A Personal Tribute To Alvin Lee | by Robert Paul Mune

 

Alvin_Lee_1978

Yes,  Alvin Lee had carved out a Zelig like career that put him everywhere that British rock ‘n’ roll had gone, (he played Hamburg’s Star Club just a few weeks after the Beatles, he’d been in Pete Townsend’s hotel room when Keith Moon blew up the toilet).

Just that second I’d finished playing a snatch of tastefully atonal lead guitar, perhaps lemony enough to agreeably sour the track for a moment and I leaned back rather pleased with the sound. I caught Simon‘s eye and he smiled encouragingly; I’d been understood, then I saw a movement as John Swan our bass player leaned in toward the talk-back mic on the mixing desk, Bryan ‘Chuck’ New our producer rolled himself back to allow John to communicate, “Wot the fuck’s that?” John spat out with shockingly forceful belligerence. It was the first we’d seen of John for two days since he took himself to bed sulking because I’d overdubbed a little bass part he was struggling with. Ah the joy of making music!

We were in residential recording mode making the third Sten single, ‘Boys Are Wired Wrong‘ in Alvin Lee‘s studio, situated in the barn of Alvin’s old English manor house deep in the English countryside. Simon and I had been playing together for only a few months, but I’d been working as a guitar tech. for Alvin Lee for about a year at that point and on a trip out several months before to inspect the mountains of old music gear precariously stacked in mouldering storage I’d been shown Alvin’s famous ‘home’ studio, built at a time when the words ‘Home Studio’ meant you were a millionaire. It had cost a fortune to build, and was entirely equipped with top of the line analogue equipment (like the awesome Helios console) and would have its own tech visiting weekly to service and clean everything. Usefully(!) it had a helicopter landing pad outside too. As soon as I saw it I asked what I needed to do to satisfy my desire to get in there and record. The answer was obvious: pay, and as soon as I explained to our small record label that I had an ‘in’ with Alvin Lee they stumped up the modest budget for 3 days.

Getting the job as tech to Alvin Lee was an incident of crazy luck. I’d never teched for anyone before, just worked on my own guitar because I couldn’t afford to take it to a pro, but my landlord at that time had been ‘Alvin’s man’ (Tour manager, guitar/cash/stash carrier) since the mid 60s. We lived about 20 yards away from Joe Meek‘s legendary recording studio on London’s Holloway Road, and Mr. Hembrow had seen Alvin arrive as a shy teenager to play session guitar for the notoriously bizarre Joe Meek. Yes,  Alvin Lee had carved out a Zelig like career that put him everywhere that British rock ‘n’ roll had gone, (he played Hamburg’s Star Club just a few weeks after the Beatles, he’d been in Pete Townsend’s hotel room when Keith Moon blew up the toilet). One hazy vague day back in the mid 60s John Hembrow started working for Ten Years After and 30 years later still had the job. “So I suppose it would be a bit beneath you to be a guitar tech, eh Rob?” He asked in a  thick North London accent, “You probably wouldn’t be interested…but we’re going to Austria next week”.

I had no idea who Alvin Lee was. Early research provided the first impression that he was a ludicrous Hippy era guitar tosser who of late had thrown in his luck with touring retard rock dinosaurs like Status Quo, Jethro Tull and Whitesnake (with all of whom we played). When I met him I was struck by his bizarre mullet and his acute shyness. As I crouched behind his Marshall stack onstage at that first festival, nervous-as-fuck (because Hembrow had lied and claimed that I came from an agency and had years of experience on the road) I finally got to hear the music.

That night Alvin Lee was playing with the newly re-formed (and original) Ten Years After lineup: Leo Lyons on bass, ‘Chick’ Churchill on Hammond organ, and Rick Lee (no relation) on drums.

Hendrix had once stated that Alvin Lee was the only guitarist he was ‘frightened of’, and they had been good friends

Oh my God!

After a shaky start the monster cracked off its rust and stood erect. it was a fucking giant.

TYA live resembled the 1972 Who in hand to hand combat with the 1970 Doors.

With the simplest setup (one delay pedal, one Marshall 50 watt head) Alvin played his red 335 backwards, forward and inside out, and the music the ensemble hurled outward like sweat off a galley slave had the angry testosterone strut and swagger or primetime Iggy. I was particularly blown away with their version of ‘Good Morning little Schoolgirl‘ which came across like the bastard offspring of The Stooges’ ‘Down on the Street‘.

I would work with them for the next two years, until under my first (and last) stint as tour manager the fragile working relationship between Leo and Alvin shattered for the final time. I was told later that I should have policed the whisky!

One of the doors that this job had opened for me led directly to the United States, and it’s largely down to Alvin Lee that Cheetahs became The King Cheetah and crossed the Atlantic for good.

My two standout memories amongst many in the best-job-I-have-ever-had would be these:

Turning up to play in a tiny town in the far north of Norway. It seemed to be a forbidding looking concrete hydro electric plant and about 20 modest workers houses clustered at the head of a fiord and surrounded by cold looking mountains. We were due to play in a long stripy tent, in front of which had been laid out rows of mediaeval looking wooden tables and benches. The backline had been borrowed from local Norwegian musicians who loaned out nearly everything including cables. It was a very humble affair, and I wondered how the Gods of Woodstock would take to the challenge…

Well it was one of the best shows I ever saw Alvin play. He loved it, he looked out at a sea of happy Norwegian faces, glowing red from the alcohol as they sat in long lines just like their Viking ancestors;  they banged their glasses in time on the rough wooden tables and lustily sang along. I learned there and then that for Alvin this was what mattered: bringing the spirit of the music to the people. There was no bullshit here in this remote Norwegian village, none of the pathetic rock ‘n’ roll hierarchy that bugs me so much: the laminates, the extravagant riders, the rigidly imposed pecking order. Alvin knew we didn’t need it.

A few months later Alvin had been booked to play a festival in the far north of Germany; on Fehrman island on the Baltic sea. It was 30 years to the day since Jimi Hendrix had played his last ever show, Hendrix had once stated that Alvin Lee was the only guitarist he was ‘frightened of’, and they had been good friends. Once again the show would find me crouched in the usual position behind Alvin’s mini-wall of our Marshall 4x12s (and in case you’ve wondered about this seeming excess, there is a reason: the bottom cabinets are not plugged in, they simply act as pedestals to elevate the plugged-in cabinets to ear height, after all even famous rockstars don’t have their ears in their ankles. In addition the 4×12 cabinet has a very focused ‘throw’ of sound and the moment you step to one side they become almost silent, by doubling up you spread the sound enough to hear it as you move around the stage. So now you know the secret to this legendary element of rock ‘n’ roll pomp!) There exists a telepathic magic in a switched on crowd. This precondition is necessary for a great show, and aware of the events anniversary significance there was a special magic in the air. I can’t remember which Hendrix song Alvin played, in truth it doesn’t matter, what does matter is the intensity with which he channeled the spirit of Jimi. Alvin stood there with a very different guitar from the one that Hendrix played but somehow (and I don’t know how) the music of Jimi Hendrix just flooded through him in total truth,a hyper realism, and I swear I was not the only one whose cheeks were wet with tears.

Former Alvin Lee amp case, still road-worthy and being put to good use by Rob.

Former Alvin Lee amp case, still road-worthy and being put to good use by Rob.

Early next morning, I walked to my hotel window. I was maybe 5 floors off the ground facing the lonely panorama of the desolate Baltic beach. It was windy, overcast and almost entirely deserted. Almost entirely that is except for two figures: Alvin Lee and his longtime partner Evi hand in hand taking a morning lover’s stroll.

I felt really happy for them; two people who had found love and peace together.

Alvin died unrecognized as a celebrity, but then he had deliberately turned his back on that with countless deliberate acts of career sabotage, but he did what he wanted to do: he spent his life playing music guided by a search for truth, peace and love. A wise man, a modest man, and a very kind man.

Alvin Lee R.I.P.