Ten years before it became home to the likes of U2, Ultravox and the Waterboys, the Island label was already pioneering new music with artists such as Bob Marley, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Fairport Convention, Roxy Music, Bad Company, King Crimson and Steve Winwood on its rosta.
Slide guitarist Bryn Haworth was part of that group and opens a window onto what it was like.
Did any of them realise what a key group of musicians they were?
“I don’t think people had the awareness of who they were and what they were doing; it was just an incredibly creative time,” Haworth remembers. “We were just making music.
“Island had a restaurant/cafe thing; they encouraged musicians to sit down, eat and talk with each other. There was a rehearsal studio and a recording studio in the block at St. Peter’s Square in Hammersmith, so it was a really good, creative environment. They’d laid it out very well. You’d meet and eat and talk and chat. I remember Steve Winwood saying, ‘What’s that you’re playing?’ and I said, ‘It’s a mandolin.’ The next time I saw him, he’d bought one and was playing it. It was just humming, a really happening company.
“I talked to Eno a lot, from Roxy Music. He was always intellectual, reading books and talking about sounds and things. He was fascinating to talk to.
“Fairport Convention, who I went on tour with, were very sociable as well. I’d really talk about instruments with Fairport – guitars and mandolins. Back then, it was the problem of trying to amplify acoustic instruments and then Ovation came out and brought out the first electronic acoustics and so when they were in America, they brought me back a 12-string and 6-string acoustic too, so we were the first people in England to have these, which was great.
“Robert Palmer was great. He was working with Lowell George from Little Feat, who produced his album Sneaking Sally Down the Alley. He said, ‘Would you like me and Lowell George to produce your album?’ I thought, ‘That would be interesting!’ but it had all been tied up with the record company. There was a lot of interaction. It was very encouraging.”
As Haworth has been the UK’s premier slide guitarist, he has been dubbed, ‘the British Lowell George’. Did George influence his own playing style?
“Definitely. At the time, there was three: Ry Cooder, Duane Allman –both completely different styles – and then Lowell George came along, who had a different style too, because he used a lot of compression on his guitar that gave him a lot of sustain.
“All three influenced me. I particularly loved the melodic side of what they did. It was a new thing back then, slide guitar. There was a lot of innovation going on.”
At that time, there was much cross-pollination of musicians, not just chatting over ideas in the studios, but also when touring. Labels would often use their own artists as support acts for better known musicians. So Haworth toured with Traffic, Bad Company and Fairport Convention. His (possibly career-best) second solo album Sunny Side of the Street included Fairport’s three Daves – Mattacks, Swarbrick and Pegg – on some tracks and all together on ‘Darlin’ Cory’.
Chris Stainton played much of the keyboards on that album, but also played keys on nine of Eric Clapton’s recordings, while Jimmy Mullen and Pete Wingfield, who also played on it, have worked with Sir Paul McCartney. Likewise, sax player Mel Colllins has worked with Clapton, the Stones and seemingly every one else. As a musician’s musician, Haworth tends to work with the best.
So had his instrument not also been guitar, Haworth could have been in Clapton’s band. Does it not work that way?
“Yes, it does, Haworth replies. “You’ve got to get in people’s circle. If you work with Roger Waters, say: Andy Fairweatherlow took on that gig with The Wall, and from then on, Andy went on to work with Eric Clapton as second guitar player. It’s just a circle of people, you know. They pick up and meet. You have to get in that circle.”
When Haworth was part of a house band for Atlantic Records, he got to jam with Jimi Hendrix – they played “Red House ” together – but never jammed with Clapton.
“I did meet Eric Clapton and talk with him. At one point, he was interested in doing one of my songs, so I met him there. But it didn’t happen.”
It did happen with several others, though. He lists a few: “Lulu did ‘Come See What Love has Done for Me’; Mary Black did ‘Moments’ – so did Sandy Denny – in fact, ‘Moments’ was the last recording she ever did, which is very poignant, really. Cliff did ‘We’re All One’ on a video of some kind.
Haworth commented in some recent liner notes that he finds it hard to get started on recording, which might explain the gap between some releases.
You said in your liner notes that you find it hard to get started on recording. Why is that?
“I don’t hate recording, I just find it diffcult”
“When I was working with Gerry Rafferty, he would give me six hours to do a solo. If you’re given six hours to do a solo, you can relax and do it really, really well. You can come up with a line, figure it out, play it with the sound that’s wanted.
“Back in the ‘60s, you‘d have to do three or four songs at least in three hours, right from scratch. When you’re younger, you just whack it out. As you get older, you get a little more thoughtful about it and you’re looking for parts. It becomes a little bit more involved. I just find it more difficult. I have to do a lot of preparation at home.”
“But it’s generally quite a lot of time pressure when you’re playing in a studio because you are paying for the time. I need to hire a studio, because I use drums. I use musicians, I don’t use machines. So I need a room big enough for drums, bass, any brass section and whatever. So it costs me quite a lot of money to make an album.
“I very much enjoy having my own label. It gives you the freedom to choose how, what and when you record, but when you are the record company, you’re paying for this personally and you’ve got pressure to get this thing done and I don’t like that. I’m not very good working under pressure. I don’t think a lot of people are.
“Then you’ve got the cost of manufacturing the whole thing. So that’s the price – it’s like buying a new car every two years!” he laughs. “That’s why you don’t get a new Bryn Haworth album every two years, because it’s so expensive. You have to save up.”
Neither can he offset the recordinug cost by bringing in tracks that are already released, fresh for a new audience, despite some of his best work being in Island.
“Island own both the albums I made for them forever, as do A&M with the 2 albums I made for them. I did try once to use some tracks, but they wanted too much money. I may try again one day, but you can’t speak to an A&R person these days – you have to speak to the lawyers now.”