Johnny, Remember Me
By Cathi Unsworth.
He stood at the back of the room, in a smartly cut pale blue suit, so cleanly shaven his skin still had a rosy glow from the razor’s kiss, thick brown hair set into a shiny pompadour that looked as though it had been set in plastic. His bulbous dark blue eyes darted around the cellar, and he pulled on a cigarette fretfully. For a second it seemed that he was too nervous to come across the floor, but then his eyes became still as they settled on what he was searching for. With a sudden sense of purpose, he walked towards Johnny.
And that was when all the trouble started.
In the autumn of ’59, Johnny had got us a regular gig at the Off Beat café. Us being The Buccaneers. Me, Fredo Long, the drummer; Dean Chainey on rhythm guitar; Jake Potts on bass and Johnny Murphy, our heartbreaker singer and lead guitarist. I was 21 years old, just out of my National Service and itching to get back on the scene. Before I went away, I’d been playing with Clive Kirby’s Rhythm Katz, a skiffle band on the up and up, but during them two years, that scene had been left for dead.
Rock’n’roll was what it was all about now – proper rock’n’roll mind, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard – not them stable of actors what Larry Parnes groomed and made acceptable to the great British Public. We had no time for Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde and the like. We named ourselves after the renegade pirates we thought we was, dressed up in striped shirts, drainpipe jeans and three-inch crepe-soled shoes. Johnny, who always had that dashing air about him, he took it the furthest – painting his guitar bright red and wearing a golden earring. With his black hair and matching eyes, his big wide smile and voice dripping with carnal intent, all the girls loved Johnny. He had that edge of danger about him that all them fake Elvis wannabes sorely bloody lacked.
We had the songs to match our look, though, that was the important thing. We’d only been together a matter of months, but already me and Johnny had written what we reckoned were our first two number ones. ‘Keep Your Distance’ was Johnny’s, it bore a slight resemblance to ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ but his lyrics and the way he delivered them were pure original – it was a seething song of unrequited lust. ‘All Shook Down’ was mine and I gotta admit, it was my attempt to get that voodoo beat from Gene Vincent’s ‘Cat Man’ nailed down, while Johnny spun around it a list of physical afflictions that assailed him once he’d spotted a swell looking dame. He shivered and shaked, shimmied and quaked, and the girls all screamed their lungs out with approval when he did it.
All in all, we was feeling pretty good about this residency, a month of Fridays they gave us. The Off Beat was a happening hangout on the end of Berwick Street, tucked behind the market stalls just across from Walker’s Court. At ground level it was a coffee shop with a jukebox full of jazz, making it popular with art students from nearby St Martin’s. Girls with Brigitte Bardot hair and eyes like cats, boys in check sports jackets trying to hide their acne under James Dean quiffs and a deluge of world-weary hepcat banter. I knew their sort all right, they were the kind of kids that hung out in the 2 I’s when I was playing with the Rhythm Katz. They always came holding a Jack Kerouac paperback as if that made them look hard, but looked quickly away when real Teds came through the door. Well, they’d lose their studied cool soon enough once the Buccaneers plugged in.
Because this was Soho, you’d also find a smattering of writers and artists nursing their hangovers or just killing time over a plate of egg and chips, chainsmoking French cigarettes and waiting for Gaston’s or the Colony to open. Then there was the Soho characters – like Ironfoot Jack with his top hat and cape and the six inches of metal that dragged from his shorter leg – and of course, the Soho sinners. The girls who worked in Walker’s Court, on the runways of Raymond’s Revue Bar and Les Girls, the strip joints sandwiched between the dirty bookshops along that thoroughfare of neon-lit thrills. Generally, these women looked about ten years older than the art school dames, although they might only be actually a few years apart. They had their hair set in solid helmets at Mr Teezy-Weezy’s and the faces underneath were harder still, masks filled in with pencil and lipstick, eyes that looked straight through you. When they spoke, you hardly ever heard a London accent.
These girls came from the industrial North, from Scotland and Wales, from steel towns and pit villages, the shadows of smokestacks and smog, chasing that age-old con of London gold, hoping to become actresses or models, or at the least, married to money. For the time being, them dreams had ended up a few yards northwest of Theatreland proper, where the lights were harsher and the dressing rooms more crowded, the uses of deportment and imagination kinked into the art of striptease. For all of them girls, an infernal clock was ticking. When pep pills and pancake were no longer enough to support their assets and the cheers turned to jeers, the road ahead looked immeasurably darker.
In amongst them sat a certain kind of man. One who always wore a neatly cut suit below a boxer’s face, only you somehow knew that broken nose or cauliflower ear was not a scar that had come from any sporting arena. These were marks of honour in the code of another world, the world that run Soho. Any apprehensions I had about the gig were directly related to them. I never in a million years saw what was actually coming.
We played in the cellar, which opened up as evening fell. Just as upstairs was carefully deco-ed in the latest Formica and chrome, Blue Beat album covers framed up on the walls above the brand new Wurlitzer jukebox, so downstairs was left to look as much like a cave as possible. What passed for a stage was really just an elevated platform a couple of inches above the stone floor, just high enough to differentiate between band and audience and hide the dodgy electrics. The lighting was a few bare bulbs swinging in the breeze above this primitive podium, the rest of the room making do with candles stuck inside glasses, perched on tiny tables at the back and in crevices along the wall.
Dean the bassist, a sparky himself by trade, almost fainted at the sight of these amateur electrics and spent our first afternoon checking out the wiring, fearing we might all end up frazzled to death by our own amps. Even after all his precautions he was still wary, when it heated up down there with a full crowd packed in all the sweat turned to condensation that ran down the cave walls, threatening to blow us into the next world. The Buccaneers’ brothel creepers became less a style statement and more a necessary precaution against frying tonight.
To begin with, only the art school crowd ventured downstairs to watch, along with the gang that followed us up from the Grove, our manor proper. But after a while, a trickle of exotic dancers started to follow. I would have liked to think it was the impact of the music what motivated them, but you had to be realistic. It was when the girls clapped eyes on Johnny that the hardness fell away from their faces and the lights came on behind their smiles.
We always finished the set with them two songs – ‘Keep Your Distance’ and ‘All Shook Down’ – and by the time Johnny was swivelling his pelvis in their faces and promising a night to remember, all the females in the joint, from snooty beat girls to hardened strippers, would be screaming out for more.
Which is what piqued the interest of the man in the pale blue suit.
I first spotted him the second Friday in, standing halfway down the stairs with an expression of wonder in those funny pop eyes as he watched Johnny do his stuff. He had an air about him that didn’t fit in with the rest of the crowd – he was too old and too smart to be a student, to clean and too prissy to belong to the firm that escorted the strippers. What it was about him was that he didn’t look comfortable in his own shiny skin, he had an air of agitation like someone had just tipped a packet of itching powder down the back of his shirt or something.
He came down the stairs and I lost him, it’s hard enough for a drummer to see anything other than the arses of the rest of the band as it is. But after we had finished, and I’d come out from behind my kit, I clocked him again, waiting in the corner where the candles flickered, for the crowd to thin out and head back upstairs as the band to began packing up their gear.
As was usual in these situations, I found myself surrounded by a gaggle of girls – all the ones who fancied Johnny would always come to talk to me first. I never knew why they all found me so approachable. I was six foot six in my creepers, with a body built up from two years in the army — I liked to think I looked quite intimidating. But to them I was just like the cuddly big brother they could continually pester for favours.
As I done my best to deflect all this attention without being rude, I noticed that Johnny was deep in conversation with the man in the pale blue suit. Who was talking nineteen to the dozen, making strange little gestures as he did, rubbing his earlobe and picking off imaginary specks of dust from his sleeve, puffing away at his fag like there was no tomorrow. Johnny seemed impressed by what the funny little fella was saying to him, I could see his eyes widen and his head nod as he took it all in. Whatever the cat was spinning, Johnny was getting caught up in his twine.
He must have sensed me looking, ’cos he turned his head and beckoned me over.
‘Fredo,’ he said as I picked my way through the beat girls and hepcats to stand at his side, ‘this is Joe. You gotta hear what he’s just been telling me. Joe, this is Fredo Long, he’s the best musician we got and he writes half the songs with me.’
The man in the pale blue suit offered me his hand and flashed his eyes up and down me. His fingers were long and thin, his nails manicured. I realised as I shook with him what it was about the fella. He was a fruit, a swish. I’d met a few of his type in the army, even though that’s supposed to be illegal, and I recognised that nervousness for what it really was. Just like all the girls, he had a crush on Johnny.
‘Pleased to meet you Fredo,’ said Joe, although his eyes, perhaps, said otherwise. ‘As I was telling Johnny, I’ve had some success as a producer recently, but I’ve been working with these jazz fellows who are really a bit stuck in their ways.’
He had a funny voice and all. I think he was attempting to sound like one of them BBC newsreaders, but there was something underneath it, a West Country accent, that still made him sound a bit of a yokel.
‘Oh yeah?’ I said, ‘Like who?’
Joe gave a little pout and looked from me to Johnny then back again. ‘Chris Barber, Humphry Lyttleton, Kenny Ball,’ he reeled off. ‘I got all of them top ten hits but none of them were grateful. I’ve got technology in my studio that no one’s ever thought of before, but all they want is the authentic sound of the 1930s. I don’t know.’ He shook his head.
‘But that’s why I’m looking to find someone a lot more modern to work with,’ the shining light was back in his eyes and the enthusiasm returned to his voice as he addressed the rest of his conversation to Johnny. ‘And you boys really are perfect. You’ve got the look and you’ve got the songs, and I can get that all down for you on vinyl in a way the public has never heard before. I can guarantee, those two songs of yours really will be number ones. That’s if,’ he suddenly looked panicked, ‘you don’t already have a recording contract?’
Johnny laughed and put a hand on Joe’s shoulder, a reflex, matey action.
‘’S’all right Joe, we ain’t had any offers yet,’ he said.
Joe looked down on Johnny’s hand and his bulbous eyeballs glittered.
‘What label are you representing then?’ I asked, trying to cut through the strange spell that was being woven between them.
‘My own,’ Joe looked up at me sharply. ‘I’ve worked long enough with the major labels to realise I’ll never get things done properly that way. Triumph Records I call it. I made enough on the royalties from the records I’ve written and produced to set myself up. It’s all autonomous,’ he said, then added, lest I didn’t understand his fancy words: ‘I’m in complete control.’
Well, I didn’t think he was being level with us, and as it turned out, he wasn’t. This label was the offshoot of a film company called Saga and Joe only had a joint interest in it, it didn’t last long neither ’cos he ate up all the funds quicker than he could put a record out. But I could see that Johnny was in no mood for caution that night. He was swept away by the glamour of it all and accepted there and then an invitation to check out Joe’s studio set up.
I should have gone with them, I know that now, but at the time, someone had to drive the van back with all the gear and as the only teetotaller in the band, that honour was usually reserved for me. And I have to be honest, as Dean and Jake joined in the conversation and the excitement levels grew, I started to feel a bit left out, a bit moody. I didn’t like the cut of Joe’s jib and was glad to have the option of ducking out. Despite all the hopes I had for them songs and the certainty I felt that they would be hits, I secretly wished that this option wouldn’t pan out.
Be careful what you wish for, they say.
I’d been home about half an hour, unloaded our gear and made myself a cup of tea to unwind and reflect on the events of the evening, when there was a fearful hammering on my front door.
‘Jesus,’ I said as I opened up, finding a wild-eyed Johnny standing under the streetlight. ‘What the bloody hell happened to you?’
Johnny said nothing, just shook his head and wiped his arm across his brow, pushing past me into the kitchen. He started opening all the cupboard doors, banging them open and shut, feverishly searching for something or other, making a hell of a noise that I was afraid would wake the whole street up. Then just as suddenly he stopped, put his hands down on the counter and slumped.
‘Fredo,’ his voice was a whisper, ‘you got any brandy round here?’
‘Why?’ I asked, ‘you had a shock or something?’
‘Yeah,’ he turned around, his eyes red and hollow. ‘Yeah, you could say that.’
‘Well hold on a tick, I’ll see what I can find. You sit down,’ I pulled out a chair for him and he collapsed over the kitchen table, his handsome head in his hands.
Somewhere in my bedroom was a memento from Malta, a bottle of brandy in a little wickerwork jug, with the cross of St George on the lid. I found the thing and poured a good measure in a glass for him, Johnny knocked it back in one and reached for another. Only when he’d poured that and lit a cigarette did he manage to spill his story out.
Joe’s set-up was impressive all right, he had a big suite up in Lansdowne Road, that big tall building there, just round the corner from Holland Park tube. He’d shown the fellas around, taking pains to point out the mixing desks, what he’d had made to his own specifications by some bigwigs up at EMI, and had features that even they didn’t understand. Then there was other, weirder stuff, a garden gate spring wired up so that sound could run through it and a taped-up metal box he referred to as his echo chamber. Naturally Dean had been very interested in all this gear, he understood electronics better than perhaps Joe had anticipated, ’cos he got a bit riled when Dean asked if he could open the box and examine how it worked. Banged on about how it was top secret, that people were spying on him.
‘I should have realised then he was a nutcase,’ Johnny admitted, ‘but he had all these ideas for the songs that sounded so cool. He played us back some tapes of stuff he’d been working on, and honestly Fredo, it was out of this world…’
After an hour or so of Joe’s studio tour and plans for chart domination, they’d made some tentative arrangements that The Buccaneers would come back and lay down some tracks. Jake and Dean had made to leave and Johnny was ready to go with them, but Joe had pulled him back, said there was just one more thing he wanted to show him. As soon as they were alone, he’d made the pass, sticking his tongue down startled Johnny’s throat. Johnny had retaliated swiftly and decisively, punching the fruit across the room right into his own echo chamber.
‘It was just shock what made me do it,’ he told me, lighting his tenth cigarette in a row. ‘I didn’t mean to hurt him, I wouldn’t have if I’d have realised what this was really all about, I’d have tried to let him down gently.’ He attempted to laugh but ended up grimacing. ‘But then, Fredo, then it all went really nasty.’
He had to pour himself another drink before I got the rest out of him. Apparently, Joe had reacted like a hornet, got to his feet screaming and shouting and threatening all sorts.
‘He said he was gonna put a curse on me,’ Johnny was shaking as he said it. ‘That he was gonna remember me and never forget me, that I would never make it in this business without him and that he was gonna destroy me for what I done, breakin’ his precious echo chamber, never mind his pride.’
I would have laughed at anyone else taking the threats of a swish scorned so seriously. But Johnny, well, his black eyes and his black hair came from his gypsy grandma, he believed in all this stuff so seriously that he truly believed he was doomed from that minute on.
And in a sense, he was right.
I took the rap for us not signing with Joe, we invented some cover story so that the others wouldn’t know what really happened. Some old pony about me not wanting to take the risk with the guy, not liking him – all of it true, but I wouldn’t have let that stand in the way if I had really thought he could help us. But my first loyalty was to Johnny and Johnny was too ashamed to be thought of as so gullible, and too rattled to face any kind of interrogation about it. Dean and Jake were a bit disappointed at first, especially Dean, who had been right intrigued to find out what really went on with all them pioneering electrics Joe had invented.
But it wasn’t long before others came knocking, and we got to release our first single on Parlophone, a subsidiary of the same label what had made all Joe’s fancy gear. Nothing so elaborate went down at the recording of ‘Keep Your Distance’, but they captured all the raw, frenzied edge of our live performance all right, and the record went to number five in the hit parade in November 1959. We was on our way, the start of the big time.
The Buccaneers set off for a life on the road that took us all across Great Britain and into Europe. Johnny was hailed as a trailblazer, the most exciting new singer since Elvis, and our fanclub swelled to the point that Parlophone had to hire someone just to open all our mail. All the gigs were a sell-out here and we was making a good name for ourselves on the Continent too, everywhere people were wearing striped shirts and golden earrings, just like Johnny. I loved being on tour. Travel was the one thing that I missed from the army, so I couldn’t have been happier, getting to see the world playing the music I loved.
Neither could the record company. Flushed with our rapid success, they let us release ‘All Shook Down’ at the beginning of 1960 and I’m proud to say, that did make number one. We were the biggest stars of the moment, appearing on telly the whole time, screaming fans at every venue, money rolling in, everything we could have wished for. We even got to meet and play with my hero, Gene Vincent, who said that he loved Johnny’s style. Those were the golden days all right, at the start of a new decade. We was waving bye-bye to the ration book Fifties, and it really felt like we was at the forefront of change, the people making things happen.
It weren’t for a long time that we even thought about Joe again. He had passed from memory in the whirl of our lives and even though he had managed to get a fair few records in the charts, he ain’t had no number ones to boast of, so it didn’t seem like his curse had worked too well.
Not until July of 1961. That night we was driving back to London from Dover, just back from playing Hamburg, where we always went down a storm on the rowdy clubs of the Reeperbahn. We was looking forwards to getting back to London and the studio, where we were gonna lay down the new songs we’d been working on for our second LP. We were the fittest and tightest we’d ever been, the new material honed to perfection over hundreds of gigs. It was going to be a cinch, or so I thought.
Dean had a little portable radio what we used to listen to in the back of the van, and they was running down the new entries in the charts on Radio Luxemburg. Feeling comfortably knackered, I had almost fallen to sleep when they started playing this eerie record, like some kind of cowboy song, but with a strange, electronic back-up and a girl’s voice singing a haunted refrain.
‘Johnny,’ she went, ‘remember me.’
Well Johnny he sat bolt upright at this and his face drained of colour as he took the meaning in. The song was about a fella whose girlfriend had died, but she kept singing to him from beyond the grave, calling him to join her. When it was over, the DJ said that it was the new 45 from John Leyton, and in his estimation, it was headed straight for the top of the charts. It was Leyton’s second collaboration with this dynamite producer who had written and recorded the song, from his studios in Holloway Road. The song was entitled ‘Johnny, Remember Me’.
That’s right. It was our old friend Joe.
And not only did he get his first number one with it, but it stayed there for 15 weeks. All that time, it seemed to follow us around, from coffee shop to pub, beat cellar to town hall, and Johnny was convinced that this was it, the curse in motion. No matter how hard we tried to convince him otherwise, with Joe taunting him from every radio, jukebox and TV set, Johnny seemed to just freeze inside.
Well, I tried my best to be pragmatic. We had a whole album’s worth of songs that would soon be knocking that little iron and his playthings off the top spot. The recordings went great, the record company loved it and I can tell you, hand on me heart, we had never sounded better. But the public obviously thought otherwise. Our first single, ‘You Tell Me’, a straight-up rocker what me and Johnny had written after we met Gene Vincent, crawled up to number 20 and stalled there. The album it self floundered even lower until it crashed out entirely after only six weeks.
That change we thought we was part of, it was happening fast and to other people, it seemed. The press and the radio started talking about us differently to what they had before. The image that had made us so special only a few months before was now beginning to seem to them like some kind of novelty.
Worse than that, when we done another single what missed the charts entirely, they started to call us one-hit-wonders.
The record company, they thought the solution to this was to put us on back on the road. Johnny’s reaction was to hit the bottle, earlier and earlier each day. His voice no longer resounded with danger and carnal delights, instead a steady desperation took hold of him and the audience could feel it. The girls stopped screaming. You started to hear cat-calls instead.
After a month of half-filled halls and dire reviews, Parlophone reverted to re-releasing ‘All Shook Down’, which somehow managed to get us back up the charts again – but not without cost. It reinforced the ‘one-hit-wonder’ label in everybody’s minds, including our own. On the last night of the tour, in some horrible backstage room on the end of a freezing cold pier in Cromer, Jake and Dean told us that was it, they were leaving. They’d had a better offer, to do something more modern and with it.
Johnny sat down and cried, a bottle of brandy stuck to his right hand.
I soldiered on with him for a while, recruiting a couple of new fellas from bands we had met along the way, but without the other two it was never the same again. Even I started to believe the curse when the next we heard of Jake and Dean was that they had joined this new band, The Tornados, who hit number one in November 1962. With a song about the satellite Telstar, produced by, you guessed it, Joe. It even knocked Elvis off the top spot.
After that, there was no living with Johnny. I swear that I tried, but his boozing got worse, his temper more volatile, his live performances frankly an embarrassment. We had one argument too many and for my sins, I got up and left him in the middle of a tour, another half-empty washout on the end of another pier, far away from everything we had dreamed of and everything that had once been in our grasp.
I went back to London and got myself involved with another couple of bands, while Johnny stayed on the circuit with a band of session guys, turning into a cabaret of his former self, even resorting to Gene Vincent covers to bring in the pennies for the record company, who, unlike everyone else, still hadn’t given up on him.
The Off Beat café had become The New Beat Cellar when I found myself standing at the top of the stairs, looking down, on the evening of 1 October 1966.
Things had changed an awful lot since the days when we played there. Upstairs had been completely remodelled and repainted, in eye-straining op-art black and white, and the art students these days looked like Mary Quant with their bob haircuts and miniskirts, the boys wearing collarless shirts and bowl cuts on their heads. I didn’t see none of the gangster crowd there, nor the strippers, and Iron Foot Jack was long in his grave. I guess the Soho sinners weren’t welcome here no more. It was a place for young folk and I was feeling old.
I checked the jukebox before I went down, but all the jazz and rock’n’roll was gone, along with Joe’s space pop ditties. Even he had finally fallen out of favour with the onslaught of the Northern beat sound that had come raging out of Liverpool to conquer the world. I was on my way to see a bunch of guys I had actually met in that city, back in the good times, when The Buccaneers were on a roll. They hadn’t forgotten me and it was only good manners to go and check them out.
But now I was here, any enthusiasm I tried to muster just evaporated. Maybe it was the way they’d changed this place, maybe it was just the happy, jangly sound the band was making what turned me off. I never made it any further than the top of the stairs, watching their mop-top cuts vibrating to the screams of a new set of students and decided to retreat back upstairs for a cup of java.
The jukebox had been turned off for the duration of the gig, and the guy behind the bar had the radio on. I drank my coffee slowly, leaning against the counter, lost in a reverie about our time downstairs, not really taking anything in until there came a sudden newsflash:
‘Johnny Murphy, the lead singer of The Buccaneers, has been killed in a car crash on the outskirts of Bury in Lancashire. Murphy, who was travelling back from a concert at RAF Waddington that had been cancelled at the last minute, was a passenger in the car that was involved in a head-on collision with another. He was taken by ambulance to Bolton Royal Infirmary where he was pronounced dead on arrival…’
I heard it but I didn’t hear it. In my head I was back down there, in that cellar, playing my heart out while Johnny shivered, shimmied and shook, the pirate king in all his glory, the world at his feet.
And then I saw him.
Standing at the back of the room, in a smartly-cut pale blue suit, so cleanly shaven his skin still had a rosy glow from the razor’s kiss, thick brown hair set into a shiny pompadour that looked as though it had been set in plastic. His bulbous dark blue eyes darted around the cellar, and he pulled on a cigarette fretfully. For a second it seemed that he was too nervous to come across the floor, but then his eyes became still as they settled on what he was searching for. With a sudden sense of purpose, he walked towards Johnny.
As the radio started playing ‘All Shook Down’ in tribute to my former friend, my mind was filled with a slower, more spooky refrain. It was a girl singing and a curse falling from her red lips, a ghost that echoes down my memory and never, ever lets me forget.
‘Johnny, remember me.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cathi Unsworth is a former journalist for Sounds, Melody Maker and Bizarre and recently wrote the novels The Not Knowing and The Singer, as well as editing the London Noir crime writing anthology, all on Serpent’s Tail. (Photo credit: Ronnie Hackston)
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 10th, 2008.