ex- Ozzy / Gillan guitarist Bernie Torme of G.M.T. talks about his career from punk to glam to metal and everything in-between
Bernie Torme is a beast on the guitar. You don’t get asked to play with people like Ozzy or Ian Gillan if you’re not, so that’s common knowledge. Still, you get the feeling looking over his elaborate resume that perhaps his greatness has flown slightly under the radar, especially here in the United States. Bernie has weathered trends, tragedy and industry bullshit and remains a class act in every sense of the term. Mr. Torme and his guitar have put their undeniable stamp on everything from punk and metal to straightforward rock and roll so the more you hear of him the more you tend to seek out his catalog. We hit him up for a quote on his brief stint filling in for Randy Rhoads for our upcoming book but secretly knew there was no WAY we could not do a full-blown interview if he was willing. The fact that he responded and gave us all that and more says a lot about him as an artist and a person. Read on….
Legendary Rock Interviews: Thanks for agreeing to talk to us sir and to the always amazing Alex Kane (Life Sex, Death, AntiProduct)for putting me in touch with you. What projects are you currently involved in and where can we hear or see more about them?
Bernie Torme: I like doing physical things with a beginning, a middle and an end, which is the total opposite of anything to do with music or the music business, currently I’m building a waterfall in my garden, I love hands on physical stuff, music stuff only seems to start, has no middle and never ends……
Apart from that, the main musical things over the past few years has been GMT, or Guy McCoy Torme, with my good friend John McCoy from Gillan (and many other bands), and drummer Robin Guy who I met through a mutual friend of ours John, the wonderful and mysterious Mr Alex Kane! In fact Alex played with us on our very first gig.
GMT has been a lot of fun over the past few years, a lot of live shows, two studio albums and a live album which are available from www.gmtrocks.com as well as Itunes and all the usual downloaders, but we are not doing so much live now. We still have a studio album in the pipeline, but to keep the live chops up I am currently planning to do some gigs as Bernie Torme again, I like playing live, also hopefully some more recording and releases. There’s a lot of stuff on us via the internet at www.youtube.com/retrowrekrecords and Facebook on www.facebook.com/bernietormeguitar, www.facebook.com/gmtrocks
LRI: You have owned your own record label, toured the world and seen the inside of countless recordimg studios. Is the business end of the music business something that is fulfilling or simply a necessary evil?
BT: I’m probably not the right person to ask that! I admit to being a bit of a loose cannon. I’ve always hated dealing with music biz people, back in the day they always seemed to have bigger egos and larger drug habits than the musicians did. Apart from being even more control obsessed, opinionated and talentless. The older I get, the less I tolerate fools gladly…..Because of that it seemed easier to do it myself, fact was talking to pressing plants was much more easy than talking to A and R people. It was a simple straight forward conversation as opposed to mind games, kissing ass, and having to pretend to know your place, which we still don’t agree on. It is a necessary and very boring evil I suppose, the only things record companies do well is promotion, and they can do that very well, but they take a big chunk for it and usually fuck it up anyway, they never did that for me in any case, so for me, it was a pointless link in the chain.
LRI: Your BERNIE TORME BAND was originally signed to Jet Records and were a part of the U.K. punk wave. You guys toured with Generation X. What is the biggest misconception or romantic notion most people have of that initial scene?
BT: Wow! Good question! We weren’t quite part of the original UK punk wave, that was really the Pistols, Damned, Stranglers, and then the Clash and the Jam. We came in just after that, a bit after Generation X but before the UK Subs and a lot of other bands now seen as part of that initial UK movement. We are talking months here, but at the time days made a big difference. I undoubtedly jumped on a bandwagon but at least I did it so quick that in retrospect its difficult to notice! The best thing about it all were the audiences, it was a movement, and suddenly there were big audiences, new, young, enthusiastic, it rocked! If you played and were in a band, it was great. It did not initially extend much outside London and Manchester, but it was such a great experience to move from playing in pubs to drunk aging half-hearted hippies to doing tours with big audiences going crazy. I think during 77 to 78 we did 3 or 4 tours, a real learning experience. Touring with Gen X was a blast, they had such charisma, it was like watching the Rolling Stones come on stage every night! Watching Billy was like watching young Elvis! Though I think he was more into Gene Vincent. They were very good to us too, I still am in occasional touch with Bob ‘Derwood’ Andrews, their guitar player and Mark Laff their drummer. A good time, great days. In 77 we had toured with the Boomtown Rats who were breaking and had a chart hit, they were not really hardcore punk, more a kind of Dr.Feelgood or Stones thing, but it was marketed as punk. They were a good live band but got a lot of shit from the hardcore punks and skinheads for not being true to punk’s roots, whatever they were! The messianic hardcore punks really didn’t much like people having hits. That was a lot of grief on the Gen X tour when they released “King Rocker”, which was a big hit over here. Every second gig on the tour was chaos, skinheads jumping on stage trying to kill various members of the band who they felt had sold out on punk, again, they really didn’t much like people having hits. We got the grief too, I still have a chipped front tooth from a club in Birmingham on that tour. The tour manager ended up in hospital after that gig. The whole thing was an education, maybe not the best one, but unforgettable. Its funny how punk in 77-78 attained a sort of glamour in hindsight, because it really wasn’t glamorous at all at the time, mostly just a lot of very spotty, ugly, fat kids with bad makeup and questionable hairdos and everyone on speed. Then again, it was also very liberating and iconoclastic I suppose, which was fantastic in the context of the smugness of society and ‘musicians’ just before 77. The music was reclaimed by the people, no longer the sole property of ‘proper musicians’. That whole punk ethic made a huge amount of difference to me, its still at the core of how I see things. Hence the fact that I have my own label etc. Self help, do it yourself. Another funny thing that gets overlooked was how many of the bands on the circuit at that time, 77 to 78, the really good bands, the ones who were cool and could play too, the inspirers and drivers of punk were American and not British. I think that’s largely forgotten. Iggy was the king, the Ramones, Johnny Thunders Heartbreakers, Brian Setzers Stray Cats, really were the best bands on that scene. The band Television were hugely influential too, though I wasn’t personally a fan.
LRI: Your stint with Ozzy has often been misrepresented or misunderstood by many who make a living peddling rock and roll mythology. Many have written about your time with the Osbournes and twisted your words to suit their own needs. I only want to know if you had any personal appreciation or awareness of Randy or his playing prior to your filling in at that very difficult time?
BT: To my eternal embarrassment, I had virtually none. I still can’t quite believe that. I know that Randy and Ozzy had played a UK tour in late 1980, this was when I was on tour with Gillan, in fact I think we were in the US in October or November, so I never heard much about their tour till long after. I did hear from people in 1981 that Ozzy had a great new guitar player, but I never heard any music. The U.K. was weird in those days, I think there was only one rock show on national radio per week, Tommy Vance, and virtually nothing local. Janick Gers who replaced me in Gillan did mention to me that Ozzy’s new guitarist was awesome, he had seen him play and spoken to him. But the only time I heard anything was when I was around some roadies place and he had the Tommy Vance show on and said roadie chap said ‘you have to listen to this’, and it was the butt end of Mr Crowley. I immediately thought it was something I had to check out, was really impressed, but I never did check it out, that was just before I was asked to stand in. Thing was, Ozzy and Randy had not done all that much over this side of the pond, just one time around the country while I had been out of the country, they had worked much more consistently in the U.S. and got to a much more significant level than they got to here. So somehow I had missed it. I really regret that. Unforgivable. So I had some awareness but had heard nothing really other than the end part of Crowley on the radio. I do want to say that in retrospect for me Randy was one of the few true greats, up there for me with Hendrix, Bluesbreaker/Cream era Clapton, Django and very few others. He was not just a narrow technical player as so many guitar players are, he was just an awesome all-around player. He had great technique which served him rather than him serving it, and even more importantly, was hugely musical with a great feel AND a great sound, a very rare thing among guitar players. He just oozed it. I personally think he plays even better on the ‘After Hours’ clips than he does on the studio albums, everything was just right on the money. A lot of people nowadays can do the notes, or come close, but he was much more than that and no one gets the feel and flow and touch and lyricism. Its beautiful and he really was a beautiful player. He was and remains incomparable. As soon as I heard the albums, I knew that, man I was in deep water. I was very honored to have been asked, even more honored to have been chosen.
LRI: You joined forces with another legendary singer in the band Gillan. Is it difficult to be a guitarist or songwriter in situations where lead vocalists have an established direction or vision that sometimes doesn’t come from a guitar playing standpoint?
BT: That really wasn’t the situation with Ian. At the point I joined he had demonstrated over the previous few years that he had no established direction at all, he had just recorded 3 albums that were various degrees of jazz fusion, ending up with an album called Scarabus which sold so badly that the label he was on, Island, dropped him and his band. It’s not Ian’s finest album, he is almost a sideman on it. He did not seem to have a vision of what he should do, unlike Ozzy for example, and being Ian and being hugely vocally talented he seemed able to go in whatever direction anyone asked him to. And did. Unlike Ozzy.
He was lucky enough at that point to have a very talented writer and a sensible guy on keyboards, by the name of Colin Towns, who sat him down and pointed out to him what he should be doing. Colin put together the first Gillan line-up with Steve Byrd on guitar. The band were apparently unhappy with Steve Byrd, who was a great guitarist, but again slightly jazzy. So McCoy, who I knew from a few years earlier offered my band some supports, I saw Gillan from out front and thought ‘this is what I want to do, I know exactly what this needs and I can do it better than anyone I know’. Ian watched me from out front too, liked what he saw and heard, and with the persuasion of the other band members asked me to join.
So really I was not joining a pre-formed direction with Gillan, I was making the direction along with the rest of the band, I got the job because of what they knew I did. The guy with least opinion on the musical direction was pretty much always Ian, which I found weird, but his ability to sing almost anything in those days meant that the band had to build the road that he traveled on, that wasn’t his talent, and he was never a dictatorial guy in terms of music. The band built the track and he would do a magnificent job singing on top of it, but he never seemed to know what direction the track should be going in. It was very democratic and a good band to be in.
BT: I do new stuff because its what makes me breathe, got to do it. Its obsessive compulsive, for me its life.
LRI: Was the work you did with Phil Lewis on the TORME project something that was ahead of its time or underappreciated in your opinion in terms of hard/rock ?
BT: Thats a hard one. I don’t know really, it was a great live band, Phil was such a great frontman in that context, it was always very competitive and we were always trying to better each other, hugely exciting to be there, absolutely explosive, in all senses. Playing live with Phil as frontman was such a brilliant experience, I loved every minute of it, even the moments I thought I hated at the time!
Having said that the band was never that creative, from the get-go we seemed to be using stuff that I had played live or recorded before, “Star”, “Mystery Train”, a few others. Also we did a few old tracks of Phil’s too, not as many as mine, but same deal really. Never was that much new material, from me or anyone else, or even that much interest in it, until the demos we did at the very end, which came out eventually as “Die Pretty Die Young”.
Fact is that we had such a big local London success, you know, 2, 3 nights in a row at the Marquee, literally hundreds queuing down the street, loads not able to get in, that we all thought the business can’t ignore this, we’ve got to get good management, a good deal, the whole trip. I definitely thought that, having been in a big, successful UK based band, Gillan. But of course the rock music biz was no longer alive in London in any sensible way shape or form, it had moved to LA, and we had this crook of a manager who signed us to his own label and screwed us: I was very stupid. I was also never happy with the album, Back To Babylon, it wasn’t a patch on how the band was live. Still hate it! John McCoy, my current bandmate produced it, I’ve never quite forgiven him for that. He got a great performance from Phil, but the whole thing sounds thin and weak and tame and not how the band was.
Wrong place, wrong time really for that band. I was not on the ball in those days, I was initially involved in a big law case over my Gillan publishing royalties that distracted me a lot, then in the middle of the first tour my mother collapsed, and then died shortly after, that really took my eye off the ball. I just wasn’t paying attention really. By the time I came to, it was pretty much over, and Phil and Chris Heilman, our bass player, were very sensibly heading for LA. I just didn’t really care at that stage to be honest, and was a bit pissed off Phil hadn’t been more upfront to me, but no big deal, shit happens, and he’ll always be my brother, he made the right choice, I’d have done the same thing. I love Phil Lewis to death, the man’s a star. It was a great live band. But not really ahead of or behind its time, just in the wrong place at the wrong time. We all appreciated it, as did our audiences, but not a commercial success on the level it needed to be to work. Shit happens.
Just before it fell apart Gerry Bron of Bronze Records (Motorhead’s label at the time), tried to sign us on condition, get this, that we sack Phil!! I told him to eff off. Phil Carson, who had signed AC/DC to Atlantic saw one of our last shows and tried to get Atlantic to sign us, a last gasp of oxygen. But Atlantic didn’t bite, or didn’t bite in time anyway. As for myself, I just wanted to sleep for a year, and as I said Phil Lewis felt he could do better elsewhere, which he could and did. Sic transit gloria mundi.
LRI: You have some of the most bootlegged material on the internet and I’ve seen copies of your DESPERADO album with Dee Snider sell at record fairs or ebay for high prices…do you have any ability or desire to release some of the material you’ve recorded that has yet to see an official release?
BT: I think most of it has been released, though probably not domestically in every territory, but it mostly is obtainable on the web. There are a few old albums I still need to get up on itunes, but I’m not too good at recycling the past, not good at doing stuff that I find boring! So I hope so, if I get round to it, obviously the stuff I don’t own copyright on I have no control over.
LRI: Not to be morbid but if you had your choice of writing your own legacy or gravestone or even your own obituary what would you hope might be included by those who would have such power to wield and influence the masses?
BT: Really don’t care about that, I’ll leave that to my kids. Soon as I’m dead…. man, I don’t give a shit.
LRI: (laughs). Last question, thanks so much for your time. You have made fans all over the world over decades of rock and music. Do you still stay in contact with any of them and is there any one thing a fan has made or done for you that truly touched you?
BT: Yes I try to talk to fans and communicate, Facebook is good, there are many from way way back that I still hear from and talk to. Always talk to everyone after gigs, its what I owe, the least I can do. Sometimes I think they don’t want you to be quite human, but, hey, we all are. I’ve had some lovely things over the years, birthday cakes, clothes, dolls from japan, really cool, personal caring stuff, its so kind and I really appreciate all that stuff, it’s very difficult to know how to return the kindness. And thanks to Alex…..
LRI: Yes, thanks Alex~!!