"Listen, Johnny Moped were better than the Clash and the Pistols put together," a young Shane MacGowan assured me 30 years ago. I can't remember if he was drinking, but he had a point.
Johnny Moped, punk rock's idiot savants, embodied the daft DIY essence of the times better than any other group. Not for them the artful defiance of Vivienne Westwood's costly clobber or the political posturing of Juanabe conquistadors – the Mopeds came from Croydon and made music for drunk people. Press play on your download ofBasically, Johnny Moped and there's Shane in 1977, all self-conscious sneer and spit-spattered shirt up front at the Roxy, pogoing in approximate time to the Mopeds' ramshackle constructions: Incendiary Device, Groovy Ruby, VD Boiler and Darling Let's Have Another Baby.
At last, the great forgotten punk band been have been, well, remembered. Fred Burns's poignant film about a bunch of mates specialising in good-natured mayhem and strange, succinct songs, is the real – and occasionally surreal – deal.
Burns is the son of the Damned and one-time Johnny Moped guitarist Captain Sensible, and therefore had unlimited access to his father's friends. That he captured the more elliptical thoughts of the band's unsettlingly eccentric singer at all is an achievement. The director's findings are the frank, unflinching recollections of men once festooned in badges and drenched in beer. Yet, as in all lives, there is love, romance, tragedy, longing and leaving along the way. It's a music documentarythat tells its story without patronising subject or viewer – a rarity in a bullshit-smeared business. Johnny Moped were funny, fully dysfunctional and fortunate to form when they did, but what set them apart from the army of Ramones' re-fits was their frontman, Paul Halford (aka Johnny Moped).
Diagnosing themselves with typical 70s insensitivity as "82% mentally disabled", Johnny was a complex case: part park bench liability, part open-hearted poet. Their charismatic vocalist, Poundland sound and risible styling (the colander-as-headgear never really took off) found a loyal audience in Britain's stickier, strike-struck pubs. Their year was 1977.
Such was the band's success that they could afford to shed their second guitarist, one Chrissie Hynde, who still seems genuinely miffed by her dismissal despite her blessed post-Mopeds years. "No hard feelings," sniffs the great Pretender. Basking briefly in the media spotlight, the Mopeds managed in 1978 to produce Cycledelic, a loveable, outside lavatory of an album that casually straddled the worlds of captains Beefheart and Sensible. And Johnny was the key.
"I knew there was a genius album in that guy," marvels Captain Sensible, "and Cycledelic proves me right, doesn't it? It's just the most sensational album." Gazing now at Johnny's dark, troubled eyes peering out from the brilliant "lightbulb" sleeve of Barney Bubbles still sends a shiver down your bondage strides. It was the cheekier little brother of Never Mind the Bollocks.
But, as with all things Moped, the wheels soon came off. As John Lydon would, Johnny married a woman some 20 years his senior. But Brenda came with a domineering mother-in-law who had alternative plans for her daughter's beau. Soon the band had to kidnap their singer in order to complete recordings and honour gig bookings. Ignominy beckoned. Then "rock'n'roll dole".
Had Johnny moved to the Mojave dessert and made human dung paintings, he'd doubtless be hailed as a Significant Artist. Instead, he cares for his ailing wife in a non-leafy quarter of Surrey and drinks cans of White Lightning. A pathetic piss artist? Not a bit of it. He's as happy and fulfilled as Shane or Chrissie or the Captain. Burns' film offers neither a cute denouement nor a bleak future, just a bloke frying his breakfast and humming a tune. And if Billy Bragg and Kirsty MacColl's tender rendering of Darling Let's Have Another Baby, accompanying the closing credits doesn't moisten your eye, then perhaps nothing will.