One of Britain's most versatile session guitarists, Chris Spedding had a long career on two continents that saw him tackle nearly every style of rock & roll to come down the pike, as well as sporadically attempting a solo career.
The fact that he never quite broken through to stardom, except in his native England and parts of Europe, and in professional music circles, is more a result of bad timing and worse luck than any lack of talent or commitment on his part. Spedding was born in Sheffield, England, in 1944. His family moved to Birmingham in the mid-'50s, by which time he had already taken up music, playing the violin in his school orchestra. That all changed when he discovered rock & roll, initially with Bill Haley & His Comets and later Elvis Presley. According to Chris Welch in a 2004 article, Spedding began to strum his violin like a guitar, and the Rubicon had been crossed. He was proficient on several instruments, including the piano (and could also sight-read) thanks to his music lessons, which put him several cuts above the typical aspiring rock & roller of the time, who might not have known three chords. Like Ellis McDaniel (aka Bo Diddley) before him, who'd traded in the violin for a six-string, the guitar was the vehicle through which Spedding chose to express himself.
He organized his first band, the Hot Spurs, while still attending school. And not too long after that Spedding, still in his mid-teens, headed for London and joined a beat group called the Vulcans, and from there supported cabaret acts on a cruise ship and several touring country bands. During the second half of the 1960s, Spedding backed both Alan Price and Paul Jones, part of their respective bands on their early solo forays, this at a time when both were among the top-ranked solo artists in England. He also made a considerable part of his living playing with the Nat Temple Orchestra, doing weddings and bar mitzvahs, among other events. It was tenor saxman George Khan (aka Nisar Ahmed Khan), who had lately joined a band-in-the-making coalescing around poet/lyricist Pete Brown -- best known for his work writing for Cream -- who cleared the path for Spedding to his first major music opportunity. Brown was assembling a group and, at Khan's suggestion, he approached Spedding about playing with the group that became the Battered Ornaments.
The group was signed to EMI, no less, to the company's progressive/art-rock/psychedelic Harvest Records imprint and ended up cutting an entire LP, entitled A Meal You Can Shake Hands with in the Dark. Brown handled the vocals and was far and away the most prominent member of what was still referred to officially as Pete Brown & His Battered Ornaments; but Spedding had his time in the spotlight as well, on lead guitar and slide guitar (and even a Portuguese chittara on one track), all over the album, which was favorably reviewed and a favorite on London's burgeoning underground music scene, with its strange, arty, jazzy amalgam of blues, poetry, and psychedelia. Though he still played his weddings and other catered affairs on the side, it was obvious to Spedding and everyone else that this gig with Brown and company was potentially huge -- they were getting lots of bookings, and they'd even played the July 1969 Hyde Park concert with the Rolling Stones, which also included Blind Faith and a then little-known new band called King Crimson, working in front of tens of thousands of people. Perhaps it was the prospect of major success in the offing that created the strains that followed, in which Spedding found himself caught in the middle.
Suddenly one day, Brown was gone, ousted in a coup by the majority of the group (essentially all the rest of them), all in favor of Spedding. Even though the guitarist had been nowhere near the first man recruited into the band, he became the leader and lead vocalist of what became officially known simply as the Battered Ornaments. Brown himself would have been the first to admit that his musical training, especially of his voice, was minimal and that he had more rough edges than anything else in his singing -- but with his departure, the group was forced to wipe his vocals from the second album, Mantle-Piece, that they'd already finished. And while Spedding's singing was smoother and more professional, the album ended up a lot flatter and less interesting. It was great psychedelic rock showcase for all involved, especially Spedding, who, in addition to using his vocal skills (in tandem with the four other members) all over the record, got to show off the full range of his playing, including some exquisite acoustic work on Khan's "Staggered" and some beautifully understated electric guitar on the Spedding/Brown "Twisted Track." What was mostly missing, compared with the first album, was the harder bluesy feel of a lot of the music and Brown's edgy unpredictability -- the spaciness that replaced them, along with the relatively professional vocals all over the album, made it seem dull and never much more than interesting, and records had to clear a higher bar than "interesting" to succeed in 1969, especially as Mantle-Piece, for all of its smoothness, still didn't have very charismatic singing.
Spedding kept with them for a time after the release, but by 1970 the Battered Ornaments were history, Spedding's departure leading to their breakup. Despite the turmoil surrounding the Battered Ornaments' brief existence, however, Spedding's time there began to establish his reputation in British music circles. While still with the group, he was invited to play on ex-Cream bassist/singer Jack Bruce's first solo album, Songs for a Tailor (1969). This led to more work with Bruce, as well as ex-Manfred Mann singer Mike d'Abo, and it was around this same time, at the dawn of the 1970s, that he cut an instrumental album, Songs Without Words (1970), for Harvest Records that only got released in Europe and Japan. He began his formal solo career the following year with Backwood Progression, which featured his vocals as well as his playing -- it was in a light progressive rock mode, in keeping with the times and Harvest's orientation, and also included Royston Mitchell and Paul Abrahams on keyboards, plus Laurie Allan and Roy Babbington as the drummer and bassist, respectively. The album wasn't a huge success, but evidently did well enough so that Spedding could follow it up in 1972 with the delightful The Only Lick I Know, where the focus was more on his playing and he handled what keyboard chores there were (and, for that matter, the bass). Those records went unnoticed by all but a cult audience of guitar enthusiasts and Spedding's fellow musicians; the sad reality was that most of his livelihood during the 1970s derived from playing on others' recordings. But such was his reputation already, that during the early part of the decade, Spedding appeared on records by artists as diverse as Elton John, Nilsson, Memphis Slim, Family Dogg, Julie Driscoll, Brian Eno, John Cale, and Mickey Jupp, as a result of which his name gradually became known to a wider public.
His solo efforts were interrupted in 1972 when former Free bassist Andy Fraser formed the Sharks, and offered Spedding the lead guitar spot. The group broke up a year and two albums later, before they could realize their potential. Spedding returned to doing session work, and managed to appear on some highly successful records, including Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds, which ended up being the biggest-selling soundtrack/cast album ever released in England. He played with bubblegum group the Wombles in full costume, and in 1975 he signed to Mickie Most's RAK label, for which he recorded the single "Motor Bikin'." The latter record, which was marketed with Spedding presented in a matching, contrived leather-wearing bad-boy image, made the U.K. charts, peaking at number 14 and led to the Chris Spedding album. Though it wasn't his first solo album, so great had been the impact of "Motor Bikin'," it might as well have been his debut as far as most listeners were concerned -- it was also a serious departure from his earlier albums, with a decided retro feel, in the choice of repertory and the sound of his instrument, as well as the vocal style that Spedding employed. Sporting an overall sound that careened between Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent, and a guitar style that emulated, at various points, the playing by Holly and Tommy Alsup on the former's records, as well as Vincent's lead guitarist Cliff Gallup, the record was a hugely influential work in its time, even if it didn't sell quite as well as the single that spawned it or ever really catch on in the U.S. It did give him the credibility -- despite being a veteran of the British Invasion scene and the psychedelic era -- to join the Vibrators on their first single, "Pogo Dancing." His punk credentials were enhanced by demos he produced for the Sex Pistols and the Cramps; false rumors flew for years that he actually played the guitar parts on the former band's records.
Spedding attempted unsuccessfully to capitalize on this new credibility with 1978's Guitar Graffiti, an exultant album-length guitar workout that put him back in his early-'70s mode but with a lighter touch and a more freely flowing spirit behind it, drawing together Spedding's virtuosity, the roots rock and rock & roll sensibilities he'd tapped on his recent albums, and all of the range of his previous work -- somehow, it failed to connect with the public, beyond his cult audience. He then moved to New York and joined the Necessaries as a guitarist and songwriter. The chemistry wasn't right, however, and he returned to England and recorded another album of his own, I'm Not Like Everybody Else, in 1980. The live Friday the 13th was released a year later, showing off some extended solos on his late-'70s material. Over the '80s and '90s, Spedding -- who was frequently compared to Mark Knopfler as a guitarist and recording artist -- continued his session work on such albums as Tom Waits' Rain Dogs, while periodically releasing solo material (1985's Mean and Moody, 1986's roots-rocking Enemy Within, and 1990's Cafe Days). He subsequently worked with the likes of Paul McCartney and Bono from U2, among many other world-class performers. He also led his own band -- mostly in Europe -- delving into vintage musical styles, including 1950s rock & roll (Gesundheit, 2000) and blues-rock (Click Clack, 2005). ~ Steve Huey & Bruce Eder, Rovi