Cozy Powell

Cozy Powell

by Robyn Flans

RF: How and when did you start playing drums?

CP: I started at school. I joined the school band, made a lot of noise, ended up breaking the snare drum and was asked to play the cymbals instead because the cymbals were a lot harder to break. That was 1961 or 1962 in a place called Cirencester located in the West country where I come from. I always played in local bands three or four nights a week until all hours of the morning, and I'd arrive at school late, so I was asked to leave school. I did what most musicians did at that time; I joined a band in Germany and played the circuit.

RF: Were there more opportunities in Germany?

CP: There was no opportunity at all, virtually, in England unless you were in a professional band and had been around for a while. The competition was so strong that you really had to go abroad if you were an amateur or up-and-coming musician. Hopefully, you would get better as you went on. Finally, if you had gotten the recognition, you could come back to England and do well, which is what I did. I spent three years over there.

RF: How old were you when you went over there?

CP: Sixteen.

RF: You weren't even legal. I remember hearing how George Harrison was deported because he hadn't yet turned of age.

CP: That's right. Fortunately, I was able to sneak in and out without their finding out, usually in the back of a van, underneath all the amps and stuff. The guys I was playing with were eighteen and nineteen. Although sixteen these days is not a big deal, in those days it was, especially playing the nightclubs, which have calmed down a bit since then. It was quite a weird scene, but it was an education.

RF: I understand the conditions were deplorable and the hours the musicians had to work were inhumane.

CP: We slept four of us in a room with an old boiler in the corner and rats running around. We didn't care; we were so happy to be playing. I think we were paid somewhere between 25 to 30 pounds a week and we worked eight hours a night. I know it sounds like, "Oh sure, these guys are joking," but it is true. If you wanted to be a musician in those days, you had to do that and use the most primitive equipment. I took a little job right after I left school just to earn some money to buy a kit. As soon as I had the money, off I was.

RF: Sometimes I think there was more dedication in those days. People were more interested in playing than in money.

CP: The competition was so strong and the chances of your making it were so remote that money wasn't an issue. Even if you did make it and had a hit record, you still wouldn't get any money because so many people were getting ripped off by various managers, agents, and all the sharks that were around at the time. In those days, it was just a case of loving your instrument, and you practiced, practiced, and practiced. That's all I did for four years solid.

RF: How did you practice?

CP: I taught myself to play. I would go to see all the other drummers who played in the circuit. I would go out to all the different clubs and watch every one of them because everybody, good or bad, has something to offer. Another drummer might do some little lick that is really good, and so I took everybody else's ideas. In the initial stage, I think everybody has to do that. I would listen to all the records. I would listen to the Buddy Rich stuff and the Louie Bellson stuff in the early days, but I didn't sit down and work out how they played. I just stole the ideas they had and the amount of power they had. I've always developed that kind of style in my playing as opposed to being a jazz player. I can play some jazz-style things, but not like someone who is brought up that way. I came up the English rock way, which is completely different. And I thought I would prefer to be known as an English rock drummer, rather than trying to start getting too clever. A lot of English drummers tend to, after a certain age get a bit snobby and start claiming they can do this and that. Without patronizing, American jazz musicians are so far ahead that we haven't got a chance.

RF: Who were some of the drummers you dug watching?

CP: In those days, the two who influenced me the most were Brian Bennett from the Shadows and Bobby Elliot from the Hollies. People would ask why I wasn't into Buddy Rich. I wasn't aiming to be Buddy Rich. I just wanted to be the best in my field, so I watched the drummers who I thought were the two top pop drummers at the time. And it was easy to see them because they were playing the circuit in England. I just watched them, listened to the way they played, and just developed from there.

I came back to England in about 1968. I think I went to Germany in about 1965 and I was there for about three years. By then, we had gone down from playing eight hours a night to just four and that was easy. So when I went back to England, the English music scene was happening. Hendrix had come over from America, then Cream and all that sort of stuff, and I started doing some sessions. I got an "in." The session scene in England then was such that you had to be "in" to get a session; you had to know somebody. I managed to wheedle my way in and a couple of people heard me and were impressed. Mickie Most was one of the producers who used me a lot, and I played on a lot of his records with various people.

RF: Did you enjoy doing sessions?

CP: I did because I was playing with all kinds of different people. I had learned the trade as far as playing the drums was concerned. I was still learning, but I had a very aggressive start, if you like, so if people wanted an aggressive drummer on an album, they'd book me. If they wanted a sort of straight, ordinary thing, they'd book one of the other drummers on the circuit. There were about eight of us who were doing a lot of the sessions in London at that time. So I'd do three or four sessions a day at different studios and I was making good money. Suddenly it went from nothing in Germany to a really good living.

RF: I would imagine that was very different from playing in bands.

CP: It was. I was sort of in and out of a lot of groups in those days so I was looking for the group to join, a bit like Simon Phillips does now. He does a lot of work for everybody and he's a great, in-demand player. At that time, I was not as in-demand as he is now, but pretty well booked.

RF: You didn't have to read for any of that?

CP: No. I could usually manage to get through a part. If there were a lot of time changes, I would try to work out what the part was, and if I really couldn't get it, I would let the band run through it while I'd be fixing a bass drum pedal. "Carry on lads. I'll be right with you." They'd play and I have a very good memory. Usually if I hear a track once, I can remember it. I'd be fixing this bass drum until the end of the tune. "Sorry about that. Shall we go again?" And that's the way I used to bullshit my way through sessions. I was never really dedicated enough to learn to read. There is a reason for that, because I don't think drummers should read. That may sound like a stupid statement, but you play drums from the heart. Go back to the days in Africa where people would communicate with drums. They weren't writing it all down. It was played. Drums should be felt. Drums are a rhythm thing that you can't write down. If you want all that sort of stuff, buy a LinnDrum, and then you'll have it all in time and all perfect. Drummers seem to be a dying breed at the moment because of all these machines, but they should just drive the band. They should play from the heart and if they're good, they will keep their jobs. If they're not, they'll be thrown out. Basically, it's as simple as that. That's what I think, anyway. So I didn't read. People didn't book me if they knew there was a lot of reading involved. I used to tell them, "There's no point. I can't do your piece justice. I would prefer that you just run through the tune once on the piano or give me an idea of the structure, and I'll put my little style onto your piece of music," which is how I got most of the stuff in the early days.

RF: Your solos are quite extensive. Can you tell me what you think makes a good solo?

CP: I've always had solos in the past, even back to the Jeff Beck days. I want the solo to be something that is very explosive and unforgettable. Although my technical expertise is minimal, I will probably be able to fool most of the people most of the time by what I do. It's not just a case of playing; it's a case of using every trick in the book.

RF: Can you reveal what some of those tricks are?

CP: Well, it's impossible to play the things you can play with an orchestra, so I use a tape of an orchestra as I play. In Rainbow, I used the 1812 Overture with the full Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. I would play to that, and there would be a lot of lights and effects. When you saw it, it seemed incredible. It was only me playing a drumkit, but when you get a sixty-six-piece orchestra, choir, a few bombs and smoke, it's unforgettable, whether you like drums or not. I've always tried to do a solo that's spectacular. In the Michael Schenker Group, I did a thing where I incorporated the 1812 Overture and a piece of music from the 633 Squadron, which is a war film about the planes bombing Norway, trying to get a nuclear plant the Germans have. It's a very famous piece of music and I would use the theme music in the set because it was very British. I'm now working on a new solo where I'm going to incorporate "Mars" from The Planets suite with a whole bunch of effects, maybe using lasers. It's not very long--maybe eight or nine minutes--but there are great effects. The riser moves and the whole thing. I did that in 1975 with Rainbow and it was the first time anybody actually moved on stage with a drumkit. I had one that went up in the air and out towards the audience. Then everybody started doing that. I got a lot of my ideas from Nick Mason, who did a thing with Pink Floyd. He was the first one I ever saw use lights when he played, and I thought it was a very good idea to have strobe lights around the bass drum. It was a very simple effect, but I thought I would expand that. Not everyone in the audience is going to be a drummer. So I like to have the element of surprise and do something a bit spectacular.

RF: So you feel that showmanship is very important.

CP: Yes, really important. When you're playing in a band, the showmanship is always going to come across, but you just hold it back a bit. When you have your chance and they say, "Take it away," you hit with everything you have, whatever it takes. I'm not saying that I am trying to disguise my playing, and that if I didn't use the effects I couldn't play. I can play, but I like to really get it across, and the sort of bands I've been playing in, fortunately, give me the time and the money to spend on all these theatrical effects. It seems to come off. Plus, I enjoy it.

RF: How have you maintained being such a nice, down-to-earth person having seen everything you've seen?

CP: Because I've been through most of the things you go through. Most of the bands who are superstars haven't been playing for that long or haven't had success for that long. I haven't had superstar status, but I've been in enough groups that have been popular. Jeff Beck was the most popular band I was with in the States, so the first tour of America I did was with Jeff. I was thrown into a situation with that kind of adulation and I've never been in that type of situation again. Most of the people I know in the business who have been through it for a long time are nice people. You couldn't wish for a nicer man than John Lord, our keyboard player. He's an absolute gentleman. People who have been around for a long time haven't any need to show off anymore. Maybe, as you get older, you suddenly realize there is no point to showing off. I'm sure most kids, if they do go through a phase like that, will come out of it and realize they've been a bit of an idiot. Then they'll calm down.