Back in June in 1978, the Albany in Deptford was hosting a series of Rock Against Racism concerts. The bill was dominated by punk and reggae bands, but the bill needed something else and a band called Rubber Johnny emerged, led by songwriter and musician John Turner.
“This interval trio became so popular” John told me, “that at the end of the series of RAR concerts we were offered a residency at the Deptford Arms. We added bass and drums. I wrote the words and guitarist Keith Moore the music. The arrangements were all written by the band.”
After six months Rubber Johnny moved to the Royal Albert on Deptford Broadway where their Friday nights became legendary. They continued to play benefits for local campaigns and also played the Marquee, The Nashville Rooms, The Rock Garden, The 100 club, The Hope & Anchor and other music pubs around London.
Five years later the band retired and it seemed that was all that would be heard of Rubber Johnny. They had achieved a certain level of success and quite a London following, but they called it a day. That is, until 2016 when they were asked to come back together and play to support another political cause – somewhat unexpectedly, the Save Our Libraries campaign.
“After phone calls and emails the band agreed,” said John. “Two years later, with three new members in the band alongside three of the original line-up, we’re playing with a repertoire of original songs based on the scenes and characters of the local area.”
Now the band has confirmed two dates at Greenwich Theatre, on 26 and 27 October – but the theatre offers something slightly different. As well as playing the kind of set that audiences from the seventies, or from the last two years, might be used to, John will be talking about the music scene in this part of South East London, sharing anecdotes and describing the changes that he has seen and some of the major figures that emerged from this area.
These two special performances are not the only music events scheduled for Greenwich Theatre this season, with the Bob Dylan Experience also returning this month after a sell-out date earlier this year. Far from a tribute act, the group perform, and celebrate, the music of the songwriter who shocked so much of the establishment by winning the Nobel Prize for Literature last year.
“There’s only so many songs you can play at a gig so we tend to have a core of the real classics that we always play and then rotate others,” bassist Steve Heath told me. “We also bring in new songs from time to time. For example, we have recently introduced Tombstone Blues from the Highway 61 album.”
It is likely that an audience at Greenwich Theatre will be very different from those in the pubs and clubs around the area. We are always striving to surprise our audiences, so this one-off performance is for those who don’t know Dylan’s music as much as those who do.
“When we play to mixed audiences, it’s interesting how well the music goes down with people who are not big fans or don’t know much about him” said Steve. “Invariably, we get people saying ‘I didn’t know Bob Dylan wrote that song’ because they had only ever heard it covered by another artist. We’ve converted lots of people into becoming Dylan fans over the years!”
James Haddrell is the Artistic & Executive Director of Greenwich Theatre