Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Johnny Cocktail: A History

In recent weeks you may have been following the blog progress of Robert Follen as he produces models for an upcoming sport-themed episode of Johnny Cocktail. Who is this Johnny, I hear you ask, and what can he teach us? Let's have a look at his cases thus far...

The character of JC first popped up in July 2004, during a band get-together one weekend in south-east London. A trip to the supermarket was called for; I had a new digicam (the so-light-it-almost-floats Mustek DV4000) and we had the faintly-amusing idea of filming our trip. It could be a sketch about a trolley dash, as if it was one of those stupid lifestyle advice shows. What do you need for a stupid lifestyle advice show? A gurning host! By the time we exited the bus on Lewisham High Street, bits of Johnny's character were coming together. He was an East End wide-boy, with brainpower and chutzpah somewhere between Del Boy and Alan Sugar, always on the lookout for a bargain, and whose clients would be utterly clueless in order to make him look good. He evidently had a bruised heart, the sight of a packet of sanitary pads bringing on a burst of manly tears. I remember Robert suggesting Cocktail as a suitably ludicrous surname. We made a little postscript to the episode, with Johnny answering a viewer's query about how he spends his nights (answer: he dresses very oddly). A nice jokey way to spend a Friday night.

A few weeks later we went to the independent music Truck Festival in Oxfordshire (this is when it was about a quarter of the current price), and after sundown on the Saturday evening Johnny came to life again, presenting his guide to festivals that seemed to concentrate on discussions of sugar intake, whether sitting down aided musical appreciation, and how to put traffic cones down the right way. All very fun to record, and as the weeks went by, more and more ideas for the Cocktail character came out. It seemed Johnny had legs, as well as a gutter mouth. Ideas for a whole series followed, eventually settling on "Johnny's Quest For The Truth", an intended six-part serial starting with Johnny recovering from an off-screen breakdown and finding his way again through exploration of art, food, religion, nature etc. We filmed lots of sections for each part in a semi-improv style, the series taking shape through occasional brainstorming of plot beats or scraps of dialogue, but collectively we had so little regular contact in this period that the series, despite much goodwill, neither died outright, nor made it up to the top of the already vast projects list.

For instance, around Halloween 2004 a five-day get-together was used to film sections for at least three episodes, none of which had proper scripts (we were just relying on remembering any good ideas, and working up any dialogue on the spot). On the Saturday we filmed Johnny visiting the Museum of Childhood, cooing over Action Men; on the Sunday he was in the City of London talking about architecture and then running around SoHo in a karate outfit; on the Monday he went on a head-clearing walk along the Regent's Canal and did an improbable stunt for a diet episode; and on the Tuesday there was more karate suit action around the Barbican and Liverpool Street station.

The series was to start with Johnny returning home, necking several handfuls of the pills he was addicted to, then dropping to the floor convulsing. We would cut away to an ambulance, and then return to Johnny waking up several days later, fresh out of hospital. At some point it was decided he should have a dream sequence whilst unconscious. This was to prove a fateful decision. In late 2005 we started getting scraps of footage for this dream sequence, only meant to be maybe 90 seconds long... and the ideas just kept coming. Characters, visual metaphors, dialogue... we kept filming more and more for the dream, whilst the series around it ground to a halt. Eventually there was an awful lot of random dream footage. Clearly it wouldn't fit into 90 seconds any longer. The dream went dormant, and you'll have to follow a forthcoming blog entry to read what happened next.

The major dilemma in arranging an episode of JC is that his characterisation pulls in two directions at once: he's given to long moments of reflection, relatively dramatic territory; but this is contrasted with a fair amount of slapstick and quite dumb humour. In trying to make both approaches sit together in each episode, particularly when added to the scripted/improv dilemma, we probably leave everyone unsatisfied, but we still hope to nail the perfect episode of Cocktail one day. The first proper evidence of Johnny's reflective side is in the only finished episode from the Quest series, which is mainly JC chatting to camera about his failures with women.

It was in the unused Quest footage that we found the germ of what became our "fake guru" episode. This is a prime example of my stitching unwieldy elements together with an after-the-fact script and a few additional scenes. "The Race For Enlightenment" used some bits we'd filmed with Robert in a child's karate suit, plus a chance encounter with a real-life karate star, and welded them in with a narrative alluding to a certain infamous celebrity crackpot "church" that maintains bizarre traction even in this day and age. Johnny was investigating a murky organisation, ZenZen UK (U.K.), peddlers of self-help schemes that involved financial donations, diet restrictions and endless running around. The guru behind this scheme, an ex-pulp author, was responsible for a glut of telephone directory-sized course books available at extortionate prices. We enjoyed the ideas behind this episode, and would happily go back for a big-budget remake if the funds ever become available.

Most of the other episodes are single-location improv affairs just to keep up the output. Johnny's Art Contest Results speaks for itself, and as for Johnny's Guide To Sex Pt 1... well it got suppressed for a reason.

Anyway, a question to finish on: where would you keen film-watchers recommend for posting Johnny Cocktail clips? YouTube isn't generating many (or in some cases, any) hits. Specifically we're looking for people who might warm to the lo-fi, pixelated, compressed audio and picture.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Johnny's Advert

I thought you might like to see the script for the advert hawking Johnny Cocktail's services which appears at the start of "Obscured By Masks", the advert that gets him into so much trouble. This differs slightly from the recorded version, which you can see on YouTube here or buy it on DVD.

This section of script is pretty much written by me, though of course when filming it with Robert we tweaked bits together. Anyway, here we go...


We are watching an old Anglia TV break bumper ident (or ITV Night-time). Video-effect crackle. Then cut to:

Cheapo graphics out of the centre of the screen:


Now a succession of shadowy shots:

  • Chink of light from door into a dark room.
  • Hands juggling money badly.
  • Cup of tea smashes on floor.
  • Mascara teardrops down a cheek.

Door opens from lightened hall into darkened room where person is on their knees crying. Person looks round in hope.

GRUFF COCKNEY V/O: [over these] Are you weak? Are you feeble? Are you at the end of your tether?

Cut to XCU of JC's gruff cockney mouth.

JC: Well listen up!!

XCU - JC beats his fist down on the table he's sat behind. A tumbler wobbles.

JC: Cos there's millions of others... [uses hands to get out of chair, cut to side view as he rises – now we see him properly]

JC: ...in the same position.

Close-up of his stern face, still in side-on.

JC: Now are you gonna sit there... [turns to the front again, cut to front view]

JC: Or are you gonna do something about it? [Number appears on screen, JC points to it] Make the call.

Keep the phone number up as scene changes – background music swells (Terrahawks-style synthesized heroic theme) – now a montage of JC at work:

  • In library taking down book on Man Skills
  • Cracking a Sudoku with pencil, ruler and calculator
  • Peering down a microscope
  • Writing a computer program
  • Outward bound with map and rucksack (in urban park)
  • Performing a simple sleight-of-hand magic trick – piff paff poof!
  • Taking flowers to an old lady who gives him the wink
  • Brandishing a pistol Professionals-style
  • Soloing on a guitar
  • Changing a lightbulb

JC V/O: [Over all these] I've been helping people in a professional capacity for upwards of thirty years. From the poorest in the land, to old members of Saxon. From the stockroom to the shagroom. From John O'Groats to John O'End, and beyond. I'm getting everywhere. You spacemen can watch out an' all! I'm always on hand, not just for birds, but little old ladies too. Even helped me mum out the day I was born...

Close-up of paper bag – JC's fist comes through it towards camera. We see his mouth behind.

JC: Punched me way out didn't I!

A toy helicopter shoots across the sky.

A painted JC figure skydives towards the camera...

...real JC lands on the ground with a roll.

JC V/O: [Over all these] Sign up before March 30th and get this free fact pack...

GRAPHIC: “FREE FACT PACK if you sign up before March 30th”
CAPTION BOTTOM RIGHT (very surreptitiously): “Only available in R.O.I.”

Stylised gunshots down the screen superimposed with each item.

V/O: ...with a guru lollipop, Johnny's threadworm leaflet, and this... limited edition print.

JC is running manfully past the camera, the screen is seared outward with a ring of fire and we now see the printed monstrosity full screen.

V/O: How futuristic is that?! It doesn't even have a face on it!!

Cut back to JC, leaning against his desk. Meaningful guitar music. Phone number up again in corner.

JC: Make the call, my friend. I stay up half the night so you don't have to.

JC picks up his empty glass of scotch and holds it near his mouth for some seconds while the advert fails to end.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Colony collapse disorder

Bees front cover
Suck, baby, suck!
The latest release by Keshco is a three-track EP entitled "Bees". It's available through Australian netlabel 4-4-2 Music (at this link); alternatively you can buy a physical copy direct from us, or in a couple of record shops.

So, for the second year running, we've put together a release for Record Store Day (Saturday 21 April), which this year was followed on the Sunday by the 42nd anniversary of Earth Day. A double header of good causes. But how did these three songs come about?

A couple of years ago, erstwhile Queen drummer Roger Taylor released a single, "The Unblinking Eye (Everything Is Broken)". It's a lengthy broadside at many ills of the modern world, and Roger was quoted as saying he wanted people to take the track as a starting point for their own protest lyrics. With that in mind, his B-side was an instrumental mix of the same track.

Now, our Robert being an incorrigible Queen addict (and, at one point, the youngest member of their Fan Club!), he got hold of the single, and we decided to take Roger up on his challenge. I went away to write some new lyrics...

...and months passed. One story that had got me fired up was of the mysterious fall in bee populations across the globe, with in many cases entire colonies vanishing from their hives overnight. It's been baffling an increasingly concerned scientific community, with the suspects including intense agricultural practices, where monoculture and chemicals have deliberately removed the usual wildlife from around crops, meaning there's no natural pollination so they have to truck bees in to do the job. Schedules mean they're often driven back and forth across the country (or shipped overseas) with barely time to rest. As these fields are monocultures, there's not the varied diet that you'd expect in nature; so the bees are overworked, uprooted, have poor nutrition, and are thus increasingly falling prey to parasites like the varroa mite. On top of this it's suspected that pesticides may be damaging their navigation systems.

These protest lyrics take a while though. It's very hard not to just sound pompous. Anyway, in February we checked online. It still appeared as if nobody else had done a cover. Hmm. I sat down again to write.

In the end, we started the backing track (at Robert's in Streatham) before finishing the lyric. With Mr Taylor's instrumental in tracks 1-2 of our 8-track, we started overdubbing, feeling for our own style to emerge. Down went rhythm guitars, drums, keyboards, a guide vocal. Due to time constraints, the drums were Robert's first take - boom! Now we had the pulse, we were able to take out the original recording.

So, I had a couple of goes at finishing this lyric. It lacked a certain something, a chance element. Hmm... then in through the door walked Mark E Smith of The Fall. "Hi-uh!" said Mark. "What the hell are you making-uh? I'll sing all over that-uh." So he did! Verse three was ready. What next? An article in the New Internationalist had a lengthy quote from John Muir, 19th century naturalist, about his experiences walking through California in the days before it got spoilt. That sounded pretty evocative, and seemed to fit with the song's bridge, a detour from the home key...

Taking the 8-track to Oxford, I caught up with Luke and we overdubbed extra guitars, then a sweet flute duet. His girlfriend Melanie was coaxed into laying down some skronky saxophone, a bit at a time; then we got a touch of lapsteel for added buzzy swarminess and a late countermelody. If you notice any extra odd noises, they're probably down to our audio editor, which aptly enough is called Jeskola's Buzz.

I hope the song is taken in the spirit it's intended. It's not ironic, there's a genuine problem in our food chain, and it's a slight relief to see how the plight of the bee is now being highlighted, e.g. by Friends of the Earth with their current Bee Cause campaign. Why not plant a few bee-friendly wildflowers in your garden or window box?

Bees back cover
Swarm, baby, swarm!
Of course, whilst we had a main song in mind, we also needed some companion pieces, and first to mind was a psychedelic piece, "Porcine", named after a quote from a near-apopleptic David Starkey. It was just a bare instrumental, tremolo guitar and rumbly drums, for months until we pulled it out again one teatime and attempted to add overdubs. The original wasn't quite in (ahem) fixed time, but for the usual Keshco reasons we ploughed on anyway and I think the lurching effect suits the piece. The lyrics came out overnight before and after sleep, the first verse calm whilst pondering the rich trader, the Teflon man; the second hurried whilst pondering those trying hard to scrape a living under the Government's hypocritical evil eye.

Robert's using one of his stripped-down live kits here; Arbiter Flats snare, pound shop tom, two cymbals screwed onto the same arm, and various percussive bits. There's a metal block (from Wickes?) which has a particularly sweet sound when struck right. Into the mix we throw a couple of Dynamikes, feeding back like crazy, and a clarinet from my girlfriend Caroline, stuck through a ton of reverb and distortion. The whole track has an anti-climactic air, from the way the first languid verse instead of building, falls into the hurried spoken second verse, then into abstract instrumental; also the way the last chord of the pattern, Bb, never feels quite right coming back to the first chord, C#m; and also the way the final verse never quite makes it up to the rock-out that seems necessitated, instead sinking to a series of staccato sighs.

The last track is "Worm Cafe", all a chattering, clanging mass of sound, assembled by Robert using the freeware audio editor Goldwave. Are we in the middle of a bustling North African market square? Are the massive reverse-echo piano clangs passing traffic? See if you can count all the various instruments. I particularly like the drums flipping into 7/8 time every two or three measures. Well worth two and a half minutes of your time.

I'd like to thank the Brain Art Foundation (Moira, Matthew, Jasmin and Barbara) for helping the back cover collage along (more of that in the video); and Robert for his fluorescent front cover.

So, there we are. Keshco's latest release, offered with love. Here's that all-important link again: Bees.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Futile Peace Offering: An Article

She's got the whole world in her hands.
22nd December 2011 brought the release of Keshco's third EP for those beautiful people at the Swedish netlabel 23 Seconds. "Futile Peace Offering" is a collection of eight new tunes, with a couple of toe-tappers and a couple of spine-tinglers amongst the ranks. So, how did it come about? Beware! sent a reporter to find out...

FERTILITY IN PIECES by Adrienne Darvell

"The key word for 2011 is 'backlog'", asserts Andy Brain, Keshco's longtime singer-songwriter-producer, currently sat cross-legged on his carpet packing away his Christmas decorations. "We've always had more projects than we knew what to do with, so this year we deliberately prepped up the Middle Room CD [for side-project Bleak House] and finished up the Johnny Cocktail movie, before turning back to music in time for another Christmas release."

Ah, the Christmas release, now a firmly established part of Keshco's year. This time, we have a cover image of a cupcake being offered to the camera. Stuck into its psychedelic icing (or is it an Earth-like map?) are six plastic figures of world leaders, factory-white, still attached to their moulding bar as if representing a family tree, or perhaps hanging from gallows. The EP is cheerily entitled "Futile Peace Offering". Is the title significant? "Ho yes. But the thing that's missing, which was part of the original plan, was a song about the United Nations. Very prog stylings, with overlapping vocal lines and extended twiddly bits! I don't know when that will surface now, as it was about eight minutes long and this seemed the best place for it."

Nevertheless, listening to the EP now, the title seems to hold water, with a succession of meditations on impermanence, disharmony and frustration; even the ostensibly jaunty opener, "Top Deck", is shot through with misanthropy - its narrator desires an empty upper deck on the bus to be away from people and home, and entertains the prospect of disembarking at a random point (implicitly, to start again somewhere else), then is lulled into a dreamworld by the stroboscopic effects of "sunlight split through trees and railings", before the trip is eventually spoilt by his personal stereo breaking down, cueing a 2-minute outro of increasing intensity. The drums are quite wild on this one, aren't they? "Not half!" Andy drops some baubles into a box and starts disassembling a Nativity.

Keshco have always had a nice line in lovesongs, despite protestations that "it's not really what we do, is it?". Case in point: track 2, "Technicolor Universe", though you can detect a subtext. The singer, Robert in ardent mode, maintains a calm front against exterior storms - "work can go to the wall" as long as his beloved is there through the night - but the effect is not altogether reassuring, despite some desperately pretty chimes and synth lines. The track is a plea, delivered without surety; it's not made explicit whether the lady will stay, and the track ends suspended mid-break without resolution.

Andy has made Beware! a chai which is still too hot to drink, and there's nothing to dunk. In its place, he suggests a bowl of cereal. On the EP, it's back to work, of a sort - self-promotion, which every aspiring artiste will be only too familiar with, but Keshco have particular reservations. "Shelved" is a cut of lo-fi synthpop with the backing and vocals originally recorded by Luke on 4-track, "then copied to our super-dooper 8-track, then into Buzz for the full Depeche treatment". The accompanying electronic squeals hark back to Keshco of old, with the hiss and scuffs part of the overall aesthetic. The arduous nature of the task is emphasized by the metronomic beat and suppressed-anger vocals. Two minutes in, our focus shifts to what appears to be field recordings of a singer promoting his wares in some trendy music shop. He's turned down: "Ahh - we don't take CD-Rs." "No no, it's a CD, in a case. More ooh than ahh." But of course, it's Robert and Andy in character. "That is actually pretty accurate, for London anyway."

Beware! starts to wonder if the title has further resonances. Has all been well in the camp this year? "Well, we all get frustrated - either because we get out-of-practice and then it takes some time to hit the spot, or we get particularly bored by the promo side of things, as you've heard! - or when we've done gigs cos it always goes balls-up somehow."

Hmm. Andy, you've not done synthpop for a while, is this track a first step back to the genre? The ginger boffin grimaces. "Well... we've always tried to mix folk and electronic elements, it just seemed to make sense for 'Shelved'. I think we will be trying some pure electronic things in future EPs, ask me again next year!"

Next up, an acoustic ditty with a touch of Suzanne Vega about it ("Really?" Andy replies, as if it's only just occurred to him), "Architecture Weekly" casts an acerbic eye around the London that two of the band still call home. "Old Street was the specific influence, though the lyric built up over various bus journeys. You know - at any given point, half the city seems to be in flux, and Transport for London has this booklet explaining how they are overhauling every Tube line - the timeline extends until about 2030. At which point they'll start over again". Here, the band's by-now-signature reverb is used with a chaotic lapsteel to recreate the screeching and banging that is part of the modern skyline. The track ends with a nod to the renewed interest in anti-capitalist protest, exhorting all to "reclaim the city" - "Hey kids, drink up we're leaving, to replant the garden, dig a fishpond as well".

What's the other sane response to all this concrete? Well we all want to get away. "Departure Lounge" is one of the most library music-styled pieces we've seen from Keshco, which runs a fine line between parody and Pages From Ceefax. Tidal waves of cymbals against a pair of slipsliding lead guitars, called to a halt by the airport chimes of the boarding call. A jetliner screams across the stereo. A massively upbeat jam kicks in, all wicky-wicky percussion and insane twanging, the perfect music for dancing ninnies.

It's straight back down to earth, as metallic distorted Casiotone percussion heralds "Long Road To Castle Acre", a post-break-up lament backed by transistor organ and restrained tremolo guitar and bass. "That one had a... nutty genesis. Robert sang the original lead vocal with the beats and organ, then played that mixdown in Goldwave through the air and recorded a mono track of live drums over the top. We then worked from that mono track when adding the other instruments. It adds a kind of telephone quality to his voice."

Perhaps the most noticeable addition to the sonic palette this time is the lapsteel ("we're still honeymooning with it", Andy grins); and indeed track 7, "Like Home", is a complete band of the things, seemingly put through a long wave radio. Snatches of other tracks jostle with the meanderings of the pure electronic tone of the airwaves, before taking over the following minute completely.

The EP's last track, "Wiped", is pretty sombre. "It's specifically a tribute to Broadcast singer Trish Keenan, who died in January 2011. We had some contact years ago, and I'd always hoped our paths would cross again, so took it pretty badly. At the time, I was reading a book about the attempts to recover lost episodes of [British sci-fi serial] Doctor Who, and some of the increasingly convoluted concepts seemed to fit." The track has more than a whiff of Americana, with that lapsteel again taking on melodic duties. "We kept that one pretty simple, as the lapsteel and reverb seemed to do all the work by themselves. You've also got the reference to hauntology, which is the style they were exploring a couple of years back."

The stereo has fallen silent. So, what comes next, Andy? His eyes briefly light up. "Well, we have this 26 minute track... and another Cocktail, and another Bleak House, and a cassette, a horror EP, and a bonsai EP..." With that, Beware! downs its chai and takes its leave.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Well it's here right under your nose and you just can't see it, can you?

Gah. Keshco have had an account on Twitter for some time now, and as we're generally not keen on social media or spamming people, we've kept our pronouncements brief and related to things we do, either musical or visual. That said, it seems the majority of visitors follow us on a whim. In-between our tweets, we might gain two or three followers, usually with names and timelines that suggest all they do is watch/dissect Dr Who or play games on old computers. All well and fine, we like Dr Who and retro gaming as much as the next fruit salad, and both are sometimes relevant to us and our work. But then, when our next tweet goes up about Keshco or JC or whatever, those newbies unfollow us within hours. Imagine the shock of the unfollower: "No, it's too much! There was a sentence on my timeline that doesn't fit my narrow range of interests, even though some of their previous less-than-monthly tweets did. They mentioned the 48k once. Were they lying? Why don't they mention the 48k in every tweet?".

The really sad thing is, those retro gamer/Dr Who fans are actually missing out on a band that has sci-fi/computing woven into its very fabric. We've released at least three Who-related songs and used 80s memories and Speccy sounds all over the place! Just because every tweet doesn't directly reference Peter Davison's celery or the downsides of PEEKing and POKEing versus BBC Basic...

The daftest was when our tweets about the latest Johnny Cocktail film (which you still haven't watched on YouTube, or bought the DVD - shame!) briefly brought new followers who just blindly follow everything drink-mixing-related. Most peculiar.

At the moment, our follower list is a hardcore of netlabel watchers, people into free culture, and a few of our real life friends. It's fine to be into wanting everything free, as long as you say thanks, or give us some food or blankets in return.