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Glasgow Walking Tours Blog: Return to Y’Hup Tribute to Ivor Cutler at Celtic Connections

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There is nobody quite – or even remotely – like Ivor Cutler, the great Glaswegian sage, storyteller and songwriter who starred as lugubrious bus conductor Buster Bloodvessel in The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour movie, recorded more John Peel sessions than any other act (apart from The Fall) and could often be seen on late night television shows performing his odd odes on his trusty harmonium.

Cutler died in 2006 but remains a true cult concern and now a quartet of Glasgow musicians – Matt Brennan of Citizen Bravo, Raymond MacDonald of Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, Malcolm Benzie of Withered Hand and Andy Monaghan of Frightened Rabbit– are launching a tribute album, Return to Y’Hup, with a high profile concert at Celtic Connections.

a group of people standing in a garden

Photograph: Marisa Privitera

Return to Y’Hup covers songs from his 1959 debut EP Ivor Cutler of Y’Hup, set on an island of his quirky making, alongside a selection of other Cutler songs and spoken word tracks performed by keen patrons such as Karine Polwart, James Yorkston, Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, Kris Drever, Emma Pollock, Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite and longtime Cutler advocate Duglas T Stewart of the BMX Bandits – all of whom will take part in the concert.

The album also features special guest appearances from Cutler’s partner Phyllis King and his peer and collaborator Robert Wyatt.

a girl in a swimming pool

We spoke to Matt, Malcolm and Raymond ahead of the launch gig on Cutler-related matters. Here are their thoughts…

On the unique appeal of Ivor Cutler

Malcolm: He seems to manage to have a sense of fun in his work but also this depth to it. There’s a surreal quality where he seems to occupy the same space as Spike Milligan. He draws you into this surreal world and his voice is so hypnotic, I was hooked from there.

Raymond: The songs have been around for me as long as The Beatles have been around for me. I remember sharing Gruts with my friends at school and then the little phrases become catchphrases for your friends: ‘what are we having for lunch? Is it gruts?’ Sometimes the jokes were juvenile but there’s an eternal quality. I’ve never grown tired of him. I remember playing Ludo to my kids and their outrageous laughter.

Matt: He is a law unto himself. So it’s easy to get stuck in and become a superfan when there’s someone so singular.

On their favourite Ivor Cutler tracks

Raymond: The Shapely Balloon – it’s a story that’s been in my consciousness for so long and that punchline ‘why don’t you just sit there and shut up’ seems like such a Scottish solution to a problem.

Malcolm: Some of the storytelling ones that are creepy or unsettling like Eggmeat or Gruts where you think ‘what exactly is going on?’ But things like Women of the World which feels like a much more celebratory, it’s almost at the other end of the spectrum of his work to Eggmeat. There’s a really good range.

Matt: Beautiful Cosmos is the first track of his I heard and it remains a go-to. It’s a firm favourite among Cutler fans.

On discovering the island of Y’Hup

Matt: I really don’t think it’s an accident that when Cutler first came to public life, he claims not to be from Scotland or from England but from this island of Y’Hup that he invented. You couldn’t affirm your own outsider status more.

Even though lots of people love Ivor Cutler and have paid homage to him, the island doesn’t get mentioned that often. So it’s kind of mysterious even for people who love him but those first two years of his discography is core to his identity. It seemed like a nice idea to think about this world he had created. We thought ‘wouldn’t it be great to populate this island with inhabitants?’ And to have a lot of different voices who might be Cutler’s cultural descendants in a way.

On populating Y’Hup

Raymond: We approached people and what amazed us what virtually everybody said yes with enthusiasm.

Matt: As soon as you mention the name Ivor Cutler to an artist in Scotland, suddenly it forms this glue-like bond where there’s so much love for him that people just want to be involved and it assumes its own gravitational pull very quickly.

Malcolm: It was a real coup to get Phyllis King and Robert Wyatt. Matt managed to track down Robert Wyatt and wrote a letter to him…

Matt: …really not expecting that we would ever get a reply. Robert Wyatt is another one of these singular artists. Sometimes you hear a song and you just imagine a certain voice – two days later we had an email from Robert Wyatt saying ‘I’m in’. Things like that seem to happen quite frequently for this project.

It was Robert Wyatt who gave me Phyllis’s address so that was another letter in the post to Wiltshire, a shot in the dark really. Got a letter in the post back from her saying she was up for it.

I got an email from her after she had listened to the record for the first time and it was a very affirming, heartwarming response. One thing that we were worried about is that some of our versions of these Ivor Cutler tunes are noisy, and Cutler was famous for being a member of the Noise Abatement Society and sticking his fingers in his ears when the audience clapped too loud. Very reassuringly she said that in her view she thinks that Ivor would have enjoyed it very much “despite his sensitive ears” so that was a relief to know.

On arranging the songs

Malcolm: There was a nice freedom there because Ivor Cutler has already done the definitive version of these songs so we didn’t necessarily feel like we needed to stick too closely to them. That gave us a bit of freedom to say ‘let’s have a go at putting a Latin rhythm or turn up the fuzz on the guitar’, have a bit of playtime which helped to keep that spirit of fun.

Matt: When Cutler gets written about, it’s often as an outsider, a humourist, a novelty or surrealist but he is underrated as a melodist. He writes amazing melodies and when you’re trying to do a cover of a song when you have a strong melody you are over halfway there. It’s like a solid tree trunk from which the branches can grow in different directions.

On using Cutler’s harmonium on the album and at the concert

Raymond: We knew that [Celtic Connections artistic director] Donald Shaw had Ivor’s harmonium. Donald told us this fantastic story of the night Ivor abandoned this particular harmonium at the Pavilion Theatre because it wasn’t behaving the way he wanted it to behave. He almost beat it up the way John Cleese beats up his car in Fawlty Towers and just left it. Donald said he started renting it off an instrument rental place and then he bought it. It was in the storeroom at the Concert Hall.

On launching the album at Celtic Connections

Raymond: We really didn’t think the project would develop the way it has, we had quite modest expectations to record an album and collaborate and do the best we could and have some fun, but it’s grown arms and legs in a very Cutleresque way.

Return to Y’Hup: The World of Ivor Cutler is at the Royal Concert Hall on 29 Jan. The album of the same name is released by Chemikal Underground on 24 Jan

You might enjoy our previous blog about Ivor Cutler here