Jonathan Kelly, Friars Aylesbury, 1975, Picture:
Geoff Tyrell Jonathan
today. Picture: Greg Ledingham
Well well well. what do we
exclusive and rare interview with Jonathan Kelly, a reluctant hero. Jonathan
started getting noticed in the early 1970s with his brand of folk music
and played his first Friars gig in the summer of 1972 supporting first
the Kinks at Watford and then Roxy Music in Aylesbury. Two months later
he was headlining and played Friars Aylesbury six times in all. Jonathan
effectively stepped out of the limelight for 30 years to concentrate on
his voluntary work and played some gigs again in 2005. He remains in
affection in the Friars story and as you will see here, Jonathan's story
is an interesting one whilst remaining a modest man and hasn't ruled out
playing one last gig.
Oh and he
is one of the recipients of a Friars Heroes Awards
Jonathan, thank you for talking to the Friars website, it is most
appreciated. A number of people have emailed me since the site went live
and are appreciative of you being on there. Also we've unearthed a
picture of you at Friars in 1975 which is on the website! I know that
you are retired from music and you are bemused at people having interest
in you as a musician?
I'd become dissatisfied
with the whole music business, moving away from a greedy commercial
system. At that time (early 1970s), I joined the Workers Revolutionary
Party and I was after something that stood up to repressive
government and towards apathy to starvation in the world. There was no attitude to change that. In fact
nothing has changed, nothing has changed in Africa in the last 50 years.
There are people in abject destitution. I won't say poverty as that's
too soft a word and the attitude is "that's OK, they're only jungle
people" - I have no idea what the psychology is here, with these
entrenched financial systems and governments that aren't going to move
And here I was with RCA,
an (corporate) American record company, and to try to resolve my
conscience, I joined that party to fight against something I deplored. I
was meant to be a musician, was that what I was meant to be? I don't
know. I was only ever motivated from the outset that music can change
the world. Bob Dylan was a huge influence on me in my teenage years and
the answer was blowing in the wind. That was my motivation. When I saw
in the 1970s that flower power hadn't changed anything and some of them
were now megalomaniacs living in rich walled and gated houses. I didn't
like that, that wasn't my vision what should be happening, it was all
about monetary gain. I think someone should have stopped us and said we
were only pretending. Gosh, aren't I the fool for thinking we were being
serious! I was naive.
Given that, how would you
have felt if you'd had that number one album and were making loads of
money given that wasn't why you got into the business. If you started
having large royalty cheques turning up, that presumably wouldn't have
sat easy with you?
It would have turned my
head, the music business does that. To be honest, when I came fresh
faced to London in 1968 and then in 1969 and I was playing in a
restaurant, one of the Bee Gees came up to me and said do you want to
make a record and yes my head was spinning at the thought.
That was Colin Petersen?
Yes, the Bee Gees drummer.
That was kind of heady for me and for about a year I wore tailor made
suits and hand made shoes and that kind of palaver. But I had doubts
about all of this and I took all of this stuff to a charity shop in
Bayswater Road. I couldn't behave like that, the hairdos and the like.
So you were on the
bandwagon, just getting on with it and not being true to yourself?
I really didn't like
myself. I probably never liked myself - my arrogance, snobbishness and
personality ailments were going to show out anyway because here I was
preaching socialism and equality for the proletariat of the world and
also taking a lot of drugs into my system and getting stoned like a
lunatic. It was very bourgeois actually...
Presumably you were
getting off your head because of the music business rather than doing it
It was kind of a nirvana
trip. You're told if you take this drug, horse or whatever, you won't
even need to play the music, "you'll just be there, man", this utopia,
almost a satanic religious movement in a way whereby you'd be destroying
yourself being toasted by truth and peace. I was a hypocrite. I remember
a chap who I got to know well when I coming on the scene and we met
again after the first two RCA albums (Twice Around The Houses and Wait
Til They Change The Backdrop) Because I had become big headed about
myself, he told me how much I changed and walked away. I thought I was
great - I was the 'me' and stoned. When I look back, I hate that. If I
had an "Off The Wall" or "Thriller", I just don't know what would have
happened to me. But I was always fringe and experimenting. Marvin Gaye's
What's Going On was a real turning point in my head, it showed how good
this stuff can be and that's why Outside got formed around 1974, we must
have played Aylesbury with Outside.
Yes you did, you played
Friars between 1972 and 1975. You first played Friars with Roxy Music in
I remember that gig. That
was when they first started.
You clearly made a big
impression as you first headlined at Friars two months later! This was
the Twice Around The Houses period and then you came back in 1973 and
1974. The 1974 gig was Jonathan Kelly's Outside.
We had a great Japanese
bassist and we were playing some great jazz music at that time. I had
fallen in love with James Brown's stuff, also Herbie Hancock and we got
infected with that and we were desperate to play dance music (laughs).
Folky people who had listened to Twice Around The Houses were going
"that's Jonathan Kelly?" We were trying to be James Brown! A completely
different objective. But I was still talking about the treatment of the
miners and so on in the songs.
You had very outspoken
feelings towards Ted Heath and the British energy crisis of 1974 and
this obviously influenced your songwriting?
Yes, this was what I
wanted to write about and I was a huge fan of Curtis Mayfield who had
the courage to speak out about African Americans, such courage. I really
wanted the courage to say something. Like Lenny Bruce...that was my
motivation. I was getting more and more entrenched in Communism as I saw
this as the only way out for the planet. The only problem with that, was
people would see me with the Workers Press newspaper and saw me as
working for the enemy so to speak. At least that was what the Musicians
Union thought when I demonstrated at their meetings. They (the MU) didn't want to be seen supporting a
revolutionary really, which I can understand. My relationship with
people wasn't that good and I was always stoned out of my head. It was
complete hypocrisy. Che Guevara would have given me a good slap!
Although you had outspoken
feelings on socialism etc, you were part of the 'peace and love'
I'd given all that up
around 1969! I'd seen middle class people demonstrating in mini skirts
and Afghan coats and they weren't going to change the world were they? I
was beginning to think nothing was going to change. I was disillusioned
also with communism (in the end) as the concept of having to take up
weapons to capture the banks...the capitalist system wasn't going to
give way easily was it? It would be confrontation, so I wanted out. So
to go from peace to killing people wasn't for me.
There's something not
right there is there?
So I walked away with
nothing and that was when I studied the Bible and became one of Jehovah's
I'll come back to that.
You were getting noticed around 1971 and 1972, making a name at the folk
festivals. Then came Twice Around The Houses, and Warner Brothers
wouldn't release it?
The young A&R guy thought
my voice was too wobbly and said no, it wasn't good enough. As a
recording, it is quite poor...
You mean in terms of the
physical technicalities rather than the music?
Yes, but they wanted
'product' - if it was going out on Warner Brothers, it had to have a
certain level of quality to have the badge.
Did they ask you to work
on it or did you just take the tapes to RCA?
I did some re-recordings.
I did some more vocal tracks to try to keep Warners happy. I don't think
I'm a great singer....
It's not bad from what
You're very kind! In the
end they said no, it wasn't good enough for them. RCA were very
enthusiastic. They came straight in and were very supportive until I
became this arrogant.....a drugged out hippy who had never done a day's
work and was saying he was communist or left wing, a lifetime that was
totally dilettante, defeatist. They probably didn't like me. I didn't
like me when I come to think of it.
So how did RCA market you?
They took a few pictures
and stuck them in Melody Maker, Sounds and NME. They didn't do much (in
terms of promotion), in fact they didn't do much marketing at all, it
was very poor and after about six months, they dropped Twice Around The
Houses. It has a weird effect that album, but I don't know why. It
had some great musicians on it like Tim Renwick (Sutherland Bros and
Quiver and Pink Floyd) and Peter Wood on keyboards who put his heart and
soul into it. With due respect to Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, Tim was
better than all of them, he had American country rock in his blood and
played beautifully. I spoke to him recently. I had these kind of people
giving their heart and soul on that album. But my management....Peter
did some extra bits to make the rerecord good and the management treated
him so badly. That was the music business. The musicians made it a nice
album. But the album sold steadily on its own through word of mouth.
When I got out of the
music business when I became one of Jehovah's Witness, I needed to get a job.
I never took benefits when I was hiking around sleeping on floors and so
on and I survived. I wasn't really working class, I was a self indulgent
musician. I was about to get married so I got a job for Dickens and
Jones in Oxford Street. The personnel manager asked what I could do. I
said I only knew music... jazz and pop. That was handy as they just
opened a record store and they needed someone to work in there, so....
You fell on your feet
I ended up in the store
and people came up asking for Jonathan Kelly albums! (laughs). That was
really weird. What did I do? I had to order them like any other record,
but I ended up selling my own albums! This was the winter of 1975 coming
By then of course, you had
done the Wait Til They Change The Backdrop album and also the Outside
album and the Two Days In Winter album. Chas Jankel (to go onto the Blockheads) and Snowy White (later to
Pink Floyd) were in the Outside band?
Chas Jankel was lovely.
Chas Jankel was Freddie Stone! We all heard Sly and the Family
Stone and went "what is that?" It was fabulous. Freddie is Sly's brother
who played wonderful jazz chords and was probably the most sampled
guitar player in the world. Chas fell in love with it and had a
wonderful flick and could get that funky thing on his guitar. He was
doing his own thing as well (outside of Outside). I thought is this
really me with all this funky guitar? There were people dancing to this
funk and we should have been folky! People were kicking chairs out of
the way to dance! To be on the same stage as Chas was great.
The other side of the coin
to this is I saw a review of Outside at Friars when you played and the
audience were polite regarding Outside waiting for you to come and do
the folksy stuff?
Exactly. I think I
They wanted to hear the
The Sligo Fairs....
I'm not saying everyone
was like that, but that was a reaction.
I can completely
understand that and I actually anticipated that because.... what can you
do? I wanted to move on.
I guess you were in a no
I wanted to do something
different to what I had done and I didn't want to be John Denver for 20
years. I wanted to do something different. Is that right?
It seems reasonable to me,
as artists evolve....
When I was solo, I
involved the audience...not everybody does that. That worked quite well.
People might have spent five pounds and I wanted them to have a party
and not go home grumbling. If they come, we'll have a night of it
somehow and get people involved. You can do that solo, but with a band,
that becomes harder. The solo thing always used to go well night after
night and I always used to think that the next gig would be the one
where I died a death. You never lose the fear. You're always terrified
as is it tonight I am going to die a death! (laughs)
I imagine that fear
You give people a good
time as far as it depends on you. We used to have such great
parties at Friars. I remember we could have gone on all night. I had to
be asked to leave sometimes!
Which is great to hear
given people's fond memories. Was it just the one album for Outside?
We did do one further
album, Two Days In Winter, which was a farewell album and you can tell
by the songs it was a farewell album.
You then effectively
retired from the music business and went working for a living, but you
got involved with the Bible....
We prefer to call it a
congregation (in reference to my
comment on the church - Ed), we're just in a hall small enough to meet in. A church is
something with a steeple. It's more like a community, a congregation.
Was this a calling or
discovery in the same kind of way Cat Stevens discovered his faith in
the sense of looking for something but not sure what it was?
Absolutely. Everything I
ever searched for was that children wouldn't die anymore from
starvation, that wars would be banned and that people would live
together on the planet showing each other dignity and respect and
compassion would be the rule of law. I thought that going to war for the
Communist party was going back to the same of thing of babies getting
killed. I was disillusioned. When I studied the Bible for real, at last,
I had it explained, it explained everything and all the things I had
been looking for. To someone on the outside that might sound a bit
heady, but it is a fact that war is banned in the Bible.
I respect that but I'm not
going to delve further theologically, save to say you found something
that worked for you.
Music hadn't changed
anything. It hadn't stopped a single cannonball from blowing a family to
bits. It didn't work. I found something that did work, so I gave up the
music for this because I felt this was more effective.
And you do a lot of
voluntary work through your congregation?
It's all voluntary, no-one
gets paid anything. We do a lot of 'shepherding' work and we look after
or care for people seven days a week and taking breaks whenever you can.
We help people who want answers to questions or who need
help. You're always helping people along within the community and
congregation and it is so satisfying.
Although you retired from
the music business to do your work, you did come out of retirement about
four years ago?
It was a real treat.
Coming out on stage and playing songs...
It was real fun?
Yes, it was. I did it for
a while, but it started intruding on my voluntary work and I had an
issue to settle - which way am I going to go?
A moral dilemma?
Yes and I made my decision
to stop gigging and I am happy with that.
Finally, the $64000
question....if you had the opportunity to do another couple of gigs,
would you do them knowing you have a fan base who would love to see you
do those songs again?
If it was a one off...that
is one criterion and also if it was organised in such a way that it
didn't disrupt my schedule here, then it is possible if it is going to
make a few people happy. You are probably thinking whilst we are talking
now "gosh, this guy is conceited!"
Not at all!
I labour with this. The
trouble with the music business is that it gets hold of your heart and
if you want to devote your heart to something you think is more
worthwhile, less egocentric and more about helping others, the music
business could pull you away from that. So that would be a warning
wouldn't it? If I could duck in and then duck out, I would do it. There
is no question I would just run on the stage as I would be in my
element! I would be like an unleashed hound! I'm completely liberated
and flying as I love it.
Your fans reading this
will be delighted to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel
in you performing one more time.
They could be seeing all
kinds of acts (instead)! Why don't they go and see Pat Metheny?
Because they want to see
(Laughs). It's tough for
me to 'get' that. Nobody had a hit with any of my songs....!
So many talented artists
like yourself who had a live following never got that lucky break either
with a hit single or someone else having a hit covering their songs.
It's possibly been a
blessing that never happened. I never thought I was good enough and I
still don't think I am good enough. I keep trying. I have some new songs
which are quite good!
Jonathan, thank you for
Official Jonathan Kelly
This interview and its
content are © 2009 Mike O'Connor/www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk and may not
be used in whole or in part without permission.