Oddballs to the outlandish, it’s time to define, refine and name songs that express and celebrate eccentricity in all its forms
PJ Harvey. Brilliant eccentricity. Photograph: Matt Kent/WireImage
"Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric," said the philosopher Bertrand Russell.
"I am not eccentric. It’s just that I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel set in a pond of catfish," protested the perfectly normal poet Edith Sitwell, who just happened to dress in turbans and black velvet embroidered with gold lions and unicorns. In 1922, in her cut-glass accent, she performed a series of abstract poems through a megaphone protruding from a huge head painted on a curtain that concealed her and a seven-piece jazz band.
Eccentricity can certainly be a life force, a drive to be different, a restless river of creativity. But what defines such characteristics, and how can you identify them in song? The word comes from the Latin eccentricus, derived from Greek ekkentros, meaning “out of the centre”. So that certainly points to those who move away from the conventional, make unusual decisions, express themselves in an unusual way, whether that across an entire song, or during just one particular moment within it. It may be in subject matter and lyrics, odd sounds or ways of playing, unconventional mixes, sounds or rhythms.
Curiosity, obsession, intelligence, being outspoken, knowing you are different from an early age, a sense of mischief, and a lack of inhibition are also all key characteristics that can be identified in eccentric performers and their work.
Brian Blessed. A true eccentric, but from what era? Photograph: Steve Meddle/Rex Features
Is eccentricity particularly English trait, and if so, why? There is undoubtedly a rich history of it from these shores. Classical composer, novelist, artist and aesthete Gerald Tyrwhitt, also known as the 14th Baron Berners (1883-1950), kept pigeons. Nothing odd about that, except he also dyed them all in vibrant colours, took afternoon tea with his pet giraffe, kept a clavichord in his Rolls Royce and built a 100ft viewing tower in his garden. Theologian Francis Henry Egerton, the 8th Earl of Bridgewater (1756-1829) regularly gave dinner parties for dogs, dressing them up the in fashions of the day. He also wore a new pair of shoes every day and lined them up as a method of measuring time.
Perhaps though palaeontologist and theologian William Buckland (1784-1856) beats them all. He kept hundreds of animal specimens in his house, on many of which he liked to dine (and force upon guests), including mole, bluebottle, panther, crocodile and mouse. He was so voracious, when shown the heart of a French king (believed to be that of Louis XIV) preserved at Nuneham in a silver casket, he simply could not hold back his curiosity, and to the astonishment of all present, gobbled the precious relic straight up.
Vast wealth, and time to pursue interests, pleasures or obsessions has certainly been a catalyst for some eccentrics. America’s Howard Hughes is certainly a prime example. And among musicians, the antics of the Who's Keith Moon and actor friend Oliver Reed, among other hellraisers, are well documented. And then there are others kinds of British eccentrics, such as the sparkly eyed actor and mountaineering enthusiast Brian Blessed, surely one of the most energetic an unusual men alive. But are these people essentially from another age?
A handful of contemporary eccentrics in music might arguably include female solo artists Bjork, Kate Bush and PJ Harvey, but feel free to contradict or extend this point, and suggest many others.
Here are other lesser known male examples. Matt Berry, best known as the rumbustious boss Douglas Reynholm in the IT Crowd, as well as other comedy series, has created three albums of wonderful oddness, including the upcoming Music for Insomniacs, essentially two very long but playful songs in response to his own sleeplessness. A cross between Abba's Benny Andersson and a lovely, mischievous old English sheepdog, Berry loves to mix old folklore and surreal and witty animal references, noodling somewhere between Mike Oldfield and 70s TV theme tunes.
Matt Berry - actor, writer, comedian and musician. Somewhere between Benny Andersson and a lovely old English sheepdog. Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris
Mikey Georgeson, occasionally singing still with the Victorian magician-inspired 90s band David Devant and His Spirit Wife, is known to have once climaxed his performance by being fired out of a cannon to the other side of the auditorium. This theatrical singer-songwriter and painter has an impish genius for melody and has since formed many other bands, most recently, and poetically, The Civilised Scene.
Playing with other styles, Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer, former rapper with Collapsed Lung, has evolved into an eloquent eccentric combining the delivery of Noel Coward and Vivian Stanshall with a skilled and intricate knowledge of hip-hop history, all in a style he defines as chaphop. He recently expressed his disdain at being liked by education minister Michael Gove, though I might suggest there’s nothing eccentric about such a response.
So there are still plenty of eccentrics around. But here’s a question. All of the above musicians grew up in the 70s and 80s, and mostly formed their early ideas and personalities before the internet became fully immersed in our culture. They are, in a sense, of a TV, but also an analogue generation. So has the world wide web muted the evolution of eccentricity, or has it sprawled in a different direction? Is eccentricity, and all of its associated social skills or associated unconventional behaviour, been killed off by the constant act of staring a web browser, or has it been stimulated by it? And who are the young eccentrics now? These, and many other questions will I hope can come up with your song nominations.
Eccentricity is also very much a matter of perception. One person’s oddball is may be normal to another. But perception, by the eccentric, can also verge on the surreal:
During his daily perambulation in the park, and in torrential rain, he came upon a damp object, black of colour and about two feet long. “Aha, just what I need,” he said to himself, attempting then to put up this discarded umbrella. But the object would not open or expand, no matter how hard he tried, no matter from which end he held it. It was only then that he realised that the object was not an umbrella at all, but the body of long dead, half-frozen dog.
This is not a passage from a book, nor about a famous person, simply a description of a typical day in the life of the father of an old friend of mine in Glasgow. He is not a writer or an artist, but is certainly a character most would agree is an eccentric, and among the most unusual of all.