No Secrets (Facelift 1994)
A big thank you to Phil Howitt for doing the following story which is unique in covering the earlier periods in Allan's career, in particular his period with Igginbottom. This comes from Phil's interest in the "Canterbury music scene". Phil is still active, and maintains a website for Facelift magazine at www.faceliftmagazine.co.uk and continues the project at www.canterburyscene.com.
Allan Holdsworth – no secrets
Facelift fanzine, issue 12, 1994
Interview by Phil Howitt.
Practically every interview with Allan Holdsworth you come across is in a musicians' only type mag. Or more probably a major guitar magazine. Holdsworth has fashioned a reputation as a guitar great, a guitarist's guitarist, maybe even the finest there is around the fretboard.
So what's he doing in Facelift? Well, mainly because he's always intrigued me. Somehow within a sphere of music not renowned for guitar heroics, he added his stunning expertise to bands such as Gong, Soft Machine, Nucleus and Bruford. His choice of bands and the harmonics of his soloing always interested me just as much as his phenomenal fingerwork. I'm not really a musician and I'm certainly not a guitarist. And so this interview tackles the subject of Allan Holdsworth from a general viewpoint: how exactly did his career evolve, and were the links with ‘Canterbury scene” players purely coincidental?
Aside from Allan Holdsworth's little known involvement on Donovan's hit "Hurdy Gurdy Man”, his first excursion into the recording world was the Igginbottom's Wrench album, a 60s jazzy pastiche reminiscent of other early proggers (Colosseum, Giles, Giles and Fripp), with our interviewee supplying vocals as well as guitar. I suggested to Allan that his playing even at this early stage was quite well advanced.
“It doesn't sound like that to me! I think I'd only been playing about two years, maybe three years when we did that record. At the beginning I was taught by my father, who was a really wonderful piano player. Then started to find out things for myself. Being an incredibly stubborn guy I wanted to be able to figure things out for myself. Because if I can hear it I must be able to figure it out.
"One of the terrible things about that record was that even at the time we were using distortion but - this might sound really stupid, but it's the truth - we could not find a recording engineer who would let us turn up the amplifiers in the studio. They'd just turn them down in the control room. The guys would come into the studio and say, 'no, no, that's not how it works - we want to get the sound here and you just record it."
Holdsworth’s voice is a curious mix of native Yorkshire brogue and transatlantic jargon picked up during his decade-long exile in the States. I presumed that, given the three-year gap between Igginbottom and his stint with Nucleus that those early recordings had been recorded up North.
"No, it was actually recorded in London somewhere. I can't remember where - in about 5 minutes - and it was a pretty horrendous experience. And everybody in the band hated it when it was done! It was basically done by this guy Mick Jackson, who used to be in that pop group who had that big hit - jeez, what was it... the song was "Everlasting Love” - he was the bass player but the singer had a really good voice. It was actually a No.1 hit. I think the band were called "Love Affair”. Had Igginbottom been a gigging band, then? "No. All we were doing with that band Igginbottom was rehearsing. We were just trying to get something together. There was Dave Freeman - my friend Dave; Mick Skelly, who now lives in Australia, and Steve Robinson, who lives in South Africa." This presumably cuts out any ideas of a reunion! "Yes, thankfully! I'm actually sorry that it became a record. There are some other tapes around that I have from rehearsals which would be much better memories of it than that record, but that's life...."
Holdsworth paints a picture of a fairly shambolic set-up. I presumed that this had maybe then been his first sortie into a band set-up. "No, it wasn't, actually. I played with a lot of local Top 40 bands, club bands, working around in Bradford. Because I never wanted to be a musician, I was just a listener, and I used to just listen to my Dad's records and spent most of my time as a kid just listening to the music. And I really wanted a saxophone but they were pretty expensive. And then he bought a guitar from my uncle and he left it lying around and I picked up a few things here and there, but had no real interest in it. And then I guess after a couple of years I started to learn a few things. When he saw me taking some interest in it, my dad, he tried to help me, and from that point on started to meet other people who were in bands and they started to ask me to play with them. So that's how it started. But I never intended to be a professional musician - it wasn't like a lot of young people when they first start learning an instrument.
"What happened right after the Igginbottom thing was that I went right back to doing my day job - I was just gigging around with local club bands playing working men's clubs. There was this bandleader called Glen South - he had a band that worked in one of the Meccas, in Sunderland think it was, and he always liked my guitar playing. He asked me if I'd join that particular thing, that Mecca band. And I thought that that'd be quite good because it was more money than I was actually earning doing the day job. And I thought, ‘I can practice during the day’. So I took the job and I did it for about three years. Two of those years were in Sunderland and then we moved to Manchester to the Ritz.
"Just before we moved to the Ritz there was one of those workshops - jazz workshops that came up into our area, and I went along and think it was Graham Collier. I can't remember... Geoff Castle, Ray Warleigh. I remember that. And they played and we asked a bunch of questions and then they said, ‘there's another one of these tomorrow and we're going to ask people to sit in.’ So I thought, great, and so I took my guitar along and sat in with them on the next thing. And Ray remembered me ... oh, and Derek Wadsworth was there as well, the trombone player.
"So Ray remembered me, and he said, ‘if you ever need anywhere to stay, and you want to come down to London I've got a spare room and you can stay there’. And he was the big key really - without Ray I don't know whether I would ever have got further than that Mecca band. So then we moved to the Ritz Ballroom and I guess after about six or seven months started to get really fed up and started thinking about it a lot. Then I called him up, Ray, and I said, ‘I was that guitar player, remember me?’ And he said, 'yeah, yeah, come on down'. So I just packed my bags and went to London and stayed in his department. He kind of just fed me and looked after me for months. And just kept dragging me round to these little gigs and trying to get me to sit in with different people and that's basically how it started.
"And then just after that I hooked up with lan Carr, probably through the same thing - there were similar musicians working with lan Carr. The Jon Hiseman/Tempest thing came about in the same way, because someone, maybe Derek Wadsworth, had told him that they'd seen this guitar player and he wanted to know if I'd go along to his house for a play."
Allan would record an album with Tempest, whose music at that time has been compared with earlier work by Cream. One sonic document is a phenomenal live tape which sees him duetting with Ollie Halsall for a BBC in Concert recording. (“That was the last time I ever saw him"). First, though, was Nucleus, through whom passed any number of fine jazz musicians throughout the Seventies. Holdsworth left his mark on this line-up's album ‘Belladonna' with a blistering solo on the track ‘Hectors House’; in truth there is rarely a dud moment on this fine record. With musicians such as Dave McRae, Roy Babbington, Gordon Beck and Trevor Tomkins on board, that's hardly a surprise:
"I did quite a few gigs with Nucleus. We did a couple of tours of England and then we went to Europe and did a couple of tours there. Yeah, I really enjoyed it. I was just trying to figure it out - I think all those guys were putting up with me at that time." What had been so exciting about this and earlier Nucleus bands was that here was essentially a band of jazz musicians looking to experiment in the largely rock territory of amplification and effects. “I had no idea how to record guitar then, and it was because I had had such a horrendous time recording that I decided to try and figure out what was wrong. And that basically started me off thinking about the sonic aspect of it. It triggered me off then because I was playing live and I'd think I was getting a good sound and then I'd record it and I'd think, 'Jesus, that doesn't sound too good!”
"It was a good band - we were all really great players. In the band at the time we had Dave McRae and Gordon, sometimes even two piano players." Had this then been the first meeting with Gordon Beck, who Holdsworth was to form such a creative relationship with in later years? "No, I actually met Gordon a little before that when I was with Igginbottom, because when we were trying to get that Igginbottom thing going we played at Ronnie Scott’s."
Around about this time also was the fabled but short-lived band called Sunship, featuring Holdsworth alongside Alan Gowen ... “…that's right, and Jamie Muir" (Lyn Dobson and Laurie Baker were also band members). "Yeah, well, he (Alan Gowen) was great, a lovely guy. Yeah, that was one of the examples of where we did get together and rehearse without any real prospects. And it was good - I enjoyed it. I liked it a lot although I can't remember if we ever did a gig. But it was good." Allan also recalls similar projects recorded on reel to reel including a singer who later turned up on television some years later as a maker of mazes (!). It conjures up an image of a pool of players based in and around London who interacted in much the same way as the jazz scene traditionally works, with some crossover: "... most musicians were just slightly outside that - they weren't what I would consider to be the real jazz bore guys, but we did work together."
So to Soft Machine and Gong. Given Allan Holdsworth's links with Nucleus, with the musicians in Sunship, and later with Bruford, I long ago came to the conclusion that here was a musician very much aware of the dynasty of bands and musicians which can be traced right back to the mid-Sixties with the Wilde Flowers. Surely it wasn't a coincidence that Allan Holdsworth first played in the Soft Machine and then Gong. And yet: "In both cases I had no prior knowledge of the bands. In Gong I knew nothing about Daevid Allen or anything else that had gone before. I don't mean that in a bad way - I'd never heard it. Same with Soft Machine - I hadn't heard what had happened before, which may be a good thing, because then you're not trying to keep something alive. But there was a guy who was also a huge help to me starting out called Brian Blain, who works for the Musicians Union. He was absolutely wonderful - he helped me a lot. I think he really liked me and tried to put me in different situations. I remember we did some clinics - that’s how I met John Marshall. I guess John told the rest of the band about me, and then Brian Blain hooked up a couple of clinics with the Soft Machine, but they added a guitar player because at that time they didn't have a guitar player.
"So they said then OK, this is what this tune is and then I'd play on a couple of the things. Then they asked me to do a couple of gigs with them as a guest, so I did that. And then after that they asked me join the band. I really had a lot of fun with that band - they were good times. They were all great guys - Kari Jenkins, Mike Ratledge, Roy Babbington, John Marshall. It was really good fun".
Holdsworth’s playing seemed to give Soft Machine a much needed kick up the backside after the often listless rhythms of 'Seven'. He was the band's first guitar player since the brief appearance of Andy Summers with the band in 1968, and on "Hazard Profile”, the showcase track on "Bundles”, he dominates the band's colossal re-working of the Nucleus track "Song For The Bearded Lady”. Holdsworth is once again at his peak as a soloist.
"I wish I could have stayed longer because the album was done right at the beginning and we worked together a lot after that. It would have been nice to have recorded another one but unfortunately that was at the time when I got that opportunity to work with Tony Williams. It was a real terrible thing in a way, because you never get offered anything when you're not doing anything - you always have to make some rough decision. I was really happy playing with the Soft Machine. But the opportunity with Tony just seemed like something should do. So then I helped try to get Soft Machine hooked up with another guitar player and recommended a couple of guys - actually Ollie was one of them, and also John Etheridge who actually ended playing with them."
So, how did the Gong projects come about?
Well, it's funny because it kind of intertwined. I then went to do the thing with Tony Williams and stayed there in New York and then we had some real problems. Not with Tony or the band, because that was the other thing - I loved that band - enjoyed every minute of it - but it was really rough financially. I stayed at Tony's house which was fine. I didn't need any money and he took really good care of me. But when we were on tour, we had got back to New York and I'd scraped together enough money to get a plane ticket back to see my girlfriend. So I was there, hanging out, and then I phoned back to see what was happening, and then I found out that the tour manager didn't get paid and he was in charge of my guitar and he sold it!
"That was the first and only time that I ever got that attached to an instrument. I was mortified! I only had one - I carried it everywhere - I used to buy a ticket for it on the plane... I'd had a lot of SG's - but instruments are like that - you can make 50 of them but there'll only be one of them that's any good - some of them might be OK, but only one of them will be magic and so it was sold and I was completely bombed out. So then I went back to New York and had to buy a new guitar and there in the window was hanging my guitar! But I couldn't prove it was my guitar and it was more money than I could afford, so I had to buy something else! So I bought another one and then we did another tour and ended up on the West Coast, ended up in San Francisco. And then the band ran out of money. Tony went back to New York to find out why there was no more money and both me and Alan Pasqua had no hotel - we were absolutely out on the street with a suitcase and a guitar. So we went down to the club where we'd been playing and the waitresses there gave us free drinks. We found the guy who had put us up for the night and we get back to this guy's house in the evening and he said, ‘yeah, you can stay in this bed and you stay in that bed’. And we get back after the club had closed and there were two other guys in those beds! So this went on for three nights, and after the third night I said, ‘Man, I can't hack this anymore', so I took my guitar to the pawn shop and sold it. Alan Pasqua lent me the money (he lived in New Jersey at the time) to get from San Francisco to New Jersey and bought the ticket with my guitar from New York to London. I didn't have anything! Just a suitcase.
"Tony Newton was OK, because he lived in Los Angeles, so a ticket from San Francisco to Los Angeles wasn't really expensive. So that's when this thing came about with Gong. I got this call from Nicholas Powell, who actually managed me for a while. He split from Virgin Records and wanted to get involved in the video stuff. He really helped me out. In fact, it was Nicholas Powell who gave me the free studio time on the barge to record the IOU album.
"Anyway, Nicholas Powell said that he had this band, Gong, on their label who were looking for a guitar player, so I said, sure. Because at that time it didn't look promising going back to the land of pawning guitars!
"So I did. I played with them and was intrigued with the line-up... I thought it was a fascinating group. So we did that first album. And then I got another call from Tony to go back again, and it was a really tough one, and this time I decided not to go. And then I guess I went from Gong to UK, because I met Bill during that period."
Expresso II (on which Allan adds finely crafted solos to three of the six tracks) and his brief appearance on ‘Time is The Key’ came later, but this version of Gong was, of course, the Pierre Moerlen brand: a fascinating excursion into the world of marimbas, glockenspiels and vibraphones. Gong had long since left Daevid Allen territory. Plus the switch in culture: "They were all French. It was great – they would have these terrible arguments and I would have no idea what they were going on about! In fact it was a good thing I couldn't get involved... in fact they were all probably talking about me..!"
The last few years of the Seventies was a prolific era for Holdsworth credits: major involvement with Gong, UK and Bill Bruford, first for the drummer's jazz-oriented solo LP, and then in the band Bruford, which saw Holdsworth, Dave Stewart and bassist Jeff Berlin recruited full time. Also in this period were the first steps into solo projects ("Velvet Darkness”) as well as flirtations with jazz both free and structured with the likes of Gordon Beck and John Stevens. UK represented probably the most commercial outing Allan Holdsworth has made: a union with ex-Crimson members Bill Bruford and John Wetton plus keyboardist Eddie Jobson.
"I suppose it was an attempt to make another group like Yes. Not like that musically, but they definitely tried to pump it up. It didn't work for me - there was no space for someone like me in that kind of band."
It has always struck me as astonishing that Holdsworth's work with UK, a real prototype supergroup of the Asia variety, could exist so closely chronologically alongside the John Stevens albums involving him from the same era. The records which appeared under John Stevens' name (‘Touching On’ and ‘Retouch’) are challenging, unstructured blurs of instrumentation, but for all that, not without appeal. But, when I asked Allan about what he could remember about the free work with Stevens, he had this to say:
"The only thing I remember about John Stevens is that he was a bit of an asshole! Because he ripped everyone off. What we did was we went into the studio and recorded a completely spontaneous record with Ron Matthewson, Jeff Young and myself. And because it was all spontaneous music we all got together at the end and decided which tracks, which parts of those spontaneous pieces were useless - because it was a Spontaneous Music record. So we did that so that was fine and that was ‘Touching On'. I don't particularly like it but that's what it was. That's what happened.
But then John Stevens went on to license all the other crap, all the outtakes, and quite frankly I hope I don't run into him! Because I think that's a really terrible thing to do. He didn't ask anybody - he didn't contact any of the other musicians as far as know, he just did a deal. He probably got paid for it. Nobody saw any money for it, not that it would have mattered, because if he'd asked me I would have said no, because they were outtakes. To me that's what outtakes mean - not useable.
"So I'm as disgusted with John Stevens as I am with a lot of the record companies, who are doing the same thing to a lot of the people who pass on, like Jaco Pastorious. I think it's completely degrading what they'll do to people after they've gone. I think if the musician wanted them to be part of his thing they would have already been out."
AII of which paints a picture quite different to the one of obvious harmony between him and Gordon Beck. Despite their obvious affinity in Nucleus, their partnership was first really sealed on the 1977 album “Sunbird", an uplifting album, deliciously light in touch, but with all the technical mastery both players were renowned for. “The sad thing about that was that we did the album first. My reading's really bad, and they recorded the album before we did the tour. By the time we'd got through the tour I'd figured everything out, but the album was done!” Sunbird" also features Allan (briefly) playing violin: "It was the last time I ever played it. I never really played violin - it was just like a hobby. I just went into a music store in Sunderland when I was playing with that Glenn South band and I don't know why, I was just walking past a junk shop and went in and asked him if he had any old violins. I didn't see anything - and he went in the back and he came out with this thing - no strings. And it was like 10 shillings or something - no, it was 5 quid. So I fixed it up and got a new bridge made for it and strung it up.
"It was just curiosity 'cos I've always had a curiosity about instruments. I borrowed a clarinet and a saxophone from somebody in the same band. Then I tried an oboe - just to see how they work. I like to know - you get a better understanding of the difficulties you've got with each instrument. But the violin, even though I didn't play it or practice it all that much, it felt relatively easy for me to play it. I think that if I'd started with that instrument when I was learning, that would have probably have been more my instrument than guitar, although unfortunately I wouldn't have been able to play any chords. The chords have become a really important part for me. Maybe it worked out for the best..."
Allan Holdsworth is above all a perfectionist. The day we met he was half way through a two-day stop in Manchester. It was the morning after the first night's gig, which Allan had not been happy with, although by all accounts his playing was as mind-boggling as ever. He frequently belittles some of his own work, notably Igginbottom and his first solo LP "Velvet Darkness" ("it was a real terrible disaster"). And it's telling when he sums up his progress to date: "I really think that the only time I've been happy with something is when I've had some sort of control over it myself. So the only records apart from the real legitimate ones, like the ones with Bill Bruford, or UK... the only ones that are any good are since I started with the IOU album, forward..." So at this point it seems relevant to examine the start of his solo career. You can quite neatly divide Allan Holdsworth's career into two parts: the itinerant band member, who wrote little, but established a reputation as a supreme soloist; and the bandleader and composer. Holdsworth's solo career also encompasses his now permanent residence in the States. Were the two related, asked him:
"I enjoyed playing with UK - they were all great guys, but it just didn't work out - it wasn't the right combination. And then when I went on to work with Bill, I enjoyed working with Bill but the problem was that I just had this thing in my head about wanting to do my own thing.
"All I'd ever done was play guitar for other people and I just wanted to do my own thing. And then I met Gary Husband at the same time and started to do that. And we tried really hard when I was in England - in fact I had a little band together before IOU, with Jon Hiseman and Jack Bruce. And we did a couple of demos. And we couldn't get anyone interested at all. Just shortly after that was when I met Gary and we were just banging our heads against the Wall but we kept going. And there was a club in France called Riverbop and there was a really nice lady there called Jacqueline Ferrari. She liked us and she would bring us over there for like two weeks at a time, playing this little jazz club. It was great, but she was the only person who really gave us a chance.
"Basically I couldn't get any work. It was like a last shot because I'd seen my name come up in various American magazines, and I'd thought, 'Oh, that's interesting - they seem to know about us - it's like a last chance’. I kinda went over there and never came back!
"The singer, Paul Williams, who was working with us at the time, he lived in America - he lived in California - his wife was American. So they invited the band over to stay at his house, and we looked for gigs out there. And then we met that guy Mike Varney who has that Spotlight column in Guitar magazine and he talked to a San Francisco club owner who had three clubs to give us a gig. I don't know how he did it but he did. And we went there from paying to play to 15 people in England to small clubs in 300-500 seats, completely sold out. We couldn’t believe it. So it seemed pretty obvious me that if I wanted to continue as a musician then that's what should do.
He’s clearly made the right decision as far as his own career is concerned, because he's remained in exile for almost decade and a half now: “There’s a very different attitude towards musicians that I've noticed from living in both places. And that is - in England - if you want to get anything together with anyone unless there's some money involved almost immediately, you can never get anyone to do anything. They don't seem to have the same commitment to music - they have a commitment to making a living, which everyone has to do, but there are very few musicians that I worked with in London that seemed willing to work together to get something first. Whereas that happens all the time in America, and think that's an important difference.
“For example, someone like Gordon Beck, who's a really wonderful jazz musician - he never works in England. He lives in England I guess because he was born here and he has a house here and it's easier for him to stay here, but he works in Europe all the time and I guess that would have been the only other alternative, but I think I made the right decision going to America."
Alan Holdsworth solo records were to show a marked difference from his work in the seventies with other bands. But it wouldn't be fair to say, despite his reputation as a guitar player, that his bands were over-dominated by guitar heroics. The shifting chord work which form the basis for Holdsworth’s compositions come through as strongly as any guitar soloing. "Well, I still like that concept. Even now I don't think of it as being a guitar band. I see my own music as the guitar only being part of the music. It's not like some bands where you get the guitar as the big feature all night long. It's not like that with me – I think the music is the feature all night long, but it's a group effort."
The eventual outcome of this approach was Holdsworth's pioneering use of the Synthaxe. The name gives away the hybrid nature of the instrument, which also featured a facility for breath input that totally changes the nature of producing and sustaining sounds. Holdsworth is often quoted as saying that he sees his own playing more in terms of a wind instrument. Here he extends the analogy to the violin: "Yeah, because, that was the thing with the violin - you can play a note on a violin and you can make it loud and make it soft, the same note. Whereas the guitar being a percussive instrument, once you've struck the note, there's a limited amount of things you can do with it, and end up having to use an amplifier for distortion to get sustain from an instrument that doesn't really have that sustain naturally. So it's difficult to shape notes once they've been sounded. You can, and I've tried to do as much as I can with them, but it's not as easy to do it as with a horn. That's why I love the Synthaxe because you have the breath control. I just try to get a little bit more fluidity out of the guitar." The sheer expense of transporting the Synthaxe around means that you're unlikely to see it on stage alongside the guitar - another reason is that they're not being made any morel "That was the fear that I always had, was that I'd fall in love with this machine. There was a time when I didn't want to play the guitar at all! And then I thought, well, it's a piece of technology - what happens if someone decides ‘we're not going to make them anymore?' Then I'll be really stuck.
"And in fact that's what happened. But luckily for me I'd started getting back into using guitar again. I had a lot of experimental guitars then, from a really small one to a couple of really huge baritone guitars, so that I could get at least on record get the kind of range that I could get with the Synthaxe. So miss that."
Finally, I had to ask him about his spell with Level 42, as he's the second guitarist to appear in 4 Facelift issues to have had connections with a band not usually associated with this sphere of music.
"It was basically helping them out because I played on the album. I always like to play on albums, because then you can go in and try and make whatever you do work in that environment. I just mentioned to them that I knew that Alan Murphy had died and I said if you don't find the right guy before you go on tour and you get stuck, you can call me...
"And that's what happened basically. They were looking for another guy and I guess in the end they got Jakko. I was just helping them out. It wasn't right even down to my rig. The whole purpose of the way that my sound or the equipment has grown is to make certain things or certain sounds that like and I'd stayed away from all the regular guitar things like strumming, and there was a lot of that in Level 42. It's not something that I really can get into. I never really liked the strumming aspect of guitar playing at all, so I knew it wasn't right. But it got them through - it helped them out.
"Again they were all wonderful guys and for the kind of music that they play it was really good. But I couldn't have done that for a long time - I would have gone nuts!" A major restriction on his playing, surely? "Oh, completely. And the thought of having to play some solo. The most horrendous thing for me was to have the spotlight on me once a night to play 4 bars of solo, note for note, that was played by this guy, like, 20 years ago. I had to really bite my tongue on that. But that's that game - it's showbiz, it's not necessarily music.
"I've never been too good at showbiz. If play really miserably, I can barely make an announcement - I can introduce the band and that's about it. That's good, because I'm introducing other people. But that's another thing that really goes against me in terms of mass appeal: apart from the fact that the music is not something that can appeal to everyone - but I understand that and I don't mind that at all - it would be nice to reach more people and I think there are more people that we could reach, given the right kind of promotion and all that.
"But it could never be like a pop band. But in a way that's good - it seems to have more longevity that way."