Brian Appleton is a rock musicologist and part time lecturer in Media Studies at a college of further education in the Newcastle under Lyme area. He has played solo (Edinburgh fringe in 99 & 01; UK tours in 02, 04, 13) and supported John Shuttleworth (98, 00, and 03) plus Mercury prize favourites Belle and Sebastian (01).
Below are some articles and reviews.
Morrissey fans comment on Brian's
"There's no one here called Graham Fellows," replies the bloke on the ticket desk at the Hen & Chickens theatre in Islington.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah," he continues. "There's only Brian and Richard. But you can go upstairs and wait, if you like."
As Brian is Brian Appleton, Fellows's new comic persona, then that's fine by me. But the confusion has a nice irony. Fellows has been so successful in creating the parallel world of John Shuttleworth, the 55 year-old demon of the Yamaha keyboard, that his own name means next to nothing to most people. So just when he needs to trade on his professional reputation, the theatre goes and mistakes Brian Appleton for a real person. Small wonder there are only 20 people at his first solo outing.
Fellows lopes on stage in a black curlywig, 70s-style beige leatherjacket and eye-catchingly tasteless patterned shirt, trailing a plaster cast round his right leg. The cast is not part of the act. "I collapsed on the tennis court," he explains later, "and my first thought was that the son of the former Green councillor whom I was playing had whacked me round the ankles, 'cos he's a strange little boy. But then I realised I had snapped myAchilles tendon."
Appleton is a a 40-something rock musicologist from Selly Oak, Birmingham, who now teaches at a Midlands university, and the 50-minute show takes the form of a lecture - complete with slide projector - in which we learn how he has played a small - but significant - role in rock history and has received no credit for it. How Rod Stewart nicked the Iyrics to Maggie May from a chance remark he overheard the five-year-old Brian make in Highgate cemetery; how he narrowly failed to become the new lead singer in Genesis when Peter Gabriel quit; how he missed out on joining Culture Club by being rude to the cloakroom attendant at the Blitz; how he was turned down even for the ever-expanding ranks of the Thompson Twins.
In short, Appleton is the classic self-obsessed male who believes that he could - if the gods had been kind - have been a rock'n'roll contender, and the show thrives on an undercurrent of bitterness that it should be some other bastard on stage talking about the one and only Brian. But as with Shuttleworth, the humour is all in the detail and you either get the joke or you don't. Brian has had to give up the harmonica because the nickelplating produces an enzyme reaction in his mouth; there's the percussionist from the Thompson Twins who lost two sets of foster parents; there's Brian's failed attempt at a power drive suicide in a Volkswagen Polo ~ borrowed from his mum - "I'm a bit of a nervous driver."
Sitting in the utility room that doubles up as a dressing-room after the show, Fellows is keen to stress the differences between Shuttleworth and Appleton. "I get all my material for John by trawling the local papers for bizarre facts," he says. "For instance, I saw an advert for someone to cook roast dinners in a hospice that said 'Successful applicant will be police vetted prior to commencing appointment.' That was the sort of tremendously powerful language that John would be attracted to. So I put it in his show. Brian is based on a friend of mine called Chris Phipps, a rock musicologist who has perfected the art of serious, controlled misery. If Brian and John ever wound up in the same room I'm sure they wouldn't get on. John might secretly admire Brian's dress sense, but Brian would dismiss John as a bit of a joke."
Pinning Fellows down is next to impossible. Ask him whether John is based on his father and you'll get an unhelpful "Isn't everyone's dad a bit like that?" Probe further and you'll be brushed off with a gentle smile and an "I bet you wish you'd asked John that question." But you can't help concluding that there are bound to be similarities between Brian and John because they are both expressions of Fellows' alter ego.
Put more simply, Brian and John are both Fellows' nerd within. Their existence gives him the credibility and the legitimacy to indulge his nerdishness to his heart's content, without them he might just look plain sad. The same thing might be said of a lot of comic creations, of course. But where most comedians despise their creations and lampoon them mercilessly from the outside, Fellows adores his."No," he protests, when I challenge him on Brian's vicarious mania for trivia and his unhealthy obsession with 70s prog rock. "I believe what Brian believes. I've always been dead impressed by people who know their rockhistory, because I never knew the difference between BB King and Nat King Cole. Now I know. BB was an influential blues guitarist and Nat was the father of Natalie who enjoyed chart success with Pink Cadillac. And Yes were one of the great bands ! - Whenever I hear the guitar solo on You and I on Yessongs, the hairs stand up on my legs."
He sounds like he's taking the piss. But he isn't. Probably. He's made a career out of being other people - Jilted John and lorry driver Les Charlton are just two of his other incarnations - and he's a past master of evasion. The only way to handle him is to sit back and enjoy the ride. Just listen to him on the joys of the good life at his home in Louth."I like giving my three chickens the leftover food from the kids' packed lunches, and they give me the eggs I put in the kids' lunches. There's a nice cycle there. And I like cycling too. I go for a bike ride on Saturday mornings with some of the local dads. It's put me in touch with my male side again" he claims with a grin.
Brian does not spell the end for John; the BBC has commissioned another Shuttleworth radio series, and he has just signed up to make a BBC2 TV series. But Brian is a new departure and Fellows is understandably nervous about his reception. "With Shuttleworth I had years and years of duff gigs to perfect his character and biography," he says. "I'm better known now and audiences will have a much higher level of expectation. Brian will have to be a much more complete character from the outset."
Which, to be honest, he isn't at the moment. He's a little two dimensional compared with Shuttleworth. What's missing are the personal details and a few more of Fellows's trademark songlets.
"You're right," he says, surprisingly receptive to criticism, before launching into a wealth of material that he didn't use that was far funnier than much of the show. So I can exclusively tell you that Brian lives in a semi-detached house with an aromatherapist who is allergic to the essential oils in the candles, but whom he supports because she is studying for a diploma. They both suffer periodic bouts of ill health and Brian once wrote a song that anticipated the Smiths by 18 months called My Turn to be Poorly. Brian and his partner - I didn't catch her name - are having a difficult time at present, because Brian suspects that she's having a an affair with the lead singer of the band he's producing in his basement studio.
"Brian isn't sure what to do about it all because he hasn't been paid for the the studio time," Fellows confides. "He could just alter the pitch of the singer's voice on the tapes, or he could destroy the studio using top secret ultra-low bass frequencies that he's heard the CBI are working on."
"Don't you mean the CIA?"
"Do I?" he replies, genuinely puzzled.
Sounds like a case of the Shuttleworths to me.
John Crace, The Guardian, 10/8/99.
Brian Appleton,a man in a shockingly bland beige leather jacket, a cringemaking Hawaiian shirt and a bubbleperm reminiscent of Kevin Keegan circa 1977, is reflecting on his history of near misses in the rock business. He recalls as a teenager penning a tragically unheralded, Yes-style prog-rock song after accidentally getting high on Airfix glue: "I'd just finished doing the undercarriage of a Hercules and my bedroom-windows were closed." The result was "Lucy, You've Got the Wrong Wardrobe" heavy with Narnia allusions and interminable guitar-solos.
He goes on to lament how he coulda been a contender as a harmonica-player - but his career was devastatingly cut short when "I found that the nickel plating mingled with my saliva and produced a rather unpleasant enzyme which brought my lips out in a rash".
In the creation of Appleton, this wonderfully tragi-comic spoof "musicologist and part-time media studies lecturer", God is in the details. It's all highly specific references to melodicas and Caramacs because, as Victoria Wood has pointed out, "gypsy creams" are much funnier than "biscuits". This is a lesson that Appleton's alter ego, Graham Fellows, has learnt over 14 years meticulously constructing the character of another terminal showbiz failure, John Shuttleworth. "I love detail," Fellows beams over a pint and a roll-up in the dressing-room after his show, Brian Appleton's History of Rock'n'Roll. The Hawaiian shirt now mercifully Iying crumpled on the floor, he continues that "detail is what makes the world go round. Real people don't talk in generalised terms. They talk in specifics and reveal themselves as they do so. People never say 'l went surfing on holiday and it was nice'. They use specific references like 'this bloke on the beach was hacking me off because he trod on me surf-board which I'd bought from Wilco's on Tuesday afternoon - no, actually it was Tuesday morning, because I'd just called in on Barbara who'd been given the wrong insulin gun by the doctor'." Audiences lap up these details. "If you use details, people can relate the character to their own lives," Fellows reckons. "When I started doing Shuttleworth, people were shocked that silly stories about Curly Wurly wrappers came under the banner of entertainment. They'd say 'surely that's not what gags are made of'. But you can build a character with those little details. With Brian, I'm not interested in big events like Hendrix burning his guitar. I'd rather use little incidents like when The Clash stole a pillow-slip from a hotel."
The thread running through all Fellows's characters - including the splendid one-hit wonder Jilted John, who lamented that Gordon, his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend, was "a moron" - is a sense of underachievement. Their life-stories are all catalogues of what might have been.
Appleton, for instance, reveals that he once contemplated a glamorous rock'n'roll road-crash suicide before realising that he didn't have a car. "I'd have had to borrow me mother's VW Polo," he moans, "and that has quite a good safety record."
"Failure is interesting. You've got something to get your teeth into. Success is boring. I'm drawn to these sad characters because life itself is basically quite sad. People like them because they can pity them and identify with them at the same time. Deep down, everyone enjoys feeling sorry for people like John Shuttleworth and Brian Appleton. Rock'n'roll is full of sad and bitter people who have lost touch with reality. Elton John once complained:'It's too windy today. Can't someone do something about it?'"
When Fellows started out as Shuttleworth in 1985, political comedians were all the rage. "At that time, there weren't any other character comedians around. Club bookers would say 'characters don't go down well here', and they were usually right." Now every other performer seems to be masquerading as a security guard or a Page Three stunna. "People like Steve Coogan, Caroline Aherne and myself have opened it up a bit now and given people more confidence in character comedy," Fellows says. "It's so in fashion because people have realised that straight stand-up is boring. A lot of people think they can do stand-up, but it's not as easy as it looks and there are a lot of not very good ones out there."
A naturally shy man, Fellows has never fancied it himself. "Stand-up is 80 per cent bottle; I couldn't get up as myself and say 'Where are you from?' I'm too embarrassed about myself. It's bad enough being interviewed. It's much easier to perform in character. If a heckler interrupts me as Brian, I can reply:'As John Lennon said, you should be obscene and not heard.'"
But Fellows's characters are rarely heckled. Audiences just see them as cuddly. Like John Major, Fellows' creations hanker after a kinder, gentler Britain. They are to some extent a reaction against rat-a-tat ranters. "I knew Ben Elton at Manchester University, and I remember him being a mild-mannered youth. The next thing I knew, he was on the telly effing and blinding. Maybe I'm prudish, but I don't think swearing on stage works."
Fellows has another BBC2 Shuttleworth series planned for next year, but in the meantime he wants take it easy for a while. But don't worry, he hasn't forgotten about Appleton. Fellows is already working on his next outing in the Keegan coiffure. "Brian's next show will be a dissertation on the link between the orgasm and the prog-rock guitar solo. It'll be called Yes, Yes, Yes."
James Rampton, The Independent, 17/8/99.
Brian Appleton: Let's Look at Sound
Let's get this straight - Brian Appleton is not a rock'n'roll star. He's not cool and his lyrics leave a lot to be desired, but he is an entertainer.
The latest creation of Graham Fellows, Brian is an ageing rocker with a new-age girlfriend more interested in her aromatherapy clients than her partner. His roots (and clothes) are embedded firmly in the 1970s, but he is embracing the modern age - and is digitally recording his first LP. He guided us through his track list and, sparing us none of the detail, delivered a lecture on the wonders of sound technology.
This show, while at times shambling, is ambient comedy at its best - at first frustrating and uncertain, becoming progressively more endearing and vulnerable. As his morose tales of doomed love and thwarted ambition haltingly unfold it becomes difficult to discern where Brian Appleton ends and Graham Fellows begins.
By the end of the show - despite his attempt to kill us all - we had taken him to our hearts. Good luck with that album, Brian.
Matt Brereton Tuesday, 14th August 2001 The Scotsman
Brian Appleton is just the sort of complex, somewhat tragic, and well-observed comic character you might expect from the creator of John Shuttleworth.
And like his predecessor, the joy of Appleton is in the detail, the closely-observed minutae of the supposed life of a frustrated college lecturer from Newcastle-under-Lyme, convinced that the world has robbed him of his rightful place in rock and roll history.
It's another finely-crafted creation, but this isn't necessarily the perfect show for him.
The premise is that here is, indeed, a look at sound. In this mock lecture, you will learn something about acoustics, whether you want to or not, and Appleton demonstrates what reel-to-reel tape decks and digital mixing desks can do.
Appleton is, of course, obsessed by such comparatively ancient technology, and gets a few laughs out from playing with audience soundbites. But it does get in the way of the performance.
For much of the show, Appleton has his head down, talking at a machine rather than directly addressing his audience.
When he comes away from his toys, the comedy becomes much more fulfilling. The songs based around the weakest of puns (there's that Shuttleworth influence again) beautifully capture the spirit of what he's parodying, and the insights into his character's sad home life are both funny and tragic. There are plenty of gems here, but the overall feeling is that the character is still being workshopped to a certain extent. It seems like a work in progress that the show's set-up exists as a way to hone some of the more subtle nuances, rather than the finished deal.
That said, the fact it's funnier than a good many other shows on the fringe certainly says something about the potential this creation has.
Special report: the Edinburgh Festival 2001
Monday August 13, 2001
Rock history has done Brian Appleton a grave disservice. He is responsible for every innovation in popular music, and Phil Collins is chasing him through the courts for his pains. He would like to tell us more, but the whole affair is sub judice. Instead, this Brummie sound engineer and rock god manqué invites us to a practical demonstration of the magic of audio technology.
Like Yamaha home organ maestro John Shuttleworth, Graham Fellows's latest creation mines a rich vein of nerdy obsessiveness and low-horizon provinciality. The Dennis the Menace-wigged Appleton has an encyclopedic command of hit parade history but, as he points out, "too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing".
Appleton is a subtle, darkly compelling invention. If anything, he is too authentic. There are points at which Fellows so indulges Appleton's pedantry, delivered in a blocked-sinus drone, that the act threatens to become as boring as the character. But, in a desert of knob gags and everyman observation, Appleton's symposium does offer a glimpse into a more idiosyncratic world. He shares with us bathetic tales of his love life, and showcases several hilarious musical pastiches, including the number that he claims spawned prog rock: "Lucy, you're in the wrong wardrobe... Aslan is waiting for you". And his onstage experiments with audio equipment contrive to be banal, funny and fascinating, all at the same time.
Brian Logan, Guardian
Aug 2001 THE LIST FESTIVAL GUIDE
Brian Appleton: Let's Look At Sound Pleasance, until 27 Aug, 7pm. So
those NME lads are delivering a masterclass in being a music journalist,
are they? Well, it looks like Mr Fellows has gone one better with his
guide to recording in the music biz. Except you don't really learn too
many juicy insider tips. What you do learn is that this sound engineer
hasn't had it easy; that he's been dumped, duped and ripped off more
times than other artists have had his hit singles.
Graham Fellows is a pack leader in character comedy, and the pathetic
figure of Appleton is as astute as ever- His life story will invoke
your sympathy, his
suicide attempts will have you reaching for the Kleenex, and his songs
will have you smothering your laughter so you don's miss a best. A
highly original. progressive show. (Maureen Ellis)
BRIAN APPLETON - LET'S LOOK AT SOUND:
Brian Appleton, rock musicologist and part-time lecturer In media
studies, is a comic metaphor of middle- class mediocrity. Born near the
Bourneville factory, where the chocolate fumes turned his brain, he has
seriously bad hair and writes bad poems about being dumped by his
aromatherapist partner: 'Since she gave me the chop suey, since she
cruelly threw me away, like a takeaway tray...'. Compelling nerdy
Pleasance - Let's Look at Sound
He wrote the first ever prog rock song three months before the Moody
Blues ripped him off. and he has been half-inched by every star in
modern popular music since, leaving him eking out a miserable existence
as a suspended part-time lecturer in media studies.
Ah, but Brian Appleton, the creation of Graham 'John Shuttleworth'
Fellows, still has his first love, music. And the means to produce it
(tape to tape and digital).
So, in-between recounting the sorry tale of how wife Wendy is leaving
him for another man, he riffs through the intrIcacies of the recording
process, involving ditties of his own composition and noises generated
from the audience.
The unsettling thing is that the facts that he reels off to make us
laugh are just that, facts. Sound waves of seven cycles per second
really do kill people. There really was a French factory that was
unwittingly emitting them. Twenty seven really was an optimum age for
sixties rock stars to depart for the great gig in the sky.
It is even cleverer than it looks and is ridiculously addictive.