Bernie Tormé (Gillan, Tormé, Ozzy, GMT)

Bernie Torme

Bernie Tormé is an Electric Gypsy, a rock ‘n’ roll pirate and a “psychedelic blues shredmeister” of the highest order. In its ‘100 Wildest Guitar Heroes’ feature (March 2007), Classic Rock Magazine referred to his “cosmic tones and glam punk squiggles”, and likened his appearance at times to that of a “dandified Dracula”. He plays guitar like a man who’s controlling and harnessing chaos, with passion, soul and joyful abandon.

Like many other fans of the NWOBHM generation, my first taste of Bernie Tormé came via his work with Gillan. Quite possibly there has never been a more colourful, engaging, and madcap rock band. Over a run of three studio albums (Mr. Universe, Glory Road and Future Shock) and numerous singles, including the stunning ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’, Tormé’s playing, and particularly his interplay with keys man Colin Towns, was integral to the development of Gillan’s unique sound.

Beyond Gillan, Tormé has fronted his own band, and played with the likes of Dee Snider (Twisted Sister), Clive Burr (Iron Maiden) and Phil Lewis (Girl, L.A. Guns). He is also, famously, the guitarist who first stepped in to help Ozzy out after the tragic death of Randy Rhoads. He is currently plying his trade in GMT, with drummer Robin Guy and former Gillan colleague bassist John McCoy: still colourful, still engaging and still a bit madcap!

So Bernie, what does rock music mean to you?
The blues had a baby and they called it rock ‘n’ roll …the daddy was country and had a nasty accident and drowned in whiskey somewhere down the holler. It wasn’t called ‘rock’ when I was young in this neck of the woods, it was ‘rock ‘n’ roll’, and later in the sixties, ‘pop’. I loved it, meant everything to me, music and words you could express anything in – sadness, anger, joy, love, frustration, subtlety, anything, and you could dance to it too. Lyrics are a big part of it for me. I never really got much into that modern guitar electro whizzo jazz-metal instrumental thing. But ‘rock’ is just a name too, it’s all just music. Sound and music is what I love. It’s the thing that keeps me sane … and drives me insane.

Bernie TormeWho was the first artist to make an impression on you?
Elvis Presley, followed very quickly by Chuck Berry.

An album, band or song that means a lot to you?
A song and can I have two? Bob Dylan’s ‘Chimes of Freedom’ from Another Side of Bob Dylan … and ‘Strawberry Fields’ – what a track! I’m happy to dream on to either or both of those.

An artist or album that has stayed with you over time?
I change from time to time, but Hendrix Are You Experienced always stays. The whole album was so shocking, grindingly ugly and beautiful at the same time. I bought it the day it was released in ’67 as an eager young schoolboy blues purist Clapton fan, having saved up my pocket money pennies. I took it home and … completely hated it! It took me quite a few days to appreciate it. It remains an unmatched template, though many have tried. I think the Pistols and Sabbath came closest in sheer pretty ugly. I was interested to find out that Are You Experienced was mostly recorded in De Lane Lea Studios in London, which Ian Gillan bought in the ’70s and renamed Kingsway Recorders and where we recorded all the Gillan albums. I did not know that at the time. Wish I’d got half as good a guitar sound! Another obsession is Exile on Main Street.

Dylan or Morrison?
Funny that, my kids have the Doors’ Waiting for the Sun and Dylan’s Highway 61 in the car as standard listening at the moment. Presuming you mean Jim as opposed to Van, I would have to say Dylan. That first bunch of albums from Bob Dylan’s first to John Wesley Harding are just incomparable. They changed the world. Without Dylan no Beatles epics, no Hendrix, no Pistols,  no ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, no ‘Subterranean  Homesick Blues’ no ‘One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)’. I just love him. And ‘Gates of Eden’, ‘Times They Are A Changing’, ‘Tambourine Man’, ‘All I Want To Do’, ‘Just Like A Woman’, just so many spine-chilling moments. Even up to the latest ‘Duquesne Whistle’, love that too, when he opens his mouth it’s like dropping an electric sander on your bare arm.

Bobby has for me this ability to get the note, but make it sound as if he hasn’t, and, more important, hit the heart and the head. Appears simple, but is very, very difficult: often imitated, but never equalled. I love his voice; it’s real.

In these operatic and auto-tuned days of technical ability with sod all content, many people I know don’t like him, but then a lot of them think every singer should sound like Bruce Dickinson or the Mariah Carey template. Bruce is a mate so I shall make no further comment on that one … other than saying that one Bruce Dickinson is definitely enough! As is one Bob Dylan. One Mariah Carey was way too much for me; give me back Aretha anytime.

Jim Morrison was a bit more in the Pavarotti direction. Great voice.  I love the Doors, awesome stuff, but would they have done ‘The End’ or ‘Horse Latitudes’ or ‘Not To Touch The Earth’ without Dylan having broken the ground beforehand? I kind of think not. So for me it’s got to be Dylan. He ploughed the wilderness first, and planted the seeds.

Speaking of “Morrison” though, again for me two of the greatest albums ever are Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Moondance. Maybe they don’t beat Bobby –though the tracks ‘Astral Weeks’ and ‘Sweet Thing’ come close. Maybe I am biased because I’m Irish …

What do you say to a ‘rock star’ after you say hello?
Personally not too much. I’m not much of a conversationalist, and I like to try to let people have their space, I like people giving me my space. I  don’t like to talk about what I did or do, my musical life or my music, I just like doing it, and I think a lot of people are like that. So I like to give them space. “What plectrums do you use”? Who cares! “What’s it like playing with Ozzy?”Actually much the same as playing with anyone else – I plugged in and hit the strings and the bum notes were probably the best bit, as usual. Satan did not materialise, Mr. Devil’s representative on earth’s head did not spin around, and he did not speak in any tongues stranger than a thick midlands accent.

Anyway, I don’t really understand this weird cultural celebrity thing that people have that rock stars are more interesting than plumbers or anyone else, for example. I’ve met some very entertaining plumbers in my time and most people have got to admit that having running water, central heating and a nice flushable comfortable place to have a shit, is much more important on a daily basis than being able to listen to the latest Metallica album.

What is any rock star going to tell you that is more interesting than a plumber? Mr. Plumber man might have just done the most mind-blowing bit of plumbing in the solar system, you know, the plumbing equivalent of ‘Strawberry Fields’ rolled into Beethoven’s Fifth. What are you going to say to this genius? “How much did it cost mate?” You are not going to say: “What was it really like when you slipped the pipe into the connector and whacked a lump of gunk on it?” Or “Man, were you on acid when you did that? Were you at one with the universe?”

Your best encounter with an artist as a fan?
Nodding at Keith Richards at a little pub in London and letting him get on with bopping up and down to the band, drinking his beer in peace and enjoying himself without me banging on endlessly and spitting on his neck about ‘It’s All Over Now’ or ‘Rip This Joint’ or ‘Hand Of Fate’ or something he can’t even remember. I felt justified!

Your strangest encounter with a fan as an artist?
Well some of Ozzy’s and Ian’s could/can be a bit weird and obsessive and judgmental in their different ways, but never anything really strange that I came across. When a few of my biggest fans used to dress as clones of me in the ’80s, that sort of bothered me – looking off the stage and seeing a few me’s in the audience was most weird. It made me feel as if I had to dress differently all the time just to be different.

What makes a rock gig special?
The audience, the music, the band and the link between them. But, if you are onstage, most of all, for ever and ever, the audience.

Bernie Torme on stageYour most notable gig as an artist?
Really the bad ones are the most memorable: Gillan, Nuremburg festival 1980 was the worst ever, unforgettable. We had just done Reading the night before, special guests to one of my heroes, Rory Gallagher. Great gig, very late night, far, far too much alcohol and all the usual bad habits. So we got to bed about 4am and with our usual genius management on the case we had to catch a small private plane to Nuremburg at 6am. We all made the plane. Just. Ian looked like death. The plane was a small propeller job, no toilet, 4 hour flight to Nuremberg, you had to drink bottles of beer to be able to piss in the bottles, not much fun …

The gig was about an hour and a half drive at the other end. We were opening, so we got there about a half hour before our stage time. All our gear was in England, so we had hired gear to be there, and the truck with the hired gear was waiting at the back of the stage. A half hour before stage time the truck was opened … and all the gear was completely wrong.

Instead of two Marshall 200 major bass amps as promised, McCoy had a clapped out Fender Bassman. Colin had a Yamaha organ and a Hammond Lesley on a multicore as an amp, absolutely no way at all to connect the two without major cable surgery, and no chance to do that without tools in 20 minutes. I, at least, had an amp and two cabs.

We had just had the Glory Road album go straight in the UK charts at number 2, so backstage we were surrounded by photographers and people trying to interview us, knowing we have no gear to play with, and feeling very, very fragile … it’s a bad situation. The only answer to any question any of us can think of is to grunt.

We get to going onstage in no time at all, opening with ‘Unchain Your Brain’. McCoy hits the first note on the bass and the Fender Bassman blows up. He is a bit pee-d off and is never someone to go quietly, so he picks the amp and cab and drops it off the front of the stage, and then proceeds to chuck his fender precision straight up in the air where it tangles with the lighting truss, hangs there, and then comes down neck first and splits in half. It was like slow motion.

At this the PA crew decide we are very naughty anarchists and actually not real musicians at all, so they turn up the monitors so all we can hear onstage is this deafening scream of feedback. This really gets to Ian, who has a BAD, BAD hangover. Ian turns around and swings his mic a la Roger Daltrey and then chucks it at the monitor man at the side of the stage. He misses, and hits the only keyboard Colin has managed to get working, his ARP, which goes flying and dies.

Song 2: ‘Sleeping On The Job’. The feedback gets worse. McCoy starts chucking the monitors off the front of the stage to make it stop … unfortunately on top of some photographers who thought it was all part of the act. By now Ian and I are also chucking monitors into the audience, side fills next …

Song 3: ‘Mr. Universe’. Well, we get through that one with guitar, drums, vocals and no monitors, but that’s as far as we got. As I leave the stage I look at the mixing desk about 100 yards away in the middle of the audience and I can see another of my heroes, Ted Nugent (who was headlining), stood there with a look of complete disbelief and incomprehension on his face. I’ll never forget that one. We got a lot of press in Germany out of it, but it wasn’t all that good.

Your most memorable gig as a fan?
Stones at Wembley in ’82 and Skid Row (Dublin variety: Gary Moore, Brush Shiels, Noel Bridgeman) at the Mansion House in Dawson Street in Dublin in ’68 or ’69, can’t remember exactly when.

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – jaded stereotype or the meaning of life?
Boring cliché. It’s just a marketing phrase. Why not ‘sex and drugs and banking’? They probably had more of the sex anyway (money, money, money) and undoubtedly more of the drugs. The only part that ever mattered to me anyway was the rock ‘n’ roll. The other two just come and go if that’s what you are into. No big deal and about as interesting as the office party.

Bernie Torme and GMTRock music – the spawn of the devil or a force for good?
All music is good. Better than most other things anyway.

Rock music – music for all or a tribal affair?
Music is for everyone.

How do you view what you do as an artist?
No view at all. Just hope to be able to keep doing it.

How is your music most often labelled? And do you think labels are helpful or limiting?
Usually labelled ‘rock’, sometimes ‘heavy rock’, sometimes ‘hard rock’. All ok. Hey, I just play guitar and shout a bit. That’s my identity. I hate labels anyway. I don’t think they help. It just provides people with a safety blanket; they then don’t ever have to hear anything new or different. Personally, I like hearing different.

Is there a particular piece of music, or album or performance for which you would most like to be remembered?
No, I would not know. I just hope the people who knew me remember me kindly.

Bernie Torme Turn Out the Lights album coverWhat would you say to people who say that rock or the rock era is dead?
It is possibly true, and that makes me sad, and I truly hope not. But everything changes. You have to accept that. There are some good young bands doing good things around but it’s very difficult to be new and different and successful these days. There is hardly an industry anymore.

It’s difficult to set the world on fire when it has just stopped burning and all the fuel is gone. It’s tough for young bands.

When I started out it was very difficult to hear anything. You heard very little pop music, you copied it from memory and it often became something completely different, through incompetence, inability, and downright ignorance. Now everyone seems to learn the same things to the nth degree. They study it at college, and it all has this terrible sameness – it all has to be 100% RIGHT. The resident gurus tell them that’s what’s important. Played properly in tune. Click tracked. The same as.

I think that’s all bollox, It would be better off if it was wrong and different, and,therefore, maybe original. It’s not about perfection. The flaws and the difference are the perfection.

There is no right way, just do it any way you want, but do it the way you want, not the same as someone before – that’s pointless.

And finally, what are you up to at the moment?
Insulating my loft! I’m having a bit of a holiday at the moment … but in the course of which I just found the tapes of an album that I had almost completed before I moved house 10 or 12 years ago … got lost in transit. Some very cool stuff there, in various stages of unfinished, but I really have had a few fun days ploughing through it. I had forgotten almost all of it, and it was so nice to hear something from the past I had done that really made me think “Hey, that’s pretty good!” So that’s a must do before too long! Also been recording and producing tracks for my boys’ band, Jimi and Eric. Their band is called The Gang: http://www.thegangband.co.uk/. The first of those has just come out. It’s on You Tube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=EHOdJqR_d9I#!
It’s good stuff; good rock ‘n’ roll.

Guy, McCoy and Torme

CHEERS BERNIE!

For more about Bernie please visit his website: http://www.bernietorme.co.uk/

For more on GMT visit: http://www.gmtrocks.com/

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1 Comment

  1. Mutually Insured Instructor

     /  December 17, 2012

    Great interview – Bernie sees to me a man with a lot of wisdom! May he rock long and prosper.

    Reply

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