Wilco quote you as an influence, Jim O Rorke, and your music means an awful lot to the people who know of it, do you feel that you’ve made something enduring? Are you proud of the music and the albums?
It’s always a shock to me and I find the praise very moving. I see it as someone not only acknowledging me, but the musical influences of everybody else involved. I do feel that the Decca contract achieved a lot, something diverse with an enormous musical contribution from others, that created a musically varied whole. I couldn’t ask for more than the response the music from back then is getting now. A friend of mine said to my manger Terry Noon back in the 70’s, “it’s only a matter of time before Bill’s music breaks through.” Strangely it seems he was right. It was a matter of time, 40 years.
I’m very interested in the way over time…you have expressed your songs. The original album “Bill Fay” has almost a timeless element to it with the strings, the ragged grandeur. That was gone for “Time of the Last Persecution”. I know money was probably an issue the second time around and orchestras were not as much of a possibility….but did you think that was a favourable way to express your music? Do you like the sound of that album? It’s just so very stylistically different from your other work?
It was all chance the way it went. Peter Eden the producer had just done an album with Mike Gibbs (the arranger on “Bill Fay”) who is a great arranger and composer and he got Mike involved. I think it was the first arranging job he had done, he told me he was up all night before the session, pacing up and down, because he had added that and added this and he didn’t know if it was going to work. So the orchestra based feel was just chance. But Ray Russell (who went on to support Bill on the “Time of the Last Persecution” album) was booked as the session guitarist and that’s when I got to know Ray, which led on to me working with the people he played with, Alan Rushton and Daryl Runswick. So again by chance, that line up became the second album. I must say though that I equally value the contribution Mike gave and Alan, Ray and Daryl gave, so it would be difficult to choose a favourite.
But say there was an orchestra available for the second album, would you have taken it, or just decided that those songs were better suited to a more sparse arrangement?
I think it would have gone the way it went. Chance again. It wasn’t like I was sitting down with someone saying “right we have the chance to do another album, how are we going to do this.” It wasn’t like that. It all moved very quickly. It was a constant state of flux that period between age 24 and 27, going from the single I made (“Screams in Your Ears”) to the last album.
Ray is a great innovative and under-known guitarist. People like Nels Cline from Wilco have the greatest respect for Ray’s playing, Jim o’Rorkue does too, in fact he brought out “Live at the RCA” of Rays from 1970. But in general, mainstream wise, Ray remains under acknowledged.
The “Persecution” album and the out-takes from the sessions have a very original sound, a sharpness to them. Sometimes it leads towards the experimental as well, thinking particularly of “I Will Find My Own Way Back” on the out-takes album.
He has a sound all to himself. That song was a one-off actually; there was no rehearsing for that, it just kind of worked. I would say that I am in awe of the sonic nature of the second album. I feel we did achieve something original for the time.
So how did the writing and arranging process work? Did you have the lyrics pre-written and then worked out melodies in the studio?
I went to Ray’s house, instead of going to Mike Gibbs house, like with the first album. I went to Mike’s house for “Bill Fay” and he recorded the songs on a cassette player, working out the arrangements from that. I mean I walked into the recording studio for the first album not knowing or expecting what I walked into. I thought I had walked through the wrong door! Into another version of Beethoven’s 5th! And I was about to walk away, when I saw Mike standing there amid the orchestra. For the second album I would go round to Ray’s house and he would record the songs, he always knew how to play them, there was never any rehearsing as such.
So you wrote the lyrics as poems almost and then took them to Mike or Ray to arrange?
No, I would write on the piano and whatever tune came, the words came with the tune. It was sort of like, well some were finished in 10 minutes and they also expressed where I was at inside. It’s a mysterious process, you find a tune that you like, so you play it again and this time you sing and the words just kind of arrive.
Well that’s a deep song! I had a friend who was a boxer as a young man and he came to have to battle a mental illness and when he told me he used to box, it led to the writing of the song. But it could also be about anybodys personal battle and I suppose the most important element to it was “ You’re going to find your way through”, you’re going to box on and beat it and survive. Marc Almond has done a cover of the song, I don’t know how he relates to that, but he obviously associates the lyrics to the battles he has had to face in his own life. I would say I was an optimistic person and I try to bring that into the songs, songs that can also be melancholic and sad, perhaps that is what makes them so real, the whole gauntlet of emotions involved.
At any point early on did you view music as your career? The thing you wanted to do? Or was it always just a personal thing….a way to express your own ideas, beliefs and views on our existence. I guess you wanted people to hear your music, otherwise you wouldn’t have recorded. Was there a part of you that heard all those records in the 50’s and Dylan in the 60’s and thought….I kind of want to do the same thing? Put a record out?
Yes, though I suppose there’s a part of me that didn’t put myself behind a ‘career’. I think from the moment I wrote my first song and I saw a group in Wales perform it at a gig and then travelled with them in their van to a recording studio in Manchester, where they recorded it along with others, that opened up a direction for me. Music was something I wanted to do. Hearing other people’s songs didn’t bring that about, and writing a song wasn’t a conscious and deliberate act. From the beginning it was something that came naturally, learning more chords, slowly progressing, musically and lyrically. Sometimes more pop orientated songs would come, but none were deliberately written in a particular form. They just came. I think fundamentally you’re influenced by anything you’ve heard on the radio from infancy onwards. Terry Noon, I’m sure, had hopes of mainstream success as I did write songs which could have had a wider appeal sometimes, but over 90% of what I wrote was in the more meaningful or ‘conscious song’ area and left of centre.
I was putting myself behind my music certainly. But when the opportunity came to play live on Saturday night television on an old programme called Disco 2, the kind of freedom giving person Terry was, he didn’t say to me, why don’t you play a more mainstream song like “Be Not so Fearful”. Neither did that occur to me. Instead I sang what was current and meaningful to me, the very left of centre “After the Revolution”. When we’d finished the “Tomorrow” album, I sent tapes to 12 companies so I was putting myself again behind the music. A song which was written and recorded in the early 70s got heard by Bearsville Records, who asked to see me. I took along a tape of current home recordings which he fast forwarded. He then played one song he’d heard saying it was fantastic, calling it “déjà vu rock and roll!” He said give me 12 songs like that and you’ve got an album deal. I explained it was a one-off and said why don’t you put it out as a single if you like it that much. He said, no, you’ve got to have an album. Some would have gone home and endeavoured to come up with the 12, but it’s not something I could have done. Maybe looking back, I could have aimed to enter the live folk circuit or something like that, to kind of secure a living from what you love to do, but again, I didn’t try to do.