On The Road With The 3 Johns

John Peel loved them, they helped me get over The Clash splitting up and brightened the gloom of Thatcher's reign. Give it up for the 3 Johns...
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John Peel loved them, they helped me get over The Clash splitting up and brightened the gloom of Thatcher's reign. Give it up for the 3 Johns...

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To me, acquiring a favourite rock band was akin to the tribalism attributed to football fans. Generally you only display eager devotion towards one group. But on occasion, with a bit of passionate justification, you are allowed two. My first choice has been the same selection that I made back in 1979. I was 13 years old.

Surf the net, and discover for yourselves the volume of seemingly passionate, dedicated articles, laboriously documenting personalised encounters with "the only band that mattered" (the words commonly attributed to this band, not mine), inscribed by the minions of like-minded souls that also were traumatised by the split up of The Clash.

The band were stunning. If the D.I.Y. raw energy or Joe Strummer’s commentary (see ‘Washington Bullets’) didn’t appeal to you, they had a genuine approachable quality that would draw you in. The Clash simply looked good and I routinely scanned the NME each week for interviews and live reviews. I was particularly interested in their gigs, having first seen them one year after my initial discovery.

So after lamenting the split of the original Clash line-up, what was LEFT? Politically, the UK was on tenterhooks, awaiting the outbreak of the impending Miners strike which was/is still lazily reported as instrumental in dividing the country to North & South extremes - A (civil?) war was declared. The then Prime Minister Thatcher recruited Mr Ian McGregor, a Scottish-American Industrialist as the hired gun to break the NUM's back. Sickening. Certain media 'red tops' derided Union leader Scargill on a daily basis. Shameless strategies were orchestrated to break the left wing opposition. Apparently Labour wasn’t working and at the eleventh hour, the Police employed long forgotten dirty tactics to isolate picket lines. Sounding familiar anyone?

Then, along came John, well three of them to be exact…

Residing in a conservative, unfashionable small-town in Cambridgeshire, it was typically difficult to find co-conspirators. My gaze was drawn further afield towards West Yorkshire, where the agit-pop trio, the 3 Johns (3Js) spent their days. Between 1984 and 1987, I saw ‘the Johns’ on 3 or 4 outings. Their live performances were a creative collage of adrenalin, socio-politics and wit on stage. One night they ended up in a sprawling, 3 man heap at the front of the stage “searching for our musical roots” I recall them saying. These guys really connected with their crowd. Oh yeah, and this time there was imaginative sub-text too. There was a refreshing mischievous side to the 3 Johns lyrics.

Residing in a conservative, unfashionable small-town in Cambridgeshire, it was typically difficult to find co-conspirators.

For those of you who are oblivious to the 3Js, they are John Hyatt (Vocals), Jon Langford (Guitar + Vocals) & Philip “John” Brennan (Bass + Vocals). Their sound is distinguishable from the pop sound of the day. John Hyatt has a banshee quality to his voice. Never overplayed, he bellows compact socio-political observations. These sit comfortably aside surreal absurdities, which paradoxically, are amongst pop music’s finest wordplay. Try these for size:

‘Missing’

“Well I couldn’t help smiling
As wide as a cityscape
Teeth like skyscrapers in a lake”

‘Atom Drum Bop’

“Welcome to the land of the Tomahawks
Missiles for American Cowboys”

What imagery these project! The second example abstractly illustrates the cold war paranoia of the time.

Langford’s sound is the piecing, metallic sound of industry – a definite nod to another of Leeds best bands, the Gang of Four. Phil Brennan’s bass lines provide the perfect rhythmic-danceable beat to accompany the perennial Hugo (the drum machine).

This indie band became John Peel regulars. They recorded six Radio 1 sessions for him and achieved a respectable #14 position in his annual ‘Festive Fifty’ chart. NME gave the same track a ‘single of the week’ acknowledgement.

I found the following quote from a fan on the net "the Johns were a silly-serious bunch of political and cultural provocateurs". This I like. It nearly says it all too. To add my two penneth here, I have documented my account of the handful of gigs that they played earlier this month.


05/05/12 Bradford - 1 in 12 club

As we arrive, a companion accurately remarks that the location has the qualities of a 60’s film set. Apart from an adjacent 1st floor boxing club, there’s little evidence of existence. Inside the venue it is dark, minimalistic and untouched by corporate interests. The place is co-run by a friendly, enthusiastic and local fount of knowledge, Gary Cavanagh. As well as his involvement with 1 In 12, he has meticulously documented the local music scene in ‘Bradfords Noise of the Valleys’ (cataloguing events between 1967 and 1987 - the book is available via the club’s website), it’s a brilliant read. Perhaps this is the perfect venue to kick-start the tour. Its mid-afternoon and I head to nearby the Castle Hotel with members of the tonight’s headliners ‘Nights on Mars’ (NOM) for a couple of ales whilst our three compadres start rehearsing. We move swiftly to get a decent curry and hurry back in time for the 3Js set.

The Johns are on stage a little later than planned tonight, which is a common theme throughout the week. Langford counts them in and the band charge into the opener ‘AWOL’. This is Hyatt at his nonsensical best, as the singing style changes from American brogue to manic bleating to baleful bark and back again. The set contains ‘3 Junk’, 'Death of a European', and 'Coals to Newcastle' which are still sounding fresh. It’s more than just great music though. Like all great bands, the 3Js have a natural chemistry together that is encapsulating even before they strike a single chord. The set list contains memorable tracks lifted from the first 2 LP’s as well as singles, and early vinyl B-Sides. The Johns punctuate each song with some excellent interplay with the crowd. At one stage Brennie jumps amongst the dancers at the front which they’re not prepared for. Langford threatens to join in too. Someone clearly forgot to tell the band that the smoke machine has heavy fog setting as two-thirds of the stage is swamped, which becomes a focal point for 3Js derision throughout the set “Is anybody there” Brennie and John remark. Perhaps this is the “hanging cloud” Hyatt is referring to in ‘Teenage Nightingales’. The sight of Jon Langford mimicking an ape during ‘Men like Monkeys’ is perfect. Langford keeps in character during the pulsing rhythmic beat as he grooms Hyatt for lice – ha!  An excellent 1st date, AND they haven’t performed together since 2006. Can’t wait for tomorrow.

The headliners tonight are Nights on Mars (NOM). This band had only a handful of gigs under their belts before this tour. The songs are written by lead singer Fiona Gregg (of former bands Shaker Peel and the Parachute Men). On guitar is Phil Brennan (yep, same one) and they’re up for the challenge. It’s a huge task to follow the Johns but they do well. More about them later…


07/05/12 Preston – The New Continental

Ten bands for £10. This had to be something special. If you knew about this event and you failed to attend, you’d better have a decent excuse. Firstly, this versatile pub/restaurant/function room is a real gem. I had attended the John Peel day last October (after attending a similar event in London’s Nambucca club the previous night) and I’ve been looking for justification to return ever since. As well as being a outstanding gig, the cuisine/service is excellent too. The venue is situated 5-10 minutes from the train station and on the edge of an attractive lakeside. The events are predominately run by Rico (under the Tufflife Boogie moniker). Rico is the promoter that every town needs. His dedication to live music is second to none. “One of the good guys” as someone pointed out. Unfortunately Rico wasn’t able to attend on this occasion due to personal circumstances. Maybe next time, friend! In his absence, Jackie ensured that the day long event was managed to near perfection – Cheers Jackie.

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photo taken by Rob Germaine

We arrive in time for John Hyatt’s solo set. It’s a long day for him. There are several hours between his two appearances. Last time I saw John, his act contained an impressive array of musical styles (listen to his “Do what you wanna do” album and you’ll appreciate that he casts a large net). John is a cool character, everyone’s friend and off stage he’s relatively self-effacing for a front man too. Today’s performance was a tranquil acoustic guitar/vocal set. It’s a summer stroll with playfully spirited lyrics. There’s lots of descriptive dialogue between songs and his humour is sweet, and he radiates his warming personality throughout the room. There is something very folky about this performance today. This is John’s only solo appearance during the week long tour. His workload is impressive. Next Tuesday John is involved in an orchestral project in Manchester. He’s an artist too! John is probably working on several conceptual paintings at any given moment. If he had chosen to perform solo on other evenings during this tour, I imagine John would have creatively pitched each show from a different artistic perspective.

I chat to John before the gig and he’s enjoying the reception that Tom (his son) received earlier in the day. Looking back I don’t recall seeing John far from the stage for any considerable length of time. A little later I find myself in the company of Jon Langford. We exchange views on British/America beers and I make a promise to source him some quality ale later in the week. There are one or two faces I recognise too.

Jon Langford is larger than life. His stage presence is awesome making a varied set seem effortless. He’s had plenty of experience touring the world over with his long established Mekons, Langford is one of the most accomplished musicians you’ll ever see. What a pleasure! I’m not familiar with much of Jon’s solo material (aside from the excellent Skull Orchard – a concept derived from memories of his homeland), but after this performance I’ll investigate the back catalogue. “Hank Williams must die” is a what-if song. It’s introduced as a song that (Joseph) Stalin wrote “In the tradition of response songs”. Who wouldn’t love this? His genial chat has a soothing influence across the room. The stories continue to flow out of Jon. His anecdote about being on the same picket line as NYPD cops where they find that pizzas have been provided by Eygptian sympathisers is amazing. Then he laments the death of “Punk Warlord” Joe Strummer and quips that Sting is hardly a replacement as an elder-statesman of punk, before launching into the Mescalero’s “X-Ray Style”. Brilliant.

The Three Johns rise to the occasion. There’s a noticeable regularity forming on stage. Langford thrashes his guitar to every whine, whilst Brennie calmly struts from left to right producing some ultra-cool bass lines and Hyatt roams back and forth, plucking his words from the air. ‘The Day Industry decided to stop’ is a hit and the band stop for breath. “That song is both right and wrong” Hyatt informs us. Moments later, down at the front many bodies are swaying to the sound of the siren-like guitar alarm of ‘Sun of Mud’. Langford squeezes the guitar forcing it to squeal. This is fantastic. “Oh cellmate what are you thinking. Rock and roll - rock and roll. Ideological product” sings Hyatt. I look around and see the crowd nodding their heads in approval. The sons of former 3 John, John Diamond are here tonight and they are suitably name-checked. Next up is the jagged edged Coals to Newcastle. There are several false starts to ‘coals’ but that doesn’t deter them. Shortly after, during ‘English white boy engineer’, Langford and Brennie are leaping in the centre of the stage mid-song, whilst Hyatt engages with the crowd. The crowd aren’t contented until they get 2 encores. 3 Johns - Another great gig to your credit.

I feel guilty when not mentioning so many decent bands here. But this is my 3 Johns diary. But its impossible for me to neglect The Lovely Eggs. The most original, full on, explosive, and genuinely witty acts you are likely to see (they’re on tour NOW btw). Behind the bash exterior, each song is brilliantly structured with precision.


08/05/12 Manchester – Gullivers

I travel with plenty of time to spare, so a chance to look around before the show tonight. Gullivers is situated in the Ancoats area of Manchester, therefore a short walk away from Piccadilly. The immediate surroundings are in contrast to yesterday’s scenery, this has a rootsy feel. On the ground level, there is a blues evening. I venture down here a few times during the evening and am constantly impressed by the seamless mix of Punk, Rhythm & Blues and Northern Soul played all night. The staff are welcoming too. Perhaps unfortunately, I don’t get to experience the musicians due to the 3Js performance upstairs. We haul the flight cases up the tight stairway to find ourselves in a long narrow room. Fly-posters occupy one of the walls having the appearance of an old vinyl record shop. The sound system plays a combination of reggae styles throughout the breaks.

Langford and Brennie writhe about the stage twisting their instruments around themselves. Hyatt roams back and forth, patrolling the stage, plucking his words from the air

The Johns seem more relaxed at this gig than previously. It could be that the 6 music session they recorded earlier in the day has eased them. Plus, Hyatt and Langford don’t have a solo spot to occupy themselves and it’s the final appearance of Nights on Mars on this tour. The mood is ideal for them there are several 3 John acquaintances packed into the room and there are Hyatt’s everywhere. Whatever the reason, the band feed off the audience’s energy tonight. Langford and Brennie writhe about the stage twisting their instruments around themselves. Hyatt roams back and forth, patrolling the stage, plucking his words from the air. They know they’re on fire tonight. I make my way to the front (stage right) and join the dancers. There are several highlights in this set: ‘3 Junk’, ‘Nightingales’, ‘Men like Monkeys’ and ‘20th Century boy’. All of the above were powerful renditions on arguably the best night so far, which accounts for my heavily soaked shirt. ‘Lucy in the rain’ was my favourite tonight. The hypnotic bass line and Hyatt’s dreamy vocal line glide gently under Langford’s excellent riff-loop. What a night, eh? Oh, and did I mention Marc Reilly and John Robb made an appearance too?

10/05/12 Newport – Le pub

After a day off, the 3 Johns have two more shows to complete. The first is in Newport, Gwent, a 3 and a half hour journey by train.

Tom is obviously very excited about his musical adventure. He is showing a lot of potential and is developing an already rounded composure on stage. When chatting about his role on tour this week, he is pleasantly confident about the performances. I’m delighted for him as he’s enjoying every waking moment, and like his dad, no aspect of the tour appears to phase him and aside from the 3Js he is the only other act appearing on all 5 dates. If you do get the opportunity to see him, then do. His songs articulate a sense of Englishness with a definite nod to the past in the style of Ray Davies (of The Kinks), Nick Drake and at times XTC. Listen to the beautiful cadence of “The Queen of Edmonton Green”. Tom boldly covers the Johns ‘Brainbox’ too – that’s just promotional brilliance. His charm and style reminds me of a young Loudon Wainwright. There’s a fine quality to his guitar playing, very light and considered. I’ve witnessed few contemporary artists with such a broad and confident range. Check him out.

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photo taken by Ray Collins

Tom and his dad head into town to buy a surprise prop for tonight’s show. Jon Langford joins Brennie and me for a while but he has plenty of catching up to do with some old friends. Brennie and I sink one or two beers…. And then possibly another. He is wonderful company and amazingly astute. We discuss his new band Nights on Mars. There is good reason why he should be happy with reaction they received. NOM had a fantastic night in Manchester 2 days ago. It was the most visible development of all the acts I saw over the week. All songs are written by Singer Fiona. Personally, I like the pulse of “Walk with me” which has a perfect foot stomping thump – I’m still finding myself humming it. The set is tight and understandably tracks like ‘walk with me’ and the Parachute Men anthem ‘Leeds Station’ (Fiona’s former band) feature as strong points in their shows. But check out the infectious ‘Stay’ too. The tune has some inventive intonations. The on stage bond between Fiona and Brennie is very appealing. This group are hot and promise to release a handful of tracks in the near future. Look out for live appearances very soon.

The venue is situated on near to the town centre and is as welcoming as any other place so far. A short climb to the top of the stairs and you enter a large wooden floored room which allows you a high vantage point looking down to the low stage at the far side. Both platforms are separated by a neat ‘dance’ area.

There is a high level of banter between the band and audience tonight and we are treated to an excellent slice of entertainment from John Hyatt

Early on, in an act of rapid spontaneity, John drags Brennie onstage and both accompany Tom on backing vocals during ‘Brainbox’. Tom has a belter.

Additional support is in the form of the local experimental rock band Two Marks and a Frank augmented by a sheering guitar and yet another drum machine. They are loud and humorous too but more importantly, a big hit with the crowd. The little place is packed and Give Me Memphis are on next. This is a jerky pub-rock band with a sound so full of flavours. I detect traces of late 70’s power-pop amongst the set. Despite the obvious country references, there’s a thick rock steady rhythm section with some delicious funky beats. These guys are premier pub-rock. Bet they’re good for festivals too.

The Johns play an extended set tonight due to the home-coming of Mr Langford. He is in fine form and there doesn’t appear to be anyone in the audience he hasn’t shared a few drinks with before. There is a high level of banter between the band and audience tonight and we are treated to an excellent slice of entertainment from John Hyatt. Due to an oversight John had neglected to bring a change of clothing from home and had found a couple of charity shops in Newport to provide him with some enough stage gear for tonight’s show. During the set, the audience are invited to participate in his “guess the celebrity face on my t-shirt” quiz. There are many suggestions slung playfully across the room. Iggy Pop, Noddy Holder, Jon Langford. A correct guess then ensures that John reveals the Debbie Harry clothing on cue to a huge roar. Before they play ‘Devil’s Music’, Jon Langford invites the song writer Carlton B Morgan onto the stage (with harmonica) to help perform it too. This evening is another fine recital. At the front, a few guys pogo to ‘Windolene’ ‘20th Century Boy’ and ‘English White Boy Engineer’. The Johns are loving the attention as they continue to deliver 3 encores to the enthusiastic crowd.

11/05/12 Brixton – The Windmill

It’s these smaller, thriving local concerns that hold the key to genuine atmosphere. Surely the metropolis is too fast to yield to intimacy?

Of course I have experienced some excellent gigs in London and fairly recently, as I mentioned previously, I attended a John Peel tribute evening one in October last year at the Nambucca club in North London which was a fantastic event brimming with quality. And tonight is no different.

Yet again we are early but that’s ok as it’s a gloriously sunny day and we are joined by Mitch (a Mekons roadie) outside the venue and swap a few stories for the next hour.

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photo taken by Ray Collins

As you enter the Windmill, the stage set in the top of an almost C-shaped room. The room is deliberately lacking natural light. It’s full of character and provides a respectable atmosphere as the crowd are encouraged against the stage when the numbers surge forward from the bar. Tom Hyatt and Give me Memphis warm the audience. There is a good vibe about this place and there are plenty of friendly characters to exchange banter. This isn’t just a venue for gigs, which is evident by the large numbers of regular drinkers in as well. The hosts, Seamus and Kathleen are keen to socialise and weave their way amongst the public during the evening. Seamus is keen to stage more events, though the posters hung about the building suggest that the diary is near to capacity already.

The penultimate act on this tour is the lively Chips for the Poor. They benefit from an appreciative audience and are enjoying themselves on stage.  I’m impressed with the scope of styles they incorporate. The unpredictable swirling of singer S.C.O.T.T. counteracting the repetitive bass driven chug and Jangly rhythms is infectious. This is a powerful set and

That man, John Peel would have loved these. Velvet Underground meets Stump.

So, now its time for the definitive show for the 3 “warriors of punk”. The past week has been a privilege and I suspect they’ll finish the tour on another high anyhow. Before the gig Brennie tells me he wants to change his Bass style for this one and he does to great effect. Only one minor concern… Will Hyatt’s hold out? Of course it’s no surprise, as John has given some great performances. Not just vocally but twisting around the stage dodging his companions. There is great energy in the room. They receive a loud applause and the stage moves are perfect. John’s voice is just about holding together though it’s clear that he’s wrestling with the range. ‘Secret Agent’, ‘kick the dog’, ‘Death of the European’ receive good response. Despite the small stage the 3Js throw themselves into fine rock poses. John silences the crowd to give Langford a special tour present, a Captain Scarlet photo album. Jon sings the theme and informs us that there is “Something tangibly evil” about the puppet’s nemesis, Captain Black. “The stage is awash with floral wrapping paper” says Jon. The mood is great and to round off a excellent set, they end on my favourite song on the tour ‘Lucy in the Rain”. One of the brilliant live acts

For all concerned, there are plans for several re-releases later this year. The Johns also have plans to record brand new songs in the very near future.

“World of the workers is wild” – indeed

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