On a Sunday evening in October, as This is England ’90 came to an end, most viewers would have felt their guts firmly wrenched. But when the credits rolled, there was one final moment of poignancy: a dedication reading “In Memory of Gavin Clark 25.01.69 – 16.02.12”. Here, to the sound of Clark’s vocals on track “I’ve Got a Future”, was director Shane Meadows’ tribute to his dearly departed best mate and regular collaborator.
In February, Clark died of breathing complications resulting from his struggle with alcoholism, a sad end for a remarkable singer-songwriter who never got the recognition he deserved. However this may be about to change: next month sees the release of Evangelist, a long-gestating LP he was making with friends Pablo Clements and James Griffith.
A swirling, psychedelic concept album, it soundtracked key moments in This is England ’90 and serves up a similar emotional sucker-punch.
What made Clark so special? To Meadows, his was a talent that was completely organic: “He wasn’t a technical guitar player, it was just effortless and exquisite, and no matter what format he recorded on, whether it was in the studio or on his phone late at night, it always transcended the medium” The pair first met at a Manchester house party in 1989; at the time, both were working at Alton Towers, Meadows painting clown faces, while Clark sold chips at a food stall. At that point, Meadows harboured musical ambitions – he was the singer in a band with actor Paddy Considine – but the first time he heard Clark play, he was left reeling. “We were at a mate’s in Uttoxeter and I said ‘why don’t you play us a tune’ and this lad whose house it was grabbed a guitar with three strings on it. Gav tuned it up and played the song and I literally then thought ‘fuck me, I am not a musician, I have to find something else to do’ ... that was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
However, with Meadows swapping his microphone for a film camera, a creative partnership was formed, beginning with Meadows’ first featurette, 1996’s Small Time, which Meadows asked Clark to score alongside a band including the film’s producer Dominic Dillon.
The group stayed together, naming themselves Sunhouse; off the back of their appearance on the soundtrack of Meadows’ first feature proper, Twenty Four Seven, they were signed by John Niven, now best known as the author of scabrous, music industry satire Kill Your Friends, then A&R at label Independiente. Niven says that working on Sunhouse’s one and only LP, 1998’s Crazy on the Weekend, was “the single most fulfilling experience I had in A&R”. Their raw, bluesy folk-rock remains revered by a select few: “we got a full-page five star review in Uncut saying they were as good as Gram Parsons and Elvis Costello,” says Niven. “I thought this is going to be a walk in the park.”
Except, unfortunately, it wasn’t: the record was a commercial flop, Clark’s misfortune being to be out of step with the post-Britpop times. “Had Gavin got signed with Sunhouse during this Ed Sheeran era, he’d probably be playing the O2 arena,” says Meadows. “But he just happened to be 10 years ahead of his time.” Meanwhile Clark, who struggled with depression and anxiety from his early twenties, found performing a trial and was prone to self-medicating with booze and drugs. Sunhouse split in 1999; Clark formed another group, Clayhill, in 2002. But again critical acclaim failed to translate into sales.
Living in Stoke-on-Trent with his family, Clark gradually retreated from music, getting rid of most of his equipment. When, in 2007, Meadows found out Clark was about to start working as a pizza delivery man, he knew he had to do something. He suggested they do a documentary, the premise being for Clark to do a first of a series of “living room” performances, beginning with one in his own home, hoping the project would help to rebuild Clark’s confidence. The film, which can now be seen on Vice, is a moving record of Clark’s struggles as a performer but also of his self-effacing charm as a person.
Most importantly, Meadows’ intervention paid off: Clark entered his best period creatively, co-writing the soundtrack for Meadows’ Somers Town, securing a publishing deal writing for other artists, and working and touring as a vocalist with James Lavelle’s collective UNKLE, during which time he blossomed as a live performer. And then in 2011, having moved down to Brighton, he began work on what would turn out to be his masterpiece.
Conceived with UNKLE members Clements and Griffith, aka duo Toydrum, Evangelist is a different beast to anything he had done before: a concept album loosely tracing the rise and fall of an evangelical preacher, with an awesome sound to match its narrative sweep, veering from glam rock stomps to psychedelic haze-outs, fire-and-brimstone roaring to aching acoustic despair. And yet, for all its grandeur, it’s still characterised by a spine-tingling immediacy. “It reminds me of a rock opera like Quadrophenia or Godspell … it’s like them crossed with Dead Man’s Shoes,” says Meadows, referring to his brutal 2004 revenge thriller.
Clements and Griffith describe how the record began with a surge of inspiration, in the first half of 2011, when Clark was staying at Griffith house, where they recorded demos in a makeshift studio. “It was an amazing time,” says Griffith. “He was writing so much, he wouldn’t sleep and then every morning I’d wake up, and he’d have this long text message; he was writing on texts ... [The track “Same Hands”] he wrote it that day and sung it that night, and ‘God Song’, [it was done in] one take, there was such purity in that.” As for the outlandish story, described as “loosely autobiographical” in the album’s press notes, Griffiths and Clark say that while the character of the preacher relates to both Clarks’ own spirituality and his bad experiences with organised religion, they’re not qualified to explain it much further. “There was a lot of madness that surrounded Gavin – we only wish he would have been here to tell the story [of the album], he would have been brilliant,” says Griffith.
After the initial flurry of activity, progress on the album proved halting and sporadic: “In time, Gavin was going down[hill] and his voice wasn’t in the best of shapes,” says Griffith. However, following his death, the duo came to realise that Clark had given them everything they needed. “It reflects the peak of that [creative] moment,” says Clements. In finishing off the album this year, the duo vowed to “make sure that everyone who was on the record was someone that meant something to Gavin,” says Clements: those who contributed include Warren Ellis, This is England score composer Ludovico Einaudi, and Clark’s son Michael, on backing vocals.
This is England’ 90 stands as a beautiful final testament to Clark’s and Meadows’ collaboration, and the week before he died, Clark got to see a preview of the first three episodes. Meadows now hopes to extend Gavin legacy’s further by making an animation based on Evangelist. “I’m obviously not an animator so I hope someone sees this article and can hook me up with a great animator … let’s get it going!” And beyond that, he still has a vast back collection of Clark’s unreleased recordings; some made it on to a compilation Beautiful Skeletons, released last year, but he still has hundreds left.
Nick Drake is another musician to whom Clark has been compared; now the hope is Clark might follow Drake in receiving his due posthumously. “I don’t think we’re going to meet as naturally talented a singer ever again,” says Clements. “Gavin was always so brutally honest,” says Meadows “The things he was always singing about, he wrote about were never airy fairy: they were always from somewhere, whether that was a place of pleasure or a place of pain.”
Gavin Clark & Toydrum’s ‘Evangelist’ is out 11 December