Six Of The Best: Andy Johnson (Cherry Head, Cherry Heart) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Cherry Head, Cherry Heart release their latest album, “It’s Complicated” via all good streaming sites but also on limited edition vinyl and CD. A club mix of the song “Pattaya” is due for digital release on 19th July. Andrew Johnson, one half of the Teesside’s prolific pop duo, shares his six of the best.

It’s Complicated took two years to make, piecing it together slowly, working on and changing arrangements and bouncing back and forth between myself and the lead singer, Naomi Lowe. Stylistically it’s, intentionally, all over the place and reflects my attitude to making music, creating art and life in general. No rules. I’ve tried to pin down a few of the major influences that have maybe led me to this attitude.

Best Place to Visit: Italy
There are a scattering of songs, particularly in the Cherry Head, Cherry Heart songbook about, or referencing, geographical locations from Rome to Lake Geneva, New York and, via the new single, Pattaya. Of all of them I’ve only ever actually been to Rome. I’ve used a naive, romantic notion of other places in much the same way Lou Reed used Berlin in his classic 1973 album of the same name. Pattaya was merely an arbitrary working title for an idea I had taken from a word I’d seen on a t-shirt my father bought in Thailand when he was travelling in the mid 1980s. The song is about a girl escaping a toxic relationship to go and dance on the beach in a faraway land (the fact that Pattaya is, I now know, heavily commercialised and tourist-centric is neither here nor there!). I did live for a while in Sri Lanka and Java as a child so an element of those young memories of exotic paradise-like lands exists in the idea.
Of all the places I’ve visited, as an adult, in the real world though I’d have to say Italy is my favourite. From driving along the Amalfi coast by accident to embracing the local customs and having a crash-course in speaking the language, when I booked a holiday in an entirely non-English-speaking region, there is a unique spirit in the land and the people. Always, initially at least, aloof and wary of strangers but then, almost immediately, warm and welcoming it’s a land of both simple and refined pleasures where good hospitality is woven into the fabric of the society. Rome itself was a revelation when I first visited. The amount and scale of the historical remnants is astonishing as you walk around the city and makes it a unique place in the world in terms of access and being able to step into the past. Florence is equally amazing in similar terms but with a more medieval twist to it. We recently booked, again by accident, an apartment in the city for a few days and ended up being on the doorstep of Il Duomo, the famous central landmark. You can walk around these cities for days and still discover something astounding tucked away. I’m a big fan, in general, of ‘getting lost” and discovering somewhere you had no idea existed and certainly hadn’t planned to visit.

Best Album: Beatles Red & Blue Compilation album
It’s a bit of a comedy cliche to say “The best of the Beatles”, but I can’t overstate the impact that the red and blue compilation albums had on me as a child in the 1970s, sitting with my head between my dad’s speakers listening to the sonic-pictures evoked by Strawberry Fields Forever, A Day In The Life, I Am The Walrus and more. Some people say The Beatles were overrated but I’d argue the opposite. These collections give an overview of their career that highlights all of their many styles and still manages to leave a great deal of classics out. The middle period – 1965 to 1968 – is the one I return to most and evokes that slightly melancholy “end of innocence” quality that I’m drawn to in music.
It was as much the sleeve art that captured my imagination and drew me in though. The front cover shows the young, mop-topped rockers peering down as on the front of Please Please Me grinning with the excitement of youth and what they thought was to come. The reverse shows them towards the end of the band’s life looking, to an eight year old’s eyes, like very old men with long hair and beards and some wisdom in their eyes. With the inner gatefold image of the group slightly lost amongst a crowd of children, mothers and families waiting behind an iron fence for something seemingly ominous (to my mind), it appeared to me that this music was about a journey through life that was not necessarily always happy. Although I rarely listen to them these days (I don’t really need to, it’s all in my head), their scope and desire to keep moving forward and not repeat themselves has been the single biggest influence on me musically. Although I’ve dabbled in some Beatle-esque material at times, I also think that to genuinely embody their spirit you need to not try to sound like them. If someone says to me a new band is ‘“like The Beatles” I’m immediately suspicious and expect a poor imitation or a rehashing of their ideas. With Cherry Head, Cherry Heart in particular I try to treat each song as an entirely separate piece of work, which may explain the “genre-leaping” nature of our last two albums but also harks back to listening to the range of material and pace of change that The Beatles went through.
It’s also only fairly recently that I discovered Harry Nilsson and whilst there is a fair bit of “imitation” in some of his work, he does eventually embody their progressive and playful spirit. I can identify with how he may have been a bit of a frustrating artist for his fans to follow, constantly making left turns and defying expectations with each release. It makes for a patchy catalogue but one that makes more sense in hindsight and taken as a whole body of work.

Favourite Club: The Kirk
It’s many years since I went to a proper nightclub, unless it’s after a gig, but hands down the best club I ever set foot in was The Kirk (Kirklevington Country Club) in the late 1980s and very early 1990s when John McCoy still owned it. Its influence has stayed with me ever since. Although I missed the live music heyday of the late 60s, early 70s when Hendrix, Rod Stewart played there and even up to the 80s with Soft Cell and the burgeoning alternative scene, it still had a spirit of freedom and eclecticism that wasn’t really apparent anywhere else. I was lucky enough to grow up in the village itself so naturally gravitated towards the club as I got older. By the time I was old enough to blag my way in (as opposed to actually old enough to be in there) I was listening to The Clash, Lou Reed, The Smiths and others of a more alternative bent for the time, so it was great to go somewhere that embraced not only those sounds that you wouldn’t really hear in the “mirrors and Martini” mainstream clubs, but also to throw in James Brown, Chic, Georgie Fame, Stray Cats, Blue Rondo A La Turk and a bit of modern pop too. It was a revelation and although there are plenty of places these days that might play a similar mix, it was pretty rare back then. There were also songs that were only really played at the club in the area – perhaps if a band had played there (Blue Rondo being an example) – so a DJ could “break” a song, unlike now when it seems people only want to hear what they are already familiar with and can hear anywhere and everywhere. Music and culture was quite tribal in the 80s but the Kirk managed to bring all those disparate people together. The tail end of its golden years saw the arrival of the “Madchester” dance/rock crossover and although the rave culture, arguably, gave the death-knell to the club as people wanted larger “warehouse” style parties and the DJ became the focus it was a period which opened my mind to a whole new world of music again.

Best Music Film: Dig! (2004 Dir. Ondi Timoner)
I can watch music documentaries and read biographies about pretty much any artist, regardless of whether I like their music or not. I can’t remember why I picked up a copy of this. Maybe it was precisely because someone had made a documentary about two bands I either didn’t know or care about and who didn’t seem worthy of a whole film. What the film reveals, amongst other things, is a perfect insight into the clash between artistically and commercially driven music and art. Courtney Taylor of the Dandy Warhols gamely narrates the rise and fall of his relationship with Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Both bands cut their teeth in the 1990s with their take on alternative rock music but it was The Dandy Warhols who broke through with a couple of hits, one – “Bohemian Like You” off the back of an advert placement. Although, arguably, Anton is the greater talent it was the driven nature of Courtney and his band that led to their success and the breakdown of the once brotherly relationship. Ultimately, The Brian Jonestown Massacre remain an influential and prolific, if mercurial, working project while The Dandy Warhols are barely remembered. What price “success”?

Best Band: The Clash
I was, firstly, a fan of Big Audio Dynamite who, at the time, seemed to be the future of music with their early embracing of technology and samples in the mid 80s. However, upon realising that Mick Jones had been in The Clash – a band I’d only really heard through my sister and who had maybe been a bit scary for me with their name, image and at times harsh punk sounds (all the things I ended up loving them for) – I began to explore their back catalogue. I had Combat Rock and the scratchily produced debut so two very different bookends to work in from. It was on my flight home from Java at the age of 15 that I bought a copy of London Calling on cassette at the airport to listen to on the journey and my mind was blown that I hadn’t heard this album (and that nobody had told me about it). Not only did it still have some of the punch and energy of the debut album, albeit produced like a major album, but it leapt all over in terms of style from rock, punk, reggae/ska/two tone, dramatic piano driven soul and disco. Plus it was a double album! One you could enjoy right through! I’d gone from being unsure about whether I even liked Joe Strummer’s voice to totally falling in love with it and the dynamic between him and Mick. My entire attitude changed as to what music could be and what it could mean and say to people. Their politics were heavily left of centre and although a bit naive at times, spoke about the need for voices and action against racism and inequality. With The Smiths and The Housemartins both being on my headphones at the same time it shaped my political outlook for life (best not to mention Morrissey’s “confused” outbursts these days). I still love The Clash.

The Sex Pistols were the short sharp shock that music, arguably, needed at the time but their musical legacy pales in comparison, for me, to Joe and co who, like The Beatles, ploughed their own furrow and kept moving forwards embracing the past, present and future. I also have an unhealthy obsession with The Cardigans.

Best New Music: Various
I don’t think there is such a thing as “proper” music just music you like or you don’t. I’m also a firm believer that the best pop music is always the pop music of now. I’ve mentioned a lot of older influences and I do still discover massive amounts of “classic” music that’s new to me. Elton John is one example. I’d previously dismissed him as irrelevant, probably about the same time I got into The Clash and The Stone Roses. My mate Stu, who helps run Sound It Out Records turned me on to the Madman Across the Water album and the film Rocketman really opened my eyes and ears and I’m spending a lot of time listening to his early albums which contain some amazing music and incomparable songwriting.
That said, I do still listen out for and am open to genuinely new music. From alternative and underground acts like Modern Studies, Tame Impala and Hatchie (all discovered through Sound it Out) to much more mainstream acts like Stormzy, Sigrid, Billie Eilish and Kacey Musgraves. I can find merit in most music these days, if I get the perspective of where it’s coming from and what it’s trying to achieve. Whether it’s music that pushes the production boundaries to explore new sounds and develop the work of others, or supreme songwriting and lyrical ability to pure performance and communication.

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