Written by Stephen Carson
Additional Material from Mark Burgess, Bimal Jangra, Richard Townsend
Edited By John Webster
|John Miles was born John Errington on St. George's Day, April 23rd. 1949, in Jarrow, a town near Newcastle upon Tyne, in the North East of England. Historically, Jarrow will be remembered for the Jarrow Marchers, who, during the depression of the thirties, travelled from there to London, to lobby Members of Parliament about the extremes of unemployment in the North.|
As was very common during the fifties, John Miles was intoduced to music through piano lessons, as were many children of the time. He was quickly discouraged by the rounds of necessary practicing, which bore little relationship to the emerging rock music scene around him, and so soon gave up.
Leaving Junior school for the local Grammar school, John's interest in music was re-awakened by his music teacher, and he went back to the piano. This time, he showed much more interest, and his natural talents soon came to the fore. However, the instrument of the rock era was not the piano, and he eventually managed to persuade his father to buy him an electric guitar. It was not long before he had mastered this, as well as the piano, which he continued to learn until his move from Secondary school to Art college.
It was here that John joined up with other like-minded musicians to form the semi-professional group, The Influence. The Influence, with guitarist Vic Malcolm, later with Geordie, and drummer Paul Thompson, who was to join Roxy Music, soon became well known in the area, and were swamped with bookings. These, however, were not enough to finance a career, so John left his college education behind, and took on a job as an apprentice engraver, not the most inspiring of occupations, especially since apprentices were often given the more menial of tasks. It did, however, enable the band to remain viable, and their popularity grew.
Following the disbanding of The Influence, John set about forming his own band, known locally as The John Miles Set. Sucess for John followed swiftly in the clubs of the North East, where the supporting act was provided by John, playing piano on his own, a cheap night for the promoters. This environment, however, was not very encouraging for John's own compositions, as audiences were only interested in other bands' hits.
In July 1971, John secured a record issue on the Decca label, José, with one of his own compositions, You Make it so Hard, on the B side. This failed to make much impression on the record buying public, so that was the end of Decca. Discouraged, the band broke up, and John, along with his bass player, Bob Marshall, took off to try their luck in the bright lights of London. Much time was spent hawking themselves and their music around the capital's music publishers to no avail. Eventually they wound up at Orange records, where Cliff Cooper, the owner of Orange, was appointed as their manager. John and Bob released several more singles on the Orange label.
John and the band also had offers from other labels, most notably EMI, but he felt that at EMI they would be just another act in their huge stable, whereas at Decca, they were more likely to give him the promotion he was seeking. It appears that the demo that they were playing to potential record labels was "Highfly". According to the Evening Chronicle the clincher was a gig arranged to support the Ohio Players at the Hammersmith Odeon, a top London venue. Decca apparently were at the gig and snapped them up, with Velvet Music as John's publisher. Decca realised that they were light in the Rock department. They had been home, in earlier years, to the likes of the Rolling Stones, but the majority of their acts in the 1970's were in the "easy listening" bracket such as Tom Jones.
Decca introduced John to Alan Parsons, and in the summer of 1975, they recorded Highfly, which was released as a single in the UK in September. It reached its peak at number 17 the next month. (The liner notes of Rebel note that a version of Stranger In The City was to be the B side but it was shelved.) On his first appearance on the BBC Television's Top Of The Pops, John appeared as a long haired rocker. However, on his second appearance the image had totally changed. Essentially Chris Poole of Decca records thought that it would be good to give John a definite image. Poole had to convince John to cut his hair, but they chose the clothes together. (The Sunday Sun credits David Most, Micky Most's brother, with the idea of an American college image). Decca actively pushed this image. One advert stated " James Dean died when he was 24, But some say his legacy lives on in John Miles". It was claimed that John was also 24 at the time this was written. He was in fact 26! John actually read a biography of Dean as a result of the image thing.
As a result of the James Dean image John and Bob Marshall wrote, Rebel. In January 1976 Melody Maker asked him "was he a Rebel"? John replied that he was more of a conformist, but where he identified with it was that he had been called a loser by a number of people over the previous 7 years, who had also told him there was no way he was going to make it. At the time of the article, the album was as yet unnamed. However, as the James Dean image with the "Giant" gun pose was chosen as the cover, it was inevitable (in my opinion) that they chose the title of Rebel.
By now, John and Bob had several songs under their belts, with John as composer, and Bob as lyricist. With the success of Highfly, plans were made to record an album and again John and the band teamed up with Alan Parsons, fresh from engineering Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, in November and December of 1975. It was recorded at Abbey Road studios which will be of no surprise to Alan Parsons fans. Rebel was released in March of 1976 to critical acclaim. Melody Maker's headline was "Miles - A New Star is Born", "As a first album, this is stunning". "A cautious, but confident, statement of intent. Truly it's a sensational debut".
Highfly may have reached no. 17 in the charts, but this was soon to be eclipsed by Music, reaching no. 3, and the one track which is remembered by everyone, even though the name of John Miles has been forgotten by many. Apparently, John was in Leeds and in a quiet moment, when Bob was not there, he wrote the bulk of it in a very short time. Later John was to tell Gloria Hunniford that it took him about half an hour, and, although he originally thought it would be the basis of other songs, he felt that it stood up very well on its own. As Mark Burgess wrote "Major scale derived over a 7/4 timing, who else would think of this?", although he followed on with the comment "Whenever I have seen John play this track live, I always think he looks like he wishes he wouldn't have to play it, as though it benchmarks him or something ...."
Record World described it as "another endearing and sophisticated pop opus. An exceptionally well constructed tune, each segment is held together with lucid production polish. A triumph". Jester said "Music is indicative of the whole LP as it ebbs and flows and explodes with a creative vitality that is almost irrepressible." Obviously, when Music was released as the 2nd single it almost hit the top of the charts in the UK reaching No.3. Stateside it peaked at 88, in my opinion as it was edited down to just over 3 minutes, which I think diminished its appeal. Remember Yesterday (1976) and Slow Down (1977) were his only other Top 40 hits. With the success of the album Rebel,, and the monster hit of Music John was very much in demand. Following a period of supporting Robin Trower and Jethro Tull, John headlined his own UK tour that opened in Glasgow. Apparently a TV special was also recorded.
Following this tour, John supported the Rolling Stones on a number of European dates. Then in July, John supported Elton John in the States for their bicentennial, making his US debut in Boston in front of a football stadium audience of over 60,000! Also while in America he recorded a cable TV show which was broadcast on July 13th in New York (Anyone seen this!!). It was while John was in the States that the first tracks of his second album, Stranger in the City, with Rupert Holmes taking over as producer, were recorded. Rupert, who was a big soul producer, is best remembered for Escape - the Pina Colada Song.
Remember Yesterday was released as a single in September of 76 with House on the Hill as its B-side. Remember Yesterday is "a simple piano-based, catchy song, far less complex than his previous opus" (Music) stated Record Mirror. In November 1976 John noted that "Bob (Marshall) is a romantic type. He drifts around from girl to girl. - Remember Yesterday is pretty autobiographical". The single reached no 32 in the UK in October. Concurrently John played at the "Festival of Popular Music" organised by Elton John's then manager, John Reid, in Edinburgh.
Rupert Holmes then came across to the UK to record the rest of the album. The band had now acquired the keyboard skills of Australian Gary Moberley. In an interview in Sounds, John noted that on Rebel, there was nothing very funky. On Stranger in the City there is more, due to Gary's influence, especially "clavinet bits which makes it sound more funky". The other group members are still present, Bob Marshall on bass, co-writer of all the songs bar one. This time it is not a Miles composition, but a solo effort, Do It Anyway, from drummer, Barry Black who completes the line-up.
Late 1976 / early 1977 was a great time for John. He toured with David Essex as well as headlining his own. He won Best Newcomer Award in the Daily Mirror UK National Awards and also performed his first Royal concert in front of HRH Princess Margaret. I believe that he also won an Ivor Novello award for writing Music, which is a highly coveted award in Britain. As one paper put it, he was "Miles ahead in 77".
After a busy schedule of tours in 1977, including a US tour and the success of the disco rocker Slow Down, John and the band took to the studio to record the new album. It was recorded in New York from October to Dec 1977, and it was initially planned for release in Jan 78. Before recording the album, intense discussion took place to decide what direction John Miles would take, as he didn't wish to repeat himself and wanted to progress. John directed that there should be no orchestration and that the band should play all the music. There were now only 3 members after the departure of Gary Moberley. Although Gary had left, John told Melody Maker that he felt that Gary had not been contributing to the musical progression of the band. John felt that if keyboards replaced the orchestra this would make live work easier.
There were a number of comments about John's change of image, particularly with his range of hairstyles. Record Mirror noted "The Guy Definitely Knows What He Is Doing On Record. Its off record that he gets a little lost". I believe this referred to the style changes and also a comment on his early stage presence, which was something that John would try hard to better on future tours. The NME referred to him as a "Cross between Luke Skywalker and Todd Rundgren". Not that I know what the latter looks like! Melody Maker referred to him as a "blond Harpo Marx". If anyone saw him on the Zaragon tour you would have seen him sporting a perm that was popular at that time. Mark Burgess also noted that "It was also the time when John always appeared smoking a cigarette in any pictures of him (at the time it was perceived to be "cool" to smoke)."
1978 had been a busy year for John, Bob, Barry and Brian Chatton, who had now joined the band, with the release of Zaragon and the subsequent tour. As Mark Burgess wrote "The music press at the time were accusing John of having an identity crisis (well he did have his hair cut then permed then let it grow long then shaved it all off ). The headlines at the time in the tabloid press in England also carried stories about John being questioned by the police about the infamous Yorkshire Ripper murders, because of the subsequently widely disproved Northeast accent hoax tapes sent into the police, John's Ripper orientated "Nice Man Jack" song from the Zaragon album, and the fact that his tour dates coincided with the place of two of the Yorkshire rippers murders . The NME made comments about John's manic laugh during the rendition of Jack during the show."
In November, the band went to the Cote D'azur, to lay down tracks for their 4th album. Back at the helm was Alan Parsons, and arranging the orchestra was Andrew Powell as was the case for Rebel. In December the band tried out some of their new material at a gig for the Great British Music Festival at Wembley with Frankie Miller and Lindisfarne. The crowd were treated to the first airings of We All Fall Down and Can't Keep a Good Man Down before they were released on vinyl, as well as the hit singles, Highfly, Slow Down and Music.
Finishing touches were made to the tracks in Munich in early 1979 and it was decided to release Can't Keep a Good Man Down as a single. I think that it is a good example of a heavy track that John can do well. The guitar work in the intro is very good and reminiscent of Jimmy Page, who he would work with later in his career. I can recall buying the single and seeing the silver silhouette of John with the Concorde behind him, and waiting in anticipation for the release of the album. The "B" side was Sweet Lorraine which was also an Alan Parsons' produced track but from 3 years earlier.
Early in April the album More Miles per Hour was released. As was implied by the single, John was on the cover with Concorde behind him. Interestingly, British Airways in London refused permission for the picture stunt. However, British Airways in New York agreed, so John had to take the flight on New Years Eve across the pond for the shoot. However, in his absence, his London home was burgled with £2500 worth of belongings stolen.
Another album and another image change. Gone was the perm and in was long hair and moustache, reminiscent of other guitar legends like Joe Walsh? (Anyone seen the album cover for So What?) Reviews from the music critics were mixed. Many had praised John for the rawness of Zaragon. With regard to More Miles per Hour, NME and Record Mirror were not very kind. Record Mirror felt that the album was aimed at America and sounded American (apologies to any Americans reading this). Some papers were more objective and did not dismiss it as lightly.
The inconsistent view by the critics was not representative of the public's view, as More Miles per Hour almost emulated its three predecessors in terms of chart placing, reaching number 46 in the album charts. The tour to support the release of the album was nationwide in the UK with some 32 dates as well as European dates. Personally, I managed to get to two of them despite school exams.
The 79 tour was brilliant. I saw him twice. The first gig was supported by a band called Bandit (I even bought their LP). For those who didn't see it, it opened with lights piercing the darkness with lots of dry ice. Then came the silhouette of the Concorde with the eyes (front windows) alight and landing lights on. The band then started with We All Fall Down. Great opening. I met John briefly at an album signing on 3rd May 1979. I took along my 4 albums as well as my Tour Programme and got them signed by John and Bob Marshall. I remember asking whether his Orange singles were still available. He didn't know but the shop manager said he would see what he could do (In the end that was nothing!)
Following the tour John signed a multi-million dollar contract with Arista records and writing began for the fifth album. However, legal wrangles at some point meant that Where Would I Be Without You and Do It All Again and a different version of the UK single, Don't Give Me Your Sympathy, now renamed Sympathy, were the only tracks from the Arista deal to be released, not as a fifth album as had been hoped, but essentially a US release of More Miles per Hour, now titled Sympathy, in 1980. The three tracks mentioned, produced by Gary Lyons, were used replacing, Bad Blood, Oh Dear and Satisfied. This was surprising to me as Bad Blood and Satisfied were supposed to be US orientated! The rest of the tracks were produced by Alan Parsons. While a lot of effort had gone into the More Miles per Hour album cover this is not noticeable on Sympathy. A little reminiscent of Play On where a picture of John has been printed in three colours at a slightly different angle, showing John smoking. Not PC by today's standards. The back cover was the negative of the front cover.
So that was effectively the end of a short contract with Arista. In all, two albums were produced, Sympathy and the US distribution of Zaragon, the previous year. Who knows what would have happened if the legal problems had not occurred, or if Arista had spent more on packaging and promotion. (I am aware that Alan Parsons also had some problems with them.) All these ifs and buts. However, it's all water under the bridge and we should appreciate the body of work created.
Richard Townsend makes some interesting points on the situation. "When Rebel came out, it was clear that John was thought of as' The Next Big Thing'. You don't get Abbey Road studios and Alan Parsons to produce your first LP unless somebody was prepared to spend shedloads of cash. As John said, he had the same sort of marketing hype as Springsteen when Rebel was released. One thing was clear and that was that John himself did not like the image created for him and steered away from it as soon as he could. He did want control of his own career and also wanted to write in a variety of musical styles, Guitar Based Rock, Funk, AOR, Love Songs etc. I think he would have preferred to have been seen as the 'serious musician' in the same vein as Springsteen, Elton John, Stevie Winwood and, slightly more up to date, Chris Rea. I do however feel that some opportunities were missed by John's management, Orange Music. Stranger in the City was a huge departure from the style of Rebel. Then along comes Zaragon, which sounds completely different from the first two, and then you have More Miles per Hour, which harks back to Rebel. Lets face it, the first three LP's could have been done by different bands. How could the public at large identify with an artist that changed his music as often as his hairstyle? Whilst the true music fans could keep pace and appreciate the changes, Mr & Mrs Three-Record- Purchases-A-Year, could not. Perhaps a slower transition of musical approach between the LP's with some continuity would have established John more firmly in the public's minds. Mind you Punk Rock came along and changed the whole music landscape anyway. How much of all this chopping and changing was down to John or Orange we will never know."
At the start of the 1980s the future had looked bright for John Miles. He had four hit singles, four best selling albums and had struck an eight album deal with Arista for US distribution worth a reputed £4 - £6 million depending upon which newspaper you read. The first offering was Sympathy, which I have just covered. However, the contractual problems led to John not performing or releasing any new material for nearly two years. Cliff Cooper, John Miles' manager, explained a few years later that the difficulties that they had included a dispute on single releases. From recollection, he indicated that the record company wanted to decide what was commercial. John, backed by Cliff, wished to exert the right as to choice of material. This formed the subject matter for The Right to Sing which appeared on Play On a few years later.
Although these contractual problems meant that the public did not see John Miles, he was kept very busy. Firstly, he moved back to the North East from London. He also took time to watch both local groups in the clubs and also big bands at Newcastle City Hall. More productively, he spent a lot of time on new material and producing demos. John indicated that he was lucky to have an understanding bank manager during this imposed layoff. By mid 1981, the legal wrangles with Decca had eased sufficiently to allow John to sign with EMI.
In July of 1981, the Evening Chronicle reported that John had switched from Decca to EMI and announced that a new single and album would be released soon. These would be Turn Yourself Loose and Miles High respectively. Turn Yourself Loose was a high-energy stomper. Unfortunately, it did not make the charts despite quite a lot of airplay and a number of "signed" copies being available. However, it did manage to reach the status of "Bubbling Under" which means it was just outside the Top 75. The Evening Chronicle noted that it was "in the style of Slow Down". While I can see the similarity, I think Slow Down has a more disco feel and is more danceable. Miles High however, did manage to break into the Top 100 UK album chart just managing to get to 96.
Record reviews were mixed. The majority praised John's talent though some questioned the feel of the album. Record Mirror (RM) commented that the album showed the "bland sound of the eighties.more like 70's Hall & Oates disco turned into a white funk". Certainly, I would agree that it was more funk than rock and the tracks perhaps not as in your face but "bland"?, surely not.
A variation on this was levelled at the album by Sounds. "John Miles is one of the most talented singers, guitarists and songwriters that I have come across. But this "fresh" start with EMI is bland, dull and lifeless." The reviewer continued "Songs lose their initial inspiration, stripped of most of their potential in the studio". That is obviously one view of the production. The RM reviewer was then more positive noting "songs are catchy, familiar sounding with all the right hooks, cleverly constructed and beautifully produced". This highlights both John and Bob's talent and craftsmanship at songwriting and also compliments John on his production debut. The review finished with the remark "Solid. An album for motorway grooving". Indeed, it is great to sing to at speed. Melody Maker was far more positive, "Gritty, straight ahead Rock and Roll in the Chuck Berry tradition". One small criticism was made regarding "similarity of texture" but added "his mind-boggling technique and pyrotechnics on guitar and he brings even the most mundane tune to life".
A short UK tour took place to promote the album. Around 13 gigs took him the length of the UK, but not to Scotland so I travelled down to Sunderland to see him the night before I started University! The trio of John, Barry and Bob formed the core of the group with Julian Cormack (or was his name Colbeck?) on keyboards and John McBurnie on rhythm guitar and keyboards. Despite the comparatively brief length of the tour there was some merchandise. T Shirts and Sweatshirts displaying Adrian Baumgartner's portrait of John from the British album cover. (I actually prefer the US cover that has you looking through a roofless wall with a window and a jetstream in the distance.) Anyway, the T shirt was best with the tour dates on its reverse side. There were also button badges with the cover picture on them.
So what was the overall feeling about Miles High? Billboard described it as "a classy blending of straight ahead rock, seamless pop, r&b, easy going jazz and reggae." Sounds felt that someone should "take him by the scruff of the neck and drop him into the middle of a hot rhythm section and turn him loose". They continued "The guy has so much versatility he could put life into the soulless funk / jazz revival". And what of John's view? He told the papers "I believe my songs are more commercial than before. More concise. The longest is 6½ minutes!" Melody Maker noted that John was "vocally in splendid form, showing a meaner style. The aggressive confidence of the whole album is its greatest strength." Their conclusion needs no further comment. "Overall, a triumphant return to the scene by a thoroughbred musician we can ill afford to lose. For all those who love timeless popular music."
Although Miles High had not been as successful as fans may have hoped, 1982 brought renewed optimism. John was to begin a second album for EMI, who had promised to bring in a top producer as well as the best session musicians available. The first single had been decided to be The Right To Sing. Additionally, a number of things happened in 1982 that seemed to suggest that John was back on track. Firstly, Fabergé brought out a new fragrance called Music. The commercial featured a slightly altered version of Music by John Miles. The major difference was a small change in lyric that said "Music IS my first love". And yes it was John who sang the amended version. Apparently, he wasn't too keen but he felt that if he had not done it they would have used someone who sounded like him.
It was also decided to re-release Music. This was perhaps to cash-in on the advert in the same way "Levi" adverts and the like do today. It was also seen as a good move prior to the release of The Right To Sing. The release took two formats: the traditional 7" and a 12" version. The 12" had an extended version of Music, which to me is the original with Music (reprise) from the album added at the start. For both releases Slow Down was on the flipside as the AA side. The single came in a picture sleeve. It was in two colours blue and silver with a cartoonish picture of John that was reminiscent of the Sympathy cover. For the first time that I can recall the cover referred to Music (was my first love). On the continent the re-release did well reaching No 2 in Holland. However, in the UK little promotion from Decca was evident.
Decca followed up the single re-release of Music with John Miles' Music, a compilation from his four albums with them. Like the re-release of the single, Decca put little effort into promoting the album. I was an avid music paper reader in the 70's and 80's and to my knowledge there was not one review of this compilation. What could have been a nice reminder of John Miles prior to his new single and album coming out (like re-running "Friends" prior to the new series starting) ended up being nothing more than a pipe dream, partly due to Decca's inability to promote their former star and a delay with the release of his new EMI material.
Early in 1982 it had been decided to commence recording of John Miles' second album for EMI around May time, and that it would be in the shops around September. John and Bob had given a lot of thought to what kind of album they wanted to do and, after they managed to get the songs together, John laid down demos at the Whitehouse Studios in Chelsea, which were owned by John's manager, Cliff Cooper. Once the demos, which consisted of vocals, piano, guitar and drum machine, were laid down, they were given to EMI's A&R head, whose responsibility it was to arrange for the best producer. After his experience with Miles High, John did not want to take the controls. In an interview in "Electronics and Music Maker" (E&MM) he said "I enjoyed everything about the album (Miles High), apart from the mixing stage because the mixing can be so boring, and you can get stale very easily." The promise of a top producer resulted in the appointment of Gus Dudgeon, who had been Elton John's producer for many years. In addition he had also produced Elkie Brooks and Chris Rea. Gus listened to John's demos, liked what he heard and was very keen to do the album. However, due to work commitments work on the album would be delayed. This was the start of a number of setbacks that would delay the eventual release of the album. Top session musicians were also to be brought in. However, Bob and Barry were still to tour with John to promote the album.
In the review of the album, E&MM said "John Miles has made a bold move by abandoning his backing band of the last decade and using the musicians his producer Gus Dudgeon has hired. The lyrics are still written by Bob Marshall, but his place on bass is now filled by Paul Westwood. Barry Black (the man who put all that pace into Slow Down) has been replaced by Graham Jarvis. Miles shares keyboard credits with Pete Wingfield and synthesiser specialist Duncan Mckay and the guitar playing with Martin Jenner. Mel Collins throws in a couple of classy solos on sax."
The fanzine "Zaragon" asked Bob Marshall what he thought of the different approach. He felt that initially he wasn't sure it was the right thing to do, but, having seen the session musicians at work, was happy that it was the correct decision. He believed that the musicians would have given a different interpretation to that of the John Miles' Band. John himself noted that the suggestion to use session musicians was made by Gus, who was aiming for a whole new approach. Separately with EM&M John also noted that his earlier dispute with Decca had meant that it was financially impossible to keep the band going. So when the deal for the album happened, it was an opportunity to be fresh. "I think people tend to see the same faces and think `well, here it comes again..... there's nothing new coming out of there'. That's basically why I went for a new musical direction".
Despite getting most of the recording done, the release had to be postponed. One of the problems with hiring a top producer is that they have other commitments, so while Gus was producing for Elton and Elkie, John just had to wait. "Zaragon" noted that the recording would be completed in the October of 1982. Although Bob was not playing, he was involved at the recording and felt that Gus worked John very hard, re-recording until he felt it was perfect. At that stage the songs which were to be included were The Right To Sing, Ready To Spread Your Wings, Home, Take Me To My Heaven, Heart of Stone and Miss Faversham.
The last, which was based upon the Great Expectations character and apparently a lovely song did not make it to the final selection. Mick Robb of "Zaragon" also managed to get an interview with John during the recording. John felt that the production gave the music a sound that was far superior to anything the band had done before. With the exception of The Right to Sing, John felt the album had more of a common feel to it. John also felt the sound was more American, primarily because of the tight rhythm section that was being used. John enthused about working with Gus and said he would like to work worth him again, a comment he also made in E&MM.
At this stage it was thought the single would be out in January of 1983 with the album the following month. Unfortunately, it was further delayed and in March it was thought that the single would be out in April, backed by Back to the Magic. John's manager felt that The Right to Sing was John's greatest ever song. In my opinion it certainly is a terrific song. Although it is a relatively short song I think it is very strong both melodically and lyrically. Although some may try to compare it with Music, but I think there are differences. Most prominent is the subject matter. Music has a clear message, a celebration of Music if you like. The Right To Sing on the other hand is a ballad, but more of a protest song. It is essentially about the problems he has had with record companies trying to tell him what to do, what to release, when all he wants to do is take responsibility for his own destiny.
While the delays with Play On were due to other people's commitments, Miles High was held up because of the litigation that I have mentioned previously. It was perhaps apt that when John was signed up to appear on a number of TV shows, one of them was about the Jarrow March where you saw John playing a piano in the middle of a room full of pictures about the struggle. The programme was Highway a Sunday night musical semi-religious programme fronted by Sir Harry Secombe. John also appeared on a number of TV shows including Razzamattaz (a kids pop programme) and Karen Kay amongst others. Not only would a picture sleeve be available but it was also decided to release a picture disc in the shape of a microphone. Personally speaking while it looked good the sound quality was definitely poorer, although for the 99p or £1.25 that it was being sold for made it a cheap decorative addition to my collection. However, the release of Play On was delayed again by another month and the demand created by the appearances counted for nothing.
When E&MM reviewed Play On they had the following to say about The Right To Sing. "But we have to wait to the final track for the classic. It begins innocently enough with Miles' flowing piano lines and breathy vocals, but Bruce Baxter's orchestral arrangement, which had been in the background for the first two choruses, suddenly hijacks the song. Miles screaming guitar comes in over the top of the major 7th and minor chords, climaxing in the final chorus, a statement of personal independence. The echoed guitar phrases at the end bring up the gooseflesh. If properly released as a single this track could, with enough airplay, repeat Miles success with Music." There was a glimmer of hope in that Manchester's Piccadilly Radio and BBC Radio 2 selected The Right To Sing as their record of the week. However, certainly in the 80's you had to get your record heard on BBC Radio 1 to get it sold. (For any overseas readers Radio 1 plays music to the younger (teenage, early twenties) audiences, while Radio 2 plays music for the more mature listener. For completeness Radio 3 plays classical music, Radio 4 caters for the arts, Radio 5 covers news and sport and Radio 6, a brand new digital music station available on the web). There was some airplay on Radio 1 but not at the peak listening times. The Right To Sing did manage to enter the chart at number 88. Unfortunately, that was its peak and within a couple more weeks it fell out of the Top 100.
It was planned that the album would follow shortly after the single release of The Right To Sing and also be titled this but that was not to be. Essentially, as the single had not charted it was decided to release a second single, Song For You and hopefully capitalize on its success. This may or may not have been a co-incidence that Song For You was the first (and only?) single released by Columbia in the US. That's Rock and Roll which was considered too different to be on the album became the "B" side. The latter track was very much a track in the hard rock mould. It was also one of the last tracks put in the can. After the majority of the backing tracks had been laid down, Gus had asked John and Bob if they "fancy writing another couple". Although surprised by this they went home and wrote two songs, one of which was That's Rock and Roll. Song For You is a bouncy song in the same vein as C'est La Vie, which I find very catchy and has you either humming or singing along with. However, it was perhaps a bit too poppy for the mid 80's.
The album was titled Play On after a horse John saw in the racing pages of a newspaper. Similarly, the artwork, which was expanding on the microphone concept and including instruments as well, was shelved in favour of a painting of John. The album was finally released in the Summer of '83 and I can remember being on holiday at the end of August / start of September and buying it in a Woolworths in the North of Scotland and being unable to hear it until I got back home. When I got back home I was not disappointed. I had waited two long years for this. The album was a bit different from what I had expected, which I will expand on later.
In December 83, "Zaragon" published mixed reactions to the album, although generally comments were positive. Terry Dunn wrote "the album is growing on me. Particular highlights are the guitar solos in I'll never do it again and Close Eyes.". Richard Townsend wrote, "From a music point of view, John Miles is not writing the classic stuff he was perhaps three years ago. The music he is now producing is competent, listenable and tuneful. Some tracks stand out but the rest is hardly original. I would love a return to the music of the 70's" I can empathise with Richard on a couple of the tracks although some may be other people's favourites. Other comments were "new album is superb. How Right to Sing was never a hit I'll never know" and "I like all the tracks. Favourite track is Ready To Spread Your Wings. This track really stood out because of the words and the fantastic orchestral arrangement." Mick Robb summarised "John Miles' fans are a varied bunch because John's music is so varied. I think Play On is the most complete work John's ever recorded, but I hold all his other LPs in high esteem too. Most fans love the new LP - but beware! John's new material (Transition) marks yet another change. This man does not stand still, will not become complacent".
I realise that artists need to develop and experiment and I think with Play On John Miles comes very close to pulling it off. Perhaps it was just too many changes at the one time. Certainly the solos are shorter and the tracks are shorter, but that gives us more tracks than his other albums! The album does have a softer feel probably as a result of the production. Billboard in the US, who recommended the album, said "English pub rocker John Miles gets a smooth finish to his white soul renderings with the help of top British session musicians and a 40-piece orchestra. Producer Dudgeon gives everything a nice glossy shine on this, Miles' debut for Capitol. As a result Miles is nearly lost in his own album." Although E&MM was a little mixed in its review of Play On its final conclusion was unequivocal. "It certainly deserves to put Miles back into the public attention".
And was the album a success? A short tour was planned but although it took place, and was fantastic, it took place at the end of the year, far too late to have given the album the boost it needed at release. Unfortunately, it was John's first album which failed to chart. John was asked about his disappointment at its lack of success. He said "I thought it was a good album, it had a good sound. I think maybe the choice of singles was wrong. I certainly never thought of Song for You as a single. The record company decides that. I thought I'd trust their judgement because - they should know." Another criticism was that there were few guitar solos as E&MM noted above. John responded to similar criticism later in the interview that guitar solos were disappearing in favour of synthesizers. He said "I did a phone interview with a Swedish radio station and this guy said (John adopts Swedish accent) `on zis album why is there no guitar solos?' I said, well there is. `Yeah' they say `but they are not as long as they used to be'. Why do they have to be long?"
By the start of 1984 John had begun work on material for the next new album, despite the fact that he was about to embark upon a belated tour to promote the Play On album. Mick Robb of Zaragon managed to get an interview with John at this time. John and his engineer, Simon were making demos to try and impress a new record company John was both playing all the instruments and producing, trying to get it Right First Time. This was a completely different direction compared to Play On where many takes were made to attain perfection. The music was obviously more lively and gutsier. At this stage John was laying down tracks for Youre Only In It For The Money, a track which would be heard on the Play On tour. John noted that there was a lot of guitar on the new material. The engineer added, its not so much a lot of guitar its just loud. Johns plan was not to record an album immediately but to wait. However, when they decided to record the album, they would do it more quickly than the previous one. The hope was that the shorter the lead-time was the more likely that successful singles could be chosen.
The 25-date Play On tour followed at which John played Youre the One. It would appear on the forthcoming album while the afore-mentioned Youre Only In It For The Money would not make it onto vinyl. The Play On tour also featured Barriemore Barlow (late of Jethro Tull) on drums replacing Barry Black. The tour was a success and gave John and Bob renewed vigour and enthusiasm. By the late spring of 1984 Youre the one was recorded and was planned to be the new John Miles single. However, a small matter of a new record contract had to be resolved. John had left EMI after the poor showing of Play On which the record giant had failed to support and as a result Cliff Cooper was in discussions with other record companies. In the meantime John and Bob set to work writing, eventually producing more than a dozen new tracks.
John also found time to record with Alan Parsons for his Project album Stereotomy. John sang lead vocals on both the title track and In The Real World. John also teamed up with Alan Parsons arranger, Andrew Powell who was producing an album of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber songs. John sang lead vocals on Close Every Door and Pity The Child from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Chess respectively. In the year of Live Aid, John also found time to contribute to the Geordie Aid project, which was raising money to help the famine in Ethiopia. John sang the opening line of Try Giving Everything. Brian Johnson of AC/DC and the actor Tim Healy of Auf Wiedersehen Pet also took part.
While negotiations continued, the band managed to keep playing. The band was really popular on the Manchester pub circuit although as Mark Burgess wrote "One of the saddest things I recall was going to see John play at the Carousel Club in Plymouth Grove, Manchester (now the International). Our keyboard player made the comment that 'more turned up for our gigs than his'. There was in fact only about 80 people there, and John, who initially looked a bit unhappy when he came on stage, still gave an awesome performance in spite of the poor turnout. At the end of the show the band all came forward and did a dancing / tap sequence to a sequenced drum pattern, and finished of with " Nutbush City Limits", a taste of things to come perhaps?"
In July of 1984 and again in 1985 they were performing a residency in a hotel in Ibiza. In 1984 they hooked up with Robert Plant and the following year Jimmy Page played with them. This would happen again later in the decade when Jimmy decided to make his first solo album. Luckily, this residency would prove to have been a positive move for Miles and Co. Phil Carson, (no relation!) an executive from Led Zeppelins record company Atlantic had discussions with John and then signed him up for a new label Valentino. Although John had initially considered producing himself, it was decided to use Trevor Rabin, (formerly of Yes and composer of the music for the film Armageddon). John, Bob and Barrymore set off to Hollywood to record with him thus abandoning the session approach that was adopted for Play On. Unfortunately, only two tracks were laid down but what tracks they were! The first was Blinded which is truly an epic track. It starts lightly with a tinkling intro and ballad type verse before getting heavier as it builds up to the chorus where John delivers the lyrics with plenty of gusto and emotion. The track is extremely powerful and has a great guitar solo. The second Rabin-produced track was I Need Your Love. The track starts with an acapella style harmony (reminiscent of the Flying Pickets) being repeated between speakers before the keyboard and then other instruments come in with the drums being last to join in playing the words I Need Your Love repeatedly. The track then switches to a slow ballad style verse. There is nice guitar & keyboard solo, which is very classical in nature. These two tracks are both superb and would eventually become the singles from the album.
Rather than waiting for Trevors commitments to finish it was decided to complete the album with another producer. I am sure that John would not have wished for a repeat of the previous album, where producer (un)availability caused long delays. John and co returned to the UK and teamed up with Pat Moran at the Rockfield Studios in Wales. The tracks produced by Pat have a different style to Trevor. While Trevors production added a lot of sophistication, I think Pat allows the band to shine through without the interference of too much slick production. The album was to be called Transition.
As noted earlier Blinded was chosen to be the first single from the album. At over 6 minutes it was decided that it was too long and so a special cut was produced for release. Essentially this trimmed about a minute and a half from the original. For the B side the track Good So Bad was chosen. Although it did not make the album, it is a very good white soul number. It is possibly because it doesnt have the same feel as the rest of the album that it was decided to keep it for the single. Pat Moran also produced Good So Bad. It was released at the beginning of October 1985 with the artists credited as John Miles Band acknowledging that it was very much a group effort. While John appeared on the front of the picture sleeve with dictionary style printing, a group picture appeared on the reverse. Although a video was produced and a 12 also released it failed to dent the charts. These days it may seem a strange decision to release a 12 for a ballad. Even stranger is the fact that there appears to be little difference between the 7 & 12 versions! The video was quite good with an appearance reminiscent of Duran Duran in their Wild Boys days. A decision was taken not to appear on the mainstream variety TV shows and so this probably limited the opportunities. From my knowledge I am only aware of a few European TV appearances that were made at this time.
Transition was released in November of 1985. Like the single, John appears on the front and it is now obvious that the writing is the definition of the word Transition from the dictionary. On the reverse are 3 pictures, one of each group member. I bought my copy on 22 November, 2 days before my birthday. And what a birthday present it turned out to be. However, I might be biased. Initially, no tour was planned. However, in early 1986 the second single from the album I Need Your Love was released. Again, a 12 was released but this time the 12 added Run to Watching Over Me on the B-side. Perhaps this was the inspiration behind a number of dates being announced. I had made arrangements to see a show in Workington. However, a band member fell ill (possibly Bob) and as far as I am aware the tour was cancelled.
Press coverage was less than for previous albums and opinions were mixed. Sounds who had in previous years been supporters of Miles didnt review the album until January. Their main criticism appeared to be because:
a) It had a transatlantic feel. A little anti-American in my opinion and insinuated that music made in the UK should have a different sound.
b) Made by old men. John was 36 at the time!
c) That the cover was naff. The clothes and hairstyles are very 1980s.
What did they expect? Certainly Sounds had become a heavier paper by 1986 with the top bands they liked being U2, Rush, Iron Maiden and Marillion.
The Evening Chronicle was far more complimentary and stated, One of the North-easts finest musicians comes up with a rockier, rather more American sound than usual and underlines his talent. His music packs a punch, whether its up-tempo or a dramatic ballad like the spine-tingling Blinded. For an unbiased review you need look no further than Billboard in the US who noted that Miles returns with an updated version of his power trio. They concluded that the Gutsy playing and even strength of the material should assure wide exposure.
So was Transition his best work to date? It was certainly a vastly different album from Play On. Gone was the glossy production and orchestration. In was a far louder and harder sound. More Rock than MOR. It was certainly a milestone (no pun intended). It was rock at its most commercial, but although the music was modern, the ageist mentality that persists today certainly seems to have been a factor in Britain. Perhaps the critics, who had not liked Play On, were not prepared to give Transition a spin, thus depriving the general public a chance to decide for themselves. However, there were a number of fans, like me, who savoured the product of his hard work. There were still around 200 fans that received the fanzine Zaragon. However, there was to be an 8-year lag before the next solo album and so the release of Transition also coincided with the last issue of the fanzine.
It was around this time that John found a new audience that also appreciated his talent. This audience was Europe and the vehicle was and is Night Of The Proms. But that is another story. In hindsight, this was a period of Transition for John. He has gone from solo artist to band member, albeit the lead band member. This would continue over the next few years with periods with Jimmy Page, Joe Cocker and Tina Turner.
This was an extremely busy period of activity for both John Miles and the John Miles Band. Writing, performing, recording and touring. But was the effort worth it? I certainly think it was. I believe John was doing what he does best. John enjoys being an artist. And if making his music brings critical and public acclaim then that is icing on the cake. To quote John, To sing and play my music is my life.
We have now reached 1985 and Transition. There would be no new "John Miles" album for 8 more years. However, did that mean John was resting on his laurels? My goodness me no! I won't go into much detail here but John started his Night Of The Proms involvement in 1985, which has continued to the present day. And in 1987 he joined Tina Turner's band, which he would continue to do until the end of 2000 (assuming Tina has really retired). He had also recorded with Alan Parsons, on Tales of Mystery and Imagination in 1975, Pyramid in 1977, and now Sterotomy in 1985,Gaudi in 1987 and also on Freudiana in 1990. These tracks alone would make an excellent album release. Then came his work with Jimmy Page on the Outrider project, firstly recording the album followed by a world tour in 1988. In 1987 Rebel was released on CD for the first time but on the London label instead of Decca. That was followed up in 1989 with the CD release of Stranger In The City with four additional tracks, this time on Deram. In 1990 he also had a shot at Eurovision fame where he came second in the "Song For Europe".
By 1992 the work with Jimmy Page and Alan Parsons had ceased, while further world tours with Tina continued. Not only that but in 1992 John Miles' had a hit single. This time though it was as songwriter and guitarist instead of vocalist. The song was Now That The Magic Has Gone and the artist was Joe Cocker. I can remember hearing it on the radio as I awoke one morning. Initially I thought I was dreaming but I knew instantly that it was a John Miles track. As it turned out John had not only performed on this track but was on a number of tracks on Joe Cocker's Night Calls album as well as the tour. During the tour he met up with Tony Joe White and guested at one of his concerts. It appeared that John was in demand and there was talk of a new solo album.
In the meantime a label called Windsong had commenced an arrangement with Radio 1 to release CDs of their "In Concert" radio shows. Although not one of the first, they chose John Miles as one of their subjects. They had four concerts to choose from. The first was a half hour concert recorded in March 76 before Rebel was released. The second was an hour broadcast recorded in Feb 1977 and transmitted in April of that year promoting the Stranger In The City album. The 3rd and 4th concerts were broadcast in June 78 from Queen Mary College London and in July 79 from the Paris Theatre in London. These final two were part of the BBC's "Sight & Sound In Concert" series where it was broadcast simultaneously on TV and radio. Since stereo TV had not been invented we had the hi fi speakers perched beside the TV (an early form of surround sound). Anyway despite the amount of material available all the tracks chosen for John Miles Live in Concert came from the first two concerts.
The concert and therefore John Miles Live in Concert is very good. It does give you a good feel as to what a live concert actually felt like. The tracks follow the same order as broadcast with the insertion of the two 76 tracks before the encore of Sweet Lorraine. The version of Highfly features some very clean guitar work, while this version of Sweet Lorraine is more raunchy than its studio counterpart featuring "Jools Holland" style keyboard work.
As album covers go I think the picture chosen for the sleeve is a good one. Unfortunately it is the only photo. Instead the word Miles takes up a third of the front on back and is the wallpaper behind the liner text. The liner notes are good and are written by Michael Heatley. They owe a lot to those previously written by John Tracy for the Rebel and Stranger releases a fact that is acknowledged. One true statement that he makes is that "the absence of a definitive collection makes this "In Concert" released doubly valuable". It also mentioned the connection with Joe Cocker, which they might have missed otherwise.
Overall it is a good representation of John Miles' work as at 1977. I only have seen one review for this album, which unfortunately says very little. It stated "Miles was a quintessential 70s artist, whose musical strengths - memorable hooks, well constructed songs, tasteful rock arrangements - were precisely those which fell out of favour with public and press alike at the end of that decade". That being said there was obviously a market for it in the early 90's and fans such as me were beside themselves to see something new. We may have thought that we wouldn't see anything else for a while but we were wrong. However, that is another story. In the meantime we savoured the fresh live sounds from 76 and 77, when bands played live and miming meant walls created by Marcel Marceau. And John Miles was the Music Man.
1993 saw the release of Anthology, another "Best Of" album, although this time two tracks from the Orange singles, and two from Alan Parsons were included. Then followed Upfront, John's first new album release since Transition in 1985. (As yet, we have not had a review of this album - JW) Then in 1998, another compilation hit the streets, John Miles, Master Series. To get more tracks onto the CD, the shorter singles versions of several tracks were included.
1999 heralded a new musical, Tom and Catherine. It reunites John Miles and Tom Kelly who previously wrote "Machine Gunners" in 1998. John Miles wrote the music, while the book and lyrics are by Tom Kelly. Ray Spencer, who also directed Machine Gunners, directs the piece. The musical is about Catherine Cookson, the well known romantic fiction novelist, and her husband Tom Cookson. It tracks their lives from when they were both youngsters living in South Shields (Catherine) and Hastings (Tom) through to their deaths in 1998, a mere 3 weeks apart! In between we find that Catherine was illegitimate, her mother was a drunkard, she was unable to have children and inherited an illness from her father that kept her housebound. On the other hand we have the love and joy of the relationship and marriage she shared with her husband Tom.
On Wednesday 22 September, Tom and Catherine had its World Premiere at the Customs House, South Shields. This was very apt, as the main female character in it, Catherine Cookson, grew up in this area. I attended the third performance of the musical on the night of 23rd September 1999. The Customs house itself is quite a small theatre and I was not sure what to expect. However, the first song In This Life set the tone for the whole evening with a rousing chorus sung by the Company.
Six actors and actresses play Tom and Catherine at various stages of their lives. All the leads gave solid performances and it is noticeable that their singing and acting abilities are equally strong. Even the youngsters who played Tom and Catherine aged 10 were impressive. I recognised a number of the cast members. Donald McBride who played "Older Tom Cookson" has many television credits to his name. Gavin Payne who played "Young Tom" has extensive experience in the theatre as does "Older Catherine" played by Karen Lynne. Jan Greveson, who plays Young Catherine Cookson, appeared in nearly 50 episodes of Eastenders. But don't let this fool you into thinking that this is just another soap opera.
I did not realise that there was so much to the life of Catherine Cookson. However, had it been called Jack and Jane it would still be terrific, as it is a wonderful story about someone who just happened to be a famous writer. Between them, Tom Kelly, John Miles & Ray Spencer have managed to produce a musical with everything., Dramatic Tension, Comic Relief, Tragedy as well as the Love and Passion that I was expecting to see. All in all, I thought Tom and Catherine was a wonderful production. It deserves to reach a wider audience and I hope it does. It would certainly give Mr Lloyd Webber a run for his money given half a chance. The songs are of the very highest quality. Some moving and emotional while others are lively and could become singalongs. As it ended you could see tears of joy and smiles on the faces of the audience. That can't be bad.
In 1999, the Master Series CD was digitally remastered, and reissued as the Millennium Edition. This brought out a little of the hidden depths in the original recordings. It was worth buying for that alone. This was followed in 2000 by yet another compilation, John Miles - His Very Best. Whether the title is true or not rather depends on the listener, although there was no remastering here.
At last, in 2001, we saw the return of John Miles to the British stage, in a number of concerts, back on home turf in the North of England, as well as another run of Tom and Catherine.
Of John's style, Mark Burgess comments "John, for me, stands out as being the most gifted 'composed guitar soloist' in the pop rock genre. Almost all of John's solos must be composed rather than improvised. If not, he is even more talented than I thought. I am sure John's piano training from the age of six has a bearing on his solo playing , even the way some of the solos are physically found on the fretboard are in some of the more rare 'modes' for guitarists to use. There is a lot of major key rather than blues style to his playing ."
Bimal Jangra wrote "I just wish I could play and sing as well as John - his voice has always struck me as being one of the very best in rock. I think the bottom line (based on what I have heard JM say in interviews, particularly one on BBC Radio 2, interviewed by Gloria Hunniford around the time of the Play On album) is that JM has never wanted to be a puppet of management or publicists. It's his career, his music, and he's going to do it his way. It seems that he had the chance to stay in London around the time of Stranger in the City, and the success of Slow Down, but instead preferred to live in his native North East. I get the impression that he decided it was more important to be there for his wife and children whilst they were growing up rather than to be jetting all over the world. I also get the impression that he knows that an artist's time at the top can be very fleeting - but your family are always there. I agree that he is terribly underrated by the public at large, but I get the feeling that he makes the music he wants in the way he wants and the people who are sufficiently perceptive enough (such as Alan Parsons, Tina Turner) know that he is one of the greatest musical talents ever to emerge from this country - or indeed the world!"
Let us hope this is the start of another phase in his very sucessful career.