Stranger than Fiction

I write a lot here about how effed-up and miserable Britain was in the 1970s but there were also times when reality took on the lurid, couldn’t-make-it-up quality of a cheap paperback thriller — one written by someone on drugs.

Take the story of “Lucky” Lord Lucan: the dashing, flamboyant aristocrat (apparently once considered for the role of James Bond) whose wife ran into a London pub one night in 1974 covered in blood and screaming “Help me, help me, help me! He’s in the house! He’s murdered my nanny!” Back at their house the bludgeoned body of their children’s nanny was found tied up in a mailbag in the basement but Lucan was gone, and two days later his abandoned car was discovered with bloodstains on the seats and a piece of lead pipe like the one used in the murder.

In the intervening days Lucan mailed a letter to a relative explaining his side of the story and saying he intended to “lie doggo for a bit” which turns out to have been a typically-British understatement because Lucan vanished off the face of the earth and was never seen again. Over the years Lucan became something of a tabloid Moby Dick with newspapers breathlessly following any hint of a sighting of the fugitive, phantom peer all over the world no matter how unlikely. 40 years later he still sends British tabloids into a tizzy.

The Lucan story was sensational and strange enough but in the 1970s it shared headline space with several other bizarro scandals. Like the one involving Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal Party who was accused of hiring a hit-man to kill his former gay lover Norman Scott. Adding extra eccentric tabloid spice to the story was the fact that Thorpe’s pet-name for Scott was “Bunny” and the hit-man only managed to shoot his dog. Scott’s other claim to fame was inadvertently coining the term pillow-biter which became derogatory slang for a gay man that was much used at my school.

Then there was the case of John Stonehouse, the Labour MP who faked his own suicide — Reggie Perrin style, leaving his clothes on a Florida beach — and a few months later was discovered to be very much alive and hiding out in Australia with his mistress. When police found him they initially thought they’d discovered Lord Lucan who apparently had a large scar on his right leg, so for proper identification they asked Stonehouse to take his trousers down before they arrested him. Years later it was revealed that Stonehouse — a Government minister — had also been a Communist spy.

It’s no wonder the Monty Python team called it quits in 1974, their satire couldn’t keep up with reality. In this context I think of Maggie Thatcher as Graham Champman’s uptight colonel who would walk on in the middle of a sketch and tell everyone to stop because things were getting “too silly.”

Download: Lord Lucan Is Missing – Black Box Recorder (mp3)

And I didn’t even mention Joyce McKinney.


Sleeve Talk

I assume most people know that the sleeve of London Calling is a rip off, pastiche of homage to Elvis Presley’s first album. You might even know that the cover’s iconic photo of Paul Simenon was taken by NME photographer Pennie Smith (whose photos of the band were collected in a terrific book that will set you back a few bob these days). But unless you’re a Brit of a certain age you might not have heard of Ray Lowry, the man who actually designed the sleeve.

Lowry was a cartoonist who regularly contributed to the NME during the 70s and 80s, including the surreal weekly strip Not Only Rock and Roll. He had a sharp eye for the foibles and posturing of music fans and rock stars and whenever they got too self-important or pretentious — which they often did in the NME in those days — you could always rely on the Lowry cartoon at the back of the paper to bring things back to earth.

He became mates with The Clash after meeting them at a gig, and the band invited him on the road with them to be what Joe Strummer called “official war artist” of their 1979 tour of the US which led to the commission to design the cover of their next album. Ray had drawn cartoons for underground papers like Oz in the 1960s so he was from another generation than these young punks, but being a lover of what he called “holy rock and roll thunder” he was thrilled by the music’s primitive energy and probably bonded with The Clash over a shared passion for 1950s rock n’ roll (and its hairstyles), Lefty politics, and a belief in “authenticity”.

Judging by these early roughs Lowry had the Elvis-inspired typography before London Calling had a cover image or even a name, it also looks like it was going to be called Made In England at one point. The final sleeve is fairly plain and basic but sometimes effective design is just a matter of picking the right picture, even if it’s out of focus because Pennie Smith was backing away from a pissed-off, guitar-swinging Simeonon when she snapped it — and I’m sure The Clash loved the iconoclasm of using an old Elvis sleeve as inspiration.

As far as I know it’s the only album cover Lowry ever designed which is crazy when you think how famous the one he did is. Sadly he died in 2008, though the commercial work had mostly dried up he had carried on painting and had an exhibition of his work just before he passed away. But if he wasn’t completely forgotten, he’s certainly not as well known as he should be.

Download: Death or Glory – The Clash (mp3)

Ink is a collection of Lowry’s work that’s out of print now but can be found for sale on the internets without too much bother, happily his illustrated book about that 1979 tour with The Clash is still available.


I love this photo. Siouxsie looks like an Amazon warrior all dressed up for battle which is appropriate given her aggressive “don’t fuck with me” persona on stage. But I often wondered if behind the fetish gear, death’s-head make-up, and wild hair was a nice, quiet girl who liked nothing more than to curl up with a cup of cocoa and a Jane Austen novel.

Download: Painted Bird (workhouse demo) – Siouxsie & The Banshees (mp3)