Alan Mair bass player with The Only Ones

talks about reforming the legendary band, new material, Freddie Mercury, and more on Tuesday 3 February 2009

eGigs speaks to Alan Mair is best known as the bassist from The Only Ones. He co-produced the first two albums 'The Only Ones' and 'Even Serpents Shine'. Prior to The Only Ones, Mair found fame with Glasgow band The Beatstalkers who became Scotland's top group - and were recently featured in a sketch on Rab C Nesbitt's Christmas Special.

First off I'd like to say I'm quite a fan, 'Even Serpents Shine' is one of the highlights of my record collection.
That's probably the most concise and the most together the band was during that recording and at that time. The first album had been done and obviously did well, but on 'Even Serpents Shine' I got more involved in the production of that. Which I'm always proud of.

What made you decide to produce both albums in the first place?
Well I think really I've always loved studios, from a kid the whole idea of music was a phenomenon to me. The idea of being in a band and doing albums I just couldn't keep away from the mixing desk. I've always loved sound, and I've always had good systems and so it became a very natural thing for me, and Peter (Perrett), we both did it as a co-production.

Did you do the sound production on The Beatstalkers as well?
Some of it yes, with The Beatstalkers of course we were really young, and we were now playing with real heavyweight guys. It really was, like Denny Cordell who produced 'Go Now' (The Moody Blues) and Ken Pitt, who was managing Bowie's stuff (early years). So we were kind of put on the back burner, so to speak, but as the recordings went on I became more involved with it, and wrote a couple as well. But, back then, our hands were tied because these were main producers who, supposedly, knew better than us.

What led you to become a musician in the first place?
It was really rhythm, always rhythm, as a kid any songs like 'Let's Dance' by Chris Montez, or 'Let The Be Drums' by Sandy Nelson, we're going back a bit now. But as a seven or eight year old, we lived with my gran, my mum and my brother, and I, and any song that came on that had, unknown to me at the time, great drummers, or great bass players, or just great rhythm I found them very infectious and I started buying singles. All the records I liked then, I now realise now was just because they had great rhythm sections, and to be involved in rhythm was a natural route to take. I've always loved music, and I've always loved electric quitars, because I play quite a lot of guitar as well. The sound of an electric guitar was just heaven to me.

What was the first guitar you got?
The first electric guitar was a Burns six string bass, although before that when I was about 13 my mother bought me an acoustic, just a regular acoustic guitar from an auction. There were quite a lot of auction rooms in Glasgow, and she obviously knew I wanted one, and it was very kind of her. A friend of mine had bought a guitar and he became the lead guitarist of The Beatstalkers. So she knew that I wanted one, she was probably a bit concerned that I wanted to be in a 'beat group' as they would call it.

A six string bass, didn't you want to go for the more normal four string?
No, because I was already playing quite a bit of guitar I just thought six has got to better. And, I still continue to play chords, not the full four note chords but I quite often use three note chords, I might play the root note, and then hit the chord as well. So I think the six string note lended itself to my playing more because it was closer to guitar. I probably did play it more on the bottom four strings though.

That was stolen, that guitar, I think it was worth quite a bit of money now, the old Burns basses.

What brought the band back together a couple of years ago?
From my point of view, I had released The Beatstalkers CD, the best of The Beatstalkers. They had never been released on CD, so I did it as a labour of love at my house. I put the CD out and that led to everyone in Glasgow asking for The Beatstalkers to do a reunion gig. So we did a reunion gig (in 2005) and I hadn't played bass in a long time, and that just inspired me to play bass. I was playing with The Beatstalkers thinking 'this is kind of what I do best in the musical world.' When I was playing bass I got the bug, and I kept thinking it would be fantastic to be playing with The Only Ones again.

Every time The Beatstalkers did interviews at the end of the interview the guy would always say to us, "Sorry, but I want to ask Alan about The Only Ones, The Beatstalkers have reformed, is there any chance of it?" For me that was the seed planted. Mike Kellie was ill at the time and even in the Christmas of 2006 I sent a Christmas card to Kellie saying get well mate, because I've got a gut feeling we're going to get the band back together. From that moment on I was on a mission,and I guess as Peter said I'd kind of inspired them all and made it make sense.

That was before the offers came in, and even before the Vodafone advert. I was talking to the guy that owns the Shepherds Bush Hall about the possibility of doing a gig there. Then individually each person in the band said they would be up for re-forming. Peter said he was as well, although he said at the time he was very unsure, I was so enthusiastic he didn't want to say no. I was looking at John's (Perry) website and he said that “Alan decided it was going to happen, and his shear enthusiasm has just knocked down any hurdles.”

I'd opened the band up to the possibility of a re-form and then the Vodafone advert started, and then there was this huge window of opportunity, and just at the right time. I was doing some interviews saying I really wanted to get the band back together and then the phone call came from ATP (All Tomorrow's Parties). The Dirty Three were the curators of it, and Warren Ellis was a fan so the whole thing just crystallised at the right time, the offer came through at the right time, I negotiated the fee, and said to the band "it's there what are we going to do? Is everyone up for it?" I then got a phone call from Peter saying "okay let's do it."

I think quite a few people were in the wings watching to see if we were going to be some dishevelled band that could hardly stand up, and as soon as we finished that gig the phone never stopped, there were emails coming through. I think people gathered that I was looking after the affairs of the bands. By the end of that week there were already gigs in the diary, and not knowing that Peter didn't check his emails, it came as a big surprise to him. I said to him something about the Shepherds Bush gig, and he said, “Shepherds Bush, what!?” I said, "It'll be fine Peter." and it was sold out.

You've been back in the band a couple of years now, how has being back in the band changed you this time around?
I think I'm more chilled out, the first time around I didn't particularly like John very much, and he was very abrasive, not to me, but just as a person, 'sell your granny' as they say. Everyone though has learnt a lot about themselves, and it's not as competitive as it used to be. People stand back and let everyone else have a say, and it's far, far more fun. I think of it as like a parallel life, I still do lots of other things, and I'm sure everyone else does, and The Only Ones is something that we do, and we only do it if we have fun, and we're paid well enough to make it make sense.

And now it's becoming more, and more creative. We've already been in the studio doing new material.

And what's the new material like?
Some of the stuff is fantastic. It's all in the early development stages but we're still going to do, when we go out live tomorrow, four or five new songs. Making up the set yesterday at rehearsals we were having a hard time choosing what to go out with. Of course you each have your favourites, but there were a few new one in particular and a couple of jazzy ones that I love as well, all Peter's songs he's still writing very strong material. It will be a new song that's going to finish the set. That's quite a brave statement, we're taking 'Beast' out of the set and 'Planet' for encores, but we're going to end the set with a new song.

And how have you been being received at gigs?
It's been amazing, as someone said, "I've never seen so many grown men cry." It's wonderful to see what our music meant to so many people. We broke up in 1980-81, and The Only Ones disappeared off my radar for years, and I just never thought about it at all, until maybe 10 years ago. It's just something that has developed in a way we didn't expect it to.

Is it all grown men in the audience?
It's very half and half. About 50% had either heard the Vodaphone advert, or got into the band quite late and I suppose in the last ten years there are more bands which have talked about The Only Ones. It's the same as I used to do - if Georgie Fame talked about Mose Allison, I would get a Mose Allison album, I remember that so clearly. You did out your favourite artist's influences.

In Japan, we went there in May and The Only Ones have never been before. The promoter did a big signing and we sat until 3-4 in the morning signing album covers and things. It was astonishing, these Japanese fans were overwhelming, and that's where the expression 'I've never seen so many grown men cry' comes from. They are so far away from our home, hardly any of them spoke English, but they are so into the band.

The Shepherds Bush gig was amazing, a real celebration of the band from every angle, it was phenomenal, and all the gigs and festivals as well.

The nice thing that's happened occasionally is an awful lot of the ground crew at festivals have all gathered around the sides of us when we've played, and that means we were the band that they all took their time off to see. We're just thinking 'oh gee thanks' it's very humbling.

Are you considering doing any more festivals?
The festival thing hasn't opened up here at all. We're going back to Europe to do some festivals this year. I think, for me, after this run of gigs and then Spain, it feels like we need to get our heads down and really start hammering out all the recordings. That's something we're all looking forward to. Peter lives quite far away from me, but he's moving up here quite soon, and part of this is a trade off that we can spend more time together, with tracks and mastering, and I'm really looking forward after Spain to getting into recording.

You've influenced a large number of acts of the years, as you said earlier, what do you think of the current music scene?
I think it's really healthy, I think there are some great records being made, and I can go to more and more gigs. I love Elbow, the fact you get someone like Seasick Steve become the newcomer of the year at the Mojo Awards, shows it's so diverse. There's also been more and more guitar based bands in the last ten years. Where as ten years ago there seemed less guitar bands, I think being able to play on YouTube and MySpace ahs made it even better. You can get to your audience, material isn't sitting between you and the A&R men, now you can get it straight out to people who want to hear it. I think that's very healthy.

As song writing goes PRS has paid out the biggest payment ever, last year was the first time they'd ever paid out a billion pounds in royalties, even though music's being plagiarised and CDs are almost starting to disappear, I think there's more and more people interested in music than there ever was, and it's being reflected in the PRS payments.

There's been a huge resurgence in band's getting back together now, what advice would you give your contemporaries?
Just to have fun with it... and don't get caught up, with the kind of things you may have done in the seventies, and getting all intense about it, thinking you've got to do this, and you've got to do that. Just really have fun with it and enjoy it, but definitely bring something new to the table. Don't do it if it's only half the band as well, or if it's one figure. If it's only half the band then it's watered down. Oh, and don't do it for the money, that's the last thing that's ever been on our minds, both the first time and this time around, it's got to be for the passion.

If you could pick one band to re-form, so you can see them, who would you pick?
Guns n' Roses, but the original, I really loved them. The original GnR would be phenomenal I really liked them. And I'd love to have seen Nirvana again, but obviously he's passed away.

All of the band mention Nirvana quite a lot I've noticed over the years...
I remember after The Only Ones broke up, for a few years Peter and I we're still in touch with each other, and we would talk about how horrendous the Eighties were for music, not every band, obviously some good bands started in the Eighties. But, it was just such a terrible period for music, people playing ironing boards and all sorts. It was the show from up north they first appeared on, but Nirvana were on that live, and there was no stage, they were just there at the same level as the audience, and it was just phenomenal. I remember speaking to Peter over the weekend, and I said, “Did you see that band Nirvana?” And that was a bolt from nowhere at that time, it just felt like there was nothing spectacular happening on the scene. I'm sure it would have been in other areas that we weren't aware of, but that appearance was just phenomenal. I remember thinking 'Wow this guy, I've never seen someone mean it so much, the delivery and the whole band were just fantastic. A really phenomenal band.

You owned a shop in Kensington market where you employed Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor, of Queen, what were they like as employees?
Very quiet, it was funny because Freddie worked for me for three and a half years, and I was only in Ken market for five years. He was just a really, really nice guy, and the most charming feature of him, was that he was very self effacing, he wasn't 'I'm a great songwriter, we're gonna make it, etc' He was very humble about the band, and never patted himself on the back. He was a very easy going guy, from the sense that he was trustworthy. He ended up running the shop as manager. We stayed in touch for a long time, and when they started doing their first gigs, I was still mates with David Bowie at the time, so he would come up to Ken Market and hang out, so Freddie would always want me to come to gigs, and see them.

In fact I went to their very first gig at the Kensington Estate Hall and it was pretty bad actually. The whole of Kensington market went to this gig and in the early days Freddie has a bit of a habit of singing sharp. He would be too enthusiastic, and he would push his voice slightly sharp through out the whole thing.

I remember we all went to the pub, The Greyhound, after the gig, which is what we always did on the Saturday night. We had Hurricane Higgins there playing snooker, and Kellie was there I recognised him from Spooky Tooth. We were there, saying "What are we going to tell Freddie guys? As he's so excited about it and it wasn't very good." But that worst over, and then he would tell me about record deals, and say he would be becoming professional soon.

Then I was driving to the market one morning, I switched the radio on, and I thought, "Wow! What a fantastic song, brilliant." and at the end of it, the guy said, "That's a new band, that's 'Seven Seas Of Rye' by a band called Queen." And I thought, "Fuckin' hell! this is fantastic." I'm not a huge fan of Queen, not at all really but that was a great single, and I got to the market, and I said, "Freddie you will be turning professional, you've got a hit record there without a doubt." He did have a hit with that, but it wasn't until three or four months later that he left. Then I went to all the gigs after that, The Rainbow, and saw him for quite a long time after that.

Then' the fun side of it was to meet up again, when The Only Ones were on the road, I met up with him when we were supporting The Who in L.A. I hadn't seen Freddie for two or three years at that point, I went to his house a few times in Kensington and then he got ill. He was a very nice person, he wasn't that volatile, he was very steady and even tempered.

Thanks for your tine it's a shame you aren't doing UK festivals this year.
Yeah well, you know you did the Connect Festival in Scotland, well the guy who runs that Geoff Ellis, said he couldn't put us in again this year, but maybe the following year. So there's a chance he's thinking about that. There's also a lot of talk about the SXSW festival in America.

Would you still be able to do that, isn't Peter a wanted man over there?
Peter's fine, he's got a clean record, I've already had an Interpol search. He's got no criminal record at all, after that thing that happened in America we thought we'd better just check. But Hertz had paid off the guy. But we didn't know if the case had really been dropped, and so we had a search done, and in fact the visas are being done now, to focus on America. We've had quite a few enquiries from America, people from Warner Bros. and there's a lot of things to put into place, and we need to make sure it's done right, so we don't end up stuck out there in the middle of nowhere. American's don't like to pay anything up front either.

Good luck with it all. Thanks very much.
Cheers. Bye.

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article by: Scott Williams

published: 03/02/2009 13:32

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