John Watts has been described by a fellow artist as “a force of nature”. In the three decades of his career he has amassed a considerable body of creative work. His distinctive writing has steadily evolved against a variety of musical forms encompassing written word, poetry and humour. He has a distinguished catalogue of seventeen original albums with sales in excess of two million.
This self-confessed “follower of the troubadour tradition” was born in December 1954, into a family of singers. He progressed through school inspired musically by the late sixties Trojan catalogue and the great ‘maverick’ artists from Alex Harvey to Lou Reed, Captain Beefheart to David Bowie, Jake Thackery to James Brown. His childhood heroes were George Best and Pablo Picasso.
John was the mastermind of Fischer-Z, contemporaries of the Police and Talking Heads. He formed the band with Steve Skolnik at Brunel University in 1976. Arriving at a point where punk, art wave and reggae crossed over, they secured a record deal with UA in 1978 alongside the Buzzcocks, the Stranglers and Dr Feelgood. For the previous three years Watts had been studying clinical psychology and at the same time travelling up and down the country in an ailing dormobile van, playing the punk and new wave club circuit.
This was an era when small indie label credibility was paramount to English profile. The British music press’ attitude to Watts and Fischer-Z was somewhat suspicious. His stylish demob suits, ‘cheeky chappie’ persona and melodic literate songs singled him out from the black leather jackets of the punk and new wave majority. The first album Word Salad was released in 1979. It was a cult record in the UK (John Peel supported the single Remember Russia), but an even bigger critical success and commercial start across continental Europe. There were substantial appearances on The Old Grey Whistle Test and a first Top of the Pops with The Worker single. This first album firmly established Watts’ ability to convey worldly political issues in narrative songs against a background of quirky pop and reggae-influenced music.
The second album, cleverly titled Going Deaf for a Living (1980), reinforced Watts’ trademark insightful and humorous view of the world set against strong melodies. It included So Long, his first chart hit single across Europe and in Australia. The band toured extensively throughout Europe and also made their first trip to America. European success was growing fast and the demand for a new album brought Watts back with the powerfully atmospheric Red Skies Over Paradise (1981). This third album, “a candid and passionate appraisal of Cold War Europe”, struck a chord with a large audience. Berlin, Marliese, Cruise Missiles and the title track have all been described as ‘classics’ of that eraand contributed to the million selling status of the record. A performance at Pinkpop Festival that summer was described “as a major triumph”. He also performed on the bill with Bob Marley on his final European festival tour.
By 1981 Watts was firmly established across continental Europe as “a leading exponent of overtly political pop songs.” His TV appearances included a chat show confrontation with an American 5-star general over the continued US occupation of Europe, where he demonstrated a formidable grasp of military and political history.
Watts split up Fischer-Z in summer 1981 and quickly released an isolated single Your Fault. He felt his art could not evolve within the context of the band. His first solo album, One More Twist was subsequently released in 1982. The single One Voice is a favourite with Watts’ early fans. He was beginning to demonstrate his determination to evolve as a creative artist committed to reinvention, a trait that he most admired about his teenage hero David Bowie.
The record company and music business establishment expected Watts to go back and make another Fischer-Z record and so his first solo album was treated as a side project. He responded in his characteristically enthusiastic way by recording the highly ambitious The Iceberg Model (1983). This project incorporated Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Brass section, strings, improvisations and experimental techniques usually associated with modern classical music. Critically acclaimed, it remains “something of an undiscovered gem.”
Although the sales of his solo work were not so big, he continued to build his reputation as a most accomplished live performer and also as a songwriter with a genuinely individual ‘voice’. Early in 1983 Watts demonstrated an eager involvement with World music, by producing a mini album for Zulu artist Busi Mhlongo in Amsterdam.
Watts began his career in bands as a drummer. His “percussive energetic rhythm guitar playing” has always been a testament to this background. The Quick Quick Slow album (1984), which he released as The Cry, was the first album to place an emphasis on crucial groove elements combined with strong song writing. This ability has developed in Watts’ latest albums. ( QQS has since become Watts’ most sought after rare album.) His collaboration with now famous dance producer Jimmy Douglass on this project was a typically forward thinking eclectic gesture.
Until 1985 Watts had produced an album per year and toured and promoted incessantly. At this point in his career he was trying to resolve his role of constantly touring artist with that of father of 2 young children. Consequently he spent the next couple of years developing and recording new material with the multitalented Ian Porter and honing his now considerable performance art skills. He was also very deeply affected by the political events unfolding as Thatcher tried to beat down the trade unions in Britain. His Dark Crowds of Englishmen song, written at the time, is “one of the most evocative musical records of the miners’ strike.” Ironically, although regularly performed live by Watts, this fine piece of work is not included on any of his albums. During this period he simultaneously produced a critically acclaimed live performance album for the Zap Club in his hometown of Brighton.
Reveal, Watts’ seventh studio album, appeared early in 1988. This included his biggest single success to date, The Perfect Day. Fans found it difficult to differentiate between Watts’ identity and that of his band Fischer-Z. This was a new sound and totally different personnel. His reluctance to perform older classic material in its original arrangement and his total emphasis on new work has become his trademark. “My only obligation is to be good, not to play what the audience want.” The album represented a commercial highpoint, but coincided with a lengthy period of personal and family upheaval for Watts.
A second album in this series, Fish’s Head, arrived a year later (1989). This included the evocative Say No single, with a politically charged black & white Nick Brandt promo clip, which was banned by Watts’ own record label on the grounds of it potentially “endangering the lives of their employees worldwide”. Watts, not for the first time, fell foul of the politics of combining spontaneous art with major record company sensibilities. In this period Watts performed to 167,000 people at a Peace Festival in East Berlin (before ‘The Wall’ came down) along with James Brown. He was interviewed about Thatcherism on German national news.
After a change of record companies and a particularly productive period of song writing, Watts combined two different sets of recordings to produce the “dynamic and cinematic” Destination Paradise album (1992). The title track was a chart single and it once again demonstrated Watts’ acute observation of political events. Will You Be There? Was another chart single and was adopted by the fans as a firm live favourite. This album showed Watts’ class song writing with themes ranging from the Gulf War to quizzical Latin love songs. The release was followed by extensive touring, which helped to build a new generation of fans.
During this period Watts introduced a new element of performance art into the live shows. He was accompanied on tour by performance artists Ian and Angie Smith. It was also the same year that Watts confronted attitudes to fascist politicians Haider and Schoenhuber live on the nationwide Thomas Gottschalk chat show (audience 15 million) with ‘Say No to the Fascist Response’ T shirts protest and a white picnic.
Watts’ next project was the “definitely darker” Kamikaze Shirt album (1994), which dealt with the international ‘have nots’ of the world. The single Human Beings, was a harrowing indictment of the low value of human life in many parts of the world. Protection, the first single from his next album Stream (1995), also dealt with the dark area of child exploitation.
1997 saw the release of one of Watts’ strongest guitar albums.The extremely tight three-piece line up with Phil Spalding and Steve Kelner was the perfect foil for him on Thirteen Stories High (1997). It was described as “the best set of narrative songs that Watts has produced so far.” Many of these tunes, such as Angel of Gardenia, are still popular in contemporary live performances. Watts chose to tour the album solo. This radical approach led to a series of interesting new contacts and some work with Alex Gifford of the Propellerheads, which took his career in a much more radical direction.
Until then Watts had worked with a variety of musicians and band line-ups. Instruments had been arranged around his song structures. From this point in his career he was to turn this method on its head. Bigbeatpoetry (1999) and the Spiritual Headcase Remixes (2000) signalled a much more radical approach to making music. This, Watts’ thirteenth album, combined his poetry, prose and song lyrics with Ingo Worner’s DJ beats, audio collages and dance floor rhythms. The title track, Bigbeatpoetry, was a substantial ‘Beat’ style poem half-spoken over a simple hip-hop beat. “The cascading bigbeat single”, Walking the Doberman, has become something of a cult classic. This was a dramatic illustration of Watts’ ability to experiment with form. This album also represented the start of a new ‘multigenerational’ following. Watts’ work appeared in the student charts. He toured with Ingo Worner – just voice, guitar and decks on concert tours and big outdoor festivals.
Watts’ interest in combining grooves and literate songs continued into his next project, Ether Music & Film (2002). He also decided to add a filmic dimension. He wrote and recorded an album of songs, just guitar and voice, over cut-up beats as a rhythm track. He then travelled throughout Europe and post 9/11 New York City to ‘find’ musicians at random and record them on his laptop in their homes or even in the street. Sarah Vermeersch filmed the process and edited the footage into a road movie, which accompanies the album as a DVD.
His next album, Real Life Is Good Enough (2004), was a “wild beast” of a two-piece fifteen track album made with drummer and multi-musician Sam Walker, recorded spontaneously in a raw ‘back to basics’ fashion. This was organic multimedia in a different form, the CD accompanied by a 60-page book of related poetry and short stories. Singles Birthday and What a Time to Live were both complimented by stylish short films. Watts’ connection with the student population was strengthened as he began to combine student concerts and university lectures on a variety of subjects including ‘connections’ between politics and art.
It has to be (2006) was the album that followed as a sequel to Real life is Good Enough. Again, Watts travelled and explored, with the intention of collecting strangers’ ‘real life stories’, filmed by Sarah Vermeersch. In return for these filmed interviews he wrote twelve songs for twelve people in twelve different countries. Singles ‘Adrian’s song – Brothers and Premila’s Song – 60’s Life both received much media attention.