The Blues Collective (1995 to date)
Having been in and out of the recording studio and on and
off the road for 25 years Billy felt it right to make his
first proper Blues CD. But when ‘S.A.D’ (Babel 9615) with
the Blues Collective was released at the end of 1996 Billy
was not a little bemused to find that some critics thought
it a huge joke. Rob Adams writing in the Glasgow Herald
(1.3.97)said, ‘...you know you’re dealing with a blues
spoof.’ Whilst Chris Parker in The Times (1.2.97) felt
moved to write, ‘The musical joke is deftly sustained
To present Billy’s side of the story we reproduce here
an interview by Dick Ward given by Billy at the time of
the release of ‘S.A.D’.
dw : So, Billy, you ‘Ain’t Gonna Sing And Play No Jazz
bj : Who said that?
dw : Well, that’s the title of the first track on the
bj : Yes - and we also both ‘Woke Up This Morning’, but
if you’ve passed over in the night you wouldn’t have
would you? So just because it’s a declaration it isn’t
‘forever after’ and anyway I don’t consider myself a
jazz musician. I work with jazz musicians and play in
jazz clubs and do jazz festivals but to sell the concept
of ‘jazz’ there has to be a solid product. So once a
jazz style becomes integrated you’ve got ‘solid gold
nostalgia’ - which is a complete contradiction of what
the music should be.....
dw : And, erm..., what should it be?
bj : Going absolutely bananas. And when my musicians in
the Voice of God Collective give every drop of
concentration, sweat and spirit it’s sometimes too
powerful for those present to take in - so o.k., maybe I
‘Ain’t Gonna Play No Jazz No More’ for a little while
because perhaps, I ‘can’t take the emotional physical
and mental stress no more....’
dw : Is that why you’re, to quote one of your pieces, a
‘Pissed Off Boy’?
bj : I don’t want to elaborate on it. It’s a very
personal music. You know, I don’t even care if there’s
no gigs for the Blues Collective. It’s a very personal,
spiritual thing. Meeting on a Monday morning in a dingy
basement rehearsal room off the Walworth Road near the
Elephant and Castle with Mike [Pickering, the drummer]
and Thad [Kelly - double bass] and Gerry [Tighe -
dw : So, Billy, how long did the album take to make?
bj ; Twenty five years.
dw : Ha ha, very good. No, seriously.....
bj : TWENTY FIVE YEARS, DICK! Listen. When I first
picked up guitar the first thing I learnt was a root
five and six rock and roll blues vamp. I was twelve
years old I think. Then the next development I can
recall was teaching myself a blues riff that went down
from the octave using flattened seventh, fifth,
flattened fifth, fourth then of course flattened third
down to the root. So someone tells me that's the ‘blues
scale’ and I get playing along with records like Albert
King’s ‘Live At The Fillmore’, the ‘How Blue Can You
Get’ Blue Horizon double sampler and then I kind of
expanded and got into Johnny Winter......
Anyway, my early bands when I was still at school were
blues bands, musically speaking. Worldwise speaking I of
course didn’t know shit diddley.
For I while I rehearsed with a blues band in Croydon
called ‘Crematorium" heh, heh and in another
prophetically pre-pubescent Goth sounding band called
‘Monolith’ with these guys who were taller and older
than me who had a singer called Andy and I was kind of
in awe of Andy because he had been in a band on Blue
Horizon Records so I was dead impressed.
Anyway I was in my own little world (well basement at
home) playing and jamming all the time when one day (I
was probably fourteen or fifteen years old) along came
this Scottish guy, a lot older than us and married with
a kid, who had been sent by Billy Idol’s dad because he
was working for him and said he was looking for an
electric guitarist so Billy’s dad said go to me because
his son was playing folk music - Cat Stevens and
stuff.... So Jock MaClean comes down into the cellar and
say’s ‘What are you doing about gigs then?’ and we
looked at him like he was some kind of nasty
‘businessman’ and got all inward and I felt ‘This is
private. What’s the outside world got to do with this?
This is personal.’
So, twenty five years on and off the road and in and
out of the recording studio I guess I’m ready to
document my first blues record.
And it’s still personal.
dw : Has your style of playing evolved much in that
bj : Yup. For a time then I used to have a Gibson ES125
with one pick up. Now I’m using an Epiphone Casino - but
with two pick ups.
dw : Er, Billy. Ha Ha. Seriously though, can you define
the difference between Jazz and Blues?
bj : Well, strangely enough, since I’ve been researching
this ‘S.A.D.’ project (I started in the spring of ‘95) I
feel I can. To survive financially, jazz has had to
become, like I said, derivative. It exists on
intellectual exercises and educational analysis that
will ensure that jazz will become the classical music of
the next century. Primitivism and originality threaten
this inevitable transition. Now the extreme end of jazz,
which they prefer to call ‘free improvisation’ (which I
do with Steve Noble and Roberto Bellatalla in The
Shakedown Club [Babel BDV 9403] , retains that
primitivism and therefore, not unexpectedly, attracts a
very small but very committed audience. It’s extreme
fundamentalism and perhaps looking back, when the free
scene came in in the Sixties it actually completed the
life cycle of the genre - back from whence it came and
apart from a few flurries and death rattles like
‘jazz-rock’ and ‘Latin’jazz’ and other Frankensteinian
hybrids one really knows now that when the
avant-gardists ripped up the songbooks they were
inadvertently returning the scattered musical motifs
back to the soil. Now Blues has a defined musical form,
mostly based on the root,fourth and fifth note of the
Western scale and of course the twelve bar. It is a
universal blueprint, a safety net for the listener. They
know what’s roughly going to happen next. And therefore,
with this pattern in place, the musician can go
completely nuts, go ape, go primitive. Talk in tongues,
dw : So Billy, in those twenty five years you’ve gone
from church choir to USAF Bases, Working Men’s Clubs to
punk rock, pub rock to society functions, alternative
comedy to solo recitals, free jazz to advertising
jingles, recording studios to international Jazz
Festivals - will this be part of the Blues Collective?
bj : Yup. All in one note.
dw : So you’ll be truly ‘telling it like it is...?’
bj : No, I'll be telling you how it never was, how it
isn’t and, perhaps, never will be....
dw : Look, I’m sorry, but you’re not really explaining
about the album.....
bj ; That’s because it’s all on the CD. It’s all set to
music. If you’re quoting a highly contentious line by
Donald Clarke like ‘Blues is, above all, a music of
great human bravery’ on in the sleevenotes I can’t start
mouthing off. You’re going to respond to the music and
make your own objective opinions. I’ve got nothing to
sell - it stands or falls alone. All I can say is that,
like all my music, it remains honest and true.
dw : Although you say you don’t care if you do any live
gigs - will there be any?
bj : Didn’t you check out our concert on BBC Radio 3 the
other week [10.30pm - 1am, 19.10.96]? With the Fun Horns
of Berlin on the South Bank last March. We’d just done
the horn overdubs for ‘S.A.D’ - next day in Leeds Wham!
Straight into ‘Walking Back To Crappiness’. Different
rhythm section. No matter. So they did it the next day
in London when the BBC were recording. That and ‘Jazz
Had A Baby And They Called It Avant-Garde’. They love
it, man. They want to do a Blues tour in Germany. Maybe
that’ll happen. My own four piece horn section!
Meanwhile we’ll be doing our second ‘S.A.D’ season at
the Vortex in London with the first call rhythm section
- but I doubt if Blues clubs will want the Blues
Collective. They’ll think I’m taking the piss - like
some factions in the jazz world think the Voice of God
does. Well I ain’t - and I don’t mean anyone any harm
©1996 Dick Ward