The man from Mountain

Corky Laing, drummer extraordinaire, talks to Dave Woodhall.

Corky Laing is one of the great cult heroes of the music business. With the band Mountain he was making heavy metal classics before the term was coined and almost fifty years later his solo tour includes a date at the Robin 2 on 15th October. Before then he talked, and sometimes I asked a question. It’s rare that you get the chance to listen to someone who is still so passionate about his craft, so open and so enthusiastic.

“You have a great area for music. I was talking to Bill Ward not long ago and he was saying about what a great place for rock music Birmingham and the surrounding area has always been. The sound and the feel of the industry of that area influenced the music and I’m looking forward to playing there again.”

Remember that it’s Bilston, not Birmingham you’re playing. The audience might get upset otherwise.

“Absolutely. They don’t like being called Birmingham, right? It’s Bilston. Bilston. We’ve played Birmingham many times over the years but I’m not sure we ever played either of the Robins. I’m not schmoozing but it’s a great area for rock. It’s like in America, you got the rock belt where you got places where the music is strong. I’ve been very fortunate in terms of being in the right places at the right time in the right era. My dad’s from Birmingham and my brother Steve, he loves coming to the UK every year so there’s a connection there.

“I used to shop at Granny Takes a Trip which was the shop of the era, and I dressed very English so a lot of people thought I was from the UK, they’d talk about this New York band who had an English drummer and i had to say that no, I was from Canada. But England is very close to my heart. Of course, when we first started Felix had just been producing Cream, so we were to a certain extent based in the UK. We were on Island and we got friendly with all the Island bands like Free, Steve Winwood and Traffic.

“When I was touring with Mountain I was never able to say anything because I was at the back, I had the best seat in the house, and the view was wonderful. Now I set up to the side so I can watch the rest of the band. I have Chris Shutters on guitar, the bass payer is Mark Mikel and I know it sounds like I’m hyping these guys but they’re right up where with the very best I’ve ever played with.

We’re playing some Mountain, some West, Bruce & Laing and some original. We’re fortunate to have repertoire that people have listened to and remember. We have no number one hits but people show up and listen to these songs forty, fifty years later and it’s wonderful. The reason I bring up these musician is is the way they play. They take the music I’m proud of and they can make the songs sound fresh.

“I’m lucky that people still come out to listen to these songs and I try to make them sound as they were recorded. When we were on the road we didn’t respect material as much as we should because we played it so much, so wed hog and jam on things to the extent the songs couldn’t be recognised.

“It happens with a lot of bands, they change things round a lot to freshen them up a bit. You maybe don’t want to sound like the Eagles but you do want to understand the melody so that after the show people didn’t ask if you played the songs. The audience come to hear what they heard on the record but when I was playing with Jack Bruce for example, sometimes even I didn’t recognise the songs and I was playing them.

“Now, do you want to ask a question?”

Thanks. Over the years you’ve played with some legends. Jack Bruce, Leslie West, Paul Rodgers, Ian Hunter….

“There’s an album out on vinyl called Pompeii, which is a limited edition of songs I wrote with guys like Ian Hunter, Todd Rundgren, Mick Ronson. It’s out under the umbrella of Third Man Records, which is Jack White’s label.

“The owner of the company had a song that I recorded way back, his name is Jason Hartless, I used to teach him drums and and he’s playing with Ted Nugent now. He started this company with Jack White and he loved this song way back in the seventies called Growing Old With Rock’n’Roll. I couldn’t convince Jack and Leslie to record it but I put it on my solo album and Jason remembered it from when I was teaching him to play drums.

“Over the years the songs that are now on Pompeii were recorded properly and they sounded pretty good so it came out on vinyl. It was called Secret Sessions when it came out in America because nobody ever heard it, so Jason put it together and a limited edition is on vinyl.

“Yes, I’ve been lucky to play with different people. I was in London in the early seventies when a lot of bands were coming together. When Mountain disbanded in 1972,73, Leslie and I went into Island and we jammed with Overend Watts, Paul Rodgers, Mick Ralphs and we recorded some songs. Leslie, Paul, Overend, we were in the studio and Jack Bruce came along and we were going to put a band together. But Paul and Mick go off to form Bad Company, Leslie wanted to play with Jack, he wanted to be the solo guy in a supergroup so West, Bruce & Laing came into being. I hated that sort of thing but that’s the way musicians were recognised at the time.”

Is there anyone you missed out that you would have wanted to play with?

“Elvis Presley. On stage Elvis had moves that would have been so much fun to accent, with punches on the cymbals and the drums. He did all these choreographed moves, stuff like the ninjas, stressing his hands and doing the punches. The music and the way he performed on stage, that would have been a lot of fun. Dylan as well, but he didn’t have any songs that were really drum-orientated. Do you have any more questions?”

Just the one. It must have been strange to see Nantucket Sleighride become so well-known on the back of a politics show.

“It was amazing. We heard about it on tour with Deep Purple. We were going to build up the production for Mississippi Queen, which was our big number, to compete with them so we had the biggest cowbell in the word, eight feet tall and we had it shipped over from New Jersey, this big black cowbell. It got no response at all, because Mississippi Queen wasn’t well-known in Britain.

“But it freaked us out when we got such a response to Nantucket Sleighride, especially the fast part with the crashing cymbals. Then Ritchie Blackmore came over and said people didn’t recognise the cowbell because it was black and cowbells in Europe are gold. We painted the cowbell gold, and when we rolled it out on stage the audience flipped out over it.

“But to answer your question, it was wonderful, it was as wonderful as when they put Mississippi Queen on Guitar Hero. It’s all rock, you know. And it was good for the royalties as well. It was one of those windfalls that worked out, and I guarantee that when we play Nantucket Sleighride, you’ll recognise the song. You won’t listen to it and wonder what these guys are smoking.

“I love these gigs, there’s an intimacy that really works and if I didn’t talk so much I could practice more. I’m still very enthusiastic about the music.”

You don’t say. Corky Laing plays the Robin 2 on Monday 15th October. Tickets