‘‘I USED to know the assistant manager at the Hammersmith Odeon when the Beatles played there. He'd deliver their fan mail and hang around while they read it. And, you know, 95 per cent of the letters to Lennon would be absolute dirt. Unbelievable..."
Rory Gallagher laughs in mock incredulity. You may not be able to judge a rock star by his album covers, but you can get a pretty shrewd insight from his fantail.
Rory Gallagher doesn't get a lot of dirt. He gets paper cut-outs from Japan (very creative with paper, the Japanese) and a few gifts from Europe, but mostly it's questions.
How does he get this sound from his National, or that sound from his Fender? What kind of strings does he use? Which kind of plectrum? Can you imagine writing to Keith Richard to ask which kind of plectrum he uses?
“They seem to see me as a guy who wouldn't be afraid to give them a bit of information about the way I play,” says Rory. “Some guys are so secretive about their guitar style it's not true. There's one famous guitarist in the States actually turns his back on the audience when he's doing something really good so nobody can steal his licks. Can you believe that...?" More incredulity. Rory wouldn't hold back a lick from anyone. You just know it.
Neither, you feel, would Rory be caught dead in satin ‘n’ tat, doing the celebrity jive or throwing tantrums with his audience. In fact when the first wave of kamikaze headshakers hit stage-side at a Gallagher concert the man's there shaking them by the hand. He's like that. Friendly, unassuming, really . . . real. To exhume a phrase you don't hear too often nowadays, Gallagher’s good people...
He's been treading the boards professionally for 10 years now, with show bands in his native Ireland, with the powerhouse trio Taste, and now with his own band, but while superstars sparkle, glimmer and fade, Gallagher just keeps on going. His repertoire remains a traditional, stoic and craftsmanlike ‘blend of rock, boogie and blues; his check-shirt, Levi's and gym-shoes are a bastion of stability in the ever-fluctuating eddies of rock and roll sartorial style; ‘and his live appearances, which seem to occur with all the reassuring inevitability of your own birthday, continue to have all the crack and sparkle of a bonanza roman candle.
While your favourite superstar languishes in the tax haven of his choice, contemplates an acting career or plans his next theatrical excess, Gallagher grafts. Last year it was Europe, America. England and Ireland. This year it will be America, Scandinavia, Europe and maybe the Far East. He won't hazard a guess at how many weeks of the year he spends on the road: he says that would be corny.
“I like to play a lot, and keep as close as I can to the audience. It's like the old blues musicians who keep close to their audiences and feed it back into their music. It's kind of a folk music attitude— keeping moving, but keeping your ear close to the ground as you go. That's the important thing for me, rather than sitting back for three months dreaming of the next theatrical show. That has it's place in music, but not for me ...
Gallagher’s reverence for the uncomplicated, low-key approach of the blues singers expresses itself in practical terms. Tours, for example, are executed with the minimum of fuss or fanfare. Even at the height of their success in 1969 Taste were touring Europe in a battered transit van, and Gallagher’s ideal mode of transport for American tours would not be a customised jet, but the more humble station wagon, or maybe a converted Greyhound bus — down-home style.
The logistics of efficiency prevail however, and on their recent American tour he and the band ended up flying, like everybody else.
.“America's geared to entertainment, and people make a fuss of musicians; not that they don't in Europe, but there's still a certain attitude in some places —hotels especially — that if they close their eyes with a bit of luck you' ll go away.
“That's no reflection on English audiences. But a lot of bands get spoiled by everything falling into place so smoothly in the States, and the hang-ups they have about the same things not running so smoothly here they take out on the audiences. And some bands are unfair to their fans in that they'll spend too much time working in America. ‘They'll justify that by saying ‘Come on, the population's there and you can sell x million more records there than you can here..."
“But these are the bands that usually suffer in the long run. Their popularity falls off in Europe and then they're stuck with the States. It's the profit in the bank kind of attitude; the Elvis Presley syndrome, where you end up doing just one 1 million dollar gig a year.
“We've done eight tours of America since 1971, plus Far East tours, but we've always kept an eye on Europe; we've never starved it. You can't. Audiences change every two years or so in Europe. If you're away too long you find a slight shift in your audience. If you're good enough people still want to hear you, but you can easily lose touch with people who've grown up with you.
Gallagher’s perseverance with American tours seems to be paying off, and while he appears to actively dislike the prospect of superstardom, with all the personal limitations that would entail, his following in the States is certainly growing.
The recently completed tour had the band appearing on three Mid-West stadium gigs with ZZ Top-- the season's sensations in the States — and top billing through Canada, the Northern and Western states. (The band returns to America in mid January for a two-week jaunt around the East Coast). And the new album, ‘Against The Grain’, is beginning to sell in quantities to match Gallagher’s popularity as a live act.
“It's the first tour that I've ‘been hearing myself on the radio an awful lot -— FM, of course —which is heartening,” says Rory. “The new company (Chrysalis instead of Polydor) probably has a lot to do with it, the coordination’s a lot better.”
Gallagher’s switch to Chrysalis follows an eight-year stint with Polydor. He did not get a gold watch.
While his first record under the new deal, ‘Against The Grain’ hardly marks a radical departure in style for Rory and the band, it is certainly their most polished to date, reflecting both Gallagher’s continued maturation as a composer and a guitarist, and the success of the band’s efforts to capture the spark of live performances on vinyl.
“It’s the album I’m happiest about and the one which has given me the most number of weeks of satisfaction,” Rory admits. “There’s been a two year gap since the last studio album, ‘Tattoo’, and that’s time enough to build up an awful lot of energy and ideas for an album. The delay in sorting out the new label deal gave me a lot of time for preparation, scrutinising what had gone before and seeing how we could improve on it. Then we rehearsed a lot, which we haven’t always had the opportunity to do before recording, and really pared the material down to the bone.
“It’s probably harder for me to capture the true sound and feeling of the band in the studio than for six other artists you’d care to mention. If I were just doing a straight, traditional blues album I could just get drunk and do it and it would be sloppy and great.
have to be a bit more clinical than that, but I don’t like an album to
sound too sophisticated. I hate overdubbing and try and avoid three lead
guitars echoing in the wilderness — anything like that. We try and get
a situation where what you hear on record is what you’ll get on stage.
I suppose you could call us Honest Johns . ."
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