Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Making Dumb Good: A Casual Conversation about Songwriting, Rock 'n' Roll, and the Legacy of the 'Q Guitar Legend Al Anderson

Making Dumb Good: A Casual Conversation about Songwriting, Rock 'n' Roll, and the Legacy of the 'Q Guitar Legend Al Anderson

By Jonathan Donaldson

“I just got off the phone with Duane Eddy, how cool is that?” asks Big Al Anderson. Funny how such a talented man as the inimitable Big Al can be so lost in his own fandom as to be oblivious to the level of musical respect he's achieved during some 40+ years in the music business. Now I wonder, how cool is it that I just got off the phone with Big Al? It’s not every day that you get to talk to a living legend

Following a noteworthy stint as founder of the mid-to-late 60s soul/pop band the Wildweeds, Anderson spent 25 years with one of the most underrated groups of all time, The New Rhythm and Blues Quartet. Known more commonly, of course, as NRBQ, the group did (and still does) not merely dabble in R&B, but also deals heavily in authentic American country, blues, jazz, and some of the sweetest, sunniest guitar pop not emanating from Liverpool or Hawthorne. After some 15 albums and a grinding 200 dates a year on the road, earning a reputation (and a living) as one of the greatest rock 'n' roll guitarists, period, Anderson finally checked out of the proverbial Red Roof Inn in ‘93, bidding adieu once and for all to the life of a touring musician. The classic Quartet of Anderson, bass player Joey Spampinato, keyboardist Terry Adams, and drummer Tom Ardolino were together for an astounding 23 years without variation. Anderson, Spampinato, and Adams are all great songwriters, players, and singers in their own right, and all could’ve fronted bands. Spampinato has a reputation as being one of the finest bass players in the business, and at one time recently he was even courted by The Rolling Stones. And while the jazz influenced Adams might be main writer and the real genius of the group, I have always gotten the impression from seeing him play that he is as freaked out and psychotic in real life as he is on stage. After talking to Anderson, though, I know I must be wrong. Exasperated with my relentless questioning at one point, Al finally asked, “Have you talked to Terry? He remembers everything.” Nevertheless, Big Al seemed a perfect choice to interview for his personality, his musicality, and the unique legacy that he has carried on for eclectic electric rock guitarists.

He moved into a full-time career as a songwriter and session man in Nashville, the country music capital of the universe. Since Anderson's departure, NRBQ has continued to tour and make fine records with bass player Joey Spampanato’s brother Johnny taking over for the irreplaceable Anderson. Fans agree though, though, with all due respect, that NRBQ will never be the same.

“Little Al” made his first recording on guitar and voice at the age of 10 on a home recording device owned by a family friend. The golden throated lad did a take of the Everly Brothers' “Bye Bye Love” (which floats around record collectors' circles on a rare EP) that is still better than anything most of us could ever manage. Stints in teen rock bands like the Visuals and the Six-Packs followed, before the Wildweeds coalesced around tough east-coast R&B, soul, folk-rock, and rave-up garage rockers--in short, the '60s musical cauldron. Needless to say, Anderson grew-up in a musically supportive atmosphere. His mother, a pianist, and his bass playing father even had an AM radio at one time in their home in Connecticut. His musical influences during his garage band teenage years were not only Chet Atkins, Ray Charles, and Duane Eddy, but also, notably, The Beatles and The Beach Boys.

Anderson, a man who has never had to work another job except music, has gone on to achieve enormous success and top songwriting accolades in the Music City. His songs have been recorded by almost all the big names in the business from LeAnn Rimes to George Jones, and he has co-written with a fascinating variety of songwriters--from old-school guitar great Duane Eddy to John Hiatt, from Miles Zuniga (Fastball) to alt-country twangster Robbie Fulks. However, to fans of the beloved ‘Q (as NRBQ’s name is further shortened to), those beloved recordings made with Anderson between ’71 and ’79 contain some of the greatest pop gems never heard. On any given song, NRBQ could be just as good as The Beatles, if not better. They were just that good.

Throughout a life in music, perhaps because he has spent a lifetime making a sandwich just to the left of the mainstream spotlight, Big Al has maintained an affable, down-to-earth charm that makes him easy to talk to. When I approached Pop Culture Press associate editor Kent Benjamin about doing this interview, he relayed a humorous anecdote to me about how he saw Big Al walking down the street in Austin at the SXSW music festival. Benjamin dropped to his knees in front of Anderson, genuflecting and bowing to the Great One. “He did not look amused,” said Benjamin. In what I discovered to be typical fashion, Anderson had no recollection of this event. “I don’t remember much from the 70s and 80s,” laments the now sober Anderson, who took a ride down the same road of indulgence that has claimed the memories of so many musicians. When I finally got my chance to talk to Big Al for this interview, he was on his cell phone at Sam's Wholesale Club shopping for a chair for his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico (where he lives half the time, and half in Nashville).

PCP: Let’s talk about some of the music you were into when you were coming onto the scene. I know you liked Chet Atkins, Duane Eddy, and Ray Charles—but what about pop? You obviously loved The Beatles?

BA: Big time!

PCP: Which stuff?

BA: Early Beatles was better, period. It was just more fun. You couldn’t pay me to sit through Sgt. Pepper but I could get through Beatles for Sale in a heartbeat.

PCP: Where you good at figuring out their songs?

BA: I thought I was, but I’ve met people who can do it better.

PCP: What about The Beach Boys?

BA: Oh, yeah. “Don’t Worry Baby” drove me nuts. In my bedroom. That’s when they started to get really cool. Everyone says he [Brian Wilson] did his best work on Pet Sounds, but I’ve always thought it was “Warmth of the Sun,” stuff like that. I even told him so. I think he agrees with me, though he’s reluctant to admit it.

PCP: What’s the story there?

BA: It was at a session for a Jerry Lee Lewis album that Andy Paley was working on. Brian was there and I got a chance to talk to him.

PCP: Was he bright?

BA: Are you kidding? The guy's a genius!

PCP: He just seems kind of shell-shocked. It’s hard to tell how much is really there.

BA: He’s different when the camera’s not on him. I think he knows a lot more than he lets on to.
PCP: Who else did you like?

BA: The Troggs. The Kinks. I’m in a big Kinks phase at the moment. What was that one with “Waterloo Sunset” on it?

PCP: Something Else by the Kinks

BA: Yes (sings a bar or two of “Two Sisters”). Ray Davies was very folk-oriented in a different way; in the English tradition.

PCP: Did you like The Left Banke?

BA: They were a great band. “She may Call you up Tonight,” that was a cool song. Had a weird bridge though.

PCP: “Pretty Ballerina,” is one of my favorites.

BA: Yeah, that’s kind of obvious though. Mercury put out a mono and stereo version of that record. I’ve got ‘em both [Anderson is an avid record collector].

PCP: It’s interesting to me that you were into that pop stuff in addition to all of the country, blues, and soul that you were into. My dad for instance was only interested in black music in the '60s. Motown, Stax, Atlantic, James Brown, Chuck Berry, etc. He only liked the Rolling Stones because he thought they were a black group.

BA: That’s not bad stuff to be listening to. Black was usually better. Motown is another one nobody ever talks about in terms of great songwriting.

PCP: Is that the style of songwriting that you refer to your songwriting motto, “Make Dumb Good?”

BA: No, Motown was just plain good. There was nothing dumb about it. NRBQ weren’t ‘make dumb good’ either. They looked innocent on the outside, but they were really professors.

PCP: I always thought that ‘make dumb good’ was all about acknowledging that pop music is dumb in it’s essence and trying to make it good nonetheless.

BA: No, it’s hard to explain unless I really get into it.

PCP: Can you give me an example?

BA: Let's see, do you know The Sir Douglas Quintet?

PCP: No, the name rings a bell, but…”

BA: “She’s about a Mover.”

PCP: Oh sure. I guess I can see how that’s dumb.

BA: But it’s good.

PCP: I would think that Ray Charles would be a particularly big influence on you because he did both soul and country.

BA: He didn’t do country until much later. His earlier stuff on Atlantic was far superior.

PCP: Like “Hit the Road Jack” and that kind of stuff?

BA: Yes. When he did do country they had him recording with white choruses. They just made him sound that much better. Ray was another one that knew that there were no boundaries in music.

PCP: Anybody else you can think about at present?

BA: Definitely the Everly Brothers. Those were just the greatest records ever made. People were so relaxed about making records back then. The musicians. You can just hear it in the recordings. Lieber/Stoller too. For a couple of Jewish guys, they could really rock. Whoever it was that played the piano—can’t remember if it was Jerry or Mike, was really incredible.

PCP: Who did they write for? Elvis?

BA: Yeah, and they did all The Coasters. They did Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is.”

PCP: That’s an incredible song. An existential pop song nonetheless. I’ve always thought that one of the marks of a great artist is when they are able to show great talent right out of the starting gate. Like Dylan with “The Times are a’Changin’” or The Beach Boys with “Surfer Girl.” I mean, it was all there if you think about it. The same could be said about NRBQ’s early output. “Magnet,” “Flat Foot Flewzy...”

BA: That’s my favorite ‘Q right there. Those first two albums.

PCP: See I actually don’t have the first NRBQ album. It’s not out on CD. What I have is the compilation that Columbia put out. (Stay with Me, an erroneously titled ‘best of’ collection containing half of NRBQ’s first album, a couple of cuts off their semi-second album Boppin the Blues [with Carl Perkins], a couple of cuts off their official second album Scraps [their first with Big Al], and a few miscellaneous cutting-room clippings).

BA: They own all that stuff. It’s probably a good thing you don’t have that first album. It was a bad pressing. If you look along the serial number that goes around the inner circle you’ll see “AoB,” which stands for awful or bad. That’s probably one of the reasons that album didn’t make it.

PCP: Well, although it’s misleading to new fans, and certainly not a ‘best-of.’ What I’ve heard from that first album on Stay with Me is amazing and shows the band at full power. A new fan is going to lose out either way they go, because the other ‘best-of,’ Peek-a-Boo, is a double-disc 20-year retrospective. It’s just too much too fast. It’s good for fans, sure, but not for the uninitiated. I think if somebody were smart they would package a single-volume collection of late 60s and 70s NRBQ pure pop geared specifically towards pop fans. What with The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Moby Grape, and The Left Banke being as popular now as ever before. There’s a huge market for that right now.

BA: What, of 60s pop music? Yeah, no kidding!

PCP: Like Sundazed for instance. They’re putting out all kinds of crazy obscure stuff from the sixties.

BA: They just put out the Wildweeds album. Did a beautiful job on it.

PCP: I really think, Al, that along with all the country, blues, jazz, and just plain out-there shit, NRBQ had some brilliant pop, definitely enough to make an unbelievable collection.

BA: People have to classify everything. That’s one thing that was always difficult for NRBQ, is that people could never say what it was.

PCP: Also, I would call it “New Rhythm and Blues Quartet,” the full proper name if you will. And market it to British audiences. “NRBQ” just sounds too much like Bar-B-Q. People might think you’re a funk band…

BA: Huh, I never thought of that.

PCP: I’m only kidding. Plus, long names are cool right now. Like that sixties group, The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, they’re pretty big right now. You should cash in on that. Put a cool picture on the cover...

BA: What’s stopping you?

PCP: Ah, I don’t have any money. I’m just a dreamer. Let’s talk briefly about that semi-second NRBQ LP, Boppin’ the Blues. That was still before you joined

BA: That was a great record. I mean “Flat Foot Flewzy,” as you mentioned earlier. I still can’t play that intro.

PCP: Yes you can sir…

BA: No, I can...but Fergie (original NRBQ guitarist, Steve Ferguson) could play it cleaner. The best guitarist ever to play rock 'n' roll. Every note he played counted. He came from the Lonnie Mack tradition, Never bent or slurred a note.

PCP: Good thing for you, but why did he leave the group?

BA: I don’t know. Needed to do some stuff by himself I suppose [whether or not this is true, the amazing Ferguson, who left NRBQ in 1970, remained in relative seclusion until the last few years. He is now actively making recordings and performing again].

PCP: One of the most interesting things about this story is that you were a big fan of NRBQ and especially inspired by Steve Ferguson’s playing before joining the band. And you didn’t know those guys, did you?

BA: No.

PCP: When NRBQ asked you to audition were you excited?

BA: Oh yeah, I was big into those guys.

PCP: Did you think that you were going to be the next Beatles?

BA: No, but I knew I was joining the best band going.

PCP What had really happened to The Wildweeds. Can you explain how that fell apart?

BA: We were trying to keep up with what we weren’t. Soul was changing on the radio in a way that we didn’t want.

PCP: It’s interesting when I think back to my childhood. At the same time when NRBQ were influencing you, they were influencing me. I remember my dad playing the NRBQ when my sister and I were little. Along with jazz, and The Beatles. We thought it was funny music. “Come on if you’re Coming,” “Kentucky Slop Song,” stuff like that. It was very unpretentious, and unlike today’s music. There was no irony. It was just honest fun music.

BA: I think that’s why I liked it too.

PCP: I think we knew that it was like Sundays and pancakes. NRBQ reflected our down to earth, unglamorous reality.

BA: We weren’t thinking any of that. We were just doing what we liked to do.

PCP: Of course. This is coming from the eyes of a three-year-old. It’s just the way time works though. Once stuff gets crystallized in the past and we can hold it, we can say these kinds of things about.

BA: True, time is the judge. That’s where the ‘Q is gonna luck out. If they can just hang in there ‘til they’re 75, they’ll be Ambassadors of Music walking around Washington D.C. like Lionel Hamptons.

PCP: I think another reason why I dig NRBQ so much now is the musicianship. There’s always the possibility in an NRBQ record that at any given time a song could drift out of orbit into something entirely transcendent of rock & roll. I was talking to my Dad the other day about the piano break in “Yes Yes Yes.” It’s just so magnificent and complex. Something The Beatles never could have done.

BA: It started out as a jazz song. The Beatles never let things really get out of control like that because they come from The British school, where everything must be done properly. There wasn’t a whole lot of room for spontaneity. I think a lot of has to do with Terry (Adams--keyboardist and principle songwriter) being into jazz and so influenced by jazz.

PCP: Were there other bands that you felt were transcendent in this way at the time? The Mothers of Invention, for instance?

BA: Naw, never got into them. Don’t know why. But another group that was from outer space was The Band. Their second album, titled just The Band is one of my favorites. That, and The Last Waltz is very enjoyable. Those guys could all really play.

PCP: Having been in a band where you were the lead singer, writer, and guitarist, what did NRBQ want you for originally? As a singer?

BA: Well, everybody sang. Everybody wrote. It wasn’t structured like that. They just brought me in.

PCP: And you did whatever you could with that synergy?

BA: More or less. Whatever chemistry we had we just went for it. There were no roles.

PCP: I guess I forget that NRBQ originally had a singer in Frankie Gadler (an excellent one at that). When all you other guys started singing your own songs, I guess there wasn’t anything left for him to do. Where there situations where you would sing songs that the other wrote, or was it pretty much like the Beatles where you could tell who wrote the song by who sang it?

BA: Pretty much like that. Sometimes me or Joey would sing one of Terry’s songs if it was straining his voice, but sometimes that sounded really cool to let him just go for it anyway.

PCP: Let’s talk about one of my all-time favorites, 1972s Scraps! This was the first album that you were with the band, but you were unable to sing on the record?

BA: That’s right. Because of my contract with Vanguard [The Wildweeds' label].

PCP: What about that Scraps Companion CD that’s out?

BA: I think that’s was a radio show out of Memphis’ Ardent studio...

PCP: Where Big Star recorded?

BA: Yes. It was basically my first gig.

PCP: Is it like The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album where Gram Parsons couldn’t sing, even though he was really the singer of those songs and sang them live? Remember on the record, McGuinn sings.

BA: No. I wasn’t really singing much. They let me sing “Come on if you’re Comin’.” They had cut that for the first ‘Q record, but I sang it live. We actually re-cut it on [1973's] Workshop with me singing.

PCP: Wasn’t that song also in your repertoire before joining NRBQ?

BA: Yeah, I think it was on my first solo album [Al’s 1971’s contract-breaker with Vanguard titled simply Al Anderson].

PCP: In those days you would just go into the studio and cut tunes, right? It wasn’t like you went in to make albums necessarily?

BA: No, the album format didn’t really come in ‘til ‘68.

PCP: Well Scraps is a great album. It’s the first to be properly released on CD. On Rounder. They did a beautiful job with it. It looks great. It’s got bonus tracks. Plus it’s got some of my favorite songs, like “Magnet.”

BA: Yes. “It’s Not So Hard” is a great song too for pop.

PCP: Definitely. A real obvious Beatles/Byrds sound on that one. That 12-string guitar...
BA: That’s not a 12. That’s me and Terry. Him on a clavinet and me doubling on guitar.

PCP: Wow, that’s a great sound. I think that you are definitely one of the closest things to George Harrison in terms of that tradition of fusing country, pop, r&b, and jazz.

BA: Except I had hits where he didn’t.

PCP: Like what?

BA: “Ridin’ in my Car,” “Get Rhythm...”

PCP: Well, I’m sure that you’re a better player than George, but what I always thought was his greatest attribute was his mind. A lot of those solos really wrote themselves because John or Paul gave him such interesting chord changes to work with.

BA: His were really more “parts” than “solos.”

PCP: But in my book, parts are better than solos. A solo can be good like on a 12-bar blues song, but for pop, a well-thought out part is the way to go. You had some great parts--like the lead guitar on “Mona” or “That’s Alright.”

BA: Another thing about George is that he didn’t play with his thumb.

PCP: What, on his fretting hand?

BA: Yes. And that really limited him. So when you hear him playing that intro to “I Feel Fine,” he’s playing that with his finger barred across the whole guitar. That had a lot to do with his sound.

PCP: And then following Scraps was 1973's Workshop, an album I can only assume is filled with pop gems based on the few tunes I know off it, like the infectious “I’ve Got a Little Secret,” and the Rubber Soul- influenced “Mona.” Yet inexplicably, it remains unreleased on CD to this day. An album from the high-point of NRBQ’s legacy! What is the story?! Somebody is really dropping the ball on this one.

BA: “Mona” was one of Joey’s songs. I love Joey’s songs. They have a million chords in ‘em. And that album was issued on CD. It was called RC Cola and a Moonpie.

PCP: That was only released on LP, Al. That was in ‘86.

BA: Well, Rounder has all that stuff. I guess with the ‘Q, you’ll just have to wait for the boxed set. It’ll all be out at some point.

PCP: Then NRBQ kind of disappeared for a few years?

BA: We were playing some 200 dates a year. When we weren’t in the studio, we were working harder than ever.

PCP: 1977’s All Hopped-Up has the incredible Byrdsy “That’s Alright” and also one of the greatest pop songs of all time on it: “Ridin’ in my Car.” That surely must have been influenced by the Beach Boys [Note: All Hopped-Up was issued on CD only just last year, as Ridin In My Car]

BA: Oh yes. The tag especially mimics the Beach Boys. The 3 on top of a 1-3-5 harmony [sings a bar].

PCP: Likewise, “Feel you Around Me” which you wrote years later. That sounds a lot like late 70s Beach Boys.

BA: I forgot all about that song. I originally wrote it on the piano. That was just me hammering on one note. But I don’t think it was influenced by the Beach Boys 70s work. I wasn’t listening to their current records at the time.

PCP: “Ridin’ In My Car” was then also put on the next album, 1978’s landmark At Yankee Stadium. What was the story with that?

BA: That was at the urging of the guy from Blood Sweat and Tears…

PCP: Al Kooper?

BA: No, but there was a guy who was at the right place at the right time, lotsa times! It was Steve Katz. He thought that would be a great song to put on the album.

PCP: I think so too because it gives the album a nice strong poppy finish to balance things out. Then when that album came out on CD, that “Ridin’” is conspicuously missing. What gives?

BA: Mercury decided to make it a cut-out and they were basically giving away copies, so we weren’t going to get any royalties. We owned that song, so we took it off the album.

PCP: That’s really indicative of the joke in the title of At Yankee Stadium. You guys knew that you were big enough to play in that park, but there just wouldn’t anybody in the stands. I think that this is the album that showed all three songwriters at full-power. For instance, Joey with the Revolver-esque “I Love Her, She Loves Me,” Terry’s stone-cold power pop classic “I Want You Bad,” and your rollicking “It Comes to Me Naturally”—it just couldn’t get any better! “It Comes to Me Naturally” swings so incredibly hard that it’s disorienting. Nobody swings like that anymore.

BA: That’s probably because the rhythm track was laid first and we overdubbed the rest.

PCP: Did you guys really start experimenting with overdubbing on Yankee Stadium?

BA: Oh no! We were doing it all along, from the get-go.

PCP: Really, just with live bass and drums as a foundation.

BA: Yes, just starting with live bass and drums.

PCP: It’s just that some of the songs on Yankee Stadium, like “I Want You Bad” for instance, just sound like they have tons of guitar tracks, unlike a lot of the earlier stuff.
BA: That might be true.

PCP: That guitar solo on “I Want You Bad” is one of my favorites of all time. I have no idea what you are doing there.

BA: [laughs] I have no idea either.

PCP: To the best of your knowledge, what is NRBQ’s impact on the younger generation?

BA: To be honest, I have no idea about that either.

PCP: I know that Elvis Costello is a big fan of you and NRBQ. Are you a fan of E.C.?

BA: Absolutely. He’s so original. Now there’s a guy who knows his music history. He changed the sound. He changed the look. And he’s still going.

PCP: One of my favorite records by him is Brutal Youth, which isn’t that old. When he came in to do the date on your last solo record, Pay Before you Pump, Ron Sexsmith was there too. Do you like Ron’s music?

BA: I’ve never heard it actually.

PCP: Oh, it’s good stuff.

BA: I wouldn’t doubt it if Elvis brought him along. They were doing a double bill together that night.

PCP: Ron’s music is kind of rootsy singer-songwriter stuff. I think your music would go over well with that audience.

BA: Well, I’m working on it.

PCP: Are you ever going to ever give us the Tapestry-style album that we’ve been waiting for over these years while you’ve been giving your tunes to other people to record. After hearing you play with just your acoustic on Bob Brainen’s [WFMU, New York City] radio program, I think you could really have some crossover appeal.

BA: I wanna make that album. Some acoustic stuff, some jazz, but the labels want me to tour, and I don’t think I wanna do that. I might do an album with Stephen Bruton from Austin though.

PCP: That song “Show Me the Way to Keep Moving into the Light,” that you played so beautifully on the Brainen show—what’s the deal with that song?

BA: That’s a little prayer for depression. It was written for Patti Loveless, but she never cut it.

PCP: What a shame about that. What a great song. Along with Costello, Dave Edmunds was another big figure in that English pub-rock scene of the mid-70s. Edmunds and Nick Lowe actually had a group together called Rockpile that did an EP of Everly Brothers' material. That’s about as much of a kindred spirit with NRBQ as you can get! He’s covered your material on more than one occasion.

BA: Sometimes when I hear Dave’s versions of my stuff I seriously can’t tell if it’s him or me. It’s that exact. Right down to the sound of the air in the room. Like his version of “Better Word for Love.”

PCP: Knowing that you guys had some key fans over there, did NRBQ ever play England?

BA: We played there once. Another time we got deported. We got all the way over there and it turns out that the promoter screwed up the working papers. They had us get right back on the plane.

PCP: God I can just see that, that must have sucked! How about other places in Europe?

BA: Oh sure, Scandinavia, Germany—we were big in Germany. Played the Jazz Fest there.

PCP: Before I go, I just want to tell you that my dad wanted to say that he’d carry around your guitar case if you’d let him.

BA: I’d let him do that. Tell him I said thanks, I appreciate that.

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