Gary James' Interview With David Coverdale of
Whitesnake and Deep Purple
Maybe you remember him from his days with Deep Purple. Maybe you remember him from his days with Whitesnake. His name is David Coverdale.
Whitesnake is still around and along with Hip-o / Geffen / Universal Music, have just released a new CD titled "The Definitive Collection", which spans nearly every studio album issued by the group, including its pre-US fame LPs - "Snakebit", "Lovehunter", "Ready An' Willing" and "Come An' Get It". Along with the CD, Whitesnake has also released a DVD - "Live...In The Still Of The Night" (Special Collector's Edition).
There's lots to talk about, so let's get to it.
Q - I recall seeing you with Deep Purple at the Onondaga County War Memorial in 1973. I believe Savoy Brown opened the show.
A - The Boogie Brothers.
Q - And of course you had just replaced Ian Gillan in the band. So, the next day, the Syracuse newspapers ran their review of the show in which they said something like "Ian Gillan was, as usual, in fine singing form."
A - (laughs)
Q - So much for critics.
A - Well, the informed ones...it's always a crack up. It's funny, when I scored with Geffen Records over here, very few people had actually been aware that I had been with Deep Purple. So, it was terrific for me, just to talk about the Whitesnake experience. I learned from the past. I try not to live in it. But, the first question I'm asked inevitably when I go to Europe is "So, David, how was it with Deep Purple?" (laughs) It always shocks me. So, no problem. No big problem. In those days I was picking up platinums for Ian before I was getting me own.
Q - In the 1970s, when groups like Deep Purple, Grand Funk and Led Zeppelin were around, there were no CDs, DVDs, MTV or VH-1.
A - Correct.
Q - So, if you wanted t learn about a band, you'd have to turn to magazines like Circus and Hit Parader...
A - And Creem.
Q - So, you'd look at all the pictures and you could only imagine what the group and their equipment sounded like and what the show must be like.
A - That was that incredible mystery.
Q - So now when you put out a DVD of your show, doesn't that take away a lot of what it is you do onstage?
A - Absolutely correct, but the most requested thing, the most requested project for me to do is the DVD. For years I wouldn't do it because all the DVDs I was sent looked cheap and nasty and sounded the same. It wasn't necessary for me to do that. You've got to be able to live up to the mystique as well. That's the other thing. This band does. The opportunity to make this DVD came up and it was coupled with the direction of Hamish Hamilton, who is like the Martin Scorsese of rock shows. He does U2...The Stones. We found out the guy was a fan, so he was involved in the deal I was offered, so it was irresistible to me. I knew it was gonna look beautiful. All that was up to me was to deliver musically. And it was two thirds through a tour, so we were well-greased. I maintained the premise that if I wasn't happy with it, it wouldn't go. That was the bottom line.
Q - You probably have a lot of bootleg videos out there.
A - Oh, of course. We get some of them and host them on whitesnake.com. This is the strange thing. I have my set of principles which I'm sure you have. The three most asked for projects from David Coverdale and Whitesnake are the DVD. Here it is...enjoy it. A "live" record, which hopefully we'll be releasing later this year (2006). New material. As a bonus for that will be four new songs. I'm just working on putting a new deal together for a new Whitesnake record to be released early next year, to coincide with touring, etc. We're working currently with my guitarist, Doug Aldrich and the songs are coming together great.
Q - You say you want to play the US, but "I've been very disappointed in how we are perceived in the States by a lot of the promoters."
A - Yeah. And by a lot of the media.
Q - How are you perceived? What do you mean by that?
A - It's very easy for people to look at the superficial aspect of who I am and what I do. I had phenomenal success with MTV. But of course, that was in Big Hair Days. If you look at Rock, there's always cycles that come 'round. There are some aspects that I can understand. Why someone would confuse Whitesnake with Poison...no disrespect to my friends in Poison, but it had nothing to do with Poison. The music has significantly more substance as far as I can feel or a lot of the bands that were out there. It just coincided the time capsule that was MTV in the late 80s. I still benefit from the success I experienced at that time. So, I'm not negating it. Don't misunderstand me. But, that was such an overt image that was still maintained in a lot of people's psyche over here. It never was a problem outside of the States. For instance, here, if I want to go on tour, the first thing the promoters want to do is package me with a bunch of 80s acts, which is not something that I have to do anywhere else. That's the difficulty. If I want to get out and play music to people in America, do I bit the bullet and go "OK, put me on a Big Hair package"? It's tough. I've done it for a few years and it was very uncomfortable. So, there's a perception left over from the success of that time, which is great on a private level, that I will maintain a very substantial lifestyle from that and the other is, it's very frustrating 'cause it's kind of locked me in this time capsule.
Q - I believe you and Whitesnake came to Syracuse a few years back.
A - Yeah. It was with the Scorps (Scorpions). The Scorps, bless them, even though they did very well in the 80s, were never caught up with the Big Hair aspect. It was a much more comfortable package for me to go out on. We co-headlined and made a lot of people happy. We did great. I'm a song guy. So, if I go to see somebody, I want to hear songs. You had some great songs from that time. You had some people who had a career from one (song).
Q - Like Great White.
A - No names. I worked with Great White a few times and they're a fine band. I'd love to work with people like Kenny Shepherd or Johnny Lang. Those kind of things that are not necessarily Hard Rock or Heavy Metal. That's the challenge. My life has got challenges and I'm pretty good at over-coming them. It'll come, but hopefully with the release of the video, people will see that this is not retro and not nostalgia. The songs are as electrifying today if not more so, than they were performed originally.
Q - I saw a show back in 1972, at Onondaga County War Memorial with Earth, Wind and Fire and Fire as the opening act, followed by ZZ Top, followed by the headliners, Uriah Heep. That's the kind of show, or should I say billing, that Whitesnake is looking for.
A - There you go. That was the Bill Graham way of doing things. Instead of pigeon-holing, you're gonna see the same bloody thing as hear the same bloody thing over and over again. Once we homogenize the entertainment industry, which is when you get giants out there buying up the Pac Man, then the true consumer suffers. One of my favorite things when I would come to American in the early days with Purple, is I'd just go through. I'd be sitting in the back of a limo, playing FM radio and getting the driver to inevitably pull over to that stunning vast oasis of Tower Records, which was new at that time. In those days they said if they didn't have the record, they would get it for you within thirty-six to forty-eight hours and there would be no charge. So, I'd go in there and load up the trunk with vinyl albums that weren't available in Europe. I'd just hear this fantastic variety of music. We had a show in Washington with Johnny Winter on it, with Purple. Opening for us was Chicago. I was a fan of both bands. I was just there waiting for them. Whereas now, if I get out and do promo, it's as if someone in one main office is programming the same Who songs, the same AC/DC songs, the same Zeppelin songs, the same Van Halen songs. I would do three cities a day promo. I'd do radio for the drive time in the morning and I'd fly to another city for the lunch time show. Then I'd fly to another city and do the evening drive home show. Inevitably, my assistant and I would get a rental car or whatever and put the station on that I was going to be interviewed by and inevitably, it would be "Teenage Nervous Breakdown", "Jump", "Back In Black". It was the same songs wherever we went, on radio. As if The Who didn't have a gigantic catalog, as if AC/DC didn't have a gigantic catalog. You could just go on forever. I'm hoping that Satellite (radio) will get back to the original. I had dinner recently with Lee Abrams and I'm hoping satellite will achieve or return to that variety. The consumer doesn't have a problem. It's the people who package it, the marketers or the bean counters. (laughs)
Q - On this last tour of the U.S. that you did with Whitesnake, you didn't find one CD of Whitesnake in the stores you checked?
A - Correct.
Q - Whose fault would that be, the record company? Would that be the distributor?
A - I think it's everyone's (fault). I was involved with a management company at that time, I've since moved on, but they didn't do enough preparation. The guy I'm working with at Geffen, from actually having that nightmare re-activated my relationship with Geffen, which is why now we have this "Definitive Collection", which is why there's dialogue with Geffen and why you and I are actually talking. So, from disappointment or negative aspects we've turned that into something positive.
Q - What is wrong with the music business today?
A - Oh, we don't have time. You gotta weekend? They should employ A&R guys to sign new acts.
Q - Maybe I should re-phrase the question. What's wrong with the bands? The singers can't sing? The musicians can't play? The song writing is terrible. The groups I see seem to be doing a bad imitation of a garage band.
A - Is that because it's a generational thing for you? Do you think the younger audience doesn't feel the same? I remember my father couldn't stand listening to The Yardbirds or The Pretty Things or The Stones. You've got to be careful that we don't sound like old farts.
Q - The bands of today are not as good as the bands in the sixties or seventies.
A - I don't know whether it's a matter of taste. There's a huge band now which I'm sort of acquiring a taste for in the U.K. called The Arctic Monkees. I can hear certain elements of whatever. A lot of the stuff that's being supported nowadays is people's attitude. If they think it's cutting edge, they tend to take a blinkard perspective at what is actually being perpetrated. I don't know. A lot of A&R guys that I've worked with through the years were musicians who sort of owned up to "maybe I'm not good enough to make it, but I want to be involved with music", so they gravitate either towards agents or work in record companies. It's the last ten years really that I've been basically working with people, 'til this new guy I've been working with at Geffen who is actually a player and a singer, so we can talk in a musical sense, an identity sense, but most of them couldn't play an instrument. They were looking at marketing. That's the thing. The other thing I will try to change is to make CDs more accommodating economically to people. If you have A&R people making a band concentrate on songs, you're gonna get more value for your money. I spend a lot of money for my tunes. If I buy an album, it's $9.99. C'mon. That's fine. Or, I can pick up a handful of tracks for 99 cents a pop. But the circumstance is, that isn't going on. There's no foundation for a career anymore. One of the things an A&R man would do would see a band and recognize potential. You like the songs. You put 'em together with a producer who you think can fine tune the songs for them, sell a certain amount of records, not anticipate mega platinum success. Second album to go a but further. Now, if you don't strike it, you're out on your ass. (laughs) I came up in a different way. I'm very happy that I had a great opportunity when people were actually buying records and I was very blessed that I was actually selling them. I would like to see that happen again. I'm a huge fan of recorded music. I don't want to see it go south. If I was looking for a deal ten years ago, I'd have almost limitless doors to knock on. Now I've got five, unless I go with some independent. But the circumstance is, this is what it is. How are we gonna change it? We're not gonna change it through coming up against a wall of arrogance and ignorance. I'm a big movie fan also. I see the more successful DVDs become, the cheaper they are, whereas with music, when CDs aren't selling as many, they tend to raise the price of them to try and cover that hole. I think it's defeating that premise. Who knows? I think the bottom line is songs. Good songs will always rise to the surface.
Q - Do you watch American Idol?
A - No. I watch very little network.
Q - Well, I guess I can't ask you about American Idol.
A - Well, you can ask me. I've been asked a great deal to feature on these things, these kinds of shows, as a judge. It's something of course that I could never do. There's no way I could destroy someone publicly, as from what I understand these people do.
Q - Simon Cowell does it.
A - Well, his Karma is going to be something special I would imagine.
Q - Would it be fair to say that in 1990, when Kurt Cobain and Nirvana entered the music scene, the Hair Bands were nudged aside? That was the pivotal year wasn't it?
A - Yeah, that was probably it. I continued selling records. I sold several million records the first five years of the 90s. A lot of the Grunge thing was more media driven as was Punk. I formed Whitesnake at the height of Punk in London.
Q - Punk lasted about six months in the U.S.
A - If you make music your mistress, you've got to accept the mood swings. That's one of my fabulous clichés. It means I've never been involved in fashion. The closest I've ever been to fashion was to be in The Big Hair scenario. My music has transcended fashion. I'm talking about thirty-odd years I've been doing this. Page and me are into our fourth decade as players...performers. Three generations. The circumstance is you've got to accept those highs and lows. When I started, the usual cycle of music fashion was five years. With the introduction of MTV, it's significantly shorter now. It could be a year. It could be six months. That's actually what the record companies are doing now. They're waiting to see what the street is dictating and then trying to capitalize on it, as opposed to art. My feeling is, you should have art, then enterprise.
Q - How did you get that gig with Deep Purple? Did Ritchie Blackmore come into a boutique show you were working in or did you answer and ad?
A - No. I sent a tape and a really dodgy photograph, which is what the Purple off had insisted upon. So basically, I sent this down with an accompanying letter, then pretty much gave up. But then surprisingly we got a phone call...be in London at this time. So, this is the story I got from the guys once I got in the band. The Deep Purple office, in those days, was 25 Newman Street in London...was floor to ceiling with audition tapes and albums from amateurs, professionals, well-knowns, unknowns. Every couple of days, Ian or maybe Ritchie would come in and pick up an armful of tapes, take 'em home and have a listen. I was very fortunate that Ian Paice picked up mine along with God knows what else and he called Ritchie and said "I think I've found a guy with the kind of tone we're after. He's a bit rat-ass", cause I was drunk (laughs) on the demo tape and the rest is history. That was it.
Q - So, you were working in a boutique and singing in a bar band?
A - I was working in a boutique and singing locally, yeah. The night I auditioned for Deep Purple, I was supposed to be opening for The Average White Band at a friend of mine's club in the North of England. The people I was working with, one of the guys still hasn't forgiven me to this day 'cause he wanted t blow the Average White Band off stage. Can you believe that? Go figure.