George Melly played Newcastle Playhouse in 1982 and was interviewed before the show by SIMON McKAY.
In 1982 George Melly was well known in the north east for being the face and gravelly voice of TV adverts for the local home improvement centre JT Dove. He popped up on screen (probably wearing a suit with large window-pane checks) and sang, "Nice and easy does it every time." I was 17 and although Eccentric Sleeve Notes was about post-punk music, I was starting to develop an interest in jazz so I turned up at the soundcheck to ask George for an interview. He obliged. I found him to be very enigmatic. He had clearly been around, but I didn't know much about him and I felt very ill-equipped to do the interview. It went surprisingly well, but the script remained unpublished as, in the 1980s, I couldn't figure out how to make it fit with the usual content in my magazine.
GEORGE MELLY - Pair of One-Sided Demos
(Courtesy of Fenella Fielding Archive)
Round about 2014, when amazingly the actress Fenella Fielding had become my closest friend, we were looking through her modest collection of 7" singles and there were a couple of George Melly single-sided demo pressings from 1959. It turned out Fenella and George had been good friends (possibly knowing each other from the Colony Room Club). I told her I interviewed him when I was 17. She looked quite concerned. "Oh... what happened. I suppose he made a pass at you." I said he hadn't. In fact, he'd been very generous because I was clearly out of my depth. He had simply looked at me - my purple spiky hair - and, accurately, made some assumptions about what would interest me. He practically interviewed himself! Fenella was relieved and seemed to indicate that with George it could go either way. She was pleased he had been kind to me. And indeed he was.
Cover of his 1965 Autobiography 'Owning Up'
George Melly has been pounding the roads in the UK for thirty years, surviving enormous changes in public taste, particularly the 1960s beat group boom. He first made a name for himself in the 1950s when he did a tour of universities around the UK. He says, "Just after the war there was this terrific explosion of revivalist jazz, which swept across the country. Lots of people such as I, being at the tender age of twenty-four, were caught up in this. We were considered to be very bad lads indeed. I suppose we were the punks of our generation, really not welcome at all. We lived pretty rough on the road. There weren't any drugs around, so we drank in enormous quantities. We spent the night in a different girls' arms, if we could."
In 1965, George wrote a book about his life, 'Owning Up'. He was clearly pleased, when in the 1970s, a number of rock musicians he met had read his book and remarked on the similarities between his experiences and their own. He said, "I met the Stranglers through the book. We did a track together, called 'What An Old Codger I Am'. They wrote it especially for me. Charming. Hugh is quite a good friend of mine though. The public tend to put musicians in boxes, but it isn't like that. We drift about. It depends upon temperament as to who you have as a friend."
GEORGE MELLY (Pictured with Lew Lewis) on From the rear cover of 1978 single 'Walk On By'
It is more acceptable today to have a cross-over of styles. George and his band are unique in that no other jazz band has shared the bill with rock bands. He tells me, "A few years ago we played with Patti Smith in Amsterdam and very sweet and nice she was. She was doing a sound-check that was obviously going to take forever. She had these huge stacks, each had to be tuned (sic) separately. They didn't sound right so she was screaming and shouting all over the stage about 'Mickey Mouse music'. In the end, I said to her, 'Miss Smith, it will take us ten minutes to do our soundcheck. You're going to take hours, do you mind if we do ours first?' 'Sure, kid. I understand,' she said and sat down next to an adolescent fan from Belgium who followed her around. So we did our soundcheck and thanked Miss Smith. 'It's OK, kid,' she said and then we went and walked around the city."
Clearly, there's consensus between George and contemporary rock groups that not a lot has changed 'on the road' in thirty years. It's fascinating that George is still working in the same way and still making a living after all of this time. Given that tastes will continue to change greatly in the next thirty years, I do wonder how many of today's chart bands will still be attracting an audience in 2012.
Postscript: George Melly continued to play gigs for a further 25 years after this interview. His final performance was at the 100 Club on June 10, 2007. He died less than a month later. Obituary - The Guardian