In our exclusive interview with Mark A. Johnston, we delve into his pivotal role in reviving Jimmy Campbell’s musical legacy. Mark’s efforts in the 2000s led to the release of the Rockin’ Horse, Kirkby’s, and The 23rd Turnoff compilations, not only raising Campbell’s profile but providing him financial support. Furthermore, Mark played a crucial part in re-releasing and remastering all three of Campbell’s solo albums. As part of the Ex Norwegian and Friends Sing Jimmy Campbell project, Johnston offers a fantastic rendition of “You’re Spending All My Money.” Join us as we explore Mark’s insights and his relationship with the late Liverpool unsung singer-songwriter, Jimmy Campbell.
TLAK: What was the first record that you heard from Jimmy Campbell?
Mark Johnston: The first recordings I heard from Jimmy would have been The Kirkbys’ “It’s A Crime” single from a UK comp back in the 1990’s I suppose, which I thought was great “freakbeat” record, but I had no idea about the band members at that point. I also had heard the 23rd Turnoff’s single around the same period, but I did not make the link between all these musical incarnations and Jimmy Campbell. It would be the Rockin’ Horse LP, “Yes It Is” that really put me on the trek to dig into the one main connection between all these great songs – Jimmy Campbell.
TLAK: Did the music leave an immediate impact, or did its appeal grow over time?
MJ: The Kirkbys’ single was just a fantastic 45 that captured the band in late 1966 fusing Merseybeat with a little Spencer Davis’ fuzz. I loved the single and then was just impressed when I made the connection between both The Kirkbys and the 23rd Turnoff. Keep in mind in the early 1990’s the internet was not teaming with all the minutia you can find at a simple click today. You really had to dig about.
TLAK: As someone who grew up in the United States, how much was the awareness of Jimmy’s music and bands such as the Kirkbys and the 23rd Turnoff? How did you come to discover these groups?
MJ: A close friend of mine and band manager was an avid vinyl collector and played me original 45’s. He would play me tons of rare British mod, freakbeat, psych. and U.S. garage band stuff.
TLAK: You met Jimmy Campbell in 2003. How was his vibe and what did you guys work on?
MJ: It’s a funny story as Jimmy and I never “met” in person. I was introduced to Jimmy though Billy Kinsley of The Merseybeats/Rockin’ Horse/Liverpool Echo. My relationship with Jimmy was all over transatlantic phone calls we had. I thought it was a real crime that Jim should be overlooked and I knew he could use some financial support. My goal was to try and get Jim’s music back in the ears of as many people as I could. My strategy was to get the unreleased Kirkbys’ and 23rd Turnoff material remastered and released as well as the crown jewel power pop masterpiece “Yes It Is.” I knew there was a market and I knew, eventually, more people would fall in love with his songs.
TLAK: Was Jimmy surprised at the interest in his work from (at that time) over 30 years ago?
MJ: Jim was a modest man. He loved to play golf and was totally dismissive of his own catalog. He didn’t think much of any of it really. The only song he told me that he really loved was “Baby, Walk Out With Your Darlin’ Man,” but he still was never happy with the two released versions. He was pretty critical of his work.
TLAK: Do you think he’d be happy with the release of Ex Norwegian and Friends sing Jimmy Campbell?
MJ: I am sure he would be amused that there are people from all around the globe bothering to cover his work. I know deep down that he would be proud. It’s one of the usual stories that plague a lot of lesser known artists from the 1960’s – fame and money is better appreciated when you are alive. Jim did live long enough to know of the interest in his work.
TLAK: In addition to the reissues of Rockin’ Horse and the 23rd Turnoff compilation The Dreams of Michelangelo, which The Guardian (UK) listed among 1,000 albums to hear before you die, you played a key role in the remastered re-releases of Jimmy Campbell’s three solo albums on CD (via Esoteric/Cherry Red). For many, these reissues were their first introduction to his work. Released shortly after Jimmy’s death, was he aware of their progress? Could you share more about how these projects came together?
MJ: It was sort of a natural “what do you do next” scenario for me. I honestly didn’t want to become the “Jimmy Campbell” guy, but I was approached to be involved and of course I wanted to get these important records out and remastered using the original master tapes. Even today, I can play those digitized tracks and I am still amazed at the material. Jimmy Campbell’s Album is probably the least accessible for many, yet it really holds some gems. Mike Snow really had to pull that album together to complete it. Jimmy was off golfing and spending time at the pub drinking. It’s funny, as Jim told me that was his favorite album.
TLAK: In the liner notes of those re-issues was a mention of a Jimmy Campbell tribute album. This is how we first got in touch actually, with me volunteering to help with that idea. While the project ultimately never came to be, can you tell us who was originally involved in that?
MJ: It grew out of me trying to raise money for Jim and bring more awareness through more contemporary artists renditions that might be more accessible to air play. I have some superb tracks from Joey Molland, Billy Kinsley, The Buffalo Killers, and a lot of well-known current artists who love Campbell and wanted to send me tracks. I had all the tracks. I would have liked the Black Keys to have contributed “Oh, Carol, I’m So Sad” as the Rockin’ Horse album was on constant play in their tour bus according to support act The Buffalo Killers. I was just knocked out by the UK and U.S. artists who were getting a hold of me to get on the tribute project. Jimmy passed away in the middle of it all and two labels just couldn’t get it together to get it out. I got busy and just shelved it. The current tribute is an interesting twist with Ex Norwegian covering the tracks with “friends.” There is a certain sonic consistency in that approach that hasn’t been done that much that I am aware. The covers are powerful and sound new. Hopefully that approach will being some airplay and even more attention to Jimmy’s music.
TLAK: What do you think the future holds for Jimmy’s music?
MJ: Classics never go away; they just keep reinventing themselves. Someone out there will go dig up the Rockin’ Horse album and be knocked out and their musical journey will begin again. I plan to produce and direct a documentary about Jimmy and I think the video part of his story will complement the musical story. Jimmy was a complex guy who loved John Lennon. Lennon once walked into the Blue Angel as Campbell was screaming out “Twist & Shout.” Lennon walked through the parted crowd to the front of the stage and stared Campbell down and then turned and left. How bizarre is that? Jimmy was a huge Beatle fan, but he also loved Johnny Cash, The Band, etc. His mum, Anastasia, tragically died in 1969 and that had a huge impact on him. I am not sure he never really recovered from the circumstances of her death. Of course his debut album is named in her honor.
Special thanks to Mark for his time and answering our questions and, of course, keeping Jimmy’s legacy alive.