Interview By Kassu Kortelainen / October 2009
Possessing one of the most powerful voices in hard rock, Graham Bonnet has been screaming out his lungs since the late sixties and doesn’t show any sign of slowing down! From Rainbow’s classic ‘Down To Earth’ album to Michael Schenker Group, Alcatrazz and a strong solo career (plus numerous other projects), Bonnet’s voice has delighted the fans of hard rock time and time again.
A while ago, as Graham had just flown from Brazil to Finland, the Steel Mill seized the opportunity and met the singer in the city of Kuopio. Graham and his finnish bandmates had just played an excellent gig in the peculiar, yet atmospheric venue of Wanha Satama, an old harbour warehouse transformed into a bar – and after greeting with numerous happy fans, the whole bunch of musicians gathered around to hear mr. Bonnet share his stories about his long and illustrious career, in a grabbing and tonque-in-cheek style that underlines the singer’s character.
Kassu: First of all, thanks for the great gig tonight. You’ve toured Finland with this band many times before, but this time you jumped straight into the fray, this being the second gig of the tour. So, like you joked during the gig, tonight’s show was also like a second rehearsal?
Graham: Yeah, there are two new members in the band because two of the other guys are busy doing their other things. So we had a new bass player and a new keyboard player. And this is basically like doing two rehearsals because I came in only a few days ago. I’ve been to Brazil and we had just like one rehearsal and that was it. When normally we have like at least two or three before a tour or a gig. And this was kinda… a bit worrying because, you know, I don’t know these new guys… like how do you start.
So did it all work out okay? At least viewed from the audience it looked like there were no problems during the gig.
Yeah, I think so yes, I think everything’s okay now. It’s a pity I couldn’t be here sooner to have more time with them, you know. But it really worked out fine short of a few rough edges cause it’s new to them.
But the rest of you guys had rehearsed by yourselves?
Lacu Lahtinen (drums): Yeah, we had a few rehearsals. Maybe two or three times. But it’s always different when Graham comes in.
Graham: Having my voice croaking away…
Lacu: It’s your attitude..
Graham: It’s my attitude, my fucking horrible attitude! I’m such a horrible person, they hate me really. (laughter all around)
The fans seemed to really love you though. For example during the show there was one guy in the audience who started to tell you stories about some football players, and such. Seemed to go on and on…
Oh no, yes! (laughs) Yeah, too many beers I think… That always happens.
Your interaction with the audience in between the songs is one of your trademarks, and everybody seemed to enjoy that aspect of the gig a lot.
Yeah, that’s why I like talking to the audience. You know, something different. Stops their (nods to the band) noise for a little while, you know “Shut up for a minute!” and… “Hello, and where you are from?” whatever. You know…”Las Vegas”.
Apart from touring as a solo artist, you’ve also re-assembled your old band Alcatrazz. How’s that’s been working out?
We’re just beginning to do, we have eight or nine songs already completed. A new one by Russ Ballard who wrote Since You Been Gone, and it’s an eleven minute epic. So it’s very… what can I compare it to… something like, say, a Queen tune. Something like Freddie Mercury would do. Very stretched out, very long, all different kinds of parts, different aspects to the tune. So it’s not like a typical Russ Ballard song. But it does have that kind of a hook chorus that he always comes up with. He writes such great songs and in so many different styles. So I spoke to him on the phone for a while and said “let’s not do 1980’s let’s do a two thousand and… thirteen!”. And so we spoke about three or four times and so… we may have to trim it down for the CD but I think for live it’s one of those songs that could go very well, you know what I mean… when it’s live people are gonna appreciate it more.
So the new Alcatrazz album is coming sometime soon?
Yeah sometime is something about 25 years! No, this has been in the process about two years and we have the songs already. But the guys in the band all do different things, like guitar player’s a music teacher, a guitar tutor. And he also works with club bands and playing top-40 songs and things like that. My bass player he does and mixes film music, so he’s busy too. And at the moment, with the way the economy is, everybody has to do whatever they can to make a living, cause we all have our mortgages to pay, I do. So I do a lot of sessions with Tim, my bass player, at home. We do a lot of like… stuff from other people’s albums and we’re doing a thing for a cartoon film right now. Which I don’t know what’s gonna happen with that… the music it’s not so hard, but we’ll see… we’ll see… It’s money!
But the basic thing is to get the band together and start actually recording, which I want to as soon as I get home, if possible.
Sounds good, hope to see you over here with Alcatrazz as well!
Well, yeah that’s the plan. It would be nice to bring Alcatrazz here and we’d all play together… all these guys would play with Alcatrazz too. Two drummers, two bass players, the full spectrum. It’d be fun to have everybody play together because I’ve known these guys for so long and I love this band, I really do. They’re all my friends and it would be so great to have some fun together and say “Okay we’ll play this!” and you know it could be…
The band guys: …a tapping clinic!
Graham: …whaaat? Yeah yeah (laughs)
Looking at the beginnings of your career. Rainbow was of course the band that you became famous with, but even prior to that you had some nice success with the band The Marbles. And how about before that? When did you first decide you would be a rock singer?
I… didn’t! Basically. I started singing when I was about seven years old. I used to do, you know, like church hall things… I was in the cub scouts… concerts in school… things like that. And I learned to play guitar when I was about eleven. And kinda took it from there and went to the talent shows, and then when I was about eighteen I moved to London with my cousin Trevor who used to be in the Bee Gees. He came up to live in England and we had a little band together in Skegness, Lincolnshire where I’m from. And we moved in London and it just happened that the Bee Gees’ old manager was in the audience once and he said to my cousin Trevor: “Remember me?” you know, he said that Barry Gibb would like to talk to you. He gave him Barry Gibb’s number and my cousin went to see Barry, and then Barry and I were introduced by my cousin. And we started to jam with Maurice, Barry and Robin singing… Stevie Wonder songs I seem to remember! Stevie Wonder songs and Beach Boys songs, all kinds of. And Robert Stigwood, the manager of the Bee Gees said “tomorrow you’re making a record!”.
And that’s kinda where the real career started. I was about nineteen.
After The Marbles and a couple of solo releases you joined Rainbow. Can you tell us something about how you got that job?
Oh it was because of a game that Cozy Powell and the band played while living in Switzerland doing the new album that was to be Down To Earth. One night they had a game called “Guess The Tune” or “Spot The Tune”… and they happened to play “Only One Woman” – the song I had done, and Cozy said “Who is this guy?” and Ritchie said “Yeah… who IS that?”.
And so they invited me over to an audition and I sang the song “Mistreated” and they gave me the job. When I thought I was totally wrong because I had the short hair, I didn’t wear the flamboyant robes and the spandex pants and all that kinda things. But, yeah, that’s how I got the job..
By the time you joined Rainbow, they had decided to change their style to more commercial direction after the heavy metal sound of their Ronnie James Dio fronted albums. This change of direction was well premeditated, was it?
Yes it was. It was the idea of Bruce Payne to make the band actually get into the charts, so to speak, and be more commercial. And nobody wanted to do ‘Since You Been Gone’, I remember that, that was the most hated track of all on the whole album. But Bruce suggested we should do it because it had been a hit for a band called Clout, and also I think Russ Ballard had a minor hit with it as well, his own version. But it was very, very pop in the way they did it so we tried to make it a little bit harder, as much as you can with a song like that. And so.. it worked, you know. It worked very well for the band and did good all over the world.
And speaking of that, you did an even heavier version of ‘Since You Been Gone’ with Impellitteri later?
Yeah, yeah, yeah… I don’t know why but we did it (laughs). I mean it keeps…
Some time back we had a special article about 1980’s legendary Castle Donington festival at the Steel Mill. Rainbow was headlining the event, that must’ve been one of the highlights of your career?
Very much so, yeah. It was the last gig for Cozy, that’s the last gig he played. I thought it was gonna be the last gig for me too, which it was in the end. Cause we knew we had a new drummer coming in and Cozy was leaving and he was one of my best friends. And Don Airey was also very close to me and he was gonna leave as well, the night that Cozy left. And well, I left and Don stayed, Cozy left of course and went on to Whitesnake and all kinds of stuff.
And so it was a very sad time, but also the most amazing experience I’ve ever had in my life. There was such a huge crowd, we couldn’t get out of there, there was so much traffic. We couldn’t get back to the hotel that night. I remember we got home about six o’clock in the morning and the hotel was like 20 minutes down the road, it wasn’t very far away at all. It’s something I’ll never forget cause my whole family was there; my mom and my dad and blablablablaa… the whole family. And they were very proud and I was very proud to show them what I did.
One of the interesting aspects of the Castle Donington concert was that you played the song‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’. Was it part of the setlist? I mean, when one looks at the gig from for example Youtube, it looks like that particular song came as a surprise to everyone but Ritchie?
(laughs) Yeah, it was, but you see – the reason I got the job in Rainbow was because my solo album I did and that song was on there. Ritchie liked my version of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”. So that’s sometimes why we did it. We only played it probably twice. And that (Donington) night I was just standing there: “what we’re doing now?” and when it started playing I went “Oh, I know what it is!” and so… yeah. He just liked the song!
You said before that Since You Been Gone wasn’t a big favourite of the band, but on the flip side, what songs on Down To Earth do you find the most meaningful ones to you and why?
Well, maybe “All Night Long“… because that was my melody. Which I was never credited for. I came up with the melody for that thing… and “Love’s No Friend” has a little bit of me there, but I never got any credits for the album, you know it was always Roger Glover and Ritchie Blackmore and Cozy Powell, whatever… And “Lost In Hollywood” also was my own idea… but I was the new kid on the block and I didn’t know what was going on and didn’t know that money was made with royalties… But yeah… I love“Eyes of the World”, too, that song.
Fast forwarding your career a bit, after Rainbow and some solo stuff you joined Michael Schenker Group for 1982’s album ‘Assault Attack’. What are your recollections from that time?
Being very drunk. Basically. Michael and I being drunk just about every day from morning till night. A very bad experience in some ways. But it was the first time I ever wrote lyrics and melodies because Michael didn’t have to do writing in english, he had no idea about vocal lines. So that was the first time I ever experienced doing something myself, I had to do it. And I was very scared about it cause I had always relied on, like, Roger Glover to help me when I was in Rainbow, cause I didn’t know. Cause much of the songs were written for me by other people. But I wrote the whole damn thing by myself and it was hard work but I think it turned out pretty good and Michael was very pleased with it. A good experience that.
As the stories seem to go, both Ritchie Blackmore and Michael Schenker are often said to be not the easiest people to work with. You being one of the few persons who’s worked with both of them, did you find this image to be true?
Oh no, Ritchie is not a hard person to work with at all, he’s a really good guy. I got along with him very, very well.
And my dad! My dad was his best friend, they used to hang out together. You know when we were on tour Ritchie and I would meet my dad in England when we played in London. He would hang out with my dad at the bar and be talking to my dad a lot.
The thing is with Ritchie, that he’s a very shy person and he chooses his friends. He doesn’t have a big circle of friends but if he likes somebody he will stick with you. Just a very shy person. And he’s not “evil” just shy.
After MSG you formed Alcatrazz. This time having ‘your own band’ must’ve felt quite liberating?
It’s pretty obvious that what I wanted was to make Rainbow part 2. So, keyboard player, guitar, bass… the same kinda line-up. To find somebody who could play guitar like Ritchie or be similar, it took a long time. We had a lot of different guitar players, Paul McCartney’s guitar player from Wings Lawrence Juber, he came to rehearseal but he was… too light, he was too sweet. And a whole bunch of different people, I can’t even remember them, they were so many… But then I was told about this kid called Yngwie and he was about 18 years old or something at the time. And a guy who’d seen him play said that you’ve got to come see this guy or have him come to your rehearseal. And he came down and he looked like Ritchie Blackmore kind, all in black, and the white boots and such. He’s a big Ritchie Blackmore fan so that’s how he became a part of the band. Cause I wanted to make the band like Rainbow.
And after Yngwie you had another very talented guitarist in Steve Vai. So some good scouting on the rising talents!
Yeah, Steve came from Frank Zappa’s band. And one of the guys in the band, I think it was Jan Uvena our drummer, knew Frank Zappa pretty well and Steve wanted to do something different. He wanted to get into being a *makes an Yngwie-style fast guitar solo impersonation* …you know like those guys. And he was very nervous of doing it because he thought that he’d never emulate or be as good as Yngwie. And I said to him: “Man, you’re not Yngwie. You’re Steve Vai! And you play in a different way cause you’re Steve Vai. You’re not Yngwie Malmsteen. Yngwie Malmsteen will never be Ritchie Blackmore. He wants to be, but he won’t be cause there’s only one guy”. So Steve… I remember the first gig; he was very, very nervous and by the time the gig was over, though, people were going “Steve!, Steve!, Steve!”.
Steve was very inventive, a very inventive person and that’s why I liked writing songs with him, he had much more different progressions of chords, he didn’t stick to the obvious heavy metal chords which we all know. He went somewhere else, which was kinda cool.
Looking at your discography, there have been quite a lot of big names playing on your album, like Micky Moody, Jon Lord, Cozy Powell etc. How was it to work with these guys?
I was just very lucky cause Micky was managed by the same person I was managed by. Jon Lord was a friend of Micky and that’s how he came into the picture. Of course I knew Cozy from Rainbow and we did stuff later when Cozy played on my solo albums, so I’ve just been very lucky. And they all liked me and they liked what I did and I liked what they did.
And now I’m very lucky to be with these guys! Because these guys have been my friends for four, five years, is it? As I said on stage tonight, they’re the best band I’ve played with outside of my own country. And that’s why I said when Alcatrazz comes in we’ll all be on stage. A big band!
Having a group of big names in your bands, there’s always a change that some other musicians are left in their shadow a bit… are there any people you’ve known or worked with you feel should’ve deserved more recognition than they got?
(thinks) I, well… I want to say Gary Moore, but Gary Moore has.. I think he’s got a lot of respect from everybody but he never quite become the person he should’ve been. And also Rory Gallagher. Rory Gallagher was a friend of mine and very close to me and I think he was one of the greatest blues players ever. Like Stevie Ray Vaughan, you know. He had something. To me blues is very boring but Rory could make it interesting. Every time I used to watch him… he had the special talent. He did the very last show with the Cream and they played in the Albert Hall. He opened for them that night and I was there. Something about Rory that was very special and… he’s gone now.
Like so many others, sadly…
Okay, let’s end this interview with a little more unique bit of your history. Back in the day you used to sing for different kinda tv commercials and such. That must’ve been something a bit different?
Levi’s! I did a thing for Levi Jeans. It was called…eh… “Levi’s” (laughs) But that was a long time ago, I recorded that in England. It was a silly song (sings) “hmmm.. Wear Leviiii’s!”. And then somebody recorded a song, made a whole song of this song and it became “These Eyes”, and some guy recorded a song and it was about four minutes long. So the Levi commercial became this thing called “These Eyes”. I don’t know what it was like, but it was quite an experience. And I did a thing for Ritz Crackers and that went ‘dada da daa da daa da daa…” it was a Charles Chaplin tune, so that was something different. That was very lucrative, the money was pretty good but it really wasn’t my gig. But I wanted to make some money somehow!
So, if you had to come up with a commercial tune for your own gigs, what would that be?
That’s a difficult question… I can’t think of anything right now…
The band guys: an instrumental!
Graham: An instrumental?! Yeah fuckin’ leave it to the band!
(laughter all around)
Okay, that’s it then! Thanks a lot for this great interview and all the best for your future endeavours!
Thank you! Hope that I made sense (laughs)