DONALD BYRON WHEATLEY by Stevie Chick
Donald Byron Wheatley is from a travelling showman background and was born and bred in London. The album, recorded at Reservoir Studios in North London under the watchful gaze of producers Chris Clarke (Danny And The Champions Of The World) and John Wheatley (Suburban Dirts), introduces the songs of Donald Byron Wheatley, each and every one reflecting on his life as a showman and that of his family who have been ingrained into a way of life for over a century. Essentially a paean to his father, 'Big Don' Wheatley, 'Moondogs And Mad Dogs' is unapologetically imbued with the spirit of Van Morrison, Dylan, The Band, Lennon et al, all musicians that have played a major part in both Donald's and his father's life. Driven by an honest heart and a pure desire to make an album his father would have loved, Wheatley has produced something very special indeed - an innocent, loving musical tribute that stands alone as a remarkable debut. The band features various members of Danny And The Champions Of The World - Chris Clarke, Steve Brookes, Andy Fairclough - alongside Siobhan Parr and pedal steel legend BJ Cole. The album will be distributed worldwide by SRD.
Donald Wheatley never intended to make an album and has never performed onstage. But he’s been a showman all his life and comes from a family of showmen stretching back one hundred and fifty years. “‘Showmen’ is our word for fairground people, the people who get the fairground around,” says Wheatley. “We’ve got our own trade union, the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain. We go to showmen’s weddings and funerals, we go on holiday together, our kids all know each other. It’s a community. We’re a part of the entertainment industry.” As a showman, Wheatley’s lived all over the country. He grew up in amusement arcades at various seaside resorts (an experience he likens to “living inside a Playstation”), and by his teens was travelling the motorways with his mum’s family, who ran the helter-skelters. “Showmen like to keep up traditions,” he says, “so every now and again we’d get farmed out to the ‘old country’, on the road, to make sure we had it in our blood.”
As soon as he was old enough, he was assembling the helter-skelters when they arrived at the fairground, and the dismantling them long after dark, in all weather conditions. “I never want to do that, in the wind and the rain,” he shudders. “There were no harnesses, let’s put it that way. But we loved it. It’s like a badge of honour to a showman, to do your job well.” Wheatley’s dad, Donald Wheatley, Sr, was known to many as Big Don, but called himself ‘the wind’, “because he changed his mind like the wind,” says Wheatley" I think he's best friend Lewis Gray named him that." “He was a well-known person within the showmen community, a much-love were person. He built a Haunted House from the ground up, his pride and joy. He was a nomad.” Big Don loved his life as a showman, but he also loved music, a trait he passed along to his young sons. “He was a huge Dylan fan, a big blues fan,” Wheatley remembers, “always playing Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, Big Mama Ford. I’ve got tapes of me and my brother Robert, when we were kids, singing along to Subterranean Homesick Blues, word-perfect. I was six years old.” The Wheatleys were a musical family.
No one considered themselves a ‘musician’, but, says Wheatley, “everyone could play something. My granddad played the accordion, my uncle Joseph played the guitar – he could do a great Johnny B Goode – and my dad played the guitar, mouth organ, and wrote songs.” When Big Don suffered a stroke at the age of 49 and was left with movement in only one arm, he set up a Pro Tools rig at his flat and taught himself how to use the recording software. Wheatley began recording some of the songs he’d written, but Big Don passed away three years later. “Where that was going, who knows?” says Wheatley. “It got cut off.” Wheatley played music, too. “I’m not a ‘musician’ by any chalk,” he offers. “I love sitting down and making music.”
When he was younger, he had the occasional dream of making a career in music, but never took it too seriously – he was, he felt, a different kind of showman. Later, on his dad’s Pro Tools rig, he cut some tracks with his cousin John, and toyed – albeit not very seriously – with the idea of making a record. Then real life intervened, and Wheatley found his time swallowed up by the responsibilities of having a family to provide for. Then a couple of years back, the whim took Wheatley again. “I’d already written five songs of my own that I liked,” he says. “In the intervening years, some stuff happened, I lost a couple of friends, and others had faced hard times, and I found myself writing songs about them.” His cousin John encouraged Wheatley to put these new songs down on tape at Reservoir Recording Studio in North London, whose previous clients include Danny & The Champions Of The World, Frank Turner, The Jim Jones Revue and Henry Senior Jr. Accompanied by John and some friends, that’s exactly what Wheatley did. “I just wanted to make a record that my dad would like,” he says. “I wanted to sit there and put it on and think, ‘I know he’d love that song.’ And I think we’ve done that.”
The songs, he admits, are avowedly “Dylanesque”, but the voice is Wheatley’s own, while the stories he sings are drawn from the experiences of his friends and family, and from the romance of the showman tradition. “There’s a song about my uncle, Swaley Howell,” Wheatley explains. “He was a well-known showman. There’s a line in a song about Chrissy ‘Mad-dog’ Davies, another lad who had a lot of stuff happen to him in his life, and who took it all on. That line, about having “the Empire State on his back, that’s about him. That last song on the album, Moondogs & Mad-dogs, mentions a lot of my friends, and some of them have passed away now, some of them are still here. I guess the music comes out of me. There’s no crying, I ain’t a tear-jerker. The songs celebrate the life. The Lonesome Carol Of Big Don, well, that’s about my dad. The lyrics are things that he would say, how he looked at the world. I wrote the song from his point of view.” The music of Donald Wheatley is easily as lively as the characters who people his songs, a natural tangle of early rock’n’roll, raucous blues, sweet folk and a most unique phrasing of Americana – countrified rock that’s as unique to Wheatley as The Band’s own Canadian take on American music, or Van Morrison’s Caledonian vision of soul. The sound is relaxed, down-home and upbeat, with a warm fireside vibe and the joyous, charismatic and intimate feel of a well-lubricated after-hours jam session. It’s funky as hell in places (the sinful, bedroom-eyed Josephine), powerful and resonant in others (the scorched When The Rain Comes). Wheatley comes off like a wild-eyed soothsayer, a little bit Dylan but also a little bit Joe Strummer, a little bit Shaun Ryder. It’s a remarkable record. And we so nearly never got to hear it. “There’s no way I would ever have thought I’d be sitting here, now, talking about my music,” he grins, modestly. He made the record for his dad, for himself, reasoning that he didn’t play golf or anything like that, so he could spend his money on his hobby of making music instead. “The opportunity stared me in the face, and I never wanted to sit there and think, ‘I wish I’d done that’.”
After mastering the album, Wheatley brought the tapes back to Reservoir. And it was here that Danny Wilson, leader of Danny & The Champions Of The World and now honcho of Maiden Voyage Records, heard Donald Whatley’s music, and decided he wanted to share this treasure with the wider world. “He phoned me up the next day and said, ‘Do you want me to release it?” says Wheatley. “I was blown away. Other people might think I’ve just walked in off the street into a record deal. It’s not like I’d sent the songs to anyone or been knocking on doors. That don’t normally happen.” It wasn’t planned, but Wheatley’s relishing becoming a recording artist, and is even planning recording more music, and writing more songs, and maybe even becoming another kind of showman altogether. The stage doesn’t frighten him: “Showmen have a razzmatazz about them,” he says. “If we were in a roomful of showmen you wouldn’t be able to hear yourself think, because they all like to be out front, everyone’s a bit loud.” The album’s release will mark the first time anyone outside his close circle of family and friends will have heard his music. But while the only person whose opinion of his music Wheatley would have cared about isn’t around to share it, Donald’s sure Big Don would appreciate Moondogs & Mad-Dogs. “I wanted to do it for my dad,” he smiles, “And I know we’ve made a record he would’ve liked.”
Songs by Donald Byron Wheatley & John Wheatley Produced by Chris Clarke & John Wheatley. Recorded at Reservoir Studios Musicians: Donald Byron Wheatley - lead vocals and acoustic guitars Chris Clarke - electric and upright bass and backing vocals Steve Brookes - drums and percussion John Wheatley - electric and acoustic guitars, melodica, harmonium and backing vocals Andy Fairclough - Hammond organ, piano and clav BJ Cole - pedal steel and lap steel David Moyes - electric lead guitar Emily Holligan and Siobhan Parr - backing vocals Andy Diagram and Karina Townsend - brass Fiona Brice and Vicky Matthews - strings Robert Wheatley, Bret Bibby, Sheldon Whittle, Liam Bugg and Louis Gray - additional vocals.