Interview with MICK UNDERWOOD – Part 3

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John McCoy flying over Mick Underwood's drum rise

John McCoy flying over
Mick Underwood’s drum rise

– And how much freedom did you have in GILLAN?

To improvise…. There were moments, mainly during the solos, where you got say, in “No Easy Way” live, where the solos were interplayed between guitar and keyboard. And what’s the other one we did, that blues thing? “If You Believe Me”: it was much more restricted, you couldn’t go wandering off somewhere and hope everyone went with you, it didn’t happen obviously. And that’s the difference. It’s still great to play, though, it was fabulous to play because the quality of the songs and musicians were great.

– And how did you feel with one centner of McCoy hanging above you?

(Laughs.) You read that story, haven’t you? Oh Christ! I’ve got to give John his due, he was bloody brilliant on that bit of wire. I don’t like climbing up on a drum-rise, I don’t like heights, I really don’t like heights. But John would get flying about on a piece of wire you couldn’t see, and he was fantastic, he was good at it as well!

– Who was more secure: he in the air or you underneath?

Well, I was, because I wasn’t being hauled about, but you know the story of when it all went wrong, don’t you? He lost control. Looking back, it was a very funny moment but I… It was like when you see a demolition, when you get this crane with a great big ball of iron on it smashing into a wall. I felt being the wall! (Laughs.) I could see this coming down on me and I thought, “Oh, no!” John’s got a face then, like, starey eyes, going, “Whaaaa?” And his little legs are lifting him up so he could get over the top of me. Looking back, it was hilarious but if it had gone wrong it could have been even more fun, probably, but luckily we avoided that!

– I saw the picture of him in the air! And there is another picture: of Torme, Blackmore, Gillan and yourself.

That was at “The Rainbow,” in London. I think Ritchie came down to try and recruit Ian to sing with his band at the time. Ritchie couldn’t turn up for nothing anywhere, but it was nice to see him on that day. It’s a nice picture, quite a good picture, an amazing picture, I quite like that one! He also got up with Ian prior to my and Bernie’s time with the band at “The Marquee Club,” when Ian did some nights with the original line-up of GILLAN.

– Talking about this flying McCoy moment, it reminds me of you playing on a MONTY PYTHON soundtrack.

Yeah! Yeah, that was a funny one as well. I’d done quite a lot of work for the guy who did the music for them, Trevor Jones, quite a lot of work session-wise with him. He was a friend of the bass player from STRAPPS [Joe Read]. I’d done one album for him, which was an educational album teaching kids to speak English: quite a diverse thing with music – it wasn’t heavy rock at all, it was all sorts of silly little things. At that time PYTHON had a recording studio in London, a small one, very good studio. So he called me up and said, “I want you to put something on this track. We’ve recorded it but I want the drums a bit different.” It was the outtro [In fact, it’s the intro. – DME] song of “Life Of Brian,” the “Brian Song,” I think they call it that, Sonia [Jones] was singing it, it’s the playout one at the end: (half-singing) “Brian, they call him Brian.” So I got called in, and the drums are already on it, someone had recorded it already. And Trevor said, “I want it a little more filled out,” and that’s what I did.

– Another funny thing was that you were asked to join HOT CHOCOLATE. Were you, indeed?

Ritchie Blackmore, Ian Gillan, Mick Underwood

Ritchie Blackmore, Ian Gillan, Mick Underwood

Yeah, I was, yeah! This goes back a long way. When Ritchie left THE OUTLAWS – we’re going back in time here, back in the Doctor Who capsule – I was still at school and I played with a guitarist called Harvey Hinsley, a great guitarist. So I recruited him for, and he played in the last incarnation of THE OUTLAWS. We did record some stuff, but it was not really anything you’d find, and after the band split up I went and did my stuff and Harvey did his. And about the time of SAMMY, I think, Harvey called me. He was with HOT CHOCOLATE – he’d been with HOT CHOCOLATE from the get-go, playing the guitar, all those brilliant riffs; all the HOT CHOCOLATE riffs are Harvey’s. And he said, “We need a drummer.” I think Cozy [Powell] had been doing sessions for them, but they were changing whoever was playing with them to go out live. They were very good, they were having hits, they were doing well from that point of view, but I declined because it wasn’t something I enjoyed playing. With bands like that, you’d be fine doing a session for a record, because you go in there, do it and that’s it: you’ve done your job. But to actually become a member of the band and be involved with that full time, it didn’t interest me at all. Financially, it probably should have done but there you go! So I recommended a guy [to them] that we’d been on tour with, with QUATERMASS in Europe, who played with AUDIENCE, where I found Keith Gemmell who was playing sax with my band at that time, with SAMMY. And his drummer [Tony Connor] was excellent, so I suggested they look at him, which they did, and he’s been with them ever since, he still is.

– Of course, you were, and are a heavier drummer. So what does heaviness mean for you from the drumming point of view?

It gives you a chance to play a little bit more, to be honest with you. But for me, the heaviness hasn’t got to be there all the time, I like it to be light and shade with it: if everything’s bashing all the time, that can get tedious, and you need to have the opposite in there as well, so each element complements the other. The heaviness for me… I don’t know, I can’t really put a word of it. It’s bringing the emotion out of things. It’s like a backing track for a current single now, if you want to talk about the dance [music] – it’s all on one level, put through, does what it does, and go, no great emotion on there. But the rock stuff has got some weight on it. I feel that you’re able to enhance the song, enhance the performance by a vocalist or anybody else, and sometimes you need that weight behind it to do it.

– Would this approach have worked if you had indeed joined LED ZEPPELIN?

Yes, it would have done because that’s the way I played anyway! But that was never going to be a ZEPPELIN thing, it was nothing to do with ZEPPELIN – ZEPPELIN didn’t exist then. Peter Grant was basically asking me, if I was interested in doing that. He, no doubt, asked many more [drummers]. Jimmy Page had got THE YARDBIRDS’ name and he had some outstanding commitments to do in Scandinavia. and he was looking to recruit people to go there. It was to cover these dates, nothing more than that. That’s why I didn’t actually take the gig, because it was a one-off, while EPISODE SIX were doing lots of stuff. Subsequently, the people that did do it were Bonzo and John Paul Jones, and Robert Plant. John [Bonham] was the man for the job! They’re the ones that did it, and they did a fantastic job, didn’t they. They picked the right people. I love ZEPPELIN, and Bonzo’s really one of my all-time favorite drummers.

– And who is your favorite bass player to be in a rhythm section with? Gus?

GILLAN: <br />John McCoy, Mick Underwood, Janick Gers, <br />Colin Towns, Ian Gillan

John McCoy, Mick Underwood, Janick Gers,
Colin Towns, Ian Gillan

He was, in the QUATERMASS days. Then, John McCoy I had a good affinity, in GILLAN. I played with him quite recently. I was playing my hometown in Twickenham here, in London, with GLORY ROAD, and John was locally and he came to the gig. It was great to see him, and he also got up and played two or three tracks with us. And the affinity was still there, you know. He plays like John McCoy and it was good to play with him. Didn’t have to think about anything, I just let him get on, and we locked in again like we did all those years ago. Brilliant! And there’ve been a lot of others. Joe Read, the bass player with STRAPPS was great in those days – I don’t know much about him now. You know pretty quickly when you’ve got the right man that you can play well with. And of course, some of the guys on sessions were always brilliant because they have to get good players.

– And what about QUATERMASS II?

Well, it was Nicky Simper! The other one! He was brilliant, he’s a good friend of mine anyway but he’s a very very smooth player, lovely to play with. Absolutely brilliant!

– Why did you decide to call this QUATERMASS II, and why didn’t you bring other original members into the fold?

Good question! John [Gustafson] did contribute some songs, and he and Pete gave the project their OK. [Keeping the name] was a great, big mistake, it pisses me off all the time, anytime anyone mentions it, because I got such a lot of flak over that with people saying, “Well, it’s nothing like QUATERMASS” But it wasn’t meant to be, it was never meant to be – you couldn’t go back and do another version of QUATERMASS with different people, it just wouldn’t happen. We decided to do this – Nick Simper and myself – on a piss-up at Christmas, I recall. (Laughs.) I said, “Why don’t we do something together?” And Nick and I never worked together in a band. “Oh yeah, maybe we should, mm-hm…” So we both had a good drink and we decided we’d investigate, and when we straightened up we still felt the same. So we did investigate it, and we got involved with a superb guy called Peter Purnell, who runs Angel Air Records, and he was up for it, and we recruited some people. That [line-up] included Bernie [Torme] at that time but that changed – we had a bit of a change for logistics and all sorts of reasons – and we had to call it something while we were doing it, so the working name was QUATERMASS II. We carried on, we made the album, but we still didn’t have a name. And eventually it got released as QUATERMASS II, and I still suffer from that every now and again: people give me a hard time over that. I wish we’d really thought of a different name because that’s purgatory. But it’s a great album [“Long Road”], I like it, I’m very proud of that album. Totally different from QUATERMASS, though; it’s chalk and cheese.

– So something good came out of drink, you know?

QUATERMASS II: <br />Nick Simper, Bernie Torme, <br />Peter Taylor, Mick Underwood

Nick Simper, Bernie Torme,
Peter Taylor, Mick Underwood

Well, I don’t know! (Laughs.) I’m still getting bothered all those years on!

– And that project brought up this DEEP PURPLE connection again, which irritates you no end.

It doesn’t piss me off, it kind of wears you out after awhile because people seem to think that you know a lot about DEEP PURPLE. I know bugger-all about DEEP PURPLE, really, except for in the very early days when I knew them all! Some were better than others obviously; I didn’t know Jon Lord terribly well. It feels like you sort of get a connection with this family but you’ve actually got nothing to do with them, just by association in the past.

– So tell me something about THE HERD, not DEEP PURPLE.

Oh, I’d rather take on DEEP PURPLE than THE HERD, not as such going back so far. When I joined them, I’d just come out of THE OUTLAWS and we’d been playing the old rock ‘n’ roll stuff, but there was too much of a country flavor in it for my liking. I’m not a big country fan but I don’t dislike it. It depends which sort of country you like, and I’d toured with Johnny Cash when I was playing with Jimmy Royal, and they were fantastic guys. I loved those people, the Cash people, they were superb. Nice guys on the road. So I wanted to play more R&B stuff which I liked and still do like. And that was how I’d come to join THE HERD. But it was good: we traveled around the country and just went to work playing gigs. But I wasn’t sorry when I left them quite honestly. They just put on Peter Frampton in the band at that time. I did a couple of gigs when Peter was involved and then I quit. Well, a couple of us quit. They went on to great things pop-wise doing all their stuff.

QUATERMASS in the studio

QUATERMASS in the studio

– Back to your heaviness: how did the “Earthquake At The Savoy” single come into existence?

Oh, that! That’s a good story! During my time with STRAPPS I’d worked with Pip Williams who produced our album, and just prior to that he was doing the “Rockin’ All Over The World” album with [STATUS] QUO. Good producer. He’s a local lad, he knew me from my Micky Underwood days, it goes back that far. I didn’t know him personally but we grew up fairly locally.

– It was him who invited you to play with Graham Bonnet.

Yeah, it was when I was doing the STRAPPS album. We were recording at “The Manor [Studios]” at the time, and he said, “Mick, I’ve got an album with Graham Bonnet and I would like you to play drums on it.” I didn’t know anything about Graham, and Pip said, “He sang with THE MARBLES. You remember their ‘Only One Woman’ track? Fantastic song!” I said, “I’m up for it, absolutely.” I did the album purely as a session player, that was good fun.

– Was it you who recommended Bonnet to Blackmore who took him into RAINBOW?

I don’t know if Ritchie even knew who Graham was when that album was recorded! Anyway, we did that and then I went into the GILLAN thing and I always fancied doing a drum record. When I grew up, one of the first things I ever listened to when I started getting interested in drums was Sandy Nelson’s “Teen Beat.” [It] fascinated me; still does, it’s an absolutely brilliant single sound-wise. I spoke to Pip about it. “Yeah,” he said, “We could do that. My company can get that organised as far as a release and everything for it.” And what he wrote was “Earthquake At The Savoy,” and Bernie and I wrote the B-side which was called “Redwatch.” Bernie, John [McCoy] and myself played on it, and Pip was the producer for that, and that’s how that came about. It was just a little thing I fancied doing, and I was in a position at the time when I could, which was great.

"No Bad Habits" sessions: <br />Dave Markee, Micky Moody, Graham Bonnet,<br />Pip Williams, Mick Underwood, Lance Dixon.

“No Bad Habits” sessions:
Dave Markee, Micky Moody, Graham Bonnet,
Pip Williams, Mick Underwood, Lance Dixon.

– Were you tempted to record a whole album?

No, I never even thought about doing an album, I just thought about a nice drumming single. Nothing happened to it but “Redwatch” has now become a GILLAN track, which pisses me off immensely, because it had fuck-all to do with GILLAN and it got that status because it was on that album we gave away, “For Gillan Fans Only.” I’m not quite happy about that, but there you go, what can you do? Public opinion forms itself, doesn’t it? I was just wondering what Ian was doing on that one? He wasn’t even part of the team, wasn’t even there. (Laughs.) Anyway, “Earthquake At The Savoy” is good for the quality of the studio that Kingsway was – we got a really brilliant sound out of it!

– Did you hear at the time this “Dance With the Devil” single by Cozy Powell?

He had a hit with that, didn’t he? I don’t know when that was recorded, but it’s a good single Cozy did there, yeah! Probably far more commercial than ours was… mine was, actually. But my area I was hoping to get towards was that “Teen Beat” thing, but it didn’t come off, really, it didn’t come off at that level – we had more of a song than “Teen Beat” was. And you couldn’t copy “Teen Beat” or try to reproduce that, so we came out with that.

– So what do you consider the creative peak of your career?

Oh, Christ, that’s a hard one! Well, some of the QUATERMASS for a start, because that was winged all the way, we were actually just dragging that out of ourselves all the time and no-one would say, “You do that bit and I’ll do this bit and you’ll play that bit to it,” not in cold terms like that. Some of the GILLAN stuff was creative as well, in a slightly different way, whereas you had to create it personally by playing it, and that’s not quite right ideas-wise, because it’s a different aspect to a five-to-three-piece band, very different to what I’d played before. “Demon Driver” is one: it’s almost orchestral. And there’s some other beautifully tempered songs that were a joy to play, like “If I Sing Softly,” that were good. And also the bad damn smasheroonies, like “[I’ll] Rip Your Spine Out.” There’s a load in there, they’re all different personally to me, they have their different merits. And some that were quite ordinary but OK.

– And what now?

I’m just looking forward to doing stuff I’m doing now! Getting out there and making it work and enjoy playing still. It’s a very important part, you know.

Many thanks to the amazing Sally Jane Sharp-Paulsen for transcribing the interview.

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