Ever heard of the Nutty-Name Rule?
It states that bands with the nuttiest names almost never make it to the top. In the pop Top 10, you rarely see bands with names like The The, Mama’s Flat Feet or Elephant’s Bad Breath. Bands with such far-out names usually play music that’s equally far-out--too distant from the pop mainstream to make any waves.
Lately, there’s been an exception to the rule.
Johnny Hates Jazz, an British pop trio, scored with a single called “Shattered Dreams,” which hit No. 2 on the pop chart. It’s the showpiece of the band’s debut album, “Turn Back the Clock” on Virgin Records.
Though the band is just getting started in the United States, it’s already popular in other countries. In Britain, for instance, “Shattered Dreams” was a smash hit a year ago--the first of a string of popular JHJ singles.
Like most nutty group names, this one doesn’t have a significant meaning. There’s no one in this group named Johnny who can’t stand jazz. In fact, there’s no one in the group named Johnny.
The members are bassist Calvin Hayes, 25, lead singer Clark Datchler, 24, and composer-engineer Mike Nocito, 26.
“None of us hates jazz either,” said Hayes, who was in town last week. “There’s even some jazz chords in our music.” Also, Datchler, who sings in a silky-smooth, effortless purr, approaches the melodic lines of “Don’t Let It End This Way” rather obliquely--just like a jazz singer.
The group’s name refers to Datchler’s brother-in-law, Johnny, a British farmer married to Datchler’s sister, who loves jazz. But Johnny hates jazz. “We came up with the name while visiting them,” said Hayes. “We liked the name and planned to use it on something . It turned out we used it for a group.”
Hayes--candid, affable and quite self-assured--showed up at a restaurant interview dressed California casual in T-shirt and slacks. That was out of character. The JHJ members are usually sharply dressed. No leathers or faded jeans for this bunch. These handsome young men pride themselves on their chic attire. They’re wearing natty suits on the cover of their album, which looks like a cover of GQ magazine.
Hayes largely credits Datchler, considered by some the sexiest male singer to come along since George Michael surfaced a few years ago, with that dapper look. “I’ve known Clark for six years. He’s always very well dressed--always wearing great suits. I like nice suits too. People say our look is calculated. It’s not. It just came naturally from our tastes.
“Times are changing. The designer look is more in now. And who says that people in pop groups have to look like bums?”
Hayes is a former A&R; man (a record executive who discovers and develops artists) for RAK Records in Britain. “I wasn’t really a high-ranking type,” he said. “I just worked there a year. I didn’t really have time to do much.”
But as an A&R; man, Hayes did score one coup--finding and developing a band that’s been piling up hits. That band is--you guessed it--Johnny Hates Jazz.
It started as a clandestine project. “Mike (Nocito) was working in the studio as an engineer. We got together and sneaked into the studio at two in the morning when it wasn’t being used and made this (instrumental) track. We needed a singer. We both know Clark. He agreed to do the vocals.
“When we finished it we went to the RAK people and, before they heard it, I said, ‘I found this group called Johnny Hates Jazz that made this single.’ We weren’t really even a group yet. They said they liked it. When I told them it was us who made the single they were surprised but they also wanted to put the record out.”
That single, “Me and My Foolish Heart,” didn’t sell but did get some critical acclaim and was a confidence booster for the fledgling group. The band never signed a deal with RAK, then a fading label. In search of a contract, they rented a London jazz club (an unsubtle irony) to showcase songs for other record companies. Eventually Johnny hates Jazz signed with Virgin Records.
The first Virgin single, “Shattered Dreams,” released early last year in Britain, launched the group. After two more hit singles there, “I Don’t Want to be a Hero” and “Turn Back the Clock,” they were being touted as the pop find of the year.
Detractors, of course, are having a field day with JHJ, trashing their music as pop pap--charging it neither has substance nor reflects adventurous spirit.
But boosters counter that JHJ makes classic pop. The cozy, dreamy “Shattered Dreams,” for instance, is certainly one of the best pop singles of the year.
Defending JHJ’s music, Hayes said, “Our critics are missing the point. We want to make music that’s simple, melodic and commercial. That’s where we’re coming from..”
According to Hayes, Nocito, an expert engineer who co-produced the album and co-wrote some of its songs, is a key to JHJ’s slick, easygoing sound. “People don’t realize how important the engineer is,” Hayes said. “It’s important that he’s part of the group and works closely with us. He’s one of the architects of our sound.”
So far JHJ hasn’t played live. In fact, that jazz-club showcase for the record company executives is the band’s lone live performance. “We’ll probably do some shows next year, after we have another album,” Hayes said. “We’re in no hurry. We’re doing all right without live shows.”
Before JHJ, Datchler had been writing songs and making singles without much success. But he is the only member geared to pop stardom. Until JHJ, Nocito, the lone American in this trio, was happy as a behind-the-scenes technician. Though drummer-keyboardist Hayes grew up in London in a musical family and bounced in and out of bands for years before becoming an A&R; man, he never expected to be a pop star either.
“Being in a group was just one option,” Hayes said. “Who ever thought it would turn out like this? I like working in the studio. When I was in A&R; that was the most fun. I learned a lot that helped me when I decided to get into this band.”
Hayes also learned to distrust managers and agents. That is one reason this band has neither. Hayes is particularly distrustful of managers:
“Why should we give 20% of what we earn to someone who does something we can do ourselves? Managers are nursemaids. We don’t need a nursemaid. They’re good at spending the artists’ money. We’d rather spend our own money.
“When I was with the record company I saw some real rotten, crooked managers. Of course there are a few good ones, but they’re too busy with their high-powered clients to give us proper attention.”
As managers of their own career, he said, the JHJ members aren’t perfect: “We’ve made some mistakes. And we’ll make more. But our mistakes are free. They don’t cost us 20% of what we make.”