Tomorrow Is So Far Away: A Conversation With Design’s Barry Johnston

design

The late 1960s were a time of musical transition–pop was transforming into rock music, and the hip sounds of the day were becoming harder, harsher, and louder, but not every artist gave themselves over to the trends of the day.

One such example is the vocal harmony group Design. In an era of Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Cream, the group–led by Tony Smith–veered into a sunny, folk-minded harmony group with a pop edge and a slight psychedelic tinge. Their sound was a sunny blast of AM radio pleasantries and killer harmonies, and though American success eluded them, they did find a home on the Morecambe and Wise variety show.

Their history, though, was not exactly the sunny day of their music. Most notably, leader Tony Smith would acquiesce as a result of personal struggles and professional burnout, leaving the band in November 1970, leaving Barry Johnston (AKA Barry Alexander) to take control of the group.

Even with their television success, the band would feel painted into a corner–being a variety show act meant that they would have to surrender some of their creativity in order to perform the hits of the day, creating the frustrating duality of being a popular band with strong songwriting skills, but with an audience that preferred their weekly covers. Though seen by millions, their television audience did not translate into a record-buying audience. Thus, excellent records like Tomorrow Is So Far Away and Day of the Fox would go ignored–a tragedy, really, considering the superior quality of the material found in their grooves.

Listening to those records forty years later, such issues matter not. The bulk of their recordings have been reissued by RPM Recordings, and are certainly worth seeking out.

One thing I find interesting about Design is that you started as teenagers during the zenith of British rock, and the halcyon days of psych-rock. As a young man who wasn’t born at the time, it seems that a vocal harmony group would not necessarily be the obvious choice for a young band. What was Tony’s selling point on the project?

As you probably know, Design was formed in December 1968. The music scene was a lot more varied in those days and there were many different types of bands, including several boy/girl vocal harmony groups. The Mamas and the Papas had been huge around the world but they were now in decline and the Fifth Dimension had scored only two hits (their big success would start the following year). So there was room for a brand new boy/girl vocal group, especially in the UK.

I’m not sure Tony ever intended to be in a group but after he met John and Geoff, and the BBC radio producer Alec Reid introduced him to Gabrielle and Kathy, he realized that there was an opportunity for him to create a new vocal group that would sing his songs.

Tony had lived in France and was a fan of the Swingle Singers, a French a cappella vocal group with eight singers. He wanted to form a similar group that would be unaccompanied apart from his guitar, where the voices would sing the parts normally played by the instruments. On our first album you can hear this in several songs where the girls use their soprano voices in place of violins in the background.

The sound was a mixture of folk and pop, jazz and classical. When Tony asked me to listen to the group for the first time they had been together for less than a month, but they already sounded unlike any other vocal group I had heard and it was very exciting. Tony wanted another singer and songwriter in the group, so when he invited me to join them I accepted straight away.

We all believed that we were creating something new and we were convinced we would be successful and that was what inspired us to join Tony in Design.

When you first started getting together and recording, what was the response of those around you? Did you get a lot of support, or was there a concern that investing your time in a sound that was starting to become a bit passe was a foolish endeavor?

As I have mentioned earlier, when we started out together the sound was still popular. We recorded our first album during the summer of 1969 when the Fifth Dimension had international hits with ‘Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In’ and ‘Wedding Bell Blues’ so boy/girl vocal groups were still being successful. Everyone was very supportive. They could see that we were trying to be different, we wrote our own material, we could sing, we had two beautiful girls in the group – all we needed was a hit song!



You had a publishing deal with Apple Records. Did the label ever offer any support or any interest in what you guys were up to?

I was signed only as a writer to Apple Publishing, which was separate from the Apple record label. Six months after I signed the contract with them the two men who had agreed the deal left the company. I don’t think I ever met their replacements and they certainly showed no further interest in me. I had no support from them or from anyone else at Apple.

When I decided to join Design I contacted Apple Publishing and asked to be released from my contract. They had never done anything with my songs, so they agreed to let me go without any argument. I went on to record several of my Apple songs such as ‘The Minstrel’s Theme’ and ‘Once Upon A Time’ with Design.


I get the feeling that at least initially speaking, Design was very much the vision and creation of Tony – conceptualizing the band, writing most of the material. What kind of leader was he? In terms of creativity, what do you recall most about those early days and working with Tony?


In the early days Design was Tony and Tony was Design. The group was his idea and his concept. He was (and still is) highly intelligent and a very imposing personality. It was exciting to work with him and we were happy to follow his dream because he convinced us (and everyone else) that he knew what he was talking about. Tony was extremely creative and was always writing new songs. As soon as they were finished he would teach us the song and give us our harmony parts to sing. As time went on we started to add our own harmonies but Tony was always the lead singer and the main arranger.


Tony departed quickly. Was there a particular incident or happening that caused him to leave?

Tony’s departure had been building up for a long time. From the day we met him he was a heavy drinker but he was able to handle it and it was part of his creative energy. For the first eighteen months it didn’t matter because we were either rehearsing in our apartment or recording in the studio so it did not affect our work. But when our first single ‘Willow Stream’ was released in the UK in May 1970, we began to do publicity and appear on television for the first time and that is when the drinking became a problem.

After the second TV show Tony collapsed and we had to do our next TV show without him. He ended up in hospital with an ulcer and a ruptured hernia. We were already booked to do a month-long tour of US army and NATO bases in Germany and Italy so Tony came with us, wrapped up in bandages, and had to perform sitting down.

When we got home Tony became very depressed. The single had not been a hit and the tour was not a success. He began to disappear for days at a time. We had to start making decisions without him. One day in November we woke up to find Tony had gone from the apartment and a few days later Alec Reid rang us to say Tony had left the group. It was a combination of overwork, exhaustion and ill health. He simply could not handle the pressure anymore.


What kind of impact did his leaving have on your creativity, and on the band, considering his massive role in the first album? Did you just want to chuck it all?

When Tony left we were in a state of shock but it was also a relief. We had not been able to work while he was ill and so we had no money and an empty diary. We talked about splitting up but Alec Reid came to the rescue and booked us to record a session for BBC Radio. It was the first time we had sung professionally without Tony and we sounded almost the same. It gave us the confidence to carry on without him.

The first album was ready to be released and we had started recording the second album. If we finished it we could collect an advance on our royalties from Epic Records and we would be able to pay our bills, so we went back into the studio. Without Tony we all had to be more creative and step up to the plate. I had several songs already written and now John and Geoff started to write as well. Instead of one lead singer we shared the vocals and we had all learned enough to do our own vocal harmony arrangements. The fact that we each had more input and involvement after Tony left was a definite factor in the group staying together.

Another important factor was that we all lived together in a large five-bedroom apartment in London. We had moved in together soon after the group was formed, so that we could rehearse more easily, and we had become like a family. John and Kathy were a couple and so were Geoff and Gabrielle. It made it harder for the group to split up after Tony left, because we were together all the time anyway! If we had lived apart, Design might have collapsed much more easily.


Something I notice in the transition from the first album to what Design would do later is that there’s a move away from the gentle, soft baroque-folk and more into rock and roll. Recording Beatles songs might not be surprising, but your take on “Dirty Work” was fascinating to me.


The move away from our original baroque-folk style into folk-rock was due to several things. The main reason was the need to get airplay. The record company kept telling us that our music was too gentle and soft to be played on pop/rock radio. Without Tony on his twelve-string guitar we were able to bring in other top session musicians such as Herbie Flowers and Chris Spedding to give us a stronger rhythm section.

We had also started to perform live in the clubs and the quieter songs didn’t work so well on stage. So we had to adapt if we wanted to keep working. We didn’t record many covers. ‘I Feel the Earth Move’ by Carole King was the opening number in our stage act for a bit, while ‘The Jet Song’ and ‘A Famous Myth’ were sent to us by a publisher at Bell Records. ‘Second Love’ was by a friend of ours and we met Dave Shannon, the writer of ‘Pisces Hymn’, on a TV show in Scotland.

I can’t remember why we chose ‘Dirty Work’. We all liked Steely Dan so one of us must have suggested it when we needed a track for the fourth album. We had already recorded a song called ‘Someday I’ll Be A Farmer’ by Melanie Safka that Gabrielle was going to sing but it just didn’t work in the studio. So we offered her ‘Dirty Work’ instead and she sang it in her Melanie voice! It was kind of weird but it worked.

Speaking of covers, the cover of McCartney’s “Man We Was Lonely” so soon is quite enjoyable. Considering it’s a relatively obscure song, did Paul ever hear it or give you feedback about it?

We recorded ‘Man We Was Lonely’ about nine months after the album McCartney was released in 1970. After Tony had left the group we were short of material for our second album and we thought it would be fun to sing and an upbeat way to end the album. As far as I know we were the first people to cover the song.

My parents used to live almost opposite Paul McCartney’s house in St. John’s Wood, London, so when our album Tomorrow Is So Far Away was released I delivered a copy of the LP to Macca’s house with a letter from us thanking him for the song. We didn’t hear back from him (I didn’t expect to) but I would be very surprised if he didn’t play the track to see what we had done with his song!

In 1976 we recorded our final album By Design at Abbey Road studios, which was a short walk away from Paul’s house, at the same time as Wings were recording Wings at the Speed of Sound. We used the same studio and on one occasion Paul and Linda McCartney and Denny Laine sat at the back of the control room waiting for us to finish. Paul said, ‘Hello Design’ and obviously knew who we were but he didn’t say anything about ‘Man We Was Lonely’ – but that is hardly surprising as it was five years since we had recorded it.


You also developed a reputation as a variety act, and there’s a comment in the notes about how you were a popular act with a following but no record sales. Was there ever a desire to focus on being a TV performing act, building your audience that way, and ultimately having the recording side of things becoming less of an importance, or did you want to avoid becoming a “housewife’s favorite?”


We never wanted to become a popular television act, it just happened! Once we had been on two or three shows we kept being booked again for more and we ended up appearing on more than fifty TV shows. As we were finding it so difficult to get our records played on the radio we thought that the television exposure might make us more popular and people would buy our records. The record companies thought so too, which is why they kept releasing our singles and albums.

But the people who watched the TV shows were the Mums and Dads, and not the kids who bought the records, so that didn’t work. All that happened was that we became known as a ‘housewife’s favourite’, as you put it, and Radio One and the other pop/rock radio stations refused to play us even more!

The other problem was that most of the TV producers did not want us to perform our own material. We could have stopped doing television altogether, as we did after Geoff and Gabrielle left the group, but we could not turn back the clock. We had defined our own image as a good-looking, family-friendly vocal group. Not at all cool…


As you look back on the past 45 years, what are your most endearing memories? What do you wish you’d done differently?

Is it really 45 years? I don’t feel that old. (Laughs) As for Design, there are many things I wish we had done differently. The main one is that I wish we had signed with a British record label and not Epic in the USA. That was a big mistake and it meant that our first album was released in the UK almost two years after we had recorded it and by then the music was out of date. A year earlier and things might have been different. We should also have got ourselves an experienced manager (we managed ourselves for most of our career) who might have advised us not to do so much television.

What’s my most endearing memory? The early days when we were young and innocent and believed everything was possible. We had no idea what we were doing but we went ahead and did it anyway. We had our ups and downs but we forged a lasting friendship and even though we now all live in different parts of the world, I am delighted that we are still friends and in touch with each other once again.

I am very proud of what we achieved with Design. We never had a hit, but we recorded almost one hundred tracks in our eight years together as a vocal group. Since the albums have been reissued on CD, we have received some great reviews from music critics in the UK and the USA and many of our songs have been described as perfect examples of sunshine pop.

My final wish is to put together a definitive The Best of Design CD with a selection of the best tracks from each album, so that we can introduce a new young audience to the unique sound of Design.


Looking back at the struggles you faced at the beginning, what kind of advice would you offer to young musicians?

The music business has changed so much since the 1970s, but some things remain the same. You need to practice, practice, practice. So that if you get that all-important break you are ready for it. Sometimes you only get one chance. And you should not become a musician in order to become rich and famous. You should only do it because you love playing music and there is nothing else you would rather do. If you are lucky, you will have a successful career, but even if not, you can still enjoy a lifetime playing the music you love. In the end, though, it is all about the music.

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1 Response »

  1. Very interesting and a good read, thanks. I worked with Barry in the 1980s in his later incarnation…. BBC local radio presenter. A very nice chap indeed. The absolute acme of politeness and wit. One thing I can tell you – just a small but quite funny story. Design had produced a BBC Radioplay album of their music These albums were non-needletime and we used them in local radio quite a lot. Whenever full-logging days came around (about 3 a month when all music had to be fully logged)… Barry would always play Design tracks on his show so he would get more royalties.

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