Friday, 3 May 2013

"We have all been teenagers, some of us will be teenagers forever" Of Needham and Snodgrass

In 1992, the BBC advertised for people to take part in their Teenage Diaries, a series that involved lending handpicked British youths one of their expensive cameras with which to record fifty hours of their lives to later be edited to forty five minutes. Loughborough Megadeth fan Chris Needham sent off an envelope filled with his best lyrics and poems and covering letter explaining if the BBC wanted a no bullshit diary of what it was like to be a teenage thrash metal fan living in the East Midlands, then he was their man. What resulted is some of the most extraordinary footage ever recorded.

I rediscovered In Bed with Chris Needham after finding a link on facebook. It’s a minor miracle this footage still survives, its existence a testament to its cult like status. There are no DVD’s, just grainy internet footage gleaned from a heavily passed-around VHS tape.  Passed off as a record of the titular Chris trying to get a heavy metal band off the ground, it’s actually the truest, most awkward portrait of what it is to be a teenager ever shot.  To call it warts-and-all is to do it an injustice.

It’s easy to laugh Chris Needham (all teeth, wire rimmed specs, shit stopper jeans, and wool mullet), principally because he is unintentionally (but genuinely) funny. Like absolutely everybody aged 17, Chris was a bit of twat. Coming across like a cross between Holden Caulfield and Saxondale, we see him lost in the skinny, spotty, gangling, strange and foul smelling world of the teenage boy. He gracelessly bumbles his way around his little life, getting bollocked by teachers, being embarrassed by his Nan and rehearsing with his band Manslaughter. You can pretty much see the hormones coursing through the grease and the spots of his face.

The reason, I think, we all can laugh at Chris’s cringing lyrics and monologue rants that would shame Rick from the Young Ones, is because in Chris we see a little of our own inner pretentious little Herbert. Yes, it’s a terrible cliché, but there is a bit Chris Needham in all of us. “All you old bastards, you old farts should listen, you should learn something from this” he snarls. The irony is of course, as soon as you hit twenty, you’ve learned the lessons already. The Facebook link was put up by Dan, an extremely cool (and very pleasant) young man who plays in one of my favourite new indie bands Evans the Death. And yes, even you Dan, were like Chris once. Be ready to look back and cringe.

Amongst the smirk worthy, daft footage is moments of genuine warmth. Whilst young ‘uns these days have invented sixteen new sexual positions by the time they are eligible to vote, we see Chris timidly exchange Christmas cards with his girlfriend. The footage oozes blushing embarrassment . We see him where he is perhaps genuinely at peace, when he is fishing. The placid water of the canal perhaps mirroring his inner tranquillity.


By utter coincidence (I was round having tea at my mums and she had it on the Skybox), I caught Snodgrass on the same night that I caught up with young Chris. The teleplay (screenplay by David Quantick and based on a story by Ian R MacLeod) re-imagines John Lennon’s life as if he had left the Beatles before they properly took off. We see his world as a jobless 50 year old, sleeping in spare rooms and talking to himself on the bus as he passes posters advertising The Beatles he has no part of touring such hits as Mary Has a Little Lamb.

Funny, dark and affecting we see Ian Hart’s Lennon set in a grey world surrounded with what he calls ‘Snodgrass’, (people who you know, work and pay the mortgage. That kind of loser) while his brain fizzes and pops with tart Scouse wit. We feel sorry for the faux-Lennon, because of his life and because we know what he missed. 

I wonder if we would have felt so sorry for him if actually was a Snodgrass. A 50 year old Lennon with a wife, a family and a couple of kids, a Lennon who enjoyed gardening, playing in a local pub skiffle band at the weekends and collecting paintings by the unknown Stuart Sutcliffe when he has a bit of spare cash. Would we ache for him so much if he got what he was clearly searching for all his life, some peace of mind? Could you imagine a Lennon free of his demons, enjoying being a granddad? Could you imagine a BETTER granddad? But of course, that doesn't make good telly.

“Me auntie used to say ‘Oh guitar’s all right, John, but you’ll never earn a living at it.’ Fucking hell, Mimi, you weren't wrong…” mutters Quanticks Lennon. Maybe not, but for the Chris Needhams of this world they can mean the opportunity to show off in front of girls at the college talent show, or if you’re really lucky, star in a BBC funded Heavy Metal video with your top off. Most of us start off as a Chris Needham and end up a Snodgrass. We dream of stadiums and gold records, not doing the extra hours to pay the mortgage. Of screaming girls, not earning a quiet life. I'm slightly ashamed to say this speaking a man in his mid-thirties, but there is a part me that will forever be drawn to dicking around with a drum kit in a form room. Long live dreams, long live rock.

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