Paul interviews: Blues legend John Lee Hooker
(Originally published in ‘Hi Fi News’ 1989)
One of the highlights of my music journalist career was the night I interviewed blues legend John Lee Hooker. Unfortunately, JLH was then in declining health and unable to travel so the interview had to take place over the phone, but it was a thrill to say the least to hook up with an originator of the music I love. (If only I had kept a copy of my interviews with Lemmy, Sting, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Tony Iommi, Peter Cushing, Michael Nyman and the Velvet Underground! Ah well, maybe one day I’ll pluck up courage to descend into the vaults where my ancestors are interred and rummage through the archives. Until then here is the transcript of my conversation with ‘The Hook’.)
At the grand old age of 74, legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker could claim to be the last living link with the oral tradition of the blues. Ironically, he is now enjoying greater success than at any other time in his career thanks to the extensive use of his music and image in television advertising and his adoption by the MTV generation as the godfather of the blues. I called him at his home in Chicago.
John Lee Hooker’s recorded output is staggering. His albums have been reissued and repackaged more often than almost any other artist – 140 LPs at the last count – and the list continues to grow.
After all he has been through his enthusiasm for music remains undiminished. The Delta-born son of a sharecropper and one of eleven children, John Lee spent his childhood on his stepfather’s farm, a modest plot outside Clarksdale in the Mississippi Delta. Life was a constant struggle against economic hardship and Mother Nature, but when the sun went down his stepfather would teach him the stark simple beauty that was country blues.
“Blues was the music of the field, for the workers to release themselves from the harshness of their lives,” he explains in that familiar gravel voice. “The blues are as old as the world. Ever since Adam and Eve there has been the blues. And as long as there is a man and a woman to love and hurt each other there will be the blues. The blues will never die.”
Delta blues was raw and rhythmic, yet it still retained a rural feel. The area around Clarksdale alone produced such luminaries as Jimmy Reed, Robert Johnson, Son House, Big Joe Williams, Tommy McCLennan and Muddy Waters.
Ironically, for a man raised in the area with the greatest concentration of acoustic bluesmen, John Lee’s destiny was to define the post-war electric blues and in so doing he inspired a generation of white rock artists who saw him as the missing link between rock and its roots.
‘The Hook’, as he is affectionately called, can be brusque when he feels that the respect due to him is lacking, though I find him patient and polite when asked to recall a time he must have talked about on innumerable occasions.
“Mississippi is the root of all the blues singers. I didn’t get to see many of them play, but I knew them all through my stepfather. I was the black sheep of the family. I didn’t want to be a farmer. I wanted to play the blues. So I left home.
John Lee took to the road in his early teens, playing and singing anywhere that would give him a gig and a hot meal.
“I played what we called house rent parties because I was still a kid and couldn’t play the clubs. They’d sell bootleg beer and I’d make a few dollars, which was a lot of money then.”
Occasionally he took odd jobs to keep body and soul together until in his early thirties his itinerant lifestyle came to an end.
“I ended up in Detroit around 1940 because I found the money was good. I worked as a cinema attendant and a steel worker, but at night I played the clubs with a three piece band that I’d got together. There were small clubs, but we packed them every night.”
His early songs were largely improvised narratives, wry social commentary delivered in an idiosyncratic style and invariably based around one chord. One characteristic of his which remains constant is his scant regard for the rigid twelve bar, three chord structure that was standard for the blues. As he says on the autobiographical track ‘Teachin’ The Blues’, “Your fancy chords mean nothing if you ain’t got that beat”.
It wasn’t until 1947 that ‘The Hook’ finally decided to commit his songs to disc. After getting a four string box guitar out of the hock shop he cut a quarter dollar acetate, tapping his feet on a wooden plank to keep time. He then used the disc as a demo to get a deal.
A year later his patience was rewarded when ‘Boogie Chillun’ became a nationwide hit.
“When ‘Boogie Chillun’ was a huge hit everyone wanted to record me. I was so hot, but the company I was with weren’t paying me. So I recorded for different people under various names and my friends so the tapes to the companies who paid the most money.”
The first professionally organised tour followed in 1952, but John Lee preferred to remain at home where Muddy Waters, BB King and Jimmy Reed would come round to jam on his front porch.
In the Sixties, he found himself the inspiration for the British blues boom, when his songs ‘Boom Boom’ and ‘Dimples’ became standards in the set lists of every R&B band in the land, but in America the blues were going out of fashion.
“Bands such as The Stones started because they loved my blues. It’s true that they diluted their blues later on, but I know that they still love that music, my music. I can still hear it in their records, but now it’s what I would call rock blues. People make a mistake if they think that blues is just for blacks. The blues has no colour. The blues is for every human being, rich or poor. Money can only pacify you. It can’t compensate for turning over at night and finding an empty bed. The white rock acts simply adapted the blues to a different style, but it’s still the blues. The blacks were the first to it and they sing it deeper, that’s all.”
In the seventies and eighties the blues were in recession, as far as record sales were concerned, then a new generation of rock bands emerged and cited bluesmen such as Hooker as their influences.
By 1991 a succession of famous musicians such as Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray and Carlos Santana began to turn up at the Hook’s live shows and made it known to his manager that if he ever recorded again they would be more than keen to participate. The resulting collaboration, ‘The Healer’, was released to universal acclaim and ‘the Hook’ found himself back in the limelight. MTV put his video clip in heavy rotation and advertising execs picked up on the novelty of his image to promote everything from jeans to beer.
Away from all the hullabaloo ‘The Hook’ is simply enjoying recording again.
“All of the guests on ‘The Healer’ have been good friends of mine for years. We have a deep mutual respect for each other’s music. We are fans of each other and almost neighbours in San Francisco. They didn’t need to do it. They did it because they love my music.”
John Lee and his producer Roy Rogers had agreed that if ’the Hook’ was to return to the studio it would be on condition that everything would be recorded live. Apparently even that didn’t deter the celebrities who lined up around the block to lend their talents.
“You get a better feel recording live. If you don’t like one take then you can keep doing it over, but when you get it, it’s the real thing – no overdubs. So many people trick up the music too fine. It’s unnatural and it sounds unreal. The blues is based on ‘I do it as I feel it’. I could dress it up. I dressed it up for ‘I’m In The mood For Love’ to get a pop hit in the Fifties, but the blues shouldn’t really be dressed up. I play it the way I feel it. I rock back and holler! I AM the blues.”
Paul Interviews: Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull
It may not be fashionable to say so, but I have always had a soft spot for early Jethro Tull and that is why I had no qualms about featuring a flute on ‘Captain Blood’ and later on ‘Pan’, though one American fanzine dubbed it “the spawn of Satan” (the flute that is, not my song)! I was therefore delighted to meet the band’s frontman and songwriter Ian Anderson in 1989 and to have had a chance to ask why it all went hideously wrong during ‘A Passion Play’! Only kidding, though I did manage to slip that question into the conversation, though I worded it more diplomatically of course(*).
Since the mid-Seventies Jethro Tull have been vilified as self-indulgent, pretentious and archaic, yet their albums continue to sell close on a million copies each year, their concerts are sells out in Europe and the USA and they picked up a Grammy for best hard rock album of ’87. Not bad for a band who are often written off as ‘too old to rock and roll’.
‘Rock Island’, Tull’s seventeenth album excluding compilations, sees them finally jettisoning keyboards and drum machines in favour of the guitar orientated rock with which they made their name.
Ian is looking fitter now than he has done for some years. He is sporting a rustic green waistcoat from where he takes his pipe, leaning back to light it as we talk. He is every inch the country squire or Laird.
I was surprised to learn that Ian doesn’t possess a CD player and hardly ever listens to music at home.
“I’ve nothing against CDs. I use digital equipment in my home studio and it’s terrific. It’s never let me down yet, but my living room has such bad acoustics that I save my listening from when I’m travelling and then it’s only Walkmans and a cassette in the car. It’s important for me to have a Walkman with a record facility so I can use it as a musical notebook, but I don’t need noise reduction or EQ on it as I’m unlikely to hear tape hiss above the noise of four aircraft engines or the road surface noise when I’m driving.”
What elements of the new album give Ian the most satisfaction?
“It was my intention to have it sound reasonably live whilst at the same time utilizing contemporary audio techniques and all the options that digital gadgets offer to enhance the sound. Most important was the drum sound which I wanted to be as live as possible, but having found it I should perhaps have altered it from track to track.”
But wouldn’t that have been change for the sake of it?
“Yes, it would have been and I was also somewhat afraid of losing the good drum sound that I’d got. It’s not easy to mike up a kit. A lot of work goes into getting a good drum sound.”
Many people hold the view that the use, or rather abuse, of drum machines has robbed pop music of its humanity. However, Ian is more open minded.
“It’s true that many bands are tied to and dominated by technology, but playing to a drum machine or sequencer can be quite fun because it’s infallible and keeps you on your toes. It’s one less element to the recording to worry about. If there is a timing or tuning problem you can rule out the machine straight away. But drum machines aren’t something to fight against. There’s one drummer we’ve worked with, Jerry Conway, whose attitude to drum machines is that they are aids for his expression. They are his friends and I think that is a very sensible attitude to have.
The trouble is that the commercial end of pop music has become very much a formula which can be cooked up by anybody who has the fashionable synths of the moment. Anyone who has mastered the basics of recording can imitate the current hits and stick on a Kylie Minogue-like vocal on the front and make a hit.
But I’m not disillusioned with the electronic keyboards I’ve been using, it’s just that I’ve called a halt to them dominating a Tull record. We succeed best as a guitar band with the frivolous addition of flute, mandolins, piano, organ etc I feel happier now having returned to my roots somewhat.”
The new album also has less of the Dire Straits influence which gave ‘Crest of A Knave’ its contemporary sound [Paul crosses himself at the mere mention of the diabolical D.S who he considers personified all that was vomit inducing in 80s rock, though let’s not forget Van Halen and…I could go on and on…].
“We were, in fact, heavily criticised for the Dire Straits flavour of the last album,” Ian confesses. “Martin Barre and I consciously made an effort to avoid that kind of delivery on the new one. So Martin used less of the single coil pick up and I pitched the songs that bit higher and sang them more forcefully as I used to do. On ‘Knave’ I was trying to act out the songs a bit more at the same time singing in a lower register and more quietly to save my vocal chords because I was worried about my ability to sing at that peak for two hours on stage night after night.
As far as the guitar sound is concerned I know for a fact that in 1981 Mark Knopfler rang up Martin’s guitar maker and ordered some new guitars. When asked what kind of sound he wanted, he said, ‘I want the sound that Martin Barre of Jethro Tull gets’. At that time Knopfler appeared to be playing an off the shelf Stratocaster with single coil pick ups. Martin was playing Hamer’s with humbucking pick ups and was just about to get some single coil Hamers made with the five way switch and out of phase position and all the things that are now associated with Knopfler. I mean, there’s only so many sounds you can get out of the electric guitar if you’re playing the blues, and it was on our blusier tracks that it was most noticeable, then you’re going to sound like Knopfler who made that sound his trademark. Knopfler was using that old Hank Marvin sound but beautifully and cleverly adapted to his own music so he got away with it. It’s the same as when I came out with the breathy flute sound, singing through it and so on and made it my trademark. If you’d have been into jazz you’d have heard Roland Kirk doing much the same thing, but I put it to a different backdrop and brought it to mass acceptance at a certain time making it my trademark and making it impossible for anyone in a rock band to use the flute without being compared to Jethro Tull [Ian obviously hadn’t heard ‘Captain Blood’!] You wouldn’t have to stand on one leg to get stick, you’d get it anyway just by virtue playing it within the context of rock music.
I don’t like to throw things back at Knopfler but wasn’t he the one who everyone originally said was trying to sound like Bob Dylan? I listened to Dylan too when I was younger though I found his voice slightly nauseating. He did have a great theatricality to his voice though, humour too and sometimes a kind of dead pan delivery that I liked. I suppose that came back to me on that last album when I tried to alter my approach to save my voice. There has been an element of Dylan in my records since ‘Aqualung’ though delivered in an English accent.”
When you are a multi-instrumentalist and have your own home studio as Ian does it must be tempting to play all the parts yourself.
“There have been times when I’ve played everything myself but that’s usually only because the band have dispersed to their various homes around the world. That’s how I recorded ‘Jack In The Green’ on ‘Songs From The Wood’. I wrote the song the night before the session and as I was the only musician in the studio the next day I played all the parts. But usually I record other parts only as a guide for the musicians.”
Having your own studio must have its disadvantages though. There must be a danger of losing critical perspective.
“No, I enjoy recording more now than I ever did. I prefer to record in the privacy of my own home, to go in when the mood takes me and work until I have achieved what I set out to do. There is something to be said for bouncing ideas off other people, but for me creating music is a private thing and the band are the only ‘sounding board’ that I need and trust.”
After twenty years in the business that’s quite an enviable attitude to have. Which such genuine enthusiasm there is no reason why they shouldn’t be celebrating their thirtieth anniversary in ten years’ time. ‘Too old to rock and roll?’ I think not.
(*) As for that thorny question regarding ‘A Passion Play’, it was cut from the interview by the magazine (Hi Fi News) who were more interested in Ian’s attitude to technology, but I recall Ian admitting that it might have been a mistake to leave the band to work out their own extensions to the songs after the main part had been recorded so that he could nip out for a cup of tea!
Paul Interviews: Mark E. Smith of The Fall
We had such a positive reaction to Paul’s interview with blues legend John Lee Hooker that we persuaded him to brave the cobwebs and the creepy crawlies in the crypt of Roland Towers in search of more archive interviews. We’re delighted to say that he emerged some hours later with four more transcripts, The Velvet Underground, actor Peter Cushing, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull and this one – a conversation with Mark E. Smith of the Fall.
Mark E. Smith has a reputation for being a rather prickly character, but I found him very pleasant and easy to talk to. The interview was conducted for the now long defunct ‘Stereo’ magazine sometime in 1983 if memory serves me correctly, and by necessity focussed on his Hi Fi and record collection, but is interesting nevertheless.
Beware of strangers bearing gifts is said. And when someone lent our hero an Orbro Cash and Carry Credit Card he ended up with a queer old set up, a Sovereign S45 music centre.
“It’s got a really cheap fuzzy sound,’ confessed Mark, “but I was poor at the time and someone lent me their Orbro credit card. I bought the cheapest thing they had. It’s like a radiogram without a radio. A one-piece system. I bought it about a year ago and it cost around 125 pounds at the discount price and is made in the UK. But I couldn’t say how many watts it is. It can be loud though. I like a lot of volume.”
And anyone who has been to a Fall gig will know that second only to large amounts of volume, Mark and the boys have a perverse affection for distortion. Does he really like to bring his work home?
“It’s wrong to spoil yourself with sound in my line of work. I like to hear my records distorted to a degree but I am pretty fussy when it comes to other people’s records. I really love the sound of those early Elvis and Gene Vincent things. I’d like to capture that atmosphere myself.”
Does this mean then that his modest little home system is the yardstick for The Fall’s own vinyl efforts?
“That’s right. I don’t make judgements until I’ve heard it on the Sovereign. Everything sounds good in the studio but that isn’t the way everybody else hears it. Some things don’t come across too well on it though. The bass can be very fuzzy, but then I don’t like much bass anyway. I particularly hate the very clean thudding bass on a lot of new records which I find very intimidating. It’s too clean and becomes like a metronome.”
So what was the first system he had?
“Well, the funny thing is my family never had a record player. I’d been collecting records for years but always had to play them at friend’s houses. We just didn’t get around to owning one. Then I bought a mono record player some years ago. It looked like a little red suitcase when you closed it up and being mono it brought out a lot of things in the records that you wouldn’t normally hear on a stereo system.”
And what exactly are these unlikely aural items?
“I’ve got a lot of fifties records on compilations that I bought fairly recently, quite a lot of early stuff before they (Elvis etc) went rotten. I’ve got about 400 albums and the same amount of singles. I have some rare sixties garage punk on German albums, mainly on the Line label. I’ve got quite a big collection really, everything from rare Seeds albums that I bought second hand through Lou Reed to Country and Western!
I like the odd classical record too. Sometimes I put on a bit of Beethoven or Wagner, but it doesn’t come across too well on the sovereign. I’m very selective about my records. I don’t like to cram my brain with other stuff when I’m recording. I’m afraid to be influenced.”
Judging from this the unwillingness to be influenced extends also to the new technology. Bet he hasn’t even got a Walkman.
“No, I don’t like Walkmans. I can’t say why, I just don’t. But I usually take a small cassette player on tour and I use it on stage for echo and backing effects. At home I have a small Hitachi cassette player and a JVC portable cassette recorder with Dolby which I use for demos. I use it to jot down ideas with just voice and guitar. Sometimes I like to use it in the studio, putting the vocal on to it and then from there on to a track, but out of sync, so that it adds atmosphere. Sometimes I do the same for the guitar. I use that trick a lot on stage too.
I’ve got a little black box in the guitar and if I tune the JVC to FM (radio) I can put the guitar through it to get odd noises. I like unique sounds but as I’m not mechanically minded I prefer simple methods like that. You lose a lot of atmosphere when you try to recreate a demo in the studio, that’s why I like those early Elvis things. It’s all one mike stuff. I don’t like using separate tracks for the drums etc in the studio but our latest album, ‘Perverted By Language’, was well produced by our standards. It’s not so offensive to the ears this time!’
OK, but now that he’s on the verge of a mainstream breakthrough isn’t it about time that he bought a new Hi Fi?
“Now that I’m married my wife has ideas about what Hi Fi we should buy. She says she wants a nice TEAC for about 300 pounds. So I guess that’s what we’ll get.”
And I thought he was his own man!
Composer Interview: Paul Roland meets Hans Zimmer
(published in ‘Classic CD’)
With a platinum album and an Academy Award for his work on The Lion King, plus a list of credits that includes Mission Impossible 2, Crimson Tide and The Thin Red Line, film composer Hans Zimmer is not only one of the most eminently successful film composers of recent years, he has also radically revised and redefined the art of film music by fusing rock, synthesizer technology and classical influences in a new hybrid form. For Ridley Scott’s sword and sandal actioner Gladiator, the German born composer whipped up a score that paid homage to the traditional Hollywood action epic as well as that God-of-all-things heavy, Wagner. So, are we premature in anticipating the end of the big orchestral ‘Hollywood’ sound?
Zimmer: ‘Yes, because there will always be a place for the big, lush string score. But I grew up a rock and roll baby, and I need to inject that energy and sense of drive and purpose into my orchestral scores. My first break in the music business was producing records for the Damned and Ultravox, but during that time I was listening to classical stuff too. I didn’t make a distinction between the two. The trouble is that in my own music I don’t know where one influence ends and the other begins. As far as ‘Gladiator’ is concerned there is certainly a rock element in the orchestral parts. It is the urgency, the economy and the discipline in developing ideas very quickly so that the music is going somewhere, even if the build-up takes ten minutes or more. But if I’m feeling flippant I’d say my love of rock drives me to crank up the bass too loud and to indulge my passion for thunderous percussion!
‘When all the music had been recorded I watched the film right through without the dialogue or effects tracks to see if the music and the images could tell the story on their own, and they did. That was the ultimate test for me. If Ridley had wanted me to, I could have turned Gladiator into an opera!’
So, what convinced you to tackle the Gladiator project in the first place?
Z: ‘Well, I have to admit that when Ridley initially asked me to do it, I couldn’t stop laughing. I thought he was having me on! I said, “you don’t mean to tell me you’re going to do a movie with men in skirts?” But as soon as I visited the set at Farnham Wood where they were shooting one of the big battle scenes I was convinced this was going to be an impressive, thrilling picture. They had constructed an authentic Roman encampment which was being besieged by ten thousand armed extras, all screaming for blood. The sound of the mob and the specially reconstructed catapults firing their missiles was overwhelming. And to Ridley’s credit he managed to capture all that excitement and raw energy on the screen.
‘In the middle of this muddy battlefield Ridley was holding court in an enormous red silk tent furnished with marble busts, sculptures and opulent furnishings. When I accused him of overdoing it a bit he said, “Oh no, this is exactly the way the real Maximus, our lead character, lived for seven years while he was protecting the border from the German hordes. This is exactly how it was.”
‘It was then that I got the idea for my score. I would contrast the formality and fascism of Roman society with the savage world that threatened its borders and the madness of the Emperors that could bring it down from within. So I took the most formal style of music that I could find — Viennese waltzes — and brutalized it to illustrate the idea that this empire had been built on blood. It was a mad idea, but it worked. In Gladiator I was highlighting the duality of our nature which is a battle between brutality and the spiritual aspiration to rise above it. I also echoed Wagner’s theme for “Siegfried’s Funeral March” from The Ring for the climactic arena scene as I wanted that kind of paganism in the score. I think Wagner wrote some of the best film music ever written. I wanted to use Wagner’s music as Boorman had done in Excalibur, but it wouldn’t fit the action on screen, so I wrote my version of it. I’m sure he won’t mind!
Can you describe your creative process, which presumably must be quite different from the traditional notes-on-the-page scenario, as you use a lot of samples and electronic keyboards.
Z: ‘Yes, it is quite unique to me. I initially compose all the main themes in my head, then I commit them to the computer which acts as a musical processor. When I have all the parts worked out, I demo the score using keyboards and samplers so that I can take it to my arranger who makes sure that human beings can actually play the thing! But I deliberately push my music to the edge of unplayable. In Gladiator I needed to get the excitement and brutality of the battle sequences into the music and I could only do that if I inject fear into the musicians!’
Paul Roland Interviews: Hammer Horror Actor Peter Cushing
On the 16th April 1986 Paul interviewed one of his childhood heroes, movie actor and Hammer horror star Peter Cushing for an English film magazine to which Paul was contributing at the time. They had a long and lively discussion of which the following is a brief extract.
Paul: How do you prepare for a role? I believe you always undertake quite a bit of research.
Peter: yes, if it calls for it. For Sherlock Holmes, whom I’ve played a number of times, you only have to read Conan Doyle to get a pretty good idea of how to approach that part, but whenever I played Doctor Frankenstein, or any of the other mad doctor parts, I consulted my own doctor to make sure that the operations that I did on screen looked authentic. When I ring him up he always says,’Oh, thank heavens it’s you because you’re not ill, you only want to take a heart out!’ Even if only one doctor sees the film he’s going to regard it as a bit of an insult if I don’t perform the operation properly. So I try to get everything right.
Paul: I must admit I’ve always enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes films of the Forties with Basil Rathbone in the title role and I know many people associate Basil with that part. Were you not daunted at the prospect of following him when you first played Holmes in Hammer’s ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ in 1959?
Peter: Dear boy, everything is daunting! When I played Holmes, Basil had long finished with the part although they were still showing his films on television. fate is very cruel I think because he was the great Holmes of that era and then it was my turn. In 25 years I will be forgotten and it will pass to someone else. It all goes in phases and one is very lucky to have caught the public imagination and indeed affection for the character, for it’s the character they like and, I hope, the actor. The audience have always got to be with you even when you are playing a beastly person like Grand Moff Tarkin in ‘Star Wars’, which incidentally, I did in my carpet slippers because the size 12 boots they got for me were killing me! I said to the director George Lucas, ‘George, I’m not asking for close ups, but could you shoot me just from the waist up because these boots are agony! And he did. They had to dub my footsteps in later.
You don’t employ an angry actor to play an angry character or a bore to play a bore because that is overdoing it. The audience must have some sympathy, even for the beastly characters or else they won’t care what happens to them.
Paul: You began your career in Hollywood in the 1930s with a small part in ‘The Man In The Iron Mask’ directed by James Whale, the director of ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’, two of my favourite movies. What was Whale like to work with?
Peter: He was an awfully good director but a very nervous man. He had the habit of swinging his leg all the time and he had a nervous tick which was quite distracting when you were playing a scene. He planned everything meticulously though, but no more than any other director. No director can direct without doing their homework. There is always room for spontaneity from the actors though.
I learn the entire script in case there is a change in plan and there usually is. There is seldom time for a proper rehearsal, maybe just a quick run through while the lighting crew are setting everything up. But otherwise its usually done in one take with a second for safety. In a way, it’s a good thing because all acting for the cinema should be spontaneous.
Paul: Did the films always turn out the way you imagined they would when you were making them?
Peter: Yes, they always turned out the way I imagined they would. When I see them again after 25 years I think they weren’t as bad as I thought they were, but when I went to the premieres I used to sit with my face in my hands muttering, ‘Oh God, it’s him again!’ whenever I came on screen. Whenever I finish a film I always say to myself, right now let’s do it again and do it properly,’ but I’m so glad that the people that I work for, the audience - they’re the ones that count – that they enjoy them.
Most of the horror films I made were shot on tiny sets with short shooting schedules and incredibly small budgets. That’s what the Americans couldn’t get over when they saw ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ in 1958. They couldn’t believe that we had such a small budget and only six weeks to shoot it in and yet it looked the way it did. Then Columbia and Warner Brothers came in as distributors and it all grew from there.
Paul: Why do you think ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’, Hammer’s first foray into horror, was so successful?
Peter: If we knew the secret, we’d all be millionaires now! I suppose one reason was that the story hadn’t been touched for 25 years, it was in colour and it was directed at a new generation. Films go in cycles and I guess we produced the right thing at the right time.
Paul: I am particularly impressed by the period atmosphere of the hammer horrors. Was that something that appealed to you?
Peter: Oh yes. I think they were beautifully lit. Atmosphere is so important in horror movies and Hammer had some very good people behind the scenes who made so much with meagre resources.
Paul: Such as Bernard Robinson, the art director.
Peter: Dear boy, you know more than I do! yes, Bernard designed superb sets and jack Asher was one of the best camera men around at the time. Jack used to say that he painted with light as an artists would do. Where Hammer was so clever was in getting top people in all the branches of production. They all loved their jobs and their was a real family atmosphere in the studio. And they had very good casts. If the whole crew, who are the chaps you really rely on, take an interest then everyone is out there to do their best. That’s the way films are made.
Paul: In the early days at Hammer you were associated closely with Terence Fisher. What was his particular strength as a director?
Peter: Well, he was an editor to start with which was an enormous help because it was so economical for the studio. He didn’t shoot unnecessary scenes and he always knew what he wanted. He was a dear, dear man and so approachable. A wonderful man.
Paul: The image we have of Hammer is of a movie factory where the films turned out very quickly, often filmed back to back on the same sets to save money. Did the studio encourage directors such as Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker to turn out films in a recognisable ‘house style’, or did they encourage them to work in their own way?
Peter: The directors were engaged because the studio liked their work and so they were encouraged to be themselves. They were like orchestral conductors in that they were hired to put their own stamp on the material. But it’s not really true that it was a factory system. It implies that the films were just strung together, when, in fact, they were very carefully made.
Paul: You played Dr Frankenstein in five movies for Hammer. Why did you stay with the role for so long?
Peter: I have to admit it was simply because I had to work. But I did love working for Hammer and making those films gave me so much pleasure. The first Frankenstein film I made for them took off like a hot cake and the ‘Horror of Dracula’ took off like an extra hot cake. In film making if you’re onto a good thing you keep making it.
Paul: Were you disappointed with the creature’s make-up in ‘Curse of Frankenstein’ which left Christopher Lee looking like the victim of a hit and run driver?
Peter: Jack Pierce’s design was a superb creation. It was the best of those devised for the studio’s Frankenstein series, but I must admit I didn’t like it myself. We were denied use of the original (Karloff) make-up by Universal who owned the copyright, but when we were finally able to use it in ‘The Evil Of Frankenstein’ it was disappointing, in my opinion at least. The truth is that the (Karloff) original was just so good.
Paul: Do you enjoy watching horror movies yourself and what do you think is the appeal of these films in a world of real horrors?
Peter: I don’t like horror movies or books myself, although I derive pleasure from the pleasure that they give to others. And I do love making them. ‘Curse’ and ‘Dracula’ were beautifully written. The ‘horror’ tag was applied for commercial reasons, but I don’t think it was justified. I call them fantasy films because they take people away from the horrors of the real world. I get letters from people who say that they get a harmless thrill like that from a ride on a roller coaster. The boyfriends put their arms around their girlfriends and say, ‘don’t worry, its only old Cush.’ They say that today horror movies are so repellent, but that the films I made never were. Only now do I consider myself a success. I cannot help but know that from the tremendous affection which is showered upon me by the public. I was sure they would regard me as an old duffer with a walking stick, but they don’t and I’m so grateful.’