The Irregular World of ROBB JOHNSON

Never quite being this years's model does have its positive side: you can't be last year's either. Since first setting foot on the scene in the mid-Seventies as a fledgling folkie, Robb Johnson's career has had more blips in it than most.  Yet even with mass acclaim passing him by he's always held a reputation for being something of a quality artist and poet - one whose work is well enough crafted to withstand the perils of time or the vagaries of fashion. Arguably any well balanced record collection should have room for at least a couple of his thirty or so previous offerings.  Indeed, with a growing number of artists covering his material it's something of a treat to hear his outspoken prose stripped to the bone as originally intended.

A performer who inspires, among those in the know, a hushed reverence more commonly associated with the likes of supreme wordsmith Leon Rosselson, Johnson has yet to convert the critical laurels into more widespread acceptance. His songwriting gift has guaranteed him a venerated place amongst our songsmiths via successful covers by the likes of Roy Bailey , and Maggie Holland, and his songs offer a textbook demonstration of how folk-based material can be given a burning contemporary relevance in the hands of the right interpreter.

Many see him as an odd throwback to the era of folk protest, and indeed he has impeccable credentials for pointing the finger at political evils.  Johnson asks simple questions which cannot be glossed over or answered, the kind of questions which enable children to shame the compromised world of grown-ups.  One of those special English writers whose low-key combination of melody, sensitivity and observant eye inspire absolute devotion among a fervent few, he remains unblinking in his rejection of social evils and a pained innocent in matters of the heart.

He's an articulate artist whose lyrics are as likely to involve ecological, socialogical or political themes as any. Whether casting his beady eye over the world outside or looking at old friends, relationships, school, London or Paris, Johnson effortlessly executes wit and wordplay with a minimum of contrivance.  But it's the content rather than the construction that stops you in your tracks.  Yes, he can fling the verbal vitriol with the best of them, and nothing escapes his barbs, but, there's tenderness and obvious personal regret in there too along with a lot of kinder humour, while his songsmith's sympathetic eye for detail is reminiscent of Squeeze at its unassuming best. But how did he start down this path?

Robb Johnson: "The first folk club I inadvertently went to was Shakespeare's Arms at the top of Carnaby Street to see Pete Atkin.  I had no idea about folk clubs, but was astonished that you could actually play your songs in these places.  I asked if anybody could lend me a guitar, and perhaps wisely, no-one did. Undaunted, my next trip was to see Jeremy Taylor at Reading UniversityI took my own guitar, and they let me inflict two songs on Jeremy's unsuspecting audience. Then I wound up as a student at Sussex University, who had a folk club whose sole purpose was to enable the long-hairs with guitars, who ran it, to get their wicked ways with as many impressionable and gullible young women as could be managed on a weekly basis. Fortunately for me, they'd all been doing this for three years already, so soon left.  Dennis and Maggie actually knew and liked folk music, and were keen to run the club after the disappearance of the trouser-action brigade.  As neither of them played guitar, and I sort of did, and I knew lots of student guitarists, all disgustingly much better than me, they asked me to help them run the club. The first act we booked was Hot Vultures [Ian Anderson and Maggie Holland's duo]. I was lost forever!"

In 1985 Robb released "In Amongst The Rain", his first vinyl LP on the self-financed Irregular Records.  I wondered if he established Irregular purely as a vehicle for Robb Johnson recordings, and if the punk-DIY ethos provided the inspiration and his growing songbook the impetus?

RJ:  "For various reasons not unconnected with domestic arrangements, and the purchase of a dobro with a pick-up in it, I spent some time playing in Noisy Electric Band mode, playing to absolutely nobody whatsoever in the scuzzy toilets that constitute London's pubrock venues.  Eventually I found out it was possible not just to put stuff out on cassette but that you could DIY it on vinyl.  I decided to DIY because, at the start of the '80s, we'd done the usual treadmill anybody does at one time or another, of trudging round record companies, talking to people who called themselves A&R persons. They were totally 'haircut' orientated, and I gave up on the idea of either fitting what I did to someone elses fashionable preconceptions, or engaging in serious and planned bumlicking as a way forward. Hence Irregular.

"Certainly most of what I've done/do no "proper" record company would want to touch with a barge pole. I think that's why, the more "important" people think they are in terms of the music business, the less they like what I do, because by rights they think I should have stopped doing it years ago; "stroppy little oik living in West London, working as a teacher and putting these 'horrible' CDs out, and no nice freebies or posh press conferences. Who does he think he is?"

"I suppose Irregular is indeed a bit of an anachronism, in that it is a survivor from the punk ethos.  Anyway it's tended to end up as a Robb Johnson only label, but it's open to anybody else who I'd like to listen to but who can't find a 'real' record label to put them out. I just pay for each album and stick an Irregular label on it. If I had lots of spare money I would frogmarch Graham Larkbey, Maggie Holland, Shirley Collins, Mark Astronaut, Jon Harvison and Steve Hunt to the nearest recording studio and put out a CD from each of them. As it is, my recording career is heavily subsidised by my day job.

The recent FoT Robb Johnson debate has highlighted a public misconception that he is purely a 'political' songwriter.  Many totally overlook the other facets of his work listed in my introduction and I asked if this pigeonholing caused him much concern.

RJ: "I used to be known as "The Bloke Who Sings Political Songs" - and got bookings, or not - accordingly.  The last time I got a gig at the famous Sidmouth Festival was after the release of the "Undefeated" cassette for the miners I did with Roy Bailey.  The concert was infact called "Undefeated" with Roy Bailey, and afterwards I was approached by someone who complained about my support for Palestine.  At other times, members of my audience have complained that my performance was not politically 'hard' enough! I hope that people get a hold of "The Night cafe" quickly, otherwise I'm in danger of becoming known as "The Bloke Who Writes About The First World War And His Grandads.

"It's all part of the wider concern about the contempt songwriters in general are held in this country.  When was the last time you had a songwriter on the cover of your magazine? Unless you're "mega-famous" (ie, slipping down the rock sales charts when, surprise surprise, you'll suddenly drag out an acoustic guitar and all journalists will hail this as a staggering novel and exciting development, never mind the silly buggers who do it on a regular basis in folk clubs the length and breath of the nation on a weekly basis), you won't get a sniff of anybody's front cover!

"In my case, I realise that the Ministry Of Humour (the consciously agitprop acoustic trio that I was in over ten years ago), my willingness to do benefits, write and sing songs about Gulf War deserters, as opposed to geezers legging it under Prince Albert, and take seriously the implications of folk's musical heritage, has facilitated people pigeonholing me as 'A Politikal'.  It's perhaps more so in this country, where the issues are obviously more immediate, and where the issues are obviously more immediate, and where we have such a nervous, philistine attitude towards politics - ie, "it's boring and it only happens every four years anyway", is the general concensus within which we operate in Britian.  Therefore, because there's such a dearth of political awareness in Britain, once you actually mention anything specifically political, (as opposed to subscribing to generally accepted attitudes where in folk clubs we'll sing vaguely liberal/left-wing songs, about miners,'the workers', war etc, quite cheerfully as long as the specifics they address pre-date at least the Vietnam War) then that's all people will hear.

"This is not the case for me abroad - people, perhaps because they're not so challenged by the political isssues, also hear all the other things I write about. Or perhaps it also has to do with a greater willingness to think maturely about political matters.  I don't consider I'm a political writer or singer; "The Night Cafe" CD was a concious attempt to produce a whole album that couldn't be labelled political. Ironically, I'm often in a position where some audiences would prefer to hear the more political stuff, and get a bit uncomfortable when I do the more diverse songs from "The Night Cafe" or "Overnight".  I do feel that a lot of people don't book me or stay away because they expect all I'll do is sing 'We Hate the Tories' all night long.  It's ye famouse olde Catch 22 situation, and I do find it exasperating. I believe writers should address issues, and not avoid reality. Particularly in the mid '80s, there was a struggle for the soul of Britain, expressed in the various struggles for the right to decent lives and communities that people were forced into by the Thatcher government, and as a writer you ought not to, nor honestly could you, remain neutral.  That's why and where I found it neccessary to write overtly political songs.

"But even so, if you actually look at all the recordings I've made, or listen to each gig with your ears open rather than your preconceptions, you'd usually find much more of a variety of material than the label 'political' would lead you to expect.  And also politics present in a more subtle form than is generally expected.  Obviously there are some recordings like "No Surrender", the GCHQ benefit cassette album with Graham Larkbey or the Seafarers benefit single "Herald Of Free Enterprise" etc that are, because they're benefits for a specific cause, absolutely and wholeheartedly political. But there's also stuff like "Saturday Afternoon Red Army" EP that's all about watching Brentford FC play what passes for football at Griffen Park.  I defy anyone to fit that one into the 'political' pigeonhole!  Material like '6B Go Swimming' or 'Sunday Morning St Denis' ...not a mention of a Tory anywhere, although of course an economic reality does underline both songs. Perhaps that's the problem: I'll always want to ask 'Why?'....like in 'The Herald Of Free Enterprise'.  I don't just write a disaster song, I write a song that's also partly about why the disaster happened. Because many 'disasters' are a product of human conditioning and actions! Things don't just happen - CDs don't just appear by magic. They require a complex web of human actions, a certain set of economic conditions, and social institutions like CD companies and magazine journalists, shops and their workers, clubs and distributors - before Joe Public get to put their hands on an artist's work. So I can't deny that I think all this is important - I suppose I'd have to own up and say it's a sub or post-Marxist understanding of society as being a set of material conditions - so to that extent this understanding of society will always ensure that what I do shall be so deemed to be forever and ever amen, political. My Dad once said that I write to try to understand, and I think that's true. I try honestly to reflect something to understand it, and explain it....Mission Impossible!

"So in short, yes, people always seeem to expect you to do something, to be something, you don't neccessarily want to do or be.  But that's real life isn't it? You can't fit it into a pigeonhole or hang a bale round its neck.  And if you can, then it's a very very sad anorak indeed!"

In 1994, Rhiannon Records released "This Is The UK Talking" [RHYD5002] - a collection of Robb's singles, benefits, demos and favourite tracks recorded between 1987 and 1992. The "....UK Talking" compilation is surely the place to begin an examination of a singer whose evolution is untroubled by commercial considerations but driven by an almost overwhelming sense of integrity.  It was quickly followed by Robb Johnson & Pip Collings' exceptional album of telling arrangements and brooding power, "The Lack Of Jolly Ploughman" [RHYD5004].  To these ears "...Ploughman" seemed a deliberate attempt to produce an album that wasn't too confrontational, and in many respects was generally quite good humoured. Needless to say, Robb sabotaged that intention somewhat with his sleeve-notes. It seems that at strategic moments he's liable to a fair amount of foot-shooting! I enquired whether the release of these two albums on a 'higher profile' label created any noticable difference in the public's awareness of Robb's songwriting.

RJ: "None whatsoever!!!  I did expect a good deal more of our "... Ploughman" CD, but the only noticeable effect it had was on some live bookings.  In some cases it became obvious that, for a variety of reasons, some musical some not, the Johnson/Collings duo was preferred.

Did he feel that it's only when other artists perform his material that the public can view it without any preconceptions?

RJ:  "It certainly helps if someone else, either in a concert or a session, manages to entertain Joe public with one of my songs without JP realising it's one of my ghastly songs - promptly making a beeline for the nearest door or window.  I really am dead chuffed when anyone does one of my songs. There are loads of great songs floating about; I don't particularly write songs for anyone else other than me and my own criteria, so it's really a compliment. To anybody who does my songs, thanks greatly."

Some of Robb's most moving songs concern War and he has been invited to perform a specially written sequence of songs, "Gentle Men", at this year's Passchendaele Peace Concert.

RJ: 'Cold In The Trenches' was written whilst we were going around The Bedford House Cemetery near Ypres. These cementeries are very very moving.  Chilling. We'd decided the lads would probably have preferred having a beer to being slaughtered, so we went and had several for them.  On my inevitable way to the toilet, I noticed it was raining, and thought "god, it would be cold in those trenches tonight..."

"Both my Grandfathers got stuffed into 3rd Ypres during the First World War. Piet Chieleis who organises the Peace Concerts, invited me to write a concert about my grandads....they were both very gentle men, (hence the concert title), and I loved them dearly.  The war killed my mum's dad over 50 years, as the gassing he got effected his lungs forever. The more I found out, and continue to find out, about what they had to endure, the more sad and angry I get, the more convinced I am that the war is criminal stupidy. 

"I also think it's important to keep these ideas of peace alive all the time, not just in response to specific wars like the Malvinas or the Gulf. After all, the army doesn't pack-up and go away when there's no war. As I was finishing the writing of the concert, the Gulf veterans were marching through London, protesting at the MOD's official denial of their 'Gulf War Syndrome'. The issues haven't changed!

"The concert should be very impressive.  I've written a set of 22 songs and they will be performed in Passchendaele Church on August 27th-29th. The singers will be Roy Bailey (as my Grandfathers) and Vera Coomers (a tremendous Flemish singer), a 6-piece band and me, who are directed by the amazing Koen de Cauter of "Waso" fame. Koen is a man who can give Django Rheinhardt a run for his money.  Hopefully there will be an album to come out of it.  I'd just like to point out, that for readers of FoT it's probably easier to get to Ypres than it is to get to Leeds - so I'll see you there! The sequence would make an excellent item for anyone's folk festival or Arts Centre, and I'm open to any offers."

His astute observation of life's struggles and relationships remain razor sharp and it's easy to see why he became a songwriter but....

RJ: "It's just my misfortune that songwriters have not so much so few, but such rigorous pigeonholes to fit themselves into, and that at a certain point I must have foolishly committed myself to the idea of being a songwriter - probably because I thought it was the most democratic and least elitist form of expression.  Bad move!

"I suppose it's a tribute to anybody's patience, taste and discernment that I get booked anywhere at all! I would like to add a thank-you to the organisers who do take a bit of a risk and book me, and to the members of Joe Public, who take the risk of coming to see me shoot myself in both feet yet again. Well, at least it's live."

Geoff Wall

Published in Folk On Tap #71 April-June 1997