Indierec.com interview with Unicorn
Back in the mid-1970's an English band called Unicorn created their own unique take on rock and roll by applying a distinctly British flavor to their country and folk. They successfully combined their love of American bands The Byrds, The Band, The Beach Boys, and CSN+Y, a rhythm section weaned on Motown, and Ray Davies' styled songwriting. Their music was sincere and original.
In 1974, 1976, and 1977 respectively, Unicorn issued their three greatest albums. In July of 2005, ItsAboutMusic.com released these albums for the first time ever on CD. These albums were produced by Pink Floyd's David Gilmour who also lends his guitar work to each release. Blue Pine Trees, Too Many Crooks, and One More Tomorrow have been lovingly remastered by Pink Floyd sound engineer Andy Jackson aboard David Gilmour's Astoria studio docked along the Thames. The overall clarity of all of these releases is superb. They simply never sounded better. In addition, each release contains a bonus track (UK only B-sides that have been unavailable for over a quarter of a century). These are the definitive versions of these albums, packaged with the original British Hipgnosis-designed artwork that was not used in the US when Capitol issued these albums originally. Each release features extensive liner notes detailing the band's history (written by yours truly).
The songs on these albums are beautifully melodic and balance just the right amount of melancholy with catchy hooks and phrasing. The songs are also arranged exquisitely though still built on a loose rock and roll structure. Timeless music, classic songwriting, brilliant musicianship, exquisite harmonies, Unicorn had it all (with no pretenses).
England was not ready for Unicorn at the time these records were issued originally. The music they played then sounds incredibly fresh today but could not have been more unfashionable in a land transitioning from glam to punk. Had they been in Los Angeles their story would probably have taken a different course. With the current success of the alt-country genre, this music has more relevance now than it ever had in the past.
Unicorn deserve a second chance to be heard. Find out for yourself why David Gilmour immediately offered to produce them and get them management and recording contracts when he first heard them performing at the wedding of a mutual friend in 1973.
I was fortunate enough to interview Unicorn Members Pat Martin (bass, vocals) and Ken Baker (songwriter, vocals, guitars, harmonica, keyboards) about the recent interest in the band. It was a thrill for me to be able to ask such personal questions to these two gentlemen; they are complete heroes to me.
Get the CDs here: www.itsaboutmusic.com/unicorn.html For further Unicorn information: www.unicornmusic.net
IR: How does it feel to have your entire back catalog available again after so many years?
PM: It's been a personal crusade to get it all out on again on CD. I always suffer from self doubt but something keeps driving me on. I've had some wonderful e-mails from 'Cornheads' around the world who still love and play the music. It makes me feel good that something I really enjoyed being part of is enjoyed by others and they all get something from it. It's great that it's steadily growing thanks to a number of reasons. We are indebted to Todd's web site, you our # 1 fan and official Unicorn historian, sound engineer Jon Van Horn, Brian Robinson for all his hard work saving the Shed Tapes, Phil Taylor, brilliant sound engineer Andy Jackson and his assistant Damon at Astoria Studio, Dean Sciarra for putting out the whole back catalogue, Ricky Hopper for his faith in us and his intelligence, and of course David Gilmour.
KB: It's great to have all our work available on CD and to know that our music can still have an audience today.
IR: Have you listened to this music much in the past 25 years?
PM: Didn't listen to it hardly at all from 1978 to 2000. I only had it on vinyl and didn't have a record deck. When I heard that the Harvest box set included a Unicorn track, I got a friend with a record deck to copy the albums onto cassette but the sound was crap and it put me off listening to it.
KB: I have hardly listened to Unicorn over the years because it was a big disappointment when the group folded. Also, I have never stopped wanting to be creative and move on. It's only lately that I have worked through things and got myself back in shape again.
IR: How does it make you feel listening to it now? Do you think it held up well? Do you enjoy it? Are you proud of it?
PM: When I listen now it takes me back to when we recorded it and I remember lots of little details,even the expressions on peoples faces. For example,when we used a 40 piece orchestra on The Hymn and a string quartet on Disco Dancer, I remember the musicians sitting in the studio looking bored and reading newspapers.I remember the excitement when we got a good take.
I think it sounds remarkably un-dated and hearing today's 'alt' country bands reminds me of Unicorn. We just had the added bonus of playing American music but with an element of Englishness, thanks to Ken's songs.
Yes I still really enjoy it and I'm very proud of it.I might add if it wasn't for me being very proud of it, the tapes would probably still be gathering dust in the EMI tape store.
KB: Yes it sounds good. I wouldn't say that I am proud of it, exactly, but listening to it now, what survives is the integrity of the music - it was about something I am still interested in! I am reminded of the battle we had to not go commercial. We didn't sell out. Could we of 'made it' if we had been more commercially minded? Who knows? But I think this is why it still has a kind of resonance today.
On one hand it is immensely gratifying to know that someone appreciates your music and can hear what you were trying to say. On the other hand .....it's a tension, I hope you can appreciate, it's the theme that runs through my whole life - the need to sell the product and the duty you owe to your muse. Playing on stage is like acting - you are playing to the audience but in a sense you forget that they are there, you know that there is a divide between the stage and the audience but you overlook it. In this way you link art and everyday life, and make it real, because hopefully you can bring them into the experience of the live event.... And is it any different when the performer comes down off the stage ?
IR: There was a long gap between the release of the first album Uphill All the Way and Blue Pine Trees. If David Gilmour hadn't discovered you during this gap would there have been a Blue Pine Trees?
PM: I'm not sure if there would have been a BPT if it wasn't for David Gilmour. Before we met him, there were always people who would come up and say they liked us and would like to work with us. For example Jeff Dexter, who later managed America and took them to the top of the single and album charts in both England and the USA. They never came up with anything, but David did.
KB: What a good question! But I would need a bit longer to get my brain cells around that one.
IR: Who do you think were your musical peers back in the mid 1970's English rock scene?
PM: Can't remember anyone in particular in England, at the time, that I liked...apart from us.
IR: What was it like working with David Gilmour and do you have any interesting or funny stories to tell about him?
PM: David was and still is a fantastic human being. He is extremely talented, thoughtful, and caring ( he phoned all our parents to tell them we were ok after we missed a flight on our USA tour and the plane we should have been on crashed). He is also a very funny person, often having us in fits of laughter. He never told us what to do or how to do it but always had wise advice if we wanted it. He is one of those people who can turn their hand to anything and do it very well.
If you played something exceptionally well, you would get a loud 'Yeah' from David. It didn't happen very often. I got one once after a bit of bass I played on a track at Air Studios. I remember Ken getting one as he dubbed the Hammond organ on In The Mood. I think Pete got the most 'Yeahs' because David really loved his drumming and his voice.
Funny story......We (the band and road crew) were in a restaurant with him, we were in a basement room on our own and the upstairs bit of the restaurant was full of punters. There was some real shit music being played over the speakers and David politely asked the waiter to turn the music off. The waiter said he was sorry but the people upstairs were enjoying the music. David suggested he just turn off the speakers in the basement. The waiter said there was no way of doing this, so David went over to the speakers and ripped the wires out of the back. Before the waiter could say anything Dave did his winning smile and just said "Put it on the bill".
KB: David Gilmour was a friend to us as well as being a great help professionally and in the studio. I remember being invited up to one of his London parties. We walked in the door and the first thing we saw was Dave skating towards us -it was a roller skating party- with a big grin on his face.
IR: Do you feel that David Gilmour's name may have hindered you in any way?
PM: Lots of people, other musicians in particular, thought we were being paid a fortune by David and EMKA our management and that we had it too easy. They forgot about the ten previous years of paying our dues. Music press wankers could also have a go at David by slagging us off. There was this suggestion of a kind of nepotism thing. I always thought, 'Fuck the lot of you', I agreed with Ken 'I hate showbiz but that's the way it is' (lyric from Unicorn track - ed.).
KB: I don't think David's name could of hindered us in any way. I could see someone thinking that a group that had been given a lift up by someone famous would not of experienced the tough side of life on the road. But Unicorn came up from the bottom. We did the youth clubs and the weddings and the country village halls. In that sense we paid our dues.
IR: In the past 25 years have you made much music or continued to play?
PM: I haven't stopped playing since the band split in '78. I currently run an 8 piece band (Tamla Tigers)trying to recreate those great grooves they had on the Motown and Stax records,it's almost as good as sex when you get it right. All of us have continued in music in some respect.
KB: I have hardly played at all in public since the Unicorn days - unlike Pat and Kevin who went on to do other things. But I've always played my acoustic at home and written songs. I also played in a worship group when I began going to Church.
IR: What music do you enjoy currently?
PM: Artists that have been on my hi-fi at home and in car over last few weeks include Motown, Stax, and Hi Records stuff, Aretha Franklin, Beach Boys / Brian Wilson, Asleep At The Wheel, Joan Osborne, Bonnie Raitt, Mavis Staples, Trio,Mary Gauthier, Beth Nielson Chapman, Ry Cooder, The Band, Lowell George, JJ Cale, Ron Sexsmith, Nitan Sawhney, Easy Star All Stars 'Dub Side Of The Moon', Cornell Dupree, Magic Numbers, Dan Penn, and Mindy Smith. My all time hero, however, has always been James Jamerson; he changed my life.
IR: How close are the band members and road crew today?
PM: Still see Ken & Pete & road crew Norman and Frank. Original roadie Alec Hawkins does the sound for the Tamla Tigers.
IR: If you could relive the years spent in the band, would you do anything differently?
PM: Like a lot of people my age (55), it's the old cliché...I'd love to do it all again knowing what I know now ...boy were we naive.
KB: No I wouldn't change anything. We took it as it came as every young person does and we did our best work in that way. Unicorn had their off nights. But when we got it right it had that magic that you can't get any other way. We lived as we played - spontaneously, creatively.