Realm of the Coyne

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One incident which the multi-millionaire Police star Andy Summers for some reason omits to mention in his 2007 memoir One Train Later is the night Kevin Coyne shamed him into buying me a pint.

It was May 2, 1975, and Kevin’s band had just come off stage at Cardiff University, where they topped the bill over a so-so band called Starry Eyed and Laughing. Summers was on lead guitar, Archie Legget on bass, Pete Woolf on drums and the legendary Zoot Money on keyboards. Kevin was utterly brilliant, stomping and roaring through a set which electrified the student audience and concluded with a selection of rock standards such as Let’s Have A Party and Shake, Rattle and Roll. He had agreed through his record company to meet me afterwards in the bar.

I sat at Kevin’s table keen to talk and he noticed I did not have a drink. Summers was at the bar (no freebies, the band had to buy their own drinks) and Kevin shouted to him: ‘Get the lad a pint!’ The future guitar legend was clearly reluctant but the boss insisted, adding: ‘Don’t be so bloody mean!’ Summers grudgingly handed over another 15p and thus I was vouchsafed a pint of foaming bitter by the man who two years later joined Sting and Stewart Copeland to form what would become the biggest rock band in the world. He didn’t actually say ‘I hope it chokes you’ but his expression said as much.

I had been keen to meet Kevin after hearing his early albums with the blues group Siren, followed by solo efforts including Case History and Marjory Razorblade which drew heavily on his experience as a social therapist and psychiatric nurse at Whittingham Hospital, near Preston. In 1975 I was a 19-year-old reporter for an evening newspaper in the North West, and Whittingham provided enough of a local angle to justify an interview, which I fixed up to coincide with a visit to friends in Cardiff.

Kevin and I talked late into the night about his traumatic time at the hospital and about his musical career. He was a delightful man and had no hesitation about buying me another beer. I might even have bought him one, too.

Born in Derby in 1944, Kevin Coyne attended art schools in the city until 1965. From then until 1968 he worked at Whittingham, leaving to join the Soho Project in London as a drugs counsellor. Always a keen blues singer, he joined with guitarist Dave Clague and they formed Siren, signed up by John Peel’s Dandelion label in 1969. They released two albums, Siren and Strange Locomotion, which were largely workmanlike efforts although they had their moments. There are claims that Coyne was approached by Elektra Records, which released Siren’s LPs in the US, to replace the late Jim Morrison in the Doors. He allegedly turned them down because he could not stand leather trousers.

Case History, the first solo album, is an odd kettle of fish. Mainly acoustic guitar and vocals, it features some disturbing lyrics about psychiatric disintegration, typified by Mad Boy and the somewhat pretentious final track Sand All Yellow.

There is, however, the lovely Need Somebody, a poignant song about loneliness and alienation – a theme to which he would return throughout his career. And there is Message To The People, a rant straight from the heart. When I told Kevin this was one of my favourite tracks, he was amazed. ‘It only took me half an hour from start to finish,’ he said.

By 1973 Dandelion Records had collapsed and Kevin was the second artist after Mike Oldfield to be signed by the nascent Virgin label. His first release for Richard Branson’s outfit was the double LP, Marjory Razorblade. You might not like the initial, title track, but you won’t forget it in a hurry. Sung a capella, and sounding as if Kevin has a heavy cold, Marjory is a tribute to an irascible older woman – ‘She’s mine, though she’s over fifty-nine.’

Marlene follows, Virgin’s first single, and then comes the lovely Talking To No One, again on the theme of solitude – ‘Talking to no one is strange. Talking to someone is stranger’. Further highlights are Everybody Says and House On The Hill, a stark portrait of Whittingham Hospital, which opened in the 19th century as the Fourth Lancashire County Asylum ‘for pauper lunatics’ and became the largest psychiatric hospital in the country. It closed in 1995, and its Wikipedia entry makes for some disturbing reading.

Well I’m going to the house upon the hill
The place where they give you pills
The rooms are always chilled
They’re never cosy

Where they give you three suits a year
And at Christmas time a bottle of beer
And at Easter time the mayor comes round
He’s always smiling

Where the red bus stands by the great big gate
The red bus that’s always late
You know why it’s always late
Cause it’s always empty

The following year came the album Blame It On The Night, including more sad refrains such as the title track and the wistful Sign Of The Times – nothing to do with the Prince of Paisley Park.

Matching Head And Feet, released in 1975, reflected the rockier, more aggressive side of Kevin’s music showcased so ably in his Cardiff performance. Saviour and Turpentine are both angry blasts, while the closing cod-reggae One Fine Day reveals his growing cynicism.

His on-stage ebullience is captured on the live 1977 album In Living Black And White, which includes a version of Dylan’s Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. He introduces it as ‘featuring Andy Summer (sic), farting about’.

Sadly, things began to fall apart musically and personally for Kevin, who developed severe alcohol problems. When we spoke he had described his despair at having been unable to help the patients at Whittingham and his frustration seemed to grow and grow. In 1979 he took part in an ill-advised project with the batty German chanteuse Dagmar Krause, formerly of the Virgin group Slapp Happy. Babble, an LP and theatrical production, explored the relationship between a male and a female (imagine that now!) Kevin suggested publicly that it might have been based on the Moors Murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. It didn’t go down well.

After suffering a nervous breakdown, Kevin relocated to Germany where he was feted for his paintings and writing. He made several more recordings which, I must admit, have passed me by. He died of pulmonary fibrosis in Nuremberg in 2004, aged 60.

During our 1975 interview Kevin told me there was a C90 cassette of his early recordings. He gave me his family address in Clapham, South London, and said if I wrote to him he would send me a copy. It never arrived but I am sure this was merely an oversight. I suspect this tape was the basis of the album Nobody Dies In Dreamland, released eight years after his death.

I cannot say that Kevin Coyne’s music will change your life, although it changed my own – I even named my dog after him. But I wanted to put down in words that he was one of the loveliest people I have ever met. RIP, old chap.

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