Tag Archives: spasticus autisticus

Tommy, a musical, cripped. New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich, 3 April

As a part of the publicity for Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability 3-4 years ago I produced a Top Ten songs of disability. No. 10 was the Who’s ‘Tommy’. I received some cross correspondence from another popular music scholar with family experience of disability (a disabled child, as I remember), who criticised the inclusion of such an, in his view, mocking piece, a song which was a(nother) high-profile travesty of disability culture and expression. I have been hugely intrigued to see this production of Tommy, by Ramps on the Moon in collaboration with Graeae Theatre Company, the leading UK theatre group for deaf and disabled artists.

In Shakin all Over I wrote about ways in which bands like the Who could ‘explore and return to tropes of disability over lengthy pop careers.’

 [They] stuttered the attitudinal voice of English youth in 1964’s ‘My generation’ (‘People try to put us d-d-down’), sang and acted ‘That deaf dumb and blind kid [who] sure plays a mean pinball’ in [Tommy], while guitarist Pete Townsend was widely reported when he spoke out recently about the experience and the dangers of rock music-induced hearing loss: ‘I have unwittingly helped to invent and refine a type of music that makes its principal proponents deaf.’

From youthful stutter to a hearing impairment more readily associated with older people, from the band that first sang, when they were young, ‘I hope I die before I grow old’ (it didn’t happen, not to the songwriter or the singer, anyway): cripping the Who offers us a different set of insights into the band’s body of work across the decades, which is also to do with refiguring the generational pull of youthful pop and rock. As singer Roger Daltrey said in 2006: ‘Can you see us onstage in wheelchairs?… It will still be us, still be the same music.’

Tommy was first a rock opera in 1969, then a musical film in 1975 (directed by Ken Russell), then a stage musical in 1993. Director Kerry Michael tells us in the programme that the aim with this new production has been to integrate ‘an exciting and inclusive disability aesthetic.’ The photomontage of disability activism shots at the start was I thought a bit clunking, nor did it really fit with the narrative to follow; perhaps it’s intended as a corrective to the musical’s own skewed representation of disability.

This version is mostly the 1993 stage musical one, with an additional song and some extra lyrics especially produced by Who guitarist and original writer Pete Townshend. (The additional song, a bluesy lament for lost youth and spark from an old performer—so surely it’s about Townshend himself, or Daltrey…—is for the Acid Queen to give her (here, him) a presence in Act II.) This matters because the original ending was changed: from Tommy urging his followers to become ‘deaf, dumb and blind’ like him as a route to enlightenment, to a cosier one in which we are urged not to be like Tommy, but to look for our own inner strengths. I should say that the end felt uplifting and moving for us last night, as, with house lights up, the entire cast sang and signed to us a message of inclusion and understanding. If that sounds corny, it really wasn’t.

The infrastructure of inclusion around the performance may be kind of standard for Graeae-style productions—a stage model and costumes props in the foyer for visually impaired theatre-goers (right), hearing loops, surtitles, signing, and more—but it does also regularly challenge much everyday theatre practice or rhetoric of inclusion.

Notwithstanding the massive flaws in the original story—psychical crisis makes boy multiply disabled, then it becomes a satire on religion and the counterculture? Plus, today for younger audience members (there weren’t that many tbh last night): what is a ‘pinball’?—this Tommy is terrific. It’s full of energy and movement, and only a couple of the large deaf and disabled cast seem to perform as though they are auditioning for Glee or Hairspray. The live band, centre stage at the back, is tight and loud.  

Especially in Act I, exploring the musical via a disability aesthetic shines through. What really strikes convincingly are some of the experiences of youthful disability: the medicalisation of the disabled body (tests, tests, and anxiety about tests), the bullying and abuse of the vulnerable. The sexual abuse of Tommy by Uncle Ernie as he sings ‘Fiddle about’, played by two hands spot-lit on an otherwise darkened stage, is powerful. Here the disability aesthetic makes full sense. Also there are some great hi-energy ensemble numbers (‘Pinball wizard’ overwhelms the stage) and other, well, weird ones (‘The Acid Queen’ as a coked-up Labelle in drag, feat. star turn Peter Straker, who appeared as the Narrator in Tommy in the 1970s).

The New Wolsey Theatre has a fruitful collaborative partnership with Graeae Theatre Company. (I wish my own city, regional rival Norwich, had such a dynamic small theatre, really.) I saw Graeae’s brilliant Ian Dury jukebox musical Reasons to be Cheerful here a few years ago, drove down from Lancaster for that. Was thrilled to then see on tv the band reprise ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ live at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Paralympics. Graeae are a company to be cherished.

In Tommy, several lead parts are played by deaf actors—Tommy, his mother Nora. Nora has a singing double, Tommy has two singing doubles. In the performing world of what Ian Dury called Normal Land disabled actors and musicians often still don’t get a look in (even when the character is meant to be disabled, for Goodness’ sake), half a part, no part at all, crip part given to TAB actor. On Stage Graeae, a disabled actor can require two or even three human presences. There is I feel a powerful statement of cultural value in that prosthetic gesture, which speaks of solidarity and love. Bravo, brava.

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‘Crippled with nerves: polio and popular music’ lecture, University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 14.06.34Department of Music Sociology, University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna, 5 November, 6pm. Ungargasse 14, 1030 Wien, 2. Stock, Seminarraum AW U0205

Polio survivors Israel Vibration, ‘Rude boy shufflin” (1995); feat. wonderful polio-dancing at 3.45

Polio survivor Ian Dury, ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ (1981); ‘Get up, get up, get up, get down, fall over!’

Vienna lecture poster

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Shakin’ All Over, number 4: Ian Dury, ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ (1981)

Shakin' All Over GEORGE McKAY badges


Surely this song should be no. 1? Originally Shakin’ All Over was to be called Spasticus. The 2010 AHRC award that helped fund its writing was indeed titled Spasticus: Popular Music & Disability. The badges/buttons above are themselves a small tribute to Dury, presented in the style of his famous set from 1977, sex& drugs& rock& roll&.

I write a good deal about Dury’s cripsongs. HALLO TO YOV OVT THERE IN NORMAL LAND.

English singer and lyricist Ian Dury was for a time in the UK in the post-punk years the highest profile disabled pop star, even reaching no. 1 in the charts in 1979 with the single ‘Hit me with your rhythm stick’. He contracted polio as a child, in a Southend swimming pool, in 1949. This was the same year folk/pop singer Donovan contracted the disease, in Glasgow (via a faulty vaccination—quite common), and US saxophonist Dave Liebman too. Here is some interview material I did with The Rotarian magazine about polio and popular music; Rotary International, alongside the Gates Foundation, still today runs a huge international campaign to rid the world entirely of polio.

Actually, there is an entire chapter, called ‘Crippled with nerves’ (title of an early Dury kind of love song), about polio and popular music.

‘Spasticus Autisticus’ is Dury’s controversial 1981 single. As a global consciousness-raising exercise, the United Nations declared 1981 the International Year of Disabled Persons. Recorded in the Bahamas the song, and the single ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ was Dury’s public response to a public gesture. In this song there is I think an extraordinarily powerful—not only within the context of the pop world—‘narrative of corporeal otherness … [presenting] the disabled figure’s potential for challeng[e]’, in Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s term.

In fact, his motivation for the song, and his understanding of his own position as a public figure of disability, were complex. One idea was to ‘get a band together who were either recruited from mental hospitals or recruited from really savagely disabled places’. Instead, he explained, he wrote a ‘war-cry’:

The Year of Our Disabled Lord 1981 I was getting lots of requests. I turned them all down. We had this thing called the ‘polio folio’, and we used to put them in there…. Instead I wrote this tune called ‘Spasticus Autisticus’. I said, I’m going to put a band down the road for the year of the disabled; I’ll be Spastic and they can be the Autistics. I have [my band named the] Blockheads and that means they’re autistic anyway.  

As he notes, the politics of self-naming is evident in the flaunted stupidity of calling his backing band the Blockheads (after another of his song titles). One possible title for his first solo album, his 1977 breakthrough record, before choosing New Boots and Panties!! was The Mad Spastic. Of course, ‘Spasticus’ was also a cultural effort at what Brendan Gleeson has termed ‘the reappropriation and revalorisation by disabled people of abject terms for impairment’.

The single was partially banned by the BBC, because of fears it would offend. As his first single since leaving the independent Stiff Records for the major label Polydor, it was a provocative, or even perversely self-destructive, choice. In fact we can and should go further—to release it as a single (let alone that it was on a new label, and with a new band) was an extraordinary, and brave, if also frankly career-shattering move on Dury’s part. A Sly and Robbie-backed Jamaican dance-rhythm pop song about spastics, released as a single, with a political message and a powerful and discomforting accusation?

Ian Dury Spasticvs badge, 1981: the audience self-identifies tooThe press release accompanying the single contains a section entitled ‘No handicap’, and locates the song firmly within Dury’s childhood experience, in a section headed ‘About polio’ (Polydor 1981). Yet in other ways it is the song that most departs from polio and from Dury’s medical-musical autobiography towards a much more general and encompassing position—the song’s hero’s name is, after all, Spasticus Autisticus, and Dury had no personal experience of autism.

That most public of his songs about disability, ‘Spasticus Autisticus’, closes with a number of male and female, normal and impaired voices proclaiming each in turn ‘I’m Spasticus!’ I have argued that the song is directed outwards, to the inhabitants of Normal Land, as a piece of cultural advocacy. But it is also directed inwards, in its closing collective gesture of self-identification and -empowerment. To achieve both, in a single pop song, makes it in my view a compelling challenge to what Marc Shell, in his brilliant book Polio and Its Aftermath, has termed the ‘the paralysis of culture’ that surrounds polio survivors, makes it instead a culture from paralysis….

Lots more in the book, including about the song’s glorious rebirth at the 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony. I’ve also discussed that here. ‘Get up, get up, get up, get down, fall over!’

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