“Three or four years ago I just started listening to the music again. All the old albums I’d played on… and thought: ‘This is great!'”
– Gerry McAvoy
It’s a funny thing. One man’s favourite musician is another man’s signal to head for the bar. One man’s great guitar solo is another man’s ‘too many notes too loud’ and one man’s hero is another man’s villain. With one notable exception: Rory Gallagher. I’ve yet to find anyone with a bad word to say about the Irish Bluesrock icon. So why, when longtime Gallagher bassist Gerry McAvoy came to write about his life on the great man’s road, did Gallagher’s brother try to stop publication? In an exclusive interview, 3Songsbonn asked McAvoy, former Gallagher drummer Ted McKenna and the man they both believe is the closest thing to Rory Gallaghers sound this side of the celestial Blues Chorus – Marcel Scherpenzeel for their views on the man and his magic.
GM = Gerry McAvoy
Gerry, Rory’s been gone 18 years now. Is it as hard for you to believe as me?
GM: Yeah, it’s really hard to believe. At the time it was a tragedy. I still think of Rory a lot. Maybe not on a daily basis, but we were good friends and we had some great times together you know.
Here in Germany I heard of Rory’s death via the local paper in Düsseldorf, but when I bought the English papers straight after there was nothing. In your book (‚Riding Shotgun‘) you mention hearing about it via a friend who heard it also first on the news here in Germany.
GM: That’s right. It was our old Tour Manager Phil McDonell. His brother-in-Law Klaus heard it on the radio in Stuttgart. It took three or four days until the English press caught on to it. He was popular in England as well but he was very popular here (in Germany). The Band was very popular. We’d been coming to Germany for years and he got to know the German psyche. Rory was in Hamburg when he was like thirteen/fourteen and playing with a Showband, so he knew the psyche and how to react to a German audience.
And of course he was practically synonymous with Germanys ‘Rockpalast’. Even today he’s the first name most viewers associate with the programme. Not surprising, since he delivered some stellar performances. What was it like to tour with him Ted? (drummer Ted McKenna) you joined the band after finishing ‘Photofinish’…
TM: That’s right. I did ‘Photofinish’, ‘Top Priority’ and ‘Stagestruck’. Touring was great.
Did it change over time?
GM: There were changes, as the band sort of got bigger you know. Not big ones. But where we all used to fly in a certain way, later Rory might go up the front and some of the guys would be at the back. Little things like that, basically because he had a terrible fear of flying so Donal (Rory’s brother/manager) made sure he traveled first class.
Just later on?
GM: just towards the end, yes.
From what I understand that was the start of his health problems – because he was having to take so much medication against it.
GM: That’s right, yeah.
You left around the time those problems started…
GM: No, it was long before that he started having the problems, in the early 80’s. It was in the early 90’s that it got worse.
So your decision to leave the band wasn’t related to that – it was primarily to work on your own material?
GM: Well, I’d always been in a band and obviously you couldn’t bring it to the table with Rory because you had to respect that he was the man you know. It was his band. His thing. It would have been an embarrassment to do it. So I used to have my own little band when we weren’t working, and write, and play, and even made a couple of solo albums – in fact Ted’s on one of them.
TM: We used to play the Bridge House in Canning Town. I was away with John Etheridge doing a bit of BeBop.
Although in Gerry’s book you got the job, with Rory because you were a solid Rock/Blues drummer?
GM: We must have tried twenty or thirty drummers. We tried Les Binks from Judas Priest. We tried so many different guys. We actually got Wilgar (Campbell) back, but it didn’t work., and then Ted. We were getting towards the end and I was getting fed up… we were in the middle of making an album and without a drummer, at Air Studios in London, which was extremely expensive and trying out different drummers at the same time. We had an engineer, Colin Fairley.
TM: Colin was involved in bands in Scotland and the Alex Harvey Band had split up. We’d done some things with Zal Cleminson and also with The Tubes. We were all fed up. I went out for the night with the guitar player Billy Rankine who ended up working with Nazareth. I meant to go and see Alex but he was off with some old pals from Germany so we finished up in this pub and met up with this engineer who said he was working with Colin, who was working with Rory Gallagher, who in turn was going through all these drummers and not finding anyone. I just thought ‘interesting’, but next day I got a call from Colin asking me if I wanted to come down and play. So I went down, and that was it.
GM: And we carried his drums!
Such was your relief at finally having found a drummer. But Ted, it must have been a culture shock going from the ‘Wild’ Alex Harvey to the ‘mild’ Rory Gallagher?
TM: It was more the change of pace and the energy of the music that changed you know. With Alex we used to do some heavy stuff – but it was more a theatrical type of show which was all structured. We had our heavy things, and ups and downs and things but with Rory it was far more intense energy wise – ALL the time!
That was quite a challenge for me because even at rehearsals I thought ‘Well, I’m getting the hang of this, it’s hard work’. But when we went onstage, the energy level just went up and up. The pressure, you know, it was amazing. The first gig we did was the Macroom Festival (in County Cork). A bit hectic for a first gig – I was still learning the songs!
GM: There’s a fantastic bit of film footage from the plane trip to Macroom. Ted’s got his headphones on and he’s still learning the songs. It was hilarious because there were eight or nine thousand people at the festival. It was the first real Festival in Ireland too so you can imagine Ted’s nerves. But we got through it. At the very end Rory turned around and said “Ladies and gentlemen please. On the drums, a big hand for…” and he forgot Ted’s name. Teds going ‘Ted McKenna!’ and Rory goes “And on the bass” and I call back “Gerry McAvoy!”
Although I think he would have recognized you somehow. But Ted made a good point about the intensity of working with Rory. How did you manage twenty years Gerry? You weren’t one to stand still onstage yourself.
GM: (Laughs) No. It’s in my nature. It’s the way I am you know. I still do it and I’m sixty seven (laughs again – and for the record Gerry is a ‘young’ 61). I think it’s a Celtic thing personally – but then Marcel has it as well and he’s not Celtic unless it’s Dutch Celtic!
There are some wonderful stories of life on the road in your book Gerry. I read though that Donal (Rorys brother & Manager) tried to stop publication. Did he give a reason? Maybe felt you were too critical?
GM: Well, I just told the truth. It’s my story. Twenty years of it, and there are some things that Donal objected to but I couldn’t see what he was objecting to. But since then we’ve talked. We actually met last year, sadly enough at Lou Martin’s funeral and we had a chat so we’ll see what happens.
It’s time to get on to the band that’s playing this evening. Why after so long do you suddenly want to ‘Celebrate’ as you describe the tour, Rory’s music?
GM: Well, It’s something we’ve been doing, not necessarily with this unit, off and on over the years.
With Nine Below Zero we did a Band of Friends thing incorporating musicians from Nine Below Zero, with Lou Martin and even Ted came along and we did some shows in Greece. With two drummers. But Dennis (Greaves) in Nine Below Zero didn’t really like that direction. Which is fair enough and I can understand it. I think it was three, maybe four years ago and I don’t know if you know what it’s like. When you make an album sometimes as an artist – it’s done. You put it away. You mightn’t listen to it again for weeks, months or even years. Being involved in Nine Below Zero and things and this and that, I didn’t get a chance to listen. Anyway, three or four years ago I just started listening to the music again. All the old albums I’d played on. Started with Top Priority with songs like Philby and Follow Me and listened to Ted’s drumming and thought: ‘This is great. These are great songs!’ I’d played a Festival with Marcel in 2006 or 2007 and was knocked out. I thought the time was right in 2010 and rang Ted up. He was lecturing at Glasgow University at the time but wanted to get out again.
TM: Well I’d never really stopped. I was playing with Michael Schenker in Japan in 2008 so I was still interested in doing things and when Gerry mentioned he’d met someone – Marcel – I was interested…
How do you go about replacing Rory’s sound in the band?
GM: Well you can’t. You can’t replicate Rory. Not at all.
Marcel. How do you go about playing lead guitar in a band celebrating Rory Gallagher? You’re wearing a lumberjack check shirt it should be noted.
MS: (Laughs) I wear shirts like this my whole life. I’m really happy that people who knew Rory and saw Rory, like my sound. There are a lot of bands who play the music of Rory Gallagher exactly but you can’t play it just like that. You have to feel it from the heart and so there are a lot of things that Rory put in but also a lot of times I play my own things with maybe the sound of Rory, otherwise it would be boring to play the songs exactly like the originals.
GM: The thing with Marcel is that he has the knack of putting his own stamp on within the Rory thing, you know? There are a lot of Rory Tribute bands out there who play the songs but the way we treat it: Ted played for four years with Rory and I did for twenty so we also try to put our own little stamp on and change things slightly. We change little things for audience participation too and Marcel will do a Rory thing and also be himself. What he captures is the energy and the spirit of Rory. I have never ever seen another guitar player do it. We’ve played with a lot of other guys but…
TM: I don’t sit down every night and try to play the drum licks from the records because I’ve heard some really good Rory tribute bands and the guys are playing the solos almost identically. They play the exact solos but we don’t play it the same any night. It’s all about intensity. And the songs are such good songs that you just play the song in the moment.
GM: Also, if Rory was here with us now. He wouldn’t be going onstage and playing the same old thing.
TM: He played it differently every night. There wasn’t a set way he would always play a song.
Maybe coverbands feel that if they don’t play an identical solo to the one on Live in Europe the audience will think it’s because they can’t get it right – where as, being the original band, you can get away with changes?
TM: If you want to do the record then do the record, but that is not the spirit of any band. You can’t emulate the feeling by just playing the notes. You have to add your own personality.
MS: You always have to know ‘that’s the song’ but there are holes within the song and that makes it interesting because I will play something and Gerry will hear it or maybe Gerry plays it…
GM: Which is exactly what I used to do with Rory. We played off each other. A tribute band will play Walk on Hot Coals just like it was on Irish Tour 74 but we’ll play it differently. Marcel will play something, then Ted will come in. It’s a band. That’s what makes it exciting.
The topic of doing your own thing begs the question: Have you considered a studio album as Band of Friends with all new material?
GM: That’s actually something we’ve been working on for the last six months. We’ve got about eighteen songs in the pot already.
Now you’re established as playing a Rory tribute show, might there be problems introducing new material?
GM: We did a festival in France, five or six thousand people. Probably about 8% of them Rory Gallagher fans. The rest were just music fans. Now, we could have played anything that particular day the way we played. It didn’t have to be Rory. That’s what made us think. ‘Hang about’ it was just the way we projected ourselves to the audience. Four and a half thousand people didn’t know Rory Gallagher. It was just about the way we played.
But you could do that with Nine Below Zero. Why leave them if it was purely about playing fresh music?
GM: Twenty years with Rory. Twenty years with them too. I was getting itchy feet again and I just didn’t like the direction Nine Below Zero were going in. We recorded an album with Glenn Tilbrook from Squeeze (‘The Cooperative’) Fantastic musician and songwriter, I will never put the guy down. But I just personally thought it was wrong.
I’d forgotten how long you were with Nine Below Zero
GM: Oh yeah, they started in 78/79 as Stans Blues Band
TM: They were playing Reading when I was still in the Alex Harvey Band. They were on a different night.
GM: We headlined Reading and they (Alex Harvey Band) were on in the afternoon.
And Rory never had a problem with that? You playing as well with NBZ?
GM: It wasn’t ‘As well’ – I left Rory and then joined Nine Below Zero. A problem? In retrospect. Was it right? I mean Ted left. It’s like, you have your reasons for doing things and you’ve got to stick by them you know?
TM: I left because I wanted to do other styles of music, but I had some of the greatest years of my rock n roll life with Rory. I loved the time with Rory, but as a musician I wanted to try different avenues, and it took me through all these different players I ended up playing with. Right after Rory I played with Greg Lake and Gary Moore. Then I joined Michael Schenker and did three albums with them, and then worked with Ian Gillan.
GM: And Womack and Womack
TM: (Laughs) Oh yeah, with Womack and Womack in 1988 – and a year before that with John Martyn…
So you don’t plan to retire either?
TM: I’m just getting into it now!
Finally – For the elder statesmen Gerry and Ted: are there any major ambitions you still want to achieve?
GM: The new album is the next project
TM: Try and find what we’re about as a unit. Play that and just see what people think.
GM: Obviously too, we’re building this thing up, and it’s building up very nicely with people coming back second time around which is obviously great.
But do you really want to go through all the ‘new band’ marketing thing again?
GM: Well we have good people with us now, which we didn’t have with Nine Below Zero which was sort of like a cottage industry. We had our own record company. I was the agent I was doing all that and it’s not good because it’s too enhanced you know and there’s nobody to say ‘that’s wrong. Or that’s right’. We now have a great crew, A guy in England for marketing and PR. We have agents all over Europe – just looking for one in the UK now and we’re off and running.
It’s good to hear so much enthusiasm for playing after all this time gentlemen.
Thanks for your time.
Interview Band of Friends. Harmonie Bonn 18.04.2013
Copyright John Hurd