The tragic number - Fringe shows charting the musicians who died aged 27
A year after Amy Winehouse's death, three shows at 2012 Edinburgh Fringe bring hallowed members of the 27 Club back to life
This article is from 2012.
John Kielty is sitting in an Edinburgh bar, listing the supernatural properties of the number 27. ‘It’s the cube of three; three being the original magic number,’ he says. ‘The moon orbits the earth every 27 days. The sun revolves on its axis every 27 days. There are 27 bones in the human hand. Human outer skin cells are shed and regrown every 27 days. It’s the number of books in the New Testament … ’
To that list, he could add the bus from Silverknowes to Hunter’s Tryst, a recent play by Abi Morgan and the international telephone code for South Africa. Spooky or what? Spookier still is the unprecedented number of 27s in this year’s Fringe programme. As well as his own musical, The 27 Club, under the banner of Forever 27 Productions, there is The 27 Club by Irish musician Jack Lukeman, and the definite-article dropping 27 Club by musical-comedy duo Frisky & Mannish.
Following the death of Amy Winehouse last July, all of them are tuning into the ghoulishly high number of rock stars whose lives have come to an end at the age of 27. The full list exceeds 40 and includes Robert Johnson, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones and Kurt Cobain. Conspiracy theorists will make all kinds of claims, beginning with Johnson’s rumoured deal with the devil and extending to the allegation that Hendrix was deliberately killed. They also see meaning in Jones and Hendrix dying on the same day, 3 July, two years apart.
Kielty knows it’s all fantasy, even as he relishes every slice of 27-related trivia. ‘There are a lot of musicians in the world, and a lot of musicians who die,’ he says. But ever since he was 13 and bought the first issue of a blues magazine, complete with a cassette of Robert Johnson’s music, he’s been intrigued. ‘They’re horrific recordings – he’s got this high-pitched freaky voice – but it does sound like there’s three guitarists even though it’s just him. At first, he was a terrible guitarist, but he disappeared for about a year and when he came back he had this amazing ability; so people alleged he’d sold his soul to the devil.’
You could suspect Kielty of fixing a pact with Beelzebub when you see his workload. As well as writing The 27 Club for director Toby Gough, he has co-written a second musical, Active Virgin, for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland at C venues, while planning a week of Royal Mile busking with his old band The Martians. That’s before heading to Aberdeen to rehearse for a mainstage adaptation of The Cone Gatherers. He has, however, passed the age of 27. ‘I’m safe,’ he laughs.
Telling the stories of seven rock stars, both feted and fated, the show is set at the crossroads where Johnson is said to have met the devil. Drawing on the Mississippi Delta blues that forms a musical link between the stars, Kielty is mixing original hits and new material. ‘We’ve managed to encapsulate the style of each band and to cram a lot of information into each song, while keeping them entertaining,’ he says. ‘We go chronologically because the music grows with time, but it’s held together with this strong blues element that goes back to Robert Johnson. He has four songs in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, despite having died 12 years before the genre was even invented.’
He says the tone will be celebratory rather than morbid, a balance all three ‘27’ shows are trying to strike. Frisky & Mannish, for example, will be reworking some of their favourite musical send-ups for a short Fringe run, while for three nights, they’ll be getting more sombre with 27 Club. ‘We did three years of funny, silly shows – and we’re going to do another one this year – but our background was cabaret,’ says Laura Corcoran, aka Frisky. ‘We were doing the neo-burlesque scene in London before we did the comedy circuit and we wanted to get back to those roots and look at something that had a darker kind of humour.’
Like Kielty, she is sceptical about the conspiracy theories and reckons the only connection is age and drug intake. Matthew Floyd Jones, aka Mannish, agrees: ‘It’s become something people talk about even though it’s just a macabre coincidence. A lot of people die at 27 who aren’t musicians.’
They are, though, interested in the pressures any performer faces at peak times in their career, not least because the two of them turned 27 this year. ‘Coming to this kind of age and having earned your living doing this job for some time, it’s terrifying to relate to those kind of stories,’ says Corcoran. ‘With a few different choices, I could be feeling that way and doing those things.’
The morbid theme is less of an issue for Jack Lukeman, who has a reputation for delving into the darker side of the musical canon. He hit upon the idea for the show after presenting High Fidelity, a 26-part series on RTE tracing the history of recorded song. ‘The recurring theme were all these artists who’d died at 27,’ he says. ‘Robert Johnson is considered the first guy, but you can go back to Alexandre Levy in 1892. Then you got the whole mythology that Johnson seemed happy to create himself about selling his soul to the devil.’
Instead of performing his own work on the Fringe, Lukeman saw an opportunity to present a different kind of show. ‘It seemed like a simple way to perform great songs,’ he says. ‘There’s such a variety you can sing and a mass of people outside of the obvious Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison and Cobain. You’ve got really interesting people like Jesse Belvin who died in 1960 – a wonderful singer who sounded like Nat King Cole – and Chris Bell from the rock band Big Star: they’ve got a couple of beautiful songs. So there’s a lot of curve-ball stuff as well in this canon of amazing tunes.’