Along with the likes of the Showstoppers’ ‘Ain’t Nothin’ But A House Party’ and the Isley Brothers’ ‘Behind A Painted Smile’, the Bandwagon’s 1968 classic ‘Breakin’ Down The Walls Of Heartache’ was one of a select band of soul dance tracks to have made the UK Top 10 without making any significant impact on the US charts. Its Top 5 success here was enough to make the Bandwagon relocate to the UK, where touring opportunities were plentiful in the wake of a hit, and where their follow-up records were also better received than they were ‘at home’. After the original group split up, Bandwagon frontman Johnny Johnson kept the name going with a number of sublimely crafted soul-pop singalongs that dominated the UK charts in the early 70s before ill health and changes in public tastes brought about a disappeance from the scene in the mid 70s.
Considering how popular some of their records really were when newly released, it’s something of a surprise that there’s never been a legitimate CD reissue of Johnny Johnson and the Bandwagon’s Epic and Bell hits until now. This collection, named after their ‘greatest hit’, contains the album and all of the originally-issued singles masters that Johnny and the group cut for Epic, plus all the A-sides and choice album tracks from Johnny’s Bell era – including the Top 10 hits ‘Sweet Inspiration’ and ‘Blame It (On The Pony Express)’. 40 years might have passed since some of this material was committed to tape, but the songs still sound as fresh and vibrant as the day that they were first pressed.
Johnny Johnson has never been regarded as a soul heavyweight in collector circles. Indeed, The UK’s most notable R&B ‘read’ of its era, Blues And Soul magazine, never interviewed Johnson once during his chart run. But the fact that most of the Bandwagon’s recordings are not rarities, due to their hit statuts, is somewhat at odds with the fact that most of them are undeniably great (just imagine the sort of price that the ‘Sweet Inspiration’ and ‘Walls’ 45s would command in Northern Soul circles if they had been obscurities that sold virtually nothing on release!). Hopefully this CD will instigate a reappraisal of the Bandwagon and, especially, of the gospel fire in Johnson’s lead vocals, which is always present and correct, regardless of how commercial his material.
“Breakin’ Down The Walls Of Heartache” provides a glorious reminder of a time when a record usually had to have a tune to make a chart, and a beat to fill a dancefloor. It’s also a long-overdue memorial to the late Johnny Johnson, whose small but perfectly formed collection of hits blazed a trail for all of the major 1970s soul successes that followed.
By Tony Rounce