FROM PONDERS END TO PISTES AND PONTIFFS
A (rather lengthy) chat with Dave Lambert by Lindsay Sorrell - 20th December 2005
Though I had managed to accost Dave Lambert and other defenceless Strawbs for autographs on a couple of prior occasions, my first opportunity to present Dave with a list of burning questions of inestimable magnitude was the unanticipated moment in which a friend and I were sitting sharing a coffee in a Wimpy Bar, somewhere near the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, when in walked Dave together with Chas Cronk. The date was 6th October 1974 (I still have my crumpled but priceless ticket stub somewhere); Strawbs were due to play the Halls that evening and my excitement, which had been mounting for weeks, was at fever pitch. The previous day I had ripped a page out of my school book with several dozen questions scribbled all over it to which I wanted answers; I was a teenage Strawbs fan on a mission. So, there I found myself, seated opposite two of my heroes in that Croydon Wimpy Bar; Dave and Chas casually ate their burgers while I turned scarlet and lost all ability to speak coherently. My lists of questions remained unasked and unanswered. Today, very slightly older and even more slightly wiser, I gave Dave a ring and had another go......
Our conversation began with a chat about Dave's initial decision to play guitar rather than any other instrument; his early introduction to music occurred through three of his uncles, all drummers with Military Regimental bands, and has previously been well-documented. Dave fondly recalled mealtimes as a young boy spent with them in Ponders End, where conversation would invariably turn either to mimicry of "The Goon Show" or drumming, and eating utensils transformed themselves into drumsticks. Apparently the musical inspiration provided by his uncles was later repaid, as Dave's own advancing career led them to resume their involvements with music, two of them marching with The Southend Pipe Band.
Dave told me his first experience of playing a musical instrument was using drums; however, despite his innate talent for drumming (must be those genes), it didn't interest him sufficiently to entice him to become a drummer. Dave declared he didn't realise how fortunate he was to be blessed with a natural ability for musicianship, or how lucky he was to have uncles with such musical talent mentoring him. "Growing up with it, I just assumed everyone must be able to drum like that!", he laughed. I remained intrigued to know how guitar had come to prominence for Dave. Apparently, at his request, Dave's parents bought him a guitar one Christmas; I recalled reading a small article in a 1970s girls' magazine, notorious for fabricating stories, about that first guitar and how Dave supposedly stood with his nose pressed to the shop window gazing at it longingly for weeks. I laughed as I told Dave the article had even given a fictitious price, "Four pound, fifteen shillings and elevenpence" he promptly announced without hesitation - the magazine had printed something which was true!!!
Dave recounted disenchantment with his schooldays, lamenting the fact that he was never taught to write properly; at that time left-handed children such as he were forced to use their right hands for writing, which inevitably became a dreadful chore. Having two wonderful left-handed children myself I am aware that many things in life can prove more difficult for them to master in a right-handed world, and I wondered whether left-handedness had caused difficulties for Dave in learning to play guitar; he explained that apart from the fact that neither he nor his parents even knew of the existence of guitars specifically made for left-handed use at the time, in his case the desire to emulate his right-handed heroes forced him to overcome any difficulties which might have existed; he didn't want to look "weird" (not a word to Paul McCartney). I must mention that at this juncture my 12-year old daughter, who has requested a left-handed guitar for Christmas having just formed a band with her mates, decided to walk past commenting, "My band rocks more than yours!", for Dave's benefit, which seemed to amuse him, while my son decided to start up on his drum kit, forcing me to move rooms in order to be able to hear!
Dave recalled his first ever gig; he was either 10 or 11 and performed solo, singing and accompanying himself on guitar, at his junior school in Hounslow. (Ian McLagan attended the same school incidentally - they lived 100 yards apart as children and still keep in touch, though due to heavy schedules never manage to meet up). "Weren't you nervous?" I enquired, remembering my own nightmares at being required to perform anything onstage, anywhere, ever. Having sung with several choirs since very young he declared that by the ripe old age of 10 he was something of a seasoned performer so nerves hadn't bothered him. He told me he'd sung at the Royal Albert Hall at age 11, encountering no nerves whatsoever (and I was a proud mum telling him my own son sang there with a choir last year - he wasn't that nervous either, but I was terrified!). Mention was apparently made by one of Dave's schoolmasters of him attending Westminster Choir School at one point, such were his vocal talents, though a move didn't come to fruition. Dave declared that whilst at school he had only really been interested in sport and music. The music had not been well taught however, leaving just sport to allow him to shine; he listed the many school teams he had belonged to: water polo, cricket, rugby and more, and the fact that he both swam and dived for Middlesex. Still a keen cricket fan, he has travelled to watch the England team abroad, and educated me as to the ways of the self-policing Barmy Army compared with rowdy football supporters.
Dave's sporting interest and achievements go some way to explaining the 12 years he spent as a Class 1 Ski Instructor in Austria during the period following his departure from Strawbs in 1978. He gave me "inside information"; apparently Pope John Paul II was a keen skier who surreptitiously enjoyed the odd run down the pistes of Northern Italy. Though any man who becomes Pope must be considered an extraordinary individual for a great many reasons, this led us to muse as to how, in one's youth, it is difficult to appreciate the richness of achievement and wisdom often possessed by elderly people; appearances can be so deceptive. Dave declared his exasperation with individuals who waste their lives pondering on what they could have achieved rather than getting on with things; we philosophised on life's ultimate goals of happiness and fulfilment and their differing connotations for each individual. Our philosophising even led to discussion of the derogatory comments made about dustbin-men on the recent "X-Factor" tv programme (I had watched it purely to keep my daughter company of course, while Dave had not watched at all) and the error of judging individuals and making assumptions about their sense of fulfilment in life on the basis of their occupations. Dave told me his own father had worked in the newspaper press industry, which had given him great satisfaction and he had loved to discuss.
Our conversation changed direction somewhat as I asked Dave to recall his first ever encounter with Strawbs' music. He recounted how his first band, Fire (formerly Friday's Chyld), had a rehearsal unexpectedly cancelled, leaving the members at a loose end. One member, Dick Dufall, suggested retiring to a folk club at a pub somewhere around the Feltham/Hounslow border. Never having set foot inside a folk club Dave wasn't sure what to expect but realised it would at least provide a drinking refuge. The year was, he believes, 1967, the club was run by a certain Brian Willoughby, and the band playing that night were "The Strawberry Hill Boys". Dave recalls watching Dave Cousins, Tony Hooper and Ron Chesterman singing "Not all the Flowers Grow" (released in 2001 : "Baroque and Roll"); the poignancy of which touched him deeply. By the following year Dave recalled that "The Strawberry Hill Boys" had become The Strawbs and he remembers a gig at Goldsmiths College which presented Strawbs, Fotheringay, and Fire together on the same bill.
A few years later Dave joined Strawbs and commercial success quickly followed via both albums and singles. He reflected on the financial naÔvety of himself and many other musicians in those days. I mentioned that it had never once occurred to me, as a teenager who knew nothing of mortgages or pension plans, that earning a living entered the equation for Strawbs. It transpired that I was not alone in my financial naÔvety; Dave responded that the band had had an entourage of up to 20 people and the enormity of the wages bill for which Strawbs were responsible failed to register with him at the time. He laughed with incredulity as he remembered queuing up "like a naughty schoolboy" to collect his per diems from the band's accountant (yes, even he accompanied the band on the road); Dave told me he had never stopped to consider that he was actually paying the accountant's own wages!
I asked Dave if he had kept in touch the other members of Strawbs in the intervening years between the demise of the "Deadlines" line up and the Chiswick Reunion in 1998. He recalled that he and Chas had bumped into John Ford at Tittenhurst Park (Ringo Starr's recording studio), somewhere around the mid-1980s when Dave and Chas had been writing some songs together. That jogged my own memory to recall bumping into Chas at a gig around 1990, when he told me of their writing partnership..... the good news is that some of those compositions are now apparently to see the light of day. Dave recently found several old tapes he and Chas had made together and informed me he had forgotten quite how good some of the material was. I enquired whether they had developed a formula for writing together; Dave said he generally writes the lyrics and Chas the guitar parts, further mentioning that on some of this material he actually plays bass, leaving the guitar work to Chas. Tony Fernandez and Andy Richards play on some of the tracks too and Dave told me he and Chas hope to meet this coming Friday for a pre-production meeting. Sounds interesting!
So, on to 1998...Chiswick...The 30 Year Reunion. A return to professional musicianship did not feature in Dave's plans at that time, living an enviable existence comprising of golf, giving guitar lessons and ski instructing in Austria as he was. In addition to this, Dave recalled that for him Chiswick had very nearly not happened for health reasons; he had been struck down with viral vasculitis earlier that year, so ill he could barely walk and needing to be driven to see a doctor on a daily basis for a time. Diagnosis was slow in coming and Dave told me that in the meantime the condition had caused his skin to turn purple as he became swollen and bloated. The possibility that fields of rape, which cause his skin to itch, had triggered the condition was mooted but the essential cause remains a mystery. Fortunately, however, Dave's appearance at Chiswick was clearly meant to be, and by that glorious August day he had returned to health. I recalled the surreal nature of the Reunion gig for me, looking around and seeing Strawbs from all eras and watching line-ups reincarnated from my teens playing as though they'd never been away. Dave described the event, and the preceding week of rehearsals, as "amazing" for him; he wasn't wrong. For me the day flashed past, one moment I was in brilliant sunshine and only seconds later darkness had fallen and the crowds were cheering for a final encore, or so it had seemed. Dave mentioned how he loves to watch the dvd of the event, and I wholeheartedly agreed.
We moved closer to current events, discussing the band's recent tour of the States, and the fact that Strawbs have been one of the most hardworking bands around over the last few years. Dave told me they have lost track of how many gigs that actually translates into; they've now even lost track of the amount of albums they've had released. He recounted the solitary full day off they enjoyed on their last US tour and the vast arena in which they went to watch U2, who were touring over there at the time. Dave recalled the years in which Strawbs played giant stadia and though he admitted that the sight of an enormous, cheering crowd works wonders for the ego, for him the smaller, more intimate settings which Strawbs currently play are infinitely more satisfying, allowing intricacies sometimes lost amidst the power of the electric line-ups to be heard.
Strawbs have always liked to experiment with new ideas, and I asked about his recent use of the Ebow; I was surprised to learn that Dave first used one on a couple of tracks on the "Deadlines" album, having read about them in a music trade paper in the late 1970s. Dave recalled the band doing some recording at Air Studios in Oxford Street, when off he sent Rob Harvey with £20, asking him to buy an Ebow from a music shop in Shaftesbury Avenue. Rob later appeared and asked Dave for the balance owing - the Ebow had cost somewhere closer to £100, a huge amount of money at that time! Dave told me the Ebow was soon put away when he realised the sound was so similar to that made by synthesisers, which were very popular at the time, and which required far less effort to achieve. He wasn't sure offhand which tracks on "Deadlines" involved Ebow; I wondered whether "Deadly Nightshade" (a great song, one which I would love to see covered by Acoustic Strawbs) could be one, and he thought it distinctly possible.
Dave then told me of Strawbs' schedule for the coming year, with plenty of gigs lined up for the UK, the possibility of some European dates, and a tour of the US scheduled for the autumn. Mention of possible European dates raised the subject of the band's gig in Italy on the night the announcement was made that Pope John Paul II had died, one effect of which was the cancellation of several Strawbs gigs. Dave declared he was rather confused by the behaviour of many people in Italy he had then encountered, fully expecting events to be predetermined by tradition in the wake of such a major occurrence; in fact many were complaining about the gig cancellations. Popes seemed to feature quite heavily in our chat for some reason; we then discussed the untimely death of Pope John Paul I only weeks after his predecessor, Pope Paul VI had died. Dave remarked that he had been in Los Angeles at the time, and it happened to be John Entwhistle who broke the news to him of the Pope's death. Initially believing that John was rather late with his news, Dave soon realised John was referring to the death of the second Pope within a few weeks.
Conversation inevitably then turned to Dave's friendship with John; as shown in a tv documentary I watched recently, Dave and John first met at a Boys' Brigade Camp where Dave marvelled at John's incredible ability to play bugle. Dave told me that while John could appear aloof at times, he was actually a lovely person with a strongly charismatic personality. Though remembering the firm friendship between them, now ended, was clearly bittersweet for Dave, he laughed as he told me how John frequently asked him for guitar lessons. Recalling how he had always assumed John must be joking, Dave reflected that he now realises there was truth in John's requests. Dave mused on the sadness of individuals who develop dependency upon drugs or alcohol and have no-one in whom they can trust for protection, unfortunately a frequent hazard within the music business. He talked about the negative effects and dubious motives of hangers-on who often surround bands, a scenario which Strawbs had encountered, particularly in the 1970s, and explained that he has always valued his privacy and attempted to distance himself from potentially damaging situations. This led to general discussion about the downside of celebrity, the infringement of personal freedom and readiness of the gutter press to destroy lives; sentiments Dave has expressed in his writing. I mentioned how good it would be to hear "Live Inside Your Hell Tonight" played live again; Dave considered that could be a possibility as Strawbs constantly seek to rejuvenate their set with new additions, reworkings and so on.
On to a discussion of his songwriting; Dave told me he usually begins by writing a melody. His travel bags contain reams of paper covered with lines for potential use as lyrics apparently, many inspired by overheard conversations and observations. For many writers the problem is one of having the discipline to finish songs, he told me; the temptation to keep returning one more time to add or change something makes it easy to allow songs to drift without completion. I enquired whether Dave feels the need to show his songs to others for approval while in the process of being written: he doesn't. Dave told me he believes it essential for any artist to have confidence in their own abilities. Having undoubtedly received countless positive comments for his songwriting during his career, which I can only imagine to be a welcome state of affairs, I chose to ask Dave how it feels to receive criticism, bearing in mind the implausibility of pleasing "all of the people, all of the time". He reflected for a moment then told me that while it is rare for individuals to express outright criticism face-to-face for an artist's work, analysis of what has been left unsaid can be useful in evaluating how a song has been received. However, Dave says that for him the act of writing a song, the cathartic effects of putting his thoughts into words using allegorical means, always proves positive. He told me he considers his songs are like his babies to him which I understood.
Does Dave have any superstitions or rituals he likes to follow before gigs I enquired, as many artists seem to have. He likes to follow certain procedures in terms of getting ready, though "not to the point of which shoe I put on first!", he laughed. For him, he explained, it is all part of the professionalism which an artist owes his paying audience to ensure everything runs as smoothly as possible. If routines become too disturbed it can affect confidence that the show will progress smoothly. This declaration allowed me to ask Dave to share with me his most embarrassing moment ever onstage: without hesitation he replied that Strawbs' gig at the Rainbow in April 1973 had to be the one. The place was heaving, the smoke machines were billowing, the lights were blazing and the opening riffs of "New World" were thundering out of the speakers....then the power went off! Retribution from the striking power workers for Strawbs' recent chart success with "Part of the Union" maybe? Although I missed that one myself, on pain of death if I didn't go on a family holiday to Mallorca, I remember the agony of reading about what had occurred on my return.
Towards the end of next year Dave mentioned that he would like to play a couple more solo gigs, though performing solo is apparently not a major driving force for him. When asked if he could recall the biggest thrill of his career to date he paused for a moment then replied that, at the time, signing a contract with Apple was about as exciting as it could get. To be part of the Beatles' organisation had given him an amazing buzz: "Little me, noticed!" is how he described it. He mused for a moment more and finding it impossible to isolate particular thrilling incidents, declared that every single show remains a huge thrill for him.
Dave's love for all aspects of his musicianship; singing, writing and playing is hugely evident and I wondered whether he finds it difficult to slow down and relax. He replied that although it has been very refreshing to have a recent period of inactivity, for him relaxation still seems synonymous with laziness having grown up amidst such an ethos; he is keen to start more projects. I recalled once seeing an extremely well-known musician with his band headlining at a Reading Festival, and how simultaneously both sad and angry I felt at hearing him treat his adoring audience with apparent disrespect; as nothing more than an irritation preventing him from being wherever he would rather be. Dave told me he had spoken to the musician in question at around the same period, and it had been evident to him also that the guy had lost interest; apathy had set in, possibly as a result of drug-taking, and the time to hang up his guitars had clearly arrived.
For Dave and his fellow Strawbs, thankfully, the opposite shines through as earnest, genuine desire to please their audiences continues to fill venues whenever they take to the stage. Long may it continue!