Captain Sensible in repose (with fLUSH issue 11), 2002 (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
They shoulda been finished by 1980. In the DIY world of late ‘70s punk rock, which saw bands implode (or explode) sometimes within days or weeks of forming, the Damned were releasing their fourth album in 1980, what I consider to be their magnum opus, THE BLACK ALBUM. Of course, by 1980, the band had already split after the departure of guitarist and primary songwriter, Brian James following the release of their second full-length, MUSIC FOR PLEASURE; thankfully, the call of the stage (and a nice payday) brought the remaining band – vocalist Dave Vanian, drummer Rat Scabies and bassist-turned-guitarist Captain Sensible – back together, this time with drinking buddy Lemmy filling in on bass. By the time the sessions for THE BLACK ALBUM began, the group was already on to their fourth bassist, Paul Gray having supplanted former Saints bass player, Algy Ward. Over the years, twenty-five full-time or touring musicians have been a part of the legendary aggregation, with Vanian being the only constant; however, the band coalesced into a solid line-up with bassist Stu West joining Sensible, Vanian, keyboardist Monty Oxymoron and drummer Pinch in 2004.
And, so, forty years after releasing the first UK punk record, DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED, the band are back with a major tour underway and a new album in the offing. With a stop scheduled at the Delmar Hall in Saint Louis on April 21, I reached out to the responsible parties to check in with the band before the commencement of the North American leg of their tour. It was agreed that e-mailing some questions to Captain Sensible would be the best approach. This, then, is the result of that communication; other than a minor tweak here and there, Captain’s answers are left intact, exactly as he wrote them. No animals were harmed in the exchange. Well, maybe a couple, but… they deserved it!
DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED
THE MULE: You’re celebrating the fortieth anniversary of your debut album, DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED and forty years of a general wreaking of havoc with an extensive world tour. How has the tour been going and what can we expect when you hit the shores of North America for a two-month long jaunt?
CAPTAIN: The band gets on great; probably why it’s the longest lasting lineup in Damned history. But, the important thing is they play the material, particularly from the classic period, with real gusto. Stu and Pinch are a phenomenal rhythm section which allows Monty (an improv genius) and myself freedom to be playful with the songs… it’s never quite the same twice. Which is good, because love music shouldn’t be too predictable. I like an element of danger… I’ve always seen my role in the band to add a touch of chaos.
THE MULE: Of late, a lot of groups have been celebrating these types of anniversaries by playing the entire record live. Can we expect to hear those twelve songs played front to back or do you have other surprises in store?
CAPTAIN: We’ll be playing a special career spanning 40th anniversary set – with the Damned you’re getting three bands for the price of one – we were the first UK punk band, had a hand in creating the Goth scene and veer towards garage psych whenever the inclination takes us. The setlist can change mid gig, depending on the audience… and well timed heckling is encouraged. It’s all about the live experience – to hell with choreography and set routines – we like to live a little dangerous and just go with whatever happens.
From the punk material, I have to say my favourite is “Neat Neat Neat,” with its fabulous Eddie Cochran-esque riff. Perfect for a quick jam and eminently danceable. On the other hand, “Eloise” is simply epic… a theatrical, mad, desperate declaration of love for a “lady of the night,” These things happen… quite often, probably.
The Damned and friends, circa 1977 (Chrissie Hynde, Tommy Ramone, Rat Scabies, Captain Sensible, Dee Dee Ramone, Brian James, Joey Ramone, Johnny Ramone) (photo courtesy: CAPTAIN SENSIBLE)
THE MULE: The album was among a number of firsts for the band: You were the first punk band from the UK to release a single with “New Rose,” DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED was the first UK punk album and you were the first English punk group to tour the US. What do you remember from those first few months of the band and the explosion of punk that followed? There must be a great sense of pride in what you, Dave, Brian and Rat accomplished in such a short amount of time.
THE CAPTAIN: Brian put the original ad in a music mag looking for like minded musicians. He wanted a gang that played with aggression. You can hear the results on the first two albums… but, when he jumped ship in ‘78, it left the rest of us with a huge problem. None of us had any history of songwriting. Also, with me now on guitar, we needed a bassist.
We used to hang around in the pubs in Portobello Road, where Lemmy was a permanent feature – propping up some fruit machine or other. Apart from speed metal, that was his passion. He’d let us sleep on his floor if we missed the last bus home, and was a good chum.
We were broke and had been offered some money for a London Damned show if we could get some kind of lineup back together.
As ex-guitarist of the Johnny Moped band, I fancied a go at 6 strings again, so we called up our old mate Lemmy to play bass and knocked together a setlist of Damned and Motorhead favourites during a short boozy rehearsal. The reaction of the audience on the night of the performance was splendid so we arranged another show… and then another…. and then, someone suggested writing some new tunes.
Lemmy had a tour coming up, however, so we found ourselves having the difficult task of finding a bassist with equally uncompromising attitude and sound… and then someone mentioned this bloke they’d heard of that plays his bass with metal picks. His name was Algy, he demonstrated his thunderous technique and was immediately offered the job. Finally, the Damned was ready to record its psychedelic punk rock record… MGE (MACHINE GUN ETIQUETTE – Editor).
The Damned, circa 1976 (Captain Sensible, Dave Vanian) (photo credit: JOHN INGHAM)
THE MULE: I’m reading Steve Jones’ book, LONELY BOY. He kind of gives short shrift to the Pistols’ ANARCHY TOUR that the Damned were a part of. Do you have any memories – fond or otherwise – of that tour and the other bands on the bill?
CAPTAIN: Damned, Clash, Pistols and Johnny Thunders’ band got on great – more than could be said for the four managers who all wanted preeminence for their bunch. MacClaren put the package together cos his lot couldn’t sell tickets outside London… a situation which changed when Steve Jones swore on a teatime TV show. At that point, with Rotten and company on all the front pages the next day, the Damned were no longer required to fill venues so we were given the heave-ho.
I bump into Steve every now ‘n’ then, and put it to him recently that it doesn’t take a lot of skill to curse and swear on a TV programme – I could’ve quite easily done that myself. More than capable! His reply? “But you didn’t, Captain… WE did”
You have to laugh…
The Damned play the Galaxy in Saint Louis, 2002 (Captain Sensible; Dave Vanian) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
THE MULE: The Damned has certainly had their share of ups and downs, with members coming and going, breaking up and reforming, legal issues regarding the use of the name, signing with and leaving record companies. For you, what are the high points and low points in the band’s career?
CAPTAIN: High point was the reception of the first album. It caused a bit of a sensation and suddenly, we were on front pages… the record is manic and riff heavy – Nick Lowe did a great job of capturing the uncompromising nature of our 35 minute live set. This is the material the more recently arrived members of the band love to play and they totally nail it.
We had no idea the record would be popular… let alone talked about 40 years on.
We were just making the music we wanted to hear cos there was precious little around at the time that had any get up and go. Glam rock had packed the sequins and gone – all we had left was country, disco and prog.
But mainly, I was trying to change my own world cos for me, as a teenager with little education to boast of, I had a life of drudge ahead of me at best. Or a vagabond of some sort… I was already known to the law and things could have gone from bad to worse. I was dossing in a Brighton squat, surrounded by junkies and ne’er do wells – then punk rockshowed up and saved me. Every band needs a chaos factor… and I became the Damned’s random unpredictable nutcase. My dream job.
During rehearsals, I was sleeping on Brian’s floor; we spent our days traipsing around clubs attempting to blag support gigs – which paid peanuts so we were generally starving. When Stiff Records offered us a record deal, the promise of a visit to a Wimpy Bar was the clincher.
As for low points… Maybe the rows and punch ups? But all bands have them, I think… even the Mamas and the Papas.
THE MULE: A couple of fairly well known musicians produced the first two Damned albums. What are your thoughts on those first two records and the producers, the Nicks: Lowe and Mason?
CAPTAIN: Nick managed to capture the live sound of the band… it’s not “posh,” that’s for sure. If you play the record loud and close your eyes, you could be in London’s sleazy basement Roxy Club watching the band. It is pure punk – unlike some of our contemporaries, who polished and perfected their sound in an un-punk like manner, I thought.
Nick Mason stood in for Syd Barrett… our original choice. But we were getting Floyd’s studio for free, so couldn’t tell him to eff off.
The Damned’s Abbey Road moment (Stu West,Captain Sensible, Dave Vanian, Pinch, Monty Oxymoron) (photo courtesy: CAPTAIN SENSIBLE)
THE MULE: One of my all-time favorite albums and my favorite Damned album has always been THE BLACK ALBUM. What are your memories of writing and recording that record? How do you think it holds up 37 years later?
CAPTAIN: Somehow, the Damned had a role in kick-starting the punk AND Goth scenes – and moving into the ‘80s, I’d noticed Dave Vanian’s songwriting was moving into darker territory – which culminated in the appropriately titled …BLACK ALBUM. We were fascinated by the possibilities a little experimentation in the studio would give… It was a very creative time of Dave and myself having all night brainstorming sessions. The other guys would listen the next day, open-mouthed at the wild departure from the two minute thrashes we’d been famous for. These are the most fun songs to perform… but demand a lot of concentration.
THE MULE: It’s been nearly ten years since the last album of new material, SO, WHO’S PARANOID. I understand that you’re working on a new record. Can you tell us about the PledgeMusic page and when we’ll see the finished product? Do you have something unexpected up your collective sleeves? With the new record coming, your fans have to wonder: Where do the Damned go from here?
The Damned, 2016 (Captain Sensible, Pinch, Dave Vanian, Stu West, Monty Oxymoron) (uncredited photo)
CAPTAIN: The Buzzcocks guys told us about this PledgeMusic thing, which I’d no idea about – but when told it allowed us to make the album we wanted to make… without a record label bloke peering over your shoulder, I was there. So, we can pretty much do what we like – which in the ‘80s would’ve meant getting comprehensively sloshed and wrecking the studio and getting thrown out of a few along the way for those sort of capers. Probably not this time though, being considerably older… and marginally wiser.
Pinch, Stu and Monty are such great players though… they’re going to get a chance to flex their muscles musically. This is a band that can break out of a song structure and really jam it up.
Each album we’ve made sounds different from the last one – and this one will continue that trend. It’s fun to experiment, to be creative… take a few risks. The only shame is not releasing before the world tour, but to have boshed out a half finished album would be wrong. I have SERGEANT PEPPER… and PET SOUNDS in my record collection, played ‘em to death over the years and, unlikely as it sounds, always aspire to achieve those standards.
An album to celebrate forty glorious years of the Damned seemed a good idea. We don’t make many… it’s quality over quantity. We’ll go off on a tangent, as per usual, as we don’t care to repeat ourselves. It’s been a musical journey in the Damned. I love the experimenting in the studio… all night brainstorming sessions fueled by copious amounts of quality ale. That’s the way to do it – it’s gonna be fun!
There will be some surprises, but plenty of energy and melodic content, too. Oh, and some darkness, too.
The Pledge campaign was an instant success. Thanks, everyone! We are currently trawling through the best material we have and putting it through the Damned machine. Who knows how much longer this band can go on, so we are really going at it with a Big (Brother) eye on the quality. Rest assured, it will be as different as any album the band has ever made. Move on or croak!!! We want people to discover this record and be aurally challenged. Dave, in particular, has some really wacky ideas that he wants to put on here and we are all pretty excited that he is vibed up about it. We may have to tour with a full orchestra and dance troupe to realize it properly! Hahahahaaaaa.
THE MULE: You had a successful solo run in the early ’80s and you continue to release music outside of the band. Is there any news on that front? If so, what and when can we expect something?
CAPTAIN: I did an album with Paul Gray… A POSTCARD FROM BRITAIN, it’s called. It’s a concept piece which reflects our views on our home country… not all of them glowing!
THE MULE: Looking back on a forty-plus year career, where do you think the Damned places in the pantheon of rock music?
CAPTAIN: I really don’t care about any of that… it’s all been fantastic fun. And, a wonderful musical adventure. The Damned are outsiders – we don’t have celeb friends or go to swanky parties. We are the same as we’ve always been… just a bunch of…
The Damned play the Royal Albert Hall, May 20, 2016 (Captain Sensible, Dave Vanian) (Photo credit: DOD MORRISON PHOTOGRAPHY)
THE MULE: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Look forward to seeing you in Saint Louis on April 21.
CAPTAIN: Cheers!!! I have to be real careful these days not to overdo it, as hangovers are gruesome when you get to this age. The getting carted about all over the place is tough on the system too – I always say I do the gigs for free… but I wanna get paid for all the traveling.
Having said that, there is a theory that you stay the same mental age as when you first join your band… to a certain extent I’ve not had the responsibilities and worries that normal people have, I’ve shifted a few records… but been bankrupt and everything in between, as well. To be honest the pursuit of money and fame means nothing to me… who needs a flashy car anyway – I’m happy to get around by train.
I’m a perennial juvenile delinquent… my hero is still Dennis the Menace. There’s more than a bit of him in my act.
After a year of loss (drummer Darius Minwalla and former bassist Joe Skyward both passed away) and of new beginnings (the release of their first record in six years, SOLID STATES), the Posies – Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, with drummer Frankie Siragusa – hit the road with a string of secret, “Pop-Up” shows. Playing in unconventional locations and venues, the newly revitalized band has hit upon one of the more intriguing ways to get their music out to the most die-hard Posies fans. I had the opportunity to speak with Jon Auer before a recent show in Minneapolis, which found him traveling and taking a ferry to his appointed destination.
THE MULE: So, you’ve been doing this since you were… what, seventeen? The Posies, solo work, REM, Big Star…
JON AUER: Well, yes…there’s solo work and I’ve been in Big Star. Ken’s done REM and also Big Star… we’ve both done many other things and worked in many different situations with different people… for instance, I’ve also worked on a record with William Shatner and Ben Folds (2004’s HAS BEEN).
THE MULE: Well, there you go. That’s even more important; that’s really impressive!
JON: Right, haha! But, anyway… you were saying?
THE MULE: How do you keep things fresh? How do you maintain that initial excitement? You know… what you felt at the beginning?
JON: I think it’s by trying to not repeat ourselves. That’s had a huge impact on the amount of enjoyment that I or we get out of what we do. I mean, I think it’s the same in life; if you’re sorta coasting and doing what you’ve always done perhaps it’s nice for awhile but eventually it can become stale. I mean, it may be comfortable in a way but… is it exciting? That’s the question. And, I think we’ve been very good about making the effort to not just take an easy route when we make a record or try something new. I think that if you examine every one of our records there are common threads for sure but they are all very different, each their own distinct thing… like little aural time capsules of where we were at the point in time we made them. I don’t know, man… I mean, there are bands that just try to do one thing and they do it – like Orville Redenbacher, you know? “Do one thing and do it better than anybody else” haha! – That works for certain groups… AC/DC springs to mind; I mean, I don’t really think I’ll be expecting a new AC/DC record to surprise me. If they do, that would be kinda cool but, by the same token – no offense to AC/DC – will I really need a new AC/DC record if it doesn’t? I mean… I could be wrong but I’d wager it’s probably just gonna sound like what you would expect. The Posies aren’t like that. We fall into the camp of musicians and artists who ask “What’s the point of repeating yourself?” But, the funny thing is, though we often make concerted efforts to sound massively different and then, you know…. we are who we are anyways. It may be different from what we’ve done before, often very much so, but it still sounds like “us.” It doesn’t ever sound like a completely different band because it still has the vocals and the harmonies and the way that we write songs, it’s just… It’s more like buying a new outfit ’cause you wanna try a new look or feel or maybe like trying some kind of new food that you’ve never had before because you don’t want to keep the same items on the menu all the time. It’s that kind of vibe. That’s what keeps it fresh: The new ideas and approaches.
The Posies (Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow) (photo credit: DOT PIERSON)
And, adding to that, this whole method of touring that we’re utilizing now is another way in which we’ve been able to re-invigorate the process because it’s not being done in way that we’ve experienced ourselves before. It’s a new format, a new line-up… we’re going out as a three-piece, playing unlikely spaces, unusual venues. We’ve turned it into a way of doing things where it’s just… the band. We are the crew, we are the roadies, we are the ones who sell the merchandise… we’re the drivers. We do it all.
THE MULE: So, it’s almost back to the beginning again.
JON: In a way, yes. We’re finding… you’d think it would be kind of like, “Oh jeez, what have we taken on? It’s too much!” But, the opposite has occurred where I feel like, “Wow, I’ve got a real sense of purpose here” because there’s always something to do and nobody’s doing it for us. You either succeed or fail by your own hand, whatever you have to accomplish on any given day. It’s really kinda up to you; there’s no one else to shoulder anything on. All the activity morphs into having a lot of satisfaction with what gets accomplished, which is a ton.
THE MULE: Right. Uh… how did this idea of the pop-up show come about and how does that exactly work?
JON: Well, as far as this recent touring we’re doing, Ken toured in a very similar manner with an artist named Holly last year and he thought it would work really well with us… and he was right, big time. Due to scheduling, we missed a window in 2016 to do a regular club tour and this is what we did instead and it was a real eye opener, a pleasant surprise. That said, I’ve got to go back a little farther even. I realize that playing living rooms or atypical spaces isn’t a new concept. I mean, other people have been and are doing it and I admit that even as a solo artist, I’ve done… I had a nice little… what would you call it? Not a tour per se, but I had a nice little thing going where I would do certain house concerts every year at the same places since the mid-2000s. I had a nice group of regulars, really cool people, that would have me to visit and perform and they were always super great places and people there were just people there to listen. The audiences were a nice cozy size and merch sales were always good. Often there would be excellent bottles of wine around, you know… nice meals and you were well taken care of and had a great time hanging out around the show as well. There’s a lot to be said for that way of doing it; you take that and compare that to the model of maybe playing a dingy rock club in some city and then staying in, say, a Motel 6, if you wanna be cost effective, and it’s not quite the same equation, is it? Haha! Don’t get me wrong… there are many cool, classic clubs in America but then there’s often the issue that not everybody in the club is there to see you. Like, maybe there’s someone that comes because they’re a friend of the bartender or they just come to casually check you out for a few songs or they just come because they got on the list for free and wanna drink beers and talk in the back and they aren’t listening to you anyway.
That’s why this whole pop-up thing, playing in these unique venues, is so… works so well, because you really don’t get anybody there that’s just a casual audience member; they’re all usually, generally, fans that have many of your records. Or, they’re bringing people with them who’ve never heard really us but are very curious, like they’re friends are trying to indoctrinate them into the ‘ways’ of the Posies, pass it on to them. People are very respectful and they’re there because they want to listen and have a fun hang. Not only that, they’re also willing to hear us play new stuff, you know? It’s not just someone showing up to hear the hit. You know what I mean? Like they want to hear the one song and then they’re gonna leave? That never happens. We actually play our entire new record in our set… we mix it in with other stuff, of course, but, we play all twelve songs most nights. Nobody seems to mind and I think we did a very good job of designing our set list so there’s just enough familiar stuff and new stuff mixed together in the right combination at the right times so that nobody gets bored or too anxious…us included. It’s worked out incredibly well. I mean, when you experience something like this and everybody has such a good time, you kind of wonder, “What’s the point of doing it the other way?” And, also, in terms of the whole pop-up concept, it really does add mystery to the whole event as well and I mean, hey…who doesn’t like a little mystery in life? That also keeps things interesting, keeps things humming. It makes everyone more curious and filled with more anticipation and then there’s also the surprise and payoff of showing up and finding out, “Oh, this is where the show is tonight!” Okay… I’m in a back yard in Phoenix. Or, I’m at some recording studio I’ve always wanted to go to that I didn’t know they did shows there. Or, my God, look at this amazing house and how good it would sound in here.” Anyway, it’s surprising how well it’s worked… and that’s why we’re doing it again: Because it was so good.
THE MULE: Very cool. So, you’ve kinda half way answered one of my… well, actually a couple of other questions. The first, about how the tour is going; obviously, it’s going swimmingly well. And, the other thing is, obviously, I’m talking to you not only because of SOLID STATES, but also because you are playing in kinda my back yard, next Wednesday, in Saint Louis. So, I was going to ask you what we could expect at the Saint Louis show.
The Posies (Ken Stringfellow, Frankie Siragusa, Jon Auer) (photo credit: RENE OONK)
JON: Well, you know… uh, it’s cool because I don’t think we’ve done a Posies show in Saint Louis since… I want to say… 2005 maybe? Is that even possible? Hmm… Maybe it was even longer ago than that, maybe Ken and I played as a duo last time around, in 2000 or so… it’s been a while, you know? The last time I was actually in Saint Louis for anything, I think, was to play with Big Star, at a small outdoor festival with Son Volt, I believe. I forget where it was…I want to say it was downtown by some impressive looking architecture, some State buildings or structures like that. This time around I think you can expect us to be psyched to be playing a place we haven’t really done enough playing in. And you can also expect something visceral … there’s a lot of energy in our show; I mean, the record’s very… it has a lot of energy in it but, it’s also rather lush and pretty and moody and the live show kicks all of it up a couple of notches at least, because it’s just… well, it’s louder for one thing! Word to the wise: Bring earplugs! I’d tell everybody to do that. It’s not a quiet show and a lot of these shows are in smaller and/or unusual spaces where the acoustics are more explosive sounding… So, it’s always good to have some protection for your ears. Seriously, folks. You can really expect some… We don’t phone it in, you know, just because we’ve been doing what we do for quite a while now. I mean, we really try to give it our all every night, no matter how far we have traveled to get there or if our bodies are aching or whatnot. I mean, there’s no point coming to do it if we’re not having… we just want people to have a great time and enjoy it ourselves.
THE MULE: Okay… this may be kind of a hard question for you to answer. But… uh, I’m gonna ask it anyway. How did the deaths of Darius and, later, Joe effect the recording process and plans for the tours you’ve been doing since?
JON: Well… Darius was… Oh, jeez… I mean, it’s the kind of thing you really can’t do justice to in an interview, honestly, you know. Explaining just how much of an impact not having Darius and then Joe around anymore had… just how much of an impact that’s had on my life, on our lives…well, I mean, in the case of Darius, you’re talking about someone who played in my solo band three years before he joined the Posies and then he was with the Posies fourteen years afterwards. He was pretty much my best male friend and I was devastated when he died. And, he died right near the beginning of… I’d say a third to maybe almost halfway through making SOLID STATES? So, the question for me then became, “What do I even want to make a record for anymore?” I was super distraught and confused by the loss and I was constantly trying to make sense out of losing him when ultimately there was no sense to be found in any of it. Eventually, what ended up happening was it worked its way into some of the remaining songs I hadn’t written yet and… how could it not, y’know? It’s funny, because I always think it’s kind of obvious but, many people, they need more direct clues or a clearer road map to figure it out because they often misconstrue a song’s meaning… and fair enough, people interpret songs the way they want to interpret them unless they’re clearly spelled out, sure. And, I bring in some… we often use unusual imagery and metaphors so, actually, it’s not always so straight forward. For instance, there’s a song “Unlikely Places,” I’ve seen many reviews of it now, and unless people knew what it was about, some seem to consider it… they think it’s about a boy and a girl relationship, a romantic relationship and it’s so far from that. It’s really about me dealing with the loss of Darius, what it did to me and where I was trying to go or get to to figure out how to deal with the loss. People can help you and you can get advice… you can do therapy and you can do whatever but, no one can really totally… It’s such a personal thing. No one can get you through it, to a place where you can live with it, but yourself in the end. I don’t know what you’ve experienced as far as loss… parental or… but, it was a total ‘before and after’ moment for me in life, losing Darius, and…well… that’s just the way it is. We did eventually soldier on and got back to the music but it was painful. There’s another song, “Rollercoaster Zen,” that is for Darius. If you really look at the lyrics to that, you can see that I’m talking about him… almost to him. The dreams I’ve had… I had… oh, God, I had some incredibly vivid dreams about him, like he was still here. I don’t know. I don’t wanna keep going on too much about it because it’s too hard to explain, totally. But, you get the vibe, right?
THE MULE: Yeah. I actually just lost my mother a few weeks ago and… I was actually her caregiver for the last ten years and… it’s rough, man.
JON: So you’ve been… You know – in an even more primal way, since it’s your mother – probably the stuff I’m talking about. It just is what it is but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. You’ve just got to learn live with it eventually, you know? And it takes time. And it can bubble up at the weirdest times in the weirdest places, the grief, yes?
THE MULE: Right and, like you were saying, everybody is trying to help… there are the platitudes, “It’ll get better” and I know all that stuff but, there are times where it’s just like, “Leave me alone. Let me deal.”
Darius Minwalla; Joe Skyward (uncredited photos)
JON: Yeah, and you know what?… It’s so true… at times, often there’s nothing worse than a platitude because… you know people mean well but, it really doesn’t do justice to the loss. It’s nobody’s fault, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t really help so… it would almost be better if people would… So, yeah, I feel for you, man. There’s been a couple for me recently… As mentioned, Darius… and right before we went our first tour this year in Europe, Joe passing as well…In his case, Joe had been dealing with his cancer for awhile so we knew that he was in trouble and trying to work through it but when he finally passed it happened so fast that it was shocking too. I mean, one day I just woke up to a Facebook message from our old drummer, Brian Young, who was in the band when Joe was in the band, and… it was just pretty much, “Joe passed.” and I was just…I felt like… it was hard to believe. So then it became not only one friend lost in the last couple of years, but two. It’s still hard to believe, to wrap my head around it all, that they are no longer with us. I don’t know how old you are; I’ll be forty-seven this year.
THE MULE: Yeah… I got you beat by a few years.
JON: Okay. Still, my brother and I were just talking about this… he mentioned that really we’re just getting to the point in our lives, the ‘season’ you could say, where that’s gonna be part of our lives from now on. Like, simply, the older you get, more loss can occur… Okay… we’re getting pretty philosophical here now but… it seems true enough.. The record ended up being a way to help me deal with some of that and it kinda does a little bit and helps me celebrate lost friends… but, I don’t think anyone likes that kind change, losing people close to you, learning about loss the hard way. It hurts. My God! But, ultimately…what else can you do? We’ve gotta get back to life and live as best we can.
THE MULE: Exactly. Well, let’s get back to some more, uh… rock and rolley kind of things. Actually, last question and I will let you get back to life. Beyond SOLID STATES and this tour, what is next for you, personally, and the band?
Dynamo Royale (Tiz Aramini, Jon Auer) (photo credit: JASON TANG)
JON: I have some other projects that I’d like to promote more, spend more quality time with. There’s a duo project with Tiz Aramini called Dynamo Royale that I’m working on a proper release for. The record’s called STRAIGHT ON THE DIAGONAL and there will be more time to spread that around. You can find it and us on Bandcamp as well. It’s quite different from the Posies, perhaps more layered even, but it still has that kind of… it’s got my melodic sense woven in there with hers as well. It’s a very unique collaboration. I’d also like to make another solo record. It’s been… Jeez, the last one I put out, SONGS FROM THE YEAR OF OUR DEMISES was in 2006 so, like… I’m way overdue! And, there’s also a group I’m part of called Unseen Beings with Stephen Becker from Le Concorde and Brian Young, who played with Fountains of Wayne and now plays with The Jesus and Marychain, we have a record called AKA INFINITY due to be released next year. Then, hopefully, along with all that, we’re going to continue to realize some Posies reissues that we’ve been talking about. One of them has been out for a while – our first record, FAILURE – on this great label called Omnivore Recordings. They do excellent reissues with deluxe packaging and a lot of care, the works…we feel they like do things right, let’s put it that way. They’ve been asking to do our three major label records too: DEAR 23, FROSTING ON THE BEATER, and AMAZING DISGRACE. That’s been in talks for a while and I think 2017 might be the year for it, when they actually do come out or at least they start to come out.
And then, beyond that…I had so much fun doing this last round of touring, it was so reinvigorating and life affirming after everything we went through so, I think we’d… You never can predict what’s going to happen exactly but…I think we’d really like to try to make another Posies record and sooner than later, you know? Not wait another six years… Try to get one out in the no so distant future because… hey, we’re not getting any younger and we’re having so much fun. I think we all thought this, you know, that this is working, what we’re doing now feels good… we’re playing great, we’re enjoying it, we are a good working unit … and I don’t think we expect to enjoy it as much as we did. I certainly didn’t. To me, it feels like we thought, well, let’s see if we can do this even, after what we went through with losing our bandmates and… we pulled through and it feels… It feels really good. So, uh… I’d like some more of that feeling, please.
The Poseis (Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer, Franke Siragusa) (photo credit: MARC GOLDSMITH)
Jon and the Posies are playing a pop-up show in Saint Louis, on Wednesday, September 28. For ticket prices and location, visit the band’s website. Other upcoming tour dates and more news about the Posies are available there, as well.
Having been introduced to the Nashville band Blackfoot Gypsies, via their recently released second long-player, HANDLE IT, I have been on the lookout (begging their publicist, actually) for a Saint Louis date. That date has arrived! The newly engorged group will be playing at the Demo – on Manchester, in the Grove – this Sunday, October 11, 2015. For tickets, directions and everything you need to know about the show, check out the Demo’s site.
Founding members guitarist and vocalist Matthew Paige and drummer Zack Murphy have added bassist Dylan Whitlow and harmonica player Oliver “Ollie Dogg” Horton to the mix, freeing the duo up to concentrate on their instruments of choice (Matthew has added the fiddle to his instrument list) without sacrificing the larger, fuller sound that they are known for. The ten tracks on HANDLE IT range from Country to New Orleans Blues, Nashville Soul to straight out Rock ‘n’ Roll… sometimes, all within the course of one song. “Scream My Name” opens the album with a dose of RAW POWER-era Stooges punk; Paige’s fiddle and over-dubbed harmony vocals give “Spent All My Money” an authentic Country feel, while “In Your Mind” is a Stonesy “Gimme Shelter” rocker. There are Steve Marriott/Humble Pie hard rock tunes (“Dead On the Road”), a pop ditty that I find rather reminiscent of PET SOUNDS-era Beach Boys or, believe it or not, early Sonny and Cher (“So Be It”) and a slice of punky Americana (“Too Bad”), all of which I’m certain will sound great in a live setting. In anticipation and preparation for a night of bluesy, rockin’ Country hippified honky-tonk, I sent a few questions to the band via e-mail; Zack Murphy replied. Here’s that interview, wherein Murphy discusses the new dynamics in the band and what we can look forward to on a Sunday night in the Lou.
Blackfoot Gypsies (HANDLE IT cover art)
THE MULE: One of the biggest recent changes has been the doubling of the band, going from a duo to a quartet. What prompted the change?
ZACK MURPHY: Nothing other than finding the right people. We wanted to have a full band all along. At first, it just meant Matthew and I. After we found Dylan and Ollie Dogg, it was a perfect and natural fit, so there was really no reason not to add them. They have enhanced our sound so much, we would’ve made a mistake not to add them.
THE MULE: Discuss how the change in the band’s make-up has impacted the over-all sound of the group’s performances, both in the studio and in a live setting.
ZACK MURPHY: Matthew and I don’t have to worry about filling out the sound as much. We can play what we would normally want to play for each of our parts instead of having to also worry about if the sound is too sparse or not full enough. Also, Dylan plays better bass parts than either of us would, and Ollie Dogg plays better harmonica than either of us would, so that definitely helps in the studio.
THE MULE: How has your approach to writing changed since the additions of Dylan and Ollie? Is there more of a group approach with the new songs on HANDLE IT?
ZACK MURPHY: Definitely. Matthew writes the lyrics and such and then the band kinda shapes the song after that with all of our parts and we arrange and change and figure out a good foundation for the song. The songs never stop changing and growing cuz we like to play them at least a little, if not a lot, differently each time. But yeah, they have helped change what we would normally play, write, think of, et cetera.
Blackfoot Gypsies (Matthew Paige, Dylan Whitlow, Zack Murphy, Oliver “Ollie Dogg” Horton) (photo credit: JON MORGAN)
THE MULE: The new music has sort of a very modern feel and sheen, production-wise, but the lyrics and the vibe are very much based in traditional Blues and Country. Can you give us a bit of insight into the things that have been most influential in giving Blackfoot Gypsies their sound?
ZACK MURPHY: Real music made by real people. We aren’t going for a vintage or modern vibe, we’re simply trying to be our own natural selves. Rock ‘n’ Roll, Country and Blues… it’s all there and it pretty much is the same stuff. It’s what we do best. We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, just make it move and groove.
THE MULE: Plowboy Records is a relatively new label run by veteran musicians and long-time industry insiders. What considerations went into the thought process of signing with a small indie label? How did the past experiences of Don (Cusic, who has worked in virtually every aspect of the music industry in a career spanning more than forty years), Shannon (Pollard, a thirty year music veteran and grandson of Country great Eddy Arnold) and Cheetah (Chrome, a co-founder of Cleveland’s legendary punks, the Dead Boys, as well as a producer and solo artist) influence that decision?
ZACK MURPHY: They just seemed really cool and laid back. Obviously they all knew the business, which has helped a ton, but they weren’t looking for a bunch of stuff that they could take from us and it seemed like a real natural and easy fit. Each one of those guys brings a lot of good experience to the table, so it’s nice to have them on our team.
Blackfoot Gypsies (Oliver “Ollie Dogg” Horton, Zack Murphy, Matthew Paige, Dylan Whitlow) (photo credit: JON MORGAN)
THE MULE: When was the last time you played Saint Louis? Can you give us an idea of what we can expect when you play the Demo on Sunday night?
ZACK MURPHY: To shake your ass. We haven’t played STL since summer of 2014, so we’re pumped like Arnold to be back. We’re playin’ with some friends, Brother Lee and the Leather Jackals, so it’ll be nice to see those guys. Bring the confetti, we’ll bring the pinata. It’s gonna be a real good time, so treat yo’ self.
THE MULE: The tour runs through just before Christmas. What’s next for Blackfoot Gypsies?
ZACK MURPHY: Currently, we’re planning a European tour for 2016 and working on the next album. We are writing, rehearsing, and recording songs for the new album as we speak.
Thanks, Zack, for taking the time to answer these few questions. We look forward to seeing Blackfoot Gypsies at the Demo on Sunday!
You can order a copy of HANDLE IT on vinyl or CD at the band’s site, at Plowboy Records’ site or you can probably pick one up at the show. Come up and say “Howdy” if you make it out… I’ll be the guy right in front of the stage, drooling like an idjit.
Stackridge, 1971 (Mike Evans, Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Jim “Crun” Walter, James Warren and Billy Bent ) (publicity photo)
Growing up in The Middle of Nowhere, Illinois as I did, it was hard enough finding a store that stocked the popular music of the day, much less the fringe releases I preferred, by such artists as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Captain Beefheart or Fireballet. The special order became a way of life for me, allowing me to be the only kid on my block to own the latest releases by Fanny or Osibisa or the odder-than-usual concept album, FLASH FEARLESS VERSUS THE ZORG WOMEN PARTS FIVE AND SIX; actually, I may have been the only kid on my block that wanted those albums… but, you get my point. Anyway, with all of that, the band Stackridge somehow slipped under my radar. Naturally, I was familiar with the name. After all, I could and did read a lot of music publications as a young impressionable pup (still can and do, as an old impressionable hound); it just seemed that there was always something that interested me more.
Stackridge, 2015 (Eddie John, James Warren, Andy Davis, Clare Lindley, Glenn Tommey) (publicity photo)
So, I said all of that so I could say this: I eventually did manage to get my grubby fingers on a Stackridge album – EXTRAVAGANZA, I believe – and I was hooked. I was ecstatic when England’s Angel Air Records began their painstakingly comprehensive reissue campaign of the band’s back catalog, along with a live album and a couple of collections peppered in among them. When I decided to get back into the review game, I knew that one of the things I wanted to do was an interview with the two-headed beast that led and continue to lead Stackridge: James Warren and Andy Davis. In early 2014, I contacted their manager, supplied him with a few questions via e-mail and awaited a reply. Fast forward approximately ten months and, I am finally in receipt of answers from Mister Warren. Fast forward another couple of months and, with no reply from Mister Davis, the decision was made to move ahead with a revamped format, using James’ answers. Now, nearly a full two years since my initial request, here – so to speak – is the finished product. There are several questions and answers that allude to the 45th anniversary of the band and the chances of them recording another album of new material, as well as an extensive mention of the Korgis (the other band fronted by Andy and James) that may sound redundant, but please keep in mind that questions were posed and answers were given in 2014. Following the interview, we’re gonna delve into some of the best from both Stackridge and the Korgis, so stick around.
THE MULE: The original band got together in 1969, making this your 45th anniversary. The current line-up still features both of the primary songwriters and vocalists of the various incarnations of the group. Aside from the occasional break-up or vacation from each other, to what do you attribute the longevity of Stackridge?
JAMES:I think the longevity is due to the fact that the repertoire is so stimulating and diverse. It’s great to be able to perform songs as varied as “Fish In a Glass,” “Anyone For Tennis,” “The Road To Venezuela” and “Something About the Beatles” all in the same set. I’ve never been in any other musical combination that offers anything as fun or challenging.
THE MULE:Aside from Andy Davis and yourself, who is involved in the current version of Stackridge? Are the musicians – comparatively speaking – young guns or do you all enjoy a certain advanced… uh… musical acuity. Can we get a feel of the players’ musical pedigree?
JAMES:So, we have Glenn Tommey on keyboards – we’ve known Glenn since 1978. He’s a multi-instrumentalist but, when we met him, he was a recording engineer who worked on the first Korgis album and even sang backing vocals on “If I Had You,” a top twenty hit for the band in the UK. Clare Lindley is on violin, acoustic guitar and backing vocals. We only met her around seven years ago but ,she’s a veteran of the folk and classical circuit. She’s from Aberdeen, in Scotland. Eddie John is on drums and has been a very well-known and respected player on the Bristol scene since the 1980s. Clare and Eddie are in their 40s, Glenn, myself and Andy have all made it beyond 60!
THE MULE:The last album of new material, A VICTORY FOR COMMON SENSE, was released in 2009, after a long lay-off from recording. That album featured two more original members, Michael “Mutter” Slater and Jim “Crun” Walter. How did the album come about? How was it to work with Crun and Mutter in the studio again?
JAMES:The album was produced by Chris Hughes, original drummer with Adam and the Ants and producer of Tears For Fears and we recorded it at his home studio just outside of Bath. We’d known Chris for many years and the idea was suggested at a birthday party we were all attending. Because both Crun and Mutter had full-time day jobs and Mutter had the additional problem of living about 40 miles away from Bath, at least 75% of the work was performed by Andy and I. Crun is a lovely bloke but wildly eccentric, so creating music with him is never easy-going – he continually suggested completely perverse and off-the-wall ideas that we had to try then, inevitably, discard – and Mutter hardly participated at all except to sing his songs. So, it was a very different situation to how we worked together in the 1970s.
Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Jim “Crun” Walter, James Warren) (publicity photo)
THE MULE:Did the Angel Air reissue program rekindle a kind of warm fuzzy spot for you regarding the group? Did it tempt you to reform some version of the band and get out on the boards and into the studio again? Have the reissues raised the public awareness of Stackridge, bringing along new fans? Or, is it just geezers like me looking to upgrade from that scratchy old vinyl?
JAMES:I think we never wanted to rule out the thought of a reformation. A handful of new fans have appeared but, to be honest, it’s essentially the “old guard” re-living their youth!
THE MULE:Can we expect to see new Stackridge music soon… or ever? If so, who will be involved in the project? Are you and Andy game to play with the “old guys” again?
JAMES:Sadly, I have to report that September 2015 will see the farewell tour of Stackridge. We’ve now pretty much exhausted the back catalogue in a live performance situation and it no longer makes any economic sense to record new material. There just isn’t sufficient demand for Stackridge music in the modern world! So, come and see us for the last time in 2015!
THE MULE:The group’s sound has always been the epitome of British “outsider” music, taking in bits of free jazz, traditional folk, Northern Soul, Beatles pop, the Incredible String Band and Frank Zappa. How have your musical tastes and influences changed over the years? When you are on holiday or have down time, what can we generally find you listening to?
Stackridge, 2012 (James Warren) (photo credit: MATTHEW REES/HAM LIFE)
JAMES:My wife, Clare, and I have sixteen year old twins, so when I do the school run in the mornings, me and the kids always listen to CD compilations of the latest top 20 hits – so I’m right up-to-date with contemporary pop! And I like a lot of it. Clean Bandit are one of my current favourites. I hate the typical middle-age attitude of only being able to appreciate the music you grew up with – I’m not sentimental about past musical eras in that way. I still adore and listen to the Beatles; don’t listen to the Incredibles any more, but THE HANGMAN’S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER will always be a work of genius for me. I listen to a lot more classical and jazz these days. I’m especially fascinated by 20th century composers like Stravinsky, Ravel and Satie. One of my treasured possessions is a 22-CD box set of STRAVINSKY CONDUCTING STRAVINSKY.
THE MULE:Your fans were and are, if not legion, very loyal. What is the profile of the standard Stack-fan? Do they now tend to bring along the kiddies (or grand-kids), to introduce them to the music of their youth?
JAMES:Don’t think there is a standard profile – they come in all shapes and sizes. It’s rare to see youngsters in the audience, although there are a few. I know when I was a teenager I wouldn’t be seen dead going to a concert of music my parents were into!
THE MULE:Forty-five years in, what keeps bringing you back to Stackridge? Is it the musical intricacies, the fans or some other intangible?
JAMES:I can’t improve on the answer I gave to your first question. The Stackridge repertoire is so wonderfully diverse and challenging so it’s like a musical holiday to go out and perform that stuff.
THE MULE:Certainly, over the years – particularly the first run – you have released some great albums (FRIENDLINESS, THE MAN WITH THE BOWLER HAT) and some very memorable tunes. Do you have any favorites, individual tracks or full albums? How about least favorites? Are there some albums or tracks that you thought were great at the outset but have since come to loathe?
Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Billy Bent, James Warren, Micahel Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)
JAMES:The first album (STACKRIDGE) is a problem for me. I can’t listen to most of it any more. My singing is so fragile and under-confident, especially the falsetto bits and, most of the lyrics are painfully adolescent in a ridiculously self-indulgent sense. But, it was 1971 and I was only 20 so that explains a lot. I think there are some lovely tunes on FRIENDLINESS; the title track, “There Is No Refuge,” “Father Frankenstein,” “Lummy Days.” …BOWLER HAT still holds up well except for “To the Sun and Moon” (because of my singing). I think “Venezuela,” “Galloping Gaucho,” “Humiliation” and “Fundamentally Yours” are great. And “God Speed the Plough” is an absolute classic. I like almost all the tracks on EXTRAVAGANZA and MISTER MICK. SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND I still love. It’s more whacky and harks back to the original Stackridge mainly due to my extensive collaboration with John Miller, an incredibly eccentric keyboard player full of brilliant unconventional ideas. Wish I hadn’t lost touch with him.
THE MULE:I think that my favorites probably mirror those of most fans: “Dora the Female Explorer,” “Slark,” “Syracuse the Elephant.” The list could go on but, for brevity’s sake, what are your memories regarding the writing and recording processes of these fan favorites? Were they kinda instant favorites or do you remember them slowly taking on a life of their own to eventually become essential?
JAMES:“Dora… ,” “Slark” and “Syracuse… ” were “first generation” Stackridge compositions. Andy and Crun had the basic ideas then we would rehearse and rehearse to hammer out the arrangements. It was tremendous fun. The FRIENDLINESS songs I contributed were pretty much already mapped-out before I introduced them to the band but, then again, with …BOWLER HAT and beyond we would work hard as a unit to make a finished track from one person’s basic idea. I think the “favourites” sounded special from the outset.
THE MULE:You are one of the few bands, aside from the Beatles, to boast a production job by Sir George Martin. What was it like to work with him? How much – before, during and after THE MAN IN THE BOWLER HAT – has his work been an influence to you, personally, and the band, as a whole?
Stackridge, Cropredy Convention 2008 (James Warren, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
JAMES:It was fantastic working with George. I’m happy to report he was as gentlemanly and effortlessly competent as one expected him to be. The …BOWLER HAT experience was very brief (about three weeks) but very intense. It’s a wonderful production. Even now I love and am influenced by his very simple but strong arrangement style.
THE MULE:Through the years, Andy and you have both worked on projects outside of Stackridge, both during the band’s heyday and following the original break-up. Did you use those instances – your solo album, Andy’s work on John Lennon’s IMAGINE, the Korgis, – to refresh the batteries, so to speak, or as a chance to branch out into something completely different from Stackridge? Can we expect to see something coming from either of you soon, outside of the usual Stackridge lunacy and the Korgis reunion gigs?
JAMES:Can’t speak for Andy but, our various alternative projects are, for me, both a refreshment process and an opportunity to investigate something completely different. I think Andy has been working on an album, whereas I’ve just been trying to come up with “coverable” commercial material.
THE MULE:Speaking of the Korgis, the other band that you have both been with since the beginning, is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, as well. The Korgis have been called “the pop side of Stackridge.” How do you view the Korgis, in comparison to the “mother” group?
JAMES:The Korgis is a way of expressing a more distilled, “radio-friendly” type of songwriting. I’m quite excited by the prospect of performing that material live. It’ll be the first time we’ve done it and, you never know, the project might “have legs” and lead on to an interesting new path.
THE MULE:Over the years, you’ve been able to slip out of one band and into the other rather seamlessly. How much of that ability to switch gears has to do with the dynamics of and differences in the musical styles?
Stackridge, 2008 (Rachel Hall, James Warren) (uncredited photo)
JAMES:We used to love the Kinks, the Hollies, 10CC – and it’s just easier to come up with and produce that kind of thing when it’s just the two of you, rather than having to take account of the whims and preferences of a whole band. Hence the need for the Korgis project.
THE MULE:A Korgis tour has been announced, the first in a while. Is it hard to get into a “Korgis state of mind” after such a long time off? What can fans expect to see from the Korgis as they celebrate their 35th anniversary?
JAMES:We’re about to start rehearsals, in January 2015. Basically we’ll be making the show up as we rehearse. But we’ll be aiming to provide an evening of dynamic and scintillating pure poptasticness!
THE MULE:Are there plans beyond this tour for more Korgis? A new album or more touring? Will you simply return to Stackridge to continue that group’s string of successful tours and live releases?
JAMES:As I mentioned above, we’ll be putting Stackridge to bed after September 2015. We’ll just have to see if there’s a public appetite for the Korgis. If there is, then I’m sure we’ll be inspired to record new material. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Thank you, James, for taking the time to fill us in on Stackridge, the Korgis and your plans for the future.
PART THREE: STACKRIDGE, ESSENTIALLY
When exploring adventurous music, it may be prudent to start with a “greatest hits” or “best of… ” collection. Even though most of Stackridge’s proper albums are definitely worth adding to your own personal collection, you may want to heed the above maxim and check out…
PURPLE SPACESHIPS OVER YATTON – BEST OF…
(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2006)
The 2006 Angel Air Records release features fifteen essentials from four of the band’s first five releases (not even “Spin ‘Round the Room,” the single from EXTRAVAGANZA made the cut) and heralded in the label’s brilliant reissue program of the band’s catalog. The collection was reissued in 2008 as ANYONE FOR TENNIS?, part of Angel Air’s Sound and Vision series, coupled with a DVD of the band’s April 1, 2007 show (25 songs, the audio of which has also been released as a double CD called THE FORBIDDEN CITY… got all of that?). The only flaw with this release is the exclusion of one of Stackridge’s best known and most loved tunes, “Slark.” But, we’ll be addressing that one later. The accompanying booklet for PURPLE SPACESHIPS… features a fine essay from author Michael Heatley (as do the subsequent reissue titles), archival photos and complete lyrics. The music itself is chock full of just-left-of-center fan favorites like “Dora, the Female Explorer,” “Do the Stanley,” “Fish In a Glass,” “Syracuse the Elephant” and a rerecorded version of the title track (originally a non-album B-side to the “Slark” single), all magnificently remastered under the watchful eyes (hearful ears?) of James Warren and Andy Davis. Having listened to this impressive sampler (in one of its various forms or another), you will undoubtedly want to check out the original albums to hear the tunes in their natural habitat, so to speak. Of course, that is best accomplished by re-starting at the beginning with…
(MCA RECORDS; 1971)
In 1971, everyone wanted to be the Beatles. James, Andy and the other members of Stackridge were no different. Well… maybe they were a little different; they also wanted to be Frank Zappa… and Bob Dylan… and King Crimson… and the Incredible String Band. The quintet of progressive folkies (or is that folky progressives?) are out of the gate with what must be declared “an instant classic,” with nine tracks of mesmerizing pop and rambunctious rock, including at least four that should be required listening.
Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, James Warren, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Billy Bent, Michael Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)
The album kicks off with the elegant, ambitious “Grande Piano,” which features a great bass part from Warren (original bassist Jim “Crun” Walter, by the time the band began recording, had opted for a more reasonable career as a bricklayer before returning to the fold for FRIENDLINESS) and a memorable – dare I say, “grand?” – piano part from Davis. “Dora the Female Explorer” is the only song on the debut album credited to the entire band; with it’s bouncing, reeling music – highlighted by Michael Evans’ violin – and oddly engaging vocal melody, the tune has stood the test of time as well as any of the tracks from STACKRIDGE. “Dora… ” is followed by the instrumental “Essence of Porphyry,” an eight minute piece with several distinct movements, all of them quite operatic in their scope (despite the lack of lyrics). Evans’ violin is again a featured instrument, along with Michael “Mutter” Slater’s flute. The entire affair has an air of Zappa about it, the final section a prog rocker’s dream, evoking RED-era Crimson and Brian Eno’s Roxy Music. The centerpiece of the album (if not the career) is “Slark,” a fourteen plus minute “monster” that plays beautifully off the theme and melody of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and led once again by Davis’ piano, Mutter’s flute and Evans’ violin. The lyrics suggest a lonely “monster” looking for acceptance and love but, being rejected because he isn’t like everyone else. The other tunes on STACKRIDGE are all pleasant progressive folk numbers, with just enough oddball charm and sweet melodies to make the album, in its entirety, indispensable. Angel Air’s reissue apends a stomping, rousing traditional reel called “Let There Be Lids,” a B-side from an unreleased 1973 single, as well as the single version of “Slark,” to the original album.
(MCA RECORDS; 1972)
As essential as the band’s debut is, it is, perhaps, their second release that offers the absolute best of what Stackridge aspired to be: A traditional English folk band with progressive and slightly loopy leanings. The opening track, “Lummy Days,” is rollicking, rolling sort of instrumental reel featuring some impressively heavy drumming from Billy Bent, now calling himself “Billy Sparkle.” What surely would have been a dancehall fixture in the early-to-mid 1920s, “Anyone For Tennis” shows the boys’ affinity for the oblique. At nearly nine minutes, “Syracuse the Elephant” would appear to be the band’s attempt to recreate the mini-operatic feel of the first album’s “Slark.” The tune, however, is a majestic piece of childlike progressivity, the tale of a forlorn elephant, raised in captivity and wanting nothing more than to live out his days in the company of his trainer, eating his favorite herbs.
The second side of the original album features such oddball fare as “Amazingly Agnes,” about a mule lamenting the fact that she is, in fact, a mule. That one is followed by the ballad, “Doctor Frankenstein Is Behind Your Pillow,” an apparent leftover from the first record, and the Beatles-esque rocker, “Keep On Clucking,” which features a killer backwards guitar solo from Crun toward the end. The final track, “Teatime,” would not sound out of place on Jethro Tull’s MINSTREL IN THE GALLERY or SONGS FROM THE WOODS; it starts as a rather pastoral madrigal before erupting in frenzied progressive blues, with Evans’ flute front and center throughout. The Angel Air reissue features the bonus tracks “Everyman,” the B-side to the “Flora, the Female Explorer” single; the chaotic, occasionally dissonant “Slark” B-side, the previously alluded to “Purple Spaceship Over Yatton,” one of the single greatest progressive tracks ever put to tape; the single-only release, “Do the Stanley,” a non-dancecraze inducing stomper, and it’s accompanying B-side, the beautiful, lilting “C’est La Vie.”
THE MAN IN THE BOWLER HAT
(MCA RECORDS; 1974)
The third Stackridge album, the intended title of which was THE ROAD TO VENEZUELA (and was renamed PINAFORE DAYS – with a very different track listing – for consumption in North America), was something of a dream come true for the sextet, as legendary (even then!) Beatles producer George Martin came on board (with engineer Geoff Emerick in tow) to lead the lads to new heights. The group was particularly disappointed with the sound quality of the first two records; along with Martin and Emerick came Sir George’s (such is his current title) state-of-the-art Air Studios in London and the sparkling, vibrant production quality and the brilliant arrangements and orchestrations that was nearly as important as the music on those highly revered Beatles sides. The difference is immediately heard, with the opening track, the poppy romp “Fundamentally Yours,” with Martin adding some well-placed piano.
As with the Beatles’ albums, Martin’s handprints are all over the remaining nine tracks of …BOWLER HAT, as well, adding piano here and there, bringing in orchestration elsewhere and generally giving the lads the benefit of his vast knowledge and experience in musical arrangements and production. The essential cuts include “Pinafore Days,” with its somehow Victorian sounding waltz and lyrics that would not seem out of place in a Monty Python sketch; released as a single in advance of the album, “The Galloping Guacho” opened side two, with a swirling calliope of carnival music that would not have been out of place on a late-period Beatles offering; the sparkling pop of “Dangerous Bacon” features a galloping drum pattern, a great guitar solo and a guest spot from Roxy Music’s sax man, Andy Mackay; a shot of Andy Davis whimsy, “The Indifferent Hedgehog,” leads into the majestically orchestrated instrumental, “God Speed the Plough,” which again highlights the flute of Mutter and violin of Mike Evans to great effect. Unfortunately, Martin’s involvement with …BOWLER HAT did not result in increased sales. Equally regrettable is the fact that the recording session seems to have included only the ten tracks featured here, as both singles from the period (the second was “Dangerous Bacon”), as well as their respective B-sides (“Fundamentally Yours” and “The Last Plimsoll”), come from the album; as a result, this is the first Angel Air reissue to not feature bonus material.
(THE ROCKET RECORD COMPANY; 1974)
With a move to Elton John’s new vanity label and Tony Ashton (late of Ashton, Gardner and Dyke and a brief stint in Family) in tow as producer, Andy Davis and Mutter Slater (Mike Evans appears briefly, performing the solo on “The Volunteer”) introduced a radically reconfigured group to the stalwart Stackridge fans. Not that there was an appreciable change in the music, although, without James Warren’s charming compositional skills, Davis and Slater tended to lean toward the more cabaret-esque side of the Stackridge spectrum; the pair also seems to have abdicated their newly-minted leadership to Rod Bowkett, the band’s new keyboardist, who wrote or co-wrote seven of the record’s ten tracks. The album opens with Bowkett’s 1920s dancehall-styled single, “Spin ‘Round the Room.” Considering the prevailing musical climate in the United Kingdom, I find it virtually incomprehensible that neither this nor the pair of …BOWLER HAT singles were radio or chart hits. It isn’t until the third track, “The Volunteer,” that we here a song from Davis, one of three co-songwriting credits on EXTRAVAGANZA. The song moves between a somber waltz and a rollicking sort of reel, one of the very few tunes that harken back to the original Stackridgian joie de vivre.
Stackridge, 1974 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
“Highbury Incident (Rainy July Morning)” follows, a jaunty little piece of Beatles-like pop written by Davis, Bowkett and Mutter, highlighted by rather Crimsonesque work (consider Ian McDonald’s work on IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING) from new woodwinds player Keith Gemmell. Side two of the original vinyl took a decidedly jazzy swerve into – cover your ears… uh… eyes, children, as I type that word that should never be typed – fusion territory with, incomprehensibly, three cuts out of four being instrumentals. Former King Crimson (there’s that name again!) bassist Gordon Haskell walked in the front door, dropping off “No One’s More Important Than the Earthworm,” the most progressive tune here (go figure, huh?), on his way out the back door, leaving the bass duties to Paul Karas, formerly of Rare Bird. The three instrumentals are adventurous but, aside from “Pocket Billiards,” sound out of place here. “Rufus T Firefly,” the side’s opening track, is mentioned here because… well… Groucho Marx! Like …BOWLER HAT, Angel Air’s reissue of EXTRAVAGANZA features no bonus material. The album isn’t terrible; it just doesn’t come off as a proper Stackridge record.
(THE ROCKET RCORDING COMPANY; 1976)
The fifth Stackridge full-length comes with an oddly familiar history behind it: Their record company didn’t like the concept and demanded changes be made. The record started life as a concept album, following the life of a cranky old man, with Mutter adding odd bits of dialogue – written by then-unknown children’s author, Steve Augarde - to move the story along. Rocket Records sent them back to the drawing board, basically telling the boys to “lose all this talking stuff, cut these songs and, by the way, where’s the single?” The resultant product looked and sounded quite different than the original, as did the band as Andy and Mutter welcomed back Crun Walter on the bass, with Keith Gemmell the only holdover from the EXTRAVAGANZA band; the lineup was completed with drummer Peter Van Hooke and former Greensalde member Dave Lawson adding synthesizer textures. As much as Stackridge had known a bit of success on the singles chart, it must have been quite humorous to be told, “We don’t hear a single. We need a single.” Another trip to the studio and the band had a single, a sort of Caribbean (or, if you rather, psuedo-Reggae) take on the Beatles’ “Hold Me Tight,” which was released several months before the MISTER MICK album. Rocket Records were immediately rewarded with a release that seemed to disappear from existence virtually before it was released due to a surging apathy for anything that could not be considered punk.
Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
The reorganized and partially rerecorded version of the album featured a sound that owed more to 10CC, than it did to any of the original Stackridge’s influences or, indeed, to any of the previous four Stackridge records. Having missed the mark (chart-wise) with the band’s Beatles cover, Rocket decided to cut their losses and open their version of MISTER MICK with “Hold Me Tight.” This version really isn’t too bad but, with the more standard progressive pop featured throughout the remaining nine cuts, sounds very much out of place. Possibly, the most adventurous piece on the album is the B-side to “Hold Me Tight,” “Breakfast With Werner Von Braun,” a holdover from the original sessions, which could best be described as a Bedouin waltz. The incongruities rear their ugly heads rather quickly, as “The Steam Radio Song” features the accompanying narrative thread (written by then-unknown children’s author, Steve Augarde and delivered by Mutter) from the original recording; as sequenced by the record company, this bit of dialogue shows up about four tracks too soon. While the official version of MISTER MICK has its flaws, there are still enough nice moments to make it listenable, including the original album’s opening track, “Hey! Good Looking” and the Beatles-esque “Fish In a Glass,” also from the original, Stackridge version of the record. The Angel Air reissue pairs the Rocket Records release with the original, rejected twelve track version, which previously saw release as THE ORIGINAL MISTER MICK in 2000. Comparisons prove there are now stunning differences between the two but, with only seven overlapping tunes, the double disc release gives you five previously unheard (or, at least, very rarely heard) tracks.
PART FOUR: THE KORGIS, COLLECTIVELY
The Korgis, Andy’s and James’ other band, like Stackridge, got the “best of” treatment from Angel Air, first with 2005’s KOLLECTION, which, like a lot of Angel Air releases showed up a little later on in a Sound and Vision version as SOMETHING ABOUT THE KORGIS (a demo called “Make a Fuss About Us” was replaced with a new version of the Stackridge tune “Something About the Beatles”). The recent release of a much different package called …BY APPOINTMENT weeds out a few of the lesser tracks from KOLLECTION and adds a few cuts from an acoustic release called – naturally – UNPLUGGED. For essential music from the Korgis, I humbly suggest…
THE KORGIS… BY APPOINTMENT
(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2015)
After the MISTER MICK debacle, Andy Davis and Mutter Slater laid Stackridge to rest. Shortly thereafter, Andy and James Warren made nice and formed the Korgis, with violinist Stuart Gordon and keyboard player Phil Harrison along for the ride. The eponymous first album was released within two years of the demise of the mother band and garnered Warren and Davis something that had alluded them throughout the seven year career of Stackridge: An actual charting single… a hit, in the form of “If I Had You.”
The Korgis (James Warren, Andy Davis) (publicity photo)
The gently rocking “If I Had You” opens …BY APPOINTMENT, sounding for all the world like a George Harrison outtake. The group’s biggest hit, “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime,” follows; the languorous lead single from the second Korgis album, DUMB WAITERS, hit number five in the UK and was Top 20 in the States. The next single, the Beach Boys-lite of “If It’s Alright With You Baby,” barely nudged its way into the British charts, the last release from the group to see any such action. THE KORGIS… BY APPOINTMENT – by my calculations, the tenth compilation package from the group – features a mix of single releases and album tracks, rerecorded for this release, though a few are culled from 2005’s UNPLUGGED record; Andy and James are joined by long-time collaborator, John Baker. Highlights include the oddly appealing “True Life Confessions,” which is a bizarre combination of Mariachi horns, English pop and Caribbean percussion… truly an embracing of the “world music” vibe; a taught, tense “Lines,” from UNPLUGGED; the anthemic “One Life,” with its brilliant lead and harmony vocals, charging percussion track and massive organ leading the way.
The second half of the collection features “Mount Everest Sings the Blues,” a blast of old time rock ‘n’ roll and boogie-woogie; a beautiful, lush remake of “Something About the Beatles,” from the late-90s Warren-led Stackridge reunion (SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND also featured original members Crun Walter on bass and Michael Evans on violin); a cool version of the Korgis’ first single, “Young ‘n’ Russian,” from UNPLUGGED; a weird, faux-jazz Andy Davis tune called “Art School Annexe.” While the final half of …BY APPOINTMENT is more easy listening than the first half, overall, this is a solid introduction to the Korgis and their music.
PART FIVE: THE LAST WORD, FINALLY
With Stackridge calling it a career and Angel Air Records reissuing the original albums (with plenty of bonus material), now is definitely the time to jump on this band’s wagon. As mentioned above, a great starting place is the “best of” collection, PURPLE SPACESHIP OVER YATTON but, you really can’t go wrong with the group’s original run of albums (STACKRIDGE through to MISTER MICK). Other recorded highlights from the band’s reformative years include SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND (1999), THE FORBIDDEN CITY (2008’s double CD of the group’s April Fool’s Day show from the previous year) and their final album, A VICTORY FOR COMMON SENSE (2009). Any or all (as well as any of the Korgis collections – UNPLUGGED and …BY APPOINTMENT being personal favorites – and various James Warren and Andy Davis solo projects) are worthy of your attention.
UPDATE: Stackridge took their final bow in their hometown of Bristol on December 19, 2015. A film of that last show will be edited and released on DVD sometime in 2016. Of course, we know that – like comic book characters – rock bands never truly die and, sometime when we least expect it, Stackridge will mount another comeback. I’ll be waiting.
WISHBONE ASH AT THE WILDEY THEATRE, SEPTEMBER 12/13
Wishbone Ash ROAD WARRIORS TOUR
Wishbone Ash have released some of my favorite albums over a very long career, including WISHBONE FOUR, THERE’S THE RUB, LIVE DATES, NUMBER THE BRAVE and the latest, BLUE HORIZON. The band – founding member and guitarist Andy Powell, fellow guitarist Jyrki “Muddy” Manninen, longtime bassist Bob Skeat and the youngster of the band, drummer Joe Crabtree – are bringing their ROAD WARRIORS TOUR to the beautiful Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville IL on Saturday, September 12th, followed by a special show on Sunday, the 13th, featuring a performance of the seminal album, ARGUS, in its entirety.
Wishbone Ash (Andy Powell) (publicity photo)
Powell told the Mule what to expect both nights in a recent interview, “You know, it’s a forty-five, forty-six year career for Wishbone Ash. We’re going to dip into those decades, we’re going to do a very nice feature of the new album… we want to feature the BLUE HORIZON album, give the people a bit of that album.” He goes on to explain what fans of the band expect in a live setting: “We have people, when they come see the band, they expect to see guitar playing and there’ll be a ton of guitar playing, of course, especially featuring the twin lead guitar sound that we’re known for. The bottom line is the fact that it’s entertainment… and we want to give the biggest bang for the buck that we can in concert. We go out with all guns blazing, we use everything that’s available to us in terms of what we’ve created in the last 46 years.”
Wishbone Ash (Andy Powell) (publicity photo)
As far as the Sunday show, Andy said this about the ARGUS set: “They added the second show because that’s what’s going up. We will, in fact, take a spot in that set, we’ll play the entire album, the songs in order as they would have been heard on the album. I believe it is the only show on the tour that we’re doing that. It will just be a small variation on the first night… well, quite a substantial variation, in fact. We’ll be featuring that album. It’s something we’ve done before in concert, in Europe and we’re happy to be doing it in the United States in a theater situation. It’ll be great.” And playing at the Wildey? “Awesome theater! We have not played there for two or three years now and we’re really happy to be going back there.”
Wishbone Ash (Joe Crabtree, Andy Powell, Bob Skeat, Muddy Manninen) (photo credit: TIM ASSMANN)
What about the band? With Crabtree coming on board in the middle of the last decade, this version of the band has been together longer than the original group of Powell, Martin Turner, Ted Turner and Steve Upton. Andy is rightfully proud of the group’s accomplishments. “This current entity has been together for about ten years. It’s so road tested, we’re such a sort of a unit now; it’s almost like a complete… another career, in a way. We put out some really solid albums in the last several years. It’s a band that just seems to be able to function in any context: We can go into a club, or into a theater, we can play festivals in the summer… wherever I take the band, whatever the setting, it seems to rise to the occasion and I’m so happy. I don’t think that was always the case at various points in the band’s history. I’m really happy to be doing it… it’s given me such a great peace of mind because at this point in my career – I’ve been with the band 46 years – it’s great to have the latter part of the career so solid, so strong.” He goes on to point out, “We’re not a tribute band, we’re a living, breathing band, a band that reinterprets the original songs, modernizes subtly here and there… and all of that stimulates me, kicks me up the rear end in terms of being a musician. Every night is a workout and the band – Joe Crabtree, our drummer, he’s half my age. We’re not lagging in any way because of the longevity of the band, in fact, it’s the opposite, we’re more stimulated than ever and creative. We’re not a band just resting on its laurels, although we could do. I know a lot of band’s do that.” Emphasizing the creativeness of the current band, Powell describes crowd reaction for songs from BLUE HORIZON, exclaiming, “Without blowing our horn, it’s pretty amazing! You can see their eyes are wide open, they’re very engaged… I mean, it’s very intricate material and what we do with two guitars, bass and drums is pretty ambitious, actually. You hear when we… you can just see it on people’s faces, they respond immediately.”
EYES WIDE OPEN (Andy Powell book cover)
So… your an author. Tell us a bit about that. “Yeah, I just penned a biography. So many people encouraged me to do it because I’ve got loads of road stories and that’s just part of it; I’ve been in the business long enough now that I can look back across the decades… not just music in this band, but music in general. I felt I had something to say. I didn’t want to write anything until I had something to say.” And, wherecan we find a copy? “It’s available at Amazon. It’s called EYES WIDE OPEN: TRUE TALES OF A WISHBONE ASH WARRIOR, ANDY POWELL. It’s a wry look at the music business and my life in it.”
The Wildey Theatre (publicity photo)
Andy left us with this message regarding the Wildey Theatre shows: “I think it’s going to be a great weekend. All the best to all our friends and fans.” For more information on Wishbone Ash at the Wildey Theatre or, to order tickets, visit wishboneash.com or wildeytheatre.com.
Story and interview by KEVIN RENICK, writing for The Mule
“Children, behave!/That’s what they say when we’re together.” “Look over yonder, what do you see?/The sun is a-risin’/Most definitely.” “C’mon everyone, we got to get together now./ Oh yeah, love’s the only thing that matters anyhow.” If you’re of a certain age, you know those lyrics as the opening verses of some of the most beloved and successful pop songs of all time, and chances are you can sing the rest of the words with no trouble. For those compositions are just part of the amazing pop catalogue of Mister Tommy James, one of the most successful recording artists of all time. James had an unprecedented series of major hits in the 1960s: “Hanky Panky,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mony Mony,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Sweet Cherry Wine,” “Ball of Fire,” “Draggin’ the Line.” And those are just the HUGE hits, there were many, many others that charted. But among the countless surprises in James’ career is how so many of his songs had a second life due to all the cover versions: Joan Jett and the Blackhearts scored a Top 10 hit with “Crimson and Clover” in 1981, teen star Tiffany scored her biggest hit with a cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” and new waver Billy Idol had a dance floor smash with his incendiary take on “Mony Mony.” Both of the latter were in the late ’80s, and kept James’ name out there despite all the changes in the music industry. This is not to even mention the many James compositions that ended up in movies and TV shows. His songs have truly been omnipresent in the history of American rock and roll.
Nothing, however, is as startling all these years later as the too-weird-to-be-believed saga of James’ years at Roulette Records, which it turns out, was a front for organized crime. In his suspense-filled 2010 autobiography ME, THE MOB, AND THE MUSIC: ONE HELLUVA RIDE WITH TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS, James not only gives plenty of interesting details about his hits themselves, he tells a tale of being under the thumb of mobsters like Morris Levy that is so gripping, it sounds like something Martin Scorsese would dream up. In fact, the DENVER POST called the book “the music industry version of GOODFELLAS.” Not only that, one of Scorsese’s producers, Barbara DeFina (who worked on GOODFELLAS,CASINO and CAPE FEAR) is set to produce the James film. It’s all pretty heady, enthralling stuff for an amiable kid from Niles, Michigan who just wanted to play music.
Tommy James was born Thomas Gregory Jackson in 1947, and though born in Dayton, Ohio, his family moved to Niles early on. He was a child model at the age of four, and formed his first band, the Tornadoes, when he was only 12. Soon after, the band changed their named to the Shondells. In 1964, a local DJ, at WNIL in Niles, named Jack Douglas launched a small label, Snap Records, which recorded some early Shondells tunes. One of these was “Hanky Panky,” a catchy little ditty penned by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Some locals dug it, but there was no budget for promotion at the time, and the song was largely forgotten about. But in the first of countless legendary incidents in James’ stellar career, something unpredictable happened. In 1965, Bob Mack, who was a local dance promoter in Pittsburgh, found a copy of “Hanky Panky” in a used record bin, and began playing it at his dance clubs. An enterprising bootlegger then started pressing copies of the disc, and it sold an estimated 80,000 copies in Pittsburgh in ten days. By early 1966, the tune was Number One on Pittsburgh radio. And, after James got word of what was happening and flew to Pennsylvania to meet with Mack and Chuck Rubin (the talent booker for Mack’s clubs), the resulting promotional efforts led “Hanky Panky” all the way to the top of the singles charts by July of 1966. Much had already changed for James by then; he no longer even had the services of the original Shondells. But Tommy met a five-man group called the Raconteurs at the Thunderbird Club in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and found great chemistry with them. So the rechristened Tommy James and the Shondells started doing shows and shopping for record labels. Rubin, an experienced industry type, suggested they go to New York, where the majority of the key labels were located. And one of their last stops was Roulette Records. The head of the label, Morris Levy, was initially out of town and James and company heard nothing back at first. Oh, but the story was to get so much more interesting than the young Tommy could ever imagine, and we should hear it right from him.
Manager Leonard Stogel, Tommy James and Morris Levy, management agreement signing, 1966 (publicity photo)
Suffice to say that James was soon recording all those classic hits that every baby boomer has memorized, and achieving his wildest, most improbable dreams… although not quite the way he imagined. I was lucky enough to speak with James by phone last fall, and I began our talk by telling him how much his music meant to me in the late ’60s. I had a particular obsession with the song “Sweet Cherry Wine,” which I thought was beautiful and produced just brilliantly. That song was my favorite of the year in 1969, and the first album I can ever remember buying with my own money was THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS, released that year. James is an amiable, charming person in conversation, and he is well aware of how incredible his story is. He’s involved in the ongoing development of the movie based on his life and book, and he still tours and releases new music. I first met James in the late ’70s, when I attended a New Year’s Eve show he was performing while I suffered from a horrible cold. James said he played in Saint Louis the first time in 1966, but couldn’t remember the venue. What follows is an edited version of our lengthy interview.
THE MULE: Tommy, it is so amazing to talk with you. I wanted to start out by telling you how much I loved “Sweet Cherry Wine” back in the ’60s. It was really one of the first songs that gave me chills, every time. I couldn’t wait to hear it on the radio when I listened.
TJ: Well thank you. It’s as close as we ever got to a protest song. It’s a semi-religious song. There was no such thing as being politically correct back in the ’60s. The singles that you did, and we were basically doing singles then, were like snapshots of where you were as a human being. That was one of the songs in the mix between the CRIMSON AND CLOVER album and CELLOPHANE SYMPHONY, the magic year of 1969. All the records we did were so different from one another. “Crystal Blue Persuasion” was so different from “Sweet Cherry Wine,” which was in 3/4 time and, “Sweet Cherry Wine” was so different from “Crimson and Clover.” We outsold the Beatles with singles.
THE MULE: Wow, that’s amazing. And things were so crazy back then, the way rock and roll was progressing.
TJ: In late 1968, we were out on the road with Hubert Humphrey, we did the presidential campaign. And the whole industry changed from singles to albums in the 90-day period we were out with him. In August of ’68, when we left, all the major acts were singles acts… Gary Puckett, the Buckinghams, the Rascals and us and the Association. And we came back 90 days later and it was Blood Sweat and Tears, Led Zeppelin, Crosby Stills and Nash. The world had turned upside down in the music business. So we were very lucky to be working on “Crimson and Clover” at that very moment. Because that single allowed us to make the jump from singles to albums, from “Top 40” to FM progressive album rock. I don’t think there’s any other single we ever did that would have allowed us to do that in one shot like that.
Tommy James with Hubert Humphrey (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: “Crimson and Clover” and then, “Sweet Cherry Wine.” I wanted to say that those songs were among the first I remember hearing where background vocals were a key texture and added to the haunting nature of the song. You were doing something unique, I couldn’t even explain it at the time, but those background harmonies were amazing. Can you explain a little about what you were trying to do?
TJ: As music got more and more complicated, the background parts became actually almost part of the lead. With “Crimson and Clover,” it happened almost by accident. Basically, we had done the record with tremolo and we put it together really quickly. With tremolo on the guitar, that was sort of the signature sound. When we got to the end, we had the fade, we knew what was going to be there. We just decided to throw tremolo on it. So, we actually recorded the backgrounds straight, and then piped ‘em out through the guitar amp, and then mic’d the guitar amp, turned on the tremolo like we’d done with the guitars, and brought it back thru the board. The point was, it became sort of the signature sound of the record and it became our biggest selling single.
Tommy James and the Shondells Crimson and Clover picture sleeve, 1968
THE MULE: Do you have a personal favorite story about a song from back then? About where something came from, for example?
TJ: Well, we’re doing a movie. We’re gonna try to put as much of this stuff in the movie as we can.
THE MULE: I read that. It sounds amazing. Wasn’t Scorsese interested in the film?
TJ: His producer, Barbara DeFina, is going to produce our movie. She produced HUGO, GOODFELLAS, CASINO, CAPE FEAR. She’s an incredible talent. She’s doing the movie of the book.
THE MULE: And you’re a consultant on it?
TJ: Sure, sure. And we’re going to be working very closely with the screenplay writer, Matthew Stone. Over the next few months or so, the screenplay will be put together. And also, we have several more stories that will be in the movie, than we had time for in the book.
THE MULE: I read your book with amazement, I gotta say. I just couldn’t believe it. I never knew any of that stuff about the mob, I just liked your music so much. And my jaw dropped as I read about all those shenanigans you went through with Morris Levy. How did you even keep your cool?
TJ: Well, what it boiled down to is that we constantly had to ask ourselves if it would be smarter to get out of this thing. When we were first approaching record labels in New York, “Hanky Panky,” our first record, sort of exploded out of Pittsburgh. Really unexpectedly so. I grabbed the first bar band I could find because I couldn’t put the original group back together. We were in NY two weeks later and we made the rounds of all the record companies to try to get a national or international deal. So, this is spring of 1966. I’m 19 years old and we get to New York, and we’re taken around by a couple of people who had been in the business a long time. We got a yes from CBS, RCA, Atlantic. And Kama Sutra who were hot at the time. And the last place we took the record to was Roulette. And you know, at the end of the day we didn’t pay much attention. I thought it would be great to be with Columbia Records, one of the big corporate labels at the time. So, I went to bed that night feeling real good. And we woke up the next morning, and all of a sudden all the record companies that had said YES the day before, suddenly said, “Tom, I’m afraid we’re gonna have to pass.” And I said, “What d’ya mean you’re gonna have to pass? I thought we had a deal!” And finally, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic told us the truth, that Morris Levy at Roulette Records had called all the other companies, and basically backed them down. (James speaks in a low-pitched mobster voice) “’This is my fuckin’ record company, back off!” And they did. Red flags went up right there… what was so special about Roulette? We’d heard rumors, but didn’t believe it. But apparently, we were gonna be on Roulette, because the first offer, we couldn’t refuse! (he laughs) All of a sudden, we started recognizing people we were doing business with. We’d meet somebody up in Morris’ office, and a week later we’d see them on the TV news being taken out of a warehouse in New Jersey in handcuffs. Y’know… “Didn’t we just see them in Morris’ office?”
Tommy James and the Shondells receive their first gold record from Morris Levy, 1966 (publicity photo)
THE MULE: That is NOT exactly what a musician hopes for from their first label.
TJ: No! Roulette was basically a front for the Genovese crime family in New York. In addition to being a functioning record label. But if we had gone with one of the corporate labels, I’ll tell you what would’ve happened. We would have been turned over to an in-house A&R guy and that’s probably the last that anyone would have heard of us. Especially with a record like “Hanky Panky.”
THE MULE: Oh, that’s hard to believe. You think so? So, was that sort of the trade off you had to make, that you were sacrificing money for the artistic freedom you were given?
TJ: Sure. But we didn’t know that at first. It took us a while to realize that we weren’t going to get mechanical royalties. We weren’t gonna get paid for all this. Of course, we made money from all kinds of other directions, like touring, commercials. All that. But mechanical royalties, no. We had to constantly ask ourselves if we wanted to take our life in our hands and try to get outta this thing. Or, because we were having such great success there, if we could just keep our mouth shut and go along, and have the hits. Because we were making so much money in other areas, like touring. I think we made the right decision to stay. ‘Cause it worked out for us. Plus, I get to tell the story now. But we ended up doing about $110 million in record sales with Roulette.
THE MULE: There was a point in the book that was really cathartic, when you finally told Levy off after years of being kinda screwed, and not getting the money you earned. It felt like a big moment.
TJ:(He laughs) I have such mixed feelings about the whole thing. Because the truth is, every time I go to say something really nasty about Morris Levy and Roulette, I have to stop myself. The truth is, if it hadn’t been for Morris Levy, there wouldn’t have been a Tommy James. That is true. However, having said that, there were a lot of bitter feelings. And there was a lot of danger up there. It was a dangerous place to be.
Tommy James and the Shondells on the Ed Sullivan Show (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: You mean like, were there times you feared for your life?
TJ: Yes! One of the times, y’know, they were having this big gang war in New York. The Gambino family was taking over, and Morris was on the wrong side. And Morris left for Spain and wasn’t heard from for almost a year. And the rest of us were just left holding the bag at Roulette. So, my attorney told me flat out, “I think it would be a real good idea if you left town ’til this damn thing blows over.” There was almost 300 people killed. Bodies were flying around all over the place. He said, “If they can’t get Morris, they’re likely to go after what’s making Morris money, and that’s YOU.” So I said, “Oh, that’s freakin’ great!” So I had to go to Nashville. I went to Nashville and did an album with Elvis’ guys. That was in 1971. And then I get back, thinking everything was over, and Tommy Eboli, Morris’ partner, who was the head of the family by that time, all of a sudden he gets killed. That’s when I exploded. I said, “I gotta get out of here. I’m done.” But Morris wasn’t gonna let me go. He said (low voice again) “You’re not goin’ anywhere.” So, I basically went about destroying my own career. Essentially, I stopped making any more records for Morris. I’d write stuff and ,sometimes I’d record it, but I wouldn’t turn it in.
THE MULE: That was purposeful on your part?
TJ: Oh yeah. God, yes. It was a horrible thing to have to do. But I finally got out by 1974. I went with Fantasy Records, on the west coast. But, we were just real lucky to make it out of there in one piece. So the gist of the book and the movie is, that here we are, trying to have this career in rock and roll, with this dark and sinister and frightening story going on behind the scenes, and we can’t talk about it.
THE MULE: There can’t be too many rock stars whose career went like this. It’s quite unique!
TJ: Probably true. When we started writing the book, Martin Fitzpatrick, my co-author and I, we were originally gonna call the book CRIMSON AND CLOVER, we were gonna write about the hits, and making records and writing songs, and that would’ve been great. But we got about a third of the way into it and,, we realized that if we don’t tell the whole Roulette story, we’ll be cheating ourselves and everybody else. I was very nervous about finishing the thing. Cause some of these guys were still walking around. And it’s not like we were talking about a huge amount of criminal activity. I mean, there was some. But the fact you were talking about this stuff could’ve gotten you killed. So I was nervous. And we put it on the shelf for about three years. And finally, in 2006, the last of the Roulette regulars as I called them, passed on. And we finally felt like we could finish the book, which took us two or three years to do. When we did, we immediately got a deal with Simon and Schuster. They just gobbled it right up.
Tommy James with ME, THE MOB, AND ME (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: And you started getting all those royalties that you were cheated out of before.
TJ: Of course. But then, at the end of all that, we started getting calls for the movie rights and for the Broadway rights. It’s gonna be a Broadway show after that. So, this is gonna be a real interesting time.
THE MULE: What kind of a shift, aesthetically, happened for you with your music after the Roulette era ended?
TJ: Well, in the ’70s, by that time music itself had changed. We kind of went with that flow. The band and I had broken up in 1970, so I was by myself doing this. The first place I went was Fantasy, and we had two albums out there. They did pretty well for us. Fantasy was a great place to be, an interesting place. Couldn’t be any further geographically from Roulette than it was. And then. after those two records, I came back to New York and signed with Millennium Records, which was RCA. And had three more chart records, one went number one, “Three Times in Love,” in 1980. We were very lucky because I took three years off in 1981 and sort of collected my publishing and got a lot of my masters back. And it was really a good time creatively. Finally, in 1988, I began recording again. We were getting all kinds of cover records in the 1980s. A lot of movies and stuff. And I released a record in 1990, the HI-FI album. That did very well for us. And that’s kind of where the book ends, in 1990. ‘Cause that’s when Morris died. He was indicted in 1986, and was put on trial in 1988. And he lost. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. But, he died before he could serve any time. He died of colon cancer in 1990.
Tommy James (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: Did you ever have any final conversation with him during those days?
TJ: The end of the book and of the movie are gonna be quite touching. Because, basically, what happened is that he asked for me. As I’m rushing out the door to do a gig in Chicago – this actually happened – the first gig on this promotional tour that I was doing for the HI-FI album. It was the first album I’d put out in 10 years, so it was a big deal. And Morris was asking for me. I didn’t realize how sick he was. And Howard (an accountant at Roulette Records) said, “If you wanna see him, you better get up to the farm right away.” So I said, well okay, I’ll be back the next day. And he died that night. So I never officially got a chance to say goodbye to him. The last scene in the movie is going to be, where I am telling this story. In the book, I’m actually telling the story after he died, to a reporter there in Chicago. I go down from the theatre, about two in the morning. It’s a beautiful, crisp night in Chicago. And I’m by myself. And we’re gonna go back to the hotel. The limo driver is snoozing. And I get in the back of the limo, and I sort of have this imaginary conversation with Morris. This is at the end of the movie, and I get a chance to say goodbye to him that way. The funny part is, in the film, at the very end, the closing credits happen right then. And the limo takes off, you can see the Chicago skyline. And the credits start rolling. And this new version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” that I did with the original Shondells. I brought them up from Pittsburgh. Took ‘em in the studio, and we did this slow, beautiful version of the song at the end.
THE MULE: Oh man, that gives me chills.
TJ: The funny part is, the words work so well. Because Morris was gone, and we’re alone now! It worked so well in this somber moment, just as well as they did in the original teeny bop love song from the ’60s.
Tommy James (photo credit: TOM WHITE/THE NEW YORK TIMES)
THE MULE: There are three of the Shondells still alive, right?
TJ: Yes. Mike, Ronnie and Eddie. Course, I’m out on the road now every year with a new group of Shondells.
THE MULE: I wanted to ask you about one of the many covers of your songs… there’s been a zillion. But, the Billy Idol version of “Mony Mony,” which became a huge dance hit. You surely knew about this obscene four-line chant, that people started doing in the song. How did that come about?
TJ: That happened on a spring break by a bunch of kids from Chicago, who went down to Fort Lauderdale during the ’70s. And they started doing that to the song. I don’t know… it was amazing, they would sometimes do that when I was onstage. And I thought I was getting booed offstage. That just kinda happened, one of those spontaneous things the college kids just made up.
THE MULE: Two other funny things I read. You actually said NO to George Harrison about something in 1968? What was that all about?
TJ: Well it wasn’t that I said no. George Harrison wrote with a group he was producing, called Grapefruit. What happened was, when the Beatles started Apple, it started out as a publishing company before it was a record company. And their idea was to write songs for all their friends. For other artists. That was the original reason for Apple. George wrote me a bunch of songs. “Mony Mony” had been the biggest record of the decade in England. It was actually bigger over there than it was here. So, they wrote me oh, eight or ten songs. But they all sounded like “Mony Mony”. They brought ‘em over here and delivered ‘em to my manager. At that time, we had moved on to “Crimson and Clover,” to sort of another sound. And so I never really got a chance to do those songs. And I felt terrible, I never got a chance to thank George for what he had done. I just always felt bad about that.
THE MULE: Another thing I did not know. You almost died in 1970, right?
TJ: Well, that’s true. I collapsed onstage in Alabama. That was real scary. I was popping a lot of uppers at the time. And they all caught up with me onstage. I was lucky I didn’t have a heart attack. It was close.
Tommy James (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: I wanted to ask you about a couple of the more recent songs. I was struck by “Megamation Man.” It’s an interesting song, with that little boy’s voice on it. Was he one of your kids, or just a kid you found?
TJ: No, it was one of the kids of my engineer, with whom I was making the record at the time. I wrote that song back in 1994, actually. It got recorded about ten years later. And it’s about what’s called the new world order. I guess you could call it the police state that’s being set up right now around the world.
THE MULE: Is megamation a real word?
TJ: I made it up, as far as I know. It’s about the character that scripture calls “the anti-Christ.” It’s a strange topic to be writing about in rock and roll, but I just felt the urge to do it.
THE MULE: How much do you allow politics or topical concerns to affect your music? Early on, “Sweet Cherry Wine” was an exception, but do you have a line there that you don’t want to cross when you are writing something?
TJ: Sometimes…. my view is that, when you write a song, it can come from several different places. It can be something that you imagine. But, when you write a song, you are writing a little story. No matter how trivial the lyrics, you are writing a story. It’s sort of a snapshot. It doesn’t have to be about real life. But sometimes it is. “Megamation Man” was about a topic that I felt strongly about, and wanted to make it musical. It’s not easy to do that sometimes. But every now and then, I have the urge to do that.
Tommy James (photo credit: MICHAEL BUSH/UPI)
THE MULE: And you re-recorded a new version of “Sweet Cherry Wine.” What made you do that?
TJ: My engineer came to me and was playing the piano. He’s a great musician. And he played me this sort of gospel version of “Sweet Cherry Wine.” And I said, “We gotta do that.” ‘Cause, really, that’s a gospel song. And so we created a little choir, and I was just really happy with that record. In 2006, we released the HOLD THE FIRE album. And we had three top five adult contemporary records from that album. One of them went Number One, “Love Words.” And so, that was our first time back on the charts for quite some time. We were gonna release “SCW” as a single but we decided not to.
THE MULE: I also wanted to mention the song “Give It All,” which I thought was really strong. It seemed like you had reached some new kind of powerful place as a vocalist with songs like that. Did you feel that yourself?
TJ: Thank you. To me, my favorite album that I have done in the last 40 years is our Christmas album. (I LOVE CHRISTMAS, released in 2008 on Aura Records) I have never sounded better vocally. It all just came together. I recorded it with Jimmy Wisner, who I had first started making records with in 1967. Just this last Christmas, we released it on vinyl, as well. But I have been really blessed with being able to keep my voice. In my view, I’ve gotten a little better. I’ve gained almost an octave that I didn’t have as a kid. Usually, it’s the other way around.
Tommy James (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: Are you still enjoying making music just as much as in the old days?
TJ: Oh. yeah, I am. When we play on the road, I see three generations of fans at the concerts and it’s amazing.
THE MULE: Well, a lot of us grew up with your songs and just have vivid memories associated with them. There must be people that come up and tell you stories all the time, right? Poignant stories about what songs meant to them? Does anything stand out?
TJ: The funny thing is that radio was a much more intimate media than movies or TV or anything else and, your record on the radio was more intimate than anything. So, when people come up to me, they have memories attached to that song. And so do I! I feel that way about other acts during that period of time, like the Beach Boys or the Beatles. I have a lot of memories attached to the music. People feel like they know you. And your audience becomes like an extended family. It’s as close to a religious experience as you can have in rock and roll.
THE MULE: Who were some of the artists who affected or influenced you when you were coming up in music?
TJ: Oh, man… all of them. I listened to the Beach Boys’ records and I’m there. The Four Seasons. I used to PLAY a lot of that stuff, it wasn’t just listening to it. I was in cover bands in high school and so forth. So I played all this stuff. “1-2-3″ by Len Barry. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard that record. It’s amazing what music does for me. I can tell you what year it was, where I was in my life, I can almost tell you what I had for dinner that night.
Tommy James (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: Well Tommy, there are so many other things I’d love to ask you, but I know we have to wind down now. Do you have certain hopes for your musical future, things that you want to accomplish that you haven’t quite done yet?
TJ: Well, you know we just started our YouTube channel. YouTube people came to me over the previous Christmas holiday and asked me if I would like to have a YouTube channel, because our catalog was so deep. And I said, “Yeah. What’s THAT?” (laughs) And they told me. And it’s all your past stuff, plus new stuff. So every two to three weeks, we put up a new video on the YouTube channel. It’s usually me talking about the song or where it came from. And we’re gonna keep putting up new music.
THE MULE: Finally, and this is silly, but I gotta ask. Does your baby still do the hanky panky?
TJ: Oh yeah. It never stopped. When we still play that record, the place kind of explodes.
Tommy James with his gold records (uncredited photo)
By the time Tommy James was truly free of the Morris Levy craziness, he had sold millions upon millions of records, had become a household name, and found himself with a tale to tell that would give him a wildly improbable entry into the movie business. The ME, THE MOB, AND THE MUSIC book talked about earlier is essential reading for anyone wanting to know the depth of James’ journey. James only released a few records in the ‘70s (the Shondells era was long over by then); these included CHRISTIAN OF THE WORLD, IN TOUCH and MIDNIGHT RIDER, but few of these yielded hits as huge as what had come before, although “Three Times in Love” was a 1980 single that made it to number 19 on the Billboard chart. But, after that, there was no new James material until 1990’s HI-FI. James’ last new album was 2006’s HOLD THE FIRE. There have been many compilations, of course; with a catalogue as deep as James’, record companies will always want to keep the reissues coming. And James has a YouTube channel well worth investigating, because he talks about various songs himself in a witty and lively manner. The link for the channel is here: www.youtube.com/user/TJShondells. James also continues to tour, both solo and with a new version of the Shondells. Although he could easily coast on his past glories, James still loves songwriting and performing, and continues to write new stuff. He’s a very lucky guy and he knows it. Despite the royalties he was once screwed out of by Morris Levy, not only was the wrong eventually righted in a way that gave James unprecedented financial security, Levy unintentionally did James a peculiar favor by making his particular tale so interesting that new life was given to the music years later, and James would get the opportunity to work with top people in film and theatre. Whatever “hanky panky” happened in the past, Tommy James is enjoying some “sweet cherry wine,” indeed, these days, and the audiences still turn out in droves for his shows. His is an amazing rock and roll tale, and we can look forward to much, much more from James in the near future. For tour dates and more, visit Tommy’s official site: www.tommyjames.com and, of course, ME, THE MOB, AND THE MUSIC is available at all of the finest book repositories and the usual on-line places.
Joey Molland has known the highs and lows that comes from a life in music. He’s experienced those same highs and lows in his personal life, as well. Born in 1947, by the early 1960s, a teenage Molland was performing in bands around his hometown of Liverpool. Playing with the Assassins and the Profiles led to Joey joining a group called the Masterminds in 1965. Members of the Rolling Stones and their manager/producer, Andrew Loog Oldham, heard the group play at a club. Oldham was impressed enough to produce and release a single on his Immediate label. From the Masterminds, Joey became part of a backing band for the Merseys (Tony Crane and Bill Kinsley, formerly of the Merseybeats) called the Fruit Eating Bears. A stint in the Cryin’ Shames led to an opportunity for Molland to show off his songwriting abilities with Gary Wilson and the Rain.
When the Rain washed away, he was offered a spot with a group called the Iveys. The band had been recording music for a movie soundtrack, to be released on the Beatles’ Apple Records. Before the album MAGIC CHRISTIAN MUSIC was released, the Iveys became Badfinger and, though Joey’s name appears in the album credits, he didn’t appear on any of the tracks. The band, including Molland, however, had already begun working on the follow-up, a more proper album from Badfinger. Guitarist/singer Pete Ham, bassist Tome Evans and Joey played on various sessions for solo Beatles projects aside from their work in Badfinger. However, the guitarist/songwriter’s time in Badfinger was, to say the least, tumultuous. Things finally came to head in 1974 when, after the release of WISH YOU WERE HERE, their third album in 12 months, Joey walked away from the band. The decision was based on problems with management. These problems continued and were a factor in Pete Ham’s suicide in April, 1975.
Natural Gas (Mark Clarke, Joey Molland, Peter Wood and Jerry Shirley) (publicity photo)
After an album and successful tours with his new band, Natural Gas, Joey reconnected with bassist Tom Evans in 1979 for a couple of albums under the Badfinger banner (AIRWAVES and the hugely under-rated SAY NO MORE). That relationship fell apart, leading to both musicians touring their own versions of Badfinger. Evans, unable to shake the lingering effects of the gross mismanagement of the band’s early ’70s career, hung himself in September 1983. Drummer Mike Gibbins died in October, 2005, leaving Molland as the only surviving member of the once promising Badfinger. Though he still tours with a version of the band, called Joey Molland’s Badfinger, his recorded output since 1981’s SAY NO MORE have been released under his own name. The Molland discography is short: Before the release of RETURN TO MEMPHIS, Joey released his debut solo outing, AFTER THE PEARL, in 1983 with THE PILGRIM following hot on the heels… in 1993. THIS WAY UP, released in 2001, has been called “one of the best solo discs that ex-members of the Beatles never made.” An album of demos called BASIL was offered on Joey’s web-site in 1999.
Joey Molland onstage with Tom Evans, 1979 (uncredited photo)
PART TWO: RETURN TO MEMPHIS
On the new RETURN TO MEMPHIS (released on GONZO MULTIMEDIA), Joey’s voice has grown into a pleasant Mark Knopfler laid-back delivery, with just a hint of the young Zimmerman. Continuing the Beatles comparisons, I would liken the album to the John Lennon comeback, DOUBLE FANTASY, simply because – after an extended lay-off between releases – every song and each performance is so strong that it’s impossible to imagine that he’d ever been away.
“Walk Out In the Rain” is a heartfelt, world-weary mid-tempo track enhanced by the female vocal backing and a Memphis style, Sunday-go-to-meeting organ. “A Ship To Mars” recalls Badfinger’s gentler moments, featuring a nice bass line and some excellent guitar work. More great guitar work highlights “Only When It Rains,” while “Got a Feeling” takes you back to those early Memphis rhythm and blues/rockabilly sides by Elvis Presley… one of the best songs here. Not the Paul McCartney song, “Yesterday” may be the most “modern” sounding tune here, delving into a kinda Gothic shoe-gazing vibe before heading off into more direct pop sound, sprinkled with a little Middle Eastern flavor. “All I Ever Dreamed” offers a more prominent Knopfler vocal resemblance and features some really tasty guitar work from Joey. The song, again, benefits from strong backing vocals, bass and organ. The laconic Knopfler sound is on display once more on the lyrical masterpiece, “Hero.” :All I Need Is Love” is a funky response to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” maybe taking a little bit of the wind out of the whole hippie love-fest of the late ’60s. The song is another back to the roots Memphis soul track, with some great, pounding piano. One of the things that gave Badfinger such a unique sound was Molland’s slide work. That slide work is elegantly displayed on “Is It Any Wonder,” another favorite of yours truly. The final track, “Still I Love You” is a hypnotic, Cajun voodoo kinda thing, with some awesome, fuzzed out guitar. Whether you were ever a fan of Badfinger or any of Joey’s other work (or were even aware of it), this album is a fantastic introduction to the man and his music.
PART THREE: THE INTERVIEW
THE MULE: Joey, you’re solo output is small but quite impressive. Is the length between releases by design or is it dictated by your creative process? How much does your practice/touring schedule with Joey Molland’s Badfinger have to do with your release schedule?
Joey Molland, 2013 (uncredited photo)
JOEY: My experience with Badfinger left me a little jaded and pretty broke. Our name, even though we had some success, was never a strong draw in the live concert world, so it has never been easy to make a regular living as a performer. I’ve always written what came to mind, commercial or not. Making records costs money, so I’ve had to wait for opportunities to present themselves.
THE MULE: I really enjoyed RETURN TO MEMPHIS. The album stands well as a cohesive whole, but seems to fall into two distinct styles. There’s plenty of old Memphis/Stax soul groove, while other tracks have a definite Badfinger feel. Are all of the compositions new or are some of the more “rocking” tunes older things that may not have fit (either due to time constraints or stylistic differences) on earlier projects? How did your love for Memphis soul play into the music you’ve created in the past 40 plus years?
JOEY: I always have plenty of material to use. When I was going to Memphis to make the record, I sent Carl Wise, the producer, 30 songs, written over the past 5 or 6 years. If some of them sound Badfingery, it’s probably because I wrote and sang over half the songs we – Badfinger – recorded and I played guitar on all of them. I think my songs all have a certain rhythmic element and I think that’s the Memphis/soul element. At the same time, I’ve never tried to sing like I was from Memphis, but I could never hide the influence.
THE MULE: All of these questions, obviously, lead up to this: Can you give us a bit of insight into the creative process – writing and recording – that led to the album, RETURN TO MEMPHIS? Who played on the album? Do you plan to tour in support of this release or to incorporate any of the tunes into Badfinger’s live sets?
JOEY: A long while ago some friends of mine in Minneapolis, the Echo Boys, told me they had access to a studio in town on Tuesday nights and, if I would bring a song to do, we could record it on those nights for free. Well, I said, “OK, great,” and we started. I think “Hero” was the first, but I’m not really sure. Anyway, we recorded every week and soon, come Friday or Saturday night, I’d get an idea and we’d work it the next Tuesday night and, voila, out of nowhere, a tune would come. All sorts of tunes. So, most of the …MEMPHIS CD came out of those nights with the Echo Boys.
The Memphis players were Lester Snells (piano, B3, Wurlitzer and Rhodes), Steve Potts (drums and percussion) and Dave Smith (bass) – all full grown musos. Carl and I recorded 12 demos, some acoustic and some from the Echo Boys sessions and gave them to Lester. He wrote charts as guides for everybody – all of us – and we went into Royal Studios and recorded the tracks. I played acoustic on all the basics. When we had the tracks done, I overdubbed my electric bits, did my vocals and was finished. I should say, of course, Carl directed the whole thing. He got what he needed and sent me home. He’s great to work with and understood what I was doing there. That’s why the CD sounds so natural. It was scary at first, but when I heard those girls, I lost my fear. It was a great experience for me and I’ll never forget it. It would be great to do some roadwork with them all. I do a couple of the tunes onstage now, in both my acoustic “storyteller” type shows and in the Joey Molland’s Badfinger concerts.
THE MULE: Backtracking, historically, you joined the Iveys (the band that was re-named Badfinger) after the recording of MAGIC CHRISTIAN MUSIC, a piecemeal offering that featured a few new “Badfinger” songs, including “Come and Get It.” What memories do you have of coming in under that situation… basically learning and playing those songs live, songs that you had no input, creatively?
Joey Molland onstage, circa 1971 (uncredited photo)
JOEY: When I joined the band, they had already recorded “Come and Get It” and the three other songs for the movie and were looking for a new name. They fired the bass player and, because Tommy Evans took over on bass, they started looking for a new guitar player and I came along. They gave me the job and changed their name to Badfinger. I’d been playing cover songs all my life, although I’d written some songs in 1968 for the Gary Walker and the Rain album, so it was no big deal to learn and play those songs. The ones we played were “Come and Get It,” “Crimson Ship,” “Carry On ’til Tomorrow” and “Rock of All Ages.”
THE MULE: With the live appearances behind you and the chance to gel with the other three guys, were things easier for you going into writing and recording the next album? Obviously, with the group now featuring four strong songwriters, the decision process to decide which songs actually made it to the final cut must have been fairly difficult. What was that process like?
JOEY: We started recording before we went on the road. The process was simple: we played the ideas we had and worked them for a while; we may have demoed them, but usually we’d never heard the songs before. It would become obvious which songs would work and we’d develop those into what became our records. There was no formula. That’s clear from the different styles of songs we recorded – Folk, Rock, Pop, R and B. As long as we liked the idea, we did the song. Of course, the producers put their two cents in, too.
Badfinger, STRAIGHT UP photo shoot (Tom Evans, Pete Ham, Mike Gibbins and Joey Molland) (photo credit: Richard DiLello)
THE MULE: I know that you’re probably sick of being asked questions like this, but I know a lot of our readers will be interested. Please indulge us for just a couple of questions about your relationship with the Beatles. First, while the Beatles were all a few years older than you, did you ever run into any of the guys growing up in Liverpool?
JOEY: I never met the Beatles in Liverpool. I still haven’t met Paul… probably never will.
THE MULE: In Greg Kihn’s novel, RUBBER SOUL, the main character traded certain “services” to sailors coming in to port at Liverpool from the United States for American 45s. You’ve mentioned that, at an early age, you were learning Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley tunes on guitar. How did you get those American singles to learn from? If they were available at all, they must have been very expensive as imports.
JOEY: I’ve never read the book. I got most of my records from my older brother, Chris, and learned on his guitar. I was 11 at the time. Later, I would go and search the used 45s in the Liverpool stores. Friends had records, too, so one way or another, I heard the stuff. Musn’t forget Radio Luxembourg.
THE MULE: When Badfinger came to the States, I know that most journalists seemed more interested in your relationship with the Beatles and Apple Records. In retrospect, do you feel that the group’s connection to the biggest band in the world and being on their record label helped or hindered your artistic development? Did you ever get the feeling that there was a backlash against Badfinger that the band was “riding the coattails” of the Beatles? How difficult was it to handle a press rabid for information about another act?
JOEY:I’ve been thinking about this Beatles/Badfinger relationship thing a bit lately and the way it affected Badfinger’s reputation and the band’s career. Initially, we didn’t think too much about it. We were aware of people’s attitudes about the comparison to the Beatles and after “Come and Get It” was such a big hit and the teeny bop image was in cement, it made us very paranoid about our music. We knew nobody would believe we weren’t copying them, singing like them and even dressing like them. It got worse after the big rock papers said we were more together and our songs were just as good and maybe we weren’t quite as teeny bop as they first thought. We couldn’t get any gigs in the UK or America at first. Actually, in the UK, that’s never changed, Some people expected George or Paul to be with us. We took ourselves seriously but, of course, we started to doubt ourselves and each other. Why couldn’t we get gigs? Why didn’t the record label put more singles out? Were the songs too crappy, too stupid or something? We had no idea so we just stopped thinking about it and blamed ourselves: we must be crap on stage and the songs couldn’t have been that good after all. In the end, it wasn’t a band anymore – just four blokes doing what they’d always done and, when people asked us about what it’s like being compared to the Beatles, we’d laugh it off. You know, we all thought we were very lucky. There were loads of bands like us, weren’t there? Good singers and players who wrote songs, had ideas… so, we were lucky, weren’t we? From our perspective, the press and music business weren’t interested in us; they had the real Beatles, we supposed.
THE MULE: Finally, Joey, thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. Before we finish, can you let us know what’s next for Joey Molland?
Joey Molland, circa 2013 (uncredited photo)
JOEY: The next thing I’m planning is a book about our managers, agents, roadies and friends, but the best laid plans… I keep getting ideas for songs, so I guess I’ll keep making music. Still don’t know where the ideas come from. Maybe they’re the ones the big guys throw back.