My memories are not always clear, I'm sure I've got some of the details wrong and much of it didn't even make sense then, let alone now. But if you're interested in peering back into the 1980s, when the Three Johns ruled the indie music circuit and we knew who the enemy was, read on.
1. DEMON DRINK
YOU awake, too hot, face stuck to a nasty orange carpet. Body soaked, mouth dry, and something bad in your head. Whose carpet? Drag yourself to a window, eyes objecting to the unenthusiastic light. Way below scurries a tatty corner of London, bisected by the Westway and drenched in the grey of an unlovely October day. Whose flat? Sit up, mind the head, pat yourself down. Nothing broken, but you're sure that wasn't the T-shirt you were wearing last night. Your hand knocks something solid inside your leather jacket. A small cassette recorder. Rewind. Play. Voices, laughter, a sound that's not unmusical but isn't entirely musical either. Then the memory wobbles to the surface of your Party 7 of a brain and bursts in your face:
Dear God, was I really drinking with The Three Johns?
2. SOME HISTORY
THE seeds of that hangover were sown three or four years earlier in Birmingham, where I was then living. I had often wandered into my friend Stuart's room to see what the noise was coming through the wall, and in this case it was Lucy in the Rain. I was hooked. I bought any records, as we used to call them, that I could. I got Atom Drum Bop from a small shop in the bowels of the now-demolished Tricorn in Portsmouth, where I was then living.
But it was at about the time of Death of the European, 10 or so months later, that I got to see The Three Johns live.I had hitched from Sheffield, where I was then living, back to Birmingham, for the gig in the intimate surroundings of upstairs at the Fighting Cocks in Moseley. I'd seen lots of bands, but never seen one hold a 'fat stomachs' competition on stage, then declare themselves the winners. It was love, even if I felt cheated on the 'fat stomach' thing.
Fast forward a few months: I was on holiday in Spain with Russell and Graham, the legendary Seaton brothers. We were eating cheaply in a pavement cafe in Gerona one night when a big bloke with a sunburned face, and a petite blonde woman, sat down a few tables away. We recognised Jon Langford straight away, and later found out his companion was Sally Timms. The legendary Seaton brothers were too cool to approach them after the meal, but with the shirt I was wearing it was too late for me to be cool. I stopped to say hello and Langford, apparently pleased, suggested meeting up for drinks later. It was a jolly evening; beer was drunk, stupid jokes were told, Langford told us what to see in Barcelona, our next stop, and we sang Tony Christie songs. As the last strains of Avenues and Alleyways drifted over the cobbled square I thought: 'That was unexpected'.
BACK in London, where I was then living, it seemed either the Three Johns or the Mekons were playing every few weeks and I regularly found myself stranded in alien parts of the city late at night. First up after the Avenues and Alleyways night came the Mekons at the Sir George Robey, in Finsbury Park. I wrote 'Remember Gerona? Where's all the Tony Christie songs then?' on a business card and passed it to Langford between songs. 'I met this man on my holidays,' he announced and started twanging a string. 'Show me the way to Amarillo...' he crooned. The set was heavy with drinking songs - Help Me Make it Through the Night, Good Year for the Roses as well as the Mekons' own - and I was heavy with drink. After the gig I asked Sally, who had sung Long Black Veil, if she knew Nick Cave had recently recorded it. I recognised her expression of pained forebearance from the moment we interrupted her holiday, and came to see it many more times.
Johns, Mekons, Mekons, Johns - it was all a bit of a blur. There were 'two nights of bliss' at the Sir George Robey, where I might as well have been living, which are immortalised on the inner sleeve of The Death of Everything. The picture is as I remember it - John Hyatt, kilted and pie-eyed, Langford and Brennan snogging. Night one was great and I bought the classic 'Don't lose heart' t-shirt. Night two was a bad-tempered affair, with the Johns snapping and snarling at each other. Langford ended it by announcing 'This is the last time the Three Johns play together.' I met him in the gents later. 'You didn't really mean that, did you?' I asked at the urinal. 'No,' he said. 'It's just the last time we play anywhere this small.'
So they moved into bigger venues. I remember ULU, the Electric Ballroom, or some such Camden Town barn, Dingwalls; I remember bee suits and popes, hearing Never and Always for the first time. I remember Pearl's a Singer - 'she throws up when she plays her piano...' I remember Hyatt being interviewed on TV with a member of the so-earnest Redskins, and talk of a Labour Party-backed Red Wedge concert being a sell-out. 'It's bound to be a sell-out if it's anything to do with Labour,' says the Skin, earnestly. Halfway through the next question Hyatt interrupts, giggling: 'Sell-out! I just got that! That's very good!'
I remember Carlton B Morgan and Gaye Bykers on Acid. I remember a cover of When I Paint my Masterpiece, and one of the Johns announcing 'Bob Dylan in your living room' at the end. They were always funny, always rocking. The next day I was always hungover and bruised from what would now be called the mosh pit, but what we then called 'those idiots own there whacking each other'. And Langford always seemed happy to have a chat and a drink, and always remembered who I was. He did call me Chris once, but I got my own back by calling him John. He had an amazing memory for people, and it could take him a long time to get on stage because he was talking to everyone.
Amid all this I remember another coincidence - bumping into Langford in the crowd at an Iggy Pop concert in Brixton. He took my NME (it was 1987), drew a speech bubble from one of the Pet Shop Boys on the cover and wrote in it 'Ring Jon Langford' and his phone number. I rang one Friday afternoon while I was watching Showboat on TV. I had a music journalist friend who wanted to interview the Three Johns - could it be arranged? Yes it could, he said. We'd be on the guest list for the Johns gig at the Mean Fiddler, Harlesden, on October 9. We'd meet up and maybe have a drink. I'd already given the Three Johns my heart, and that night they'd get a bit of my liver too.
4: THUNDER AND RUM
AS A journalist I think I can safely say it wasn't a great interview. And I think Alistair, my music journo friend, would probably agree. We met the Johns in the bar at the Mean Fiddler and they were chatty and affable, but tired. 'We've just driven down from Leeds in a car and we had to stand up all the way because of our gear,' Hyatt explained.
The interview got off to a less-than glorious start. Alistair asked for everyone's names and got them - John, Jon and John, aka Phil. And who else? he asked. Three Johns, I hissed. Count them. Ah. Alistair's MO was to leave the mini-tape machine quietly recording on the table, he said, then direct the conversation so you got your answers in an informal, relaxed way. It's difficult to pull off, and the Johns were notoriously difficult to interview en masse - Steven Wells, then one of the NME's star writers, had recently written a piece about trying to interview them together, but being overwhelmed and giving up, complaining of being bullied. I mentioned this and the Johns were all injured innocence. Bullies, us? And Alistair's effort was not helped by exchanges like this:
Alistair (to Hyatt, acclaimed artist and six years away from being a professor of fine arts): What else do you do with your time?
Hyatt: I paint.
We creaked on for a bit, until Hyatt noticed the tape recorder was going. 'Is this on? I'd better be careful what I say.' The interview was going nowhere, so we got up to go, wishing the Johns good luck for the night. I think it was Hyatt who stopped us: 'Why don't you stay and have a drink?' This was my 'Wayne's World/We're not worthy' moment but instead of prostrating myself I went to the bar. Alistair had pocketed his tape, I'd reclaimed my tape recorder and the conversation flowed with the lager. The circle around the table grew ('Ah! A Mekons memorial beard!' cried Langford, welcoming a hairy late arrival to the table) but, thanks to a bit of creative expenses-claiming earlier in the day, I was able to do the 'drinks for everyone' thing. And, of course, got bought drinks back by everyone. This lasted for a convivial couple of hours before the band got up and made their way to the stage.
Looking back, that time was probably a bit of a crossroads for them. Hyatt made a phone call from the bar and came back to announce 'I've just bought a house!' We drank to that. Brennan had just become a dad. Drinks all round! They were already performing the songs which formed the backbone of their final two abums. Perhaps after several years of hard touring the writing was on the wall. After all, there are only so many Leeds-London journeys you can do standing up in a car. But that's hindsight. As I sat my tape recorder on the mixing desk all I had on my slightly fuzzy mind, apart from all that lager, was the gig.
And what a gig. The Johns would probaby say it wasn't up to much, but, reviewing the tape 19 years and 22 days later I'm reminded about why those gigs were special. The music was great - edgy, exciting, unusual; rock, punk, art - all those things and none of them, really. And they were showmen, playful, bizarre and very funny. I doubt anyone before or since could match them for their surreal stage banter. Imagine, if you can, Langford, dressed as a bee and alone on stage, soliloquising about loneliness: 'Just me on me own. See, all you kids, when you've grown up and you're sitting all alone in your room, all alone and you think no one loves you and you think no one cares about you, there's always me on my own. And the way I train my magic meat it's Disneyland every day for you boys and girls.'
They started with Bullshitiaco, stormed through a set - a large part in fancy dress, too - which took in some history and looked to albums yet to be released. They did 16 songs including AWOL, English White Boy Engineer, Torches of Liberty, Lucy in the Rain, Brainbox, Never and Always, Death of the European, Hell and High ('One of the best tunes we've made up tonight'), Key Largo. And they ended with half of World By Storm, which was, to be honest, sounding a bit ropey when they suddenly abandoned it.
Langford: Sorry my darlings, I'm afraid we're too tired.
Brennan: We've had a long journey, and...
Langford: It don't seem to gel like the old punk rock did.
Brennan: You've been a really beautiful audience. Can't help the way you look... Yes, you're right. We were rubbish...
Hank Williams was playing over the PA when I picked up the cassette recorder and turned it off. Alistair and I made our way across early-morning west London to one of those Mega City 1 tower blocks above Westbourne Park, where a friend of his had a flat. And that's where I woke up, stuck to the orange carpet and wearing a Dead Kennedys T-shirt I hadn't owned the night before. And this is where I came in.
5: NEVER AND ALWAYS
I SAW the Three Johns maybe twice more after the Mean Fiddler, before I left London in March 1988. The last time may have been ULU. I certainly remember trying to persuade Langford that Plymouth, where I was moving, was just the sort of place he should play. The Mekons had played there, he said, so it could happen. It didn't. I went up to London one weekend to see the Mekons in New Cross during the two years I spent in Plymouth, but otherwise I watched from afar. Out came The Death of Everything, then Eat Your Sons - that strange, poetic, under-rated album which even now sounds like the Three Johns' obituary - 'all the past is history, Men Like Monkeys was the song'. It came as no surprise when the Three Johns were no more.
The last time I saw Langford was in February 1991, at a Mekons gig in a pub in Bristol, where I was then living. I went with the legendary Seaton brothers - the first time we had seen Langford together since the night in Spain. He emerged from a mob of people and greeted us warmly. Sally smiled wanly from her table. It was the first week of the Kuwait war. People shouted for Ghosts of American Airmen. You're sick, the band replied, delighted. I'd been up late the night before keeping an eye on the war for my paper and I'd been up early that day being done for contempt of court over something I'd written. As if that wasn't weird enough, it was my turn to be at a crossroads. Now it was me buying a house, and I was a few months away from getting married. Life was moving on.
There came job advancements, mortgages, children - all the things that stop us waking up in strange flats and T-shirts. My Don't Lose Heart T-shirt and the original of the Mean Fiddler tape were stolen in Malaga one summer. I had a Three Johns live video - early stuff recorded at Leeds Poly - but I sold it for a pittance on ebay last year while clearing the decks to emigrate to New Zealand. But I've still got my records; still got an enormous poster of that brutal Langford caricature of the band which fell off a wall at some gig; I've even still got my original Langford artwork - the Pet Shop boys telling me his old Leeds phone number. My kids, bored with Green Day, love Death of the European and, after all these years, are prepared to believe their old man might have some vestige of cool because the Three Johns asked if they could be his friend on MySpace. Most of all, I suppose, I've got memories - after a fashion - of a never-to-be-repeated chapter of my life.
Perhaps I should have more memories. Perhaps I should have chucked in my poorly paid job as a hack in London and gone on the road with the band. I could have written their Rolling Thunder Logbook, been Sam Shepherd to their Bob Dylan. The head swims with the possibilities. I could have been Tony Parsons by now. If I still lived in England I'd have been seeing the Three Johns again in 2006, instead of having to watch from as great a distance as it's possible to get without being in space. Wellington is a very cool city but the chances of the Three Johns squeezing in a night at the San Francisco Bath House between gigs at the Windmill, Brixton, are fairly slim.
It's been a laugh dredging up all this stuff, if more than a little self-indulgent. I should finish with some pithy, thoughtful observation or witty one-liner. But I can't think of anything worthwhile, so here's a Three Johns joke, from the Mean Fiddler, all those years ago. And I reckon it's still funny:
'Ozzy Osbourne's dead.'
'No - Ozzy.'
Thank you and goodnight.
6. TURN UP THOSE DOWNHEARTED BLUES
SO HERE it is, the extended playlist for the Three Johns gig at the Mean Fiddler, Harlesden, on October 9, 1987. It's extended because I've slavishly transcribed all the surreal stage chat, jokes and strange flights of fancy from my tape. It's as complete as I can make it - the original was stolen, but I don't think I edited anything vital out when I copied it. Some of the words are indistinct, and some are distinct but don't make much sense, but it's as it happened. I'm not reproducing the lyrics of the songs, much as I love them, because that would take up too much room. And besides, I never could work out the lyrics of the likes of AWOL and Kick The Dog Right Out and never thought any less of them for it. On Never Mind the Buzzcocks once the guests had to work out the lyrics of Smells Like Teen Spirit and came up with 'I feel two pigs, in containers' (try it – it works). I'm not going to take that sort of risk here, though I have had to take a stab at the intro to AWOL below.
The fancy dress was from the Never and Always video. Brennan had a monk outfit, but I don't remember if he wore it on this night. If you never saw the Three Johns back then, this is what it was like. You didn't get jokes about being fat when you went to see Nick Cave. I don't recall Morrissey and Marr dressing up as popes and bees, though I think it would have done them good. Political bands of the day - indeed, the political left generally - weren't known for their knockabout humour. And let's not forget that the songs were brilliant. Still are, in fact. The Berlin Wall might be down, Reagan dead, Thatcher gone, but we're still getting apocalypse for breakfast. Thank goodness the Three Johns are back to save the world.
So, without further ado…
[Crowd noise, tuning up, then…]
Hyatt: I'm suffering from this terrible flu, aren't you?
[Dramatic guitar chord]
Brennan: It's not heavy metal enough for us, so it can't possibly be heavy metal enough for yous, to be sure, och aye the noo.
NEVER AND ALWAYS
[dramatic guitar noise and feedback]
Langford: I'm a stupid old fat person.
[from the crowd: Fuck off then!]
This is for everyone who reads City Limits – DIE!
Hyatt: I'm sorry we're so fat.
Langford: I'm not – I've lost a lot of weight, actually.
Hyatt: We were thinking that for 1988, we might really slim down. We were thinking that, that we'd really slim down.
People at the front are saying we're fat so we know you're all thinking it at the back. You are, you are. But we don't care. So fuck off.
Langford: We're so fat because Edward Christie from Abstract Records gives us so much money and we spend it all on meat pies.
Brennan: What a good idea!
TORCHES OF LIBERTY
Hyatt: Rock and roll…
Langford: … inside my cowboy boots.
Langford: This song is about a friend of ours, a friend who is a woman and is a pub and is a situation.
Brennan: A funny thing happened to us on the way down here.
HELL AND HIGH
Brennan: One of the best tunes we've made up tonight.
Langford (voice rising with anger): We've been away and we came back and it was raining and the Conservative Party were hanging people on the television!
This song is for Margaret Thatcher. It's called Why Don't You Fuck Off?
Hands up if you think England is a pile of shit, especially when it's raining and the Conservative Party are hanging people on the television.
Hyatt: Ozzy Osbourne's dead.
Langford: Ozzy Osbourne's dead? Is he?
Hyatt: No – Ozzy.
Langford: Iggy Pop's dead.
Hyatt: Is he?
Langford: No – Iggy.
Brennan: My father…
Langford: This is a joke about the Hungerford killings.
Brennan: [muffled] …on the top of Ben Nevis
Langford: Did he?
Brennan: No - daddy.
Langford: We know some jokes about Hungerford but we don't want to tell 'em because the people who told us them …to them …us … before… are perverts.
DEATH OF THE EUROPEAN
WATCH IT GO
[Band leaves the stage. After a few minutes Langford returns alone, dressed as a bee]
Langford: Just me on me own. See, all you kids, when you grow up and you're sitting all alone in your room, all alone, and you think no one loves you and you think no one cares about you, there's always me on my own. And the way I train my magic meat it's Disneyland every day for you boys and girls.
[no sign of Hyatt and Brennan returning]
Would you like some drum machine to dance to while I wait?
Well, if I wasn't so stupid I'd be embarrassed.Too fat to live, too stupid to die.
[Hyatt and Brennan return. Hyatt is dressed as the Pope]
Hyatt: Right, now I've been criticised for a lot of things tonight. I've got the flu, I'm not feeling very well and Langford just accused me of being boring because I wouldn't wear my Pope outfit, right. And he's probably quite right but I just wasn't in the mood. But I've worn it now, right, I've worn it now. I'm wearing it now.
[Hyatt ad libs around the intro of SON OF MUD] There's a son of mud, the future is rising, yes it's rising. Now the stones won't rock today. Oh cellmate, oh cellmate, what are you thinking now? Thinking now, thinking now, thinking now, thinking now. Rock and roll, rock and roll, rock and [giggle] roll is pop music…
Langford: [interjects] This song is a very serious political song.
Hyatt: [continues] …call it critical. Hospital, hospital… Oh godfather!
ENGLISH WHITE BOY ENGINEER
Brennan: Thank you very much, thank you very much, thank you very much…
Langford: Yes fans, it's Junior Showtime, with…
Hyatt: The Three Johns seem very pleased with their own jokes.
Langford: … with Bobbie Bennett, live from the City Varieties, Harlesden.
Isn't it a lot lighter when you take your fly hat off?
Brennan: Ain't life a bitch?
LUCY IN THE RAIN
Langford: Any requests?
[shouts from the crowd]
Nude Hitler On Ice? We never wrote a song called that.
Brennan: [in a silly squeaky voice] Hello! Would you like to hear some rock and roll?
Hyatt: [quickly] No.
Langford: All right, this song's called Nude Hitler On Ice.
[Actually it's AWOL. Hyatt ad libs in the intro: This is the voice – listen. That's what the Pope said. And the Pope said... clutching straw, kiss the rain, drowning ...we do a song about that, he said... drowning…]
[towards the end the guitar disappears. Hyatt and Brennan ad lib to the drum machine for a minute, then the drum machine plays out]
Langford: If we'd paid as much as you had to get in it'd probably sound better up here. I'd like to thank whoever unplugged my guitar for the dub mix of that track.
Brennan: Would you like to tie me up, tie me up and make me listen to [dramatic echo] Pink Floyd albums…
[he's interrupted by Hyatt: 'Image or an animal…']
Langford: Eins, zwei, drei, vier…
KICK THE DOG RIGHT OUT
WORLD BY STORM
[song peters out about two-thirds of the way through]
Langford: My darlings, I'm afraid we're too tired.
Brennan: We've had a long journey and...
Langford: It don't seem to gel like the old punk rock did. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.
Brennan: [last to leave the stage] Thank you very much, you've been a beautiful audience. Can't help the way you look. You can either throw us money or give us money or… stuff. Anyway, I'm off. Yes – you're right. We were rubbish. [echo on] We were rubbish – aren't we?
Band MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/thethreejohns
Fan site (news, pics, downloads): http://www.threejohns.co.uk/