The name of John, together with its diminutive form of Johnny (or Johnnie), may have gone a little out of style in recent years; but historically it has been one of most popularly given male monickers. Little wonder, then, that it has cropped up so frequently in the annals of popular music from the earliest of times.
Folk and Country traditions frequently employed ‘John’ as as an incarnation of ‘Everyman’: an archetypal representation of the human condition, embodying all of its triumphs and temptations, doubts and despairs. It’s been borne by men from all social classes, and all walks of life, including 23 Popes, 4 US Presidents and 2 British Prime Ministers (though only one King — and a bad one at that!). The title originally derives from the Hebrew ‘Yochanan’, meaning ‘God is gracious’, which maybe explains why Americans use it to refer to the toilet…
In London, the name is a commonly-used synonym for ‘mate’, or ‘pal’ — as exemplified in Alexei Sale’s excruciatingly irritating “‘Ello John, Got A New Motor?” And, speaking of annoying, “Jilted John” also deserved to be (and has been) stood up! The Piglets’ 1971 hit “Johnny Reggae” has been deleted on account of its creator, Jonathan King, turning out to be such a truly repugnant swine.
A worthier candidate for inclusion would’ve been Springsteen’s “Johnny 99”, from Nebraska. Sorry Boss, but the list only allows for ten songs! Similarly, much as I dig “Johnny’s Garden”, Manassas have also been forced to give ground: while Van Morrison’s “John Donne” went and ‘raved off’. And, never wishing to repeat myself, “John and Yoko” and “Johnny Too Bad” have been duly omitted, too. I don’t like repeating myself, you see. The other short-form ‘Jack’, also a name in its own right, is counted out the grounds that it could doubtless generate a list of its own.
John(ny) as part of the song’s title is an essential criterion for inclusion: therefore, inter-lyrical allusions to him are inadmissable, regardless of whether he be the “Leader of the Pack,” an underground medicine-mixer, a former dockworker, or simply messing about with Sally up the alley.
So here you have ’em: my top ten Johns — alright?!!
1. “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry
The indisputable King John of Rock, with that unmistakable intro, quintessential speaker-bending riff, seminal solo — and a rags-to-riches storyline which has inspired innumerable aspiring players to pick up a gittar for the first time.
Released as a single in 1958, it was by no means the first example of the genre, nor even Chuck’s first incursion; but, to quote the ‘Hall of Fame’ website, “While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together…” And nowhere did those pieces come together better than here: so much so, that it’s the only example of the style to have been included on the Voyager Golden Record, currently being carried by both of NASA’s deep space probes to infinity and beyond. “Go, Johnny, go!!!” Who knows, we could be getting a visit from a bunch of duck-walkin’ aliens some day…
While the lyric is a stylized autobiography (his St. Louis birthplace switched to Louisiana), the title’s inspiration is said to have stemmed from Chuck’s telling his hard-drinkin’ piano player, Johnny Johnson, to behave himself a little bit. Ironically, Johnson didn’t actually get to play on the song, which was written two or three years before it made vinyl.
Wikipedia cites no less than 70 cover versions as evidence of its sublime enduring simplicity — an interesting list in its own right — and that figure doesn’t take into account the multitude of impromptu encores or highschool band renditions which have issued from amps of all shapes and sizes over the past half-century, for better or for worse. Variations on the theme are also rife, starting with Chuck’s own revisitings, “Bye Bye Johnny”, “Go Go Go”, and his instrumental ‘concept album’, Concerto in B. Goode. Literary and movie references are similarly abundant.
“Oh my, that little country boy could play” …and still can: 82 years young, and continung to do his thang — a true veteran!
Here, however, we have him in his vintage prime:
2. “Sloop John B” by Beach Boys
This was the first track to be recorded for the legendary Pet Sounds album, and the only one on it not to be written by the band. “John B” started out as a Bahamian sea shanty, recounting the regular run-ins between colonial sherriff John Stone and the notoriously drunken crew of the real eighteenth century ship which gave the song its title. It had been previously recorded by proto-folkies The Kingston Trio and The Weavers. I first learnt it in my junior school choir: a bit of a strange choice, looking back, given the subject matter:
Drinking all night,
Got into a fight:
Well I feel so broke up,
I want to go home!
Bandmate Al Jardine first suggested the song to Brian Wilson, who was not originally keen on the idea. Nevertheless, after working out a poppier arrangement, and realizing its potential as a vehicle for the band’s trademark tight harmonies, he threw himself into the project with all the obsessiveness that would go into the rest of the LP.
Thirteen musicians and fourteen takes were required to provide the backing track, with BW, as usual, presiding at the sound desk. Its epically restrained build-up is a testament to his compulsive control: everything, from the flute and clarinet parts right down to the glockenspiel, is meticulously mixed into place. Always loved Dennis Wilson’s drumming on this track, too — one of those cases where ‘less’ is so much more…
The vocal (with a little extra guitar) took three sessions: Mike Love and Brian Wilson eventually sharing the double-tracked lead, with backing harmonies by Den and baby brother Carl: not forgetting Al Jardine — somewhat surprised to have not been offered a solo!
Brian may have sung “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on”, but — as everyone knows — it was all gonna get a whole lot messier from thereon in… Good, then, to see him and the rest of the lads having such a lark in the promotional clip:
3. “John, I’m Only Dancing” by David Bowie
Bridging Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, this non-album single was released in the UK in Sept ’72.
Having publicly declared his bisexuality in an NME interview at the beginning of the year, and blatantly flaunted his androgyny on both sides of the Atlantic during the subsequent Ziggy spectacles, here Bowie took it a stack-soled step further; flirting outrageously with a girl at the disco, while reassuring his lover (John) that there’s really nothing in it:
She turns me on,
But don’t get me wrong:
I’m only dancing…
“Oh Lordy!” Though it made a respectable no. 12 in the British charts, RCA deemed it to be far too shocking for the young Americans of the day, and the song wasn’t actually issued in the Land of the ‘Free’ until the ChangesOne compilation in 1976. Meanwhile, back in Blighty, the BBC’s Top of the Pops declined to air Mick Rock’s provocative promo:
An alternative ‘sax version’ was put out in ’73, with a funked-up reworking entitled “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)” released the following year.
‘The Spiders From Mars’ (Ronson, Bolder and Woodmansey) do a typically sterling job behind the acoustic guitar of the “Starman” to create its Glam-Bam R&B; stomp. Fantabulous feedback finish: only “The Jean Genie” could’ve possibly lived on its back! And as for that lusciouously camp vocal delivery ” — Touch Me!!! — ” what can you say? Absolutely outrageous:
Bet your life he [wa]s putting us on!
4. “Not Now John” by Pink Floyd
Fuck all that, we’ve gotta get on with these!
Discreetly modified to “Stuff all that” for the single release, I still chuckle to recall Radio 1’s John Peel (RIP) airing the album version one evening, with a typically laconic “Oops — I hadn’t realised!” Yeah, yeah…
The first 45 to be lifted from The Final Cut, it’s the only song on the LP to feature a Dave Gilmour vocal (a switch-duet with its writer, Roger Waters; very ably aided and abetted by a trio of lady backing singers). It’s also one of the few tracks therefrom which doesn’t actually have you wanting to hang yourself…
An outraged rant against Thatcher’s post-Falklands political posturing, fronting up to everyone and anyone, from the Japs and the Gooks to the Ruskies — well, “maybe the Swedes”, at least. The lyric is drenched with acidic irony:
We showed Argentina,
Now let’s go and show these:
Make us feel tough,
And won’t Maggie be pleased!
Musically, it drives along like the tilt-hammers of the factories she was systematically silencing at the time. The military menace which always felt imminent during her long romance with ‘Hollywood Ron’ also has its echoes. Nick Mason threatens to mash his tubs as he battles with Waters’ belching bassline, and Gilmour’s searing solos seeth with cynicism. No Rick Wright here, having being ousted during The Wall sessions: Status Quo’s Andy Bown stands in on keyboards. Then there’s the slower sections, loaded with all the bitter resignation and increasing desperation of any-old-John as UK unemployment went soaring towards the four million mark: “it could be the news or some other abuse…”.
It may all seem a long time ago now, but for those of us who are old enough to’ve lived through the Iron Lady’s reign of terror, it remains a frighteningly accurate snapshot of the times. With a typically innovative video to accompany it, the single made the Top Ten both in Britain and America.
Which only leaves us with the crucial question that closes the song:
“Oi — where’s the fuckin’ bar John?!!”
5. “Uncle John’s Band” by The Grateful Dead
“Well, the first days are the hardest days”; and, having established themselves as the galaxy’s leading exponents of extended acid-rock improvisation with their previous albums, the opening track on Workingman’s Dead must’ve come as quite a shock (or a welcome relief) to those expecting more of the same! True, their 1967 debut LP had given some indication of the band’s country-bluesy-folksy roots, but in no way did it hint at the intricate sophistication which they serve up here.
Wo-oah, what I want to know is:
How does the song go?
All over the place! Jerry Garcia’s exquisite acoustic melody twists and turns in and out of Robert Hunter’s words to perfection. The hermetic vocal harmonies, complete with an a cappella section, were inspired by Crosby, Stills and Nash (who would later acknowledge the nod with live covers) and revealed yet another facet of The Dead’s dexterity. And, just as CSN — along with Y — were arch-commentator/critics of their times, the lyric here succintly sums up the uncertainty of the sixties-seventies cusp:
Ain’t no time to hate,
Barely time to wait,
Wo-oah, what I want to know is:
Where does the time go?
Up in smoke, perhaps: but the song — and the album as a whole — was pivotal in introducing the group to a wider audience than their tripped-out Deadhead tribe. Yet, there remains the eternal hippie optimism of better things to come, as good ol’ Uncle John arrives, like a psychedelic Pied-Piper in reverse, to “come to take his children home.” And, of course, none of that ‘beautiful people’ idealism is lost, either:
Wo-oah, what I want to know is:
Are you kind?
“Goddam, I declare,” this little piece of blasphemy cost them some air-play on the Bible Belt, and its 4 1/2 minute duration also caused a few problems for the radio schedulers, leading to limited chart success. There was an edited mix; but, as Garcia himself dubbed it ‘an atrocity’, it’s probably best left to posterity…
“Uncle John’s Band” remained an integral part of their live repertoire for years to come: here’s a 1980 version, the voices not quite so sweet as on the original, perhaps — but this extended workout is an excellent example of what The Grateful Dead were always all about, just the same (don’t miss the end!!!):
6. “John Wayne” by John Martyn
This “brill off the wall track” (thanks Top!) is the final showdown from the highly polished 1986 album Piece By Piece. Very different from the smooth sophistication of the rest of the record, its menacing grandeur was said to have been inspired by a less-than-scrupulous former manager who, in true cowboy style, would “Come to measure you: fix you up!”
Martyn’s always amazing guitarwork combines with the booming bass, creepy keyboards and spine-tingling percussion to eerily evoke The Duke’s swaggering presence as he proceeds to clean up (or clean out) the town. Best thing you can do is to take his advice — “Get on your horse” and ride off into the sunset! The shots are called from the outset:
You know you’ve got it coming,
I’ll tell it to you straight:
I’m coming for you very soon,
I’ll never hesitate…
Big John M stuffs his feet boldly into Big John W’s boots, adopting what he himself described as his ‘strangled duck vocal’, a long ride from his usual silky delivery, with a full bottle of Scotch and one single take being all that was required to acheive the desired effect. A regular component of his live shows at the time, it scared the living shit out of me when I saw him play it: similarly fuelled, naturally!
“I believe I am J-o-o-o-h-h-h-n Wa-a-a-a-ay-y-y-ne,” he bellows, and — man — you’d better believe it too!!!
Judge for yourself (and “don’t you dare look behind you…”)
7. “Big Bad John” by Johnny Cash
Originally performed by Jimmy Dean (an old country-singer-turned-sausage-maker, not the Rebel Without A Cause), back in 1961. I go with the later Cash rendition ‘cos it’s the one I remember being enthralled by on the radio as a kid, but haven’t included a YouTube link, as there’s a howling dispute goin’ on as to whose versions are actually included, in which I have no wish whatsoever to become embroiled…
This John is a shadowy out-of-towner who enlists as a mineworker, and a veritable giant of a man: “He stood six foot six [1.83 metres] and weighed two forty-five.” That’s 14 1/2 stone for British readers, or about 110kg for Europeans — but, whichever, “Ev’rybody knew you didn’t give no lip to Big John! (Ooo-ooH).” Not just because of his imposing physique, neither, but also on account of the rumours of his havin’ killed a rival with his bare hands, over a “Cajun Queen” back in Louisiana.
That sayed, he didn’t go round lookin’ for no trouble: “He stayed all alone an’ he didn’t say much” and, as the plot unfolds, he turns out to be a genuine hero. One fateful day, a pit prop cracks, trapping twenty miners “in that man-made hell”. An’ who d’y’all reckon comes to the rescue now, heftin’ up that busted ol’ timber so as to open an escape for his workmates; only to have the whole darn thang cave in right down on top of him an’ go an’ kill him stone dade? You got it: “Big Bad John! (Ooo-ooH).”
OK, the deep (south) drawl-over narrative and clippety-clop accompaniment may not be rock’n’roll enough for everyone’s taste, to say nothing of the persistent “Ooo-ooH” vocal refrain; but the way the narrative unravels here is nothing short of masterful. The whole concept of the ‘story-song’ owes a massive debt to them good ol’ Country Boys (along with the Folkies), with The Man In Black right at the front of the queue.
“One helluvaman — Big Bad John!”
8. “Farmer John” by The Premiers
I first got to know this song through Neil Young’s great grunged-up rendition on Ragged Glory and, unusually for me as an inveterate reader of sleevenotes, hadn’t realised until recently that it wasn’t actually his song. In the absence of a link to that version (though I’m pretty damn sure it was featured on his Weld live video), we’ll go with The Premier’s classic 1964 garage cut, available on at least one of the Nuggets compilations.
This wasn’t the original, either. It was written and recorded in 1959 by the dynamic duo of Don and Dewey. Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris went on to collaborate extensively with John Mayall and Frank Zappa, playing electric violin. The Searchers had also cut a Merseybeat version in ’63 (like looking for “Needles and Pins” in a haystack, you might say…). More recently, The White Stripes have regularly included it in their live sets.
But I digress… The Premiers were a five-piece Californian outfit, formed in 1962 by brothers Lawrence and John Perez. They were inspired to record the song on the back of The Kingsmen’s hit with “Louie Louie”, with which it shares the same stompalong three-chord structure. If anything, “Farmer John” is even more fun, with its loutishly infectious “woah-oh-woah” refrain, sleazy sax, and a groovy party atmosphere provided by inviting a bunch of girls from a car club into the studio! Though they never repeated its top-twenty success, the band did go on to open on stage for the likes of The Kinks and The Rolling Stones.
Smitten by the farmer’s champagne-eyed daughter (“I love the way she wiggles, she wiggles when she walks”) PC it most certanly ain’t, but who gave a fig about all that back at the start of the Swinging Sixties, anyway?!! Certainly not them screaming car club chicks, that’s fer sure… Listen an’ love it: “woah-oh-woah!!!”
9. “John Wesley Harding” by Bob Dylan
You just have to love ol’ Bob fer his sheer, bloody-minded cussedness, dontcha? 1967, Summer of Love, everyone going for multi-textured psychedelic opuses: so what does Dylan go and make, right at the end of the year, as the official follow-up to Blonde on Blonde? A sparsely instrumented country-style album, made in Nashville in just three sessions, that’s what!
There are those who blame it on his bike crash the previous year, but I think it’s simply yet another manifestation of his eternal ‘rolling stone’ restlessness to do something different. As the man himself would later point out, “I didn’t know how to record the way other people were recording, and I didn’t want to.”
The first track from the eponymously entitled album is a brief resume of the life and times of a real-life Texan outlaw, though recounted with considerable artistic licence. To begin with, his surname is misspelt, having had no ‘g’ at the end. Also, while Dylan claims that “There was no man around who could track or chain him down,” Hardin actually spent 17 years of a 25-year sentence in Huntsville Jail, during which time he qualified as a lawyer. Two years after his release, he was shot in the back of the head by a semi-retired lawman. Another thing: as Bob informs us that “He carried a gun in every hand,” I’ve always wondered just how many the man actually had…
As I said before, there’s nothing fancy about the arrangement: Bob’s laid-back vocal, acoustic guitar and harp; accompanied by Charlie McCoy on bass and Kenneth Buttrey’s drums. Mind you, given JW Hardin’s ten-year career as a guntoter, with an alleged 42 kills to his name, how come the song only managed to clock up 3 verses and 3 minutes? Dylan himself explained it away a couple of years later in Rolling Stone:
“I was gonna write a real long cowboy ballad. But in the middle of the second verse, I got tired. I had a nice little melody I didn’t want to waste, so I just wrote a quick third verse, and recorded that…” He also claimed that its opener and title-track status was a deliberate ploy to avoid it being labelled as a filler!
10. “John Barleycorn” by Traffic
What, with ‘John’ being such a solid old name, little wonder that he’s cropped up so regularly in folk songs, traditional or otherwise. The Byrds’ “John Riley” (also sung by Joan Baez and Judy Collins, to name but two) has already been considered elsewhere onsite; and, were I to include John and Beverley Martyn’s “John The Baptist”, I could be accused of over-zealousness.
So, “John Barleycorn” it is. An Olde Englysh Ballad, dating back to at least the mid-sixteenth century, it’s been recorded by folksters from every faction, from Fairport to Tull. Traffic’s version appeared on their 1970 album John Barleycorn Must Die, with their titles often confused.
The LP was originally intended to be a solo effort from Steve Winwood, the band having folded the previous year: and Winwood’s subsequent project, Blind Faith, having lasted for less than twelve months. Nevertheless, relations with Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood were patched up, and Traffic went back into circulation. Though Stevie’s acoustic guitar and lead vocal are sublime, it’s difficult to imagine how the song would have sounded without Woods’ fluttering flute part, or Capaldi’s close-harmonies.
“John Barleycorn” is the personification of the bearded cereal crop most commonly used to make beer and whisky. That the “three men from out of the west” “vowed that he should die,” merely means that they were going to cut him and grind him and mash him up, in order to make him a little more palatable. As the last verse says, no-one does whatever they do quite so well “without a little barleycorn…”
I’ll drink to that!