and photos of alternative culture. “A young boy’s passions can make him very ill”, and the lead character sings the song to a photo of his crush. He’d like to take her out but she would tell him no, despite all the tenderness and affection he imagines he could offer. And in this first song, Teenage by The Brilliant Corners, the entire history of probably every adolescent indie-kid in the country is captured to perfection.
Teenage is the second track on the band’s third – and arguably ‘breakthrough’, in as much as The Brilliant Corners ever broke through – album Somebody Up There Likes Me. In truth, the musical would initially have been soundtracked by the entire album; a collection of songs that any band of that era would be hard pushed to better. However, there is much more to The Brilliant Corners than a single album. The acclaimed Fruit Machine EP was home to the next song in the musical, Jim’s Room. Now the hero of our story describes his childhood inspiration and the magic and mystique contained behind the bedroom door of Woody’s best friend Jim. “Jim’s room had a poster with an A in the middle, he’d get wrecked at weekends and sign on on Tuesday”. Our storyteller relies heavily upon Jim for humour, for friendship, and for support in their mutually burgeoning desire to change the world. It is therefore with great sadness that we discover “Jim’s gone, in more ways than one …” (to where we do not know but our imaginations can conjure up possibilities.) A small crumb of comfort for Woody in this misunderstood, socially-conscious lovelorn time of life is a souvenir from the room, originally salvaged from The Red Lion and adorned by a Skol Lager motif – “he left me his ashtray, I was touched by this gesture”. Musically, the track is permeated with a riff that is simultaneously staccato yet jangle, capturing the stop-start undulation of brotherly love.
It is about this time in proceedings that we meet the apple of our hero’s eye. Deep set eyes, dark curled hair, Doc Marten boots (cherry, with black laces) and sporting any one from a range of The Smiths t-shirts, she is cool, distant, mysterious and, above all, Trudy Is A Squeel. It is both a crime and inevitable that Woody barely registers on Trudy’s radar. Still, as the song bemoans so pointedly, “Idealists always dream and cry into their pillow”… Trudy may come from a wheeling-dealing family (after all, “how many cars can you fit in the yard and how many fridges can you fit in your kitchen? How many curlers can you put in your hair and how many turkeys do you think you can eat?” sings Davey Woodward as he and his fellow band members race to the song’s fuzzy and frenetic finale in what was cruelly only a B-side, albeit the reverse of the second probable introduction to The Brilliant Corners, the single Brian Rix) but she has her heart set on a brighter future. Unfortunately, but somewhat predictably, we haven’t reached the interval yet – this brighter future does not seem to include Woody but instead his nemesis who, for the purposes of this depiction shall be known as Alan.
Alan is everything Woody isn’t. He is wealthy – daddy bought him a car for his 17th birthday; he had learned to drive on uncle’s farmland by the age of 15 – and is debating whether to go to Oxford, Cambridge, or just take a gap year and volunteer in mid-Africa. He is terrifically handsome with bronzed skin and glowing white teeth. He is also the most charmingly obnoxious person you could hope to meet. Or not to meet, if it comes down to it. Of course, Trudy and Alan are a couple; quite how Trudy remains loyal to Alan given his number of dalliances, abuses of trust and general meanness is lost on Woody as he shouts obscenities from beneath the back yard window, watching her with him in the kitchen, how he kisses her, how he holds her, and Woody wonders aloud Why Do You Have To Go Out With Him When You Could Go Out With Me. We know the answer. The song itself was a single dating from October 1988 and ranks amongst The Brilliant Corners’ finest moments, capturing as much youthful frustration as the March 1988-released Teenage.
Woody trudges back home, to the tune of Growing Up Absurd, title track of the band’s first mini album. We pass the dockside’s burly sailors, squinting neighbours and Carol the slut who’s been seen doing it in the park. We learn of Woody’s ambition (“I wanted a job as a communist preacher, they said I was stupid, no I couldn’t do it; with my CSE3 I couldn’t disagree”). Here, drums roll and guitars chug and a one-note riff reverberates while the bass pumps along, and “everybody goes where the beer goes”.
Naturally this takes us to the pub, and the opening scene of act two. Woody is writing a letter. It would appear he has a date. Not with Trudy of course, that would be both too easy and too cheesy, and I am painfully aware that this whole caboodle could end up cheesier than a barn full of Brie. While Woody has had eyes on Trudy, it would appear Sarah, in whose teeth are planted stars, has had designs on Woody. Meet Me On Tuesday he suggests. There are two versions of this song – the early version on the Fruit Machine EP with abrasively serrated guitars is great, but eclipsed by the melancholic folk version that appeared on one side of the free single accompanying final album A History Of White Trash. It is this that we hear from the stage, the anxieties presented about being shown up in front of her parents on account of his “useless etiquette”, although what can we expect from someone who would “dance upon the table top and tell a vulgar joke”.
If all of this appears a little one-sided, that’s because it is. Living is one-sided: we might be able to put ourselves in the shoes of another for a brief moment, but empathy cannot last forever and sympathy can be lost in the blink of an eye or the turn of a head. It is while Sarah’s head is turned that we discover that our hero’s feelings may still lie elsewhere. Lifting I Didn’t See You from The Brilliant Corners’ fourth long player Joy Ride, we witness Woody trying to call out as a fraud his rival for Trudy’s affection. Details remain scant at this point, but suffice it to say that Alan’s greatness is not all it is cracked up to be. A bitter mockery of supposed feats ensues. “I’ve read a million books, I burned my leather shoes” carps Woody sarcastically before continuing “I’ve been an angry man, I’ve sung politics but no-one ever knew, it wasn’t obvious but now all the girls in Broadmead all think I’m a prophet”. The song is as driven as Woody is ferocious in his vehemence and culminates in a piano-pounded electric-guitar-wailing outro as a huge brawl unfolds. Watched from afar by a potential father-in-common-law.
Act two scene three, and Woody is found trying in vain to convince his girlfriend that his intentions are truer than her father has suggested. For this part of the show we return to Somebody Up There Likes Me, side two track three appropriately enough. Trust Me he sings as a lilting instrumental melody pulls heart strings with each subtle chord change, “You’ll never find me begging, I’m far too bloody proud”. He is an honest man, that much can be said, even if he is a little rough around the edges. “I’ve got no money and I’ve got no job, you call me a terrible little slob …” he protests and it is of course hard not to feel some sympathy for him. On the other hand, he isn’t exactly being fair to anyone.
For our penultimate scene we head to The Brilliant Corners’ final album, 1993’s A History Of White Trash. This in itself could be a subtitle for the tale in which we are embroiled. It is Sunday; of course it is Always On A Sunday that things come to a head. There is no money, there is nothing to do and nowhere to go other than the pub to drink away the last of the labourer’s Friday pay packet. Week in week out, year in year out, the same faces sit in the same places, and “it’s like this ‘til we die”. As Davey Woodward’s lyrics so often pointedly note, it’s the little things that end up causing the biggest problems, and this evening at the pub quiz is no different. “He thinks he’s right, she doesn’t think so. He thinks he’s right, she doesn’t think so. When’s Lincoln’s birthday?” It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but when Alan’s team gets the question right Woody can take no more and the humiliation of defeat by that one solitary point is sufficient for the cracks in a relationship to become crevices.
The musical will never happen of course. The songs written by Davey Woodward and performed by his band are rooted too deeply in real life. In real life there too few happy endings, and a musical must have a happy ending to enable the audience to go home happy. Nevertheless … in the corner stands a table, adorned with several empty pint glasses and a solitary glass of red wine, half drunk, behind which sit the frosty faces of Alan and Trudy. To borrow the title of a latter-day Corners’ cover version, it would appear The Good’s Gone; as he sings Heaven Inside Her Woody waxes lyrical “If you’re frail you can’t go far – to the altar or to the bar” and we all know where we are now. The pair bicker about looks and actions, beery eyes and leery lurches in particular as our hero warns us to “watch out for the devil’s spies – they’ll say you’re sexy then gouge out your eyes”. And then, with a sweeping stringed outro “she stands like heaven’s inside her, puts herself into the fire” and the curtains close.
There may be no happy ending here; indeed, there may be no ending at all – I mean, what happens next? The audience rooted for flawed-hero Woody to get his girl and see off the gut-wrenchingly awful Alan. It didn’t happen. Maybe there’s scope for a sequel? After all, there’s still a whole raft of songs that could pepper the storyline: Everything I Ever Wanted, Friday Saturday Sunday Monday, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, Shangri-La and of course Brian Rix could all find their way into the script.
The Brilliant Corners wouldn’t make any more records after A History Of White Trash. In some ways this was disappointing; on the other hand they left behind a great career full of beautifully composed songs and it’s supposed to be best to leave the audience wanting more, isn’t it? Fans of the band did get some more in the shape of Davey and Chris’s Experimental Pop Band; although Chris died unfairly early (from cancer at only 39) in 1998, the band continued until 2012.
After a brief reunion for a handful of gigs over the past couple of years to promote the anthological compilation Heart On Your Sleeve (as good a place for the beginner to start as any), Davey now fronts indie band Karen.
After spending the best part of twenty five years trying to write the perfect pop song John Hartley has 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.
Here are some of John’s recent topper-posts: The Band of Holy Joy; The Beta Band; BOB; The Family Cat; The House of Love; James; McCarthy; The Mighty Lemon Drops; My Life Story; The Railway Children; Stereolab