The Eccentronic Research Council

Johnny Rocket, Narcissist & Music Machine... I'm Your Biggest Fan

Monomania can push people to incredible ends. But while there have been great explorers and inventors who’ve found unending energy in it, single-minded obsession can turn eerily ugly when aimed at an individual. Take Humbert Humbert from Lolita, or Raskolnikov from Crime And Punishment, both driven to violence having obsessed themselves into a corner over an individual. Maxine Peake’s barking narrator and protagonist at the centre of The Eccentronic Research Council’s latest album is such an obsessive, stalking Johnny Rocket, a charismatic young rocker and – in the words of our narrator – narcissist.

Johnny Rocket, Narcissist and Music Machine… I’m Your Biggest Fan is the fourth album to land from The Eccentronic Research Council. It finds them now masters of their initially uncertain style – a blend of proto-electronic poppy synths, darkly gothic themes, confusing psychedelic atmospheres, and spoken word storytelling, for the most part spewing from the powerhouse of Peake. Adrian Flanagan, Dean Honer and Maxine Peake’s first album, 1612 Underture, was a series of loose knit chapters following the story of the Pendle Witches along with the modern day North, while The Dreamcatcher Tapes strung together retold dreams from a series of uncredited guests (including a certain "John") in near-Blue Jam-esque style. Last year’s self-released Magpie Billy & The Egg That Yolked (A Study Of The Northern Ape In Love) explored the goings on in a house inhabited by two ‘apes’. The themes and tales have all been potent, yet at times, only roughly sketched. Johnny Rocket however, plays to the all of the ERC’s strengths, and ties it all together with a single cohesive, and oddly compelling story. According to Adrian Flanagan in the ERC’s recent tQ interview with John Doran, with Johnny Rocket, he "wanted to write an LP for the music fan in us all".

For the opening scene we find ourselves dropped in Valhalla Dale, a (fictional) town on the outskirts of Sheffield. We’re welcomed by Maxine Peake’s demonic narration atop blasts of synthesised brass and choirs, a snare heavy beat, and distant notes phasing like detritus from the Forbidden Planet soundtrack picked up by extra-terrestrial lifeforms and beamed right back at us. Our nameless narrator quickly makes her feelings for Johnny Rocket – Valhalla Dale’s hottest young rock star – abundantly clear: "I’m gonna make him notice me that’s for sure, ‘cuz Johnny Rocket’s got me raw". (Pretty close to the creepy words of Humbert Humbert – "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.") We hear about her repeated encounters with Rocket’s "cosmic synth kraut-a-billy group", The Moonlandingz, which soon mutate into outright stalkings, with Peake’s narrator following the group to a Liverpool club, then on to a Moonlandingz show, where she happily tells a punter she’s "really good friends" with the band.

The Moonlandingz themselves are played by the ERC and Saul Adamczewski and Lias Saoudi from Fat White Family (Lias is Johnny Rocket), and they even recorded a four track EP as the band (in the real world) released on the Fat Whites’ label to coincide with this full album. Peake reads out her emails to Rocket, deep confessionals (that occasionally verge on utterly insane) and at one point tells us of a particularly heated encounter outside a chippy where Rocket’s gone for his tea – he swiftly tells her to fuck off.

Musically, Adrian Flanagan and Dean Honer are dealing with some of the best tunes they’ve ever made here. ‘Introducing The Moonlandingz’ has a jaunty melody lifted straight from Look And Read school of murky synth wizardry. The angry meeting with Rocket on ‘You Ruined My Chippy Thursday’ has Flanagan and Honer rust up an aging pre-war big brass band sample and blur it into a slow-moving synth march. At times, it sounds akin to the likes of Pye Corner Audio and the Ghost Box Music camp, but the trippy journey the album takes, as the narrator grows increasingly disturbed, takes in a vast range of sounds. ‘I Spy On J. Rocket & Other Lame Attempts At Leaving Him Alone’ again contextualises those primary school synths with a mimicked techno beat, while several abstract instrumental interludes seem to mirror Peake’s madness, with distant mellotron flutes, or the buzzing bleeping Radiophonic synth modules of ‘Claptrap Dreams’. The ERC’s more musical moments, like Peake’s singing on the anthemic "Another Witch Is Dead" from 1612 Underture, have always been highlights, but Johnny Rocket litters grade A melodies throughout the record, weaving them with Peake’s words to awesome effect. The narrative grows to an angry climax and contemplative postscript from Johnny Rocket himself.

It’s worth quickly diverting to The Moonlandingz EP that arrives in parallel with this album. The Fat Whites’ Saul and Lias join Adrian Flanagan and Dean Honer, embodying the fictional band as filthy rockers very much in the ilk of the Fat Whites themselves (albeit with a stark injection of Sheffield synth pop goodness) and the four track EP is a total beast. ‘Sweet Saturn Mine’ (which features on the full Johnny Rocket album too, while Peake’s narrator presumably looks on adoringly) is one of the best pop songs of any kind to emerge in quite some time. It’s overly generous on melody, from the opening harpsichord tinkles, to the spacey guitar line, and contains Lias’ greatest vocal performance to date in the guise of J. Rocket himself. It’s the sort of high energy song-based music the Fat Whites have been helping to revive in their own right, except even better. When the fictional band played a real life session for Marc Riley on BBC 6 Music, you could hear Riley audibly taken aback by the group, almost disbelieving about how good they were. Here’s hoping the Moonlandingz project, basically begun as an unpredictable sidebar to the latest ERC album, continues in its own right.

With the incredible Johnny Rocket, Narcissist And Music Machine… I’m Your Biggest Fan, The Eccentronic Research Council have really entered a new phase. Sticking with a single album length narrative pays off massively, and shifting Peake from something of a third person, or at least constantly shifting character, to the razor-tongued antihero at the centre of an album length tale cements the single 45 minute suite into something best listened to in a single sitting. The ‘narrative album’ (really didn’t want to say ‘rock opera’) has had a tough few decades (the last truly notable entry to the subgenre was probably The Wall, at a push there was David Byrne’s Here Lies Love), but The ERC have revived the form, and then surpasses basically all predecessors with Johnny Rocket. Maxine Peake’s monomaniacal narrator is her greatest role – brutally funny, scarily crazy, and at times painfully real. Her obsession with Johnny Rocket, stalking him both digitally and physically, reflects our ongoing obsession with elevated figures on the other side of the screen and proscenium arch. Defining ourselves through fictions, fantasies, and people we will never truly know can be worryingly nasty business.

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