GRAND SLAM – The Grand Slam Flame Rekindled
- by J. Nepper
- Posted on 17-07-2016
The legendary band named Grand Slam has returned and is once again a force to be reckoned with. Spawned in 1984 by vocalist/bassist Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy) and keyboardist/vocalist Mark Stanway (Magnum), the band toured Europe extensively and recorded quite a few demo songs, but, unfortunately, a record deal kept eluding them, and by the end of 1985, the band was no more. Fortunately, Grand Slam was recently relaunched by Stanway and guitarist Laurence Archer, but they did not recruit just anybody for the vacant positions; none other than bassist Neil Murray (Whitesnake, Black Sabbath, Brian May), vocalist Stefan Berggren (M3, Company of Snakes), and drummer Micky Barker (Magnum) joined the band, resulting in one hell of a brilliant and powerful line-up. The talent and potential of the band cannot be questioned, and whether you listen to some of the old demo cuts on YouTube or the brand new one from the Sweden Rock performance of "Whiskey in the Jar", there is a certain magic in place that is simply unique to this particular band. Obviously, Eternal Terror Live just had to have a talk with Stanway about the past, present, and future of Grand Slam. Read on and remember to check the band’s website out afterwards.
Thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Mark. I really appreciate that. How did the gig at Sweden Rock go? I would have loved to have been there. What was the response like?
M: The response was fantastic; Phil Lynott was huge in Sweden both as a solo artist and of course as a member of Thin Lizzy and Grand Slam.
Did you by any chance record one of the recent shows (i.e. Sweden Rock or The Robin) for a future live album? I love live recordings, so I just have to ask J
M: The entire show at Sweden Rock was recorded especially with six cameras for a DVD release in the not too distant future. We didn’t record the Robin show as it was technically a warm-up and the band’s first ever gig!
Speaking of Sweden Rock and The Robin, how do you like performing at smaller and more intimate venues compared to, for instance, large festivals and arenas?
M: Personally, I find it more intimidating to play smaller shows as the audience is right on you etc., but I also find it sometimes a little impersonal to play really large stages. My favourite type of show is a theatre, where we get plenty of room on stage, plenty of lights and atmosphere whilst maintaining an intimate vibe.
(Photo: Rich Ward)
Personally, I think that the idea behind the relaunch of Grand Slam is brilliant, performing those old classics and keeping them alive and visible, if that makes sense. Some of us are too young to have witnessed the band perform back in the day, so the fact that you guys are out there now and playing those songs is awesome. At the same time, it seems to me that this version of Grand Slam is very much in the here and now and not just a tribute act, if that makes sense. Was the idea behind the return of the band something that you and Laurence had been thinking of doing for a long time?
M: Laurence and I have talked about it for many years, but the circumstances were never really right. I will never think of Grand Slam as a tribute act as I was there at the very concept, so I feel it was as much my band as Phillip’s. I am proud to keep the memory of Phil alive and the Grand Slam songs were written primarily by Phil, Laurence and myself. I mean, Queen without Freddy is a similar situation; the guys in Queen make sure they have a great singer but never try to replace Freddy, as just like Phil, they are both irreplaceable. This is why I didn’t try to get a black bass player lookalike; instead I chose one of the best bass players in rock…Neil Murray! Therefore, this will never in my eyes be a tribute band as such, but we will give the songs the treatment they deserved and never got.
The inclusion of Neil Murray warms my heart. I love his bass playing, and many of the albums he has appeared on throughout the years are bona-fide classics in my humble opinion. He is just all-around awesome. It must be a thrill to have a seasoned player like that, or a veteran if you will, join Grand Slam? I mean, you have all been around the block a few times and you know how the business works. Does that make it easier to be in a band together?
M: I have known and played with Neil for over 36 years in many different situations. Therefore, he is firstly a very good and close friend. He is of course one of the best bass players in rock, so when we decided to put a new band together, my first choice was easy….Neil Murray. When I phoned him he agreed without hesitation…so, we got the best there is on bass and he doesn’t look like Phil!
I love the fact that this version of Grand Slam consists of members with so much pedigree and so many important albums and tours and whatnot under their belts. This might sound a bit strange, but the fact that Grand Slam consists of you and Laurence and great musicians like Neil, Stefan, and Mickey who have contributed to bands such as Whitesnake, Black Sabbath, Brian May, M3, Magnum, UFO, and Company of Snakes somehow lends even more rock ‘n’ roll authenticity to the whole thing. I can’t really explain it, but when I look at the line-up, I just feel so overwhelmed and impressed. There wasn’t really a question here, just a compliment
M: Many thanks for that. As I mentioned before, now that I got Neil Murray, it was essential to have a great drummer to complete the rhythm section. It was also important (to me especially) for that drummer to also be a friend. I called Micky Barker within an hour of speaking with Neil and asked Mickey if he was up for it. Again, no hesitation from Micky, he said yes immediately, so now I have one of my favourite bass players, one of my favourite drummers and one of my favourite guitarists of all time! How happy was I already?
I am blown away by Stefan Berggren`s voice. I can easily imagine him handling those Grand Slam classics such as "Military Man", "Crime Rate", "Sisters of Mercy", and "Nineteen" with ease. Did you audition any singers beforehand or did you go straight to Stefan and ask him to join? You worked together in M3, right?
M: I have also known Stefan for many years and importantly again; he is also a close friend. Initially, I had three singers in mind to ask and in no particular order of merit etc. My actual first call was to Irish singer and guitarist Pat McManus, but he has so many work commitments and loyalty to his own band that he declined even though he would have loved to have been able to do it. I also considered another friend, Steve Overland, but again he is so busy with FM and his wonderful solo work that I never actually asked him. Instead, I went straight for Stefan who has a fabulous voice and even though he is Swedish has a wonderful command of the English language, and I can now say (as we have just done our first two shows) that he was a great choice. The line-up is complete, and I am thrilled to bits with this band who just happen to all be my friends also. This is a dream come true and the potential is frightening!
Apart from an album consisting of properly recorded Grand Slam songs from the 1984-1985 era, I would love it if you guys would record some brand new material as well. Could you perhaps reveal what your plans are in terms of recording material in the studio and what exactly you plan on recording and releasing later on?
M: Laurence and I have already started writing new material together and we have also looked at finishing some original Grand Slam songs that never did get recorded. So yes, we have full intentions of releasing the live DVD from Sweden Rock with some bonus properly recorded studio material and ultimately releasing a brand new album of original songs.
One of the things that I love about Grand Slam is that there seems to be no constrictions or musical boundaries as such; you guys cover so many different styles and genres of music without it sounding forced or chaotic. That`s a rare gift, in my opinion. Is that "daring" mentality and the wish to challenge oneself and the listener still present in Grand Slam today? I think the beauty of Grand Slam is that it is so difficult to classify or categorize. It transcends musical boundaries and conventional song writing, in a sense.
M: When I think back to working with Phil in the studio writing new material, there was never a pre-conception of what style it should be. It was all dependent on our mood at the time. It could have been a reggae feel, a dance feel, even a hip-hop vibe, so yes, no restrictions, which is great. However, at the end of the day, whatever the style, vibe and approach etc., this is a rock band, a very talented rock band, so it will be rocky!
Do you recall the first time you got together with Phil Lynott and the others to rehearse material for Grand Slam? What was the atmosphere like? Didn’t you rehearse in Howth in the beginning? John Sykes was a member of the band early on, right?
M: Yes, it was my old mate John Sykes that initially introduced me to Phil back in 1982 at Manchester Apollo at a Lizzy show. I met him again when I visited Eel Pie studios where Phil was finishing off the recording and mixing of the last Thin Lizzy live album, and, finally, at Thin Lizzy’s last ever performance at Reading, which I was also playing that weekend with Magnum, it was that weekend that I went with John back to Phil’s house in Richmond and started to become good friends. This is a long story actually and is all revealed in my book, released last year called ‘Close to the Mark’. This book is only available from my website markstanway.co.uk, which seemed like a perfect place for a plug!
(Photo: Rich Ward)
When did Laurence Archer appear? Was it through Jimmy Bain (Rainbow, Wild Horse, DIO) that you guys met Laurence?
M: No, I knew Laurence personally as I played keyboards on the first Stampede album. It was only when John Sykes left to join Whitesnake that I immediately called Laurence and asked him to join. Laurence only lived down the road from Phil’s in Twickenham, and he was there the next day and Phil was delighted with my recommendation.
I mentioned John Sykes before, and I was wondering if the band name, Grand Slam, came about because of that Lynott/Sykes composition entitled "Slam Anthem". Any truth to that, or did the name come about some other way?
M: "Slam Anthem" was a title I wrote with Phil, and John contributed initially, but it was totally my idea/concept musically. This track was named "Slam Anthem" after John had left for Whitesnake and we came up with the name for the band at that point, not before!
I seem to recall reading somewhere that at the very beginning you performed quite a few Thin Lizzy songs live but that you eventually decided to only perform three or four Lizzy tunes as Phil didn’t want people to think that he was living off past glories or that Grand Slam was Thin Lizzy Part II or something. As much as I love and cherish Thin Lizzy, I think the Grand Slam material was really strong in its own right, so it makes sense to me that you performed mostly your own material. What is your take on this? Do you recall any discussions taking place between the members of the band as to the set list back then?
M: Phil was very proud of Thin Lizzy naturally, so we just had to play a few of the classics and will continue to do that as it seems right.
Was the very first tour that you did through Ireland? Word has it that you guys were an excellent live act, which some of those videos that are floating around on YouTube along with the "Glasgow Kiss" and "Twilight’s Last Gleaming" live albums definitely prove!
M: Unfortunately, the record company keeps putting this stuff out illegally and without my consent, and it is out of my control, but I am working on regaining the control of all of these poor quality (in some cases) material.
"Twilight’s Last Gleaming" was the first ever album by Grand Slam that I bought, so it means quite a lot to me. How do you feel about this particular live album in retrospect?
M: It is a captured moment in time and as I said earlier still being sold illegally, but I am glad I had the recordings for prosperity and people had a chance to hear and own this brief moment in Phil’s career etc.
Where did you demo material for Grand Slam? Didn’t Phil have a studio of his own in London or something? What were those sessions like? Sporadic and fragmented, or intense and focused?
M: All over the place but much of it was recorded by Laurence and me in a little 8 track studio at the back of Phil’s house in Richmond. Some in Ireland and some at London’s Shepperton Studios.
Why did the band never really get off its feet? There was nothing wrong with the song material or the live shows. Songs such as "Breakdown" and "I Still Want You Back" even had commercial appeal in my opinion. I could well imagine listening to those on the radio. Some have cited Phil`s drug abuse and his rather hedonistic lifestyle as the primary reason why it all fell apart. It must have been difficult to organize and plan rehearsals, recording sessions, and tours when dealing with that kind of thing.
M: I don’t really want to go into detail about the reasons we never got a deal, but you have sort of hit the nail on the head….
I was once told that Brian Downey just couldn’t deal with Phil missing rehearsals and him being the worse for wear around that time. It must have been frustrating for all of you at times. You put a lot of work into crafting the songs, and you and Laurence were very much involved in the song writing and contributed way more to it than a lot of people out there are actually aware of. You were a band in the true sense of the word. How does it feel to play those songs again, be it at rehearsals or on stage? Do they bring back many great memories, or does it ever feel somewhat bittersweet to play those songs?
M: I feel immensely proud to have had a small part in Phil’s musical career and therefore it is with pride that we play them again with such a good band of musicians. I do however still get lumps in my throat when we play certain songs like "Sarah", which Thin Lizzy never actually played live, but Grand Slam always did.
Some of the lyrics to the Grand Slam songs sound very deep and personal. It is difficult not to think of Lynott’s inner conflicts back then when listening to a few of them. Of course, this is entirely subjective on my part. I am curious as to whether you ever discussed the content of the lyrics and what they were about with the other members of the band when you wrote those great songs?
M: With Phil, he was just about the best phrase and deliverer of lyrics I have ever heard. Phil would almost ad lib the lyrics when we rehearsed and once he got the title and therefore some subject matter in his head, it was only then he ever did write anything down. It was more about melody and phrasing.
(Photo: Rich Ward)
Just out of curiosity, how do you feel about meeting fans before and after shows, signing autographs and so on?
M: Without the fans, I do not have a job, so I have no problems with that whatsoever and therefore cannot relate to anyone who does have a problem with that.
You have been recording and performing music for decades now with bands and artists such as Magnum, Grand Slam, M3 Classic Whitesnake, and Robert Plant. How and where do you find the inspiration, strength, and creativity to keep going and still deliver great shows and record new music and so on?
M: Thank you for your kind words, I am very lucky to still be with such a great band like Magnum and continue to take pride and pleasure in performing a good show. I therefore only play other stuff and with other people if they are good and I want to, so all the names you mention are great players etc., which is why I continue to do it. I love playing, I love recording good material and I continue to learn from other musicians. The day that desire stops so will I, but I can’t see that happening in the near future. I love playing live; it is still a great thrill and buzz to play with great musicians.
Speaking of inspiration, l was wondering if books and movies inspire you in terms of writing songs and lyrics, or when coming up with chords and melodies on the keyboard.
M: Difficult to say where inspiration comes from, but I get a lot from normal things like my wonderful family and my ever-expanding grandchildren. Drums and good drum rhythms are also a great source for writing. Lyrics I am not so good at as I am not a singer, but melodies when they do come are what makes a song special for me.
Do you ever find the touring bit tiresome, especially the traveling?
M: Yes, every single day. I hate being away from my home and family and my own bed and proper food, but as soon as we get on that stage all that disappears and I start looking forward to the next show etc. I am very fortunate to be working as much as I do, and I love that time we are on stage live!
(Photo: Rich Ward)
What are some of your thoughts on how the music industry has changed these past 10-15 years? I am not merely thinking about piracy or illegal downloading, but the way in which fans and listeners «consume» music these days via digital platforms and so on? What really bugs me nowadays is that nobody seems to pay any attention to the album format anymore. People pick and choose single tracks and then compile playlists as opposed to listening to an album from start to finish.
M: I find it hard to come up with why or what has changed over and above the appearance of the World Wide Web, but I have noticed, and am obviously very grateful for the fact, that there is still a healthy audience out there that wants to see good music performed live without tricks, cheating and miming etc. Music played by good and competent musicians, and this desire seems to be growing very gradually, so happily us ‘old school players’ are still in demand and working.
When thinking back on your career in music and the bands and musicians that you have worked with, do you harbor any regrets?
M: Only the time away from my family, no musical regrets really. I am still very fortunate to have done what I have.
Is there any chance that you will come to Norway at some point? I can`t hide my enthusiasm, Mark; I want you guys to keep on touring for at least a few years and pay Norway a visit at some point
M: We would be delighted to come to Norway. It has been too long since I played there, so please, any promoters out there that want to take us on should get in touch.
Thanks once again for taking the time to do this interview. Any final words or comments to the faithful readers of Eternal Terror Live?
M: Thanks for your time and effort of putting constructive questions together, which is why I have taken the time to answer them as comprehensively as I can. I hope this is a good interview for you, and hopefully we will see you in Norway soon. Don’t forget….check out my book which has lots of information, outrageous stories, lots about Magnum and all the bands I have played with including chapters on Phil Lynott and over 170 photographs.
Go to: www.markstanway.co.uk
Also check out: www.grandslamband.co.uk