CALIFORNIA SCREAMING AT THE HARD ROCK HOTEL 21.01.22
The last interview ever given by Jimi Hendrix, the most amazing rock guitarist the world had ever seen, took place in the Cumberland Hotel at London's Marble Arch five days before his death on my birthday in 1970. The interviewer was Keith Altham, respected rock writer, author and broadcaster who later became the personal publicist of the Who, the Stones, Van Morrison and Marc Bolan upwards. Yep, that Keith: the man who prompted Jimi to ignite his instrument live on stage, cheerfully admitting that he had nicked the idea from Jerry Lee Lewis, who torched a whole piano on stage in 1958 at New York's Paramount Theater. 'Great Balls of Fire' was the number on that occasion. Which he closed with a slap of racial abuse against Chuck Berry, who was waiting in the wings to come on. I digress.
The Cumberland was, in those days, a magnificently sleazy hotel. No more than a pick-up joint. We didn't hang there during the eighties. Our mothers wouldn't have liked it. I had only nipped in once or twice since. Few visiting rock stars ever stayed there, and most interviews were conducted in the Groucho Club or Soho House. I hadn't had cause to visit for years when I rocked up last night to its latest incarnation: a shimmering extension of Hyde Park's celebrated Hard Rock Cafe. The make-over worked. This stylish, sizeable space works well as a live-music venue, with a broad stage reaching out into its tabled auditorium.
It's surprising, the lack of understanding among the wider public of the concept of the 'session musician'. This came up during a documentary I worked on for a US prodco recently. These are the musicians without whom the industry could not function. Everyone has heard them play, but few know their names. Guys like guitarist Ray Russell: James Bond, Graham Bond, Georgie Fame, Macca, Bowie, Cat Stevens, Art Garfunkel, Tina Turner, Marvin Gaye. Bassist Mo Foster: Phil Collins, Jeff Beck, Ringo Starr, Brian May, ABBA, Van Morrison. Clem Cattini, the former Tornado who was portrayed by James Corden in 2009's 'Telstar', who played on 42 UK Number 1s, and who has worked with everyone from Lulu to Lou Reed, the Yardbirds, Marc Bolan, the Kinks and Phil Everly; who drummed for The Rocky Horror Show, and who was invited to join Led Zeppelin, ahead of their appointment of John Bonham. I interviewed vocalist Bernard Fowler extensively for my new book 'The Stone Age' (Bonnier, July). He has toured and recorded with the Stones both as a group and on their solo albums since 1985, when Jagger hired him to work on his first, 'She's the Boss'. Only regulars on the Stones' live touring circuit can put a name to that face and voice. He shrugs. The stories he tells.
It's a treat when these hugely talented individuals pull groups together and get out to do gigs of their own. The quality of musicianship is superlative. James Nisbet and Sam Blue formed California Screaming about a decade ago. I last saw them live at Legends, the sadly defunct London club which we once called our 'front room' and where we often spent the night, too wasted to crawl home. James was born into the music business: his father published Bob Dylan, his mum worked at Apple. He strums with Belinda Carlisle, Mari Wilson, Lily Allen, Bryan Ferry, Joss Stone, has guitared for Rod Stewart, Cyndi Lauper and Yes, composes commercially and can play, literally, anything. Sam Blue succeeded Midge Ure in Ultravox, has worked with artists as diverse as Dizzee Rascal and Montserrat Caballé, and can sing, literally, anything. Last night, together with bassist Matt Round and thumper Simon Merry, they tripped the light fantastic through the songbook of classic rock.
Ten thousand hours, they reckon it takes. To make it look this easy takes decades. Bouncing in with 'Come Together' and sliding into Ray Charles's 'I Got a Woman' via U2's 'Vertigo' and Led Zeppelin's 'Ramble On', they get the burger munchers pausing mid-forkful; Squeeze's 'Tempted', Queen and Bowie's 'Under Pressure', the Chilli Peppers' 'Dani California', Queen of the Stone Age's 'No One Knows'. Act two bangs in with 'Let's Dance', evoking the spirit of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Nile Rodgers; showcasing not only Nisbet's brilliance on the Gibson Les Paul but Blue's volatile, versatile voice. Who else can soar from Plant to Carrack to Mercury to Bowie so seamlessly? 'Don't Stop Me Now', 'Don't Stop Believing', 'Message in a Bottle' and Ronnie 'Wood's Stay with Me'. And Sam's not straining to be Rod, here. He has an indefinable talent for echoing the artist in question while making the song his own. That he does it with such humour and modesty makes it all the more appealing. Shall we go a little 'Brown Sugar', gentlemen? Go on, let's. Up jumps Nisbet again, he's Richards and Taylor in a blender. The sound is sublime.
So that was the starter for ten. Listening, Hard Rock Hotel? Give these brilliant musicians a residency. Make your gin joint London's go-to Friday night rock hangout. I'm in.