Johnny Boy – You Are the Generation That Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve
There’s a Christmas cracker worthy pun which states, ‘Nostalgia is just a thing of the past,” but when it comes to pop, it’s always been very much a part of the present and looking back is most definitely the way forward.
When I first started buying 7” singles in the late 1970s, the UK singles chart was experiencing something of a rock ‘n’ roll revival. Twenty five years on from Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock and a couple of years after Elvis had ‘left the building’ for good, the sounds of the fifties could still be heard as part of the chart’s weekly rundown.
Darts and Showaddywaddy might have been coming to the end of their respective five year hot-streaks but the likes of Shakin’ Stevens, Matchbox and Coast to Coast were having sizeable hits without straying too far from the traditional sounds of the era, while The Stray Cats, The Polecats, and even Kirsty MacColl seemed to be trying to bring a cool, new vibe to the genre. It’s this constant evolution and reinvention of older musical genres and styles which has delivered some of the biggest selling artists of the last few decades – amongst them Amy Winehouse’s take on the confessional jazz standard, Sam Smith’s attempts to re-imagine the soul ballad and Duffy knocking herself commercially unconscious after one headlong rush at Phil Spector’s girl group flavoured wall-of-sound. It’s in this arena where Johnny Boy staged their own mini-revolution and tried (and failed) to make their mark with the rather clumsily titled, but wonderfully joyous, You Are the Generation That Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve in the summer of 2004.
In 2003, a full four years before Duffy’s Rockferry became a worldwide commercial success, Johnny Boy began recording tracks for their self-titled debut album, steeped in much of the same sixties nostalgia, with a touch of hazy, Lynchian, dream-like psychedelia and a sly twist of political bite. Formed in Liverpool a year earlier, Johnny Boy consisted of multi-instrumentalist/vocal duo Lolly Hayes and Davo who shared a desire to “rekindle the idea of Sandinista!-era Clash” using Phil Spector’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production strategy, fortified by up-to-the-minute studio technology and recording techniques. Both singles from the album, Johnny Boy Theme and You Are The Generation… were co-produced by Manic Street Preachers‘ James Dean Bradfield, with Manic’s long-term collaborator Dave Eringa taking full control of the rest of the tracks on the album. These particular associations are especially noticeable on You Are The Generation… which contains hints of the same subtle (and not so subtle), politically skewed lyrical content as much of the Manic’s most famous work as well as capturing some of the epic soundscapes and grandeur of their Everything Must Go/This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours commercial peak.
Beginning with a pre-Blurred Lines ‘more than just a vibe’ nod to The Ronettes’ Be My Baby intro, You Are The Generation… builds into a cacophony of multi-tracked backing vocals and thundering drums. Over the song’s three minute running time, we are treated to brass interjections so uplifting and full of pomp they’re worthy of a small European country’s national anthem, a layer of spine-tingling, twinkling chimes and more syncopated handclaps than a Toni Basil ‘greatest hit’ concert (if such a thing has ever actually occurred). But beneath this truly magical, but seemingly disposable, confection of sound lurks something altogether more substantial and, perhaps for many, more difficult to swallow. Inbetween countless ‘Yeah, yeah’s’ and ‘Oh baby’s’ there is a fairly barbed attack on a consumerist society overrun with “Burberry Beamer Beakheads” who covet designer handbags and flash cars over self-respect and who project a sense of entitlement which far outweighs anything approaching what they deserve. By the end of the song, with the chorus now lambasting “the generation that snorts fortunes”, it’s not just the need to purchase designer shoes which is the cause of their distress and disdain – you can’t help feeling maybe the music industry isn’t the place for Johnny Boy after all. Unsurprisingly, the complete lack of success enjoyed by the single saw the band dropped by their label, Vertigo, ahead of the album’s launch and it remained an unreleased curio for several years.
Arriving on the scene either forty years too late or just twelve months too early, You Are The Generation… and Johnny Boy’s failure is hardly surprising in a climate where Busted and Anastacia were topping the UK single and album charts and political comment in pop seemed to have been escorted out of the building around the same time as Chumbawamba’s drenching of John Prescott at The Brits in 1998. But when the album did finally get released mid-2007 it arrived a mere six months ahead of Duffy’s similarly retro-inspired Warwick Avenue – helmed by another 90s indie stalwart, Suede’s Bernard Butler – the expectations might have been that the album would capture a tiny glimmer of the same commercial spark which pushed Duffy’s debut, Rockferry, to more than 2 million copies sold in the UK and estimated worldwide sales in excess of 9 million. Unfortunately, despite being showered with much of the same praise which had catapulted You Are The Generation… to the top of many ‘Editor’s Pick’ lists, the album failed to chart and the band apparently split soon after.
Perhaps the lesson to be learned is a simple one; everyone loves a sixties throwback but leave the politics at home. Me? I think if you give your single a title with more than twelve words in it you’re not really thinking about tongue-tied radio presenters or exhausted copywriters and you get what you deserve.
Entered chart: 14/08/2004
Chart peak: 50
Weeks on chart: 2
Who could sing this today and have a hit? – I’m surprised that Manic Street Preachers haven’t covered this already and perhaps it doesn’t quite fit in with their most recent flirtations with Krautrock, so maybe James Dean Bradfield could give it a go on a forthcoming second solo outing.