Sometimes you just have to roll with the selections of the random jukebox, and on this golden hour it picked something about a boy… Badly Drawn Boy, who celebrates his 50th birthday today. What a coincidence.
Damon Gough a.k.a the behatted BDB was born precisely 14 weeks after me in Dunstable, the hilly Bedfordshire town that was also scene of my first concert (Dead Or Alive, apropos of Youthquake), and 15 miles from Bletchley where I grew up. Though just as we were settling into Home Counties suburbia the Boy’s family decided to shift him northwards to the urban sprawl of Bolton, Lancashire.
Vaguely hobbit-like in appearance, Gough turned to himself into a wooly-hatted one man band, learning to write music and lyrics, sing, and play the guitar and keyboard at his live shows. To his credit, the folky brand of pop that Gough weaved together were wonderful patchwork quilts of emotion topped off with that alluringly gentle Mancunian accent that reminded me in no small part of Bernard Sumner shorn of New Order’s electronics. Have you ever heard Sumner talk? It’s like being caressed by a velvet glove on a bed of satin sheets so fine.
Here’s Damon finding something to talk about in one of his earliest interviews. It’s fun, if a bit Will-o’-the-lisp.
After a series of well-received independent EPs in the late 1990s, the first Badly Drawn Boy album was released on 26 June 2000. The Hour Of Bewilderbeast was a charming, almost magical debut. Magic within magic, even, especially as the date just happened to be my 31st birthday.
It was the Monday immediately following the first Glastonbury of the 21st century, the one with the largest ever audience, the driest of weathers and, alas, my only Glastonbury to date. But when that weekend’s bill was a three day bender of David Bowie, Pet Shop Boys and the Boy himself I thanked the heavens and serendipitous timing.
The perfect Friday night warm up before Moby ripped open The Other Stage, Gough had busked his way into the instantly recognisable red and blue big top of the New Bands Tent to a slightly bemused crowd.
Despite a slightly shambolic performance, Gough’s warm and fuzzy melodies were hard to ignore. Part dream folk, part earthy bedroom pop, there was something about the slightly detached sad bastard quality of the songs that reminded me of other endearingly eeyorish types like Wilco or The Flaming Lips but with wider hips.
Anyway, he made enough of an impact to be asked back just two days later when a slot became available on the Other Stage a while before the great Dame Bowie closed out the festival on the Pyramid to an estimated audience of 200,000, gatecrashers most definitely included.
Like so many great debuts, when The Hour Of Bewilderbeast was released – almost twenty years ago now – it seemed to somehow both capture the zeitgeist and convey an epochal timeless quality that was beyond classification.
A splendidly succinct tour through the gentler side of British songwriting, is there any more gorgeous start to a record than the luminous horn-drenched heartbreaker The Shining? Its slow, maudlin strings gently leading to a stirring melody played on the trumpet before a flicker of guitar builds to Damon’s delicate vocal delivery.
Even the smattering of cute quarter-song vignettes like Fall In A River and This Song were immersive interludes that only added to the experience. A truly world-beating effort then.
Moreover, it displayed tons of promise and a wide range of international influences. The final classical-based minute of the bouncy Disillusion even tipped its knitted hat to the Swedish fab four ABBA; not their early song of the same name but the piano intro of 1979’s I Have A Dream. Not so much of a surprise if you recall the song had just been taken back to No.1 by a collective wankstain known as Westlife, making the song the last chart-topper of the 20th Century and the first of the new millennium.
Bewilderbeast was acclaimed as a laconic lo-fi masterpiece that had reviewers falling over superlatives and coining new musical genres such as “folk-hop” and “future folk”. It went platinum and won 2000’s Mercury Music Prize, beating a strong shortlist including Coldplay, Leftfield, and Gough’s friends Doves.
Receiving the winner’s £20,000 cheque from the ubiquitous Jools Holland, he threw it on the floor and quipped, “I always assumed I was never going to win because good things don’t happen to good people normally…”
By the time of his sophomore set, a soundtrack to 2002’s Hugh Grant film About A Boy, the folk element was being quietly submerged but there was still plenty to love. Produced by Tom Rothrock, the record is a rather sprawling 16 tracks but there’s a liberal dusting of experimental soundscapes. Silent Sigh and River-Sea-Ocean came across like The Waterboys or even Prefab Sprout; pretty, more polished, abbreviated analogues to Bewilderbeast’s breezy Once Around the Block.
The album’s strongest track, Something To Talk About, was an engaging clap-along number that was more akin to Elliot Smith (producer Rothrock was a collaborator of Smith’s), and compared favourably with Bewilderbeast’s Pissing in the Wind, another mixdisc keeper with a brilliant hook and slightly uncomfortable lyrics. Not to mention that rather fabulous video with Joan Collins mouthing the words.
Champagne for everyone, dahling!
The narrative around Badly Drawn Boy’s output is that after the staggering one-two punch of Bewilderbeast and About A Boy, something went awry. The next three records, Have You Fed The Fish?, One Plus One Is One, and Born In The UK, had some mildly enjoyable moments (the former’s You Were Right – its Kinks-esque melody juxtaposing its lyrical theme of missed opportunity and lost love – giving BDB his first top ten single) but were hardly the artist’s finest work, and probably not the most accurate representation of his creative development either.
Consequently, they met with incremental indifference and his last three albums failed to chart. After a break of three years, Gough returned with a pair of well-received if esoteric records in Is There Nothing We Could Do?, a soundtrack to an ITV movie, and It’s What I’m Thinking: Part One, for which no Part Two ever emerged.
The last new release was a reunion with About A Boy director Chris Weitz for 2012’s Being Flynn soundtrack, a film that disappeared as quickly as it arrived. A shame, if only for the fact that the soundtrack is probably the best work Gough produced since their first cinematic collaboration.
It’s fair to say that the subsequent seven years have been a less than celebratory time for Gough on a personal level; a fallow period prompted by a few on-stage meltdowns and separation from his long-term partner and mother of his children, Clare (who also inspired most of Bewilderbeast). Ladies and gentlemen, Badly Drawn Boy had left the building.
However the story’s not quite over. In 2015, Gough realised that the 15th anniversary of his debut was looming and decided to reintroduce himself to the public by playing it live in its entirety for the first time at a string of gigs including the Barbican in London and Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, to huge critical acclaim. It seemed fitting. Back from the wilderness with Bewilderbeast… but then onwards and upwards.
His music continues to charm with it’s mixture of acerbic wit contrasting with beautiful consonance and this is what Badly Drawn Boy does best. Irresistible, luscious melodies, sometimes veering into completely unexpected avenues, all wrapped up in lyrics that often seem to be in opposition with this musical enchantment – earthy laments, swipes at celebrity culture or even self-deprecation.
There are even rumblings he’s been working on a studio comeback to be issued sometime in 2020. It may turn out to be eccentrically elementary stuff, but with those familiar melodic tendencies and Gough’s enchanting and distinctive voice first principles is hardly a bad thing.
“I do get frustrated with people always banging on about Bewilderbeast,” he told The Observer at the time. “But I understand it too. For most artists their debut is important, and with me that was magnified because it did so well out of nowhere. Well, apart from people like you who knew where I had come from…”
Viva the Dunstable boy, however he’s drawn.