By Steve Newton
Twenty-five years ago tomorrow–on March 11, 1990–Robin Trower–who turned 70 yesterday!–made a rare appearance in Vancouver at the 86 Street Music Hall. I’d been a huge fan of the British blues-rock guitar great ever since my older sister turned me on to his Bridge of Sighs album back in ’74, so jumped at the chance to interview him in advance of the gig. Here’s the story that appeared in the March 9-16 issue of the Georgia Straight newspaper, under the headline “Guitarist a Trower of Power”.
You know how some recording artists make you think of old times, and help you crystallize visions from the past? Well, when I think of Robin Trower, I picture a mid-’70s high-schooler cruising the main drag of Chilliwack in a wood-grained Monaco station wagon, with two oversized house speakers in the back and cheap 8-track deck up front. And the tape that usually got tossed in there–in between Nazareth‘s Razamanazz and Foghat’s Energized–was Trower’s Bridge of Sighs. It seemed awful cool cruising the local A&W way back when with the raucous strains of “Day of the Eagle” or “Too Rolling Stoned” billowing out the windows.
But enough of this kid’s teen reminiscing. As for Trower, he’s still live and kickin’, and he’ll visit Vancouver for the first time in a very long while this Sunday (March 11) at 86 Street. Two days before his local show, the British blues-rocker will turn 45. He’s seen a lot during his lengthy career in rock.
Trower first began to play music professionally in his birthplace of London, England, at the age of 17. He’d first picked up the guitar three years before that.
“I had an old steel-string cello guitar with f-holes that cost about eight pounds,” says Trower. “I was very keen on people like Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Gene Vincent. Of course, I was only a dumb kid, but I was always a big Elvis fan. It was him playing guitar that first made me want to play. The image of Elvis holding an instrument and just being what he was, you know, made me think ‘Well, I’m going to get a guitar, too.’
“I used to get together with a friend of mine at school, and we’d tune the strings down on the cello guitar and pretend that we had a bass. By this time I also owned a solid-body electric, and we just mucked around with stuff by a group called the Shadows. We played a couple of little things where they passed the hat around and got about two shillings each. It wasn’t anything serious, however, until we formed the Paramounts.”
The Paramounts recorded a string of singles–including remakes of “Poison Ivy” and “Little Bitty Pretty One”–but never quite caught on. They did tour with a couple of bands called the Beatles and the Stones, though.
“We were just kids then,” says Trower, “and it didn’t matter to us at all whether we were bottom or top of the bill. It was an experience, I suppose, being on a Beatles tour. We did their last tour of Britain in ’65, and the thing that blew me away about that was it wasn’t sold out every night. And they weren’t very good. I mean, the singing was great, but the playing was a bit weak.”
“We supported the Stones when they were just getting their first hit, called ‘Come On’, and they loved it–we were their favourite group, actually. They gave us all their work they were leaving in the blues clubs, and they used to put us on their shows, too, as they got bigger.”
Trower quit the Paramounts in late ’65, an immersed himself in the kind of music that would colour his own sound for the next 25 years. “I more or less just sat at home and listened to all the blues players for about six months or so. I got into people like B.B. King, Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin, Albert King–all of them, really. I think the one album that was my most influential was B.B. King’s Live at the Regal. I think that’s the most wonderful guitar playing I’ve ever heard.”
Around this same time in another part of London, former Paramount pianist Gary Brooker teamed with lyricist Keith Reid (Trower’s current manager), and after recruiting four more musicians they released their debut single, “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, as Procol Harum. Shortley thereafter Trower came into the fold as guitarist and would remain in Procol Harum until 1971.
The final album Trower made with Procol Harum, Broken Barricades, included a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, “Song for a Dreamer”, and showed Trower’s increasing desire to branch out musically on his own.
“On Broken Barricades I was starting to spread my wings a bit,” says Trower, “and I was getting more into writing songs. Obviously, if you write a song, and you’re a guitarist, there’s going to be more guitar in it. That was the beginning of me leaving the band; I was fascinated by being able to write music for the guitar.”
In 1972 Trower formed his own band, a power-trio featuring vocalist James Dewar, and a year later released his debut album, Twice Removed From Yesterday, followed by his masterwork Bridge of Sighs in ’74. Although Trower’s heavy blues-based sounds were strongly embraced by many guitar-hungry kids, he also drew lots of criticism for being a Hendrix rip-off. But he defended himself.
“Hendrix definitely opened up a lot of doors. He rewrote the language of the electric guitar. I felt, right or wrong, that there was no way you could move forward without absorbing at least part of what he created. It wasn’t until I started thinking about the guitar/bass/drums thing that I started to draw on what I’d absorbed from him, because it was more of a challenge than I’d realized to fill that kind of space. But, as with Hendrix, the same thing when I first heard B.B. King and knew that was something important. I felt I had to absorb all the other blues guitarists, too.”
While Bridge of Sighs remains Trower’s best-selling album, he produced many other fine LPs during the ’70s and ’80s, whether with singer Dewar (Caravan to Midnight, Victims of the Fury, In City Dreams) or with former Cream bassist Jack Bruce (BLT, Truce). In all, Trower released more than 15 albums, most of them on Chrysalis Records, until a sour relationship with that label became too much.
“I’d been trying to get away from Chrysalis for a long, long time,” says Trower, “because I was never happy with them; they never treated me fairly. So when I finally did get away from them, it took a long time to get a major label interested again.”
Trower’s career floundered somewhat in the late ’80s, and it became difficult to even find his independently released albums in the stores. But he kept his pudgy nose to the grindstone, and recently inked a deal with big-time Atlantic Records, which brings us up to today, and his latest LP, In the Line of Fire.
Trower’s current band includes former Gamma vocalist Davey Pattison, drummer Dean Johnson, and bassist Greg Letsch. Nowadays, the heavy blues and R&B base that powered Trower’s earlier discs has been replaced by a more mainstream, radio-friendly sound–similar to the approach Bad Company took once Paul Rodgers left the group. That’s a bit of a drag for fans of Trower’s old riff-riddled, improvisatory style, but it’ll still be interesting to see how the ’70s tunes–which make up roughly half his current set–translate for the ’90s. And you can bet that Trower’s familiar bank of Marshall amps, row of effects pedals, and trusty Stratocaster will still be in place.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he says.