published: 21 /
Dave Goodwin in 'Vinyl Stories' talks to John Rothera, the co-owner of The Chameleon Arts Cafe in Nottingham, about his favourite vinyl records
As I walk into The Chameleon Arts Cafe above a row of shops on Long Row in Nottingham, it looks like a scene from a disaster movie. The ceiling has fallen in and there is lathe and plaster everywhere, and the subject of this month's ‘Vinyl Stories’, John Rothera, is somewhere in the middle.
John is a local lad that has been playing music in a band for a while, and is completely obsessed with music. He was, to quote him, “obsessed enough to go to uni to study popular music i.e jazz, rock etc. My dissertation was to hold a show so we got the band together and a gig. Bingo!” Since then he has been working as a chef and playing with his band, Us Damn Natives.
According to John, it's all Dan's fault. Not the ceiling falling down but the situation they are in. Although that could easily be Dan's fault too. They play in Us Damn Natives together along with another guy that's involved with this called Nick.
“Dan's been working here for years,” says John. “And we said jokingly a few times, ‘Wouldn't it be great to take the place over?’ because we knew the last owner was getting ready to sell up. So, we approached the old owner, and asked him if he would sell to us and he agreed. We tried to get funding for it from various sources including the Virgin start-up thing without success, so we turned to our mums and dads who invested a sum to get us up and running. My background is in catering really, and if you look out the back there's a really big working kitchen so we can do meals and turn it into a nice bar/eatery in the day and a bar/music venue, which it has been for the last twelve years, in the evenings which is what the city is crying out for. We took the place over with the diary full of gigs, so it's been manic trying to work on it and keep it running. And it's doing okay, believe it or not."
But there is an underlying problem here. Despite all the hard graft they are putting in, it could all be taken away from them. But it's not just them. It's the whole city that would be losing what is essentially one of very few places where unsigned, new acts and even accomplished bands can get to be heard. For the last twelve years folk have been climbing The Chameleon’s steps to witness some of Nottingham's and the country's best musical talent. This problem could also affect other music venues around The Chameleon. At the back of the alley where the stairs are to the venue are some really old buildings, which have been bought by developers who want to change them from what they are now into residential accommodation. Why on earth someone would want to live in a bin alley makes the mind boggle, but if they are successful there is a chance that The Chameleon could be asked, sorry forced, to turn the music off.
And you remember me saying it's not just them? Well, there is at least one other music venue (which has already objected) that backs on to it and uses the alleyway for rubbish and the ejection of unwanted parasites if you get my drift. So, these music loving, entrepreneur funsters could be in dire straits before they've even put a brush in a paint pot. They hadn't even been told about it by Nottingham City Council, who had at this point given them at this point just twenty days to object.
Amongst all of this, John has brought with him his few items of vinyl down to the dusty Chameleon for us to chat about. Where do we sit? We wipe off a couple of chairs and a table, and off we go. It takes more than that to stop a good record in its tracks. Did you see what I did with that?
The first album out of his shiny plastic bag is a copy of David Bowie ‘s ‘Diamond Dogs’.
John bought a whole load of records early on which weren't good. "I'm talking Kiss and such like. Kiss did some good stuff but not the kind of stuff I bought. To save my face a bit I bought some Guns N’ Roses too which sort of made up for my earlier mistakes and became really important to me as a teenager. Playing the guitar at sixteen I was hearing this stuff and thinking ‘No way, how can he do that?’ Just after uni I met a guy called Luke who eventually became a very good friend and still is, who had a huge record collection. He persuaded me to by a record player and bought me ‘Diamond Dogs’. So, there I was with a set of B&O deck and speakers and an amp, and off I went into the vinyl sunset. This is the one that started me off. I'm completely obsessed with Bowie anyway, but this ignited my passion for Bowie and of course the rest of the vinyl to come."
One thing I did notice about this was that the album itself was in pristine condition. I'm talking spotless! John admits that he is super anal about his records. He also confesses that if he buys vinyl now he always buys the brand new re-issue of whatever it is, just because it is in pristine condition and no-one has ever sullied that record but him. There was that, plus the that fact that he saw an original pressing of 'Space Oddity' on sale in a shop for over £150 so he figured it was out of his reach to buy old.
After John had got his record player, he delved in to his parents’ collection and found that his mum’s taste was terrible. She had things in there like Sugababes. But on the whole they had a really great collection of records. In fact the next one, ‘Innervisions’ by Stevie Wonder, was his mum’s.
"I absolutely love that record!" John reveals. "As far as I'm aware, that was the first record where he started drifting away from the mainstream soul stuff and the Motown sort of sound he had focused on before. He started going, not proggie, but on a different course and started to push boundaries. ‘Golden Lady’ and ‘Too High’ are just phenomenal tracks on a brilliant album."
The next record, ‘The White Album’ by the Beatles, is out of his parents’ box. I asked if they knew it was missing, and John assured me they did. He never really got the Beatles at first, but his dad did in a big way.
"He had all these stories about dressing up as a kid at school and doing mimes to the tracks. My dad plays guitar and all he ever plays pretty much is ‘Blackbird’. This is a single version that isn't that often seen so I thought I'd bring it along, and it is a fantastic album. It's kind of special to me personally regardless of what's on the record because my Dad has entrusted in me to keep it looked after. It made me realise what an important era that was. If you lived through that time, you were into the Beatles."
‘The White Album’ is pretty special! ‘Honey Pie’ is just brilliant and the second part where it goes all weird and shit is just awesome, but there are some songs that I don't like ’Ob-La-Di, Ob-La Da’ is awful. And as you can see it is in plastic sleeves. I just can't help myself. But in my defence, this is my dad’s to be fair. And I have brought this next one along because it is yellow."
John reveals another side to his passion for vinyl. He loves coloured vinyl.
"The whole reason I stopped buying CDs and carried on buying vinyl is that you can feel it. You can pick it up and it's there in your hands, and it is great. You can hold the sleeve open and smell it!”
When he eventually pulls the record out of the sleeve, I find that it a yellow vinyl version of the Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band’.
“I like it as an album but again its one of the most important concept albums of all time. ‘A Day in the Life’ is just awesome, and ‘Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite’ is an amazing piece of music with the honky tonk piano in it”.
The next album he brings out is Frank Zappa’s ‘You Are What You Is."
“I was in Lincoln once with an ex-girlfriend, I think. Well, it was a girl anyway and she said she knew a great record shop to check out. I started thinking it was going to be crap, so when we got there I was amazed at the loads and loads of Zappa stuff they had. It wasn't extortionate, so I bought it. Quite shamefully I first heard about Zappa from a chap that was giving me guitar lessons, who got me into all sorts of lame hair metal bands such as Mr Big and Extreme, but Steve Vai was another influence for me with the guitar. I found out that he played in Zappa's band and it all went from there. Frank Zappa is one of those few artists who you can say there is no other person like him. The best stuff for me was in the early seventies with George Duke, but he's just class and this album is way up there. The whole album though is about the media and religious institutions, and the last side is about someone wanting to commit suicide because he can't cope with it all and who gets saved by this ugly woman."
The last one John handed me was a proper curveball, ‘Scandalous’ by Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears.
"I got this one because my ex-girlfriend saw the band on ‘Later...with Jools Holland‘ and really liked them. At that time we were not going in a good direction relationship wise, so I thought if I bought her the record she might like me! It didn't work, but I ended up with a really good album. It’s like modern funk, and there's a track on it called ‘Mustang Ranch’ which is about them going in to a whorehouse while they were on tour once which is cool. And it’s on clear vinyl too!"
So there you go, John Rothera’s ‘Vinyl Stories’. We will be visiting John again to delve a little further into his passion for coloured vinyl. John is just in the process of asking legal advice about the whole situation they find themselves in. The situation itself deepens when you understand the enormity of the contribution The Chameleon has and will make to the music scene. The sound-man, for instance, has the reputation for being one of the best in country. The venue has showcased bands such as the Sleaford Mods, who have gigged there on countless occasions, along with bands such as the Hip Priests, Luxury Stranger and Desperate Journalist. With a bit of backing, let's hope they can save one of Nottingham's and the Midlands' top music venues.