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Interview: Original Whitesnake Guitarist Bernie Marsden
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Obi-Dan   |  
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Bernie MarsdenFrom a ‘secret’ stint with English hard rock outfit UFO guitarist Bernie Marsden has just about done it all. After brief turns in Wild Turkey, Babe Ruth (the English rock band) and Paice, Ashton & Lord, he grabbed the attention of a certain David Coverdale who approached him to join the new band he was putting together.

Marsden and Coverdale collaborated on some of Whitesnake’s best and most popular songs including “Fool For Your Lovin’” and the magnificent “Here I Go Again.” With all this in mind, Marsden and I had plenty to talk about and he was happy to recount his early days with Whitesnake and his surprising appearances with the band last year – when he shared a tender moment with current guitarist Doug Aldrich…

Geeks of Doom: Your first big break was with UFO, but that was never an ideal situation for you was it?

Bernie Marsden: That was my first pro gig. I’d turned down a couple of gigs in those far off days of forty years ago! The named bands had the whip hand, they used to advertise, ‘wanted: guitar player’ or ‘wanted: bass player’ or whatever but they never used to say who it was…so of course all these guitar players wanting a pro job would phone and they would say, ‘be at so-and-so at eleven-o’clock’ and of course you’d get [to the audition] and say, ‘Who is it?’ and they’d say, ‘It’s for Steeleye Span.’ ‘I don’t want to do that!’ But by the time you’d got there – and that wasn’t one of them – but by the time you’d travelled there you thought, ‘well I might as well have a play anyway’ so it was a waste of everybody’s time really. On a couple of occasions I did actually get offered the gig only to say, ‘I don’t want to do it, really.’ I was reaching the old age of about 21 and I thought, ‘about time I turned pro’ rather than keep doing these gigs. So I got the gig with UFO who at least were sort of a rock band, but I knew that we were not, shall we say, in harmony as people. But in retrospect as much as I didn’t enjoy it at the time when I look back on it, it was invaluable because it took me out of being a big fish in a very small pool to being an up-and-coming guitar player in the real world and for that I will always be thankful to them. They’re still going in some shape or form I’m sure as we speak but it was interesting. Musically, I didn’t like it at all [and] I didn’t get on with them as people so of course that was a recipe for disaster really! But it gave me loads of experience in a 9-month period that I would never have dreamed I could have had a year before that. All in all, it was a selfish move that paid off really because I ended up in a group that I did want to be with! [laughs] So there you go selfish at a young age; I guess that’s the way I look at that. Or I knew what I wanted.

Geeks of Doom: You were determined!

Bernie Marsden: Yeah, determined! That’s a good word.

Geeks of Doom: You said that you didn’t really get on as people and [UFO bassist] Pete Way once said that they were too wild for you – do you think that’s the case?

Bernie Marsden: Yeah! I mean in a way of wishing to stay alive then I definitely wasn’t part of that set-up, you know? I’ve written a book and there’s one chapter, well more than one chapter there’s a lot about UFO in it because not a lot has been written you see, and I just say in the book which kind of sums it up – I drove a very powerful Mercedes in Germany for about six months without having a Driving Licence because I had a great desire to stay alive. So I used to say I would rather be put in a German prison cell for driving without a licence than ending up on a slab in a German mortuary. It sounds dramatic, but it was a little bit like that! [laughs]

Geeks of Doom: But that’s the way you thought they were headed?

Bernie Marsden: If Phil [Mogg, UFO lead singer], bless him, was going to be the driver every day I would sit there terrified for two, three-hundred miles at a time because of what had gone on the night before. I wasn’t innocent by any means so Pete…if he means I have a desire to stay alive for what I wanted to be a long career then, yes, they were too wild for me. They were also, shall we say, less musical than me as well, but that’s another story! [laughs] We’re all old blokes now and I look back on it with a great fondness now that I never thought I would. In fact, when we split, you know there’s all this thing about Michael Schenker and how they couldn’t get rid of me quick enough? That’s all bullshit. The whole thing was I was trying to get out of it for a long time and I just couldn’t because there was so much work and the management were saying, ‘just do a few more gigs’ and I realize now – I didn’t at the time when [I was] 21 – I was pretty much heading for a nervous breakdown. My whole thing was, ‘this isn’t what I wanted to be a professional musician for, I don’t want to feel like this, I want to feel the good-time factor of it, I don’t want to dread going on stage.’ In fact, going on stage was the only valve release because, as you well know, you do an hour-and-a-half at night but you’ve got to spend ten hours with those guys to do that hour and a half and that was the problem.

Then I did do a very bad thing: I just didn’t show up for two or three shows. I couldn’t face going, I just couldn’t. We’d been back in England for the first time in about three months and I just couldn’t face going back on the road. I rang up the record company guys and I said I’m not going and they thought, ‘oh, don’t worry he’ll go.’ But I didn’t and that’s when Michael stood in and they just kind of jammed out the shows. To me, that’s the most unprofessional thing I think I’ve ever done in my career but I couldn’t do it anymore. After a couple of days I flew out and I finished the dates. During that time I’d already organized myself a gig with Wild Turkey…but we did make a pact that basically said even though we’ve just done nine months together I’ll never say I was with you and you never say you were with me and it lasted until Whitesnake.

Geeks of Doom: Really?!

Bernie Marsden: Yeah, people were saying, ‘Were you in UFO?’ and I said, ‘No, no, no.’ Then somebody would say, ‘Well I’ve got a photograph of you!’ I would deny everything and it worked for ages. Then I’d run into them on the road and we could be much more cordial two or three years later and say, ‘It’s still working, isn’t it!’ [laughs] Then the whole thing got turned on its head; when Whitesnake were really big they put a Whitesnake track on the Best of UFO! I thought, ‘you cheap sods! Suddenly you want me in the band!’ [laughs] They put “Fool For Your Lovin’” on the Best of UFO. I’ve always found that a bit quirky.

I don’t mind, it kind of made me smile a bit all those years later. I don’t think they could ever handle the fact that I became quite famous really! [laughs] But like I say, that’s all water under the bridge and I wish them well whatever they do and whatever they get into. I know Pete’s not been of the best of health recently so I wish him well.

Geeks of Doom: That’s good. You said earlier that you turned quite a few bands down – can you name those?

Bernie Marsden: One was a group called Sam Apple Pie. One was a group called East Of Eden and another one was Renaissance. But it was all very cordial. Funny thing was I’d been turned down for UFO during that period! [laughs] They had this nutter of a manager. This guy, I think he could have been put inside, you know, put away from people. He auditioned people for UFO, but all the audition was was basically their haircuts and what jackets they wore. It could have been the greatest guitar player in the world, but if you didn’t have the right haircut he would not consider you. But they’d seen my CV at the time and after they fired this manager they did contact me to say ‘we’re still looking for a guitarist, would you come and audition?’ For years Phil said, very Phil Mogg, he said, ‘We only gave him the gig because he had a Gibson Firebird and it looked cool!’ [laughs] And he’s probably right! [laughs]

We become friends over the years and [they] say, ‘You was an arrogant little sod when you was a kid!’ It wasn’t really arrogance, I just didn’t want to do something. Just waiting for the right band to come along really.

Geeks of Doom: And that right band turned out to be Whitesnake…

Bernie MarsdenBernie Marsden: Well, eventually. But there was two or three in between. Like I said there was Wild Turkey then I met Cozy Powell and that’s when Cozy asked me to put the band together with him which became Hammer and after that I went with a group called Babe Ruth. Paice, Ashton & Lord was my first big jump up. I suppose Cozy Powell was in retrospect because he was [in] that kind of class as a musician that I hadn’t played with before, he was so good, and then when I went into Paice, Ashton & Lord there was Ian Paice on the same level and Jon Lord on a higher level. That’s what really whetted me and I thought, ‘hang on, I’m building the right bricks here, it’s going well.’ Paice, Ashton & Lord was my big break really because I moved into what I call the Premier League. When you’re getting picked up in Rolls-Royce’s and not in Transit vans you know something has changed! [laughs] That was what it was like with Jon and Ian and musically of course it was great. The late Tony Ashton was there as well. Musically it was great but they were pretty much depending on me to be one of the major writers so obviously that appealed as well.

Geeks of Doom: Was that daunting though to write with people like Jon Lord?

Bernie Marsden: Amazing…I mean Jon is a fantastic musician. Let’s say I had written a song and I’d say, ‘Jon, I think this part here could be better’ and then he would come up with fantastic ideas. As a writer I think one of the main reasons I got the gig with Paice, Ashton & Lord was because they needed a songwriter per se who could take the pressure off them. To be able to sit down at the piano with Jon and then also have a groove in your head for a song knowing Ian Paice will do it and he will do it better than anybody else on the planet that was also quite helpful! [laughs]

Geeks of Doom: And from that you were at the formation of Whitesnake. How did that happen?

Bernie Marsden: Paice, Ashton & Lord came to sort of an abrupt end. We did one album and we did BBC In Concert live on television: that was our first gig. That wasn’t the greatest planning to do your first ever gig live on television and radio…but we got away with it and we just did five shows in the UK. But it was spectacular production and failed miserably, but failed gloriously. I think 90%, maybe a little less, maybe 80% bless them, were expecting another form of Deep Purple and it was as far from Deep Purple as Abba is from Frank Zappa. Musically great but if you’re going to see Frank Zappa you wouldn’t get a ticket for Abba necessarily. But even though the shows sold out I think a lot of people were more confused than delighted and so that came to an end.

I’d kind of been approached from Paul McCartney. He had a band called Wings at the time and I was waiting on a call for that to get things together when I bumped into [Whitesnake lead singer] David Coverdale at the Rainbow Theatre. I’d met David in Munich during the Paice, Ashton & Lord sessions, we’d gotten on well and he knew about me, I knew about him. We were kind of the new boys in working with Jon and Ian so we had something in common. He said, ‘I’m putting a band together and I’d like you to be part of it. But I understand you’re waiting on a call from McCartney?’ He said, ‘Well I haven’t got that kind of money to pay you.’ I said, ‘Who said anything about money? I haven’t been offered the gig yet, I just had a call to say we’d be interested in talking to you. No, let’s do it; let’s put it together.’ So yeah that was him and Mick Moody and myself, we were the first three.

Geeks of Doom: What was it like to work with Mick Moody? You built up quite an impressive partnership with him.

Bernie Marsden: Mickey and I we had a very deep understanding, guitar-wise. Neither of us were bothered about being superstar guitar players you know like Tommy Bolin or Ritchie Blackmore, no disrespect to either, but we were not so bothered about that. We could both play a bit, we knew we were good, we knew we could do that but what we were interested in was writing the best rock songs we could do. I think that really pleased David who had gone through that whole thing with Ritchie and Tommy Bolin even worse at the end of [Deep] Purple which was a pretty bad time for him. And to think that he could go and have two guitar players who were just interested in making the band sound good I think that really appealed to him. Well, I know it did, I know that was one of his main reasons for wanting to do it. So then we just auditioned people after that to put the band together. Sounds simple doesn’t it! [laughs]

Geeks of Doom: [laughs] Yeah, is that all! You wrote some of the most famous Whitesnake songs like “Fool For Your Lovin’” and “Here I Go Again” which were re-recorded by later line ups of Whitesnake. What did you think about that?

Bernie Marsden: I thought “Here I Go Again” was fabulous because for me it was such a long time after I had written the song that I could listen to Whitesnake in that period as if I was listening to Journey or Foreigner: it was just another band who were really good. But they were an American band by then [who] just happened to have the same name and the same singer and guy I worked with.

“Fool For Your Lovin,’” when they re-recorded that I felt it lacked some of the heart and soul of what the song was all about and I know that David has more or less said the same thing in interviews over the years. I think Steve Vai is a wonderful guitar player and he did a very good Steve Vai job on that track, but I didn’t think it had the heart of what the song was all about. So you win some, you lose some. But having said that it sold about three-and-a half, four, five million [copies], so I can’t complain too much! [laughs] It continues to do well to this day.

Geeks of Doom: It does, yes. What did you think of the guitarists who eventually came to replace you and Mick Moody in Mel Galley and John Sykes?

Bernie Marsden: Poor Mel. The late Mel Galley. Mel I’d known a long time, not well, but even going back to pre-UFO I’d worked with Mel when he was in a band called Trapeze…with Glenn [Hughes]. I’d seen them play and we used to do quite a lot of Oxford University balls, graduation balls. It was a big gig circuit in the ‘70s and I had a small band and we’d get on for our forty-fifty quid [British pounds] at the time and then there’d be a big band on probably getting two hundred quid, that would be Trapeze…so I’d got to know those guys because they were so good.

Mel was a lovely guy. Very, very good singer, gifted musician…Mel seemed to be in Whitesnake for what felt like twenty minutes and I don’t think he got his point across as a musician really, although there’s a couple of pretty good songs existing from that period. John Sykes I didn’t know so well [but] I’ve come to know John much better over the years. I knew him like everybody else did as the guy from Thin Lizzy. Again, a great guitar player. What he was going to bring to Whitesnake I had no idea until the 1987 [U.S. title: Whitesnake] album came out and then I thought that was all really good. I just thought it was a great rock album and it deserved to have the success it did. I was just happy that one of my songs was on there! [laughs]

Geeks of Doom: You said then that you liked what they did on 1987 and the work around then was very different to the previous work with your time in the band.

Bernie Marsden: You see, I think the interim album between 1987 and the last one I did Saints And Sinners was an album called Slide It In…this is sour grapes kind of thing but my good friend Cozy Powell is the drummer on that album, Mel’s the guitar player and John on certain mixes and Colin Hodgkinson plays bass [but] I just felt that David had reformed the band but they were playing a bit of a watered down version of the band that broke up…I just didn’t think it was a very strong record. Whereas with 1987 I think he had really thought it through, all those guys had gone.

I’m a big fan of that kind of AOR rock. I’ve always been a big fan of Journey and people like Aerosmith and I like that big sound [on 1987] even though it wasn’t [the same] Whitesnake that I was in. I was also a big fan of Manchester United when Denis Law played. I’m still a fan now, but Denis Law can’t play for the team anymore.

Geeks of Doom: Yeah, I get that analogy!

Bernie Marsden: You know, I think it’s good that Whitesnake is still out there… I think it’s great that the band can still be out there doing shows. A lot of people say to me, and it’s nice that they say, ‘Don’t you think that the band was much better when you was in it?’ All I ever say is the band was very different to what we started off as; basically pretty much a rhythm and blues band that got hits…if people say that’s why they like that period of the band I can fully understand it but there’s millions of people in America who don’t know that me and Micky Moody was ever in Whitesnake…I think the good thing is that Whitesnake is still out there and doing it, to me that’s the most important thing.

Bernie MarsdenGeeks of Doom: Do you ever wish that you were part of Whitesnake when they hit the big time in the U.S.?

Bernie Marsden: No, not really. That may sound a bit strange. I had the back up of receiving certain income from it that helped to sweeten the pill shall we say but no. It’s almost a bit like the Renaissance moment when I was a kid: I don’t think I could have been part of that lineup because musically, even though I liked the sound, I don’t perform or don’t play like that. Also I was, what, thirty-five when that came out, nearly forty or something. I was too old! [laughs] The current line up, these guys are just so good. Doug Aldrich is such a fine musician and he brings a little of both worlds to Whitesnake because he was a big fan of the original Whitesnake and of course he’s part of the new Whitesnake. So he brings a nice blend of the two and that’s why we play together quite a bit. As far as the rest of the guys are concerned I think they’d love me to rejoin…but my days of travelling around the world for nine months a year I’m afraid [are over]. I’ll do some guest appearances, I’ll fly here and I’ll fly there, but I don’t think I could make it every day.

Geeks of Doom: Last year you played with the current Whitesnake. What was that like?

Bernie Marsden: Very emotional. Musically terrific from the fans’ point of view. I’ve never seen so many grown men crying at Hammersmith Apollo! [laughs] I thought I’d be the one getting a bit emotional and David called me out and he almost lost it big time and I had to say, ‘Pull yourself together, you’re the singer!’ [laughs] It was great. It’s on YouTube, have you seen it?

Geeks of Doom: Yes I have. There was a moment when the intro to “Here I Go Again” starts and you looked tearful.

Bernie Marsden: Oh I was tearful. Because you see [during] those shows that was only the second time that I had ever played “Here I Go Again” with David because we never played it in the old days. I pointed that out to him when we were in Sweden the week before and he was wide-eyed and he said, ‘Oh my god, I never realised that!’ He’s been playing “Here I Go Again” so long it hadn’t occurred to him that the writers had never performed it together.

Hammersmith meant a hell of a lot to me because that was where I realized, when we were so successful, that I was kind of a bit of a rock star. Because we were doing tremendous business for five, six, seven nights on end in gigs [at the place] where I used to go and see people that I perceived to be big rock stars, you know? So I knew we were big and after I played Hammersmith Odeon, or the Apollo as it is now, post-Whitesnake and never really enjoyed it, it tarnished my memory of Hammersmith. But going back there with Whitesnake last June playing to a sold-out full-on Whitesnake crowd was an emotional moment…they told me, the other guys in the band, they found it very emotional. They’ve been playing that song for a few years and suddenly out there is the guy that wrote it.

Geeks of Doom: You can definitely see how much the occasion affects Doug Aldrich. He gave you a kiss on the cheek, didn’t he?!

Bernie Marsden: Yeah, yeah! There’s a few girls in the audience would like a kiss on the cheek from him! [laughs] It was an emotional time, but there’s a lot of water under the bridge between the last gig I did with Whitesnake and playing with them again last year and it was great and they made me so welcome. I was travelling on the tour bus and everything, I got really into it and that’s when they said [puts on American accent] ‘Yeah we should do this more often, man!’ I said, ‘You know after four, five days of this I’m probably going to have to have a rest.’ They were going to Venezuela or somewhere and I said, ‘No, no, no, I’m going home to Oxfordshire!’ [laughs] But we keep in touch all the time.

Geeks of Doom: There are so many bands that are reforming those classic lineups and performing their biggest albums at festivals. Is there any chance that we would see a Ready An’ Willing lineup together again?

Bernie Marsden: No. I would say there’s no chance of that happening for reasons we don’t need to go into here. I think the nearest thing you’re ever going to see from that period has been done.

Geeks of Doom: And you’re putting a line under that?

Bernie Marsden: Yeah, I mean that’s a question really for David as well. I don’t expect anything approaching that connotation is going to happen.

Geeks of Doom: So a lot of water has passed under the bridge like you said, but are there still things maybe unresolved?

Bernie Marsden: Certainly not between David and I. We’re as close now as I think we ever were which I never thought, up until a couple of years ago, I would have said in an interview. He’s completely upfront with me, straight with me and if he wants me to do something he calls himself, he doesn’t have people call me and we chat on the phone. I was feeling lonesome in Euston station a couple of months ago and I looked at my phone and I thought…’I’ll call him up.’ So I left him a message and I just sang ‘sitting in the railway station, waiting for my destination’ because I didn’t think he was in. He called me back within about ten minutes: ‘What the hell are you doing in Euston station?’ he says, ‘it’s one o’clock in the morning! I’ll talk to you until your train goes.’

I appreciate that because I think it’s nice for men of a certain age who have done quite a bit in their lives together to be as close as they can as older men. That sounds a bit profound, doesn’t it?! But I really do believe that. I’m very happy whenever I’ve been onstage with him again. That to me is a tremendous bonus and I love every minute of it and just to be able to phone each other up and just say, ‘hey, how you doing, mate?’ that’s as important to me. For me it closes the circle. Or opens a friendship that I thought may have been gone.

All of Bernie’s current CDs and news updates are available on www.berniemarsden.co.uk.

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