By Jeb Wright
Few bassists can say they have recorded and toured with Jimmy Page. Even fewer can they performed and/or recorded with Roy Harper, David Gilmour, Glenn Hughes, Gary Hoey, John Sykes, Carmine Appice, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Graham Bonnett, Derek Sherinian, Pat Travers and Frankie Banali. One man who's résumé fits that bill, and then some, is Tony Franklin.
Tony is back with a new band featuring his Blue Murder alum Carmine Appice, vocalist Joe Lynn Turner and guitarist Karl Cochran. The band is called Rated X, and the music is ‘classic rock’ to the core! Tony and Carmine create a mighty rhythm section, and the band trots out song after song of hard rocking bliss.
In the interview that follows, Mr. Franklin opens up about how Rated X came to be, as well as how it came to be much more than he had anticipated. He also discusses his experience with Blue Murder and The Firm, as well as his latest gig with Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
Tony is famous for playing a fretless bass, and during this interview he explains how he came to fall in love with the instrument. Surprisingly, during this interview he admits he never heard "Stairway to Heaven" until he was in a band with Jimmy Page, and that he also was forced to turn down an offer to join Pink Floyd.
Read on, as this is a cool chat with a really cool dude!
Jeb: I am talking to a man that is a bass player’s bass player.
Tony: Oh, you are too kind. I have been fortunate to play with some great acts and with some great musician’s over the years who have allowed me to shine. I am very thankful of it all, and I don’t take a second of it for granted, as you can’t these days.
Jeb: I think you’re on about half of my CD collection! The Firm, Blue Murder, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and all the other stuff. Now you’re in a new band called Rated X, and it is a damn good album with Joe Lynn Turner, Carmine Appice and Karl Cochran.
Tony: I don’t want to say we were pleasantly surprised, but quite honestly, it turned out as good as we hoped it would. In the beginning, it was Frontiers Records approaching us, as they thought it would be a cool thing to put these guys together to make an album. We went about it, initially, thinking we would make an album and that would be it. Once we started getting it going, and we realized what we had going on, we realized that we had much more than your typical super group album. There was some magic going on.
Jeb: Was this done by sending files back and forth or were you all together in the same room?
Tony: It was challenging. Carmine and Joe have known each other a long time. Carmine and I go back a long time, as well. I know his playing better than anybody’s, concerning drummers. The thing that is really special is that the album sounds ‘live’. It sounds like we were in the room together and it really gels. We had guide tracks and we had a click and then Carmine laid down his stuff. It sounds like I am describing something very clinical, but it really was real. Carmine and I spent a lot of time making sure this was something really special. I don’t know how many recordings Carmine and I have done over the years, and how many live performances we have done. We know each other well and we quickly realized we had some magic going on.
Carmine was really stretching out and I was going for it, as I always like to do, and it was really magical. Working with Carmine is great, but it is challenging too. One thing I do like about him is the challenge. It is not always obvious as to what he is going to do. Carmine likes to push the limits and explore, and he does things that you don’t think he is going to do.
He was playing the parts and thinking of me, musically. That is the beauty of working with each other so much. Carmine can go to the outside of the box and it really challenges me to come up with something that is cohesive and makes sense and makes him look good. You could lay down a basic bass part to what he is doing, but it would make him seem not so good. I don’t know if that makes sense. The bass is the glue and if the bass isn’t really moving and grooving and gluing it all together...If it is not grooving it can make the rest of the band seem loose. I am not trying to over-project my own role in this band; I am just talking about bass playing in general. In Rated X, I just love his playing, and I love how he challenges me. I love the songs. It is very exciting and gratifying.
Jeb: The guy is an icon, there’s no doubt about it. He is a unique individual. In fact, all of you bring your personalities into Rated X.
Tony: That is the one thing I really like about this. Sometimes, when you get collections of musician’s together like this, then they tend to get into their safety zones and do what is expected of them. On this, everybody was really pushing things to the limit. I think this is some of the best stuff Joe Lynn has done in years. I have always loved that about Carmine and I, we always aspire to be that player.
Jeb: Because of the way you approach bass, almost as a lead bass player, I notice that you tend to play in bands with one guitarist. Does a band that has two guitarists cramp your style?
Tony: I do prefer one guitar because a lot of people that play bass in hard rock, with two guitarists, almost as a supportive role. You look at bands like Led Zeppelin, which to me is the classic example, and the bass was way up in the mix. People always think Jimmy Page is a heavy guitarist but his tone is not too overdriven. He is kind of doing a heavy funk sort of thing. Of course there are heavy moments, but the bass and the drums are leading that band. Jimmy is more about the arrangements. I have always loved that.
There are keyboards on the Rated X album, but they are really just flavoring, just like they were in Blue Murder. They are not dominating, as it is more about the big guitar, big bass and big drums and everyone has that room to breathe. Quite honestly, I have been seen, in a lot of the bands I have been in, as a lead bass player, but I still have a role to play. It has got to hold down that groove and it’s got to hold down the low end. If it isn’t doing that, then all of the stuff on the top is meaningless and is actually annoying. It has to be a hypnotic thing that is going on with the bass.
In the ideal scenario, you should only notice it when it deviates from that. I take the roll of the bass very seriously. I hear myself saying that and it is a bit of a silly comment coming from me, but it really is an amazing instrument. The three-piece arrangement forces you to keep the energy going, especially when the guitarist is soloing. It is not the case where you’ve got to play a lead part; you have to keep the momentum going. When the guitar takes a solo, then you’ve got to maintain that drive so the bass has to step up and fill that ground, which I personally love doing.
Jeb: Did you play fretless bass exclusively on this album? I know at times you play a fretted bass as well.
Tony: I do when it is called for, especially when I am going into a recording session and they insist on a fretted bass. On this album, it is all fretless bass.
Jeb: Most people in rock don’t play a fretless bass. Why do you?
Tony: Well, when I heard Jaco Pastorius in 1978 or 1979, I knew I had to have a fretless. Some people may not be familiar with that name. Jaco was the guy that made fretless bass a valid instrument. He is more jazz and he was in the band Weather Report. They had a real breakthrough album called Heavy Weather, which had a great song on that called “Birdland.”
Jaco put out a solo album, which was released in 1976, but I didn’t hear it until later. When I heard it I wanted a fretless as I had no idea a bass could do that. I literally went on a train with my parents and we went to The Bass Centre in London, as I had seen one advertised in a music newspaper and they had a couple down there.
I am sitting next to that very bass right now, as I was recording with it earlier today. It is my Fender fretless. I just loved it immediately, but it wasn’t an instant thing where all of a sudden I played perfectly in tune. It was not like you could tell it was not fretless sometimes. No, it was not like that. It was a good two years of hard work on it before I was really nailing it intonation-wise.
I was playing in a jazz trio band occasionally, and they had this amazing female singer named Brenda Scott. This was in Birmingham, England. I pulled out the fretless and started playing and she looked back at me and she said, “Get that boy off the fretless bass.” It was horribly out of tune. When you’re practicing at home and playing by yourself then you think you’re doing just fine. I tell students all the time, “Play with some tuning reference because you don’t have an idea of your pitch unless you have some reference.”
Another year, or so, after that, I started incorporating it. Probably the first time I started using it was when I was with Roy Harper. We did Work of Heart, which came out in ’82. That was my first public recording of my fretless bass. I didn’t use all fretless on the album, but I started, at that point, because Roy really let me experiment and do a lot of stuff. I put backwards bass on that album and all of this fun stuff.
The fretless was vocal and beautiful and yet it was powerful, too. I am a rock player, even though I do other things, I am essentially a rock player. I attacked it in a rock way and found that it transplanted beautifully into that world. It has the subtlety and power. I play with a plectrum and I bend stings, which is considered a no-no. I just attacked the thing and I just love it.
Now, for me, the fretted bass seems very restricted. If you think of the human voice, it does not have frets on it and it is very expressive. To me, the fretless is like a voice. I am not going to use it like an effect and be sliding on it all the time, as it is still the bass and it has that role to play. There are little inflections that you can do that just make it magic. I don’t think of these things when I am doing them, it just happens. You are in the flow and you just decide to bend a note in a certain way. I just love everything about it, and I’ve been very fortunate because I play fretless with a lot of great artists. I play fretless with Kenny Wayne and I played fretless with Blue Murder, Whitesnake and a bunch of others.
I once did a gig with Roy Harper opening for Jimmy Page, which was the precursor to The Firm. I did that gig all on fretless and a few weeks after that Jimmy asked me if I wanted to sit in with him on a few rehearsals with his new band. I wasn’t asked to be in the band at that point. I had heard that Pino Palladino had been sitting in with the band. I only knew Pino as a fretless player. In my mind I thought, “Okay, they must like the fretless.” It was the only bass I took with me that day. Somehow it worked and it stuck and I guess that was the launching of my establishing myself as a rock fretless bass player.
Jeb: You have always been respected, but when you were playing with Paul Rodgers and Jimmy Page were you secure in yourself, or were you nervous?
Tony: Here is an interesting story. I went into that gig and until I had been there a year and we were playing in the States…actually, funnily enough, it wasn’t until we played at Madison Square Garden, I still had not heard “Stairway to Heaven.” I had heard very little Zeppelin.
Jeb: You’re shitting me.
Tony: I know it’s going to sound surreal, but let me tell the story. Let me go back until I was about 15, or 16, and I played in this pub with my parents. There was this jukebox in there. They had a single of Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” I loved that song and bought it as a single. On the B side was the song “Four Sticks.” Me, at that age, I did not understand “Four Sticks.” I didn’t get it and it turned me off. I thought that “Rock and Roll” must have been like a novelty song and that “Four Sticks” was what they were really like. In England you really didn’t hear Zeppelin on the radio so I never really listened to it.
I knew who Paul Rodgers was, primarily from Free. In England, it is a whole different scene. I really didn’t know anything about Bad Company. Thankfully, we didn’t do any Zeppelin, or Bad Company, live, as they wanted to just let the past be and to establish the new band as a new thing. If Jimmy had called out, “Let’s do ‘Whole Lotta Love’.” I would have been like, “What key is that in?”
I knew who they both were, of course, but it was not like I was in awe of Jimmy or Paul. I was more in awe of them when we came to the States. When I saw the idol worship that people had for Jimmy it was amazing. The Firm was the first band that he had been in since Led Zeppelin. It was mind boggling. It was quite a journey. It becomes more meaningful and special with time, to be honest, as I can sit back and take it all in. At the time, I was just playing bass and having fun and not really understanding what was happening. I was just along for a happy ride.
Jeb: On many songs on the first album by The Firm you made a great impact with the fretless. Your bass on “Radioactive” is so cool. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” has that bass part that just grabs you man.
Tony: Well thank you. It is funny because it wasn’t to me at least, apparent that was the case when it was going down. We were just making an album and I wanted to put down the best parts to complement that song. It didn’t really strike me how good it was. It wasn’t till really later until I realized the impact of it all and just how highlighted the fretless bass was. I don’t know if that was by design, or if it just worked out that way. The fretless is prominently featured and it became a lot of the personality of the band. It was not something I set out to do. We were just making the best record we could.
Jeb: It is like what happened with Rated X.
Tony: Exactly. It is always my approach, whether it is Blue Murder, or any band I am in. I am a song guy. I want to see what the song needs and then put my personality into it. I push as far as I can and I push the boundaries, but the song is the most important thing. Rated X was that way. I stood back and looked at the songs and then went forward.
Carmine pushed me. Drum-wise, he does these monster fills, which is his signature. I would probably, for the song, lay back a little bit more. The wonderful thing is that Carmine brings that out of me. The wonderful thing, on top of that, is that Joe Lynn came on top of that and he went with it. Sometimes singers are intimidated and uncomfortable with music that is so dominant and strong, but he loves it. Karl and the other players really stepped up and it really is a player’s album, but there are great songs. You’ve got the best of all worlds there.
Jeb: Karl played with Joe Lynn’s solo band. He does a great job of playing guitar, but not overplaying the guitar.
Tony: He’s perfect. He gives a lot of space and room but he shines when it’s time. He really got the concept of the band. Nobody is trying to prove they are greater than the band. Everyone is pushing each other and taunting each other. It was the same with The Firm and with Blue Murder. Everybody pushes. I find that rare these days. I find that people are not willing to take that chance musically on any level. No one wants to push those boundaries.
Jeb: I have known Joe Lynn Turner for years and I really like his voice. Had you ever played with Joe?
Tony: No, I hadn’t. I had not even met him before.
Jeb: What was your first impression?
Tony: He’s a very strong, outspoken character that knows his course and knows what he likes and what he doesn’t like. He has been a huge driving force in this band. I knew him, musically, from his previous works. Half of a band is the chemistry. He has been a driving force from the business end of things to the actual songs. He really rose up on the album. I think it is some of the best work he’s done in a long time. His passion for this speaks very loudly as well.
Joe is a very well established artist. He has a solo career where he goes to Europe and to Russia and different territories. He is doing very well doing that. To feel his energy and drive and passion for this speaks a lot about him and a lot about the band. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. Quite honestly, and I’ll tell Joe this myself, he speaks his mind and sometimes I found that hard to swallow in the beginning. He doesn’t pull any punches.
Jeb: A gentleman from England and a guy from East Coast of the USA are two different personalities!
Tony: Look at this, I’ve got Carmine and Joe and then there is Karl. Karl is very easygoing, but he can pipe up. I think my personality is a nice blend and a foil for them all. I tend to cool things down and see the rationality. Having said that about Joe, I would much rather have somebody who speaks their mind and is clear. He speaks very well and I’ve come to respect that and love that. I think he’s great, I really do.
Jeb: Will Rated X play live?
Tony: We’re working on it right now. We have one show confirmed in Sweden. It is a rock festival there. It is in Stockholm. We are looking to put a bunch of dates around that, as well. That is being worked on as we speak. We are talking about some other things currently. Absolutely we will play live. This was initially just a label project thing, but then once we started getting going on this then doing live came up very, very quickly. We are looking to do that and we are looking at this as a long term thing and we want to build it.
It is interesting, as the promoters still want to hear what this band sound is like. With the band members in this, then it would be obvious what it sounds like, but this is being treated as a new band. They want to know that we are a band with some legs that will come back around again and that is the intention.
Jeb: You’re schedules must make that challenging. You all have to have time-off from your other bands to get this band together ‘live’.
Tony: There is no reason why things cannot co-exist. Kenny Wayne does his thing with Stephen Stills and Carmine has all these things going on. With some communication then anything is doable and possible.
Jeb: Have you guys jammed in person yet at all?
Tony: No, we have not.
Jeb: This is a strange world.
Tony: Actually, when we were shooting the music videos we were banging around a bit, but it is not what I would consider a jam. As you mentioned, Karl and Joe go way back and Carmine and myself go way back. Carmine and Joe were in Mother’s Army together. It is not like we collectively haven’t played together before. It is not like we’re just coming together great session players, or whatever. It’s not like we have not been in the same room playing together. We have all been playing together for years between us all.
Jeb: Noah Hunt is Kenny’s vocalist. He is my favorite under-40-year-old vocalist out there.
Tony: Sorry Noah, you are over 40! He does look under 40 though. He a little bit more than that, but I will let him tell you that [laughter].
Jeb: I saw you with Kenny for the Hendrix tour a few weeks ago. That is just an amazing show. When I had heard you were joining Kenny’s band I didn’t think that was going to be a good match. You proved me wrong, as you guys were tight as hell.
Tony: I’ve always said that you’ve got to do what is appropriate for the gig. I have done a lot of sessions. Do you remember a pop artist called Donna Lewis? She had a big song and I played on her whole album and I toured with her back in ’96 and ’97 and that is about as far away from Blue Murder and Rated X as you can get.
She and I are longtime friends. I did what was needed for that gig. I am very fortunate to have a session mentality when it is called for, but also a live rock mentality when it is called for. I played a lot of big band and jazz, and a lot of the bands I have been in have had a blues foundation to them. I have those chops and it is a different side of me which has been really good for me.
As you know we have Chris Layton from Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble’s band. He has a groove and a pocket. It has expanded my repertoire and it has surprised me, actually. You get to a place and you don’t think you know it all, but you’re comfortable. When you get into a new style with a new format then you realize there is a lot more to this than meets the eye. That’s what I’m saying. Being in this band has made me a better player and a more aware player. It has been great and I am very grateful.
Jeb: Layton looks like he is doing nothing when you watch him but man he is doing it all.
Tony: He comes from the school of being very conservative with his motion. A lot of the jazz players had that. His dad used to have him stay up and watch Buddy Rich. Buddy is more of a powerhouse hitter but he was conservative with his moments. He is not like a showy player. Some may think he’s not into the music, but he is. He is focused. He played three hours a night of Hendrix on that tour, which is very challenging. He is an amazing drummer.
Jeb: Kenny has a lot of musical drive as well.
Tony: One of his signature pieces that we close the set with is “Voodoo Child” and we do a phenomenal version of that. You can tell Stevie was a huge influence to him, but so was BB King, Freddie King, Muddy Waters, and on and on. Kenny’s new album sees him digging deep, as there is some acoustic stuff on there. It really is a diverse array of styles on it even though it is a blues album. You think of blues as being 12-bar, but there are many songs that are different.
Kenny will be staying around for a long while. We just got back from Europe and it was great. There is a younger audience there than there is here. We see younger people here too, but not like we do in Europe. It is very refreshing to see such a younger audience. Kenny’s original stuff- a lot of that has a rock edge to it; he is not just doing straight ahead blues.
Jeb: He has a lot of rock in his blues. Earlier you said the chemistry of a band has a lot to do with how successful a band can be. Was chemistry a problem with Blue Murder?
Tony: No, not at all; it was amazing on that first album. I think things changed by the time the second album came around. It may have been my fault because I cleaned up and stopped drinking and partying! We all had our days. Back in the days when Blue Murder got together and were recording we were partying animals, we really were. By the end of ’89 I had enough of that. It had kind of run its course, and the energy and vibe changed.
I think there was disappointment from John Sykes on how the first album didn’t perform as well as we were all hoping and were probably expecting it to, to be honest. He got really down on himself and it took him a really long time to come out of it. There was a flow on the first album that was not there on the second album. Nirvana also came along and the whole scene changed musically. Rock and hair—at least hair sprayed hair—had the door shut on it overnight. There were a lot of other factors that made it seem like it had run its course, and it was sad.
Jeb: Do you stay in touch with Sykes?
Tony: We talk and email quite a lot. He is a dear friend and he is a brother to me. Nobody more than me wishes he would get out there and do things. We’ve done stuff together over the past. We’ve done a lot of things over the years together and I even played on four songs or so on John’s latest album. I am not sure when it is going to be coming out.
I am still in there playing with him and I truly don’t know his reasons for not wanting to get out there. As a creative being, and as a musician, I cannot understand that, as for me is part of my being. It is not work for me and it is not a past-time for me. People ask me what hobbies I have, and the answer is music. I am writing, or creating, or doing something musically and it just so happens to be my work. I live, breathe and dream nothing but music.
Jeb: I am glad you got clean and sober, as I did the same at about the same time.
Tony: It is the only way to be. It is amazing how things shifted from that point for me. I had done some decent playing before that point, but it is like writing-wise and creative-wise it really opened things up for me. I highly recommend it to anyone who is thinking about it.
Jeb: Last one: Tell me the history about you and David Gilmour.
Tony: I wish I’d done more to be perfectly honest. It was a very special thing that we did with Kate Bush. It is on YouTube. We did a performance of “Running up That Hill.” We did a cover of “Let It Be” as well but that didn’t get broadcast. We worked that up for a charity thing called The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball that was in London at the Palladium. You can find it on YouTube. Look for David Gilmour and Kate Bush and you will get to see my ‘80s bouffant and suit. It was in 1987.
Here is the story that doesn’t often get told…David Gilmour called me about three weeks after that and told me that I was on the short list of players for Pink Floyd. They had just got the name back and Roger Waters was no longer in the band. I was on the short list. It was Tony Levin, Pino Palladino and myself. Those two guys couldn’t do it.
Literally, a few days before that, I had signed an agreement with Blue Murder. I took this agreement down to Steve O’Rourke who was Pink Floyd’s manager at the time. He said that it looked like they had me tied up and that the only way I could do it is if Blue Murder were willing to let me go. They were not willing to let me go. I had to call David Gilmour and say, “This breaks my heart, as I really wish I could do this, but they are not going to let me go and they may even take legal action if I do it”
I think everything happens for a reason. I ended up doing the thing with Blue Murder and my life took a different course. It brought me to America, where I now live. I love it. It led me to my wife and it led me to getting my act together and all of that stuff. I was in a pretty heavy dark space back then.
Who knows where things are going? You can always look back and wish that had happened, but maybe it was not in the universal plan of things where it was meant to be that way. We cannot know those things. We just have to trust that is the way it is supposed to be. There have been turning points in my life where I thought it should have gone one way and it didn’t. I am sure we have all had those moments and it didn’t, and we look back with hindsight and see why it had to happen that way. Sometimes we never know and it is not clear, but we just have to trust that it was for the best. As tough as it was that day, I got through it and couldn’t be happier.
Jeb: All in all, it was… just another brick in the wall!
Tony: [laughter] Perfect!
Jeb: Where can people go online to find out about Rated X?
Tony: We are on Facebook at Rated X Rocks. We just started on Twitter. We’ve also go our individual pages as well. There is a wealth of info. There are three videos of Rated X on YouTube that you can search for. One is a lyric video and the other two are actual band videos. You can look for me on Facebook and Twitter.
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