Bassist Neil Murray on His Years with Black Sabbath, Whitesnake, and Brian May
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 bassist Neil Murray.
Neil Murray has played bass for some of the biggest names in hard rock and heavy metal, but he hasn’t always had the best luck when it comes to timing. He spent nearly 10 years in Whitesnake and played on the original version of “Here I Go Again” and the 1987 remake, but was let go by David Coverdale right before MTV broke the song and the band finally found mainstream success. His two stints in Black Sabbath (from 1989 to 1990 and 1994 to 1995) happened to be two of the lowest points in the group’s 50-year lifespan, and he gigged for long stretches with Queen’s Brian May and Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green in the Nineties when they were struggling to find momentum away from their former bands.
He didn’t walk away from these experiences with any real fame and fortune, but he has amazing memories and he’s contemplating putting them all into a book one day. In the meantime, he phoned up Rolling Stone from his home in Scotland to look back on his life alongside rock giants.
What were you doing when the pandemic hit?
I was on tour with the Queen musical We Will Rock You. I’ve been a part of that, off and on, for almost 20 years.
In some ways, this must have been a welcome break.
Well, it was a very tiring tour. We’re talking about eight shows a week plus rehearsal six days a week. You have one day off where you drive to the next city. It was definitely time for a break. … At first, I had big plans about all the things I could do if I was going to be unable to do any live playing for months and months.
As it goes along, it becomes so sort of mind-numbing that eventually you lose your motivation, at least in my case. I know some people have gone out and written books and produced albums and movies and whatever. I’m still trying to get out of that mindset where you’re just in such an unnatural situation, avoiding people in the streets and wearing masks and all that stuff. I just don’t find it very comfortable, and so it’s been quite an isolating year. We’ll just have to see how things open up.
I want to go back now and talk about your life. What’s your first memory of hearing music as a child that left a mark on you?
That’s kind of hard to say. There was very little pop radio. We’re talking about Britain in the Fifties here. I was exposed at home to all sorts of different kinds of music, various kinds of classical music and jazz and folk music, whatever. I remember listening to West Side Story a lot, which might surprise some people. It could also be the album of The Flintstones.
The first big band that I was into was the Shadows. They were huge in Britain, but not particularly in America, obviously. By that time, the early Sixties, I had already been playing the piano. After that, I played the trombone in classical music. But I also took up the drums when I was about 11. I wasn’t terribly good, but that’s what led up to me playing bass when I was about 17.
I would say that my musical taste really kicked in when I was a teenager. And although I enjoyed the Beatles, it would be more kind of bluesy stuff that I was into and jazz-influenced stuff. For example, the Animals were more my band than the Beatles were, let’s say, and all sorts of other R&B-flavored things like Motown and Stax. It was also things like Jimmy Smith and some other fairly easy-listening jazz.
Tell me how you got interested in the bass.
It took quite a long time, compared to some people, to find the bass. Even then, it was kind of an accident. Someone at school had converted a guitar into a bass somehow. I got hold of it and really took to it. From then on, through the end of my couple of school years and four years at design school, I got more and more into playing the bass.
Did you see any concerts in your youth that left a big mark on you?
Well, my very first concert in the mid-Sixties was the Zombies, but I only actually caught two songs because they came onstage much later than I expected. Me and my brother felt we had to leave to catch the last bus home. It turns out, they put out later special buses at the end of the concert, but we didn’t know that.
But I was very lucky to see Cream at the Saville Theater in 1967. They were one of my biggest bands, really. And around that time, I started to see a few British blues bands like Chicken Shack and Savoy Brown. And when I went to London in 1968, I became a regular at the Marquee Club and the Royal Albert Hall seeing many, many concerts.
Was Jack Bruce a big influence?
Absolutely, yes. I would love to be as great a musician as he was. As much as anything, it was more the kind of attitude where the bass is very important and it’s very audible. It’s not just a backing instrument. As much as I really enjoy bass players who do just sit in the pocket and have a great feel or great tone, or whatever, Jack Bruce and Tim Bogert from Vanilla Fudge and Cactus, and Beck, Bogert, and Appice, who was also very up front in a three-piece situation … They were combining bass and guitar in a way and being just as important as both of those. I suppose later on, I thought, “Well, that’s what I’m aiming for, to try and make a bit of a statement of putting my own personality across.”
The trouble is, that’s not really required in a lot of situations. And as you mature, you realize that it’s not necessary and it’s not suitable. But it was a kind of driving force for me, partly because the music that I got into and had the opportunity of playing, perhaps by chance, was much more fusion-oriented in the mid-Seventies.
When did you start realizing that this could be a viable career for you?
Well, I certainly was hoping to get a career playing bass when I was 23 or 24, or so. For the year and a half after leaving college, I played very complicated fusion stuff in a band called Gilgamesh while I was doing a day job. And then the first band I got into in a professional way was … It’s complicated, but the bass player in the Jeff Beck Group when Cozy Powell was in the band was Clive Chaman, who was a very James Jamerson–type bass player from Trinidad that lived in London. He became my mentor and really steered me toward a lot of Motown bass playing and Tower of Power and a lot of black music that I wouldn’t have necessarily been exposed to otherwise.
He started recommending me for gigs. He put me up for Bad Company, but I didn’t even get an audition because I was a nobody. I hadn’t done anything at that point. But then I got the chance to, on his recommendation, work with a band called Hanson, which wasn’t the later poppy Hanson. We went to L.A. and recorded an album at the Record Plant there for ELP’s Manticore label, and did a little club tour.
What was it like to first come to America?
It was great, obviously. I was very familiar with what the scene was like. I was like, “At last, I’m getting the chance to go there!” I would be hanging out at the Whisky and staying at the Tropicana Motel, which is the rock & roll hotel on Santa Monica. But I was right down at the bottom of the food chain. We were an unknown band. It was all a bit exciting, but also scary.
I went to New York and decided to stay there until the album came out instead of coming back to London. Some of the time, I was living in a disused Broadway theater in one of the dressing rooms. Elsewhere, some guy was turning tricks and things like that. And then I would get to go up to Harlem to see Aretha [Franklin] at the Apollo and Earth, Wind, and Fire out in Long Island. It was a whole different atmosphere. I felt back then that the States were a much more positive and enthusiastic environment for musicians.
I just listened to the Magic Dragon record. You guys were a killer band.
That’s very good of you to say so. It didn’t really do anything at all. In a way, the album is a lot tamer than how the band came across onstage. The leader of the band, Junior Hanson, who goes under different names, after we did this little club tour, about May 1974, he ended up going to jail for a year, covering for his brother, really, on some drug charges. The band fizzled out because of that.
Coincidentally, by that time, Clive Chaman was the bassist, Bernie Marsden was the guitarist, Don Airey was the keyboard player with Frank Aiello on vocals. Clive got me in to sub for him on various gigs later in 1974 and into 1975. That was my connection in getting to know Cozy, which led me to many, many bands later on. But also very significantly, it was also my connection to Bernie Marsden and Don Airey. I played with them on and off ever since.
You suddenly found yourself in a group with top-notch players. Those people were all virtuosos.
Yeah. My abilities were purely honed by sitting at home with headphones and playing along to albums. I had very little live experience at all. And in that band, and Colosseum II, which came next, with Gary Moore, I really hadn’t found my feet in the live situation. I was really very nervous, where someone like Bernie or Cozy would have been doing gigs at age 15. I was eight or nine years later. I had some catching up to do.
For various reasons, but often because we were into the same kinds of music, so many people, even if they were playing pop or rock bands at that time, were very turned onto fusion things like Mahavishnu [Orchestra], Billy Cobham, and Weather Report.
In the early Seventies, [Chick Corea’s] Return to Forever was a huge influence on myself and Gary Moore. Of course, it had its time and it sort of faded out. But if you mix that with the bluesier, rockier elements that we all shared, it made things a little more interesting without it being totally prog rock and very English and white-sounding. There were a bit of other elements like jazz and blues and funk added in there. At times, to an extent, with Gilgamesh and National Health, which came after Colosseum II … it’s hard to categorize. But let’s say it was more intellectual music. There were a lot of things going on at that time. There were a lot of different kind of influences.
Why was Cozy Powell’s Hammer so short-lived? There was a genuine hit with “Na Na Na,” but then it just ended.
Well, it was kind of started as, I suppose, a rather gimmicky thing. The first single was just Cozy and session guys as a sort of Mickie Most production, “Dance With the Devil.” When that hit, they did another one. Then he had to get a band together to promote it and go out on tour. But after “Na Na Na,” Mickie Most lost interest and moved onto other things. And possibly they didn’t have enough of a writing situation within the band, so Mickie didn’t get very interested in doing an album.
It just kind of petered out, really. We did a tour, which I was on, called RAK Rocks Britain with Suzi Quatro headlining, and the Arrows opening. It was popular, but in a sense, Cozy’s band was too rock for the pop fans and a little too pop for the heavy-rock fans, or the people that knew Cozy through Jeff Beck. They probably thought he was selling out. Mostly, I think it’s down to Rak and Mickie Most just losing interest and not following it up.
Can you explain what made Cozy such a unique and talented drummer?
Well, his drumming was an extension of his personality. He was a very fun guy a lot of the time, and very bright, intelligent. But he had a very forceful strength of personality. He would very much be a driving force in terms of his participation in any band that he was in. Even if he wasn’t the leader, he’d be almost the co-leader. He’d want to be seen virtually as important as, let’s say, David Coverdale or Tony Iommi. He didn’t want to be just a backing musician. He’d get very frustrated if he was expected to be just in that position.
It carries over to his drumming style. He had people that he really admired, and wished he could emulate, like John Bonham or even Jon Hiseman and other jazzier drummers in terms of technique, Jeff Porcaro later on. He was comfortable with his own style: “This is how I play.” In a way, it’s great to play with somebody like that, who is so sure of what they’re doing. With the massive sound he had, he just hits you right and you try and make it even stronger.
With somebody who is so powerful a presence, it means that, possibly, the bass player has less opportunity to shine. You’re more kind of in the background, but it’s still a very satisfying combination to play with somebody like that, someone very powerful that can drive the whole thing along.
Was Colosseum II the first time you really encountered Gary Moore?
I was aware of him before. I hadn’t seen him play up to that point. But it turned out that from that point, and the next 10 years, we had so much in common in terms of what we were into musically at any particular time that even when we weren’t working together, we’d be like, “Have you heard such-and-such album? Isn’t it great? Have you heard Eric Johnson?”
Yet again, you have someone that plays with such fire … he was putting his whole body and soul into every note he played. That’s extremely inspiring. To some extent, in Colosseum II and his solo band, he and Jon Hiseman were looking for someone to just be a solid background player. I didn’t necessarily want to be that. But you can’t help but be fired up if somebody else is giving it their all. I want to contribute as much as I can while still playing the role that I’m supposed to be playing.
You played with Bill Bruford around this time, too.
I played with him at some dates with National Health in the fall of 1976. He came back into them as a temporary drummer. Playing with him was great. The following year, he had the chance to do his first solo album. I played on all the rehearsals and demos for it since it was too expensive to bring in [bassist] Jeff Berlin just for that. But I don’t play on his actual album. I play on a TV show — a couple of songs on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1978 — since Jeff wasn’t available.
I was probably at the limits of my ability, and nowhere near the virtuosity of Jeff Berlin. As much as it was nice to be involved with that, I kind of felt a bit of a charlatan just not being up to the standard of someone like Jeff.
A couple of year later, I did rehearsals with [jazz-fusion guitarist] Allan Holdsworth and [drummer] Gary Husband and it was the same kind of thing, really. I could kind of keep up because I’ve got got ears, but really, there are bass players that are much better at that kind of thing than I am. All I can say is that working with so many fantastically talented people, you take a bit from each of them, hopefully, and get inspiration where you can and try and do the best job you can, if possible.
How did you wind up getting the job with David Coverdale?
That was through Bernie Marsden. I had stayed friendly with him. He had joined Babe Ruth after Cozy Powell’s Hammer. He got me to play on a couple of songs on one of their albums. Then he joined [the Deep Purple spinoff band] Paice Ashton Lord, which didn’t last very long. When that folded up, it was kind of coincidental that he got himself involved with the beginnings of Whitesnake, which was David Coverdale and [guitarist] Micky Moody. They had done both of David’s solo albums up to that point with session guys.
They were then going to put a band together, so they brought Bernie in. And then they started auditioning bass players and drummers. They already had a guy called Chris Stewart, who was the bass player with Frankie Miller. He was the bass player in Whitesnake, even though it probably wasn’t called Whitesnake at that point, in late 1977. I was still with National Health.
One day, Bernie called me up and said, “We’re auditioning a drummer today for David Coverdale’s band. Chris is busy. Can you come along?” I was actually within walking distance of where they were rehearsing. And so I went along and played and really enjoyed it. It was kind of going back to my real roots as a more blues-rock bass player. I was completely knocked out by David’s charisma and his vocal abilities and power and everything like that. Just in rehearsal, it was as if he was playing Madison Square Garden, the amount of commitment that he put into it.
Anyway, I just helped them out for a couple of afternoons. But a couple of weeks later, Chris Stewart decided to go back to Frankie Miller. And so I got invited back to properly audition. That’s how it came about.
If I had been busy and decided not to go along, or if I didn’t know Bernie, I could have very easily not have ever gotten the call for that. And even getting to know Clive Chaman years before that was purely by chance. A lot of it was just one thing leading to another. So much of my career is just who you know. That can be good and it can be bad. I probably missed out on a lot of things because I didn’t know the right people or wasn’t in the right place at the right time. You just have to follow where it takes you.
David was known then for Deep Purple. It seems like in Whitesnake, he wanted to go in a more blues-rock direction.
Yeah. His solo albums White Snake and Northwinds were much more American R&B — bluesy, funky, laid-back, much less heavy than Purple. That’s definitely where he was coming from at that time, and Micky Moody was a very versatile and very American-style guitarist. He played slide guitar and a bit of country, a bit of folk, all sorts mixed into one. Bernie was more of a straight bluesy rock guitarist. But the combination was really good between the two of them.
At that time, David would have said that he much more enjoyed Bernie and Micky’s style of playing than, for example, Ritchie Blackmore’s.
Was recording Trouble, the first Whitesnake album, a positive experience?
Oh, yeah. It’s tricky listening back now, in a sense, because we were bringing in a lot of that sort of jazz-fusion influence. There’s a lot of songs that are too fast or too complicated compared to what Whitesnake became even a couple of albums later. It seems a little but unformed, but very enthusiastic.
It can’t be stressed enough how much fun that band was from the late Seventies to the early Eighties, and how democratic and egalitarian it was. We were all just mates together, really. It wasn’t David and a bunch of backing musicians. It was very much a creation of the six guys in the band and their individual personalities.
You’re credited on “Don’t Mess With Me.” Was that born out of a studio jam?
Well, the thing on those multi-credit songs on each album, generally speaking, one song would be credited as a group composition to give people like me who weren’t really writers a bit of royalties — not that I ever got any back then. It was sort of a way of making it a little bit less skewed towards David, Micky, and Bernie, who were the three writers in the band.
I may have had a lot more influence on some other song, let’s say, but in general, it was kind of like everybody had bits of say.
The songs would be brought in in a very raw state. There certainly wouldn’t be anything like finished vocal lines or lyrics at all. It would almost be like, “Here’s a guitar riff” or “Here’s a chord sequence. Let’s jam on that.” It would build up and become a song. Sometimes I wouldn’t hear the finished article until David had done the final vocals and the track was being mixed. We’d have a pretty good idea of what the song was going to be like when we were recording. But it wouldn’t be absolutely finished. That isn’t really reflected in the songwriting credits, but that’s a bit of a bone of contention with publishing altogether.
Unless you are in a situation where everyone is treated extremely fairly, or perhaps excessively so … bands like Genesis and the very later albums of Queen where they decided, “OK, let’s not quibble about it. Let’s split it all equally so we don’t have a situation where a couple of guys are driving around in Rolls-Royces and somebody else is on a push bike.” I have a lot of sympathy for that situation.
Was the cover of Lovehunter created to cause controversy? It’s pretty out there.
I guess to an extent. But it was really more of a management idea than anything to do with the band. I think out of anybody, I was the least in favor of it. It was kind of a bit too heavy metal and not representative of the music of the band, in my opinion. It’s a popular image for merchandise and stuff, but it’s rather adolescent, let’s put it like that.
In a way, it’s better than the next album, Ready an’ Willing, where they just took a bunch of photos from the back of the Trouble album, made them into silhouettes, and stuck a picture of Bernie in there from somewhere. I thought that was real cheap. No spirit at all.
There was another idea that came before that. I’m not sure if I saw it, but it was chucked out by David, I think. It was a kind of stopgap thing, anyway.
More to the point, the band and David’s lyrics and how he was onstage were getting criticized a lot. The rock press was very much post-punk, “let’s not be demeaning to women” kind of thing. David almost took that as a red rag to a bull. “OK, I’m going to do it even more because this is not to be taken seriously. This is how we are. Deal with it.”
It was still his band. … He would still have the final say, particularly when he was writing all the lyrics. That would be how the band was seen, whereas, for example, someone like me doesn’t listen to the lyrics a great deal. I don’t go for artists who are very simplistic musically and all their focus is in their brilliant lyrics. That’s my failing. But the opposite can apply. If you pay too much attention to Whitesnake’s lyrics and ignore the music, that’s slightly missing the point.
How did you feel in the early Eighties when MTV was taking off and hair metal became the rage?
Well, it would be … gosh, trying to put it all in perspective … we had videos with Whitesnake, but they were very much performance-type things where it was looking like you were playing live even if you’re miming. We didn’t really get MTV until a couple years later. But certainly from myself, and Bernie to some extent, and David, we were getting more into the American rock that was crossing over to the pop charts, Foreigner and Journey and some of the other bands. Maybe a few were a bit too easy listening. But it seemed like the style we had as Whitesnake, by 1981, it was getting a bit same-y and tired.
If the band had taken off in America, things might have been different. But we hadn’t had any success there, particularly. It’s all very complicated musically and business-wise and personality wise. It becomes very chaotic for the next couple of years. Trying to explain it briefly is really quite difficult. But certainly, I could see that David wanted to move musically, to some extent, away from what he’d been doing for the last couple of years. He’d been admiring the songwriting of Mel Galley from Trapeze. When it became necessary to change … the manager was also the publisher and was also the record company. That situation had to change.
At that point, David is getting all sorts of influence, let’s say, from prospective managers and prospective record companies. At that point, he signed with Geffen. They start bankrolling him in a big way, but also having a lot of influence, particularly [A&R head] John Kalodner, in how the band should be. You certainly got the carrot of enormous American success being dangled in front of David, and Geffen really saying to David, “You’re the only one we’re interested in. Get rid of all these old guys. Start again.”
To an extent, David resisted that, at least to start with. The next album [Slide It In], that I wasn’t part of, is very much a transitional album where it was getting towards what Geffen wanted and more toward David’s changing tastes, but it hadn’t gone the whole hog, as it were.
You’re on Saints and Sinners, which includes the original “Here I Go Again.” Did you think then that it was an important song that could do something?
It was seen as a kind of single because it was quite ballad-y. In that original format … the first part is just vocals and keyboards. It wasn’t really a major hit until it was completely re-arranged where the band, as it were, the session guys, all came in right at the top. That’s what John Kalodner wanted, but we’re skipping ahead a little bit.
I thought it was a good commercial track, but certainly nothing like what it’s become. The band did a video of it with the different lineup lip-syncing to what myself and Ian Paice and Bernie had played on, but with the new lineup. I think it only got to Number 18 or something in Britain. If it had been a mega smash at that point, I might have been impressed or more taken by it. I certainly didn’t think this was a rock anthem for the ages at that point. Good for John Kalodner for spotting it.
Jumping ahead to 1987, there was clearly a push to make Whitesnake a big MTV band, to basically Aerosmith them.
Well, myself and Ian Paice played with Gary Moore for a couple of albums. I got the chance to rejoin Whitesnake in late 1983. At this point, it was still a six-piece band with Jon Lord. But John Sykes had come into replace Micky Moody. But then after a bit of touring, into spring of 1984, Jon left to re-form Deep Purple and there was an accident with Mel Galley where he couldn’t play. And so at that point, we did a video for “Slow and Easy” and you only see four people as Whitesnake. A sort of lightbulb went on over David’s head thinking, “OK, you’ve got a slimmed-down band. They all look pretty good.” It was Cozy, John Sykes, myself, and David.
That’s how he could see it going forward. It was definitely much more suited for the MTV era and much more suited for what Geffen wanted from the band. But their main focus was David, and then John Sykes, though at that point he hadn’t contributed anything song-wise to the band, so that was a very unknown quantity.
Why did Cozy Powell leave?
The deal that we were offered was not to Cozy’s liking, so he left. And so there’s three of us in the band at this point. And John and David started writing together and I was involved in that to some extent and doing demos or whatever, and we were searching for a drummer all throughout the summer of ’85. We finally got Aynsley Dunbar. All the backing tracks were done within six weeks in the fall of ’85. After that, I’m on a different continent and David and John take an absolute eon to do the vocals and all the guitar tracks and they use all kinds of different studios. It ends up costing an absolute fortune.
What happened is we’d be on a wage in virtually all these situations. There wouldn’t be any royalties being paid. None of us, at that point, were earning anything from back albums. When our wages suddenly got stopped in April ’86, Aynsley immediately left. I had to find a way to survive when David and John were working away for months and months in the States and I’m back in London.
Where did things go from there?
It’s really difficult to explain the whole situation, but by the end of the year, because John wanted to be so equal with David, because he pretty much was in terms of the songwriting and his contribution to the whole musical style of the album, it was very much down to John. But when it came to the mixing, Geffen didn’t want him there and David didn’t want him there. But he turned up at the studio and was told to go away. He said, “OK, that’s it. I’m off. I’m leaving.”
And now you’ve just got me and David. It was like, “Am I in or am I out?” I didn’t know.
And in early 1987, when he started getting a band together to shoot a video, he was like, “Let’s just get a bunch of guys from the L.A. scene.” And after the previous chapter of opening for Quiet Riot on tour in the fall of 1984, David and John were very impressed by Rudy Sarzo and how he was onstage. I didn’t feel like I was totally on secure ground as far as my job went, but I wasn’t being treated like I was out of the band.
From my perspective, I was still a member of Whitesnake in January 1987. But then I started hearing, “David has a whole new bunch of people.” Amusingly, the power struggle between David and John was such that John had been angling for Tommy Aldridge to be the Whitesnake drummer in the summer of 1985. They had a meeting and David was so offhand with Tommy that I think he got up and walked out. David just didn’t want to do what John was ordering him to do. He wanted to be the boss and not have the guitarist tell him who he’s supposed to have in the band.
You can go right back to when [drummer] Dave Dowle was out of Whitesnake in 1979. We were asking Cozy to join at that point. He turned us down. I suggested Tommy Aldridge then. People hadn’t heard of him. That’s when Ian Paice came in. But that’s another matter.
It’s interesting. I could see that Rudy was fairly obvious to get in. At that point, you don’t really know know who is in the band. If you watch the first video for “Still of the Night,” you can’t tell that that’s not John Sykes. You know later on when that becomes the band. It’s just amusing that Tommy joined when David was not happy about it when it was first proposed.
How did you feel when these singles explode and the videos are all over MTV and other people are pretending to play your parts?
Fairly unhappy. On the one hand, compared to the sound on the early Whitesnake albums, where the bass is very up front and I have a lot of freedom to play melodic, moving lines with a sort of Jack Bruce or Andy Fraser influence, on 1987 I’m right in the background. It was out of necessity for what the songs require, but also in the mix. I’m way in the background. I was more annoyed about that. And even though my name is on the back of the album sleeve, people still thought that Rudy played on the album because he’s in the videos. And I can’t hear the bass anyway, so it’s not important.
It’s a double-edged thing. And then I had to fight, along with Aynsley, to get a not-very-huge percentage compared to what some people would think was fair from the 1987 album royalties. That was after millions of costs had been taken off, which I didn’t contribute to. It was all incurred by John and David.
It was kind of … I’m part of something successful, but I’m not. It’s financially galling that they went on to tour very, very successfully, and obviously made a lot of money out of that, individually.
But from that point on, there’s been so many lineup changes and ways where it’s became much more David plus backing band, that in some ways I don’t mind particularly. It’s great to be part of something really great and successful, just like it’s great to be play in front of enormous audiences, but you lose something else.
Breaking it right down, I’d probably rather play in a theater or a club and absolutely love the music that I’m doing, which really shows me in the best possible way, then be in some mega arena band where anybody could be the bass player as long as they look good and dance around the stage.
I’d rather be appreciated as a musician. As you get older and older, the more you feel like that since you can’t compete with looks and energy with some 25-year-old. I’ve never gone for the sort of “dye your hair black and get loads of tattoos” thing. Maybe that’s what you have to do, particularly in the U.S. rock scene, but it’s just not me. It would be pretty fake if I pretended to be, [gruff American accent] “Hey, let’s rock and roll!” I’m not that kind of person.
When’s the last time you spoke with David Coverdale?
Probably a few months ago. I didn’t speak to him for many, many years. I went to see Whitesnake a few times when I wasn’t in the band. and he’d even say onstage, “Oh, I hear Neil Murray is in the audience. I hope he’s going to come backstage afterwards.” And I wouldn’t do that simply because there would be such a difference between their level of success and what I was doing at the time, which would be virtually nothing or something very obscure. I’d just be very uncomfortable.
But we’ve had a few conversations. We aren’t really on the same wavelength anymore, I’d say. He’s lived in America since 1985. He’s been married to two different American women. The whole success in terms of the post-1987–and-onwards career has been so focused on that style of music. Even though he has great affection and nostalgia for the earlier albums, he doesn’t ever try to play that style of rock anymore.
I don’t know. If someone is a multi-millionaire, and I’m the opposite, no matter who they are, whether you know them or worked with them or whatever, there’s such a huge gulf between your lifestyles that it’s kind of hard to get on the same page.
I get on fine with him, but it’s very much on his terms. If you read interviews with him, you don’t really get to the heart of David. It’s very much, “Here’s the same quotes and stories I’ve told everybody else.” I don’t know him well enough now to get beyond that. He’s had more contact with Bernie over the year the years because of the huge success of “Here I Go Again.” It keeps getting reused for movies and adverts and whatever. They’ve both done extremely well out of that song.
The thing is, if that song sells a few more Whitesnake albums and I’m going to make a little bit of money from it, that’s great. But I haven’t been with any bands where I’ve really had the sort of payday that some of the guys in the band have had. It’s partly just timing. I was with Sabbath where nobody was particularly interested.
Let’s talk about that. How did you join Black Sabbath?
Well, it’s down to Cozy again. After Whitesnake, I played a bit with Cozy and [guitarist] Mel Galley and also in a Japanese band called Vow Wow. Cozy had joined up with Tony Iommi and they’d done the album Headless Cross for a new label. They hoped that Geezer Butler was going to go back into the band after they’d recorded that album, but he decided not to. And so they tried a few people out and then Cozy suggested me. I went along and played and it seemed to work out timing-wise.
I was suitable in various ways for the band. But it’s a pretty difficult thing to replace somebody like Geezer Butler, who is the Sabbath bass player in many people’s eyes, but also, to have to do some extremely complicated and, in a way, fusion-y bass playing because of what Laurence Cottle had played on the Headless Cross album before I joined. You would have to jump from doing something very intricate to something very distorted and heavy and loud as possible.
There were certain songs where you could stretch out a bit, but a lot of it was trying to be as close to Geezer as you could. It was semi-satisfying. There’s a part of me that really enjoys playing really heavy rock onstage, which I wouldn’t necessarily sit down and listen to or play along with at home. But this is going back to the late Eighties. And if I get asked to do something like that nowadays, something very metal, I’ll often turn it down. I’m just not in that way of playing anymore.
How did the crowds respond to Tony Martin? They’d gone from Ozzy to Dio to Ian Gillan. These are all very famous singers, and he was a relative nobody.
It’s hard to separate it out. On the tour after I joined in 1989, a lot of the gigs had to be canceled. It was partially because we were with a record company that wasn’t doing a great deal of promotion. Sabbath weren’t a kind of known quantity at that point. People didn’t know who was in the band. There had been so many lineup changes to that point in the mid-Eighties. The people who came along probably knew, “OK, it’s not going to be Ozzy. It’s not going to be Bill Ward. It’s not going to be Geezer. But it’s still going to be Sabbath.”
In other territories, especially Germany, they were very accepting of the band with Tony Martin. From my sort of objective point of view, Tony is technically a much better singer than Ozzy, but he doesn’t have Ozzy’s character or personality as a singer, or a personality on the stage. And so what do you do? There aren’t many singers who can cover Dio songs. He had such an amazing voice and such a strong personality of his own.
Ideally, you get a British guy. Tony Martin was from Birmingham. There were occasions were Tony Iommi, perhaps, took the easy way out and got guys either who he’d worked with before … In the mid-Nineties, he got me and Cozy and Tony Martin back in. Maybe he shouldn’t have. I don’t know. It didn’t really result in very great success then, either.
Tell me about recording Tyr.
It was an attempt to get away from all the devils and black magic kind of lyrical influences on Headless Cross to go towards the Norse mythology. But calling the album that really confused a lot of people. They didn’t even know how to pronounce it.
By that point, it was very much Cozy and Tony’s band. I didn’t feel like an equal part, though perhaps it was a little different onstage. In the studio, it was kind of like, for me, “Come on, Neil. Play the bass parts.” “Well, I haven’t got any vocals to play to.” “That doesn’t matter. Just play what the bass part should be.”
That’s not really how I like to do things. I play off everything that’s going on on the record. It wasn’t as satisfying as I would have liked, but it was an enjoyable band to be part of. You could tell that the lack of success, in America particularly, was really frustrating for Tony Iommi. I think the fact that we couldn’t even go back there to promote Tyr persuaded him to go, “OK, let’s get Ronnie back in, and Geezer.” It certainly worked, for a short time anyway.
I’ve read stories about the tour you were on and it almost sounds like Spinal Tap. Shows were canceled, I saw one report that a roof started to collapse during one of the gigs. Did it ever feel like Spinal Tap?
Not so much. People like to make a story out of that side of things. We had to cancel quite a few American gigs in 1989. In our camp, there was a lot of talk that Sharon Osbourne was behind sabotaging publicity for the shows. I heard that she got people to stick “canceled” stickers on posters for Black Sabbath when we weren’t canceled at all. It was that kind of thing.
Roof collapsing? No. I think a few ceiling tiles might have fallen down somewhere, not causing any damage at all, just a bit of dust falling on people. That would be from Cozy’s pyrotechnics, or possibly my enormously loud sub-bass during my bass solo. I can’t remember.
If people are huge fans of the original Sabbath, that’s the only true God to them. Anything else must be shit.
That’s unfair. There are good songs on those records.
Yeah. They often don’t listen to non-Ozzy records, so they don’t really know. But it’s so easy in that kind of adolescent way, even if you’re 60 years old, to say, “This is amazing. This is shit.” It’s black and white.
To go back to Tony Martin, as powerful as he could be, he still had something of a very musical, AOR-sounding voice. And so no matter what happens, if it’s the heaviest Sabbath track in the world, it’s never going to sound like Sabbath. It’s almost going to sound too good, if you can follow my drift.
That’s not what people want. They want the personality of somebody who maybe isn’t technically as good. I think Tony did a great job in terms of the amount of work he put into the songs and lyrics and stuff and the ideas, collaborating with Tony Iommi, but in the end, a singer is limited by the qualities of their voice.
I’m not happy with how my bass is on a lot of what Sabbath did, whether it was live or in the studio, simply because I hadn’t really become Geezer in a way, or I was mixed … for example, if you listen to Tyr and then you listen to Vol. 4, compare the volume of the bass. On Vol. 4, it’s hitting you right between the eyes. It’s a much more sedate, Eighties mix [on Tyr] where the drums are much more important.
All through the Eighties, to be honest, it was frustrating since the whole balance of how records should sound, and how songs were written, had veered away from having a bit of freedom and a bit of importance towards the bass. It became about chugging on the guitar and incredibly loud drums. The kick and snares were right in your face, or it sounded like it was recorded in an enormously echo-y room. Something has to give, and the bass was relegated to the back of the room, as it were. That was my frustration back then.
How was your experience in the Brian May Band?
To some extent, the same as Black Sabbath. [Laughs] It wasn’t as bad, but you still are in a situation where either I’m playing John Deacon’s bass lines or Cozy and the guitar are, by far, the most important things on the record or on stage. And you’re very much in the background, coupled with the songs don’t require you to play anything of your own. It’s very difficult to put your own personality, your own ideas for lines, onto Queen songs or Brian May songs. That’s not a criticism of the songs. It’s just that that’s not what is required.
Cozy would add his particular fills or his particular style to Queen songs when we played them live, and I would go along with that. I would change things up because of what else was going on. If you’ve got an extended end section to “Hammer to Fall,” which goes on for two or three minutes, you’re not just going to plod away. You’re going to start sticking some extra bits on.
You still have the fact that, as in Sabbath, there is one lineup of Queen for them, and that’s it. You’re a sort of substitute, at best.
It was a tough spot for Brian. How do you follow Queen? How do you follow Freddie Mercury and play those songs without him for the first time?
I think Brian was partly trying to prove a point, that it just wasn’t down to Freddie. At times, there must have been a lot of friction in Queen. Everyone had a strong personality and wanted their songs recorded. I think some of it is Brian trying to get away from the enormous trauma of Freddie dying, and getting out there and doing something. At that point, he had no interest in continuing with Queen. He was probably quite divorced from Roger [Taylor], whereas later on they realized, “We’re stronger together.”
Brian very much didn’t want to rely on another singer. Even if he had someone very strong as a backing vocalist, he wouldn’t condone the idea of anyone doing lead vocals but him.
Tell me about opening up for Guns N’ Roses on that tour.
It was great. Slightly annoyingly, this was the year after they had their enormous tour. That’s when all the mega parties and completely over-the-top outrageousness had gone on. When we joined the tour the following year, it was like, “We’re much more sensible. Everything is cut down. We’re not going to behave like that now.” Oh? That’s a shame. We were hoping for some Rock & Roll Babylon.
They still had their moments. We played a show somewhere in the Midwest and then got on the bus and drove to Nashville. When we got there, we discovered that not only was that gig canceled, but maybe another couple of nights because Axl had gotten so angry with a monitor guy when they went onstage the previous night that he jumped on the monitor desk and wrecked it. It was typical Guns behavior.
They were in awe of Brian. Cozy was probably on their level in terms of being a bit of a hooligan. In general, some of the rest of us, they didn’t pay much attention, or they weren’t very much on this planet a lot of the time. You could easily say, “Hi” to Axl and get nothing back, and the next day he’d be perfectly friendly.
They also went on about two hours late some nights.
Yeah. Exactly. Well, they are what they are. What can you say? I should be so lucky to be so successful. That was Whitesnake’s problem. They almost became the major glam-rock band of the late Eighties, following on from Motley and Poison and all the rest, but that became a millstone around their neck since they kept with that image. You could see from an outsider, “Look, Guns N’ Roses have come along. What are you still doing with all the glitter and the spandex and the teased-out hair?” And then grunge comes along and completely wipes you off. I could see the writing on the wall that Whitesnake had locked themselves image-wise, and even musically, into a straitjacket.
The Dio Sabbath reunion flamed out after one album and tour. Were you hesitant to return when you were invited back?
Well, let’s see … I’ve had such ups and downs in my career. In the downs, I’m earning virtually no money at all. And then I’ll get with, let’s say, Brian May or Sabbath, and I’ll get paid to do a tour. And then there will be a long gap and then you get paid to do an album, and then another big, huge gap. Sometimes, whatever comes along, it’s like, what else am I going to do? It’s not like I was given a list of choices. “Would you like to play with Eric Clapton or David Bowie or Black Sabbath?” One opportunity comes along and you’re a bit silly to say no to it.
I don’t necessarily think it was right for Cozy to come back into Sabbath simply because the whole situation politically had changed where it was no longer going to be almost co-led by him and Tony Iommi. He didn’t take very kindly to that. It didn’t help that the idea of the producer and how the album turned out, Forbidden, really wasn’t to Cozy’s liking at all.
It was almost a continuation after that of the kind of gigs we were doing in the States, but also within the band, that really Cozy was now expected to be a backing musician, and not really a leader.
I think the Ice-T song turned off a lot of old-school fans. How did you feel about it?
Cozy wanted that album, or the way the songs were going to be, to be much more like they were on Headless Cross, and a pretty Eighties approach. I knew, personally, that that really wasn’t going to wash. You had to accept that all these grunge guys are naming Sabbath, original Sabbath, as an influence, and you’ve got to get away from anything Eighties and become more grungy one way or another.
It turned out that record company or management or whoever twisted our arm to go down this Ice-T route. In the event, it was sold to us really that Ice-T was going to be producing. And then it turned out to be his guitar player [Ernie C] from Body Count. I don’t think anybody really thought that he brought any suitable ideas to the production or how the mix wound up. We were mostly pretty disappointed. But it was like, “Here you are, journalists and fans, here’s an album you can really tear into it.”
It gave them too much ammunition with how the album sounded. The band wasn’t happy with it, and nobody else was either. That doesn’t mean it’s anywhere near as bad as people make out.
How was the tour?
Uh … pretty good. It’s really hard to think back that far. Cozy wasn’t happy. That became more and more obvious. Tony Iommi likes to jam, and Cozy had no interest in that at all. Tony would be happy to just get to soundcheck and just play for hour, not rehearsing songs or anything. Cozy didn’t think that had any point to it at all.
The previous version [of Sabbath] with [drummer] Bobby Rondinelli, Bobby was happy to do that. If Tony is happy, then Sabbath is happy. It was obvious that things were going to part ways, and Bobby was the very obvious replacement for Cozy.
But yet again, there was such large frustration with the lack of success in America. It just seems to be the obvious thing to do for all parties to get the classic Sabbath back together again. From my point of view, both times that it happened for me, the way I could tell that changes were afoot would be that I wouldn’t hear anything. Instead of there being regular communication like, “What’s going on?” “This is happening. Are you available to do this?”
When there’s radio silence you think, “Uh-oh. Something is going on.” And so I phoned up management to ask what was happening with the band. “Uh, can I get back to you?” Then he gets back and goes, “Well, actually, they are going to get Ozzy and Geezer back and Bill Ward.” You kind of have to go, “Great, that’s what’s the fans want.” That was that. And then Cozy got me into Peter Green’s band.
Let’s talk about that. He’d been off the grid for a very long time.
Yeah. He was in a very sort of poor state at that time, psychologically and physically. Cozy knew somebody in the business whose brother was a guitar player, and they had known Peter for many, many years. The brother, Nigel Watson, had started jamming along with Peter at home. They had this idea to get Peter back out there and get him playing, which was very laudable. …
We weren’t necessarily the right rhythm section, but Peter was so laid back, to the point of being comatose, really, you needed to light a fire under him.
Nigel was doing far too much of the lead guitar playing and the songwriting, but Peter was contributing very little. Over the next three or four years, let’s say, the combination of being out on the road and having people behind you sort of making you do something, and getting you back into playing, meant that Peter’s playing and singing and general overall state improved a great deal. But he was never going to be as he was in 1967. He was just a damaged person psychologically, and had no interest in being like that at all.
There was one soundcheck where, for some reason, he really fired up. He suddenly started playing sort of in that style he did back then. By the time of the gig, he had relaxed into putting no effort into it at all and being very soporific. If we hadn’t sort of got behind him and pushed him into doing gigs and things, he would have just sat in front of the TV and probably not touched a guitar for the rest of his life.
That’s exactly what he did in the final decade or so of his life.
There became a situation where Nigel had to be removed from that situation. That followed both myself and Cozy having enough. There were business things that weren’t right, and musically, it wasn’t satisfying enough. As I said, we weren’t the right rhythm section. He probably got a more suitable rhythm section after us, but it was necessary to have people who had some sort of credibility involved with Peter, since otherwise promoters weren’t interested at all. Having a couple of names in the band really helped us get gigs. And there was a lot of curiosity to who Peter was.
But it wasn’t a very musically satisfying situation for myself and Cozy. I stuck it out a bit longer than him. We were both at the point of rejoining Brian May having done sessions for him over the preceding five years. That’s how long it took Brian to get another solo album. That was also, I think, a big mistake. It took him far too long to follow up the Back to the Light record, so people weren’t that interested when he went out with Another World in 1998. There wasn’t a hit single. There were too many covers on the album. Whatever momentum had been built up in 1992, ’93, it was gone by 1998.
And then, tragically, Cozy had his fatal [car] accident not long before we went out on tour. Brian had to be strongly persuaded that he should carry on. He was really hit sideways by Cozy dying.
I’m sure you were as well.
Absolutely. It was a stupid situation that shouldn’t have happened. There were lots of factors involved. He could quite easily be with us now. It was not something that was bound to happen. You’re not talking about some really outrageous rock & roll character who is going to die at 27 no matter what. But it was a very sad loss for me, and for lots and lots of other people.
When did you start playing in the Queen West End musical?
That was 2002. I did it for the whole run in London, which was 12 years. That was another situation where I had become good friends with Brian. When that came along, when they were putting the musical together, the normal thing is you have what you call a “fixer.” I’m not sure what you call it in America on Broadway. But the fixer will choose the musicians along with the musical director, and they will place the guitarist or drummer or bass player in a particular musical.
But for We Will Rock You, they wanted rock guys in the band. They auditioned, for example, 30 different bass players. I had to prove that I could follow a conductor and read music to some extent. There were two guitarists brought in that were much more touring rock guys compared to your typical West End musical where you have guitar players who can play anything. They might struggle to sound like Brian May.
It was very much a situation where Brian and Roger were very involved at the start, and Brian has been ever since in all the different productions. But when you’re part of it, although we had more status because of Brian being very involved in the band, you realize after a time that the musicians in these West End shows are kind of the lowest of the low. It’s assumed that producers and the director and the stars are at the top of the pyramid. And then the people in the company, and then the crew.
Right at the bottom are the musicians because, generally speaking, you hire them just before the musical premieres, and they have about two days of rehearsals. They’re expected to come in and read the charts and be note-perfect and play exactly the same every night for the next 10 years, and for somebody else to be able to step in and read all the notes and do exactly the same job.
They’re sort of treated like robots. But then also, the musicians tend to behave that way as well. “Can you stand in for me tonight? I’m going to play in Blood Brothers or Les Misérables tonight instead.” There’s a lot of swapping around to keep things fresh for people. It’s a different attitude from putting your heart and soul into it, like in a rock band.
Compared to a lot of musicals, it was more like being in a band. But compared to being in a band, it wasn’t really the same. But it was very enjoyable, very pleasant to get regular money every week for 12 years. It was the longest lasting and reliable situation that I’ve been part of, financially anyway.
And you’re still involved.
Yes, but there have been gaps. At first, the production was only in London. And then there were touring productions and productions in other countries. I stood in during a couple of different weekends at a couple of different U.K. tours, and then for five years I had nothing to do with We Will Rock You. But ex-members of the cast and band would do some Scandinavian tours playing Queen songs, so it was sort of a more band situation, but still very much geared towards musical theater in a way.
And it came out that there was a U.K. tour starting in the fall of 2019. I had so little going on at that time that I asked Brian if he’d considering putting me in the band for that. At that time, it was a completely different style of production. They were going to use all young guys. The way things are now with diversity, they are more likely to have chosen a female bass player. That wasn’t a possibility for a couple of months, and then suddenly, out of the blue, everything changed and the production changed. They brought in reliable guys, like the two Australian guitarists that had done many different productions of the show. And so I did that for six months, and then we suddenly had to stop because of the pandemic.
It’s restarting again next February. And although it’s very hard work, six days a week, eight shows a week, it’s nice to be earning regular money.
The problem is that it doesn’t really allow you to do very much else, although in the intervening time between the London We Will Rock You and the touring We Will Rock You, I had a band called Snakecharmer and we did a couple of albums. It started off being a sort of Whitesnake tribute band, but it morphed into something much more where you’re doing similar style of songs, I guess, and a few Whitesnake songs live.
But the business has changed so much. Unless you’re a really young band with lots of money behind you, or you’re a name band from the Seventies or Eighties with at least one of the original members, calling yourself Whitesnake or Wishbone Ash or Yes, if you’re well enough known from that period, and can still get your old fans out, that’s fine.
But if you fall between those two categories, if you’re not young and happy to exist on no money at all, or you’re old but you’ve still got a name, a brand that will bring people in, it’s really difficult, particularly in Britain, to survive doing that. So that’s pretty much fizzled out, I’m afraid.
I know it’s been hard at times, but you’ve supported yourself playing an instrument all these years. Not a lot of people can say that. You must look back and feel satisfied with everything you’ve done.
Some things have been satisfying, some not so much. It depends how you look at it. I can look at it from the point of view of, “I don’t have a wife or kids or grandkids. I don’t have a nice big home that has been paid off.” By the standards of society, I’m almost a complete failure. [Laughs] Musically, there are certain things I’ve done that I’m very proud of. There are other things I’ve done that I’ve wished were better known. There’s a lot of things I’ve done where they don’t really represent me at all. They could have been anybody, or anybody competent.
But, yes … It would be better if I could actually get down to writing my autobiography or my memoirs or whatever you want to call it. At the end of that, I might be more objective about it. Being able to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of, “OK, this period I was just surviving. But this period is really important. Let’s write three chapters about that, and then three lines about such and such a year where I virtually did nothing.”
There’s a huge long list of people we haven’t talked about, but I might have only played for a couple of nights with Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton and Sting, or a few bits and pieces with Michael Schenker, or one concert with Memphis Slim. Sometimes the big names, I wasn’t with them for very much. Other times, I did something onstage that was only seen by 150 people, but I thought it was great.
Some of the most satisfying times, musically, are when you’re doing something absolutely on the spur of the moment, maybe somebody else has played something, Ian Paice has played a drum fill or Brian [May] has played something on guitar, whatever it might be, and I’m stimulated at that moment to play something different or play something completely outrageous because of this synergy, this interaction between musicians, which, speaking selfishly, I don’t get enough of. In a way, it’s harder and harder to get into that kind of situation nowadays for all sorts of different reasons.
My hope for the future is to somehow be in a musical situation where you really couldn’t be enjoying it any more than you are simply because of what everyone is doing, not just what you’re doing. But we’ll see.
I’m sure that’ll happen.
More than anything else, I’m frustrated in America. People don’t really know what I’ve done. Often, and it’s unfortunate because of Facebook and YouTube, the people that are fairly ignorant get a lot of exposure and try to say incorrect things and rather moronic opinions. I’d like to have been in a situation where what I did was known, at least in America, even if people didn’t like it. It’s more that I’m just a very, very unknown quantity. But there you go.
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