The last rock ‘n’ roll rebel and his lost years recording obscene, outrageous and inspired cover versions for Britain’s most infamous publishing house.
“I want every single one of you to pretend you’re the biggest 1960s Rock Star in the world… ‘cos you see… I am.”
Genius is a word tossed about too lightly in music circles… often applied to any worthless loser who’s barely-literate ramblings are mistaken for insight by easily impressed scribes eager to be in on the Next Big Thing, the term has been debased and abused beyond reason. Well, pay attention at the back. We’re about to rediscover the true meaning of the word. Step forward P.J. Proby.
A historical note to set the scene: Proby was a rock ‘n’ roll rebel before the phrase became a meal ticket. His career began in 1963 and more or less ended a year later, when a series of on-stage trouser-splitting incidents saw his progress to becoming the new Elvis instantly halted.
Relocated to Britain, Proby went through a series of sex and violence scandals that included teenage brides and guns, and eventually wound up playing the cabaret circuit, churning out bourbon choked renditions of his past glories to disinterested Northern clubbers before descending back into the bleak life of Bury bedsit emptiness.
According to tradition, Proby should have died, alone and forgotten. But tradition didn’t reckon on Savoy.
More historical notes: Savoy were/are a Manchester based publisher/bookshop who have delighted in outraging the entire nation for years. Savoy were merry pranksters, much in the tradition of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and the K Foundation. Except that with Savoy, hardly anyone seemed to understand the joke… hence their string of obscenity prosecutions and weekly police raids.
And so we come back to Proby. Savoy found him, dragged him into the studio with – if the stories are true – assorted members of Manchester’s finest bands including New Order, and proceeded to produce a series of staggering, unique and almost unbearably brilliant singles which – in the great Savoy tradition – were banned from practically everywhere except their own Manchester shops, where they joined Savoy publications like Lord Horror on James Anderton’s Most Wanted List. Time is a great healer, though Savoy’s work still pushes all sorts of buttons – arguably more now than back in the day. But if we strip away the sensationalism and the outrage, these songs can finally be assessed for what they are. Pure, unadulterated works of Genius.
That word again. Nothing else will do.
To do one cover version well is easy. To do a couple takes more skill. To perform seven, and for each to wipe the floor with every other version of the song… that takes something special. And Proby isn’t just rehashing some obscure tune from the past. Savoy sat him down, gave him a bottle of whiskey and cut him loose on a bunch of classic rock anthems. The results were remarkable to say the least. For instance, we have Proby revamping Anarchy in the UK as a funked up, barely recognisable nine minute epic, the lyrics spoken and molested along the way. Conversely, Prince’s Sign O’The Times is stripped down, sexed up and screwed over to an extent that will take your breath away.
More startling is Proby’s version of The Passenger. Backed by cold synthesiser orchestrations, Proby speaks the lyrics, rambling, cracking up, breaking down and wallowing in despair. Nothing in the world could sound as dark and forbidding as this. If Iggy hears this, he’ll probably admit defeat and retire. Similarly, Bowie’s Heroes is given an epic bleakness that its creator could barely have conceived of.
This is all well and good… but it’s Proby’s rendition of Love Will Tear Us Apart that marks the finest moment of the CD, and who knows, maybe of the history of rock ‘n’ roll as well. We get two versions, topping and tailing the album. The live version is packed with abusive audience asides, casual racism and furious passion, while the studio version rips with power and glory. It’s challenging stuff and not for the easily upset, but the simple fact is that Proby has a voice worth killing to preserve. Every song on the CD sounds as though it is wrenched from his soul. You can feel the pain and the fury and the angst, and Love Will Tear Us Apart is tailor made for the man.
Proby’s work for Savoy – which also includes a chaotic version of Blue Monday, the intense and explicit M97002 Hardcore (which cheekily claimed to feature Madonna dueting with Proby, leading to more tabloid fury than usual) the Irish republican song Bobby Sands and a lurching rendition of God Save the Queen – the national anthem, not the Sex Pistols tune – is the epitome of the punk spirit – a howling mess, with no consession to commercial interests, good taste or musical trends. These songs exist in their own universe and are part exploitation, part inspired madness with precisely zero fucks given all round. As outsider music goes, this is as flawless and delicious as you could hope for. Proby is the true spirit of modern music: in a sane and just world, he’d be belting these numbers out on MTV nightly.
As it is, Proby eventually cleaned up his act and managed to to return to the stage, appearing as both Elvis and Roy Orbison in stage musicals, and recording a much more respectable LP before having one last legal tangle (accused and acquitted of benefit fraud). He announced that his 2019 tour would be his last. His Savoy years do not figure in his live performances and he is apparently ashamed of them now. The fool. They were his glory days, if only he could realise that.
“Eat your heart out Meatloaf!” bellows Proby at the end of Love Will Tear Us Apart. Yeah. And eat your heart out Oasis. In your dreams, you wish you were this rebellious, this anarchic… this bloody marvellous.