In any discussion of punk's greatest legends, the name of Johnny Moped forever looms large -- not necessarily for the vitality of their vinyl, although few would deny that the Moped had few peers in that arena; nor through the brilliant chaos of their live shows, although, once again, a good Moped gig could keep you grinning for a week. No, Johnny Moped was a legend because, with a reputation and a presentation like theirs, what else could they be?
Johnny Moped, the man and the band, erupted out of nowhere. Early stirrings featuring Dave Berk, Maxim Trash, singer Xerxes, and Ray Burns were captured on the band's "Disco Girls" single, taped in 1975 but unreleased till 1979; Moped's own musical apprenticeship came in Johnny Moped & the Five Arrogant Superstars, a band comprising himself, Xerxes, Berk, Burns, guitarist Fred Gunge, and keyboard player Phil Burns. The Johnny Moped band itself, however, formed around mid-1976, lining up as Johnny (vocals), Burns, and the Dave and Fred Berk rhythm section. Burns, of course, was not long for that world, heading off to the Damned within weeks. He made amends, however, by introducing his successor, Slimey Toad -- a guitarist alongside Rat Scabies in a past band whose greatest achievement was a residency at St. Laurence's Mental Home.
Early recruits to the Roxy roster, Johnny Moped was caught in fine, if undisciplined, form on the Live at the Roxy album, hammering out "Hard Lovin' Man." The sound of that song was archetypal Moped: heavy R&B slobbering through a meat grinder and hung out for the fire ants. It sounded incompetent, but the best Moped gigs always did, a fumbling, bumbling, grumbling noise that boasted all the proficiency of a blind man playing poker. The Chiswick label, however, was impressed and, toward the end of 1977, the band's debut single, "No-One," hit the streets.
An album, Cycledelic, followed in May 1978, promptly taking the alternative charts by storm while the bizarre (but so characteristically bizarre) "Darling, Let's Have Another Baby" single remains something of an underground classic to this day -- erstwhile Chiswick labelmates Kirsty MacColl (ex-Drug Addix) and Billy Bragg (ex-Riff Raff) even teamed up for a version when they guested on John Peel's radio show together.
Constant calls for a less shambolic rendition of "Hard Lovin' Man" prompted the band to take a second live version, from a Roundhouse show in February 1978, for release on the flip of their third single, Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie." It was phenomenal, all the more so since a guest appearance from Ray Burns finally gave the world a chance to hear what the original Moped was occasionally capable of. And, of course, it was utterly appropriate that Johnny Moped's first recorded song should also become their last. The band broke up scarcely when "Little Queenie" was on the streets.
Although a number of abortive sessions were rumored over the next decade or so, Moped remained in self-imposed obscurity, his only confirmed resurfacing being the Toad-Berk-composed "Save the Baby Seals" session, originally intended for release on a 1983 Artists for Animals compilation. The silence was broken again in the early '90s by the all-new Search for Xerxes album, only to be restored immediately after. Moped remains a mystery today, which is probably just as well. Nothing kills a legend as fast as visibility. ~ Dave Thompson
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