REAL ALE AND GOOD CONVERSATION
by Norman Warwick
Let me tell you what I do remember. I had a free ticket for a gig at Bury Met, that was being promoted by a mate of mine, sometime in the early nineteen nineties. Ian Johnson little, but influential, promotions company, Stampede, worked with a great list of nearly all my favourite musicians and was implicitly trusted by both the artists and the venue providers alike. He and artists like Gary Hall, Katy Moffatt and John Stewart had regularly in the past filled the hundred or so capacity little theatre at Bury Met, but tonight no tickets had been purchased in advance despite having been on sale for a week or two. So I arrived to find Ian and his ´star´, on their own, in the foyer of the theatre. I thought they might be pretty glum but in fact both seemed quite sanguine and ready to await the arrival of the walk in audience,….and so we waited,….and we waited,…..but not a single soul arrived.
It could have been embarrassing, so as eventually Ian and the artist moved into a huddle with theatre management I decided I would wait outside. I knew I would hear all about whatever had gone wrong from Ian at a later date but I didn´t want to intrude on private grief. The saving grace was that there was obvious trust on all sides,….the artist had worked with Ian before and knew the solidity of his work. In fact he had earlier that day done a sound check and liked all the Bury Met facilities. Ian and the theatre manager (Simon, I think) each knew the other had done everything expected. What was said behind closed doors I don´t know, but I certainly didn´t hear any accusations or criticism of anyone.
It was just all so strange. The weather was fair, it was a summer night. There no major sports or cultural events on in the area or even on tv and there had always been a good walk-on for The Met, (left) because locals were happy to attend any kind of event there. The staff were great and the management had built a strong reputation for hosting interesting gigs. (and is emerged out of covid restrictions with some live music listings that should bring back the crowds). check out https://themet.org.uk/whats-on
The artist himself had already recorded nine or ten albums in his own idiosyncratic and inimitable style since 1978. According to Ken Hunt, in a review for the Guardian, the songwriter guitarist was droll and gravelly voiced. I would later discover for myself what a charismatic
Woody Guthrie and John Lee Hooker. Between 1974 and 1978, he gigged stage performer John B Spencer could be when I caught a gig of his in London later that year
Spencer’s songs came out of a seventies scene that blurred folk, punk and pub rock, but were grounded in the work of the likes of and recorded with his group, the Louts, (right) but in 1980, teamed up a collective of musicians who grew out the Albion Band to become the Home Service. This group represented a major development in folk-rock, and members of it featured in variants of the John Spencer Alternative.
I would later learn, in subsequent interviews with the artist, that he was born in Hammersmith and was educated at St Clement Danes Grammar School, after which he ´went into publishing´, becoming head of production at Panther by the late 1960s.
Anyways, back to the story of the ill-fated show in Bury. There was nothing else to do but pull the plug on the event and after allowing an over-long vigil for any prospective late-comers we decided to find somewhere to drown our sorrows. We all agreed we wanted a typical country pub with real ale, and as Ian didn´t drive and John B´s gig was part of a train tour of the UK, muggings here would be the low-drinker. I did, however know the perfect place. We drove ten miles towards Yorkshire, along the A 58 out of Rochdale and eventually pulled up outside The Blue Ball just beyond Blackstone Edge, all wooden furnishings, log fires, Timothy Taylor´s Landlord bitter and Theakston´s Owd Peculiar,…oh, yeh, and pork scratchings, and crisps and peanuts !
I had a list of questions in my mind that I had been ready to use in interview with John B, but I suddenly found myself in a totally different, much more informal atmosphere that usually found at professional interviews. The trouble was I had no idea what to do in this atmosphere. My normal default conversational manner is to fire intrusive questions at people, but I figured John B might not be in the mood to field such an inquisition.
At first it was all a bit surreal. I was having a drink with the man who had written Can´t Buy My Soul With Your Rock And Roll, and who had introduced me to Sweet Lucinda, (talking on the telephone) and had given me the potted biography of a celebrity Poor Little Rich Boy.
His songs, mostly, were tightly based on an English outlook, and yet sounded to me then as an anticipation of what was to become Americana, despite his song that announced he didn´t want American style Drive In Movies.
Most of his music was already in my collection but I had somehow lost an album that contained a song about a ´poor boy hanging like Jesus on the cross. The chance to ask him about its current availability drifted away as we sat, the three of us, like Stan Ogden and Albert Tatlock from Corrie and a guy from Eastenders swapping childhood memories and amazing ourselves with the similarities and difference between a childhood spent where it´were grim up North and all London Pride down sarf.
John B didn´t talk much about his music, other than to answer any incidental questions asked as we chatted, and nor did he mention his love of writing in all forms. Yet in his lifetime he sang and or played on more than a dozen albums and somehow even found the time to publish seven novels.
In these books reckoned Ken Hunt, Spencer viewed lives through distorted prisms. The Electronic Lullaby Meat Market was followed by the futuristic Philip K Dickish: A Case For Charley and then Charley Gets The Picture. A decade later he would release Quake City and Perhaps She’ll Die in 1996, followed by Tooth And Nail and, another year later, Stitch in1999.
I learned from that same piece by Ken Hunt that In 1970, Spencer had founded the Young Artists agency, representing, among others, the illustrators Jim Burns and Gordon Crabb. He sold the agency, now Arena, in 1980 to concentrate on music.
Nobody overhearing our fireside chat in that pub in the wilds of The Pennines would have learned any of this. John B Spencer was great company, completely independent of him being one of my musical heroes and having nothing whatsoever with how fascinated I was with his written prose. He was just one of three blokes sharing silly childhood memories, glowing with fond memories of their childhood landscapes and enjoying real ale and good conversation-
Two or three years later, as I drove down to a gig in the capital city to hear him play and then to interview him, I was very much looking forward to renewing the acquaintance of this quiet, mild mannered man.
I shouldn´t have been surprised, but I was, to see him transformed on stage into a hyper-active and gregarious performer. he had what should have been a seated audience gathering in a huge throng at the foot of the stage with those on the periphery dancing like loons.
Later on, driving back home to Manchester and planning the interview and review I would soon be writing for Country Matters, I realised I had forgotten to ask him about the availability of that song about the poor boy on the cross. The song, off the Break And Entry album was somehow always with me, and I had wanted to know more about from my first hearing of it.
Ah well, there´d be other opportunities.
The article I subsequently wrote was full of all the biographical references I needed, about how
´Spencer’s songs came out of a 1970s scene that blurred folk, punk and pub rock, but were grounded in the work of the likes of Woody Guthrie and John Lee Hooker. Between 1974 and 1978, he gigged and recorded with his group, the Louts, then, in 1980, teamed up a collective of musicians who outgrew the Albion Band to become the Home Service. This group represented a major development in folk-rock, and members of it featured in variants of the John Spencer Alternative.
In his novels, Spencer viewed lives through distorted prisms. The Electronic Lullaby Meat Market (1975) was followed by the futuristic Philip K Dickish: A Case For Charley (1984), Charley Gets The Picture (1985), Quake City (1996), Perhaps She’ll Die (1996), Tooth And Nail (1998) and Stitch (1999).
Born in Hammersmith, Spencer was educated at St Clement Danes grammar school, after which he went into publishing, becoming head of production at Panther by the late 1960s.
In 1970, Spencer founded the Young Artists agency, representing, among others, the illustrators Jim Burns and Gordon Crabb. He sold the agency, now Arena, in 1980 to concentrate on music.
He became a highly praised songwriter in the rock tradition but Spencer has thus far failed to achieve the commercial success his richly diverse material deserved. He worked in book publishing before playing solo gigs at colleges and folk clubs during the early 70s. In 1974 he formed John Spencer’s Louts with multi-instrumentalist Johnny G (b. John Gotting), Dave Thorne and Chas Ambler. Spencer himself played lead guitar. Performing his wry, literate and passionate compositions such as Mary Lou And The Sunshine Boy and Bye Bye 69, the Louts built up a following on the London pub and club circuit. Recording contracts were signed and broken by three labels before Beggars Banquet Records issued the band’s only album. Spencer’s evocative, gravelly voice and the quality of his lyrics brought favourable reviews but poor sales.
Soon afterwards the Louts disbanded with Gotting and Ambler pursuing other projects. Spencer formed Spencer’s Alternative with ex-Gryphon members Graeme Taylor (guitar) and Malcolm Bennett (bass), and Michael Gregory (drums). This outfit released Mumbo Jumbo (1980) but was not heard to full effect on record until Dutch label Any Time issued Out With A Bang. In the meantime, Spencer’s Cruisin’ had been a Swedish hit for Jerry Williams and was also covered by Texan artist Augie Meyers. With Taylor the only survivor from the original line-up of his band, Spencer recorded the tougher-sounding Break And Entry which was issued by Irish-based Round Tower Records. The same label reissued all Spencer’s earlier recordings in 1991.
In 1990 Spencer formed the semi-acoustic Parlour Games, who recorded a self-titled set and Sunday Best for Round Tower.
Spencer also wrote futuristic thrillers and worked with actress Susan Penhaligon in poetry and music performance settings.´
There were no references in there, though, to that song about the poor boy on the cross, but I submitted the article anyway and even mentioned to my editor that I´d like to submit a follow up article later and would fix up another interview about that particular song. There would be plenty of time.
But there wasn´t to be plenty of time.
Ken Hunt announced in his commemorative piece that John Barry Spencer, musician and novelist, born June 5 1944; died March 25 2002 of cancer. He was survived by his wife Lou, whom he married in 1966, and his three sons.
John B Spencer was one of the good guys !
Look out next week, commencing Monday 17th October 2022, for our five part Lowry Festival, celebrating thelife of Salford painter LS Lowry. and the theatre named after him. We begin on Monday with a review of a concert played at that theatre by American singer writer Janis Ian and Tuesday will deliver a piece telling the history of the landmark theatre that changed the local skyline. On Wednesday 19th, the day one of the late artist´s most iconic works goes on auction, expecting to sell for close to ten million pounds we have a look at his piece, Going To The Match. We will then see Mrs. Lowry And Son viewed through the medium of a bio-pic, before closing our festival on the Friday with an in-depth look at Lowry´s life and works.
The festival, then, brings us
a remarkable concert.
the story of successful gentrification that placed a futuristic theatre in the heart of a new community, that now houses a Lowry Museum, three theatre rooms and an education centre,.
a look at what is perhaps the artist´s most famous works
a review of an epic bio pic of the artist
an in depth look at the late artist and his work.
All free next week in our not-for-profit daily blog: Sidetracks And Detours
Apart from the author´s own archives and recollections ,the prime source for today´s article on John B Spencer was a piece written by Ken Hunt for The Guardian.
In our occasional re-postings Sidetracks And Detours are confident that we are not only sharing with our readers excellent articles written by experts but that we are also pointing to informed and informative sites readers will re-visit time and again. Of course, we feel sure our readers will also return to our daily not-for-profit blog knowing that we seek to provide core original material whilst sometimes spotlighting the best pieces from elsewhere, as we engage with new genres and practitioners along all the sidetracks & detours we take.
This article was collated by Norman Warwick, a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours.
Norman has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve Bewick, and his own show on Sherwood Community Radio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio Four.
As a published author and poet Norman was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (for which he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.
From Monday to Friday, you will find a daily post here at Sidetracks And Detours and, should you be looking for good reading, over the weekend you can visit our massive but easy to navigate archives of over 500 articles.
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