Jul 062012

Martin and John (not pictured: Abraham).


Dear Fellow Rock’n’Rollers, I have been remiss. Many months ago now I promised to write 3 articles on 3 “very British Johns” and I did not come through on parts 2 and 3, but I do have my excuses.

  1. Band trouble, we can all understand this affliction I hope
  2. I have been trying to organise my life to make studying for my degree at least possible!
  3. Drunk. Yep! Good’ol fashioned drunk

But no more excuses, on with Part 2! Better late than never.

Three Very British Johns, Part 2: John Cooper Clarke, The Bard of Salford

A lot of what people think about John Cooper Clarke is projected on to him. He has always been referred to as a “Punk Poet,” which doesn’t do him justice despite being true. He did arrive on the scene in the ’70s along with punk and he does dress very punk and the machine-gun delivery of his prose in the early days went down well with the punk audiences and he did form part of the punk vanguard, most definitely, but there is a lot more to his work than that. For me JCC is one of the greatest poets Britain has produced; laced with wit and social comment his poems range from the plight of the young to the many plus sides of a hire car.

He was born in Lancashire in 1949 and was inspired by a teacher who introduced him to poetry; his first job was a laboratory technician (he even did a sugar puffs advert in the ’80s). He began performing in folk clubs around Manchester and went on to perform on the same bill with all of the great punk acts of the ’70s. He recorded a few albums, even had a top 40 chart hit “Gimmix (Play Loud),” but after a varying level of success he disappeared off the scene for nearly 20 years. Some put this down to a chronic heroin addiction, which thankfully he kicked, but JCC puts it down to idleness and lack of ambition: “…lots of people take heroin and still keep a career,” as he explained in a TV interview in 2009.

The first time I ever heard JCC was when I caught a an episode of the Old Grey Whistle Test from 1978, with him performing a poem set to music called “I Don’t Wanna Be Nice.” I was convinced that this guy was everything that people had said about him: venomous, bile spitting drug-addled punk poet, but when you look at the body of his work and his demeanor in interviews he is actually a very “nice man” who is so much more than the moniker of Punk-Poet suggests and who only swears when it seems appropriate. Looks can be deceiving.

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Jan 242012

There are three John’s that are peculiarly British to my mind. One is the relatively well-known Folk/Fusion Guitarist and songwriter John Martyn; the second is “Punk Poet” John Cooper Clarke; and the third is a lesser known gem, that is John Otway. Over the next couple of weeks I am going to introduce you to these artists, and I hope you appreciate them for the rarities that they are. I shall start with John Otway, the man who made a success out of failure.

If you know of John Otway at all it will almost definitely be for his calamitous performance on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1972 and his most successful song, until very recently, “Really Free.” He is often described (mostly by John himself) as rock’s greatest failure, but I strongly disagree with this prognosis and I am sure that you will agree with me in the end. If my sources are correct John Otway’s parents supported him all the way through his “career,” so much so that they even remortgaged their bungalow to fund his escapades

In 1977, the song “Really Free” got to #27 in the charts, which got him a 5-album deal with Polydor Records. The album featured a Wild Willy Barrett on guitar and was produced by Pete Townsend; suffice to say that the album didn’t do very well. Polydor viewed John as a punk act rather than what he actually is, which you will have to decide for yourself. John still performs live, records and writes books to this day, and seems to have as much energy as he ever did and is loved by his loyal fans more than ever.

His self-deprecating style is what makes him peculiar to Britain as well as the subject matter he sings about and the humor that he brings to his performance. However, his exuberance led to a series of disasters early on in his career that he never would be able to overcome, and I think this is what ultimately put the kybosh on any commercial success he could have had. To truly appreciate what a liability John is must be seen to be believed. Following is the infamous 1972 Whistle Test performance that will make everything clear. Please watch before continuing to read as it is genuinely gut-bustlingly hilarious. How Wild Billy Barrett doesn’t kill him is an act of phenomenal restraint. Enjoy!

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Jan 152011


In tonight’s edition of Saturday Night Shut-In, Mr. Moderator will spend time with a collection of songs by The Everly Brothers, from their post-peak years of 1965 through 1972. It is not a well-known period in their career, but it did yield a few minor hits and songs that were otherwise brought to the public through cover versions, including Mr. Mod’s favorite Bryan Ferry solo cover, “The Price of Love.”

“I first became interested in this period of the brothers’ career,” said Mr. Moderator in a pre-show interview, “in the early ’80s, when I bought a double-album collection of their greatest hits on the Arista label, with some pink-themed cover. As I got into the post-‘Cathy’s Clown’ material on side 3 I became fascinated by efforts to update their sound. They still made for a pretty strong, second-rate mid-’60s band, although I don’t think these strengths were reflected in their record sales.”

“As a student of long-running failure and dashed dreams,” Mr. Mod continued, “I’ve continued to dig out tracks from this point in the Everly Brothers’ career. I’m rarely let down by the feelings of empathy that sweep over me.”

“I’m sorry,” he concluded our chat, “I’ve got a show to do.”

[audio:https://www.rocktownhall.com/blogs/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/RTH-Saturday-Night-Shut-In-11.mp3|titles=RTH Saturday Night Shut-In, episode 11]

[Note: The Rock Town Hall feed will enable you to easily download Saturday Night Shut-In episodes to your digital music player. In fact, you can even set your iTunes to search for an automatic download each week’s podcast.]

A video taste of the wilderness years most of us missed follows the jump!

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May 292009

Big Star, 1972: Can someone mess up that coffee table?

Even those Townspeople bold enough to choose one, in our current poll, between the first two Big Star albums, #1 Record and Radio City, would probably agree that both albums are fine additions to any rock fan’s collection. But simply choosing is not enough, and as a Townsperson you know it!


Loser Rock

 Posted by
Sep 172007

For many on RTH, Loser Rock is the ultimate musical bete noire. On the face of it, the words “Loser Rock” conjure the image of a broken, simpering man, venting his pain by cradling an acoustic guitar, mousily whispering words of a bottomless yet superficial despair, before finally collapsing in a pile of tears. Or perhaps the term summons the memory a doomed, slovenly, possibly soused twentysomething, howling against the elements, wringing a tortured sound from his Fender Jaguar, while a rhythm section plods along with a distinct lack of commitment.

Here in the halls of rock, Loser Rock can take on mythic proportions, often becoming the convenient scapegoat for the decreased popularity of party-rock, cock-rock… in fact, one could conceivably pin the decline of rock ‘n’ roll in the public sphere at the feet of Loser Rock. The ultimate sin of Loser Rock is that it ultimately encouraged listeners to equate rock with bad times, not good ones. And who honestly wants spend time at that party?

But of course in many ways this characterization of Loser Rock is a straw argument. Re-read the first paragraph; now, do you actually know any well-known musicians who are really like that, and nothing but that? I submit that the likes of The Smiths, Elliott Smith, and Belle and Sebastian are not Loser Rock so much as they are Alone Time Rock. (Paradoxically, The Smiths and Belle and Sebastian’s cult audiences have swelled to the size of their own social sect, practically. Of course, these fans are often cited as part of the problem by the anti-Loser Rockers. But that’s a whole other essay.)

That said, there is something called Loser Rock and it can be a positive or a negative. At its best – when acts like The Replacements, Aimee Mann, Nirvana, and Quasi are firing on all cylinders – Loser Rock owns up to reality. If Winner Rock thrives on the delusion that the odds can be defied (hence its frequent connection with sports), Loser Rock achieves catharsis by facing failure and articulating it accurately and perfectly. Sometimes, shit goes down and it’s best not to pretend otherwise. Loser Rock can allow you to wallow, and sometimes we all need a good wallow. But that’s not the only way. For a time, The Replacements showed us how to turn losing into a good party. Aimee Mann displayed the effectiveness of a precisely worded and dryly delivered summation of a losing situation. Nirvana wedded hopeless desperation to corrosive guitars and a rhythm section that frankly eats Winner Rockers for dinner. Quasi have entire albums that act as the indie-rock equivalent of Peter Finch’s famous Network speech, or perhaps Alec Baldwin’s in Glengarry Glen Ross. Get mad, sons of bitches.

In contrast, it seems to me, Winner Rock as Mr. Moderator defines it, is an almost abstract concept. The Clash addresses its audience as a whole? Doesn’t this tie in with that great band’s worst attribute – their rhetoric? I’m not convinced that Winner Rock is not, in fact, best represented by Survivor and Journey.

One final point, and an olive branch of sorts: An appreciation of Loser Rock does not mean one cannot also listen to Winner Rock. The point is that a person should be able to access a wide variety of emotions in their music collection, if they so choose. One day you might want to hear “Eye of the Tiger.” Another day you might want “Needle in the Hay.” Must every song be connected to “Satisfaction”?


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