In the scheme of things Steve Marriott and Leslie West have long been relegated to the rock n roll boneyard; probably unfairly as it only takes a slight change of fashion to dictate the tastes of the day. Neither of them could be faulted for their musicianship and individuality of style.
Marriott is still an exciting singer and frontman with a stage presence that
varies from the humourous to the intense, and West can still interject that
screaming guitar sound that formulated his style and reputation. And it can
easily be said that each of them was a force in the quintessential rock bands
they helped form.
Initially their merger, and formation of a band called The Firm seems unlikely
- in physical appearance they look like Laurel and Hardy, and one can only
assume the scenario to result in a comedy of errors. But to watch them on stage - the obviousness fades away and the focus sharpens, revealing two excellent musicians who play healthy and powerful rock and roll that displays a unique awareness of each others strengths and weaknesses.
As West explains it " We know what each of us does best, and the idea is to let
that person take it. For me, it's great - I've never played just plain lead
guitar before. That way I can wait for the right moment, pick my shot, and
just lay it right in there" The result of picking the shot is usually a
screaming guitar riff that cuts through the most jaded of audiences, or an
interchange of licks with Marriott.
Steve Marriott hasn't had the hiatus that Leslie West has had. Until January of
this year he was leading the reformed Small Faces, and since his beginnings in
rock, with that band, he's continued to mature and contribute ot the impostance of bands like Humble Pie. But, as he says about the Small Faces...."it was a great band in the studio, but we couldn't seem to pull it off on stage". For Marriott, whose stage act semms as important to him as his writing, the lack of a "live band" - that resultant energy and inspiration seems to have been sadly missed.
Since his early days with the Small Faces, who were to London's East End what
the Who were to the West, Marriott has always been the centre of attraction of any stage he has strutted. In fact his introduction to showbusiness came as a child actor, before he realised that rock & roll had more to offer.
Marriott himself admits that in those early days he couldn't play his guitar
very well, but he had a style and a confindence which wouldn't be ignored.
What's more, the guy could sing. He was no great stylist, but he had an obvious affinityfor RnB and soul, and could belt out the blues as good as anyone.
After a string of UK hits Marriott decided to leave the Small Faces and formed
one of the early British "supergroups" Humble Pie. Wih Peter Frampton he found the perfect foil for his own raucous onstage style, for Frampton was a serious performer who was trying to live down his pin-up popstar image.
The Humble Pie line-up was completed by Jerry Shirley and Greg Ridley, and
years of hard work by the band on both sides of the Atlantic resulted in them
becoming one of the most popular outfits of the early seventies. It was largely
Marriott's energy and dynamic personality which kept the band going,
particularly after Frampton left and was replaced by Dave Clempson. Inevitably, though the inspiration of playing with guitarists of the calibre of Frampton and Clempson, and his own efforts, his guitar playing improved, and he became an avid collector of instruments.
Marriott's guitar style largely reflects his vocal technique - loud and beefy -
but he keeps it simple but effective rhythm playing. He plays and sings as if
his life depends on it, which his early days in East London probably did. To
many ears it may seem crude, but it's the essence of rock & roll.
Akthough physically Marriott and West are about as opposite ends of the
spectrum as you can get, there are many similiarities between the two. Queens is the New York equivalent of the East End of London and that is where Leslie West hails from. The "fat" kid from Queens was discovered in a local band called The Vagrants by Cream producer Felix Pappalardi - the band didn;t break big, but Felix reckoned the guitarist had potential and formed Mountain around him.
Whatever else, you just couldn't ignore the man's physical presence, and with
Pappalardi's pumping bass-line West's guitar really began to take off. There is
no doubt Mountain went a long way way toward filling the large gap left by the
legendary Cream, but they had a distinctive sound of their own.
Probably the biggest surprise of Mountain on stage was seeing Leslie West with a Les Paul Junior at a time when nobody conisdered playing heavy rock without either a standard Les Paul or a Strat. He also managed to extract a definite Leslie West sound which seemed a combination of pushing the strings up and across the fret board and finger vibrato. Mountain's early work also included some healthy slide playing from West.
Although the big man became noted for his loud and heavy work, tracks such as Nantucket Sleighride, from the album of the same name, showed a more subtle and restrained approach. Unfortunately, the demise of Mountain was followed by work which, while pleasing a lot of fans, probasbly didn;t endear West to the great guitar stylists. Still, the gap between fans and the purists has always been a wide one, and as long as there is a stage to play on it's an even bet that West will get up there and just play rock & roll as only he knows how.
Despite his own talents, it seems that West needs some catalyst to bring out
the best in him. Felix Pappalardi and Jack Bruce readily spring to mind, and
therefore his teaming up with marriott seems a logical step and one that could
put him back in the limelight again.
West and Marriott concur that their development of a band grew out of a liking
for each others styles, and when they played together they found a unique
compatibility in ters of musical tastes and musicianship. The Firm, used in the
English sense, meaning a gang as opposed to a Company, is made up of West,
Marriott, Ian Wallace (ex King Crimson and currently on the recent Dylan album) on drums and James Leverton (formerly with Savoy Brown and Hemlock) on Bass. Marriott fills in on various keyboards when need be. The band's musical philosophy, presumtuous but effevtive, is to play straight ahead rock & roll in a tradition that Marriott explains as "more like the Stones than, say, Boston"
Emphatically, West maintains that they're not making a comeback - "We're
playing basically what we used to play. Only we can play it better now. It's a
more mature sound. We've really waited for the right moment. I mean all of our friends have put out albums over the past few years and never mind coming back from a 'has been', they 'never was'.
"I know" explained West "that I've started this group with Steven, and no
matter what happens I can hold my head high with respect for what we've done together".
Expostulating on travelling the 'comeback' road of rock & roll Marriott
interjects with "it depends what kind of respect you want to come out of the
situation with. If peopl are willing to give you an ear out of respect for you,
then that's ok. After all, we're doing what we did in the past, but now it has
a little more class and it sounds a little better.
I suppose we've got older, not so much hair and our bellies are bigger, we've
developed a more mature attitude. I don't think really that it's any different
from what we played in the sixties, quite honestly. The difference is that now
I know how to play it."
Marriott does most of the writing for the band. As he explains "I'm carrying
that weight right now. But I think that's only because it was my role in the
other two bands".
"Steve does come up with most of the ideas" West explains "but then I come up with things after the fact - other ideas"
Marriott agrees, explaining that "half the part of writing good songs is the
arranging. If you've got thinking people in the band then they contribute to
the arrangements and suggest various ideas. In that respect, everybody writes".
One of the reasons that Marriott gave for the maturing of their music and their
development of style was the vast improvement of equipment over the last few years. Always a guitar collector, with some of the best in Les Paul, Gretsch
and Fender - he was recently turned on to another instrument, the MPC guitar.
"I'm not a very good guitar player" contends Marriott "but I like to think that
I'm an effective player. I've never really liked effects. The pedals get int eh
way, and they're awkward. But with these new guitars, besides being well made, it gives me a chance to experiment without having to deal with the pedals".
Marriott is making reference to the modular design of the MPC guitar, which has different effects available to plug in in modular form inside the guitar. West, who at one stage was never without his Les Paul Juniors, has also turned to an MPC guitar for similar reasons.
"I found I was getting bored, I was limited in what I could do with the guitar.
The MPC's really turned me on because I only have two knobs to deal with, but I can have 12 extra effects I can use because of the modular design. They give me that little extra kick that I need".
Out in Modeto, California, The Firm is putting down tracks or an album which is
nearly half done. Marriott has deserted the English lifestyle of London Town
for the wooded quiet of Boulder Creek, just outside of San Francisco, and West, whose New York style and demeanour should seemingly disallow him from living anywhere else, has taken to the beach town of Santa Cruz, also in California.
The quiet, wooded setting hardly seems to fit with the intenseness of their
earlier career accomplishments, yet you can be sure that when the time comes for them to get out and rock on stage the lazy atmosphere of Santa Cruz will soon disappear.
It will be interesting to see how this Queens-Cockney connection works. They
say rock & roll is a universal language, so it is up to the West Marriott
combination to prove it. Whatever happens, you can be sure that the music will be raw and rocking, just like the places they both spring from.