Jon Butcher – The Jon Butcher Axis (1983)

Jon Butcher Axis album cover
Jon Butcher Axis album cover

While it would not be completely to fair to call The Producers a one hit wonder, another band that combined elements of new wave and arena rock are more likely to get the label. The name Jon Butcher Axis might have led you to think they were a heavy metal band in the mode of Judas Priest or Ozzy Osbourne but the Philadelphia based quartet led by Jon Toombs (Jon Butcher) was more a pioneering rock and blues hybrid.
To see them on stage or more likely on video, they looked like a run of-the-mill heavy metal band led by a Jimmy Hendrix impersonator. The Hendrix comparisons were understandable because Butcher fronted a band that combined some of the elements of black music he might have heard in Philadelphia with the commercial polish of MTV era rock n roll.

The band’s biggest and only national hit “Life Takes a Life” had come as the result of heavy touring and a long time reputation as a hard-working act that went back as far back as the ’70s when Butcher was part of a band called Johanna Wild. Much of the spin for “Life Takes a Life” came during the rise of MTV in an era where most of their playlist consisted of old concert clips from the previous decade. Any new conceptual rock videos that were not English instantly stood out – especially those led by a negro.

“Life Takes a Life” with its impassioned and soulful vocals worked well with the straight forward rock rhythms even if it might have thrown a few listeners off. Expecting a Little Steven, they instead got a black man with a head band on with a Stratocaster strapped to his waist. America was not quite ready for that. Some progressives liked thinking that by 1983 we were beyond racism in rock, but in some ways the notions of black people with guitars suffered a setback since Hendrix and Sly Stone left the scene. It had to take Prince to open that door again.

The self titled album Jon Butcher Axis was produced by Pat Moran, who also worked with Lou Gramm of Foreigner. You could hear a bit of the Foreigner sound, but it would not be enough to break the outer orbit of the Top 100 albums in America.

Despite the disappointing sales, someone was listening. Songs like “Ocean in Motion” became the model for bands like Living Colour who would emulate its blend of rock and rhythm. Other songs like “Can’t Be the Only Fool” embody the album’s focus on melody and rhythm (like a pre 4 Foreigner) without the heavy use of electronics. Where there was a heavy digital presence it was in service to hip hop influences in the song “Fairlight”.

The Jon Butcher Axis biggest legacy might be that it inspired a whole generation of black youth who had not seen any role models in rock that looked like them (who weren’t Jimmy Hendrix or Sly Stone). It was also reassuring for people like me growing up to know that there were other Black Americans who had an appreciation for rock. My experiences a black kid who liked rock was often unpleasant. Sadly, many of our own people are too ignorant and under exposed to know any good music outside of the local urban radio formats or the clubs. But then again that kind of market segregation what the music industry counted on back in those days. Jon Butcher could be seen as a pioneer who cracked the door even if it was for a short time in 1983.


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