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Wednesday, 15 February 2012

image for The day the music died One of the many The Rhythumbs tribute bands which have sprung up to milk their death

There was an international outpouring of sympathy at the weekend for the death of Whitney Houston. But another less celebrated musician died on the same day, whose passing has barely been mentioned in the newspapers.

Johnny "John" Johnson had a musical career spanning five decades. A few weeks ago, TheSpoof were lucky enough to interview him for the last time, barring a now-unlikely comeback. There follows excerpts from the interview and details of his extraordinary career.

It was in 1960 when Johnny and his brother Jonathan asked their schoolfriends Jimmy Gordon and Tommy Brown to form a band. Before long they began playing in local bars and sweet shops in their native Liverpool. Johnny explains:

"Yeah, the sixties, what an amazing decade! Unforgettable! Of course, they say that if you remember the sixties then you weren't really there. But I remember it all as if it were yesterday."

After a lack of initial success, Johnson's band moved to Germany to try their luck there.

"Yeah, my uncle was German, he came over during the war. So the band all moved over to Hamburg and we played the Reeperbahn. That was about the time the Beatles were there. We actually started the whole idea of having a pun for a band name. First we were called The Wouldlice but that didn't really catch on. Then we came up with The Rhythumbs and it stuck.

"We partied with the Beatles too. We'd be over at their place all the time. John Lennon would always get a hunger for a bratwurst, so he'd have us all go out and try to find bratwursts for everyone. Sometimes we'd be walking round the city all night trying to find a bratwurst stand but there never were any. Crazy times!"

It was while they were in Hamburg that the Rhythumbs recorded their first hit, 'She's a Woman'.

"'She's a Woman' - classic song, that. (Sings) She might not look like much but she's a woman.

"It was our first number one - in Belgium at least. It just missed out on the top 40 in the UK but it gave us our first taste of success."

That success rapidly led to a rock star lifestyle.

"Oh yeah! The drugs were everywhere. Of course in those days drugs mules were actual mules. They can carry a lot more stuff in them, can't they?

"My brother once took so many drugs that he was clinically dead for three whole weeks. It was only at his funeral that he finally woke up. We were about to bury him and we heard this knocking coming from his coffin. Turned out he was just in a very deep sleep.

"It's a good thing he woke up when he did, because the record company wanted another hit. So we rushed one out. It was called 'I'm Not Going To Change My Baby'. Basically the same tune as 'She's a Woman' but a bit slower, and we'd always play it fast."

'I'm Not Going To Change My Baby' was the band's last hit before they split up, but that was not the end of The Rhythumbs.

"We were the first band ever to have a reunion tour. Back in 1964, we had been apart for a year and we all missed it. So we went on tour. Played all over the UK doing the classic songs, both of them."

There followed a dry spell for the band. Lacking inspiration, they decided to travel.

"We flew to Antarctica, since we needed some ideas for a new album. The plane crash-landed on the ice, and we were stuck there for two weeks before we got rescued. Meanwhile the drummer got gored by a walrus. He was all right, but he couldn't play very well after that. At least it gave us the inspiration we needed for our new album, 'Gored By A Walrus'."

They recorded the album at Abbey Road, next door to where the Beatles were recording Sergeant Pepper.

"Oh yeah, I remember the look on John Lennon's face when we showed up. He couldn't believe it. He told us to get lost, but we knew he didn't mean it."

After their new album failed dismally, the band split up again.

In 1968, in an attempt to represent the UK at the Eurovision song contest, The Rhythumbs reunited to record an album of potential Eurovision entries. It was rejected.

"'Bing-Bang-Bong' was an amazing song, I can't believe they didn't use it. (Sings) It doesn't matter where you're from, the only word you need is Bing-Bang-Bong."

During the 1970s, the band reunited but were unable to tour due to Jimmy's recurring gout problems. This gave Johnny the chance to work on his screenplay.

"Oh, yeah, 'The Magic Boots'. It was great, a film all about a teenage boy who finds this pair of magic boots. When he puts them on he finds he is able to disco dance really well. So he wins all these tournaments. Then at the end of the film, he realises that the boots aren't magical at all. They're just an ordinary pair of boots. It's a timeless tale."

The screenplay was to be made into a film, funded by Johnson himself. Sadly the lead actor died halfway through filming and it was never completed.

"That was really tragic, that. Poor lad. He was in one of those new ball pits, you know, the pits full of little plastic balls. And he just...drowned. They say he sank to the bottom and just suffocated. Really tragic."

After that, the band took a break. They attempted to reunite again in the 1980s but were unable to tour, this time due to Johnny being banned from every concert hall and arena in the country.

"Yeah, I prefer not to talk about that. It was a very embarrassing period."

By the late 1990s, the nostalgia surrounding the band meant they were regularly in demand for gigs. In 2011, they began their 19th reunion tour. However, they had to cancel after two dates because Johnny's shortsightedness meant he was no longer able to read the lyrics off an autocue.

Johnny Johnson died on Sunday when he was crushed by an enormous statue of a musical note that he was erecting in his back yard. Tributes have poured in from around the music world.

Perhaps Johnny's greatest moment was during the peak of the band's success in the early 1960s. At one point he was even described as the ninth Beatle, and that is the epitaph that will be engraved on his tombstone.

The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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