Interview by Mikko Kapanen
In John’s Children biographies and articles your existence always starts at being the bass player with Sparks. Can you tell us a bit about what you were doing before you were in that band?
Before Sparks, or BS as we say in the trade, I was doing various odd things ranging from bluffing my way as a technical author, where I wrote instruction manuals about how to prevent your oil tanker blowing up at inopportune moments (my speciality was Inert Gas Systems, as I recall; the daughter of the owner of the company fancied me, so that rather explains that one). I also worked in a car repair garage, where I was sacked after two days for setting fire to a customer’s car with a blowtorch, evidently not what they required. I had to face it – I just didn’t have what it took to ascend the greasy pole of automotive maintenance. And so I decided to join a group, any old group would do, it was better than inert gas. Or so I thought at the time. I auditioned for Supertramp (in a dingy house in Earls Court), Roxy Music (in a dingy basement in Holland Park) and Sparks (bucking the trend with a rather swish cricket club in Barnet). The first offer I got was from Sparks. I had my own local band who played what we thought was pop music – saxophone, bass and drums, no vocalist, so I daresay that it wasn’t pop music at all. But we thought it was, that was the point.
Were you aware of John’s Children when they were originally together in 1966/’67? If not, when did you first hear about them?
I have a vague idea that when I was at school in those times, I remember hearing the name, when the ‘big boys’ (ooh err missus) would bring records in to show off their mature status. Although leading such a sheltered early life as mine (no TV, no music radio, no pop records, due to parental sanction), I existed in a kind of pop-cultural wasteland. And then Bolan threw some retrospective light on JC due to his later success. When the Sparks thing happened in the 70s, I discovered more about JC through Hewlett and Chris, who I also met at that time and got along well with. Chris played on a couple of the Sparks drum auditions – why he wasn’t asked to join I’m not sure. Probably Hewlett knew that he wouldn’t put up with much bullshit – he was rather direct in those days, and there was quite a lot of bullshit to put up with…
Were you ever into the music of that period, such as The Who, The Creation, etc.? Who were some of your personal influences or inspirations?
I used to go and see the Who regularly and once managed to catch a piece of Townshend’s smashed SG guitar as it flew off the stage (at Dunstable Civic Hall). Chris wasn’t playing drums though. My friends who were a bit older were into the post-mod thing – I think I liked weird pop, Todd Rundgren et al. And still do, of course. I do remember hearing the Nice at school, with a completely outrageous guitar solo from Davey (as I later discovered). I was at Chris’s house later (many years later, actually) and Davey showed me a royalty cheque he’d got for Nice recordings. I was dead impressed to be in such exalted company. Then he fell over.
The “JC story” gets a bit confusing around the time the band originally split up. Can you tell us a bit about how you hooked up with Chris and Andy in the first place?
I enter the picture in 1973. Hewlett managed Jook as well as Sparks. When he decided to move a couple of players from division 2 (Jook) up to division 1 (Sparks), I found myself out of a job (1974). Chris called me up one day shortly after the beginning of the PS phase and we met for a chat. Hewlett’s idea was to keep Jook going with me as bassist, but it never was seriously considered by anyone, least of all by me. Chris said he had this friend who could sing a bit… one Andy Elephant. We met in a pub (nothing’s changed there, then). Andy turned up with a green builder’s anorak and a long trunk… But we booked a rehearsal session and obviously everything seemed to work out. Then Chris’s drums were stolen from the rehearsal room, which didn’t put us off, and we rehearsed for a while as a trio, added a guitar, added another guitar, narrowly failed to avoid having keyboards.
As soon as Jet got together, you became the main songwriter. How did you assume that role?
That’s what I did, you see, play bass and write songs. Nobody else was going to play bass, were they, if I was the bass player. Course not, wouldn’t make sense at all, one of us would have been completely redundant. Similarly, nobody else seemed to have any material and I did. Except for Davey O’List, who had a few rather bonkers psychedelic things – a couple of them are on the Nothing To Do With Us/Jet compilation. He was a great, not to say fantastic, guitar player, but his skills as a songwriter were not so remarkable. Well, it’s a common thing… So I presented my tunes and we recorded them. Actually I’m not a big fan of democracy in this area, having listened to too many musical camels which began life as horses. Much better to have one vision right or wrong than a round-the-table compromise that doesn’t offend anybody but which satisfies no one. Most of my favourite records are by artists who, in this way, do what they’re good at; you know, the good guitarist plays guitar, the good singer sings and the good writer writes. Let’s face it, the Beatles got rid of the Harrisongs, didn’t they… Chris and Andy came up with the words to Whangdepootenawah, and I sorted out a jolly little tune for it. We played it on the recent tour and I think I’m not overstating the case if I say that it could well give flash-in-the-pan ballads like Stairway To Heaven and My Way a good run for their money.
Jet did a version of “Desdemona” as well… How did that come about? Did you ever play that one live?
We played it often – fast, slow, loud, er… not so loud. It was an excuse to get Davey to do what he could do best, to wig out a bit. I can’t remember exactly who suggested it – something from the collective unconscious, maybe. We used to rehearse in Chelsea – whenever we came back pissed from the Roebuck pub at lunchtime, first we would do ‘tuning up’, a great game which lasted for hours sometimes, then we’d do Desdemona, then we’d practice smashing the equipment up, then it would be time for the pub again. Ian was always better at tuning than Davey. He could do it, I mean. Davey would assault the tremolo arm, in the name of art, and of course it would sound great for the first song but then the whole guitar would be about a fourth flat to everybody else. Well, actually it would be a minor third flat to the keyboards, they had their own tuning issue going on. Davey would then peer in baffled astonishment at the guitar neck, as though there was some dreadful mechanical problem that had suddenly developed which he could actually see. I looked at the back of his guitar one day to see that he had taken off three of the five springs that were supposed to help the thing stay in tune, but it didn’t help. ‘They’re for the tremolo arm’, he said plaintively, ‘to make it work’. It was time for another Special Brew.
In hindsight, Jet seems a bit like a transitional period between John’s Children and Radio Stars because the group didn’t last very long. What are your best memories from the Jet days?
Chris once said that his best memory of Jet was the free sandwiches in the studio. Indeed….. My best memory is falling into the River Thames while Chris and the others were trying to help me back on board my boat after a long night out. Well, the boat where I lived, I should say. So, I can say that my best memory of Jet is falling face first into a pile of stinking shit. Everything else was much less fun.
Actually Chris and I were arrested by Her Majesty’s Polite Farce for uprooting a flower bed and attempting to carry it off in a couple of plastic carrier bags. They were not amused and locked us up for the evening. Chris’s (broken) leg was in plaster, and he kept them very amused with his drunken shouts of ‘Assault a cripple, would you, you bastards? Police brutality!’ and such like. We had a warm friendly evening with the fuzz, sitting around with hot tea exchanging funny stories and life philosophy, and we came up before the beak on the morrow. We told him that he’d got us bang to rights, no worries, we put our hands up to this one squire but that we felt society was to blame. He didn’t agree and sentenced us to life imprisonment followed by deportation to Barnet. (OK, it cost us a fiver. Each, though).
Although Jet “transformed” into Radio Stars quite naturally (without a decision to quit and put together a new group), the style of music changed a bit. Why’s that?
Well, actually we did stop playing together. I joined a group called Neo, yet another Hewlett-masterminded project for Island Records. Andy came down one day to see how it would be for him as a singer, but the resident songwriter also had designs in this area and was a bit nervous about it (see answer to question 5, if you ask me). Also his trunk was a bit on the small side, and you now how touchy our American cousins can be….. Andy was quite keen to be involved, he told me at the time. Andy and I kept in touch anyway, and when I got a small budget to record some demos, I invited him along, and also Jet’s last guitarist Ian Macleod. Chris had told us emphatically that he was out of the picture by this time. That line-up became the first Radio Stars, later. In terms of changed musical approach, it was just the effect of listening to what was going on around me, getting better at writing and at achieving what I wanted, and my own tastes changing a bit, as they do when you grow up (it happens to some people, anyway).
Andy has always been quite a wild performer, and not least so during the Radio Stars days. Didn’t you ever think he was going to seriously hurt himself on stage some day?!
Frequently. And he did – he ended up in hospital a few times, with broken appendages. Once he was injected by a member of the audience and once, thanks to him, the roof fell down on top of us as we were playing. Another time he fell off a nun, and that was nearly fatal, not least for the nun. And then there was that time with the schoolteacher in Paris…… but I digress.
Jet and Radio Stars material has been reissued on CD during the last couple of years. Are you still happy with those records?
The first Radio Stars album I like a lot, the second has nice parts to it although the plot had been lost slightly, the Somewhere… compilation (www.acerecords.co.uk) is most enjoyable, and Jet is certainly of historical interest. Although saying that, it’s curious that the few Jet tunes we recorded for this new Herring CD sound fabulous, even though I say so myself.
The Jet reissue in particular was a pretty cool package. What was it like going through all those old demos and things again…?
A strange exercise – I stopped being judgemental and just worked on the stuff as best I could from an objective point of view. Some of the stuff is very funny, especially the second CD. And the live stuff is hysterical, although unintentionally so. When my girlfriend heard some of my backing vocals on the live stuff, and noticed me cringing, she said ‘It’s OK, people will understand it’s meant to be a joke’. It wasn’t meant to be a joke, I shouted as I smashed her to the floor. That was one difference between Jet and Radio Stars, actually – Jet was a bit serious. Not that you can tell by listening to the record but it was supposed to be.
When you’re working with artifacts that comes from another time, it’s a strange feeling to look back and see how you worked or reacted; it’s like climbing into a time machine. One thing that I absolutely could not listen too was a live cassette that was running in the studio while we were working with Roy Thomas Baker. It’s just recordings of chat – intergroup banter, directions from RTB, arguments, me behaving like a twit, normal stuff but for me quite unbearable to hear generally awful I was. So I didn’t. The original idea was to use pieces of it on the CD, for the Nothing…. release, but it was too appalling to even listen to – when I made a DAT copy of the cassette, I had to turn the monitors off.
As you were the main songwriter in both Jet and Radio Stars, which songs do you hold dearest?
Beast Of Barnsley, Dirty Pictures, Accountancy Blues, It’s All Over (edited), Sex In Chains, No Russians, Cover Girl, Don’t Cry Joe, Nervous Wreck. Some of them play with the song format, others just have nice tunes and the odd funny lyric.
You have also worked as a record producer. I understand you’ve been involved with world music quite a bit?
Yup, that’s one of the things that keeps me occupied. Latest and best productions are Smart Boys by Mustapha Tettey Addy (www.weltwunder.com), Bad Blood & Blasphemy by the Tiger Lillies (www.tigerlillies.com) and Surela by Metin & Kemal Kahrman (www.sesplak.com but it’s Turkish). I drag my equipment to wherever the band is, we record and I bring it home and finish it off here in Berlin. In the above cases it was Accra, my bedroom and Istanbul. I now have a G4 Mac-equipped studio here and a collection of ADATs that travel with me.
The thing that attracts me to ‘world music’ – silly term – is that there are performances in there, it’s not only about how well someone can programme his (or her, I should say) sequencer or how many CD-ROM sound libraries he (or she – the thing about being even-handed is it takes up so much bloody time and plays havoc with yer syntax) can afford. So the best thing for me, and some of my favourite production are like this, is where you have a combination of humanity (people, I mean) and technology – one brings out the best in the other, for me.
In the ’90s you got together with Andy and Chris again to play some John’s Children reunion gigs. How did that come about and how did it feel to play with them after a long time…?
Actually it was tried once before, in the mid seventies I suppose, when Hewlett proposed a reformed JC with me instead of him (he didn’t get where he is today without proposing etc. etc.), Adrian Fisher and Trevor White, both being guitarists from Sparks, and Andy and Chris. We rehearsed a few times but it didn’t seem to be a serious proposition. So then many years after Radio Stars, or my Radio Stars anyway, I saw in Time Out, the London listings magazine, that there was some kind of Bolan convention gig going on. Bugger me if I didn’t find Andy and Chris, and a stash of other people that I knew, performing John’s Adults Unplugged. We kept in touch, met in various pubs and then Andy asked if I’d like to do a couple of gigs with them. Which I did (Notre Dame and the ICA), the Notre Dame gig being my last night as a UK resident, so that was a nice way to go out. Andy kindly drove me and my 25 cases of stuff to the airport the following day, and it all fell down the stairs and broke. Nice thought, anyway. Then later the Grand San Diego Fiasco Festival wanted to book us for threepence and a kiss, so I went to the UK to rehearse and then we all starved to death in San Diego for ten days. It was great, it must be said, not least because we all had known each other for twenty five years by this point. Chris’s false teeth (alright, tooth) fell out on stage, as we all know, and entered the JC Mythology (in this household anyway). (Yep, same here! Anyone who hasn’t yet purchased the Jet CD, there’s more about this essential chapter of the JC mythology in the liner notes – worth the price of the CD alone! -Mikko)
Why were you not on the “new” John’s Children CD from 1999? How do you like the record?
Interesting, especially the flower arranging and wigs. I was probably in Pakistan or Guatemala or Turkey or Ghana, if it was 99. I don’t think there is a bass player on it, actually.
What are your most and least favourite John’s Children tunes to play and to hear?
My least favourite to play used to be Perfumed Garden, but it’s now my favourite to listen to because it’s (the new version, anyway) so great. Can’t work it out, meself. Any list of other old unfavourites must give an honourable mention to This Is Your Wife. It’s great fun playing It’s Been A Long Time and Jagged Time Lapse (new version). Hippy Gumbo is a bit baffling sometimes, especially the bit where it goes from A minor to, er…., A minor. My thoughts tend to wander a bit at this time. Did I feed the cat, did I turn the gas off, is there life after death, when does the bar close, this sort of existential grappling.
There’s a live CD coming out from the John’s Children/Jet/Radio Stars mini tour called Music For The Herd Of Herring. Why is it called that?
Have you written any new material together with Andy and/or Chris, to be used on a possible John’s Children project in the future? There has been talk of an album called Bonfire At Baxters, what’s the deal with that? Any other projects in the works?
Well – we threw in a new tune for the Nothing… tour but then we threw it out again, cos life’s too short sometimes. I’d love to do a proper studio recording of the band as it is today – I now have the recording and production skills that I hadn’t mastered in the early days and we could do something quite special, even though Chris hates studio recordings. But his drums on Herring sound ‘just as they should have before’, he says, so maybe there will be some opportunity… Bonfire At Baxters is an old album by Jefferson Airplane, is it not, which came out in 1967 if my memory serves. Not quite sure how this fits into the general scheme of things…
What type of music do you listen to these days? What do you think of the rock music scene of the past decade or so?
Last few CDs I bought: ConstruKction Of Light by King Crimson (released 2000), Turn It Over by Tony Williams Lifetime (rel. 1971), Monkjack by Jack Bruce (1995), It’s A Curious Life by Anthony Hindson (1999), The Shape Of Jazz To Come by Ornette Coleman (1959), Music For Hangovers by Cheap Trick (1999) and With a Twist by Todd Rundgren (1997). (Plus a lot of ‘world music’, of course, but I get all that free). I just love neurosis these days, especially quality neurosis with great singing, and these CDs all deal with aspects of the condition. OK, Ornette Coleman wasn’t such a great singer, but I daresay you take the point.
I don’t find there is an enormous quantity of groovy music being created at present – I spent a long time working with vocalists and machines (Boy George, George Michael, Sonique, Primal Scream remixes, S’Express) and I’ve had enough of that thank you – I like stuff that’s decently composed and structured (lyrically as well as musically) and that has some humanity about it. And possibly a bit of wit, if it’s not too much to ask. Well, that narrows the field down by about 95%.
Since this interview will be exclusive to the John’s Children website, let’s bring up the subject of the Internet for one question… How much of an e-mailer and web surfer are you?
I spend a lot of time time hunched over a tiny screen swearing at the slowness of the download and calculating my phone bills, so yes, I do it, it’s essential to my work these days.
Thank you very much for your time, Martin! Any last comments you wish to say to the web site visitors?
Ah yes, the and-finally-any-funny-stories question so beloved of journalists . Actually I think it’s great that anybody is interested in anything at all today, given that so much is just dumped on yer plate pre-digested, interaction-free, no thought necessary. It’s great that there are people who are discerning and who express preferences, like the geezers who look at your site. Keep it up, as the actress said to the bishop.