Spinguy ~ Hello, and thanks for doing this interview. I don't know if this will be taken as a compliment, but when I interview these new "kids" well, they're just the next wave of pop kids to me, but you're from my "pantheon" days in a matter of speaking, so to me at least getting this chance is a little special.
Johnny ~ Are you calling me an old dear - one of the ancients? I don't feel like a veteran at all. I just live at a different speed from other people. Some things move more slowly than those around me, others much faster. But thank you - it's a tremendous compliment.
Spinguy ~ Well, what I meant was your band came in the "heyday" of my youth, which is now going on a dozen years ago, so I can't help but look at you in a position of more respect. So, instead of being scattered as is my wont, I'll try to be a bit more focused for this interview. I believe you emmigrated to London, if so where were you born?
Johnny ~ I've actually lived in London far longer than I ever lived anywhere else. Where I was born is unimportant, because it says nothing about me. I was born in the city of Southampton, a port on the south coast of England, but never lived there. I spent my childhood in various places in the south of England and moved to London when I was eighteen. Actually, having said that Southampton has no influence over me, I do feel landlocked if I'm too far from the coast. London is an international port dating back a few thousand years, so it brings the coasts and the cultures of the entire world to the estuary of the Thames. And I'm always strangely moved by dockyards.
Spinguy ~ Thoreau said it's important to live near water, as it helps give the land "boyancy", and I feel the same way. I'm not quite 2 hours from the coast, and when I travel "into" the country I really can feel it moving away. It's quite odd.
Johnny ~ Or perhaps it's because we're all anthropologically descended from sea creatures. Or that the sea is the door to other worlds - all those possibilities held within hidden horizons.
Spinguy ~ The sea also represents the womb, so I suppose it's all a matter of how Freudian one wants to get.
Does it seem to be the case, at least back then, that most English were loyal (if not sympathetic) to their home towns like Manchester, Liverpool or even Hull for that matter but those born in the country always emigrated to a larger town, and it usually was London. Was this true and if so why do you think, and was the reason for it the same that drew you there?
Johnny ~ There are all kinds of reasons for people moving. And although English people can be quite territorial about their roots, London is full of people from North, South, East and West - from within the UK and without. I think that is one of the reasons that so many people end up here - it's an incredibly tolerant city. So many of the misfits that move towards music to find a common language with others also come to London for the same reasons. Some people say that people are friendlier outside London, but often that's only if you live within a certain set of rules and are part of a perceived safety. In London you can be as different as is natural and still find someone to talk to. I came to London because I felt isolated and alone where I was - that can happen anywhere. But even when you feel isolated and alone in London there are always possibilities. No matter how well you know the town, there are always new places, people and things to be discovered. It's a city of dreams because it is a city of hope. In other places all possibilities can be exhausted and found to be empty very quickly.
London is also large enough to re-invent oneself, lose the past, move on and grow. There are hundreds of worlds, layer upon layer so you can travel for miles without having to move.
Spinguy ~ I understand you felt "outside" the loop in your school days. Actually I've begun to think that's almost a universal feeling, as everyone I ever knew has said that and I never met anyone who declared themselves to be "in" that loop as it were. So I think that's a feeling most people share, but I've heard English schools can be unusually cruel places. Is this true, and what yearning did you wish to express that you felt that institution was supressing? Were they cruel times?
Johnny ~ I don't think that English schools are unusually cruel places. I believe that Dotheboys Hall closed down some years ago now. One of the reasons I felt isolated was because I changed schools so many times. Until the age of twelve I didn't stay at one school for more than two years. From twelve to fifteen I was at one comprehensive for four years, but by then I was already confused and didn't know what the rules were. Including nursery school I had been to ten different schools by the time I left. But it wasn't the schools themselves - some were good, some were not so good. Some I learned a great deal at, others served me poorly. Some had teachers of great value, others had teachers who, even at a young age, I felt were very much less intelligent and educated than myself. Some encouraged, some discouraged.
It was also my life outside school, which was different from that of my classmates. So I could never share things that others did. I wanted to though, and went to enormous lengths to try and be liked, to be part of the gangs.
Spinguy ~ I suppose we all had teachers like that. I know I did. Some were so, almost un-human that even as a child I could only wonder why this person was a teacher, because they clearly either hated or resented children. Is there a particular awful memory from your school days that still lingers, or has time mostly washed that wound clean?
Johnny ~ The worst memories are by their nature ones I cannot talk about here. I like to believe that I'm not a prisoner of the past; I get angry with people who use their past as an excuse for cowardice or laziness or for irresponsibility. But sometimes something happens that makes me realise that the past can creep up and lash out at you, no matter how hard you try to neutralise it. No matter how far or how fast you run, the past is still behind you. Maybe that's why I feel I have to keep moving, but at the same time, yearn to be more settled.
Spinguy ~ Some people say they know they were made for a special event or purpose. Did you feel that way and at what age? If it was music related, did you envision it as the Siddeleys came to be or was it more vague?
Johnny ~ I definitely feel that - but the purpose has never been a single event. It feels like one purpose made up of many events that are all part of the same but multi-faceted raison d'etre. The best way it can be explained is that at such moments I feel as if I am one hundred percent me - whereas at other times parts of me are hidden from view or kept sedated. The Siddeleys and the world in which we existed was exactly such a moment. It changed everything - the way I slept and the way I breathed. The Siddeleys wasn't the only special purpose of my life - that would be a depressing thought, because I hope that I have lots of time left. However it was definitely one of them. I don't think that there are that many. There can't be, because it has to be something huge and all encompassing so it spreads across huge swathes of one's life. For me, The Siddeleys weren't simply a musical event.
This feeling of purpose has been with me ever since I can remember. It is specific yet hazy at the same time. By this, I suppose I mean that I had gathered and had hold of certain parts of the event before it happened as The Siddeleys. Then a momentum gathered, there was a sort of big bang as everything came into focus and those threads wove into something recognisable and specific.
Spinguy ~ You play piano and guitar. Had you learned to play these when young? Which did you learn first and which do you consider yourself best at?
Johnny ~ I'm not very good at either. I did some piano lessons when I was young, but gave up as I didn't seem to be getting to where I wanted to go. My sister was always a much better piano player than me. Really, I always wanted to play a guitar, so as soon as I got the chance I taught myself to do so - I think I had my first guitar when I was around 14. But then I quickly reached a sort of plateau that I seem to have remained at ever since. So I tend to end up doing the same kind of things on a guitar, whereas if I play a piano, there is less of a rut to fall into. I know what my songs should sound like, but lack the ability to ever get it quite right. That's why I desperately need a competent guitarist and other musicians to work with. I want to be able to say: "This should sound like the bit in that PP Arnold record only more choppy..." and for them to just do it.
Spinguy ~ OK, so you had these burning dreams, and you had the gumption to do something about it. That's not easy to do, just up and leave home especially with the squallor you faced staring back at you. Were you that motivated, was your home life a bad one, or were you just plain young and dumb?
Johnny ~ I was naïve but never dumb. I was also terrified but didn't believe that being scared of something was ever any excuse for not doing it. After all, it's the impossible things that one makes oneself do that make a difference. There didn't really seem like any alternative - for a number of reasons I couldn't stay where I was. I knew what I had to leave, what I wanted to get to, and my options for the journey seemed limited. Although it was scary, I couldn't allow myself to give in to my fears.
Spinguy ~ I'll assume you took a train to London. So there you are, on the platform, bag in hand (if that), a fiver in your pocket (if that). So what does one think in that situation? To most sedentary people, that's a startling vision. Was fear ever (or always) a companion? If so, what gets you thru it?
Johnny ~ On that occasion I did take a train. But in those days I mainly hitched rides. It gives me the horrors when I think about it now; it would feel like putting my arm out to welcome instant violence and mortality. Luckily, I only had a handful of lifts that turned nasty or sexual. I think that as it was either hitch or go nowhere, I never allowed myself to think about the dangers.
But that time I arrived by train at Waterloo station. I think the fear, which was very real, was matched by hope, and also by the belief that I was obliged to do unpleasant things to achieve anything. It was only later that I realised how little most people are prepared to put themselves out for anything of any worth. I think I assumed that most people did this sort of thing and that if I felt at all scared I should jolly well pull myself together and get a grip. I think I was trying to think myself into being this sort of worldly sophisticate, and gain some sort of acceptance as such. My clothes and speech must have given me away instantly though.
Spinguy ~ I saw you also said you expected these aspirations to come to fruition quickly, which of course was not the case. Did you ever doubt, or did this just motivate you more, or were you waiting for something to happen and kind of get it all moving and were just in limbo waiting for it?
Johnny ~ I've never waited in limbo and sometimes now I think that I should have done. An awful lot of people seem to have done just that and be quite happy with where they've ended up, whereas I still feel as if I'm swimming very hard against this horrifically strong tide. I have always been full of doubts - not about my own intentions, but about the fertility of the soil into which I throw the seeds of those intentions. But simultaneously my intentions themselves have never waned. It's not that frustrations motivate me more - actually, being slapped down is just wearing - it's more a case of simply having to do certain things, live a certain way, not accept anything less. 'To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield' or whatever the quotation is, regardless of the outcome. Without moving, there is little hope. So in those early days before The Siddeleys I felt very frustrated and depressed about the way I was spending my days, but I just had to keeping on giving myself to what I loved, doing the things that mattered, alone.
Spinguy ~ I understand you were a hostess in Piccadilly that had to deal with the gropings of fat, sweaty men. Was any of this misery part of the inspiration for songs like Are You Still Evil When You're Sleeping?
Johnny ~ I don't like to be too specific about songs, but Are You Still Evil When You're Sleeping actually refers to someone I had to work with in a later job. And all the others of his ilk. He was very much the sort of person who went to the club I used to work in though, and he did frequent such places from time to time. A review in one of the music papers of the 80s, possibly the NME, said it was a song about some boyfriend of mine and a relationship gone sour. I wasn't so much annoyed that someone could miss the point so entirely; what annoyed me was that the journalist's interpretation was presented as fact and made something important and political just sound like a petulant whine.
But in answer to your question, everything I wrote came out of the way I lived and the things I did.
Spinguy ~ I wouldn't sweat what the NME says, as by and large the people they have "in the field" are complete dolts. You have to understand they are ignorant, scratching, pathetic and really quite useless life forms who's only means of attaining any kind of satisfaction or recognition is thru the ridicule of others more worthy than themsleves. This was never more true than at present and the NME is now a national disgrace, if you ask me.
Is it also true you lived in quarters so bad you had to "side step pools of piss" in your flat?
Johnny ~ It's all true. I've lived in some dreadful places. The pools of piss were actually in the bathroom of a rooming house in Colville Terrace, West London. There must have been about twelve rooms in all sharing the bathroom. The culprit was a mentally unstable man upstairs who thought that there were people living in the water pipes who were persecuting him. He used to try and attack them sometimes, which could be quite scary. Sometimes, alone late at night as I heard him smashing things up in the room above me I worried that one day the voices in his head might say to him: "You know who's behind it don't you? That blonde girl in the room downstairs. Get rid of her and we'll leave you alone."
Nina next door told me he had some ritualistic way of pissing too, which was why it ended up everywhere. I always bathed by candlelight so as to dim the squalor of the surroundings. We all got evicted by a property developer in the end. I was the last person left in building as everyone found other places to go. My room was tiny; I could touch opposite walls at the same time, arms outstretched, with ease. As the other tenants left, their rooms were left as grubby shells, the doors hanging open, giving slight echoes of the lives that had gone on in them. Then the electricity in the common parts of the building went, and I would wander round this big house with a candle, where I lived in one tiny cocoon, like Miss Haversham. Then one night something dreadful happened to someone I knew and I was chased out by nightmares. I moved to a squat in Bermondsey that was far more luxurious.
Spinguy ~ OK, I let some things pass but I draw the line here. What in heavens name is ritualistic pissing, what did he do, why did he do it, and how did you know about it? And don't cop out, I want an answer. It's history now, after all, and we're recording this for posterity. Besides, you know nobody is going to do an interview this good with you again. (chortle)
Johnny ~ Erm, I'm not really sure. As far as I'm aware he at least had the dignity to shut the door while he was doing it. (Which is more than you can say about some of the types around Hammersmith Broadway today.) As far as I'm aware, it had something to do with standing on the seat and then pissing into the lav from a great height in a rather innacurate fashion. I supppose that if you believe that there are people in the plumbing who are persecuting you, there's always the chance that they might pop up through the 'S' bend and take advantage of your, er, vulnerability. So the further away from the receptical, the better for him. And the worse for us. The repeated assaults of exessive moisture had lifted the lino in most places and it was starting to rot. All adding to the rather startling olfactory experience of the bathroom.
Spinguy ~ (I don't even want to know about Number 2's then) Secondly, I sense that you had some real affection for the place, even though it appears it was a depressing, dank pit. As if it's sorrows were connected to your own, and no more it's fault than yours were. A kindred spirit of sorts. I sense that very theme in a lot of your lyrics, which at times are full of horrible imagery yet in the end some ray of light shines in, as if you're saying "Look, it's all really not THAT bad, there is good here".
Johnny ~ Well, yes, I did have an affection for the place, although I would have traded it any time for a proper, decent flat in the same street. Although it was tiny, once the door was closed it was all mine. Immediately before living there I'd lived in a short-life housing co-up - a big house with lots of other people, and that became quite a violent place and an environment I couldn't control. I've nearly always chosen to live alone where it was possible.
But really it was the place as a whole that I liked. At that time, the area wasn't noncy like it is now, and there were other bedsit warriors like me around. There was something very special about the mix of people in that area at that time. I would never have traded that room for a decent flat somewhere frightful and suburban.
Spinguy ~ Something that also confounds me is you have what we call moxie. So if you genuinely wanted to "kick the teeth in" of these people, well, what was stopping you? I can't imagine the fear that your surroundings would worsen. So I'm somewhat surprised that at some point you didn't perhaps do something that would be rash. (or did you?)
Johnny ~ What is moxie? Actually, I have done what I wanted, and done quite a few rash things. I've been in quite a bit of trouble about it over the years, one way and another. I do fight - it's just that I tend to get beaten. Not always though. And I can't understand why - I'm usually cleverer than the opposition, so perhaps it's just that there are more of them.
Spinguy ~ Moxie? It is an Americanism but I'd assumed it went global by now. Moxie was an early 20th century soft drink billed to give you "vitality", so people who were vital and forceful were said to "have moxie". So Moxie is: Courage, fortitude, balls, persistence, never say die etc... It's usually applied to people in situations where perhaps a wrong was done, but most people would just turn the cheek for simplicities sake. A person with moxie would say or do something to address it, usually to the surprise of those around them which would draw the hushed remark "wow, that took some moxie".
You must have our Tim (whom we call T-Baby) by your side for your next scuffle. He loves the underdog and downtrodden, being one himself, and not to cast aspersions but he's huge compared to the average Englishman and strong to boot. He'd get you thru a whole dockyard full of thuggery, and without breaking a sweat. I've seen him grab people and throw them like 14 feet, that's both in the verticle and horizontal. He can't seem to get himself a decent girl either, perhaps you two need to start an Atlantic romance? His pluses: He's tall, he looks like Kirk Douglas (really), he's quiet, he likes good music, he has a great stereo (thanks to me) yet he honestly lives in a little tiny dump you can literally almost touch all 4 walls from in the center of the room. You'd fit right in.
Johnny ~ He sounds extremely useful. What has precipitated his throwing people fourteen feet, or is it just a local sport? The combination of tall and Kirk Douglas makes me think of him in black and white; is he actually a full technicolour person in real life? Actually, I rather think I've had enough of tiny dumps. They've never been an aspiration - far from it. Just a neccesary evil of a particular chosen journey. By the way, Englishmen are available in a variety of sizes. Apparently.
Spinguy ~ Useful? He has his uses I suppose. The throwing incident was a cretin outside a club years ago who was bothering someone we knew. (T isn't violent by nature and he doesn't punch, he throws you if he gets mad) You know, I think black and white may actually be closer to it for him. He's kind of in a sad rut right now, trying to resolve a long unsettled health problem. (more an annoyance than problem, and NO it isn't of the "French" variety) He too is tired of his tiny dump and is planning a move, only where and when remain unresolved.
I saw also you said you had a passion for Triumph motor cars. My first car was a white Spitfire, a 72 if I remember right. It was the last year with full chrome bumpers. Really loved that old girl. I'd have whirled you round in it, top down, summer evenings.....
Johnny ~ What a lovely thought - do call round if you find yourself passing by in such a vehicle. We could take a turn down to the Delaware Pavilion at Bexhill on Sea. Will you let me do the driving?
Spinguy ~ Let you? Of course I would, but in any event you'd have to. Driving is by nature a reactive thing, it becomes part of your subconscious. I'm sure we've all experienced the sensation of driving down a road in thought, and suddenly (and with some horror) realized we didn't remember the past mile or so, as if we weren't even paying attention to it. Well, my reaction is to go right, and the first pram that bounded in front of me would be the last, as I'd be quickly killed. Besides, I don't think I could shift with my left hand. It's all a very bizarre and sordid business that left side driving. I tried to watch a police show from England and they were chasing cars with the camera up front and I sat there yelling "YOU'RE ON THE WRONG SIDE". I literally couldn't watch it. So you'd probably find that excursion amusing, as I'd be a complete wreck next to you.
Johnny ~ I was in a minor car accident yesterday morning. It was the other driver's fault, and he was from a country that drives on the wrong side of the road, just like you. So thank you for handing me the keys.
Spinguy ~ Back to music. While all this was going on with you the English countryside was infatuated with a band called the Smiths. How big an effect did they have on your thinking?
Johnny ~ What I liked about The Smiths when I first heard them is that some of the songs reminded me in a vague sort of way of things I'd written myself. So things started to seem more possible - I think they cleared a space for people like me. They also had the effect of bringing certain people together in the same place, which helped me to form a gang, and kept the loneliness at bay a little.
Spinguy ~ Gang is a word you've used a few times now. Do you currently have a gang? Do you feel better in the confines of a group? That too distances you from Moz, who by nature shuns every form of human contact.
Johnny ~ I think I'm a mixture of both. As I said, I've mostly lived alone, but at the same time I do really treasure certain people and for those individuals I have a very fierce loyalty. I wouldn't say that I necessarily felt better in the confines of a group, except musically. People to love and trust are very rare, and I don't choose to spend much time on anyone less. It's nice to be in a gang of such people at gigs and going out dancing, though.
Pop groups need to be gangs to make sense. There has to be that kind of connection between you, that combined intent in order to achieve anything of worth. In that respect, I need a gang to do anything musically. I wouldn't want to go solo - it's too lonely and not so much fun. It's a wonderful thing when you are part of something that's looking towards the same vision, sustaining each other on the expedition. There's a very special energy that can feel like a force of life in itself.
Spinguy ~ Were there others that also motivated you musically at this time?
Johnny ~ The early 1980s was an incredibly creative time - it was easy to be motivated by this feeling of ever widening possibilities. There are too many to mention. Even the acts that I wasn't necessarily a huge fan of created a tapestry that was inspiring to look upon in its entirety. That was the joy of John Peel at the time - every day could offer up something new and sublime. Actually, John Peel still provides that very valuable service.
Also, I was motivated and still am by many things other than music. Music for which only music, however broad, is the inspiration and generation lacks a life force that lifts it into the language it should be. Self-referential music just ends up swallowing itself. As I mentioned earlier, this was a time when things seemed to be coming together and coming into focus so there seemed to be an energy within me that breathed in a thousand motivations all the time. The music of the time was a sort of zenith to a radiation of motivation. (Is that nonsense? I'm probably using those words all wrong. It sounds pretentious but it's heartfelt.)
Spinguy ~ Oh, I quite agree. Something very special happened in the UK from about 1978 to about 1988, 83 being about the high water mark. Quite special indeed. That it happened makes the current "scene" look more the cesspool than it probably is. Well no, it is pretty awful now. But "zenith to a radiation of motivation"? (sounds like an OMD album title) How about "the apex of ingenuity"? (no, sounds like a smart gorilla) I think they know what we mean.....
So at what time and manner did the name Siddeleys arise? Where there other considerations, and if so what?
Johnny ~ Right from the start, I always felt that The Siddeleys already had a name, and it was more a question of remembering it, rather than creating it. When I read the word 'Siddeley' in a Colin MacInnes book, it felt like an awoken memory, a reminder of what we had always been called, from before we came into being physically. I never sat down with lists of considerations - there was no alternative.
Spinguy ~ While you were waiting for this band of yours to congeal from the ether, were you at that time writing songs or did you wait until it actually began to take shape?
Johnny ~ I've been writing since I was a child. I write things down all the time. I lured the other Siddeleys with a tape of about a dozen songs that my very dear friend Torquil Macleod had helped me to record. The group had already formed in my head at that time and once that happened the writing became more focused. It was thrilling to have a catapult to propel my intentions from.
Spinguy ~ What was the first song you wrote, and were you happy with it?
Johnny ~ Of The Siddeleys songs, the oldest is probably 'I Wish I Was Good', which I wrote around 82/83. I was very happy with it and still am. It makes complete sense to me. I'd written songs before though, which have never seen the light of day. I've written quite a lot of nonsense over the years.
Spinguy ~ Did you always have a penchant for writing lyrics, or writing in general? Do you even consider that you do for that matter? (answering honstly isn't bragging, as I asked)
Johnny ~ I do feel a need to write things down, and when I manage to say exactly what I mean I do feel a mixture of relief and elation. I think that most people learn to speak with phrases and sentences rather than individual words. That is, people pick the sentence that approximates what they want to express rather than express it accurately, forming words into sentences that might sound odd. I think I can be good at putting words together to convey something accurately, because I so desperately want to be understood and also to send out signals to people who speak the same language. I write how I talk.
When I buy books, I put my name and the date in them, and usually a sentence or phrase that has some meaning at the time I bought the book. Sometimes it seems important to make these little marks in writing. If I look at all those flyleaves now, some of them evoke memories whereas others are have become plain gibberish in the passing of time. I like telling stories too, just making them up as I go along, talking aloud. No one really wants to listen to my bedtime stories, though, so they just drift off into space.
Spinguy ~ Then you must come visit my daughter Shannon. She'll listen to you, and you can listen to her and I can get some much needed peace.
So now I'll get to the inevitable. Your style has been largely compared to Moz, and in fact you're the only female who's ever achieved that feat. (that I know of) For that matter, I can't think of any other male who comes close. Dickon Edwards on the last Fosca album perhaps. It's as brilliant but in a different way. In many respects you however do skim close to that moody Mancunian. I think it comes from the fact that you both had pain, and really tapped into it quite vividly, while at the same time there is at least the hope of some unbridled if unrequited love or beauty.
"The sight of the facade
of the Palace Hotel, Southend.
With every breath I think of you,
It sends me round the bend.
Love that moves the sun,
in heaven and all the stars....
This is just a fraction of
what is rightfully ours."
It really has some of the same brutal force that Hand in Glove did, in my humble opinion.
Johnny ~ Um, is that a question? Thank you - I'm really touched and don't know how to respond. 'Hand in Glove' is an earth shattering record - to be put into that context makes me feel as if I have some sort of enormous responsibility. It means a vast amount to me that what matters so much to me can matter to someone else.
I like Fosca very much - I'll be going to see them on Friday. (Ed. Note: Bastard!)
Spinguy ~ Sorry, yes, the unsaid implication was do you consider the comparison a valid one? I think the major difference between you and the Mighty One is he of course put on the airs of being offended by romance and those "horrid girls" who always wanted "a bit of the other". Your lyrics however seem to be crying out for the embrace of romance and even go so far as to suggest you'd have welcomed an encounter but "The thing that I most want to do, I'm not allowed to"
Johnny ~ I'm not sure what the question is here, but complications have a way of getting in the way of almost tangible dreams.
Spinguy ~ Humph. I'm trying to be a gentleman and that I'm having a hard time saying it well is not flattering. Moz espoused solitude and forgetfulness, which meant celibacy. Whip em the finger then throw youself under a double decker bus. You however are disgusted by the beastlike quality of man, yet it hasn't stopped you from wishing you'd find Mr. Right and get a "nice bit of the other". Am I coming in clear? Would a picture help? I'm such a bungler.
Sex to Morrissey was another of mans vulgarities, (or so he claimed on the surface, I've read that he was quite the tart by age 17). I get the impression you consider it one of lifes joys, but a joy you perhaps were denied too often or when you wanted, just like the other things. ( I guess what I'm asking is concurrence that love IS a beautiful thing, and was it something denied you?)
Johnny ~ Yes, love is a beautiful thing. And what I meant above was that what I want can seem very simple and obvious and natural, but then somehow it stays out of reach or is held and then lost. And yes, I do really like tangling bodies with the right kind of other person, but there are all sorts of reasons why the natural and simple and obvious can stay from one's grasp. I could start to explain why, but that would probably get me into trouble and besides, it would be unfair to some other people. I really don't know how Morrissey and I compare; I can't say which of us is sluttiest...
Spinguy ~ Oh darling, it's him by a mile.
You're clearly one whom pain was a real source of material for, yet still the songs are still touched by the thread of eternal hope, that maybe it will work out because there is beauty out there, if not for me. Are you an optimist or were you hoping against hope?
Johnny ~ I'm not sure that I'd call myself an optimist as such. I have to believe that things can get better, that dreams can be caught. It doesn't seem to get any easier though, so optimism is hard. The complications that get in the way of tangible dreams are still doing so. I can't really figure out why this has been going on for so long - it seems, well, almost illogical. Maybe the problem is that I believe there is so much of beauty and wonder out there and I want to hold all of it, and it's just too big for me. Is that optimism or unrealistic idealism or stupidity or arrogance? I never stop hoping but I can't always keep believing.
Spinguy ~ You seem an incurable romantic and I cannot fathom what the men of England are doing sitting on their hands with a woman of your calibre idling away. Come to the US dear. We have lots of coastline, and despite the Hollywood stereotype there are plenty of gallant young americans who would sweep you up in a second, marry you and "stumpf" your house full of kids. What say you? ( You English liked to say in WWII that we Yanks had 3 problems. We were: "over sexed, over paid and over here")
Johnny ~ Thank you very much for the invitation, but I still have a long-term love affair with London to hang onto for a little while yet. Being an incurable romantic is to blame for a great deal of bovver over the years, but I wouldn't want to be any other way. I just want there to be more of us. Nevertheless, I have sometimes fallen victim to my own fits of whimsy, so the next time over-sexed, over paid and over there appeals, (and I'm not going to tell you how often that happens),I might just show up in the US. As for the men of England, well - they're a funny lot. But I quite like some of them.
Spinguy ~ My apologies. In weighing your worth I overlooked the fact that perhaps they were trying and you were just saying no.
Back to music. So when the band came together, did you at the time feel as if the world would soon fall at your feet despite the odd difficulty?
Johnny ~ It felt inevitable, I felt invincible. There was a revving up to glory that felt like the overture to an exhilarating journey. I try not to think about where I got lost. It's too depressing.
Spinguy ~ Sadly, you came at a time when if you didn't sound like the Stone Roses or the rest of the greebo movement you didn't generate interest. While interviewing Johan Angergård he said he's always felt while full of talent, England is sadly trend directed and when the new trend hit everyone else was out. There are many bands from this period that suffered the same fate as you, and as well have had their material subsequently re- released as you did years later.
Johnny ~ I think that's true, although the flipside of the 'use it up and throw it away' philosophy sometimes means a healthy disregard for ancestry and pop aristocracy, and an eagerness to embrace new things. But sometimes, in some quarters, this eagerness is more generated by trends than by a fierce desire for something creative. It's something that has gone on for all artists throughout history though - but what is created has its own eternal qualities that exist out of time. It's a shame for the mortals who formed those qualities, because it affects the way they live their lives and what they create or don't create in the future. When I hear things from the past that I missed at the time and find that I love them, there's a kind of sadness added to the joy of discovery. I have to love them in a different way.
Spinguy ~ I distinctly remember looking for your singles, and while I could always find anything in NYC (and I mean no matter how rare) I was never able to find yours. Did anyone else express difficulty in obtaining your music?
Johnny ~ Yes, loads. That was one of the reasons for releasing 'Slum Clearance' - unbelievably I was still getting requests for records from people who couldn't find them throughout the last ten years. I felt very frustrated about it at the time, because it seemed that we could have sold far more records if only people could have bought them. I've heard of 'Sunshine Thuggery' going for nearly $200 on e-Bay - I'm intrigued to know who would pay that.
Spinguy ~ I've sold some things for ridiculous amounts myself on eBay, but not music related things. But I do know that is not uncommon. There was a real frenzy for Sarah label stuff not long ago, just crazy. I've seen the first Scritti Politti Lp go for well over a hundred too. Almost made me want to sell my copy, as I wouldn't value it that highly.
So as I understand it, offers were left floating out there, to never come to fruition and as a result the band kind of slowly withered on the vine as it were. Is that about correct? Was there ever a time you got very angry about it or did it die a slow death?
Johnny ~ I was miserable about the fact that I was burning to do more, to make more records, to play more and it seemed to get harder, rather than easier. I felt stifled - I was trying to get these things out, but just kept getting bound and gagged. One day I just decided to stop it, and start again. Perhaps it was the wrong decision.
Spinguy ~ When it goes that way, when do you realize it's time to move on? And what did you do to move on? Did you fight to try to keep it going?
Johnny ~ There were a combination of factors that led to that decision - it's hard to remember them all now. Although we hadn't told anyone of the split, our last show at The Falcon was a packed, loving and exhilarating one. At the end of it we felt that maybe we should keep going after all, everything seemed too good and important and sacred to lose. But I felt I couldn't go back on what I'd decided. I had a new group taking shape in my head. That group became Armstrong, which turned out to be a much smaller story.
Spinguy ~ Then you'll have time to tell us, as I never heard of Armstrong. And yes, we want to know, that's why I'm asking and they're all reading.
Johnny ~ There's not a great deal to say. We only did two shows and then it all ended.
Spinguy ~ When you accepted it was over, what did you do with yourself in the 90's? I certainly hope it was a better time for you.
Johnny ~ Actually, the 90s were pretty dreadful. I went to the pictures, travelled the world a bit, had a couple of fairly severe illnesses and felt completely adrift and isolated most of the time. This decade seems to be more promising. I hope so.
Spinguy ~ How very sad. Well, the decade itself certainly has been full or horrors and death but I certainly hope it's a better one for you. What have you done for a living since the band? I'm almost aghast a singer/songwriter of your calibre would have been well, in effect cast aside so casually. Although I suppose everyone thinks they can do it so importing you would make it your band, not theirs. In any event I hope you got that couch to sit on you wanted.
Johnny ~ I finally got a sofa in 1994 - it looks rather shabby now and needs replacing. Many of the other things I wanted I'm wanting still. I've earned my living in a variety of ways since those days - none of them important. I can't say that any of my jobs had any other purpose for me other than to keep a roof over my head and a decent hairdo on it. At work, I have just been irritated that I've had to spend my days in such ways rather than writing and singing and so on. I always feel there are so many more important things than the trivialities of earning a living. Although I've done some journalism and copywriting, it's not really the same thing at all and little of it was of any particular worth. It would be nice to be offered a job that had some worth in it and didn't feel like a waste of life.
Spinguy ~ Nobody offers those jobs, they must be taken. Some times it's worth it, and some times it isn't. But again, it comes down to hapiness, and as Thoreau again said, the sun sets as beautifully in my window as anyone elses.
So when were you approached about re-releasing your music, and were you shocked and surprised or did you say "Bastards, at last!"
Johnny ~ Peter, who runs Clarendon Records had approached me about the release a few years before, but I turned him down as I thought that the past would get in the way of my future and I wanted to build something better. I didn't want to put myself in the position of visiting old rejections. When he approached me again, I felt that things had changed and it was a good thing to do. Enough time had passed for it to become a historical document rather than an attempt at resurrection. Also, the musical climate seemed to have changed enough for it to make sense. I was still quite nervous about it though. But once I started to work with Peter and with Jon Parker, who did all the fantastic artwork it actually became quite life affirming and exhilarating. And through Peter and Jon and 'Slum Clearance', I also came closer to living in a world that I wanted to once more.
Spinguy ~ Did its re-release help to amend any old sores about your treatment during the bands heyday?
Johnny ~ I think so, although a release from a dead group is a very different thing from a release by a living one. This time round, by staying underground, it has bypassed the detractors altogether, so all I get are these really wonderful responses - emails and reviews and so on. It's a real joy, but a passing one, so I want to do something living as soon as possible before I sink from view again.
Spinguy ~ Are you happy these days?
Johnny ~ Not really.
Spinguy ~ That's just awful. Is there anything I can do to help?
Johnny ~ Oh dear, I think I'm starting to sound like a morose mosh of moodiness, which really isn't the case. I'm actually quite good company and good at making people laugh. I think it just takes too much to make me truly happy - it's not really something anyone can help with. Somehow I've spent too long in the wrong life and I'm still looking for a way to be where I belong. I have little time for people who make misery into some sort of personal emblem - it's just horribly selfish and self-indulgent. Some things should be kept out of view.
Spinguy ~ Do you still want to be heroically poor?
Johnny ~ Yes, but I think it gets harder all the time. It's a very simple ideal and yet one that gets made complicated by other forces. Poverty itself is not a good thing. Poverty kills.
Spinguy ~ I don't think money can buy happiness, it can only alleviate suffering and worry. However, "back then" it was a genuine crime to want to make money, or sign to a major label. I know Phil Wilson and he got screwed financially on his band as well, yet that's the thing he's almost proudest of. But now, ooeer, these "alternative" chaps now can't sign for those big bucks fast enough, can they? The majority of the great English indie labels are gone and the quality of the music has gone right down the shitter. Are we surprised, and why did it happen?
Johnny ~ It's very sad. Although in some circles people's worth has always been judged by their financial gains, there was always a belief among the majority of artists and musicians that this was not so. Of course, people wanted to be able live by their art alone and not have to bother spending days in worthless ways, but that didn't mean that they approached their music in the same way as a career in banking or retail outlets.
The fact that this has changed is many faceted and I could talk about it at length, but I won't bore you with that here. The 'alternative' chaps of whom you speak are of a generation where on the whole, things have been pretty easy. Some of them wouldn't have been in groups a few years ago, where it might have upset their parents or career plans. But their parents wave them off cheerily to pop festivals, because it's now just part of the career path package. They're not all like that of course, but the ones that are join hands with the big record companies easily and have the whole thing sewn up, packaged and marketed and then devoured by more people with the same redundant values. There are a lot of people content to jump through hoops, collecting material gains at each stage as they do so, like some horrible computer game. They are too bound by the material to risk losing it while looking for something of greater worth.
There are probably just as many genuine artists as there ever were, but they're hidden deeper underground than ever. Through big business taking the word 'alternative' and making it into a brand, a commodity, anything genuinely away from the mainstream is obscured from view. But this has happened before, and edifices built on nothing collapse in the end. Soon there will be an explosion from the underground and some people will be amazed at just how many of us there are. It will be funny to see people get pissed off and try to pretend that they were part of it all along.
Spinguy ~ Ahh, you speak of the pop revolution. I too eagerly await it's arrival.
So, is the future a musical one for Johnny Johnson? Do you have any dreams or aspiration of having a band that will rock the world now, or has awful maturity taken root?
Johnny ~ My new group will be called Lepe. I hope to be with you shortly. (If there are any musicians out there who would like to join me in this, please contact me.) Some stories are slaves to sequels; I feel that this is one. I cannot imagine a time when doing this sort of thing is not a complete necessity. Some people might call me immature, but actually they're just confusing immaturity with a far more evolved life form than they understand.
Spinguy ~ Never heard it put quite that way. (there's some moxie in that I believe) It is quite true though. There's nothing people fear more than difference. That's a theme from Turgenevs novel "Fathers & Sons" I always found interesting, how man can understand and predict the complexities of weather, or know what's going on in the depths of the sun without ever having even been there, yet he cannot understand how another man could tie his shoes differently from him.
Johnny ~ Ah, yes. And it seems to be getting worse in that people are becoming better qualified but less well educated. This brings about a situation where people are convinced that they do understand things because they have a bit of paper that says so, and makes them less inclined to bother to learn and understand what they walk through every day.
Spinguy ~ Finally, have you been whirled around and fallen in love with anyone? Have kids or anything like that?
Johnny ~ Sadly, I have no children. It's probably too late now.
Spinguy ~ Johnny, never say never. That's rule number one. Tim thinks it's too late for him too. You two ought to hook up and show the world it's wrong. Your kids would be tall but quiet, angry but kind and they'd have dimpled chins.
Johnny ~ I'd be surprised if they were quiet - I'd want to make sure that they had plenty to talk about and the voice and confidence to say it.
Spinguy ~ Thanks for your time, thanks especially for the music and all our best to you.
Johnny ~ Thank you - I really appreciate you giving me the opportunity to talk about the things that matter. I do hope I haven't gone on too much.
Spinguy ~ I think we set a record for going on too much, but it was our pleasure surely.