Chris Spedding: the best-connected guitarist you've never heard of
He discovered the Sex Pistols, knocked back the Stones and even dressed as a Womble on prime-time TV, but he’s never had the dues his incredible career has deserved.
Chris Spedding strolls down Denmark Street, aka Tin Pan Alley, glancing at the guitar shops that will soon vanish beneath Cross Rail, and recalls how this central London street was once the epicentre of British rock’n’roll.
“Regent Sounds Studio was here,” he says, “where the Stones and everyone else recorded. The Giaconda café was a few doors down, and that’s where all us musicians would gather. The Sex Pistols’ rehearsal room was up there, on the far corner. When I first arrived in London in the early 1960s, Denmark Street was full of music publishers and I’d come to them to get sheet music of the current hits for the dance bands that I was then playing in.”
Spedding is British rock’s unsung guitar hero. For almost 50 years he has lent his remarkable touch to hundreds – possibly thousands – of recordings. On top of his own dozen-plus solo albums, he can be found on recordings by household names (Elton John, Bryan Ferry), critics’ favourites (John Cale, Harry Nilsson) and cult heroes (Willy DeVille, Frankie Miller). He helped launch the Sex Pistols and The Cramps, turned down an offer to join the Rolling Stones and he’s even briefly been a Womble.
Yet apart from his 1975 hit Motorbikin’, this Zelig figure has never troubled the mainstream. As we walk through central London, no one appears to recognise the 70-year-old, despite his white, David Lynch quiff. Raised in Sheffield, he retains a Northern directness and is refreshingly free of affectation. This could go some way to explaining his lack of bitterness about not having had the same level of success as the likes of Beck, Clapton or Page – or their fortune.
When we’re seated in a nearby pub, Spedding explains: “Some session musicians are bitter, but I had the good luck to have my solo albums as an outlet. Anyway, I never went that route of doing big guitar solos. To me, Jeff Beck is the British rock guitarist I admire the most. He’s a virtuoso. I’m not a virtuoso. I’m a guy who comes up with short, sharp, tasty licks.”
Which brings us to today. Spedding’s new album, Joyland, finds him rifling through his contact book once more. Bryan Ferry, Arthur Brown and Andy Fraser all appear on the album, as does ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. But while Joyland is a testament to Spedding’s undimmed creativity and longevity, it begs one question: why isn’t he better known? At a recent 100 Club performance – with Malcolm Bruce (Jack’s son) on bass – he played a dynamic set that ranged across his career. Yet the venue was only half full. And this for a guitarist whose fingerprints are on so much remarkable music of the last half-century.
Typically, Spedding isn’t one to assign blame. For this modest man, making music is both the means and the end. “I never feel like I’ve done my best work. If I ever do feel that about one of my albums perhaps then I’ll be ready to retire.”