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, ‘ 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 throughout....’.

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 No More’?

bj : Who said that?

dw : Well, that’s the title of the first track on the CD.....

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 - harmonica].....

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 time?

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, become possessed......

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 either.

©1996 Dick Ward


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