Guitarist Chris Spedding Talks Bryan Ferry Tour & Six Decades Of Rockin’ (INTERVIEW)

Just three shows into Bryan Ferry’s new tour, the atmosphere backstage was quite giddy in New Orleans. There was singing in the halls, laughter, the vibe of excitement that always comes with the early days of a brand new tour. But for guitar player Chris Spedding, he was cool as a cucumber, having done this since the sixties. One of rock & roll’s quiet guys, he’s been content to do what he does and leave the six-string acrobatics and onstage antics to other guys who love the attention.

It’s not that he hasn’t had plenty of opportunities. He was there in the early days of the Sex Pistols, producing their first demo; he was in New York City when CBGBs was the church of the new punk sound with the Ramones and Blondie; his band Battered Ornaments opened for the Rolling Stones at their infamous 1969 Hyde Park concert following the death of Brian Jones; he was a sought after session musician; played Jazz and avoided the blues when the blues was the thing to play; he even had a hit record of his own with a tune called “Motor Bikin’” that merged punk and Duane Eddy with a British sneer.

Born and raised in England, Spedding first met Bryan Ferry when his band with Free’s Andy Fraser, Sharks, was opening for Roxy Music in the early 1970’s. Their relationship has continued over the years with Spedding playing not only on some of his tours but recording with him as well.

Glide had the opportunity to have a quick chat with Spedding before his show in New Orleans a few weeks ago to talk about his collaborations with Ferry, his love of improvisation, his non-desire for playing violin and what he first saw in the Sex Pistols.

When you were in the Sharks you toured with Roxy Music so your musical relationship with Bryan Ferry goes very far back.

Yes, that’s how I got to know the Roxy people and Bryan, in 1972, I think. I played with Brian Eno. A lot of that band [Roxy Music] played on Eno’s first album, Here Come The Warm Jets. And I’ve known Steve Parsons of the Sharks since then. We’ve been collaborating since then on various things and we decided we’d like to put the group together again about a year ago and we did another album, which just came out.

And you just did some shows recently

We did some in London and a few places near. We did the 100 Club and the Borderline, two clubs in London, and we did the album, which got quite well-received by the critics.

Sharks was the band Andy Fraser had started after he left Free and today is actually the anniversary of his death.

Oh is it? I didn’t realize that. We got together again a year or two before he died. I did a tour with one of his artists on his label called Tobi and I did an album of my own called Joyland, where Andy played on a track, so that was kind of a reconciliation after all these years. It was a track Steve Parsons and I had written and Andy played on it, so at least three ex-Sharks got together again for that one track on the album.

Why do you think that band didn’t take off? It was a really good, bluesy sounding band.

Yes, we wondered why but it’s difficult to say why it didn’t happen. We don’t know why. We just keep doing it every now and then and maybe it will click again. But we got the new album out and quite pleased with it, the Sharks album, and the album before that of mine, the Joyland album, Steve Parson produced that, so that was almost on the way to being a Sharks album. On the Joyland album we had guests. Bryan Ferry sang on a track, Johnny Marr played guitar, various people like that.

When did you know Bryan was going to do this tour?

I got a call a few months ago, I think maybe October, asking me if I was free and I was delighted to come do it cause I’d worked with Bryan in the year 2000 when Roxy got together again, the Roxy Reunion tour, and then I stayed working with him until 2012. So I just had a five year respite between guitar playing and it’s good to be back again.

What do you think it is about his music that people love so much?

Well, his music never really followed any fashions. He more or less creates them. A lot of people copy Roxy Music and Bryan’s and that’s why he’s still around. But we don’t always know why this happens. It’s up to you, the writers who write about it, to figure all that out. I can’t tell you why or how and I don’t think Bryan would either. He just does his music and he has a very individual way of doing it. I’ve worked with lots and lots of different artists and Bryan is very individual and unique in the way he puts his music together. He definitely knows when we do an old song of his and it’s not quite right. He’ll tell you some little detail that completely escapes you but he knew it, knew it was in there, and we weren’t doing it right. He knows his music and he knows how to get it over so that’s something to watch.

Did you have to change your guitar playing style much when you came into the band?

Well, what Bryan does, he chooses people that he thinks will play his music properly. So when he asked me to play, I know there is something about what I do that fits what he does. I know there are certain things I do that he likes so I get to learn what that is. It’s not him coming and saying, “Okay, you’re going to play my music and forget about what you do.” It’s not that at all. He sees something in what I do, or did back in 1973 or 1974, when I first worked with him on the Let’s Stick Together album. He saw something in me that, Oh, I can use that, he can come and play my music cause he’ll understand it, I won’t have to say anything, you know. In the studio, he doesn’t actually say that much to you. He’ll let you be free to express yourself and he either likes it or he doesn’t like it but if he likes it, there it is. He doesn’t get all obsessed about everything. He either likes it or he doesn’t like it, which means you’re free and easy to do whatever you want.

Does that make it easier or harder on you?

Sometimes it’s harder. Sometimes it’s good to get direction. But you know, it’s a symbiotic thing. We kind of know what his music is, it’s been established, and we know what won’t fit or what won’t work. And he’s only got to say a couple of things like, “Can you get a bit more wild, Chris” or “I like that bit you did there.” Then it all works. It’s a very easy-going way. It’s very creative and he wants you creative and he appreciates it and he knows how to use people’s strengths.

How are you in the studio? Are you the leader or do you have your group around you and you all work together?

It depends on what you’re doing. If I’m doing my own music, I’ll tend to be more the leader but I’ll take a tip from all these other people I work with, like Bryan. If I want a certain sound on my record, I’ll know which musicians to ask. I won’t ask somebody who just plays the bass or the drums and work on them until they’re playing the type of drums and bass that I want. I will get the kind of guy that I want to play those drums. Andy Newmark, who played on Joyland, I know exactly what he does on the drums and he knows my music so we have a lot of fun together doing it. Same with, well, bass I have to do myself, but for my music I will choose somebody who will do exactly as I want it. I think that’s how most people work. It’s a good way to work.

When did you first start playing guitar?

I was already playing the violin and I didn’t really like that very much. I was in school orchestras and went to lessons. I was about nine years old and I didn’t know any better. And there wasn’t any rock & roll band and this was about 1953 or 1954. Then we started hearing rock & roll and there was a thing called skiffle you might have heard of. The Beatles were into that. I’m in the same generation as them and my first exposure was skiffle and Elvis and stuff like that. But it’s based on American stuff – Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie – it’s based on that, jug band music and all that stuff. It’s the English reaction to it. It’s like, we react to American music and try to play it with our English accents and our English way of playing and then sell it back to you guys, which has always amazed us because you came up with it first (laughs). I think you probably didn’t appreciate what you had and we kind of showed you what you had.

So I lost interest in the violin. It all came at the same time as puberty and being aware of girls and stuff and that sort of thing. You know the violin is not hip and I can’t get a girlfriend playing the violin so I’ve got to get a guitar, which a lot of musicians will tell you that’s why they started to play. Later on, of course, the joke is playing with lots of orchestras and lots of classical musicians, they’re a lot worse at sexual shenanigans than rock & roll musicians are (laughs), especially now we got lots of mixed orchestras with men and women in the same orchestra. Yeah, total ravers (laughs). I think they heard about the rockers stories, which of course are exaggerated; nobody is quite as bad as the stories. The stories are great stories but nobody’s really like that – maybe a couple of isolated incidents. So yeah, I got into that, into playing school group band in the fifties. Then when I left school I came down to London, cause that’s where you have to go if you want to be in the business, and that’s how it all started.

What was the most frustrating thing about getting started on guitar?

Getting a good guitar and a good amplifier. My parents were classical musicians and they finally relented and got me a guitar that had an electric pickup on it and I thought well, they’ve given me a guitar, this electric guitar, but, “Mom, I’ve got to have an amplifier.” And I get, “Well, Segovia doesn’t have an amplifier.” (laughs) So this was what I was up against. And in those days being into rock & roll and pop music and beat music as they called it, is the equivalent of being into gangsta rap now. They think you’re going to get into all kinds of trouble or get murdered or something or get your throat cut or something like that. That’s what people thought. The word going around then was juvenile delinquent and that’s what they thought you were. I’d given up the promise of being the violinist, which that was respected and the other stuff was not. Now later on in the sixties when the Beatles became universally popular, it became more respected. If you were in a beat group, “Ooh, you might be very talented, you might have a nice song here.” Not in the fifties.

People were still scared back then

They were. Mothers or fathers didn’t want their daughters going out with a rock & roll musician.

How long was it before you found THE guitar that really gelled with you?

Oh, I got a Gretsch, cause I always used to like Duane Eddy and Eddie Cochran and both had Gretsches and I love the way they look. There’s one onstage, a big orange guitar, and I play it on a couple of tunes. I had one of those and when I started doing recording sessions I realized that wasn’t the kind of guitar sound that people were looking for, which was more of a Fender or Gibson sound. So I remember I swapped it for a Telecaster and I always regret having done this cause back in those days you had one guitar. Nowadays you have like a dozen guitars (laughs). I didn’t even think that I’d keep this one and get that one. I think because they cost so much and we weren’t earning that much money. Nowadays, we all have dozens of guitars.

And you have someone tuning them while you play

Yeah. In the old days, we were lugging all our amplifiers around and tuning our guitars, putting strings on. So I got a Telecaster and I realized that there are two different sort of guitar sounds, the Gibson sound and the Fender sound, so then I got a Les Paul. So I’ve really been mainly using Gibson-style guitars since then. And if there’s a sound that Gibson doesn’t make, I’ll get a Stratocaster or a Telecaster because that will be the other sound that you can’t get out of the Gibson. That covers all the different sounds I’m likely to need.

Are you a big fan of knobs and pedals?

No, I’m not. I generally don’t use them at all. They’ve become quite fashionable over the last twenty or thirty years. I use today something called a Kemper. We don’t use amplifiers onstage. We have amplifiers onstage and that’s in case of a disaster. There’s a microphone on the amplifier but it’s not on. What we have is this thing called a Kemper. The other guitar player, he’s called Quist but his Danish name is Jacob Quistgaard, has something else called a Fractal. But what the Kemper does is it’s an amp modeler. You plug into it and it’s a box and it all lights up, all flashing knobs, and it’s got a pedal board and you can choose your amplifier, a Marshall or a Fender or an Orange or whatever you want or a Mesa Boogie, and you can choose a speaker that goes with it and it’s all digitized and you can dial it all in. They don’t exist out of this box. It’s all computerized.

Do you like that?

It’s the way that we work now. We don’t have loud amplifier onstage because the soundman can balance it better if all those go through to him and he can balance the sound for the audience. We listen on earphones, in ear monitors. That’s the way it’s done now.

I heard you say in an interview that you kind of avoided the blues guitar for a while.

Yeah, my first entry into big time sessions was Jack Bruce, the man who had just been in the Cream playing with Eric Clapton. When I first heard Eric Clapton I thought, this guy has really got his blues thing together, really sort of happening on the blues, and I was way behind him and I thought if I’m going to have a start of my own in a band I’m not going to do that. I’ll do something different. So I don’t know whether that was the reason that Jack chose me after working with Eric, because 99% of the guitar players in 1969 were totally into Eric Clapton. Jack Bruce doesn’t want another Eric Clapton clone after playing with the real thing. So I guess that is why he chose me, cause at that time I didn’t play like that at all.

But later on I was doing sessions and people would say, “Can you play a few little licks here like Eric Clapton?” I thought, oh no, can’t they get somebody else to do this? But I thought, they are paying me pretty well so I’ll just do my best, so I sort of tried to play as near as I could to how Eric Clapton would do it and I found that I did it quite well and they were quite happy with it. I was worried I would sound like him but I didn’t. I didn’t sound like Eric, I sounded like me but more bluesy. So I realized that was not a very positive attitude to have to sort of say, I’m never going to play like Eric Clapton. So I started being a little more loose about it. If somebody wanted me to play different styles, I would do my best to play that and I’d be confident enough to know that I wouldn’t sound like somebody else. I would always sound like me but I would sound like me with a broader palette.

Later on I started getting very into a lot of the blues musicians like Albert King. He was one of my favorites, Freddie King as well. I never understood why Eric Clapton always used to say he was influenced by BB King because when I listen to him he always sounds like he was influenced by Albert King, especially like “Strange Brew.” It’s exactly the same solo, the exact twelve bars as Albert King plays, almost lifted note for note.

I like Howlin Wolf

Oh yeah, he was something. One of my favorite albums got panned by Rolling Stone, the one where he says he doesn’t like this album, didn’t like his electric guitar at first, cause he had all wah-wahs and fuzz on it [The Howlin’ Wolf Album, 1969]. There’s a great version of “Smokestack Lightnin” and a great version of “Red Rooster,” but totally different, like more arranged. Had Phil Upchurch on guitars, Morris Jennings on drums, the Chess rhythm section. That’s a really great album, much better than the album he did that got sort of great reviews, the London Sessions. This one he did before the London Sessions in Chicago, fantastic album.

I understand you like improvisation, that spur-of-the-moment thinking. Why do you like to work that way cause it sounds like a lot of chaos or stress?

If you’re working with people that have got their ears open, I like to say, and they’re not sure what you’re going to do, especially if you have just a sketch of the material to work on, say like four bars of this chord and four bars of that chord and that’s all you have, then lots of things happen, fireworks happen, out of sheer terror that it’s going to be terrible. But something will happen, some energy will happen, if you’ve got the right musicians. Again, you have to choose the right musicians and I kind of like doing that. I’ve done it in the rock & roll context with John Cale a few times, cause he likes to improvise, coming from a more classical improvisational thing. But we didn’t do enough of it really. We got it on the record, we did it live and that band was really good, the John Cale Band. But that was chaotic and exciting and we did some stuff that once we played it we’d never be able to play it again cause we didn’t know what we did. He’d call something in a different key or different tempo and start playing it all different and we’d all have to join in and make the best of it. Of course, if you don’t have the right musicians it can be a disaster.

What did you see in the Sex Pistols in those earliest of days?

I thought they were a very good band. I couldn’t understand why there were fifteen people in the audience at the beginning of the show and only five people at the end. That was a bit worrying. But I couldn’t see anything wrong. Some people in the business used to come up to me and say, some journalists actually, and say, “You’ve got to be careful hanging out with those guys cause they’ve got a bad reputation.” I said, “What do you mean?” “They’re terrible.” So I said, “That’s interesting, when did you hear them?” “Oh, I’ve not heard them but they’re terrible.” So I thought, well, I’m never going to get a record company executive down here to hear these people. What I can do as a studio guy is to take them in the studio, record three songs as a demo and then I can take it to the record companies and see. And that’s what we did.

That’s another band that people were afraid of

Yep but there was nothing unusual about that band except their attitude. The way they sounded and the way they came over. There was nothing more traditional in 1976 than a band with a lead singer with a microphone, bass player with a Fender bass and Ampeg amplifier, the lead guitar player with a Les Paul and a Fender amplifier and a drummer with a Ludwig kit. What’s unusual about that? Nothing unusual. They don’t even have a synthesizer. It’s just a basic rock band like the Beatles or the Who or any other band. Traditional rock band. Nothing unusual about them at all. All they’ve got to do is get up on their hind legs and sing and play and they were able to do that. So why didn’t these people get it? And of course the rest is history. And I was lucky enough to have been there and nobody else saw it.

Chrissie Hynde played here last night and you go a long way back with her

Well, Chrissie Hynde was the first person that took me to see that gig of the Sex Pistols. She knew Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. The only reason I knew Malcolm McLaren was Vivienne made clothes for me because I had this sort of fifties retro look and you couldn’t buy new stuff like that then. You could only buy old fifties stuff like that. But she made new stuff that looked like the old stuff.

For you, what was a big I can’t believe I’m here moment in your career?

Well, you always say places, venues, like the Albert Hall or Hollywood Bowl or something like that but when you’re there you don’t think that. You just have to get on with the show. You can’t go around thinking how impressed you are with everything, you’ve got to put a show on. So you don’t think about that at the time, maybe later you might think, oh that was very cool that I did that and did that. But I suppose when I went to New York at first cause I’d always wanted to live in America where the music I loved came from, originated. So I suppose when I first went to New York, that was a good moment. Finally I made it to America and I was through with the United Kingdom for a bit, for a while, so I suppose that was a good moment in my life.

What was going on in the music scene at that time?

It was the time of CBGBs and the Talking Heads and Ramones. That was what was going on. Blondie was happening. I remember the Police came over and played CBGBs and there was only about twenty people. I knew Andy Summers, the guitar player, and I went backstage and said, “Listen, you must be really disappointed coming all this way but let me tell you, you guys have nothing to worry about.” I think he appreciated it, the fact that I’d come back and said that, because they must have been pretty down after coming all the way to New York with all the hype and not attracting anybody. But it’s cause they hadn’t had a record out. The following week “Roxanne” came out and everybody knew all about them. But the timing was all wrong. But it was obvious to anybody in the audience that these people were going to be huge. And of course the records came out and they became huge.

As a guitar player, how have you noticed your playing or your style change over all these years? Have you noticed a change in yourself?

Not in myself, no. I’ve noticed changes in other people’s playing. The guitar is used differently now, a little bit. I try and keep to my style that I know. I don’t try and follow the latest trend. I sort of stick to what I always liked, kind of rhythm and blues influence. I listen to a lot of Stax and Motown stuff. I like to play the guitar backing songs up as opposed to the guitar as a virtuoso instrument. When I play a solo or licks, I like to serve the music. There’s a sort of way playing lead guitar, like in the Beatles, George Harrison always played such really good notes he used to put in. You couldn’t have the song without it. You couldn’t take those notes away from the song and the song still be. Like in “Please, Please Me,” he does that bah-bah-bah-bah-bah-boom. You can’t have that song without those notes. And that is what I try and do.

Have you physically noticed a change in your hands?

No, not really. I haven’t noticed any arthritis really or anything like that. They still feel the same. I’ve never been somebody that does musical athletics on the guitar.

I understand you kind of got thrown into songwriting in the beginning

Yes, it fell into my lap. I had the opportunity to make a record and I thought I’d better take the opportunity and it’s been good writing songs. I like writing songs. I never thought myself a singer.

But you did sing and you had a hit

Yeah, I managed that (laughs)

Session players are like the unsung heroes of music. When you were doing sessions, who were some of the people you thought were really good?

People like Herbie Flowers, the bass player, drummer Clem Cattini is still around. They’re the guys that played with me on my Hurt album [1977]. They were very good. A few guys are still around from those days but we don’t really work so much these days. That scene is gone, where you get hired as a rhythm section. You’ve got to play to a rhythm machine now; even Bryan’s stuff. Sometimes he’ll record a session where there’s a rhythm section but quite often you have to add your guitar to a track that is already started being built. Maybe there won’t be any vocals on it yet. But that whole session scene is gone now.

So what are your plans for this year?

Outside of Bryan, there will be a few times off the road and I’ll probably do some more Sharks stuff. I’m doing something next month with an artist in Sweden, doing a couple of shows and an album, just as a sideman, you know. So I keep doing all that stuff, keep active. It’s great when people offer you work (laughs).


Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough


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