A joint review from Chris Rogers and I of a band that are one to watch in 2014.
However you discover a new band – something played on the radio or as background while you shop, a friend’s recommendation – it’s a fair bet it’ll be via a recording. Hearing a group for the very first time as a live act, though, is something rather special. Loving their material the instant you see/hear them is even better.
For me and Girl Called Johnny, this dual serendipity occurred just four weeks ago when they opened for Texas at the Hammersmith Apollo. The sharp, retro sound of this British three-piece – (frontwoman, guitar and songwriter Karen Anne, Michael on drums and Ross, lead guitar and vocals) leaped out in the instantly-catchy set, and I’ve been playing their eponymous EP – itself recorded live – ever since. When I found out the group were playing The Monarch Bar at Camden this weekend just gone, then, I not only took myself along but recommended some friends come too. Comfortably installed, and after a warm-up from Waiting For Go, Karen and the guys stepped on to the intimate stage in the Monarch’s front room, and off we went…
The Monarch gig was my first contact with Girl Called Johnny. A chance phone call from Chris while Clive and I were plotting future Speakeasies led to me cheekily inviting myself along. Chris' taste is impeccable: if he likes a band, then they're usually worth checking out.
After a bright bouncy set from Scottish openers Waiting For Go (if you're into the Two Door Cinema Club/Foals aesthetic, you'll like these guys) Girl Called Johnny revved up and let loose. The look is black leather jackets, dual Gretsch guitars for that rockabilly twang attack. No bassist, weirdly. Karen is the focus, and wisely so: power pop with a cool blonde up front is always going to be a winning combo, and Girl Called Johnny have honed that look and feel beautifully.
First single Heaven Knows and Sunshine were punchy, upbeat tracks, driven by Michael’s crisp drumming and terrific guitar from Ross, supported by Karen. Her voice – part honey, part sass – and overall style recall Blondie, a comparison also overheard at Hammersmith and wholly fitting; an edgier, ramped-up cover of Tainted Love made a further connection with that period. Current single Hey Jackie is a rockabilly gem, with a propulsive tune, one of the best choruses I’ve heard for a long time with its almost-overlapped Hey-hey-hey and an explosive cut to it that appears one of Karen’s writing signatures.
There's a retro styling to the songs, a boom-shang-alang that somehow never gets old, never dates. Chris cites Blondie, but there's a list of influences as long as your arm: from The Smiths to The Cardigans, glam rock to rockabilly to shimmering pop. I only recently found out that the original vocalist for Tainted Love, Gloria Jones, was behind the wheel of the car in which Marc Bolan died. It's an accurate description of the approach Girl Called Johnny take: love won and lost, hearts stolen and broken, and tragedy lurking around the next corner.
The first of the group’s stand-out songs was the ballsy Tell That Girl, a cracking song of urban dreams whose cutting lyrics – And you know she’s going out tonight/With those city boys and their bright headlights/Maybe you’ll go down there and start a fight/Or just stay home and cry/Why don’t you/Tell her, tell her, that girl? – and punky riffs really hit the spot. The lack of a bass guitar in the line-up gives all the songs a fleetness of foot that adds plenty but takes nothing away.
But it’s with King of Upstarts, though, that we get a true modern classic. Perfectly crafted in every detail and about, as Karen put it, “getting fucked over, something we can all relate to”, it’s a magnificent, painful piece with Karen’s vocals delivering a real kick to her lyrics. Ross’s guitar solo wrenches, as does the finish, faded on You say, say it’s all over/But you just don’t see what I showed you/I will always love you/I will always love you… Make no mistake, in its rhythms and elegiac tone, this is a Don’t Look Back In Anger for the 2010s.
In contrast closing song Dreams, penned for the band, was a wonderful, uplifting end to the evening, anthemic musically and showcasing Karen and Ross’s beautiful harmonies.
The dark edge to Karen's songs belies how much fun Girl Called Johnny are live. A packed Monarch hollered and bounced to the tunes, and whooped appreciatively when Karen shed her biker jacket to reveal… a lumberjack shirt. You don't need to show skin to sex it up a bit.
What you're instantly struck by is the craft and art on display. Classic songwriting with the chops to deliver it in style mean that Girl Called Johnny really are the whole package. If they can win over both Texas fans and the notoriously snarky Camden indie kids, then I think we have us a winner.
Brighton-born Karen actually worked with Texas on their current album, co-writing several tracks including The Conversation and the brilliant Detroit City (as Karen Overton); on the strength of that and this tight, potent group of songs for her own band, she is a genuine talent to watch. Karen confirmed Girl Called Johnny will be gigging some more – do go. And who knows, we might even get an album soon, that usual way to get to hear a new band…
Photos courtesy of Chris Rogers, apart from the last one, by yr humble etc.
*EDIT* Chris reminds me that Heaven Knows was GCJ's first single. The new one, Hey Jackie, was released on the 9th of December. Here's the video…