1. Beef Scarecrow is an album by Gary Le Strange.
2. Originally his fourth, but when the third fell through (see the album notes for
the mini-album Glamoronica for several pages of reasons why), it became the third.
But now the third one sort of semi-exists, it can become the fourth again. Or still
the third if you don't think mini-albums count.
3. Unlike the previous three (or two, or two and a half), this album can in no way
be described as anything approaching "eighties parody" or "New Romantic pastiche".
In fact, it's anything but, its most obvious feature being the complete absence of
anything even remotely related to the 1980s or the New Romantic movement.
4. Instead, we get a genre-busting mash-up of psychedelia, prog, glam rock, folk,
jazz, blues and Britpop, a bizarre and often disturbing cycle of offbeat songs about
rotting scarecrows, evil pipers, violent whelks, genetically re-engineered wolves,
imaginary cartoon swan Gods and bowler hats with bees on, showcasing influences as
diverse as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Roxy Music, Scott Walker, King Crimson, Kate
Bush, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, The Doors, T-Rex and Blur.
5. But why?
6. Well, why not?
7. The main reason why not is that I had, apparently, stumbled upon an everlasting
cash cow in the form of my musically comedic alter ego, the New Romantic superstar
Gary Le Strange, and that to reject the very thing that made him commercially attractive
would be career suicide. Surely no one would be that stupid?
8. But if you've read the album notes for the mini-album Glamoronica, you'll know
that wasn't the case. After three years and several rather unfortunate financial
events, it was becoming apparent that my act was costing me more than I earned. And,
once the initial wave of interest had died down and the job offers started falling
away, it looked like the party was over. Spending several months unable to finish
a satisfactory set of lyrics for my latest set of songs only reinforced the idea
that I should pack up Gary's plastic trousers and call it a day.
9. But I had one last thing I wanted to try. Something I'd been itching to do ever
since I thought of him. I knew the 80s revival fad wasn't going to last forever.
I knew I could only write so many songs about broken robots and lipstick-clad pop
warriors before the whole thing just seemed like a pale rehash of itself. And I thought,
wouldn't it be great to take that same character and do something else with him?
To change his image completely, write songs in a completely different style, just
like real pop stars do. It would be just like coming up with a new character, but
better because I'd be able to keep the bits I liked and evolve a character as I went
along instead of having to start all over again. Wow, character development for comedy
characters! Could it possibly work?
10. The result was a creative explosion to a degree I'd never experienced before.
Every aspect of my act got a complete overhaul, as I spewed forth a non-stop torrent
of stupid ideas, unfiltered by reason. Instead of imposing a predetermined theme
and structure on it from the start, I decided to loosen up and just let it happen,
see what came out of it. And what came out of it was Beef Scarecrow.
11. I knew it would be disappointing to some. Most especially to fans of a particular
type of electronic music which isn't represented here. One might be forgiven in fact
for thinking I'd abandoned electronic music altogether in favour of more traditional
rock instrumentation, and on the one hand this is true. This is much more a rock
album than a pop album, and it does feature the sound of real guitars, real basses
and real drums.
12. But in reality, this album is completely electronic. The only organically played
instrument, apart from the voice, is a harmonica (which is just used as a texture
for a few seconds in Dawn of the Maggots). The rest is all synthesisers and samples.
Since I can't actually play any instruments in real life (including the harmonica,
which will be strikingly obvious if you find it), the whole thing is built from the
ground up, note by note, beat by beat, on a digital audio workstation called Cubase,
which, at that time, I'd only been using for a year. While my previous work as Gary
Le Strange had stuck quite rigidly to the same sonic template, these new songs required
a much richer, more eclectic sonic palette. So it's probably no surprise that it
took about nine months of solid, weekend-and-evening-destroying work to finish it.
13. To list every single piece of software I used might take forever, but the main
ones were, in no particular order:
· Spectrasonics' Atmosphere (for the synths)
· Spectrasonics' Trilogy (for the bass)
· a wonderful (but now sadly obsolete) rhythm guitar program by Steinberg called
· an electric guitar sample library by Vienna Instruments called Overdrive (enabled
by Steinberg's HALion sampler)
· a German sound effects library called Studio Box
· East West's Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra (Silver Edition, the cheapest)
· and the drums, which are all carefully cut-up and remixed audio loops played on
a then-revolutionary, state-of-the-art percussion program by Spectrasonics called
14. With a new sound, I needed a new look. Out went the make-up, frilly shirts and
plastic trousers. In came a pinstripe suit, bought from a tailor on Regent Street,
and a pair of thick-rimmed designer specs (fake copies off the internet). There was
something about it which covered all the bases, reminding me simultaneously of Patrick
Macnee in The Avengers, Max Normal in Judge Dredd, Blur in the publicity photos for
The Great Escape, David Tennant's (then brand new) interpretation of The Doctor from
Doctor Who (who, it has to be said, sounded uncommonly like Gary Le Strange) and,
most importantly, Robert Fripp in the 1980s version of King Crimson - perched on
a stool smiling in a suit and glasses, never had a rock guitarist looked so anti-rock.
And after three years cavorting around in make-up and fetish gear, nothing said "bizarre
psychedelic outsider" like a pinstripe business suit and glasses.
15. And bizarre psychedelic outsiders who can't see properly are what it's all about.
Not that I planned it, but unlike most of the songs on my previous albums, these
songs aren't particularly about Gary Le Strange. Each one is in fact a snapshot or
portrait of someone else - sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third
- each one weirder than the last: the Kidney Piper, who summons the local children
to work in his mine by playing cool sounds on his meat pipe; the Midnight Bastard,
who clumps around your flat making chicken noises in an orthopaedic shoe; or Rodney
Normal, who combs his teeth clean, fries a cup of tea and drives to work on a flag.
These are all misfits in a world of nonsense, illogical idiots who don't fit into
either this world or the warped world they're supposed to inhabit.
16. You might ask then: is this really Gary Le Strange? If he doesn't look or sound
like him and he doesn't sing about himself, how can you say it's the same guy? And
I suppose the answer to that is, it depends on who you think Gary Le Strange really
is. If you think he's a two-dimensional comedy character who sounds a bit like a
cross between Gary Numan and David Sylvian and sings silly songs about broken robots
and sentient toasters, then it probably isn't. But if you think he's the pop star
alter ego of the comic character actor and offbeat comedy songwriter Waen Shepherd,
then it definitely is.
17. Either way, the live show - and after all, this album was only supposed to be
a promotional accompaniment to the live show - was totally Gary Le Strange. But having
found my first two shows too linear (the first was a character monologue detailing
his personal history and the second was a philosophical stand-up show exploring his
feelings about the modern world), I was determined to make this one more dynamic.
So instead of constructing it as a straightforward argument going from A to B, I
wondered what show Gary might actually like to inflict on his audience. And it struck
me he would try to provide a total artistic experience - not just music and philosophy
but also poetry, painting, creative writing, mime - whatever he put his mind to.
So I wrote a bad political poem from the viewpoint of an angry cow, painted a self-portrait
for the first time since I was eight years old and wrote a desperately terrible,
thinly autobiographical children's story called Gary Potter and the Swan of Flame,
all of which made it into the live show.
18. But that wasn't enough. I wanted to mess with the whole structure of what a Gary
Le Strange show was supposed to be. I'd already done everything I was supposed to
do, several years in a row, and last time it had led to a show I found too safe for
comfort. Now I wanted to do everything I wasn't supposed to do. Little alienation
techniques I'd learned along the years, like dashing in through the side entrance
at the top of the show apologizing for being late, rather than bounding onto the
stage with a booming fanfare. Spending five minutes introducing and explaining the
show before even singing a note. I even allowed the character to calmly boast about
how his new album was "the greatest music ever made" and stop the show halfway through
to have his lunch.
19. But still that wasn't enough. As the show took shape, and I realised this version
of Gary Le Strange was a fully-fledged psychedelic nutcase, I knew I had to include
a piece of music with extraordinary ambitions. A mini-musical perhaps, like Keith
West's Excerpt from a Teenage Opera, maybe a pocket symphony like The Beach Boys'
Good Vibrations. But since most of the songs I wrote these days turned out to be
little mini-musicals and pocket symphonies, I needed something even bigger and weirder:
a haphazard collection of bizarre childlike passages and interludes perhaps, like
Brian Wilson's Smile; a frightening collision of harrowing emotions, like the later
work of Scott Walker; maybe a concept suite of linked ideas like Kate Bush's work
on Hounds of Love and Aerial; or maybe just a huge, epic barrage of random statements
and sound effects like The Beatles' Revolution Nine. Would I dare? Could I do it?
And, more to the point, would anyone have the patience to listen to it if I did?
20. At first, it was a story. Originally, I had a song called Meat Jesus, about a
man who saw the face of God in a sausage and carried it round forever afterwards
as a keepsake. Then I listened to a song called The Scarecrow on Pink Floyd's first
album and was reminded I'd once written alternate lyrics to it at the age of 15 about
a naughty scarecrow who sets fire to a village and ends up being thrown in the sea
by bent coppers. After which I realised that scarecrows look like the crucified Jesus
and that Scarecrow Messiah might make a wonderfully pretentious album title. After
Googling it and realising it was already taken, it wasn't much of a leap to slap
it together with Meat Jesus and find Beef Scarecrow. Then, after listening to a self-titled
album by a pair called McDonald & Giles, the second side of which is a 20-minute
epic about an inventor from Walthamstow who tries to invent a flying machine (note
to reader: at the time, I too lived in Walthamstow), I thought about Icarus flying
to the sun, and realised that, if his wings were made of raw meat instead of wax,
pretty soon, instead of melting, they would cook. So what if I wrote a story about
a scarecrow made of raw meat, who is so sick of standing in this awful field in this
horrible village full of idiots that he decides to fly to the sun, and in the process
cooks to death? A tragedy for him, yes, but what a beautiful feast for all the villagers
21. And what a startling image of metamorphosis. I hate to critically analyse my
own work, but no one else is going to do it, so here goes. Part of the theory behind
the randomness was that eventually, this tree full of monkeys would produce the works
of Shakespeare. Or rather, the more seemingly random rubbish I wrote, the more underlying
truth it would display and the more meaningful it would become. And sure enough,
in many ways the album and the show began to write themselves, as repeated imagery
of day and night cycles, death and rebirth, the corruption of innocence, seasonal
changes and metamorphosis of all different kinds began to unfold before me and show
me what the album was all about.
22. Working titles included Myxomatoxic, Pork Pyramid, Gorgon Jesus, Lord of the
Floating Brains, Corridors of Beef, Lt Col Atherton's Fascinating Kidney Emporium,
The 13 Gimmicks of Doctor Normolicus and my personal favourite (which I very nearly
went with until my wife sensibly vetoed it), Swirling Purple Tripe. But in the end,
the scarecrow made of raw meat, stuck in a field like a sacrificial Christ, knowing
he will go off if he stays where he is but afraid to fly away in case he cooks and
turns into a meal, summed up my own predicament perfectly. Needing to change but
terrified of what other people might do to me if I tried. Or rather, a certain knowledge
that once I jumped out of the frying pan I was in, there was only one other place
I could end up.
23. Naturally, in this spirit of randomness, the ideas didn't stay still for long.
Eventually, if there's a deadline, you have to get a grip and impose a structure
on what you've got. The scarecrow thing naturally shrank into a much more compact
acoustic folk tune (regretfully losing the meat-cooking image in the process) and
it was another idea - about a little boy hallucinating the end of the world after
an acid trip and transforming into an all-powerful God - that formed the basis of
the album's central song suite.
24. But the serious tone remained. The show, at first a disparate bunch of performance
pieces, coalesced into an illustration of a man going through a nervous breakdown,
deluded into thinking he was ascending to the next plane of greatness when in fact
he was descending into madness and destitution. The album, at first a haphazard bunch
of random outbursts, was now an unbroken cycle of songs that all ran into each other
through several days and nights, tracing the steps of a deluded innocent through
various levels of corruption and right back to deluded innocence again.
25. Naturally, once I realised how bloody serious it actually all was, it worried
me half to death. All my instincts told me that, when comedians start flirting with
being serious, the only reasonable expectation is public humiliation. But the wheels
were already in motion - I had the venue booked, the Fringe programme paid for, all
the music written. Not to mention that to have dropped out of two cherished projects
in a row would have absolutely devastated me and ensured I never finished an artistic
project of any kind ever again. I needed to finish this for the sake of my sanity
and future happiness. And, when I travelled up to Edinburgh in August 2006 for what
would turn out to be my last ever full-length Gary Le Strange show, I genuinely thought
I had not only the best show and the best set of songs, but the best creative project
I had ever been involved in.
26. Naturally, it was a total disaster. Not that I expected everyone to like it -
Gary Le Strange had always been a bit Marmite and I knew the new approach would alienate
some - but this was in another league. Scathing reviews, walk-outs every day, vitriolic
message boards and general confusion over why the Hell I would take such an apparently
well-loved comedy character and destroy him like this. It wasn't so much the music
people objected to - though the Maggots suite came in for a bit of stick from the
people it was designed to annoy - but the show itself. One of the main complaints
was that it was more a piece of theatre than a comedy show, though I could never
see why it wasn't allowed to be both. Another controversy centred around Gary eating
a tin of cat food - a moment designed as a quick visual hint that he'd fallen on
seriously hard times - which I thought would elicit sympathy but usually provoked
disgust. Maybe, as one critic put it, they actually thought I was eating real cat
food rather than a cleverly disguised prop? Whatever the truth, after a year's work
on what was clearly the most sophisticated show I'd done yet, it was deeply demoralizing
and seriously not fun.
27. The worst thing, for me - in an unfortunate turn of events that can only have
happened by invoking the wrath of the God of Random Chance - was the revelation that
I wasn't the first man to think up a scarecrow made of beef. I'd barely been in Edinburgh
five minutes before people started accusing me of having nicked it from Robert Popper's
2003 book The Timewaster Letters. Not having read it, I had no idea what they were
on about, but fortunately I already knew Robert, having worked with him several years
previously on an animation for Channel 4. So I asked him about this scarecrow thing
and it turned out yes, there was indeed an incidental detail in the book about a
scarecrow made of beef. Naturally he was very gracious about it and said he knew
that pilfering other people's ideas was the last thing I'd do. But that didn't stop
me getting a particularly mean-spirited review from a well-known comedy website virtually
accusing me of serial plagiarism. I wouldn't have minded but I'd Googled it and everything.
Shame on me for not reading every book in the world too.
28. Then again, some people utterly adored it. One woman came so many times we had
to start letting her in for free. Other comedians were all monumentally supportive
and for every disgruntled walk-out there was someone coming up to me to rave about
it. And the fact that some people hated it so much looked, to some, like a triumph.
When one critic moaned that "if you want to hear someone sing the word 'maggot' over
30 times in repetition, then see this show. If not, see anything else," Josie Long
(who won the if.com Newcomer Award that year) told me that made it sound like the
best show on the Fringe. The best moment came when my wife Katy forced me to look
at an internet forum (now sadly deleted) on which people were giving me either 5-star
or 0-star ratings. The ones who hated it were having a great time calling it the
worst drivel they'd ever seen in their lives, while the ones who loved it were revelling
in having to explain to the others in great detail what it was about, all the tiny
details they hadn't spotted in the show which might have made a difference. Beautifully
reassuring to see it hadn't all been in vain and that I wasn't just confusing people
unnecessarily. But the best post of all was from one disbelieving punter who simply
said, "Waen - stop giving yourself so many five star reviews!"
29. Gary didn't die straight away. I started writing new songs almost immediately
(for an album tentatively called Gary Normal) but I slowly realised they were even
more esoteric than the last lot and, when the Edinburgh figures came in and we found
ourselves saddled with many more thousands of pounds of debt, we knew it would be
an expensive waste of time to carry on. I made a few videos of my earlier songs with
Stewart Lee for an ITV show called Comedy Cuts, which almost inspired a massive relaunch
for the character. But by then it was 2007, five years after I'd started, and it
felt too big a step backwards. I tried to compromise by forcing him to go through
a Goth phase and wrote a couple of songs for a potential album called Darkest Hits,
but my heart wasn't in it. At the end of 2007, nearly six years after I'd first stepped
out on stage and sang Sex Dummy at Barcode, I finally realised that Gary Le Strange
had run his course and formally declared him dead.
30. Besides, there were other things I needed to do: new stage acts, new musical
explorations, to work again with other people instead of locked away in a room on
my own. As my stage work died down, I had the great fortune to be offered much more
work in TV and radio, slowly amassing a far longer CV under my own name, not just
as a comic actor but also as a songwriter and composer. None of these things would
have been possible without Gary Le Strange, nor would they have happened if I'd carried
on being him. When the CDs eventually ran out, I didn't bother re-releasing them,
thinking no one was particularly interested any more and, over time, people forgot
about Gary. Finally, I was able to slink back into the shadows, where no one would
have a go at me for eating cat food and singing about maggots.
31. Looking back, I wasn't sure how I'd feel about Beef Scarecrow. After a while,
it became difficult to separate the album from the show and that depressing month
on the Fringe. Hindsight is a bastard and often tricks you into focusing on what
could have been, instead of what actually was. I came to see his last album as the
black sheep of the family, the evil cousin no one talks about, an expensive mistake
which had destroyed my reputation and murdered Gary Le Strange. I rarely ever wanted
to listen to it and, if I tried, it would invariably make me feel uncomfortable and
consumed with regret.
32. More recently, I was surprised to find that some people think it's his best.
It turns out there are people out there who still listen to it frequently, and others
who don't give a monkey's about Gary's earlier, New Romantic material but really
do like this one. Secret Wolf and Michael the Swan are regularly quoted back to me
as all-time favourites, and the Maggots suite - so derided and hated by some - became
an annual staple at the Latitude Festival for a while, each year ever more people
joining me on stage for the climactic chorus. Performing it with a 30-piece orchestra
(conducted by the brilliant Martin White) at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South
Bank is still one of the greatest stage experiences of my life.
33. Going back to the album after seven years, I felt I needed to correct a few things.
The original mixes had been rushed to meet a summer deadline and the final masters
were a little too muddy for my taste. I also realised that the voice was mixed a
little too low on some songs and the words might be lost if you didn't have a lyric
sheet to hand. So I went back to the master files and remastered (well, technically,
remixed) all of the tracks, both to improve the clarity of the vocal line and to
brighten the overall sound, without losing any of the original warmth. What emerged
for me is an album that I'm now intensely proud of, a multi-faceted, multi-layered
labyrinth which sounds like nothing else, rewards repeated listening and makes me
marvel at how I found the time (and the balls) to attempt it. Now the only regrets
I have are that I didn't realise this sooner, and that I didn't immediately follow
it up with an even weirder one.
34. Whether or not it's really Gary Le Strange is up to you. But I've reconciled
myself wiith it now. And to my mind, it's the best thing he ever did.
35. Still, he could have done with a happier ending though, don't you think?
259. THE END
260. TO BE CONTINUED...?