The band Brinsley Schwarz were best known as the springboard for new wave darling Nick Lowe. Lowe and several others formed the group in 1969, naming it after their own guitarist.
Often described as the British version of the Band, Brinsley Schwarz had only begun to develop their pub-rock sound when manager Dave Robinson devised an elaborate plan to thrust them into the spotlight. They were to open for Van Morrison at New York’s Fillmore East in front of dozens of journalists, but their plane arrived late, leaving them with unfamiliar borrowed equipment and little time to prep.
Meanwhile, the press was also delayed due to an emergency landing where they were subsequently offered an open bar, and turned up for the show largely drunk or hungover. The resulting performance — and Brinsley Schwarz’ debut album, which was part of the deal — ended up a publicity disaster deemed the “Brinsley Schwarz Hype.”
That was hardly the end for Brinsley Schwarz. They went back to England to hone their sound and got back to basics playing at local pubs and colleges. Regaining their footing, Brinsley Schwarz invited a blossoming Elton John to open for them and joined Paul McCartney for his 1973 Wings tour before eventually disbanding in 1975.
Their namesake guitarist, however, was far from done. Schwarz went on to form the Rumour, backing band for Graham Parker, and produced several of their albums. Even after the band split in 1980, Schwarz continued to collaborate with Parker, as well as Lowell George of Little Feat, Desmond Dekker and Garland Jeffreys, the latter of whom led him to an evening in which he opened for the Rolling Stones.
UCR spoke with Schwarz following the release of Tangled, his second solo album.
I know some of these tracks were things that didn’t quite make it on your last album, but was there something specific that motivated you to put a new record together now?
Yeah, from the things that were recorded before lockdown — I really wanted to do “Love Gets You Twisted.” “Stranded” was one. So I put in extra time to do “Stranded.” But “Crazy World,” I really wanted to do that now. And in fact, I’ve just managed to finish recording another track, which I also want to do now, but we’ll have to wait until the beginning of next year.
And you play all, or almost all, the instruments on the record. Was that a product of the pandemic or something you planned on doing all along?
Well, I don’t play drums. There’s just a few tracks where I’ve tinkled on the drums, but I did that with my hands instead of with sticks. Sticks are very confusing. But yeah, when we started off, I had no preconceptions about how it would go at all. It just evolved. So I’ve got proper drummers on most of it. And [producer] James [Hallawell] plays all the keyboards, although I’ve done a little bit of organ on a few, as well. And guitars, that’s kind of it, more or less. It turns out I can play bass, which was a surprise.
Listen to Brinsley Schwarz’s ‘You Drive Me to Drink’
You met one of your first collaborators, Nick Lowe, at boarding school when you were a teenager. Do you remember your first impression of him?
No, he was two years younger than me and so two levels in school below. It was a boarding school and we were in different houses. So, I didn’t really meet him until at least a couple of years after we went there, or maybe even three — a bunch of us used to sneak out from the dormitories in the middle of the night. There was a big hall with a stage and underneath the stage was this big room. And we used to go and hang out down there, drink cider and play rock ‘n’ roll on whatever things we could get that made a noise. That would have been a severe beating and expulsion if we’d been caught, but we never were for some reason. So, that’s when I met Nick and we were all just school kids rebelling.
It was Nick Lowe and Bob Andrews, who later was in the Rumour with you, who brought up — and insisted — on the idea of naming the band after yourself. Why?
They thought it was a really cool name. Well, they didn’t say cool. I think they probably said, “Great. What a great name for a band.” Which I said, “Well, I don’t think so, but I’m outvoted, so there it is.”
Brinsley Schwarz, the group, gets compared frequently to the Band. You lent your instruments and your rehearsal space to them when they came to the U.K. to perform, is that right?
We only met them once, during that period, which is when they came up. And I think they had a good time. We lived in a big farmhouse, which is probably [five or six] hundred years old. They were enamored with the place. They used our gear and they just played for a few hours, and then we’d made sandwiches and got them beer and stuff and we hung out for a bit and then they left.
And Robbie Robertson was a big influence on your guitar playing. Who else is on that list of influences?
From the beginning, Hank Marvin. He’s why I picked up the guitar in the first place, and his influence has never gone away. There’s a sort of melodic beauty in the sound that he makes that no one else can do. There isn’t anyone that can sound like Hank Marvin. And then all of the people in the early ’60s. We were awash with bands with lots of guitar players. So obviously George Harrison, Eric Clapton, blues guys, Albert King. And then, later on, Robbie Robertson, and then the guys from Little Feat and Steely Dan — Robben Ford, Larry Carlton, those guys. I became more fond of American guitar players than English ones at some point, ’68 I guess.
So, the “Brinsley Schwarz Hype.” How do you think things would have been different had that incident never happened and is there any part of you that is, in some sense, glad things turned out the way they did?
If we hadn’t had done that, and hadn’t done anything else, then we would have disappeared and dissolved. We could only make a record because we did the Fillmore, and we could only do the Fillmore because we made the record and wrote songs. So, it was a vicious circle and we had to do all of them.
It’s a much better story than if it had gone right. If it had gone right, we probably wouldn’t haven taken much notice of Van Morrison. Watching him for four shows, at that point in our lives, was a really big kick. We realized that we needed to back down and get on with being a proper band, which is the whole thing we missed. People seem to miss that you’re a band, and it’s more important that the band are great than any individual person. If you’re a band, then you need to be all together all doing the same thing, kind of like a football team.
Not very long after that, you got back to playing low-key pub and college gigs and at one point, you picked Elton John as your opening act. How did that happen and what was that show like?
The first time we met Elton, he was supporting us at a college in Richmond, West London. And he just played piano and sang songs. We thought he was good and we thought he was nice guy. And we thought, if we had him supporting us, then we wouldn’t have another band’s gear in our way and it’d be easier all round. So, whenever we could, when we were asked, “Is there anybody you would like to support you?” We’d say “Yes, this guy called Elton John.”
After time went by, and Elton got bigger, he called us up and said, “I’m touring in America. Do you want to open for me? You’ll be third on the bill.” And we thought, “Yeah, third on the bill, so people will be coming in. They’re not going to really listen to us, because they come in to see somebody else. Probably not worth it for us.” So we said no. [Laughs.]
You also toured with Paul McCartney, opening for Wings in ‘73 — do you have a favorite memory of that tour?
I have quite a few memories. This is just a little funny thing. The morning after every gig, the big bus would turn up in front of the hotel – giving away immediately, if [the fans] didn’t already know it, Paul’s whereabouts. There would be a big crowd of young girls and fans hanging around outside. So we would all leave and get on the bus without Paul or Linda, and the bus would leave. So everyone thought, ‘Oh, he must have left some other way.’ So the crowd would disperse. The bus would do a large circle around the town, come back again and he’d be waiting and he’d just walk across and get on the bus.
So while that was going on — we all knew what was going on, we would be reading the paper, we’d be sitting with a hangover, we’d be doing morning-after-a-gig stuff in the bus, not really paying any attention to much going on — and then Paul would get on the bus. And the moment that he got on the bus — after a while I found out that everybody was the same as me — and that was that as soon as he appeared, a Beatles song appeared in your head. So you’d be reading a book or something, you’d look up, you’d say “Morning, Paul!” ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah yeah.’ There wasn’t anything you could do do about it. And everybody was the same, no matter how long they’d been with [him]. When he’s in the room, you have a Beatles song in your head. There’s nothing you can do about it.
Was it that song in particular usually for you?
Yeah. Later on on that tour, we were in a hotel room somewhere and we had two guitars and loads of us — all of the Brinsleys, and all of the crew. Our other guitar player, Ian [Gomm], gave [McCartney] a guitar and then immediately he said, “No, sorry, it’s not left handed!” And Paul said, “It’s okay,” and proceeded to play. I can’t remember if he played left handed upside down, I think that’s what he did. We just started playing songs — rock ‘n’ roll songs, all kinds of songs, but no Beatles songs. No one would dare start a Beatles song.
And after an hour and a half, one of his roadies said, “Come on Paul, play a Beatles song!” So we started playing Beatles songs. So what was happening was that everybody else would sing John Lennon or George Harrison’s part, everyone would sing the guitar solos, which everybody knew. And at one point, I was at one end of the bed, he was sitting at the other end — I turned around and looked at him because it started to get emotional. And there were tears pouring down his cheek. It got to him too. I don’t think it’ll ever go away for people of the time, people who were young at that point.
Watch Brinsley Schwarz Perform on the ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ in 1973
And speaking of other tour memories, you once opened for the Rolling Stones in 1981 when you were playing with the Garland Jeffreys band, and Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman came to visit you in the dressing room before the show. They probably wanted to get away from Mick [Jagger] and Keith [Richards] for a few minutes.
Well they wanted to get away from Mick. Keith hadn’t turned up yet, which is why it was getting boring. As Bill Wyman said, “Mick’s having one of his extravaganzas.” Keith and Ron [Wood] were still in the hotel.
What are your other memories from that night?
I was sound-checking by myself. I always used to really enjoy sound checking for as long as possible. And everyone else had gone off back to the dressing room and I was just noodling by my microphone, and I felt someone standing beside me and said in my best Basil Fawlty tone, I turned round and said “Yes?? What?” And that was Mick Jagger. He said, “Oh, sorry! I was just seeing what you’ve got on the floor there.” So we had a chat about the effects peddle.
I just recently saw Graham Parker perform acoustically, whom you linked up with in 1976, and then reunited with him and the Rumour in 2010. Why do you think you got on so well with him?
I’ve no idea. When we met up for the first time, after all of that time, which was 30 years odd, it was as though the 30 years hadn’t been. It was like, three days ago. And I suppose when you’re younger and in a band and you’re trying to make your way and get better and become more successful at the same time, there are pressures — things you have to do, things that perhaps you don’t want to do. And there can be a lot of angst about it, whether you’re doing the right song the right way, and all of that.
But when you’re 60 something, it just doesn’t matter. What you’re left with is the fact that these are your friends, and you’re there to play music together and that’s what you do.
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