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The legendary Johnny Kidd

Article - "Aye Aye Cap'n!"

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The following article appeared in "RECORD COLLECTOR" from October 1996 as a tribute on the thirtieth anniversary of Kidd's death.  (The photos are not those supplied with the article)

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Johnny Kidd died 30 years ago this month. Mark Paytress pays tribute to a British rockin' legend.

British early 60's pop has always been regarded as one of those marking time eras. Like the mid 70's,it had no real focus - no group like the Beatles, or subculture like hippies or punks - to hang the action on. The chart books simply reflect an overdose of Itsy Bitsy Livin' Lovin' Dolls Walking Back To Happy Cheeriness. Yet beyond the reach of cold statistical data, a revolution was quietly brewing among the first generation of teenagers able to request a guitar (and a 'Teach Yourself' book by Bert Weedon) for Christmas.

When it was uncorked by the arrival of the Beatles late in 1962,the beat era was so all consuming that it reinvented the world, sweeping away almost every trace of what preceded it. In a flash, Joe Meek's stable of space age crooners sounded as futuristic as the wheel; Larry Parnes' roster, headed by Billy Fury, fared little better, the Eagers' and the Powers' bid for new fangled credibility as fictitious as their pseudonyms.

Cruelly piled up alongside these hapless casualties was a man many regard as the architect of the finest rock'n'roll record ever made in Britain. To his friends in Willesden, north - west London, he was an amiable youth with an eye for the ladies named Freddie Heath. But by 1960,he was public enemy No.1,branded as a 'sick’ and 'sinister' purveyor of 'a new low in gimmicks’. His name was Johnny Kidd. His crime was to place a patch over one eye for no good reason other than drawing attention to himself for publicity purposes.

The trouble with gimmicks is that they tend to outlive their usefulness rather quickly. By the time moptops became a'la mode, Johnny Kidd and his suitably dressed Pirates backing band had lost their lustre. The Merseybeat mutineers were younger, sang cheerier harmonies and, what’s more, weren’t adored by the Teds and Ton - Up boys from a distinctly pre-Swinging age.

Too old fashioned for 1963,and too young to die tragically just three years later, it’s clear today that Johnny Kidd and the Pirates had an effect on the course of pop far beyond their immediate contemporaries. 'Shakin' All Over', the band's best known hit record, remains the finest riposte to those that claim that no genuine rock'n'roll ever came out of Britain. Alright, it came late, charting in June 1960,but you'd be hard pressed to find a more assured example of surly, leathery rebellion on a pre - beat 45 outside of Elvis, Gene Vincent or Link Wray.

'Shakin' All Over' was a musical milestone: technically brilliant, its crisp tones and dangerous, plank - walking bass signposted the way towards the kind of instrumental excellence pursued later in the decade. At least as important was its malevolent mood, encapsulated in Kidd's alienated, highly echoed vocal, and in his Dickensian rogue demeanor. In fact Malcolm McLaren, who appropriated Kidd's pirate look at the end of the 70's,first for Adam and the Ants and then with Bow Wow Wow, claims that Johnny Kidd had a greater sociological impact on the youth of Britain than Bob Dylan ever did. It’s not as outlandish a claim as it might initially seem.

No matter: such a legacy wouldn't have overly impressed Johnny, a man who once confessed, ‘Tucked away, I have a secret dream to star at the London Palladium and to meet Elvis Presley’. Kidd entered the pop business at a time when careers were precarious for all but the most accommodating and well rounded entertainers, and despite his attempts to stay on the gravy train, Johnny knew that he was marooned on something way beyond his control - and therefore at its mercy to toss him overboard.

Someone who certainly never forgot Johnny Kidd was Keith Hunt, a regular correspondent to this magazine, who for many months kept me reliably informed about the progress of his lifetime's work - the definitive Johnny Kidd story. The great pity is that Keith died earlier this year, shortly after delivering the manuscript to the publishers, the Magnum Imprint. Although not as graciously edited as it should have been, 'Shakin' All Over: The Birth Of British R&B - The Life And Times Of Johnny Kidd' is smartly packaged, with dozens of illustrations and contributions from Kidd's friends, family and associates on board. The book rightly places Johnny Kidd at the centre of British rock'n'roll, as the inheritor of a crown once worn by Cliff Richard writer Ian Samwell and Billy Fury, and as someone who passed it on to subsequent generations, from Tom Jones who took much from Kidd's stage show during his early months as a professional) to the entire power trio genre. Even when he was accompanied by the Mike Sammes Singers (on 'Hurry On Back To Love'), you could hear Kidd's leathers creaking as he swaggered in time with the beat.

'Shakin' All Over' wasn't just Johnny Kidd's greatest moment; it was one of those epochal collisions that occur every decade or so in pop, where musical innovation coincides with an immediate public response, resulting in a chart hit. Had the band stuck with the passé skiffle beat of 'Yes Sir, That’s My Baby’ as the A side for Kidd’s fourth single, the course of pop might well have been different.

That said, 'Shakin' All Over' wasn't Kidd's only moment. Songs like 'Restless', 'More Of The Same' and the 'Shakin'' inspired 'Please Don't Bring Me Down’, mostly self-penned cuts, cut a similar swathe through the diet of early 60's popcorn. Bend an ear to EMI's largely definitive 'The Complete Johnny Kidd and The Pirates' two - CD set, issued back in 1992,and prepare to be amazed by the lovely crisp, uncluttered sound of much of Kidd's work, a quality which ensures its luster will not fade with time.

Johnny Kidd was one of the first British rockers to write his own songs and, as Keith Hunt explains, he also pioneered the use of echo sound equipment in live performances, besides using stage lighting - coupled with a gigantic galleon backdrop - to great effect. Meanwhile Johnny struck out a stage props with his cutlass.

Although it’s unashamedly a fan's eye view, the wealth of anecdotes in Hunt's book show a country guardedly emerging from the austerity of the immediate post war years. At the front were its teenagers, seeking illicit pleasures in the wild beat of rock'n'roll, adopting new poses in cafes and on street corners, and even having fun at the expense of the upper class, by appropriating the nob's Edwardian Teddy) jacket and making it their own.

Young Freddie Heath, born on the 23'rd of November 1935,was a first generation Ted, who’d progressed from earning money by collecting empty lemonade and beer bottles, sneaking into cinema back doors, and 'Yank baiting' in Hyde Park, to a teenage life which revolved around speedway meetings, snooker halls, youth clubs and espresso coffee bars. He also spent time in Harlesden's Genuine Record Shop, at first listening to the latest Sinatra, Nat King Cole or Mario Lanza discs, before turning his attention to greasier sounds.

On his 16th birthday, he received an old banjo, which he later traded for a guitar. He also designed a new look for himself, putting blond streaks in the sides of his hair, and buying an assortment of loud clothes. Inspired by new singing idols like Lonnie Donegan, Bill Haley, Frankie Laine and Johnny Ray, Freddie started singing at the White Hart, Willesden on Sunday nights.

His marriage to Ada Price in 1956 was celebrated with a trip to see Harry Secombe at the London Palladium, and then nesting down into a new family home in his parents’ front room. Shortly afterwards, Freddie became a father.
It was a long, slow haul to the top of the hit parade. Various bands ensued - the Five Nutters, the Frantic Four, the Fabulous Freddie Heath Band - until his manager and promoter joined together to pay for some singing lessons. While putting his new honed skills to the test at regular shows at Wandsworth Town Hall as part of the Mike West Group, Freddie was spotted by HMV record producer Peter Sullivan, and on 18th April 1959,the group were in Abbey Road recording 'Please Don't Touch’. A piece of paper informed them that their new name was Johnny Kidd and The Pirates, and Freddie was encouraged to base his character on Captain William Kidd, a 17th century pirate who was hung for killing a mutinous sailor.

When the first 45 was issued in May 1959,the newly-named Kidd was dressed in a plain shirt and thin striped trousers, the 'Fred' tattoo on his arm hidden from the eye of the camera. When promoter Guy Robinson bought the band its first pirate costumes, he encouraged Johnny to 'look macho’, as in beefcake, rather than wiry street deviant. When Johnny complied by stuffing newspaper into his shirt, this soon backfired when, mid show, it started falling out. ‘We were in tears laughing and we had to leave the stage’, recalls backing vocalist Mike West.

Book_cover.jpg (9121 bytes)And the daft advice just kept on coming. For an early TV appearance, Johnny sported two golf balls down the front of his trousers in a bid to 'look sexy’. A bit of a Lothario in his spare time, Johnny wasn't necessarily a professional sex symbol. It took around a year before the pirate theme was stumbled upon, by which time Johnny's original band had quit, leaving Johnny and guitarist Alan Caddy to team up with Clem Cattini (drums) and Brian Gregg (bass) from Billy Fury's band. It was a good move: they were experienced musicians, more than capable of producing a strong sound without the customary rhythm guitar or piano to flesh things out. And the group were a long way from your run-of-the-mill Tommy Steele or Cliff and the Shads rip-off.

Because Keith Hunt's book collates many interviews with little editorial input, save for chronological ordering, the story behind the arrival of that infamous eye-patch is still shrouded in darkness. Was it initiated by Stanley Dale's sidekick, Tony Secunda? Did Jack Good suggest it when Johnny appeared on his 'Wham' TV show? Did it hide an unsightly cast in Kidd's eye? Or become necessary after a guitar string broke catching him in the eye? Or when a piece of grit flew into it? Or was it purely so that the rising star could remain incognito when off-stage? Seems like we're left to make our own minds up. ‘Johnny had a bad cast in his eye,’ recalls Brian Gregg, ‘which only showed at night when he was tired. We thought it would be a good idea to hide the eye with a patch’. Chances are that when Jack Good suggested such a move, Johnny went with it. And proceeded to buy a full compliment of pirate uniforms to go with it. Johnny would see out of town shows as 'raids’, and began to style himself as the 'buccaneer of the ballroom circuit’. But some sections of the press were not amused, particularly when Johnny began telling them that one of his favourite singers was Sammy Davis, who lost an eye in a car crash.

The full pirate's regalia was in place to publicise 'Shakin' All Over’, a song which Brian Gregg suggests the Pirates were mildly ashamed of. One Joe Moretti was hired to play the lead riff of a song which was written only hours before in the Freight Train coffee bar in Berwick Street, Soho - with not a guitar in sight. Johnny, complete with eye patch and black leather, promoted it on Jack Good's 'Wham' TV show, while the hip cats on BBC's 'Juke Box Jury' proudly voted it a 'miss'.

Instead, Kidd was jettisoned to receive his 15 minutes worth of fame, during which time he told journalists that he would write ballads, conquer America, then return to settle down in a Thames-side family home, complete with low-slung Swedish furniture and a floodlit garden. But when the follow-up, 'Restless', flopped and a trip to the States was cancelled, he was back in the transit van on his way to Grimsby and Wisbech, with his trusty cutlass and red cowboy boots in the trunk.

Tours with Screaming Lord Sutch and Gene Vincent followed, but the endless round of one-night stands prompted the three Pirates to jump ship and join Tommy Steele's brother for a residency in Italy. Johnny recruited three more heavy-duty replacements in ex-Redcaps, Johnny Spence (bass), Frank Farley (drums), and guitarist Johnny Patto, who was quickly replaced by the legendary Mick Green.

Adapting to the new R&B sounds then gaining currency in the clubs, the new-look Pirates played the Cavern during 1962,supported by the Beatles. ‘They’ll never be as big as Joe Brown,’ quipped Johnny, before taking off for a grueling Hamburg schedule.

1963's coupling of Author Alexander's 'A Shot Of Rhythm and Blues’ and Bo Diddley's 'I Can Tell' was a classic double A side, once described by Spencer Leigh as marking 'the transition from British rock'n'roll to Merseybeat'. Next came a run of pop singles, including some penned by Tom Jones' manager Gordon Mills. These were infinitely preferable to Kidd's subsequent takes on American R&B. The strained vocals on 'Jealous Girl', for example, was great pop that pre-figured bands like the Move. One track taped in 1964 but left in the vaults until 1992, was a re-recording of "The Fool", where Johnny starts out like a dead ringer for the Doors' Jim Morrison. It doesn't gel with the image we have of the Kidd, but one of his last ever recordings "Send For That Girl", found him venturing into proto-psych pop, complete with acoustic guitar, and spacey, Bowie-ish vocals.

We don't get to discover what Johnny thought of these various attempts to keep him abreast of contemporary musical developments, but we do know that he was enthusing about recording a "Johnny Kidd Sings Gene Vincent" set during the summer of '66. That project never happened; instead, like another hero of his, Eddie Cochran, Johnny Kidd died in a car accident outside Bury, Lancashire, in the early hours of 8th October.

He was thirty, and was treading the boards with yet another Pirates line-up with typical enthusiasm, despite intermittent work and rumours of financial hardship. Too bad he didn't live to see the rock'n'roll revival of 1968-69, which would have provided him with a perfect platform for a genuine return to favour. Instead, it was left to the top rock bands of the day to pay tribute to him - Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie and the Who all knocked out "Shakin All Over" through huge PAs. The Guess Who charted with it in the States. Later Generation X, Mud and ever Motorhead revived Kidd’s work. But only Johnny had the "shivers down the backbone" touch.

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