Back In The Groove: The Return of Dawn After Dark

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A small corner of the internet went into serious meltdown last month with the announcement that Dawn After Dark were returning to the stage after a thirty year “rest”. On Friday September 27th the reunited DAD will take to the stage of Birmingham’s O2 Academy as special guests of Balaam & The Angel, just one of numerous bands they supported back in the day. If you were a regular on the club circuit in the late 80’s chances are strong you would have caught the band at one time or another as they played more than 200 shows, both in their own right and also sharing the stage with the likes of Dogs D’Amour, Kings X, Living Colour, Field Of The Nephilim and Wolfsbane. Along the way they built up a small but dedicated following (the “Dawn Losers”) who travelled from gig to gig and guaranteed a raucous reception.

Emerging from their Birmingham base during 1986, DAD were fronted by H, aka Kerrang! journalist Howard Johnson, along with guitarists Ritchie Bardsley and George Craig, bassist Dave Askey and drummer Tony Henderson. Signed to the independent Chapter 22 Records their recorded output spanned just three 12-inch singles; “Crystal High”, a pounding anthem that quickly became their signature song, the stuttering and insistent riff that was “The Groove” and lastly the adrenaline rush of “Maximum Overdrive”. However their vinyl history only tells part of the story as DAD were prolific songwriters and had a stash of at least another 30 or 40 songs, many of which became live favourites.

Often tagged by the music press as a Goth band, in reality DAD were hard rockers who learned their trade from wearing out copies of Powerage and Rocks and adding in their own blend of groove. The lead tracks on the singles were strong, but unreleased gems such as “When Will You Come Home To Me”, “Habit”, “Nothin’ Can Fulfil Me” and “Truth and Freedom” showed a band willing to take risks and develop their craft. Live, they were a bundle of relentless energy with H the archetypal 80’s frontman – long hair, leather trousers and an in-your-face on stage persona.

By autumn 1989 DAD were seemingly on the cusp of bigger and better things; debut album Live Hard N’ Groovin’ was slated for release and they were starting to see the rewards of ever constant touring. It was all the more surprising then that a terse press release confirmed a parting of the ways with H and all immediate plans were cancelled. The rest briefly continued with Johnny Stevenson taking over on vocals but the moment had passed and DAD were soon confined to the history books, another in a long line of bands that never fulfilled their undoubted potential. Until…..fast forward to 2019 and Henderson and Johnson, who reconnected via social media some ten years ago, accepted an invitation to open for Balaam. With Askey sadly no longer with us his place will be taken by Henderson’s son, Felix, with guitarists Russ Frame and John Wilcox completing the new look line-up.

Long time Dawn After Dark fan and Midlands Rocks Editor Dean Pedley (who had long since given up all hope of ever seeing this day come to pass) was suitably shocked, excited and intrigued by the announcement that he immediately contacted Howard “H” Johnson to get the full story of their unlikely resurrection….

H, it’s good to speak with you at long last. I’ve had 30 years to think about these questions so we might be talking for a while. It is fair to say that the gig announcement really took people by surprise but is really something that a lot of us had been hoping to see happen for a long time.

Well it’s nice of you to say so; I don’t suppose I go around thinking about that very much. It was very heart-warming to see that people were interested because you don’t really know after such a long time. You don’t really know if people will want to come and see you but it would appear that there are some hard-core supporters out there so we are really looking forward to it.

I remember when Tony and yourself reconnected ten years ago I thought something might have happened around that time. And when nothing did it seemed that the moment had passed. Why now?

Funnily enough I was looking at that the other day and thinking well that has gone quickly because you’re right it was ten years ago that we got together and did a little bit of recording. To be honest we didn’t have any plans to do anything until the guy that was promoting the Balaam gig got in touch and said he thought it would be a great thing for us to do, would be fun and would maybe get some extra people interested in the Balaam show. So we had a chat about it and managed to find a way to make it work.

Have you got together with the rest of the band and rehearsed yet?

No I’ve done that lazy singer thing. They are all beavering away and working really hard learning two or three songs per week and I’m sitting here on my backside waiting until they are ready. I’ll then jump on a plane and go in…but I haven’t quite worked it out yet what we are going to do. There will certainly be two very intense rehearsals just prior to the show but I might need to go in perhaps once before to have a thrash and see how we go along. It will depend how Tony thinks it is going although he keeps telling me that he’s really happy with the way it sounds.

Without giving too much away what sort of discussions have you and Tony been having about the set list?

We’ve had a bit of conversation about the set list. One of the things that I thought was disappointing about the band was that we had a lot of really good material that we never got to record properly. There were issues thirty years ago that if you didn’t have a lot of backing and money around you it was really hard to go and make decent quality recordings which is something people kind of forget about now. It’s so easy with Pro-Tools that you can produce a really high quality recording very cost effectively. Obviously there will be songs from the EP’s but also songs that we think are really good that didn’t get as much exposure as they should have done. We were pretty prolific in terms of the writing and I thought that a decent amount of it was at a passable standard or better. So it does mean we get a good opportunity for forty five minutes to put together a strong set list from top to bottom.

What has the reaction been from your kids? They would have never had the opportunity to see their Dad doing his thing on stage.

Well my youngest is sports obsessed and he just kind of thinks it’s funny. Although I think he is quite curious and he’s saying he may make an appearance on the night to come and have a look at his old man. And the eldest is a professional musician, nothing like what we did, but I think he is intrigued by the fact that it’s all going to happen again. He’s always quite complimentary about what we did although I get that it is a million miles away from the kind of music he makes. So as long as it’s not a case of our getting the dressing up box out again but trying to celebrate that era without looking like chicken in a basket then I think they will probably quite enjoy it.

You mention not getting out the dressing up box…surely that doesn’t mean you won’t be giving the leather trousers an outing after all this time?

Sadly no leather trousers! It’s the big question that has been raised by almost everybody “are the trousers coming out” and I don’t quite know how to take that really because if that was the most important part of my contribution to the band it’s not a great legacy! When you’re 23 years old it’s a look you can almost carry off but when you’re 54…well, let’s just say it’s going to be a little bit tricky to do that…

Dawn After Dark were very prolific songwriters and the set list back then seemed to always be evolving with new songs regularly being introduced. Looking back at the catalogue what were some of the high points for you?

I guess of the songs we recorded then “Crystal High”, “The Groove” and “Maximum Overdrive” were all really good, solid songs. I was excited about what was happening in the rehearsal rooms when it all fell apart. The songs that we were working on were starting to go in a direction I felt was interesting and we were starting to experiment in a good way. We were open to different influences and the tracks we didn’t finish around that time were showing signs of us retaining the Rock roots but developing the writing in other ways. Tony is a real archivist and still has everything and I’m not sure how much of it he posts for people to listen to but there was a song called “What We Are” which had a Stone Roses meets The Doors feel which was going into new territory. And I always wanted us to be a Rock band that was willing to try interesting things. Along the way there were some good songs that aren’t so well known, there is one called “Shifting Sands of Time” that I really liked. The guys are working up some different ideas and when I go in and start rehearsing we can see what works with the vocals on and decide what we are going to play on the night. The benefit of technological advances over the last thirty years is the songs can be interpreted better than they were at the time. I guess the real question is can I perform them as well. My attitude about how to perform them is not to pretend I’m somebody I was 30 years ago because I’m not. So trying to find a way to present the songs in a way that is faithful to the people that came to see the band but also feel that I’m getting something out of them. And everybody in the group feels the same way.

You always attracted a great following that would travel around the country to see the band. I travelled to a much lesser extent, within a couple of hours or so, but there was that dedicated group of fans who always turned up no matter what. That must have been something you were very aware of and grateful for…

It’s funny because the world has changed so much so it’s hard to imagine the logistical difficulties that people would have had just even finding out information about when a band was touring, where the venue was, what time you would be on and all the rest of it. So for people to be that dedicated it was fantastic and it was very enjoyable to know what wherever you played there would be a hard-core of 30 or 40 people who would turn up to support you. It was very hard work for us because there wasn’t a lot of money around and having that level of support was much appreciated. It was just a shame that we couldn’t take it to the next level during that time period.

You mention about not being able to take DAD to the next level, do you think the band was held back because the press somewhat unfairly pigeon-holed you as a Goth rock band?

Yes, I think we were because at that time what the press said was so much more important than it is now when people can access music anyway they want and judge it for themselves. There is a whole industry that has grown up around fan driven artists which I think is a very positive thing. At that time it was really driven by a very London centric music press and certainly a music press that was, in the UK, resolutely against anything that was Rock-oriented or Goth-oriented. We got pigeonholed although weren’t a traditional Heavy metal band and nor were we a traditional Goth band…we slipped somewhere between the two. I think if I had my time again I would have dealt with that in a very different manner. It became very clear that it was going to be extremely difficult for us to make progress in the UK and so I think we would have moved heaven and earth to go to America at the very least on some kind of fact find mission to see if there was any interest over there. America was clearly a place where Rock music was much more appreciated and we would probably have been seen as a Rock band that had a different approach rather than a band that straddled two different sub-cultures that no one appreciated in the UK.

What were your hopes and expectations for the band, how far did you realistically think at the time you could take it?

I think at the time we had serious ambitions. It’s very hard to look back with a detached point of view because I was right in the middle of it…and you tend to think that everything you do is fantastic and that the amount of time and effort you put into it deserves reward but of course the music industry doesn’t work like that. I think had we been able to secure a publishing deal to have done it professionally and full time for a significant amount of time that would have an impact. And had I been more mature as a person I would have been cuter about the way in which I handled the fact I was in a band and writing for a national music magazine at the same time.

Absolutely; I read Kerrang every week back then and it always seemed that there was a very clear distinction between H, the lead singer in Dawn After Dark, and HoJo, the music journalist. Unless you were aware of it you could have been forgiven for thinking you were two entirely different people!

I was very conscious of it at the time and tried very hard to keep the two things separate which in retrospect was just stupid. I should have used every contact I had and every opportunity I had to try and advance the band and I think that was a big mistake on my part and if I had my time again I would have done it very differently to advance the cause. I don’t really know why I felt that way back then because the opportunities that I would have had to put demo tapes into people’s hands and talk up the band were huge.

Nowadays bands seem to air their differences via Blabbermouth and the like but back then it was very different. As a fan, especially when you are younger, you tend to naïvely think that everyone in a band is all mates and all get along great. I remember being stunned when I found out you had left as it seemed you had built some real momentum during 1989…what are your memories of how and why it all fell apart so suddenly?

Yes it was disappointing and I don’t know how much is known about how it all came to an end. Basically there was talk of a publishing deal and I felt that the way that the credits were handled on the records was appropriate – the music was written by everyone and I wrote the lyrics. I think there was suddenly a dawning on certain people in the group that if a publishing deal was forthcoming that would mean it wasn’t going to be a five way split – which I felt was fair. Rightly or wrongly I felt that my contribution to the band was greater than other people’s contribution to the band. Like you say everything starts out and you’re all mates and you think it’s all going to be wonderful but as we all know it doesn’t always work out that way. So I think it was just a point where it didn’t seem there was going to be a compromise. We certainly didn’t sit down like mature adults would do now and say OK, we’ve got a different point of view so how can we try and resolve that. It was very much a case of “you want this…we don’t think that’s fair…you’re gone”. I felt that it was a fair assessment of individual contributions to the band because obviously they go way beyond writing, rehearsing and performing on stage, there is an awful lot more to it as you know. I wasn’t happy about it at the time but I didn’t feel that after the work I had put in for four years that I could compromise. The weird part about it is that it was all hypothetical because there wasn’t an actual deal on the table anyway so that was a bit stupid. It also felt like certain people in the group had made up their minds and I was going to leave the group whatever.  They had made their decisions and they were going to stick to their point of view no matter what so it was just inevitable there was going to be a parting of the ways.

After the split did you consider putting together another band?

I kind of half toyed with the idea of thinking do I want to do something else but I thought well I have just put four years of my life into this and it is very hard work. And at the age of 25 I didn’t think there was enough time for me to start everything from scratch with no guarantees that it was going to provide me with a living that I felt I needed to seriously start doing. And also on a pragmatic level I had an offer from a management company to go and work for them and it just felt at that time it would be a very difficult choice to turn that down and go back to something that hadn’t proved itself to be a way to earn a living. That was the reality of the situation I found myself in. I heard some of the demos they did with the next singer, Johnny, and I thought they were pretty good but after I left I kind of switched off from anything to do with Dawn After Dark at that point.

On a happier note then what were some of the best parts of the DAD experience for you?

I really enjoyed the whole idea of being able to make music, be up on a stage and be a part of something that I was proud of. I think that looking back at it now there was a good standard of music being made, the camaraderie we had in the early days was great – we had some fun times together and a lot of laughs along the way. I think that it was a period of my life that was full of possibilities at the outset, you have ideas about how you think things are going to go and all combined that makes my memories largely positive. It didn’t take me long to get over the fact that it didn’t end well.

More recently you launched Rock Candy magazine which recaptures the 80’s era and reunites a lot of the old Kerrang! crowd from your time. What made you decide to launch a print magazine at a time when many have failed?

Because I’m pig-headed or stupid! It was started because I had been having conversations with some of the old guys from Kerrang for a long time about not being satisfied with what the Rock press at the time was servicing to people. I thought that Classic Rock had some really good things about it and some really not good things about it and was lacking in focus. So I wanted to create the spirit of Kerrang from the 80’s when it had a fantastic vibe about it because the publishers left us alone to do exactly what we wanted. They made no pretence about trying to understand what the target market was and what Rock fans liked and didn’t like, they just left us to do it. It was a great place to be. Nowadays running magazines in the mainstream is driven by nerdy, techy people saying these are the buzzwords, catchphrases and the kind of things you need to put in to achieve sales numbers. And I didn’t want it to be data driven but driven by passion.

It seems to have been very well received and there is definitely an audience out there who simply weren’t getting what they wanted from the competition. 

It’s a cottage industry, which we always knew it would be, but that gives you certain advantages in that you can work remotely on it from anywhere in the world and you can create content more effectively. It’s fighting the good fight, it’s trying to recreate a time that was very special to me and you have to be honest about and say that it’s entirely nostalgic – it’s not supposed to be about something that is at the cutting edge of Rock music these days. And obviously music needs to develop and move on and I enjoy discovering new music but that is an entirely different thing to what we’re are dong with the magazine.

Had Dawn After Dark been starting out now then you would have been facing an entirely different set of challenges to back in the 80’s. Just thinking about the Midlands we have lost so many great venues…the Barrel Organ, Walsall Junction 10, JB’s in Dudley, Edwards…

I have no idea about how Rock bands can have a professional career these days; it just seems so incredibly difficult; in a band there are so many mouths to feed and equipment and all the rest of it. My boy does everything on a computer, he has a live guitar player that works with him and that’s it he can go to a gig. And you can create and distribute your music far more cheaply. But for me the thing that is worrying about Rock music is where is the next wave of mega-bands going to come from. It seems to me that the major arena filling bands are the same ones that have been filling arenas for the past 15 years. I don’t really see anything new that seems to be able to take a hold and grab the imagination in a way that Slipknot and Rammstein did and that was a long time ago. Occasionally I go and watch those gigs, I saw Rammstein in the old Roman amphitheatre in Nimes and it was fantastic, it was a great spectacle. But it doesn’t seem there is a healthy live music scene for Hard Rock bands, to put them under the same all-encompassing umbrella. People turn out for those mega gigs but on the other hand you look at a band like the Raven Age, who I have a little bit of insight into due to my Iron Maiden connections, and they have released a few albums and are playing Camden Underworld. And you wonder how does that work, there seems to be a huge disconnect between the established bands and the next wave of new artists who don’t seem to be able to create that kind of audience.

Well it looks like there will definitely be an audience on September 27th! It sounds as if you are really looking forward to it?

I’m very much looking forward to it…no leather pants as I said although you never know I might relent at the last minute. I’m definitely looking forward to playing those songs again and enjoying the moment. People can look at it and it’s all about nostalgia, and to a certain extent they are right, but I really want to see what kind of a spin we can put on it. It’s going to be very strange but also very enjoyable.

Absolutely. Just don’t go expecting to look and out see any human pyramids…it’s not just the band that has gotten older!

Well, I tell you what you’d have to have pretty some strong folks at the bottom wouldn’t you!

Dawn After Dark play 02 Academy on September 27th as special guests to Balaam & The Angel. Tickets can be booked here:-

https://academymusicgroup.com/o2academybirmingham/events/1249898/balaam-and-angel-tickets

Dawn After Dark Facebook Page:-

https://www.facebook.com/dawnafterdarkofficial

Rock Candy Magazine can be found here:-

https://www.rockcandymag.com/

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