June 9, 2023

The vocals are credited to none other than Petula Clark…

Is that the John Williams? I hear you cry. Well, that depends on who you think the John Williams is. Do you mean the Australian classical guitarist of Cavatina fame, who was instrumental in forming ‘80s classical/rock crossover band Sky? No, it’s not him. What about the Hollywood composer, responsible for the Star Wars, Close Encounters and E.T. themes? Nope, not him either. How about British songwriter and producer John Owen Williams, who was so active in the 1980s, producing everyone from Alison Moyet, Simple Minds and Debbie Harry to Robert Plant, Jethro Tull and Status Quo? Yup, that’s the fellow. His impressive CV as promoter, producer, manager, label executive and pretty much every other job in the music industry, reads like a genuine Who’s Who of British acts and a fair sprinkling of offshore artists. It wasn’t until 2021 though, as he reached his 70th birthday, that he started recording albums under his own name as The John Williams Syndicate, a loose affiliation of singers and musicians inhabiting the middle-of-the-road pop and rock world. That first album was named Out Of Darkness, and now we have the follow-up Into The Light. Williams is more than capable of writing, singing and producing the songs, and playing every instrument himself; in fact he does exactly that on two of the ten songs. But for the most part, the Syndicate features Mike Allen or Ben Walker on bass, with drums shared between Pete Marshall from Paul Heaton’s band, and Martyn Barker from London art-rock combo Shriekback. A multitude of keyboard players, guitarists and other instrumentalists appear, but this collection is not about showboating or fancy soloing, it’s all about the songs, and the various guests who have been recruited to sing them.

Portrait photo by John Offenbach

The set opens up with In The Morning Sun, a brightly pleasant ballad featuring the jazz-orientated Nikki Leighton-Thomas on vocals, with a busy, almost fairground-sounding organ providing a lively backing. She appears on two songs, and somehow manages to completely change her voice, dropping into a deep, smoky register to sing the Fleetwood Mac-styled You’re My Number 1, with its twangy guitar work. The guitars seem to be aiming for a Hank Marvin sound, but somehow it seems more ‘80s to me, with a flavour of Big Country perhaps. In fact the whole album is like this; it has the warm, nostalgic glow of 1960s pop, but with updated sounds and production techniques, so that it harks back more to Williams’ 1980s heartland. My Love Is, for instance, a song on which Williams takes the lead vocals, features clavinet from Natasha Panas and some evil gypsy fiddle from the excellent Jane Burgess, capturing something of the Dance Macabre, but it actually reminds me more of similar violin work on Belinda Carlisle’s Runaway Horses album.

German Singer Claudia Brücken from Propaganda sings a couple of the songs too; the electronic number As Long As You Are There For Me, with its digitised drums, and the aching So High, So Low. The volume and tempo picks up a gear with Don’t go, sung by former Jesus And Mary Chain drummer John Moore, which also features the distinctive, picked bass sound of Williams’ son Charlie. This is as rocky as it gets though; the whole ambience of the album is towards the easy listening, although there’s always plenty going on, with an imaginative instrument set and clever use of lush, layered vocals, with a relaxing overall feel. Williams himself takes the lead vocal on four of the songs, also supplying drums, bass and sweetly fingerpicked guitar on In My Dreams, in which he basically recites a list of musicians he admires and loves, with chorused vocals popping up from various places in the stereo pan. He plays all the instruments on the melodic I Want To Lose Myself In You too, heavily reminiscent of early Blondie, while also adding a banjo to his list of accomplishments.

That just leaves one song, the pleasingly tuneful Luminescent, partly based on Pachelbel’s ubiquitous Canon In D chord structure, with twinkly piano backing supplied by Williams, and a gloriously fat synthesizer line provided by synth designer Jason Mayo. The vocals are credited to none other than Petula Clark. Could it really be the wartime child star of the 1940s, who had her first no. 1 single in 1961 – that’s over 60 years ago? Incredibly yes, she is 90 now and still getting in front of the mic, and still singing like a bird. The song manages to unite the ‘60s and the ‘80s at last, with a melody line that harks back to The Kinks’ Thank You For The Days, and guitar backing highly reminiscent of U2’s With Or Without You.

The CD includes a massive 28-page booklet including all the lyrics and individual song credits, and adorned with watercolours by Tim Hobart. Williams himself writes a couple of pages of intro, with another page contributed by long-time friend Paul Phillips, aka Driver 67, who ancient beardies might remember from the 1970s novelty hit single Car 67. The album certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome at under 40 minutes, which is a shame, as I would have been happy to have listened to more of this easy and genuinely entertaining light pop. Give us some more, John.