Graham Oliver Interview
23rd July 2020
Graham is a natural talker. A really lovely and warm man, I called him to have a chat about what he is doing, Japan last year and (hopefully) next year and his thoughts on the NWOBHM but we soon deviate to Hendrix, pottery, shipwrecks and books.
Q: Hello Graham, how are you doing?
GO: Oh pretty good. We’ve got to start wearing masks from tomorrow everywhere. There’s nothing you can do though, if you don’t comply, it’s £100 (¥14,000) fine.
Q: Other than that, how’s everything else and Steve, Gav, etc.
GO: Ok. I’m just a bit bored because everything is cancelled; Gav is going to drive to France tomorrow with his children. I hope everything is rebooked for next year for everything because we’ve lost every gig this year. We had a great year booked festival wise and the last thing we did was Giants of Rock at the beginning of the year in Finland. I can understand the promoter’s point of view though in that you come all that way and if one person has a temperature, they are sent back. The whole thing would be a tremendous cost and it’s better to be safe than sorry. Steve is high risk and I’m high risk after having a stroke ten years ago which are pre-existing conditions that they will not insure us for. These are the ramifications of it and it’s not as straight and simple as the government advice is.
Q: The logistics of it as well. You are all based in the UK but we as a promoter are dealing with some bands that have members scattered across Europe and they all have their own restrictions and rules to follow.
GO: Yeah these are the problems that musicians, venues and promoters are up against. There are a whole rafter of measures in place and we should have been in Spain in October but to make it viable financially, with social distancing when they are only allowed one hundred people in a venue, is impossible and if one person gets poorly, who pays for all the extra flights home early or two weeks in a hotel in quarantine? Medical bills in America can run into tens of thousands of dollars and the insurance companies won’t cover it. There is just so much involved that people don’t realize.
Q: Let’s get on to some happier things; what are your thoughts and recollections of Japan last year?
GO: Oh it was just a fantastic moment in my life! It was great to meet you and Hiromi and all the team and the fans as well. It was marvellous really. At that age, when we had not been for thirty-eight years, to come back…
Q: Thirty-eight years!
GO: 1981 for Mr Udo. We did Nagoya, Osaka and two gigs in Tokyo.
Q: You were going to do two in Tokyo this September as well.
GO: That’s right and we had to learn a set Glenn. We had it all mapped out but we couldn’t even rehearse because the rehearsal rooms near us only opened last week and they are limited. We had booked plenty of rehearsals because obviously to learn two sets was quite involved with running orders and timings and with Gav and Kyle not being familiar with some of the songs. Things like we couldn’t do like the end of Machine Gun, we had worked a medley out. That’s what we were going to do – instead of smashing up a Stratocaster – so we’ll have all that I hand for next year.
Q: Well that’s something to look forward to! Hopefully you can stay a bit longer as well.
GO: Yeah I’d like that or come earlier.
1980 and the NWOBHM
Q: Thinking back to 1980, forty years ago and the NWOBHM…
GO: Isn’t that unbelievable?
Q: It is and wasn’t it a great time?
GO: It was a fantastic time because it was music of expression. We were crafting this music when Punk was at its height so we were not doing it to sell records or be fashionable, we were doing it because it is what we do and the fact that it clicked and became popular is just a bonus. It wasn’t premeditated in anyway and we even had Iron Maiden supporting us a few times with their early line-ups. Things were happening so quick and I think what it was, was that there were a couple of good Punk bands but it was more of a fashion. Not only that, if the Sex Pistols played at the Marquee in London, they did ok but if the played at Leeds Fordgreen Ballroom which they did the week before us, they got bottled off. (12th September 1976) In the provinces, you have to be good, you can’t just be hype whereas with London, there are enough people just going for the fashion statement but that doesn’t wash up here. You have to be good as you know; you can’t play Leicester and not be good because they will let you know about it straight away.
Q: Well the first time I saw you was at the De Montfort Hall in Leicester supporting Motorhead on the Bomber tour (14th November 1979)…
GO: That was one of my favourite gigs because Jimi Hendrix had played there. (laughs)
Q: …and I was at that age when if a support band didn’t grab me in the first two or three songs, I was off to the bar and on that tour Saxon grabbed me and my mates.
GO: That’s exactly right. When I used to go to see bands, everybody was in the bar, they didn’t really care about the first band but when we were on, it was like a whole show. People were rammed in from beginning to end. We used to say ‘Thanks to Motorhead for closing our show’. That didn’t go down very well sometimes. (laughs)
Q: Going back to what you said about everything happening so fast, you played Leicester on that tour and within a couple of months you were on Top Of The Pops.
GO: The Bomber tour ran into December and then we went straight into the studio after Christmas in Wales. Then we did gigs with Nazareth in March and when we did Sheffield City Hall, 90% of the audience had come to see us. Nazareth didn’t even give us a dressing room and we had to get changed in the corridor…
Q: What!? There’s plenty of dressing rooms at the City Hall!
GO: Yeah I know. That’s my memory of it. I think they were trying to slap us down a little bit but we got us own back because we went into the audience to watch Nazareth and we got mobbed by people, signing autographs while they were on. A bit of karma.
Q: That Bomber tour I must say, what came across most to us in the audience – and this came out in the Heavy metal Thunder film you made because you found that lost footage from that tour – it was astonishing how tight you were back then, but you still had that tightness in Japan last year.
GO: That’s nice of you to say. Me and Steve are doing it because we love doing it and we are that tight because we’ve been doing it since we first got together in 1969 as seventeen year olds. With that and a good drummer which you need and Kyle is and my son Paul is as well, it’s just a fantastic band. If you have that rhythm section and because I am more of a Malcolm Young or Rudolph Schenker type that plays a few solos, my job is to stick in there with bass and drums and that’s where you get that grove and feeling. A lot of people come and see us – especially in Germany – and say it sounds like it should sound whereas Biff’s band sounds like a German Metal band and there’s nothing wrong with that: if you like German Metal bands that’s fine but those are the comments we get. I’m not being derogatory, against them, it’s just the difference. Paul Quinn is a good friend again now and we played together again in Sardinia on 13th December last year. We played Denim & Leather, Motorcycle Man and Princess Of The Night and that was the first time we had been on stage together since 1995. There’s a picture of it on my Facebook page. We did it with Uli Jon Roth, he did all his stuff and then the finale we joined Uli for that Atlantis thing that Hendrix did at the end of Woodstock and Uli made his own and expanded on it. I’ve done it with Uli a few times.
Q: You’re a huge Hendrix fan aren’t you?
GO: Well I saw him when I was fifteen. There were three bands at City Hall, Fleetwood Mac, The Who and the Jimi Hendrix Experience with Pink Floyd, The Nice and Amen Corner as support. I could only afford one gig and I had just seen Hendrix on Top Of The Pops and thought ‘I’ve got to see this guy’ so I picked that one. It was devastatingly life changing to see something like that because you have to think that going from the ‘You’re the only woman I want’ kind of Pop music to Hendrix…Pink Floyd were just a light show making noise. Now in hindsight you can see they were the mad professors of the day but at the time, a little bit over your head but to see someone who looked like Hendrix with an upside down Strat start Foxy Lady with just him and feedback, his hand vibrating the notes and turning the volume up to a crescendo, it was just unbelievable to a fifteen year old kid.
Q: I interviewed a guy called John Christie some years back who had a big hit with Yellow River…
GO: Oh yeah I know him!
Q: …he was on that tour with his band the Outer Limits and he told me the story of when Hendrix threw his guitar into the Marshall stack and it stuck in like an arrow and quivered – I think that was Sheffield.
GO: Yeah I was there and a roadie ran out in an afghan coat and pulled it out. That was Lemmy apparently.
Q: What a great full-circle moment.
GO: It is and we talked about it. In fact the last time I saw Lemmy, he said he was thinking of doing an album of covers and he wanted me to do Foxy Lady. Unfortunately he never got to get around to doing it but he did manage to do some covers when he was in Los Angeles. In the interview that Lemmy did for the film you mentioned, he said I was the musician I the group. He wasn’t talking about twiddling guitar playing, it’s more deeper than that and I would have played it properly. Maybe not like Steve Vai might do it but do you know what you mean?
Q: I know exactly what you mean. It’s the feel, the empathy or whatever. It’s not about how many notes or even if they are right, it’s the emotion that comes through.
GO: Absolutely and that’s what Lemmy got with me. We had many long night discussions on the Bomber tour about music and Hendrix and Johnny Winter. He was really into all that type of guitar playing and a period he was very fond of because he had lived it. He was very articulate when he wanted to be.
Shipwrecks and books
Q: He was. One of my passions is the Titanic and he was quite the expert on it as well.
GO: Yeah. Did you know I used to have a White Star cup and saucer?* The same as the ones that were on the Titanic.
Q: Ok, I’m impressed Graham.
GO: The wife used to go to antique fairs and I’m a bit of an authority on Yorkshire ceramics from the 1800s and I had to buy a job-lot of something to get something I wanted and that was in it. I put it on ebay and they went mad for it. Funny you should mention it actually because I’ve just been watching interviews with survivors.
Q: Well they are all gone now of course. Millvina Dean was the last one and she died a decade ago.
GO: She was a baby wasn’t she?
Q: That’s right. This is a conversation for the next time you come over.
GO: Yeah I’d love to chat about it. I love history and stuff like that. I’ve just got some pottery made in my hometown, Mexborough that some divers recovered from a wreck. It’s called the Josephine Willis and it set off for New Zealand from Folkestone 1856 but it only got two miles before it was sunk by a collision. The divers brought the china up and donated a box to my local town and I’m the keeper of it.
Q: It’s amazing what is down there. There are three million shipwrecks in the world.
GO: Really? Blimey…it’s amazing what Ballard** is doing with amphora on shipwrecks as well in the Dead Sea.
Q: It is. Ballard has taken research of the ocean floors and shipwrecks to a whole new level.
GO: He has and it sparked Clive Cussler† to write some of his books. I’ve read most of them
Q: It did. I like his stuff up to when he started bringing himself into the books.
GO: Yeah the cameo appearances; I like his early books but he started to get a bit silly where he was finding Abraham Lincoln in a desert…
Q: Exactly. The first dozen or so are the best.
GO: His Isaac Bell books are better. Detective ones. They are quite good because I used to like where Cussler started in history and then brought it to the present day. We like the same things don’t we Glenn?
Heavy Metal today
Q: We certainly do; better book an extra week for when you come over next time. In the meantime, a bit more about HM for our readers: How do feel about the way Heavy Metal as gone since the 1980s with all the different fragmentations. I’ll be honest and say that when someone tells me their band is a Progressive Death Power Metal band, I have no idea what that means.
GO: Me neither. I think there is some music that is made that you want to listen to again. I remember going to see Metallica - they always invite us because they did their second ever gig when me and Steve picked them out of a bunch of tapes to support them at the Whiskey A Go-Go. When I meet Lars always ask for a gig back now (laughs) which would be nice if they played Sheffield or somewhere but even they don’t have that power, Lars will say ‘Oh the promoter has just left’ or something. Anyway, when I went to see Metallica, there were two other bands on and when you walked out of the building, you couldn’t remember a thing they played whereas Metallica, you could. Everything was in a dropped D drone, like a dirge, nothing memorable so when they finished you couldn’t remember it. I find some of the Death, the really heavy music to be the same. The skill of it is incredible but it’s just not for me. I quite like Disturbed when they did that version of Simon & Garfunkel; that was really clever.
Q: Paul, your son is a generation down from you but Kyle is two generations down. How would you feel about starting out in the music business today at that age? Would you want to do it?
GO: I think it would be very hard because that network of record companies supporting it doesn’t seem to be there. There’s no big advances to support you and you just cross your fingers and hope that it gets away on YouTube, viral or something. There are more opportunities to get your music out but promoters and gigs want you to pay to play and bring a busload of people to see you. Everything is stacked against you now and everything you can see on YouTube, you name it and somebody has done it. Even a one-armed guitar player, there’s just about everything. Remember that Japanese guy that plays Bohemian Rhapsody on a ukulele? It’s all out there, unbelievable stuff and it’s such a tough market to get into. Then there’s Ed Sheeran. Who would have said that a guy with ginger hair who’s just a regular looking guy playing a ¾ guitar would become one of the biggest things in the world? Even the venues are not there now. From being seventeen or eighteen, we had a little van and we used to play Sheffield and Doncaster, every weekend one or two gigs, sometimes three and that went on for years. Then we’d go up to Newcastle because there were that many working men’s clubs they couldn’t survive so they put Rock nights on as did South Wales so we learnt our craft in those clubs. They didn’t pay a lot but that’s where you learnt to entertain an audience. Again you had to be good and we had our own songs as well and they were shouting for Smoke On The Water so our songs had to be good because as well and that’s how you win them over.
Q: Well you’ve certainly put in enough time on the road. You’ve had the great gigs, the rotten gigs and you’re seasoned. That’s why you still go down well.
GO: Yeah I think you’re right and even though you know your craft, you can’t conjure it up at will. That’s why bands like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience have that musical orgasm, it has to happen naturally. We learnt that if I was having an off night, I would hide behind Quinny or Biff who were having good nights and vice-versa and then the whole thing always worked.
Q: Graham, always a pleasure to have a natter. Take care until the next time.
GO: Will do Glenn, lovely to talk to you.
*The White Star Line was the name of the ship builders who built the Titanic
**Dr Robert D. Ballard is the man who found the Titanic in 1985 and has since become the leading explorer of shipwrecks in the world.
† Clive Cussler is an American adventure novelist.