If you were around in 1972, and you heard the Vinegar Joe single, ‘Never Met a dog (that took to me)’, which was entirely likely as it got a lot of airplay from Radio 1 without attracting sales to match, you would have not have expected the solo careers of either of the band’s two lead singers, Elkie Brooks and Robert Palmer.
Vinegar Joe were a blues rock band. I know nothing of them except the celebrated single, but it was a full on stormer and Brooks and Palmer’s voices were a perfect mix for the blazing guitar lines.
Neither singer followed any kind of expected course, with Brooks’ solo career taking her very much in the direction of cabaret, whilst Palmer’s subsequent work being more in the blue-eyed soul area. But Palmer was more diverse than that, marrying up several genres, including reggae in a collaboration with UB40.
‘Johnny and Mary’ was a relatively early single, released in 1980 and reaching no 44 almost invisibly, or should I say inaudibly? I was still listening to some Radio at this time, and still industriously writing down the Top 40 chart every week, but ‘Johnny and Mary’s chart run was long over before I happened to hear it.
Musically, it’s not what you’d expect, being more electronic than soulful. An unvarying beat, digitally constructed, a synth rhythm considerably less full than anything New Order produced, this is the basis of the song, and rhythm not melody is key to it. Palmer sings within a restricted range, again using a minimal melodic line that’s similarly decorated by little runs of guitar that are actually more forceful than the beat. It’s a slider of a song, infinitely protractable: a 12” version would have been absolutely immense in the clubs.
And this music is the soundtrack to a fascinating word picture of a duo, a pair, Johnny and Mary, and the near-complete mismatch of their contrasting but inseparable personalities.
Palmer introduces us first to Johnny, the protagonist, the active pole, kinetic and hyperactive without once being effectual, a bundle of nervous energy full of dreams and awkwardnesses, permanently in motion but fundamentally hollow. Johnny’s always running around, trying to find certainty, he needs all the world to confirm that he ain’t lonely.
Then he turns to Mary, the reactive partner, the passive pole, the sceptic, the immobile, undercutting him with analysis of his failings/flailings yet protective of him, trying to be a ballast to his impracticality. Mary counts the walls, knows he tires easily.
Back and forth Palmer’s lines bounce, now Johnny, now Mary, and as the song spools out your sympathies shift and change. At first, you feel for her, having to handle such a neurotic, impossible, unsettling boyfriend, but then you see that for him she is not necessary a balance, but ballast, not anchoring him but dragging him down.
Which one do you think deserves the other least? Why are they bound as they are, when there’s seemingly no point of contact between them? Is it more than the propulsive effect of the beat, creating a dance that both move to? Never forget that love can be just as much destructive as fulfilling, and that baby ducks imprint on the first thing they see once they emerge from the egg and that that is their mother, whatever species it is. Johnny and Mary are bound, and like the man and the woman in the weather-house they rock to each other’s rhythm and never find that happy place where both can stand.
But nevertheless, ‘Johnny and Mary’, obscure as it may be, fascinates by allying a rock-solid beat to this picture of two disparate people bonded irretrievably. You’d run a mile from meeting them, but you’ll listen to their strange talk for hours.
Quick note for followers of this feature: as I currently have enough written posts stacked up to fill the next sixteen months at the current rate, The Infinite Jukebox will now appear twice-weekly for the foreseeable future. Check for the next one on Rhursday.