Location: King Tut’s
Performer: John Lennon McCullagh
Date: March 7 2014
One version of my interview and review was written. Another version appeared online. Make your own conclusions.
The original is below. Enough said.
Sitting in an eerily empty King Tut’s, a lone figure struts about stage confidently with his guitar and harmonica, making polite requests to the sound man for less reverb, asking about leads and change overs and generally knowing what he’s doing. This figure is a 16 year old boy from Doncaster. I shouldn’t be surprised by this cocksure teenager’s demeanour – the world is ripe with fame-worthy, plaudit-hungry youngsters looking to make it somehow, someway in the music industry, whether it is through the accelerated bypass of TV talent shows or those plucked from the seemingly endless abyss of hard working, talented performers making their way slowly up the ranks to stardom.
John Lennon McCullagh seems to be the first commandingly blasé adolescent who fits firmly in between those two worlds. While he has used his talent to try and put out music as an independent, no one this young makes it to the top of the bill on a Friday night at one of the most renowned music venues in the world without their own angel investor. For John, that person is Alan McGee: 90s music pioneer, former Creation Records head and the backer behind behemoths of British music from My Bloody Valentine to the Jesus and Mary Chain to Oasis. Having taken a break from the industry that he almost killed, and which almost killed him, McGee has set up 359 Music as “a launch pad for new talent and some ignored older talent” and John Lennon McCullagh seems to be McGee’s most valued pet project. Speaking to John on McGee, he said: “Alan has been really important early in my career. He gives great advice and more than anything he gives you good confidence; if you’re ever feeling down he can give you a boost, he’s good at that. Really he’s just a good friend”.
It’s not difficult to see why McGee was drawn to John – everything from the accomplished Dylan covers, the confidence beyond his age and experience, his thought provoking name and the fact that this kind of music seems to sell at the moment, all scream money. In fact, it is very hard to conceivably differentiate between John and his most obvious counterpart, Jake Bugg, whether it is the nasally vocals, the fast strummed guitar lines, their appearance or the themes within their music. It is his confidence that is so immediately striking though, and it is probably another factor in why he finds himself as the headline act at King Tut’s. Watching him during soundcheck, there seemed to be no hint of any boy there once was at all. In the dressing room as I interviewed him, he seemed entirely unfazed by the night ahead: “Even though King Tut’s is this historical venue, I’m not daunted by it at all. It’s more of a thrill. I’m just really excited. It’s something to live up to I suppose, but it’s just another gig really”.
The brash, unflinching attitude soon revealed itself to be simply a veneer covering up an excited boy in an unusual situation, who just loves the music he grew up listening to and enjoys imitating and trying to emulate his heroes. It betrays this image of him as a serious person who sings about serious things. He wants to be a big deal: name dropping Enoch Powell, referencing multiple class strife issues and raising his shield of defiance in songs like ‘Rivers of Blood’, singing – “You say I don’t understand this just because I’m younger than you”. On this subject, John does have his own grievances: “Of course it’s a bit annoying when people say I’m not experienced enough to talk about these things. It’s like being in a classroom, putting up your hand to answer a question and the teacher saying you’re too young to know anything about that. Or someone saying you shouldn’t be singing about that cause it happened 20 years ago, or it happened last week, it’s annoying. People still have their own minds, everyone has their own voice”.
While it’s admirable to see a relatively young person trying to tackle big issues, it is also questionable how well he puts himself across and how much he actually believes in what he says – listening to debut single ‘North South Divide’, the points he tries to make too often derail into flimsiness. Crucially, this is not because he’s too young, but simply because the weight of his words do not quite hang with the lyrical comparisons he and others try to make with him. I would never want to discourage anyone from being outspoken and forthright in their opinions, but John has lived much of his developing life in another country sheltered from the very issues he uses as his thematic principles on his album: “I lived in Australia since I was 11 – it shaped me. I didn’t really write songs there, I was too young. It wasn’t until I got back home (Doncaster) and realised things were a bit more drastic that I started growing up a bit”. It’s all very well having a very informed upbringing (“I was obviously brought up with a good strong political background from where I came from, so it’s just from growing up and learning about it and absorbing it through things”), but unless political opinions are genetic and passed down via blood, it’s hard to take the things that John talks about in his music super seriously or as his own.
Perhaps that is the problem – it’s not supposed to be taken that way. After my chat with him, it is clear that the love of musicianship is more concerning to him than being an artist or revolutionary in the way of his heroes like Dylan and Cohen. After I ask him how his ‘north/south divide’ theme translates to Scotland at a time and place where the north/south divide couldn’t be more apparent, his answer is vague and troubled. That’s fine though – not everyone needs to be an expert on the pros and cons of Scottish independence. However, there is no need to present yourself then as someone who might be interested in that debate. Why not feed off of and publicise the fact that you are young person with interests in the way music was created in the past rather push yourself as the voice of a generation? That is a very big handle to live up to.
One question I asked John confirmed to me that, at the moment, he is a bit too insular to be talking about things that are current. Many articles regarding John have talked about his influences, ranging from Dylan to Donovan to Johnny Cash. I asked him what new and current music inspires him: “At the minute, I don’t listen to much, if any, modern music. It’s so cliché to say but I just don’t. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits – that’s the kind of thing I listen to. There’s no particular reason why. I just haven’t found anything good really. There’s so much music to listen to already so maybe I’ll get round to it in a few years, when it’s old”. It is a myth that new and current music doesn’t deal with the issues of our time. For me, it is important that you engage with that to have a properly informed opinion about what is going on right now in British society – taking influence simply from what Bob Dylan or your parents thought and said about society quite a few years ago is not the same.
John Lennon McCullagh is without doubt a very talented and ambitious young musician. Being a skilled instrumentalist and confident and quick witted is a good start. He should focus on that and leave the societal transformation aspects of his music to when he’s more established. He talked to me of the desire to headline festivals like Glastonbury, to become as cool as the Arctic Monkeys were at the Brits (“No one could write a song like ‘Cornerstone’ in today’s music” – no modern music, really?) and to expand his musical palette onwards from simply acoustic guitar. These seem like the sort of clichéd rock and roll ambitions that a 16 year old should have. His socio-political leanings aren’t grabbing anyone’s attention yet.
Which fittingly brings us to the gig itself because if there was any evidence that his words aren’t quite enticing the public consciousness, it was this gig. Despite the publicity backing of Alan McGee, the words of praise surrounding his youthful exuberance and the fact that he’s bringing his songs about class struggle to a city where that should hold the most sway, King Tut’s was barren and empty. As John pointed out at the start of his set, it was as if he was playing alone in his living room, just a bit darker and even emptier. In fact, household name Jamie Coleman, the second support act, drew a bigger crowd than John.
While this article may have shown doubts about John’s lyrical ambitions, it is a shame that with the support he has he couldn’t draw a more sizeable crowd. The shock of it was visibly clear. He played a fast, though still technically accomplished set, taking in the faster paced and shout-a-long numbers from his debut album. In fact, the set whizzed by so fast to me that it’s difficult to know what to say about it other than John came on stage, played a few songs, had a little funny banter with the crowd and then rushed off. When the time came for him to depart, he couldn’t get away quick enough – his manager had to call him back on for one more number. I couldn’t blame him. It must be an extreme blow to someone so young and otherwise assured to step out on stage at a pretty important gig and be met with tumbleweed. There were a few in the crowd who knew every word of his songs and sang along, but that was a precious few. John is talented for his age and shows much promise. I felt sorry for him after directly experiencing his self-confidence, only to see it shattered when finally appearing onstage. He has a bright future in a commercial sense if Alan McGee can use his considerable knowledge of the industry to spread John’s name. Even if the long term critical legacy of his music may be in doubt to me, he can definitely have a career akin to Jake Bugg, the comparison to whom I simply cannot strike from my mind. The biggest compliment I can pay John is that he is probably a lot better than Bugg. Hopefully John’s love of the music he grew up with can carry him through this most difficult part of his fledgling career – realising that not everyone loves him yet quite as much as himself.