Tuesday, July 26, 2011

John Shanahan - Coventry guitar player songwriter

John Shanahan was an outstanding guitar player songwriter / stylist in the style of John Martyn.

John Shanahan on the right
While I was running Hobo Magazine in the early / mid 70's. I used to look forward to John's floor spots at the Hand in Heart (Rod Felton and Dave Coburn's folk club) and  many other venues. Later in the 70's Pete Willow and his co-editors interviewed John (who was then living in Berlin) for Folks magazine. The article is featured below -

JOHN SHANAHAN   Spotlight on Shanners

" John Shanahan, much respected guitarist and songwriter by anyone who's seen him perform, paid a visit to his home town for a couple of weeks over Christmas.

Before returning to his new found life in Berlin, he called round to the Folk's HQ to tell us a little of what he's up to these days.

I sometimes feel
That the Berlin Wheel
Swings between the angels
and the Devil's heel..

Thus runs the chorus of the only song that John has completed since first moving to Berlin over a year ago. Entitled BERLIN WHEEL, it records his impressions of the city, setting the lyrics to typical Shanahan chord sequences, catchy, unusual and seemingly impossible for most other guitarist to play.

John Shanahan 1974
Although John still plays a lot of his own material, he confesses to being fed up with some of the earlier numbers. He demonstrated what was for him a departure in guitar style by using a flat pick and drop-D tuning and running off a medley of jigs and reels and Lennon / McCartney compositions, mainly by picking out the melody and harmony simultaneously on adjacent strings and throwing in the occasional standard (and instantly identifiable!) B Minor or G chord. The guitar work on some of his own material may have been more complex but he showed his expertise as a guitarist with these relatively simpler pieces by making them sound neat and professional: each string fully stopped or pulled where required, no hesitation and no hint of a duff note. John is undoubtedly one of the finest guitarists to emerge from the Coventry folk scene and puts many professional folk guitarists in this country to shame. How come then, he has to go abroad to find regular work.

Actually, it was partly chance that John visited Berlin in the first place. The opportunity arose when Alan McBride, fiddle player for that well traveled folk band Tara, and Dyers Arms drinking colleague, was going and there was some room in Folk at the Pitts the van. This was September 1977. Alan only stayed in Berlin for a week, but John met up with some people who introduced him to the local music clubs, so he stayed on. Up until this time, although much acclaimed as a folk artist in Coventry (and Manchester where he lived for a while), John was getting few bookings elsewhere.

His first club appearence had been at the Three Tuns in Coventry, over six years ago, and his only real break occurred in 1976 when he was given theopportunity to record an album. Perhaps 'given' isn't the right word, but anyway the chance arose from a meeting with Stead, driving force behind the Sweet Folk All Organisation, and guest  one Friday evening at the Magic Lamp folk club where John had turned up to do one of his frequent floor spots.

The Album, Dance of Flies, was recorded in November that year and consisted of 10 Shanahan classics, including Every man Jack, Full Circle Round, All on a Windy Night,. He was accompanied by classical guitarist Steve Gordon, whom he'd met in Manchester.

Many copies of the album were sold though it came under criticism from people who had seen John perform live. Some said the mix was poor in that John's characteristic guitar style did not really come over at all; others said said that rich quality of his voice was lost in the recording. However it contained a good selection of songs (even if it didn't include My Garden Swing) and a worthwhile record to have particularly as John is rarely seen around these days.

Copies of the record were sent to local radio stations, newspapers and music magazines, mostly at John's own expense, but apart from a good review in the Evening Jellymould by their enlightened reporter John Palmer, a dedicated Shanahan fan, the record did little to further John's career as a full time musician.

The format of English folk clubs is such that it is virtually impossible for an artist to get regular work int he area unless he resorts to Pub Singing which at best can be a thankless task. Venues in Berlin are different; folk clubs as we know them don't exist and singers like John, usually play in bars or music clubs who generally pay about five to eight pounds for a reasonable half hour set. English and Irish folk music is very popular at these places.

John averages abut four gigs a week. He obtains them by simply doing the rounds of the Berlin club circuit and asking for them. Once established he's virtually assured of regular work in this way. The proprietor or organiser pays him as soon as he's finished the set and walked offstage. Usually John works as a soloist but he occasionally accompanies others such as Northumbrian singer Ken Davidson with whom he worked for a short while.

One disadvantage of working in Berlin is the high cost of living compared with here, but as long as John continues to make his Mark (perpetrators of any more puns like that will be severly pun-ished - Ed) he finds one consolatory factor; the bars don't close till the last customer goes home.

H.L. / B.U / Pete Willow. 1979 - Folks Magazine

From the web Spreewaldtor I learnt that - "In 2004 he was playing in Euro Camp with the Max McColgan Trio (pictured here with John on guitar) The third member was Jimmy Dee from Glasgow. Euro Camp Spreewaldtor - The page (in German) says - John Shanahan is of Irish-English descent born in Coventry/England .

Since he was 18, was a singer/songwriter with an unusual style of guitar playing. He played in the clubs, on the stages and festivals of the British islands at home. When it visited the western part of Berlin in 1977, he decided to remain in the city. Meeting and joining in sessions with friendly Irish and English  musicians he discovered his love for Irish-English folklore, to which he finally dedicated himself from now on. From his original style of the Fingerpicking he turned to the interpretation of the fast dance melodies to the Flatpicking, in which he is a master of its subject."

Unfortunately we have no audio or videos of John Shanahan and his music. (UPDATE - John has seen this note and sent me five tracks which I've uploaded to Youtube and are posted here - well worth waiting for - enjoy - and thanks John!)

Track one from 1975 The Matter of the Matter

Track 2 from 1979 Berlin Wheel

Track 3 The Wind she Blew Through Her hair - 1980

Track 4 Kepler Song - 2010

Track 5 - Blessed are the Money Lenders 2010

Some more of John's Music can be found on You tube on this site http://www.youtube.com/user/playmeabluessong


  1. Can anyone out there let me have the full track listing of John Shanahan's dance of Flies LP on Sweet Folk & Country? If so, please let me know via the contact form at www.bristol-folk.co.uk for a future book on the Sweet Folk All labels! Ta!