home     sightings     words     music     podcast     images     journal     forum     contact

Saturday, April 17, 2021

The Return Of A Maverick by Ron Jonson

 Part One - Brothers By Other Mothers

(Published 26 March 2021 - The Bloxwich Slacker)

As I waited patiently in front of my open laptop with Skype loaded, I wondered if this was really going to happen. I was about to speak to a living legend. A man synonymous with the kind of  high art that has left many casualties over the years, including himself. A man who hasn’t been afraid to take the lonely precarious path between critical acclaim and red faced laugh out loud embarrassment. He may have fallen over the edge a couple of times, but he’d survived, healed his broken bones and wounded ego, dusted himself down and carried on, with his reputation intact.

It was January 2021. The world gripped by a pandemic in which isolation and social distancing had become the norm. So it seemed fitting that a man who had spent the last twenty years in hibernation, who had become comfortable living in his own shadow, chose this time to break his silence.

I’d had to jump through many hoops and pull in a few favours to set this thing up. I had heard rumours on the street and in the underground art scene that the man was no longer dormant. I made some discreet enquiries, rebounding from contact to contact, I hit a few dead ends, retraced my steps and eventually turned a corner which led me to a man who could put me in contact with a man who was an acquaintance of someone in the great icons inner circle.

Now here I was, waiting for that face to pop up on my screen, in my house during a winter lockdown. The agreed time came and went and my conscience was just beginning to discredit my attempts to even be in the same conversation as this great innovator when suddenly it happened.

There he was, Jacque Stru’del, a moving picture in front of my eyes. The man that had made teenage girls evacuate their collective bladders with just the blink of his eyes. He looked sheepishly mysterious in his trademark white baseball cap which was pulled down over his eyes, themselves hidden behind dark sunglasses. If I had any doubts that it was in fact him, they were expelled when he spoke with that distinctively unique French baritone voice.

Having been an avid admirer of Stru’del’s work for most of my life, coupled with the fact that I had chosen to be a writer, I’d dreamt of one day meeting him. So when he opened with the salutation, “Ron, it’s a great pleasure to speak with you. I’ve been aware of your work since, well since you sent me a copy of the manuscript of your unofficial biography about Carol Decker many many  years ago, erm, now what was it called…”, I was about to prompt him, “Ah yes Double Decker, how could I forget.” God he’d actually remembered, I nearly shat myself. “Yes, your sensitive handling of her fight with obesity was admirable. Sorry I never got back to you though, you know how it is when I get wrapped up in one of my projects, yes?” Of course, I replied, don’t worry about it.

Jacque had recently had an epiphany. All great artists have at least one if they are lucky. It had struck him like a bolt of lightning while watching the news one night towards the end of 2020. It would be the spark for his latest project, and his first new music for a very long time. But we’ll get to that in due course.

After we’d exchanged small talk, and I was confident I’d stroked his ego enough, we began to chat about those early days when he’d started out. Stru’del shot to fame in 1964 as a member of the Stru’del Brothers. 

While out celebrating his 21st birthday, he had chanced across the now legendary, but then obscure Parisian underground avant garde jazz club Le Bâtard (The Bastard) . It was there that he came across Rene Trottier and Louis Toussaint, a guitar and drum duo performing as “Tremblements Du Monde Souterrain” (Tremors From The Underworld), playing a dangerous fusion of  new wave post funk punk mixed with liberal spoonfuls of free-tea-time bebop scattamatazz. Obscure tunings clashed with irregular time signatures as Louis, in a kind of transe, sang in tounges, creating a brand new vocabulary for each performance. Jacque had never listened to music that had made his ears bleed before and he immediately asked the lads to join his new band, adopting Stru’del as their stage name. 

After several weeks of experimental rehearsals and a few gigs that truly tested the audience’s mental health, the Stru’del Brothers came to the stark realisation that in order to both retain any fans, and make any money what-so-ever, they would have to compromise on their art, play in 4/4 time, use standard western tunings, and lay off the augment flattened fifths.

“It wasn’t easy denying what came naturally”, Jacque told me across the jittering Skype screen, “but I sat down one afternoon with a guitar and wrote several songs that fitted my own take on pop music.”

One of those songs was, “C'est facile“ (Easy Does It) which would become the Brothers first top ten hit in France and later a worldwide phenomenon.

“It took minutes to write that”, Jacque seemed to brag, “And when i re-read the words back I knew I was onto something because I literally loathed them. There was nothing challenging about the music too, it plodded along like a wounded animal. When we came to record it, our producer Valéry Langlois decided to get in a small string quartet ensemble to add some atmospheric strings. I said to hell with that, I want the whole orchestra, including the triangle player!”

The result was described by one French critic as, “the birth of a new type of music, one that entrances listeners in a womb like blanket of security, lulling them into a state of inescapable nostalgia whilst seemingly wrapping them in a cocoon of simplistic reflection.”

“Easy Does It” was uncompromisingly unchallenging, with lines such as,

“I took a walk in the park / where the grass doesn’t grow / where the swings swing / and the lonely people go / I thought I saw you perched, atop the climbing frame / but it was just a reflection / cause I know I’m only to blame / don’t worry about me baby now / I’ll be alright you’ll see / I’ll drive down to the coast / and watch junkies on the beach / easy does it, easy does it, 

one day at a time /  easy does it, easy does it / your dead in my head / and that sure ain’t a crime.”

The Stru’del’s three part harmonies soared in a sea of orchestral waves that transported the listener to a faraway island where nothing and no one could harm them. Safety was guaranteed. Several other songs on their debut album, “Easy Does It With The Stu’del Brothers”, had chart success including The Girl I Lost On The Train and Everything Will Be OK When You’ve Gone.

Shortly after the release of the album, the Brothers embarked on a tour of Europe, “Yeah that was an interesting experience, attended mostly by young impressionable girls whose hormones were already in overdrive, not to mention seeing us, their poster idols in the flesh, they basically erupted into a feeding frenzy. It was, well, let’s just say it was very messy.”

Between 1964 and 1978 The Stru’del Brothers averaged an incredible three albums per year, making a total output of 54, containing a staggering 540 songs , of which one hundred and eight were top ten hits in a variety of countries. 

“We found a winning formula and we exploited it for all we could”, explained Jacque, “it did wonders for our egos but turned us into fat headed idiots. For instance, for our third album of 1969, Fireside Jam With The Stru’del Brothers”, I had written one song called, Jump Into The Fire With Me, an intimate yet intense portrait of first love. Well I got this idea that it would make the song more atmospheric and authentic if we were actually sitting around a real fire as we recorded it. I suggested it to our latest producer, Leon Harlequin, and he said oh I’ll dig out a field recording for you.  No I explained we need the fire live as we record the song here in the studio. I need to work with the fire, to let it’s flames engulf the songs heart like the protagonist of the song is being besotted by this beautiful girl who will eventually burn out his soul and leave an empty shell. Leon stared back at me as if I’d just asked him to eat his own spleen, called me a fucking imbecile and said adamantly, I’ll get the field recording.”

What happened next would enter into the annals of rock history. One night, Jacque, who’d gotten Rene, Louis and himself high on whiskey nutmeg shots, managed to persuade his band mates to join him breaking into the studio armed with enough firewood to reduce Notre Dam De Paris to ashes. The hair brain plan had them construct a makeshift campfire, this was bad enough, but twin it with the fact that they were all experiencing psychoactive hallucinations and matters become desperate. Sure enough catastrophe followed, with their ability to think clearly removed, and proportions skewed, the proposed campfire turned into a fully fledged bonfire that Guy Falkes would have been proud of.

“It was lucky for us that the track was only 3 mins long because that fire soon whipped up six foot flames”, continued Jacque, “and we would have been burned to a crisp otherwise.”  As it was, it was a close call, the boys barely managed to drag themselves out before the whole place was raised to the ground.

“Yeah it was hairy alright, good job I managed to grab the reel to reel on the way out though, because what we’d captured in those three minutes, when our lives were in the balance, was something really special. It had a real edge to it, encapsulating the thrill and fear of being in love. The sound of the fire crackling and popping, and flames rapidly leaping towards us just added to the whole thing.”

The album was one of the Brothers most successful with Jump Into The Fire With Me, making number 1 in 57 countries. Any other artist would have been dropped or severely reprimanded by the record company, but the Stru’del’s were actively encouraged to continue with their unconventional recording demands in order to fuel myths that would create a frenzy of curiosity, boosting record sales.

“It was then that I realised that things had turned a corner”, said Jacque sucking on a frog leg that he’d just pulled from the fridge. It was a corner that would eventually lead down a  creative cul-de-sac and to the Brothers eventual demise. 

It was a slow death however and the albums kept coming, though sales started to decline. “I tried to hold the band together as long as I could but honestly the passion was no longer there. I was under an immense amount of pressure as the songwriter. Everyone expected me to keep following the same recipe for those musical vignettes. Rene and Louis, the record company and the fans all craved more. I was a slave to all of them and the responsibility was taking its toll. I was at friends birthday party one night, I’d had to much to drink, things got out of hand and a group of us started to inhale helium from the party balloons. It was just innocent fun,we laughed so much listening to each other’s high pitched squeaks that I lost control over my bladder.”

What started out as a childish joke soon turned into an disruptive and ultimately unhealthy obsession.  “All I wanted to do was have some fun and release some stress, but I ended up causing havoc.”  What would become the boys final album took an uncharacteristic 6 long months to record due to Jacques symbiotic relationship with helium. “It must have been infuriating, every time they wanted me to lay down a vocal, because I’d inhale a bit of 2HE just before, and instead of my trademark deep velvety tones, they’d get a pint sized munchkin trying to sing through fits of hysterics. I’d literally lose control of my bodily fluids.”

Luc Tutti, producer of the aptly titled final album, “Up Up And Away With The Stru’del Brothers”, was by its release, a nervous wreck. “I was in a bad way,  what with the helium canisters littering the studio, having fights and falling out with the band constantly. I was a lunatic, totally out of control, I think I was making up for not having a proper childhood though, you know?  I just couldn’t help myself. In the end Luc was taking valium everyday, drinking and smoking heavily just to get through the project.”

Luc Tutti would never work again. Shortly after the release of the album his car was found abandoned near the Place de la Concorde bridge, Paris, his body was never recovered.

“Typically, when I got the call from Tutti’s wife that he was missing,presumed dead, I was high on helium yet again, “Shit, I’m really sorry, I squeaked like a demented chipmunk, trying to sound as sincere as I could.”

“Not in a million years did I think that an addiction to helium could have such a devastating effect. I hit rock bottom. Spiralling into even more abuse. Things got so bad with my craving, that I took to swiping party balloons from the tiny hands of kids whose parents had treated them while out in town. I’d scuttle off down a nearby alley and saviour the short but sweet high pitched high it afforded me.”

Eventually, in July 1978,  the inevitable happened, just three days after the release of what would be the final LP, Jacque was rushed to hospital with a collapsed lung, punctured by a blast of helium from a faulty canister. He spent the next two months, in hospital recovering, after which he booked himself into a private clinic for substance abuse. He effectively disappeared from public life and the brothers from other mothers would never record again.

Part Two - Totalitarian Detour

(Published 2nd April - The Bloxwich Slacker)

When Jacque eventually resurfaced, it was 1984. The world had moved on from The Stru’del Brothers. Michael Jackson was the king of pop, Madonna his Queen. “It had took me a long time to get the addiction out of my system. I had relapsed, and my relapse had relapsed as well. Several times in fact. I had to undo everything I thought I was, take a long hard look at who I was, and eventually rewire and reboot myself.

Jacque Stru’del 2.0 released his first solo record titled simply Jacque, in April 1984 on his newly formed, Stru’del Records. The album contained a 50/50 mix of covers and original material. “I’d written a bunch of post drug abuse songs during therapy. Proper self loathing stuff, But one really captured what I was feeling at the time. I called it My Death. The lyrics contained some of my bleakest imagery.

“My death is like an old tin of emulsion / quietly festering in revulsion / a skin of wrinkled dread/ congealing in a lonely shed / My death waits like that mouldy cheese / you left in the fridge when you went off with Steve / in the laughter of hot air / when I’m high I don’t care.”

The album received lukewarm reception, but that didn’t put Jacque off, in September 1985, prior to his next project, Jacque 2, he had an experience which would have a profound effect on him. He was rummaging through the discounted bins in his local record store when he chanced across an imported album, the artwork of which  jumped out immediately, “there is one of those huge tanks on the cover, I think it’s Pegasus-Tiger tank and sitting right at the end of the large gun, which is pointing toward the camera, a single white dove.  The album,  “Peace, Love & Mechanisation”,  is a compilation album of songs by The North Korean People’s Army Band (NKPAB), released in 1984, handpicked by the gracious leader himself, Kim II Sung, it features the very best propaganda pop.

“I purchased the album on the strength of the cover alone, not to mention the evocative titles of the songs. But I just wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of sound that hit me when I listened. It was like, erm, well it was comparable to being strapped into a chair that has a low voltage electric current running through it, while being force fed an endless tube of Swiss roll, while having your ears blasted with a high pressure water washer. It’s beautifully grotesque, contains huge multilayer slabs of unforgiving patriot voices thrust with blustering fervour. There’s no light or shade, the tonal landscape exclusively consists of a thousand gobs simultaneously shouting righteous victory no matter what.. It’s simply astounding. I listened to that album over and over for three weeks, my ears bled, my eyes wept, my heart raced to almost the point of arrest.”

Punch drunk, with his ears severely bashed, Jacque was resolved to bring those songs out to the wider, unsuspecting public if they liked it or not.. In fact he saw it as his moral duty, his destiny.

With the album Jacque 2, he set to work reinterpreting two NKPAB classics, firstly the stalwart, “We Shall Hold Bayonets More Firmly”, a bouncy military march set to a lyric invoking, “Honorable rifles from Anti-Japanese fighters, shining on millions of shoulders.” Having a full male voice choir like the original was out of the question, because as soon as any choir found out the material they were singing, they steadfastly declined.   

“I was forced to take another approach”, admitted Jacque while holding up a copy of the album to the web cam. “If I couldn’t get an adult male voice choir, the next best thing would be to get a boys choir instead and then slow the recording down. Quite an ingenious solution I thought.”  I asked if he’d encountered similar set backs to the adult choirs? “Well you see, we deliberately approached choirs that were, let’s say, lacking in popularity and notoriety, these were far more open to working with an established multi-million selling recording artist like myself. Anyway, it was a good experience for the kids, and I figured, If Pink Floyd could do it, so could I.”

After the choir was in place, Jacque added in the rest of the band along with a killer horn section and his own multi-tracked voice, “I listened back to the recording but there was still something not quite right. It lacked the gut wrenching threat that I’d experienced on the original. So I got one of my technicians to go and record a military marching  drill to get some proper foot stomping sound fx and added it into the mix as loud as possible, and hey presto, I felt my testicles being slowly and reassuringly squeezed.”  


Once Jacque had discovered this musical formulae  he applied it to another socialist toe tapper, “Song of the ten-point programme of the association for the restoration of the fatherland”, a tuneful earworm based on a plan written by Kim Il-sung to re-unite North Korea and South Korea.  

Despite the other songs on Jacque 2 being of no real musical significance, the album left long time fans scratching their heads in disbelief. There were however, a growing number of new fans far away who liked the direction he was taking, and who watched his career very carefully.

The following year, Jacque 3 birthed into the world with two more NKPAB ditties standing out like a warts on beauty queen. Taking the form of two monstrous razor toothed sharks swimming in a tranquil sea of dreamy nostalgic easy listening, “Let's go up the embattled hill quickly, carrying ammunition with us” and “Let us sing the new age of automation” both really giving the album a sharp edge.

“I loved the fact that one moment the listener could be steeped  in a melodic ballad drenched with lashings of sentimentality while in the next, they were having the skin seemingly ripped from their faces by a relentless wall of vein throbbing tyranny.”

What many have called the “tipping point” in Jacque’s career occurred in 1986, Unrestrained by the expectations of a record company,  and self producing, he was free to create the art the public didn’t know they wanted.. His efforts culminated in what many critics agree was as his finest and most baffling work, Jacque 4.

“I was approaching a cross-roads in my caaaaaaa-reeeeeer”, he told me as the digital connection between us stuttered. “I was leaving the past behind and embracing the new musical landscape that was opening up to me.” That landscape took the form of mostly new versions of North Korean classics.. 

On, “The young men are lashed with the bloody whips” Jacque sampled the sound of himself flagellating a young studio assistant with a full on bullwhip, in return he promised that he would offer the chap help in making his dreams come true as a budding songwriter. 

For the video of Jacque’s cover of “We Will Safeguard The Leadership Of The Revolution With Desperate Courage”, he employed the services of visionary French animator, René Laloux. Inspired by his 1973 science fiction film, Fantastic Planet, in which giant blue beings called Draags keep poor ant like human Oms as pets, René created a new world where men had merged with machines to create the ultimate fighting weapons. Giant armoured tanks fuelled by the thoughts of hypnotically trained brains, battalions of buttocks capable of firing deadly poisonous gas and nuclear powered noses housed on wheels that shot grenades of radioactive bogeys.

For the album cover, Jacque sported a typical North Korean short back and sides, wore  a  khaki army jacket and cap, and carried a trusty rifle over his shoulder. He safely cradled a young child in his arms and gazed  longingly into the distance.

The album was released to pin dropping silence. It was as if the whole world collectively furrowed their brows and pulled a dissatisfied expression. Album sales slumped. Concert venues cancelled and Jacque had consoled himself to mass uninterest when suddenly out of the blue he received an invitation from none other than the gracious leader himself, Kim II Sung.

It turned out that despite Jacque’s persona non grata everywhere else, in North Korea his star had been rapidly rising since his reinterpretations. In fact when he arrived in Pyongyang in June 1986 his greeting party was something akin to The Beatles flying into New York in 1964. “There were thousands of Koreans all waving banners and French flags. But they were well behaved, no screams or shouts. I guess they’d never experienced pop mania before.”

Jacque was granted diplomatic status, afforded his own personal tour guide and a whole team of security guards. He stayed at the best hotels while touring the country making appearances on popular state TV shows like, “Sing To The Supreme Leader”, “North Korea’s Got Talent” and “Pyongyang Pop”. For most of the tour he sang live to backing tracks and was met with increasingly wilder audiences.

“As the tour went on the audiences began to lose their inhibitions, whooping, shaking their hips and even blowing kisses at Jacque became a regular occurance, which had never been seen before. Everywhere people went there were giant bill boards of me smiling back at them. “

The tour ended with a gala performance at the Kim II Sung stadium in front of the dear leader and fellow dignitaries of the military.  Beamed live via TV into every North Korean home, Jacque had the honour of being joined by the The North Korean People’s  Army Band,  and ended the show with the power ballad, “My Rifle Will Not Forgive”, there was not a dry eye in the place. The country had literally gone Stu’del crazy.

“I couldn’t believe it, it was like a dream come true. I wanted to spend the rest of my life in that place but the next day I was summoned before the leader. I thought he wanted to bestow some great honour on me, there were rumours that I was going to be awarded the Bullet To The City.”.

I was granted a private audience with his graciousness. He told me he had enjoyed the concert, he asked for me to sign his own personal copy of my album, but then frowned and told me in no uncertain terms to leave his country and never return.”

It seemed Jacque had out stayed his short lived Korean fame, Kim II Sung was worried that he was garnering to much of the limelight, and could not allow any competition to get in the way of his leadership of the state.. It was a choice between leaving or risk vanishing in the middle of the night. He was also told that by removing himself he would be saving France from total destruction.

The next day Jacque was on a plane back to Paris, but his problems were only just beginning. When he arrived at passport control at Charles de Gaulle Airport he was refused entry on the grounds that he had been conspiring with foreign terrorists in North Korea and was now deemed a threat to the security of his homeland.”

“I was an outcast, forbidden from my home. Treated like a traitor. I was told that if I tried to return again I would be arrested and charged with, “The singing and performance of songs known to be associated with a regime of dictatorship”, carrying a custodial prison sentence of 25 years.

In July 1986 following world headlines announcing his betrayal of the French nation, Jacque seemingly dropped off the side of the world stage, a decade later would pass before he would continue his musical career.

Part Three - Into the Abyss

(Published 16th April 2021 - The Bloxwich Slacker)

It would be July 1996 before Stru’del would release any new music. Ten long years would pass since he had very nearly created an international incident between North Korea and France which could well have ignited World War III and ended life on Earth.. Fortunately, as you are reading this, you know that events took a safer path. For Jacque though, he was forced into a precarious situation which would serve to sharpen his musical creativity to a point barely recognisable to his early fans...

“I was err, in a tight spot, it was a very dark moment in my life”, related Jacque, while sucking on a Cornetto that he’d just pulled out the freezer. “I made a few calls, called in a few favours and got myself on a flight to England.”

When Jacque arrived at Heathrow he was met by Natalie Brookes, who had been his U.K. publicist up until his decision to tour North Korea singing songs promoting the party propaganda of the dear dictator Kim II Sung. Natty helped Jacque apply for asylum under the protection of the U.K authorities, although there was some doubt about his claim that North Korea had targeted and used him to promote their own regime when he had enthusiastically made an album of cover versions of their own songs.

“After I explained to the Foreign Office that my highly influential mind had been seduced and manipulated by crazy Korean ideals of military might and power and that I had denounced the regime for ever, I was granted protection.”

Jacque’s first few months in Chiswick, the borough of London where Natty resided, were spent trying to make sense of his how his once successful pop music career had deteriorated to this, being branded a sympathiser of the Workers Party Of Korea, preventing him from returning home, “My only crime was trying to make music that was interesting”, he told me. His chief method of making sense of the predicament he found himself in was by consuming copious amounts of the strongest cognac he could find.

Forced isolation from his friends and family in France took its toll on him, he became depressed, spending days and sometimes weeks on drinking binges in order to cope. “I was hiding out at Natty’s home, I couldn’t risk being recognised in public otherwise there would be a press scandal, so I started wearing a series of elaborate disguises so I could get out to buy alcohol. Locals might have seen an old man with long white hair and a walking stick, shuffling along the street, muttering inanely, carrying a bag stuffed full of cognac or whisky, they had no idea it was me, drunk as a skunk. “

Bored, drunk and with no creative outlet, Jacque’s costumes became more and more detailed, to the point of being confident enough to venture to the local public house, The Four Horsemen. “I got Natty to visit a local fancy dress shop and we started working on different disguises.” Punters in the pub would find themselves engaged in conversation with Bob Jenkins, a happy go lucky builder who’d been married three times and had seventeen children, or Derek Lovelace, a washed up actor whose big claim to fame was being the third man at the Queen Vic bar during an episode of Eastenders in which Phil Mitchell beheads a man for short changing him.

“There was something about becoming someone else that was very appealing to me”, Jacque confessed, “I could totally vanish and become someone else for a few hours. And the further from my own persona the better.”

Perhaps Jacque’s most complex creation though was Danielle Dawson (aka Dan Dawson), a chain smoking cross dressing transsexual who loitered in the pub with the explicit intention of pouncing on any unsuspecting patron with ears to here the intimate details of his/her upcoming gender altering surgery. Most chose, if at all possible, to give Danielle a wide berth. Until a certain Rob Cobbells walked in the bar one cold winter night.

“Cobbells, a washed up small-time gangster whose best friend lived in the bottom of a glass, had stumbled across The Four Horsemen during a self inflicted pub crawl across town, which, I later discovered, had left a trail of bruised eyes, broken teeth and shattered skulls. I was dressed to kill as Danielle aka Dan in a blonde shoulder length wig, mascara, red lipstick, fake diamond earrings, a 36D bra stuffed with socks, a tight fitting black lace-up blouse, fake nails, black fishnet stockings, leather mini skirt and bottomed off with  thigh length black patent boots.

I was propping up the bar with a double vodka and coke when Rob shuffled up beside me and ordered the same.  Having already enjoyed the hospitality of several pubs that night his vision enjoyed that slightly blurry inebriated glow. Alight darlin, he remarked while waiting for his drink, have you ever been arrested? Cause it must be illegal to look that good.

I shot him a confused smile, I mean Daniele had never had compliments from men before, usually I’d just get a tirade of abuse from the regulars, such as, alright love, you had an argument with a brick wall? Or, how much did they pay you to take part in those new experimental medical trials sweetheart?”

Jacque explained that they hit it off straight away. They volleyed cheap digs at one another, like an old married couple, laughed about the world, and drank even more. “At one point he told me there was something about me that he just couldn’t put his finger on. I thought, well you probably wouldn’t want to put your finger on it if you knew the truth.”  Danielle told him she was visiting friends in the UK from France, that she was a beauty specialist, that her father was a famous French painter. The lies just got bigger and bigger as the evening got later and later. “We both slipped into a state of complete drunkenness. By that point in the evening I wasn’t even trying to raise the pitch of my voice, and Rob didn’t even notice!.”

What Jacque didn’t realise was that Rob had been around the block, and then some. He was an associate of Kenny “The Hammer” Johnson, a notorious East End thug, who you couldn’t even glance at mistakenly, without getting a nail hammered into one of your fingers. Both he and Rob had done time together on a number of occasions. Their hobbies included armed robbery, kidnap, extortion and fraud. These were dangerous men and Jacque was in a precarious situation with one of them who was now chatting him up.

“There was something very liberating about the whole thing, I’d invented a whole new person, and she was having the time of her life. I just couldn’t see what I was getting myself into though.”

It was around 11.45pm when things took a turn for the worst. Danielle excused himself for the toilet and made an error that would cost her dearly. “I was standing at the urinals relieving  myself when I heard the door open behind me. And then the words, What the Fuck! I knew the game was up. I turned around slowly and there was Cobbells with a very confused expression on his face.”

Stewed out of his head, Jacque had erroneously entered the men’s toilet instead of the women’s. I asked Stru’del what happened next. “A broken nose, two cracked ribs and a face that would make a Jackson Pollock look positively pretty.” But that was nothing compared to what followed. Rob reached into his inner jacket pocket and pulled out a Glock, cocked the trigger and pointed it square at Jacque’s scrotum.

 “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t give you an express sex change operation with the help of my trusty friend here, Rob told me as I stood there with my knickers around my ankles. Well, I said, you might get asked one or two awkward questions when a man dressed like this is found lying in a pool of his own urine with his bollocks blown off, mighten you?

Take it off, he barked at me, take that bloody wig off, I want to know whose bollocks I’m going to bloody blow off! I slowly unhooked the wig from my scalp and tossed it on the floor. Rob then ordered me to close my eyes. I really thought this was the end. I made a promise to myself then and there, that if I ever got out of this mess alive I’d sort myself out and get back to doing what I did best.”

As it turned out Cobbells had an epiphany, and not a moment too soon. “I knew there was something about you, I heard him say to me, it’s you isn’t it, him, bloody hell he’s you, I mean you’re him, you’re Jacque Stru’del.”

The Stru’del was well and truly out of the bag.  Luckily for Jacque, Rob had been a fan of his earlier work. He told Jacque he would release him on three conditions. One, to leave London and never return; two, to sing Easy Does It, there and then with his knickers down; and thirdly, to pay Cobbells ten grand in order to safely secure the evidence of said performance, recorded on his trusty pocket dictaphone, which he carried everywhere.

“I felt like a queen bee stuck in a honey trap”, Jacque said as he reached for something beyond the view of the webcam. When his hand re-emerged it was holding a tiny cassette, which he inserted into a small player, before pressing play.

“My name is Jacque Stru’del”, uttered a disembodied voice, “It’s March 22nd 1987, I am standing in the toilet of The Four Horsemen public house, wearing a pair of fishnet stockings, with my knickers down and my manhood  exposed.” My god I thought, was this the actual recording?  “I’d like to dedicate this song to Rob, I owe him my life.” The voice then sang Easy Does It, in its entirety, albeit very nervously.

When the singing stopped Jacque ejected the tape.. “Ten grand this cost me”, he said, waving it at the screen. Luckily I’d set aside some savings many years before as a fall back plan.” 

The next five years saw many changes for Stru’del.  Outcast from London he found himself living in the Black Country of the West Midlands, Natty set him up with some friends in a house share in the suburb of Tipton. He gave up drinking, got a part time job as a hospital Porter at Bloxwich General and most importantly began writing music again. He also began to build a new circle of select friends that would be essential in the next phase of his creative life.

Jacque met Foxroy Hulme, a self confessed geek, at an AA meeting, being a graduate of Sound Design and Technology, the two had a lot in common, including their drinking habits. Manfred Manifold, an engineer from Sutton Coldfield, was the senior advisor for a building project for NHS Trust at Bloxwich Hospital, the two hit it off when Manifold overhead Jacque talking to a colleague in the cafe one day about constructing a fifty foot high monolith like tv remote control in his garden, when he asked why he should want to undertake such a thing, Stru’del replied, because then I would never lose it behind the sofa!

Cardano Froom and Lol Rarvi were partners in love and music, together with singer Jimmy O’Reily they made up Kink Fink, an explosive pub rock band that had been drawing heavily on influences alphabetically, unfortunately they’d only reached the letter  B (such artists as Bowie, The Boom Town Rats, Blondie, The Buzzcocks and Bad Manners) when tragedy struck. O’Reilly, a manic depressive from Dublin, was committed to a local mental facility after he tried to kill himself by jumping from the ground floor of a thirty storey block of flats, sustaining minor bruising to his left elbow. Being a regular at The Kings Arms, where the band played, Jacque struck up a friendship with Lol and Rarvi (who played bass and lead guitar respectively) after O’Reilly’s departure.

Jacque’s near death experience with Cobbells had given him a new appreciation of life.  Not to mention an even healthier appreciation of death. In fact having had that brush with the fragility between life and death, he began thinking more about his own mortality and what that meant. He became an avid reader of books on life after death and all kinds of spiritual matters. “One of the books that changed my life and would kick-start the project that would eventually become my next project, was this one.” Jacque held up a dog eared book called “The Last Breath Of The Soul”, by science fiction writer, self confessed alien contactee, spiritual mentor, and investigative mythologist, Winfrey Steinberg. 

In the book, published in 1985, Steinberg claims that the final breath before death not only contains the living soul but also an encoded trans dimensional key that secures the record of the individual’s past lives in a soul library in the etheric realm. The majority of his conclusions are derived from a channelled source he refers to as Battibatt, an ancient Persian Magian (Magus or priest) who died around 892BC.

“I was fascinated by Steinberg’s hypothesis and my mind began to swim with all kinds of ideas.” One of those ideas formed one night while Stru’del worked his shift at the hospital. “As you can imagine being a porter at the hospital I’d see a lot of death. All kinds, messy traffic deaths,domestic violence deaths, accidental deaths, tragic child deaths but mostly the elderly succumbing to old age. I’d taken to carrying a  little portable recording device with me to capture any musical ideas, anyway I heard that an old guy had been rushed in with pneumonia and probably wouldn’t make it through the night. So just before going off shift I sneaked into his room and discreetly placed my gadget next to his head and set it recording.

The next day I heard the man had died in the night, so I quickly retrieved my device and played the recording back, his breathing was just audible in the sound mix and distinctly, twenty minutes in, it began to slow and then just stopped. Incredibly I’d captured his moment of death, remarkable given that the  tape was only forty five minutes long.”

Back at home that evening Stru’del handed the recording to Foxroy Hulme, who was able to enhance the recording and isolate the breathing. “I was transfixed”, explained Stru’del,  “I never imagined death could be so beautiful. The whole thing had a sacred prayer like quality about it.”

That’s when the penny dropped and my next project was born. My quest, to compose a piece of music that incorporated the recordings of those final gasps of air, an album of true soul music.”

Jacque set about a truly bizarre task, to collect as many recordings of those final breaths as he could for inclusion on his new work. “It was a risky undertaking. “I’d learn on the grapevine about an admission that was a code CTD (Close To Death) and set to work. I was like a ninja,  getting my recorder in place before anyone could see me, hoping I’d got a clear recording of that special moment. Most of the time all I got was the sound of friends and family visiting or various nurses or doctors shuffling around to administer treatment, if I was lucky I’d catch some snoring or even sleep talking. One old guy I’d recorded, had had an entire conversation with his dead wife, others muttered nonsensical phrases. It was a labour of love to keep going but occasionally I’d get that last moment, that last exhale before the transmutation of the soul. 

Meanwhile, during the day,  Jacque was composing the music that would accompany the recordings he was making. “I’d acquired an old piano, and, much to the annoyance of my housemates, I  began hammering out melodies on it. I really wanted strings for the album and eventually managed to find a local quartet that was willing, though I didn’t tell them what else was going into the recording.

I gave Foxroy the task of cleaning up the recordings and enhancing the sound. I wanted the album to be a living prayer, a communion for the soul.” After two years of work, the piece was nearly complete, I just needed one more recording. I’d had my eye on a guy who’d just had a triple heart bypass, and got the word his number might be up. I did the deed that night and patiently waited.

The next morning Jacque was summoned into the hospital by his manager. Disaster had struck. A nurse had found the recorder while giving the patient a bed bath. Subsequently hospital security had reviewed CCTV footage and had noticed him going in and out of the room. His manager played him the recording, which luckily only featured copious snoring and shuffling of bed clothes.”

“The game was up, they asked me for a full explanation. I didn’t lie, as anything I could make up would have been equally as bizarre as the truth.” I was suspended without pay pending an enquiry and I had to  hand over all the recordings I’d made. The police were involved and everything got really messy. Pretty soon the press got hold of the story and made a meal out of it.”

Once again Jacque’s name was dirt. The Telegraph ran with, “Sick Stru’del’s Library Of Death” while The Daily Mail wrote, “Washed Up Pop Star Seeks To Exploit The Dead On New Album”.  “I was immediately vilified, it was as if I’d killed those people myself.”

Stru’del was arrested under suspicion of invasion of privacy and eventually dismissed from the hospital. Four months later he was convicted on a guilty plea. In summing up the case the judge said, “You sought to invade the privacy of the dying for your own personal enjoyment and advantage, you breached that sacred moment that should be reserved for family and you should pay the full penalty of the law.”

On September 5th 1994 Jacque received a six month prison sentence and was ordered to pay a fine of ten thousand pounds. Not only that but he was ordered to pay the families of those whose deaths he’d recorded, two thousand pounds each in compensation. During the hearing sections of his album were played to the jury by the defense in order to demonstrate the vision of the album and to insure to the families that their loved one’s audio remains were to be treated with the utmost sensitivity.

What the court heard moved some relatives to tears and others to hurl words of abuse toward Stru’del. One angry relative threw a shoe which hit Jacque squarely in the face. Some witnesses who were in the court that day have broken silence many years later, one describes the music as “piercingly painful and hauntingly inappropriate”. There have been rumours down the years  that in one section of the album Jacque could be heard oinking like a pot bellied pig. The judge ordered all recordings of the album to be immediately destroyed.

“I could have coped with the prison sentence but to have my work destroyed utterly broke me. I honestly thought this was the end”, Jacque told me. I asked him to tell me what his three months in prison were like but he refused. He just looked at me and said, “It’s not something I want to talk about.”

With his album “Breath Of Life” destroyed and his reputation in tatters, Jacque was released from prison with little hope that he would ever record music again. That hope was rekindled however when he returned home to an answer machine message from renowned independent film director, Alan Barker, which went something like,  Hello ya big  Cunt, I’m making a new film and you’re doing the soundtrack. I’ll be in touch.

That film was the now controversial cult classic, Scumbug. Described at the time as one of the most horrific films of the sci-fi horror genre, Scumbug charts the discovery of a new species of insect that uses a human host to feed on, burrowing up the nasal passage and slowly feasting on the brain. 

Jacque was pleasantly surprised by the message even though he’d never met Barker before, he knew of his two previous films, Tranzmuter, the tale of a man who following a freak accident with a microwave oven is able to shape shift at will, and the ultra violent Petrolhead, banned in 67 countries for its depiction of one man's obsession with fire, it holds the world record for the highest body count in a single scene of a film.

Following a meeting between the two, Stru’del agreed to take on the project. “It was a no brainer really, my team was to be paid handsomely, I had access to everything I needed, and what had convinced Barker that I was his man, was the fact I’d just been in prison. He said there was no one else that could write the music for this film, which made me feel wanted again, especially after the loss of Breath Of Life. The only brief I received from Barker was that he wanted the music to be the blood of the film.”

Throughout 1995 Jacque worked on ideas for the soundtrack. He was given a print of the film which he watched repeatedly until ideas materialised. Barker shot the film on grainy black and white film stock, giving it a bleak, foreboding atmosphere which reminded Jacque of a place he’d visited several years earlier, called The Black Country Museum.

“I was transported back to a time when the air was full of fire, steam and soot. Of men drenched in sweat as they hammered, smelted and cast iron. Of how it made me feel intensely claustrophobic, and I thought, that’s exactly what this soundtrack needs.”

What Jacque created was truly revolutionary, a fusion of  orchestra and heavy industry, a unique soundscape. Utilising a library of recordings gathered at the Black Country museum by Foxroy and machinery designed by Manfred in the studio, the album is an assault on the senses.  “I wanted the piece to be void of all melodies, I wanted the listener completely unhinged, to free fall through an atonal world of hammering  and clanking noises, of  the hissing and roaring of steam, representing tension. It’s not an easy listen and it was never supposed to be.”

Scumbug was due for cinema release in early 1996 though film sensors around the world had different ideas. With an almost blanket ban around the world due to unprecedented levels of violence, the only place it was actually screened was Turkmenistan. 

Despite its ban, Scumbug was both revered and rejected equally by critics. In the Observer, Philip French wrote, “Don’t bother getting any popcorn because you won’t be able to keep it down”, while Mark Kermode on the BBC sung it’s praises saying the film was, “A triumph”, particularly commenting on the music, “It made me feel light head, it was like it was slowly strangling me.”

When Scumbug was released on DVD in July 1996 it found an appreciative audience, and has a cult following even to this day. Stru’del’s difficult and innovative score, slipped quietly  into the world alongside the DVD. Being his first new album in ten years loyal fans snapped it up, though listening to it felt like some kind of test, and one that only very few passed.

Another long period of inactivity passed in which Jacque jumped through several inconsequential jobs, including security guard, postman, barman, ice cream man and eventually librarian.  

Jacque’s next musical odyssey began one dark winter night in 2001 following a trip to his dentist. A routine root canal procedure had gone horribly wrong when the offending molar became infected, causing excruciating waves of pain. “I was in a terrible state, despite taking enough sleeping tablets to kill a small horse, I was in terrifying fits of pain. At one point I tried listening to James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful on repeat to numb the pain but it just made things worse.”

Jacque found that the only thing that would take his mind off of the pain was screaming as loud as humanly possible, much to his housemates dismay. Thinking on his feet he set up his microphone and began recording. All told he ended up with six hours of incessant screaming, shouting, winning and crying. The following day, after getting emergency treatment Jacque listened back to the recording and realised it might have promise as a piece of musical art.

“It was raw and highly disturbing, but it had an edge that I knew I could work with.” Jacque struck while the iron was hot, he got Manfred to construct a giant ceramic mouth with holes filled with concrete representing teeth. Foxroy sourced a pneumatic drill, the most powerful wet and dry vacuum in the world  and a huge pick-axe. “It was a therapeutic experience, laying into those mock molars with those power tools, and the recording really brought out my anger and rage.”

The album Root Canal, released April 2001, consists of one long continuous track forty seven minutes long.   Initially sales were slow, but then an unfortunate series of events became associated with the album, as highlighted by a BBC TV show called Watchdog. “I got a call from Lol one night to switch on the TV, the show had been contacted by relatives of three people, seemingly unconnected, who had recently had freak unexplainable accidents. What was curious, the show claimed, was that upon investigation they all owned a copy of Root Canal, that they had listened to moments before their deaths.”

Watchdog reported that Daniel Beddows, age 47, found at his home in Bristol, had been cleaning his upstairs windows, had lost his balance on his ladders, fallen, and later died from his injuries, a copy of Jacque’s record was found on his turntable; Jamie Ashcroft, age 35 who had been out hiking in the Peak District, was found by a couple of walkers having fallen from a hundred foot ridge, Root Canal was found playing on his Walkman; and lastly mother of three, Carol Wescott age 52, was driving home from work one evening when she’d lost control of the car and collided with a brick wall, Jacque’s CD was found in her car stereo.

Over the next few weeks Watchdog was contacted by 17 other relatives of victims of mysterious deaths that had the Stru’del common thread running through them. Of course nothing could be proven and these accidents remained unsolved but the inference by Watchdog was that the disturbing nature of the album had led to some kind of psychological effect that had unbalanced the brain.

Two weeks later, presenter Matt Allbron, known for confronting dodgy cheating rogue traders, caught up with Jacque as he was doing his weekly shop in Asda. “I was just minding my own business in the vegetable isle when some guy struts up to me with a copy of Root Canal and asks me to autograph it? Surprised I began to oblige. How is your tooth? He asks me. Confused, I asked if I knew him. He then whipped off his beard, and his wig, stated he was from Watchdog, and started asking all kinds of questions. Well, I panicked and just started running.”

The ensuing chase, shown a couple of days later on national TV was damming. “What about Daniel, Jamie and Carol, your fans who died in highly mysterious circumstances after listening to your album!! Don’t you think the relatives deserve an explanation”, shouts Allbron legging it through the frozen food section. “Don’t you think the public deserve to know about your shady past, masquerading as an artist? How you nearly burnt your band mates to a crisp in 69.” By this point Jacque has reached the entrance and is sprinting to his car. “That you were once a notorious helium addict. Were you not a sympathiser of North Korea’s hideous regime? Which subsequently got you expelled from France, not to mention narrowly avoiding an international incident.” Jacque scrambles into his car. He quickly turns the ignition and pulls out when Allbron launchers  himself onto the car bonnet. “Are you not a criminal associate of Eastend thug Rob Cobbels? And, how about telling us about your time in prison after being convicted for breaching the privacy of those dying in hospital.”

“You’re wrong”, Jacque shouts back at Allbron. “It’s all been a mistake, I was just expressing my art. Trying to create something beautiful.”

“Try telling that to your victims!” Shouts back Allbron. Jacque revs the engine, hits the excelerator and bolts  forward, then suddenly breaks.”

Allbron flies backwards landing in the shopping trolley of an old woman while the tyres of Jacques car screech as it speeds out of the car park.

After the footage was transmitted, the public had practically formed a posse in order to lynch Stru’del. “I just kept driving, I never went home, just drove through the night, all the next day. I didn’t have a clue where I was going. I just wanted to be as far away from those who had judged me as possible.” Jacque knew he had ended up somewhere in Scotland, and when he eventually stopped to rest his weary eyes he saw a sign before him which read, “Plusgarden Abbey, St Benedict, God Will Be Thy Judge”.

“That’s when I realised what I had to do in order to escape the inevitable public shaming.” Jacque brought his hands together in prayer and raised his eyebrows at me through the digital connection.  He told me he entered the Abbey, told the monks he wanted to devote his life to god by taking a vow of silence. The monks had long talks with him in order to establish his commitment, but they did not judge him by his misdemeanours, only by the innocence of his soul to create art in order to understand the world.

He was accepted as a monk into St Benedict’s, finding peace, beauty and a community of dedicated souls. The silence was food for the soul, the only time it was broken, being the daily Gregorian chants, which he particularly loved. “I felt I had found a part of me that was missing. The outside world, which had so cruelly criticised me was kept at bay, there was no TV or Radio, just the silence where I could create anything I wanted. I was home, I was a brother again.”

Jacque Stru’del was not seen, or heard for another twenty years. His past endeavours, his music and art were forgotten,  until that is, the world fell into the grip of a deadly foe that rose up from a fiery pit of hell, toward the end of 2019. Jacque watched the world change quickly from the safety of the Abbey. Lockdowns swiftly became the norm across the world, driving the populus into isolation, something he had had experience with.

Though any contact with the outside world was strictly forbidden, Jacque had managed to smuggle in an old TV in order to keep up with the news.  One day towards the end of 2020, Jacque was meditating quietly in the darkness of his humble room when a powerful etheric light from the window suddenly burst in, throwing its illumination directly on to the TV. It only lasted a few seconds and then the room fell back into darkness. Jacque was intrigued and turned on the TV.

“On the screen I saw a small, pompous, odd looking man speaking at the camera. He looked awkward and ashamed. I could see that the shadow of this man’s ego was blocking out the light of his soul. As I listened to his incessant self righteousness I began to feel a numb pain in my anus that told me something was very wrong. I realised that this man was a leader of others, with power and influence and I immediately felt drawn to sit at the piano and compose music that  I felt appropriate to accompany his verbal diarrhoea.”

It was the first time in twenty years that Stru’del had felt inclined to write music. He felt so strongly that a divine presence was influencing him that he spoke with the Abbot, Brother Robert. “I told brother Robert that it was important that this music be heard by those with ears to listen. That it contained a divine message.”

Brother Robert explained that in order to take on this mission Jacque would have to leave the Abbey, but he would be going with the Brothers blessing.

So it was that on Christmas Eve 2020, Jacque left the bosom of the Abbey to pursue his holy task. “Things began to fall into place quickly as soon as I was back in the Black Country. I met up with Foxroy, who was living on a narrow boat on the Thame Valley Canal kitted out with a state of the art home studio.”

Foxroy invited Jacque to live on the boat with him and once he’d explained the reason for being back he agreed to help. It didn’t take long for the other pieces to fall into place with God’s help. In fact by the first week of 2021, The Tipton Symphony Orchestra 

was fully on board, their conductor Charles Chelsey being an avid fan of The Stru’del Brothers. 

On January 25th recording took place at Tipton Village Hall, along with Jacque’s vocals. Foxroy handled post production under supervision from Jacque and by the end of the month Jacque Stru’del Sings Matt Hancock, was complete and slated for release on April 16, Stru’del’s 78th Birthday.

Given his age, I asked Jacque if this might be his lasting legacy? “Well, if it is so be it. I know that some of my choices in following my art have been seen as controversial but as an artist I have to be loyal to my muse, to deny one’s creativity to me, is like being deprived of the right to breathe freely. And anyway, who could argue against God?”

I thought this as good a place as any  to end our conversation. I was glad that my admiration for Stru’del had not dwindled as a result of our talk. A lot could be learned from his high morals, even if they had landed him in hot water. We said our goodbyes and as quickly as his face had appeared on my screen, it vanished.

Three days later I received a call from Plusgarden Abbey, It was the Abbot. He told me he had something important to tell concerning Stru’del. “You know that divine light that he witnessed?”, yes I replied, “Well  it was me, You see my room is across the courtyard from Jacque’s, and that night I’d been installing some new batteries in a particularly powerful torch I’d acquired in order to do my rounds at night.  I was testing it when it must have shone directly into Jacque’s room momentarily.” Why didn’t you tell him I asked, “Because he had a glint in his eyes I’d not seen before, and who knows, maybe I’d shone that light for a reason? God does move in mysterious ways you know.

The line went dead. I smiled. It seemed the Jacque Stru’del story just gets stranger and stranger

Ron Jonson is a writer and journalist living somewhere in the Midlands. He is the author of Double Decker,, the unofficial biography of Carol Decker, and several unfinished novels, producer of several radio documentaries including The Life And Death Of Nic Treadwell.