John Lawton on the band’s re-Awakening
Cherry Red Records
Words: TK Smith
Over thirty years in the making comes the announcement that Lucifer’s Friend is back as a fully functioning band and are playing this year’s Sweden Rock Festival June 3-6, 2015. The five-piece formed in 1970 as Germany’s answer to Black Sabbath with British singer John Lawton breathing haunting melodies and sinister growls into Peter Hesslein’s electric blues. Together with bassist Dieter Horns, drummer Joachim Reitenbach and keyboardist Peter Hecht, the band forged an eclectic array of metal, prog and pop rock changing directions, sometime radically, with each album released. As the years passed since the band’s first breakup in 1982, their fame rose as pioneers among metal and doom fans. This year, Sweden Rock organizers contacted the band members to make a bid for their annual festival. The invite was the impetus the band needed to consider a fully committed reunion. As rehearsals took place in January 2015, ideas were tossed about regarding new songs and the possibility of recording together again. A compilation 2-disc anthology titled Awakening was assembled picking highlights of the band original recordings with four new tracks cut as a bonus second disc.
Original vocalist John Lawton has been anticipating a Lucifer’s Friend reunion for several years. “We’d been talking about it for a while,” says Lawton from his home in the UK, “since before the end of last year. I had some new material from Peter (Hesslein, guitar) and we talked about it very seriously. There has always been this feeling among the band members that maybe it’s been a long time and we should leave the memories alone. But, this rumor got started that we were talking about it again. All of a sudden, I got an email from Johannes, one of the organizers at Sweden Rock, asking if we would be prepared to play the festival. I think that was the kick up the ass that we needed. It definitely got things moving and from then on it kinda snowballed.”
The members of Lucifer’s Friend have known each other since the late sixties. Lawton was playing with British band Stonewall in Hamburg when he hooked up the guys from The German Bonds. The five worked up a decent set of heavy psych rock and released an album under the name of Asterix (1970). Within a few months they changed the band’s name to Lucifer’s Friend, fined-tuned their heavy rock approach, and hit hard with “Ride the Sky”. Little did they know the song would become an underground classic and rise like a phoenix for future metal doom worshippers. “As we talked about a reunion, I got some new song ideas from Peter which were really good,” says Lawton. “I thought, ‘Yeah, let’s do it - why not? Everybody else is doing it.’ Unfortunately our original drummer Joachim passed away a few years ago but we now have Stephan Eggart who is exceptional and very powerful.”
Original keyboard player Peter Hetch decided his life is too comfortable to handle the stress of doing Lucifer’s Friend again. “We respect his wishes and so we left him to his painting and walking the dog,” laughs Lawton. “Yogi Wichman, our keyboard player who played on our last reunion album Sumo Grip (1994) is back with us and giving Peter (Hetch) a break.” When asked about the rehearsals in January, Lawton is very upbeat. “They went really well. We spent the first thirty-minutes talking about each other’s illnesses and what medications we were on. But once we started playing, it went really good. We covered all the ground we wanted to. Since then a couple of the guys went off to tour with the James Last Orchestra while I’ve been doing other stuff. We’re getting back together at the end of May for a couple days of rehearsal before the Awakening CD launch party in Hamburg on the 31st.
Awakening is the band’s tenth record and first released in twenty years. The 2-disc compilation went through a rigorous review process as the band settled on the best songs representing their most productive years. The tracks we selected from the debut Lucifer’s Friend (1970), Where the Groupies Killed the Blues (1972), Banquet (1974), Mind Exploding (1976), and Mean Machine (1981). Re-mastered by Mike Pietrini gave the ten tracks on Disc One renewed clarity and sonic vitality. “We handed over the old masters to Mike, who lives in Boston and he did the best he could,” says Lawton. “I have to say that because some of the earlier tracks like ‘Ride the Sky’ and ‘Keep Goin’ were limited because of their age. You can’t really do a lot with them because of the time they were recorded. But Mike did a great job bringing back the sound clarity and musical dimension of the songs.”
When deciding what tracks to select for Disc One, Lawton describes the relative simple process. “We principally went by the songs that had the most clicks on the Internet. We made our choice from that. If we opened it up too much the CD would have had 25 songs, more than the space we had to work with. It was very difficult to narrow it down as we all have our favorites. At the end of the day we had to go with what the people want to hear and what they will remember us by. We also tried to go in chronological order leading up to Banquet. We left off the stuff from Sumo Grip because it was over produced as far as I was concerned. Everybody seems to be happy with the choices we made. It represents what the band is all about and that’s the same with the live set. We will only be doing Lucifer’s Friend songs regardless of the other bands we’ve all been in. This is a time to celebrate the music we did together and hopefully bring back those old memories for the fans.”
Disc Two includes four new tracks as a sampling of future recordings from the group. “There’s quite bit of material kicking around from both Peter and Dieter. Dieter wrote one of the new songs ‘Riding High’ which really captures our sound. Fans have been chatting a lot about ‘Pray’ and ‘Riding High’ online. They seem happy with the direction. I’m quite happy with ‘This Road’ too. I’m surprised it came out so well given all the layers.” The fourth track “Did you Ever,” highlights the band’s heavier melodic side with a strong early Rainbow vibe. Lawton is quick to reveal his influences and the part they have played in his singing career. “Paul Rodgers, was a big influence on the way I perform. Ronnie Dio was one of my heroes too. He was such a big influence over most of my work. I have a tremendous admiration for him as a singer, performer and a genuinely good person.”
Admits the singer, “It’s pointless to bringing out four new tracks together without a plan to record in the future. We all fully agree to carry this beyond just getting together to play a few gigs we want to do it. We’ve spoken about this over the past couple of months. We don’t want to leave it with Awakening and only that. We want to get into the studio and do a new album as soon as possible. Once we get started playing, we’ll find a time to go into the studio later on this year and start putting down some new tracks. After all these years we’ve decided the time is right and we have put all our effort into it. We’ll probably realize we should have done it many years ago and not waited so long. Better late than never. We’re not spring chickens anymore, but as far as performing… we’re ready. If we couldn’t do it physically, then we wouldn’t do it.”
The reunion has given Lawton time to reflect on the band’s past. “On the first record we established our sound, what we wanted to be. After the first album was out, people knew the name Lucifer’s Friend and a following began to grow. We had some push back regarding the name but it reflected the time. Everyone was pushing boundaries and wanting to stand out from the crowd. Once we established the name we had to stick with it. You can’t change the names on the second album and expect your audience to accept it. That’s wrong and it just wouldn’t work. The single ‘Ride the Sky’ was so strong. It still defines that era.” Lawton admits the band never achieved what it could have been. “We had a meeting with Miles Copeland (American Entertainment Executive) many years ago after the release of the first album. He came over to Hamburg to meet with us. He wanted to take over management of the band. At the time, there was a lot of resistance coming from the record company. I don’t think they wanted to invest in the idea of making Lucifer’s Friend into and international name.”
Continues Lawton, “In many respects we didn’t play live enough. We kicked off after the first album doing several gigs but everyone had their own separate lifestyle. Three of the guys earned their ‘daily bread’ playing with the James Last Orchestra. I was out with the Les Humphries Singers. That was the main way we earned our money, not Lucifer’s Friend. We got together maybe once every three or fourth months to see if anyone had any new material. Although, the real highlight for me, was recording Banquet (1974). It was a perfect way to do an album. It was basically recorded live in the studio with the brass section in one corner, the string section in another and me in a vocal booth. ‘Dirty Old Town’ came from that session which we included on the compilation. We’ll be playing that one in the set.”
For American fans eagerly anticipating the band’s arrival on US shores, Lawton is very optimistic. “We had an inquiry last year from an American agent, which really started the ball rolling. He wanted to know if we could come over and do some live shows. I spoke to the guys in the band about it and we were up for it. Then we started getting down to the nitty-gritty of touring the States. We thought maybe the best thing we could do is play some live shows in Europe first and see how we feel, see how the market is going. If the American’s still want us to come over, then we will. The whole idea now is to do some live shows and see how we work together, if we can still cut it, then we’ll start spreading the word again.”
Website: Lucifer’s Friend