The story of a flashy 1960’s cult group
seen through the lens of CD compilation:
by JOHN’S CHILDREN
(Pilot Records 118, 2002)
There was a 1983 TV-ad for ‘Kit-Kat’ in which a music mogul auditions a new band. ‘You can’t sing, you can’t dance and you look awful. You’ll go a long way…!’ The punch-line must have worked something like that when Simon Napier-Bell first encountered John’s Children. There was a new breed of music manager in 1966. Larry Parnes and Brian Epstein had conclusively proved there was money to be made in spades from that crazy Pop stuff. They even named Parnes ‘Parnes Shillings & Pence’. But Parnes and Epstein were not exactly the models. It was more Andrew Loog Oldham who derived his cool from somewhere around Phil Spector, and promoted himself as much a dodgy-geezer star as the sometimes naff acts he managed. Using the Stones as touch-stone, and their songs in the same way that Epstein had used John-&-Paul cast-off hits to build his stable, Oldham scored with Chris Farlowe, Marianne Faithful, Twice As Much, and The Mighty Avengers. Others took note.
Simon Napier-Bell had been instrumental in promoting the Nicky Scott & Diane Ferraz boy-girl duo. He’d adapted an Italian melody into Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me”. And he’d inherited the Yardbirds from eccentric Giorgio Gomelsky. He had a good eye for a scam. As ‘Black Vinyl, White Powder’ (2001, Ebury Press, ISBN 0-09-188092-0), his book of spaced-out, acid-tinged, technodelic memoirs makes clear. And John’s Children were both his best shot to crack the upper continuum of Pop celebrity, and his most contrived scam. The resulting score of classic vinyl might be slight – “Desdemona”, “Come And Play With Me In The Garden” and… maybe, “Midsummer Night’s Scene”. But the group burned bright, if briefly. In ‘Record Collector: 100 Greatest Psychedelic Records’ (Diamond Publications, 2005) David Wells writes ‘with its blissfully stoned repetition of the phrase ‘petals and flowers, petals and flowers’ and fey, wilting atmosphere, “Midsummer Night’s Scene” couldn’t really have come from any time other than the summer of 1967’. Inspired by the group’s slot on the bill of ‘The Fourteen-Hour Technicolour Dream’ Hippie Freak-Out Happening at the Alexandra Palace (29 April 1967) alongside Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, the Pretty Things, Tomorrow, the Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, plus John Lennon and Yoko Ono, it was a career peak, of sorts… surely?
From the West Surrey stockbroker-belt John’s Children were a flashy Mod four-piece cast from the Who/Small Faces template. In Great Bookham, near Leatherhead, personable blonde extrovert Andy Ellison and Boarding School-friend drummer Chris Townson had been involved with a number of local groups. Recruiting tall lanky guitarist Geoff McClelland and bass-player John Hewlett they managed to wangle some dates and build up a strong local fanbase. On a trip to St Tropez with Chris, wandering penniless, Hewlett fortuitously happened to collide with Napier-Bell in the ‘Voom Voom’ club, and blagged the group to his attention. ‘Oh, he’s the best seducer ever’ explained Chris, ‘if we want something from someone and everything else has failed, we send John along. He won’t tell us what he does, but it always works. It’s his eyes, I think.’ Sufficiently intrigued, Napier-Bell even bailed Chris out of jail, where he was facing vagrancy charges.
Later, back home, they were still called the Silence when Napier-Bell subsequently stumbled across them on a temporary-stage at the Burford Bridge swimming pool. And as he tells it in his other – totally scurrilous but irresistibly funny memoir ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’ (2005, Ebury Press, ISBN 0-0919-0272X), ‘they were dreadful. Positively the worst group I’d ever seen… none of them could play his instrument well enough to be called a musician. And although the singer, Andy, had a great talent for leaping up and down, he couldn’t actually sing’. For their eventual ‘Newcomers To The Charts’ box in ‘New Musical Express’ he goes on to expand his description of them as ‘completely arrogant, cripplingly honest, totally naïve and four good clean healthy lads’ (18 March 1967). Maybe be exaggerates for effect? Maybe not.
Certainly they had cheek, energy and attitude. They had EEL-LECT-TRY-CITY…!!! Perhaps that’s enough? It’s not as though musical excellence, technical virtuosity… or even functional competence has ever been an integral element or an essential qualification for Pop success. To merely suggest as much would be absurd. Looking cute is more vital than knowing your chord-shapes. And Napier-Bell knew a thing or two about cute boys. Hadn’t Kit Lambert promoted the Who into the charts through a barrage of controversy and outrage? Surely Napier-Bell could do the same with the newly renamed John’s Children? He signed them. Dressed them in all-over white. And took them into the recording studio… or, at least, he took one of them there!
He began with a backing track cut by Los Angeles session professions, dubbed Andy Ellison’s vocal across it, and thus John’s Children’s “Smashed Blocked” became an unlikely US ‘Billboard’ Hot Hundred entry. Feeding into the same kind of incoherent amphetamine speed-buzz that powered the stuttering ‘My Generation’ Andy Ellison emotes ‘please, I’m losing my mind, help me before it’s too late! My eyes are tired. Where are you? Where am I?’ as a discordant jangle fades in behind him. An effective promo now on ‘YouTube’, filmed in the basement of Peter Cook’s Greek Street ‘Establishment Club’, immaculately catches the moment, shadowy, blurry, a swirling red spiral op-art backdrop. The glisten of a single tear as Andy emotes ‘sometimes I cry’, or maybe it’s sweat? Andy helpfully explains ‘SMASHED was a Mod term for drunk, and BLOCKED was a Mod term for being pilled up – high on amphetamine’.
Written by Napier-Bell, taking and using their phrase to exploit the shock-value of cult drug-association to gravitate the frisson of attention, he then defused it so as not to scare wider audience access, via radio-play, when the single was issued through EMI’s Columbia label. More accessibly renamed “The Love I Thought I’d Found” in October 1966, this re-edited variant, the result of guerrilla surgery nip and tuck, renders the singer’s mental confusion more romantic, less pharmacological. Its attack becomes an embrace. So this miscalculated revision opens with a softening tacked-on verse resembling ‘Bring It On Home To Me’ as done by Herman’s Hermits, an impossibly fey foreplay before exploding into the centrifuge of guitar-effects climax with the disembodied ‘Smashed Blocked’ mid-to-echoed-fade ‘please, I’m losing my way. Help me now! Try to bring me back before it’s too late. Where am I…? Everything’s spinning…!’ like a Merry-Go-Round being sucked into a black-hole. The track falls one-millimetre short of becoming a garage psych-beat classic by virtue of what seems like this calculated loss of last-minute nerve. But flip the single, and even stranger there’s “Strange Affair” (by Napier-Bell with Kyle Ellison), a wondrous farrago which is kind of like Blur’s ‘Park Life’ as scripted by Joe Orton, the story of Ernie and the Vicar, recited with funny-voice narration, taking the story as far as Grimsby Fish Market. Was there ever commercial potential here? even as a wacky novelty…? It’s difficult to imagine.
With some momentum established, accelerated by their explosive live stage act, “Just What You Want, Just What You’ll Get” swiftly followed, with the rapid-crunch martial drumming in 5/4-time, a one-finger keyboard, and the title delivered in a hissy intimate-whisper, then a catchy Turtles-style ‘ba-ba-ba-ba’ chorus. Still entrusting the actual playing to seasoned studio musicians, Jeff Beck contributes a distinctively deep-burning solo to the ‘B’-side “But She’s Mine” which creatively rips-off and adapts the Who’s ‘Can’t Explain’ riff. A later ‘Melody Maker’ scribe finds even more, ‘every girl they fall for is a lie… (its) jut and thrust hold together a shuffling lexicon of rhymes that become interchangeable, hinting successively at Pop romance, then the embrace of a corpse (one of the band’s scarcely-submerged themes), and then the threat of utter non-sense. The girl… is made of contradictions, a perpetual shifting and threat to identity that JC are both attracted to and terrified by’ (Paul Oldfield, 6 August 1988). Which is perhaps a deconstruction too far? possibly reading a mite too much into it…? Maybe. The single nudged and nibbled the very foot of the charts, not entirely undue to Napier-Bell’s payola investment. According to Johnny Rogan’s book ‘Starmakers And Svengalis’ (MacDonald, 1988) chart-fixer Harvey Freed was hired for a few hundred pounds to elevate the single to no.28 in the ‘New Musical Express’ Top Thirty (the week of 18th March 1967). Such a showing was not enough to satisfy EMI however.
Nevertheless, the precarious purchase established in American awareness prompted their US label, White Whale, to agitate for a tie-in album which was duly cobbled together. As well as singles “Smashed Blocked”, “Just What You Want” and the forthcoming “Not The Sort Of Girl” there were new titles. The best of which was probably “Jagged Time Lapse” written by Hewlett with McClelland, provoked by the ‘flashing waves and violent thunder’ of a migraine attack Geoff was enduring. It fizzes and glows in spasms of distortion. This is energy forever. Yet in what seems like a further loss of nerve, Napier-Bell dubs live audience-screams (nicked from the soundtrack of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’) over the resulting tracks, either to paper-over the musical inadequacy, or to create an impression of massive English popularity. Coincidentally, the Byrds later also sampled the same Beatles scream-track for their music-industry satire “So You Wanna Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”. Meanwhile, Napier-Bell also thought it a great idea to name the album ‘Orgasm’ – which further complicated matters. The label, despite having stumped-up the initial financial backing, lost its nerve, and delayed putting it out, fearing outraged conservative backlash. It was kept on permanent hold, and only finally emerged in 1970, by which time the group’s brief career-arc was well and truly over. A subsequent Cherry Red CD edition, expanded with bonus tracks, allows the opportunity of hearing the original un-dubbed tracks, which largely stand up well. Although, inexplicably, the version of “Strange Affair” included here is played backwards…!
Meanwhile, there was another single scheduled – “Not The Sort Of Girl You’d Take To Bed”, the kind of song-title the likes of Morrissey could make great play with. It counts in ‘1-2-3-4-5’ into nagging jerky lumpy rhythms with stinging fuzz guitar. She – the girl, is maybe a groupie who’ll brag about the sex afterwards, ‘your friends would be very proud if they heard you’d had me too’. He’s not keen, ‘I’d never think of kissing you… all I want of you I’ve had’, before the repeating staccato accusation ‘you’re sick! – sick!! – sick!!!’ It could be argued there’s a kind of in-your-face honesty here. Weren’t the broadsheet newspaper’s howling against the ‘permissive society’, wailing about pill-liberated teen promiscuity? Isn’t that what this record is all about? But despite Napier-Bell’s astute cash-from-chaos appraisal, flirting with the margins of what they could get away with, perhaps the scam was just a little premature, a little too ahead of the game? The title alone scared the label off. The group were promptly dropped.
Maybe the grand strategy was flawed, or at least needed further fine-tuning? Perhaps some degree of musical talent would be a positive asset after all? Napier-Bell grabbed the opportunity of renegotiating a new deal with Kit Lambert’s Track Records, to reshuffle the line-up, upgrading their flair in the process. Marc Bolan was a raggle-taggle talented misfit with turreted castles, wizards, gryphons, warriors and prancing horses living inside his head. He’d just penned his own strange third solo record called “Hippy Gumbo”, with Napier-Bell producing. A solo acoustic performer, his braying vocal style lacked – say, Donovan’s wistful romantic melodic quality. So he needed a convenient commercial vehicle to ignite his obvious potential. Napier-Bell remembers that ‘Marc definitely wanted to be a solo star. He never saw himself as anything else. But I persuaded him that John’s Children would be a good stepping-stone. I felt that if he was singing with John’s Children people would get used to his voice and he’d begin to find a market’. Andy Ellison once claimed the prime qualification for membership of John’s Children was that they were all the same height, so they looked uniform in press-photos. Well, 5ft 6ins Marc certainly blew that theory. Nevertheless his self-evident talent outweighed his lack of stature, and he was drafted into the group to replace guitarist Geoff McClelland, drawing “Hippy Gumbo” into the repertoire with him.
Amusingly, the press photos were hastily adjusted, with Geoff’s face simply cut-and-pasted away and replaced with Marc’s – and back then that literally meant scissoring and gumming! They promptly embarked on a German tour with Marc, supporting their new Track label-mates the Who, leaving for Nuremberg, and scheduled to return 18 April. But once plugged-in and wigged-out their deliberate attempts at upstaging the headliners ignited an escalating feud that led to spectacular levels of sensational outrage involving fake blood capsules, on-stage skirmishes, cherry-bomb explosions, whirling feathers, Bolan playing his Gibson SG with a length of chain, stage-diving and probably real blood too. A (possibly planted?) letter to ‘Melody Maker’ protests that the group’s performance was ‘the most atrocious excuse for entertainment I have ever seen. They issued forth a barrage of sound bearing no resemblance to anything on Earth – it was sickening’. Following a particularly riotous set at the 12,000-capacity Messehalle hall in Ludwigshafen, which assumes even more outrageous proportions with each telling – ‘a forty-five minute happening’ according to Marc, they were dropped from the tour. ‘People who see us play often think we’re out of our heads’ John told a hapless ‘Record Mirror’ interviewer (June 1967). Despite the altercation it’s significant that Townson was later asked to sit in on drums near the end of the Who’s UK tour in June that same year after Keith Moon injured himself demolishing his drum kit on stage. John acquitted himself well.
‘The reason we’re succeeding is ‘cos we do everything for ourselves… we don’t sit around waiting for publicity people to do all our promotional work for us’ insists Chris. Well, maybe. The journalist breathlessly adding ‘John’s Children don’t wait for questions, nor do they stop talking, nor does their enthusiasm ever drop for a second.’
As quirkily attractive as some of the group singles had been, the only ones with any creative depth and originality are those subsequently written for them during Marc’s brief stay as one of John’s Children. “Desdemona” – with its title-nod to the Bard’s murdered heroine of ‘Othello’, is the motherlode. This is as good as John’s Children were ever going to get. It’s a great little single. For the first time there’s a song and a performance strong enough to stand without the added buzz of inflated controversy. The curious lyric plays around with tasty titillation while further flaunting Marc’s cultural credentials with ‘just because Toulouse Lautrec painted some chick in the rude, doesn’t give you the right to steal my night, and leave me naked in the nude…’ But if there was ever going to be a John’s Children hit record, this was surely it? Then the moral guardians of the BBC took offence at the line ‘lift up your skirts and fly’, and promptly banished it from their hallowed airwaves. As a last-minute damage-limitation they played around with alternate lines, replacing the offending text with ‘why do you have to lie’, ‘why do you have to cry’ and for the final verse ‘why do you have to speak’. But it was too late. Admittedly, by then the BBC wasn’t the only voice in the ether, their chokehold was no longer absolute. And the Pirate-stations played “Desdemona” on high rotation. I well remember hearing its energy crackling from the transistor, with Marc’s frenzied bleating repeating the title behind Andy’s lead. Enticingly strange. Ahead of the game. Singles had charted on the strength of pirate-support… but no, not this time. Even a front-page ad in ‘New Musical Express’ failed to do the do. It was too late.
But wait, flip the single and ‘B’-side – “Remember Thomas à Becket”, is equally strong, making it a value-for-cash coupling. ‘What sounds like a strangled horse at the beginning is in fact a car skidding into a plate-glass window’ offers Andy by way of explanation, plus ‘a crate of empty wine bottles thrown down the stairs’. I’m not sure where Thomas à Becket fits into the lyric either, or why we should remember this ‘turbulent priest’ murdered at the behest of Henry II in 1170. Not that it matters. The song was promptly reworked. To Andy Ellison ‘with a new set of lyrics each time, we managed to get three or four songs out of what was originally a rip-off of a Small Faces tune’. Dropping the Thomas à Becket element, but with the song otherwise intact, it was launched as the follow-up ‘A’-side as “Come And Play With Me In The Garden”. It reprises the ‘come and play in the petals and flowers’ from ‘Midsummer Night’s Scene’ and adds the ‘why you always cold like ice-cream, don’t you know that love’s a nice dream?’ Again it’s a strong and highly-likely chart contender, with Pirate support, that failed to crack the Top Fifty.
Even the new ‘B’-side, “Sara Crazy Child” is another mysterious example of Marc Bolan’s early magic, and a late John’s Children’s gem. There’s a drum feed-in that again recalls the Small Faces, leading into a fractured fairytale lyric that’s pure Bolan referencing the Minotaur, and Sara’s ‘brother, the juke-box king’ who, ‘in summer he’s a young boy, but in winter he’s a bear’. Marc’s voice is clearly audible in the mix. Between the two releases there were at least three attempts at recording a viable singles version of “Midsummer Night’s Scene” – sticking with the close-Shakespeare theme but feeding in lines such as ‘eating the heat’, ‘disfigured with love’ and a reference to ‘the dance of the hours’ (from Amilcare Ponchielli’s ballet ‘La Gioconda’), its echoey emanations set against the primitive amplified dinosaur’s heartbeat of a brooding one-note bass-riff – before it was abandoned and shelved. Acetates briefly distributed at John’s Children’s own ‘Bluesette’ club in Leatherhead rapidly assumed such legendary collector’s status that its epic price tag even qualified for a mention on a BBC2’s ‘Antiques’ show. All three takes are salvaged onto ‘The Complete John’s Children’ CD compilation, the third involving ‘arguably, the first backward guitar chords used in recording… possibly psychedelic’ according to Andy on the liner notes.
For a BBC radio session DJ Brian Matthews urges ‘let’s turn on a groovy beat’ with the ‘mind-bending sound’ of John’s Children. They play Otis Blackwell’s “Daddy Rollin’ Stone” (‘B’-side of the Who’s “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere”) propelled by tribally solid backbeat, starting out as a passably goodish R&B cover it collapses midway into a ‘uh-hah, uh-hah, uh-hah, uh-hah’ vocal chant over relentlessly pounding drums. A phonetic nonsense, seemingly lifted from the background of “Just What You Want”. But as the crescendo of a sweaty club set, surely it must have worked as a powerful incendiary routine? Brian Matthews interviews John (as the only John present, they must be his children, right?), inviting him to explain what the group is aiming for. When the response is simply ‘I think we’re just putting across what we feel musically’ he probes deeper. Are John’s Children deliberately breaking down musical restrictions? ‘Well, we’ve been told we’re doing this’ he concedes, ‘but it’s not intentional. It might come across as we play that we’re doing this sort of thing, but we’re just going on stage playing what we feel’. He seems not entirely at ease doing the talking bit, as though his ‘seducer-magic’ is temporarily disengaged. Clearly this exchange is not about to result in startling revelations. Is Brian Matthews maybe out of his comfort-zone? Andy Ellison relates an anecdote about the staid veteran-presenter quizzing Napier-Bell ‘are the band on some kind of drugs?’ Probably not. Brian’s been doing this sort of thing since the dawn of BBC Pop, surely he’s seen them all come and go?
Brian Matthews calls Bolan the group’s ‘built-in writer of weird and wonderful songs’. And in a last-minute salvage-operation he enquires about the lyrics. Again John simply deadpans ‘the lyrics? Marc is the song’s main writer, and his are tremendous lyrics as far as we’re concerned’. With the sound of emptiness roaring around them. Elsewhere John is more expressive, telling ‘Record Mirror’ that ‘Marc’s songs are part of it, they’re super-dimensitive (!)… not just double meanings but millions of meanings’. John also adds that they’ve been working on an album, ‘yeah, it’s great, we’ve been recording it for the past month or so’. Maybe he was just referring to a sprawl of sessions done at ‘Spot’, a small studio in South Moulton Street, that result in a spread of demos, incomplete backing tracks and try-outs relegated to the archives, only to emerge as bonus CD tracks on compilations decades later? “Arthur Green” is pounding drums and echoplexed guitar. “The Perfumed Garden Of Gulliver Smith” – done complete on the BBC radio session, also appears as an instrumental demo. On “Hot Rod Mama” Bolan takes the second verse lead vocals, using auto-metaphors for his female object of desire, showing a lyric continuity with his later “Get It On” (‘You’re built like a car, you’ve got a hub cap diamond star halo’) and “Jeepster” (‘Just like a car you’re pleasing to behold, I’ll call you Jaguar if I may be so bold’). Then there’s “Mustang Ford” – another girl/car song ‘all put together with alligator leather’. The group reconfigured it into their final single “Go-Go Girl”, after being impressed by seeing the nubile dancers on a Hamburg TV-pop show they were guesting on. Although – yet again, it failed to chart, Marc also salvaged both songs for the debut long-player of his next project, Tyrannosaurus Rex’s ‘My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair, But Now They’re Content To Wear Stars On Their Brows’ (1968).
Although the group was no more, and he’d only been adopted as one of the Children for a brief time – rating as scarcely John’s step-child, as Marc’s glam-star rose into 1970’s glitter-Rock celebrity, eager archivists began excavating his past. And came up with these neglected gems which were newly re-polished with escalating collector price-tags. Elsewhere, the muses of time were also shifting. In 1975, Andy Ellison and Chris Townson formed Jet with former-Nice guitarist David O’List, for a new chapter of sonic adventures and vinyl history. Then there was Radio Stars. And Simon Napier-Bell? He eventually got the commercial equation right as manager of Wham! Meanwhile, here in retrospect, is John’s Children’s legacy to the youth of posterity. History tints events. People have their own interpretations. But they generated a sizable media buzz, even if it never quite translated into big bucks. Their score of classic vinyl might be slight – “Desdemona”, “Come And Play With Me In The Garden” and… maybe, “Midsummer Night’s Scene”. But they burned bright, if briefly. They were mad, crazy, dippy, disingenuous, irrational, and – as a targeted Pop product, not even especially commercial. But surely it’s chastening for indiePop kids to discover that every extreme they strive for in terms of drippy-soppiness and giddy-miasma dementia has already been exceeded here, simultaneously. John’s Children were fun in a way that’s totally absent from anything going on now. Irresponsible, for the hell of it…
JOHNS CHILDREN: ‘LIFT
UP YOUR SKIRTS AND FLY…’
‘Incredible Sound Show Stories Vol.5: Yellow Street Boutique’ (sampler featuring songs recorded by ‘The Silence’ – “Down Down”, “Cold On Me” and “Forgive Me If I’m Wrong” recorded on a Revox two-track during Summer 1965 by local enthusiast Pierre Tubbs)
14 October 1966 – “Smashed Blocked” (Simon Napier-Bell and Hewlett) c/w “Strange Affair” (USA, White Whale 239). Debut John’s Children single, backing-track done by L.A session musicians with Andy Ellison vocals. British ‘A’-Side retitled “The Love I Thought I’d Found” (UK Columbia DB 8030) in which form ‘Record Mirror’ review says ‘This is so unusual that it just gets a ‘tip’. Spoken intro over ‘space-age’ instrumental sounds, but it’s rather a patchy production thereafter. Maybe the slow opening will hold it back, but it deserves to do well for originality. Hard to describe… just play it! TOP FIFTY TIP’. While in the USA, December 1966, it makes the ‘Billboard’ Hot Hundred and local (Florida) Top 10.
3 February 1967 – “Just What You Want – Just What You’ll Get” (Hewlett, Townson, Ellison, McClelland) c/w “But She’s Mine” (UK Columbia DB 8124) ‘A’-side, backing by UK session musicians, Jeff Beck guests on ‘B’-side. ‘Record Mirror’ review says ‘Full marks for originality. Not so many for commercial prospects this time, but they ARE trying’. Nevertheless it enters the ‘New Musical Express’ chart at no.28 for the one week of 18th March. In Germany ‘B’-Side of February 1967 single “Smashed Blocked” is “Just What You Want...” (Polydor 59069)
‘Orgasm’ (Album, projected release, 18 March 1967 as White Whale 7128, withdrawn and finally issued September 1970) Recorded at ‘Tiles’ in Oxford Street, and Advision Studio, titled by Simon Napier-Bell who also dubbed a scream-track lifted from the ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ soundtrack to give the effect of a ‘live performance’ (or to ‘conceal their failings’). With “Killer Ben”, “Jagged Time Lapse”, “Smashed Blocked”, “You’re A Nothing” (‘pathological masculine thrust’), “Not The Sort Of Girl”, “Cold On Me”, “Let Me Know”, “Just What You Want” (plus “Leave Me Alone” and “Why Do You Lie” which ‘flirt with the residue of Merseybeat’s honied harmonies’). 1988 Cherry Red CD (CDM RED 31) is expanded to fourteen tracks with un-dubbed ‘studio’ versions of “Smashed Blocked” and “Just What You Want”, plus “But She’s Mine” and a reverse-tape version of “Strange Affair”. Sleeve notes by Chris Donovan. Reviewer Paul Oldfield writes ‘ignore every other punkadelic sixties band till you’ve heard this’ (‘Melody Maker’ 6 August 1988)
1967 – “Not The Sort Of Girl You’d Take To Bed” (Columbia) release cancelled
Born in Hackney in 1947, Marc Bolan’s pre-John’s Children solo singles started out with a one-sided acetate “The Road I’m On (Gloria)” (an old Dion ‘B’-side) recorded at Regent Sound Studios with producer Jim Economedes in early 1965 as by Toby Tyler (EMIDISC), subsequently reissued as a one-sided 7” single on Archive Jive TOBY1 in March 1990. A lost ‘B’-side of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” later turns up – issued in August 1993 (Zinc Alloy ZAR CDS9005). Then “The Wizard” c/w “Beyond The Rising Sun” issued as by ‘Marc Bowland’ (1965, Decca F12288) string-arrangement by Jim Leander and vocal back-up by The Ladybirds, performed on a ‘Ready Steady Go’ show with Wilson Pickett and the Small Faces. “The Third Degree” c/w “San Francisco Poet” by Marc Bolan (1966, Decca F12413), his last with producer Jim Economedes. And “Hippy Gumbo” c/w “Misfit” by Marc Bolan (early 1967, Parlophone R5539) produced by Napier-Bell, about which the ‘Record Mirror’ reviewer wrote ‘this one could easily make it because of the unusual, tense, dramatic voice used this time by Marc. Sort of wavering… like an old jazz singer’. Despite being picked up by John Peel and played on his ‘Perfumed Garden’ show, and promoted by a second ‘Ready Steady Go’ slot – alongside Jimi Hendrix, it sells only 200 copies. Its failure prompts Marc to accept Napier-Bell’s suggestion of a temporary liaison with John’s Children…
24 May 1967 – “Desdemona” (Marc Bolan) c/w “Remember Thomas à Becket” (Hewlett and Ellison) (Track Records 604-003, Germany Polydor 59-104), with Marc Bolan on ‘A’-side – he claimed to have written “Desdemona” in just 25-seconds!, and McClelland on ‘B’-side. Producer: Simon Napier-Bell. Track Records take out front-cover ad in ‘New Musical Express’. The track is later included on the Track Records compilation LP ‘Backtrack One’ (2407-001) Record Mirror review says ‘This is an intuitive tip for the Fifty – based on a feeling that this is very commercial though also rather different. Verse is well sung and the chorus, with ‘answering’ voice in the background, is both catchy and impacty. Strong guitar in parts and the beat is just right. Rather a refreshing slice of Pop. Flip: Noisier, also rather original – but not so strong. TOP FIFTY TIP’ In ‘NME’ Napier-Bell says about ‘Thomas à Becket’ ‘we decided to play safe with this and get right away from drugs and sex and into a good healthy murder. They wrote it themselves and it’s all about a fella who goes mad and begins playing funerals in his back garden!’(18 March 1967)
June 1967 – “Midsummer Night’s Scene” (Bolan) c/w “Sara Crazy Child” (Bolan) (Track Records 604-005) full length mix, release cancelled, and only a few copies distributed to fans at John’s Children gigs, making it highly collectible. Included on ‘Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts from the British Empire and Beyond 1964–1969’ (Rhino 4CD Box-set, June 2001). Bolan’s original ‘B’-side title was ‘Sister Crazy Child’
14 July 1967 – “Come and Play with Me In The Garden” (Ellison, Hewlett) c/w “Sara Crazy Child” (Bolan) (Track Records 604-005). Issued by three-piece line-up following Marc’s departure (he plays his final live gig with them 19th May, although he’s there 17 June for the BBC sessions), Marc plays on ‘B’-side only. Press ads feature the group nude ‘veiling their hairy bits with convenient hunks of shrubbery’, and the ‘Record Mirror’ review says ‘Drummy precussive (sic) opening, then group vocal for the flower-power group who are getting enough publicity to make it quite big this time. Chorus is catchy and the directness of the arrangement is effective. Odd little falsetto touches. What you’d call a ‘full’ sound. Flip: a Marc Bolan song, original, but just a shade monotonous. TOP FIFTY TIP’. A full un-edited version issued in Germany only (Polydor 59-116). “Come And Play With Me In The Garden” is later included on the Track Records compilation LP ‘Backtrack Two’ (2407-002)
6 October 1967 – “Go Go Girl” (Bolan) c/w “Jagged Time Lapse” (Hewlett and McClelland) (Track Records 604-010) ‘A’-side is a revision of Bolan’s “Mustang Ford” featuring Bolan on guitar, ‘B’-side from remaining recordings with Geoff McClelland (Germany Polydor 59-160). The ‘Record Mirror’ review said ‘these boys have so much going for them that they actually deserve a hit. This starts rather in olde-Rock style, yet up-dated – if you understand me. Wordless chanting a lot of the time, but with explosions of sound, plus organ, midway. It’s rather clever but I doubt if it’ll be a massive hit. Flip: guitar-intro and quite good lyrics. TOP FIFTY TIP’. While ‘NME’ says ‘If you can resist the compulsion to dance to this disc, you must be a Radio 3 listener! It’s a sizzling hunk of R-and-B, blended with psychedelic effects and oscillations, and strings – surprising, but effective – in the background. Ideal for discothèques, but the welter of big-name releases coming out simultaneously may prevent it from making the Chart. Flip: You’d expect something way-out from this title – and you’d get it. Not so much from the treatment, as from the lyric, which is very surrealistic. Unusual!’ Also issued in Greece as Polydor International 244.
Briefly, for live work, Chris Townson switched to guitar while former roadie Chris Colille (who also ran the ‘John’s Children Club’ in Leatherhead) took over on drums – he was ‘driver, substance procurer, raconteur (wreck on tour!), all-round nutter and brilliant guy’. There was a final German tour – including TV with Jimi Hendrix, before winding up at the Hamburg ‘Star Club’, after which the group split
Post-John’s Children Andy Ellison solo singles: “It’s Been A Long Time” c/w “Arthur Green” (December 1967, Track Records 604 018) Andy Ellison sings the ‘A’-side on the soundtrack of the movie ‘Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush’. The ‘B’-side is the final recording from John’s Children, with Chris Colille helping out on drums. The second solo Andy Ellison single is “Fool From Upper Eden” c/w “Another Lucky Lie” (March 1968, CBS 3357). The third and final solo single is “You Can’t Do That” (Lennon-McCartney) c/w “Cornflake Zoo” (Andy Ellison and Marc Bolan) (May 1968, SNB 55-3308, Simon Napier-Bell’s own label). Two other solo cuts, a big-band arrangement of the Beatles “Help” and “Casbah Candy” (aka “Jasper C Debussy”) – written by Marc Bolan, remain unissued until ‘The Complete John’s Children’ CD anthology
June 1972 – Marc Bolan solo single “Jasper C Debussy” c/w “Hippy Gumbo” + “The Perfumed Garden Of Gulliver Smith (acoustic)” (Track 2094-013), three tracks recorded with Simon Napier-Bell from 1966. Nicky Hopkins on piano. Single withdrawn but eventually released June 1974
June 1974 – Marc Bolan ‘The Beginning Of Doves’ (Track 2410, reissued Media Motion MEDIA2), with underground elf Tyrannosaurus Rex, then Glam-Slam T Rex the biggest band in Britain, this is a timely and useful compilation of Marc’s very earliest recordings, the acoustic solo tracks put down at the De Lane studios with Napier-Bell in late-1966, then two tracks from the later session used for the re-recording of the “Hippy Gumbo” single, and finally informal Napier-Bell-produced tracks of Marc with Steve Peregrine-Took prior to their first Regal Zonophone session. Includes “Jasper C Debussy”, “Lunacy’s Back”, “Beyond The Risin’ Sun”, “Black And White Incident”, “Observations”, “Eastern Spell”, “You Got The Power”, “Hippy Gumbo”, “Sara Crazy Child”, “Rings Of Fortune”, “Hot Rod Momma”, “The Beginning Of Doves”, “Mustang Ford”, “Pictures Of Purple People”, “One Inch Rock”, “Jasmine ‘49”, “Charlie”, “Misty Mist”, “Cat Black” and one-half of a John’s Children demo “Sally Was An Angel”
1974-1976, JET – formed by Andy Ellison and Chris Townson (who had been playing with Jook since John’s Children), with Martin Gordon (bass, ex-Sparks), David O’List (guitar, ex-Nice and Roxy Music) and Peter Oxendale (keyboards). They tour with Ian Hunter-Mick Ronson, and issue one LP, ‘Jet’ in May 1975 (CBS S-80699) and two singles “My River” c/w “Quandry” (March 1975, CBS 3143) and “Nothing To Do With Us” (June 1975, CBS 3317). A subsequent compilation, ‘Nothing To Do With Us’ (double CD Fan Mael Records) includes everything Jet ever recorded, the LP coupled with demos and all sorts of non-album track. Jet also played back-up for ex-Glitter Band frontman John Rossall’s solo single “I Was Only Dreaming”, which was later collected onto 1987 ‘Great Glam Rock Explosion’ compilation (Biff Biff 3). Chris augmented the (Hammersmith) Gorillas briefly for a Cheswick single “She’s My Gal” (July 1976)
1977-1979, RADIO STARS – Glam-Rock Jet evolved into post-Punk New Wave Radio Stars, with Andy Ellison (vocals), Chris Townson (drums, replaced by Paul Simon, then Steve Parry, then Jamie Crompton), Ian MacLeod (guitar) and Martin Gordon (bass). They make their TV debut on ‘Marc’ – Marc Bolan’s show playing power-Pop second single “No Russians In Russia” (later featured on Chiswick compilation ‘Long Shots, Dead Certs And Odds-On Favourites’, April 1978)! And the ‘B’-side of single “Nervous Wreck” c/w “Horrible Breath” (no.39, in February 1978) was a Marc Bolan song (“Dan The Sniff”) dating from the John’s Children period. This time they manage three CD’s for Chiswick – ‘Songs For Swinging Lovers’ (December 1977, WIK5), ‘The Radio Stars Holiday Album’ (September 1978, CWK3001) and ‘Something For The Weekend’ (March 2008, Radiant Future RSVP010CD) before splitting. They leave a compilation CD ‘Somewhere There’s A Place For Us’ (Chiswick CDWIKD107)
‘Music For the Herd of Herring’ CD by John’s Children – live (2001, Radiant Future Records REVP001CD) Prompted by renewed archival interest in John’s Children during the mid-nineties, Andy Ellison reforms the group with Boz Boorer (guitar) and Martin Gordon (bass) from Radio Stars, performing gigs in Britain, Italy, Spain and the USA. In 1999, Ellison, Townson and Gordon recruit Leatherhead guitarist Trevor White (ex-Sparks) and Ian Macleod (ex-Radio Stars) to tour a repertoire of John’s Children songs, with additional material from Jet and Radio Star. This CD was recorded in Britain, the Netherlands and Germany.
‘Black & White’ (Acid Jazz AJXCD 234, sessions begun in 1999, but issued in June 2011) New recordings by the reformed line-up of Andy Ellison, Chris Townson (drums), Boz Boorer (guitar) and Martin Gordon (bass) with a new mix of old and new titles, including “Train In My Head”, “Sara Crazy Child”, “Lazy Sunday”, “Eleanor Rigby” and “I Got The Buzz”. John’s Children officially reform again in June 2006 with Ellison, Hewlett and Townson plus guitarist Trevor White. Until Townson’s death in February 2008
February 1988 – ‘A Midsummer Night’s Scene’ (Bam Caruso MARI 095 CD) with “Smashed Blocked”, “Just What You Want, Just What You’ll Get”, “Desdemona”, “Remember Thomas A Beckett”, “It’s Been A Long Time”, “Arthur Green”, “Midsummer Night’s Scene”, “Sara Crazy Child”, “Jagged Time Lapse”, “Go-Go Girl”, “Come And Play With Me In The Garden”, “Hippy Gumbo”. Reviewer Simon Reynolds writes ‘John’s Children were one of those mid-sixties beat groups like The Eyes or The Creation who were too extreme to make it, while more professional ‘accomplished’ peers like The Yardbirds and the Who prospered’ (‘Melody Maker’ 20 February 1988)
1997 – ‘Smashed Blocked!’ (New Millenium Communications NMC Pilot 12) with “Hippy Gumbo”, Hot Rod Mama”, “Perfumed Garden Of Gulliver Smith”, “Sally Was An Angel (instrumental)”, “Jagged Time Lapse” (BBC session)
1997 – ‘Jagged Time Lapse’ (NMC Pilot 18)
1999 – ‘John’s Children’ (EP) – 1999, Trash (LARD 20 07 99)
2002 – ‘The Complete John’s Children’ (NMC Pilot 118) 2CD set, 31-tracks including BBC sessions, instrumental versions of “Come And Play With Me In The Garden”, “Perfumed Garden Of Gulliver Smith” and instrumental original “Sally Was An Angel” (probably a uncompleted backing-track), with solo Andy Ellison tracks “Help” and “It’s Been A Long Time”