‘A gentle call for common sense and humanity’ is a tough task for anyone in this delicate and daunting world, but it is the goal for local prolific singer and songwriter John Jenkins and The James Street Band. Their latest EP, “Day after Day” strips down and exposes the problems and injustices they see, feel, and are angered by, in the immediate world around us and beyond.
The title track “Day after Day” questions the meaning of life. A meaning many may seek to try and solve. I know I’ve tried to solve it myself, even though I was unsure if I wanted the answer, but John Jenkins and his band pose the question on their new EP.
A writer and singer with social conscience is a vinyl delight and the former Persuaders & Come in Tokio man calmly reflects, thought provokes and delivers his EP in a comforting manner with sadness and optimism combining well. A mature record with McCartney brush strokes that stir and erupt the imagination.
John Jenkins has a music career to cherish. His music CV has an additional column for; ‘being there, seeing it, and doing it‘- with experience of touring with Elvis Costello, Echo & The Bunnymen, and recording numerous John Peel sessions.
A familiar figure on the Liverpool music scene, he regularly showcases his work, experience and personal heartfelt message to his dedicated faithful following. It is a continuing commitment to making music.
And with this commitment in mind, I spoke to the man himself about the early years, his influences, lyrics and highlights from his career.
Q. The early John Jenkins, what was the catalyst to pick up an instrument and to write songs?
A. The house I grew up in was one of those old fashioned houses. We had a piano in the parlour and my Dad used to play it quite a bit. My family would frequent a pub each week and my uncles would play their guitars. All the relatives would be singing in the back room of the pub, and we would eventually move to a relative’s house to carry on the night. So, I had my radio, records, and these family music nights that began my real love of music.
I was a music lover from an early age, but in my early teens, I fell head over heels with the Beatles music and Paul McCartney. I received a real guitar and The Beatles Complete Songbook. I remember working out some basic chords on the piano and playing, “Let it Be” from sight, reading the chords. Once I got my head around basic piano chords, it wasn’t that long before I just put a few of these chords together, and tried to make my own melodies.
The first few songs were absolutely dreadful, but looking back, I see it as a bit of an apprenticeship. I also benefited having positive people around me who didn’t mind me playing my attempts at songwriting. You can’t beat having supportive people sharing your ride. It can be inspiring.
Q. Did you frequent the live venues around Liverpool, and do you recall any stand out gig?
A. I did then and I do now. In the days before I was involved in music, and too young to go to bars, there was only the Empire Theatre to watch bands. In those days, if you wanted a good seat you would have to get up very early on the day the tickets went on sale, usually a Saturday, and then queue up. I saw Queen twice, Alice Cooper, and Kate Bush in the 1970s and had a great seat for all. The tickets used to be cheaper than the price of a record too which is amazing considering – these days, if you want to buy a decent ticket for Paul McCartney, it’s over £1000 on some ticket sale prices.
When I was older at the end of the 1970’s, I went to Eric’s. I saw Talking Heads who were supported by Dire Straits. I once queued up two days to see Paul McCartney at the Royal Court in 1979. It’s all changed these days, with over priced tickets for a seat at the back. These days, I can go to a lot of smaller venues and support local artists. I feel the same buzz seeing unsigned artists, as I do bigger names, or bands in arenas.
As for stand out gigs, there are so many, but my musical hero for live gigs is Bruce Springsteen. I remember my first Bruce concert in May 1981 at the Apollo. I bought a one way coach ticket there, and paid £12 for a concert ticket from a tout from outside the venue. The seat I managed to buy was near the front. During song three into the set, Bruce jumped off the stage and ran up the aisle past me playing his guitar! I love the man. I also had a front row ticket at Wembley Arena in London on the same tour. I touched his left foot, I haven’t washed my hand since. I’ve seen him over 20 plus times. I still feel like it’s my first love. I also loved the early punk days, seeing Blondie, The Jam and The Clash.
Q. What artists from Liverpool do you admire?
A. I met Marc Vormawah from Personal Column about 1983 and since then he’s been someone I look up to as a singer songwriter. He used to come around to mine most weeks when we lived near each other and he’d play me the songs he had written that week. I would decide there and then I wasn’t going to play him mine! Even now, he sends me songs over the internet and it’s inspirational.
Phil Wylie (Pete’s brother) who wrote the songs for Come in Tokio I looked up too as well. I think both Marc and Phil made me look into my own Songwriting technique in the early days and how they rehearsed with their bands. When I gathered my own band together, I felt I had picked up quite a bit from them.
Nowadays, I see so many local bands. I’m a very big fan of Robert Vincent, Alan O’Hare (Only Child), Denis Parkinson, Two Black Sheep, Stuart Todd but, I’ve always been a big fan of songs, so some artists, I come away thinking how good a song was. Oh yes, new one White Little Lies. Vanessa and Daniel are one’s to watch!
Q. How has recording changed from the early days to today, and are those changes for the better?
A. It’s changed immensely. You can record an album in your own house these days if you have a computer and the software. My instrumental project, “Midnight in Manhattan”, I recorded at home, playing everything apart from the trumpet. In the 1980’s, when I started recording, it was analog, so there were a lot of mistakes on recordings, and you didn’t have the means to correct things, as you can today on a computer.
Are the changes for the better? I think so, although I’ve become more of a fan of natural, real instruments as opposed to lots of plug-ins on the computer. It also depends on the song. I hate 1980’s productions with the programmed drums and the same sounds, give me a real 1960’s production every time. However, music is subjective and everyone has an opinion which should be respected as long as it’s not an opinion pre-determined by being discriminate against the artist.
Q. Your career and its musical CV includes; supporting Elvis Costello and Echo and The Bunnymen and numerous John Peel sessions – what are your fondest memories of that era?
A. Probably being young and not knowing enough about what was going on – everything seemed possible and it felt you could do anything. In reality, you probably couldn’t. The more knowledge I received about the music world and scene, the more cynical I become. I remember the first John Peel session with Come in Tokio and listening back to the production by Dale Griffin and Mike Robinson and thinking, is that us?, we were really wet behind the ears.
Q. Does playing live in Liverpool feel different to you – if so, how?
A. I’ve not played too many gigs outside Liverpool to be honest, and when I have – we take all our fans with us on a coach, so it kind of feels like a gig in our home town. It depends on the venue too. In some places, the audience seem to be there for the music, and then, at some gigs, you wonder why the audience didn’t stay at home if all they want to do is drink and gab through a set.
Fortunately, the latter isn’t that common, but I see it at other people’s gigs. The last time I was in the Echo Arena, I remember thinking, why have spent over £100 on a ticket and you are talking your way through the artists set from start to finish? I don’t understand some people at times.
Q. Do you have the lyrics jotted down first, or as and when the band play the words appear?
A. I generally have the tune first and then decide as I’m working on the lyrics what story I want to tell. The song “Luxury stains everything it touches” I had that expression written down after reading a Raymond Chandler novel. Occasionally, I’ll look at some of my notes and think – I’ll write that story now, but it’s the melody first for me.
Q. The subject matter on your new Ep concentrates on reflection, insight and social commentary, who inspires you lyrically?
A. When I started to write my, what I call, ‘proper’ songs, it was Bruce Springsteen. I had written tons of songs during my apprenticeship period. I remember one day listening to Bruce and briefly stopped writing. I decided, I needed to think more seriously about the lyrical content. Meeting Marc and Colin from Personal Column was another inspirational trigger point.
I started to pay more attention to Dylan, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, and Rickie Lee Jones to name a few. These days, I can be inspired from just what’s going on around me. That was the reason I wanted to do this EP. Life and what is happening to people around you on the streets, in work, families, newspaper stories. I felt strongly about a lot of injustices going on.
Q. Has your lyrics and approach changed over time?
A. Yes definitely. Once I realised, you can pretend you can be anyone, and tell any story – I felt the limitations I once had as a songwriter had fallen away. I like to write personal songs too. I’m in my late 50s now and lost a lot of family and friends over the years, so occasionally I like to remember them by popping them into some of my songs as characters or write specifically about them.
Q. What is the future for John Jenkins’?
A. Well the immediate future I am playing a few local gigs with the James Street Band. I’m in the middle of recording a new album called, “Looking for that American Dream”. And, I’ve just finished a musical called, “A New York Romance”. I wrote the script and songs, but its unknown territory for me on how to get people interested in doing something with it. But I’m quite proud of that project.
In 2019, I’ll release the album and I am hoping to get some festival gigs, and higher profile gigs. I’m continuously writing and I would love to work with other recording artists on songs. I’m hoping to make some connections in that area when I go to the Chris Difford songwriting retreat in June 2019. I will be happy and just enjoy what I do with my music.
John has received glowing feedback, such as; “a great songwriter – this type of songwriting and musical expression is rare”–Stereo Stickman.
John Jenkins and the James Street Band will be playing at a venue near you, if the venue is far from you – jump on the coach with him and the band, it’s home from home for the James Street Band faithful.
Day After Day Video: youtu.be/vj0EqxXbsmc
By Matthew Jacobson