Q&A with veteran British Blues powerful guitarist Mick Clarke, part of the British blues boom of the late 1960s

"The balance between technique and soul? That's easy really - you have to have the technique in order to express the soul. First learn to play your instrument. Then forget how to play it and just let your soul come through. Easy to say - hard to do. I manage it occasionally."

Mick Clarke: The Man And His Blues

British Blues guitarist Mick Clarke released his new 6 track EP 'The Blues, Man, The Blues' (2023) online by Rockfold Records, a few months after the previous album "Telegram". Since the early 80s Mick and his band have toured regularly in Europe, Asia and the USA - praised for his fiery "straight from the wood" guitar sound, Mick is the winner of the Artist Aloud Awards "Best International Act". Recent tours have included Italy, India, Bosnia and an appearance at Sweden Rock Festival in 2018. Mick began his career with KILLING FLOOR part of the British blues boom of the late 1960s. The band backed Texas bluesman Freddie King and toured with legends Howlin' Wolf, Otis Spann and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup. In the mid 70s Mick co-formed SALT with British singer Stevie Smith, a powerful blues-rock act who were a big hit in the UK playing regularly at London's Marquee Club and other top venues. The band played at the Reading Festival and also opened for Muddy Waters at his first major London concert. In 1978 the band morphed into RAMROD with ex Rory Gallagher Band members Lou Martin and Rod De'Ath, touring in Ireland and again playing extensively in London, opening for Muddy at his Rainbow Theatre concert.                  (Mick Clarke / Photo © by Alvito Falcon, Simply the Blues)

THE MICK CLARKE BAND originally started working around the London area in the early 80s, but quickly received offers of work from mainland Europe and the United States. Mick's first solo album "Looking For Trouble" came out on the Italian label "Appaloosa" in the early 80s and sold well. More albums quickly followed on Appaloosa and then the German label "Taxim" and Mick's US label "Burnside". Recent releases have been on the "Rockfold" label, recorded by Mick at his own Rockfold Studio in Surrey, England. The Mick Clarke Band has appeared on numerous festivals with artists such as Rory Gallagher, Johnny Winter and Joe Bonamassa. In the U.S.A. Mick has appeared with artists such as Johnny Winter, Canned Heat, Foghat and C.J.Chenier. The Southern California Blues Society called him "One of the finest blues players to come out of England". Mick has released twenty two solo albums so far. Now 72 years old Mick continues to record and release music from his own studio. Fifty seven years from his first gig Mick continues to rock the blues.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Currently you’ve release titled 'The Blues, Man, The Blues', How did that relationship with the blues come about?

The title comes from a Hound Dog Taylor album, where he shouts, 'I got it'. Some-one calls out 'what you got'? The answer comes back... 'the blues, man'. Kind of obvious but it made me laugh... it stuck in my head and grew an extra couple of words, so I thought it would be a fun title for a blues E.P. The 'The Blues, Man, The Blues' E.P. came about because I had a lot of material already recorded which hadn't gone on to my last full album, 'Telegram', but I wanted to make the most of the tracks. Some were about a year old, like 'I Asked For Water' but when I listened back to it I thought it was well worth releasing. The most recent recording was JB Lenoir's 'I Sing Um the Way I Feel'. I saw that someone had done a whole album of Lenoir's songs, but this was one that they'd missed, so I thought 'Ah ha... my chance!' As to how my relationship with the blues started? Well, it was way back when I was a kid listening to the records that my elder brother Derek brought home - Elvis, Lonnie Donnegan. The B Sides would often be a blues and I took to the sound. Loved them bent notes!

How has the Blues influenced your views of the world? What was the best music advice anyone ever gave you?

That's kind of impossible to answer, because the blues has been there almost right from the start. As I said, even when I was a kid I was listening to things like 'Delia Gone'… that was the B Side of a pop single by Acker Bilk, the Trad Jazz man. So, it's always been a part of me. I suppose blues suits some people's personalities, that touch of melancholy, something that goes a bit deeper, where others just don't get it. They just want something to dance to or sing along with. Good for them, but if you have a feeling for the blues then there's no substitute.

Does it affect my view of the world? I try not to think about the world too much! I'll leave that to the practical people who build bridges and invent medicines etc... I'll just stick to what I can do and play my guitar. And music advice... well it's nothing original, but I think any really successful artist will tell you - make the music that you enjoy yourself. Don't try to follow trends - you'll always be one step behind.

"Well, that time when we were discovering the blues in the 60s can never be recreated. It was really hard to hear or buy blues records, so every track was special. But here we are in 2023 - a different world with a million blues tracks at our fingertips. Still, I am encouraged that there is a lot of young talent playing the blues - that seems to be healthier than ever. You can't replicate the past, but I think the future is secure." (Mick Clarke, 2015 / Photo © by David Cooper)

How do you describe your sound and music philosophy? What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

Deep questions! Well, I've been playing guitar for... 60 years? So, in that time both sound and philosophy have changed a bit, although thinking about it not that much. Soundwise I started by listening to the beat group guitarists - all that twanging. But the moment I heard the Gibson / Marshall combination of players such as Clapton, Green and Beck... especially Beck... that was it. Accept no substitute. Except they all had Les Pauls and I couldn't afford one. A Les Paul cost £400 in 1968, and I earned about £6 a week from my office job. Eventually I ended up with my Gibson SG, 'Gnasher' which has been my stage guitar ever since.

Philosophy... well we always tried to find an original approach to the music. There were bands, back in the 60s, who set out to copy the original blues records as closely as possible, but my band Killing Floor were the opposite. We'd say, OK, here's the song, what can we do with it? Put a new riff in... how about a key change... some arrangements... And I'm quite proud of that, even if it didn't always work out that great. I still hear records now - big artists - copying the originals note for note, and I think 'why bother? It's already been done'. These days I'm mainly just recording stuff from my home studio, so it's a bit different from being on the road with a band. But it means I'm free to record whatever takes my fancy... might be a 60s pop song - a 200 year old English folk song... anything. But it is always, always rooted in the blues, and blues guitar, because that's what I am.

The balance between technique and soul? That's easy really - you have to have the technique in order to express the soul. First learn to play your instrument. Then forget how to play it and just let your soul come through. Easy to say - hard to do. I manage it occasionally.

"I don't want the music to do anything. It's a bit like when Bob Dylan was asked…"where are you taking it next?" "Taking what?" he replied.  Answer: "The whole pop youth culture". What?! Bob really didn't want the whole future of pop youth culture on his shoulders. So, it's not quite the same, but I really don't want people to be affected one way or the other. It's up to them. But if they can find something in the blues to enjoy, then it will always be there for them." (Photo: Freddie King with Killing Floor, London 1969)

Are there any memories from the late great bluesmen Freddie King, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Spann and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup which you’d like to share with us?

Are there? Many. We were young, eager to learn, didn't drink or do drugs or any of that, so we really soaked up the experience of working with these guys, and I can remember quite a lot. Particularly Freddie King, of course, because I did a total of about fifty gigs with him. The main thing I learned was his total professionalism. His whole day was all about that 45 minutes on stage - he put everything in to it. And during that 45 minutes it was the audience who mattered. He didn't take his eyes off them for a moment - holding them enthralled. That's charisma.

Howlin’ Wolf seemed a little fearsome at the time, but I'm sure he wasn't. I would have loved to have had a grown-up conversation with him, but I was, 19? And he was about 50 or something, and he was Howlin' Wolf. What did I have to say? His performances were great of course - the first time I saw him he crawled on stage on all fours. That's a show!

Spann was completely different - really easy going with a couple of women in tow and a bottle of scotch in his pocket. A short life but a merry one. One night we went to a party and he and our pianist Lou Martin both played some stuff on an old piano. Spann, of course, was brilliant, but he also appreciated Lou's playing.

And Arthur Crudup... kind of difficult to communicate... he was from a different world. Although he did tell our singer, Bill, that he'd never got paid for the Presley hits. I was disappointed that he didn't want the whole band, just the drummer, but at least I got to watch the set, so that was a privilege.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Well, that time when we were discovering the blues in the 60s can never be recreated. It was really hard to hear or buy blues records, so every track was special. But here we are in 2023 - a different world with a million blues tracks at our fingertips. Still, I am encouraged that there is a lot of young talent playing the blues - that seems to be healthier than ever. You can't replicate the past, but I think the future is secure.

"Never assume anything. Like never assume that you have a tour because you've had a letter from a barber's son in Bavaria. Never assume that someone's put your guitar in the van, when in fact it's still in the cupboard back home! Never assume that there's a P.A. system at the gig, just because your agent told you on the phone that there was one. Double check everything and check again. And it'll still be wrong sometimes." (Mick Clarke, Mumbai India 2014 / Photo © by Alvito Falcon, Simply the Blues)

What were the reasons that made the UK in 1960s to be the center of Blues Rock researches and experiments?

I don't know. But I suppose there had been a tradition of British groups playing blues and rock'n'roll going back to Lonnie Donnegan, Marty Wilde, Cliff Richard. That mix of rock 'n' roll and rhythm 'n' blues turned into the beat group era - The Beatles, Stones, Animals, Yardbirds.  and that eventually lead to Cream, Zeppelin etc. We were building on what had gone before, and in the late 60s it just exploded.

I think we were quite insulated from the rest of the world... I would go out and see Jeff Beck Band, Savoy Brown, Fleetwood Mac... but I really didn't know what was going on in New Orleans or L.A. So, we just cooked up our own kind of rock'n'roll blues. We also had Marshall amps, which gave our music a whole different feel from the Fenders that most American bands were using.

What has made you laugh and what touched you from the "KILLING FLOOR & British blues boom area"?

Well, it was an insane time. I look back and laugh at how stupid we were! I remember driving all the way up to Norwich from London ... a long journey on the rubbish roads as they were then... only to get to the gig and find the band Slade sitting there on their amps having a sound check. But they had a contract and guess what? We didn't. So, home we came.

Worse than that... I got a letter offering us a tour of Germany. So off we went in the van, all the way down to Bavaria having adventures all the way. We get there and the address is a barber's shop. The letter had been written by the barber's son... 'Roland! Come down here please'. Roland turns white when he sees Killing Floor in his dad's shop... 'Oh sorry I couldn't get you any gigs'! Of course it was really our fault, (mine) for not checking everything out properly. So we ended up staying at a hippy commune while he found a few emergency gigs for us. Madness. And that kind of thing happened quite a lot! What touched me? Not much. It was a really difficult time generally. But there were some gigs where we packed the place out and they loved us, so that made it all worthwhile. At the Blues Loft in High Wycombe, they stomped so hard for an encore that we brought down the plaster in the pub below. My mum got that in our local paper - my publicist!

"Well, I've been playing guitar for... 60 years? So, in that time both sound and philosophy have changed a bit, although thinking about it not that much. Soundwise I started by listening to the beat group guitarists - all that twanging. But the moment I heard the Gibson / Marshall combination of players such as Clapton, Green and Beck... especially Beck... that was it. Accept no substitute. Except they all had Les Pauls and I couldn't afford one. A Les Paul cost £400 in 1968, and I earned about £6 a week from my office job. Eventually I ended up with my Gibson SG, 'Gnasher' which has been my stage guitar ever since." (Photo: Mick Clarke with Killing Floors, first promo shoot 1968 / © Courtesy of Stuart McDonald)

What is the impact of Blues on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

Well, I suppose it's always been a counter to the pop music or trendy rock music of the time. If you look back at the charts of the late 60s you might see a Cream album between Engelbert Humperdinck and Bert Kaempfert. Or Roxy Music… something like that. So, it was there to keep you grounded, if you could open your ears to it.

Your second question... I don't want the music to do anything. It's a bit like when Bob Dylan was asked…"where are you taking it next?" "Taking what?" he replied.  Answer: "The whole pop youth culture". What?! Bob really didn't want the whole future of pop youth culture on his shoulders. So, it's not quite the same, but I really don't want people to be affected one way or the other. It's up to them. But if they can find something in the blues to enjoy, then it will always be there for them.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Never assume anything. Like never assume that you have a tour because you've had a letter from a barber's son in Bavaria. Never assume that someone's put your guitar in the van, when in fact it's still in the cupboard back home! Never assume that there's a P.A. system at the gig, just because your agent told you on the phone that there was one. Double check everything and check again. And it'll still be wrong sometimes.

Use earplugs. You can get good ones now for musicians... we never had anything and I got tinnitus back in 1992, after the first 25 years or so on the road. I've learned how to live with it, but it's not recommended. No excuse now for not protecting your ears. Enjoy it. Enjoy the ride. Even the bad times are good. It will stop one day. So, enjoy all of it - the good the bad and the terrible. And keep rockin!

Mick Clarke - Home

(Photo: Mick Clarke)

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