Real Rocker Johnny

October 12, 2020

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John Dalzell, Bassist for Johnny Diesel and the Injectors.

It was the 70s and 18-year-old John Dalzell had a difficult choice to make. The budding bass player could rise to management in a family Bunnings store or take his chances on the music scene.

“They told me I could be second in charge if I gave up music,” Johnny recalls. “I couldn’t do that so I quit Bunnings. I was getting the same money for my music so I thought I’d be fine. A month later the band split up.”

It was a sliding doors decision.

Just over a decade later, Johnny would be part of one of the most successful Aussie bands of all time with two Aria awards and a platinum album.

Not bad for a boy who saw himself as a “misfit”.

“My dad was a (church) Minister so we moved around a lot when I was a kid,” Johnny recalls. “My sister was dux of the school but I wasn’t very good.”

Music was his saving grace.

“My mum played organ my sister played piano,” he says. “We did a lot of planning about what we’d play on Sundays at church. My Sunday school teacher was a really cool guy. He played in a band and gave me an old beat up guitar.

“I started playing bass in church. It was said to be the devil’s instrument so that was quite interesting at the time.

“For my 16th birthday my parents said I could leave school.”

The family moved to Perth in the mid 70s – where Johnny got his first real break.

“Looking back I don’t know how but I got the role to play bass in a big musical at the Perth Entertainment Centre. It was with a 150 voice choir with really experienced, really good musicians and there I was.”

From there he joined his first band while working at the aforementioned, Bunnings.

Eventually, the band evolved into a group called the Innocent Bystanders. That’s where Johnny met Mark Lizotte and other members of what would become, Johnny Diesel and the Injectors.

“We’d play a gig a night and then travel all night to the next place. I was in the passenger’s seat of a 22 seater van one night. I woke up to see one of those big green signs coming toward me. We’d lost the steering. It was symbolic of the tour really.”

“After that, Mark went away overseas. He ended up America and came home and was suddenly this really great singer.”

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Soon after, the group began playing at the Backstage Bar in Perth where they were picked up by a manager and producer.

“We were on the way up but we didn’t really have a name. It was a bit of a running joke that every time we’d go on tour my wife would end up pregnant and they started calling me Johnny Diesel and his little injectors.

“One night before we went on stage we needed a name and that was it. Mark was the front man so everyone just assumed he was Johnny.”

The first album included hits such Cry In Shame, Don't Need Love, Looking for Love, Since I Fell For You and Please Send Me Someone To Love from the movie, The Delinquents, starting Kylie Minogue.

“We just had a good musical chemistry,” Johnny recalls.

“We’d rehearse in places where other bands would be practicing all day. We’d be hanging out together playing footy or cricket, come in, do a few really focused hours of rehearsing and it just worked.

“Our first two clips, including Soul Revival, were made at the Burswood train station. My kids were running around in the background.

“It was exiting. We had a bit of a naughty reputation but we were actually quite innocent compared to others.”International tours to the UK, Canada and Europe ensued but it was an experience in Eastern Europe that will stay in Johnny’s mind forever.

“It wasn’t long before the Berlin wall came down. We’d played in East Germany and we were in a taxi desperately trying to get back into West Germany before midnight because that was the curfew.

“Here we were in this taxi hearing this amazing performance from the other side of the wall. It was B.B. King playing When Love Comes to Town. It was just incredible.

“At the same time our taxi driver was telling us about life over there – how he couldn’t get access to toilet paper….That was thirty years before COVID!

“There were some great times. Playing in front of 100,000 people on the beach at Corpus Christi….we also were part of the Newcastle Earthquake Relief Concert. That one was pretty special because our family had spent some time in Newcastle.”

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Then came the transition out of the spotlight – or more like a crash down to earth.

Three weeks before the band was due to travel to the United States to make a new album, things changed.

Mark chose to pursue a solo career and while John had been planning on leaving, it all ended – almost overnight.

“It was a pretty bad situation in the way that we all knew what was going on but we had to play for about three weeks together,” Johnny remembers.

After the band broke up, John went solo travelling back and forth to Sydney but the break up took its toll.

“You’d hear stuff on the radio, DJs joking about it. It was pretty hard to take and there was no help. One day you people couldn’t do enough for you the next you were out the in cold. No-one wanted to know you.”

John “ran away” to Alice Springs and then Darwin, gigging from place to place.

“I had some fun there – singing gospel songs to crowds in the Todd River with no water in it. But I was broken.”

With his mental and physical health declining, Johnny ended up in Port Broughton before moving to Adelaide where he secured public housing in Plympton.

“For a while there I was living in someone’s garage,” he said.

Life finally took a positive turn for John when he met his now wife, Yvette, who lived a street away.

Yvette had no idea about Johnny’s background when she saw him for the first time – but then and there she knew she wanted to marry him.

Now together for 20 years and married for 18, the couple are settled in their Junction home. It’s a little sanctuary filled with memories including John’s copy of the Johnny Diesel and the Injectors album which has gone platinum more times than the 64-year-old can keep track.

Is he ever recognised?

“If you say you’re John from Johnny Diesel and the Injectors people can’t work it out because my name is John but Mark was the singer and became known as Diesel.

“It’s the name that made us famous but it’s been a noose around both our necks probably.”

Unfortunately, Johnny has been living with significant health issues for some time including being diagnosed with cancer late last year.

He has good days and bad. However, when he picks up his guitar to give us a rendition of his original track, Waters Fine, you are left in no doubt – this bloke is the real deal.

Bunnings might have missed out on a great manager, but the talents of a true bass talent are now etched in Australian music history forever.

Johnny Dalzell, you STILL rock.