Interview with JOHN LAWTON

June 2002

© DME

© DME

He’s a respectable man, John Lawton. Many know him as a singer whose voice delivered URIAH HEEP’s greatest commercial hit, “Free Me”, but there’s more to the singer’s talent than that. With the HEEP, LUCIFER’S FRIEND and LES HUMPHRIES SINGERS experiences under his belt, now John is an artist in his own right, and his artistry is no less magical. On the personal level, Lawton is one of the most nice people you could come across. Having found that John resides ten minutes away from where DME was staying at, while in London, we arranged a meeting at the old pub called “Queen’s Head”, and there, over a beer, we had a long talk – mainly about musician’s life and all sorts of things rather than just music.

– John, looking at musicians like you, like HEEP, who earn no penny from your past glories, I’ve always been wondering that it must be difficult playing just to make your living. You don’t have a business machine behind you – unlike, say, Ozzy Osbourne

You get to the point where you play because you have to play – to earn money. Once it becomes that, then – and I’ll be the first to do so – you should stop playing. You play music because you have your pleasure, because it’s good to go on playing to an audience of twenty people, fifty people, five hundred people, five thousand – if you don’t enjoy doing it, then you should stop. I think that to, say, with Mick Box and other guys from HEEP, they play not only for the money but because it gives them pleasure to play. And a lot of bands do play because they want to earn just the money, they don’t care about the people they play to, and I think that is wrong. You should play to entertain people, to make them happy. If you earn money by doing it – that’s fine! If sometimes you do a concert because the people have come to see you, you say, “OK, tonight we’ll play for nothing – just to make sure that you, guys, are happy.” That what we do. Not often but we do it.

– But if you stop playing, what it would be like for you?

No matter what you do in life – whether it’s playing music or writing for the newspaper – whatever you do, as long as you have fun doing it, as long as you have pleasure then you should do it. But if it doesn’t give you any pleasure, if you wake up in the morning and it’s, like, “Ooh, I’ve got to go and play a concert tonight,” then don’t do it, because if you feel like that when get on-stage, people in the audience are about to see that. Music is my life – but it’s not all of my life, I have other interests apart from music, a lot of different things which take up my life. Music is, maybe, seventy per cent of my life but I have other things to do as well.

– Well, you’re just a human being!

Oh yes, yeah.

– Then there’s a question that I don’t want you to take offence of. From the vocal point, yours is not a rock voice but it always had something very distinctive about it yet recently you voice has changed. Now, it sounds more like Paul Rodgers or David Coverdale – why?

Everybody that I recorded with – from way way back from nineteen, and I started singing when I was fourteen – all the bands that I’d ever sung with, they’ve always written songs which made me have sing high. With LUCIFER’S FRIEND, the songs were always written in a key which I had to sing high; with URIAH HEEP, Ken Hensley – who wrote most of the songs – sings quite high, and all the songs he wrote were in his key, so I had to sing in his key. And, honestly speaking, I don’t like that because I have no way of getting any feeling into those songs because everything is up there. You can’t go anywhere, they’re all in screaming keys – and I like to be able to go, to sing down. I personally prefer my voice now, the way I’m able to sing now than I do, maybe, ten or twenty years ago. I think my voice has matured, like a good wine, ha ha ha! I prefer to sing like that because it gives me a chance to give full feeling to a song – not just having to scream the song because it’s in a high key.
People like Paul Rodgers and David Coverdale I respect a lot, and Paul Rodgers is a big favourite of mine, always has been, from the early days of FREE, he is one of my heroes, the same as David Coverdale – so yes, sometimes you try to sing like that, try to make your voice a little bit rougher. And I smoke a lot, and I drink “Jack Daniels” a lot, so it probably makes my voice a little rougher, but I do prefer it like that. I do prefer it like that…

– Those singers couldn’t be your heroes from the very very beginning, because you’re of the same age!

No, not from the very beginning. Then my heroes, the people that I looked up to were blues singers – John Lee Hooker and people like that. And the first time I’ve ever heard any white man singing any kind of blues was Eric Burdon with THE ANIMALS, with “House Of The Rising Sun”. He was the first white man that I ever actually saw singing like that and, of course, I thought, “Oh, that sounds good! I’ll try and sing like him!” But I was too young, I couldn’t do it: the voice needed to get squashed a little bit to work. Yeah, it was difficult but listening to the blues singers was the way I started. And probably, woman whom you’ve never heard of, a gospel singer, American gospel singer called Mahalia Jackson.

– Sure, I know her music! And there was Big Mama Thornton.

Big Mama Thornton, Janis Joplin, people like that – listen to how they sing, how they’re able to sing a song!

– Of the female Otis Redding followers, rather than Janis I always preferred Maggie Bell from STONE THE CROWS.

A different style, just a slight difference in styles. But, yeah – Otis Redding… Some of the great songs, they’re some of the great singers, who had that kind of sound to their voices, and I always wanted to sound like that. And in those days with HEEP, with LUCIFER’S, you couldn’t sing like that – but I can now, because I’m allowed to sing songs I’m giving to myself. I make myself sing songs how I want to sing them and not how everybody thinks I should sing – and that’s the difference.

– Sounds like now you have much more fun than way back when you were much more popular.

There’s much more freedom because if other people like the songs you can write any song. Some of the earlier stuff, like “Fallen Angel”, some of the songs on there when I first sang them I didn’t quite know how HEEP wanted me to sing them. Do they want me to sing like David Byron? And I thought, “Well, yes, because I have to.” For the first album [“Firefly”] I had to try to sound like David Byron because I was new in the band. If you’re new in a band you kind of follow the rules that already exist. It wasn’t till “Fallen Angel” that I was allowed to be a little bit more expressive – but that was the third album.

– That means, if you stayed any longer it could have turned much better for you and, maybe, for the band.

Yeah, I think so but I don’t know – it’s very easy to say, “Oh, if you had stayed a bit longer URIAH HEEP could have done this and could’ve done that.” It’s very easy but you can’t always say that because it’s already done. I think when I left HEEP they needed a change because, musically, none of us were heading in a right direction. The songs that I was writing were more heavy but with melodic lines, and Ken was still searching for the “Free Me” follow-up, and I think Mick and Trevor [Bolder] were looking more for the heavier, original kind of HEEP sound – so you had three different things going on there. And when you get to that stage, if nobody is sure which musical direction you’re going into, then you have to take a step back. And I think it was a good idea at that time that I moved on, then Ken moved on, and Mick went back to his roots.

– You moved on to record your first solo album, “Heartbeat”…

Very poppy!

– Maybe, but I always found those first solo things very interesting because they’re so different from what a person did in a band. But as you said you were looking for more heavy direction, then why “Heartbeat” wasn’t such?

When we did “Heartbeat”, Peter Hesslein, a guitar player, had written some songs, and we just listened to the songs, and there was nothing really we could change about to make them any different: the songs themselves, the melodies and the way he played them, they were made to be played like that. And it didn’t matter to me whether they were heavy or not – I just liked the songs, so we thought, “To hell with it, we’ll just record the songs as we feel.” It was a great fun! Great – it always this way working with Peter though Peter Hesslein makes you work hard, he really makes you work. We got a guy on the drums called Curt Cress, a jazz drummer who had played with Frank Zappa, and he was the man, the number one drummer in Germany at the time and he’d cost a lot of money. So we’d get him in the studio and tell him how a song goes – he only needs to hear it once to play how it ought to be. We had him set up in the studio on his own, with nobody else in the room, just the drums, and we’d mike the drums from every corner of the room, the ambience mike – so the drum kit was just covered in mikes, you couldn’t see it. The rest of the guys were in the control room and played live into the desk while he was playing drums alone. And it just clicked like that, it was the best way to record. That was great.

– And now, your new album, “Steppin' It Up“. There are HEEP songs originally sung by you but re-recorded without you.

John Lawton and Steve Dunning

The reason that I… that we – because Steve [Dunning] is as much a part of this project as I am – did “Steppin’ It Up” was that Bob Carruthers who runs “Classic Rock” label asked me, “Would you be able to do an acoustic set – just for the fan club, for the HEEP festival?” And I said, “Yeah, but I can’t do it on my own, I need to have one of the guys with me.” Steve, though a bass player, is a brilliant guitar player, but we had a little half an hour one afternoon, so what could be played? What if we’ll do “Feelings”, one of the outtakes from “Five Miles” sessions, and “Burning Ships”, which is a LUCIFER’S FRIEND song that sounds great? We’d picked a few HEEP songs just ready to be played acoustically to the fans. Bob Carruthers said, “We really liked the set, so would you record it?” And I said, “I would only record it if you allow us to put keyboards on there and so percussion, and maybe, saxophone.” He said, “OK, you go ahead and record the album however you want to record it.” So we’ve recorded the whole album. We’d joint “Firefly” and “Come Back To Me” as one song and added saxophone to that – you get the saxophone playing the melody to the intro to “Firefly”, and “Come Back To Me” is a little bit Otis Redding. Do you remember “I’m Alive”? With percussion on there, we’d made that sound more like Santana. It’s not how we’re going to carry on, it was just an album we did.

– The album a kind of summed up your whole career, with LUCIFER’S, HEEP and your solo songs on it. So isn’t that insulting for you when people talk about you as of the singer with HEEP only?

No, I don’t find it insulting. You have to remember that this album was put together very quickly. We didn’t plan to do it, it was just a question of what songs could we do in an acoustic set. And because we had songs like “Rain”, “Burning Ships” and two or three other sings that we did in a JOHN LAWTON BAND set, we thought, “Maybe, we should try them acoustically and see if they work,” which they did. There are two new songs on there, one that Steve has written for the album and one that I wrote, but the rest wasn’t planned. The next album we’re going to do is now being planned, we know what we’re going to do – we have written some new songs for it.

– Will it be the JOHN LAWTON BAND album?

Yeah.

– So where the border goes, what’s the difference between JOHN LAWTON BAND and GUNHILL?

The only difference is that when “Still Paying My Dues” came out, the record company said, “This music is not like GUNHILL, it’s you, so you should change the name from GUNHILL to JOHN LAWTON BAND because it would be better.”

– “Not like Gunhill”? Then what is Gunhill, what does the word mean?

There’s no word, there’s no meaning to the word! If you do down towards Brighton on the Southern coast, there’s a little village called Gunhill. That’s all it is, just a village, but I said, “Oh, that’s a great name for a band!” and we called the band GUNHILL. But the music on “Still Paying My Dues” did not represent what GUNHILL was playing, that’s why that happened.

Then, there was THE HENSLEY-LAWTON BAND, a combination that was not destined to last long but which ended much too soon. As for the reasons, John explained them not for the record yet insisted that he and Ken Hensley still remain good friends:

John Lawton and Ken Hensley

I phoned him before he did Sweden Rock Festival, the first gig he did without me in the band. I phoned him and wished him luck because he needed it. And then when I was going to play in Germany he phoned me and wished luck. We’re still friends. There were problems but musically we are very together.

– How did it happen that you added you voice to Ken’s for “The Return”? Was it Ken’s desire or did you find that song interesting?

Ken said to me, there were certain songs on “Glimpse Of Glory” which he didn’t think he could sing live, and one of the songs that he’d play was “The Return”. I said, “Yes, you can sing that, nothing should stop you from singing that live but I don’t quite know what I’m going to do at that moment, so if you’ll sing it I will just come up and do a little bit of improvisation and come off-mike again. I’ll just keep coming up every night and do something.” And that’s how it worked out, it was never planned. It was something we did at rehearsals, and it sounded OK, so we thought, alright, we’d carry on and we’d keep doing that.

– Now you’ve entered the HEEP camp again – with Heepvention, then with The Magician’s Birthday Party. Do you feel great about revisiting your past?

I was asked if I would do two or three numbers at The Magician’s Birthday Party, and I said, “What do you want me to do?” And they said, “Well, let’s do “Sympathy”, “Free ‘N’ Easy” and you can sing a little bit in “The Magician’s Birthday” at the very end of the song.” I said, “Nah, it’s not a problem,” because Mick Box and Lee [Kerslake], and Trevor, and Phil [Lanzon} and Bernie Shaw, we’re very good friends. I don’t have anything bad to say about URIAH HEEP at all because the guys in URIAH HEEP are nice guys, down-to-earth, they don’t have any egos, and we get on well. Then Phil even played piano on my album, and we are just good friends, and Ken and I are still friends.

– Still, you can go further. Yes, you’re not in your twenties now and you can’t do something completely different but…

No, I can, I can! I mean, “Steppin' It Up” is something completely different to what I’ve done before. It is just different because the songs are mellow, there’s nothing heavy about the songs, you can put it on if you’re doing something. If you’re writing, it’s just nice to have in background, or you can sit in the headphones and listen to it. It’s listenable music. The next album we’re going to do is going to be a lot more heavier, we’re going to do a heavy album and already writing this stuff now so, hopefully, it’s sometime in August – maybe, in September – that we’ll start recording the album. Maybe, it’ll come out by the end of the year – I don’t know, we’ll see how it’ll go.
But I don’t see any reason why I can’t do anything different. Musicians always revisit their past. I very rarely revisit my past that’s away from music because the people who I know from the past moved on, they do other things. They’re not into music as we’re in it, and do totally different things. But I don’t have many musician friends – I have a few musician friends but a lot of my friends have nothing to do with music, and I think it’s better like that because otherwise, if you come together you only ever to talk about music while there are other things in life. I don’t always like to talk musin, I like talking about other things.

– If I’m allowed to ask personal things, I’d stress that you’re married to the same lady for many years. That means, when people talk about their past they remember what was but you can’t really go back, you’re still with the same family. Is it instrumental to your creativity?

Absolutely! Because we have always done everything together, I have never been on tour without my wife – I don’t see any reason why I should go to some foreign country and she should stay at home, and then I come back and say, “Oh, you should’ve been there” or “You should’ve seen this.” Why shouldn’t we see it together? There’s no reason why we shouldn’t see it together! Because when we talk, we can talk about it: “Do you remember when?..” and that’s make it good. And my kids… My kids have grown up now, my son now is thirty-one and my daughter twenty-six, and they don’t live at home anymore – my daugher works in Canary Wharf, which is in the City of London, and my son has his own travelling agency in London. They were on the road with us when they were small, we kept them on tour with us so that they knew what I did, because otherwise I could’ve come home, and they, “Who’s that stranger? Oh, that’s dad!” Because they wouldn’t have seen me very much. So I would always try to take up my children with me on tour if it was possible, and they knew what was going on. That’s why they’re grown-up today and they have no hang-ups about anything, they are very business-minded, because from the early days they have seen that I was business-minded and my wife was business-minded, and they have grown-up like that. And they still enjoy the music, which is right.
My personal view is that if you’re a musician, your wife should not be left at home while you’re on tour for three of four months. Because my wife was with me, she kept my feet on the ground. I was never allowed to think, “Hey, I’m the singer with URIAH HEEP!” No, you’re just John Lawton! The same with my kids – because they were there, I never became a part of groupies and that kind of a scene. I think that’s good, that’s probably why I’m quite OK today.

– Don’t you find this attitude unique?

Oh yes! In URIAH HEEP, after the gig we would go back to the hotel, and the guys would go in the bar, and my wife and I would hire a car and drive around and have a look. That’s what we did in Los Angeles – we did all the things that tourists do! Because HEEP had been to America many times before, they didn’t need to see the places but for me… I’d look at the towns that I’d never been to before – like you do now when you’re for the first time on London: you go to Liverpool and you go to “The Cavern”, the same was when we went to Los Angeles – I had to walk down Sunset Strip because I’d never been there. So I think in a way the guys in HEEP kind of thought that was a bit strange, why wasn’t I in the bar drinking with them after the gig? It wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to see where we were – especially in America – see places, not only the bar, but I think that not worked itself within the way the band was thinking.

– So did you ever felt like a star?

No, never allowed myself to! I have never thought that way, I just think I’m lucky because I have been able to sing, possibly a little bit better than the next guy but that’s all. I grew up singing in clubs in Northern England where you start playing at lunch time and play half an hour, and then they get a striptease girl come on, and you have to back a striptease girl, then she goes off and you play another half an hour, then they have bingo and then you play another half an hour. So I grew up with those groups and all those groups that I had had kept me on the ground, whereas guys now who all of a sudden have a hit don’t know how to handle because they have no background, their first step is to go out playing to two or three thousand people. So it was drastical, more drastical then than it is now – for the last five or six years there are some bands who have never played in clubs working their way up, and all of a sudden they have a hit record so they go out and play to three thousand people, that’s going to make them feel like stars. But if they had worked themselves through the small clubs all the way up there, they wouldn’t have such big big egos straight away. Because taking time to build to that situation when you’re playing to a lot of people you learn how to play to twenty people, you learn how to play to one man and his dog to eventually get to them. That’s why I don’t see myself as any kind of star.

– Was it the same in Germany where you were really big?

Yeah! The first time we went to Germany we played the “Top Ten” club in Hamburg, in 1969, and we had to play from half past seven in the evening to something like four o’clock in the morning. So you play half an hour, then you have a ten-minute break, then another half an hour, then another ten-minute break, and you kept going till three o’clock in the morning. So I’d done all that, then LUCIFER’S FRIEND came along, they were looking for an English singer, and somebody introduced me to them. I said, “OK, let’s do an album,” and that’s how it all started. Then LES HUMPHRIES SINGERS came along, and we were touring a lot with them – I worked my way up from the clubs in England through the long nights in Germany so, by the time I got down to going on-stage with LES HUMPHRIES, I’d play to fourteen thosand people sometimes three nights in a row.

– But you were one of those singers, not the only one.

Yes, but some of them had never played to such large audiences before, and it affected them, and they would started to feel like stars which they were. But if you spend years and years and years working up to that, then you don’t treat it as such, it’s just another gig, ordinary concert. That’s the way I look at it. Whether it’s right or wrong, I don’t know but that’s the way I feel.

– It’s because you feel the load of the years on your shoulders.

Yes, it takes time so you appreciate it more. When you get to that stage then you appreciate it more than if you have spent two months before all of a sudden you play to a large audience.

– And you’re content with that.

Yes. I think, maybe, by the end of this year I will do one more album, and then will probably say good night.

– Are you ready for the ordinary life?

Absolutely. The music that we try to put across, the music that URIAH HEEP try to put across, the music that Ken tries to put across, the music that I try to put across – a CD or an album – is not the kind of music that people these days, as a whole, want to hear. The younger kids want to hear dance music, garage music, so your live, touring side of things becomes shortened, there aren’t enough places to play anymore. Ten, twenty, twenty five years ago there was a lot more places for live music where you can go and tour because the music scene has changed, people don’t want to hear rock music anymore. You have to look at life as it is and think, “Do I carry on just recording and hoping or shall we say good night?”

– Are there any regrets about what you could have done but didn’t do?

No, I have no regrets. Music has given wholeness to me. Everything that’s happened is a wholeness to me, because I’ve done all the things I wanted to. You say, “Oh, I’d like to make a record” – and you make a record; you say, “I’d like to do some live gigs” – so you do some live gigs; “I’d like to have a record in the charts” – so you have a record in the charts; “I’d like to be a number one” – so you’ve got number one: “Free Me” went to number one; “I’d like to record under my own name” – so you record under your own name. So everything that I wanted to do has come true. And I don’t know how far I can take it. I would like to have a number one under my own name but I don’t think that’s possible.

– Maybe, that’s what makes people happy – not to shoot too high and then not fall. To always know your horizon.

Don’t get me wrong, I still like making music but these days there’s a lot more hassle that goes with it.

See also:
October 1999
March 2013

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