From hanging out with Brendan Behan, to immersing himself in the music of Bob Dylan, the great Leo Sayer tells Richard Fitzpatrick about his cultural touchstones
“My mother was from Fermanagh. My granddad had a farm. He was a very industrious man because he fathered 14 kids! My mum was somewhere in the middle. We spent a lot of childhood summers there from between the ages of three and nine years’ old. I listened to a lot of Irish music, songs like ‘Lough Erne Shore’, that were sung at céilís or they’d put on records in the houses.
When the next generation of Irish singers came along — I’m particularly thinking of Andy Irvine, Planxty, Finbar Furey and The Chieftains — younger and probably more vibrant artists than the original ones, they made those songs live again. I’ve got a record called Andy Irvine/Paul Brady that I just love to death. They’re singing a lot of traditional songs. Paul is in that lovely high, clear voice that he’s got. It just floors me every time. It’s a terrible thing to say but I prefer it to Paul’s own stuff. Andy is one of the humblest singers and guitarists I’ve ever met. He undersells himself, but he’s a genius to me.”
“Brendan Behan was related to our family. He was someone I met who was a great wordsmith — him and his brother Dominic. I remembering meeting him in Belfast. It was the early 1960s. I remember he sat down and sprouted some incredible quotes. Sleeping in the bed in my cousins’ house, I tried to write it down, asking myself, ‘What did that mean?’. It took me a long time to catch up. It was incredible to be around some great thinkers like that, and them being in the family too. I remember he gave me a list of books to read. Flann O’Brien and James Joyce were two of the authors he recommended to me. For a young, inquisitive boy it was fantastic because he was garrulous and outspoken, almost rude and brusque, kind of a scary character, but at the same time he had a warmth that was contagious. He was a great, persuasive communicator.”
“Growing up I had a wonderful cousin who was quite hip. He had a marvelous record collection. When I was about 12 or 13 years old, one of the records he impressed me with was the first Bob Dylan album – the one where he’s singing, ‘Hey, hey, Woodie Guthrie/I wrote you a song’, ‘Fixin’ to Die’, ‘House of the Rising Sun’, and all these old blues songs. That record was an incredible influence on me. It introduced me to all the old blues artists that he was paying tribute to — Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, and so on. I became a blues fanatic.
There’s something about Bob Dylan’s forthright singing, the performance, the incredible vulnerability of this guy as well because he’s putting himself out there but you can tell he doesn’t completely believe in himself yet. That is so impressive. It leaps off that record. You can’t turn your ears away. For a young kid, to hear him out there singing about the world’s wrongs, how tough it was, about poor black people and social issues, about getting on the road, the struggle of youth — I had a hero the first day I listened to that record.”
“I moved to London in 1967. I was 19 years old. It was terribly exciting. I was in the art world — and not so much in the music world — at that time. I was taken by a little group called The Fool, which was two crazy Dutch people, a girl and a guy who painted the Beatles store on Baker St, and painted the Beatles’ cars. You’d see their artwork driving around. It was a very provocative time. You could easily stumble on naked people having sex somewhere. Drugs were very much out in the open. It was a pretty standard thing with musicians. It wouldn’t be a surprise to walk into a jazz club, go to the toilet and find somebody fixing up on a loo seat. People liked to provoke. It was a bit like the Bob Dylan song: ‘Because something is happening here/But ya don’t know what it is/Do you, Mister Jones?’
We caught up and learnt very quickly. Boys and girls became adults almost overnight. It only took a week of experiencing the Swinging Sixties in London for you to become a completely different person.
At that time, I was working in a studio with a guy called Alan Aldridge, who did a lot of Beatles’ artwork. I was doing commercial art. I used to get David Bailey to do some of my photographs. I knew all these people — Terence Stamp, Eric Burdon, all of the movers and shakers of the time.
There was a great vibe of being in the same town as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. You’d always see them around on the street. Rock stars weren’t hiding themselves away in those days. They were very much part of the firmament. I used to see John Lennon and Yoko Ono regularly. They were in Yoko’s little flat, which was next door to the studio I worked in, and sometimes I’d come down to the street for a break and John would be there smoking a cigarette.
Probably the assassination of John was maybe the turning point when artists — music artists especially — started to hide away.
Sometimes, American rock stars and singers would come in and they’d have an entourage with them, but usually people didn’t do that – they weren’t driven around in limousines. You’d walk into a roadside café and there’d be Mick Jagger having a cup of tea and a sandwich. Everybody was accessible. In the art world – from models like Twiggy and singers like Mick to writers and artists like David Hockney – everybody talked to each other. Everybody cohabited. That’s why the scene was so vibrant.”
“I came from art school and I thought of music as a purely artistic expression. I never thought of it as a money-making thing or a piece of marketing or some kind of stylish thing. That was lost somewhere along the way but thank God we got people later like Prince, Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel, real artists who treated again the whole thing like an artistic expression.”
Leo Sayer is on a nationwide tour, including Cork Opera House next Thursday, 12 March.