Jul 08

BRIAN AND MICHAEL – “Matchstalk Men And Matchstalk Cats And Dogs”

FT + Popular80 comments • 9,588 views

#421, 8th April 1978

If Don McLean’s “Vincent” presents the romantic case against critical neglect, “Matchstalk Men” is its populist inverse. Instead of the complacent mass refusing to see genius through Van Gogh’s pain, here we have the snooty establishment admitting – too late! – that the Northern folk who adored L.S.Lowry were onto something. Brian and Michael score the win on solid pop grounds – their tune is better and their production is hotter. Well, Colliery Brass Bands are always hot in my world.

But then I’m one of the Southern jessies who’s consuming this record as a neat little capsule of Northern-ness – much like a Lowry painting. Brian and Michael are smarter than McLean, too – they’re sharp on exactly why Lowry gained recognition (“come on down and wear the old cloth cap”!) and you might generously say that they leave open the question of the point at which pride turns into pandering.

I associate this song not so much with Lowry’s art as with the hand-drawn history lessons Blue Peter used to provide – little motion comics of Marie Antoinette or Louis Pasteur. I can’t remember whether there was one on Lowry, but if not this record pretty much provides it as it holds your hand through its mildly didactic, wholly sentimental lesson: the “factory gates”/”pearly Gates” switch is a clunker whatever your regionality. The song goes on too long and the kids’ choir doing their ally-ally-o routine is a step way too far. But for all that this is only a bad record, not a terrible one.



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  1. 1
    SteveM on 25 Jul 2008 #

    ur spoiling us! is this fast pace because you’re goin on holiday in a few weeks?

  2. 2
    Tom on 25 Jul 2008 #

    One a weekday is kind of the ideal pace for Popular! It’s just that this is the first time I’ve managed it since 2005 or so.

    (I am also going on holiday in a month’s time too.)

  3. 3
    LondonLee on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Lord, the charts were a rich tapestry of all human life back then weren’t they?

    Is this the first time there have been two Arts and Letters-inspired songs at Number 1 back-to-back?

  4. 4
    SteveM on 25 Jul 2008 #

    I like this sleeve quite a lot btw

  5. 5
    Tom on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Unless you believe “Metal Guru” is about Jacob Epstein, yes.

    Bring those days back say I. I am eagerly awaiting Nizlopi’s tribute to Jack Vettriano.

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    DJ Punctum on 25 Jul 2008 #

    “Is it true you’re just an ordinary chap?”

    Reality is always so much more complicated. Like Kafka, Ives and Larkin, LS Lowry worked conscientiously at a day job and did the art at night. But his was the kind of life which seemed purposely to exclude the possibility of ordinariness in all its forms – including ordinary joy and happiness. The Northern cityscapes on which his reputation lie are functional and yet manage to be both maximalist (those unending, stretching streets of chimneys and gables) and minimalist (those no-nonsense, two-dimensional stick figures of people and animals – did he discern any real difference between the two?); although he admitted to no influences save a passion for the Pre-Raphaelites and Impressionism up to a point, his art lies somewhere unclassifiable, between David Bomberg and Ad Reinhardt. He was a contemporary of Spencer’s, but where Spencer made a point of making his life and his art indivisible to the point of invisibility, there are no stories, nothing of biography, about Lowry’s works. There is a wearily sardonic humour about the “marionette” portraits of people to which he turned in his later years – but his 1938 self-portrait Head Of A Man seems crucial in that it encompasses and describes a rage and an animated passion which elsewhere seems deliberately to be eluded. Charcoal red burns from his piercing eyes and beneath his overcoat; his unkempt hair is like a volcano top, barely capable of preserving the lava of grief and anger within.

    For 1938 was the year when Lowry’s mother, whom he idolised despite her having shown him next to nothing in the way of palpable or sensed love, died after long years of illness and his careful, meticulous nursing. Not long after her death, his reputation suddenly began to grow and he found acclaim and offers coming his way – too late, in his fiftieth year, for Elizabeth Lowry to witness. And the remaining half of his life and career could be construed as a quietly frantic running away from that unpalatable, unfaceable truth. Though he had many female friends, he never formed a relationship, but neither was he gay; the concept of sex seems to have passed him by entirely, and his life was a sober and monastic one, as with Joyce’s bank clerk in A Painful Case. The work (as a rent collector for the Pall Mall Property Company) and art appeared to be sufficient; he was offered several honours, up to and including a knighthood, but declined them all except the offer of becoming a Royal Academician; respect from his peers was enough. There were numerous clocks in his house, each set to a different time. There has been speculation about Asperger’s but this has never been proven.

    He died, rich, loved and quietly satisfied, in February 1976 aged eighty-eight; and two years later came the tribute record which became the second song about an artist to reach number one. Inevitably, “Matchstalk Men” simplifies the story to palatable and digestible chunks; singers/guitarists Brian Burke and Michael Coleman draw parallels in the first verse between Lowry’s painting practices and their own youth in and around Ancoats and Salford (“I’m sure he once walked down our street//’Cos he painted kids who had nowt on their feet”) before telling the overly simplistic story of the man sneered at as the epitome of the “Sunday painter” slowly being recognised and courted by the Establishment, and finally beating them at their own game (“Even the Mona Lisa takes a bow”). The mood is melancholic but major-key acoustic folk, though it’s the arrangement, with the brass band and children’s choir (St Winifred’s School Choir) securely in place, the latter singing a counterpart of “The Big Ship Sails Down The Alley-Alley-Oh” to the final chorus and fadeout. The song does have a tendency to veer into sub-George Formby Northern clichés (“them factory gates,” “the old flat cap”) and much of the disdain which commentators still feel for the record, and its success, may have something to do with the Northern theme park mentality which does rear its head to an extent throughout the record.

    Then again, is there not something noble about a couple of honest tunesmiths, who grew up with Lowry as a central reference point in their culture, simply wanting to commemorate someone they clearly see as The People’s Artist, in ways which will touch and maybe even move The People? There doesn’t seem to have been any side to Brian and Michael – even though shortly before the record’s release, Michael Coleman opted out and was replaced by one Kevin Parrott – and while “Matchstalk Men” is not profound art, it does bear the air of proud and unapologetic Northernism which directly presages the likes of Pulp and the Arctic Monkeys, on the other side of the M62, and seems to me as good an example of pop as socialism at work as you’ll find anywhere in this list – as long as we realise that it’s not the whole, and rather messier, story.

  7. 7
    Andy M on 25 Jul 2008 #

    This was a primary school-play staple along the lines of ‘I’m Henry the Eighth I am’ where I grew up (performed in Victorian dress even though this was the wrong period and in the same term as the trip to the Lowry museum in Salford). Can’t say I remember it as fondly as I AM I AM.

    Allegedly it was the song the kids were really dancing to in the Happy Mondays ‘Wrote For Luck’ video (as in true Ryder form the track wasn’t finished yet) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=svAZFCF3_2k
    I have trouble believing that because a) it’s impossible to dance to it, and b) it’s surely impossible to get a club full of kids to dance to it.

  8. 8
    DJ Punctum on 25 Jul 2008 #

    It’s been played at Club Popular, though not at peak dancing time.

  9. 9
    Erithian on 25 Jul 2008 #

    If you want proud and unapologetic Northernism, try B&M’s previous single (under the name “Burke and Jerk”):

    I caught t’ train last Saturday morning, me red and white scarf was on me ‘ead
    “Don’t forget, leave the seats behind” was one of the things the driver said
    And the other was “Lads, if you win t’ Cup like you did in ’63,
    Don’t forget that the trophy’s yours but the train belongs to me”

    Stretford Enders, we are, we are, Zigger Zagger Zigger Zagger oy oy oy” (x2)

    Sittin’ on t’ same coach where I sat was five supporters from the other team
    Said our lads couldn’t play for peanuts and Lou Macari was a fairy queen
    I said “do you want it? you can ‘ave it if you want it, nobody calls our Lou a clown
    By t’ time we reached our destination the others were five supporters down (Chorus)

    We all marched proudly through the turnstiles, crowd let off with a great big cheer
    All fingers pointin’, “Stretford Enders, ‘ave no fear the lads are ‘ere”
    We all marched round and we took our place be’ind the opposin’ goals
    The goalie gave us a victory sign so we gave ‘im some toilet rolls (Chorus)

    We all went daft at a 2-0 win, we didn’t ‘alf give ’em some stick
    Most o’ t’ lads laughed all t’ way ‘ome but I spent t’night in t’nick
    Next day in court the judge said “Son, these laws weren’t made to scoff
    I didn’t mind yer runnin’ on t’pitch, but yer shuldn’t ‘ave took yer clothes off – six months (Chorus)

    Given the Red Army’s reputation (and an incident in 1977 where they tried to dismantle Carrow Road after losing at Norwich), it was a bit surprising they got Lou Macari and Alex Stepney taking part in an ad campaign for the single…

  10. 10
    DJ Punctum on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Which reminds me – “Ally’s Tartan Army” by Andy Cameron crossed over into the national charts round about this time…

  11. 11
    Billy Smart on 25 Jul 2008 #

    For those of us who were children at the time, it certainly had a great appeal. We could follow the story, and the chorus returned frequently enough for us to get the point. The idea of drawing stick figures, and it being seen as of value is one that is appealing to a four-year old, too!

    A very early pop memory is watching this on Top Of The Pops with my 16-year old sister, and being surprised at her reaction of cross derision.

    Move forward thirty years, and I’m surprised how little my feelings towards this have changed. There are a couple of rather emphatic lines that make me momentarily wince (the Mona Lisa taking a bow, especially) but they are offset by other lines that seem to offer a more realist view that avoids sentimentality (“this tired old man” “Come on down and wear the old flat cap”)

    But what I absolutely love about it is the fade-out, all 90 seconds of it. At the time, I was only following the chorus, but it’s the melody of that combined with the swell of the brass band and the skipping song that lifts my adult muso heart. Noel Gallagher often strives to create such an effect, with much greater resources and much less success!

  12. 12
    Billy Smart on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Oh, I’ve never understood – Why “Their sparking clogs”? Were they made of aluminium or something? Or have I just got it wrong?

  13. 13
    DJ Punctum on 25 Jul 2008 #

    I also remember Brian and Michael on sundry kids’ TV shows of the period performing the underperforming follow-up, the heartrending “Mam When’s Me Dad Coming Home?”

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    DJ Punctum on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Google’s not very helpful but does suggest that “sparking clogs” were clogs with metal irons.

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    Tom on 25 Jul 2008 #

    As a kid I never even knew what clogs were. So I heard it as “sparking clocks”, which didn’t honestly help much.

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    Waldo on 25 Jul 2008 #

    This one took enough explaining to the Brits, let alone the Septics and the Hosers, with whom it was wise simply not to bother. I, however, despite being a soft Southern Jessie (yes, me too, Tom!), had been quite familiar with L S Lowry and his distinctive works (by all means not all of his paintings depicted people and animals. Still Lifes also with Van Gogh as a clear influence) and Brian and Michael did nothing if to raise the artist’s profile two years after his demise with this warm and decidedly Northern fable. I particularly enjoyed the brass band merry-go-round intro, which shows just enough leg before dissolving into the acoustic backing track. Less appreciated was the contribution made by the sickening outfit who were to completely ruin Christmas 1980 (elaborating on this would be entering the warren of death, obviously), who not content with interloping on each chorus, very nearly ruined this delightful little tribute totally with their “Alley-Alley-Os” at the end. What were Brian and Michael thinking? They were doing so well up until then.

  17. 17
    Billy Smart on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Another fantastic Steve Coogan use of this song occurs at the end of an episode of the second series of ‘I’m Alan Partridge’. Alan is appalled to discover that a feature of his late night radio show ‘Alan’s Big Bath’ has been appropriated by a couple of swingers for their own salacious purposes. Having just escaped from the prospect of an unappealing threesome with them, Alan replaces the ‘Big Bath’ feature with a spin of ‘Matchstalk Men’. The episode ends with the song playing, the disappointed swingers listening in their home, and Alan singing along to the song in his studio, gradually becoming happier and more relieved.

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    Erithian on 25 Jul 2008 #

    As a native of Manchester, I sometimes find myself caught between civic pride (for the music and football obviously, but also for the rail industry pioneers and the scientific breakthroughs from John Dalton to Alan Turing) and something similar to the “cultural cringe” once experienced by Australians. The latter comes to mind when Mancunian “grotesques” are presented to the nation, from Bernard Manning to half the characters on Corrie.

    This song is pitched sort of midway, with a bias perhaps towards the civic-pride bit: folkies from Hyde (a mile or two from where I lived) with a well-worked song about an artist I wasn’t particularly fond of, at least at the time. My Uncle Bert, who was Considerably Richer Than Yow, had a couple of Lowrys (which I don’t think were prints) in his house, and his daughter and I both protested “B-b-but we could paint people better than that”. Childhood tastes apart, it was fun to have this at number one, with the St Winifred’s choir’s homage to Jérémie Aliadière chuntering away in the background.

    Many of you will have visited at least one iconic scene featured in Lowry’s work, the Stockport viaduct which is one of the biggest brick structures in Europe and which carries trains between Stockport and Manchester Piccadilly stations

  19. 19
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 25 Jul 2008 #

    sparking clogs = yes, they have a metal element to strike sparks on the pavement, either hobnails or i think more usually a kind of toe cladding

    (dr v!ck’s rather intimidating oldest brother — the plymouth dutch boy who returned to holland — wears clogs more often than not) (he once played me a mark knopfler song, about pynchon, on an electric mandolin)

    i like the kid’s playground song bit, it reminds me of the classic recording of “under milk wood” my parents had when i was little

  20. 20
    LondonLee on 25 Jul 2008 #

    I assumed they were clogs with metal Blakeys on the bottom of them, we ‘ad them down t’South too you know.

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    Waldo on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Erithian – re: “Zigger Zagger”.

    The only unargued point on this is that it featured in a play by one Peter Terson. As to who picked it up first as footy chant, this becomes completely subjective. For every Stretford Ender who would swear on the memory of the Babes that it was theirs there will be an outraged Shed Ender ready to duff up the cheeky Manc for suggesting such a thing. Certainly during the sixties, the “Chelsea Boys” contained the much-beloved and sadly now departed Mick Greenaway, who never missed a game home or away. The legend runs that Mick first encountered the chant on a visit to, of all places, Stoke and cultivated it for home use. At future home matches he screamed out the refrain and the subordinate Shed obdiently completed the catechism. Many years later, after Greenaway had died, one of his mates surfaced as the new High Priest of Zigger. The last I knew, he was still leading the chant in what is now called the Matthew Harding Stand.

    There is a similar bun fight concerning Harry J’s “Liquidator”, which was unquestionable played at the Bridge from 1969 onwards. Other clubs claim joint custody, one being Wolves, the other bizarrely, Dundee!

  22. 22
    Erithian on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Waldo – possibly for off-topic PM’s, but I too thought it originated in Stoke, which is where the Peter Terson play was set.

    I’m sure The Liquidator can be justly claimed by Wolves. You must know the story of why it came to be banned. Wolves fans were encouraged to join in the famous hook of that tune by going (clap-clap-clap-clap) “THE WOLVES” – until a section of their support replaced the claps with the words “F— OFF WEST BROM”.

    PS – Manchester liberal politics of the 19th century is another source of the abovementioned civic pride. The Free Trade Hall of Dylan “Judas” fame was built on the site of the Peterloo massacre, which someone has called the English Tiananmen Square.

  23. 23
    rosie on 25 Jul 2008 #

    I still maintain that this is the second-best number one directly inspired by the work of an artist. Although in this case I think Tom has the score about right. It’s pretty awful, but it’s not unspeakably awful. (And I still rather like Vincent, so there!

    I once owned a pair of Lancashire mill clogs with irons – like small horseshoes nailed to the alder wood soles. I bought them from a long-defunct shop in Lancaster called Clogs & Wellies where they were made on the premises and I couldn’t resist. They were great for working in the garden when I had a garden, and surprisingly comfortable, but you couldn’t walk along the road with them or you’d wake the dead. Once they really came into their own. After a very cold winter evening in Bristol, it warmed up slightly and rained overnight causing every outside surface to be glazed with a layer of tenacious and very slippery ice. There was no way I could leave my front door in ordinary shoes without risking a broken neck, but the clogs were just perfect; the irons conducted the heat and gained a grip on the ice on the hilly streets of Bristol.

    LS Lowry was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters in 1965, at the same ceremony in which I received my BSc(hons). He was not there in person, because he was in his final illness.

    Oh, and as a Northern lass now returned to her roots, I hate the patronising clogs & shawls image projected of this fine part of the world!

  24. 24
    DJ Punctum on 25 Jul 2008 #


  25. 25
    Billy Smart on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Number 2 watch: A week of ‘I Wonder Why’ by Showaddywaddy. Don’t remember that one.

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    Erithian on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Rosie – do you know Victoria Wood’s “Northerners”? –

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    Waldo on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Don’t forget t’whippets, Rosie! Aye and bread an’ drippin’. Eeeee! Champion, that!

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    SteveM on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Billy re Partridge I believe it was ‘deep bath’ and not ‘big bath’ although surely the bath was as big as it was deep.

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    DJ Punctum on 25 Jul 2008 #

    I wonder why I remember “I Wonder Why” – the most boring record ever made.

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    rosie on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Erithian @ 26: I didn’t but I do now and I’m most grateful for it.

    Waldo @ 27: Ay lad, and t’pigeons, and t’prize leeks from t’allotment.

    I am partial to a meat and potato pie with mushy peas, and a brass band.

    The social coding of regional accents is a major irritation. You just knew, from listening to MMAMCAD, that Brian and Michael would turn up on the telly in baggy caps and clogs. Nobody expected David Essex to do anything like that.

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