BASSIST NEIL MURRAY REFLECTS ON HIS CAREER, DISCUSSES DRUMMER COZY POWELL, WHITESNAKE AND BLACK SABBATH
Andy Greene of Rolling Stone for the magazine’s Unknown Legends series, spoke with bassist Neil Murray (Black Sabbath, Whitesnake and Brian May), highlights from the interview appear below.
Rolling Stone: Tell me how you got interested in the bass.
Neil Murray: It took quite a long time, compared to some people, to find the bass. Even then, it was kind of an accident. Someone at school had converted a guitar into a bass somehow. I got hold of it and really took to it. From then on, through the end of my couple of school years and four years at design school, I got more and more into playing the bass.
Rolling Stone: Was [Cream’s] Jack Bruce a big influence?
Neil Murray: Absolutely, yes. I would love to be as great a musician as he was. As much as anything, it was more the kind of attitude where the bass is very important and it’s very audible. It’s not just a backing instrument. As much as I really enjoy bass players who do just sit in the pocket and have a great feel or great tone, or whatever, Jack Bruce and Tim Bogert from Vanilla Fudge and Cactus, and Beck, Bogert, and Appice, who was also very up front in a three-piece situation … They were combining bass and guitar in a way and being just as important as both of those. I suppose later on, I thought, “Well, that’s what I’m aiming for, to try and make a bit of a statement of putting my own personality across.”
The trouble is, that’s not really required in a lot of situations. And as you mature, you realize that it’s not necessary and it’s not suitable. But it was a kind of driving force for me, partly because the music that I got into and had the opportunity of playing, perhaps by chance, was much more fusion-oriented in the mid-Seventies.
Rolling Stone: What was it like to first come to America?
Neil Murray: It was great, obviously. I was very familiar with what the scene was like. I was like, “At last, I’m getting the chance to go there!” I would be hanging out at the Whisky and staying at the Tropicana Motel, which is the rock & roll hotel on Santa Monica. But I was right down at the bottom of the food chain…It was all a bit exciting, but also scary.
I went to New York…I was living in a disused Broadway theater in one of the dressing rooms. Elsewhere, some guy was turning tricks and things like that. And then I would get to go up to Harlem to see Aretha [Franklin] at the Apollo and Earth, Wind, and Fire out in Long Island. It was a whole different atmosphere. I felt back then that the States were a much more positive and enthusiastic environment for musicians.
Rolling Stone: Can you explain what made [drummer] Cozy [Powell] such a unique and talented drummer?
Neil Murray: Well, his drumming was an extension of his personality. He was a very fun guy a lot of the time, and very bright, intelligent. But he had a very forceful strength of personality. He would very much be a driving force in terms of his participation in any band that he was in. Even if he wasn’t the leader, he’d be almost the co-leader. He’d want to be seen virtually as important as, let’s say, [Whitesnake frontman] David Coverdale or [Black Sabbath guitarist] Tony Iommi. He didn’t want to be just a backing musician. He’d get very frustrated if he was expected to be just in that position.
It carries over to his drumming style. He had people that he really admired, and wished he could emulate, like John Bonham or even Jon Hiseman and other jazzier drummers in terms of technique, Jeff Porcaro later on. He was comfortable with his own style: “This is how I play.” In a way, it’s great to play with somebody like that, who is so sure of what they’re doing. With the massive sound he had, he just hits you right and you try and make it even stronger.
With somebody who is so powerful a presence, it means that, possibly, the bass player has less opportunity to shine. You’re more kind of in the background, but it’s still a very satisfying combination to play with somebody like that, someone very powerful that can drive the whole thing along.
Rolling Stone: How did you wind up getting the job with David Coverdale?
Neil Murray: That was through [guitarist] Bernie Marsden. I had stayed friendly with him. He had joined Babe Ruth after Cozy Powell’s Hammer. He got me to play on a couple of songs on one of their albums. Then he joined [the Deep Purple spinoff band] Paice Ashton Lord, which didn’t last very long. When that folded up, it was kind of coincidental that he got himself involved with the beginnings of Whitesnake, which was David Coverdale and [guitarist] Micky Moody. They had done both of David’s solo albums up to that point with session guys.
They were then going to put a band together, so they brought Bernie in. And then they started auditioning bass players and drummers. They already had a guy called Chris Stewart, who was the bass player with Frankie Miller. He was the bass player in Whitesnake, even though it probably wasn’t called Whitesnake at that point, in late 1977. I was still with National Health.
One day, Bernie called me up and said, “We’re auditioning a drummer today for David Coverdale’s friend. Chris is busy. Can you come along?” I was actually within walking distance of where they were rehearsing. And so I went along and played and really enjoyed it. It was kind of going back to my real roots as a more blues-rock bass player. I was completely knocked out by David’s charisma and his vocal abilities and power and everything like that. Just in rehearsal, it was as if he was playing Madison Square Garden, the amount of commitment that he put into it.
Anyway, I just helped them out for a couple of afternoons. But a couple of weeks later, Chris Stewart decided to go back to Frankie Miller. And so I got invited back to properly audition. That’s how it came about…
…So much of my career is just who you know. That can be good and it can be bad. I probably missed out on a lot of things because I didn’t know the right people or wasn’t in the right place at the right time. You just have to follow where it takes you.
Rolling Stone: Was recording Trouble, the first Whitesnake album, a positive experience?
Neil Murray: Oh, yeah. It’s tricky listening back now, in a sense, because we were bringing in a lot of that sort of jazz-fusion influence. There’s a lot of songs that are too fast or too complicated compared to what Whitesnake became even a couple of albums later. It seems a little but unformed, but very enthusiastic.
It can’t be stressed enough how much fun that band was from the late Seventies to the early Eighties, and how democratic and egalitarian it was. We were all just mates together, really. It wasn’t David and a bunch of backing musicians. It was very much a creation of the six guys in the band and their individual personalities.
Rolling Stone: Was the [art] cover of Lovehunter created to cause controversy? It’s pretty out there.
Neil Murray: I guess to an extent. But it was really more of a management idea than anything to do with the band. I think out of anybody, I was the least in favor of it. It was kind of a bit too heavy metal and not representative of the music of the band, in my opinion. It’s a popular image for merchandise and stuff, but it’s rather adolescent, let’s put it like that…
…More to the point, the band and David’s lyrics and how he was onstage were getting criticized a lot. The rock press was very much post-punk, “let’s not be demeaning to women” kind of thing. David almost took that as a red rag to a bull. “OK, I’m going to do it even more because this is not to be taken seriously. This is how we are. Deal with it…”
Rolling Stone: How did you feel in the early Eighties when MTV was taking off and hair metal became the rage?
Neil Murray: Well, it would be … gosh, trying to put it all in perspective … we had videos with Whitesnake, but they were very much performance-type things where it was looking like you were playing live even if you’re miming. We didn’t really get MTV until a couple years later. But certainly from myself, and Bernie to some extent, and David, we were getting more into the American rock that was crossing over to the pop charts, Foreigner and Journey and some of the other bands. Maybe a few were a bit too easy listening. But it seemed like the style we had as Whitesnake, by 1981, it was getting a bit same-y and tired.
If the band had taken off in America, things might have been different. But we hadn’t had any success there, particularly. It’s all very complicated musically and business-wise and personality wise. It becomes very chaotic for the next couple of years. Trying to explain it briefly is really quite difficult. But certainly, I could see that David wanted to move musically, to some extent, away from what he’d been doing for the last couple of years. He’d been admiring the songwriting of Mel Galley from Trapeze. When it became necessary to change … the manager was also the publisher and was also the record company. That situation had to change.
At that point, David is getting all sorts of influence, let’s say, from prospective managers and prospective record companies. At that point, he signed with Geffen. They start bankrolling him in a big way, but also having a lot of influence, particularly [A&R head] John Kalodner, in how the band should be. You certainly got the carrot of enormous American success being dangled in front of David, and Geffen really saying to David, “You’re the only one we’re interested in. Get rid of all these old guys. Start again.”
To an extent, David resisted that, at least to start with. The next album [Slide It In], that I wasn’t part of, is very much a transitional album where it was getting towards what Geffen wanted and more toward David’s changing tastes, but it hadn’t gone the whole hog, as it were.
Rolling Stone: You’re on Saints and Sinners, which includes the original Here I Go Again. Did you think then that it was an important song that could do something?
Neil Murray: It was seen as a kind of single because it was quite ballad-y. In that original format … the first part is just vocals and keyboards. It wasn’t really a major hit until it was completely re-arranged where the band, as it were, the session guys, all came in right at the top. That’s what John Kalodner wanted, but we’re skipping ahead a little bit.
I thought it was a good commercial track, but certainly nothing like what it’s become. The band did a video of it with the different lineup lip-syncing to what myself and Ian Paice and Bernie had played on, but with the new lineup…If it had been a mega smash at that point, I might have been impressed or more taken by it. I certainly didn’t think this was a rock anthem for the ages at that point. Good for John Kalodner for spotting it.
Rolling Stone: Jumping ahead to 1987, there was clearly a push to make Whitesnake a big MTV band, to basically Aerosmith them.
Neil Murray: Well, myself and Ian Paice played with Gary Moore for a couple of albums. I got the chance to rejoin Whitesnake in late 1983. At this point, it was still a six-piece band with Jon Lord. But John Sykes had come into replace Micky Moody. But then after a bit of touring, into spring of 1984, Jon left to re-form Deep Purple and there was an accident with Mel Galley where he couldn’t play. And so at that point, we did a video for Slow and Easy and you only see four people as Whitesnake. A sort of lightbulb went on over David’s head thinking, “OK, you’ve got a slimmed-down band. They all look pretty good.” It was Cozy, John Sykes, myself, and David.
That’s how he could see it going forward. It was definitely much more suited for the MTV era and much more suited for what Geffen wanted from the band. But their main focus was David, and then John Sykes, though at that point he hadn’t contributed anything song-wise to the band, so that was a very unknown quantity.
Rolling Stone: Why did Cozy Powell leave?
Neil Murray: The deal that we were offered was not to Cozy’s liking, so he left. And so there’s three of us in the band at this point. And John and David started writing together and I was involved in that to some extent and doing demos or whatever, and we were searching for a drummer all throughout the summer of ’85. We finally got Aynsley Dunbar. All the backing tracks were done within six weeks in the fall of ’85. After that, I’m on a different continent and David and John take an absolute eon to do the vocals and all the guitar tracks and they use all kinds of different studios. It ends up costing an absolute fortune.
What happened is we’d be on a wage in virtually all these situations. There wouldn’t be any royalties being paid. None of us, at that point, were earning anything from back albums. When our wages suddenly got stopped in April ’86, Aynsley immediately left. I had to find a way to survive when David and John were working away for months and months in the States and I’m back in London.
Rolling Stone: Where did things go from there?
Neil Murray: t’s really difficult to explain the whole situation, but by the end of the year, because John wanted to be so equal with David, because he pretty much was in terms of the songwriting and his contribution to the whole musical style of the album, it was very much down to John. But when it came to the mixing, Geffen didn’t want him there and David didn’t want him there. But he turned up at the studio and was told to go away. He said, “OK, that’s it. I’m off. I’m leaving.”
And now you’ve just got me and David. It was like, “Am I in or am I out?” I didn’t know.
And in early 1987, when he started getting a band together to shoot a video, he was like, “Let’s just get a bunch of guys from the L.A. scene.” And after the previous chapter of opening for Quiet Riot on tour in the fall of 1984, David and John were very impressed by Rudy Sarzo and how he was onstage. I didn’t feel like I was totally on secure ground as far as my job went, but I wasn’t being treated like I was out of the band.
From my perspective, I was still a member of Whitesnake in January 1987. But then I started hearing, “David has a whole new bunch of people.” Amusingly, the power struggle between David and John was such that John had been angling for Tommy Aldridge to be the Whitesnake drummer in the summer of 1985. They had a meeting and David was so offhand with Tommy that I think he got up and walked out. David just didn’t want to do what John was ordering him to do. He wanted to be the boss and not have the guitarist tell him who he’s supposed to have in the band…
…It’s interesting. I could see that Rudy was fairly obvious to get in. At that point, you don’t really know know who is in the band. If you watch the first video for Still of the Night, you can’t tell that that’s not John Sykes. You know later on when that becomes the band. It’s just amusing that Tommy joined when David was not happy about it when it was first proposed.
Rolling Stone: How did you feel when these singles explode and the videos are all over MTV and other people are pretending to play your parts?
Neil Murray: Fairly unhappy. On the one hand, compared to the sound on the early Whitesnake albums, where the bass is very up front and I have a lot of freedom to play melodic, moving lines with a sort of Jack Bruce or Andy Fraser influence, on 1987 I’m right in the background. It was out of necessity for what the songs require, but also in the mix. I’m way in the background. I was more annoyed about that. And even though my name is on the back of the album sleeve, people still thought that Rudy played on the album because he’s in the videos. And I can’t hear the bass anyway, so it’s not important.
It’s a double-edged thing. And then I had to fight, along with Aynsley, to get a not-very-huge percentage compared to what some people would think was fair from the 1987 album royalties. That was after millions of costs had been taken off, which I didn’t contribute to. It was all incurred by John and David.
It was kind of … I’m part of something successful, but I’m not. It’s financially galling that they went on to tour very, very successfully, and obviously made a lot of money out of that, individually.
But from that point on, there’s been so many lineup changes and ways where it’s became much more David plus backing band, that in some ways I don’t mind particularly. It’s great to be part of something really great and successful, just like it’s great to be play[ing] in front of enormous audiences, but you lose something else.
Breaking it right down, I’d probably rather play in a theater or a club and absolutely love the music that I’m doing…then be in some mega arena band where anybody could be the bass player as long as they look good and dance around the stage.
I’d rather be appreciated as a musician…
Rolling Stone: When’s the last time you spoke with David Coverdale?
Neil Murray: Probably a few months ago. I didn’t speak to him for many, many years. I went to see Whitesnake a few times when I wasn’t in the band. and he’d even say onstage, “Oh, I hear Neil Murray is in the audience. I hope he’s going to come backstage afterwards.” And I wouldn’t do that simply because there would be such a difference between their level of success and what I was doing at the time, which would be virtually nothing or something very obscure. I’d just be very uncomfortable.
But we’ve had a few conversations. We aren’t really on the same wavelength anymore, I’d say. He’s lived in America since 1985. He’s been married to two different American women. The whole success in terms of the post-1987–and-onwards career has been so focused on that style of music. Even though he has great affection and nostalgia for the earlier albums, he doesn’t ever try to play that style of rock anymore.
I don’t know. If someone is a multi-millionaire, and I’m the opposite, no matter who they are, whether you know them or worked with them or whatever, there’s such a huge gulf between your lifestyles that it’s kind of hard to get on the same page.
I get on fine with him, but it’s very much on his terms. If you read interviews with him, you don’t really get to the heart of David. It’s very much, “Here’s the same quotes and stories I’ve told everybody else.” I don’t know him well enough now to get beyond that. He’s had more contact with Bernie over the year the years because of the huge success of Here I Go Again. It keeps getting reused for movies and adverts and whatever. They’ve both done extremely well out of that song…
Rolling Stone: …How did you join Black Sabbath?
Neil Murray: Well, it’s down to Cozy again. After Whitesnake, I played a bit with Cozy and [guitarist] Mel Galley…Cozy had joined up with Tony Iommi and they’d done the album Headless Cross for a new label. They hoped that Geezer Butler was going to go back into the band after they’d recorded that album, but he decided not to. And so they tried a few people out and then Cozy suggested me. I went along and played and it seemed to work out timing-wise.
I was suitable in various ways for the band. But it’s a pretty difficult thing to replace somebody like Geezer Bulter, who is the Sabbath bass player in many people’s eyes, but also, to have to do some extremely complicated and, in a way, fusion-y bass playing because of what Laurence Cottle had played on the Headless Cross album before I joined. You would have to jump from doing something very intricate to something very distorted and heavy and loud as possible.
There were certain songs where you could stretch out a bit, but a lot of it was trying to be as close to Geezer as you could. It was semi-satisfying. There’s a part of me that really enjoys playing really heavy rock onstage, which I wouldn’t necessarily sit down and listen to or play along with at home. But this is going back to the late Eighties. And if I get asked to do something like that nowadays, something very metal, I’ll often turn it down. I’m just not in that way of playing anymore.
Rolling Stone: The Dio Sabbath reunion flamed out after one album and tour. Were you hesitant to return when you were invited back?
Neil Murray: Well, let’s see … I’ve had such ups and downs in my career. In the downs, I’m earning virtually no money at all. And then I’ll get with, let’s say, Brian May or Sabbath, and I’ll get paid to do a tour. And then there will be a long gap and then you get paid to do an album, and then another big, huge gap. Sometimes, whatever comes along, it’s like, what else am I going to do? It’s not like I was given a list of choices. “Would you like to play with Eric Clapton or David Bowie or Black Sabbath?” One opportunity comes along and you’re a bit silly to say no to it.
I don’t necessarily think it was right for Cozy to come back into Sabbath simply because the whole situation politically had changed where it was no longer going to be almost co-led by him and Tony Iommi. He didn’t take very kindly to that. It didn’t help that the idea of the producer and how the album turned out, Forbidden,really wasn’t to Cozy’s liking at all.
It was almost a continuation after that of the kind of gigs we were doing in the States, but also within the band, that really Cozy was now expected to be a backing musician, and not really a leader.
Rolling Stone: I know it’s been hard at times, but you’ve supported yourself playing an instrument all these years. Not a lot of people can say that. You must look back and feel satisfied with everything you’ve done.
Neil Murray: Some things have been satisfying, some not so much. It depends how you look at it. I can look at it from the point of view of, “I don’t have a wife or kids or grandkids. I don’t have a nice big home that has been paid off.” By the standards of society, I’m almost a complete failure. [Laughs] Musically, there are certain things I’ve done that I’m very proud of. There are other things I’ve done that I’ve wished were better known. There’s a lot of things I’ve done where they don’t really represent me at all. They could have been anybody, or anybody competent.
But, yes … It would be better if I could actually get down to writing my autobiography or my memoirs or whatever you want to call it. At the end of that, I might be more objective about it. Being able to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of, “OK, this period I was just surviving. But this period is really important. Let’s write three chapters about that, and then three lines about such and such a year where I virtually did nothing.”
There’s a huge long list of people we haven’t talked about, but I might have only played for a couple of nights with Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton and Sting, or a few bits and pieces with Michael Schenker, or one concert with Memphis Slim. Sometimes the big names, I wasn’t with them for very much. Other times, I did something onstage that was only seen by 150 people, but I thought it was great…
…My hope for the future is to somehow be in a musical situation where you really couldn’t be enjoying it any more than you are simply because of what everyone is doing, not just what you’re doing. But we’ll see.
Read more at Rolling Stone.