INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Wire SEPTEMBER 2010 - by Stephen Thrower
BACK FROM THE BITTER END
For nearly four decades, bassist Graham Simpson has remained one of rock's great enigmas, after falling off the radar following his stunning contribution to Roxy Music's debut album. In his first ever interview, he recalls how a promising career was interrupted by a quest for enlightenment via Sufism, psychotropic drugs and a spell in a Moroccan jail.
Graham Simpson was the first person Bryan Ferry asked to join him in Roxy Music way back in 1969. The bass player appears on just two Roxy recordings. The first is a John Peel session from January 1972; the second is their all-important debut album, Roxy Music. by the time they returned to the studio in July to record their debut single Virginia Plain, Simpson had gone. Never interviewed, never photographed with the group, he seemed to have fallen off the face of the Earth, leaving only his enigmatic solo portrait on the cover of Roxy Music.
It's a photo that has long intrigued the curious. Compared to Ferry in shark-skin quiff and gold lurex tiger-skin jacket, Andy Mackay in 1950s leather pin-up mode, Phil Manzanera in space-age insect goggles and Eno the imperious leopard-skin androgyne, Simpson looks quiet, reserved, thoughtful, private. Gazing directly at the camera, eyes unreadable, he's an elegant but relatively conservative presence in tastefully embroidered jacket and shirt-cuffs.
Simpson's basslines, however, are far from conventional. Rather than thudding dutifully away beneath the 'interesting bits', the bass is every bit as idiosyncratic as Eno's synthesized treatments and Mackay's wailing oboe. The prime example is Chance Meeting, one of the eeriest songs Roxy ever recorded, which is built on the interplay between Simpson's bass and Ferry's piano and vocal. The verses are delicate, nuanced, minimally decorated. Bass notes appear like ink drops in water. When Manzanera's heavily-treated guitar enters the frame during the instrumental run-out, like some gaseous wraith invading a Last Year In Marienbad tea party, Simpson accelerates into a supremely odd walking bassline, played mostly at the high end of the instrument's register and doubling the song's internal tempo, like a heartbeat stirred into turmoil by the lyric's chance encounter with a one-time lover.
Since 1972, there has been literally no news of Simpson's whereabouts, although snippets about his tenure in Roxy have emerged over the years, thanks to a number of well-researched books throwing light on the group's early days.But until now the story has never been told by the man himself. Graham Simpson is alive and well: he is the subject of a new documentary, Nothing But The Magnificent, to be screened this month at the Portobello Film Festival; and this is his first ever press interview. We met at the home of his friend Sara Cook. I found him to be a lucid, charming man with an occasionally roguish wit; someone passionate about music and the state of humankind, whose formidable memory appears undimmed by the extremes of experience he has been through.
Simpson was born in Manchester on October 13, 1943, to an English merchant seaman father and a Scottish mother trained as a nurse. After a spell in the school orchestra playing violin, he gravitated to the bass at university: "I taught myself to play bass guitar in 1963. My first was a Gibson EBO, cherry red. I sanded all the cherry red off and just had it plain wood, varnished. It was fucking wonderful. I used to bang it up against the door, to get the resonance, and practise every night. I'd always been blown away, carried to a high, by Charlie Mingus, Jimmy Garrison, Henry Grimes, Paul Chambers, Scott LaFaro. Charlie Haden still blows my m ind to this day."
Simpson joined his first group, Newcastle blues outfit The Junco Partners, in 1964. A year later he joined The Gas Board, a seven-piece led by Ian 'Sparky' Watts, whose members included future film maker Mike Figgis on trumpet, future record producer John Punter on rhythm guitar, and, for a short time, Bryan Ferry on vocals. The Gas Board were managed by Chrysalis Records founder Terry ellis, then the student union secretary at Newcastle University. Says Simpson, "He stuck us in Pye recording studios in Paddington, and he had some prick of an American producer trying to get us to sing pop songs. So it all collapsed, you know, and we went our separate ways." Simpson dropped out of Newcastle University and, moving to Manchester in 1968, joined the blues group Cock-A-Hoop, but poor management and lack of money paid to their efforts.
He relocated to Norwich briefly, before moving to London with his wife Fannie in 1969. "I kept in touch with Sparky Watts, who was working as a chemist in Notting Hill, living in a house full of people who were dealing cannabis. Completely and totally paranoid, the whole house. You could smell the stink from Tower Bridge!" Later that year, Simpson found himself back in touch with Bryan Ferry: "Bryan had visited me in Norwich and talked about the idea of forming a band together. he admired by bass playing or something. We teamed up in London. he was living with a young girl who had a flat in Kensington, courtesy of her rich father. Bryan always lands on his feet, because he looks where he's going so carefully. He bought me a bass guitar - he'd borrowed about £5000 from a rich friend of his. But then all of Bryan's friends were rich."
Ferry and Simpson's friendship can be traced back to their Newcastle college days. "Bryan and I first met with a common interest in the blues," Simpson recalls. "Fats Domino was one of Bryan's favourites. He took me home to his place in Gateshead one afternoon, and he put on a 45 of a track by some soul singer I've never heard of again, a track called In My Lonely Room, a wonderful, wonderful track. I'd never heard it and it blew my mind. This was the common ground. We bonded on a musical appreciation level."
Next to join Roxy, in late 1970, were Andy Mackay and his friend Eno. Dexter Lloyd, a classical timpanist and Roger Bunn, a guitarist from the group Enjin, filled out the decidedly peculiar early line-up. (Lloyd was soon replaced by drummer Paul Thompson, while Bunn's role was eventually occupied by Phil Manzanera.) "Eno," Simpson says, "I could never work out. I used to truck on down to Eno's and thunder away on the old bass guitar making an awful din, while Brian fooled around with his stuff, but I never gelled." None of the newcomers fitted in with Simpson's social life, nor did they seem to share his increasing fascination with drugs, especially psychedelics. "I used to drop an acid tab every weekend," he recalls. "It was a complete eye opener for me - it broadens your perceptual and conceptual awareness of beauty, and fixes your concentration upon this beauty for about three days."
Early in the summer of 1971, a recording of Roxy was made at Eno's flat in Camberwell. This was the tape that Ferry began hawking to record companies, initially meeting with a string of stony-faced rejections. However, Roxy's fortunes were to change when journalist Richard Williams received the tape and wrote approvingly of it for Melody Maker in August 1971. Radio 1 producer John Walters also heard and liked it, while John Peel became a devotee after seeing the group live in Wimbledon in December. Peel and Walters invited Roxy to record a Radio 1 session, transmitted on January 19, 1972. On February 1 Roxy showcased their set for EG Management. Simpson remembers, "They applauded - why I'll never know - and said, 'We'll put you in the studio.' So we didn't have to go on the fucking road, thank God, because we would have been trampled underfoot in the mud! Janis Joplin would have come at us with the sharp end of a bottle!" Simpson concurs with the estimation of many observer4s, that the technical ability of the group was initially somewhat limited: "This is what amazed me about Roxy - how they ever got off the fucking deck, man! There were only two musicians in Roxy Music, there was me and there was young Paul Thompson. A good Geordie lad. He was spot on."
At the time, Simpson was sharing a flat with Evan Parker. "Evan is one of the most independent people I've ever met. he introduced me to John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Kenneth Patchen, you name it..." The brew was intensified by Simpson's escalating interest in mysticism: "I was at a crossroads in my life. I was into the Sufis, big time. Buddhism, Hinduism, Kundalini Yoga, Raja Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Christianity. And Sufis came along, the Naqshbandi Order of Dervishes, known throughout the world as the Silent Order of Dervishes." Simpson was to take a very deep pull on a mind-altering publication Parker discovered one day late in 1971. "Even bought a book at Watkins Book Shop in Cecil Court called The Book Of The Book, by Idries Shah. After about ten pages the story ends and the rest is blank pages. Jesus Christ, I thought, what is this! It's big, you know, it's awesome, and we all dived in, and I dived in just a bit too deep, I think. I swallowed this fucking Sufi writing, stoned out of my fucking mind on Nepalese oil, man. You can imagine the effect on me - a super-fit Olympic-class judo athlete at the time. I went up, and I stayed there."
This cocktail of powerful drugs, increasing career velocity and mind-bending Eastern philosophy began to take a toll on Simpson's behaviour. "I was catatonic for a long time at the John Peel session," he says. "As stiff as a poker. I was confused out of my head and I couldn't relate. It was just too much for one young man to handle all at once. I needed time, I needed many years of growth and development. After the session I was catatonic for about an hour and they had to carry me out." How did Simpson manage to play the bass? "It was a distraction, let's put it that way, from the problems I was experiencing," he explains. "The music was all I had, and it was one hell of a brief interlude away from the pressure, because I think any musician, if he's ever unfortunate enough to encounter pressure of any kind, immediately releases it when he picks up his instrument and plays."
In Michael Bracewell's excellent Re-make/Re-model, Ferry recalls that Simpson played at a private rehearsal for Island records with tears streaming down his face. Simpson remembers the occasion: "One of the most incredible experiences of what I can only describe as the impression of a very fantastic beauty, that I felt in my heart, and I couldn't help but weep with emotion at the sensation that I felt all over my body."
In March 1972, Simpson went into the studio to lay down the first Roxy Music album. Over the years, producer Peter Sinfield's distinctive work on the record has come in for criticism from journalists and group alike. Simpson, it turns out, is not going to buck the trend. "He made bollocks of it," he spits. "Why Bryan brought him in I don't know." He reserves his greatest ire for Sinfield's treatment of his signature performance on the album: "There's only one track on there where I ever found Bryan, Chance Meeting, which is just me and Bryan - they shouldn't have put anything else on it. There were two bass notes, E-flats, one after the other, but Pete Sinfield muted the second one, and I nearly fucking dropped dead - and I haven't recovered yet!"
Another stand-out bass performance occurs in the mid-section of Sea Breezes, in which the music develops a cold, alienated tone and spasmodic gait, as if some romantically traumatised android is having a systems failure. Simpson, it transpires, is less than convinced of the merits. "It just happened on the spot, a one-off, thank God," he groans. "Unfortunately, Andy Mackay had his finger on the bloody record button!" If There Is Something he regards more approvingly, describing his bass part as "a hop, skip and a jump thing, upper register most of the time, which is something I had to do because I could never get low enough on the electric bass guitar."
Surprisingly, Simpson reveals that the only track composed entirely in the studio was Bitters End; on the face of it, an unlikely candidate for 'Improv' status. "The band just dropped everything, forgot everything, time, space, health, vigour and long life, till death do us part, and just laid down this spontaneous little put-together thing. And it's the only fucking track that worked. It was a complete ad-lib - we just took off, and ended, and it was perfect, man!"
The earliest Roxy concerts were shambolic affairs. "I did one or two, but I didn't like it," recalls Simpson. "It was a cacophony and I couldn't relate to it. the onstage sound was terrible, and I couldn't even hear Paul. He and I got separated, musically." With the album finished, preparations were underway for more shows. Sadly, Simpson's erratic behaviour could no longer be ignored. He remembers, "The last thing I did with roxy was a rehearsal at a huge underground cavern in Covent Garden, playing bass with a wah-wah pedal, and young Paul was cursing me out because I missed the introduction to the first song. The whole thing was bedlam. I mean, the din was deafening. At the end, this young record executive from Island records picked me up off the floor and took me back to her place. I was lying low, I couldn't face any more musical exposure. I shacked up with this girl and that's where Bryan found me, somehow." According to Simpson, Ferry telephoned, extending a generous offer that reflected the pair's long friendship: "We went through this conversation, and he insisted, 'Take a break and come back'.I took a break, but I never actually went back.I lost touch with the environment - and the fucking planet!"
Simpson's last act as a member of Roxy Music was formally to sign away his involvement: "I haven't seen them since I walked into EG Management's office on the King's Road one morning with David Enthoven, and put a cross against my name to say I would no longer have any dealings with Roxy Music or attempt to use the name, and all this legal bollocks. I eventually received £2000, which paid for my ticket to India."
While preparing this article, I met with Graham Simpson twice, and on the second occasion we sat together listening to Roxy's John Peel session recordings. During Sea Breezes, with its extended instrumental section, Simpson fell into reverie, before stating simply: "I've tried twice to kill myself. In 1973, and again a year later in 1974. The first time was out of sheer agonising pain in my head. My only thought was to go to the doctor's and get a bottle full of Mandrax, get in a hot bath, and slit my wrists with a razor, which I did. My wife stopped me." He pauses and reflects, before continuing: "It was either divine or diabolical, the influence that had got a hold of me. And I think it was divine, if you can understand that. A year later, I was married, living in Crouch End, going through hell, both of us. I was out of my fucking head on Nepalese oil, and I'd lost touch with everything except Fannie. We stuck together until eventually her parents bought us a house in Maidstone. To cut a long story short, I wrecked the place. broke every window. I ended up in Woodvale Hospital in Maidstone." Simpson was placed on the anti-psychotic drug Largactyl. "It worked. I came round eventually."
In 1975 the couple divorced, and Simpson left the country for India. "I needed the rough and tumble of a Sufi school, and this I went to in God-almighty fear of the Lord, would you believe, which I think does everyone one hell of a power of good from time to time, because it makes you humble, and more appreciative of the enormous value of the gifts that are constantly bucketed down upon us." By 1979, as Roxy Music reformed to even greater chart success, Simpson was im Morocco, utterly broke. Desperate times called for desperate measures. "I was busted for safecracking in Marrakech," he discloses. "I ran out of money and I broke into an airline office and tried top crack the safe one night and set off the fucking infrared alarm and got six months. I was still trying to perform the Hajj, you know, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Crazy. Came back to London, having been repatriated at long last by the Civil Service, who'd left me for dead in a Moroccan jail."
"In the morning, things you worried about last night will seem lighter - I hope things turn out right..." - Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure
To this day, Graham Simpson retains a commitment to ideas of cosmic consciousness, and currently espouses an optimistic sense that a new age of human evolution is just around the corner. "We have now a distinct possibility of a very great union being formed throughout the world, something unprecedented in the history books. That is not a prophecy, it's an outright certainty. Even the Lord Jesus never saw this far ahead. A universal brotherhood, the ascent of man continued, out of and away from the quagmire of confusion and intrigue."
During our first meeting, Simpson was somewhat critical of Bryan Ferry and the other members of Roxy. However, as we spent time looking through the numerous books about the group published in the last few years, from which I read aloud the often glowing comments from Ferry, most notably in Bracewell's Re-make/Re-model, Simpson was visibly moved. "That is an honest book, then. I have revised my opinion. he's an honest man, therefore a good man." Looking through the photographs, he laughs, "Got to hand it to you, Bryan... he really is one hell of a good-looking geezer... Of course, murder most foul when they covered Jealous Guy! But there are some good tracks on Avalon. I checked that one out. I liked Dance Away too." Putting the books aside, Simpson exhales. "This is an education for me. It dissipates so much of the pressure that's been in my head for so long." Would he ever relish a meeting, chance or otherwise, with his old friend? "Bryan and I will never appear on stage together, but as friends? I hope it takes place."
As I leave, he tells me he's overjoyed that Chance Meeting, my favourite Roxy song, "turned you on so much". I tell him the early Roxy Music are probably the biggest musical influence in my life, and his parting words support what many aficionados feel: that the 'unfinished' nature of those early ideas can act as a form of muse. "Where Roxy Music is, everybody knows. Where it might have been, could have been, very possibly should have been, is something that can be investigated by other young musicians, using Roxy Music as a departure point."
ALBUMS | BIOGRAPHY | BOOKS | INSTALLATIONS | INTERVIEWS | LYRICS | MULTIMEDIA