Moonage Daydreamer: Johnny Dean Interviewed

On the eve of his first show for 15 years, ex-Menswear singer Johnny Dean talks Bowie, Britpop and living with Asperger’s

Photograph courtesy of Hannah Goodwin

“Insane, fast, young…”: sitting at home in a very quiet part of south west London Johnny Dean, the former singer of Britpop whipping boys Menswear, is struggling to find five words that best sum up his nineties pop heyday. “It’s actually really difficult… stupid, and um… that’s all I can think of.”

When Dean steps onto the stage at the Buffalo Bar in Islington tonight it will be his first performance for almost 15 years. His last was to a packed Koko and was, he says, his swan song. Surprisingly Dean’s return to the boards isn’t a part of the trend for nineties bands to reform and drag themselves around the country’s AMG venues, rather it’s a fund-raising event to increase awareness of autism and in particular Asperger’s, a condition that Dean has himself. In fact he’s not even relying on his own back catalogue as he’ll be singing songs by 2013’s man of the year, Dame David Bowie.

Menswear were a band that were hard to love. A scheme that turned into a band, who appeared in the music press before they’d written a song and once they had, they performed it on Top Of The Pops before it was released. They were pretty comprehensively given a hard time by critics and contemporaries alike but if you were of a certain age, if Blur and Pulp and Suede were, like, too old, then Menswear were the Britpop band of choice. And they had a good run of it too: three Top 20 singles, a debut album Nuisance that stalled just outside the Top Ten and actual pop stardom in Japan. They were almost designed not to last.

“Things got very, very dark very, very quickly,” says Dean, “Some of it was fun but a lot of it, specifically for me, was pretty traumatic to be honest. I’m proud of what we did, but when it ended I just wanted to get away from it. The music industry attracts the worst type of people and I just didn’t want to be around them. I still don’t.”

The band’s second album, the ill-judged country rock !Hay Tiempo! (“a smack and coke album,” according to Dean) was deemed worthy of a release only in Japan and the band ground to a halt soon after.

“Menswear split because I didn’t want to do it any more. The other guys were still up for it and hoping for another record deal, but I just wanted it all to be over with. For all those years I thought I was quite mentally ill and it didn’t help that people would push that idea on me as well, especially in the press. I was a bit kooky and prone to saying silly things but I felt I was picked on for it. The whole thing had taken it’s toll and left me quite bewildered, and very damaged psychically.”

Post-Menswear Dean continued to work with bassist Stuart Black under the name Messiah but as that petered out he drifted further away from music, content to lead a quiet life away from the spotlight. That didn’t quite work out as he hoped either. Depressive episodes had always been a part of Dean’s life, before, during and after the band. “From about the age of seven or eight I was aware that I wasn’t like everyone else, that I thought differently and saw things differently,” he says. “I just thought I was a bit mad.” He’d found the chaos of Menswear a routine of sorts but with that gone he floated about aimlessly. “I just wanted to have a nice normal life but it was like trying to ram a square peg into a round hole. I spent eighty per cent of the time depressed and I had terrible problems with motivation. Imagine being confused most of the time, not understanding what the fuck is going on, not being able to make sense of the world. It was a living hell. I can’t really describe it without sounding exaggerated, but it was bad, very bad. Suicidal levels of bad. Then I found out about Asperger’s.”

It wasn’t until the late 2000s when Dean’s depression finally led to a spell in hospital did he get to the root of his problem. “I was pretty catatonic and got referred to psychiatric hospital where I was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), an umbrella term for all autism and autism-like conditions.” Told that he identified with Asperger’s syndrome, Dean felt nothing but relief. “It was like someone had turned the light on for me. It was like finding a home, finding out who I actually am. Depression is a common symptom of being undiagnosed so it was like finding the exit out of a really dark nasty maze.”

Although often considered as mental illness, autism is in fact a neurological condition that people are born with. It’s not curable though there are ways to lessen its impact. “Cognitive behavioural therapy has taught me tricks to help with social interaction,” Dean says, “But really, it’s all theoretical for me, not natural at all. Things like smiling and eye contact help me to be understood but I have something in my brain that prevents me from seeing whether people are happy, upset or angry. I ended up in all kinds of strange altercations because I really didn’t know if I’d pissed someone off, made them angry or was simply boring them to death.”

It’s the results of such situations, Dean insists, that creates the assumption that people with autism are hermits and lock themselves away. “Many people with autism are quite gregarious and friendly, sometimes overly so. They can get right in your face, which again can result in bad experiences. It’s this that makes them cut themselves off, not the condition itself.”

Menswear’s legacy may be slight but they were popular enough for Dean’s retirement from music to not go unnoticed. Fittingly, his re-emergence was prompted by a group of fans.

“I loved our fans but I’m not sure the rest of the band appreciated them as much. Bowie’s fans were all teenagers, mainly 14-year-old girls when he hit it big, The Beatles exactly the same. I’m not comparing us to them musically but if you’re a band with a good thing going on you’ve gotta look after the people who are putting food on the table as they’ll grow up with you. Then you can start making country rock records.”

A website, We@r The Hell Is Johnny Dean? was set up in a bid to track him down and it was there that Dean made his diagnosis public. Then another bunch of fans who run a club night named after Menswear’s debut album, contacted him about maybe doing some shows.

“Since being diagnosed I’ve felt empowered, determined and driven to make the whole universe aware of this condition,” he says. “It’s my mission – we need to catch kids with autism as early as possible, so they don’t have to go through what I, and others like me, have gone through. So I wanted to do something for the National Autistic Society because the work they do is really important.”

Rather than front a band playing Menswear material, Dean has opted to do a set of songs taken from the great Bowie songbook. He’s under no illusion as to the size of the task he’s set himself though. “I don’t have the best singing voice and for vocal delivery you can’t touch Bowie,” he says. “People don’t realise how difficult those songs are to sing because he makes it sound so effortless. His vocals on Young Americans, especially ‘Right’, absolutely slay me. So it’s a fairly daunting prospect and I guess I’m a bit nervous. I’m hoping people aren’t expecting a carbon copy of an actual Bowie show because that ain’t gonna happen. A bit of noisy Bowie revelry while raising some money for a good cause is the basic plan. Bowie owns 2013 and if he’s not going to play the songs himself, it’s almost like I’m doing him a favour.”

Gary Numan and Ladyhawke are other musicians who have gone public with their diagnosis and Dean reckons there are more, past and present. “There are a hell of lot of musicians who are coming out of the woodwork and they all manage to deal with it, even though it’s probably the worst career choice for someone with the condition. Take Ian Curtis – he had every single symptom and epilepsy is very common among people with autism.”

Dean also claims the man whose catalogue he’s singing from for his own ‘Team Aspy’. “Bowie is autism made into a person really,” he says. “I think the connection with him being such a weirdo and me doing this for autism awareness is pretty apt! He’s a complete freak – all proper pop stars are of course – and I identify with that because I’m a freak too. He’s always talked to the misfits and in a way he speaks to me directly. If I’m really pissed off or unhappy he’s there and he really changes my mood. In a funny way how I felt about my diagnosis reminded me of the first time I ever saw Bowie on TV: I felt like I’d found a home.”

Johnny Dean & The Nuis@nce Band play Islington’s Buffalo Bar tonight. For more information on Asperger’s visit The National Autistic Society’s website

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