Graham Simpson by Stephen Thrower - Mon 7th May

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Grahams Simpson interviewed by Stephen Thrower in 2010.

Simpson was born in Manchester in 1943, although his family relocated a year later to Waddington in Surrey. "My mother told me one night a V2 landed in the cemetery behind the house and blew all the corpses to Kingdom Come," Simpson recalls, "and I slept through it!" The family moved around a great deal, first to Bristol, then Ashford in Middlesex, then Edinburgh. "My father was in the Merchant Navy during the war," says Simpson. "He was a radio officer who ended up working in Edinburgh, for the government, working on guided missiles, of all things, so we were chalk and cheese all along. He was English, and my mother was the daughter of a Scottish shepherd, very humble origins. She was a trained nurse, a theatre sister, and she brought me up to be respectful towards everyone and everything."

Aged around six, Simpson encountered the power of music for the first time: "I was exposed to a 12" acetate recording on HMV of Jascha Heifetz playing Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D, and the crescendo on that blew me away. I've never forgotten the sensation. I was lifted to extraordinary heights at a very early age." After a spell in the school orchestra playing violin, he left with 9 'O' Levels and 3 'Scottish Highers'. At University, he gravitated to the bass guitar, thanks to a passionate interest in jazz: "I taught myself to play bass guitar in 1963. My first bass was a Gibson EBO, cherry-red. I sanded all the cherry red off and just had it plain wood, varnished. It was f***ing wonderful. I used to bang it up against the door, to get the resonance throughout the flat, and practise every night. I'd always been blown away, carried to a high, by Charlie Mingus, Jimmy Garrison, Henry Grimes, Paul Chambers. Charlie Hayden still blows my mind to this day. And I don't think there's a bass player in the world who did not die a million deaths when Scott LaFaro drove off the road after a gig and died in the resulting accident. It took Bill Evans a year to recover, and that's some indication of how valuable Scott LaFaro was to the art of the double bass. Inestimable, the initiator of the pizzicato upper register."

A taste for the Blues, and artists such as Big Bill Broonzy, guided Simpson into his first college bands. Simpson recalls, "I started off in 1964 with a cracking little Blues band in Newcastle called The Junco Partners. John [Woods] on drums, Charlie [Harcourt] on lead guitar, Spirits [David Sproat] on bass, and Ron [Barker], the singer. The intonation, of course, wouldn't exactly crack a mirror, you know, but the enthusiasm was there, and the Newcastle Brown Ale, and the young Geordie lasses... it was a wonderful time." There were several R&B groups operating around the Newcastle club scene at the time, and Simpson swiftly became associated with another, a lavish seven-piece outfit known as The Gas Board. Led by Ian 'Sparky' Watts on guitar, the band boasted a horn section with baritone sax, alto and flute, and included future filmmaker Mike Figgis on trumpet, future star record producer John Punter on rhythm guitar, and Bryan Ferry on vocals. Simpson recalls the group with great esteem: "We had a good sound, many people commented on it, a really good sound. And a brass section, that was young Ian Watts' influence. He was the lead guitarist in the Gas Board, if not the founder along with me. Mike Figgis on trumpet, Johnny Laws on baritone. John Porter played rhythm for us; always far too loud!"

Gas Board were managed by future Chrysalis Records founder Terry Ellis, then the Student Union secretary at Newcastle University, responsible for organising the campus's 'Saturday-night bashes'. Ellis, soon to establish himself as manager of Jethro Tull, almost succeeded in securing mainstream attention for the group. Says Simpson, "We were recorded for Tyne Tees television one Saturday morning. It was the best paid gig we ever did. The manager screwed about £60 out of them for this one-off appearance. We played 'Morning Dew', sort of flower-power. (Written by Bonnie Dobson and covered recorded in 1966 by Tim Rose). Before that it was all jeans and Jaeger shirts." Ellis then took The Gas Board down to London. Simpson recalls, "He stuck us in Pye recording studios in Paddington, and we had some prick of an American producer trying to get us to sing pop songs. So it all collapsed, you know, and we all went our separate ways. Terry had put some money behind us, and he lost that. I felt sorry about this and apologized, and he said it's alright, and told me about a job going in Manchester." So, in 1968 Simpson dropped out of his English degree at Newcastle, moved to Manchester, and joined the blues band Cock-A-Hoop. "For a year we were on the road, doing quality gigs, Oxford Union, we even backed the f***ing Bee Gees, would you believe, when they came over from America. But the management was bollocks, as usual. We did a year and they didn't pay us one f***ing penny for the year's work. We weren't looking to make much money, but it would have been nice to buy a spare guitar string."

Leaving Cock-A-Hoop, Simpson relocated to Norwich with his wife Frannie, before moving down to London in 1969. "I kept in touch with young Sparky Watts, who was working as a chemist in Notting Hill, living in a house full of people who were dealing cannabis. Completely and totally paranoid, the whole house. You could smell the fear from Tower Bridge! In late '69, Simpson found himself back in touch with Bryan Ferry, who announced that he was looking for someone to help formulate a new band, as yet unnamed. "Bryan had visited me in Norwich and talked about the idea of forming a band together, he admired my bass playing or something. We teamed up in London. Bryan was living with a young girl ['Susie' to whom the first album is dedicated] who had a flat in Kensington, courtesy of her rich father. I'd never had more than a ha'penny in my life to scratch my nose with; I always feel out of my depth in lush surroundings. Bryan always lands on his feet, because he looks where he's going so carefully. He was working as an art teacher. I was dropping acid every weekend and hanging out at a flat in Brondesbury. Bryan bought me a bass guitar. He borrowed about £5000 from a rich friend of his, but then all of Bryan's friends were rich. Bryan was very crafty. He's not exactly a schemer, more a contriver of sorts." 

The fact that Ferry chose Simpson as his first collaborator is surely significant. So what formed the basis of their friendship? The answer goes back to their Newcastle college days: "Bryan and I first met with a common interest in the Blues. Fats Domino was one of Bryan's favourites. He took me home to his place in Gateshead one afternoon, and he put on a 45 of a track by some soul singer I've never heard of again, a track called In My Lonely Room, a wonderful, wonderful track. I'd never heard it, and it blew my mind. For Bryan and I, this was the common ground. We bonded on a musical appreciation level." Regarding Ferry's parallel art interests, Simpson was appreciative but uninvolved, wryly admitting: "It's all I can do to sign my name on the back of a bounced cheque!" So what did Simpson think of Ferry's songs on first hearing them? "I heard them as works of art, so I played along with them as works of art. Bryan used to spend hours and hours every evening just playing and composing, and writing the lyrics."

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