John Kelly, actor, musician + activist: Something Else! Interview

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John Kelly is a musician, writer, actor, campaigner for disability rights and, if truth be told, a bit of a gem — but don’t tell him that.

We first met outside a venue in Kings Cross, London. John was there with friends to see the Blockheads who were playing a three-day residency. Like the rest of us, he was enjoying a drink outside before the gig. We found common ground with an Irish connection and musical tastes — apart from free jazz that is, but more to come. John invited my friend and I to join him near the front of the stage, where arrangements had been made to accommodate his wheelchair.

Since then we have met a few times, when John has been singing or in musical productions. As well as being a musician and freelance performer with Graeae Theatre Company, John has sung with artists like Herbie Flowers and on major stages around the globe. Before a recent stage production, I watched as he conducted an unsuspecting theater-going audience in rousing choruses about disability rights in typical cheeky yet belligerent style. He regularly performs in his band Rockinpaddy in pubs, clubs and smaller venues and on occasion has taken to the stage as an honorary Blockhead.

John is happy playing to large or small audiences, and you do not get much smaller than intimate local gigs in London or Ireland or bigger than the millions of people who watched when, together with cohorts from the Graeae, John performed a version of Ian Dury’s “Spasticus Autisticus” at the opening ceremony of the Paralympics in London, 2012. The track, incidentally, was originally released in 1980 for the Year of The Disabled, and banned from air play at the time.

Yet, for his prodigious and various talents, John somehow remains firmly grounded. He finds time for friends and possesses an innate sense of humor and positivity yet, on certain issues, he can be forthright. He has an uncanny knack of seeming to be everywhere at once, popping up on stage, in shows, at court hearings around Disability Rights — in the UK at the moment, there are big battles around disability and Independent Living Fund grants — and even on the BBC news. I decided to get more of an insight into this intriguing and inspirational man.

Born in Balham, South London, to Irish parents who had settled in the UK in the late ‘60s, John spent much of his early life either in hospital in London or travelling to Ireland with family and grew up surrounded by music. “It’s in our blood,” John says. “Music is one of the most significant parts of Irish culture and perhaps our biggest export. Irish people are steeped in music. It was everywhere when I was growing up. My parents were always singing or playing records. They liked Irish traditional music, country and western, and rock and roll — so there was always Johnny Cash, Big Tom, the Dubliners, the Clancey Brothers, Wolfe Tones and country classics.”

John went to a school for disabled people where his music teacher encouraged him to play the piano and sing. His first performance was “The Seaweed Song” when he was about 8 years old. “It was,” John says, “a comical song about how you could tell what the weather was going to be like when you touched seaweed.” His teacher introduced him to Elvis songs and he remembers performing “Imagine” by John Lennon. John loved the buzz he got from singing and, when he was a bit older, he began to sing in pubs. “In Ireland” he says, “people always sang in pubs. If a singer was bad, the talking just carried on over the top but if they were good there was a lot of, “shh, shh — listen … lovely, lovely!” The “shh!” was often louder than the singer.” John found when he sang, people listened and there was quite a bit of, “shh”-ing so he realized he might not be bad at singing and enjoyed the reaction of people and performing.

John’s parents were a springboard for giving John confidence, as they saw no barriers in his life — and John never believed his physical disability would stop him trying anything. He developed his own way of looking at things. Role models as such, apart from the usual teen influences of the time, were few. He says, “There were few disabled people to identify with but I liked Elvis and other artists.” John’s musical tastes, like his influences, were pretty eclectic. He says, “I developed a liking for edgy material including ska, British metal — short, sweet, high energy tracks, not long self indulgent stuff — rockabilly, rock and roll and punk. The groove and message of reggae’s peace, love and understanding, along with a message for change and freedom, also were influences for me. The songs about freedom had links I feel with some Irish songs, and now with the songs I sing about disability stuff. Ian Dury was someone I admired, and although he was not really a role model for me at first, he became a huge one later on when I learnt he was a disabled person too. Brilliant!”

John remembers watching Ian on Top of The Pops doing “What a Waste,” observing how he held the mic and did the smallest of shrugs to the beat. “Those were things I could identify with,” he says. “I bought this album called Midnight Hustle (K-Tel 1978) full of rubbishy pop songs — except for ‘What a Waste.’ I pretty much wore out the vinyl, where I continuously replaced the stylus needle on its playing position.”

After his “Seaweed Song” debut, John began taking part in musical events and performed Elvis Presley, John Lennon, the Everly Brothers — and punky covers of songs like “Jilted John” by Jilted John (alias Graham Fellows), “purely as it was daft and had my name in the title.” His first band were called WAC (We Are Cripples) and John has no illusions about the standard of their performances. “We were,” he says with a laugh, “absolute rubbish! We had only a snare drum and a high hat — the rest of the stuff we made as our school had few instruments. They probably thought crips wouldn’t be in proper bands, only good for happy flappy tambourine stuff. How wrong could they be? [Laughs.] I had a guitar on my lap and we just made a load of noise, basically.”

When he was about 15, John watched a film which had a profound impact on how he thought about playing. “It was a short, maybe 10 or 15 minute documentary about a group of disabled blokes who played open-tuned guitars on the trays of their wheelchairs,” Kelly says. “They had adapted their style to hold the guitar differently from the traditional way. It made me see the possibilities of adapting and modifying various instruments.”

Kelly continues: “After WAC, I progressed. I met a mate’s brother called Angus, who played guitar. We worked together and played a youth club gig in Epsom, South England, with a guy called Jim, playing mainly covers and songs with a few chords. ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ by AC/DC, ‘Wild Side of Life’ — the Status Quo version — and ‘Stand By Me’ by Ben E. King were standards. I then formed the Electrics, a much more energetic band and performed songs by the Ramones and we began writing our own material. The Electrics built up a bit of a following. I’d say a rare Electrics T-shirt might get over 50p now, if you put it on eBbay. Our drummer Gary went on to become a member of Praying Mantis.”

John and another member Nick began writing their own material, and soon the Electrics became ADR (Another Dead Rabbit) — named after a road trip to a gig in the New Forest. They began gigging in pubs and clubs, playing their own numbers with a few covers.

ADR were popular in the south of England and also played pubs and clubs in South London. They almost got signed by a record label, but the venture was halted in its tracks when the band went on stage inebriated after being left alone in the bar too long before setting up for a gig. John was still playing his own material and got invited to America to play gigs in Memphis and Nashville. He played with Linda Gale Lewis (sister to Jerry Lee), and with a few session musicians from Fats Domino’s band.

Through all this, John kept up his work with young people — focusing on inclusion. He believes music plays a key role in youth work. This led to travel and John found musical opportunities. He says, “I nearly always managed a few gigs while travelling and played in Russia, Poland, Estonia, France, Germany — all over Europe, in fact — as well as America and most recently Brazil and back to Germany with Reasons To Be Cheerful [a theater production written by Paul Sirett and based around the songs of Ian Dury and the Blockheads]. I learned to set up gigs with basic gear and how to work a crowd in pubs and clubs, to deal with not being listened to or given time to set up. It was all part of the musical learning curve.”

Until six or seven years ago, John was gigging fairly regularly but youth work was still his main job. He combined this with gigs here and there and was, in his words, “pretty OK with life.” Then things changed when John became involved with Graeae Theatre Company. They asked him to take part in the evolution of a new idea for the show Reasons to be Cheerful. John thought, “Fuck, singing Ian Dury songs — who wouldn’t want that?” He assumed Graeae would use him for rehearsals and to develop the show: “I went home in my mate’s taxi on the first evening and thought, ‘Well, that’s that I have lived the dream and helped develop vocals for a show by a world-renowned theater company and sang Dury numbers — and I got well paid. Happy days.'”

However, a few days later John got the call to ask him to continue as lead vocalist for the live show when it went on tour three months later. “It was not really until I got to Stratford East to open the show after three months of rehearsals I realized this was really happening,” Kelly says. “I always thought I would stand in until they got a proper singer/actor in. I never seriosuly thought it was going to be me.”

Kelly got a vocal coach — not because he couldn’t hold a tune, but because the producer were worried about his stamina. “It turns out my impairment works on my side,” Kelly adds, “because I don’t sing in the usual way — you know, diaphragm, and all that. But I had to work at it, and this created the right sound they wanted. My brilliant coach Chris taught me how to breathe properly, getting enough oxygen to keep going. He told me because I sing from a seated, slightly twisted position, my singing style is unique and in theory I should be wrecking my voice every night. But he said my body and style have adapted and the method works powerfully with an impressive range that blows the proper-singing theory, whatever that is, away. He developed my warm-up routine to suit my distinct bendy needs. For two and a half months, we toured and the voice somehow kept going. On that tour, I learned more skills — like how to be interviewed, stamina, creating the right conditions to perform my best. I watched an interview with Ian and realized we had more in common with having to work at the vocals. He got the same aches and pains I got when you perform right.”

Ian Dury, in fact, became more than just a role model; he was almost a guide. John admired the risks Dury took. “His spirit,” Kelly says, “was with the show and gave it grit, realism and an unbelievable strength that rubbed off on everyone involved in a lovely way — including the audiences, who were just amazing. Ian’s example gave me a new braveness to start being a bit more risky; just being honest, listening and saying what was in my heart.” Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae, has also been a huge influence. “Jenny gave me that discipline to listen and find the moment to make it happen,” Kelly says. After Reasons, John stayed with Graeae as part of the team for a production of Weill’s Threepenny Opera and no doubt there will be future productions.

Performing, whether on stage or at a gig, for John, is powerful emotionally. “As a person, I feel both confident and nervous which are contradictory.” he says. “I feel confident we can have a great fun night if the right conditions are there, but I always feel nervous going on stage and playing or singing. I perform a mix of my own stuff and covers, depending on the gig. I have a hidden song-writing folder at home where I put all the songs and work on them until I consider them right for me. Then I test them bit by bit, and then I share material I think other people will like and that’s probably only 10 percent of what’s written in my folder. Usually, I know when I get things right from the reactions I get. I still get blown away when I get applause. With Reasons, it was incredible, seeing people get up and dance and appreciate what was going on. It was amazing. At a gig when you hear people singing your own songs afterwards, it is a privilege and something amazing to see. It’s like being given your best birthday present. Sometimes, I get, ‘what’s that bloke in a wheelchair doing there?’ but not often. I know loads of talented disabled people and, in the music world, they still need to be making an impact. Being a musician is very important.”

Kelly realizes he may offer something a bit different and thinks sometimes performers can come across as a bit self centered, because they ask for things that ordinarily might seem demanding. “But,” he adds, “if they get the balance right I can see this is what makes the professional musician shine. This is important in order to give the best performance.” He feels lucky he has the right support and conditions and talented people around him to be able to achieve what he needs. “It is all about extra work to reach the next level and you want to keep pushing,” Kelly says.

“I found all audiences really have been appreciative of what I am about, and what I am saying with my songs,” he says. “I enjoy playing in Ireland as they get the idea there about having fun, being in the moment. However, to be honest, the same is true of theater audiences or playing to mates and friends down at my local, though these are often the most nerve-wracking gigs. Being a musician is to be in a very fortunate and privileged position.”

John is very aware of connecting with both the musicians on stage and the audience. “It is important how we set up due to my access needs,” Kelly says. “I need to be able to make eye contact but it’s also how the band interact and interplay. I like to sit where I can see everyone — which is easier at a gig than in a musical production. Audience interaction is vital, as you can see how they react to what you are doing, and it is important to me that people enjoy, we play better than well, and we all respond to making the moment. It is a relationship.”

John is always deeply evaluating his own work. “When I finish a performance, the nerves actually come back and I start to worry about what people are going to say and how they will react to what I’ve just done,” he says. “I always analyze how I might have done things differently. At night, in bed before and after a gig, I think — and that’s also the time I get new ideas, so it can be a sleepless but very creative time. Although I obviously get knackered and want to sleep, I just can’t until I’ve resolved what I’ve learnt or need to create next.”

I asked John if he has any philosophy. After some thought, he said, “My philosophy is not to take things too seriously, or you might end up crying or giving up. [Laughs.] I sing and write about love, hope and freedom, and I guess some serious issues, but really to laugh and smile at the ridiculousness of it all somehow makes you stronger. I feel the more people can be part of it, the better it is. It is funny how some musicians create a bit of a mystique about themselves, but I actually like the idea that people see me and think, ‘I could do that, or I want to.” I’m sure they could, if they put their minds to it and worked hard at it, as I do every day. Music has to be about enjoyment, fun. In doing that, you can help change stuff. If you get too heavy, you can get a bit too up your own arse. Music enriches your days. It is my beginning, middle, end and everything, really. When I play and perform I want people to come, enjoy and have fun, even if the subject is serious and important. I want to try different things. I have a friend who is getting me into jazz — something I am keen to try, as long as there’s no airs and graces and it can be enjoyed.”

As to the future John wants to improve, to do gigs that people enjoy, to write better material. He wants to continue to do pubs and clubs — and, whatever the situation, he will give the best he can so audiences enjoy it. He is working on a new music project called Songs that Changed our Lives, focusing on music that has become a catalyst for social change or, more generally, which are a marker in our life’s journey.

“I am excited about that” he says. “I am politically involved with the UK Disability Movement and the Independent Living movement. I have been doing a lot of work there. We recently won a high court case against the UK government about their decision-making processes, and go back to court in the next few months to fight to save The Independent Living Fund which enables the most severely disabled people to live independent lives, a basic human right. I’d rather not have to fight for these things, but we aren’t giving up, although these are worrying times for me as it threatens my ability to work and tour. We used a lot of energy with the first win, but we will not go away. With the support of other artists, musicians and supporters we will summon energy to keep up the fight, because it is just and for the benefit of more, not the few.”

Mysteriously John says he has a few more music projects for 2015, and is working hard in the background to make these happen. “So” Kelly says, “I guess, as they say, ‘watch this space.’ I have plenty of gigs coming up over Christmas so lots going on to keep me busy — and exhausted.”

I asked John if he gets any spare time, and what he does with it. “I manage to get some time and I listen to all sorts of music,” he says. “I am kind of an eclectic. Most of it is guitar oriented, but I also like proper songwriters and musicians like Billy Joel, Elvis Costello and others. I like dance and electric music. Music technology is an emerging area in my solo performance work, as it enables me to do so much. I love Erasure, then there’s my old favourites the Pogues, Saw Doctors, Toots and the Maytels, Bob Marley, AC/DC, obscure little Irish bands and, of course, Ian Dury and the Blockheads. I really like their new material, and the fact I have got to know these legends a bit. I learn from them, especially [lead vocalist] Derek [Hussey], who I have the odd jar and chat with as he lives nearby, and [ex-Blockheads saxman] Davey Payne came to see us in Truro when the show was there on tour — magic. I like material with an edge. You know, where you can hear a raw vocal still left in the mix, not over produced. Also people who sing in the vernacular like Lily Allen, Billy Bragg, Madness, Chas ‘n’ Dave and some older musicians like Robert Wyatt.”

As for hobbies, Kelly says “mainly web design and photography. I am not good at them but I enjoy them. I read here and there, lots of music material and I like socializing. I get asked now and then if I’ll write, and I’m jokingly thinking of writing a book based on my experiences and uses of drinking straws from around the world. Drinking straws and maybe sticks, which I use to reach and do things with as my arms don’t reach that far. A good stick is very important to me and I always take a small variety on tour with me for different tasks. My mates, friends and family are of course important parts of my life.”

Regarding disability issues Kelly adds: “The idea of ‘I want to see the person and not the disability first’ is rubbish, as they are all part of the same person. I don’t hide the fact I am a disabled person because of how people react or respond to my impairment. I feel being a disabled person has enriched and given me a different view on life, but it is not only that which defines me — even if it’s what people might think is the problem, they are just wrong It’s steps and stairs and stares and attitudes that are the real barriers. Just as important to who I am is my background, culture, family, going to a segregated school, experiencing being different, going to university and realizing I had the same insecurities and nervousness as everyone else had.” John is clear that people need not worry about seeing him as a disabled person/artist and they also should not ignore the fact. It is not the negative stereotype society feels it is. Music allows him to change thoughts and ideas. “When you hear a musician with something to say, it changes your perspective and how you feel” Kelly says. “Music helps me explore and change myself and if people come along with that and change their own thoughts as well- whether it is about disability or anything else, that is good.”

John is adamant that he does not want to bang on about disability issues, as it’s not his defining feature but he says he will always be loud and proud about it — “because I’m not going to hide it,” he says. “It has not got the negative connotation society gives it. Things have changed since I was a boy and that is because we have redefined ourselves. Music is a critical part of that emancipation. It is about actually being proud of who and what I am, because other people have taught me that it’s OK to be different. Disabled people are resilient, creative and strong, despite often being the most disempowered in our society. It’s totally not the stereotype about being ‘brave and courageous’ but about being creative, risky, subversive, cool, edgy, adventurous and … just a little bit naughty.”

Each time I have met John, he has another project on the go or idea he is thinking about. From the get-go, he has been a person I felt better for meeting because he has a great take on life and has a deliciously mischievous mind. He can also tell a good story or few about his motorized wheelchair running out of batteries on his way back to his hotel, or events he has been to. Some people in life amaze you not just once but time and again because of the different things they can turn their hand to — and do them well. This is such a man.

Our interview ended with me just a little wiser about what drives this slightly manic, fun loving, hugely personable man. The thing which sticks with me is how John opened the interview by thanking me for considering him worthy of a profile. If ever someone deserved more recognition, it is John Kelly. Oh, and the free-form jazz issue? Well, John is willing to give it a go and we have a gig organized. Who knows? We might just hear a bit of free form at a Rockin’ Paddy gig. With this guy, nothing would surprise me. As John said earlier, “watch this space!”

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, and, among others. Contact Something Else! at
Sammy Stein
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