Gary James' Interview With
Writer / Reviewer / Critic
Chris Welch is one of those guys who just happened to find himself in the center of the Universe. That's right, Chris Welch was a writer in England in early 1960s when The British Invasion was in full swing. In fact, Chris joined Melody Maker in 1964. He interviewed so many of the top singers, songwriters and musicians of the day. He's written books on Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Genesis, to name just a few. His latest book is
Clapton: The Ultimate Illustrated History (Voyageur Press).
Q - Chris, you were where the action was back in 1964. Did you realize that at the time?
A - Well, it's funny you should say that. I think I'm beginning to appreciate that even more now as I get older and the fact that so much music happened at that time. It's kind of an unrepeatable era, isn't it? Oddly enough, just last week I went to a club called Scotch Of St. James. It just re-opened. And that brought back a lot of memories because it was the "in" club in London in the '60s. It was where Jimi Hendrix played and The Beatles went. It reminded me, going back there, how lucky we were in the '60s to have all that amazing kind of explosion of music and personalities all happening at the same time.
Q - Did you go to that club in the '60s?
A - I did. I used to go there quite regularly, yeah.
Q - What a lucky guy!
A - It did feel lucky at the time, I have to confess. It seemed like the greatest job in the world, being paid to be a reporter and writing about all that incredible music.
Q - To get into that club you either had to have a membership or know somebody who could get you in. Is that true?
A - Yes, that's true. It was only a small club, but it was the center of the social world really in London at that point. You had to know people. I wasn't actually a member. I knew the guy who was the host of the club, so all I had to do was bang on the door. It was a bit like an old speakeasy in a way. You had a big, black door and they'd slide a window across a bolt and they'd look out and see who it was. (laughs) If they knew you, you'd be in. You could come in.
Q - How were you received in a place like that? Here you have the top Rock acts of the day in there like The Beatles and The Stones, and in walks a reporter. I don't know if these guys were on their best behavior or not, but were you welcomed?
A - Well, in most cases I would know a lot of the acts and musicians. I wouldn't bother The Beatles. It's a bit like the Royal Court, the Royal Family there. So, The Beatles and The Stones would be like the Royalty. The lesser musicians would be more liable to speak to me in a social kind of way. Generally speaking, I'd be made welcome. Bands like The Animals were there and Spencer Davis, The Kinks and all the '60s groups. I'd get to know them there.
Q - When did you know that something dramatic was going on in the music scene in England? Was it prior to 1964?
A - Well, you could say that whole era before The Beatles there was Skiffle music and Rock 'n' Roll from America, and then British attempts at playing Rock 'n' Roll, like Cliff Richard And The Shadows. So, that was a big music scene already happening in England. But really, I suppose the big moment came when I heard on the jukebox "Love Me Do" by The Beatles in October, 1962. That sounded so fresh and original and somehow authentic in a way. Different. I think that was the big turning point actually. And then the next turning point would've been seeing The Rolling Stones playing 'live' in concert, the festival I went to in 1963 and everybody going berserk. So those two moments really signified that something really exciting was happening. The Beatles and The Stones.
Q - Did you see The Beatles playing at The Cavern in Liverpool?
A - No. I did go to Liverpool, but only to go on a boat. I was on a cruise ship and being a big port, I was only in Liverpool for an evening. Every pub we went into had pictures of The Beatles plastered all over the wall. They were like a football team really. Everybody in Liverpool was very proud of them. Unfortunately I never got to the Cavern, so I never saw The Beatles there. But I did see The Rolling Stones playing in a tent at a festival in Richmond in Surrey. That was incredibly exciting, seeing them. It was like seeing a Punk Rock band, so rebellious and anarchic, so it seemed at the time.
Q - Were you at any point a singer or a musician?
A - Well, yes. I do play the drums until quite recently. I started out playing with little bands in the '60s. I played with a couple of Rock bands. I always loved drumming. In fact, John Bonham gave me a drum kit once, (laughs) which I had for many years. So, I had Led Zeppelin's drum kit for quite a long time.
Q - Do you still have it?
A - No. Sadly, I don't have it anymore. It's now being used in studios by other bands. Eventually I sold it. Not for a lot of money I have to say.
Q - You should have donated it to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
A - Exactly. I made a big mistake there. It was a present to me from John. I played it for a long time. A black and white striped Ludwig drum kit.
Q - Did that include cymbals?
A - No. It was just the drums. I already had cymbals. John gave me a Ludwig snare drum, two floor tom toms and a huge bass drum. It was a 28 inch bass drum. If you remember, he always played the big bass drums.
Q - He was a big man!
A - Yes, that's right. Bands would look a bit worried when I'd turn up with this enormous kit, playing in a small band in a pub somewhere.
Q - They probably thought you were going to play like John Bonham.
A - That's right. Unfortunately, I couldn't manage that.
Q - You just played clubs then? You didn't make a record?
A - That's right. But I was in a Heavy Rock band called Jungle Pilot for awhile. I think it's an old cartoon character. I think we took the name from that.
Q - This was pre-1964?
A - No. That was later. It was about 1969, 1970. It came much later.
Q - Were you playing originals in that band or covers?
A - Pretty much originals. Kind of influenced by Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. And the Blues of course. We had two guitars and a singer bass and drums.
Q - Hard to get work for a band like that at that time?
A - No. We did quite a few gig actually, clubs, and we used to play a couple of festivals and a concert or two. But gradually it fell apart, as all bands do.
Q - How did you get that job with Melody Maker?
A - Originally I was working on a local newspaper as a news reporter when I was about 20, 22. We were in Southeast London near Dartford, which of course is where The Stones came from. So, I found myself writing about The Rolling Stones on my local newspaper. People kept saying "you should join a music paper if you like writing about music so much." So, I applied for a job with Melody Maker, which was the big weekly newspaper and got a job. That was in 1964. So I left my local paper and became a music critic and reviewer and stayed with Melody Maker for about sixteen years, I think it was. That's the period you were asking me about when things really took off. (laughs) The first article I wrote in Melody Maker was in October (1964) on The Yardbirds. That's when I met Eric Clapton.
Q - So, you were doing reviews. Were you also doing interviews?
A - Yes. My job was as a news reporter. It was a weekly newspaper, Melody Maker. So I'd say doing album reviews, concert reviews, interviews, news stories, everything really. They had quite a small staff and it was quite an enormous pressure to get the paper out every week. So you sort of plunged in. I started work the first day thinking I'm never going to survive this. It's really pressurized. You have to get a story very quickly and write everything at high speed. It was so exciting, I ended up staying sixteen years. And of course you saw the whole music scene evolving each week. You were covering all the new bands, all the new acts, all the hit records and all the new trends. It was like a scramble to keep up with what was happening.
Q - Did you get to interview The Beatles and The Stones?
A - Well, I interviewed John Lennon and I met Ringo and George Harrison. I interviewed Paul McCartney later, after The Beatles had split up. I interviewed Paul lots of times with Wings. Because I joined Melody Maker shortly after The Beatles had become famous, there were other writers on Melody Maker who were closer to The Beatles than I was, if you see what I mean. So they would do the main Beatle stories.
Q - Where did you interview John Lennon?
A - It was E.M.I.'s head office in Manchester Square. I think it was about 1966. It was about the time of "Ticket To Ride". It was a rather formal interview. I think he was doing all those interviews at that point because it was expected of him. It was like a business. He wasn't in the stage where he wanted to change the world. After meeting Yoko, obviously his personality changed. This is the pre-Yoko John Lennon, all down to earth and serious.
Q - "Ticket To Ride" was on the "Help!" album. So, wouldn't your interview with John have been in 1965?
A - That's right. It was quite a long time ago. So I'm not exactly sure what year it was, but it was around that time, '65, '66. I got to interview virtually everybody who came through the music business.
Q - How long of an interview did you get with John?
A - About half an hour I would say.
Q - Were you at all nervous when you did that interview?
A - Yes, I think I was. He was pretty much of a God-like figure then. The Beatles were so enormous. Everything they did was vitally important. What was the new record going to be like? What were their plans? What were they thinking about? Fame? Success? They were under tremendous pressure. Everybody felt you had to have The Beatles in the paper. They were absolutely essential to the success of any music paper. They kind of ran with the whole music industry, didn't they? They were sparking it all I should say. What they did was vitally important. So you had to get a good interview.
Q - Did you ever interview Brian Epstein?
A - I interviewed him on the phone once, yes. He was mainly concerned about Cilla Black and his acts on NEMS. He had so many different acts he was trying to promote. I seem to remember doing an interview with him talking about his plans for the year, the acts coming up. He was always more concerned about his new acts rather than the older ones.
Q - I think he had too may acts, don't you think so? The Beatles must have been a handful.
A - Yes, they started to feel they were being neglected, didn't some of them, if you have too many acts in the company.
Q - Did you ever interview Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones?
A - I did, yes. I interviewed Brian.
Q - How did you find him to be?
A - Well, I found him very charming. One of those interviews you really remember. I went to see him one morning in a little muse cottage he had in Chelsea. A muse cottage is a conversion of like a stable. You'd have a big house in the West end of London and they'd always have like servants' quarters or a stable at the back. By the 1950s they'd all been converted to apartments. So that's where Brian was living, in this tiny little apartment on a narrow, cobbled street. There was a really tiny little kitchenette or lounge and he was "Would you like some tea?" So he made me Earl Grey Tea. (laughs) I remember that. He was the founder of The Rolling Stones and I think he felt he should still be the leader of it despite the fact that Mick and Keith were really asserting their control over the group. In talking to me perhaps he felt he was asserting his personality.
Q - What year did you interview him?
A - I'm pretty sure that was 1965. I remember him telling me about a trip to America. He was a bit concerned about that tour they'd done in the States and him being threatened over having long hair. He was a bit worried about all of that.
Q - Who was threatening him?
A - People in the street or in bars. Not other artists. Maybe guys that sort of took offense to his appearance. He happened to wander into a bar or a club some night. People weren't used to people with long hair in 1965. I think he found that a bit alarming.
Q - Have you ever interviewed Charlie Watts?
A - Yes, in the past.
Q - He's a guy who doesn't talk very much.
A - He will if you get him on the right subjects, about things that he's interested in. He will loosen up eventually. He's gotten better in recent years, hasn't he?
Q - I wouldn't know. I've never been able to interview Charlie Watts. You went on tour with Led Zeppelin? What year was that?
A - 1970. The first time I saw them in America was in Carnegie Hall in 1969, October of 1969.
Q - You got around! Did Melody Maker send you to Carnegie Hall?
A - Yeah, that's right. I was invited. Peter Grant (Led Zeppelin's manager) invited me over. It was an amazing event. It was terrific. In fact, it was the first 'live' Rock show I saw in the States. I was amazed at the reaction. People screaming, cheering, jumping on the stage. The funny thing was, when I got there, they'd forgotten to get me a ticket. So I had to stand on the stage, which was no hardship. I just stood in the wings and watched the band from there. I remember Chris Wood from Traffic was standing there watching as well. Screaming Lord Sutch was there. The whole stage was full of people, (laughs) watching the band. I went on tour with Led Zeppelin later in Germany in 1970. That was great stuff. Fantastic tour. A whole week. It was Berlin, Cologne and Essen. They were playing to crowds of 7,000 to 8,000 people every night. Maybe even more I think. They were playing like three hour shows. You really got to feel how exhausting it was to be on the road with a band and then partyin' afterwards after each show.
Q - Were they in fact partyin' after a show. I saw a Led Zeppelin bio recently where it said they wanted to be left alone after a show.
A - Well, I remember we went to Berlin and we all went to a disco afterwards. I was definitely with John Bonham and I'm pretty sure that Jimmy and Robert were there as well. It may well be that John Paul Jones would rather go home and have a rest. But certainly there was an after show party in Berlin.
Q - What was Led Zeppelin doing at the disco. Drinking? Trying to pick up women?
A - Mainly just joking and chatting to people. They'd be surrounded by people who wanted to talk to them, obviously. Lots of music biz people. There would be girls dancing as well. It wasn't like an orgy or anything like that. It's just an ordinary guy's night out in a disco. I remember an awful lot of lager and cocktails of various kinds, Harvey Wallbangers, and stumbling back to the hotel, waking up with a dreadful hangover and hearing all those terrible noises while I was trying to sleep in the hotel. It sounded like animals roaring. I thought I was having a nightmare. I discovered the hotel was right next to the Berlin Zoo. (laughs) So, it wasn't Led Zeppelin I was hearing. It was actually tigers roaring.
Q - Since you were at a disco, did any of the guys in Zeppelin get up and dance?
A - I don't remember that. There seems to have been a lot of weird looking people there. John Bonham was saying to me, "There's a lot of weird looking people here." I think they were all transvestites, that's what it was. He said "There's no way for a normal bloke like you and me to have a pint of lager, is there?" I remember him grumbling about it. (laughs)
Q - I wonder who picked that club.
A - It was a kind of cabaret disco. I have no idea where it was now. It seemed a bit outrageous at the time.
Q - You wrote a book on Peter Grant.
A - Yes, I did.
Q - What a fascinating guy he was. Did you get to talk to him before he passed away?
A - I did. I knew Peter very well. I saw him not long before he died. I spoke to him on the phone just a few days before he died.
Q - He died at 60.
A - Well, he was very over weight for a long time and then he lost weight and went on a big diet. Maybe that affected his heart. I don't know. It was a heart attack. He was a great character.
Q - Did you ever interview Jimi Hendrix?
A - I did, yes. I met Jimi when he first arrived in London at a party. His manager, Chas Chandler, introduced me to him. This is in 1966. He barely just arrived in London and I remember him sitting on the floor in the corner at this party looking pretty shy. Obviously he felt a bit out of place. He'd just arrived and didn't know that many people. I had a brief chat with him then to try and cheer him up. It struck me that he looked quite lonely, to be honest. But then I met him later when he got the band together as The Experience and interviewed him at his hotel and he was great. I interviewed him two or three times actually.
Q - You probably saw them in concert as well?
A - Yes, I did. After meeting them at that party and then of course they got the group very quickly. Chas Chandler, his manager, rang me and said "Come down and see them. They're playing a little club called Blaises in Queensgate." That was like a basement. It was a gambling club really. Tiny basement. In the corner they'd set up the drum kit and the amplifiers and The Experience came on, Mitch, Noel and Jimi and did a whole set. They did "Third Stone From The Sun", I remember, and "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Foxy Lady" and "Hey Joe". I'm not sure if they did "Foxy Lady". They definitely did "Hey Joe". There was a whole crush of people standing in a semi-circle watching him play. Virtually all the guitar players in London were there, Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck, I think Eric (Clapton) was there as well. Everybody was looking a bit taken aback because he was so good. (laughs) He was also biting them guitar strings with his teeth and playing the guitar over the back of his head, doing all those show biz things and making a huge impression. But that was just like a press preview really. It was like a showcase gig.
Q - Did you over interview Jim Morrison.
A - No, although I did see him twice. He played at the Isle Of Wight in 1970. I saw him playing at The Roundhouse, which was a big Hippie venue in Camdentown in North London. I don't know if he was doing interviews at that time.
Q - How about Janis Joplin?
A - No. I saw her in a club, The Speakeasy, hanging out with Eric Clapton or she was chasing after Eric Clapton, that's right.
Q - Since she was chasing him, did she ever catch him?
A - Well, that's a good question. (laughs) I just remember her shouting "I want to ball Eric Clapton." That's what she was saying at the top of her voice in The Speakeasy. She made her ambitions very clear.
Q - Since you wrote a book on Eric Clapton, did you ever ask him about Janis Joplin?
A - I don't ever recall speaking to him about Janis Joplin. I don't think it came up really. I interviewed Eric lots of times over the years on different things, with The Yardbirds, with Cream, later with Blind Faith and of course when Cream got back together again. I interviewed Eric again back in 2005. I went to Madison Square Garden to see Cream, so that was great when they did their comeback tour. It wasn't a tour. It was just one concert. (laughs)
Q - What is the difference between a writer and a journalist? I have an idea, but you tell me.
A - That's a good question. The difference between writing a book and working for a magazine?
Q - I suppose that's the answer to the question. I was thinking a journalist has written books.
A - I was trained as a journalist. I started out as a journalist, but you can be a creative writer too and combine the two skills. When you're writing for a magazine, you want to be able to engage readers, not just to rely on hard facts. Anybody can purvey the facts and information, but you need to able to give it a style and empathy with the subject and appeal to the reader at the same time, making what you're writing engaging that people want to read it. But I think that's the skill of being a writer really. You can take it a few steps forward and make what you're writing... I always thought writing should be a form of entertainment, whether it's a book or whether it's a magazine.