Blues and folk-rock drum pioneer
Published in PM September 2009
People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
The four years that Clive Bunker spent in Jethro Tull between 1967 and 1971 helped secure his reputation among other stick-men, both past and present, as one of Britains most under-estimated drumming greats.
When you ask your average music fan who the best British drummers of the 60s and 70s were, youll more often than not get a quickfire list of all the usual — and, of course, deserved — suspects: Ginger Baker, John Bonzo Bonham, Mitch Mitchell, Keith Moon, Ian Paice and Charlie Watts. But theres one man youll rarely, if ever, hear mentioned, and thats Mr Clive Bunker, who perched atop Jethro Tulls drum stool for the first four years of their existence. During that short time, Bunker managed to garner the fierce respect and adoration of many of his drumming contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic. And similar levels of appreciation can be gleaned from todays younger drummers, who may have watched Bunkers classic solos on drumming DVDs, listened to him on record or possibly seen him play in the flesh, either at a concert or during a drum clinic.
Clive Bunker left Jethro Tull in 1971, not too long after the release of the widely lauded Aqualung album. Hed met a girl in the UK after another Tull sojourn across the States and simply felt it was time to get married and settle down. Playing in a major rock & roll band with stacks of global touring commitments just wasnt going to be compatible with the lifestyle Bunker now wanted for himself, his new wife and stepson. So, after being replaced by old Tull friend Barriemore Barlow, Bunker et al settled down just outside Luton and the erstwhile rock legend spent the next few decades running a few local businesses, which included a light engineering firm (this was his original trade), a coach company and boarding kennels.
Drumming-wise, Bunker built a recording studio at the bottom of his garden, in the confines of which he dedicated his spare time to improving his technique and recording his own playing. Then, whenever the boarding kennels were off-season and a nice little musical opportunity cropped up, Bunker would briefly take to the road with people like Uli Roth, Gordon Giltrap, Manfred Mann, Robin Trower and Chris Dewar in the band Jude, as well as various projects involving his old blues guitarist friend and fellow ex-Tull member, Mick Abrahams. But the stints would always be occasional as well as brief, fitting around whatever the kennels business could manage without Bunker manning the helm. Then, several years ago, Bunkers marriage sadly fell apart, an event which prompted him, albeit slowly, to start building up his global touring chops again.
“After the marriage split up, it was like a year or two years of What am I going to do?” he explains. “Then, as a few people got to know I was around again, I started getting some work. Over the last five years its grown and grown, and now instead of moaning about no work, Im moaning about how much Ive got!” In the last year alone, Bunker has been out gigging extensively with both keyboard maestro Don Airey and folk-rock supergroup Gathering, along with other one-off shows and guest appearances.
The Gathering project initially came together a couple of years ago, at a time when Bunker was playing the odd gig and occasional tour with country and folk axe virtuoso Jerry Donahue. With Bunker being ex-Jethro Tull and Jerry having played in both Fotheringay and Fairport Convention, a neat little idea popped into the head of Donahues manager, which Jerry immediately acted upon. Rather than Jerry touring as a solo artist with musical mates backing him up, he felt they could put together a group for a single tour where every member played in or had played in a classic British folk-rock band. And a few phone calls down the line, Bunker and Jerry hooked up with Rick Kemp (ex-Steeleye Span), Ray Jackson (ex-Lindisfarne), Doug Morter (ex-Magna Carta and ex-Albion Band) and Jerrys daughter Kristina, who had sung with Fairport at their Cropredy Festival to great acclaim a number of times. The musical bond that came out during an initial rehearsal-cum-jam at Fairports studio was pretty much instantaneous.
“We met up there for a couple of days practice,” explains Bunker, “and from day one we all got on so well, we all said, Lets keep this going rather than just doing one tour. Its been going for two and a bit years now. It was instant, we all knew it was going to work, and its carried on like that!”
Gathering have just released their debut CD, Legends Of Folk Rock, through Hypertension Music, as well as touring extensively around the UK and Europe, with a smattering of big European festival dates to look forward to come the summer. Whoever Clive Bunker is gigging with, he always finds the European crowds to be the most loyal and receptive, and the European promoters the most courteous and generous.
“The [other] Europeans are fantastic,” enthuses Bunker, “but this country The tour we just did with Don and the stuff weve been doing with Gathering have been fantastic, but other things Ive played with over here, people dont seem to stick with bands for very long, if you know what I mean? The younger people dont stick with bands too much. We were just talking about this actually and its just one of those things. [In Europe] youre treated better by the promoters. You get meals and everything like that, whereas if you get one in this country, you think Blimey! Germany is fantastic! I work a lot in Italy and theyre just amazing.”
Tins and needles
Clive Bunker never had any grand aspirations as a kid to be a pro drummer and initially had no interest in playing the drums at all. In fact, if we go right back to the beginning, the world has actually got Bunkers dirt-biking school pals to thank for getting him behind the skins — or, ahem, tins — in the first place. “I used to meet up with my friends and that and we used to go dirt-tracking on bikes,” he remembers. “One of them turned up with a guitar and then another one of them turned up with a guitar, and then it got round to, Ooh, lets form a band! They said, You can be the drummer, and thats how it happened really. I just started bashing around on an old tin and a couple of knitting needles, and then my parents bought me a drum kit.”
Bunkers first experiences of live performance came with a school band called the Warriors, who covered the early-60s hits of the day, including the many chart cuts by Cliff Richard and the Shadows. However, things started to get more serious when he met guitarist Mick Abrahams, with whom he played in a few outfits including 60s beat nearly men the Toggery Five and blues group McGregors Engine. It was after hooking up with the former band that Clive Bunker first went professional and, within a few months, found himself treading the boards of the 60s German beat clubs. The infamously intense schedules of that circuit, which famously gave the Beatles their grounding, also gave Bunker the performance chops that would make his name later on in the decade.
“We did a couple of months, I think, and that was two weeks at each club,” he explains. “That was a nightmare, playing every night for a long, long time! But it gave you the grounding of how to work an audience, I suppose, learning to pace yourself for one. We used to start at about eight oclock in the evening and go through til something like four oclock in the morning, and the breaks that you took were only about 10 minutes. So we had to learn a heck of a lot of stuff, and you had to sort of keep yourself trim enough to actually play it all and survive. Thats how you learn the little tricks of making sure that the numbers are in the right order, and you have a couple of the ones where you need the drummer to do a lot of work and then you have a rest for a few more (and the same for the guitarist and the singers voice, obviously). Its all those little tricks that you learn, which the Beatles had learnt earlier. And it didnt do them a lot of harm, did it?”
When the Toggery Five landed back on British soil, they were tired, dispirited and also totally broke. The group disbanded almost immediately and it wasnt long before Bunker was back playing the British blues club circuit with Mick Abrahams. It was around this time that the two of them first saw a seven-piece white soul band called the John Evan Smash playing a gig at a club run by their own manager. When this band also split up following a lack of the right level of success, Abrahams and Bunker joined forces with their bass player, Glenn Cornick, and their singer, Ian Anderson, to form another rocking blues band. It was December 1967 and Jethro Tull were born. But things really started to take shape when Ian Anderson decided to turn up to band practice with a flute in his hand
“When he brought this lump of metal along and started blowing it, I thought, Hang on, this is a blues band!” laughs Bunker. “But it really did work! Roland Kirk had this style about him and Ian took that a stage further than Roland did, and it had an amazing effect — not just on me, but on the audiences. It was the way he played the flute that brought about some of his stage act bit and, obviously, it got people talking about this weird band, so it worked in every which way!”
Another key time for the burgeoning jazzy-blues rock group came when their manager, Terry Ellis, started to book them into the clubs and lofts of the British blues circuit, because up until that point they had simply been inheriting and fulfilling the John Evan Smashs pre-booked dates.
“All of a sudden, we were playing for audiences who wanted to listen to groups, rather than for people who wanted to jump around and dance to a soul band,” explains Bunker. “Luckily, Terry saw the merit in it, and even the promoters of the soul clubs were saying, Not the right band, but theyre very good. Then it took off very quickly; it was staggering! We did every blues loft and club and pub that you could do, I think, in the whole of the British Isles, and we worked really hard. When we did the National Jazz & Blues Festival [Sunbury, August 1968], a few people from all these clubs and pubs or wherever turned up and all joined together, and we had quite an audience there. We went down exceptionally well! There were about five companies on the phone to our manager, wanting to have the band on their label, so we could pick and choose, which was fantastic. We went with Island and Chris Blackwell in the end.”
Jethro Tull were touring in a truly frenetic fashion back in the late 60s, and on top of the gigs themselves Clive Bunker was also sharing driving their big old Mercedes van with Mick Abrahams. Bunker does hold those gigging years close to his heart, though in terms of the live music scene as a whole and the Tull-loving audiences. “The scene was amazing then!” he says. “I think people had learnt from the Americans to go and smoke a couple of joints and go and listen to music, and I think thats obviously why you had all these incredibly long solos from everybody. I think in the audiences mind they thought that only a minute had passed, you know, but the actual solo was about 20 minutes! Word of mouth in those days was incredible. We started to get more people than could actually get into the clubs or pubs!”
Jethro Tulls rise to the top of the pile was nothing short of meteoric, and by the time Clive Bunker left the band in 1971, three of their albums had made both the Top Five of the UK charts and Top 20 of the US charts, while they had also established themselves as one of the biggest crowd-drawing live bands across the world. Today, Bunker remains resolutely modest regarding what he calls his “lack of technique” back in those days, but theres no doubting that many of the greatest UK and US rock drummers of the era were taking note when they watched Bunker beat the skins. In fact, Bunkers honest modesty got him into trouble at the National Jazz & Blues festival in August 68, when he found himself backstage with two other Brit drummers: Gerry Conway of Eclection and Martin Lamble of Fairport Convention.
“We turned up and there was a tent back there, and Martin and Gerry were playing on these amazing drum kits,” laughs Bunker. “I walked in there and they were doing paradiddles and all this stuff, so I set up mine in the opposite corner — my heap of rubbish — and I was trying to sort of be invisible! Gerrys wife at the time came over and said, Come and have a jam, and I said, Oh, dont theyre playing properly! Then we went on and we went down better than anybody, and they obviously watched my drum solo and thought that I was actually having a go at them earlier saying I wasnt very good. But it was honesty, I wasnt pulling one! So when we played together at other gigs, I got a big blank until we sat down and they brought it up one day, and we were all fine after that!”
Bunker did, however, recently have to think twice about his lack of technique during the early Tull years, after catching a DVD of Jethro Tulls performance at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970. “I hadnt seen it until we brought it out, and I didnt know that some of the stuff I was playing I was playing back then. I thought Id learned it since. I was thinking, Oh, maybe I wasnt as bad as I thought I was!”
Heart versus head
When Jethro Tull started doing regular tours of the US, Bunker noticed a distinct difference in the stylings of the majority of the technically amazing US drummers as compared to the big hitters making a name for themselves in England. “Theyd all gone to the college in Boston and it was like a production line that was churning them out,” he explains. “It was only the ones who wanted to do something a bit different that actually stood out. All the others were just playing what theyd been taught, rather than taking it that step further. You could soon tell the ones who had taken it a step further, because they just tore up their music and started playing from the heart rather than from the head. And thats when it started to dawn on me that was what they liked about the British bands: we were pretty rough in those days. Theyd learned all this stuff, but they didnt know how to unlearn it, so there was no way they could do what we were doing and they couldnt understand it. So it was a breath of fresh air for us and them. But there were only a few of them who could sort of turn it around, like Vanilla Fudge and Carmine Appice, their drummer.”
Bunker was a little more than taken aback when a few of these highly skilled US drummers cornered him and actually said how much they enjoyed his technique. “It was amazing!” he laughs. “Youd get these astoundingly good drummers come up and say, That was fantastic! How do you do it? And then you watch them play and its like being back in the tent with Gerry and Martin.”
When we ask Bunker to pick out his most memorable gig with Jethro Tull, it doesnt take him long to come up with the first gig they ever played in America, at the Fillmore East in New York. Aside from the great audience reaction and the fact that it was their debut in the States, the gig was also memorable for another reason: the fact that they managed to sneak in some WEM PA columns!
“Wed never dreamed about playing in America anyway, but then playing in this shrine to music in New York and meeting Bill Graham, the guy that ran the Fillmores — who was an amazing guy — was just staggering to us!” recalls Bunker. “We had some of these WEM column things and it was effectively our PA system. We were setting this up and Bill Graham came up and said, Everybody that plays here uses the in-house PA! Then Ian, quick as a flash, said, Oh, its not a PA system, its the flute amplifier! You could see Bill just sort of move back a bit and then there was a little half-smile. You could tell that he knew we were bluffing, but he let us get away with it.”
After Clive Bunker left Jethro Tull in 1971, he duly settled his new family down near Luton, started up his businesses, and built a little studio at the bottom of the garden, filled with drumming books. It was in this studio that he learned all the technical chops he felt hed never had during his Tull years.
“All I really did [with Jethro Tull] was single-stroke rolls,” says Bunker. “I did, towards the end of it, do double-stroke rolls, but I didnt know what a paradiddle was to save my life. Id heard other drummers make this noise and I tried to make it sound the same, but it was all single-stroke rolls really, as far as technique goes. It was just crash and see what happens!”
When it comes to those four happy years spent with Jethro Tull, there will always be one comment made by a Canadian journalist which Bunker will never forget. “One of the best write-ups that I can ever remember getting was in some Canadian paper,” he laughs. “Somebody gave it to me the next day and the write-up was about the drum solo. The guy said, Clive didnt so much play the drums as attack them, and I thought Yesss! Thats the way to go!”
For upcoming Gathering live dates you can visit www.myspace.com/thegatheringonline or www.gathering-band.com. Legends Of Folk Rock by Gathering is out now through Hypertension Music. 0
Clive Bunker has some advice for drummers who are just starting out.
“I think its a good idea to go and have a few lessons, but just enough to sort of know what youre doing. Then, if youre lucky enough to be in a band, forget about it for a bit and go out and play with the band. Learn from your mistakes, and then once youve got through doing it live for a while, then, yes, go back and learn how to play it properly, because then you can pull on both sides of it.
“Ive done some clinics with a drummer called Marco Minnemann. He can do anything and just play such astounding stuff, but then hes got this thing where he can just switch the technique off and just bash, which is what its all about. The college system you come out at the end of it and youve missed all of that live learning process, making mistakes and learning from it!”
Clive Bunker currently plays two drum kits. One is a Yamaha Concert Toms set with a 20-inch bass drum plus eight-inch, 10-inch, 12-inch and 14-inch toms, and Paiste cymbals. And for when hes playing “loud stuff”, he uses a Remo kit with a 20-inch bass drum, Paiste cymbals, and a set of mix-and-match double-skinned toms, ranging from six inches right up to 18 inches, depending on the gig in question.
Bunker also favours Remo Ambassador Clear drumheads and never goes anywhere without a double bass drum pedal, which is a habit he got himself into during Jethro Tulls first US tour. Terry Ellis, the bands manager, was kind enough to proffer Bunker “any new kit he wanted” from Mannys famous music shop in New York City, and Bunker opted for a Ludwig kit with a double bass drum, partly inspired by his long-term drumming hero, Louie Bellson. The problem was hed never actually played a double kit before.
“Oh, stupid me!” laughs Bunker. “Terry said, Well, alright, youve bought it now. Youve gotta use it! I go on stage with double bass drums, but Id never played them before. Of course, everybody was looking at this big double drum kit thing and this band theyd never heard of, and they probably were expecting the standard of the players that they had over there. I wasnt even that good with my hi-hat, let alone another bass drum. But it worked, somehow!”
Bunker did, however, have a few drumming friends to call upon for advice when it came to the new double bass drum setup. “It was either learn how to play a bit or look a complete idiot every night, and I managed to do both!” he laughs. “But there were people like Carmine [Appice] from Vanilla Fudge. He was a good help on how to handle a double kit. And Keith Moon as well: he was really good with telling me not to overdo it. Just because youve got two of them, you dont have to play them all the time. Its better to leave it as a bit of extra power when you want to change gear.”
And as far as Bunkers original cobbled-together mix-and-match Tull drum kit goes, it also fell under the influence of a certain notorious drummer. “I did a Keith Moon with it in America somewhere!” says Bunker. “The first moment I knew we were gonna destroy it was when Glenn threw his bass through the bass drum and so I thought, Oh, alright, Ill finish this off in style! I just trashed it everywhere — it was like My Generation with a flute!”
Published in PM September 2009
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