Ivor Cutler: The king of fantasy island

Many of the biggest names in Scottish music have gathered to explore the imaginary kingdom where Ivor Cutler’s career began, discovers Sean Guthrie

I asked Paul McCartney,” says Matt Brennan, eyes lighting up. “I found an email for his manager and I thought: you know what? We’d collected so many musicians we’d never thought there would be any chance of getting. Very generously his manager did reply and said: ‘Paul is working on his own projects right now, but he’s a keen supporter of Mr Cutler.’ I thought: good on him.”

Mr Cutler, of course, being Ivor Cutler, the Scottish humorist, poet and songwriter who appeared in the Beatles film Magical Mystery Tour at McCartney’s behest and whose influence on the Fab Four is indisputable (more of which later). He is also the inspiration behind Return to Y’Hup, a thrillingly picaresque compendium of Cutler’s songs and poetry driven by Brennan and friends, and featuring a lengthy list of the great and good of contemporary Scottish music.

Other champions of Cutler include Billy Connolly, the philosopher Bertrand Russell and John Peel, for whom he recorded a near-record 22 sessions (only the Fall performed more). The DJ once declared that Cutler was the only artist whose work had appeared on Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3 and Radio 4. But despite the profound love shown for his poems, music and children’s books in his native country and beyond, including a National Theatre of Scotland production in 2014, Ivor Cutler remains peripheral, a non-pareil.

So much so that after visiting the National Museum of Scotland exhibition Rip It Up in 2018, Brennan and his friend Malcolm Benzie were puzzled as to the absence of artefacts connected to the man they often respectfully refer to as Mr Cutler. We are sitting in the Doublet in Kelvinbridge, the very Glasgow pub where the pair carried out their post-mortem on the exhibition.

“It’s not a slight on the organisers of Rip It Up – it’s more a comment on Mr Cutler being an outsider,” says Brennan, a reader in popular music at Glasgow University who goes by the name of Citizen Bravo when wearing his musician’s hat. “He has this clearly huge influence and cultural significance, yet he seems perpetually outside of all kinds of music and culture.”

Cutler was born in Govan in 1923 to Jewish parents who had fled eastern Europe in the late 19th century, and was educated at Shawlands Academy. After the Second World War he trained as a teacher and left Scotland soon afterwards (“the beginning of my life”, he said). Besides teaching, mainly in London, Cutler established a career in entertainment. Conspicuously eccentric, he would draw chalk faces round dog excrement in the street and navigated the capital by bicycle long before it became popular. He died in 2006, aged 83.

Cannily, Brennan and Benzie chose to deploy Cutler’s outsider status as a catalyst for making music with their friend Raymond MacDonald, a saxophonist and well-kent face in the Glasgow jazz and experimental scene.

“Raymond comes from a sort of avant-garde world and Malcolm and I come more from an indie world,” says Brennan, an upbeat Canadian who moved to Glasgow 17 years ago. “Because Cutler is on the fringes of everything it means he connects all sorts of otherwise disparate scenes. He was the perfect focal point for friends to get together and have fun.”

So far, so straightforward. Soon, however, the scope of informal get-togethers in Brennan’s Glasgow flat widened. An idea took hold: to make a tribute album to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Cutler’s debut EP, 1959’s Ivor Cutler of Y’Hup, Y’Hup – pronounced “ee-hoop” – being an imaginary island in the southern hemisphere populated by animals including the three-legged yam and made fertile by plankton-rich green rain, “a rich source of vitamin P”.

Having amassed a collection of loosely arranged songs and a wish-list of guest vocalists, the trio enlisted Andy Monaghan, formerly of Frightened Rabbit and now a producer who looks after the band’s studio in the east end of Glasgow. Approaches were made to fellow musicians and singers from across Scotland – Alex Kapranos, Sarah Hayes, Stuart Murdoch, Tracyanne Campbell and Emma Pollock to name but a handful – and the collaborations began.

“A couple of artists recorded in their own spaces and emailed the track over but for the vast majority it was either folk coming round to my bedroom to record their vocals or occasionally to Andy’s studio. It led to some very surreal experiences,” Brennan recalls, smiling. “I’d never met Karine Polwart or Kris Drever and suddenly they ring my doorbell and I’m like, hello, living legend, come in and have a cup of tea.”

Perhaps the trio’s greatest coup was securing the involvement of Phyllis King, Cutler’s partner of more than 40 years, and Robert Wyatt, the former Soft Machine drummer on whose classic 1974 album Rock Bottom Cutler appears. The how of Wyatt and King’s contributions is equally as curious as the what.

At the height of his Cutler obsession Brennan was trawling eBay for records and books, during the course of which he came into contact with one of Cutler’s two sons, Jeremy, who was selling books. Jeremy Cutler would enclose with Brennan’s purchases a number of the stickers for which his father was known; some featured aphorisms such as “Made of dust” while others simply featured Cutler’s face.

“When he posted letters occasionally he would put a sticker with his own face on it across from the stamp, and speech bubbles, and he and the Queen would be having a conversation,” explains Brennan, “so I did that trick on the envelope for the letter I sent to Robert Wyatt.

“I wanted to demonstrate that we were really trying to get into Cutler’s world. And of course when you write a letter to Robert Wyatt you don’t necessarily expect to hear back from him, but, much to my shock and joy, he emailed back two days later and said: ‘Yeah, I’m in, and you should speak to Phyllis King.’”

“As someone who doesn’t get talked about enough as part of the Ivor Cutler back catalogue it felt important to have her represented as well,” adds Benzie.

King, who like Cutler was a teacher as well as a poet, attended the group’s support show with Pictish Trail at the Union Chapel in London in December.

Says Benzie, “She wrote a nice note saying she thought Ivor would approve but …”

“… he would have put cotton wool in his ears,” finishes Brennan, laughing. Among Cutler’s eccentricities was membership of the Noise Abatement Society. He politely requested that his audiences show their appreciation with restraint, and among the curios that filled his North London flat was a wax ear fixed to the wall with six-inch nails.

While Cutler might not have been impressed by the volume favoured by the group on whom his influence is most widely acknowledged, his discovery by Paul McCartney proved significant for both parties. After appearing as the bus conductor Buster Bloodvessel in Magical Mystery Tour, Cutler became a Parlophone stablemate of the Beatles and recorded the album Ludo, with George Martin producing.

“Paul was the most vocal fan, but John Lennon was a fan too,” says Brennan. “Everyone has influences – even the Beatles – and Cutler was definitely one of theirs. Particularly in the second half of their output, there’s this mix of the absurd, the surreal, character-driven work. And also, the sounds of drones and harmoniums for that matter.”

While McCartney’s name is missing from Return to Y’Hup, arguably its most notable guest is Cutler’s harmonium, which Brennan and co were loaned by its current owner, Donald Shaw, the artistic director of Celtic Connections. The instrument appears on several tracks.

“The harmonium adds a kind of connective tissue,” says Brennan. “It’s like a relic, something that was in his possession. Hopefully it adds a little of his spirit to the vibe.”

“We also have Cutler’s voice on the record,” adds Benzie. “He’s a presence throughout all the songs. There’s something reassuring about his voice.”

“His voice,” Brennan sums up, “is what it’s all about.”

Return to Y’Hup by Citizen Bravo, Raymond MacDonald and Friends is out on Chemikal Underground. The band and guest vocalists play Glasgow Royal Concert Hall as part of Celtic Connections on January 29

Three guest vocalists from Return to Y’Hup on the genius of Ivor Cutler

Name: Tracyanne Campbell, Camera Obscura

Guests on: Women of the World

“I like his ability to be playful and silly but at the same time managing to resonate, touch and inspire. He expands the boundaries of what songwriting can be – it’s crossmodal, incorporating music, comedy and philosophy. I also like the fact my six-year-old loves him and we can laugh our heads off listening to him in the car.”

Name: Stuart Braithwaite, Mogwai

Guests on: The Path

“I love the surrealism of Ivor Cutler’s work. I also think that genuinely Scottish voices were all too rare in culture until relatively recently and in that regard he was way out in front. His words and music are timeless.”

Name: Emma Pollock

Guests on: Size Nine and a Half

“His imagination and celebration of childhood innocence is inspirational, even if it makes you wonder how he must have coped with everyday life. We can dip into his music and work when we choose and come back out of it. He was in that world constantly perhaps – which is to be admired, but it also makes me wonder how he felt about the world and its modernity.”

Source: Ivor Cutler: The king of fantasy island | HeraldScotland

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