Singer-guitarist John Wicks of the British power-pop band The Records, who were best known for the classic 1978 pop gem “Starry Eyes,” died at his home in Burbank on Sunday morning, Oct. 7, after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 65.
Wicks is survived by his longtime partner, Valerie Bliss. He also was married twice and had a son, Perry Wicks, a drummer in the U.K. who guest starred onstage with his father during a show at the Viper Room a couple years ago.
A native of Reading, England, John Wicks was a longtime resident of the United States after moving to Washington, D.C., around 1994 and then relocating to Los Angeles around 2000. Over the years, Wicks performed frequently in Southern California and toured overseas with varying lineups of The Records. And while The Records are most often remembered for their influential early albums — Shades in Bed (1979), Crashes (1980) and Music on Both Sides (1982) — the later incarnations of the group also created numerous other crucial if underrated power-pop, new-wave and punk-inflected original songs.
Despite all that productivity, the English group most often were associated with their early single “Starry Eyes,” which was co-written by Wicks with Records drummer Will Birch. Wreathed in shimmering harmonies and gloriously jangling guitars, “Starry Eyes” initially sounds like an ebullient romantic pop song but, on closer inspection, the lyrics are actually a sarcastic and bittersweet kiss-off to a former manager.
Wicks was briefly a member of the mid-1970s pop band The Kursaal Flyers, which featured Birch. The duo eventually formed The Records, who were named by Birch, with bassist Phil Brown and lead guitarist Brian Alterman, although the latter musician was replaced in 1978 by guitarist Huw Gower, who appears on the recording of “Starry Eyes.”
The 2006 album Rotate, released under the name John Wicks & the Records, was not only a quintessential documentation of the group’s later era but also stands as the group’s final released recording. Rotate ranges from driving power-pop rockers such as “Different Shades of Green” and the breezily dreamy “That Girl Is Emily” to sumptuous ballads like “Desert Sky” and a version of The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.”
When Wicks wasn’t fronting The Records, he had a productive solo career on such collections as the country-flavored album Solace in Wonderland (1994) as well as Lessons Learned (2011) and Works in Progress (2012)
“He was the best,” said Wicks’ longtime friend and booking agent, Keith Putney. “He had nothing but respect for his fellow musicians. His whole life was music. He fought and fought [against cancer] with the ultimate goal of continuing to perform and compose music. … I know he had a lot more in him. That was his one regret, because he knew that too.”
Wicks, who had been battling cancer for several years, nonetheless was able to tour and perform locally until a few months before his death. His last shows with The Records were at the Redwood Bar & Grill in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday, June 9, and at Joe’s Great American Bar & Grill in Burbank on Memorial Day, Monday, May 28. Wicks’ final live appearance came at the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills on Tuesday, July 3, when he sang one song — a cover of Foo Fighters’ “Learning to Fly” — as a guest with The Tribe. Among his recent collaborations, he had been working with Bangles singer-drummer Debbi Peterson on a project called Broken Sky.
“When he came [to Los Angeles], he immediately gravitated toward The Bangles,” Putney said in a phone interview from Burbank. “They shared the same influences and drew from the same well. It’s no surprise that John and Debbi wrote songs together.” Peterson and Wicks shared lead vocals in Broken Sky, alternating between full-band arrangements and more stripped-down, acoustic songs. They also covered The Hollies’ “King Midas in Reverse” and performed a handful of shows, but the band ultimately were unable to record their songs due to Wicks’ illness.
“With a heavy heart, I say goodbye to my partner in rhyme and fellow Broken Sky comrade, John Wicks,” Peterson writes in an e-mail. “He truly was an amazing human being. He was involved in many humanitarian causes, and I was thrilled to be a part of some of them with him. I had a blast working with him. When we were writing together, he always knew how to make me laugh. I will miss our long conversations about music and how our lives revolved around it. … So long, Mr. Wicked.”
“John Wicks and I shared in the brotherhood of music,” local pop musician Zak Nilsson wrote on his Facebook page. “We recorded songs for his album Rotate at my house. We shared a love of absurdist humor, like Monty Python. We would talk on the phone for hours.
“John could write a hook like nobody’s business, and he knew exactly how he wanted everything to sound,” Nilsson said in another Facebook post. “Helping him record songs for his Rotate album opened my eyes to how talented he was and, sadly, how underappreciated he was in the larger scheme of things.
“Over the years, I was fortunate enough to play live with him a couple of times, in addition to working with him to record some songs,” Nilsson explained. “But more than that, I was fortunate enough to call him a friend. It is a tribute to his large, ineffable personality that I retain very clear memories of so much of the time we spent together. I loved talking with John because he was so easy to talk to. Rare, in my experience.”
Flamin’ Groovies singer-guitarist Cyril Jordan also paid homage to Wicks in a Facebook post. “We didn’t know each other for very long, but when we met, we became close quickly,” Jordan wrote. “When we last saw each other in person, I showed him a version of ‘Starry Eyes’ with a different chord. John said, ‘Holy shit, why didn’t I come up with that?’ I had gotten permission from John to go ahead and do my version of ‘Starry Eyes.’ Now it seems fitting for the Groovies to add the song to our set and also record it as our tribute to John. He definitely will be missed.”
Veteran power-pop singer-guitarist Peter Holsapple also paid tribute in a Facebook post. “The dB’s were asked to open the first two shows The Records played in the U.S., on the heels of ‘Starry Eyes’ and its success. John and Will became friends of ours. … The world has lost a wonderful, sweet person whose talent was boundless.”
In 2009, Wicks and singer-guitarist Paul Collins (The Beat, The Nerves) went together on an acoustic tour of small venues that included concerts in fans’ living rooms. “I was lucky enough to have spent real quality time with my friend John Wicks,” Collins wrote in a Facebook post. “He was such a great musician, much more of a musician than I am, so of course it was an honor to work with him. John is like so many great musicians from my class, guys who unfortunately will go to their graves without receiving the credit or financial compensation they are really due. This makes them even more honorable in my opinion — they do what they do because they love it.”
While Wicks was fighting cancer, he and Bliss also had to struggle against the bureaucracy and heartlessness of the modern U.S. health-care system. “It was flabbergasting to John and Valerie to do what was necessary to save his life. And that aspect was maddening,” Putney recalls.
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“He was relentlessly interested in other people’s methods, how they wrote songs,” Putney marveled about Wicks’ endless passion for music. “He never tired of going to shows and talking to other musicians. … He enjoyed the interaction. He was always trying to pick up things. He loved talking to people about singing and how to get everything out of your voice.” Putney listed Colin Hay as among Wicks’ favorite vocalists.
Wicks believed in “the melody serving the song. Anybody who did that well, he appreciated,” Putney added. “He loved people who could come up with that combination of melodicism and power. … He loved the guitar interplay of having two guys play a solo or a part together.” Wicks’ own guitar style was “tangibly unique,” Putney said.
“I don’t know a single person that knew John over the years that didn’t respect him and like him,” Putney said. The booking agent pointed out that “Chasing Angels,” an evocative ballad that Wicks wrote to pay homage after the death of Records bassist Phil Brown, likely now will stand as a tribute to the songwriter’s own life.
Wicks was cremated on Monday, Oct. 8, the day after his death. “He wanted to die at home,” Putney explained. “That was a conscious choice.”