PAINTER MAN: EDDIE PHILLIPS OF THE CREATION INTERVIEW
Ask anyone who was the first musician to put violin bow to guitar and you'll inevitably be told Jimmy Page. Now, being first to play the electric guitar with a violin bow perhaps doesn't rank among great human achievements like discovering penicillin or walking on the moon, but it is an achievement none the less. And credit is due where credit belongs. In this case the credit belongs with Eddie Phillips, guitarist with the mid-Sixties pop art experimentalists, The Creation.
Eddie Phillips’ reputation as a guitarist has always been criminally overlooked in established guitar-playing circles, possibly because The Creation never achieved the level of success attained by their contemporaries, The Who. Despite huge success in Germany – where they were a Top Ten band, touring regularly as support act to the likes of the Stones and Cream – the Creation only succeeded in scoring two minor hits in the British charts.
Nevertheless, Eddie Phillips was an innovative and imaginative guitarist. Along with Pete Townshend he was one of the early pioneers of feedback, introducing the violin bow technique long before Jimmy Page dreamt of the idea. One press story of the day – still a documented part of the Creation legend – has Pete Townshend asking Eddie Phillips to join The Who as a second guitarist. When turned down, so the story goes, Townsend made do with joining the Creation fan club!
In many ways the story of The Creation runs parallel to that of The Who – from experimenting with feedback on the same live circuit, they both turned raw mod mayhem into pop art power and psychedelic fury. At first working with producer Shel Talmy (renowned for his original work with the early Who and Kinks), they recorded a series of excellent singles that proved a mite raw for the refined pop taste of the day. The first two merely dented the outer edges of the charts, the remainder didn't even achieve that.
Eventually, frustrated by lack of success and disillusioned with the music buisness, Phillips left The Creation shortly before the band split in 1968 – being replaced for the few remaining months by Ron Wood, late of The Birds and later of the Faces and the Rolling Stones.
After a short spell working with PP Arnold, Phillips quit music altogether and – with the exception of a brief solo career on Chrysalis in the mid Seventies (again under the guidance of Shel Talmy) – he more or less sat out the decade. Last year, with Creation singer Kenny Pickett, and the ex-Kinks rhythm section John Dalton and Mick Avory, Phillips wrote and recorded a new Creation single for Jet records. 'Spirit Called Love' was a powerful and contemporary rock number that could easily hold it's own with any of today’s young upstarts. The man is back in business and it's good to hear it.
Although the Creation never achieved anything more than passing success in this country, their influence far surpasses their limited charts placings. To this day they remain a source of inspiration for many new bands playing the underground circuit of the '80s. Bands like Makin' Time and Biff Bang Pow named themselves after Creation songs, Rough Trade's most important indie label is named Creation after the band, and a press quote from Eddie Phillips from 1966 ("our music is red – with purple flashes") was turned into a single by '80 art school rockers, The Times. Meanwhile, in the big league, the influence of the Creation has been admitted by artists as varied as Paul Weller and Boney M (the latter scored a huge hit with their version of 'Painter Man', a Creation song which started life as a feedback filled piece of art-rock pop).
Eddie Phillips is still alive and kicking. Talking to him provides a fascinating insight into why, in the early Sixties, a few guitarists started to experiment with previously un-useable sounds. So let's put it all into context. The story of rock 'n' roll, from the beginning…
What made you pick up a guitar?
“I suppose it was Elvis – rock’n’roll, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’… I think I heard somebody else say the same thing but when I heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ on the radio, that sort of did it – from the minute I heard that song. And ‘Rock Around The Clock’ came out roughly at about the same time.
“I was 15 at the time. It was like the teenage rebellion, it was that time when you'd go to the cinema and people would rip up the seats when they heard ‘Rock Around The Clock’. Have you ever seen The Rock & Roll Years on the telly, that was it, that was the time.
“It was just a total wipeout. As far as I was concerned there was nothing else around that I wanted to do except for get into that music. I didn't have a guitar at the time, didn't even play one – and I bought one locally for about £4. It was just an acoustic guitar and I played it for about three months with it tuned wrong.
“I made my next guitar because Buddy Holly had come on the scene by then, and that was the first time I saw a Strat. That was something else as well – to see a Fender Strat for the first time in those days when most of the guitars you saw were big acoustic electrics, like the big Gretsch guitars… and to see this strange looking object with a tremolo arm and a pick-up selector switch. It was really something else. So I thought: ‘I must have one of those guitars’, but you couldn't buy them then, and even if you could buy them, I couldn't have afforded one. So I made one which looked like a Strat. But you couldn't play it past the fifth fret because the strings were about an inch off the finger board, and the more you tightened the strings up, the more the finger board came up. It was impossible to play.”
How did you make the guitar?
“Well, I designed the body in roughly a Strat shape and this mate of mine who was pretty good at woodwork, he cut the body out at school and I took the neck from another guitar and we just stuck it all together and hoped for the best. We put a pick-up on it – just the sort of pick-up you'd put on an acoustic guitar and it didn't sound too bad.
“I thought an electric guitar was just one you plugged into the light. I didn't know you had to plug it into an amplifier to make it work. I saw an amplifier advertised in the paper. It was a mail-order thing and when it came back you had to put it together yourself. It was just like a chassis and valves and you had to make your own box. I covered it in red leatherette, and it had legs on it – screw-in legs like the old coffee table legs. And that did me until Cliff came on the scene with The Drifters. They were called the Drifters before The Shadows and they ALL used these Antoria amplifiers. That was my first manufactured amp, one which you could actually go and buy in the shop. Then I bought a Futurama guitar – not the later Futurama guitars, this was one of the first ones which looked very much like a Strat – and it had three pick-up selector buttons, three toggle switches. Quite a good-looking guitar.”
“Skiffle was around as well, which we all liked, and we'd all crowd into a bathroom – anyone who had a bathroom. That was the place to go because you could set all the gear up and because it echoed, you got a bit of a studio sound. And we'd be up there with a tea chest bass, a couple of acoustics and the electric guitar – just generally having a good time and trying to sound like these people who we were hearing about and seeing on the TV. And it was so exciting, even at that crude level you felt… it was so new, everything was so new, rock’n’roll had just been born and we were all there at the beginning.“
The embryonic Creation started life as the Mark Four, a band who released four singles for Mercury between 1964 and 1965. Phillips, singer Kenny Pickett and drummer Jack Jones bridged the gap between the two bands (bass player John Dalton left to join The Kinks), and Phillips’ guitar style, later to become The Creation trademark, was developed during this period.
“I met John Dalton and I joined the Mark Four… that was about 1962 or '63. And the Mark Four then were playing the rock’n’roll of the day, and it sounded good, they were a very good, lively band and I fitted in well. By about 1964 we went more R&B – we were hearing more Rhythm & Blues and the blues thing was beginning to get quite big, with bands going around like the Brian Auger Trinity, Long John Baldry, John Mayall. All the old bluesers were beginning to establish themselves on the club scene. And we were going that way as well, we just felt at that time it was nice to get a bit more earthy rather than the rock’n’roll, which was getting a bit flowery with people like Bobby Vee coming into it. So we sort of went back to basics really and started to play R&B.“
In the period roughly covering 1963 to 1964, several musicians, independent of one another, began to experiment with new sounds and noises that went beyond run-of-the-mill beat music. They were sowing the seeds for the more outrageous experiments of the latter half of the Sixties. Pete Townsend was one of the guitarist who realised that there was a use for feedback, Eddie Phillips was another – taking his experiments with noise a stage further by introducing his violin bow technique to the live stage early in the Mark Four years (roughly 1963-64), testing it out on the flip of their third single in 1965, before using it with devastating perfection on the first Creation single, ‘Making Time’, in 1966. But what happened to turn the Mark Four from a standard roc’n’roll group of the day, into a band exploring the untested avenues of sound and noise.
“Well, I had dumped the Futurama and bought a cherry red Gibson 335. I was using 200 watt Marshall amps with two 8x10 cabinets, like a Marshall stack but it was all in one lump. And obviously with a semi-accoustic and with that kind of power, feedback was there if you wanted it or not.
“You were just beginning to use feedback and realise that it could be used. And without being a pain in the neck, it could be used musically and you could make a note of it, you could make it move. It's strange because at that time there were a few people who more or less got into that way of thinking and playing at the same time – like Pete Townshend, he got it off to a fine art with what they were doing and I dare say there were other people as well.
“Then with the feedback came the violin bow idea. I just wanted to make the guitar sound different to what it should sound like. I don't even know why I cottoned on to that idea really but it just felt like a good idea and a good visual thing as well, just to try and get a sound out of the guitar that no one had ever heard before, something that was against the rules!”
The experiments with the violin bow began on the live stage in 1963 and 1964 and can be plainly be heard on record by mid ’65. Jimmy Page has always been credited with this innovation because he popularised it with Led Zeppelin. When did Page start using the bow?
“I don't know, I was aware that he was doing it in 1967 because we did a tour with the Stones in Germany and one of the roadies was an ex-Jimmy Page roadie and he said: ‘Oh, I see you're doing that, I've just been working with Jimmy and he's doing that’. By that time I'd been doing it for four years. That's all I can say really… For all I know, Jimmy might say he's been doing it since 1954… I don't know, but I can honestly say that it was an idea that I started doing because it was my own idea.”
It has been said that you first started using feedback to fill the keyboard part on the Mark Four's live rendition of 'House Of The Rising Sun'?
“When the record came out, we loved it, but we had a straight guitar line-up with three guitars. We really wanted to do this song but I had to get round the organ part. It was before I got my Marshall gear, I was using an AC30, and I would set the vibrato on the amps to something like a Vox Continental, a fast vibrato but fairly light, not a deep vibrato. And I figured out I could play the chord if the amp was loud enough. I could clamp the chord on with my left hand and use the right hand to wind up the volume on the guitar. So I'd have the volume off on the guitar, clamp the chord, and then a split second after I'd actually hit the chord – wind the volume up. So you would get an organ-type of effect with feedback as well. I had used feedback before but this was the first time I used it as a real part of the song. I was taking an organ part rather than just being like a wild sound and a solo. That was the first time we used it to that effect.“
How aware were you at the time of people like Pete Townshend (at that point The Who were still the High Numbers) doing the same thing? Did you him play at this time?
“No. We only got to see The Who in about 1966. That was at Burton's in Uxbridge. It used to be a rhythm and blues club, and The Who used to play there regularly and so did we (as The Creation)… and one night they had a grand slam and they had us both on the same bill. It was a good night. That was the first time I met Pete, he was a good bloke.… [laughs] I know what you're going to ask now?
Yes Mr Phillips, it's time for the big question. A well documented story has circulated for years, that Pete Townshend asked you to join The Who as a second guitarist but you turned him down to stay with The Creation?
“If he asked me, I didn't hear him! I think that was a bit of sharp press. It was a good idea, it was quite a good little thing to have said but I mean, if he asked me, I didn't hear and I wasn't aware of anything like that.”
John Dalton had left the Mark Four to join The Kinks, eventually being replaced by Bob Garner. With a sudden change of name, The Creation came into being and recorded their first single with producer Shel Talmy, fresh from his terminated relationship with The Who. The single was ‘Making Time’, a superb piece of raw agression that featured a magnificent solo courtesy of Eddie Phillips and the violin bow. In the context of its day, it was a radically stunning monster of a guitar break, and still today it holds it own as a raw and powerful landmark in pop history.
“We recorded it probably on three or four track. It was just getting into the time when you could record a backing track and then put the vocals on afterwards. But all the solo work was live. You actually had to play the guitar thing all at the same time – there was no overdubbing. If I remember rightly, the solo was in two parts. The first part is played in E and the first part of the solo is a normal finger guitar solo, and then about half way through that I used the bow, slamming the chord with the bow, and then there's a big slide on the E string when the chords changed. And at that point Bob Garner forgot to change and there's a bass mistake on the record but it sounds alright and we left it there. He changes up to a B two bars before he should but it sounds alright, and it's one of those mistakes that sort of give it a bit of character. I suppose in no way was it a straight guitar solo, it was all a bit frantic – just the way we did it in those days.“
At that point, The Who were using feedback but it remained more refined, more commercial. In contrast, The Creation's ‘Making Time’ was full of a crude unrefined agression. It was quite simply a sheer bastard of a single.
“It was a real earthy old record, wasn't it? That was a pretty good example of the way we played. We didn't play any different in that studio than what we would when we did a gig. And that's how we used to treat recording – it was like a gig really, we'd just set the stuff up and just whack it out. That probably accounts for the rawness of The Creation’s stuff. It's a bit unpolished, it's a bit raw, but that's because we just used to set up and play.”
‘Making Time’ crept into the charts at number 49 and failed to go any further. The band hoped for greater things with their follow up, ‘Painter Man’, but it faired little better, reaching number 36. Later ‘Painter Man’ would become the song that the band are best know for, but at the time it was the number that gave them the opportunity to take their pop art ideas into every sphere of performance. The Who may have been smashing up their equipment, but the Creation were turning their stage show into an orgy of “non-stop movement”. In 1966 Eddie Phillips had said: “our music is red with purple flashes”. The Creation would now paint their music.
“It was about this time that we were thinking of doing more on stage than standing around thrashing guitars. Pop Art was beginning to happen and we thought that a good way of making pop art happen in the performance was to actually paint. We were on a Walker Brothers tour at the time and we figured out that it would be a great idea in some part where there's an extended solo, to actually do some painting on stage.”
On the spur of the moment the band decided to make a frame and canvas from wood and plain paper, singer Kenny Pickett would use aerosol cans to create spontaneous pop art paintings, while the band went crazy around him.
“We'd written the song ‘Painter Man’ and it was probably just about to be released. We were playing the song that night and were figuring out a way of making a more visual show. And that night it really worked out quite good, cos in the solo of ‘Painter Man’, which is a violin bow freak-out sort of thing, Ken went ape-shit with his aerosols. It looked quite impressive. And we had this lunatic of a road manager creating the smoke from behind the picture. And then it snowballed. We thought: ‘perhaps we better set light to the picture when we’d finished with it’… ‘Painter Man' was usually our last number and Ken used to rave about, painting this picture, which was then soaked in cellulose paint – which is quite inflamable – and then a nutty roadie would put a match to it and the whole thing would go up in flames. The caretakers used to rush on with fire extinguisers. It was pretty dramatic… quite fun!”
In a lot of ways your career ran a parallel path to that of The Who, but without the same success. Were you aware of The Who's various experiments with Pop Art at that time.
“We knew that the band were actually smashing up their gear. It was just a genuine feeling at that time that people were beginning to want to do more than just give an audience just the music – you wanted to give ’em something to look at.“
With the raw anger of the music and the onstage destruction, were you the first punks?
“Could have been. With the rawness of the music and, above all, with our attitude to music, we could have been tne first punks. It was our attitude to the music business, we really hated the business side of it, the people who ran the business and the wallies that called themselves producers.”
Did you know that Boney M were covering ‘Painter Man’?
“I had no idea. The only time I knew about it was when they appeared on Seaside Special – a saturday night TV show in the late Seventies – singing ‘Painter Man’. That was how we knew they'd picked up our song.”
What was it like seeing it like that?
“Strange, really exciting. 'Cos although they gave it a completely different treatment to what we did – I mean it was a disco song all of a sudden! But it was good, it was quite exciting really.”
After five singles and an album (only released in Germany), Eddie Phillips left The Creation frustrated by the band’s lack of succes at home and tired of the rigours of constant touring.
“It was really because we knew we had quite a bit to offer – and if you feel you've got something to offer and you can't give it, it's frustrating whatever you're doing. You feel like you're banging your head up against a brick wall.”
The Creation carried on, by this time with Kim Gardner on bass (later of Ashdon, Gardner and Dyke), and with Ron Wood replacing Phillips on guitar. This line-up recorded just one single before splitting. Phillips next found himself working with PP Arnold – playing bass!
“It was a different kind of music completely because she was Aretha Franklin really. And it was quite a departure from the kind of music we had been playing. It was a bit of another world. She used to pick all these sort of Stevie Wonder tracks and Aretha Franklin songs, with really complicated bass patterns.“
Did you record with PP Arnold?
“Yeah, ‘Angel Of The Morning’… she’d already done 'First Cut Is The Deepest'. That gig lasted about a year I think.”
Didn't you get frustrated, playing bass after all those wild years on the guitar?
“I used to play guitar now and again – we used to do a couple of Albert King songs – but it always felt a bit frustrating, just playing the guitar on a couple of songs.“
Did you feel like the creative element had been taken away from you? Afterall, you'd always been a SONGWRITER and guitarist.
“Yeah, it felt really different. I felt then I might as well be doing anything, I might as well be driving buses or be a coal miner, a brain surgeon or something… playing bass for me was like a day-job. If you're playing for somebody else and you're not doing your songs, it's not your own music and I don't like that.“
Eddie Phillips couldn't play if he no longer enjoyed it, and as far as he was concerned music in the Seventies was a turn-off. After a long lay-off, he's back on the live circuit, playing rock’n’roll for fun in a band called the Cuckoo's Nest, and more seriously with the reformed Creation as a recording project (check out their 'Spirit Of Love' single, out last year on Jet).
The Creation were a band whose influence has extended further than that of many more successful groups, and this obviously is of some consolation to Eddie Phillips.
“I think it's sort of nice really, but not in a boastful way. Because we never actually got the creature comforts from being a major success – like the big money, you know – it is quite satisfying to know that even all this time after, and we're talking over 20 years now, that the name is still alive and people are still being influenced by what we did.”
During the interview, Eddie Phillips made a plea for his long lost cherry red Gibson 335. The Gibson, which fell out of his possession during a period of disillusionment with the music business in the early Seventies, was the guitar that saw him through the Sixties and he would love to trace it again. “If anyone reading the magazine knows the whereabouts of my old Gibson, I would dearly love to get it back.“ The guitar had three big scars by the pick-up selecter switch a battle scar of an early experiment with a hacksaw before settling on the violin bow. There would be a neck repair just behind the nut. And when last seen, the guitar still had the remnants of Little Richards autograph on the back in black paint.
After the interview was published, Andy Gregory, guitarist of XTC, wrote to me saying that for just a few moments he had wondered if he had the guitar, but it was not to be the case.
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007