U.K. was a band that Allan recorded one studio album with. The lineup for this album was:
- Allan Holdsworth: guitar
- Eddie Jobson: keyboards , violin
- John Wetton: bass, vocals
- Bill Bruford: drums
How did U.K. come about?
Well, it had been going for a while before I knew anything about it. John and Bill got together first and then found Eddie and, around that time, I met Bill who asked me to play on his solo album. I was introduced to the other guys and that’s how it happened. Nobody actually knew it was going to work or whether we’d get on together ‘cos there are a lot of differences. That’s probably one of the things that make it good.
What guitar are you using with U.K.?
Basically I’m using a Strat. It’s got DiMarzio PAF pickups now. Before that, I had Gibson pickups. It’s just got a volume and a tone instead of one volume and two tones. I also did away, with the middle pickup. The toggle switch is just an ordinary three-way. It gives you either pickup or both. I like it because it’s really simple. I like to keep the guitar as simple as possible. I chose the DiMarzio PAF’s because they’re supposed to be an authentic reproduction of the original Gibson pickup. I found with the DiMarzio Super Distortion pickups that, although they’re very loud, the sound isn’t as good. I don’t know why, I’m not really up on what you can do with pickups. I know that if you go over the top with the windings, they become self-inductive or something and I know that if the magnets are too powerful, they’ll stop the string vibrating which is your source, really. these pickups are really good. I can’t tell the difference between the PAF’s and the original Gibson ones, but I can tell the differe nce between the PAF’s and the Super Distortion pickups - they’re very different.
Were there many overdubs?
Well, there were some, not an awful lot. We started with bass and drums mainly. That’s a thing I’d never done. I don’t like that way of working at all. We’re going to do it different next time.
Bill Bruford’s solo album (out this month) is the latest of Holdsworth’s projects; the featured musicians also include Dave Stewart on keyboards and an American called Jeff Berlin on bass, whom Allan spent several minutes enthusing over ("He’s a killer. He’s gonna scare a lot of people. Really lethal." ) At the time of writing secret rehearsals are going on with a new band believed to include Bruford, Holdsworth, Eddie Jobson and John Wetton. Whether this will result in a touring band, or in an album, or in both, is not known yet. Allan had been sworn to silence even regarding band personnel, and this information came from "another source". Let’s just hope it’s accurate.
Had things become better?
Not much. With Bill and U.K. the rehearsals had almost nothing to do with what ultimately went on the records. We just played bits and pieces of songs, and they would shake them up and record them. Then we had to try to reproduce those parts live. And I just don’t feel at home doing that. I’d ‘rather play something first, and then record it. Now, I’m not against overdubbing - it’s great. It’s nice to embellish things, but I think that the important things should go down on the tracks so that when you play the songs onstage, nine times out of ten they’ll sound better. With U.K., particularly, we had millions of overdubs, and then we had to try to decide who could play what parts live because one guy doesn’t have four hands, and so on. Again it comes back to the magical quality of interplay between band members.
How did U.K. form?
Bill said that he had an idea of working with [keyboardist] Eddie Johnson and [bassist] John Wetton. He asked me if I would like to go to a rehearsal and play. I agreed, and it looked promising. But the closer we came to recording, the more sterile the music sounded. Just before I left the band, I used to daydream an awful lot while we were playing all those bits onstage; you know, thinking about a nice pint of beer or something. I was easily distracted. And because I couldn’t associate all those bits - they didn’t form any kind of cohesive picture in my mind - I wouldn’t know if it was tune three or tune six or what.
Didn’t you feel that your declining interest would be detrimental to the group?
Well, some musicians are very efficient in that they can wade through things and not get upset. Unfortunately, I can’t do that. As soon as something like that starts to affect me, I lose all heart. And once I’ve lost the heart of it, I don’t even try anymore. It’s wrong; it’s a bad thing. But because I just couldn’t fight it, I left. I started complaining a lot and as a result, on Bill’s One Of A Kind I was able to play quite a few of the solos live. I really liked the solo at the end of "In Five G."
What kind of amps are you using now?
I had Marshalls all the way up through U.K. and with Bill Bruford. Since then, I’ve gotten two [Norlin] Lab Series amps and a British amp called a Hartley-Thompson. The trouble with the Marshalls was that they only gave a suitable sound for single-note solo stuff. They always distorted the chords; if I wanted to get a clean sound for chords, I had to push the amps too hard. I often ended up with a horrible square-wave, fuzzbox sound.
What sort of equipment will you be using live with the trio?
Well I’ve got a really good set-up at the moment. I’ve had a lot of trouble finding it, and started experimenting with it in UK, although that was stone-age compared to how it is now. I was using one 50 watt Marshall amp and a couple of 4X12 cabinets, and that was alright for solos but every time I played a chord it just wouldn’t hack it. I tried a couple of other amps, to switch between for chords and solos, and that didn’t work either, and it really began to worry me. If I played on my own at home could play all the things I liked. but it just wouldn’t work when it was loud, the chords would disintegrate. So I’ve just been experimenting and getting closer and closer to what I want. I’m still looking, but what I’ve got at the moment is two of the Lab Series L5 amps for chords, because I found they were very clean and strong sounding. Rather than have a 200 watt amp I though [sic] I’d have two 100’s and have a little more spread, and there’s a close delay between them to give a stereo effect. I really like the L5’s, although I find they’re not quite up to it for the single line sound I’m used to, but then I’ve never found a transistor amp that is, except for a new amp, which I’ll describe in a minute. My set-up is basically the two L5’s linked with the close delay, and I plug my guitar into a little routing box which sends the signal between what was originally the Marshall 50 watt and the two Labs. I then found I could get a more controllable sound by using a Burman 50 watt amp, a Pro 501. It was originally a combo but Mr. Burman kindly made me a head which I used with the Marshall cabs, and that worked really well. And then came the killer of all time. Two guys from Sheffield, Pete Hartley and Pete Thompson, turned up while I was on tour with Bill, and they said they liked the sound that I made and that if they could make a transistor amp that satisfied me then they might be able to convince a few other people. So, I tried it and it was really excellent, but still fell a little bit short for me. They took it away, worked on it and brought it back, and it was getting better and better every time. Their standard model is a 2X12 combo but with an unusual shape, like a cheese-wedge. It has one input, is all transistor, and has two volume controls, a red channel and a green channel, and you can set them for a clean or dirty sound, the usual thing. With valve amps, like Boogies, I’ve always found in that situation that they don’t work, because to get a sound out of the amp anyway I find I have to push the output, and if you turn the pre-amp up and the master down you just get that horrible distorted fuzz-box sound. To get any sort of sound out of it you had to turn it right up, which completely defeated the object of having two inputs on it - if you wanted to play chords you couldn’t play loud. lt would be just like having two 50 watt amps and setting one up for a dirty sound and one for a clean sound, and I couldn’t do that because I’d be driving the amp for single notes so hard the other one would never compete with it at all. So the Boogie was a total waste of time for me. Although the amp these guys have made is transistorised, they’ve found a way somehow, using magic parts or something, to make it sound fantastic, and it’s absolutely incredible to me that I’m now using a completely transistorised set-up. That Hartley-Thompson transistor amp sounds as good as if not better than any valve amp I’ve ever played, honestly, and that’s an incredible achievement. It doesn’t have a conventional pre-amp and master volume; you produce the sound with the first volume and all the second one does is turn it up or down, without any tonal distortion or anything. There’s no conventional overdriving system. It’s the same on the red channel and the green channel, and you can set the master volume controls for chords and single lines, and it really does work, with very clean chords. Since then they’ve improved it with two separate devices for the red and green channels, and it’s really amazing. The only reason I’m not using just that one package is because I’ve really got hooked on the multiple amp system and the spaciousness of it all. The Hartley-Thompson amp that I’m using is set for two different lead sounds, so I can switch between them. If I change pickups, like from the front to the back, I like to change the tone settings on the amp, which you can’t do normally, but I can do that with this amp and switch between the two lead sounds, and then with the routing box I can switch to the Lab amps. It’s got me reeling in a way because I always thought I understood a little bit about amps, and I’m completely baffled now as to why I like this one so much. It’s got me worried in a way too, because I always like to know how a thing works, even if it’s only very basically. I’ve messed about with practically every amp I’ve had, and know within 10 or 15 per cent what results I’m going to get, but all this transistorised solid-state is totally alien to me, I’ve got no understanding of it at all. The fact that I’ve got this transistor amp and am relying on it and not knowing how it works is a bit unsettling. I think I’ll have to go and stay with those guys and get them to do a little number on me. For me the amp is like the body of the guitar, the part of it which speaks. The guitar itself is incredibly important, but not so important as the amp. I could play a pretty gruesome guitar through a reasonable amp and guarantee a better sound than if I played a really good guitar through a duff amp. It’s just an extension of the guitar, although for many players it’s just an afterthought, which is just fine, but it’s not way I feel about it.
In 1977 I joined Gong which was a potentially interesting writing situation, but they could never stop arguing long enough to orgnaise (sic) anything. We toured a little and then I left. Later that year I played on an album with Jean-Luc Ponty - ‘Enigmatic Ocean. In 1978 I played on Bill Bruford’s solo albums ‘Feels Good To Me’ and ‘One Of A Kind’. I joined U.K. in ‘78 which consisted of Bill, John Wetton, Eddie Jobson and myself, one album there. In 1979 I went to Paris with the new trio, and here we are two years later about to make another album. Ultimately I’d like the band to do a couple of albums and establish in the USA: I’m sure we’ll have more success over there.
No Record Contract, No Big Hoopla, But The Fans Have Kept The Faith For Allan Holdsworth (Guitar World 1982)
For example, what I did with UK was a total disaster as far as I was concerned - I should have never done it in the first place except for the fact that maybe a few more people got to hear me. But I hated it! Because I really had no space in it, I had no being in the band. They wanted me to play the same solo, and there was no way that whatever I did would affect what went on. I couldn’t play something and then add another chorus or it would go off and do something else - I couldn’t do anything like that. I had to do it just as I was playing on a record. It made me sick. But that was the way the music was written, in bits and pieces, not real compositions, composed like violin variations, but bits and pieces thrown together. It made the music kind of non-organic and sterile to me, and I was miserable most of the time. I used to just get drunk. Half the time I couldn’t remember which tune we were playing! Basically, I enjoyed making the album with Bill, and I hated UK! I just wanted to escape the ‘Tricky Dick,’ to try and find a musical thing, where I had more of substance to do rather than parts, because anybody can learn parts. "That’s my feeling, anyway. I was becoming so despondent about the whole thing that I didn’t care whether I was doing the job well - which is why I knew I had to leave, because it was really self-destructive. I knew I had to go."
"I loved playing with Tony Williams. I loved playing with Jean-Luc Ponty. All of Ponty’s albums were done pretty much live - as far as I can remember they all were. Live, with everybody playing together, as opposed to people playing off on their own. The UK album was done one guy at a time. What I mean by live is that we played together in the studio rather than in different months!"
You’ve played with a lot of groups and artists over the years–U.K., Bruford, Soft Machine, Tony Williams. Are you happier playing with I.O.U. than you were with the others?
Yes, a lot happier. Because I was always the guitar player in someone else’s band, and I didn’t always like the music. In fact, quite a lot of–especially U.K.–I detested. I thought it was crap. I didn’t even want to be involved in it. And it’s funny, ’cause a lot of people like the things that I hate the most. But that’s life.
Having worked with the likes of Tony Williams, Jon Hiseman (in Tempest) and Narada, it seemed only logical that Holdsworth would fall in with another great drummer; he joined Bill Bruford to make Bruford’s solo classic, One Of A Kind. The two enjoyed working together so much, Bill brought him along to help found art-rock power players U.K., something which Bruford now has second thoughts about: "It’s obvious that U.K. was split into the pop half-with John Wetton and Eddie Jobson the potential Asia-type superstars-and Allan and I on the other side. I had hoped Allan would reinforce my side of the discussions, counterbalance the rock aspects of the thing. But it was a painful counterbalancing, it wasn’t understood, and I kind of put Allan on the spot."
To Holdsworth, the dearth of improvisatory opportunity and compositional input (other than the song "Nevermore") left a permanent bad taste in his mouth for rock stardom:
"U.K. was a pain. All I ever had to do was just solo, just waffle really, and it was a nightmare. I was just bored. I had no contribution. It was like playing with a tape; there was no spontaneity, no one would hear anything. I was the wrong guy for the band. So that’s why Bill and I were fired simultaneously. We both agreed to differ. So Bill got his old band together and we agreed to do that."
I.O.U. then made their tabled emigration and Americans greeted the band as long-lost old friends, which at that point they were starting to feel like. Still, for all the buzz, they were unable to interest anyone in the LP so they decided to put it out themselves, pressed it and worked it as best they could. It was then that Holdsworth was "discovered" by Eddie Van Halen. Edward had actually met Allan in the U.K. era, so he came down to the Roxy to catch I.O.U. After a post-gig chat, Van Halen was invited to come to sound-check the next afternoon and they had "a bit of a blow." For an encore that night, they worked up one of Eddie’s tunes, which went over big; very big. Van Halen immediately began working on his producer, Ted Templeman, and his label, Warners, to sign Holdsworth. What exactly was understood between Holdsworth and Van Halen was never pinned down, however. Allan logically assumed that Warners wanted the I.O.U. band. Paul Williams maintains that during all the negotiations for the deal, no one at Warners corrected that impression:
One of the things that drove me crazy when I used to work with UK, was that everything was always superficially organised, but it wasn’t organised at all really. It’s like an insect that’s got the skeleton on the outside, and I prefer it when the skeleton is on the inside. Not that there’s anything wrong with insects, bugs are great!
Then came U.K., which came about because some girl had recommended me to the other boys from U.K. Bill and I got fired from U.K., so that was it. Why? I have no idea, really not… why do you dismiss somebody? After that Bill started his own band. The record-company probably found it safer to go further with the other two guys in the band, who were adjusted quite commercially, than with two typical jazz-people like Bill and me.”
Still UK seemed to me the band with the status that fitted with your talent, like Gong was the band with the talent that fitted with your talent. They both seemed to fit with you very much. “I don’t believe UK fitted with me totally. I didn’t like it to play the music live; they played every night the same thing, and I didn’t like that. I became very depressed, was already drunk before I had to come on the stage, no, I didn’t have much fun with that.
Are there still some groups in which you’d love to play? “Like?” Yes? “No, thank you. I don’t want to come into that corner again by playing with that kind of serial-products-groups.” Do I sense an UK-trauma? “Yes… it’s always such a trouble with that kind of bands: they create an image that they can’t fulfil by sounding great on the album and never to able to put that onto the stage. I don’t know… oh yes, there is somebody with whom I would love to play! Sting, that seems fantastic to me! But otherwise, no.”
MP: And did I read this correctly, that you and Bruford were actually dismissed from the band?
AH: Yeah we were fired!
MP: Why was that?
AH: We were fired by the management but basically it wasn’t the management, I think, I saw that band was essentially as being Eddie’s band, because he was the most involved with the writing of it, and it really was his thing I think, I don’t know, it was kind of getting out. It wouldn’t have worked - I mean If Bill, I’m sure Bill would have left on his own anyway, but I was sure wouldn’t been able to take it anymore so it was like, being fired was pretty OK – but they were great guys, I really liked all of the guys, good, great musicians - I enjoyed it at the time, well I enjoyed making the record but doing the gigs was hell, but other than that yeah…
ALLAN HOLDSWORTH - master of the singing, sax-like electric line - is unusually selfcritical. His restless muse constantly drives him to explore new musical territory - and often causes him to evade praise or disavow past accomplishments in the process. Holdsworth’s career erupted with his breathtaking solo on U.K.’s "In The Dead Of Night." His sinewy lead work and incredible legato phrasing drew widespread raves from fellow guitarists such as Eddie Van Halen and Steve Morse and established him as an innovator with a unique sound. Yet in Dec.’80, Allan said, "There’s a whole other side of my playing that few people have heard yet. In U.K., I used to lay out a lot. I didn’t mind that, because I don’t think it’s a good thing to play all the time. But I became so frustrated being asked to do only solos."
U.K. [the band]
Not a nice experience. Nice chaps and everything. But a very miserable experience.
I’d like to go back to U.K. for a moment. Why was the experience so miserable?
It had a lot of potential. The band was originally Eddie Jobson, Bill [Bruford], and John Wetton without myself. They were looking for a guitarist and I had just started playing with Bill to work on his album Feels Good To Me. And he said "There’s this guitar player playing on my album, wanna check him out?" So, they had me over and thought this might work and said "Let’s give it a go." And we formed the band and came up with the name. I got on really good with all of them, but what went wrong is that everyone wanted to do something else. I think there were two factions in the band: Bill and myself and Eddie and John. And they were kind of at war really. So, that’s what made it miserable—they wanted me to play the same solos every night and it was a completely alien thing for me. I would have probably been able to adapt to that now, but what I wanted to do then was so opposite to that. Whereas now, I could have maybe said "Well I know what I want to do, but this is what this is." I enjoyed making the album, and that was great, but it got to be not too much fun on the road. It was purely a musical question. I don’t know, maybe the other guys in the band hate me, but it wasn’t that for me—it was just the musical thing. It was "Geez, what am I doing here?" It wasn’t that I didn’t like the people. I did—I really liked all of those guys, even though they probably don’t realize that! [laughs] It was purely and simply a musical problem.
"... And then I guess I went from Gong to UK, because I met Bill during that period."
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."
"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.