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John Helmer, A Snappy Writer - Interview with Fraser Marshall

John Helmer is known to Marillion fans from his numerous lyric credits throughout the h-era of the band. What many people may not know about is his own career as a chart topper with The Piranhas and a TV star. In autumn 2012 Fraser Marshall went to meet him in a Brighton pub to find out how one small fish replaced a much bigger one.


John, you left school in south east Essex at 18 and went to Sussex University to study English where you met a chap who became known as Boring Bob Grover, The Piranhas other guitarist/vocalist.
Yes, but he wasn’t at university. I had rooms in a flat in Brighton and I met him in a pub round the corner, which was where he lived, and still does. Hanover is still very much his area. We’re working again together at the moment on a new version of The Piranhas, The Piranhas 3D, writing songs and everything, so I’m spending a lot of time in that part of Brighton.

So, you met him in the pub – how did you get talking?
Well, anyone knows Bob knows he’s got an opinion about anything, and everyone who knows me, knows I’m a bit of a bullshitter, and he overheard me in the pub bullshitting somebody about the Vox AC30 (a guitar amplifier used by the likes of The Beatles, The Kinks, Brian May, the Edge and Paul Weller - Ed). He said, “I’d like to put you right on that,” and I thought, “Who is this person?” That’s how it began and we discovered we had a lot of common interests in music and I was looking to get into a band, so we ended up starting one together.

What was your musical background before that? Were you playing in bands at school?
No, not really. Just dabbling. There were a lot of good players around the Essex Delta and at my school, there was some very good musicians; Barry Martin who’s now in The Hamsters and Wilko Johnson, who went on to Doctor Feelgood… At the time I was still learning, and I didn’t feel I was good enough to be in a band. I was still practising chops, so to speak. When I went to university, I took my guitar with me and kept it under the bed but didn’t really find the right people to play with. Then I ran into Bob and it was 1976, going on 1977 and the punk thing was happening, so it didn’t really matter I wasn’t that good a musician.

What were your musical tastes back then?
Oh, heavily into blues; Peter Green, Eric Clapton, Mayall, then Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Family. I saw Yes at the local tech on one of Steve Howe’s first gigs, so I was a sort of greatcoat, bush hat, prog type. Then things changed and I got more into a bit of glam, then R&B. Wilco was a prefect at my school and Doctor Feelgood were very much the home team. I was at the gig at the Kursaal in Southend when they recorded Stupidity (chart topping live album that cemented their success - Ed) and it was like your team had won the World Cup because they’d become an internationally famous act. So, that was a big influence, because it was a sideslip from them into punk from pub rock.

And Bob?
His is more sort of funk and soul background, but there’s an R&B root at the bottom.

But the band you went on to form was more of a ska band?
Well, when we first formed, it was straight-ahead punk with a bit of humour in there. Then we added bits of reggae because we were into The Clash when they were experimenting with that. But with my background… When I wasn’t being a greatcoat and going to see prog bands, I would moonlight and go out to bits of darkest Essex where they’d play bits of Dave and Ansell Collins (Jamaican reggae duo that influenced Madness - Ed) and “get off with Dorisses” and be a bit of a boot boy – which is a cross between a hairy and a skinhead! I had this guilty love of reggae and that stuck, so that came in as an influence as well. I started listening to a lot of the Trojan records stuff and thought we had to get that ska influence into The Piranhas.

Was the ska thing – Jerry Dammers and all that - coming through more widely at this time?
It came through slightly afterwards. Pete Waterman, who produced our album, told us that he brought Jerry Dammers down to see us in the early days, at a gig in Brighton. I don’t think it influenced him, but there’s was a similar thing going on. When we used to play the Hope and Anchor in Islington, Madness used to come along. There were similar ideas going on but we were never part of that 2-Tone thing. We had our roots in garage punk.

I read a piece that you’d written online, and you were talking about how people like John Peel and Robert Smith would come down to the Brighton sea front to see you playing at the Alhambra.
We’re playing a John Peel gig in Brighton at the end of October (2011) with Subway Sect, actually. He was a big influence because he was the first person to play us on radio, which was a surprise, but a nice one. He got us in to do a lot of sessions.

When you were unsigned?
Initially. Well, we’d put out an indie single out on Attrix Records, which was a Brighton label. Also, they did this compilation called Best of Vaultage ’78 and it was our tracks in particular that Peel choose to play, so we had been on record labels before that.

This then led to majors? We were on a couple of major labels for a while. We did a single for Virgin that didn’t work out, then there was a car crash and we were languishing and then Pete Waterman came along, swept us up and did Tom Hark and we had a hit single.

Pete Waterman now is very much associated with the Stock, Aitken and Waterman stuff and very much pop. He wasn’t then?
He was always very much a pop man and I remember trying to explain to him why Joy Division was something that he should listen to. He was very enthusiastic about pop and at that time he was picking up on a lot of modern punk bands who wrote pop songs. He did some records with The Lambrettas, a mod band from Lewes, and he had this rockabilly band, Matchbox, he did some stuff with, and we came along after that. It was seeing us play at the Alhambra that made him think this was a band with a lot of potential, and that he’d try and cut it on record. So, he pushed us in quite a commercial direction on that album and the pushing had an effect, in that the band split up under those forces.

Tom Hark, your biggest song, is perhaps best known at the moment as the theme tune to Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, but back in the day it even became a football anthem. It’s a cover, isn’t it?
It’s a cover of a South African Kwela record from the 50s.

That was instrumental, right?
Yes, it was by Elias & His Zig Zag Jive Flutes. Kids in the townships of South Africa at that time were so poor that they couldn’t afford instruments apart from penny whistles, so the original is just massed penny whistles. We transferred that to saxophone – a saxophone being something those kids could just not afford – and, I’m embarrassed to say, we slightly ‘squared-up’ the rhythm a bit and it’s still played around the country at rugby and football stadiums when someone scores a goal.

Fabulous – so you’re still making money off that?
Well, I don’t have a writer’s credit on it. I get performer’s royalties, but it doesn’t amount to a huge amount.

So the lyric wasn’t yours then?
No. I remember we were on the way up to the recording studio, and I remember we were egregiously hung over after a night out on the tiles, and it was the day we were going to put the vocal down. Pete Waterman insisted it had to have some vocals on it. It didn’t up to that point – it was an instrumental we used to play. We were talking about it in the van; “Do you want to write some lyrics?” “No. I can’t be arsed” Bob was the least hungover of us, so he wrote the lyrics and gets the royalty. But that’s also shared with the original composer, because we were very keen to ensure that was paid back.

There was a comment you wrote in the article I read online: “Ironically enough, having survived years of slogging up and down the M1; after a tragic car crash which killed our road manager Dave Bullock and hospitalized other members; after poverty, hardship, the Anti-Piranha League, contractual wranglings, bad drugs, bad sex, bad food and the day-to-day rigours of living that vision, it was getting into the Top Ten that finally polished us off..."

(chuckles) Did I say that?

You certainly wrote it! Do you stand by that?
Pretty much. I’ve always said it’s not hardship that breaks bands up, it’s success. It tends to be. It’s not so much squabbling but it raises the tensions because musicians and writers are unequally rewarded. That’s fair enough, and I wouldn’t like to give up any of my royalties, such as they are, and writing is something where you should have ownership. It tends to tear bands apart a lot of the time if one or two people have got a lot more money than everyone else.

It’s noticeable that quite a few of the longer lived bands do split the royalties equally. Marillion, of course. U2 do the same and Queen did latterly because it was causing squabbles.
I think it’s fair, because the way that songs come together in the studio, it’s too easy to focus on the top line and ignore all the other input. There are certain elements of a record that you can’t copyright, like a drumbeat. You know, otherwise Bo Diddley would own the entire corpus of white rock n’ roll!

So, it was that kind of pressure?
I suppose, to use that horrendous cliché, it’s was musical differences, and we were pulling in different directions.

The band continued with Bob, but not you.
Yeah. I went off and formed this street busking band, Pookiesnackenburger. After five years on the road, I was a bit tired of it. I was a bit frustrated by the fact that I’d come straight out of college and all I’d done for five years was see airports and the inside of a transit van and service stations. Playing in the street was good because you got to see a bit of the world and just to try something a bit different, with a bit more performance involved.

I remember Pookiesnackenburger but I don’t remember the Piranhas.
You’re too young!

Pookiesnackenburger, I definitely remember. I found a clip of the television show Number 73 with a very young Sandi Toksvig as Ethel, and Su Pollard was there, Mick Karn and Steve Jansen of Japan and you lot all together. As I watched it, I remembered seeing it the first time and Pookie were one of those names that I knew but didn’t know a lot about. You were actually quite prolific, weren’t you?
Yeah, we did five Edinburgh Festivals and in that quite small and cultish part of the world we were quite well known and well regarded. A lot of TV people were trying to find formats to put us in.

You said it was a street band, so was it your full time occupation or were you doing other things on the side?

No, it was absolutely full-time, when we weren’t doing evening gigs or recording of whatever, we were in the street. We’d go up to Covent Garden, busk around Brighton and we’d be carted off to do parties in the streets at arts festivals in places like Glasgow and Derry in the north of Ireland, which was a really unusual one because people would feel they wanted to bring a bit of street life to places that we a bit troubled. They’d sort of send us in. We were the shock troops of live art!

You were living on what people were chucking in the hat?
Well, what people were chucking in the hat was quite considerable. The first Edinburgh festival we went out busking for the afternoon and earned all the air fares there and back. What people don’t realise is that money you get given in the street is tax-free. It’s not taxable and that makes a difference.

The Fringe back then wasn’t as corporate as it is now, of course.
No. The Fringe was still a huge deal, but it’s been upgraded and corporatised. We would do two or three shows a day. We had an evening show and then we would do a thing in the Wireworks Playground at lunch time but occasionally, when money got a bit low because we’d drunk it all, we’d go out and busk. What was weird about that band was that if you felt the coppers were wearing thin, you’d go out and work and earn money.

It’s funny because we had started off being quite purist about being a street band; “We play in the street – we don’t want to make records, we just want to turn up and perform”. Just do the show in the street and then gone, ephemeral. Almost immediately we got in with Stiff Records and released a single with them, Just One Cornetto, and we ended up getting signed by Channel 4 to do all these mini musicals.

Pookiesnackenburger in…
Pookiesnackenburger in… yeah. Like a lot of these sort of projects, you’re not really prepared for where it’s going to go. You get together to do things for a laugh and suddenly everything is taken very seriously.

You did the Channel Four series and that was six shows, was it?
Five. We started with six but the budgets were rather optimistic. We were all rather naïve and enthusiastic and we blew the budget on five of them.

The one I found online was the heavy metal one, Hell Bent, with you as the lead guitarist in the fright wig and…
The make up and the tight trousers…

I asked people online if they had anything they want me to ask you about and one of them remarked that episode must have been good experience when it came to dealing with Marillion.
(Laughs)

Then, as a result of those, you got the Heineken commercial (a bunch of dustmen start tapping on milkbottles and bins, building up to a big rhythm piece).
That’s right. Our encore number was this dustbin dance we’d done. It was mainly loops – vaguely; Steve McNicholas’d say go, you’d press play and then stop. We’d been to see the Burrundi Drums when they played in Covent Garden where we were busking as well, and we wanted to do a similar thing with dustbins. At first we thought, “Well ok, what do I add?” and then do it again, and it worked brilliantly. The bins were very heavy to play and they used to get quite battered, so you’d find yourself going to a gig and looking for the local Robert Dias to stock up on dustbin lids! That was a staple part of the show for a long time. Last time I went to see Stomp, they’re still doing it.

So, where did Stomp come from? Pookiesnackenburger did the advert and that did so well a couple of them decided they wanted to go off and do that?
Sort of. Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas also had a sort of funk dance band called Yes/No People, which is now the name of their production company. They’d been on The Tube and had a single released, but it didn't quite work out and Stomp came out of that. It was a small-scale thing at first - they used things like matchboxes! My brother in law, Nick, was one of the original cast members of Stomp. He used to be in a punk band called Nicky and the Dots.

But you didn't do Stomp. Why was that?
One thing I realised through doing the TV series was that I missed writing songs and doing things that had a words-and-music concept. Pookiesnackenburger wasn't really about content - it was pretty much pure performance. The music was the vehicle for messing about.

Almost dada-esque?
More kind of end-of-the-pier, but with a slightly punky edge. We played in some quite dangerous places and often places that would be quite challenging places for performance like Govan Shipyard canteen when they were still making ships there. It wasn't really about anything you could record. I still thought of myself as mainly a songwriter and I wanted to write songs and make records, and I wanted to write a book very strongly at that time. I thought let's get real – I was getting on a bit; nearly 30 - I thought let's get serious; pick up what you should really do.

When was this?
Just before I hooked up with Marillion. About ‘87. I was living back in London doing the muso sort of thing. Hanging around in Denmark Street recording lots of demos, doing lots of gigs, trying to keep the band together which was tough. It was a solo act by then and I had to pay people wages.

Then the Marillion thing came up.

The remainder of this interview, dealing with John's time with Marillion, appeared in the Spring 2012 Web Magazine.



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