This artist’s name makes a very fiber of British popular music. From pioneering English rock ‘n’ roll with THE OUTLAWS and sculpting heavy prog with QUATERMASS through adding his booming humor to “Life Of Brian” and on to shaping hard rock in GILLAN, Mick Underwood has always been there – in the back yet at the forefront of immersive sounds, even when we don’t sense his presence. Our chat with him started many years ago but, after many on-and-off encounters, came to fruition only recently, as we tried to cover the many facets of the veteran drummer’s illustrious career which still is unfolding.
– Mick, sounding like a thunder, you seem to be quite a quiet person avoiding publicity: how these two traits can come hand in hand
I tend to separate the on-stage and musical side from my private life. I really don’t understand how those “full-on personalities” put up with their selves. It must be love! I’m happy letting the music do the talking.
– Still, you kept your profile low for some time, but now you’re back with a band of your own.
Yeah, that’s correct. There was not much going on, to be frank with you: unless you’re playing with one of the major, big bands, there’s not much to do. But I still kept playing, and a few years back I thought about doing this GLORY ROAD thing and eventually decided to do it and found some good people to do it with. And I’m enjoying it – it’s great.
– Did anything change, then, in your perception of being a public person?
Public person? Oh my God, I’m just a drummer! But no, nothing changed, I just felt that the time was right to put a band out, and it was basically that I really wanted to play stuff that I’ve been involved with in the past, which we’re doing. And the only way I could do that was put a band together: I’m not a sergeant major, but they’re all equal guys and they all like playing that stuff. That’s how I wanted it, as I didn’t want it to revolve too much around just me, and we’re working on material that is written by the band and written by individual members – it’s not solely my past stuff. The majority is, though, as the only way to try and get a quick start with the band is to use whatever means you have, and the only means we really had was my name for what it’s worth to help get some immediate interest to it.
– I understand that you play up the obvious GILLAN connection calling it GLORY ROAD, but there’s another connotation to this phrase: all you career in music has really been glorious, hasn’t it?
Well, it’s been interesting, I suppose, and part of it has been good. But the thing is, we called it GLORY ROAD because most of the songs that we’re doing are, as I said, GILLAN songs but not completely. I’ve got the stuff from QUATERMASS on there – “Black Sheep Of The Family” is in the set – and I’m doing a track that I recorded with Paul Rodgers, with PEACE, for the album that was going to come out but was shelved when FREE got back together, and they did that song, “Heartbreaker,” themselves, and we’re doing “River” from the QUATERMASS II album [“Long Road”], and we got original stuff as well. So it’s not solely GILLAN, but predominantly it is because that’s what most people may remember me for.
– Do you think they remember you for the GILLAN association or for your actual drumming work on those records?
I’m remembered for the music and for the association: I was in that band, in its most successful incarnation, so that was it, really. We sold the records and did the tours etcetera, so I hope I’m remembered for that.
– Being always referenced as a GILLAN member, don’t you find that a bit annoying, given your career spans much more than this one band?
No, I don’t get annoyed with that. It’s good that people have some knowledge of past work. What does annoy me is [DEEP] PURPLE fans who seem to think I am knowledgeable about that band. I have never bought one of their records. That’s not saying they aren’t a fine band but that’s as far as it goes!
– And still, let’s squeeze the elephant out of the room: is it true that you were to join DEEP PURPLE before Ian Paice came into the picture?
As far as I know, I was never considered for PURPLE. I was busy with other things anyway. I think Ian Paice replaced Bobby Woodman, according to Gerry Bloom’s book. At that time I had never heard of DEEP PURPLE. Nick Simper is a good friend of mine and has never mentioned that possibility so I guess that puts that to bed. But this is the real daddy of a question that I sometimes get asked – if I ever played with this band. No, I have never ever played with DEEP fucking PURPLE! That question and crap I see posted was one of the reasons for starting my <a href=”http://www.mickunderwood.com/”>website</a>. Ian Paice has always been and still is their drummer and a mighty fine job he makes of it.
– You say you’re just a drummer. But if you were to pick just one single moment that you think defines your style in the listeners’ ears, what would it be?
Tough question! I’ve no idea! I couldn’t give you any clue on that – you’d have to ask somebody else. I just play, I do what I do. I try hard to listen to what is being played and to pay attention. By doing that and anticipating what may be coming, I try to work sympathetically with the other players. Sometimes, I’ve done sessions in the past, recording sessions for other people, where I played what they wanted me to play – might be even disco or something like that. My playing is my playing, and I just play what I feel fit for that tune, for that song. I find this allows me to use power or subtlety or anything else in between. I hope any listener may be able to notice that. But probably not! As for defining moment, there’s nothing that I can say, “Well, that’s me.” I can usually recognize my playing, if a track comes on and I’m not sure if I was on it – because there’s so many things I’ve done – usually I can pick myself out, but I couldn’t define it.
– But how do you approach your part in a song? Do you think of it in rhythmic or melodic terms?
As far as working on a new drum part – depending, of course, on the material – I try to come up with something that I think will work well. The actual piece itself will govern much, but to create a good groove and feel which is appropriate, I feel is vital. The melodic side is also equally important. I try to enhance this as well so as to set the song up as well as I can. I think of it as a song: the first and foremost, a song is a song, and it doesn’t start with me. We’re not thinking what I can play in it as far as doing something flash or impressive; my job is to make that song sound the best for its own sake, not for mine.
– Rock ‘n’ roll aside, you toured early on with one of the soul pioneers. What did you learn from playing with Sam Cooke and how do you remember the man?
I was on the same tour as Sam Cooke but I didn’t play for him! He had his own band from the States with him and they were great. I had left school about one month before the tour, and this was my first pro gig and to say I was very green would be a gross understatement. Sam seemed a very nice polite guy and a fantastic performer, but the guy I got to know best was his drummer June Gardner who was great. He took me under his wing a bit and gave me advice I remember to this day, and it was an education to watch him play with that great soul feel.
– Some of the sessions you mentioned were for Joe Meek. To what extent were musicians involved in the producer’s explorations? For instance, Joe didn’t play drums, so was it you, in your OUTLAWS days, who’d suggest a way to achieve what he wanted?
Well, it was me and the whole band. It was a fine band, THE OUTLAWS: Ritchie Blackmore, Chas Hodges, Ken Lundgren and myself – at that particular time that I was involved in it; they went through different people in the past, previously to that. Joe Meek would tell us what he kind of wanted, and Chas did a lot of the sorting out on the musical side of it working from Joe’s demos because they were very hard to understand – he was singing out of tune and out of time – so Chas kind of defined them for the band. We played it and thought of a few bits and pieces as we went on, and within a very short time we recorded it. When I first played with THE OUTLAWS, I just left school, I was seventeen, and I often asked Joe what drum sound he had in mind and tried to get near it. A good example [of that] is my first track with them, “Just Like Eddie,” for a singer called Heinz, which was quite a big hit as a single. The basic idea for the song was there, but a real feel and everything else that went with that backing track came from the band. I put a tambourine on the snare drum and that worked quite well to get a bit of a [Eddie] Cochrane sound. Other times, the drums were heavily damped which I guess gave Joe plenty of room to experiment with his sounds.
– What with THE OUTLAWS being a gathering of talents that would become famous, you had your name, not the band’s, on the bass drum skin: Mike. Have you always been a self-confident person to stand out like this?
Not terribly, not always, no. At that time it wasn’t that unusual to have the drummer’s name on front – the early jazz guys used to very often use their initials – and I didn’t think twice about doing it. I wrote “Mike” because, thanks to the silly clothes, people knew it was THE OUTLAWS! (Laughs.) However, in future bands it didn’t reoccur. In a musical context, though, I’ve been reasonably confident in the areas that I’ve worked in and not worried about my name being linked to it.
– And when did you change “Mike” to “Mick”?
Well, I went under the name Mick for a very short while, and then I thought, “Oh, ‘Mike’ is a little bit cooler.” But then, I changed my mind again, as all my friends – even now, if I meet friends from those days – call me “Micky” ’cause locally I was always “Micky Underwood,” so eventually I called myself “Mick” and that’s how everybody else calls me. So it could have been both names! (Laughs.)
– You didn’t want it to be “Michael”?
No. Whenever anyone calls me “Michael,” it’s always the formal side of it, and it flashes back to my parents giving me a bollock if I’d done something wrong. (Laughs infectiously.)
– While we’re on the subjects of names… Before GLORY ROAD there was RAW GLORY, right?
It was a different band. We did some mainly local gigs and made some demos. At times it was a pretty good band, depending on who was involved, and it could be fun to play with the guys like Cosmo who works with HEAVY METAL KIDS or Paul Manzi, a previous singer with GLORY ROAD.
I don’t know. I’m not sure. We’re not playing what you might call progressive music. But Paul’s a great singer, one of the best singers that sound like Paul Rodgers that I know – from that point of view. And he can sing the GILLAN stuff very, very well. He’s excellent! He’s a diamond.
– Back to your role… You had SAMMY: was it the first band where you took a leader’s position?
Well, I did… but I don’t really look at it as a leadership. I’d got the people together. And I also was the first person to leave. (Laughs.) I left the band not long after we’d done the album [1972’s “Sammy”], as the band hadn’t really gone the way I hoped it would do. I made a mistake with that band: I shouldn’t have done that. They’re good people, don’t get me wrong, and fine musicians, but it was a bit directionless. We were blinded with our own writing, and the writing strength wasn’t there. It wasn’t cohesive in that respect.
– What about STRAPPS, then?
Oh, STRAPPS I thought was a great band! I like STRAPPS. We were in a difficult position at that time, inasmuch as the UK was going through a massive punk phase, and rock stuff kind of took a bit of a battering: people just wanted to go out there and be punks and listen to the [SEX] PISTOLS, THE CLASH and various other bands, which we weren’t going to be doing. STRAPPS had every chance to make it but, unfortunately, the times then were against us, because of a heavy punk situation.
– When you said “heavy punk” I instantly had an image of John McCoy. That’s what I’d call “heavy punk”!
(Laughs rather long.) And so would I!
– I interviewed not only him but also his associate called Arthur Guitar.
Arthur Guitar! Saw them in the same room together, did you? (Laughs.) [Arthur was a member of SPLIT KNEE LOONS who were GILLAN sans Gillan, so go figure… – DME.] You work hard!
– Yeah, a journalist’s work.
My keyboards player in GLORY ROAD is a journalist, a guy called Roy Shipston.
– I know Roy, we’ve been in touch. And I know his work with ROCOCO.
Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Roy used to write for music papers and still does some journalistic work.
– And he’s a good songwriter, so why don’t you write a new album?
Well, we’re working [on it]. I’ve got at least two great songwriters in the band: Roy and also my guitarist… well, not my, but lead guitarist, Jeff Summers from WEAPON and STATETROOPER – he’s a superb writer! So that’s in the plans, and while they’re there we have the ability to do it. But we’re still trying to get the band established a little bit more, and then there’ll be no problem to sort it out. We have one or two songs… There’s one track that had been in the set, which was an original song, and I want to revamp that slightly with Luka Revase. This guy is Italian and literally grew up listening to GILLAN, PURPLE, WHITESNAKE etcetera. He’s a brilliant frontman with enormous vocal range and we can now put tracks in the live set that we couldn’t before, such as “Bluesy Blue Sea,” “If I Sing Softly” and “No Laughing In Heaven.” He has made a big difference to the band. But there’s no difficulty – and that’s the actual fact – with putting original songs in GLORY ROAD, there’s no problem with that at all. We have the writers and we certainly have the singers: there’s three great singers in the band as well.
– When you said, “my guitarist,” and then corrected yourself, it reminded me of Charlie Watts’ quip who, once Mick Jagger called him “my drummer,” said that Jagger was his “fucking singer.”
Quite right. It slipped out but, as soon as I heard it, I kicked myself in the bollocks for it. I know, that’s not right.
– Would you have dared to call Ian Gillan your singer?
I always did! (Laugh.)
– OK, about STRAPPS again. On their first album you’re started to sound funky. Were you searching for a new groove?
No. I didn’t like that first album. All the stuff we had on that, all the stuff that STRAPPS did was written mainly by Ross Stagg, the singer and guitarist. He’s an Australian guy, Ross, very nice guy, still active now in Australia. When I first met him I think he was very heavily into [David] Bowie, and the material on it was very odd, that odd sort of arty stuff. Roger Glover produced it and he must have seen it as a bit of a funky-type thing. Anyway, we did what we did, but when you listen to the subsequent albums, they changed quite considerably: they got harder and harder rock. The second one was “Secret Damage”: we’d altered by then. I’m not a funky drummer – I don’t like funk music very much, to be honest with you, it doesn’t seem to go anywhere, for me it just goes around and around. No, I’m not knocking it – I hear musicians doing it and it’s all wonderful – but it’s just a personal taste. It doesn’t appeal to me much, it never has. Little bits are OK, but I don’t think I’ve got any records at all of basically funk things. Not particularly interested. I like things… rock. (Laughs.)
– How did you get Glover to produce the band? I know he produced NAZARETH, he produced Rory Gallagher, so he was kind of a hard rock producer anyway, and STRAPPS originally weren’t about hard rock.
I knew Roger obviously: he was a friend but he was also a producer. He’d had a kidney stone or something like that and he’d had an operation so he couldn’t work very much anyway. We needed a producer, so I spoke to him and he was available and keen on doing it. That’s how it came about. I can’t even remember if he was in DEEP PURPLE at that time [He wasn’t. – DME], I don’t follow DEEP PURPLE.
– What memories do you have of touring with PURPLE and, earlier, URIAH HEEP?
I thought URIAH HEEP were a good band and as people were fun to be with. I don’t think on that German tour they were at their strongest but they still played well and pleased their audience. Some of that tour was a bit tough as there was quite a lot of rioting happening with crowds storming venues to get in without paying. Overall the memories are good. I was playing with STRAPPS supporting PURPLE, and I can’t say it was that great a tour. STRAPPS did OK but the headliners didn’t seem quite right – this was the line-up with Tommy Bolin. I don’t think I even got to say “Hello” to the guys in the band that I knew. Anyway, come the end of that tour I think they split.
– Was it that tour that, later on, lead to former HEEP bassist Paul Newton’s audition for SAMMY?
Yes, when I was forming the band that was to be SAMMY I did contact Paul as I liked the power he brought to the rhythm section and he was a guy that I felt would have fitted in well.