Blazing New Trails
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2017 Anil Prasad.
Chances are if you were around during the ‘80s or ‘90s, you’ve listened to John Goodsall’s guitar work. His musical resume reads like a who’s who of global music giants. He has recorded and toured with Bryan Adams, King Sunny Adé, Toni Basil, Jeff Beck, Mick Fleetwood, Peter Gabriel, Jan Hammer, Melissa Manchester, Peter Tosh, and The Wailers. And that’s just scratching the surface.
Though he has been a session guitarist and sideman to superstars, Goodsall is best known as the co-founder, a key composer and guitarist for the seminal British jazz-rock outfit Brand X. The group reunited in 2016 after a 17-year hiatus.
Brand X has included some of the most important musicians in British history in its ranks, including Phil Collins, John Giblin, Robin Lumley, Morris Pert, and Peter Robinson. But what truly set it apart was the musical relationship between Goodsall and bassist Percy Jones. The duo wrote the majority of the band’s material and are the only members present throughout its entire existence stretching back to 1975.
The new Brand X lineup features both Jones and Goodsall, as well as recent recruits keyboardist Chris Clark and drummer Kenny Grohowski. It just released a new live album titled But Wait... There's More! that revisits the band’s early work.
While Brand X was originally a UK-focused construct, the group is now based in the US. Goodsall grew up in Molesey in the UK, and relocated to Los Angeles in 1980, where he remained until moving to Albert Lea, Minnesota in 2003. Apart from fellow Brit Jones, who now lives in New York City, Clark and Grohowski are Americans. And unlike the ‘70s Brand X, which had members frequently coming and going, this lineup considers itself a dedicated unit with long-term potential.
Describe how the new Brand X lineup emerged.
A manager had the idea of bringing it back together and called me. I thought it was a good idea. He explained the idea was to go back and do the old stuff, starting with the first three records, which we did. The new live record But Wait... There's More! is really good and it’s all from one gig, capturing that first period of this reunion. We’ve now moved on to the fourth and fifth records. There’s a lot of music there to choose from. We’ll also be doing new stuff. We’re already stepping away from just doing older music because we’ve started mixing in some new ideas.
What did it mean for you personally to reunite the band?
Percy and I were always the contracted members of Brand X. We’re the owners of the band. It started out in earnest as four of us with Robin Lumley and Phil Collins, but Phil got really busy. So, we started bringing in fill-in drummers and none of them were permanent. Robin was busy as a producer a lot. He produced a Brand X album while he was in the band, along with playing keyboards. Eventually, Percy and I took over the running of the band in the late ‘70s.
Putting the band back together has always been in the back of our minds. As time goes on, you realize there was a lot of great music done in the ‘70s. I feel like a caretaker of this huge legacy of music. There are actually 30 Brand X albums if you include the ones we didn’t give permission for. [laughs] And if you think about it, one Brand X song is almost like a whole album in and of itself. It reminds me of classical music in a way. It’s not complicated music, but there’s a lot of content in it with many changes.
This is the best Brand X ever, I have to say. I think we’re older and wiser. We have a more professional approach. We have very serious guys in the band. Chris Clark and Kenny Grohowski have really helped Percy and I turn this into a really tight thing. It’s the best these songs have ever been performed. It’s a bunch of guys who are really nailing it every night. We want to do the music justice. We don’t feel like it was ever properly done previously and now we’re trying to do that. It’s a real band and you can hear that. It’s not a bunch of studio guys who made a record that are now doing a gig. We’ve relearned the old stuff and are using those structures, but we’re advancing the music past what was originally written.
Tell me about the chemistry between you and Percy Jones after decades of being in each other’s orbit.
We’ve both matured and become a lot better at what we do. We’ve both played a lot in the last 30 years. I’ve done all kinds of different sessions and projects—even dub and reggae stuff. I was always pretty busy on the Los Angeles studio scene and it means I have a lot more control over my guitar playing now. Percy also did a lot of stuff and we apply all of those experiences to the Brand X stuff today.
Percy had a band called Tunnels which I played with a little bit in New York. We did stuff together even when Brand X wasn’t happening. We’re good at giving each other space for improvisation and our approaches blend well together. We’re improvising better than ever. People are really liking it. Previously, Brand X shows were quickly thrown-together things, with replacement members coming and going. Now, we’re a lot more methodical.
When we’re on the road, Percy tends to be the more serious one and I tend to be the one who keeps things pretty light and fun. But when we have to do some serious studying as it relates to music, we both make it happen. Percy is very thoughtful and studious, but also has a great sense of humor. We have a good time.
Kenwood Dennard was the original drummer for this new phase of the band. Why did he depart?
Kenwood teaches at Berklee and he has other teaching jobs, too. He didn’t want to jeopardize that or give it up. I wouldn’t either. He took a lot of time to help put Brand X back together again. The initial idea was that we’d do three weeks of shows a couple of times a year. But we decided we wanted to do more than that. So, that’s why we got Kenny Grohowski. Brand X has almost become a full-time job at the moment. There’s something related to Brand X happening every day for me.
There was an attempt in 2012 to reform Brand X. Why didn’t that work out?
It all seemed a bit vague from the start. Percy and I were both into doing it, but there was a scheduling issue. The organizers were trying to book concerts around everybody’s schedule. David Sancious, who was to be the keyboardist for the 2012 lineup, was very busy. They also had trouble routing the proposed tour. They tried to make a West Coast tour happen, but the truth is you’ve got to book these places up to 12 months in advance. They were trying to throw gigs together on the fly and it didn’t work out. So, we put Brand X on hold until 2016 when we had more of a plan and organization involved.
Brand X’s last studio album, 1997’s Manifest Destiny, is the band’s highlight for me. How do you look back at it?
It’s my favorite Brand X album too. A lot of people don’t know that one. Brand X fans are more familiar with the earlier albums because they had bigger distribution worldwide. Our last two albums were on indie labels and didn’t get the same attention or have much advertising.
I thought Manifest Destiny was a logical extension of Brand X 17 years after the ‘70s. We brought it into more rhythmic and thematic territory. We’ve always had great themes but Manifest Destiny, as well as 1992’s X-Communication, were packed with them. The band was a power trio during those years, with Frank Katz, a great drummer. I used a lot of MIDI guitar on both albums. The guitars had synthesizer pickups on them. In a way, I sort of neglected my typical guitar sound, but it was an approach we tried. People couldn’t believe what I was doing, with symphony orchestras coming out of the guitar. I could see audiences in the front row with their jaws dropping when they first heard it.
I’ve always been a very rhythmic player. Some people think my rhythm guitar work is better than my lead work. I do play a lot of solos in Brand X. When we came back in the ‘90s as a trio, Frank was a rhythm monster. He could play outrageous stuff and his time would never change. He’s a brilliant player. I brought more funk rhythms into the band, even though things were in odd meters sometimes. In that way, Manifest Destiny wasn’t as much of a progressive rock album.
Franz Pusch and I initially got together to write for Manifest Destiny. He’s a producer, engineer and keyboardist. He came up with some great ideas. We were like a writing team. He had some of the riffs mapped out when I got together with him. We wrote three tracks together for that album. Percy and Frank also wrote stuff and then we had the beginnings of the album. We finished it over the course of a year until we got into the studio with the producer David Hentschel. He’s from England and we knew him from Trident Studios. He used to produce Genesis.
Manifest Destiny is my favorite album, but I really like X-Communication too. It was just me and Percy writing it. On the older albums, they were mostly Percy and I, too. We wrote 65-75 percent of those albums. Phil Collins, Robin Lumley and Peter Robinson would write one or two pieces per record, whereas Percy and I were contributing 4-5. On X-Communication, we didn’t really use preconceived ideas, either. We wanted a fresh thing. That album kind of came out of Percy’s band Tunnels, who I worked with previously. We continued on writing and playing and that’s how X-Communication happened.
The last incarnation of the original Brand X saw the band split into two simultaneously-existing lineups during 1979-1980. What’s your perspective on how that reality emerged?
It was kind of normal for me. Brand X really was a group of studio session guys in a way. I met some of the guys through doing sessions. Percy, Robin and I got together to form a fusion band. We had these two other guys with us—Pete Bonus on guitars and Phil Spinelli on vocals—and we were allowed to rehearse at Island Records. We weren’t being paid initially, but eventually they did start paying us when we were contracted to Island. But we never finished an album for them. We were working on an album that was in the fusion and progressive vein, but it had a funk influence and vocals. We chose to change the band into an instrumental group. We parted with Pete and Phil. Bill Bruford was there for a while, but he had a big tour coming up in four months with King Crimson. We heard Phil Collins was looking for a band where he could do more drumming because he was into the fusion stuff. He was a workaholic. He was in both Brand X and Genesis at the time along with doing so many sessions. So, the band started leaning more towards the fusion thing. There was really only Soft Machine and Isotope at the time doing something similar in England. We sort of joined up with the English jazz-rock scene.
As for the 1979-1980 situation, as a session player, if one guy’s schedule doesn't work out, it’s always good to have someone else available. It’s good to have two of everything. Percy actually quit the band for a while and moved to New York. I started jamming with John Giblin and that’s how he got involved. Percy rejoined us. Everyone in the two lineups headed to Ringo Starr’s Startling Studios in Ascot. It used to be called Ascot Sound Studios and was first owned by John Lennon. They had DI Units by the swimming pool, so you could sit there and overdub outside. We got to use the studio 24x7. We recorded more than two albums of material over three weeks there. I was in both of the lineups. During the day, I’d work with Phil, Robin and John. At night, I’d play with Peter, Percy and Mike Clark. I barely slept. I was always waiting for the drum tracks to be recorded so I could put the guitar over it. I was able to take breaks between sessions. We got a lot done.
I should mention that in 1980 when Brand X first stopped working, I never said “That’s it, it’s over.” I didn’t hear anyone else say it either. We just never got together again for a long time. It’s always been that way with Brand X. We all just went on to other projects.
I understand you’ve never been paid for the band’s ‘70s recordings. Tell me about the situation.
We’ve never been paid or seen any royalties for the first six records—the main ones everyone knows. The entertainment business has less regulation, checks and balances than any other industry. In the US, we have the RIAA, but there’s no real governmental influence in terms of controlling it. So, it’s pretty easy for these companies to get away without paying people. Record labels all seem to do that. We’re always told the records still haven’t recouped. That’s the standard line every record label says to everybody. They’re still selling the albums and we’re still not getting paid. We’ve had various attempts by lawyers to make some kind of deal with the previous label and management, but it has never worked out.
Tony Smith, the guy that managed us and the head of the company Hit & Run, did great things for us initially. We got some incredible gigs worldwide with and without Phil. But we signed our publishing to them. We thought these guys were our friends and then we got the same old usual record label treatment. The only people who really ever get paid by labels are the really huge acts.
In 1982, Collins went on the road for the first time as a solo act. The band included Peter Robinson and they performed a version of "...And So to F..." every night. How did you feel about that after the same management that was handling Collins pulled the plug on Brand X in 1980?
It was no problem. Brand X was always a very open thing. People would be in and out of Brand X all the time. The only two permanent members of Brand X were always Percy and I. Phil wrote "...And So to F..." with some input from me. He wrote the melody and I added the riff to it. I grew to like some of his songwriting. At first, I had to get used to it in Brand X.
I know Phil is doing some big shows these days on his comeback tour. He’s as high-profile as ever and it’s good to know he’s able to perform, even if he has to sit in a chair while doing it right now. He has such power as a drummer. I hope he can do that again. More power to him.
Reflect on working on Bruford’s Feels Good to Me album in 1977.
Bill always said Robert Fripp was his favorite guitarist, but he complimented me on my rhythm playing. He’s a pretty tight rhythm guy himself, so we worked together really well. Bill was totally unleashed and was more wild than he was with Yes and King Crimson on that record. I was totally unleashed and free, and I think it came out pretty good. I didn’t play any lead guitar, but that’s not what he wanted. He already had Allan Holdsworth. He wanted me for some punchy guitar rhythms. He mixed them pretty low.
I actually recorded a demo with Bill Bruford, and Doni Harvey and Bayeté from Automatic Man called “Here I Am Now.” It’s pretty amazing that to this day it hasn’t been mixed properly, but it came out on the Brand X X-Files release.
I did some other work with Patrick Moraz, another ex-Yes member, in the early ‘90s. Ronnie Ciago was also involved and we were thinking about forming a band. Ronnie came up with the idea of calling it GMC, as in Goodsall Moraz Ciago. Ronnie has a great, professional studio in his home. We were in there writing and laying down tracks with Patrick. He was looking to do a new progressive rock album because he had been focusing on solo classical piano concerts and choir stuff for a while. He wanted to get back into his electric side more. It started out as us working on a Patrick solo album but it turned into another joint venture. Everybody had a wealth of ideas. We recorded some great stuff and I hope it gets released one day.
The great thing about the new Brand X is it can provide a way for some of this music to get out. We’ve all been involved in some really good projects that didn’t get off the ground. Maybe we’ll use some of the music from them on a new Brand X album. Another example of one of those projects is I was talking about doing a trio with Tony Levin and Simon Phillips once. We got together and it seemed serious one afternoon, but it didn’t become a priority for anyone. That would have been a great band.
Fire Merchants, which you co-led from 1989-1994, is one of the great, unheralded jazz-rock acts in history. Encapsulate the band’s story for me.
Doug Lunn and I formed Fire Merchants. The band came out of Zoo Drive, the studio band we had that did sessions all over Los Angeles in the ‘80s and ‘90s with seven different producers. They liked us because they knew we could all play together and they didn’t have to put together different lineups of musicians for records. So, we got a lot of work. Zoo Drive was me, Doug, Ric Parnell, and Paul Delph. Zoo Drive started doing original stuff too, made demos and did a few gigs. Then Ric moved to Colorado. Doug and I decided to move towards the fusion thing. Doug was always big into that.
Doug and I started writing these great fusion tracks. Doug was a composition major and he taught me a lot in terms of how to compose and structure music. That translated in the ‘90s Brand X recordings later on. Initially, we had Mike Barsimanto on drums. He joined Jean-Luc Ponty’s band and got busy. So, we got Chester Thompson, who was Genesis’ drummer. He’s someone I had met a lot in the UK during the ‘70s. We signed to Enigma Records, Capitol’s alternative label, and put out the first self-titled album in 1989 as a trio with Chester. Chester was a good cat and wrote some stuff with us for it. Franz Pusch produced it. My buddy Keith Lewis helped with a lot of pre-production. He was also our live sound man. He made some great live recordings of the band.
Chester then got busy with The Bee Gees. So, next we had Chad Wackerman for a while. Then we ended up with a drummer named Toss Panos from a band called Toy Matinee. We wrote the second album Landlords of Atlantis together with Toss and it took about 10 months to make it. Kevin Gilbert produced it. It came out in 1994. I didn’t have Brand X anymore at the time, so I saw Fire Merchants as my fusion thing during that time. For a while, Fire Merchants was the biggest local club band in Los Angeles. We could hold down up to 440 people a night. The clubs loved us. People thought it was great, adventurous, progressive music.
With Brand X, we had the Genesis management team behind us. But Fire Merchants didn’t have management. We managed ourselves. The band wasn’t pushed outside of the Los Angeles area by the powers that be. I was trying to establish the band like Brand X, as a group that would tour other places. We even got lots of offers for Japan, but we were unable to take them, and we remained pretty much in California, where we did a lot of shows. But the problem became if you hit five shows in the greater Los Angeles area in the space of two weeks, people become used to the idea of seeing you or being able to see you. The big, house-filling draw started going down. People felt “We can see these guys any time. They’ll be back next month. They’re a local band.” It didn’t fizzle out for musical reasons. There were also scheduling issues. We all had families to feed, so we started to go back to the session scene and Fire Merchants was put on the back burner.
Provide some further thoughts on Doug Lunn, who passed away last February.
It took me totally by surprise. He passed away from cancer. I hadn’t been in touch with Doug for a while. We did do some sessions now and again. Doug was always a pleasure to work with. I was always really comfortable playing with him and that bass of his. Last January, Doug was up in front of Congress protesting the sad state of health care in the United States. That was one of the last things he did. He was helping urge people to stand up and fight for better health care. God bless him.
Tell me more about Zoo Drive and its key projects.
I used to drive by this big sign on the Interstate in Los Angeles that said “Zoo Drive” leading to the Griffith Park Zoo. I thought “Let’s call the band Zoo Drive.” It wasn’t a serious name. Zoo Drive was working constantly. We might have got one day off every three weeks. We were so busy with different sessions. Sometimes different combinations of members were used on sessions.
We did all kinds of albums. The biggest-selling project Zoo Drive worked on was Toni Basil’s Word of Mouth in 1982, which had the hit single “Mickey” on it. It went immediately to number one. It was pretty groundbreaking stuff. We did Michael Des Barre’s I’m Only Human in 1980. We backed him up live on a big UK tour. He got to number 7 with that project. We also did some oddball recordings like Diane Hubbard’s LifeTimes album in 1979. She’s a jazz pianist and the daughter of L. Ron Hubbard. It’s a modern jazz album. In addition, we played on Tamiya Lynn’s self-titled album from 1992. She had worked with Dr. John and the Rolling Stones, and had hit singles of her own. Chester, Doug and I are on all the tracks on that one. Jack Lancaster produced it. The music on that one was great.
You made some notable albums with Jack Lancaster during the ‘70s, including 1975’s Peter and the Wolf and 1976’s Marscape. Provide a snapshot of those projects.
Peter and the Wolf was a concept album by Lancaster and Robin Lumley, based on the Profokiev work of the same name. It was a rock version and everyone on the album represented a different character. Gary Moore, Chris Spedding and I were ducks. Cozy Powell, Bill Bruford and Phil Collins were hunters. Brian Eno was the Wolf. It was part of a three-album deal Lancaster and Lumley had. The second album they did was Marscape, which was totally different. It was a bit like a Brand X album, but had more keyboards, as well as saxophone. I played acoustic 12-string on that album. I might have done a bit of electric guitar too. I had a broken pinkie at the time and was in a splint. I played this Martin 12-string with really tough action, but somehow I got through it because the splint held the pinkie together. It was a very different album. It was spacey and electronic but still had the jazzy thing happening. It was definitely cool. I was stoked to play on it. They went on to do a third album called Skinningrove Bay in 1980, but I had moved to Los Angeles at that point, so I wasn’t on it.
In 1977, you also participated in the making of Wilding Bonus’ Pleasure Signals, which has linkages back to the earliest Brand X days. Tell me about the origins of that record.
Yeah, this relates to our friends Pete Bonus and Phil Spinelli who were part of the earliest Brand X, when we were working up funk-oriented, jam-based songs at Island Records. We were building the band and initially, it didn’t have a name. Danny Wilding was the guy who named us Brand X. He was the A&R guy along with Chris Blackwell at Island Records. He’s also a flute player and songwriter. We were in the studio one day and we didn’t have a name yet, so Danny wrote “Brand X” on the bulletin board at the entrance. It was a temporary name. We still don’t have a proper name. I’m always joking with the lads and still trying to come up with a better name. We do that with the audience too. So, Wilding and Bonus were two guys that were involved in starting the Brand X project at Island. They did a record together with another big stable of musicians working in different combinations. It had Michael Shrieve, John Giblin and Phil Collins on it. It was a great record and I was glad to do it.
You were part of Kevin Gilbert’s orbit. Describe the projects you worked on with him.
Kevin produced the second Fire Merchants album. Toss Panos, our drummer at the time, was in Toy Matinee with Kevin. So, I got to know Kevin through Toss. I did a lot of sessions with Kevin. One of the last ones I did with him was at his studio in Pasadena. Mark Isham was also on it. Our stable was expanding or merging into Kevin’s stable. We had this group with Toss, Kevin, Mark, Doug Lunn, and myself for a little bit. We were working on tracks for a new Giraffe album. There were three female singers as well, including Sheryl Crow, who was his girlfriend at the time. He eventually wrote a lot of stuff for her first album and helped turn her into a solo performer. He had a load of stuff in the can that we played on. I don’t think he ever finished the Giraffe record we played on or got it off the ground, but he did work on it quite hard.
I used to visit Kevin and ask him the status of things. He was always gung ho and working on the business angles and having business meetings. We put down a lot of music at his studio. Some of those sessions became Fire Merchants tracks. We also played stuff he had written. In exchange for him producing Fire Merchants, Doug supplied bass and I played guitar for him on his sessions. It was a friendly thing. It wasn’t like we hired each other. We were all just working together. Kevin was a major player. He was one of the top producers in town. It was a huge loss when Kevin died in 1996.
How did you end up joining Atomic Rooster at age 19 in 1972?
Ric Parnell got me the job. He was in Atomic Rooster with Vincent Crane and Chris Farlowe. Their guitarist Steve Bolton was leaving at the time in late 1972. Ric and I were determined to play together. We locked in really well together. Ric joined after Carl Palmer left. I was in the band for four years and we toured Europe. It was pretty wild and we were young and reckless. If I had known better, I would have nurtured the situation more. It was a big band. We were doing gigs with Led Zeppelin and Wings. We had top billing at festivals. I’m on one Atomic Rooster album from 1973 called Nice ‘n’ Greasy. It’s a very interesting record and still sounds good to this day. It really sounds like us. We’re still jamming and you can even hear the start of my Brand X thing in there.
Let’s explore Sandoz, the first serious band you led in 1971.
There are three 1971 Sandoz tracks that came out on a vinyl EP called Pay Attention in 1995. I was a young hooligan at the time. The lyrics were songs about protesting the system in really diverse, odd meters. We didn’t even know what the time signatures were. We were just trying to make really weird riffs. We were influenced by people like Captain Beefheart and The Grateful Dead that would do long improvisations.
For the recording, the band was me, Jim Mercer on bass and Gary Lonsdale on drums. We recorded the tracks at a local recording studio. Our parents helped us with some money and we laid down three 10-minute progressive tracks. Everyone was really impressed in our local town. We practiced at a local church hall. People would always come over during the end of the rehearsal. We’d have a small audience every time.
We were based in a town called Molesey, right near Kingston on Thames. We played all the Molesey dances, and youth and social clubs. We’d try to do progressive stuff and people would yell out “Play some Wilson Pickett or Sam & Dave!” [laughs] I was just happy to be playing guitar. It was wild music, but the vocals are a bit embarrassing. But it’s unique music, for sure.
People saw bigger things down the road for us. Ric Parnell was in Sandoz too. He joined Atomic Rooster and then got me in it, so that was the end of Sandoz. Suddenly, I was in a major band with five albums under its belt and doing massive tours and big stadium gigs.
At what point do you feel you arrived at a unique voice on the guitar?
It’s funny, but it was much later on in my career. I sometimes listen to my guitar playing on the earlier Brand X work and it’s irritating to me. It’s all fast stuff. It’s good, though. As we progressed and we were playing music seven hours a day, I started to become more of a lead guitarist. I was turning into more than another guy in a band in England. But I don’t think it was until I left Los Angeles and moved to where I am now in Minnesota that I realized I have a signature style that’s me.
I realized that my arpeggio approach had something to offer. I was big on the arpeggio thing ever since I heard “House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals and John McLaughlin’s work. I always used them in Atomic Rooster when I was in that band. So, I’ve developed that more into a unique thing of my own. I think I’ve become a pretty good lead guitarist. I think I couldn’t help but develop my own character after I’d done it for 50-odd years. People have often told me they can identify my style. But it wasn’t until 6-7 years ago that I realized it was true and that I should be developing that even further.
I’ve done all kinds of music and you can hear that in my guitar approach now. I jammed a lot with The Wailers. I did a Peter Tosh session with Billy Cobham on drums. I’ve got into electronics on the dub side. I’ve done more funk-oriented stuff. I’ve also always been a song guy and started letting myself write songs. I have a backlog of pretty good songs that not many people have heard. Those who have heard them feel they’re definitely contenders for something.
What made you choose Minnesota as your current home?
I moved here in 2003 with my lady Janet Keithley and we’re still here. I didn’t like it here in the Albert Lea area at first because while it used to be a very musical place, it had all changed and things had moved over to the Twin Cities. It made it difficult to continue my trade. Eventually, I found a great studio and excellent musicians to work with here. Minnesota is beautiful. It’s a well-kept secret. Janet owns a house here. We came to see it after the Patrick Moraz and Ronnie Ciago project went on hold. And we’ve been here ever since. We have lakes everywhere. It’s unbelievable how little we pay to live here and get the view we have. We have a fantastic place. I can do music from here. It’s like I’m living in an artists’ retreat all the time. The animals, lakes and trees are awalys inspiring me to make music.