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Brinsley Schwarz describes pub rock, his work with Graham Parker & the Rumour and more

From pub-rock pioneer to Graham Parker’s right-hand man and guitar guru Brinsley Schwarz carries on.

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Brinsley Schwarz performs as part of Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders at City Winery on November 26, 2016 in New York City. 

Brinsley Schwarz performs as part of Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders at City Winery on November 26, 2016 in New York City. 

By Lee Zimmerman 

While any true Anglophile is likely familiar with the name Brinsley Schwarz, it’s probably due to the pioneering pub-rock outfit bearing his moniker. Formed from the ashes of their earlier incarnation, Kippington Lodge, the band went on to be the springboard for the careers of Nick Lowe and Ian Gomm, each of whom loaned their considerable skills to a series of albums released from the late 1960s to the band’s breakup in 1975.

While Schwarz himself seemed more than willing to allow his colleagues to take center stage, he continued to contribute his talents on guitar and saxophone to other outfits — among them fellow pub rockers Ducks Deluxe and Dr. Feelgood. However, it was his contribution to Graham Parker and his longstanding backing band, The Rumour, that effectively rebooted his career.

Brinsley schwarz tangled lp

Surprisingly though, he appeared reticent to strike out on his own until 2016, which marked the release of his first solo album, aptly titled Unexpected. More recently, his sophomore effort, Tangled, appeared, a set of songs that suggests once again that Schwarz is more than capable of standing solidly on his own. The music is unceasingly melodic, with songs such as “He Takes Your Breath Away,” “Game On,” “You Drive Me to Drink” and the title track bringing to mind his namesake band’s earlier efforts. The same goes for the feisty rocker “Storm in the Hills,” which wouldn’t seem out of place on any of their initial albums. Notably, it includes “Love Gets You Twisted,” a song written by none other than his pal Parker.

Goldmine recently spoke with the ever-humble Schwarz, who in turn offered us the opportunity to catch up on his whereabouts over the past several decades and get his perspective on how it all began.

  

GOLDMINE: Let’s start by going back a bit. How did the transition from Kippington Lodge to Brinsley Schwarz take place?

BRINSLEY SCHWARZ: Kippington Lodge was a band in transition pretty much from the very early days. It started as a local band that just played around Kent and Sussex. There were three of us until we added keyboardist Barry Landeman, who I’d known from school. Gradually, for one reason or another, the original members left and Nick Lowe, Bob Andrews and lastly Billy Rankin joined. By then, we had a manager and a record deal. Neither worked out, as our music changed and we tried to move away from being a pop group. We met Dave Robinson, a manager looking for a band. Then we heard and listened to Crosby, Stills & Nash and The Band and (Bob) Dylan. Eventually, we changed the name, got to make our first LP and embarked upon the by now very well documented adventure to New York that was to change all our lives.

GM: What brought about the decision to make the band your namesake?

BS: We all decided to change the name. We were to put it to the vote. The others decided on the name before voting day, and I lost the vote 3-1.

GM: There was a lot of great talent in that band — yourself, Nick Lowe and Ian Gomm, among others. Was that wealth of talent apparent even at the outset?

BS: No, I don’t think so, apart from Bob. I think we grew into who we became over the years. And we were definitely altered by some of the pretty extraordinary circumstances and adventures we ran into.

GM: How did you decide whose material would make the final cut? Was there a lot of competition to get one’s songs on a given album?

BS: We had a policy: If anyone didn’t want to play a particular song, they had to come up with something better. No competition — we just played more or less whatever we came up with, regardless of who wrote it. I wrote one instrumental, which we once played at a strange old gig in Frankfurt.

GM: There was such an apparent influence of American bands like The Byrds, The Band and CSN on those first two albums. Were they artists that you were listening to primarily at the time?

BS: I don’t remember listening to The Byrds, but we definitely listened to The Band and Dylan, and CSN and Neil Young and lots of West Coast music, but also James Brown and a lot of Motown. There was a time when we had a cassette of a Motown greatest hits album that had the various artists introducing their own songs. We played that album nonstop driving home from gigs. It was where I got the urge to learn sax, from Junior Walker specifically.

GM: You were of course a leading influence on the nascent so-called “pub rock” movement. What inspired that sound? Was it a desire to get back to basics?

BS: Well, there was no thought about it being a movement, or having a name or a style of music or anything except the desire to play in places where we didn’t have to put on a show, somewhere we could just play anything we wanted. Manager Dave happened to see an American band called Eggs Over Easy playing in a London pub called The Tally Ho. He could see us doing that, so we all went to see the band the following Sunday, and agreed that it looked like fun. So Dave and I went ’round as many pubs in town as we could trying to persuade pub managers that having live music was a good idea. We literally had to persuade them to let us try it. We even offered to play for free until they were making money from it. That was a great summer, and pretty soon every night was packed. We played what we liked, people got up to play or sing with us, notably Frankie Miller, who’d sing “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Wild Night.” They were great nights. And once the other bands saw the opportunity, the press then called it pub rock, but it was really just anything a band loved to play, played in a pub.

GM: What were your thoughts after Brinsley disbanded? Was it your choice to connect with Ducks Deluxe to keep the movement you had helped start keep going?

BS: We laugh about how Martin Belmont had been my roadie, but he’d stayed at our house for a while and helped out, before starting up Ducks Deluxe with Sean Tyla. I don’t know whose idea it was really, but they asked me to go play with them, so I did.

GM: How did you connect with Graham Parker? And what was your initial impression of him?

BS: In the summer of ’75, I was not doing anything. My family had moved back into my parents’ house, and I went fishing with my dad a lot. He was a schoolteacher, so he had a long summer holiday. I had no idea what to do, after seven years in a band and living together in a big old house for five years. I wrote a few songs, practiced and tried to improve my sax playing. Dave Robinson had a studio at the top of the Hope and Anchor pub in Islington, and he’d got an old desk from Decca I think, and as a way of learning how to use it he invited singers, songwriters and bands in to record demos for free.

One day he called me up, said he had found this great songwriter. He was going to record a few songs; Martin Belmont and Bob Andrews were going to be playing, and would I like to go along. So I did, and here is where people’s memory of what happened differs … I remember meeting Graham and Stephen Goulding and Andrew Bodnar, the drummer and bassist, that day, and the outcome was that the five of us had enjoyed the day, and we would play together a bit and see how we got on. Martin found us a pub, Newlands in London, where we could rehearse for free, and that’s what we did. Meanwhile, Dave had signed Graham and got him a record deal, and they wanted us to make the record and tour. Graham Parker & The Rumour was born.

GM: Has The Rumour been your primary focus in the last couple of decades? What other activities have occupied your time?

BS: When The Rumour split in ’81, I found myself learning how to repair guitars in what turned out to be the U.K.’s premier guitar workshop at Chandler Guitars, and then Graham asked me back to play with him. So I’d record and play with Graham, and in between I’d fix guitars. I produced The Mona Lisa’s Sister and Human Soul with Graham and toured with him through the ’80s, eventually retiring from professional music in 1990 and carrying on as a full-time luthier while also getting into guitar amp modifying. I wrote some articles for Guitar Magazine, which ended up in the fifth edition of Aspen Pittman’s The Tube Amp Book. Graham called us up and said we were going to do it all again. GP and R recorded two albums, Three Chords Good and Mystery Glue, and we toured in the U.S., U.K. and Europe. Graham and I also toured in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Spain as a duo in the 2010s.

GM: You released your first solo album in 2016, and that seemed like such a belated offering. So the question is: What took you so long to do a solo record?

BS: Well, I don’t see it as belated. I’d written a couple of songs, but nothing really finished, so I just didn’t have anything original to record … until listening a lot to Steely Dan’s album Two Against Nature, which seemed to inspire me. I wrote some songs through the noughties and had been thinking about recording them somehow, but was really busy repairing and then playing. Being back playing with the band inspired me further, and a chance meeting with James Hallawell (a keyboardist who’d played and recorded with Graham and me in the ’80s) at a gig, turned into the opportunity to record at his studio. I went in with the idea of trying one song out and to see how it went. It went really well, and before long we were recording an album. I just managed to get a finished product together in time to take as merchandise on tour. So, really, to me, I pretty much made Unexpected as soon as and as quickly as I could.

GM: Your new album has now been released some six years later, so we’ll ask the same question: Why the belated follow-up?

BS: The answer is pretty much the same. James and I had actually recorded more songs than Unexpected needed, so we were already on the way with Tangled. As things turned out, a couple of those songs didn’t seem to fit well with the rest of Tangled, and I’d also written a couple of songs about the troubled times we’re in, which I wanted to release. I also wanted to have a go at recording one of my favorite Graham Parker songs, “Love Gets You Twisted.” So things were already getting a little delayed when COVID struck and that made everything very difficult. But again, I did the best I could to get Tangled finished. Sometimes we were recording or mixing with me sitting outside in the courtyard or in the studio across the yard — not the easiest way to work!

GM: What is it like to record under your own name, as opposed to releasing the record as a band effort? Does it give you more autonomy? On the other hand, does it put all the onus on you?

BS: Yeah, it does both. By yourself you have complete control, do whatever you want however you want, but then your input is the only input, which can be a loss. I did think about this and talked with Graham about it, which was helpful. I have been lucky, though. I usually do have an idea of what it should be like, and James has made it all comfortable and easy because he seems to think along the same lines, plays great keyboards ,which often inspire, and also gets great sounds. He has a bunch of lovely old valve (tube) mics, which definitely help. And I had the help of great drummers, a great sax player and lovely pedal steel player, all of whom seemed to know exactly how to play on my songs.

GM: How would you sum up the role you played in the trajectory of British rock over the course of the past 45 years? What were the high points, and what was the impact and influences you feel you left behind?

BS: Well, I just received a very nice email from a fan. He thanked me for doing an interview which he had enjoyed reading, and he said, “Always nice to hear from somebody who’s always been in it for the music.” When I was very young, I wanted to do two things — to play guitar and be a pop star. Luckily for me, I was given an extremely sharp lesson in the fickleness of fame and, at the same time, the opportunity to watch Van Morrison and his band, who were so blindingly good, at the Fillmore in 1970. It showed just how much work we would need to do to become something resembling a good band.

As for the trajectory of British rock, I have no idea. I think I learned that the song is the important thing, and I try to play to it or with it. I hope that that has come across. And I hope that my playing and my love of guitars has touched some people, as I have been, by the musicians I love to listen to.


GM: Your affection for the guitar is obvious.

BS: One of the things that an awful lot of people are unaware of is exactly how important their sound is to so many guitarists. I worked, on and off, for 35 years as a guitar repairer. I repaired, “upgraded” thousands of guitars, and tried to help all those that asked to find their sound. When you walk onstage, there are things you can transmit to the audience without really knowing it, and perhaps the worst of these is when you’re not happy with how things are sounding. I got over this a long time ago, helped greatly by a conversation I had with Paul McCartney. But it wasn’t until 2012 that I found a guitar (a 1960 reissue Gibson Les Paul) that I felt truly comfortable with and completely at home with. It’s my guitar, and it never fails to bring a smile and make me want to play and play.

GM: That must have been amazing, to have the opportunity to interact with Sir Paul. Can you share some of the other special moments that occurred in your career?

BS: That was a high spot for me, as was, of course, playing support on tour with Paul McCartney. Other special moments were seeing Lowell George, Ry Cooder, Albert King and seeing Bonnie Raitt jam with Little Feat, making Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman a cup of tea and chatting in our dressing room when we supported the Stones in Hartford. Connecticut. Whilst rehearsing, preparing for a GP and R tour in the U.K. a few years back, we had left “Stick to Me” til last because we were all a bit nervous about playing it again. (Would the older, more relaxed Rumour remember how to play like that?) We played it, and it was perfect, in every way. There was a sort of stunned silence afterwards, as it had brought tears to my eyes — and to Steve’s, I think. Playing the song “Long Emotional Ride” on Jools Holland was another high point. Also, for me as a guitarist, my solo on “This Town” on the Rumour album Max, and on “Stranded” from my album Tangled.


GM: So we have to ask: Is there any chance we’ll ever see a Brinsley Schwarz reunion? In that regard, are you still in touch with Nick Lowe?

BS: No, I don’t think that is going to happen. Nick and I are not really in contact … we bump into one another occasionally and get on fine.

GM: What are your plans going forward?

BS: Well, in the immediate future, I have a single out — it’s called “It’s Been a Long Year.” I’ve got a third album half recorded, so as not to be releasing it belatedly, I better get on and finish it. And I’m working slowly toward playing live, but as a duo or with a band, I don’t know which. And how, the way things are now, does one get to play in the United States?

GM: Hmm. We’ll try to get you an answer to that question. We’d love to see you over here. In the meantime, is there anything you’d like to add?

BS: Yes, I think there are many things in this world that will let you down. Music isn’t one of them. Please stay safe.