Progressive Rock Babe Ruth (the band) was formed in the U.K. in the early 70's by guitarist Alan Shacklock. With a lineup that also featured vocalist Janita 'Jenny' Haan, bassist Dave Hewitt, keyboardist Dave Punshon and drummer Dick Powell the band released their highly acclaimed debut album First Base in 1973.
Recorded at the famed Abbey Road Studios in London, and featuring cover artwork by Roger Dean, First Base boasted six eclectic sounding compositions, including "The Mexican" which later went on to be adopted as an anthem of sorts by the breakers or B-boy culture in the late '70s and early '80s.
Dick Powell was replaced by Ed Spevock not long after First Base, and Punshon left before the band's second album Amar Caballeo, which unfortunately failed to capture the magic of that first record. While Babe Ruth did get back on track with their self titled third album which found them returning to more of a straight ahead rock sound, it would sadly be the last record to feature founding member Alan Shacklock. The band unwisely decided to soldier on without their leader which resulted in two fairly inconsequential releases: Stealing Home in 1975, recorded with guitarist / vocalist Bernie Marsden, and Kid's Stuff in 1976.
Now incredibly after thirty years of silence Babe Ruth has seemingly done the impossible, they've reunited with their classic Shacklock / Haan/ Hewitt / Punshon / Spevock lineup, and returned with a stellar new album entitled Que Pasa. They're also commemorating this special occasion with a return to the stage. They already have a couple of summer dates booked in Canada, with the promise of more to come.
I recently caught up with Alan Shacklock to get the scoop on how the reunion came to be, as well as to discuss the band's illustrious past and where they plan to go from here.
- Ryan Sparks
Ryan Sparks - Sea Of Tranquility: Off the top of my head I can't think of too many bands who manage to come back after being out of the limelight for over thirty years, and with a fabulous new album I might add that finds you in many ways picking up right where you left off. Did the idea for a full fledged reunion start to come about after the band's appearance at the B-boy Championships in Brixton in 2002?
Alan Shacklock: Yes it did. Basically we were thrilled that we could come back with a reunion and obviously we wanted to do in as dignified a fashion as we could. There's a fellow in London called D.J. Hooch who kind of became a champion for us and he asked us if we'd like to do this. Brixton Academy isn't one of the biggest venues over there but it's certainly one of the most revered, so it was a real honor to be able to do that. Also with the culmination of the B-boy movement taking on "The Mexican" as their anthem, that was also a great honor for us. It was just a nice thing for us and it was almost like riding a bike. We rehearsed for three days beforehand and when we started to play all the old material it was all very emotional [laughs].
SoT: How long did you end up playing at that show?
AS: We did a short set, we didn't do that much and I think we ended up playing mostly "The Mexican" because that's what they wanted [laughs] . We did rehearse a full set for it though so that was nice, but at the event they just went on so late because it was such an intense show with all these break teams from all over the world.
SoT: How soon after did you start discussing the idea of recording a new album?
AS: Basically when we started to play together I said "Maybe we should think about recording again". I live in Nashville Tennessee now, I've been here fifteen years and I have a studio in my house, so I said "How would you guys feel about me tying some songs together and presenting them to you?" I immediately went into writing mode and slowly started to pull a new album together. To be honest, Ryan, it was an extension of where we were, because I never really finished the story for a couple of reasons really [laughs].
I got married in 1975 and I wanted to stay home and go much more into studio work. So I concentrated on production and started to work with different artists from that point, which kind of led me out of the group really. At that point I still hadn't felt that we had done 'second base', we hadn't gotten to second base [laughs]. The second and third albums were very diverse and that was due to lots of different reasons. The second album, and I don't say this to sound arrogant, but it was more like a solo record because it consisted of a lot of different stuff that I had been putting together for other artists. We had been on the road for eighteen months when EMI suddenly told us that we had to do another record immediately, which became Amar Caballero. When we got to the third album they wanted to bring it all back to more of the rock sound that we had, but that self titled album ended up being the last record that I did with the group.
SoT: Back to the new album. What I love most about Que Pasa is just how effortlessly it brings the band's sound into the present, all the while retaining the key ingredients of that classic Babe Ruth sound. Beginning with the debut album First Base you were infusing different styles into the music, something that continues on this record. There's elements of blues, jazz, hip hop, and of course the ever present Spanish influences and Western themes that made "The Mexican" so famous. When you were writing the material did all these various styles just kind of naturally find their way into the music?
AS: Well I've always been naturally drawn towards those styles. My diverse background has kind of been a bitter sweet thing for Babe Ruth. I was trained in classical music as well, and when I started learning guitar it was with The Beatles and The Shadows, so that diversity came into Babe Ruth just because we could. We were in that period of art rock where everybody was experimenting a lot and coming out of the 60's when The Beatles and The Pink Floyd were experimenting. So I was just trying to use all my chops in every sense of the word, and I thought that with Que Pasa we'd probably be able to do that as well.
The key link for Que Pasa for me was getting our original keyboard player Dave Punshon back. He was a lynchpin for me on that First Base record. I found him when he was nineteen; I saw him playing in a club and realized the potential that this young man possessed. He would inspire me to write that stuff really. To get him back- now he's become a master of jazz, he just such an amazing player. I've been friends with him all these years and I've admired him and the music that he's made on his own, so to get him back in the band was a wonderful thing. Having all the original members back as well such as Dave Hewitt, who again was really one of my lynchpins on First Base. We brought Dave down from the north and he pretty much had that blues blues rock background where he was rubbing shoulders with most of Fleetwood Mac in the days that I remember as the real Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green.
So to answer your question when I was putting together Que Pasa those elements came back to me, and I was thinking about the styles of each individual musician. The riffs started to appear again as the backbone of the music, and then using Dave to sort of flower up the top end with some of the jazzier stuff that he does it was just amazing. We did a piece on the first record by Frank Zappa called "King Kong", which we will play by the way when we come up, that was a big influence on us amongst other things. My classical background kind of brings in that Spanish thing because I studied classical guitar at The Royal Academy of Music. I've actually been studying Flamenco really seriously now for about a year, so I'll be bringing some of that with me as well.
SoT: Janita's vocals on the new record are absolutely impeccable. She certainly hasn't lost any of her trademark vocal power. Tell me what it was like to work alongside her once again in the studio as well as just how integral her voice is to the overall sound of Babe Ruth?
AS: Yes agreed. Janita's vocals on Que Pasa are stunning and it's like we never left. She IS the voice of Babe Ruth, and my favourite singer. Especially when she can sing some of the insane lyrics I'll throw at her like " a histrionic triumph no two ways" on "Doncha Wanna Dance", as well as to be able to bring passion and soul to something like "The Blues", which is a challenge in of itself and constructed lyrically with poetized classic "blues" titles. Not to mention then being able to pull off "4 Letter Word" with a straight face and sing "don't pee up my leg and tell me it's raining". Her voice has matured like a fine wine and it was an honour to produce and be on the other side of the glass in the studio once again.
SoT: You mentioned the return of Dave and how important he is. I mean First Base is where you introduced those brilliant harmony lines between him and yourself, and it's great to see you've brought that trademark sound back on a couple of songs on the new record.
AS: That's right I'm glad you spotted that. When he left we went on and got other keyboard players that were different and weren't quite as facilitated as Dave. We weren't able to flash away together in the same way that Dave can run rings around me [laughs]. So I try to give him stuff he likes to play [laughing].
SoT: Compared to past efforts what was the main difference as far as the recording process was concerned this time around? Technology has changed so much and the fact that everyone in the band is spread out I imagine one of the main advantages was the convenience factor of being able to send files back and forth to one another.
AS: I started putting the demos down and doing the blueprints for the songs, and once I'd gotten to a point where I felt it was ready to present to the band I sent them off. Our drummer Ed got some studio time in England and he went in and added his drums with no click I might add. God bless him he got right in the pocket, he's just an amazing drummer. He sent it back to me and then I stared to overlay and replace some of the stuff. Dave (Hewitt) then came to my place and laid down the bass. It was done in sections really, whereas First Base was done quite differently. Now romantically it would have been wonderful to have all been in one place at the same time, and I think that we intend to do that at some point in the future, but for this album it was just more convenient to do it the way that we did.
SoT: Speaking of "The Mexican" Janita leant her vocals to Jelly Bean Benitez' version in the early 80's but were you also aware that a more dance oriented version was cut in the late 70's by a Montreal based band called The Bombers?
AS: I did hear that and I thought it was very good actually. I was very flattered. I'm always flattered by every one of these versions that comes out. I was flattered when Grandmaster Flash picked it up in 1976 and '77, and D.J. Kool Herc was playing it out in the Bronx. The story goes and I'm not sure we can quote this, but the story goes that they got a white label of the 12" and they didn't know who the band was at all, they just started playing this white label and began cutting from it. They thought we were some sort of Brazilian Latin band or something. They started playing it in the clubs and it went over really well because of the beat, and I had no idea the beat would be so imitated. Since that time the enigma of this piece has been kind of mind boggling because people have been picking it up all the way along right up until now. In 2002 Marc Anthony did a duet with Thalia who is if you'll pardon the expression, kind of like the Mexican Madonna; their duet went up the Latin charts. So it's been a real flattering ride. It's bitter sweet sometimes though; R.Kelly sampled the front part of "The Mexican" and put it on his song "Dancing With The Rich Man" which was on his album R. He took the Spanish guitar intro and wrote a song over that. We filed a lawsuit that didn't actually go to court but I won. He was very apologetic about it, so I'm now a co-writer on that track with R. Kelly. Same with Sugar Ray who put it on their song "Fly". It was only about 9 or 10 seconds but interestingly enough it was that same guitar part again.
SoT: That song has done pretty well for you over the years hasn't it?
AS: Oh yeah. Then The Prodigy, who did it all legally, put it on The Dirtchamber Sessions. I remember I happened to be in London with my sons who were avid skateboarders and we walked down into this shop on Carnaby Street and they were playing "The Mexican". I wondered if it was Candid Camera or something [laughs]. I went downstairs to have a word with the D.J. and I said "Who's that?" and he said "It's The Prodigy" and I said "No it's not, it's Babe Ruth". So that's how I found out about that one. They did it legally though and obtained permission for it, so that was nice. There was a show on VH1 here called The Coolest Years of My Life and they were going into the history of B-boys and B-girls and the actor Vincent Gallo mentioned hearing "The Mexican" in the Bronx and how he loved it at the time when all that was happening in '77. Afrika Bambaataa took "Planet Rock" from it because he took the beats and put The Good The Bad & The Ugly over the beat whereas we put For A Few Dollars More over the beat. I'm a massive (Ennio) Morricone fan so that has a lot to do with Que Pasa as well. So there's pretty much always been a Morricone fix all the way through. I loved those old cowboy movies so I'd write songs with silly cowboy themes, and you know just as kids we grew up with Cowboys and Indians, the Lone Ranger, the Alamo, John Wayne and all that stuff.
SoT: Speaking of that whole B-Boy influence, when I spoke to Janita a few years back I told her that Que Pasa felt like it was Babe Ruth's way of giving back to the B-Boy culture that helped keep the band's music alive while you were away. Do you feel the same way?
AS: Oh definitely. I felt that we should honor it but at the same time without compromising what we had. My son Jesse who is a D.J. is actually on the record so his influence is on there as well. He goes by the name of D.J Kidsmeal. My wife Kim is also on the record, she sang a bit of soprano vocal which gave us that element of having a beautifully high soprano voice. There are other influences on there as well but mostly it was a tip of the hat to the B-boy's definitely, but as I said without compromising what Babe Ruth was. It's almost like we've come through all of this time and ended up here. I think this is where we would have ended up because I love a lot of the hip-hop stuff. I always go back to the soul music of the 60's when we were listening to Al Green and Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and all the Stax and Motown stuff. All of that just influenced me so much. Especially the arrangers like David Van DePitte and Paul Riser who arranged "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and albums like What's Goin' On from Marvin Gaye. I would definitely borrow stuff from them for us, but in a rock kind of way [laughs].
SoT: Not to mention the band's selections of covers was great as well. You were if you'll pardon the pun definitely covering all the bases with songs like "Cool Jerk" and "We People Darker Than Blue".
AS: Yeah "Cool Jerk" by The Capitols and "We People Darker than Blue" by Curtis Mayfield. You may know that we also really got into a composer who lived up in Montreal for many years named Jesse Winchester.
SoT: Oh yeah.
AS: He is still one of the greatest living writers and I just missed him when he came to Nashville because I was sick at the time. I hated not being able to see him because to me he's still one of the greatest writers around. When we heard his first album, I actually heard it on a French radio station. We were just going through the stations one night in England and we picked up this French station and we heard something like "Biloxi" or "Yankee Lady", it might have been "Yankee Lady". I just went "Who's that?!" So I immediately sought out the album and we ended up doing "Black Dog" on First Base. We actually jammed with him on our first time 'round up in Montreal, he came to a club that we played in and he jammed a bit with us on that song. That was the thrill of my life. I hope we did that song justice and I think he liked it. He was quite bemused by how we had taken his song and put our rock spin on it.
SoT: In just a couple of months the band will be taking to the stage in Canada a country that embraced the band right from the beginning. It must be a great feeling to be kicking things off here this summer.
AS: We're so excited I can't even tell you. We're simply honored. It's an interesting story because things busted out quite quickly for us up there mainly because of some champions at Chom FM (ed note: a classic rock radio station in Montreal), and of course we're so honored that happened because it put us on the map quicker there than anywhere else. It certainly filtered down into the Midwest in those days. It was so funny when you're on tour with different bands- we were on tour with people like ZZ Top and sometimes they'd have to open for us which was crazy. We had some friends in Aerosmith, David played with Brad Whitford in an offshoot of Aerosmith called Whitford / St. Holmes. David and I went along to see the Aerosmith show when they came to Nashville just recently and Steven Tyler remembered having to open for us back then [laughs]. Most bands were nice enough about it when we switched to headliners. Humble Pie had to open for us in Dayton Ohio and that was just silly. In Toronto where we played Massey Hall for the first time they gave us a warm feeling. We played at Place Des Nations up in Montreal and I don't know if you'll remember this but I believe on that day the public transport had closed or there was a shutdown or a strike, but a lot of people walked to the gig. Just to be honored in that way was amazing. I think the first time we came to Ottawa we played the Civic Center. We also did that one hour TV special called Garden of the Stars which I believe our promoters are trying to clean it up to actually release it. I'd love to have a really professional looking version of that.
SoT: Have you started rehearsing yet?
AS: I've started rehearing with Dave because he's close to me. I drove down to his place a couple of weeks ago and we started knocking about, but we will be rehearsing in the days leading up to the Blues Festival in Ottawa. Then we can't wait to get to Montreal because the city is so dear to us, and please write this because the fans up there have been so loyal all these years with nothing, now we want to give them something they're really going to like. Hopefully we'll make some more great music again and I think we can. It's not like a bunch of old farts getting together to make a record, it's always been a labor of love for us. I think you can hear that on Que Pasa, it's like we've gone back to First Base again and now we're at second base, at least that's how it feels to me.
SoT: I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about the band's earlier work and you've talked a bit about it already but First Base is such an eclectic record form beginning to end. I mean you had this all out rocker "Wells Fargo", the Zappa cover "King Kong", the Jesse Winchester track that you mentioned and of course "The Mexican" which as I said introduced those brilliant harmony lines between yourself and keyboardist Dave Punshon. With the benefit of being able to look back at it now do you think that record was a bit ahead of its time? I sure feel that way listening to it today.
AS: Well that's possible, thank you because that's flattering. Not that we're Spinal Tap but it's always something between stupid and clever [laughs]. It's something I think that was due to the influences that I had that I had put down which seemed homogenized in some sort of way. Some people saw it and some people didn't, and as you said it may have been ahead of its time. It's interesting that no one in the hip hop world picked up on "Wells Fargo" because that has a great beat in it as well.
SoT: That song is one of my favorites. Can you tell me how you came up with the fantastic opening riff on that song?
AS: That was just a riff that I had kind of messed around with in the hopes of getting something original. I just liked what it did and we kind of worked it through in the harmonic sense that we always did, with the four beat idea there on that riff. Then of course the whole thing is about cowboys and it's a very silly story [laughs]. I'm sorry, I kind of write these silly stories sometimes that aren't true, but they're fun. Actually the saxophone player on that was a guy I played with when I was about sixteen. I'm pulling your leg here but when I found him he was about four feet ten inches tall, but he sounded like he was about six foot six. He was the local King Curtis and I hadn't seen him in some years, but I actually had to seek him out again to play the solo on that song. Of course we used a horn section on the later albums with Steve Gregory and Bud Beadle, God bless him, Ron Carthy and all those guys. They came into Amar Caballero which again was a little disjointed.
SoT: What about "King Kong", is it true that one was cut entirely live?
AS: Yeah that was totally live. It was one of those things where we did it and all the solos were done live with no overdubs. I wish we could do that kind of thing again, and I dream of the day where Babe Ruth can get back into that kind of situation and be able to absolutely pull it off. We'll need some rehearsal [laughs].
SoT: One thing that doesn't get mentioned all that often is your talents as a vocalist. The song "Joker" has these great vocal tradeoffs going on between you and Janita.
AS: Yeah I kind of liked that idea. I used to like this band called Vinegar Joe and I loved this band from Atlanta called Mother's Finest. That was an influence from them more than anything else because they had a male and female vocalist. We took it into our own rock thing. I love bands like Free, Spooky Tooth, and those bands that nobody seems to remember except for people like you.
SoT: Oh sure those classic British bands.
AS: That classic rock stuff like Humble Pie I loved those bands, Steve Winwood and those kinds of grooves, that's sort of where "Joker" came from. That's another silly story [laughs]. There's more truth to the lyrics on Que Pasa, that's more about the women in my life [laughs]. I wore my heart on my sleeve a bit more, so it's a lot more true to life than some of the other stuff that we'd written. Then again we did bring Chico back on the song "Break for the Border", but he's not dead yet he's just wounded. We'll see on the next record whether he lives or not.
SoT: The second album Amar Caballero featured some gorgeous songs like "Broken Cloud", the title track and "We Are Holding On". You mentioned it was a bit disjointed but it was also a more subdued album overall.
AS: Yeah we'd had a couple of changes in personnel. Dick Powell was a very straight ahead rock drummer coming from the Jethro Tull ilk if you like. When Ed joined his facility was, not to put Dick down, but Ed's technical facility was stunning to me. He was coming up with all these Latin rhythms and he was a big influence on me at that point. Then of course losing Dave Punshon was a big hit for me, it was like losing a right arm [laughs]. It wasn't anything that Chris Holmes didn't bring because he had already been in some revered rock bands back in the day. He was in a group called the Time Box back in the day which became Patto with Mike Patto and the late Ollie Halsall who was a great guitar player. It just changed things musically and I went a lot more into the orchestration and the arrangements. In retrospect, like I said without tooting my own horn, it was more of a solo effort on my part. I think as a body of work it stood up, there were some beautiful moments on there and I'm still very proud of it. I'm surprised that no one has picked up "We Are Holding On" for a movie theme or something.
SoT: It has such a great cinematic feel to it.
AS: As does "Broken Cloud". Some of the stuff on that record I'm quite proud of, but it was that change of personal that changed the style. I guess the record company pressure and we were having fun because we were bringing all our friends and Ed's friends in, he was friends with the guys in the Jeff Beck group. There was also a band in England called Gonzalez who used the horn section that we used with Steve Gregory. Steve of course went on to play with Van Morrison and I believe Ed did some stuff with him as well. I'd love to work again with horns because I love working with horn sections. Under the record company pressure we went off the rails there a bit which was probably my fault, but by the third record they kind of pulled us back in again. Now by that time we had been on tour with bands like Uriah Heep and Humble Pie so we kind of got back on track with the rock sound and some good pieces came out of that record.
SoT: You left the band after the third album. That must have been a difficult decision to leave what essentially was your baby.
AS: Yeah it was very difficult because it was like a divorce. I really had to it was time for me to go and for several reasons. The main reason was that I had just gotten married so I wanted to stay home more and I didn't really want to tour. I also wanted to just be able to be in the studio and dig into music more conceptually or whatever. I started to build a career if you like on production and it was in me to do that. So I felt that was an area where I really wanted to concentrate on, that led into the 80's where I began to produce Roger Daltrey, Meatloaf and Jeff Beck.
SoT: Even though you had left the band you were still involved though with the following record Stealing Home in that you contributed some arrangements and conducted the orchestra for a couple of tracks.
AS: Yeah they had kind of embraced some of the orchestral arrangements so I went in and did a couple of arrangements for them. I can't even remember the Babe Ruth that happened after that because sadly it all went south. I didn't even know who the people were in the band. They 'd lost the plot at that point, and again not to blow my trumpet but I was kind of the concept guy and I tried to keep that line flowing all the way through and I think when that went away, no disrespect Janita or the guys, but it just lost the magic that those first three albums had. On a happier note though we've brought it back and it now feels like it we've kept it going.
SoT: So what can fans expect when you hit the stage in a couple of months, will it be a cross section of material from all the albums?
AS: Yeah, obviously we'll be doing a lot of the older stuff and we'll also introduce some of Que Pasa into the set as well. We want people to know that this is still Babe Ruth, and in my book it's an exciting and relevant change. If I may say so I think the album sounds very current with the advent of the D.J. influence if you like, but it also hasn't lost the rock elements and we'll definitely have that when we play. We'll still have that classic Babe Ruth sound. We thank everyone up there because that area has been real dear to us and it will be a real honor to come back, and we'll keep coming back if you'll continue to have us [laughs].