The Rory Story:
Rory Gallagher must be Ireland’s greatest contribution to the world of rock. But Rory doesn’t want to a rock and roll star. In fact, he doesn’t even wear makeup. And he drinks beer! Is Rory a throwback to the good old days when you really could tell the boy rock stars from the girls?
Four years ago America was introduced to an exciting guitarist for the first time. The band was Taste, the guitarist, Rory Gallagher. Taste were the warm-up act on a three bill tour that featured Blind Faith in their first North American tour and Delaney and Bonnie and Friends with Dave Mason on lead guitar. And the most surprising thing about the entire tour was the fact that Taste ended up as the heroes. Their gutsy blend of blues and rock brought down house after house. The fact that the trio played as three individual soloists and a tight unit at the same time gave them a following that is still growing, three years after their decision to pack it in.
Since the demise of Taste, Rory Gallagher has been the only member of the band to remain on the surface. Ritchie McCracken, the bassist, is now with the new Spencer Davis group which includes Hardin and York, and drummer John Wilson went with ex-Family member John Weider’s group Stud, which recently split and reformed as Brush. Strictly little league activities compared to Rory’s performances at such places as Madison Square Gardens.
After four Taste albums and four solo albums, the latest of which, “Blueprint”, was just released on Polydor, Rory still aims for the basic simplicity of the blues mixed with the churning hots of rock. His present band includes Gerry McAvoy on bass, Rod De’Ath on drums and Lou Martin on keyboards. Few people leave a Rory Gallagher show unimpressed.
Rory started playing guitar in Cork, Ireland, his home town, at a very early age. But Rory tells the story much better. “I was listening to music when I was six, seven and eight, that’s when rock and roll was starting to come into being. It was called skiffle in Britain. The guys that I really liked at the beginning were guys like Elvis, Fats Domino and a guy you’ve probably heard of called Lonnie Donnegan. He would do Woody Guthrie stuff and Leadbelly material and call it skiffle even though it was country blues. When I was nine, I got a guitar and I learned how to play all the skittle songs and rock and roll, did school concerts and talent shows, you know, variety shows as a young boy guitarist. Then when I was twelve I got an electric guitar and I started playing in school bands. I played in a dance band when I was fifteen. That was the Fontana Showband. So we played in all the Irish dance halls where we could get work, which wasn’t much. We did a tour of Spain and did some work in England; the Irish dance halls there.”
‘When I was seventeen, I left that because I didn’t want to do the mixture of music that they were playing. I was already writing at the time and I wanted to do some of my own material. I went to Hamburg, Germany with a bass player and drummer from the Showband which had broken up by that time. Then in ’65, I went back to Ireland and in ’66 I got Taste together. By that time the whole group thing was starting to finally build up in Ireland. The good musicians were finding each other and starting to get together. Anyway, that formation of Taste lasted two years. We worked in Ireland, went back to Hamburg, did a little work in England, which was very hard to find at that time. Eventually we moved to England, this was the second lineup of Taste with John and Ritchie, and that lasted two years and two albums.”
But there were two live albums released after Taste had split. Why does Rory not take credit for these two as well?
“The two live albums were released after I was ‘dead’, sort of thing. I wasn’t a part of the release of those albums. Anyway, in late ’70 we decided to pack it in and I went out on my own. Within a few months I had got the band together. Gerry has been with me since the beginning. The drummer up to “Blueprint” was Wilgar Campbell, but he left because he wanted to spend more time with his wife and kids. We are always on the road a lot and that was interfering with his personal life. Wilgar had been sick a couple of times so we got Rod to fill in for him, so when Rod finally joined he had a good idea of what we were doing. Lou came just before .’Blueprint” and it’s the first time that the band has had a keyboard player. And that just about takes us up to the present.
“Wilgar is now playing with Mick Abrahams and there seems to be some planning underfoot for a live album from them. Mick is another musician who doesn’t like going out on the road, so Wilgar’s future seems pretty secure.
Rory admits that he wants to play six nights a week. This type of attitude seems totally foreign to the world of rock, where complaints abound about playing with too heavy a schedule. “I’d like to work six nights a week, basically because this is not just a job with me, it’s my entire life. I enjoy what I do and I like to think that others do, too. It’s really inhuman the way some bands will retreat to the countryside for years on end and leave their audiences with nothing but their latest albums.”
Rory is concerned about his audience. He prefers to play in smaller clubs that lend a more intimate environment rather than the Madison Square Gardens type of gig. “I prefer to play small clubs, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t do concert dates. Concerts can be great, so long as you’re not playing to an outrageous amount of people who can’t see or hear you. For instance, even on this tour we’re doing some dates with Deep Purple in some pretty big places. Those dates are good for exposure, experience and making money, but you’ve got to be prepared to get down a little more to the people’s level. After all, they are the ones who pay the bills.”
Rory has a larger following than anyone gives him credit for. Even Polydor Records is continually caught unawares by the great demand for Rory and his albums. The fans are usually very much a ‘grass roots’ audience. Rory attributes this to the fact that “the people who come to see me are there because of the music. They haven’t come to see an enigma, or a legend. I’m not a superstar and I’m not surrounded by a circus. All I want to do is travel around and play to those people who are interested under the best conditions that I can arrange. This kind of Judy Garland approach to music is completely unnatural to me.” This is continually evidenced by the number of people who are hounding Rory in his dressing room. But they don’t seem to bother him. Half of them are there because he told them to make a point of coming backstage to see him. The fans seem to appreciate this one-to-one attitude.
Tony McPhee of the Groundhogs, another British bluesy band, stated in an interview with Beetle some months back that Rory Gallagher and the Groundhogs are the last bastion of normality and sanity in the British music world. Neither act ever dresses up to go on stage. While some would call this attitude completely unprofessional, it doesn’t seem to bother either band or their audience. When Rory appears in his lumberjack shirt, it only seems natural. Were he to wear a pink satin Al Capone suit, his audience would undoubtedly vomit. Purists. And there’s lots of them too. “When I left Ireland for England, I was like a kid. You know how kids think that everything is absolutely natural? Even Elvis, I thought was real. When I got to London, I couldn’t believe the number of aspects of this business that are totally artificial. The number of artists who have this absolute killer attitude. ..even in discussion they’ll say. ..”So what if a kid in Scotland will never get to see me? Big deal.” That type of attitude, I think, is totally ruthless. They are businessmen, not artists. That sounds very idealistic, I know, but it’s not. I mean even when I was with the Fontana Showband, we worked hard and did really backbreaking tours. In certain places we’d end up playing seven hours a night and things like that. So, when I got to London and I found out that I had to do two 45’s or an hour long set, I thought “great!” But all these other guys who would run around: “We can’t do an hour long set. We’ll never make it through.’ After having just completed five hours a night in Hamburg, I couldn’t understand all this bitching and complaining. But Tony’s probably right, in the historical sense. The Groundhogs still do club dates, even though they are an enormous draw in Britain. They’re one of the few bands who still do the unglamorous gigs. Like we just finished a tour with 25 dates and we did it in a month. That doesn’t leave much in the way of free time, once you’ve got all your sound checks and things out of the way.”
Rory is also one of the few musicians who consents to doing gigs in the troubled spots of northern Ireland. While the army doesn’t allow concerts any more, northern Ireland regard Rory as a real hero because he played there as often as his schedule would allow. How does Rory feel about being a hero? “The reason that I wanted to play there was strictly because those are my people. And even if they weren’t, they still have as much right to music and entertainment as anyone. But that doesn’t make me a hero. After all it’s like playing in your own home town. But if a British act had gone in to play a gig, I would consider that heroism of the highest degree.”
The political troubles of Rory’s own country have not turned him into an activist, an agitator or a flag-waver. Rory’s commitment is not to a political cause, but rather his own personal code of ethics. While the situation in Ireland is getting worse instead of better, Rory refuses to cloud the real issues of the day with trite protest songs. “Protest songs are good if they make a segment of the people who are totally ignorant of a bad situation aware of the fact that there are problems. But the day of the protest song, as such, I think, has passed. The Vietnamese situation has been musically exploited beyond belief, as have many other areas of conflict. You’ll find George Harrison playing to raise funds for the unfortunate souls of Bangla Desh, but you won’t find anyone playing to raise funds for Ireland. Some causes are more popular than others. But basically, protest songs and things like that have lost their impact because they’ve been overdone. Besides, protest songs are only newspaper headlines anyway. And I’d hate to think that anyone who liked my musical material could get the same satisfaction from reading the morning papers. That, I think, would really be a drag.”