Fashion is a cruel mistress, one that treats talent with little respect. It isn't just in couture houses that the effort of yesterday is quickly rendered obsolete. Just as nobody would be seen in last year's flair of inspiration, so too can music be a classic victim of the fickle-hearted and the fashionably fearful. The shame of lending one's ears to sounds that might raise a derisory smile from the lips of those whose opinions appear to matter, albeit briefly, can be perilous to both the listener and the artist who takes one or two steps beyond the current boundaries of accepted taste.
Never was this more prevalent than than in the heady days of punk, and one sophisticated straggler who hit the wrong party in the wrong clothes was Gerald Watkiss. A little like a maiden aunt who expected tea at the Ritz Hotel, only to find herself at the Marquee Club being gobbed at, Watkiss released an album whose title betrayed the effete nature of his musings. That it appeared at all is amazing, even if it did drift into discreet oblivion. Watkiss had a knack of poor timing. He had been a member of Flashman, a short-lived pastoral prog outfit whose sole single and album sank amongst the invasion of mohawks and safety pins.
Purgatory and Paradise, his 1979 solo debut, was housed in a sleeve featuring a drawing of a crowd reaching skyward from within the body of a grand piano. Resembling an illustration from the pages of an arts magazine, it was an unlikely adornment for an initial stab at pop stardom. Released on Pye Records, a label adrift in the New Wave, its glory days of the '60s long gone, his record was a perfect misadventure of modernity. Though now unbearably effete and chic, in the late '70s such mannered classicism was loathed and despised. A man with a piano was bound to be shot at with barbed words from insulting reviews, if indeed anyone could be bothered to exercise such disdain.
The album bursts into life with the unashamedly tuneful and poppy "City Life," which with its up-tempo guitar and rising piano motif wouldn't be out of place on the soundtrack to Miami Vice. The mood visibly slows for the slinky sophistication of Picture Days, which displays Watkiss at his plaintive best, but the album is really everything the mood of the time despised: Fey, mannered, and ornate, it would have angered any self-respecting punk to apoplexy. The songs have elements of Elton John, Jimmy Webb, and Eric Carmen, with a twist of Manilow, and titles such as If the Line Broke on My World were not in the mood of a time that valued energy over musicianship and attitude beyond panache.
It is the title track, which teeters magnificently between classicism and pomp, that retains the truest sense of wonderment. It sounds like an ever-so-English version of David Ackles's extraordinarily haunting and beautifully epic American Gothic. With piano flourishes flying in every direction, and strings layering everything with astonishing accomplishment, it emotes echoes of Gershwin, Copland, and Coward. Watkiss was obviously a boy who'd relished his piano lessons. When he sings "Stop the world I want to get off / Too many gins at the party last night" with intimations of suicide and debauchery, you enter a louche world of unashamedly divine decadence. After ten minutes it builds to an epic crescendo, Jobriath meets Al Stewart and John Howard for a Palm court afternoon. If talent is a gift to share with others, then Watkiss was not ashamed by his punishment of riches, but times they were already in flux-like change, and adrift from the moorings of fashion, his album was appropriately titled.
With Antony, Rufus Wainwright, and Patrick Wolf, broken-wristed camp is the order of the night. Gerald Watkiss deserves the languid loyalty of the Scissor Sister-hood as one who blatantly strove when the tide was against his mannered direction. With scorn as his reward, if indeed he even merited such derision, it seems likely that indifference was his ultimate accolade.
Thirty years on he deserves to be forgiven for the sin of unfashionable excess, because it is quite rightly no longer viewed as such, but should be treasured for all its true and gloriously eccentric beauty. Any such recognition, though, will be sadly posthumous. Watkiss died on February 5, 2007 at the age of 51. He made five albums in total, the last under the name Rescue Party the year prior to his untimely death, after a silence of more than twenty years. - Rob Cochrane
Mr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published three collections of poems, and Gone Tomorrow.