/ Little Johnny Jewel part one, Ork, 1975
Don’t stop me, you won’t have heard this one before.
25th June 1988. The Jasmine Minks and the Visitors play the Exeter Arts Centre. The Minks have recently released Another Age on Creation. It has swept aside the partial disappointment of their debut long player, which suffered from production that dampened the spirit of the songs. It also sees the group overcoming the loss of Adam Sanderson, who had shared song writing and singing duties with Jim Shepherd; Jim has responded to the loss by writing perhaps his finest set of songs. Local boys the Visitors have recently had their song ‘Goldmining’ released as part of the set of seven Sha-la-la flexi discs which served as midwife to the birth of Sarah Records. The Visitors’ former singer is my host. He introduces me to his old band-mates, who we have just observed baiting the long-haired sound man – a favourite pursuit of the group, I am given to understand. Later I bump into an old school-friend, oddly, school having been in East Anglia rather than the West country; in fact it’s the friend who taped Drums and wires for me. Now he’s into Dinosaur Jr while XTC’s guitar sounds have led me on to the typically British independent music on display tonight. Strange then that he is there, but beggars can’t be choosers in Exeter, I am also given to understand.
Outside the evening sun shines as it should at the end of June, at the end of the academic year. While we are supping our first pints, up the slope to the Arts Centre strides R___, a Cornish journalist and fanzine writer, from whom I have received elliptical correspondence and his 1987 publication, Tony France, named after the smartly-coiffured singer of Factory Records’ Stockholm Monsters. Tony France was a fanzine quite unlike any I’ve seen or read, summoning up in its brevity the bold but desperate spirit of a group lurking in the shadow of New Order, and cataloguing scrapbook-style the few cuttings the group had mustered; safe to say that very few people got the Stockholm Monsters. R___ started Tony France with this advice: ‘shave your head’. On the last page he also tipped the wink about another bunch of idiot Mancunians: ‘Fuck off and leave the Happy Mondays alone you bastards. Fuck off. Dont go to their gigs. Dont buy their records. Dont patronise them in any way. … I don’t want to have anything to do with helping you find out who they are. In fact I should not have even named them. You should have found out who they were ages ago.’
A working man among students, R___ is dressed more smartly than most of us scruffs there that evening. His hair is already receding, leaving a wispy quiff atop the forehead of a weather-beaten Cornish face. ‘Are you Daniel?’ he says, and as soon as we’ve shook hands he presents me with a seven inch record in a plain paper sleeve. I peer at the label. It’s ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ by Television. Someone I’ve never met before has just given me what appears to be a very rare record, certainly one that I don’t recall ever having heard. Wow.
Between the two great live sets, R___ dances to the recorded music as freakily as the Happy Mondays’ ‘Freaky dancin’’ suggests one should. He also makes exaggerated gestures with his groin while positioned squarely before the female friend of a friend. Rhetoric and tales – some tall, some true, who knows which was which – pour out of him. How Bono had come looking for him while on a U2 tour prior to their worldwide fame, asking random people he bumped into in Saltash, ‘where can I find R___-cantox?’ How he used to wear make-up out and about in a navy town, and how he drank milk from stolen doorstep bottles at dawn on the Hoe. How he’d hung out with Hooky and told Tony to fuck off – as I suspect most of Manchester had at one time or another, but rarely anyone from Cornwall. How Neville Brody had designed the sleeve for his group’s one single. Later, how he’d spoken to Q Tip of A Tribe Called Quest on the phone and tried to fix up a meeting because in him R___ had recognised a kindred spirit. How he had to admit – couldn’t escape the fact – that he was a local character; a folk hero even.
How could I not love ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ when I got back home and played it, the multiple, intersecting memories of the weekend as fresh in my mind as the saffron cake bought that morning from a Devonian baker – bought, and in my hungover state brought up directly outside the shop, but the simile still stands. Tom Verlaine’s and Richard Lloyd’s first flight of fancy is as far from the Minks and the Visitors as it is from J. Macsis’ crew. In fact, as twenty years of subsequent listening continues to suggest, they don’t seem to owe a debt to anybody, except possibly Pere Ubu’s early out-there singles and the West Coast psychedelia of the sixties – Quicksilver Messenger Service are often mentioned as an antecedent – though the focus and immediacy of Television’s music subsumes the dreaminess that comes from following the flow of Verlaine and Lloyd’s guitar-playing; they meander much less than QMS. Still, they appear to have taken heart from that out-thereness, and used it to create something which also floats free in space and time.
The record begins like the sound of something beginning – firing up, finding its feet. Notes are picked seemingly at random, but with a sense that pattern is imminent. The pattern falls into place and when rhythm and lead hit on the same theme, the music suddenly bursts into gloriously raw technicoloured life. Then it drops away again and Verlaine introduces himself and the character of ‘JJ’. The seedy lyrical surrealism, or gibberish pitched midway between Kerouac and Bukowski – take your pick – and the reedy, emaciated emoting of Marquee Moon and Adventure has already been perfected:
‘And he run down to the airport
The rush, the roar
And he crouched down behind a fence
With a chest full of lights
He loses his senses…’
Part one fades out as the music is starting to bubble up again. Releasing the single on their own Ork label, it’s odd that Television chose to slice their song in half, as symphonies were once cut into quarters and fifths in the days of 78s. At over seven minutes it was longer than your average pop single but shorter and more concentrated than side-long LP tracks by prog rockers or the German purveyors of cosmic music. With dissension in the ranks, they nevertheless accepted the limitations of the format. (The two parts were returned to their undivided state for the 2003 remastering of Marquee moon.)
Part two fades in prior to the point at which side one faded out, recapping, reminding listeners that they are missing nothing. That guitars can be as instrumentally expressive as the saxophone had been in the mouths of Parker and Coltrane is what part two strives to prove, with Verlaine’s playing building and blowing, rising and descending over a background of rhythmic chords and the kind of whole kit drumming that might easily have passed at Birdland as an Art Blakey solo. Then there is a final word about the song’s eponymous character:
‘Oh little Johnny Jewel
He’s so cool
But if you see him looking lost
You ain’t gotta come on so boss
And you know that he’s paid
You know that he’s paid the price
All you gotta do for that guy
Is wink your eye’
Even in 1988 ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ seemed an extreme curiosity; now it’s much easier to see its influence, that it is the trail-blazer for what has become a well-mapped journey. Television moved music made with guitars forward, but influence tends to collar the wild dog and lead it where the owner dictates, away from interesting smells in the ditch or the undergrowth. It’s now much harder to summon up a distinct shift in music when every space on the map has been colonised, urbanised, made accessible to all. But I still like to think that someone out there will sooner or later match the Clientele and once again conjure sound and music out of a guitar that matches Verlaine and Lloyd for originality and vision.
Inevitably because of the circumstances in which I was given it, ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ is the sound of the birth of six or seven friendships. It carries in its crackly grooves the beginnings of what would for some time remain a shared way of looking at the world (though a way not without its own internal challenges) and a taken-for-granted curiosity about what was beyond the field of vision, for what was not under one’s nose. That now nearly everything is under a twenty year old’s nose is great for the humble listener or critic, but a potential burden for a musician of the same age set on pursuing the thirteenth note. Perhaps the solution for them is to turn inward, ignore influence, inspiration even, as far as that is possible, and build something from the ground up.