West Pier Serenade
This is a sort of relatively unpolitical “best of”, featuring the superb musicianship of Saskia Tomkins. Originally planned to accompany a collection of my dad’s poetry, the songs were chosen partly by my dad, and partly by me as being appropriate to the album. My dad later decided he didn’t want to make his poems public, but as that was after we had recorded the album, I decided to continue with the process, and as I was so happy with the recordings, particularly with again having Saskia gracing my songs with her magic, I decided I’d like to reproduce these recordings on vinyl. The LP was first made available for Record Store day on 20th April 2013, and also includes a CD version.
So – there we are, a sort of “best of” without the politics. My dad, who is a lifelong gentle socialist, doesn’t much like the political songs, and sometimes I also think it’s good not to neglect the type of songs I write that don’t fit the stereotypical image of the typical Johnson song.
What else? The guitar on this album is a Martin D18. For years I never thought much of Martins, and then in 2011 in Vancouver someone very kindly lent me a Martin that was as old as I was. It was just the best guitar I have ever played, so then I got this one from Emerald City Guitars in Seattle. It’s a bit of a wardrobe with strings on it, it’s only got 12 frets and it’s none too fond of being thrashed with a plectrum, but it really sings when you fingerpick it. Beautiful.
And thankyou to Saskia for all the magic: as always, a pleasure and a privilege working with her.
And these songs are for my dad.
Read a review from Fatea here
- West Pier Serenade
- Noni and the Golden Serenaders
- J Johnnie
- Gliders for Tim
- The German Exchange
- Down the Town and Over the Moon
- Cauliflower Curry
- Sunday Morning St Denis
- When’s it Gonna Snow?
- Here Comes That Miracle Again
- Whitton High Street
The album takes its title from what was the very first of my songs to gain any significant attention. “West Pier Serenade” was written while I was a student at Sussex University in – probably – 1977 (completely ignoring the punk zeitgeist) and later published in 1979 in Southern rag, the forerunner of fRoots, no less. To be honest, I soon stopped playing it as I thought the last verse collapsed into an unsuccessful mix of unconvincing imagery and forced rhyme, plus when I started playing in double-dropped D tuning in 1987 it was too much of an effort to work and play the diminished chords the original song had relied on. So I was less than happy when this was the first song both my mum and dad suggested I put on the album. I was busy explaining all about the dodgy third verse and the change in tuning when my mum just said that one of the reasons they liked it was because it reminded them of Irene, my dad’s dad’s second wife. My mum said Irene had lost a lad in the trenches, and so had never married till she married my grandad in the 1970s. I hadn’t known that. I had always loved Rene. I relearned the song.
“Noni and the Golden Serenaders” (1997) is from the “Gentle Men” song suite about my grandfathers and the First World War. Apparently The Golden Serenaders were featured in a 1931 film “Comets”, but no-one, not even the BFI, seems to have a copy of it. However, you can see Noni doing one of his clown routines at http://www.britishpathe.com/video/noni-and-partner-issue-title-star-turn.
“J Johnnie” (2000) was written when my dad wrote his memoir of his experiences in the RAF in the 2nd World War, “A Navigator’s Tale”. J Johnnie was the name of the Liberator bomber he was flying in when he was shot down in February 1945. This song has never been recorded.
“Gliders for Tim” (1991) I found in a churchyard in Devon one February Sunday morning. We were away on a band mini-tour. I went for a walk in the churchyard, and found a headstone with two gliders carved each side of the epitaph “For Tim, a loving husband and a good father”. The song originally appeared on “Heart’s Desire”, but lately versions of it have been put onto YouTube by different people.
“The German Exchange” (1997) was written for “Gentle Men”, one of several songs trying to find a way to end the song-cycle. It won’t be on the next recording of “Gentle Men”; in 1997 who would have thought that Britain would soon be sending bombers and soldiers to kill thousands of people in Afghanistan and Iraq? Although I still like this little personal story of reconciliation, I think the course of events now require a different ending.
“Down the Town and Over the Moon” first appeared on the 1995 Brentford FC benefit CDEP “Saturday Afternoon Red Army”.
“Cauliflower Curry” (2011) is probably the most polemical song on the album, although some people think it’s just about cooking. In 2011 when significant numbers of disaffected people rioted in Britain, tabloids were headlined with “Anarchy in the UK”. I have always thought that anarchism was more than just the post-Sex Pistols definition of it as a public nuisance. So in a culture where everything is presented in terms of competition, from education to entertainment to even cooking pies and cakes, a song that favours non-hierarchical, non-violent (the meal was vegan), self-organised co-operation is pretty subversive stuff.
“Sunday Morning St Denis” (1989) is the first song my dad said should be on the album. Thinking about it, he probably saw me play it for the first time in public, at the Brentford Waterman’s Arts Centre in 1989. I don’t play it that often, because it has that tricky introduction (clearly written by a much younger and more ambitious guitar player) and it is for me difficult to catch the right performance of it, without diminishing it either by artifice or repetition. and it’s also probably the song I am proudest of. It appeared on “UK Talking” then “Ma Thatch Downfall 1”, and Barb Jungr has recorded a splendid version of it too.
“When’s it Gonna Snow?” (2011) is me trying to write the type of song I possibly would have tried to make a career out of trying to write if Thatcher hadn’t got elected.
“Here Comes That Miracle Again” (2005) first appeared with the lovely Russell Churney playing miraculous piano on “Metro”. The inspiration for this song was finding a golden crocus defiantly sticking its foolhardy head out of the frozen mud that constituted much of the Green Dragon Nursery garden in Brentford (again), and watching the hardbitten urchins gather round and marvel at its beauty. The song then seemed to turn into a song in praise of spring, replete with old Wordsworth’s bloody daffodils, no less. But actually, it’s also a song about my relationship with my dad. It will always be there, like a crocus in spring…
So the studio was booked for 10.30, Saskia would be arriving a bit later, I was just putting my guitar into its case when it struck me that, actually, the album wasn’t complete. Unless I told you that “Miracle” is also really about me and my dad, you wouldn’t know. So I took the guitar out of its case and wrote “Whitton High Street”, because that’s where I have, I think, my earliest and most enduring memory of me and my dad, walking hand in hand down a windswept autumn Whitton High Street. Ben, who mastered the album, said it reminded him of his dad, and I hope it works some magic for anybody who hears it.