Shortly after I moved from Dublin to London, I met the mercurial, legendary and intriguing music-loving individual that is Johnny ‘Snakehips’ Johnson. It was clear from the first conversation that we would get on like a house on fire – the man is music mad and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the London live circuit. In this day and age where anyone can become a self-made “musician” from their bedroom – it’s real old-school musicians like Johnson, who still earn their crust through performing and published hard-copy works. I managed to get my mittens around his latest album ‘Raw‘ and have been enjoying it’s varied nature these last couple of weeks.
Raw – The Album
The album starts out with a heartfelt ode to his mother in ‘Crazy about you Ma‘. The tune meanders along in a high octane Chaz’n’Dave styled boogie- woogie manner with wildly manic jazz keys, an interesting percussion solo and Johnson’s cockney twang creating a throwback sound, a sound which is hard to find nowadays. Uplifting lyricism is Johnny’s game – lines like “You know how much I like a pint and love my rock and roll, but you just don’t know how much I really love you Ma” paint an accurate picture of Johnson’s caring yet wildly exciting outlook.
Johnson’s ability to perform in many different sub-genres is apparent in the echoing, mellow blues styled Ten outta Ten. This track features more outstanding keyboard playing and induces an almost latin sound on a whole. My dream Girl follows and opens with a luscious electric guitar riff, this coupled with Johnny’s crisp voice, make this a high caliber tune once more. The next couple of tracks pass through pleasantly, with the Rockabilly number Be Boppin Beauty passing by in a style Dubliner Imelda May would be proud of.
Track nine of this album is my personal favourite and commands it’s own mini-paragraph. ‘When the old Dun Cow caught fire’ is one of those charming vocal performances that you can’t help but enjoy. His husky style is commendable as the tune progresses nicely with only a subtle acoustic guitar in accompaniment. This track is musical storytelling at it’s finest. An equally non-intrusive kick drum and hi-hat complete the track. This song has a unique and haunting feel, not unlike something from Lionel Bart. I do get Oliver Twist vibes off this. I can imagine hearing this song as onlookers to the fire the song depicts, continue to drink merrily without any care in the world. A gem.
Zulu Doctor touches on the traditional influence years living on an isolated island have had on his musical ear. The squeezebox is heard here and we are brought to a sound similar to Sharon Shannon in this one. Johnny loves a good Irish classic. Catch me falling brings in a late 70s/early 80s disco sound with a synth and retro beats littering it. His band have been on point the whole way through by the way. Another honest tune is ‘ain’t no cure’ which he finds a cure for a plethora of diseases but gets stuck on a cure for a broken heart – the most incurable ailment of them all. The double bass does it’s best to aid the broken heart with it’s wonderful and welcome presence throughout.
Wild Coyote is another track firmly set in my top 3 for this album due to it’s decadent baseline and infectious clear vocals. I found a band from Dublin not long ago called ‘The Chapters‘, the vocalist fronting that band completely nailed it with his performance, Johnson evokes the same emotion in me throughout this one with his fluttering vocals. It even has some angelic harmonies thrown in for good measure. Johnson states that this wonderful track was written during his nine month stay on Shirkin Island. This track is stand-out.
The 21st track of the album is aptly named ‘I can’t help feeling happy‘. The title of this tune is exactly what best describes the enigmatic personality of Johnny Johnson. I have always seen this man with a wide smile across his face, even when he wasn’t feeling his Sunday best, this is a testament to him – he is a positive rock n roll legend around London and more importantly – a legend of a man.
To close off in the words of Grammy winning roots artist Jon Cleary, when interviewed about ‘Snakehips‘ he states graciously that “Johnson doesn’t need to pretend to be anything, he’s one of the only real one’s I’ve ever actually encountered”. This kind of high praise is not only in referral to Johnson’s musical repertoire and rugged skill set, it is most importantly referring to the high class personality that this uniquely uplifting man brings to the table every time he walks into a room.
I sat down with Johnny for a cup of tea and a scone a couple of weeks ago. Here is what came of that.