Bristol Archive Records Blog



One of Bristol’s earliest and probably most dysfunctional punk bands, The Primates, were a trio formed late on in 1976 by Johnny Britton, Jon Shennan and JJ; on guitar, bass and vocals and drums, respectively.


The band was formed by Johnny after his previous band Good Question had fallen apart after punk-provoked arguments over ‘change of direction’. Good Question had played at a college punk gig in London’s Guildhall on 1 December 1976, the night of Sex Pistols’ notorious appearance on Thames Television’s Today show, and the whole experience had deeply divided the band. Johnny had loved the anarchy and out-there performances of the gig – poetry from Jane Suck wrapped in barbed wire etc – while others in the band simply hated it.


With an eye to the main chance and the sudden ‘opportunity of punk’, Johnny recruited Jon Shennan, who he met via a mutual friend, and then wild man of rock’n’roll, drummer JJ.


The band’s first gig was supporting Subway Sect at Barton Hill Youth Club, the gig where Johnny met Bernie Rhodes, manager of The Clash, the man who would subsequently manage Johnny as well as Jo Boxers, who also formed out of Bristol’s late ‘70’s punk scene.


The Primates had charisma, charm and a huge swagger; and quickly ‘arrived’ at a time when punk was forming itself into its first vanguard in Bristol – the time of The Cortinas, The Pigs, Social Security and a few others.


According to Johnny, the name came from Primark, which had a shop opposite the bus stop he waited at for his ride to school at the time, along with the fact that Johnny also liked The Pirates and The Monkees as band names…so, The Primates, simple, innit?!


Also according to Johnny, his other choice of band name was The Bum Banditz “but the others were having none of that…especially not with a ‘z’…”


But what The Primates did have were some hot tunes, Jon Shennan’s angelic voice, Johnny’s rock’n’roll-to-the-max attitude and a lazy confidence with JJ’s brilliantly loose drumming.


The set of tracks recorded at The Dug-Out on Bristol Archive Records do not convey The Primates at their best and like so many bands over the decades, the energy and magic of the band was never really captured at all on tape…too little time, never the right opportunity.


Bernie Rhodes had already suggested that The Primates should think about London and had dangled the glamorous suggestion that the band could rehearse at Clash HQ in London’s Camden Lock.


And so all too soon The Primates upped instruments and followed the road to London, partly in that ambitious career gambit to ‘make it’, more basically though just to keep the band together, because Jon Shennan was beginning a degree course at London Bedford College in Regents Park.


So the first weeks of Jon’s illustrious academic career were aided and abetted by Johnny, JJ and notorious pal Ben Hunt all sharing Jon’s college room near Regents Park. Not a charming proposition, really, and cue here many dark tales of unspeakable poverty, cheerful hedonism and general degeneracy in a room for one shared by four.


The Primates managed little from that point on…some London connections got made, Bernie Rhodes remained a friend; various gigs were played – support slots, mostly, to bands like Generation X at The Vortex…hardly the pinnacle of rock’n’roll.


Simply hanging out at the famed Clash rehearsal space was also an achievement of its own. The glamour of the place, in all of its dank Victorian squalor, is hard to describe, hard to understand, but it had a glamour nevertheless, and inspired Johnny, for one, towards the life in rock’n’roll that he subsequently took.


But all too soon, game for a laugh as our heroes may have been, the abject poverty and slow progress of band promotion got the better of all concerned and Johnny and JJ returned to Bristol at the end of 1977 and The Primates were no more.


Life went on for all three of our heroes and both Johnny and Jon played in many later bands, initially Bristol-connected and then farther afield.


Johnny joined Bristol punks The Media, then formed The Tesco Chainstore Massacre and The Spics, subsequently moving to London to tour with Orange Juice and then launched a solo career managed by Bernie Rhodes. Johnny Britton is a legend in his own lunchtime, a man of a thousand stories and the subject of a biography to come…


Jon Shennan also joined The Spics and added a brilliant individuality to every band he worked with. Jon’s left-handed bass-playing and genuinely emotive voice gave a definite ring of Macca to him and the last time Johnny recalls seeing Jon was when he dropped round to his London flat in the late ‘eighties to ask if there was a Beatles wig he could borrow because he was about to audition for The Bootleg Beatles…


And JJ, turned himself into a genuine party legend, sadly now not a living one, and he is missed…


(Thomas Brooman and Johnny Britton– Jan 2010)


4 Responses to “THE PRIMATES”

  1. Ian Q Says:

    Any idea where Johnny is now? Some of his old London chums are trying to find him.

  2. Mike Darby Says:

    Hi there. Johnny still lives in London, if you’d like to email me I’ll forward your message onto him. Thanks

  3. CARYNE Says:

    Johnny Britton is still very much around and will be playing with Vic Godard (of Subway Sect) at a gig in London this Christmas. More details here

  4. Clive P Says:

    he was around my house the other day but now, who knows. Probably gone back up to the smoke.

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