Disappearing as quickly as he appeared to arrive, Johnny Dream was omnipresent in The Blinders’ uprising. Mysterious agitator and alter-ego of the Doncaster-Manchester trio, he was as notorious for his bat-like appearance as his provocative persona.
The only sides anyone knew of Johnny Dream, were those he chose to reveal. To some he’d appear as the man in black; his Joker eyes tarred with melting ink, like evil bleeding from the reaper himself. Others believed him to be The Blinders’ unsummoned hitchhiker; their dark passenger channelling the spirit of Arthur Brown with political activism in his arsenal. Johnny Dream, of his Codeine Scene, age unknown, has been found dead, gunned down between the eyes.
Those avenging Dream’s honour? A trio of urban outlaws from Doncaster by way of Manchester, riding into town with the blistering brocade of new album Fantasies Of A Stay At Home Psychopath. Bringing up the rear, Matty “Deadeye” Neale whose demonic thousand-yard stare over a drum skin will paralyze with fear; Charlie “Bruiser” McGough who, it’s said, could draw blood with one almighty axe-wielding swing of his bass, and Thomas “Books” Haywood, whose mind slays with the words of a simple sentence. The Blinders, to give their wanted name, are lawlessly leading Fantasies’ cross-contamination of society’s asylum, in which Mary Magdalene brushes her bare shoulders with vulgar lunatic dictators, dumb fucks and psychopaths, in an unapologetic pursuit of answers.
In his own Columbia, Johnny Dream cried out at corrupt society, a dystopian wasteland where dictators ruled as master manipulators. On Fantasies, The Blinders edge towards a similarly unsettling frontier but this time as ringleaders of their own rodeo. Through an alternate Westworld they’re barging into the saloon and upturning tables; the mirror Dream held up to society now lies shattered amongst the dust as they appear to embrace the bargaining and acceptance stages of grief, and prophesise possible futures beyond Dream’s angry reflections of the present. The universe of Brave New World has expanded to new world order with further damnation of doublespeak, but the biggest threat now is the silence of the underclass as Fantasies lassos the existential and aims from the head as well as the heart.
The blue-collar trudge of ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ is an ode to class struggle whilst ‘Lunatic With A Loaded Gun’ glares at the newspaper headlines and propaganda of Dream’s discourse then flicks a middle finger at broken America and its delusions of grandeur. The ferocious ‘Mule Track’ poses questions of where ultimate power truly lies as it wanders the path of illuminati conspiracy theories with philosophical and religious texts under its arms. Blending fiction with tragic fact, The Blinders run rings around cynics with cyclical imagery, whether through ‘From Nothing To Abundance’s “wheel of Big Ben”, the “Cannonball Mountain” of ‘Black Glass’ or each repeated coda, all a cautionary echolalia of Dream’s mantras that warn of a regretful future where history has repeated itself.
Unswervingly confrontational, Dream’s influence was etched on the faces of audiences who witnessed his bellicose sermons; young guns and old punks alike were all transfixed upon the gothic messiah before them. His outspoken tirades would make them question all they knew. He shook up their existence whilst dividing the congregation before him and stepping out with rallying calls to arms; “Come together we need each other,” he’d summon through Columbia’s ‘Rat In A Cage.’
In the absence of Dream’s rage, his fellow sharpshooters offer an intimate and perhaps more troubled dystopia as outside mob mentality is drawn inwards toward the self. Fantasies is solemn and quashes any notion of becoming a concept with eleven episodic vignettes from the workings of a concerned mind, each reaching a hand outward to offer potential solutions. Unlike Dream’s Columbia, Fantasies favours ‘You’ and ‘I’ which delivers hope at the hands of the individual and eyes of the beholder. And yet, from the inside, comes the inevitable awareness of being trapped by its surrounding walls, allowing inner turmoil to set in. Deeply personal, ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’ depicts a toxic relationship turned sour, ‘Rage At The Dying’ and the Starman waltz of ‘Circle Song’ are gut-wrenchingly anxious as they cut to the bone and ‘In This Decade’ closes with wilful acceptance up to its poignant close; “for in this decade there’s no knowing if there’s gonna be a tomorrow.”
With a knack for melody, Johnny Dream favoured fury. Emerging in the spotlight of The Blinders’ debut British Embassy show at SXSW, he channelled “a sound you can truly believe in,” according to event compère and broadcaster Steve Lamacq, yet with that came a short fuse. The fire in his gut was combustible, a fierce energy exploding with every frustration, inciting a melodic tempest to the point of doom-laden destruction.
Fantasies sees The Blinders pause for thought and widen the expanse of their sonic horizons among the vintage furnishings of Stockport’s Eve Studios. ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’ and ‘Lunatic With A Loaded Gun’ are torched with Columbia’s blistering threat of Armageddon with the words, “the world’s gonna burn” to the satanic chorus of backing vocals which cut through the grunge of ‘Mule Track’ and disorientating clubby swells of ‘From Nothing To Abundance.’ Only now, the scales are tipped; the atmospheric ‘I Want Gold’ is laced with found sounds which build upon Columbia’s fallen wine bottle field recordings and ‘electric jug’. Pushed and pulled, new ideas bend to the moment they splinter, as strands of twangy distortion unravel with Morricone-esque arrangement and the rusty sounds of jingling prison warden keys and hollow pipes. Percussion and snare shimmer like spurs at their heels, menacing organ drones and bongos drive through warped vinyl; although if Dream was around to have his way, their wicked experimentation would cut through the guitar storm and make Fantasies’ punch even more potent.
Serving up more surprises; fan favourite ‘The Writer’ is left for the cutting room floor and blistering live track ‘Fantasies Of A Stay At Home Psychopath’ is twisted into a sinister spoken word ‘Interlude’ allowing pause for breath. Their final selections show restraint and focus, as the sound has been sharpened like the lines of their funeral-ready suits.
As for Dream’s family, little is known. Preferring to reside in the company of his Codeine Scene, who he is survived by, rumour has it they have taken to a new ranch in Mexico where ravens pick at the skulls of cattle carcasses and Columbia’s heroes Orwell and Huxley hang in the humidity. Fantasies holds its friends as close; with PJ Harvey producer Rob Ellis at the helm, the bluesy ‘I Want Gold’ recalls The Doors’ ‘Riders On The Storm’ whilst turning a wry smile; “they say I can’t have it well I’m gonna get it.” And ‘Rage At The Dying’ is enchanting, like The Last Shadow Puppets leading a bleak procession which passes visceral rock opus ‘Black Glass’ as its tempo shifts from atmospheric to cataclysmic via the ruthless chaos of Sabbath.
If they’re not careful, everything The Blinders represent could lead to their own untimely demise. Should listeners heed their advice and the world eventually begin to heal, The Blinders as we know them will face a similar fate to their departed companion. It’s the world or them. In which case, Fantasies’ acoustic porch song finale ‘In The Decade’ – a bittersweet ballad akin to the freewheelin’ Dylan folk of Haywood’s recent ‘Cotton Eye Joe’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ covers – may hint at plans for their next life. After all, comfort has never been on the cards.
After a failed manhunt, Dream’s killer remains at large but his ruthless agenda remains. Whichever town The Blinders find themselves in next, Fantasies marks the moment they round up a new cavalry and wield their flag with extra all-seeing eyes. Hatches will be battened, babies will cry, and leading liars will scream; only then can justice be done.
Johnny Dream, dissident rogue and alter-ego, born unknown; died 31 December 2019