Interview with JOHN McCOY
Only a few artists cut such imposing stage presence as John McCoy, also known as Big Bad Bald Bearded Bass Basher. Most people know him from the stint with GILLAN but that gig could be no more than a footnote in McCoy's musical biography which encompasses such diverse styles as fusion, progressive rock and punky heavy metal. Still, that's just the surface and the look which hide an enigma. So what kind of person lurks behind this impressive facade?
- John, let's start with your anthology. Why the compilation is titled "Unreal"?
"Unreal" is my attempt at humour. There is an English-American saying: "It's the real McCoy!", and as my life up to now has been so bizzare it just seemed to be a fair description."Unreal" it has been!
- Was the intent behind releasing this collection to let the people know that GILLAN were just an episode in your career?
Angel Air asked because they had been asked about my involvement in various bands, and it grew from there. Obviously, not everyone who bought GILLAN knew my previous history - in fact, I made a conscious effort to keep quiet about my previous succesful band ZZEBRA because when I joined forces with Ian, I was intent on getting him and the band away from the "jazz rock" area he found himself in. A lot of fans felt alienated by IAN GILLAN BAND and wanted Ian rocking again. I was one of them, and it worked!
- By the way, was it IAN GILLAN BAND that you joined in the first place, or it was already called GILLAN and became a heavier outfit?
Initially, I was asked by Colin Towns and Ian Gillan to play bass on a session basis for the album now known as "The Japanese Album". I was only too pleased. I was flattered to be taking over from one of my favourite bass players, John Gustafson, of whom I was a fan from the BIG THREE and MERSEYBEATS onward. A remarkably talented bassist and singer. That was a honour! Anyway, the IAN GILLAN BAND had already disolved due to a number of reasons. When Ian and Colin asked me during those sessions if I would like to make a permanent band, I think I suggested the name shortening to GILLAN - prompted by audience chants wherever Ian appeared - and began to try and subtly explain to Ian that he needed to return to a more straight-ahead rock format that was heavier and more commercial than IAN GILLAN BAND. The "Japanese Album" was - is - a fantastic album but at the time was only released in Japan. Incredibly, Ian could not get a UK or USA record deal at that time, so I think he took my suggestions on board and we all began writing with this in mind. The rest is history.
- It's commonly expected from the veteran rockers to mellow with age. You still stay rock solid. What does tie you to this kind of music?
I think I have mellowed somewhat but I see you're point. Rock music is part of me, music is a part of all of us. I just love to play, now more than ever. There's a special magic at even the smallest rock gig, like a religion, people of the same mind, the same feelings coming together to rock! Being on stage is the best place to enjoy these moments. As for the second part of your question... I don't think I am tied to this type of music, it's just that rock is the area that my work has been succesful and, of course, I love it, especially now with GMT, but I've been involved in many different projects in other areas. I did some recording last year with percussionist Kuljit Bhamra, a couple of instrumental crossover tracks. He's the best tabla player around. Bernie Torme and myself are slowly putting together an acoustic based album for the future which will really surprise people. But at the moment we're locked into the second GMT album as a priority.
- You're looking menacing but big men usually have a big heart. So what kind of person is John McCoy? How would you describe yourself?
It's a hard one. It depends whether you're asking about John, or McCoy, because there are at least two sides to me. John leads a quiet life with his wife and best friend Bob, he loves peace, animals, all kinds of music, and is a nice chap to have a beer with. McCoy, the stage persona and musician, is very different. Eccentric, I have to admit, intimidating but with humour, serious musically but not visually. I quite openly admit that McCoy is a rock loony of the first grade, but he only comes out when asked nicely. I dont know what I'm like, really, ask someone who thinks they know me. I don't know myself that well. Incidentally, Bernie Torme has just presented lyrics for a new track titled "The Humours Of Mr. McCoy" which deals with some of this. Perhaps, you should ask him what I'm like.
- Many musicians tend to underestimate the importance of image which can't be said about you. How did you develop this amazing look of yours?
My image was inflicted on me in the summer of 1977 rather than chosen or created. Sometimes I think it's a God-given gift. After years of struggling, I was finally getting well-known around the British music scene, doing lots of sessions and playing with two or more bands. I was "that big fat bloke with long hair and beard from ZZEBRA who's a great player but looks like shit"! One morning after a particulary late night I awoke and to my horror the sight that greeted me in the mirror was more frightening than usual. Great chunks of my hair and beard had dissapeared! Great patches of anemic white scalp were visible. I went into panic but by the end of that week had lost 90 per cent of my hair and most of my beard! I had contracted a medical condition called aloepetia nervosa which means simply that your hair falls out rapidly. There was/is no treatment for this condition which is caused by stress. Without even trying the McCoy image appeared and almost overnight I became "that big bloke with the shaved head".
I soon realised that no matter how good you play people remember the visual impact more, so I became extremely busy and more well-known in a very short time. This was an unusual and rare sight back in those days, whereas now there are shaved heads and goatee beards everywhere! My playing hadn't really changed, perhaps simplified, but I started to enjoy being onstage much more. By the time I found a homeopathic remedy and cure for the aloepetia it was too late! I was stuck with this image even though my hair came back, so from then on it was shaving, shaving, shaving...
- Speaking of ZZEBRA, why do you think the band didn't succeed in the times when MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA were riding rather high?
I'm not sure. Some bands and albums just don't get the right breaks or the right time to be widely appreciated. ZZEBRA was certainly unique, and I was priveleged to play with such great musicians. I think we became a little self-indulgent but we made our mark in a very difficult area commercially.
- How and when did you get involved with CURVED AIR?
That's complicated. In the dim distant past - that's the Seventies I think - I was in a bizzare band called CAT IRON. We were managed by the then young Miles Copeland and his brother Stuart Copeland. We would rehearse at their family home in St. John's Wood and did gigs around the country including "The Roundhouse" and college circuit. It was a fairly "trippy" affair with strobes, smoke lights and costumes. There were great and good players... Drummer Kim Turner and guitarist Glenn Turner were brothers of Martin Turner of WISHBONE ASH who were also at that time managed by Miles, so we did a few supports etcetera. At that time, I would often jam with Stuart Copeland who was becoming a great drummer and friend. Lead guitarist was Mick Jaques, and I stayed in touch with him and Kim Turner using them on sessions I had as a producer occasionally.
A couple of years later - are you still with me? - I was recording ZZEBRA's third album at Escape Studios in Kent when I got the call from Mick Jaques asking me if I would like to join or at least play with CURVED AIR. I was a big fan of their album "Phantasmagoria" and went up to Ramport studios to meet the guys and Sonja [Krsitina]. They had a handful of shows booked and I think I played only two before deciding my loyalties lay with ZZEBRA. Partly due to CURVED AIR having virtually finished the new album with another bass player and I didn't feel I would be a contributing full mermber of the band unless I was also on the album. When I wanted to replace at least some of the bass parts so I felt more involved, the answer from on high was "no". So we did a couple of shows which I loved, notably a festival on the Isle of Man for the T.T. Races week. I can clearly remember getting more than "ready" for the show in the hotel bar with Darryl Way and comedian Frank Carson. It was hysterical.and the excitement was only hightened as we hit the stage. What a great band!
I duly returned to camp ZZEBRA. A grand blunder in the history of loyalty, as ZZEBRA were dropped by Polydor the following week! And the third album was shelved. Now it's available on Angel Air, though.
- Did you record anything with CURVED AIR?
No, sadly not. Unless someone has live tapes...
- As a bassist playing cello, did you have a proper classical training like Jack Bruce?
I began playing cello, my first instrument at a very early age, six I think. I was taught the technique and rudiments but not much else. I began to understand what an effect low and mid-range instruments can have on a piece of music, through harmony and rhythm. I never was much good though, from what I can remember. Wish I had a cello right now and I'd love to try playing again, but at the moment I'm setting up a drum kit to write and practise on.
- Where do your punk inclinations come from? I mean, even U.K. SUBS required your skills as producer...
There was something special about punk. We all felt it at the time.The sheer energy of the original U.K.SUBS was devastating. I was asked by their manager at the time if I was interested in producing them, so I went to see them at "The Music Machine" in Camden. So tight, so fast, so in your face. It made the arrogant, pompous rock fraternity very scared! I loved it. I did my best on "Another Kind Of Blues", their first album, to capture that excitement and contribute my own ideas on how they could stand out from the rest, I even wrote a couple of tunes with [their singer] Charlie Harper. That album and their next three singles all charted high, but getting the band on Top Of The Pops required insurances and guarantees because they were punks! And, of course, the BBC were scared too. Punk did give the establishment a real worry for a while.
- And where did the roots of your producer's skills lie?
From an early age I, like many other musicians, was fascinated by radio, records, tape recorders and recorded sounds in general, and how those sounds were achieved. This continued and one landmark was when "Sgt. Pepper's" was released. I heard it for the first time on a very expensive stereo system owned by my then girlfreind's family. I was very moved and played it over and over till her parents threw me out! Playing it at home on my family's more modest radiogram. I became obsessed and took records everywhere with me to see what difference other record players made to the sound, and began to understand components, speaker size, cabinets, and all the variations that different equipment made to the sound of a recording. I allways had an opinion even on the very first recordings I ever did, sometimes to the annoyance of producers and band leaders!
In 1973, by the time I was in ZZEBRA, I had recorded a few things, and my first album with CURTISS MALDOON gave me the opportunity to meet Sir George Martin, my hero! He was working in the other studio at AIR London in Oxford Street. He was very nice to this young upstart who was full of questions and told me a couple of tips I still use today when mixing.
It seemed to me at that time a lot of producers I worked with were "chancers" who just talked a good talk and didn't actually do much at all. When I began working with Ken Burgess for the ZZEBRA albums, he would let me sit in on mixes and recording overdubs, and I have to say I learnt a lot from him and engineer Tony Taverner, and my confidence grew. So from that band on, I began selling myself as a producer working wherever whenever usually for nothing to gain experience. Gradually, I became known for having a certain style and input of ideas. My first solo production was "Telephone", SAMSON's first single, which featured a labourisly constructed loop of the "speaking clock". This was around 1977 before samplers would have been invented. I edited the voice so it opened the track with a count-in and finished the track also. It all made sense to me and I got much acclaim for my work. When the first SAMSON album was planned, the management and Paul Samson were insistent I have the producer's role, and on that album I tried a lot of sound ideas and effects I had previously only dreamed of.
I became much in demand as much for production jobs as bass playing usually doing both jobs, although playing was - and is - my first love. Next notable albums were U.K. SUBS, which still sounds good! From this busy period, I went in to GILLAN - firstly as a session but ended up as bass player and co-producer, probably because I was the only member who was prepared to stay up all night trying to achieve the desired result on Kingsway Studios dilapidated and antiquated equipment!
- At which point you, being busy with the sessions and producer's workload decided it was time to strike on your own with the band under your own name?
Well, I originally started McCOY as a band before I became that busy. I had joined Bernie Torme's SCRAPYARD, and when he left to pursue his punk inclinations it was easier to get gigs as McCOY rather than SCRAPYARD due to my former successes. Bernie was replaced by Paul Samson, and when I left due to pressure of other work he changed the name to SAMSON. For a period we went out consecutive nights under both names!
- What direction did you originally plan to take McCOY to - and why did you let the band to slip away into Paul Samson's hands so easily?
I had always loved the three-piece heavy rock trio but was still finding my way as a writer - still am! - and performer. For McCOY to mutate into SAMSON seemed quite natural at the time. The songs remained the same!
- Beckoned to help out ATOMIC ROOSTER while still in GILLAN, were you surprised Vince Crane needed a real bass for the first time instead of pedals?
YES! Surprised and honoured. I think the reasons for having a bass player came from Polydor rather than the band. Personally, I prefer ATOMIC ROOSTER as a three-piece.That's what made them unique. But it was great fun to work with three such great people.
- How did THE SPLIT KNEE LOONS come to be?
THE SPLIT KNEE LOONS came from a wide variety of sources but mostly from drugs, drink, boredom, success and frustration. For instance, for the "Glory Road" album we recorded a backing track and presented it to Ian to finish with lyrics and melody. Not surprisingly, he came up with a great song except one part. He began singing "Let me be your confidante", and to a man we all fell about laughing each time we heard it. But God said, that lyric was staying amongst shouts from us all of "Are you sure???!!!", which eventually became the title on release. It became a catchphrase in the band and crew who for a long time would ask "Are you confident?" to be answered by "Confidante!". This grew and eventually Cosmo Toons of THE SPLIT KNEE LOONS wrote "The Confidante Opera". Which has to be heard to be believed! It's available once again on Angel Air Records album "Loon Knee Tunes -The Split Knee Loons".
- SUN RED SUN: did you just help Al Romano and Ray Gillen to set the band or did you plan to join as a full time member?
SUN RED SUN? I went out to America at the request of Al Romano to write and form a band to back ANTHRAX singer Joey Belladonna. Although he was still in the band, his departure was imminent, or so I was told. I had lots of songs ready and loads of ideas but as ANTHRAX continued their success, the right time for Joey to leave extended seemingly endlessly. But I was rehearsing with the band - with Al Romano on lead guitar and Mike Sciotto on drums. Al was also taking care of vocals in Joey's absence. We went in to the studio and began recording backing tracks which we sent to Joey and shortly afterward he departed ANTHRAX. It had taken so long that we more or less had a finished album with Al's lead vocals which a lot of people were showing interest in.
We upped sticks from New York and went up to Joey's house to rehearse and write as Joey and I didn't feel some of the recorded material was suitable for BALLADONNA, which was to be the name of the band. Basically, I think Joey's head was wrecked after his experience with ANTHRAX and he really needed a break before starting a new band, but we wrote some great stuff together, showcased to a select few music biz bods, and had deals on the table accompanied by sizable press coverage. The future looked good. Then Joey fired Mike Sciotto who said "Hello" to his wife. Mike was followed shortly after by Al Romano for reasons I still don't know. We got in replacement players but it never quite gelled again.
I got a call from home saying my mother was in hospital with not much time left to live, so I came back to England to see her for the last time, and when I spoke to Joey he said, "Don't bother coming back, it's over". From then on, things became weird between myself and Romano: for a while, he blamed me for his dismissal. He got together with Ray Gillen and began writing with him, and then Ray called me and was raving about a couple of the songs we had recorded for Joey. He asked if he could re[record the vocals, and from there Al and I made up and the loose plan seemed to be I go back to the States and join drummer Bobby Rondinelli as a permanent band - SUN RED SUN. This was not to be as a few short months later Ray died. I'm proud to say the last thing that great rock singer recorded was one of my songs. "I Know A Place". R. I. P.
- MAMMOTH were the heaviest band in the world. Was there a future for the group or the talent simply got buried under the image?
You more or less tell the story in your question. I had known of Nicky Moore and his amazing voice since the late Sixties when he had a band called HACKENSACK. Many years later. when he was singing for SAMSON, having replaced Bruce Dickinson, he was still an incredible vocal force. I did an album project aside from GILLAN with Nicky Moore and Paul Samson which was released as "Joint Forces". I became increasingly impressed with Nicky's voice. [My wife] Linda and I decided that the only reason he hadn't made it bigger was because of his fatman image. Remember, this was the mid- and late Eighties when all rock groups were skinny big hair clones. Linda came up with the idea that the best way to make Nicky look "good" was to have eveyone in the band as big or bigger than him. Thus, the idea for MAMMOTH was born.
It was an immediately commercial idea, and Nicky and I began writing our version of commercial rock songs. We wrote some great stuff together and we signed to Jive because their parent company Zomba publishing wanted to sign the songs on their own merit without even knowing the image factor. It wasn't long before the image took over, and I went into manic overdrive buying 200 mini-Marshall stacks, having miniature guitars made, buying the biggest - seven bass drums! - drum kit in the world, massive backdrops and stage effects all the while ensuring that all the members got paid handsomely. We quickly ran out of money, and arguments ensued between management, record label and the band over their refusal to fund a tour in America, where the album was making waves. Guitarist Kenny Cox left - or got fired. He basically just stopped playing, literally. Very weird. So I went to Arthur Guitar and Bernie Torme to finish the guitars on the album.
By the time we got out on the road to promote it with replacement guitarists, the time had gone, we couldn't fit any of the stage set in the small clubs we were playing, money had been literally eaten, and it just sort of fizzled. When the salaries dry up, so does the commitment. I tried to keep the band going but it had its day and dinner. It was great fun and good musically but I was stupid to allow it to become so out of hand.
- What was the reason of re-jigging GILLAN's "Fiji" as "The Demon Rose" for McCOY's "Think Hard" album?
I'm not really sure what you mean.These are two different songs in different keys and with different lyrics. Written by me is the connection. Are they similar to you? Weird.
- How come Tony Rees who you played with in WELCOME in 1969 became the McCOY singer in 1984?
T-Bone Rees and I had stayed in touch and did some writing together from time to time.There was a point at the death of GILLAN that the management suggested we get another singer, and T-Bone was one we tried. But it was not to be. GILLAN without Ian? About as ridiculous as Ian joining BLACK SABBATH!
- T. Bone, Bernie Torme, Paul Samson, your buddies in life and partners on stage... What is friendship to you?
I am no longer sure what friendship is. I've had a lot of friends that have let me down emotionally, and had people I regarded as close friends who were in fact the opposite. This is not just in the music world, although it does seem to attract people who will be your friend for the wrong reasons. I have a handful of people that I feel close to, but true friendship? I dont know.
- Which drummer of those you played with you found the most satisfying to be in a rhythm section with?
I love working intensely with a great drummer, and many of the guys I've worked with also feel the empathy and telepathic connection between us. It is a magical feeling. I have to say all had different qualities, but Liam Genockey, Mike Sciotto and Robin Guy are probably my top three.
- Which of the songs you've written or co-written you're proud of the most?
"No Easy Way", "Mutually Assured Destruction", "Don't Want The Truth", and numerous other GILLAN tracks. "All The Days", "Fatman", "Long Time Coming", "Always And Forever" and others by MAMMOTH. "Josephine", "Tarot Cards", "The Demon Rose", "Because You Lied", "On And On" from McCOY. "Tomorrow And Yesterday", "Big Brother" by SAMSON, "Summerland" by GMT. There's more you choose!
- Is there anything that you always wanted to do but didn't have the chance? Something unfulfilled...
I've done a lot in my life up to now and will continue to follow where the path leads me. I've done a lot of things I wish I hadn't! But I would have loved to play with Frank Zappa.
- Twisting Frank Zappa's phrase a bit, let me ask you, Does seriousness belong in music?
Well, one thing's for sure, when it came to MAMMOTH, I learned that a large percentage of rock music fans do not want to see a humorous side, though I've allways thought that many musicians and bands take themselves and their efforts far too seriously.
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