On March 31st, 2015, the next day after his 65th birthday, Dave Ball, one of the finest, and criminally underrated, English guitarists, passed away. The world’s become a much more boring place without him in it, as Dave was so full of life and spirit that simply playing music couldn’t fill his plate. So while many knew Ball from his storming parts on PROCOL HARUM’s live album with orchestra and from his powerful delivery with BEDLAM, his intellectual explorations found their way to a few kindred spirits who read Dave’s books, and his paintings to those who visited his exhibitions. All that, though, only hinted at the man’s clownish streak which struck everyone who knew him, and laughter always accompanied our conversations. This one started soon after the artist released his first solo record, "Don't Forget Your Alligator", yet it took some time to finish – and Dave was eager to update the piece. Unfortunately, ruthless time has run out and, less than two months after our last chat, Ball moved on to the higher ground.
– Dave, your website’s address is worldslump.com. I was wondering whether it was “world’s lump” or “world slump” before I saw the space between “d” and “s”. So what’s it all about.
It’s just an old joke that I’ve had for years now – probably, I’ve been using it for different things for about thirty years – and it came about because a friend of mine had a brother who was trying to get a book published thirty-odd years ago. He was failing to find a publisher; the publishers were all telling him there was a world slump in publishing. And when he told me about that, I thought that was a fantastic name, and I remember drawing a logo for world slump straight away based on that: a planet as slump with a flat bottom. And I’ve just used the name ever since. When I decided to get back to music to add to other things, I thought I would try and brand everything as the one thing so I chose “World Slump” to do that rather than “Dave Ball” because there are lots of Dave Balls around and not too many World Slumps! (Laughs.)
Barbara’s a fantastic player, and Jon’s also excellent, of course. I mean I’ve known his playing for years, with COLOSSEUM and so on, and knew his old guitar player Clem Clempson quite well.
– Talking about other things that you mentioned. You’ve worn many hats over the years. So could we call you a Renaissance man?
Oh, possibly so, yes. I think that’s actually probably quite okay.
– Is there anything you cannot do?
I’m sure, a lot of things. If you’re a Renaissance man (laughs) and you dabble in many things, the problem might be that you never really master any one thing. So it’s never troubled me that I haven’t been the best guitar player or artist, or writer. What makes me happy is just being me, so with anything that I do the one thing I can guarantee is that it’s pure Dave Ball, it’s not a copy of somebody else. But I may not ever be the best at anything. (Laughs.) But I’m quite happy.
– You’ve also been in programming, right? Like another former member of PROCOL HARUM, Matthew Fisher, did.
Yes, yes, many years. I’d programmed before in PL/M and Assembler and did IBM mainframe programming as a systems programmer and database administrator for DB2 and IMS. I worked in all sorts [of environments], yes.
– You said you’re happy being you. So how would you describe yourself?
Um… I’m… I’d say I’m a creative person, and my creativity varies; I get bored quite quickly so I tend to swap from one thing to another. For instance, I was going through a period of wanting to write, and then suddenly I’ll stop that and I’ll go through a period of wanting to just play the guitar, play music. So I have this compulsive behavior, but when I start to focus on one thing I focus a hundred per cent, but then it switches – then I want to do something entirely different and so I have this threshold where I become bored and move on. Right now, I’ve been playing a lot and I have a guitar sitting over here (points to the instrument in the room behind him) which is my acoustic, and I have some bits of recording gear to work on the tunes for the next album.
– So does it lead to a cross-pollination between what you do in different spheres?
Yes, absolutely. This becomes quite important to me. I like lyrics so I like to write, so if I’m writing song lyrics I tend to try and write something that I find amusing or with some point; sometimes I would write fairly a meaningless song just because it has a nice tune but mostly I try to write something that I find interesting. I try and combine all of those things, and sometimes that thought might also lead to a picture that I might want to paint or to draw or something. So yes, there is a cross-pollination with all of my interests.
– And what prompted you to come back to music?
I just think it was the right time for me to do that. I had given up playing completely after BEDLAM, in 1974, for a while: I didn’t touch a guitar, I didn’t have a guitar with me, and I didn’t tell anybody when I went to the army that I used to play. But eventually I found somebody had an acoustic guitar, so I picked it up and had a bit of playing, and it was fun just to be able to entertain myself or other people, it was fine. I didn’t really want to do it professionally but I kept on playing through those thirty or more years, just at home or doing an occasional show. When I was working at a particular place, I might put on a bit of a show and pull together a band – you always find musicians among the other programmers and so on. But I didn’t want to get back into the [music] business itself, ’cause I didn’t like the business. Every musician from the ’60s and ’70s will probably tell you that they all got robbed by this manager or that manager, and that the business never really paid them for what they did do. I just didn’t like the way it was run and I didn’t feel the need to stay there. Why should I? It’s my life, not theirs, to run.
– But many people are so addicted to music that they carry on playing no matter what.
Sometimes they maybe should’ve taken a break like me, for thirty years. (Laughs.) I can understand when playing guitar or other instrument in a band is what you do for a living and you have no other way of making a living; then, you must keep playing, because that is your life. But when I played, even with PROCOL HARUM for instance, it was a fabulous time for me, it was a great opportunity that I was given, and I’ll always be thankful for that, but after you’ve been playing non-stop, touring and doing the same songs over and over again, it also becomes a bit just like a job. So I get bored and I need to change, that’s why I would want to go in some other direction. It’s the same with music now: because I took such a long break, when I started playing again and started getting a little bit more serious, probably around 2000, when I started to think that I wanted to do some more, I started to play more and to write songs and so on. So once I found that I could write songs – I’m not sure whether they’re great songs – and that I could put together a lyric, that I could come up with a tune that didn’t sound like somebody else’s song, that really got my enthusiasm going. Then, just three years ago now I decided to stop my day job; I had a bit of money saved up that would allow me to try and concentrate a little, and build up some music career again or to do the arts. So I made a decision to, before I got too old to play and sing, that I would have a go at restarting my career. And it’s so fresh to me when I do a gig! I did two gigs this weekend, on Friday and Saturday night: on Friday it was very short, half and hour, plus an encore which I got – ha! – in a pub, in my local area; there were three other bands on, all of them very young – twenty years old, nineteen years old – so I was a kind of novelty act, if you like, the old guy, but I was the only solo, lead guitar player there – my experience was a lot different to theirs. Actually, I put on a good show – I used two other musicians, and we’d never rehearsed – it went down really well: the young people like it when somebody knows a lot and plays a variety of things. So I feel like a youngster again, playing that stuff.
– Haven’t you been piling up the songs over the years?
Yes, I have. I have a lot of songs, over a hundred at least. Like today, when I was looking on YouTube for a song “Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” played by Bob Brozman, who very sadly died, and I finally found it as I just wanted to be able to do it at some of these little gigs I do, cause that’s such a great tune, an old Fats Waller type of song; in fact, Betty Grable did a great version of it years ago. So I was listening to Bob playing this particular song this morning and, although I don’t normally play that style of acoustic almost boogie-woogie on the guitar, it gave me some ideas, and I actually started to write a new song today. And these songs keep coming – sometimes in a burst, I can write three or four songs in a week. I’m always writing lyrics down; if I’m in a cafe, I always have a notebook, as I tend to write sitting there, so I have stacks and stacks of notebooks full of material that I’ve written. This one notebook, I’ve had it from 2007. (Shows the notebook and opens it.)
– But it’s prose!
Some of it is prose but then there’ll be a song in the middle of it, because I’ve been writing some prose and then I’ll say I might write a line that sounds good for a song line. Like, if you get a title, quite often that can start the whole song: things like Ringo comes up with “A Hard Day’s Night” and then, bang, suddenly that started a song. And so it’s like that with me – there’ll just be one sentence in there where the words will work, and then I’ll go, “Okay, that’s a useful idea!” and I’ll write it down into another little book.
– Still, when you wrote “Don’t Forget Your Alligator” you referred to a Bill Haley song, right?
Yes! Actually, that was one example where I’d written the first line and that was the bit that started it (sings): “Dance first, think later”. I thought, “That’s a good line”, and I had to think about what could rhyme with it, and I’d just remembered “See You Later, Alligator”, and I’d go: “Dance first, think later, don’t forget your alligator”. It makes no sense but that’s a fabulous line, that’s really funny, and I decided to just do that.
– You wrote a lot of amusing lyrics for that album that, in their Englishness, somehow reminded me of Ray Davies.
Yeah, I think so too. I mean I like Ray Davies’ writing but I don’t think about trying to be like him, I just think that part of our culture and part of our upbringing in the UK, and the part of Englishness that you learn is this kind of self-deprecating view of ourselves here: we’re not upset with ourselves, we just don’t like to stand out. So there’s this phrase, for instance: “Mustn’t grumble”, which is kind of a joke in England where, when something really, really bad is happening, you go, “Ah, well, mustn’t grumble”, and it’s kind of acceptance of life at its worst and its best, where the English tend not to be very emotional. If you go to Italy and something good happens, they go crazy, and if something bad happens, they go crazy, and about everything they go crazy – there’s that hot-blooded feel; in Russia, you write a poem and drink a lot of vodka, and people get – what’s the phrase? – “мрачны” [gloomy in Russian – DME] like the Scottish. There’s this sort of cultural differences, and I think that’s the English part of writing that I do.
– I’d call it absurdist nostalgia.
I’m 64 now so, for me, it’s hardly even nostalgia. If I maintain the same attitude that I had when I was 17, that is suchly current for me; for other people looking in it’s nostalgia because it seems to look back.
– Yet “nostalgia” means looking back not only to the past but also to your place, and you’d been away from the UK for a long time, hadn’t you?
Yes, I guess you’re right in that sense. I’ve got songs that I wrote in New Zealand, for instance, that have a flavor of that country, and songs that I wrote in Australia that also have a flavor of Australia. So a lot of the songs, particularly on this album, did come out with a nostalgic view of England and, probably, how I remembered it in the ’50s and the ’60s, so you’re point is correct.
– They’re also quite sentimental, what with your English reserve. Take, say, this line in “Old Aunties And Uncles”: “Make some tea, the kettle’s nearly boiling”…
They are! I’m quite pleased with that song, that’s probably the one most like Ray Davies in its style. But the thing that was going through my head there was… I had known old aunties and uncles in my past. My parents both died in Australia, but there’s something about the old uncles who used to come round, who had holes in their jumper and looked a little bit disheveled – very English-looking. And that whole era of aunties who would live in some little bed-sitting room in London or somewhere, very lonely: I think this was very prevalent, and because the extended family in England doesn’t work very well – people don’t look after their elders particularly well – they kind of get forgotten and they end up lonely in some big town. In London, with 20 million people, there’s a lot of little old ladies and little old men sitting on their own, and their treat is, maybe once a week, to go to the cinema or have a glass of beer. So that whole image was in my mind, I even referred to the uncle of mine called Alfred.
– And then you described yourself in “Gonnadothis Gonnadothat”. Were you tempted to list all of your professions in one song?
I wrote this one in Australia, although there’s a reference to a town in New Zealand in there which I finished it off in. And yes, it was a kind of reference to having had so many different professions or jobs. Also, it was a little bit of an indication that I might make a comeback trying to do some more music; and if it all fails, well, I’ll be selling petunias and just have a flower stall somewhere. It’s a bit of a joke, too.
– There’s one more joke I guess – on the album cover: your portrait in a top hat. What is it with you and top hats which you also wore in BIG BERTHA and PROCOL HARUM?
I’ve always liked top hats – they’re so silly! As for the cover idea, I wanted to do a photo-shoot – something like this film, “An American In Paris”: the dance Gene Kelly and what-her-name [Leslie Caron] did on the banks of The Seine; for the album itself, I wanted a sort of an art deco style to it somehow – I don’t know if the songs reflected it – so I drew a little pencil drawing, quite small. That was the idea for the photo-shoot, and I had found the place in London where I could hire a stuffed alligator – it cost a hundred pounds for 24 hours – I had a look at their catalogue and I got one the right shape. Then, I found a studio in London and, rather than having to go to Paris, I was thinking we would photograph this thing in a green room and just fit it back. I found a photographer, quite well-known one who’s married to a friend of mine, and he agreed to do the shoot. Also, I found a model to do this art noveau, art deco, Gatsby girl standing beside me, and I was going to wear a top hat and tails. So I drew the picture out in pencil and I sent it to my son’s girlfriend, who’s a graphic designer, and she did that artwork that you see – she put this together in about half an hour in Photoshop, colored it, put my name and the rest on it, sent it back and asked, “You mean something like this?” And I said, “That’s just perfect as it is, we’ll keep it!” And that saved me hundreds of pounds (laughs) on the cover, and we went on and she did the rest of the booklet that comes with it. That all was done very quickly but the top hat makes it funny.
– By the way, when you started to wear a top hat, there were three Ball brothers. What happened to Pete, your elder brother?
He’s still playing, still in music. We were all, the three of us, in bands. My eldest brother, Pete, lives in South Africa, in Johannesburg, and is playing there, gigging and singing. He’s playing bass now. He’s played keyboards, guitar and bass over the years, but now it’s bass pretty much all the time. The other brother, Den, is in Sydney and also still plays. But when Pete went to South Africa, about 40 years ago, his band were a hit band there, getting Number One records and so on. But that’s a small market, so you don’t make a hit record and then retire – you have to keep working.
– So he kind of took revenge by switching from guitar to bass while you originally switched over from bass to lead guitar?
(Laughs.) That’s right. As you may have read, in the original line-up Pete was, and still is, the most accomplished musician. The reason that I could take over lead was because I had no real formal training in music, whereas my brothers had started it. I was due to begin my formal training when we got a guitar, and so I didn’t want to sit and do scales on the piano – I do them now, because I’m interested – I just wanted to play Chuck Berry or THE SHADOWS tunes. I could improvise but that had no rules, and that anti-establishment attitude is something I’ve done all my life and still do, with the music, because I don’t conform, I don’t try to conform to any particular thing. So if my record is, for instance, a mixture of styles, I don’t apologize for that. It’s very likely that I have six or seven albums to do still, ones I want to get done, and each one of them would be a mixture of things.
– Strange to hear “no rules” from the man who was regimented, who served in the army!
Yes, but I had an attitude even in the army whereby, for me, I was playing. When you join the military organization or something like that, they break you down to nothing, they take away lots of things and then they build the soldier that they want. I was older than the people who were coming, I was an old recruit, and I’d been around the world and done so many things already, so I acted a soldier – and I was quite good at it! I was a good soldier, don’t get me wrong, but I was acting. I knew what they wanted, like when the drill sergeant wants you to be like this or when you’re learning combat training, and they want you to be able to think like a soldier. I was able to do that just by acting the part.
– Wasn’t that conforming, to an extent?
Yes, but it was a huge change for me to join something like that. That was also deliberate, because I needed to get myself healthy as my life was killing me. My rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle could’ve killed me very easily: drugs, drinking and so on. So it was necessary for me to make a big change if I wanted to survive and get control of myself again, I had to do something fairly big to do that. People who go to rehab go away for two weeks at some resort – pop stars do that a lot – come back straight to the environment that they came from and then more often than not they start living that style of life again, and there’s a danger in this. That’s why joining the army was it; there’s no question – you’re in a different life now, a whole new life. And from my point of view, it made me get healthy, as I had no choice, I couldn’t escape. (Laughs.) Well, I suppose you could run away, but I was there and I had to live with that decision, and that essentially got me through this period, and I came out with the same rebellious nature but I was a different person, definitely.
– Which part of your rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle was the unhealthiest? PROCOL HARUM?
Ummm… Not really. We did indulge in excessive behaviors occasionally: we drank a lot probably, as PROCOL HARUM was not a druggy band, but there were a couple or three of us who were quite keen to sample everything America had to offer. But after that, with BEDLAM, I became a bit manic, a little crazy. When your brain is already weird, when you’re brain is already working in a very strange way, then it can get hard to come back from that, and during the BEDLAM time I reached a peak of craziness. When the band folded, when that failed because of the problems with managers and Cozy [Powell], and everybody else, that letdown was complete for me. It was worse than a divorce, it was like a divorce but a very painful one, and I completely deflated, I just didn’t know what to do, and that’s when I went on that road that lead me ultimately into the army, because I didn’t want anything to do with the music business whatsoever. To me, it had destroyed friendships, and those who were running it were awful people.
– BEDLAM was arguably your musical peak as well, but you’re mostly known for your work with PROCOL. Don’t you find it a bit awkward, if not insulting?
I understand why there is that perception. During my brief period with PROCOL HARUM, which was barely a year and a half or so, we were working solidly the whole time, and I use that association because it’s one of the things I have to try and get people to have them listen to my own stuff. The BEDLAM fans that we had may not even understand the “Alligator” album, it may not satisfy them if they’re into heavy three-piece bands. I mean my playing abilities… I haven’t changed that much, I’m still playing the same solo that I played in the ’60s, and my dexterity is coming back. I’m not as fast as I was, because I had young fingers at 17 or 18 and I was able to play quite fast things, although not necessarily good – sometimes fast is not so good – but I can play more mature things. But I think I still have not reached my peak as a guitar player. I actually believe that I’m getting better, and if I get the right vehicle to play that stuff I can achieve something quite good. So it doesn’t worry me that the PROCOL get the focus, not BEDLAM; I think BEDLAM was potentially a world-beating team. If we had stayed together, we would have matured in terms of the writing material and so on, we would have matured in a very good band. But that happened…
– Being more of a blues player, why did you decide to try for PROCOL where even Robin Trower didn’t have much space for blues?
The PROCOL thing came about because I used to go to a lot of auditions in those days, looking for something to amuse myself, really – and, of course, looking for a band that would have some success, because we all came for success. But when the PROCOL advertisement came in, I really wasn’t sure about going [to that audition] because I had not heard much about what they were doing – remember, we had no Internet and relied on weekly music papers to tell us who was doing what – and PROCOL hadn’t been around, they’d been in America working very hard and building up their following there mostly. They were obviously famous, and “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” was hugely significant, and I remembered it well, but I just wasn’t sure if it was going to be worth pursuing. So I didn’t call their number for a week, but the next week’s paper came out, and the ad was in there again, and that’s when I rang their office. They said they’d had enough people, and my compulsive behavior kicked in and I decided that I had to go, that I had to find a way to do this thing. When I got there, they were preparing to replace Robin before a tour of America, and I thought it was great, it would get me to America, they were really nice people to mix with. As for the audition itself, I played what I do, I never played any particularly different, I just did my own stuff and they seemed to like it. But I think it was their personalities I got on with.
– You say you played your own stuff but why, since you had it, you didn’t write for the band? They gave Trower the possibility to write with Keith Reid.
Yeah, but look how long he was there before he got to put his own material in. With me, there were two main things: one, I wasn’t actually doing much writing at the time anyway, I saw myself as an accompanying guitar player, that was my job; the other thing was that we had very little time to rehearse before we had to start on that American tour, so we had less than a month for me to learn all the material and also for the bass player to come in who turned out to be Alan Cartwright, and that’s a complex material, that’s not something you can jam through, it’s not like playing with a blues band or and R’n’B band where you can more or less pick it up as you go. You have to learn the PROCOL material, and I didn’t know any of it. (Laughs.) So there was a lot of work to do just to get on tour with a complete set, and then we were non-stop. Gary [Brooker] was writing because he and Keith were already putting together “Grand Hotel” by the time we’d done a couple of tours, and we started rehearsing and play that material, but it even didn’t cross my mind to try and write for PROCOL. I was 21 years old and, frankly, I was having fun.
– And you discovered America.
I certainly did! (Laughs.) I discovered lots of things about America. I loved to be there, I had a fabulous time, and you know I love the Americans. I think they’re a little crazy and there are some real issues when you look at the country from the outside – foreign policy issues, getting control and also religion dominates so much of American life – but that’s all if you look at it at a high level. But when you get on the ground and you meet the Americans, they’re lovely people and I’ve got so many great friends there; sometimes we don’t agree on things that their government might do or whatever but…
– I know and I try not to raise political or religious issues. I’m an atheist anyway.
I’m an atheist as well. For me, the whole idea of there being some guy in the sky is delusional, and I don’t know why anybody would believe that, but because so much of America is deeply religious, I don’t like to upset such huge numbers of people, and I just maintain a little distance on this whole issue. I write about it in my books but that’s fine.
– Being a writer and a lover of words, how did you relate to Keith Reid’s lyrics?
I thought they were very good, I really enjoyed them as poetry, although even with Keith, who’s a great lyricist, there are always good and bad [lyrics], not everything is brilliant. But the beauty of Gary and Keith’s writing team was, even when the lyrics are not so great, if you take them out of context and read them as a poem sometimes they’ll be a little confusing, but if you put them in a song – and sometimes you need to modify a poem, simply for an inclusion in a song, so you change something to fit with the beat or whatever it is – they’re good. I like Keith’s lyrics, Keith’s vision, and I like Keith. We didn’t talk much when I was in the band but, after I’d left, I met him some years later in New York, where I was doing an IT work, and Keith and I got together and we got on really well: I was more mature now, and they’d already done their crazy time in the States when I joined the band. I was new to it all, whereas they were a little bit more used to the thing and they used to take their wives on tour and so on, so they would go sightseeing and I would go to a pub. When Keith came on tour, he organized things like the setlist, he would go and stand next to the producer and the engineer at the [mixing] desk, and he might write songs on the road… I made a big error, when I first joined the band: we were still rehearsing, and then I realized that Keith was coming on the tour, which I hadn’t known – it was clear that he was going to be there – and, while in a studio, I asked him, “What do you actually do?” And there was this kind of horror – everybody was horrified: How dare you say that? There really wasn’t an answer, and I carried on pursuing it not realizing; I sensed that people didn’t ask this question but I thought it was a very reasonable one. I said, “Oh, you’re like a tour manager?” because I thought maybe that’s what he did but, of course, we had a tour manager, which was Derek Sutton, Robin’s manager now. Of course, Keith was there at the beginning of the band, and he was absolutely an integral part of it, just like Pete Brown was with Jack Bruce [in CREAM]. So in 1999 or 2000, we’d been out in the afternoon in Greenwich Village, where he had an apartment, had a few drinks, bought a few books in a bookshop, we’d eaten – we were having a very nice social day, and we ended in this little bar. We weren’t really talking much, didn’t need it as it was one of those quiet times, we were getting along brilliantly and were sitting there drinking our beer. Then “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” came on the CD they were playing in the bar, but it was the Annie Lennox version, and we were both kind of nodding along to the song, and I turned to him and said, “Keith, didn’t you write this?” And he turned and he went, “Yes, I did”. So I said, “A good job!” And he went, “Thank you”. And we carried on drinking.
– A very English attitude!
Yes, exactly, exactly! One of the major songs of the 20th century, and he says, “Yes, yes, I wrote that”! I think Keith had a good vision for his writing, I don’t know if he still has it, as I wonder sometimes with the lyricists: how long they can keep going coming up with new images.
– I’d say Keith doesn’t come up with new images anymore, it’s purely emotional now, as it is with Bernie Taupin. I guess, they’d done their job already.
That raises an interesting point. As we talked earlier about when I took my break and I came back feeling mentally young, I think the way you measure how your brain is doing and whether you have anything left to say is how innovative can you be – in other words, can I still come up with a new image of some sort that is uniquely mine rather than just dropping back. It was like this when Keith wrote a new song all about seafaring and galleons on the high seas, and I thought, “We did this in ‘Whaling Stories’ and ‘A Salty Dog,’ we’d done those images”, and you couldn’t have said it better. Artists are the same, painters and so on, as are guitar players: we mourn the loss of our great players Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon. But these people would never fail, they would never be less than as brilliant as when they died, although it’s a shocking thing to say.
– Judging by the BEATLES bootlegs, they were very choosy about their songs and threw away many melodic and lyrical lines when they felt it was too generic or banal. So maybe it’s not about innovation but more about being self-critical and trying to pick the best and not to show the weaker spots.
That’s another interesting point. I have thrown songs away because I thought there was no point to them, but in case of guitar players, this idea of “Can you produce new things?” [results in a question]: if you play consistently for 40 years, can you still come up with something that’s interesting to the public or to yourself? I’m not sure how this works because I took such a long break for 35 years, with just occasional playing, just for fun. For me, I still feel that I have a lot of things to develop and a lot of things still to say, so I might have another ten years worth of innovation. I hope… I don’t necessarily mean that everybody has to like it – that’s a taste – but from my own point of view I still have quite a lot of stuff to get out of my system.
– I usually separate thing that I like and one that I find interesting or clever, but you’re album is both: it’s an entertaining entity which might have demanded a certain discipline from you. So there’s a question of how much discipline you had to have when PROCOL played with The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.
The disciplined playing… With The Edmonton Orchestra, yes, it was obviously necessary; it was my first experience – ah, not actually the very first, but this was my first one live with an orchestra – and we had to discipline ourselves in terms of the cues for coming in and out, and the songs were changed. For instance, we had new beginnings on some songs like “Conquistador” which we didn’t play normally on-stage as we had a straightforward beginning, so we had to learn some things. My issue on the night was when we first played “Conquistador”, I was still playing the solo probably 20 bars in while it should have been finished in 16 bars, and I hadn’t realized that, and I came out of the solo when I felt I’d had enough. Normally, I would try and reach peak and finish the solo, and then I would nod for all to come back in, so basically I’d shut my eyes and play until I’d finished and then I’d turn around and focus on the rest of the music and realize that we’re all ready in the next verse. And in Edmonton I thought, “Oh shoot, this is not good”. That was one of the songs that we did again [for the record] and eventually I got to redo that solo anyway as it happens. So I suppose the discipline wasn’t quite there! (Laughs.)
– You mentioned your first experience with orchestra: what was that?
I did a single for somebody playing guitar over a piece of Wagner but the orchestra was already pre-recorded so we had the track; I was the only one in the studio and the orchestra weren’t there. And it was s big thing, an overture to “Tannhäuser” (sings): “Bam bam, bam bam, papa pa papam papapapam” – that’s quite a well-known thing. What they wanted over the top of that was a Hendrixy-style guitar solo, so I recorded this thing. I did it as a session, so they gave me a cheque at the end of the session. And I can tell you the cheque bounced: when I went to cash it, it was no good.
– Who was the artist or producer?
The producer was Tony… Tony… Don’t remember his last name, but he was reasonably well-known at the time and then he disappeared at some point. And I honestly don’t know if it came out or where it might have gone, I don’t know. I don’t know what it was going to be put out as, whether it is Dave Ball or some other name, but it was quite interesting.
– And then there was “Grand Hotel” that you took a part in the recording, with the apocrypha of your head being chopped off on the cover photo to be replaced with Mick Grabham’s one?
It’s all a bit silly, really. I don’t think there was a fundamental problem with what I was playing with the band – I mean the gigs were still going fine, and my playing would be maturing – there weren’t any issues, and it wasn’t a good time to leave, I should’ve been there for that album. Then I would have had two albums done and we would have toured; we’d already been playing those songs on-stage and they went really well. I think that was the personality issues for me, the arguments with BJ [Wilson, the drummer].
– You played not only guitars but also a recorder on the album, right?
Yeah. We had done probably three quarters of the album – we’d recorded it to some extent anyway – including the recorder on “Bringing Home The Bacon” which I played fairly recently at a PROCOL HARUM convention where we resurrected the piece. There, I had to play recorder on-stage!
– How many instruments do you play in all?
I play bass, guitar and drums reasonably well. My piano playing is not too bad: it’s very random, I’m not a good sight-reader, but it’s okay. Wind instruments… Periodically, I buy one – clarinet or saxophone – and I play around a little bit on it, and then I get bored and get rid of them. I play harmonica a bit. You tend to have a go at everything. (Laughs.)
– Among your other gigs was one with Ace Kefford of THE MOVE who, like yourself, hail from Birmingham. But there also were bands like BLACK SABBATH, JUDAS PRIEST, MAGNUM. What in your eyes is so special about the Brummie scene?
Yes, there was a very thriving scene in Birmingham. I think a lot of the biggest cities, the industrial cities particularly – Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester not so much – had their share of it. If you grow in America, you get into basketball or NFL and you find a way to escape through sports possibly; in our country, if you’re a good soccer player, maybe, there’s a way out, but most people of my generation, in Birmingham, ended up in factories, in heavy industry, in manufacturing, so playing music was a way of an escaping from all of that. And part of that was the fact that, if you were in a band, you didn’t have to go to the factory and spend your whole life making iron ingots, so that encouraged a lot of people. Also, they were tough cities, and sometimes the response to that was to search out an outlet you need for a lot of anger when there was not a lot of monies, when there was poverty. I think it was a reaction to that. If you look at the major cities – say, Chicago, Detroit – other cities where you’ve got the same sort of community, you find music is a way out of that. The heavy stuff that came out of Birmingham, obviously with SABBATH and JUDAS PRIEST – and there’ve been others, like DIAMOND HEAD – that was kind of how it was: that tough, hard stuff as well as some blues, R&B, soul music and so on. That was it, that was an explosion.
– Roy Wood’s song always stood out, though.
Roy is a very innovative kind of person, he’s not like Ozzy Osbourne, he’s very different. And Jeff Lynne, who did that ELO stuff, he’s a magnificent product of Birmingham as well.
– Wood’s songs made a bulk of what THE MOVE did, but what did Kefford have to say as a musician when you worked with him?
He didn’t do much writing, he was somebody who lived with the emotions. I don’t think intellectually he was somebody who was ever going to be able to write. He did write some songs but it was much later. When he was in THE MOVE he was the one who had the moves, he had the best style, better than anybody in the band. On-stage, he could move brilliantly, the girls loved him, he had a terrific voice, and his playing was good for THE MOVE. By the way, my brother Den played with Trevor Burton before THE MOVE started – Ace Kefford ad Trevor were the ones who started it: Ace came from CARL WAYNE AND THE VIKINGS, where he’d worked with Charlie Wayne, and Trevor came from DANNY KING & THE MAYFAIR SET, where my brother played bass.
– You and Denny also played in different combinations with Cozy Powell back in Birmingham…
Cozy was a great find, when my brother Pete found him in Germany and brought him back home to Birmingham, to our place, where he lived with us.
– Don’t you find that Cozy’s fame somehow overshadows your and brother’s contribution to all those bands?
At the time, probably, I didn’t. “Dance With The Devil” was the thing that changed everything, which was his [1974’s solo] single; the fact that he went off and made it on his own, not using us and using just people from RAK Records – Mickie Most had a stable of musicians – probably set the seal on that. Of course, he became hugely famous quite rightly – he was a brilliant drummer, no doubt about that – but now people think of our albums as Cozy Powell’s albums, even the BEDLAM stuff is overshadowed by Cozy’s work with RAINBOW and SABBATH, and Peter Green and Yngwie Malmsteen, and WHITESNAKE and all these other players, as he played with lots of different artists. The BEDLAM albums sort of took a little bit of a back seat, and if they do think about it then they think it was Cozy’s band, but it wasn’t. It always was the tree of us playing together – Den, Cozy and I – and Frank [Aiello] the singer.
– BEDLAM played “Dance With The Devil” on-stage, as documented on your live albums.
Once that single had become a hit, we obviously started getting more money for gigs and we started getting more shows, and it was necessary to play that song, like it had been with “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” with PROCOL, because our 20-minute solo features – I played for 15 minutes and then Cozy did a drum solo for 10 minutes – the people who bought “Dance With The Devil” didn’t really want to hear this, so the gigs that we were getting were geared towards that song so they were more like pop gigs. It didn’t always work: we would turn up at a gig and start playing, and we could play the room out – they couldn’t take the noise of it and they weren’t interesting in the thing – but if we played “Dance With The Devil”, they’d come back and listen.
– Did you model yourself on CREAM? You even called yourselves IDEAL MILK, before BEDLAM.
There was a lot of influence there, yes, and that indeed was wordplay on CREAM. They had gone away, and we thought that was a terrible hole that was left in music. I mean I understand why they broke up and so on, but there was a big gap there – [the Jimi] Hendrix [trio] had gone as well – and Den, Cozy and myself had always thought that we might be able to just carry on from that and we might be able to fill that place, although we weren’t suggesting that we were as good as them. We had LED ZEPPELIN which we never thought of as a CREAM-style band anyway; they were something different.
– Why didn’t Pete French work out for the band? That’s the same Peter French who had been in LEAF HOUND and ATOMIC ROOSTER, right?
Yes, and CACTUS as well. That was the BIG BERTHA period, it was after Ace Kefford, when we had my brother Pete playing Hammond. That was intended to be a CREAM-style band but were thinking [to do something] more like VANILLA FUDGE or THE ZOMBIES – we had in mind more harmonies and more tuneful things: that’s how this band was set up. It would still do a lot of solos and a lot guitar features and so on, but basically we were thinking about doing shorter songs. The problem with Pete was… Pete came in with a kind of high, screaming, ZEPPELIN-style voice, and actually that wasn’t where we were headed. And he wasn’t writing, and we needed a vocalist who could write as well. So Pete came up to the house and stayed with us for a while, but it didn’t work out so I just had to say, “Sorry, it’s not the right fit”. Pete is a nice guy, and we still converse on Facebook, but it wasn’t going to work for us. And then we got this other guy, Dave MacTavish, who didn’t have the range of Pete and couldn’t do the bluesy screamy stuff, but this guy could write songs and was a lyricist, so he fitted in to what we needed. That was basically it.
– Where the line went between BIG BERTHA and BEDLAM?
For me, PROCOL HARUM came after BIG BERTHA. When BIG BERTHA broke up, it was essentially because Cozy got the job with Jeff Beck. We tried to do something with a different drummer but it just didn’t work without Cozy. In the meantime, we did find Frank, and Maria Popkievitch came in as a vocalist, so we had two vocalists come in, and we tried to do it like that, but it just wasn’t happening – didn’t work. And so we broke up, and I joined PROCOL, and my brother Denny joined Long John Baldry who I also joined after PROCOL. Then, I left John Baldry as well, and Cozy had left Beck and was going to go the States – there was some talk about him joining Randy California’s SPIRIT, as drummer was one of the main features of SPIRIT, so he was doing some rehearsals with Randy with a view to a new version of the band.
– I actually meant a stylistic line between BEDLAM and BERTHA…
Stylistically, it was a very different band. In IDEAL MILK, where we did a kind of a CREAM copy – we played those kinds of Eric Clapton-style tunes and we were still learning to play like that, and Cozy was still on a single kit, he hadn’t really been exposed a lot to Ginger Baker-style double-drum kits – that was a work-in-progress. We would like to have done it as a full band, but that was largely for fun and for this BBC radio show, where we did a set of tunes. But then Ace Kefford called on us and asked if we would like to do the band with him, and so as friends we did that. But as I said, we never got the material with Ace, we didn’t have a good set of songs to do, so that was one of the major reasons why that failed – none of us was writing. BIG BERTHA was planned as an album band but also as a singles band, so we were planning to do commercial tunes with a heavy background, whereas BEDLAM was an albums band only, to indulge our CREAM fantasies.
– Do you plan to release IDEAL MILK’s live tapes at some point?
We only have four or five tunes I think; they may get released at some point, yes, possibly. At the moment, I’ve put two or three of them on my website, and they won’t get any better than they are there, because we’ve only got copies of the original tapes. But we’re remixing the original BEDLAM studio album that Felix Pappalardi produced – my brother Denny is in the process of remixing that from the original 16-track.
That was just fun, that was just a lot of fun. SABBATH on the road had always been amusing, but I’d known them since before they became BLACK SABBATH, when they had a previous band, and it was a very easy tour. We were doing really well, and SABBATH were actually slightly on the decline at the time. Our on-stage act was so powerful and so strong with BEDLAM that SABBATH were having a problem following us. No, seriously, we would start off and nobody would know us, but after the first number people were thinking, “This is really good”, and by the time we’d finish they were responding to us in a big way. And then SABBATH came on, and they actually had a lot of trouble, so their management kept cutting our time down on-stage, kept reducing the time we were on. (Laughs.) And things weren’t so great internally I think, they were a little bit tired.
– In 2000, you tried to come up with BEDLAM again: did you want it to be a permanent thing or just to have fun?
No, we wanted to explore BEDLAM to its furthest reaches, and when the whole thing had fallen to pieces and Cozy went off and did his thing with COZY POWELL’S HAMMER and so on, and I quit, and Den went off and did something else. Dan had kept in touch with Cozy, but Cozy and I had fallen out big time as I felt betrayed. We were best friends: we lived together in the apartment in London, and I introduced him to his would-be wife and was a best man at his wedding, we were like brothers. But when this thing happened, I just walked away from him. There was a point I’d come back to the U.K. in around 1998 – I was in Scotland and then in the south of England, and Den was down there with Cozy, and Cozy and I had only spoken through Frank or Den – like they would be in the house and we would exchange messages via they other person, asking “Hey, how you’re doing?” but we never actually spoke. But it looked as though we were close to getting together again, after all this time, 35 years or so. And Den had been talking to him and said, “Dave’s back here and he still plays, and Frank’s still around. Why don’t we have another go at BEDLAM?” Then, Cozy had done all these things, he’d become very famous and played with these fabulous bands, and he was still looking for the right work. It hadn’t worked out with Gary Moore, it didn’t really work out with Peter Green, so Cozy was looking for something to get a project. And he said to Den, “OK, but we have to do it right”. Den said, “We’ll organize it”. But two weeks later Cozy had his [lethal] car crash – and was gone when we almost got BEDLAM again. Then, Den met Russell Gilbrook, Animal, at a tribute concert for Cozy, and called me and said, “Your have to play with this drummer; it’s like having Cozy there”. So we went to London and played in a studio with him, and Russell was just fantastic. He’s very keen to play BEDLAM stuff, he loves the idea of what BEDLAM was all about, which was allowing us freedom to go into a freeform improvisation and explore rhythm. Anybody could head off in some direction, and the others coped with this and followed it; we had this great mental rapport – with Russell it works like that also. Comparing musicians is a very dangerous game, but Russell has at least what Cozy had but possibly some more to it. The thing about Russell is he can play in any style whatsoever – he even played with Chris Barber’s jazz band for years. And if it’s at all possible, we want to record a new BEDLAM album with him. We’d been trying to organize some way to go and do some gigs, although Russell is obviously quite busy with URIAH HEEP, but he has breaks – there are periods when they’re not touring.
– You mentioned Long John Baldry earlier. You joined him when he had success with “It Ain’t Easy” and “Everyone Stops For Tea”. Was it back to blues for you?
I was very excited to play with John. We did that album, “Good To Be Alive”, which he was very proud of – he loved that album. And he had good musicians there: a guy called Sam Mitchell on dobro and acoustic and awesome drummer Tony Newman, one of the best session players in town. The thing with Baldry was, I joined him with intention for a long period, to play a long time with him, but actually what happened was the BEDLAM thing: Cozy and myself had been just sitting there one day, and he was going to go and do the SPIRIT thing, and he said, “Let’s do the band. Let’s do it now!” We thought we’d got enough name now – he had some history with Beck, and I had some history with PROCOL HARUM, and my brother Den had some history with Long John Baldry – to be able to get this thing going. And so, I didn’t stay with John for very long at all, I had to go to him and say, “Look, John, I’m sorry, we’re going to do this three-piece or four-piece with Frank, so I can’t stay… And by the way, I’m taking your bass player, too, ’cause Den’s coming with me”. (Laughs.) John was a lovely guy; he got a little bit emotional sometimes, he could get a little excited; he didn’t like flying, and he would throw a tantrum about flying. Den has stories about being on tour with John – some very different style of stories – but John was a true gentleman. He helped make the British blues scene: he, Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies – there’s a handful of people who basically built the British blues and R&B boom, and John was one of those people.
– Talking about your sessions… Did you play with HEEP’s David Byron?
Yes, I did a recording with David. I knew him, as my brother Den had done some deputizing for URIAH HEEP and for Ken Hensley. David was trying to get himself together after HEEP and after ROUGH DIAMOND period, trying to get some solo stuff done. He drank a lot, and it made it very difficult sometimes because of his behavior, but he asked me to play on his new album he was working on – I think it would have been about 1981.
No, I don’t think I am [credited]. It’s a bit like PROCOL HARUM’s “Grand Hotel”, isn’t it? It’s very difficult to tell later on, but I’ve heard a single that was put out by Byron, which was “Every Inch Of The Way” and “Routine”… Somewhere Den has got a tape of all the sessions I did for David, and sometimes a guitar player could come and re-record things – they could take you off the track, of course – but I can tell you categorically I’m on those songs. If you listen to some of these Byron songs, you’ll hear me because you can hear my guitar style; and if you listen to Robin George, it’s different. I didn’t get credited but what the hell does that matter?
– Were you a session player for Byron or part of the band?
David was a friend, so he came around and asked me to do it. I don’t know if I would have ever become a part of the band or not; I can’t remember if actually he paid me either – I don’t think I would have asked him necessarily for money – I would’ve just gone and done it for him, because he was a pal, it was just a friendship thing. We stayed at Muff Winwood’s studio, in Welsh border area or something, at a time when my girlfriend, the mother of my boys, had just moved into that flat, and David brought as twenty liters of paint as we were going to repaint the place!
– Another interesting session must have been one with FAST CREW, a rap collective. Did you really do that?
Yeah. There’s a track called “Code Blue” on my album, and the rhythm track, little orchestral turnarounds and a couple of other bits were done by [Jerome Fortune] of FAST CREW; it was all that electronic stuff that he pulled down from the Web and drum machines and so on. In New Zealand, I used to do a few gigs with a few pals there, I would go and accompany people, and somebody had suggested that I should get together with this one guy from this young hip-hop band who did most of their music. Hip-hop was quite big in New Zealand at that time, and this band, FAST CREW, was quite successful. It was just to see if the combination of somebody old, from the ’60s-’70s, could do something with somebody new. I went to this guy’s house with my guitar, and we played with the prospect of writing some material, and I came up with an idea – I was thinking Eminem – and said, “I want to do something like this” (takes up an acoustic guitar and plays an upbeat melody with a flamenco coda). I just wanted to get this pulse rhythm going, so I went round there and played those chords (plays more), and he went off to add a drum, and an orchestral stab for this (repeats the exquisite curlicue), so we did that track and looped it. I took that away on a CD and I went home and wrote a song around it, which is “Code Blue”. Then I went back – it was during my lunch time; I was working a day job and would go around in my suit – and put a vocal track on, with this very rough song that I’d made up, with a guitar track on there, but it was kind of left there. I’ve still got a copy of that CD, the very early version of the thing; I could post it somewhere if people are interested. And then, when I started to put the album together, I thought, “I want to revive this song again”. So I got in touch with Jeremy [Fortune’s real name] and went to Oakland to finish it and put a whole new ending on it. But the original lunchtime rhythm track is still there, on the song. What happened with FAST CREW, the reason I ended up on their album, was because Jeremy could hear obviously that I could play solos quite well, and he said, “Oh, we need some solos for the record. Could you do a few?” He played me a little section out of the song, not the whole of it, and said he needed a solo over this piece [“Handz High”], and we did a handful of those over lunchtime which he lifted and dropped into the tracks wherever he wanted to. (Laughs.)
– That throws a bridge back to your words about innovation: you keep coming up with something new in various musical forms, while, say, Jimmy Page plays the same riff over and over, with Puff Daddy and so on.
That’s really the measure of… For me, if I can still do that, I’ll carry on; if I run out of ideas like this, doing crazy things [I’ll stop]. I’m set up here today (shows around the room), this is my digital sound recorder, I have a microphone here, sitting on top of a video camera, and this morning I was working on a song, and I plan to send the vocal line to my brother in Sydney and ask him to do something in the background. But as I said, if I reach a point where I can’t do that anymore, I may still just play blues at gigs, something like that that’s easy.
– And you can still carry on with your philosophy books, can’t you?
I’ll keep doing that till I die! I can’t see that I would stop, really.
– When I visited Dick Heckstall-Smith, I saw books by the likes of Karl Marx on his shelves – which I hadn’t seen since my USSR days – and Dick studied Social Sciences after COLOSSEUM, but what about you?
I read Marx, and I think what eventually ended up in Soviet Union bore some resemblance to Marx, but they didn’t quite got him. The idea of making things equal for the proletariat and so on is a great idea; socialism, an idea where everybody gets what they need, is a good thing. But, of course, in reality it’s very difficult to implement.
– It’s all Campanella, it’s utopia. The funny thing was that Marx, when he was writing his treatises, didn’t work and Friedrich Engels had to help him financially.
Yes, that’s right. That’s ironical. (Laughs.) As for me, I just have a wide range of interests. When I was coming out of school, at fifteen, I hadn’t really learned anything much there, at all; I just knew that I didn’t like school and many of the people there, and at this point I first realized that I didn’t like religion either. I had this conflict with the Catholics that my family belonged to, and the protestants at school that I belonged to: there was this big division between the two. Priests and nuns were coming and tell my mother that I was being corrupted by the protestants, and the protestants hated me because I was a catholic, and I thought, “This is crazy!”
– So eventually you got corrupted by rock ‘n’ roll.
That didn’t take long. I gave up religion, I gave up belief in these religious systems at fifteen, I’d given it up. In my youth, what I needed was something to belong to, and I didn’t know what to belong to. I think humans join clubs for reason, whether it’s a fan club, a soccer club, or philosophy, or religion, or whatever: people want to belong to something. Humans have this need to form collectives and join with something – maybe that’s an old Darwin-ey survival thing or what, I don’t know. So when I stopped believing in Christian religion, I started looking for something else to belong to, so at a very young age I started reading things like Marx and Eastern philosophy and theology books that I didn’t understand a lot, and I started reading very widely: Jungian philosophy, [Ludwig] Wittgenstein and [Immanuel] Kant. And I looked at the artists at that time, because I had interested in art; I started looking at surrealists and try to find something to latch onto it.
– Oh, I attended Dali’s exhibition recently, his art from private collections. And they were selling it! With Spanish economics on the decline, some people decided to get rid of something.
I love Dali. He was a genuine nutcase, terribly arrogant and everything else, but brilliant artist, one of my favorite. When I was coming out of my youth, I became interested in a sort of… not so much a philosophy, more a way of life of the bohemians, the beatniks – different movements of artists and so on. I had this idea of going to art school but I didn’t get to art school, I had to finish school, but I had a friend who went to school with one of my brothers, who’s older than me, but he was, and still is, a great, genuine artist. He was at an art college in Leeds, and I used to hitchhike to stay up there with him and hang around at that college.
– Your graphic style reminds me of Weimar cabaret…
I love that 1920s Berlin scene and I have a lot of books on it. I don’t know if I deliberately copied anything, but that beat behavior… in America I suppose it was [Jack] Kerouac and those other people, “On The Road”-type people. A part of it was also the fact that these people sat outside of authority, and I hated authority – still do, really. They were anti-establishment, and that appeal to me – as I said, I didn’t want to conform. I know how to act and behave properly, but not necessarily want to. I don’t want to behave like a 64-year old: I don’t know what that means, and I don’t find it necessary to act my age, so I don’t. I don’t act anything, I’m just naturally like this, so I get on with younger people without embarrassing them too much. (Laughs.)