Hidden Gems: Ivor Cutler - Velvet Donkey

Peter Bath explains the madness of Velvet Donkey as his Hidden Gem

Peter Bath
17th June 2020

“If your breasts are too big
you will fall over
unless you wear a rucksack.”

- Ivor Cutler, "If your Breasts".

These wise words, all eight seconds of them, comprise the first track of Ivor Cutler’s 1975 album, Velvet Donkey.

In this article I will try my best to describe Ivor Cutler’s work, but it really has to be heard to be understood. The album could be loosely described as musical comedy, but it’s often neither comedy nor music. A collection of songs, poems, jokes, and stories, it is by turns surreal, nostalgic, dark, annoying, silly, and beautiful. 

Once heard, Cutler’s sound is unforgettable. He usually plays an old harmonium and sings in a deep, warm, Scottish accent, and on this album he is occasionally joined by piano, violin, and the poet Phyllis King. Although Cutler's surrealism is often associated with 60’s psychedelia (think Pink Floyd’s “I’ve got a bike you can ride it if you like”), he has more in common with the Victorian nonsense verse of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. 

Ivor Cutler was a strange and eccentric figure. He was born in Glasgow in 1923 and worked as a teacher for much of his life. From the sixties onward he gained a cult following, appearing on John Peel and Andy Kershaw's radio shows. His most famous appearance came in 1967 as Buster Bloodvessel, the bus conductor in the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour. The surrealism wasn't restricted to his songs; Cutler hated noise, had a series of sticky notes with phrases like "never knowingly understood" written on them, and once taped an egg to his head for no apparent reason.

As he sings on the album, “Nobody knows who I am, I think.”

In this clip from a wonderful documentary, Cutler explains his philosophy, sings some songs from the album, and visits a zoo:

Rather than describing the album to death, here are some samples of Cutler's lyrical genius:

"I spread my brains out on the table
and poke them about with a fork."

"A sleepy old snake lies behind your eyes
And when I look in your eyes to tell you I love you
The sleepy old snake lifts its sleepy old head
And gives me a sleepy old smile"

"The grass springs up to meet the air coming down
And that's a good idea
For if the grass laid low
The air would have to come down the extra amount
'Cos there's got to be something there"

"Once upon a time there were 500 naked men who had a religion called 'Love God'. One day they decided to show God that they loved him by making a loud kissing sound. ... God heard it. It brought him to his feet, surprised but pleased. As a reward he made them parthenogenic, but they were so embarrassed that nothing ever came of it."

Of course, this gibberish is never going to be to everyone's taste, but, for me, the truly amazing thing is that something so gloriously daft exists at all. So even if you have a personal grievance against Glaswegian harmonium players, I think that knowing this kind of thing can exist makes the world seem like a better place.

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