THERE’S SOMETHING WINNINGLY ENDEARING ABOUT THE MOMENT 15-YEAR-OLD JOHN LENNON McCULLAGH STRIKES UP LOUDLY IN SONG A FOOT AWAY FROM ME ON THE SOFA IN HIS PARENTS’ FRONT ROOM IN SOUTH YORKSHIRE.
With a lack of self-consciousness almost to the point of earnestness when he has guitar in hand, it feels as if he’s bursting to get music out of him (oh, to be young). His Dad – also called John – sits on the other side of the room grinning proudly, as he has every right to do: his son was the first act signed to 359 Music by Alan McGee, and is a few short weeks away from releasing his debut single. In this modest house on an estate with unassuming streets named after racecourses, McCullagh gallops through a version of NORTH SOUTH DIVIDE. There’s a moment during an aborted take when he suddenly realises he’s been singing the wrong lyrics, so pulls the song up like an only just controllable horse. There’s a surprised “oops!” just before the two Johns collapse into a merriment it’s difficult not to succumb to. It’s a warm and generous home and, during our evening together to record this edition of The Mouthcast, there is much chat and much laughter.
I dissolve into a brief fit of the giggles myself when John Snr reveals how the invitation for his son’s support slot to Richard Hawley (last month in Graves Park, Sheffield) came on the day of the gig itself – and a mere three hours before stage time. The drainpipe crooner had, apparently, heard a couple of tracks by the Doncaster youngster that lunchtime, and immediately asked that he be tracked down and shoe-horned into a spot on the bill. “We were actually in York,” explains John. “Family day out. Did one of them boat trips. I got the call but, the thing is, we couldn’t get off the bloody river for another half an hour – going up and down”… His son, dressed today in 1962 Beatnik chic, adds: “It were a right rush, but quite a good gig. Tell you the truth, I just wanted to get home and watch DAD’S ARMY though, you know?”… It’s the deadpan “you know?” that does for me, of course, but he may not actually be joking: there’s a stack of DVDs, and both Johns eulogise Croft & Perry’s finest, and Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge. Martin Scorsese’s documentary NO DIRECTION HOME – or it could be Pennebaker’s DON’T LOOK BACK – sits near the DVD player. More likely, it’s both.
At times almost a double-act, father and son explain how (after emigrating to Melbourne a few years ago) they travelled across Australia to follow the entire nine date run of Bob Dylan’s Antipodean tour – and one accidental night ended up sitting around with the band in a hotel bar after a show. The stories the seasoned musicians told him – of life with one of the indisputable icons of not only pop culture but 20th-century history – have left a vivid and utterly indelible mark on John the younger. His awe almost lurches into physical being.
From this house – and a childhood – filled with music (retro gig posters for the likes of Dylan and The Beatles on the walls; an ornament spelling out IMAGINE in white letters on the mantelpiece; vast quantities of CDs filed on a bookcase), John Lennon McCullagh has religiously fashioned his take on pre-HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED, pre-“Judas!”, Zimmerman.
“Who is this kid doing Dylan better than Dylan?” Alan McGee has said of the gig at which he first encountered McCullagh and, in truth, those observations are likely be repeated by the music press – though by some with perhaps far less generosity.
The 15-year old certainly works obediantly from The Early 1960s Dylan Template of rootsy guitar, harmonica and an impassioned something to say (even if no-one can actually ever do it as masterfully or, particularly, say it as eloquently as Dylan). But – crucially – McCullagh has youth on his side. This is base camp, not destination.
That a slightly shy young man from a staunchly Northern mining village in a generally ignored part of England should carry such an attachment to righteous American music that is – in some cases – now half a century old is quite remarkable, even in this age of the all-seeing iPod. McCullagh clearly absolutely worships the sound of those early Bob Dylan recordings, but the sense I get from his enthusiasm is that it’s actually as much in the spirit as it is the song. What Dylan seems to mean to him as a 15-year old, as he doubtlessly did to his Dad in years gone by, is the promise of limitless possibility brought about by awakening thought.
For those old enough to have developed their own long-ingrained attachment to Bob Dylan, and old enough to have strived but been stifled and stultified, what McCullagh may come to represent is not only a guilelessly charming and nostalgic sonic kick, but the poignance of a long-distance call from the absolute romance of youth, with a 50-year old message: the times they can (and, indeed, may even still) a-change. Stay pure and stick it to The Man, John.