The trickiest thing about a biography is to decide exactly where to begin. When it comes to someone's life and career, can we point to one event and say, "this is where it all began"? There are dozens of ways to start this particular one. We could write about that day in 1973 when young John Parish, 14 at the time, saw his first concert ever in Bristol, David Bowie on the Aladdin Sane tour, and decided that this was what he wanted to do (actually, he got to perform himself in the same venue 25 years later, during a PJ Harvey tour). Or we could tell how John recorded his first EP with new wave band Thieves Like Us in May 1980. But perhaps the most convenient way to start would be to go back to 1983, in a record store set in Yeovil, Somerset, where a young man named Robert Ellis was working.
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So our story begins on the day when Rob Ellis recognized a customer as the only person in Yeovil involved in a record-making band: John Parish, also known as Scott Tracey, who drummed for Thieves Like Us at the time. John and Rob became friends and decided to form a band together when Thieves Like Us folded. They were joined by bass player David Dallimore, and so the Headless Horsemen were born. A Glimpse Of Heaven was the only song they ever released on a record: it appeared on The Sheep Worrying EP, a split EP involving four different bands (you can admire the sleeve in our discography section). They also contributed one song to an album called Magical Mystery Sheep. In 1983, Jamie Anderson replaced David Dallimore and Headless Horsemen mutated into Automatic Dlamini, an experimental percussive band which was to last until 1992.
Before moving on to the long and somewhat complex Automatic Dlamini story (due to many changes in the band's line-up), just a few words about the name, which is about as strange as the story itself. A friend of John's used to work in Swaziland, where Dlamini is quite a common surname. He knew a person whose parents, wishing to give him an English name, had ended up calling him... Automatic. So his name was actually Automatic Dlamini. When life gets as twisted as fiction itself...
The three-piece band started doing shows around the West Country. In August 1983 they went into the studio with producer Richard Mazda (Wall of Voodoo, Birthday Party, The Fall) who had heard an early demo tape. But it was not until in 1986 that the first Automatic Dlamini record was released: The Crazy Supper EP, which was voted single of the week in Sounds. Around this time, John was asked by his friends The Chesterfields to produce their first single. So began his parallel career as a producer, leading him to work with bands such as The Becketts, The Brilliant Corners, Basinger and Grape - mostly because, he says, he was the only person in the area who had already produced records.
The band was soon joined by Giles Smith from Cleaners From Venus on keyboards, guitar and backing vocals. Shortly after this, at the beginning of 1987, Rob Ellis was taken ill and retired from the band for six months, to be replaced by Andy Henderson. It was around this time that Automatic Dlamini did their first concerts abroad and made an appearance on the second stage at the Glastonbury Festival.
The first major change in the band's line-up occurred in July 1987 as Giles Smith left and Rob Ellis returned, joined by new members Ian Olliver and Jeremy Hogg. A few months later, Automatic Dlamini released their debut album The D Is For Drum. Their single Johnny Pineapple was supposed to be released in May 1988 on Roustabout through Red Rhino, but unfortunately Red Rhino collapsed while the band was waiting for the test pressing. So the single was never released and this first version of Johnny Pineapple was lost. During the summer of 1987, Jeremy Hogg met a young girl named Polly Harvey at a party in Dorset. Polly asked the band to play at her 18th birthday party in October the same year, but they couldn't perform because Rob Ellis was ill. Still, the others went to the party and became friends with Polly, who had her own two-piece band at the time and started giving tapes of her songs to John. In 1988 Rob Ellis left the band and was replaced again by Andy Henderson while Polly Harvey joined the band on guitar, saxophone and backing vocals. Andy Henderson (who later joined Echobelly) and Ian Olliver were next to leave.
More changes in the band's line-up soon followed, but the central core of John Parish, Jeremy Hogg and Polly Harvey remained until 1991. In 1988 Automatic Dlamini were joined by Jerome Ball on bass synth and drum machines to do a few shows in Berlin and Warsaw. He was soon followed by Ben Groenevelt (bass) and Ichiro Tatsuhara (drums). The band did a five-week tour of Europe in June and July 1989 and met with a few problems when Ichiro Tatsuhara was refused re-entry into Britain after the end of the tour. It took three months before the whole thing was sorted out. In the meantime the band started working on their second album. Here Catch, Shouted His Father was recorded in Oxford between November 1989 and January 1990. The sessions included a new version of Johnny Pineapple with vocals by John and Polly. The record was never to be released but has been much bootlegged since.
In January 1991, Polly decided to form her own band PJ Harvey with Rob Ellis and Ian Olliver (later replaced by Steve Vaughan). Around the same time John joined The Ensenada Joyride for a few shows and recording sessions. The last Automatic Dlamini album, From A Diva To A Diver, was recorded at the end of 1991 in Yeovil's Icehouse studio. On New Year's Eve, Gillingham saw the one and only appearance of FABBA, featuring Grape member Mark Barber, Bastie (legendary West Country soundman), John Parish and Polly Harvey. The set consisted entirely of ABBA covers. The following New Year's Eve the same line-up reconvened joined by Jeremy Hogg, Clare McTaggart and Mark Hodgson to play a set of Hot Chocolate covers under the moniker Got Chocolate. Automatic Dlamini split in 1992 after releasing their second album. John spent some time writing music for a couple of shows and producing records. One of these albums was Myth by The Becketts, which he still quotes as one of his favourite records among those he has produced. He also worked at Yeovil College as a lecturer in Performing Arts, specialising in Rock Music & Recording Techniques.
However, his path was to cross Polly Harvey's again in 1994. Many things had changed for her in the meantime, due to the success of her first two albums (Dry and Rid Of Me). She had just parted from Rob Ellis and Steve Vaughan and was about to record her third album. Polly didn't want to work again with Rid Of Me-producer Steve Albini since she felt that her next album needed a different kind of production. This time she asked John and producer Flood to help her. So they ended up producing the album together. John also played on all ten songs (guitar, drums, percussions and organ). To Bring You My Love was released in 1995 and immediately recognized by the press as a remarkable record; several magazines (including Rolling Stone) even voted it Album of the Year.
John spent the next year touring the world with Polly and her new band. It was during this tour that they started working on their next common project. After hearing instrumentals composed by John for a college touring theatre production, Polly expressed the wish to add vocals to these tracks. This collaboration was to be completely different from their previous ones: John wrote and performed the music while Polly did the lyrics and vocals. They went to the studio after the end of the tour, in 1996, to record nine songs and two instrumentals. They were backed by producer Head, who had already worked on Dry. Mick Harvey from the Bad Seeds joined them for the second time (he collaborated on To Bring You My Love) to record a cover of Leiber and Stoller's Is That All There Is? originally performed by Peggy Lee.
Dance Hall At Louse Point was released in September 1996, followed by one single, That Was My Veil (John and Polly both appeared in the lovely video shot by Maria Mochnacz). Heela was released as a promo CD only and a rarely seen video was made for Is That All There Is?, featured in the movie Basquiat. Dance Hall At Louse Point seemed to puzzle the press and the audience at first but it soon gained many hard-core supporters. The album, which combines the best of John and Polly's respective talents, is both experimental and very emotional. They did very few shows to promote this record, apart from a few TV appearances. One concert took place at the London Astoria while four small club shows were organized in John's hometown of Bristol (Fleece & Firkin), with dEUS as the opening act. The band included former Automatic Dlamini members Rob Ellis and Jeremy Hogg, plus Eric Drew Feldman (Captain Beefheart, Pere Ubu, Pixies) who had already taken part in the 1995 tour. Mick Harvey joined them for the encores on October 9th to perform three songs including two by Serge Gainsbourg (Harley Davidson in French, Bonnie & Clyde in English). John and Polly also collaborated with the Mark Bruce Company to prepare a dance show based on Dance Hall At Louse Point, featuring the aforementioned band and five dancers. The show was premiered in Nottingham on 25th January 1997. Twelve other dates followed in Manchester (2), London (4), Sheffield (2), Newcastle (3) and Oxford. Two further performances were given in July '97 at the Salzburg Festival in Austria.
During the next couple of years John was involved in a number of records as a performer or producer. He joined Rob Ellis and his band Spleen to record their debut album Soundtrack To Spleen. John played the guitar and percussion on four songs, which he also co-wrote together with Spleen members(Watermelon, Vulpine, Black Bullet Fiesta, 3Ft Shy From Yesterday). He also got to produce an LP for a band from Yeovil, Elliot Green (United States, co-produced by Head), and worked with Irish band The Harvest Ministers, producing their album Orbit for Setanta Records. One of John's most remarkable contributions at this time was his collaboration with American band Sixteen Horsepower, who sent him a copy of their first album Sackcloth'N Ashes. He went to see them live, met David Eugene Edwards and his band and accepted to produce their second (and excellent) album Low Estate, occasionally playing on a few tracks (percussion, guitar, organ and xylophone). The album was recorded and mixed in the USA (Louisiana, Tennessee). Another Spleen record followed in 1997, entitled Little Scratches.
The recording of the next PJ Harvey album was spread over a year, between April '97 and April '98. This time John left the production work to Flood, Head and Polly and contributed mainly as a musician. Most of the people involved on this record were regular PJ Harvey collaborators or close friends, people such as Joe Gore (who had already worked on To Bring You My Love), Mick Harvey and Spleen member Terry Edwards as well as the usual Parish/Ellis/Hogg/Feldman team. Is This Desire? proved once again an outstanding record, a brilliant attempt to explore paths which Polly Harvey and her musicians had never trodden before. The band started touring during the summer of 1998 with a series of European festivals, followed by a few isolated shows (a Peel Session for Radio One, a Black Session for the French radio, other showcases and TV appearances - including Top Of The Pops). The tour continued in October with American shows and concluded in the UK in December. The set included a number of songs from Dance Hall At Louse Point, which integrated naturally with the PJ Harvey material: Rope Bridge Crossing, City Of No Sun, Civil War Correspondent, Heela and especially Taut, spookier than ever, which quickly became one of the audience's live favourites.
1998 also saw the recording of John's first real solo album, which was actually a film soundtrack. While he was in Tucson, Arizona to produce an album for Giant Sand (John has often expressed his admiration for Howe Gelb and his band), a young Flemish director named Patrice Toye contacted John's record company, Island, in the hope that he would agree to write some music for her first film Rosie. Patrice Toye used to listen to Dance Hall At Louse Point while she was writing her script and thought that this kind of music would suit the film perfectly. Thus she found it natural to ask John himself instead of having some other composer trying to imitate his style. John had already expressed his interest in film soundtracks, music which is not aimed at being played by a pop or rock band, but had never actually composed one. What made this experience so special was the fact that Rosie was in Flemish, which he could not understand, so he focused on the images and feelings to write the music. The soundtrack CD, released on Swarf Finger, contains twelve instrumentals and one song, Pretty Baby, performed by Alison Goldfrapp. The music could be described as subtle and atmospheric and works perfectly by itself without the images. It has that particular quality which makes the difference between an ordinary soundtrack and a very good one: the ability to suggest strong feelings to people who have never seen the film.
Following the release of the film in Belgium, four live performances of the soundtrack were organised in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Bruges and Portsmouth in January 1999. The shows included projections of extracts from the film repeated again and again while the band played, creating a mesmerizing effect. John was backed by Rob Ellis, Jeremy Hogg and Eric Drew Feldman as well as Alison Goldfrapp, Mauro Pawlowski from Evil Superstars (who wrote the lyrics to Pretty Baby) and Clare MacTaggart, who once played with Automatic Dlamini. Other familiar names such as Head or photographer/video director Maria Mochnacz took part in the preparation of the shows.
Shortly after this, John and Polly performed a show for Radio One on the occasion of John Peel's sixtieth birthday. The programme took place on April 1st in London (Improv Theatre) and also included Echo & The Bunnymen. The set consisted mainly of PJ Harvey oldies played with drums and guitars only. Then John spent some time in Barcelona to produce an album for Pat McDonald. On his way back to England, he stopped in Bonn to pick an award he received for the Rosie soundtrack.
And this is where our story will have to end, because this is as far as we can go now. But we promise to keep you updated regularly thanks to John's collaboration. All you have to do is check our news page. As for what will happen next, only time will tell. But we can bet that many years of good music lie ahead of us. And that is all we really need to know.
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