The Johnnys elicit a lotta love at The Tote, 40 years on
Liz Pommer photo
Friday 14 October 2022
There’s some audio of The Johnnys live at Le Tote sometime in 1983, couple of years after the Doherty family had decided to host bands in the band room of The Ivanhoe Hotel in an attempt to address the pub’s precarious financial future.
The set is good ol’ sloppy cowpunk fun, replete with lyrical signposts to The Johnnys’ inebriated schitck and irreverent celebration of country music. “You know why we’re having fun?’, guitarist-singer Roddy Radalj calls out rhetorically. “Because we’re drunk!”
The penultimate song of that Tote set, “Way of the West”, is the first song played tonight by the contemporary 3-piece line-up of The Johnnys. Some have disputed whether it’s really The Johnnys given Spencer P Jones’s absence but the true purist reckons it’s never been the same since Roddy left unceremoniously in early 1984. And, besides, Spencer wasn’t an original member of The Johnnys when Roddy, Graham Hood and Billy Pommer Jr formed the band in late 1982. What makes a band a trusted brand? Dunno, but it’s probably just in the eye in the beholder.
In an omission of Wildean carelessness, having failed to get to Cactus Room last Friday to see Penny Ikinger and her new band, I fail to realise the relatively early set times tonight, resulting in me missing Penny’s opening set tonight. I’m politely chastised by friends who wax lyrical about the set and told to correct my omission post haste when next Penny plays. Which I’m determined to do.
The Johnnys’ return to the The Tote tonight is on the back of the venue’s 40th birthday celebrations, a year late because of last year’s public health risk mitigation measures. The Johnnys were regular visitors to the then-Ivanhoe Hotel back in the day, so much so that when Spencer, Hoody and Billy decided to enlist a second guitarist after Roddy’s departure, they settled on Paul Doherty, son of the pub’s proprietors, Jack and Joan, and the venue’s original booker. Paul became “Slim” and, to colour a hackneyed expression, the rest is cowpunk history.
The three-piece line-up of Hoody, Billy and Slim is tight, if necessarily lacking the sonic depth of the four-piece incarnation that beat a comically drunken path across Australian rock’n’roll venues in the 1980s. But while age has necessarily diluted the band’s legendary alcoholic antics,
Bassman and singer Graham Hood.
The Johnnys are still a tight unit. Hoody has a bag of swaggering punk rock bass licks, Billy keeps the beat with rifle-like precision and Slim’s distinctive guitar style – a sort of open-handed flick – adds an elegant flourish to the underlying pop sensibility of tracks like “Bleeding Heart”, “The Day Marty Robbins Died” and “Injun’ Joe”.
While the cover of The Clean’s “Anything Can Happen” is as faithful as the version recorded in 1988, and “Showdown” walks in step with the New York Dolls’ rendition, “Greenback Dollar” edges further away from The Kingston Trio’s gospel-folk original. Billy takes a turn on vocals mid-way through the set for track the title of which eludes me, but sounds very much like Ray Charles riding a horse with plenty of beer. Later Billy gets to sing one of his better known composition, “Elvisly Yours”, a track that, 35 years on, seems to have aged into a near-perfect cowpunk pop song, complete with genuflection to Memphis.
Save for Hoody’s occasional raising of his pint glass, The Johnnys pay lip service to their alcoholic proclivities of yore. The crowd is modest but affectionate – everyone who’s here knows what to expect and The Johnnys serve it up with a mischievous smile.
The main set finishes with the dirty desert riff of “Mountain Man” but no-one’s leaving quite yet, thank you very much. The trio returns to round the set out with the caning nonsense of “Slip Slap Fishin’” and there is much rejoicing, cheering and the odd whoop and holler. Maybe The Johnnys will ride back into town again soon, maybe not for a while. But it’s always good to see them.
(SISCLOSURE: The Johnnys are a client of this web magazine's publisher.)