Podcast Episode 4 - David Quantick on 'Family Life'
Comedian and writer David Quantick (Veep, The Thick of It, Brass Eye) talks movingly about how hearing the song 'Family Life' by the Scottish band The Blue Nile at a concert in Glasgow lead to him recognising what was missing from his own life. David's story is wonderfully honest, as well as being characteristically hilarious, and features some wonderful digressions on the nature of misunderstood song lyrics. Here's a transcript from the show:
I can't hear you.
No, I just wanted to say that. I like the zen thing of saying it before you've asked anybody to do anything. So I'm going to do it again, but I want you to not saying anything this time.
I can't hear you.
Brilliant, thank you very much.
When I do things, it's interesting, because I used to come on and say, 'My name is David Quantick', and I'd do that Simpsons thing, 'you may know me from... The Thick of It',
and people go, 'yeah, okay...',
'Oh I like that! But it's not him...'
And then I started saying 'you may know me from Coach Trip, I was the voice of Coach Trip for two series. Which I was. "Fourteen days with Seven Couples, but if they don't like you, they can vote you off".
I also... this is my only fact of interest - I also came fifth on Celebrity Come Dine With Me. Out of five. I'm just going to waste your time and tell a horrible story. I was in a bar, and somebody says "So, what was it like being on that Celebrity Come Dine With Me?" and I vaguely recognised the person who asked me, and someone said "What do you mean you were on Come Dine With Me?"
And I am going to swear, and it's horrible.
And I said, "Oh, it was great, it was really weird. I was on with Mica Paris, she was nice... Ben de Lisi, fashion designer, didn't like him... Helen Lederer, she was very funny... and Ulrika Jonsson, she was a cunt"
And the bloke who'd asked me the question said, "She's my sister-in-law".
And I said, "That's where I recognise you from".
But when she was ringing my doorbell, she said 'Open up Quantick, you fat bastard', so I feel I owed her.
Which doesn't bring me to the topic of the day.
It's always been a dream of mine to appear at Wilton's Music Hall. If I might use some popular culture, in the 1980s there was a comic strip in 2000 AD magazine called Zenith, and one of the characters in it was a brilliant character, he was a dubious character, he was half-hippie superhero from the 60s who'd turned and become a kind, he'd become a member of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet, he was a hippie Heseltine, a Michael Heseltine superhero, and there was a moment, which has always become a private simile for something, which I'm going to share with you, which is that, in a scene in it, a Richard Branson-like supervillain is launching missiles at London, and the Heseltine/Hippy superhero realises that he's the only person who can stop these missiles. And in a brilliant frame, there's a man in a Saville Row suit, with Michael Heseltine hair, sitting cross-legged in a yoga position, above the clouds, and he realises there's these missiles... and he says, 'I'm going to have to catch them'. And this is my 'catching-some-missiles-while-dressed-as-Michael-Heseltine-in-space' moment. Because I am on stage at a great music hall, and I am going to read out, in a while, the lyrics to a song. And thank God it's not one I wrote. At least I'm reading out some lyrics by someone who's good at this sort of thing.
Fifth, remember, I came fifth, beaten by Ulrika Jonsson. High point of my career, I live in Hastings and was walking to the station. A woman leaned out of a passing car and shouted 'Come Dine With Me!'. To this day, I don't know if it was an invitation, or if she just drove around Britain, going, 'okay, we've got Roland Rivron in the bag, let's go and see Quantick, he lives in Hastings. This'll just be a drive-by, nothing special...'
I've just remembered why I came here. I'm going to talk about a song - obviously. Maybe not that apparently after the warm-up bit. But yeah, this is the story.
When I was asked to do this, I instantly named this song. And it's quite weird, because this isn't the song that changed my life. This isn't The Sex Pistols, or The Buzzcocks, or David Bowie, or The Beatles, or any of those bands. This is a song by a band that I like, and it's an obscure song by them, but I literally just came out with the title of this song, and so I decided, for my piece, to have a look at why I picked this song. And it goes like this.
At some point in the early 21st Century, I went with my then-wife - I've been married twice, so my first wife - to Glasgow to see The Blue Nile. The Blue Nile are a brilliant group, they're quiet, they're moody, their lyrics are obscure and mostly about cars and lighting. There should be a magazine called Cars & Lighting. 'Do you like Cars? Do you like lighting? Then you'll love The Blue Nile'. Cars & Lighting Magazine.
But in all seriousness, The Blue Nile are a moody, wonderful, beautiful band. I'd come across them at various points in my life - I went to a party in the 80s in Scotland, and I met them without knowing it. And I said to them, "What do you do for a living?" and they said "We're music journalists". Cheeky fuckers.
My ex-wife, my first wife, they used to send her postcards, so we had a slightly strange connection. And The Blue Nile hardly ever played live. And we went to see them, in Glasgow, do a one off show, and I wasn't that familiar with their work. I knew a couple of their albums, but I kind of - like a lot of people - stopped after their second one. It sort of fades out...
And this was a song from their third album. And it's a piano ballad, as people say. And it's a sad-sounding song, it's called Family Life. And, I was listening to this song... All their songs are moody - it mentions cars, as we'll discover later, it mentions light, as we'll discover later. But it's a beautiful song. It's quite opaque. It seems to move around a lot. I wasn't really getting the lyrics, the lyrics weren't really sinking in. And there's an interesting thing - I wanted to talk about this; the history of the misunderstood song. You may remember that in the 80s and 90s, lots of people on the what we called the 'right wing' of American Politics - we know call it the Centre... Satire! See, didn't just come fifth on Come Dine With Me. Have written for Veep, The Thick of It, shows like that - I know what I'm talking about. I don't really.
The right wing, the American political right wing, adopted the Bruce Springsteen song 'Born In The USA'. And you may remember at the time, that Mr. Springsteen got quite irate about this because, well, he wears denim, he's left-wing. He sings about working in a factory - which is a bit like me singing about working in a factory, in that I never have.
But that's a digression. Bruce Springsteen pointed out quite rightly that if you read the lyrics of 'Born In The USA', it's a song about the decline of America, it's a song protesting the death of the American dream. It's what we would call a left-wing socialist song. If Billy Bragg had written it, it would be very pointed and very much clear, that it's a left wing song - I'm born in the USA, I've got a bad deal. The right wingers didn't hear this - what they heard was the thumping synth chorus, pounding 80s drums and that 'fist-in-the-air' thing that Bruce Springsteen was doing. Essentially if you heard that record without lyrics it's going 'Right Wing! Right Wing! Money! Penis! Gold! Right Wing! Cars are great! I have a gun!'. Bruce Springsteen was a genius in this sense - or at least his producers were - because the actual lyric is a moany old piece of stuff about being poor, like most of his songs - apart from the one about the motorbike. But, 'Born in the USA' is a sad heartfelt Woody-Guthrie-style lyric - imagine if someone had taken a really sad Billy Bragg song, like 'Between The Wars', and set it to the backing track of 'You Spin Me Right Round, Like A Record' by Dead or Alive. Because, let's also face this, 'Born In The USA' is also a great gay disco song - but that's neither here nor there... But I'm not actually digressing. 'Born In The USA' is a classic example of a song that is very easy to misinterpret, and over the years, many songs have been misinterpreted, because the mood of the song has nothing to do with the lyric. I can't think of any examples right now - I should have researched this. But famously The Beatles were very sloppy in their lyrics - they would talk about guns, and death, and karmic trips, upsetting all kinds of psychopaths and drug addicts, and creating horrible situations, leading to the Manson murders, indirectly - even though the song 'Helter Skelter' is about a slide. When Charles Manson heard it, he didn't hear 'I'm on a slide'. He heard, 'let's kill lots of people'. So it's an indication that there's a long history of misinterpreting song lyrics.
And I misinterpreted 'Family Life'... and I'm not really sure how to get to this bit. I've brought the lyrics with me, on my phone in a very modern way... I'll do a bit of set-up. I was married. I got married in my forties, my wife was in her forties, my first wife. We obviously didn't have children - that doesn't happen very often - and I was quite happy with that. I enjoyed my trendy, London life being on 'Celebrity Come Dine With Me' - did I mention that? Writing for TV shows, going out to trendy clubs, and generally having a kind of mid-life crisis, except for being married. And, yet, when I heard this song, it did have an effect on me. Whether it was an indirect or a direct effect, it had a long-reaching effect on me. And that effect - I'm talking about the ambiguous lyric, the misunderstood lyric - and what I heard in this song are the last three lines, which are fairly easy to remember because they're short.
I'll read the lyric now, so you'll hear what the song is actually about. But when I read the last four lines, and when you hear the song, you will hear what I just heard, and when you hear the music, you'll hear the impact of it. Of course, if you know the song already, I'm really just wasting your time - you should have just gone 'Yeah, I know this, it's just a Bossa Nova song about skunks'.
So, Family Life, The Blue Nile:
"Starlight, do you know me?
Please don't look at me now,
I'm falling apart.
Silver on the window
Like the bike I once had,
At home in the yard.
Jesus, love, let me down,
And I know where you are.
It might lead somewhere.
Gather me in snowfall,
And the cars going by.
The north and the south.
Flowers on the table,
And the coffee gets cold,
Like the milk in my mouth.
Sailing on no honeymoon,
Just separate chairs, in separate rooms.
Jesus, please, make us happy sometimes.
No more shout
No more fight
Sorry, I've got slightly moved. It's obviously my reading...
"Tomorrow will be Christmas,
We'll be singing old songs,
And light up the tree.
God and all the mercy,
And say all your prayers
For little old me.
Jesus, you wipe the tears from her face,
And the sound of his voice,
I go to sleep and I pray,
For my kids, for my wife,
Well. Now you can see why I was embarrassed about reading this on stage. But yeah - I'm watching this song, spotlight on Paul Buchanan, the singer, piano, and he sings those last few words... And I just suddenly thought - not listening to all those bits about domestic abuse, and cars, and lighting - I just suddenly thought, that sounds great. 'My kids, my wife, Family Life.'
It's not for this reason that I got divorced. I'm not the kind of person who goes to a gig and goes, 'yeah, screw the marriage'... No my marriage ended for the various reasons that marriages do. I met someone else, who was younger, and we got married - amazingly it is possible.
What? I genuinely don't get that.
But yes, so I got married again. And we have two children, we have a three year-old and a one-year old. And it's interesting, because the thought of that, the opening up of that, was like a key in my heart - it just opened it, and let in this idea of family life.
So, I'm just really hoping I don't hear any other influential songs, like... every time I hear a DJ saying 'And now, The Four Tops with Going Loco in Acapulco', I have to leave the room.
And on that note, I believe we're going to hear the absolutely beautiful Blue Nile song, Family Life..."