WHEN THE WAGONS LEAVE THE CITY
The legendary bass player JACK BRUCE talks to Spencer Leigh
This is the full transcript of an interview with Jack Bruce broadcast on BBC Radio Merseyside’s “On The Beat” in two parts on 31 May and 1 June 2003. This interview coincided with the reissue of several Jack Bruce solo albums on CD with bonus tracks – “Songs For A Tailor” (1969), “Things We Like” (1970), “Harmony Row” (1971), “Out Of The Storm” (1974) and “How’s Tricks” (1976) – although the conversation was wide ranging. Jack’s latest album is “Shadows In The Air” (2001), which includes new versions of “White Room” and “Sunshine Of Your Love” with Eric Clapton. It has been rather overtaken by events, but I thought some of you might like to read it.
It’s fashionable to take old vinyl albums and reissue them with bonus tracks. Do you find you’re buying them yourself when you go into a store? Say, the Miles Davis ones.
Yeah, definitely Miles Davis. It might be fashionable but for me it is quite unusual. I am quite pleased about it. A lot of people have been asking for those records to be rereleased for years and I am very happy that they have finally done it.
You must be pleased that all the session tapes are still around.
Actually, a lot of them are just two-tracks; there are not a lot of multi-tracks around. I am pleased because a lot of stuff was destroyed in a fire in Germany where these things are stored. They have them all and also some things that didn’t make it for reasons for time.
Yes, you could only get 40-odd minutes on an LP.
Yes, especially on my records which had a lot of bass on. As the grooves got closer to the middle, the albums would jump if they were very bass heavy. I am not technically minded in that way, but we always went for 40 minutes maximum.
When you came to hearing the tapes again, were you surprised at some of the things you had recorded?
In some ways, I don’t tend to listen to things from the past because I am always in love with whatever it is I am doing at the time. I love my new band the Cuicoland Express, so it was quite nice to be forced to listen to them, and yeah, some of them were good.
You presumably discover songs that you hadn’t thought about in years.
Yeah absolutely, you forget about those things and you think that you might do them in your act. It is nice.
There is also a CD, “Cream At The BBC”, with introductions by Brian Matthew.
Oh yeah, he was great. I loved Brian a lot, he was fantastic. It only came today and I was doing the photo session with Eamonn McCabe, “The Guardian” sports photographer, so I am over the moon about that. I haven’t had a chance to listen to it. I put on the very beginning and heard Brian say, “The Cream”, which was quite funny. They didn’t really know what to make of us at the Beeb. (Laughs)
They would be all be quick one-off sessions, wouldn’t they?
Pretty much so. Some of the very early ones had to be done live because they only had two tracks, maybe even only one track. I remember doing “Politician” towards the end and they said proudly, “Oh, we’ve got three tracks now, so we were able to overdub.” “Politician” was done with an overdub vocal and that was written in the BBC studio at the time. That is the very first version of it. We came up with that funny riff and we laid it in a blues form and I overdubbed the vocal. Then, when I came to do it live, I realised that it was almost impossible to play and sing it at the same time. I had to go and practice a bit!
I remember going to a poetry reading in Liverpool in 1966 and Pete Brown and Adrian Henri were on the bill, and Pete Brown said, “I am going to read some poems but these are really lyrics for a group called Cream.” I know “Wrapping Paper” was amongst them. I presume that they worked individually as poems and then you put the music to them.
Absolutely not, the music came first for almost all of our songs, and then Pete and I would sit down and hammer the lyrics out over quite long periods of time. I am very particular about what I sing, not the meaning, I don’t care about the meaning, but the actual sound of the words. I regard the actual sound of the words as an instrument and certain words don’t sing very well. “White Room”, for instance, started off as being something about selling fridges to eskimos, something very bizarre, and then we worked it until we got what I wanted. Pete would write the words but I would thrown in lines and words, whatever, that’s the way we worked. With “Wrapping Paper”, definitely the music was written first.
There is a lot of imagery in Pete Brown’s lyrics and from what you’re saying’ it doesn’t matter too much if you don’t know what that imagery is about.
No, it is just sounds really. I never really bothered about whether there was any meaning, which I doubt. (Laughs)
There is a marvellously evocative track on “Songs For A Tailor” called “Theme From An Imaginary Western”. What is the story of that song?
I wrote that when I was very young, probably in the early 60s, so it was a piece of music that I had hanging around for years. It was more like a French ballad, but a lot of things I write start off like that and then end up being rock’n’roll. (Laughs) I thought it would be a great song for Cream but the guys didn’t reckon much to it, they didn’t like it, which is a great pity, because we could have done a fantastic version of it. Nevertheless, it went on my first solo album, “Songs For a Tailor”, the first released one, that is, so it was nice to have that song really.
What about the title because it was so distinctive?
That’s one where the meaning is fairly important. Pete and myself were both very interested in cowboy films, westerns, and we equated going off in a van with being in a covered wagon. We were like the people who were opening up the west. A lot of the bands, especially Graham Bond’s, went around Britain opening up clubs. It was making the idea quite romantic and putting it into song.
Did you like the cover version by Mountain?
I did but they changed a couple of things and I didn’t like that. Felix Pappalardi produced “Songs For A Tailor” so that must have given the idea of doing that song. Felix and me were very close friends, and I liked Mountain, they were very good.
I interviewed Pete Brown a couple of years ago and he said that although he liked Ella Fitzgerald covering “Sunshine Of Your Love”, she got the words wrong.
Yeah, she sang ‘my dull surprise’ instead of “my dawn surprise” and I never understood why. I don’t mind – Ella can sing whatever she wants as far as I’m concerned. (Laughs)
It must be nice when songs have a life of their own and you don’t know where they are going to turn up.
That’s always nice for lots of reasons. “Sunshine Of Your Love” was a hit record for Ella and then Mongo Santamaria did a wonderful Latin version which gave me the idea of doing it with my band, which is a Latin-influenced band. It was on my last solo record, “Shadows In The Air”.
What sort of band have you got now?
I have got the Cuicoland Express which is Vernon Reid on guitar, who is with Living Colours sometimes, Bernie Worrell, who invented funk with George Clinton, and then I have three drummers – the amazing Horacio Hernandez El Negro on drums, Robby Ameen on drums and Richie Flores on congas, and myself. Sometimes I have some other people joining in but that is the basic stripped-down road band.
So it is a bit like Scotland meets World Music.
Well, I don’t believe in world music. All music comes from the world unless it is from the spheres, even bird song is in the world, it is not a term that I agree with. It is a funny idea.
What about touring because I can’t recall you playing Liverpool in years?
Liverpool is a funny place, Liverpool always had its own scene, I remember playing it with Cream, and I’ve played it a couple of times over the years, but it is quite difficult to get in there. We’ve got our own scene going, and good luck. I would love to play there anytime as it is one of my favourite places.
While we’re on the subject of Liverpool, you play the bass and so does Paul McCartney. Am I right in saying that he is not a busy bass player and plays as few notes as possible?