6 Questions with John Anthony Helliwell

Martin Hudson asks John Anthony Helliwell 6 Question

I’ve just been watching a concert on tv by the wonderful Sade from 2011. One thing that struck me is how she surrounded herself with superb musicians including a saxophonist that played a big part in her overall sound. The woodwind section is a side of music that many bands do not include in their make-up, sadly, as it injects so much feeling. Thankfully quintessential classic rock band Supertramp did include that in time for the iconic ‘Crime of the Century’ album in the 70s through a certain John Anthony Helliwell. What is more is that the Yorkshireman and his musical magic has remained an essential part of their sound throughout the lifetime of the band.

Not a lot has been heard of Supertramp for several years but John has kept himself busy with other work including the Crème Anglaise project and guest spots with other musicians. That woodwind sound can play a part in so many different genres of music be it out and out rock, the gentle side of classical work or complex jazz. Be it as it may John is one that adapts and his latest album, ‘Ever Open Door’, allows him to wind down a touch with a disc full of mellow laid back ballads including a couple of pieces from the heady days of Supertramp.

John Helliwell did bring his musical talent to the Classic Rock Society stage as a guest on a couple of occasions, notably with the John Young Band in 2003 where he was handing out the CRS Best of the Year awards and with tribute band The Logical Tramps in 2004. I have also had the pleasure of interviewing John on a few occasions, once at his home where his wife Christine announced that I was the only journalist he had ever allowed to interview him in their home. “I can’t think of another one since and that must be 14 years ago,” exclaimed John as we began our chat. So a conversation with the man with very healthy lungs was nothing new. On this occasion though it had to be down the telephone line as Covid 19 played a part.

So I began with asking the most common question within the 6 Questions series, how had John been spending his time this past half year?

So fortunately I’d just finished mastering my new album at the end of January, beginning of February in Italy. Mastering was in Italy in Bologna. At the beginning of April work with the Super Big Tramp Band was postponed until June or July and then we postponed it indefinitely. It’s so difficult to get nineteen people in a room again. So that happened but I had some gigs in Europe, one with Leslie Mandoki at a big festival in Hungary and that was on and on and on and then it was off. Then I had a week’s recording session with some Dutch jazz musicians in Holland but nothing in terms of gigs except now I’ve got one gig in Hull at the Truck Theatre for my ‘Ever Open Door’ album in November. So it’s not looking good for gigs. It’s lucky that I’m semi-retired. Maybe I can take the semi out of it and be retired and have done with it all but I don’t really want to stop playing.

So at the moment I get up in the morning and do the Guardian cryptic crossword then have some breakfast. I do go for a walk or ride the bike on alternate days and it was a walk today. I still like to keep fit. Then I’ll have a bit of lunch or something and aside from reading the Lee Childs novels about Jack Reacher I practice and do the odd session or two. I’ve done a couple of sessions with John Ellis and that’s just him and me and we’re both Covid free. Some people ask me to play on their recordings very occasionally and I’m doing one this week. So it’s usually that and watching a lot of television, too much really. We haven’t been out to a restaurant since the beginning of all this. We had a take away the other day. Our son Charles is very loathe to let us go to the supermarket, he’d rather go for us himself. We do miss going out for a meal and also going to the cinema and to the odd gig.

So if I had interviewed John Helliwell and had not mentioned Supertramp I may have had some complaints so I asked if he was still in touch with Rick Davies and Rodger Hodgson or any of the other fellahs? I also asked John for his favourite Supertramp album and best Supertramp moment?

I am in touch more with Bob (Siebenberg) and Dougie (Thomson). I’m in touch very occasionally with Rick and even less with Rodger. Now, Rick called me up two or three weeks ago and I was very surprised because he rarely calls. He called to congratulate me on my new album and he likes it, so we chatted. In the last years I haven’t spoken to Rick much and especially since Rick got multiple myeloma in 2015. He became ill a few months before a tour was planned and the whole tour had to be cancelled. He had to get better from that and he did but he’s not thinking about touring as far as I know now. Our last tour that we did was 2010 and 2011 and there aren’t any plans for any albums. It’s really good that we got the ‘Paris’ DVD out eventually, that was made in ’79, but it was Dougie, Bob and myself that fought for a release and we finally got one and it’s been good, people do like it.

On the subject of favourite Supertramp album I would have to boil it down between ‘Crime of the Century’ and ‘Breakfast in America’. ‘Crime’ is quite dear to my heart and especially ‘Crime of the Century’ the track because not only was it the end of the culmination of the album, it also became the culmination and end of every concert and quite a demanding solo from me at the end, so that was always special. Then there were the hits like ‘The Logical Song’ that was good for us from ‘Breakfast in America’. It’s hard to single something out but best moment, a really good moment for me with Supertramp, was on July 19th 1973 and that was when I went to my first rehearsal with them. I remember listening to them playing some numbers and being really impressed, especially with the two songwriters and listening to the track called ‘From Now On’ and that really stood out in my mind. So that was one of my best Supertramp moments. I always wonder where the years went and as you get older, and I’m seventy-five now, the passage of time seems to go quicker. So a year to me now seems much quicker than a year did forty years ago. It’s forty-seven years ago that I joined Supertramp. The seventies were really good and we were really creative and we spilled over in to the eighties which I think was a pretty dire decade for music in general. We were there though and we were fighting against punk and all that type of stuff. Then there was the nineties and I started to study music and got in to jazz more and almost stopped listening to pop music.

Musical tastes change and the first album we made without Rodger (Hodgson) was ‘Brother Where You Bound’ and all the compositions were by Rick (Davies) and I thought it was a good direction to go after ‘Crime of the Century’ and the others to get slightly serious. We were sort of overcome a bit by the eighties. We had ‘Free As A Bird’ and we ended up having a funny eighties sound that we shouldn’t have bothered with and carried on with our own sound. Then Rick started writing with Mark Hart and the band changed for the good and we went out on the road. The albums weren’t as popular as we’d had in the seventies but we still did a really good show. We had a good time and capitalised on that for a decade or two. People still want to listen to our older music today.

Then came along something I knew little about. The Super Big Tramp Band!

The Super Big Tramp Band is a concept that was started in 2013/2014. I had a call from a guy called Mike Hall who led a jazz programme at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and that’s the place I went to study at in the early nineties. He said, ‘Hey you know what we should do? We should get the big band’, because he led a big band then, ‘and we should get some of our friends to make some arrangements and do a concert of Supertramp numbers.’ I said that sounded good and so we did it. Several people did arrangements of two or three numbers each and we had a big band of students and I led it. It was all instrumental arrangements all of Supertramp tunes. It went down very well and there was another man that worked there, a professor of saxophone called Rob Buckland, he was bugging me after that about getting it together with professional musicians. Eventually then a year or two ago we did it with professional musicians and it became the Super Big Tramp Band (laughed John). We did several gigs and did one or two in Germany and then we decided that we would record and that was all stopped as I said earlier. We were supposed to record in April and it hasn’t been recorded yet but it is on the cards. There’s enough for a really good album and we’re going to go out and do gigs. Those that we’ve done have been very enjoyable and people seem to like it. It’s a new take on Supertramp tunes minus the vocals. It’s a big band in terms of four trumpets, four trombones and five saxophones and a full rhythm section and although that’s generally accepted as being a jazz band our stuff is jazzy in parts but it’s not like we’re converting everything to be-bop or something.

As John had travelled the world he has requests from musicians and bands to guest with them on their albums and his visits to the Classic Rock Society introduced him to lots of new friends and musicians that led to such requests.  Had these all been enjoyable and successful slots and were there more such slots lined up even remotely from home?

I do still get invitations and I’m doing one this week. I do remember doing something for Pineapple Thief and so it’s pretty easy in terms of doing stuff. Somebody will ask me if I’m interested and I get them to send me the track and I’ll have a listen to it. If I think I can do something worthwhile on it I get back to them and tell them I’ll record it. I don’t have a recording studio at home but my friend John Ellis has Limefield Studio just outside Manchester. I will go up to him and just spend however long it takes, it might just be half an hour, it might be an hour or two and we’ll cut the track and he’ll just send it back to them and they’ll get on with it. I did do something with Logicaltramp and there’s all sorts of people, whose names are not just coming to the front of my cerebral cortex at the moment. It’s something I do like doing and it’s just a little challenge for me just seeing what’ll happen. It’s usually begins with an email or they write to the website and I usually respond with alacrity (laughs). So if there’s anybody has anything they want me to play on run it by me and if I think I can make a decent job of something I’ll probably do it.

When I visited John’s home all those years ago I remember looking through his very large CD and vinyl collection. Had it increased or decreased over the years?

It hasn’t decreased and has only increased minutely as far as vinyl. I don’t play vinyl enough but I do play it occasionally. I’m always very pleased when I do if it’s a well pressed album and music I like. I do play CD’s and I have a couple of nice speakers that go with the computer so I have iTunes and all that and so can listen to almost anything there, but it’s not as good as listening on the proper hi-fi. I buy CD’s usually and if you buy with Amazon you get an automatic download and I’ll just stick that on my computer but then for a proper listening experience I listen to it on the hi-fi. 

Lately I’ve been playing a very good album by the saxophonist from Supertramp (laughs) called ‘Ever Open Door’ but I have been listening to an album by Brad Mehldau called ‘Finding Gabriel’. He’s a jazz pianist but this one is not particularly jazzy. I’ve been listening to Bruce Hornsby’s ‘Absolute Zero’ which is quite a nice album and I’ve been listening to the Maria Schneider Orchestra. She has a new project out called ‘Data Lords’ and that is beautiful. There’s also another album and I’m on it by a chap called Andy Ross and it’s called ‘The Fear Engine’, it’s really good. He’s a English chap that lives in Australia and he asked me two or three years ago if I’d play on one or two tracks of his and like we were saying earlier it doesn’t matter that he’s in Sydney, Australia, he might as well just be in Halifax (laughs) as we can send stuff over the Internet. His father was a hero of mine as I was growing up, he was a baritone saxophonist called Ronnie Ross. There is another good album here by Pat Metheny called ‘From This Place’ and it’s his latest. I’ve a friend of mine plays with him called Gwilym Simcock, a brilliant pianist.

And in conclusion I set a big drum roll for John to give me the story of his latest album, ‘Ever Open Door’!

Okay Martin. About three years ago a friend of mine asked me if I’d play at this little country church for his daughter’s wedding. I agreed but thought what am I going to play in a church? I thought I’d play a song called ‘Waly, Waly’ which is sometimes called The Water Is Wide. It’s a number that I recorded on my Crème Anglaise album. So I thought I’d play ‘Waly, Waly’ and then I had another chat with this friend and he said that they’d got a string quartet playing in the church too for this wedding so I thought that’s interesting. I wondered if my friend Andy Scott would be interested in writing an arrangement for the string quartet and I’d play it with them. I asked him and he did, he knocked out an arrangement for a string quartet and we did this wedding and everybody cried when I played, I played so bad (laughed John). No, it went down very well and that was the seed for this album. I thought it would be good to do something with a string quartet. So last year in July I had an offer from a friend of mine that was doing a festival of music in Chester at a place called Storyhouse, it’s a venue with a theatre and a cinema and somewhere to eat and a library, it’s really good. Anyway he asked me to go and do a gig and I asked Andy Scott if he’d do an arrangement of tunes and if it was possible to record it as well and see what might happen. Out of about twenty tunes we chose about fourteen and made arrangements of them all and this was for string quartet. In the meantime I had this bright idea to include a Hammond organ as well as the string quartet, so it became a sextet. So eventually we did a gig and then decided we’d like to record the gig and continued in to a second day because it was such a good theatre but without an audience. So we recorded the concert and then recorded the next day and out of all that came this album ‘Ever Open Door’. It was mixed last year between August and December and took so long partly because the recording engineer, Paul Allen who was mixing it as well, had to have time off to have a quadruple heart by-pass operation. He did recover and came back to finish it. Then I took it to Bologna to one of the world’s best places for mastering called Fonoprint. I mastered it there and got it all done before Covid. In the meantime when I was playing with the big band in Germany I went to see these people at a record company in Holland called Challenge Records and they agreed to put the album out. I decided to call it ‘Ever Open Door’ and that’s one of the tracks and people that listen to Supertramp may recognise that as being a Supertramp number. I actually do two Supertramp numbers on it, the other one is called ‘If Everyone Was Listening’. Andy Scott wrote a couple of numbers and one is called ‘Lord Stackhouse’ written for me because that’s one of my pseudonyms. Another that we wrote together is called ‘It Seemed That Life Was So Wonderful’ and that’s the first half of the second line of Rodger Hodgson’s song ‘The Logical Song’. We do a Peter Gabriel number called ‘Washing Of The Water’ and some sort of folk ballads and the whole album is ballads. Supertramp colleague Mark Hart also has a tune on the album called ‘Lullaby For Channing’. There’s also a few tunes by traditional (laughs), we do a few by him! You really shouldn’t play it in the car when you’re driving though – you’ll fall asleep – you should play it in your front room with a glass of port and a roaring fire. There are twelve tunes listed and then there’s two extra. I’m delighted with it and to be honest I think it’s one of the very best things I’ve ever done.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing this. John played an interesting role in Supertramp’s live shows. I was a kid when “Paris” came out, and I always (incorrectly) assumed until a few years back that it was Rick doing all the between song banter. Glad to hear Rick’s health is better. I wish he and Roger could’ve worked through their differences – I’d love a new ‘tramp album with both of them on it.

    Liked by 1 person

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