ron johnson
splat splat big flame big flame a witness stump big flame big flame mackenzies shrubs ex a witness big flame twang mackenzies big flame shrubs

I was 16 years old, and the local record shop - even in deepest, shittiest Bedfordshire - was an exciting place to be. Out of nowhere there were a zillion groups I had never heard of, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry sounded dangerous and subversive, Peel Sessions EPs sometimes came on 12" EPs with golden sleeves, representative of an unknown late-night underground movement. It seemed that everything was fantastic.

But of course in reality so much of it was crap. Those were the days - forgive the nostalgia - when you would go out and buy a record (or alternatively go out, order a record, and wait 2 months for it to wend its way from the distributor) on the strength of a Melody Maker review, or maybe if the name sounded weird and it appeared in the indie charts. I remember the horror and disappointment of a Bambi Slam 12”, a Talulah Gosh 7”, a Pop Will Eat Itself dayglo double pack, blah blah. And the double disappointment of realising that your local second hand record dealer wouldn’t give you the price of a Wagon Wheel for any of them.

But in this Dunstable record shop, god knows how as it was not a place renowned for its adventurous racking policy, was an LP called The First After Epiphany, a compilation on the Ron Johnson label which featured, amongst others, Stump. I’d seen Stump on The Tube and thought, well, they went “boing” and were certainly not boring. So I spent my last £5 pocket money for the month, and with a vague sense of dread went home (I remembered from bitter experience that indie compilation albums could be the aural equivalent of a Primary School Santa’s Grotto Lucky Dip.)

And this album actually changed my life, and because I was spotty and young and anal and liked to put things in labelled piles in my room, I suddenly knew I had to have everything by every band on this record, and the quest began.

Big Flame were my real favourites. They still are, if I'm honest. Virtually no records since theirs have ever given me such a sense of utter glee; their track on the compilation LP was called “3 on Baffled Island” (incorrectly labelled, NB) and I had never heard anything like it, the guitars were scratchy and untuned and stupidly loud, everything else in the mix was almost subliminal, but it still made some weird kind of sense, and I could still sing it in the bath. The 12" Cubist Pop Manifesto was the only thing I could get hold of for ages, with no sleeve notes, no information, nothing (and now sadly warped to fuck). I yearned to know anything about them, and then one day I found out that they had split up about a year beforehand. Balls. I dug up the 10” Two Kan Guru, which was a compilation of tracks from the first three seven inches, and then spent 2 years and 30-odd pounds trying to get hold of everything else. Now I know too much about them, in a trainspotter type way. And it all came flooding back when Drag City recently re-released their whole catalogue on one CD. I urge everyone to buy it. If you are 16, it will change your life. If you are 27, it will make you feel 16.

It was while searching for the “Popstars” record by Big Flame that I contacted Ron Johnson Records to find out exactly what I could get and where. Dave Parsons, the infamous runner of the label and part-time biscuit packer, told me that he would send me the Big Flame record on receipt of £1.70. Twelve years later, I still wait eager with anticipation.... Since then, many and various stories about the financial uselessness of the man have surfaced, but I have the ultimate treasure; whilst digging around at The Shrubs house recently (long story) I found an uncashed cheque from Ron Johnson Media for £1000. I keep it safe, knowing that it was never worth the paper it was written on.

I went to the Virgin Megastore in the summer holidays of 1988. I found “Take Me Aside For A Midnight Harangue” by The Shrubs. It was deranged, manic, beautiful, passionate and as wild as hell. I loved it utterly. I wrote to the Shrubs. They said they were truly upset that I had found the record in the Virgin Megastore. Two years later Rough Trade collapsed and 1,000 copies of this treasure were incinerated. What a waste....I saw the Shrubs last ever gig. I didn’t cry, but I was as moved as you can be in the dark damp recesses of the Camden Falcon with lager seeping through your desert boots.

I decided to do a fanzine. It was called Glottal Stop. Like the little shit that I was I rung up all the bands who I had ever heard of and made their lives miserable. Anyone who had anything to do with Ron Johnson, if there were on the label, used to be on the label, liked one of the bands on the label, sounded a bit like one of the bands who had once sent a demo tape to the label, anything. I fell in love with Dog Faced Hermans, Death By Milkfloat, Bogshed, Dawson, Stretchheads, The Keatons, Headbirth, Seymour (later to become Blur), Those Naughty Corinthians, Stitched Back Foot Airman, and so on. Two copies survive as a testament to extreme enthusiasm and wide-eyed innocence.

But to my horror, I had more or less missed the boat. All the Ron Johnson bands were already splitting up, hit hard by the C86 backlash. By the time I had finished my second fanzine, the guitarist from A Witness had tragically died, Twang and Big Flame had mutated into the Great Leap Forward (who, incidentally, did write wonderful pop songs although they were crap when I saw them play live), the Mackenzies had produced two twelves featuring just one song and had got bogged down by the “indie-dance crossover question”, and Stump had realised they were never going to be famous, just figures of fun. But nota bene that the Mackenzies first Peel Session is utter genius, Peel repeated it 5 times (no kidding), lest it be forgotten that they were superduper. Likewise with A Witness, let them never be written out of the history books (if indeed they are in there at all) - they were so fine, the guitarist could do no wrong, and the singer had such an ear for a tune and a mouth for a shout.

Some battled on. The Ex had already been going for 6 or 7 years before they signed to Big Ron, and are still going today. The 1936 double pack is a wonderful item, it won indie single of the year award from The Catalogue, and features two shouty one chord rants about the anarchist movement against Franco, and two beautiful Spanish folk songs. The double album Two Many Cowboys is pretty tough going and you should really just go and see them play instead, it’s an experience of almost religious proportions. The Noseflutes, well, nobody ever really liked them except John Peel and a handful of people with beards in Birmingham, but I saw them once in front of 10 people in Stoke Newington and they were lords, so to speak.

We’ll ignore the Sewer Zombies album, I think Ron was trying to jump on the hardcore/Napalm Death/Extreme Noise Terror bandwagon, and missed, bruising his knee on the kerb. Ouch. Twang's take on hard guitar funk didn't always hit the spot, occasionally sounding laughably earnest for no real reason. But Jackdaw with Crowbar still bemuse me to this day, how a band can make records equally divided between choppy punk songs with man singing like chicken, and ten minute long dub workouts, and still be cool..... Just believe me that it works beautifully.

The last Ron Johnson record was The Great Leap Forward's "Who Works The Weather". I remember John Peel announcing that the label had gone under one summer night and I also remember feeling a bit tearful as Alan Brown's mellifluous Postcard-vocals spilled out of the tranny. But maybe the best times had gone. Maybe it was time to move on. Indeed, as Mr Brown said to me in an interview with the fanzine, "Thank God for the death of RJ." And that was a man who stuck with them from beginning to end.

Ultimately I can’t really tell you why I was so devoted to the bands on Ron Johnson, there were a few real turkeys released that I really can't bring myself to listen to today except for old times sake, but maybe to a young boy who always favoured the underdog, who savoured that adrenalin rush of finding that new and totally magic record, it is totally obvious why. And I stand by RJ to this day as a symbol of a well-meaning organisation that were totally killed off by the fickle nature of the British music press. Anything sent in from Ron Johnson was put in the “shambling” pile, conveniently next to the waste bin. Everett True forgot that when he called himself The Legend! he felt the same about all these bands as I did. But I suppose if you have the oppurtunity of hob-nobbing with, er, Courtney Love, a pint with the bass player of Jackdaw With Crowbar doesn’t seem quite so appealing. Whatever. Let’s just not forget, eh.

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Addendum, 27/12/03

In the couple of years this minisite has been up, I've had a load of emails from people who remember the label as fondly as me. Also notes from the bands themselves - all 3 of Big Flame, members of Noseflutes, Jackdaw and others. Also a note from Dave Parsons, answering to the accusation of being financially unastute. I felt I should post it here, to give his side of the story. And I've just updated the discography pages, just to make them look a little nicer. Rhodri Marsden

In my defence as the useless money man - I was 21 when I started Ron Johnson and knew nothing about making records or running a business - I just loved music. [censored] of [censored] rough-rided me into agreeing to pay about £6000 out on [censored] - we paid out about £500 on Loudhailer Songs! I was naive and [censored] (nice person though he is) was deluded and the finacial morass began there. Their records never sold well. The Ex double-single was a fiasco of Rough Trade's making - they sold it at a price that was lower than the manufacturing cost and because it was reviewed as such amazing product for such amazing price felt that they couldn't put the price up - it sold 15000 copies and RJ lost £15000! Fantastic. The only band who ever made a profit in RJ were A Witness and they have a right to feel slightly aggreived. I gave 24 hours of my life for 7 years to RJ, lost my house, never made a penny and was eventually bankrupted because I loved the music. Cheers, Dave Parsons

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