November 1997 on unofficial David Coverdale & Whitesnake website: http://www.whitesnake.f9.co.uk/Murray.html
by Phillip Hackney. Copyright © 1997 P Hackney.
I asked Neil a few questions about his Whitesnake career back in 1997 and he was kind enough to take the time to answer them….
Bear in mind that often there is no such thing as the ‘truth’, just different people’s interpretations of what went on. Often, a certain version (not necessarily what actually happened) has been repeated so many times by the teller that it becomes fact instead of opinion.
You appeared on one of the biggest selling rock albums of all time. When and how did you find out that you were no longer part of the band?
The short answer is that I read in ‘Kerrang!’ (or one of their journalists told me) that the new Whitesnake lineup was Coverdale, Vandenberg, Aldridge, Campbell and Sarzo. No-one informed me that I was out of the band (and I didn’t quit). The longer answer is that we started work on ‘1987’ at the end of September 1985 in Vancouver. All the backing tracks were done in a couple of months (with some gaps because of illness etc) and it was too expensive and not thought necessary to keep myself and drummer Aynsley Dunbar there after we’d finished our parts. Since Cozy Powell’s departure in January ’85 it had definitely become David and John’s band (with lots of power-struggles between them) with other musicians treated as assistants. Aynsley and myself were paid a weekly wage, and as the guitar and vocal overdubs dragged on and on, it was decided that there wasn’t enough money to pay our wages as well as the huge studio costs, so our money was stopped on 1 April 1986. (In view of the amount the album eventually ended up costing, our wages would have been a drop in the ocean). Now, one interpretation would be that from that moment on, we were no longer part of the band (and in fact Aynsley took that to be the case, and went on to other things), but in my case I paid my own way to Los Angeles for a week to see how things were coming on (and remember I didn’t have other sources of income – there wasn’t anything like old Whitesnake royalties coming in, though there should have been – that’s another story) and doing that got me into a bad financial position, and I was in regular contact with David to see how things were progressing.
I started doing a few gigs with a band called MGM, which comprised ex-Whitesnake guitarists Mel Galley and Bernie Marsden, as well as drummer John Marter, though it was stressed that this was just a temporary band for me until Whitesnake went back on the road. I don’t think David was keen on this, but I didn’t have too many options for getting some money into my bank account (and the band didn’t earn much anyway). David might have said at the time that I wasn’t ‘supportive’ enough, which I imagine means me coming over and supporting myself in LA while not doing any work that would ‘detract’ from Whitesnake. He was almost certainly not able to imagine what it’s like to be stuck in London, broke, with hardly any work, while he and Sykes are spending thousands of dollars per day redoing guitar and vocals parts for the umpteenth time in yet another studio. Bon Jovi recorded Slippery When Wet in the same Vancouver studio we’d just vacated, released it, toured and sold millions of the album before 1987 was still being recorded.
About a year after I had done my bass parts on 1987, John Sykes came back to studios in London to continue working on his guitar solos, so I used the opportunity to redo some bass parts, so I was obviously still considered part of the band or that wouldn’t have been possible. After that came the final power-struggle over mixing the album in LA with Keith Olsen, (see question 8) where John felt he was supposed to be overseeing the mix as well as David, and led to his departure when he turned up unannounced at the studio and had a huge row with David.
After the album was finished, there was only myself and David in the band, and though we were in contact over the phone with me in London and he living in LA, it was easier (and probably pushed for by the US record label and management) for him to start afresh and get a whole new lineup, who all conveniently lived in LA. At first the new lineup were just put together for the Still Of The Night video, where it’s deliberately not made very clear that it isn’t John Sykes or myself (no closeups), but obviously it was felt that this lineup was going to work out, particularly as it was seen as very important that the band was very visual and MTV-friendly, and certainly Rudy Sarzo had impressed David with his stage performances with Quiet Riot when we supported them in 1984.
Has David Coverdale spoken to you since your departure from the band? If so, how did he explain such an extraordinary decision?
No, he hasn’t spoken to me, though I have avoided meeting him at UK gigs in 1994 and 1997, and I’ve heard from other people that he would like to meet up. We saw each other at an Aerosmith party in London in 1988 (?) but I was suing him at the time in order to get at least some of the 1987 royalties I was entitled to. I’m sure he justified not having me in the band to other people’s satisfaction, especially as the band was so successful in 87/88 without me and the record company and management were really only interested in him. In case you’re interested, if John Sykes hadn’t insisted on it contractually, the musicians’ names would have been left off the album sleeve (like on Saints and Sinners), and everyone would have assumed (and probably most did anyway) that Sarzo, Vandenberg etc were on 1987.
What do you think of David Coverdale in 1997?
I still think he’s a great singer with a lot of charisma, but because he felt he had to do a lot of Robert Plant-type screeching in recent years (and possibly due to ill-advised throat operations) his voice is not what it was in the upper register, though when I saw him this year it wasn’t as bad as in 1994. I’m glad he’s dropped the ‘glam’ Las Vegas image, which was OK for 1987/88, but should have been ditched for more of a street image (no, not Coronation Street!) from Slip Of The Tongue onwards. He obviously has a lot of nostalgia for the Moody/Marsden era of Whitesnake, but I have no idea what kind of songs he might do in a future solo career.
Which Whitesnake line-up did you have the most fun playing with?
Do you mean fun in general, or just musically?! I did have a good time musically and socially with the Sykes, Galley, Powell, Lord lineup and the Sykes, Powell, Richard Bailey lineup that followed, but I suppose the best times were around 1980/81 with Moody, Marsden, Lord, Paice. When Micky and Bernie are together, they can be hilariously funny, and there was a lot of room for me bass-playing-wise in that blues-rock style. I very much enjoyed playing with Ian Paice and I’d love to play with him again. Later on, the band was probably heavier, which I also enjoy, but the songs didn’t allow for as much interesting bass-playing.
If you could turn back time is there anything you would do differently, musically speaking?
Probably millions of things! I know that if I’d worked on being really expert at American-style jazz-funk in the 70s, who knows, maybe I’d have ended up working with Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton (though I have done little bits with them) and other very successful artists. What would have been better would have been to concentrate on songwriting and singing, as that is where most of the money, power and musical satisfaction is to be found. Almost all of the famous bass-players are also singers and writers, and if you want to have a lot of say in the music you play, then it’s necessary to contribute significantly to the writing. (I wonder if you can identify the parts on 1987 that I came up with but was never credited with?). I’ve done a little songwriting, but should have pushed myself much further in that direction. I haven’t had much use for it up to now, but it would have been a good idea to learn to sight-read music at an early age (I can read music a little, thanks to childhood piano and trombone lessons). Seriously, it’s possible that I should have fought harder to stay in Whitesnake in ’82 rather than go with Gary Moore, but I didn’t get much encouragement from David, who seemed to think I might not work well with Cozy!
Would you consider working with David Coverdale again?
Yes, of course. There are very few singers of his ability and presence around these days. However, like most artists who’ve had great success, it’s doubtful that we could enjoy the fairly un-competitive, democratic way of working that existed in early Whitesnake days. Everyone wants to be in control these days, including me! Of course there’s no particular reason that he would want to work with me – ‘been there, done that’ etc, and having lived in the States for so long he possibly feels more comfortable with that type of musician – more image-conscious and Californian.
Many people have accused Cozy Powell and John Sykes of being motivated by money during their stints in Whitesnake. Is this one of the reasons that Cozy left before the recording of the Whitesnake ’87 album?
John Sykes was certainly very well aware of how much money could be made from songwriting on a big album, and he was very resistant to the idea of redoing old Whitesnake tracks like Crying In The Rain and Here I Go Again. Cozy, John and myself had naturally hoped that the album and tour income from 1986 onwards would be fairly equally split, and when Cozy was offered half of the percentage John would get, quite apart from publishing income, he decided that he’d rather leave. I reluctantly agreed to a much less than equal split, and ended up with about half of even that, thanks to lengthy negotiations and lawyer’s percentages when legal action had to be resorted to in order to get more than a token payment after 1987’s huge success.
In hindsight, Cozy probably regrets standing up for his principles, as if he’d stayed with the band he still would made a lot of money, particularly if he (and I) had toured with Whitesnake in 1987/88. However, he and John had done much better out of the band than the rest of us in the previous couple of years. (By the way, if you read interviews where Cozy says he played on the demos for 1987 – he didn’t).
Producer Mike Stone allegedly fell out with David during the recording of 1987. Was Stone difficult to work with?
Mike Stone was mostly my and John’s choice as producer, particularly from his work with Journey. He was more of an engineer/producer, which was what we needed, as we all had a good idea of how the album should sound. He was very easy to work with and a great guy. However, as the recording went on and on and became pretty stressful, he may have ended up hitting the bottle a bit, though I was not around, so I could be wrong. Because of the months and months of studio time that David and John had used up, Geffen Records were keen to regain control over the album by having Keith Olsen (who’d remixed Slide It In) mixing it in Los Angeles, whereas John and Mike were insisting that it be mixed in London. Geffen won. David had long-drawn-out problems with his voice, partly in my view psychosomatic (imagined illness) which would have driven any producer to distraction, particularly when an album is taking five times longer to record than it should.
You first left the band with Ian Paice to join Gary Moore after the Saints and Sinners album. What was the reason for this decision?
On 7 April 1982, there was a band meeting where it was revealed that David was parting company with the management, publishing company and record company, and in business terms Whitesnake from then on consisted of David Coverdale and anyone he wanted to have in the band. Bernie Marsden was not going to be in the next lineup, Micky Moody had left a couple of months earlier and David had the chance to bring in whoever he felt like, such as Cozy and Mel Galley. Of course the band’s wages stopped soon after, and with no royalty income (unlike the Deep Purple members) it was necessary for me to keep working while David decided what his plan of action was.
Myself, John Sykes and a couple of other guys joined forces with ex-Lone Star/Uriah Heep singer John Sloman to do a couple of gigs and record some demos for EMI, but things went much too slowly with that project, called Badlands. I had played with Gary Moore in 1975/6 in Colosseum II and been friends with him since then, and his band G-Force had supported Whitesnake on our 1980 UK tour, so he knew how well Ian Paice and I worked together. He asked Ian and I to play on his Corridors Of Power album (my idea for the title, trivia fans!) during July, and we played a few club gigs and Reading festival during August. By this time, Ian definitely knew he had been replaced by Cozy, but David was still dithering about the bass-player; he supposedly wanted someone who played with a pick (I’m a finger-style player) for a treblier, more attacking sound, and he’d always been a fan of Colin Hodgkinson from Yorkshire jazz-rock band Back Door. He also said that he wasn’t sure how my style and Cozy’s would go together! (Apart from all the work we’ve done together since then, I had first played with Cozy in his band Hammer in 1974/5, along with Bernie Marsden, more recently on whose solo album I’d been on – playing with Cozy). Anyway, Gary was offering me a permanent job in his band, whereas David seemed not to be very interested, so I decided to join Gary. If David had been prepared to pay me a small retainer to keep my head above water until Whitesnake started up again then I would have been happy to wait until the lineup was sorted out, though I didn’t think it was a very good idea for Micky to return to the band, and he would agree.
1985’s Rock In Rio must have been a fantastic experience. What are your favourite memories of this gig?
We played twice at Rock In Rio, once with Iron Maiden and Queen and a week later with The Scorpions and Ozzy Osbourne, both times to about 300,000 people, the biggest audiences I’ve played to. It was more memorable as a spectacle than a great musical performance, as the stage was huge and the monitors inadequate, so it was very hard to hear each other, and on the first show we were still jet-lagged. The video of the event is a poor representation of the show, with bad sound and virtually no shots of me and Cozy! My favourite memories are the week off between the gigs, visiting Sugarloaf Mountain and the Christ statue (Corcovado) and the fantastic scenery (both landscape and female)!
How did it feel watching Whitesnake on MTV and hearing your playing on the radio, despite being out of the band?
It’s hard to remember now, though it was made doubly difficult seeing the band take America by storm when I was struggling to pay the rent. Seeing the musicians getting multi-platinum albums to hang on their walls when they hadn’t played on the record was almost worse than them making enormous amounts of money from promoting the album on tour. Unfortunately, the large number of new fans the album brought were mostly oblivious to who played on the record, especially in the States, where the band wasn’t that well known, and in Europe there had already been too many lineup changes (with the new lineup always being the best-ever, according to David’s interviews) which tended to make the fans jaded anyway. The fans of early Whitesnake often didn’t like 1987, and tended to assume I didn’t either, which was difficult, because I liked both the old and the new. The new fans were mostly uninterested in the pre-1987 versions of Whitesnake.
The late eighties saw you join the Japanese band Vow Wow. How do you look back on this period?
Basically I joined Vow Wow (though technically I was never an official member) to work and earn a living, not because I loved the music. They were very good musicians, but after the novelty had worn off, British fans lost interest. In Japan, where we spent a lot of time, they were quite well-known, but not huge – the Japanese prefer to hear foreign acts singing in English and Japanese acts singing in Japanese, not Japanese acts singing in English!
It was a very interesting experience for me to work with Japanese musicians, and to spend months at a time in Tokyo, but after a couple of years I felt the songs were becoming very predictable and their following was getting smaller. There certainly weren’t loads of offers coming in because I’d been in Whitesnake – remember that the last UK tour we’d done was in 1984, promoting an album I didn’t play on (in Europe) and in America I wasn’t a well-known name at all.
What advice do you have for any budding bassists out there?
Play along with all sorts of different kinds of music – don’t just concentrate on one style which may go out of fashion
Have confidence but don’t be big-headed
Get the best equipment you can afford
Try to play with better musicians than yourself
Only work with good drummers
Try to play music you actually enjoy as much as you can
Practise more than the competition
Hang out in the right places to meet other musicians who can get you work
Your personality, looks and business sense are just as important as your playing – work on all of them
Did you enjoy your time in Black Sabbath?
Yes, most of the time. Part of me really enjoys playing very loud, heavy stuff, and in fact not all Sabbath’s stuff is like that anyway. Tony Iommi is a great guy, and lots of fun to be with (unlike his image). However, for many of the fans the only good lineup was the original lineup and I felt sometimes it didn’t matter how good I was, because if I wasn’t Geezer Butler, then I must be rubbish. People on the outside would think that Whitesnake fans would also be Sabbath fans, but if fact there was very little overlap, with WS fans not being aware that I was even in Sabbath, and Sabs fans not being interested in Whitesnake. The press and US record label were not keen on the band when I was in it, and Cozy and myself got very fed-up with always being described as ‘faceless session musicians’. I didn’t feel able to contribute much in the way of songs to the band, and some of the material and the record-production could have been a lot better, in my opinion.
You had a successful stint with Queen guitarist Brian May, will you be working with him again in the future?
Brian has always been a fan of Black Sabbath, and it was mostly because of seeing me and Cozy with them that he wanted us as his rhythm section. He’s been working on dozens of songs since the end of the tour in 1993, a lot of which Cozy plays on, though I’m not on so many as Brian often plays all the instruments apart from the drums on his songs. When the album finally comes out in spring next year, it’s very likely that Cozy and myself will tour with him again.
What are you currently doing?
After the last version of Black Sabbath ground to a halt after a lot of touring in 1995, Cozy called me up to help him with the return of original Fleetwood Mac singer/guitarist Peter Green, who had been away from music for a long time due to psychiatric problems. It was very slow and low-key to start with, but we’ve played lots of gigs in Britain and Europe over the last 18 months. The band is called the Splinter Group and it’s mostly blues, with some of Peter’s old Fleetwood Mac hits, and it can be very enjoyable when he’s on form, though he can be erratic. I started playing bass in the mid-60s when the British blues boom was happening, and Whitesnake was directly influenced by a lot of the bands from that time and their black American forerunners, so it’s easy for me to slip back into that style. Cozy has recently left and things are a bit quiet, but I’ll probably be gigging with the band for the next few months, and possibly doing an album (there is already a live album). I occasionally do one-off gigs with Micky Moody and Bernie Marsden, and I quite often see Mel Galley.
Using any of the people you have played with, what would be your line-up for a ‘super group’?
Vocals: David Coverdale or Paul Rodgers
Guitar: Jeff Beck and Joe Satriani
Keyboards: Jon Lord
Drums: Ian Paice
Backing Vocals: Ozzy Osbourne, Ian Gillan, Robert Palmer, Jimmy Barnes, Sting, Graham Bonnet
(yes, I have played with all of the above!)
You were once in a band called Hanson, were you aware that some people went out and bought the recent Hanson album (featuring three teenage brothers!) thinking that you were playing on it!? (Ha! Ha!)
Sorry! Considering that the modern-day Hanson weren’t born in 1973/4 when I played with the other Hanson, don’t you think it’s a bit unlikely?! I’m definitely too old to play with them!
Will you be doing any bass clinics anywhere in the near future?
I just did a class at Basstech in London, which I do about twice a year. I find it pretty nerve-racking, as I can’t do lots of flashy bass solos to impress the students, and it’s hard to explain why I play certain notes or phrases and not others. If I did lots of that kind of thing I might be slicker at it, but I don’t think I’m the ideal person for that kind of performance – I’m much better with a band, bouncing musical ideas off each other spontaneously, rather than showing people exercises and scales. I don’t get asked to do clinics by the companies whose equipment I use, as they generally have guys who specialise in doing that kind of thing all year round.
How would you sum up your time in the music industry and what advice would you have for those starting out?
In some ways I’ve been very lucky and have gone a long way (especially not being a singer), perhaps sometimes by being in the right place at the right time or by being friends with other musicians who need a bass-player, rather than having to do lots of auditions. I’ve had my fair share of rip-offs and not as much financial success as you might think (sorry to keep on about it!), and sometimes I think it’s a very hard business where the tougher you are the better. I’m still glad to have a career doing what I enjoy (most of the time) and what I’m hopefully good at. See question 13, and also: Don’t sign anything without showing it to a music business lawyer first. The person who doesn’t give up usually wins in the end Music is important, but having a life is more important.