At the risk of having this large chunk of rock stride the pond and pummel me with his Flying V, I can’t help but think of Chris Spedding as “The Forest Gump of Rock.”
It seems unflattering, but I really don’t intend it that way. I’m not thinking of him as a borderline short-busser with high-water slacks. I’m thinking of him as a dude who has participated in an AMAZING amount of rock history and yet, other than weirdos like us, he’s fairly unknown. (At least in the US of A.)
“It will be a cold day in hell before you get me to work with Zwol!”
I first read his name in college as I became enamored with Brian Eno’sHere Come the Warm Jets and saw his name on the back as playing on “Needle in the Camel’s Eye” and the “Paw Paw Negro Blow Torch”. I had no idea then and not much more of one until recently that this guy has done a wee bit more than that.
Early on Spedding, with his band Battered Ornaments, played THE Hyde Park concert in 1969 that featured the debut of the Brian Jones-less Rolling Stones. Bridge that with being the producer on The Sex Pistols demos and you start to get an idea of the breadth of experience here.
He has worked with so many amazing people that I’ll only list one for each letter of the alphabet (except x, y & z): Laurie Anderson, Ginger Baker, John Cale, Donovan, Drifters, David Essex, Bryan Ferry, Art Garfunkle, Nicky Hopkins, Kris Ife, Elton John, Dave Kubinec (featuring fifth Rutle Ollie Halsall), John Lodge, Paul McCartney, Harry Nilsson, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Pretenders, Dee Dee Ramone, Dusty Springfield, Johnny Thunders, Vibrators, Tom Waits.
His story is pretty damn cool and there’s some great stuff on his website chrisspedding.com and a 2006 biography, aptly titled Reluctant Guitar Hero, so I won’t belabor it. Rather I’ll just let the man speak for himself as he responds to our questions.
January 20, 2004, a day that will be forever burned in the minds of a handful of listeners of WFMU’s The Best Show on WFMU. It was here (first introduced about 1:12 into the episode and picked after a few choice Big Dipper songs at 1:49) that host Tom Scharpling first summoned the members of the long-disbanded Boston band to see if he could spark a dramatic reunion. If you’ll recall, reunion was in the air, following the stunning and emotional Berlin and A Flock of Seagulls reunions that had recently been shepherded through VH-1. Through his persistence, Scharpling would set off a montage of awkward hugs, slow-motion instrument polishing, drum-head changing, finger-building exercises, and stage clothes shopping excursions that. Nearly 4 years later comes the news that Big Dipper is indeed reuniting for a handful of shows in April 2008 and the release of a 3-CD set. The release will include a 12-page booklet with liner notes by Scharpling and, most importantly, songs from the band’s first 3 long-out-of-print albums along with the requisit rarities, unreleased tracks, and even the original video for “Faith Healer”. I’ve been waiting a long time for this day, and I’ve been waiting a long time to have more than this grainy, 12th-generation clip that’s been floating around YouTube for some time as a visual record of the band.
We will have more news on the CD and the shows as details are finalized. For now, we welcome Gary Waleik, Big Dipper guitarist and go-to guy on the low harmony parts, to the Halls of Rock. In my days of attending Big Dipper shows, Gary was always a great guy to chat with, and he’s no different today. Following this scratchy vinyl-burned track from the band’s Heavens lp, let’s get it on!
RTH: So it’s true that Big Dipper going to reunite for some shows in April 2008! Do you know where you’ll be playing?
GW: Yes. We plan on playing two shows in Boston and two in the New York area starting 4/23/08. They will include shows at Maxwell’s in Hoboken and The Middle East in Cambridge.
RTH: Will it be just a few shows, or are you ditching your well-established adult lives for one more shot at conquering The Road?
GW: My guess is that those 4 shows will probably be all we do. If it goes well, I may pitch for a quick Midwest tour (Chicago, Lawrence, Wichita, Columbus, something like that), but we’re too busy as family men and gainfully employed individuals to risk it all on another full-blown rock and roll fling. Though the sirens do call from time to time… Continue reading »
You may recall our very cool interview with Phantom Tollbooth’s Gerard Smith on the making of Beard of Lightning, the highly unusual post-hoc collaboration between a defunct underground band and Guided By Voices mastermind Robert Pollard. At the time, we reached out to some other figures in the making of this album, and now, a few months later, Townsman Kpdexter has uncovered the following tale, as told by Off Records head Chris Slusarenko, buried in his Inbox. A mere months after Chris took the time to provide his take on this fantastic voyage, Rock Town Hall presents this exclusive! Take it away, Chris!
Chris under the guidance of voices
In the mid-80s the late great Homestead Records label (home of Death Of Samantha, Great Plains, Sebadoh) put out one of the greatest 7″s of all time–“Valley of the Gwangi”, by Phantom Tollbooth. Hard to find at the time and with a strange black and white drawing for a cover it blew my mind but probably not many others. The music sounded like three gentlemen fighting musically between each other, jumping from prog to rock to jazz, and then emotionally twisting you back to a hook you didn’t know was there at all. I was in music geek heaven (or in college rock heaven as it used to be called). Two more albums followed as well as an ep after the fact. Then like most bands they broke up.
In the mid-90s I meet Robert Pollard for my first time after a Guided By Voices show. Doug Gillard and Ron House were also backstage and we started talking about Homestead, since they both used to be on that label. I mentioned Phantom Tollbooth and Bob starts singing “Nobody knows what we’re saying” from Phantom Tollbooth’s last album Power Toy. I tell him they are one of my favorite bands and then the night progresses into a mess of us singing bits of their songs back and forth. At one point he mutters, “I wish I had sang for Phantom Tollbooth. We would have ruled the world.”
In the early-00s I put together a compliation that both Phantom Tollbooth guitar player Dave Rick (also of Bongwater) and Bob Pollard performed on. Dave does a song about “Dr. Mom” with Ann Magnuson. Bob and GBV do two suites about the “Strident Wet Nurse”. I’m in heaven. I start self-releasing records on my label, Off Records. I set it up so that it’s only for bands and projects that don’t really exist–or more simply, just albums I want to hear badly. Tollbooth is a comin’. Bob decides that the album should be him writing new lyrics and vocal melodies for Power Toy plus the song “Valley of the Gwangi” from the first 45. The new album title was one that Bob had been kicking around for a while–Beard Of Lightning. Continue reading »
I first learned about Martin Newell nearly 14 years ago to the day, not too long after my wife and I had moved to Hungary for a year. A Townsman sent me a cassette with Newell’s The Greatest Living Englishman on one side and Crowded House’s Together Alone on the other. The latter was advertised as a “good stoner album” from a band both of us had previously been lukewarm on (thanks, in large part to the productions of Mitchell Froom). This Newell guy’s album was produced by XTC’s Andy Partridge, and my friend touted the album as an extension of The Dukes of Stratosphear. This was music to my ears. I’d felt XTC’s proper studio albums had been getting too clinical.
Today I’m having particularly strong associations with this time because our move way back when coincided with the day before my beloved Phillies team ended a typically long drought of winning baseball by clinching the division and heading to the playoffs. I would miss the entire playoff and World Series drama, staying up ’til all hours in Budapest, trying in vain to tune in the game on some army radio station on shortwave radio. I was loving our new adventure overseas but a part of me missed home more than ever. In short time, The Greatest Living Englishman would somehow speak to this longing for home. Although the songs had nothing to do with missing life in a large, East Coast, American city, they had everything to do with a personal sense of place. My wife and I listened to this album constantly, and Martin Newell would soon become one of “my” special artists, alongside The dBs, The 101ers, Roy Wood, Big Dipper, and countless others. The guy’s been on my radar, although you’ll see that the radar of a busy middle-aged man fails now and then.
A few weeks ago I picked up Newell’s latest release, A Summer Tamarind, and it was like pulling on a favorite brand of jeans. He has a way with jangly tunes that never strikes this hard-ass ’60s music fan as cloying. It’s jangly music the way it was meant to sound. His lyrics are typically funny and down-to-earth; my delicate sensibilities are not distracted by songs about the genetalia of fishes and keeeeeeraaaaaazzzzzy diamonds, no matter how sincere and tuneful the singer of such numbers might be. Newell’s best songs strike me as the best songs I hear by any of my music-making friends who are found in the Halls of Rock, be it The Unknown Mysterious 60’s Group, The Trolleyvox, Photon Band, The Dead Milkmen, our man Hrrundi, and so on. There’s something about hearing a great song from a person I’m friends with; I get this added knownledge about my friend that is especially touching. Of course, I don’t know Martin Newell from a hill of beans, but his songs sound to me like they’re coming directly from a CD or cassette handed to me from an old friend. Here’s a new one from A Summer Tamarind that’s been sticking in my head:
With that song in mind – and the knowledge that Martin’s new album as well as The Greatest Living Englishman are available through eMusic (what better way to try our trial offer, found on the right side of this page?) – let’s move onto our chat with rock’s finest gardener!
RTH: I did something I’ve only begun to do more often in the last year, download your new album – legally [cue eMusic plug], of course! The first half dozen times I listened to it I kept thinking how good it sounds and how much more your voice is given room. I went back and listened to The Greatest Living Englishman, and your new album sounded even richer. This is a long way of saying at least two things. First, in lieu of liner notes for this middle-aged rock fan to study while on the john, who produced and played on A Summer Tamarind?
MN: I played nearly all the guitars. I consider myself not a bad bass player, but Carl, the engineer/producer, turned out to be much better and quicker. I therefore only played bass on, “Mulberry Harbour” and “Stella and Charlie Got Married”. Drums were all Carl. Keyboards, tambourines, and percussion were me. And I did all the vocals. It really was a solo album in old-fashioned terms. It took only 20 days (and short days) recording time. A lot of the stuff was one or two take performances, especially vocals. That’s why it sounds so fresh and uncontrived.
RTH: As someone who once managed to get his music out through the grassroots style of home-produced cassettes, what’s been your experiences with and impressions of the digital download era?
MN: I was ahead of my time. This though, is perfectly as useless as being behind my time. So it wasn’t a virtue. I forsaw it happening. On the other hand I always tell young musicians: “As long as young people with dreams make music, businessmen will find ways of hijacking the music and taking a big skim.”
I think there is almost too much music about. On reflection, I was much happier as a 16 year old, with only three albums and ten singles, which I played over and over. Now I have a room full of CDs and tapes, I have never had such access to music and yet I can’t think what to play.
RTH: As an artist you seem very comfortable in your skin. “Wow! Look at That Old Man”, from your new album, makes me laugh and seems to sum you up pretty well. From what I’ve gathered dating back to your Cleaners from Venus days, you’ve managed to sidestep every popular music trend that was there for the following. How far back did you know who you were as an artist? How far back did you accept and commit to your voice?
MN: I tell you, it was mostly ineptitude and isolation, rather than a stance. I just couldn’t seem to get things right and I ended up with my own thing. Kind of like Reggae came out of Jamaican calypso musicians picking up R&B records from American stations, and this skewed music with its bass drum on the third beat of the bar came out. Someone said to me, “You’ve never sold out Martin.” And I’m like, “Nobody ever ASKED me to!” I’d have gone like a shot. You think I wouldn’t have LIKED all that Jack Daniels, assorted bags of drugs, and naughty foreign ladies impaling themselves on me? The problem with me is that I didn’t even know how to be corrupt!
RTH: When punk hit, did you ever cut your hair, ditch your flares, and backdate yourself a bit in hopes of fitting in with the new scene, the way the members of XTC, The Damned, Joe Strummer, Nick Lowe, and other pub rockers and glam-rockers of your generation would do?
MN: While I’d been waiting to ditch the flares for a long time – they kept getting tangled in my bicycle chain – I just couldn’t find the skinny jeans in the shops. As for the haircut, I never really did get around to having short hair. I’ve never liked it. But I often had it razored in strange ways. More glam than punk. Oh and I stayed in a heavy prog-rock band all through the punk period. I only left it in 1979 cos I wanted to do 3-minute songs again.
RTH: Does the glam part of your musical background ever play a role in the songs you write these days? What did Bowie and glam rock mean for you coming out of the Swinging ‘60s of your teen years? I ask because, although Bowie was also huge in America, the whole glam scene was experienced at arm’s length in the US.
MN: I retain a huge affection for its fun, it’s showiness, and it’s sheer light-hearted songs. 1972 and 1973, particularly, were just two of pop’s greatest years for me, in the UK at least. Bowie, Bolan, Slade, and Roy Wood made brilliant pop music, much of it still unsurpassed.
Note to self…
RTH: Are there any bands and out-of-print albums from that era that are worth us shockingly ignorant American rock snobs seeking and plunking down wads of dollars to buy? Should we track down the last remaining copy of Stray albums? All we tend to know about are the heavy hitters: Bowie, T Rex, Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music, Sweet, and maybe Slade, thanks to ‘80s hair metal bands covering their songs.
MN: Some which spring to mind are Suicide, by Stray, and Neverneverland, by Pink Fairies, Slaughter on 10th Avenue, by Mick Ronson (which I loved), and the recently released Boulders, by Roy Wood. Personally, one of my faves of the entire period was your very own Steely Dan with Countdown to Ectasy.
RTH: Your memoir of your formative rock years, This Little Ziggy, should be required reading for aspiring rock musicians. Did you hope to pass on anything special in writing the book? Do you feel you might have captured something in music-making literature and mythology that is rarely captured?
MN: I wish someone would re-print the thing and publish it. I haven’t got the machinery in place to service it really, but if any publishers are interested, call now, I do actually own it again. I wrote it in an insane burst of work to give it its continuity and flow. Yes, I’m sort of proud of it. It’s horribly honest.
RTH: Do you have any favorite music memoirs or biographies? Did I read correctly that you have another book on in the works?
Next: Martin answers this question and, later, participates in some Dugout Chatter! Continue reading »
This interview was conducted with key contributions by Townsman Kpdexter!
A few months ago, Kpdexter wrote about the unique collaboration between Robert Pollard and late-80s Indie Rock band Phantom Tollbooth known as Beard of Lightning. If you’ll recall, Pollard was a fan of the band’s works, and with his combination of fanboy exuberance and cult hero pull he received both a copy of the master tapes of their 1988 album Power Toy minus the vocals as well as the band’s blessing to write and record a new set of lyrics and melodies.
A few of us in the Halls of Rock thought, What a brilliant, nerdy fantasy for Pollard to have achieved! A month or so later, when Phantom Tollbooth’s very own Gerard Smith contacted us to point out an inaccuracy in the original piece (since corrected, thanks), we thought to ourselves, What must it have felt like to be on the other end of a rock nerd’s fantasy come true? To our delight, Smith agreed to discuss the making of both the original Power Toy and the remade/remodeled Beard of Lightning from his band’s perspective. The interview that follows met the expectations of at least two rock nerds. We hope you dig it too.
Indie Rock in the ’80s, though highly inspirational and influential, was rough terrain for a band to operate.
How would you describe Beard of Lightning relative to Power Toy? A variation on a theme, an entirely new work, or something else?
First, I need to tell you how grateful I am to Bob Pollard for voicing his interest in Phantom Tollbooth. His contribution to this project was tremendous.
Beard of Lightning is an entirely new work. If you put them back-to-back, the vocal ideas, lyrics and the mixes are uniquely different. One thing that stands out to me is Bob’s placement of the words. In many instances, he sings in places where Dave or I didn’t and laid back in places where we did. It’s a wonderfully strange parallel to the original. I think BOL is free standing, but I also think that Power Toy still sounds great.
How did this remaking of Power Toy into Beard of Lightning happen? I’ve read some stories about Pollard saying that you would have been huge had he been in the band, and you guys called his bluff. True? Can you give us a taste of the initial discussions and planning and what went through your minds?
Flattery was my first response, though it wasn’t a complete surprise. Bob had expressed his interest in PT for a time long before Beard of Lightning. Over the years I’d heard from friends that we were a topic of his passing conversations. Dave Rick was responsible for making initial contact with Bob through Chris Slusarenko at Off Records. Once the idea came about, we all got into the same space after 15 years, had dinner and came to an agreement. Given our initial relationship as a very tough democratic unit, it was our natural inclination to bring Bob on as a 4th and equal member of this newly conceptualized idea of Phantom Tollbooth.
Bob is a good sport in his praise of what could have been. I also think that had we been more of priorty at Dutch East India (distributor and owner of Homestead Records) we’d have probably reached a wider audience, even without Bob’s assistance. Indie Rock in the ’80s, though highly inspirational and influential, was rough terrain for a band to operate. Factor in the kinds of influences that informed our songs and the crazy, chaotic structures that they were built upon, we didn’t make things any easier. All things considered though, Bob’s redo of the vocals/lyrics make for a smoother listen. Daniel Rey’s remixes are also great. Continue reading »