Unsung Figures No.8: Chris Spedding

In the latest edition of our series looking at under-appreciated artists from the world of music we profile a British guitarist and singer more famous for his session work than his own records.

You may not have heard of Chris Spedding but if you’ve been a music lover for some time chances are you will have heard him play. You may have even heard ‘Motor Bikin” – the closest thing he ever had to a hit – pop up on driving compilations or golden oldies stations. Having worked as a gun-for-hire with Paul McCartney, Nilsson, Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry, Elton John, Joan Armatrading, Ginger Baker, and Tom Waits to name but a few, his reputation amongst musicians is second-to-none. A guitarist capable of playing in seemingly any style you want, he’s proved himself to be an invaluable go-to man.

His solo career tells a somewhat less successful story. He has released some fourteen studio albums without leaving even the slightest trace on the charts anywhere, and at age 71 is still a working musician, still releasing records (his most recent Joyland came out last year), and maybe hoping a few more people might start taking notice of him than have thus far.

Chris Spedding was born Peter Robinson on the 17th of June, 1944 to his mother Edith Robinson, a married secretary who had fallen pregnant after a brief, intense fling with Royal Australian Air Force Flying Officer Cedric Gordon “Jack” White. White, who was of course fighting in WWII, tragically lost his life before he ever found out Edith was pregnant. At the age of just 3 months Peter was given up for adoption, becoming the son of Jack and Muriel Spedding who renamed him Christopher John.

His first foray in to music was being forced in to violin lessons when he was 9. Despite showing a natural aptitude for music this did little but instil a loathing of both the violin and classical music in him. By the time he was 13 rock n’ roll had kicked in and Spedding had his sights firmly fixed on becoming a guitarist, first attempting unsuccessfully to make his own guitar before eventually picking up a cheap acoustic. Despite his parent’s dissaproving of his taste in music they eventually bought him his first electric guitar, minus an amp, for his 15th birthday.

His first band was The Vulcans, formed with schoolfriends, although they never amounted to much. After school that he would move to London, start working in a record shop in the West End, and through contacts he made there start playing in his first proper band, a C&W outfit called Bill Jordan & the Country Boys.

Through the 1960’s Spedding would pass through various bands whilst also building a reputation as a session musician. In 1968 he joined Pete Brown and the Battered Ornaments, and the following year they signed to EMI’s Harvest label (then home to Pink Floyd amongst others) and set about recording. However, Pete Brown’s relatively weak vocals were shown to be wholly inadequate under the microscopic glare of the studio, and he was subsequently fired with Spedding taking over. As he would later explain “The vocals were so bad, so terrible. so we fired him. Nobody else in the band sings. So I sang. And it’s in the wrong key for me, too high for me. But I sang anyway because I knew if I didn’t sing on those tracks, the record wouldn’t come out.”

Around this time he also started playing jazz with  both the Frank Ricotti Quartet and Nucleus, as well as releasing his instrumental 1970 debut album, the very jazzy Songs Without Words. It was during the early 70’s that his reputation as a gun-for-hire, capable of playing just about any style demanded of him, really grew and he would work with, amongst others, Jack Bruce, Harry Nillson, Elton John, Art Garfunkel, Shirley Bassey, Gilbert O’Sullivan Roy Harper, and Mike Batt (playing in Batt’s novelty band The Wombles, taken from the kids TV show of the same name). From 1972 through to 1974 Spedding played with Sharks, a band he formed with ex-Free bassist Andy Fraser. Sharks recorded two albums and toured with Roxy Music but never really established themselves, eventually petering out.

And then in 1975 something happened – Chris Spedding had a hit record. Reaching no.14 on th UK charts, the Mickie Most produced ‘Motor Bikin” saw Spedding appearing on Top Of The Pops (see above) and as he told one journalist at the time was part of an attempt to finally establish himself as a solo artist – “It’s time to step out. I’m much more sure of what I’m doing. I’ve made about all the mistakes it’s possible to make. I’ve consolidated it. This is a conscious attempt to start a career under my own name, to have some hit singles that will establish a Chris Spedding Sound, so that when I form a group people will know what to expect.”

However, Spedding’s new found independence would prove to be fleeting. This may have been in part because he didn’t really dedicate himself to a solo career in the way that he should. Proof of this exists in the fact that he spent most of 1975 touring with John Cale as his guitarist, as well as working with Roy Harper in the studio. There may have been many reasons for this but it doesn’t point to someone hell bent on standing on his own two feet. later that year an eponymous album – his fifth – was released, but despite including his top 20 hit sales were modest.

Further solo albums would follow, 3 more before the end of the decade, and yet it is through his association with other artists that he would continue to be noted, such as a young band called the Sex Pistols who, through his acquaintance with Malcolm McLaren via his clothes shop he would be called upon to produce their first demos. Later on, rumours would spread that he played all the guitars on their album Never Mind The Bollocks… but these would prove to be utterly false. Around this time Spedding was supported on some solo dates by another punk band, The Vibrators.

Later on, in 1978, he woud play on Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds lp, before moving to New York where he woud work with rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon. In to the 80’s and beyond he would continue to release solo albums whilst his collaborative work included recording with Joan Armatrading, Roger Daltrey, and Nina Hagen, as well as appearing on Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs album, and appearing on both the film and album of Paul McCartney’s magnificently awful Give My Regards To Broad Street.

To date, there have been some 13 solo albums (plus 3 live ones), the most recent being 2015’s Joyland which featured collaborations with Glen Matlock, Johnny Marr, Bryan Ferry and the actor Ian McShane (he of Lovejoy and Game Of Thrones). It’s a very decent record for a man in his 70’s to be releasing, and his sublime guitar work is on show throughout. It got good reviews too, but I bet you haven’t heard it.

Chris Spedding is the best kept open secret in the music business. As music fans you will have undoubtedly heard him at some point, yet not realised for one second it was him, and whilst you could argue (and I guess including him in this series means I’m doing so) that he deserves much wider recognition the fact is that he’s squeezed more in to his career than most people would in to three or four. Some British musicians get called ‘national treasures’; Chris Spedding is hidden treasure, there to be uncovered by those willing to dig a little, and there’s plenty of worse things to be in the world than that.

 

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