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Six songs about Johnny

A while ago I realised that I have come across the name “Johnny” in songs of many different artists. I started thinking about what is that which makes different people around the world named “Johnny” interesting to write about, or what makes “Johnny” a good name to give to the character of a song. The first thing I thought was that maybe “Johnny” happens to be a very common name, so maybe these musicians happened to know somebody named Johnny who was worth writing a song about. Then I also considered that there is something cultural about the name “Johnny”; some specific meaning attached to it in different cultural contexts that might explain why an artist would use this name in a song. My first assumption proved to be a plausible one, when it comes to the USA. It appears that “John” was the second most common male name in the 1990 census in the US (see Wikipedia entry here). However, it is much less common in other parts of the world. In the remaining of this post I will test all these assumptions against six songs about Johnny.

1. Reagan Youth – Degenerated

“Degenerated” is a brilliant song off Reagan Youth’s first collection of songs from the period 1980-1984. The song talks about Johnny whose life is consumed between doing drugs and watching TV; his identity is derived from being a “man”, a role which he performs through finding women to get laid. The song ends with the prediction that Johnny’s degenerate lifestyle will be reproduced through creating a family and having children. As mentioned earlier, the name “John” is pretty common in the US, where Reagan Youth came from, so it could be that Reagan Youth chose the name that came to mind first. Or maybe the song was written for somebody, among the many people named “John” is the US, whom they knew personally.

2. Dead Moon – Johnny’s got a gun

Dead Moon is and will always be the undisputed leader of garage rock, and this song is a testament to their awesomeness. While one might think that it is a direct reference to the anti-war book and movie “Johnny got his gun”, or a song about young soldiers ready to die for their country, it is actually a song about resistance to oppressive rule and the willingness to die in order to shake off the shackles of oppression. The aim of a title which is very similar to the book might be to juxtapose the folly of fighting for the interests of the elite with fighting against injustice and oppression; a bad violence, good violence thing…

3. Bob Marley and the Wailers – Johnny was

Another amazing song which talks about “Johnny” comes from Bob Marley’s album Rastaman vibration (1976). It talks about a man who was shot dead on the street. Maybe it was somebody that Rita Marley (Bob Marley’s wife), who wrote the song, knew. In the case of this song, however, the choice of the name “Johnny” is more likely to have a cultural explanation. For one thing, it could be reference to the book. Even if it is not a reference, it could be argued that to some extent, through such a popular novel and movie, the name “Johnny” was culturally constructed as a name that is associated with war, suffering and death. Stiff Little Fingers did a brilliant cover of this song on their debut album.

4. D.I. – Johnny’s got a problem

“Johnny’s got a problem” is a song off D.I.’s second full length album Horse bites, dog cries (1985).  Although it is a less remarkable song among the explosive “Youth in Asia” and “Hang ten in east Berlin” and the genius “Little land” and “Spiritual Law”, it is a very catchy sing-along tune, typical for Californian punk. It talks about a guy who is wasting his life and who does not care if he takes others down with him to satisfy his selfish aims. On the one hand, the lyric “we used to look up to you” suggests that this song was  probably written for somebody that the band knew personally. On the other hand, the lyric “Johnny after Johnny you’re all the same” could suggest that there is a negative connotation to the name “Johnny” itself.

5. Riot – Johnny’s back

“Johnny’s back” is one of the most beautiful songs off Riot’s Thundersteel album. In a typical heavy metal fashion, it is an apolitical song about a guy whose effort to leave his old life behind did not come to fruition, so he returns to his hometown where he used to be a “somebody”. The song is sang in first person, although none of the band’s members is named Johnny. Maybe it refers to a person the band knew. It could still be an autobiographical song with the specific pseudonym chosen either due to specific cultural significance or because it is very common a name.

6. Chuck Berry – Johnny B Goode

“Johnny B Goode” is an archetypal rock ‘n’ roll song by Chuck Berry. It talks about a African American country boy from Louisiana who was an awesome guitar player and was meant to be famous. It is a testament to the dreams of a young man who comes from a disadvantaged background and his desire to use the only resource available to him, his talent, to improve his social and economic position. According to Berry himself, the song is part autobiographical and was initially inspired by Berry’s piano player, Johnnie Johnnson. Berry has written 30 more songs around the Johnny B Goode character (check out the Wikipedia entry here).


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