Dave Phillips was, with his first band the Blue Cats, among the first to play Rockabilly like it was played back in the fifties.
After a while Dave Phillips and the Blue Cats parted ways. But it’s a rare case of a good thing to result from a split. Instead of having one great band, it gave birth to two great bands (think of the Sharks split that gave us Frenzy too). With his debut album under his own name Dave Phillips helped to define a brand new genre that soon was dubbed “neo-rockabilly”.
Phillips, and a few other bands (Restless, the Blue Cats second period, the Polecats…) influenced countless young cats to form their own bands.
He made the link and kept rockabilly alive.
More than 30 years later he’s still active on the scene today with Rob Tyler (who’s here since Wild Youth in 1981) and Paul Gaskin on guitar.
For someone like me who grew up to the sound of the Blue Cats debut album, it’s a pleasure, an honour and a personnal achievement to present this interview with Dave Phillips.
by Fred “Virgil” Turgis
Dave, how did you discover rock’n’roll music? Was music present in your family when you grew up?
Although there were no musicians in the the generations of my family before me, music and dance were a very prolific part of my family culture and a favourite pass time for us all.
Dave Phillips: Rock n roll was the favoured music amongst my uncles and aunts as I started growing up, so that was a big influence on my musical taste, but the biggest influence was my grand father William, who said to me all of the time from when I was a baby that his vision of my future was as a band leader, on a stage making music that people would love to dance to.
Obviously, Gene Vincent had a huge influence on you. But when I listen to you recordings I’d say that the Beatles were also another big influence on you, not only because you covered them (three tims on disc if I’m correct) but for the melodic side of things too…
Dave Phillips: That’s quite true, as with Gene Vincent, The Beatles were also a great influence on my early musical taste, understandable when you consider that I was born to the sound of their first hit album ‘Please Please Me’, which was being played everywhere you went at that time. The Beatles were the next heirs to carry the torch of Rock N Roll as the 50’s passed and they became closely affiliated with Gene Vincent in their early years and loved his sound, as I’m sure you will know.
The current list of bands and musicians I have taken influence from is endless and very broad, spanning right across the spectrum of musical flavours. Basically I love music generally with a great passion and take influence wherever it strikes me as having true artistic integrity.
What led you to pick the doublebass? Was it a record, a player?
Dave Phillips: When I was very young, in fact right around the time I was born, a new musical instrument, that had only recently been invented, had flooded the market around the music shops of the UK: it was called the electric bass guitar.
Everyone who was a bass player and played in popular music wanted one if they hadn’t already started playing one. As I started to grow up and found the genre of music that I felt most passionate about (obviously Rock N Roll) had a certain sound and feel that was missing from every popular song playing on the radio at that time.
Then one day at the age of twelve, just when I was finishing my music class as a student of trumpet, I noticed this beautiful old instrument that always stood in the corner behind the piano. She looked so lonely, I had never seen anyone playing the old girl. I felt so sorry for her I wanted to caress her and give her some attention. I asked my trumpet teacher if I could give her a try, to which he replied ” of course you can, you’ll be the first person that’s touched that old thing for years”.
Boy, did I touch that old thing?
I never took a lunch break that day, we fell so deeply in love with each other from the first moment. I realised that she had that sound that was missing from all of the contemporary rock n roll I heard around me.
From then on I rarely ever took a lunch break at school, rather go and spend my time learning about the beautiful tone she sang when I touched her, until eventually lots of other kids in the school would also sacrifice lunch, just to come and hear the beautiful sounds she made when I played her.
The rest as they say (once I found a band) is history.
I remember reading in an old interview that you studied trumpet in school. Is that you that we can hear on the Blue Cats’ Boogie Up Roar?
Dave Phillips: That’s a very clever question considering my last answer which included my past history as a trumpeter. I didn’t play any of the trumpet on that album. I did however lay down a vocal arrangement for the session guys that came in to play it for us.
Talking about the Blue Cats, how did the band form?
Dave Phillips: My first band was the really the culmination of years of effort and semi committed school mates, which only really started to come to fruition when Clive Osbourne came on board.
We had just managed to get two gigs under our belt when the guitarist declared that he couldn’t do it any more due to the stage fright he experienced. At the same time we all knew that the drummer (Doug Freeman R.I.P) wasn’t cutting the mustard. The band was about fall apart when suddenly Clive had a idea.
“There’s a couple of brothers that live just down the road from me” he said.
“Carlo plays guitar and his elder brother Stef plays drums. Shall I call them And ask if they’d be interested in joining us?”
They tried out. It worked. Once again, the rest, as they say, was history. Well, until more history happened and we blew apart.
This band was very different in the musical landscape at the time. Compared to the vast majority of rockin’ bands who were mostly “Teddy Boys”, you aimed at a more authentic sound…
Dave Phillips: That just steps right back to my feelings as a younger man who could hear that modern rock n roll bands had some essential qualities missing in their sound. I always felt it was just the double bass, but soon found that the other guys in the band also started analysing and finding ways that the sound could be more authentic: Clive had to have that original Selmer sound on his sax, while Carlo went looking for every detail of what made Cliff Gallup’s sound so unique. We had such an exciting time working out our sound to rockin’ perfection.
After a while you and the rest of the band parted ways. And a couple of months later you came back under you own name. How did you feel at the time?
Dave Phillips: I felt very privileged to have been recognised by the record company as an artist in my own right just after the band split.
In the depth of my deepest blues, early one morning while I was mooching around the house wondering what I should do next, mum called to me in my bedroom:
“Dave! There’s someone on the phone for you from your record company”. They only told me they wanted to sign me as a solo artist! The only condition was that I needed me to put a new band together as quickly as possible. Shit, did I work the rounds on the London Rockin’ scene to get that new band together ASAP? Only months later I was back on the road and then back in the studio in the Netherlands with Rob Tyler and Mark Harman.
Absolute beauty and blessings is what I call it these days.
The Hot Rod Gang first line-up was, beside Dave Phillips of course, John Day on lead guitar, Ray Thompson on rhythm guitar and Rob Tyler on drums (he later played with Restless too). Day and Thompson quickly left to be replaced by Mark Harman (Restless). This line-up recorded Wild Youth (contrary to the cover who credited Andrew Wrightson on drums, actually Wrightson was the band driver). After Harman left to fully concentrate on Restless, Pat Rayford came in then Mick Malone (who later joined Restless) who appears on the live recordings “Live At The Rockhouse” with Janis martin, Mac Curtis, Honey Hush…Then Paul Gaskin (Outer Limits) replaced Malone.
Then you entered the studio with Mark Harman and Rob Tyler to record “Wild Youth”. Clint Bradley recently told me that Bert at Rockhouse wasn’t too keen about the more modern stuff and wanted the band to stick to a more traditionnal sound. Was it the same with you? Tell us a bit about the recording of that classic…
Dave Phillips: Initially Bert choked on his coffee at the morning meeting when I told him I wanted to do Tainted Love. He hated the idea, but I stood strong and told him you trusted me enough to sign me as a solo artist, now trust me and let me do this track. He complained all the way through the recording session saying “why can’t you just do the good old rockin stuff that everyone loves?”
I told him we had to develope our beloved rockin music and it’s scene for a new generation. Somehow he trusted me and I was right. My children love what I did with that authentic 50’s sound bringing it to a new fresh audience of younger people. Do I have to say it again? ….. The rest is history!
You’ve always played with the best. It seems that beside being the perfect vehicle for your sound, the Hot Rod Gang also worked as a Rock’n’roll incubator if you see what I mean…
Dave Phillips: When the Blue Cat Trio came about we were against all odds with the huge onslaught that came from the Punk movement in London at that time.
We seemed to have made an impact like I’d never have expected.
When the Hot Rod Gang came together the determination and will to keep that momentum going was tremendous. We literally paved the way, along side the Polecats, Restless, Stargazers, Delta’s etc.. for the later arrival of the Stray Cats. Yes, we were out there working our butts clean off to show the kids of our generation that there was a real alternative to the crap that was being fostered and force fed to the youth by the music industry of that time.
“Wild Youth” and the single Tainted Love were big hits on the scene. But for the follow-up you didn’t try to recreate a second Wild Youth. Was it important for you not to repeat yourself.
Dave Phillips: Now that was where Bert had finally given over lock stock and barrel to the philosophy that I’d introduced with Tainted Love at the previous recording session.
This time he really wanted me to lay down as much of that modern crossover shit as I possibly could and he lapped it up. Personally and in hindsight, I think I tried a bit too hard. Bert liked it though, obviously he’d seen the dollars roll in plentifully from the exploit of Wild Youth and just wanted to see more of the same.
At the release party for the new album ‘Understatements’ we took a lot of very hard criticism from our audience, in the form of bottles, glasses and whatever else they could find to throw at us! They hated it and we felt we’d got it all wrong.Go ask the band, it was truly mental!
Many bands were formed after the Blue Cats and/or the Hot Rod Gang. How do you see this “heritage”?
Dave Phillips: I honestly feel like the Gods smiled on me and kept on pulling my strings to make me go on with it. Other than that it seems I just had some good creative ideas in the right field, and at the right time in the right place. All done with a very humble heart. More blessings.
How do you see the evolution of the rockabilly (in the large meaning of the term) scene since the 80’s? Are there bands that impressed you recently?
Dave Phillips: I get to spend a lot of time around different places on the scene these days and I am seeing some cracking bands out there that have grown from the early days when we began. So many of them I see are direct descendants of the scene we started back then and they all work from the same heart in the music. It’s awesome to be honest.
You recently played in France and will play the Rockabilly Rave next month. So your live schedule is busy, but is there any chance for new recordings in the near future?
Dave Phillips: I have been blown away by the way I have been received back on the scene after many years of absence. The band seems to go from strength to strength and the gigs just get better each time we play.
Our recent gig in France was a real roof raiser as were all the previous gigs of this past year. We are very excited about going to do the Rave next month, it should be a real blast.
As for a new recording, well we have proposed to do a new album, but it seems to be taking a long time to organise. One thing we are lacking at this time is the sponsorship from a label that would help us to finance the cost of production. Nevertheless we are very determined that a new release will come soon. Fingers crossed! (if that can help we’re crossing ours too – ed.)
The last word is for you…
Dave Phillips: I would just like to say thank you to my awesome band Rob Tyler and Paul Gaskin for the years of great times and music, also to all of the many other musicians and bands I get to work with these days, but most of all a big thank you to all of the beautiful people who love and support this great music and it’s wonderful passionate scene. Long live Rock N Roll !