When former Rainbow/Michael Schenker Group frontman Graham Bonnet formed Alactrazz with bassist Gary Shea and keyboardist Jimmy Waldo in 1983, few could have accurately predicted the impact the group would have on the Melodic Hard Rock genre. Joined by a then relatively unknown Yngwie Malmsteen and drummer Jan Uvena (after the departure of ex-Iron Maiden skinsman Clive Burr), the group quickly unleashed their full-length debut
When former Rainbow/Michael Schenker Group frontman Graham Bonnet formed Alactrazz with bassist Gary Shea and keyboardist Jimmy Waldo in 1983, few could have accurately predicted the impact the group would have on the Melodic Hard Rock genre. Joined by a then relatively unknown Yngwie Malmsteen and drummer Jan Uvena (after the departure of ex-Iron Maiden skinsman Clive Burr), the group quickly unleashed their full-length debutNo Parole From Rock 'N' Roll and the in-concert testament Live Sentence in 1983. Two additional releases featuring Steve Vai (Disturbing The Peace, 1985) and Danny Johnson (Dangerous Games, 1986) would follow before the group ultimately disbanded in 1987. Now, nearly thirty-five years after their proverbial swan song, Bonnet has emerged at the frontline of consciousness with the release of Meanwhile, Back In The Garage.
Todd: How was this particular version of your solo group formed? What led to you once again beginning anew?
Graham: “Four years ago, I was basically going out there on the road and doing what I call karaoke gigs, which is me playing with a band from whichever country I was visiting at the time. My girlfriend (Graham Bonnet band bassist Beth-Ami Heavenstone) said 'How about recording and writing some new songs?' instead of going out there and just singing the usual stuff I do like (the Rainbow classics) “All Night Long” and “Since You've Been Gone”. It became a point of inspiration and I thought 'Well, why not?'. It's never too late to start over, so that's what I did. I wasn't really thinking about putting my own band together again. I was quite happy just rolling along as I had been in the past. If I was in Finland, I'd be playing with a Finnish band and if I was i Sweden, I'd be playing with a Swedish band, which were both basically the same thing, ya know? So I thought 'Yeah, why not?'. ...And that's where we all are as of right now. This band has been together for four years now.”
Todd: When you were performing with what one would assume are relatively--or, for that matter, completely unknown--acts from various different countries, how often were you 'presented' with sub-par or poor musicians?
Graham: “Not a lot, actually. The bands I had played with in the past have been really good. They've been really great musicians and they know every song inside out. Usually, they are already fans of my work with Rainbow or my old band Alcatrazz, so they know every song and they play everything pretty much perfectly. I've never had any problem with bad musicianship. I've just been very lucky, I think. And (ex-Deep Purple, Rainbow and Yngwie Malmsteen vocalist Joe Lynn Turner) would certainly tell you the same thing. We did a gig a while back where he was also playing with a local band, and they were great. We did a lot of gigs together about ten years ago and there has never been a problem the musicians. ...It can happen and now that I think about it, it did happen once when I played in England maybe fifteen years ago. The band wasn't that great (laughs), but we got through it and got by okay. It was a little disappointing, but we didn't do many gigs. I remember playing maybe five gigs in England one that tour before I came back home. And I was glad to come home. I really don't want to put any of the guys down, but they weren't that great. ...But that is the one and only time it's actually happened.”
Todd: The group recently underwent a major line-up change. What led to Joey Tafloa (Jag Panzer) departing from the group? How did the group become involved with guitarist Kurt James (Deathriders, K9, Willie Basse)?
Graham: “Unfortunately, yes. Joey was our guitar player on this album. He played on every track except for one because he refused to play on it for some odd reason that I didn't understand. It was the Russ Ballard song that Russ wrote for us. He just said 'No, I'm not playing on that.' He was like “What is this?” It was as if he was insulted that he should be asked to play on it. And then he said 'Well, I'm interested in doing something else. I have another business project coming up.' I didn't know if it's anything to do with the music or anything to do with being in another band, but now I see that he's actually gone out there and put his own band together. He kind of used this band as a stepping stone to something else he wanted to do. But he introduced us to our new guitarist because he's a friend of his. He said 'I'll find you somebody else. Don't worry.' And then Kurt came along and he's been incredible. He's really, really good. I'm sort of happy that Joey isn't with us anymore because this guy is better (laughs). ...And the thing of it is, Curt had given guitar lessons to Joey in the past, so he's proficient in all different kinds of music Country And Western and Jazz. Whatever you like, he can play it. He's a real musician. He plays the stuff that's very difficult for some guitarists to play cleanly and well with soul, with feel like some of the songs from the Alcatrazz era. He can plays these things like he's playing them in his sleep. But he plays them perfectly. If I close my eyes, it's like playing with Yngwie as a young man. I don't know how he plays now, but back then, he was a hungry young guitarist. Kurt has all the solos down perfectly.”
Todd: Aside from what Russ Ballard contributed, how was the songwriting duties for Meanwhile, Back In The Garage divided among the various members of the group? Was it evenly 'allotted' between yourself and Jimmy?
Graham: “Most of it was me, Jimmy, and Joey when Joey was still around. And some of it was just me because I usually come up with ideas and then the band will offer me their ideas to either improve a song or completely destroy it depending which way it goes (laughs). It's a bit of everything. Everybody chips in with their own ideas about how to edit a song. If it's too long or it needed another part, they would suggest things. I usually write all my stuff on an acoustic guitar and then I play it to the band and say 'Okay, now make this a band song.' It's something I've done ever since Alcatrazz was together. I played everything to Yngwie acoustically and then he would electrify it, so to speak. That's the way things work. But obviously, with guitar players, they always have ten thousand guitar rifts which is not something I do. I usually construct songs with the verses and then I get the arrangement together before I have a riff happening. But guitar players will have ten thousand rifts up their sleeve and sometimes they sound a bit cheesy to me because there have been so many rifts similar to others. With those all of these Rainbow type things and (ex-Scorpions/UFO guitarist) Michael Shenker parts, I'm like 'I've heard that before' (laughs). But with Kurt is completely different. He is, as I said, a true musician. After the gigs are over, the people gather round and go 'Wow, man. You're incredible.' It's great to see and it takes some of the pressure off of me. Usually, they'll say 'Oh, can we talk to Graham', but now Kurt is getting his own fan club going. If somebody comes up with a photograph to sign, well, I'm glad they do because that's what I'm there for. But it's also very cool that the rest of the band is now getting recognized. That is what I like.”
Todd: At what point did you realize the Down To Earth (1979) era of Rainbow was coming to an end? Was there a particular incident that spurred the collapse? It's a shame that line-up never had an opportunity to record more.
Graham: “The final gig we did was Monsters Of Rock in (Castle Donington) England, which was the very first Monsters Of Rock ever. It was the most incredible day. It's always going to be in my memories. It was just incredible. It was also the day that (drummer) Cozy Powell left the band. The reason I quit was because after Cozy left the band, we went to Copenhagen to rehearse. We were going to record in Copenhagen, so we were rehearsing in Copenhagen for the next album, but nothing was going down. Nobody seemed that interested anymore. We had a new drummer (Bobby Rondinelli) come in and the rehearsals... Sometimes, there were two guys there, sometimes there were three guys there and sometimes it was just (keyboardist) Don and I. We were going 'Okay, what's happening? Where's (ex-Deep Purple guitarist) Ritchie (Blackmore)?' Ritchie wouldn't turn up and it was all very lackluster. Nothing really happened. We had one song, which Russ Ballard wrote, called “I Surrender”, but that's all we had. One afternoon when Don and I were standing there looking at each other going 'Okay, well we're here, but what do we do?, he said 'It just goes on, Graham. I think I'm going to leave the band.' I said 'You're kidding. 'Well, if you leave, I am too because this is very boring and non-productive.' After a couple more days, I said 'I'm going home. What's the point of me standing here doing bugger all?' We put backing vocals down for “I Surrender” and I just said 'Why am I here?'. So I came back to L.A. and when they called me up and asked 'Are you coming back?', I said 'Nothing's happening. We don't have any songs.' I fired myself, basically (laughs). And then Don, instead of also firing himself, stayed in the band, which really pissed me off. ...I was like 'Come on, man. You said you were going to leave.' And I really believed him because Cozy, Don and I were very close during that Rainbow period. We always hung out together like the three Musketeers.”
Todd: Was it common for Ritchie to not show up to his own rehearsals? As an outsider, that seems very strange.
Graham: “Actually, no. He was really on it when we rehearsed for Down To Earth. It was every day and it was incredible. He was really, really into it. But after the tour... Maybe it was because we were all tired from a very long tour... I don't know, but he was hanging out in Copenhagen and going sightseeing. He was normally really on. He was a very good workman, I should say. He was very productive, but that time, I think he was just tired.
It was unbelievable, really I can't even remember some of the places we played anymore. It was all so grueling.”
Todd: Creatively, did you find it difficult to make the transition from Rainbow to the Michael Schenker Group? While there are some obvious similarities to what you'd done in the past, it's also quite different in its own right.
Graham: “It was actually a relief because I was sitting there going 'What the hell do I do now? I've fired myself and I don't have a job.' Cozy, at that point, was in the Michael Schenker band. And I went to see them play in Los Angeles and it was great. (Vocalist) Gary Barden was singing, but I'd never heard of Michael Schenker. ...I'd heard the name here and there, but I never actually knew who he was and how he played. So I went to this gig and after it was over, I was watching one of the support bands and Cozy came onto the balcony where I was standing. He said 'What did you think of the band?' and I said 'Oh, it's fucking great. Great band, great guitar play and great songs.' And then he said 'How would you like to be in this band?.' I said 'What do you mean? You already have a band' and he said 'Yeah, but we want to have you in the band instead of Gary.' ...So Gary was fired and I got tapes in the mail as we did back then. Cassette tapes. I remember them well. It was something with three songs on it and it said 'Urgent. Please write words and melodies.' To go into that sort of out of the blue was a bit daunting because I'd never really written whole songs myself without the aid of another writer. Roger Glover, for instance, wrote all the lyrics to all the songs on Down To Earth. I didn't know where to start with the Michael Schenker stuff, but I had to because Michael said 'I don't speak English very well. I can't write words. So can you please do it?' and I was like 'Okay, I will.' We went into rehearsal in London and it was going great, but then one day Michael had a fight with Cozy and Cozy was fired. I was going 'Oh great. Here we go again. I'm losing Cozy Powell for the second time.' And it was sounding good. I had gotten all the songs down, so it was sounding really good. I was then able to start writing words. I was surprised how well I'd gotten along with that. It was becoming easier and easier the more songs I wrote. That's when (drummer) Ted McKenna was brought in and it was amazing. When I first heard Ted McKenna play, he's really something. He's fantastic. He lifted everything back up. ...And it was so exciting to do something new. I'm pretty proud of that album myself.”
Todd: Is it true that when Alcatrazz initially launched, (ex-Iron Maiden) drummer Clive Burr was in the group?
Richie: “He was one of many. He was there for a limited time and then for some reason, I don't remember why, he didn't work out. We were also auditioning Aynsley Dunbar (Journey, UFO, Whitesnake). He was another guy. There were a to of drummer that we rehearsed with. With some of the rehearsals, I wasn't even there, but the guys were telling me about it. We rehearsed another drummer today. It was Clive Burr.' They just didn't work out for some reason. And I remember Andy (Truman), our manager, saying, 'Well, we've got to find somebody who has some cred in the music business. Someone who's played in a well-known band.' Even though these other guys had played with well-known Rock bands, we weren't satisfied with what we were hearing. So he said 'Well, how about the guy from Alice Cooper band? This guy named Jan Uvena.' Jan came along and he was amazing. From there, we really started to pull the band together. ...That's when we found Yngwie as a guitarist.”
Todd: Once Yngwie chose to leave in pursuit of a solo career, how did Steve Vai become involved with the you?
Richie: “Some of the other guys in the band knew Steve. It was probably Jimmy and Gary because they know everybody. I don't know everybody in music, but for some reason they do. They know all the great players. It was their suggestion and what a great move it was because it turned the band around. I think it became a little bit different. It wasn't like every other sort of Hard Rock band. That album is one of my favorite albums, to be honest with you. I liked the way Steve put the songs together and we worked very well together. I can still remember the first gig we did with him. We were playing a small club somewhere and he was nervous as hell. He said 'They're not going to like the way I play it. I can't play like Yngwie' and I said 'No, you play like Steve Vai.' And people loved it from the word go because he was different. He's such a different player. Very unusual.”
Todd: Prior to the start of the recording sessions for Dangerous Games, how would you describe the atmosphere in the band? Prior to Danny Johnson coming aboard, was everyone 'burnt out' at that particular junction in time?
Graham: “The whole recording sessions were disappointing because we were told by Capitol Records that we had to have something on the album that's a bit more radio friendly. They were saying to me 'Graham, can you write words that people can understand?' And I said 'What do you mean? I write words that tell a story, usually.' And they were like 'But we want something more simple, more in your face.' I was like 'Well, what do you want? (The Kiss song) “Lick It Up” or something? Or “Long Live Rock And Roll?”' But that's not the way I make up songs, so they said 'Okay. How about doing some covers?' That's when we all looked at each other and went 'Oh my God.' It was all doomed as far as we were concerned. We did a do couple of covers (“It's My Life” and “Only One Woman”) and it wasn't the happiest of times. It was horrible. Eventually, it all fell apart because Danny was offered another gig and he disappeared. (Van Halen guitarist) Eddie Van Halen was going to invest some money into the project, but it didn't work out. Once he was gone, we eventually all fell apart. We looked at each other and said 'It's really over, isn't it?' We we're getting anywhere, so it eventually died a sad, quiet death.”
Todd: At this point, with nostalgia being so strong, what is preventing a 'full' Alcatrazz reunion from happening?
Graham: “I don't want to go back to that. I'm trying to kill that baby. It's been around too long and I've been dragging it around forever. I really wish we didn't have to do Alcatrazz songs live on stage. There will never be a reunion as such because everybody is different now. Everybody has grown up, everybody has their own thing going on and for me, that would be going backwards and I would hate to do that. I know Jimmy Waldo feels the same way. It's okay having to playing a couple of Alcatrazz songs, but the new songs are what I'm more excited about. Playing Alcatrazz songs is like playing old music that to me is long gone and dead. But if people come to hear it, then we'll play it. I actually listen to what people have been saying to me. 'Why aren't you playing this?' and 'Why aren't you playing that?' Luckily, some of them are our brand new songs, which is really, really great.”
Todd: What are your current touring plans? I'm assuming you'll be working as much as possible in support of Meanwhile, Back In The Garage. Am I correct in understanding you also have unfulfilled shows with Schenker?
Graham: “I'm going to play with Michael as a reunion thing I'm doing again. We've done some already, reunion shows. And it's with all the things that's from his other albums. Gary Barden and (ex-Cornerstone, Rainbow and Yngwie Malmsteen vocalist) Doogie White and (ex-Far Corporation, McAuley Schenker Group and Survivor vocalist) Robin McAuley. ...We're all pretty down to earth and know what we're doing. We're doing this to make money (laughs) and that's the main thing. We're out there to make money, this is our job and it's nice to say 'Look, we're still alive' because nobody is twenty anymore. It's cool that the audiences are singing along with most of the songs that Michael Shenker has recorded on his albums, so it's been fun. So there's the four of us and we all work together on stage doing harmonies for each other when it's somebody's turn to sing the lead. It's a fun gig, but it's a very long haul. It's two and a half hours long and we're going to play in Moscow and other parts of Russia. We have two dates in Russia, one live show and one television show and that will be it, so I've got two days away and then I come home for five days and then we go on the road to the UK. ...Our band finally goes out there to do our thing. I'm looking forward to that more than the Shenker thing because I've also got some more Shenker things at the end of the year too, which is going to be a month long tour of that. It's going to be so grueling. There is a lot of travel involved with this thing and, man, it's day after day, no days off.”
Todd: What type of set lists have you been working with? Have they represented each of the idiosyncratic eras?
Graham: “Yes. We're adding new songs from the new album as well as songs from the first Graham Bonnet Band album (The Book, 2016), too. We're going to add songs as we go along. It seems to be going well because the people who know songs from the first album and that's kind of cool. That's when the people in the crowd are singing the words. But we also are going to do the goodies, the ones I'm never going to have to throw away because they're part of my history. “Since You've Been Gone”, “All Night Long” and whatever else. ...I'm so sick of singing “Since You've Been Gone”, that I can't tell you. But when I look out there and they all get lit up and go crazy with that song, it's all worth it. It really is. And I understand that we have to do this stuff. In fact, we're going to do a show later on in the year where all we play is the music of Alcatrazz. It'll be a special show.”
Todd: Has adversely has your hearing been affected throughout your career? Have you had compelling damage?
Graham: “Pardon? (laughs). What did you say? I use inner ear monitors. Of course I was already using inner ear monitors well before I'd started to get really deaf. My right ear is very dull. If I put my finger in my left ear and speak, everything is kind of mumbly. I'm partially deaf in my right ear and in my left ear, I have tinnitus, so it's ringing all day, which drives me nuts, especially at night when all is quiet. It seems to get louder in the darkness. So I do have a little bit of ear damage, but so far, it's not too bad. And Jimmy has the same damn thing. In fact, he's even deafer than I am. I have to yell at him to say 'You're playing the wrong chord' (laughs).”
Meanwhile, Back In The Garage (2018)
Reel To Real: The Archives (2018)
Breaking The Heart Of The City: The Very Best Of Alcatrazz (2017)
Live - Tokyo International Forum Hall (2017)
The Book (2016)
Escape From Alcatrazz: Alive In Japan (2015)
Anthology 1968-2017 (2015)
Live '83 (2010)
System X (2002)
The Day I Went Mad (1999)
Here Comes The Night (1991)
Forcefield IV: Let The Wild Run Free (1991)
Forcefield III: To Oz And Back (1989)
Stand In Line (1988)
Dangerous Games (1986)
Disturbing The Peace (1985)
Live Sentence (1984)
No Parole From Rock 'n' Roll (1983)
Assault Attack (1982)
Down To Earth (1979)
Graham Bonnet (1977)
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