I first fell in love, or at least… deep-like, with arty Birmingham noise-pop gang Johnny Foreigner when they toured South Africa in 2010 – impressively, they returned in 2014. And more recently, JoFo wrapped another whirlwind tour of Japan, followed by another all-in jaunt across the U.K. It’s like lead singer Alexei Berrow sings on “Undevestator;” “I have walked into every ocean going.” Quite something, really…
When I heard the Johnny Foreigner tour was pulling into Birthdays, Dalston, right around the corner – and walking distance from Stokey Bears – I knew exactly what I was doing on Saturday, October 22. I downloaded the Dice app and bought my ticket, sans booking fee, administration fee, or any other kind of online piracy add-on charge, and saved it in my new digital ticket wallet.
We get to the door, whip out our phones and flash our tickets. It all feels so futuristic and novel, until the girl on the door draws JFs on our hands with a Sharpie, breaking the new-age spell.
We arrive too late for Oxford two-piece Cassels. Apparently, there’s a club night after, so things are running ahead of schedule. Or at least, uncharacteristically urgently. Birmingham “psychedelic punks” Sunshine Frisbee Laserbeam are up next.
The drummer’s shirt says it all, really; “Weird on purpose.” The band alternates from heart-on-sleeve punk rock with feeling to high, falsetto-type vocal harmonies and weird astro jams, driven home on long instrumental highways with insanely intricate rhythms and mind-boggling guitar riffs. I notice that SFL don’t have a bassist, just three guitarists. One of them seems to be coming through the bass amp, though, and there’s definitely nothing missing in terms of bottom end.
I’m into it at first, and they’re all insane guitarists, especially lead-singer Pete Dixon – the shit he plays while singing is ludicrous. But some of the more elaborate high vocal harmonies are often uncomfortably out of tune, and the songs seem to follow the same kind of formula, despite their deliciously off-centre feel.
The first time I saw Johnny Foreigner, I took Berrow’s long moppy fringe and loud high-top sneakers for a fad. I was wrong. From “God bless the NHS” scrawled on his guitar to his witty, meaningful stage banter, heart-filled poetry and missing tooth(?), Alexei’s the real deal. In fact, the whole band’s an assortment of wonderfully weird creative types, true art school rebel characters never even considered for mass production.
This time they’re joined by radical South African fifth member Ben Rausch on keytar-triggered video. “Everyone, this is Ben,” says Alexei. “Ben, this is everyone in London who gives a shit.” The room’s just over half full.
One of the most striking things about Johnny Foreigner is how much being in a band clearly means to them. It’s in their blood and they’re incredible at it. Berrow is such an amazingly unique guitarist. At one point, he rocks an insane one-handed finger tapping solo with his other arm wrapped around himself, his eyes closed, deeply lost in the moment.
Well-named drummer Junior Elvis Washington Laidley’s ultra-creative beats and electronic contributions provide the perfect backdrop and bassist Kelly Parker’s voice alternates from all-out noise to beautifully lovable and endearing. The band is completed by second guitarist and illustration king Lewes Herriot.
Ben’s video display, a collection of hand-drawn creatures, DIY stop-motion displays, groovy images, cool toy collages and lots of ghosts really adds to the performance-piece nature of the gig. My favourite moment is when he cheekily focuses on a Jon Bon Jovi toy busting out a full-blown “Lay you down in a bed of roses” pose while Alexei sings the epic vocal intro to “With Who, Who and What I’ve Got.”
The place goes crazy when “Salt, Pepper and Spinderella” turns on the real drums, and Johnny Foreigner really show off how accomplished they’ve become with a decade of music in their well-travelled shoes. Their performance even includes a really heartfelt moment where Alexei and Kelly down their instruments and sing in the crowd, passing around a bottle of booze as fans join in and Laidley plays keyboards. But sadly, there’s a club night beckoning and it’s time for JoFo to make tracks to Canterbury.