Dean there, done that

Menswear frontman Johnny Dean made his live return in London on Friday. But was it a one-off or a comeback? Music News catches up with the Britpop pin-up ahead of the show

Johnny Dean has kept a low profile since Britpop group Menswear split. But on Friday 7 June, fans turned out for his first gig in 15 years. He was asked to headline the London-based club night named after the band’s debut album, Nuisance, only a couple of months ago, and agreed on two counts. He wanted to do David Bowie covers. And the night had to raise money for the National Autistic Society.

Dean identifies with Asperger’s, a form of autism. He has battled with depression since primary school. And he remembers feeling miserable because he wasn’t like everyone else. Eight-year-old Dean was troubled by what made sense as much as what didn’t. But his innate condition remained undiagnosed until five years ago. “I just thought I was a bit mad to be honest,” he says. “It was constantly like I was trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. It’s not a nice feeling. And I grew up with it.”

As a child of the ’70s, when the condition wasn’t widely known, neither he, his family nor teachers realised what was going on. “There were signs,” says Dean, “but it probably looked like I was being difficult or naughty or disruptive.”

Equally, when he fronted Menswear from 1993 to 1998, no one appreciated why he didn’t cope very well on tour. It reached a point where he wanted his own room and would often sneak off for some alone time. He couldn’t handle being around his bandmates and entourage. “It’s weird when you’re in a band, people tend to think they can do what they like,” he reflects. “Your conscience goes out of the window. Some people do horrible things. I looked like a diva.”

But he carried on because he loved performing. “It’s a really good outlet,” he says. “I used to get all this energy that I had pent up – all these things I would liked to have done in the day but didn’t want to because it would look weird – and release it all on stage. In fact, I recommend anyone with autism to go and do something like that because it’ll make them feel better.”

About 10 years ago, Dean heard about Asperger’s and researched it online. “It was like someone had turned the lights on or opened the blinds,” he says. “I felt a massive relief and excitement as well: that’s it, that’s me.”

However, it took a severe bout of depression years later to trigger action. Dean was very ill. Hospitalised. Catatonic. Only then did he seek a diagnosis of PDD (pervasive developmental disorder), identifying with Asperger’s.

Now Dean is articulate and open about his condition, his softly spoken answers punctuated with little chuckles. “I like to have things planned, I like to know what’s going to happen,” he says, “especially if I’m going on a journey. I can be a nightmare and have meltdowns. You only have to ask my girlfriend what I’m like when she’s driving. It’s not like I mean it, it just sort of happens.”

Unaware of these “meltdowns” or “wobbles” at the time, he can feel them approaching. “It’s like having a radio in tune and then suddenly knocking it out,” he says, trying to explain. Cognitive behavioural therapy helps redirect his mood sometimes. And he’s moved out of the chaotic capital to a quiet, leafy suburb, where he lives with his long-term partner and two cats.

It’s depression that affects Dean more. He can feel very alienated. But he doesn’t want to attend meetings for people with autism. It annoys him. “You know that thing when you see yourself and think, ‘Oh God, I’m unbearable’?” he asks.

“I don’t blame anyone. I still get certain people from my past trying to wind me up, which I find really unbelievable. I find it sad. That British thing of blaming the victim. It tends to be quite endemic. You can tell I’m not bitter. It’s just two [former bandmates] I have trouble with, the others are fine.”

Busting myths

Dean wants to demystify the condition. “People should be allowed to go around saying I’ve got this. Some people are quite embarrassed about it and I think it’s time that changed.” He finds it annoying when others describe the neurological condition as an illness, suggest people with autism are all Rain Man and that they need constant care. “Whenever I see something about autism it’s always a very exaggerated, clichéd version. It makes people with autism seem like they can’t cope with the world at all, especially with Asperger’s and high-functioning autism. We’re lumped in with people with full blown.”

There are a few Menswear myths to bust as well. “Some arguments I’ve had with the Wikipedia administrators have been unbelievable.” The band didn’t sign for millions of pounds, they weren’t manufactured like The Monkees and they didn’t rip off Elastica, he says. “That’s people who’ve only heard one song [Daydreamer]. And even that song wasn’t ripping off Elastica. It was influenced by Wire and it wasn’t Elastica who got me into Wire.”

Fed up of the bizarre questions and lies, Dean has spent recent months working on a new Menswear website to clarify the definitive truth. “I wanted to take control of it because I’d let it run around for years and tried to avoid it, to be honest, even though it’s part of me,” he says. “Now I’ve embraced it and I’m starting to sort it out slowly. It’s important to me. It’s my history.”

Menswear’s story was an incredible whirlwind. The five-piece started in 1993 with the one track that remains synonymous with the band, Daydreamer. “When I think about it, it’s actually really clever in a way,” says Dean. “It’s a one-chord song, written in ten minutes, with maniac lyrics, which are actually about someone considering killing someone. And people still dance to it.”

Guitarist Simon White came along with I’ll Manage Somehow, which gave them two songs ahead of their debut gig at the Smashing club in London, where “about 50 record labels” offered them a contract. Menswear had a great image. They were astute networkers. The press found plenty to write about and they became a Britpop staple. Dean remembers being photographed everywhere and chased down Oxford Street by Japanese fans.

Things turned sour in 1996, though, when single We Love You was released. “Some people absolutely love it, but I absolutely hate it,” says Dean. “It was like a little middle finger at the press. The record company hated it. They buried it, so that’s why it didn’t chart as high. But I don’t blame them. I’d have done the same thing.”

It was a difficult time. There was a power shift in the band and Matt [Everitt, drummer] was sacked, Dean’s biggest regret.

Admittedly, the single and second album, ¡Hay Tiempo!, were about compromise. “It went in completely the wrong direction,” says Dean. “Even then I knew but I’d given up. I’d had quite enough by mid-1996. I was spent by then. And I’m not just talking about the media circus; I’d had enough of the people in the band, to be honest, but that happens.

“We went down a very strange path and thinking about it now, it would have been better and probably a lot more courageous just to have packed it in then, even if it had broken a lot of 14-year-old girls’ hearts.”

Britpop scene

Memories are fond, though. Dean is proud to have been part of a movement that he says will never be repeated. He even understands the backlash. “The press can be a little bit snooty about us because we tried to be so pop. I can see why. I mean it was very annoying. The fact we called our first album Nuisance wasn’t an accident.”

He continues: “If you were to write a book about Britpop, you’d have to have at least a whole chapter devoted to Menswear. It was like pure Britpop, it was a big part of the whole story. We might not have taken the world like some of our more successful peers, made as much of an impact musically, but I think we were a very important part of it.”

A reunion, however, was panned about three years ago. The line-up, including Everitt, got together to discuss the idea but “somebody put their foot in their mouth” and Dean rebuffed the suggestion. “I don’t think the original Menswear is ever going to be together on stage again as far as I’m concerned. A couple of those people would have to do an awful lot to get me on stage. I’m not talking about money either because I don’t care about money. And I don’t really need it.”

Unsurprisingly, Dean's recent show included a few Menswear songs, much to the crowd’s delight. But it wasn’t anything serious, he claims, and he’s relaxed either way about what happens next. “This isn’t a comeback. I’ve done that fame game thing and I’ve done that touring madness. I’ve had a go at that and it was all right but I’m 41, for God’s sake! For me now it’s a matter of fun. I wish I had that attitude back then but I had a lot going on.”

It’s pretty doubtful this is the last we’ve seen of Johnny Dean.

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