Jan 04 2012

A 1987 interview with Rory Gallagher by BBC broadcaster Spencer Leigh

Published by at 11:38 am under radio interviews


Spencer Leigh

Spencer Leigh has been broadcasting on BBC Radio Merseyside for over 35 years. His current weekly show, On The Beat, has been on the air since 1985 and can be heard on Saturday evenings from 6:30 to 9 pm. During his time on the BBC he has interviewed countless musicians, including among others: Jack Bruce, Janis Ian, John Prine and Viv Stanshall. He has written numerous books on such popular musicians as Paul Simon,Bill Fury and Lonnie Donnegan. His latest book is Tomorrow Never Knows : The Beatles on Record. In 1987 Spencer Leigh had the opportunity to interview Irish legend Rory Gallagher prior to his show at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool. The following is a transcript of that interview along with a brief explanatory intro by Mr. Leigh and also his post interview reference notes. Special thanks to Mr. Leigh for allowing me to post this here. You can read many more of his interviews with pop stars of the past 35 years on his website — http://www.spencerleigh.demon.co.uk


MY ROOTS ARE SHOWING
 
RORY GALLAGHER in conversation with Spencer Leigh

 

This is a transcript of an interview with Rory Gallagher for BBC Radio Merseyside that I did when Rory came to the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool in 1987. It may read a little oddly as at the time I was planning a couple of documentary series – one about country music (Good Ol’ Boys, which was broadcast in May 1989) and one about Bob Dylan (which was never made). It was recorded after the sound check and Rory was very pleasant and affable. I’d requested 15 minutes and got 22 and so I assume that he was quite happy to talk about his musical roots.

The first part of the interview, which was for my weekly On The Beat programme, includes his comments on the Beatles: Being a Liverpool-based programme, I ask nearly everyone about the Beatles and as it turns out, nearly everyone has a different answer. There are over 500 people including Rory talking about the Beatles in my book, Tomorrow Never Knows : The Beatles on Record (Nirvana, 2010). It’s available on my website, spencerleigh.demon.co.uk, if you’re interested. It’s also there if you’re not interested.


 

Spencer Leigh: Rory, you are managed by your brother Donal. Is that a great advantage because there are so many rogues around and you know your brother is not going to rip you off?

Rory Gallagher: Yes, it’s very handy to be managed by my brother as it also doesn’t involve a big business deal. He has worked with me for many years and obviously, we have to be professional. I did go through the mill with a few characters early on so this is very comforting.

Spencer Leigh: I presume that you heard a lot of Irish folk music as you were growing up.

Rory Gallagher: One of my parents played Irish traditional music and at home I listened to De Dannan (1), the Chieftains and Ronnie Drew and the Dubliners. It affects me with my chords and certain ideas for songs, but generally I start with blues roots and work from there. You can’t keep a strong tradition like Irish music out of what you’re doing.

Spencer Leigh: Did you grow up with rock’n’roll as kids of, say, 12 years old don’t say “I like the blues”.

Rory Gallagher: In my case, once I discovered that Lonnie Donegan was doing Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly songs, I wanted to check out the originals of ‘Rock Island Line’ and ‘Bring A Little Water, Sylvie’. It’s not too far then to go to Big Bill Broonzy. Then, growing up in the 60s, I was listening to Jimmy Reed and Chuck Berry and I discovered Muddy Waters. I didn’t grow up with blues records around the house. I had to go out and discover them for myself and I would read up about them. I listened to rock’n’roll, folk, blues and I distilled it all, but as the years went by, I got more and more committed to the blues even though when I write my own material, it borders into hard rock and other things. The soul of my music is the blues.

Spencer Leigh: A lot of people think that blues is repetitive.

Rory Gallagher: Well, blues is repetitive and that is part of its charm. Jimi Hendrix was basically a blues player and recently you have got Robert Cray, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Rock’n’roll is repetitive too and rock’n’roll is only a manic version of the blues. If you like rock’n’roll, you should like the blues, but some people find country blues is too rough and ready and too ethnic for them. Chicago blues is electric blues like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Elmore James. These are guys who plugged their guitars in while the country blues musicians were primarily acoustic players. They were traditional players from the different states and they mostly played on their own. As they came to Detroit and Chicago and the other big cities, they became city folk and they needed amps to be heard in the bars and it became another thing again. Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake and Scrapper Blackwell played country blues. Some people like Big Joe Williams and Bukka White bridged the gap.

Spencer Leigh: What about a white guy like the Singing Brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers?

Rory Gallagher: Well, he was a country singer and a fine strummer, a rhythm guitar player, and that yodel is a country thing, but he did work a lot with blues artists and that influenced him. There was another Jimmy Rogers who played second guitar with Muddy Waters. He is a great singer too, and he made one great album (2) way back when. If Muddy finished one of his sessions early, he would let Jimmy record a couple of songs.

Spencer Leigh: When the Beatles came along in the 1960s, were they too commercial for you?

Rory Gallagher: No, not at all. I was still going to school in 1963 and I thought that they were great when they came out. They brought back a lot of people who had gone out of fashion. They revived an interest in Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly. Between them and the Stones, they brought back an interest in Chuck Berry. The Beatles got more commercial as they went on but they never made bad records. I don’t listen to music like a librarian who would not listen to something outside of certain categories (3). I can listen to good pop songs, Greek music or Balkan music. I have an open mind about all music.

Spencer Leigh: As a guitarist yourself, how would you rate George Harrison as a lead guitarist?

Rory Gallagher: He is an unusual guitarist. First of all, he is a very underrated slide player, a very accurate player. He is very good in the Carl Perkins vein. Most of the string bending, the so-called modern fuzz guitar things, usually came from Paul McCartney, and John Lennon was a very powerful rhythm player. George was a very tasteful player and he never ruined a song – he always worked within the song and it wasn’t like a big virtuoso showcase for him. He had some unusual phrases but he didn’t really fit into the Eric Clapton/ Jeff Beck area. He could play great ethnic rock’n’roll and rockabilly guitar.

The great guitarist from this city was Brian Griffiths from the Big Three: he was a dangerous player and extremely good. The Big Three did a great version of ‘Reelin’ And Rockin’’ on that EP, The Big Three At The Cavern (4). They also do an original song which is very good called ‘Don’t Start Runnin’ Away’. There is a great solo on that, and Johnny Hutchinson and Johnny Gustafson were great singers too.

Spencer Leigh: Did you form Taste as a trio because you saw what some bands like the Big Three were doing?

Rory Gallagher: Well, it wasn’t a conscious thing. Johnny Kidd and the Pirates was a quartet but it only had three instruments – guitar, bass and drums – and the guitarist, Mick Green, was very hot at the time. Mick was a fantastic player and still is. Yeah, maybe we tried to capture that harsh, rough sound that the Big Three had, and Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience were also trios. We didn’t copy any of them but we admired them all.

Spencer Leigh: Did you like the way that Jimi Hendrix added distortion to guitar playing?

Rory Gallagher: Before Hendrix, Jeff Beck had distorted his guitar and so had Keith Richards, and there was distortion on the early 50s blues records. They didn’t use it as a technique but they had small amplifiers that were turned up very loud and it became part and parcel of the Chicago blues sound. In a way, Hendrix trimmed it and made it into an art form. He was fantastic but he wasn’t the first guy to use distortion.

Spencer Leigh: Were you at the Isle of Wight the same year as Hendrix?

Rory Gallagher: Yes, but we were only at the Isle of Wight for one day and we missed a lot of acts. The line-up for those festivals was outrageously good, fantastic. When you rush to a gig and you have to get yourself organised and tuned up, you don’t have the time to analyze what is happening, but I remember a sea of faces that seemed to go on forever.

We had to go back on the ferry and then we had to go straight onto the Continent and do a European tour, which was the final Taste tour. We were in Sweden and some journalist telephoned me and asked for a comment on Jimi Hendrix’s death and I didn’t know about it at the time. A couple of weeks earlier he’d been playing at the Isle of Wight festival. I think he had one other date in Denmark just before he died. (5)

Spencer Leigh: I love the album, Against The Grain, and you take an old soul song on that, ‘I Take What I Want’.

Rory Gallagher: One or two bands did that in the 60s. I remember hearing a version by James and Bobby Purify. It was also done by a London band, the Artwoods, and we just did it because we liked it.

Spencer Leigh: And one of the tracks on Defender is ‘Don’t Start Me Talkin’’ which I remember from Sonny Boy Williamson.

Rory Gallagher: I never saw Sonny Boy Williamson even though he was in England quite a bit. I am crazy about that song. He was backed by the Muddy Waters band on that and Muddy is playing on it. There is no bass on that recording, which is unusual.

Every time we do an album, we record a couple of standards – blues and rock’n’roll things – and it is a way of relaxing and getting in the mood for the album. I am not under pressure as a writer when I do them and I feel I can relax and give a decent performance.

Spencer Leigh: One of your own songs on the album is ‘Loan Shark Blues’, which is a terrific song.

Rory Gallagher: ‘Loan Shark Blues’ stands out as my favourite on the album, funnily enough, and I rarely have a favourite track on my albums. It has been influenced by On The Waterfront. It is a story about a fairly reasonable guy. He doesn’t want to mix with the Mob and he has to borrow from a loan shark all the time and he gets beyond the part where he can pay it back so he asks for an offer that he can’t refuse. In other words, he will commit a crime for them so that he can square up.

Spencer Leigh: When you write a song, are the lyrics as important to you as the music?

Rory Gallagher: Even if a song seems casual when you listen to it, I have worked very hard and seriously on the lyrics, so they are important to me. They are not throwaway material for guitar breaks. The more you write the more serious you get about the lyrics and the content. Some of the lyrics on the new Defender album are pretty good. On the older albums, ‘Philby’ is a well written song and also ‘Tattooed Lady’ and ‘Calling Card’.

Hopefully I haven’t written any drivel and there are a couple of strong songs on every album. You have got to write really hot music and the lyrics have got to tie in with the music. Those big long wordy songs in the singer/songwriter mould are too boring for me.

Spencer Leigh: What made you write about Philby?

Rory Gallagher: One day I felt harassed as there were a lot of things going on and I thought that I felt Philby just before before he went over the Albanian border. I had read a book about him and although I am not over-sympathetic to his plight, he is a fascinating character. The song is not strictly about him, but I tried to bring some of that twilight zone that was in his life into the song. When you are on the road for a long time, living in hotels is a bit like living the life of a spy.

Spencer Leigh: What about ‘Shadowplay’?

Rory Gallagher: I was in bed with the flu, bored stiff, and I had a 12-string guitar next to the bed. I was plonking away on it, and then the riff for ‘Shadowplay’ came out. I tried to write an ‘other worldly’ kind of song. It sounds like I was going off my head in four in the morning. It was fantasy based and there is a touch of nightmare about it.

Spencer Leigh: You don’t dress up for stage as you are known for your check shirts and jeans. Was this a deliberate move on your part?

Rory Gallagher: When I was a kid, you were expected to wear a white shirt and bow-tie and then I played with showbands for two years when I had to wear a uniform. I hated doing that. As a rule, I don’t like flashy clothes. It’s no big statement or image building or anything. I just like easy-going casual clothes. I would certainly feel self-conscious if somebody told me to go out in a silver jacket tonight.

Spencer Leigh: You’re known for playing a Fender Strat and the first time I saw one was when Buddy Holly came to Britain in 1958.

Rory Gallagher: Yeah, on the cover of the first Buddy Holly and the Crickets album, The Chirpin’ Crickets, he was holding a Fender Strat and Niki Sullivan the other guitarist had a Gibson. Everyone was astounded when they saw the Strat, it looks conservative now, but at the time it was like a space guitar. It was futuristic looking. Hank Marvin then popularised it but it took me a long time to get one, but everyone has one now.

I have a Gibson I use for the big broad chunky sound and it is also good for slide. The Strat is very zingy and it is good for rhythm and it has a very elegant sound. The Strat can take a battering and even if you have a distorted sound from your amp, the clarity of the guitar never lets it get out of hand. It never becomes just a fuzz like some big heavy guitars with Humbuckers on them and so on. It is all a matter of taste too. Telecasters are nice too, and it has a slightly different sound from a Strat. They are a little harder to control and they are not as versatile because you get the three pickups on a Strat. That makes them very comfortable to play.

Spencer Leigh: Do you get a lot of questions on guitars when you sign autographs at the stage door.

Rory Gallagher: Sure, and I like answering questions about guitars. Young guitarists are always fascinated by modifications and whatever hints you might have.

Spencer Leigh: Have you got many favourite Bob Dylan records?

Rory Gallagher: I am a great fan of Bob’s. My favourite Dylan LPs are still Blonde On Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. I like ‘Fourth Time Around’ and ‘One Of Us Must Know’, and ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ itself with Mike Bloomfield on slide guitar is brilliant. In the early days of Taste, I used to do ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ and I have thought of recording ‘Tough Mama’ on Planet Waves. That is a fantastic song. Someone told me that Jerry Garcia had recorded a solo version but it hadn’t come out. (6)

Spencer Leigh: What is Dylan like as a guitarist?

Rory Gallagher: He is a fine acoustic player. He has a very good sense of time on the early albums. He is not a superb player but he knows what he’s doing. He’s also okay on the electric. He does get a bit rough and ready and out of tune at times but that’s just like the rest of us.

Spencer Leigh: What about favourite country records?

Rory Gallagher: My favourite country album of all time is Lonesome On’ry And Mean, which is one of Waylon Jennings’ albums and another one of his, The Ramblin’ Man, is also very good. ‘Lay It Down’ is a beautiful song and I loved his guitar, he plays a choppy Telecaster. He has a very distinctive sound and he was one of the first country artists to use a phasing sound on a guitar, which is an effect you normally hear in rock. It changes the tone as you play along, a bit like tremolo or vibrato.

I like some Merle Haggard things as well. ‘My Own Kind Of Hat’ is a great song on one of his albums. That is on an album called Serving 190 Proof.

I like a lot of the older country singers too – Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, of course. I love Doc Watson, who is more acoustic country bluegrass, he is a superb player. He does a great number called ‘Deep River Blues’ and he does an instrumental called ‘Doc’s Guitar’ which is not unlike ‘Nashville Skyline Rag’, the instrumental on that Dylan album. It is almost the same tune.

Spencer Leigh: You came close to country with ‘Out On The Western Plain’. Where did that song come from?

Rory Gallagher: That’s a Leadbelly song, a rural folk blues song really, I approached it with a Celtic touch. I changed the temp and used tuning that is more used by people like Bert Jansch so it is a real blend. We did a song on Blueprint which was called ‘If I Had A Reason’,which was very much a country song and I did a song on the first Rory Gallagher album called ‘It’s You’ , that’s pretty much a country thing.

Keith Richards said that all the best guitar licks and harmonica licks are on country and blues records, and he’s right. It would be a shame for younger people to dismiss country music as some kind of meaningless stuff but there are some outrageous pickers on those records.

Fred Carter, the guitarist, is a very distinctive player. Chet Atkins has done some lovely stuff. Ralph Mooney. who was the steel player with Waylon, Floyd Cramer, Weldon Myrick, Charlie McCoy and James Burton are superb musicians. Roy Nichols with Merle Haggard’s Strangers is a very fine player and the list goes on and on and on.

Spencer Leigh: Rory Gallagher, thank you very much.

Rory Gallagher: A pleasure.

Notes:

(1) Why De Dannan? They didn’t get going til 1975.
(2) Gold Tailed Bird (1971).
(3) Not strictly true as a librarian’s job is to account for everything but we know what he means.
(4) Just reissued by Cavern’s own record label – wonderful stuff!
(5) Taste played August 28, 1970 and Hendrix two days later. Jimi played several more dates – in Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Holland, his last gig being a jam with Eric Burdon and War at Ronnie Scott’s on September 16, 1970. He died on September 18.
(6) It has now. Garcia often performed it live and the first official recording was in 1997.

Share on Facebook

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “A 1987 interview with Rory Gallagher by BBC broadcaster Spencer Leigh”

  1. john hallon 04 Jan 2012 at 2:56 pm

    a great man very understated and approachable ,always saw RORY on tour in the UK in Liverpool Stadium and elsewhere ,got me into playing slide and a strat and tele! Still listen to his albums ,there’s always something you pick up on!
    much missed!

  2. Regina Mullenon 04 Jan 2012 at 7:02 pm

    Another fantastic post! Thank you!!

  3. Sarah Sutherlandon 04 Jan 2012 at 11:13 pm

    Thank you for this – amazed Rory wrote the amazing ‘Shadowplay’ bored in bed with the flu! Astounding talent 🙂

  4. john ganjamieon 05 Jan 2012 at 12:27 am

    Great interview! Thanks for sharing it

  5. Barryon 05 Jan 2012 at 10:06 am

    Good job Milo (as always).

  6. Joe Bernardon 05 Jan 2012 at 11:24 am

    Thanks for posting this interview, always impressed by Rory G’s huge knowledge of blues music and musicians, underscored with the passion he always brought in his own playing.

  7. RoryWebon 12 Jan 2012 at 12:40 pm

    Hi Milo & fellow fans, this superb interview is also available as a series of 6 audio mp3’s

    If anyone should like to listen to them they are posted as YT Video’s at:

    http://www.rory-gallagher.co.uk/forum/index.php?topic=139.msg217#msg217

    Enjoy

    Steve

  8. miloon 12 Jan 2012 at 11:24 pm

    Thanks Steve. Interesting that the transcription is a bit different than the actual recording.

  9. LunaJuneon 06 Aug 2013 at 3:29 am

    totally delightful always good to hear or read what Rory had to share about his love of music

  10. Denise Wildenon 23 Sep 2013 at 1:54 pm

    In bed with flu and wrote Shadowland!! What a talent, great man, sadly missed

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply