Chris Townson: Drummer with John's Children

Wednesday 27 February 2008 01:00
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Although the group John's Children lasted for barely 18 months during 1966 and 1967 and issued only five singles, they have acquired a cult status which is due not just to the fact that Marc Bolan spent a few months in their ranks on his way to becoming a star with T. Rex. Rather, John's Children – named after their bass player John Hewlett, with the singer Andy Ellison and his partner-in-crime Chris Townson on drums completing the line-up – infused their live performances with raw energy and power chords worthy of The Who.

Indeed, in 1967, they upstaged their Track Records label-mates on a tour of Germany, causing a riot at Ludwigshafen. On a few occasions, Chris Townson stood in for The Who's drummer Keith Moon when, as John's Children's manager Simon Napier-Bell recalled, "Keith broke both legs being thrown downstairs trying to gatecrash a party. Without rehearsal, Chris joined The Who for the last five days of the tour and played so perfectly most of the audience didn't realise it wasn't Keith."

Born in 1947, Chris Townson was brought up in care and foster homes in and around London. In 1958, he was sent by London County Council to Stoatley Rough School in Haslemere, Surrey, and spent two years there. He considered the school his home and its liberal principles undoubtedly shaped his decision to work with troubled youngsters himself later in life.

Townson met Andy Ellison at Box Hill, a boarding school they both attended in the early 1960s. More than the advent of Beatlemania, it was the rhythm'n'blues of the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and The Who which shaped their consciousness. "I saw The Who and that was it, it was this that I wanted to do!" Townson told Shindig magazine later. In 1965, he and Ellison formed their first band, the Clockwork Onions, soon changing their name to The Few and then The Silence.

Townson met the Yardbirds' manager Simon Napier-Bell in Saint Tropez, and convinced him to come and see The Silence. Although Napier-Bell thought they were dreadful, he fell in love with them, too; he renamed the group John's Children and encouraged them to behave as outrageously as possible in order to make headlines. He also co-wrote their first single, "The Love I Thought I'd Found", issued in 1966, which made the lower reaches of the US charts the following year under the title "Smashed Blocked".

In March 1967, Bolan, another of Napier-Bell's clients, replaced the group's original guitarist and John's Children signed to Track Records. The BBC took umbrage at Bolan's lyrics on the single "Desdemona" (the offending phrase was "Lift up your skirt and fly") and promptly banned it. On stage, the group would stamp on flowers, tear up pillows and throw the feathers around, trash their instruments, fight each other, and generally whip the audience into a frenzy. "We were prepared to do anything," said Townson. "In the end, the sheer anarchy became quite valid. It was theatre, it was deconstruction . . . John's Children were like an unharnessed neurotic energy with some psychopathic and mental overtones."

Following their riotous tour of Germany with The Who in 1967 and an appearance that April at The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream "happening" at Alexandra Palace in London, Bolan left the group. The next single, which he had written, "Midsummer Night's Scene", was withdrawn. John's Children released two more singles in 1967 – an attempt to cash in on flower power called "Come and Play with Me in the Garden" and the freakbeat of "Go Go Girl" – then broke up after playing the Star-Club in Hamburg.

Their début album, controversially entitled Orgasm, had already been pulled after attracting the wrath of a pressure group called the Daughters of the American Revolution and was only issued in the US in 1970 (it eventually got a UK release in 1982 as The Legendary Orgasm Album on Cherry Red Records).

After Bolan's departure, Townson had switched to guitar, but he went back behind the drumkit with his next band, The Jook. In 1974, Townson and Ellison reunited to form Jet with Martin Gordon and Peter Oxendale, formerly of Sparks, and Davy O'List of Roxy Music; they were billed as "the first glam supergroup" and signed to CBS, although they failed to break through to the mainstream.

In 1976, Townson, Ellison and Gordon recorded a punky song called "Dirty Pictures", which became their début release as Radio Stars the following year. Radio Stars finally made the Top 40 with "Nervous Wreck" in 1978 but by then Townson had quit. He later trained as a social worker and worked with the children's charity NCH.

Nicknamed "Bomber" because of his interests in the RAF and the Second World War, though his drumming style and japes in Germany might also have had something to do with it, Townson was a witty cartoonist and sketch artist, often drawing caricatures of friends and colleagues.

In the 1990s, John's Children began playing the occasional tour and in 2006 they recorded "Come On England" to coincide with the World Cup.

Pierre Perrone

Chris Townson, drummer, guitarist and social worker: born London 24 July 1947; married (one son, four daughters); died London 10 February 2008.

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