Peter Skellern, the Bury-born musician, songwriter and producer who died yesterday at the age of 69, is probably still best known for his 1972 hit single, ‘You’re A Lady’, which first brought him to prominence. But it would be wrong to dismiss him as a light-touch, middle-of-the-road troubadour: throughout his long and varied recording and performance career, Skellern was consistently diverting, always weighing-in at far more than the sum of his parts, of which there were many.
From Lancashire in the North-West of England, he trained as a classical musician and, as a young graduate from the Guildhall, originally served as a church organist in Bolton. And there are subtle traces of those credentials throughout his work: religion and faith became far more prominent themes during his later career. But much of his earlier material – his first five albums, especially – is characterised by a deft lyrical touch and a droll sense of the local and the ordinary and he was a consummate storyteller, both on record and off. His live solo shows were punctuated by tall yarns and short, sharp references, loaded colloquialisms and a wizard’s touch at the piano. To this end, in 1978 he took the fabled brassband from the works at Grimethorpe Colliery in Yorkshire and into the studio and, ultimately, onto the soundstage at Top Of The Pops to accompany him perform ‘Love Is The Sweetest Thing’. Three years previously, that same band had featured on Roy Harper’s epic ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’.
Like Gilbert O’Sullivan, it would be wrong to dismiss Peter Skellern as either a curiosity or a novelty and, parsing his considerable and diverse back catalogue, his influence extends as far as Morrissey’s lyrical dash and The Divine Comedy’s broader canvas. Indeed while Neil Hannon has frequently cited his long-standing affection for Jeff Lynne, his material actually owes far more to some of Skellern’s sweet, often self-deprecating parlour songs like ‘My Lonely Room’, ‘Where Do We Go To From Here’ and ‘Still Magic’ than it does to the more formidable, power-house sound of The Electric Light Orchestra.
Peter’s ambition always stretched far and wide: he had the musical range and raw ability of Jimmy Webb, particularly in terms of composition and arrangement, and the lyrical touches of Alan Bennett. And so a typical live show or compilation album might lurch between Astaire-period, brushed-drum jazz to layered popular ballads to pithy, kitchen-sink smart-alecry like ‘Our Jackie’s Getting Married’, ‘Every Home Should Have One’ and ‘My Ideal Home’. Crisp and wry tunes from the drawing room that, beneath their bonnets, were knitted around sturdy melody lines and wide-ranging, ambitious production.
I saw this for myself at close quarters during two exceptional live shows that Skellern played in Cork city during the mid-1980s, the first of which I recorded on a portable Walkman and played to within an inch of its life for years afterwards. From my hard-backed chair deep within the city’s merchant and toff classes in one of the ballrooms in The Metropole Hotel in 1984, I watched on in awe as he gave a performance masterclass to an audience of four hundred or so during a typical set that went on for an eternity and that covered a vast range of genres and styles, pickled throughout with an easy, well-worn patter. One of his favourite yarns, the punchlines to which invariably rebounded on himself, involved the the English singer, Peter Sarstedt, best known for ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely’ [who himself passed away last month] and with whom Skellern was consistently confused.
He was back in Cork again the following year, this time in the infinitely less velveteen surroundings of Connolly Hall, but this time to a far larger and clearly more diverse audience. That show, which is easily among the best and most memorable I’ve ever seen, will forever be recalled for the fact that it took place despite a serious power outage in the middle of the city that plunged the venue and the streets around it into complete darkness. The show was delayed for an hour before Skellern eventually took to the stage carrying a lamp and proceeded to rip the night up, playing without amplification for the guts of ninety minutes, during which he projected his voice magnificently all over the vast hall.
As usual, he skirted around some of his own easy listening standards, adding a touch of jazz or a light classical piece when the mood, and the evening, took him. From ‘The Continental’ to ‘Love Is’ through ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’, a couple of rag-time instrumentals and, stunningly, a magnificent reading of Debussy’s ‘The Girl With The Flaxen Hair’. And, with every note and flourish, reminded the partisan audience exactly how, for years, he’d enjoyed the unfailing devotion of Terry Wogan’s BBC radio audiences.
As well as his own body of work, Skellern was a frequent collaborator too, most notably with his friend Richard Stilgoe, with whom he wrote and released several records and toured regularly. In 1984 he recorded and released an album as a member of Oasis, a five-piece that also featured the Welsh singer, Mary Hopkin and cellist Julian Lloyd-Webber among it’s number. That eponymously titled record, which can be filed under ‘easy listening’, saw the light of day a full ten years before ‘Definitely Maybe’ and features mostly Skellern compositions, the magnificent ‘If This Be The Last Time’ foremost among them and which, in its own way and to these ears, is just as magical as ‘Live Forever’.
I’ve long adored Skellern’s work in all of it’s guises and, in particular, his regal command of orchestration and the scale and ambition of his arrangements, the beauty of which are often lost behind a lazily-formed portrayal of him as mere fodder for the slacks, slip-over and high-waisted trouser set. As someone reared on the raw wonder of the likes of ‘And So It Passes’, ‘You’re A Lady’, ‘Still Magic’ and ‘My Lonely Room’, I defy anyone to tell me that he isn’t a far greater and unlikely influence than many of us might have imagined ? Himself almost certainly included.