Thursday, May 08, 2014

Rory Gallagher - Sinner Boy

I've been listening to a lot of Rory Gallagher recently. Before you start sniggering at the back there, this has (possibly) more to do with another conversation I recently had with a music producer/friend about the nature of 'true art'. Both of us agreed on one of the definitions as being that which is produced with NO thought for either fashion or even a prospective audience. In other words, something that comes directly from what may be termed 'the soul'. The boy from County Donegal, for whom a 'sense of style' amounted to a flannel shirt and baseball boots, had this in spades.

Yet, before we explore WHY Rory remains important, especially in this age of cookie-cutter 'authenticity', it's a good idea to begin by defining exactly what William Rory Gallagher wasn't. Aways regarded, even by detractors, as some kind of analogy for integrity, Gallagher - once you do a little bit of digging (both research-wise and  aurally) - turns out to be so much more. On the surface Rory's brand of integrity tends to be, well... dull. The world is full of 'purists', especially in the world of blues (however you define that). And how dull they are. Have a look at Rory's Wikipedia entry and there it is: 'an Irish blues-rock multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and bandleader.' Gee... three chords and the truth.

Like everything on Wikipedia this tells a fraction of the story and the irony is that had Rory lived until the present day I think he'd now be expanding his audience through more collaborations and musical diversions. He just never had the chance. 

If there's one overriding reason why Gallagher's name is consigned to a cabal of blues-worshippers and not celebrated beyond is that his main body of work resided in the live arena - honed by night after night of doing what he was always most happy doing - playing to sweaty crowds. This is not to say that all of his recorded output is a failure. But the dedication to life on the road and a strange refusal (possibly born of his early dedication to his own, singular artistic path) to work with other producers means that if you want to really appreciate the man, you have to see him on stage.

Luckily we now have the treasure trove of Youtube to allow us to fully appreciate how special his talent for performing was. There are literally hundreds of hours of Rory on video - a cursory trawl resulted in the playlist below: all pre-1980 shows and each with its merits.

Of all of these concerts the most 'poetic' would be Tony Palmer's long-forgotten Irish Tour '74, immortalised on the brilliant live album of the same name (although strangely missing from his IMDb entry). On the accompanying record Rory explodes out of the traps on the opener, 'Cradle Rock' - it has to be one of the most visceral expressions of filthy, dirty rock ever recorded. But in the film - ostensibly a straightforward 'on the road' documentary of Gallagher on his home turf - Palmer starts with an almost genius stroke of an opening sequence, where the crashing waves off the rocky coastline of Western Ireland are slowly replaced by Gallagher's exquisite soloing on the middle section of 'Walk On Hot Coals': delicate, folksy arpeggios drenched in sweat, demonstrating his astonishing range from the off.

While there's a sense that maybe something darker drove Rory to endlessly tour (I well remember how in the mid-'70s the NME yearly reader's polls always half-jokingly gave him the 'Vasco Da Gama touring award' for sheer hard work on the road), not only did he almost single-handedly pave the way for Ireland's modern gigging circuit, but it's also possible that many a student union would have had far less to show if he hadn't been prepared to play over and over again. I myself only saw him once (in 1981 at Reading University, to a small faithful crowd - by then his star was well into the descendant), but he still gave it 110%.

In real life Rory did appear to be almost monomaniacal in his pursuit of the adrenaline rush that accompanied live playing - in one interview he explains how itchy he got when working at home or in the studio, undoubtedly explaining why many of his studio albums have a rather rushed two-dimensional feel. In a life filled with irony, the ultimate one was that this inability to lead a settled existence finally led to his death. Alcoholism combined with medication to combat a fear of flying led to unforeseen liver damage that seems inexcusable less than 20 years later.

To believers, the cliche is that Gallagher was far more influential than he's given credit for, but the cliche turns out to actually have a solid grounding. The evidence is pretty clear, especially for someone like me,whose years as a guitar beginner were indelibly marked by his work. As a youngster I only owned two Gallagher albums - Tattoo (bought on cassette in a W H Smith sale in Coventry) and Live in Europe. Actually I don't think I knew anyone at that time who didn't own Live in Europe. It was, after all, the first of his albums to truly capture the essence of what he stood for and a template for aspiring guitarists. Brian May is on record as saying that his own signature 'toppy' sound was derived from Gallagher's advice after a show on the use of treble boosters etc. In fact, Rory was renowned for taking the time to explain his techniques with young fans, so there are probably a whole lot more examples out there. Simply put, Rory was a giant among the players who defined what a 'rock guitarist' could be.

His early choice to work in the showbands that toured the clubs of his native Ireland in the '60s was regarded as a cop-out, until everyone realised that he was merely learning his stagecraft (as Jon Anderson would have it - ho ho). Not only that but (a little like Van Morrison) he was also getting a grounding in far more than rhythm and blues. By the late '60s he'd become the coolest kid on the block with the longest hair and the hottest licks. In Ireland at this point it almost equated to avant garde behaviour. His first band, Taste, were also far more than the usual Cream-alike power trio. Their repertoire included gutsy blues primitivism, folk, prog and even a fair amount of jazz. Check out their performance on Beat Club in 1970, and see Rory wail on the sax! He kept up the habit well into the '70s, as well.

By the band's legendary appearance at the Isle of Wight festival in the same year this was, in all but name, a solo act. Again, Rory's eyes-on-the-prize drive that led to a successful launch of a solo career the following year belies any simplistic take on the man and his muse.

Myth had it (when I was younger) that Rory was not the brightest bulb in the box - unconcerned with financial success as long as his brother/manager kept him in Guinness and enough money for strings and petrol for his car. I'm pretty sure that a huge quantity of this mythology stems from good old-fashioned racism. The fact is, if you watch the (rather excellent, if you ignore The Edge and Bob Geldof) documentary, Ghost Blues, you'll hear the story of a man who, from an early age just knew exactly what he wanted to do: play guitar and lead a band. If that single-mindedness led to Rory being branded stupid it was because people often mistake focus and dedication with a lack of imagination. It's true that in the biographies you do begin to sense that the interviewees - unable to expand on the man's personality other than he was 'generous' 'sweet' or 'nice' - are running out of synonyms for 'boring'. And this view has undoubtedly tainted the man's reputation. 

However, back in the early '70s this was a man who was touring the States as a support for every major act around (and regularly blowing them off stage), playing equally easily to stadium crowds as well as tiny clubs. When he began touring under his own name he was important enough to audition (and reject) Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell for his new trio: a fact worth noting if you happen to (wrongly) believe that his eventual choices (Gerry McAvoy on bass and Wilgar Campbell) were 'hacks' as some journalists remarked at the time. Rory was never anything but driven and knew just what suited his style. 

Following the smoother approach of his eponymous debut album, Gallagher quickly realised that he needed to somehow bottle the live energy in a studio format. Deuce, the follow-up was rawer (and pretty close to the best he ever got in studio confines) yet, as stated, it wasn't until later that year that Live In Europe really set his star alight. So much so that, when Mick Taylor left the Stones, Rory was one of the guitarists auditioned to replace him. But Rory was a born leader, not follower, and he was wise enough to pass.

The replacement of Campbell by the less versatile Rod de'Ath on drums led to his trio expanding to a four-piece, with Lou Martin on keyboards to fill out the sound. To my ears Martin's rinky-dink electric piano always detracted from Gallagher's already top-end dynamic, and while he was undoubtedly accomplished one can only speculate how things may have gone if he'd found a more sonically compatible keyboardist. Still, the live shows of this period (as captured on Irish Tour '74) were blistering. With a voice that was both sweet and growling, and a brace of more than adequate songs, Rory was in his element: slaying the crowd, night after night after night... 

Another irony of his (supposed) back-to basics approach was the iconic effect it had on him and his image; or lack of it. Rory truly hated the idea of stardom and had no use for recognition or validation, yet the business (and his fans) kept trying to smother him in it. 

For starters, there's his legendary guitar. I'm aware that the fetishisation of axes amongst the more obsessive six-string enthusiasts can run amok, given the chance. Read any of the thousands of guitar magazines and you'll hear references to legendary instruments referred to by soubriquets that seem to approach the level of naming of weaponry in cheap sword and sorcery novels: Billy Gibbons' 'Miss Pearly Gates', BB King's 'Lucille' (of which there were apparently many), Eric Clapton's 'Blackie' and 'The Fool', Neil Young's 'Old Black' and even Willie Nelson's 'Trigger'. But visit the Rory Gallagher website and you can buy a POSTER of his guitar. A poster! Rory's '61 Strat was bought secondhand for £100 in 1963 (another indicator that Rory knew exactly what he wanted at an extremely early age) and, along with its pre-CBS buyout status, is most famous for being the most beaten up instrument on the rock stage at any time, before or since. The way in which the patina had worn was allegedly down to Rory's rare blood type which gave his sweat a high alkaline content that literally ate away at the varnish. 

Equally iconic was his lack of 'devices'. Despite the aforementioned treble booster, Rory was well known for eschewing the technical trappings of rock stardom. Not for him any wah-wah, fuzz or volume pedals that afflicted the post-Hendrix generation: he learned to use just tone and volume controls to achieve these effects along with a startling dexterity with harmonics. He even used an old aspirin bottle as a slide. The only downside of using less to achieve more is that his later work sounds horribly artificial as he finally started to use flangers and effects racks in the '80s.

People at the time equated this lack of flummery as a 'workmanlike' approach to his craft, yet if you watch his shows he frequently dazzles in a way that perhaps only Jeff Beck replicates, demonstrating a tonal mastery over the six strings that uses the guitar for its own ends. Yet, unlike Beck, his guitar isn't wielded like some phallic extension, but seems more like a third limb: no wonder his old Strat became so legendary, it was as much a part of him as his arms. But the same applies to his 1930s National Steel. Ragtime, country, etc etc. Rory really could play 'em all.

And on the  dodgy subject of rock and sexuality, it always seems fascinating that when he died tragically young at 47 he left no (acknowledged) partner or children. His style packs a masculine aggression born of years treading the boards in the roughest drinking establishments and yet how did such a handsome boy avoid the snares of the heart? A cursory glance at forums reveals the usual sexual stereotyping that comes with 'rock', desperate to disparage any hint of being gay in favour of the adages of 'life on the road' negating any long-term relationships, or even that he had a mysterious American girlfriend. In the end, who really cares? The fact remains that the musical seam he mined had more to do with hardship and bad luck than the pursuance of getting his rocks off. He's far more believable when singing of his time in Sing Sing on 'In Your Town' or despairing of the destructive power of sex vs spirituality on 'I Could've Had Religion'. He loved the mythology and the symbolism of the blues ('you're just born with it' he tells a German interviewer in one of the attached clips), and that included the hard-drinking lifestyle that was to be his downfall.

But above all Rory has, for me, become a symbol of artistic integrity that transcends genre or technical ability. On the second point it has to be stated that if you watch any of the videos on the playlist below you'll quickly surmise that Gallagher was an astounding guitarist who simply preferred to work within the more basic framework of the blues. Taste's earlier explorations in jazz (along with tracks such as 'They Don't Make Them Like You Anymore' on Tattoo) show that those years in a show band had given Rory the chops to deal with most other genres. What's more, his distinctive phrasing contains a huge dollop of Irish folk in its trills and flourishes. And in many ways that's what Rory's biggest legacy has been: putting Irish music on the world stage. 

Anyway - spend some time with Rory - and marvel again at the world's most self-effacing, genuine guitarist. Whatever that entails...


milo said...

Well said, Chris!

Chris Jones said...

Thanks, Milo!

Mike Goonan said...

Chris that was by far the most descriptive and 'to the point' piece of writing about Rory I've ever read. Great stuff and thank you.
Mike Goonan, Aberdeen

Chris Jones said...

Many thanks for reading Mike - Rory was pretty much the most 'to the point' guitarist I ever saw!

1111makala said...

Mr. Jones, you in a few excellent paragraphs, distilled Rory's greatness where others would take pages and pages to accomplish. Well done Sir.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article, you really caught what Rory was.

Shylotus said...

Chris, thank you. You eloquently said everything I try to say when talking about my favorite musician.

Chris Jones said...

Many, many thanks for the kind words.

bobchewie said...

Live in Europe. All the way. Best album I've ever bought
Rory at Greyhound Croydon
Rory at Sundown Edmonton
Rory at Dominion Tottenham Court Road ( ten years later)

Derek said...

Excellent article and on the button. A good insight to Rory. Thanks so much. Derek

chris big man robelou said...

Superb article!

Chris Jones said...

Thanks for the kind comments, guys. And keep listening to Rory, of course...