With nearly 25 years in the music business, Cliff puts his music making into perspective.
As Cliff approaches his 25th year in the music business, he puts his own music making into perspective around his latest LP 'Now You See Me... Now You Don't'
Cliff: There is a difference between being musical and being a musician. Over the years I've had to have a certain amount of musical knowledge but it's mostly all intuitive, all instinctive stuff.
It's like when I do harmonies for my own backing vocals on an album.
Experienced musicians often do have that instinctive feeling. By saying that does it mean you have had no real training?
None at all. I've had none whatsoever. Sometimes I think maybe I should have done, but then I think that the spontaneity of my career might not have happened. I don't think it would have spoilt me but it would have made me something different. But my career has gone from strength to strength recently and I think this is mostly because the music industry isn't so bothered now whether you can play 500 notes on a guitar in 10 seconds flat — which is technique — some people can do it and it's wonderful and you sit there aghast but it doesn't necessarily mean it will sell any records. For me the instinct has come more and more to the front as opposed to the technique.
During your musical career you've gone through a lot of influences, from early Skiffle in '58, then to Rock & Roll, Blues and Ballads, and more. With that range of styles it must be difficult for you to choose the way you now select and perform your music.
No, I think it's easier, but that varied background could well be the reason why I am a confusion for many reviewers. My audiences are fantastic, probably some of the best in the world, because they also have wide tastes. I can go on stage and sing 'Living Doll' and they will scream, then sing 'Devil Woman' and they'll go ape. I'll do 'Miss You Nights' and they'll go aah! And you couldn't get three more diverse types of songs that demand different things from me vocally, different things from my band and demand a different reaction from the audience each time.
So all my albums are diverse and it stems from having been through all that area — including all those straight ballads with Norrie Paramor. And all the skiffle stuff gave me a hint of country in my life. I even had a No. 1 here with a country record ('Minute You're Gone') and a No. 3 ('Wind Me Up'). So now when a writer tells me "I'm going to send you something that I've written just for you", I always say: don't bother sending me that, because inevitably it's usually wrong. How stupid to say that to me? How do they know what I'm into at that moment or what I can or cannot do? If they've heard 'Congratulations', that's all they'll send me. That's what happens to a lot of artists and it happened to me for nearly 10 years — I was labelled with 'Congratulations' and that's all the kind of music I was sent until I found 'Devil Woman'. Then every one exclaimed: Is that really Cliff Richard — but I'd been singing like that all my life.
Do you put your songs into categories such as Rock or Gospel since you perform different types of concerts?
I think the Rock & Roll world is much wider than people say and again it makes me anathema to many people in the musical industry — mostly the writers. I do not fit their stupid little blinkered images, whereas Rock & Roll is bigger than me or them and it's bigger than Led Zeppelin or the Beatles because it covers all of those people and we all have a right to be there. So that for me, as one of the pioneers in European Rock — The Shadows, Marty Wilde, Billy Fury, myself — there was no one before us. We began it over here, so it's no good people saying to me that I don't sing Rock & Roll. Maybe they've lost the vision of what Rock & Roll really was — for me it will always be the three minute song. Elvis' 'Heartbreak Hotel' was a great bit of 3-minute blues and that was the beginning of Rock & Roll. It was inevitable that it would change and I'm glad it did, otherwise I could never have done 'Now You See Me Now You Don't'.
Rock & Roll has now come of age — it's no longer truly R&R but I really believe it should be treated as an art form. I treat my albums in the way artists would treat their paintings, so when I layer a sound, if it doesn't sound right, I erase it and I find the sound that fits. Obviously the results are objective — if I sell one million records it just means that 49 million people didn't like them either!
How do you go about getting new songs since you don't write yourself?
I have composed. I've done about 30-35 songs in my time and I've sung a few of them. 'B' sides mostly. And in the Gospel set I've done things like 'Yesterday, Today, Forever' which is my favourite song out of the ones I've written. But we never worked on it as a record. It was always a live spontaneous thing. We did it once on a live album but I didn't like that version of it.
Sometimes when you write something, it's so spontaneous that even recording it detracts. I've written things like 'Love On Shine On' on the 'B' side of 'Devil Woman'. There's been a few 'B' sides and incidentally, I've just written two songs with my keyboard player, Dave Cook. Although Craig Pruess is co-producer on the new album and played most of the keyboards for it, Dave is really my keyboard player. Craig played because it was convenient and when you are producing, it saves time telling someone else what you want.
What guitars are you using these days?
I'm a non-musician who has sixteen guitars at the moment!
I brought the original, first ever Fender Stratocaster into the country — white, with gold fittings. I bought it for Hank (Marvin) to play for me, but everyone thought I'd bought it for him so he kept it! It's a wonderful guitar.
One instrument I now use on stage is an electric, the Aria Pro. I love the look of them and they've a great sound since they've eradicated all that Strat. buzzing and humming that you can get through the amps with those pickups.
I also use two Washburn acoustics — one flat-bodied one and another with a large body. I've got a Martin D28 acoustic, and a wonderful Jumbo Gibson J200. It's really old now, and although I've got a pickup on it, I don't use it. I've got a Gibson J45, also with a pickup. The Washburns have built-in pickups, a nice feature so you don't have to ruin the body work.
My latest guitar is the Ovation Adamas, which has a very attractive finish. Last year I had four guitars stolen in Los Angeles, so rather than get four guitars again I used all the money to buy the Ovation.
Do you have any preference for pick-ups?
Those ones we tried years ago were the small Barcus Berry types which I never really enjoyed — I prefer them set in the bridge, as on the Ovation and the Washburn. The Adamas by the way, is a 12-string.
Yes, I hear that quality in the music although it could have been de-tuning with a chorus box.
That's how we do it mostly — we haven't used a 12-string on the latest album at all. Of course the de-tuning trick is as old as the hills now, first used as many as 10 years ago maybe.
Do you like to use effects pedals?
No, although I might have done if my career hadn't gone in the direction it did. I became very conscious of acting and singing, as opposed to playing. I consider myself a singer/performer, as opposed to a singer/musician. So I threw the guitar away for years and didn't play it at all. When I became a Christian I had to do little gigs by myself and I dug my guitar out again. The actual playing of the guitar was not as important to me as discovering that I could use my voice as an instrument and be part of the sound. In fact, in Rock & Roll it's the most important part of the sound — it is the song.
That brings us back to the music writing side, because a lot of people these days are trying to make the voice an equal 'instrument' with the others.
And they do succeed! I have to admit they do it very well, because a lot of the voices mean nothing. The vocal lyrics don't have to say something deep, but they ought to be at least listenable and to get a lyric that says more than people expect is terrific for me. Right in my 'middle-of-the-road' career (the 10-year section when I was an extremely middle-of-the-road artist), I recorded some songs which seem to have been completely ignored by the musical press — one of them was called 'Throw Down A Line', written by Hank Marvin which we performed together. It was a real heavy number for those days (15 years ago) with two drum kits and a very heavy lyric too, so when people write me off I want to scream with agony!
Moving back to song writing, I'm enjoying this new collaboration with Dave Cook. In rehearsals we find some chords and melodies that go well together and I'll tape the chords and work with them. But unfortunately, I don't have time to develop my piano playing, although I'm sure I could learn enough to write and spread chords around the place!
I don't want to be a 'musician' now, I want to be a 'musical personality' who is able to perform songs that others don't even attempt anymore. I want to make records that keep the lyrics important.
How do you go about getting hold of a song?
It's easy actually — I hate to say this, but everyone knows that generally I don't write and that I'm likely to sell a minimum of ¼ million albums. So everybody wants to be in on it and I get sent thousands of songs. I can only do ten on an album so I can afford to be absolutely choosy. But it's all very subjective and I could easily miss a No. 1. It's also impossible for me to listen personally to all the songs. I've got a publishing company run by Stuart Onglay and he makes selections — even there is a danger because it's his opinion. And only recently I found a song at the office by chance that was so good it'll be on my next album which I'm doing live with the London Philharmonic Orchestra — that's going to be an interesting evening at the Albert Hall on November 23rd. We are going to rearrange things like 'Carrie', 'Devil Woman', Miss You Nights', 'Green Light' — all the rocky things.
Is this the first time you've done anything like this?
I did four songs with the LSO last year which prompted an offer to do this concert with the LPO. I'm going to approach it as a totally commercial venture. Artistically it is going to be a treat. But although we've tried and tested songs like 'Devil Woman', it's going to be interesting to hear the LPO take the place of the guitars. I'm using my drummer Graham Jarvis, Dave Cook on synths, a bass player and my three vocalists with the 80-piece orchestra.
Let's come back to this point of choosing a song.
Sometimes a demo tape sent in is quite good so you can build up from it, while others may simply be, for example, just guitar and vocals. Then on the LP 'Every Face Tells a Story' is a beautiful ballad called 'When Two Worlds Drift Apart' which is a magnificent song, but it took a lot of listening to recognise its potential.
Generally I might pick ten songs for an album that have struck me instantly to a lesser or greater degree. 'The Only Way Out' sounded a hit the minute I heard it. 'Now You See Me Now You Don't' had the feel of a good album track, and this is how I go about choosing tracks. Once I've picked a range of songs I won't bother listening to any more.
I started on this latest album 'Now You See Me...' last September 1981 and we finished in June this year. We left the actual decision of which tracks to use on the album until we'd finished all the recording, so we ended up with seventeen basic tracks and hacked seven away. I always tell guys whose music I use that although I'm recording their song, I can't guarantee it will eventually be on the album because of this. That's one of the reasons why I very rarely have my songs on the album because I always hear things that are better than mine!
It's only recently as I said that I've got the taste for writing songs and I think I've written two fairly good songs, (with Dave's help of course), but I'm still going to put them in alongside the others as possibilities. Sometimes I choose different titles for songs, and the LP title is just instinct again. 'Now You See Me... Now You Don't' has the meaning that just when you think you know all about me I shall do something else. Why be surprised? Why be upset and why be angry with me if I change? I had all those thoughts when I chose that title.
Isn't 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' out of place with the other tracks on the LP?
It is the first time I've ever recorded a song aimed at the Christmas market. I've always been against it, but a new writer I've signed called Chris Eaton wrote two songs on the 'Wired for Sound' LP and three on this one, including 'Little Town'. Obviously the lyrics are the old carol, but he changed the melody and sent me the demo a year and a half ago. He wanted me to do it last Christmas! But again I felt it wasn't going to fit on that album — not dreaming that 'Now You See Me...' would eventually have nine tracks with Gospel content!
I liked the harmonium in the song 'Be in my Head' and was also surprised you used the Mike Sammes Singers on that track.
Now I thought that was daring! This is what annoys me, for if I was listening to it, I would think 'harmonium'; okay, what's he trying to do, and told Craig the feeling I want to give is that you are walking through a wood with the church in the distance. The door is opening and you can just hear the sound coming through — that's the harmonium. Then I wanted a real church choir sound and both Craig and I thought it was a great idea to use the Mike Sammes Singers. Now the Press look at it and say 'yuck'. They can't see that we are trying to communicate that this is a song that is religious and if you want people to understand this you have to give them little hints. Overall the song really is quite modern, using a great mass of synths, but to have that little bit just indicates that this actually is traditional — something that will never change.
How do you go about producing your songs?
Obviously we get the keys first, selecting what seems comfortable for my vocals. Then we spread the keys around the album so that no two keys come together. Usually I sing in three or four keys.
So you and Craig work out the format of the song?
Yes, we discuss how the songs should go together next.
Is this the first time he has worked with you as a producer?
It's the first time Craig has done production for me. I'd heard of a budget production he'd done that still sounded expensive and thought if he can do that with £10 thousand, what will he do with £30 thousand. He's also got his own single out called 'Too Beautiful To Cry' on which I did some backing vocals for him. He's very talented.
Another point here is that if my career is to continue the way it has, I have to face new challenges all the time and I can't afford to stagnate. Not even working with the same producer. I've worked with Bruce, Alan Tarney and Terry Britton and Craig knows that we'll probably do one more album together before I'll need to work with somebody else — and he'll want the change too. The demands made upon me by different producers make a real challenge. It also results in different combinations of instruments on song tracks.
Although Craig was very much into the 'Wired For Sound' album, I wanted to break away from that sound. He agreed and suggested using more synthesisers. We'd previously only used the Polymoog for 'I'm No Hero' and 'Wired For Sound', (with a few snatches of Prophet here and there), along with guitars, drums and bass, of course. He then wanted to add sequencers (which I'd never used before) as they were his forte. It all sounded great to me!
The sequencer was used for bass lines and fast melodic runs. Craig uses the Sequential Circuits Poly-Sequencer into the Prophet.
Do you use drum machines at all?
The bass drum is the Linn Drum on the whole album. We program our routine into the Linn Drum and start recording by laying that with the code on one track.
That's very interesting because your whole music retains its flexibility by also using live drums.
Absolutely. We have to do it this way now because of the sequencer. We need the code and a positive line going so we can then make changes, adding and deleting parts. After laying the drum track, Craig then puts a couple of keyboards and a bass sequencer on. We then bring the rest of the drums in.
You still seem to retain the live band feel.
I call that enthusiasm! When the drums go absolutely strictly it could be clinical and that's why I think it's vital that the Linn doesn't take over, because in the end people have said to me you won't even know the difference. But it can be too precise — so when you get that drummer in and he puts his own feeling to a solid beat it gives it a freedom and fluidity you'll only get from the live drummer.
My vocals don't take long to record and we do it as we work through the tracks. But the actual recording of the tracks with the instruments takes quite a long time. We get one song virtually done — obviously we don't get the drummer in until we've at least four tracks done for him. This probably takes at least a week to get ready. We don't write the music down, except that Craig likes to jot his own sketches to show entries of instruments and the musicians sometimes use bar charts. We'll make each track almost complete, apart from the extras like runs or brass flourishes. In the case of 'Little Town' we left the brass off completely and this was added separately as the last thing. We all contribute to the make up of the piece, so if one of the band suggests we should have a bit of flanging on a certain part of a track we'll try it out. It has to be this way nowadays - the times have gone by when the guy says "you will play it this way" - certainly for upfront R&R.
Do you ever get aural imaginings like hearing riffs on guitars or songs with trumpet backings?
I don't but Craig does. We are producing a girl called Sheila Walsh at the moment and we've already set a pattern for a song from Craig's 'visions' about it.
I notice that you multitracked most of the vocals yourself on the LP.
All but 'Little Town', that's the only one I used other people on.
It must be a natural thing for you to work out the harmonies.
Yes, it's one of my great joys — I've always been a frustrated vocal group! I'm an instinctive singer and sometimes that catches me out. I'll do a couple of lines, one a third above, and then I'll start to do another harmony and find I keep hitting on a unison, and can't fathom this one out. But it's because I've maybe started on the wrong line. I can't explain it because I'm not that up on theory. Sometimes it's taken ages to figure out what it is and then all I've done is changed the first line and it's come together perfectly after that. I also used falsetto (singing in a high pitched voice) on stage long before I did on record. I find it particularly useful on vocal harmonies since it gets you right up to the high notes. The thing about a male singing falsetto is that you can control the vibrato. Women seem to have to give a lot of vib. and it's a sound I don't find too attractive.
I multitrack the harmonies above or below as needed — the classic way to do it is one above and one below. Once we have the basic track down, even if we haven't finished all the sweetenings, we'll try and get the vocal on. It does not take me too long. I'm blessed with the fact that I can hear when I sing out of tune, so I just record the track again. Quite often there are two or three tracks on the album that were first takes. Often I try it again on another track and think, what's the point, it felt better the first time. So having got that I go back into the box and get the tracks played back a few times while I think of ways of adding group vocals. I really enjoy that part of the work — it's great fun thinking of 'hoops' and 'woops' and 'ooh-aahs'. 'Now You See Me...' has got a lot of 'hoop hoop hoo-oo chucka chuck', which is an old R&R way of doing things where you use the syncopation in terms of vocals.
I notice you centre your voice most of the time in the stereo field, with vocal backing stretching left to right, and then there's your trick of adding a lot of presence to the voice.
Always. But I don't know what it is, except that we work with a brilliant engineer called Keith Bessey and he knows how to get the best sounds for my voice. Sometimes he just uses a regular plate echo to add to the vocal and my voice does have a natural 'edge' or presence to it. We don't use any specially rigged mics or EQ on the mixer. The mics we use are Neumann's in EMI and on stage they are Electrovoice DS35's. We quite often use a compressor on vocals to even it all out, but on things like 'On Water is Wide' I know we used an echo on the voice and the echo was echoed as well. It sounds like a great big room, and yet the voice is right up front.
So you don't use a lot of reverb?
No, I like it dry, but if we do use reverb we stick it back. If we are singing together, I tend not to sing the S's and T's. We've also used chorus effects on 'Thief in the Night' and 'Son of Thunder' — done on the AMS Digital Echo. In particular 'Thief in the Night' is very dramatic, with a daring Christian lyric so I wanted the voice to sound truly dominant. The chorus effect makes it strong and still ethereal too.
Do you decide the placing of instruments with the engineer?
I get involved in that the engineer always asks how I like to hear it, but they always seem to know what sounds best on the left or on the right. Keith Bessey does vary them and I know for instance, that each of the eleven tracks has a different drum layout.
On 'Sons of Thunder' you've added white noise.
Yes — and a lot of times we put white noise behind the snare anyway. On 'Little Town', Tony Rivers did the vocal arrangements — apart from the ending which was my idea. He can do Beach Boy kind of harmonies easily, which was the way they turned out to be, with the 24-piece brass adding a traditional flavour.
How do you see yourself following the new trends in modern music?
I shan't be doing this singing/speaking kind of thing — I believe there is a role for us R&R singers who sing and I'm going to stick to that. I can be influenced by the good bits from everybody else without plagiarising, but there's a line that you can step over and steal and I certainly don't want to do that. 'Now You See Me' is a direct influence of what is happening in our synthesiser age.
I'm not going to stop here, that's for certain, but where it will lead to I don't know because everything I've ever done has been instinctive. As long as my voice stays intact I'll keep on singing!
Interview by Mike Beecher
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