Photo taken from Tony Hazzard’s official website.
Legendary singer-songwriter Tony Hazzard chats with Louder Than War’s Craig Chaligne just before his first London show in 40 years.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with Louder Than War Tony, could you start by telling us when and how you got into music ?
I started playing the ukulele when I was eight and then I moved to guitar when I was twelve. The first guitar I got, I didn’t know how to tune so I worked out the chords with the tuning that was there and then I discovered that they were all wrong so I had to re-tune it and learn them all over again. I was playing guitar things that were current at the time, “Walk Don’t Run” by The Ventures or tunes by The Shadows. There was no thought of songwriting. The music master at my secondary school was very good, he had a little jazz group in which he played clarinet and soprano sax and I played guitar. I learned to read dots and I wrote a little piece. Some of my friends at the school were interested in Little Richard and rock’n’roll and some were into old Blues, people like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Reverend Gary Davis. My father worked as a psychiatric nurse in a very big hospital with a hall there where they put on socials, dances. I played there with my little band in which I handled lead and rhythm guitar and the other guy played bass and rhythm. We had one amplifier between us and we used to carry our stuff on the bus. That was when I was sixteen-seventeen.
One day I was in The Cavern in Liverpool and Bob Wooler the DJ announced that if any bands wanted to play they should come and see him. I said to my friend Graham who was the drummer, I think we’re not good enough at the moment, we need to rehearse more, in the end we never did it. Finally last year I played a festival at the new Cavern in Liverpool. I’d watched all the early Liverpool bands at The Cavern: Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Beatles. The Big Three and it was the sort of thing that I wanted to do. Then I went to university and joined a band there. In fact I was playing in two bands at one point, doing lead guitar in one and singing in the other. My father used to write to me and ask “What are you going to do as a career?” and I didn’t know. One day the drummer in the band said: “Why don’t we go professional ?”. Suddenly the bells rang and the lights came on and I wrote to him saying I was going to be a musician. He said “I’ll support you for a year” by which he meant he’d send me a pound now and again which was very sweet.
The bass player in the band at university didn’t want to go pro but a bass player who’d been in the band and left a year before me stepped in. While I was at university I met a guy called Sid Waddell and we became good friends. He had a degree from the University of Cambridge and was doing research at the University of Durham. Tony Garnett, then a story editor at the BBC was visiting Sid who told him about me. I played some songs to Tony which he thought were commercial but that if I wanted to go into the music business I should go down to London and that if I did I should look him up.
I finished the last exam, went down to London where we got a residency in Acton in a place where The Who had previously played. We formed at little club and played there every Thursday. We’d also go and play in American bases, weddings and things like that. Tony Garnett was very helpful, he bought us a van, he came to gigs. He introduced me to really interesting people, director Ken Loach, writer Troy Kennedy-Martin, poet Christopher Logue. I had an offer of a publishing and recording contract from a guy who owned a commercial radio station and Tony warned me that he wasn’t a very good guy to go with and he recommended somebody else who was managing Manfred Mann at the time and who also doing the music for the Wednesday play who turned out to be Gerry Bron. Gerry offered me a publishing deal and I asked the band : “What should I do ?” and they said I should go for it and that it might help the band ultimately. If they’d said no I would have stayed with them. Gerry signed me up and not long after that the guy who’d wanted to sign me originally was murdered because he was mixing with the wrong people (he was managing some pretty big chart acts at the time).
I left university in June and by the following February, I had a hit in with “You Won’t Be Leaving” by Herman’s Hermits and my first single came out the following month. 50 years ago this month !!!! I was put on a weekly retainer but I found it very hard to come up with a follow-up so they started threatening they would stop the payments if I didn’t come up with songs. I ended up working for the Performing Rights Society as a filing clerk for few months. I was filing my own name which was very strange !!! I went to see Gerry Bron and I played him some songs, three of them he didn’t like so I said that there was no point in playing the fourth one as he probably wouldn’t like it either but he insisted so I played it and a big grin came on his face and he said it was a hit, that was “Ha Ha Said The Clown”. I couldn’t tell what was commercial or not, I just wrote what I wanted to write. I was very lucky that a lot of what I wrote thereafter got recorded. I spent a lot of time in the studio working and recording demos which eventually became my first album.
How did that collection of demos become a fully fledged LP ?
We polished some of the tracks but we left most in their original state. For example Tony Hicks from The Hollies said he would play the same guitar part on “Listen To Me” than the one he had done on The Hollies version so we added that but most of the tracks were the original demos. The album was recorded over a period of three years and was released in 1969. It’s the publisher Gerry Bron who had the idea of putting these recordings out as an album as he had got a deal with CBS Records. It was supposed to be called “Demonstration” because the songs were demos but CBS said it was going to be called “Tony Hazzard sings Tony Hazzard” which I though was a bit of a wet name. Now people call it “Tony Hazzard sings” which is even worse because it doesn’t mean anything. For the sleeve I had my photo taken with all the acts that had covered the songs. I always though that the demo of “Ha Ha Said The Clown” was the best version of it because we did it like a middle European gipsy dance. The song was about a stand-up comic. We had a jangle piano with drawing pins in the hammers and I played twelve string guitar on all of the demos. I’d written the solo out and we played together, piano and twelve string, which makes it much more exciting I think.
When you hear other people’s versions of songs you wrote, what was is most common reaction you usually experience ?
Most of the time I find their take on it interesting.You would have thought that with Manfred and I sharing the same manager and publisher, it would have been easy getting songs to him but he was very difficult. One thing Manfred didn’t like were finished demos. I heard demos from Randy Newman or Bob Dylan where you had to decipher what was going on, it was just a piano or a guitar, very very rough. I tried to do very good demos which was great for producers like Mickie Most who would just end up copying the demo as he thought it was so good that there was no reason to change it.
Was being a solo artist something you actively sought or did you feel more comfortable writing songs for other people ?
Well I’d always been fronting bands so I felt ok with that part of the job. It was really when the singer songwriter scene came in the late sixties with people like James Taylor that Gerry said that I should record an album and write whatever I wanted to write. However I’d always written about what I’d wanted to write. The only different thing with “Loudwater House” is that I brought some narrative elements as it was about a relationship ending and another one starting and about my friends. I could indulge myself, I’d been doing backing vocals with Elton John and we sang on each other’s albums, Sue and Sonny who sang on Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”, Lesley Duncan who had been singing backing vocals with me on Elton’s album all sang on Loudwater House too. It’s while working with Elton that I heard Caleb Quaye for the first time. A guitarist with such a distinctive way of playing that I’ve not heard anybody like him since. When I did Loudwater House, I wanted Caleb on guitar, BJ Cole on pedal steel, Roy O’Temro who played in Cochise (as did BJ Cole).
I had the singers and the musicians I wanted but because of the way I wrote… How can I put it… in the early days when I started to play in Liverpool and Durham, I sang Rock’n’Roll with a very harsh voice (Ray Charles, Jimmy Reed songs). Later on in the late sixties, early seventies I realized I had to do what I was best at and what I was best at was lyrical, romantic songs. Not always romantic but less poppy, I was interested in crafting really good songs with good lyrics. I also liked to write little jolly songs so it wasn’t all doom and gloom, it was lightened occasionally. I also liked heavier stuff like Ry Cooder or Little Feat but I also enjoyed West Coast stuff like Jackson Brown, The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt. My favourite band of all time is Little Feat who were a musician’s band. I actually pinched a little riff from Ry Cooder and used it on Loudwater House (here Matt Harding who was present for the most of the interview made a comment about the fact that he found it very honest from Tony to admit his influences on certain songs, Tony then cited a couple of more of examples where certain songs had inspired him a snippet of melody for some of his tracks).
There is a very old song called “Silver Threads Among the Gold” about a couple growing old (sings an excerpt of said tune) which was written in the 1800’s which inspired my song “I’ll Be Still In Love With You”. It was on the “Hazzard and Barnes” album where Richard sang it while I did the string arrangement. I wanted to do it myself so we did a very simple version on “The Hallicombe Sessions”. It has a very similar theme to “Silver Threads Among the Gold” but it’s a completely different song. I’m very happy to say that’s where I got it from. “Ha Ha Said The Clown” was different though, the only thing I could think of that influenced it would be “Bus Stop” by Graham Gouldman on which he wrote very economically (Tony sings a bit of “Bus Stop”) and I wanted to emulate that : “Feeling low, take a ride, see a show in town”, “Hear the jokes, have a drink and a laugh at the clown”. It was almost like a haiku-y sort of thing. Otherwise the reference for me on this song was a Hungarian dance. I could chat all night about songwriting and influences. (at this moment Matt Harding pitches in and explains that for him the way that music transmits itself explains why people use ideas from other artists and that artists that claim that they are doing something entirely new must be approached with caution).
At that point and old friend of Tony’s (who used to play bass with him) comes into the pub which leads to a detour to Tony telling us about his days doing residencies in nightclubs in the north of England.
Richard Barnes was going solo at the start of the seventies. There was places like Batley Variety Club up north that had huge amounts of money so they would get people like Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Louis Armstrong. Richard went up there and we formed a band that included drummer Tat Meager and guitarist Roger Mckew who played on all of my demos and Roger Flavell on bass. We stayed in digs that were near the club for the duration of the residency. Richard featured me doing some of the hits and then I’d sing harmonies to him. It was a great thing to do because it wasn’t my responsibility, he was the star of the show and the rest of us could all have fun. We’d usually go on stage at 11-midnight and we’d go to bed at 4 in the morning. They’d be sandwiches waiting for us when we came back, then breakfast at noon when we woke up. The afternoon we’d just go to the cinema or just lie around… It was just such a fun time.
Could you tell us a bit about what happened after the release of the Hazzard and Barnes album ?
I went to Nashville after “Fox on The Run” had become a bluegrass hit over there. Getting a record deal in the UK had become almost impossible. I didn’t really like Nashville, only stayed there for a couple of weeks and then I went to LA. I remember talking to a record company executive who told me it was very hard to get record deals in LA, and I thought to myself “I haven’t travelled X thousand miles to hear that”. I met the ex-wife of my publisher Lilian Bron who decided to whizz me around the world. Because I didn’t want to travel on my own I took my friend Roger with me. We went around the world in 3 weeks, I could write a book about that trip alone. We didn’t get a record deal, it was the early eighties and I was getting stale with what I was doing. I felt I needed to do something else and originally I was going to Psychology so I retrained in counselling and psychotherapy. I ultimately ended up running a drug and alcohol rehab. During that time I didn’t do any songwriting at all but I sang in two choirs and in an a capella group and I also acted in lots of plays. I also wrote music for plays at the local arts centre that mixed professionals with amateurs. I directed a production of Amadeus that was really well reviewed by The Guardian which pleased me to no end, we had an ex-pro actor playing Salieri. I left the rehab because I’d had enough in 1997 and I took up songwriting again, initially by finishing a song called “Shipping Lanes” I’d started in the eighties that I’d got stuck on at the time.
However a little down the line I got a call from the boss of the rehab (who I had hired initially) asking me if I’d be keen on running the men’s residential unit, thinking it would bring in a few pounds and be for a few weeks I agreed but in the end I ended up staying four years !!! In the end I ended up doing too much and I had some health issues that forced me to step down. This made me concentrate on music again, I had started recording on my own prior to that but the whole process of recording what became “Songs From The Lynher” took me five years. I did everything myself, guitars, vocals, bass, one track at a time. I did all the paperwork for it, registering it, taking the photographs for the cover. It ended up being all too much. The album was mixed by a good friend of mine Jerry Boys who had won 4 grammys for his work (he worked on the album Ry Cooder did with Buena Vista Social Club) who lives not far from me in Cornwall.
I guess this would be a good time to ask how you and Matt met and about the recording of “The Hallicombe Sessions”…
Juan Soreta a fan of mine who’d been buying my records since he was a teenager had set up a club in San Sebastian in northern Spain. It’s a club for people who like seventies music. People subscribe 10 euros a month and then he would bring artists over to perform. I went over to perform there and that’s when I met Matt who is a resident of the town and we just fell in love with each other basically, we hit it off personally and musically. I returned to San Sebastien again and Matt did all the translating for me, I loved his stuff, his songs, his playing, he loved mine too. At the time we thought he was going to move back to America in May 2015 so we had limited time to do something.
He came over in April but at first we had no idea what we were going to do, we just wanted to play together. Meanwhile after the last album I wanted a producer to tell me what to do. Matt wanted to do something simple, very very basic. We naturally fell into the roles of him producing and me playing. He brought his laptop and his pre-amp unit. Most of it was recorded live. After a take he’d say “That’s Fine” and I would reply that it wasn’t good enough. My friends after hearing the tracks asked him to prevent me from tinkering with them because I always think in terms of arrangements and I’d put things on them. We left the mistakes in. ( Matt pitches in explaining that he wanted to capture the story in Tony’s voice and in his songs and to achieve this the only way was to do an anti-production job and just press the record button when Tony was feeling it). A recording engineer called Thierry who worked for EMI-Pathe in Paris, told me in the mid seventies that if he was recording me, he would put my voice upfront with a very simple accompaniment. It’s only taken me fifty years to achieve that !!! It was also great to let go of all the technicalities of the recording process. On “Angela Finkleman’s Eyes”, he plays some mandolin at the start and the finish and two notes in the chorus and I said “Do more” and he said “No that’s enough”. On one song he plays bass in the solo which doesn’t appear anywhere else in the song. The whole thing was a very interesting process.
Matt : From my perspective, the true mark of a singer songwriter is what they sound like when they are singing by themselves. Tony’s a great arranger obviously but the goal on the album was bring to the fore his voice, the “mileage” that he has. We recorded in Tony’s house and the idea was that we would have a vacation for ten days and record in the meantime.
Tony : It was really done over week. We’d do a take and go and sit outside. Matt would smoke a cigarette. We had two weeks of glorious sunshine in April, which we often get in Cornwall. It was our summer really. Matt had never been to the UK before and he loved English pubs, got on really well with my friends and drank lots of beer and we had a fun !!! If you look at the photographs of us in the album, there is a picture of us when he was on the ferry going back to Spain. It looks like we’re the same height but he is 6 ft 3 and I’m 5ft 7, he had to squat down so the picture didn’t ended up being me and his chest !!!
At the end of our conversation we discussed origins and the fact that I was half-French and half-Scottish the fact that to Tony recounting an episode that happened when he was touring with Richard Barnes….
When Richard Barnes and I played The Glasgow Apollo on the tour with Camel, I was told that the stage was 12 feet high to prevent the bottles from hitting you if they didn’t like you so I was a bit apprehensive. At the time I was drinking quite a lot and during the show we introduced each other “That’s Richard Barnes, That’s Tony Hazzard” after which I said “That’s a bottle of Glenmorangie” and the whole crowd cheered and that was it we had them !!! Then we played Usher Hall in Edinburgh and they all clapped very politely. A friend told me a joke that Edinburgh people were “all conceived while their parents were fully clothed”.