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Interview with Atomic Rooster
28 July 2016
Rocktopia talks to Steve 'Boltz' Bolton. Photos by Paul Leather Photography.
Formed in 1969 from the ashes of The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, Atomic Rooster began life centred as a trio centred around the Hammond organ work of Vincent Crane, with none other than Carl Palmer on drums. After their first album, the band added guitarist John Du Cann and their album 'Death Walks Behind You' reached number 12 in the UK album charts and cracked the top 100 Stateside.
The group would make a total of seven studio albums before splitting in 1983, leaving a legacy of memorable Prog Rock and a list of members that included Gillan alumni John McCoy and Bernie Tormé, as well as a brief two week stint from Ginger Baker. After a period playing for Dexy's Midnight Runners, Crane died from an overdose and Atomic Rooster were presumed finished. However, a new version has sprung up, with vocalist Pete French and guitarist Steve Bolton reprising their roles from their run in the band during the early seventies. James Gaden spoke to 'Boltz' to learn how things came about...
The story starts in the late sixties, where a young Steve Bolton watched a gig by The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, which was a precursor of what was to come for the musician, something that would happen more than once in his life.
"What happened was I was based in Manchester and I used to go to see all the big bands of the time, like The Who," Bolton explains, "and they'd crop up again in my life later on. Anyway, I distinctly remember going to see The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and it was just amazing. They had Carl Palmer on drums and Vincent Crane had this Hammond organ with melted keys, because he'd taken a flamethrower to them, making it look really gothic. Little did I know, just a couple of years later, I'd be playing with him in Atomic Rooster. I was in a band, we went to London and then within a couple of weeks the band had split up. I was hanging in there and I got a job playing guitar in a strip club in Soho. Back then, bands would put adverts in the papers like NME or Melody Maker, looking for musicians. Somebody sent me this advert and it said 'Atomic Rooster require lead guitarist for forthcoming US tour' and it had a London phone number. That turned out to be Vincent Crane's number. I answered they ad and I got the job. The thing was though, I wasn't a lead guitar player at the time, I was always the second guitar player, doing rhythm, that's all I wanted to be, I loved rhythm guitar. But I got this job after a second audition, so I had to give myself a crash course in lead playing. Paul Hammond had gone off with John Du Cann, so Vincent had a number four record with 'Devils Answer'... and no band! He had brought in Pete French on vocals, then Ric Parnell came in on drums and me on guitar, so we cobbled a band together. That group went out and did two tours of America. I was really wet behind the ears, this was the end of the sixties and there were some wild shenanigans. I was about nineteen and really quite naive, it was a real growing up period for me."
After touring heavily across the States, the band came home to open a huge gig at the Oval cricket ground, playing in front of 65,000 people on a bill that also featured The Faces and, once again, Bolton's future employers, The Who. For any young guitar player, this must have been a real baptism of fire.
"Oh, it was..." Bolton responds. "I was crashing on a friends floor at the time and this is another example of how green I was, I knew nothing about jet lag. We came back from the States and I'm asleep in the flat. I know I need to be on stage at five o'clock for our set. I was in a flat about a mile from Highgate Tube Station which takes you straight to the Oval. I wake up, and it's about half past four. But I was so jet lagged, it didn't even compute. It slowly dawned on me that I'm supposed to be on stage in half an hour - you know what it's like when you just wake up, I had slitty eyes and a puffy face, and I just ran out of the flat all the way to the tube, got on, went down, ran to the Oval, got backstage, a roadie shoved my Les Paul in my hand and pushed me on stage telling me to 'plug into that'... which just happened to be Pete Townshend's double high watt stack. So there was another pre-cursor! I found some pictures from that gig and I do look like I'd just gotten up!
"That was a particularly memorable show but we played all over the place, we toured Italy because Rooster were big there and in Germany. We did America and it was good fun but we never quite cracked it there. Ric Parnell was like my guru when we were touring, he used to crash at mine, show my how to roll joints and all that sort of stuff. He lives full time in the States now and that's why he's not involved in this reunion, it's too far for him to come. But you'll have seen him on film, as he ended up playing drums in 'This Is Spinal Tap', he's Mick Shrimpton, the drummer in the shower cap."
While the band packed in a lot of touring over an eighteen month period, ultimately it would be a short lived line up as the band were about to lose vocalist French.
"Pete got poached by Carmine Appice and formed Cactus, which meant we had to get another singer," the guitarist explains. "Ric and I suggested a few guys but Vincent insisted we got Chris Farlowe in the band."
The arrival of Chris Farlowe saw the band follow Crane's vision of exploring more Funk and Soul leanings, at the expense of some of the Progressive Rock tendencies.
"Vincent had this idea - everyone's into James Brown, if you're not, there's something wrong with you in my book!" Bolton laughs. "So that wasn't a problem, but it was probably partly my fault. I wasn't a full on 'widdly-widdly' lead guitar payer like John Du Cann was. He was full on, and playing this stuff now, I'm having to really learn these songs again. I liked playing a more funky rhythm so I guess in a way I had a hand in that direction. But it was Vincent's vision to do that anyway - and Chris Farlowe, whatever else you say about him, was a fantastic singer. I was wanting to go out and do other stuff because I was only young, so that was what ultimately saw me leave. I was in the band for about eighteen months... but what an eighteen months! I told Vincent I had had enough and he was clearly upset. I always liked Vincent, he was a really sweet guy, but I had to get out. It's important to have your own outlet. I still have my own projects now, I have a very odd band which is nothing like Rooster, where I've got pedal steel and put it in most unusual situations, we're called Dead Man's Corner. You need to have those other outlets.
After Rooster, 'Boltz' would earn a name for himself as a session player, notable featuring on many of Paul Young's hits in the eighties, such as 'Come Back And Stay', 'Love Of The Common People' and 'I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down'. He would also be asked personally by Pete Townshend to play electric guitar on The Who's epic 'Join Together' tour in 1989, as Townshend was concentrating on acoustic guitar duties for the tour.
"I was with Paul for two periods in the 80s," Bolton confirms. "I left to do my own thing and then rejoined him. I played on quite a few of his big 80s albums. I did a lot of session work in the 80s, mostly studio work, and I toured America with John Otway previously. Then I worked with The Who, of course, playing guitar for them in the late eighties. Back in the day I'd never have thought anything like that would happen, no matter how much I stretched my imagination! Yet despite doing all that, my stint in Atomic Rooster has sort of followed me around over the years."
And that would eventually catch up with him when enquiries about an Atomic Rooster tribute band arose. Rock Artist Management believed they could do a bit better than than and reached out to Steve.
"I had spoken to Pete French about doing something a couple of years ago," the guitarist reveals, "and I spoke to Vincent's widow to see if she would mind us using the name - if she'd said no, then we'd have had to gone out as Funky Chicken or something! But she was fully supportive, and then I ended up being contacted by Rock Artist Management. Their main guy Pete Barton called me and said that there was interest in Rooster if we got back together, so I called Pete French and he was up for it, with some reservations. One of the main ones was Vincent was such a great, flamboyant Hammond Organ player, and finding someone to fill that role would be tough. But Pete Barton already had a guy lined up called Christian Madden, who is a huge Prog Rock, ELO and Vincent Crane fan, even though he's only in his thirties. I was assured he had the chops and I found out he certainly had! So Pete and I went up to Clitheroe of all places to rehearse with Christian, and a bass player we'd brought in called Shug Millidge. We got Shug because Christian didn't want the responsibility of playing keyboard bass with pedals like Vincent could, because you have to have a certain brain capacity for that, it's tough. So we rehearsed together, only for our drummer to drop out due to other commitments."
The loss of the drummer so close to playing a gig is almost Spinal Tap-esque in itself, but the band found a modern solution.
"We ended up finding one via Youtube," Bolton explains. "We took kind of a gamble on it. We all learned our parts at home for about three or four weeks and then we had three days all together to rehearse before our proper warm up gig. And as soon as we struck the first song, it was fantastic. Bo Walsh, our new drummer, is unbelievable. He's exactly what we need, he's like an octopus. We played the whole set, like an hour and twenty minutes, and then a couple of days later, we played in a hotel bar where we were staying. It was just amazing and I'm so fired up to play the 100 Club, the Cambridge Rock Festival and Hard Rock Hell.
"The agency were waiting to see how the first show went... well, I think we all were to be honest, but it was so good, I can't wait to get some more shows. Rock Artist Management have been fantastic, Pete Barton and Gary Marks have been brilliant and they put on gigs all over the place, so I'm sure we'll be doing a fair bit."
It sounds like one of those serendipitous moments where, despite decades passing, it was like the band had never been away,
"The people that saw it said some great things, one long standing fan actually said 'It's like Atomic Rooster but, dare I say it, better'. This version is really full on and vital, it's got so much energy. It took a lot of learning, some of the stuff is really technical, especially some of the instrumentals - it's easy to put a foot wrong, and it'll fall apart. It's quite taxing mentally too, it's not linked musically like you'd expect, it's really original stuff. We could record a live album and it would sound relevant, it wouldn't sound like some old geezers pushing a dead horse around. So I want more shows, I can't wait - this Rooster definitely has legs!"
Atomic Rooster play the following dates:
100 Club in London - Wednesday August 3rd, with Snafu
The Cambridge Rock Festival - Thursday August 4th.
They are also scheduled to appear at Hard Rock Hell Prog V in March 2017.
Learn more about Steve Bolton and his work at http://steveboltz.co.uk
Check out Steve's band Dead Man's Corner at http://www.deadmanscorner.net