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Allan Holdsworth

A beginner's guide to

Classic Rock, May 2000

Andy Robson

As guitar gods go, Allan Holdsworth is the world's best kept secret. Over the last three decades his guitar pyrotechnics have roared, spat and sung for Jon Hiseman's Tempest and Bill Bruford's UK; he brought a rock swagger to Soft Machine's jazz noodles, and put the bang into Gong, not to mention the phew! into the fusion of Tony Williams' Lifetime. Even Eddie Van Halen fell under the spell of Holdsworth's furiously melodic style and wangled him a deal with Warner Brothers.

Yet if Allan Holdsworth ever gets to be a rich man, it'll be down to beer, not the guitar talent that left Bill Bruford wondering why Holdsworth isn't a superstar in the Clapton class. Because Holdsworth's more interested in real ale than the unreal nature of fame. While most American axe-meisters want to dazzle you with their record sales, Holdsworth purrs because "I've patented this system of hand pumping ales, using the classic swan neck they use in Yorkshire, that the micro-breweries in the USA would love. All I've got to do is sell them a few..."

And there, of course, lies the rub. Because genius of the guitar and home brew he may be, but selling himself has never been Allan's strong point. Not that the lugubrious (aka hung-over) Holdsworth seems too worried. He's back in the UK for a few days, so he'll have the chance to pound the ales, especially in home-town Bradford, where the Tetleys, Thwaites and Timmy Taylors await him. And, oh yes, he's got a new album out, 'The Sixteen Men Of Tain', named after the mysterious guardians of the Glenmorangie distillery. Ah, booze again. Do I detect a theme?

"I don't drink a lot of hard liquor, I'm still a beer man," grins Holdsworth, "but I liked the idea of a hand-crafted, high quality thing that is a single malt, and I think there's something of that in the album." It's certainly a hand-crafted affair. Holdsworth recorded, produced and mixed the album in his own home studio. He's aided and abetted by Dave Carpenter on bass and Gary Novak on drums, with Holdsworth's old pal and ex-Zappa confrere Chad Wackerman also guesting. The results are jazzier, more intimate than Holdsworth's assault guitar of Lifetime days, or indeed from his last group outing, 'Hard Hat Area', back in 1993.

The following years weren't good to Holdsworth. After 'None Too Soon' in 1996, an album with long time collaborator Gordon Beck, - "I felt more like a guest on someone else's album" - Holdsworth went two years without a record label. It was hardly a new situation for him after all, he'd lost his lucrative Warner's deal back in the 80s because he refused to compromise or ditch his pals.

"Eddie (Van Halen) brought the President of the company along to hear me and essentially got us signed," he says. "Then it all went wrong because they wanted a different drummer and singer. But I'd already hired the band with Paul Williams on vocals. Ted Templeman, the producer, listened to shit over the phone - I mean, how can you listen to shit over the phone? - and said he wanted a different singer.

"So I offered him Jack Bruce, an old mate of mine, and Ted, who never came near the studio, said 'Yeah, great, gold record.' But at the last minute I switched the mixes on 'Road Games', the title track, not because Jack wasn't good, he was, but because of my friendship with Paul. And then I got a phone call from Templeman while we were on the road, saying 'That's it, you're fired, you're off the label' I sacrificed my record deal because of him (Williams). A fucking miserable experience for both of us."

So hurrah for Gnarly Geezer, a label looking for, in Holdsworth's own self-deprecating words, "Guys who might have got lost, or didn't have the right opportunity". They rescued Holdsworth from his deal-free state, released 'The Sixteen Men Of Tain' (through Cream Records in Europe and awarded four stars last issue), and now he has a follow-up in the can, also a trio, but with Gary Husband, another of Holdsworth's old muckers, on drums.

Holdsworth's solo endeavours and his work alongside Bruford and with bassist/vocalist John Wetton and keyboard player/violinist Eddie Jobson in UK - their 1978 'In The Dead Of Night' album is considered a classic - have won him many admirers around the world. But no matter how far Holdsworth travels from his native Bradford, he reckons he's still '... the same guy playing on the new one as on any of my albums. I'm just a lot older and a lot wiser. I enjoy life more than ever. The women look better, the beer tastes better. The only thing that's not better is when I look in the mirror. And that's hell."

We all know that feeling. It's enough to drive a fellow to drink.

Transcribed by Per Stornes
Updated: March 1, 2001
Scheduled update: None

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