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The List | Top 5 Unlikely Cult Heroes

The List | Top 5 Unlikely Cult Heroes

New film Searching for Sugar Man (out now) tells the story of Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, a failed US rocker who unwittingly became the voice of hope in Apartheid South Africa. It brought to mind five other men who have made a name for themselves a long way from home.

1 Sixto Diaz Rodriguez

The son of Mexican immigrants, Rodriguez grew up in Detroit, enshrined in the Motor City’s garage rock scene. In the late Sixties/early Seventies, he knocked out a couple of albums, both of which bombed, was dropped from his record label, which subsequently folded, and decided to call it a day.

Following his brief foray into music, he dabbled (unsuccessfully) in politics, studied for a philosophy degree and worked as a petrol-pump attendant before becoming a labourer. And that was that, or so he thought.

Unbeknown to Rodriguez, bootlegs of his albums washed up in South Africa, where, under the brutal Apartheid regime, they became the sound of the resistance movement, turning the musician into a word-of-mouth phenomenon. But with little known about Rodriguez himself, he became a myth, with tales trickling through that he died of a heroin overdose or committed suicide while performing on stage.

New documentary Searching for Sugar Man follows two South Africans sniffing out the real story behind their hero and the discovery that he is in fact alive and well in the US, living in obscurity and struggling to make ends meet.

Searching for Sugar Man is out now

 

2 Norman Wisdom: Big with Albanians

Back in 2001, excited Albanians poured into their capital Tirana’s Qemal Stafa stadium ahead of a World Cup qualifier football match with England. But they weren’t there to see a David Beckham free kick; they were there to catch a glimpse of another English hero and his physical theatrics — Norman Wisdom doing one of his trademark slapstick routines: tripping himself up.

During the repressive dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s leader from the end of the Second World War up until his death in 1985, severe restrictions were imposed the country’s relations with the outside world.

The only films from the West that made it past the censors were those of Wisdom, which the government bewilderingly read as Communist parables of class war, turning the pratfalling comedian into a cult figure in the secretive Balkan nation.

When Wisdom died in 2010, Albanian PM Sali Berisha made a point of sending a letter of condolence to the late comic’s family. He wrote: "On behalf of the government of Albania I would like to express heartfelt condolences to the bereaved family and his friends, the Government of Her Majesty, for the legend and comic actor Norman Wisdom passing away. Let us pray his soul finds eternal peace."

 

3 Guy Fawkes: Big with Protesters

How did an English Catholic with a penchant for pyrotechnics, who was executed in 1606, become the face of the modern day Occupy movement and hacktivist group Anonymous?

Synonymous with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a failed attempt to blow up the House of Lords and King James with it, Fawkes’ image was reappropriated for a character known as V in Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s early Eighties comic book series V for Vendetta.

Set in a near-future fascist dystopia, V is a revolutionary who takes on Fawkes’ cause four centuries later and bombs Parliament, complete with the infamous grinning mask.

The comic book was turned into a film starring Natalie Portman in 2006, after which the Fawkes mask became the disguise of choice for dissidents, first through Anonymous’ protests against the Church of Scientology, then by the wider Occupy movement, with Julian Assange sporting one at London’s Stock Exchange.

Last year, Time noted that this symbol of anti-capitalism is Amazon’s number-one best selling mask — making one corporation, the V for Vendetta film’s makers (and Time’s owners) Time Warner, a profit for each unit sold.

 

4 Prince Phillip: Big with Vanuatuans

In the UK, Philip is best known as Her Majesty’s ‘Im Indoors, wheeled out for the sake of a cheap gag whenever there’s a foreigner/Scotsman to insult (despite being born into the Greek and Danish royal families/the Duke of Edinburgh himself).

But for the Yaohnanen tribe of Tanna, an island in the tiny South Pacific archipelago Vanuatu, the Duke of Edinburgh is revered in much the same way C-3PO was by the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

According to ancient Yaohnanen prophecy, a white man would emerge from a volcano, then travel to distant lands in search of a powerful woman to marry and would one day return as a deity.

The arrival of the Royal Yacht Britannia in the country in the Seventies, complete with Prince Philip dressed in resplendent naval livery, seems to have sealed the royal consort’s reputation as a messianic figure for the Yaohnanens.

Unaware at the time, when he later found out, Prince Philip sent the Yaohnanen people a picture of himself. In appreciation, they sent him back a traditional pig-killing club, which could come in handy.

 

5 Luther Blissett: Big With Italian Anarcho-activist Collectives

A former Watford striker with 14 England caps to his name bought by AC Milan for £1m in 1983, Blissett is the current first-team coach at Hemel Hempstead Town. He’s also a best-selling author who was nominated for the 2003 Guardian First Book Prize, although in name only.

Not that we are ones to question the literary ambitions of professional footballers — ahem — but in this instance, the two Blissetts are not the same person: the latter isn’t even a person, it is in fact the <nom de plume> of an anarchist cultural activist collective based in Bologna, Italy.

As Blissett, this group was behind the a series of hoaxes, including: the search for Harry Kipper, a fictional British artist who went missing in the mid-Nineties during an equally fictional bicycle ride through Europe; an imaginary child-sex ring; artwork made by chimpanzees (that wasn’t); threatening to leak the plot of a Harry Potter book before it was released; and, after the publication of his/their international best-seller Q, Blissett’s suicide.

As for why Blissett’s name was picked, the group, now known as Wu Ming, remain tight-lipped, although it’s thought to have something to do with rumours that AC Milan never meant to buy the real Blissett in the first place (and in fact sold him back to Watford the next season).

Supposedly they got him confused with another black Watford striker of the day: John Barnes.

 

 

 6 Morrissey: Big with Troubled LA Latino Teens

An unlikely demographic to be snapping up Smiths records, but bequiffed Mancunian troubadour Morrissey is bafflingly popular with Latinos in Southern California, Arizona and New Mexico.

This is particularly the case in LA, the city “El Moz” (as he is affectionately known) called home for six years up until fairly recently, and where the annual Smiths/Morrissey convention — running since 1997 — attracts a crowd said to be at least 75 per cent Latino.

What could draw the macho, meat-loving - and guardedly heterosexual - Latin community to the dour, very white, middle class, fiercely vegetarian - and sexually ambiguous - bard of Thatcher-era Britain?

Partly, it seems to be the lyrics - enigmatic tales of unrequited love, frustration and alienation of a Catholic Irish immigrant in the north of England - that have struck a chord with the second generation Central and South Americans in this corner of the US. But it’s not just the music: it’s also the flouncy shirts, gladiolas and, most importantly, the pompadour.

Aside the hair, Morrissey seems to have endeared himself by wearing a Mexican flag belt buckle and saying that he wished he’d been “born Mexican”, which might explain why Mexicans know he’s miserable now.

Words by Jim Merrett