Barbara Charone talks to Scotland’s most famous sons, the Average White Band
‘I’m sure people will put us down…I hope they don’t put us down but I’m ready for anything’
WHEN HAMISH Stuart was 15 years old his parents scraped together enough hard earned cash to send their son on a world cruise. Well not exactly the world but a good portion of the continent. When Hamish Stuart was 15, Spain and Portugal could have belonged to another hemisphere.
Sending him off on this youthful fully chaperoned junket his parents mused, “It’s a lot of money but it’s the only chance he’ll have to travel.”
Who was to know how wrong they were back then. Years later Hamish and his kid brother David are sitting in the bar of the George Hotel in Edinburgh laughing at adolescent tales of old familiar, family stories. Back home for the first time in over a year, a warm family reception greeted each member of the Average White Band. No longer 15, Hamish Stuart has just about travelled round the world.
The Scottish papers treat the band like visiting royalty, eagerly heralding the return of such famous sons. ‘Scotland’s most famous superstars’ read the photo captions. ‘Scotland’s own millionaires’ read the headlines. Old school friends and relatives greeted them with friendly apprehension assuming success would have taken its sombre toll.
“Everybody thinks we’re millionaires,” Stuart laughs at such a thought sitting in the sedate bar, his brother giggling at his side, staring in admiration. “Everybody thinks we would have changed. ‘Oh you haven’t lost your accent’ they say as if they expect you to come back with a southern drawl.
“Accents,” he laughs. “The first few days I was back I’d forgotten the whole telephone jargon here. I forgot you ask for directory enquiries instead of information. Then I spoke to the operator on the phone. I just couldn’t believe how nice she was. You know what those operators in America are like. Whew!”
Nothing had really changed except the music which keeps on improving. Hamish and the rest of the AWB have not picked up southern drawls or bad superstar habits. Everyone in Edinburgh half expected lots of limousines, fancy clothes, and a string of beautiful women. Instead they got the consistently low profile AWB. Sure Hamish Stuart got a new pair of denims, Alan Gorrie sported a nifty Rolls Royce T-shirt, and drummer Steve Ferrone celebrated their return with a kilt. He’s got great knees by the way. Great knees.
It’s no coincidence that their present tour perfectly coincides with the recent Scotland/England match. Even on tour in America, the band insist on playing football as often as possible. Enthusiastic music afficionados, there’s no topic like football to bring the most animation out of the band.
Right now Hamish can’t stop glancing at the newspapers full of action shots from the game. It’s been the best weekend of their lives they say convincingly. What with Scotland beating England, the AWB licking their debut Edinburgh audiences with their families cheering wildly in the stalls, it’s easy to understand their collective good spirits.
“Having been out of the country so long and to come back to that,” Hamish enthuses still reeling in excitement from the match. “The atmosphere is always special but that was incredible. It was difficult to control my shoutin’. By the end of the first half I was exhausted anyways.”
Alan Gorrie wasn’t as well disciplined, screaming so loudly throughout the match that he spent much of the next day drinking tea and honey to soothe sore vocal chords.
“I knew then we were back home,” Alan laughs. “I asked the hotel for honey and tea. They were out of honey so that gave me strawberry jam for a sore throat! Only in Britain.”
After the match, the well travelled Stuart brought the entire band plus road crew back to his parents house for some home-made curry. Only trouble was Mrs. Stuart was prepared for eight mouths to feed, not the onslaught of 22 that she eventually received. Visiting dignitaries indeed.
Four years ago the Average White Band were hardly considered dignitaries on home turf. Slogging their way up and down the country, no one really wanted to know. Even their first record company, MCA, treated them casually like a pleasant, good time band, destined for the inevitable bargain bin.
BACK then the AWB could never afford hotel accommodation that they now take for granted. Back in those day dues paying days, the band would constantly ride up and down the M1.
“I remember eating beans or toast at the Blue Boar,” Stuart fondly recalls such seedy touring scenes. “I’m actually looking forward to seeing all those places that we criticised so heavily, all those motorway service stations. We couldn’t even afford hotels back then.”
Turning their backs on baked beans on toast and the familiar Blue Boar, the band immersed themselves in a hectic American work rate, consistently touring, working on a groove and lookin’ for an audience. Their first American tour was supporting BB King, progressing slowly into a headline attraction that clicked with the immense, solid gold success of their first Atlantic album Average White Band riding high on the impetus of their hit single ‘Pick Up The Pieces’.
“There just wasn’t a big audience for what we were doing here,” Hamish recalls. “The audience seemed larger in the States, such a vast pool of people. We had a small cult following in Britain but we needed a much healthier following to get the band off the ground. We needed a hit here.”
Ultimately, ‘Pick Up The Pieces’ finally caught fire in the British charts, gaining a whole bunch of new converts for the band. Unfortunately the tax year out prevented them from touring during their top ten success but the band is in prime form for their present British outing. Having recently returned from successful tours of Australia, New Zealand and Japan, their world-wide success hit home standing onstage of the Edinburgh Odeon. Extreme cases of deja vu flowed round the hall contagiously.
“That first night in Edinburgh was strange,” Hamish says groping for the right adjective. “It was a normal show for us but at the same time we were doing it here which we’ve never done before. I kept thinking about all that while we were playing. We’ve never toured here before on this level, headlining. I was very nervous the first night,” he grinned. “But it sure is nice to be accepted at home.”
Even offstage, the AWB are determined to change less flexible musical tastes, trying to add a little funk or a touch of soul to normally heavy metal appetites. Steve Ferrone had promised some Birmingham fan some free Atlantic albums. The kid was keen to get his hand on any Yes, ELP, or Led Zeppelin available.
“I threw in a little Aretha Franklin just to educate him,” Steve laughed.
Their potent educational process continues. Soon to be released is their third Atlantic album Soul Searching produced once again by the respectable Arif Mardin. A veteran producer who has perceptively worked with just about everyone, the Average White Band were the first group to genuinely excite him for years. Arif fondly dubs them the Young Rascals of the seventies which is pretty close to home truths. More than anything else, the AWB are a dance band. And dancing is in vogue again.
“Dancing is extremely healthy,” says Hamish who cuts a mean figure onstage nightly gyrating to a soulful backdrop. “In the wake of people starting to break records in the discos there’s been a whole sea of nonsense. So much formula stuff comes out just like that,” he snaps his fingers in rhythmic disgust.
“Just the other week I saw this fellow at a record company who makes those packages. He was putting together an album of oldies disco style and I just couldn’t believe it! It’s frightening. They use great session musicians but the concept of the thing is ridiculous. What a waste of studio time.”
Utilising previous studio time to its maximum potential is something the AWB aim for. In retrospect Hamish admits to being disappointed with their last album Cut The Cake which he attributes to the crazed, on the road frenetic pace the album was recorded amidst.
“I really don’t think we’re locked into any particular sound,” he says concerned with people who label them one riff masters. “We develop with each record. The new album really had a chance to develop. If the atmosphere gets too frantic, the music suffers.”
PICKING up the pieces after the tragic death of original drummer Robbie McIntosh, the band were hurled into a whirlwind of standing room only successs across America. It was in this non-stop working atmosphere that most of Cut The Cake was recorded, doing bits here and there which prevented much chance for musical or emotional continuity.
“It was like ‘OK lads the last gig is on Saturday and we go into the studio on Monday’. That’s why the band is so good this year because we’ve had the chance to come off the road and lead some kind of normal life which you have to do to have any kind of personal self-respect,” Hamish says keen to avoid the Holiday Inn syndrome of songwriting.
“That was a very frantic period for us with no time allowed for sitting down to think. There’s no reality being on the road the whole time. You can’t just live bits of your life, you’ve got to have a break to keep a proper perspective.
“It took time for the band to mesh with Steve, for the playing to settle. We had to do Cut The Cake so we could keep on. Obviously it would have been good for the album to do as well as the white album but all we could do was make the best album we could at the time,” Hamish recalls in frustration. “We don t approach things from a formula. That’s a mistake. All we can do is write songs without trying to make them sound like ‘Pick Up The Pieces’,” he laughs.
Ironically the band had no idea that the famous instrumental based rhythmic excursion would be such a world-wide hit.
“The time was right, for AWB,” says Hamish. “The band had been developing on the white album. I didn’t think the album was going to be a big hit or have a big hit single. I thought it would grow slowly but I knew it was a really fine record.
“When ‘Pick Up The Pieces’ was a hit, apart from the people who knew us, they thought we were an instrumental group,” Hamish says with amused surprise. “You know all those Funky Corporation type bands? People thought we were a semi-instrumental group. They got a surprise when they saw us.”
Reaching previously unobtainable commercial audiences, the AWB helped open the doors and generate interest in white soul bands specialising in a slightly blacker sound than their more anaemic sounding contemporaries.
“A lot of black people still come up to us and say ‘you’re really the Average White Band?'” Hamish laughs, pleased with the compliments. “But all those labels like blue eyed soul don’t make sense to me.
“Blue eyed soul wears a bit thin as a descriptive term. After all it’s just music. People have to put you in a bag but I start to cringe when I read about us being blue eyed soul. It’s embarrasing.”
Hamish, however, is far from embarrassed about the upcoming Soul Searching album which he insists isn’t at all spiritual despite the title. “It’s about as cosmic as football,” he laughs.
Recorded in a more stable, healthy environment than the previous album, the band were allowed to exploit their newly acquired self-confidence. This time around the AWB took time off away from the music to intensely examine it from the outside, coming up with original songs they reckon are their best yet. The several tracks I heard were most impressive.
“Coping is a lot easier if you have some kind of home, some kind of free time to balance everything out. Then you can get together and write. That’s why I’m so pleased with the new album,” he genuinely enthuses. “We had the time to sit back for a few weeks and get some ideas together instead of having to come straight off the road with an idea and go straight into the studio.
“And our relationship with Arif has gone from strength to strength. Beautiful. Just beautiful. Now the band is more settled. We’ve had the time to knot together and become a unit. All of our individual influences have come together on this new album,” Hamish grins. “Steve obviously had another way of looking at things and has added a bit of a latin thing.”
STUBBORNLY, the band refuse to make artistic concessions for commercial success. ‘Pick Up The Pieces’ happened big because it was natural. The AWB have no desires to mechanically repeat previous successful formats…
“We don’t really think about hit singles,” Hamish admits. “The last two single releases in the States didn’t do so well but that didn’t worry us. Obviously the record company wants a hit. We want a hit but it’s not something we consciously think about. We’ve always done what we wanted to do and that’s the reason behind our success. We do what we think is right and the audience liked it. Hopefully,” Hamish laughs slightly apprehensive over their new album, “they’ll keep on liking it.”
The band are equally curious about the reaction to their present British tour, eager to avoid blue eyed soul tags and slick preconceived impressions.
“I’m sure some people will put us down cause even last time when we played the Roundhouse and places like that people put us down for being too slick. The funny thing was the band hadn’t changed at all,” he laughs at the irony. “I hope they don’t put us down but I’m ready for anything. As long as the band plays well and the audience has a good time, I really don’t care.”
Onstage the past is clearly linked to the present with a revamped workout on ‘TLC’ off their first MCA album which has been through numerous face-lifts and re-emerged stronger than previous incarnations. Over a jive musical backdrop Alan Gorrie tells the crowd “We’re gonna go back in time and take you where we used to be.”
But the Average White Band remain securely fastened to the same funky territory. They have greatly improved musically, visually and professionally but they still excel at the same kind of music that made those hot summer nights at the sweaty Marquee so magical three years ago.
“I always knew we had some kind of appeal but I never thought we’d be able to…well I just never imagined we would be as successful as we’ve become.” Hamish says searching for the right phrases. “I thought we’d just go along, make a decent living and enjoy ourselves. It’s all really the same to us. Sure we’re playin’ bigger places to more people and better reactions but really it’s all the same.”
Worried relatives back home in Scotland had their doubts settled when the Average White Band returned without superstar decorations. Instead of a sleazy van they’ve got a sparkling new coach complete with a colour photo of the band plastered against the windscreen. But just like before, the coach will stop at the Blue Boar and once again, as if nothing had really changed, the Average White Band will gobble up baked beans on toast at early morning hours.
Back home friends and relatives are awfully proud of the Average White Band. Mrs. Stuart still can’t believe all that travelling!
“Someone asked us what kind of stage show we had,” Hamish says in total shock at such an absurd question. “I had no answer to that. Dry ice! I’m thinking seriously of one day coming onstage as the front end of a pantomime horse. Gorrie could be the jockey.”
For the time being, Scottish football team shirts will have to suffice.
© Barbara Charone, Sounds, 29 May 1976