A telephone-interview with Leo Lyons from Ten Years After. He has spent a few weeks in the UK and is now ready to head back to his home in Nashville, where he not only lives but also works as a songwriter....
Q: Do you commute between the US and the UK?
A: Yes, actually I do.
Q: So you have places in both countries?
A: Yes, I rent a place in the UK. For two reasons, really. Sometimes it is just convenient if we are playing shows in Europe. Also, I have family here, and my wife has an elderly mother who she wants to look after. So it's handy for both of us to have a place in this country. But most of the time I live in a suitcase, which is just as well.
Q: After all these years, you still live in a suitcase?
A: Oh, I know, I know... I mean, I am just pleased to be able to do what I love doing. However, the travelling side of it, I could manage to do without.
Q: Last years saw the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock. In retrospective, what did your appearance at Woodstock mean to you then and what does it mean to you now? At that time, in 1969, you were touring a lot, you must have spent almost every single day of the year on the road, so Woodstock must initially have seemed to you like just another one of these festivals.
A. That is certainly true. And not only that, we were also making around two albums a year, which is unbelievable, if you think about it in retrospect.
Q: When you were booked for Woodstock, did you have any idea that that particular festival might turn out a bit different from all the other ones, like Texas Pop or wherever else you had played that year?
A: None at all, no. I think back then by the second day our agent may probably have had an idea that this was going to be something different, but I certainly didn't know. We were on the road, the night before Woodstock we played St. Louis/ Missouri, the Newport Jazz Festival with Dizzy Gillespie. So I didn't even know what was happening that weekend in Woodstock, all I knew was that we were having a gig there. And then our manager came in and said: “Oh, it's chaos up there. The usual thing, that they had to let more people in, that the roads were blocked and so on. That was the first time I realised that there was something going on there.
Q: That must have been one of the worst organised festivals in the history of Pop...
A: I think it was a total disaster. That was a total accident, really. There was a lot of speculation, and I think you as a journalist might be able to check this up, about the governor wanting to send the National Guard in, and people were hoping that this would discredit that movement... I mean, if you look at the background, with America being at war, the Vietnam war, an unpopular war, that kept on politicising people...
Q: As a touring band at that time, did you find time to follow the political developments, the changes in American society?
A: Not really. I don't think I was that much of a political person. I think, we had this ideal about peace and love, and that kind of thing. And I think we were pushed on to one side, your were either for it or against it. If you had long hair, wore certain clothes and listened to certain kinds of music, then you were most unwelcome in some places. I wasn't so much political, but I found it sometimes rather crazy what was going on, unbelievable for someone who had come from the United Kingdom. Anyway, it was pretty obvious what was going on in America, the race segregation that, not that there wasn't any in Britain, but not at that scale, with the peace marches and the Civil Rights movement. I was aware of it, but I was not active in it.
Q: As a Brit, coming from Mid Sixties Britain to America, the States must have seemed a strange place, anyway.
A: It was a strange place. It was totally different. You must imagine, all I knew about America was news, music, and I was an America fan. I liked the American books, I liked American films, I liked the idea of Hollywood, you know, the whole thing, the whole American Dream was sold on me probably at the age of thirteen, fourteen. So it seemed like a wonderful thing.
Q: And you definitely liked American music, didn't you?
A: Oh yes, I mean, that was the main motivating thing. And I guess it still is. That is why I still live in America. I love Europe, but I live in America, because I like the music, and music is what I am doing.
Q: You've worked for a while as a songwriter in Nashville, haven't you? Isn't that a step away from Underground rock?
A: Yes, for ten or twelve years, I think this is my eleventh year. I was a staff songwriter for a company called Hay Street Music that was owned by a songwriter called Don Smith, who was a successful writer.
Q: That was country music?
A: Oh yeah, country music was the first type of music that I really liked.
Q: So country came first?
A: Oh yes, definitely. I mean, country music has always been the white man's blues. For me, the first records I heard was Jimmy Rodgers, “he is in a jail house now”, on a wind-up gramophone, all on my own, I guess that was when I was seven or eight. In a way this was the first introduction to the guitar for me. Then there was Lonnie Donegan, who started to play a lot of the Leadbelly stuff, and then Skiffle became famous, and the Rock'n'Roll, for me
Q: In the Sixties, Ten Years After was still considered an Underground Band. What exactly did underground then stand for? Was that term solely used to signify the music?
A: Yeah, it was purely a musical term. Underground music I think, in that context, just meant, you don't make hit singles, you are not a hit single based, pop based band. You were not hyped by a publicist or by a record company. You know how record companies can put bands together, hype things up. It was something a minority of people wanted to listen to. Real music, you may want to call it, people wanted to listen to rather than hyped up stuff. Once it became successful it ceased to be underground, then it became mainstream. It was played on the radio, the pop magazines started to pick up on it. All that changed, and one thing that changed it was, I think, Woodstock The Movie.
Q: What did the Woodstock movie mean to you?
A: To put it in context: we were on our third album and hopefully had a chance in the United States – in other countries too, but let's for the moment stick with America – to play up to 5,000 seaters.
Q: which was already quite impressive...
A: Yeah, well, twelve months later, when Woodstock came out, we suddenly found ourselves on an entirely different level. So, we were doing okay when Woodstock came out, building nicely, playing to a lot of people, selling records, charting … when the movie came out, all of a sudden we went into the mainstream. We could play on a Tuesday night in a town we had never heard of before and fill a 10- 15,000 people auditorium. Seven nights a week. And of course, that spread throughout the world. I mean, in Germany we were suddenly playing huge venues
Q: How long did it take you as a touring musician who just lives from one venue to the next, from one hotel room to the next, to really realise how big you had suddenly become?
A: That's a good question. I think you never do. You feel more pressure, that is definitely building up on you. There's always an interview to do, all of a sudden people want to get to know you, people start following you around. However, I must say most fans are really good. But there were cases, like I had a hotel room on the second or third floor and someone was climbing up the outside of the building and banging on my window, wanting an autograph. That kind of stuff started to happen. I am always grateful to meet fans, but it became difficult at a time. But I mean, that's what you do. I don't think I ever consciously wanted to be rude. I did always want the band to be successful. However, there were things I wasn't prepared to do. That's why we were an underground band. We didn't want to do TV, we didn't want to do that kind of thing. In retrospect I think that was silly, but I think we felt: We are musicians, not pop stars.
Q: Funny, you mention this: What do you think about nowadays casting shows, such as American Idol or the X-Factor?
A: I have to say, people have to have a break one way or the other. And I think there is a lot of talent that manages to get started that way, but to me, to be honest, I think it is an exploitative way of the business to say: Alright, it is very difficult to break an act, so, what we do is, we set up a talent show, we build up a following for these particular people, and then we will launch them and then we will make a lot of money out of them. I think it's exploiting, but I don't know. I mean, when I was sixteen, I entered a talent contests.
Q: You did?
Q: And did you win?
A: No, of course not. I think when I was sixteen, the band I was with then, we did come second in one of the talent contests and did win five pounds. I mean, you entered these talent contests and you could win a recording... it wasn't a recording contract, it was a recording audition, you know, that kind of thing. I don't know... what I think is that the business has changed that much, that after Woodstock the media people went in, the marketing people went in and they all made money. And I think, if you look at it in that context, people are a lot more in it for the money. When I started, people were more enthusiastic about the music. If you could make money out of it, then great. Now it seems to be all about the money. You go along to one of these television shows, you say: right, I want this out of it and that out of it, this management thing and that, do the contracts, have the whole thing signed and sealed. But how long will it last? Only very few people from them shows we will be here in ten years time. Most of them will long have disappeared. It's cheap television. I mean, it's a wonderful idea for the people who put it together. But that's... here we are underground again. Ten Years After are underground again. We don't belong to the mainstream, we don't appear that much on television, we release our own records. And we do nicely, thank you. A lot of people come and want to see us, and young people. For me that's great!
Q: It appears that you are actually a bit ahead of the trend right now. It seems that more and more musicians are trying to take over as much as possible into their own hands, from recording to the release of music.
A: Yes, yes, it does. I mean with us, in our situation, we were offered record deals, and we did go with a label in the states, but then, it is difficult times for record companies and, to be fair, you either invest a million or a couple of million dollars in a project or you just put something out and see what happens. And a lot of record companies decide for the latter. You can do a lot more yourself. There would not be any real commitment from a major record company to a band like Ten Years After. That is for two reasons: Firstly, they would go and say, hang on a minute, I am the A&R guy who's putting his neck in a noose, either it's going to happen anyway, or it don't and I will be losing my job. The problem is, it has always been young people's music, but the last few years that seems to have changed, it seems that we have been caught up with mainstream music. I mean, I am not bothered by that.
Q: Back to Woodstock: Were you actually aware that there was a film being made?
A: Yes, they asked us about this, and our management had agreed to it.
Q: So you went through the whole process, signed forms and all of that?
A: I mean, I wasn't aware that they were filming while we were doing the show.
Q. The songs which were then finally shown in the film, was that your choice? Did you approve of any?
A: I certainly didn't, no. We had no idea. We had an American management involved back then and there were all sorts of infighting going on inside the management and one thing or another. I heard all sorts of rumours... No, I didn't see anything until the movie actually came out.
Q: When you saw the movie for the first time, did you actually recognize what you saw from what you remembered?
A: Yes, I think I did. Even after forty years I think I still have a pretty clear recollection of that.
Q: When I spoke to other people who have been at Woodstock, they admitted that they sometimes found it hard to trust their own memories. They weren't sure any more if it was the film they remembered, or the real events on the ground. Do you sometimes find yourself in this situation, too?
A: Yeah, it is pretty clear. I mean, apart from the actual performance, which can be seen on film, what I recall most clearly are those backstage moments.
Q: What were the actual playing conditions like?
A. Pretty bad. Because it was raining, the stage was slippery, there was so much rain that water was running between the cables criss-crossing the stage, there was an awful lot of humidity, so tuning was a bit of a problem...
Q: Nowadays that wouldn't pass health and safety...
A: No, it definitely wouldn't. Nobody got electrocuted. It did occur to me, though, but I didn't think it was my time. But then you looked from the stage over the audience, and it was that whole sea of faces, you know, steam rising up from the audience as well, fires in the distance, so that was a good feeling. You know, other aspects of it stick out in my mind, like we left St. Louis Missouri at six in the morning, fly to New York, then drive to Woodstock, you know, and that was like some pictures from Vietnam, you know, helicopters hovering over the fields, and the I remember going to the gig and the rain starting. An I remember, I think Pete Townshend, saying that someone had spiked the food with Acid, and then there was me sitting in the back of the truck, watching the rain coming, thinking: I want something to eat!
Q: So, did you take the risk?
A: No, no... I have always thought I was partially on the edge anyway, so I have never taken Acid. I was too afraid I would never come back. I saw too many people who never came back. Although, this would have been the occasion in years.
Q: That was actually another aspect of Woodstock. It made drugs fashionable, triggered a worldwide drug-culture.
A: May be it did, but I think that was pretty prevalent even before Woodstock. May be in Germany. But did it in Germany? I am not so sure, there seems to have already been a drug culture before Woodstock. Maybe in Eastern Europe. I have spoken to people from Eastern Europe, it had such an effect on them. Not necessarily the drugs, but the whole thing. That people could get together against authority, in a way, listen to the music they wanted to listen to in the way they wanted to listen to it.
Q. In terms of authority: What was Britain like at that time?
A: Ermm, underground music was not that much of a political movement. I think that was more an aspect of the American society, that had to put music in a bag and people in a bag, like you listen to that so you must be this. It was a lot easier in the UK, I don't think people didn't identify so much people with long hair, with short hair... I think it was only when the Punk Scene started that appearance actually began to matter.
Q: The appearance of Punk seems to have caused a sort of a moral panic in Britain.
A: It did, yeah. I think it was definitely an anti-Establishment thing. I don't really think that … music, underground music, psychedelic in the UK was that much of an anti-Establishment thing, you just wanted to have fun. In the UK there was no shortage of jobs, people had money, despite the fact that we had the troubles in Northern Ireland. When I first went to America, Americans would ask me about Northern Ireland. I mean, I grew up with the troubles in Northern Ireland, and it was terrible, that it was going on, but it didn't seem to be at any time part of the psychedelic underground music scene. It was nothing like the Vietnam war in the United States. If you were a hippie, then people would definitely assume that you were against the war. Appearance showed your political position. And that's what caused a lot of problems. People having their children killed, people being killed just because of the way they looked and all sorts of things going on. We were drawn into the middle of all that.
Q: Living in the US for the last few years, must have brought back memories, with the Iraq war going on and the involvement in Afghanistan...
A: Yes, definitely. That's gone round in a circle, hasn't it? And I can see it becoming even more that way. I think there should be no room for wars any more. It's all coming down to money, isn't it? I am not accusing America, I am just saying that most wars are for money. I mean, if you go back to the beginning of time, look at wars and ask yourself the question 'who's going to gain', then you quickly realise what the whole thing is about. I feel the best song that Alvin [Lee] ever wrote, which totally stands out about anything else, was 'I'd Love To Change The World'. It is that statement: I'd love to change the world, but I don't know what to do...” That's my position, that's where I stand. It's so easy to say “Yeah, you should do something about it, but it isn't.”
Q: And the younger you are the easier it is to say so...
A: Absolutely, yes, that's right. I just hope that with that 40th anniversary of Woodstock some of those ideals, no matter how naïve they may have been, will reoccur. Hopefully it will do some good. I mean, we are not only doing it as for an event to make a lot of money, or an event to get out of your head on ecstasy.
Q: After all these years since Woodstock, what would you consider to be the biggest change in music? And I don't really mean changes in the music industry. I am aware that the industry in itself has changed almost beyond recognition since. I mean more in terms of music itself and in the attitudes of musicians, maybe.
A: I think the computer has changed music. Because now every programmer, anyone who knows his way around software, can make a record. That's a major change. Even when I started, anybody who couldn't play let's say the guitar, would sound like he couldn't play the guitar. Nowadays that doesn't really matter anymore. You can sample other music, play a guitar note for note and tighten the tune up, you can retune a vocal, loop things up, and manufacture a complete production. You couldn't possibly go out and perform live, though, with all the samples and loops you've used on the record. So, that's one thing that has changed. But, having said that, I was in a music shop in Düsseldorf, last week, on a Saturday, and it's a long time since I have seen so many young people picking, playing guitars, basses and drums... Things seem to be going in a circle. I have looked through my email this morning and I had to letters from young people, one of them a 15 years old boy who said “I have just bought myself a bass guitar, two months ago and I am playing the bass.”... So, it's going around in a circle. I think we are gonna see more life bands again.
Q: There definitely seems to be a resurgence of life music.
A. Oh yes... If you take away those manufactured bands, I mean, some of these bands are definetely very talented, like Pussycat Dolls, who nevertheless are definitely manufactured by the business, by the media, they put them through auditions, put them all together, I mean, and then you have a young band coming through that builds up a followership, they will have to tour, it is all going in a circle. It's always gone around in a circle.
Q: Which, I guess, is a good developments
A: It is, it is so rewarding to see so many people coming to our concerts.
Q: How many concerts do you play per year these days?
A: 100 – 150 a year.
Q: That's a hell of a lot of time on the road
A: Oh yes, it is. I mean, there are sometimes 1 or two days between shows, you are travelling, so you actually stay a lot more days on the road. If you do two shows, it's almost four days.
Q: And you still manage to have a family life?
A: Oh well, yes. One of my sons works in Nashville. He is in the music industry, he works for a record company. My other son is a guitar tech. So yes, there is time for family life.
Interview by Edgar Klüsener
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