(First published in Electronic Sound magazine #82, October 2021)
For 25 years, Trunk Records has celebrated the uncelebrated: lost film scores, vanished electronica, advertising jingles and jaw-dropping filth. “If I didn’t do it, I don’t know what I’d do,” shrugs Jonny Trunk, the irrepressible one-man whirlwind behind this singularly strange label
Words: Bob Fischer
“My interest in pornographic music has always been there,” remembers Jonny Trunk. “I’ll never forget this… I went to a pal’s house, in Cargate Avenue in Aldershot. It was a horrible place that had been split into bedsits, and his dad had a VHS that we put into the machine. There were six of us, and it was a German porn video. Nothing offensive, just classic sex. But the music was this incredible Kraftwerk-y acid house sound. It went all the way through the film – this mad, pulsating music. The hairs stuck up on the back of my neck.
“And the only thing I could do at the time was go to the Our Price shop in Farnham. I said ‘Look, I’ve seen this film. It’s unlikely it’s going to be in the book, but… has the soundtrack to Candy Samples Meets Miss Big Tits been released on vinyl?’”
As formative teenage experiences go, it’s pretty telling. Sex, electronic music and a relentless quest to uncover the obscure. Since 1996, all three – in varying combinations – have been contributory factors in the success of Trunk Records. A new 25th anniversary compilation, Do What You Love, is a feelgood celebration of a gloriously scattershot aesthetic. Here, unreleased Delia Derbyshire cues accompany the groovy film scores of Roger Webb, and Basil Kirchin’s futuristic 1970s synth-pop rub shoulders with novelty singles from Mike and Bernie Winters. All human life is here, providing you know some pretty strange humans.
We talk on a Tuesday afternoon. Jonny in is his home office, wearing a t-shirt based on an early 1980s plastic bag from a New Orleans record shop. He’s funny and forthright, simultaneously the coolest and geekiest kid in school. Where did this all start, I wonder? When did his youthful tastes divulge from the traditional childhood diet of chart hits and mainstream pop?
“My first record was a Kim Wilde single,” he ponders. “But I realised I didn’t have much of a connection to it. My mates were into Genesis and The Jam, and I was just…” he shrugs, with a non-committal grimace. “Although I do remember hearing the B-52s’ ‘Rock Lobster’ at a school disco and thinking it was brilliant – because all the nutty people got up to dance while everyone else sat down. They just didn’t understand why we were dancing to such strange anarchy.
“And I liked charity shops and jumble sales. They were a lottery. So I got into groovy old film music: James Bond, and girls dancing with secret agents. And among all that, if you listen to scores like Sebastian and Our Man Flint, there are electronics in there.”
Studying advertising at Watford College in 1989, he found work as a copywriter at a Soho agency (“A toothpaste company would come along and say ‘We’ve got £400,000… we want a TV commercial and a press advert’”) but his proximity to some of London’s more esoteric record shops proved distracting.
“I’d say ‘I’m off to a bookshop to do some research…’” he admits. “And then I’d find a record shop round the corner. Kings Cross, into Bloomsbury, out to Clerkenwell, back into Soho and Covent Garden. There were record shops everywhere. I was into Easy Listening, jazz, film music and electronics. And, in the early 1990s, all that stuff was coming into London.
“And then I gave up the day job. I just woke up one morning and thought ‘I can’t do this any more’. I’d gone to a birthday party the night before, in a packed pub called The Cat’s Back, on the Thames. I had a few drinks, and a mate asked how I was doing. I said ‘The job’s shit’. And he said ‘Just leave, then’. I said ‘I can’t leave, I’ve got a salary’. He said ‘So? What’s the worst that can happen?’
“I woke up the next morning, went in, and said ‘There’s my notice. I’m leaving. This is not for me’. And it was the best thing I ever did. I started the label.”
Debut release Trunk Presents The Super Sounds Of Bosworth arrived in 1996. Two separate vinyl volumes, all licensed from the Bosworth Archive of Decidedly Groovy Library Music. Not their official title, but a pretty accurate description. The releases are a riot of spooky space instrumentals, tense spy themes and bongo-fuelled tropicalia; relics of an era when TV screens were populated by craggy-faced anti-heroes sporting sideburns the size of subcontinents.
“I’d get genuinely excited watching telly, thinking ‘What’s that music? Where does it come from?’” enthuses Jonny. “Then I stumbled across a library record, and the library happened to be 200 yards from where I worked. So I knocked on the door, simple as that. I said ‘Can I put some of this stuff out? I really want to make a record!’. So they let me do that first album. And when I left, I think they went ‘Who is that idiot?’” He laughs.
“But it was exactly what I wanted to issue. Music you couldn’t get.”
Did he never have imposter syndrome, I wonder? Banging on the door of a music archive when you’ve no previous track record of releasing anything suggests an impressive surfeit of self-confidence.
“Nope,” he replies, without hesitation. “I just ask. I have no issue going up to anyone and asking them anything. I don’t care. It’s a bit like when you’re out and you see someone famous, one of your heroes. My missus won’t go anywhere near them, but I say ‘Oh, I’ll go…’
“If you’re on a mission, people go with it. It’s quite intoxicating, I think. When I walked into Bosworth, it was like a haunted house. There were three people in there, and the phone wasn’t ringing. But they all got really enthused by me going ‘Wow! Listen to this! Who’s Frank Gartner? Who’s Vaclav Nelhybel?’ It was brilliant.”
The commercial breakthrough came with the 1998 release of the lost soundtrack to The Wicker Man, the result of painstaking rights-chasing and – ultimately – Jonny’s discovery of 13 reels of music in a gardening tray in the vaults of Pinewood Studios. A cavalcade of forgotten treasures followed. The soundtrack to Psychomania, a 1973 British horror flick concerning the antics of frog-obsessed zombie bikers. A 7” single release of Syd Dale’s theme from the children’s quiz show Screen Test. Derek Griffiths’ incidental music from wistful 1970s BBC kid’s series, Bod. Was there a mystique to unreleased music, I ask him? In the pre-digital maelstrom of misinformation, were there urban myths about albums that might not even exist?
“Exactly,” he nods. And – from beneath his desk – he produces a crinkled plastic bag: 58 Dean Street Records, London W1D. “One of the most desirable film soundtracks was Harold and Maude,” he recalls. “In the shop, they said ‘Oh no… we’ve never seen that’. But then the Scottish guy who worked there, Graham, said ‘Oh, I’ve seen it… it’s a Japanese record with a brown cover’.”
“Then you’d be in another shop, and someone would ask ‘Do you know anything about Harold and Maude?’ And you could say ‘Well… Graham from Dean Street reckons it’s a Japanese issue.’ So you’d get folklore building up around which records existed and which didn’t. Pre-internet, nobody knew anything and it was brilliant. Lots of things were known about rock, prog, folk and jazz. But the experimental stuff, the electronics, the library music and film music… no.”
As the label gathered momentum, Jonny found himself simultaneously running the fan club of his sister, Emma. In the mid-1990s, she was embarking on a career as adult movie star Eve Vorley: a road that would ultimately lead her to become the high-profile partner of porn magnate turned football chairman David Sullivan. The letters she and other female models received from male admirers – some explicit, others surprisingly sweet, others downright disturbing – became the inspiration for 2002 album Dirty Fan Male. Here, actor Duncan Wisbey gives voice to extraordinary examples of one-handed communication.
“Dear Lady Samantha, thankyou for your beautiful photographs,” he intones, in the plummy tones of actor James Mason. “As long as I’m with you, you have nothing to worry about. If I was alive, you wouldn’t need to be doing this…” These are lonely, lonely men.
“It’s funny because it’s tragic,” nods Jonny. “Although at no point have we ever laughed at those people. We take it very seriously. We went through 20,000 letters to get the ones that were right.”
Two years later, there was a sell-out Edinburgh Fringe show. And a book. And a Channel 4 documentary. And, indirectly, perhaps the most extraordinary development in the Trunk story – a bona fide Top 40 hit. Taking spoof supermarket muzak ‘The Gonk’ from George A Romero’s 1978 zombie film Dawn of the Dead and adding decidedly minimalist lyrics (“The ladies’ bras, the ladies’ bras, the ladies’ knickers and the ladies’ bras”), the resulting single reached No 27 in the UK charts in October 2007.
“We were living in digs in Edinburgh, and I’d brought the Dawn of the Dead soundtrack,” he explains. “Duncan and our director, Alan Cox, had a background in theatre, so they were riffing all the time on Shakespeare speeches. But I was playing ‘The Gonk’ and singing ‘The ladies bras…’
“That was it. We sang it all the time, and I got Wisbey to record a little version of it. But it was never supposed to do what it did. We put it on Trunk’s 10th anniversary album, and it fell into the hands of Danny Baker and Scott Mills. I was on a beach on holiday, and Wisbey phoned me. ‘Are you listening to Radio 1? Scott Mills has just played “The Ladies’ Bras”. I said ‘OK, that’s weird.’ And about ten minutes later he phoned back. ‘Scott Mills has just played it again…’. He played it eight times in an hour, saying ‘I’m going to get this in the charts…’ And he did.”
He gives a world-weary roll of the eyes. Come on though, it must have been exciting.
“Of course, it was mad!” he nods. “But all these horrible people started phoning up… ‘I’m gonna send you a contract. Sign it, and we’ll sort out the ringtone. Alright?’”
He does the voice in the gruff, Cockney gangster tones of Bob Hoskins, and the laughter resumes. But, alongside the glorious shits and giggles, there’s a serious side to Jonny Trunk. He is, I suggest, a guardian of lost things. Celebrating the uncelebrated, he’s the keeper of barely flickering flames. The little whatnots, the minutiae, the very darkest corners of dusty British weirdness. When the Batsignal is shone into the night sky, he scrambles to the Trunkmobile and speeds away to save uncherished ephemera from soul-eroding house clearances. One such journey was to the home of the late vocal arranger, Mike Sammes.
“I’d already met him and spoken to him, and then I found out he was in hospital,” he remembers. “I wouldn’t have forced myself on him there, there are lines I won’t cross! But his neighbour Gordon phoned me a few weeks later and said ‘Mike has died, the house has been half-cleared… and the rest is being destroyed tomorrow. You’ve got to come’. So I jumped in the car. He said ‘Just take all this stuff, or it’ll be destroyed. No-one wants it, and this is the end’.”
The “mountain” of tapes in an upstairs bedroom became Music For Biscuits, a 2006 collection of Sammes’ jaunty 1960s and ’70 advertising jingles. This stuff is important, I tell him. It’s endangered cultural heritage. He looks gratified.
“I find the whole process, from start to finish, absolutely fascinating. It’s exciting, it’s educational, it’s rewarding… and if I didn’t do it, I don’t know what I’d do.”
The Trunk catalogue is a hallucinatory cavalcade of late 20th century strangeness. There’s The Seasons, a reissue of David Cain’s jaw-dropping 1968 educational album, where harsh radiophonic screes accompany the austere poetry of Ronald Duncan. Classroom Projects is a compilation of alarmingly avant-garde recordings from 1960s and ‘70s music lessons, collated from privately-pressed school LPs. His most recent LP, Janet Beat: Pioneering Knob Twiddler, is the first commercial release of electronic compositions from an 83-year-old veteran of musique concrète.
There are sumptuous coffee table books, too – showcasing flexi-discs, and vintage Sainsburys packaging. And the artwork of children’s TV legends Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin. And obsessive collections of vintage sweet wrappers. And the sumptuous graphics of 1960s and ‘70s car brochures. Does he ever worry about exhausting his own personal supply of nostalgia, I wonder? Or does he still get “the feel” from it all?
“No, there’s always something,” he says. “I was doing a Rubik’s Cube the other night. And there was a weird moment when the blue and the orange segments came together: ‘Oh God… this is what I used to do’. The mixture of those colour combinations and the actions gave me this warm feeling. I don’t think it’s ever going to go away. I’m that sort of person.”
Not for nothing is the album called Do What You Love. Alongside Delia, John Baker and the rest, there’s a wah-wah driven music cue from more 1970s porn (“A Scottish guy sent that to me… it was at car boot sale, in a box full of other filth”) and an undated promotional recording encouraging British businesses to adopt a new technological innovation called “the telephone”. He’s created a little world, I suggest. The soundtracks to vintage skin flicks shouldn’t sit comfortably alongside the theme from The Tomorrow People, but somehow they do. It’s Trunk World, and it works. He seems surprised and delighted.
“That’s extremely pleasant of you to say. Yeah… that’s exactly what it is. A funny little Trunk World. I’d never thought about that, but you’re right, and it’s still going. I’ve still got tons I want to do, it’s ridiculous.”
“It was never meant to be what it is. There was never any plan, and I’m not particularly career-minded. It’s just grown because I can’t help myself. It’s completely what I love, all the time. All the time.”
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