Frank Key remembered: An addendum


I’ve been trying to locate a March 2006 episode of Hooting Yard in which Frank Key brilliantly summed up Ultravox’s song Vienna as the band’s “paean to vapidity”. (‘This means nothing to me’.)

This description still has me in fits every time I think about it.

I emailed Mr. Key about it shortly after the broadcast and received this response…


Frank Key remembered (forever)

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Photo by Stephen Byrne

Two nights ago I learned the devastating news that my friend Frank Key had died in September last year. I’d spent months wondering why he hadn’t been replying to my emails and now I know; in fact I feel rather foolish to have been emailing him right up to the 6th of this month.

I first met Frank in 2005 at Resonance FM, minutes before I was due to engineer his show, i.e. push two mic-faders up and down whenever Frank raised an arm. As the Slapp Happy piece played, bookending each of Frank’s live readings, the conversations we snuck into that meagre timeframe grew and grew.

Hooting Yard’s stories reminded me slightly of J.B. Morton’s ‘Beachcomber… By the Way’, brought to life on Radio 4 by Richard Ingrams in the late 80s. I appreciated them but – and Yard fans may pour scorn on me for saying this – absurdist writing doesn’t hold my attention for very long; my brain’s not wired that way, unfortunately (ditto Puckoon and anything by Mervyn Peake or Vivian Stanshall).What I did value, hugelywas Frank’s opinion on things, from post-punk (Swell Maps and The Associates) to his beloved Henry Cow and the dark comedy of Alice Lowe; in fact I’ve just performed an undeservedly narrow distillation of the wide, tangential turns in subject-matter that our chats would take. He would talk openly about his past struggles with alcoholism, always asking how my mum was getting on in coping with the same disorder.

When I left Resonance, those late afternoon conversations continued semi-regularly at the Costa close to the radio station’s studio on Borough High Street. We’d chat for a couple of hours until ten minutes before showtime. Frank would often offer me a part to read, should I want to, but there was never any pressure. I’d always fluff my lines and eventually began declining these prestigious roles when they were handed to me, something I now regret.

It astonished me how Frank could write a fresh new story each week, then read it so fluidly from his laptop (albeit punctuated by his signature cough) like an actor who’d been rehearsing for weeks. The aforementioned cough or a misread line would be followed by the calm announcement, “I’m going to read that again.”

Frank’s ‘Shorter, Potted, Brief, Brief Lives’ column in The Dabbler put to good use the wealth of brilliantly delivered anecdotes he would treat you to in conversation, most memorably the one where a famous avant-garde artist and her first husband descend unannounced on the home of Cornelius Cardew’s long-suffering wife and children.

I wish we’d reconvened more recently, instead of limiting our conversations to email back-and-forths. However, I can’t imagine Frank being at all impressed if he were to see me beating myself up about this and playing the futile “Should’ve” game. Our last two correspondences, in June 2019, concerned the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s album of Robert Wyatt songs – “The singer is a bit too mannered. What happened to the sublime Sharon Whatsername?” – and a 1986 Smash Hits cutting in which Samantha Fox scathingly reviewed The Fall’s ‘Living Too Late’. (“Actually, she’s not entirely wrong in her judgements.”)

Thank you Frank, thank you Pansy Cradledew and thank you Resonance FM for bringing Frank Key into (not just) my life. I get the feeling I’m going to spend the rest of it saying goodbye to him.

Hooting Yard website

Hooting Yard on ‘the Tube’

Key’s Cupboard

(*I make this claim and yet how could any human cerebellum not engage with a ‘Festive Adrian Chiles Sea Creature Story’?)

A dark and cold August

Silver Jews ended up having an even bigger effect on me than Pavement, who I discovered them through. The cartoon-like economy of David Berman’s sentences; his ability to crack multiple jokes during a song without reducing it to a grating comedy record. I loved his unusual pronunciation of the words ‘mirror’ and ‘aluminium’ and began combining pink with green after seeing him dressed accordingly in a magazine (although I drew the line with the thin headband).
He has gone and it feels dreadful.


Life imitates TVGoHome

I spotted the following whilst ‘accidentally’ watching This Morning this morning…


The programme segment’s already guffaw-worthy title was juxtaposed with a presenter wearing perilously tight lycra cycling shorts.


All of this seemed eerily reminiscent of a spoof listing from Charlie Brooker’s TVGoHome website, which sent up Radio Times magazine between 1999 and 2003. (Yet another thing even Brooker’s more frivolous work has prophesied!)


This has so far been the highlight of my Easter Weekend (and it’s the Monday).

Gotcha, Eno! (or ‘Brian is a non-Non-Musician’ shocker)

Brian Eno is seventy today.

Eno was the Seventies, it could be argued.

(Or the nice aspects of that decade, at least.)

Last week I caught up on a recent Financial Times interview with Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno and was amazed to read The Great Pretender referring to himself as a ‘Musician’. I was also slightly disappointed. Throughout his career, Eno had adopted – and probably invented – the professional title of ‘Non-Musician’. Even more impressively, he’d made a vain attempt to declare it as his occupation on his passport. What’s more, the title made sense: Eno was the wrong-footer, not a pussyfooter; the strategist and discreet disruptor. For Brian Eno to become something as conventional as a musician is about as boring as Bowie getting his teeth straightened.

Scan 1

A few months ago I discovered an upload of Alfons Sinniger’s wonderful 1973 ‘Eno’ documentary, which follows Professor Neo Brain – eyebrowless and with full exotic plumage – from a pokey recording studio to Portobello Road Market, via the discordant Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestra that embodied his non-musician ideals. Watch it before it gets deleted…


…And happy birthday, Mr Eno!

Billy Fury, New Year’s Day, 1968

When Allan Warren took this photograph, Billy Fury was just twenty-seven days shy of his 28th birthday and the same age as two of the Beatles. Despite this, he’d long been dismissed as part of the old guard; yesterday’s man from an outdated musical era, his fellow Liverpudlians having usurped him in the charts some six years before.


Two months after the portrait was taken, Fury released a cover of David Bowie’s Silly Boy Blue, backed by his version of the Bee Gees’ One Minute Woman. The instrumentation and arrangement on Side A is almost identical to Bowie’s but I prefer Billy’s vocal, despite being a lifelong Zavid fan. Strangely, Fury’s version even includes the verse in which Bowie had paid tribute to his then Buddhist teacher, Chime Rinpoche (albeit minus the ”Chime, Chime, Chime, Chime, Chime” chants that garlanded Bowie’s version for a Top Gear radio session). Fury’s vocal on the Bee Gees’ song is magnificent. Rather than attempting to imitate the raw urgency of Barry Gibb’s singing on the original, he conveys the pain felt by the song’s protagonist with an understated, melancholy tone; the words are delivered with an air of resignation.

Inexplicably, the single failed to chart, with the injurious extra detail of it having been released on Parlophone, the EMI imprint the Beatles would leave later that year to form Apple Records.