Scotch on the rocks

Scotch on the rocks

Hard rock and whisk(e)y have been bedfellows for 40 years.Dominic Roskrow lets his hair down

Whisky & Culture | 14 Apr 2006 | Issue 55 | By Dominic Roskrow

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It’s become the iconic rock star image: hair long and flowing, leather trousers or jeans, shirt open to reveal muscular torso and chest hair, jewellery, sunglasses. And there, in the right hand, a halffinished bottle of Jack Daniels.It’s a look that was invented by Keith Richards but perfected in an altogether more metallic field: by Lemmy, Robert Plant, Aerosmith and Slash.It’s defiant, rebellious, a touch delinquent.But it’s an image modelled on only a brief moment in history, a period from the early 70s when heavy rock music ruled the earth, its stars travelled by private jet and filled arenas across the world, and drugs and sexual excess were the norm.It wasn’t always that way. That era was preceded by altogether more innocent time, when promoters would pay the artists a pittance and put them on in all sorts of strange village halls and social clubs. Many of the musicians who would go on to be rock gods would play as session men in the day and perform in covers bands, emulating the American blues greats, at night.Most of us aging rockers of 40 years plus remember seeing some legendary band in a cow barn venue. Euan Shand recalls seeing Free, for instance, in a village hall in Scotland. The late great guitarist Paul Kossoff was so wasted that he sat in his speaker cabinet for the entire show.And there was always whisky. Scotch way before Jack Daniels came on the scene.“Perhaps the reason guys like us survived was because we were shown the ropes by the older guys,” says Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan. “They had already been around the block and kept an eye on us. We were always a drinking band rather than anything else, and there were a lot like us.“And it’s from that time that the whisky and coke combination came about. Alot of the clubs had a rule banning drinking on stage. So you’d empty out half a coke bottle and fill it with whisky and of course it still looked like coke.” Everything changed when astute artists such as Mick Jagger wrestled control of the finances off the promoters and the bands started making some serious money.Occasionally, though, particularly in emerging markets, some of the amateurism re-emerges – as was the case on a trip to India by Uriah Heep.“The band turned up to play to tens of thousands of people to find that the fencing was just rope to a string of posts,” says singer Bernie Shaw. “The rule seemed to be that if you were outside the rope you weren’t meant to listen. And if a cow wandered in you couldn’t touch it so they just slapped an ‘access all areas’ pass on its ass and let it get on with it.” Things improved on a recent tour there, though.“The usual chaos ensued but when we got to the backstage area there was this stunning Ferrari. It turns out the organiser was a big Bollywood star and he turned up with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue which he insisted on sharing with the band.” But if the pre-arena era was punctuated by seedy clubs and dodgy blended whisky and coke (of both sorts), the post punk era was different again. If the drugs and the drink hadn’t got you by the end of the 70s, punk and grunge probably would.Those that have survived have done so by looking after themselves a bit focusing on the markets where they have continued to be successful, primarily in the Far East. And they have developed a taste for fine food, wine and whisky in the process.Former Deep Purple and Rainbow guitarist Ritchie Blackmore is known for his love of malt and is rumoured to have marked the bottle so he knew how much he could safely drink before a show. When he fell out with Rainbow’s Graham Bonnet, Bonnet is alleged to have lowered the line. Bet the fans loved him for that.There were five defining bands from the formative years of rock. Genesis provided the progressive rock blueprint, Sabbath and Ozzy the metal one. Led Zeppelin welded folk and blues in to rock.And the classic heavy rock sound, that built on lengthy solos, searing guitar and Hammond organ – that was Deep Purple and Uriah Heep territory. They claimed influences from Bach and Beethoven and were, for a spell, the ones ridiculed the most for their pomposity. I loved every bohemian note of it.And what goes about comes about. Laughed at they may have been, but in these days of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, even Heep’s songs about wizards, gypsies and magicians’ birthdays don’t sound so stupid. Both bands have survived in some form or other, and both are enjoying another upsurge in popularity.And they still drink whisky.Not some cheap blend though – the finest malt. World’s greatest pub singerDeep Purple singer Ian Gillan is a contented man as he stares out of his hotel room at the snow-covered Swiss mountains.“The band’s on fire at the moment,” he says. “We’re touring our most successful album for 20 years (Rapture of the Deep) and we have events such as the headlining slot at (England’s) Monsters of Rock Festival and the Montreux Jazz Festival to look forward to.“We’re in a very good place at the moment. It’s like when an athlete is relaxed – everything flows and the performance is better. That’s how it is with the band.“When I think of the last tour we did with Ritchie Blackmore...we were all so unhappy, Ian Paice was drumming like a brick, I was straining through being tense. I’ve heard tapes and see DVDs of those performances and they just weren’t good enough.“These days we’ll sit on the tour bus after a show and have a drink or two and discuss everything from sport to politics and then fall asleep. All very civil. Our tour bus is like a very civilised pub.” Later he’ll go for a long walk, return for a light meal. And then, if recent nights are anything to go by, he’ll lead about 10,000 people in a two and a half hour party.For now, though, he’s curious to know why Whisky Magazine wants to talk to him.It started two years ago at a Whisky Live dinner in London, when I sat next to someone whose father had played in the 60s band Dave Dee Dozy Micky Beaky and Titch.His father had been taken ill and had died, but Ian Gillan, who was a neighbour and family friend, was highly supportive throughout the period, visiting regularly. As Gillan is a hero of mine, I was intrigued.“And he loves his whisky,” I was told. “He has a studio in a shed at the bottom of his garden and when he’s working on songs for the band he goes down there with a few bottles of whisky and a load of cigarettes and he doesn’t come out again until he’s finished.” Gillan laughs at this.“It’s about right,” he says. “But not so many cigarettes these days. I still enjoy a cigarette with a drink because they go naturally together, but I have to be careful with my voice. But yes, certainly the whisky.” So where does his interest in it come from?“It’s a strange thing but you get to a position where people give you nice whiskies as gifts. I started off as I say with the blended whiskies but moved away from those. Nowadays every house blended whisky tastes like Bell’s or Famous Grouse. They have copied those styles because they either represent the lowest common denominator or the broadest taste appeal, depending on your point of view.“But I’ve had the chance to taste lots of great malt whiskies. I’m drawn to sherried Speyside whiskies rather than peaty ones. I like Macallan. And I was recently given a bottle in Germany as a very late Christmas present, which I have just opened.“It’s probably the best malt I’ve ever tasted, from Edradour, which I believe is one of Scotland’s smallest distilleries?” As we discuss malt you sense that Gillan is the sort of bloke that would enjoy a lengthy lunchtime session down the pub with friends. And sure enough, that turns out to be exactly what he enjoys.“To me the English pub plays a key role in the social development of people,” he says. “It’s where you learn what is acceptable or not acceptable to say, to interact with each other, to learn respect.“The Deep Purple song Ted the Mechanic is based on a bloke I met in a pub. I scribbled some of the things he was saying on a beer mat. He wasn’t called Ted and he wasn’t a mechanic but he does exist.“Our local pub was the sort of pub that had a sticky carpet because of all the drink spilled on it. So we bought it a new carpet. You just can’t beat that sort of environment.” Just to make the point, Gillan releases a solo album in April, called Gillan’s Inn. It’s a highly impressive collection of his songs – both solo and from his time with Purple and Black Sabbath – spanning some 30 years, rerecorded with a selection of friends – who in some cases, just happen to be very famous too.It’s obscenely exuberant and joyful, coming as it does from a man who has been recording for 40 years. The voice in particular is in top form. It sounds like a celebration.“That’s spot on,” he says. “Gillan’s Inn is a fictitious place where you can go and enjoy a good whisky. It’s always been a fantasy of mine and for my birthday they gave me a pub sign, so it was a fitting name for this project.“I hope that sense of fun comes across. When we did Smoke on the Water the guitarist cut his finger on a beer can and as he played blood dripped all over the fretboard. A few days later I spoke to him on the phone and asked if it had come off.‘You’re joking,’ he said, ‘I’ve put enamel over it so I can always remember the day I played Smoke with Ian Gillan.’” And he laughs heartily at the memory. Haggis, Heep and toddies When Uriah Heep’s lead singer Bernie Shaw bursts through the door of Albannach, he’s not quite what we were expecting.He’s right on time, for a starter, he’s not wearing shades, and he’s not trying to be in the least bit cool or moody. And remarkably refreshed and rested, he tells us.That’s presumably because he’s had a few nights off from all night rock n roll partying.“Oh no,” he says, “it’s because my new daughter slept right through last night so we were able to get some sleep. She’s just a week old and she’s beautiful.” It turns out she’s called Madeleine – same name as my new one – so as we head for a haggis lunch we’ve not only bonded but have resolved to wet our respective babies’ heads in some style.Bernie Shaw is Uriah Heep’s longest serving vocalist, having joined them in the mid 80s. Originally from Vancouver, he came to England after fronting bar bands in Canada, and played with Grand Prix and Praying Mantis in the 1980s before his break came.“Praying Mantis were much loved but just couldn’t get a break,” he says. “We did a oneoff show to say goodbye to the fans and afterwards Uriah Heep’s Mick Box is there. He’d been invited by the sound engineer because he knew Heep were looking for a singer. We got very drunk and the next day Mick says I think I’ve found my new singer.” Heady days. He even had a ‘rider.’ “The band already had beer, wine and brandy each night after the show and Mick asked if there was anything I wanted. I said I quite liked whisky so every night after the show there would be a bottle of Johnnie Walker. I really felt I’d arrived in the big time.“Then after a few nights Mick took me aside and said ‘just because it’s there you don’t have to finish the bottle. There will be another one tomorrow night...’” Shaw’s love of whisky stems from the days when he played in Scottish cadet bands in Canada. But his tastes have moved on and he’s well and truly a single malt man these days.I’ve been told in advance that his favourites include Glenmorangie from sherried casks and Glen Grant.So I start with a Longmorn as he says he’s never tried it and I believe everyone should. Not surprisingly, an immediate success.“This is very rich and fruity,” he says, “and it has an excellent mouth feel. Very complete and full. Avery nice whisky indeed.” These days Shaw lives in London and when he’s not away working with the band, enjoys home life to the full. His daughter is his first child, and he met his wife just a few years ago while on tour in the Czech Republic.“She completely understands my lifestyle and knows that when I have to be away with the band then that’s that. But I try and make up for it when I’m at home. When I’m there the kitchen is completely my domain.” We move on to the Glenlivet 15 Year Old French Oak Finish because I think the effects of the cask on the whisky will intrigue him but perhaps following the Longmorn is a bit much.“It’s not unpleasant at all,” he concludes. “Very well balanced and rounded and certainly easy to drink. But it’s a slightly unusual taste too.” For Shaw drinking whisky is all about occasion and my next choice, a 30 year old Glenmorangie, is a great whisky but in the wrong place at the wrong time.“When I’m cooking I’ll spend a lot of time and I use the finest ingredients, lots of fresh stuff. I love doing spicy food, especially Thai.“This is a whisky for after one of our dinners. We collect cut crystal and we pick up some great stuff in the Czech Republic when I go back there with my wife. This whisky is old and venerable, very weighty, big and serious. It’s slightly oily but with a long and big finish.“It’s not one to be drunk in the day time. It’s for after dinner, with a few sounds on the stereo and the lights low, drunk from one of our beautiful cut crystal tumblers. That would be wonderful.” Unsurprisingly a personal highlight – Balvenie 30 Year Old – is also consigned to the night shift, but the last two whiskies prove to be Shaw’s favourites.First up is Balvenie Single Barrel, something of a surprise for a Balvenie because it’s thinner and less toffee-ish than other expressions, and there’s something bubblegummy about it.Shaw use a word that I wouldn’t normally associate with Balvenie – ‘fun’.“Just my sort of whisky – easy to drink, full of flavour, with a nice mouth feel. The 30 year old had some peat notes there but they’re not obvious in this one. Very nice.” Uriah Heep tend to be out of sight and out of mind in the United Kingdom to a large extent, but they’re enjoying massive popularity in South East Asia, India, Indonesia and in the Eastern bloc.That means a lot of touring. With a daughter and a love of fine whisky and food, doesn’t slowing down appeal to him now?“Being the singer with Uriah Heep is like leading one big party,” he says. “Our fans know all the words, wherever we are in the world. There will be time one day for all of this, but the band is still enjoying itself too much.” In fact fine whisky and classic rock have much in common really don’t they? Longevity, a loyal following, a sense of belonging?Bernie Shaw savours his last sample – a Glengoyne 17 Years Old – decides it is the best whisky of the day, and then beams.“Yep,” he says. “The best things in life – fine music, food, whisky, wine. That’ll do for me.” And with that it’s time to head back to his wife and baby daughter.
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