“From a fugitive to a wicked lady” - Tony Banks in conversation with Alan Hewitt about his solo career. Photographs courtesy: Charisma/Virgin Records.
TWR: You decided to have another go with The Fugitive, which seems to many people as if it had more of a commercial orientation to it. Was that your decision or was there any pressure put on you by the record company at that time?
TB: The main decision for me was that I was going to sing. Once I’d done that, then I had to work out what I was capable of singing because my voice is limited. I had tried singing some slightly more elaborate things such as I had written for Peter or Phil to sing and I realised that I couldn’t handle that - it didn’t really work, especially with certain kinds of words that I made them sing! (laughs). There was no way I could sing them; I couldn’t get my teeth around them and so I had to do something fairly straightforward in order to sound convincing as a singer.
I guess at that point things like drum machines and so on were starting to come in more and more and the big change in Genesis as a whole happened as well. Those machines do tend to tie you a little bit in certain ways. They give you a lot of freedom in a sense that there’s so much you can do with them but they tend to lock you into a certain tempo; if it’s in 4/4/ then its in 4/4 for ten minutes! That kind of thing happened on a song like This Is Love which was done very much on the drum machine with the organ and the reggae style going right through it. That kept things a bit tighter. That was the way I felt at the time, I wanted to write that kind of song. I think that the songs on that album are a little bit tighter; they’re not as long in the main and the chords aren’t as flowery.
I was surprised with my voice as well, I could take how I sounded. It’s often difficult when you hear your own voice to hear yourself as a singer but I thought to myself that I sounded as good as a lot of people who like to call themselves singers. There’s something nice about someone singing their own things too. I’ve noticed on some of the albums I have done more recently than that, that people will go for the songs that I have sung just because I am singing them and I find that odd in a way. It’s almost as if the person who wrote it is singing that they are singing directly to you, if you know what I mean? I like the album very much myself. I think it had chances with single success but I couldn’t get any sort of response to it.
TWR: The first single did get a certain amount of airplay at the time…
TB: Yes, it did get some airplay certainly and the second single; And The Wheels Keep Turning was played a certain amount. Gary Davies used to play it quite a bit and every time he did, he would say: “that song’s great”. So, I thought; “Great! This is it, we’re going to get a hit!” but unfortunately no one else seemed to agree with him. I had less expectations for the record actually than I did for A Curious Feeling but you always hope that something is going to happen. Whenever I hear This Is Love I always think it sounds very good for its time. As I am sure you are aware, this business is so wrapped up in people’s perceptions of what they think and what they want and it all tends to be based on image. You can see how well somebody like Madonna does; she’s got no voice and it is all based on her image and people love that kind of thing because they can relate to it. It’s much harder if it’s all based on the music although there are certain people who over the years have managed to break through like that. I think Genesis are an obvious example as are Pink Floyd and others like them who have got very little in the way of personality as identities. I tend to keep a very low profile with the group anyway and when you try to stick your head above the water people tend to say; “who’s that bloke?” (laughs) People were telling me that This Is Love should be released as a single, which we did but we didn’t get the airplay that it needed in order to make an impact.
TWR: Strangely enough, when I was looking through our collection of press material for things to go with this interview, I actually found about four or five reviews of the album and they were very favourable! I thought at the time when the trend was still very much anti the established bands, that the papers were going to crucify it but they didn’t…
TB: Sounds was one paper that tended to be a little bit on our side when the others weren’t, with both Hugh Fielder and Barbra Charone there and through them there was a sort of history of enthusiasm. In pure musical terms there were two or three tracks that worked well. And The Wheels Keep Turning was a high point on the album for me. I also really liked At The Edge Of Night which again, I thought had single potential. On the first album I had worked with Chester on drums and it was nice to work with him in a studio environment outside of the band. I wasn’t quite using right man for the right course in that particular situation but it was still fun to do. With Daryl on The Fugitive, it was fantastic for me, he just gave a kind of magic to everything. He was very enthusiastic and he had a good ear for drum parts and things like that.
I went through quite a few drummers on that record. I used Steve Gadd, who at the time was rated as being one of the finest drummers in the world; it was quite a thrill for me when he came down here. There was also Tony Beard who played on This Is Love and that track has actually got the best drumming on the album over all. The original drummer I had lined up to do the whole album actually proved to be not quite right for it and this presented a problem. We were in the studio and we were saying; “well, who shall we have? Who’s the best drummer in the world?” (laughs) so we called Steve Gadd and he was coming to England anyway and so he came down here for a day and did three of the songs which was great. I thought what he did on Man Of Spells was nice, it’s simple but it has a good feel to it. I enjoyed doing the album and I was doing The Wicked Lady soundtrack at the same time and the two were running concurrently, which was the only pressure I had, to get The Wicked Lady material finished.
Then I had a problem with the guy who was helping me produce it. He had to go off all the time and it became very difficult to get us together at the same time in the same place (laughs). I was very pleased with the result. Given everything I had started off with - the decision to sing it myself and all the other things as well, I was pleased with it.
TWR: The instrumental pieces on the album surprised quite a lot of people, because they were a lot more sparse than perhaps they were expecting…
TB: The one called Thirty Threes was just an improvisation; a condensed improvisation just done on the piano with the drum machine. Afterwards, I improvised a Vocoder thing on top of it and I thought it had a great atmosphere - I liked that one very much. The other one; Charm, I don’t know about that, I’m not sure about that as I did it as a bit of a joke with the silly noises and things. It needed very heavy drumming in the middle but the drummer I used on that; Andy Duncan, really wasn’t up to it. At one point I thought that I would play the drums myself on that as it was so simple that even I could do that! (laughs) it was one of those tracks that wasn’t necessarily going to make it to the album in any case.
TWR: When the CD version of the album was released there were two extra tracks included. A lot of people wondered why they weren’t put on the singles as B sides…?
TB: Well, I think it was the old thinking that with the first single, you just put an album track on the B side because there’s no point in not doing it. In Genesis it’s almost a standard philosophy but it’s not being mercenary. The way it works is that the B side of the first single has to be of a good standard as the single is going to be two examples from the album. Later on you have the chance to put a non-album track as the B side which can attract people who have the album to buy it for the B side and that gives it a sort of lift and starting point in the charts. A chance to go somewhere. I suppose that the same reasoning applied to my album but the first single didn’t do anything. So, when the time came to release the second single, I was left wondering what to put on the B side to that. So, we used Man Of Spells on that, waiting for the time when it was all going to happen - which it didn’t! I always had a soft spot for the song called Sometime Never. I liked the lyric to that but anyhow, it’s there now for the people who want it.
TWR: Something that was quite a revelation was the video you did for This Is Love. Did you ever do a video for And The Wheels Keep Turning…?
TB: No, I just did the one for This Is Love. I’ve never seen it since I did it actually.
TWR: I think that the star of that video is the iguana (laughs)…
TB: The director was really desperate to use an iguana in the video! (laughs). It’s kind of weird when you do things on your own. When I am with the group and it comes to the videos I have as strong a role as anybody but when you are on your own, your self confidence is a bit lower I think and so people do tend to get their ideas over on you. I just let them do more or less what they wanted to do. It was enough of a strength for me to be focal and central to the whole thing and I found that so much more difficult and it also made me realise that I could never front a band. That’s the way it has gone more and more since then. Which is why I have never sung a whole album since then. I could sing the whole thing and sound as good as Bob Geldof, that’s not a problem but when you come to look as good as Bob Geldof then I couldn’t do that! (laughs). The problem is that having realised that I couldn’t do that, it led to the decision to not sing again on anything that I thought would be a single - I didn’t want to have to do a video as a front man.
TWR: You have already mentioned that at the same time you were doing all of this, you were also doing The Wicked Lady soundtrack. It was quite a controversial film in its own way, as the British Board Of Film Censors wanted to ban it from domestic release because of the whipping scene…
TB: That’s down to Michael Winner, he always tries to push things as far as he can to get some publicity! (laughs).
TWR: How did you actually become involved with that project?
TB: Well, the guy from Atlantic records over here; Phil Carson, was approached by Michael Winner. He had already done something with Jimmy Page and he said “do you know anyone who might want to do this film thing?” and Phil Carson said; “well this guy, Tony Banks, he wants to do it…” So he came to me and I must admit that I wasn’t a hundred per cent sure about doing it but I decided to do it anyway. I worked on that particularly as it was to be an orchestral soundtrack and I was doing The Fugitive at the same time so I worked with an arranger on that one.
So, in a sense a lot of what you hear on that is really him in terms of what the orchestrations are. With a lot of the pieces I just played them on the piano and recorded them and then he orchestrated it; some of them very faithfully and others he adapted more than perhaps he should have done but it was fun to do and all the main themes sounded great with the orchestra. The main moment that it was used was during a soft porn sequence (laughs) which wasn’t quite right and it wasn’t what I intended. It was supposed to have this beautiful melody and I had all sorts of images for it. Anyhow, it was great fun to do and in contrast with The Shout, The Wicked Lady had the music really up front and it sounded great. When I saw it at the cinema it sounded fantastic and it made me want to do more.
TWR: Did you actually enjoy working with an orchestra this time around rather than with a band?
TB: Well, it was great fun to have that and felt a bit daunted by that. I was there for all of the recordings but I didn’t get involved directly. Everything was done through this guy Christopher Palmer who was the orchestrator. Working with people that are professionals in this field, it’s a different approach. They look at the music differently to how I would and that’s what’s great about it; it’s one take and it’s there and it sounds fantastic! There’s none of this overdubbing and cheating! (laughs) to make it sound good and I did love it although it did end up a little syrupy at times. On the second side of the album I actually did my versions of those pieces which were really just the demos. I did this awful version of the main theme with a drum machine which was done specifically because Phil Carson said; “do a rhythm version!” so that could be put out as a single. I heard it the other day actually and I thought it was embarrassing!
TWR: The other surprise from that project was the single. It was extremely low key…
TB: It was a bad move. I don’t think it should ever have been a single. I think we should have just put out the album and if the film had been a success then the album would have done OK - that’s how it works with films. As it was, it was never going to do anything but I think a couple of things on there sound good. Musically, I can’t remember all that much about it apart from the main orchestral theme which I thought was very good.
TWR: A lot of people like that album an awful lot and they wonder why it’s the only one that hasn’t been released on CD…?
TB: It’s down to the fact that it was on Atlantic, that’s why. If the album had sold five hundred copies I would be surprised and to put out a CD costs them money. For the sake of completion, if someone like Virgin will get hold of it, then it’s possible. From their point of view they don’t think it’s worth it and we haven’t put much pressure on them for it. It would be quite nice if it was available.
TWR: As you have pointed out, the main problem for people is actually FINDING the album, it’s quite hard to find…
TB: Bloody hard to find! (laughs) I mean, I see my role within
the group as providing all the rarities! (laughs) There are a few really obscure
things throughout my career with all these singles….