23 September 2010
Johnny Come Home by Fine Young Cannibals. A song catchy enough to give an unknown band a big first hit despite the rather unusual jowly vocal style of the frontman.
I think Roland Gift is brilliant. His voice is distinctive, he can carry a tune and he has charisma and presence as a frontman. But he is one of those vocalists whose actual words I've rarely been able to make out. Apart from the song titles, choruses and other isolated bits, I've had to go to lyric websites to establish most of what he is actually singing and, in the case of this 1985 debut hit, was especially grateful to Smash Hits.
Fine Young Cannibals (I keep wanting to add 'the' to their name but I understand that would be wrong, very wrong - nor will I succumb to abbreviation, as many do) were formed by Andy Cox and David Steele a year or so after they left the Beat (and that's the English Beat to all you Americans reading). They recruited Gift, who lived in my hometown of Hull, as singer after hearing an otherwise unheralded record from one of his local bands.
This song was released in 1985 and I loved it on first hearing. Once you've gone to the lyric sheet you can quickly establish it's a straightforward appeal for a missing teenage runaway to get in touch, contrasting between the words of a standard narrator in the verses and family members in the chorus.
Johnny seems to have done one because someone in the family was in the habit of enjoying the sauce too much, according to that chorus, and had done something while under the influence that had prompted him to disappear. We don't get details. But it does add a sinister edge to a story that could have just been a standard tale of teenagers being misunderstood.
I love the brass scores. There's the smart, jumpy intro that sounds semi-improvised, as if the band had given their instrumentalist the chord sequence on sheet music and told him to come up with something there and then. Then there's a much more reserved and collected solo after the second chorus. Along with Gift's under-enunciated voice, it provides the biggest signature moment of the song.
Johnny Come Home entered the Top 40 in June 1985 and enjoyed a massive climb from 35 to 16. Then it almost entirely stalled, reaching No.15 a week later and edging to 12, and then 11, over the next fortnight. But here, and I remember this clear as day, the power of Top Of The Pops came in. The band made their second appearance onstage and produced enough talking points to get an unusual climb from 11 to 8, whereupon it finally peaked. A Top 10 single that, in its chart life, went from obvious to impossible to obvious again.
Those talking points were two-fold. Firstly, there is a big drumroll in the closing chorus just before the song starts to fade, and for this all three members of the band dropped to their knees and opened their arms in a pleading sense. Given the subject matter of the song, this seemed to have the right effect.
More graphic as a talking point was the performance of guitarist Cox, who spent the whole three and a half minutes capering around his spot on the stage as if he had no bones in his body at all. He kept this up throughout the mime and one doubts seriously that he could do his little dance during live performances, though I wouldn't necessarily rule it out. I remember kids imitating him in the school playground and even the hosts of Top Of The Pops felt it necessary to comment, with that well-known humorist Simon Bates suggesting (to Richard Skinner) that he was "the first guitarist to be entirely made out of rubber".
Fine Young Cannibals really struggled to follow this up. Their next single, anti-Tory whingerama Blue, made it on to Now 6 but not into the Top 40, and it took a couple of smart covers to get them back in the public eye again, courtesy of Suspicious Minds and (what they abbreviated to) Ever Fallen In Love. It took three and a half years before another original composition got them into the Top 10 again, but they didn't just achieve that, they, briefly, ruled America too, courtesy of a massive album and two brilliant No.1 singles, even though, again, I hadn't a clue from meagre listening what Gift was singing on either. Good Thing, the second of these, was ruined for me when Plymouth Argyle started using it as their "music after goals" song.
I was once, sometime in the early 1990s, walking along Beverley Road in Hull and turned round to find Roland Gift walking some ten yards behind me, dressed all in black. He smiled. That was it, really. As anecdotes go, it needs work.