30 Years Ago: the Blasters' Phil Alvin on the roots of rock 'n' roll, the Sex Pistols, and Queen
Thirty years ago today--on March 10, 1983--the Blasters played the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver. Maybe you were there?
The group--then composed of singer-guitarist Phil Alvin, his younger brother Dave Alvin on lead guitar, pianist Gene Taylor, bassist John Bazz, and drummer Bill Bateman--was in its prime, still riding high on the rockabilly craze that the Stray Cats had helped revive a couple of years earlier.
In advance of the show I'd talked to Phil Alvin on the phone from Hollywood, and gained some insights into the roots of rockabilly. We also covered some other topics, like how the Sex Pistols saved rock and why the Blasters were booed when they opened for Queen. While I'm waiting for the kitchen floor to dry, I'll bang out the interview for anyone who might be interested.
Did the punk explosion in the late seventies, and bands like the Sex Pistols, have anything to do with the Blasters getting where they are today?
Absolutely. I was teaching math when I first heard the Sex Pistols, and then I said, "Allright, good. I can play again." So I quit teaching.
Music was sick. They had soft country rock and they had disco, and it was all "Sears Roebuck #554" with accountants and lawyers. Which was fine with me. I could do math if they wanted to do that to their culture and their music. But thank god for the Sex Pistols. The English took it away from you and the English gave it back to you.
Why did they take it away?
Well, there's a problem that's occured in American music, that's racism. We have very bad racism itself in the division and renaming of music. We have names like rock and roll. Rock and roll, before they started making records in the twenties, used to mean going up into the hills--it meant having sex and all kinds of things--but it also meant to go up and allow your body to get primitive with the rhythm. You would go up on the mountain and rock and roll. And then by the twenties rock and roll had become a widely used term, and they also had the words blues and jazz. But they changed those words for the white audience of that time and turned it into swing by '36 and '37.
Three years before the Beatles came out there was a whole lot of music being put down by a bunch of black guys around here, stuff like "Slow Down", "Dizzy Miss Lizzie", and "I Want to Hold Your Hand", which is just "Give Another Kiss" by Maurice Williams. All of these songs that were on the R&B record charts, the black charts in America, were listened to by all the hillbillies where I came from, and the people who actually were still in the hills in Memphis and stuff. That's why you've got Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis and those guys. Those people knew who all those songs were from, and the Beatles, certainly through no fault of their own, knew who all those songs were from. They couldn't help the fact that the Americans were racists and did not know that what they brought back had already been there in the first place.
Had there not been racism in the United States, then the Beatles and the British Invasion wouldn't have been such a big trumped-up thing. Because when they would have done "Slow Down" or "I Want to Hold Your Hand", people would have said, "Oh, that was the song that was out two years ago," or when the Rolling Stones came in and did "It's All Over Now" they would have said, "That's the Valentino song from two years ago. What is this band covering this for?" The only reason that band was covering it was because the Americans were racist. Now, the British were racists too, but they didn't mind your black people, they just didn't like theirs.
They certainly embraced Jimi Hendrix when he came over after failing to cause a stir in the U.S.
That's right. Hendrix was pure American. The British embraced this guy who was playing his proper licks, based on the evolution from John Lee Hooker and guys like that.
Speaking of guys like Hooker, I understand the Blasters have worked as backup for bluesmen T-Bone Walker and Big Joe Turner.
Yeah, Joe Turner's my good friend, and T-Bone Walker was my good friend, he's dead now. Lee Allen, the sax player who plays in the Blasters, is the reason I got to meet all those guys. Lee was with Fats Domino, on all his records, and with Little Richard too. We met him when I was 15 and Dave was about 12.
Joe Turner and T-Bone taught us what not to play, and how long not to play it. They told us, "When you think five bars of a chorus on guitar is good, why don't you just pick the one good one and play it, and leave the other four out so that people can listen and remember your story? Why don't you use strings that have tone on them instead of turning up very slinky-stringed guitars that have bad sounds when they mix with full-bodied instruments like horns? Why don't you tap your feet together so that your rhythm is on? Why don't you guys all tap on the 2/4 instead of the 1/3?" Stuff like that. Real stuff; the important stuff.
After the members of Queen saw your band performing in the summer of '80 they asked you to open some West Coast shows, but I understand the crowd reaction was very hostile. Were the kids just impatient to see Queen, or were they just not into the rockabilly scene then?
Well I don't know what the state is up there in Canada, but in Los Angeles at that time, if a kid was going to see Queen he was very much on the social lag, he was kind of an outcast. Not that there's anything wrong with Queen or anything, but they were just sort of separated from what was going on. I mean we were doing real well in the city at that time with youth.
But the first gig we played was in San Diego and there was no advertisement of any opening band at all. And when they turned the lights on everybody thought it was Queen and on the front of this very tiny little stage were four guys with quifs on their heads singing. And the general game of that thing is to boo the guys offstage. But it didn't bother me at all--I was fine. They booed and I sang better and better, and the more they booed the harder I hit the fucking guitar and told more jokes.
Was it frustrating to know that Shakin' Stevens was having a really big success in England with your song "Marie Marie".
Relatively frustrating. You get money, you see, from the publishing on that thing, and it does help the band. I get pissed off because they don't have a way right now of copyrighting performances, so these guys get benefits that they shouldn't really have.
And the thing that made me mad, because I knew we were going to get paid for the publishing of it, was to hear this guy taking my fucking vocal inflections--and I don't get fucking anything for it. Nobody knows who I am, and here's this guy using my goddamn voice. You know, "What are you doin', you bum? Why don't you go get your own friggin' voice? It took me long enough to get mine, why don't you go get yours? I can't help it if you were born in England."
Last year your group toured England with Nick Lowe and recorded the Live at the Venue, London album. Did you find that many young people there have turned to rockabilly?
All of Europe, ever since the middle of the 19th century, has been enthralled with any traditional American music form 'cause this is where music has been growing. We brought blacks in here, and we brought Spanish people and Mexicans. There was great cultural integration. And as soon as World War I happened, when the soldiers went over there--blacks and hillbillies and all the guys that couldn't get sanctioned over here because of racism and inequality--they got to stay over there and play in France in all the highest clubs, guys like Bill Burrows and Buddy Boy Hawkins, because they knew these guys were sharp. And it took 10 more years before they'd even record these guys in the United States.
If you go and take a cross-section of 15-year-olds in England right now you'll get guys that listen to hot jazz from the '20s, guys that listen to country blues, guys that listen to Motown. And the reason for that is because the most important evolution that's occured in the 20th century is American music. There's nothing else. No Picasso painting, nothing else has had as big an effect on the world as the sound of jazz and blues.