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Alvin Lee had reached the pinnacle of rock guitardom. Of course, by the time Woodstock was over, his "I'm Going Home... by helicopter" histrionics would have been overshadowed b Jimi Hendrix's climactic Star Spangled Banner, but for that moment, all flying sweat and flashing fingers, the 24-year-old Nottingham lad emblazoned himself on the national consciousness, thanks, in large part, to the subsequent movie of the event. Overnight, Ten Years After burst onto the American rock scene, turning its fiery focal point into a full-fledged rock star. And making him absolutely miserable in the process.
"I'm a musician who started out playing in clubs," says Lee. "That's where I'm happiest. Some of the best gigs I've ever done have come in small, sweaty bars. I've been playing for some 37 years now and the motivation to keep going has to come from the enjoyment of what you're doing. The last thing I ever wanted to be was some cardboard cut-out of a rock star."
By 1974, Lee had disbanded the group and embarked on a solo career that included collaborations with George Harrison, Steve Winwood and Ron Wood. Like many musicians of his generation, he has been largely abandoned by the mainstream record industry and is now back to the world of independent and even self-run labels.
Lee puts out records on his own IHH imprint in Europe, which recently
released his I Hear You Rockin' album, distributed in the States by
one-stop confederation Alliance Entertainment through Viceroy Music, a specialty
classic blues-rock imprint whose roster includes such veterans as Blodwyn Pig
guitarist Mick Abrahams and Savoy Brown's Kim Simmonds. Shrapnel, previously
known for releasing young metal bands through the Relativity (RED) distribution
network (partially owned by Sony), has launched a roots-rock division called
Blues Bureau, which boasts Leslie West and Mountain as well as Rick Derringer,
Pat Travers and Greg Howe. Former Procol Harum guitarist Robin
Trower and Scorpions/UFO veteran Michael Schenker have both launched their
own labels, along with the likes of Martin Barre and Ronnie Montrose, while
Santana/Journey axe slinger Neil Schon just recorded a solo album for new age
label Higher Octave Music.
Lee, whose albums with Ten Years After lodged in the Top 40 of the US album charts at the group's peak, is now content to sell what an average Viceroy Record aims for in the US -- anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 copies. "I'm much happier these days," says Lee. "The major labels are fine if you can get all the departments agreeing what to do. The trouble is, they know very little about music and most of 'em need second opinions and accountants to justify their every move. And you have to play the media game."
Being in the public eye and the subject of nosey journalists also bothers Savoy Brown guitarist Kim Simmonds, who has kept the band together on a variety of labels since forming the group in London almost thirty years ago. "I'd just as soon no one called, to tell the truth," he chuckles from his home in Syracuse, NY, where he married a local girl and has a year-old child. Savoy Brown, which was probably better known for sending its alumni to such acts as Yes (Bill Bruford) and Foghat , built up a loyal stateside following for its "workmanlike" take on the blues and even though Simmonds is the only original member in the current line-up, he insists his guitar-playing "provides the continuity." In fact, the new album, Bring It Home, features several players from the western New York area as well as cameo appearances by the likes of former bandmate, Foghat's Lonesome Dave Peverett, in its return to Kim's true blues roots.
"All my better records feature the interplay between the singer and the guitarist," he says. "In blues-rock, if you get the right blend, like I think I have now, it's a spark that's irresistible to the ear. The right guitar sound with the right vocal has been the essence of Savoy Brown's music from the beginning."
And while Triple-A formats and bands like Hootie & the Blowfish, Dave Matthews Band and Blues Traveler -- as well as neoclassicists such as Lenny Kravitz and Popa Chubby -- signal a return to the classic blues-rock of the 60s and 70s, today's major labels are more interested in new, young, fresh talent than old war horses, no matter how large a drink tab their A&R execs run up at the House of Blues.
"In their inverted commas 'infinite wisdom,' the major labels think we're all fried out," says Blodwyn Pig founder Mick Abrahams, who has been battling the music biz wars since he split Jethro Tull rather than fight Ian Anderson's ever-expanding ego way back in 1969. "But that's not the impression I get from the audiences I play to or the people I talk to. Blodwyn Pig was literally playing in front of 25,000 at the Fairport Convention festival in England last year and we literally tore the arse out of 'em. They loved it. So where were the major labels?"
His latest Pig record, Lies, came out last year on Viceroy, whose president Arnie Goodman is an old friend of his, and includes ex-Tull-mate, drummer Clive Bunker. "The thing is, the indie labels are more interested in listening to what you're actually doing musically," says Mick. "They offer constructive criticism, but at least they're on your side."
Many musicians choose independent labels precisely so they don't have to deal with outside influences in the way of pressure to be more commercial... or at least what the record company thinks would be more commercial.
Doors guitarist Robby Krieger, who has recorded for indie labels his entire solo career, including his latest, RKO Live!, for the Albany NY-based One Way Records, hears all about the pitfalls of today's multinational conglomerate record companies from his son, a member of the band Bloodline, signed to EMI.
"It's unbelievable the way the record company tells them what to do," says Robby. "Who to write with, which songs to do, who the producer should be... it's ridiculous. We never would have stood for that in the 60s. It's totally a business now. Everything's for the money and the artist suffers."
Guitarist Robin Trower, who has formed his own V-12 Records label with former Chrysalis President Derek Sutton to release his latest album, 20th Century Blues, agrees his own 1974 critical and commercial breakthrough, Bridge of Sighs, seemed to succeed with audiences because of the fact its psychedelic Hendrixian blues-rock ignored the dictates of the marketplace. In recent years, Trower proved his integrity was more important than cashing in when he turned down a chance to tour with a reformed Procol Harum on the BMG-distributed Zoo label because "there wasn't enough of myself in it."
Trower insists there was a lot more artistic integrity in the 70s. "Back then, you could get exposure with practically any kind of music. The channels have closed down so much over the last 10–15 years. It's very hard to get heard by the public unless you stick to one of the mainstream categories."
Which is why guitar heroes like Robin Trower, Alvin Lee and Kim Simmonds have found themselves drawn to independent labels run by people who are fans of the music... not lawyers, accountants, promotion men or even A&R weasels.
"If you're making a record without pandering to the marketplace, then you've got to be prepared to basically start on the bottom rung," says Trower. "That's what you give up to be able to make the music you want without any commercial considerations whatsoever."
"We're the kind of musicians who play what we want to play," insists Lee. "All these pop stars and fashion kings sit down and ask themselves what the public wants. And then decide what they think they want and do that. To me, that's bullshit. If it doesn't come from inside so you have to tear it out, it's all a big sham. I've never followed trends. I play the music I enjoy. I try to make the records I'd like to hear. And if other people happen to like them, that's even more rewarding. And if they don't, at least you don't feel like a rip-off, like you've sold out. One of the worst things you can do is make a commercial record and not sell any. That must be the pits!"
"The main thing I've had throughout my career is complete artistic freedom," says Kim. "I've never been able to become a pop star, even when I tried to. And I'm glad my limitations got in the way or I probably would've lost my credibility with the fan base I have now."
It is the indies' goal to find and maximize that fan base. Robin Trower's manager Derek Sutton says: "In order to maintain a classic artist, you have to find their audience and each act has to do that for themselves. It's my job to keep Robin alive while radio is not playing his music... so that when radio finally does discover this music, we have the distribution apparatus already in place."
Mick Abrahams and Robin Trower both believe it's possible to sell a lot of records with an indie... if you make the right album.
"You must have something the public wants," says Abrahams. "Something that hits them straight between the eyes and becomes a commercially saleable record, but it's got to be something you wanted to do anyway. That's the advantage of an indie. They may make a suggestion here and there, but you don't get kicked up the arse and pushed around. Not that I would put up with that anyway."
"I'm absolutely convinced, with the right record, you can connect with an independent label," says Robin. German guitarist Michael Schenker was already selling 300,000–500,000 albums worldwide each time he put out a record with either UFO or his most recent band, McAuley-Schenker Group, when he woke up one morning to find himself without either a manager or a record label. After cleaning up from a drug rehab, he experienced a spiritual awakening which led to an inner peace.
"I had a real desire to show my gratitude, a 'thank you' to all my fans and friends who have supported me over the years," says Schenker in a Teutonic accent. He went on a promotional tour with his partner Robin McAuley for his last major label album, MSG, on Impact, playing acoustic sets for members of the media and retail, which gave him the idea to record an entirely acoustic guitar album and release it on his own homegrown label he later dubbed Positive Energy Records.
"You have to be mentally and spiritually ready to be able to take this particular trip," says Schenker, who moved to Scottsdale, Arizona with his manager Bella Piper to launch the company. "As normal human beings, we have a desire to be recognized, to be on the charts, to sell as many records as we can. To do what I did, you have to enjoy just the simple fact of doing what you're doing. You can't worry about making the Top Ten. And that's where the power comes in. You remove yourself from the rat race and take what's given. Why it happens when it happens, who knows? I just know it happened to me. If you have too much pride or too many expectations, you won't be able to get yourself to do it, because it won't be any fun. It happens within you in a natural progression. I have no idea why it happened at this particular time to me. Maybe it has to do with a larger picture of human development.
"I was just tired of giving all my money away to someone who just says, 'Hi, Michael, let me sign you,' collects and goes away... It was just so obvious what was going on. Plus, I never really made any money." Schenker recorded the acoustic instrumental Thank You and filled the CD sleeve with the names of fans, fellow musicians, record company personnel, radio stations and friends who supported him along the way. On the final track, Escape From the Box, Schenker utters the only spoken words on the album, basically describing his decision to abandon the mainstream record industry... and everyday world for that matter. "I have made up my mind/I am leaving/I can see disbelief in their faces, but I am going/Bye, It's all made up."
"I had a lot of people telling me I was a stupid idiot for doing what I was doing," admits Schenker. "They said I couldn't see the big picture. Well, having fun is the big picture for me right now. Two years later, I have record company people coming up to me and saying the way I'm doing things is how it's going to be in the future! It wasn't even a business decision for me. It was just a natural result of the way I was developing as a human being. Whatever you choose is the right thing because you're the one that's choosing it. As long as you're aware of what you're choosing. Whether you're with a big machine or do it yourself, as long as you have thought about it long enough to know what will make you happy."
For Journey guitarist Neal Schon and Mountain axe wielder Leslie West, combining major label affiliations and independent outlets turned out to be a way to get the best of both worlds.
Schon took a break from working with his fellow members of Santana (sans Carlos) in the band Abraxas and trying to convince Steve Perry to resurrect Journey to do an all-instrumental album, Beyond the Thunder, with bandmate Jonathan Cain, for the new age Higher Octave label while Leslie West has put out both a live and a studio record, Dodgin' The Dirt, on Shrapnel's Blues Bureau imprint at the same time as his Mountain reissues go through Columbia/Sony's catalog label, Legacy.
"Let's face it, everybody wants their tours underwritten," laughs West. "But you can get lost at a major label. And with these big corporations owning everything, groups are going to have to play in their arenas, use their ticketing systems, contribute soundtracks to their movies... it's gonna be horrible. You're going to really have to sell yourself out if you want to be with a major.
"The point is, if you really want to go out there to play and you need a little help, you've got to give a little to get a little. I've learned that over the years. Felix [Pappalardi] used to be so headstrong. He was more interested in making history than music. And look where he is now. His wife shot him over another woman."
Schon is delighted he's able to play his instrumental music for one label and do his Journey thing on a larger scale. He feels it will help him as an all-around musician and that what he's learned while doing his jazz/new age/instrumental/world beat Higher Octave album will help him when he returns to the band.
"I've never been more satisfied musically than I am now because I haven't had to give up one aspect of my playing to attain another," says Neal. "I'm opening up more. I'm able to create more of what's in my imagination.
"I'm really excited about getting back together with Journey because I think the music we make will take on a whole new direction. It's going to be more mature and experimental, too. This whole experience, making this album, has stuck my feet in the mud and brought me down to earth completely. It's allowed me to stand back and evaluate everything from a great perspective."
So what can an aging rock guitar hero do in an idiom that celebrates youth and the lead vocalist? With the singer the focus in most rock bands, guitarists who don't also sing have an especially hard time. But they can take a hint from those who have been most successful at staving off age -- acts like Aerosmith, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton have never strayed far from what got them to where they were in the first place.
"None of us ever expected to be in our 40s and still be doing this," sayex-MC5 guitar slinger Wayne Kramer, who has resurrected his own career on the punk Epitaph label, which has just released his superb new album, The Hard Stuff, where he's joined by members of bands he's influenced such as Claw Hammer, Rancid, the Melvins, Bad Religion, Pennywise and the Vandals. "When I was 20, we didn't think the planet was going to last another 20 years. It's all a big surprise to me.
"Rock and roll as a lifestyle has a pretty brutal attrition rate. It may look like fun on MTV, but it doesn't show you driving in the van freezing or what happens when your record company lays down on you. And the band falls apart. And you discover Jack Daniels and heroin."
"Basically, I'm lucky to be alive today," says Alvin Lee. "I didn't like the limelight. And the marijuana, hashish and LSD didn't help, either. I got a little caught up and a little confused. There's a lot of stress in fame and fortune. You may think when you're on the verge of it, it's what you want. I was lucky enough to realize it wasn't what I wanted. I saw the downside. Basically I've been trying to live my life as a working musician. The guys I admire are the blues and jazz players... The guys who are still playing at 80 years old, like John Lee Hooker."
Veterans like Trower, Abrahams and Lee are torn between hewing [sic] to the initial influences and trying to create something modern. "I've tried to maintain a hold on my original inspirations," says Trower. "Even though at a certain point, you try to move forward. On my last major label release [1990's In The Line of Fire for Atlantic], I tried pretty hard to give them the album they wanted and at the end of the day, it was pretty unsatisfactory. All you really end up with then is a piece of product."
"I don't give a fuck what other people think," snorts Abrahams. "I've never seen myself as a commercial kind of guy. Although people tell me some of my stuff is so commercial. But if it is, why can't I get arrested with it?"
"Rock & roll still gets me off," insists Lee. "I still play Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry when I feel like listening to some good music. It's what you were brought up with when you're that impressionable age between 12 and 16. It gets in your blood and becomes a part of you. It's music for musos."
Working with fresh new talent is another way to invigorate your music, according to both Kramer and Lee.
"These young musicians I worked with were cool," says Brother Wayne. "They were willing to go beyond the beat and the key. And let's face it, I have more in common with these kids than people my own age. I wanted to be where the vitality was... which has always been in the street. All these bands love the sound of that guitar in those stinking rehearsal rooms, humping their equipment into bars to play for 20 of their friends. The success of this music has been a vindication for me."
"I find it invigorating to work with younger players," adds Lee. "If I work on my own too long, I get bored. I believe you can learn something about the guitar from anybody; even someone who's only been playing six months can come up with something I might find interesting and be able to take a bit further."
As rock & roll continues to splinter into an ever-increasing number of factions, classic first-generation guitarists are being pigeonholed into smaller sub-categories that threaten to turn the music into a rapidly diminishing cult. Toss in a tightening world economy and you've got an idea why it's getting harder and harder to maintain your niche. Most of the artists we spoke to are lucky in that their catalogue sales sustain them through tough times. But working musicians -- as these classic rockers have found out -- have to keep up with the times.
"You have to be responsible for yourself, which is the case with life in general as well," says Schenker. "If you allow yourself to get ripped off, you are the one to blame."
Compared to the innocent, naive 24-year-old who took Woodstock by storm, today's Alvin Lee is much clearer on where he's going. "I'm less confused. I know what I'm doing now and I'm doing it at my own pace. I'm playing what I want to play when I want with whom I want. Now, if I find myself in a shitty hotel room somewhere asking what am I doing here, I can answer myself. I'm the guy that put me there. In the old days, it was always a manager, an agent or the record company talking you into doing stuff. Now, I'm in control. And that's where the peace of mind comes from."
And then there's the forward-thinking Robby Krieger, who sees a day when there won't be any record companies to distribute his music: "I'm just waiting for the Internet to get happening so I can sell my music over the computer. That's the future."
Whatever the 21st century holds, rock guitarists will continue to pursue their muse, hoping one day to end up much like Alvin Lee, now living in Barcelona with his girlfriend, where soaks up the native flamenco guitarists. "I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself," he laughs. "I'm living a rock & roll dream and it's all coming true."
Alvin Lee. Home at last.
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