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The Fall and Rise
of PJ Proby
b y F r a n k O w e n
i-D Magazine, January 1987 Left: PJ with actor Lance Le Gault, circa 1972
i-D Magazine, January 1987
Left: PJ with actor Lance Le Gault, circa 1972
To those who like their pop music to be about the 'real world' (drugs, unemployment, you know the list by now), the music of PJ Proby must be baffling. Isn't Proby just a melodramatic bimbo, a has-been, with about as much relevance to the '80s as Johnny Gentle or Dickie Pride? But to those who like their pop fantastical and excessive, obsessive and epic, narcissistic and otherworldly, PJ Proby is the total pop star, the ultimate pop fetish.
The legend stretches back over twenty years to the wildly cathartic stage show that all but ended his commercial career and brought down upon him the wrath of the showbiz establishment. In the public's mind, he's forever linked with the split trousers episode when, on 29th January 1965, on stage at the Castle Hall, Croydon, Proby's black hipsters split asunder. They split again at the Ritz Cinema, Luton, on 31st January and the curtains came down on Proby's career as a teen idol. Denied access to his adoring teen-girl audience by the subsequent media hysteria, Proby spent the rest of the '60s developing a career as a sophisticated supper-club crooner.
PJ Proby was the best of singers. A big, buck-skinned Texan who had the ability to take the most banal, middle-of-the-road ballad, dismantle it, and rebuilt it as a great fly-blown work of romantic art. Listen to Proby's version of Leonard Bernstein's Mariaan easy listening standard made uneasy by Proby's absurd vocal style, one minute moaning and slurring like a maudlin pub singer, the next minute soaring and resonating with the most awesome vibrato, as he pulls out every last vocal trick in the book. The cliché made heroic; never mind the quality, feel the myth.
PJ Proby was also the worst of singers. Though a brilliant mimic (Gene Pitney, Frankie Valli, The Beach Boys, The Righteous Brothers, were all sampled), Proby cut some of the worst versions of soul classics ever heard. His cover of James Brown's I Go Crazy saw the Godfather's scream become a batsqueak and his version of Jackie Wilson's Lonely Teardrops is indescribably ghastly. He waged a war on the conventions of pop balladry with a berserk schizoid-syllabic vocal style, that left the listener floundering and completely unsure quite how you were meant to take the songs. Ludicrous or visionary? A pile of slop or a work of art? Probably both. Accompanying the music, Proby reinvented himself as the great tragic artist of our times, a composite of Saint Sebastian, Randolph Hearst and Ernest Hemingwaya showbiz martyr crucified by his obsessive dedication to TOTAL PERFORMANCE on and off stage. "I am an artist and should be exempt from shit," he was fond of saying. But he never was. Financial problems dogged him, and the constant boozing only made it worse.
1986 finds Proby up to his neck in shit as ever. In the hot summer of his forty-eighth year, Proby has left Manchester, his home of many years, to return to Texas, in order to die. Behind him, he's left the most extraordinary of epitaphsa collection of cover versions of songs holy to a generation (Heroes, Anarchy in the UK, Love Will Tear Us Apart, The Passenger...) as well as a startling rendition of T S Eliot's The Waste Land over an Edgard Varèse electronic backing and his own song, The Mugwump Dance, where Def Jam seismic syncopation meets Cajun rock and Mancunian art-funk dislocation. Plans for Proby to record some e e cummings poems and Captain Beefheart covers have been shelved indefinitely.
The people behind this bizarre project are Dave Britton and Mike Butterworth of Savoy Books in Manchester. Britton initially met up with Proby in order to write his biography, but his thought soon turned to re-launching Proby's career within an '80s context.
"We've always rated Proby since the '60s. For me, he's the great original pop star, the archetypal pop singer. He can do everythingcountry, rock'n'roll, ballads. I think his main talent is for burlesquing all these styles, because he upsets pre-conceived ideas of what these forms arehe takes the piss out of everything and everybody.
"The bottom line is that in working with Proby we usually chose songs a. which would suit Proby's voice, b. which meant something to contemporary musical generations, c. which are commercial, d. which we dislike. Using Proby's tendency to burlesque, we attempted to further debunk the songs, sometimes by going for feeling at the expense of musicianship. Thus if the music is occasionally off-key or out of sync, so much the better; it adds to the kinetic thrust of our intention. Tainted Love is a shit song and Marc Almond is a crap singer, and it deserves the suck-off treatment we gave it. Heroes and Love Will Tear Us Apart get most of the generation of the last ten years, those people who would never dream of rating Proby, it gets them really going. They get upset at an old-timer coming along and doing these songs that are sacred to them. And yet they deify people like Scott Walker who was always a figure of the establishment."
"We intentionally cut the song like an overblown military requiem. We did it this waypompous, relentless and obtrusivebecause when we got Proby into the studio to sing it we discovered that his young wife Allison had that very day left him and he was telling us, very abjectly, that this recording would be his last. He was intending to shoot Allison (whose folks own a gun shop) and then 'join his father in the sky'.
I asked Britton what it was like dealing with the notoriously temperamental Proby in such a state.
"The last year has been very sad. It's difficult to talk about this in an interview but he's a man who has deteriorated a lot since we've known him. When he's sober he's nice and sweet and when he's drunk he's angry and bitter and wants to die. His liver's shot and he's got all the problems that come with being an acute alcoholic. I'm told he's lost all sensation in his feet for instance. He's too ill to perform. Before he left he was doing the same act that he'd been doing for the last 15 years because he can't learn new songs sufficiently well to do on stage."
The most bizarre aspect of an exceedingly bizarre project is Proby's version of The Waste Land which is pitched somewhere between Max Bygrave's Deck of Cards and Richard Burton's reading of Under Milkwood with some extraordinary Southern belle female impersonation thrown in by Proby for good measure.
"I was looking out of the window of Peter Hook's (New Order) studio in Rochdale. There's a great, big wasteland in front of the studio and I've always been a fan of Eliot's. It just seemed appropriate for Rochdale and the North of Englandsomething as ludicrous as P J doing The Waste Land. It was also an attempt to get back at those superior people at Faber and Faber (Eliot's publishers and self-appointed guardians of the Eliot memory)English academic types who wouldn't let Proby through the front door. Though they've stooped enough to publish a Paul Morley book. They'll probably have a fit when it comes out."
Britton and Butterworth could be criticised for pushing their own cultural ideas onto Proby. I mean, does Proby actually like any of this weird stuff he's recorded?
"There's probably some truth in what you say. The problem is that Proby has always mixed with cabaret peoplehe's never mixed with his equals. He's got such a fantastic voice that if he had mixed with his equals during the last 15 years think what he could have done."
Mind you, it's not as if Proby hasn't done off-the-wall things before. In the mid-'70s he recorded a version of Roxy Music's In Every Dream Home a Heartache.
"He can't even remember doing it. He's played me many tapes where he claims, for instance, that it's him and Willy Nelson singing together. When you listen to them it's obvious it's neither. But he really believes that these tapes are of him and Willie Nelson. So you've just got to be polite about it and nod your head in agreement."
Britton insists that no matter how bizarre his work with Proby appears, it is designed to be a commercial proposition. But the reaction from the major record companies has been at best apathetic and at worst actively hostile.
"We were so pissed off with the ignorant reaction we received from most A & R departments that we hurtled Proby back into the studio and just kicked the living shit out of Anarchy in the UK. It isn't better than the originalwhich cannot be improvedbut it possesses more internal berserkness than the Pistol's version."
Ironically, probably the most commercial track is Proby's own composition The Mugwump Dance with it's vicious dancefloor beat.
"We'd been listening to the Beastie Boys a lot at the time and we tried to get it to sound like Def Jam. I don't think it quite worked. Proby liked what we started with, but hated what we finished up with."
The irony of Proby's present situation is that if he was to die tomorrow, then those same record companies who spurned Proby while alive would be banging on Savoy's door looking for a piece of the necro-retro action. Better Proby alive, say I, if only to show up the contemporary celebritariat for the hum-drum nonentities most of them are. •
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