Latest Alcatrazz Release: Parole Denied – Tokyo 2017 (Frontiers) Latest Graham Bonnet release: Meanwhile, Back in the Garage (Frontiers)Website: http://grahambonnetband.com
English rock singer Graham Bonnet has sung alongside some of the most celebrated names in virtuoso guitar. His career as an established solo artist commenced in the late sixties and included decent success in the late seventies which also had a sizeable profile on the rise in Australia. Poached by the ubiquitous guitar force of neoclassical predecessor Ritchie Blackmore for his Rainbow project, Bonnet sang on the now classic album Down to Earth which spawned a couple of hit songs. His career then took on heavier music with a short lived tenure in the Michael Schenker Group but as luck would have it, his newly formed band Alcatrazz launched the global careers of guitar gods Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai. Both remarkable guitarists in their own right, their involvement in the Alcatrazz band helped increase Bonnet’s profile. As such he could move on post-Alcatrazz with a variety of projects such as working with the insanely fast guitarist Chris Impellitteri. After Alcatrazz had been dormant for many years, the Graham Bonnet Band powered on yet now a new line-up of Alcatrazz means the post-Rainbow band project is effectively resurrected. Touring Australia this week, Loud Online caught up with Bonnet to discuss his coming tour with Alcatrazz which also includes Bonnet and band Down to Earth in full.
You are touring here with an excellent tour.
Yes, we are with our new band, Alcatrazz, and we are going to playing a whole album of material which I have never done live before. So that will be interesting to see if I can get through it. We’re doing the Rainbow album of Down to Earth plus some Impellitteri, Alcatrazz and so on. We have a lot of stuff to do. I’ve never done the Down to Earth album top to bottom live, in my life so it is going to be a bit scary but at the same time I think it is going to be okay.
That album has two massive hits for Rainbow on it, namely ‘Since You Been Gone’ and ‘All Night Long’. Did any of the other songs from that time ever make it onto the live set list back in the day?
No but there were a couple that we’re doing; one is called ‘No Time to Lose’ and another called ‘Danger Zone’, which we never played live. So there were a couple of instrumentals that we never did. I think they are the main two songs that we never played live. We are playing everything off the album.
‘Lost in Hollywood’ is great track that always turned up on best of releases.
Yeah, we always do that and in my band we always play ‘Lost in Hollywood’ as the last song. It is a great song to end the show with and it leaves people kind of open, going, ‘ahh’, as they want a bit more. I love that song, it is one of my favourite songs. So we are obviously dong that and everything else including those two tracks I mentioned.
For other albums, I’m guessing you’re not going to do ‘Gates of Babylon’ or ‘Kill the King’?
No, we don’t do any of that stuff. It is all just when I was with Rainbow, all of that material, nothing to do with whatever Ronnie Dio did or anything like that. We’re looking only to the album that I recorded with the band and that’s it.
Fair enough. Your tenure with Rainbow is interesting given that your solo album and the single from it being ‘Warm Ride’ was a huge hit in places such as Australia.
Yeah, it is a big leap, isn’t it? Ha- ha. What happened when you’re doing pop music one minute and then all of a sudden you’re doing this heavy stuff? I mean, I didn’t know that one day someone would call me from a heavy rock band who was Ritchie Blackmore to ask me to come and audition for him for Rainbow. I went over there and I did the audition where they gave me one song to sing which was a song called ‘Mistreated’ but they asked me to sing it again and again and again. They were all laughing and I thought they were sniggering and sending me up but they asked me to sing it again because for the first two times, I didn’t sing it with a microphone. They heard me but then Don [Airey – keyboards] asked me if I wanted to sing it on microphone this time. So I thought, ‘Okay’ and so I did again and then they asked me if I wanted the job. But I didn’t know because I didn’t think it was right for me so I went back to London and spoke to my manager about it. He said, ‘You’ve got to do it’ but I said that it wasn’t really my kind of music and I don’t have the long hair thing, I don’t wear the spandex pants and the Cuban heeled shoes. But he said, ‘That doesn’t matter because you can do this stuff,’ you know, so he convinced me to go ahead and to go back to the recording in Switzerland and to start recording in the studio with Roger Glover who was producing at the same time as well. I am glad that I did.
The auditioning aspects for Rainbow could have been harrowing. Blackmore was notorious for winding people up and I read that he did that to Cozy Powell [late, ex Rainbow drummer]. He made him sit there for an hour and play a solid beat over a repetitive rhythm.
Ah, yes, I mean, in this case he made me sing it again because according to what I found out later, he liked what he heard. I was very flattered by that so this wasn’t a gag or anything on his part. They were happy. Everyone was happy that I was there because they had auditioned a few people before me but they were umming and ahhing about which guy to use in the band as the new singer. I came along and they just gave me the job on the day that I sang. I did not have to wait for a phone call or anything. They just said, ‘The job is yours if you want it.’
It is also great that Roger Glover came across to Rainbow as well given that at by that point, Deep Purple was largely imploding. His production skills are very good but were they still developing back then?
I didn’t know Roger very well back then and obviously it was the first time that I had ever met when I first started recording the album. He had to get used to me drinking twenty pints of beer before I sang. I was a very heavy drinker back then when I was young man but I do not drink at all now. In fact, I have been sober for a long time. He would ask me, ‘How the hell can you sing after drinking that much?’ and I would just say, ‘I don’t know, it just relaxes me.’ It relaxed me too much sometimes because I would just fall over but that is another story. I think that Roger encouraged me to actually write melodies in songs because I didn’t know where to put melodies in the tracks as we went through them all. I asked him, ‘Well, where does the vocal part come in?’ and he’d say it was after this, ‘Widdle, widdle guitar bit and this keyboard part and then now we are going to put a verse there,’ to which I would ask, ‘Really, how many?’ and so in order to give me an idea, Roger would sing me a vague idea of a melody. I would then improvise on that, you know, so he would put stuff down onto a cassette machine for me and sing in some basic ideas telling me, ‘Do something like this but interpret in your own way’. He was such a big help to me in helping me to understand music which at the time, I had never played before.
The hit song, ‘Since You Been Gone’ was a cover. How do you think that Blackmore felt about it given he had written intricate guitar pieces such as ‘Burn’ and ‘Highway Star’?
Hmm, ha ha, yes, that song was never going to be recorded. Everybody disliked it somewhat but that was because we heard a version of the song by a girl band called Clout and it was very poppy [sings quick rendition of the track versus the Rainbow track]. It was just too poppy and everybody was asking, ‘What the hell are we recording this for?’ but the manager, Bruce Payne, said to us, ‘You need to have a radio hit,’ and that was because back then, Rainbow was never on the radio and neither was Deep Purple nor any of the heavier rock bands, so to speak. The times were changing and music was getting a bit more poppy back then. So in 1980 it was right for us to cover this song called ‘Since You Been Gone’ which was written, of course, by Russ Ballard. It was absolutely perfect and nobody expected the thing to be a hit.
Indeed. Is it fair to say that Cozy Powell was probably the heaviest drummer that you’ve worked with in your career?
Yes, very much so and he was both the greatest drummer and the heaviest, I think. Also, he was a powerful person as well as being a powerful drummer. He was a great guy and he is still there in my heart; every day I hear him. After Rainbow, I did some solo stuff that Cozy played on including a song called ‘Night Games’ and on my solo album [Line-Up]. We also did studio project alongside Ray Fenwick [guitarist] called Forcefield.
Oh yeah, with Dutch guitarist Jan Akkerman?
Yeah, it was a studio band with Jan Akkerman and that was for the first album that we did. It wasn’t meant to go on the road or anything. Cozy and I did a few things together but I remember that with the Line Up album, when we did ‘Night Games’ that apart from that, he would always call me up all the time. I would see him once in a while in town in London. He was just a great friend and a great, great musician.
Your career has crossed paths with some of the biggest names in guitar playing. Apart from Rainbow, Alcatrazz had both Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai playing earlier guitar parts. Of course you’ve also played with Michael Schenker which we’ll get to but you’ve now got guitarist Joe Stump in your band, who is an accomplished guitarist in his own right. Being in your band, he has to cover a lot of classic guitar player parts.
Yeah, I mean, Joe has basically got the sound that we have always been looking for but that we have never quite found in other guitar players that we have had playing with this band. By the way, it is now called Alcatrazz, it is not the Graham Bonnet Band anymore because there is myself, Jimmy Waldo with whom I started the band with in my garage back in nineteen eighty something and we now have Joe Stump who can play the Alcatrazz stuff with great ease. But Joe has got a modern sound and so I think that Alcatrazz has a more modern sound than the band did back then. He is definitely a guitar player to be marvelled at and he is great; a fantastic guy.
Yngwie was on the cusp of becoming the next guitar virtuoso at the time and launching into his solo career. What are your positive musical recollections of that period for Alcatrazz?
Well, when he first joined the band, he was great kid. He was nineteen years old and he was hungry to show the world what he could do. But for the band, he eventually did too much for the band because he overplayed onstage and wanted everybody in the audience to look at him and to take the focus away from the rest of the guys. He messed up so many songs by playing through verses and choruses with his, ‘widdly widdly’, what have you all over the place and you cannot compete with that, as I have said a million times. You cannot compete with a guitar player who plays very loud and obviously the audience can see how difficult it is for him to play all of these notes. You cannot compete with that so eventually his ego overtook his playing in a way and he became like, ‘I want to be a guitar god’ and so he was soon gone because he became not what we wanted. We wanted someday to become a band member and yet Yngwie became ‘not’ a band member but he was soon ‘Mr. Solo Guy’ so he had to go. Look, he had a solo career coming up then, I think so it was inevitable.
I imagine so but the song ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ was a pretty decent hit song. Did it garner a lot of attention in America at the time given the nature of guitar virtuosity regaining popularity?
Ah, a little bit, yeah. Obviously a lot in Japan which is where we were pretty big back then and so we got our first god album in Japan. We still play that song live and it always gets a reaction for the audience. It is not bad and I think that the song has got some good lyrics to it and I think that the melody is pretty good. Yngwie did come up with some great guitar parts for that song. He is a great player but his ego was a little too much sometimes.
Steve Vai was certainly an amazing player but with a totally different modal approach.
Well, he was a friend of one of the guys in the band so we brought him in but he said to us, ‘I don’t think that I am the right guy because I don’t play like Yngwie’ to which we said, ’Well, we don’t want you to play like Yngwie.’ I think that he played on the album that I most like from the Alcatrazz era. For me, the second album is the best album. The songs are better and they are not just widdly for the sake of being widdly but they are very well constructed and very well thought out. I think that Steve added a lot to the band that wasn’t there before. I think the first album was a bit like Rainbow because of Yngwie’s playing but with Steve it was a completely different animal and I really love that album. Simply, I like the way that Steve plays because on this album he doesn’t overdo it. He is a band member in this case; he knows where to sit back, where to play parts that are good or unusual and he has unusual ideas for arrangements. That is why I liked him.
Could you see that he was about to become a global, almost stellar guitar name, at the time?
No, I thought that Steve would stay with us for a long time. After the Crossroads movie came out where he played the Devil’s guitarist, he was offered a lot of jobs by a lot of people. After that, there were lots of phone calls and then he got one from David Lee Roth and then Whitesnake and so that was that. He is a great player and I didn’t want him to leave; I really didn’t because I think that he had something different to offer.
You reprised a bit of Rainbow with Impellitteri. He is also a very outspoken guitarist and driven individual as well so what are your thoughts on that debut album, in hindsight?
Yeah, sometimes he used to drive me mad with his guitar playing. It was like, ‘Stop, slow down. Can you play the bit that was tasty instead of [mimics super-fast scalar runs]?’’ He wanted to be the fastest guitar player in the world and I think he probably is now. That is the way that he plays and some people like that. I like it sometimes but sometimes I don’t. He does come up with some good ideas for arrangements and we did a pretty good album together. We actually did a couple of albums together but he is just overpowering sometimes with his solos. He could slow down a bit but he does come up with some good ideas for songs, there is no doubt about it. He is a great musician.
You also had the late Pat Torpey on drums in that band, who soon went onto Mr. Big.
Yeah, oh Pat, there is another friend that is gone. It was horrible what happened. It is unbelievable because just recently, Ted McKenna, who was playing with Michael Schenker, Ted died a few months ago. Drummers keep dying on us but Pat was a great drummer and he was good with arrangements too; a bit like Cozy Powell. He would say things like, ‘No, you shouldn’t do that bit here’ or, ‘No, it is way too long, cut that down a bit’ and ‘There should be a verse here and a middle part here’, so he was very good at arranging songs. There would be a bit of disagreement when Chris Impellitteri would be saying, ‘No, no, I’ve got to show my playing, my solo should come here,’ but Pat would say, ‘No, wait a minute, maybe we should cut the solo in half’ or whatever, you know. He was just good at putting the songs together and he was a great drummer, there is no doubt about it.
You sang on the Michael Schenker Group [MSG] album Assault Attack. Obviously things went pear shaped for reasons that we won’t discuss but you’ve reunited with Michael now, which is great.
Yeah, I’ve just been on tour with him and have gone straight into rehearsals with Alcatrazz here at home. We were on the road for about five weeks so it was just over a month travelling on a bus. It was gruelling because I cannot sleep on tour buses. Those bunks are like coffins; it is just uncomfortable so there were a few sleepless nights. But to play with Michael on stage again is a fantastic thing. It is so great to see this guy and he has put a great show together with three other singers who have made albums with him. I made one album with him, Robin McAuley made a couple of albums with him, Doogie White made one album with him and of course there is Gary Barden who was the first singer in the MSG line-up. So, we are all there and we do our bits from the albums we recorded with him.
Sounds excellent. Michael is so influential on a lot of players including high profile ones like Kirk Hammett of Metallica. Schenker is underrated to an extent.
Oh very much so, I think that he is very underrated. He is a very different kind of player but you can always spot him. There is something about the way that he plays that is not like anyone else, like a lot of guitar players. He is not the guy that would go, ‘widdly widdly’ for the sake of doing that, he will actually play melodic parts in songs and I think that is where he shines. He is a great player and always has been so to work with him again has been fantastic because I admire him very much.