July 29, 2022

FTV: Tale of Three Drummers


     When my issue of Classic Rock Magazine arrives, I always approach it like I do reading a newspaper.  Dating back to the days when the Marquette Mining Journal ran their cartoons on the back page, I began a life-long habit of always starting on the back page of newspapers and magazines.  The late Tom Hartzell and I discovered we had this mutually shared quirk when he noticed me paging back to front reading an issue of The Milwaukee Journal that used to be delivered to the teacher’s lounge each day.  Tom asked if I did the same with books.  We had a good chuckle over those strange people who read the ending of a book first – we agreed that it made NO sense (no offense to those of you who happen to think it does).  I was reminded of this long ago discussion when the seeds of an FTV popped up as I paged through CRM Issue 301 (June 2022).  Finding two articles about drummers as I scanned forward through the magazine, the Tale of Two Drummers title popped in my head.  Then I found Dave Everley’s tribute to the Foo Fighters Taylor Hawkins closer to the front of the mag and upgraded the title by one.

     With Taylor’s passing so fresh at hand (he died unexpectedly on a South American tour on March 25, 2022 at the all too young age of 50), it was impossible for me to start talking about drummers without at least acknowledging Hawkins.  He was a terrific drummer, singer, and a family man who left behind his wife of fifteen years, Alison, a son, and two daughters.  With that said, I upped the title to Three Drummers but found it difficult to dig too deeply into his career for a couple of reasons.  First, I have never been a big FF fan.  Dave Grohl and company are a good band, but I have a hard time watching any of their live clips or reading their interviews because Grohl has an uncontrolled propensity to drop F-bombs into every other sentence.  Grohl’s habitual swearing prevents me from posting FF videos on the station’s website.  Secondly, having grown up watching membership in the ‘27 Club’ gain too many new members, I find it hard to write about yet another drug related death.  The ‘27 Club’ is the name given to the large contingent of musicians who have died at the age of 27 including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse just to name a few.

    We all realize substance abuse is not confined to famous musicians.  Taylor Hawkins was a human being with the same frailties that lead others to a similar sad end.  Hawkins put 23 more years on his odometer than the members of the ‘27 Club’ but not by much.  He nearly OD’d on heroin in 2001 and spent two weeks in a coma before recovering.  At the time, being just barely outside the ‘27 Club’ age limit, Taylor seriously considered a change of vocation.  Hawkins also suffered from severe stage fright which was no doubt a contributing factor to his final demise.  The toxicology report from authorities in Bogota, Colombia showed ten substances in his system at the time of his death including opioids, benzodiazepines, tricyclic antidepressants, and THC.  I just didn’t want to write Hawkins final chapter and make it all about drugs.  If you read the last paragraph and are now wondering, “Okay, so why did you just do exactly that?”, please read on.  

     The two drummers that inspired the first iteration of the title were Bill Ward (Black Sabbath) and John Coghlan (Status Quo).  As a long time Sabbath fan, I have always admired Ward’s drumming.  Coghlan, on the other hand, was more of a cipher for me because I have never been much of a Quo fan.  The more I read about their musical journeys, the harder it became to simply add an ‘RIP Taylor Hawkins’ line to the introduction and ignore the sad details of his death.  It seems Hawkins’ flirtations with unhealthy substances was something he shared with Ward and Coghlan (and more than a few others);  the major difference being they survived.

     Bill Ward, now 73 years old, grew up in post-WWII Aston, a suburb of Birmingham, England.  He lived next to a bombed out lot, testiment to their home being the onlyone on their row not destroyed by the German Luftwaffe blitz bombing.  His mother told him tales about the family crouching under the stairs as the bombs fell.  Only later, after he spent time talking with US military veterans about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) did he realize he grew up in a world and household where everyone was so affected.  As a youngster, his family relations were colored by his family’s experiences during the war.  Once he got hooked on music, his father’s wish that he follow him into the gritty Birmingham factories was less appealing.  Little Richard, Elvis and later jazz, swing, and R&B records would all influence his musical direction.  Ward figures now the constant thrumming rhythms of the stamping machines steered him to play the drums:  “I was born into drums.  I wanted to play music.  I wanted to take it as far as I could.  I wanted to become whatever I could. I wanted to roll the dice on it.”  

     At fifteen, Ward joined his first band:  “For a kid from Aston, that was a big deal coming out of the city and going into the countryside.  That’s when I met some of the musicians that would become friends of mine for a number of years to come.”  Future Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi was one of them.  Ward’s whole band. The Rest, made the trek to Iommi’s house to recruit him:  “It was the first time I’d ever gotten close to what I considered a real guitar player.  He played Johnny B. Goode, and it was wild.  I thought I was out of my depth, to be honest.  ‘Wow, this guy is really good.’”  Iommi did join The Rest for a while and over the next few years, Ward and he went in and out of each other’s bands.  After a brief stint in Carlisle with a blues band called Mythology, Ward came back to Birmingham to lay the foundation of what would become Black Sabbath.  Once they answered an ad found in a local music shop (“Ozzy Zig requires a gig, owns his own PA”), the first row of bricks were set firmly into place.

    The first grouping went out as the Polka Tulk Blues Band, which then became Earth.  Finally, upon bassist Geezer Butler’s brother’s suggestion (which he took from a Boris Karloff B-movie he had seen with the same title), they became Black Sabbath.  Ward’s jazz infused drumming (his go to guys were Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and Elvin Jones) brought something different to Sabbath.  Ward laughs about their early days now saying, “I came away [from their first rehearsals] knowing that we were different and that everybody would probably hate us.  And I was right.  But at twenty-one I was unstoppable.  I was in Black Sabbath, what did you expect?  It was us against the world.  The camaraderie was amazing.  We were all from the same place, same background;  we had a common language.”

     Black Sabbath channeled the post-war feelings into their music:  “We played like punks on stage.  There was this force, all this resentment and anger that was coming out.  It came from what we thought was (expletive deleted) at the time;  politics and war, and upbringing, and people’s ways of life.  And PTSD.”  As was not uncommon, the band did more than its fair share of drinking and drugging.  Ward himself got bogged down with alcohol to sooth the panic attacks he experienced in the 1970s.  He left the band twice, the second time in 1984 just after they recorded Born Again with Ian Gillan (long time Deep Purple vocalist) filling Ozzy’s spot.  Bill said he was sober for those sessions, but the prospect of touring again yanked him off the wagon.  It got so bad at one point he was homeless and contemplating suicide.  He then got help and dried out for the last time:  “I last drank in January 1984 and spent some time thinking about a lot of the mistakes I made, the amends that I owed, and what I needed to move forward musically to make a living.”  Away from Sabbath, he released three solo albums;  1990’s (Ward One – Along the Way), When the Bough Breaks (1997), and finally 2015’s Accountable Beasts.

     Though he signed up for, and then bailed out of, reunions with the Ronnie James Dio fronted Black Sabbath (who ended up touring as ‘Heaven and Hell’) and later the original BS line-up (replaced both times by Vinnie Appice), he has no regrets.  Ward won’t go into the details of what happened when he passed on the chance to tour with the original Black Sabbath members other than to call his unhappiness with the contract terms offered by Sharon Osbourne as,”The big thing we went through in 2012.”  In the meantime, he has been stockpiling songs and book ideas;  Ward says he has a pile of seven unreleased albums in the queue.  Of them, the one just completed in 2019, Beyond Aston, sounds, in his opinion, “Incredible.  A (expletive deleted) masterpiece, even though I say so myself.”  He continued, “I’m in a good place every day.  I cherish what I’ve been through, and I cherish what I have left in my life,  I make the best of the best.”

     The other drummer featured in Issue 301 of CRM, John Coghlan, was an unknown quantity to me before I read this interview.  I only remember his band, Status Quo, from their 1968 Top Forty hit Pictures of Matchstick Men.  I watched a clip from Top of the Pops and immediately understood Coghlan’s comments about that period of the band’s history.  The song brought Status Quo to their “brief taste of stardom,” but Coghlan says he, “Hated being part of the flower-power scene” and was secretly pleased when his jacket, part of their required stageware, got too close to an electric fire at their manager’s house and burned.  Coghlan explained, “The psychedelic thing just wasn’t us.  The savior of the band was road manager [and honorary fifth member] Bob Young who told us to lose the outfits and buy jeans and plimsolls instead.  We grew our hair long and hit the universities and colleges.”  Their road show included enough substances that, he claims, one could, “get high by standing next to us.”  Indeed, the Audrey Hepburn hairstyles, frilly shirts, and smirks shared during their miming on Top of the Pops point to a band that was not particularly in their element.  It is no small wonder many count them as one hit wonders, but only in America.

     Coghlan’s first band practiced across the street from another group that included future Status Quo members Francis Rossi and Alan Lancaster.  When he was asked to join them, Coghlan recalls, “I thought, ‘why not?’  It was the only offer I’d had.”  The band first came together in 1962 as The Scorpions, soon changing to The Spectres.  Hired for a six-week summer gig at a summer resort area called Butlin’s at Minehead, the final piece of the Status Quo line-up would turn up there in the person of Rick Parfitt.  As for their summer gig, John winked and said, “That season at Butlin’s was fantastic, because we could be away from our parents and get up to mischief.”  Past the Pictures of Matchstick Men phase, they created a pile-driving, headbanging style that made them a great live attraction.  Popular in Europe, they just didn’t sell all that many records or garner much radio play on the American side of the pond.  As CRM interviewer Dave Ling puts it, “Quo became a gang prepared to take a bullet for one another in the name of unity.” Coghlan continues,  “We had so much fun, it was pure rock ‘n’ roll.  All of us would share the driving.  You’d play the gig and then have some drinks and a lot of laughs.”

     As the substance abuse increased, the band began to fracture.  Though Francis Rossi said any one of them could have gone ballistic in that increasingly stressful environment, it was Coghlan who exploded after a gig in Switzerland.  Fed up with the drug fueled antics, he put his twenty-year history with Status Quo in the dustbin and went home.  Hindsight says the band should have taken some time off but it didn’t happen.  Thus began a forty year span of keeping himself busy with a variety of musical projects. Coghlan says at 76, he is, “near the end of my performing career.”  Having five tours canceled during the COVID-19 pandemic more or less took the wind out of his sails.  As he looked back over his last span as a musician, which has been twice as long as his original tenure in Status Quo, he mulled over how things could have turned out.  An honest appraisal, but one without regrets about how things actually played out.

     His first post-Quo action was to revive an all-star band he put together in 1976 to fill time when Quo was off the road.  The membership in Diesel rotated over time but they had some raucous good times touring together.  He also recorded a one-off single with Phil Lynott, Roy Wood, and Chas Hodges as The Rockers.  A brief stint in Australia followed where he joined his former Quo bandmate Lancaster in a band called The Bombers.  There was another band with potential formed with ex-Jimi Hendrix Experience bass player Noel Redding and original Thin Lizzy guitarist Eric Bell, but it never quite gelled.  Through all the various musical combinations, Coghlan never lost touch with his former Quo bandmates.

     Four days before Status Quo opened the world-wide broadcast of the musical charity concert Live Aid at Wembley Stadium (July 13, 1985), Rick Parfitt and Alan Lancaster jammed with Diesel at the Marquee Club.  Coghlan half expected an invitation to join them at Live Aid, but explained, “I watched it on the TV.  Alan had told me there would be a call, but it never came.”  The chance to rejoin the band for a reunion in 2013 and 2014 (along with Lancaster) was his first opportunity to visit his old haunts.  They were in the process of planning another tour (as the Frantic Four, not Status Quo) when rhythm guitarist Parfitt died in 2016.  Coghlan was hit hard again when Lancaster passed away in 2021 leaving only lead guitarist Francis Rossi to carry on the Quo legacy with his own line-up.  

     Coghlan’s own version of the band, playing as JCQ (John Coghlan’s Quo) was thrown a double curve when many of the smaller venues they played closed.  Time, as they say, marched on, and he began feeling less inclined to get back in the touring rut.  The whole situation has led Coghlan to plan this summer’s farewell tour to end at Butlin’s seaside resort in Minehead come September.  It would be appropriate considering it was at Butlin’s that Parfitt first came aboard.  It is also the site of an annual Quo convention.  John expects it to be a memorable gig:  “We played there not too long ago [2019] with Alan Lancaster so it will be an emotional experience.”  Will he hang up the sticks for good after the farewell tour?  He says he may enjoy a few pints and sit in with a local jazz combo in his retirement:  “I’m not a jazz drummer, but it might be time to get the brushes out.  I would love to turn up and play one more time with Francis [during a Status Quo gig].  I think the audience would love that.  I’d invite Francis to play with JCQ at Butlin’s, but I know he’d make an excuse and wouldn’t come.  There’s nothing I’d like more than that.  And you know what?  Maybe I just might.”

     It is nice to hear that in spite of the ups and downs in their careers, both Ward and Coghlan have exit plans.  It is too bad Taylor Hawkins departed before he could plan out his own end of career exit.  RIP Taylor Hawkins.

Top Piece Video:  John Coghlan and the Status Quo America is best acquainted with, circa 1968.