Graham Bonnet, the 63 year old vocalist, who has played in bands with the likes of Ritchie Blackmore, Michael Schenker, Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai, has plans to bring his current version of the resurrected lengendary group, Alcatrazz, into the spotlight once again. Bonnett first gained notoriety in the world of Heavy Metal in 1979, when he joined Ritchie Blackmore’s band, Rainbow. While with Rainbow, he toured the world and recorded one album, which contained the hit single “Since You’ve Been Gone.”
After Rainbow, Bonnet hooked up with MSG, which featured guitar god Michael Schenker. With MSG, Bonnet recorded one album “Assault and Attack.” However, it was once again, “one and done,” as Bonnet only lasted one gig with the band (details of this can be read in the following interview).
In 1983, Bonnet decided to start his own band. His goal was to form a band that was similar in style to that of Rainbow. He recruited 2 members of the band New England, snagged Alice Cooper’s drummer, and discovered an upcoming Swedish guitarist in the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen. Dubbed Alcatrazz, the group released their debut album, “No Parole for Rock n’ Roll.” As they began to gain a loyal following, it’s alleged that, Yngwie’s inflated sense of self worth caused havoc within the ranks of the band, and as a result, they had no choice but to terminate his employment.
Alcatrazz didn’t miss a beat without Yngwie. They soon after recruited another guitar star-Steve Vai. With Vai, Alcatrazz recorded “Disturbing the Peace,” a record that Bonnet is still very proud of to this day. Unfortunately , Vai only lasted one record and tour with the band, as he was recruited by David Lee Roth for his solo band.
Currently, Bonnet is once again in Alcatrazz, with a line-up consisting of Howie Simon – guitar, Tim Luce – bass and Jeff Bowders – drums. After playing a handful of shows in Russia last year, the band just played a great gig last month at Mohegan Sun’s Wolf Den, in Connecticut. Alcatrazz has plans to do more touring, and record a new CD in the near future.
What follows is an exclusive interview with Graham Bonnet. During this conversation, we discuss his time with Rainbow, MSG, Alcatrazz and what lies ahead.
RMS: Graham, over the years you have played with four true guitar legends Ritchie Blackmore, Michael Schenker, Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai. How does your current guitarist Howie Simon, who is from my hometown Buffalo, NY, compare to those aforementioned guitar gods?
Graham Bonnet : Ha, well he’s had a lot of listening to do. He has incorporated his style into the style of those other guitar players. Because we do perform the music that I did with those others guys, so he incorporates those styles, plus he is very versatile. He kind of like from my background because we both were into R&B and now we are into this Heavy Metal or Heavy Rock or whatever it is. On his days off, he plays with my bass player and does causal gigs playing top 40 to keep in shape. But, yeah he has his own style and people really like him because he is a great player.
RMS: Alcatrazz recently played a gig at the Mohegan Sun, in which one of our photographers, Jim Hackett, was there to capture it. Was that a one off gig or was that a warm up date for a big upcoming tour?
GB: Well, we are working hard on it, but it’s hard to get any type of major tour together. We have been looking for an agent, to help get us out on the road, for like a million years now. We are not the easiest people to work with, because we are not new. This particular line-up has been together for 6- 7 years now. And it’s time for us to do something new. So we want to record something new, which is what we are about to do, I think eventually. But, I have a lot of other sessions to do, with other bands, and other people’s albums, that I’m working on as well. But we are in the process of getting an agent together, so that we can play more in this county, as opposed to always going overseas. Places like Russia, Japan, and everywhere else but here, and suffering from permanent jet lag. Feeling like crap when we get there, and then having to perform. So we been looking into that this week. I’ve been e-mailing people back and forth, about what’s going to happen next, and who we should go out with. We are going to start looking for gigs in England as well.
RMS: You mentioned playing in Russia, when you go over there, how long do you usually stay, and what size venues do you perform in?
GB: We are usually there for a week, and a bit. The venues we play aren’t like huge venues; they are like 500 people, the biggest venue maybe holding 1000. They are not like the rock clubs here, where they are big and flashy. But, you have to take what you can get. I’m not stupid; I realize that I’m never going to play an arena again. Everybody that I know, from the era that I’m from, is basically doing the same kind of thing – playing the larger and sometimes smaller rock clubs.
RMS: What is the rock scene like in Russia?
GB: It’s great. A lot of those gigs I played over there, I played on my own, at bigger outdoor festivals. On those festivals, there are usually a few thousand people. But, the scene over there, is really the same as it is here. But, they have been starved for rock music for a long time. And just recently, they have been able to listen to bands, that they had to listen to, illegally, in the past. So, it’s kind of new for them. Kind of like Japan was a long time ago. Where they was never any western music over there, because it was not allowed, or because nobody was interested in it. In Russia, it just wasn’t allowed. So now they are going crazy to see and hear bands, that they have heard of from the 1980’s. And now they can actually have bands, or members of those bands, go over there and see them live.
RMS: Recently, the Rainbow album that you appeared on “Down to Earth” was recently reissued with bonus tracks. When you originally recorded that album, what was the experience like?
GB: Well, I was like the 81st singer that they auditioned for the band. So, by time I become involved, the band already had most of the ideas down. I had no idea what to do with these tracks. I never had experience writing those kind of songs, with a band, because I wasn’t use to that kind of music. My background was more like Pop and R&B and stuff like that, not what they were calling Heavy Metal at the time. Roger Glover wrote all of the lyrics, and he would give me a rough idea of where to put a vocal line in, and then kind of, let me go with it. So that’s how we did it. It took quite a long time, Roger was kind of panicking because he didn’t know what to write the songs about. And I didn’t understand how these songs were put together, because it was a totally new concept to me. There was all this semi-classical stuff going on, all over the music. I was use to sitting down with an acoustic guitar, and making a song that way. This was way more complicated for me.
RMS: “Down to Earth” was quite a stylistic departure from the previous Rainbow releases, in which Ronnie James Dio was the vocalist, especially, the first single “Since You’ve been Gone.” Where you at all surprised that that particular track did so well? Did you feel after you recorded the song, that it was going to be a definite hit?
GB: No. Nobody thought it was going to be anything. Nobody even liked it. Not one person in the band liked it. When I first joined the band, I heard the title “Since You Been Gone” and I just figured that it would be a bluesy type song, like a BB King song or something like that. And then when I heard it, the version that I heard, was by a band named Cloud, which was a girl band that had recorded the song, and had a minor hit with it. And then I had Russ Ballard’s version, and it was all real jolly and poppy. So, it was left to the last minute to record it. It was done very quickly, and with anger and aggression, to make it a little more like a ‘Rock’ song. We also slightly changed it vocally, so it would have more of a rock edge. But, I never thought that the song would do anything. I really didn’t think anything of the whole album, to be honest. After I finished recording it, I didn’t think that it would be, what it became. I was very, very surprised that it did so well. I looked at my gig in Rainbow as being just another job. I didn’t think that I would fit in with the band. I thought ok, I will do this album, then come home, and then do more solo albums. That’s what I thought was going to happen, but then suddenly the album took off, and that was my job for a year or so.
RMS: With all the success of “Down to Earth,” why did you decide to leave Rainbow before recording another record?
GB: Because everyone else was going to leave the band. Cozy left after the gig we did in Donington, Monsters of Rock. After we finished the show with him, we were up until 6 am saying goodbye to him. It was horrible, everyone was crying. Cozy was a very close friend to me, and to all of us. Me, and Don Airey, and Cozy, were all very close. So after Cozy left, a little later on, Don and I were together, and getting ready to record the next album, and we had a new drummer come in – Bobby Rondinelli. We then went to rehearsals in Copenhagen, to record a new album, that was supposedly already written. But, the rehearsals for that record were not very good. It was like nobody was there. Sometimes, one guy was there, or two guys. Mostly just me and Don, and sometimes Bobby. But Richie never turned up, and sometimes Roger wouldn’t come. We were getting nowhere. Russ Ballard rescued us by sending over a song called, “I Surrender.” So he sent that demo over so we had a song, but only one song. So then, Roger and I went into the studio, to do a quick backing track to that. I put down some harmonies, and then we were going to finish it a week later, but nothing happened.
The sessions were very unproductive, and then Don Airey got fed up, and said that he was going to leave. So then I said I felt the same way, so I booked a flight back to Los Angeles, CA . As it turned out, Don didn’t leave the band. I then got a call from Bruce Payne (Rainbow’s Manager) and he said, “I heard that you are not very pleased with the tracks going down.” And then I told him that there was nothing going down, we only have one song, and that’s been written by Russ Ballard. He then told me that the band started working on some new stuff now. I told him that I didn’t like the stuff we got, the little bits of that was written, was not very inspiring. Bruce then said, “Well, what if we get another singer to sing the songs you don’t like, and you can sing the song that you do like?” I told him that I didn’t think that something like that was going to work, and I can’t really see that happening. It would change the look of the band and confuse the fans. So, I told him that I just don’t want to do it and I left.
RMS: What was it like working with Ritchie Blackmore. He seems to have a bit of a reputation of not being much of a team player.
GB: No, he’s just a shy person. I got along with him very well. When we were out on the road, I would always sit in the dressing room with him and talk about stuff. In those days, we all had separate dressing rooms. Oh, those were the days, now I get dressed outside. (Laughs) But, I was very close to him, and he just picks his friends very carefully. I really can’t explain it, he didn’t really have a lot of people around him that he really liked. He would argue with the other guys in the band sometimes, but I always got the better side of him. When we were in England, he was very friendly with my family, especially my dad. So, he’s not a hard person to get along with, at least from my point of view. I never found him hard to work with at all.
RMS: After you left Rainbow, you joined MSG and recorded the “Assault and Attack” record with them. But, you only played one show with them. What happened?
GB: You don’t know that story? (Laughs)
RMS : I wasn’t at the gig, so I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt of what went down.
GB: Well, I swore at the audience, I was totally drunk. I made an idiot of myself. We played Sheffield University, my pants split and the audience was pushing forward. I had all of my lyrics to the earlier MSG material written on sheets of paper in front of the stage, because I joined the band quickly, and I really didn’t know all the words yet to some of the material. So then the audience pushed my monitors forward, where all my lyric papers were, and messed it up, so I couldn’t read them. Then my fly split, and my penis falls out, and then I made a big deal of that, and then got off stage very quickly. It was very embarrassing; I had to run for my life, because the band was going to kill me. I then got on the train the next morning, in London, and I was then told that I was fired from the band. Though we had the Castle Donnington gig coming up, a few days later. But yeah, I made a complete idiot of myself, I was out boozing all day with my friends and Whitesnake were there, so all of a sudden, it’s 7pm – showtime. I had no idea where I was.
But writing and recording that album was good. That was the best part of it. It’s just that the live gig was a disaster. I liked working with Michael because he was such a different kind of guitar player. He had a different way of writing songs. It also gave me the opportunity to write words and melodies to songs, because no one else in the band could do it. So it was left up to me. Once I got through the first song, then I got the gist of how to write a heavy metal song. It was a great learning experience for me.
RMS: Yeah that was a great record. After MSG, you formed Alcatrazz with Yngwie Malmsteen. Who at the time, was an up and coming, high in demand guitarist. You recorded one record with Yngwie in the band – “No Parole for Rock n’ Roll.” This time it was your band, and you were in charge. What was that experience like?
GB: At this point, I had no manager, nothing. So, I was introduced to a guy named Andy Truman, who became the manager of Alcatrazz. He told me that I should put a super group together. I said that I want to put a band together that’s like Rainbow. Because then, people can identify me, and that kind of music. I didn’t really want to deviate too much from that. I wanted it to be like a follow up to “Down To Earth.” So, Rainbow “Part two,” was basically me looking through magazines, and finding out who was for hire. I first found two guys from a band called New England, Jimmy Waldo and Gary Shea. They had a pop hit with a song called “Don’t Ever Want to Lose You.” (They also opened for KISS on their 1979 Dynasty tour – edit) So then we need a drummer, and a lead guitar player. We went through a bunch of drummers and lead guitar players, but the we were told about this young Swedish guitarist named, Yngwie Malmsteen. So we invited him down to rehearsal, and he came in looking like Richie Blackmore, and knew all the material from every Rainbow album, ever. So he kind of played like Ritchie, he looked the part, and he young, and he was great. So then we had our lead guitarist, so then we got Alice Cooper’s drummer, Jan Uvena. But we tried to get people in the band that already had some success in the music business.
RMS : Did everyone in the band participate in the songwriting for the first record?
GB: No, it was just really me and Yngwie, although the others did get credit too. Mostly just me and Yngwie. He would come over to my place, and we made up the songs there.
RMS : What happen with Yngwie after the first album and tour? Did he quit?
GB : No, he was fired. We tried to fire him three times, because he was becoming a little too full of himself. He was playing over everything on stage, including playing over my singing. He was doing all of his wiggly, wiggly, wiggly guitar stuff, and it really got annoying. It was a mess and everyone was drunk on stage, of course. It was a big drunken mess every night. So we tried to fire him twice. But then the third time, we told our manager that we can’t take it anymore. One night, Yngwie tried to strangle me, because he said that I kicked his guitar chord out while he was playing. It was an accident. I was walking backstage, and I tripped over his chord and I didn’t realize that I unplugged him, but I did. He came back to the bus and tried to strangle me, because he thought that I tried to sabotage his solo “show case.” When that happened, that was the end. I said, “I’m not putting up with this anymore.” So we told our manager that Yngwie was fired, and our manager was saying, “No, you can’t let him go, he’s making the band!” So we said, “Ok, you are fired too!” So we fired our manager also.
RMS : Nicely done. I saw Alcatrazz when you opened for Ted Nugent on that tour. I though you guys were brilliant. At that show, Yngwie stood on stage and watched Ted the whole night. What was that tour like?
GB : That was a great tour! We played some of the strangest places, ever, on that tour. We would play a big arena one day, and then the next day, play a place with about 100 people. Ted Nugent wanted to reach every city in America. He was great, a real good guy. He liked our band. It was always fun with him. But, it was a very lucrative time for the band. He got us exposure everywhere in America, so we really thanked him for that.
RMS : After Yngwie left, you hooked up with other incredible guitar genius – Steve Vai. You recorded “Disturbing the Peace” with him. What was it like in the band during that period of time?
GB: That was my favorite time of all time. I loved it. That was my favorite Alcatrazz CD of the three that we made. He was a little more like me. He wouldn’t just be thinking ‘Heavy Metal, baby.’ He would came up with an idea for a song, and from there, we were to make it rock, eventually. But, he had a different approach to his writing, because of his work with Frank Zappa. He came up with a lot of unexpected things. He brought the best out of me, and he said the same to me. We worked very well together. He gave us a new perspective on what Alcatrazz was. The version of Alcatrazz with Yngwie was like ‘Rainbow mach 2.’ With Steve, we had our own unique style, and the songs were much better, in my opinion. The songs were much more crafted and thought out, because of the musical talents of him.
RMS : Do you think if you had made another record with Steve in the band, that you would have become an ‘A list’ rock band?
GB: Yes!!! But, it had to happen, people saw him perform and wanted him as their guitar player. And that’s what happened. And in this business, you have to take it when you can get it. Because there’s no pension, and you don’t get retirement at the end of your career. He was given a great offer, with great money. But I think if we made one more record with Steve, that particular version of the band, would still be together today. But it wasn’t meant to be because Dave Roth stole him.
For more on Graham Bonnet check out www.grahambonnet.com