The Gibson Interview: Denny Laine (Part Two)
When Denny Laine left The Moody Blues, London was as good a place as any for a talented young musician with good credentials to find like-minded creative folk. Over the next five years, he made records under various monikers with members of The Move and, later, Ginger Baker. Eventually, Laine received an invitation from an old friend, who was looking to create a new band. The old friend was, of course, Paul McCartney. And his new band, Wings, would go on to be one of the biggest bands in the world over the coming decade.
The Electric String Band was a very interesting follow-up, musically, to The Moody Blues. That first single, “Say You Don’t Mind,” is so good. It’s kind of hard to believe that the band didn’t take off. Why do you suppose The Electric String Band didn’t make it?
Well, the main reason was because I started going on the road with these four musicians from the Royal Academy of Music. They were all soloists and they were all very busy doing orchestral stuff all around the world, so you couldn’t tie them down too much. So in a way, it was a little bit of a white elephant having the best guys who were the young soloists of the Royal Academy of Music in London. They were so good, there was nobody else to replace them. So I got used to (the band) being four guys; but we didn’t work that much.
And when it came to the final gig we did, which was at the Saville Theatre, which was owned by Brian Epstein, for the Jimi Hendrix show, my stuff was really pretty complicated. And at the first show I was supposed to do, my bass player went down sick so I pulled out of it. And John Lennon, I heard, remarked, “What’s Denny doing backing out? We all came down to see him. We didn’t just come here to see Jimi. We’ve come to see Denny.” They were my friends by then. So I backed out of it, because I knew nobody could replace that. You know, it was all kinds of intricate stuff; and I did get a bass player from The Pretty Things in there in the afternoon to see if he could pull it off, but he just couldn’t do it. So I backed out of the gig. But the next week, there was another gig. It was two shows. So the next week I did do the show and went down really, really well. And I knew that Paul was in the audience. Since I knew him — I knew all the Beatles very well by then, because the Moodies had already done a British tour with them — I was hanging out with them. I went to a few Sgt. Pepper (events). I mean, I just knew them all. George was a neighbor. And so, Paul obviously kept that (performance) in mind.
And then, I went off and did some stuff with Ginger Baker and this and that. And then, eventually, when (Paul) wanted to put a band together, he called me because he already knew me. He knew I was easy to work with, rather than somebody — you know, a lot of people were in awe of Paul, and they were too scared of him, in some ways, because he was so big. I got along very well with him, so it was easy. So that was really all there was to it. He just gave me a call one day and said, “You fancy coming to Scotland and putting a band together?” And I said, “Fine, I’m on my way.” That was because, you know, I tried all this string band thing and, again, I couldn’t afford to keep it running. But the single, “Say You Don’t Mind,” had a very good underground following for me. We did a lot of underground clubs and folk clubs and stuff like that. And on the London scene, it did me a lot of good even though it didn’t have any success. But that’s because I never recorded anything with them. The only thing I did was “Say You Don’t Mind,” which was kind of, like I said, an underground thing. But it was very good for me that I did that, because I did it with strings and it had that string band feel, which is why I put that band together, to sort of cover that style. But the guy that did the strings on that, who actually scored the strings, was John Paul Jones.
That was because John Paul Jones was, back in those days, like Jimmy Page, doing all the sessions. So Denny Cordell was the producer that I used for the album. (He had worked on) the first Moodies album. He went on to do stuff with David Bowie and Joe Cocker, “A Little Help from My Friends,” and Procol Harum, “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” So Denny was my best friend at that time. I went into the studio with those guys and John Paul Jones was playing a little bit of bass, and Danny Thompson was on double bass. He was from a band called Pentangle. So all these people kind of became more famous later. But at that time, they were all trying new stuff out. John Paul Jones was doing a lot of scoring for people. I got him to do the string parts.
That was pretty ornate, complicated music, but it seems like when Wings first got together it was about stripping it all down. Wild Life was done largely on first takes.
Can you talk about those early rehearsals and how the band came together?
Paul and I knew each other very well. Denny Seiwell had already played on Ram. So it started out with just us. And Linda was pretty restricted as a musician. So we were just kind of sitting there, jamming through stuff and getting into grooves with those old songs and things like that. And then I got Henry McCullough from Joe Cocker’s band involved, because I knew him through Denny Cordell again.
So we were just up in the studio there, and it was kind of an old barn up in Scotland that he had converted — he did his McCartney album there. And it was just basic equipment that he had sent up from London, from EMI. We didn’t rush it. We just took our time and he wrote a few songs. We weren’t trying to be anything too special, because we knew if we tried to be too special, then everybody would compare it to everything else. And so, we just thought, “Well, you know, what’s the big deal? This is the stage we're at. We might as well record it.” Paul being Paul, he thought, “To hell with the press and what they think. We're just going to put out what we're doing now.” And that’s what that was.
And then, of course, we went and we did this university tour where we just turned up on a doorstep and played to the campus there. So at least we got a little tour together without the press really knowing about it. Then that kind of got us tight as a band. And then, of course, the next album was a little bit more intricate. We went for a lot more arrangements and stuff. And harmonies, you know? It was the natural progression of any band, if you see what I mean. You can’t expect to be as good as The Moody Blues or The Beatles when you just get together, no matter who you are. It just takes time and, of course, in our case we just recorded whatever we did as we did it and put it out, and it progressed, you know?
When did you feel that band finally, really clicked? When did the light go on?
Well, as soon as we went on tour, as soon as we did that French tour. South of France, we had an open-top bus and we went down and did a tour. It’s like anything, you know? It's like the other line-up got really tight when we did the ’76 tour. That’s how you get good. By that time, we had already done the university thing. And you know, the bigger you are, the harder it is to work in some ways, because so much is expected of you. And it takes a while to set up tours and all that kind of thing. So we would make an album and tour it. And then we would make another album and then we would tour that. You know, not like bands who are out there working every night. You always have to play live for a band to get good. Everybody knows that. I mean, you pull things out of a hat when you’re playing live. I’m sure you know that. As soon as you’re in front of an audience, they tell you what they like and what they don’t like. That’s just the general pattern of what happened: we got good because we were working live. And it was fun. We had a lot attention and all the rest of it, but we didn’t really care what the press thought, or anybody thought. We were doing it for ourselves. That’s what all bands do, really.
It’s a healthy approach.
The one thing that band always had, in every incarnation, was a great lead guitarist. You mentioned Henry McCullough. Can you describe how you two worked together and what he brought to the band as a guitar player?
I knew Henry from The Grease Band and they were friends of mine in London. While I was living in Mayfair before I joined Wings, I used to go to a place called Shepherd’s Market. There was a venue there, and one day I was in there watching Joe Cocker’s band rehearsing, like I said, because Denny Cordell was their producer, and I got to know Henry. I liked his style because he was a blues player. You know, I liked his kind of country-rock, blues style. And I liked him as a guy, you know? So I knew him quite well before and Paul said to me, "Do you know any guitar players?" And I said, "Yeah, Henry McCullough. He's just left Joe Cocker’s band.” And I don’t even know why he did, but I knew because I had seen him in the clubs and knew he wasn’t doing anything. So because I liked his style and I knew him quite well, I knew that I could work with him, and yeah, he was a bit of a character, like. He was his own person, Henry. I mean, he played the solo on “My Love,” which was a great solo. I thought it really made the song, myself. And he did that live in the studio with no overdubs or anything. He was just a very natural, good, clean player. And not too flashy, you know? He had a good feel is what I’m saying. Henry did play a Gibson gold-top guitar, as well. So he had that sound.
Now, Henry departed before Band on the Run. The recording of that album has been well documented, but it’s just so bizarre, some of the circumstances behind it. What are your memories of those sessions?
He left because he, basically, he wasn’t too into the discipline of being in a band like that. It was too much. He was more laid back. He didn’t like too much hard work, Henry. He loved to play but, you know what I mean, the pressure of the big time got to him in a way. He wasn’t going to be coming, and then I was expecting Denny Seiwell to be at the airport and he didn’t turn up. I didn’t know the story behind that either. I had forgotten this. When I did a Beatlefest last year, Denny Seiwell brought this up on stage and started talking about how we rehearsed some of the Band on the Run songs before we went to Nigeria. And I had forgotten all about that.
So me, Paul and Linda go out there and the studio wasn’t that great. It was all kind of old equipment, you know, hand-me-down EMI equipment. And nobody really knew what they were doing out there, but we had Geoff Emerick, who was the Beatles’ engineer, with us. And we kind of just did it like we did a lot of overdubs. You know, Paul would play the drums, and I would play whatever instrument and we would put the backing tracks down like that. And then kind of make things up as we went, you know? And most of those backing tracks we did ourselves and then came back to London and put on things like, George Martin would have some brass or strings, and then did the final dubs. But we got the essential feel just with me and Paul putting the backing tracks down. So I think that’s why we had a good…well, it was very easy. It came very easy. Sometimes it’s harder with a band, because with a band, you got work out everybody’s parts and you‘ve got to sit there and learn all the songs. And that way, we’d just kind of bust it a little bit and then we made things up as we went along. Well, you know, The Beatles were the first people to have basically endless studio time where you could just experiment. And, of course, we had that luxury, as well. And because we didn’t have a band, that’s all we could do. I mean, we were there to make an album and that’s what we did.
Did you have a sense that the album was something special even at the beginning when you were recording it or did it just seem like the next record?
Well, let’s put it this way. I mean, Paul wrote all the songs except one. And I’m the sort of guy who, if I like the song, I enjoy playing it. And if I don’t like it, I don’t enjoy playing it and I let it be known. But because I liked all the songs he was coming out with, and because I could experiment with them myself, he had the basic scene but I was just as much a part of the additional pieces and ideas.
So the only song I wrote was “No Words,” and that ended up being a dual composition, because “No Words” was two songs that were put together. It was Paul’s idea to put two of my songs together, which made one song, and then he added a few lines in the last verse and helped me put it together. So it came to be, you know, a dual composition. But basically it was my song and all the rest of the songs were his.
But again, if I didn’t like something, I would kind of (say), “Aw, well, maybe…let’s try this or let’s try that.” But he always had a million ideas, Paul, and still does. And then, just by my reaction to whatever he was coming out with, that would be the song we would go with. So we’d pick them out of quite a few songs. I can’t really remember any more than that except that it was pretty easy the way it all came together.
Now afterwards, obviously, you had to put a new band together. Where did you find Jimmy McCulloch? I mean, what a talent.
Well, Jimmy was with Thunderclap Newman and then he went on to a band called Stone the Crows. And the drummer from Stone the Crows, funny enough, Colin Allen co-wrote or at least wrote the words to “Medicine Jar,” which is Jimmy's song on Wings at the Speed of Sound. And so, (Jimmy) was the guitarist in Stone the Crows with a Scottish girl singer, Maggie Bell. The roadie that we had, a guy called Ian Horn, was friends of theirs. In fact, he used to be their roadie. So he recommended Jimmy to us. So Jimmy came in. Joe English we met because we needed a drummer in New Orleans to do Venus and Mars, and he became the drummer for those sessions. And there you go. So we had another line-up.
Wings had several line-ups, but that one seems to be the one that sticks out as the real—
Oh, yeah. Well, that’s because, again, we toured it. And you know, Joe and Jimmy were very, very good musicians anyway. They just had their own thing. Even on their own, they were just great musicians. I'm not saying that Denny and Henry weren’t, because Denny is an amazing musician and so is Henry. But it was an earlier stage and we didn’t do the world tour and we didn’t have that much success. But now, we were all ready to do a world tour, so we got really good as a result of touring. And it was a result of doing all the big stadiums all over the world, as well, not just the South of France this time. I mean, this was the big time. The way it all came together, I think it was about nine months, that tour. And then it got stopped a little bit because Jimmy had an accident and broke one of his fingers. And then it was supposed to go to Japan and the visas got revoked because Paul had had a drug bust and so had I — mine a marijuana (expletive) charge. Then it took five years before we could go back again and (Paul) goes and gets busted and gets thrown in jail. So we never did do Japan, which pissed me off because I was really looking forward to Japan. You know, I like to work live. We did Australia, but we never did go to Japan. So I knew that was kind of the beginning of the end when that happened. We didn’t work enough live as it was.
That period that we’re talking about, though, it seems like everybody in the band — even Joe — had an opportunity to take the spotlight, with lead vocals on Venus and Mars and Speed of Sound. It seems like this was the period where it really was a “band” or more of a band of equal partners than at any other time.
Yeah, well it developed to that. That was mainly at Paul’s instigation. He wanted it to be that way. He didn’t want the spotlight to be on him all the time. He was kind of sick of that. You’ve got to remember that Paul —and he won’t mind me saying this — was a great bass player and harmony singer. That was his role in The Beatles and also, obviously, he wrote a lot of his own stuff and did his own thing. But his forte was as a great bass player and great harmony singer, and John Lennon was kind of the more melody guy of The Beatles’ co-written stuff, you know? Well, I mean the main hits. Let’s put it that way. And then Paul went on to be his own man, as far as writing. His own songs, "Yesterday" and all that stuff. “Fool on the Hill.”
But in Wings, he became the lead singer and that’s it. And that was a lot on his shoulders, you know? So he wanted to bring us in to balance it out a little more. But of course, he was the main singer and all the hits we had were (with) him singing. And he wanted to make it more of a band. He didn’t like it being called Paul McCartney and Wings, which is what most promoters insisted on calling it. He tried to get us all to do stuff, to the point that he would write a song for me to do, like “Spirits of Ancient Egypt” and “The Note You Never Wrote.” And then he wrote that one for Joe to sing (“Must Do Something about It”) and Jimmy had “Medicine Jar.” So you know, it started to get that way. But of course, the same old story, Joe English wanted to go off and spend his money and live on a farm, you know. The music business is okay until you really get to the point where you are so busy that you don’t get time to spend with your families or spend the money you’re making. You’re just always working. And I think both of them wanted to go off and do other things again.
I’ve got to ask you, I mean, Jimmy's story is so sad…
There’s one story, I’ve always been curious as to whether it’s complete fiction or whether it’s true. It’s been written that Jimmy was out of his head one night and was bent on killing Paul and Linda and you basically stopped him. Is that true or is that complete—
I don’t remember any of that. I mean, if it were that true, I’d remember it. I mean, I’ve heard that story. He was going to shoot them, or something, or had a gun pointed at them. I don’t know anything about that. I don’t remember that. And if I had stopped him, I would definitely remember it. But I do know that Jimmy was a bit of a drinker and a little bit of a, you know, I don’t know… He had a little bit of vendetta, at some point, against Paul. I don’t know why, really. Jimmy was a little bit of an upstart. He was a little bit of a troublemaker and he liked to drink. He was a little guy and he was talented, don’t get me wrong, but I think he just had a little bit of an ego thing going. And there was a clash there, but I don’t remember me stopping him from doing any of that stuff.
I mean, I know that me and Jimmy — well, I used to knock around with Jimmy a lot and…especially at one point in New Orleans, he got into a big fight with some junkies and I had to pull him out of that. And then another time, he came into the studio when me and Paul were doing some recording of a couple of country songs, and he made a bit of a scene there. You know, pissed off that he wasn’t included on that, and got arrested going home by the police and we had to go get him out of jail. You know, he was a little bit of a drinker, but he wasn’t to be taken that seriously. And I don’t really remember that story at all. I read about it and was kind of amazed when I read that, myself.
As we’ve noted, Wings had remarkable guitar players all along the way, and Laurence Juber was certainly right up there. What did he bring to the group musically?
Well again, I got Laurence the gig. And I also got (drummer) Steve Holly the gig, because Steve was my neighbor and Laurence was hanging around the Langley Studios at Wembley when I was doing some overdubs on the Wings over America album. I mean the whole thing about the Wings over America album was that it was recorded live but there were a few little glitches that had to be cleaned up, like on everything. So I was there in the studio maybe cleaning up a few harmonies or putting a little bit of rhythm guitar across little bits that didn’t click or gel, and Laurence was there, and he had already been the guitar player in a studio band with the David Essex Show. David Essex had his own television show. And David Essex was a friend of mine, so he got me to come and sing “Go Now” on his show and Laurence was the guitar player in that studio band. His brother-in-law at that time was the musical director. So I met him. He played the guitar solo in “Go Now.” My second version of “Go Now,” which had a guitar solo on it, which I actually played but this particular time I was playing piano. So he played the guitar solo and kind of hounded me after that. I met him at Delaney’s Studios and he kept saying, “If you’re looking for a guitar player, I’m the man.” All that stuff. So when Paul said to me, “Do you know anybody?” I said, “Well, I know this guy, Laurence, who is a trained, can-play-anything kind of guitar player.” So we got him and Steve Holly to one audition, really, and they both got the job at the end of the day. But then again, Laurence could play anything you wanted him to play. He wasn’t a rock and roller, though, and neither was Steve, really. But I think Steve was more of a band person than Laurence was. I think Laurence is more just a session-type guy, you know?
Well, I was going to say that the albums after that — I mean, there were bits on Back to the Egg that rocked — but it was definitely a musical change from some of the real rocking stuff you did before. Was that a conscience decision to mellow out?
No, it wasn’t a conscious decision. I think the combination of the people wasn’t the same and, you know, again we hadn’t toured. But once again, if we had gone to Japan and done the tour, we might have turned into a real rock band again. We never really did enough live work to get really good. That’s the problem. I mean, they were competent in the studio. They could play anything you wanted them to play and they were good. They were competent, but it never developed into a real rock band again and that’s a good way of putting it. It never really got to that stage.
Next week, in the conclusion of the Gibson Interview, Denny Laine talks about his post-Wings career, including the recording of George Harrison’s “All Those Years Ago,” a recent reunion with some of his former Wings bandmates and a brand new musical! http://www.gibson.com/en-us/Lifestyle/Features/Denny-Laine-0707/<\/u><\/a>