Arriving at a point where punk, new wave, and reggae crossed over, Fischer-Z secured a record deal with the major label United Artists in 1978, alongside the likes of Buzzcocks and The Stranglers, releasing three albums and enjoying considerable success here and in Europe. Although they never quite reached the commercial heights of those label mates, this was during a golden period of big record sales, and appearances on Top of the Pops, and the Old Grey Whistle Test, as well as support from the legendary John Peel, and the heavy rotation of their So Long song on fledgling MTV, all helped to give the band a high profile.
Founder member, songwriter, singer and guitarist John Watts has an impressive CV. He's performed to over 150,000 along with James Brown in East Berlin, toured with the likes of The Police and Dire Straits, was on the bill for the final European festival dates of Bob Marley, and continues to be a creative force of nature, turning his hand to not only music and song, but also multi-media and playwriting. He may not be a household name, but you are very likely to have heard one of his songs, from a deeply impressive repertoire that invariably displays his natural warmth, humanity, and gift for narrative.
One of life's natural born entertainers, the highly chatty and effervescent Watts is a performer, first and foremost, combining music with art and poetry. His ability to combine worldly political issues in narrative songs has struck a chord with millions around the globe. "I like to tell a story, and provide a map for a good way of living," he says. He's been performing for nearly 40 years and has played over 3000 concerts. And there seems to be no stopping him, as he readies himself for another renaissance, that includes a brilliant new album This is My Universe, and the re-release of much of his extensive back catalogue. "I'm doing some shows in Paris, as part of an exhibition, Pirates of the Mediterranean," he says. "It's five or six artists I know who are doing an exhibition in one of those arts squats that has been converted into a nice gallery. A lot of my media mates and painter friends are down there."
It's Europe that has been particularly good to him over the years, his band cultivating a large and loyal fanbase over the years, although it has been to the cost of developing a similar following here in the UK. "When I stopped Fischer-Z in 1981, EMI were desperate, they wanted me to keep going with it. We'd sold two million albums by then. I was out of contract, and they were offering me millions to make another Fischer-Z album, but I wouldn't do it. I felt it was swallowing my identity."
The band got going properly while he was at Brunel University in 1977. "It was the place to leave; it's the land of dirty rivers, full of dead engineering students and prams," says Watts with a laugh. "Me and Steve Skolnik started it, while I was studying clinical psychology." Named after a statistical term (Fisher Z Distribution), the band took on the nascent influences of punk, and welded that onto the classic english storytelling of Ray Davies. "Warhol was my hero and the musicians who were really odd, such as Alex Harvey. You couldn't define him; he was both a performance artist and a punk. A visceral, physical genius. Also, when I was 14, 15, I used to watch George Melly regularly. I was the only person that age in the audience. He would come up to me and say: 'Dear boy, why are you coming to see us. 'I like the way you perform', I said. He said, 'it's a dangerous place for a young boy'! It was the idea of the musical, and the performance that got me. I was also interested in the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, alongside people who could write political songs in the form of human stories. Ray Davies could do that. I was interested in being part of the arts spectrum, and not the rock'n'roll spectrum. The beginnings of punk enabled us to do that; it was much freer, wilder and more frenetic, and adrenalin driven. It suited me beautifully. I could always sing very well, and on the guitar I played with a lot of straightforward and no-nonsense energy. The lack of reverential treatment to what had come before in rock'n'roll wasn't there any-more."
Although Fischer-Z did rack up impressive sales in the UK, Watts says that they weren't respected by the music media at the time, partly because they spent much of their time in Europe, and partly because he and the band were considered too smart. "One of the reasons Fischer-Z never really caught on here was that we were hardly here. After '79 we did maybe three shows in England. I think the media resented that plus they thought we were bright, and smart arse. At that time the journalists wanted to interview people who were about kill themselves! And who were speeding off their boxes."
After the split with the band, John embarked on a solo career, beginning with the One More Twist album in 1982, followed by The Iceberg Model (1983) – both released on EMI – and The Cry (1984) He reformed Fischer-Z in 1987, and enjoyed further success with 1988's Reveal album which included a hit in 'The Perfect Day', based on lonely-hearts ads, to be followed by another hit in 1989, 'Say No'. Their next album, 1991 Destination Paradise, was recorded at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios, while Kamikaze Shirt (1993) and Stream (1995) continued to combine politics with his observations and experiences.
Watts returned to his solo career with 1997's Thirteen Stories High, while 1999's Bigbeatpoetry saw him combine poetry and prose with a DJ and beats. An era of eclectic multimedia projects began with 2002's Ether Music & Film, followed by the just guitar and drums album Real Life is Good Enough, made with Sam Walker.
More projects and concepts rapidly followed. There was It Has To Be (2006), an album that consisted of songs drawn from Watts' interaction with strangers in ten different cities. 2010's Morethanmusic added improvised orchestral cut-ups and a filmic dimension. And then Watts embarked on the World-Go-Project, incorporating his play, the black comedy/absurdist The Last Picasso, performing poetry from his book The Grand National Lobotomy and developing songs which now form part of the forthcoming Fisher-Z album, This is My Universe.
"I believe in performance, and entertainment," says Watts. “What I am known for is that, as well as making music. Entertainment used to be a bit of dirty word. I remember we played Reading Festival and there were 60,000 bikers there, and we weren't a rock band. When we got on stage they started slinging things at us, and I grabbed the microphone, and smacked my head against it. I said, 'look, this is my head, the microphone is harder, stop throwing shit at us. You have to accept the fact I hate you, all of you. We're here to entertain you'. And so I started with a song called 'Haters'. It went down a storm. We got slagged to death by NME for being patronising. Now, of course, it's entertainment humungous, you've got people who do nothing but entertain, and sing a bit in-between. There are exceptions; Ed Sheeran is a genius entertainer. I couldn't understand it, so I went to seen him play. My God! He's a genius entertainer, as well as a fantastic songwriter."
Normally, never one to look back, Watts has recently been re-introduced to much of his back catalogue by his son, Eric. "I wasn't interested before. I was proud of it but I never looked back. This year the campaign we're doing is the re-invention of Fischer-Z. I make good contemporary records, and we've got a big catalogue. All the journos in Europe think I live in a castle next to Sting, and share sunglasses with Bono. In Germany they see me like Paul Weller, a guy who still makes relevant records. Now, we're pulling it together, and re-introducing it to people, fans old and new. "It's an interesting time, I love it. The idea of being able to directly contact your fans is great. Had I not offloaded so many fans by changing the name, I'd be very rich!
This Is My Universe could be seen as a distillation of his artistic life so far, particularly on the title track itself, which is half poetry, half beats. "I tried to sum up my view of life in a poem. It's like a tone poem. My son Eric programmed the beats. It represents the idea of form and performance, merging poetry and music. And as always, Watts' eclectic choice of topics and concurs represents an inquiring and communicative mind. For instance there's the 'Martha Thargill' song, about the mid-80s miners' strike, that polarised a nation. "It's about the idea of the two devils. Everybody accepts that Thatcher cold-heartedly destroyed the mines, but the same absolutely applies to Arthur Scargill (the mine workers union worker). He threw them in the valley of death, he used them as a battering ram for his own ends, for his class war. I spent a lot of time in the Welsh communities, and they have never forgiven him. The communities would have decreased in size, jobs would have been lost but over a much longer period and in a more humane way.
'Winston' is about the London riots, about a character who was involved in the Tottenham riots of the 80s, his view being that this was a Facebook riot; 'Justice' is about the concept of love and marriage; 'Tale of Bales' is about the American guy who massacred those Afghan children, a metaphor for the fragile nature of American foreign policy; Laura is about that bored, early 40s housewife with kids and debts, who once she plays Latin music becomes the Buena Vista girl; 'Is that Love' is a song I wrote before my dad died, someone I was very close to. " And then there's the title track, 'This is My Universe': "A constant need for action's where I'm coming from/My raison d'être is expresser and connector."
"I've always been incredibly driven to do art. The idea of having made a living for 40 years writing songs is a real privilege, I wont forget that”.