Sometimes it seems as though classic rock musicians come in only two varieties: Those who ride the coattails of their long-ago accomplishments, and those who dismiss their past successes entirely, insisting we focus exclusively upon what they've coaxed out of their creative stores in the past half hour. John Ford falls into neither camp and, after my first few listens to his new album, Big Hit In India, I think I know why.
John certainly needs not look to the past to find musical sources of pride but, instead, his mastery of the classics allows him to bring us material that magically casts us back to the very best days of rock & roll. On this disc, you'll find no remakes of "Nice Legs" or "Part Of The Union" or covers of popular songs by other artists. What you will find is a CD filled with new and original compositions that somehow feel as comfortable from the first play as your tattered-covered copy of Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon or The Beatles' White Album. You'll be tempted to sing along right from the start, until you realize you've never heard the song before.
This is an album for all three elements of the John Ford audience: The obsessed Strawbs fan who follows every path of every member in the band's history, the John Ford fan who's enjoyed his previous solo releases, or caught a rockin' live performance and maybe, most of all, the basic classic rock fan.
Live or on record, it's rare that you won't find John paying homage to the British Rock Invasion in sound or song. Pop this CD into your player and you'll hear the tongue-in-cheek title track, the story of an aging British rocker who suddenly finds himself a "big hit in India," despite being unable to get on the radio or TV in his own country. Eastern musical influences, a stadium crowd cheering, and lyrics that catapult us back to the days of flower children and the maharishi leave the listener swaying and grinning simultaneously.
"Poor Boy Running" might just be my favorite song this year. Whether it's because it's a classic John Ford tune with an irresistible bouncy melody and vocals or because its lyrics eerily echo the feelings I had following my recent job loss after 29 years, I'm not sure, but I've been singing it now for 9 days.
Another classic Ford tune, "Weird", is a haunting track, a sad tale of a dying love that would depress the hell out of me if it weren't followed by the Barry Gibbesque "And I Love The Way" which is bursting with images of love, optimism and hope.
"And I Love The Way" marks the point on Big Hit In India when John's love of classic British rock comes to the forefront. Suddenly it seems we're visited by the aforementioned Barry Gibb, John Lennon, David Bowie, the Beatles and, in a nod to this side of the Pond, some good ol' 50's rock and roll.
Close your eyes, and John Lennon (joined by David Bowie), could be crooning "Everybody Knows". Roy Orbison could have written "Still Waiting" and "Dead In The Water" and David Bowie might be singing lead on "Paper Trail". You'll swear it's the Beatles on "If I Wanted To".
It probably isn't fair to John to praise Big Hit In India for bringing us songs that feel like some of our favorite rock legends have sent wonderful new music down from their infrequently-used studios or the heavens. We should be showering Ford, himself, with the credit for giving us a third decade of memorable music and lyrics, rather than comparing him to Lennon, Bowie and the Beatles.
Then again, knowing Ford's love of rock & roll and its masters, he might even be flattered.
Big Hit in India inspired me to talk to John about the album, to see what he's been up to and to hear what other surprises he might have up his sleeve. He also spoke a bit about Strawbs, casting his mind back to reveal a few rather humorous stories from his days with the band:
JUDI: You seem to be having a good time, writing and recording your own music, as well as performing classic rock tunes and bringing unexpected excitement to acoustic versions of songs like "Whiter Shade Of Pale". What do you say to the purists who feel you're making a mistake performing other people's songs?
JOHN: Except for the Christmas albums, I generally only record my own stuff. In the case of "Whiter Shade Of Pale" that was live. I do like having a go at other people's songs at my shows, and I hope that I can bring some of my originality to them.
JUDI: Hot on the heels of Big Hit In India, the title track of your newest album, which appears to be about a rock musician generating interest in a far-away land, you've been invited to play a music festival in Norway. Was there any connection between that invitation and the song?
JOHN: No, not at all. The title came from a Korg Triton keyboard I was messing around with after my band had gone home one night. The sound was called "Big Hit in India" and almost immediately as I was playing, out popped the chorus. I mapped out the basic arrangement, did a quick demo and wrote the lyrics over a couple of weeks and refined the tune. The idea for the throwback to the sixties came during the writing. I was trying to fit in all these clichés without sounding corny.
JUDI: How did Flabby Road (John's Beatles tribute duo) come about? Do you have plans to do further Flabby Road performances?
JOHN: There is a local singer that has McCartney's range and plays a good bass. I tend to sing Lennon stuff, so the two of us worked well together without too much rehearsal for the first show some time ago. Much as I love the Beatles, and I do throw in one or two songs in my own shows, I felt uncomfortable by the end of the night doing just that so at the moment I am less than enthusiastic about following it up.
JUDI: You have plans to do a few shows with Ian Lloyd, formerly of Stories, who's best known in the U.S. for Brother Louie, a hit from the 70s. The first gig was on New Year's Day at The Cutting Room, a New York City venue where Cousins/Cutler played in March. Why do you think the two of you are a good match and how did this double-bill develop?
JOHN: My manager, Jill Morrison, has been dealing with Ian for a while now, I hadn't heard his stuff before. I think he has a great voice and to do a double bill, we would complement each other's work. He has a full band and I have the acoustic line up so it should be a good contrast.
JUDI: You rarely play New York City and seem to prefer venues on Long Island. Why is that?
JOHN: I don't prefer the Island, it's just what comes up. I have done solo, the Bottom Line, the Bitter End, the Lone Star and a slew of other clubs over the years.
JUDI: How is playing with your band different from your time with Strawbs?
JOHN: Well, in my band I am the leader. In the Strawbs, Dave Cousins is the leader. "There always has to be a leader," as George Harrison wryly remarked, "and it was John Lennon in The Beatles--even though he was not there anymore he probably still was the leader," which I thought was funny. The other big difference is I strum a guitar in my band and play the bass in the Strawbs, which I really enjoy doing in these reunions. My fondest memory with them is the first show I ever did comprised of Dave Cousins, Tony, Rick and myself. Hud couldn't make it for that first show. I called Hud the next day and raved about how the audience applauded after every song, which was a total change from the Elmer Gantry band being total chaos and nobody really listening.
JUDI: Tell us about what's been inspiring you lately, in terms of songwriting. Does the dismal state of the world seep into your lyrics or are you an optimist?
JOHN: I am not an optimist. I tend to fear the worst. For this album, my main inspiration has been my manager Jill and my messy divorce.
JUDI: You have a beautiful fiancee who also happens to be your manager. Is it difficult to juggle a personal relationship and a business one?
JUDI: You've done two Christmas albums. You obviously love Christmastime. Describe this past Christmas morning at the Ford house.
JOHN: Still made the same old cup of tea. Stuck on the telly and watched the Yule log. This year I was hoping for a TC Electronics Mastering machine for my studio, and of course my usual chocolate Santa. Cadbury's of course. I got the chocolate Santa, but not the mastering machine.
JUDI: Tell us a bit about your son John. It must be a comfort, having experienced such tragedy in your life, to also experience such great joy with John not only being a lovely young man but also a talented musician. You and John almost seem like friends yet you are still dad! How do you balance that?
JOHN: He is a complete professional when on stage, and I worry more about whether myself or the other guys will mess up more than him, but at home he is a teenager who is messy, playing the guitar at four in the morning and constantly removing stuff from my recording studio, although any problems at home are forgotten on the night of the gig.
JUDI: You list New York and London on your MySpace site as being home. Give us some examples of what you like about each.
JOHN: I like Manhattan to visit, but I prefer suburbia, so Long Island suits me fine. When I lived in England I lived in Surrey which is southern England. I am a wherever-I-lay-my-hat sort of guy, even though I don't wear one.
I do remember that Los Angeles made a great impression on me the first time we played there. Unlike British venues at the time where the dressing rooms might have had curly cheese sandwiches and a couple of beers if you were lucky, at the Whisky A Go Go we had plastic garbage cans full of Kentucky Fried Chicken and cold beers covered in ice. I thought this is the life for me!
JUDI: For the longest time, it seemed as if Strawbs almost "blamed" their lack of recognition on "Part Of The Union. In recent years, that seems to have changed with them actually performing it in certain situations, or joining in when you were performing with them. How did you feel about them singling out that song as a negative aspect of their history and what do you think accounts for the seeming change in attitude?
JOHN: I don't know if there has been a change in attitude, but I don't take offense either after all this time. I see where Dave is coming from on this and I said I understood why on the Bilston DVD interview. He was the main writer and my song ends up being the one everybody remembers by the masses and me singing it to boot. I know there is a legion of "Part Of The Union" haters out there within the Strawbs fanbase, but I can see where they are coming from too, considering Dave's amazing songwriting output over the years. I personally think he is still doing some great stuff but "Part Of The Union" is thirty years old and it is what it is and Dave has only himself to blame for picking it for Bursting At The Seams after hearing the demo!
JUDI: With you and John Hawken both living fairly close to each other (Long Island, NY vs. New Jersey), do you ever socialize or go to see each other's shows?
JOHN: Not really. We live too far away from each other, although he did sit in on piano with myself and my son a couple of years back for a Christmas show. He also came to my other son's funeral some years ago for which I was very grateful.
JUDI: How do you feel about John's departure from the band?
JOHN: Considering he just had an operation, I thought he played amazingly at BB King's club. Not being a current member of the band, I don't feel I can comment about his departure, but I feel every keyboard player Dave Cousins has recruited has had their own important part in the history of the band.
JUDI: Among Witchwooders, almost as well known as Strawbs songs, are humorous Strawbs stories. Could you share with us an account of any lesser-known incidents that occurred while you were a member of the band, on stage or off?
JOHN: In the early days, Dave Cousins used to own a British Morris Minor car with not much room inside. On the way to a show we strapped my Fender bass to the roof. Traveling at seventy miles an hour on the motorway, it blew off the roof, which Dave saw in his rear view mirror, and I ran back about a quarter of a mile to retrieve it. To our amazement it was undamaged and still in tune which it has been to this very day. Another time, whilst driving down to Brighton to a show with my girlfriend at the time, somebody rear-ended my Mini. I had to miss the show. Just for a laugh to compensate for the lack of a bass player they carried Richard Hudson on to the stage inside the sitar case which was as big as a coffin. When he got out, the audience didn't even raise an eyebrow!
Other Strawbs stories…. On the ride home one night in our limousine (those were the days), we had a smash up. We had to wait around while we were picked up by a replacement, but none of us were hurt. When I got back to my girlfriend's apartment I said " We've been in a big accident, I could have been killed." She looked up and said "oh yeah?" and rolled over and went back to sleep.
In San Diego at the end of the tour, the band was breaking up. After much heated debate, Dave Cousins at some point afterwards got mad and threw a load of potted plants into the hotel swimming pool, creating a big mess with dirt and leaves floating around in the water. He told me afterwards that the hotel staff were all talking about this madman who did all this damage. Dave, obviously, kept a low profile for the rest of his stay.
We stayed at the same hotel as Led Zeppelin once and they decided to have a party in my room. I remember being outside on the balcony with some girl and a television came whizzing through the open window down to street below. She said "What was that?" I said "It's nothing!"
JUDI: If money, time and distance were no object, describe your idea of the ideal Strawbs celebration.
JOHN: You will have to ask Dave Cousins himself that one!