Sunday, February 9, 2014
Jeremy Spencer Still Has The Blues And Can't Hold Out : An Exclusive Conversation with Founding Fleetwood Mac Guitarist Jeremy Spencer
Clapton's playing on the release was revelatory, inspiring literally millions of young players to wear out their vinyl copies of the recordings, learning his at the time groundbreaking guitar licks. The then 21 year old guitarist was held in such awe at the time that graffiti started sprouting up around London with the slogan "Clapton is God" spray painted on walls.
When Clapton left John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers shortly after the release of the album to form Cream with drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce, he was replaced in Mayall's band by a young Londoner, 20 year old Peter Green.
While initially having to endure cries of "Where's Eric?" from punters at live shows, Green soon silenced them with his fiery playing, incredible tone and vibrato, going on to on to win the respect and admiration of fans and peers alike. Dubbed the "Green God", his incendiary fretwork went on to be an inspiration to Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, Gary Moore, all the way to modern day disciples such as Joe Bonamassa.
In 1967, Green decided to form his own blues band and left the Bluesbreakers. That band was Fleetwood Mac.
One man who was there in the midst of it all was guitarist Jeremy Spencer.
Discovered while part of Lichfield, Staffordshire band The Levi Set Blues Band by Mike Vernon, the legendary producer soon brought Spencer to the attention of guitarist Peter Green. Upon hearing Jeremy for the first time, he immediately asked him to join the band he was forming, reportedly remarking to the guitarist that he was "the first guitarist to make him smile since Hendrix".
The new band, consisting of Green's ex bandmate from Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Mick Fleetwood on drums, and original bassist Bob Brunning, was initially called "Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac featuring Jeremy Spencer".
Later condensed to the much shorter Fleetwood Mac the band's repertoire at the time was mainly straight ahead Chicago styled blues, with Spencer's Elmore James influenced slide guitar being as much of a contribution as Green's heavily B.B. King styled blues playing in the early years of the band. Soon bassist Brunning, who was only a temporary member from the beginning, was replaced by John McVie, who Green had wanted from the beginning, but whom was hesitant at first to leave Mayall's Bluesbreakers.
It was this incarnation of the band who scored with their 1968 debut recording, simply entitled "Fleetwood Mac', also referred to as 'Dog & Dustbin' due to the album art, crashing into the top 5 of the Official U.K. Albums chart. The record plateaued at # 4 during a four month chart residency. So authentic were the performances it led to Melody Maker to rave, calling it "The best English blues LP ever released here".
After the release of the first album, hailed as the new crusaders of the English blues movement, the band were on the fast track to success.
A few months after the release of the second LP, 'Mr. Wonderful', having added a third guitarist Danny Kirwan, they had huge commercial success with the Green penned instrumental 'Albatross' which hit #1 on the British singles charts, also having the distinction of being the inspiration for The Beatles' composition "The Sun King" on their classic 'Abbey Road' album'. According to some accounts a tribute to Peter Green, it serves as illustration the high regard they were accorded by rock royalty at the time.
Several more high charting singles in the form of "Man Of The World", "Oh Well" and "The Green Manalishi(With The Two-Prong Crown)" followed, all reaching the Top 10 of the UK charts, resulting in Fleetwood Mac, according to Melody Maker, outselling both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones during this time period.
However, at this time, which should have seen the band rise to international stardom, things began to irretrievably crumble. Green was becoming disillusioned and estranged from the music business. Like many of the time, the guitarist experimented with psychedelic drugs, which combined with the pressures of adulation and increasing fame, made him turn increasingly away from materialism and towards spirituality.
This new found mindset led him to resign from Fleetwood Mac in 1970 following a disagreement over his wish to donate the band's royalties to the fight against Third World starvation. A noble gesture, perhaps, but not one which was shared by the other members of the band.
The sudden departure of their most prominent songwriter certainly threw the band into despondency. However, with the addition of Chicken Shack's Christine Perfect (Later McVie) on keyboards and vocals, they soldiered on for the sessions which were to become 1970's 'Kiln House'. Suddenly without Green, the band relied on the contributions of guitarists Spencer and Kirwan heavily, giving the recordings a much different, more laid back feel than 'Then Play On' released only a year prior.
Fame, success and drugs, the pressure of being thrust into the spotlight, and an increasing alienation in musical direction took their toll once again, this time on Jeremy Spencer.
During a US tour in 1971, Spencer left his hotel to visit a book shop and did not return. He was eventually tracked down and found to have joined the religious group Children of God, and declared that he no long wanted to be part of the band.
After leaving the band, Spencer spent the next two and half decades pursuing spiritual concerns. Travelling across the world, much of this time period is shrouded in mystery and myth. Little was heard from the guitarist in this period, although two albums were released in the 70's which had little commercial success.
In 1998, Spencer was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame as a founding member of Fleetwood Mac.
In 2006 he released a new album, 'Precious Little' , which showed the guitarist returning to the slide guitar dominated blues he was renowned for while a member of Fleetwood Mac. Recorded over five days in 2005 in a Norway studio during the Notodden Blues Festival, it was given universal critical acclaim as a return to form, with AllMusic calling it "Worth the wait".
2012's 'Bend In The Road', a similarly styled blues offering, recorded with Detroit based musicians was given the same reception by fans and critics alike.
Now it's 2014, and Spencer not only has a new album, 'Coventry Blue' culled from the same Detroit sessions that produced 2012’s critically acclaimed “Bend in the Road”, due to be released early March via Propelz Records, but also is embarking on his first tour of the United States in 43 years.
Recently we had the wonderful opportunity to catch up with Jeremy to discuss the new album, the tour, his days in Fleetwood Mac, and much more. Join us as we have an exclusive conversation with one of the world's premier slide guitarists, Jeremy Spencer.
Special thanks go to William James of Glass Onyon PR for coordinating, and especially to Jeremy Spencer for doing this interview for Nightwatcher's House Of Rock!
Interview and text by Keith Langerman © 2014 Nightwatcher's House Of Rock
"Jeremy Spencer was a chameleon in the best sense of the word. He acted the blues, lived the blues with the conviction that really matters in music" - Mick Fleetwood
Nightwatcher's House Of Rock : First off Jeremy, I'd like to thank you for taking the time out to talk with me, it's truly a pleasure. You're embarking on your first tour of the United States in 43 years, the last since leaving Fleetwood Mac in February 1971. Several years back you said you didn't have the time or the desire to go back to the gigging grind. What has changed in the past several years to reconsider and undertake a considerable amount of dates?
Jeremy Spencer : Good question! Maybe I should qualify that and say that I love to play but I still don’t have the desire to return to a full time gigging grind. I need time to create, and use my other talents.
NHOR : You also have a new album, “Coventry Blue” coming out next month via Propelz along with a deferred release of 2012's 'Bend in the Road' to coincide with the tour. What can you tell us about the new album?
JS : When listening to ‘Bend in the Road’, especially the four-sided vinyl version, the listener may sense a musical moving forward and ‘Coventry Blue’ is a continuance of that journey. ‘Bend’ began with straightforward blues, dipping occasionally into my newer compositions, while ‘Coventry’ dips occasionally into blues.
It is interesting for me to discover that many younger listeners prefer my newer offerings, while many of those around my age prefer the older vintage!
Actually, hearing my instrumental demos sparked Brett Lucas’ interest in working with me.
NHOR : Who are the players on the new album? 'Bend in the Road' featured Detroit area musicians such as guitarist Brett Lucas (Betty Lavette) and drummer Todd Glass, who is also playing with The Muggs. Are the players the same on this album?
JS : Yes they are. The bass player, James Simonson is also playing with Betty. They are a tight, capable team, and the three of them play together as a trio called ‘Saint Cecilia’ named after the patron saint of music.
NHOR : What is the songwriting process you go through while making a new album? Has it changed at all throughout the years?
JS : It hasn't changed at the inception of an idea, which could be something bounced off a riff or chord sequence I get on the guitar or piano, along with a melody. I often get one line of lyric or theme, and then the disciplined ‘sit down and lean in on it’ work comes in! That’s when I need a push.
The advent of consumer available computerized recording techniques has facilitated that push and changed my method of going about finishing something (or at least getting it to demo form), and I love that: sequencing basic drum patterns, layering keyboard, bass and string lines etc. As well as tracking vocal harmonies and guitars! Ah, such bliss!
NHOR : Your playing on the last two albums has been particularly strong, in many ways even surpassing what you laid down on record over 40 years ago. How satisfied are you with your playing these days?
JS : When I compare it to years gone by when I was just starting, I am extremely happy with it, but I am not satisfied with it; I want to improve.
NHOR : Unlike many musicians who came up when you did, you've embraced the Internet quite wholeheartedly it would seem, even to the current (as of this writing) Kickstarter project to help fund the tour and new album. Do you feel that the Internet has helped with your career resurgence in a way which couldn't have happened before?
JS : Frankly, it was the record company (Propelz) and other enthusiasts involved that embraced this recent idea! But it’s true; the Internet has facilitated public attention to my recent musical endeavours.
NHOR : I'd like to go back to the beginning, if you don't mind ... What was the defining moment that made you decide to become a musician?
JS : I can’t think of a defining moment. I only know that since my early teen years, I wanted to play music in my spare time; one thing led to another and that spare time became almost full time.
NHOR : Were you from a musical family?
JS : My father played piano. In his youth, he played in a trio with drums and a trumpet player, and he entertained troops during WW2. His grandfather was a singer, his father was involved with music hall and someone back there on my mother’s side played violin. My sister sings part time in a church choir. So that’s a pretty musical heritage!
NHOR : What attracted you to the guitar?
JS : A distant lonely tone responding to the voice, to put it simply. An example was Big Jim Sullivan’s guitar on Marty Wilde’s British version of ‘Sea of Love’.
NHOR : Your love for Elmore James is very well documented, and it has manifested itself in your playing throughout your career. What was it about Elmore's music, and slide guitar which enchanted you so?
JS : I think it was hearing its consummate example of that emotional voice and guitar response, which I appreciated later when hearing Otis Rush, B. B. and Albert King.
NHOR : Do you recall what the first blues record was that you bought?
JS : In late 1964, a British PYE records compilation called ‘The Blues Volume 3’. I bought it for the one song by Elmore on it: ‘The Sun is Shining’.
NHOR : What was it about the blues that attracted you so? It wasn't a genre which was on the charts when you were growing up by any means, not until The Rolling Stones and Yardbirds and all the British beat groups exploded onto the scene in the early 60's...
JS : That is the history in a nutshell, Keith! I liked the Stones when they first came out, then I checked out their influences and liked some of them, particularly Otis Redding and Solomon Burke.
It was not until I heard Elmore and other guitar-oriented artists like Otis Rush and those mentioned earlier, that I became more fascinated with blues.
Then I got to listening to and liking country blues singers like Blind Willie McTell, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and Sleepy John Estes.
JS : It seemed I was considered necessary for the live shows, but I wasn't getting anything musically new, as hard as I tried. You can’t work that sort of thing up. Pete asked me if I had new stuff for a new album. I said no, just 50’s rock and roll and parody stuff, which wouldn't have fit in with the direction he and Danny were going.
NHOR : Around this time, the band played many of the underground venues of the time, such as San Francisco's The Fillmore, The Warehouse in New Orleans, and Boston's Boston Tea Party and the Roundhouse in London. Recordings from those shows show a markedly different band than the one who were on the first two albums, playing elongated, guitar heavy jams ala The Allman Brothers and The Grateful Dead, which often stretched past 20 minutes in length. Coming from your background in the music of Elmore James and Buddy Holly, and early American Rock & roll, it would seem that the band's approach during this time was completely at odds with the music that influenced you. Was that the case?
JS : You have summed up my dilemma perfectly, Keith! Overdriven Les Pauls interminably riffing together on a minor seventh chord was not my taste. I felt so out of place when called up to jam; I couldn't get into it even if, and especially when, I was stoned!
Furthermore, out of all that was happening on the music scene back then, I was beginning to like country music of all things, (anathema to the hippy generation at that time! Especially in the US) so any shred of a musical idea I would get, would be along that line. I also appreciated the mature, tasteful playing of those older Nashville musicians compared to the experimental and largely discordant nature of contemporary younger bands.
Nowadays, though, I love to extemporize with like-minded musicians, such as the young trio I play with in France. The guitarist, Mick Ravassat and I enjoy trading licks and being able to take the tune somewhere else off the cuff, with the bass and drums following suit. However, it is warm and melodic, and I think it takes a special chemistry within the band to pull that off tastefully.
NHOR : What was your take on the whole San Francisco scene at that time?
JS : I thought the love and peace thing was nice at the time, even though I was coming in on the tail end of it in 1968. The following year, it was obviously on its way down and out. The music and drugs were getting harder, and violence and cynicism was setting in, opening the door to scenarios like Altamont.
JS : I think I covered the answer to this in response to an earlier question. It is not as though Pete wasn't encouraging me to get more involved. He and Mick were always asking me if I had anything to contribute. I just didn't think I did, simple as that.
NHOR : In May of 1970, Peter Green left the band, leaving the guitar duties and the majority of the songwriting to you and Danny Kirwan. What was the mood within the band when Peter left? Was this something which had been anticipated for awhile before it actually happened?
JS : The mood was despondent to say the least! God bless Mick, he pulled us together many times and helped us all to keep a British ‘stiff upper lip’! To this day, I am not sure if Peter’s defection had been anticipated by anyone in the band. Maybe Mick had his premonitions, knowing him better in some ways!
NHOR : It's said that the infamous "Munich incident"(An LSD party at the Highfisch-Kommune in Munich, Germany, which band manager at the time Clifford Davis claims was the night that Peter Green and Danny Kirwan became ‘seriously mentally ill -Editor's Note)’ accelerated Peter's mental decline at the time. Since you were there, do you see that as being the case?
JS : It makes me chuckle to read so many blog speculations on this matter, but it seems as though the tabloids, media and the public prefer to stick with accepted theories and scapegoats!
Peter took acid with Rainer Langhans and Rainer’s girlfriend, Uschi Obermaier and others who were wanting to stage a massive Bavarian Woodstock. They were hoping that through Peter, they could get Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones to participate in the event. We were small fry!
As far as accelerating his mental decline, I believe it did. Yes, the atmosphere in that rich hippie mansion was undeniably weird by all other accounts, but in my opinion, Peter was heading in a certain direction whether he took another tab of acid or not. Besides, Peter liked those people and seemed to have enjoyed his experience there along with that horrendous musical ‘jam’.
Whatever the circumstances at the time, he had his wits about him enough to make his own choices, which was evident in his adamant decision to leave the band.
NHOR : Peter left right around the time a live album recorded at The Boston Tea Party was proposed to be released. By many accounts, and the recorded evidence supports this, that if it had been released at the time, it very well could have lifted that incarnation of the band into superstar status here in the U.S., given the musical climate of the times. That of course happened several years later for the band with the release of 'Fleetwood Mac'. But looking back now, do you feel that would have been the case, had Peter stayed with the band?
JS : It’s difficult for me to imagine such status being the result of releasing that material!
JS : We were feeling a little directionless, but the result was an attractively hopeful product, which went over surprisingly well for us in the US. In retrospect, I think the timing of the album’s release was significant, as it came out during the wake of the youth’s disillusionment with fading flower power dreams. Neil Young seemed to be echoing this feeling in his ‘After the Gold Rush’ album, which I liked very much, and ‘Kiln House’ offered something positive in its musical vibe.
Anyway, it was a relief to embark on tour and find the American audiences, unlike those back home, were not hollering for our old stuff!
NHOR : Famously you left Fleetwood Mac in Los Angeles during the tour supporting 'Kiln House', which was the last time you toured the U.S., reportedly saying you were going out to "get a magazine", but never returned. What were the circumstances behind you leaving at that time? Were you not feeling it musically?
JS : If it is kosher, may I quote a fellow interviewer like yourself, Bill Wasserheir of Blues Revue, who asked me a similar question a few years back? He said:
‘You obviously went through a personal crisis in 1970-71. I assume part of it was professional – with Peter gone, the spotlight had to be filled, and you apparently doubts about your abilities – but more so it seems that you had doubts about the meaning and value of your career. Was it a case of “too much too soon” or that it just wasn't enough?’
‘… you've summed it up for me right there. All of your above assumptions are right on. Do I need to answer this one further?’
NHOR : Throughout the years of Fleetwood Mac, there seems to be a lot of life challenges which have occurred to guitarists in the band, a phenomena Lindsey Buckingham recently dubbed 'The Curse of the Fleetwood Mac Guitarist'. What is your take on that? Would you say that the band's guitarists throughout the years have been in any way cursed?
JS : In some cases one could assume so.
I don’t understand the dynamics of this sort of phenomena, which manifests itself in artistic arenas other than bands and music, but I believe it is ultimately a spiritual thing, a mystery that we will understand more clearly one day.
NHOR : After you left the band, Danny Kirwan went downhill fast, both mentally and physically, which led him to being fired the following year after you left the band. Have you been in contact with Danny at all recently? If so, how is he doing these days?
JS : The last personal contact I had with him was about 13 years ago, when my wife and I, his former wife Clare and Danny’s son, Dominic had a meal with him one morning in London. It went okay, all things considered. I recently talked to Clare, and she said that he doesn't live like a down and out tramp (another favourite myth of the tabloids!) He picks up the guitar occasionally and reads a lot.
NHOR : In recent years there have been numerous rumours regarding you getting back with Peter, Mick and John in the studio for some new recordings. Is that something you have at any point seriously considered? Is it something you would even be interested in doing at this point, or is that pretty much flogging a dead horse?
JS : I think a reunion concert would be flogging a dead horse, but recording sounds interesting to me as it could give us all some space to try new material representative of where each of us are today and our capabilities without the pressure to perform old stuff.
JS : Hard to think of five in their entirety, but I would recommend British Sue label’s ‘The Best of Elmore James’, B. B. King’s ‘Live at the Regal’, and Otis Rush’s Cobra label selection.
NHOR : Your life so far has seen a number of incredible successes both professionally and personally. Are there any goals either musically or personally that you'd still like to achieve?
JS : Musically, I would like to be involved in a film of some sort. Personally, I just want to continue working alongside musicians/songwriters/artists from whom I can learn and with whom I can share what I have gained!
NHOR : What advice would you give to a young player starting out that perhaps you wish you had known when you were starting out in the business?
JS : Always be willing to listen and learn, and most importantly, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you.’ A lifelong lesson.
NHOR : There are a lot of musicians from the late 60's, early 70's who aren't with us anymore. What do you attribute to you not only still being around, but making vital music when so many aren't here anymore?
JS : The grace and mercy of God, primarily, and the support of loved ones and friends.
NHOR : At the end of the day, how would you like to be remembered?
JS : Whoa! That is always a good question. But I suppose my answer is linked to the above: that any good I have done is by the mercy and grace of God and the support of loved ones and friends.
For more information on Jeremy Spencer go to http://jeremyspencer.com/ For a listing of tour dates go to http://www.jeremyspencertour.com/