Procol Harum fans will recognise the name of John 'Polly'
Punter, who was propped up by Chris 'The Grouts' Michie according to the
liner-notes for Exotic Birds and Fruit.
From producer to publican, this little piggy came all the way home
He’s best known locally as the affable 62-year-old Englishman who runs The Pig’s Ear Tavern, but, in a previous life, John Punter was a hotshot music producer and recording engineer who worked with some of the biggest rock-and-roll names of the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s.
Born and raised in Kilburn, North London, John remembers the 1950s and '60s as “a wonderful musical adventure” in England. Ultimately, they were two formative decades that would shape him to become a force in the world of rock-and-roll.
But it wasn’t always rock-and-roll. In school, John was a French horn player who seemed destined to study music in university and go on to play classically or, perhaps, become a music teacher.
“It didn’t quite work out that way because rock-and-roll came along and bit me in the ass,” says John.
Soon the French horn gave way to drums and John became the drummer for a semi-professional band while still in school.
Another fork in the road came when John’s band mate, a tape operator at EMI Studios in London, invited him to sit in on a recording session. That was John’s eureka moment.
“I knew, from that point, that this was what I wanted to do. That’s where I wanted my musical attention to go,” he recalls.
Though there was some interest in what he had to offer, try as he might, John came away from interviews at five London recording studios empty-handed. That began what he calls a “year of frustration” spent cleaning rich people’s houses for a domestic agency and hoping for the call to come. It did and in the spring of 1967, at 18 years old, John started at Decca as a tape operator.
Though a tape operator is at the bottom of the recording studio pecking order, it was a start. A year later, the departure of a senior engineer created upward movement on the corporate ladder and John was promoted to a junior engineer position. After two-and-a-half years at Decca, he moved on to the newly-opened Air Studios.
“Once I got into Air, off it went,” John says.
“I started working initially with people like Procol Harum. I had a four or five year association with Procol and then along came Roxy Music. Then, in 1973, I went freelance, left Air Studios and was a freelance engineer/producer from '73 through to '97 when I retired.”
John’s client roster over those years is a who’s who of mostly UK rock-and-roll bands like The Hollies, Nazareth and Japan but includes North American acts such as Middle America, John Mellencamp and The Spoons.
So how in the world did John Punter wind up in Peterborough behind the bar of The Pig’s Ear?
Rewind to 1981. Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. John was there on tour with Nazareth. Lylie Ryder, a Hamilton girl, was also visiting The Steel City. They met by chance, hit it off royally and the next year she moved to England to be with him.
In 1988, they returned to Canada and Peterborough where Lylie’s parents had been running The Pig’s Ear for the previous 14 years. After six months here, the young couple moved along – first to Cobourg and then to Burlington to be closer to Mississauga’s Metalworks Studios where John did a lot of work.
Though John continued to work in music on this side of the Atlantic, it just wasn’t the same.
“Having come over here with Japan in 1979, and then doing The Spoons in 1981/82, I thought that when I came back to Canada in 1988, I’d make a killing but it wasn’t quite so. I really had to start from ground zero and work my way up again. But that was OK because it gave me an ego deflation. So it was good.”
In 1996, John and Lylie returned to Peterborough to take over management of The Pig’s Ear. John carried on with music while running the tavern with Lylie but the demands of the two roles soon proved excessive and, in 1997, he left music for good. Three years later, when Lylie’s folks retired, she and John bought the place.
As much as he loved the music industry, John doesn’t hesitate when asked if he misses it.
“Not really, honestly. I miss the people but I don’t miss the bullshit.
"I think I got out at the right time. Musically, I wasn’t getting inspired. I wasn’t getting excited about stuff and I think that’s a good enough reason to quit. I just wasn’t passionate anymore but I am passionate about the Piggy. It’s a place I’ve always loved. For me, everything coincided at the right time. It was the right thing to do.”
If a career in music was the fulfilment of one youthful dream, owning The Pig's Ear is another.
“The weird thing is that I always wanted to have a pub in the country in England. I just ended up with a pub in another country."
Not some gentrified, plastic version of a tiny English pub, The Pig's Ear is a casual, unpretentious, no-frills, fun kind of place that hasn’t changed in years. That’s what John loves about it.
“When Lylie first brought me here in 1981, it had the atmosphere of a northern England workingmen’s club. It had that kind of vibe. The Piggy is a very unique place – a very sociable meeting place – and we are trying to maintain the heritage of what this establishment is about. “
John loves to talk about his relationship with his clientele, especially the Trent University students who frequent The Pig's Ear.
“They still give me the biggest kick in life,” he says.
“Years later, they come back to the Piggy and say how it’s still the same. Well, why would you mess with it? It’s the Piggy. Why would I change it? As long as I’m here, that ain’t going to happen. This place has too many memories for me let alone for all the people who have come through our doors over the years.”
OK, we get it. John Punter really, really loves The Pig’s Ear, but he must be, at least, contemplating retirement.
He just laughs at the notion.
“Lylie won’t let me retire,” John chuckles.
“I guess I’ll be here 'til I drop.”
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