Kerrang! Interview – 1982
“Oh god, not im again!” Are quite simply the only words which any self- respecting member of the Kerrang! Staff can utter when the distinctly “rock star” – like frame of Chinatown’s bassist John Barre saunters into our working area.
For John is a hustler, one of those guys who’ll make a pain of himself to as many people as possible in order to push he and his band to the fore.
But despite the “ognia” syndrome, I have to admit that I regard John with a grudging respect – a man who gives it his best shot and comes clean about his intentions. Thus, the chance of a free late breakfast in one of Covent Garden’s less exotic greasy cafes was just too good to miss and I find the tape whirring, gobbling John’s words, while I tuck into a frightening greaseburger!
“You’re right that I am the pushy one but the band accept it…. Or maybe have to. It’s always best for one individual to look after the promotion side and I’ve always been the one who wants to get involved and be the mouthpiece. Maybe I’ve done it too well because some of the London bands who’ve been working longer but are only on the same level as ourselves think that we’re just a bunch of young upstarts.”
Well they might be too, for Chinatown have appeared around London, ligging and playing, with increasing regularity over the past months. It was the momentous day when John packed his bags, kissed his mummy bye bye in the homely town of Portsmouth and left for London with dollar-signs flashing in his eyes, that the band’s career began to take off in earnest.
“You just do not realise how important that move is until you actually get to London. We spent two years trekking around the country going to the likes of Chorley, Leeds, Newcastle and Birmingham and we pulled four, five or six hundred people everytime – even as many as a thousand in Sunderland and reading. We had an album, “play it to death”, and a single too, called “short and sweet”, but we weren’t attracting attention and making critical steps. London bands such as girl were grabbing all the press whereas we were actually doing better than them.”
According to John then, the streets of London are paved with gold.
“Oh no. No way! It took a lot of hard blag for us to reach the stage we’re at now (note that “blag” is a key word in the JB vocab!). When I first arrived in London I knew nobody, but blagged (there it goes again!) My way into the marquee to see the manager. I got on well enough with him and he advised me to go over the road to itb (the big-wig agency) where I met Jonathon White, who now handles our affairs. Things kept growing. Four days later we were headlining the marquee and on our way.
“More has happened by simply being in touch, because what breaks bands is good managers and good press. The record companies take a lot more notice of the press than they’d like to admit – just look at the success of Marillion as a prime example.”
But with our John’s blag capabilities Chinatown have surely got a deal, I can hear you scream…
“A deal’s gonna happen, it’s just a case of which company we’ll go with. The problem is that a lot of labels have been put off hard rock bands by the glut of bands who were signed a couple of years back and did absolutely nothing. I’m talking about the likes of fist and white spirit. We’ve now played reading, however, done a session for the BBC rock show and are one of the biggest draws at the marquee – in fact! So we’ve done everything to warrant a deal and a support tour, we hope to have everything sealed by the end of the year.”
Judging from the limited live contact I’ve had with the band, a support tour should rank as priority numero uno. Live at London’s zig zag club a while back, they were messy and lacking in “identifiability” – both musically (a mish-mash of heavy metal fodder spliced with American tinges) and visually (mish mash of jeans and spandex with blond and ginger hair). Vocalist Steve Pragnell stood out with his Perry-esque vocals and drummer Hopwood was solid and reliable, but isn’t the image just too standard to appeal?”
“The promotion of our image is important and we’re still learning what looks best. We’ve made mistakes in that department already – our first LP cover showed us with back combed hair and eye make-up and as much as London can be good for you, it can also perhaps have a bad influence in this department, because outrageousness is accepted here.
The first time we went to Bradford I was wearing stretch trousers and make-up. I had spikey orange hair, the lot, and we went down averagely. People were coming up and asking why the hell we wore make-up, cos we were a good band. Our immediate reaction was “don’t be ridiculous”. Anyway they’re all northerners!” But then we realised that there were maybe 20 million northerners and it was about time we took some notice of them.
“The next time we went back I just wore an old pair of jeans with my arse hanging out. We played worse but went down a hell of a lot better, which may be depressing as a musician but does reveal the practicalities of the situation. Everything’s sold on image and when you’re aware of what the punter wants, then you’re on the way to selling records.”
But we seem to have digressed from the subject closest to John’s heart – blag in the name of Chinatown, and as far as he’s concerned, he seems to have got his act together in admirable fashion.
“We’ve managed to secure some promotional deals with hi-watt, Kramer and Ludwig is obviously an incredible help. Most bands who clinch a deal spend a good 10 to 15 grand of their advance getting the right gear together but we’ve managed to assemble ours already, and at a ridiculously cheap rate. It’s just a question of a lot of blag and going for it. If you don’t go for it you wont get it – it’s really as simple as that.”
John’s attitude strikes me as redolent of the American business style – if you call it style! Wouldn’t it suit the band better to be in the states?
“This country counts more than any other in terms of world wide respect, but the states is 44 per cent of the world record market. I don’t want to be an arrogant bastard by going straight over there but I would if the prospects seemed better. Even if you’re only a minor success in the states, you probably still sell more records than the top bands in Britain. If things don’t click here in six months, then we probably will go to America, start from the bottom in the clubs…and work!
What really intrigues me is how John manages to survive in London on so little money I do have a small income and savings, but I get help from young ladies who cover me financially” .ah so you use people? “Those girls use me in the same way, though. They buy me drinks and something to eat and I get them into marquee free or into a party, which I’ve been invited to. You scratch my back…”
It all sounds a bit dodgy to me, but the message is clear. Lock up your daughters and watch out for Chinatown.
While the sun was still mercilessly grilling my nose, and singeing my arms. Chinatown strolled on and played the finest set they’ve yet performed. Ignoring the fact that there were nigh on 20,000 people hanging around in front of ‘em, the band stuck their pretty little noses in the air and stormed through half an hour of hard hitting fast rock music.
As usual, bassist John Barre went through all the poses in the book, raising hands high and punching the air in a victory salute. I just wish he would wait until the songs were over, because it would be awfully embarrassing if he were to celebrate amid a stony silence!
Happily, however, silence was the one thing that didn’t happen for Chinatown; there was plenty of noise while they were playing, and a generous amount after they’d finished. AND despite the fact that ‘Whole Lotte Love’ went down best of all (how pathetic some festival audiences can be), I still maintain that ‘Time Will Tell’ is the finest ballad not yet on record — why doesn’t someone bloody well do something about it!?