Paul Brett: The Knight of Guitar
Paul Brett is rated as one of the best 12 string acoustic guitarists in the world. He has played or recorded with The Strawbs, The Overlanders, Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera, The Velvet Opera, Tintern Abbey, Fire, Roy Harper, Al Stewart, Lonnie Donegan, Paul Brett Sage and in his own right as Paul Brett. He was a top session guitarist in the 1960’s & 70’s, having been in demand for many top sessions with a wide variety of Artistes. His first 12 string guitar suite “ Earth Birth “ was critically acclaimed. It was released on Paul’s own label Phoenix Future and produced by world famous artist Ralph Steadman of “Fear & Loathing“ fame. This led to Paul being signed on a four album deal to RCA. He later achieved album Chart success and Gold & Silver LP sales via his K-
Paul is the the resident expert for over 11 years on Vintage Acoustic Guitars for UK National Magazine ‘Acoustic’. He is also the Festival Director for the Llyn Acoustic Guitar Festival in North Wales and has his own range of Vintage® signature guitars developed in conjunction with John Hornby Skewes & Co. Ltd., (JHS) and distributed around the world. He has appeared as an expert in his field on Internationally broadcast television shows “The Antiques Roadshow” and “Flog It”. Both mainstream programmes made by the BBC. Recently, he has formed a record label with Tom Newman, the producer of Mike Oldfield’s Multi Million selling iconic album Tubular Bells and co founder of Virgin Records. Together they are undertaking several projects in the educational area bring new recording of classic albums to schoolchildren, the first of which was Tubular Bells recorded by The Children of Ireland.
Paul has played sessions / tours / gigs with many bands including Ivy League, Flower Pot Men, Carter & Lewis, Crazy World of Arthur Brown, The Overlanders, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet opera, Velvet Opera, Tintern Abbey, Paul Brett Sage. Hudson & Ford, John Joyce, Michele Polnareff, Max Bygraves, The Cyril Stapleton Orchestra, Lonnie Donegan, The Clark Brothers, Ralph McTell, Neil Christian, Status Quo, Barclay James Harvest, Tom Newman (Tubular Bells), The Overlanders, Mott the Hoople, Matt Mattox Ballet Company, USA (Musical Director), Soul Mates, Warren Davies Monday Band, SW4, Steve Hillage, Free, Kevin Ayres, Andy Summers (Police), Georgie Fame, Free, Motorhead, Mungo Jerry, Manfred Mann, Savoy Brown Blues Band, John Mayall, Michele Breeze, Rod Stewart & the Faces, Quintessence, Keith Relf (Yardbirds), Jimmy James & the Vagabonds, Mike Piggott, Nick Sterling, Dave Griffiths, Bob Voice, Dick Duffall, Dave Lambert, Steve Holley (Wings), Andrew Lloyd Webber, Julian Lloyd Webber, Jimi Hendrix, John Renbourn, Martin Vinson, Gerard Jelsch (Ange), Jackie Graham, Gordon Giltrap, Steve Hillage, Unit 4 plus 2 (Ian Gillan), Pete Haycock (Climax Blues Band), The Who, Van der Graff Generator, Hawkwind, Gordon Giltrap, John Etheridge, Thomas Leeb, Willoughby and Craig, Ronnie Wood, T-
Interview by Michael Limnios
What do you learn about yourself from the Rock n’ Roll culture and what does the blues mean to you?
I learned from a very early age that to play guitar for a living was far better than stacking shelves in a store! From the very beginning in my school where I first learned to play, I was taught some guitar basics by the metalwork teacher, Ron Carter. While everyone else was making copper ashtrays in the class, he showed me how to make a tremelo unit! My first professional job at the age of 16 was to replace Jimmy Page in Neil Christian and the Crusaders so I had a great start in Rock n Roll and I went on from there to play in many name bands and to become a top session player in the 60’s and beyond. I got into Rhythm and Blues first via Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley as just about everyone else was doing back in the 60’s in the UK. Pure Blues through the medium of acoustic came later when I met Johnny Joyce. who was playing 12 string guitar with the Levee Breakers. The singer Beverley was later to become the wife of John Martin. Johnny Joyce introduced me to the music of Leadbelly and Blind Willie McTell in it’s purest form and I have been a fan of traditional blues since then.
How do you describe Paul Brett sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?
In my formative years as a professional musician I was purely into playing electric lead guitar and was determined to learn as many different styles of guitar playing as I could so not to limit my ability to earn a living as a professional musician and to gain as wide a possible knowledge of music which in time I hoped would lead me into developing my own style of playing. This happened not on electric guitar, but on 12 string acoustic guitar in the mid 1970’s. This was when I recorded my LP ‘Earth Birth’ which was the first solo suite written and played for 12 string acoustic guitar. My music philosophy as Paul Brett has always been about originality and creating new projects which in the main, do not fall into the mainstream commercial genres. I have never deviated from this journey.
How has the Folk-Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?
I have always been cynical of the mainstream commerciality of the world. It’s laid out like a spider’s web to lure and seduce millions into it’s trap. Many of my lyrical songs reflect this and is the main reason I have stayed out on the fringe of music throughout my career. The Folk – Rock genre of the late 60’s and early 70’s is just a name given to a genre that featured a mixture of acoustic and electric/ percussive sounds. My own band Paul Brett Sage was classed by the media as Folk- Psyche. If you listen to all three Sage albums, you will hear that they constantly changed both in styles and genres across all three albums so the Folk Rock/Psyche label was misleading. We played all sorts of music on these albums including Folk, Country Rock, Rock, Psyche and a general mix of original three-part harmony songs. The journeys I have taken during my long career have been many. including working in Record Companies, Management/Agency/Show Production/Festival Direction/Journalism/Video Production/Guitar Designing and much more. I have enjoyed all of these aspects and they in turn have given me a greater insight into my journey through life.
Photo: Paul Brett & John Renbourn
Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
My main influence that got me into playing 12 string acoustic guitar was British Blues 12 string pioneer Johnny Joyce. John in my opinion is an unsung hero who deserves a lot more credit than he got at the time. Another influence I would mention was a West Indian Sax player called ‘Pops’ who played in a band called the Soul Mates. He actually taught me some great sax riffs which I transferred to electric lead guitar which enabled me to craft slightly different guitar solos both in the bands I played with and on the many sessions I did. I played with many different bands and artistes both live and in the studio and as such, are too many to recall, but I have now started to write my memoirs in which I hopefully will recall my life and musical experiences in greater depth. As for advice I gave to people over the years, the one thing I always say is this “You can only live on this earth in the moment you breathe“ . This is a true fact whichever way you look at life. The other thing I say is an old Sufi saying “A secret is something that only one person knows”.
Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
Thousands of memories but playing with Lonnie Donegan (a huge Leadbelly fan) was great and with Johnny Joyce, both in an acoustic duo and in the Velvet Opera. Arthur Brown was an experience in many ways in the early days as was forming my own band Paul Brett Sage. The British Bandleader Cyril Stapleton gave Sage it’s first record deal and I learned a lot from his experience both as a musician and a Record Executive, I met Presley a couple of time in Las Vegas when he was playing at the Hilton and I was working for his record label RCA. I recall him saying to me “If it’s perfect, it ain’t worth doing.” Playing late night jams with Hendrix was also very enjoyable. Jimi would always opt to play bass on these sessions. The 60’s British Folk Club scene was enjoyable and it was where I first met up with John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell and other now household names who at the time, were just starting out. I have had a long-time friendship and professional relation with Tubular Bells producer and co-founder of Virgin records Tom Newman. Tom produced several of my albums and in fact, we have a label together today called Viral Discs and Downloads from which we release our music. (viraldiscsanddownloads.com)
What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
I miss Creativity and the freedom to explore all genres of music and get them over to a mass audience. In the UK, this has been destroyed by TV programs that the likes of Simon Cowell televises. These are just formulated fodder for the masses which serve no useful purpose for the creative and original sections of music. My hope for the future of music is that this kind of crap will disappear sooner rather than later and take with it the self-serving morons who propagate it’s existence. I fear it will get worse before it gets better but my worry is it may never improve and all the future generations are left with is the banal, trite and repetitive Muzak that holds sway today.
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
Morons running the Mainstream music business and make streaming companies pay artistes a fair royalty for their music. Everything outside of the actual creative process of music has a financial cost. If you went to a Supermarket to buy anything you would have to pay. Music is now a FREE giveaway in many people’s minds and therefore they do not want to pay for it. The exception is gigs where there are still performance fees being paid but not enough for many people to make a living. There is no Record Company artiste development funding available these days which in the past has allowed artistes to develop their skills and build their careers. There are no long-term contracts for albums either which in the past has sustained both the industry and the artiste. The saving grace may be social media which may lead people to discover music they do not hear on the force-fed media streams that churn out the same songs that their programmers tell them to. In the old days of Pirate Radio, you could listen to many different genres of music and that gave such music a new, exciting and wide fan base.
Photo: Velvet Opera
What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from Arthur Brown, Hendrix and Lonnie Donegan?
I had lots of fun and laughs during the Rock n Roll and Folk years but that kind of humour has largely disappeared in the UK these days because of the Politically Correct Stormtroopers that monitor every little aside and take offence to the slightest of asides. It is called the Snowflake Generation. They cry over words and are therefore lackluster in their humour and it is widespread throughout society at present. Playing with Arthur always threw up different experiences as he was always into trying something new and creative. Some of his ideas worked really well and some didn’t but it was never boring! Jimi, I mainly met in the late-night London Clubs after our respective bands had played gigs elsewhere. We all used to meet up in these clubs to unwind, have a drink and a jam session. I first saw Jimi, Noel and Mitch at the Cambridge Theatre in London’s West End and he blew everyone away with his unique presentation and free form delivery of songs. He wasn’t the best guitarist technically at the time, but he was the most original and that was the key to his success. Lonnie was a true showman. We could play a two-hour spot and every songs we played was either a hit for him or he published it. We used to sit in the dressing room before shows jamming on Leadbelly songs. I recall one time in Blackpool. Lon asked us to back a couple of American artistes. We were all excited about this because we thought he had brought in a couple of Blues or Soul singers. When we had the band call in the afternoon, in walked these two-middle aged Afro Americans and gave us their musical parts. On first look I nearly fainted because these were the most difficult parts I had seen. These two guys were not singers but tap dancers and they were the World-famous Clark Brothers. There was a chord change on every tap and it was still the hardest reading gig I have ever done, thanks Lon!
What were the reasons that made the UK in 60s to be the center of Folk/Rock researches and experiments?
It was a desire to break away from the accepted rules of society at the time. It was basically driven by the working class youth seeking to find their own culture. It was a great time for this to happen as so many young musicians, singers and songwriters were experimenting with many different styles and although the mainstream of society was in the main against it, nothing seemed to be able to stop it. The Labour Government at the time banned Pirate Radio in the hope that would stem the tide and they formed Radio 1 as the National Pop station and put in controllers to monitor the content that was broadcast. This did stem listeners choice but it did not stop the youth advancing it’s goals. The same was happening in the arts and Theatre. There was indeed what is termed a Folk Revival in the 60’s that primarily was led by America and spread it’s wings over here but it did not last as it was overtaken by the British Pop bands domination of the world music charts at that time.
What moment changed your life the most? What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications?
Getting my first professional job as a guitarist and later being hooked on 12 string acoustic guitar. The latter being a complete change of direction from electric playing to acoustic. This in effect co, pletely changed my life as I had to learn how to exist in a new world away from electric rock bands. The effect on social change has always been happening. In the 60’s lots of contemporary folk singers like Bob Dylan used their discontent with Politics to try and bring about change and to highlight things that the apolitical Class tried to keep from the masses. This did work to a great extent and the change in attitude for example of the American public towards the Vietnam War highlights this as many artistes sang songs against the war. Since then when music did actually have a voice for change, things have gone steadily backwards where we now actually do have systems in place that erases the kind of songs that were popular back then.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?
I am actually where I want to be and am content to be here. For a visit, I would like to go to China and see where the guitars I design are actually made and meet the people who make them, plus explore the more wilder parts of that vast country. I have no desire to live in major Cities again even though I have to go to some on business occasionally. In a time machine I would like to travel back to the golden age of the UK Metaphical Poets as I enjoy setting their verse to music and I would like to travel forward about 30 years to see how music has changed and if it still plays a major part in the human culture.
Photo: Paul Brett & Elliott Randall of Steely Dan