Interview: Mick Underwood (Gillan, Quatermass, Glory Road)

HIT CHANNEL EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: October 2018. We had the honour to talk with a great drummer: Mick Underwood. He’s best known as a member of Gillan during their most successful period.

He has also been a founding member of cult progressive rock band Quatermass and over the years he has played with Jet Harris, The Outlaws (with Ritchie Blackmore), The Herd (with Peter Frampton), The James Royal Set, Episode Six (with Ian Gillan and Roger Glover), Peace (with Paul Rodgers), Sammy, Strapps, Graham Bonnet, Quatermass II, Raw Glory and on “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” soundtrack. In 2012, he formed Mick Underwood’s Glory Road who play Gillan songs. Read below the very interesting things he told us:

Your band, Mick Underwood’s Glory Road play the songs of Gillan live. Why did you decide to form this band?

It’s not just Gillan. We play some Quatermass things as well as Gillan, which was another band that I was in. Well, I like the songs. I like the albums we did with Gillan. I met these guys, I was trying other bands and stuff and some of them I knew from way back. We decided that it would be quite interesting people to come to see us playing Gillan stuff and any other bits of pieces from my back records, my back stuff and it worked out and there it was. It’s a really good band, we have great players and a great singer as well. We are good, you know, and it’s quite fun to do it.

Is it possible to make a studio album with Mick Underwood’s Glory Road?

No. There is no point. We don’t have songs that we have written. There is no stuff that I played on. I don’t think that it probably would be quite interest to people to buy that. I have never thought of us as being a recording band.

You were 16 when you joined Jet Harris (The Shadows –bass). Was it a great experience for you to tour with Little Richard and Sam Cooke?

Yeah, that was fantastic! I was still at school when I was asked by Jet Harris to join, which was incredible really, because Jet Harris had just left The Shadows, which were a major band in the UK. I was on my school holidays, the last ones, in the summer. I came out of school, I had finished school then and I just started doing that and it was just a fantastic break. I couldn’t believe that I was lucky enough to get that.

You did hundreds of sessions with The Outlaws (with Ritchie Blackmore) as the house band for Joe Meek’s productions. How important was that period for your later career?

Yes, we did an awful lot of sessions for Joe Meek with The Outlaws. I was about the third drummer they had, I wasn’t an original player with them. It was just quite to get into that. It was a fabulous learning curve for someone who was just coming professionally into the business. It was very interesting. The band was great. We had Ritchie Blackmore on guitar, he came in with me. Chas Hodges was on bass, who sadly died a couple of weeks ago, which is really sad. He was a fabulous musician. So, I was with great people. The keyboard player and really guitarist was called Ken Lundgren, he was absolutely great. They were all stunning players and it was quite a relief to be with them. They wanted a recording session drummer and I was so lucky to get that as well.

The Outlaws: Mick Underwood and Ritchie Blackmore

When you played with the James Royal Set you toured with Johnny Cash. Do you have any memories of this tour? Did you get to know Johnny Cash?

Yes, we did! They were the most wonderful people to go on the road with. I am not quite in love with country music, but Johnny Cash is something else. He had rock ‘n’ roll built into him. He came through time with Presley and they all worked together in those days. The tour was absolutely amazing. We were supporting Johnny Cash obviously and he had his wife June (ed: Carter) with him. There were fabulous musicians in his band. Carl Perkins, who wrote “Blue Suede Shoes”, was on guitar, one of the guitarists. Marshall Grant (ed: bass) was there as well. It was just an amazing 2-3 weeks touring with these lovely people. It was really great.

When The Outlaws were the backing band for Gene Vincent, Peter Grant (later Led Zeppelin manager) was his tour manager. Years later, he asked you to do a Scandinavian tour with Jimmy Page. Why did you turn down his offer?

It was a strange thing. I was on a TV recording session and Peter Grant happened to be at that session and of course I worked with him with Gene Vincent, as you said. He asked me what I was doing and I had just come to the end of that Johnny Cash tour, so I didn’t have anything else much to do, something that was that interesting. I didn’t know Jimmy Page personally but we grew up in the same area. We always knew he was a great player. I said: “Yes, I would be interested”. That was all it was. Led Zeppelin didn’t exist then and we didn’t expect to. There was a week or two of a Scandinavian tour to fulfill the few commitments Jimmy already had. I was the guy for it and then… it was weird really. I got a call from a lady called Gloria Bristow who managed a band called Episode Six, which I didn’t know at time but had Ian Gillan and Roger Glover and various others. They were a very well-known band and they did lots and lots of recordings, stuff for the BBC and also some other things. It was a busy band. Whereas the other thing, was just a few days on tour and that would be the end of it. So, I talked to Peter, I called him and said: “No, I’ve been asked to join this band and I am gonna be doing that. So, I can’t get involved”. Anyway, I wouldn’t have been in Led Zeppelin, I’m pretty sure of that (laughs).

Could you imagine yourself as a member of Led Zeppelin?

Well, the only person sitting on the drum kit that I could see as a member of Led Zeppelin… was the man who did play with Led Zeppelin! That is how it was. If someone was in the false place and space, who was gonna be in that band? But that’s how it was. When Peter Grant talked to me, Zeppelin didn’t exist. They had to work quite hard when they did exist to get themselves going. They did a lot of gigs and all sorts of things. They were fantastic, one of my most favourite bands. I love them.

Are you proud that the Quatermass album (“Quatermass” -1970) is considered a cult one?

Yes, I think it is but it wasn’t terribly successful at the time as far as selling units of records or anything. But it stood the test of time. There were the three of us in the band: John Gustafson was a fabulous musician playing bass and a great-great singer. A superb bass player. Peter Robinson was a capable player and he was on the tour with Johnny Cash. He was in the band with us on the keyboards. I mean, he is in America now writing film music and he‘s got much work. He is really good at that. I think the Quatermass album stood really fantastically. Peter Robinson, the keyboard player did a remix of it a little while ago, 3-4 years back. If you get the chance to get it, it is for sale, it is worth getting, let me say that, because there are some fabulous sounds on it. The original stuff has really improved and also it comes in two discs. One is in 5.1 surround sound, so if you ‘ve got that equipment, you live inside it (laughs). It’s very-very good. Very good job was made on that. I’ve very proud of the album. I’m still listening to it now again. It was just great for the time.

Quatermass live in Munich

It’s very impressive that you and John Gustafson (bass) recorded much of the material of the Quatermass album live. Can you please tell us about the chemistry you had with John Gustafson?

It was an incredible chemistry, in actual fact. We did rehearse a bit, but we didn’t work these little things out. Playing with John was like telepathy. Somebody would hear patterns, they were complicated patterns with the bass playing along and the bass drum following that line. We didn’t work those out, they just came out of the blue. That’s a magical thing when that happens. It was great. It was fabulous to work with him. He was a superb singer as well. Absolutely superb singer. Unfortunately he is no longer with us. It’s very sad.

Quatermass did an American tour and they opened for The Kinks at the Fillmore East (4-5 December 1970). Were Quatermass a good live band?

I don’t think we were an exceptionally good live band, but the problem is you never know what would happen. Some of the songs we played were quite long, but they were different every night. I think we were a good live band… but not a very good live band (laughs). Because of the quality of the musicianship. It was quite incredible that he sang the stuff that the other boys had written. It was just fabulous to play with the one point of view and we seemed to do quite well every night. We played larger venues. We did both the Fillmore’s, the one you are talking about and also the Fillmore West. We played really nice gigs over there and we did well, to be honest with you. It was good, but not pretty enough to break the band out.

I know that Quatermass auditioned the guitarist Alan Shacklock (Babe Ruth). Why he didn’t join the band?

I’m trying to remember. Yes, Alan was another great musician but we were thinking in having a guitarist in the band while it was completely keyboard-led. Alan did rehearse a bit with us, but he had to disappear to go somewhere else for a few weeks. Once he was away, we were not sure whether we actually wanted to have a typical line-up with a guitar and not just the keyboard line-up. We actually decided we would go without a guitarist. I think he did a little bit on the album, some overdub stuff and things on “Good Lord Knows”. He is still a friend now. He lives in America and he is doing great out there. He is just a great player and a good producer as well. It was a bit of a tactical move. It wasn’t because we didn’t like him or he couldn’t play, because he was a very-very good young guitar guy, but we just felt we do as a trio.

Were you surprised when Ritchie Blackmore covered the Quatermass song “Black Sheep of the Family” with Rainbow in 1975?

Yes, it’s so funny that, because everyone thinks Quatermass covered his version of “Black Sheep of the Family”, but he recorded it 5 years after we did (laughs). I’ve got a little story I can tell about that if you are interested: I played that track to Ritchie. We hadn’t broken up, it was Quatermass time actually and I had a reel-to-reel tape with me and I went down to Kingsway Recorders where Purple were recording, because they were friends of mine. I just went down to say “hello” to Ian Gillan and all the rest of them. I played it to Ritchie and he said: “I like that track. I like that track” and I was surprised, as you said, a few years later when he actually did record a very different version to ours. But it’s still very good, because it’s a great song.

Peace: Paul Rodgers, Stuart McDonald, Mick Underwood

You formed Peace with Paul Rodgers (Free, Bad Company –vocals) and recorded an album for Island Records. What went wrong?

We did. We hadn’t quite finished the album, it was just about finished. Paul was a great singer, obviously he is a wonderful singer. It was good that I got to work with him. We spent a lot of the summer of that year (ed: 1971) where he lived. He lived out in the country and we rehearsed there. That band was a trio again and did the tracks, and it was going really well. You can hear “Lady” on the “The Free Story” album (1973) and some of the other tracks are as well on Youtube, the band is called Peace. What happened was that just about as we were finishing it, he hadn’t mixed it and everything, Free decided to reform because they were a bit concerned about Paul Kossoff (ed: guitar). They wanted to do something to help him a little bit and Island who was looking after Paul, decided that it was a good idea. Things just dissolved and no-one could help it. Paul was gonna be busy doing that, so that was it, which was a little bit unfortunate really. On the “Heartbreaker” (1973) album they did, they were doing versions of the album tracks that we had already done before breaking up. This is the way it goes, sometimes.

I like the Sammy album (“Sammy” -1973) and I think “Who Do You Really Love?” could have been a big hit. Why you said that Sammy were a mistake?

I put the band together, the people that played in the band and they were all very good players. They were great musicians and singers, but as the band progressed, we did the album, anyway I wasn’t too mad about the album and then a little bit later I felt: “This is not really where I want to be” playing stuff with saxophones and all the rest of it, who were great players. These guys were good, don’t get me wrong but the material wasn’t very strong I felt and I couldn’t see it really going anywhere. I didn’t feel quite comfortable with it.

How did it happen to play on “Brian Song” from “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” (1979) soundtrack?

I did a version of that. I don’t know whether it was used in the film or not. I knew the guy that he was doing the music for it (ed: Trevor Jones), I had done some sessions with him before and he said: “I want to do another version of the “Brian Song”. I want to make it a bit heavier”. So, I went there and I put a drum track there against the track that had already been done. But it was a little bit heavier, so whatever happened to it, I don’t know. I didn’t see the film (laughs). I don’t know whether it was used or not. It might have been or might not, I don’t know. I can’t speak candidly of it, it was just a session where I did the drums a bit harder. But everybody else, the singer (ed: Sonia Jones), they were on it. I don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine, my man (laughs)!

Do you remember the concert of Gillan in Athens, Greece on 15 September 1980?

Oh, the trip to Greece, which was absolutely brilliant, in actual fact. We did two gigs: One I think it was in Thessalonica and the other one in Athens, which was great. We had a week there, it was absolutely good. The gig in Athens unfortunately went a bit wrong, as much as the security, it was a little bit bad there. People were climbing in over the fences and eventually during the set there was a riot there. The riot police went in really heavily and that was the end of the gig. I remember it vividly, very-very well. The whole trip was great. Unfortunately that gig went a bit wrong and there weren’t much to do about it, we were just there playing. The people weren’t rioting, don’t get me wrong, they were going down well, but there were some elements that they were causing problems and your policemen they were going for them (laughs).

How did you feel when John McCoy (Gillan –bass) was flying over your drum set? It seems that you had a great time with Gillan!

(Laughs) He’s a big man. He’s big fella. I was on my riser and they always flew him right over the top of me and a little bit out in the front. One particular night, they lost control of him. He was out there flying and something was broken and we got professional guys doing it. Something was broken, I don’t know what it was. He was out of control, dropping and moving. So, he was swinging across and he was going: “Oooh! Oooh!” and I was honestly thinking that he had to bail out, put a jump off. He was somewhere over the drum riser and Big John looked like that he was gonna crash lying into the drum kit and I just hung on a second, longer enough that I wanted to do really, because I couldn’t get control of him and put him away, but that was a memorable moment. It was interesting, suicidal, but he was very good. Something he would tell the other crew and all the rest of it. He was very-very good. He was a good lad, John.

Ritchie Blackmore joined Gillan on stage at Rainbow Theatre on 10 March 1980. Is this one of the highlights of your career?

Not, really. I met Ritchie since we were about 15. It was nice to see him. In fact, that was the last time I saw Ritchie. I think he came down to see if he could tempt Ian to go and join Rainbow. I think that’s why he was there for, in actual fact. It was nice to see him. It was nice that he went after the encore, at the end. We got some nice pictures, he’s out there, playing with us and Bernie Tormé on guitar, as well. He was just in a couple of rock ‘n’ roll things for fun. It was good, but I’m not close to Ritchie. Last time I spoke with him was then.

You drumming on “Secret of the Dance” (“Mr. Universe” -1979) is unbelievable! How challenging was it for you to record this song?

It was just another track, to be frank with you. In Gillan band we were often doing quite quick songs. It was good. In those days, everybody was pretty quick anyway and it’s just another track. It was a good track, but I think probably “Roller” was a harder one to do, because I had to beat as hard as I can from top to bottom. That was right in the beginning, we were doing a “Mr. Universe” album then and I had been in the band for about two weeks when we did that one, so I didn’t really know everybody that well when I played on the track. But now I think “Secret of the Dance” was a great track live.

Ritchie Blackmore with Gillan (Mick Underwood on drums) at Rainbow Theatre, 10 March 1980

As a member of The Herd (Peter Frampton joined some time before Mick’s departure) you had a long conversation with Jeff Beck. What was its subject?

I slightly knew him. He was just going in the van. I was playing with the band that you say and we were playing very close to where I live now, which is Twickenham. In Twickenham, you ‘ve got the Eel Pie Island, which is a massive place. There is a little island in the river Thames and also there was a big ramshackle hotel which during ‘60s was quite a major venue. We were playing there with The Herd and we had been sitting in our van after the gig, which wasn’t on the island obviously, it was out, near a little bridge and then Jeff Beck turned up. I had met him and I actually had jammed with him before that, but that was when we were still at school –I didn’t think he recognized me anyway- and we just talked in the van. He was quite different about. It must have been 30 or 45 minutes just talking about how much he loved blues. He was very genuine and what an amazing guitarist, as well. It was very good that.

Had you ever met Jimi Hendrix?

No, I never met him. I knew his drummer, Mitch Mitchell. We went to the same drum teacher when we were kids, Jim Marshall, who used to make Marshall Amps. Of course, Marshall Amps still exist. So, I knew him quite well from there and I think he was absolutely perfect drummer for Hendrix, really.

Do you think you should have received more recognition as a drummer?

I don’t know, really. If recognition is to meet someone who says: “I like what you do”, I think everyone feels happy when they like what you are doing. I have never thought about it. Basically, I was gonna work with it, that’s what it counts: working with it. People would say what they like.

A huge “THANK YOU” to Mr Mick Underwood for his time and to Carol Hynson for her valuable help.

Official Mick Underwood’s Glory Road website: http://mickunderwoodsgloryroad.com

Official Mick Underwood website: http://www.mickunderwood.com

Official Mick Underwood’s Glory Road Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/289860011088487

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