Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Very Candid Conversation with Martin Belmont

By the 1970s, the UK rock scene had become more experimental. Progressive rock groups as Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer were flirting with longer songs, unusual time signatures and in some cases, reinterpreting classical musical suites. Glam rock such as David Bowie and Mott The Hoople were not nearly as experimental as their progressive rock counterparts. They were either just as or more interested in the way they looked as they were in how their music sounded. Heavy rock groups as Deep Purple and Black Sabbath took the Cream/Hendrix loud sound and increased the volume even more. Yet there were British musicians that still hungered for the basic rock’n’rollers such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and The Beatles. They created a music that was not only a tribute to the basic rockers, but it was also sign of rebellion of what rock’n’roll had become. These musicians did not play the arenas or theaters like their peers did but instead played at pubs. Hence, the term “pub rock” was coined. The pubs turned out to be a fitting place for these musicians as the rockers played music that you could drink your beer to or get on the floor and dance. (By the late 70s, the punk scene, composed of musicians who were just as alienated by the current music scene as the pub rockers were, would get their start at these same pubs.) One of the biggest groups of the pub rock scene was Ducks Deluxe. A key member of Ducks Deluxe is lead guitarist Martin Belmont.

Ducks Deluxe would break up around the same time the pub rock scene came to an end. Martin then joined The Rumour who would become the backing band for Graham Parker, one of the most underrated singer/songwriters. They were to Graham what the E Street Band was to Bruce Springsteen. In other words, they were the perfect backup band. They released several excellent albums such as
Howlin’ Wind and Squeezing Out Sparks. In addition to Graham, The Rumour would back up such diverse artists as Carlene Carter (daughter of June Cash Carter) and Reggae legend Desmond Dekker. They also released their own albums. Even during The Rumour’s huge musical activities, Martin would find time to play with Elvis Costello and The Attractions.

After The Rumour split up, Martin would play with Carlene Carter, Johnny Cash, Nick Lowe and Hank Wangford (with whom he still plays). In addition, he has released two solo albums
Big Guitar and The Guest List. The Guest List is a special album to Martin since it is a collection of music covers with performers that Martin has played with in the past such as Carlene Carter, Graham Parker and Nick Lowe. Martin recently reunited with Ducks Deluxe. These days, Martin keeps busy, whether it’s Hank, the reformed Ducks Deluxe, the Johnny Nicky Band and Los Pistoleros.

Given all the musical performers Martin has played with, there are two things that remain constant in his guitar playing. First, whether he’s playing clean and soulful or aggressive and loud, Martin’s guitar playing adds a lot of color to the song but never gets in the way of it. Second, his playing reveals his love of rock’n’roll at its basic roots of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. His love of early of rock’n’roll was clear when he wore a Chuck Berry t-shirt to this interview.

In this candid conversation, we talk about his early and current days with Ducks Deluxe, the Rumour years, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and Johnny Cash. This interview with Martin was conducted through Skype. I want to thank Martin for taking the time to do this interview.

Jeff Cramer: When did you get become interested in music?

MB: When I was around about 10 or 11 years old, I fell in love with the look of somebody playing the guitar. I was mad about Elvis. This would’ve been about 1960, something like that. I was mad about Elvis and, well, he just strummed a guitar, strummed an acoustic guitar, but there was an English band at around that time called The Shadows. I don’t know if you know them.

JC: Yes, I do know them.

MB: America had The Ventures and we had The Shadows, all right? They played this kind of fairly cheeky sort of instrumentals but they were the first time I’d seen proper electric guitars, Fender Stratocasters, red ones. Hank Marvin, the guy that played the lead guitar on those tunes was a really – and still is – a very, very good guitar player and he just got these great sounds and it looked so damn cool. It just looked so great holding this guitar that I fell in love with the idea of it before and I pestered and pestered my parents to buy me a guitar and I eventually got a little cheap acoustic guitar and, much to my amazement, I found it hurt my fingers trying to play it. It took me a bit longer to learn to play it than I thought it would because it looked very easy and, in fact, guitars are not that difficult to learn to play compared with other instruments. Yes, so that’s pretty much the story there.

Shortly afterwards, a couple years later, The Beatles came along and the rest and it was just the ’60s, I was in college during the ’60s and, you know, it was just guitars, there was just so much, so much great music around to learn to play.

JC: So what bands were you in before Ducks Deluxe?

MB: None. That was the first band I was in.

JC: Really?!

MB: I was at art school during the ’60s. You know how art school is in England, at that time. I left regular school in – finished in what we call O-levels, which are the exams you take when you’re about 15 or 16. And that was 1965 and you basically, in those days, when you left school, you could’ve gone on to stay at school and gone on to doing what’s called A-levels, which is the kind of qualifications you need to get into a university, and I didn’t want to do that and I certainly didn’t want to go out and get a job, so the other option was this fantastic thing called art school, which, basically, you went along for an interview. You got a couple of O-levels and you’d gone on for an interview, so you said, “Yes, I’m really interested in art,” and there was no kind of test or anything and it was very easy to get into. In actual fact, if you look at, there’s a huge amount of very famous people who all went to art school, John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, you know? It was a great way out of not having to get a job and not being bright enough or bothered enough to go to university, and art schools were full of people playing guitars. A lot of people playing acoustic guitars, a lot of folk music, a lot of that kind of stuff, a lot of people playing Country, Blues or these finger-picking guitar players. I did spend an awful lot of time playing guitars and, “Hey, he’s worked out the chord at the beginning of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’”! “Really?! Well what is it?” Because nobody else has worked it out, you know, so there’s all that kind of thing going on.

JC: Okay, on Wikipedia it says you were a roadie for Brinsley Schwarz, the band itself.

MB: That’s right, yeah. When I was at college – that was 1970 – I moved up to London because I grew up and was in college in the West of England and on the South Coast. When I left college, art school, I moved up to London with the idea of getting into film making, which was what I specialized in at art college. Anyway, I spent the best part of a year trying to get a job. I couldn’t get anything.

The only other thing that I was interested in was, at all bothered with, was playing the guitar, playing music, and I met a guy or I stayed friends with a guy who I was at art school with and he’d been to London a year before me and he’d met up with this band Brinsley Schwarz and a couple of other people of the same organization and he kind of gave me this thing saying “This band is looking for a roadie, if you’re interested.” Basically, in those days, they all lived in a big house on the outskirts of London and I moved in there. There was no money but you got everything, you got fed and housed and cigarettes, that type of thing, you know, and I did that for about a year or so.

JC: And then Ducks Deluxe came up then?

MB: Then Ducks Deluxe came along kind of after about that year. I was determined to be – to have my own band or be in a band and I met this guy, Sean Tyla, who was somebody else who had done all sorts of things and very much – we both wanted to be able to be playing and making a living out of being in a rock ‘n roll band and he wrote songs and played the guitar okay and I could play the guitar okay, so we kind of got together and we got on, we found out that we liked, pretty much, the same kind of stuff. We were big fans of Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones fans, so the music was always gonna be that kind of rock ‘n roll -type of stuff. It was not gonna be nothing terribly subtle, so that was – and that kind of – a couple of false starts but within 1972, by late 1972, we had a drummer and bass player and we started – we started – we lived in what was called a squat. Do you know what that means?

JC: Vaguely, you’ll have to explain.

MB: You see, in London, at that time, as there are now, there are lots of properties that were empty and were deliberately kept empty by whoever owned the building because the land they were on was worth more than the actual buildings themselves. The buildings were quite often in serious disrepair and it was very common practice for people to break in and just set up home in these places, and we had running water, we had electricity and no rent. We lived there for the first seven or eight months of our existence and it was a big, three-story house in Central – in North London – and we had a room where we could practice. The whole area is still kind of hippie type of guys and that thing. It was a great way to start because we had no expenses, really. We could rehearse, practice in the house. We met a guy who’d been the publicist of Brinsley Schwarz, called Dai Davies, and he wanted to be our manager, so he got us a little old car, and got us some amplifiers and stuff and we just started doing gigs.

One of the first gigs we started doing was just, kind of, just up the road from where we lived, which was a pub called the Tally Ho, and we had been put on the map a little bit, word had got around about this pub because of an American band that had started playing there, a band called Eggs Over Easy. They were three guys from the West Coast, I’d reckon, I’d guess, and they were great. They were Austin De Lone, who went on to play with Commander Cody and various people like that. A guy called Jack O’Hara and a guy called Brien Hopkins. He died a few years ago. The drummer was John Steel, who was the original drummer from The Animals in the ’60s. They used to play Sunday nights and Sunday lunchtimes at this place, at this pub. They were just great and that kind of kick started this whole what they call – what became known as the Pub Rock sound, and so Ducks Deluxe started playing there and then we found other pubs and stuff. We were pretty lumpy at first but we got better, as you do. It doesn’t matter how much you practice, one gig is worth ten practice sessions, I would say.

JC: Well, one of the things about Pub Rock, before the Punk scene would be playing the pubs a couple years later, it was like this small thing with you guys playing small pubs going back to the basics while certain other English acts, whether it be Prog or Glam are now going into all these theaters or arenas.

MB: Yeah, the music that was big and popular around that time, ’73, ’74 was all of those awful Prog Rock bands, monstrous bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, or Yes, and Genesis and this sort of Glam Rock, the David Bowies and the T-Rexes and Slade and various bands who were okay but it was very much a fashion thing as it was a music, I guess, and what we played and the bands that were on that circuit with us was a kind of reaction to that, not the Glam thing so much as that Progressive Rock where everyone was sitting down and listening to the complexities of this music and you’re thinking, “Hang on, ‘Hound Dog’ was never this complex and you couldn’t sit down and listen to ‘Hound Dog.’” Even The Beatles at their most complex, and they did some pretty complex stuff with effects, and some people say they started this whole prog business by creating this fantastic music in the second half of their career, but their music had . . . was lacking the pretensions of those later Prog Rock bands, so anyway, so, yes, you’re right, the kind of stuff we were playing was the kind of music that you could drink beer and dance to, basically, so it was upbeat and noisy and that’s the hang of it, you know?

JC: Punk, itself, later, was a reaction to Prog Rock.

MB: Yes, punk was, as you say, a few years later. The difference was that Punk was a probably a younger generation, a younger group of people than the Pub Rock and they wouldn’t have played the kind of – they certainly would’ve played with the same kind of – I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this clip of Ducks Deluxe in 1974 doing “Coast To Coast” and the speed we’re playing and the energy is just like Punk Rock. [Click here to watch this clip.] But they wouldn’t have written songs with the kind of lyrics that we wrote because all our stuff was about America and all their stuff was about being bored and angry and stuff but, yes, but there were a lot of similarities, yeah.

JC: One thing with Ducks Deluxe, while you did have “Coast To Coast” and other up-tempo stuff as “Fireball”, I found that music had some quiet moments. For instance, there’s “Love’s Melody”, a sweet pop song, and even though you have some aggressive lead lines in “Daddy Put The Bomp”, that song is much slower than “Coast To Coast.”

MB: Yeah, you can’t do all up-tempo stuff[Laughter]. You know, apart from the physical toll it would take, you have to have a few slow songs and a few mid-tempo melodic kind of songs and I thought we had a pretty good balance. “Daddy Put the Bomp” is a great, great song and the way we played it. I loved that it was a good arrangement and then we did things that were almost kind of Country-ish, like the West Texas Strut and that stuff. Nick Garvey, who was the bass player and also wrote, he was the guy who was influenced directly by The Beatles and that kind of stuff, so you’d have songs like “Please, Please, Please” on that first album, which the more I even – I can’t actually listen to that because it’s so obviously Beatle-y, Beatlesque, but it was good at the time and so we thought it was good. [Click here to listen to “Please, Please, Please” to hear how different it was from “Coast to Coast.”] Yes. You’re right, that’s right there were lots of – it wasn’t just non-stop bangs-to-bang, we did have some good slower numbers.

Ducks Deluxe 1974 (Martin is at the door)

JC: As you recorded the two albums, did you ever tour outside the pubs?

MB: Yeah, we couldn’t wait to start doing different venues. Like any band, we had ambition. We wanted to be big. We didn’t wanna be a cult band just playing in pubs. I don’t think anybody does, not anybody when they’re starting out. Everybody wants to be really successful, so yeah we did, we started doing the next step up from doing pubs and small clubs would’ve been doing college gigs in England and you get some where you’d be opening for bigger acts and then you’d start to – once we got ourselves a record contract and we had an album out we were able to start to get a bit more known and we could play bigger venues, colleges, as I say, and then we got to tour around Europe and open for Lou Reed because Lou was on the same record label, which was RCA in that day, so we did that. So yes, we did, we did a lot of other stuff apart from the pubs, theaters and that kind of stuff, yeah.

JC: So after the two albums, what happened, like, why did Ducks come to an end?

MB: Well, after the two albums, after the second album, the bass player and the keyboard player, we didn’t have a keyboard player when we first started, we added him between the two albums, and it’s him and Nick got on very well, very simpatico musically and it was the keyboard player that wrote “Love’s Melody,” for example, so he had a real ear for Pop tunes and it was starting to just kind of splinter a little. There was kind of two camps within the band, so basically what happened was Nick and Andy, that’s the bass player and the keyboard player, left, and we got a new bass player and went back to being a four-piece. We made one more record but it wasn’t an album, we made an EP for a French label called Skydog and it was probably released on RCA as well, and the EP was called Jumpin’ and it had four tracks and we did a few more recordings, which have since been released on various compilations. Actually, since we’ve been playing again, everything we’ve ever done has now been released. There was an awful lot of stuff left over. Not a lot, but a reasonable amount of stuff left over with all that was B-sides that were never on any albums, so there are now several compilations and there’s some stuff that we’ve put out since we’ve been working again.

But getting back to the EP, after that we did a tour of Europe, and pretty much that would’ve been 1975, and by that point, the game was up and Sean wanted to do other stuff, I wanted to do other stuff. We did our last gig, the original band at the 100 Club, and that was sometime late spring/early summer, 1975. There was another band on that circuit called Brinsley Schwarz and they’d broken up about 4 or 5 months before us and their drummer, the original Ducks Deluxe drummer, then left as well and the Brinsley Schwarz drummer became Ducks Deluxe’s drummer. When Ducks Deluxe broke up, I got together with Brinsley Schwarz [himself] and Bob Andrews. We kind of started this band that became The Rumour.

We met up with bass player and drummer and we just played a big rehearsal scene. We had a lot of ideas about what we didn’t wanna do and not too many ideas about what we did want to do. I’m talking career-wise. We knew what kind of music we liked and then, by great big luck, we happened to cross paths with Graham Parker and he was a singer/songwriter who’d never done anything professional in need of a band and we were a band in need of a direction and focus, a full band but we didn’t write songs, so it was ideal and that’s kind of how that started. We got together in sort of ’75, late ’75, with a couple of little gigs and made – recorded our first Graham Parker album at the end of ’75, beginning of ’76, started, went out on a tour, first tour in February/March of ’76. [Although this show is in 1977, this version of “Silly Thing” captures Graham Parker and The Rumour in peak form. Click here to listen.]

Graham Parker and The Rumour(Martin at far right)

JC: The Rumour had two guitarists: you and Brinsley Schwarz. It’s only from listening to Ducks Deluxe that I can tell you whether it’s you playing lead or Brinsley playing lead.

MB: Brinsley played a lot more leads than I did on that. I was the kind of rhythm guitarist. I mean, I did play some leads and in fact one of the ones I did was one of the biggest numbers and I think it was probably the only that we never didn’t do at any gig ever was the song “Don’t Ask Me Questions.”

It also is the title of this documentary that’s been made about Graham.

JC: Yeah, I’ve heard about it from Graham’s website.

MB: Well, I mean it’s not been released yet but I’ve seen a blinking of it and it’s absolutely sensational. It’s really, really great. It’s 90 minutes long. It will be coming out in June, as a DVD release. It’s got a lot of people –including Bruce Springsteen – so it’s a kind of big deal. It’s great because it comes right up-to-date but there’s obviously a whole, at least half of it, is Graham Parker and The Rumour, and there’s wonderful TV appearances and live clips. I was interviewed in it as well and so was, as I said, Bruce Springsteen, Nick Lowe and all sorts of people.

JC: While, at the same time you were backing Graham, The Rumour was confident to do a couple of albums by yourself.

MB: We did three albums without Graham, two while we were still working with him. The first one was called Max. Do you know why it was called Max?

JC: Yes, I’ve heard it was referring to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and I heard the original cover story that you guys wanted to go to a billboard where they had Fleetwood Mac Rumours and take a spray can and cross out the “s” of Rumour, cross out Fleetwood and make an “x” over the “c” in Mac.

MB: Well you may be right. I had never heard that.

JC: I ’m thinking, “That would’ve been something and you guys would have sold more copies” because everyone remembers in our record store days when we still had album with covers to catch your attention. I am thinking that idea of you spraying out Rumours would catch a record store consumer’s eye, even those who know nothing about the band.

MB: [Laughter] Well, it would’ve been nice to have been able to have sold some by mistake with people thinking they were buying Rumours because the Fleetwood Mac album sold a shit load more than ours did, but, we weren’t the first one to do that. The first one to do that was Nick Lowe because he did an EP called Bowi. David Bowie had done an album called Low. So we thought to ourselves, “Well, okay, we’ll have a go at that as well.” Then the second one was called Frogs, Sprouts, Clogs and Krauts. Do you know what that means?

JC: Yes, because the Stiff CD’s liner notes explained it to me.

MB: They do, okay, yeah. That’s – it’s English slang for the European nationalities. Frogs are French, Krauts are Germans, Sprouts are Belgians, Brussels sprouts. Clogs, the Dutch. So, that was the second one and the last one we did – this is interesting – the last one we did around the time that we kind of stopped working with Graham and we did an album, it was called Purity of Essence. It was released on Stiff Records in Europe and a guy called Joe Boyd used to have a label called Hannibal.

JC: Right, I own the Hannibal release.

MB: Oh, okay, well, Joe wanted to release it in America and Dave Robinson, the head of Stiff Records, who was also our manager, so a conflict of interest there but, Dave said he had wanted £10,000.00. Right then Joe Boyd said, “Fuck you, we’ll record it again,” so, there’s two versions of that album.

The funny thing is that the second version, which was the one released in America, has three other songs stuck there and the performances are quite different. It’s much better; it’s a much better record than the English. What’s ironic, the English version is the only one that’s been released on CD in America by Gadfly Records who are based up in New England somewhere but this guy, John Howells, who runs Graham Parker’s website, he’s putting out the American version on his label, which is great because it is much better – it’s a much better record.

JC: What’s interesting when you compare the albums you did with Graham and the albums you did with yourself, you seem to be paralleling the musical direction of Graham’s. For instance, Graham has horns on Howlin’ Wind, Heat Treatment, and Stick to Me. You have horns on your first album Max. Graham gets rid of the horns on Squeezing Out Sparks, you get rid of the horns on Frogs, Sprouts, Clogs, and Krauts.

MB: Yes, we had horns on the road with us, we had the four-piece horn section for most – from May ’76 right the way through ‘til – ‘til Squeezing Out Sparks, which was ’79 and at that point, we’d dropped the horn section and got back to both sets and I think possibly one of the reasons why, in my opinion, Squeezing Out Sparks is by far and away the best thing we ever did, but I guess we were used to working with horns and so it seemed very natural when we made Max. Also, Max had the same producer as Heat Treatment and so it was pretty inevitable that there would be horns on it. By the time we got to the second Rumour album, Frogs, Sprouts, all that, there’s no horns there. Bob Andrews, the keyboard player, had got this very new and very expensive synthesizer keyboard thing, so there was a lot more electronic sounds. Thank God we never went completely turned into electronic because I never would’ve lived with myself.

JC: [Laughter]

MB: I hate that shit, I actually really do. I like guitars, basses and drums and a little bit of keyboards. Anything that’s done with the drum machine on that, I can’t stand it. But yes, so by the time we got to Frogs and Sprouts, the horns no longer seemed to be part of the musical landscape that we were working in, it was completely different. Our old producer had gone. We kind of produced it ourselves or maybe with the engineer, I can’t remember, exactly, but it has a very different sound to Max.

You know what, I never thought of this but I think you’re right, I said, if you look at the way the three Rumour albums developed, it kind of mirrors the way Graham’s albums changed as well. We started – started off sort of a bit more bigger arrangements and horns and everything and then stopped doing that and got back – by the time we did Squeezing Out Sparks and The Up Escalator with Graham, it’s very much guitars, bass, drums and keyboards. By Purity of Essence, we no longer had Bob, any keyboards there were added by Brinsley Schwarz and it was very much just a coloring than an actual proper keyboard part.

JC: Right, but also The Rumour were also playing with a lot of other people on Stiff as well. I mean, you weren’t just a backup band for Graham. I almost wonder how you got the time to do your albums, Graham’s, go on tour with Graham and get to do everybody else’s.

Martin(back) finds time to play with Huey Lewis (front and center) in Clover

MB: Well I mean, you know, Graham Parker, that was the first thing, that was top of the list. So albums with Graham or tours, TV appearances, whatever, that would’ve been Number 1 and we basically recorded a Rumour album when there was a period when there wasn’t going to be anything with Graham. Plus, you must remember that none of these albums, it’s not like some of the other records you hear about. The longest we ever took to make any record was two weeks.

JC: Really?!

MB: Yeah! There was none of this – I mean, I can’t believe it. I saw this documentary about Bruce Springsteen making Darkness on the Edge of Town.

JC: Right I saw that – part of it.

MB: It’s like he took over a period of about two years or something and I can’t imagine working on one album for that length. How you can keep any sort of objectivity when you’ve been doing it that long, and how you can stop getting bored to shit working on the same album for that long! We did two weeks, a week in the studio, maybe a week mixing.

JC: I remember Axl Rose – even though he called it Guns & Roses – he actually spent about 12 years on Chinese Democracy and everybody’s first reaction was, “You spent 12 years on that?!”

MB: I think that might have something to do with mind-altering substances. I can’t imagine any other reason to spend that long, with the exception of Beethoven. Beethoven spent about 10 years writing his only opera but that’s because he would write it, finish it, run it through and realize it wasn’t right again and he didn’t get it right until 10 or 12 years, but an opera is a lot more complex than a Pop album. I just can’t imagine it, and The Beatles spent a long time in the studio making Sergeant Pepper, but I think that was as much to do with the fact that they were having such a great time not touring. Bob Dylan, there’s a great example. He wouldn’t spend any time at all, you know? First take, second take, maybe, possibly then he’d move on from there, let’s leave that and move on to another song and go back to that one later. Very, very small boredom threshold. I appreciate that, I relate to that very, very much.

JC: OK, let’s talk about some of the people The Rumour found time to play with.

MB: There was a lot of great stuff going on at that time. The Rumour also did a whole load of tracks with a very famous, in England, Reggae singer called Desmond Dekker. The Rumour, including myself, had played on Nick Lowe’s first solo album that was over here in England called Jesus of Cool and I think in America it was called Pure Pop.

JC: Pure Pop for Now People, right.

MB: And the rest of The Rumour – but not me – played on Carlene Carter’s album.

JC: That was what I was about to ask you, how come you’re not on that?

MB: Because I was in America with Nick Lowe, doing – he was appearing at the CBS Convention and he wanted me to go along and Elvis & The Attractions were doing it as well and they were going to back him and he wanted me to come along and play guitar as well.

JC: I know you play on Elvis’ Live at the El Mocambo, I know that.

MB: Yeah, and I’m also on an album called Trust.

JC: On Trust, you and Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook were picked for the song “From A Whisper to a Scream.”

MB: Did Glenn co-write that with Elvis?

JC: I don’t know, he doesn’t share songwriter credit.

MB: I’m not sure if he did, but, for some reason, Elvis wanted his voice on it, Glenn’s voice on it plus also that they’ve done, I don’t know if it was before or after that album, Elvis & The Attractions plus Squeeze had done an American tour together, which I was there for two weeks or about two weeks because Steve Nieve, Elvis’ keyboard player, his missus was about to give birth and they sort of had to go away. I was to be the stand-in, not keyboards although I played with them before I’d done a European tour when Steve had been in a car wreck a day before the tour, rather than try and find a keyboard player, they got me because they knew me and they knew that I would just fit in guitar, bass and drums and it worked out great. [Here’s two tracks with Martin playing with Elvis & The Attractions, click here to hear “Waiting For The End Of The World” and here to hear “I Stand Accused.”]But, yeah, for some reason, he wanted Glenn’s singing on it and he wanted me to play on it but I’d only kinda playing like a heavy rhythm guitar on “A Whisper to a Scream.”

JC: Yeah I can hear it, that’s the thing.

MB: A Keith Richardsey-type of part, sort of, and so that’s kind of how I ended up doing that.

JC: Anyway, back to the Rumour: why did Bob leave?

MB: Well he didn’t leave, we fired him.

JC: Oh!

MB: But it was a different sort of personalities. It was a personality thing. It wasn’t a musical thing, particularly. He was not in a good state of mind at that time and this was 1979, we had a really, really big year, we’d done Squeezing out Sparks and a big English and European tour; we’d done a huge American tour. The album had got to Number 40 in the American charts, which is the highest we ever got, and it got the best reviews and the best reaction and, at that time, we were fantastic live on stage and we were just – we – very few acts could live with us if they were on the same bill in that period. Then later that same year we then went to Australia and New Zealand and it was in that leg of the tour, of the year, in Australia and New Zealand, where things kind of became untenable between the rest of us and Bob, so when we got back, that’s kind of how it is. I don’t really want to talk about it very much. When I recently saw Bob, he said, “You know, I was the only one that ever got fired,” and, you know, it’s not something that I really want to spend any time at all. A long time ago and what does it matter, you know?

JC: Yeah, I understand. Do you want to discuss why The Rumour eventually split from Graham?

MB: Yes, well it was Graham’s decision and we all did, he wanted. He’d been a critic’s darling, he’d been critically-lauded to the highest point, and live, we were an attraction, we were great live. There is a fantastic thing that’s up on YouTube with us doing Empty Lives, and it’s an incendiary performance. [Click here to watch the performance.] You also can get our last show on DVD. We didn’t know it was gonna be the last show we ever did but it was this big, massive TV show in Germany where they – it goes on all night, all night, it was broadcast by early satellite technology all around to all the other countries in Europe and it’s called Rockpalast, but it was never reflected in the record sales. The record sales, at the very best were just enough for a strong cult following, especially when you think that our contemporary was Elvis Costello & The Attractions. He was selling a lot more records than us and there’s lots of reasons and theories and explanations as to why that happened the way it did. It doesn’t really matter but with Graham we tried different producers. We tried with or without horns, we tried all these things and so the only thing left really to be tried was to do it without The Rumour and that’s kind of what he did. The bizarre thing I thought was that the first album he did without The Rumour, I think it was the one called Another Gray Area.

JC: Yeah, that’s the one, yes.

MB: And it sounds just like The Rumour, it’s not but it sounds … it sounds like studio musicians playing exactly the parts that The Rumour would play. As his solo albums went on, he got further away from that sound but I actually think some of his records that he’s made over the years have been as good as anything. Maybe not entire albums but certainly there are tracks that are just as great as anything right up to the last thing he did called “Snowgun,” which is a wonderful track.

JC: Well, it’s interesting that he would take on Brinsley and [Rumour bassist] Andrew Bodnar to accompany him.

MB: He took Brinsley and Andrew on as his stage band and I don’t know why that was. That was his decision and Brinsley and Andrew were more than happy to do it. Brinsley, I believe, co-produced one of Graham’s albums.

JC: Yes.

MB: But at some point Graham decided that that was no longer the right thing to do and more recently he’s actually done some stuff with [Rumour Drummer] Steve Goulding, who’s played on his stuff.

Graham came to England. This was a while ago and he doesn’t get out of America for a long time, he came to London about 10, 12 years ago, twice, and both times he asked me to get up and play with him. You know, Graham Parker and The Rumour had had their day and it was time to move on and that’s fair enough. It’s highly unusual for bands to stay together for a long time unless they’re hugely successful, and even then it’s not the same thing.

JC: Okay, back to The Rumour. What was going on without Graham?

MB: We had this third album we’d done, Purity of Essence, and we got hired by an American called Garland Jeffreys.

JC: Right, I’ve heard that live album you did with him, Rock’n’Roll Adult.

MB: Well in fact Steve and Andrew, drummer and bass player for The Rumour were hired to play on a studio album of Garland’s, which I can’t remember what it was called.

JC: Escape Artist.

MB: Okay, and then Garland wanted to go out on tour and he hired the whole band to back him, plus we got the opening slot to promote our own album, which was handy because we were getting paid by Garland so we were basically getting a free ride into a promotional tour from our album.

JC: Rock’n’Roll Adult is one of my favorite albums from the Rumour because it shows that the Rumour could be an incredible backup band not just with Graham but with other people as well. [Hear a sharp performance with Garland Jeffreys with The Rumour on “We The People” by clicking here.]

MB: The people in The Rumour were really, really good players, still are, hopefully. I know they are, you know, and I mean, you know, any decent group that knows their stuff and has a feeling for the music, that music that’s something that’s simpatico with, then there’s absolutely no reason that you shouldn’t be able to. Probably the best example of that is The Band. Look at that film The Last Waltz and all the different people they backed, never mind their own stuff. People as diverse as Dr. John and Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Muddy Waters and Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, and they are brilliant backing everybody because they know how to play with people, they know when not to and that’s – because that kind of thing you can only learn from being good at what you do and having done so for a long time, working with the same people for quite a long time.

JC: What happened after Garland?

MB: We did a whole European tour and then we did a whole American tour and then we broke up. [Laughter]

JC: What happened with the break-up?

MB: Well I guess after the Garland Jeffreys stuff, there was nowhere left to go, there was nothing to do, and I’d already got to know Carlene and she was bringing a band together, and I ended up being the guitarist in that band.

JC: Right.

MB: We worked with Carlene – worked with Carlene for about a year and a half, doing gigs, played on a bit of one album that she did. They’d already recorded most of it before I kind of hooked up with them and it was called Blue Nun, and then that band that was Carlene Carter’s, it was called Carlene Carter and the CC Riders, that band then basically became Nick Lowe’s band. Then Carlene and Nick were married, so once she finished, he kind of took that band and it was Paul Carrack, who’s a wonderful singer/songwriter in his own right and keyboard player, and a bass player called James Eller and Bobby Irwin on drums and myself on guitar, and that became Nick Lowe and his Noise to Go, and that was that, name of the band. A year or so later, James Eller the bass player left and we went back to bein’ a four-piece, and Nick went back to playing bass. It became Nick Lowe and the Cowboy Outfit and that band broke up at the end of 1985, I guess, having done – and the very genesis of that backing band, we’d done about four albums, four albums with them. [To watch a video of Nick Lowe and the Cowboy Outfit’s “Half A Boy And Half A Man”, click here. Notice in one scene, Martin is playing a lifeguard in the video.]

JC: Well, it seems like you did continue with Nick after The Cowboy Outfit.

MB: I played on one more album. It was called Pinker and Prouder than Previous. It was the next thing he did after the Cowboy Outfit were no longer being retained. He made this album and I came down and played guitar in the studio with him but I never did another gig with Nick and I never played on anything else after that. Yeah, so that’s brings us up to 1986.

JC: During that time, you got to play with Johnny Cash.

MB: Yes, I did get to play with Johnny Cash, and well that was through Carlene, obviously, and I played on an album that he recorded two tracks in London when Nick and Carlene were married. They lived in this house in West London where they bought the house from Tony Visconti and it had a little studio in it and it was like a three or four-story house. Outdoors, there was a studio and we actually recorded quite a lot of Nick’s stuff there, and this particular Christmas, Johnny and June came over to stay with them but they didn’t actually stay in the house with them. Maybe they stayed in a hotel but Johnny decided he would record a couple of tracks and one of them was Nick’s song, “Without Love,” and the other one was a George Jones that he bought a demo tape that George Jones had made and it was myself, Nick, Dave Edmunds, Pete Thomas, Elvis’ drummer, so that’s pretty much the people that were there that played on those two tracks. “Without Love” got released on an album that he did – that was about 1981, I believe, called Rockabilly Blues and that was a studio Columbia album and these, all those sort of big box compilation sets that have been released since he died. [To hear Johnny Cash’s “Without Love, click here.] The George Jones song, that – that was never released by Johnny Cash for his people but it was released as a bonus track on an Elvis Costello CD double-package release called Almost Blue, made in Nashville. There’s a second CD of live tracks and this and that and it took that Johnny Cash version of a George Jones song and added his own voices as a duet with Johnny and that’s available.

One of the greatest moments with my playing was the Carter Family. They were always part of the Johnny Cash stage show and at this particular time, Carlene, who was singing as part of the Carter family, Carlene, her mum, June, and June’s sisters, Anita & Helen, they were the Carter Family. Johnny Cash played at the Albert Hall in London, I’d done that and they booked their own gig in this club in West London called The Mean Fiddler, and it was on a Monday night, I remember, I was in a little line-up of people that played with the Carter Family on a handful of songs. One of the songs was just very strumming-the-acoustic-guitar-and-autoharp and there were some others. There was me, Pete Thomas and I can’t remember who was playing bass, but that was basically it. But on that show, on that club show, Johnny was there and he got up and sang a few songs, Nick Lowe who was there, he got up, Elvis was there and he got up and I don’t know if you know an English chap called Joe Brown.

JC: Oh no, I’m sorry, I don’t know a Joe Brown.

MB: Okay, well, he was of the earliest of the English Rock ‘N Rollers, you know, from the late ’60s and he’s really good, a great guitar player and plays mandolin and he’s survived all these years. He’s a really deep guy. So anyway, at one point, there is the Carter Family and us, the backing band, Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and Joe Brown all on the stage at the same time in this club and the club is half-full.

JC: I don’t get it. How could the club not be full?

MB: Monday night. Where are you going to ever get to see – to be that close to Johnny Cash and the other people? It was just a fantastic night. Johnny Cash in England, you would see him at a big theater, at the Albert Hall and a Festival, whatever, you would see him in that atmosphere, so that was a fantastic time, yeah, and I love Johnny Cash, I love his music. Most of the bands I play in now, because I play in four or five different bands and a lot of it’s kind of Country-type stuff, and I tend to sing two or three Johnny Cash songs.

JC: You also got to play with Carl Perkins, as I understood.

MB: Carl Perkins and George Harrison.

Martin standing between legends Carl Perkins and George Harrison

JC: Wow!!

MB: Carl Perkins was hired to play the Hard Rock CafĂ©. It was like ’92, ’93, something like that, it was the 20th or 25th anniversary and so what they did is they hired Carl Perkins to do a show in each one of their – one in London, one in Tokyo, one in Berlin, or wherever it was, I don’t know where the others were and in each town he would have a different, somebody would organize a different backing band.

When he played in London, I was one of the people, along with Bobby Irwin, the drummer, Paul Riley, the bass player, and Geraint Watkins on keyboards, we were hired to be his backing band and, not surprisingly, George Harrison showed up, a big Carl Perkins fan, so at a certain point in the evening, I find myself on stage standing between Carl Perkins and George Harrison.

JC: Again, wow, Carl Perkins and George Harrison.

MB: No, it’s something. It’s enough to be standing next to Carl Perkins, who is the man who wrote Blue Suede Shoes, but standing next to George Harrison, that takes it to another level. I mean, I love George Harrison as a guitar player, I always listened to him, he was one of my favorite guitar players. He was one of the best guitar players at the time because he plays exactly the way I think guitar players should, which is to watch what’s going on with each song but, anyway, there’s something about meeting or being in the company of a Beatle that is – whether you like them or not, it makes no difference, it’s – there’s a certain surrealness to it.

JC: Right.

MB: There’s only one other person I ever had the good fortune to meet that I can place in that same category: I met Mohammad Ali.

JC: Oh really? Wow!

MB: Now he’s – that’s the same with him.

JC: Yeah, because I’m a boxing fan.

MB: People, whatever they’ve done, whatever area they’ve been in, or whatever they’ve done, there’s something about them that sums up charisma, aura, it’s like they’re from different planet.

JC: Okay, now you do two – you do two solo albums right after your periods with Nick Lowe.

MB: They’re not right after Nick Lowe, this is a long time later.

JC: Okay, then what happened in between, before those two?

MB: Well, after I finished working with Nick Lowe, the next band I joined was this English guy called Hank Wangford, and he’s like one of these oldest-established Country Music enthusiasts. He’s very much into Country Music but, you know, the real Country Music, the George Jones, the Ernest Tubbs, the Willie Nelsons, the Hank Williams, that side of it, not what’s coming out of Nashville today. [To hear Martin playing with Hank, click here.]

JC: Yeah, I know [Laughter].

MB: Hank’s had a band, on and off, since the early ‘80s. I joined his band in ’87 and I still play with him now, so, in actual fact, I’ve worked with him longer than anybody else. It’s kind of fairly small-time, in a sort of cult sort of way, we do small theaters, clubs, pubs and festivals. Around about that same time, there’s an offshoot band called the Tex Pistols, which is, again, a Country band. Pete Thomas from Elvis Costello’s band is playing in it. We have a residency at a Tex-Mex restaurant in London, a lot of covers, basically, Country and R&B, I guess, leaning towards Country, and then this goes right through and I work – do a couple of albums with Hank, and then in 1995, I get the chance to make my own album. Because I can’t write songs, I can’t write words, but I can come up with a reasonably good tune.

JC: That’s interesting, because you’re credited for lyrics for a song that appears on both Ducks Deluxe and Rumour’s Max, “Something’s Going On.”

MB: That’s right, yeah. Well, that’s not a bad song. I did actually write the words, but I still don’t think the words are very good.

But this album I made in ’94 or ’95 was called Big Guitar and it’s basically instrumentals. There’s about three vocals, there’s about three songs on it, but mostly it’s instrumentals and it’s mostly played on a baritone guitar, which is like a big chiming-sounding guitar and that was released over here on Demon Records. Then, about two years ago, I did this album called The Guest List, which, basically, each track was so – I got all the singers that I’d ever worked with to each come and sing a track and I got everybody I worked with except two people. One because we could never – never get the schedules right, that was Elvis Costello and the other one was John Hiatt that I’d worked with and he just never replied to anything, any communication at all. That was very weird. It’s got Carlene [You can hear a minute sample of Carlene’s beautiful singing of her mother’s “Tall Lover Man” with Martin providing some soulful guitar lines by clicking here.], it’s got Paul Carrack, it’s got Nick Lowe, it’s got Graham Parker, it’s got – it’s a really good record, and I did that two years ago and it’s kind of still current. It’s an album of covers because I wanted – because some of those people are songwriters of some kind. I didn’t think it would be right to do new songs, new original songs. I thought we should do covers and the choices were either mine or the artists but I’m really pleased with the way that turned out. It’s a really good record. At the same time, there’s another Country-type band, more of a Western Swing Jazzy-type band, called Los Pistoleros [Hear Los Pistoleros cover Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” by clicking here.] that I’m involved with.

JC: At the same time, you found time to reunite with Graham Parker and The Rumour as well as Ducks Deluxe. Let’s talk about Graham and the Rumour first.

MB: The thing was, it was to do with the screening of this documentary about Graham Parker. Steve Goulding, the drummer, who lives in New York, he knew the guy who owns this little pub, this little bar, called The Lakeside Lounge. And he had somebody booked to play, like the half-past-nine slot and Steve said, “Well could we just come in and do a little set at about at 7:00 p.m.?” and he said, “Sure,” and it was just supposed to be really low-key and it was just for our own enjoyment – me, Steve, Bob Andrews, a great bass player called Jeremy Chatzky, who played with Springsteen on the Seeger Sessions. He’s really good, he’s a friend of Steve’s and Graham.

Word got out about this gig. We didn’t advertise it, it was kept really low-key, and word got out and of course the place was just bursting at the seams. There was no stage, you just played in the corner of the room. A big glass window next to where you played, which looked out onto the pavement, at the time, and the pavement was full of people as well. It was bizarre, and it was great fun and it was filmed, by the way, as well. I got some amateur film bit but the actual people that made the video, the film about Graham, the whole show as well and we did some – we did a load of covers that Bob sung and then Graham came up and we did a whole load of shit with Graham.

We did three of his early songs. We did “White Honey”[To hear “White Honey” played by the reunited Graham and Rumour, click here.], “Lady Doctor” and “Fool’s Gold”. We did a more recent song of his called “It’s My Party”. We did a song from my last album, a cover of “In the Midnight Hour” and we just did a few things and we finished with “I Love The Sound of Breaking Glass” because Steve Goulding co-wrote that with Nick Lowe and Bob Andrews played the mad piano on that. It was a fantastic night and we all got on really well, and it was that, but then there was the screening and then we had this big dinner.

JC: Well, what was interesting is Brinsley and Andrew, who later did accompany Graham on some later albums, weren’t there. That was what I found a little peculiar, you know?

MB: Yeah, but that was their choice. It wasn’t that they weren’t invited. The people – the producers of the movie – invited all of the people that live in England, the price of the airfare and two nights in a hotel. Well, Andrew couldn’t do it because he had work commitments. He’d just been promoted in this job. He’s a librarian now and he couldn’t do it, just couldn’t even, like, four days off, and Brinsley couldn’t do it because he can’t fly for a start. He has a medical condition, so that’s why those two weren’t there.

You know the gig was never called Graham Parker & The Rumour, it was called Kippington Lodge Social Club. Kippington Lodge was the name of the Brinsley Schwarz band before they changed it to Brinsley Schwarz, so it was just a name that somebody picked out of the air and it was fantastic, it was great. It was so funny, we were having a great time, me and Bob and Steve and Jeremy, we did songs that I do with some of the bands I’ve been playing with, which happen to be Johnny Cash songs and Bob did some of his R&B stuff. We did a couple of – well, all of the oldies. I think Graham got up and he played on a couple of covers with us and then when we did his songs, it was so bizarre because – I was talking to Bob afterwards – we all sort of went click and went into a, “Ahh, this is Graham, great” and then suddenly we were back on playing-behind-Graham mode.

It was remarkable, it was absolutely remarkable. It was great. It was really, really enjoyable couple of days, last October.

JC: OK, how did Ducks Deluxe reunite?

MB: Yeah, like the phoenix from the flames. What happened was – what year was it, 2007? This American Guy, he’s a Pub Rock fanatic, his email address is pubrockville because he lives in Rockville, Maryland, but he’s a fanatic. Anyway, he got in touch with me and said, “How much would you want to do a Ducks Deluxe gig if I organized one in London?” and I gave him a price, just for myself, and then he phoned Sean and asked him the same question and, funnily enough, Sean came with same price I did and he said, “Fine.” He hired the 100 Club and paid for us to have 2 days’ rehearsal at a rehearsal studio. He got me, Sean and the last bass player from the original band, who is really great.

Billy Rankin, who is the last drummer we had, he was in the Brinsley Schwarz band and we did this gig at the 100 Club and it went great, it was a lot of people, it was very full, a lot of people really enjoyed it. It was a great time, very nostalgic and everything and there was plenty of mistakes and just like a Ducks Deluxe gig from the old days, there were always plenty of mistakes. Then, for some reason, out of this one gig we started getting approaches from people around Europe. We ended up doing a festival in Spain and – and we did something outside of Paris, in France, and for the last three years, we have been going – doing an annual tour of Sweden. I mean Ducks Deluxe, we are doing a few gigs here and there and doing little tours around Europe, sometimes in places we didn’t play the first time round, so it’s kind of weird but it’s good, it’s great to have that extra source of income.

This year, we’re going next month in May and we’ll continue, doing one in May and one in November. Last year, not last year, in 2009, we did a week in Monte Carlo. It’s very, very strange. Now we’ve got a different bass player and drummer to the ones that did the 100 Club gig. The bass player and the drummer are bass players that I’ve played with in a lot of those other bands and they’re very, very good and there’s plenty of video evidence of the current Ducks Deluxe lineup up on YouTube from Sweden [To hear the reunited Ducks Deluxe play “Daddy Put The Bomp”, click here.] and there’s tracks up there and you can find them on my MySpace, Reverb Nation page or whatever. It’s a really, really good band again and we’ve got new songs.

We did a – we recorded five new songs of Sean’s plus a cover of “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” you know, the Bob Dylan song?

JC: Yes.

MB: We’ve released that as a six-track CD and that’s the first time we went to Sweden, and then the second tour of Sweden we put out this compilation called Side Tracks & Smokers, which had a mixture of various rough mixes from the first Ducks Deluxe album, some B-sides that were never available before and a new song that we recorded in Sweden, which is a cover of another Bob Dylan song, called “A Simple Twist of Fate.”

JC: Yes, I know that one.

MB: We’ve done it with a Reggae beat and it’s very good, it’s very interesting, and some live stuff in Monte Carlo and this year we’ve got another one coming up, which is more live stuff, some from Monte Carlo, some from Sweden so we – you know Sweden is a funny country. It’s a very big country and there’s a lot of snow there when we go in March, which is the time of year we’ve been going, and there’s towns in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the forest, you turn up in this town and there’s a bar that has live music, but part of the thing is that there’s a very good promoter there who’s very into that kind of music who organizes it all and who supplies us with all our back line. We can take our guitars so there’s no hassle, you know, just get on an airplane and then we get driven around get some gigs.

The main thing is to have solid gigs, that’s the main reason. We do a different t-shirt for each tour.

JC: How’s it feel now, after a band that started as cult, now getting to play bigger venues?

MB: Well, it’s not really bigger, they’re still kind of the same kind of places that we would’ve played in. They’re clubs and bars.

JC: But I guess what I’m saying is you’re playing more venues now. After 30 or 40 years, there’s still more demand to hear some of that Pub Rock again.

MB: Yeah, I think there’s a certain attraction that grows relative to the amount of time that’s past, when something’s first started. I think people who were fans of Ducks Deluxe in the first place or people who saw Ducks Deluxe or who were around at that time, after a certain amount of time, the memory gets better. You don’t remember the sort of the worst things about it, you just remember the good things about it and that’s, basically, what nostalgia is, so, yes, there is that, and then we come along and we’re playing songs that they remember plus some new stuff and it is strange to be back doing these songs again but in a way it’s kind of different. The funny thing is they don’t sound dated.

I guess because it’s just pretty much straight-ahead kind of Rock ‘N Roll, which, for me, has never been dated. It might sound dated to somebody of the electronic generation of the ’90s, but to me it just sounds like Rock ‘N Roll, it sounds like what I’ve always been playing and, I mean, basically, I’ve always played the same kind of music. Sometimes it’s a bit more Country and sometimes it’s a bit more R&B and sometimes it’s a bit more Rock ‘N Roll but, basically, it’s a very, very fine distinction between – and sometimes it’s Graham Parker’s songs and sometimes it’s Nick Lowe’s songs. Basically you won’t find me playing Heavy Metal music or any Hip-Hop or anything like that.

JC: Right.

MB: My musical life has always been within that sort of Rock ‘N Roll area, which is quite a large area. There’s quite a lot of – I’ve done several gigs, as well with people, which you could probably say were maybe more Folky, but to me it’s more about if it’s a good song, good rhythm, good singers and I find a good guitar part that works for the song.


Will Birch said...

A fascinating interview with Martin. I had the pleasure of attending the 'Kippington Lodge' / GP Lakeside Lounge show and it was a great evening. I never knew Martin shared a stage with Carl Perkins and George Harrison - 'wow' indeed.

lou said...

yes, it's a great read ; I didn't have the pleasure to be at the Kippington Lodge shows, but two years ago I was mad at missing so many good gigs, so I took the train from Dijon, France, to London, to attend the Guest List launch gig, and it was really great. I was with my daughter and Martin welcomed us warmly, I could talk with some of my heroes, great great, so I'm less sad to have missed all the other good ones (or the next good ones !)
thank you Martin for everything

Unknown said...

Great to hear all about this stuff after so many years; have never fell out of love with GP & The Rumour, their music has been a constant throughout my life - I hope that doesn't make me sad? Wonderful to hear about such a fulfilling musical career...

RayL said...

For the launch of 'Big Guitar' in 1995 there was a gig laid on at a club in Highbury, North London which I attended. I'd not heard of Martin before, but ever since that album has been a big favourite (I like instrumentals).