❉ A celebration of the very wonderful Mik Artistik, who has just released a new single and is currently on a long tour.
“Actually describing what it is that Mik does is much harder. It’s often very funny, but it doesn’t deserve the deadly term ‘comedy songs’, any more than what the work of John Cooper Clarke – an avowed Mik fan – can be called ‘comedy poems’. His songs are often surreal and beautifully observed. He qualifies as ‘cult’ in a heartbeat, sitting somewhere in the distinctive and golden lineage that brought us Vic & Bob, Ivor Cutler and The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. In an ideal world, Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip would be Peel session regulars, but there you go.”
A shaven-headed man stands on a stage wearing a paint-spattered shirt and a cocked bicorn hat while feverishly beating a tambourine. With a band of two rocking out behind him, he’s singing in a broad Yorkshire accent about his experiences down the local library: “It’s a bit of a shock / when a phone goes off / There goes a can of pop / You’re not supposed to be eating / in the library.” This is Mik Artistik and you’re unlikely ever to forget him.
In and around his home town of Leeds, Mik Artistik has been a familiar figure for decades. Born Michael Gallagher in Northern Ireland in 1955, the eldest of seven, his family relocated to Yorkshire just before he started school. His gift for drawing won him a place at art college, but once he’d graduated it didn’t immediately earn him a living. Between being on the dole and working on building sites, he developed a sideline as Mik Artistik, roaming Leeds city centre offering to draw pen portraits of punters on paper bags. One night, while watching a band play in a local pub, he started heckling and was invited to get up on stage. To his surprise he loved the experience and the punters loved him back. Before long, Mik was taking a strange, singular stand-up act around the country. In fact, that’s him in series one of Phoenix Nights, doing a turn as part of Brian Potter’s ill-fated alternative comedy night The Funny Farm (alongside Toby Hadoke, small world fans).
When stand-up started to run aground, he went on to form a band, Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip, in order to channel his love of performing and give a home to his thoughts and observations. The band built up a devoted following, became festival favourites, and began releasing albums. Sound, from late last year, is their ninth and latest.
Those are the facts, then. But that’s the easy bit. Actually describing what it is that Mik does is much harder. It’s often very funny, but it doesn’t deserve the deadly term ‘comedy songs’, any more than what the work of John Cooper Clarke – an avowed Mik fan – can be called ‘comedy poems’. His songs are often surreal and beautifully observed. He qualifies as ‘cult’ in a heartbeat, sitting somewhere in the distinctive and golden lineage that brought us Vic & Bob, Ivor Cutler and The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. In an ideal world, Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip would be Peel session regulars, but there you go.
One Sound song, Car That Makes a Bus Sound, has already been covered by Grahah Fellowes of John Shuttleworth / Jilted John fame on his fine new ‘solo’ album Weird Town. It’s another neat fit (here’s hoping for a Fellows-produced Mik Artistik album, pretty please!). Sometimes Mik’s recorded output has an uphill struggle capturing his mercurial gifts, but there are some proper pearls in his oeuvre.
A good starting point might be Plastic Fox, this writer’s favourite track of last year. Like many of his songs, it’s almost like one of his pen-on-paper-bag portraits in song form. It takes the tale of a garden ornament and turns it into something funny, strange and oddly sinister: “Butterflies flutter up and down the garden / The washing line’s empty except for some pegs / The lady of the house, she’s making some lunch / A small piece of toast and some scrambled eggs.”
Or there’s the glorious Adrianno Driscoll, a curiously countrified look at the life of a middle-aged Irish woman: “She once was a dancer and she could have been a mum / She once was a mum and had a baby in her tum / But the child didn’t last past the age of one / Now she doesn’t half spoil that dog.”
They’re home-spun songs which locate the humour, weirdness and telling detail in ordinary life. She Looks Like Me Mam is a Barry White-esque love song which can’t get away from the aspect of familial familiarity. The genuinely affecting Turning into Dad is the best ever song reflecting on a parent-child relationship which just happens to filch the tune from Walking in the Air out of The Snowman.
Last year’s single David Bowie Was a Funny Man is a heartfelt and fitting tribute to the late Thin White Duke, despite being full of uproarious lies, while Sweet Leaf of the North is an uplifting end-of-the-night anthem about something sticking to your windscreen.
Mik’s a spell-binding frontman and his flights of fancy are facilitated by a tight band, namely Jonny Flockton on guitar and Benson Walker on bass, who lend serious skill and power to the sound. Live, Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip are an utter blast, and as they’re currently on tour you know what to do.
Yes, there will be those who just don’t get it and just see some guy from Leeds who can’t help himself from messing about on stage. But what must their souls be like? That’s missing the point entirely. He’s absolutely some guy from Leeds who can’t help himself from messing about on stage, and it’s a pure, joyous thing to witness, something like outsider art. We could do with more of his ilk. Mik Artistik, we salute you.
❉ Mik’s website: http://mikartistik.com/
❉ Listen to or download Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip tracks, including their latest album Sound and new single Hospitent:
❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to Big Issue North. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.