SOLDIERS OF THE LINE! by Lyn Guy
Sitting down with Bob Catley (vocals) and sexy new bass player Al Barrow backstage at the UEA in Norwich, tape recorder at the ready, I felt as if I d travelled far further that 50 odd miles down a wintery A11. Whilst this was the first time I d interviewed Al, it has been my pleasure to talk officially to Bob many times over the past eighteen years. Certainly as a writer, I grew up with Magnum and - whatever he might say to the contrary - Mr Catley is always an entertaining subject. What also became clear as we talked, is the bond of friendship between these two men. I hope you can share that feeling through what follows.
So, Bob and Al, you re halfway through your Christmas tour. What s it been like so far?
Bob Is it half way already? Crikey, it is isn t it - this is the fifth show tonight. It s been brilliant - as usual. Like we were on tour in March and it s the same again basically. All the shows packed out, we ve got a nice light show, it sounds great on stage. We re really happy on stage and I think that comes across to the audience. We ve met some great people and it s everything that you want it to be.
Better than March?
B No, about the same. Of course March was the first time people d seen us for seven years so that was all new again. But the feeling hasn t gone away - they can t get enough of us!
Al There seems to be a lot of people that for some reason missed the March gigs, so they ve got a second opportunity this year which Magnum never really did very much before.
B We won t do this every year - next time it ll be just one major tour. There won t be time anyway because we ll be doing another album next year. It always has been a thing for Magnum to do Christmas shows in the past, but not all the time.
There s only one song in the set from 'Breath of Life', whereas you had three in March.
B Yes, that tour was to promote the album. The Christmas tour is all about giving people what they want - You didn t play this one last time and you didn t play that one (banging the table for emphasis)! Oh, cor blimey, okay hang on. So we thought we d just play one of the new songs - 'Everyday' - but make the show longer at the same time.
A If we played what everybody asked for we d be up there for five hours or so.
I m in quite a privileged position really because you ve put some of my favourites back in the set, like 'Tall Ships'.
B Oh yes! We haven t had 'Tall Ships' for some time and we thought we d get the old acoustic guitar back out.
A It s nice as it adds a bit of colour to the set. Gives it a bit of up n down. It gives yer ears a rest in the middle of the set then we re back and&&.bang! Loud.
B (Laughing) We ve gone heavy metal I think&&live anyway.
So was part of the choice of songs you ve put back into the set from what people said to you in March?
B Yeah, everybody says something different, but you remember certain things that people say.
A There s a lot of stuff on the internet and we do take it in.
If you read my piece that was published on your website after the March tour, you ll know that I feel 'Rockin Chair and 'Just Like An Arrow' could give way to some better songs from your repertoire. Do they remain in the set due to being well known hit singles?
B We try to keep an entertaining show, with some album tracks and some of the singles we had out to keep a balance. Those two tracks always go down superb onstage, people love em. Why drop them? There s other songs we could be doing yeah. What are the other songs that should be in the show?
How about 'The Flood' for instance? Or 'When the World Comes Down'? For a fan it is a very subjective thing.
B There is stuff I d like to air again - some B sides that we had. But I don t know if many people would know them. We try and do what the majority of fans would want to hear. I like 'Maybe Tonight' (starts singing the song). After a break I think Tony quite likes 'Kingdom of Madness' again, but I think he used to hate it. 'When the World Comes Down' is a great track, but you want to try other stuff. I d like to do 'Don t Wake the Lion' as well, but it s not possible to do everything - you ve got to draw the line somewhere.
What were people saying to you about 'Breath of Life' when you were on tour in March?
B How much they loved it. It had been such a long time since we d put a new album out that they were just so pleased to hear eleven new songs. We had very favourable reactions from the fans and from the press. There s been no "It s not Wings of Heaven" or "It s not like Chase the Dragon." I think people know that we re not trying to do, say, 'Don t Wake the Lion' again. So you move on. I think Tony always writes great songs and he always will do."
Personally I m glad Tony has taken Magnum into another direction, even though I haven t been able to hear all the songs I d have liked live. When I first heard 'Breath of Life' my reaction was this is Magnum but it s - Magnum for now (the 21st century). However, a couple of months ago I noticed quite a debate going on about the album on the Magnum Yahoo group site and there seemed to be quite a lot of negativity in there - people seemed to be saying it s not as good as the other albums or that it s not really a classic Magnum album.
A The thing is they say it s not a 'Wings of Heaven' album or it s not 'Storytellers&..' As Bob says, they ve done 'Storytellers&.', they ve done 'Wings&'. If we just bought another album out like that they d say, "Well, it s like 'Storytellers&..'." You ve got to evolve and move on, keeping the Magnum thing alive but giving it a &&. breath of life !
B There you go, that s a good pun.
A You know, moving forward, bringing it up to date a little bit; but still keeping that classic rock sound.
B We ve always just played music that we thought was good music, that we love doing and hope fully a lot of other people will like it a s well. You can t write an album for just a few people who want the same thing all the time. Sorry people - it s just not gonna happen.
A Although you say there seemed to be a big debate, what s important is that it is a debate - which is good. If it provoked no reaction at all we haven t done our job well enough cos it s not making people talk about it. But it brings thoughts up in people s minds and evokes emotions. No one s come up to me and said Don t like the album but they have said I possibly don t like that track, but I love this track. So there s been good and bad.
B I ve not had that reaction (Laughing as he slaps his thigh with glee). Perhaps they re all too scared of me!
I understand that this is the lineup now - that Harry (James - drummer) is going to stay. Is that the case?
B Well, we know Harry s willing to do it, but with Thunder back together now it ll be when and if he s available for us. We don t want anybody else - we want to keep Harry.
A (Interjects) We love you Harry!
B The lineup now is the best we ve had in years, it s terrific; it s so solid and we don t want to change that. But he s Thunder s drummer ain t he. So we ll just have to keep poaching him off them. It s nice to see these bands getting back together, but we re trying to hold onto him.
I m assuming that the next album will be a band one with the unit that you have now recording it.
What effects do you anticipate that will have, bearing in mind that BoL is a heavily produced studio album and the next one will be the five of you recording as a band?
A I don t think you can actually say until you re in the studio. We don t go in with any major preconceptions and I don t think Tony does too much. He s the ideas man, we all know that, but he s open to suggestions which is good. Obviously the chemistry works live so hopefully that chemistry will come out in the studio.
B It s going to be another well produced album I hope, with the band on there. We want to put this vibe onto record.
A There s a lot of love in this band.
B We love each other - and everybody loves Harry.
As you did the BoL sleeve Al, can you tell me how you produce your work, where your inspiration comes from?
A The front cover of Breath ofLife was me and Tony basically sitting down in a pub together with an Apple laptop. He d give me the ideas and I d go away for a couple of hours and play around with different computer programmes. A lot of the cover is based around the lyrics of the album with elements from previous albums that he wanted included. He gave me total free range on the inside though and it took me six weeks to do it. I had some pretty big shoes to fill - Rodney Matthews and Hugh Symes - and it pushed me. I learnt a lot of things as I was going along and I m very honoured and pleased to have been asked to do it. There was another big debate on the internet - will it be Rodney Matthews? A lot of people wanted it to be. But you got me &.. and I m cheap!
Are you doing the next one?
A I m already working on it.
B I think Al does a great job. He spends hours with Tony talking about the artwork. It s really clever stuff - that photograph of me with this huge mouth&&
A That was really nerve-wracking actually. Tony said he wanted a cartoon kind of image and I didn t want to draw by hand, so I took photographs of everybody, went away and had a mad night coming up with all these ideas. I was thinking Bob s gonna hate me, he s gonna kill me! And he loved it. You can try and make people look beautiful or you can go completely the other end - madness. And that s what we wanted.
Where are you taking your inspiration from for the next cover, as you re still such a long way down the line towards the next album being made?
A Tony s already given me a very rough guideline and an album title, so I ve got a few things banging around. I ll put my ideas to Tony first, then Bob ll make a suggestion or two, so everybody has a little bit of input, although it s just me pressing the buttons.
So are you doing the artwork for Bob s next solo album?
A Depends if he pays me enough!
B Yes, Al ll be doing it. Again we re talking about song titles. Maybe one of the songs titles will be the album title, so he s got some ideas already. I ve had to leave all that to do the tour with Magnum, but I ll be back recording with Al and Vince O'Regan, and a guy called Jamie Little on drums - who s a well known player around the Midlands. He s also played with Boyzone and Westlife. He looks like Mickey Barker did when he first joined Magnum, and he sounds like Mickey too.
A He s a top session player.
B Yeah, the album s got to be finished by the end of February and out in the shops by the tour in May. It s written and produced by my keyboard player Paul Hodson. I think it s what people would expect me to do outside of Magnum. It s nothing experimental. It s going to be another great Bob album I hope. Paul s in the studio at the moment demoing songs for me. I think he s lost his voice cos he s having to do all the vocals as well - cos I m here. Then March and April I ll be back with the guys doing the Magnum album, then me n Al are on tour with me own band. I m going to be a very busy boy. It gets a bit confusing doesn t it? Like - which band am I in today?!? I like to keep it in-house you know. I pick the people for me own stuff and I think I ve got the right band. It s great and I just want to keep it going. Then the next Magnum album will be out either late 2003 or Spring of the next year, depending on how the schedules work out.
What do you think is the best aspect of Magnum reforming?
B I just love doing it. I never thought I d get Magnum back together. I was amazed when Tony called me up to say he was doing another Magnum album, but I said to him Play me some songs. I knew our agent wanted us to reform, depending on the timing and how everybody felt about it, if I d be interested when I ve got my own solo stuff. But I jumped at it, so I ve got the best of both worlds now and I m a very, very happy little boy. Being busy and being creative - the whole thing; it s what you live for.
A Personally for me, being asked to stand in as one of the new members. Listening to the albums many years ago, I never thought I d be in this situation and I think a lot of people would have jumped at the chance. I m very pleased and honoured that they asked me to do it. Very proud indeed. It s the best job in the world. You don t get chances like this everyday and you ve got to live your life as best you can and get out of it what you want. I couldn t see myself doing anything better than this - I mean, I get to work with computers - and great singers - and great song writers. You meet a lot of people and it is a dream come true for somebody who just wanted to do music. It s brilliant.
So says a very contented man. Anything to add?
A I d like to say a big thank you to the fans who have comeback. They re so excited to see Magnum back as a band and because of them it s given me the opportunity to carry on doing this.
B I d like to say thank you to our fans, I always do. We d have never have lasted this long without them so - brilliant, good on ya people. Keep coming to see us.
And come they did to the UEA. Not packing it to the rafters I admit, but easily exceeding the limits that another Waterfront show would have set. This venue is far better suited to Magnum in full flow and a favourite place of mine to hear and see them.
From the beginning their sound was clean and power packed, with the crowd eagerly welcoming opener 'Vigilante'. However, as the show progressed it became clear that the Norwich audience were content to stand back and soak up the band's performance. No jumping up and down or giving vent to lung busting bursts of sing-a-long-a-Bobisms.
Indeed, the rather wonderful 'Tall Ships' only elicited polite applause and during 'The Spirit s acoustic beginnings, surely one could ve heard a pin drop. Rarely does a rock crowd direct such rapt and all-consuming attention towards a stage as this lot. Like a dry denim n leather clad sponge, they absorbed every note of each song until 'Just Like An Arrow' opened the encore with an outburst of vocal crowd participation .
For a set packed with goodies, the crowd s muted response did seem rather strange. But it had the effect of making Bob n co strive to get an audible reaction. Whether it be 'Back Street Kid' rolling forward on Harry s tumbling rhythms, or an emotional 'Lights Burned Out' building to a dramatic climax - all five men onstage were working as one; a sign that Magnum circa 2002 had become a true union of talents.
So when Bob (to quote the man directly) "f**ked up" by announcing 'Rockin Chair' one song early and bringing the show to a halt, all it took was Al pointing out the order on his set list to get things moving again. Indeed, as Mr Catley openly claimed his mistake, it was a prime example of the familial atmosphere still held between both band and audience. Better keep yer set list next time though mate!
Let s face it, there are few acts able to combine musical professionalism with warmth and humour like Magnum can. As someone said not so long ago- "God, love em!" And we do.
WHEN EMPIRES BURN
Three months later and I'm in Wolverhampton for an update on Bob s solo album, When Empires Burn , and forthcoming tour. The sun is out, spring has sprung and I ve got 3/5 s of the band responsible for this rather impressive recording sitting around my tape machine. The man himself, Paul (writer/producer/keyboard player) Hodson and Al (bass player) Barrow are all keen to talk - at length - and conversation flows.
Having listened to the album from start to finish three times now, I reckon it s going to surprise, or maybe even shock quite a few people.
B Why? Because it s good?
Because it is the heaviest album that you ve been involved in.
B Oh yeah. I wanted it like that. Paul said he d got some songs for me and I listened to them on the train, cos I wasn t quite sure. I didn t know him as a songwriter. I knew him as a mate and a member of Hard Rain, and he plays keyboards for me. As a songwriter to me he was a total unknown quantity. When I heard em I thought Bloody ell, I ll have some of them! They just blew me socks off. What I did like, which excited me and attracted me, was the heaviness of it. You know demos usually sound a lot rougher that the record; these weren t rough like, but they were heavy-sounding. I d always done nice stuff, good stuff with Gary (Hughes, Ten) and Magnum, but nothing really heavy. Heavy Metal! Is that an old fashioned term? To me it was like... listening to Iron Maiden or Ronnie Dio and I ve never attempted that kind of music. It s excited me, something different from Middle Earth and Legends and The Tower - which were great in their own right; but this was like - not an experiment... it was risky, it was on the edge for me. I m taking a big gamble here, everybody ll probably hate it! But there you go - I love it.
So it was a conscious thing for you to do something that is a step away from Magnum.
B Well, not just a step away from Magnum, but from everything I ve ever done with other people. Magnum can be heavy onstage with the right song. But on album, Magnum have never been a heavy metal band, although some sections of the media have classified us that way. But this is. Some of these songs are, to me, heavy metal. Still commercial, still sing-a-long. You can dance around to them. And it has been a challenge for me; Paul s really pushed me. I ve been going I can t sing that high! and he s gone Yes you can! Some of the songs are lighter, more poppy, and I think it s a good balance but then this other shit [not literally of course! - L] that s like - way out there for me - I hope everyone s gonna love it as much as me, Paul and Al, Vince (O Regan - guitars) and Jamie (Little - drums) do. Everybody s into the album, but I do think it s gonna turn a few heads. It needs to be something different from last time, I can t keep doing the same stuff. Same as Tony and Magnum - we don t do the same album all the time.
So this album and tour is completely in house ?
B Yeah, we recorded at Paul s studio called The Tent in Stourbridge and I think he s done a great job on the production. I m very, very happy. It sounds a treat and I think, in every respect, it s the best thing I ve ever done - I m talking solo-wise, I m not trying to compare it to Magnum. That stands out on its own.
Backtracking a little here, recording these songs has really stretched you then vocally? Do you feel it has developed you as a vocalist?
B Oh yes, totally. I m alive, it s like - Wow, this is wonderful. And I want some more of them next time - if that s alright with Paul. Tony does the same with Magnum and I m alive and excited with that, but I feel just as strongly with this work. So [his voice rising with enthusiasm] I ve got both. It s all pretty good for me at the moment.
You ve got the ideal situation really.
B Yeah! Tony s busy writing new songs for the next Magnum album now, so he don t need me at the moment. So I can do all this stuff as well; the two don t clash. We have an understanding that none of this can clash, otherwise it doesn t work. Cos I love both and I want to do both - and I intend to do both. So there s no problem at all, if anybody s thinking that. Both are too precious to ruin.
P It s an attempt at trying to get people from thinking of Bob as a nice pair of slippers. I always think of Bob as a nice comfortable pair of slippers; everybody knows, if you like , that it s safe to buy a Bob Catley album because they know that they re gonna get something that is - sort of - safe. I just wanted to do something that s gonna take Bob out of what he s done before and develop that. Obviously it would have been foolish of me to have written and produced another Gary Hughes album, so I just wanted to try to take Bob into an area he hadn t been placed in before.
B [Laughing] I don t want to be a pair of slippers! But there s nothing experimental on here. I don t want to experiment. I want familiarity so that people understand what I m doing.
With elements of Ronnie James Dio, Ten and even Magnum present on Empires , this is certainly an album no hard rocker should feel uncomfortable with. Perhaps you ve turned our Bob into a pair of snakeskin boots Paul! Looking in more detail at the album, there are distinct parallels between the content of some songs (such as the title track) and what s currently going on in the Gulf. So where do you draw your inspiration from?
P I guess it s easy to say that they re based on what s happening now. But the original thought for Empires Burn was about the Berlin Wall, but it comes from any kind of empire that is restricted or detrimental to people. It s also about situations where people aren t being allowed to be what they want to be. It was written well before all this trouble in Iraq started.
B But it is totally relevant - unfortunately.
P Also, I ve always been fascinated with mythology and theology and a lot of the subject matter comes from books or what I see on television. For example, Children of the Circle is all about archaeologists who wanted to dig up a wooden henge [Sea Henge on the East Anglian coast - L]. I think these days everybody s wanting facts and nothing else, rather than the spirituality of things. All the songs have a reason and I guess it s my diary of the way I think. My America came from my discovering that some of my ancestors went to America from Ireland at the time of the potato famine.
B I just sing them - he s the clever one.
But, to use the word we were discussing from Dave Cockett s album review (elsewhere this issue), they need the right person to imbue them with the right emotions and feeling.
B I don t necessarily understand everything that s going on in the lyrics. That s for Paul to know and anybody else who s on the same wavelength as him. I m on the same wavelength for a lot of the time but not all the time. But as long as I ve got a pretty good idea of what I m singing about I can do the right job, you know. I don t need to know every detail; and I might not agree with every detail. Otherwise I d never sing anybodies songs.
P I think that s the beauty about being the songwriter and the producer. Because I could actually get Bob to put in the kind of feel that I was thinking about as I was writing the songs. So it s worked out really, really well.
A I think personally, from listening to the album, visually people can interpret it in their own way a little bit as well. Rather than Paul stamping This is what it is. I mean I ve got different ideas to what Paul s trying to put across.
B Yeah. This has happened with Magnum over the years as well. Tony s written all these great songs, as we all know, but there s always another way of interpreting the lyrics. They mean what you want them to mean. But as long as you re into it, who cares what it means? It s great music! I think a lot of people don t listen that hard to the lyrics. They accept the song as a good song or a pop song- Do I wanna keep hearing it, do I wanna buy it, do I wanna dance to it in a club? And that s what sells a record as well. It s got to be a commercial proposition initially to sell a lot of records, then you can get into the deep, meaningful stuff that is all over the place on the album.
One of the things that does impress me about Empires is that all these songs are written buy a keyboard player, yet on the album the guitar work comes through so strongly that it is almost as if as a musician Paul has perhaps stepped back a little bit.
B That s [Vince s] job though, ain t it He s gotta play great guitar, great solos - melodic, beautiful, exciting - like any guitar player with any band. That s what they re there for isn t it! Otherwise you might as well do it yourself.
P It s got to be said, cos I demoed all of the stuff with me doing the rhythm parts anyway, so many times Vince said to me What did you play here, because I can t quite hear what you ve done . And when he learnt it, it was like he would never have thought of doing that as a guitarist. But then I don t write guitar parts like a guitarist, I write guitar parts like a really bad guitarist. As a keyboard player I play really bad guitar! The main thing that we did with Vince was say Do whatever it is that you want to do. A lot of what he has done in the past has been constrained by what he thinks he ought to have done within that style.
B I think Vince s problem is that he s had to live up to Vinny Burns. I ve had the guys out of Ten on the previous three albums so I ve got that legacy of Vinny being on guitar.
P We just gave him free reign to get on with it and basically do his job. Vince is a great guitarist and we ve given him the excuse to show that he is. To me it shines through. He came in with some preconceived ideas I guess and he s come out with the fact that he s done whatever he wanted to do and it s just brilliant.
Moving on to the tour, you and Danny Vaughn together is quite a prospect because you ve got two really great rock voices together on the same bill.
B Ooooh, who s the other one then?
A What really works so well, like when we had Kip Winger doing an acoustic support and then the full band comes on, the punters ears aren t blown before we come on. It gives it a big lift sometimes.
P Also, it adds so much colour to the set, just having someone with an acoustic guitar and singing. It s just the most natural thing in the world.
B I think it s going to be a real treat. We re supporting Mike Tramp at the last show (Nottingham Rock City - 7th June) so that ll be the end of tour party! There s fifteen shows with one day off. So we ve all got to keep on it and every show s gotta be as good as the last one, no slacking off. People pay the money so they expect the show that you did a week ago. That s the only pressure on the tour - to keep as good as the previous couple of shows. Which we will do. It s quite a long show with four albums to draw from and a couple of Magnum songs as well.
Oh! I thought you might leave the Magnum songs out.
B Yeah, I was going to. But people wanted some and it s just a couple of fun things. Mostly there s the new stuff and the best of what I ve done before with Gary.
Back tracking a bit, is the intention now for Paul to write for you in future?
B That s up to Paul but, yes, I would be more than happy for that to happen again.
P It depends how much drink he buys me! I ll look forward to doing the next one, but I ll want a little bit more than five months notice. Five months from beginning to write the album to finishing the album just isn t really a huge amount of time. But it is finished and it s going to be released and now we re going to make a row with it.
A heavy, but melodic row. It is worth noting that plans were originally in place to lift a track from Empires for an exclusive single release. However, because Now & Then did not wish to drop any of the songs from the album this idea was abandoned. Why destroy the flow of a fine piece of work eh!? With the next Magnum album now not expected until early 2004, more solo shows are being planned for Europe in September. When Empires Burn is also scheduled to be released in Japan, so these are exciting times for Bob Catley and his band. And that last word is crucial. Whilst BC may be the initials on Al s eye-catching heraldic sleeve design, Bob s approach is unequivocal-
B Before I d had photos of just me or me and Gary on the inner sleeve, now I wanted the whole band. It s a band thing to me; this is a real band and I insisted on it. Ten aren t my band, Emerald Rain weren t my band, nor Native Cain. They all did great work for me, nothing wrong with that. I was the solo artist, they d come out (on stage) first then I d come out; I ll be the first one on the stage this time. I want to lead the band on this time, not sneak on after the backing musicians. I don t want backing musicians anymore, I want a BAND.
Now it s up to you - buy the CD, see the show and get the T-shirt. It s not just Mr Catley who s lucky to have both Magnum and a solo career. So are we!