Procol Harum

the Pale

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home

Home Again: Mick Grabham interview

Rob Kelly in 'Déjà Vu', 1978 or 1979

People told me I should have known well
There was no secret for you to tell
And I'm home again
Yes I'm home again

I'd like to start this interview at the beginning and the Plastic Penny. Did you play on the hit single, Everything I Am?

Mick Grabham: Our only hit! No I didn't play on that actually. I was living in Sunderland at the time and the rest of the Plastic ... the Plastic Penny was formed out of a group that was a showband called Chris Lamb and the Universals. Three or four of them had made a record apart from the rest of the group, which was produced by Larry Page of Troggs tape fame, and they were playing as Chris Lamb and the Universals in this night club in Sunderland. They were looking for a guitarist and they saw this friend of mine with frizzy hair and asked him if he was a guitarist – they didn't want to get a face from London into the band. He said 'No I'm not, but I know somebody who is'.

At the time, this guy was sharing up [sic] house with me, so he brought them back and they asked me if I wanted to go down to London and give it a try. They said that they needed a drummer and like Nigel Olsson was a real good friend of mine, so I got him to come down as well and we both ended up getting the job. When I think of it now, somebody coming up to me in Sunderland, saying 'do you want to come down and join this band', it's mad!

Am I right in saying that BJ Cole and Rick Wills were in the Plastic Penny for a while?

Well, what happened was that the Plastic Penny lasted for about two years and then fizzled out. We agreed to continue on the basis that if anybody was offered another job then they took it. We continued for as long as we could 'til eventually there was just Nigel and me left. Although we'd never been out of England, we were popular on the continent where we had hit records, and we had this tour of Germany coming up, so we had to get another couple of people in. We got hold of Stuart Brown and Freddie Gandy on bass, who's since played with Hookfoot and various other people, and did the tour as the Plastic Penny. Through that we got another tour and Freddie helped us out again, although he wasn't joining us for good. I can't remember how we got in touch with Ricky and Willie (Wilson), but anyway, they both turned up one day at the Dick James studio and by then I'd gotten BJ Cole who was a friend of Stuart Brown. By this time, Nigel had got an offer to join the Spencer Davis group, so we had Ricky, Willie, Stuart, BJ and myself.

Rick and Willie had been playing with Little Women before that, hadn't they?

Yeah that's right. They came down from Cambridge, we had a blow and that was it. Cochise was formed. We got some demos together, got some kind of a deal with United Artists and were managed by Clearwater, who at that time were managing bands like Hawkwind, Trees, Skin Alley and High Tide.

You released Watch This Space as a single from Cochise ...

Yeah that's right.

I seem to remember that Stuart wrote that song. I'm intrigued by the first line, 'Watch this space for a vacancy' and Stuart's departure from the band right after the release of the album. Is there a connection?

Oh no. Watch This Space was a song that we did right from the inception of the band, from the days when we were just rehearsing and months before we'd got a deal or had even started working. That was just one of Stuart's songs and had no significance on his leaving.

He left the business completely as I recall.

Yes he did. I saw him a couple of years afterwards, but not again until about four weeks ago when he just turned up out of the blue. He'd been living in Greece or something.

John Gilbert then came in on lead vocals. How did he get the gig?

Ricky had remembered playing ... John used to sing in a band called Mighty Joe Young up around the Warrington area somewhere and Ricky once played there with a soul band from Cambridge called The Committee. Mighty Joe Young had supported The Committee at this gig and when we were looking for a replacement for Stuart, Ricky remembered John and got him to come down.

With John, you recorded your second album, Swallow Tales. That album showed up your own country influences, with songs like Jed Collder and Down Country Girls. Presumably, Brian (BJ Cole) was an influence on you?

That section was quite countrified, yeah. I was getting more into it then, with Brian's influence, although Brian himself was into doing things other than country with the steel guitar. I'd got into his record collection by then and had got myself more into country than I had been previously. It was only that section of the album that was countrified though, because there were still lots of weird things on the album, like Brian's Axiom of Maria, and the rock'n'roll things. All of Brian's numbers were really weird. I don't mean that detrimentally to him, but that's just the way he writes.

That shows up particularly well on his solo album, The New Hovering Dog.

Oh yeah, that was very weird, but that's how he writes. He came round the other night and played me some new things he had written and said, 'You know, I try and sit down and write simple things, but I can't'. That's the way it comes naturally to him. Some people sit down and write simple things naturally, but those complicated, weird things that he does are just totally natural to him, so why should he fight and do something that doesn't feel right to him?

Following Swallow Tales, Brian and you seem to be putting as much time into session work as you were into Cochise. You personally were working with Hookfoot, Ray Fenwick and Dave Elliott, weren't you?

That's right.

Didn't you work with Elton John for a while?

No not really. It was just through my connections at Dick James with the Plastic Penny thing, and the beginning of Cochise, where I guess I'm connected. Nigel was with Reg by then and they were doing albums that featured Caleb (Quaye), Dee Murray and everybody in that set and Reg and I struck up a friendship from that. At the time, Reg was signed to Dick James as a writer, £15 a week or what ever, so as a friend I'd known him for nearly ten years, but I don't think I've ever actually played with him. Oh, there was once, in the Plastic Penny, when our keyboard player Paul Raymond was ill and Reg was going to do a gig with us. We rehearsed a couple of times with him, but I don't think we ever did the gig in the end. Those rehearsals are the only time I've played with him.

And you played bass with Hookfoot for a spell?

Yes, but I just stood in for them, I never actually joined Hookfoot. I played with them for about a month, between them sacking their bass player and getting Freddie Gandy in. That month included a fortnight's tour of Italy, which was fantastic. They were a good band and Caleb Quaye's just something else, he's a great guitarist, great pianist, great bassist, great drummer. Fantastic. He's so incredibly gifted, it's not true.

Anyway, Willie left Cochise after Swallow Tales to join Quiver, right?

Right. When Stuart left, we got another good singer in John and when Willie left, we got another good drummer in Roy O'Temro.

From Herbie Goin's Nightimers?

How the hell did you know that?

It's the beer talking.

Yeah ... but it was like whatever magic the band had in its original form, had gone, not because Willie and Stuart were fantastic at what they did, but because it was just ... it was right.

The early inspiration of that period had been replaced by something else?

Yeah. Like, the format of the band had been actually right, no matter how good or bad each of the individual members were. It fitted. After that, it started ... I don't know, there was something ... not wrong, but something different. And the introduction of Roy brought a funky slant into the band. Yeah, which never worked. When we first got him we were over the moon, we couldn't believe it, but it just was not right for the band. Roy used to write some great songs but the whole thing was just not Cochise anymore.

Presumably, by the time of your third album, So Far, you were working on your solo album, Mick the Lad.

I think I was. It must have been around that period. I can't remember if I'd recorded my album before So Far, but it was around that time, yeah. When I made Mick the Lad I didn't go in there trying to make a hit album, it never crossed my mind. I just wanted to make an album on my own. I had this fascination with wanting to try and do it all on my own and there was no conscious effort on my part to try and sell records. That's why a lot of the songs on that album are pretty nowhere songs, because I wasn't really bothered about the lyrics and the melodies, I was only bothered about putting on a few more guitars. It never crossed my mind as to which way I was going, I just thought 'I'm doing an album'. A good half of the things on there were merely chord sequences that I'd got together, I just put the chord sequences down on acoustic guitar and dubbed everything else on. There were no specifically written songs, I just enjoyed doing it and that was the whole point of it all.

Was Mick The Lad inspired by any particular person? The reason I say that ...

Emitt Rhodes was my influence behind that album. I got to know him after joining Procol and I've been to his Studio in the garage, in fact!. He came over here on a promotional thing when his first album came out and I was in his backing band with Ricky Wills and Tony Newman on drums. Well, his first album really blew me, I was amazed how he was able to dub and over-dub so many instruments, especially as he'd played the lot. So for me it was like, a conglomeration of wanting to track all these guitars and also wanting to do everything myself. Not being egotistical and thinking 'I'm great, I can do it', but just because I wanted to do it. I didn't want people to say, 'Oh, it's Mick Grabham and he's played all them on his own', I didn't think that for a second, and in fact I was quite right not to 'cos no fucker even heard it in the end! Hey, shall we listen to some Emitt Rhodes?

  • The tape recorder was temporarily brought to a halt, as Mick proceeded to play Really Wanted You from Emitt's first album, a fast, gut wrenching rocker that perfectly illustrates his instrumental ability. Mick also topped our beers up.
  • That's not bad for one bloke.

    Didn't you sign with Billy Gaff around the time of So Far?

    Well, we stayed with Clearwater for most of the band's existence and then we moved to Roy Fisher, who was managing the Groundhogs at the time. That was a big mistake for us and we left after a few months. We were just about to go with the Billy Gaff agency when I left the band and they never actually signed. Ricky left Cochise soon after me and the band split up. I didn't leave because I was pissed off or anything, but because I had a real thing going with Ray Fenwick, a really fine guitar player and a good friend of mine, who's with the Ian Gillan Band at the minute. We used to play a lot together and he was going to do this guitar orchestra thing that we'd been talking about for some time.

    Ray's manager, Peter Walsh, agreed to it and got permission for Ray to do it at Decca Studios and I left Cochise because I really fancied working with Ray and doing this guitar orchestra because, as I told you, around this time I was really hung up with tracking on a million guitars. Anyway, we did that at Decca but the album never came out. The highlight of the album was a full length version of Pomp and Circumstance with just guitars, bass and drums – there were about 30 or 40 guitars on it, doing all the orchestra parts, which was fantastic. In the end we found out that the Elgar Society wouldn't let us release it, and this society has total say over what goes on with Elgar's material. After we'd found that out, there seemed little point in releasing the album just for the sake of the rock tracks left on the album, because it wouldn't have made much impact without the actual orchestra part of it.

    And then you joined Procol Harum.

    Yeah, about a year after Cochise split up. I was doing sessions at the time, around 1972, when I got a phone call from Doug D'Arcy at Chrysalis, who asked me if I wanted to go for a blow. I'd always been a fan of Procol Harum, so I jumped at the chance and it all came from there.

    You replaced Dave Ball, around the time of Grand Hotel. Hadn't the band already started work on that album with Dave?

    Yes they had. They started out with Dave, but then when he left, they re-did the numbers with me.

    Can we talk about Procol's Ninth, which was produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller? Their presence was apparent on the album, don't you think?

    Yes, they brought a different aspect to the band I think. They produced the band in a way Procol Harum had never been produced before. Whereas previously it had always been an attempt to get a sound, Leiber and Stoller's kind of production was much more into the music, they left the sound to the engineer. They are very much into the old school way of doing it, concentrating on things like 'should that part of the song go like that, or should it just go straight into the next verse and bring in the ... ' It was much more basic. There are some great songs on Procol's Ninth – Taking The Time is a fantastic song.

    And for the first time, non-originals, with Eight Days A Week and Leiber and Stoller's own song, I Keep Forgetting.

    Yeah, big mistake. I liked I Keep Forgetting, thought it was great, but Eight Days A Week didn't cut it at all.

    So why include it?

    Well, we'd just done it as a laugh a couple of times, as an encore. We did it in the Studio just for a laugh and it ended up on the album. Big mistake but there you go, so what? It's not like we were re-writing the facts of life or anything, we were just making a record and I've heard worse things by successful people.

    You toured Poland somewhere around that time, didn't you?

    Yeah we did and the audience reaction was really amazing, y'know? That was the best thing about it. They don't get rock bands over there so rock 'n 'roll and the lifestyles that go with it is just something that they read about. As soon as we went on stage we could see that they were absolutely ecstatic, just ecstatic to actually be there watching a rock band. From my point of view it was great.

    Frankly, I was very disappointed with your last album,Something Magic, which to me seemed short of ideas. The whole of the second side is taken up with the story, The Worm and the Tree, which I find is rather forgetful [sic]. But didn't Gary and Keith start working on that about two years ago?

    Well, Keith wrote the lyrics then and it gradually expanded from there. We did virtually the whole of The Worm and the Tree in one day, y'know, it was like a magical day recording it from our point of view. But fair enough, it doesn't mean to say that the recording is great or anything. I don't know. I think the actual track, Something Magic is a great song and I like Strangers in Space as well.

    There are certain sections of The Worm that seem to be taken straight from the The Pipers Tune on Ninth, don't you think?

    (Mick hums both tunes) I'd never thought of that, but you're right yeah. I'd never realized that until you mentioned it.

    And it seems like Wizard Man found its way on to the album at the last moment, because it wasn't shown on the track listing.

    Well, originally Wizard Man wasn't going to be included because it doesn't fit in with the rest of the album, but then record companies being what they are, said, 'You've got to put that out as a single', which suited me because I thought that it would have been a hit. As it was, I was totally wrong (laughs), but Warners in the States wanted it on the album, putting forward their point that if the single is on the album and the single is a hit, then that helps to sell the album. That's the reason why Wizard Man went on.

    In all your time with Procol, you only had one of your own songs, The Mark of the Claw, on any of the albums and that was on Something Magic, your last album with the band. Did this disappoint you?

    No. Once I joined the band I was playing Procol Harum numbers. I'd joined them and that was it, I was playing guitar. I never thought about songs.

    Didn't this have a stifling effect on you?

    Not really, not at first. I don't even think that the one song I did for Procol was particularly incredible, I don't think it's anything, just something that was up, almost up-tempo. That's not to say that everything we did wasn't up tempo, but it was generally mood music as opposed to good rock'n'roll.

    And then you left the band. Can I ask you why?

    Well I left because I felt that I wasn't really getting anywhere. You know, I was doing my job but I wasn't really stretching myself. I knew what I had to do and I knew that I was capable of it but ...

    You were unable to expand?

    No I just didn't feel that I could. That's not meant detrimentally to the band, but in the end it's down to me. If in five years time I'd still been with Procol I would have thought, 'Well, I could have done so much more for myself', but by then it would have been no good, so I thought it best to leave when I did. I guess it was restricting in that the music and the songs were, more or less, constructed items.

    A lot of people used to ask me if I found it difficult to play guitar for Procol Harum. I didn't find it at all difficult to play along with, but it was such that I got into a routine. I mean, there was no way that you could extend a song like Whaling Stories, okay, I could stick in a long solo or something, but apart from that, Whaling Stories is the thing -- you can't do anything more with it, you either play it well or play it badly. It just wasn't exactly what I wanted to do in the end.

    I enjoyed it for a while, but it just got to a stage where I felt there was so much more I could have been doing. There was the one set thing to do, which is fair enough, but if you're not doing all the other things as well, expanding yourself, then you inevitably find yourself in a rut. I haven't just left Procol Harum on impulse and thought, 'Oh well, I'll form a band', I've left, thinking, 'Well, I can't go on doing this and the only way I can do what I want to do is to do it myself'.

    Are you putting a band together at the moment?


    What can we expect?

    I'm going into it hoping that I've learned my lessons. I want to get it absolutely right by getting musicians that fit just right, not necessarily the greatest this or that, which is what I was saying about Cochise. Cochise didn't have the greatest players in the world, but it worked because the combination was right, and that's what I want from my new band. So far I've got a Scottish guy called Jim Nellis on vocals, John 'Guinness' Gordon (ex Highway and Alan Price) on bass and Ian 'Biro' Byron (Ex Highway) on drums and I'm looking for a keyboard player at the moment. Things are going to be a lot more down to earth with this band, raunchy and, well just exciting. Problem is, trying to sort a name for the band.

    What shall I tell our readers?

    Hunt, Blunt and Cunningham until further notice.

    No dice, unfortunately. A series of hassles – stupid things like binding contracts and so on – has put paid to the band and it now looks likely that Mick will try his luck in the States. He spent some time over there, working with Nigel Olsson and has just got back from Paris, where he's been laying down some tracks with Jim Keltner.

    For too long now Mick Grabham has been making shadows. This time he'll be making music – his music – and it's gonna be worth the wait. BE THERE.

    Some of Mick's extra-Procol recordings

    Solo Album: Mick The Lad UA (UAS 29341) [ordering information here]

    Plastic Penny: Two Sides of a Penny Page One (POLS 005)

    Cochise: Cochise UA (IAS 29117); Swallow Tales UA/Liberty (LBG 83428); So Far UA (UAS 29286)

    Sampler Album: All Good Clean Fun (Home Again from Swallow Tales) UA (UDX 201/2)

    Sitting in:
    Sutherland Bros and Quiver – Down to Earth CBS (82255)
    David Elliott – David Elliott Atlantic (K40374)
    David Elliott – Solid Ground Atlantic (K40527)
    Nigel Olsson – Nigel Olsson's Drum Orchestra and Chorus DJM (DJLPS 417)
    Kai Olsson – Once In A While EMI (EMC 3082)
    B.J.Cole – The New Hovering Dog UA (UAS 29418) (not credited but 'definitely on one of the tracks').

    Thanks, Dave Lee

    PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home