Rock Interview: Talking with Brand X — After Decades, Back on Tour
Brand X was essentially a bunch of top-flight session men who got together to blow off steam, a UK version of Weather Report with a stronger rock element.
By Brett Milano
If you bought records in the ‘70s and you had any interest in prog-rock or fusion, there’s got to be a Brand X album sitting in your collection. The band was essentially a bunch of top-flight session men who got together to blow off steam, a UK version of Weather Report with a stronger rock element. Brand X never had the same lineup on any two albums, with guitarist John Goodsall being the only one to appear on every track (and even he missed one tour). Drummer Phil Collins is the most famous alumnus, but bassist Percy Jones and drummer Kenwood Dennard (Collins’ original replacement) also racked up impressive credits — Jones with Brian Eno, Dennard with Chick Corea and Jaco Pastorious.
The band is now touring for the first time in decades; Goodsall, Jones and Dennard are all in the current lineup along with new guys Chris Clark (keys) and Scott Weinberger (percussion), which hits the Regent Theater in Arlington, MA this Tuesday (October 25). The set’s drawn entirely from the vintage albums, which were a seamless mix of fiery playing and well-crafted, prog-informed compositions—and incidentally, great song titles. Many of Brand X’s tracks — “Smacks of Euphoric Hysteria,” “Why Should I Lend You Mine (When You’ve Broken Yours Off Already”), “Algon (Where an Ordinary Cup of Drinking Chocolate Costs £8,000,000,000)” — fully exploited the fact that you can call an instrumental anything you want.
I spoke with guitarist John Goodsall as the reunion tour got underway.
Arts Fuse: So what brought the band back together?
John Goodsall: Mental illness, mate. No, I won’t say we ever split up for good, we all wandered into different projects but nobody ever said “That’s it.” I would say that our sound has been cleaned-up a lot, it’s gotten a lot tighter. During the ‘70s we’d come up with all these bits and then we’d modify them in the gigs later. I’d think I’d found an easier way to play a part, but I hadn’t—I’d found a fuckin’ incorrect way. So now all the fast parts are right there, and it’s more extreme. With the more organized foundation that we’ve got, it’s a better springboard to take off on those improvisational things. Which we try to keep to a minimum, but somehow it never seems to work.
AF: The original heyday of the band was around 76-79, so you were playing this sophisticated music right in the middle of the punk era.
Goodsall: Yeah, we did. And you know, I love the Clash and the Pistols — but they ruined our budget, mate. We were getting like 40,000 pounds to make an album. Then they made an album for a thousand quid in their garage and it sells four million copies. Then everybody says, “Hang on a minute!” So they fucked things up for us, but they brought more honesty in the game.
AF: Speaking of punk, you’re credited on Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell album. What exactly did you do?
Goodsall: It was in the title track, “Rebel Yell.” It was me and Ric Parnell on drums, Mike Porcaro on bass, and Billy was there showing us the chords on acoustic piano. We went in around one o’clock (AM), I lay down some chords and shit that I believe they used on “Eyes Without a Face.” Then time goes by, it’s six o’clock in the morning, and they’re doing “Rebel Yell.” I‘ve been there all fucking night and they finally say “I want you to do a guitar solo.” So the first take is magic, right? The first take I just nailed it. And then they move a couple of mikes around and say, “Now we want you to recreate what you’ve already done.” So now it’s fuckin’ 8:30 and I’m feeling pretty pissed off, and they ask me to play something melodic. I was so pissed off that I did this thing where I’d smash my knuckles up the neck of the guitar and it sounds like a machine gun. Then I look up to the control room and they’re all high-fiving. So I thought, great — What you call melodic is me beating the shit out of my guitar. The guitar player in his band, Steve Stevens tries to do it with a whammy bar and he gets it all wrong.
AF: A lot of people think that Phil Collins did his best drumming with Brand X.
Goodsall: He definitely did, and I’m told that Brand X was the first record he ever sang a lead vocal on [Note: Not quite but close — He sang one Genesis vocal in the Peter Gabriel era]. We got Phil in drums because Genesis had a year and a half off, he had eighteen months with nothing to do. Then Phil went back to the disco scene and we had to get a real drummer (laughs). What was funny was that when we recorded the Livestock album (after Collins’ departure) at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, we’re playing the song “Nightmare Patrol” and suddenly this little guy in dungarees comes on sweeping the stage — and nobody knew it was Phil Collins. I think he was making a statement, “Look, they’ve relegated me to a janitor.” I actually have a friend now who looks a lot like Phil. We’re thinking of bringing him on so everyone will think it’s him.
AF: I always loved Brand X’s song titles.
Goodsall: Yeah, and we’re thinking now that we should give “Isis Mourning” a different title so it will be more PC [the 1978 track was mythically-inspired]. But you know, we haven’t even named the fucking band yet. Brand X was just something (flautist and short-time member) Danny Wilding wrote on the logs so they’d know we were in the studio. So this might be the year we come up with a name. We just don’t want to offend any more people. I’m thinking “The Embarrassing Midgets” has a good ring to it.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat. His latest book is Don’t All Thank Me At Once (125 Records), a biography of the unsung pop genius Scott Miller, who led the bands Game Theory and The Loud Family.