“LOOK AT ME NOW” Bernie Marsden on forty years of making music
It was at Bristol’s Colston Hall in 2002 where Bernie Marsden bounded on stage with Deep Purple to rapturous applause. “Is that Ritchie Blackmore?” the twonk beside me shouted in my ear. “No, it’s Bernie Marsden!” I shouted back. “Is it?” The guy looked at me, looked at the stage, turned back to me and said, “nah, that’s not Bernie Marsden.” Given that I believe the death penalty should be re-introduced for people who talk at gigs (and people who make Meat Loaf records) this exchange of yes-it-is-no-it-isn’t continued for a short while until I told my new-found friend to go forth and multiply. But after the show I reflected that the ‘discussion’ probably sums up Bernie Marsden perfectly. Everyone knows who he is, but perhaps a lot less people actually, well, know who he is. The recent re-issue of his two early solo albums ‘And About Time Too’ and Look At Me Now’ (both on Cherry Red’s Hear No Evil imprint) might go some way to rectifying this.
These days the singer/guitarist is as busy as ever. “As we speak,” he begins, “I’m actually recording a new album; I’ve been in Abbey Road for three weeks now. I’ve got a new guitar out on PRS, and I’ve got a guitar coming out on Gibson in the next two or three months, and I’m in the studio doing an album for Mascot/Provogue, Joe Bonamassa’s label, which will be out probably early autumn.” Back as the Seventies became the Eighties though he was better known as one of the two guitarists in Whitesnake, and was with the band right from the start as they began what was a rapid ascent from club gigs to multiple dates at Hammersmith Odeon. Born in 1951, like many of his generation it was The Beatles that first inspired him: “I pretty much go back to the early Sixties, I was still at school when The Beatles kicked in. I was first aware of guitar music, I think, probably through Buddy Holly and just listening to stuff on the radio, and then seeing the Shadows and Cliff Richard on TV, that kind of thing, but I was a little bit young for that. But when The Beatles kicked in I was thirteen or fourteen or so and I thought ‘that’s it, that’s what I want to do’! So I got myself a guitar when I was about fourteen and that’s how it all began.”
Marsden’s first professional band was UFO, which he joined in November 1972. “It was a straight audition,” he recalls, “from an advertisement in Melody Maker. I was in a local band, looking for that kind of pro outlet. We tried it ourselves, like every other local band; you think the band can make it on its own but it doesn’t happen. The other guys were great; they’d already told me ‘you’re out of our league,’ that sort of thing, ‘you’ll make a good pro’ and all that. And I thought ‘I don’t really know what they mean!’” he laughs at the memory. “We went to see, I think it was Chicken Shack, one night, and I said ‘isn’t Stan Webb a great guitar player?’ and they said ‘yeah, he’s very good, but you’re better than him,’ and coming from my friends that was a bit of a shock! To this day I don’t think I’m better than anybody, to be honest, but the fact that my friends said that… Normally your friends knock you down, don’t they – ‘one of these days you’ll be as good as him’ sort of thing! – but they were quite genuine, and whether I was better than him or not is unimportant; the important thing was that it made me think that I could be a pro. So after that I did apply for a few jobs, did a few auditions, and I got the job with two or three people but didn’t want to do the gig because in those days they used to advertise ‘name band wants lead guitarist’, or singer, or whatever, but they never said who they were. So you’d go for the audition and they’d tell you who they were and it’s like, ‘well, I don’t really want to play folk music’; or they’d say ‘we’d like to offer you the position’ and I’d say ‘well, who are you?’” he laughs again. “The UFO thing was different. They were quite upfront about it and I was lucky enough – or unlucky enough! – to be considered the best candidate, and that’s how I started. Forty years ago!
“UFO was a great jump for me,” Marsden continues, “from being an amateur or a semi-pro or whatever you want to call it, to being in a pro band. They had management, they had a record deal, they had agency; I went from playing in small provincial village halls to quite big clubs and venues in Germany, and so the move was great. But musically we were not… Well, I wanted to be a cool blues guitar player à la Peter Green whereas they wanted to be Kiss. I thought I was the cool one, after a couple of weeks on the road with them, standing by my amp being the cool guitar player, and then realised that they looked cool and I was a bit of a fool because I didn’t fit; so then I started jumping around the stage with them. And that’s when the decline began!”
It’s been assumed that nothing Marsden recorded with UFO still existed, but the recent re-issue of ‘Phenomenon’ disproved that. “I did some demos with them; we did some stuff with Dave Edmunds at Rockfield Studios in Wales; one or two of them only saw the light of day in the last couple of years.”
Before long the ‘musical differences’ chestnut began to rear its head and in June 1973 Marsden and UFO parted company. “Musically we didn’t really get along, and as Scorpions used to open for us I saw a very young and youthful blond Michael Schenker and I said ‘look, you should get this guy in the band’ and that’s what really happened. We did a festival in Berlin, I think it was, and Frank Zappa was on and a whole bunch of other people, and Wild Turkey were there who I knew as they were also signed to Chrysalis. I found out from a couple of guys that they needed a guitar player so I climbed up the lighting gantry to speak to Glenn Cornick (who used to be in Jethro Tull) and I said ‘I understand you’re looking for a guitar player, Glenn’ and he looked around and said ‘yeah’. I said ‘well, I wouldn’t mind the gig’ and he said, ‘all right, see you Tuesday’! And that was it: that was my audition! Had it been the previous year Wild Turkey was the band that would have been my dream first pro gig because musically we were all on the same kind of planet. But it’s all experience and it’s all good at the end of the day.”
The late, great Cozy Powell would have a significant impact on Marsden’s career, and it was while the guitarist was in Wild Turkey that their paths first crossed. “We did a lot of shows with different bands, as you do, and one of them was a group called Bedlam,” says Marsden. “And that’s where I met Cozy Powell. He was in Bedlam and had already recorded ‘Dance With The Devil’, the big hit of his, and he took me aside one night – we’d played together on a number of occasions – and said ‘I’m forming a band, I’d like you to play guitar for me’ which put me in the ‘Jeff Beck’ position, you see, so I couldn’t turn that down.” Marsden chuckles at the memory. “I thought, ‘oh, well, he’s played with Jeff Beck so that makes me a little bit of a Jeff Beck!’ Cozy was a great guy and I realised immediately what a great musician he was, and I just knew it was going to be good. The first gig I did with Cozy was Top Of The Pops, I think, on ‘The Man In Black’. I’ve got a feeling he did it once with Pan’s People – the female dance group – dancing around him, which made the record go up a few places, and the next time we all got the call to say ‘meet me at the BBC on Wednesday afternoon’. And that was my first ever appearance on TV as well. That was a big deal back then; being on Top Of The Pops was a really big deal.”
The problem was that Cozy Powell’s Hammer were signed to RAK, the company run by Mickie Most and famous for masses of hit singles by the likes of Suzi Quatro, Mud and Powell himself, but little else. “Hammer was a great band. Don Airey was in the band, Neil Murray was in the band on a temporary basis – a guy called Clive Chamen played bass who was in the Jeff Beck band with Cozy, but he was with Cat Stevens, Linda Lewis and Hummingbird and Hammer all at the same time, he was one of those kind of guys who could flit between five or six bands so Neil Murray came in really as a temporary replacement but turned into a kind of permanent temporary replacement! But we were signed to Mickie Most’s company RAK. Mickie was making singles and he was brilliant at that. I did quite a lot of session work with him at the time, I was kind of the RAK guitar player for the best part of a year, I suppose, and I played on loads of different things. And we were going to make an album. Mickie just came in one day and said, ‘look, I don’t think I can make an album with you guys,’ and we were all devastated really. ‘Why? What do you mean?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you all know what you’re doing and I’m not used to that’! Mickie was used to telling people what to do – I remember working in the studio and that’s exactly what he did – but he just couldn’t see where he could go with Hammer. Having had three big single hits, and thinking now we’d do an album and get on with it, the band just broke up which is a big shame really.”
The guitarist wasn’t unemployed for long though. “About twenty minutes!” he laughs. “The keyboard player of Babe Ruth had been the keyboard player in Wild Turkey, so as soon as he knew that the Hammer thing was over they made a call very quickly. So in 1975 I joined Babe Ruth, and this was the first time I’d gone in and recorded a whole album with a band, and that worked out really well. In retrospect I’m quite glad in a way that it happened like that because when I listen to the early recordings of some of my contemporaries it’s like, ‘oh, you weren’t quite ready for that, were you?’ whereas by the time I went into the studio with Babe Ruth I’d had two years on the road with those three bands and I’d kind of honed my playing a bit and become a proper professional guitar player.”
After two albums and a number of line-up changes with Babe Ruth Marsden got a call about a new band called Paice Ashton Lord… “Ah,” he says, “now we start name-dropping! I got a call from Cozy, he was working in the Deep Purple organisation by then through Rainbow, and he just said ‘Jon Lord’s putting a band together and I’ve recommended you as the guitar player.’ All I could think of was Deep Purple, and said, ‘but I don’t know anything about Deep Purple’ and he replied ‘well, I‘ve put you up for it!’ It’s been well documented over the years that I was running around a lot at the time and when I finally called the office a woman said rather snootily, ‘oh, you do exist, then; we’ve been trying to get hold of you.’ Oops, sorry love! So I went to the audition and it was a real audition, there were other guitar players there, lots of them, including a pal of mine, Cosmo, who used to be the guitarist in the Heavy Metal Kids. I walked in and he said ‘oh well, that’s it’ – there were about nine or ten other guys in the room – he said, ‘well, gentlemen, you might as well just pack your guitars away now because this man will get the gig.’ It was quite a funny moment!”
Marsden’s audition obviously went well. “Playing with Jon and Ian was like having more people of Cozy’s stature around you, and you realise that you’re all raising the level of everyone else’s playing abilities. And then the irrepressible Tony Ashton wandered into the room and I instantly felt I had an understanding with him. I just loved him to bits. Looking back on it now I was surprised how ‘unnervous’ I was about it. Playing with Cozy had given me a hell of a lot of confidence and he’d encouraged me very much as a writer and that’s what Jon and Ian were interested in for the project: they needed a good guitar player and they needed a good solid writer who could sing a bit as well. The moment Jon said, ‘well, I think we’ve found our man, Ian’, that kind of thing, that gave me another three or four steps up confidence-wise, and they both made me feel very welcome. You were part of a team very quickly, so I wasn’t really nervous around them at all. And, well, I didn’t realise how famous they were in a way because I was never a huge Deep Purple fan. If I’d have been a Ritchie Blackmore acolyte I would have been very, very nervous. Jon said to me at the audition, ‘do you know any Deep Purple songs?’ And I thought, ‘oh no, here goes the gig.’ I said, ‘no, I don’t really. I only know ‘Dance On The Water’.’ He said, ‘I think you mean ‘Smoke On The Water’.’ And I said, ‘well, yes, but I only know the riff,’ to which he replied, ‘everybody in the world, my dear boy, knows the riff’!” Marsden laughs again. “I thought that might lose me the gig, but in fact it might have been one of the things that got me the gig because I was so far away from what Ritchie was doing. I mean, Ritchie’s great, don’t get me wrong, but as a guitar player I don’t come from that direction.
“Paice Ashton Lord,” he continues, “was a great band. It didn’t really do much but musically it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.” It was also the final link in the chain that led Marsden to cross paths with David Coverdale. “We were recording the PAL album in Munich, in a very famous studio that’s sadly gone now called Musicland where ELO and Queen did everything – that was a great place to work, great vibe – and David was living about an hour from Munich in those days with his first wife who was a German lady, a lovely girl, and he came to see Jon and Ian on a social and that’s where we met. We talked about music and what we’re into, but of course he didn’t know much about me and I didn’t know that much about him either. I knew he was a good singer because back in Hammer days in 1974 Cozy had played ‘Burn’ to me from a white label. He wouldn’t tell me who it was because he knew how prejudiced I was; he’d have said ‘have a listen to this new Deep Purple album,’ and I’d have replied, ‘no, I don’t like it’! So he played me this white label and because I didn’t recognise the voice because David was brand new to the band, when he said ‘that’s the new Deep Purple’ I replied, ‘no; can’t be! Who’s that singing?’ ‘Oh, that’s the new kid,’ Cozy told me. So I told David that story and made him laugh. We had a bit in common in that he’d been the new boy in Deep Purple and I was the new boy in Paice Ashton Lord, and also new to the Purple organisation which was quite big. And we got on really well. But that’s how we first met.
“A while later I went to a gig at the Rainbow and I bumped into him, literally bumped into him, in the foyer. I asked what he was doing in London and he said ‘I’ve moved over here, I’m putting a band together.’ At the time I was under consideration to join Wings which he knew about, and he said ‘I understand you’re going with McCartney,’ and I said, ‘well, possibly, I’ve had a couple of calls but Paul’s away’ blah-blah-blah and he said ‘well I’d love you to come down, I’m auditioning drummers tomorrow and with your background with Ian and Cozy I’d like your input. And bring your guitar,’ he added. ‘We started playing the next day, me and Mick Moody and a couple of other guys… David had never heard me play that way because he’d only heard the Paice Ashton Lord album which is very different, and he said ‘I had no idea you played like that; it would be great if you could be here at the start of the band…’ Nothing more had happened with Wings and after a few days it was obvious that there was a chemistry there. We went into his room and wrote a couple of songs of which ‘Steal Away’ was one, and ‘Come On’ which was certainly the first one between just the two of us.”
Both songs ended up on the ‘Snakebite’ EP which charted and led to Whitesnake appearing on Top Of The Pops, the BBC suits being worried about them performing a song called ‘Bloody Mary’ while completely missing the song’s masturbatory lyrical content. “Yes, Top Of The Pops again,” Marsden laughs. “I was becoming a regular!”
I’m not the only person who’s wondered why, after battling with Glenn Hughes over vocals in Deep Purple, Coverdale wanted Marsden to sing lead on a couple of Whitesnake songs. “A lot of people pick that up,” Marsden replies, “and to be honest I was as surprised as anybody. We wrote a couple of songs and he just said in particular on one of them, ‘Free Flight’, ‘I just like your voice; I think you’d sing this great, and we’ll do the backing vocals between us.’ And with ‘Lie Down’ which was always a bit of fun, he said ‘I want you to be Glenn on this; I want you to sing the bridge.’ I’d like to be Glenn as well with that voice,” he laughs. “But David was always very, very supportive, very much ‘I really like your voice; let’s put it on’ and I was always ‘but you’re the lead singer.’ There was never going to be an argument, but that was the way it was in those days, the band was very much a collective kind of thing although when he said ‘no, I think you should do this’ it basically meant ‘I want you to do this’! But it gave me great confidence to get stuck in to the solo albums as a singer as well. So I’ve got a lot to thank him for.”
As noted elsewhere in the review Marsden’s first solo album ‘And About Time Too’ was recorded at Central Recorders Studios (where Whitesnake had done the ‘Snakebite’ EP and ‘Trouble’ album) in July/August 1979, almost immediately after their second album ‘Lovehunter’ had been completed. It was originally recorded for the Japanese market where Marsden had, quite unexpectedly, become a guitar hero.
“I think we’d done two Japanese trips and the Japanese… Well, it must have been a good time for me to be there because when they started voting for their favourite musicians in guitar magazines and music magazines out of nowhere I ended up in the Top Ten in three magazines. All my heroes were at No.1 – Eric Clapton, Brian May, Ritchie Blackmore – and I’m at No.6 or so from absolutely nowhere. And so a Japanese record company came and offered me a solo deal and that’s how ‘And About Time Too’ started. It was only originally commissioned for Japan. All I wanted to be was the guitarist in Whitesnake; I never had any illusions of a great solo career. But the record then sold on import for something like £10, a lot of money back in ’79/’80, so Parlophone picked up the option to release it here and then they wanted another one very quickly on the back of it. That’s why the UK ‘And About Time Too’ and ‘Look At Me Now’ were released very close to each other; I think they were only about three or four months apart. I had to record ‘Look At Me Now’ quickly because we had less time – we had a month, or maybe a three week break – and Parlophone said ‘could you get into the studio? We need another album.’ They thought it would chart. They claimed that if all the imports of ‘…About Time Too’ had counted that one would have charted. I remember thinking at the time, ‘well, I don’t know about that that’!
“The whole thing was 100% positive and the whole process was excellent from start to finish. ‘And About Time Too’, the title, was a play on words because a lot of people had been saying that the last Babe Ruth album was a solo album in disguise. I mean it wasn’t, but it did have a lot of my songs on there and I do sing some stuff on there, but somebody near me – in my family I think – somebody near me heard I was making a record myself and said ‘and about bloody time too!’ because I’d been saying I was going to make a solo record all my career and finally I did. The cover shot was real, it was a local place where I grew up, and I just love the new shots that they found for the cover of the re-issue – seeing some of those shots does bring back really good memories.
“Having Jack Bruce on the album was fantastic – that was literally a dream that did come true. That again was thanks to Cozy. I’d done a track for Cozy’s album with Jack playing – me, Jack and Cozy in the studio playing and I’m pinching myself for about an hour – and I said to Cozy that I’d love to have Jack playing on a couple of tracks on my album. And Cozy being Cozy said ‘well, why don’t you just ask him instead of talking to me about it.’ He gave me his number and said ‘call him’! So Jack came down and we did the record, and it was great to have Jack playing alongside Ian Paice – that’s a rhythm section that had never been done before, and it just all came together really well. It was really good. Jack is just astonishing. And then you’ve got Jon Lord thrown into the mix, Simon Phillips… Loads of drummers bought that album because you had Cozy Powell, Ian Paice, Simon Phillips, all on the same record. I always said at the time, tongue-in-cheek, that I was the most unknown person on the album and looking at it now it was true!” he laughs.
Although not on the album itself, the re-issue features the 7” B-side ‘You And Me’, a song Whitesnake later popularised. “Whitesnake did ‘You And Me’ at one of the early demo sessions in the old EMI place in Manchester Square. I think I must have played the original version to David and he said, ‘this is great, we should do this’ so we reworked it so it became a Coverdale-Marsden song, having already been a Marsden song in its own right. David rewrote some of the words and came up with a couple of different bits. I like both versions but the original version is very raw, very raw, but the Whitesnake version did really well.”
As noted earlier, by the time ‘And About Time Too’ was given a UK release in May 1981, ‘Look At Me Now’ had already been recorded. I wondered about the title track, another nice play on words, and pointed out that I’ve always thought there was a sadness to it, perhaps a play on a loss of the guitarist’s privacy. “I know what you mean,” he agrees, “I wish I was that deep, really!” Another laugh! “I always said that I should have probably pushed it so that ‘Look At Me Now’ became a Whitesnake track. The album’s a lot rockier than the first one and I just think ‘Look At Me Now’, well, I’d love to have heard David singing that. But yes,” he starts to sing, “‘Look At Me Now, I’m all alone, look at me now, a rolling stone’, I know what you mean. Sometimes I get to think that I was a bit young to have been singing like that back then – nowadays it’s OK though!
“We went to Britannia Row, the Pink Floyd studio. We did it all in there, with lots of mates popping in. Cozy rang me and said, ‘am I going to be on this one, then?’ ‘If you can get down here, yeah!’ And when we did ‘Shakey Ground’ Roger Taylor came down, and Michael Schenker came down, but it was all done really quickly. You think about it now, people say, y’know, ‘we’ve done this record really quickly; we’ve only taken three years to do it’ and here the whole album was done in three weeks or so. There was no great pressure. I was just glad to be doing another solo album. I mean, you couldn’t say it was really stressful; just a matter of ringing the lads up, although don’t forget it was their break too. So I had to ring Jon up and say ‘sorry to bug you, mate, but I’m in the studio and who am I going to call when I know the best keyboard player in the world?’ and he said ‘oh, you sweet talker you. Let me get down there!’ And it was the same with Ian. The boys were great. The album is more Whitesnake with me singing, really. Simon Phillips is on there quite a lot though, and Cozy did one track. But it was great, and by that time we’d been on the road and that helps; the fact that we knew each other back to front by then made it very easy to work in the studio.”
Within a year though, by April 1982, Marsden had left Whitesnake and in the August was at Reading with a new band SOS. “The whole thing with Whitesnake, well, whether the band broke up and I’d left or whether it was a jumped-or-pushed thing… The bottom line is that David reformed Whitesnake and he wanted new people in, and one of the new people he wanted in was Mel Galley. So whether I got fired or not is kind of incidental now, but I always say that if you’re going to get fired, well, I got fired at the same time as Ian Paice did and that’s all right in my book, although it was a bit of a shock at the time. As for SOS, well, that really was an S.O.S. for me. Maybe that’s the ‘look at me now’ syndrome in the real world, with me thinking ‘what am I going to do now…’ It’s tough when you’re playing with the calibre of these guys that we’ve been talking about for the last half-an-hour and then suddenly you’re not playing with them any more. It’s hard. Not just not being with them, but actually going in the studio and thinking ‘what would Ian be doing now; what would Cozy be doing now…’ That’s not to belittle anything that the guys I used did, but it’s like playing football with George Best and he goes off to another club and another guy pulls on the No.7 shirt and you can’t help thinking ‘well, you’re not as good as him.’ You can’t help that. And at the time I wasn’t really interested and until I got Alaska together I wasn’t really comfortable in being in a band.”
Back in the present day Marsden is very complimentary about another great guitar player Joe Bonamassa. “We’ve become big mates, we’re very close, and he’s been very instrumental in me working on this new album. He recorded one of my songs for his album ‘Driving Towards The Daylight’ [‘A Place In My Heart’] and he recommended me to his label and we talked and here I am, in the best studio in the world, making an album forty years after my first tentative recordings. That’s rather nice. And you’ll be surprised when you hear it. I’ve got some pretty heavyweight guests on it. I can’t say who they are because it’s going to be a surprise, but I’ve gone back to what people say is what I do naturally and that’s writing decent rock songs and I think when people hear it they’ll be smiling from ear to ear.”
© John Tucker March 2013