Published: 05:00, 09 May 2022
| Updated: 13:39, 10 May 2022
What's the connection between David Bowie, a Gillingham hairdresser, 60s pop group the Monkees and a half-ton robot called Mickey?
The answer is the mercurial character of Johnny Edward.
For a generation who remember the Kent music scene of the mid 60s, Johnny will be recognisable as the Hank Marvin-esque guitarist who played alongside David Bowie – or Davie Jones as he was then known – in the Manish Boys.
For the generation that followed, another of the Gillingham man's creative enterprises is far more memorable – namely 1980s children's TV favourite, Metal Mickey.
Johnny created, controlled and voiced the 5ft robot, the star of the show which ran from September 1980 to January 1983 – a show which boasted viewing figures of around 12 million at its peak.
And despite Johnny's death at the age of 75 last year, his legacy looks set to live on. Metal Mickey hit the headlines again earlier this year when a friend Johnny had left his creation to also died, and The Sun newspaper salvaged him from a flat.
Although rumours of a new children's book and TV series are still a way off being confirmed, it's clear there's a lot of nostalgic enthusiasm for the 80s robot, which could potentially fuel a revival.
KentOnline got in touch with former Monkees singer Micky Dolenz, who produced the TV series, who said the man behind Metal Mickey was a similar character to his robotic creation.
"Metal Mickey was a really great show and I was proud to work on it," he said. "Johnny Edward was, of course, the star of the show in every way. He was unique, a bit eccentric, and a bit bolshie. A bit like the robot he created.
"I'm so glad that his creation was saved from the scrap bin. 'Boogie Boogie' Metal Mickey."
Long before Johnny found success with Metal Mickey, his showbiz career began as a teenager when he lived in Gillingham and started playing in a skiffle group, Reg Black and the Blackjacks, with some lads around Twydall.
One of those was drummer Michael Whitehead, who had got involved in a couple of different incarnations of the band but left – only to be dragged back after Johnny, then known as Johnny Flux, joined the Manish Boys.
"I was working as a hairdresser in Twydall and these five lads came in," he recalled. "I thought 'how am I going to cut their hair?' But then I thought 'oh that's Johnny'. He said their drummer was dropping out and asked if I was interested.
"He wanted to make something of it and go professional. I left the shop for an hour or so and we all clicked.
"I hadn't long joined the group when Bowie got involved."
While it might have seemed an easy decision to join forces with a man who would become a musical icon, Michael explained it wasn't a clear choice back in 1964, when Davie Jones was yet to find fame.
"He could play the sax and he could sing alright, but we had to discuss it because there was so many of us in the group and we weren't making money," he recalled. "All the money went on travel and the van. After a while we said yes we'll chance it and take him on."
The group recorded ‘I Pity the Fool’ and ‘ Take My Tip' for Parlophone Records, with Bowie as the main singer, and while neither were hits, it helped the group gain recognition.
Later in the year they joined the Gene Pitney Tour, as a supporting group, on a bill including The Kinks, Gerry and the Pacemakers and Marriane Faithful.
They were certainly stars on a local level, with a series of appearances in the pages of the Kent Messenger, including one publicity stunt where Johnny can be seen threatening to take a pair of shears to his band mates flowing locks.
But The Manish Boys' run with Bowie would last around a year, before Bowie moved on in his quest for stardom.
And while his success in that aim is well documented, the fate of the rest of the band is lesser known – and Michael said he felt it was right to remember the talents of Johnny Edward.
"Johnny was ok," he said. "He looked a bit like Hank Marvin with his glasses. We played a bit of Shadows stuff too with Beau Kent and the Cortinas.
"He was really top notch as a guitar player – he played very well. He played all sorts. Like everyone, we copied what we could from records and then made our own stuff.
"There were a lot of groups about in Medway and there was a lot of competition. People were going around watching other groups and if you wanted to make a name for yourself you had to improve.
"Johnny wanted to get on – he was ambitious. He had a lot of gifts and some of that came out later with production and all these things."
Another example of Johnny's eclectic skills came when he co-wrote, with his wife Sue, the 1982 Christmas No.1 "Save Your Love", performed by the duo Renée and Renato, and he found further work as a DJ and producer, while also running an agency.
Sadly he spent his latter years living a reclusive life, following the death of his wife, but Michael said his legacy would live on.
"He was a good guy, he was very talented and imaginative," he added. "I think his standard was very high.
"It's a shame, all the things he's done, it's amazing. He should be remembered."
When a musician is described in turn as 'bolshie' 'talented' and 'ok', it's probably fair to conclude they were a complex character.
Reporter Chris Hunter got a glimpse of the two sides of Johnny Edward when he interviewed him about David Bowie in 2013...
"David Bowie?” The voice on the end of the line sounds a little vague.
“Yes, David Bowie, skinny chap, wrote a few songs. You know him?”
“David Bowie...” ponders the voice again.
Strange. Most people don’t struggle too much to place the name. If you’ve been on this planet and compos mentis for at least a few months of the last 40 years, the name conjures an instant image of, as actor Tilda Swinton put it recently, “every alien’s favourite cousin”. This is David Bowie! The Chameleon of Rock! The Thin White Duke! The King of the Goblins out of Labyrinth!
It might have been a long time since Johnny Edward met Bowie in Maidstone, but is it possible to forget playing in a band with him, The Manish Boys? No thankfully, he’s just playing for laughs.
“Yes, I remember David,” says the guitarist fondly.
“When he joined the band, I thought he was a right...” he pauses, perhaps realising that he’s looking back from the early 1960s mindset. “He had this long, blond hair, and his hand used to dangle at his side. I was the handsome one with glasses.”
Originally from Gillingham, Johnny was recruited for the Manish Boys after a night out at the Star ballroom in Maidstone. They’d been gigging for some time when their manager, Les Conn, turned up with a new member.
“We did a song – he was Davie Jones back then. He was with us for a year, but I don’t know what caused us to split.”
The band toured with Gerry and the Pacemakers, Gene Pitney and Marianne Faithfull.
“We were the support act. We went all over the place – Edinburgh, Glasgow. It wasn’t bad. We rehearsed at Woolf, the sax player’s place in Maidstone and we played at the Star ballroom.
"We played a few times around Kent. I remember a young girl started chatting to me one time in Bromley. I snogged her, but she went home with David Bowie. That was Dana Gillespie.”
As for the tale of Bowie claiming, in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, to have been beaten up in Maidstone, Johnny was blissfully unaware. “I had no idea,” he says. “He never said anything at the time.”
Bowie was quoted: “It was just this big herbert walkin’ down the street just knocked me down and when I fell down proceeded to kick me. For no reason that I could fathom.”
Having been a DJ for Radio London, Johnny is a music producer in Hackney, and has other successes, including the kids’ TV phenomenon of Metal Mickey, the robot.
At the age of 67 he is still full of youthful enthusiasm.
“The Manish Boys had a little reunion about four or five years ago,” he said. “We’ve had two or three of them. Somebody came up at once and said ‘there’s a call for you’ and this voice said ‘Hello Johnny it’s David, how are you?’ I said ‘David who?’ I can’t remember too much what he said. It was a nice gesture. He asked about Metal Mickey.”
So Bowie can’t look too disparagingly on the Boys.
“We thought he was fine – a good singer, but nobody in their right mind would have dreamt how massive he would have become.
“I like to think I had something to do with it – I played his records."
Metal Mickey and the immortal retro TV stars of yesteryear...
The reappearance of Metal Mickey will no doubt spark a wave of nostalgia for the days when home-made puppets, and other strange characters made on shoe-string budgets, ruled our TVs.
Would today's TV executives commission a show, for example, based on small mouse-like creatures that lived on the moon and spoke only in a series of gentle whistles? It's unlikely, although it's true the Clangers was revived in 2015 to great acclaim, narrated expertly by Michael Palin instead of the late great originator of the series, Oliver Postgate.
As for Bagpuss, the "saggy, old cloth cat, baggy, and a bit loose at the seams", only 13 episodes were ever produced, but the enduring appeal meant the show was repeated until 1986 and won a BBC poll in 1999 as the UK's favourite children's TV show.
Button Moon, a series featuring characters based largely on kitchen utensils, ran for eight years, and continued to be repeated long-after, even inspiring a stage show in the 1990s.
The great Basil Brush continues to grace TV screens and pantomime stages, while memories of characters like Emu - Rod Hull's highly aggressive arm length puppet - are not likely to fade soon.
The latter double act came to an end when Hull sadly died after falling off a roof in 1999, but the duo continue to inspire the imagination - inspiring for example the 2004 Toy Dolls song, No One Knew the Real Emu.
In June 2018, Phil Fletcher, the man behind CBBC's Hacker T Dog, bought one of the last remaining Emu puppets for almost £9,000 at an auction in Wiltshire.