Johnny Dangerously, not to be confused with the Michael Keaton film of the same name, was the once alter-ego of Johnny Bramwell of I Am Kloot fame. This record was released in 1989 at the peak of the ‘Madchester’ baggy era but bears no resemblance to the sounds of that time (Stone Roses for one). It’s straight singer-songwriter, troubadour guitarist eking out a living on the dirty streets of Manchester – which is where Mr Bramwell was probably at during this period. He still plays impromptu gigs in Oldham Street, one of the former epicentres of the Manchester music scene. It bares the skeleton structure of I Am Kloot’s later work, but stripped back it still sounds crisp and fresh today. Its a remarkably accomplished debut, signalling much promise to come.
This mini album (defined as such in various sources although it’s just 6 songs, plays at 45 rpm and only lasts a little over 16 minutes – our shortest album yet Rob?) featured in an article in the Guardian titled “The Greatest Albums You’ve Never Heard“. Although some of the entries in this article (Neutral Milk Hotel for goodness sakes…) should not be there, this absolutely deserves its place. It is a musical gem, a lost one for me as well, falling between the cracks in my life. I used to “own” this album. My ex-wife had it in her collection so I can thank her for introducing me to it. When we split the album went with her. Poignant enough then that the last track on here (‘Tearing it Down’) sings about the loss of possessions and someone.
“She left me a reminder, of a world she left behind her. An overcoat, a coffee cup, an old…(something indecipherable) book binder. I could catch her right away but I would never find her”
So I sadly lost the album. Years later I read the Guardian article and tried to find it again, to no avail. I went to see Johnny Bramwell at a gig in Bristol a few years ago, and he started taking requests. I shouted out ‘Pierfront Arcade’ (track two on the album) to which he replied that he’d forgotten how to play it. So, there we go, lost to the artist himself……
‘Junk Culture’, the opening track, starts haplessly amongst the trash and rubbish of life, evoking images of the back streets of England, the US, trying to make sense of it all
“Stumbling through small life Nowhere, England. Shaking hands with the big time life idiots. I was trying to pick up some ordinariness. From the shopping bag inspirational choir”
UK artists have often tried to make sense of the US on their albums. Prefab Sprout do it on Steve McQueen. As an artist just coming into the world, Johnny Dangerously seems more vulnerable than most to the enormity of gaining success over the pond
“Sweeping through middle town America. Stepping into fact-or-fiction trash TV world. I caught a glimpse of myself scraping and laughing. Shuffling about amongst the newspaper”
Lyrically this album has recurring themes of love, loss, regret, fear, hope and valediction to memories. The imagery of the opening track is simple yet efffective, getting you to view things in a way you know to be true, and yet perhaps you missed them. ‘Junk Culture’ evokes images of the old cathode ray tube TVs and how they used to shut down to a small spot on the screen…”And a million TV screens close their weary eyes”.
The theme of nostalgia is very strong here too. ‘Pierfront Arcade’ highlights the true fragility of memories, and our inability to leave places without never returning, perhaps only in our minds
“Love is built in pieces, made right here in Fragile Town. You said once you were weaving, oh, but who is fragile now?….I said once I was leaving but I came back before too long”
‘Black and Blue’ is a tragic love song, recognising what ultimately you will lose in order to gain the heart of one you desire (“Lights are shining all round this world. You want them all but what you want is this girl….So give up the chance to be true. And all wind up like we knew we’d do. Bruised black and blue”). ‘This Town and Mary’ remembers a girl who came into his life, and to a ‘town’ unknown. Perhaps this town and Mary do not exist at all but I have sneaking suspicion that this references the same ‘Mary’ that featured in a short film I once saw. The subject matter of the film was a bright eccentric girl that was ‘on the scene’ in Manchester in the early 80s, but left suddenly for no reason, right before the ‘Madchester-Hacienda’ music explosion. The film featured one Vinni Reilly (of Durrutti Column, who we haven’t covered yet) remembering her as being quite fragile and full of contradictions. People said she wouldn’t have coped with the scene as it evolved, so perhaps she was best to go. I couldn’t find a link to the film, but would love to make the connection. The song however suggests ‘Mary’ is all of us (“Mary came from our town and was kicking at the ground. She was lost, she was found, she was me, she was you. And all the lies you tell sound true. You say you don’t til you do”). Mythologising people in your life, placing your own personna over them….
There’s not much to say about the musical ability on the record, because it is just him and the guitar. Anyone who has been to see him live will know that he can fill a room with that simple formula. The vocal is very rich, regional and distinctive. The guitar itself accomplished and not readily accessible in terms of chord sequences and tunings. In some ways he bears resemblance to John Martyn (again we haven’t covered him…), some would say Go-Betweens are in there (I think that was you Tom?). Nobody bought the album when it came out, and Johnny Bramwell never released another under this name. So, there it is, gone but not forgotten. It deserves a higher place in the past, and perhaps even in the present, but then again it seems all that more beautiful as a hidden lost gem amongst the newspapers and dirty alleyways of Oldham Street in Manchester….find it if you can.