Brian Johnson

In the vast landscape of rock and roll, few voices resonate as powerfully as that of the northeast’s own Brian Johnson. Brian Johnson’s journey from small venues in Newcastle and County Durham to the global stages with AC/DC is nothing short of legendary. His resilience in the face of adversity, coupled with his timeless vocals, has solidified his status as a rock icon.

This article is a not a full history of Brian Johnson’s musical journey. It’s more of an account of how he got started in music through to the time his first professional band started its rise to fame. As I’ve done in my previous articles about other successful northeast artists such as Bryan Ferry and Lindisfarne, I’ve concentrated on the period covered by Ready Steady Gone and have broadly kept to its theme: “Gigging in the North East 1965-1972. A personal perspective ..”

1965 to 1972 was a time when local bands were thriving and adapting to the ever changing tastes in music throughout the period. In the late sixties I was playing in bands at the same venues as Brian Johnson. We knew the same local musicians and even played in our respective bands alongside two of the same musicians. (For that reason I got a mention in Brian Johnson’s ‘Rock Family Tree’ in his autobiography).

I can’t remember how many times I actually met Brian Johnson. The only ones that come to mind are when my band and his shared the stage at a hippy “Love-in” in Newcastle’s Haymarket area in October 1967. The other was in 1969 when he came to one of my band’s gigs as a guest and travelled with us to the venue in our van.

From choirboy to a world renowned rock star – this is how it happened: –

The Early Years

In his autobiography Brian Johnson claims the moment in his life that turned him on to Rock ’n’ Roll was seeing Little Richard singing “Tutti Frutti” on an American TV show. Not long after he heard the same song coming from a neighbour’s record player. Tutti Frutti became popular in 1956 so Brian would have been under the age of ten at the time. At such a young age he could never have dreamt that in less than three decades the whole world would be watching him perform on TV, turning a whole new generation on to Rock ’n’ Roll.

Brian Johnson’s first taste of singing in public was in a local boy scout’s production of the Gang Show. He enjoyed the experience and the reaction of the audience but after all the weeks of hard work rehearsing for the show it only lasted for two evenings. To Brian this was a bit of an anti-climax and would have given him a thirst for more of the same.

Brian’s next musical adventure was when he joined a church choir. Being a roman catholic church most of the hymns were sung in latin. The peak of his career as a chorister came as a thirteen year old at Christmas 1960 when he was chosen to sing “Silent Night” as a soloist. He remembers there not being any applause because this wasn’t allowed in church, but the appreciation from the audience shone through and was palpable.

Another scout gang show came and went bringing Brian Johnson’s aspiring career as a singer to an end for the time being.

In 1962/3 at the age of sixteen Brian got a job as an apprentice at Parson’s ship yard in Wallsend on the banks of the Tyne. By this time tastes in popular music were changing. The American teen crooners such as Bobby Vee, Bobby Rydell, Johnny Tillotson, Ricky Nelson and Pat Boone who had been a fixture is the UK charts for several years were being pushed aside by UK groups like the Rolling Stones, Dave Clark Five, the Beatles and many other bands from the Liverpool area. Countless young people were itching to join or form groups and follow in the footsteps of the successful British bands that were hitting the charts. Initially, many of these would-be musicians, in particular guitarists, were influenced by Hank Marvin and the Shadows. A few years later it would be the likes of the Beatles and Stones that they wanted to emulate. Those who had no inclination to learn to play the guitar chose singing as a route to potential fame and fortune. They would sing along to their favourite records in front of a mirror with a sauce bottle or hair brush as a make-do microphone.

The First Band

While he was at Parsons Brian Johnson got to know some fellow workers who were keen to liven up their lives by playing music together. A four-piece group was formed consisting of Brian as vocalist, a guitarist, Bass player and drummer. In spite of the four-piece lineup, they named themselves “Section 5”.

Like a lot of young start-up groups around 1963/4, Section 5 began rehearsing in the family home of one of the band members. In this case it was in the home of the bass player’s parents in Dunston. The bass player in question was Steve Chance who continued to be part of Brian Johnson’s musical journey over a number of years until 1971.

In his autobiography Brian mentions some of the songs Section 5 was attempting to learn. They were mostly covers of Rhythm & Blues songs by the Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley. At the time many other young would-be groups were learning the the same songs. Not only did they sound more rocky and raucous than most of the songs in the UK charts but they had a basic structure with no more than three chords so were fairly easy to master by inexperienced musicians.

Section 5 eventually fizzled out without making too much of an impression on the local music scene. With 1966 out of the way, 1967 promised a lot of new exciting horizons as far as popular music was concerned. Jimi Hendrix was starting to wow audiences with his complete mastery of the guitar and exciting live performances. Numerous bands were entering a psychedelic phase by experimenting with hallucinating drugs such as LSD. The Hippie movement in the States had morphed into ‘Flower Power’ and was having an impact in the UK. The era of the kaftan, beads, flowery attire, ‘peace & love’ and psychedelic liquid light shows was born. Music shows were being billed as “Love-Ins” or “Happenings”. This was the year of the long, hot ‘Summer Of Love’.

Gobi Desert Kanoo Club and Fresh

Not long after Brian Johnson witnessed Jimi Hendrix performing with The Experience at Newcastle’s iconic Club a’Gogo on 10th March 1967, he teamed up with some other local musicians to form a new group called the Gobi Desert Kanoo Club. The lineup was; Brian, his buddy from Section 5, Steve Chance on bass, Ken Brown (guitar), Dave Yarwood (guitar) and Fred Smith (drums).

Clockwise from bottom left: Brian Johnson, Steve Chance, Dave Yarwood, Ken Brown and Fred Smith

It was quite a slow start for the Gobi Desert Kanoo Club. Apart from the “Love-In” in October 1967 mentioned in paragraph 4 above the band only played a few more gigs that year. The last was in December at a dance held at one of the Newcastle University buildings. 1968 turned out to be much better. Gobi Desert Kanoo Club played around 40 gigs from January through to August at various venues in Newcastle, Sunderland, County Durham and Northumberland. After the last known gig at Newcastle’s Quay Club on 9th August 1968, Gobi Desert Kanoo Club split up bringing Brian Johnson’s career as a vocalist to a grinding halt.

While he was a member of Gobi Desert Kanoo Club Brian Johnson had invested in a PA system which he bought from Windows music shop in Newcastle’s Central Arcade. He didn’t really want this to go to waste so the following year he teamed up with some musicians who had been playing locally in a group called Hanibal Kemp. In contrast to the heavy blues material played by Gobi Desert Kanoo Club, Hanibal Kemp played more pop inspired songs. There was an optimism on Brian’s part that this new venture would not only be a fresh start but that it was also going to be a successful one. He did one gig with Hanibal Kemp in June 1969. After that the group’s name was aptly changed to Fresh. However, Fresh was fairly short lived coming to an end at the backend of 1969.

The Jasper Hart Band

Brian Johnson didn’t have to wait too long before putting his “pride and joy”, the PA system he’d bought from Windows, to good use again. The Gobi Desert Kanoo Club had risen from the ashes, albeit under a new name. After the Gobi Desert Kanoo Club split up in the summer of 1968, the band’s guitarist Ken Brown formed another band called Crusade with some other members of the Kanoo Club plus a keyboard player named Alan Taylorson. Crusade became fairly successful on the local gig circuit with a run of around 300 bookings from 1968 until the band folded in October 1970. After Crusade, Ken Brown wasted no time in getting the old Gobi Desert Kanoo Club team together, including Brian Johnson. He called his new venture The Jasper Hart Band. The line-up was Ken on guitar, Steve Chance on bass, Fred Smith on drums and Brian on vocals. There was no-one called Jasper Hart in the band. The name was a figment of Ken Brown’s imagination. The new band’s material was more melodic than the bluesy style of the Gobi Desert Kanoo Club and featured songs that would be popular in the region’s working mens clubs.

‘Hairy’ Days With Ruth Saxon

After only a few months Brian Johnson with the Jasper Hart Band built up a good name and were getting regular bookings at local northeast venues. Then something happened that would have a big impact on Brian and the rest of the band members. They were approached one night by a black comedienne and singer called Ruth Saxon who had a solid showbiz reputation with regular performances on the national cabaret circuit. Although she was a Mancunian by birth, in 1971 she was living in Whitley Bay. In the sixties she had worked for ITV (Granada Television) reputedly being the country’s first black TV presenter. Ruth Saxon and her manager were looking for a change of direction, which would include a rock type backing band as part of her show. She was a big fan of the hippy based musical “Hair” and wanted to include a Hair tribute as part of her new act. Apparently her brother Les Saxon was a member of the London based cast of the Hair stage show.

Ruth Saxon clearly must have thought the Jasper Hart Band would be the ideal backing band for her and her new show, although it was not the first Newcastle band that she had invited to join her. My own band Sneeze was approached by Ruth Saxon a few months earlier at Newcastle’s “Change Is” club, saying that she was looking for a backing band. She promising a lot of well paid gigs on the national cabaret circuit. After a further few meetings she began talking about her vision of a mini Hair type show. One band member suggested that this would mean the band would have to “sell-out”. Ruth Saxon flew into a foul mouthed rage and stormed out of the meeting. I distinctly remember her parting words; “F*** off back to your rat holes!”. This was probably a lucky escape for Sneeze. “Ruthless” Saxon moved on to the Jasper Hart Band, a coalition that eventually resulted in an ill-fated outcome.

Ruth Saxon offered Jasper Hart the opportunity to join her in her new venture. Without too much deliberation the band members accepted her proposal even though the nationwide touring meant they would have to give up their day time jobs. Certain other conditions were stipulated: firstly everyone would have to dress smartly; secondly they would have to learn a lot of the songs featured in the Hair stage show; thirdly they would have to rehearse a lot to bring them up to a professional standard and finally they would have to add a keyboard player to their lineup. Alan Taylorson who had been in Ken Brown’s former band, Crusade, was recruited.

So the deal was struck. In due course, when Ruth Saxon deemed that the Jasper Hart Band was ready, they would all go on tour as a cabaret act featuring their Hair extravaganza. In order to get up to the standard that Ruth Saxon was demanding and learn the required Hair material, the band booked a lot of rehearsal time in a Newcastle studio. The studio the band chose was Studio 1 on Clayton Street, which was established a couple of years earlier by local entrepreneur Michael Meade. They also spent more money on new stage wear and an expensive photoshoot in Manchester.

In the meantime The Jasper Hart band continued to gig locally as a five-piece while Ruth Saxon kept up her appearances as a solo cabaret act in far flung places such as Belfast and the Isle of Man. In order to set the scene for her new venture and showcase Jasper Hart playing the Hair material, Ruth arranged for a week of bookings for the band starting on 15th February 1971 at a Newcastle night club called Stage Door. Jasper Hart’s “cabaret” spot would start just after midnight and last for forty five minutes. The week’s residency was timed to coincide with a provincial staging of the Hair musical by the London cast at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal. Ruth Saxon invited the cast of Hair, including her brother Les, along to Stage Door after their performance at the Theatre Royal had finished. According to Brian Johnson in his autobiography the entire cast of Hair turned up at the Stage Door club to see Jasper Hart. Unfortunately there weren’t many other people there – just the actors jumping and dancing around in a near empty room, some of them partially clothed as if they were performing their Hair stage act.

The Ruth Saxon chapter of Brian Johnson’s life ended around the end of May 1971 when she disappeared with some of the band’s funds just before the planned cabaret tour was due to start. The disappointed band members were left with a lot of debt but on top of that bass player Steve Chance and keyboard player Alan Taylorson decided they’d had enough and left the band.

Jasper Hart’s Final Year

But before that happened the band had another chance of fame and fortune. A local music entrepreneur called Mike Forster who had started up a record label called Circa 2000 wanted to record and promote the band. He arranged a recording session at Studio 1 in Clayton Street, Newcastle (the same studio where the band had rehearsed in preparation for the Ruth Saxon act). The sessions took place between the 31st May and 9th June 1971 resulting in three recorded tracks, all songs written by Mike Forster. This was the first time that Brian Johnson had recorded in a studio with a professional quality studio microphone – something that left an impression on him. Unfortunately due to lack of funding the recordings came to nothing.

Here’s a short compilation of extracts from the tracks recorded at Circa 2000: Down By The River, Overload, and I Want To Be Around


In spite of the loss of their bassist and keyboard player the remaining band members (Brian Johnson, Ken Brown and Fred Smith) decided to continue as Jasper Hart playing at the many local northeast venues that were around in the early seventies. After all the rehearsing they had done to become a cabaret act with Ruth Saxon the Jasper Hart Band was now very tight and performing their sets to a professional standard. Their new material, which now included well-known songs from Hair, was popular in working mens clubs leading to many lucrative bookings. The good thing for Brian Johnson is that he hadn’t got around to leaving his steady job at Parsons. So when the band’s debts were discharged he would be reaping the benefits of gig money on top of his salary. With a pregnant wife and young child to support the extra income would be very welcome.

After the departure of Steve Chance, Jasper Hart did a couple of gigs in June 1971 with a stand-in bass player before recruiting the Gateshead musician Tom Hill. Tom was an experienced, competent bass player who’d been on the local music scene for a number of years. I’d been in a band called Sneeze with him two years earlier for around six months. After leaving Sneeze in the summer of 1969 Tom Hill had led a couple of local outfits called Yellow and Blondie. By the summer of 1971 he was available for hire.

Around August 1971, the drummer with the Jasper Hart Band, Fred Smith, who had been in the band since it was formed also decided to throw in his sticks and leave the band. The timing of Fred’s departure worked out quite well for the band. It roughly coincided with the break up of my band, Sneeze. Five members of Sneeze already had other projects lined up; all except drummer Brian Gibson. Jasper Hart was quick to use Brian as a replacement for Fred Smith. Bassist Tom Hill and Brian Gibson had worked together in Sneeze between February 1969 and August 1969. This duo was very tight together and a great addition to the Jasper Hart Band, which now consisted of Ken Brown on guitar, Brian Johnson on vocals, Tom Hill on bass and Brian Gibson on drums. It wouldn’t be too long before the latter three would go on to be part of Newcastle’s own rock stars – “Geordie”.

A reformed Jasper Hart Band with bassist Tom Hill (right)

Geordie

The Jasper Hart Band fronted by Brian Johnson continued to perform at Newcastle and County Durham venues throughout January 1972. However, things were about to change. Vic Malcolm, an exceptional guitarist from South Shields wanted to form a new band to showcase his own self-penned material. Vic had previously been in a local band called “The Influence” whose members included the notable musician John Miles and drummer Paul Thompson who went on to join Brian Ferry in Roxy Music. His choice of musicians consisted of three members of the Jasper Hart Band – everyone except guitarist Ken Brown. Vic Malcom arranged a trial session with Brian Johnson, Tom Hill and Brian Gibson at a scout hut in South Shields. If Brian Johnson had been apprehensive about singing original material at an audition rather than covers he needn’t have been. The musicians immediately clicked and all three of the Jasper Hart members accepted Vic Malcolm’s invitation to join him. The band named themselves “USA”.

Vic Malcolm’s strategy was to play as many gigs as the band could muster on the local working mens club circuit in order to get as tight as possible. Then they would record a demo tape, which they would take to London where Vic had contacts. The band members hoped that this would eventually lead to a recording contract.

The first part of the strategy seemed to be working. USA’s first gig on 1st February 1972 at a working men’s club in Peterlee, County Durham went very well. The audience were probably used to hearing bands play cover versions of well known songs but nevertheless they accepted Geordie’s performance of their own original songs with open arms. More gigs at similar clubs followed. The band was quickly earning a reputation as a strong act resulting in bookings at more up-market venues, including a three day stint at Newcastle’s Cavendish Club in June 1972.

With a demo tape under their belt, two members of USA, Vic Malcolm and Tom Hill, headed down to London to hawk their wares around the many record companies in the capital. One of the companies they visited was Red Bus Records, a part of the EMI group. The two owners of Red Bus, Ellis Elias and Eliot Cohen were so impressed with the demo they immediately offered USA a recording contract.

On their return to the northeast Vic Malcolm and Tom Hill broke the news of their successful trip to Brian Johnson. Brian was faced with a life changing decision. He had a wife and young family to support, which he was currently able to do by means of his steady office job plus the extra income from the USA gigs. Even with a contract from Red Bus there was no guarantee that USA would become successful recording artists. It was a tough decision but in the end Brian chose Rock ’n’ Roll over a steady job.

Dreams of seeing the name “USA” on a record label or in lights outside prestigious venues were shattered when the owners of Red Bus Records told the band members that they wanted the band to forget about USA and start using the name “Geordie”. Back in the early seventies the term “Geordie” was applied as a general term to all people from the northeast as opposed to today’s Geordies who are deemed to live in the city or support Newcastle United football team. Nevertheless the band members weren’t convinced about the name change. They thought that “Geordie” was a bit too parochial and not nearly as universally appealing as “USA”. In the end Red Bus Records got its way and Geordie was born in early September 1972.

Geordie (l to r) Brian Johnson, Brian Gibson, Vic Malcolm and Tom Hill

One of Geordie’s first gigs was at the Boilermakers Club in Gateshead on 1st September 1972. After that the band embarked for a tour of Holland throughout the rest of September. On its return to the UK Geordie began a continuous tour of national gigs including London’s iconic Marquee Club on 18th October 1972. At the end of October the band recorded at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studio for a spot on the Alan Freeman radio show. This was followed by an appearance on Top Of The Pops 8th November 1972 to promote the single they had recorded – “Don’t Do That”. In spite of the prestigious gigs and promotions that Red Bus was arranging at clubs, universities and ballrooms throughout the UK, Geordie didn’t neglect their fans in their native northeast. In November 1972 they appeared at Newcastle Labour Club on 9th November, the Central Club, Gateshead on the 12th and Gateshead Bombers (ex-servicemen’s) Club on the 13th. The band ended 1972 with a New Years Eve gig at Margate’s Rendezvous Club.

The Next Steps

That concludes Brian Johnson’s life as a northeast musician during the period 1965 to 1972. Geordie went from strength to strength in 1973, 1974 and into 1975. In all, Brian Johnson recorded half a dozen albums and numerous singles with the band before getting the call from AC/DC in 1980 inviting him to join the Australian outfit as a replacement for Bon Scott. The histories of Brian Johnson’s time with Geordie and AC/DC are well documented elsewhere on the internet. Probably the best place to find out about his life as rock icon, also his various TV projects, is in his autobiography – “The Lives Of Brian”. (Available on Amazon)

As with Eric Burdon, another vocalist who made the grade, and the band Lindisfarne it’s impossible to separate Brian Johnson from his Geordie roots. The working-class spirit of Gateshead and Newcastle, the energy of its music scene in the sixties, and the resilience ingrained in its people all shaped the persona of those rock legends we know today. Brian Johnson’s journey from local northeast venues to the world’s largest stages is not just a musical story; it’s a testament to the power and energy of a region and its people in shaping the destiny of a true rock icon.

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Sources:
“The Lives Of Brian” – Brian Johnson’s autobiography
www.ac-dc.net
Newcastle Evening Chronicle archives
Ken Brown’s recollections of the Jasper Hart Band
Various internet sites

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