On stage, swaggering and occasionally a bit frightening, Roger Chapman might have to be handled with care. With a reputation for not suffering fools and not mincing words, I have to admit to being a little nervous about doing the interview. And yet, I found that here was a man with no big ego, funny and straightforward. I felt included. As Roger has been known to yell from the stage on a good night, "Everybody's on the Shortlist".
For those who don't know, Roger Chapman was the front-man and writer with Family. Their debut album Music in a Doll's House (1968) is generally regarded as a rock masterpiece. It is an album you should not miss. Family came to an end too soon. Music in a Doll's House is ahead of its time and still feels fresh and alive 44 or so years later. Its place in the Rock Legacy is assured.
The interview revealed Roger to have a rich, raconteur's sense of humour, his answers often peppered with a piratical laugh. A follow up request to explore his forthcoming album was met with an almost apologetic message that he was busy working out tour details and that he would do the questions, but (and quite without irony, I think) "In my own time". And suddenly that unmistakable voice sounded in my head.
RL: Did you imagine that you would still be performing today?
RC: I have tried retiring over the past ten years or so but I just get really bored! I’ve never really done anything else anyway. I still wake up every day and I’m writing. I never tried to get into the music business. We got into competitions at the local Palais and we won one or two things. We sang as a vocal group and we used to call ourselves “The Searchers” because we loved The Coasters and all those great records such as Searchin’ and Young Blood. And you are white kids, about 16 years old. Then one time we came off stage and some chap asked me if I wanted to join a group. I didn’t really know anything about groups to be honest. So I joined his group and we were playing at a pub once a week. I never tried to get into the business, people just used to ask me. I get to my twenties and realise that I am actually in the music business.
RL: Did you know what kind of music you wanted to do?
RC: I only knew the kind of music I didn’t want to do, which was that I really wasn’t interested in the English version of Rock and Roll because I didn’t consider it was Rock and Roll. I was a complete and utter snob and it was great! Cliff Richard and the Shadows were all shit as far as I was concerned. In retrospect, you grow up a bit and realise they weren’t. Saying that, I liked Billy Fury – anything with a little bit of meanness on the side. All my heroes were American, like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. That was the real stuff. They were almost invisible because although they did come to the UK, America was a land of fantasy. I was glad to see Jerry Lee Lewis, during the tour he got slung off. Fortunately I caught him before he got married to a fourteen year-old. I saw him at Leicester and at the end of the show. They had this really high stage but somehow I clambered onto the stage and ran through the side doors and got his autograph. I wish I’d still got it. I was lucky to see Eddie Cochran because he died the following year. I went to see the Rolling Stones and I have always been a big fan of the Stones. I still buy their records now.
RL: What did you think when The Beatles came along?
RC: Not a lot, actually, but I got to love them. Again, it was just snobbery really. I think, Revolver – probably when I found drugs – Revolver was what really got me into The Beatles. Then of course you backtrack and realise that they did some very very nice stuff.
RL: Do you get nervous before you go on stage?
RC: Every time. It’s just not a natural thing for somebody to get up and show off in front of a crowd of people.
RL: Is there a Roger Chapman who goes on stage, and then comes off, and then is another Roger Chapman?
RC: Very much so. It’s the heightened sensibilities. I’m quite a perky person really but when I get up on stage I go up the ladder a few rungs. It’s bravado and the confidence I have to give myself and I can’t do it any other way. It looks like big-headedness but I don’t think I am a big-headed person. It’s something I have to do to give myself confidence to get on the stage.
RL: I don’t get the impression that you are aggressive in real life but seeing you on the stage is another thing!
RC: As I said, it’s what I have to do. Sometimes I come off the stage and if it has been videoed I can’t bear to watch myself. It’s like taking tablets. I know when I have done it right and I know when I have done it wrong and when I have done it wrong I just cringe. A lot of my performance is made up on the spot. I am so rampant and all my guys are almost walking on eggshells. I don’t mean through aggression, just musically – they are waiting for me to do something they have never heard before. They live in hope that they know what’s coming next.
RL: Do you have a set list that you stick to?
RC: Not at all. I have a list of song titles and then I will start with two or three that are generally always the same and then I go off left-field or right-field. It has everything to do with the mood I’m in. If I am upset or if I am happy it is quite blatantly obvious. The way the audience reacts has an influence on my performance.
RL: From what I have seen of your performances, you were having a jolly good time.
RC: That’s the object isn’t it? I am not out there for the audience I am out there for me and my band. It has to be the priority. I know that if I am up there pleasing myself the audience are going to get off on it anyway. The guys in the band are all good friends because I don’t work with people I don’t get on with. We go up there to have a crack and make the best music we can.
RL: Have you changed your wild and profligate ways during the fifty years you have been performing?
RC: Of course! I’m nearly 70 years old – come on! Not out of choice.
RL: On the subject of the business, as a business, I noticed you described all managers as “scumbags”
RC: It’s not that they are all bad, it’s just that I’ve never had a fucking good one.
RL: You really do keep up to date with what’s going on in music right now. You name-checked Kasabian, for example.
RC: Well, Kasabian – I am so devoted to Leicester because I am from there. When I heard that there was a decent band and they were from Leicester I was really pleased for them.
RL: I did notice the Leicestershire accent coming out while we were talking.
RC: Oh it does.
RL: What advice would you give to new artists just coming into the business. How would you advise them on managing their careers?
RC: That’s difficult because unfortunately they are going to meet so many arseholes who have no other intention but to try and make a few quid and rip them off. Try not to follow trends. There have been a lot of great bands over the last ten years and some of that is down to technology. You don’t need a studio. If you’ve got a thirteen inch laptop you’ve got a studio.
RL: Many folks don’t go down the old route of being signed and then going into a studio.
RC: They are online. They are so inventive and they are very good at promoting themselves at that is revolutionary in itself. They invented it, the kids, not the fucking record companies. Rock and Roll was invented by kids.