Sunday, December 21, 2014

Bernie Torme

Alex Eruptor speaks to Bernie about the storming new ‘Flowers & Dirt’ album and tour, and raids the vaults to discuss some of the most interesting (but less written-about) projects and collaborations from the axeman’s career.

“The opening gig was in a club venue underneath another venue, where Jasper Carrot is appearing. They asked us to keep it down a bit so the noise didn’t overspill, then the guy said ‘start’. So we started. And then its kind of mayhem.  Jasper’s upstairs trying to tell his jokes but all that the audience can hear is us lot downstairs.  The guy who is organising Jasper’s gig runs down, I didn’t see any of this, but he charges over to our desk, pulls all of the output down.  So no PA, but it still sounds okay on stage – so we’re all kind of carrying on playing.  Then some guy to do with Jasper jumps up out of the audience in front of Chris (Heilmann, bassist) motioning to us to stop.  But I’ve been playing for a long time and the law has always been you don’t stop.  When I played with Gillan we had guns pulled on us – and that also happened to me in Northern Ireland – but you don’t stop.  So we carried on.  There’s uproar upstairs and Jasper is not happy.  They somehow managed to complete and the guy then says okay play as loud as you like now.”

......For the uninitiated, Jasper Carrot is a British comedian and TV personality/gameshow host who first rose to fame during the mid-1970s, and in recent years also famous for being the father of actress Lucy Davis (who played receptionist ‘Dawn’ in the UK version of sitcom The Office).  The man explaining this triumph of rock over comedy, which had occurred just two nights prior to our meeting, is Bernie Torme: A mainstay of the touring circuit who has worked with some of the biggest names in rock and has released over 24 albums along the way.

As lead guitarist for the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and Ian Gillan during the 1980s (see photos below), Bernie became one of the most highly regarded axemen in hard rock and heavy metal. Subsequent high profile collaborative projects included ‘Desperado’ (with Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider and Iron Maiden’s Clive Burr), GMT (with former Gillan colleague John McCoy), and a 1980s incarnation of the sadly underrated doom/soul/prog overlords Atomic Rooster. 

Above: Rockin' with Gillan
Below: On tour with Ozzy

However, it was with the eponymously named band  ‘Torme’ (fronted by future LA Guns frontman Philip Lewis) and also as a solo artist that Bernie has been able to spread his wings most freely and truly craft his distinctive guitar style, which blends flash-metal fretboard pyrotechnics with gut wrenching blues-based riffing and lots of punk-ish ‘fuck you’ attitude.

Bernie originally carved out a niche as the original ‘Electric Gypsy’ amongst the early 1980s London punk and sleazerock circuit which revolved around the Soho club scene (which included late, lamented venues such as the Marquee, Gossips, etc) but scratch below the surface and you find that Bernie’s style has more in common with the classic and blues rock inspired players of the 1970s than it does the ‘guitar-technocrat’ style that many of his contemporaries adopted. Just like the late, great Rory Gallagher, he can coax screams, wails, dive-bombs and blistering break-neck solos from his battered Stratocasters, but he never loses sight of the song.

A promo photo from the 1980s

I met up with Bernie prior to his recent show in the city of York, England, thanks to his road manager, Rob Grain. Although show-time was fast approaching by the time it took me to find the recently relocated venue, Bernie was relaxed and talked freely and at length about his new album, the tour, and also a few of the less frequently discussed moments of his career…

Beginning with the new album, Bernie explained how he financed it via crowd-funding “Record labels and industry people….I’ve never really liked all of that.  But I know a guy called Ginger Wildheart who is kind of the king of pledging and crowdsourcing.  He and his manager said I ought to try it.  I thought I’d get two people, maybe a couple of quid! But I talked to a couple more people; Arthur Brown and his manager, and they said its an idea. Try it. So I tried it and you know it was just astounding.  As an artist you don’t know if you have a kind of ‘fan base’ really y’know? Because really a lot of the time these days if you go and play a gig, people have kids and they have jobs so they don’t necessarily turn up to the gigs. 

“I did it and I had the amount I needed in 24 hours, I couldn’t believe it.  It dragged on because it goes on for 60 days or however long after that and I ended up having 418% of what I had asked. I was in the process of recording an album so it became a double album and I was thinking well this is terrifying because I really didn’t expect to get the money at all. So it was you have to complete and that was great because it was just like the old days in the early ‘80s and the ‘70s because you have to complete the album.  It had to be finished. That was it.  I found that really helpful because it was almost like having a gun being held to my head! So I did it and I was just hoping that the people would like it and its gone down so well its just untrue.  Y’know almost every other album I’ve done I’ve had people kind of slag off but this one people liked! Oh God I’m thinking I don’t need no record company! I don’t need no industry!  I’ll just do it myself! It was cool. It was just a great experience.”

As a result, the aforementioned manager of Arthur Brown, Ben Hylands and his agency – the aptly named Inspired Artists – were quick to spot the momentum and offered Bernie an extensive UK tour. Tonight was the third show in as many nights for Bernie and his band, but the first time I’d ever witnessed him in concert, despite being familiar with a fair amount of his recorded work.

 Above: Rockin the house down at York Fibbers (photo by Alex Eruptor)

Opening the show were local rock/metal heroes Bastrad, whose set I watched mainly from the door between the side of the stage and the back stage area.  It was a good location to hear them play as the sound was straight from the kit and backline and less distorted than out front.  What I missed out on in volume was compensated for by clarity.  Bastrad sounded tight and blasted through a well received set which culminated with the dynamic ‘Riff Propelled Grenade’.  Despite being loaded with so many time and rhythm changes, the band nail it, bringing to an impressive finale their energetic and fun set.

After a short interlude Bernie and his band take to the stage with all guns blazing, opening with the swashbuckling ‘Wild West’, an uptempo rocker full of guitar heroics from the 1983 Torme album ‘Electric Gypsies’.

The crowd are then treated to back catalogue favourites such as ‘Turn out the Lights’, ‘Getting There’, and ‘Lightning Strikes’, a selection of choice cuts from the new album (‘Blood Run Cold’, ‘Partytown’), some crowd-pleasing classics from the Gillan years (‘Trouble’ and ‘New Orleans’) and for the encore a blazing take on Hendrix’s ‘Fire’.  The new material stands up well alongside the older songs and it is fair to say that the crowd enjoyed it all, a fact which bodes well for the possibility of new music in future.

And talking of new music, latest album ‘Flowers and Dirt’ is a veritable feast of heavy blues-influenced hard rock n’ roll.  The fretboard pyrotechnics and Bernie’s distinctive tone are of course all present and correct, but importantly so is the groove. Starting in a high-octane blaze of glory with the rapid fire triple shot of ‘Crash & Burn’, ‘Party Town’ and ‘Blood Run Cold’, followed by the hypnotic driving beat of ‘Your Voodoo’.  The pace then slows down a bit, such as on the bluesy, ‘Out in the Cold’ or the Hendrix-meets-Cream time machine of ‘Garden of Earth’s Delight’.  Contrastingly, ‘Spirit Road’ provides an acoustic dimension with some neat guitar harmonics and drum patterns, whilst ‘Outlaw Blues’ has a country vibe.  ‘Turn the Tide’ continues the acoustic theme but before building into something heavier.  Instrumental track ‘Stoneship’ features a firey guitar solo over a grungey, Sabbathy backing. I won’t list every song but rest assured, Flowers and Dirt is a collection of strong material with plenty of attitude, ‘feel’ and all the other qualities that you’d hope to find on a great rock album. The recordings have a ‘live’ sound to them and this works well, particularly when turned up loud, and is true to the way that the band sound in concert. 

Here is a great track from Flowers & Dirt called 'Blood Runs Cold':

Impressed by the music, I asked Bernie a few more questions about ‘Flowers & Dirt’:

Me: 'Partytown' is a great track, was it inspired by anywhere in particular? 

Bernie: “My home town Dublin, really about the celtic tiger period when Dublin seemed to be the place every UK stag and hen party seemed to home in on. The Dublin Temple Bar area in particular, it used to be gross and pretty nightmarish in those days, streets full of puke and bodies!

I saw a newspaper article about a Dublin guy called Paddy Dunning who owns a studio called Grouse Lodge in Ireland, (at one point I was vaguely thinking about buying the place, it was up for sale years ago and relatively cheap at the time too). But then he had Michael Jackson stay there, and then MJ died, and among other things he started renting it out for corporate weekends including 'sleeping in the bed Michael Jackson slept in! Aaaargh! (the article is here if you are interested:

Bizarre, and a totally Dublin sort of thing to do, even though the studio is in Westmeath, an hour or so out of Dublin. Paddy apparently started out building his empire as a dustman in Dublin, I loved the story so hence the opening line of Partytown, 'Baby don't fear the dustman…..etc'

It just all had that slightly hallucinatory surreal Flann O Brien/Joycean thing that Dublin stories often have, which I love, it makes me feel secure to think the world is that bizarre! That’s where the idea for the song came from, its not about exactly just that, more a melange of images that relate somehow in my addled bonce to that aspect of Dublin!”


Me: The new album has a great sound, I'm taking about acoustically but also the dynamics of the playing.  It is very much the sound of a great 'live' band in the studio and these songs have much more of a 'groove' than some of your earlier material.  How easy or difficult was it to capture that sound and 'vibe' (for want of a better word!)?

Bernie: “That was what I was aiming at but the fact that it worked was totally in the hands of the bass and drums, it is sometimes different players, but they could all do it: that was amazing and a tribute to their ability. It was hugely important to me to get that feel, I've done lots of the mechanical stuff in the past and I wanted something that had a little more natural groove, more rock n roll than metal really. 

It wasn't hard to capture at all, some tracks were on clicks though most weren't, we always tried to do it without a click first, but some needed it, but it was down to the drummers involved, mainly Ian Harris, but also Simon Jeffrey earlier on, that they were able to maintain those loose-ish  classic rock n roll grooves with that bit of old time swing even when playing to a click. Still sounds human and grooves, exactly what I was aiming at. 

Soundwise I was going for that Glyn John's 70's drum sound to compliment that style, maybe with a few more Bonham-esque room mikes, but its all real, I avoided that 80's drum reverb thing like the plague, its pretty much what the drums sounded like in the room, its quite a live room, and quite a decent size too which is important. It was completely about getting a feel and keeping the room sounding real. The playing fitted the sound and vice versa.”

Me: There are a lot of songs on the new album and the quality control is high throughout.  Did put everything on the record that you recorded or is there anything still in the vaults from these sessions that might see light of day at some point? 

Bernie: “Yes there are a few left. Some are pretty good too, there just wasn't a place for them that worked. Its probably about 6 or 8 in all, though not everything got finished because it became apparent that there was no place for them this time round, and I didn't have the time to fuck around. I am sure they will get used in future at some point.”

All in all, it is fairly obvious why the fan-funding approach has worked out for Bernie Torme: Great songs, great musicianship, distinctive sound, and importantly a great connection with the audience.  Torme himself is a likeable guy and more down-to-earth than most rockstars, and it is clear that for many in tonight’s audience what they saw and heard tonight will live long in the memory. 

Bonus Content:

Whilst being highly regarded in his own right,`Bernie Torme has also worked and collaborated with many other great musicians from the British rock scene.  Some of these, such as Ozzy Ozbourne and Ian Gillan, have been covered in great detail in other publications, but when I met Bernie I thought I’d ask about some of the less written about collaborations from his career:


“While I was playing with Ian (Gillian), John (McCoy) and I did two or three gigs in around 1980-ish as TMT which was Torme, McCoy and Thunderstick.  They were really enjoyable and in fact Thunderstick plays on a track on the Glory Road extra album, on ‘Come Tomorrow’.  After I’d left Gillan I went out and did Ozzy’s thing and came back and I had no drummer.  I’d been doing some demos for Barry’s (Barry Purkis, aka ‘Thunderstick’) first album and I asked him to play drums on a radio station and also one or two gigs.  Following that he had other obligations and I had to find another drummer, basically.“

Philip Lewis

“I had a publisher who said Van Halen’s doing great , you need a singer! Which is arguably true (laughs).  Everytime I’d seen Phil he used to say ‘I want to join the Electric Gypsy’s , I want to be in your band’ so immediately I thought of him.  I talked to him but he was already doing New Torpedos and not keen so I found this other guy and we did a couple or three or four shows…the Marquee and St Albans Civic but it was awful.  We had a disagreement and I told him to fuck off.  I then had a difficult situation as I had a string of gigs and no singer!  So I basically went over to Phil’s place and I said please please please please help me out! And Phil being Phil its like ‘oh I don’t know if I can’ , y’know (laughs) but he did.  At that time he was in the ‘Torpedos I went down to the Marquee a couple of times.  They were a great band.  But in the context of us he was ideal. He’s just such a great frontman. He’s just energy and just brilliant.”

He did both Torme and the New Torpedos for a while didn’t he?

“Yes he did and it was just him you know, to a ‘T’!  It suited him and after he joined us full-time I don’t think he liked that as much, he didn’t have the illicit thing going on haha!

I actually think he’s great and doesn’t get the credit he deserves.  He’s a truly awesome frontman, he really is you know? Every show we ever did I’d just stand there and kind of like….it was just fantastic.  He’d always do completely off-the-wall things.  Stand on his head and fall over in the middle of the stage.  It was just great.”

BELOW: NEW TORPEDOS (Rudi, Dave, Phil [front], Paul)

The Gang Bang Band

“This was something where I happened to be there pretty much by accident: I knew Spike from the Quireboys (at that time the Queerboys) pretty well, my bass player Chris Heilmann (then and now) was good mates with him.

So Spike and Buttz were trying to do this club night thing in a place called Gossips in Soho, and I went along because Chris told me it was good: I ended up playing. I really can't remember how that happened! I think I maybe played on the Gang Bang EP, I definitely played on All Right Now with Spike singing, but that’s not on the record. Maybe some Rolling Stones too, Honky Tonk I think. I spent most of the night getting paralytically drunk with Nasty Suicide who I had a real laugh with. Neither of us knew anything about it being recorded, or if he did he never told me!

I'm sure I remember Rene Berg playing bass on the jam, though he's not credited, that’s where I met him.

I don't know anything at all about the other two tracks, I'm not on them. I met Spike a few weeks ago and told him that, and he said 'Don't you remember coming down to Trident Studios to record, you were there!'. No I wasn't! Maybe I'm on the live Gang Bang and my name is on all of it because someone thought it would sell 2 more copies or something. But I know nothing about and I wasn't there apart from maybe one live track. I never even knew it was out till about 2 years ago! I've never even heard it!”

Rene Berg

'Secrets' by Rene Berg (featuring Bernie Torme on guitar)

“Rene Berg's 'The Leather The Loneliness And Your Dark Eyes' album was different: his publisher manager Pete Chalcraft from Notting Hill Music, a loveable shameless rogue who I used to drink with sometimes, asked me to play on it. 

We went down to this strange little studio in Witney, Oxfordshire where nothing seemed to work properly, with the wonderful Rat Scabies and Paul Gray from the Damned as rhythm  section, that was great, and some odd guy producing and engineering who was somewhat lacking in the required people skills vis a vis Paul and Rat. Rat takes no prisoners, so that was interesting! Rat and Paul spoke their truth and there was a whole lotta bitching going on from the control room end!

I had just come out of hospital where I had nearly died following a punctured lung…I weighed about 8 stone and looked like an effing skeleton. My eldest boy Jimi was born in the middle of the album sessions so I missed a couple of days recording because of that, he's 23 now! The sessions were weird to be honest. I did everything in one take, no one seemed to care very much. Even when I wanted to do repairs they didn't want me to do any. Considering I hadn't even heard the songs that was bizarre, I'm not that good!

Anyway, Rene was a great writer, very poppy, Beatles-y, very talented guy, and a really nice guy, but not really in need of my style of playing, which was what the producer wanted: the album was pretty great pop rock songs, more pop than rock to be honest, quite soft and sentimental and great tunes, very much subject based on being young and falling in love. I have no memory of that! Why they asked me to make noise over it I have no effing idea. I don't think I was the right choice, I was definitely pulling it in a direction it did not need to go. They (management engineer and producer) didn't really seem to know what they were aiming at, and I still feel Rene's talent, which was subtle, whimsical, gentle and very very English, got sort of waylaid in the process. But it still has some great catchy pop songs that shine through nonetheless. He was a great writer and fantastic voice, very English late sixties, reminiscent to me of Syd Barrett.

My favourite track would probably be Rob The Bank. followed by Secrets and Fast Car.

Below: 'Rob the Bank':

A few years back I heard Rene had died: I was really saddened, he was a lovely talented guy, and a good guy. He had been living near me in Dover, though I hadn't known it, and I went to his funeral and met his mother who was also lovely. I think I was the only person from the wonderful world of popular music who showed up. Well it wasn't in London, and everyone was living in LA by then anyway. It was very sad, he was 47. I don't really know what happened.

I did one gig with him too, in that horrible Marquee second coming on Charing Cross Road: same band plus the Darryl Bath on guitar, again no idea why they asked me, just the name probably, Darryl was the guy who should have done all the record, great guitarist and more in tune with what Rene was at. I never got paid for the gig so they probably agreed! Ha ha!”

What many people don't know is that Rene Berg was also an accomplished angler, who made the record books for landing the largest pike ever caught in London . Photo below is from a detailed blog post all about it

Ron ‘Rebel’ Mathews

“In 1983 the Electric Gypsies album was released, we had been hanging on to the master tapes for a year because of an argument with DJM, who I was signed to. I got out of the DJM deal and then couldn't find a label, then Cherry Red/Zebra turned up and I signed to them: I wish I hadn't that was a complete disaster, they just seemed to look at it and me as a cash cow, spend as little as possible on it and make as much as you can. No interest at all in promoting my career as a musician. 

Frank Noon, our drummer, left to join Waysted who had a proper deal, to be briefly replaced by Dave Dowle from Whitesnake, who then left taking Everton Williams our bass player with him!

I was about a week away from starting a tour with no band. I lived next door to Colin Bond from Stampede, and he saved my bacon by offering to play bass. Ron Rebel was at that time playing drums for McCoy, and McCoy recommended him, so we had a blow and it was pretty damn good. So Ron and Colin stepped in at very short notice and saved the day. 

Yes indeed Ron had played for Maiden in the early days, and was still a mate of Steve Harris, a great meat and potatoes rock drummer. Thinking about it I appear to have played with 3 ex Maiden drummers, Ron Rebel, Barry Thunderstick and Clive Burr! Funny that!”

Bernie Torme’s latest album Flowers and Dirt is available now – visit or for info and to buy it. Many thanks to Rob Grain for arranging the interview, York Fibbers music venue, and the staff at Hampton by Hilton hotel who found us a quiet space I which to conduct the interview.  Thanks also to Bernie and band for being accommodating subjects and for the beer. Cheers!

- Alex Eruptor, December 2014

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