Songwriter and musician Barry Reynolds has lived an itinerant life. By age 15, in the mid-1960s, he’d left his Lancashire home and was gigging in Hamburg, then with the London bands Pacific Drift and Blodwyn Pig (with Jethro Tull’s Mick Abrahams). Once he started writing his own songs, he came to the attention of Marianne Faithfull, with whom he’s since had many years of fruitful collaborations. He’s had a similar relationship with Grace Jones, with whom he’s currently working. He shares some fascinating stories about his life and career with PKM’s Valerie Simadis.
Barry Reynolds came onto the music scene in the mid-1960s. When he was all of 15, he accepted his first gig as a guitarist—under rather unusual circumstances.
“One time we were having a school holiday and someone came ‘round for my brother asking him to come to Hamburg,” Reynolds recalled. “I was 15 and they thought I was my brother, and so I accepted the offer and went to a rehearsal the day after.” During his stay in Hamburg, Reynolds played six hours a night at the Cavern Club.
“If you went to Hamburg with a band and you came back and the band wasn’t great, you had no chance at all because it really got any band into great shape,” Reynolds said.
Several months later, he returned to England, and after being ‘buffeted around’ London, joined the band Pacific Drift. In 1970, Reynolds left the band and joined Blodwyn Pig, a blues band fronted by Mick Abrahams, formerly of Jethro Tull. During this time, bands were in search of guitarists who played solos like Eric Clapton, and Barry, who disliked that style of playing, did not wish to conform to these ‘standards’.
In 1974, Reynolds released his debut single, “Outsiders Point of View,” on RAK Records.
This proved to be his only single for RAK before moving on to Epic, where he released “The World Wasn’t Ready” in 1975. Reynolds’ singles didn’t reach the top of the U.K. charts, but his unique vocals and songwriting prowess were unmistakable, and it was evident that prominent figures in the music industry had picked up on this as well. Years later, Reynolds was invited to a rehearsal with Marianne Faithfull who was preparing to go on tour.
“At this point, Marianne was not considered a songwriter,” Barry stated “She did write the lyrics to ‘Sister Morphine’, but she was never credited for it. I remember saying ‘We should really sit down and write something’, and we wrote two songs.” Those two songs became the foundation for Broken English, which was certified platinum in Germany and France and sold over one million copies worldwide.
Reynolds continued to co-write songs with Faithfull, and in 1980 he received a call from Chris Blackwell (founder of Island Records). “He said ‘I want you to join this experimental band of Jamaican musicians, and we’re backing this singer…’ And I thought he said Gloria Jones! I had met Gloria Jones in the past, and because it was my party, I was a little out of it. I just said ‘Gloria Jones? Yeah, I’ll do that. Where is it going to be?’ And he said, ‘In Nassau in the Bahamas,’ Reynolds recalled. That year, he recorded Warm Leatherette with his fellow Compass Point All Stars – Sly and Robbie, Wally Badarou, Mikey Chung and Uziah “Sticky” Thompson. Reynolds continued to serve as co-writer and guitarist on Grace Jones’s succeeding albums Nightclubbing andLiving My Life. During this time, Reynolds collaborated with various artists at Compass Point Studios, including Joe Cocker and Black Uhuru. In 1982, he released his first solo album I Scare Myself, which featured an eclectic mix of songs, including an Irish rebel song entitled “The Bold Fenian Men.”
In later years, Reynolds has continued to work with Marianne Faithfull, and served as co-producer and writer on Baaba Maal’s albums, Television and Nomad Soul, respectively. In 2008, Reynolds teamed up with Grace Jones and co-wrote the track “Well Well Well,” which is featured on her album Hurricane. This year, Reynolds is back in the studio with Grace, and is co-writing her latest album. I sat down with Barry to discuss his early days in Manchester and Hamburg, recording Broken English with Marianne Faithfull, and his current project with Grace Jones.
PKM: You hail from Bolton, Lancashire. What was the music scene like in Manchester when you were growing up?
Barry Reynolds: It was interesting because it was changing. The majority of the music that I listened to was broadcast by the BBC. There was a show called Uncle Mac’s Children’s Favourites on Saturday that everyone listened to. The BBC stations would play standards like Frank Sinatra and Doris Day, and then they would play weird tracks like “Mr. Custer”. They would also play songs from musicals like West Side Story and TheStudent Prince with Mario Lanza, which for some reason I loved. I was drawn to the melodies and the passion.
PKM: Who are some of your musical influences?
Barry Reynolds: As a child, my influences were all over the place. I remember hearing “Georgia On My Mind” by Ray Charles and loving that. When I was about 13, I was playing at a club and The Spencer Davis Group came down and played, and that’s when I met Steve Winwood.
He was two or three years older than me, and he played “Georgia On My Mind” on the piano. It just blew me away – this kid, playing and singing with such beautiful soul. It was like he was from another planet.
There was definitely a blues influence, but you have to remember that Manchester and Liverpool were ports, so there were a lot of Americans who would come over there to go to Germany to be based in the Army or in the Air Force. Because I was always playing in clubs, we would often meet soldiers, and some of the Black soldiers would tell us, “Hey man, you’ve got to listen to this.” It would be either Wilson Pickett or Sam & Dave, and that’s where Northern Soul began. In the south, everyone was listening to the blues, but up north we were listening to soul music like Aretha Franklin and early Stax records. That was a big influence on me.
PKM: What was the first instrument that you learned to play?
Barry Reynolds: I played around on the piano, but the house was so chaotic! It was a madhouse, just kids running around with their friends. There was never any peace until my brother bought a guitar (which I have here, by the way). I don’t know if I told you, but my brother died just before Christmas, and I brought his guitar here with me. I remember when he first got an acoustic guitar, I would go into the bedroom and just close the door. I was alone, and I would play an E minor chord and I felt as though I was out on the range in Arizona. It would take me where I wanted to go. I remember I thought my father was at work one day, and he opened my door and it was like someone had walked into my dream. It really shocked me! I thought I was going to have a heart attack because I was in a completely different world. Before that experience, I didn’t realize how deep music could take you, spiritually and visually. For me it turned out to be an escape.
PKM: How old were you when you played your first gig?
Barry Reynolds: My elder brother played the guitar and he wanted another guitarist to play with him. The last thing I ever wanted to do was be on stage in front of people. Playing guitar was fine, but I never wanted to be a performer or anything like that. One time we were having a school holiday and someone came ‘round for my brother asking him to come to Hamburg. I was 15 and they thought I was my brother, and so I accepted the offer and went to a rehearsal the day after. The band wasn’t very good, but I got the gig and two weeks later I was on a boat going to Hamburg.
PKM: What was Hamburg like in the early Sixties?
Barry Reynolds: It was incredibly dangerous! The war had been over for 20 years or so, but If you were English and you had really long hair, you were definitely looked down upon. Hamburg was a port and there were a lot of soldiers and sailors that would drop off there to spend their wages to get drunk and get into fights and go to the brothels. In Hamburg there was a club, a brothel, a pub, maybe a restaurant, and that was it. Every night when we played there were fights and we’d have to play six hours a night, so it was really hard work. If you went to Hamburg with a band and you came back and the band wasn’t great, you had no chance at all because it really got any band into great shape…if they had it in them.
The main thing about Hamburg was I fell in love at 15 [laughs]. I was so naive and I didn’t know anything about anything. I met this lady named Iris Mellis who was from Hamburg. When I’d finished playing around 3:30 AM, at one point she came up and she got me a drink. We started talking, and I fell madly in love with her. Even though it was only a three-year age difference, at that age, it feels like 50 years. Iris would pick me up at 3:30 every morning and take me back to her place, so I left my hotel (this horrible place which was located on the top floor of The Top Ten Club) and moved in with her. All of a sudden, I was in this palatial place with this lady, so to me it was heaven.
About a month later, the sax player came up to me and said “Barry, I have to tell you about Iris “, and I said “What?” He said ,“Why do you think she picks you up at 3:30?” I think my response was something along the lines of “Because she loves me?”, and then he told me that she was a hooker. Of course, I attacked him! Then I thought about it and I realized it kind of made sense. This revelation didn’t take away any of my love for her, and we kept seeing each other. I eventually came back to Manchester for about a week to pick up some things, and then I moved to London immediately. Iris met me in London and we got an apartment together, and so, I went from the age of 15 to 21 in about a month.
PKM: What became of the relationship?
Barry Reynolds: We lived together for quite a while, actually, and then I started working in London. I was picking up any kind of work, mainly around Soho. In Soho there were various strip clubs and they just wanted music in the background. I was never really one to want to join in bands, even though I did. I was like a feral kid, being bounced around and surviving out of the kindness of strangers, basically putting me up and feeding me when I was hungry. People used to ask me what I was doing there at that age, and where my parents were. My idea at the time was to leave and make enough money, so I could go back to my parents and say “See, I’ve made all this money! I’ll buy my mum a house.” That was what was going on in my head, but it obviously didn’t work out that way.
PKM: Can you recall some of the venues where you played?
Barry Reynolds: The first one was The Twilight Rooms, which was a seedy strip club in London. I remember seeing some famous actors down there that I’d seen on TV, as well. I was just a kid being buffeted around – I didn’t have a plan at all. Eventually, someone asked me to join a band, so I went back to Germany. I was usually asked to join bands when someone had just left and they needed a guitarist, and because I have really good ears, I could pick up the music rather quickly. As far as my musical career went, I didn’t have anything in mind, but I didn’t aspire to be on the road working with bands. I started writing around this time, which was the main reason why I stayed in the business.
PKM: After leaving the band Pacific Drift in 1970, you joined the blues band Blodwyn Pig. What was it like working with Mick Abrahams?
Barry Reynolds: Joining Pacific Drift was a mistake. At that time, everyone wanted guitarists to play like Eric Clapton, and I didn’t play that style of music. My music was more rhythm-based. I hated long drawn-out solos that just went nowhere. I was in the band for about six months. We did some recording and then the band split up and I joined up with Mick Abrahams who had formed his own band which was veering a little more towards jazz [Editor’s Note: Blodwyn Pig]. I certainly wasn’t a jazz player, but I could hear the chords and I could play around. I wouldn’t consider myself a technical musician at all.
PKM: How did you end up becoming writing partners with Marianne Faithfull?
Barry Reynolds: I got a call from a friend of mine who was in Fleetwood Mac, and he said that Marianne was going to do a tour. I really wasn’t interested, because the only thing I knew about Marianne was that she was Jagger’s girlfriend. She was incredibly beautiful, but I thought ‘As Tears Go By’ was a weak song and it wasn’t the music that I liked at all. I went down to the rehearsal and I met Marianne and we instantly became friends. At this point Marianne was not considered a songwriter. She did write the lyrics to ‘Sister Morphine’, but she was never credited for it. I remember saying ‘We should really sit down and write something.’, and we wrote two songs. There was a very risqué poem written by a friend of ours (Heathcote Williams) called ‘Why D’Ya Do It’, and I put the music towards it and Marianne kind of rapped it.
Then we wrote ‘Broken English’ and the next thing, there were record companies knocking on Marianne’s door, asking her to make an album. And so, we went into the studio and recorded Broken English.
PKM: Side one of Broken English ends with a fabulous track of yours entitled “Guilt”. What inspired you to write that song?
Barry Reynolds: I think it was a drift into addiction. I read something by Paul Bowles in which he said that if he was writing fiction, he never thought he was writing about himself. But, when he would read it three years later, he could see himself all the way through it. With “Guilt” it took me about ten years to realize what I was really writing about. There’s a line in there “I feel blood, I feel blood, though it’s streaming through my veins, it’s not enough.” Meaning, I wasn’t content and I needed something else. It could be drugs or alcohol, but I certainly wasn’t happy with how I felt about myself, and being lost and almost like a nomad, in the middle of London.
PKM: During the recording sessions for Broken English, what was the atmosphere like in the studio?
Barry Reynolds: It was very loose. Marianne and I wrote the songs together and it was Marianne’s idea to share it with the band. This turned out to be a really bad idea for me, because what she shared with the band was the music and not the lyrics. She got fifty percent of the lyrics and I got one fourth of the music with the band – and the band had nothing to do with writing! It was just Marianne and myself, locked away somewhere getting stoned and writing.
I lost a lot of money, as does every musician, because of that. Publishers came after me with a little money, but to me it was a lot. I just signed the first thing that came up, not realizing that these people still own those songs for the rest of my life. I almost signed my life away. Then I started touring with Marianne and with the band, and I realized it was better and somewhat more intimate when it was just Marianne and myself. Just an acoustic, and Marianne. It wasn’t like seeing a band on stage, sloughing through songs, because Marianne is incredibly articulate and she’s a great storyteller.
PKM: What was it like being on the road with Marianne?
Barry Reynolds: With Marianne and myself, I found it easier. With bands, if you’re on the road for a while, the slightest thing that irritates you with someone, after about two weeks, you want to kill them. When it was just Marianne and myself touring, we both knew our place. I would do the soundcheck for us and then we would meet, we’d go on stage, we’d play, and then there would be an after-party.
I was never really a partier so I would go back to the hotel after the show and not hang around. On the road, it’s hard work and it can create tension, but we had a relationship when we were working on the road, because it was bound to happen. It’s just two people against the world. There’s a great part in Keith Richards’ book which explains what happens on the road sometimes, and it’s got nothing to do with sex – or it can have something to do with sex. Sometimes, after you’ve been on the road for a while, it can get incredibly lonely. You’re surrounded by people who you don’t know who are throwing these wonderful compliments that really don’t mean anything. Then you go back to the hotel and you get up in the morning, catch the plane, and it’s almost a monastic existence. Eventually, we started staying together, sleeping together, and as Keith Richards eloquently put it, “Sometimes at night, you just need someone next to you.”
PKM: Do you have a Marianne Faithfull story for me? Barry Reynolds: Yes, a million. I wouldn’t know where to start because Marianne is a character.
One incident that springs to mind is we were on the road in Amsterdam and playing at a venue called the Paradiso. After the show the band decided to roam Amsterdam at night. Marianne was a little too drunk to come out. She was like “Yes, well I’m coming with you!” , and we said “No. Marianne.” We just want to go out for a drink and hang out, and Marianne was saying “No, I want to come with you!” At one point, Steve York, the bass player came into Marianne’s room with some gaffer tape to fix his bass. Marianne was sitting in a chair, and I grabbed the tape and started tying her up. She thought it was sexual or something, and she was going “Oh, stop it. What are you doing? Why haven’t you stopped?” I kept on doing it until we tied her to the chair.
Afterwards, she really couldn’t move so we left and went out for about four or five hours. When we came back to the hotel I thought “Fuck…I forgot! Marianne!” I got to her room and the chair had fallen over and there was Marianne asleep, still in the chair. I started pulling the gaffer tape off of her, which was obviously very painful, and she was going “What are you doing?! Stop it! What’s going on?” We explained what happened the day after, but I don’t think she spoke to me for about a month after that [laughs]. In my defense, Amsterdam was quite dangerous at that point, and it wouldn’t have been a good thing for Marianne to come out. She was determined to come with us and see what we did. And so, the tape came in handy.
PKM: Essentially, you realized that you would be babysitting her if she came along.
Barry Reynolds: Yes, and also being on the road with Marianne, I understand the ‘Me Too’ movement completely. I’ve worked with a lot of female singers over the years and they’ve never been more protected than when they’re with a band. You become protective of the band but even more so of a woman in the band. With the gaffer tape incident, Marianne knew she was in good hands and that nothing really bad was happening. Unfortunately, bad things did happen when she was going through a junkie period. When a junkie wants something, they’ll get it by means either devious or foul, and they’ll figure out a way of getting what they want. No matter how protective I was, or the band was, she would figure out a way of getting her fix.
PKM: Speaking of working with female singers, what led to your original collaboration with Grace Jones?
Barry Reynolds: I got a call on my birthday when I was working with Marianne. I was supposed to appear on Saturday Night Live with her, when I got a call from Chris Blackwell from Island Records. He said “I want you to join this experimental band of Jamaican musicians, and we’re backing this singer…“ And I thought he said Gloria Jones! I had met Gloria Jones in the past, and because it was my party, I was a little out of it. I just said “Gloria Jones? Yeah, I’ll do that. Where is it going to be?” And he said, “In Nassau in the Bahamas.”
The day after, I couldn’t remember any dates or what was going on, and so I rang up Island and got through to someone, and they said “No, it’s Grace Jones.” I said “Oh, okay.” I had never heard of her, and I wasn’t familiar with her material, so they sent me over a couple of albums – and they were these disco albums! I was never a great fan of disco but I knew there was good disco, and there was bad disco, and for me, it was just dreadful. I thought “Why would he want me to be involved in this? With Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare?”, but I consider Chris Blackwell a real visionary and when we got over there, the tracks that he had waiting for us were very downtown New York, like Warm Leatherette. They all had this kind of gay sadomasochistic thing about them. We started putting a twist on it, and then Grace came in and half sang and half talked. That’s when things started working.
PKM: What studio did you record in?
Barry Reynolds: We recorded at a place called Compass Point. We became the Compass Point All Stars [Editor’s Note: The Compass Point All Stars was comprised of Barry Reynolds, Lowell “Sly” Dunbar, Mikey Chung, Robbie Shakespeare, Uziah “Sticky” Thompson, and Wally Badarou] who backed other artists like Joe Cocker and James Brown. There were always different singers passing through. The session with James Brown didn’t work out because he knew what he wanted and he didn’t want any kind of reggae twist on it. We made some really nice albums down there, and we made Grace Jones’s first two albums in about three days.
In 1980, we recorded “Private Life” and we were doing a show in London. I remember going up to Chrissie Hynde and saying “I just want to know how you felt about our version of this song of yours that we recorded.” And she said, “I was gonna fire the band.” Her band! It was nice to know how other people felt about it, especially the writer.
PKM: When you were in the recording studio with Grace Jones, what was the atmosphere like? Did you get on well with the other musicians?
Barry Reynolds: I actually experienced racism because I was the only white musician. The keyboard player we had was a guy named Wally Badarou who was African and French, and he couldn’t really speak English. When we arrived there, the other musicians had been working together on various projects and they knew each other. Musically I got along with them, but I definitely didn’t feel part of it until the percussionist began stealing my cigarettes. Did I tell you this?
PKM: [Laughs] No!
Barry Reynolds: I had these Embassy cigarettes that you could only get in England, and I set them aside when I was recording (we would record in a circle). I would get up, go to the bathroom, come back, and the cigarettes were gone. This happened for about three days, and then I looked over at the percussionist (Uziah “Sticky” Thompson) and I saw my cigarettes next to him. I went over and I said, “Listen, if you want a cigarette, just ask me.” I picked up my cigarettes and he grabbed me and said, “You calling me a thief?!” I said, “Well, if you took the cigarettes, kind of, yeah.” He said “Okay. Outside.” And as I’m walking outside with him, I’m thinking “Are you getting into a fight over some cigarettes? This is the most ridiculous thing.” Just as soon as we reach the door, he turned around and said “Me only kidding, man. Me only joking!” And he gave me a big hug. After that, I was accepted by them for some reason. I had to go over some macho invisible line to be accepted which was actually ridiculous, but it worked, and from then on they called me Jah B. Jah, is ‘God’ and B for Barry. I don’t know where it came from, because I certainly wasn’t Godlike.
PKM: Moving on to your solo material, the track “I Scare Myself’ was originally written and recorded by Dan Hicks. Why did you choose to record this particular track?
Barry Reynolds: That song really touched me. I loved the song, and I loved the lyrics. I recorded it because Joe Cocker or some other musician couldn’t make it to the studio and Nathalie Delon (who was the wife of Alain Delon, but was going out with Chris Blackwell) said “Barry, why don’t you do an album?” I didn’t have any material, but I knew it was the last thing on my mind. I recorded songs that I could remember, and finished up with an Irish rebel song. We recorded the album in about three days.
PKM: What is your favorite track from the album?
Barry Reynolds: It’s called “The Bold Fenian Men”. Talking Heads were recording down there and they all came into the studio. It was just me and an acoustic guitar, singing, and when they came in, I got really nervous! I remember going upstairs and having a joint and having two slugs of rum. Then I came back and I was feeling more relaxed, but if you listen to it closely, you can hear me slurring my words.
PKM: What material did you record with Joe Cocker?
Barry Reynolds: We made an album called Sheffield Steel. The Compass Point All Stars played on it, and Robert Palmer and I sang backing vocals. I loved Joe [Cocker]. I remember he would come home really drunk at two o’clock in the morning, and Sean Connery was living in one of the nearby penthouses with his wife. Joe would come by and go [slurs] “I love you Sean!” and he’d ‘sing’ the James Bond theme song. One day, I heard all these suitcases coming down, and it was Sean and his wife leaving because of Joe!
PKM: You’ve worked on several albums with Baaba Maal and co-produced his album Television in 2009. What was it like working with him in the studio?
Barry Reynolds: It was a joy because we didn’t practice any songs. We went ahead and started playing, and then picked out parts of the song where the band gelled. Baaba would improvise over that, and that was the album. The album was recorded in three days, and It’s actually one of my favorite albums that I’ve played on.
PKM: What projects are you currently working on? You mentioned that you are in Jamaica recording with Grace Jones.
Barry Reynolds: I’m finishing Grace Jones’s album, and I’ve had a couple of calls from different labels. I have all these songs and the producer of this album, Ivor Guest, said “Listen, why don’t you record an album of your own material? Invite people that you’ve worked with to sing songs.” Beth Orton is going to contribute, I know Grace is singing one, and Marianne is going to recite a poem that I wrote. I’m getting Sabina Sciubba (who is an old friend of mine) to record a track, and I’d love to co-produce it with Ivor and her. I’m also halfway through writing a book, It isn’t a music book, really, but it’s about survival as a child in a foreign country in Germany. It’s part fiction and part non-fiction, just to keep things interesting.
PKM: How do the recording sessions with Grace differ from the sessions from the early days?
Barry Reynolds: It’s different now because there’s only four of us here. The engineer, the producer, myself and Grace. I’m around when Grace is singing, and she’s around when I’m playing. In the early years, we would all record in a circle, so it’s certainly more intimate in this setting. There were a couple of songs that Grace wanted to record of mine, so they asked me to come down and play guitar and help with the harmonies. I’m just here to help out. I’m the singer’s laborer.
As far as the book goes, I need to be somewhere quiet where I can really get into a rhythm and write. I’ve also decided for the first time in my life to put some roots down, and where those roots are going to be, I really don’t know yet. Since my brother and sister died, a big page was turned over, and it was as though someone was telling me “Just get yourself settled. Have a roof over your head and have a place to go back to that you can call home.” I don’t think I’ve ever really had that. I’ve always been traveling but now I feel as though I’m ready. Again, going back to the comfort and the warmth of being at home, and also, being with someone as well. I think the connection of people is vitally important. And it’s more important to me now than it ever was.