New Musical Express - May 8 1976

My Dream - by a 13 years old old session player

by Phil McNeill

IT'S SO obvious what to do if you want to be the next guitar hero. I could walked into any record company office before I signed with Rak, and laid down blueprint, and the chequebooks would have come straight out.
"But the whole prospect of it I just find so boring, I just can't be bothered."
Coming from almost anyone else those words would seem like sour grapes. However, it's Chris Spedding talking, and what convinces is not so much his past credentials (having, at various times, taken over gigs from Eric Clapton, Paul Kossoff and Phil Manzanera) as his having just delivered possibly as perfect a 70's pop album as anyone has yet managed.
He's sitting in his producer Mickie Most's office at Rak, and I'll swear he's wearing the same clothes he was last time I spoke to him, nine months ago: black leather jacket, black shirt and drainpipe jeans, turned up three inches, plus red bumpers.
Gazing slightly abstractedly across the room, running his hands continually through the black greasy spikes atop his pallid, unhealthy looking face, he talks unprompted, anxious to clarify what he considers to be people's confusion about his career.
"The things that excited me are the things that excited me when I started out in music. Anyone involved in music, even the most boring guitar hero you could imagine, was probably turned on by a Top 40 single. It's the common denominator of all musicians.
"I date back to the early rock'n'roll: Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, they're the first records I remember. And when you've been involved with it for so long, you come to a crisis in your life or your career.
"You think: 'Christ, what am I doing here? Why did I start doing it in the first place, what was the buzz that first go me interested ... and why am I so bored now?"
Spedding describes the thrill of rediscovering Eddie Cochran, as being "Like I was 13 years old again." Having played just about every kind of music that falls under the general heading of rock, he has now found that first buzz to be the most important.
"The form I'm interested in mastering now is the three-minute single," he says, his conviction tempered by a slight air of puzzlement at finally realising something so obvious, and at the immutable ritual of the singles form.
"It's the sort of thing you'll be doing for A Levels in 20 year's time," he continues, straight-faced. "The art of Phil Spector ... that is the actual musical art form of the '50s onwards.
"The album is really too long. You can't really point to anybody who's mastered the art of the album, except possibly The Beatles. All my favorite albums are the Greatest Hits albums, which is why I tried to sort of have the atmosphere of a Greatest Hits album on mine."
Not all the singles released from the LP have actually been hits, but certainly Spedding's intentions work on the level of consistency: each song equally concise, equally immaculately produced and orchestrated between the two drummers (Brian Bennett and Tony Carr), the bass of Les Hurdle and the economically layered Spedding guitars.
The sort of musician who has the catholicity to find fulfilment in virtually any style, he pours cold water on any accusations of selling out by claiming that he has had two distinct careers, both rewarding, but one mainly for bread and the other for personal satisfaction.
Into the first category go not only his endless sessions for everyone from Wombles to John Cale, but such prestigious gigs as the Jack Bruce Band, Ian Carr's Nucleus, Mike Gibbs and Mike Westbrook: all healthy money-spinners working to somebody else's requirements.
The second category encompasses Pete Brown's Battered Ornaments, Spedding's two early '70s solo LPs, and the would-be rock superstars ("a lack of judgement on our part, failing to underestimate the public") Sharks: every one a loser ... until he signed for Rak on the strength of a pseudo-nostalgic ditty strummed out to Mickie Most on acoustic guitar.
"Mickie's philosophy is that if you can play it on acoustic guitar and it sounds good, it must be a good song. It saves wasting time laying down backing tracks that aren't going to be used."
That song was "Motorbikin'," a hit last September. Unimpressive on its own, it was a small indication of Spedding's dedication to the classic pop lick, the ironic ambition of a frustrated rocker working in the heady jazz stratum to which so many rock players aspire.
Although Spedding excludes, quite naturally, his session work from what he considers the main drive of the Spedding oeuvre, it is that part of his background more than any other that now conditions his musical priorities.
Mentioning in passing that he has played less stand-in gigs for teenbop groups than the likes of Les Hurdle ("usually it's the bass and drummers that are really duff: the guitar players can usually get it together"), he maintains that the best session guitarist plays not what's written, but what he feels is right.
"I do a lot of guitar work for keyboards players, people like Jeff Wayne and Mike Batt. Mike Batt's records have a guitar dominated rhythm section, so ..."
Did you play on the "Superwombling" album?
"Yeah, the whole of it. That's quite a good album. He gives me the chord chart, and I come up with riffs and rhythm sounds. I came up with that funny sound on 'Remember You're A Womble' - we put a bit of tape echo on it - and that became a sort of Womble trademark.
"And that intro to 'Superwomble' is mine, at the beginning of the album. We wanted a bit of flash guitar. Do you remember that?"
Have to confess, no, but listening to it since, yes, it's a strange, flash little phrase, seesawing into the album the way the LP seesaws from unselfconscious bubblegum to subtle pastiche.
"You see, people who don't play the guitar don't realise that if you write something out for guitar it just sounds silly. If you get the guy to just play a few licks it always sounds much better.
So you have to strike that balance between sussing out what the guy wants and doing what you wanted to do anyway.
That's part of the art of being a session guitar player.
"That's not rock'n'roll, it's just a geezer playing a guitar. The art is being able to say 'Oh no, what you really want is this riff here,' and having enough suss to be able to play it. It's the easiest thing in the world, but it's having the taste and the maturity and the suss to be able to do exactly what the guy wants, the ordinary sort of Steve Cropper or Scotty Moore riff.
"If the guy could play guitar he'd play it himself.
"That's what I try to do, something really simple that just falls out of your fingers, that sounds like it grows out of the guitar.
"I get a lot of pleasure out of finding the lick that really works, that sells the whole record. It knocks me out to find a good bubblegum lick, because you're really getting down to what the guitar's all about: why people like it.
"So I think I'm getting over to far more people by playing a good lick on a Wombles record than I am going out to Earls Court and wanking off doing half-hour guitar solo. I feel a lot more fulfilment out of doing that than out of being a guitar hero."
The "Chris Speddig" album is the ultimate in meticulous selection of killer bubblegum riffs. No wastage, very careful.
"I do care about it," he stresses, "I put a lot of thought into it. It's only tongue-in-cheek in the respect that the whole style of music is tongue-in-cheek. It's serious apart from that."
The next album he thinks will be harder, as far as vocal limitations will allow, but he will probably not leave the 50's base in the near future, continuing to write his own songs with a rock.R&B influence, But is it necessary for pop to always hark back?
"Well, I don't think you should be ashamed of doing so. We've now got a sort of library of cliches, if you like - though I prefer not to call it cliches - like a tradition of things that work, like the BoDiddley beat. A repertoire of things to draw on.
We'll always have a nostalgia boom, it's with us to stay. As far the present, the only people who've happened really big are people like Queen, I suppose - but I think they're harking back to the era of Gilbert and Sullivan myself, with 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. I could probably point to the very bars.
"You can't always tell when it's happening," he muses, on the subject of 'new' pop. "There's probably something happening now that we're not aware of. Maybe somebody'll stumble upon something ..."
I suppose Marc Bolan ...
"Yeah," Chris agrees. "Well Gary Glitter did, I suppose, though, in a way that was harking back to the '50s. Maybe I'll stumble upon something, I don't know. I don't feel the need so much to draw on old rock'n'roll forms anymore."
The conversation switches suddenly to Kraftwerk, who Spedding reckons are "doing something really good," and then to the danger of him and his generation becoming dinosaurs: particularly the Led Zeppelins of this world, who he sees following the big bands into extinction. But before his time comes, Chris Spedding has one overriding ambition.
I'm really trying to make classic pop music."
That's why a lot of guys who are brilliant readers and brilliant guitar players completely fail when it comes to down pop sessions, because they exactly what's written Which sounds 'orrible!

Spedding In The Papers