|Bernie Torme - G.M.T Interview, Pre Hard Rock Hell 3|
|Written by Johnny H|
|Monday, 07 December 2009 12:11|
When he contacted Bernie Torme recently to get his fantastic gig from hell story (which you can read here), Johnny H thought he'd also take the time to wax lyrical about almost everything he's ever done in music ahead of G.M.T's Thursday night headline slot at last weekend's Hard Rock Hell 3.
Bernie, Many thanks for taking the time to talk with us at Uber Rock. Some of our reviewers have been life long fans of your music myself included so it is something of an honour for us to get this interview up and running ahead of Hard Rock Hell 3, so again thanks.
OK, so let's start with what first got you interested in this wonderful world of music, and at what stage did you decide that guitar player was for you?
Firstly Elvis, then Chuck (Berry), then the Beatles, Stones, Who, all of that sixties music thing. Keith and the Stones and Jeff Beck and The Yardbirds really got me into guitar initially. Then of course Jimi Hendrix, who was the man, though I was guitar obsessed for a couple of years before Jimi appeared in '67. I decided I wanted to be a guitar player sometime between 11 and 13 in a completely vain attempt to impress the young ladies!
And, have you always played guitar and in particular the Stratocaster?
I played piano as a kid, but I didn't like it much. I started guitar at 11 with the strings the wrong way round, took me a while to get over that hurdle, some might say I never did. But the important thing was it looked cool....
The first electric I had was a Hofner Colorama, bright red vinyl body with white piping, quite rare really, a body sort of midway between a fat SG and a thin Epiphone Casino or 330. I got that when I was 13 or 14. Lovely guitar. I got a Strat when I was 17. I really wanted a Les Paul, but god was good, he knew better than me and gave me a righteous Strat instead. I am forever thankful, lovely and all as Les Paul's are I'm a Strat man through and through.
Moving to London during the early days of the punk scene must have been a bit of a shock (oh it would have been so cheap of me to have added 'future' in there wouldn't it...)
Ha! I moved to London in 74, it was pre-punk pub rock days, punk really didn't happen till 76. Pub rock was pretty dire, not my thing at all to be honest, boring, and I was always too loud for that, much much happier with punk, I loved it!
Tell us a bit about the friendship you've developed with John McCoy, didn't this start way back then as well?
Yeah, we met in 75 or maybe 76, just before punk happened. He was recovering from having caught a bad case of jazz; it was about the time he left Zzebra.
Anyway, he joined my band and then proceeded to sack me, can you believe that! Then they got Paul Samson in to replace me and then they sacked the drummer! Clive Burr joined and that was the original Samson: and then THEY, Clive and Paul both sacked McCoy! Beat that for band politics!
McCoy and I have played together many times over the years, he got me the job in Gillan really, or at least the chance to get heard by Ian Gillan and Colin Towns which got me the job. Its always fantastic to play with him, he's an awesome bass player, a huge presence, a complete bastard, and playing with him again in GMT has been fantastic fun, long may it run.
So, then you formed the Bernie Torme Band and became something of a hit on the punk scene.
I wouldn't go quite that far, something of a hit indeed! The word may have ended with "hit" but methinks you've left out the "s" at the start! It was a laugh. We got a record deal on Jet records, the legendary Don Arden's label, we had a lot of fun and did a lot of crazy stuff but shall we say it maybe had the seeds of its own lack of success built into it! All great fun, good band, but ultimately born to lose: you can't get more Rock'n'Roll than that!
Before you got your first real big break joining the 'Mr Universe' line up of Gillan that must have been a bit special?
Absolutely, but at that time it was the "Japanese album that they couldn't get a release on in the UK" lineup! 'Mr Universe' was a bodge up and re recording of some of that with Mick and me.
It was very exciting and fantastic for me to play with Ian and the band; Ian was a big hero of mine. I really had to work hard to keep up when I joined first, it was a different level in all ways, Colin's writing especially was very different and very clever compared to what I was used to, and at that point it was all his writing, and because of that very musically challenging. It wasn't all in E or A! It was a great experience.
What are your highlights from those years, and if I dare ask the lo lights?
Too many highlights, the original 3 marquee gigs, reading, the first tour, the BBC live recordings, absolutely all highlights. I don't remember any lo lights till later on, we did a very crazy and dreadfully badly organised European tour end of 79, that took its toll, I remember some weird stuff in what was Yugoslavia where McCoy had to be talked out of jumping out of a fourth floor hotel window, I never really found out what that was about, but we all felt sorry for the poor dork who had his car parked underneath so we talked McCoy out of it. Would've made a big dent! It did take its toll though, we had no protection or much privacy on any level, and you spent days being persecuted by very crazy unpleasant people, and then you find out most of them are working for the band, were earning more than you were and, hey ho, you were paying their wages. It was a crazy time, it was chaos.
Things went a bit askew in 1980, most especially for me on a US tour where I literally nearly died. For me it really stopped being fun at the point: I loved playing with Gillan, but there was a distinct lack of organisation and lack of care and attention for the people involved, and at the point I needed medical help it turned out that the entire medical insurance we had for the tour provided absolutely nothing other than being checked for needle marks at the local Medicare hospital. I thought that was a bit out of proportion, probably because it was me who nearly died! I might not have been so bothered about the others if it had been them, you know just driveled on about what nice blokes they were as they were being buried! Whatever!
There had been a lot of money coming in, and I did not see that it should be spent on careering around the US wanking our egos off as a virtually unknown band no one gave a shit about, for a record label in its death throes (RSO) while carrying an oversized overpaid crew, a bus, a truck, our own gear and no health insurance. Most everyone in the band agreed with that, maybe without the health insurance, and we had a meeting after the first two gigs of that tour: Ian disagreed, and I guess that's when we really realised it wasn't a band, our opinion didn't matter, Ian's did. When we were out there we bumped into Sting and the Police, who were better known and were traveling around in a station wagon. And guess who cracked America?
I went on that tour weighing 11 stone, and came back five weeks later slightly over 9 stone. It did make me reconsider.
Looking back at it, apart from the music the laughs and the arguments this was what made the Gillan band such an unforgettable experience, there was just never at any point anything resembling any kind of sensible organisation or strategy or any management at all in any humanly known shape or form: there was no oversight of anything by the people at PAN agency other than to keep Ian happy and gigging at all costs so PAN would get a cut when Ian rejoined Purple, and also a percentage of all the endless gigs, whether they were profitable for the band or not. No matter how easy you were told anything was going to be, you always knew it was a load of total utter dreamtime bollox and that YOU would have to take all the consequences and carry the entire can! But as long as Ian was happy it rolled on, which would not have been a problem if the band had been employed on that basis and paid accordingly, but that was not the case.
There was no band management, and really largely outside the heads of the musicians and the fans there was no band. It effectively was what Ian did on his holidays from Purple, and though we were told and we believed at the time it was a band, it was really Ian plus a band of writers and backing musicians to keep him happy on his holidays and the cash rolling.
It was incidentally not chaotic that when I joined, it was at that stage being run mostly by Colin, but when the band had some success Colin's organisational involvement changed and it turned into complete chaos.
Around this time and for years to come you were something of a larger than life sci-fi character to us Gillan fans, where did your unique image originate?
It was very important to me! I nicked a bit of it from Bob "Derwood" Andrews from Generation X, a lot from Zaphod Beeblebrox on Hitchhikers guide, though I may be confusing the dates with that one, a senior moment maybe. A bit of late 60's Keith Richards and definitely Hendrix. A lot of it was accident too; I just got hold of the crazy pirate jackets and military stuff at a certain point and sort of built around it!
My girlfriend at the time was heavily into all things theatrical and she was a huge help in terms of all of that, she found a lot of the jackets, which in retrospect were probably much more important than my playing! She really helped me build that image. I was very conscious of the fact that the Rock'n'Roll thing is not just music, its visual and iconic too. You can be the best player in the world, but you've got to catch the eye, it is about entertainment. If Hendrix had looked like Bernard Manning he wouldn't have made the same impression.
It's rumoured you got bored and simply upped and left Gillian in 81 whilst in your Stratocaster Gypsy DVD interview it sounds like you were just a bit more business savvy then your other band mates, and jumped at the right time, what is the real story?
I wouldn't say I was really any more business savvy; I was just a different person to the others. They all agreed with me to some extent anyway even at the time; they just had more obligations and kids and families etc and different personalities.
I think they all really knew what was going on just as well as I did, we all talked about it anyway, they just closed their eyes and wished it would go away. But I'm not a leader of men, I just point out the truth as I see it, and you make your choice on what you do from there.
Being of Irish/Viking blood I had little personal problem about walking the plank, it was inevitable. Ian being the great Ian found it difficult to accept that I had left, so he sacked me a day later.
The others undoubtedly had more personal relationship irons in the fire than I had, Mick had been at school with Ian and had played with him for years in Episode 6, Mick had got Ian the audition/job with Purple, which incidentally put Mick out of a job at the time, Episode 6 broke up. Colin had worked with him for many years and had really formed Gillan around Ian when Ian went off on holidays; McCoy apparently thought Ian was his very best mate at the time.
I didn't really feel like that, I liked Ian a lot, he was a lot of fun to have a drink with, funny guy, but because of my life to that point I didn't really feel the need to trust someone just because I liked them personally. I've never been convinced of the value of trust anyway. I take things at face value and when it looks as if that isn't the case, you have to think again. When the dots stopped joining up, I was aware of that, and I had to stand up and be counted, that's how I am. But it didn't make me more savvy than the others, just a different person.
I had also unlike the others had been signed to a record company as an artist in my own right, prior to Gillan, so I was not really a 100% sideman by mentality or experience, as the others really were, and that is not a put down.
I would incidentally never have had any problem ego wise just backing Ian at the time, and doing what I was told, if I had been employed as a 100% sideman, I did know how that worked; but it was always presented as a band by Ian, along the lines of "this is a band and we all get an equal split". When I joined and that was first said to us I thought "Is this guy crazy? He doesn't have to offer me that", and if at any point he had wanted to change the terms I'd have gone along with that, I never felt I was all that important to the picture. To put some perspective on it the band was called Gillan after all!
But the fact is that Ian just didn't want to pay people at the time, he wanted to get them for half nothing by promising a share, then get all the money in and piss it all out the window in "expenses", and then there was no share anyway. And that's why I left and really that's what the whole argument was about. Where had the money gone? Fact is I knew, they knew, but they couldn't say, just bullshit. Time honoured music biz practice in those days, nothing really to get het up about, just educational and more than a bit personally difficult.
McCoy has spent many years since going on about all of this in a pretty negative way, because I think he feels personally emotionally cheated, which is very valid and true, he very definitely was: so was I. So was Colin, so was Mick. But I feel he knew as well as I did what was going on, and I personally feel that you should fight the battle at the time, and not carry on about it when the band is stone cold dead and buried, and then spoil the few remaining fans enjoyment of what was a good band. Their feelings are just as important as ours. He knows I think that, we don't agree on that.
The band was a piece of magic, and it was only money after all. It might have made life a bit easier at the time, but it was never enough to make us rich. I think the residual elephant in the room was what it did to us all emotionally as people. That was not good, and when the crown decided to pay us from one of Ian's many business bankruptcies (because it wasn't only us who was owed) it was a fantastic sense of closure for me at any rate. So as of about 3 or 4 years ago we all get paid an equal split, unfortunately we don't sell quite as many as in 1980, but hey ho its all good! And good to be acknowledged, its more than Virgin ever did.
And so to the Ozzy's Blizzard of Ozz, what the hell happened there Bernie?
Well that's like the question I've been trying hard to answer for 25 plus years! I think Ozzy and Rudy probably answered it better than I ever did or could: I was recording a solo album at the time, I had just got a deal, and I had the call to go out and help. I had a lot on my plate. Like most musicians this was the first time ever in my life I had had a chance to do my own thing and that was the most important chance I had ever had.
I was very honoured to be asked by Ozz, and I really wanted to help, but with all due respect to all and sundry, its not really about being famous, its about following your own star, just like Ozzy originally did, wherever that leads. Like I said I was hugely honoured to be asked, but I did not really want to spend the next two years plus playing someone else's songs in someone else's manner, no matter how brilliant they were, (and yes they were indeed 200% brilliant).
You have got to realise those great songs were truly fuck all to do with me, they were Blizzard's brilliant songs: they wanted a session player and I was not a session player, I don't really play other peoples stuff by and large. And if I do I do it my way, not theirs. Just like ole Frank.
In every band I had ever been in to that date I had always been involved in the writing and the creative aspect (for example Gillan): I've never just played in a "play someone else's parts identically" situation. I wasn't particularly good at that: I'm pretty good at being me, I'm pretty useless at being anyone else, especially Randy Rhoads.
Randy Rhoads was an insanely imaginative, brilliant and original musician, I tried and still try to learn from him, but I am not him and had no desire to attempt to be him.
And you also have to remember that I was completely unaware of Randy and the songs and his amazing playing at the time I was asked and went out to help. So when I heard him I was just stunned. As I said I'm still trying to get my head around some of it, and work it in to my own playing, he was truly awesome. This was also in the days of muzzy cassette players and vinyl; it was difficult for me to try to learn the tracks at all. And again that's never been something I'm particularly good at, learning other peoples stuff, I'm self taught, it takes me a while to see it my way, so it was very difficult.
I was also hugely phased by the personal human tragedy of it all, more than I could ever communicate to anyone, and I was totally exhausted and jet lagged as well. The situation on all levels bothered the hell out of me.
I was playing in a band in which every member looked at me onstage and wished I was not there, they wanted me to be Randy, and I could only agree, it was a no win situation on any terms.
The fact remains that they needed a guitar player who could momentarily walk the line to carry on and that was me, and I walked that line. I'll tell you no lie: it was a nightmare and I still have nightmares about it and when I think about the personal tragedy involved I still want to cry, it was truly awful. But I am very glad I had the balls to try to help, I'm very glad I did help, they deserved all the help I could give. It was an honour to be asked. I may not have been the best choice, but given the limited time they had to get rolling again, and given the people they had available, I was the one they chose to fill the gap, and I did that to the best of my abilities. And it worked, it rolled on.
Picking up with the solo stuff again, I finally saw you live in 84 on the 'Turn Out The Lights' tour at Crosskeys Institute of all places, where you cut your hand quite badly and bled all over my new Wrangler jacket, where do I send the cleaning bill? (Only joking obviously). That Electric Gypsies band was a great band line up you had around that time, (mixing punk and some references to psychedelia in there via Chelsea Girls and Painter Man), what was your musical vision for the band around that time?
Crosskeys was always a great gig, those were the days! sorry about the bleeding mate! Send the bill to Cherry Red Records! Yes my vision for the band was pretty much that, punk and psychedelia in a heavy rock context, not much has changed.
'Turn Out The Lights' is still a personal fave album of mine, how do you rate it now?
Its a funny thing but I really couldn't say, I really wasn't happy with it at the time, not heavy enough, but I've heard tracks since and some of it I now think is very cool, but its hard to listen to yourself, I try not to, I'd rather listen to other people and learn things than listen to my own past ravings!
And so onto a time when I feel you really should have had your big break, 'Torme' and (ex Girl frontman) Phil Lewis joining as the band's singer, how did that come about?
Philip wanted to join the Electric Gypsies, he came up and asked me, I, with my usual good judgment, said fuck off its a three piece, that's what its about! So when I had this publisher, Martin Costello, who said "Bernie I have a huge deal in the offing if you get a singer" So I immediately thought of Philip. Of course being Philip he kept saying maybe "yes" and "maybe" and "no" to joining till about a year after starting to do gigs with me, and being the music business the publisher turned out to be a total liar anyway!
That line up really was streets and years ahead of what was happening in the UK back then, and I felt you'd met your perfect foil in Phil, your ECT appearance being the nearest I ever got to seeing you live. What was it like creatively to be in that line up?
I loved that band it was a great live band, every gig a party, every gig an orgy even, we kicked major ass, but while it was great performance wise it was not great creatively. I think some of that was down to the fact of having two writers in the band that did not write together, so the competition came out in an "I don't want to do that" sort of thing. Philip never did much writing wise really till we did the demo tapes for die pretty, which turned into the album! But his tracks there were great, even if some of them were Muddy Waters rips. No better place to rip! But it was not a great creative relationship from my side of the fence really, it didn't really make sparks fly, we both seemed to be going in different directions really. Philip is a good writer, but we didn't write together, I think the only real co-write was 'Hardcore', the others were more political splits as I remember. 'All Around The World' for example I wrote in its entirety, that was a political split.
I'd put 'Back To Babylon' up there as one of the best UK rock albums from that 1985 big hair era, and John McCoy's production back then did sound slightly thin, but listen to it now and it could have been recorded in 2009, what did you think of that album?
Hate the production. I'm afraid I find it difficult to say much positive about it, the record company are thieving lying scum, I've never had a cent out of it, so my opinion is probably not exactly unbiased, but I don't think it was even 1% as good as the band was live. We'll agree to disagree.
So after relentless gigging with Torme it all ended rather abruptly (Phil went off to join LA Guns, Chris to join Shark Island, I'm not sure what happened to Ian) around 87 and you found yourself working with Dee 'muthafucking' Snider, on Desperado and what seemed like yet another record company stitch up. What was the story there?
Different really! They didn't really stitch us up, they just paid far too much while under the influence of the A&R man who signed us, which we of course willingly took because we were of course worth it! Then when said A&R left in a fit of pique due to some entirely unrelated matter like his petrol expenses, they had a retaliatory fit of pique and, having spent millions on us, shot themselves in the foot, and us through the heart, and promptly dropped us! Whoever called it the music business didn't realise that was a contradiction in terms! No one could call that shit business!
It must have been so frustrating not to be able to take such a seemingly fantastic live band out on the road though? (I witnessed the HRH 'Emaheevull' reunion with Dee so I can only just start to imagine what Desperado live might have been like)
Dee was not keen to play live at that point: we were offered special guest on Motorhead European dates before we recorded the album, Dee did not want to do it. I did.
He really wanted to be taken seriously as a singer at the time, which is fair enough he is an absolutely killer singer, just amazing, but I think he maybe associated his lack of appreciation as a serious singer with his big mouth "mothafucka" stage persona outshining his vocals, and that seemed to have been something that his management at the time were pushing, though I may be way off line with all that, its just what I think, I've never talked to Dee about it, whenever I see him we just talk about families and friends and stuff.
But if it ain't broke don't fix it, and I don't know of anyone who is as entertaining onstage as Dee is, he is his own version of a New York hurricane mixed with Lenny Bruce times ten and the voice from hell. And a really great writer. The man rocks.
But I do think in retrospect Desperado was all told maybe a bit serious really. For example I couldn't really have seen GMT doing any other track off that album other than 'Emaheevull', it was all a bit too grown up even for us old Rock'n'Roll humpty GMTy geriatrics! And that was revealing in itself.
So with the advent of grunge the band dissolved and the next I see is a couple of new low-key albums from you and the launch of your Retrowrek's label to launch expanded reissues of the older Torme solo stuff, but it seemed (excuse me if I'm way off here) that these were you keeping your hand in just doing what you wanted to do? What was that time like for Bernie Torme?
Life was good. Always is! But life changes. I was personally pretty fucked off with everything after the Desperado debacle, I had some serious health issues, including a punctured lung courtesy of the NHS which happened when they were trying to check if I had lung cancer. I didn't but they almost killed me trying to find out! A long story that I won't bore you with.
My wife was pregnant with our first kid and just after Desperado Dee phoned up at short notice and asked me to go and do the guitar on the first Widowmaker album. It wasn't a good time for me because of the punctured lung and my missus's being about to pop so I said no can do. So then my missus had our kid, she was working as a professional photographer at the time, mostly advertising and stuff, earning loads, I wasn't doing much so I did the childcare for a few years and that was fantastic. It really seemed important compared to prancing around a stage making a complete tit of yourself, which was all I had done for most my life. It was a big change but I loved it. But it was real, projectile vomiting into your mouth, shit up to your eyeballs, febrile convulsions, makes those satanic bands seem like pathetic teenage wankers really. It was life and positive and it was good. I'm very glad to have done that. It was small and important, and I didn't have to worry about being the great me, Bernie Torme. Are you aware who I used to be? Bollox. Small is good.
Then I met some guy who suggested the label, I had very bad experiences with labels like Zebra/Cherry Red and even Virgin in the past so it seemed a good idea. And it was. But it doesn't interest me much!
I missed playing live, so getting out and doing it again even on a small scale was cool.
And then to bring us right up to date and in 2006 you team up with old chum John McCoy and young upstart (and fantastic drummer) Robin Guy in G.M.T. I have to say the first time I heard 'Cannonball' I was blown away. Such Energy!
Ah yes but you should have seen us 5 minutes afterwards. Nurse! Nuuurse!
How did this line up and debut album 'Bitter and Twisted' come about?
John and I had been talking about it for years, really he got motivated and I was happy to go along. The old fart hadn't played live for about 15 years! We started off with Mick Underwood, he was great as he always is but it was a bit like three old boys discussing the First World War, it never seemed to get much beyond repeating what had happened before. It was a bit safe because we knew each other so well and it lacked chemistry. I had met Robin through a session he was doing at my studio, Barnroom Studios, and I suggested we have a jam. It was sort of a boot up the ass playing with Robin, a bit of an "ouch" really, but it worked good!
What's it like to be in G.M.T and playing with such a frenetic rhythm section and how easy is it to work with them?
They are both a total fucking nightmare! If one of them isn't off on some insane mental aberration the other is! But that's what they would say about me too, but of course I'm normal and level headed and they are both totally fucking mad. But we love each other. It's a marriage made in hell.
Always great to play with though, you just got to keep what's left of your wits about you.
'Evil Twin', G.M.T's second full album continued that fast and loose vibe in 2008 and Dee Snider put in a guest vocal on 'Punko Rocco' was that due to the HRH reunion in any way and how do you feel Evil Twin stacks up in your illustrious back catalogue?
I've no idea; really I don't listen to them.
And, what is next for G.M.T?
Hard Rock Hell and then Santa is bringing us our toys!
Before I do the usual Uber Rock quiz to finish off I have to ask you this, if you could change one thing in your career what would it have been and why?
The lightning stripe on my cheek.........total pain in the ass. Mistake from start to finish.
And on that note its time for the usual Uber Rock classic either/or quiz that we would ask you answer with your first answer and not necessarily think too much about the answers. OK? Lets go.
Mammoth or Desperado?
Farah Fawcett Majors or Olivia Newton John? (Back in the day obviously)
Livvy! And can I watch?
Glory Road or Future Shock?
Hair Hat or Bald Head?
Brad Gillis or Jake E Lee?
What about Zakk?
Family Guy or Simpsons?
Elektra or Virgin?
Bastards. One down and one to go. Very sad to see Elektra's demise.
Dublin or London?
Better Guinness in Dublin...
Ozzy or Dee Snider?
or Ian Gillan?
Electric Gypsy or Evil Twin?
And with that Bernie we'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk with us at Uber Rock once again. We wish you every success in the future and thank you for giving us so many hours of listening pleasure over the years. Finally see you on the Thursday night at HRH 3 when we can taunt Robin about his days in Cardiff glam legends Rag Dolls yet again...