Friday, June 20, 2008

Jona Stops The Cavalry

Brought up on a diet of jazz and rock, English born John Lewis started his career in pop music as a session musician before joining Sussex pub rock outfit Brett Marvin & The Thunderbolts in the late 60s. The group morphed slightly, took on the quirkier moniker of Terry Dactyl And The Dinosaurs and soon struck pay dirt on the charts. ‘Seaside Shuffle’ washed up at #2 on the British charts in mid ‘72 and also enjoyed a favourable tide of success on the Australian charts (#20). Whilst ‘Seaside Shuffle’ confined Terry Dactyl And The Dinosaurs to a historical tag of one hit wonder, they did creep into the lower reaches of the U.K. charts a year later with ‘On A Saturday Night’ (#45). That song was credited to Terry Dactyl And The Dinosaurs featuring John G. Lewis. After a series of commercial flops John Lewis departed the group. He played for a time with an outfit called The Jive Bombers.

John G. Lewis resurfaced again in 1978, signing to the burgeoning Stiff Records label under another pseudonym Jona Lewie. Lewie shared the labels roster at that time with the likes of Lene Lovich (see future post), Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric and Rachel Sweet. His vocal style was still suited to good honest pub pop/rock, but Lewie infused this with elements of British popular music history, from music hall to skiffle to ska. The title of his debut album ‘On The Other Hand There’s A Fist’, also revealed a cheeky sometimes oddball side to his work, and featured a minor cult hit in ‘The Baby, She’s On The Street’. Lewie broke through on the singles charts in 1980 with one of the most unique song titles in pop music history. ‘You’ll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties’ found its way into the British top 20 (#16) and reached #21 in Australia. It’s rumoured that Kirsty MacColl sang backing vocals on the song on her first recording project with the Stiff Records label. The song had featured on his 1978 album under the shortened title ‘Kitchen At Parties’.

At risk of becoming a one hit wonder, for a second time, Lewie proved this time to have more staying power on the charts. ‘Stop The Cavalry’ arrived just in time for the Christmas market during 1980. It had a festive feel to it with brass band backing, and evoked thoughts of historical battle field exploits halted by momentary festive reflection and lament among the carnage - serious subject matter gift wrapped in a truly accessible package. ‘Stop The Cavalry’ marched all the way to #3 on the U.K. charts in time for Christmas and peaked at #2 in Australia soon thereafter. The song assumed considerable longevity as due largely to its festive association, regularly hitting radio playlists in the years following.

A second album ‘Heart Skips Beat’ was released to build on the single’s huge popularity but Lewie’s brand of quirky pop didn’t translate into further success in the U.K. In Australia however his most triumphant moment was to come. ‘Louise (We Get It Right)’ debuted on the Australian charts in July 1981 and bulleted to #2, spending a whopping 21 weeks on the charts in total. I recall the video vividly even 27 years later, rollerskating was big in 1981 - think the video for ‘Wired For Sound’ by Cliff Richard also. But ‘Louise (We Get It Right)’ was the high watermark for Jona Lewie, and the tide of success quickly receded. Lewie troubled the chart statisticians once more a year later with ‘I Think I’ll Get A Haircut’ (#71). There was more than a hint of Madness in Jona Lewie’s approach to music, the group that is (as well as the literal meaning). He managed to mix the madcap with the laconic, extracting the quirky from the mundane, and he was a talented musician to boot.

In later years Lewie became a property investor but occasionally touches base with his musical heritage, such as contributing to a 2005 Christmas album compiled by the U.K.’s Channel 4.

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