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TBA (Aka Natalie Beridze) - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 6 / 10 / 2010



TBA (Aka Natalie Beridze) - Interview

intro

The Quarrymen was the first group of John Lennon. Banjo player and founding member Rod Davis speaks to Lisa Torem about the group's skiffle influences and Lennon


Rod Davis was a founding member of the famed, Liverpool-based group, the Quarrymen (named after a line in his school’s theme song), which was fronted by his classmate, John Lennon. “That Lennon”, a talented singer/guitarist, had previously started his own skiffle band called the Blackjacks with another school friend, Eric Griffiths. In 1956 they had invited Lennon’s best friend, Pete Shotten to play the washboard with thimbles used from his mum’s sewing box. A week later, Bill Smith was recruited to play “tea-chest bass” and introduced Davis, a banjo player, to his friends. The name was soon changed to the Quarrymen. Because Smith didn’t make it to a few rehearsals, Lennon replaced him with Len Garry. Once drummer Colin Hanton joined the band was ready to explore the skiffle genre with greater confidence. Ivan Vaughan also came on board. But, when Paul McCartney, a great fan of Little Richard and Elvis, showed up on July 6, 1957, to watch these boys play at St. Peter’s Church Rose Queen Garden, in Woolton, Lennon’s world dramatically changed. The young Lennon was impressed with McCartney’s guitar playing, knowledge of chords and ability to memorize lyrics. McCartney soon joined the band, and a rock and roll repertoire began to develop, gradually replacing a number of skiffle standards. Consequently, another line-up change would transpire. Davis felt his banjo had no place in rock and roll and left the band to seriously pursue his university education. But he remained committed to a life of music, despite his other pursuits. Skiffle was put on the UK map by musician Lonnie Donegan, the banjo player in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen. During the bands’ interludes, Donegan would sing and play guitar accompanied by band members playing washboard and tea-chest bass. Digging deeply into American blues and jazz standards, which had simple, but catchy chord changes, this style of music appealed to post-war, working- class British males because it did not require an in-depth understanding of music and didn’t require expensive gear. It was accessible, classless and wildly infectious. Donegan’s adrenalized version of Leadbelly’s ‘Rock Island Line’ scored a hit in the UK in 1956, went gold and sold one million copies internationally. Some people claim that, in the 1920s in the States, a similar style of roots music had taken shape. It had been performed primarily by African- American musicians and included stringed instruments, but also the saw, comb and paper, kazoo, the cigar-box bass and jugs. It was predominately known as “jug band.” Skiffle was an exciting genre that could have been sadly lost, if the craze hadn’t been rejuvenated in the UK. Fortunately the Quarrymen are doing their part to secure the genre’s name in popular culture. The original five members reassembled in 1997 to perform at a Liverpool benefit at Liverpool’s St. Peter’s Church. The performance spiked the 15 track album, ‘Get Back Together’ and included songs such as ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ and ‘John Winston’. On their autumn ‘John Lennon Birthday Tour’ of the States, and. after this article has been published, Rod Davis, Colin Hanton and Len Garry, three prominent members of the band, will have performed sixteen shows in nineteen days; fourteen of those performances included special sneak previews or complete screenings of the new John Lennon biopic, ‘Nowhere Boy’, which chronicles the songwriter’s musical beginnings. When I spoke to Davis by phone, he very politely hinted that his mates would be coming to get him soon and might leave him stranded in a remote suburb, if he didn’t quickly follow suit. They had been invited Guests of Honor at the opening night of the Aspen Film Festival,one exciting, but frantic leg of their ambitious journey. I braced myself to spit out questions as quickly as possible, but Davis somehow stopped time to provide insightful answers - drawing hard from his encyclopedic recollection of pop cultural trends, while injecting copious amounts of his inimitable sense of humour. PB: Can you tell me what kind of music you’re doing on your John Lennon birthday tour? RD: This is the kind of music we’ve always done since 1997. There are plenty of excellent Beatles look-alike and sound-alike bands, so we don’t really do Beatles music. What we do is play the music we did between 1956 and 1959, the kind of stuff that inspired John and Paul and George, and indeed Ringo, because he was also in a skiffle group. Lonnie Donegan, skiffle and stuff like that, and early rock and roll. ‘Mean Woman Blues’, ’Twenty Flight Rock’, that kind of thing and a few chestnuts like ‘Maggie May’ which appear in the film, ‘Nowhere Boy’. ’Come Go With Me’, which is the song we were playing, which John impressed Paul with, very much, and ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’, some good old rock and that kind of thing, you know? People seem to enjoy it and we haven’t been lynched yet. We’re hoping, but it hasn’t happened. PB: Is this your first visit to the States? RD: Oh, no. It’s my tenth time. Two years ago we started at B.B. King’s in New York. We also played the Hard Rock Café in Boston. We played in Philadelphia on the same bill as the Pete Best Band, and we played in Los Angeles. Laurence Juber, the former Wings guitarist, is the patron of a society called ‘Guitars in the Classroom’. And, we did a gig in aid of them and Laurence opened the show for us. We’ve been around. PB: What happened after you left the original Quarrymen band? Did you have regrets about leaving the band, once you saw them become famous? RD: I wasn’t bothered at all, basically. Because, from my point of view, you see, it didn’t break up. What happened was this: really, the band was becoming more of a rock and roll band, and I personally didn’t like rock and roll of the time. I enjoy playing a little rock and roll now, but then I was more interested in the blues and the country end of the Quarrymen’s repertoire. And, of course, I was a banjo player, so you can’t be a banjo player in a rock and roll group, even if you want to. But in July 1957, it was possible to leave school, if you were old enough and wanted to, so John, of course, went to the Liverpool College of Arts, and Eric, the guitar player, became an engineering apprentice and Pete Shotton decided he didn’t want to play the washboard anymore and he became a police cadet. So, they left school and left me at school basically. And, then, I stayed on to try to get into university. I wasn’t bothered. They were going nowhere anyway. PB: What happened next? RD: As soon as I left the Quarrymen, and when I came back from my holiday, my brother and I decided we wanted a guitar. So, my dad said, “Look, you’ve got an electric train set there that you haven’t touched for years. Why don’t you sell that and buy a guitar?” The electric train set would have probably been worth a small fortune by now, but there we go. That’s what we did. And then I learned to play guitar and I bought a copy of the Burl Ives Songbook which was filled with American songs; I got hooked on that. I got hooked on the American music. And, then, in 1960, I went to the university in Cambridge and somebody played a Flatt and Scruggs record, and I thought, wow, now that’s skiffle music with overdrive. You’ve got all the mandolin solos, fiddle solos, banjo solos; the sort of thing we didn’t have when we played skiffle, you know? Though I’ve never played professionally, I’ve been a semi-pro, bluegrass picker, since about 1960, so that’s what happened to my musical career after that. I was a teacher for a few years and then I worked in the travel business, taking people on holidays, all over the place, and then, the last 18 years, until I retired in 2006, I was a tourism lecturer and a marketing lecturer. That kept me off the streets. PB: My impression is that people from Liverpool are known for having a good sense of humour. That was one of the things that charmed people about the Beatles. Is that accurate and, if so, how do you account for that? RD: Well, no disrespect to John’s sense of humour, but, I know people in Liverpool whose humour is off the Richter scale. I mean, John, George and Ringo, all what I know of John and what I’ve seen, of George and Ringo on film, they were very funny guys. And I think it’s the Irish streak in us and a terrible tendency not to take anybody or anything too seriously. And, if anybody does take themselves too seriously, then we’re the guys there with the pin to prick the balloon of seriousness. It’s very difficult to take yourself seriously in Liverpool. Nobody will let you. PB: As the Beatles grew more famous, their musical focus changed. What did you think about that? RD: Well, I think they did a fantastic job. I mean, no record company, these days, would let them do that. They’d say, “You did this that time and it sold. You’re not going to change the formula.” And, yet, they changed the formula for just about every album they brought out, you know, and that’s real groundbreaking stuff. It’s astonishing. PB: Which era did you like the best? RD: Let me think. I think I like the early stuff, really. When I was at school, at Quarry Bank School, with John, and we used to jump over the wall at lunch time, we’d go for a walk into Penny Lane, and we’d literally walk past the fire station. We’d walk into Penny Lane; we’d buy chips at the Leung’s Chip Shop .We’d go to Nem’s Record Shop. There was a branch of Nem’s in Penny Lane. We’d sit in the shelter in the middle of the roundabout. We’d eat our fish and chips and get our hair cut in the barber shop. I mean that’s all one hundred percent totally true. I didn’t have any money to put in the bank, of which there were two. So, that’s a very nostalgic tune for me, very nostalgic number for me. I mean, their inventive chord progressions; they did things with chord progressions that nobody had ever dreamt of doing and they pulled it off. That was sensational. PB: Yet, in the beginning, they barely knew any chords… RD: Everybody starts with two or three chords. You’ve got to start somewhere. I mean, they work for the skiffle and they also work for rock and roll. There’s three or four chords if you’re pushing it. There’s no shame about only knowing three or four chords. I know people who know hundreds of chords and they can’t do anything with it. But, they know all the chords. I say, look, forget it. Throw the book away, use what you’ve got. Don’t learn thousands of chords. Can you use the ones you’ve got? (He imitates a sheepish tone). Well, no. Well, in that case, perhaps you should try using them and forget learning new ones. So, it’s a good thing. Use the talent you’ve got. PB: Did you stay in touch with any of the Beatles once they left Liverpool? RD: Well, I never knew anyone else but John, basically. And at last I met him in Spring time 1962. I bumped into him in the streets in Liverpool. I hadn’t seen him for some time. He said, “What are you doing?” I said, “ I’m in my second year of university.” He said, “What are you playing these days?” I said, “I’m playing a lot of bluegrass guitar, a bit of fiddle and mandolin.” And, he said, “Well, you can’t play the drums, can you? You can come play for us in Hamburg.” I can’t imagine it was a serious offer, but, that wouldn’t have been a bad career move on my part. But, I was in my second year of a degree course in a prestigious university. My mother would have killed me if I’d thrown it up to go to Hamburg with “that Lennon.” as he was known in our house. “That Lennon, stay away from that Lennon.” PB: Was he a trouble maker? RD: Oh, yeah. He was a bad influence. I mean he was a very amusing guy to be with. There’s no doubt about it. He was a bad influence. I managed to stay out of his bad influence most of the time, I’m pleased to say. At least, my mother was pleased to say. (Laughs). PB: Was John as ambitious as the books chronicling that time suggest? DR: Speaking for the other guys, we get asked this question, “Were they musically ambitious?” The way the other guys answered, Colin and Len, the other two guys on the tour, they played with John and Paul, of course, and I only played with John. They felt that Paul was the more musically ambitious of the two. Paul was the one who got the oatmeal jackets that John and Paul were wearing in one of the famous photographs. And all this kind of thing, so Paul was much more focused and knew where he wanted to go, than John did at that time. In fact, John was quoted as saying, “The day I met Paul, that’s when things started to happen.” That’s his quote, so once he got rid of me, things started to happen. PB: What do you mean by oatmeal jackets? RD: Off-white, oatmeal colour, there’s this famous photograph of John and Paul with the Quarrymen behind them and they’re wearing black, string bow-ties. I mean like bad men, bow ties. John and Paul are wearing what could be white jackets. I think they’re off-white. They’ve been referred to as oatmeal and I think that’s the colour they were. PB: What do you recall about playing at the Cavern? RD: We played about four or five times at the Cavern. Although, the first time they actually mentioned it in an advertisement for the Cavern, in ‘The Liverpool Echo’, was August the 6th or something like that in 1957, by which time, I’d actually left. But, I’d played a number of times previous to that. But I never really went down to the Cavern to listen to them. I wasn’t really interested in rock and roll music. There was a big folk scene in Liverpool which developed around 1959 onwards, as a result of the skiffle craze. Most people, who learned their three chords, learned to play rock and roll. But, there were a significant proportion who got interested, like me, in the blues and the traditional music side of things. There was a big folk scene in Liverpool which is not often mentioned because it was just rock and roll and that’s it. PB: A 1959 folk scene? RD: Lonnie Donegan, himself, sang, ‘Rock Island Line’ and that was the song which got everybody going. He started a chain of Lonnie Donegan skiffle clubs around the country. And, that, actually, was found in Liverpool, run by a chap called Nick Groves and they eventually changed their name from the Gin Mill Skiffle Group to the Spinners, because of the Spinners and the Weavers. You know that famous American singing group… PB: Yes.. RD: And they became Liverpool’s greatest folk music export. PB: The Americans didn’t hear much about Lonnie Donegan. Was he similar in personality to Lennon?. Was he a wild guy? RD: No, he was a musician. He played banjo and guitar in a New Orleans style jazz band in England and it became a habit, in those bands, during a break, the rhythm section would pick up an electric bass, somebody would pick up a washboard, even, and someone would pick up a guitar and they’d play blues, but speed it up a bit. And, there was a man called Dan Burley, who was a Chicago piano player and he had a group called Dan Burley and the Skiffle Boys, and he recorded, it’s an American word. He recorded some stuff in the late 30s or early 40s. Somebody, in one of these jazz bands, got a hold of one of these records, and said that’s the kind of music we’re playing. So, they adopted the word “Skiffle”. But, it’s been an American term that’s in use for many, many years since almost the turn of the century, I think. How many people know that? PB: Why do you think skiffle didn’t become a genre in the States? RD: I’ll tell you why, because you already had blues and you already had country music. So, you didn’t need skiffle to get people to be playing instruments. I mean Elvis sped up ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ which was a waltz. And, Lonnie Donegan took songs like ‘Rock Island Line’ which was actually quite a slow song, recorded by Alan Lomax, originally, from a group of prisoners in a prison. PB: The last day of your tour, you will be playing on October 9th, Lennon’s actual birthdate, in New York City. Do you think that will be an emotional evening? RD: Yes, it should be. Yes, there are lots of people joining us there, from Pete Seeger to Tom Paxton, Neil Innes of the Rutles and all kinds of guys coming to celebrate John’s music and his life. It’s going to be quite a concert, I think. I’m really looking forward to it. PB: Thank you.



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TBA (Aka Natalie Beridze) - Interview



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Music Box Theatre, Chicago, 3/10/2010
TBA (Aka Natalie Beridze) - Music Box Theatre, Chicago, 3/10/2010
To coincide with a screening of John Lennon biopic 'Nowhere Boy', Lisa Torem at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago sees Lennon's first band, the Quarrymen, play an enjoyable set of early rock and roll and skiffle numbers


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