“Johnny Come Home”: Fine Young Cannibals’ heartfelt parents plea to a London runaway

By on January 26, 2018

Night Flight’s “Take Off to Self Destruction” — which originally aired on April 5, 1986 — focused on some of the darker elements that defined the ’80s, including the problem of teenage runaways, the topic of the UK’s Fine Young Cannibals’ video for their personal paean “Johnny Come Home.” Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

“In America, nearly two millions kids disappear each year. Many are runaways.” says Night Flight’s Pat Prescott, before adding: “The Fine Young Cannibals sing about one such runaway in ‘Johnny Come Home.'”


The song by the Midlands pop trio Fine Young Cannibals  tells the gritty realistic story of a runaway youth named Johnny, but the lyrics — according to what lead singer Roland Gift told the Rebel Magazine blog in 2011 — hadn’t originally started that way:

“Johnny started off about being black in a white man’s world, but it evolved into something more inclusive and better.”


David Steele (bass) and Andy Cox (guitars/keyboards) had been in the Beat (known as the English Beat in the U.S.) but when Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger left the Beat in 1983 to form General Public, the remaining band members decided to announce on America’s MTV network that they were looking for a new lead singer.

In 1984, they told MTV’s audience that anyone interested in the job could submit a demo on cassette tape. Around 300 tapes were sent to the address they’d provided.


It turns out they’d simply used MTV’s popularity to garner interest in their next band, knowing fans would want to know who’d won their “contest.”

Roland Gift — born in Sparkhill, an inner-city area of the bleak English industrial city of Birmingham, but raised in the even more-depressed fishing town of Hull — was already known to Steele and Cox.


Gift had started off singing in a drama group, the Hull Community Theatre Workshop, developing a soulful vocal style, one the most unique in ’80s pop, that would later remind some critics of Sam Cooke and Billie Holiday.

His band Akrylykz (pronounced “acrylics”) had put out a few singles in 1980 and opened for the Beat on tour (they also toured with the Specials, Madness and other 2-Tone bands).


Read more about Fine Young Cannibals below.


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When one of the top UK music magazines who’d just interviewed the band wanted to put them on their cover, they suddenly needed a band name, and decided on using a movie title All the Fine Young Cannibals, nixing the “All The” prefix.

Only later did they learn that the 1960 American melodrama — starring Robert Wagner as “Chad Bixby,” and based loosely on the life of jazz trumpet player Chet Baker — wasn’t a great movie (no one in the band had seen it at the time).


One of their first songs they wrote was “Johnny Come Home,” which featured a stripped-down arrangement accented with a tinkling piano and occasional trumpet bleats.

Lyrically, the title — changed for the chorus, which expressed the parents’ point-of-view, wishing their son Johnny would come home — was inspired by a popular 1975 UK TV documentary film called Johnny Go Home.

The film — which aired in two parts, the second titled The Murder of Billy Two-Tone – was notable for its depiction of the seedy life of teenage runaways who had come to “swinging” London expecting their lives to improve, only to become “rent boys” in London’s Piccadilly Circus area.


Fine Young Cannibals — despite all of the publicity and promotion and additional help from manager John Mostyn, who’d booked the very first 2-Tone tour in 1979 — were turned down by every record label they had approached.

Their fortunes finally changed in late ’84 when Fine Young Cannibals’ self-made video performing “Johnny Come Home” at Zella Studios on Carpenter Road in Edgbaston, an affluent suburban area of central Birmingham.

The video was shot by Chris Phipps, an assistant producer on the cutting edge Channel 4 UK TV show called The Tube,” hosted by Jools Holland and the late Paula Yates.


After Phipps helped to introduce Fine Young Cannibals to their UK audience, the dapper-dressed band — who supplemented their concert performances with Martin Parry (percussion/drums) and Graeme Hamilton (trumpet) — made their live television debut on the show.

In addition to “Johnny Come Home,” Fine Young Cannibals also performed “Don’t Ask Me To Choose” and “Move To Work.”

You can certainly see how the TV studio audience began warming up to the band, who hadn’t seen or even heard of them prior to their appearance:

Their performance on “The Tube” led to the band finally signing a recording contract with London Records two weeks later.

London released “Come Home Johnny” as their first single on May 25, 1985.

Although it failed to reach the Top 40 in the U.S., stalling out at #76 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 — although it did hit #9 on Hot Dance Club Play chart — it climbed into the Top Ten on the UK Singles Chart in July 1985, peaking at #8.


In 1985, the band’s debut album, Fine Young Cannibals,  peaked at #11 on the UK album charts, enjoying an impressive 27-week chart tenure.

The following year, the band’s American record label, IRS Records, partnered with a Chicago-based music video distributor, Video Pool, to promote the band’s first U.S. tour (February-March 1986), hosting “Video Nights” events benefiting runaway youth organizations.


Roland Gift has also had an equally impressive career as an actor, and the entire band would also appear in Barry Levinson’s Tin Men (1987).

Watch our “Take Off to Self Destruction,” which features Fine Young Cannibals’ “Johnny Come Home” and several more videos — not to mention a brilliant PSA-style interstitial by Frank Zappa, among others — on Night Flight Plus.


About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.