Into the gutter you’re gonna roll, lads! In which England’s James Johnston outlines the making of his rawk noir band’s 1993 masterpiece. “A lot of what we listened to had a sense of urgency, and intensity,” he notes, of the group’s influences. One might apply the same description to Gallon Drunk’s music…
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
Ed. Note: The concept behind our series “The Story Behind the Album” is pretty straightforward: what went into the making of a particularly noteworthy recording, as seen through the eyes of its creator(s). It can be an acknowledged classic or an under-the-radar gem, but the basic parameters are the same: a title that stands out in an artist’s catalog, one which has stood the test of time and still commands the respect of fans. It could even have been a critical flop or a commercially under-performing record upon its initial release, but the years have steadily unveiled its extant genius. Our first investigation was into Thee Hypnotics’ 1991 classic Soul Glitter & Sin. Then we took a look at New River Head by The Bevis Frond, followed by Rock and Roll by The Cynics. And—the hits just keep coming, folks, with another one of BLURT’s all-time faves, Gallon Drunk.
Gallon Drunk managed to find themselves in 1993 as one of a select group of bands that were being heavily promoted by the British music tabloids on a weekly basis. Their initial musical output of 7-inch singles and EPs on Clawfist records was assembled into the compilation Tonite…The Singles Bar that was eventually released stateside on the Rykodisc imprint back in 1991. The music blew a hole through the Manc stranglehold on the music charts and stretched the musical canvas in the opposite direction of the rising Brit Pop movement.
The band, which at the time of this recording consisted of James Johnston, Joe Byfield, Max Décharné, and Mike Delanian, had up to this point managed to create a sound that was cacophonous, loose, and sounding like a train about to derail. Saturated in ‘40s noir imagery and informed by a ‘50s musical sensibility, the music was a punch in the gut, and a brilliant statement completely out of lockstep with the flood of talentless hacks NME and Melody Maker were serving up weekly to an unsuspecting public.
In 1993 From The Heart Of Town was released in the US on the Sire label. I remember because I was working at my college’s radio station at the time and recall that one of the Warner promo people had sent a poster of the album to the station. One look at the cover with the streaks of headlights coursing through a street in London and I knew that the record would be something special. The large black sedan racing off into some dangerous part of town is the perfect metaphor as the album straps the listener in for a ride to the dark heart of London. This isn’t the music of people stumbling towards their local doner kabob pit of hell, or making their way back on some late night bus to King’s Cross. Instead this music is like a full bottle of whisky placed in front of you at the bar, a remnant of a sexier time like the nightclub in the French Connection. As you make your way through the club towards the cigarette girl and give her a kiss, you head back to the bar and slowly sip your drink as you focus on the criminal element that seems to be conducting business right under your nose.
Gallon Drunk’s From The Heart of Town is like a film full of long takes, with extreme long lens shots, and with a muted color palette. This is music for people who’ve made their way down a dark alley in the middle of the night and lived to tell the tale.
“Jake on the Make” starts the proceedings off with tremolo-distorted guitar, a tight snare beat, and flashes of banjo, before the track takes on a ghoulish stomp augmented by some macabre organ and piano. The track is terrifying and filled with lyrical gems like, “I can hear the ice in the drink he just bought.”
“Arlington Road” keeps the venomous urban vibe alive, with a seething bass line, and some killer sax and horns, which voices the sounds of the city: the cars, the squeals of brakes, the oil mixing with water in potholes, the urine soaked porticos, the seedy hoodlums hanging out under a flickering streetlight, the smell of fried food and the vagrant gypsy life.
“Keep Moving On” with its old timey saloon style piano, offers a false sense of calm, as Johnston in a rather hushed voice lets out his vitriol towards an ex-girlfriend by singing, “good riddance to bad rubbish” The singing is restrained and evokes a bitterness that is tempered by an acceptance and sarcasm that we’ve all found ourselves having when people try and suck us dry.
“Bedlam” is the car chase scene in one of those late 1960s Cadillacs. The music propels the listener as we careen around sharp turns and trade paint with the other cars on the road. The scraping of metal against metal producing brightly colored sparks, people running for cover, the near misses, blinding headlights, kids in the cross walk, and then sensory overload as you ditch the car head on into a wall.
“You Should Be Ashamed” is quite possibly the most beautiful song Gallon Drunk ever committed to tape. The song exists in a paregoric haze, wrapped around a sinister bass line, and tremolo saturated organ, which serves to inform a world in which concepts of good and evil have been pitted against one another ending up in a biblical judgment of the songs protagonist.
Of course it’s not all noir imagery that the music evokes. Take the final track, “Paying For Pleasure,” which closes out the record with a piece that would’ve been at home in The Good The Bad The Ugly. (Johnston admits, “It’s certainly inspired by Morricone.”) Here Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach are at Bill Carson’s grave and the union gold is within reach—or is it?—as we zoom in on the eyes of all three. It’s a dazzling cinematic end to a record that has managed to keep the femoral tension high from the very beginning.
I was able to track down James Johnston [below, back in the day] to remind us of what it took to make From The Heart Of Town, as he says, “Good to do it now before everyone forgets absolutely everything!” Johnston, who currently lives in London with his wife Nicola, has been busy working on the latest PJ Harvey record and is slated to tour with her in 2016. He will also be touring with Marianne Faithful towards the end of 2015. There will be another Gallon Drunk record but as Johnston states, “I’m very happy with our last album, The Soul Of The Hour, so quite content to give it a year before the next one.” [Go HERE to view Gallon Drunk’s official website.]
BLURT: At what point did you decide that it was time to go into the studio and begin work on From The Heart Of Town?
JAMES JOHNSTON: It would have been Nick Brown at the UK label Clawfist, based on Portobello Road that would have suggested the date for recording. We’d been touring a lot and didn’t have much material ready. We were still out playing the first album and early singles live rather than rehearsing or writing new songs.
Enlighten us about how the band worked back then—did you come up with all the music and lyrics or did the band flesh out the music in a practice space or studio?
Apart from the very early stage of the band, the lyrics always came last, once the songs were already recorded with a rough guide vocal. I used to like setting the lyrics within the mood of the recorded track rather than the other way around. Almost everything was decided in the studio. I’d come in with the plan for the song, usually scribbled out as a sort of “map”, sometimes done the morning of the session or the day before. One exception was the bass and drum verse part for Arlington Road that Max, Mike and Joe were playing at a sound-check. I recorded it on a Dictaphone, added the main guitar riff and stuck the organ chorus part in later. “Jake On The Make” was literally a snare loop, then I sang the song form over it, after which we filled it in. More like a colouring book. I think I was basically either too undecided or embarrassed to explain the whole thing beforehand. Most of it was done like that.
How many songs did the band enter the studio with?
We’d rehearsed “Bedlam” for a couple of hours that was it.
What happened to the songs that didn’t make it on the album?
We definitely didn’t have any spares. It was enough of a struggle to fill an album as it was. All the B-sides were done subsequently.
How many were merely sketches of yours? (I read back in 1993 that you used to walk around with a recorder to jot down various lyrical inspirations etc.)
That was mostly how we worked. I used to carry a Dictaphone around as I walked around town at night, and record anything that came to me. Lyric ideas, tunes, riffs etc, then try and figure it all out the next day at home. Mostly it would be traffic noise and garbled sounds. The recording of a tannoy announcement-calling for Joe Byfield to come to “C-Deck”- was done on the Dictaphone while we were waiting for a ferry from Portsmouth, so that went on the record.
Tell us about the initial sessions for the record. And did you make any changes based upon those initial sessions, i.e. change direction on some of the songs arrangements etc.?
Mike and I recorded two tracks in Camden first. “End Of The Line”, and “Paying For Pleasure”. “End Of The Line” felt a bit too much like the first album for me, and I wanted to take it somewhere else. “Paying For Pleasure” is the instrumental at the end of the album. It’s a bass feeding back, and organ drone, and then I stuck the acoustic stuff over the top, banjo and harmonica. That definitely felt like a blueprint sound for the album, a lot more space, more trippy.
How did the name of the record come about?
After the main recording at Elephant Studios in Wapping we were still short of songs, so “Not Before Time” was recorded in Clapham somewhere. I remember taking a break and going for a walk trying to think of a unifying title for the record and it sprang to mind, and as most of it was about city life, London specifically, it seemed like a good idea. Quite romantic, and also quite ‘Live From The Talk Of The Town’.
What’s the story that the album tells to listeners?
There’s definitely no coherent story that I can see, but if it feels like there is then that’s perfect. It’s mostly songs that reflected our lives at the time. Places and people I knew. But an album can take on a world of its own, and I think that one does. There’s a very unifying feel, and that’s helped by the title, the artwork, the whole thing. That was all a very conscious move.
The album has a very cinematic grainy film feel to it. Were any of these songs licensed for any films that you know of? (To me I always felt “Paying for Pleasure” could soundtrack scenes from The Good, The Bad, The Ugly.)
Hey, thanks. It’s certainly inspired by Morricone, as anyone can hear! [But] hardly anything was licensed from that album. We also had the most useless publishers at the time, so no surprise there.
Given the cinematic feel to the band’s music, and given the fact that you worked in a film ephemera shop, what were some of the films that influenced you back then and continue to influence you now?
It’s very hard to remember. I can’t think of many films that directly influenced the actual records, maybe things like Man With The Golden Arm, Touch Of Evil, Eraserhead, and endless ‘60s obscurities with great soundtracks that Mike Delanian loved. One of my favourite soundtracks is from Walkabout.
Do you have a favorite song on the album?
Maybe “Arlington Road”, I still think “Bedlam” still sounds great too. [Below: listen to exclusive live-in-Chicago versions of both songs]
How was the album recorded—because it has a very raucous “on” vibe about it.
“Bedlam” was live. Otherwise it was usually bass and drums with a guide vocal saying “chorus coming up”, “get ready to stop” etc. Sometimes a very loose live guitar at the same time. We wanted it sloppy and loose. Hardly anything was cleaned up. Alex Chilton’s Like Flies On Sherbert album was a big inspiration. It was mostly done at Elephant, which had a big live room. The Pogues used it a lot. It’s right next to the river in what was then still quite a spooky area of old warehouses. We’d take endless pub breaks in The Prospect Of Whitby pub next door that overlooks the Thames. When the tide’s out you can walk down on the bank of the river, it was a very atmospheric place, it still is. All that fed into the recording and the general vibe in the studio, and speed I’d imagine had a lot to do with it too. Apart from the panic of trying to come up with stuff it was mostly a lot of fun. I think the studio had a pool table too, amongst the semi-functioning keyboards and amps all over the place.
Then we asked Terry Edwards in to add some brass on a few of the tracks, something we’d wanted to do for ages. Usually the distorted organ took the place of where I’d imagine brass parts. That really finished the sound of the thing, along with the backing vocals.
What was the set up in the studio like and were there limitations that you and the band had to work around in order to get the sound you wanted?
We basically wanted it to be big and reverby, but with quite sparse instrumentation, at least that’s what I imagined after doing “Paying For Pleasure.” A bit Big Star Third, or the spacey sound of the first Suicide album, that sort of thing. As I said, it had a big live room, and a very laid back atmosphere, so it was actually perfect.
How did Phil Wright approach the recording of these songs? Did the band clash at all with some of his suggestions?
Phil did the live sound for the band, so he knew us very well. It was mostly a matter of getting any ideas down as quickly as possible when it came to overdubs, do them quick and keep them loose and scrappy, then drench it all in plate reverb. He managed to keep “Bedlam” fairly dry thank god. A lot of his job was getting the stuff out of us, vocals in particular, encouragement and enthusiasm. He was a great person to have in there, and he got a great sound, exactly what we were after. He also played on the record, adding the string parts to “Loving Alone”. He found some Pogues drum samples that we dropped in on a couple of things, single hits, ideas like that.
What were you reading back then and what was happening in your life that gave rise to some of the songs on the record?
I used to like Celine, Martin Amis, Nelson Algren, Rimbaud, some of that might have fed in. Life felt quite chaotic, a lot of touring. Some of the songs we were about people we know, like “Jake On The Make”, or places we went to such as Arlington Road in Camden, there was a pub there not far from where Joe lived, and we went there a lot. In the days before mobiles (at least for us) you could receive incoming phone calls from behind the bar, which made it sort of an office.
There’s an intensity to your music that seems informed in part by Link Wray, Henry Mancini and bands like the Cramps as well as American Baptist music. What’s your take on things?
A lot of what we listened to had a sense of urgency, and intensity. Howlin’ Wolf, Suicide, The Stooges, the first two PiL albums, those would have still all been a big inspiration at the time. As well as Nina Simone, The Staple Singers, Furry Lewis, Lee Hazlewood, Alex Chilton, Archie Shepp, Morricone, stuff that wasn’t rock that fed into the more atmospheric feel of the record. We’d got a lot of the dense noise out of our system by that point and two and bit years of doing it live.
Tell us about some of the instruments and amps you used in the album sessions.
All our own instruments were very junk-shop standard, or bought at markets. A lot of useless guitars that were only good for a one-note overdub, stuff we’d accumulated. Mike had a Marshall for the bass, it might have even been a guitar amp. I had a Fender twin, there were lots of other amps in there, but I can’t remember what we used. They had a Hammond organ, so that got used, and two pianos—including one with a great out of tune barroom sound, with felt with drawing pins on the hammers. We had a lot of percussion too. Joe had an army of maracas.
“You Should Be Ashamed”: how did this song came about? How did you rope Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier into singing on the track?
We knew Laetitia from playing gigs, and hanging around in Camden, so it was an obvious choice, and really nice of her to do it. She had the perfect voice for it. The song lyrics were partly based on a poem by Geraldine Swayne, and the music and arrangement was scribbled down the morning of the session, based on rough idea I’d had a day or so before. All very quick.
How much freedom did Clawfist give the band when it came to the running order of the songs and the artwork? Any idea how much the sessions for the album cost in total?
Total freedom, that all came entirely from the band; they were great in helping make it happen. I’ve no idea how much it cost. I doubt Elephant was particularly expensive, but it all adds up, as always.
What was it like when you and the band listened to the final sequence of the entire album for the first time? Where were you all at the time?
I can’t remember if it was in the studio, maybe as late as when it was mastered, as everything would have been done at home on piles of cassettes. I do recall that it took ages to get it just right, as always. At least it had an obvious opener, and a very obvious closing track.
Where was the album release party held?
Er, album release party? Never been to one in my life.
1993 was the peak or nadir (depending on how you look at it) for labels to release limited edition EPs double CDs, LPs including a free 7” single, or poster etc. Did you like that so many editions and formats were being peddled to people? Did you have any say as to what formats and what songs would be used?
There was a limited edition with a free live EP. We would have ok’d the tracks going on there. I’m still not convinced it was a great idea as it took away from the focused atmosphere of the main album. To be honest, we were mostly on tour and not really aware of what was going on with other people’s releases. Personally I’m not so interested collecting per se, so didn’t give that sort of thing a lot of thought.
At this time I recall Sire getting involved in the stateside release—looking back, was this helpful to the band to all of a sudden be caught up in the major label machinery? Did Morrissey—who was on Sire and a major fan of your music and whom you opened for— help lay the groundwork for this interest? (Personally I got the sense from the people who promoted the record to college radio didn’t quite understand what they were dealing with.)
Seymour Stein was directly involved in signing us, he was a legend from the 70s, but his influence was on the wane, and mostly the staff at the label didn’t back the record at all. We were on tour in the States for months supporting Morrissey at huge venues, and did one interview. So it was pretty hopeless.
What are your memories of Stein? What do you feel compelled him to sign the band to the label?
He seemed great, I only met him a couple of times, but he had such an amazing history, so it was great to meet him anyway. Apparently he was watching us at a festival in Finsbury Park with the guy that signed Babes In Toyland, who said to him, “You must sign these guys, you won’t sell a lot of records but you’ll get your place in heaven”. I hope he was right about the second bit.
What sort of A&R sweet nothings do you remember being dangled to lure the band to the label?
None at all, we were signed for very little, so they cared even less. Someone grandly offered us free back-catalogue CDs at the New York Office. Aside from that, the usual recoupable wasting of money on limousines from the airport to meet them. We got some cheapo Sire watches in the post for Christmas before they predictably dropped us.
Did you have any misgivings before you signed with a major label, given that you’d built up a lot of cred with Clawfist and Rykodisc in the States?
It was mostly out of our hands—things were chaotic and simply weren’t there. I’d have been more than happy with Rykodisc as our label for From The Heart Of Town, or any number of great indie labels instead.
How did the record end up doing Stateside versus the UK?
I’ve no idea at all, we never got any figures from anyone in the UK or the US. We did some big supports in the States, so that must have helped, but the American label couldn’t have been more disinterested. Definitely the wrong label at the time.
Tell us who shot the cover image? What part of London is that?
Steve Double took those. He worked at the music papers in the UK. He and Steve Gullick took most of the shots of the band at the time. The cover shot is Shaftsbury Avenue in the West End on London, literally the heart of town. I used to work just off there in a movie ephemera shop, and “Jake On The Make” is set around there—in Soho.
What was it like to be nominated for the Mercury prize?
We were probably on tour when all that happened; we were in the States a lot after the release. I’ve no recollection of it at all. A knighthood would have been nice instead.
What did John Peel think about the record? What tracks was he most fond of?
No idea, really, we weren’t around to listen. He only gave us one live session, and that was for the first record, so I don’t know why everyone always goes on about how he championed the band.
I’m always curious how the excessive hype from NME and Melody Maker affected bands that were caught up in it? What was it like to see yourselves constantly mentioned in these rags and were you able to tune it out?
Some of the coverage was fairly trashy, so you have to take it at face value, but anything that helped get us out there and get people along to the gigs was extremely welcome. The M.M. photographer Steve Gullick’s still a very good friend and a fantastic artist, so we got to meet some decent people too.
Did all the press and expectations that were being placed on the band at the time inspire you, terrify you or were you indifferent to them?
I’d say it was probably a combination of all three, depending how things were going. It was mostly a sense of urgency, needing to come up with stuff, getting it down. You tend to drop off the map a bit when you’re making a record.
I’m assuming given the complexity and variety of instrumentation that several songs had to be stripped down in a live setting? I know for songs like “Jake on the Make” organ seemed to fill in for the horns. What other accommodations had to be made to render some of these songs in a live setting?
That’s why Terry ended up playing live with us, and then joining the band full time on brass and sharing keyboard parts with me, so mostly we managed to keep a lot of the instrumentation, but with a less spacey sound. It was a lot more full on live. We tried to rerecord “Push The Boat” out after playing it live for a while, but I preferred the more open dubby sound of the studio version.
Has the entire album ever been played live?
We used to use the last track, the instrumental, as an intro tape, and we had slides of all Steve Double’s photos as a back projection, so you got the feel of the record. We played most of it, but the whole album has never been performed live.
When the album came out whom did the band tour with? Also, at the time were there bands that Gallon Drunk were actively trying to promote to open your shows?
Early on we played quite a few supports with Stereolab, Lush, God and a few others. We supported The Cramps a couple of times in the U.K. Around the time of From the Heart Of Town we did the long Morrissey support tour in the States as a four piece, then we did a very long European and U.S. tour with PJ Harvey, and by that point we were a five piece with Terry in the band. We were [doing] our own headline tours in between all the support tours, hence being away so much. On our own tours it tended to be local supports, apart from an indie package tour with Therapy? and Silverfish, where we all swapped headline every night. We did the same later with the Dirty Three on a long European tour.
When the band played live shows after the album’s release, what was the song you’d open most with?
We’d play the “Paying For Pleasure” track from tape, then go into something off the album like “Arlington Road,” or if we needed to we’d just crash in with “Some Fool’s Mess”.
What was your drink of choice back then?
It’s pretty hard to remember exactly what went on as it all eventually blurs into one endless backstage situation. We didn’t have a fancy rider, so we would have been stuck with beer mostly, sometimes we’d get a bottle of Jameson’s, or vodka.
I remember seeing your concert at the Cabaret Metro back in 1993, and remember the whole band were well dressed (suits and dress shirts). Did you require members to adhere to a certain international man of mystery/casino jewel thief look?
That was the end of a long tour supporting PJ Harvey, I’m surprised we had anything left to wear at all by then. Like the instruments, it might have looked slick, but it was definitely a budget style, like we’d got the Pogues’ old suits from a charity shop. We certainly didn’t suit more rock gear anyway. I loved the way Joe used to come on stage with all his maracas in shopping bags.
Opening for Morrissey I have to ask: was the crowd ready to hear a band like Gallon Drunk? Was there ever a hostile crowd you had to contend with? I ask this because except for 1992’s Your Arsenal, where Boz Boorer seems to have coopted a bit of the Gallon Drunk sound for the opening track “You’re Gonna Need Someone on Your Side,” the rest of Moz’s repertoire seems vastly different.
I’ve never heard that track, but I’m sure Boz was totally capable of finding it for himself—but maybe we had an influence, who knows? The Morrissey crowds were huge in the States. We never had any outright hostility, usually a mix of total disinterest and pockets of people going nuts. At the Hollywood Bowl there was total silence after one track, then a lone distant jock-type voice yelling out “You guys suck!”—that was pretty well-timed and amusing. I only remember it because we taped it.
Since then, going back to the States and meeting people who saw those gigs, I’ve spoken to loads of people that loved those shows. We were allocated about 15-20 minutes every day, so it must have been quite a surprise for people at the time to get this short blast of noise before the main band.
When all was said and done did the band make more money from their live shows or from the sale of this album?
We made nothing from either, it all went back into a hole.
23 years on what does this album mean to you? Where do you place it amongst all the albums the band has put out? [Above: Gallon Drunk now]
My favourite Gallon Drunk albums are From The Heart Of Town, and The Soul Of The Hour, the last one that came out in 2014. They mean the most to me.
How hands-on were you with the reissue? Will an LP reissue be coming out at some point on, let’s say, heavy weight 180-gram vinyl? I say this because I have the original From The Heart Of Town LP and the quality seemed pretty thin.
The reissue was on Terry’s label, so I was very hands on, finding all the extra tracks and period photos etc. There’s no plans to put it out on vinyl, maybe at some point it’ll happen. Right now I’m more focused on what’s happening next.
Where do you call home these days? [Above: Mr. Johnston now]
I live in London with my wonderful wife Nicola, around Lambeth North, very close to the river.
Are you still playing with the Bad Seeds?
I don’t play with the band anymore, I left around 2008. I was in the band for a few years, playing on Abattoir Blues and Dig Lazarus Dig. Abattoir Blues is a really good album, so I was lucky to join around then. I played with the band on a long U.S. tour in 1994 too. I met Nick through my brother Ian who wrote Nick’s biography Bad Seed.
You are playing on the new PJ Harvey album? Did you write any of the material? Will you tour with her?
All the songs on the record are written by Polly. It’s going to be a fantastic record, and the touring will be next year, 2016. Very much looking forward to it.
Do you play with any other bands, and in the interim between Gallon Drunk releases, where else besides PJ Harvey’s new record will we be able to see your musical input?
I’ll be on tour with Marianne Faithfull late 2015, probably into 2016, and although I’m working on some other material, I doubt it’ll be out before the PJ Harvey tour, so we’ll see how it all goes.
What’s next for Gallon Drunk as we approach the end of 2015?
We’ve had records out a lot recently, two of them with our wonderful label Clouds Hill that are based in Hamburg, and where we now do all our recording, so there’ll be a year off before the next Gallon Drunk [official website is HERE] one gets recorded. Terry and I are [both] working with PJ so that’ll take up a lot of time. I’m very happy with our last album, The Soul Of The Hour [pictured above], so quite content to give it a year before the next one.
Special thanks to James Johnston and his label for all the photos and the tracks. Check out some more music below, a live-in-Chicago version of “You Should Be Ashamed” – it’s an exclusive from the band, incidentally. Above photo of Johnston now by Steve Gullick.