David Buckley interviews John Ellis

David Buckley is a biographer of some of the most iconic acts of recent years including David Bowie, REM, Kraftwerk, and many more.

John Ellis is probably best known as founder of one of Britain’s first punk groups, the Vibrators, but stints with Peter Gabriel and Peter Hammill (Van Der Graaf Generator), and ten years with the Stranglers, along with myriad solo and collaborative projects makes John one of the busiest (unsigned) musicians in the business. I first met John along back in 1996, just after the release of the underrated album, About Time, and during the making of the Andy Gill-produced Written In Red. These two albums marked the high-point of the Paul Roberts/John Ellis Stranglers era. John is the webmaster and designer of this website and is still a good friend despite his liking for Robbie Williams, and his penchant for the Blues (to which I am almost completely allergic).

DB: How did you first get into music? Are you self-taught?

JE: Yes, I’m self-taught. My mum played a lot of music in the house and we always went to see live music when we were on holiday. I saw Lonnie Donegan, Cliff and The Shadows, Lord Sutch and other interesting people when I was just a nipper. I always knew I loved listening to music. We had a good stereo at home early on so I had something to play music on when I was young. Iwas very lucky to have been a blossoming consumer of music during the golden age of the 60’s.

I didn’t take a serious interest in playing guitar till I was around 12 or 13 then I just dabbled for a few years until I started to take it a bit more seriously and set about learning lots of other peoples music when I was 15 or 16.

DB: Tell us about Bazooka Joe. It seems an incredible ‘feeder’ band in that not only were members of the Vibrators and Madness in the band, but also Adam Ant and the comedian Arabella Weir!

JE: I started Bazooka Joe with my good friend Daniel Kleinman. I think the original line-up also had Richard Wernham on drums. He eventually joined The Motors and had a hit record.

I guess I was about 16 when we did our first gig at Hampstead Town Hall. It was a near sell-out. The word had got out that we were playing proper rock ‘n’ roll. So there we were, a bunch of kids, performing to middle aged Teds and Rockers doing that weird tribal dancing thing. We did quite a few more gigs in that line-up.

Unfortunately we never got round to recording.

Then I left the band before lots of the other people came in. Adam Ant (then Stewart Goddard) played bass for little while, Dan Barson (Brother of Mike Barson of Madness) became a lead singer. Arabella Weir was one of the Lillettes, the backing singers. Lots of other interesting people came and went.

DB: In the 1970s, many artists went on to become rich, famous, and household names out of the punk/new wave milieu, yet many others never made it. Was it down to inherent talent, luck, or simply who you knew when it came to getting on?

JE: David, are you asking my why my career has been such a failure?

To answer your question I would say it’s a combination of all of things plus ambition. Although punk sold itself on the myth of rebellion against the music industry and being the voice of disaffected youth, it’s clear that many of the artists in punk/new wave wanted to be stars and loved being in the music industry.

Here’s a little true story that says something about luck.

The Vibrators had a minor hit with a song called ‘Automatic Lover’ (UK Highest Position: Number 35). Epic records had got us a slot on the Marc Bolan show that would have pushed our single higher up the charts. On the night the show was broadcast Bolan was killed in a car crash. They took out our slot on the show and replaced it with a Bolan/Bowie duet. So we didn’t get the push up the charts.

In terms of who you knew in the business, The Vibrators were gigging while the rest were ligging. Because we were always on the road, we didn’t develop a big network of press support. Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill had it in for us for some reason and virtually destroyed our career overnight with some vindictive writing and reviews.

Also, we lacked ambition. We started the band to have fun. We accidentally got involved with punk so we went along for the ride. We never saw it as a career. We were too busy having a good time. So we didn’t aspire.

John with The Vibrators

Meanwhile our support bands like The Tourists (soon to become The Eurythmics) went on to become world class acts. Here’s a little story:

There was quite a long period when I wasn’t working in music so I drove a mini cab in North London. At the same time, my old Art School mate, Stewart Goddard, had become one of the world’s biggest artists as Adam Ant. One evening I got a driving job to the forum in Kentish Town. I dropped off my fare and went to the chip shop right next door to the forum. As I was going to my car, Adam came out of the venue surrounded by body guards. He saw me but there was no acknowledgment.

Another time, after I’d left The Stranglers, I was doing some fundraising for The London Wildlife Trust in a store in West London. Paul Weller walked by my little display but once again, no contact. I believe The Jam played the 100 Club Punk Festival on the night The Vibrators headlined. So you see…….you never know what can happen in the strange old business of music.

DB: The Vibrators were at the forefront the punk movement and yet there was a lot of mistrust from some other punk musicians. Why was this?

JE: As I said, we weren’t connected with the movers and shakers of the time. When we got our first deal with RAK and Mickey Most, it pissed a lot of people off. When we got out of that deal and went to Epic, the damage had already been done. At that time the scene was very cliquey.

So if you were a musician you hung out with other musos and more importantly, fledgling writers. So then you are starting to create the new mythologies aided by your mates in the press and other media. These days, I wouldn’t be surprised if Joe Strummer was beatified soon.

There’s a great book by George Melly called Revolt into Style that covers this subject very well. Because The Vibrators were always on the road we were not in their little club.

DB: After the Vibrators you formed REM. Tell us about that project? Where you surprised when a band of the same name made it quite big!?

JE: After getting out of The Vibrators, J J Burnel asked me to play guitar for some live gigs to support his Euroman album. I’d been thinking about a new band doing something a bit more interesting, so I asked if I could do a support slot to the Euroband with my own new band called Rapid Eye Movement. Once again it was a project with Daniel Kleinman. This time it featured dancers (from Hot Gossip) and some electronics including drum machine. It was quite an amazing band actually.

My first solo single, ‘Babies in Jars’ is a live recording from one of gigs we did. Unfortunately, due to internal pressures the band imploded at the end of the tour.

DB: I first saw you play live at the only second gig I ever went to, when you played guitar in Peter Gabriel’s band in 1980. Gabriel was at a creative high then. Would you agree? And what was he like as a person?

JE: Yes. Peter was doing brilliant stuff and always coming up with great ideas for recording and live performance. He was very nice to work with and made me feel very comfortable playing in such exulted company.

When I was in the band Peter was developing his interest in World music and he was always exploring technologies, too.

A great experience in many ways and my first experience of “BIG” touring.

DB: I know you are a huge fan of Peter Hammill and have played with him on several tours and albums. Can you explain his significance to those like me who are not that conversant with his work?

JE: Peter Hammill is one of most significant artists of British contemporary music. His amazing output of studio and live work is full of incredible songs and instrumental music, which would be enough in its own right. But add to that one of the most astonishing voices to be found in any musical context, you have a combination that cannot be ignored. Many people find Peter’s work too much to take. When it’s full on it’s like a hurricane. And that’s solo!!

There’s also all the Van Der Graaf Generator material too.

Some of my best musical performances have been with Peter. I’ve enjoyed working with him in band and duo format. And I’m very proud to have been associated with him.

DB: I know you are a fan of all sorts of music including progressive, electronic and also the blues, as well as just pure pop. Who are your musical idols?

JE: Have you got a couple of weeks?

There are so many. How about I give you a random 20? These are individuals, not bands.

That’s another very long story.

Peter Green
Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson
Frank Zappa
Peter Hammill
Todd Rundgren
Blind Willie Johnson
Rev Gary Davis
Richard Thompson
John Fahey
Davy Graham
Bob Dylan
Larry Fast
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ibrahim Ag Alhabib
Bukka White
Paul McCartney
Don Van Vliet
Joe Meek
Big Bill Broonzy

DB: You played for over a decade with the Stranglers, starting in the Hugh era, and ending in 2000. How was that experience for you?

JE: It had its moments.

I did have some very interesting experiences while I was in the band. We did a promo video that required us all to do our own stunts. I got the fire stunt. There’s a clip in the video where I’m totally on fire playing my guitar.

The Falkland Island trips to play for the troops were amazing too. I remember literally hanging out of the back of an aeroplane flying across the islands while a tornado bomber rose up from underneath us to refuel. Later that day we were helicoptered onto the top of an island in the South Atlantic to play for 28 troops manning a radar station. That was a very interesting evening!

And you can’t deny The Stranglers have created some amazing and underrated music which was fantastic to play live.

DB : Finally, I know you have been working on a lot of musical projects over the last ten years – solo and in collaboration, as well as working as an aid worker and also as a teacher. Tell us about John Ellis today?

JE: John Ellis today is still making music. I pay the bills by teaching guitar but have recently had a burst of songwriting, so I’ve been out and about performing as a singer/songwriter. And I’ve been doing some live improvised looping shows.

Live looping performance for film by Moishe Moser.

I probably have about 10 albums now of unreleased material in all sorts of styles.
I still collaborate with other artists. I play guitar on 3 amazing albums by the great Judge Smith, co-founder of Van Der Graaf Generator. There’s an interesting album by Negapadres 3 coming out that I contribute to.

I’m also doing some work with a young British producer called Skitzbeatz. I think a couple of the artists he’s producing are doing some of my songs.

So I keep pretty busy but I’d love to get back to playing in a band full time as well as doing my little solo shows.

I have been involved in running arts-based workshops for community groups over the last 12 years. I’ve very much enjoyed doing SOUNDBEAM workshops with special needs groups.

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