In the world of rock ‘n’ roll, intergrity can be easily traded for infamous lifestyle which goes with the genre, but for Neil Carter there can be no compromise. Having played with some of the best hard rock ensembles on Earth, most prominently with Gary Moore, he never seemed enamored with wild paraphernalia and left the circus, if not so willingly, at the appropriate moment, yet didn’t left the music altogether. Now, the former rock passes on his expertise teaching classical music as Head of Woodwind and Brass at Brighton College. Strange? Not for mr. Carter it seems. Or is it?
– For many, Neil Carter’s an enigma, the name with the legend attached. How would you describe yourself – who’s this Carter?
That is very generous! Who am I? Where am I? I think I am a simple soul, really, although very ambitious and driven when I want to achieve something. I like having “hills” to climb, and that has always been the case right through my life. But I am conscious that, at fifty, I am becoming less ambitious and I suppose I have got most things in life I need or want. I do work too hard, though! As for describing myself… I’m enthusiastic, moderately talented, determined and, at the moment, exhausted!
– Was it difficult to settle down to “normal” life and move on from being a famous rock musician?
It was a rather strange transition, to be honest. I did a few things professionally after Gary, I recorded my own demos, did some musical theater work and played with a guitarist who Peter Grant was looking after. But I have the sort of mind that shuts out things if I don’t feel it and I just got on with life. I was only just thirty then, so it was strange to think of it all as over but, in hindsight I did the right thing moving on and I have never missed the life. What I do find odd is that it never really goes away as is demonstrated by my doing this interview, and now so much stuff is accessible due to the Internet which I find fascinating. I suppose, if I were honest my old life does fascinate me, really, as if it happened to someone else!
– Are your pupils aware of your rock ‘n’ roll credentials?
Yup, well quite a number of them. It’s odd because I have been doing my current work longer than I was performing so they are absolutely gobsmacked when they see the site, and so many kids play the guitar these days and have aspirations. I have had rather a different background to my colleagues too and quite a lot of them are rock fans as well.
– Why did you choose teaching woodwind and brass rather than guitar or piano you’re mostly know for?
I did start off teaching the piano but it bored me rigid. I was trained on the clarinet so it was logical I should teach that. Having not played for years, I went back to it with a vengeance and I did a diploma to get me focused – and qualified. The saxophone comes as part of what I do, although it has become rather a monster! Far too many pupils learning but it does keep me busy! As for the guitar, I did try teaching it a bit but I am not much of a lead player so I felt quite out of my depth. My current situation was never planned, I just fell into it and things have grown with me now doing a full time job along with extras like music examining.
– Back in the day, did you think of yourself as a keyboard player, in the first place, or as a guitarist?
Always as a guitarist and singer. I was recently looking at a video of the last tour I did with Gary that someone sent me and I remembered I hated that tour as I was chained to the keyboards for most of the night. I liked playing the guitar and having contact with the audience and felt rather frustrated at that time if I remember correctly.
– You’d always been a secondary guitarist but have you ever wanted to play the lead?
I have played lead but long ago and I was okay at it but my boyhood hero was Mick Ronson who was a great musician, big on sound and flash, but only had a few good licks really. Having said that, I listen to the Bowie albums occasionally and it still gives me a kick. It seemed the further I progressed the less lead I did. I did some in WILD HORSES and a bit of twin harmony in UFO but, to be honest, when you play alongside a guitarist of the caliber of Gary More it is neither necessary nor an option!
– Which of the many instruments that you master gives you the utmost pleasure to play?
The flute, without a doubt. I am a bit of a frustrated flautist and because of the different embouchures on clarinet and sax I can never really get completely centered with it. During the summer months, I only play the flute and the difference is amazing. I am doing a performance diploma on the flute this year – see, another “hill”! – which I hope will help me get focused. When I retire I will only play the flute, I am sure of that.
– A good singer yourself, were you comfortable to stick to back vocals?
I was the lead singer with my first band, WILDER, and I suppose not bad, but I didn’t think my voice sounded particularly special when recorded. So along the line I was happy enough to take a back seat, although I did like doing the stuff with Gary and singing parts of the lead. He and I were a good match vocally. In fact, the only thing I miss about my old life is that I never get to sing these days.
– What kind of music WILDER played?
We were very influenced by QUEEN so it was melodic rock with the accent on songs rather than riffs. They weren’t that bad and some of the tracks we recorded at 10CC’s studio in Dorking – we were given free time to road-test it for them – came out pretty well. One of my stories is that Paul McCartney came in one night while we were mixing to check the studio out and said how much he liked my voice. I was only nineteen and I was obviously flattered!
– You played QUEEN covers. Did you have a chance to tell them about that later on, when you were opening for them?
Noooooo. I was so happy to do those shows, though – what a great memory! – and after that there was nothing else I wanted to achieve. To me, they were the best days of all my time in on the road. Which may sound a bit sad but I cannot stress what a QUEEN fan I was up to “Day At The Races”. I saw them four nights in a row at Hammersmith Odeon in 1974!
– Was the stint with Gilbert O’Sullivan a big break for you?
It was very good experience, although it didn’t actually lead to anything. My first professional gig was playing live on British TV with him in a simulcast on radio. That was very scary, indeed. Some of it has been uploaded to YouTube if you fancy a giggle. So it wasn’t a break but it certainly fuelled my hunger to succeed and it was the first full tour any of us had done. Gilbert was a very nice man and encouraged me a lot. I had a chance to thank him last year as I bumped into him at Gatwick airport, the first time I’d seen him in nearly thirty years!
– When did you start to write your own material? The WILD HORSES’ songs didn’t bear your credit…
I began while I was on the road with UFO, really, to give myself something to do on days off. I became aware it was expected of me and I thought I would have a go. Me being me I went at it full steam but it was fulfilling and has been lucrative over the years, too!
– What went wrong with that band that made you want to get out?
If there had been an offer I would have gone long before UFO made a move, to be honest. I have to credit them for giving me my first rock break, but the band were very limited on songwriting ability and were always regarded as a pale THIN LIZZY clone. They were rock ‘n’ roll with a capital “R” and that led to some crazy times, poor performances and excess as you can imagine. I cannot imagine these days how I got through some of the situations that I was faced with over that period, and in UFO!
– Were you officially a band member when recording “The Wild, The Willing And The Innocent” with them? I mean you didn’t contribute to writing the album.
Yes, I was – but they were already most of the way through recording it. I think the backing tracks were done and some of the overdubs. They had a bizarre way of working as a lot of the songs were basically written as backing tracks with little or no thought of the melodies or lyrics until Phil Mogg actually did the vocals. A lot of the tracks were written and formed in the studio which is rather an expensive way of doing things! Gary was always much more organized and did demos etcetera before he set foot in a studio.
Sad in a way, but we had to get on with it and musically it made no real difference, surprisingly. I read a few things that Pete said about the direction the music was heading and, under my influence, how there were more keyboards etcetera, but UFO had always tried different things in the studio, long before I joined. For “Making Contact” Paul [Chapman] and I had to take control and use the studio time effectively. We were a bit more organized on that one and spent several weeks writing at a hotel in Sussex before recording it at the Manor Studios in Oxfordshire. A lot of “Mechanix” was written in QUEEN’s studio in Montreaux… and that was expensive!
– Did Gary Moore approach you having heard your work with UFO or as a result of the WILD HORSES stint?
I have no idea, actually, we have never discussed this but he was wary of me given the reputation both bands had. UFO were known for their excesses and he was very much against all that. Which, to be honest, was a breath of fresh air for me and it was a professional outfit all round. There was a tenuous link as his then road manager had worked for WILD HORSES in the same capacity and I get the feeling he suggested approaching me.
– What was the other offer you got when UFO were over?
It was a very covert approach by WHITESNAKE but I never really took it seriously. On the final UFO gig Gary’s representative was on one side of the stage and David Coverdale‘s on the other. I don’t know if they were serious or not, but it made me smile! We used to bump into them all the time and, funnily enough, I really like the early WHITESNAKE stuff. That said, I would have been unsure about hitching a ride with a band that changed line-up so much.
– How do you remember working with Phil Lynott on Moore’s “Run For Cover” LP and Ozzy Osbourne on “After The War” as opposed to playing and touring together?
Well, Ozzy did his bit while I was away so I never worked with him in the studio. Phil was always about in some shape or form when I was with WILD HORSES and then he did those gigs with Gary. He was a true rock star and lived the life. I think Jimmy Bain and Brian Robertson actually wanted to be as like him as they could but never got there… but then they are still alive. Again. all Phil’s bits were done when I was not around so we never truly worked together in the studio.
– In Moore’s band you worked with two distinctive rhythm sections – Ian Paice and Neil Murray and then Bob Daisley and Cozy Powell, and Chris Slade. Which one was the most interesting to lock with?
Probably, Ian and Neil as they were so solid, but the best bassist was really Bob and drummer, Ian. But, of course, they didn’t play together apart from briefly in the studio.
– Had your parting with Moore anything to do with his desire to play blues?
I think after all those years it was inevitable he would move on, and I really wasn’t aware how disenchanted he was with rock music. I am only capable of doing that style so blues was never an option for me. My era was glam and the bands I loved wrote diverse songs with less noodling. I fully respect Gary for what he does and his new stuff is always very good but it isn’t something I’d choose to play myself. I do think his voice has become very polished over the years and it suits what he does these days. Of course, the guitar playing is always fantastic. And all the time he continues performing and recording, the old stuff is still played on the radio. I notice he was playing “Empty Rooms” last year… great stuff!
– The guitarist, you said, who Peter Grant was looking after: who was he?
His name was Tommy but I can’t remember the surname… He must be over thirty now! He was only very young when we played with him but that was nineteen years ago.
– You seem to have a wicked sense of humour… so why do you look rather sad on most of the pictures that I’ve seen?
Isn’t that what rock bands do, scowl a lot? I do have an evil sense of humour and I always say that the worst things are the things I don”t vocalise. I have worked with a lot of characters over the years so some of their bizarre and direct humour stays with me. I get told off about it a lot by my partner! People tend to view me as a quiet gentleman but I have more to me than that. Also I don’t think it was customary to smile in those days especially in photos! I do now… possibly because I have more to smile about.
– What would it take to convince you to get back on stage as a rocker… even without the curls of yore?
I don’t believe I will ever get back on stage, to be honest, as I firmly believe the style of music I played is a young man’s thing. I am way too old these days! Mind you, tell that to some of my old band mates and I’m sure they would disagree!