Erstwhile one-man band and pub-rocker Johnny G (Gotting) takes after early Nick Lowe, with a similar sense of humor and absurdity, an alarming variety of musical idioms and a seemingly effortless ability to make sounds fit together in a consistently pleasant manner. But this eccentric’s his own man, and his records, while jumping wildly from reggae to R&B, folk music to dub, country blues to cocktail-lounge mush, all have a unique trademark quality. With unerring wit and overall good humor (even on the gloomy songs) Johnny G is perpetually surprising, and never fails to be solidly entertaining.
His early work — sarcastic (and, as a result, largely misunderstood) singles like “Call Me Bwana!” and “Hippys Graveyard” — were followed by an EP and finally a first album, G Sharp/G Natural, which touches on (among other areas) maudlin pop and jovial jug-band. The album features such luminary sidemen as Steve Lillywhite (who plays bass and didn’t produce), the entire cast of skiffle band Brett Marvin and the Thunderbolts and even Mark Hollis, brother of Ed Hollis (who did produce the LP) and now lead singer of Talk Talk. Enough history? This record, while fun, is not essential to the Johnny G story. Proceed directly to his superior second effort.
Recorded with a pair of sidemen, G-Beat has such charming odes as “Rubber Lover,” “Suzy (Was a Girl from Greenford)” and “Night After Night (The Last Drink),” all given varied and inventive treatments that hide the low-budget recording circumstances. Using only voice, guitar, minimal drums, keyboards and (mostly acoustic) bass, G-Beat accomplishes some great things that must be heard to be appreciated. The LP comes with a bonus: an entire second album, G-Beat 2 (Leave Me Alone), of singles, outtakes and alternate versions that provide a concise background listen for the converted.
After the underproduced (but effective) G-Beat, Water into Wine sounds state-of-the-art, with a cast of ex-pub luminaries playing on it and Bob Andrews (ex-Rumour) producing. It’s a much finer record, with sensitively arranged tracks like “Carving Up the Concrete” and a totally bizarre slide-guitar blues version of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” Water into Wine also includes a bonus LP, Pure Beaujolais — half live, half outtakes and unreleased singles. Both discs are great fun with something for everyone. I like “The Johnny G Fan Club Song,” a totally over-the-top tribute sung by then-labelmate Ivor Biggun.