Text by John Morace, with Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet
Interview © 1980; RBF intro and epilogue © 2010 by FFanzeen
The following article/interview with British guitar legend Chris Spedding was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #6, in 1980. It mostly conducted by John Morace, and I was there throwing a few questions as well (the one’s I am positive are mine, I’ve indicated). The “new” album to which he is referring is I’m Not Like Everybody Else (1980). Further notes that have been added to the article by me now are asterisked. – RBF, 2010
Chris Spedding: Have you seen that Marlon Brando thing in Playboy? One of the better things he said was you can’t smile in print. Quite often when I do interviews, I say things and I mean them in sort of a funny way. And in black and white, it looks as if it’s a bit dry. If it’s about somebody, it could sound like you’re really putting them down. I’ll say, “Did I really say that?” And I might have, but with a grin on me face…You can always put laughs in parentheses.
FFanzeen: What’s the news about your new solo album?
Spedding: Yeah, I finished it. It’s done. Now I’m going over to England to produce an album for Snips, who used to sing in the Sharks. You remember the Sharks?
FF [RBF]: Yeah, I saw them open for Roxy Music at the Academy of Music, now the Palladium. I remember Busta “Cherry” Jones playing bass on the left side of stage. I still have some slides of it somewhere… Is your album going to be released in America?
Spedding: No, not as yet. We’re working on it. Same label as my last here, RAK. Yeah, I want it to come out in America. If everybody goes crazy over it – obviously, people are going to pick it up… For some reason, people just don’t understand my solo stuff in America. The stuff I have done with other people has been distributed; my other stuff has been imports. I’ve found a lot of people can’t quite get it together when they hear what I do, on my own banner. There is my name on the front of the album instead of small print on the back. It’s like, if somebody heard what I did with Bryan Ferry, and then they hear something of mine, they might have liked what I did with them, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to like what I’ve done by myself. And then they are surprised I didn’t sound like what I did with Bryan Ferry. How can it? I get that sort of problem. People think I’m not consistent in what I do with my own solo stuff. But if you listen to just my solo albums though, you’ll be able to follow a certain consistency. But obviously, if you think, “Well, he did this album, then he went and played with Bryan Ferry, then he went and played with John Cale, and then…,” if you look at it like that, of course I don’t appear to be consistent. Well, why should I if I’m just playing around. So that’s a problem.
FF: When you play with different artists, do you try to gear what you do to what they want? How do you perceive that playing situation?
Spedding: I just go play music.
FF: Are there arrangements?
Spedding: No, they probably got hold of me because they thought I would fit in with them. They would hide me if they thought I didn’t fit in. I always play the same stuff [smile]. I play the same lick in the morning with Petula Clark as in the evening with John Cale. (The licks) sound totally different. I don’t know why everybody thinks I’m so “versatile.” I have the same sound, same amp, same setting, same – I just do it. And if they hadn’t thought that I’d fit in with it, then it’s their fault for aksing me to do it, isn’t it? I susally get asked to do stuff because people have heard what I do and think I would fit in. So, I don’t know wher all that “versatility” stuff comes in, really. That’s a myth. It’s something you could fill a few column inches with, but it’s actually a myth. I really don’t want to subscribe to it… What I always try to ask people is, “Why do you want to interview me?”
FF: Because I think there are a lot of fans who are curious to know “what the make is like”… And I see so many musicians who have respect for you.
Spedding: Well, I’ve been out on the road in America, and I’ve seen people relate to me; not with respect, but people who can actually respond to me in the way I set out for people to respond to me. And it’s not respect for a great session guitar player, which I never really – the lousy thing sort of creeps up on you, you know? They just listen to the song and they don’t expect loads of flashy guitar, and they are just ordinary people that go out and buy records. And they are not critics or musicians. I see that it’s a small group, but it’s growing. People buy records of mine; they must. I don’t know the figures, but I do get a check now and then, which means that there must be somebody out there – not in the recording business who’s getting freebies – buying records, so I think your view of it is narrow.
FF: Well, the difference in your popularity in England and America probably has something to do with the import prices here, which are usually quite high. .
Spedding: Well, actually, that fosters a heavy cult thing, which I don’t have in England. My records are too readily available in England and I’m sort of like a part of the scenery. Over here, I’m not. In a way, it’s a bit of an advantage to start out, because those people that do pay that extra money for those records are staunch fans. I’ve actually signed album covers that I’ve totally forgotten about, of other artists whose names I can’t even remember. These fans have got almost everything I’ve done. Those are the sort of fans that I meet that you wouldn’t meet. So I know I have a following.
FF: You said you were “starting out” now in America. Does that mean you’ve made the move here?
Spedding: Yes, and primarily because my records haven’t been released here. Hopefully, I’ll generate the atmosphere wher people will want to release my records here. I’d like my records released here because I believe my records could be received quite well here. Simple as that… I like New York anyway – and I got fed-up with London.
FF: You’re moving into production now?
Spedding: Yeah, I consciously didn’t get into that before, because people used to think of me doing just anything that came along. And I consciously didn’t do anything that came along for a long time; to try to make people think otherwise. But people still think I’m just a session guy – you know, “Call ‘em up.” That seems to be the sort of, like, people who want to pass me off – like, “Oh, yeah, Spedding is just an old hack.” People still thought that. And when I was wit the group, and when I gave up the idea of being on the road with the Necessaries, I thought, why not go back and do all the things I know I have the experience to do, and that I’ve always wanted to do, and know that I could do well? Why should I not do them just because I don’t want people to think I do loads of different things? Because the myth of the rock star is that he’s just got to do this, and that’s it. People just want to narrow you down. Why should I do that, if I can do all these other things, and I enjoy them, and I don’t like sitting at home idle? Why the hell shouldn’t I? Too bad for everybody who’s making music. Make more music that way than making my own music. And I get input from a lot more people, and the richer my musical would becomes. It can’t be bad.
FF: Besides the album for Snips, who specifically are you going to be working with?
Spedding: A few, but nothing has been firmed up or fixed, so it really might be premature for me to mention people that I might be working with. But discussion is up for other people I might be working with, if and when I’m free. I’m going to be quite busy with the release of my album. If something remarkable happens, I’ve got to be around to do promotion and interviews in England. Consequently, I’m not booking myself up too much, but there are a few things on the horizon I could get into.
FF: If the album were to take off, as it might have potential to do, what kind of band would you put together to support that album?
Spedding: Well, if the album takes off, I don’t need to support it, do I?
FF: But would you put a live act together?
Spedding: Quite possibly. I might do something with Snips, ‘cause I’m working with him in October. It hasn’t been fixed up yet, so this is a vague sort of rumor, you could say. But he might come here, to New York, around New Year's, and we might do some dates together. But I’d not put together any lengthy tour. There’s something wrong in the music business when they’ll assume you’ll lose money on a tour. I’m not going to go out on tour until I know I’m going to make money. I don’t think rock bands should be in existence to make money for PR companies and roadies. They’re the ones making money… (with their) myth building and everything… I don’t really think of what I’m doing as rock at all, because it seems to be such a stale term. It’s not become our music; it’s something (for which) you have to “keep [the flame burning.” Rock’n’roll lives in (that flame) and pop music and disco is not in it at all. It’s like rock music s something we have to protect and look after. Which is all a lot of rubbish. As soon as you say that, the ting is dead. That’s what happened to jazz as soon as they started saying that. Any sort of music, as soon as you start to say that, as soon as it becomes frozen in amber, as it were – this is rock-this is not rock – the thing has stopped breathing. Pop music, you’re always safe with that, because pop music is always pop music. And when rock’n’roll was pop music, we were safe. When rock’n’roll stopped being pop music and started to be something you intellectualized about, and something you could write a thesis about, you’re sunk. It’s stopped developing – it’s become something you can actually look at. You’re not safe anymore.
FF [RBF]: In the book After the Ball, Ian Witcomb said that the Beatles killed rock’n’roll as pop music because they were so gimmicky.
Spedding: Yeah. Not themselves, but everybody else allowed it to happen, I suppose. They probably thought they were doing the right thing. I certainly did at the time, but it’s become so self-consdcious now. New Wave is just a very self-consious arty way to try to rescue that kind of exciement. It’s not reaching people in the street at all.
FF [RBF]: Music in ’75, in New York, when it was just known as “Underground” music, was played for enjoyment, not record contracts.
Spedding: If you see what rock’n’roll was, it (was) really a revolutionary music, and now it’s not revolutionary. Rock’n’roll is just like the establishment now. It was changing things in the ‘50s.
FF: Well, I think it is revolutionary now, like Gang of Four, the Clash …
Spedding: Well, it’s so self-conscious now. Then, they didn’t know what they were doing. Elvis didn’t know what he was doing. He just wanted to be like Dean Martin. You’ve read that Jerry Hopkins book*. It said he knew every Dean Martin tune. Have you heard Dean Martin’s “Dreams Are Made of This”?... Then you listen to “Don’t be Cruel.” That’s all the guy wanted to do. He wants to be like Dean Martin. He didn’t give a shit about rock’n’roll. (When) he did “That’s Alright Mama,” some critic said, “This is not rock’n’roll, this is not country and western, this is pop.” That’s what he wanted to do. When you take this Dean Martin fixation a stage further… you can say this was his “motive force.” That’s why he made those silly films; that’s why he went to Las Vegas… everything.
FF: I read that the guy who signed Elvis to Sun said that he was looking for a white boy who could sing like a black boy. **
Spedding: Yeah, that’s the rock’n’roll myth. The truth was he wanted to be like Dean Martin. He didn’t single-handedly create rock’n’roll; he didn’t know what he was doing. He couldn’t wait to get away from all those rockabilly cat things and get into “Don’t Be Cruel” and those sorts of things. That was his favorite record, right? So that hypothesis holds quite a lot of water to me. Sure it’s a silly idea, but it’s more appealing to me than the rock’n’roll myth. Elvis didn’t know what he was doing, and builds on it. Obviously, the public needs this myth. It sells papers. But when somebody is like me, involved in the real nitty-gritty of the thing, I find it difficult to talk to people who are insistent on this myth.
FF: What influences are on your album?
Spedding: My album is pop. All my albums have been an attempt at pop. Some of them might have been a bit obscure, but the fire one definitely was. This new one is produced by Mickey Most, the same as the first one ***. They are all songs – sun and played the best I can – pop songs. I don’t want to lay any trips on anybody, or philosophize. I just want to entertain people.
FF: Before the interview, you were commenting on how you get asked the same questions. What kind of questions do you like, as it seems we are having trouble thinking of original ones?
Spedding: I always favor frivolous questions in an interview. New York Rocker did something once on me and I had Lydia Lunch and Anya Philips come down to interview me, and they asked the most frivolous questions. They were taking photographs of me boots and shoes and were asking was I a leather queen and stuff like that. Totally weird questions. I really enjoyed it. They went back to New York Rocker and they said that’s not quite what they were looking for. And then they send Richie Graybel along, who asked all the questions you would expect anybody to ask, and it was a carbon copy of other interviews, where all the same questions got asked. Actually, I saved him from that. I showed him one of these other interviews and he had asked exactly the same questions. So ewe managed to rescue ourselves from that situation. Actually, Interview is much more entertaining – big pictures and sunny quotes under them.
FF: Did you ever do anything like painting…?”
Spedding: Well, I used to do art. I could have done art I suppose; or writing. Journalism or something.
FF: What other instruments do you play?
Spedding: Oh, I sort of mess around on bass, keyboards – stuff like that.
Spedding: No. I played a b it of violin when I was really young, but I don’t have one now. And I can’t really play it except for a few weird noises.
FF: What did you listen to as a child?
Spedding: My mother. No, there wasn’t much pop music going on. It was all classical music until I was about 13, when I discovered rock’n’roll. I think that was about when rock’n’roll hit England.
FF: What was the first record you ever bought?
Spedding: Um, Lonnie Donnegan. Oh, he was a very big influence in England. Skiffle stuff. I used to buy all his records. These were 78s we used to buy. I think the first one was “Oh Boy” by the Crickets. And “Good Golly Miss Molly” by Little Richard. And a few Elvis things. There was “Jailhouse Rock.”
FF: Skiffle was really big.
Spedding: Yeah. I used to play all that stuff.
FF: Skiffle never made it to America.
Spedding: No, It couldn’t really. It’s too English, I suppose. But it’s the movement that gave birth to all the Beat groups in the ‘60s, like the Beatles and the Stones, and all that. Everybody who was the least bit musical used to thrash about to that.
FF: When did you first move to London?
Spedding: About 1961 or ‘2.
FF: Was it a big change for you?
Spedding: Well, yeah. I was in school before that. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do at that time and I was going through my own esoteric playing phase. I was listening to a lot of stuff I previously thought was better than pop music. I was pretty bigoted, I supposed. I got over that and went back to the first thing that turned me on.
FF: Did you ever get pulled back into a different kind of music, outside of pop?
Spedding: Well, pop is everything. Rock limits things.
FF: What about jazz?
Spedding: It was very important to my development. But it was really backwater – I never did anything with it. I was just messing around without any direction. Nothing really exciting was happening in the jazz world until the Beatles started. Then I sort of woke up and started getting into it again. When I started getting into pop-rock, if you like, then I started getting a reputation as a jazz musician, because I made an album with a jazz-rock group, Nucleus. I was supposed to be the “rock element” in the jazz group. I was able to understand their point of reference, unlike most other rock guitarists because of (my) jazz phase. And it was really strange. All I did was play the most boring sort of clichéd riffs – and they’re all so naïve, these jazz musicians; they’d never heard them. You could play the most boring cliché and they’d get all knocked out because they’d never heard it before. It’s really quite dangerous to live in such a musical backwater as this. As soon as Miles Davis started added electrical bass and rock rhythm sections, the whole thing became static. Rock form, with him embellishing things on the top. He stopped being what he was doing before. I won’t listen to that. I would rather listen to Sly Stone do it than Miles Davis. So jazz just totally stopped. It stopped developing altogether. So I just switched to the music that was happening for me.
FF: Doesn’t every type of music become stagnant after a while?
Spedding: Yeah, but it doesn’t mean I’ve got to get stagnant as well, does it?
2010 conclusion: While I have heard other people since saying what a nice guy he is and a joy to work with, I found him to be irritable and, well, depressing. John and I walked out and basically our conversation centered around “What the hell was that?” Mind you, we were not super prepared as his records were hard to come by (and, is stated in the interview, quite expensive), but he was quite morose in tone and really did not want to be there. He was grumbling before the interview, during it, and after. Lately he has been working with Robert Gordon and the reformed Roxy Music. Hopefully, he found some happiness in his work, and he should, for he truly is a talented musician.
* The Jerry Hopkins book to which he was referring is Elvis: A Biography (Simon & Schuster, New York), 1971.
** This has been attributed to Sam Phillips.
*** Chris Spedding, 1975.
Solo Discography: http://www.discogs.com/artist/Chris+Spedding
Further info: http://www.chrisspedding.com