Dennis Greaves, lead vocalist and founder member of Nine Below Zero, chats with Kevin Cooper about his neighbour Glenn Tilbrook, playing on the very first TV episode of ‘The Young Ones’, his thoughts on giving away free albums and Nine Below Zero’s Reunion Tour of the UK.
To mark the re-release of their two critically acclaimed A&M studio albums from the 1980s, Nine Below Zero have reformed their classic ‘Young Ones’ line-up for a special UK tour this autumn. They will tour with the classic line-up of all four original band members; Dennis Greaves (guitar/vocals), Mark Feltham (harmonica), Mickey ‘Stix’ Burkey (drums) and Brian Bethell (bass). Mickey played live with the band for the first time since the 80s in November 2012 at the 30th Anniversary gig in Islington and now re-joins the band on permanent basis.
Mickey and Dennis co-wrote many of the songs on Don’t Point Your Finger and Third Degree. These two classic albums were re-packaged, re-mastered and released through Universal Music earlier this year. Don’t Point Your Finger, originally released in 1981, was Nine Below Zero’s second album. Recorded in 12 days at Olympic Sound Studios in Barnes and produced by the legendary Glyn Johns.
Nine Below Zero originally recorded Third Degree, again with Glyn Johns, at his studio in Sussex. However, with its raw sound, A&M wanted to hear the record with a more clinical production and the band went on to re-record it with producer Simon Boswell. Now available for the first time, Johns’ original recording is on the re-release along with the more familiar version of the album.
Whilst preparing for the tour, he took time out of his busy schedule to have a chat with Kevin Cooper. This is what he had to say:
Hi Dennis how are you?
Hey Kevin how is it in Nottingham?
It’s nice today, it’s warm with a clear sky and it’s very good.
Lovely mate, lovely, lovely, lovely. Isn’t it gorgeous mate. We won’t complain (laughter).
So how is life treating you?
Very well at the moment thank you Kevin. I am about to go out on the road with my original band, and have an amazing time. I’m very happy.
You are obviously looking forward to the tour?
Very much yes, rehearsals have gone fantastically well. We are all very, very happy, yes.
After all of these years out on the road, does touring still excite you?
Yes, I drove back from a gig in Inverness the other week and I suppose that took the edge off it a bit but when the travel is not so bad, it’s great Kevin. I like to take our back line around which means me travelling with my guitars and my amps and you know I don’t like flying (laughter) I must admit. As soon as I give up the music business I will never fly again, but at the moment I’ve got too.
Unless you do what Dennis Bergkamp does and get the coach everywhere.
Yeah (laughter), the trouble is if I get the ferry to Greece it would take a while wouldn’t it (laughter).
Or if you were playing in Sydney.
Bit of a problem Kevin (laughter).
So how does it feel having the original four members back together?
Oh it’s unbelievable. Unless you are in a band I don’t think that you can appreciate the chemistry that you had and when you get back playing and you are playing those songs as they were recorded; as they were rehearsed, well it’s lovely. It really is lovely.
Back in 1977 when you formed Stan’s Blues Band could you envisage being in the business this long?
No not at all, no. I mean, my school backed on to The Thomas A Becket pub and I used to go and watch the bands setting up their equipment for their sound checks, and then I had the guts to ask the landlady, Beryl for a gig. I learnt my trade down there. I then went on to get a record deal and no, I never would have imagined it but it is a wonderful, wonderful lifestyle.
I was lucky to catch you in March supporting The Stranglers and I was blown away.
Oh cool, it was a good gig wasn’t it. That was at Rock City Nottingham; great stuff.
You are playing Nottingham again on the 2nd October at The Glee Club. You obviously like our fair city?
We’ve got fond memories of Nottingham. We played a New Year’s Eve gig up in Nottingham at Rock City in 1981/82 and Nottingham has always been a good town for us. This time we are playing at The Glee Club and as I said; we have always had a good time up there, it’s a good rock and roll town.
Universal Music have recently re-packaged, re-mastered and re-released your two classic albums ‘Don’t Point Your Finger’ and ‘Third Degree’. Did this have anything to do with the original line-up getting back together?
(Laughter) Yes Kevin that was one of the main reasons for us all agreeing to get back together and get out there on the road once again. Universal Music have just reissued ‘Live At The Marquee’ which comes complete with a bonus DVD, and our two classic albums, ‘Don’t Point Your Finger’ and ‘Third Degree’, both come with a bonus live cd’s. They have all been re-released on Universal hence us getting back together with the old line-up.
I have to ask you what was it like working with Glenn Tilbrook from Squeeze?
That was amazing Kevin, amazing. Funnily enough, my son is just blasting out the Cool For Cats album downstairs (laughter). I’m in the loft; in my music room and he is downstairs blasting out Cool For Cats by Squeeze. I was just thinking what a wonderful band they were. Glenn is my neighbour and he helped us record a couple of tracks, and we hang out and jam together. He is one of Britain’s finest. Him and Chris (Difford) are amazing. I always get jealous that they found each other you know, when you hear Chris’s lyrics and Glenn’s music and voice; to have found a partner like that so young and to have done the volume of work and quality of work that they have done, it’s a privilege to know him and hang with him.
I never think that they get the recognition that they deserve?
Of course they don’t. I sometimes put my two hands up and count on my fingers, and I go The Who, The Kinks, The Small Faces, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Madness, UB40, possibly The Smiths, and I can put Squeeze in the Top 10 iconic British bands and that’s not bad is it. It’s not bad at all. I think that you are right Kevin and sometimes they don’t get the recognition.
Unfortunately I don’t think that being likened to (John) Lennon and (Paul) McCartney has helped them.
Yes Kevin that was Rolling Stone magazine and the front article was “The new Lennon and McCartney”. When you hear ‘Cool For Cats’ now that time has gone by, then perhaps that wasn’t such a flippant statement. They are very, very good; very talented.
So after the tour, what next for Nine Below Zero, will you be writing any new material?
We are actually, yes, and I will be putting a new album out next year, and I will probably continue with the original line-up. It has gone so well and the fans have really responded to it and we might obviously take it to France and some other continental places; more bloody travelling (laughter). And we have all thought that while we are together and while we are still alive (laughter) we will continue doing what we are doing and make a new album.
And obviously you will tour on the back of the new album?
Absolutely; Mark (Feltham) and I are going out as a duo which is a new career for us. We have been together ever since 1976 but we have never been out as an acoustic duo together. We have just started doing that and we are really excited, but also have a sense of trepidation going out as a duo so that has been really, really good.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
That would probably be playing on the very first episode of ‘The Young Ones’ TV show (laughter). That would be one of the highlights, but there have been many; but that would be one of them if I was pushed.
How did music start for you?
My granddad and my father sang in a pub called The Boston Arms in Tufnell Park and I think that music was in my blood because they were both entertainers. They never did it as a profession but they both used to sing every second of the day that they could. I did school plays, and we were lucky enough to do ‘Tommy’ at school and we did ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ and ‘West Side Story’, so I think that I got the bug of being onstage from school and from my family really. I think that it went on from there. When I went out onto the stage I felt very, very comfortable in front of a big crowd. It never worried me, in fact it was completely the opposite, I felt alive when I did it (laughter). And then my uncle’s blues record collection was the reason why I picked up the guitar. I heard those blues records and they just blew me away; that sort of style, that genre and here I am today.
Who has inspired you?
Well Kevin I have taken inspiration from all sorts of people. I think that The Beatles have always inspired me; I think that Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and people like Muddy Waters have always inspired me. Eric Clapton has always been an inspiration, Jeff Beck, all these people, Jimmy Page you know. I am looking at my record collection now and everything that I surround myself with that I dip into now and again; Stevie Ray Vaughan, I haven’t played Stevie for a while so I played him the other day and I had never realised just how good his phrasing was. I am always listening, always being inspired.
And it’s all on vinyl I hope?
(Hysterical laughter) not yet. I have to admit that it is a combination of vinyl and CD (laughter). I subscribe to Spotify as well so that I can obtain the stuff while I am out and about on my iPhone. I think that is really important although the bastards have given me 0.2 of a penny for every song that is played (laughter) and yet I have to pay them to subscribe to Spotify (laughter). It’s like a library, they haven’t got everything there but you can go to the library and just check in on a few things.
I am finally warming to CD’s but I have to say that it is vinyl for me every time.
Of course yes, I mean CD’s don’t distort; CD’s digitally refuse to break up and distort but the warmth that you have from the vinyl is missing. What did I buy the other day; I bought a vinyl the other day, oh here we go, Chet Atkins ‘The Guitar Genius’. I bought that the other day with ‘We Are Not Amused’ which is the very best of British comedy, and Aretha Franklin’s ‘Sweet Passion’. So I am still buying vinyl Kevin (laughter).
If I find a good record shop who sells vinyl, I can spend days in there.
Yeah isn’t it, isn’t it just. Isn’t that one up in Birmingham closing down now, the independent one?
Yes it is, along with many others. I tend to use Rob’s Records here in Nottingham just around the corner from Rock City.
Yeah it’s great, I have been in there a few times.
So testing your memory, what was the first record that you bought?
That would be ‘My Generation’ by The Who on a 45 single.
Not a bad start.
No, it was a good start wasn’t it. I must have been nine years old at the time.
Mine was ‘Down The Dustpipe’ by Status Quo.
Yeah, what’s the B Side; I’ve got that thing in my head, ‘I just can’t find’, some weird name.
You mean ‘Gerdundula’.
Yes that’s it, thank you (laughter). Yes I bought ‘Down The Dustpipe’ as well and that’s on the B Side. But the first one was ‘My Generation’ by The Who and I used to take it to all of my mum and dad’s parties but it never got played (laughter).
You must have bought a re-issue then because on my original, the B side is Face Without A Soul (laughter).
Do you think so? I will have to dig it out and have a look now (laughter).
Who did you first see live in concert?
I used to go to The Marquee and it was either a band called The Jam, or Muddy Waters at The Rainbow. Hang on, it was probably The Who and Little Feat down at Charlton’s football ground. That might have been 1975. It might have been around then.
Talking of The Jam I interviewed John Otway last week and when Polydor signed The Jam they gave them £7,000 and when they signed John they gave him £250,000.
That’s right, I watched his documentary, that’s astonishing (laughter).
There is something there which reminds me of the tail wagging the dog.
I absolutely agree. I think that any young band should be given £7,000 and not the £250,000 and then they can develop and nurture without any pressure you know; that hype, that business thing. There’s a case in turn you know (laughter).
Do you still have any one ambition that you still want to achieve?
Yes, I’d like to make one cracking last album. Nine Below Zero have always been a terrific live band, but I would like to try to make an album that really did us proud, you know. Everybody sees us as a live act, and the albums are considered ok; but I would like to have one last effort and possibly before I retire or before I give up I would like to make a solo album and not be restrained by any one genre.
You have mentioned it a couple of times now, do you have any thoughts of retiring?
No, I suppose that you look at all of my heroes, The Stones, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, and they are all still playing you know. I think that it is this ‘journey man’ music; you just play and then you either die or get very ill (laughter). But I’ve been at it 35 years now and I didn’t think that I would be doing it that long, and I don’t know just how long I will be doing it now. But before I do go I would like to make a solo album and I would definitely like to make a Nine Below Zero definitive album.
Is there anyone new who you particularly like?
Yes there are quite a few bands; you have to like The Artic Monkeys, and their attitude. I think that they are fantastic. There are some R&B artists which with the help of Spotify I am able to connect with. I like bands I suppose. I heard Chrissie Hynde say that last night on the TV. I tend to agree with her; I like bands.
Being in the business for 35 years have you seen many changes?
Yes Kevin, there have been lots of changes. The business has changed; it certainly has changed. No one is buying CD’s as much anymore and people are giving things away. It would be very easy for someone like me, who has been in the business a long time to get the hump with it all and simply walk away.
On the subject of giving things away I see that Bono has upset everyone last week.
Oh what’s he done now, I call him ‘put a sock in it’ (laughter).
They have given away their new album for free.
Oh yes, how fucking awful is that. How desperate is that. I mean fuck me, oh dear, oh dear. Why is my music not given away with an iPhone? Why isn’t everybody else’s? Don’t give your music away, that is so desperate. That’s probably it; U2 have just finished the music business. The last time that they released something the BBC bought into it so badly that people were complaining. The BBC were all over it; they played live outside of broadcasting house and the BBC is not for that. It should be an even coverage for most things across the board.
The music business is struggling and that is one almighty kick in the balls for it.
You don’t get your gas, electric or your petrol for free, so why should you get your music for free? I just don’t get it. The next one that will be in trouble will be the film industry out in Hollywood. They keep streaming movies and stuff.
Well I know that he is not selling the same amount of units as U2 but Hugh Cornwall gave away his album ‘Hooverdam’ via the internet.
Yes, he said that people would either illegally download it or buy one and then make 10 copies of it for friends so he gave it away for free.
(Hysterical laughter) I did have an idea, but I don’t know if I can do it, but I wouldn’t mind recording a track on the last day of every month next year. But I would put them up for sale; I wouldn’t give them away. I might try and do something like that next year rather than doing an album because it doesn’t half take a lot out of an artist to record an album. I might just go in and do a track per month, put it out there on iTunes and see what happens.
I hadn’t fully appreciated just how much energy it takes out of you to write, record and then tour with a new album.
It’s not just that; it’s the late night writing the songs, and the hours and hours of pissing everyone off when you are writing the stuff. No one is at the party when you are writing the stuff; they all want to be at the party for the launch of the CD but no one is around when you are struggling for lyrics, struggling for ideas and looking for inspiration. And then you go in and give your heart and soul, putting everything on the line recording it, hours upon hours of sleepless nights again. You go home and if you have done a live vocal or guitar you think “could I have done better? What if I had done that bit that way?” It takes so much out of you. And then you put it out and nobody gives a fuck where it ends up, or somebody wants to give it away. It’s strange isn’t it? The big problem is with quality control of the internet. I have extreme problems with that but it’s gone so far and so fast.
What single event has changed your life forever?
That’s easy Kevin, it was seeing Dr. Feelgood performing live on The Old Grey Whistle Test. It changed my life; I wanted to get into a band when I saw that (laughter).
Dennis, thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
It was lovely talking to you Kevin and I hope to see you Birmingham. Come and say hello, it would be great to meet you.
That would be fantastic. Take care.
Go and listen to that U2 album alright (hysterical laughter). Cheers mate, bye.