Interview: Andy Fairweather Low – How I Got Started
From being inspired by the Stones as a youth to working with Bill Wyman, via success with Amen Corner and rubbing shoulders with Hendrix, Clapton and The Who, G&B hears Andy Fairweather Low’s unique story.
Story David Gallant
“I got persuaded to go and see The Rolling Stones on a package bill in Cardiff by one of my school friends and that was it,” starts Andy Fairweather Low. “It was 28 February, 1964, and the only reason I know that is because I am working with Bill Wyman a lot and he keeps a record of everything.
I mentioned that particular gig and he didn’t remember the gig, but lo and behold he showed me the poster and the setlist! It started off with Chuck Berry’s I’m Talking About You – and that was my recollection, and my recollection was correct! It made a big impact. That was one of those life-changing moments. It got to me – like a virus!”
After seeing the Stones, the next thing that overwhelmed Low was Stax and Atlantic Records. “Booker T, Otis Redding, who I saw live twice, Sam & Dave… that whole thing about how to structure a rhythm section, how to get a drum sound… The MGs were the rhythm section for me, and still are I might add! Even today when we’re in the studio and we’re saying, ‘We want that sound’, and we want to do that… It’s great to chase it, but you’re not going to get there. But even if you fail, when it’s set that high and you fail, it’s still OK.”
Fairweather Low also remembers going to see bands such as Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames and Zoot Money and his Big Roll Band. “In The Midnight Hour by Wilson Pickett had just come out, and two days later Zoot Money or Georgie Fame would be playing it at a little club in Cardiff. That was magical. I was just wrapped up in this self-belief of, ‘This is what I have got to do’.”
At this time, Fairweather Low desperately wanted a guitar: “My parents had sort of looked around to get one. We lived on a council estate and the person who was in charge of all the Christmas presents for the people in our street, and maybe the next three streets, ran off with the money – so I never got that. And that would have been a big year. I could have been a contender if I’d had it that year!”
Eventually, Fairweather Low ended up getting a Saturday job at the Barratts of Manchester music shop in Cardiff, hired by fellow Welsh luminary Dave Edmunds who worked at the store. “It was there that I first picked up a guitar. I just couldn’t stop. It was like a candy store. I got to play and borrow loads of different guitars. Thankfully, there were no computers like today, where kids just use them for games. Well, my computer was the guitar – I was really focused on that.
“When I started, I got myself a Höfner Verithin, although the Futurama was the one I wanted. That was going to be acquired when the money came in! Anyway, I had the Verithin and I auditioned for this band called the Taff Beats – we all lived in the Taff valley.
The guitarist, Walter Morris, had a Bird amplifier and we all plugged in to that and it wasn’t long before I was the lead guitar player. Then, in 1965, I moved on to another band – the Sect Maniacs.
“I had a fantastic white Stratocaster that I put through a Vox AC30 amp with a treble booster, which boosted the treble to a height where you could cut through corrugated iron! The only problem was that this booster stood four inches into the air, and inevitably it eventually got snapped off.
But they were fabulous valve amplifiers – I just loved that natural sound, and I would take it to the point where it was nearly breaking.” Sadly, the white Strat got stolen: “That was a very sad day. Nicked out of the back of the van outside the roadie’s house. Thankfully, I was able to replace it with another borrowed Strat from Barratts.”
By late-65, Fairweather Low had moved on again, this time to Amen Corner. “We didn’t spend too much time in Cardiff,” he recalls. “Funnily enough, we got offered a gig in Bournemouth at the Winter Gardens, and one of the bands that was on the bill, The Lonely Ones, recommended us to their agency. And their agency then phoned up and said, ‘If you come up we can give you this amount of work’. They had some dancehalls that they used to run, and we played them, and from that moment on it was, ‘Right, well you need to move to London’.
So we all moved into The Madison, a hotel in Sussex Gardens. Seven of us in a room down in the basement. “There was so much work around the UK, but there weren’t enough bands to fill it, ’cos you could do, certainly at the weekends, three gigs in a night. You see, there were all-nighters then. Not many, but enough. Nottingham, Derby and certainly London as well… so you could do a Mayfair, then flip over to a Top Rank and then find yourself at 12.30am humping your gear down some narrow staircase to do an all-nighter.
“We had a residency at The Speakeasy. We also played Blazes, but we never played The Bag O’ Nails or The Flamingo. I went to The Flamingo in 1966 and saw John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. My first sighting of Eric Clapton with the sideboards and the Les Paul. Fabulously exciting moments.”
Turning the Corner
Fairweather Low will always be remembered for his extraordinarily clear and toneful high-pitched voice. “I remember we used to do a lot of BBC radio and there was The Joe Loss Pop Show that would be on kind of a lunchtime, and I would be on with the band Amen Corner and play Bend Me Shape Me or whatever it was. The next week, the Joe Loss band would play the number without me or the band being there and they would always have a woman to sing. Whichever Amen Corner song they did, a woman would sing it – never a man. I’ve learnt to live with that now… I’m in good shape with the voice and I’m managing a little better since I gave up smoking in 1971.”
So how did Amen Corner move on? “Bad decisions, that’s how we did it! Ron King, who was a partner with Don Arden in Galaxy Entertainment, separated from Don and formed his own agency and we were part of that. That’s the level of management we were in. And he decided that we were going to be successful.
They worked at making us successful. And we were! Amen Corner was on the road… that’s how we lived. We got money from our gigs and that paid our bills. But we got none of the royalties. What we got out of it was that we became successful and we loved it. “I remember being in The Bag O’ Nails one night after a gig and bumping into John Lennon.
We toured with Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, The Move, The Nice, you know? We were on the same bill. One night at The Speakeasy, Jimi got up and played bass with us. He wanted to play I Can’t Turn Me Loose, so he took the bass over and we played it. Another time, at about 2.30 in the morning, he asked if he could play guitar… so he got up and played the guitar.
“You know, it’s funny, because I tell it like I’m telling a lie, but these things did happen. It was Amen Corner for goodness sake – it’s like ridiculous. And I’m in New York and I get a call from the guy who was semi-managing us at the time, and he knew Jimi and he knew Mike Jeffries, etc… and I get asked to go down and sing on a re-cut that Jimi was doing of Stone Free in the studio. I went down there and lo and behold Roger Chapman [Family] was there as well, so both of us were in there – two distinct voices, can I say? So we were both singing backing vocals on a re-cut of Stone Free and it was really good.”
Back in the UK, Amen Corner’s (If Paradise Is) Half as Nice was a big hit, but things weren’t going so well with the band’s management. “Our contract for the management, agency and recording was all on one bit of paper,” says Fairweather Low. “Ron had sold us to Don, and Don sold us to Andrew Alden and now Andrew Alden was going into liquidation… and of course they took everything financially from it that they could. So Amen Corner would get passed on to EMI or whoever would buy it.
“Our way of getting out of this final piece of paper that had been passed round all these people was to finish Amen Corner. And I’m there thinking, ‘I’m not enjoying this at all… I don’t like these people and I don’t like what’s going on’. So we decided to keep the rhythm section together and we did a deal with RCA. And out of that deal, we managed to pay off the £15,000 that we owed to our landlord, and everyone else that we owed money to as well. So there you have it. And that was the day we started out with Fairweather.”
Fairweather went on to produce two albums (only one of which would come out in the UK) and two singles. “We were trucking round the country and there were five of us in the band and we had a Hammond organ. This was a big bone of contention. It takes four people to carry a Hammond, so one of us would get a day off! And we’re talking three flights of iron staircases to get into a club at the top of a building above a cinema. It wasn’t really working out and after one of the gigs I said, ‘Can you just drop me at Paddington? I’m going home ’cos I’ve had enough of this. I went back to Cardiff, and that must have been something like 1971/72 – and I’ve been here ever since!”
Fairweather Low continued, as he puts it, to “scribble a bit” and made some demos at Rockfield. “Then I got an audition offered to me by CBS, ’cos I’d been talking to various people and they said, ‘Have a word with so-and-so’, and so-and-so said, ‘Come up to Whitfield Street, we’ll record a few songs, then we’ll see how we go’. So I recorded a few songs thinking, ‘This could be it’. I wasn’t really bothered about auditioning for anybody or anything… Well, apparently I passed the audition and the guy left the record company. And I thought, ‘This is just sh…’ and, ‘What am I going to do now?’.
“Next thing I know is that I get a call from the guy who had left CBS, and he’d gone to A&M. And he recommended me to A&M and I got a deal with A&M. That was 1974 and the start of my three albums with A&M. “For the first album, Spider Jiving, I went to San Francisco for three happy months, but it only took 12 days to record from beginning to end. We ended up doing nine days of recording the backing tracks in San Francisco and then three days in Nashville with some fabulous musicians, including The Memphis Horns, who had played with Otis.”
For Fairweather Low’s second album, La Booga Rooga, he “went out looking for people” and met up with producer Glynn Johns. “We got on immediately. In fact, of all the people that I’ve worked with, he is responsible for most of what I have ended up doing. That meeting and that album were phenomenal.” La Booga Rooga spawned the single Wide Eyed And Legless.
“I love that song and I do it now with our four-piece band, The Low Riders; I play acoustic guitar and Nick, our sax player, takes some gorgeous solos.”
Third album Bebop ’n’ Holla was finally finished and on its way for release in 1978. But punk had arrived and A&M had signed the Sex Pistols. “It was just the end of a type of music that I was playing. That album came out and there was me no more!”
Not quite! Over the last 40 or so years, Fairweather Low has collaborated with the likes of Eric Clapton, Bill Wyman, The Who… the list goes on. He’s also been out on tour with The Low Riders, and he recently asked Denis Cornell to build him an ‘inefficient amplifier’. “I wanted something simple that overloaded very easily, that had a volume and a tone knob and nothing else. It was against everything he stood for as an amplifier maker!”
Fairweather Low’s main acoustic is a Martin 000 that fell out of the back of the tour van and got patched up with gaffer tape. “I spoke to Martin and got it fixed, and when I got it back I didn’t like it, so I put the gaffer tape back on it and it sounded better!” His main electric was made by Gordon and Robert Wells at Knight Guitars.
“It’s just fabulous. Sound-wise, intonation-wise, it can be as dirty as you want and it can be clean, it’s just got the lot. And I now own a Futurama, like the one I wanted – the same colour. My wife bought it for me a couple of years ago as a Christmas present. Now I have one, what I can’t understand is that it is absolutely appalling!”