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Friars Interviews

Jonathan Kelly
Friars appearances:  05/08/72  21/10/72  29/09/73  10/08/74  01/03/75  25/10/75 also 09/05/72 (Friars Watford) 22/07/72 (Friars Dunstable)

Jonathan Kelly, Friars Aylesbury, 1975, Picture: Geoff Tyrell    Jonathan today.  Picture: Greg Ledingham


Well well well. what do we have 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 an inch.

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 anyway?

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 1972

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' brigade?

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 Witness

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 I've heard!

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 there!

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 into 1976.

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 remember that.....

They wanted to hear the 'Madeleine's...

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 win position?

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 prevents complacency!

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 you!

(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 your time.

Official Jonathan Kelly website

This interview and its content are 2009 Mike O'Connor/ and may not be used in whole or in part without permission.


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