Interview with RAY BENNETT

December 2002
bennett1Quite often an artist goes a strange way – from fame to oblivion, and too rare he finds a way back. Whether the greatness is lost on that road is a hard question to answer. Fortunately, there’s one of those rare birds to put it straight: Ray Bennett, who shot to glory in the ’70s with FLASH and made his solo return… only to get back to his old band, whose reunion was happening at the time of our interview.

– Do you have the answer to a question that always keeps me wondering: why do brilliant musicians like you often all but disappear off sight?

This first question is really difficult to answer, but thanks for asking it in a complimentary way. This is a complicated thing. So many factors – personal, musical, business, opportunities lost – and never had – and the times we live in. We all know about personal quirks that get in the way, and drugs, and all kinds of anxieties and insecurities, and being screwed by record companies and managers. So many stories now in all the books, documentaries and memoirs. Why they got discouraged, why they lost faith. These are long, sometimes very bitter, but sometimes very uplifting stories. It doesn’t always work out the way it’s supposed to. Humans are not rational creatures for the most part, so the way it works out is not rational.

Sometimes a musician just hates the idea of being exploited or controlled, and is happier going his obscure way. Sometimes dropping out of sight is by far the best thing for personal survival and salvation. Compromised principles, devious behaviour, and greed pervade the music world and sometimes all of it converges in one place, making you want to run for the hills. Why did THE BEATLES break up, for Christ’s sake? Why did George Harrison take up gardening? Why does a manager keep an artist under contract, then doesn’t do anything, and then won’t let him go? All of the above, very subjective. Why does a band or artist lose all his money in a bad deal that he shouldn’t have signed in the first place, and then decides that he hates music? Why does someone’s divorce, or a band break-up, or hair falling out, or insecurity about playing ability, or lack of a hit record, or a death in the family – you-name-the-tragedy – take all the wind out of their sails leaving them devastated and feeling uncreative? Why does too much money make someone miserable and unproductive? It’s all subjective and personal.

It’s naive to believe that brilliance and talent will always win out when we see so much evidence to the contrary, but it can. In the beginning, or during the middle, or at the end, despite all that discourages it, or conspires against it. In my case it’s some of the above – except no drugs. I could give you my history, in brief. The blow by blow, decade by decade account of the ups and downs. It’s a bit of everything, good and bad. It would be a long “brief” story, and there is insight to be gained I’m sure. I’ve certainly gained some, but it’s not really necessary to know all the details. That should all be in my book! Am I writing one? – No. Buy me a drink at the bar and I’ll tell you a few good stories. Overall, I’m in very good spirits (no pun intended) and in very good shape in everyway, despite some set-backs and heartaches. I’ve had enough of them to know what is good to keep and what is good to eject from my life, and now I feel the benefits of all my experience. It’s showing in my music – and survival instincts.

Somewhere in the Eighties – which was a slump for me – I reaffirmed my vows to music. Musicianship is like a priesthood. It requires faith and steady work, sometimes with little support, reward, or encouragement. All players know this. Some crumble, or get distorted by it, and some have little problem with any of it, they get stronger. But even with success you still have to decide to continue that promise to yourself. My reaffirmation was a silent moment, but I noticed. It definitely happened. And it was a more profound vow than I had ever made when I was young. It means much more now. I’m still here doing this, and loving it.

– Why did it take you so long to come back? Why now?

There has always been a lot going on musically. Always busy with something. Out of sight? Yes and no. Yes, on the big stages. But I’ve been around and had many interesting projects. Why so long to do a solo album? I didn’t think of it until the Eighties, and I had no record deal then. That was a rough period for me to get it together. Pretty much as outlined in the first question. I lost momentum. I lost faith. The business changed. Also, I changed roles, from bass to guitar. That was an important move. I developed steadily and sometimes changed dramatically as a musician along the way. As time has gone by I have blossomed in all areas – playing, singing, writing. I’ve become more comfortable with myself, and become the musician I always wanted to be. Lots of reading, yoga, more spiritual awareness. I’m still developing! Everything in my life that used to be hard to deal with seems to have sorted itself out over the last few years. And perhaps there was my own requirement to be better, and take the time to do it. Maybe that’s why now I feel ready. It’s not the way it’s supposed to happen, but so what? I never really thought much about the future, how things would go, but I always wanted something that was truly mine. Like THE BEATLES. I wanted to be like them. Maybe I’ll have the last laugh. Going on, after all my old pals have quit.

One thing I’ve found is that it’s essential in an artist’s life to become your own man, and that’s easier said than done. But if you can do it sooner rather than later, all the better. You have to create yourself. Be the author of your own life – to be truly “here”. The word “authentic” comes to mind. A true artist invents himself. You must not be a copy, or a type. You have to be as unique as an artist as you are as a person, otherwise you are a simple craftsman, following familiar practices. To be an artist you have to take your own journey. Even if it means rejecting everything you know – or being rejected by it. Being an artist is like constantly being reborn, but in a very conscious way. Much is said about the journey of life, but the musician’s life is such an obvious example – through time and experience. No matter what happens, those who really love music have the most fun, and stay with it. My path has steadily led me back to now being more visible, more available and more confident.

– On you return, you brought up two albums, “Whatever Falls“, a new one and an archive collection, “Angels & Ghosts“. Was the latter meant as a thread between your past and present?

Simple answer, yes. I wanted to show where I was and where I’ve come to now. I thought that would be interesting for those who know me and helpful for people who don’t. There’s one noticeable chronological gap on “Angels & Ghosts” – the Eighties. That is because most of the CD is a song format or short instrumental pieces and during the early to mid-Eighties I did some long abstracted instrumental pieces. These would have dominated the CD time-wise and taken on a very different mood. They would be better as a separate collection. So I tried to keep whatever worked together. Overall, it’s a large time period to cover and that’s not usually done on one CD other than on a “Big Hits” type of thing.

There is quite a bit more to come from my archives. Particularly from the Nineties. when I owned a recording studio and spent a lot of time writing and recording tracks. I hope to release it all eventually. But I tend to focus on what I’m doing at the present, it will have to wait for a convenient time.

– How did it come to FLASH reform?

The background to this goes way back really. It didn’t just reappear out of nothing. FLASH should have, and could have, done more. We all realised that later. We simply didn’t grapple with some of the difficult realities of a successful band very well. There were tough decisions to be made and decisive actions to be taken, and there were management problems. We didn’t deal with some of it at all well. But there was much about FLASH that was great, and we did a lot of things right. We made some good records and did good tours – playing in front of thousands. The band was well received, well remembered and we had a good time. Overall, FLASH was a success, so the idea of trying it again has always been attractive. Now, I think we are very appreciative of what we did, and understand well what we didn’t do. The idea to reform first came up in 1980, and we did get together and play a few times when we were all living in Los Angeles, but there was no real positive consensus then. There were lots of reasons why. The business atmosphere of the time, personal things etcetera. Going back before that to the Seventies, we played in various projects together right after FLASH, and you have to wonder now why the hell we didn’t just reform then.

After 1982, we stopped seeing each other, all of us left LA eventually and went our separate ways. I eventually lost contact completely and had no idea where any of them were. For me, FLASH was pretty much put to rest during most of the Eighties. Although when people asked me about the band I was pleased to talk about it and pleased we were well thought of. Over time I became aware that FLASH was not going to be forgotten.

When the albums came out on CD in the early Nineties, I imagined what it would be like playing together again. Of course I didn’t know who the other guys were anymore. I assumed they would be the same, but like myself, more grown up and better musicians. Also the live CD ,”Psychosync”, which came out in 1997, really brought it all back. I didn’t know that tape existed, it was a bootleg of a radio broadcast. I have no gig tapes. Hearing us live for the first time in years was a real flashback ! I was there. That made it very real again.

About three years ago, when I first got online, people who I hadn’t heard from in years were finding me. One was an old FLASH roadie and he put me in touch with the other guys. This was around early 2001. I also found Sidonie Jordan too the previous year through a prog rock website. The phone calls with Colin and Mike were great. We were all really happy to find each other again and it went quite quickly to talking about doing some music together and then to reforming FLASH. Colin said he saw it as unfinished business. That’s how it feels to me too. Reconnecting was very easy with Mike and Colin, but less so with Peter. We had some difficult times through the early years, so I wasn’t surprised about that.

Six months ago we started making real plans after I met a new manager named Leonardo Pavkovic. He also manages Allan Holdsworth and the new SOFTWARE project, and PFM. He’s a progressive rock and jazz fan, so we got talking about the idea of a reformed FLASH. He has strong convictions regarding the lasting appeal of our kind of music, and was enthusiastic about getting it together. All the pieces then started falling into place and I was really happy with the whole idea, but the conversations between Peter and everyone else – the rest of the band and the management – got very bogged down. It just wasn’t coming together with him. That’s how it was when we broke up in ’73. There was a kind of stalemate of unresolved differences between Pete and the rest of us regarding general attitudes and feelings towards FLASH, business – and life. We had tried putting them aside in the past whenever we worked on something, but it was obvious now that they have become more extreme and any compromise would not work. Colin and Mike, and I, felt that it was now finally conclusive. Whatever thoughts we had about what might have been in the past, or whether the band in it’s original state would work now, were all clarified. We decided to do this with a fresh approach, without Peter. From that moment on, everything moved forward in a positive way.

It never occurred to me that I would be a good choice as FLASH’s guitarist. I certainly never considered it before. It suddenly seemed like the right way to go. We briefly thought about getting someone else, but that didn’t feel right. After all these years as a guitarist trying out different things, I, and FLASH, have arrived in the same place. Totally serendipitous. So with Colin and Mike’s agreement, I made the choice to change roles. I began thinking of FLASH as my main thing, I wrote a good deal of the FLASH music anyway, and I didn’t mind putting my solo stuff to the side. I am as eclectic in style as Pete and have been finding it quite comfortable getting into the old guitar parts. I’m blending what he did with my own approach and keeping whatever seems vital to the piece from a compositional standpoint, but there is plenty of room to play with it all. Pete did some great stuff, quite brilliant at times, and you have to remember that this was music made by very young guys. As I said, I have new respect for it. It’s all the more remarkable because it still stands up well today. With a little polish it will all sound new again. What’s different today, for me, is two important things. A new appreciation and respect for what we did. The old stuff doesn’t sound old. Also, I can see how to take the band forward into new territory. I like that idea. I never had a clear vision of that before.

– What did you work on right before it happened?

I was finishing off my two CDs when we first started talking. I had already made a deal with Voiceprint and was starting to do promotion too. The CDs came out in November 2001. I was also thinking about the next step, forming a band. At that point FLASH was still a bit vague, but enticing. I thought it would be great to finally have a happy ending to the story. By the spring of 2002 the talks started getting more serious. I still hadn’t yet put a band together and I started feeling very involved in FLASH, so the picture shifted a bit. I guess the timing was perfect for me. Initially, playing bass again was a nice idea. I was digging it. The challenge and creativity for bass is definitely there in the FLASH way of doing things. I was looking forward to working on new stuff too, but I was also aware that a lot of bass with FLASH – if the band got very busy – could mean a lot of NOT playing guitar, so I was a little concerned. I would miss that. Before too long though I was learning the guitar parts. Life is strange.

bennett2– For many, FLASH conjures up not the music but the album jackets. How did the idea of those panties appear? I think, there’s no connection to the band’s name…

Yes, there definitely was. A flash of a girl’s ass – wonderful to behold. That was an idea from Hipgnosis, the English company that designed covers. They did PINK FLOYD, LED ZEPPELIN and many more, great covers. There’s a book of all of them. They were known for innovative and unusual ideas. As I remember the panty flash idea idea came up fairly quickly and we said, “Fine, we’ll go with that.” Not a lot of time wasted over deciding. I think that first cover was done with style – not particularly sexual, more surrealistic. The second one was done by Capitol Records. We had nothing to do with that. It was more blatant. We didn’t like it as much, but it got attention. I was never bothered by what people thought. It all started to become legend that we did sexist covers deliberately to get attention, but it was all very casual and just happened with no particular intent.

– After the FLASH demise, you played in some bands, one with Colin Carter and other promoted in 1977 with that funny interview included in “Angels & Ghosts”. What were the names of the ensembles?

Good question – I don’t remember. The one with Colin and MIke never settled on a name as I recall, but BLAZE was one idea. I didn’t like it. A record company’s idea. We did play some gigs, but not a lot. I don’t remember what happened when we stepped on-stage, and they said, “And now, let’s hear it for…” One was my band, just my name – for that interview. The one with Peter Banks and Sidonie Jordan didn’t play any gigs and had no name. It later became EMPIRE, after I left. All in all, they were bands that were in their beginning stages.

– A long time ago you were in GUN. I presume, it’s not the GUN who scored with “Race With The Devil”?

Yes, it was the same band. Jon Anderson got me that gig. They were a fairly big deal in the UK around the time, around 1969, very loud. It was called “hard rock” then, I believe. An early heavy metal band, but that term wasn’t used yet. Jon had never even heard me play. Later on he said that, as I had played with Bill, he thought I must be OK. Very nice of him to do that, I was very young then. He had been the singer with the GUN for a very brief time. Neither one of us worked out. In my case it was because their bass player had wanted to switch to rhythm guitar. It had been a three piece. So I came along, rehearsed a lot and played some gigs. The guy wasn’t happy on guitar and they wanted to go back to the way it was, so I was out.

A very ironic showbiz moment occurred in all of this. As I was a friend of Bill’s and flat broke, I was staying with the YES guys – sleeping on the floor at their apartment. One gig with the GUN, they were the headliner and YES were on the same bill. I was picked up in a luxury car and whisked off to the venue. YES all piled into their van for a long ride. YES played a good set. Ours was interrupted by several power failures. Ainsley Dunbar’s band played after the GUN’s set, and their bass player was under the influence of something and couldn’t play. Apparently, they were looking for me to fill in, but because I left in the GUN’s car right after our set and was not hanging around waiting for a van to be loaded, I missed out. That would have been fun – and maybe a job. So after my “starring role” I travelled back to London in comfort, getting home way before YES did in their van. But they went off to their rooms and their beds and I went back to the hallway and slept on the floor. One week I spent most of my salary from the GUN on a pair of boots. I got fired the following week.

– You played with two of the greatest drummers, Bill Bruford and Roger Taylor. Which of them you, as a bassist, found it more interesting to make a rhythm section?

I played with Roger Taylor very briefly during 1969, my first year as a professional musician, but I met many people in London then who later became well known. Greg Lake, Simon Kirke, the YES men of course, many others. I was in and out of bands rapidly for a while. The rock world in London at that time was busy, energetic and creative. A lot of people were trying things out, looking for a great formula or a great line up. Roger Taylor had a band called SMILE, which later gradually turned into QUEEN. I never really formed an opinion about him. I thought he was a very nice guy and I had a feeling we could have got along very well. I actually don’t remember his drumming then. I remember his forthright personality. A good guy.

I played with Bill over a longer period and we remained friends, so I know a lot more about him. That was a long time ago at the very beginning of our careers. I thought we played together very well. Bill didn’t like THE BEATLES much and I loved them, so I mistrusted him from the start! In fact, we came from very different backgrounds and were a bit suspicious of each other to begin with, but despite that we became friends. He liked my bass playing and was impressed because I’d only been playing a couple of weeks! Bill really hit the drums hard and was very enthusiastic. We were both very good even from the start. I remember him bouncing around very excited when things went well, even jumping up from the drums to shake my hand if I played something he liked. We were a pretty forceful rhythm section for a couple of kids. And quite musical. I was with the beat, rhythm-and-blues and blues camp, and Bill was with the jazz camp. We sort of met in the middle at that time. As we grew up, we seemed to develop different attitudes to music and have taken very different directions in life.

– Could you, please, tell a bit more of those pre-FLASH bands?

Well, that early teenage band with Bill was called THE ORIGINAL BREED BLUESBAND, or simply THE BREED. I was involved in it from it’s inception with Bill to it’s last breath, when the players had changed quite a few times. All about three years, but It seemed like a lifetime. We did a lot of gigs and I made some good money for a school kid. I have many good memories of all that. It was a lot of fun and an amazingly good learning experience musically. We grew as players, through blues, rhythm-and-blues and some jazz and were very popular. Bill was at boarding school and couldn’t play all gigs, but he was always very involved. He got out when he could. Sometimes we had two drummers. The other guy, Pete Skinner, was very good too. Later, I went to art school for two and a half years. That was quite serious for a while. I stopped playing. But mainly my teachers and parents pushed me into it. I did love painting and drawing and the whole world of visual art, and for a while I was going that way. n the middle of art college I took a break and played with a cover band in Spain for a couple of months. The main significance of that is that I had a wonderful time, it was like a real professional gig, playing every night and on the road with our entourage. That tipped the scales. I was passionate about music, couldn’t live without it. Art school faded away and I moved to London to be a “pro”.

During that period, checking out the London scene, I was looking for something special – I didn’t know quite what – but I didn’t find it. The first thing after art school was a bluesband. Oddly enough, Guy Shepherd, the drummer in that band, used to play with Tony Kaye in THE FEDERALS – back in Leicester, where they both came from. It was just an OK band, but we had fun. My criteria for success then was good music, having fun and hopefully making enough money to get by. It hasn’t changed much since then! Maybe more money and better music. I met Simon Kirke, who was just beginning as the drummer with FREE. He was a flatmate of our guitarist. I remember Simon washing his hair a lot and always wearing the same clothes. Alexis Korner was kind enough to advise our band on the sound and direction. I heard that he also advised LED ZEPPELIN and FREE. He was an enormously respected man on the British music scene. He did a lot to make people aware of rhythm-and-blues and the blues. He showed that British musicians could play it without too much imitation and infuse their own ideas.

There was a short lived band with Thunderclap Newman on piano. We never played a gig, but we used to rehearse in a small flat, in the kitchen, with the piano in the hallway outside. Somehow it all worked out. Then there was BABYLON with a bluesy singer named Carol Grimes. We were supposed to go on tour with BLIND FAITH, we had the same management, but they broke up and everything was put on hold, so I left. I thought that would have been a good band.

I went on numerous auditions and had one night gigs occasionally – filling in for someone. There was even some lounge type work, hotel stuff. Awful. I played terribly because I didn’t know the old standards very well. And then came the GUN.

I also saw a lot of great bands in London from about 1966 to 1969. That was a wonderful time for new things in music. Seeing and hearing so many people who are now huge names and legends obviously had a big impact on me. It would have been an education in diversity, if nothing else, but it was much more. Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall’s various bands, CREAM, THE ROLLING STONES, the first KING CRIMSON, THE NICE, and, of course, jazz, blues and folk. A long list, and almost all inspirational.

In the autumn of 1969 I went to live in the USA for two years – age 19 to 21. I did some casual stuff playing bass, or guitar, with whoever was around, always finding young hippie bands to jam with. I auditioned for THE BLUES PROJECT, which had once been a big name, but failed that. I was too English, or too young, or too unbluesy, I don’t know. I toyed around with recording at home and different guitar tunings. The whole American vibe got into me. I came to understand the culture better and the different attitudes to musicianship. A liberating experience. I suppose I fell in love with the USA then. I definitely fell in love with Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Neil Young and CSN. I always had a strong interest in acoustic music and vocal harmony. British and American. But the main thing that happened to me during this time was songwriting. Much of my early writing for FLASH came from this period.

YES were beginning to happen in the States in 1971, which really surprised me. Also surprising was to find out that Peter Banks had left. Bill Bruford and I had stayed in touch and he mentioned that Pete was looking for a bass player. So shortly after I returned to the UK in the summer of 1971 I called Pete, and FLASH started.

– How do you remember Alexis Korner?

As I mentioned before, I met him briefly when he came down to check out my blues band. That was in 1968, I was still at art school. I was nervous because it was a critique, but he was kind, with good suggestions. It was remarkably generous for him to take the time to come and see a bunch of unknown kids. Before that I saw posters around South London and the suburbs, in the mid-Sixties, advertising “Alexis Korner’s BLUES INCORPORATED” before I knew who he was. The name intrigued me. Unusual, I thought it was very hip. Later I found out how many English blues and rock names were associated with him. I also discovered an album of his around 1966 which became a favourite. Some friends and I hung out together a lot that summer and played a handful of records over and over again. THE BEATLES, STONES, John Mayall, Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, and Alexis Korner. I forget now what the album’s title was, I don’t have that record anymore, but Jack Bruce played on it, also Dick Heckstall-Smith. It had been around for a couple of years already and by ’66 those two had been with the Graham Bond band for a while, another of my favourites, so they also drew my attention to Alexis. One thing that impressed me was that he wrote all the tracks overnight and recorded it the next day. That was impressive. I liked the overall loose feel and the memorable compositions. It was one of those records that I didn’t get tired of. One track was called “Sappho”, and I read in the liner notes that this was named after his daughter. Years later, in the Seventies, I was introduced to her in the “Marquee” bar in London. I was very happy to be able to tell her that I knew her already from that album. She was very surprised and gave me a great smile.

– Who of the “swinging” London scene you still remain friends with?

From the music biz, almost no one other than FLASH, and Bill Bruford occasionally. Also, Sidonie Jordan, and a few old personal friends. If you mean the “swinging Sixties”, I was fairly young for most of it. I was still at school and then art school until 1969, but with my band activities and going to clubs and hanging around London, from about 1966 on, I did meet a lot of people. Where are they now? I have no idea about most of them, except the ones who are now famous, like Phil Collins – and I haven’t seen him in years. Seems like I’ve had many lives, I’ve moved many times since then. During the Seventies I was living in London, but travelling a lot, mostly in America. In the late Seventies I moved here. I did run into a lot of English musicians I knew in the Sixties when I lived in LA in the late Seventies – early Eighties, but they were mostly casual drinking buddies, not close friends. I suppose if I went back to London to live I would find people again, but my life is now very much as a New Yorker.

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