Spotlight doesn’t seem the place John Gustafson likes to be in, that’s the music that matters most to him. And while fame beckoned quite a few times, one of the most versatile bass players in the world preferred to provide a bedrock for his own bands such as QUATERMASS and artists as different as Ian Gillan and Bryan Ferry, and sing. It’s John doing Simon Zealotes in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and laying the four-string line in ROXY MUSIC’s “Love Is The Drug” – but who reads the credits to know it? So it’s about time for the veteran to enter the spotlight.
– John, do you think of yourself as a bassist, in the first place, or as a vocalist?
My Musician Union listing is “Bass Guitar, Guitar, Vocal”, but I guess I started as a bass player who sang a bit. When I started in THE CASSANOVAS, Cass the main singer and rhythm guitarist left the group, so I and the drummer John Hutchinson were then the lead singers. The remaining trio became THE BIG THREE featuring Adrian Barber on guitar. This went on until we were signed by NEMS at the suggestion of John Lennon, as we were a favourite of his.
– What does being a Liverpudlian musician mean to you?
Of course, I’m proud to be a Scouser and to have been lucky enough to take part in all that the city has achieved musically! To be there at the birth of rock and roll was something that will never be repeated. I love the city and its people.. Come on you Reds!
– Do you feel honored to be the only British singer to have been accompanied on-stage by THE BEATLES?
Backed by THE BEATLES? I don’t know where that came from. John sat in with us at “The Jacaranda” club and played Duane Eddy’s “Ramrod”. I later played bass for them while Paul [McCartney] sang “What’d I Say” with a hand mic. I did play all of their second set at the “Grosvenor Ballroom”, Wallasey, on guitar as George [Harrison] was ill that day. I only turned up by accident to find my girlfriend and not knowing they were playing that night. I went backstage to see them and John said, “You’re on”.
– Could you be called the originator of the British rock trios – as THE BIG THREE preceded all those CREAMs and ELPs?
I can’t recall another rock trio at that time in Liverpool, although I can’t be sure. We got away with it at first by being loud and aggressive until we developed a trio playing style. Wether or not we influenced any other trios is open to debate!
– Is it true you had a band with the future KING CRIMSON singer, Gordon Haskell, back in the Sixties?
Never met Gordon Haskell!
– Wasn’t it strange to return to THE BIG THREE in 1973, after all the progressive stuff you played later on?
The BIG THREE “Resurrection” album was great fun to do. I love rock and roll and I can go back to that at any time, but I didn’t expect it to sell many.
– Is there a chance for the reunion album’s re-release?
Somebody is investigating the licensing to see if a re-release is possible, but it could take quite a while.
– Speaking of rock ‘n’ roll. What memories do you have of taking part in Jerry Lee Lewis’s famous London sessions?
The day I was on Jerry Lee Lewis’ “London Sessions” album, he refused to come down to the studio. He was at his hotel drinking Bourbon at ten in the morning and then threatening to come down and kill the band. We carried on without him and recorded “High School Confidential” with Chas Hodges on piano. Albert Lee played the opening vocal lines.
– Another of your trios were QUATERMASS. What prompted that quantum leap to its progressive rock from the EPISODE SIX pop?
EPISODE SIX had disbanded due to [Ian] Gillan joining DEEP PURPLE. The remainder, plus guitarist Alan Shaklock and vocalist Sheila Carter, and minus Roger Glover, invited Pete and I join in an experimental session at Jackson Studios. Long jamming sessions followed at which it became apparent that only the basic trio seeemed to be interested in playing. It was the old case of “musical differences”, I suppose. Pete [Robinson], Mick [Underwood] and I carried on as QUATERMASS.
– You were said to be working on QUATERMASS archive live tapes: will this album see the light of day any day soon?
I am in posession of sound desk tapes of a later version of QUATERMASS featuring Pete, Janne Schaffer on guitar, Barry DeSouza on drums and Malando Gasama on drums and percussion, and myself. These were recorded in America on a tour backing Shawn Phillips; we opened the show with two numbers: “Bluegaloo” that I wrote and Schaffer’s “Underhuggaren”. I approached the record company with a view to including these two long tracks on a re-issued QUATERMASS album but I was told they were too different, too jazz-rocky, which was a shame as we probably would have taken that route anyway. As it stands, they will never be released.
– That, later incarnation of QUATERMASS: how it came to be? I heard the band just broke up once the second album got shelved… Did Mick Underwood just left and you decided to carry on? And how did the band turned into a quartet?
QUATERMASS split in 1970 due to lack of financial support and poor record company backing. This was after a USA tour which went through New York, Chicago, San Francisco, L.A., Oklahoma city, San Antonio etcetera.. We supported a DEEP PURPLE tour in England and a URIAH HEEP tour in Germany. After QUATERMASS disbanded, Pete and I were invited over to Stockholm by the band’s producer, Anders Henrikson, to do a lot of sessions there. One of them was an album with Swedish musicians, it was called “Ablution”, a jazz rock thing, that’s where we met Janne Schaffer. And, as we had already done a couple of U.S. tours backing Shawn Phillips with Barry DeSouza on drums, it seemed to be a nice idea to bring back the name and augment the band with with Janne and Malando on drums and percussion.
– Was your involvement with Norway’s BALTIK a result of Schaffer’s involvement with QUATERMASS?
“Baltik” was a separate session Pete and I played on.
– Were you surprised when RAINBOW covered “Black Sheep Of The Family”? Did you know Ritchie Blackmore liked it as much as to leave DEEP PURPLE after the conflict over this song?
I only heard RAINBOW’s version of “Black Sheep” last week! I don’t think it matched Mick’s energy and powerful driving drumming on the last chorus. He understood rock and roll crescendo. I don’t know about Ritchie’s arguments, and it was not my business anyway.
– Was there really a band called BULLET with the same line-up that DAEMON had?
BULLET was the first name of HARD STUFF, we had to change it because of an American band of the same name. DAEMON, as far as I know, is HARD STUFF and is something to do with John Cann. I had nothing to do with it!
– There’s the DAEMON album compiled by DuCann, with Al Shaw singing…
I’ve never seen a copy of this.
– At which point did Al left leaving the singing to you and John?
Al Shaw left after the first album and went back to Liverpool, I took over the vocals with John Cann.
– How did you hook up with John DuCann in the first place?
I had a phone call from Brian Slater, a tour manager connected with Purple Records asking if I wanted to join ATOMIC ROOSTER, and I agreed, But after signing up, John Cann didn’t have rights to the name so it went through name changes – BULLET to HARD STUFF. I decided to give it shot anyway.
– What was the work ethics of HARD STUFF?
Apart from the written songs, we did a lot of jamming in the studio and made long loops out of some of it.
– How did you share vocal parts with DuCann?
We generally sang our own songs, and I did my own harmonies.
– Whose idea it was to go funky?
I may have been guilty of the funk input!
– Where does your funky style come from? You surely played differently in the early Seventies, but it was so obvious on “Goose Grease”?
Any playing style I had came from listening to all my favourite kinds of music, and it’s only natural to want to play like the people you admire, even if you can’t equal it.
– Beat with THE MERSEYBEATS, prog with QUATERMASS, hard ‘n’ heavy with HARD STUFF art rock with ROXY MUSIC, fusion with IAN GILLAN BAND… Was it all the natural progression, with your bass style evolving, or different facets of your talent?
My bass playing advanced, such as it was, the same as everybody else by listening, practice, copying, stealing or any method, taking a time line through the following: BIG THREE, MERSEYBEATS, Crispian St. Peters, Duane Eddy, Robert Parker, Jerry Lee Lewis, ROXY, Dave Edmunds, Al Jarreau, PIRATES etcetera. A certain amount of flexibility develops, What probably was a great help was the many years of studio work and being on sessions with many great players, far better than I.
– By the way, there’s a track on STUFF’s “Bulletproof”, called “Provider Pt. 1”. Was there ever the second part?
There may be a “Provider Pt. 2”, but I doubt it, it was just a jam named for a friend of ours called Mystery D. Ward, who would bring certain provisions.
– Was that album, judging on the title, started when you were still called BULLET?
“Bulletproof” was a kick back to the American band who made us change the name.
– Another song from this LP, “Monster In Paradise”, had been played by QUATERMASS. Were there other earlier pieces which made it to the later bands you were in?
I have never played any of the HARD STUFF songs in any other band, but I did re-write the lyrics to the single “Inside your life” and record it on my “Goose Grease” album as “Precious Heart”
– Playing with ROXY MUSIC for a musically significant period of time, why weren’t you enrolled in the band’s line-up?
ROXY MUSIC did ask me to join them on a permanent basis after “Siren”, and although I enjoyed playing with them and I was very flattered to be the only bassist they had offered the job to, I probably felt I would be happier in the long run playing something with a harder edge. But I mean no disrespect to ROXY, they were all good lads.
– How did you land a Simon Zealotes part in the original “Jesus Christ Superstar” recording?
I came about the role of Simon Zealotes through Gloria Bristow the manageress of EPISODE SIX and QUATERMASS. Gillan had been contacted to play J. C., and I was recommended for the other role by Gloria. I remember Gillan and I rehearsing the songs at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s flat in Kensington, while Tim Rice looked on.
– Being musician, not an actor, how do you manage to be inhabiting the roles you played in “Jesus Christ” and “Butterfly Ball”?
I only sang on “J. C.” and never acted, Yvonne Elliman and I went to Antwerp to plug our two songs on a TV show,. That’s all. Apart from singing “The Bat” on record, I only sang it live once at the Albert Hall performance of “Butterfly Ball”.
– Did you ever think of an acting career?
– How did you get a part in “The Butterfly Ball”?
Just a phone call from Roger [Glover], as simple as that!
– Was it at “The Ball” live performance that you met up with Ian Gillan again?
Strangely, it was my only night off from a ROXY tour that enabled me to perform at the “Butterfly Ball”, and Gillan, who was also singing there offered me a job with his new band which he wanted to call SHANGRENADE: a really terrlble name which he later tried blame me for.
– Were you surprised to learn about the jazzy direction that IAN GILLAN BAND would be going to?
No, as Gillan just followed the band’s direction, during rehearsals we were jamming around jazzy / funk riffs. For instance, I instigated “Clear Air Turbulence”, then we all threw in ideas and developed the original theme: this was mainly how we worked. Gillan played no part in writing the music as he was out of his depth, but he wrote all the lyrics apart from “Twin Exhausted” which was my song entirely and “Mad Elaine” which we co-wrote.
– Wasn’t it hard for you as a singer to just stay behind other vocalists in various bands – be it Gillan or Ferry – and not be singing?
You take on a gig with the understanding that you do whatever is necessary for your position in the band, if it involves singing or not. It’s OK with me, but I usually end up singing something!
– What’s the story behind you taking the lead on IGB’s “Mad Elaine”?
I’m not actually taking the lead on “Mad Elaine”. It’s just the way the mix balance came out, but I usually get stuck with the high notes!
– How did the stint with Ian Gillan end for you?
Gillan decided after three or four albums he didn’t like the band’s direction and wanted to do more rock stuff. In reality, he should have put his foot down a lot earlier. I personally was expecting DEEP PURPLE stuff but he let us do whatever we wanted and said that he loved it, though we were prepared to play anything he wanted.
– If, as you said, IAN GILLAN BAND broke up due to Gillan’s desire to get heavy again, why didn’t he ask if not Ray Fenwick who’s not into that style, but you, a great hard rock bassist, to stay with him?
I imagine it was easier for Gillan to change the whole band rather than face the embarassment of firing individual members who were over-qualified to play whatever he wanted next, even though he was to blame for agreeing to the previous direction.
– With your appearance on Ian Gillan’s “Naked Thunder” in 1990, I assume you’d been in touch all those years in-between?
It was a simple phone call from Gillan that led to me sing backing vocals on “Naked Thunder”. I also recommended my friend, the late Tommy Eyre, on keyboards, for his touring band. Pete Robinson was brought over from L.A. for some extra overdubs, since Gillan was a big fan of QUATERMASS.
– Why, then, the two of you didn’t join Mick Underwood when he decided to revive QUATERMASS, and only helped out with a couple of songs?
QUATERMASS II was formed by Mick Underwood and friends although the music was nothing at all like the original. I guess they only used the name for PR purposes, and in fact, the two rockers I wrote for the band were completely changed to heavy metal versions and sounding a little bit underworked. Sorry, Mick!
– How did you come to play on Steve Hackett’s solo debut, “Voyage Of The Acolyte“?
My session for “Voyage Of The Acolyte” came straight from my session fixer Martyn Ford. This took place at Kingsway studios in Holborn. There were only Steve, Phil Collins and myself, they weren’t quite ready so I went to the pub for an hour! I can remember some odd time signatures 5/8 or 7/4 or something. For a change, the record company actually sent me a copy!
– You played om Ian Hunter’s solo debut in 1975: was it another management’s invitation?
Ian Hunter’s session was just a call from a studio engineer. On the same day, I went down to Air Studios No. 2 and played on the song “Lounge Lizzard”. They didn’t have an arrangement for me, so I invented the bass part… which they then used as the arrangement.
– How do you remember working with Mick Ronson?
I remember them all being great friendly lads.
– What route led to your appearance on Rick Wakeman’s “Cost Of Living”?
Rick Wakeman’s office called me to play on “Cost Of Living”. It’s again as simple as that, really!
– STATUS QUO recorded your song “Dear John”. Was it originally written for this band?
“Dear John” was one of a batch of demos recorded by ROWDY, a band I formed featuring Billy Bremner, Ray Fenwick, Jackie Macauley, Les Binks and myself. These were sent to QUO’s manager Colin Johnson who got them to record it, probably because John Coughlan had just been fired. I later played in his DIESEL BAND.
– ROWDY? When it was formed and why it didn’t take off with a line-up like that?
ROWDY was formed in 1983, we recorded five demos and were to be managed by Frankie Miller’s management team. But Colin Johnson came to see me, and I decided to go with him, He chose “Dear John” for QUO to record, but I didn’t get the record deal I wanted. Then we all moved on to other things. If I ever manage to get an “Anthology” released, it will include those tracks.
– You stayed with THE PIRATES for quite a long time. Did you want to get away from the more sophisticated music in favor of good old rock ‘n’ roll?
I’ve known Mick Green since the “Star Club” days, and THE PIRATES with Frank Farley and Johnny Spence were one of only two English rock ‘n’ roll bands I’d pay to see, the other being ROCKPILE. So when Mick called me to join them at Dingwall’s, that same day I jumped at it. It was a great night, John Bonham and Lemmy came backstage to say “Hello”. I stayed with them on and off for about seven years in between other things, recording two albums and touring the UK, Sweden, Finland, Norway, France, Japan, Dubai etcetera. Great times!
– How does it feel to be playing again with Brian Griffiths, in THE STAR COMBO, after all more than 40 years that passed since you first came together in THE BIG THREE?
As to THE STAR COMBO, it was fantastic to see Tony Newman, Griff, Howie [Casey] and Roy [Young] again after all that time! There were years of mad stories to catch up on, we spent most of time crying laughing. It’s a miracle we got anything done but we did and they played world class stuff in that studio in Toronto.
– Who’s your favorite drummer to form a rhythm section with?
I’ve had the privilege of playing with many fine dummers over the years, from John Banks right through to the present day, and I thank all those gifted players and if they ever read this, they know who they are.
– Can we expect a follow-up to “Goose Grease” any day soon?
No, but if there were ever a follow-up to “Goose Grease” it would be more rock ‘n’ roll than jazz influenced.
– What are your interests outside of music?
My family, a decent glass of bitter and a good Western.
– What do you think was the most pleasant point of your career and would you change anything if there was a chance?
I’ve had some fantastic times in my career, too many to itemise but I don’t think I would change anything, the highs and lows as well as a lot of luck sometimes all had a part to play!
Many thanks to Tony Newman for helping us get in touch.