“The only reason we’re still talking 30 years later is because of the songwriting”: The Black Crowes’ Chris and Rich Robinson
As Shake Your Money Maker celebrates its 30th anniversary, we caught up with Chris and Rich Robinson to talk guitars, feuds and the healing power of songwriting.
When the Black Crowes first arrived early in 1990, their dishevelled swagger that was comparable to Guns N’ Roses anarchic introduction to UK audiences at Soho’s Marquee three years earlier. Both bands shared a dangerous energy and innocence about the industry that beguiled both audiences and critics from the start. “What’s So Bad About The Black Crowes?” asked a Rolling Stone cover headline in 1991 after the band had been kicked off a ZZ Top tour because the tour’s sponsors took issue with Chris railing against the commercialisation of music on stage.
“I never thought I’d be on the cover of the Atlanta Journal unless I killed someone,” was Chris’s memorable response to the story being splashed across the front pages in the fallout, summing up the edgy appeal that captivated so many in those early days – and it was far from just talk.
It was a striking experience for this writer watching the band on their second UK tour in 1991, when Chris took issue with someone in the crowd and promptly flew into the pit at the Edinburgh Playhouse, ready for action. “I jumped in the crowd and punched someone” remembers the singer down the line from Southwest Colorado. “That was near the end of the tour after 250 shows. This guy was throwing coins at me, I was like ‘Motherfucker!’, I swear I saw him laughing with his mate and we were just crazed at this time, like literally almost schizophrenic with the amount of touring. I just had enough and jumped in to smack him, then the crowd turned.”
Shake it off
Events such as these were a memorable accompaniment to the band’s edgy Southern bar-room strut, but the Black Crowes weren’t short of catchy melodies and hooky riffs either – with a hot streak of singles that included definitive gems such as Jealous Again and She Talks To Angels as well as an arresting cover of Otis Redding’s Hard To Handle. Shake Your Money Maker, which was produced by the band’s mentor George Drakoulias, went on to sell five million copies and remains one of the most enduring rock ‘n’ roll debuts of the last three decades.
To celebrate the album’s 30th anniversary, the band have put together a new edition of the album, which showcases treasures from the band’s vault that have remained unreleased, not least Charming Mess a track that was originally slated to be the record’s lead single before being dropped from the album altogether.
“We had a ton of songs, George (Drakoulias) was like ‘keep writing’,” Rich Robinson reflects from his home in Nashville. “I’m not aware of why it didn’t end up on the album, but one thing I do remember was the intro was pretty much like Hot Legs. We didn’t want to deal with getting sued and didn’t know how the business worked. After deciding to put it out we wanted to play it for Rod [Stewart] and say, ‘Look this is what we have, it’s obviously a tribute’ and he liked the song and gave us his blessing like ‘Go ahead man, that’s great’ which was cool.
“It was George who played us the Faces and Rod’s track Every Picture Tells A Story, which is one of the most unbelievable songs.”
Stewart was one of many singers that gave succour to Chris when finding his voice, particularly on his early Faces work.
“He’s incredible on that stuff and he has written some great songs,” Chris enthuses. “He’s Rod the fuckin’ Mod, you have to put him in the same category as Robert Plant and Joe Cocker.”
Another nod to British popular music of that era that graces the 30th anniversary edition is a cover of Humble Pie’s 30 Days In The Hole – a song the band recorded as a way of thumbing their noses to the prevailing mood of Georgian music hipsters at the time
“There was nothing more uncool in 1989 among the bohemians and Atlanta weirdos around us than 70s rock,” explains Chris. “It was our way of being rebellious and our attitude was ‘This music is cool and you’re missing some of the heart and soul of what’s going on. I thought, ‘We’re not good enough musicians to play this,’ but we wanted to do it because of our love of [Steve] Marriott and that band”.
Back in Black Crowes
Shake Your Money Maker was propelled by the clang and crunch of guitarists Rich Robinson and Jeff Cease, the latter doing promo shots at the time with a Les Paul dangled around his neck while Rich poses with a 1968 blonde Telecaster.
“What’s interesting about Shake now is that it shows how much AC/DC was in there in the way we approached rhythm,” Chris reflects. “Jeff basically doubled what I played, there wasn’t a lot of guitar interplay, but that came on leaps and bounds when Marc Ford joined the band on the second record. It was a far more straight-ahead album when it came to that.”
That 1992 follow up, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, captured Ford and Robinson’s singular guitar interplay on the double-platinum seller that featured another definitive hit in Remedy the memorable promo for which introduced Robinson’s Gibson ES-335.
“There’s no point in a bunch of dudes standing on stage playing the same chords” adds Rich, “it’s like a painter, you use different brushes and tools and get in there that’s how you bring dimensions and it’s the same for guitarists and guitars. You have a single-coil versus a double-coil, a Filter’Tron solidbody verses a semi-hollow. Every guitar brings a different timbre and sound.”
It’s a striking fact that, ‘Young Rich Robinson’ as he was known, wrote the guitar part for She Talks To Angels at 15-years-old. The track features as one of two unreleased demos from the band’s early incarnation as Mr. Crowe’s Garden that appears on the reissue.
“That was the first one I wrote after delving into open tuning,” he recalls of the band’s signature tune. “I gave it to Chris and he wrote some lyrics. The version on the boxset shows the song in a relatively complete form but it didn’t have the bridge or intro yet.”
Once written the track was shelved for some years. It wasn’t until their song-bank was cleaned out and presented to Drakoulias that the producer insisted the cut appear on Shake Your Money Maker.”
Chris Robinson remembers his brother “listening to Nick Drake and Stephen Stills” around the time it was written. “He tuned my dad’s guitar to open E and it just fell out of the sky, songs are just that way.” The 1953 custom-made Martin D-28 used on the original recording was later gifted to Rich. “It was a beautiful guitar that he had from his time playing in a folk band, The Appalachians, during the 1950s and 60s. I didn’t have an acoustic at the time and he was happy to loan it to me.”
The D-29 he wrote that son on has remained by his side ever since, and was one of a tragic few instruments to survive when his gear storage was flooded by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. While Robinson is philosophical about the many beautiful instruments he lost that day, it’s a stroke of good fortune that the instruments that helped define his sound on Shake Your Money Maker will be able to take their place among the 30 or so Rich takes on the road for the rescheduled 30th-anniversary tour later this year.
Key among these are the 1968 Fender Telecaster known as “The Moneymaker” and a Goldtop from the same year, both of which helped determine the band’s early sound and continue to be an essential part of his collection.
“The ’68 Telecaster I got after I traded it in for a Rickenbacker at a famous bargain store in Atlanta,” Rich explains. “I thought the Gold Top was a ’58 but it turned out to be a ’68. The body realistically came from the 50s because a bunch of the bodies were left over when they went back to the original design.”
Although damaged in the flood, the latter was one of the few instruments to make a full recovery.
“The Goldtop came out great and sounds better than it ever did,” he explains. “It was baked in a dry room for eight solid months and that got all of the moisture out. Everything was put back together exactly as it was and repainted”.
Among the other guitars brought back to life was Robinson’s favoured 1963 Gibson ES-335. Since 1992 the 335 has become another permanent fixture for the guitarist and in the aftermath of Sandy, a signature model was created by Gibson, but his love of big guitars with a bit of air in them isn’t limited to Gibsons, and in 2020 he also received a Gretsch signature model that was his from the ground up.
“I’ve always had a thing with those guitars listening to guys like Malcolm Young, Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Steve Marriott,” he says. “I always wanted my own Gretsch so I spoke to (Gretsch Master Builder) Steve Stern. He had built me this amazing White Falcon and I said ‘Let’s make a Magpie,’ Steve was excited about the idea and we went through the whole process. He was interested in the blue element of the feathers with the magpie having the blue, black and white. “I even got to design the little logo, it was so amazing to do that. They made 28 of the custom with the engraved logo and there’s a production model from Japan which is more affordable but it’s still a great guitar, I have one here that I play at home.”
While the current pandemic led to the cancellation of the last year’s tour, lockdown did allow the brothers to start writing a new collection of songs, their first together since 2009’s Before the Frost…Until the Freeze. The reunion also includes Drakoulias, who in addition to being a trusted producer was also the man who originally signed them to the Def American label. Chris suggests their relationship “deteriorated for weird reasons” after Southern Harmony but adds that, “he saw something in us when other people didn’t. He taught us a work ethic that we still have today and was the one that pushed Jealous Again to another place. The only reason we’re still talking 30 years later is because of the songwriting. We were leaving our amateur status behind; our writing had moved up a notch. Rich and I are good at what we do but without those songs as the vehicle, I don’t know what would’ve happened. George is amazing to work with, it feels like 1989 again.”
Since building bridges the trio has rediscovered the undeniable alchemy that strengthened their early resolve. “It’s been great and this is some of the strongest stuff we’ve done in years” adds Rich. Some years of silence between the brothers helped clear the air for a return to the song-writing values that infused those early works. “There is that sort of renewed desire to work with one another without all the other shit, the baggage and the distrust, we are in a good place as brothers now and when we’re that way writing songs always elevates us. For me Chris is singing better than he has ever sung, the songs are great and I could not be happier with them.”
For fans, the reunion had seemed about as likely as Noel and Liam letting bygones be bygones and getting Oasis back together, but having toured with them in 2002, Rich feels a genuine connection with their counterparts from across the pond.
“We loved Oasis and we felt a kinship with them,” says Rich. “We saw that they were two brothers that told everyone to fuck off. They were touring Standing on the Shoulder of Giants and there were some great songs on that record. I was listening to Go Let It Out the other day, it’s a fucking brilliant song. That was one of the most fun tours we had, to go out every night and hear those songs. Noel would get up and play with us and sometimes also Gem or Andy Bell which was a lot of fun, it was six weeks and we had a tremendous time.”
High-spirits were also captured on Live At The Greek with Jimmy Page, while no Crowes tracks feature due to contractual issues the shows remain another peak for the band. “I was on cloud fucking nine,” says Chris, “to play with the architect, one of the greatest guitarists of all time.” A sense of joy coming out of the groves on the record is clear. “It felt great every time we got in a room with Jimmy”, adds Rich. “It sounded great, that is always the litmus test, when it’s easy like that then you know it’s right.”
Shake Your Money Maker 30th anniversary editions are out now. The Black Crowes will play rescheduled UK and Ireland tour dates in October, please visit theblackcrowes.com from information.
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