Graham Reid | | 10 min read
Trees are down, power is out everywhere, the temperature has dropped and our house is freezing. So when a conversation with Hammond Gamble is relocated to the warmth of Galbraith's Ale House in Eden Terrace it's very welcome.
The purpose of meeting Gamble – one of this country's finest blues-rock guitarists, an earthy singer and a much underrated and Silver Scroll-winning songwriter – is ostensibly to talk about the forthcoming self-titled album by the Disappointments, a band which finds him alongside former Street Talk-then-Angels drummer-now-promoter Brent Eccles and another old running mate from Street Talk days bassist Andy MacDonald.
But our encounter is much more conversation than interview, and it begins in the carpark outside while we wait for the pub to open and turns immediately to travel.
Gamble seems almost embarrassed to admit that he and his wife Susan – who will wait patiently at another table in Galbraith's reading while we chat – have been on a cruise and are soon to go on another. I reassure him that I too have done a cruise but we agree that we aren't there for the deck quoits or the line-dancing.
Gamble – born in Lancashire 66 years ago and having lived here since he was 12 – is a friendly, garrulous and often disarmingly honest character.
In our freewheeling hour over beers – which he cheerfully buys, rare in such interview situations I have to say – includes reflections on Street Talk back in the Seventies, the late America producer Kim Fowley who produced their self-titled first album (“crazy bugger, intelligent but some of the things he said were sick, taking about necrophilia . . . said the CIA were chasing him or something . . .” ) and the late Tim Murdoch of Warners (he can impersonate Murdoch wickedly) who released the Street Talk albums and a Gamble solo.
We discuss Neil Finn joining Fleetwood Mac (“Good on him”), the sound of mp3s and Dr Dre's Beats headphones, the weather, more travel talk and the cost of business class which neither of us can afford (although they once did courtesy of someone else) . . .
He's one of the finest and most self-effacing journeymen in New Zealand music and happily discusses guitarists he admires, losing luggage in transit, current music, BB King and Eric Clapton, international artists he has supported and . . .
Oh yes, the Disappointments album which they launch on Anzac Day night with a buck-a-head concert at Auckland's Tuning Fork.
For want of a better description it is a blues-rock album but delivers with wit and Gamble's signature but understated social observations.
There's a long but interesting backstory to Eccles, MacDonald and Gamble coming together as the Disappointments, a name he's not entirely sure about.
“I don't think we were even thinking of doing an album but then someone said we should and then we needed a name and we went through all sorts. Somebody came up with that and I can't remember who and we thought it was a laugh.
“But I was thinking that things like that can bite you on the bum.
“I had a song once on a Hammond Gamble album called What A Disaster and Tim Murdoch said, 'You can't call it that' so he changed it to I Wished I'd Never Asked Her.”
The long story behind the Disappointments goes back through his relationship with Eccles and the mutual respect between the three of them, and how Eccles as a promoter – having been a musician himself – understands the needs of artists when they are touring.
“Having traveled around Australia by van and so on, he knows what it's like so he's determined that if it can work and the sums add up by paying the good accommodation then he's going to do it.
“In Street Talk we'd book useless motels and there would be six people in a room. So later when I had my own band with Frank Gibson and Bruce Lynch we all had our own rooms.
“Brent came back from Australia in about 2000 and I used to do supports for some of the acts coming here that he was touring, Emmylou Harris, John Fogerty and people like that. We were always in touch then in 2005 or around then Liberation Records were going to put out some acoustic albums, songs you'd done previously, and I did them [for Recollection] with Rikki Morris.
"Then when that came out and Hauraki did the 40thanniversary of something I did a tour with Hello Sailor and Th'Dudes around the country. Then Liberation wanted another record and it to be a little more electric, that was Ninety Mile Days.
“Then there were the Dragon tours and there was always something going on. I did a lot of acoustic supports, I guess because I was cheap and easy . . . but then Brent and Andy and I did this support recently at the Maungawhai Tavern for this chap Seasick Steve and Brent said to me after that we should do some recording.
“He thought the show was good, even though my amp broke down and I wasn't that happy.
“Anyway he used to record drum patterns and put them on his iPhone and he was sending me these drums tracks – one is on the album, You're So Wrong – and I felt like, 'Jeez, he's a go-getter person' so I thought I bloody well do this.
“So I wrote songs around drum beats. I'd never done that before and honestly I thought it was the daftest idea ever. If the patterns didn't work out I'd just use a part of them and we'd need a different part somewhere else. I must have written 18 or 20 songs but some of them we decided weren't very good.
“Andy wrote one, Play It Again, and there's an old one of mine which was a bit of rock song which I thought fitted in.”
They recorded at Neil Finn's Roundhead just across the road from where we are drinking, “two days one week and I think one other day and then I went and put in another guitar thing and the vocals”.
“It was quick enough but I think it was quite dear. I have to say we are doing this launch and I thought when they talked about it that it might have been better just to play the record, but I can play the songs better now and we'd rehearsed them well beforehand.
“Unless you are someone like Neil Young or Fleetwood Mac and have got pots of money and can go into a studio for a year, you'd really be silly not to know what you are doing before you go in.”
These days Gamble describes himself as retired, or more correctly semi-retired, but still does commissioned work for jingles and admits he wouldn't mind doing another album of his own, the last was exactly a decade ago.
“I don't write constantly and tend to write best when I'm under pressure and someone says, 'Will you do this' or, 'Will you do that?'. Then I'll get on and do it.
"I like writing songs better than playing them but I'm not very clever and can't do more than one thing at once, but when I get my mind set on something I can do that and nothing else.
“[With jingles] I can come up with something original real bloody quick and if someone says they'll give me a couple of grand to write a song for something then by the next day I'll have it. I don't mean it's about money but it's just about doing things and getting them done.
“I've not got a lot of completed songs, maybe 20 or so, and more than that unfinished.”
The conversation turns to what he listens to for pleasure at home and he says Susan listens to more music than he does (“she turns it up loud and it drives me nuts sometimes”) but his taste is eclectic: “I like Gin Wigmore, that Gravel and Wine record, my favourite album of all time is Van Morrison's It's Too Late to Stop Now. I listen to Robert Johnson every now and again because I learned to sing those songs when his albums first came out in reissue and there was just two books about him, Samuel Charteris' was one of them.
“That was just the only information you could get on people like him and Blind Lemon Jefferson. I love Nina Simone although she was as mad a snake, and Edith Piaf I like too.
“I like some jazz stuff although the really clever stuff I don't have the brains to take in, you know the ones where it seems like nobody knows the song. That's on another plane for me.”
He says he doesn't know how great musicians – he mentions guitarist Joe Pass and classical pianist Michael Houstoun – cope with making remarkable music but they are swamped by the predominance of contemporary popular music. He expresses great admiration for those with exceptional technical and interpretative skills which he says go far beyond his own talents.
And guitarists he admires?
“There was an interview with Mike Bloomfield when he said that when he saw Jimi Hendrix playing a Fender Twin he thought he had all sorts of [technological] shit going down . . . and Jeff Beck is like that and although he has the pedals it's all what he is doing with his hands.
“I think people miss the point of that, it's the same with pianists. A lot of what any person sounds like it is more what they are doing with their hands than people realise, otherwise why would Oscar Peterson sound different from everybody else?
“I always loved the piano sound on [John Lennon's] Imagine album because it just sounds like a piano, and of all the records I've heard since it's like, 'Do you want sample number 677?' But it doesn't sound like a piano. That one on Imagine just does.”
He returns to guitarists and says he loved Mike Bloomfield and early BB King (“although he was bloody tragic in the end and after he died the family squabbled”) and acknowledges that when he started he slavishly copied his heroes but feels he later found his own voice on guitar.
“I like doing some finger-style stuff but I'm not the best at that and I think I just like playing electric blues guitar.
“But I'm a bit more individualist now, it's what you do with your fingers and when I look at some people I used to admire then some of it is awful.
“But it's like the Commonwealth Games, if you are going to be one of the best swimmers you've got to be pretty good and when it comes to the guitar front you are up against so many people.”
And the swimmer are just up against the others in the pool that day, as a guitarist you are going to be compared against every other guitarist that ever played? Even your own early self.
“Yeah that's right. When you see what some classical and jazz people can do they are just so far ahead of ordinary players like me.
“I don't listen to the Street Talk albums, I'd sooner listen to the stuff on my own albums. I didn't think the first one was that bad but people said it wasn't indicative of what we did live and that is right.
"The first one, the Fowley one, was okay but the second one [Battleground of Fun] seems disjointed to me, one tune is like a New Wave song, the next is a ballad, the next is a blues song . . . All over the place.”
But the Disappointments music is in some way a continuation of the blues-rock which has always been part of you?
“I see the Disappointments as a bunch of songs, some based on facts, some coloured-up stories and others completely made up. But they're all not that much different from what I've ever done, but they've just got simpler.”
And in there are social observations of the kind that you've often made, like Jack's Got Work (But It Ain't All Good)?
“Yeah. I've never had any hard times in particular, I've always had an easy life thanks mostly to Susan always working, because my career has been all over the place.
“But Jack's Got Work is a bit of an Americana story, a bit like Billy Joel's Allentown and that is a social comment and I like that. Also his one Saigon. A lot of people don't like him but he's very gifted as a writer.
“I find it hard to like so much modern music, it's my age or something. I like a lot of records from the Sixties and Seventies, and the Eighties even, but then I seem to derail myself and I don't get that buzz when I hear music like I used to.
“You know how BB King just kept going? Well, Randy Newman has a song He's Dead But He Don't Know It.”
He laughs about the sound of drums on so many modern records (“they seem to be intent on having a sound like paint tins and are so light and thin”) and listening through Dr Dre's Beats headphones: “They cost something like $600 and there was too much bottom end it sounds like a sponge cake over everything.
“See, I sound like He's Dead But He Don't Know It,” he laughs.
We chat about acts he's opened for like John Fogerty (“A really nice guy, that show was so loud!”) and Fleetwood Mac whom he made the mistake of referring to their original line-up when they were a blues band . . . and that shut the conversation down.
He talks about touring in comfort and we laugh about how the Beatles – even at the height of their fame – would double up in hotel rooms.
And of his love for, and the imitations of, the blues-rock style that has been his life.
“You know, I think it's like the Rolling Stones song It's Only Rock'n'Roll But I Like It. It's saying, 'We're not Mozart, but this is what we enjoy. And that's enough'.
“And it's saying it with a bit of humility.”
The Disappointments album launch, Tuning Fork in Auckland, Anzac Day, Wednesday April 25. Admission $1
The Disappointments album is released Friday April 20.