Portrait of the artist as a (suffering) young man
Alan Price has a chip on his shoulder the size of Newcastle's housing problem. Money and fame have made him more bitter rather than less and he appears to be bearing the pain of his background with only limited success. As a musician and songwriter he is superb, as an adjusted adult he is less successful.
You have become so much more than a musician recently, more than you were with the Alan Price set, for instance. How important now is the musician's side of things, the actual keyboard side of your work?
That's a coincidence, actually, because the bass player came around yesterday, Dave Markee, and said 'I really feel that you should get back to a group scene.' I have a mind that goes a thousand miles an hour — he makes a statement like that and what I do is I add up the sum total of running groups since I was 14 years old. I've always given a lot, personally, with any group I've been in, be it amateur groups in Newcastle, starting the Alan Price Combo, the Animals, on my own twice, with Georgie Fame, I've always felt I've given more than I've got back. That's not an insult to Georgie Fame, I felt I learned a lot about singing from Georgie Fame. I actually learned to say 'T' at the end of a word, and 'S'. there are certain things which you just get very lazy about and because you have some sort of style and a name, nobody ever criticizes you correctly.
When he said that to me, it went right through my mind — all the groups I'd ever started.
Isn't that sort of self-defeating?
I'll do it when it's desperate and necessary.
When you say 'When it's desperate and necessary,' do you mean for yourself?
Yeah. Yeah, not for anybody else would I do it. Not for anything else would I do anything for anyone again.
Do you remember getting a high which just comes out of playing, and not particularly from playing well together?
I get it with the rhythm section I always play with now — Tony Carr the drummer, Colin Green, the guitarist, and when I made the album, I had Barry Morgan on drums and Tony Carr — they work so well together because they'd worked before in CCS.
Well, we worked, but, you see, I turned into a writer — I was turned into a writer by Lindsay Anderson.
I got a thrill out of that because actually, sometimes to really write — if you know it yourself — you can write without thinking. There are lines and ideas that you come out with which aren't an assimilation of ideas — it just comes out spontaneously in the truth. The same is true of playing. It happens all the time.
But to get that high going — there are people who know they cannot recreate that first thrill you get when you play, like the first thrill of success, of organising something, of getting something you get from the audience. You can't repeat that thing. But when you've got 20,000 people out there, with a lot of bread, and they build up an idea about what you're about — no wonder the bloody guys snort coke or take drugs or whatever they do, I mean, it's a pretty terrible situation. That was basically what 'Fool's Gold' was all about. I'm proud of that song. When I played it, I played it live, I mean, we didn't do any mixing and getting advice. Barry Morgan was crying, and Dave Markee was crying.
It actually comes through on the record. Did you think that was the only way of getting that emotion across?
We tried doing it in different keys, and finally I just said 'I'm singing it to you,' I put the headphones on, I sang it at them, and I cleared it. A couple of cuts on the organ, perhaps, but nothing anyone but an organist would understand. But, and there's a little quote against me in a song called 'Share' and I put echo on it myself to remind me of all those terrible Scottish dancehalls with the echo where you couldn't hear the sound. I mean, it's a piece of work. And I wrote that when I was in a bad state, when I came back from California last year, that's when I decided to do the film — I wanted to be a film star.
I came back and I saw the same thing, the same rip-off thing. The record company only cares what you're worth to them. A guy I knew, a former publicist of mine who later became head of a record company for awhile. He looked after me for ten years. He said 'Don't kid yourself. When you're in L.A., you're the biggest thing for that week — just for that week.'
Coming back to the musician thing, I've got limited technique, I play mostly changes. I can hear well, I don't write well. It takes a lot for me to do right, to push myself as far as I can. I need to get a feedback and ideas.
I wasn't just brought up on rock and roll, I mean, I was turned on to Chuck Berry by a pork butcher's son, and rock and roll was well away by then. Because we were all snobs, you see, we ignored rock and roll because I didn't want to be associated with the fellas who ripped up seats in cinemas when Rock Around The Clock came around.
So I turned a deaf ear to that. Skiffle and jazz, and there was always music around the house. There was always a piano at my granny's, and when I was ill for a long time they used to come around on Saturday night after they'd been to the boozer and cheer me up, do a show, song and dance things.
Is that where the inspiration for the playing aspects came from?
Well, playing is all I can do. Every time I stand up from the keyboard, my knees tremble. If I have to do something standing, like T.V. for instance, my legs tremble. When I'm playing the piano, I'm at one with the thing. I've done it all my life.
Can you be relaxed in front of 20,000 people?
It's a bit like a fight — I feel like Cassius Clay, I suppose. Nobody's ever booed me off stage, There have been people who have come to see me who may not have liked me, but they always knew it was me. I was talking to a young lad, the son of the producer who made the film. And he said 'It's embarrassing to sit in the audience, because it's just naked who's playing.'
Well, O.K., that's all I can do. And I want to do a bit of rock and roll, but it'll still turn out the same way. I want to get a concert together, and get some songs, not the stuff that everybody knows, and when I get it together I'll do it that way.
I may not even be able to sing it, or play it that way, but something will come out.
Do you ever sit down now and say 'I'm not as good as I was', or 'I should be better'?
Well, I have periods when I do. Not long ago I had a late night, out with the wife, and I was lying in bed afterwards and I said 'I can feel it building up, I'm going to be able to do something — I don't know where it is, but it will come'.
Then there are other times when you're completely devastated. You feel that life is not worth living — you try to write, you try to play, you do singing... there's just no way.
Which periods predominate?
The bad times. But usually when you get them, there's such a depression, you write your best. When you get the old 'Black Dog', Winston Churchill syndrome — which is true, I suppose — it's the best work that you do. When you're upset, at the end, with all this subdued aggression, when you really own up in the end, all the things you profess to be, you're not, and all the things you want to be are destroying you. All the things which you despise are the things which could give you some degree of happiness.
It's when you sit down and you think, and something nice comes out. I write some lovely words sometimes when I'm an ugly man. I don't know why, it's about the nearest I get to an analysis of what I do.
Over the last 18 months or so, I've had the impression that there's a lot of tension in you, as though you were right on the edge. You seem to pass that right back to the audience.
Well, I don't like to be ignored. I feel I've spent the time to get myself together, and I put a lot of myself into those songs. I mean, people can write very well, very good, and I wouldn't call it facile, but I would call it craftsmanship. When I do it, it fuckin' creases me.
The writing or the performing?
The writing of it. I mean, you've got to like it yourself. It doesn't come easy to me. I've done three albums in three years, and the amount of work that went into them. I mean, I worked with Lindsay Anderson for about 18 months.
This year I've written six songs, I came back drunk the night before last after having a great time with John Wallace, picking all his songs. I wanted to transfer them, put them into stereo on my machine, from cassette. And I've also written a whole score for a new Lindsay Anderson play, and I wrecked the whole bloody lot, as well as those six bloody songs, and I can't remember them. I've lost six songs and a whole score for a play — I can't remember what I've done with them. I transferred the songs onto my songs and the score and lost it all, I've got nothing left.
If writing is that difficult for you, would you describe it as painful process, especially considering your response to some of your reviews?
Well, I've given up on reviews. Now they've given up criticizing my music, they're having a go at my audience, and not understanding why they're enjoying it. Writing things like 'A strange cross-section', just because I've got like six year olds, ten year olds, teenage people, college students, middle-aged people, and old age pensioners — I get them all, and the way they write about it, there's something wrong. As though it's wrong because they can't put me in a bag, they can't say I'm this, they can't say I'm that.
Are you saying that you are no longer criticized as a musician and writer but purely as the image of Alan Price?
I can't help it. It's not something you work towards. When I talk about 'Fool's Gold', I talk about all the young fellas who've worked and made millions for companies and since died. People who worked for Georgie Fame and died, who were in a scene and yet not part of it. Unless you're in it, you really do not know what goes on. You have to set up a discipline just to get yourself through, and some of those people fall by the wayside.
You strike me as one of the most disciplined performers.
Only because I subdue my aggression.
And yet you're one of the most aggressive performers I've ever seen.
And if you're sublimating it, then that makes it all the more frightening, because I can remember you playing to the press...
That's it, and I remember the aggression frightening me. Now, I hadn't come along as somebody to get a free drink or a sandwich, I came along to see you. It's very rare in that kind of atmosphere, where you are more than a dot a hundred yards away. The aggression was terrifying.
People have said that. The musicians wanted to play it, and they were talking. I did a song called 'City Lights', and it's got a quiet intro, and if you're not going to hear that you're not going to get the rest of the song. All my stuff is quite dynamic, to say the least, which I think is important, and I got annoyed.
I'm not an entertainer. I'm just a guy who's job is to sing and play, and no matter who I play for, if they're not listening, if they're not giving it back to me, then bollocks. My time is precious, I've got a lot of things to do before my time is over. If I've got the decency to get up there and play, you might have the decency to give me something back. If I don't get that, you deserve everything you get.
Just because music's music, it doesn't just have to give you pleasure all the time — it's got to make you think. I think about other artists, who don't show it like I do, and they come off and you don't know what they go through on stage, you don't know what they go through when they're travelling and going to gigs, and getting there and playing and getting no response.
I'm not carrying a flag for anyone, but I know what I think.
There's a peculiar contradiction in your attitude that I find in people who call themselves 'performers' — you've made it clear that you aren't one of them...
Well, I'm smart: I get there, I tell them what I'm doing, I do a full show, I balance the thing, I work hard, and that's it.
A lot of artists have a desire, in addition to entertaining, to be liked — more than anything else. You obviously abandoned that very early, or did you ever have it?
All things come in time. I'm just growing up, I mean I'm 33 now. It's just a case of arrested development.
What arrested it?
Becoming successful at 21.
You're the first person I've heard admit it. When did you realise that?
Possibly only after I had my child, four years ago perhaps. It's not wanting to be liked, it's wanting to be appreciated for what you feel you are, if you know what you are.
I think, perhaps, if there were any big influences, musically there was Ray Charles, in the beginning, and all of rock and roll, but Ray Charles, because he sang like I felt. I didn't want to imitate him, I didn't want to do a Joe Cocker.
The next one was Eric Burdon, who educated me to blues music in the real sense of the word, Joe Turner, Pete Jensen, and I found I could play like these people. It's funny to find out you can actually play. I mean, when you're self-taught and you can't read, and you suddenly play and you find that you are playing what these people are playing, as well as getting the same thrill, that's a nice sense of identification.
And then there was nothing until I met Lindsay Anderson, who understood my mind — which is a different thing entirely. I'd say I owe most to those two, Eric and Lindsay.
What you're saying is that out of all the people you've met in the course of your work who wanted to extend something to you, you've only found these two people who have given you anything?
That's too cruel, too cruel to say that. Not in terms of friendship, or in terms of trying to understand me, of trying to help me through when I'm in a bad mood, that's friendship in a sense.
What I'm talking about is a certain sense of purity. You have a bit of give and take, but you know you're after something better. You're examining things, you're pulling them apart, you're not putting up a front to other people, you're not pretending to be nice to them.
Were you as angry ten years ago as you are now, or have you calmed down in a sense?
I think I was, yeah.
Were you regarded as difficult by your, quote, 'managers'?
You ask that, ask Mickey Most... yeah. I suppose it's this thing about having to have an ego to perform on stage. There must be some drive that makes you perform.
Basically I'm shy, because I suppress a lot, it's just my nature.
Most people lose this aggression early on. People who are still in the business tend to get on with it and not worry so much — what makes you different?
How do I know?
What do you think?
I wake up in the morning, I go through the day — how do I know? This is the thing — not just about interviews, but about thinking about yourself. I mean, if you've ever read Francis Bacon's essay about Truth, who's truth are we talking about?
What is language? Language is garbage. It's the only means of communication we've got, and it's whatever you want to read into it and whatever I want to. If I'm working out my aggression at the same time as I'm playing, then you know what I'm doing is as true as I am. If you take it and it upsets you, it's your problem. I'm doing the giving, you're doing the taking.
People ask me to play sometimes in clubs and restaurants, and I say bollocks, not because I'm a star, but because if I'm going to sit and play, I want people to listen. I'm not a fucking machine that you turn on, I'm a person, I'm not a bloody puppet for anyone.
Are you conscious of the pressures on you to do things?
Yes — to be good. That's all. It happened a long time ago, I heard the phrase by John Waters when the John Randall Quartet came up to the Newcastle Jazz Club. They asked him to sit in. And he did, but the unfortunate thing is, they wanted a magician, they always want to see rabbits pulled out of a hat.
Would you consider not playing, not writing or performing?
I can see no alternative. I don't think I'd be allowed to. I don't believe that I actually have complete independence. I could desert this house, wife and child, and bugger off to become one of life's gypsies. But I'm a life gypsy in my head — I don't have to do it.
Are you difficult to work with?
I won't deny it, I'm hellish to work for. But my secretary, who was a fan, who I met through Jimmy Saville in 1966, has been with me all that time, my road manager started with me in 1965, he's still with me, Colin Green has played with me for five years — that's good enough for me.
Is there anything further that you want for yourself in writing and performing, for satisfaction?
Oh yes, I'd like an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University, for music.
Because I feel I've done enough work. You wouldn't understand, I couldn't explain it to you.
Who would understand?
Eighty year old women from this town who wrote me letters with fucking tear drops on them about 'The Jarrow Song', which I was slagged off for writing, which I didn't want to write anyway, letters that I get from Newcastle, that I get from Sunderland, saying no matter, don't let the buggers grind you down — they all say the same, because they know what I'm doing takes so much out of me.
Like somebody said in a stupid review, 'Doctor Feelgood needs an organist, never mind making albums, you're not worth making albums, you don't understand, why don't you just play the organ'. But I write some songs that turn people on, and that's what they're there for.
Interview by Ray Hammond
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