Lee Recommends: “Johnny Yen” by James

“See the young men/itching to burn”

I was one of those young men in the song. No so much itching to burn but already on fire. I’d joined the British Royal Navy and first heard “Johnny Yen” on one of the many compilation tapes that friends and family of my fellow sailors had made and sent to the ship.

“Waiting for their own star turn”

I was a junior rank, on the “lower decks” as it’s called in Navy parlance. I was a frustrated officer — no confidence to take the exams for promotion, no motivation to push and push and push until I got what I wanted. Yet, somehow, I knew I was destined for something more exciting that cleaning, training, working, drinking, ad infinitum.

“Needing danger/a war will do”

Then it came. The naval blockade as part of NATO in the Adriatic Sea. They called it Operation Sharp Guard. Boarding small vessels suspected of gun running, patrolling, policing the sea. I wasn’t interested in the politics behind it. I was living. It was adrenaline fuelled work a lot of the time. This was my star turn.

“If they can’t let it out/they’ll pick on you”

Then, after weeks at sea, constantly moving like a metallic shark, we were told to take some down time. How do you go from watching villages burn and trying to stay awake on long watches, trying to process a huge amount of information and not make mistakes, to “okay guys, you can stop now”? Things go wrong. Especially where alcohol and British sailors are concerned.

“Poor old Johnny Yen set himself on fire again”

We didn’t learn. Every port, each bit of “down time” was another chance to set ourselves on fire.

Years after I finished my eight years of naval service, I still smouldered.

“Can’t you see he’s had enough?”

(Song recommendation by Lee D Thompson)

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