- 15 Jul 20
Rory Gallagher was never much of a man for playing the game, although he gave it a bit of a go in San Francisco. Out of the resultant wreckage came one of his greatest triumphs, according to Pat Carty.
One of the great “What ifs?” of Rory Gallagher’s career was his relative failure to crack the American market, compared to his success in mainland Europe, and even in Japan. He toured there like a lunatic throughout the first half of the 1970s but never caught that big break. Perhaps you could point to his refusal to release a single, for as he said himself “if anyone says to me ‘edit that’ or ‘fade it out’ then down go the shutters”, but that never stopped Led Zeppelin selling tickets to Madison Square Garden. Maybe it was his refusal to conform to any kind of set image but even that seems odd in retrospect. He certainly looked a lot better than some of the more successful acts of the era. Gallagher pointed the finger at his record company when he spoke to Niall Stokes in Hot Press, back in 1978. “We were stuck on a very weak label in America for years, unfortunately, which didn’t match the popularity we’d achieved. Everyone knows it was Polydor. Unfortunately, the Polydor years were the years we were really hammer and tongs touring in the States.”
There’s no doubting the quality of Gallagher’s work during this period. Everyone and their Ma, and their Ma’s Ma, will tell you how great his two legendary live albums are – Live In Europe (72), and Irish Tour ’74 – and if they need any kind of introduction at this stage, you need to go outside and have a word with yourself. Gallagher’s standing amongst his fellow musicians could hardly be improved upon either. The story about Jimi Hendrix answering an interviewer’s question about how it felt to be the greatest guitar player in the world with “I don’t know, ask Rory Gallagher” might be apocryphal but the Rolling Stones story is certainly true.
In December 1974, Mick Taylor announced to Mick Jagger, at a party in London, that he was quitting The Stones, and promptly walked out of the party, and the band. Taylor would claim years later that he wanted to protect his young family, and himself, from The Stones’ – i.e. Keith’s – lifestyle, although the story about NME man Nick Kent showing him the sleeve of the It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll album, from whose song writing credits Taylor’s name was conspicuous by its absence, after the guitarist had just told the journalist how he’d written ‘Time Waits For No One’ and ‘Till The Next Goodbye’ with Jagger, probably didn’t help.
The Stones used the recording sessions for their next album, Black And Blue, as an opportunity to hold auditions for Taylor’s replacement. Big names like Steve Marriott, Peter Frampton and Jeff Beck togged out, and Rory Gallagher got the call too. He flew over to Rotterdam “to see what was going on” but it was, of course, never going to happen. It’s hard to imagine Gallagher – a determinedly, if you’ll excuse the pun, single-minded solo artist and song writer – allowing himself to be subsumed into The Stones machine. Bill Wyman would later claim that Mick and Keith may have felt that Rory wasn’t the right kind of character for The Stones, but perhaps a more accurate summation comes from Bob Geldof, speaking in the excellent Rory documentary, Ghost Blues. “He could never have put up with the bollocks of Mick and Keith. Never in a thousand years would he have put up with it.”
All Around Man
Rory’s first album on Chrysalis, Against The Grain, was released in 1975, and maybe, just maybe, things were starting to turn. A Rolling Stone review by Simon Firth praised Gallagher’s “caress and amazing range of tones”, although there’s the definition of faint prise in the closing line “If a man can play this good standing still, why should he progress?” There’s no arguing with recordings as strong as the explosive ‘Souped-Up Ford’ or the rolling ‘Bought & Sold’, and the covers, of Sam & Dave’s ‘I Take What I Want’ – there’s an even better version on the recently released Check Shirt Wizard – and the beautiful acoustic reading of Leadbelly’s ‘Out On The Western Plain’, take some beating too. It was an old clip of the latter on a long forgotten TV show in the late Eighties that sent this Rory fan into his uncle’s record collection to investigate.
The following year’s Calling Card is even better again, and it was the first time since his Taste days that anyone but Gallagher sat in the producer’s chair, Roger Glover a bass playing veteran of both Deep Purple and Rainbow, earning a co-producer’s credit. According to Dónal Gallagher’s liner notes on the album’s reissue, Rory was “keen to find a producer who had an affinity with the traditional rock values but who was open to new ideas.” Rolling Stone was, again, a bit sniffy, accusing the vocals and lyrics of not being “particularly arresting”, while praising Gallagher’s “fluent variety”. The album did continue in the slightly harder vein of its predecessor on tracks like ‘Do You Read Me’ and ‘Moonchild’ although perhaps the toughest thing here is the brilliant ‘Secret Agent’ – although the ‘Public Enemy’ outtake, which he would return to later, gives it a good run. This is one of Rory’s many “pulp fiction” songs, inspired by his love of hard-boiled authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
If you share Rory’s affection for the hard stuff, may we direct you to the Kickback City compilation, released in 2013, a clever concept that paired Gallagher’s crime fiction-inspired music with an Ian Rankin novella, The Lie Factory, peppered with Rory lyrics, illustrations by well-regarded DC Comics man Timothy Truman, and a suitably atmospheric audiobook version with Aidan Quinn. The music is as great as one might expect, collecting songs from Rory’s 1971 solo debut all the way up to his last studio record, 1990’s Fresh Evidence, with three tough as nails selections from 1987’s Defender (so titled to differentiate it from De Gibson, etc., etc.). If you want a record that poo-poos Rolling Stone’s sideswipe at Gallagher’s lyrical acumen, this is the one. “Bloodstains on the dress of the millionairess” (‘Continental Op’), “She’s fact and she’s fiction, all wrapped up into one” (‘Public Enemy No. 1’) – if a Dylan or Springsteen had written the likes of that, the critics would have been falling over themselves.
Edged In Blue
A head of steam had been built up, and both Chrysalis and the Gallagher brothers could be confident the next record would be the one to push them over the top with American audiences. The signs were good, Elliot Mazer was brought in to produce, a man who had worked extensively with another determined individualist, Neil Young, although perhaps his history with Lightnin’ Hopkins and James Cotton was more to Rory’s taste. Gallagher also allowed additional musicians, in the form of Martin Fiero on saxophone and Joe O’Donnell’s violin, to complement his long-standing crew of Gerry McAvoy on bass, Rod de-Ath – the greatest name in rock – behind the kit, and Lou Martin on keyboards. The band had been on the road for six months before commencing recording in San Francisco in late 1977 but by the time it came to mixing, Gallagher wasn’t happy, feeling it was unnecessarily complicated. Did his trip to see The Sex Pistols play, and implode, in the Winterland Ballroom on January 14th 1978 influence his decision? He was certainly impressed by their violent power, recalling that is was “as close to Eddie Cochran as you’re going to get.”
Brother/manager Dónal tells the story in the Ghost Blues film. “This was the big one, that was going to get the royal treatment. The day we had mastered the vinyl, I went into Rory’s room and said ‘right, I’m presenting it to the record company’. They’d brought in fifty-odd executives from all over the States. Rory took the album and dropped it into the bin.” Donal pleaded with his brother, but Rory wouldn’t budge. One can only imagine how the younger man felt, and how he was greeted, as he broke the news to the waiting Chrysalis suits. That wasn’t the end of the day’s troubles either. Rory went off to the cinema to see Bob Dylan’s rarely seen, rambling Renaldo and Clara, and then broke his thumb in the door of the taxi that left him back at the hotel.
Remixed by Daniel Gallagher, Notes From San Francisco was finally released in 2011, and it’s a good record, especially tracks like ‘Out On The Tiles’ and the lovely ‘Wheels Within Wheels’, but it lacks the power of what Rory did next. He gave everyone in the band their marching papers, apart from Gerry McEvoy, took on a new drummer in Ted McKenna, who had made his name with The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, and decamped to a studio outside Cologne, determined to trim any excess flab. What they emerged with was the hard-as-nails, rocks-like-a-demon Photo-Finish, still my favourite Gallagher album, and the one I fling angrily at anyone who reduces Rory to “that blues guy” while I’m in ear-shot.
Off The Handle
Gallagher took the best selections from the San Francisco sessions and sent them into the gym to tighten up and add some muscle. Great songs like ‘Overnight Bag’, ‘Fuel To The Fire’, ‘Brute Force & Ignorance’ and the Elvis-inspired ‘Cruise On Out’ were made greater. The latter is particularly fantastic, a break-neck boogie that calls to mind the Memphis Flash at his hip- shaking height. Perhaps the greatest transformation is the refitting of ‘The Mississippi Sheiks’ where our man goes back in time to check out the 1930s country-blues collective best known for ‘Sitting On Top Of The World’, a song that would go on to be recorded by everyone from Ray Charles to Howlin’ Wolf. The San Francisco version is good but here, its mix of slide guitar and harmonica are positively monumental. Gallagher wrote a few new songs too. Another crime caper in the two-stepping ‘The Last Of The Independents’, another woman who gives off trouble like a pheromone in ‘Cloak & Dagger’, and another head banger in ‘Early Warning’. ‘Shadow Play’ is pretty handy n’ all. Perhaps best of the lot is the kickin’ ass and takin’ names opener, ‘Shin Kicker’, a rock n’ roll road movie where Rory’s “got to find a town that’s got more action, got to find a place that stays open late, right away”. Check the way that Gerry McEvoy’s bass comes in after the first verse, and the casual virtuosity of the breakdown solo.
Rory had spoken of his desire to get back to “meat and potatoes” music but this sounds reductive. If the back to zero philosophy of the Pistols did get through, then he crumpled up their manifesto, spat at it, and threw it back in all the young pretenders’ faces. No outside help needed, this is rock n’ roll with all the fat removed.
The San Francisco sessions were the last time Rory would ever even entertain the notion of compromise. He followed up Photo-Finish with the very nearly as great again Top Priority – those of us of a certain vintage will always think of Fab Vincent Hanley on a New York street corner, introducing God-awful Eighties videos on MT USA every time we here that ‘Follow Me’ opening riff – and there was more to come. If America, for the most part, weren’t interested, it would be their loss. If Gallagher cared, he wasn’t about to let it slow him down. As he told Niall Stokes, “I can do what I want on the albums, I can play what I want on the shows.” Like any artist worth their salt at all, he did it his way.
The Rory Gallagher: 25 Hot Press Playlist.