Wednesday, 9 October 2013

John Leyton - Johnny Remember Me

"Johnny Remember Me" is a song which became a 1961 UK #1 hit single for John Leyton, backed by The Outlaws. It was producer Joe Meek's first #1 production. Recounting the haunting – real or imagined – of a young man by his dead lover, the song is one of the most noted of the 'death ditties' that populated the transatlantic pop charts in the early to mid-1960s. It is distinguished in particular by its eerie, echoing sound (a hallmark of the Joe Meek production style) and by the ghostly, foreboding female wails that form its backing vocal (by Lissa Gray). The recording was arranged by Charles Blackwell.

Thanks to Telstar, Joe Meek is seen as British pop's first great futurist, but the vibe of this Meek production reaches back into our fog-struck, ghost-ridden past. It's an urgent Gothic romance, with John Leyton's vocal clutching at your sleeve, desperate to tell a story of loss and madness. Meek turns the drums into phantom horsemen and fills the record's dark spaces with melodrama – a keening female voice on the chorus rounds the effect off. Pure corn, perhaps, but sold with a dread conviction, which makes this the weirdest and most gripping British record to hit the top yet.
Tom Ewing

This is a Joe Meek production and it’s about death and ghosts. The original line of the song was, ‘A girl I lost who died a year ago’, but to get it played on the radio they changed it to, ‘The girl I loved and lost a year ago’. It’s basically a proto-goth record, and Marc Almond re-did it in the ’80s.

Joe Meek was the first significant record producer. There had been people who had been messing about with tapes and stuff in America, like Les Paul and Mitch Miller, but Meek was the first person to make records that really didn’t sound remotely like somebody playing live in the studio – it always sounded like a studio concoction. So this one’s got manic galloping drums like something from a Western, and a wailing girl in the background like a ghost. It’s an amazing record.

There are so many ‘death discs’ like this – loads of girl group ones, like the whole Shangri-Las career basically, and Joe Meek did several others as well. At the time, obviously with Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, famous people died in plane crashes and car crashes who were very young, and teenagers could relate to them. It would have been a very real part of your life. And teenagers are morbid, they’re really morbid! It was an interesting micro-genre.
Bob Stanley 

A sublime record where TV exposure was deliberately used in a canny manner to gain publicity and sales. John's manager was Robert Stigwood and he got him a part in a popular TV soap opera of the day called "Harpers West One" in which John played Johnny St Cere, a pop star opening a new record section in a department store. Stigwood managed to wangle a deal where Leyton would mime to his new disc "Johnny Remember Me" within the show. The gambit worked since after the broadcast, people rushed out to buy the record sending it number one.

What also helped was negative publicity about the song itself, being a "death disc" so automatically some derided it as being "sick." In fact the original recorded lyric featured the line "The girl I loved who died a year ago" but this was changed to "The girl I loved and lost a year ago" since it was feared it the original line would lead to it being banned.

So there was a lot of hype attached to this disc which worked in it's favour. It brought Joe Meek into the public eye too since critics ripped it to pieces saying it was over the top and that Leyton sounded like he was singing from the bottom of a well!

The reality was and remains, Meek, Stigwood, Geoff Goddard, arranger Charles Blackwell and Leyton combined had created a memorable record that sounded unlike anything else heard up till that time.

I can’t take any of Joe Meek’s futurist cred away, and I wouldn’t want to try. But with forty-years of hindsight it’s also obvious how bound some of his records are to the past. “Johnny Remember Me” comes at us, bodice heaving, straight out of the Victorian gothic – “when the mists are rising and the rain is falling and the wind is blowing cold across the moors”. It’s a ghost story! But more than that, it’s a country ghost story – Leyton’s accent slips into pseudo-prairie and the urgent gallop of the music shares a bloodline with western standard “Ghost Riders In The Sky”. And more still, it’s a love song – a haunted, desperate love song. As the dead beloved’s vocals ring out high and clear Leyton’s own replies become more crazed – “Yes I’ll always remember – till the day I die I’ll hear her cry!”. Meek’s use of echo here is perfect – Leyton’s voice has a tint of it but the dead woman’s words are sharp and true; out on these moors we have slipped more than halfway into the beyond and it’s the living who sound muffled and eerie.

Gothic, western, romance – a pulp trinity, and “Johnny Remember Me” is on this list because the British love a melodrama. The best melodrama is played with an intensity which dares you, snarling, to take it lightly. The best melodrama is also often a little camp. Leyton doesn’t let his audience down – as he rips through those wonderful opening lines you can almost hear his nostrils flare. By the end of the song, as his spectral lover keeps calling he sounds genuinely doomstruck. A rich treat and a remarkable record.


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