Charlie – Terry Thomas interview
Even if you’ve never heard Terry Thomas play guitar or sing, you’ve probably heard his influence on records by artists including Aerosmith, Bad Company, Tesla and Tommy Shaw; releases he either produced, co-wrote, or both. Thomas’ musical career was first established in the English band Ax, when he first introduced an apple-cheeked drummer named Nicko McBrain to London audiences. Later, he mastered his craft as chief songwriter of the British band Charlie, whose blend of stylized art-rock brought success in the 1970s and 1980s with singles including “She Loves To Be In Love” and “It’s Inevitable.” After the breakup of Charlie, Thomas turned his talented ears to writing and producing, working with artists previously mentioned along with Fastway and Foreigner. A decade later, Thomas was back in the studio, laying down tracks that took the blister of pop culture television and popped it square in the face of Simon Cowell and other Hollywood stooges who think they know what America and the rest of the world should listen to. What was planned as a solo project turned into Charlie’s 2009 release, Kitchens Of Distinction, finding Thomas reunited with keyboardist Julian Colbeck and guitarist Martin Smith for the band’s first release in 23 years. Though Charlie in name, Kitchens Of Distinction is Thomas’ baby – and the baby is cranky. This dichotomous creation is a study in blending full-frontal rock guitar, lyrics with punk attitude and studio polish into the 21st century version of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Except here it’s, “What The Hell’s Going On?” ClassicRockMusicBlog wanted to know.
CRMB: What first drew you into music?
Thomas: Well, when I was really young – about 6 or 7 – I learned to play the recorder, to quite a high standard. But when I went to my next school – my high school – there was no music there; well, there was music there but it was listening to composers and nothing really practical. And then a guy in my class had a guitar – this is quite a long time ago – and he just showed me how to play a couple things on the guitar. And that’s it, I was hooked. I was playing in a band six weeks later [laughs].
What music were you listening to when you got into guitar?
Well it was in the days of Ricky Nelson and Duane Eddy and over here [in England] the Shadows and things like that – just before The Beatles.
Did you collect records?
I started to. In those days – it was the late ’50s, early ’60s – it was expensive then. It wasn’t like now, and everything is available.
Did you hang on to anything?
No. When I was in my teens I had a bunch of Motown and Stax [records] and stuff like that, but I’m afraid it’s all gone.
What attracted you to the Motown and Stax sounds?
First of all, it was the teen-age fashion. It was dance music – in my mind all music should be dance music – and it was exceptionally well done. If you’ve ever seen that documentary about the Funk Brothers, called Standing In The Shadows, and how those musicians played on more hits than The Beatles or Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys put together. It was fantastic.
In one of your earlier bands, Nicko McBrain was the drummer?
That’s right. We were called Ax. It was John Anderson, who was in Charlie eventually, myself and Nicko. We played around London in the late ’60s. He was a fantastic drummer then, and he was only 16. It was about the time of psychedelia. We played in places like The Ram House in London – those were famous Sunday afternoon shows where everybody went to get stoned. It was great fun; it was great participation from the audiences. They’d come up and give you a beer if they liked what you’d done. We used to play sort of 10-minute epic songs, as was the fashion of the day.
After Ax, did you have a vision of the musical path you wanted to follow?
Not particularly. After Ax, I went to live in Portugal for a couple of years; I went to work there. And when I came back I started Charlie – it wasn’t called Charlie originally. I just got in a band and tried to write what was in my mind. In those days I was heavily into Neil Young – in the early ’70s – and Crosby, Stills & Nash. There are turning points in your life, like when The Beatles first came out. I was like, “Oh my God,” you know? I want to do this. And then I remember hearing Crosby, Stills & Nash when they first came out, especially “Long Time Gone.” It was like, “Wow! This is fantastic.” The mood and the beautiful harmonies, so that was a turning point. And the next turning point was probably Steely Dan and AC/DC, so it’s a bit all over the place.
I hear a definite Steely Dan influence on “Cars.”
That’s right. That was written quite a while ago. I was in this band in the late ’80s called The Fabulous Lampshade Sisters, and we used to play around London and I wrote songs for them as well. I never wanted to be in a covers band because I think it would get boring, so if I was in a band I used to write the songs for it. I wrote that one in about 1987 and just updated the lyrics a bit.
So the music hasn’t really changed since 1987?
That’s right, yeah. It was written in a Steely Dan type of groove.
Kitchens Of Distinction was originally conceived as a solo project, and then a couple of your old band mates joined you. How did that happen?
It’s a long story. There was a company in America that had been releasing our CDs for ages, without any of our permissions. Some of the people do this. They get a back catalog of artists and they’re happy to sell 1,000 or 2,000 CDs of each before they get sued. You say, “C’mon, let’s try to be fair here.” This is theft of intellectual property. Our original record label – it was a production company – they went bankrupt years and years ago, so that meant all the copyright reverts back to us and to me. It was like knocking your head against a brick wall. At one stage this guy – he’d got some money from Sony – said he was going to put a box set out, and then I started thinking about doing a solo record. Then Voiceprint became interested in this box set, which never came out because we were having terrible trouble finding the original tapes. So I spoke to the guys at Voiceprint and they put it out and have been doing very well for me.
This album rails against pop culture and society. Was there a specific incident that set you off?
Ah, it just builds up doesn’t it? I mean, it’s getting worse actually, especially in this country and it’s a small country. Fashions come and go, but art has now gone – there’s no room for art anywhere. Nobody wants to spend money waiting for someone to create something. So they just make product, whatever it is. And especially in music – Simon Cowell has a done a terrible job creating music, but none of the record companies are developing their own artists. They just want it already done for them.
Your song “Shit TV” could just as well be called “Horseshit TV.”
[laughs] Yeah, yeah. That doesn’t scan too well when you’re trying to sing it. [laughs]
Record companies are so different today.
Oh, absolutely. They sort of crash and burn. Artists come… it’s not really about music. They’re are a lot of young girl artists here. You read about them, and “They’re really creative and they’re doing this,” and you check them out on Youtube and they’re terrible. And I don’t mean that in a “muso, critical” way, it’s just not good. It’s not good pop music, even. They have their look. It’s all a generic look.
Why do you think it’s so pervasive?
I think it’s a part of dumbing down society. It keeps us… it’s valium in your frontroom. It’s “keep everybody quiet, keep everybody happy,” but this credit crunch has almost woken a few people up. They’re trying to get them back to sleep again. Some people want strict boundaries on their lives and don’t want to go beyond those boundaries, and when they’re challenged to do so it becomes difficult for them.
Is that a product of technology?
I think it’s a product of the economy, actually. I’m not saying, “Go back to Socialism,” – I am left of fence, as you might have guessed – but Socialism didn’t work in this country. In the end, it feels like the economy itself, and you can’t offer too much greed, can you?
You have a gift for taking angry lyrics and matching them to melodic and catchy music. If you released this album 25 years ago, it’s got radio-play written all over it. Is it challenging to write like that?
It’s what I do; it’s what I’ve always done. I’ve always been – if you like – a fan of melodic music. When I was still producing – I went to produce Aerosmith – when they were thinking about using me for one of their records. And they actually said to me, “How do you think we should write a single?” I said, “Well, it’s in you. You don’t have to think about it. Your influences all made you write singles, if you like. You write commercial music. It’s in you.” Once you start to think about it, or changing, it’s all over. So, yeah, I’ve otherwise written quite melodic stuff and then dressed it up with something nasty. [laughs]
The guitar riff of “Blue Sky Bullshit” has something like a Metallica groove, but you smooth it out. It’s not like Rage Against The Machine…
[laughs] Excellent. Right, right, where everything’s angry and that. It’s like, “I’m going to come around from behind. I will hit you in the back of the head and not the nose.” [laughs]
I’ve heard so many poorly produced and over-engineered CDs, but this is a great-sounding disc. What’s your approach to recording and mixing?
This is backed and financed by myself – I did all the drums in a proper recording studio, and then brought it home to my own home studio. I’ve got plenty of guitars and amplifiers. It was just making sure – when you’re in your own studio you’ve got the time to experiment and work. I’ve had a lot of experience in studios, so I know what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. It’s all about making space for everything.
Space is often as important as what’s around it.
Yeah. Of course with these days, and technology, everyone’s making records in the bedroom. There is no acoustic space. If you go into a big studio, that’s what you’re paying for – the cubic volume of the studio, to get this air around instruments – especially drums – so they can speak properly and not refract. That’s one of the problems these days: People go into a small room, put their drum kit in it and it just sounds like a mess.
Recorded drums rarely sound like real drums. Are they difficult?
They’re not difficult to record, but you do need the right space to put them in. If you get the right space – a friend of mine, who I’ve used many times as a producer, he came in and put the mikes in the right place. But even so, because of the power of modern records, drums, left on their own, will get lost behind the bludgeoning of bass and guitars. So you just have to beef them up a little bit; just toughen up the bass with the kick drum and the snare drums, so they can speak, whilst maintaining the dynamics of the performance.
You mentioned having several guitars. Do you collect?
Well, I did at one stage when I was working a lot in America. I still have quite a few that I collected, buy I’ve sold a few because I had so many of them.
Do you have a go-to guitar if you’re struggling with a solo?
I go through all of them [laughs]. I’ve got a very nice old Strat that I use quite a lot.
The guitar solo at the end of “Alcohol” really stands out on this album.
I’m glad you liked that. I was quite pleased with that one. And that was done, actually, on a $50 guitar with nice pickups in it.
What I really like about this record is not just the songwriting but the guitar. You’re a hell of a guitar player.
Oh, thanks very much. Thank you. I was never noted for it in Charlie – we were never a major band. We had some good airplay. We missed success by a whisker, because we were in the right place for success but we never got that coming together of all the factors that we needed.
So why did you decide to release this album now?
I had the songs, and I thought I should do it now. I’ve got a studio at home. Some of them we play – we play in a little band that plays around London – and they always went down really well. So I thought, “Let’s do this album, and put it out and see if people like it.” And now I’ve done it [laughs].
Your producing career has included some of the biggest names in rock: Aerosmith, Foreigner, Tesla and Bad Company. How did you get involved with Bad Company?
Bad Company – the original hookup was the singer of Bad Company, who replaced Paul Rodgers, Brian Howe. He actually heard an album I produced for Tommy Shaw, and he liked it and needed somebody to write songs with. I wasn’t going to be a producer at this stage because I had done an album with Tommy Shaw, of Styx, and I co-wrote the songs. He [Howe] heard this and wanted to write some songs with me for a Bad Company record, so I worked with him and we wrote some songs, and they really liked the songs. Then Mick Ralphs asked me to write some songs with him, and then they asked me to produce a record. So it’s just a bit of luck that somebody heard this record. And I ended up co-writing three Bad Company records that did very well.
How about Tesla?
At that time I had a profile – it was the mid-90s – and I had quite a high profile then. I just got a call that their management wanted me to meet the band and maybe produce their record. Unbeknown to me and unbeknown to the management, it was their last record. It wasn’t actually their last record, but it was in their first incarnation. I didn’t know that they just re-signed with Geffen, and each of the band members got $1 million dollars and decided that they were going to make this record and call it a day. So their motivation for making this record wasn’t terrific.
If you want to go out and play a live gig in London, what’s the scene like?
It’s terrible [laughs]. It’s terrible. You have to either pay to play -you’ve got to guarantee to bring in 50 to 60 people, this is in small places. If you’re in a band starting out – I wouldn’t know how to start a band out these days. I managed a couple of bands in the early part of 2000, and it’s so expensive. I had a young band and we got them playing around. We managed to do a DVD and a video – they’re all 18 and 19, good-looking and their songs are good. You go to a record company, and the first thing a record company says is, “Yeah, you’re right. They’re the right age. The songs are good. They look good. But we need 5,000 pounds before we can think of signing them.” And I’m saying, “That’s what I need from you!” I can’t afford to put a band out on the road for a year. It’s going to cost me $300 a night – at least. But that’s why you’ve got, basically, new artists that are being put together by production companies. They find a good-looking artist and find someone to write songs – they do the whole thing – and then just pass it onto a record company, which is nothing more than a distribution company.
I read a review of this album that said something to the effect that a lot of comeback albums often fall short of the goal, and this one goes in the opposite direction and is perhaps the strongest under the Charlie name.
The reviews have all been good, and it would be great if people could hear it. If people can hear it, they can relate to it. It’s getting people to hear it – there’s so much competition out there. And having said that art is dead, there are thousands and thousands of bands and artists making their own music and being creative, without a hell of a chance of ever getting anyone to hear them, unfortunately.
Even in today’s musical climate, there’s been a miraculous comeback of classic rock bands -groups that are touring worldwide and selling out venues. There is obviously still a huge demand for quality music and music with staying power.
The whole classic rock generation, if you like, lots of younger people have discovered there’s lots of good music, and that people can actually play and it’s not choreographed. You go and see some modern artist, like Lady GaGa, and they’re cabaret, just cabaret. It’s all sort of computer and choreographed. There’s no spontaneity or creation. I mean, sure, you’ve got big hits in this country, but people say, “What’s this music all about?” You’ve got sort of an FM-rock revival over here.
And Kitchens Of Distinction could be at home on FM rock radio in 1978, 1983 or today. It has that timeless quality missing from so much of what’s released.
I’m pleased you said that because that’s what you try to do in a band. I haven’t regressed to the past but I haven’t tried to work in a genre I’m not comfortable with. I keep up to date with music. I work with young bands. Sometimes I say, “I can’t bring anything to this project because it just doesn’t do anything for me,” you know? So that’s a great compliment for me, because that’s what I try to do. I try to make it sound modern but with the same values I’ve always had.
And this album has appeal for a person in their 20s to their 50s and beyond.
That’s the feedback I’ve had. A friend with a 16-year-old daughter says, “What was that song?” I’m pleased with that as well.
One thought on “Charlie – Terry Thomas interview”
You have one lifelong fan! You won’t remember, but I certainly remember, you performing at a place called Café Campus in Montreal. It would have been around 1977 or 78. The place closed down and is now a coffee shop, but it’s definitely still there, and it’s about a three-minute walk from my condo, in which I am typing this right now.
I was a professional guitar player back then, and I already idolized your band, along with Steely Dan, Brand X, George Benson, Genesis, Gino Vannelli, Jan Akkerman . . . the list is long. But our band covered Johnny Hold Back, and we did it pretty well, too!
But I will never forget your performance that night. I sat about ten feet away from you and John Anderson, and the vocals were nothing short of astounding—and I was a very harsh critic, being a musician and also having graduated from Charterhouse just after Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks and Michael Rutherford did. In fact, Anthony Phillips’s brother, Rob, was my best friend. So you can be sure I was listening with a critic’s ear that night! And my god, what a performance; it’s one of the best concert experiences I have ever had, and I’ve seen the best of the best: Yes, Jethro Tull, Wishbone Ash, Santana, Journey, Pink Floyd, Johnny Winter, Gentle Giant, John Scofield, Dixie Dregs, George Benson, Brand X—and you!
I wore out the needles on my stereo listening to No Second Chance, California (I was living in California!) and all your classics.
Here’s to you, Terry—you are still a legend to me; you shaped my musical world irrevocably and I will never forget the awesome influence you had on me and by extension all the musicians I was subsequently to play with, since I always would have played them one of your albums to let people know what kind of music I revered the most.
Cheers, mate! Drop me a line if you’re ever in town and I’ll buy you and your entourage a night’s worth of drinks.