GOLDMINE MAGAZINE From September 28, 1984
ALVIN LEE - FIFTEEN YEARS LATER Written by Joseph Tortelli
He electrified Woodstock with his fiery guitar playing. His
flash and speed elevated him to the status of pop icon. The
music scribes dubbed him "The Fastest Guitar in the
West." Alvin Lee's prominence in the rock `n´ roll world
has declined markedly since those tumultuous days. Today his
tour bus arrives at clubs , not festivals or arenas. His
audience is older in age and smaller in number than it once
was. But memories of the guitarist's stunning performances
with Ten Years After continues to attract the faithful.
Relaxing in his plush tour bus after a torrid show at Boston's
Channel Club, the veteran rocker looks remarkably fit and
youthful. He recalls his introduction to music. "I
started playing clarinet," Lee points out. "I played
clarinet for about six months. I used to listen to Benny
Goodman. And listening to him I got to hear Charlie Christen,
who was a very good guitar player." The guitarist from
Goodman's band had a significant effect on the neophyte
musician. Lee remembers, "I went down to the pawn shop
and swapped my clarinet for a guitar, much to my parents
horror." Lee's initiation to the secrets of the guitar
came through jazz, not rock `n´ roll. Django Reinhardt,
Barney Kassell, and George Christian were among his earliest
influences. But the young Lee found himself intrigued by
another sound too. He credits his father with introducing him
to blues. "My father is a blues fanatic," Lee says.
"He used to collect chain gang songs, prison work songs,
and things like that. I had a great repertoire of blues songs,
thanks to my old man."
In 1955, about a year after he picked up the guitar, Lee
remembers rock `n´ roll hitting England. He mentions Scotty
Moore, Chuck Berry, and Lonnie Mack as a few of his favourite
50's guitarist. But, he adds, " I had a pretty wide range
of influences - John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters. I used to like
Chet Atkins, too." American rock `n´ roll records were
not always readily available to British kids during the 50's.
Lee developed a unique method of landing the newest releases.
"I used to buy all the American records," he
enthuses. "I have an aunt in Canada who used to send me
all the latest American records. It was a big deal in those
days to get a Chuck Berry album six months before anyone else
had heard of it."
Though he studied with a guitar teacher for about a year,
Lee is essentially a self-taught musician. "I avoided
taking lesions and reading music, because it will affect your
style," he says. "I never used to copy anybody else.
Maybe I'd copy a style. I'd hear a Chuck Berry record and I'd
play a solo the same style as him. I wouldn't copy it note for
note. In that way you can give it your own stamp. I've never
been a good copier, probably because I can't. If I listen to a
good solo, I can't work out the notes then play. I'd rather
choose my own and just play it with a similar feel." Lee
attributes his speedy guitar technique to encouragement from
appreciative audiences. "I think it comes from the
adrenalin I get off playing live," he says "When I
get a good audience, I get them off and they get me off too.
Sometimes I hear a tape after I've played and say, "Good
Lord, is that me?" because I don't know I'm doing it
myself. It's just the adrenalin the audience kicks out of you."
The youthful guitarist knew that he was destined to become
a professional musician. "I left school when I was
sixteen," he says. "I went straight into it, never
had a proper job." Like most teenagers in a similar
situation, Lee played clubs near his family home in
Nottingham, England. He recollects that he joined a half dozen
local bands, the first of which as named the Jailbreakers.
Lee's guitar style, rooted firmly in blues, hindered his
career in initially. "It wasn't accepted," he
explains. "I used to get banned from places because
people couldn't dance to the music I played. But I played it
anyway." The British blues boom of the early 60's changed
things. Local fans recognized Lee as one of the top musicians
on the Nottingham circuit. Though he recorded a few demos
during this period, none made it to vinyl.
Two other Nottingham lads, bassist Leo Lyons and
keyboardist Chick Churchill, also gigged in area clubs. They
asked Lee to join their band, the Atomites. Lee laughs,
"I said, "Well, yes, but only if you change the
name." Lee dates the beginning of Ten Years After to
1965. Originally, they were called Bluesyard. But, Lee says,
"We decided that was a bit too bluesy, so we chose Ten
Years After." Ric Lee, a drummer from Mansfield - which
is a town about fifteen miles from Nottingham - completed the
line up. All outstanding individual musicians, Lee refers to
early Ten Years After as "The Cream of the Nottingham
area." Even in their earliest days, Ten Years After
displayed considerable musical versatility. They played rhythm
`n´ blues, country, jazz and rock `n´ roll in addition to
their mainstay, blues. Oddly, the British beat which dominated
the mid 60's did not excite the members of Ten Years After.
Alvin Lee appreciates the irony. "I've always liked
American music," he concludes. "It's funny that
Americans like English music and the British people love
Ten Years After became a staple on the club circuit in and
around Nottingham. They gained a national reputation with a
series of dates at London's Marquee Club. Yet record companies
had their reservations about the commercial possibilities of
bluesy instrumentalists. With the success of Cream in 1966,
the record labels decided that electric blues was a saleable
commodity. Ten Years After signed with Deram Records. Their
first album, "Ten Years After" was issued in 1967.
Lee is proud that their recording contract allowed band
members to showcase their musicianship and style. For an act
like Ten Years After, an entire album, not simply a pop
single, was essential. "We were one of the first bands to
get an album deal ," he boasts. "Before then, you
did a single and if your single sold, then you could record an
album. We got offers to make an album."
The rock world, tiring of the mid - 60's pop sounds,
welcomed something different. On both sides of the Atlantic,
the burgeoning progressive movement found Ten Years After a
robust alternative to top forty bubble-gum. The bands late
60's albums gained airplay on America's FM radio stations
along-side Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull and a host of
others. A number of club tours widened Ten Years After's
trans-Atlantic appeal. According to many critics and blues
enthusiasts, this was the period of the group's greatest
creative achievements. Apparently Lee agrees. Undead, a live
album recorded at a British club date, remains his favourite
Ten Years After release. "I enjoyed that," he says,
"because I thought it captured what the band did
best." He also includes Ssshh and Cricklewood Green as
equally enduring recordings.
Ten Years After's Tours and albums secured the band a solid
place with underground rock fans. In the summer of 1969, the
group was given an opportunity to expand that base
dramatically. A performance before half a million rock fans at
the Woodstock festival in New York State was the turning
pointing the band's career. Lee carefully notes that the
Woodstock appearance, itself, did not cause a great stir.
"When we did the actual festival, it was a great
experience. But we carried on for about a year playing the
same kind of venues for about 6 or 7,000 people." The
Woodstock film and album soundtrack were released in 1970. Ten
Years After filled eleven minutes of time with the steaming
rock `n´ roll exercise called, "I'm Going Home."
The vinyl and celluloid catapulted the band to the top of the
rock `n´ roll world. And Lee, whose guitar playing and
singing were prominently featured, emerged as a star.
"The movie came out and that made a lot of difference," according to Lee. "Suddenly we were
playing giant auditoriums in front of 30,000 people." But
the acclaim exacted its price. The hassles and pressures of
touring grew with the audiences. Alvin Lee emphasizes the
connection. "Although that's when the band got really
popular, that was the start of the band breaking up, because
the gigs got less enjoyable then… When you play in those big
auditoriums, you can hardly see the audience. You've got
security guards and cops and echo and everything else. You
play five or six nights a week in those places and it starts
to get a bit more like work than playing. I think the whole
band got disenchanted playing those giant places. Nobody
wanted to tour after a while."
Though the seeds of disillusionment had been planted, the
groups dissolution was not at hand. More triumphs awaited. In
1970, their contract with Deram expired after six albums. Many
labels expressed interest, but Ten Years After was signed by
America's leading record company, Columbia. "I think
Columbia picked us because we were doing really well
then," Lee suggest. "Clive Davis came to Madison
Square Garden, and he saw 20,000 people screaming and yelling
for us. He'd be pretty stupid not to sign us."
The Columbia contract resulted in the group's first gold
album, "A Space In Time." From the fall of 1971, the
LP included Ten Years After's only top 40 single, "I'd
Love To Change the World." A Space In Time seemed to
indicate a significant new phase of artistic growth for a band
attempting to move beyond its blues rock roots. "It's
probably my favourite album as far as the songs go,"
declares Lee. "I had about a year off to write those
songs, which helps. You can't write a good song in three
But the commercial success did little to alleviate the band
members personal dissatisfaction, "If touring isn't
fun," the guitarist says, "no amount of money can
make it worthwhile. You've got to have fun playing. If you did
it for the money, you'd go crazy. If you don't enjoy it, no
amount of money in the world would be worth it." Rumours
abounded that Lee's superstar status caused tension within the
Ten Years After entourage. It was the age of the guitar hero.
And Alvin Lee took his place besides his countrymen : Eric
Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck. "It was a bit
embarrassing in those days," Lee says. "People
saying that I was "the fastest guitarist in the
West." And I know that I wasn't. It was complimentary .
Looking back on it, I was just a bit confused. I wasn't too
sure about putting myself around like that . I was probably a
little more modest than people made me out to be. But,"
he adds with a smile, "how can you be a modest, flashy
rock `n´ roll guitar player?"
Through the years Ten Years After persisted, Lee pursued
outside projects. "On the Road to Freedom". A duet
with American vocalist Mylon LeFevre , was issued in December
1973. The record featured an array of British superstar
sidemen, including George Harrison, Ron Wood, Steve Winwood
and Mick Fleetwood. "That was a little idealistic side
trip," says Lee of the album. "I met Mylon in
Atlanta. We wrote a couple of songs together in a hotel room.
And we had this long talk about making an album together. He
had a band called Holy Smoke. I got them on the Ten Years
After tour as the opening act. We wrote some more songs
together, When I finished building a studio in England, he
came over and we cut the record. It was all very homegrown and
idealistic. It's still one of my favourites. Nice music."
As for the supporting musicians, Lee says, "We had an
all-star cast on that one. That was Mylon. He was a good
The scorching guitarist appeared to be heading in a more
mellow direction on his own. He enjoyed listening to
songwriters like Paul Simon, Jackson Browne and Lowell George.
The blues rocker even aspired to be counted among them. Lee
acknowledges that this was not a rewarding musical endeavour.
"I enjoy the music, but I wouldn't want to play like
that. I did once," he admits. "But then I realized,
"who needs two Paul Simons?" I'd only be a second
rate Paul Simon if I worked hard at it. So I do what I do
best, which is rock `n´ roll and blues."
The guitar player's separation from Ten Years After, at
first tentative, became definite and permanent in 1975.
"When Ten Years After didn't work anymore, I took about
six months off and sat at home and just really went
crazy," he says. "I realized that I had to keep
touring no matter what. I tried a few different things. I even
had a seven piece band. For awhile, I refused to play any of
the old Ten Years After songs. That was all part of living and
learning. "Then on time I stopped by to see Jerry Lee
Lewis. He didn't do "Whole Lotta Shakin." He did all
country songs. I was really disappointed. Coming out of the
club, I realized that when people came to see me and I didn't
play "I'm Going Home" or "Little School
Girl," they'd feel the same way.
"I grew out of wanting to be a musician's musician and
playing for myself," Lee continues. "You can sit at
home and play for yourself all you like. If you're going to
play onstage, the idea is to get people off and give them a
good time. I realized that I wanted to give them what they
wanted to hear - within reason. So I play 60 to 70 percent of
the good old songs now."
Alvin Lee's October 6, 1983, set at the Channel proved his
point. Accompanied by former Crosby, Stills, and Nash bassist
Fuzzy Samuels and drummer Tom Compton, Lee ripped through
"Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl," "Choo Choo
Mama," "I'm Going Home," and other Ten Years
After memories. He also slipped in the rock chestnuts,
"Sweet Little Sixteen," "Slow Down;" and
"Hey Joe." A pounding drum solo and a surprisingly
entertaining bass solo by the dreadlocked Samuels supplemented
the expected guitar fireworks. It was the kind of performance
which had fans - perhaps imagining it was 1969 again -
screaming for more. The veteran guitarist expresses enthusiasm
about such club appearances. "I like doing these clubs
like we did tonight," he offers. "To me, that's the
ideal gig, because the audience is right there and you can
feel them. And the sound is tight."
Though Lee's career sputtered during the late 70's and
early 80's he is prepared to continue working. "I got
disenchanted with recording because of the record companies
wanting commercial singles which has never been my bag. To be
honest, I didn't even like the last couple of albums I
did," he confesses. "I did them too rushed. So I've
decided to take my time. I've been writing for about a year
and a half. The next album is going to be a good one if it
takes another year. At least I'm going to like it when it
comes out. With a little luck I might have something out by
summer. But no promises, it's got to be good."
Lee still plays with his Ten Years After mates
occasionally, through a permanent reunion is unlikely.
"We just did the Marquee Club, where we first started
playing in London. The club had its 25th anniversary, and we
got together for a couple of nights there. Then we did the
Reading Festival," Lee adds. "But we decided just to
do the odd festival here and there for a bit of fun. The other
boys are still settled down and married. I'm just a rock `n´
roll gypsy. I love touring. Those guys like a little order in
The singer / guitarist expects to be on the scene for some
time to come. "If I'm alive," Lee declares,
"I'll be out there. Don't worry about that."