Creepy John Thomas interview
John Thomas is an Australian born guitarist who called himself Creepy John Thomas and released two albums under this moniker. He also used a stage name ‘Johnny Driver’. His career started with the Australian band The Flies. Much more followed, including collaboration with Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox.
Would you like to talk a bit about your background? Where and when did you grow up? Was music a big part of your family life?
John Thomas: I was born in Sydney but left it when I was still very young. After my parents split up, I was sent to live with my grandparents on their banana plantation which was some 5 miles from the small country town of Murwillumbah over 600 miles north of Sydney. I must have been about five or six at the time. Some of my earliest memories are of banana trees. My grandfather was the first real father figure I can recall. He had played the organ in church when he was younger and always had a love of music which he passed on to me. I listened to all the popular songs of that time on the radio. Granddad did not care much for popular music so I guess he suffered in silence. As the plantation was in the bush, we had no electricity, and the radio was plugged into a car battery!
“Rock’n’roll was the gateway drug that led me into roots music.”
When did you begin playing music? Who were your major influences?
I started playing guitar when I was 15. Guys like Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran were the coolest people on the planet to me when I was a teenager, and they inspired me to be pick up the guitar at fifteen. My other early heroes were guys like Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. A little later I got into people like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. I also liked country music artists like Hank Williams, and later on, the Everly Brothers. Of course the Beatles and the Stones had a big impact on me when they burst onto the scene, just as they did on almost everybody else. As I got older I discovered Robert Johnson and Albert King. Over the years my tastes broadened. Rock’n’roll was the gateway drug that led me into roots music. I’ve also always been fascinated by classical music. My favorite growing up was probably Sergei Rachmaninov who I sometimes heard on the radio. I didn’t discover his name until years later. That was life before the internet!
When did you decide that you wanted to start writing and performing your own music? What brought that about for you?
I have been writing songs almost as long as I have been playing the guitar. I never expected to have any success with them, and it is always gratifying to hear that people like them.
Was your first band called The Flies?
The Flies actually came a little later. I returned to Sydney in about 1959. My first band was called The Checkmates. A little later I was also founding member of The Telstars who recorded several instrumental singles after I had left for Melbourne. After moving to Melbourne in 1961, I played in a band called The Renegades. The drummer from that band, Hank Wallis joined me later when we formed The Flies.
“We had a reputation as a wild live act”
The Flies released several singles in 1965 for RCA. How did you get signed for such a major label? What’s the story behind the band? What can you tell me about its members? What do you remember from the time you played in this band?
The Flies were formed by Themi Adams who sang and played bass and myself on guitar and vocals. Later we were joined by Ronnie Burns who sang and played rhythm guitar. The lineup was complete when my old mate John Wallis from The Renegades joined us. The name The Flies was an obvious lift from the Beatles name and it still makes me cringe a little looking back, but then The Beatles lifted their name from Buddy Holly and The Crickets so I guess that is just in the nature of these things. We were young and ambitious but also very naive. Our first manager was Evan Dunstan, an actor with a background in theatre and television. He got us our first TV gig in about ’63. We later changed management to a company called Pinocchio Productions run by a young entrepreneur called Garry Spry who also had his own venue where we were resident for some months. It was Garry Spry who secured the recording contract with RCA. That led to numerous television appearances and live tours all over Australia. We had a reputation as a wild live act, although our records were rather tame pop songs by comparison.
You were well well known in Melbourne and you supported gigs for some of the biggest sixties bands including the Rolling Stones and Roy Orbison.
We supported many major international artists touring Australia. The Rolling Stones, The Newbeats, Roy Orbison and Little Millie. Roy Orbison was the consummate gentleman. A kind, warm and polite man. The Stones… well, they were The Stones and partied as wildly as their reputations suggested. But they were the real thing. There are stories that are not ready for the print yet. Some of the guilty parties are still alive!
“The highlight of my short drug dealing career was selling to Jefferson Airplane”
What happened next? At a certain point you moved to the UK?
I left Australia in 1967 but didn’t actually move to the UK until a few months later. My first port of call after Australia was Dusseldorf, Germany where my girlfriend at the time was from.
While there, I got a gig as a DJ in a psychedelic dive called The Cream Cheese in the Dusseldorf Alt Stadt. I remember being given public announcements to read out by the management that I could barely understand, my German being minimal at the time. About this time I was signed to EMI in Koln and I went to London and recruited two English guys, a bass player called Walt Monoghan and Brian Hillman on drums. We recorded the album Rust – Come with Me in EMI studio in Koln Meanwhile, I was also supplementing my income by selling a little dope on the side and probably the highlight of my short drug dealing career was selling to Jefferson Airplane who were on tour in Germany.
“I had gotten into psychoactive substances by that point and that experience heavily impacted my art”
RCA released your Creepy John Thomas album in 1969. What’s the story behind it? What kind of equipment did you use?
I met Conny Plank and recorded some demos. I went to London and a friend/manager Chris Hudson played them to Ian Grant at RCA and the label signed me. I had gotten into psychoactive substances by that point and that experience heavily impacted my art as it did for so many people at the time. We recorded guitars using acoustic guitar, Gibson 335, Fender Telecaster, Marshall Amp, Fuzz Tone and Wah Wah pedals.
Why is the nickname “Creepy”?
Liking blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, I wanted a theatrical stage name of my own less boring than John Thomas and was casting about for a suitably cool bluesy adjective so I adopted the name inspired by a song called “Creepy John” on the 1963 album Blues, Rags and Hollers by the country blues trio Koerner, Ray, and Glover.
You went to San Francisco for a year. What was it like there in 1971?
San Francisco was a fascinating city. In the early seventies it felt like the centre of the universe, certainly artistically. So much culture was emanating from there at the time, both musically and the lifestyle. Along with the hippies and the dreamers there was also a dark side. It was exciting to be part of the counterculture at the time. When I first got there, I was doing shows and staying in a place called The Garden of Earthly Delights which was in Potrero, San Francisco. As a popular hangout for Hell’s Angels, drug dealers, and musicians at the time, it was like the Wild West and I guess it lived up to its name. While I was living and working there I ran into Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane again. He still remembered buying dope from me at the Cream Cheese a couple of years earlier and knowing I was a fellow blues rocker musician, he invited me to Wally Heider’s studio where he was recording Hot Tuna and overdubbing on the Jefferson Airplane album, Long John Silver. I also became friends with Mitchell Holman, the bassist from It’s s Beautiful Day and we did a few jam sessions together with lots of local musicians.
Another album followed with a title Brother Bat Bone. What do you recall from it?
I was in San Francisco when Conny Plank called me from Germany to tell me he had secured a deal for ‘Brother Bad Bone‘. He misunderstood the word ‘bad’ for ‘bat’ so the album was called Brother Bat Bone instead of ‘Brother Bad Bone’! This pissed me off at the time!
After arriving back to the UK you joined Edgar Broughton Band and recorded Bandages.
Yes, I was with them for a couple of years.
Steve Broughton was a friend and I was happy to have a gig at the time.
At the end of the seventies you relocated to Berlin and started Johnny and The Drivers?
Yes we did two albums; This a Must Be the Night and Homing In On Zero.
In 1979 my family and I moved to Berlin where I played lots of acoustic gigs doing my songs and playing some blues as singer/songwriter. In 1980 started my band Johnny & the Drivers. We recorded two albums This Must Be The Night in 1981 on the Talent label, followed by Homing In On Zero on Phonogram. A single from the latter “She’s A Rocker” made the charts in Germany. We were managed for a time by Jim Rakete who also managed Nena of “99 Balloons fame” and did live gigs as well tv appearances on German TV. I also did guitar session work for various projects and some of my friends albums including on John Vaughan and Pete Wyoming Bender albums.
Looking back, Berlin is my kind of town and the city I love the most after my beloved little country town of Murwillumbah.
What can you tell me about the collaboration with Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox?
My family and I were living in Crouch End at the time of 1977, and I met them because they were staying above a record shop I used to visit. I was still playing with the Broughtons but wanted to do a solo project, and when I arranged to return to Germany to record in Conny Plank’s studio in Cologne, I asked Dave, Annie and Pete Coombs to record some sessions with us. On drums we had an old pal Clive Edwards and Bill Lynn on bass and Dave Lennox on keyboards. According to Annie in Rolling Stone, I was the “eccentric rocker” who introduced them to Conny, cementing my footnote in Eurythmics history! The studio itself was in a converted barn on a former farm, but Connie had also bought a place nearby which he used to house musicians who were recording at his studio. We had a pretty memorable incident while staying there.
The Baader-Meinhoff gang, a far left terrorist group had been in the news lately and locals were on warned to be on the look-out for suspicious characters. I guess we qualified! While we were staying at the house, a SWAT type team with machine guns burst into the place during the middle of the night after had gone to bed. It was one of the most terrifying incidents of my life. Luckily, they soon realised that we spoke almost no German and they clearly had a case of mistaken identity. They apologised and left completely ignoring the piles of dope strewn all over the living room table. I guess that type of stuff was kid stuff and they had bigger fish to fry.
One night at the studio Dave came in and said sit down to all of us as I have bad news: “Elvis has died!”
What else followed?
In 1988 we returned to London. I concentrated on writing and recording. I produced two albums independently: Remember Me This Way and Running Jumping Standing Still. Collaborating on some tunes with EBB’s Arthur Grant, Steve Broughton and Lewis Taylor, plus ex Manfred Mann drummer Richard Marcangelo. Richard is currently playing with the Drivers
Give us some insights on developing your guitar technique.
I’m still working on it.
Are you still in touch with other members of Creepy John Thomas?
Very occasionally. Andy Marks is in America.h He was a friend & naturopathic doctor for Frank Zappa before Frank sadly died.
In 2003 you released Remember Me This Way.
Recorded at my home studio, Werewolf Music in London. I was not signed to a major label. Another album Running Jumping Standing Still is another Werewolf Music production. Cherry Red Records have obtained the rights for five of my early albums. A box set is panned: Rust – Come With Me, Creepy John Thomas, Brother Bat Bone and two Johnny & the Drivers albums. I understand This Must Be The Night and Homing In On Zero CDs will be available separately
What currently occupies your life? Any future projects we should expect?
I have my blues band The Drivers still active. I am writing and recording constantly. I have a backlog of recorded songs waiting for the right offer from the lucky company that signs me.
Thank you for taking your time. Last word is yours.
At the time of writing our intentions are to keep on rocking the blues and taking the tablets, but unfortunately for us we are now stuck in isolation mode until further notice. Thank you for the interest in my music. Every good wish, John
– Klemen Breznikar
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