Nostalgia For An Age Yet To Come: ex-Buzzcocks current Penetration drummer John Maher interviewed by Ged Babey
He was Buzzcocks’ drummer from 1976 to 1981 and is currently playing with Pauline Murray’s Penetration on their forthcoming album and tour dates. Now living in the Isle of Harris, after making a living from his VW Engine business for two decades he has more recently become a photographer and since 2012 has got back behind the drum kit.
In a rare exclusive interview John Maher tells his side of the story of punk, Buzzcocks, hanging with Blondie, punk nostalgia and a different kind of tension.
(Ged) I always used to mispronounce your surname, it’s Maarr isn’t it, not May-err? Sorry.
(John) Yep, rhymes with ‘car’ or Mars bar or as in Johnny Marr. He was christened Maher as well and changed it to Marr to avoid confusion with me, so legend has it. It’s a southern Irish thing. I think Johnny’s parents are both Irish too. He was brought up not far from me. There was a large contingent of Irish catholics in those parts of Manchester back then. They’d be called migrants in today’s terminology.
We’ve had cats over the years all named after Buzzcocks, even Howard, but Mayer was the best.
It’s an honour – even though the poor bugger went through its entire life having its name mis-pronounced. I know how it feels.
You seem to have been getting a bit nostalgic on facebook lately, posting some great old photos from Buzzcocks days.
The nostalgia trip’s been prompted by a number of things. In the mid ‘80s I withdrew from the music scene to pursue other interests. By then I was into fast cars: campaigning a couple of VW drag race cars and building high performance engines for which I gained some notoriety and success. It wasn’t a conscious decision to play down or avoid mention of my earlier life as a Buzzcock, but people who knew me at the time said I gave the impression that discussion about the punk years was forbidden. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk about my Buzzcocks days, I just felt I’d moved on and didn’t want to be only defined by what I’d done in the past. Fast forward a few decades, I’m looking at it from a different perspective and with less baggage.
We’re almost 40 years on from our first gig with the Sex Pistols at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall. Buzzcocks are still talked about here, there and everywhere and cited as an influence by bands old and new. We created some great music and it played an important part in many peoples’ lives.
I got a reminder of that the other day. I have a drum kit set up in the workshop. I was having a blast on it before heading home. A total stranger suddenly appeared at the window. I stopped playing and he shouted: “I love Buzzcocks!” I went outside to have a chat with him. He told me how Buzzcocks had changed his life and did I realise what a difference we’d made? Makes you think about your involvement when someone turns up on your doorstep on a remote Hebridean island and feels the need to express their feelings like that! What I’m saying is I think I’ve finally come to terms with the fact I was a part of something very worthwhile that continues to resonate. I can now admit to myself and others, I’m proud to have played a part in it.
Also, my enthusiasm for playing drums has been fired up again. Initially it was the 2012 Back to Front reunion shows that got me back behind the kit and since then I’ve continued playing and finally got involved in a couple of projects that have seen me back in the recording studio.
As for the photos and stories I’ve been sharing on Facebook: I discovered a pile of Buzzcocks photos, press clippings, my old school reports and a ton of other stuff when clearing out my parent’s house earlier this year. I even found a letter from my headmaster. He didn’t agree with my decision to quit school part way through the academic year to go on tour with a punk rock band. Looking back on that episode, it’s ironic that Howard Devoto left Buzzcocks to complete his studies whereas I quit school so I could continue with the band.
In this era of punk rock autobiographies and music journalists telling us how to interpret the period, I’ve come to the conclusion that as someone who was there and played a part in it, my experiences are worth documenting and sharing. I took it all for granted as a teenager. Today I realise just how significant it was and I actually enjoying looking back at it, whereas 20 years ago, I had more of a ‘that was then, this is now’ attitude. Since I started posting stories from my punk days on facebook, a few people have suggested I put a book together, telling my version of events. It hasn’t progressed much further than an idea yet but you never know…
Next year (2016) has already been christened the ‘40th anniversary of Punk’. Brace yourself for a barrage of commemorative articles, documentaries and cash-ins. Give it another few decades and we’ll be watching the last surviving veteran of the 100 Club Punk Festival being wheeled down Oxford Street on national TV.
After all this time, looking back on it, were they the best-years-of-your life, or was it all a blur….? It seems incredible you were so young.
It’s hard to say. I didn’t have anything else to compare it to. Things happened. That’s the way it was. Some of it was a blur. I’m reminded of that whenever someone tells me about an event and I have absolutely no recollection of it! It was a bit unreal at times. I joined Buzzcocks within weeks of buying my first kit. There was no audition. I turned up, played through the songs and got invited back the following Saturday. I’d joined a band!
I was aware of the fact I was the youngest one around at the time. The only time I encountered someone younger than myself was when we toured with The Slits on the 1977 White Riot tour, Ari Up was only 15!
My 16 year old nephew came to the Brixton Academy gig in 2012. When I met him backstage I remember looking at this young kid and it suddenly struck me: “Christ! When I was his age I was travelling around the UK doing gigs with the Sex Pistols and The Clash”.
One of the great things about that period was the feeling you were a member of a close-knit gang. We were a self-contained unit. Pete and Steve are five years older than me. Howard’s eight or nine years older. It doesn’t sound like a big age gap now but when you’re 16, someone as old as 24 or 25 could have been my uncle. In some ways that’s how I thought of Howard – the slightly weird, slightly odd uncle. The band, our crew man Fran, Richard the manager, Pete the tour manager and the other regulars who travelled around with us were like one big dysfunctional family. I’m not sure if I actually needed anyone to keep an eye out for me – I’m sure they did, but for the most part I was capable of looking after myself.
There were a few difficult conversations at home when I announced I was quitting sixth form but I was so single minded, I think my parents knew there was little point trying to stop me. It must have been hard for mum and dad to see me leave school and lose out on the prospect of going to University in favour of several months on the dole with the promise I’d soon be making a ‘proper wage’. I know there were discussions between my dad and our manager, Richard Boon, around the time I decided to quit school and again when we were about to sign to United Artists. I believe the plan had been for us to continue releasing material on our own label (New Hormones) label rather than ‘sell out’ and sign to a major. Apparently my dad insisted something more substantial would have to be established to guarantee me the security of a regular income. Richard assured him a deal with a ‘proper’ record company would materialise once we’d completed the White Riot tour. He was right.
I know the answer to this, but who is/are/were your drummer heroes/inspirations? Clem Burke isn’t it?
There are others as well as Clem but he was the full package. He played brilliantly; he looked great and the way he set up his drum kit was cool (toms and cymbals all lay flat). An extremely talented showman. I’d never seen anyone else play like he did. When Blondie’s first album was released in 1976, I became obsessed with Clem (and maybe Debbie a little bit too!) He is a very musical drummer. I could listen to any track from the first three Blondie albums and identify it from the drum part alone. I learned a lot by playing along to the first Blondie album in my parent’s front room.
Clem was a huge influence. He was the first drummer I saw who not only played brilliantly, but was entertaining to watch. Even non-drummers say so. That combination of skills, image and stage presence was something I’d never seen before. And thinking about it, I’m not sure I’ve seen it since.
You met him obviously when you toured with Blondie… nice chap?
Clem was great. It was a dream come true for me to discover we were about to head off to Europe and support Blondie. They were promoting Parallel Lines, just before they went global with ‘Heart of Glass’. They were very good to us. Clem came to see Buzzcocks when we played in New York. He also got me into Studio 54 – back in the days when it was a big deal to get past the selection committee on the front door. In return, I took him to Burgerland on Deansgate when they next played in Manchester.
That is a fabulous photo of you with Debbie Harry in 1978.
When I was 16 I had a Debbie Harry poster on my bedroom door. Two years later, we had our arms around each other!
Sharing those pics of Debbie and me hugging each other generated quite a reaction. I still find it hard to believe it actually happened. I was so excited when I heard we secured those European support slots with Blondie! I was eighteen. I’d never been outside the UK before. The night before the first show, I was like a kid at Christmas. Despite the hours of travelling, I was absolutely wide awake when we arrived in Amsterdam. I remember going for a beer with our manager Richard Boon and tour manager Pete Monks. We sat outdoors, drinking foreign lager on a warm summer night. I was literally giddy with excitement. Richard and Pete were laughing at me. I asked them what was wrong. Richard told me I was experiencing ‘culture shock’. I didn’t know what he meant. I was high on the whole experience of being somewhere other than Manchester, drinking lager outdoors in an exotic European city, knowing I would meet Debbie Harry and Clem Burke in less than 24 hours!
Which of Buzzcocks got the most female attention? Steve Garvey was kinda cool looking (probably my sister’s favourite) …. ?
Steve Garvey was our resident pin-up boy. He’s the one who appeared in all the teeny bop mags. But I reckon Steve Diggle has him beat – even if only half the tales in Steve’s book are true! Pete seemed to attract a lot of depressives. Something to do with the lyrical content of his songs. The same sorts Morrissey would later appeal to. I got lumbered with the occasional drum nerd. Wanting to know which drum heads I used and how ‘Late for the Train’ was recorded.
Have you read much of the ‘Diggle is Ruining Buzzcocks Perfect Legacy by being a Rock’n’Roll Arse’ stuff on the Internet? What is your take on it?
As far as I’m aware, this whole thing kicked off in response to the Back to Front reunion shows in 2012. It wasn’t until we got on stage at Manchester Apollo it became apparent Steve had a huge resentment against the ‘old boys’ being back in town. He was swigging champagne throughout the show and was pissed to the point that his playing suffered. When we, the so-called ‘Classic Buzzcocks line-up, finished our set, Steve had to have the last word. He stepped up to the mic and shouted: “Come and see the proper band next time”.
I witnessed more of the same when Howard came on stage for the Spiral Scratch finale. Steve sat on the drum riser, turning his back on Howard. If it was calculated to look disrespectful, it worked.
It’s no secret most of the crowd were there to hear the greatest hits, performed by the people who originally recorded them. Whether Steve likes it or not, modern day Buzzcocks can’t fill venues the size of Manchester Apollo or Brixton Academy. I appreciate that Steve felt the need to promote Buzzcocks’ post 1981 material but I also think that he needed to acknowledge the glaringly obvious fact that the majority of people in the crowd were there for other reasons.
More than three years have passed since those reunion gigs. I find it difficult to criticise Steve like this. He was my best friend during Buzzcocks’ heyday. He was the best man at my wedding and said some kind things about me in his book published back in 2003. But I do believe he deserves criticism for his performance at the two reunion shows. Not for any grudge he might hold against me, Steve Garvey and Howard but for fucking up on stage in front of a crowd who deserved better. It was supposed to be a special occasion – something that may never take place again.
I discussed this in an interview with Melanie Smith for Mudkiss a month after the event. I’ve read that piece again and I stand by the comments I made at the time.
I haven’t seen the band perform since the Back to Front shows, or had any contact with Pete or Steve, so I’m not in a position to comment on the current situation. Having said that, I’ve heard lots of good reports from people who’ve seen their recent gigs. Sounds like they’re back on track again.
Is there likely to be another Buzzcocks Original Line-Up Reunion? We’ve got 1976, 1977 and 1978 40 YEARS anniversaries coming up after all.
Nothing’s been put forward so far. I’ve never ruled out the possibility of participating in another reunion show but if there’s any hint of it being a re-run of what happened in 2012, I won’t be available.
You were regarded as one of the best drummers of your generation – listening back now – do you think,
‘ Wow! I was good …..’ ?
I played what I thought best suited the songs at the time. Listening to them now, there are some things I’d do differently but overall, I’m happy with what I did. There’s an incredible amount of youthful enthusiasm in there. Some of it naïve and reckless but for the most part, I reckon it works. I think I made a good contribution to the overall sound and feel of what Buzzcocks were about. We made a great team when we were at our best.
I read (Mel’s interview) that you didn’t touch a kit for twenty years and it’s difficult getting back into it?
Getting in shape for the B2F Buzzcocks shows was a task. I was very ring rusty. My first reaction was how incredibly fast and energetic most of the songs are. It took five months of regular practice to get myself ready for those gigs. I’ve been playing more frequently since then so the basic muscle memory and stamina is now at a much higher level. As a result I probably look a little more relaxed when I’m playing now than I did in 2012.
I broke my hip and wrist quite badly 8 years ago. That had an impact on my grip and general dexterity, but overall, I’m pretty happy where I’m at skills-wise.
Getting back into the recording studio and doing two albums in the last year has been a great experience. It’s the kind of confirmation I needed to properly assess where I’m at as a player. Practicing alone is a necessary part of brushing up on technique and generally keeping on top of things but it can get a little self-indulgent. You don’t have other musicians acting as a reference point. Drums work best when accompanying other instruments. When you play as part of a band, you concentrate on much more than technique. If you’re so inclined, a feel, or style of playing emerges that should give an extra dimension to the music. It’s that ‘musical drummer’ thing I was referring to earlier. A lot of drummers either don’t have it, or don’t get the opportunity to develop it because of the type of band they’re in and the music they play. That’s why the drummers who do possess that skill really stand out.
I’m convinced being thrown in at the deep end so quickly (joining Buzzcocks five weeks after getting my first kit), played a large part in the development of my style – or what a drum teacher I visited a few years later referred to as “a colossal amount of bad habits”!
I remember back in ‘79 or so there was a magazine piece on Buzzcocks and you all pick your favourite records; I don’t have the cutting but I distinctly remember Pete picked some Krautrock, Steve probably picked the Who and the Beatles and you chose Ten Obscure 60’s Girl Group tracks… that always impressed me and I started getting as many as I could, the Crystals, Ronettes etc. Do you still like that kinda stuff ?
I found a copy of that Smash Hits article a few weeks ago. I was a fan of the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las and that whole Phil Spector wall of sound scene. When we did our first tour of America in 1979, I went to Bleecker Bob’s Golden Oldies Record Shop in Greenwich Village. They had a box with hundreds of singles by obscure female singers and girl groups I’d never heard of. I was there all day going through them all. They let me play snippets of each one. I came home with a collection of great singles and albums.
What else do you listen to for pleasure?
I don’t actively search out new music. I occasionally stumble across something I like on BBC Radio 6 or whatever station I can pick up when I’m on a long distance drive. In the workshop I stream D’n’B radio much of the time. I’m a big fan of Klute (Tom Withers). When I first started travelling between Manchester and the Isle of Harris, Klute provided the soundtrack for many long road trips. I have all sorts of good associations when I listen back to Casual Bodies and Fear of People. Tom used to be a drummer in a punk band. I’m sure that sense of rhythm is what gives his particular brand of drum and bass more depth than most. I’ve been following him since the late ‘90s. He’s never put a foot wrong. Being a fan, I wore my Commercial Suicide tee-shirt (Klute’s label), when Buzzcocks played at Manchester Apollo in 2012.
Once in a while a white boy guitar band comes along to prove the formula isn’t completely spent. The last one that had me dipping hand in pocket was the Amazing Snakeheads. They’ve since split. Dale Barclay was a great front man. A snarling little angry Glaswegian, singing in his own accent. He’s a great guitarist. No shortage of attitude. Brilliant as the album is, the one thing that lets it down is the mediocre ‘meat and one veg’ drumming. That’s one album I wish I’d played on.
We talked about John’s other band The Things before getting on to Penetration.
How did playing with Penetration on their new album come about?
I’ve known Rob and Pauline from the days when Penetration supported Buzzcocks on several gigs in 1978. A year later, I worked with Rob on Patrik Fitzgerald’s debut album ‘Grubby Stories’.
Following Penetration’s split in 1979, Pauline and Rob launched their new project; Pauline Murray and the Invisible Girls. Buzzcocks were going through a quiet time. I was drafted in to play on the album, which was being recorded at Strawberry Studios in Stockport, with Martin Hannett at the controls. I toured around Europe with PM&TIG in 1981.
A few years ago a promoter expressed interest in putting on a couple of Pauline Murray and the Invisible Girls gigs. Rob contacted me, but in the end nothing came of it.
In October 2014 Rob called again and asked if I was up for recording a brand new Penetration album. In December 2014 I travelled down to their studio in Newcastle (Pole Star) to meet up with them again and run through some of their new songs. I met guitarists Paul Harvey and Steve Wallace for the first time, ran through a few of the new songs and generally caught up with what everyone had been doing for the past 30 years.
Because there’d been such a long gap since we last played together, I was thinking there must have been a question mark in the back of their minds: “What if he’s shit?” By the same token, I didn’t want to invest a lot of time and effort in something I wasn’t going to enjoy. It wasn’t an issue. Our first session back together was a huge success. I was on board.
We recorded the drums at Pole Star. The whole band played the songs live, including vocals, which allowed me to get a good feel for what I needed to do. Guitars were played direct into the desk to avoid any bleed into the drum mics. Pauline was in a separate room. With the drums complete and me back home, they laid down new guitars, bass and vocals. It was a couple of months before I got to hear the final mixes. They’ve made an amazing job of what they’ve layered on top of those drum tracks. Pauline’s voice sounds fantastic. I love the drum sound. Even the subtle articulations on the hi-hat can be heard in the mix.
I’ve listened to the album a lot. I haven’t tired of it yet. I know I’m going to sound biased but it genuinely does sound like a great piece of work. I’m delighted I got involved in the project and I’m proud to have my name associated with it.
You covered ‘I Don’t Mind’ I hear, but it’s not on the album… a single perhaps?
Yeah, we did that very quickly. I had to check out the original on Youtube for a quick reminder; then we blasted through it a few times. It’s kind of weird having played on both – thirty seven years between them. There’s something incredibly energetic about this mix. It’s a great version of a great song. Initially I thought it must be faster paced than the original but when I checked, it’s exactly the same tempo – 168bpm – without the aid of a click track! I was impressed with that.
The plan is to release an EP on Record Store Day next April, featuring I Don’t Mind along with two other cover versions, neither of which have been chosen yet.
Pauline and Robert seem to be lovely people – far too ‘nice’ to be in the back-stabbing Music Biz –
You’re right, they’re nice people. They’ve been involved in the music business long enough to know how it works. Like most bands, they’ve had their share of being fucked over in the past but their approach nowadays is to deal with the parts of the music biz they want and ignore the rest. We’re all older and wiser now! Rob and Pauline are very down to earth; great people to work with and great company when the work stops. They’re also good friends of mine. Again.
Are you gonna gig with them to promote the album?
Yes. We’re doing six gigs this year, three in September and three in October. Although the album won’t be available until October, feedback so far from those who’ve heard it – including various music biz insiders – has been incredibly positive. Plans for the future will depend very much on how the album is received following its official launch. Promoters are already offering gigs for next year. At this stage, I haven’t thought beyond the six confirmed shows. I’ve enjoyed the ride so far. If it stops being fun I’ll move on. I might be around for a while. Time will tell.
I notice in the Penetration promotional photos you’ve dug out the old bowler hat and adopted what one of your friends online called a Clockwork Undertaker Look. Is it the same bowler you wore in 1981 onstage with Buzzcocks? Is it a tribute to John Steed or Mr Benn?
Ha! I like the John Steed/Mr Benn reference but the Clockwork Undertaker has a more sinister ring to it! The bowler hat was inspired by one of my favourite artists, Rene Magritte. I bought it in 1978. When we played Paris in 1979, we were lucky enough to be in town when there was a Magritte exhibition taking place at the Pompidou centre. Quite an experience seeing the actual paintings I was so familiar with from my collection of Magritte books.
Our graphic designer, Malcolm Garrett, based the script on the cover of ‘Love Bites’ and ‘Ever Fallen In Love’ on the text seen in some of Magritte’s paintings. That came about as a result of my obsession at the time.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, the video where I’m wearing the Anarchy tee-shirt and bowler hat turned out to be Buzzcocks’ last gig before the split – filmed in Hamburg, January 1981.
Final question; Buzzccocks, the Things, the VW Racing business now your photographic art, which is beautiful by the way… you seem to have lead a very rewarding creative life but the key to it , linking it all together, as far as I can see, seems to be that you’ve worked very hard at everything you do. is that the secret to a happy life?.
No idea if it’s the secret to a happy life! Although the three occupations I’ve been involved in since I left school are fairly diverse (music, engines and photography), there is a link: I’m self taught in all three. I didn’t make that connection until a few years ago, when someone told me I was an ‘autodidact’. I had to look it up. I have good a capacity to learn things for myself. BUT, I can only do it if the subject interests me. My attitude is if I’m going to get into something, I want to do it justice and do the best I can. Otherwise there’s no achievement. Fortunately, there are a few people out there who like the results.
The Things Facebook
All words by Ged Babey. Find his Louder Than War archive here.
Photos from Blondie Tour provided by John Maher. Original Photographer was Pete Monks (Buzzcocks tour manager at the time.)
Many Thanks to Mel Mudkiss for making this interview possible.
You can see John Maher play live again with Penetration at the following gigs
18 September Georgian Theatre, Stockton On Tees
19 September Warehouse 23 ,Wakefield
20 September Undercover III Festival, Bisley, Woking
16 October The Playhouse, Whitley bay
23 October The Hairy Dog, Derby
24 October The Garage, London N5