John Barrow’s hugely entertaining memoir about his life as a working musician is now onto its third edition, having originally been published in 2004. Having instantly taken a liking to John from reading the original edition, it’s good to hear that he has kept himself busy in the ensuing years.
A self-confessed ‘journeyman of pop’, Leicester-born John was smitten by Andy Mackay’s sax playing at a Roxy Music concert in 1972, and this led to him purchasing his first saxophone two years later.
His first break came with local semi-pro band Sister Big Stuff, and John cut his musical chops with them on the live circuit – including bookings at RAF bases.
He moved on to another local band, Fascination, who were asked in 1977 to take on the identity of a non-existent ‘group’. A track called ‘Gimme Dat Banana’ (credited to Black Gorilla) had been recorded by German session musicians and was picking up Radio 1 airplay. Needing a band to front it, Fascination became Black Gorilla and this resulted in an appearance on the BBC show Top of the Pops – with John sporting an unforgettable white satin suit!
After work with other acts, including The Sinatras and Laurel Aitken, John formed The Swinging Laurels with his old friend Gaz Birtles. Influenced by Brian Eno and “Low” era David Bowie, the band blended saxophones with synths and a drum machine – a unique sound at that time.
As the Laurels own work progresses, they are still in demand for sessions – notably supplying the brass section for the Fun Boy Three’s ‘The Telephone Always Rings’ (which leads to further TV appearances, including a return to Top of the Pops).
The band sign a three-single deal with WEA, but a series of misfortunes prevents them having the breakthrough hit that was looking so likely. Their best chance of a hit with ‘Lonely Boy’ is dashed when Boy George’s backing vocal contribution cannot be cleared for release. The band were the support act on Culture Club’s 1983 sell-out UK tour.
After struggling on as “one of the unluckiest bands ever”, they finally bow out with a final gig ‘The Laurels last stand’ in 1985. They were later to reform, but John eventually has no alternative but to take a conventional day job to support his young family. As he says though, “money couldn’t buy the brilliant experiences I have lived through in my quest for worldwide fame and fortune”.
Despite being more restricted by his working hours (he reluctantly has to turn down the opportunity to audition for The Beautiful South), John still manages to fit in a good amount of work as a session musician.
This includes recordings with Crazyhead (as well as a tour supporting Iggy Pop), Norman Beaton (‘Desmonds’ actor!), ist, Uncle Frank, Radio Riddler and Fun Lovin’ Criminals. Bringing the story right up to date, 2020 sees Evil Genius Organisation and Jesse Wright Band releases, both of which feature John.
This is one of the most enjoyable musician autobiographies that I have read. John may not be a household name, but he has some great tales to tell. Far from being a fall guy, John is one of the good guys.
He perfectly captures the feeling of being in a band, having your first record pressed, appearing on Top of the Pops, and his passion and pride for his work (along with his terrific anecdotes and sense of humour) makes this a fascinating read.
There are also a wonderful array of vintage photographs spread throughout the book. A must read for any music fan, and a book that also makes you want to hear the tracks that John was involved with. ****
Review by Jim Henderson
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