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Red Lick Records



Early Blues Interview
Simon Crowe, drums and Garry Roberts, guitar - The Rats

The Rats played the Skegness Rock & Blues Festival in January 2009 and I caught up with Simon Crowe and Garry Roberts during the afternoon before their set.

Alan:   What are your musical memories of growing up in Ireland? 

Simon Crowe © Copyright 2009 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.Simon:   Garry and I started musical life at school. This was way back in the mid-60s so we’ve been together a long time. We had a school band which had been formed before I came on the scene – I was the last to join.  We had too many guitarists and we needed a drummer so I was handed the short straw. 






Garry Roberts © Copyright 2009 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.Garry: The reason Simon got invited to join us was because he had a nice-looking guitar so we thought maybe he knew something about music. We had too many potential guitarists, so you became the drummer. 







Simon: And Garry thought he’d get to play my guitar. 

Garry:  Yes,  he had a Hofner semi-acoustic which looked like the real thing.   

Simon: Our musical tastes at that time and the stuff we played was The Small Faces, Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers, Elmore James – mainstream cum blues, especially a lot of the bluesier stuff.  We used to play the school dances and after school we played in a couple of other bands. Then we stopped playing for a while. After a couple of years, one day Garry came to see me and asked me if I wanted to join this band he had started - which eventually turned into the Boomtown Rats. 

Alan:   Did you always want to become a musician?  Was it your original career choice? 

Garry:  Not really. I wanted to be a gynaecologist. I went to the same (co-ed) boarding school as Simon and at school there was a dance every term which was called the Supper Dance. If there was a school band they would play at the Supper Dance and there was a dance committee which would hire amps for them.  The first dance I went to there were these 6th Formers up there with electric guitars and I thought “God, that’s amazing”, and it was that that got me into playing.  I loved the look of the electric guitar – it was a great gadget.  I had music lessons in childhood – piano, clarinet and stuff like that, so I did seem to have an interest in music but I was always a bit more left field and I liked the edgy, bluesy, harder stuff than most of the people at school.  And I liked standing there with a loud electric guitar and making a lot of ferocious racket.  

Simon:  No change there!  In terms of professional music, that whole world was a long way away.  We grew up in Ireland, which was a real backwater. We had no live music scene within Ireland at that time so it was probably the furthest thing from my mind to ever make a career in music. Even when I was at college, doing architecture. 

Garry: I had a hell of a job persuading him to join the band. 

Simon: Yes, he did.  I had actually given up music and I’d given my drums away to a friend who’d taught me.  I’d said, “Look, I can’t find anybody good to play with, so just take them away.”  Then Garry came round and persuaded me to join his band. But I don’t think  that in terms of career any of us could see beyond getting together and having a bit of fun, which is, of course, the ideal way that a career is made 

Garry:  Although, when the Rats started up, we did have a unity of purpose in that we wanted to take everything with the band as far as we possibly could and I impressed this on Simon at the time. 

Simon: Yes, it did all change.  Once we realised, even after the first gig, that we were actually far more than the individual parts and we had something that could be commercial and we could  actually do something and make records and then we started to see beyond the immediate boundaries of playing in Ireland. So we strove to come over to the UK and get a record deal, and that was at least partly inspired by seeing what other bands were doing and comparing ourselves and building a bit of confidence. 

Alan:   Who were your favourite artists at that time?

Simon: Beatles, Stones, Small Faces, Kinks.  I remember going to see Fleetwood Mac in Dublin – the band with Peter Green, Danny Cohen, Jeremy Spencer.  We even went to see Led Zeppelin.  We’d also go and see bands like Pentangle, so really across the board, but the music I wanted to play was more mainstream and blues. 

Garry:  I liked people like the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, Frank Zappa, the Butterfield Blues Band and I even went to see Champion Jack Dupree at the Liberty Hall in Dublin.  But I did love the blues music and nowadays when people are asked about their influences they might say “Anthrax” but I used to listen to stuff like Blind Lemon Jefferson.  It all comes from the blues really. 

Alan:   So who’s influenced you the most in your musical writing and playing? 

Simon: That’s a tough one.  For me, it’s always been more individual tracks or songs rather than a particular player.  I could reel off numerous drummers which would mean very little but it’s more a style of playing and individual songs.  So there’s the material I’ve talked about but I was also completely blown away by John Bonham of Led Zeppelin as I was by Mick Fleetwood - a fairly eclectic mix really.   

Alan:   What was the best album you ever bought? 

Simon: It’s got to be the Beatles, probably Revolver, just because it was so innovative at the time.  Just completely different and new and fresh, and it still sounds like that to me. 

Garry:  I would say it was the Stones first album - The Rolling Stones.  Oh Carol, and all that stuff, and Brian Jones is one of my guitar heroes.  I read Bill Wyman’s book - A Stone Alone, and I thought it was great that the book ended when Brian Jones died.  I’ve even been to visit his grave in Cheltenham.   

Simon: You were always more Stones and I was always more Beatles. 

Garry:  People think it was all Mick and Keith but that isn’t the way it was. Brian Jones was the creative energy behind the Rolling Stones and a brilliant musician.  However, he was fucked up and, for whatever reason, he didn’t have much real self-confidence.  He was a bit of an arsehole but I think it was because he was so lacking in self-esteem.  But he was brilliant and I think it’s such a shame that he wasn’t more of a settled person and able to go on to achieve more. 

Simon: So would Brian Jones be your ultimate musical hero? 

Garry:  Probably, yes.  Pete Townsend would be as well, and even Billy Gibbons.  People think of ZZ Top as the band who made Eliminator and Afterburner, but ZZ Top were originally a Texas blues band and they go back some way. Jimi Hendrix said that Billy Gibbons was one of his favourite guitar players.  I like people that play less rather than more, who are sparse and leave space.  Space talks, and Billy Gibbons is somebody who just chooses a note and then just sticks it somewhere you hardly expect it to be.  It’s not all flash playing - it’s really selecting notes and making them mean something. I would love to be able to play like that but I just tend to thrash away!  

Alan:   This is probably a silly question – but what is your favourite instrument? 

Gary:   This– it’s a Gretch Silver Jet [holding up a guitar he was re-stringing].  And that, over there, is my home-made guitar. And… 

© Copyright 2009 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.

Simon: Is the answer “guitar”?  He’ll go on for ever…. 

Alan:   Okay, I’ve got the message!  Are there any particular songs that you play that have a special meaning to you? 

Simon: In the set that we’re doing at the moment, they all do in some way.  Probably Rat Trap because of the way it came together and the way it turned into the massive hit that it was.  It wasn’t ever intended to be a hit, or even a single.  It came together in the studio at the end of the second Boomtown Rats album, Tonic for the Troops, and we had this idea and it grew very quickly and it had a real sound and style of its own.  Rhythmically, from my point of view, it’s a much more interesting sound than the more thrashy stuff that we started off with.  The way it came to fruition and became a hit was also special because we had been fairly popular and each song that we’d released had gone higher than the previous one.  With Rat Trap, we got on the Kenny Everett Video Show and we did a special video specifically for that show and that got shown and a lot of our fans at the time were phoning in and asking if this was the new Rats Single. The record company hadn’t even really looked at the song but then they thought, “This is the one” and we put it out and it became number 1 for two weeks.  So that’s kind of special because it sort of grew out of nothing.  Sometimes you can try really hard to achieve something and you don’t quite hit the mark but sometimes the things that you don’t try so hard at actually go way higher than your expectations. 

Alan:   What are your memories of playing at Live Aid? 

Simon: Terror!  An incredible occasion, just awe-inspiring.  It was that moment of going out there and being in front of 70,000 people at 10 o’clock in the morning and realising that was just the tip of the iceberg and there were probably a billion people watching it around the world. Just to be around all these other bands, massive egos, amazing musicians….just the whole occasion and being swept up with the musical part of it.  And obviously it was for the cause that we all know which was far more important than all that really. 

Garry:  It was the feeling that everybody was there for one reason and we were all pulling together.  That’s one thing I’d give credit to Geldof for, he managed to badger everybody into getting it together.  Bob didn’t put the whole thing together by himself - Harvey Goldsmith assembled it all, but Geldof was there giving it all that to make sure it happened, so fair play. 

Simon: To have the vision and to be able to pull it off and to make it the offer that nobody would want to refuse to be a part of it.  Their own personal reasons were of no real significance and Bob was able to see through all of that and say, “It doesn’t matter – this is what matters”.  It was pretty awe-inspiring. 

Garry:  Harvey Goldsmith deserves a medal. 

Alan:   When Bob Geldof left The Boomtown Rats, were you surprised? 

Simon: There’s always an element of shock when something dies.  And it was the end of The Boomtown Rats at that time and we didn’t know how long that might be.  I suppose that there were signs that The Boomtown Rats were not really going to go much further, partly because of the Live Aid thing.  For some reason, our career dwindled after Live Aid whereas several other bands that played at Live Aid took off.  Maybe people couldn’t see us as a musical entity with the force of charity that was behind it.  Effectively, The Boomtown Rats were pushed to the rear and Geldof became the main event and therefore, commercially, Bob was in demand and he managed to secure a lucrative solo deal so the reasons and the writing were on the wall.  It was a painful time. 

Alan:   Do you still play with the Jiggerypipery Band? 

Simon: Yes, and I really enjoy it.  It’s a complete contrast to this as an instrumental band and it’s Scottish based.  It’s all based around an old geezer blowing up a bag of wind called bagpipes and he’s a real stalwart at what he does. He knows nothing about the rest of the world of music and he’s in his own little bubble.  He’s sort of heard of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Elvis, but that’s about it.  There is a great sense of rhythm in the way he approaches his music and that’s what I try to pick up on.  We have bagpipes, fiddle, cittern, bass and drums so it’s quite a traditional sound without the bass and drums but with them it’s quite a rocky, dancy thing and I try to bring some force and power to it.  It’s great fun. 

Alan:   Were you surprised by the success of the Boomtown Rats back catalogue release? 

Garry & Simon: (with great emphasis!) No!  

Alan:   According to your website, the essence of  your present band is a back-to-basics approach.  Could you expand on that? 

Simon: When we got together we thought, obviously, that we’d do Boomtown Rats material, but particularly the Boomtown Rats material that people would want to hear and that we would want to play. So we started at the beginning, listened to the first album and thought, “Yes, that really is the essence of what the Boomtown Rats is about”. The reasons for the band’s popularity were pretty much laid down in that first album - along with all the hit singles obviously.  We’re actually not doing all the hits – we don't play anything more recent than Someone’s Looking at You.  We’re thinking of adding in a song called Diamond Smiles.  The idea was to get back to what Garry and I focused on as kids at school, we’re working at this R&B thing, getting the rhythm happening and that’s pretty much what we brought into the Boomtown Rats. The other guys in the BTRs hadn’t played in other bands but Garry and I had so there was a sort of chemistry that existed between us.  When you listen back to it, you can hear that was what cemented the whole thing together. 

Garry: To put it simply, the songs are what matter and we don't want to clutter them up with too much stuff going on. The two guitars approach forces a kind of discipline on us and we have to understand the essence and basis of each song in order to put it across. 

Alan: Were you a little rusty remembering the songs? 

Simon: Completely. The first time we got up and played Mary of the Fourth Form, we hadn’t done that for possibly 30 years so we really had to work at it and now I think it’s sounding better than it ever did.  We did a gig down in South Devon in the summer, our first public appearance, and it was all quite emotional. 

Garry:  My girlfriend was there and she’d never even seen me play the guitar. To see me in my Gig Shirt was quite an eye-opener for her. 

Simon: My wife was there and she’d never seen me playing Boomtown Rats stuff.  So, for personal, as well as professional, reasons, it was quite a big thing for us and it was just fantastic to find that there were so many people who wanted to come and see us, and to realise that we could do it.  There are many reasons why we are trying to keep it "back to basics", partly because of the way the band is simply structured with two guitars, bass and drums.  The Boomtown Rats originally had six members, with keyboards as well as the guitars, so we have tailored the arrangements to work with the new stripped-down line-up. The songs now sound the way we want them to. 

Garry:  The only reason we had keyboards in the first place was because Johnny wasn’t a guitar player.  Otherwise it would have been Johnny and me on guitars and Pete would possibly have done the bass because he was Johnny’s cousin, but maybe not. I invited Geldof to an early rehearsal with a view to him taking on the management of the group and he produced a harmonica and played along to a Dr Feelgood song we had learned.  I’d been put up as lead singer at that time but thought it better to concentrate on playing the guitar so we got Geldof in to do the lead singing. 

Alan:   You mentioned Johnny Fingers. Did he play with you recently? 

Simon: Unfortunately, he couldn’t make it.  He lives in Japan and works for the country's No.1 music promoter. He only comes over once or twice a year so we carried on without him.  It would have been the icing on the cake to have him with us but the cake is together, solid and sound and we’ve put a lot of work into getting this band sounding the way it does now. 

Alan:   So there aren’t any plans for him to join you? 

Simon: At any time, he is always more than welcome, but it just didn’t work out this time. He is keen to play with us and there will be other opportunities, perhaps in Japan. 

Alan:   And Gerry Cott – I believe he recently played with you at the London Club? 

Simon: He didn’t play but he came along to check us out.  Gerry would have been welcome but just to get up would have been difficult - you really do need to rehearse. He left the band after the first five years and he’s not involved in the music business any more, so to pick up the pieces would take him a bit longer;  but, metaphorically, he’s standing just offstage, watching and very interested, and we keep in touch with him and with Johnny.   

Alan:   Will 2009 see the release of a new album? 

Simon: We have a few ideas about what we would like to record, so yes, we will be recording with some new songs, and possibly some rearranged material, with a view to putting an album out. 

Alan:   What are your other future plans? 

Simon: At the moment we are just at the stage where we are building up confidence and strength within the unit of the band and seeing where we can take it.  As far as we’re concerned, we’ll be taking it wherever we can. 

Alan:   Does that include the USA? 

Simon: Possibly. To play in the USA again would be brilliant.  Canada was very strong for us back in the old days and we might have a more ready-made audience in America.  Generally speaking, our main territories would be the UK, Ireland, some European countries like Scandinavia, Germany, Holland, Belgium. We were popular in Japan and we would also like to explore the possibility of playing in India and other countries in Asia. Initially, we’d probably try to go back to the areas where we were popular and where we’d be more of a brand name and try to build on that.   

Alan:   Simon and Garry, thanks very much for your time.  It’s been a great pleasure. 

Garry: The pleasure is all yours. 

Simon: Great, fantastic.


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