John Hawken

Originally called Burrys Field in 1926, Fishers Airfield by 1930, Shamrock and Rambler Air Station for two years in the mid-thirties and then Bournemouth Airport, the aerodrome at Somerford became Christchurch Airfield when the new Bournemouth airport was built approximately six miles west, close to the village of Hurn in 1941. The year before that, in April 1940, it was taken over by 22 Group RAF who enlisted the services of Special Duties Flight to take part in experiments with Radar built at the Air Defence Research and Devolvement Establishment, commonly known as ADRDE. It was most probably for this reason that a serviceman in the RAF, a Mr Hawken and his heavily pregnant wife Dorothy, were posted to the Christchurch area as part of the war effort. While Mr Hawken was doing his bit for King and country, Dorothy gave birth to John Christopher Hawken on 9th May 1940 at Christchurch General Hospital. By 1945 the Hawken’s had been posted to Cornwall, after stints in Scotland and London, but returned to their family home in Englefield Green, Surrey at the end of the war. His birth is the only connection John Hawken has to the Bournemouth area and like Don Partridge, Peter Bellamy and Darrell Sweet, he moved away when he was very young but, however tenuous the link, this is his story.

Back home in Surrey, the Hawkens adjusted to civilian life and John’s mother, an accomplished pianist, arranged piano lessons for her son when he reached the tender age of five. He studied the classics into his early teens, but then his head was turned by the keyboard antics of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry’s pianist, Johnny Johnson. After a brief and unsuccessful dalliance with a Hoffner Club 50 guitar on the back of the skiffle craze, John reverted to his favoured instrument the piano, after it dawned on him that was where his talent lie.

By 1960 John was living in Weybridge, where he joined drummer Dave Maine, bassist Pete Shannon and guitarist Mick Dunford in The Cruisers Rock Combo, a septet built around the three-pronged vocal attack of Tony Gallagher, Kenny King and Chris Wing. The group regularly appeared at the same pubs and clubs in the Addlestone area as a rival outfit called The Nashville Teens. In 1962 the Cruisers lost two of their singers, King and Wing and the Nashville Teens split asunder, leaving two of their vocalists, Ramon Phillips and Arthur Sharp, free to merge with the Cruisers, thus becoming the new Nashville Teens. Over the coming months Roger Groome replaced drummer Dave Maine, John Allen came in on guitar for the departing Mick Dunford, and Terry Crowe replaced original vocalist Tony Gallagher. In 1963 the group turned professional and made the trip that befell many an English beat group in the early sixties, an expedition to the fleshpots of Hamburg. During their residency at the Star Club, the Teens made their recording debut backing Jerry Lee Lewis on his Jerry Lee Lewis Live at the Star Club Hamburg album, a searing blast of raw rock ‘n’ roll that some critics believe is one of the best records of its type ever committed to vinyl. Unfortunately, because of ‘The Killer’ being a more than adequate ivory tickler, John’s skills were surplus to requirements. A couple of months later he finally got the chance to commit some fine rollicking piano accompaniment to disc, when the group backed Carl Perkins on his single, “Big Bad Blues”.

John Hawken The Nashville Teens
The Nashville Teens circa 1964, Left to Right: John Hawken, John Allen, Arthur Sharp, Pete Shannon, Barry Jenkins & Ray Phillips in front

After several fruitless months attempting to entertain drunken sailors, hookers, pimps and gangsters in the bierkeller’s of Germany, their contract ended, and the group returned home. For some, the stresses encountered on the road became too much to bear and Barry Jenkins replaced Roger Groome on drums and vocalist Terry Crowe departed, leaving the line-up that manager Don Arden signed after he scouted them at the Kingston Jazz Cellar as a backing band for a forth coming Chuck Berry tour. Arden introduced the group to producer Mickie Most and the Decca label, where they struck gold with their debut single, a souped-up version of John D. Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road”. The single reached number six in the UK and climbed to number fourteen on the American Billboard Hot One Hundred. Four months later they repeated the formula with another Loudermilk original, “Google Eye”, and hit the UK number ten spot. The B side, “T.N.T.”, was John’s first composition to make it onto vinyl, although Decca cocked up his fifteen minutes of fame by misprinting his name as John Hawkins. Chart success brought them prominent billing on several package tours with the likes of Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent and Bill Hayley and his Comets, plus the English Beat Boomers Manfred Mann, The Yardbirds, The Animals and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas.

The Nashville Teens Murray the K 1964
The queue waiting to see ‘Murray the K’s Big Holiday Show’ in 1964

On the back of the success drummed up by “Tobacco Road” in America, the group flew to New York in December 1964 to star in ‘Murray the K’s Big Holiday Show’ at the Fox Theater in Brooklyn. The time spent in Germany grinding out six sets a night to disinterested punters proved to be a useful training ground for the month long, six shows a day, seven days a week treadmill they found themselves on. The rest of the hard worked bill included fellow Brits The Zombies and The Hullabaloos, plus an American contingent including Ben E. King, The Shirelles, The Drifters and the Shangri-Las. To coincide with their visit, London Records cobbled together an American only album, Tobacco Road, featuring their two hits, the contents of a UK only self-titled EP, plus half a dozen previously unreleased covers including “La Bamba”, Mose Allison’s “Parchment Farm” and Bo Diddley’s “Mona”.

Several groups had walk-on parts in trashy, low budget cash in movies during the sixties, but The Nashville Teens outdid them all by featuring in three. The first, Gonks Go Beat in 1964, was a ridiculous science fiction / fantasy musical based loosely on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette. The ludicrous plot involves an alien from the planet Gonk arriving on Earth to broker peace between a community of rock ‘n’ rollers living in Beatland and a bunch of squares who resided on Ballad Isle. Starring Kenneth Connor, Terry Scott, Frank Thornton and Arthur Mullard, the music was supplied by the incongruous Graham Bond Organisation featuring Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and Dick Heckstall-Smith, Lulu and the Luvvers and the Teens singing “Poor Boy”. Next up was a cameo in director Lance Comfort’s 1965 opus Be My Guest, a sequel to 1963’s Live It Up. The first film starred David Hemmings, Heinz Burt, Steve Marriott and John Pike as members of the struggling pop group The Smart Alecs, with music supplied by several Joe Meek artists including The Outlaws, Sounds Incorporated, Patsy Ann Noble, Andy Cavell and The Saints, plus the rock ‘n’ roller Gene Vincent. Be My Guest updates The Smart Alecs story by relocating them from inner London to the seaside town of Brighton. The American producer Shel Talmy took over Meek’s role as musical director and produced segments for Jerry Lee Lewis, The Plebs, The Zephyrs, The Nightshades and the Teens performing “Whatcha Gonna Do”, the B side of their fourth single “The Little Bird”. To complete the trilogy, the group performed “Tobacco Road” and “Google Eye” in 1965s’ Pop Gear, or Go Go Mania as it was known Stateside, a collection of cobbled together film sequences of so called ‘British Invasion Groups’ including The Beatles, The Animals, The Spencer Davis Group, Herman’s Hermits and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, amongst others.

By 1968 the hits had well and truly dried up, probably because of the dearth of original material and the ever-changing musical landscape. For their eleventh single, the group issued a reasonable rendition of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, which proved to be the last recorded contribution from John. The Nashville Teens kept going for a further five years on the chicken in a basket circuit but finally hit the buffers in 1973, although original member, Ray Phillips, resurrected the group in 1980 and still fronts a version to this day. One gig caught my eye while browsing their website, Saturday 3rd June 2017, ‘World Sausage Tossing Championship’ in Chipping Buntingford, a far cry from the 30,000 excited fans that crammed into a stadium in Budapest to see the band back in the sixties.

Many stories have been written about the Nashville Teens colourful manager Don Arden over the years. How he pocketed most of the money belonging to The Small Faces, the time he stubbed a lighted cigar out on the forehead of Clifford Davis after he tried to poach The Move and the infamous incident where he hung his rival, Robert Stigwood, off a fourth-floor balcony by his legs for daring to lure away The Small Faces. John Hawken went through a similar ordeal to Stigwood and lived to tell the tale. John had gone to Arden’s office in Carnaby Street to collect a cheque for twelve hundred pounds, but noticed the amount written on the cheque was for a much less hundred and twenty and tossed it back in disgust. Before he could draw breath, the burly impresario jumped up from his desk, grabbed John by the throat, edged him towards an open window and thrust him half way out while screaming “You’re going down John”. After Arden had regained his composure, he hauled the relieved pianist back in. A shaken Hawken grabbed the cheque, made his excuses and beat a hasty retreat, thankful for the miserly hundred and twenty quid and his life.

John Hawken Renaissance
Renaissance in 1969, Left to Right: Keith Relf, John Hawken standing, Louis Cennamo, Jim McCarty & Jane Relf in front

In July 1968 The Yardbirds played their final gig at the Luton College of Technology with Jimmy Page on guitar, Jim McCarty on drums, bassist Chris Dreja and vocalist Keith Relf. Page then formed the New Yardbirds with Robert Plant, John Paul-Jones and John Bonham before they morphed into the all-conquering Led Zeppelin. Chris Dreja left the music business to become a photographer and Relf and McCarty pursued their newfound interest in a classical / folk rock hybrid with ex Herd bass player Louis Cennamo, pedal steel guitarist B. J. Cole and John on keys. They lost Cole early on but gained a vocalist in Jane Relf, Keith’s sister. The newly christened Renaissance rehearsed at McCarty’s home in East Molesey near Richmond upon Thames and made a nervy live debut at the tiny Fishmongers Arms in Wood Green, North London. A string of low key dates during the spring of 1969 helped the band hone their repertoire and prepare them for extensive tours of mainland Europe and the United States. Former Yardbird, Paul Samwell-Smith, produced their self-titled debut album of five lengthy tracks, including the ambitious, eleven minute “Kings and Queens”, the folky “Island”, with an intro borrowed from Beethoven’s “Sonata Pathetique No. 8” and the heavier, trippy blues vibe of “Bullet”. Disc & Music Echo highlighted John’s contribution in a glowing review, “It’s a lovely album with some lovely piano in a classical vein by John Hawken. Excellent listening and the music defies classification”. Influential at the time, the album defined an era of progressive experimentation which suited John’s background in the classics to a tee.

In January 1970 the group supported Canned Heat on a UK tour calling in at the Bournemouth Winter Gardens on 24th January, before flying off to Germany to appear on the television show Beat Club with Spirit, Free, John Mayall, Humble Pie and Juicy Lucy. However, their sophomore effort, Illusion, had a difficult birth as Keith Relf, McCarty and Cennamo all departed for differing reasons during the sessions, leaving just Jane Relf and John to complete the album. John invited former Nashville Teens Michael Dunford, Terry Crowe and Neil Korner to join drummer Terry Slade to complete the final track “Mr Pine” then, happy that his work was done, John upped and left himself. Released solely in Germany, Illusion, didn’t see the light of day in the UK until 1977.

John Hawken Third World War
Third World War circa 1972, from Left to Right: John Hawken, Terry Stamp, Jim Avery, John Knightsbridge & Craig Collinge

In the autumn of 1970 Spooky Tooth were in trouble after a critical panning for their experimental collaboration with the French composer Pierre Henry on their third album, Ceremony. Organist Gary Wright and bassist Andy Leigh quit, leaving a core of vocalist Mike Harrison, drummer Mike Kellie, and guitarist Luther Grosvenor. The trio roped in members of the Grease Band to help with their final album, Last Puff, and for a final three-month jaunt around Europe, enlisted the help of John and bassist Steve Thompson. When they returned home, Spooky Tooth split and John accepted an offer to join Third World War, an anarchic proto punk band that found favour with several radical left leaning organisations including the Black Unity and Freedom Party, the White Panthers and the Gay Liberation Front. The original band had recorded an edgy, self-titled album of aggressive political polemic aimed at the establishment. Melody Maker’s Roy Hollingworth caught them live and wrote, “They are the worst band I have ever heard perform. I felt like soaking myself in vodka, setting myself alight and flinging my body from a balcony in protest”. Their manager, John Fenton, not to miss a trick, made up posters of the quote and stuck it on walls all over London. Undaunted by the negative press, original members singer and songwriter Terry Stamp and bass player Jim Avery rounded up a new line-up of guitarist John Knightsbridge, drummer Craig Collinge and John on keys. The quintet recorded Third World War 2, a rough arsed rock album of uncompromising songs with titles such as “Yobbo” and “Hammersmith Guerilla”, a far cry from the politeness of Renaissance. When their record label balked at the lyrical content of “Coshing Old Lady Blues” and refused to release it, the Track label agreed to press copies on the back of a recommendation from The Who’s Pete Townshend. Unsurprisingly sales didn’t translate into sufficient financial support to keep the band solvent and they split.

Over the next couple of years John guested on Luther Grosvenor’s Under Open Skies, Claire Hamill’s One House Left Standing and The Sutherland Brothers breakthrough album Lifeboat, which spawned “Sailing”, a song that became a huge hit for Rod Stewart. John also endured a short, tetchy tenure with Vinegar Joe, a band that boasted Elkie Brooks and Robert Palmer as joint lead singers. But his most high-profile sighting during the mid-seventies was a non-speaking cameo role in the film That’ll Be The Day. John portrayed the pianist in Stormy Tempest and the Typhoons, the resident band at a holiday camp where the main protagonist, Jim MacLaine (David Essex) worked. Tempest was played by the sixties heart-throb Billy Fury, Keith Moon acted up behind the drums with a heavily greased ‘ducks arse’ hairstyle, the portly Graham Bond blew sax while Moon’s personal assistant Peter ‘Dougal’ Butler did his best to look proficient on the guitar and his drum tech did likewise on the bass. The fictional band were filmed miming to Pete Townshend’s “Rock is Dead, Long Live Rock”. There’s a nice little scene in the film where Moon turns to John and says, “All right honky tonk, take it away old son”, before the pair vamp over a twelve bar instrumental into an edit.

John Hawken The Strawbs
The Strawbs, Left to Right: Rod Coombes, Chas Cronk, John Hawken, Dave Cousins & Dave Lambert

As a side project John would occasionally play with Frankie Reid and the Powerhouse, a fluid pickup band that counted singer Dana Gillespie, guitarist John Knightsbridge, drummer Craig Collinge and various members of Cliff Bennett’s Rebel Rousers brass section as members at one time or another. It was while playing with the Powerhouse, that Dave Cousins and Dave Lambert invited John to audition for the Strawbs at a rehearsal room in Chalk Farm, London, with new additions bassist Chas Cronk and drummer Rod Coombes from Stealers Wheel. Already five years into a successful career, the Strawbs fractured after an antagonistic American tour promoting Bursting at the Seams, their most significant album to date due to two big hits, “Lay Down” and “Part of the Union”. During sessions for The Strawbs next album, Dave Lambert introduced John to the delights of the Mellotron, a notoriously unpredictable instrument that pulls a selection of pre-recorded audio tapes across magnetic heads, thus producing the sound of a full orchestra at the touch of a key. The overtly progressive Hero and Heroine came with swathes of Mellotron, adding a doomy, gothic feel that found favour in America, but not so much back home. 1975’s Ghosts carried on where the previous album left off and became their biggest selling record in the US, shifting over a quarter of a million copies. Recorded in Richard Branson’s Manor Studios, epic songs such as the title track and “The Life Auction” became firm live favourites. By the time of the group’s next recording, Nomadness, the Mellotron had been replaced by a lighter acoustic feel as John had moved on.

After a bewildering number of line-up changes, Renaissance finally got its act together in the mid-seventies and enjoyed great success with a version of the band led by vocalist Annie Haslam and guitarist Michael Dunford. The ongoing existence of the group hampered a re-union of the original members in 1977, because of the name being owned by the current band. John, Jane Relf, Louis Cennamo and Jim McCarty had no other option than to select a new moniker, Illusion, named after their second album. Tragically, Keith Relf was to be part of the reformation, but he died at home while playing an unearthed guitar. His death brought about a re-shuffle with Jim McCarty stepping forward to strum rhythm guitar and share vocals with Jane, Eddie McNeill took over on drums and John Knightsbridge came in on guitar. The group approached their old label Island with a bunch of demos and got the green light to record, Out of the Mist. To promote the album, they won a spot supporting Bryan Ferry throughout Europe, followed by a nationwide UK tour with Dory Previn. Despite sales being low, Island financed a follow up, Illusion (not to be confused with the album of the same name from 1971) with Paul Samwell-Smith back producing. The release of a third album was scuppered as punk took its toll on bands with progressive tendencies. The tapes sat in the vault until Enchanted Caress finally saw the light of day in 1990. With the demise of Illusion and in anticipation of the grass being greener on the other side of the pond, John moved his wife Alexandra and two boys, Barnaby and Jody, to the USA hoping to find work. Unfortunately the situation in America turned out to be just as bleak as back home, and in desperation, he took a temporary job in computing that lasted eighteen years.

In 2001 Jim McCarty contacted Jane Relf, Louis Cennamo and John to help him record several songs he felt had the same qualities and resonance of their earlier work. John flew in from America to lay down his parts without the luxury of rehearsals, before returning home, leaving McCarty to complete overdubs for what was to become Through the Fire. Released under the name of Renaissance Illusion, the record was a solo McCarty effort in all but name and came out to little fanfare.

John Hawken (2)
John Hawken in 2019

Three years later the Hero and Heroine line-up of The Strawbs reunited for a series of shows and to record a new album, Deja Fou. Initially, John found it a stressful experience, as he struggled to re-learn parts from thirty years previously without the aid of rehearsals, as the rest of the band were three thousand miles away in England. Despite a shaky start, John got into his stride and the band took to the road in America. For 2008’s Broken Hearted Bride, he had health problems to deal with, as a couple of minor strokes had laid him low and he had to undergo lifesaving carotid artery surgery. The side effects from his medication caused memory loss and a lack of concentration which affected the amount of input he could add to the recording process. When the sessions were completed, John announced his retirement.

In April 2014, he was lured out of retirement by the Strawbs for two music cruises. First, on the ‘Moody Blues Cruise’ with Roger Daltrey, The Zombies, Starship, Carl Palmer and The Little River Band and secondly on the ’Cruise to the Edge’ trip with Yes, Marillion, Steve Hackett, UK, Tangerine Dream and coincidentally, Renaissance. He was tempted out of retirement once more in April 2019 to help The Strawbs celebrate their 50th Anniversary at the Lakewood Theatre in New Jersey. By now he was just shy of eighty years old.

John still lives in the borough of Metuchen, New Jersey, and returns to Britain at least once a year to visit friends and family. Over the years he occasionally played with a local blues band called Bluesday and latterly The Rocketmen, a fifties rock ‘n’ roll outfit. He would also attend local blues jams, but had to stop when the volume stared to aggravate his ongoing hearing problems. His last band was Lights Out, which he formed with former Rocketmen guitarist / singer Bill Hunt.

The best of the Nashville Teens can be found on the 2000 release, Tobacco Road, on the Repertoire label.

John Hawken Nashville Teens
John Hawken Discography
The Nashville Teens Singles

Tobacco Road c/w I Like it Like That: Decca (F 11930) 1964

Google Eye c/w TNT: Decca (F 12000) 1964

Find My Way Back Home c/w Devil-in-Law: Decca (F 12089) 1965

The Little Bird c/w Whatcha Gonna Do: Decca (F 12143) 1965

I Know How it Feels to be Loved c/w Soon Forgotten: Decca (F 12255) 1965

The Hard Way c/w Upside Down: Decca (F 12316) 1966

Forbidden Fruit c/w Revived 45 Time: Decca (F 12458) 1966

That’s my Woman c/w Words: Decca (F 12542) 1967

I’m Coming Home c/w Searching: Decca (F 12580) 1967

The Biggest Night of Her Life c/w Last Minute: Decca (F 12657) 1967

All Along the Watchtower c/w Sun-Dog: Decca (F 12754) 1968

The Nashville Teens EP

The Nashville Teens: Decca (DFE 8600) 1964

The Nashville Teens Albums

Tobacco Road: London Records (LL 3407) 1964 America and Canada only

Tobacco Road: Repertoire Records (REP 4858) 2000 CD compilation

 The Nashville Teens with Carl Perkins Single

Big Bad Blues c/w Lonely Heart: Brunswick (05909) 1964

The Nashville Teens with Jerry Lee Lewis Album

Jerry Lee Lewis Live at the Star Club Hamburg: Phillips (BL 7646) 1964

Renaissance Single

Island c/w The Sea: Island (WIP 6079) 1970

 Renaissance Albums

Renaissance: Island (ILPS 9112) 1969

Illusion: Island (6339 017) 1971 German release

Illusion: Island (HELP 27) 1977

Live + Direct: Spiral (SCD 924) 2002 CD of live and demo recordings

Third World War Album

Third World War 2: Track (2406 108) 1972

The Strawbs Albums

Hero and Heroine: A&M (AMLS 63607) 1974

Ghosts: A&M (AMLH 68277) 1975

Deja Fou: Witchwood (WMCD2020) 2004

 Live at Nearfest 2004: Witchwood (WMCD2026) 2005

Broken Hearted Bride: Witchwood (WMCD 2044)2008

 Illusion Albums

Out of The Mist: Island (ILPS 9489) 1977

Illuson: Island (ILPS 9519) 1978

Enchanted Caress: Promised Land (92152) 1990

Renaissance Illusion Album

Through the Fire: Kissing Spell / Spiral (SCD 923) 2001

Albums featuring John Hawken

Luther Grosvenor Under Open Skies: Island (ILPS 9168) 1971

Claire Hamill One House Left Standing: Island (ILPS 9182) 1972

The Sutherland Brothers Lifeboat: Island (ILPS 9212) 1972

John Hawken, Mick Liber, Jim Avery, Terry Stamp Gods of the West: GSL MUSIC (GSLMCD032) 2003

The Smithereens Meet the Smithereens: Koch Records (KOC-CD-4204) 2007

The Smithereens B-Sides The Beatles / Meet the Smithereens: Koch Records (KOC-LP-4720) 2009

2 thoughts on “John Hawken

  1. WoW —Am still a bit breathless after trying to digest all this in a single sitting ! Much I knew, but much more I did not. Glad to call John my friend, and I see him periodically at the grocery store. Loved the 50th Strawbs show and the earlier « Hero & Heroine » gigs!

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    1. Hi Brad, thanks for getting in touch and glad you enjoyed reading about John. It’s nice to know John is still about and I hope he is still fit and healthy ? Maybe you could point him in this direction the next time you see him, it would be great to hear from him. John

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