Colin H on Sharks
Wikipedia will tell you that Sharks – formed by Andy Fraser shortly after leaving Free – spanned October 1972 to October 1974, recording three albums for Island Records: ‘First Water’ (1973); ‘Jab It in Yore Eye’ (1974); and the unreleased ‘Music Breakout’. The two constant members were Chris Spedding on guitar and Steve Parsons on vocals.
Steve and Chris created a new album as the Sharks in the mid-90s, released as ‘Like a Black Van Parked on a Dark Curve’ in 1998, but both were involved in other things at the time: Steve wheeler-dealering behind celluloid scenes, Chris sessioneering and rocking in the USA (where he lived between 1978-2006).
Released in a couple of weeks, ‘Killers of the Deep’ is the new Sharks album, featuring Chris and Steve, with 1973-74 keyboardist Nick Judd also on board for those who crave added authenticity, plus Pistols drummer Paul Cook and bassist Toshi Ogawa. They’ll be doing gigs too. This time, they mean business…
I called Chris a couple of days ago to ask about one of his 1970 British jazz connections for another project, but I thought the AW might like to hear about the new Sharks project. The Q&A below is the relevant section, pretty much unedited.
I know nothing about Sharks ¬ I haven’t heard the original albums – but there’s something about the video single ‘One Last Thrill’ that I find appealing, and I always love Chris’ guitar playing.
A couple of Noticeboard items first:
1. Chris was on Jools Holland’s BBC Radio 2 show last night chatting and playing, here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07vw0rh#play
2. Sharks play The Borderline, London on 30 September, info here: http://theborderlinelondon.com/listings/upcoming-events/36401/sharks/
So, if you live in London, go out and support your local rock stars!
Q & A:
CH: How did the Sharks reunion come to be?
CS: Oh, me and Steve Parsons, the lead singer, who used to be known as Snips in the old days, have been doing stuff together . We didn’t stop working together when the group broke up. After the Sharks he did a stint with Ginger Baker, in the Baker/Gurvitz Army.
CH: That must have been character forming…
CS: Ha! Well, it was kind of good for him to go to, because we didn’t do much with the Sharks, we didn’t earn any money – at least he had a gig for a few years there that gave him a lot of good experience, playing with good musicians and earning some money. After that, I produced an album for him called ‘La Rocca!’ , he had a group called the Video Kings, and then in the 80s he started doing TV and movie music and did that for a long time – and stopped singing. I would still go and do work with him; he would hire me as a session guy to do jingles. So he disappeared from one part of the music industry and became a backroom boy in another. The two things weren’t really compatible so he sort of said, ‘Well, it’s time I gave up being a rock’n’roll singer, it’s obviously not happening’ and turned his talents elsewhere.
CH: And yet he seems to be a charismatic frontman…
CS: I know – he was, yeah. But that was his big success in life – doing TV and movie music. [After a while] he was hankering after doing some more singing so we had a group, King Mob – that didn’t do well, so we thought, ‘Well, why not just reform the Sharks?’ There’s any number of things people like us can turn ourselves to!
CS: I believe you tinkered with a Sharks reunion in the mid-90s…
CH: That’s right. We just got together and did an album. We were always seeing each other, always doing stuff, so it was one of these things where someone says, ‘Hey, this is a good idea – we’ve got some songs, why don’t we do an album?’
CH: Was the time not right to take it further then?
CS: Well, I was still living in Los Angeles and he was still doing his TV jingles. So this was just something to do for fun, really. The album came out, there’s a couple of good songs on it…
CH: Did you use any of the songs that might have appeared on the shelved third Island album?
CS: Actually, yes – ‘The Shadow Knows’ was one, I think. You know, every now and again we think ‘We’ve got all this stuff, why don’t we record it?’ Our third album for Island never came out, produced by John Entwistle. But there are a few tracks that we’ve found that we could maybe put out.
CH: Are there any songs from the lost album on the new one?
CS: There are. ‘Music Breakout’ is on it. It’s one that I’ve done previously. When the Sharks broke up I adopted that song for one of my albums. So all this stuff is in this big pool of things we’ve done. We have to put a label on it, so it’s the Sharks now.
CH: I know you worked again, onstage, with Andy Fraser in 2013. If Andy was still with us do you think he might have been interested in this reunion?
CS: I’m not sure. Andy was a law unto himself. But, actually, Andy contributed to a track on my last solo album, ‘Joyland’. Steve wrote some of the lyrics for that song, I wrote the music and Andy played the bass, so (laughs) I suppose that was three out of four Sharks. I love Andy’s playing, always have. It was a big tragedy when we lost him. I felt very lucky that I got to touch base with him again, do some playing with him again – and do some recording with him again – just before he died.
CH: Was his death a shock?
CS: Not entirely, ‘cos we knew he had health problems. When I was working with him there was no evidence of that. He looked really good and seemed to be in good health but obviously it all caught up with him.
CH: Do you and Steve write jointly?
CS: Oh, we each bring things in and if they need something… The track ‘Joyland’ – I had it as an instrumental for years, didn’t know what to do with it. Steve heard it and said, ‘Oh, I know what to do with this…’ So we got a voiceover on it, with the actor Ian McShane doing it.
CH: Was the ‘Joyland’ album well-received?
CS: Well-received critically; I don’t know what good sales would be now. With an album these days it’s like putting out a calling card. It’s something to sell at a gig – you’ll autograph it and somebody will pay you 10 quid.
CH: Does the changed nature of the business make your approach to making records different?
CS: To tell you the truth, what I’m thinking of with the last three records I’ve done over the last 10 years, my main focus is, ‘Let’s do something that might get picked up for use in a movie or on TV, and that’ll be an income stream’. That’s why there’s a couple of instrumentals on ‘Joyland’, and you always keep your multi-tracks in case somebody wants an instrumental mix of a vocal track. So that’s the focus, though I haven’t had any luck recently.
CH: Do you have anyone actively promoting your music to synchronisation opportunities?
CS: No, you have to hope that a music supervisor will call you up and you have to have everybody – the owner of the recorded master, the owner of the copyright – ready, saying, ‘Whatever comes in, we just say yes’. Because the current wisdom is that if you start trying to negotiate and you’re not the Stones or the Beatles or the Who they’ll have a listen then they’ll go on to the next one.
CH: Yes, I know a little of that world myself. It does seem to be a black art…
CS: It is. This is why we make records now (laughs)!
CH: But then again, if you really feel you have something to say, something artistic you just want to do, I think there’s still nobility in getting it down and making it available in some form. It can’t just all be a quest for a synchronisation fee…
CS: Oh, yes. As an art form, the album… Actually, the new Sharks album is going to be appearing first of all as vinyl. It’s hip now, with teenagers, millennials…
CH: Did you think that vinyl would ever come around again?
CS: Actually, no. When you sign a contract it’s always for [releasing your music] ‘in any form, yet to be known’, because when record contracts were signed in the 60s, suddenly cassettes came along and they had to reword everything, and then reword it all again for CD, so that the contracts covered all types of reproduction. The wording on the contracts has got ever more inclusive: ‘anything that is ever going to be known at any time in the future, in any universe known or unknown…’ This is what we’re dealing with – so we didn’t in our wildest dreams think we’d ever be going back to vinyl!
There’s something to be said for 78s. When you think of it, how much more information is going into the stylus at 78rpm than at 33 1/3 rpm? More than double the amount of information, so more of a tone spectrum.
CH: Though the actual medium, shellac, wears out quicker, doesn’t it?
CS: Well, if you use a proper stylus rather than a really heavy one… I remember when you’d go into a record store in the 50s and ask for a song and they’d say, ‘Is that the record or the sheet music?’ And when I said, ‘The record’, they’d say, ‘Is that the 45 or the 78?’ And my first records were 78s. It was a wind-up gramophone we had in our house, with a wooden needle – and a sharpener. If the needle got dull you could sharpen it (laughs)!
CH: I suppose you could say you’ve outlived the record business – you’ve seen its beginning, middle and end.
CS: Yeah, I’ve seen it starting out with the rock’n’roll boom, the skiffle thing in England, yeah…
CH: Am I right in thinking the new Sharks album is out this month?
CS: Err, yeah. We’re doing a few promotional things. We’re at the Borderline in a couple of weeks.
CH: Are you hoping to get an agent involved?
CS: Well, we’ll see how it goes. People have got to get used to the fact that we’re a going concern after not hearing from us in 40 years.
CH: It’s a catch 22 isn’t it – do you wait for the phone to ring or do you go out there and push some doors open, and if so, how much energy should you put into getting yourself back on the map…
CS: Yes. Steve is very proactive. He’s been putting some time into getting promoters interested, getting airplay and all that stuff.
CH: The video for the single is really compelling.
CS: Oh, you’ve seen that?
CH: It’s bit like Christopher Walken in Fatboy Slim’s ‘Weapon of Choice’ – compelling in a weird way! Did Steve direct that?
CS: Yes. It’s another of his talents. He’s dabbled in film direction, though I don’t know if he ever got anything on general release. But he’s done music supervision and was able to draw on a lot of his buddies from the film industry to do that video.
CH: How would you rate this album? Are you thinking, ‘Yep, this is one of the best things I’ve done’…?
CS: When you’re doing it you always think it’s the best thing you’ve done. And then when you’ve finished it you think, ‘Oh, I should have done that… maybe on the next one I’ll get that right…’ So we’re going through that phase at the moment!
CH: For fans of your guitar playing, is there good stuff there?
CS: Yeah, it has the same sort of Sharks thing [as before] – doing a British version of American rhythm & blues, similar to what Free did. We’re in that tradition.
CH: So the music is as spacious as that?
CS: Well, we tried to make it like that. The songs are quite strong, so we didn’t have to disguise weak material with big arrangements and long solos, that sort of thing.
CH: You kept things pretty tight?
CS: Yeah, same sort of ethic we had in the first Sharks – it’s still there, I think.
CH: I was very impressed with the guitar sound on the video track, ‘One Last Thrill’ – big, clean, powerful in feel but within the ensemble…
CS: Oh, you liked that? Well, I try to play what the song requires. We did the album the old-fashioned method – drums, guitar, vocals, keyboard, all live – at The Smokehouse, in Shadwell.
CH: All the vocals on the album are live?
CS: Well, not all of them. The songs were performed like that but if we needed to touch up the vocals here and there we’d do that.
CH: That’s amazing – I’d never have guessed that from first listen. I must listen again! You’re still doing an ongoing thing as well with Slim Jim Phantom, Mark Halligan and Glen Matlock…?
CS: Well, I hope it’s ongoing! We did a few gigs [recently] which we enjoyed very much.
CH: Mark’s a very impressive vocalist:
CS: Well, Glen’s the main vocalist. Mark sings one song in the set, a rockabilly song, but, yes, he’s a good lead singer. But they’re mainly Glen’s songs, and he gets to sing ‘em! I get to do ‘Motorbikin’’…
CH: Is there any gig where you DON’T do ‘Motorbikin’’?
CS: I don’t do it in the Sharks. This is the Sharks: it predates ‘Motorbikin’’!
CH: Speaking of rockabilly, are you still doing odd dates with Robert Gordon?
CS: Occasionally. Less and less, though. In the last year we haven’t done that much.
CH: As you know, I love the jazz stuff that you did in the early 70s [with Nucleus, Mike Westbrook, Michael Gibbs, et al.] but rockabilly is really your default position, isn’t it?
CS: Err, it’s become that. When I first started listening to music, I was brought up on that sort of music – Elvis, Scotty Moore, Eddie Cochrane, Gene Vincent. And when I came to write my pop song ‘Motorbikin’’ I harked back to that era. And then when I met Robert Gordon, in New York, he said to me, ‘I sure hope you can play this rockabilly stuff, Chris…’ I had to ask him what he meant by ‘rockabilly’ – I hadn’t heard the term before, because we did not ever call it that. This is something that came in with the Stray Cats. We called it rock’n’roll. It was rock’n’roll in the 50s; later on we called rock or pop or beat…
CH: Interestingly, when there was a rock’n’roll revival in Britain in the late 60s those guys – the Wild Angels and so on – just called it ‘rock’ at the time, with the likes of Led Zeppelin or the Who being seen as ‘pop’ [trust me readers – check out those late 60s editions of the Melody Maker!]…
CS: I remember Elvis being called ‘the hillbilly cat’, and maybe rockabilly was meant to be rock’n’roll and hillbilly combined, but it wasn’t a big genre that was set in amber, like ‘trad jazz’: [where] it’s either trad or it’s not.
CH: I’m sure there are diehards in that world who’ll try to lock it down, telling you ‘Carl Perkins was rockabilly up until THIS record…’ and suchlike.
CS: Oh, you’ve got to have the clothes as well, and the stand-up bass, the hair…
CH: You were never involved with that first wave of British rock’n’roll revivalists, were you?
CS: No, not really. Unless you include the ‘Motorbikin’’ record and the album that came with it [‘Chris Spedding’, RAK, 1976], that was a pastiche of 50s rock.
CH: Shortly after that record [a UK hit single in 1975] there was a swathe of revivalists in the UK charts – Matchbox, the Polecats, the Jets, those sort of people [one might add Darts, Shakey, Rocky Sharpe]…
CS: I wasn’t really directly involved in any of that.
CH: But it’s still quite a sub-culture isn’t it?
CS: Oh, very much, especially if you go to Scandinavia. They’re all driving around in 50s Cadillacs.
CH: Have you been booked for gigs in that world, rock revival festivals and the like?
CS: Yep, Robert Gordon often plays those. But I’m not really part of it – I’m a guy who can come in and I can play it, I know all the tunes, I know the style… But they’d be thinking, ‘He’s not really… he’s a jazzer…!’
CH: You replaced Link Wray with Robert Gordon in 1978, didn’t you?
CS: Yes. I’ve been a bit of a footnote in a lot of different ways – a bit of a footnote in the jazz-fusion thing, then the rockabilly thing, and the punk thing with the Sex Pistols – a bit of a Zelig character.
CH: Wouldn’t that be a great name for a band: Chris Spedding & the Footnotes?
CS: Yes – or ‘the Sidemen’.