Jon C Butler

Interview by Paul Davies

Singer and songwriter for the legendary Diesel Park West, Jon C Butler has released a new solo recording: Universal Stranger. Rocktopia caught up with Jon to discuss his current release and, whilst we were at it, rock 'n' roll stories of touring America as lead singer in Widowmaker, recording an album at John Lennon's house, being produced by recording legend Chris Kimsey and solid gold tales of meeting Jagger and Richards. As Jon explains:

Jon C Butler Interview

As I recall you became the lead singer for Widowmaker. Tell me how that came about....

I was living in Islington, in 1976, having a right old time just absorbing the seismic change that was on its way with punk. I remember Joe Strummer and his 101ers at the Nashville Rooms, the Pistols supporting Eddie and the Hotrods at the Marquee with Lydon, whom I liked instantly, he was dressed like a member of Showaddywaddy with his Ted coat and creepers. I had never seen a support band clear the bar at the Marquee before, but they did because everyone moved into the gig room to see this thing! You get the picture, that's where I was aged 22 and generally up for anything.... Then out of the blue I got a call from Widowmakers office asking if I would like to audition as their singer because Steve Ellis had left and they wanted to do an album, then get back to America asap. I had actually seen them with Ellis earlier on that year, again at the Marquee, during that hot summer. I went to see them because of Huw Lloyd Langton, their second guitarist, who was a friend of mine. So I went to see his band who were doing ok, they were on the up so to speak. I thought they were pokey and tight with a good rock thing going on and of course, Ellis on vocals brought a familiarity to the proceedings because his voice was so well known. They were good and the place was rammed for the second consecutive night but, obviously, it never entered my head that I might join them one day. Huw had put my name forward (he knew I could sing having seen me in a local Leicester band doing a London gig), so after Steve left I went down and sang immediately and getting the gig probably because of my image as much as anything else.
We recorded an album and toured the UK and Germany, then the USA having a real rockist time along the way. I was a young British rock singer with some money, that was a first, and in America, 1977, with my straight leg jeans and long hair. So, of course, it was a very steep learning curve regarding the pleasures of life! It did, however, take me away from the absolute epicentre of the emerging punk and new wave culture that I may have been a natural for, and that's something I regret about joining them, but parallel to that is the fact that it gave me a tremendous experience in Stadium rock and, I have to say, by the time the band had come to the end of the American tour it was on fire musically. The tour finished with four nights at the Whiskey, in LA, and having come straight from the stadiums the tightness and power was incredible. If that band had returned to London regrouped and then caught the next rock wave, which happened about 1979, once punk was pretty much spent as a commercial force, it could have been massive and probably still be going to this day.

What were you doing between the period of Widowmaker and the beginning of Diesel Park West and is it true that you recorded an album at John Lennon's house?

After Widowmaker, I came back to England but instead of London, I went home to Leicester. There was a guy there who I very much rated as a drummer, so I had it my head to build a band around him and me. In fact, I joined the dying embers of a band that he was still playing with albeit, by this time, just as a recording unit at dear old Bob Priddens' place; Bob was The Who's long-standing soundman. When that fizzled out we both sort of kicked along for a while, playing local places and seeing who might be around to do something with. Eventually, we did a session with a couple of people I knew from my time in London and the tracks we put down ended up getting us a serious deal with Ariola, who at that point had just signed Japan and had hit the money with Boney M and their Babylon song. That resulted in us getting a full line up together and by autumn 1978 we were at Tittenhurst Park recording an album. It was Lennon's house, the place where he did Imagine the same one in all of the clips of him. It's an amazing house near Ascot, obviously an old colonial dwelling, with huge grounds, and it became our home for about four months. The guy who looked after the place said to us "you can get up to anything you want to get up to ( we sure did that ) go anywhere you want, no problem, except for this one store room, OK, you are not allowed to go in there!" Of course, we went straight in there, after he had left, to find it full of Beatles' gear, amps, Rickenbacker guitars and some of the drums; a treasure trove of fab fourness. I especially remember a Fender amp, with fag burns on the top, and a sticker saying "George, for repair" you know, that kind of casual incidental stuff any band has, but this was the Beatles!

It seemed to me that what had gone on there was a case of a band splitting up and one member storing the equipment for a while. Anyway, we finished an album full of harmonies, quite intricate guitars and a bit of a jangle fest which came out in 1979, to utter indifference and sinking without trace under the New Wave; even though it certainly has elements of that about it. The album is called, 'Go For The Effect' and the band were 'The Flicks'. We did one tour around the UK supporting Frankie Miller and that was it, then the wilderness for the next eight years. There is, however, a lot to be said in favour of the wilderness because, musically, it lets you develop your own thing unhindered by fashion and trend which is exactly what we did. By 1981, we had rescued Geoff Beavan from some awful glam band he was playing bass in, and then met Rick Willson who was in a proficient but kind of middle of the road covers band with his elder brother. He did, however, have a kind of natural vagueness about him and was clearly a good player; he also ran his own tiny four track studio. We started recording there, with him, where at first he just engineered but pretty soon he was putting his Telecaster over my chorus based songs and we knew we had something going. Mind you, it took a while making a lot of mistakes along the way mainly whenever we tried to bend to the times. It was only when we started to put stuff down, with absolutely no thought of compromise, and just doing what we wanted to do those songs like When The Hoodoo Comes, Like Princes Do and All The Myths On Sunday started to appear. This was over a very long period of time, but we were also gigging by then as 'The Filberts' and becoming very popular locally which added to the creativity. In 1987 we signed to Food Records for about three grand, which was a massive break for them, more than us, because EMI was so insistent on signing the already signed and newly named Diesel Park West, that they signed Food itself as a label in order to get hold of us. So, with their clout, we were able to record a major label album with Chris Kimsey at Olympic.

What was it like to record with legendary producer Chris Kimsey? Are there any stories that you can share from that time?

Well, the irony there was that it was Chris who had recorded the Widowmaker album I sang on back in '77. When we first met again, at Nomis rehearsal studios in Shepherds Bush, I actually tried to hide my face from him in case he twigged who I was. Imagine that, here we were at the first meeting with someone who is going to record the debut record and there I am trying to hide from him; totally nuts! I think it was because of being keen not to give any past lives away, such was the desire to be seen as organically new. Anyway, that little wheeze didn't work and we both had a laugh about it. Chris was great to work with, he has an air in the studio with just the right combination of command and friendliness to bring out the best in people. He reminded me as a sort of benevolent Henry the Eighth! He got the guitars and vocals really shimmering on Shakespeare Alabama, it belongs as much to him, and engineer Chris Potter, as it does to us. One night, in May 1989, after our debut had come out. and in the middle of a tour. he asked me down to a Stones session at Olympic, which was memorable. At one point, Jagger came up to me, in the control booth, right up to my face shaking a pair of maracas and getting into what was coming out of the speakers. He said to me, "it sounds just like a small club, doesn't it" that was a trip. Keith Richards, who had brought Peter Cook with him to the studio after a night on the piss, seemed quite shy or shall we say reserved. Keith and I both sat down browsing through a copy of Sounds, with him pointing at a piece about him saying to me "what a load of crap, I never said that at all." All in all the Stones seemed very keen and happy to be in the studio and full of enthusiasm.

Chris had a copy of Shakespeare Alabama on the desk on which Jagger said to Richards, "Diesel Park West, is not a recording studio Keith." I think that they liked our album, though. It was only a block at the BBC playlist on all things DPW which prevented us from probably having huge success. We were a strong live band too, due to years of experience and on stage, it really shone through resulting in us influencing a lot of other bands that came afterwards, that much is obvious. Chris, as it happens, has just made a record for Peter Perrett on which he has done a great job with the guitars, so he is still coming through with fab productions and bless him for that.

Food Records had an interesting and varied roster including a certain Britpop band: Blur. What was it like being a rock band amongst these Britpop upstarts?

Well, when we first took up with them they only had a couple of acts and nothing of real note, but they were perceived as being a hip label. We merely enabled them access to a vast amount of the EMI resource which in turn, by about 1990, enabled them to get first of all Jesus Jones, who are basically a novelty act, then Blur. Damon Albarn is an OK guy, who made his lyrical skills and sheer bloody minded ambition go a long way, I guess. Coxon is a great guitar player and a very effective backing singer, but the unsung talent in that band is Dave Rowntree. Dave is a wonderful drummer, who managed to reign in the band's more eccentric style with his grooves but, at the same time, allow that very thing to project also which, of course, is what they were all about. I really rate him. I understand he is a politician now!

We felt like elder statesmen around them, which was true by comparison. We got seriously trashed with them at the Hiatt in LA, one time, where they told us that Dave Balfe - owner of Food Records - had encouraged them to get as "fucked up as possible" so, in a way, they may have been simply obeying orders; whereas we were naturals. Funny thing is apart from JJ, Blur and before them DPW who made the major label world possible for them, in the first place, Food never managed to get anything away at all, despite spending massive amounts of cash which, presumably, EMI let them have because of Blur. I remember that there was a band named Strangelove who came in - just as we were shown the door - and who Food must have spent a fortune on, but nothing happened.There were several others, too. Mint 400 and a band called Whirlpool who never even had a release, but featured that guy, Gem Archer, who went on to play with Liam Gallagher. He was a big DPW fan and must have been taking notes. What Food might have done, but didn't, was to say to us after our second album, the overproduced and costly Decency, "look you fuckers, we know how great you are but this record has just gobbled up so much bread, without giving us a winner, so go away record a third record, on a shoestring, and we will pay for that but you can forget wages or luxuries. Go and sign on the dole, for all we care, but give us a great album. Now fuck off and do it." We could have taken that too and, of course, the album would have been 'The Corporate Waltz' which, with an EMI promo budget, would have broken us through. A case of third time lucky ( same as Blur ) and with songs like, 'The Cat's Still Scratching' and a couple of the others, it would have done the trick. I have no doubt.

DPW album 'Vs The Corporate Waltz' was, possibly, your strongest recording as a band. Was it an acerbic dig at the record companies album?

In a way, but not directly, no, it was more an observational statement on what had happened to us and what I was seeing around us. I think that we were all constantly bemused by the sheer amount of profligate unhipness in the music business. We were not that savvy business wise, that much is true, but some of the decisions and wastefulness we encountered were mind blowing. It's a familiar tale and one that is often used as an excuse for failure but the Corporate Waltz album itself is a musical success. It's the album we love it has a real fertile sound and attitude running throughout. We did it for a few grand in a beat up studio with Paul Sampson, in Coventry, on two-inch tape and it sounds great to this day. Good Times Liberation Blues is possibly the best DPW recording of them all and other tracks come right into that equation as well. It was 1993 by then, with another wave of guitar bands just about to happen. So, as I say, if it had received real promo support, and I am not dissing Jake Riviera or Demon for the job they actually did, because they did their best, and Jake loved it, but I feel it would have got there.

'Universal Stranger' is not your first solo album. Why the name change?

Because of John Butler the Australian blues songwriter of the same name. Why invite confusion, when it is so easily resolved. I thought about a completely different name altogether like Bob Dylan or Bob Hope but, in the end, I figured Jon C is a lot more fitting and conveys, shall we say, more of a maturity of vision! My first solo album, The Loyal Serpent released on Chrysalis in 1997, is enjoying belated critical acclaim, these days, and is about to be released again in America. So there is some fire burning, somewhere. We shall see...

It's has a bright and upbeat sound of classic Butler songs. How did the album come together?

Back to Paul Sampson and the same studio we did the Corporate Waltz in, back in the day. I had the songs and decided to check them out, by recording them acoustically in a sort of Greenwich Village way at first, but the pair of us got into them deciding to bring in a drummer and put electrics on the tracks. Paul hangs vocals in such a great place, not just the lead, but the backing vocals too. He has a real knack of using them as sounds as well as a vehicle for the lyric. This album has an identity, one which I think is long overdue from me. It doesn't retread old Diesel ground and relies totally on the song being the reason. I hope people like it and take it as a new start which, even at my age, it actually is. In the end, it's the quality of the song that counts. My other half and I often refer to the envelope and letter syndrome, by which we mean, the production is the envelope and the song is the letter. If the envelope breaks open the letter won't get through the post, so that has to be sturdy and do its job. But, if it gets through only to deliver a letter which comes over as weak, then whats the point in writing and posting in the first place? Songs like 'Each Other' and 'Would Have, Should Have' are unrelentingly honest so it's worth checking out and, also, the Lovin Spoonfulish, 'Birmingham', too. I realised that it is a subconscious take on wanting to leave 'Alabama' or, in my case, 'Shakespeare Alabama' not because of any bad stuff necessarily, but because it's time to move on and for other people, the DPW people, to look at things differently. I want to make a dent with this one, and then a hole with the follow-up. I have learned well the lesson that a writer has ten years to write the first album and ten weeks to write the second. Not this time, as people will find out.

Do you plan any shows in support of Universal Stranger?

Quite likely, yes, if there is some action with the record. The songs all lend themselves to performance, but I am in no mad rush even though I like to play. I would want to do that with musicians I have never played with before, in order to take some chances onstage because the songs are all so fresh.

You have always worn your influences on your sleeve: Moby Grape, Buffalo Springfield, John Lennon to name a few. If you had the chance to join one of these bands, which one would you choose?

Moby Grape.

What does the future hold for Jon C Butler and Diesel Park West?

I don't know, I only know what I think I might want it to. One thing DPW always did was deliver! We never shirked a performance or a recording, and we always performed as best we could even during some of the madder periods. None of those guys are shirkers when it comes to music and the work ethic remains. As for me, I want to keep writing but not just because it's what I do, I want to keep searching for the chord, you know, the one that rings in a better time for all.

Universal Stranger by Jon C Butler is out now on the Strataville label.

For more information, please visit:

Jon C Butler - Universal Stranger


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