John Miles – Singer, songwriter, musician
Born April 23, 1949; died December 5, 2021
John Miles, who has died aged 72, was a singer and songwriter, whose composition, Music, became a piece of classic rock, which travelled far beyond its 1970s roots. Written and recorded for Miles’ debut album, Rebel (1976), Music is a first person ode to the redemptive power of its subject.
Music’s lyrics consist of just two four-line stanzas sung two and a half times throughout the song’s just shy of six minutes duration. Miles’s words punctuate extended instrumental passages that shift gears and tempos several times in a sketchbook history of modern pop that moves from piano-led balladeering to progressive soft rock and disco.
Accompanied by long-term bassist and co-writer Bob Marshall and drummer Barry Black, this is fleshed out by arranger Andrew Powell’s orchestral flourishes, as the song comes full circle to confirm music’s transcendent force.
Miles said he wrote Music in half an hour, and that it was originally meant to form the basis of other songs before taking on a life of its own. Recorded at Abbey Road with producer Alan Parsons, the epic result saw Melody Maker name Miles as ‘the brightest, freshest force in British rock.’ Music itself went on to become representative of a certain strand of the UK’s pre-punk mainstream.
Music reached number 3 in the UK pop charts, and was also a hit in Europe, reaching the top ten in Germany. In the Netherlands, Music went to number 1, and was a hit there again following a 1982 re-release. The song went on to become the anthem of Night of the Proms, an annual pop and classical music extravaganza, founded in Antwerp in 1985. Miles performed at the first one, and attended almost all editions of the event that followed. His ritual rendition of Music, however, that became Night of the Proms’ showstopper.
Born John Errington in Jarrow, County Durham, he grew up in the nearby town of Hebburn. He started in bands while a teenager at Jarrow Grammar School, and was soon playing seven nights a week with outfits such as The Urge, and The Influence on what was then a booming 1960s Tyneside pub and club circuit. Miles wasn’t the only one to have a musical life beyond it, with The Influence drummer Paul Thompson going on to join Roxy Music, while the band’s guitarist Vic Malcolm went on to have a couple of hits with Geordie.
Miles formedThe John Miles Set before going solo in 1971. His debut single was a version of Fred Hellerman and Fran Minkoff’s anti war song, Come Away Melinda (1972), originally performed by The Weavers and first recorded by Harry Belafonte and others. He made his breakthrough three years later after signing to Decca Records, when he scored a minor hit with Highfly (1975). The song’s mix of sophisticated soft rock arrangements and melodic bounce led by Miles’ high-pitched vocal encouraged Decca to support a full album by Miles.
The global success of Music led to three more albums on Decca. Stranger in the City (1977), produced with Rupert Holmes, saw Miles score a top ten hit with Slowdown. Zaragon (1978), again produced by Holmes, adopted a more stripped down approach. Parsons and Powell returned for More Miles Per Hour (1979). After leaving Decca, Miles’s other albums included Sympathy (1980), Miles High (1981), Play On (1983), and Transition (1985).
Beyond his own work, Miles’s connection with Parsons saw him appear as a frequent guest vocalist on records by The Alan Parsons Project. These included Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1976), Pyramid (1978), Stereotomy (1985), and Gaudi (1987), as well as the group’s Glasgow born mainstay Eric Woolfson’s Freud based concept musical, Freudiana (1990).
Miles toured with Tina Turner from 1987 onwards, playing keyboards and guitar as well as providing supporting vocals. He appeared on Jimmy Page’s album, Outrider (1988), and in 1990, took part in the UK heat of A Song for Europe with Where I Belong, which came second. He later played Hammond organ on Joe Cocker’s album, Night Calls (1992).
Upfront (1993) was Miles’s first album for eight years, and the first without any involvement by Marshall. In 1999, Miles released Tom and Catherine, the soundtrack to a musical by playwright Tom Kelly about novelist Catherine Cookson and her husband, Tom Cookson.
In 2017, Miles won an Outstanding Musical Achievement award at the Progressive Music Awards.
When the 2020 edition of Night of the Proms had to be cancelled due to the first Covid 19 induced lockdown, Miles and more than 70 musicians from the Antwerp Philharmonic Orchestra recorded a performance of Music online. With Miles at home in the UK, the orchestra performed their sections from Europe, following a click track to keep time. A video of the performance is on YouTube. Forty-four years after Miles’ original recording of the song, he recognised its ongoing power.
“A lot of people just say that this song is so very uplifting both lyrically and musically,” Miles said in an interview at the time. “I still find it very uplifting when I play it myself now. You know, the lyrics say, ‘In this world of trouble, music pulls me through.’ And I think music is a great help emotionally to a lot of people.”
He is survived by his wife Eileen, their son, John Jr, their daughter, Tanys, and two grandchildren.
The Herald, January 11th 2022