THE VAUDEVILLIAN ACTING GUITAR HERO
Well once in a while an interview takes place and it is not until you have completed it that the gravity of it hits you and here is one such case. Now, SAHB are seminal for many, many reasons. They are still adored the world over and they still sound as bright and vital as ever so, to celebrate that fact today joining us we have the one, the only Zal Cleminson!
Hi Zal, firstly many thanks for granting us your time today it is a real thrill for me, and I know all the readers of the site will love it too! OK so first things first where did your nickname of "Zal" come from? You were born Alistair MacDonald Cleminson so is Zal just a Scottish abbreviation for Alistair or did it come from somewhere else? Also is MacDonald your middle name or is it a double-barrelled name I.e., each of your parents last names?
Zal Cleminson ; The name Zal was suggested by our singer Dave Batchelor (Tear Gas), claiming it was inspired by Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin’ Spoonful. I liked the idea. More enigmatic than Alistair. When in SAHB, I made up a story the name was Hungarian, that my parents had fled the country with a circus and came to Scotland. Even more enigmatic. Yes, MacDonald is my middle name - from the clan MacDonald on my mother’s side. My father is English.
Tear Gas. From left to right; Dave Batchelor, Wullie Munro, Chris Glen, Zal and Eddie Campbell.
I knew there was a story there and I think this maybe also was the birth of your theatrical identity. OK so we know of the story of Tear Gas and the meeting with Alex and then you turning into the SAHB but I want to go a little deeper into the development of your identity on stage and off.
SAHB as Gangsters......
So, on the back of SAHB's first release "Framed"(more of which later) you were in in full street gang mode image wise and then on the second release "Next"(much more of which later) your famous face paint was in place.
SAHB as "Matt"sters
So, before we get to that point in your timeline can you give us a little insight into the brain of Zal prior to SAHB? Where and when did you become interested in the theatrical side of things? Can you pinpoint a time or certain event that caught your imagination?
Z . C. ; At an early age, in the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, I first heard and saw the likes of Elvis Presley, Bill Hayley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent. It wasn’t hard to appreciate the energy of the music and just as influentially, the excitement of the performance. Perhaps this early introduction to the theatrical side of rock and roll grew with me into my own career. Prior to SAHB, I started a band at school - The Bo Weevils; our early influences were many of the black, American soul and R&B groups such as The Temptations and The Four Tops. Again, there was a style of performance that was highly polished and very visual. When we morphed into Tear Gas, the whole thing had shifted away from the overt, stylised performer into a much more moody, introspective, serious musician mindset. When Alex first saw Tear Gas, I think he sensed the latent showman in me and encouraged the whole band to develop and expand on the visual side of the performance. It was a natural step that I adopted. As a guitarist I have always had a curious, idiosyncratic idea of the guitar hero. It amused me to see guitar players agonise and pose their way through angst-ridden solos. I enjoyed aping them and took a sarcastic liberty. It was decided that this ‘gift’ could be exploited by using a mime face to further exaggerate the performance. It worked well and became a bit of a trademark.
Yes indeed it did and from that early styling and performance then through to Tear Gas it was almost like putting the phoenix back into the ashes as opposed to the phoenix rising from them but, as they say, "talent will out" and indeed it did, and you went back to the art of performance. OK so your inner character that Alex saw not only jumped to the fore you did indeed take it to the next level. So, you opted for the "mine" make up what made you pick that particular style for your character? I mean this would have been the early 70s and make up and performance were "rigueur du jour" well, at least here in the UK so where you influenced by what was going around at the time either in a good way or did you want to steer clear of that because I mean when I think of you and SAHB I think more Screaming Jay Hawkins, Screaming Lord Sutch, Arthur Brown and maybe early Alice Cooper as opposed to Sweet, Bolan etc all?
Z . C . ; Your question highlights a point of view I have expressed on a number of occasions. Regardless of the theatrics and the continued pressure for commercial success, I viewed the ‘competition’ musically, at the time, not to be Sweet or Mud or heaven forbid, Gary Glitter, but rather Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Deep Purple. SAHB became, for me, a conflicted entity, where musical integrity suffered for the sake of a commercial ‘hit’. As a result, I honestly believe that the band lost (confused) a large number of mainstream rock fans. At the same time Alex was aware of not being categorised as ‘glam rock’, but rather insisted that the band had a more ‘matt’, vaudevillian appearance. Again, the mime face is very much in this tradition.
Absolutely I just wanted that on the record here for people to really get into the whole mindset and vibe behind SAHB. It was not singles and bacofoil it was truly a much deeper, darker, and eccentric place to be and even though the "normal rock fans" didn't get it so many other people did and took you to their hearts and that is why we are still talking about it today. OK "mime" make up was on but what was the thinking behind the famous green outfit you wore. Were the colours on purpose to steer away from the almost uniform black and blue denim colours of the time? Also, you recently auctioned the costume off for charity didn't you?
Z . C . ; The stage costumes were designed and made by a young, female designer from Newcastle. I have no idea how she became involved - I think she may have seen the band in Newcastle and offered her services. As green was my favourite colour at the time, two costumes were designed, both of which are on record in pictures. The second suit became the trademark look and was entirely her creation. I supplied the green tights and had the wedge-soled sandals custom made. The suit was indeed sold at auction. However, I still have an original duplicate stashed away somewhere.
That's great insight there for such an iconic piece of costume and so great you have a duplicate stashed away, talking of which did keep anything else from your time in the band?
Z . C . ; I have or had some pieces of memorabilia. They seem to have disappeared over time or have been given away for charity. I recently sold my original Marshall amp to a guy in France. Proceeds going to Orphans of the Ash project.
I am sure the things will turn up at some point and it must be kinda nice in a way that bits of you are or could be all around the world for the fans to enjoy.
OK so we have done the image so let's move on to the music and in turn the performance. OK before we go into a few of my favourite songs let's go into the workings of SAHB. So, it is well known that the first track you played with Alex was the classic "Midnight Moses". Now you said Alex came in with the riff and you played the "shit" out of it, however , let's get into the song writing and workings of the band. You said Alex came in with the riff, did he just have the riff, or did he have the song in full? Also, when it came to song writing whatever it says on the records how did it actually work? Alex always had the idea then you and the band worked on it or something else? Please if you will take us into that process
Z . C . ; The “Framed” album took a weekend to record. It was all songs that Alex brought with him. We had rehearsed beforehand, and the album was recorded more or less live. As things progressed, Alex and Hugh began to collaborate more and often wrote together alone. While the band rehearsed these new ideas, I felt encouraged to provide the rock elements needed to boost the energy and power in songs like “Faith Healer” and “Vambo Marble Eye”. In “Complements to the Chef” and “Dance to your Daddy” etc… certain guitar riffs have also influenced the finished songs. Over time the band had much more freedom to create the musical backdrop with Alex providing only the lyrics. One thing that stands out when listening to SAHB is the blend of guitar and keyboards - a typical feature of the music at that time. Solos are often exchanged, and this is what I think gave the band its Jazz and Prog Rock flavour. Towards the end, as both Hugh and Alex struggled with health issues, the collaborations became less productive and the discipline and leadership that Alex had shown started to lose its impact. “Rock Drill” is a perfect example of the ambivalence surrounding the bands future. The song “The Dolphins”, for example, was written by Hugh and Alex, but recorded with Tommy Eyre on keyboards due to Hugh’s illness. It is still my favourite SAHB track.
OK that makes it all pretty clear thanks for that. Before we move on could I go a little into the business side of the band. Was it just Alex that was signed to the label and you were his band employees or were you all signed to the label? Also, what was the management deal with you? All of you were both signed to the same management company before getting together with Alex so were the terms changed after the combining of both of your forces? Also, I remember you saying when it all ended you had a bill for seventy-five grand thrust into your hands...so please take us into the business side of things and shine some light on the maybe a little shady territory there
Z . C . ; We (Tear Gas) we’re offered £100/week each at the start, which rose to £200 through to the end. Considering some of us were getting £5/week on the dole at that time, it seemed like a good idea. From what I now know, it appears that it was Alex who was signed to the record company and to the management company. I think at one point I was offered a share of royalties, which I refused because it would mean a loss of weekly earnings. After Bill’s death, the management company fell apart; accounts were never presented and eventually Mountain Management went into liquidation. Attempts were made by each member of the band (not Alex), to get some clarification but it never happened. It took thirty years or more before we finally received royalties from the SAHB catalogue. Today, most sensible observers would decide that the band had been badly mismanaged.
Great insight again Zal many people including me didn't know what the business side was so thanks and to turn down royalties was a brave decision I am sure, and mismanagement was clearly the case. Just to clarify how did you end up getting your overdue royalties, if you wish to share that is and what kind of sums are we talking? Also did you or do you still hold a grudge against them for all their mistakes?
Z . C . ; Royalties became payable when Universal took over the SAHB catalogue. The sums are small enough to be irrelevant…
OK are they on-going payments or was it a one-off back payment?
Z . C . ; Payments are ongoing, twice a year…
Talking of royalties, you know with all the remasters and repackaging do you have any say in what or what isn't produced under the SAHB name?
Z . C . ; Not really. Universal hold all the rights…
Oh, so maybe some input then and at least there is some reward there for you. OK now let us talk a few of my favourite tracks. First up, maybe no surprise is "Faith Healer". Now the tag "atmospheric" really doesn't do it justice! There is nothing not to love on this track. I really love the finger picking intro guitar, just like icicles down the spine could you take us into this song and your input and feelings on the track?
Z . C . ; Alex and Hugh wrote the song, which was based on the Temptations, “Ball of Confusion” - I think. When we came to rehearse it, I added the iconic power chords that give the song its rock edge. The live version is much simpler and heavier.
That little "Zal magic" right there. OK next "Last Of The Teenage Idols" such a sweet start then into what would influence the whole nwobhm rock section and then to an almost fifties ballad where Alex tells is young self-story. Was that brought in as a whole or was it you that came up with the rock section? Takes us to that track please
Z . C . ; The opening riff I had in the locker from Tear Gas ideas. Again, the mood is heavier, which gives Alex the right platform to really get inside the lyric with a degree of menace. The rest of the arrangement is Hugh adding a bit of boogie piano and, as you say, the ending is pure pastiche.
OK next up would be "Swampsnake". Again, love this track and I know you weren't singles band. Indeed, but as "Boston Tea Party" is pure genius, "Giddy up..." wasn't and "Delilah" was just a vehicle for the stage dancing even though they were both singles, no doubt picked by the management? I still think to this day "Swampsnake" would have made a fantastic single that the band, the label, and the public could grasp onto as an intro to the world of SAHB. So, tell us about this one and was it indeed put forward as a single?
Z . C . ; Swampsnake was written mainly by Hugh and Alex. I added some Wah guitar. It’s a cool track…
"Gamblin Bar Room Blues". Great track again what about this track and was it written as a vehicle for the live performance you did with it?
Z . C . ; It was one of those tracks that appealed to Alex - redolent of his bluesy roots. It never meant much to me personally. The theatrics, however, offered a moment of indulgence.
So, let's get into the performance you and Alex are the key players for sure so, take us into the head space that was created in
Z . C . ; Alex and I learned quite quickly that there was a natural dynamic between us. We each had a tendency to grab the spotlight, to upstage one another, which created a very visual, theatrical double act that both of us over-played to great effect. We operated like a pair of pantomime villains - or should that be dames!!!
Ha-ha! Both ha-ha! Talking of the dynamics who came up with the idea that you, Alex and Chris should have your boots on the monitors at the same time in "Midnight Moses" that was quite an aggressive stature for you (and every rock band since) all yeah?
Z . C . ; That was Alex’s idea. He likened us to a cohort, he was the spearhead.
Now you considered yourselves in the same vein as the harder bands at the time especially Zeppelin. One track that has not only a killer riff but also a Zeppelin inspired one was the track "Snakebite" it seems to me the vocals were made around the riff is this right?
Z . C . ; Yes, you would be correct. I came up with the riff and Alex jumped on it. I especially like the solo - I was on my knees in front of my Marshall cabinet, controlling the feedback. Nice noise…
Oh yes we can only imagine the controlled chaos of that solo in that room so thanks for taking us in there. OK next up is "Rock n Rool". I know you said that the second side of that album (Rock Drill) you could feel the spirit of SAHB leave the room, but this is track three (more about track two next) and I love it! The lyrics are nasty, spacey, and gritty and the music is well, let's face it, the blueprint for eighties hard rock U.K and stateside. Even though this is a slight departure from SAHB of the past it nodded to the future of hard rock. Take us if you will into this track.
Z . C . ; “Rock & Rool” is a bit of a composite track. While recording the “Rock Drill” album, Alex had been influenced by the music of an ancient Persian tribe known as the Booids. They used pipes and drums, and the sound and the scales we used throughout the album to create a slightly Eastern mood. You can hear it with the guitar on “Rock & Rool”. I wish the guitar riff had been truly heavy - ironically, it’s all a bit too controlled.
Oh why "too" controlled? Record company or management input? Also have you ever revisited the riff and "heavied" it up?
Z . C . ; Throughout SAHB’s recording history, the production has always been, for me, what lets the band down. It was never mainstream enough; pure heavy rock. I’m not sure who or what is to blame. Academic now.
Well maybe it is but, those recordings still stand up and sound as fresh to me as ever. Maybe different times called for different measures but, as you say it's academic now. OK next up is your favourite track of the SAHB "The Dolphins ". Definitely the most Zeppelin track with its riffage but also an underlining caring message. Take us back to this track, the history but also why it is your favourite track.
Z .C . ; “The Dolphins” is part of the Rock Drill Suite. The opening theme was written by Hugh shortly before he left the band due to Ill health. It has a beautiful, bluesy, jazz flavour. Again, it was my job to add the heavier rock riffs and solo lines, which highlight the bands further move into jazz/fusion, for which much credit must go to Tommy Eyre. The song builds beautifully and, for me, displays the bands maturing musicianship.
I and indeed we all hear that. Who knows where SAHB would have ended up musically? We the fans can only have "The Impossible Dream" of that? There was not only Tommy in the mix but also the Frank Zappa influence too and also the band had been through so much it must have been a crazy and unsettling time for you all. Last track I want to discuss is indeed the last track on the last album, "Mrs Blackhouse". I love this song as to me it has the core of the SAHB song writing plus all that sardonic wit and an underlying very dark lyric. To send something up you must have a knowledge of the said subject to do it well like SAHB always did do. Also, with this track and many other tracks in the catalogue they have a religious undertone. Take us into this track and the feeling of it all falling apart and was religion a constant for just Alex or for you all?
Z . C . ; Mrs Blackhouse was a reaction to the campaigner, Mary Whitehouse, who proposed all kinds of draconian legislation in the seventies. It’s a protest song, supporting freedom of speech and freedom of choice. Alex was a pacifist at heart, a conscientious objector at the time of Korean War. Ted and I were (and I still am) militant atheists; I don’t know if Alex was - he certainly had an enlightened view of the world. His views on the planet and ecology are very evident throughout SAHB’s music.
I thought it may be aimed at that narrow-minded woman also great insight into the workings again of SAHB. OK onto a few other points now. When I was younger it was "The Penthouse Tapes" record that caught my eye and as I looked in awe at the cover I wondered "do they really leave in a penthouse, how cool" forgive my innocent views ha-ha but that leads me Into the next question. Can you take us into life on the road for you from the beginning and right up to the height of the band and then can you tell us what we're the plans and how far had they got for the cancelled last tour of SAHB?
Z . C . ; In the beginning there was Tear Gas. Scottish metal mashers. Along came Alex Harvey, seasoned veteran, and erstwhile Teenage Idol. Their fortunes crossed and love blossomed. Before long a record was born; the touring began; egos raised the stakes and success smelled like victory. SAHB arose like a phoenix, toured the world, a headline act, theatrical and loud, and an attitude to match. They adorned themselves, bedecked like superhero’s; rode in a Cadillac with a snakeskin roof. It was all so good until Death walked in and killed the flame. Hugh suffered and Alex succumbed to the ills of fame, drew a line, and called it quits. SAHB ended on the cold stage of a film set at Shepperton Studios. The band split, the fame evaporated in a drought of survival. Alex died. Zal drove a mini cab; Chris drove a bus. Ted played on and on till he was gone. Hugh found peace and left us to dream of what might have been. SAHB, the End… ((c) Zal Cleminson 2022)
Zal "Alistair Crowley" Cleminson
When something is so eloquently put there is no more to say. Burn bright, burn quick, burn out. Beautiful words Zal once a star always a star. OK to finish we knew about the Sin Dogs and now we have Orphans of the Ash to look forward to. So, take us into Zal's world 2022 and all that encompasses
Z . C . ; Sin Dogs was an impulsive step I took, having overcome a serious mental breakdown whilst living with my partner in Cyprus. I had started playing again after a sabbatical of some ten years. As a form of therapy, it worked for me, until the band lost its focus and so, we called it a day. Guitarist Billy McGonagle and I had developed a strong musical connection and decided to continue our collaboration, which is known as Orphans of the Ash.
Zal "The shades have it" Cleminson and Billy McCongale.
We are at present working on the completion of our debut album, “ELLIPSIS”, which we expect to release in June 2022. Our plans are pragmatic and any further steps, such as playing live concerts, is heavily dependent on how the album is received.
Sorry to hear about the breakdown but we only wish the best for you and your future endeavours all of which we shall watch with bated breath. How is the novel coming together or is that on hold for now?
Z . C . ; Thanks for your kind words. Yes, the novel is on hold, but I do still write when I have time.
Something else for all of us to look forward to in the future. Thanks again Zal it had been a joy and best of luck with all you do.
Best wishes Zal.
Interview conducted by email May 2022.
photographs courtesy of Ian Dickson, Mike Drew and suits vaults.
C. ZAL CLEMINSON 2022
C. WWW.SUITSANDTHEPLATFORMBOOTS.COM 2022