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Evolution of Genesis Event 2006

Question time with John Mayhew

It was a lucky conincidence and at short notice that we could present another highlight at the Evolution Of A Rock Band event: Not only did we have Armando Gallo and John Morrell as star guests, but Genesis' drummer from the early days, John Mayhew (who played on Trespass) came to Welkers and answered questions by the fans.

it: John, it’s good to have you here. You are the second member, or ex-member of Genesis who has actually appeared on this stage. The first one was Ray Wilson two years ago. That was the last member of Genesis, and you are one of the first members of Genesis before they became very famous and popular. You did one album with them and a couple of shows. Before we start asking you about that, though … Some of us read an interview you did with I think it was entitled ‘The Long Lost Drummer’. Where have you been all this time since 1970?
John: The long lost drummer, oh yes. I wasn’t lost at all. Basically it all happened in England, in New Zealand and Australia. I went to Australia, I’m now an Australian citizen and so on. I left Genesis, played around with bands as I’d always done before, then one time I put an ad in Melody Maker. My second wife was at the location where I went to play, which was in Norway. I was there about 36 hours, and I spoke to somebody, and she said (she spoke English) : “Could you help, could you come talk to me?” and she took me off to New Zealand in the middle of somewhere. From there I went to Australia, and when I arrived in Australia, that’s when I stopped playing the drums. It had all become too … Well, it wasn’t really exciting anymore and it was time to stop. I feel like I’m trying to make excuses for hiding in either Australia or New Zealand, but it’s basically just what I’ve done.

it: At the time you recorded the second album in 1970, what influence did the record company or the record label have on your music? The first album had been created under the pressure of their first producer. How was that on the second LP?
John: We were essentially able to do what we wanted to do. I think by that time the record company had become sensitive enough to an artist’s needs, that they wanted to be in control. I don’t recall that there ever were problems in that area.

it: A certain mystery about the Nursery Cryme is the question of the early set lists of the very early shows. Can you remember specific songs that you played at that time apart from the material of the Trespass album. Did you play earlier songs?
John: I think we would have had to have done that to make up a whole set. I really can’t remember what the other songs were. My strongest remembrance is that the number of songs on the album would be obviously – oh yes, I remember one, it was the Fountain of Salmacis. There were other songs, but I can’t remember.

it: Do you have any memories of the BBC sessions?
John: Ah, yes, the BBC sessions… Yes. It’s being released again, isn’t it, the music of the recording session. It’s on the Archives set. I remember going to the BBC and I remember them saying… they actually rejected the music for the programme on the grounds that it was pieces put together from other sources made into one. I’d be interested to hear it myself, I have completely forgotten what it sounded like. It would have been a good production. I’m a bit hazy about this because I haven’t spoken to anybody about this until two or three months ago…

it: So was it just you in the studio or were there any people watching you?
John:  I think we were just alone. People like Richard Macphail may have been there but I don’t think it was a public thing, rather a private recording session.

it: Speaking of recordings sessions, Richard Macphail was here last year to answer questions just like you today. We asked him questions about this famous ‘Jackson tape’. It was a mystery to him, so he called Tony Banks  who was in his garden doing some weeding and told him that they had bought the Jackson tape which had been lost for some time. Richard Macphail did not recall the recording session for that, so do you remember it?
John: No. [laughter all around] Frankly, I don’t remember because it was a long time ago. I don’t really even know what the Jackson tapes are, they’re probably being released at some point, I suppose?

it: It was a little box saying “Genesis play Jackson”, a famous recording session.
John: Are you sure I was there?

it:  It would have been the time, yes.
John: Where were they recorded, the Jackson tapes?

it: Richard Macphail said it was recorded in London somewhere… The Jackson tapes were something for a film about a painter, more like a sound track. It was recorded in a studio, probably owned by the BBC, so it must have been something like a BBC session.
John: It may have been recorded when I went to Australia and then used as a backup music for that particular programme.
it: How did the switch from John Silver to you happen? In a recent interview it was mentioned that he suddenly disappeared or had joined another band at short notice. It went on to say that you were recruited by an ad in Melody Maker. Did John Silver and you get in contact, did you rehearse the songs with him or did you have to learn it all from scratch?
John: I never met John Silver. I can recall quite clearly that there was no meeting. He has been to other reunions and met them and he’s still in contact with them, but we’ve never met, me and John Silver.

it: How did you join Genesis?
John: I’m a great man for leaving my telephone number around everywhere. I’m quite a good self-publicist apparently. In one book I read that I had put an advertisement in the Melody Maker, but I didn’t. I just left my telephone number with people all over London, whoever I came into contact with, and let these little ships, as I call them, go where they will go. I came home from work one day – I was working as a carpenter in the West End of London building this boutique, so it was quite pleasurable – and my girlfriend said, “A guy called Mike Rutherford has called you. He’s gonna call back at six o’clock. He’s from a band called Genesis.” And as soon as she said Genesis, I knew something … a special sort of a name, I guess. He called me up at six o’clock, I ran down the stairs and he was asking me to join Genesis. You see, this sounds fantastic now, but then they were little known. And I said “Yeah, I played in lots of bands, I can play the drums.” He said, “We’re doing this, and we’ve got these people interested in us” and I thought “That’s good” and then I went down for an audition in … can’t remember, Godalming? They had a little cottage in a village called Whatton. Nobody seems to know exactly where the cottage was. It was called Christmas cottage and it was in a village called Whatton near Godalming in Surrey. We played there for eleven months, rehearsing, you know, and this was where I was introduced to them.

it: So when did you learn to play the drums?
John: When I was sixteen I had a very good friend at school called Barry. His father played musical instruments, and Barry was the rhythm guitar in this band, for, like, the last few months of school. They had a drummer who they weren’t getting along with very well, and they asked him to leave and Barry said “Would you like to come and play the drums?” and I said Yes. I had never played drums in my life. The very first I did that with the drumsticks I played everything on the on-beat, and somebody pointed out you gotta play on the off-beat. That’s the only thing anybody ever told me. I kind of took it from there. It seemed to grow in leaps and bounds.

it: What kind of drumset did you play?
John: I had a Premier when I first started, but the one I recorded the Trespass album with was a regular Ludwig. I’d been to a shop in London and bought a beautiful – I think it’s called the Superphonic 400. It had individual tension on the wires, on the snares, that is, lovely and smooth. When you hit it, it didn’t just go Bang! but baaaang, it was singing like that. I was offered money for the snare, it was like an ordinary… Are you a drummer? I was one up from the Superphonic 400, the regular one you get with the kit, and I had that for quite a long time.

it: Can you remember the band being filmed somewhere at this early stage?
John: Yes, at the +Alpine album+, there’s a lost … it’s not actually lost, it’s in the hand of some people the Genesis management, Hit’n’Run, are unwilling to deal with, apparently. This is what I’m told by the guys in Italy, the fanclub in Italy. Nino Profumo thinks that this reel of film is … David Bowie was on the same gig, and some people I cannot remember, but some names, anyway. It’s in the hands of someone… let’s call them crooks. That’s why the Genesis management won’t deal with them. They want the film. This guy wants US$ 10,000 for the film. But it should be retrieved as soon as possible before someone throws it in the bin. It’s a piece of Genesis history.

it: What is your favourite song from Trespass?
John: Apart from The Knife, of course? Looking For Someone I suppose, it’s a lovely gentle song. Sometimes I’m asked whether I contributed to any Genesis music in the musical sense rather than the drumming and singing. I think I managed a line or two out of that. I remember we got stuck with Looking For Someone and could not decide which direction to go in, and so one evening we said: That’s it, enough. We’ll go upstairs, just listen to some music and have a rest. A couple of hours later we came downstairs, the blockage was past and we went on and finished the song.

[Armando has a question]:
it: Finally! I’ve been meaning to ask you this question for thirty years. When I was researching for the book nobody could find you. Now we find out you were in New Zealand. The time you spent at the Christmas cottage, can you tell us a day in the life of that winter? When did you get up in the morning, when did you work, what did you do at night? You were there for a few months, and the other guys weren’t very much into telling me about that period because they only thing I came out with was that they listened to very much of King Crimson. But tell me a day in the winter of ‘69/’70.
John: Basically it came down to waking up, having breakfast and working and having dinner. I think in the evenings we worked as well.

it: Hey, that’s too easy! From breakfast you went straight to dinner, come on. [laughter all around] Who was the last one to get up? Who was the first one to get into the music? Try to get back there, that was a great period, man! That was one of the best years in your life!
John: It was very hard work, but, yes, it was one of the best years in my life, the most different year I’ve ever had. Well, I can picture… We just rehearsed and wrote songs and go for walks – take little breaks, go for a walk in the snow. We just worked. We worked for eleven hours a day for eleven months. We went over the songs again and again and again. There was a collection of George Orwell’s books in the small library there. I read all of them, so I must have had time off, probably in the evenings. Somebody would cook some wonderful cabbage and cheese dishes. We always had a nice seated-down dinner, and sometimes Richard Macphail would cook up something. You want to know about things musical, don’t you?

it: Yes. Who was the last one to get up?
John: Ahm… probably me. I loved my bed in those days.

it: About those sessions … How would you describe the atmosphere in the band? Was it very loose or was there lots of aggression…?
John: That was a thing which marked this period that there were never any fights or personality clashes as you would know them. Nothing of this sort happened. I put this down to their education, their background and so on. They tended to think and talk their way through any problems. As Armando will probably verify for me, they’re very polite to each other, very civil, very English, I suppose, in that way. There were no issues that came up that were that bothersome. It was a group effort and everybody knew that a heck of a lot would hang on these relationships.

it: We know from Steve Hackett and from Phil Collins that on later sessions for later albums that there was a very aggressive mood that somebody would walk out and wouldn’t come back for hours. So it’s surprising to hear that it has been completely different before….
John: I do not remember anybody shouting or upset. I don’t remember anybody walking out, I mean I really don’t. Maybe that did happen later on, but it didn’t happen in the cottage.

it: So they lost you and got aggressive. [laughter all around]
John: If there was one experience I could tell you about I would … but it was maybe more repressed. Maybe they weren’t as confident, the stakes weren’t as high or something like that.

it: What about your social life in that time? Did you go out at nights, did you have a lot of friends or did you live like monks?
John: We lived like monks. [laughs] I recently spoke to Anthony Phillips in London and then got a couple of letters from him. He said we lived a very unhealthy lifestyle. I said, a strange word to use, unhealthy. He said, yeah, we should have gone down to the pub more. [laughs] I was not a drinker, the thought of alcohol never crossed my mind… That’s what happened, the thought never crossed my mind, but we lived like monks in the cottage. I cannot even remember going shopping. One time the roadie, Richard Macphail, and another guy, David something, took the van into the local village to get some food and hit another car that smashed in the front of the van. They came to me for a hammer because I was a carpenter, you see, and I helped with the tools and bashed out the bodywork as best I could. It just looked a mess. Then I built a stool for Michael Rutherford, a tall stool and fixed some seats in the van that were in the back so everybody had somewhere to sit.

it: Do you recall the gigs of that time? How many people were there, and were they fans that followed you through the pubs…
John: Yes, that grew and grew. We had more and more people who were actually follow us to gigs. We took several friends. There’d be Richard and David who’d be with us every time. The fan base grew and grew and I noticed that.

it: Can you recall the number of people who came at that time?
John: Ah… I’ve been asked this before and I have no recollection of the number. The gigs were well-attended. I cannot remember playing anywhere where there were so few people that the band outnumbered the audience. Nothing like that. It was a growth period, there were lots of people at the time.

it: The film material from Italian shows circulating amonst fans shows the audience sitting there in a very disciplined and concentrated way. They didn’t freak out?
John: They just sat there, yes, and took it in, which was rather nice, really. We rehearsed so much and we thought that the product was worthy of concentration. At that stage, in those early days, there weren’t so many loud fast rock songs. There were many songs like Pacidy, for example. But they quickly learned that they needed more loud and fast, more Friday night music.

it: Do you know about the existence of some tapes from these early shows?
John: There was one that was recorded on an island in the Thames called Eelpie Island. I remember being filmed at that particular gig but I didn’t know what happened to the film until I was in Italy. A guy called Mino Profumo – he is with the Italian fanclub – said that there is someone in London who has a copy of the film and they want US$ 10,000 for it.

it: Do you recall whether you recorded the shows for your own purposes on audio tapes?
John:  I personally didn’t record anything. I did look around when I played just to listen what I sounded like. Nobody had a camera. No audio either. We didn’t record the gig the night before and then spend the day listening back to it or anything.

it: Looking back on the evolution of the band, has there ever been a time in your life, perhaps nowadays or the years before when you ever thought: Damn!
John: No… Regrets, no. I mean, technically I wasn’t as good as Phil Collins, of course, so they needed that injection of energy into the band at that stage. No, I don’t have any big regrets. Certainly there would have been a better life I’ve had and a bit more money and things would be different today, but I don’t carry around any [does an impersonation of anger] at all.

it: How much money did you receive for a gig? How much did the band receive?
John: I didn’t really go into that sort of thing then. It was never enough and we always had many expenses. Then Tony Stratton-Smith came along and things began to change.

it:  If you had stayed with the band, do you think there would have come a time when you would have said: Okay, this is not for me and I quit.
John: Yes, I can see that. I personally like to built things up and then leave them. Of course it’s all hypothetical… Thirty or forty years in one band is a long time, so I probably would have said enough is enough at some stage. Just personally. You get tired of things. People say: I’d never get tired of playing with Genesis, but you don’t get tired of playing with Genesis, you get tired of hotel rooms and travelling…
it: … and living like monks. [laughter all around]

it: Did you make music after you left Genesis and, if so, what kind of music?
John:  That’s when I started coming to Germany, actually. I started playing in about three bands that  played around the American air bases and in night clubs. I was in a band from Gdansk in Poland, Jumpship [phonetical approximation! transcriber’s note], bands from my home town. I just carried on playing as I had played before Genesis. Had not much options, really, that’s what I knew.

it: Did you ever see Genesis play live after you had left the band?
John: No. Well, Phil Collins was the only person I saw performing live in Perth in Western Australia. That was the only time. It must have been in 1984 or ’85.

it: When Mike Rutherford called you [about joining the band] did you know the band or was it just an impression that it might be something good?
John: It was the impression that it might be something good. I had never heard of Genesis before. I instantly knew that it was a good name for a band, and that’s how it turned out to be.

[The next question and answer is cut off because the media had to be changed. The first part of John’s answer has therefore been re-translated from Christian’s German paraphrasing of John’s reply]

it: [from Christian’s paraphrasing:] Everybody contributed to the songs. Peter had some problems with other people bringing in major ideas. John: … but he [Ant] was a very strong contributing member, that’s for sure. His guitar playing was really quite exceptional and I still think he is a quite exceptional guitarist.

it: Did I get that right that you bought the drumkit especially for recording Trespass?
John: Yes, I did. I had a Premier, a British Premier drumkit. For some strange reason it had an odd-size bass drum, and I could never find a replacement skin, which made it very difficult to play and to change things so I thought good-bye Premier. That’s when I bought a second-hand Ludwig in really good condition and when I bought the snare-drum. I was in a shop in London and I said, “I want this particular snaredrum”. The guy said “why not try this one?” and I said “Oh no, I haven’t got enough money” and he said “Oh, just try it and see.” So I had a little knock and he said “You can have that for the same price as the ordinary one.”

it: Was it a band investment or your own investment?
John: It was my own investment.

it: Did you leave of your own accord or where you asked to leave? Did you keep contact with the guys afterwards?
John: I was asked to leave. I just technically wasn’t good enough, that’s the truth of the matter. To answer the second part of the question, no, I didn’t keep in contact with anybody. The first person I saw after thirty-six years was Anthony Phillips at a convention in London.

it: Perhaps too delicate a question, but do you still receive royalties from your year with Genesis? After all, you have some writing credits on the  Trespass album which is still selling, the BBC sessions were released in part with your contributions [on the Archive set] and perhaps the Jackson tape in the future…
John: Well, the payment for the Trespass album has already been made, and I think there is some other coming. I got a letter from Hit ‘n Run management that states that if there are any other royalties coming have they got the correct address details and so on? So I assume there’s more coming, perhaps from the much-fabled Jackson tapes.

it: What was it like meeting Anthony Phillips again after thirty-six years?
John:  Well, I thought… I was carrying around this thought that I had held the band back because I wasn’t technically good enough. When I said that to Anthony Phillips at the London convention he said, “Where did you get that from?”, and I said, “Well, isn’t this so?” and he said “No, not in the least.” For thirty-six years I had carried around the load, it has become part of my personality and I’m still coming to terms with it. It’s been a long time to carry around the idea that somehow you failed – but they didn’t see it as a failure.

it:  Would you like to meet some other guys from the band?
John: Yes. They had a reunion a few years back but obviously I wasn’t there, but if they had another one I’d be there, sure.

it:  Did you play drums on those lost tracks Pacidy and Shepherd?
John:  I think so but I can’t really remember. I’ve heard Pacidy done with, I think, Phil Collins as a drummer, or it may have been me – sorry to be so vague. They worked on songs that were on the album and anything else that we did was done pretty quickly. We rehearsed for the album every day and then the BBC approached us and you know the rest of the story: The tape got made and where it is now is anybody’s guess.

it: How much of the material that was recorded for Trespass did actually make it onto the album?
John: There was quite a lot of other material that didn’t get used on the Trespass album. That’s why we focused and focused on these six tracks. That was what we rehearsed every day for eleven months. But I don’t remember any song titles apart from Pacidy and so on that didn’t always require drums. I probably played on Pacidy and on the songs for the album.

it:  I think you were the only one that was not at the reunion at Heathrow airport. Was that because they did not have your address or for some other reasons?
John: They didn’t know where to find me. Nobody knew where I was! I was at the other end of the world, you see. They just weren’t in the same part of the world as me at the same time and because I wasn’t trying to contact them… Trying to find me, I mean, really why should they? It was all over the newspapers or rather the musical press that they were going to have this reunion so I should have known about it. But there was no personal contact, so I didn’t go to the reunion. I only heard about the reunion afterwards.

it: So who did find you?
John: That’s quite an interesting story. I’m a decorative artist, and I enrolled in a course about Charles Rennie Mackintosh – I don’t suppose anybody has ever heard about him, he is a famous furniture maker from the earlier part of the last century. I wanted to know how to do his furniture so I went to this workshop. There were about ten other guys there. And one day one of them was standing near the office and he said “My nephew has now taken up playing the guitar” and I said “Oh, I used to play the drums” thinking “I won’t tell him anything about Genesis, I’ll just tell him I played them in the old time”. The instructor, like yourselves, is a big fan of Genesis. His father had turned him on to Genesis. So as he came out of the office I was saying “Oh, I used to play the drums”. He’d already seen my name on the list of trainees and he thought “Uhm… no, can’t be” and then I said “Oh, I used to play the drums” and he said: “No…!” I said yes. He said no. And he kept on saying no for the next three days. And it was him that contacted Genesis on the website. The next thing I knew was that a couple of weeks later Carol Willis from Hit ‘n Run management contacted me and asked me to do an interview with a guy called Phillip Doyle. I agreed to. But then David – Dave Burgess – told me about the convention in London and I went there. Then people like yourself and Helmut would call me up and Dave Negrin from America wanted an interview and it really got interesting.

it: Were you and Ant the only Genesis members at the convention or were there others, too?
John: Steve Hackett was the only one, Anthony Phillips and myself. But I didn’t get in touch with him. He was just there, shook hands, said a few words, but there was no intention to stay in contact.

it: That was the first time you met Steve Hackett, wasn’t it?
John: Yes, that was the first time.

it:  What were your best and worst experiences with Genesis?
John: The best experience would have been… having gone through that whole experience of, uhm. There was a whole deal of musical discipline there which helped me later on, and a broadening of my musical horizons – I’d think “I’d like to do that”, you know. The worst experience, uh, there were few. It’s not really bad. One night I’d gone up on the stage to sit in front of my drums and everything was different – it had all been changed around and the stage was very packed. Everybody was moving around everybody carefully with guitars and so on ‘cause there was a lot of swapping of instruments. That was the embarrassment of having to virtually put the kit back together again. It was an incident I felt uncomfortable with. It was not a real bad bad thing, but I can’t remember a real bad situations, and it would have been memorable. There were times when I wished I would have been more technically proficient…

it: Did you like the music you played with Genesis?
John: Yes, that’s the short answer, and I’m liking it more and more as I’m listening to it again. Dave Burgess, the guy at the workshop, gave me the whole set of Genesis albums – I’ve got every Genesis album, like yourselves. I played them and I keep discovering new things about them. At the time I wasn’t really … I was too deeply into… it was all so strange and new. No band that I had ever been in was like Genesis so I was always trying to get my head around it and trying to figure out where they were coming from. As I said, I was playing in ordinary rock ‘n’ roll bands playing Rolling Stones covers and so on. So suddenly finding yourself in a situation like that, trying to understand what the music was about more than understanding where it was coming from – it was kind of new, from a British public school background. It was a stylistic metamorphosis I had to go through. In consequence I could not use a lot of what I had learned in ordinary rock’n’roll bands because somehow there wasn’t room for it. It was technically difficult for me, very complex arrangements I found difficult to remember.

it: John, thank you very much for being here and putting up with and answering our questions.

moderation of the interview by Christian Gerhardts

transcribed by Martin Klinkhardt