The Three Johns – Volume (Buried Treasure)

Posted by vibrations on 06-09-15

The Three Johns emerged from the fertile post punk/art college/politics scene in Leeds at the start of the 80’s, and released their last album in 1990, although they effectively became a part time concern from 1986/7. This three CD retrospective compiles everything (two albums and 11 singles and EP’s) the band released from its inception to 1988.

 The early singles (‘English White Boy Engineer’, ‘Pink Headed Bug’ and ‘Men Like Monkeys’) may have sounded fresh and challenging in the early 80’s but in truth they haven’t aged well, and in retrospect are mainly the sound of a band experimenting largely for the sake of it. But thank fuck they persisted, because by 1983 the band had figured out how to channel primitive, raw rock n roll and blues through the same kind of cultural filter Don Van Vliet used to parse his art into his Captain Beefheart persona without, crucially, sounding anything other than utterly contemporary. The single that introduced the new tooled up and buzzin’ version of the Johns was ‘AWOL’, a song that still struts around like it owns the place, Langford’s guitar spitting sharp chords and slashes of feedback, John (Paul really, but, y’know?) Brennan’s bass giving a loaded and searching bottom end, and Hyatt already spouting a voice that’s part growl, part yelp and part warble that’s to become such a distinctive part of the band’s sound. Setting another marker, the lyrics dip in and out of sense, caricature and a freewheeling mash up of associations and images that set up the aural equivalent of an abstract painting. Support track ‘Rooster Blue’ is a deranged headlong blues that sails about as close to Beefheart as you can get without being sued. What the band do quite brilliantly is take the musical and vocal tropes, mannerisms and conventions of rock n roll, bend them out of shape with punk sensibilities and inject healthy doses of social and political commentary AND a huge dollop of wide eyed, hysterical FUN. At times it teeters on the edge of parody but it works, brilliantly.

The band’s debut album Atom Drum Bop followed in 1984 and from start to finish it’s suffused with the same hysterical delight of a band writing and playing songs that they just know are the product of some kind of shamanistic communion with The Gods of Rock n Roll. Opening track ‘Teenage Nightingales To Wax’ manages to be an anthem to the exercise of the imagination and energy while making no sense whatsoever; ‘Do Not Cross the Line’ simply maps a train journey to all points of the compass and manages to be about a nation in the grip of industrial turmoil (the miner’s strike of 1984-5) without mentioning politics once; and ‘Dr Freedom’ and ‘The Devil’s Music’ wallow in invigorating punked up blues. The whole album still sounds vital, alive and onto something even 30 years later and if you don’t own this album then you bloody well should.

The art aspect of the band is important because, arguably, art and conceptual thinking were as important as the music in determining how the band developed, and key to the astonishing run of music they produced in the years between 1983 and 1987. Guitarist Jon Langford was already in Mekons and beginning to dabble in the art that would grow to compliment (rival?) is ongoing involvement in that band today, and singer John Hyatt went from studying Fine Art at Leeds University in the early 80’s to being a fully-fledged Professor of Art at Manchester University today. The band designed all their own record sleeves and even this came to startling fruition at the same time as the music. Sadly although this collection includes miniature reproductions, it doesn’t really do justice to the things of cut up, angular beauty that the artwork for band’s album and 12” singles were.

Two years elapsed before the bands second album, The World By Storm, appeared, and although even at the time it suffered by comparison with its predecessor the passage of time hasn’t been kind either, revealing it to be a patchy affair full of gloom and despondency, the fleet and fluid urgency of the debut album clearly already draining from the band. There were probably multiple reasons for this: the intervening years had seen Thatcherism tighten its grip on politics and society in general, exploiting the right wing, conservative tendencies of the electorate on the back of the Falklands War and the defeat of the miner’s and certainly disillusionment is the prevailing mood of the second album. But internally things were changing too; Mekons had developed into a vital force (in an artistic sense rather than a commercial one, naturally) in their own right and had clearly begun to draw Langford away from his ‘other’, band. Notable songs include ‘Atom Drum Bop’, ‘Coals To Newcastle’ and the mighty single ‘Death of the European’, but the whole thing is weighed down by the politics, with the art/fun aspects of pervious work taking very much a back seat.

It would be a mistake to assume the band simply petered out after Atom Drum Bop, though. The later singles are peppered with fantastic B-sides like ‘World of the Workers’, ‘Rose of Yorkshire’ and ‘Sadhouse’ and the band’s penultimate single ‘Never and Always’ is a monumental slab of proto funk-metal that came out of a collaboration between the band and reggae/dub/funk producer Adrian Sherwood, sounding not unlike the latter’s Tackhead. And there were two further albums, The Death of Everything and Eat Your Sons, that sank without trace commercially but again contain several songs well worth digging out - ‘Fast Fish’, ‘In The Hell & High’, ‘Book Of the Dead’ and, to acknowledge the influence, a cover of Beefheart’s ‘Moonlight On Vermont’.

Sporadic live appearances over the last decade have confirmed that the band’s early energy and innovation still has its potency and power and those songs still sound terrific today. Personally I think it’s a shame that the last two albums were not included (for contractual reasons?) and it seems unlikely now they will ever see a rerelease of any sort. But this box set is probably now the only place you’ll be able to find the music of this cruelly overlooked band.

Steve Walsh

More info at www.threejohns.co.uk




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