ZigZag No.72, May 1977, page 12:
Down and up in Frisco and London...the fairytale story of Clover's dramatic reemergence from the rock'n'roll dumper...the story they couldn't censor - it's shocking but true!!
Which is just as well from Clover's point of view, because they've been there for most of the last decade, and the last six years of that have been spent in virtual dry dock, waiting for the contacts and the contracts which would let them set sail again.
"They were lean and hungry years", says John McFee, their hotshot multiinstrumentalist, a trifle ruefully. "We just kept playing, and made our money mainly from doing live work and studio session work. We did a lot of radio and TV commercials, and a couple of film soundtracks...things you would never recognise as Clover".
The films were 'Payday', a film about the seamy side of country music with Rip Torn, where Clover shared the soundtrack with Area Code 615, and another one which was shot in Israel, whose name they can't remember. Both these gigs were acquired through Ed Bogas, who might have been a rank amateur when he produced Clover's two Fantasy albums, but who soon developed into a big deal as an arranger and musical consultant in the fields of rock and film music.
Don't go getting the idea, though, that Clover were making a healthy living out of their music during those years. Despite the sessions they were getting, and despit the fact that they were working an average of four nights a week "from Seattle to San Diego" in various clubs, bars and occasional concert halls, they were invariably skint.
Mind you...they hadn't exactly helped their financial situation by expanding the line-up from four men to six after the termination of the Fantasy contract, anticipating that "if they were good enough to get one contract, they were certainly good enough to get another". Huey Louis, itinerant harp player and singer, joined in '71, and was soon followed by Sean Hopper on keyboards...whose previous job had been as the string bass player in a bluegrass band! (Trivia note for Tobler and his mates: Sean's best mate, one Phil Richardson, played banjo and fiddle in this same band, and is now with the mighty Norton Buffalo.) Anyway, Sean can tell us how tough it was:
"When your're playing the clubs, it's almost the same as being on the road...you still have the same equipment which eats money up. The truck and the gear took up almost every cent we made, and if you're playing the clubs it's hard to get very far beyond that situation, unless you're playing Top 40. We could have been making $600 a night...Top 40 bands over there make a lot of money, and there are a lot of them doing it very expertly, but it's pretty much the ditch digging job of music, and it just didn't appeal to us, so we never did it. So we didn't get as much money as those sort of bands, but then those kind of bands never really do anything".
Time after time, Clover apparently came within an ace of signing a new contract, but a combination of the vinyl shortage, executive cold feet, Clover's permanant management problems and their own refusal to sign anything shortterm, meant that nothing ever actually happened.
"Also", adds Sean, "we've always been considered an untypical sort of band in the States, not easily defined, and that's something the companies look for. They don't want to have any fears over what the marketing is, they want to know the target area...how many 13 year olds in each city are going to buy the album.
So since we didn't fit into any pigeon hole too well, we had to find someone with a little vision to make a step, and it just didn't happen. People would come close, and then not enough of them would agree on it".
Alex Call then chips in with a rather horrific explanation of something they have in the States called 'demographics', where apparently a cross section of record buyers have their reactions to a variety of music scientifically monitored so that the collated results will give the marketing men an idea of who any given band or artist is going to appeal to.
He tells me that there's a book called 'Starmaking Machinery' where all this is chronicled. It basically follows the fortunes of Commander Cody & The Lost Planet Airmen over a period of months to demonstrate how the wheels of the music business turn...or rather grind.
It seems that Cody's last single, ('Don't Let Go' from the live double, if memory serves me well) was getting extensive airplay on KHJ, one of the big LA stations, and was all set to spread to the big East Coast stations and smaller ones all over the country, thus virtually guaranteeing them a much-needed hit.
Unfortunately a new guy took over the running of KHJ at this point, and as a token demonstration of his omnipotence, he took the single off the playlist.
So...nobody else bothered to play it, sales of the single stopped, sales of the album dropped off, and when a demograhpic finding showed that the Airmen appealed primarily to an Over 25 male audience (not a major market), that was it...Warners don't want to know, Cody is consigned to the dumper, and shortly afterwards the band breaks up.
Clover have suffered a lot of that kind of extraneous crap during their ten years together, and not surprinsingly, their attidude towards the music business is a little jaundiced.
During those years in the wilderness, the only thing that kept Clover's name before a wider puplic was the fact that McFee kept cropping up as a sideman on some pretty damned prestigious albums: Van Morrision's 'Tupelo Honey' and 'St.Dominic's Preview', Boz Scaggs' 'Moments', and Steve Miller's 'Fly Like An Eagle', for instance, as well as stuff like the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils' 'What The Kids Want'.
Not surprisingly, he also got asked to join some fairly impressive tour bands. Morrison, Scaggs and Gregg Allman all asked him to go on the road with them, and it's proof of his faith in Clover (or evidence of certifiable lunacy, depending on how you look at it) that John politely declined all such offers.
"There were times when I didn't have enough money to eat, and it got pretty tempting to go where I could instantly be making ten times as much money. But I always felt really strongly about Clover, plus it's also a moral issue, because I feel almost angry at the world. I know what's good and what isn't, and I've always felt that we're as good as anything that's happening. I'm not going to put anybody down, but I've always believed in us very strongly, and it disturbs me that we've got so little recognition for so long. There are a lot of people that I almost hold grudges against. There's a lot of this business of 'Hi, it's good to see you' when you're doing well...there's a lot of hypocrisy. The music business is just as sick as Hollywood in the 30s".
To keep body and soul together, the various Clovers were forced to do other work too. Huey has a natural foods distribution company; Alex had a job with his girlfriend's father's firm; and of course John spent some time gardening for Keith Knudsen. (Oh the bitter irony...one of the finest steel players on the planet, reduced to gardening for The Doobie Brothers' second drummer!)
It's further tribute to the band's spirit and resilience that through all the hassles, hardships and disappointments, the only split in the ranks was when Mitch Howie, who had drummed on the Fantasy albums, left about four years ago. He was succeeded by a number of percussionists - including Marcus Grossman, a well known player round the Bay Area, and Kirk Harwood, who's also with Norton Buffalo now - before Micky Shine came to stay in '75.
The influence of the new members, and the band's gradual evolution meant that the Clover sound had changed radically between '70 and '76. Those of you fortunate enough to own either of the Fantasy albums - 'Clover' (Fantasy 8395) and 'Fourty Niner' (8405) - will know that they basically come under the 'country rock' banner, whereas the music Clover make now is drawn from a much wider range of sources.
"When we made our first albums we were going through a stage, really", explains John. "They were country influenced, but before those albums we'd gone through a stage where we were very R&B. Part of the sound now is certainly Huey and Sean. Sean's keyboard playing is into some pretty sophisticated things more generally associated with R&B and jazz; and Huey's vocal style is very definitely pretty black. His main love musically is blues and soul...there aren't many harp players who are totally oblivious to black music.
"The music we listen to is enormously varied, and some of it is involved in the act and some of it isn't so much, but we thought it was ridiculous just to concentrate on one little corner of it. You can strengthen the music by drawing from all those sources".
"You can be diverse to your detriment", adds Alex. "I've seen bands that play completely diametrically opposed styles of music, but we've blended them. People might understand better if we did just play one style and then another, and then they could say whether they like it or not, but the style we've evolved...until something has a label, people aren't sure whether it's cool or not, and let's face it - people are sheep. Of course, in earlier times our material had a lot wider spread, but over the last couple of years it has definitely grown into our own sound. Anyone who can play with Roy Rogers & The Sons Of The Pioneers, which we did last year, and The Stylistics, who we did a couple of dates with just recently, and Thin Lizzy..."
When the break eventually came, it was from a most unexpected quarter. The story of how Dr. Feelgood, accompanied by Nick Lowe and then-tourmanager Jake Riviera, chanced upon Clover during their American visit in Febuary '76 has been covered first hand by Cal Worthington in ZZ 62, so I won't bore you with a rehash. Suffice it to say that when he returned to England, Jake and his new management partner Dave Robinson hijacked Phonogram's A&R person Nigel Grainger and flew him to San Francisco, where he saw Clover, liked it, and offered them the sort of long term deal they'd been waiting for.
So almost before they'd had time to put their belongings in storage and say goodbye to their friends, Clover found themselves on a plane to England with new management, and a new record company.
Almost inevitably, the transition didn't go quite as smoothly as that. The speed of Clover's arrival had outstripped the grasp of red tape, so they turned up at Heathrow without the necessary papers from the Musicians Union, who have a rather irritating band-for-band arrangement with their American colleagues which governs who can and can't work, and when they can or can't do it.
As they let it slip to officials that they were a band coming in to play gigs, Clover were held up for hours and threatened with being sent back to the States, until the good Jake managed to round up the relevant authorization.
"I was almost in tears", John recalls. "I was out of my mind. I'd been up all night and fasting, and I was a little too sensitive for that sort of scene. To go back after all that...I didn't have a cent, I wouldn't have been able to get my stuff out of storage".
Once in the country, however, things have gone just fine. Tours with Linda Lewis, Thin Lizzy and Lynyrd Skynyrd and innumerable college and pub gigs have kept Clover working almost constantly since their UK debut at The Roundhouse on September 12th last year. In between they've squeezed the time to record the single 'Chicken Funk' with Nick Lowe, and their fine album, 'Unavailable' (Vertigo 6360 145), with Phonogram's wunderkind producer, Robert John 'Mutt' Lange.
"Nick was going to do the album, and he really wanted to do it with us, but he felt that from what he'd seen of Mutt, he'd be the best person to do us. Nick's way of working in the studio is very spontaneous and inspired, but he felt that we'd never really had time to work in the studio, and Mutt knows how to us use that time. He really knows how to produce and album rather than just record it. We would have had a great time doing it with Nick, but ultimately I think we needed that professional perfection, especailly since we really lacked that on the first album".
Whereas the Fantasy albums had some great songs and good playing on them, they did suffer from a dreadful production - especially 'Clover' - but on 'Unavailable' there's a whole bunch of excellent songs and a good sound. Some of the playing sounds just a mite hesitant - perhaps a result of the extra care taken in the studio - but it's an admirable return to black vinyl, and one of which Clover are jusstifiably proud.
"We're pretty pleased with it", says John. "It's actually the first album that we've been able to listen to after the first couple of weeks. That first album cost $1000 to make, and the facilities we did it on... you wouldn't believe it. The second album took a bit longer, but not much.
We didn't know what we were doing...we didn't know any better, and I seriously think we were used as a tax write-off. Fantasy were making to much money from Creedence that it was in their interest to get rid of some of it. They had a couple of other bands - Alice Stuart and Redwing - who both made good records that never did anything".
"The week our second album came out", adds Alex, "it was put on the KSAN playlist in San Francisco, which is real prestigious. But Fantasy just said 'Well, we'll wait and see what happens'...they never really released it. It sold a few thousand copies in the Bay Area and surrounding counties, and that was it. They weren't willing to pay any money to help us tour either. Bill Graham was going to put us on a tour and they wouldn't put up any money...all it needed was 5000 bucks or something".
In marked contrast to Fantasy's miserliness, Phonogram have obviously been very open-handed in helping Clover get on the road, supporting them while they're over here, and giving them advertising back-up, (though, as the band themselves acknowledge, it's the time before the sales figures start coming through that are the easiest for company/artist relationships).
In return, Clover have worked hard, long and effectively, and given them a very marketable album under their own name, as well as providing the backing (as they used to say on Juke Box Jury) for Twiggy's very listenable 'Please Get My Name Right' album, which features a great version of Alex's 'I Lie Awake And Dream Of You'.
Unlike most of the songs on their album, 'I Lie Awake...' was written over here. With the natural exception of 'Streets Of London', the rest were written during the long hiatus in Mill Valley, and that's where Clover have returned, to take a break and write new material for their next album, which will be recorded when they return here in about July.
They'll also be touring extensively through Britain again, and it looks as if for once an American band is going to be more or less settled in the UK, which makes a pleasant change. Clover might not be making as much money as Foghat or Rod Stewart, but I think we're getting the better end of the deal from the musical point of view.
Paul Kendall (Editor)
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