Sunday, April 1, 2012

Five Questions with... Liam Grundwell

No other band can boast that they have had a more prominent slew of guitarists amongst their ranks than The Yardbirds can. Formed in 1963, this British rocking blues band introduced to the world the likes of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, three guitarists who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But I'm guessing that one you haven't heard of is Liam Grundwell, who for two months was Clapton's replacement as the Yardbirds lead guitarist. It didn't go very well. Never before was a band on the cusp of spontaneous combustion as the Yardbirds were with Grundwell, who's guitar work was very much underscored by his affinity for bickering, drinking and fighting. Often he showed up at rehearsals drunk out of his mind, and just as often he was apt to start a fight with the other members in the band, or anybody else who happened to be in the room.

Liam Grundwell as he looks today.
(Photo from Grundwell's private collection)
Born and raised in the Hotwells area of Bristol down near the river in the southwest part of England, Liam became a trained jazz guitarist at a very young age. He played at the world-famous jazz pub The Old Duke when he was just 15 after the owner saw him playing in the street and invited him in to play onstage. He convinced the owner that he was old enough by producing an ID he had made from a picture of his father, that he had stolen from a war locket his mother wore around her neck. Liam was very hot under the collar, and that gig ended almost as soon as it started when one drunken night he punched the owner for mispronouncing his name.

He immediately beat it out of town and settled down in Chelmsford, a city located on the commuter belt in Essex, England. Once again he became a street musician until he caught the eye (and ear) of Nigel King who owned a music store called Spokes. King, who also had a strong fondness for whiskey, took a liking to the young Liam and offered him a job in his shop. It was a move that could have (and probably should have) changed rock and roll as we know it forever.

Liam's drunken revelry has become stuff of legend. One night he got so drunk that he punched the city constable in the nose... Through the glass window of the Constable's automobile. And the late great Keith Moon once said of Grundwell, "I'd just as soon get trampled by a bloody horse than to enter an ale pub with that blimey bastard."

Through tenacious searching and a huge stroke of luck, I was able to get him to talk to the Bigfoot Diaries. Without a doubt, gaining this interview is my greatest achievement to date.

So... Tell me about how you came to replace Eric Clapton in the Yardbirds.

Well mate, one thing you should know right now is that I taught (Clapton) everything he knows on the guitar and he would have never become the international superstar he thinks he is had it not been for my instruction. I was working at Spoke's Music Shop on Sudbury Lane in Chelmsford during the summer of '62. Eric was on holiday from studying at Kingston and happened into the shop one day. Nothing really peculiar about him at the time really, just a normal bloke. He picked up a double-cutaway Gretsch 6120 and started fingering the neck looking at me as if to see if I was impressed. I returned a look that said I wasn't and asked him if he needed a lesson. Well I gave him one alright... For six hours he toiled on that thing, but I was able to teach him the basics of what I knew. He left that day a better musician, I can tell you that. We kept in touch and I was able to see him perform a few times when he was still with The Roosters. He was a nice enough guy and very eager to learn the craft, but he was kind of boring really. I liked to drink myself bloody back then, paralytic really, and always sort of thought of Eric as a scarper... One who always left the pasture before the balloon got off of the ground so to speak. To make a long story short, he did eventually convene with The Yardbirds and I guess as his mentor he assumed that I was the perfect fit to replace him when he decided that he had had enough.

So... You stepped right into the Yardbirds. Was it a smooth transition or did you need some time to learn the songs?

I stepped right in, but one thing you must know about me is that nothing in my life has ever been smooth. I got a lot of integrity, but I didn't always manage myself in a professional manner. Still don't actually. Responsibility was never on my priority list as much as drinking whiskey and going apeshit was. I don't think that rest of the band knew what to expect from me, as my reputation hadn't exceeded beyond me yet. But one thing is for certain... Instantly the band sounded better than they ever did before I joined them and even after, really. They were never as tight as they were during the time I played for them. That's what Chris Dreja once told me years later... But I always knew it all along. The thing is, I hated playing the blues. It's such a simple method of guitar; any plank can play it. But the blues were in style in the UK at the time, and I DID want to be in a band, so I did my best to be a giggle. It didn't last long, as history will tell you. Keith (Relf) likes to say that he "threw me out of the band" but the truth of the matter is, I quit on my own terms... Which meant burning a few bridges and leaving the place in shambles. I figured I'd give them some new blues material, fuckin' codgers.

So it's safe to assume that you and the other Yardbirds are not in a friendly place?

Mate, let me tell you something. Me the Yardbirds never really were in a friendly place, as you put it. I have had a civil encounter with Chris (Dreja) once or twice in the past decade. I never really minded him as much in the fact that he didn't try to fuck with every guitar lick I was laying down.. I wanted to be the driving force that took the Yardbirds out of being a blues band and into more of a psychedelic rock. He was on board with that as any good rhythm guitarist would be. Keith was certainly not for that transition at all, and either was Jim (McCarty). They, like Eric, were hopelessly stuck in that "blues thing." And look where it got 'em! Ha! You mention Keith Relf's name in any sort of music capacity in the States, and they will look at you like you are a buffoon. The only musicians of prominence who came out of the Yardbirds were the lead guitarists, and only because, as I slightly implied earlier, I taught them every guitar technique that made them famous. If it hadn't been for me, there never would have been a Derek and The Dominoes, Eric Clapton wouldn't be a household name, and you would have never heard of Led Zeppelin. Jimmy Page came to be a Yardbird only on my instruction, and like Clapton, he learned his stylings from me. Notice that only well after I left the band did the Yardbirds began to dabble in psychedelic music, something that I pressed on them early on.

Grundwell at Spokes in '62
(From Grundwell's private collection)
So you were an influence to Jimmy Page also?

I think that's fair to say, though you'll never hear that wanker admit it. In all the interviews he's done over the years I can't think of a time he's even spoken my name. Jim simply combined old delta blues riffs with a "heavy" sound. The thing about Jim is that he's often referred to as an innovator, but that's just a bunch of blarmy. If you listen to a bunch of those old Chess blues records you can hear nearly everything Jim did before he ever did it; and the rest of it, the whole power riff kind of thing, that came from me.

So after your split with the Yardbirds did you continue on with music?

I kept playing guitar to keep my chops if you will, but as far as playing in a band I really started to lose interest. I dabbled here and there with things but I have to be honest, I was much happier just hanging around on the scene than actually playing in a band. The whole thing was really starting to explode; and around '66 I think, the whole psychedelic thing was really starting to take off and things were pretty fun and interesting. I just started to think that lugging my gear around and going to rehearsals was a real chore. The other thing that was off putting was having to deal with all of these fucker's egos. I found my time better spent chasing some bird around than listening to some tanked up bloke tell me and everyone within earshot how great he is. It was more fun to be out in the crowd and lob beer bottles at the band than it was to be playing with most of those wankers.

So... What are you doing these days?

Ah... Not much really, at least in any form of production. It used to be I'd get up in the morning and pour myself a whiskey pop and normally find myself pissed by noon. But not lately as it's gotten a bit old. I'm certainly not the young man I was even ten years ago. My reputation has been tarnished beyond belief but all and all, I guess the tarnishment was well deserved. I've never claimed to be anybody other than who I am, and now I guess I am cursed to have to live with it. These days I'm content to hanging out with my wonderful lady, April and watching the sun move across the sky. Not in a hurry for anything really. Never been a person who engaged in social activities... In fact, you should feel lucky son, as your website, The Bigfoot Diaries, is the first interview I've allowed in about 40 years. I'm still not sure how you found me, as there is very little about me on the Internet from what I can tell.To the fools with whom I shared the scene with back in the day, I am a mere footnote, a forgotten piece of dust that has since been wiped clean by the winds of time. And that's ok.  I kind of like it that way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

l'dmaoff - Travis Clifford, DM