Written by Calum Moran
In a garage somewhere in 1980’s middle-class America, Houston, sits a man, wailing over an organ, singing songs about cartoon ghosts and monkeys. His hobbies include drawing and creating albums in his garage. His job? A table cleaner at McDonald’s, which he uses as a means for promoting his albums, passing his tapes out to customers. His name is Daniel Johnston, and by the summer of 1983, he had already recorded four albums.
Being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, it was never easy for him to break into the music industry. In between stays in mental hospitals and being on medication, Johnston’s life throughout the 1980s was an unstable time, with delusions of loved ones being in league with Satan, and even putting his manager in the hospital, attacking him with a lead pipe. But amidst the insanity was a pure and childlike take on the world, which filtered through to his songs. Themes of loneliness and unrequited love are common occurrences in his music, reflecting his feelings of isolation amidst his declining mental health. And yet, despite all this, he managed to put a unique and often bizarre spin on these old themes, reducing them to an almost childlike interpretation, rendering his songs rare and untouched by clichés.
We see this in Johnston’s fifth album, Yip/Jump Music. Recorded in the summer of 1983 in his brother’s garage, using a chord organ and a simple cassette tape, the album features some of his most well-known songs, being listed as one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite albums. And yet, on first listen, it is easy to be distracted by the crude production, as Johnston seemingly milks his trademark DIY aesthetic for all its worth.
The execution can often seem rough and unprepared, with the sound of the organ keys being struck continuously almost becoming percussive in its insistence throughout the record. The lack of expertise with the organ is often apparent, with attempted solos beginning and ending clumsily, almost as if still being worked out in real-time as we hear his fingers fumbled over the keys. Even the occasional wrong chord is not ironed out. The vocals, more or less in tune, seemingly cower behind the organ, as his frail falsetto ‘woohs’ and vocalises at the ends of songs. The overall effect is something entirely deprived of professionalism, and yet the complete lack of self-consciousness is startling, as we see one man’s passionate desire to express himself manifest in these recordings.
At a time when self-expression in music was becoming increasingly valued, Johnston took its ideals to their apex, eschewing the importance of musicianship or production, merely acting as a beacon to all the influences that inspired him as an artist. The songs don’t feel a part of the 1980’s pop landscape. A number of influences are apparent, ranging from traditional rock and roll songs (such as Chord Organ Blues) to fifties doo-wop progressions (Sweetheart), and even more church-hymn inspired tunes (Love Defined). The influence of his favourite band (The Beatles) can be seen, such as in the well crafted pop melodies, born from years diligently studying The Beatles discography, learning to write songs from reworking their chord progressions.
The lyrics, despite their simplicity, have a certain innocence, boasting a lack of pretension. Songs such as God and The Beatles are completely sincere in their messages of unadulterated enthusiasm, praising their subjects wholeheartedly without the slightest hint of irony. The odd metaphors that litter the album, such as associating a ‘speeding motorcycle’ or King Kong with heartache, have an effect of disarming the listener in their bizarreness, and yet surprising us when these ideas become legitimate metaphors for their subjects. In a time when the reputation of sixties optimism was at its nadir, Johnston was a lone voice of pure unadulterated enthusiasm, not caring for style or sophistication, but merely expressing his loves and fears in the most direct way possible.
This simplicity is reflected in the music itself, with most songs being in C and usually restricted to the most basic chord patterns throughout. The structure of the individual songs often seem less influenced by popular music than the rambling thoughts of the man singing them, often consisting of a couple of different ideas hastily put together, existing merely to give expression to these strange tales of rocket ships and cartoon ghosts. For example, the song Almost Got Hit by a Truck consists of two alternating sections, one based on a jerky, angular sounding motif on the organ, the other a serene, almost hymnal section, which reflects on the story told in the first part. Despite the almost brutish juxtaposition of the two, its simplicity conveys the lyrics better than any preconceived structural formulas, acting only as a vehicle to relay Johnston’s thoughts to the world.
As album’s go, Yip/Jump Music seemed destined for failure, combining its lack of production, shoddy musicianship and sometimes insanely childish lyrics. Yet it creates something so wonderfully different and lacking in pretence, so outside of what is commonly the set-standard for industry-produced music, that it’s impossible not to be a little bit mystified by it all, as the music draws us ever closer into the mind of one man, who merely wanted to share his unique perspective on life with the rest of the world.
As time went by, Johnston would find better help for his illness, even stepping into a real recording studio in his later years. Touring the world and having his artwork presented in numerous galleries internationally, he seemed to find a level of stability in the end. Dying of a heart attack in his sleep in 2019, aged 58, he received a plethora of tributes from throughout the entertainment industry. Despite his setbacks, he managed to bring the industry to himself and in the end, they came willingly.
Written by Calum Moran