Backstage at Rock City as MVM’s Andy quizzes his favourite…..
As well as being a singer, songwriter and frontman in some of the best bands the world has ever seen, Ricky Warwick has that typically Northern Irish way of telling a story. There’s one he’s told countless times at his acoustic gigs, about being a thirteen-year-old who goes to see Stiff Little Fingers and is so inspired by what he saw that day that he bought his first guitar the very next day. As he puts it onstage at Nottingham Rock City, while his latest band, The Fighting Hearts, are supporting SLF: “…. you can blame the Stiff Little Fingers for the racket you are hearing up here tonight…!”
That “racket” has largely been from Warwick’s two – not one – solo albums. The brilliant electric “When Patsy Cline Was Crazy And Guy Mitchell Sang The Blues” and it’s equally superb acoustic counterpart “Hearts On Trees”. The pair first emerged via Pledge Music over a year ago, and now are on mainstream release. Sitting with Warwick about an hour after his set, he seems humbled by the reception they’ve received: “You know what sums it up for me?” He smiles, looking relaxed and happy in the Production Office deep in the bowels of Rock City. “We played tonight and as always we go and meet people at the Merch booth, and a guy walks up to me and says: ‘I don’t know who you are, I’ve never heard of what you do, but I loved the songs’ and bought a t-shirt. How cool is that?!”
There has been a touch of disquiet in the odd quarter about the records getting a general release after being on Pledge, and at a time when crowd funding is coming under increased scrutiny amidst stories about one band asking fans to subscribe to music each month to provide them with a living wage, it can be a thorny issue. For Warwick, though, it’s pretty black and white: “I hate to bring it back to economics,” he says, sipping his pint, “but I wouldn’t have been able to do them without the help of fans. Every penny we got was ploughed back into the albums, and anyway there’s a wider point here…..” He pauses and becomes animated: “I hate the fact people think is music and art is for free these days, with the Internet. I’ve worked my bollocks off to make these records, I’m fucking proud of them, they are a commodity, you deserve to be paid for that art, and for that hard work, surely?” Indeed, the theme of hard work is one he’ll return to frequently.
The two records that make up the package, are the fourth of Warwick’s solo career, and if they are probably the best, then it’s arguable that they are also the most personal. It is an odd juxtaposition, given that Warwick for the first time in his career didn’t write all of the lyrics. Most of them are written by his friend, Sam Robinson, a fact that he says was never supposed to happen: “When Sam handed me the lyrics, it was very much a case of ‘oh not again’,” he laughs. “Everyone thinks they can write a song, and it happens all the time. Then I read these and genuinely I was blown away by them, they were my life, they were lyrics I believed in 100%. If you take a track like “……Blues” itself then that’s how lives were for us, your father winning on the horses, and allowing you to put the records on while he and his buddies celebrated. To have that connection with someone else’s words that’s something that doesn’t happen very often.”
He might here have added the three little words “to most people” he doesn’t. So MV finishes the sentence for him. As we do, he smiles, and it’s the look of a man who knows. That’s because the career of Ricky Warwick can very much be seen in two halves. The early days, when after leaving home in Northern Ireland at 15, he became the rhythm guitarist in New Model Army, before forming Brit Biker Rock Kings, The Almighty. The breakup of that band led to some dark times for the singer, who dismisses them now, with the air of someone who came out the other side a better man: “I took way too many drugs, made some terrible choices, I was a dick, it was my fault, no one else’s”, he states, firmly enough not to warrant further questioning, before with the help of his friend, Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott he made his first solo album, saying here: “I certainly found out who my friends were in that period, I know who stuck around and who left”. Then in 2009 he got the call that was to change his life.
Ricky takes up the story: “Scott Gorham calls….” Let’s just leave those words in the ether.Scott Gorham, the lead guitarist on all the records at Thin Lizzy’s commercial peak, and Phil Lynott’s sidekick…. anyway, yeah he’s called. “…. And he says ‘Rick, I’m taking Lizzy back out on the road, and you are going to be the singer’, there’s not going to be any auditions”.
Even hearing these words sends a chill down the back of MVM, so Christ knows what it must have done for Warwick. Actually, he’ll tell you himself: “I put the phone down and rang my wife, she’s my best friend so I had to tell her, and it’s only then the enormity of it hit me. I was going to front Thin Lizzy.”
What was that about connection? Well Lizzy, as they are to most rock fans, were Gods to Warwick – they, along with SLF were is favourite band as a kid – as he admits with clear pride and emotion even now: “It’s back to that thing about believing in the songs, and Phil Lynott? Well yeah, how can you not have that connection to those words, man?” He set about learning everything he could. “I didn’t listen to anything else for six months,” he grins. I read his poetry, his words, everything, there were lyrics taped up on the walls of my house. Even my daughter can sing these songs, they’d be in the car when I was taking her to school, and everywhere else, my wife works in the record industry and she’s be like ‘check this out’ and I’m going “no, no”. If I was going to do this I was going to do it right, I wasn’t going to have an autocue, how could I disrespect the great man like that? I knew I had to know these songs back to front and inside out.”
He was more than just good at this, but Ricky is too modest to say himself, so again it’s left to MV elucidate: he was perfect. But, whatever we feel about the reinvigorated version of the best hard rock band there had ever been on planet earth, it’s probable that Warwick couldn’t care less. Not because he isn’t a thoroughly pleasant and humble man, but well, because Phil Lynott’s mum gave it her thumbs up. “The biggest thing for me,” and he looks you right in the eye as he says it and the passion is very, very obviously there, “was Philomena, Phil’s mum, came up to me in Dublin and said ‘Ricky, my Phil would approve’ and gave me the biggest hug. I’ll never forget that as long as I live.” Mrs Lynott was right, the shows were a revelation, and the demand was such that they kept happening again and again, there was going to be an album, but it was decided that it wasn’t going to come out under the Lizzy name, it was instead to be released as the Black Star Riders.
Which is where connection number three comes in. Their lead guitarist was to be Damon Johnson, the ex-Brother Cane man, had been in Thin Lizzy with Warwick, and the two had hit it off. “You know, it was the weirdest thing, I hadn’t met him until we played with Alice Cooper” recalls Warwick, who at 49 looks fitter and healthier than he has any right to, given his involvement in rock’ n’ roll since he was 15, “then we started working together and like with Sam, there’s all these little similarities. He’s from a chicken farm, like me, it’s so strange to have this ability to click with someone and we make a good writing team.”
Indeed, Ricky can vividly recall the first song they wrote together, and they bonded in a way that you might not have expected: “Damon was due to come to my house to write for the first time, and it was 9am in the morning. I’m in the kitchen making a coffee, and Diana Ross is on the Radio. Now I love Motown, and it turns out that Damon does too so we sat down and wrote ‘Someday Salvation’ [from the first Black Star Riders debut album] as a Motown homage!” He laughs.
MV suggests that we would have thought that the wonderful “Bound For Glory” would have been the first track, given its obvious comparisons with Thin Lizzy, but Warwick shakes his head: “you know it’s funny,” he recalls, “but Scott didn’t want that on the album at all, he felt it was too close to something that Lizzy would have done, and who am I to argue? Scott keeps that alive, man, he was Phil’s best friend, but I really felt it was something and [Producer] Kevin Shirley had them go into the studio and do those twin guitar parts and I’m watching Scott Gorham……” He trails off and as he does so you become aware of just how much love Warwick has for the job he does, a point we put to him. His reply is instant: “It’s something I’ve said a million times, but it’s true, you can’t stand in the shoes of Phil Lynott. You stand next to him. People said that the frontman to replace him should have been a bass player, it should have been a guy with an afro, all this shit, get your head out of your ass! There’s only one Phil Lynott and he’s irreplaceable.”
The matter at hand is this tour, though, and as a result of something that happened in the 40 minutes they were onstage, there’s one thing we just have to ask. Right at the end of their set tonight, they played a track by the outfit Warwick formed in the 1980s in Glasgow. That race through “Jonestown Mind” was as welcome as it was unexpected, and even though MV had resolved not to ask any questions about The Almighty given how much water had gone under the bridge, well, he’d played it after all……
So, Ricky, why that one? He responds by asking us a question: “Why, which did you think we might do?” MV, we don’t mind telling you, is at that moment, stumped. The Almighty is the band that this writer has probably listened to most in the last two and a half decades, but right now, faced with the lead singer who’s poster we were putting on our walls in 1991 and who’s bands we’ve seen more than any other in the intervening 25 years, can we think of the one? How do you answer with Warwick himself smiling at you? The best we can muster – with all the cool of a 14-year-old trying to ask a girl he really fancies out – is a jibbering “I don’t know……”Do You Understand” maybe?” Warwick, perhaps sensing that at that very moment this humble scribe needed help, laughs and says: “we could have, but it sounds too much like SLF, Jake [Burns- SLF singer] would have killed me!
“Nah, we thought about it,” he elaborates, perhaps still trying to assist MV, “and the guys liked that one, and it was our biggest selling single. So it’s a good one to do.”
Ok, so having already looked dumb once, we might as well ask that almighty dumb Almighty question, really. Is there any hope of a reformation? Warwick, who is patience personified, has the decency to answer: “Well, me and Stumpy [Monroe – Drums] are still good friends and I never say never on it. A couple of the guys wouldn’t be so keen, so I don’t know. Mind you if I went on tour again I think I’d be getting divorced!”
That’s largely because Warwick is without peer as the busiest man in rock n roll. After all, this tour comes just after the Christmas shows that BSR did with Whitesnake and Def Leppard, but it had long been planned: “I really wanted to play these songs, and this is the first chance we’ve had to tour as a band, and Jake is a mate and I knew they were coming out on this tour, so it was the ideal one to do it on.”
Not that he intends to rest. In fact, the phrase, “I hate laziness” comes up again and again throughout the chat. Amateur psychology notwithstanding, is it just possible that Warwick – who tells a story about having to get sign on and get proper jobs in his bleak post-Almighty times – remembers when he wasn’t always as fortunate as he is now? He concedes that there is possibly an element of truth to that, but says: “I just like to get up and work hard, I like to do stuff, and…” That phrase again – “I can’t abide laziness and I hate lazy people.”
Whatever the reason, the schedule is pretty packed. The next Fighting Hearts album is mostly written, he confirms: “This band is continuing as a band, and I’m collaborating with Sam again, I intend to put the record our as Ricky Warwick and the Fighting Hearts, we’ve got a little window in BSR stuff to go out on tour again next Spring and I hope we can.” The new Black Star Riders record is also due out next year and that’s written too, and there’s the Thin Lizzy shows to celebrate 40 years of “Jailbreak” – one of which is at Ramblin’ Man Fair this summer, so there’s no letup in his schedule.
These are golden years for Warwick, and you sense that even he knows that too, and he seems happy in his own skin too. “I’m 49 years old, and I’m comfortable with what I do, I’m comfortable with my sound, I know my strengths and weaknesses – and you know what? I think you should at that age! And as I look back at everything I’ve done, I’m proud, and I’m fortunate, I’ve played with Iron Maiden, I’ve drunk with Lemmy and I’ve played all over the world.”
But there’s one more thing he’s got to say and in saying it he sums himself up: “ I just hope that no one thinks I’m lucky. I’ve worked bloody hard for everything I’ve achieved and I’ll continue to do just that too.”
And that, you sense, is not just a story.