The Electric Basement Interview 2003
No one has ever sounded like Graham Bonnet. The ozone ripping highs that this guy could hit with little more than the inclination to do so blew open the doors of Hard Rock in the early eighties allowing in a sense of auditory beauty that permanently attached itself to the coarse cover that had always enveloped Heavy Metal. Bonnet melted the standard for what a Hard Rock singer could or better, should be, and the army of warblers that followed his lead continues to mass to present day. Simply put, Graham Bonnet is a legend with a body of work that has left him nearly peerless in the business.
Despite having been at his trade for better than a decade before his 1979 induction into Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, it will forever be that storied group that Bonnet is most associated with. The "Down to Earth" album by Rainbow is a certified classic with songs that garner respectable amounts of radio time more than two decades after its initial release.
Worse associations could certainly be had. To a slightly lesser degree Bonnet is also known as the singer of choice for the world's greatest guitarists of the eighties. Having worked with Michael Schenker in MSG and creating the superstar launching pads for both Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen with his own band Alcatrazz. Bonnet is webbed to the best musicians and the best music of the period but the eighties isn't half of the continuing Graham Bonnet story. Bonnet has had his fair share of drama throughout his career with some absolutely legendary Rock and Roll moments that only Graham could fully color and he did just that when I spoke with him recently by phone from his home in Los Angeles.
DL: You have always managed to keep yourself very busy and right now you are doing another album with Chris Impellitteri?
GB: Yeah, yeah, that's right. We just finished an album, actually it was over a year ago but it is just released over in Europe.
I am not sure if he has a deal to release it over here yet because it is not like it is the height popularity of so-called Heavy Rock or Heavy Metal, whatever you want to call it, here now and it is very much in that vein. It is very difficult to get something happening over here. In Europe and England and in Japan, obviously, it is still really a very big thing and the reviews that we have had have been pretty good. We are supposed to go over to England to do some kind of an outdoor festival or something in like June or something. As far as the Japanese side of things the economy is really bad over there so there is no tour there this year. We expected to go over there a long time ago, when we first released it in Japan but tours are being cancelled all over. Ronnie Dio's tour was cancelled, that is one of the tours that I know about so it looks like they are not spending much money on bringing in foreign acts and it is a bit of a shame because, as I say, the reviews on it have been really good.
DL: It is a shame that money, by necessity, has to be the bottom line...
GB: Yeah, and it is what Chris and I and everybody want to do again, in a way, because it is like returning to the old format and sounding like an 80's kind of a deal with big hair and everything!(laughs) Not that I put that down or anything but the Japanese really wanted us to do something that was recognizable if you know what I mean.
DL: It is funny that you mention the 80's hair and everything but as much as you had an association with that scene you never had the sky high hair!(laughs)
GB: And I still don't!(laughs) Yeah, when I joined Rainbow, it was like, I never expected to do that kind of stuff and I never wanted to be in a Heavy Metal band as such. I was more into R&B or Pop, whatever you want to call it, different kinds of music, and I just happened to get the job by a telephone call.(laughs) That is the way that I looked and that is the way that they got me. This was back in 1979 and I lived in groovy, fashionable London at the time and long hair was really out of date so it was just one of those things that happened to be. Fortunately I got a really good job with a really good band looking the way that I did!(laughs) The look was sort of a shock to everybody at first but after a while they all got used to it and said, "OK then, we will take ya!"
DL: It wasn't that pronounced a thing in Rainbow, I think, but by the time you did the first album with Chris Impellitteri hair was, it was like "the higher the better."
GB: Oh my god yeah. When I first did that album everybody's hair was lacquered to death and you couldn't breath in the dressing room! It was like, "Get me out of here!" and it had to be "just so," you know? "Don't touch it, don't touch it!" (laughs)
DL: "Don't anybody light a match!"(laughs)
GB: Yeah! That was another thing for sure. I just said to myself, "Yeah, but they are Americans, they can't really help it!"(laughs)
DL: Yeah, we invented Rock and Roll, which was good but then we kinda slid back a little with the hairspray thing.(laughs) So who is in this version of Impellitteri?
GB: The guys in the band have played on other albums with Chris, the albums between my leaving and Rob Rock coming back into the band again. To be honest with you, I recorded all of the vocals at home, I never met the band until we did a photo session so it was long distance recording if you know what I mean. I did my bit, they did their bit, the end. Chris would run through the song and made the melodies up and got it to me, which is the way that most people probably do it these days anyway.
DL: That is a major sea change that happened not too long ago, the ability to mail tapes back and forth and to come up with an album of music that way?
GB: Yeah, I mean it is good. I like it that way because it is less stressful. You don't have to have arguments in the studio about one thing or another, it is kind of cool.
DL: When the muse hits, you are able to go to it right away without contacting all the people you would need to if a big studio was being used.
GB: Right, It is nice when you have stuff in your own house to use to record which most people do now anyway. Yes, people do go to studios to do stuff but you can do most of it at home and then pretty cheaply too.
DL: It has been quite some time since you have played in the States, do you think about playing here at all?
GB: I have no band as such so it is very hard for me to go out and play unless it is with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica thrown around my neck like Bob Dylan, it is a bit strange.
In fact I have been talking to some of my friends recently and we did do a couple of gigs a few gigs around Hollywood, little pubs or clubs or whatever and no big deal and it was pointless really. It was a waste of time to be honest with you. Even though people did turn up, nothing was advertised, but I went over to England last year to tour with Don Airey from Rainbow and we did a few shows in England and we ended up in Spain so that was kind of good.
To do the old stuff again and to have a really good band, it was fantastic. Now Don has a great job with Deep Purple and they are recording as we speak so the thing that we were doing had to come to an end, unfortunately, but the time that we had together was great.
I am not sure if Don is going to be with them permanently or what, he doesn't even know yet but it was really great to go out with him and to see the kinds of people who turned up. I was so surprised, kids from fifteen to ninety-five where in the audience, it was very rewarding and a very good time. That is what I have done until Don got this job and he was the main factor in the band because of his great playing. It might happen again, I am not sure though.
DL: Yeah, I think that he may be stuck in Deep Purple.(laughs) I saw them last summer and they were just great.
GB: I don't know. I spoke with him and he said that he was not sure if it was going to be a permanent thing or not. He said that it would be nice for us to get back together and to do it again but we will see what happens. I would love for it to happen because it was great. We did about twenty gigs and to see people turn out who still wanted to hear what we used to do as well as some new stuff.
DL: It would be nice to see it here but that doesn't look very likely at the moment.
GB: Yeah, I don't know. As I say, I am trying to get something happening over here with these guys that I work with but they all do other things and it is really weird, I have no agent, no manager anymore. I got rid of all of those guys because all that those guys did was steal my money anyway. Unfortunately that is something that you do need. It is really hard to do something by yourself on the phone because agents want to talk to managers because that is the way that it works, you know, I hate the business but I love the music.
DL: Yeah, I hear the same story from a lot of artists, you need a manager but in the end they really do little for you, most of the time anyway.
GB: Yeah, I know what it is like, I mean, my wife managed me for a while when we moved to Australia and she looked after everything that I did and the money out there was good but it goes nowhere after you have played four or five gigs in Australia. All of the cities are on the coast and that is it. You can tour Australia in a week, if you are flying, going from city to city because there is nothing there and once you have played in those cities you are done, you can't play like you do in the States and go from East Coast to West Coast and turn around and come back to do the Cities that you missed because in Australia there is a great big desert in the middle. That is why I moved back and tried to get something happening over here again. It is hard because there are ten billion people who want to do the same kind of job that I do and not everybody succeeds.
DL: If you do play people are going to want to hear you do a lot of Rainbow songs but I would certainly like to hear some Alcatrazz as well. There were just some brilliant songs there, do you remember those times fondly?
GB: The first album was like a try out to see what was going to happen. My manager and I looked around all over the place to find people to play in the band. I said to my manager, "I need a guitar player who is like Ritchie Blackmore" and we had to look all over to find that and I was kind of trying to do a Rainbow sort of thing really with that first album just to get something that was familiar to people. I didn't want to go completely nuts and do something really off the wall and strange and alien to people so I thought that the best thing to do was to repeat what I had done before but with different guys and that is what the first album was all about. I liked some of it but my favorite album was the second one. When Yngwie went off on his own career we got Steve Vai into the band and that album is my favorite because of the songwriting. I think that it was more sophisticated and it came together better. The musicianship was better and we took more time with it to think about what we were doing. Then when the third one came along the record company says, "You are not commercial" and so we had to kind of do cover versions of songs and to me it didn't work. No one is really satisfied with the last album even though it was the same guys, basically, with a different guitar player, Danny Johnson. It just wasn't really us. It was totally a case of the record company saying that we have to be more pop or something and that was really the end of it there. They didn't really promote it or anything. I remember that at the time that we made that album Tina Turner was the big deal and all that they were pushing was Tina Turner and there were Tina Turner posters all over the offices, the "stack of pancakes building." The guy there would say to us, "It is still just not commercial enough." One of the songs that we did was, "It's my Life," the Animals tune, and when it was suggested to us I remember going to myself, "Why do we want to do that?" It was awful! I just thought that it was an awful feeling to have to do cover songs even thought I have done cover songs and that the record company didn't understand what Alcatrazz was all about. We were trying to be inventive and that wasn't really us. Like I said, the second album was the real Alcatrazz and the first one was like a try out and the last one was like a blow out!(laughs) It was a very disappointing time and we were all very pissed off that we had to do that. It all came to an end because we lost the interest, or I should say that the record company lost the interest and if you don't have the record company with you, you don't pay the rent.
DL: It is strange in that given the times that should have been the perfect atmosphere, the mid-eighties, for a band like Alcatrazz to thrive.
GB: Yeah, well it wasn't!(laughs) It was an awful time because we all parted ways and I remember people selling equipment and all of that kind of stuff because that is how bad it got. It got right down to getting rid of guitars just to pay the damned rent, it was very bad. I mean, nothing happened, absolutely nothing and so that was it. That was just about when I went to Australia to try and do something different.
DL: I had no idea. Strangely enough there are two things that came form Alcatrazz that never seem to go away, the live album with Yngwie, people on e-bay pay hundreds for it and the video for "God blessed Video" which MTV pulls out pretty frequently.
GB: Yeah, in fact that is on a game now, an X Box game. They used that track on a thing called Grand Theft Auto. (Actually, that game is on Playstation 2 - Editor)
DL: Wow, that is a hugely popular game right now!
GB: Yeah, I have heard that. My daughter said that she heard it and I was like, "Oh you did?" That is why me and Steve Vai just signed a contract about a month or so ago and "God Blessed Video" has gone down in history as a video game song!(laughs) That is pretty cool! I am all young again!(laughs) Kids will listen to my music and not know it and it is pretty exciting.
DL: I spoke with Steve Vai some time ago and he mentioned that he was going to release a box set with some Alcatrazz material on it, do you know if he ever did that?
GB: I don't know, to be honest, but I think it was just a re-release of the album, I didn't hear much about it to be honest with you. I haven't spoken with Steve in 155 years! It has been a long time, I never see him and I don't speak with him because he is in a different world to me now.(laughs) I am here and he is there, you know, and he has never been in touch with me so I don't get in touch with him and that is the way that it is. As I said though, just recently we signed that contract for that game.
DL: You will probably be happy to know that the game is like the absolute number one target for parents groups for its violent content so you have a bit of street cred coming now for that association.(laughs)
GB: Oh fantastic!(laughs) Oh my god!
DL: Yeah, you shoot people and steal their car and spend money on hookers, great stuff!(laughs)
GB: Is this the new one?
DL: No idea, but I can't imagine that they would have mellowed it out any.
GB: Yeah, this is like the fourth one or something. I know nothing about these, I can't get involved with that stuff, it bores the shit out of me! I mean, you sit there, anyway...
DL: OK, so on to something that I completely missed until just recently, Blackthorne. What was that group all about?
GB: That was kind of a test album, that one. I was living in Australia at the time and my keyboard player from Alcatrazz, Jimmy Waldo, called me up and said, "I am working with this guitar player Bob Kulick, have you thought about coming back to the States and getting a new band together?" I told him that I didn't have any money and so it ended up that I borrowed money to go from Australia to Los Angeles and we got together and made one album, which I wasn't very pleased with, to be honest with you. I didn't like it at all. Bob Kulick was the producer so...
DL: Let me guess, it was a guitar heavy album?(laughs)
GB: Well, sort of but he wanted me to sing in a completely different way and I said to myself, "Why the hell am I here?" I don't sing like that, I don't sing like the guy from AC/DC. I don't go, "Whaa, whaa whaa" I don't do that, it isn't me and its not my voice and so one day the engineer and I did a track without him being there and he (Kulick) came in and ripped it apart because I was singing like me. I remember the engineer saying to me, "This is the way you sing" and I said, "Yes, I know that it is!" It was also trying to be something it wasn't and bands like Nirvana and that were around at that time and everything had to be rough and garage sounding so he tried to do a mix of both, Heavy Metal and Garage and for me it didn't work because I wasn't being truthful, you know, the way that I was shouting wasn't singing and it wasn't me. It was totally unlike me and it was really forced and fake. I was really very upset about it and so I left that band as soon as the thing was over. I went back to Australia and I said, "I am not coming back to that, no way."
DL: A bit of a waste of time?
GB: Hmm, a lot of people have said to me, "I love that album!" but then other people have said, "Who is the guy singing on that, he is terrible!"(laughs) I would say, "It is me and I know it is terrible!" It was an unfortunate time and I think that it was just trying a bit too hard and when you do that it just doesn't work.
DL: With all of the experiences that you have had through the years with different styles you are known primarily as a Heavy Rock/Heavy Metal kind of singer but that is a long way from the kind of music you did up until joining Rainbow, do you ever consider returning to that older style?
GB: Absolutely. I was watching Eric Clapton last night with Billy Preston playing keyboards and the stuff that Clapton does is so classy. He has now kind of turned around and he kind of has the clout to do what he wants to do. Unfortunately I don't have that clout.(laughs) People want to hear me sing the same stuff over and over again or at least similar stuff but I did start out with the Pop/R&B kind of thing. The guys who wrote tunes for us were from one of the most hated bands in the Rock world, the Bee Gees, so the Bee Gees wrote tunes for me and my cousin and we did, I don't know, we made two singles with them and then an album which is very obscure with orchestra that was real Pop. I don't dislike any kind of music, I mean, I love Blues, I love whatever you want to call it, Metal or whatever and you know, I am a musician and I like to be able to show the different colors that are in my voice or my soul or whatever it is. These days I am not allowed to do that but that is where I started.
DL: Your first love?
GB: You know, I was in a cover band when I was fifteen and it was fun to play Beatles and Rolling Stones songs, I loved it. The Kinks, all that kind of stuff and I still love that stuff, I love it to death. I love the Beach Boys and I love Brian Wilson's writing, I am not talking about the surfing stuff, the later stuff that the Beach Boys did on "Pet Sounds." That guy, what a great songwriter he is, just fantastic.
DL: So it is not out of the question that you would do that kind of thing again just a bit improbable at the moment?
GB: Yeah, I mean, I am a singer and it is like, a carpenter doesn't make the same damned table over and over again does he? That is what I would like to do but because of the way things are you are asked to do the same thing again and again and again. Chris Impellitteri said this to me, "I wished that we could do something different like an acoustic album or something, why do I have to do all of this stuff?"
And I told him, "Well, because you are good at it!"(laughs) That is what people want to here, they want to hear all of the technique and all that stuff so everything has to be high and loud but that, to me, gets to be a bit tedious and it is like, "Yeah, I can do that but I can do other stuff too."
DL: For some reason I am much more familiar with everything else that you have done but I never much got a chance to hear the MSG stuff that you did and while researching a bit I kept coming across references to your last night with the band and some on stage nudity, what was that all about?(laughs)
GB: (Laughing uneasily) Well, Cozy Powell got me the job with MSG and Cozy and I rehearsed with MSG in London for about a month or so and then there was this big fight between Michael and Cozy. Cozy left and Ted McKenna came in and we made the album in France and then we went out on our first gig, a place in Sheffield, a University I think. I had to learn all of these songs which, I didn't know at all, from the other Michael Schenker albums so I had a whole bunch of paper on the stage, it was like wallpaper, one big long sheet of writing. The stage was really low, I will never forget it, and I am so embarrassed about the whole thing. I mean, the stage was about a foot off of the ground and the audience was leaning against the monitors and everything and of course by the monitors were these words and with all of the pushing against the monitors into the paper all the words crinkled up and I started to get really pissed off about it.
Oh god(sighs), unfortunately my parents were there! Yeah, the zipper came undone and out "he" came. Of course I made it part of the act!(laughs) But, other things had evolved that night as well. I had been out, we all had been out, that day at the pub and having fun and it was, it was a drunken night basically. I am not ashamed to admit it because I think that everyone knows about it already. I kind of waved it around and tried to make it into some kind of a puppet show but it was awful, one of the worst days of my life I think. After that happened I was of course booed off the stage because I started swearing at the audience. I went down stairs to the dressing room and one of the roadie guys, he came and got hold of me and said, "You better get out of the building fast because they are going to fucking kill ya!"(laughs) He drove me back to the hotel and the next morning I got a phone call to say that I had better get out of town real quick and so I got on the train back to London and at Kings Cross Station my manager was there to meet me. He said, "Graham, they have fired you." In a couple of days we had the Donnington gig and I said, "I can do it." And he said, "Yeah, but they don't think that you can." It was just one of those bad days and whatever you have read about it was pretty much the truth. I was very honest about it because I was so embarrassed and I thought that I had better tell the truth.
DL: There it is then! I thought that it was just some creative writing that became legend but it was true!(laughs)
GB: Well, I am not proud of it, obviously, but it was a silly day, a very stupid day in fact. I can't really say anything about the other guys but we all had our problems with drugs and whatever else. Waking up in the morning meant drinking a bottle of champagne and taking a Valium, you know, you don't wake up normal like that but that is the way that it kind of was. I am not saying anything about the other guys, they did their own thing, but it wasn't a very stable bunch of guys, let me say that. Everybody was a little bit, you know...
DL: Yeah, well Michael and a lot of the other guys that you have worked with have gone through a number of musicians with their "groups" and it seems like a lot of the coming and going has had less to do with the musical abilities of the individuals than it does with the personalities involved.
GB: Yeah, exactly. I think that it still goes on, as far as I have heard. I spoke to Michael about three years ago, he was playing with UFO or something, and he had written a couple of tunes for me. I think that he is a great musician no matter what.
DL: He and Blackmore definitely have multiple reputations, mostly beyond the music...
GB: Yeah but it is a very difficult thing to get out of because people expect you to be a loon, some fucking idiot that trashes hotel rooms and throws up on stage or dies on stage or whatever. That is what they call "Entertainment!"(laughs)
DL: Its funny, people will ask me how I can write some of the things that I do or how I can go on an not challenge someone who is obviously lying to me about something and my response always is that we are not nor have we ever been dealing with reality here, this is show business and it is the blur between Joe Normal and the Raving mad artist that is interesting, well to me anyway.
GB: Yeah, that is what I am saying, it is unreal and then you are up there on that stage or in a recording situation and you are somebody else, you are not really you. You are not the guy who takes a shit every ten minutes, you are the guy who is trying to make sure that his hair is right or is wearing the right damned clothes or something. It is a totally fake situation and when people meet you backstage after the show they will say, "God, you are so ordinary!"(laughs) "Well yeah, I take the dog for a walk every morning, doesn't everybody?" They expect that somebody else does that for you or something. If you are a millionaire maybe but I am not a millionaire, I am just a regular guy. I do whatever everybody else does.
DL: Well now Ozzy Osbourne has gone and ruined that for Rock musicians as well with his TV show purporting to be real life.
GB: Oh yeah. I have never watched the whole thing only a bit of it. When Don Airey was over last year he said that he went on one of those Hollywood tours and Ozzy's house was on it. After he was done with the tour he grabbed a cab and went back to see Ozzy and it was so funny to see him and the house was all decorated with crosses and everything.
DL: It is both sad and funny that he would adopt the image that other people built up around him.
GB: Yeah. Don said, "Can you believe that a boy from Birmingham has all this now?" Ozzy took Don around and gave him a tour of the house and showed him his movie theater and all this, that and the other and when Don came back he said, "It was very impressive but this is a home and that wasn't, it was a studio set." I am sure a lot of it is done just for the cameras, hell, I don't know.
DL: This is sort of related in a strange way, did you once get an offer to join Black Sabbath after Ozzy left that band?
GB: Yeah. My manager got a call and I turned it down and then Ronnie joined Black Sabbath and had two really good albums with them and I kind of kick myself for that! My manager called me and said, "Hey, what about Black Sabbath?" and I said, "Well I don't like Black Sabbath, it is not my kind of thing." At that time I was trying to do something different but then this job came up and I turned it down. Who knows if it would have been successful with me, maybe Ronnie was just the right choice, I don't know.
DL: You have done a few other one off things along the way as well, like a tour of Japan with Anthem...
DL: How do you get called to do those things? Is it just a matter of people saying, "You know who would be good for this, Graham Bonnet."
GB: That is about it!(laughs) I got a call from JVC in Japan and they said that these guys in Anthem wanted to meet up with me to see if I would be interested in doing a remake of an album that they did before but obviously this time it wouldn't be sung in Japanese. What I got was basically a demo with these other guys singing but all in Japanese and we had to translate it into English. It didn't work very well and it was hard to do to be honest with you. All of the syllables didn't fit in certain bars of the music so we had to kind of edit it a lot and cut it down so that it would fit the music. They came over here, two of the guys, and they sat here for a couple of days and went through a couple of things and then went back to Tokyo. I recorded all of the vocals here and it was another one of those things, like Karaoke vocals. But it ended up turning out pretty well and we did three gigs in Japan which were very fruitful, I must say. I was surprised. I said, "Naw, they are not going to go for this." But it was good, we got good crowds.
DL: The Japanese certainly seem to have a love for Rainbow and Deep Purple related people, Joe Lynn Turner and Glenn Hughes, they go over and rake it in over there. Somehow the Anglo/Oriental mix works for them.
GB: Yeah, it is funny isn't it? I wish that it would happen here. It would be nice to go out the door and go to a gig instead of getting on a plane and having jet lag for a week. That is what I said to Chris, lets get something happening over here instead of having to fly to Japan or God knows where else. That is the hard thing, to get something happening from my ilk, my generation.(laughs) It is just not very fashionable to be a heavy band right now here. In Los Angeles it is like, "We have heard all that, we don't want to hear it." They want to hear disposable music or something that will last for three years which I can't stand but I have to hear because my son plays it all damn day!(laughs)
DL: Yeah, the industry knows that to keep their profit margin they have to keep the kids working for them that don't know any better!(laughs)
GB: Of course, that is the way that we all started out and that is why I was ripped off when I was a kid. I started in this when I was about 18 or 19 and of course I didn't know what was happening, I was all like, "Oh great, there is a big limo turning up at the door" I didn't realize that I was paying for it! Oh well.(laughs)
David L. Wilson, The Electric Basement 8 April 2003