The Deer Johns take on Life In The Early 80s
The Deer Johns @ Gluttony (Excess Theatre)
6:30pm, Sat 5 Mar 2011
The early eighties were my formative years, musically. The New Romantics, early British electro-pop, US pop-rock, pretty much anything… I love that music with a passion, and stupid amounts of my CD collection is devoted to collecting all those songs that I loved that only seem to be available on multi-disc compilations. And the remixes… don’t get me started. Unless you know where the find the phenomenal extended remix of Alphaville’s Sounds Like A Melody on CD, because I’d be willing to trade serious amounts of marketable body fluids for that.
The point is that when I saw The Deer Johns’ précis in the Guide, promising “Bridget Jones’ Diary meets The Wonder Years and turn it into a musical”, set to the music of 1980-1985… I was there.
Well, not quite. While I was faffing about trying to get The Schedule in order, all three of The Deer Johns’ shows at Gelatissimo sold out. Opportunity knocked, however, when I wandered down to pick up some tickets from The Garden one day and noticed a flyer advertising a new show at Gluttony. My ticket was bought then and there.
And so to the Excess Theatre tent at Gluttony, where the three members of The Deer Johns have ample room to move amongst their instruments – though I am still wondering how all their gear could possibly have fit in Gelatissimo. Singer/guitarist Andrew O’Callaghan narrates the story of three boys – John, Jonathon, and Jack – growing up in the early eighties, with the undulating nature of their friendship (drawn together by aspirations, pulled apart by reality… and the fairer sex) emphasised using snippets of songs from the era, triggered by a sentiment, or a phrase, or even just a single word from the story of the three boys.
And when I say “snippets”, I mean it – half-a-song is the most afforded to any one track, and sometimes it’s only a verse, a chorus, or just a couple of chords. But the fifty(!) tracks selected cover a fantastic array of music from the early-to-mid eighties: there’s Devo, Lennon, Bowie, Pink Floyd, Madness, Queen… and that’s just 1980! Early on, XTC’s Generals and Majors makes an appearance, and they’ve completely won my support; Ashes to Ashes only strengthens that support (and I’m usually the first to grumble when someone approaches Bowie’s classic).
In general, the instrumentation of The Deer Johns is faithful to the tone, whilst being wonderfully inventive – a virtual necessity, given that O’Callaghan’s guitar is accompanied only by Chris Marshall’s drums, with Jesse Cotton roving from keyboards to guitar to bass. Come Said The Boy, in particular, benefits from great production, and the boys coalesce some perfect Wham Rap falsetto harmonies. It’s not all good, though – a lot of the pure synth pop songs would have benefited from sparser arrangements, with the drums in particular overwhelming the original tracks in their additional complexity – What Is Love? suffers from this malady (a real shame, given my love for HoJo’s work… did you know you can buy a remastered 12″ Album now, complete with the stunning Megamamamix of Look Mama on CD? You really should.)
But at the end of the day, that shouldn’t really matter – because The Deer Johns facilitate a magical nostalgic journey. To be honest, the story of the three boys remains of secondary interest to the music… but, paradoxically, of primary importance, because the boys’ growing pains provide the impetus for the song selection… and that’s a really unique hook for a very enjoyable show.