I have a heroically garbled cassette tape from 1978 of Romantic Noise, Willie Phoenix's best band EVER, playing a song called "I Feel New." John Ballor, the lead guitarist of Romantic Noise, sings lead on the tune and it is, quite simply, one of the most gorgeous, heartfelt tunes I have ever heard in my rock & roll life.
The quote above was the first paragraph of The Ballad of Willie Phoenix part one / Romantic Noise and The Buttons, 1978-1980 in 2013, from my old blog, Growing Old With Rock & Roll. John only sang lead on about three tunes in Romantic Noise: the aforementioned “I Feel New,” another great power-pop tune called “Holly” and a raver called (I think) “Politician, Politician” that only got played once when I saw the band. (Songs came & went pretty quickly in those days, Willie was CRANKIN’ out the tunes, most of them good, many of them great.)
Colin wrote me yesterday and said that he read John had passed away. From what I can piece together with my rudimentary computer skills, John died peacefully in hospice care in Ann Arbor, MI, from complications of MS and cancer.
I’m not really gonna get into all that, though. I’m gonna remember John to the stage right of Willie, spinnin’ out great concise lead guitar lines & solos (Willie didn’t start playin’ lead guitar until The Shadowlords in 1982) and adding backing vocals along with bass player extraordinaire Greg Glasgow in Romantic Noise and The Buttons. You can check out all the stuff I said about those bands by following that link above if you like, but let me just say this: Willie Phoenix has been a genius musician since the first week we met in 1978, but those two bands – Romantic Noise and The Buttons – with John & Greg and successive drummers Dee Hunt and Jerry Hanahan were Willie’s best bands EVER, largely on the strength of the musicians involved in those bands. (On the other hand, Willie was writing SUCH great songs in that halcyon late-70’s era it’s possible that the quality of the tunes improved the musicianship of the band.)
John went on to play with a lot of other bands after The Buttons broke up in 1980: The Amenders, Civil Waif, The Waifs, etc. I think one of them even got signed to Arista in the 1990’s, but I’m not sure which one. I am sure of this, though, my favorite post-Buttons story about John involved that band. In the early ‘90’s Willie was playing with The True Soul Rockers; Kozmos on bass, Mike Parks on lead guitar and the rock-solid Jim Johnson on drums. One weekend the TSR was playing at Chollie’s, a little dive bar in the Graceland shopping center that was formerly a Long John Silvers. (You could still smell the fried fish in that place.)
It was summertime & hot and Mike Parks & I were hangin’ around outside during one of the set-breaks when a big-ass white limousine pulled into the parking lot and stopped in front of Chollie’s. Mike & I just looked at each other and Mike said, “Well, this guy’s gotta be lost.” The back door of the limo opened and out stepped John and his wife & Civil Waif band-mate Laura. (John just MIGHT have been wearing a white suit to match the limo, but my memory’s a little hazy on that.)
“Hey guys,” John smiled brightly, shaking Mike’s & my hands, “how’ve you been?” I laughed, fixed John with a stare and said, “John, you hired a fucking LIMO to make an entrance at CHOLLIE’S? Arista must be paying you a LOT of money.”
John just switched on that little-boy grin of his at my calling him out, and we went in and caught the last set. I think that might have been the last time I ever saw John, and I treasure that memory to this day.
Check out the picture below, and make no mistake: John Ballor was the PRETTIEST lead guitarist I ever changed a string for. – Ricki C. / May 1st, 2019.
ROMANTIC NOISE / 1978