This casual Leeds trio — Jon Langford (guitar; also leader of the Mekons), John Hyatt (vocals, lyrics) and John Brennan (bass) — began by specializing in discordant socio-political guitar punk with trembling falsetto vocals; their career-long use of a rhythm machine rather than a live drummer has lent a unique tension to the group’s sound. Some History compiles two singles (from 1982 and 1983) on one 12-inch, and is very much indicative of the trio’s approach. Save for a surfacing maniacal edge, Men Like Monkeys and A.W.O.L. stake out more of the same turf. Hyatt’s whining vocals would grate in large doses, but brevity — four songs each — keeps these two records from becoming downright annoying.
The Johns plunge headfirst into dance-rock on Do the Square Thing. Lyrically oblique and riddled with innuendo, the title track is, for these thrashers, an extraordinarily slick piece of extended dancefloor fodder. Surprisingly, it makes a stronger impression than their usual dirges.
Characteristics that might be tiresome if abused are kept judiciously in check on the Johns’ first LP, Atom Drum Bop. The vocals don’t wander unnecessarily, guitar lines are blindingly sharp and melodic and the production is crystalline. “Teenage Nightingales to Wax,” “Firepits,” “Do Not Cross the Line” and the odd ballad, “No Place,” all help make this the trio’s most fully realized endeavor.
The two succeeding four-song EPs both show continued growth towards tuneful pop. Without losing any of their bite, the A-sides offer incisive comments on some pretty heady subject matter: America’s destructive influence on continental heritage (“Death of the European”) and yuppiesque self-centered apathy (“Brainbox”). The B-sides are more jagged, and just as strong.
The World by Storm, released with a limited edition 7-inch live EP, is highly recommended. The Johns have honed their craft to seeming perfection: it will be difficult for them to improve on tunes like “King Car,” “Torches of Liberty,” “Demon Drink” and the pre-LP single, “Sold Down the River.”
Langford’s commitment to the Mekons, as well as his high demand as a producer, temporarily put the Three Johns on hold. But that didn’t stop the group from releasing records. Demonocracy is a highly recommended compilation of singles and LP tracks. The equally enlightening Live in Chicago — the Johns’ first American release — dates from June 1985 and contains renditions (some of them already issued on the World by Storm bonus EP) of such material as “Teenage Nightingales to Wax,” “Death of the European,” “AWOL” and “The World of the Workers,” as well as a brief (and uncredited) version of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” Deathrocker Scrapbook is accurately described on the cassette insert as “some great fun and games recorded by a very informal the Three Johns during the 1980’s.” A mad dash through the Johns’ back pages — live appearances, outtakes, rehearsals, acoustic one-offs, etc. — captures the three in the extremely entertaining act of being themselves. Highlights: “Conversations with Freud” and “Cheap Computer.”
Although the sleeve credits utterly bollix up which cuts are from where, half of The Death of Everything was recorded live in Leeds at the beginning of ’88. The rest of the tracks — including the Adrian Sherwood-produced pre-LP single, “Never and Always” (a straightforward hard-rock song that sounds like PiL) — are recent/new studio efforts. Although the Johns’ range now includes thundering Glitter-rock (“Spin Me Round”), droning Fallish poetry (“The King Is Dead (Four Words Too Long)”) and a neat Captain Beefheart cover, this diverse album is a bit short of the band’s familiar ingenuity and fire.