Chris Spedding on the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols... and The Wombles
He turned down the Rolling Stones, stood in for Jimmy Page, was the first man to record the Sex Pistols, and was the Womble with the Flying V. He's the extremely well-connected Chris Spedding
Few CVs bulge quite like Chris Spedding’s. The Derbyshireborn guitarist and producer has been a bastion of the British session scene since the late 1960s, racking up a list of credits that includes Jack Bruce, John Cale, Elton John, Paul McCartney, the Sex Pistols, Brian Eno, Ginger Baker, Roy Harper, Donovan, Roxy Music, War Of The Worlds and, yes, furry 70s faves The Wombles (that’s him as Wellington, complete with Flying V). And that’s not to mention overseas talent like the Cramps, Johnny Thunders and Tom Waits. The list is, to say the least, impressive.
Spedding’s career is as ranging as it is eclectic, and along with all the collaborations also includes solo hits – most famously 1975 greaser anthem Motorbikin’ – alongside stints in bands such Battered Ornaments and Sharks. He even turned down The Rolling Stones. No surprise, then, that’s he’s very much a revered figure. “Having played with people like Jimmy Page and Dave Gilmour, Chris is right up there with them,” declared Roy Harper.
Playing with Jack in 1969 [on Bruce’s debut solo album, Songs For A Tailor] was my first big session, the one that put me on the map. I was a bit overwhelmed by my surroundings, as I hadn’t really done a big record before. But Jack must have wanted a guitar player who wasn’t an Eric Clapton clone. Which is probably why he chose me, because I was anything but that. I think I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Jack would come in and play the piano part, then there’d just be me and drummer Jon Hiseman and that’s all. I’d just be weaving my guitar lines between his piano lines. That was a real eye-opener for me. I remember thinking I didn’t know people made records like this. Jack was very sure about what he was doing. I was grateful that he picked me as the guy to be his non-Eric Clapton guitar player.
The Rolling Stones
Battered Ornaments supported the Stones at Hyde Park in 1969. We had an army field ambulance as our band wagon. It didn’t have any windows in it, so they used it to smuggle the Stones into the Park. And having been managed by Blackhill Enterprises, who were putting the whole thing on, we got to go on just before the Stones. I was suffering from terrible hay fever that day and needed to get out of the sun. I know I was in the prime spot of what was a very historic occasion, but I wasn’t really into what was going on. I needed to get back to that van, but the Stones were in there, much to my annoyance.
Yes, Mick Jagger did phone me after Mick Taylor left the Stones, but it was quite a long time afterwards. All of the music papers were full of speculation. It’s a bit like when the Pope dies and you get pictures of all these people who might succeed him. I was on a list with everyone from Jeff Beck downwards. But they didn’t contact me at all until six months after Mick Taylor had left. By that time I’d recorded Motorbikin’, done the album with Roy Harper [HQ] and was working with John Cale. Then suddenly I get a call from Mick Jagger, saying: “Y’know, the Stones have got a tour of America coming up next month. Do you fancy it?” But it was too late. I was already booked up. A week later there was an announcement that Ron Wood had joined.
I didn’t even know who John Cale was when I got the call to do the session [Cale’s ’75 album Slow Dazzle]. I only got to find out about the Velvet Underground later on. Working with John wasn’t straightforward, but I like that sort of challenge: “Let’s do it in a different key.” “Let’s do a different tempo.” John wanted to inject something new into the recording process. I knew him when he had a reputation for doing crazy things on stage, like the incident involving a chicken. It wasn’t long after I’d finished playing with him, and he called me up from America. It was after a gig one night, and he asked if I knew any drummers. I said: “Oh John, what have you done?” And he went: “Well, I kind of bit a chicken’s head off on stage and my drummer’s a vegetarian. He’s refused to play with me any more.”
It was good working with Roy [Harper’s backing band on 1975’s HQ comprised Spedding, drummer Bill Bruford and John Paul Jones]. I got the call to do the session [when David Gilmour was struggling to play one of the songs], and they liked what I did. I don’t really know why there was a big fuss made of that song [The Game], because it wasn’t a particularly difficult solo.
I was never that fond of Roy’s long monologues on stage. It was frustrating standing there while that was going on. I’d be scratching my head and wondering when the next number was going to start. You feel exposed up there. But there wasn’t much you could say to him, really. I think I was hired because Jimmy Page was busy with Led Zeppelin. My brief with Roy was to play what Jimmy Page might do. And I ended up doing that rather than joining the Stones.
We didn’t have to play in the furry suits, but there were union rules stating that the guys who played on the records also had to play on television. I thought it might be fun. Once or twice I appeared in the suit. Once was at a charity gig and the other time was on Top Of The Pops. It was hellishly warm in that suit. And I remember it smelling very strongly of the previous occupant. [Wombles creator] Mike Batt was very underrated. They were very clever records. He definitely really went for it after he got that one hit with The Wombling Song. I mean, he made a whole industry out of it. He did very well. I didn’t see any royalties from all the Wombles stuff because I was just paid union scale. Which was fine, as I was making a good living.
It was clear that, in 1976, people wanted something new, but I could never understand why the people in the music business couldn’t immediately see it. They were very resistant to the Pistols, they thought they were terrible. They were frightened and intimidated by them.
I took the songs to Mickie Most first of all [Spedding recorded their first demos], but he couldn’t figure out the Pistols at all, though his teenage son loved them. I thought the Pistols were just what we needed. They played me all their tunes and I chose the best three that they had [Problems, Pretty Vacant and No Feelings]. I thought they were the ones to get a deal with. Which they did, with EMI. And all that stuff about them not being able to play their instruments was rubbish. When Mickie Most heard them he presumed the guitar player was me. And so did [eventual Pistols producer] Chris Thomas.
Do you know what the shortest review in the history of rock is? Chris Welch reviewed the Ginger Baker & Friends album [1976’s Eleven Sides Of Baker] in Melody Maker, and all he wrote was: “With friends like these…”
I remember Ginger playing these incredible solos all night, doing them over and over again until he got it right. The rest of us were hardly doing anything. Then he’d keep calling up all his African percussion friends throughout the evening. We’d still be there at six in the morning, by which time there’d be about 40 musicians all crammed into the studio. Word had got out – it was almost like he had this ‘drum telegraph’ going with African drummers in London. But it was incredible to sit there and watch this every night.
In 1978 I played with Sid Vicious in New York [at Max’s Kansas City]. There’s a bootleg somewhere of us doing Something Else. I remember this bizarre incident where he came off stage and shook my hand. I was convinced he was grinding this glass into my hand, because when I looked down it had blood all over it. But it was actually blood from him. And he’d been holding ice in his hand to mop it up. Sid was used to it, I think. He was into the self-harming thing at that point. He was actually a nice guy, but he just got caught up in God-knows what. I guess he was living the part. When I first met him, in ’75 or ’76, he certainly wasn’t living the part. He was dressed like a hippie, with long hair, flared pants and a velvet jacket.
My manager called to see if I was up for the session [for McCartney’s 1984 album Give My Regards To Broad Street]. I wouldn’t say it was an ambition of mine to work with McCartney, but I thought it was a cool thing to do. Especially with Ringo on drums, George Martin producing and [Beatles engineer] Geoff Emerick. I’d look around and everyone in the room had been part of the Beatles years, apart from me. So I could fantasise that I was George Harrison for the day and that this was a Beatles session at Abbey Road. I remember Paul McCartney going over to George Martin and saying: “Strawberry Fields Forever was a number one, wasn’t it? It says in this book that we only got to number two! I thought we had twenty number ones, not nineteen!” Or whatever it was. I thought it was cool that he was whining about something at that level. I think that brought it home to me that he was on a completely different planet to the rest of us, in terms of levels of success.
I went to see him when he played Fat Tuesdays in New York. I’d booked a table under my name, and he must have had someone looking through the list of guests to see if there were any guitar players in. He was playing there with his trio, and suddenly invited me up to the bandstand. I thought: “Oh great, I’m going to get to play with Les Paul!” But he stopped playing, gave me his guitar, then sat down in the front row with his arms folded and nodded at me. It was like, “Okay, away you go. Let’s see what you can do.” It was pretty daunting. When I came off stage my hands were shaking. He was a very sweet guy though. When I told him: “All of us guitar players were really inspired by you,” his face just lit up, as if I’d just said the greatest thing in the world. It was a lovely moment.