With The Store For Music label re-issuing all 4 Alcatrazz albums – including ‘Live Sentence’ on CD and DVD and accompanying vinyl releases with full art work – as well as his recent ‘Catch The Rainbow’ tour and a forthcoming brand new semi-unplugged project in the pipeline, Graham Bonnet, ‘The voice of rock’, is back with a bang.
Pete Feenstra talked to Graham about his current tour, his days with Alacatrazz and his inability to shake off guitarists.
Hello Graham I believe you are at the sound check for your London show at the moment?
Yes I think the sound check will probably be the best part of the show ha-ha, just kidding, I’m really looking forward to this.
Is ‘Catch The Rainbow’ a composite of Rainbow’s career or just the album you appeared on?
Basically what its going to be is a couple of the old songs from when Ronnie Dio was in the band, but obviously most of the show will be the stuff I recorded on the ‘Down To Earth’ album that I did – the one and only album I recorded – plus a few of the old ones from before when I joined the band.
Is it strange revisiting old material after all this time?
Yeah it is, as I don’t remember some of it as it’s been an awfully long time since I sung some of these songs. I had to write down some stuff on bits of paper, to keep up with the cues and long instrumentals. I had to remember when the instrumental sections begin and finish.
You were a successful R&B and pop singer before joining Rainbow. Do you ever feel trapped by the fact people expect you to singing hard rock and metal?
Do you mean that after Rainbow I was stuck in that draw of being a hard rock singer? (laughs)? Yeah, but it’s become part of my life. Just before joining Rainbow I was doing a lot of different sort of songs. But for some reason I got rowed into this heavy metal genre and it wasn’t really what I was looking for as it didn’t seem to be my sort of thing, and I didn’t want to join the band at one point.
But then I did it and I found I enjoyed it very much. It seems hard to escape that kind of thing right now, but eventually I’d like to incorporate something new material along the way. In fact I recently quit my band Alacatrazz and right now and I’m starting something new with three other people.
Talking about Alcatrazz, The Store For Music label worked on a big re-issue programme of Alcatrazz albums. The 3 studio albums are notably different, and moved from hard rock to more song-driven material and then an unashamed leap towards outright commercial potential on ‘Dangerous Games’?
You mean I didn’t want to do commercial stuff on ‘Dangerous Games’?
Yeah, it seemed to alienate existing fans at the time?
Yeah, that album was done because of desperation and we didn’t want do it, but we were asked to do it because Ronnie Dio’s wife Wendy was our manager at the time. She said: ‘you need to write words that are more straight forward, not as complicated and not so poetic. It needs to be more balls to the wall and more straight ahead.’
I found it very difficult to do that and it’s really one of my least favourite albums I have to say. She said we had to be more radio friendly, but it wasn’t what we were really looking for, as doing covers was not really our deal.
You’ve said that you don’t listen to music as it’s your job, but have you listened to the Alcatrazz re-issues at all?
Er, no (laughs), but we obviously played lot of that stuff with my last Alcatrazz line-up over the last ten years. I look back on the first two albums and think they were pretty good, especially the ‘Disturbing The Peace’ album with Steve Vai, which is one of my favourite albums of all and certainly the best of the three.
Alcatrazz was the first time you started with a band from scratch. Did you have your own objectives and musical style in mind, or did you literally just want to replicate Rainbow?
Yeah that was the whole idea, to do the same thing as Rainbow, with a similar line-up. I was looking for a guitarist that was like Ritchie Blackmore, and Yngwie was a big Ritchie fan. He was the perfect guitarist and the other guys were great too with Jimmy Waldo on keyboards, Jan Uveno on drums and Gary Shea on bass. It was the perfect line-up and we kind of got that Rainbow sound.
You’ve never been into guitar players and yet you have played and recorded with some of the biggest in the industry?
Er yes, (laughs) it just seemed to happen and I don’t know why. I just seem to find these guys that then become stars in their own right and I hate when that happens
‘No Parole For Rock & Roll’ just failed to crack the Top 100, but did you see the band in the long term, after all the album was 18 weeks on the chart.
We did very well in Japan which was a definite a goal for us, as we had a great following over there. I had a feeling it probably wouldn’t do anything in the States as were an unknown quantity over there. It was out first album and a tester to just to see what would happen.
I think it was a good album, but I think people didn’t know who we were until we stated playing it live and by then it was almost dead in the water, except for Japan where it went gold. I still play that stuff when I go over there now!
Did the sudden rise of Yngwie Malmsteen alter the band’s perspectives and musical horizons at all?
Yes it all got a bit silly, because he basically wanted to take over and people were always watching him as it’s a very visual thing as he was the guitarist. It’s not like when you are the singer.
The crowd can’t see how hard or difficult it is and you can’t compete with them when they turn up to 11 with a Marshall stack. His stage etiquette also left a lot to be desired. He started walking in front of me, showing off as much as he could to the audience, as it was a new thing, a new kid on the block with this great style of playing and it just didn’t work with the band.
Did it take long for you to get used to working with Steve Vai?
No he was waiting in the wings and he really wanted to do this stuff. He said; ‘I don’t play like Yngwie’ and we said, ‘we know that, we want you to do your own style’. That was the whole thing about Steve Vai he was totally different and very very original.
And you seemed to have a great songwriting relationship with him?
Yeah I did, it was fantastic we got on very well. We had the same kind of mind set about songs. The fact we didn’t have to be heavy metal as such, or whatever it’s called. meant it just worked out very well and that’s why it’s my favouriteAlcatrazalbum
While with the Michael Schenker Group, you wrote most of the ‘Assault Attack’ album. And you also seemed to flourish with Steve Vai. Do you prefer to collaborate on songs rather than writing on your own?
I enjoyed both. Well that was it with Steve, we had all these arrangements for the guitar worked out in advance and I added something too, but with Michael Shaker all the tracks on that album were all his own ideas of how the song should go, but it was matter of me finding out where to fit in the vocal and how to edit down the songs from say 8 minutes to 5, 20 minutes to 4, or whatever His songs went on forever, he’s a guitarist after all (laughs) That was the first time I ever brought words together with my own melodies to songs with Michael.
Talking about Vai, on the track ‘Breakin The Heart of The City’ from ‘Disturbing The Peace’ album, you sung in unison with Steve Vai’s guitar line, which is something Zappa used to do. Was that Steve’s idea?
Yes it was, I sang exactly what he was playing, like the three part harmonies on his guitar, it was great fun and we did it one afternoon in the studio.
When Danny Johnson joined for ‘Dangerous Games’ you walked away from the idea of outsiders penning the material,
It was a bit like that yeah.
Yet wouldn’t that have suited your role as an interpretive singer?
Well when you write the songs, the melodies and words, it was kind of funny to have someone else doing that for me. And that’s why to me it was a dreadful album, because we were doing cover version of The Animals songs etc., and a couple of other things that were covers that I didn’t like.
I thought ‘Undercover’ good showed potential?
I didn’t like the album, although I liked the song called ‘Ohayo Tokyo’, but Danny Johnson wrote a lot of the songs, and to me it was too poppy for the name of the album, and we never ever played it live simply because we didn’t like it.
Did you pick the tracks on the re-issued ‘Best Of Alcatrazz’ album?
No that was a record company thing, they wanted to do that.
Let’s go back to the beginning of your career. When did you first realise you had a big voice?
I don’t know……probably when I was 7, when I used to walk round the house singing opera songs. My mum used to laugh when I started singing Mario Lanza songs and I sung whoever was on the radio back in the 50’s – or people who had those belting voices that I heard on the radio at the time – it kind of developed from there.
I didn’t realise that my voice was big though, until I sang in a class of 32 people. I then realised I was singing harmony while the choir all sang a particular song at Christmas. The teacher asked; ‘who’se singing the harmony? Is that you Bonnet? It’s not bad!’ I said, ‘Ok, what’s wrong?’. ‘Well you are singing that bit wrong in that verse, but you’re very loud aren’t you?’ (laughs)
Given your current ‘Catch The Rainbow’ tour, you’ve almost come full circle in the terms of the triumph of voice over image. A lot of people couldn’t get over your image at the time, but you have remained consistent with it and you are still out there doing it which is fantastic?
Yeah well a lot of people still can’t get over it now ha ha. Yeah I never wanted to be uniform like a lot of the metal guys did at the time with big hair and spandex. To me it just seemed funny and so I was very anti that. I wasn’t going to change just because I was singing in a hard rock band.
Well yes it was a funny era?
I didn’t want to change just because I was in a band that played hard rock. I could never understand what your clothing or your haircut has got to do with music, you know?
MTV was important to your career wasn’t it?
Yes it was a time when you got everything played on TV from MSG to Rainbow and eventually Alcatrazz. MTV was very important in getting Alcratrazz on the road at the time.
Did you always want to go back to your solo career in between the big bands you played with?
Well the music in my solo career was the kind of music I always wanted to do. It was a mix of music rather than just all one thing. But I loved to be part of a band. Sometimes it can be scary being out there on your own as a solo artist, and I love having other people around me and working with great musicians, and it’s starting again now as a solo artist.
What about the future?
Well Alcatrazz has now gone, there is no Alcatrazz anymore. I’ve completely left that, and I’m on to something new. It’s going to be an acoustic thing, with our own material. I mean its not like Peter, Paul & Mary, but it features an acoustic bass guitar, me playing acoustic and another guitarist.
We’re putting it together now and I think you should hear about some of it soon. It will be sweet and nice and some of it will have a rock edge, and eventually we’ll have a show that is half acoustic and half electric, like a lot of people are doing now. It’s Interesting thing to have that kind of a dynamic shift during the course of the set.
Interview © March 2014 Pete Feenstra
Gig review (19 March 2014)
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