FEATURE: Mechanical Mouse Organ – Six Of The Best | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Ahead of a launch gig for their new EP at the Cluny on Saturday 3rd March, we caught up with inventive punks Mechanical Mouse Organ to find out six of their favourite influences.

In 2004, Elvis Costello’s nose was out of joint. An alias he’d adopted on his Blood and Chocolate album had been appropriated by Jared Hess, a young filmmaker, for the micro-budget indie he’d just released about a high school geek in Preston, Idaho. The film rapidly gained a cult following and soon the name, Napoleon Dynamite, was more likely to evoke Hess’s moon-booted, frizzy haired anti-hero than it was Costello.

Perhaps Costello didn’t like being upstaged or perhaps the storyline was a little close to the bone. The movie centres on the eponymous Napoleon, an intensely awkward, gangly, alienated teen, who spends his time in high school daydreaming, doodling and trying to avoid bullies. Ultimately, Napoléon has his moment when he wows the school with outrageous dance moves he learned from an instructional video. It’s hard to imagine Declan McManus didn’t identify with that, it’s almost the quintessential indie band story. What makes it special, though, is the sensitivity with which the characters are rendered. 

Uncle Rico steals the show for me – a former high-school jock, whose chief topic of conversation is his own bygone sporting glories. But Rico is marooned in the past. He’s living in a camper van, selling Tupperware to raise money to buy a time machine he’s found on the internet. It’s a ludicrous premise, but the portrayal is touched with genuine sadness. In 1982, Rico was somebody – and he wants to go back. I’ve kind of been there.

It’s a special moment for any band when a new idea takes flight. Disparate sounds stop jarring and start to gel; then they take shape and assume a life of their own. At that moment, you’re on the back of a buzzard riding a thermal. It could take you anywhere. Your job is to figure out where it wants to go and guide it there. Ultimately though, that’ll mean tethering and letting go of all those other possibilities, so for a while, you’re content just to ride the thermal. 

1990 felt like that. Darryl was in pre-school, but Dave, Liam and I were in our first band, Hug, and things were starting to happen for us. Record companies were interested, opportunities were opening up and there was this huge surge of energy that seemed to infect everyone around us. We played London for the first time in the autumn and Margaret Thatcher resigned that very day (just saying). Two months later, the NME named us as a top tip for 1991 alongside The Manic Street Preachers and Ocean Colour Scene. For a brief time, it really did seem as if anything was possible.

In 2011, Hug had a temporary reunion. We played three gigs and went back into the studio to record some songs that had only ever been rough demos. It was great fun and not just an exercise in nostalgia. The old chemistry was there, so we reworked things, reinvented the songs, breathed new life into them.

A year later, I had a midlife crisis. Nothing dramatic, just the perception that the vast sea of possibility had dried up. I felt beached. I felt my life had taken a wrong turn. I was capable of more. I wanted to reboot in a new direction. I wanted fresh challenges and new victories. Except, I didn’t really. I wanted it to be 1990 again and it was never going to be. 

The moment that I realised I’d turned into Uncle Rico, the whole idea seemed faintly ridiculous; the black dog vanished, and a little clarity returned. I didn’t need big sweeping changes after all, but I did need to put some little things right. One of those was that I really missed being in a band. So, it seemed, did Dave and Liam. We roped in Darryl and formed MMO; not to look back to 1990, but to explore new directions.

One of the reasons the buzzard still takes flight is the collision of different influences, but if there’s one band that has been a constant source of mutual inspiration for us, it’s The Who. Punk was supposed to be a Year Zero, but The Jam stepped straight into Townshend and co.’s high heeled sneakers – the mod stylings, the feral energy, the razor-sharp arrangements.  My Generation set a benchmark for the expression of teenage rebellion and it’s never really been surpassed. Substitute is simply one of the finest pop songs ever penned, but even greater glories were to follow. Live at Leeds wrote the book on live albums, but for me, their piece de resistance is Quadrophenia.  Perhaps, it’s the sheer vaunting ambition of it; the cinematic vision; the emotional ebb and flow; the thundering power and gentle caresses; the exuberance and reflectiveness; but I’m hard pressed to think of another album that has rewarded repeated plays so generously and persistently down the years.

Frank Roddam’s film, loosely based on the album’s concept, is wonderful.  The New York Times called it, “gritty and ragged and sometimes quite beautiful”. It’s a timeless depiction of angst-ridden youth and very British, but the scenes that speak the loudest are the scenes without dialogue, the scenes that let the soundtrack do the talking: the adrenalin rush of the opening scooter ride to The Real Me; the wide-eyed, pilled-up, rush-hour paranoia of 5:15; and the sky-kissing, orchestral magnificence of Love Reign O’er Me with Phil Daniels’ diminutive figure dwarfed against waves, crashing on Brighton beach, wild and tumultuous as the emotional turmoil they echo.

I read an interview with Pete Townshend where he claimed The Who’s secret was that they essentially played each other parts: John Entwistle was the lead guitarist; Pete was the drummer (it’s true – even his guitar solos are rhythmic); and Keith? Well, Keith was the orchestra. I’m not sure we’ve ever achieved such a creative reimagining, but Liam regularly nicks my guitar riffs for his basslines and forces me to come up with something else – so that’s a start!

If Quadrophenia was a triumph of earthy, kitchen-sink drama on vinyl, and on celluloid, then it’s a trick Clement and Le Frenais have repeated several times for the telly. It may seem a bit of a stretch to leap from turbulent teenage angst to sit-com, but both Porridge and The Likely Lads have moments of poignancy and profundity; and Auf Wiedersehen Pet is really a drama, albeit one with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.  They are all very British and very rock n roll: they celebrate the camaraderie and small victories of the underdog against an establishment that holds all the cards. To my mind, the screenplays are sheer poetry – Clement and Le Frenais have an ear for just the right turn of phrase, just the right expression or place name to create a dialogue that sings and dances yet remains totally grounded in the everyday and provincial. It’s somehow perfect that Barry, in Auf Wiedersehen Pet, had a fiancée who worked for a “seed merchants outside Droitwich”; or that that the voting system, he devises to decide what colour to paint their hut, had been used to elect the chairman of the “West Bromwich and District, Sunday Methodist, Table Tennis League”. The outcome of the vote is even better – no-one agrees on a first choice of colour but yellow wins by dint of being two people’s second choice.

“Well that’s a smashing system that is Barry. Everybody gets what nobody wants.”

“That’s democracy, Dennis”.

Le Frenais was born in Monkseaton and when we were discussing who else should comprise our Six of the Best, Liam was very keen to include another Tyneside writer, North Shields’ Robert Westall. Westall authored an award-winning children’s story called The Machine Gunners. Unfortunately, Liam has left me to pen this on my own and I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read The Machine Gunners, although I was impressed to learn that Liam has actually read something other than a cookbook. Thinking about it though, he must be more widely read.  We have friend called Jack Lowe, who is very fine photographer, engaged in a very ambitious series of lifeboat station portraits (these are well worth checking out: http://lifeboatstationproject.com).  Jack’s grandad, Arthur, was very famous.  When he tells people this, the conversation usually follows a well-established pattern:

“What, the Arthur Lowe?”


“As in…”

Only, when Jack had this conversation with Liam, Liam’s next line was…

“…The Mister Men?”

Liam’s bass is emblazoned with stickers of Mr Small and Mr Noisy, and to be fair, I can’t think of two characters that sum him up better. So, perhaps it’s only fitting that we declare our primary literary influence as Roger Hargreaves.

I’m going to end by returning to the thread of kitchen-sink drama and down-to-earth poetry with the lyrics of David Gedge.  The Wedding Present are the most refreshing antidote to the ubiquitous trans-Atlantic accent and stockpile of well-worn romantic clichés that make so much radio-friendly pop, so utterly unengaging.  I’m not sure whether Gedge’s ability to express longing and rejection in such achingly emotive terms, and the fact that his guitar playing betrays one of the most supple wrists in rock, are in any way connected, but his songs stand out from the pack by sounding real. This is what yearning, hurt, infatuation and guilt sound like if you’re British and your life doesn’t resemble a foppish, affected pop video shot on a windswept moor, where everyone appears to work for a modelling agency. He is the Clement and Le Frenais of lyric writing and judging by the gig I saw just over a year ago, he’s still very much on top of his game.

Our six of the best:

  • Napoléon Dynamite
  • The Who / Quadrophenia – the album
  • Quadrophenia –  the movie
  • Auf Wiedersehen Pet / Clement and Le Frenais
  • The Mister Men (but substitute the Machine Gunners if you’ve read it)
  • The Wedding Present

Mechanical Mouse Organ play The Cluny, Newcastle on Saturday 3rd March.

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