The Graham Bonnet Band: A jailbreak from Alcatrazz

Graham Bonnet Band 2018: Mark Benquechea (drums), Jimmy Waldo (keys), Graham Bonnet, Kurt James (guitars) and Beth-Ami Heavenstone (bass). Publicity photo courtesy of Frontiers.

By Martin Popoff

Look, I’m not crazy about the name of the band, the title of the record or the cover art, but don’t let either of them bore you away—please, for the sake of the children! Fact is, The Graham Bonnet Band’s second album Meanwhile, Back in the Garage is no less than the second coming of Alcatrazz. And it’s not garagey! Rather, it’s got all those rich, European tones and virtuoso playing one associates with the well-regarded three Alcatrazz albums, as well as touchdowns on Graham’s experience as part of one of the great Rainbow albums, Down to Earth, and perhaps the greatest Michael Schenker Group album, Assault Attack. Of course all of this was apparent on the band’s first album, The Book, from 2016, but now we get to revel in that regal voice—attached to the intriguing James Dean look of the guy—all over again.

Evidently the septuagenarian vegetarian agrees. “Sure,” laughs Bonnet, “I think it’s a good sort of continuation of the old Alcatrazz, Rainbow, whatever…stuff I’ve done in the past, and there’s also a bit of my solo stuff. It’s got my stamp on it, the Graham Bonnet songwriting technique, whatever that might be. I tried to make up songs that are like, almost immediately you can sing them. There are some tricky bits here and there however. I like to invent different areas where you go, where you make a left turn into an unexpected area.”

As Graham’s at-times strummer Michael Schenker famously espouses, Bonnet tries hard not to listen to an inordinate amount of hard rock, so as to keep things fresh.

“Right now, not much, that’s right. I’ll be honest with you; I never listen to that kind of music. I get my influences from stuff I played over the years, which is jazz and R&B and pop songs, you know, since I was a kid playing in a dance band, when I was 14 years old and having to sit there all night strumming along to cha-chas and waltzes and whatever else, playing to dancing, but at the same time picking up all kinds of interesting chord sequences and singing songs I wouldn’t normally sing at that age, when The Beatles were around. Standing up to sing ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ was not my ideal, but it taught me how to construct songs, and really, it’s a great lesson chord-wise and melody-wise.”

“Heavy rock is something I never listen to because it’s what I do, and I hope not to be influenced by some other band,” continues Bonnet. “I like to have an original idea if possible. And when we were recording this album, I remember Jimmy—Jimmy Waldo, from Alcatrazz as well, who engineered the whole thing, and eventually produced it—he said, ‘You know, other bands don’t do what you’re doing.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Well, this is so different. Nobody writes songs in that way. They don’t think in the way you do.’ Which I thought was a great compliment. And I said, well, that’s because I don’t listen to what other people are doing. I used to listen to everything when I was in my 30s and 40s or whatever. I listened to anything that was on the radio. But now I’ve heard nothing that sparks me up. And all the bands that were around like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, they’re all doing similar kinds of music. But I think what we’re doing is slightly different. I never listen to their albums either. I didn’t particularly like what they were doing in the past and I don’t particularly like what they’re doing now, but I understand that they’re the guys that have made it and are doing really, really well. And we are kind of like, way below those guys (laughs). They know what they’re doing, they have a good formula and they stick to it. Which, I kind of like to mess around to try something different to see if that will work.”

This attitude plays out in the exquisite melodies and chord changes all over the record, but a further bonus comes with Bonnet’s mature and always amusing and insightful wordsmithing. What seduced me about “The Hotel,” for example, first, was the regal, aristocratic vocal melody, but then I started to pay attention to what Graham was saying…

“Yeah, ‘The Hotel,’” chuckles Graham, prompted for an explanation. “That’s an ‘on the road’ story, but it’s the story of our lives. When I look out my window and I see a grey wall and it’s got graffiti on it, yeah, we must be somewhere near the gig. Because most of these rock clubs now are in really sort of industrial areas, and that’s what we kind of expect, the places we expect to play now. But not always—sometimes you have a nice surprise and we have a great theatre to play in. But most of these rock clubs are in a rougher area. So you look out the window, and you see, you know, dogs running in the street with three legs, all that kind of thing. In bad areas. And then some guy taking a piss in the doorway, which is all part of the lyric. The lyric itself explains what’s going on. And we always used to get lost and say, ‘Okay, this hotel looks pretty nice, well, fantastic.’ ‘Oh, that’s not your hotel.’ ‘What do you mean it’s not our hotel?’ ‘Our hotel is 20 miles back.’ So we go back to the rough area and we find our hotel. It’s kind of like that, a funny look at life on the road as it is these days, because that’s what everyone is doing. Everyone is going back to the roots, in a way, and into smaller venues.”

Then there’s quick-paced rocker “Long Island Tea,” on which Graham emotes with torrid exasperation, giving us a summation through sound alone of his 55 years doing this for his supper—notwithstanding the fact that a recent vocal cord operation has given him an extra gear he hasn’t had in the box in many, many years.

“That was about an experience I had on Long Island, hence the title,” explains Bonnet. “I was out there with my ex-wife. This is when I was recording with Ritchie, the Rainbow album, and we were staying at the Holiday Inn, at that place called Hampstead in Long Island. And we went out for a walk and I said her, ‘God damn, it’s hot today.’ She says, ‘Well, we should stop in the bar and get a drink.’ I said okay. We walked into this bar, and again, the lyric explains all of this. We walked into the bar and we were suddenly looked at by all these people. I thought, well, what’s wrong here?”

“And I went over to the barman and I said, ‘Could I get a… I’d like a beer, and Jo, what do you want? A glass a wine, white wine.’ And the guy behind the bar says, ‘I’m sorry sir, you can’t come in here.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And he looked at my feet and said, ‘Well, you’re wearing Converse sneakers. He said we don’t let sneakers in here.’ And I sort of looked around the room, and saw everybody was in like Nike sneakers or whatever. Everyone was dressed casually. There’s no suits and ties. And then I realized that Jo, Josephine my ex, Jo and I were the only people in the room that were white. And it was like, oh, I get it. And I said, ‘You mean we can’t stay? I can’t buy drinks from you? We’re really thirsty.’ He says, ‘No, sir, I’m sorry, you’ll have to leave.’ And as we left, all these people, all the eyes in the room looked at us while we walked out. I said, ‘You realize what just happened to us, Jo? Yeah, racial discrimination. We’re not black’ (laughs). But it was funny to be on the other side. That’s what the song is about, being on the outside of, you know, that game of black and white. It’s just like, I couldn’t believe it. Now I know how it feels to be black.”

Look for Graham to tour the record—he’s already been out with the band, but also is fresh off of reunion dates with Michael Schenker, which found him part of a star-studded affair along with singers Robin McAuley and Gary Barden. But there are no illusions of fame at this point.

“No (laughs), again ‘The Hotel’ thing sums it up, about where we are now and what we’re having to do right now. We’re not going out for big money anymore. We’re not playing great places anymore, most of the time. But some of the time we do. And then when you do play a great place, it’s half full or a third full and you go, hmm, we shouldn’t play this place at all; we should’ve gone to a smaller venue. It’s great to have reunions as such with Jimmy Waldo, but looking at the world the way it is now, it’s not like it used to be. We don’t look at Billboard to see where our record is any more, because people are just downloading music anyway.”

“And this kind of music doesn’t mean anything to a lot of people anymore,” muses Graham. “Which is really sort of 1980s rock, if you will. But it really isn’t—we try to be a little bit different if we can. Like I said with this album, don’t listen to what the other guys are doing; try to come up with something a bit newer. But most of the audiences we get are older white guys. Not young girls screaming and yelling ‘Ooh’ or whatever. It used to be that way, but now it’s clear—now we suddenly realize who our audience is: older white guys with tattoos, big beer bellies sometimes (laughs). But hey, if they come out to see us and bring their kids along, that’s great. And that’s what happens—they bring their kids along, and the grandkids. And I autograph for kids who are like 19 years old and younger. And they say, ‘This is like… this is real rock ‘n’ roll.’ Yeah, it is. Because I see them down there sweating and going for it. We don’t have dancers, we don’t have any kind of showbiz glitz around us when we’re doing it. It’s very honest and very bare, very naked—just the songs and the power that comes out of the music.”

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