I’m off to Pontins this weekend, to a festival of music that’s been curated by Stewart Lee. I am very excited. Because, although “Stewart Lee” is probably my favourite comedian, the thing that first drew me to him was his taste in music.
Like most people I guess, my first encounter with Stewart Lee was via 90s TV series Fist of Fun. At the time, I’d just become a dad, and for the first time in ages spent my evenings at home, watching TV. I enjoyed the shows (especially Peter Baynham’s cooking tips), but they always felt a bit studenty, aimed at an audience a few years’ younger than me. And so I developed the impression of Lee as a sort of lightweight trendy yoof entertainer.
At the same time, I belonged to the LMC (London Musicians Collective), an eclectic and radical bunch of musicians who, since the 70s, had been organising and promoting concerts of improvised and experimental music around the capital. (The LMC subsequently launched a temporary radio station to accompany their annual “Resonance” festival of experimental music, a radio station which outlived them and is now their great legacy. My own radio show, Empty Space, was inspired by the early days of Resonance FM, when you could tune in to hear someone push a pram around London for an hour, or two stoned Frank Zappa nuts enthusiastically praise their hero for three hours solid, or a night-long collage of sounds almost but not entirely unlike music.)
Each month, I received the LMC calendar, almost every night marked with some gig or happening in a cellar in Bloomsbury, a pub in Tottenham, or a back room in Deptford. And I’d gone to as many of those crazy happenings as I could manage, seeing many familiar faces both onstage and off. And I don’t know when, but at some point I started noticing on their letterheads and other official communications a list of the LMC’s board of directors, and, in the middle of that list the name “Stewart Lee”.
“What, that quiffy poncy light-entz comedian Stewart Lee? Nah, can’t be the same one. There must be dozens of Stewart Lees out there”.
And yet, every time I saw that name, I wondered whether it was him. Can’t be: I don’t remember seeing that distinctive quiff at any of the gigs I went to.
Many years later, long after I had moved away from London and the LMC had ceased to exist, I realised that it was that Stewart Lee. I first felt sure of this when I saw series one, episode one of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle: the closing sketch featured improvising trombonist Alan Tomlinson, who I’d seen play many times on the London free improv circuit (memorably when he duetted with a passing police car from the upstairs room of a Stoke Newington pub).
(Incidentally, during that first series of Comedy Vehicle I was working for the BBC, building the iPlayer. I was always on the lookout for programmes I could use to “test” the embedded media player; which meant that for a time the BBC were actually paying me to watch episodes of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle!)
Not long after that, I had the pleasure of meeting Ed Baxter (another of the names listed on LMC letterheads) and he told that, yes, of course the Stewart Lee on the LMC board of directors was that Stewart Lee. And that he’s a lovely chap.
Most recently, I attended Stewart Lee’s London performance of the John Cage piece Indeterminacy. On piano was Steve Beresford, another musician I had seen perform dozens of times at LMC gigs in the 90s. I arrived early and sat right in the centre of the front row, and was honoured and a little nervous when Lee leant down from the stage to hand me Cage’s deck of cards, asking me to shuffle them so as to determine the order in which they were performed.
And so, I’m really looking forward to this weekend. I’m looking forward to see “Stewart Lee” perform some of that stand-up comedy that they have. But, most of all, I’m looking forward to reliving a little bit of the atmosphere of those 90s LMC gigs in Bloomsbury Cellars and Stoke Newington function rooms. But relocated to a holiday camp in North Wales.
Here’s Stewart Lee talking about the relationship between improvised music and comedy.
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