However last month we had the good fortune to witness a one off special Buzzcocks reunion show 'Back To Front' [review here] in Manchester, with the original line up, featuring John Maher on drums. Many years had passed since the gang was back together again and there have been mixed reviews around cyber space, some were a little controversial. I was keen to find out just what the Guy behind the drums had to say about it all, and curious how a retired drummer occupies his time. As you will witness John possesses a really creative streak, and he's not about to say never again to music or playing with Buzzcocks. Cast your mind back to 1978 when they appeared on Top Of The Pops with 'Ever fallen In Love'. A classic Buzzcock track!
MEL: How and who managed to tempt you back into the saddle as it were [in this case, behind the drum kit] for the reunion gigs in Manchester and London?
JOHN: It was first mentioned a couple of years ago. Raf Edmonds, the band’s manager called me. A promoter had approached him with a view to putting on a show at the Roundhouse in London (capacity 5000). He said they needed to come up with something a little extra if they were to try filling a venue that size, hence the reunion idea. I didn’t hear much more about it until the beginning of this year.
MEL: What was your initial reaction to being asked to play on the Back To Front shows?
JOHN: It got my attention but the initial aggro over Howard's financial demands had me wondering whether I wanted to participate.
MEL: It’s been quite a few years since you had been in touch with the guys or indeed met up with them, [I think you said 33 years for some of you] let alone play on stage with them. What was this like, where did you all get together and who decided on the set list?
JOHN: Last time I saw Howard was in 1979 when he joined us on stage for a Granada TV special at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester – scene of our July 1976 debut, supporting the Sex Pistols. Apart from meeting up with Pete and Steve when the current line-up played the Loopalu festival in Scotland last year, our previous encounter had been back in 1992, when I‘d stepped in temporarily after Mike Joyce quit on the eve of a European and Japanese tour.
Rehearsals for Back to Front took place in London on the three days prior to the Manchester Apollo gig. Because the current line-up’s set was to consist of post ’89 material as opposed to the usual set of ‘greatest hits’ plus a few of their newer songs, they found themselves in the position of having to learn almost an entirely new set. They did the early afternoon shift. Me and Steve Garvey turned up around 5pm to go through the ‘classic’ set. Howard didn’t appear until the final day, when we ran through the tracks from Spiral Scratch along with ‘Can’t Control Myself’. Our first run through with Howard was odd. He reminded me of Vic Reeves doing his club singer routine.
Sorting out a set list in advance was a PITA. Months beforehand I suggested Pete and Steve put forward a list, figuring they’d know which songs worked well in front of a live audience, plus the fact they’d have them down pat, leaving just Steve Garvey and myself to get match fit. In good old fashioned Buzzcocks style, nobody could make a decision ;-) The members of secretpublic.com were asked for their input. I’ve no idea if their suggestions were taken into account for the ‘classic’ set list or not. In the end, the main bulk of the ‘classic’ set was based on the songs the current line-up played during a 2011 tour of the US. Included in the US set list were a couple of newer songs and two tracks from Spiral Scratch. To make up for those being shunted out of the ‘classic’ set list, I suggested we add ‘Fiction Romance’ and ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’ ‘16 Again’ and ‘Mad, Mad Judy’ were last minute additions.
MEL: Did you practise much beforehand, did the songs come easily to you, or did you have to re play them all again.
JOHN: The Ullapool gig I attended last year was a definite wake-up call. When I joined the band on stage for a couple of songs, I knew right away I needed to get in some serious practice if the Back to Front shows were to go ahead. I borrowed a kit from a friend of mine who had helped me out with some physio after I broke my hip and wrist a few years ago. I taught her how to play drums in exchange. I set the kit up in my workshop and put in an average of 15 to 20 minutes practice each day. I got back in the swing relatively quickly. My main concern was having enough strength to make it through a set lasting approximately 80 minutes. I read an interview on Mudkiss with Generation X drummer Mark Laff and he mentions having wrist pains after getting back into playing after a long lay-off. I experienced exactly the same problem. It took a while to build up sufficient strength and flexibility to play for over an hour at the speed a typical Buzzcocks set demands. Fortunately the frequent practice sessions paid off.
MEL: I can't believe that you don't own a drum kit anymore, what happened to your original Buzzcocks one?
JOHN: I had a few kits during the first phase of Buzzcocks (1976-1981). I started with a white Slingerland. I used it to record the first album, 'Another Music in a Different Kitchen'. It's the one I'm playing in the photo on the front cover of 'Singles Going Steady'. The Slingerland kit was traded in when I got a deal with Premier. I ultimately ended up with two Premier kits, one red and one yellow. The red one got partly trashed and some of it was stolen when we played Brighton Top Rank in 1978. The crowd rioted when Pete refused to return to the stage for an encore after being continually showered with gob throughout the set. Support act on that tour was Subway Sect. I subsequently found out their drummer was the person responsible for stealing some of my cymbals that night. Pretty sure his name was Paul Packham. Fucking thieving TWAT!
I sold the yellow sparkle kit to Gary Whelan, drummer with the Happy Mondays. That was around 1988. I used a rental kit for the 1989 reunion tour and did the same again for the 'Back to Front' shows.
MEL: I read a review which really praised your drumming abilities and said you held the show together. What was it like being back on the stage after such a long time of being away from music?
JOHN: If I was going to participate I was determined to do the thing justice. Buzzcocks songs are fast and energetic. Taking an ‘it’ll be alright on the night’ approach wouldn’t get the job done so I knew I had to put in some work, particularly in light of the fact I hadn’t sat behind a proper drum kit since my last tour with the band 20 years earlier.
Not sure about the ‘holding the show together’ comment.... if that’s the case, Steve Garvey is also due a large portion of the credit. Any band will struggle to sound together if the drummer doesn’t stay on the case. If the bass and drums are dialled in, it gives the guitars some freedom to go off at a tangent – within reason.
Prior to going on stage at the Apollo I was surprised to find myself feeling very nervous – not something that used to bother me in the old days. No doubt due in part to the size of the audience but I think more about the worry of my hands seizing up as they had during the second day of rehearsals. Or maybe I was concerned I’d run out of steam before the end of the set. I found I was playing a lot harder as part of the group than I’d ever done while practising on my own. Something to do with trying to be heard through that Buzzcocks wall of noise guitar sound.
MEL: Which songs did you enjoy playing on stage again?
JOHN: I guess a lot of people might expect me to say 'Pulsebeat', but when you're rehearsing by yourself, it gets monotonous really quick doing my bastardised version of a Bo Diddley beat. I started experimenting with different drum patterns to maintain my interest and eventually ended up with a drum and bass style thing going on, with very little action on the tom-toms = more of an updated Can style treatment. I contemplated sticking it into the middle section where the drum solo normally resides but never got the opportunity. It's probably best I didn't go there.
The song I looked forward to playing most was 'Why Can't I Touch It?’ It's such a departure from the other stuff. When it comes together properly its got a neat groove to it. That rhythm still works and sounds great today. Listening back to a recording of it from the Apollo gig, I clearly played it too fast. I did the same thing with ‘Pulsebeat’. It's a strange phenomenon I obviously haven't shaken off - I often had a tendency to play songs a lot faster live than we did on record. Must be an adrenalin thing. Of the more poppy stuff, 'Love You More' worked really well. It's short, to the point and razor sharp. I always liked playing 'You Say You Don't Love Me' because it's one of the songs that really shows how well Steve Garvey and I worked together as a rhythm section. I'll leave it at that for now, otherwise I risk going way too 'muso'!
MEL: It was great to watch and photograph the original line up of Buzzcocks in Manchester, although the reviews were very mixed and created quite a stir, notably around Diggles on stage antics. What do you make of it all looking back, can you give us your honest take on the two shows?
JOHN: I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed playing as part of Buzzcocks again. I came out of it with a real sense of achievement. And of course there’s that buzz you get from playing in front of a live crowd. The controversial aspect of the shows was something I only became aware of in the days that followed. The immediate post gig feedback from those around us was all very positive, which I suppose is to be expected. When I got back home and checked out some of the reviews you’re referring to and listened back to some of the songs, I started to see events in a slightly different light i.e. the ‘Digglegate’ fiasco. Live on stage I picked up on some of what they’re referring to but with my on stage mix being predominantly drums and bass, I miss out on much of what’s going on guitar wise. At the Apollo gig I knew there were a couple of places where Steve played out of sync with the rest of us. The most glaringly obvious was when he continued to play all the way through the drum break section in ‘Pulsebeat’. What made it extra difficult was the fact he was playing one or two beats out of synch, making it really difficult to keep the pattern in shape. While I’m concentrating on that, thinking he’s eventually going to quit and let me get on with the 16 bar drum break, Pete comes back in with the first of those guitar chugs that build up to the end of the song.
Another ‘Digglegate’ moment I picked up on at the time was when he sat on the drum riser during the ‘Spiral Scratch’ set. Whether it was intended as giving the finger to Howard or not, that’s how I interpreted it. The odd thing is we never discussed it after the show. Meeting up with friends, family and people we hadn’t seen for many years distracted us from what had taken place earlier.
Steve’s on stage antics have come under real scrutiny. I think it’s safe to say the majority of the crowd at the back to Front shows won’t have seen the current incarnation of Buzzcocks, therefore, like me, missing out on the 20 year evolution of Steve Diggle into the stage character he presented in Manchester and Brixton. I can see where much of it comes from... he’s trying to counteract the almost static presence of Pete Shelley and inject some life into the proceedings. Some people like what he does. Many commented to me he was totally over the top to the point of being annoying. If you were there I’m sure you’ll know what I’m talking about and you’ll have your own opinion. It’s not my place to tell Steve how he should behave on stage, other than to say the tunes should come first. I hate saying it but in my opinion Steve got the balance wrong in Manchester and Brixton. His on stage antics took priority and his playing ability suffered as a result, which in certain places dragged down the performance of the band as a whole. The body language between Pete and Steve at times told its own story. Bear in mind, my opinion is based on my previous experience of playing with Buzzcocks. Back then the band was tight. Everyone played well and mistakes were few and far between. Rightly or wrongly I assumed things would be the same in 2012.
Bringing Howard Devoto back in to the fold was bound to be a weird one. When the Back to Front concept was first put forward I was informed Howard was asking for a fee per show several times greater than everybody else – to the point it made the whole exercise unviable. Hardly conducive to an atmosphere of camaraderie and co-operation. The business side of things was out of my hands and I was happy to leave it that way. Eventually something was worked out with Howard and the plan came together.
MEL: What was it like watching someone else in your old job behind the drum kit?
JOHN: It was a strange experience watching Danny hammer out many of those rhythms and patterns I’d come up with decades ago when I watched the current line-up in Ullapool last year. I was genuinely impressed with how tight and professional a show they put on. They went down a storm with the festival crowd. We all went for a meal and a few drinks after the show. It was great to catch up with everyone again and meet the new boys, Danny and Chris. It was a very different atmosphere to the Back to Front shows, presumably because this was a tight-knit scaled down unit that had been touring together for several years, getting on with their usual routine without intrusions from a number of ghosts from the past ;-)
MEL: Do you think Shelley, Devoto, Diggle, Garvey have changed much in all the years you were together as a band, and as mates. You and Diggle were best mates growing up, was it like meeting old school friends that you didn’t have much in common with anymore?
JOHN: We didn’t have the opportunity to do much socialising during the whole Back to Front experience. The songs haven’t changed but the people have. It felt familiar but I also felt like an outsider... I was temporarily in town to steal Danny’s place behind the drum kit and disrupt the normal routine of the 21st century version of Buzzcocks. I’ve got to say Danny was great about the whole thing. We got on well, had several techy drum chats and even managed to do a dual drummer blast through ‘Nothing Left’ during the soundcheck at Brixton. Maybe if all the members had spent more time getting to re-know each other, the performances would have benefited – maybe not.
MEL: Can you explain the weird scenario in which Devoto brought on an assistant…i.e. sunglasses and mirror? Did any of you guys know he was going to go through this little routine, ‘cos from where I was standing [in the pit] you all appeared a bit flummoxed?
JOHN: I had no idea that was going to happen. Initially I thought it was a piss take of some kind but thinking it over after the show, I came to the conclusion it was almost certainly some carefully crafted artful reference to something or other, because that’s what I’d expect of Howard. After the show I asked his manager (the guy who came on with the mirror) what it was all about. He had no idea, and like me, figured it must have deep significance of some sort. When it happened again at the Brixton gig I knew what was coming so it didn’t seem as odd second time round. It was a mistake not to discuss it with us prior to the Apollo gig because from where I was sitting, it only served to reinforce the impression Howard was acting as a person removed from the band as opposed to being a member of it.
MEL: And I guess I have to ask would you do it all again, and if so, is there anything you would do differently or indeed would like to see things done different?
JOHN: I’d probably agree to do it again but only if there was some form of quality control system put in place. I think even the members of the current line-up would agree their set was too long. Shorten that first set by 15 minutes and make Howard work harder for his money by adding a few more songs into the final set, like doing a few tracks off what became known as the ‘Time’s Up’ bootleg. That was our first ever visit to a recording studio, back in 1976 and still stands as my favourite Buzzcocks album. As some people have suggested, it could have been interesting to do some kind of mash-up with ‘Lipstick’ and ‘Shot By Both Sides’.
Looking back on the gigs with the benefit of a month’s worth of hindsight, I can see there were a few improvements at Brixton compared to Manchester, in particular the ‘Spiral Scratch’ set. Howard came across as the charismatic front man and Steve Diggle stayed upright in his presence. It probably looked corny but at the end of the Brixton gig, having finished ‘Can’t Control Myself’, we all walked to the front of the stage and took a bow together. It wasn’t something we’d planned in advance - it was a spontaneous gesture and was a great way to sign off. Maybe we all knew we’d never be doing this again?
MEL: It all seems such a long time ago, but what made you decided to split from Buzzcocks and after brief stints with Wah!, Flag Of Convenience, and Pauline Murray's Invisible Girls retire from the music industry altogether? And do you ever have any regrets about quitting?
JOHN: Pete Shelley was responsible for the original Buzzcocks split in 1981. We were supposed to start recording demos for the fourth album when we each received a solicitor’s letter informing us he was quitting the band. It came as a shock. I joined Buzzcocks while I was still at school. In fact I quit school during my first year in sixth form to go on the White Riot Tour with the The Clash and The Slits. I was 16 when I joined the band and it was all over before I was 21.
Following the split I spent a couple of years freelancing with other bands. I already knew Pauline Murray and Robert Blamire from their days in Penetration. Robert and I had played on Patrik Fitzgerald’s debut album, ‘Grubby Stories’. Pauline and Robert were based in Liverpool at the time and I spent a lot of time working over there after Buzzcocks split. Wayne Hussey, who later fronted the Mission, was also a member of the Invisible Girls during that period.
You’re right about my brief stint with Wah! I can’t remember how long that lasted or why it finished. I think it just fizzled out. I toured with another Liverpool group, The Lotus Eaters. Then there was Hambi and the Dance. I wasn’t a band member, simply a hired hand. They’d signed a deal with Virgin Records and with the advance set up their own recording studio in Toxteth. I played on all the tracks. Just before we finished the album, a Virgin bigwig turned up to see how things were going and decided they needed to bring in a name producer. Mick Glossop was shipped up to Liverpool and decided to sideline me and a couple of the others, re-recording our parts with ‘proper’ session musicians. My replacement was Preston Heyman. He’d recently toured with Paul McCartney and Kate Bush. They did me a favour – the album was shite, sunk without trace and my efforts were erased from the recordings.
Flag of Convenience was good in the beginning but as time went on I lost enthusiasm. If I don’t enjoy what I’m doing I can’t fake it. The only sensible option was to knock it on the head.
MEL: I don’t claim to know anything at all about cars, but I do know that you went on to have a very successful business [John Maher Racing] building performance engines for VW Beetles for many years now. How did you get into this line of work, which is such a contrast to music? Are you still heavily involved?
JOHN: Indirectly, my involvement with Buzzcocks was responsible for launching my VW career. When we signed with United Artists, we were all put on a wage of £25 per week. That later rose to £40. Our first major payment was a cheque each for £1000, which was our share from the profits of Spiral Scratch sales. I blew it on a second hand VW Beetle. That was probably the early part of 1978. I’m not sure what first got me interested in the inner workings of the VW engine but when I get into something, I tend to explore it in depth. A year later I bought another VW – a ratty 1961 Karmann Ghia. There’s a photo of it on the inner sleeve of ‘A Different Kind of Tension’.
A few years after Buzzcocks split in ’81, I’d become disillusioned with the music scene. I needed to earn a living from something other than music. I decided to turn my VW hobby into a business. The breakthrough came when I built and campaigned my own race car. As a result of my exploits at the drag strip, people started asking me to build high performance VW engines. As and when I could afford it, I acquired my own engineering equipment, eventually equipping my workshop to the level I could carry out all the necessary machine work operations in-house.
MEL: You now live in a most glorious place on the Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides, Scotland. How magical is that, how/when/why did you move here, is it partly because your Father was from Ireland? The difference to living there in the remoteness to being in the hustle and bustle of Manchester must be beyond imaginable. What do you do for entertainment?
JOHN: I’m not sure what first drew me to the Outer Hebrides. Maybe it was the name. Both my parents are from rural parts of Southern Ireland so maybe they passed something down the chain. When I first visited the islands in the early ‘90s I always looked forward to going back the next time. It got me wondering if a permanent move up here was viable. I’m in the fortunate position my VW engine business is very specialised – it isn’t reliant on being in a specific location. As long as I could get parts shipped in and the finished product shipped out, I couldn’t see any reason for it not to work. There’s only one way to find out. I’ve been here since 2002.
As for entertainment... the mobile cinema turns up every six weeks. There’s a good arts centre/gallery/theatre in Stornoway, which is 60 miles away. I reckon there’s less need to find distractions from everyday life in a place like this. In the city you have so much visual pollution competing for your attention, like billboards, wall to wall advertising on bus stops, buses, taxis and almost every vertical surface. There’s none of that crap here, which frees up the part of my brain that would normally have to filter out all that interference.
MEL: I was amazed to find that you are also an accomplished and creative photographer. When did you find yourself drawn into photography? Do you think you need to have some form of creative outlet in your life, maybe to take the place of music?
JOHN: I’ve been into photography for a long time but it’s only in the last few years I’ve taken it more seriously. No doubt it satisfies some form of creative need. I like the fact it’s a solo pursuit. All the creative decisions are mine. If the end result doesn’t come up to my expectations, I’m the one responsible. No passing the buck.
MEL: I see that you enjoy low light photography and also have your own style of portraits. Did you have any photographic opportunities when you were in Manchester and London for the shows?
JOHN: I took my camera with me and went walkabout each day we were in London. I found plenty of things to photograph. Living in Harris has obviously shaped my photographic style but if you have an eye for a shot, you’ll find a way of interpreting your surroundings in an interesting way, regardless of location.
MEL: Most of your photography on your website has been taken at night and use the HDR formats, which I might say are really subtle and not overdone unlike some photographers HDR work. Who do you aspire to for your photography and where did you learn the art?
JOHN: I took to photography like I did to drumming and engine building.... I taught myself. A big inspiration was US night photographer Troy Paiva. He shoots abandoned diners, motels and rusting 1950s cars in the deserts of California. I was so taken with his style I had to give it a try, substituting abandoned and derelict subjects from the Outer Hebrides in place of decaying Americana. A major advantage in this part of the world when shooting outdoors at night is the almost total lack of light pollution. That allows me to capture the amazingly deep blue night sky, which plays a major part in most of my moonlit work.
All of my night photos, apart from the occasional startrail shot, are single exposures. Typical shutter speeds run between four and six minutes. That gives me ample time to paint in additional light. The entire creative process takes place while the shutter is open. The lighting effects you see in the images are created in real time. It’s a little like recording a song in a single take – no overdubs or double tracking. The main difference being all the work that was carried out during the exposure is consolidated into a single still image. That’s something unique about long exposure photography – conventional photos are said to capture a moment in time, whereas exposures lasting several minutes capture the passage of time. I often use HDR techniques when shooting interiors. It’s the only way to capture the full dynamic range of the scene. A high end DSLR can cope with a 5 stop range whereas the human eye can discern around 10 stops. I’ll shoot as many as nine different exposures in one stop increments to capture detail in the both the shadows and highlights. With some careful post processing I can more accurately represent the scene the way it appeared to me at the time. The end result is closer to my interpretation of the scene than the camera could ever record in a single shot. I’ve learned all this, and I continue to learn, by experimenting and evaluating the results of my efforts. As long as there’s charge in the batteries, I keep firing away. Pixels are free!
MEL: Your site is www.theflyingmonk.co.uk Why the name Flying Monk? Do you want to plan to take your photography any further? What about music portraits? Does that interest you?
JOHN: The Flying Monk came about when I was setting up my Flickr account. Each time I tried a user name I thought was witty or clever, someone else had beat me to it. I’d recently watched an old Sophia Loren film, ‘Cinderella Italian Style’, which featured a flying monk. Turns out the character in the film was based on a 17th century saint, Joseph of Cupertino. He’s recognized as the patron saint of air travellers, aviators, astronauts, people with a mental handicap, test takers, and poor students.
I’m fascinated by the creative possibilities photography offers. I see some parallels with the way I play drums. I can look at a particular photographer’s style and in the process of trying to emulate it, find something I prefer. I used to do the same thing with drum parts. I’d take things from diverse musical styles and rework them into something that suited Buzzcocks. It’s about using influences to shape and create your own style rather than being an inferior copycat.
I haven’t shot many people portraits but it’s something I’d like to do more of. People as subjects can be infinitely more interesting than inanimate objects. Having looked through your portfolio I’ll admit I’m envious of the range of people you’ve had in front of your lens!
MEL: The self portrait of yourself [featured at the top of the page] does this have a story behind it?
JOHN: That particular photo touches on all three of my main interests: music, VWs and photography. I cobbled this blog post together a while ago, in an attempt to explain it all:
MEL: And finally just rewinding back to the Buzzcocks again, has this little reunion made you want to pick up your sticks more permanently and go out and buy yourself a drum kit?
JOHN: I met up with Joe Brehony and Tim Lyons (bassist and singer of band The Things) after the Apollo gig - last time I saw them was the early '80s. We've kept in touch since. They're talking about recording the album that should have happened back in 1980/81. Nothing definite as yet but they all sound keen, including me!
“The Things formed in Manchester in 1979, honing their skills around the Northwest. In 1980 they were approached by John and Richard Boon, then manager of Buzzcocks. John asked if they would record the first release on his planned record label. They agreed on condition he joined the line up as drummer. They played support on what was to be Buzzcocks last ever UK tour before the split in '81. They recorded the single 'Pieces of You', the only release on Maher’s ‘Imperial records' and continued to gig.
I’ve still got the borrowed kit in my workshop and find myself sneaking over there for a blast every now and then. Who knows what might come along?www.johnmaherracing.co.uk