Melody Maker 29 November 1997
When you sick so sad you cry and in crying cry a whole leopard from your eye...
By Simon Price
It's a voice we recognise. It's the voice of authority. But the usual Stentorian certainty has been usurped by by an unfamiliar new tone: Frightened, troubled, battered and buffeted by doubt.
There's a robotic whir a computer bleep, then an android voice cuts in offering the simple diagnostic sad mammal. The first voice continues: ...If you angry so mad ye tongue bursts and mouth juice run gall bladder bitter...When you sick so sad you place your face in the puddle of a layby and wait for lorry to splash it... And when you are inside the infinite misery jumper, pulling it over and over your head, with no hope of escape because it's replicating at the waistband and you never get out. Then ee welcome... then ee arth welcome in Blue Jam.
It's the voice of Chris Morris the pin striped anchor man behind Brass eye The Day Today and On the Hour. It's as if David Dimbleby has done a Colonel Kurtz and gone native 100km up river, pencils in nostrils and boxer shorts on head. Staring at the speaker caught between disbelief and mild supresed terror, my first thought is we are hearing what one of Morris' myriad alter ego's Ted Maul would describe as: "The twisted brainwrong of a one-off man-mental." Has Chris Morris finally actually gone mad?
It's a possibility he accepts with calm equanimity.
"I'd be the last person to give you a valid answer. All I can say is, it's nothing new to me."
To the rest of us this is something new.
"Brass Eye", the awesomely sacriligeous fearlessly iconoclastic mock-ummentary series he made for Channel Four earlier this year, caused headlines before, during and after its six week run., and it wasn't difficult to see why. In one episode a scientist claimed that the disabled weren't really disabled at all but simply lazy. Another began with explicit footage of Morris shafting a woman from behind. In another a Kilroy-style debate show host drew a distinction between people suffering from "Good AIDS" (haemophiliacs, blood transplant patients) and "Bad AIDS" (homosexuals, drug users) and asked improper, perverted questions to a teenage girl who had been sexually abused ("if you fall over in the snow, do you make a couple of bumps?")
Most spectacularly he subverted our implicit trust in "experts" by fooling a host of celebrities and politicians to denounce a made up drug called Cake and campaigned on behalf of Carla, an East German elephant with her head jammed up her anus ("She's got eyes... but she hasn't got any ears") And these were just the bits that got shown. Among excerpts considered too much for British audiences were: A children's board game based on the Holocaust, an American pro guns advert featuring Christ shooting Judas, and famously, a musical based on the life of Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe (the axing of which provoked Morris into inserting a subliminal split-second frame into the broadcast version reading Grade is a cunt.
All great stuff, which like The Day Today and On The Hour before it, instilled in the viewer a healthy inability to take TV news seriously. But we're almost used to it now. "Blue Jam" though is... something else.
"It feels like the latest time of day."
Chris Morris stops, and ponders what he's just said.
"What is the latest time of day? It certainly isn't midnight, which is unfortunately when the show is going out. It's ... 3am, only more so. It's lying disheveled in a heap, in this chilled landscape. It's a show for when you've reached a stage of evolution where stumbling is more advanced than walking. It's somewhere between groove aesthesia and aneasthesia."
Hearing Blue Jam for the first time feels like eavesdropping on the last assembly of the Heaven's Gate cult before their mass suicide. Burroughism surrealist monolgues fade in and out of dubby, trippy beatscapes. It's like a Boris Vian novel directed by Louis Brunuel with a score by Tricky.
"It's in tune with the metabolic rate you reach when you've been awake for three days," Morris continues. "Or if you've been in a flotation tank for a year. Thoughts float in and out of your mind unbidden. It's like being handed a Filofax with a section marked 'Ideas' and it's already filled in for you."
Is this a drug thing? One imagines that Blue Jam would make a lot more sense when your Shatner's Bassoon is f-u-k-d and b-o-m-b-d on yellow bentines.
"I think of it more as a disease thing. Imagine it's Sunday, 3 or 4am. You've got a mild disease, and you're slightly curdled. Maybe influenza. It's a flu groove."
This is how Chris Morris talks. Completely off the cuff, he'll say something as bizarre, brilliant and enlightening as anything in one of his shows and, never pausing for applause or a self-satisfied chuckle, move swiftly on to the next one.
Blue Jam is much less in-yr-face than Brass Eye ... "Yeah, it's more Thom Yorke than Keith Prodigy. It's more sliding into the room and grinning down it's jumper. It's more monged and warmly grim." ...and not so much of a slap around the cheeks. "Maybe a slow motion slap. Imagine a slap lasting a week."
Satire is dead. It was assassinated in 1997 by three separate, JFK-style bullets.
The first flew from Chris Morris' own handgun (Brass Eye was so perfect and extreme that no one, not even he, can take the genre any further). The second the election of a Labour government (even though that nice Mr Blair and his mafia are ripe material, most comedians are too thankful to be rid of the Tories to turn on them just yet). The third happened on the last day of August.
The compulsory mourning which saturated the media following the death of Diana, Princess Of Wales, completely failed to acknowledge a sizeable proportion of the population - anyone I've ever met, for a start - who didn't give a flying one . While the grateful peasents rang radio stations and requested Elton John records, we rang each other, sharing all the latest, sickest jokes, disseminating the punchlines ("a Wallbanger with six chasers") as far and wide as possible.
We were the Chris Morris nation. We were the people who only reluctantly voted Labour on May 1 because Chris Morris declined to stand for Prime Minister. Faced with the spectacle of stage managed grief, we couldn't help wondering ... what d'you reckon he's thinking?
"Part of me was glad to be out of it, to be able to take a distanced look at it all. But another part of me thought "Fucking hell, it'd be interesting to be involved in radio on a day like this'."
Satire died with Diana, because if any one subject is untouchable, taboo, beyond parody, then all satire is compromised.
"Well, I wouldn't rule it out from appearing in Blue Jam. Maybe the French police will announce the baby they've chosen to reconstruct Diana's entire life. I would have to argue, though, that if satire is dead, then it was never alive. Satire is essentially a conservative form. As soon as you stand up in front of an audience, you're immediately relying on the consent of more than half the audience which neuters the whole exercise. If you look at Private Eye, which is the most prominent satirical organ in this country, it's little more than a more intelligent and witty version of saying 'whatever next ...'."
The sorry state of this art is typified by Victor Lewis-Smith's hopelessly dated TV Offal.
"That smacked of an unevolved Eighties thing. I mean, how many Spitting Image-type songs about people like David Attenborough do we want to hear? And slagging off student TV - maybe that's something that bothered him when he was a student, but if he still feels that way when he's 40, you've got to wonder."
Is that why you've abandoned satire this time?
"No, I just think of it as one more thing in the cupboard. Instead of pointing out the ridiculousness of public life, I'm doing it to the way people are privately. There's one sketch with this couple where the guy has amputated both his legs just to make his girlfriends life a misery. They're trapped in a mutual loathing, but it works, they've reached a symbiosis where they both get something from it. I'd rather be doing that than pointing out how hopelessly cosmetic the Labour Party is. Anyway, I've never really thought of what I do as satire. I think of it as opening my mouth before I can shut it. What I do is rooted in ... intense stupidity."
It's faintly incredible, considering his bridges-burning. no-prisoners-taking, multiple-sacking career, that Morris has found any network, radio or tv, willing to give him airtime. It's even more improbable that it should be Radio 1. Last time he worked for them he was suspended for announcing the death Michael Heseltine on air.
When you sick so sad you cry and in crying cry a whole leopard from your eye...
"Well, I wasn't planning the Heseltine storm last time. What happened with me and Radio 1 was, they saw this grenade with a pin hanging off a Christmas tree, they picked it, and they were suprised to end up in hospital. I think Radio 1 are using Blue Jam as a weapon in the ratings war between Zoe Ball and Chris Evans. They're hoping people will fall asleep with Blue Jam and wake up with their breakfast show."
The show merits a place on Radio 1 on purely musical grounds. Morris is a man of tastes: sketches and vignettes weave and spiral around such mellow, nocturnal sounds as Brigitte Bardot & Serge Gainsbourg's "Bonnie and Clyde", the Alessi Brothers' "Oh Laurie", Barry Adamson, Eels, Stereolab, The Aloof, "anything with character, somewhere between ambient and groove". It also features some of the most horrible new age incidental music this side of a Discovery Channel documentary on wildlife (a new genre: dolphoncore?).
"It may well have been from the Discovery Channel, actually. The radio hardware has enabled me to muck about with about 20 different things at once on a computer, as opposed to being stuck in a room drowning in endless spools of tape."
Morris' keen awareness of musical mores will not be news to anyone familiar with the merciless parodies of Pulp (renamed Blouse), Ice-T ('Fur-Q'), Pixies and Nirvana. Any plans for a record?
"The idea is completely ... dissable. On the show, if they pop out of the blue, that's good, but when you put them all together, it doesn't work. Also, when the Bonzo Dog Doo Daa Band did musical parodies, they'd cover three or four musical styles in the space of one song, which actually did merit repeated listening. But to release a straight forward Eighties style musical satire ..."
You've heard The Shirehorses, then.
"Aah, fucking hell! Man!"
His reluctance is thoroughly in character. He recently turned down an offer to write a Brass Eye Christmas book. A less "Look at me! I'm funny!" comedian you'd be hard pressed to find. While his former Day Today colleagues hurtle towards mainstream Children In Need respectability, Morris is happier existing in relative anonymity (and besides making his activities as an undercover media terrorist that much easier).
"I guess they all seem to be involved in a race to be on BBC1. I don't know what that means ..."
You'll never see Chris Morris smirking along side Angus Deyton on Have I Got News For You or advertising Pot Noodles. Which presumably explains the way Blue Jam has just sneaked out with zero hype, zero publicity, zero profile.
Is it intended to become a word of mouth thing? A cult?
"Well ... Beck used to a called 'cult', but if you owned Mellow Gold you never felt that you were part of a cult. It's hardly comparable to dressing up as Gary Numan or putting a sack on your head."
Sack or no sack, how are we meant to listened to Blue Jam?
"Just ... be there in this pissed world."