Peter Skellern’s 1972 hit “You’re a Lady” introduced a new, original voice onto the pop scene. A No. 3 hit in his native England, the gentle ballad was covered by artists ranging from Davy Jones to Johnny Mathis. A second major hit came three years later with “Hold On to Love,” and Skellern continued to make music on records, television, stages, and even churches for the rest of his life. The singer-songwriter sadly passed away in 2017 at the age of 69, but the U.K.’s Mint Audio label has recently celebrated him with a definitive new collection of his first solo works.
The Complete Decca Recordings, a 3-CD set, brings together Peter Skellern’s output for the venerable label including the original albums You’re a Lady (1972), Not Without a Friend (1974), and Holding My Own (1974) plus the unique tracks released as singles and on the Hold On to Love (1975) compilation. Those who only know the earnest ballad “You’re a Lady” will be surprised to discover the breadth of Skellern’s talents as a singer, songwriter, and pianist. He was joined for these albums by a variety of producers including Peter Sarnes, Derek Taylor (of Beatles fame), Johnny Stirling, and Geoffrey Haslam; and arranger Andrew Pryce Jackman. Skellern also arranged numerous tracks himself.
The set reveals a seemingly effortless melodicism and well-made songcraft redolent of Gilbert O’Sullivan or Paul McCartney. While Skellern certainly channeled nostalgia at a time when hard-rock and progressive sounds were flourishing, he wasn’t your typical “confessional” singer-songwriter or piano balladeer. The songs delivered in his gentle, hushed and sometimes affected (yet nonetheless effective) voice frequently take a turn for the unexpected – lyrically, melodically, or both. Skellern’s background was in pop; prior to embarking on his solo career, he was a member of the groups March Hare and Harlan County. (With March Hare, Skellern recorded a pair of his songs under the auspices of producer Tony Macaulay, but those tracks weren’t available for licensing on this collection.)
Skellern’s use of a choir – the group The Congregation, themselves hitmakers via their Top 5 U.K./Top 30 U.S. cover of Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway’s “Softly Whispering I Love You” – set him apart from most other chart presences of the period. (Compilation producer-remastering engineer Richard Moore reveals in his liner notes that one of Skellern’s most favored sonic effects was to record the choir at a slower speed, with the effect of making it sound higher and faster when played back at normal speed.) In addition to its title track, the You’re a Lady LP introduced the Randy Newman-esque (think: “Mama Told Me Not to Come”) shuffle of “Rock On” and the upbeat “Roll on Rhoda.” The latter, with its twangy C&W guitars, brass, and heavenly choir, is practically a genre unto itself.
Not Without a Friend had the dramatic “Still Magic” (pointing the way towards Skellern’s eventual work in cabaret), a solo “Piano Rag” showing off Skellern’s chops at the keys, and the rock-oriented “Misguided Youth” among its standouts, not to mention a tribute to his songwriting hero Hoagy Carmichael via a cover of “Rockin’ Chair.” Best of all might have been the pointed “Song for the Critics” in which the usually benign artist questioned, “Who are these creeps who ruin my sleep?” Audiences had spoken; Peter Skellern and his very musical brand of pop were here to stay, regardless of critical opinion.
Skellern’s third and final Decca album was his most offbeat. Holding My Own was written in the style of classic music hall songs, and he even covered one: the 1877 ditty “Abdul Abulbul Amir.” With Skellern on piano (leading just a small ensemble) and providing the layered background vocals, it was ironically, a most personal album for which he gave special credit to longtime Decca producer Hugh Mendl for championing to the label. He penned the tale of “The Tattooed Lady” (likely inspired by “Lydia, The Tattooed Lady”), deftly tickled the ivories on the instrumental “The Streaker,” and revisited Don Raye and Hughie Prince’s 1939 banned-on-the-BBC, double-entendre laden “She Had to Go and Lose It at the Astor” as well as Noel Coward’s “That Is the End of the News.” Indeed, it’s likely that The Master himself would have approved of this altogether spirited, enjoyable, sing-along LP. While it didn’t yield any hits, Skellern delivered one with the slick, contemporary “Hold on to Love.” The undeniably catchy, tight track was used as a title of a compilation LP that closed out the artist’s Decca tenure. The remix of Not Without a Friend‘s “And So It Passes” from Hold On to Love has also been included here.
One previously unreleased track has been rescued from the vaults: the acerbic, pointed “Revolution.” While written in the wake of Richard M. Nixon’s Watergate scandal (“I don’t believe in you, Mr. President,” goes the chorus, “you’ve got an overgrown credibility gap”), seems all too prescient for the America of today.
Following his time at Decca, Peter Skellern moved on to labels including Island, Mercury, and Polydor; in the 1980s he formed a supergroup called Oasis with cellist Julian Lloyd Webber (brother of Andrew), Mary Hopkin, Mitch Dalton, and Bill Lovelady. He also continued to write for stage and screen, and played the live circuit for almost two decades as one-half of a comedy-and-music duo with musical satirist Richard Stilgoe (best known today as lyricist of The Phantom of the Opera). Late in his life, the devout Skellern penned sacred music, and shortly before his death, he completed his training and was ordained as a deacon and priest in the Church of England.
The Complete Decca Recordings is a stellar, persuasive tribute to the late artist. It’s been beautifully designed with period detail (such as replica-style Decca labels) by John Sellards, and contains a 20-page color booklet with comprehensive liner notes by producer Richard Moore (responsible for many of the recent, stellar Matt Monro reissues) as well as a Skellern Decca discography and a heartfelt introduction by Peter’s daughter Kate Skellern. Moore has remastered all three discs from the original tapes for the vivid, excellent sound one expects of releases on his Mint Audio label.
This collection was partially made possible via an online Kickstarter campaign with contributions from many of Skellern’s most dedicated fans; executive producers on the project included such luminaries as Richard Stilgoe and Tim Rice. “This is, I hope, the first of several sets restoring as much of Peter’s catalogue to print as possible,” Richard Moore writes in his Producer’s Note. One hopes that he succeeds in his mission. In the meantime, as one of Peter Skellern’s songs goes, “Every Home Should Have One,” indeed.