The Other Side of Terry Reid
In the middle of his busiest year in recent memory, Terry Reid -- subject of documentaries, rarities releases, and even Johnny Depp's affection -- could not be more excited.
It's a busy year for Terry Reid. He has double LP in the pipeline, a tour coming up, and is the somewhat reluctant subject of an in-progress documentary. He's best remembered, probably unfairly, as the guy who turned down the opportunity to front the embryonic Led Zeppelin, and who pointed Jimmy Page towards the then-unknown midlands blues singer Robert Plant. With Plant comes Bonham, and the rest, as they say, is history.
But what of the guy who, according to most, sabotaged himself by not taking that chance? Terry Reid has never been bitter about it, despite the relative obscurity into which he slipped after his first two albums gave him such a promising start. Maybe it's because it was a perfectly reasonable decision at the time: Page was the only remaining member of The Yardbirds, a group most notable for being a springboard for great guitarists who would go on to do more interesting things than being in The Yardbirds. Terry Reid was signed on to tour the US in support of both Cream and The Rolling Stones, and had an ironclad record deal assuring him he was going places.
Maybe it's fun to speculate about the alternate universe of a Reid-fronted Zeppelin but at the end of the day it's a moot point, and there's a satisfying discography of solo Terry Reid to dig into, many-textured and rich and often quite daring. As a musician he has a shoulder-to-the-wheel work ethic, both concerning his own work and as a contributor to the music of others: "When you're working with somebody or on their material, you gotta pull yourself into it the same way as if you're doing what you're doing, and you're listening to what character they want, not what you want, cause that's a whole other deal! Just really concentrate on what's best for that and how it should flow, you know? You serve the song and what the person's nature is, their timing of words. There's a lot in there." It becomes apparent that there's very little room to be self-serving in his nature, that ego doesn't play into it.
Maybe in Led Zeppelin, that same quality would have gotten him thrown to the wolves.
The story starts, as so many do, in England in the '60s with Mickie Most. Legendary producer and musical tastemaker, Most is remembered for his work with Donovan, Suzi Quatro, the Jeff Beck Group, and the Yardbirds, among countless others. He signed Terry Reid and they put out a couple of albums in rapid succession, gearing up for a long and fruitful career of adventurous pop hits, starting with the 1968 record Bang Bang, You're Terry Reid.
A handful of Donovan covers, a few very successful tours, and a slew of hooky original songs later, the honeymoon period was over. Mickie Most purportedly wanted to make a balladeer of Terry, who was still a blazing rock and roller at heart. "Well he didn't want to listen to anybody but himself. I'm not just saying 'It's my music and my life' or anything but I was just thinking, 'If this goes wrong, the only person it's gonna kill is me.'" True enough, but that bulletproof record deal works both ways. While litigation to free him from his contract went on, and Terry stayed well enough out of it. "Whatever you do, you're only going to inhibit your lawyer if you start shooting your mouth off and saying things at the time," he says of the lawsuit. "It's only gonna fuck it up and it's just gonna get worse."
Instead, he did what he knew how to do best: he went on the road. "I just kissed it goodbye and started working on putting a whole other thing together. He couldn't stop me working on the road and earning money, it's against the law in England. My lawyer came up with a test case and took him to chambers on it, said 'I wouldn't go there if I were you, or else he'll sue ya!' So I just worked the circuit all over Europe and all over the colleges and universities, which are endless, and actually earned a hell of a lot of bloody money, to be honest with you."
It was this relentless gigging and this commitment to work that finally brought down his saving grace, a deus ex machina from Atlantic president Ahmet Ertegun. "If it wasn't for Ahmet I'd probably still be hanging by my thumbs!" Terry says. Most and Ertegun were two of the most notoriously business-savvy guys in rock and roll, and a deal was cut that no doubt saw both sides taking losses. Still, it freed Terry up to do the record he wanted to do, although the obstacles were not out of the way just yet.
He set up recording with producer Eddy Offord, and assembled a lineup of great session hands including Plastic Ono Band drummer Alan White and multi-instrumentalist David Lindley, as well as recruiting his friend Jackson Browne for backing vocals. The album he envisioned was a genre-straddling stream-of-consciousness sequence of songs that would eventually become what hardcore fans thought of as his magnum opus. The album was River.
It's here where things start to go pear-shaped. It's said that River was recorded twice, once with Eddy Offord and once with Tom Dowd behind the desk, although Terry disputes that. "Well, sorta twice, sorta not. It was continued ... there was a gap in between, because the whole group sort of separated. That was one of the reasons of not completing it all in England with Eddy [Offord]. Jackson [Browne] had 'Doctor My Eyes' which went to number one. And you know, Alan White turned around and said he was joining Yes! And Eddy, who was producing, went to do Yes as well! So, for fear of feeling like I just got dumped, or something, I thought, I've gotta figure this one out. It was just circumstances."
Not unhappy circumstances, but difficult ones around which to work. Terry had done guitar work and backing vocals on several of Jackson Browne's records, and was supportive of his friend's success: "You don't stand in people's way. If they're gonna go, they're gonna go. You know, Jackson had been hanging out with us in England for ages, he's the last one who thought he'd go with a bullet to number one, he went into shock. So we were all very happy about it, actually."
Still, the group splintering all at once presented a major problem, and Terry would solve it the same way he had with his last seemingly insurmountable career issue. Of the time, he says, "I thought, I know what I've got to do. I've got to take a breath and call Ahmet Ertegun, because the ironic thing was, Jackson's record was either on Reprise, or ... it doesn't matter; it's all Warner Brothers or Atlantic, right? It was on Atlantic. And Yes are on Atlantic. So I figured, well, I'll call Ahmet."
Ahmet, of course, has an answer for everything. Terry recounts their conversation: "'Look,' I said, 'I'm sitting here halfway through this record that I'm diligently doing for you, with your money, with your record company.' I didn't know quite which way I'd go, and I said 'Ahmet, I'm up a gumtree, what the hell do I do here?' He goes, 'Oh, don't worry about it! You're such a worrier!' I went, 'Well, you're not worried?' So then I felt a bit better." Ahmet did him one further, in fact. He sent Terry a plane ticket bound for California and instructions to, in Terry's words, "Have a good time for a while and settle in." At which point they would "Meet up and I'll have a think about getting another producer."
The producer upon whom Ahmet eventually settled was Tom Dowd, the great innovator of multitrack recording. Terry sounds overwhelmed when he talks about this, even three decades later. "We flew the tapes over from London, we'd got a lot of things in the can, and then proceeded on doing different tunes, like 'The River', which I'd written. Then Tom, with his pipe, says 'Oh, I've got the perfect person you should use for that: Willie Bobo.' I went, 'Willie Bobo, get outta here! You mean who played with Miles Davis, that Willie Bobo?' He said, 'Oh, yeah he's a good friend of mine.' Tom's a good friend of everyone, you see. Or they say, 'I'm a good friend of Tom's,' more like it."
That's how there ended up being so much material produced for River. He didn't quite record it twice, but he basically recorded it twice. "It was great," he reminisces, "It was neat really because Eddy Offord was the futuristic guy, technical, on top of the new things coming out. Then I'm working with Tom Dowd who cuts everything goddamn flat, just with killer old mics, using all these Neumanns. He cuts totally flat, no EQ. If you want more drums in the studio you move the mic over towards the drums a bit, not EQ it or push the fader, you know what I'm saying? Totally different way of working." The resulting record is meditative and equal parts driving and sparse -- it's surprising that the Eddy Offord-produced contributions to the album, the last two tracks, are the the most haunting and spare.