Johny Brown is a real poet prophet of our profoundly divided times, and his mercurial group Band of Holy Joy have hit a purple patch in the backdrop of increasing sociopolitical darkness. 2017’s “Funambulist We Love You” was the Velvet Sheep album of the year and it seemed to be both barometer and lightning rod for the year when it was time to decide whether “To Leave Or Remain”. In parts whistful, rueful and hopeful, on one level it was colloquially and parochially British indie music in the best traditions of The June Brides, The Shop Assistants or The Wedding Present, on the other it had sweeping metropolitan grandeur and lofty vision like Frank Sinatra surveying London from the Shard and duetting with Sid Vicious. Now, two years later comes part two in a state of the nation trilogy, called “Neon Primitives” (also out on Tiny Global Productions). Nothing much has changed and yet somehow everything, a bit like the uncertain world outside the twitching curtain. More belligerent about the intransigence of the powers that be, whatever they may actually be, slightly less romantic and more semantic – the lyrics crafted by Brown are at times prosaically wrought like Joyce, beautifully insightful like Yeats, and with words like “flaneur” and “culumniators” rarely heard sung before, it’s an education. Currently working on the third in the trilogy, who knows what the backdrop will be, whether we’ve fallen off a cliff and the sunlit uplands only glimpsed through the thick eddying of the English channel, or if we grab the neon nettle and orienteer our way back to the oxygenated copse of sanity. Either way, I know what soundtrack I will be enjoying.
Rather than just my sub-Estuary wittering, I always believe on Velvet Sheep that people would rather hear the words of the artistes than my hack hyperbole, so I thought it’d be pertinent to ask Johny if alongside my succinct track by track analysis he might be up for submitting a sentence of prose to describe the BoHJ viewpoint of each of the songs on “Neon Primitives”.
Before he did he described where he’d been that weekend, and I hope he doesn’t mind me sharing his words here too, as it gives a real measure of a man of nuance, culture and humour that I’m proud to call my pal.
“The Withnail event actually turned out well, and i loved it, i feared it would be more early Mike Leigh than vintage Bruce Robinson, but it worked really well, just the right amount of miscreants and Withnail addicts gathering to watch the film in the courtyard of the cottage, it had the feel of waiting for an Iggy or Bowie gig back in the day, and there were a few in Iggy t-shirts too, lots of irreverent screaming, great DJ and sound system,and the booze was flowing, an impending thunder storm added authenticity but it cleared just as the film came on. I felt immensely glad i was there at that precise moment and not stuck somewhere dreary like Sainsbury’s or Glastonbury. It was fucking extortionate mind, in the words of Withnail, ‘Free to those who can afford it, very expensive to those who can’t’”
Before we deep dive into the world of “Neon Primitives” check out this neat neat neat little promo…
LOST IN THE NIGHT
“The feeling of loneliness lost in the city, losing your mind…”
VS: A street tough opening to the album which recalls The Replacements “We’re Coming Out” until Johny’s haunting address emerges from the guitar squall like an elongated shadow around the corner of an alleyway. It’s both statement of intent and a dazed & confused hangover from “Funambulist…” short, but bittersweet.
THE DEVIL HAS A HOLD ON THE LAND
“The feeling of hopelessness drowning under the media swirl and the present condition, kicking your legs, breathing hard, bobbing and weaving…”
VS: The song of the year so far. It’s been bubbling around for sometime and it’s the nexus around which the “Neon Primitives” has been built, the imperial brick keystone in a metric brick world. Johny intones Gen Z platitudes as ironic statements “an unanticipated problem has occurred check back soon. Try again” and amongst PC bleeps lists made-up jobs for a world where industriousness has been replaced by social influencers – “regulatory alignment managers, systematic impact assessment overseers, cognitive therapy dummies, branded content providers”. The inanity and mundanity of 2019 is at odds with the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in, and in this telegraphed “warning to all” it’s made clear that many of us are sleepwalking towards apathetic oblivion. The Devil could be represented by any one or all of the following: “Armani suited concierges in over priced hotels, practitioners of hostile architecture, architects of universal credit, credit loan arrangers and providers providing indentured misery in all the forgotten towns” and we have become blinded to the normalisation of amoral and anodyne nastiness – “We are reasonably well adjusted to a profoundly sick society now”. I first saw Johny singing through a megaphone, and if there was any justice he’d be shouting this on every street corner right now if only he could get people to look up from the prison cell phones in their hands. Breaking news: Chukka Umunna has heard “The Devil Has A Hold On The Land” and just joined the Band of Holy Joy.
“The reaction to the feelings of loneliness lost under city skies and media swirls”
Johny sings a Vincent Gallo song he was born to sing. Mournful, meditative, gazing into the abyss and needing an embrace, both a lullaby and a break from the constant news cycle. Might be time to toss the smartphone into the Thames, it’d be the smart thing to do.
“The happiness of turning your back on losing minds and present conditions for something more rural and isolated, finding a rare beauty in a new way of living, but also, sadly, inevitably, the subsequent pain experienced when messing it up”
A song of clarity and uplift, pastoral and reflective, with sweeping guitar and a lyrical nod to Amen Corner’s “If Paradise Is Half As Nice” this is an off-grid masterpiece that makes my spirit soar. The World might not be that bad after all. Things may be salvageable when natural beauty can still exist despite all those that conspire against us.
TAKE HEED CALUMNIATORS
“That feeling of awkward rage that can be alchemised into purposeful joy”
Side one ends on a windy outcrop with a shout of unbridled defiance to the backdrop of dictionaries being consulted. I have taken heed and have decided to try and use calumny/calumniators in my everyday parlance despite it being a cipher for fake news and where it’s all going wrong. Let’s make real words and conviction grate against those who wish things to be great again.
SOME PEOPLE HAVE WINGED FORTUNE
“Desire and chance and the crazy life forever”
Musically to my ears this one starts with the same Amen Corner thought, before a Wurlitzer adds its parochially English charm. A newly redoubled Johny saunters back towards the city whose lights seem brighter because of the fire in his own eyes. This could easily have been on Blur’s “Modern Life Is Rubbish” (when they were goodish) and feels like a welcome and genteel easing into side 2…
“That feeling of always looking and watching from the other side and knowing it’s imperative to hold on to your own way of seeing things, your own character, you’re own style, you’re own hard earned knowledge and experience, and to lay that errant wisdom on to others in turn, for my great pal and general partner in cosmic conspiracies and radio crimes Ali McGregor who does just that very thing…”
Johny clearly has a calling, he is a vocational bad punk with the best intentions of telling cautionary tales, and this feels like we’ve been privy to a deeply personal parable.
“That amplified sense of understanding you must somehow finish this great mad thing you set out to do, contrasted by that uneasy underlying fear you may well soon be dead before you do.”
A soulful, beatific song with meta meaning yet simple lyrics, reflective of the writing process itself of “Neon Primitives” itself and a hook which Marvin Gaye would be proud of, with a guitar line Johnny Marr would surely admire. Primitive in spirit, artisan in construction. What is not to love?
SAILING TO THE ISLAND OF LIGHT
“To find yourself again and find yourself in others, indeed that beautiful blessed moment of realising you’re surrounded absolutely by the crucially wrong sort of people, and everything good that matters is here, and anything bad that matters is over there and nothing really matters at all anyway, but to be here, in the present moment, with this love, in this light, at peace, with another dance and another chance, is everything that is essential right now, no matter how late it all is, no matter how late…no matter how late at all”
The counterpoint and twin pillar to “The Devil Has A Hold On The Land”, Johny’s characteristic talk-sing this time lists the arty reprobates you want on your side right now including “chance opportunists”, “heroic failures”, the aforementioned “electric pilgrims” and the punk pronoun/noun combo forever more etched in my brain “psychedelic flaneurs” (I imagine Martin Bramah to be one of these). This has the deceptively simple construction of a sea shanty, wassailing, lurching uncontrollably port and starboard while gazing at Ursa Major and losing sight of the horizon. But with a third album due in a triptych, the horizon is well worth keeping an eye on.
The Band of Holy Joy are: Johny Brown, Inga Tillere, James Stephen Finn, Mark Beazkley and Peter Smith and not only does this album contain the aforementioned striking tunes, it also has a manifesto that bears repeating herein:
THE NEON PRIMITIVES BELIEVE
The Neon Primitives believe…
The Neon Primitives believe in a different way out.
The Neon Primitives believe in light and noise.
The Neon Primitives feel like a spell has darkened and muted the land around them.
The Neon Primitives believe it is up to themselves to break the spell that surrounds.
The Neon Primitives know that many amongst them are drowning in angst and sadness.
The Neon Primitives know that most of us are addicted to the screen on our phones, the buzz in the air, ensnared in the slinky web of social media and the like.
The Neon Primitives know what it’s like to be lost to the lie.
The Neon Primitives realise many other good people have holed up off grid, dependent on a new lonely isolation, are giving up on the power of communication and good of community.
The Neon Primitives wish to take their cause to the streets to spread the word of the Joy of the beat and the ragged soul that burns light in the heart of man.
The Neon Primitives know time, they want to reclaim space, they are after the freedom they once knew.
The Neon Primitives shout out to all would be calumniators to take heed of complacency and the straight life and never give up the fight.
The Neon Primitives know that misfortune will prevail and chance and luck forever seem tilted against the humble folk, as sure as politicians priests and corporations score the eternal win.
The Neon Primitives say fuck it.
The Neon Primitives understand that through the darkest days the blackest nights all true Urban Pagans, all devout Electric Pilgrims will define themselves by the light they know shines hard and beautiful within their heart worn poetry riddled souls.
The Neon Primitives believe in skewed rock and roll and the eternal beat culture still.
The Neon Primitives shine and burn and rage.
The Neon Primitives accept that doubt may afflict them, as they fall to scuzzy temptations and absurd obstacles along the way and for sure like all wanting fragile souls they have many failings.
The Neon Primitives know the true prize is within grasp.
The Neon Primitives know that the true prize is the moment they gather all the wayward clans around them, the lost beats, the blessed outsiders, the forgotten soul boys, the tatty glam merchants, all righteous cosmopolitan scum everywhere.
The Neon Primitives will celebrate righteously when all will be on board and together they will sail.
The Neon Primitives are plotting a course out of the darkness.
The Neon Primitives are sailing to the island of light.
The Neon Primitives believe in light and noise.
The Neon Primitives believe in a different way out.
The Neon Primitives believe.
NEON PRIMITIVES IS OUT NOW ON TINY GLOBAL, YOU CAN PURCHASE IT HERE:
THANKS TO JOHNY BROWN. I SALUTE YOU.