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Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images

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.
Terry Reid
The Other Side of the River
Light in the Attic
2016-05-04

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.

Superlungs

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.

River Man

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.

Man with Expression

Between the flush of success Terry Reid saw under Mickie Most’s tutelage and the release of River in 1973, though, public interest had waned. Led Zeppelin was well and truly the biggest thing in music, more typical Offord projects Yes and ELP were selling out stadiums, and there was little thought to spare for a folky, latin-influenced record from a guy who’d been out of the public eye for four years. Despite its eventual critical success, River sold poorly and did little to advance Terry’s career.

Still under contract with Atlantic, he spoke with Ahmet Ertegun again: “Everybody at Atlantic, the powers that be — because you know Ahmet’s the president but he can’t force anybody to do things, right? Everybody’s gotta somewhat agree. And I’m doing a contemporary semi-R&B jazz record, whatever this thing is, and … they weren’t too keen on it. But Ahmet sits me down, he says, ‘Look. I’m gonna write you a big check, and we’ll tear the contract up and let you go. I ain’t gonna do that, I won’t make you stay, we already went through that with Mickie. In my heart, I could not sit here, I could not let it go down that you were locked in again.'”

So Terry was cut loose. Still in California, still working diligently. When Ahmet let him out of his Atlantic contract, Terry says, “He said, ‘You love to work: if you sat around doing fuck-all it’d be different, but you’ve got all these songs,’ he says, ‘Go for it. If I didn’t believe in you, I wouldn’t have signed you in the first place.’ I thought that was very very flattering. He stuck to his guns when everybody else went belly-up.”

A collection of the best unused tracks from the River sessions are coming out shortly on Light in the Attic, largely capturing the same mood of spontaneity and the joy of the labor of creation, and still sounding like something Atlantic would hesitate to have a hand in. Not that that’s a bad thing.

After River bombed, Terry threw himself back into work, both writing a host of his own material and working on albums by Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt. He was still living in California, dusty and windblown in the mountains of Ventura, and he’d come up with a clutch of country inflected tracks. He didn’t know quite what to make of it. “So I go, I know what I’ll do, I’ll call my best friend Graham Nash, who I’d known from the Hollies and whatnot, and if he says it’s a load of rubbish, then I’ll have to start again, right? He ain’t gonna lie to me, he’s a straight shooter. If he says ‘Are you out of your mind?’ then I’ll just know.”

When they met up to look over the tracks, Terry says, “I played him the songs and he goes all quiet. And I say, ‘So?’ And says, ‘Do you have any more? They’re great! Did you write them?’ And when somebody says to you ‘Did you write them?’ when they like ’em, you know it’s good. So I said ‘Yeah I wrote ’em!’ He said, ‘Hey, Terry, how about we make an album?’ I looked at him and I said ‘What do you mean we?’ He said ‘Well you know, you and me. I’ll produce it, I’ll put a deal together, we’ll go to the studio and make an album.’ I said ‘Are you serious?’ And he said ‘Why, don’t you want to work with me?'”

At this point Terry breaks into laughter. It’s a happy memory, and he and Graham Nash have remained close. They had collaborated earlier on the song “Without Expression” which appears on Terry’s first album, and which has also been recorded by CSN as “Horses Through a Rainstorm”. With help from Al Schmitt, Graham Nash produced the album, Seed of Memory. A host of incredible players made contributions: Blue Mitchell on trumpet, Soko Richardson on drums, Al Perkins on pedal steel. Frequent Reid collaborator David Lindley is there in full force as well. Hearing Terry talk about this time one is struck by how much less arduous, less fraught it is than the sessions for River seem to have been. “I never had so much fun in my life! It’s like, me and Graham hanging out! We just hung out making a record, really. I wouldn’t say we were working, it didn’t feel like that at all. We’d go in every day and, ‘Well, what do you wanna do?'”

The Rogue Wave

It isn’t that Terry’s career necessarily stalled after that. He says he’s written hundreds of songs, and he did release two more albums after Seed of Memory: 1979’s supremely underrated Rogue Wave and 1991’s The Driver. His career began, though, to emphasize his contributory role over his role as an artist with a vision. He’s been a sideman for decades now, because it’s good work and he likes to do it. But these early ’70s years of false starts and good opportunities that never quite realized the promise of fortune and fame remain a spot of fascination for many. There’s a trend these days, it seems, of trying to find “the greatest rock and roll legend never told.” The popularity of the Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me certainly turned heads.

Terry was approached by director Richard Frias a couple of years ago about being the subject of a documentary, with the aim of bringing to light his solo career and removing his story from the shadow of his decision not to front Led Zeppelin.

Despite these lofty goals, though, Terry seems skeptical about the work being done on the film, entitled Superlungs. “Well Richard, who started working on this thing, he said, ‘Well you know so-and-so, you know this guy,’ and I said ‘Well, yeah,’ so I set up all the interviews for him and, you know, because he wanted to do that. But he seemed to be more involved with everybody else than he is with me, but … I’m not sure, we’re at a bit of a crossroads with it at the moment to be honest with you.”

And that’s the sort of short end of the stick when it comes to being a sideman. You can have an amazing career, an amazing story, but it’s adjacent to the people who are going to sell the movie tickets. Nicky Hopkins was immortalized on the Kinks track “Session Man” but his biography doesn’t necessarily sell as well as Ray Davies’. And no matter how rich and nuanced a player’s story is, a good film has an ending, which Terry doesn’t have. He’s quick to point out, “Well I’m not dead yet, for a start!” He’s certainly working with the same steady pace which initially endeared him to Ahmet Ertegun 40 years ago.

“It is my life, and it is my story — and like I said to you earlier, the only one they’re going to shoot is me, right?” Ever sanguine, Terry focuses on other things. “All the people and public out there, it’s not … If they looked at the documentary or got involved in it, looking at it, they’d want to know, ‘Well what was it like doing that?’ More so than ‘Oh, I did that!’ And dropping a bunch of names.”

Modern Influence

Richard Frias isn’t the only one invested in Terry’s career, though. Rising stars Jake Bugg and Michael Kiwanuka both cite Terry as a huge influence in their music, and Jack White, a legend in his own right, has covered Terry’s songs with The Raconteurs. More than that, this year he’s been working on one of Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry’s solo albums.

“At the moment I’m working with Joe Perry on his album. Me and Joe get together and we get on like a house on fire. I knew Steven Tyler a bit but I never knew Joe really well, in that whole Aerosmith era.” It was actually producer Jack Douglas who instigated the whole thing: “I knew their producer Jack Douglas really well and I always wanted to work with him. So when Jack called me and said ‘Joe’s making an album here, he’s got different singers on there, and would you fancy coming down and throwing in and helping me write with some of these songs, see if you come up with melodies and lyrics?’ I said ‘Absolutely! Great!’ I’m thinking, ‘Well I don’t know Joe, but I’d love to work with Jack! So sure Jack, anything you want, Jack. He’s the real deal.'”

Work with Jack Douglas is as fulfilling as Terry had always imagined it: “We start writing, and it’s a lovely comfortable situation, and I know it’s a long story but I’ve got four songs on the new album that I’ve written with him! Like, here we go, after the ballads and the country and things, now it’s like a couple of stacks of Marshalls and away we go again! It’s slam-bang rock and roll, and I’m writing all these swear words and stuff and it’s a lot of fun!”

It was through these sessions that Terry got to be friends with Johnny Depp. “We’re hanging out there, and it turns out they’re all good friends with Johnny Depp! They all work out there and stay in Johnny’s house in Hollywood! And lo and behold, I didn’t realize — well, who would? Cause I don’t know Johnny at all. I didn’t know that he’s a big fan of mine, and I say that humbly. He’s got all my records, he knows all the songs and everything.”

These sessions sound, more than anything, like they’re infused with the sort of friendly banter and musical fervor that Terry found while recording Seed of Memory. There’s a camaraderie between him and Jack Douglas as songwriters, and a real friendship blooming with Joe Perry. It’s more than session work, it seems like. When they’d just wrapped up the first song, around Christmas, they were spending the evening with Johnny Depp and an opportunity arose: “Johnny turns around and says, ‘You know what: we’ve got this gig we’re gonna do, do you want to do it? You sing, do the gig with us?'”

Johnny and Joe both play in the supergroup Hollywood Vampires with Alice Cooper, and it was to this group that Johnny alluded. Terry was enticed. “I thought, I’m gonna have to steal everybody’s mascara for this one! With Alice, I need a pound of it! I know Alice from Detroit, back in ’78, way back, so I said, ‘Oh, I’d love to! What do you want me to do?’ And he said, ‘Oh just sing. Look, we’ve got three days’ rehearsal, we’ll figure it out.'”

The kicker was, “I get to the rehearsal and Johnny’s got this idea that he wants to do five of my songs.” Unprecedented for somebody who’d spent so long out of the limelight. Terry was floored. “I go, ‘Look, Johnny, you’ve had a lovely career so far, why ruin it now?'”

The gig was the Imperial Ball in Anaheim, a charity event to raise money for Pet Orphans and The Art of Elysium, and it was by all accounts a hell of a good time. Then it was straight back to the sessions with Joe Perry.

An interesting point to mention about those sessions: when talking one evening at Johnny’s house with a reporter doing an as-yet-unreleased in-studio piece on the album, the question was posed: “What’s next for Terry after the record’s done?” In Terry’s words: “Johnny Depp turns around and says, ‘Oh, oh you didn’t know? No, when he gets back off tour we’re starting on Terry’s album!’ And I’m standing there, and Jack Douglas said ‘Yeah, that’s the plan,’ and Joe Perry says, ‘Absolutely.’ And I went, ‘Well I wish somebody’d tell me!’ I’m the last one to know!”

The Next Bend in the River

So it’s a busy year. Between the release of his double LP, his work with Joe Perry, and, apparently, his forthcoming record with the group to whom he’s grown close, Terry’s also put together an ambitious two-month tour of the east coast and the UK, playing with the Cosmic American Derelicts in the US and a few separate groups across the water.

His gigs in Ireland are the most exciting for him, though, because he’s getting the chance to do some transformative arrangements of the songs that have been in his repertoire for 40 years. “It’s a lot of my songs, like ‘Seed of Memory’ and ‘Brave Awakening’ and ‘To Be Treated Right’ and these other ones I picked too, it’s about six to eight. I’m doing them with an Irish piper, a fiddle player, and this good friend of mine Ron Kavana who’s a musical historian there, and he’s also a brilliant musician. I know him well, and he put it together for me. He plays mandocello and mandolin and the kitchen sink, and god knows what else. We’re gonna do a whole part of the set that’s in the Irish way! I can’t wait for that one, I’ve been wanting to do this for years.”

And then, supposedly, he’s coming back home to finish Joe Perry’s album and start work on his own. He’s been thinking about it in an idle sort of way, but he wanted to wait until the timing felt right. “A lot of people have approached me to go into some garage and do this or do that, and then some little studios, and you know … If I’m gonna do something, I’ve got hundreds of songs, that’s not the problem. But I wanna work with a good producer like Jack, and there’s very few that I know that are really that good. Al Schmitt, he’s another one I’ve said, somebody like that, that’s really musical as well and really gets it, and has done it all and is real helpful when you’re in there without interrupting you. Jack’s just amazing, he tells great jokes, too!”

In the meantime, there’s work to be done, and that’s just where Terry likes to be. He put his feelings on the upcoming tour concisely: “I love to work! The only peace and quiet I ever get is getting onstage, I mean, the rest of it is just a bloody nightmare getting there or doing something. Then it gets quiet, and you can count something in, and you can relax, maybe. You know what’s gonna happen then.”

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