An Early Closet Folkie with a Wispy Beard – the KEITH CHRISTMAS interview
Attempting to categorise a favourite LP, artist or group is often a fairly meaningless exercise. What exactly is a "folk-rock classic"? Or a "progressive rock masterpiece"? A "psychedelic piece de resistance"? I’ve seen albums by Keith Christmas labelled as being all of the above, and they may well deserve those exact accolades – the trouble being that one well-meaning description could equally serve to alienate a thousand other potential listeners. So, how best to try to describe the musial landscape that Keith Christmas has travelled through during the last three decades or so?
The simple answer is that for anyone unfamiliar with his recorded history, Keith Christmas is without doubt one of the finest guitar players around and one well worthy of your attention. I consider myself lucky indeed to have found an album of his as long ago as 1971, and have followed his career with enthusiasm and pleasure ever since. The release of a new album on Woronzow seemed like as good an opportunity as any to interview him for the Terrascope – so here it is: the Keith Christmas story as told by himself.
PT: How did the new LP for Woronzow come about?
KC: I’ve known Adrian for nearly 30 years, back to the early days of Magic Muscle when they moved into a farmhouse I’d rented in Somerset and we all set up a commune in about 1973. We made contact again when I moved back to Bristol 12 years ago. While we were recently exchanging a round of e-mails Adrian asked me if I’d thought of doing an instrumental album. It had crossed me mind a few times, but I never thought anyone would be interested. I sent him a sample, and he liked it…
How would you describe your musical evolution?
The first music I played was on a ratty old acoustic of indeterminate parentage and was a mixture of blues from my brother’s albums and Buddy Holly from an EP my mum had. I graduated to folk songs, as folk was the big thing then. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Simon and Garfunkel. I know being an early closet folkie with a wispy beard is a shocking thing to confess – but no-one’s ever asked me before and I’ve never told a living soul!
As soon as the late 60s hit, I started to experiment more with tunings, timings and structures, and I made my first album ‘Stimulus’ in London with Mighty Baby as session players. It was atrociously produced and sold enough copies to make no difference tto my lifestyle. My then manager Sandy Roberton chose the musicians and did the arrangements.
The next two albums, ‘Fable of the Wings’ and ‘Pygmy’, followed the same sort of path but with a divide opening up between my love of acoustic songs and the power and rhythm of a band. It was particularly obvious on ‘Pygmy’ with one side devoted to full-on band arrangements and the other purely acoustic, but with some wonderful string arrangements by Robert Kirby who had just worked with Nick Drake and was on something of a roll.
Did you work with Nick Drake yourself at all?
I had the amazing experience of playing with the London Symphony Orchestra live in the studio with Nick conducting.
Rod Goodway mentioned that you played at the first Glastonbury Festival – what are your memories of that?
I honestly don’t remember much of it. It was just a little gig in a field and was pretty poorly attended in the afternoon. I didn’t think it had much future, which goes to show how good I am at reading the runes!
You did two more albums for Manticore?
Right, ‘Brighter Day’ and ‘Stories from the Human Zoo’. They both had enough variation in them to totally confuse any listening public as to an identifiable style. I suppose my style is best described as formal, structured music in the classic verse/chorus/solo mode but with just enough eccentricity to guarantee it will never appeal to a mass market.
It was several years before you released another album – what happened after ‘Human Zoo’ when you all but disappeared?
I flew back to the UK in late 1976 from Los Angeles with the masters of ‘Human Zoo’ in the overhead locker. I look back on the years that followed with the sort of stomach-churning discomfort which reminds me of what a crappy time it was – punk, Heroin, lager, rain, football thugs and rampant inflation are my memories of that period. By 1980 any pretence of me still being a musician with anything to offer had gone, and I went to work on a building stite for £20 a day as a labourer since I was fed up with having no money.
You made a tentative return to the scene with the ‘Weatherman’ CD, which was very different to what had gone before. What prompted the change of style?
I went back to the blues when I started again seven years later. I was finally settled by then, with an income and a whole house to live in. I put together a part-time blues band called Weatherman. I played acoustic guitar with a bit of slide thrown in, and before you could say "Robert Johnson" I had a deal with Run River and in 1992 released another CD to add to the collection. It was the first album that I was in sole charge of and it was a great experience, especially as some of the tracks I still measure as the best I have ever made. I produced it with the help of Andy Allen, owner of the Coach House studios in Bristol, who got a great sound from the quipment. We played clubs and the odd festival like Farnham Maltings but after a while it started to fold and was obviously going nowhere. I then had a nasty "growing up" phase and started writing a much more mature type of song. Before you could say "Which way to the accordion workshop?" I got another deal, this time with HTD Records. "We’re a folk label," they said, and I duly obliged.
You and your wife Julia also performed as a duo?
Julia: That was a first for me. I’ve worked solo, with bands, with an orchestra and in a choir – but I think a duo is more demanding as we have to totally rely on each other. I realised I’d need plenty of determination and concentration, as Keith’s songs vary so much in their arrangements, range and harmonies. He’s a superb arranger, but also a perfectionist. We’d work on one version of a song and try it out at gigs and inevitably Keith would want to change it. At first I used to feel like killing him, especially when I’d only just mastered the part, but he was usually right and the final version was always better!
What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of playing as a solo artist, in a duo or as a member of a group, Keith?
I’ve known or played with many band musicians – some famous, like George Harrison, Alvin Lee and Greg Lake, and some legendary session players like Steve Cropper and Duck Dunne – and I can honestly say I think they all had an occasional sneaking desire to revel in the freedom of being a solo performer. You never get the whole meal on a plate – if you play in a band you have everyone else’s egos clashing with your own enormous one, and if you play solo it gets dead boring just listening to yourself. None of the line-ups of the first three albums (for Manticore) played live, which pissed off people who bought the albums and ended up seeing one guy on stage. It also pissed off all the loyal followers who saw me playing on my own, bought the albums and would up with an orchestra, a choir, a soul band and two dogs barking!
Shelagh McDonald covered some of your songs – how much were you involved in her album?
I first saw Shelagh at the Troubador in Bristol in about 1968. I thought she was an outstanding player and writer and was on her way up. I met up with her again a couple of years later when I was doing my second album. I’m pretty sure I put her name in Sandy Roberton’s ear which led her to a two album deal.
You also worked with David Bowie – is it true that you played guitar on ‘Space Oddity’?
I met David Bowie because he ran the Beckenham Arts Lab, another name for a very happening acoustic music club which met in the back room of the ‘3 Tuns’ in Beckenham High Street. I was a guest there and he played a bit of 12-string (pretty badly!) and was MC. He’d already had a single released with his band the Lower Third by then. When he did his first album there wasn’t enough budget after the excesses of making ‘Space Oddity’ for the single, so for a number of tracks it came down to him and me sitting together in a cavernous studio in London playing acoustic guitars and him singing live. We met again around the time of the ‘Diamond Dogs’ album, when he flew me to New York to audition as electric guitarist for the upcoming tour. Electric was never my bag but I wasn’t going to turn down a trip like that! We did some clubbing and met a lot of fine people and that was that for another few years when I got a mysterious phone call in the middle of the night (he had people who could find anybody!) to go to a studio and play some guitar. I can’t remember when it was – possibly the late 70s or the early 80s – or which album resulted, but I played on some tracks for around 3 hours. Suddenly he said, "Thanks – OK" and I sat and listened while he copied one of my licks to perfection on his own guitar. I’d seemed to have become invisible so I quietly walked out into the dawn and back to the grotty little bedsit I was in at the time. That was the last time I ever saw him.
Is your perception of what constitutes success now different to when you started your career?
When I was younger I only wanted recognition. This is a poncy therapist word for fame, which is a drug – especially desirable to the young since you can have all the life experience you can get your hands on, pretty much for free. These days I have mixed feelings about ever going back on the road again, although if it ever became a viable financial option I’d definitely consider it. The success I would most like now is to have a song published and to be recognised as a legitimate writer. That’s the quiet kind of glory I would prefer.
Keith Christmas was interviewed for the Terrascope by Robby Lewry.
(c) Ptolemaic Terrascope, August 2001