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Interview: Bernie Tormé

Rock Stars...

When punk went metal, God gave us Bernie Tormé. Best known for playing on (Ian, former Purple crooner) Gillan’s biggest hits, Bernie has had a long and often over looked solo career. He also released two tracks on the legendary ‘Live At The Vortex’ 1977 punk compilation. Bernie later toured with Atomic Rooster (playing on Rooster’s Headline News along side Dave Gilmore) and effectively salvaged Ozzy Osbourne’s career by finishing the tour on the sad loss of Randy Rhodes. Still recording, and releasing new and retrospective material on his own Retrowrek label, Bernie kindly took time out to answer a few questions.

What bands were you with in the 70s? And what kind of material were you playing?

That’s a long story, chalk and cheese really. At the beginning of the seventies I was in a band in Dublin called "Wormwood", just a three piece initially, basically blues rock and psychedelic, we used to do our own stuff and Cream, Free covers, stuff like that. But then the bass player, who was a pretty good singer left.

He got replaced by a bass player and also a keyboard player, who was classically trained, so we started doing pompy classical stuff like "Jesu Joy of Mans Desiring". Weird. The keyboard player had been a Benedictine monk. Also after folk rock bands like Horslips arrived, we used to crucify a couple of Irish traditional bits and pieces too.

Very bizarre and quite funny looking back on it, it was a very diverse sort of schooling. We supported people like Lizzy, and did little festivals and stuff, there was a lot of those in those days. There was a lot of clubs around Dublin in those days too. We kept changing our name because no one wanted to book us back we were so shite.

I once met U2 and their manager in the early 80's and they remembered seeing us at some open air festival in a park in Blackrock in Dublin around 1970, and they apparently thought we were pretty good. God knows why.

I remember that gig, some smartass had had wired an in built lead as well as a bulgin socket to the keyboard player's vox continental, and when we went onstage someone stuck a live bulgin plug into the socket and then the keyboard player picked up the pre wired plug which was now live and got propelled across the stage by 240 volts.

He remains convinced to this day that it was me who put the live bulgin in, and that I was trying to kill him because I didn't like keyboard players (true). So the whole gig was a bit on edge, shall we say. When we came to the "big track", which was indeed Bach's "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" on vox continental would you believe, apparently I totally fucked it up by playing a bar ahead of everyone else, but I was convinced I played it perfectly. U2 and Paul McGuinness thought it was ok too. But I probably did mess it up, it wasn't really my cup of tea anyway. Anyway, we came off stage and had a bit of a row, and that was the end of that band.

I then joined a pretty well known Dublin band called the Urge, they were pretty good, taught me a lot. It was initially a five piece, bass, drums, guitar, lead singer and sax and flute played by a guy called Carl Geraghty. Carl taught me loads about scales and harmonies, he was really knowledgeable and very helpful. His brother Tony played guitar at the time in another Dublin band called Adolf J Rag, and was one of the very few people that I've ever lent my white strat to, when his was stolen. Tony was later killed by loyalist terrorists around 74 or 75 when he was playing with the Miami Showband. They made them get out of their bus and then machine gunned them. He was a really nice guy, really good guitarist, absolutely terrible thing.

The Urge was basically a blues rock outfit, we did some original stuff, but mostly covers, Purple, Ten Years After, Cream, Faces, Joe Cocker, Jethro Tull, some Chicago and Blood Sweat and Tears too. On big Saturday night club gigs we would have a complete horn section, it was really cool, very stax-y, good experience. We did a lot of gigs. Carl left and the band became a bit more rocky, but then a few months later the drummer left, I didn't like the replacement, so I left too. This was probably no bad thing since I was doing all of this while I was at university, and I never spent too much time studying if I was gigging.

Somewhere around that time I wrote and played the music for a rock musical at the university I was at, based on Oedipus Rex. Can you believe that! Rock musical, those were the days! It was directed by a guy called Jim (Shay) Sheridan who has since directed quite a few really good Hollywood produced films, but the only ones I can remember now are "in the name of the father" and "The Field". And another guy called Neil Jordan, who was an actor in "Oedipus Rex -the Rawk Musical", is also a big film director now, he did "mona lisa", "the crying game", "interview with a vampire", and "michael collins' among others. Both good guys. So I guess I'm a bit of a underachiever really.

After that I had a chance to join a showband called "Killarney's Swinging Jarveys Showband" which I declined, even though they offered me more money than I later earned in Gillan, and in 74, having got my degree at university I exited for London. In London I answered lots of ads in the back of the Melody Maker, but never got any gigs, cause it always turned out to be gentle country rock pub bands and they always said I was much too loud, which I was.

That didn't work so I then tried to form a band, which turned into a heavy rock pub thing called Scrapyard. Loud. Originally it had the bass player from Vanity fare would you believe, who wanted to escape from that, who also sang, and a drummer called Roger Hunt who later played with Paul Samson.

Roger was a great drummer but could be a bit of a miserable guy sometimes. He was also about seven foot tall, seven and a half feet with his boots on, though that was the days of stacked boots. At that time he also played with a band called Kelly, which Paul also played in and that was incidentally how I met Paul. I was a bit jealous of Paul, he had a gigging band and I didn't. At one point we also tried to get Chris Aylmer, who later played in Samson, who Roger also knew to play bass for us, but I think he thought he was a bit of a class above us. Ha ha! I understand he later acquired the nickname "Lord Snooty" in Samson for some totally unconnected reason.

Scrapyard eventually got going and we played all the usual places, Greyhound, Golden Lion, Nashville, Bridge House, Marquee supports, Granary in Bristol, too many to remember. I do remember supporting British Lions and again Back Door at the Marquee. We also did the windsor free festival which was really good. Bernie Hagley, the bass player left, probably because there were too many Bernie's in one band, more likely because Vanity Fare paid him and did tours of Australia and stuff like that, while we were glad to play pubs in Milton Keynes.

We then got this temporary bass player called Mo, who was pretty good, but I can't remember his second name, and he didn't want to stay (we should have got the hint by then), so we auditioned and came across mr mcCoy, dressed in a table cloth with a hole in it for his head, looking like Demis Roussos, but one stupendo player. He had hair then. Our ad had said "good image essential", and when I answered the door to McCoy I'm standing there with my mouth opening and shutting like a fish out of water stuttering "but but but...", cause the only thing that would come into my head was "but we said good image essential and you look like a fucking hippy barrage balloon in a tablecloth..." and I just couldn't bring myself to say that, so I just kept on stuttering. He said "man I'm the bass player" and then just creased up laughing at me stuttering.

We got on really well. Roger didn't like him too much initially because of the way he looked, but he was just so good there was absolutely no question. Gigging with John changed things, we started doing stuff like ZZ Top's Nasty Dogs and Amboy Dukes tracks, good stuff that john was into, it became a lot more jammy too, we clicked well on that wavelength.

But being yer typical bass player, John eventually got too big for his boots and wanted to call the band McCoy: he said he could get more gigs like that. I obviously didn't agree,even though it was probably true, we couldn't have got less: Roger felt I hadn't been paying enough attention to his needs, so we had a bust up, I told them both to fuck off and left. The first of many bust-ups with McCoy, we're probably too alike.

Paul Samson replaced me and the band was indeed renamed McCoy. It eventually evolved into the original Samson.

So at that point, 1976, I was teaching a lot of guitar to pay the rent, and one of the more sensible people I taught was a black guy from north london called Burt Salvaray. Really good guy. I talked to him about looking for a band and asked him if he knew any drummers or bass players.

He recommended a drummer called Mark Harrison, who knew a bass player, Phil Spalding. We met up and they were cracking up because they had seen me support Back Door at the Marquee. Small world. They were both crazy about jazz rock, which I totally hated at that point, and they thought it was ridiculous that they, who were 18 or 19, should play with a burned out old man of 24 like me. But we got on well apart from that and arguments about the rolling stones, who I loved, but they said was "plank" music. Young and dumb etc.

Funnily enough Mark later played with Keith and Ronnie in the Dirty Strangers and Phil did Mick Jaggers last album last year. Hey a girl can change her mind, that’s karma!

I'd written a lot of new stuff which was a bit Robin Trowerish, I can't remember any of it now, thats a blessing no doubt. We needed a manager, and I knew this guy called Peter Collins who had managed Scrapyard at the beginning, but who had not liked Mo's dress sense and had departed at that point: Pete was heavily into image.

I called him, he got us a few gigs, but by then he was heavily into the beginnings of Punk, this was late 76 or early 77. He pointed out that we were only going to get a deal if we became punk, no rock band had a hope: I wouldn't do it at the beginning, I really hated it, I heard neat neat neat, just could not see it. Sorry ratty. Peaches, couldn't see that either, still can't, hate that track the b side was much better. But then I heard the Pistols, and yes I could see that in a BIG way, I fucking loved it, it was music for orcs, heavy metal with a demented cockney bob dylan on speed squalking revolution on top of it.

Right up my street. So, hey ho I chopped all my hair, which was VERY long, much longer than Ian Gillan's ever was, and jumped right on that particular bandwagon. And never looked back, it was great, gigs, tours, audiences, excitement, embarassing diseases, record deals, what more could you ask for......

And that was it from 77 until 79 when I bumped into McCoy again, and so onwards and upwards into Gillan......

Who are your biggest influences? And when did you start playing?

As a player mainly Hendrix and Beck I suppose, though also Townshend and Clapton and Peter Green, also people like Eddie Phillips from the Creation, Dave Davies, Keith and also George Harrison early on. I loved the beatles, still do. Gary Moore early on in Dublin too. And of course Rory. And of course jazz players like Charlie Parker and john Coltrane, I never much liked jazz guitarists though, great techniques, wanky sounds.

I started playing at 11, 1963. For the first year I had the strings tuned the wrong way round. Low E low B Low G etc. Probably explains something.

How did it feel to be asked to join Gillan?

Great. But I was an arrogant sod, I'd seen them, I thought they needed someone like me.

You, Mick and Colin all released solo singles around the same time that featured other members of Gillan. How did that come about? Any connection to the Split Knee Loons?

Well for me it was a carry on from singles already released. People were quite keen to put them out. Mick, you'd have to ask really, I think it was because Pip Williams who had produced Quo asked him. Colin was always recording soundtracks and stuff, he had a deal in Japan, I think that was why. We were a big band; if any of us had farted and recorded at one point someone would have put it out. Which may sort of explain the loons. We had access to the studio, so it was always on the cards to record stuff. No one else ever booked it, it wasn't exactly state of the art.

The last Gillan single you played on, No Laughing In Heaven, was it rerecorded or different from the LP version?

Not as far as I know, though it is a long time ago. It was definitely re-edited to be shorter, probably remixed. Too long as a single.

What are the highspots of your solo career? And how did you hook up with Phil Lewis?

The highspots are always playing; the solos when it all falls right. The moments when something happens with a band and it all happens perfectly unrehearsed never to be repeated. Shared subconsciousness. Those are my highpoints, and sometimes that includes the whole audience too. Pure total magic. But you have to take chances for that to happen. Unfortunately we live in a world and a culture that increasingly does not value live music at all: that’s not a sellable item: the only thing that is currently sellable is endless copies of what people know already.

The way things are at the moment, the lack of gigs and gigs closing, and the situation in the business generally, is I feel is totally down to the record companies and media managers trying to play god for a very very long time. They've tried at least since the mid 80's to create demand for total utter forgettable pap instead of letting markets grow naturally from public demand, and all of this has resulted in a situation which I think is pretty terminal.

And I include the rock and metal media in that too, the crap they've marketed is no different from Gareth Gates et al, though they pretend its different. Nothing much with genuine content or meaningful, original, or human at all, though there are exceptions like Marilyn Manson. So the way that it has started to implode is only to be respected and applauded. Change is good. I mean Robbie Williams at Knebworth, leave it out. Hey I like some of his records too, my good mate Phil Spalding played on them, but Zeppelin or the Stones or the Who he ain't, and I'm sure he knows that too. But at the moment that’s as good as it gets. Hasta la victoria sempre, as Che Guevara said, or smash it up as the Damned said.

If I live another 25 years, which I suppose I'll be lucky to do if I look at musician friends who I'm older than like Paul Samson or Rene Berg who died recently, way things are I'll be lucky within that 25 years to play as many gigs as I did in one year in 77. That’s terrible. Because I have this hippypunky thing, I'll only play to be me, ‘cause that’s what I think the world needs more of, people who try to express themselves, not people who try to pretend to be someone else. The world needs lots of me's, and not to be led like fucking sheep, pretending to be Abba or Whitesnake or whatever.

I ain't Ian Gillan, or Jimi Hendrix, or Ritchie Blackmore (that made a lot of people sad at the time) just inadequate unrepeatable me. Perfection is not required, individualism is. And if you don't like that fuck off. Unfortunately most of it has already fucked off from all of us long long ago, most of us old rockers are left scrabbling around for the dregs that are left.

I'm not very good at that, or into that, so I try to stay away from all of it. So any gigs from now on are very special for me, its the last of the mohawks, and its on borrowed time. But still an untouchable experience. No doubt few care, but that’s only about its earning power, not its value. I hope there are a few gigs left to do. More than a few if god wills it.

I continually get asked why don't play here or there, and its quite simple really, I'd love to, but there's no infrastructure out there any more at the level I'm at, no agents, no promoters. No gigs. And with three kids and a studio to run I really haven't got the time to do it all myself, I like playing, but I hate all that shite.

All in all life changes, the world changes, and no one is in control of that. But I would like to make the point that it is not because I do not want to play. Having said that I do hope to do some gigs next year when the new album comes out, but it will of necessity be a short run if it happens at all. Live music has no value today.

Phil? Phil kept on hassling me when I was in the Gypsies in 1982-3. He wanted to join, he used to drive me mad, he thought Electric Gypsies was a cool name: I was very "off" lead singers then, and he was still signed to jet anyway which would have been a big problem, we were on DJM.

Later when I was on Cherry Red I had this tosser of a publisher who really talked me into doing a Van Halenish thing. I was a bit down on my luck, agreed, and so Torme was born.

We started off with this singer called Kef, who was in fact the bass player from Wormwood, the band I had originally played with in Dublin. That didn't work for whatever reason, and I had a couple of nights booked at the Marquee: so I went around to Philips place and begged him to do it.

Initially he acted like a bit of an old queen really, and didn't want to do it, but he finally agreed, for which generosity I am forever grateful. Unfortunately he spent the next six months reverting to old queendom a bit saying that he was only standing in, which didn't exactly help much, I think he dragged that one out a bit. But it was always a real gas with Philip live, totally great front man, totally great gigs.

Every night a party. I never felt the records reflected in any way how good the band was. It was really great to play with Phil, we had our personal ups and downs, but it was always really great to stand on a stage with him. Very special. You could not outshine him.

What do you think of the Gillan CDs that John has done through Angel Air?

I get paid from them, I'm very happy about them.

I prefer the live ones, because they are new. The studio ones should have been the same albums, same order as originally. Ian seems intent on burying the existence of the band, I would be happier if John had put out exact copies of the original albums, with worthwhile extra tracks and alternative mixes, and notes and memories from all who would contribute, and that would be the majority of the band. I feel that because of the way it has been done, they are just John's Gillan albums, and thats a pity. We all got screwed, not just John. I think that by not trying to build a consensus it has definitely been not as good as it could have been, and for fans thats a shame. John won't pay any attention to this, and I think that is a mistake on his part. He knows I think this, and I would not want to make a big issue of it, at this stage it doesn't really matter anyway. Whatever. I'm glad they are out.

How did the Silver project with Don Airey come about?

Michael Voss in Germany dreamed it up and did it all really. Very talented boy. It's not a band as such at all, Michael did the whole thing, and we played our bits on top of it. I would never claim to have had much of a contribution, most of the guitars are Michael’s, not mine. My bits are solos really. You would have to ask Michael about it, he did all the work, he deserves the credit.

What projects are you working on now?

A new album which will be really great. Out next year, I'm working really slowly, doing far too many sodding interviews!

Did a track with a dance producer in Australia called Psyburbia on his forthcoming album, track is called Abraxas, it turned out really well. We're hoping to do an album together.

Hoping to do a jammy album with Phil Spalding and Ian Thomas next year.

Alex Kane from Antiproduct and I have been talking about doing something together since I fucked up the guitar sounds on their Made In USA album. But with Alex I'm never quite sure whether he's after some sort of obscure sexual favours or making music. Its music only Alex!

And an acoustic album....... and hopefully a DVD next year....old stuff

And what for the future? Would you like to play with Colin, Mick and John again?

Of course. But it won't happen with all of us. Colin is only into jazz, does not like rock. John and Colin do not get on exactly well. John has been keen to get together with Mick and I, which I would love to do, but he has not been too well recently. I hope it happens. Maybe Colin might play on some of it. I hope to have Colin on a track or two on my next album.

Further information

The ‘Live At The Vortex’ album was reissued on CD by Cherry Red in the mid 80s.

The Gillan albums ‘Mr Universe’, ‘Glory Road’ and ‘Future Shock’ aren’t too difficult to find on LP and CD. Also look out for the Gillan CDs ‘BBC Tapes Volume 1 and 1’ (RPM) and, on Angel Air, there’s three volumes of ‘The Gillan Tapes’ (the third a double CD adding ‘For Gillan Fans Only’. Finally, Angel Air have issued ‘On The Rocks’, a live recording of one of Bernie’s last concerts with Gillan and the Bernie live set ‘Live In Sheffield 1983’. Bernie also played on one track on the Mammoth album.

Available on Retrowrek are the Bernie Tormé albums Demolition Ball, Electric Gypsies, Turn Out The Lights, Electric Gypsies Scorched Earth, Die Pretty Die Young, Live, Wild Irish, Punk Or What and White Trash Guitar, as well as Atomic Rooster’s Live In Germany 1983.

Both Silver CDs (Silver and Dream Machines) are available on Point Music ( Expect a third album this year.

Interview © 2004 Joe Geesin

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