REVIEW – John Ellis: ‘Spic’N’Span’ album, 1999 (“a minor treasury of passing ideas”)

2 Apr
John Ellis: 'Spic'N'Span'

John Ellis: ‘Spic’N’Span’

The lifespans of pop musicians are usually measured in five-year units – generally just one each before they’re inserted into the “where are they now?” file. But for every ten who went into hostelry, college lecturing or millinery, one adapted and carried on the journey as best they could and perhaps saw how their talents and ideas could fit into the next stage.

As guitarist, songwriter and sound-shaper John Ellis is hardly a household name, but his work and adaptability have both been consistent. He’s already discreetly chameleoned his way through three decades of music. A founder member of The Vibrators during the punk era, he went on to play an integral role in the Peter Hammill and Peter Gabriel bands over the cusp of the ’70s and ’80s. Links with Jean-Jacques Burnel eventually led him (along with Paul Roberts) into the post-Hugh-Cornwell Stranglers line-up; he developed an electronica sideline via his digressions into gallery music, There’s even a touch of prog beyond Gabriel and Hammill: John also plays guitar for Judge Smith’s ongoing “song-story” projects.

John’s journeyman credentials are unquestionable, and to each position he’s brought his own supporting voice and particular marks. However, always being the lieutenant means some of your ideas bounce off the boss (or the inflexibility of circumstances) and get stashed away. ‘Spic’N’Span’ corralls together unheard odds’n’sods from John’s curvy journey through music, and consequently it’s a musical scrapbook rather than an album.

A third of the tunes are the kind of thing that many working musicians knock out for TV music library discs – bright jingles and “we’re going somewhere” music, executed on cupboard synth orchestras. The synthetic Euro-funk/perky testcard tunes of Wild Talent and Tune-O-Matic fall into this category; as do the flying-over- mountains melody of Early Riding Daddy, the New Age-y pop march of The Needs Of The Soul and the rather more ambitious baroque-jazz stylings of Running Through The Trees. Still… behind many of these you can hear little pop chicks trying to hatch out of the multi-track demos, hoping to drop into the collective lap of an ’80s boy band, to do that five-year round; and to then cheat death by popping up in a nostalgia DJs record box, taking a ride on a revival. It might not have actually happened, but then the business of selling songs has always been a bit of a lottery.

Another third of ‘Spic’N’Span’ is a set of genuine ’80s pop songs. All of these are produced in the squeaky-clean studio fashion of the time; but all are executed with the restraint, intelligence and puritanical zeal of post-punk. The pin-sharp shimmy of John’s guitar is the linking factor – wailing away on E-bow sustain, sparking off claw-hand finger-picking, or adroitly yanked from note to note.

Three of these songs are sung by Alex Legg – his spooky vocal resemblance to Peter Gabriel shows us how things might have been had Gabriel and Ellis joined forces and run off together into the showy pop territory eventually colonised by Tears For Fears instead. The Space Between Us (a soulful, regretful R’n’B lament of hostility, injustice and enmity) could easily have fitted onto an album like ‘So’. Similarly, Joe Jackson would have been proud to have written the pumping Monopoly (the biting list song of an abusive marriage, a woman’s increasingly desperate attempts to escape it, and the grim consequences). Off on its own, the John Greaves-ish piano song Mumble Jumble (pointing up the Ellis art-school/art-rock background) ponders the confusions and blocks of language.

Two more songs are sung by John himself. Giving Up The Ghost, with its airbrushed console-blues sound and phantom horn section, strives after the authenticity of roots Americana only to arrive as a Eurythmics B-side instead. But the glinty, polished Elevator Man (which sounds more like Steve Harley doing J-pop) works better, capturing the arch giddiness of stardom from a slight but crucial degree of separation. “I went from rags to riches, from riches to rags. / I was an overnight sensation.”

Then there’s a third section: a couple of tunes which seem to be trying for the early ’80s link between electro, hip-hop, and primitive British synth pop. Such is the buzz and piping of Stutter Gun with its earnest, uptight vocal samples and its synaesthesic theme: “it’s beautiful… the colours will flash… the sounds will embrace you.” Jimi Jam studs its gurgling electro with little sampled Hendrix asides – “Hey, what’s happening?… Oh no, I think I’m out of tune.” Discreetly decorated with wobbling wails of clean sustained feedback, it’s so cheerfully plastic when compared to Hendrix’s controlled brinksmanship that it has to be a piss-take.

There are also a couple of genuine, delightful misfit chunks in the stew. The panoramic zither chug of One Way Street walks in step with Trans-Global Underground in its mess of world beats, the spine-shivering harmonies of crowd hums from old Lomax recordings, and the Republic serial dialogue snippets (“All the streets are one way!”; “What better way to commemorate the dead?”). John performs a solo joke on The Best Part Of The Cabbage: woozy slide guitar and sleepy voice shambling out a ramshackle joke-blues on cannibalism. (“Looking at you, I lick my lips…”) The sensuous laziness of the tune offsets the wonderfully appalling humour: “If you ain’t got a fridge yet, there’s not much on a midget – / a mouthful, or two.”

A minor treasury of passing ideas, ‘Spic’N’Span’ will never be more than a curio, but one that remains open and friendly throughout.

John Ellis: ‘Spic’N’Span’
Furious Productions (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-only album
Released: September 1999

Get it from:
Best obtained second-hand: this was released as a very-limited-edition run of 50 copies, so it’s extremely rare.

John Ellis online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud

One Response to “REVIEW – John Ellis: ‘Spic’N’Span’ album, 1999 (“a minor treasury of passing ideas”)”

  1. Dann Chinn April 3, 2013 at 9:36 pm #

    A difficult one to get hold of, I know. Sorry about that. This piece (originally from the original ‘Misfit City’, back in 1999) is mostly here as a sort of warm-up act for the forthcoming review of John Ellis’ latest album ‘Sly Guitar’. (I should also complete that ‘Curly’s Airships’ review at some point.)

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