Dave Lambert Interview by Lindsay Sorrell

Dave Lambert, photo by Sue Holton

Photo by Sue Holton


Fire was the psychedelic band formed during the late 1960s by Dave Lambert, best-known for his work as a songwriter, vocalist and guitarist within Strawbs, with whom he continues to record new albums and tour prolifically. It was during one such tour in the US, in late 2006, that Dave was shown a full-page spread about Fire in a recently published book, and he learnt soon after of various other publications also featuring the band. A desire to recreate Fire began to germinate, and to Dave's amazement his former colleagues (Bob Voice - drums, vocals, and Dick Dufall - bass, vocals) declared their wishes also to be involved in staging "The Magic Shoemaker" album in its entirety for the first time ever. Fire's earliest manager (Ray Hammond) joined the band onstage to narrate the storyline, a role undertaken by Dave himself on the original album (now a sought-after collectors' item).

Following a year involving as many rehearsals as time and commitments would allow, two performances of "The Magic Shoemaker", together with Fire classics "Father's Name is Dad" and "Treacle Toffee World", were enthusiastically received at The Windlesham Theatre in Surrey, UK. Fire were delighted to meet, and receive messages from, fans who had travelled to the shows from as far afield as the USA, Hungary and Italy.

The concerts were professionally recorded, with a resultant CD entitled "The Magic Shoemaker .. Live" set for release on 6th October 2008 on Angel Air Records. I asked Dave if he would answer a few questions about the shows, the CD, and his career in general, and he willingly obliged.

It's quite amazing that all three original members of Fire were available and willing to play The Magic Shoemaker concerts in 2007, with the band's earliest manager also involved. More than 35 years had passed since Fire originally disbanded - had you all kept in touch over the years?

Bob and I have been close friends since 1960, when we met in the Boys' Brigade, and we've always kept in touch. From time to time, over the years, Ray and Bob have organised Fire reunions, usually at The Groucho Club in Soho, and in the last few years these reunions have become an eagerly anticipated annual event. It was at the December 2006 gathering that I told them I was planning to stage "The Magic Shoemaker" in its entirety for the first time. I had become aware of the cult status of "Father's Name Is Dad/Treacle Toffee World" and the Shoemaker, and I felt inspired to attempt to do it all live. I hadn't though for one moment that they would want to be involved because of the work-load; they are all busy people. To my amazement one by one they all said 'count me in'. Bob even said 'I'm not having anyone else playing my bloody parts'. I went home that night, my head buzzing with ideas, woke the next morning and started to write an overture for the show. It took me two weeks to write and record and the only day I took off was Christmas Day, I was working with such excitement.

Within Fire you were not only responsible for all the songwriting, but you also sang lead vocals throughout and played a wide variety of instruments, not to mention designing stage sets for the 2007 shows. Do you enjoy having that much responsibility?

It's difficult not to be seen as a control-freak when you're a band leader. I always tried to be as open-minded as possible. For instance, if one of the guys had a suggestion about a song arrangement I was, and am, willing to give it a try. During the early rehearsals for the 2007 concerts Dick came to me and said that he'd always thought "I'd Like To Help You If I Can" could be given a real jazz feel. I immediately changed the chord structure and it worked beautifully. I'm not bloody-minded enough to disregard a good idea simply because the idea wasn't mine. In the main though when I'm writing I have a strong idea of what I want each song to sound like and occasionally that might come across as dogmatism. To say that I enjoy the responsibility unreservedly would be wrong, it's something I had to take on. When I joined Strawbs I immediately felt that mantle fall away, I was one of the lads again.

What were the major differences between Fire concerts in the late 1960s/early 1970s and the 2007 shows?

I don't think there was a lot of difference at all. Obviously the technical side of things was far more sophisticated than the 60's, digital processors etc, but Fire always had the best equipment available back then. Dick managed to get hold of a Hofner bass exactly the same as the one he used on the early Decca recordings, Bob tuned the drums the way he would have done in the 60's. We all consciously tried hard to think our way back to the early years and attempted to play with a 60's mind-set.
"The Magic Shoemaker" was one of the earliest "rock operas" ever written and undoubtedly an ambitious project. Were there any major surprises or shocks, or did the 2007 shows run as anticipated? What were you feeling when Fire received their final standing ovation?

I never think of "The Magic Shoemaker" as a rock 'opera', to me it's a musical, or rock, fairy-tale. Back in 1969 when we were starting to put it together I already had ideas for the staging of the piece. A lot of those ideas were incorporated in the 2007 shows and I think, sincerely, that it was worth the wait. We had a whole year to prepare so the pressure was never intense. It gave me time to script everything down to the last second, which I did, and by the time the shows came around everybody involved knew precisely what they had to do. The standing ovations were simply amazing; they were the icing on the cake. I don't mean to say for one moment that we took the audience for granted but we so much wanted to do this for ourselves we'd have happily done it to an empty theatre!

The Fire shows incorporated a certain amount of theatricality in keeping with the album's storyline, and within Strawbs you add occasional dramatic flourishes which visually embellish the songs. Were you ever drawn towards a career in theatre rather than music?

From the age of four my parents took my sister and me to the theatre most Friday nights. Our local music-hall, or variety theatre, was the Chiswick Empire. Later, mum and dad told me that I used to sit with my eyes glued to the orchestra pit and I do have a fairly strong memory of that. For the rest of the weekend our lounge would become the Chiswick Empire and I would re-stage the show we'd seen on the Friday. At school I was always in whatever production was underway at the time and I did enjoy acting. When I'm on stage now I try to incorporate some theatrical effects into my performance. I believe in giving a 'performance' rather than simply getting up there and just playing the songs; apart from anything else I think I'd get bored.

Have you ever considered writing another rock musical?

"The Magic Shoemaker" came about because I was writing a new stage act for Fire and I wanted it to be a series of character studies. "Magic Shoes" was one of those studies and was originally intended as a one-off, but when I started to write "Only A Dream" the idea of the fairy-tale presented itself. Whether or not I ever get round to finishing the series of character studies remains to be seen.

Did you arrange the 2007 Fire concerts with a new album in mind?

When I first hit on the idea of the 2007 shows I didn't consider a live album at all. I thought it would be nice for all of us to have a recording for our own pleasure but I didn't, at that time, consider a full-blown recording. It was only when I spoke to our sound-engineer, Paul Smith, that I realised it would be simple to multi-track record the whole thing straight from the sound-desk. I don't know how the other guys approached it but, during the shows, I kept the fact it was being recorded out of my mind, there was quite enough to think about already.

Was it difficult to retain the live sound of the concerts on the new CD?

Chas Cronk [Dave's colleague in Strawbs] and I mixed the recordings with a conscious effort to retain the live sound. It's always tempting, with live recordings, to 'touch them up' and make them as near perfect as you can. We resisted that and what you hear is a true representation of what the audience heard on those two nights.
Is there any chance Fire might play more live gigs in the future?

I think there's every chance that we would do some more shows. We enjoy playing together and, of course, there's always plenty to talk, and laugh, about when we get together, which we're planning to do this month. Bob is very busy with his agency so any shows we might do would have to be planned well in advance. We have turned down some work because the offers haven't been for the right kind of show. You have to be careful with this kind of 'cult' band; it would be too easy to slip into the 'freak' or 'curiosity' pigeon-hole.

"Father's Name is Dad" is the song for which Fire have historically been best-known - were you surprised when The Pet Shop Boys sampled it recently?
It astounds me when I look to see the number of covers that "Father's Name" has had. Bands young and old have either recorded it or use it in their stage-act or both. The Pet Shop Boys sampled my guitar parts for the B-side of "Flamboyant". The song is called "I Didn't Get Where I Am Today" and I like it a lot. I was surprised, and delighted, when it was brought to my attention earlier this year because it was in the charts in 2004 and I'd been totally unaware of its existence. It's a shame I didn't know at the time, it would've been quite exciting to follow the progress of the record.

After Fire disbanded in 1970, and following spells as a session musician, solo artist, with The King Earl Boogie Band and in various other musical guises you joined Strawbs in 1972, a band which has embraced a wide variety of musical genres. Do you have a preference for writing or playing in any particular style?

One of the great things about being part of a band like Strawbs is; because we have such a long history and large catalogue we all play in our own styles. In other words a Strawbs' guitar solo, for instance, is a Dave Lambert guitar solo, for good or bad, a Strawbs' bass part is a Chas Cronk bass part, and so on. When I do things away from Strawbs I'm pretty comfortable with any genre and in fact I like to explore the different styles as much as I can. Blues and rock'n'roll are where I feel most at home when I'm away from Strawbs.

Are there any musical genres you greatly dislike?

Although I'm constantly surrounded by music I've never been a great one for listening to it. I grew up listening to classical music and show-tune records that my parents would play. When my older sister became a teenager she would buy and play the latest pop records. I rarely have music on in the car but sometimes I enjoy an evening at home listening to whatever takes my fancy, it might be Beethoven, Elgar, Sandy Denny, Cream but most often Brian Wilson. The only kind of music I can't stand is Country and Western, it all sounds insipid to me, but I love real country music

You are a multi-instrumentalist, happy to play acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, drums, harmonica, bodhran and so on; have you ever attempted to learn an instrument and found it too difficult, giving up in the process?

I love the challenge of a new musical instrument. I remember borrowing a flute from Russell Brown [bass-player with the King Earl Boogie Band] and spending a couple of weeks learning the basics of playing it. I was quite upset when I had to return it but I never did get around to buying one for myself. There is only one type of instrument that I've not tried and that's the reed instruments. I've never blown a reed and I don't know if I could.

Do you enjoy the challenge of learning new material, and the variety afforded by performing with Strawbs in both five-piece electric and three-piece acoustic formats?
For me it's what being a musician is all about. You write, or are presented with, a completely new song to develop into a performance piece. It always makes me feel like a kid in a sweet-shop. I'm given, in guitar terms, a blank canvas to colour in whichever way I like. It's so exciting when it all comes together and it works. I'm also lucky to be working in the two formats we now have; Strawbs and Acoustic Strawbs. They are both completely different although material is often common to both. With the electric band I get to use all the lush sounds and effects which I like very much. Strawbs is a very powerful band and I get off on that too. The acoustic band is a different animal, the work rate is much higher and the concentration level is sometimes brain-busting. With an acoustic line-up you are completely exposed but I love it.

When you write new songs do you find certain environments particularly inspirational?

"Father's Name Is Dad" and "Treacle Toffee World" were both written in a green Mini whilst I was driving around the perimeter track at Heathrow Airport. After I left school I worked for a short while at Heathrow and my job involved visiting all the various airlines every day. The drone of the car's engine and the rhythm of the road gave me a great backing-track to write on. Since those days I've used a lot of song-writing techniques but I don't think there's any particular environment that's more inspirational than another.

Do you normally write one song at a time, or have several under way simultaneously?

I was taught when I was still quite young and new to song-writing that it's always a good idea to finish every song you start, instead of abandoning it, even if you don't like it much. It's been good advice I think because it clears it out of the way and sets your mind free to start on something new. I've sometimes found that the ones I've lost interest in but still finished have proved to be a stepping-stone towards an eventual song that I'm very happy with. Consequently I try to have only one song at a time as a work in progress although it doesn't always turn out like that; you can't help it if another idea starts to develop in the meantime.

What was the most recent concert you played?

We [Acoustic Strawbs] have just come back from playing a festival on an island in northern Norway. It's the farthest north we've ever played and the midnight sun was out for us, amazing.

Name the last band you went to watch.

As I said before I'm not one to listen to music very much and I'm not comfortable in crowds so I don't go to see bands as a rule. I will go to a show if it's special to me. I went to see Peter Green a few years back, he's my guitar hero, because he'd been away from the scene for so long I couldn't miss the opportunity. Last year I went to the Brian Wilson show at the Royal Festival Hall and that was superb. A couple of weeks back I took my sister to see Ian MacLagan with The Bump Band. Ian grew up in Hounslow a couple of hundred yards from us and we all went to the same infant/junior school. Although I've kept in touch with Mac over the years, he and my sister hadn't met for 50 years so you can imagine it was quite emotional. Incidentally I can recommend Ian's band; they really rock.

What do you treasure most, and like least, about your career as a musician?

There have been so many highs throughout my years in music but, if I'm honest, the thing I treasure most is that I have a place, however insignificant, in the history of the business that I love. Knowing that in the future my children and my children's children will be able to read about what I've done gives me a feeling of satisfaction that I can't even attempt to describe.

In the early years when I was trying to climb the ladder and become successful in the business, I sometimes had to let people down in order to keep moving. When I joined Strawbs, for instance, I had to leave The King Earl Boogie Band which had been formed less than a year before. It's those things that I like the least about my career.

Do you consider the advent of the internet a good or bad thing for musicians?

I consider the internet to be a great boon for musicians and performers of all types. I know there are problems with downloading and things like that, but they're being sorted out slowly. Fire has its own Myspace site: www.myspace.com/2007fire and I have another: www.myspace.com/davelambert07. Fire updates are usually carried on the Strawbs' site at www.strawbsweb.co.uk too. Apart from business contacts I also find that friends and fans get in touch through these sites. That's great, because you get this feeling of a world-wide family in which we're all accessible to each other. I still worry about the kids though. I don't like to see kids stuck in front of a monitor all day any more than I like to see them in front of a TV.

 

An Interview with Dave Lambert by Lindsay Sorrell 6th August 2008
Copyright 2008 Lindsay Sorrell

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