How Vic & Bob’s Mulligan & O’Hare Got Me Into Experimental Music, By Jennifer Lucy Allan

Jennifer Lucy Allan explains how a childhood love of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer's avant-folk duo Mulligan & O'Hare opened her ears to the avant-garde, and realising that the most 'serious' music can often be a total hoot

If I went to a psychologist and asked them to unpick the reason I got so obsessed with so-called experimental music, once they peeled back the eye-watering onion layers of my psyche to my caustic core, I am almost certain what they would find playing is a looping video of Mulligan and O’Hare’s ‘deeply instrumental’ cover of ‘When A Child Is Born’.

Mulligan and O’Hare are a pair of furious pastel roll-neck wearing provincial folk crooners dreamed up by Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. They’re also my fantasy reissue project. They rose to fame as part of The Smell Of Reeves and Mortimer, first broadcast on the BBC 30 years ago, in September 1993, and are best known for the ballad ‘My Rose Has Left Me’ (which might be the only song to mention now defunct retail chain Allied Carpets). My personal favourites are tunes such as ‘In Our Special Drawer’ and ‘Frustrated By Weeds’, but I’m less a fan of overly conventional folk song ‘When The Donkey Derby Came To Town’. Albums that never existed included The Onion Ring, and Pancake Day, among others. In their radical cover of ‘A Child Is Born’, Bob emits a pained wail, wearing a barrel over his naked torso, while Vic tickles a tinkling rubber udder and blows rumbling low end through hoover tubing attached to an brass painted arch of piping. He’s also buried up to the waist in the ground. It’s really quite good. My love runs so deep Biba Kopf once tried to overcome my lifelong dislike of Dylan by sending me an email with three MP3s attached called "Bob Dylan: The Vic And Bob Years". It worked (briefly).

Aged seven, I was already a seasoned Vic and Bob fan. I’d been into them since their early work, naturally. I messaged my parents about how this was. Why can I remember skits from the previous series Big Night Out if I was four when it was on the telly? Why can I still sing all the words to The Smell Of‘s opening songs – classics such as ‘Lucky Carpet’, ‘Trapped In My Flat’, ‘Cool, Cool, Air’? My dad says they would let me stay up and watch: “It had no swearing or offensive stuff in it”, he tells me. ‘It was daft. Totally mad. And you loved Les’. Les was a character from Big Night Out. He was bald, wore a white lab coat and milkbottle glasses. He loved spirit levels and hated chives. I got it – what child wouldn’t? Later, my sisters remember watching videos recorded off the telly over, and over again.

There are some very literal links between Vic and Bob and experimental music, specifically free improvisation. This goes beyond just my opinion that there are two schools of performance in the sport of free improvisation; that it’s either a game of seize the chair or pass the bike. Some years ago I commissioned Clive Bell to write about the links with British comedy and free improvisation in the 1990s, intrigued by the crossovers I was finding, such as the news that free improvisor Steve Beresford played piano on and arranged four of the tracks on Vic Reeves solo album I Will Cure You. What’s less widely discussed is that album also includes legendary Dutch free jazz drummer Han Bennink (in interview, Beresford tells Bell that Bennink "is like something out of Jacques Tati anyway"), plus Bennink’s fellow ICP orchestra member Wolter Wierbos on trombone, and saxophonist Evan Parker (at one point Reeves yells "Pack it in Parker!"). There are precursors to this, too: the guitarist Derek Bailey once played in the pit for Morecambe And Wise; Spike Milligan was an amateur jazz musician (a film of him introducing the Tony Oxley Unit is being shown on 12 March).

This is a factual history, but Bennink presents what is perhaps the conceptual, or spiritual link here. One of my most revelatory experiences in the early days of Cafe Oto was watching Han playing solo, a chequered teatowel wrapped like a bandana around his head, his big lean body in clunky brown boots folded clownishly behind the kit, leaping up to play the wall, or shoving a stick in his mouth and tapping out a tune on said stick by opening and closing his gob. It was fun! It was funny! Until that moment, I had no idea that there was a valid reaction to this music that was other than deeply reverent. Perhaps some still don’t. Nonetheless, I remember feeling deflated when Clive’s piece came in. Clive is a fantastic writer, the feature was all there. So what was wrong? I realise now that what I was looking for were not the literal connections between comedy and free improvisation. I wanted an answer to my own question: because what has my love of Mulligan & O’Hare got to do with my love of Han Bennink?

The answer is: everything.

This more spiritual connection between Vic and Bob and improvised and experimental music is perhaps even more significant than its literal crossovers. I’m not talking about novelty songs here – you can keep your Weird Al Yankovic (although leave behind Lucky Carpet). What I’m talking about are assemblages of images, words, movements, objects, into something that trigger fireworks of laughter; joyful readymades with comic timing.

Underneath comedy or music, we often find something revealed. The bald fact of a ridiculous verbal or sonic junction can expose something about tradition; about the expectations or the artist or a live situation; about convention and its upending, or about behavioural codes and our performances, even as audiences. My feeling for what this means borrows from Mary Douglas: if dirt is matter out of place, I’m after sound out of place. I find it in the immaculate timing of the howling dog who sings backing on the most recent Kaoro Abe No Future release; in the exquisite mischief of Keiji Haino wailing about not getting any satisfaction over an 11-minute long cover of a sub four-minute pop song; the solemn delivery of a list of alchemical animals such as the “eagle of arrogance” and the “dolphin of lust” on Wojiciech Rusin’s The Funnel. It’s Hype Williams’ runners on treadmills sunk in a smoke-filled venue and it’s Mark Fell’s clown faced air-dancers towering over clubbers under strobes in the Berghain (because, is this what we look like?). It’s Sun Araw’s band, using nothing but a flashing LED ‘KEYS CUT’ sign from a cobblers as lighting design. The on-off of the sign alongside the gloopy, bongy MIDI arrangements that sound like they’re tripping over themselves seemed to me straight out of Vic and Bob, archetypally equal to an impression of Burt Reynolds that involves a pair of blue marigolds. The question is why? And then the question is: why is this funny? The answer is nebulous, transient, and happy-making, and has something to do with timing, (dis)junction, and surprise.

Sometimes these instances split the crowd, or I am laughing alone (see the KEYS CUT instance). Experimental music is too serious, people say. I think there’s laughter to be had, and that doesn’t mean a laughing at, nor does it mean one artist is more lightweight than those perceived as more ‘serious’. It’s about risk, and the moment. This means you won’t always get it right. Getting it wrong can make you look like an idiot; whereas meanness and misplaced stereotyping can be much worse. Humour is not universal and often travels badly (something exploited by the recently reissued Eurotrash TV series) and the expectations of an audience have a lot to do with culture and context. Humour relies on a consensus of some sort to be understood by an audience if it is to work, for better or worse.

At root there remains something elusive about the specific joys of absurdities in moments of language, image and sound that I find in much of both the music and the comedy I love. These instants are like balloons: they go up, bright and buoyant, but to pull them down and examine them, means they are liable to burst or deflate. Transcribing interviews I regularly hear myself poking these ideas out loud with interviewees, digging into whatever it is that works about this musician’s particular brand of absurdity or comedy. Experimental artists often wibble or become dismissive about humour, apparently worried about whether they might be making light of a ‘serious’ art form, or that they might not be taken ‘seriously’ by a ‘serious’ interviewer (that’s me) if they are seen to be having too much fun. As I have transcribed myself saying too many times to remember: just because it’s funny, doesn’t mean it’s not deadly serious.

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