Playing with the greats
While the popular image of rock stars is that they enjoy trashing hotel rooms and living out adolescent fantasies, Andy Fairweather Low is sorry to have to destroy some popular misconceptions.
While the popular image of rock stars is that they enjoy trashing hotel rooms and living out adolescent fantasies, Andy Fairweather Low is sorry to have to destroy some popular misconceptions. He spoke to Arts Editor Andrew Clarke and shattered some long-standing illusions.
He sang with Jimi Hendrix, played with The Who, worked alongside George Harrison, spent 13 years backing Eric Clapton and has spent 24 years as Roger Waters sideman during his post Pink Floyd years - now Andy Fairweather Low is hitting the road under his own name to remind music fans that the quiet man of rock has had a dozen hits in his own right.
If your eyes rise in surprise, then consider these titles Wide Eyed and Legless, Reggae Tune, Bend Me Shape Me, Hello Susie (If Paradise Is) Half As Nice - they're songs which shaped the charts during the late 1960s and throughout the '70s.
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Having enjoyed playing alongside many of his heroes, Andy Fairweather Low believes that the time is right to step back into the spotlight and remind the world of his own legacy.
Not that he resents his years as a jobbing player, far from it, give him a name and he'll come back with a wonderfully enthusiastic story about life on the road or days in the studio with that performer.
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In fact as you talk with Andy Fairweather Low, cheerful enthusiasm seems to be a defining characteristic. For example he's thrilled that his solo dates seem to be getting increasingly popular. They used to be squeezed in between better paying gigs with big names - for example in 2006 he played 10 dates under his own name. In 2007 that was extended to 12 dates and this year, armed with a new album The Low Rider, his tour will take in 40 dates across the UK.
“Anyone will think that this is a proper job,” he laughs. “The fact is I love touring. I have been touring non-stop for the last 26 years except that has been with other people and finally this year I get to do a major tour as me. In fact Roger Waters asked me to do the international Dark Side of the Moon tour with him and for the first time in 26 years I have had to say: 'No, sorry this year is just for AFL'
He said that doing his own material is wonderfully rewarding and will hopefully provide a trip down memory lane for the people who attend the gigs. He said he knows that many people have to stop and think about his hits but as soon as they hear the songs, a smile of recognition crosses their face and they almost collectively go: “I love that song.”
But Andy has lots of happy memories of touring the world with some of the leading musicians of his generation. People like Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend, Bill Wyman and Roger Waters are close friends as were George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix and Ronnie Lane.
“All the people that I have worked with have become really good friends and more than that I got paid well, slept well, travelled well and I got to play guitar behind some of the greatest talents on the planet.
“And doing it now, on my own, we're not travelling well, eating well, sleeping well or getting paid well but it is enormously rewarding. I think of myself as a guitar player and I love it.
“Last year I did the first leg of the Dark Side of the Moon tour with Roger Waters and in that band I am what is known as a utility player - a bit of this, a bit of that, but mainly playing bass - which is strange because I joined the band as a replacement for Eric (Clapton) who toured with Roger on the Pros and Cons of Hitch-Hiking tour obviously playing guitar.
“Then I joined Eric's band and I loved playing guitar with him for something like 13 years and really loved the fact that when I was with him he was really reconnecting with the blues again.
“I am very proud of the fact that ever since I became a professional musician way back in the 60s when we formed Amen Corner, I have never stopped working.”
He said that he has been lucky to have had fairly free and easy working relationships with all his famous mates - which have allowed him to dip in and out of their professional lives and keep his own career full of interest, so that he has never felt stale. One such mate is Suffolk resident Bill Wyman, who he says is a real champion of rock and roll.
“The great thing about Bill is that he has enabled so many people, including myself, to go out and play these lovely intimate venues. He's built up his band The Rhythm Kings and he recruited some amazing players: Georgie Fame and Albert Lee were both in the band and I used to go out with them occasionally. I found that if I had a month off from whatever I was doing then that usually coincided with Bill going out on the road and they would ask me along - and that has gone on, off and on, for the last 24 years.”
He said that the joy of leading his own band is that he can make all the creative decisions. “If you are a paid employee, you can't have the definitive opinion. I like to have a say and the times I have been told 'No, Andy,'… in a nice way. By and large there has been open access in all the bands I have played in, and they do canvas your ideas but it's not you who has the final say.
“You can suggest all you want. They give you free access with your ideas but then comes the moment when they say: 'No' and that's usually the moment when I am going: 'Yes, they've finally got what I am talking about.'
He said that the joy of touring now is that not only is he in charge of his own destiny but he is finally getting to play live hit songs that in the old days never had a life outside the radio or the recording studio.
“The big hits from the A&M period in the '70s, never had much of a life live because I was so busy doing other things. I never got to tour much as myself, I was always backing up other people. We'd go into the studio record an album, they'd take a couple of singles off an album, they'd often be a hit but I couldn't capitalise on that because I couldn't tour as me to promote them. The songs never really took on a life of their own because we never got a chance to work with them on stage. They remained trapped almost by their studio confines. Now, of course, we have the opportunity to give them life and let them breathe.”
He said that he is thrilled to be returning to the early Amen Corner material as well because technology as improved so the songs sound better now. “To be honest, the screaming was so loud in those old days that it didn't matter if we played or not, no-one could hear us. Now, the sound on stage is so much better, and we are better musicians, that these songs will sound better than they did way back when.
“It was also the era of the package tour, you did a couple of numbers and as long as it sound vaguely like the record everyone was happy. You did your bit, everyone screamed and jumped about, then you were off and somebody else was on stage. It was crazy but fun.”
He said that the first tour he did was a package tour in 1967 and had Jimi Hendrix as the headline act with Pink Floyd and Roy Wood's band The Move also jostling for position on the bill.
Mention of Hendrix brings back memories of the remarkable occasion when he flew to New York in order to buy a replacement petrol cap for his rare Shelby Cobra sports car and ended up in the studio with Jimi Hendrix, singing backing vocals on his hit Stone Free with Hendrix, behind the controls, producing the overdubs.
“It wasn't quite as bizarre as it sounds. I had bought an eight litre Shelby Cobra GT 500 from Mike Jeffries, Hendrix's co-manager with Chas Chandler, and it was, as far as I was aware, the only one in Britain.
“Just after I bought it I was interviewed on TV and I talked about the car. The very next day the people from Customs & Excise impounded the car because no import duty had been paid on it.
“I couldn't believe it. I did eventually get it back and when I did I took it to a gig up north and I came out afterwards and they had ripped off this petrol cap, about six inches in diameter, like a Frisbee it was and it had the most amazing cobra design on it. Anyway I flew to New York to get a replacement and I nipped into the studio to do a quick remix on an Amen Corner track and Hendrix was in there working on Stone Free.
“I popped in to say hello. Jimi was a nice man, very polite, very quiet and he invited me to sing backing vocals on the track. Jimi was working the desk and me and Roger Chapman, who was also there, laid down the vocals, so we're the ones going: 'Stone Free' in the background.”
He said that he and Hendrix used to jam together at the Speakeasy club in London. “He just loved to play. He would finish a gig and would come down to places like The Speakeasy and play all night. We played a residency at The Speakeasy, which started at midnight and we used to play half hour sets until 4 am.
“Hendrix used to sit in with us. He loved Otis Redding and soul music and we used to cover some of his songs. On at least one occasion Hendrix played bass with us, he used to love it. On another he asked to play guitar and I switched to bass and made a complete fool of myself. He was a really lovely man.”
He said that he remains in awe of Hendrix's talent and what he achieved in his short life and is grateful that he not only got to play alongside him but has had the good fortune to have had a career which has given him so many opportunities.
“You can say what you like. Talent is not enough. You do need a little bit of good fortune as well. Unless you are Hendrix, there's always someone better than you. Every town I go to there's a better guitar player but it's not about being flash.
“When I was playing with Eric you'd meet people and strike up a conversation, it would turn out that they were guitar players and they'd talk about a song and they'd go: “I could play that…” and I'd say: 'Well it's not about whether you can play it, if you are in a band with Eric Clapton or Roger Waters it's all about playing parts. I'm not supposed to play anything other than the part that's put in front of me which is part of a larger arrangement - which represents their music and their life, not mine.”
He said that when touring with Roger Waters recreating the Pink Floyd material, the inventive work has been done, he has said that it was responsibility enough to recreate that sound on stage without adds original bits of Andy Fairweather Low. “When I was in Buenos Aires last year with Roger on the Dark Side of the Moon tour, we were playing to crowds of 60,000 people, they didn't want to hear me reinventing Pink Floyd, they wanted to hear live the work that Roger and the boys had created in the studio all those years ago.”
He said that being a band member meant being self-sufficient and at the same time available to help the leader of the band realise his vision. “The main turn doesn't want to think about you, he hasn't time to think about you, you are employed to deliver the goods, the main turn needs to think about the show. You need to be there to help where you can and always focus on the job.”
He illustrates the point by saying that when he learned that he was touring Japan with George Harrison in the early 1990s, he was the one who stayed at home before the tour, learning the songs, hammering out the arrangements to teach the band.
“Eric provided the band to back up George. Eric out on the road gigging, George was busy taking care of life, and it seemed the right thing to do. I like keeping busy. Give me something to do and I'll go away and get it done.
“When Eric did Unplugged, he came to me and said he was thinking of doing an old Robert Johnson number called Malted Milk. I went away and listened to it. I came back to Eric and said: 'Do you really want to do this because it's really a tricky little number.'
“Eric said that he wanted it in the show, so I went away listened to the Johnson original worked out the arrangement and then Eric and I spent a week at his house learning that and all the other new songs he wanted to do.”
He said that Eric was an incredibly generous band-leader who didn't mind sharing the spot-light: “When I showed him the arrangement for Malted Milk, it came to the end of the song and Johnson had a little lick that he played. Because Eric hadn't listened to the song that closely recently he'd forgotten the lick. I played it and he looked at me as the memory dawned and suggested that I play it on the night. I backed off and said: 'Oh no, the people come to hear you play it, not me. But that was typical of Eric, there's no side to him, a really lovely person. There are many other people in the business who wouldn't be so generous.”
He said that he thoroughly enjoyed his 13 years with Britain's Keeper of the Blues. “At no-time at any gig or any soundcheck did I ever tire of his playing. Someone told me the other day that I recorded eight albums with Eric over the years - including an album with Eric and BB King - how lucky am I?
“There wasn't a word to describe it - and I was getting paid - and on my day off I was lying on the beach in Santa Monica. It's not a bad life. And Eric always had fantastic players in his bands - people like Steve Gadd and Richie Hayward on drums, Dave Bronze and Nathan East on bass, Chris Stainton and Billy Preston on keyboards, it doesn't get much better than that.”
He said that of all the albums he has worked on over the years, the one that still gives him the greatest thrill was Eric Clapton's 1995 album From The Cradle which saw the British bluesman return to his blues roots - recording many of the songs by other artists which have sustained him over the years.
“It was a wonderful thing to see. Vocally and guitar-playing wise he's never been better. He was on fire. You could see that he was really inspired. It was a passion and all his creative energy was being focussed into those sessions. What was unusual was that everything was recorded live in the studio, so Eric could capture that live feel. We'd get in at 10 in the morning and by the evening, we'd pack up to go home and we'd realise we'd only played one number all day. We'd do it over and over again, in search of that elusive take where the vocals were right, Eric's guitar playing was as good as it could be, and all the various band members were all locked together in that moment of magic. It was a real joy.”
One of the benefits of being a sideman for so many years is that he has gained an intimate knowledge of some of the world's greatest songwriters. Not only does he know the work of Pink Floyd, George Harrison and Eric Clapton but he also has had a close working relationship with Pete Townsend and The Who, playing guitar on their 1978 album Who Are You? and their It's Hard album in 1982 as well as making appearances on Pete Townshend's Psychderelict tour in 1993.
But of all the songwriters he has worked with, the one has left the biggest impression on him was George Harrison. “All Things Must Pass, Isn't It a Pity, Inner Light even I Need You which stretches back to the very early Beatle days, were all brilliantly conceived and executed songs.
“He didn't jump up and down and shout about his work. He just quietly went about making these wonderful records and if people bought them they bought them. If wasn't terribly concerned about promotion, making them was enough. Eric pushed him to do this tour in Japan during the 1990s and once he got out there he really enjoyed it but he had to be pushed into it, to begin with.”
Being back on the road with his own band brings the ebullient Andy Fairweather Low full circle. He said that when he first joined Amen Corner as a callow youth of 16, he had no inkling that 40 years later he would still be earning his living from the world of music.
He admits that there were moments in the early 1980s when the offers started drying up because there is no-one as unpopular as yesterday's hero but he managed to weather the storm, reconnected with his craft and discovered that rather than be a pop star Andy Fairweather Low really enjoyed being a musician.
“I have just had a very charmed career and now I have finally got an opportunity to revisit my own work. On The Low Rider I have re-recorded all the hits from the '60s and 70s, so they have a fresh, contemporary sound while still being as recognisable as the originals.”
Andy Fairweather Low is playing at High Barn, Great Bardfield, Braintree on June 5, Haverhill Arts Centre, on June 27, Marina Theatre, Lowestoft on July 12 and Cambridge Rock Festival on July 20.