In the first of several retrospective features based on those albums that, for one reason or another, were either lambasted or ignored upon their release, we take a look at the album that punted a young man from Sheffield (briefly) into the upper eschalons of the pop charts. Well, that's technically incorrect; the album flopped big time, but the single that preceded it, the gloriously quirky punk sing-along 'Jilted John', became a top five hit in 1978.
When Graham Fellows created the character of
Jilted John - a lovelorn teenager, upset at his girlfriend Julie's betrayal by
going off with a moron called Gordon, little could he have predicted the spark
of success that it would generate, and give him the springboard to create the
cult comedy character John Shuttleworth some eight years later.
'Jilted John' was picked up by EMI International after it had seen a fairly limited 7" release on the Rabid label. Broadcasting legend John Peel was the catalyst for this, after he predicted that, had it been picked up by a larger company, the song could be a real hit. It seems his advice paid off. Produced by Joy Division producer Martin Hannett, the single (on the surface) shouldn't have been such a big hit. Ramshackle musicianship and singing ensured that the song wouldn't win any prizes for technical ability, and had it been released at any other time, it may have been easy to dismiss it as a slightly lightweight novelty single. But with it being the late 70s and the age of punk - when three guys with no musical ability could record a song and get praise for simply having a go.
When the album 'True Love Stories' dropped, it was, rather than a collection of other novelty songs, a concept album following the love life of John himself. From 'Going Steady', where John is in love with a girl called Sharon, and boasts of going out 'for two months' - obviously somewhat of a record in John's world! We're introduced to John's mate on 'Baz's Party', who holds a party at his house but ends the night with his head down the toilet. The timing of the songs on this album do seem a little all over the place, as in the song, the object of John's affections is Belinda Clough, who he instigates a game of Postman's Knock in a bid to get off with.
We seem to take a step back in time for the next couple of songs, the brief knockabout ode to childhood of 'I Know I'll Never', and the natural progression into 'I Was a Pre-Pubescent', which focuses on the horrors of adolescence and the bodily changes that go with it. 'Fancy Mice', perhaps the only song ever written about mouse breeding, is the longest track on the album, and is as much about providing an antidote to the rigours of puberty as it is about taking responsibility. It contains some wonderfully nostalgic references, not only to breeding mice (how many teenagers nowadays would take this up as a hobby?) and the fact that John goes to the Citizen's Advice Bureau for information on the National Mouse Club - today's teen would probably just Google it!
There is some slight disappointment that the album version of the 'Jilted John' track is more keyboard-oriented than the rough-and-ready punk infused single. This was allegedly down to producer Hannett having a change of heart over the sound the record should have, and making the necessary alterations - arguably to the detriment of the album. We shift time again for the song 'Birthday Kiss', where we learn that John's girlfriend Sharon's surname is Smedley, and that she's caught getting off with Colin Cooper at the youth disco. This is denied by Sharon, who says she was only giving him the titular birthday kiss, but detective John notes that it's not even his birthday. This song represents another break-up or loss in John's life, which is a theme explored more than once (losing Julie to Gordon 'the moron', his father dying when he was young, his pet mouse Jane passing away and to an extent the loss of his childhood). Things get no better when John tells us of his paper round on 'The Paperboy Song', from which it's clear to tell he really loves. From Keith, who runs the newsagents, to Gary, the boy who helps out at the shop ('but he just pissed about' laments John). When John's libido gets the better of him and he takes to writing a rude note to a girl he sees getting ready for school each morning through her bedroom window, it's implied that he loses his job as a result. This song is key in establishing the link to one's youth - John sees the paper round as a symbol of childhood, and in having it taken away from him, it's another loss he has to suffer on his journey through life.
During a brief spoken introduction to the song, we learn that John has approached Keith about getting his job back, but Keith blames the amount of people cancelling their papers for the fact he can't offer John a round. We're introduced to a new character in John's life, the apparently shy Karen, who now works at the shop. On 'True Love', John and Karen fall for each other over the sweet counter (quite a lovely image when you think about it) and John finally has the chance to get over Sharon Smedley - the cheating cow - by taking Karen to the disco. While this track could get quite cheesy, it's full of the socially awkward teen cliches we're all familiar with; blushing, not knowing what to say, the whole 'asking someone out' experience.
We get more of an insight into John and Karen's burgeoning relationship and how they spend their time; ‘In The Bus Shelter' shows us that, short of money, they make small talk about watching the world go by and sharing bags of crisps. While it's not the basis of the whirlwind romance of the century, they seem content and things finally start to be looking up for John. However, this is dashed in 'Karen's Letter', where, in true kitchen sink drama style, Karen runs away to London, citing the fact she cannot live with her parents anymore, leaving John alone and confused. It seems the catalyst for this could have been a proposal of marriage from John, as Karen intimates that 'if you still want to get engaged/the answer's yes'.
An angry John resolves to travel to London to find her, which is a mini-story explored in the final two songs: 'Shirley' opens with a kindly car driver picking up John while he is hitch-hiking to the nation's capital, but who turns out to be a 'Mrs. Robinson' style bunny boiler, who it is implied tries to seduce John, and becomes violent when he spurns her advances. It's a cracking song with a real Martha & The Muffins new-wave vibe, making it stand apart from the other songs on the LP. The finale, 'Goodbye Karen', sees John in London for two days, trying (and failing) to find his girlfriend. Despite some plot holes with the song - Karen's parents don't seem to realise she has run away, John's own parents seem unconcerned at him going missing - it's a wistful comment on whether you are really in love with someone and whether a relationship is worth the hassle. It seems in this instance, it's not, and John admits defeat in his mission, returning home alone, but with the sense that things will hopefully get better.
Viewed in this way, the album seems quite depressing, but it's anything but. Infused with a wry humour, as well as some fantastic rhyming couplets, this album is a true unsung classic. Despite only selling around 15,000 copies when first released, it was reissued on CD a few years back, which means there's not really an excuse for not owning it. Which I wholeheartedly recommend you do. And for fans of John Shuttleworth, there's the enduring dilemma of whether Shuttleworth is in fact an older version of Jilted John - they're both from Sheffield, both have a love of music (even if Shuttleworth's odes to the mundanities of modern life are a world away from the teenage angst of Jilted John). In much the same way that Patrick McGoohan's character John Drake in the 60s drama 'Danger Man' was the same as that in the later sci-fi weirdathon 'The Prisoner', it's an intriguing idea.
It is an album that, 35 years after it was released, still stands the test of time today, and while we're in an era a million miles away from the buying public that lapped up the concept albums of the 70s, it definitely deserves your attention in 2013.