Barry Reynolds in Interview
Barry Reynolds’ long and distinguished career as songwriter, producer and guitarist at the edgier end of music started in the late sixties and includes work with Grace Jones, John Martyn, Joe Cocker, Bette Midler, Toots & The Maytals and Black Uhuru. His work in the studio and on the road with Marianne Faithfull spans 20 years and includes writing Sexual Terrorist.
His blunt and outspoken comments were in interview with Mike Thorne at the Stereo Society on Tuesday May 22 2001.
You’re often associated with musical mayhem with the high-wire artists you’ve been working with. Is this a conscious direction?
Probably. Looking back on my career, it’s funny to see that I’ve mainly worked with women. Marianne Faithfull, Grace Jones, Bette Midler — you know – all these Divas. I don’t know why. After I worked with Marianne, the record companies thought, “Well, he could work with anyone who’s difficult.” And, so, I finished working with Bette Midler and then Grace Jones. The only male artist I’ve really worked with was John Martyn, who is the biggest Diva of all.
You’re also overlooking Joe Cocker, another mild mannered person.
Right. Joe was a joy to work with. The reason he was a joy to work with he let the musicians do what they wanted to do. As for the musical arrangements, he would come in, listen, give us the key, and Joe would sing over it. He’s a beautiful singer — a little like Marianne and Grace Jones. At times, he was very extreme in either being straight or completely blasted. It was just a matter of finding him right in the middle when he could do it. And when he did it, he was wonderful.
You speak about working with women a lot, but you work with a particular subsection of women who are extremely intense. You have co-written with a lot of those people. Do you think that madness and intensity leads to a more exciting result?
It can sometimes. The best things I’ve written with someone like Marianne Faithfull never got down on tape. It was all in the moment. We would just play, and it turned out to be wonderful. No one would have it together enough to say, “Let’s record this.” I’d love to catch Marianne when she’s really on a roll.
I was speaking to Chris Blackwell [founder of Island Records] about Noel Coward. He knew Noel and says he’s incredibly funny around a dinner table. Very smart, very witty, and just an amazing storyteller, but, as soon as he put it down on paper, he didn’t find it that funny. I mean: it’s like nice and bitchy and everything, but it’s not as funny as he really was in person. Moreover, I don’t think Marianne has done anything worth calling her masterpiece. Whether she will or not – I really don’t know. Capturing the moment and getting something down on tape is very difficult.
You achieved it a few times. What are the fine moments you remember?
With anybody. In addition, how was it possible to catch those fine moments?
With Marianne, probably one of the best things we ever put down was Why D’Ya Do It? a lyric by Heathcote Williams. She came in and read it, and it was so outrageous. The band just sat around listening to these “Why do you suck my dick?” Why do you…? At that point, we had a guitarist in the band that was a Jimi Hendrix fan, and he started playing All Along the Watchtower. I changed it a bit by adding a reggae-feel around it. Marianne just started narrating this thing, and it was amazing. I knew that it was working as soon as she started talking over that rhythm, and then it came to the chorus-Why’d you do it, she said. Why’d you do what you did? Why’d you do it? It was perfect. That was the closest she’s got, in my eyes anyway to writing something truly amazing.
That song is in many ways the polar opposite of Broken English which is a classic. Broken English is much more objective, much more presented and considered. How did that arise?
Marianne was reading a lot about the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and she wrote these lyrics about them. Then Steve Winwood came into the session, and started playing a bass line, soon after we joined in over it. Although I’m credited with writing, (I still changed the chords and everything else), I think it’s the bass line that made that particular song. I actually can’t listen to Broken English now. To me it sounds as though maybe the producer (Mark Miller Mundy) said, “Okay, we need something kind of disco on the album.” In the song, you hear a certain sound, whereas, now I could hear something really nice there instead of straight disco beat. Marianne’s voice sounds so strange on it compared to her voice now. Now, she sounds a bit like a blown speaker. Before, she sounded like a very high-pitched blown speaker. She had this amazing vibrato when she started singing. She sounded almost angelic and now it has gone into this…. How can I put it? She’s a bit like that alcoholic writer, Dorothy Parker. She’s a bit like a Dorothy Parker from hell. In fact, that should be the title of her next album – Dorothy Parker from Hell – High Hits.
Or possibly Lotte Lenya.
Lotte Lenya, yeah, also. She was very much influenced by her. The thing is with Marianne – she is such an amazing performer. At one point, we went out on the road, and it was acoustic guitar and her. It was a little like a poetry reading, you know. I would play a very minimalist kind of guitar part behind her, and sometimes I would just stop, and she would just continue the song so, when I came in, it would sound like an orchestra swell even though it was an acoustic set. We really played with the dynamics, and she could really pull it off. It didn’t happen during every gig, but when it did, it was a magical experience to pull everything out and just bring it in very slowly. That’s the kind of power Marianne has on stage. You know, when she’s on stage, you cannot not watch her. She’s a great performer overall.
Seems like you’re back to playing more electric now.
Yeah. I always liked electric guitar. I never really considered myself an acoustic guitar player, anyway. I was a strummer and played like a bastard. I certainly wasn’t a Richard Thompson or anything, but I’ve always considered myself a rhythm guitarist. I’m not a great soloist because I like to be right in there with the bass and the drums.
And with the song.
Yeah, and the song as well. The fact that I write songs makes me quite good at backing-up singers because I’ve actually worked with people who don’t play- like Marianne. The last album that we did together was in a studio called Teatro, owned by Daniel Lanois. They had an interesting way of recording, and I really enjoyed it. Marianne and I would come in with an acoustic guitar and she would just sing along. (Not to mention, I played a beautiful Gibson acoustic guitar that Bob Dylan played.) We’d just run through a song like that, and we’d get a strong take from Marianne. She’s always like that. It’s the first, second or maybe even the third take. Three takes and she’d have it.
When Marianne and I listen back to the song, I close my eyes and just think of Marianne, playing that song on guitar, and singing. It sounded like one whole person doing the song – like Bob Dylan or whoever. Then what we did, which I found interesting, was to bring in the drummer. Brian Blade, a wonderful drummer, would then play with me. There was no click track. I wasn’t playing to a click track but he would swell with me, as well. He would kind of go up and then come down. As my timing slowed, he would follow me. It was a wonderful way of recording because it definitely had a great feel. Almost as if the band was backing the singer and really backing the singer. It wasn’t like the band was this entity running through this song and the singer was on top of it. Marianne’s voice and my guitar served as the foundation for the whole piece.
That causes me to question the way a typical Rock ‘n Roll lineup records. When you hear a recording, it’s the singer that’s leading. In practice, the way the style is recorded, the singer is often trailing along behind during the sessions.
That’s right. Steve Cropper was talking about when he was writing with Otis Redding. They’d get Otis Redding in the studio singing with him. He said the band would always speed up. It’s such a natural thing to do when you have somebody like Otis Redding, and you’re backing a singer who’s screaming at the end – it’s all part of the excitement. It’s so natural to speed up and why not? It’s great. Click tracks are fine for a certain kind of music, but I think Rock ‘n Roll is not really about strict timing. It’s definitely about a little havoc in there – things going off and not being right. I kind of miss that in a lot of music these days.
What would you do to correct it?
Kill many people. There’s nothing I can do to correct it. This is where it’s going. It’s all very strange. There’s too much music out there, too much of everything at the moment. I remember the times in England when Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane would come on TV, and it would be a real event. It would be like, “Wow, Citizen Kane’s on!” Now it’s on cable TV twice a month on Bravo or AMC and it has ceased to be an event. It’s the same with today’s music. It’s all just so accessible, like having too many sweets.
You’re speaking as if you think that music should be a social participation, an event rather than something you listen to on your headphones.
Yeah, I do. I remember seeing Van Morrison at The Rainbow [now-defunct venue in North London]. It was one of those concerts where Van Morrison was ON. It was around 1973, and he sang like an angel. The band was incredibly tight, and it was a great concert. Then I saw it on The Old Grey Whistle Test [slightly stiff British progressive pop music program on BBC TV] and it was a different concert. That was not the concert that I went to. It didn’t come over well on TV, and I don’t think much Rock ‘n Roll music does. I saw a great video recently, Fat Boy Slim with Christopher Walken. It’s not a great piece of music. It’s Christopher Walken dancing, a beautiful melding of the music and the video. It’s really a wonderful piece, but that’s unusual to get a good video that goes with the music.
You seem to be approaching a nice curmudgeonly elder statesman.
I am aware that I’m sounding off about these ‘youngsters’. They don’t know. Remember the time we’d go on the stage with no guitar tuner. Yeah, play out of tune all fucking night.
You are “Establishment” now, like it or not, because you have a large respected body of work with people who are well established, well known and well loved. But what do you think is different now? If somebody was in a position now that you were, say, twenty-five years ago, how do you cope with this wash of music everywhere?
It’s probably harder now. When I was getting into the business, The Beatles were all of a sudden writing songs. In addition, people were signing bands – but you need to write your own material, and it was dreadful because many people couldn’t write. When people talk about going back to the sixties, they’re talking about a time when there was some awful stuff. Nevertheless, I come from a musical family. My father was a pianist, my mother played the piano, my sisters sang, and my brothers played. Writing music for me was easy so I got involved with bands in the Manchester area. When I was fifteen, I was in London, and there were record companies dying to sign me. It was easy back then. These days, it’s not that easy because people aren’t looking for writers anymore.
But you imply that writers are absolutely essential.
Yes, especially for the kind of music that I like. I love instrumental and classical music, but I also like a really good song. Recently, I was listening to an artist named Jake Zachary. You know, lyrically; he’s like the Yorkshire Jacques Brel. There’s a song called The Blacksmith and the Toffee Maker, and it’s about a blacksmith and a toffee maker, and the blacksmith is this real kind of burly, sweaty blacksmith, and this toffee maker is this little skinny lady and not very pretty. In addition, there’s a line at the end of it, and I just think it’s so beautiful. He says, This is as much a romance of some of the others that you get / Not so much a song and a dance as your Romeo and Juliet. I love it. It’s beautiful, you know. I really miss humor in music. I’d love to do an album with Jake Zachary. We should get him, Mike. You know, get him over here…
You mentioned earlier about the tricks in songwriting. Does songwriting get easier as you get older?
No, I don’t think it gets easier. In fact, I think it gets harder, but what happens is you learn more tricks. It’s easier to write a song, but not easier to write a good song. I could write ten songs today – ten mediocre songs. For me there’s nothing to writing a song. Writing a good song is difficult and also if you’re editing your own songs. Now I’m in a stage where I don’t know what’s good and what’s bad. I’ve just come out of a period of having writer’s block, and writer’s block can be a few things. Personally, I feel it’s a lack of confidence because, when you’re confident and you’re writing, you’ll put something down, and you will go with it. If you don’t have that confidence in everything you’re putting down, you start to question it. Things aren’t jumping out at you. For me, that’s when I know it’s not working. It’s an awful predicament to be in because at that time I’d go to other people and say, “what do you think of this?” For example, if I turn around to my lady, Carolyn, she’ll go, “That’s wonderful! That’s amazing!” I don’t trust that. I’ll end up giving it to someone else, another friend of mine, and they’ll go, “Eh, it’s not the best you’ve done.” I will go along with that.
Arguably, a song isn’t complete until it’s expressed fully through a collection of musicians.
It doesn’t always require musicians. I got my publishing deal with Chris Blackwell (admittedly he knew what I’d written before) through a piano and a voice, or an acoustic guitar and a voice, and it was my voice, and I don’t have a great voice. Sometimes, in a certain kind of songwriting, if a song stands up with an acoustic guitar or a piano, then you probably have a good song, as I say in these uncertain times of songwriting. That’s what I do because it’s easy to get a fairly mediocre song written down. With a little bit of arrangement, we put a horn section in here, put tambourines through here and a nice piano in here. It’s all about making something that will sound presentable. However, as far as having a certain depth, it’s not necessarily a great song.
It’s so easy with the technology we have now to go and press a button and cut instant canned energy. Do you think this is detrimental to songwriting because the energy void is already partly filled?
It’s wonderful where the music’s going. The great thing is that it’s completely out of control right now and there’s some great things coming out. But, talking about the kind of music I do, I’ve been inspired by a listening to a drum track or a bass line, and that’s a non-organic thing. I really love some stuff coming out now at the moment. Yet it’s very different from the kind of music I listened to while growing up like Cole Porter. I love to sit down and create a mood through chord structures and with lyrics. I love the sound of lyrics and what they have to say. That’s why I hate Sting.
Want to expand on it? Without being bitchy. It can be a case study of what you care for in a song and what you don’t care for in a song – without getting personal about it.
I find everything that Sting’s written incredibly contrived. He’s written some nice pop songs, but, lyrically, I can just see him reading something and picking out all the interesting lines. Whereas, I can hear Bob Marley sing an incredibly basic song like Stir It Up, and I know this is honesty that’s coming through, and it really shines. I think in most music I can tell what’s honest and what’s not.
Do you think everybody can, ultimately?
I really don’t know. I remember one time trying to write a song for Madonna, and it came out incredibly contrived, yet I think I did everything right. I had the right rhythm, the lyrics were kind of Madonna-type lyrics, and the chord changes were Madonna. In the end, it reeked of insincerity and, to me, whatever Madonna does, she believes in it, at least. I think people can tell. I hope they can tell because people are fooled a lot.
Before, you said that knowing too much could lead to writer’s block. How did you get through the writer’s block?
I started writing. I mean physically writing in a book. I would write all my ideas down. Apparently, there’s a book called The Artist’s Way, which I’ve never read, but I was speaking to a friend of mine who’s a novelist, and he said, “Just going through the motions of writing really helps.” Because then you’re just writing anything. I tried that, and what happened with me, is I stopped worrying about it, and that’s when it started kind of coming back. It’s not fully back at the moment, but, hopefully, it will keep growing.
As professionals, we always have to worry about it, though.
Yeah. I think that’s why many people turn to alcohol and drugs – because they can help. There’s this book called Alcohol and the Writer, and it’s about Poe and Hemingway, Steinbeck and all these writers who drank a lot. Drinking was their way of getting the wheels turning. The question at the end of it was whether they have been better writers if they didn’t drink (or would they have been writers, even)? Would they have written had they not had them to kind of smooth things out? It’s a great temptation for me every time I have a writer’s block to have a joint or a line and think that it will kind of inspire me. But I don’t do that now. Instead, I have to fight. I have to fight through it and what happens, because I don’t do that now, I look at everything I’ve written with such a clean, clinical eye. Maybe I’m being too critical, about the songs that I’m writing.
It’s hard to find where there’s a middle line.
Yeah. And, is there a middle way? That’s what rather worries me. I know that my best writing came from extreme of emotions – either incredibly sad or incredibly happy. I don’t know if I’ve written anything in the middle. Therefore, having something like Prozac, for me, would be a nightmare just being in that middle line. I’m certainly not making comparisons, but the best art, be it from Beethoven or Van Gogh, comes from a certain type of character. They were extreme people. And particularly in Rock ‘n Roll, extreme is always good!
That brings us back to the original question, and we confirm your answer that a little craziness is necessary.
I think it is. Speaking for myself, I know that all my life I’ve really tried so hard to be normal. I always had the feeling that if I really was me, I would be arrested or I’d be in jail or whatever. I’ve always tried to contain myself somehow. However, that craziness is definitely there and I think most people in the business have it. People that I think have something to say are usually quite mad.