On Tour with Britain's Biggest Narcissist... Johnny Rocket!
We followed a ramshackle supergroup comprised of Fat White Family, Slow Club, and The ERC on a sniff and cider-fuelled tour across Northern England.
After stripping to his underpants and urinating in the dressing room bin, the transformation begins: a hearty glug of Buckfast, a bump of ketamine, the adorning of a shiny silver codpiece, the lard as hair gel run thick through his greasy locks, and the deep-red lipstick smeared on as face paint. With the final light of a rolled-up cigarette, Johnny Rocket is ready.
When he's not caked in make-up as the lead singer of semi-fictional The Moonlandingz, Johnny Rocket is Lias Saoudi, the lead singer of Fat White Family. His FWF band mate, Saul Adamczewski, is also a sometime member of The Moonlandingz, which has been created from the minds of Adrian Flanagan and Dean Honer (chief members of The Eccentronic Research Council). Once a fictional band written into one of The ERC's concept albums – the incredible Johnny Rocket, Narcissist & Music Machine… I'm Your Biggest Fan – The Moonlandingz are now a living, breathing, sweating organism. Their forthcoming debut record is set to feature an appearance from Yoko Ono, but for now they're on tour. And they've allowed me to tag along.
It all starts as it always does: in the cramped back room of a working men's club in Sheffield. The room fills with smoke from endless roll-ups, corks roll along the floor from freshly plucked wine bottles, the rider is picked at, and Rebecca Taylor (co-singer in the band and also in Slow Club) does her best impression of a surly but charming Northern bar lady as she serves out drinks to everyone, presenting me with a can of Red Stripe like it were an OBE.
Saoudi shakes off a piss in the dustbin, then turns and applies make-up in a steamy mirror with one hand, taking healthy swigs of booze with the other. With added help, his eyebrows are painted a thick black with mascara, and then a "J" and "R" are smudged upon each cheek with lipstick. Finally, he stuffs ham into his codpiece and draws a line of inverted swastikas on his chest, running down his torso. I enquire about the meaning. "The inverted swastika tie was a dyslexic creation of Saul," says Saoudi, referring to his band mate who is absent during the first part of the tour but will join them later on in London, "I wear it to remind me of our time together when he is absent."
Watching a man stuff sandwich meat down his pants may have an air of the novelty about it, but as soon as The Moonlandingz hit the stage any sense of comedy is obliterated. Creating a weird vortex of energy alongside Saoudi, Flanagan, Honer and Taylor is Mairead O'Conner on guitar, Richy Rich on drums and Lee Manfredo (a moustachioed, cowboy-booted bass player who travelled in directly from the set of Boogie Nights for this tour). They are a genuinely odd concoction of people who don't seem like they should ever be in the same room as each other; which also makes them one of the best live bands I've seen in recent times.
Booze flies through air, bodies collide and smash, sweat drips from the ceiling and Saoudi and Taylor combine to form a screeching duo, regularly wrapping themselves around one another in a sweaty provocative embrace. At one point, Saoudi showers the audience in Buckfast and tongues outstretch to lap it up like horses being offered a polos. Soon after, he reaches into his grotty codpiece, pulls out some ham and crumbles it into the audience. As Saoudi feeds the ham to a voracious young man in the front row, in this sweaty working mens club, it's strange to think he was performing with Fat Whites to 5,000 people at Brixton Academy last month.
Heading backstage for the usual round of post-show congratulations, not everyone is happy with how it went. Honer sits quietly, retaining the aura of a silent and reflective synth wizard to the countering Flanagan, who begins chastising some of the group in a Mark E Smith-like manner. "You were out of tune, that was shit," he shouts. An argument erupts, primarily between Flanagan and Saoudi. As I sit locked in between the middle of the exchange, sheepishly sipping a beer, it's unclear if this is actually real, or just staged, perhaps as an extended part of the narrative concept of the group's existence. Either way, a weird air hangs in the dressing room as everyone soon goes their separate ways home, leaving a trail of trash and sticky booze in their trail.
The next day over a fried breakfast and lager shandy, Flanagan pulls out his wallet and shows me the business card of Randy from The Village People. Why does he have the business card of Randy from The Village People? It looks like a card one might find in a 1970s New York phone box, with Randy posing fiercely in a cowboy hat. Apparently, The Village People man has contributed to the band's forthcoming album (done with Sean Lennon in NYC) on a track called "Glory Hole". I recall seeing the song performed live the night before; it sounded like a lost Cramps number dragged through a swamp and sprinkled with a coating of prime-era glam.
Once loaded into the tour van, any arguments seem already forgotten as we travel to Liverpool for the next show: the International Festival of Psychedelia. The chaos of the previous night has mellowed into a subdued mood and for the majority of the journey everyone plugs in headphones and drifts in and out of sleep, gazing out of the window in silence as the countryside flickers past. The only movement comes when Taylor whips out a snakeskin shirt from her bag, examines it, and declares: "It's revolting… It's perfect."
We arrive in Liverpool, and Saoudi hasn't even had a chance to order his first drink before being hounded for selfies, something which – along with regular offers of free drugs – carries through the day and into the night. It's difficult to gauge whether he actually likes the attention, or whether the fictional character of Johnny Rocket he is playing likes the attention, but any slight air of exhaustion around it is always overshadowed by graciousness as he accepts and allows stranger after stranger to wrap their arms around him.
Over a pre-gig cider, I catch a moment to talk to Flanagan about the intention behind creating The Moonlandingz. As we sit in a tent, chatting to the backdrop of a man playing what sounds like funeral parlour music on an organ, I ask him if the band are supposed to be some satirical antidote to the production line of the music industry?
"I don't care about other bands, other bands are nothing to me," he says with an indignant smirk. "The music world is filled with cretins and half-wit goons. I have nothing but utter contempt towards other musicians. I'd rather lie naked in a working abattoir being trampled by frightened livestock than spend a minute in the company of a member of The 1975 or, say, Blossoms."
Saoudi soon joins in too: "I fucking hate the industry, man. I hate it." He goes on to reel off horror stories of terrible managers, robbing accountants and junkie label bosses. While each member of the band are still inescapably chained to elements of the industry (by the very nature of playing festivals and putting out records), it seems like the creation of the Moonlandingz project is an attempt to exist outside of this world, to create their own narrative, their own image, and their own twisted identity. A project beyond rules and norms.
Tonight, the band are playing in the main room. In a time where psychedelia for some bands is simply owning a Brian Jonestown Massacre record, popping on a black turtle neck shirt and smacking a wah-wah peddle, The Moonlandingz display all the best traits of the genre in that their performance feels transformative and enrapturing. They exist to transport to another world and another headspace. They are both a tonic and a drug rolled into one. Again, the performance is a knock-out.
This time the band agrees. The crowd agree too. One man stops Saoudi and, for all it's worth, says, "You're the most charismatic man on stage since Peter Gabriel." We pile into a makeshift backstage room that also appears to be the staff dressing room. As we get in, Saoudi sits crumpled, a pile of skin and sweat, with the red lipstick smudged into a blur from all the crowd's groping hands. Then, he tucks into a celebratory bump or two.
"No ham in the codpiece tonight?" I ask him, "Well they didn't fucking provide any, did they?" he says indignantly, "I'm not paying for my own ham." He cools off and I ask him something a little more earnest: Given Johnny Rocket is the creation of an album that explores narcissism, what role does it play in his life as a front man?
"Its very difficult for me to answer this question from where I currently stand," he says. "Which is in a quagmire of anxiety, money issues and wretched self-concern. All I can really say is that any success in this particular role will probably lead you to discover even more severe cases of narcissism, especially if you hang around Los Angeles for more than 30 seconds."
Not much sense there, but it's clear Saoudi's role of Johnny Rocket is one he's relishing in. He goes on to talk about how touring with the Fat Whites is "total carnage" (Flanagan jokes that Moonlandingz tours are like a detox for Saoudi) and how extended tours often leave him in states of exhaustion and ill-health so severe his sweat "turned black on one occasion" as he lay shivering in bed.
There's a pained and exhausted expression to his face as we talk about all this. Saoudi strikes me as a man who needs a break. He tells me he is gearing up to spend two months in Cambodia to retreat from life on the road and the industry he so clearly despises. He'll be back though. Plans are already in place for the future of The Moonlandingz, which, between this and Fat White Family, might bizarrely be the more sustainable and manageable of the two at the moment. In any other situation, I'd probably feel quite concerned for his wellbeing, but shrouded in the veil of fiction that is The Moonlandingz, it's hard to tell what's real and what is just part of the act. Maybe that fictive layer is a protective one, maybe it's all just a laugh.
We all pile into the van and the mania from the couple of days begins to subside as we travel back to Sheffield in a haze of diazepam languor. We arrive in the dead of the night where the only lights on are those of the brothel next door to the band's studio. I say goodbye as the band rest-up before the next leg of their tour in Glasgow, where they have requested 16 bottles of Buckfast for their rider.
The next day, I get back in touch with Flanagan to catch up and ask how much of what I saw was real, and how much of it was fictionalised for my entertainment? "Everything you saw or heard in our presence was heavily scripted. I even wrote in the band's contract that all live members must wear headphones for the duration of the trip and not engage with the journalist or be fined £5 per sentence. Currently, our bass player, Lee, owes us near on £75, if anyone else spoke to you I'll be docking their wages and reporting them to the actors guild."
You can find Daniel Dylan Wray on Twitter.
All photos by Natasha Bright and Daniel Dylan Wray.
- Fat White Family
- Glam Rock
- Lias Saoudi
- The Moonlandingz
- johnny rocket
- the north