John Ford has had a life in music. He has written songs that have achieved Silver, Gold and Platinum status and shared the spotlight with some rather famous rock musicians of the sixties and seventies. In part 1 of our three-part interview, he describes his early days up to joining the Strawbs in May 1970.
Q: Hello John and thanks for the interview. Dave DuFort (drummer with Angel Witch) introduced us; how do you know Dave?
JF: I used to hang out with Dave when we were in our teens. I remember his sister Denise (drummer with Girlschool) when she was about ten or eleven and she always used to annoy us when we used to try to listen to records late at night. (laughs). I lived in Tooting which is quite a few miles from Clapham and Dave was all right because he lived there but I used to have to walk to Balham High Road and wait for a night bus at three o’clock in the morning…that was the kind of lives we had back then. He was in a band and so was I but for some reason we never ended up playing together. We sort of parted ways and I joined a band which morphed into Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera and we sort of lost touch. I saw him again in the 70’s but then lost touch again until quite recently.
Q: This would be at 20 Poynders Rd in Clapham?
JF: Yeah you got it. A lot of stuff came out of that place…when we were there, there was a guy upstairs called Lloyd Johnson who used to make these weird looking ties and he went into the King’s Road at World’s End in Chelsea and had those trendy Johnson stores. When the King’s Road became very fashionable, he was right in the middle of it all and when I was in the Strawbs, we used to go in there and buy the odd thing. In fact I still have one of his jackets in my closet and it’s still great. I saw him the last time I was over in England which would have been about 2006/7 and he said ‘Yeah that’s why we went out of business – our clothes lasted too long.’ (laughs)
Q: Born in London 1948 so you were a bit too young to hang out at the 2i’s Coffee Bar in the late fifties but you were the perfect age when British Pop took over from American Rock and Roll in ‘62/’63.
JF: Yeah I was thirteen or fourteen. My father used to buy all the records because in those days the only access you had to music was either listening to it on the radio or buying records. It’s not like now where the whole world is saturated with music – which is a good thing and a bad thing – so in ’62 my Dad had the Lonnie Donegan phase, I was into The Shadows and then shortly afterwards it was The Beatles.
Q: Did you see any of those early package tours that did the rounds in those days?
JF: I did at the famous Tooting Granada which I think now is a bingo hall. I was googling Tooting Granada quite recently (because I had nothing better to do) and the singer from Madness, Suggs, was doing a documentary with all the people playing bingo asking them if they remembered who played there. I was looking in there and they still had the Circle (The Circle is the name given to the upstairs balcony of a British theatre) but all the seats downstairs had been removed and I was thinking about all the stuff I used to get up to with my girlfriend when I used to take her to the movies there every Friday night. (laughs) Let me tell you this: I was in a band when I was about fourteen or fifteen called James Fender & The Vulcans. We went on a Ready, Steady Go! Competition called Ready, Steady, Win! and we didn’t win but we got our song on the album and so our manager – who was the singer’s father – used to get us in and we would play in the foyer of a lot of the package tours. We were there with the Rolling Stones, Joe Brown, Roy Orbison…they were great and it’s wasn’t like nowadays when you play for two hours, those guys played for twenty minutes and then they were off and the next one came on and they did two shows a night! One at about 6:30pm and the other at about 8 or 9pm; it was amazing.
Q: So what was the catalyst for you wanting to be in a band?
JF: I don’t know really. I suppose because I grew up with music. As I said, we always had the records by Lonnie Donegan and Elvis and for some reason, I don’t know why and I still do it now even though I don’t sell records in the millions anymore, I just wanted to write songs. The first one I wrote I never even played to anybody because I thought it couldn’t be any good. I really got into writing when I joined James Fender & the Vulcans and I was writing with the singer. All I know is that I had a job when I left school - which I had no interest in. I just wanted to get out of school as quickly as I could – and then luckily I found an advert in the Melody Maker when I was about seventeen for a band called The Five Proud Walkers which is where I first met Richard Hudson who was with me through The Strawbs and Hudson-Ford. You know, music is luck. It’s not just talent. You have to have a bit of talent of course but back then people just threw on some beads around their neck, grabbed a guitar and everyone was in the music business and I was just lucky to be in it.
Q: It’s a completely different scene now. Back then, everything was 1-4-5, A,D,E or C,F and G but these days you have to be almost a virtuoso to even get out the garage.
JF: Exactly yeah. For a musician like me who has been there and done it, it’s odd to think that we just used to go from one record deal to another. I happened to get into session work in Denmark Street with Richard Hudson and for a while there we were the top-notch bass and drummer. We were on a lot of Pop records – Herman’s Hermits and all that sort of stuff – and then when we joined Velvet Opera we were with a company called Southern Music who had a deal with CBS, then the Strawbs who had a deal with A&M, Hudson-Ford carried on with A&M but nowadays, I can’t even get a look-in at a record label mainly because they are all run by 26 year old kids. The internet does help in that way in that I can make my own records and put them out there which is good but the down side to that is that everyone and his brother makes an album in their bedroom and the market is saturated with music. That’s why young people now expect music for nothing and are a bit blasé with it.
Q: I couldn’t agree more. I had a label in Tokyo for a while, just before the internet and MySpace and everything else took over and when MySpace became more of a musician’s advertising space, I was flooded with requests to listen to people’s music and 90% of it was awful.
JF: I know exactly what you mean. It’s different for the bigger bands of course. When the Rolling Stones came out with Doom And Gloom which I thought Jagger sang brilliantly, it very quickly amassed to a million hits but with my stuff, it’s a battle to get it up to a thousand. You were talking about stuff that shouldn’t get out the bedroom and just recently there is this video of this teenage girl sitting on her bed, strumming something and it’s got about a million hits! It’s the kid’s world today and unfortunately we are not in it. (laughs)
James Fenda & The Vulcans and The Five Proud Walkers
Q: Jaymes Fenda & The Vulcans had one ’45, Mistletoe Love/The Only Girl in 1964. Who produced it?
JF: Mickey Most. You see, that’s what I was talking about before. Some unknown band, just out of school, gets a deal on Parlaphone! It couldn’t happen today. Anyway, that was the spin-off of the Ready, Steady, Win! competition and he obviously got the deal to record all the bands. I remember that day we went to the studio and you were not allowed in the control room. He came down, did a few adjustments on our instruments, listened for about a minute, went upstairs and recorded it. I think we heard the playback, I’m not sure but when we next heard it was when I bought the record at a Tooting record shop.
Q: That album actually came out on CD sometime back but I think you were the only one who achieved any notoriety from it.
JF: The Bo Street Runners was one I think. Another called The Thyrds. They were so much more professional than us though; we were just kids. It was a big achievement for us to have a 45 even though it never did anything. I think I heard it once on the radio.
Q: You mentioned Herman’s Hermits, who else did you do sessions for?
JF: There were a lot of produced records in those days. Two song writers called Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley who wrote a lot of hits for a lot of people. Tony Macauley, Geoff Stevens and all these song writers used to sit up in their offices, write songs and then get a session band together and make a No.1 record. Howard and Blaikley actually wrote a song for Elmer Gantry called Volcano but we put our own thing on it and they didn’t like that at all. We added harmonicas and made it bluesy.
Q: So this was kind of the equivalent of the Brill Building in New York.
JF: It was! Denmark Street was yeah – definitely. When I first started there, I had no idea of the importance of it. I was seventeen or eighteen and just used to turn up at a session. It was the first big money I got which wasn’t that much, maybe six or ten pounds a session and I didn’t have a bank account so I used to stuff it under my pillow.
Q: If I remember correctly, Howard and Blaikley wrote Have I The Right? for The Honeycombs which was of coursed produced by the legendary Joe Meek.
JF: That’s right, yes. I actually met Joe Meek once. Before I turned professional, I was working in Carnaby Street – that was hell – and there was a drummer around whose name I forget but he said he knew Joe Meek who then had his studio on Holloway Road. I had some demos and I wouldn’t say I was a cocky kid but that day I was. I went with these demos, knocked on his door and he was a very moody, not pleasant sort of person and he sat and listened to my demos, arms folded, never said a word until the end when he said ‘Nah…I don’t think they are really that good.’ and he had The Honeycombs at the top of the charts so I said ‘Well you know what? I don’t think much of your Honeycombs single!’ (laughs) I shouldn’t have done that because he was a genius but anyway…
Q: There’s a bit of internet confusion about your early days so can you run us through chronologically James Fenda & The Vulcans and The Five Proud Walkers and into Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera. Can you clear that up for us please?
JF: Well James Fenda & The Vulcans had nothing to do with The Five Proud Walkers. James Fender had quite a few line-ups and when I left it folded. That’s when I had these day jobs including the last one in Carnaby Street which I did just to be where the action was. What really ticked me off about that job was that late night was Thursday night and I missed Top Of The Pops for about two years. Anyway, I used to look every week in the Melody Maker and I saw the job with The Five Proud Walkers which I answered and they were a sort of Soul band and they already had Dave Terry singing who would become Elmer Gantry and Richard Hudson on drums. They were doing Smokey Robinson and James Brown stuff and in all honesty, I sort of bluffed my way into it to be honest because I was pretty nifty on the bass but I was more into The Shadows and The Beatles. Then the organist left and we fell into the Flower-power stuff just staying with the bass, drums, one guitar and singer line-up which I really liked because it gave a lot of space for the bass guitar.
Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera
Q: Mary Jane was banned by the BBC; was there a collective groan or hurrah when that happened? In other words was it a mistake or planned?
JF: We had had Flames out which was a minor hit and it had a lot of play on the Pirate stations. I don’t know whether the BBC played it but I suppose Mary Jane was a groan because it was our second single. I don’t think Southern Music who were our sort of mentors and producers knew what it meant – Marijuana – so they were probably not very happy about that. Elmer and I wrote that one. We used to frequent a club called the Speakeasy and do all-nighters and they used to pay us but it was a small amount of money. We were so hard-up that we used to sit around one glass of coke with four straws but anyway, one night Jimi Hendrix was there and the place got raided. He was at the top of the charts with Hey Joe and we were playing our set and he comes up to us and says ‘Hey man, do you mind if I jam?’ and he got on our guitarist’s guitar so for a while there it was me, Hudson, Gantry and Hendrix. Then he went on my bass and you have to remember here that he was left-handed and he was able to play both the right-handed Startocaster and my Fender bass with ease. At the end of the night it was Hudson who was left with Hendrix and someone else got up there as well who I can’t remember but it was a lot of celebrities. So yeah, for a while it was Hudson, Ford & Hendrix.
Q: Fantastic. Talking of all-nighters, 18th October 1968, you were at the Midnight Rave at the Lyceum with The Who, Arthur Brown, Alan Bown, Skip Bifferty. Any recollections of that?
JF: I remember Arthur Brown with his hair alight. The Who, for some reason, I don’t even remember seeing them. Maybe I met a girl there or something. The main thing in bands in those days was what girls you could meet. (laughs) I don’t remember seeing them: I definitely never met them but Arthur Brown, that’s the only recollection I have of that night.
Q: You were also caught up in some controversy about strobe lights. What was that all about?
JF: Yeah I think we had an article saying that the strobe lights were hypnotizing the people in the audience and brainwashing them which of course it wasn’t but in all honestly you can get a bit sickish if you look at them too much. I know the Beatles apparently had them in the studio and they had to take them out because they were feeling ill. I don’t know what it does but it does something to your metabolism. I don’t know what we were doing. Maybe we were facing them at the audience and people were complaining but the article served as a good piece of publicity for us because it was in one of the main tabloids.
Q: Whatever happened to Elmer or Dave Terry I should say?
JF: He had a band called Stretch but then I lost touch with him. Richard told me he got into drug counseling. I tell you what though, he had a great voice. I recently saw him on YouTube and I did love that single he had, Why Did You Do It? I thought that was really good. (The single was featured in the 1998 British film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels which led to a reformation of the band in 2007).
The Strawbs and Hudson-Ford
Q: Early 1970 Richard Hudson and you join The Strawbs and the first thing your release is Just A Collection Of Antiques and Curios. Why a live album to introduce the new line-up?
JF: Don’t ask me! I was just in! (laughs) I had no control over it. We made the two Elmer Gantry albums and things were not happening. Elmer left and we got Paul Brett in as another guitarist. The Strawbs were an up and coming band. Dave Cousins had this thing called an art’s lab which was a pub in Hounslow and we played there as the Velvet Opera. He must have seen me and Richard playing there because we never actually auditioned for The Strawbs; they were a folk trio at that time and little did we know that they were looking for a bass and drummer. Anyway, I heard they were looking for a bass player and what prompted me to go was that the guitarist in The Five Proud Walkers always said that a bass player he knew was great and I didn’t think he was and he was going for an audition with The Strawbs. It used to get on my nerves a bit that he thought he was so good so I thought ‘Well if he’s going, I’m going’ so I went down there. Lo and behold, Rick Wakeman was already in the band who I had met on sessions and I walked up to him in the pub and said ‘What are you doing here? I didn’t know you were in The Strawbs.’ and he said ‘Oh yeah…I’ve only been in them a couple of weeks. So me and Dave – as far as I can remember because it’s a bit hazy – sat down for a few beers and by the end of the night he said ‘Do you want to join the group?’ and I said ‘Ok’ and later in the night he said ‘Do you think Richard Hudson would like to join as well? And I said ‘Yeah I think so.’ I called Richard the next day and asked him – it was as simple as that. So anyway, to answer your question, the reason we did Antiques & Curios…I don’t really know. I suppose it was because we had all got together and never had the time to do a proper LP. They were already signed to A&M and either Dave Cousins or the label must have decided that with The Strawbs reputation of being a rather heady good lyrics band that we should go and play and record at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. We pulled in the crowd as well – 1,500 or 2,000…I don’t know but we filled it (QEH Capacity 2,500). Tony Visconti did the album and Rick from there suddenly became a superstar almost overnight. When you listen to that album because it’s got a great feel because there’s no drums on it (Richard Hudson played congas and percussion and sitar). In fact, what is missing from that album is a track done by me, Rick and Richard, a prog instrumental sort of thing.
Q: Really? There’s more than what came out on the re-release with the bonus tracks? They were The Vision Of The Lady of The Lake, We’ll Meet Again Sometime and Forever.
JF: Yes. Forever was a single for A&M before I joined. I have heard the jam. I can’t remember where or when I heard it and I can’t remember the title of it but it’s out there. It’s very progressive with awkward timings and Rick’s playing the organ on it I think.
Q: Part Of The Union – let’s clear up one thing; is it pro-union or anti-union?
JF: In all honesty, when I wrote that we were right in the middle of miners’ strike in the UK and the government were promising they had a plan and all this stuff and I lifted that straight into the song, ‘We’re going to ruin the government’s plan’, so it is a sarcastic look at the unions. The line ‘I’m a union man, bigger than what I am’, they were dragging the country down. We were on tour and the places couldn’t open until late because all the electricity was off due to the power cuts but the unions took it as their song so we didn’t argue about it. (laughs) The chorus ‘You won’t get me I’m part of the union’ is pro union at least but the verses…they’re not anti-union but its saying ‘look what I can do with some backing’. I’m not anti-union; I’m in the musicians union but there again I’ve never gone on strike. Who would care if I went on strike? (laughs)
Q: Given that Britain was in turmoil with the Heath Government and the Unions, what was the reaction from A&M when you came up with that? Were they a bit reserved about releasing it at all?
JF: No. They were just after a hit single. Around this time, Richard and I had already started to put cracks in The Strawbs with Dave because he was the main writer and Richard and I were off to the side doing stuff on our own. I actually wrote it although we shared the credits on it as we did all our stuff the same as Lennon-McCartney did. We had actually decided to bring the song out as The Brothers because in those days you could produce records and have a hit single within a record company. I was in the framework of The Strawbs, it wasn’t my band, I was hanging in there so the powers-that-be, either the mangers or Dave Cousins or A&M decided to include it on the Bursting At The Seams album which we were making at that time. We had Blue Weaver in The Strawbs and he had played the solo on it already so we brought in Dave Cousins and Dave Lambert. Dave Cousins had the idea of the ‘Out Brothers Out!’ chorus thing at the beginning and then Dave Lambert I think added guitar and a couple of things to make it a Strawbs record. From then on, it sort of bit Dave in the arse. Whether he didn’t think it would be as big as it was or whatever it took him out of the spotlight because he wasn’t singing the lead. Actually, if he had said he wanted to sing it, I wouldn’t have minded but…you know…
Q: You received an Ivor Novello Award for that one. Was that one of the last nails in the coffin for yourself and Richard in The Strawbs.
JF: Yeah I think it was. You know, no one has got more respect for Dave than me. I’ve written a few hit songs but I can’t hold a candle to his lyrics. I remember when I had been in the band about a week and he told me to come round his house to check out stuff and he played me Hangman And The Papist in his front room and I thought ‘This really good.’ Anyway, the cracks started to appear when he felt a bit threatened I think – let me take you back a bit here. The from The Witchwood album which was produced by Tony Visconti, I had a song on there called Thirty Days which is really nothing like The Strawbs but believe it or not, especially in the USA and there is some great stuff on there, people come up to me and say ‘I love that Thirty Days song!’ It’s not like the rest of it and more Pop than the other songs and if they had said to me ‘let’s not have this song on there.’ I would have thought ‘oh ok’ - Rick and Dave never even played on it! Tony Visconti kept it on there. So the troubles were starting even back then. Tony Visconti said ‘I’m the producer. I make the executive decision and this is staying on the album.’ Then when we made Grave New World I came up with Heavy Disguise. Great album and some great songs but Heavy Disguise was the only one that got played on the radio so I have that commercial edge. I took the idea of the feel from a Jethro Tull song and we couldn’t even play it with the band because it didn’t sit well so I ended up doing it on my own and Dave to his credit got the Silver Band idea that comes in halfway through the song. Getting back to your question though, the cracks were already there, Part Of The Union came out and we’re still talking about it now forty years later. One more thing: The Strawbs never play that song unless I come back to do a reunion an all the die-hard Strawbs fans hate it. Dave’s got a book out called Ghosts and he says a few nice things about me, one of which was really surprising where he wrote that he thought I was as good as Paul McCartney when I first joined the band but it says in the sleeve notes that ‘...they had the notorious Part Of The Union…’ It’s a part of their history they’d like to forget.
Q: From a fan’s point of view, we never saw any of that. To us, it was Dave who was the poet and you were the more commercial side to The Strawbs. We listened to the albums as a whole and not as individual songwriters.
JF: Yes. Dave’s lyrics can read without music with good phrasing and timing: my lyrics are not like that – most Pop lyrics aren’t. When Norman Smith first saw the lyrics of She Loves You with the Yeah Yeah Yeah he thought ‘What the hell is this rubbish?’ until they started singing it but that’s the difference between a Pop lyric and the stuff that Dave writes.
Q: Those four albums you released are text books in song writing. What was the process between Richard and yourself when it came to writing and producing?
JF: I think it goes back to when we first met. I remember Hud had some lyrics and I asked if I could put a tune to it and it was the first song we wrote on the Elmer Gantry album called Dream Starts - I’m always influenced by things around me and I was trying to write like Blackberry Way (by The Move) because I love all those Roy Wood chord sequences – so by the time we got to Hudson-Ford we knew each other very well in the music department and knew how to approach stuff. For instance, for Pick Up The Pieces, we had a band that was not quite formed which was Gerry Conway from Cat Stevens, Mickey Keen who was a great session player and unfortunately no longer with us and Chris Parren on keyboards. We went into Sound Techniques studio in London to do the song which we had already written and it didn’t work out so Hud and I went in the next day and recorded it ourselves (laughs) – we just know what to do. What I can tell you about the Hudson-Ford albums is that we were very much influenced by The Strawbs and what Dave Cousins did. The only criticism I have listening back to those albums is that I feel we never had the lyrical substance of Dave. We had these Pop songs but we padded it out with a lot of instrumental things.
Q: Hudson-Ford broke up in 1977…
JF: Was it that early? I thought it was later than that…(various sources have different years). The hits waned when we got to Floating In The Wind and we were struggling around for stuff. The last album we switched to CBS and in all honesty I’d rather forget that. We changed producers and had Jeffrey Lesser and Rupert Holmes and there’s a couple of good things but we were struggling there. The daylight album was over-produced and we should have cut back to the basics like the first album. We strings and an orchestra on there and it was all padded out and I didn’t like that album but Free Spirit and Worlds Collide, people still love those.
Q: It must be difficult to be critically distant when you are the writer and musician but as a fan, I just here the albums as a whole and I love them.
JF: Thank you; I appreciate that. I just see them as individual songs that I cringe at. (laughs)
Q: So that brings us to The Monks…
JF: Yeah that was another fluke! (laughs)
Q: The story about Nice Legs Shame About The Face being a demo that was released is well documented but not so much the album, Bad Habits. Given that you had an unexpected top twenty single in the charts, was there some pressure from EMI to come up with an album and a band?
JF: Yes exactly that. They sent us too Abbey Road 2 where The Beatles recorded and no one is more in awe of The Beatles than me. I’m sitting in the middle of the room doing our second single and it was one of the worse sessions we ever had. It was a flop actually (laughs). I liked that whole Punk movement. I was part of the Prog movement coming from The Strawbs and Hudson – Ford but my heart was really in hit singles and when the Sex Pistols came along, there were moans from other people but not from me. It’s also why I stopped playing the bass live because I wanted to just strum on a guitar and it was great to just cut back to being a guitar band. The Monks were very influenced by that, plus The Police with that delayed/chorus sound on the guitar. We reigned in Terry Cassidy who was a singer and had a very good way of putting on different voices but unfortunately then the radio stations found out who we were. I remember Kid Jensen playing Burn Baby Burn and then saying ‘…and look what they’re doing now...’ and then playing Nice Legs, Shame About Her Face. That was the death knell for The Monks and the album died in the UK but for some reason we were massive in Canada. I have four gold discs and a platinum CD for Bad Habits.
Q: Why Canada?
JF: I don’t know! They just took it seriously. I went back in 2013 to play a club in Toronto and there was this young band called The Small Sins and growing up, all their musical influence was The Monks’ Bad Habits album. They were not interested in the second album, Suspended Animation, but what they did was record the whole first album. They copied the cover and they asked me to do a track for them which I did and then they asked if I’d to go and play with them and sit in on a couple of songs. It was a great night – packed! They introduced me and I did a couple of songs but they did the whole album from beginning to end including the instrumental at the end. They got one guy to sing Drugs In My Pocket in a sort of Heavy Metal scream and it was great. It was all over the papers as well; it was if we were still there. It was unbelievable. We would have been big in the USA as well were it not for the fact that we were signed to a small label in England. Capitol Records came over and they wanted the album out, we were a good and exciting act but it never happened because the UK label wanted too much money.
The Lost Years
Q: We now come to a gap in the life of John Ford. After the breakup of The Monks in 1981, you had High Society briefly but then you seemed to have slipped off the radar for fifteen years or so before your first solo album in 1998 (Love Is A Highway). What were you up to?
JF: In the eighties we were on tour with the Strawbs in the USA and we were doing places like The Bottom Line Club in Manhattan – we would go there and do three or four nights. I was glad to be playing with them again and it was good but I eventually decided to stay in the USA; In a nutshell, I spent a few years having a couple of kids. One of the things that prompted me to stay here was that I had never really played solo before and the agent who brought The Strawbs over to the USA also had Rick Wakeman here and he asked me if I’d like to open the show for Rick. I told him I didn’t have much as I’d never played solo before but I did it and I liked the idea. It was a different market and there was nothing really going on in England so I stayed and eventually did my first solo album which is another one I cringe at (laughs). You see in those days, there was no equipment like there is now. There was nothing to record on and to be honest, when I made that album, I wasn’t in the remotest bit interested in the technical side of recording but now I’m a complete equipment nut which is how I ended up with Joe Meek’s ‘Meekqualizer’.
Q: What’s the secret to writing a good song?
JF: There is a sort of formulae; let me give you an example. Did you ever see that movie Amadeus where right at the end he was dying and his father said to him ‘Where’s the manuscript for your new opera?’ and he points to his head and says ‘It’s in here.’
Q: Yes I did.
JF: Right. Well sometimes I don’t write for maybe two years but I’ll always have a title or something floating around. Dave Cousins is always jotting down lyrics but I can’t do that – I have to have a tune or something to be going on with. If I do an album, I tend not to do anything for a while, not on purpose but because I just don’t have the inspiration to do anything. The last few days, I’ve been working on four songs all at once and I flit from one to the other, getting a lyric here and a bit of a tune there and that’s how I work. It is a formula but the kind of a formula where you write the same things. I take a lot of influence from other people which doesn’t mean you nick other people’s tunes of course. What I mean by that is for example my song You Can’t Keep Me From Singing was influenced by Enya. I love Enya and there was her song How Can I Keep From Singing and I had this other tune that I had already wrote and I worked it in there. Another of my songs, Whatever Happened To Christmas, was influenced by the USA being very touchy about religion when a couple of years ago a guy on the radio was complaining about one of the big stores wouldn’t put up ‘Merry Christmas’ – they had to put up ‘Happy Holidays’. I had that title for a long time before I managed to work an idea into it. I’m still in The Monks mode with that one. My son likes Green Day as do I and that whole production was influenced by them apart from the start which has a bit of Bing Crosby for my Dad who loves Bing. I do as well actually and White Christmas is a beautiful tune that is ruined sometimes by people not trying to stick to it so I put that piece on the start of the song. I was in a show called Rock For Christmas over here and they wanted a song for the album and that’s what started my whole Christmas album.
Q: I’ve talked to other musicians about the current state of song writing and my personal feeling is that the art of song writing is declining and being lost because records are over produced. There’s no light and shade in a top 40 recording and everything is at maximum all the way through. Would you agree with that?
JF: Exactly what you said! I don’t really know about England but in the New York area, you hear the same things over and over again. I never hear any British stuff like Cliff Richard or The Shadows, I have to listen to American Rock which I don’t really like. As far as new stuff is concerned, I do think singers have got better compared to the eighties. People like Madonna whose voice wasn’t great but she got away with it because of the synthesizers and everything. Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Beyonce I think have all got pretty good voices but too me, especially for the last twenty years with the guys, everyone has been trying to sound like Eddy Vedder from Pearl Jam and those singers do a good performance with a crappy song. If you had a singer that wasn’t good, those songs wouldn’t go anywhere. Let’s take One Direction for example. That Story Of My Life isn’t a bad tune but it’s all so contrived. It’s just to get it in the charts and Simon Cowell has got the money to do that. If you put that CD at the end of the supermarket aisle when you’re queuing up to pay, someone is going to buy it – it’s just getting it there. You’re right, songs are not written any more like they used to be but you know what? When I was a kid, I must have been about ten years old when Bill Haley had Rock Around The Clock out and I walked into a bakery and the woman behind the counter was talking to someone else and she was saying ‘They don’t write songs like they used to. I like the old songs.’ (laughs) That was in 1959! It’s all a matter of what you grow up with. You’re right but what do you do?
Q: You’ve just got to live with it John. I feel a little bit sad though in another respect that music with iPods and internet and all that stuff has become disposable and when we were growing up the music meant more to us. When I listen to The Strawbs or any Prog or Glam Rock which is pretty much what I grew up with, it takes me back to that time but because now kids have four thousand songs on an iPod, they don’t have that same association of their youth to a particular song because they haven’t invested in it.
JF: I agree with you. I don’t know how that will pan out. When you’re young, your brain is susceptible to learning and you connect with things being it music or art or whatever. I don’t know…maybe in fifty years old age pensioners will still be going to see Adele strut her stuff! (laughs)
Q: Your new album, No Talkin’…Why an instrumental album after all this time?
JF: Well this is what we were getting at: My head is still stuck in The Shadows. When I was in The Strawbs and even in Elmer Gantry, you couldn’t talk about The Shadows because people would laugh at you but since then it’s changed. A friend of mine just came back from England and he went to see Andy Fairweather-Low (who used to play with Blue Weaver in Amen Corner) and he did a Shadows section in the middle of his act. I used to wonder if it was doing me any good playing this stuff but now I don’t feel so bad about it. I met Hank Marvin once when we were doing Top Of The Pops with nice legs Shame About Her face and I don’t think he realized I was from The Strawbs and like an idiot I walked up to him and said ‘Hey Hank! If you ever need a rhythm guitarist, I know all the chords to all your songs!’ and he said ‘Well, you’re going to have to get past Bruce (Welch) first.’ (laughs) I don’t consider myself a lead guitarist. I can’t get up on stage and blow lead. I play lead on my recordings because you can track it but I can play all that Shadows stuff and never forgotten how to play it. In the USA, people know The Ventures but have never heard of The Shadows. They’ve heard of Apache but it wasn’t a hit here. I do a cross section of their stuff running about fifteen minutes in my act and it goes down a storm. I did it once as a joke but it down so well I went out and bought a ’57 re-issue Stratocaster.
Q: How has the reaction to the album been?
JF: It’s been very good. I don’t know why to be honest. I’ve had no reaction from Strawbs fans who probably wonder ‘What the hell is he doing that for?’ but over here they just take it for what it is. It’s been put up for The Grammys which is nice.
Q: Was the album written as an instrumental or did any of the songs ever have lyrics?
JF: I didn’t set out to do it. I just did one track and then another and getting back to the song-writing, it’s dead easy to write a tune without lyrics. All I have to do is think of titles. (laughs)
Q: You selected one of the lesser known Shadows songs to cover (36-24-36); why that one?
JF: Yeah it was the B-Side of Kon Tiki I think. I didn’t want to do one that was well known because you can’t improve on what The Shadows did. My aim for the album was to write new stuff and try and emulate what they did and I think I got it right because I find it very easy to do that sort of stuff. I chose 36-24-36 because it’s not well known and also I love playing that bass part. Jet Harris too me was their best bass player. I know they had a few problems with him because of his drinking and stuff but too me, he was the best on their early hits. I hope I did him justice on that track; it’s very slightly different and I did it in a different key.
Q: You certainly did and listening to the album, it’s very easy to spot your roots.
JF: Thank you. You know, it’s not easy getting that Shadows sound – you can’t just pick up a guitar and get it. Hank I think had the old Vincent Echos which I’m not going to get and now there is a whole load of digital stuff that replicates it you can get anyway but it’s not easy. I don’t use the Vox’s for recording – maybe on The Reaper I did – but I usually plug straight into the desk because it’s a smoother sound. Hank’s sound for example in the muted part of Wonderful Land is a double delay and the way you get it is to set the delay and double it again and add a bit of reverb. I have three Stratocasters but only the ‘57 re-issue which has the old pick-ups, the thin maple neck and the old tremolo unit really gets it. I pick this guitar up and every time I do I write a new tune on it which I don’t get with the other guitars.
Q: Can we expect a follow-up then?
JF: Yeah. What I’m trying to do is enhance this rich sound of Hanks, especially on the bottom end. If you listen to Granny Takes A Trip from No Talkin’, it sounds like it’s double tracked but it isn’t; I’m hitting the E and B strings as I play the note down the bottom and I remember Hank saying when he was describing playing Apache that the Stratocaster sounds best below the fifth fret and all of Apache is played below the fifth fret. F.B.I. is a bit higher but Frightened City is all below the fifth. I’ve used a few more strings on this new stuff but a lot of playing is still below the fifth.
Q: You’ve replicated the sound really well on the rhythm as well.
JF: Bruce Welch is another one of my heroes – the unsung rhythm guitarist. He uses an acoustic on Apache. I tell the story on stage that when I was at school, everyone could play Apache but no one could play the chords – only me and that’s why I got stuck being the rhythm guitarist. We were playing one lunchtime and as we finished playing Apache, the teacher came along and goes to me ‘Is that all you do – strum?’ and I said ‘Well someone’s got to.’ I don’t know how Apache had that great sound. I suppose EMI (Abbey Road) was state-of-the-art with German recording machines* and they had the old Fairchild tube compressors which made any four-piece band with not a lot of instrumentation sound great.
Q: John, this has been great fun and thank you very much for your time and we hope to see you in Japan one day again.
JF: Yeah it’s been a while since I was there. Speaking of Japan, I played with Ritchie Blackmore for a while (Under A Violet Moon) and I was with him and Candice one night when they were doing an interview for either a magazine or radio and they had an interpreter. Ritchie was always playing head-games and one of the questions the interviewer asked was ‘What was the influence for this album?’ and Ritchie replied ‘Have you ever heard of Sooty and Sweep?’** (laughs)
Q: That’s classic! John, again, thanks.
JF: It’s been a real pleasure Glenn. Let’s do this again sometime – I have plenty of other stories.
Q: Terriffic! We will!
*Abbey Road actually used British Tape Recorders (BTR) in the early sixties which were copies of German wartime recorders.
**Sooty and Sweep was a children’s TV show in the UK in the 1960’s.