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JOHNNY JOHNSON AND THE BANDWAGON
Early in 1968 an American vocal soul quartet, The Bandwagon, released a couple of singles in their homeland. Neither made much impression on the public, but one, 'Breakin' Down The Walls Of Heartache', came out in Britain, rapidly became a favourite on the radio and in discos, and towards the end of the year it peaked at No. 4 in the chart. Encouraged by this success on the other side of the pond and in Europe, the group came over for TV and live dates, and had two more minor Top 40 hits in Britain within the next year. They also released an album which had been recorded but would probably have remained in the record company vaults if the singles had not done so well in the UK. Then the story becomes rather hazy. The group apparently disbanded, and in effect became Johnny Johnson, the lead vocalist (real name Johnny Mathis - just as well he changed it), plus three backing singers as required for recording, concerts and TV, now officially billed as JJ and The (or His) Bandwagon.
Realising he was unlikely to make it at home, Johnny settled in London and recorded with British songwriters and producers, notably Tony Macaulay, best remembered for the Foundations' evergreen 'Build Me Up Buttercup'. Another album and two Top 10 hits were the result, but subsequent singles failed to take off. Though nobody is sure, it seems he died in 1979, aged 35, probably of cancer. The LPs soon became collectors' items.
This CD is the first attempt to make the material available again since the early 1970s. Much of the music is pretty good, though there are a few so-so tracks. I'll stick my neck out and say that Johnny's voice was every bit as good as that of Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops. It was almost as if the Bandwagon were after the same market as the Motown group, particularly after the latter's music started to go too middle of the road.
If you don't know the magnificent 'Breakin' Down The Walls Of Heartache', the opening cut of this 24-track set, you can hear it on Youtube. It kicks off with a simple but catchy piano riff and drums, then the horns kick in before the vocal starts. At last I can hear the song in stereo on this CD, after having been used to a beloved (and now somewhat worn) mono 45 rpm single all these years, and it sounds even better with the horns on one channel. It's a great song that'll doubtless have you singing along, then comes to a false ending, followed by a simple organ riff and throbbing bass guitar before it starts again briefly and fades out a little too soon if anything. Long hailed as a Northern soul classic, this really is one of the best soul records of all time.
Everything on this CD is divided neatly into fifteen from the late 1960s, the bulk of their first album plus singles, all credited to just Bandwagon, followed by nine from 1970-75, all recorded probably in England and credited to JJ & B.
From the first batch, recorded in American for the Direction label, come the second single and a minor hit. 'You' is another fine song with pleading vocal and what I suspect is a piccolo on the introduction, and can stand comparison with anything by the Four Tops or Temptations - in fact, it does sound a little like the former's 'Lovin You Is Sweeter Than Ever'. There is also an interesting and quite adventurous arrangement of the Four Seasons' 'Let's Hang On', another minor hit, which seems to change pitch at least two or three times.
The album-only tracks are a good mixture of up-tempo and more laid-back fare. 'Stoned Soul Picnic' is a sophisticated, almost jazzy organ-driven number and their version of the Temptations' 'I Wish It Would Rain' is faithful to the original. The lively, gospelly 'People Got To Be Free', written and previously recorded by the Young Rascals (of 'Groovin'' fame) is in my view the best of the lot, while the poppy 'I Ain't Lyin'', the only track written by Johnson himself, and the Drifters-like 'On The Day We Fall In Love' both run it pretty close. One or two numbers, like the slower 'Girl From Harlem' - are rather unexceptional, but the majority are well worthwhile.
The second batch of songs, recorded in Britain, is more poppy. The two Top 10 singles, the infectious 'Sweet Inspiration' and 'Blame It On The Pony Express', are the best of the lot. One of the singles which failed to make it, 'Sally Put Your Red Shoes On', is in the same vein. The song isn't quite in the same league, but Johnson's inimitable vocal does his best with it.
However, I don't quite get their version of 'Mr Tambourine Man', a single in 1971 which came out to disparaging reviews and flopped. But the booklet notes call it 'a cheerful deconstruction' and 'one of the most original treatments of a Dylan song ever taped,' so don't take my opinion for it. On the other hand, the same notes are clearly less impressed with 'High And Dry', another Tony Macaulay song, which is dismissed as 'cod-reggae'. Maybe it is, but I find it quite likeable. But by this time, radio stations and singles buyers were evidently losing interest.
As for the non-single, album tracks, a cover of the Foundations' 'In The Bad Bad Old Days' is every bit as good as the original. I wasn't sure about 'Gasoline Alley Bred', as I've always adored the Hollies' version, but after a few listens I'm converted. Likewise, the anthemic 'United We Stand' beats the rather insipid hit version by Brotherhood of Man (an earlier incarnation of the studio all-vocal group which with different personnel went on to win the Eurovision Song Contest in 1976) to shreds.
Eight of these songs originally came out on the Bell label. After diminishing success Johnny left them, made one or two singles on other labels which unfortunately were not available for licensing on this collection, and one on Epic, all produced by disco pioneer Biddu. The last track, 'Music To My Heart' is a good, if not exceptional, bouncy soul-disco tune from summer 1975 that, bearing in mind how fashionable the genre was at that time, could surely have been a hit if it had only been given the exposure.
There was some snobbery about the group, as music purists wanted their soul singers to be US-born and also US-produced. Acts produced in Britain by Macaulay were regarded as not authentic, but merely bubblegum pop, especially if they were more or less studio acts rather than, er, 'real groups' - as so many names in the music biz were at that time. If not quite beneath contempt, as far as some people were concerned they were certainly not the proper thing. Maybe thirty-plus years later we can all enjoy the music and appreciate it for what it was. Soul music isn't my first love, but I was always a fan of 1960s Motown, plus the greats like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. To my mind, Johnny Johnson was another of 'those' voices, and I think it's a pity he is less well remembered.
The very informative booklet notes will tell you more about the group than all the meagre sources on the internet added together. (I was gobsmacked a few years ago to find they didn't even have an entry on Wikipedia, and had to start one). Complete with illustrations of old vinyl single labels, LP and EP sleeves from all over the world, and music press adverts, the whole thing has clearly been put together for the collector, and it's hard to fault.
I was very happy to come across this, the first-ever reissue in any format of their music apart from the appearance of a couple of the hits on various artist compilations. With around 70 minutes time and 24 tracks it's excellent value for money, and a more than welcome addition to the CD shelf.
Four (and a half, maybe) stars for the music, but definitely five for the booklet, and for the fact that this sadly neglected outfit's work is at last on sale again. It's on Ace, a specialist label, and you're unlikely to find in the high street (i.e. the diminished number of HMV stores which are still trading). Shop around online in the obvious places and you'll almost certainly pick it up at a competitive price.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]