“There was one of those old Sony cassette players, I hit play and Baba O’Riley came on – and that was it, my whole world went out the window.”
I was incredibly lucky to spend 50 minutes, down a rather grainy Zoom line, with legendary bass player Guy Pratt. He should need no introduction, but for those who do need a reminder, Guy has played bass with Pink Floyd and David Gilmour, Roxy Music, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Jimmy Page and many more. He will be somewhere in your Spotify playlists!
He’s also written a great music memoir, ‘My bass and other animals’ – a witty, no holds barred, self-deprecating journey through his music life, with a bit of Spinal Tap in places. Fun was certainly had on this musical journey.
Guy is currently part of Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets project, gigging early Floyd songs on a tour that started over three years ago. The Saucers have a live DVD out next month (more details here on the SuperDeluxeEdition website).
We managed to cover a whole range of topics – Floyd, the Saucers, his work with The Orb and The Transit Kings, Johnny Marr and the Smiths, and Echo and the Bunnymen. Plus his encounters with Bernard Edwards from Chic and the final time David Bowie played in the UK. Plus news of a new book on the way. And most importantly, why everyone was pissed on Top of the Pops…
Hopefully my Floyd trainspotting was held in check and only one question fell into weeds…
Your house is burning – what three records do you save?
I was thinking about this, but I have a problem with that question because the way we consume everything now is so different. I always joked for a while that Desert Island discs is now hopelessly outdated – the question should actually be what 500,000 songs would you take on a thumb drive? You could ask me what my three most important bits of vinyl are and that is a different question to what my three most important records are. The first bit of vinyl I would save would be the Capital Years box set of Frank Sinatra that my Mum gave me for my 25th birthday, that is all the original Sinatra albums in their original sleeves. That’s the favourite vinyl I own but it’s by no means my most important record.
Yes, the physical object can have a different sentimental value compared to the pure focus on the music
I never really had the sentimental thing for records, apart from those first singles – I think back to my first copy of Complete Control by the Clash. I’m one of the few people who loved CDs. Love CDs! Probably because I’m clumsy and the one thing that everyone seems to forget is that your favourite records are the ones you like to put on when you’re pissed. Which is why, when I used to drink, all my favourite records were scratched after the first few plays.
My most valuable vinyl would be that Frank Sinatra one, a Woody Allen stand up record and Mochito, Live at the El Mocambo – I’m a big fan of Latin.
If you could pick one album as the biggest influence?
It depends, but the most important record, the record that made me a musician, was Who’s Next. Hands down. How much this has to do with the musician I am now I don’t know, it’s the passion I fell in love with. Very few people would listen to me and say there was a definite Entwistle influence there.
Was that a record you bought when you were a teenager?
It’s the record I heard that changed everything. I was on holiday, in Holyhead, I had an older cousin who bullied me into smoking, it was the first time I’d had a drag on a cigarette, I felt sick, I went and laid down on the bed. There was one of those old Sony cassette players, I hit play and Baba O’Riley came on – and that was it, my whole world went out the window.
If you went into a music shop to try out a bass, what would you play?
My go-to is always Chic stuff, my warm-up thing was ‘Everybody Dance’ by Chic. That was until I found myself in the studio with Bernard Edwards and without thinking I played that. He was like ‘shudup mutherfucker, you’re making me feel old!’. It’s usually a disco thing I go to, that’s my default position, ‘Good times’ or something.
The amazing thing about Bernard is that as well as all the Chic stuff, he came up with the bass line for ‘Addicted to love’ – one of the great rock bass lines of all time.
I don’t know if you’ve seen my Lockdown Licks (See here on YouTube), at the beginning it starts with this funny mad little phrase. Matthew Miller, the guy doing the editing, picked up on it and used it as the intro and that’s what I always play when I pick up a bass. It’s a nonsense thing.
Have you discovered any new music during lockdown?
I’m not really looking for new music. I love playing music but I’m not looking for new music. There so much that’s been made. The last band that pricked my interest was Khruangbin, that two piece, who also have a radio station. I listen to a lot of music but I don’t need new music. I need new books, I need new TV and films.
That’s interesting, I’ve heard other musicians say this as well, perhaps you’ve soaked up so much new music in the past?
It’s a good point. You get to a point when you’ve played so much pop music that you know what it all is. I prefer to listen to obscure old jazz or classical music because you don’t know what it is, I don’t know how it works. Someone says ‘there’s this amazing band’ – and I listen to it and its like.. E, F-sharp…I’m done with those chords.
I’m jealous of people who can maintain that excitement. Phil Manzanera’s got that, and Johnny Marr’s got that.
We’ll move on to Saucerful of Secrets, your project of the moment. My first question is about the sound of the SoS. I saw you in Manchester and I loved Interstellar Overdrive as the opener – it was punky and loud. I’ve heard Nick say that you didn’t spend too long trying to replicate the records. How did the sound evolve?
That’s just us. We do have that classic proper band thing – if you listen to a recording of us at the start of the tour and then listen at the end of the tour, it will be completely different! But there will be nothing conscious – there no saying ‘stop doing this, do that’. It is Pink Floyd before it was so fucking important. It is the pop group before it was this vast faceless monolith. They’re pop songs and we can throw in tons of musical gags and references, which is what they used to do.
When I tour with David, which is fantastic in other ways, he jokes that he wants everyone to have fun and mess around with the material, except me! I’m not allowed any fun!
You all take a musical lead in the Saucers, it’s quite a democracy?
Everyone wears their influences on their sleeve. For instance, Gary, on ‘Arnold’ or ‘Emily’, his guitar is based on Mick Ronson, from the Bowie cover – which is fucking brilliant. There’s one solo that Lee does, I think it is ‘The Nile Song’, which is him going, fuck it, I’ll get my Clapton on.
I think Gary Kemp has surprised a few people with his guitar playing?
Poor old Gary is getting fed up with people saying ‘you’re quite a good guitarist’. Of course he was the guitarist in Spandau Ballet and played nice posh minor seventh chords. He’s surprised that because of my Floyd background I’m always getting gear and pedals thrown at me, because that’s the sound.
Gary is new to it, but Lee is a bit guilty of this, but there is this world of Floyd trainspotters, people who spend their whole lives picking David’s guitar sounds apart.
Are you happy how the DVD captures the sound of the band?
It does, very much so. It was great that it was filmed in the Roundhouse. It’s great. I’m very proud of that.
Do you have a favourite song in the set?
Most of the people I play with have great sets, Roxy Music sets are amazing, Bryan Ferry amazing, David Gilmour amazing, but everyone has one, two or three songs in the set where its like ‘I’ve just got to get through this one…’. I won’t say what they are, obviously! But I can genuinely say with this band every single song is just yippee! My least favourite song is probably Green is the Colour, even though I have a solo in it, because it’s the one song that could be someone else. Sometimes in the soundcheck we play it as ‘Tonight’s the night’ by Rod Stewart.
It’s an early seventies ballad isn’t it?
Yes, it’s a major-seventhy thing.
I wanted to ask you about the songs you sing with the Saucers, – Vegetable Man and Lucifer Sam.
Gary sings most of Vegetable Man, but I like the dual thing we do.
Did that give more of an insight into Syd Barrett, singing his lyrics?
Not really, because I’ve been a student of Syd’s for a long time. There’s this one line in Lucifer Sam where I can kind of see what was going through Syd’s head but if you’re not Syd – don’t do it like that. That bit at the end ‘Hiding around on the ground. He’ll be found when you’re around.’ The abilities he has with time are extraordinary. With something like Vegetable Man, Gary and I had to practice, practice, because every stanza is different – bars of five, bars of three. As David said, with Syd, you just follow the vocal. Forget everything else, forget counting. Gary and I had to really work on that but Nick just sails through it! Like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Amazing, a real gift.
What’s it like going out on the road in a bus again, touring like an old-school band?
It’s fantastic. It’s the first time Nick’s ever slept on a tour bus. Pink Floyd basically went from the transit to the plane. Gary and I get the queeniest about it. We stay in some pretty funky hotels but its not deluxe at all. But everyone loves it. Because we work really hard, we do a gig practically every day. Looking back at previous tours, it’s very seductive – the posh travel, staying in these hotels and days off between gigs. But very distracting, you kind of forget why you’re there. It becomes as much about shopping and dinner. With the Saucers it’s all about getting out there and playing. We’re quite grown up – we play, we go to bed, we get up, we go straight to the cathedral or the art museum and we get our sightseeing in.
Very middle-class rock and roll…
Yes, we’re the sun-dried tomatoes of rock and roll.
One last question about the Saucers. The gig you played in New York with Roger (Waters) – any memories of how that went?
It was great, it was what it was. We only found out about it on the day. Roger didn’t do the soundcheck. He was very nice. He was nice about us in that Rolling Stone thing he did, he was very nice about me. I kept reading it looking for a dig, but it wasn’t there.
Moving on to David Gilmour, I wanted to ask about the gig in 2006, when David Bowie joined you. How did it work with Bowie on that night? – because it just seemed to click perfectly. One of the most amazing gigs I’ve been to.
What was amazing, was Arnold Layne. He knew that song inside out, upside, downside. It was like he’d been doing it every night. It was fucking insane. Syd was so important to Bowie and he was one of those people, once it goes in, it stays in.
Comfortably Numb – at the start of the soundcheck you got the impression he’d never really listened to it. Didn’t know it at all. What was funny was that at start of the tour David had to really bully Rick (Wright) into doing the vocal – he really didn’t want to do it. Of course Rick did it brilliantly. But when we said Bowie was going to sing it, Rick got all uppity. Fuck me! It’s David Bowie. ‘Well, I’ll sing it with him’. It’s David Bowie! It was interesting that Bowie was winging it, he was winging Comfortably Numb – boy that I could ever wing anything like Bowie.
And that was Bowie’s last ever UK performance I think?
Yes, his second ever last performance anywhere. It was because Nick Belshaw our tour manager was Bowie’s old production manager and Bowie happened to be in London. He’d brought his daughter over to go sightseeing. I don’t know if he knew he was ill by then and he wanted his family to see where he came from. Nick said to him – ‘will you come and play?’ And he just said, ‘sure’. We were like ‘What!?’ It was amazing and of course I got that fantastic picture with him, which is in my book.
One last Floyd question about Wembley 88 (my first ever gig) and presume it was your homecoming back to London?
Yes, it was full prodigal son returns to London. It was such a big deal. Wembley was complicated – I had my mates coming, my Mum, my cousins, my Uncle. It was a really big deal. There’s nothing like your Mum coming to a gig to make you worry about everything. Wembley is so complicated and you had to have different passes to get into different bits.
Moving on to your work with The Orb next. I understand the connection with The Orb comes from your school days?
Yes, me Alex Patterson and Youth were all at school together. Youth was best man at my wedding. We’ve been friends ever since.
I was on the first Orb album (Adventures beyond the Ultraworld) and I co-wrote a song – ‘Spanish Castles in space’. I don’t play on that as much as people think, most of it comes from my dear departed friend Jake Le Mesurier, it is based on a loop, which is a sample from Bill Evans, of the ‘Love Theme from Spartacus’. There’s what sounds like a double bass, but I’m doing the melody with the volume pedal, that’s me.
Do you like that way of working with The Orb? It’s quite different – you get the bass down, its programmed, you can play around with it, looping stuff.
Yes, Alex and I have done a lot of tracks together from scratch. I love working with Alex, but there’s also an infuriating side to working with him – which is that he has a pile of records, and he’s listening to them while you’re trying to work on a chord sequence. He keeps trying to play snatches of records and drives you mad. It’s how it gets done.
The sweetest one is when they did the remake of Randall and Hopkirk, one of my Dad’s old TV shows, with Vic and Bob. Charlie Higson (the writer) was great, he was so respectful of the family that I was given a little part in it and asked me to do some music for it. All the bits when they’re in heaven, with Tom Baker, the backing track is an Orb track, which is something me and Alex did together. The bit of music we did is called ‘Hamlet of Kings’, which is an anagram of Kingham Hill, which is the school we went to. First time I’ve told that story!
The album you and Alex made as the Transit Kings – it doesn’t get that much airtime – but I really like it, a really diverse album.
The Last Lighthouse Keeper, the thing we did with Simon Day, was a great lost track and I was always hoping someone would make a nice animated film of that. It was a great fun thing. Dom Beken (now in the Saucers) was working with me as my assistant and that’s how he got introduced to Alex. Dom is a bit younger and The Orb were his musical heroes when he was at Uni. That relationship with The Orb still goes on.
How involved do you get in the electronics of an album like that, beyond your bass? Do you program keyboards?
The whole lot, I program keyboards. On ‘The Hamlet of Kings’ I did all the drum programming and everything. I used to be really good at that stuff, but completely forgotten now. Dom is brilliant at it.
There are some tracks with The Orb where I just come in and play bass but the funny thing is that I’ve done so many odds and end with Alex over the years, whenever an Orb album comes out, sometimes I’m on it, sometimes not. Alex will say ‘you’re on the new album’ – it won’t be something specific but I did it years ago.
Moving on to the Smiths and Johnny Marr. You talk about your very brief period with the Smiths in your book. You connected with Johnny Marr’s guitar playing rather Morrissey’s lyrics and singing? What was it about Johnny’s guitar playing?
I was there because of Johnny – if Johnny wanted me to join him to play bass, whatever it was, I would have done it. I felt the same way about Morrissey as I did about Jim Morrison – yes, he’s a genius but I don’t really need him round my gaff. I didn’t really like his singing and that stopped me seeing what was going on underneath. Now, I love listening to Smiths records – ‘There is a light that never goes out’, especially The Queen is Dead, I mean that album is a masterpiece. Amazing bits of music in that.
What makes Johnny’s guitar sound unique for you?
Him and David Gilmour are both two sides of the same coin – in their hands the guitar is an orchestra. Johnny gets very pigeonholed, or used to be, with that jangly thing – that just one aspect. When I first came across Johnny he used to play the most beautiful finger picking parts – I said to him – ‘you must listen to a lot of African music’ – he sounded like one of the best hi-life guitar players I’ve ever heard. He said ‘not really’. I find that very interesting, the universality of music, that many people can be influenced by forms of music they don’t even know. When we were hanging out together, ‘Panic’ came out – which is a brilliant paean to glam – it’s got this classic Bolan/Ronson guitar. Johnny also does a mean Nile Rogers.
When watching him play, you’re thinking ‘how does this sound come out of one set of fingers?’
Absolutely. It’s what Brian Jones and Keith Richards said when they first heard Robert Johnson – ‘where’s the other guy?’.
In your book you talk about forming a band with Johnny, when the Smiths ended. How far did you get? Was there a name, a sound?
It was going to be me, Johnny and guy called David Palmer, a drummer. I introduced Johnny to David and that went on for years, they played with TheThe together. We didn’t get that far – it was a lovely idea. We did have one joke idea for a name which was The Brothers Dangerous – a cross between the Dangerous Brothers (comedians Rik and Ade) and the Brothers Johnson.
I also wanted to ask you how your work with Echo and the Bunnymen came about?
It came about as my manager managed them. I don’t know if I’d met Mac (Ian McCulloch) another way, but I loved him and I loved Will (Sergeant) as well – he was a boffin like, esoteric character. Mac has got an incredibly sharp brain and he’s very entertaining. Extraordinarily self-confident. But without being a dick. Self-confident but self aware.
Did you get play live as well as recording?
Yeah – I did Reading with them and some festivals. They were party shows, I don’t remember that much about it..a good time was had by all.
On the theme of festivals, my good mate Chris asked me to put this question – he saw you play at Croperdy Festival with the Blockheads – how did that go?
Which I did with no rehearsal, I’d not even met them. It came about because of Lee Harris. I’d never played with them before and I had stand in front of 16000 people and play ‘Hit me with your rhythm stick’ – which is the most difficult thing I’ve ever played. Norman is a god, one of my all-time bass heroes.
Top of the Pops – were you a serious mimer?
The first thing to remember about Top of the Pops is that everyone is pissed. Why wouldn’t you be? When it was at Shepherd’s Bush, you’d have record companies who had the cheque book, they’d take you for lunch at the Hiroko, which is a Japanese restaurant in the Hilton over the road.
You’d get the sake down you, then you had a boring afternoon in the dressing room and you got pissed.
When I did it with Electronic, we did it live, and there was a technical problem, and we had to wait. As we had our instruments all plugged in we played ‘Good Times’. Bernard (Sumner) said ‘Great, our song’s going to sound shite now.’
Now, the thing of miming doesn’t really exist anymore and it feels strange. I was almost doing it for a living at one stage, you’d do whole TV tours of Europe. You’d be paid a lot of money, staying in great hotels, just to go on some German TV daytime show.
What next for you? I saw a hint from you on Twitter that you have a new book planned?
I’m trying. The thing is I wrote a book and people liked it, and I’ve got people on social media saying all the time ‘when are you writing another book?’ and seeing as I can’t do anything else and I’m certainly not earning any money, that it seems crazy not to follow the one avenue open to me. So, yes, I’m writing another book. But I hate it! And it’s like pulling teeth. Once I get started its good. It’ll be slightly different to the other one. It won’t be as flash! bang! as the other one – it won’t be – Madonna! Pink Floyd! It hasn’t got all of that but over the last 20 years I’ve been in some really funny situations.
One other thing I have got coming up is that Gary Kemp and I have done a series of podcasts. We’ve interviewed Nick Mason, Trevor Horn, Bob Geldof. Gary asks the searching serious questions and I throw in the gags. ***now available on Spotify ***
You can find out more about Guy’s work at his website.