Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features drummer Simon Phillips.
If you were a rock superstar in the Seventies, Eighties, or Nineties and you needed a drummer for a near-impossible job, Simon Phillips was the man you called. He’s the guy that the Who selected to fill Keith Moon’s shoes for their 1989 reunion tour, the only drummer besides Charlie Watts that Mick Jagger has ever used on the road, the first person to play Zeppelin music with Jimmy Page after John Bonham died, and Toto’s hand-picked choice to take over for Jeff Porcaro after the drum master’s unexpected death.
Those high-profile gigs represent just a tiny percentage of Phillips’ work during the past five decades. The British-born drummer has also played with Jack Bruce, Bob Dylan, Roxy Music, Judas Priest, Jeff Beck, Tears for Fears, Joe Satriani, Brian Eno, and too many others to mention, in addition to his own solo work. It’s in no way hyperbolic to say that he’s one of the most accomplished studio and touring drummers in rock history. Phillips called us up from his California home to look back on his amazing life and career.
How have you been holding up during the quarantine?
I’m doing OK and just dealing with what we’re all dealing with. The good news is that normally I’d be traveling a lot, recording and touring all over the place. This year, I’ve been able to oversee the building of my house, which I don’t know how the hell I would have done it had I been traveling. [Ed. note: Phillips’ previous house burned to the ground in 2017 during the Thomas Fire that ripped through Ventura, California.]
I want to go back and talk about your life. What’s the first music you remember hearing that really left an impression on you?
That would have been my father’s Dixieland band. I started listening to that before I was born because I was always in and out of studios. My mum would go along to BBC studios in London with him. And then after I was born, my dad would rehearse in the house. I didn’t know much about it, but I was always seeing and hearing a band play.
How about music on the radio?
I grew up with two older brothers. They were more into pop music. My father definitely didn’t like that. He hated it. It was the same with my mum. They were stuck in the Thirties and Forties with that kind of music. It was interesting. On one hand, I was listening to American big bands like Benny Goodman or Duke Ellington or Bob Crosby, you name it, all of those traditional big swing bands. And then I was also listening to the first Beatles record, the first Stones record, and Dave Brubeck. It was all sorts of stuff, pretty interesting.
Where did you grew up?
A little town just outside of London in a county called Hertfordshire. The town was called Bushey Heath.
During your early childhood years, there was this explosion of music all around London.
It was amazing. I was very young, but I definitely remember it. And plus a decent dose of old music from the Thirties and Forties, swing. The first thing I learned to play was a swing beat.
How old were you when you started to play drums?
Wow. How did that start?
One day, my dad got a new drummer, a young guy named Dave Rogers. He also changed the way the band set up. We had quite a large living room. When I walked in one day, I bumped into a Ludwig drum kit. I’ll just never forget the look of that Ludwig snare drum. It was chrome and the bass-drum pedal and the hi-hats were going up and down. From that moment on, that was it. I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Who were some of your drumming heroes in your youth?
They would have all been big-band drummers like Louie Bellson, Buddy Rich, Sonny Payne. And plus, of course, all the drummers that played for my dad. I used to go along to all his recording sessions when I wasn’t at school. I got to hear a lot of London’s great session musicians, like Kenny Clare.
How old were you when the adults started to notice your abilities?
When I was six, my dad set me the task of learning two tunes. I went along to one of the BBC studios in London. After his broadcast, he asked the producer if she wouldn’t mind if I sat in with the band and they would record two songs with me playing. She agreed and he asked the band if they wouldn’t mind staying for two songs.
I brought my snare drum and cymbal, which is all I had in those days, and the drummer, Dave Rogers, played bass drum and hi-hat. I was a bit too small to reach the hi-hat and bass drum. I still have those recordings. That was enough to tell my dad that I obviously had some talent and was serious about it.
You never thought about a different career?
That’s pretty unique.
Once I was old enough, I spent most of my time looking at a watch that had years on it, not minutes and seconds, counting down until it was time for me to go out on the road or go into studios, leave school and do it properly.
When was your first real prominent gig?
When I was eight, I would sit in with my dad’s band at local gigs for a few songs. I did that every year until I was 12 when I joined his band full time. That was September 1969, my first professional gig.
How long did that last?
Four years. In that time, I started doing recording sessions, BBC sessions, and various other casuals when I could. Remember, I was still going to school. I had to change the type of school I was going to that would allow me to basically only go to school two or three days a week. It was highly illegal, but my dad managed to figure it out.
I got my first tax return when I was 15. I remember going, “What is this? Why do they want to steal money from me?” He explained the whole thing about life and paying for it. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
In your teenage years, did you see any big shows around London?
I do remember the first rock concert I went to. It was Jethro Tull at Empire Pool, which is now called Wembley Arena. That was in 1973. It was called A Passion Play. That was the album they were promoting. Robin Trower was supporting.
Can you picture it clearly in your head?
Absolutely. I remember the whole thing. I was sitting behind the stage to the stage left, looking down. I’ll never forget the production value that Jethro Tull had. It was stunning. It gave me a lot of ideas for the future, back when I was with Toto for a long time and we were planning a tour, plotting production ideas. I loved the way they started the show. It was great. I remember it clearly.
How did your career grow in your early days?
I left school at 16 and I was lucky to get an audition for the West End performance of Jesus Christ Superstar, which had just started its second year. That was probably the most important musical in London at the time. I was lucky. I nailed the audition. That really kickstarted my career. All of a sudden, I’m working with much younger people, the cast of Superstar. And people that started to make records and create demos asked me to play on them.
After a few months, I was suddenly doing a lot of sessions in London. In 1974, I played on a record by a blues singer named Dana Gillespie. I played on Robert Palmer’s first album, Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley. I played on Phil Manzanera’s first solo album [Diamond Head] in 1975. And then I started playing on all sorts of albums. For the rest of 1974, 1975, and 1976, I was pretty much an established London session player, playing two to three sessions a day.
How did you wind up in the Jack Bruce Band?
That was 1976. I was doing sessions with a guitarist called Hughie Burns, who was famous for his guitar solo on “Baker Street” with Gerry Rafferty, and another incredible musician named Tony Hymas, who is a keyboard player. Hughie knew Jack and found out that he was looking for a new band. He suggested that we all come up to his house and play. That’s exactly what we did. That started a lovely, lifelong relationship with Jack. For the next couple of years, we did two records. We also did plenty of touring in Europe and the States.
Were you a big fan of Cream prior to that?
The funny thing is that no, I wasn’t. [Laughs] The funny thing is that most of the people that I played with, I wasn’t a fan of until after the fact. It’s so weird. When it came time to being a fan of certain bands, I was more into jazz and fusion. I loved Yes, for example, and Gentle Giant. There were a lot of artists, when I got the call to play on their albums, I knew who they were, but I wasn’t a big fan.
The good thing about that was it made me very indifferent when I turned up to the session. The thing is, you’ve got to appear very professional. The one disadvantage I had is when I turned up, people would say, “OK, has anybody seen the drummer?” I’m in the control room and I had to put my hand up very gingerly and go, “I’m the drummer.” Or I turn up and they go, “Are you sure? Are you up for it?” I’d say, “Yeah, I think so.” In a way, it was good that I wasn’t over-awed by who I met.
I’m sure you learned to really respect Ginger Baker when you started playing some of his parts with the Jack Bruce Band.
Yes. Again, I think this also sculpted my approach to playing music that had been played previously by the first incarnation of a band. There’s two ways to go about it: You play the music as though you were the first drummer that played it or you play what the [original] drummer played. That is not playing the music. I’ve always stuck to that idea purely out of ignorance, funnily enough, and I hadn’t heard the band and didn’t know the original version. [Laughs]
It’s tough. If you’re playing “White Room” to a big crowd, the entire audience knows that song. They want to hear it a certain way, but you don’t just want to replicate it what Ginger did.
I’ve always said that a really well-written song plays itself. Most of Jack’s tunes, most of Pete Townshend’s tunes, they are incredible writers and they write very playable music. You don’t even have to think too much about it. Just play the damn music. It’s so beautifully sculpted and composed that it doesn’t need … If I play “White Room” and if Ginger played it, it’s still the same song. We’re still going to do the main elements. There will just be differences because, of course, our sounds are very different. I’ve always played music from that approach. That’s why it worked, in that respect.
Jack was such a great bass player. As a drummer, it must have been invigorating to lock in with him.
He was such a great musician. To hear him singing while we’re playing these songs, and his choice of notes while he’s playing and singing, it was stunning, absolutely stunning. He really took me under his wing. He’d talk about all these guys I was in awe of, like [jazz drummer] Tony Williams, [jazz pianist] Gil Evans, or Graham Bond, all these cats. It was a wonderful experience. We always got along with really well, and Jack was not the easiest person to get along with. [Laughs]
How did you wind up playing on the Judas Priest record Sin After Sin in 1977?
Well, that was thanks to Roger Glover, who was the bassist for Deep Purple. He was getting into a lot of production back then, but he was also making his own solo record. The contractor who used to contract me for a lot of sessions recommended me to Roger. And Roger said, “I’d like to meet him.”
I turn up at his house. He answers the door and looks at me like, “Yes?” I go, “Oh, I’m Simon Phillips.” He looks at me like, “Really? OK. Come in. Can I make you a milkshake?” [Laughs]
Anyway, we chatted for a bit and I felt always very uncomfortable in these situations. I was young, 19 years old. What do we talk about? I didn’t know much about life then. I could talk about a drum kit, that’s about it. Apparently, through I don’t remember this, but I saw Roger recently and he told me [Deep Purple keyboardist] Jon Lord came around and we started playing. He said, “Wow.” He couldn’t believe it since I was a young kid.
I ended up on Roger’s album, Elements. And he called me for all his productions, one of which was Judas Priest.
Did you know much about their music?
Nope. I just knew their name. I knew nothing about the music at all, which was true for most of the sessions that I did. We just started playing. A lot people didn’t have demos back then. We all set up and [guitarist] Glenn [Tipton] said, “Alright, this is the first one.” He started playing and we just joined in. Eventually we get the arrangements and that’s how we record.
Do you recall making “Diamonds and Rust?”
Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
It’s a pretty odd thing. It’s this intimate folk song about falling in love with Bob Dylan by Joan Baez. It’s sort of the last thing you’d imagine Judas Priest doing.
Right. I know. The sad thing is I didn’t know that song back then because I really wasn’t into folk or guitar-playing singers in terms of Dylan. I wasn’t into it at all. It took me a long while to get familiar with a lot of music. I just thought it was another one of their songs. Maybe it was a good thing. I don’t know.
They were in need of a drummer then. Did they talk to you about joining the band?
Yeah. Pretty much every band I did their record with, they all asked me to come out on the road. But there was always something in the way. In terms of Judas Priest, we had just recorded Jack Bruce’s How’s Tricks album. We were also signed as a band and were looking for names, though we just couldn’t find a name. I remember saying, “I think it should just be the Jack Bruce Band.” After all, he was the name. I think people might recognize it quicker than if we call it Bannockburn, which was a pretty serious battle between the British and the Scots [in 1314].
There were two Scots in the band and so we thought Bannockburn would be great. The management did not think so. We ended up calling it the Jack Bruce Band. I had to tell Judas Priest, “Guys, I’m already committed to the Jack Bruce Band.” That’s why that happened.
If you’d joined Judas Priest, your life would have been very different. You would have spent the Eighties in this giant metal band.
I know. I think I would have grown very tired of it very quickly. One of the problems I have is that I have to play lots of different music. I think that’s another reason why I got into production and engineering. When I’m off the road from the one band I was in for 21 years, Toto, I got to do all these other wonderful projects both as a drummer and an engineer. I love mixing, being asked to mix projects. It’s a totally different muscle. Sometimes it’s something I didn’t play on. I really enjoy going into a different world musically.
I think that came from all the sessions I did in the early-to-mid-Seventies every day. You had no idea what kind of music you were going to play. One minute, you’re playing a folk tune. Next minute, you’re playing some heavy metal. Next minute, you’re playing some funk. It’s amazing. I always needed that versatility.
How did your Jeff Beck chapter start?
We finished the Jack Bruce stint. He was going through a very bad time. It was with his wife and also his record company and management. It was all getting pretty bad. It was obvious. The band kind of collapsed, fell apart, really, and he went to Germany to live for a bit and I got a call from [keyboardist] Max Middleton asking me if I would go down to Jeff Beck’s house, meet him and play. I went, “Oh, yeah.”
Jeff is one of the people I did know about. I loved his music, loved his playing. I wanted to play with him since I heard [his 1975 LP] Blow by Blow. That’s how that started. That was in 1978. The bass player was John Giblin, who wound up with Simple Minds. Max was on keys. From that moment on, we were an item.
This was the start of you writing music on the albums you worked on.
Yeah. When we started work on [Beck’s 1980 LP There & Back], we were rehearsing various tunes written by Jan Hammer and had brought Tony Hymas into the band on keys. That’s when I realized, “Jeff doesn’t write.” I hadn’t really realized that yet. He’s not a composer. He never composes. He always plays other people’s music. He does it beautifully and makes it his own, but technically, he’s not composing.
I said to Tony, “We need to write some music.” That’s what we did. And There & Back has four of our compositions and three of Jan Hammer’s.
How did the Pete Townshend chapter start with you coming to play on Empty Glass?
It was 1979. We had just come back from a tour of Europe with Jeff and [bassist] Stanley [Clarke] and Tony. I was asked to go to Wessex Studios with [producer] Chris Thomas and [engineer] Bill Price. I got there and my kit was all set up and ready to go. Pete walks in and comes straight up to me and says, “Hello.”
I must say that I was a bit in awe of Pete. I was a bit of a Who fan. I’d worked at Ramport Studios so many times, which was Pete’s studio. I was like, “Oh, wow.” He was lovely. He came up and said to me, “I heard of you on a Gordon Giltrap album.” You probably haven’t heard of him, but he’s an English folk guitarist and I did three records with him back in the Seventies. It’s really cool music and Pete was a big fan of his. I didn’t know.
He had quite a big hit on the radio [“Heartsong”] and was on Top of the Pops and everything. That’s how he heard of me. He got my name and told someone to book me. That was it. That’s how my life with Pete started.
I love that record so much.
Those songs just played themselves. Pete just makes beautiful demos. I remember sitting in the back of the control room in Wessex and Chris Thomas was producing and Bill Price was engineering. We were listening to one of his demos. When it finished I said, “Pete, what do you need us to do? That sounds great. I think you got it!” He laughed sheepishly and said, “Oh no. That’s just my demo. That’s private. Now you get to play it.” I went, “Wow!” Those songs just literally played themselves. One or two takes, it didn’t take long at all.
Do you remember first hearing “Let My Love Open the Door?”
Yes. The thing about that track was that was a later recording and I under-dubbed on that track. He had already recorded the song with a click or maybe a drum machine. I went to AIR Studio to what I call “under-dub” the drums. That was an afterthought, putting drums on that song. But two takes and it was done. It just plays itself.
It must have been fun to turn on the radio and hear these songs everywhere. These were huge hits.
Oh, yeah. In those days, in the Seventies, if there was a radio on, there would be songs that I played on. Every few songs, I’d go, “Oh, I played on that.” That was true for all of us that were doing those sessions in those days. That’s how we did music. People didn’t have their own recording gear. Most people didn’t make demos, so you had to hire musicians and often those tracks became the masters. It would be published and then released and then suddenly on the radio.
This was an amazing time for Pete. In addition to Empty Glass and All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, he’s also doing Who records and long Who tours. He was so busy, but I feel like he saved the best songs for the solo records. Great songs like “The Sea Refuses No River” could have been Who classics. But he gave them dregs like “Did You Steal My Money?”
It’s a very complicated and complex situation. Obviously, he much preferred to do his solo records. But economics come into it. Nine times out of 10, any artist that goes off as a solo artist is only a percentage as successful as the band as a whole. There are exceptions and those exceptions are Phil Collins. He’s almost more well-known and famous than Genesis. Another one would be … it’s a hard one. There are very few people that were in a big band, successful, and then became more successful.
Eric Clapton …
Eric Clapton, definitely. He did it early enough. Peter Gabriel is another one.
Right. Most of them come from Genesis.
Yeah. Exactly. I guess you could also say Lionel Richie. But it’s very rare. I think in Pete’s case, it was. He had to keep going back to Who stuff, which he probably didn’t want to do. And we got a very different Pete Townshend when he was in the Who, very different.
I want to talk about the ARMS concert in 1983 where you got to share the stage with Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page. Tell me about being invited to be a part of it.
I was the latecomer. I was probably the last to be invited. It was 1983 and I had just done a record in Vancouver with a band called Chilliwack. They were a pretty well-known Canadian band for the time. As I was on the West Coast, I figured I’d pop down to Los Angeles and just hang for a few days with some of my friends. I did that and was staying at someone’s house in Pacific Palisades when I got a call from Jeff Beck’s manager saying, “Where are you?”
I go, “I’m in L.A. That’s were you just called.” He goes, “We need you back here.” I said, “Where is here?” He goes, “London.” I say, “Why? The weather sucks there and I’m loving it here.” He goes, “You have to come back. The history of rock & roll depends on it.”
He’s a hilarious guy. He goes, “We’re doing a concert. Jeff needs you.” I go, “OK.” I fly back and went straight from Heathrow Airport to the rehearsal studios, totally jet-lagged, and started rehearsing with Jeff, Tony Hymas, and Fernando Sanders on bass. I didn’t even know what we were doing. I had no idea it was for the ARMS concert.
I said, “What are we doing? What is this for?” They go, “We’re playing the Albert Hall for two nights. We’re doing the Prince’s Trust.” I said, “Oh. Why?” They go, “For Ronnie Lane.” And then I realize that all these other people are involved. Eric [Clapton], Charlie Watts, Kenny Jones, Steve Winwood, Jimmy Page. I was like, “Wow. This is heavy!”
How did you wind up backing Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven?”
So we get to the Albert Hall to do a production rehearsal, and I play with Jeff and I’m still really jet-lagged. We finish and I happen to be up onstage and both Kenny Jones and Charlie come up to me and say, “You’re going to play with Jimmy, right?” I go, “No. I don’t think so.” They go, “Oh, go on. You do it. You can do it.” I go, “But I don’t know any of the songs.”
Just at that moment, Jimmy, who I’d met before, comes onstage. He goes, “So, are you going to play with me?” What am I going to say? No? I say, “Yeah, but I don’t know any of the songs.” He goes, “Oh, you’ll learn it.”
Now, learning Jimmy Page songs is not easy. His songs are a little strange in form and arrangement. Boy, all I have to say is bless Stevie Winwood. He got me through that, he really did. It was astonishing, the whole thing. We did two nights and met Prince Charles and Lady Di. We had a lot of fun and everything. Then all of a sudden, a tour was being planned for the States and I was very lucky to be included in it. Wow. Those were probably the largest gigs I’d played to date.
It was historic for so many reasons, but it was Jimmy’s first time playing Zeppelin music since Zeppelin. You’re playing “Stairway to Heaven,” and the last time he played that, it was with John Bonham.
That’s right. And he wouldn’t let Paul Rodgers sing it. It was really, really interesting. It was amazing. And to hang with all those people. Jimmy and I did a long plane ride from New York to Gatwick. We sat next to each other and just talked the whole flight. It was fascinating. I love Jimmy. I haven’t seen him in many years.
Did you realize the heaviness of the moment when you’re playing “Stairway to Heaven” with him?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Especially in the States. What used to happen is the concert started with Eric, Joe Cocker, and Andy Fairweather Low and they did their whole thing. Then we took an intermission. And then Jeff went out and we played Jeff’s set. Then I stayed onstage and Jimmy came out. At the minute Jimmy came out, the whole vibe of the concert changed. It was stunning. I was looking up at Madison Square Garden going, “Fuck. This is a heavy feel, a heavy scene.” The atmosphere changed. It was a heavy atmosphere, for whatever reason. People were very, very … they were just stunned, I think.
We launched into these songs that he’d written for [the movie] Death Wish [II]. And then, of course, we ended up playing “Stairway to Heaven” and Paul Rodgers had to stand on the side of the stage and watch while we just played an instrumental version. At the time, I thought it was a bit silly. I just thought, “We need a singer to do this. It doesn’t sound right.” But it was a tough time for Jimmy. It wasn’t an easy time.
Did it give you a real appreciation for John Bonham when you were doing that stuff?
Oh, yeah. I was already a fan of John’s. The thing that makes me laugh, though, is a lot of young players think that to play like John, you have to play real hard. No. It’s not like that. We were playing drum kits that would have fallen over had people played as hard as people play now. They weren’t that strong. The whole tone came from the fact that he wasn’t playing that hard.
These guys are older than me, but it’s players like [Colosseum’s] Jon Hiseman, [King Crimson’s] Mike Giles, and Bill Bruford. They came up playing skiffle and Dixieland. Then they started playing rock & roll. When they got into heavier stuff, before it was called heavy metal, they played as hard as they could, but it was a different technique. That’s why it sounded so great and that’s why the groove was there.
To flash forward a bit, how was your experience on the Deep End tour with Pete Townshend and David Gilmour?
That was a wonderful event. We didn’t play too many gigs. But we had a great time. Dave was fabulous, beautiful player. One thing you find out when you do play with Olympian Rock Colossi, as I used to call them, is that, yes, they are very established and you know what they do, but you don’t really know how good they are as a player. It’s only when you play with them that you find out an awful lot.
That’s not to say if they aren’t great technicians that they’re not good. They play in a different way, a lyrical and musical way, and that’s what is beautiful about it. It’s just a different way of doing it. But I was stunned by the way that Dave played. What a beautiful player. I didn’t realize.
He can play a single note on the guitar and I know it’s him. He has such a distinct touch.
You know what? That should be said about every great musician. Jeff Beck, B.B. King, John Coltrane, Tony Williams, Elton John, Mike Brecker. It’s the touch and the sound. That’s what makes them. That’s what really differentiates the masters from the not-so-masters. It’s a tone and a touch. You can tell. Louis Armstrong. You hear that trumpet, you know it’s Louie.
That’s a beautiful thing about guitar. It’s like a horn. It’s so distinctive. And it doesn’t matter what they play or what they run through. I always make this analogy when I’m running drum clinics or seminars or master classes. People ask me about sound. I go, “It has to do with you.”
I always say, “I could have a Fender Twin [amp] and an Ibanez Stratocaster-type guitar. I’ll have Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Pete Townshend in the wings. I’ll invite each one of them out. They cannot touch a thing, just start playing, and they’ll sound exactly like Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck.” It doesn’t matter, the gear. But it does help.
These Deep End shows were also your first time playing Who songs live in concert. Was Keith Moon a drummer you really admired?
Again, at the time, not so much. I seemed to always get into people later, especially rock drummers. I was more into jazz players, I guess. But I was always intrigued by Keith’s playing. His approach. Once we started learning all the music for the Who tour in 1989, and I really got into listening to everything he played … then I thought, “Wow.”
There were certain things that I would do every night that I would just copy a couple of his fills, just as a tip of the hat, respect, just because they tickled me so much. There was on fill in the “Overture” of Tommy. I’ll never forget it. He just played a shuffle as a fill. Every time I hear that, I’m on the floor laughing. So I used to do that every night.
Before we get to the Who, how did you wind up playing with Mick Jagger on his 1988 solo tour?
Well, again, that was thanks to Jeff Beck. Jeff was playing on some of the Primitive Cool sessions. Mick was looking for a drummer and he recommended me and I went over to Wisseloord in Holland to record. This was at the end of 1986. We were trying to put a band together with Jeff, [bassist] Doug Wimbish, myself, and Mick. We started rehearsing. I used to have a rehearsal tape of that band, but it unfortunately went in the fire. It sounded amazing, but Mick didn’t want that. He wanted the dancing girls and the singers. It was a bit of a shame. And Jeff didn’t really want to do that, so they parted company.
Why do you think his solo career didn’t take off in the way that he hoped it would?
From my point of view, when we started playing shows in Japan, half the set was Stones songs. I felt, “What’s the point? Why do that? This is a chance for you to do something different, a solo project. Why not do it solo? Yes, play smaller places, sure. But wouldn’t it actually have a more of a test of time to that?”
Unless, of course, this was part of a master plan to get the Stones into Japan. The problem was, the Stones could not enter Japan because of their drug convictions. By doing this on his own, Mr. Udo of Udo Artists had to pull so many strings to get the government to allow Mick to come into the country. Maybe this was just a ploy to slowly get the Stones there.
Then it happened two years later.
Then it happened. Exactly. Maybe there was purpose to his concept. Of course, that’s his prerogative and totally up to him. But from a purely musical and creative point of view, I found it strange. Why are we playing all these Stones songs? This is your solo career. We did speak about this with Jeff way early, back in 1987. “Why are we doing this? And the band sounds great as a four-piece. Just add a keyboard player and let’s play all the new material.” I think it would have been more interesting and historically it would have made a much bigger stamp.
OK. Let’s get to the Who. How did that begin?
I was working on a project called The Iron Man with Pete. I was actually co-producing and doing various bits of engineering and some playing and some sequences and stuff. That was as far back as 1987. He came in one day to the room where I was working and said, “How would you like to play with the Who?” I went, “What about Kenney?” I thought Kenney was still the drummer, and I like Kenney. He said, “Don’t worry about that. We’ll sort that out. Roger and Kenney have had their fill of each other. We’d love you to come play.” I said, “Wow, I’d love to.”
That was nearly two years before. I think it was just a question he wanted to pose to see if it was possible because these tours do take a bit of planning. That was it. Off we went.
Did you feel any anxiety or nerves about taking on that role?
No. To me, it’s a gig. There’s lots of music to be learned. Learn it all and be a professional, and do it. I actually took it upon myself, with Pete’s permission, to re-record all of the backing tracks that we used to use, like “Baba O’Riley,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Who Are You?” and “Join Together.” They were played a lot with half-inch 4-track tapes, but these tapes were still the tapes that had been made originally for Keith Moon. And when Kenny went in, he went through and put on his own click. He played a cowbell in the studio in time with the music. I wanted to do something else and just trigger it with a keyboard. It was just a more consistent sound.
But when I heard the tapes, I went, “These are rough. They’ve lost a lot of top end, a lot of quality.” And so I spoke to Pete and said, “Pete, would you mind if I re-did all these tapes?” He said, “Be my guest.”
The next morning, I went to Eel Pie. He gave me a studio to work in. And I had three tape machines: a 16-track, a 24-track, and an 8-track. And a Synclavier and a Mitsubishi X32 digital machine. I got the job of cleaning up all those tapes and recreating them in stereo. Some of them were still mono tracks. These were from Pete’s original demos.
The previous Who tours were just four or five people onstage. Suddenly, it’s 15 people. How did you feel about all the backup singers and horns and everything?
Yeaahhhh … That was an interesting one. It was Pete’s way of disguising the fact that it was the Who. When we did Deep End, he loved having a big band. He loved the brass section. He loved the singers, the percussionists. I think for him, it was just a lot more fun. I felt it was a little overkill on some of the songs, very exciting on other songs, and socially great. We had a great time.
There were only one or two times where I got to play with just the three of them. That was for a Budweiser advert. They said, “We’re going to do this.” I said, “Pete, can I listen to the …” He goes, “No, just fuckin’ play.” I didn’t know the song. I can’t remember which song it was, actually. And you know what? That was a very intense feeling, way more intense than what we were doing with the big band. Suddenly, it was like fireworks onstage. I was like, “Wow! Now I feel what it must have been like.” And Pete wasn’t playing acoustic like he did on the tour. He was playing a Telecaster.
You felt no anxiety walking onstage and there’s 70,000 people in the audience?
Well, OK, now we fast forward to the actual show, absolutely. You walk out and you go, “Wow!” But you’ve got a job to do, so you can’t spend too much time thinking about it. The weird thing is that after you’ve done 20 shows, it’s like normal. And you recognize the first two rows. They are like 100 yards long. It’s quite a thing.
I love John’s bass playing. Working with him every night must have been a real privilege.
Yeah. We had such a ball. It took about a month of us playing together to really lock in. I think he was not used to the way I played, definitely. Pete used to laugh. We’d be playing and I’d be looking at them. I’d do one of my weird fills and I could see this look on John’s face of angst, like, “Oh, shit,” and he’d look across to Pete with the same face, and Pete would burst out laughing. Pete was used to it. He understood what I do and the stuff I get into. It took about a month of that before John was relaxed with it.
We had a great time. We did a little tour the next year [as the Best] with Joe Walsh and Keith Emerson. We had such a ball, socially. John was lovely, just a lovely man.
Do you recall the night on the tour when Pete was doing his windmills and the whammy bar went through his hand?
Tacoma Dome [on August 16th, 1989]. He was standing right in front of my drum kit, looking at me when that happened. He was two feet away from me. I swear, it was like a fucking cartoon. It was like Tom and Jerry where the blood rushes right out of the head and just turns white. It looked just like that.
He was windmilling. It was the first one he did, actually. His arm was way up. He told me afterwards exactly what happened. He swung his arm, but it never came back up. His face just changed and he looked down and he looked up.
We’re playing [“Won’t Get Fooled Again”] and I saw his mouth mouth the words, “Oh, fuck.” That’s when the blood drained from his face. I could see him physically yank his hand off the whammy bar, took the guitar off his shoulder, by which time Roger had turned around since he knew something was up. Pete handed the guitar to Roger and walked offstage. That’s all we saw. That was pretty crazy.
In a lifetime of 30,000 windmills, that was the one that didn’t work.
You know what it was? He was playing a new guitar. Those Fenders had a thicker whammy bar without the plastic knob at the end. Also, he always checked to make sure the whammy bar was hanging down. Most of the time, on the older guitars, as far as I know, they tend to fall down anyway. This time, it was sticking to the right. He didn’t check.
It could have been much worse. He was lucky there wasn’t permanent nerve damage.
It was typical of Pete and his accidents. He’s very accident-prone. That’s why he doesn’t drive a car. He doesn’t use a bicycle. The only thing he does is sail a yacht. He’s much better in water. He once went on a bike ride and went over the handlebars and broke some fingers. Car, he always has a driver. He is accident-prone.
But the whammy bar missed everything. It was a clean puncture right through his hand. It just so happened one of the leading American hand specialists lived in Tacoma. They got hold of him and they got to the hospital. There was nothing to stitch. He just irrigated the wound and bandaged it. It was a pure puncture. It missed everything. “You’re fine. It’s going to hurt like hell.”
This was your most high-profile gig. Was that weird that suddenly you were getting all this attention?
No. It didn’t feel weird. It was certainly a big step, I think, especially for my presence in the U.S., but no. I guess I was too busy doing other things. Before that, I had been playing with Mick Jagger. We had done quite a bit of touring. Again, those were really large shows that we did in Japan. To me, it was another step in the journey. After that, that’s when I started concentrating more on the solo stuff, and a little bit of production as well.
But I don’t think so. Sure, it was great to be talked about and stuff. But by that time, I’d been in the business long enough to not be swayed.
You played with Bob Dylan in 1991 at the Guitar Greats festival. How was that experience?
[Laughs] Oh, boy. I actually played with Keith Richards there, too. It was the first time I met Keith, and after the Jagger thing, I was a bit nervous to meet him. I thought, “Oh, shit, he doesn’t like us very much.” And Pierre de Beauport, his roadie, said to me, “Come meet him. You’ll love him.” And Keith was a sweetheart. He was totally different than what I thought. I was like, “Wow!” So it was all just hype, just rubbish in the press.
Jack Bruce was there too, by the way. I was rehearsing with Phil Manzanera, Jack, and a few other musicians. Bob came in to play with us. The first song we started playing was “All Along the Watchtower.” To me, the Jimi Hendrix version is the version. I love that version. I was never a big Bob Dylan fan, sadly. I just wasn’t.
We start playing it and I’m playing it the only way I know, which is the Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding and Jimi one. Halfway through the song, Bob stops singing and so we all grind to a halt. I think Jack goes up to him. He’s known Bob for years. He goes, “How’s it sounding?” The only thing Bob said was, “Sounds cluttered.” [Laughs] I started laughing and went, “Oh, boy. This is not going well.”
And so Bob sat on the drum riser, right below me, with his acoustic guitar and started playing some very obtuse blues songs. Now Jack, who has a wonderful vocabulary of blues, is trying to play along. He’s watching exactly where Bob is playing, what fret he’s on, and I can see his face. It was like, “No, that’s not it …”
We didn’t rehearse again, but the TV crew was there. There were people with clipboards that wanted to know how many songs we were doing, what they were called, how long they last. They didn’t get to know it because Bob didn’t want to tell him. It was hilarious.
We didn’t really play until the night. We went onstage and just started playing. I don’t know how we got through it. I was playing with [drummer] Steve Jordan. I just played along with him. We busted our way through it. But it was a lovely event, five days, and I was there the whole time.
How did you wind up joining Toto?
That was 1992. I had all my plans in place for leaving England and moving to Los Angeles, which was not easy because I doing it on my own. I wasn’t in a band or working with a record company where they would plan all that. I had to do it all myself, which was involved. Not an easy thing to do, dealing with the American immigration system as a musician.
I was basically finishing up a few things in England. One of those was that I was touring with Jack [Bruce] at the time. We were doing a few festivals. We’d been to Japan and recorded a little bit. I was mixing a solo album and doing various odds and odds, sessions and stuff. I was about to start recording what became my last session before I left England, which was the Big Country album The Buffalo Skinners.
[Toto drummer] Jeff [Porcaro] had passed away about a week before. Suddenly, the phone goes off in my kitchen around midnight and it’s [Toto guitarist] Steve Lukather. I knew Steve, but not very well. I thought maybe he was just calling to chat. Maybe he thought I hadn’t heard. But he was at a meeting with the band and he said, “Listen, we’ve got a world tour booked, 42 shows. We have 40 people on the payroll. We don’t know what to do with this tour. Would you come and play with us?” I was like, “Wow.” That was the last band I ever thought I’d ever play with.
First of all, I didn’t think Jeff would ever go. And stylistically, I didn’t think they would probably want an English rock drummer, let’s put it like that. I was so surprised. I said, “I’m honored you thought of me. Yikes. I’m actually moving to the States soon anyway. Can I think about it? I’ve got a lot of stuff booked. I’d need to cancel all of that stuff.” He goes, “Don’t think about it too long. We need an answer. But absolutely, of course.”
I went over to London the next day, and started working with Big Country. And I started calling, when I could, people that I was working with at the time on albums I’d been hired to do. To my surprise, everyone was very, very sympathetic. One guy really wanted me to work on his album. He said, “Look, I’m really going to miss you on this album. But I totally understand. I love Toto and, yes, you should go and do that.”
After two or three calls with that kind of reaction, I felt, “Maybe this is good thing to do.” So I called Steve back and I went, “OK. I’m in. But I cannot get there until September 1st.” He goes, “That gives us three weeks to rehearse. We’ve never rehearsed with another drummer.” I said, “Steve, I’ve canceled everything from here, but I can’t get out of these things.” He said, “Alright, we’ll make it work.”
That was it. They sent me a DAT of their latest album, Kingdom of Desire, and I was very surprised when I heard it. It was much more of a rock direction than they’d been in for a long time. Luke was singing. He was the lead singer. That’s when I went, “Ah. I understand. Now I get it. This will actually work quite well.”
That was it. Little did I know, when we started the first rehearsal, “Hydra” was the first song we played, that that would be the next 21 years of my life.
They tour a lot. You were living out of a suitcase for a pretty long time there.
Yeah. It got to be too much. I bought a studio. I was producing. I was engineering. That’s what I wanted to do, and I was constantly taken away to be on the road to do gigs. And yes, at one hand, it was fantastic. We had a very good business running, but it was overkill. I think everybody was getting burned out. I got sick a couple of times and had to stay home. It was just too intense. I think that’s what killed the band, really.
They traveled to so many far-off countries.
We did wonderful tours. But I was always saying to the guys, “Let’s just stay out of Europe for a year. Let’s do something else.” I guess, the way the music business had changed, people weren’t doing sessions anymore. I was probably doing more than anyone. I wanted to be back to do it, which is what Jeff wanted too. That was one of the problems when Jeff was around: He was so busy in the studios that he didn’t want to tour much.
Like with all your other gigs, I’m sure playing songs he originally played on gave you a real appreciation for his talents. He’s one of the all-time greats.
Absolutely. He was a beautiful player. Whenever I heard Jeff back in England in the Seventies, I thought he was much older than he was. I didn’t realize he was only a year or two older than me. He always sounded so masterful as a player, absolutely lovely. I’ve gotten to know Jeff posthumously through the rest of the band. I think we would have sat down and had some great chats because conceptually we had a lot of very similar ideas. We’re very different players. No mistake there. Very different. But conceptually, I never got the feeling that we were so different.
You played the song “Africa” hundreds of times with Toto. Why do you think it’s become such a beloved thing?
It is probably one of the most covered songs in the world of rock & roll, I would say. Let’s look at the history of it. It was a song that was supposed to be left off Toto IV. Nobody in the band but Dave [Paich] and Jeff liked it. And somehow, the record company heard it and went, “This is going on the album.”
I remember when I first heard Toto, I wasn’t too enamored with what I heard. But when I heard that, I went, “This is great! What a great composition.” Harmonically, it’s very interesting. It’s the same with “Rosanna” and that was also Toto IV. I always loved the song. It just has something that is very different that appeals to people all over the world.
You left in 2013.
Yeah. But really, Toto broke up in 2008. The renditions of the band afterwards were not what I would call Toto, not in the same way. No.
I wrote about this recently. They went through a pretty bad patch in recent years with lawsuits and lots of bitterness on all sides. Did all that surprise you?
No. It didn’t surprise me at all. A lot of that had actually been going on for a long time. The business side of it really collapsed in the 2000s. The relationships between the band members really collapsed. And of course with [bassist] Mike [Porcaro] getting very sick with ALS in 2006, it really did kind of get pretty bad. Dave was out of the band. Mike was out of the band. It was really only Luke and I running the band. And then we started having issues, like all band members have. It just kind of went down that slippery slope. And then Luke left the band in 2008, as he says. Well, the band broke up.
And then we decided to put it back together in 2010 to help Mike out with his medical expenses. But it was clearly a very different band and a very different vibe. I felt I had no place in it anymore. It wasn’t the band I joined.
The current band is just Luke and Joseph Williams with new people. Do you even see that as Toto?
Well, I don’t want to speak ill of it. I’m still very friendly with Luke. I certainly don’t begrudge him and Joseph doing what they’re doing. It’s a brand and it’s a business and they can go out and earn really well and do great gigs. I think that is true now, more than ever, thanks to Weezer. By the way, their version is so uninspired and stupid. But look what it did! It created a whole new audience for Toto.
Back to the Who, they brought you back to do one show in 2000 at the Javits Center in New York. How was that for you?
You do your research! Zak [Starkey] had a gig with Johnny Marr and the Healers he couldn’t get out of. And that was actually one of my sweetest moments with that band. First of all, it was a five-piece, so it really was the Who, which was lovely. It was quite interesting because I had to start a Toto tour in Scandinavia the next day. They flew me to New York to rehearse. They did the gig. They flew me by private plane to Gatwick. I then got a connecting flight and then a helicopter to the gig. They had laid out all the transport to get me. It was pretty tight going. The last few notes I played were of “My Generation” right to the first notes of the Toto tour. It was so bizarre.
I dig your work with [Japanese jazz pianist] Hiromi. It really gives you a chance to stretch out and show your chops.
That was another reason I decided to leave Toto. I was doing those two gigs parallel and having to maybe not do some of the Hiromi shows because of Toto. I was actually enjoying Hiromi much more. I was also getting back into the jazz scene. I was going to jazz festivals and meeting lots of the jazz players, both young and old. It was really enjoyable. It was a new thing for me and, musically, incredibly challenging. I was playing with a good, old friend of mine, [bassist] Anthony Jackson. We had known each other since 1980.
He was in a version of [my band] Protocol. We go way back. And we had so much fun with this music. Hiromi and I have beautiful chemistry. It just works. Add Anthony in the middle of that, and it’s just incredible. It was very sad in 2016 when both Anthony and I got sick, and Hiromi lost her band in just a few days. Anthony, sadly, is still recovering from a stroke. He’s in assisted living. I hope for the day he can play again. I really hope so. That was a very special trio.
What’s keeping you busy now? I’m sure you’re doing a lot of remote sessions.
It’s been a very surprising past year. I started the year off with a trip to London to rehearse with [UFO guitarist] Michael Schenker for a 40th-anniversary tour of Japan. I flew back for about a week and then flew to Bulgaria to play with this Bulgarian project that I’ve been involved with for a few years. We did a bunch of shows. I flew back on March 1st. I was getting ready to fly to Japan on March 6th and then all of it come down. On March the 4th, it was all canceled.
Like every single musician in the world, it was like, “Oh, fuck. What now?” Everyone’s livelihoods had basically been stopped. It was really strange and I feel incredibly fortunate. I started receiving emails from people all over the world that had decided to make their records. Most of them were not professional musicians. They were people that had businesses or were working at businesses and doing very well and had put money away to make their record one day, but never had time to do it.
Then all of a sudden, I was asked to play on a lot of sessions. I have a studio here that I use and I spoke to them and I said, “What do you think? We have Covid and this lockdown business, but how do you feel about working?” The one guy who owns the studio said, “I have no problem. I need to work.” I said, “Well, me too.” We decided it was OK to do that. That’s what I did. It turned out being a really good year for that.
Many drummers weren’t so lucky this year.
One aspect is that I do two things. I don’t just drum. I can also make records and produce them. This year has been an incredible boon. Also, that history of playing on so many records way back and doing sessions back in the Seventies really paid off. People listen to those records and go, “Wow, I wonder if …”
I got some calls. There’s this heavy-metal band in Australia. They couldn’t afford to do this normally. They are huge fans of [Judas Priest’s] Sin After Sin and my playing on it. They wrote to me and said, “This is a real long shot. I’m sure you won’t be interested, but we’re huge fans of Judas Priest and Sin After Sin. We’re doing a record. Is this silly? Is this possible?”
I love the fact that they did that, so I helped them out and didn’t charge nearly as much. It was actually really enjoyable. It’s been an interesting time and a time to help people as well. Like I said, it could have been an awful lot worse, let’s put it like that.
You also benefit from having such an incredible range. You’re experienced in basically every style of drumming.
That really just goes back to all that experience of playing all those different styles on sessions in the Seventies. Also, it has a little to do, or maybe a lot to do, with growing up in Britain. I’ve alway come across this thing in the States of, “Oh, he’s a rock drummer.” I go, “Huh? I don’t think so. I play Western music, perhaps. I play a lot of different genres of Western music.” The difference is that growing up, our radio stations were so limited that you had to put up with every type of music on a radio station.
In America, you had specialized radio stations. You wanted to hear blues, you tuned to a blues session. You wanted to hear jazz, you tuned to a jazz station. But in England, you couldn’t do that. That’s why we used to love coming to the States and listening to our favorite music all day long.
The negative part of that is that a lot of musicians growing up here never got the chance to play different types of music. It’s very divided here. Also, I hate to say it, it’s very divided in terms of racial compartments, white music vs. black music and Indian music. It’s much more compartmentalized in the States than it is in Europe.
In Europe, we cross over much more. I could go to a session and have to play a polka. I didn’t enjoy it much, but I was able to do it. And then the next session would be a heavy-metal session and the next session would be what we called soul or funk. Now you’d call it R&B. You see what I mean? It was much more varied, so we had to learn to play different styles and also study it.
I used to play along to the Shaft album constantly, [drummer] Willie Paul. The Jackson Five. I spent a whole bunch of time playing along to [drummers] Bernard Purdie and Grady Tate, getting that vibe, as well as Yes and Gentle Giant. I think that has a lot to do with it. We’re varied. When I turn up playing straight ahead with a bebop band I put together in Sherman Oaks and musicians come by, they are going, “Huh? I thought this was the drummer that played with the Who.”
That about sums it up. I’ll let you go, but I really hope I see you back onstage later this year.
I really hope so. My band is dying to get out there and play.