British Rock n‘ Blues knight, Brian Parrish talks about his music experiences of yesterday and nowadays
„Technology has demystified music to the point where there is no sense of awe. There are good young players of course but few with any idea of history or context -therefore few have AUTHORITY.“
Brian Parrish: The Rock n‘ Roll Traveller
Brian Parrish seems to have spent a large part of his recording career basking in the reflected glory of others, whether it be an early association with ex-Beatle producer George Martin, or from time spent under the guidance of Yes manager, Brian Lane. Born in July 1947, in Seven Kings, Essex in UK, Brian picked up his first guitar at the age of 11. He had a few lessons, but is basically self-taught. Both his father and grandfather are professional singers, so it follows that Brian’s determination stayed with him throughout his school days, during the latter part of which he describes himself as being „a freak, a court jester“, he would finish school for the day, would go home followed by his friends, pick up his guitar and sing Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran songs all night. Fed up with providing free entertainment, he decided to change his image. He went to get a haircut. His hairdresser happened to mention that he played guitar, and before he knew it, they were forming a band which subsequently stayed together for 5 years – a large part of which was spent on the Continent playing at American service bases.
Following his departure from the band in 1968, Brian spent some time concentrating on writing and production, in fact, a couple of his songs were recorded by Johnnie Halliday and Mike & Bernie Winters(!). A duo formed about a year later with a friend, Paul Gurvitz, and an album under the direction of George Martin was released in 1971 through EMI. The band, now consisting of five members went to the States early in 1972 for a tour, on which they supported Seals & Croft and B.J. Thomas among others. The band went down well, but Brian recalls the highlight of the tour being Elvis Presley and Bill Cosby concerts they were able to catch! Shortly after the band’s return to England, and in the midst of management hassles, two members were made an offer by Peter Frampton, which they didn’t hesitate in accepting. He joined forces with ex-Yes keyboard player, Tony Kaye, Roy Dyke on drums and David Foster on bass. They called themselves Badger, obtained a management deal with Brian Lane, and went on tour with Yes. Their album, which was produced with assistance from Jon Anderson, was recorded live at the Rainbow, and quickly shot into the Billboard chart. Brian left shortly after to pursue a solo career. Brian Parrish’s upcoming new album „TRAVELLER“ will be release soon in the 2015.
What do you learn about yourself from the Rock & Roll culture and what does the blues mean to you?
I learned that when you separate yourself from the rest of society (which is what happens when the majority of those you meet are musicians) it can bring a perspective on that society which some other people might not have. I am suspicious of most politicians for example! Rock n Roll in itself does not teach any particular moral or spiritual code. It HAS led me to my particular spiritual path, if I may explain: Rock n Roll began by cynically tapping into teenage fantasies, exploiting the young to take their dollars! It was controlled by the (middle aged) music business establishment, who fully believed it was a fad, providing a very limited window of opportunity. Nobody expected it to last. The songwriters were mostly middle aged and the target audience was white. The performers were white too. Only Little Richard was the great exception (I loved him most of all!). Richard was, of course, “covered” by the insipid and very white Pat Boone. Suddenly there was Elvis – a gift to the business as he had assimilated much of what was exciting about “black” music, but was white (and marketable!). Eventually artistes who were writing their own material began to enter the picture (Buddy Holly etc.) and things began to slowly change, but the colour divide remained.
Blues was more or less unheard by white audiences. This was the music of the South which I have always loved. The way my generation in England first became aware of this musical treasure was via “Skiffle” music – Leadbelly and so on. Some of us were interested in why Little Richard was so much more exciting than anything else we were hearing. He had been “cleaned up” for the market, although we did not know that, but he was still so different, way better. Where had this come from? My journey has taken me through all of the changes in rock music, and inevitable led me to delve into the past-and investigate the blues roots. Blues is endlessly fascinating. It is a simple form which seems to continually reveal new layers. Blues can span the whole spectrum of emotion, and the connection is immediate, the rhythms primal, but somehow different performers find their own nuances. I learned respect for the men and women who laid the foundations, who walked the path against a background of intolerance and injustice on many levels, economic, political and more. I came to realize that the naïve music obsessed boy, buying into what the business was selling us, would have to drill down a little deeper. I found that there existed another strata of music which had been percolating all the while in parallel to what radio stations were playing. There was more incredible intoxicating music to be heard. There were life lessons to be learned from the performers and their experiences. I came to look up to these people who had survived despite everything, and I came to believe that music played a life affirming sense of community and identification for them. It was central to the culture, or sub culture as I suppose it was. I have learned much about technique, songwriting etc. in my life and have been privileged to work with some talented people-and each one taught me something. What I have learned about myself as a man, where I need to do my “spiritual work” has come in no small part from the quiet dignity shown by many of the people whose music and life stories have inspired me most. There are a few, but if I had to name just one it would be B.B. King.
„It’s all the music that ever was distilled into the cultural melting pot of North America. The immigrants – Irish, French, German and of course African slaves as they then were in the South. The many races and cultures that combined to become ‚Americans‘ and from this came musical gold.“
How do you describe Brian Parrish sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?
It is hard for me to be objective about “my” sound. I have simply absorbed influences, as I think each musician does, and developed my playing along the way, hopefully. We all hear other great players, and might think “I like that sound! How is he doing that?” So you find out what amplifier he uses. You try one. Maybe he plays a Gibson, so you get one and play it. Along the way you probably realize that what you so admire about your hero comes from his fingers more than anything else. I am not sure that I have a signature “sound”. I am always looking to improve, to refine. Soundwise it is a never ending searching my case. I remember Ry Cooder talking about the large number of amps he has. He seemed to be saying that he is looking for something indefinable, which may or may not exist. That I understand! I think only a handful of players have an unmistakable sound. B.B. without a doubt, Carlos Santana. Eric Clapton gets an amazing fat sound from the Strats he mostly plays, but he too is recognizable as much for what he does. You know it´s him right from the start. I am not sure if I have that quality. Many people have told me they would know my voice anywhere. Whether that´s good or bad I don´t know! As for my songs, I suppose many a blues influenced, even blues based, though not all. I like many kinds of music and I just try to be open when I write. It is like scanning for a signal. When it comes I do not want to get weighed down in analysis, I just want to use such skills as I have to be sensitive to what the song is asking of me. I am almost not there! You could say “Brian” is best waiting outside of the delivery room. He will be needed when questions about arrangement need to be raised. It may be that I have a philosophy where lyrics are concerned. I am looking for something that has truth in it. I might be writing in character – some songs are not “me” but speak in the voice of someone I have invented. A few may be autobiographical, and some might be called philosophical, but hopefully never religious or “preachy”. If I could sum all this up I would have to say it is about truth, and there has to be love in it. This is what defines us, makes us human.
What were the reasons that made the UK in 60s to be the center of Rock & Roll and R&B researches? (Photo: Brian Parrish on stage with Gene Vincent, London 1964)
This is a complex question actually. I will try to simplify it-and bear in mind what you are hearing is MY opinion based on my own experiences. I believe the driving force was both economic AND social. Economically England was on the floor after the war. There was no money and the people who had fought were traumatized and longed for a quiet life. They wanted to carry on where they had been before the war interrupted everything. Entertainment would be big bands, crooners and comedians. America had continued to thrive, entering the war only in the last moments and via Hollywood films we saw the lifestyle we wanted to emulate. Rock n roll invaded suddenly from the U.S. and fired the imagination of young people and posed a huge ominous threat to the older generation. They must have been thinking “Is THIS what we were fighting for? The world is out of control!” and of course, it was-wonderfully so. We had “Skiffle” music (a very British phenomenon) which hinted at the roots of popular music, and it was not long before our young songwriters developed songs with an ironic twist. I knew a boy whose father had been a merchant seaman. His dad brought back many folk and rhythm and blues records from America. I think a similar thing was happening in ports around the county. Sailors who had been ashore in America visiting disreputable establishments and latching on to the music they heard. I have many friend from Liverpool for example, and it is no great surprise looking back, that there was such a musical explosion waiting to happen there.
Young British musicians longed for “authenticity”. They found it in Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters- the guys who had taken country blues to the city (Memphis, Chicago). They found Big Bill Broonzy, and going further back, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Son House, Robert Johnson and so on. Outside of the Chitlin Circuit and Juke joints in the South this music had been ignored or forgotten in America. Segregation had everything to do with it and the music business of the time focused on good looking white boys. Some could sing-many could not. Even Berry Gordy (boss of Motown) was working at making his acts smooth and polished in order to cross over to a white audience, even if the stars had to use different bathrooms and restaurants to white folk. Britain hit home in the U.S. with our take on rock n roll / pop, and were vocal in their praise of the originators of the music, who were all but unknown in their home country. When the Stones arrived in the States a journalist asked “Now you are here what would you like to see?” They replied “We really want to see Muddy Waters”. The mystified journalist asked “Where´s that?” We had researched it because it was exotic to us. There was no racial element I think. We just heard something which was exciting and away from the mainstream. England was so dull and repressed after the war.
There had been nothing for young people. When it came the world changed from black and white to technicolor and the cap would never fit back on the bottle. In a few years Otis Redding would be a big hit at one of the major white (hippy) rock festivals. Sly and the Family Stone lit everything up with funk played by black and white musicians. B.B. King played the Fillmore and was a big hit. BB acknowledged the great guitar players coming out of the U.K. and publicly voiced his gratitude to English R+B musicians for expanding the audience for blues. Far from “stealing” this music, we kept it alive. People like John Lee Hooker were reborn commercially. There can be few British bands who didn´t play “Boom Boom”! We still had our unthreatening pop nonsense – Hermans Hermits or whatever, but the groundswell of blues based music moved everything forward and things would never be the same!
„I do not know if such musicians have impacted social change or influenced anyone, other than by example. Political will and Spirituality is everything. Martin Luther King was the man who embodied all of this, and to whom we owe a debt that could never be repaid. Sadly so much more needs to be done. Might music help? I hope so.“ (Photo: Brian, Paul Gurvitz & George Martin)
Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice has given you?
I am sure that you would like to hear about prominent or famous musicians who have been important to me, and many have, but when I try to think of meetings which have dramatically altered the course of my life, the first name I come up with is Barry Easter. Who is (or was) Barry Easter? He was the school friend I mentioned earlier who hipped me to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. I was around eleven years old I think. He was also the one who asked “Have you heard Little Richard?” I said “Who is he” Barry said “You HAVE to hear him!” I asked “What is he like?”. He answered” He is a lunatic!” I was more than curious. I sought Richard out-Awop bop alubop…. Lucille. A week or so later Barry asked “Did you hear Little Richard?” “Oh yes!” I said. “And…?” “He is a lunatic!!” Of course there have been a few meetings which have affected me deeply, or influenced me directly, but I can trace all that subsequently happened to meeting Barry. I would love to chat with him now.
The best advice I was ever given? How long have you got? I have received much good advice (I even acted on some of it!) I do remember two pieces of advice which are somehow linked. The first was from a fellow guitar player. I was telling him that I thought my playing was stagnating. I seemed unable to come up with anything new. He said “Copy someone you admire” This sounded like heresy to a creative man. Copy? He said “If you like what Eric Clapton does for example, remember that he listened to his heroes and tried to copy them. Freddy King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Robert Johnson-it does not matter. Just soak it up. Your fingers on the strings will always sound like YOU. Everyone has a different touch, and we all borrow something. It does not happen in a vacuum” This advice seemed to unblock something. The second piece of advice was from a guy called Mickey Gallagher, who played keyboards with Parrish+Gurvitz (later with the Blockheads and others). I was in between projects, one band having broken up. I began to rehearse with what became Badger. I was writing songs in a funk style, you might say-but with Badger they were sounding very different. I was frustrated and also concerned with legal /contractual problems. I told Mickey about my misgivings. He said “You are a musician. That´s your gig. So PLAY. It´s what we do” Sounds simple, doesn´t it? It freed me up, stopped the analysis. Made me MUCH more accepting of what the other musicians were doing. They were great! Also Badger was extremely successful. I am still getting mails from people who love it to this day. Great advice, you see?
Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
I once did a gig with Fleetwood Mac in (the Peter Green incarnation). Peter had become a friend through a mutual acquaintance, who played drums with me. Peter insisted on playing bass (Fender 6 string) with me on lead guitar. Talk about strange! This was a time when Peter was being lauded as one of the 4 great British blues guitarists, the others being Mr. Page, Eric and Jeff Beck. The crowd loved it, although Peter’s bandmates were clearly confused. What was I thinking? On another occasion Herbie Hancock sat in with my band. I do not remember much. Herbie was gracious, outclassed us in every way-and I was simply thrilled to be in the same room as the great man.
What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
I miss the “build it from the inside” approach –which had to do with “feel”-real human feel. Arrangements were formed, in the main, from what had been created in the dialogue between the rhythm section. Now it seems to begin with a computer. To me the song is everything, and all that is played (yes played, not sequenced) should serve the song. Buddy Guy says he fears for the future of the blues. I still think the blues may “save” us culturally. When most of us (outside of America) became aware of the blues popular music was white dominated , lacking passion and relied on promoting good looking stars. Mainly young men, as the marketers were targeting teenage girls. Then came the blues, rediscovered and much blues influenced music and a greater awareness of the great black talent in rhythm and blues. Everything began to change and these days popular culture embraces black and white artistes alike and it should also be noted that a very high percentage of female artistes are successful. What has not changed is the mindset of the marketers who are still looking to sell their female artistes to girls. The truly worrying thing now that television and image are once again dominating is that the music has become sterile. A conveyer belt of programmed beats with accompanying videos of obligatory sexualized dance steps performed by styled pretty people. The marketing may be more sophisticated but we have come full circle. I have nothing against computers. I use them. BUT we need an organic approach to music. The “human / handmade” element is gone. I believe the answer lies in maintaining the blues roots and encouraging people to go to live concerts. Most people do not understand, or have respect for the creative process and musicianship. Any fool with an iPad can get an app which will allow them to access samples and make what probably sounds like music. They probably believe this is how we do it!
Technology has demystified music to the point where there is no sense of awe. There are good young players of course but few with any idea of history or context -therefore few have AUTHORITY. You can go on YouTube and find an 11 year old Korean boy, guitar in hand, shredding like a maniac. Technically way beyond what I could do even if I wanted to (I don´t!!) Without phrasing and feel for spaces it is not music. Merely notes. I am similarly unimpressed by the line of young girls on TV talent shows copying Whitney Houston. You have to understand what and why of what you are doing to produce any emotion. There needs to be an emotional vocabulary more than “right” notes. A great musician said “A mistake can be overlooked, but to play without feel is unforgivable”. That is the truth. It may be a while before people figure out we have lost something which is to be treasured. In the blues I see a glimmer of hope. More than a glimmer. I hope I am right!
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
I believe I have already said it – but to simplify, I wish that music rather than all the trappings (costumes, dance routines etc.) would be the focus. I am tired of people who seem to want to be “famous” more than they want to create great music. We were lucky to have started the way we did. You had to work to find recordings by some artistes. It cost something and so we appreciated it more. Now everything is one or two clicks away. We need to get our priorities straightened out! The other problem is that the digital age is killing the earning potential for many musicians. I am going to jump outside the parameters of your question. I would change TWO things. The second is to find mechanisms whereby musicians can be appropriately paid. I am not talking about getting rich-merely that guys who work at their music, creating something for people to enjoy can be financially rewarded enough to keep doing it. Re structuring streaming platforms and re-educating users would be a start. Many people want music for nothing. A tailor will not spend time and skill making a beautiful suit-and give it away!
What are the lines that connect the legacy of Rock & Roll and R&B from United States to UK and Europe?
It’s a continuum isn´t it? It’s all the music that ever was distilled into the cultural melting pot of North America. The immigrants – Irish, French, German and of course African slaves as they then were in the South. The many races and cultures that combined to become “Americans” and from this came musical gold. We imitated it in Europe to some extent, eventually introducing nuances and embellishments of our own. I suppose the “lines which connect the legacy” as you put it, reside in people like me. We are to some extent keepers of the flame. We now have a groundswell of interest in “World Music”-stuff from Mali, Senegal and so on. It is very healthy. Ultimately good for music. But what connects the musical legacy of U.S. R+B to Europe? We do! I put on a Little Richard record and it lives in me. It is the same with all the old blues records. It must not die with me and others of my generation!
What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?
What has made me laugh? Kanye West. What has touched me emotionally is that despite serious illness among the members of Little Feat (one of my FAVOURITE bands) they are once again on the road. Richie Hayward, their original drummer passed away a couple of years back and Paul Barrere, a great slide player has also been battling health issues, but they are still standing! This makes me emotional.
„Young British musicians longed for ‚authenticity‘. They found it in Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters- the guys who had taken country blues to the city (Memphis, Chicago). They found Big Bill Broonzy, and going further back, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Son House, Robert Johnson and so on. Outside of the Chitlin Circuit and Juke joints in the South this music had been ignored or forgotten in America.“
What is the impact of Rock n’ Roll culture and R&B music to the racial and socio-cultural implications?
It is impossible not to recognize that R&B music has always upheld racial equality, putting music first. Otis Redding´s band – basically the Booker T Jones & the MGs guys were both black and white. Using different bathrooms and restaurants on the road. How shameful. A tragedy. But this was the world “outside” and had nothing to do with their relationships. Duck Dunn, Steve Cropper and co were white guys playing “black” influenced music recorded in Muscle Shoals. This came out of the South where the greatest racial tensions have always been. I do not know if such musicians have impacted social change or influenced anyone, other than by example. Political will and Spirituality is everything. Martin Luther King was the man who embodied all of this, and to whom we owe a debt that could never be repaid. Sadly so much more needs to be done. Might music help? I hope so.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?
I would travel back somewhere I have already been. My musical education made a giant leap when I played the Star Club Hamburg. It was so exciting, and I met many young musicians who became life-long friends. Many have left us now, and it would be really great to meet some of them again as the young men they were. A trip to Hamburg circa 1964-5 please! If you want to stretch my imagination to take in somewhere I have never been, I would like to be invisible (attracting no attention to my skin color) and take in a James Brown performance at the Apollo. That´s not a whole day, but I would be happy with that.