You know him for his characters in classic Brit comedys The Young Ones, Bottom and The Comic Strip Presents, but Adrian Edmondson has always pursued music as a parallel career, be it directing hyperbolic video clips or starring as one quarter of heavy metal spoof band Bad News.
For the past five years he’s fronted the Bad Shepherds – a folk band, right down to the reels and jigs, that covers punk classics.
A lot of punk songs had a pure pop aesthetic buried under the aggression, and you manage to pull that melodiousness out with your mandolins and bouzoukis.
We think of ourselves of a kind of folk band. There’s no gimmicks; it is what it is. I just think they’re very good songs, but it’s a bit weird for people my age to be going full pelt, trying to pretend they’re punk.
Do you know who JC Carroll is? He’s the guitarist and songwriter for the Members. We do a song of theirs called ‘Sound of the Suburbs’ and when we played Glastonbury he came on with us to play the accordion – because he’s become a folky now. He said, “The reason this works so well is ’cause when we did it we were very young and all we wanted to do was jump up and down and impress girls. We never paid attention to the lyrics we’d written.”
So I think that’s what we’re pointing out is that there are some brilliantly written songs within that genre. Songs like ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’ is a classic folk ballad. It’s exactly the same song structure as ‘Whiskey in the Jar’, you know. Man going home, getting mugged…
Quite often after gigs people will say, “I’ve been listening to that song all my life and I never knew it was about till now.” Like, we’re working on a version of the Jam’s ‘Going Underground’ now, and I never realised how dark it is. All this time I’ve been singing along as though I’m marching with him – “When the foot starts to pound / And the boys start to shout for tomorrow” – but actually he’s talking about the sort of politicians he hates.
You play some very quintessentially English country festivals, surrounded by morris dancers and folkies… that must be fun.
Yeah, we’ve done a few of those. We’re kind of regarded with dread when we go to those places, by what we call Folk Nazis. People who believe you should only do songs that are 300 years old, about jolly miners and ship workers, even those things don’t really exist anymore in Britain. So what does that mean? I’m not against people singing them; I just think folk has a wider appeal.
Well, modern folk is social commentary and creating a sense of community, so it makes sense that it should be updated as time goes on.
I think folk and punk share a lot of the same heritage and they’re basically songs without the word ‘I’ in. Pop music is always about ‘I’: “I feel for you” and “you’re my boyfriend”, stuff like that. A lot of folk and punk music is either social commentary; it’s either a ballad, you know a big story; or it’s a protest song. It’s the same for both: folk and punk share these strands. I don’t set off doing it because of that, though, I set off doing it ’cause it’s bloody good fun [laughs]. I’d bought myself a mandolin and it just sort of started sounding right. I found some proper folk musicians to play with and that’s what we do.
And now you’ve been forced to intellectualise it for the last few years in interviews.
People forget that the reason we do it is ’cause it’s fucking great. You know, it just works. Although, nothing by the Damned works. But it’s kind of the inverse of what the Pogues used to do, I suppose – they did folk songs in a kind of punk way.
For about a year in the late-’80s you made a lot of video clips, for the Pogues, 10,000 Maniacs… and one of my favourite clips – ‘Prime Mover’ for Zodiac Mindwarp.
We nearly killed the cameraman on that one. There’s the bit where the armoured vehicle comes through the wall of the nunnery [laughs sheepishly]. He was up against the wall – it was only made out of polystyrene – taking a light reading. Someone said, “Yep!” and the guy behind the wall in the tank thought it was the cue to go. We got it on film. He drives through the wall and the cameraman is kind of pushed along by a huge piece of polystyrene and he doesn’t die. Which makes it a nice, funny story.
The Darkness completely ripped that off in their clip for ‘I Believe In a Thing called Love’ a few years ago.
Oh did they? I think we stole it as well [laughs]. I don’t think it’s a new idea; beaming down from outer space.
So have you been doing your homework and finding some Aussie punk to cover?
We’re sort of making a new album at the minute. We’ve looked at, you know, ‘(I’m) Stranded’ and things like that… some songs work and others don’t. We tried out a bit of Midnight Oil.
All you really need to do is a few bars and then everyone will go nuts, then you can segue into the next song.
Yeah, good idea! I might take you up on that. Why not just do an a cappella version?
You were a huge fan of musical comedy group the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band growing up, and have guested with them a few times recently. Is it true that singer Vivian Stanshall was the inspiration for your character Vyvyan’s voice in The Young Ones?
Yeah, well all my family have Yorkshire accents – I still have some flat vowels – but I did try and impress my friends by talking like Viv for about five years. I don’t sound like my parents, I don’t sound like Vyvyan either. I just sound kind of in the middle.
When did you first pick up an instrument?
When I was about 13 I had my first guitar. I was in schoolboy bands, doing covers of Free and Deep Purple. Then I went to uni and punk came along – and I’d met Rick [Mayall, his longterm friend and his comedy partner in Bottom] by then, and we started doing more comedy than music.
Did you have to scramble around on no money when you first started out?
Yeah, and it was the same when this band started [laughs]. It reminded me exactly of my formative years with Rick. Knocking about, doing anything that came along, just getting better.
Was that depressing the second time around?
No, it was actually rather exciting. I’d gotten so bored with… The last tours with Bottom that we did, we used to do big touring shows, we would do like a week in Leeds and a week in Newcastle and a week in all these big cities and they’re so boring and they were all kind of the same. Then we went touring with the Bad Shepherds and we were playing in towns we’d never been to. Going to little festivals where you kind of wobbled around the crowd and went to the bar. When you do gigs in a theatre in the city you just sit in the hotel, then go to the dressing room. It can be a rather dull and insular life. The Bad Shepherds brought everything out and opened it up.
It means you’ve got a level of connection with the public that you can’t have had for years.
The difference between what I used to do and what I do now is that I don’t go on as a character, I go on as me. Learning to do that in the early days of the band was quite difficult. I used to go on as a version of me, it wasn’t very comfortable. It takes balls to get the bravery to go out and be yourself. I eventually became so comfortable… it’s great, I love it! Two of the best gigs of my life have been with this band. You connect more with music than you do with comedy. Comedy is about a constant battle between you and the audience, whereas music is about you trying to join together. When it really works and you join, it stands the hairs up on the back of your neck. You’d win at comedy, you know what I mean? It was about winning, beating the crowd, so that you always had something that they didn’t expect.
So say you’re fighting your way to the bar after one of your shows, do people always stop you and say the same thing to you?
People divide themselves basically into two groups. One are arseholes, and one are nice people. And there are more nice people than arseholes, generally. Arseholes want to prove something to themselves. They don’t really want to have a conversation, they don’t want to do anything, they want to prove something. I don’t know what it is. But you have lots of nice conversations with people at festivals. Festivals are sort of the place where we hang about. When we play festivals we generally go early and have a kind of wander around. Having our own fun. It’s great, it’s fun at festivals.
Do you think that people who get into comedy and get into music have similar personalities?
I remember when we were quite young, doing The Young Ones and stuff like that, I remember we hung out with a lot of bands. It seemed to me that all the comics wanted to be in bands, and everyone in bands wanted to be a comic. It’s a strange kind of drive, and a few people mix the two, like the Bonzos did, and how Bill Bailey does. It’s quite hard, comedy music, because it doesn’t really fill the need. The thing about the Bonzos was that when you weren’t laughing, you were grooving.
I think The Young Ones was responsible for my early music education. Did you have any influence on who’d appear? Were they mates?
Well, yeah we did. We were consulted. I don’t think we’d have Amazulu on now [laughs]. And the band that was in the pilot episode, what were they called… Nine Below Zero. I don’t think we’d have had them on either, but we needed someone and no one knew who we were, so they were the only band that would do it.
Are there any other acts that you’d like to join on stage or have them join you?
Um, it’s always quite hard to make it work. We had Reckless Eric on with us and it just didn’t work [laughs]. We did his songs better without him. Because we do a lot of practice and rehearse it. It’s a kind of weird thing, those kind of hybrid things. I remember when we did Bad News and we did a night in the studio with Motörhead and all that was good fun and we were all kind of star struck with each other and… nothing. There was nothing recordable in it.
Did Bad News take an age to film? You played a few festivals in character as this heavy metal band.
Bad News was originally just a Comic Strip Presents idea. We did an episode of it, then a second one with a festival appearance… then we went on a proper tour and the band fell apart. ’Cause that’s what happens when you go on tour – you realise how much you hate each other [laughs]. If you’re not careful, if you’re with the wrong people. I love Pete Richardson dearly but it’s the first and last time I had an actual fight with him. A physical fight in the bar.
Were you actually doing the hard living thing?
Well… nah, we weren’t PRETENDING to be rock’n’roll – we actually like a drink, you know? But it was surreal, actually, that kind of fighting thing. I think it was the level of the volume; the volume in metal bands – that’s what drives people insane. It’s just all that noise in your head all day long. Especially from fucking drummers with their two bass drums. Never ever, ever have a drummer with two bass drums. Especially one that’s not very fit and can’t keep time.
Was that what the fight was about?
I love him, I love him dearly but he just couldn’t keep it going. I kept on saying, “Just forget the hi-hat. Just have one foot going”, ’cause he couldn’t keep it up. He threw a drink at me. It was like an episode of The Comic Strip. Birmingham Hotel, he threw a drink at me [laughs].