The Magic Highway


An Interview with Paul Fenton
(Extracts from a series of chats conducted by Ray Chan)

PaulTHE Christie song Man of Many Faces could just as well have been written about Paul Fenton, the drummer most closely-associated with the group.
   Paul's other guises include stints with cult band Carmen, and of late Mickey Finn's T Rex, the group which includes members who used to back Marc Bolan. And if fate had dealt a better hand of cards, Paul could also have been the drummer in Paul McCartney's Wings .. but more on that later.
   As fans know full well, the original Christie line-up comprised lead singer, composer and bassist Jeff Christie, lead guitarist Vic Elmes, and drummer Mike Blakley. And indeed it is Mike to whom the band owes its existence, for without his connections to the Tremeloes (courtesy of Trem member and brother Alan), the song which launched Christie to fame may well never have been recorded. (See the History section for more.)
   Unfortunately, while Mike was more than adept in the studio, his percussion skills did not transfer well to the stage. With a rigorous tour schedule in place after Christie shot to fame, the band knew it had no alternative but to seek out a replacement drummer. Enter Paul Fenton, a mate of Jeff's with whom he used to share a house in London.
   Paul had alrady been in a series of aspiring bands, including Tony Jay and the Jesters, the Voltairs and the Contrasts.
   Paul explained at the time: "Once you get over 25 and don't seem to have made it yet, you have to turn to cabaret shows.
   "I thought it would never come for me. So I got a job in a nightclub and gave up hope. Then one day Jeff Christie, an old friend of mine, told me about the vacancy in the group.


Paul's first group, The Jesters

   "That was IT. It was such a beautiful thing to happen to me."
   Indeed it was. For the next two years, Paul enjoyed the trappings that came with being part of a chart-breaking pop group, accompanying the band on several tours as they rode the success of their two big singles, Yellow River and San Bernadino.
   Christie were popular in just about every part of the globe, reflected in the diversity of localities visited: Europe, Russia, Asia, Africa, Australia .. but it was South America which held a soft spot in Paul's heart.
   "We must have visited South America three or four times, and each time we went there, there were thousands of fans waiting to see us," Paul told me. "We were given police escorts, grand treatment, the works."
   So popular was Christie in South America that its record company commissioned two special releases for the market over a number of years: a Vic Elmes composition, Jo Jo's Band, which Paul played on, and later (after Paul left) cover versions of two Spanish songs, Navajo and Guantanamera.
   Jo Jo's Band became a big hit in the continent; and one South American lady fan, in particular, became a big hit with Paul.
   "Her name was Patricia Negro, and she was from Buenos Aires," he said."She was beautiful and I still carry her photo around with me!"
   (So Patricia, if you're reading this, Paul would like to hear from you ..)
   Paul is still single, but never regrets giving up a social life for the sake of his musical career.
   "Being part of a successful group, you get to meet many, many beautiful women all over the world in a short space of time," he said. "But I have never wanted to be tied down and I will never compromise on my music."
   Compromise Paul certainly does not. Those who have had the good fortune of seeing Paul on stage cannot help but be impressed by the tremendous amount of physical energy Paul puts into his work, often exerting himself so much it's a wonder he doesn't collapse.
   "When Christie performed, they used to put me and my set of drums out in front .. possibly because my powerful drumming was visually exciting, but probably also so I wouldn't hit Jeff and Vic!" Paul said.
   Indeed, Paul believes it was his forceful style and talent with the sticks that subliminally helped songwriter Jeff Christie to create some harder-edged songs for the band's second album, For All Mankind.
   Already keen to divert slightly from the poppish fare which characterised the first LP, Jeff would have been encouraged by the knowledge that the band had a drummer who could cope with heavier, more complex material.
   "I think Jeff would agree that my style of drumming had an influence on the heavier songs," Paul said.
   But still this was not enough to satisfy Paul's desire for innovation. Despite delving into harder rock styles, the band knew it had to return to its simplistic, commercial roots if it was to retain the support of its fans - a move which, while paying the rent, left Paul as creatively-stifled as before.
   "I wanted to learn more, to progress as a drummer," Paul said. "While I enjoyed playing with Christie, the band's commercial style was pretty much nailed down."
   A visit to London's Kensington Markets in 1973 was to prove the catalyst for a career change for Paul .. and unbeknownst to him, ultimately proved to be the thin edge of the wedge towards Christie's eventual demise.
   At the time, Paul was a frequent visitor to the markets, hub of the fashion scene in the UK.
   "We were really image conscious in those days .. it was the era of the androgynous look, and I'd go down three to four times a week to check out the latest styles," he said.
   A favourite shop was one specialising in snakeskin clothing, run by a couple of Yugoslavian merchants.
   They introduced Paul to David Allen, an American musician who was looking for a drummer for his group called Carmen: a band which mixed rock with flamenco music, including tap-dancing and handclaps.
Carmen   It was a combination no other band had at the time attempted to recreate. (On reflection, Carmen were ahead of their time: a decade later Santa Esmeralda had a hit with his flamenco version of Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood. And today, Latin sounds are dominating many pop charts.)
   Other members of the band included David's wife Angela, who contributed to the sound with her castanet-taps and heel-clicks; lead singer Roberto Amaral, doing flamenco dancing; and bassist John Glascock, formerly of Chicken Shack, who was later to join Jethro Tull.  (More pictures here.)
   "When I heard their harmonies and their music, I was sold," Paul said.
   The rock-flamenco style required a drummer who could quickly learn and adapt to the unique flamenco rhythym.
   "The band provided the challenge I was looking for," Paul said.
   "I told Jeff that I wanted to leave. I think the fact that Jeff and I had a very strong friendship made the parting amicable.
   "Everyone said I was mad. I was earning good money, I was driving around in an Aston Martin."
   Jeff was such a close friend of Paul's that the latter's departure created a void within the group that was hard to fill. Even though Paul was replaced in Christie, it was at this time that Jeff seriously began thinking of restructuring the band and re-starting its direction. Ultimately, the group folded as Jeff chose to pursue a solo career.
   Christie's manager, Brian Longley, was as dumbfounded as anyone at Paul's decision. He told Paul, "I can't believe you're going to leave a well-paid job in a successful band for these people who have nothing. I want to meet them."
   Meet them he did and Brian subsequently also became Carmen's manager.
   Jeff Christie himself came to see Carmen a few times, and was suitably impressed with the band, even feeling envious because flamenco had been a passion of Jeff's from childhood.
   Prospects looked sound when Carmen recorded two albums with Tony Visconti, David Bowie's producer, and appeared with Bowie on the TV show Midnight Special.
   However, Carmen's very uniqueness was to prove their downfall.
   "When it was all said and done," Paul is quoted as saying, "nobody knew what do with us at the end of the day."
   In January 1975, Carmen joined Jethro Tull's 13-week US War Child tour as the opening act, gathering applause and terrific reviews.
   Paul remembers that "in parts of the country with large Hispanic populations, we got better reviews than Tull themselves".
   The tour ended in Boston, and while wondering what to do next, the band went to Long View Farm, in Baltimore, where things, as it turned out, would never be the same again for any of them.
The Gypsies    Long View Farm had a recording studio and was owned by Gil Markle, a Clark University professor with a passion for the music business.
   There the band recorded its third album, The Gypsies. At the same time, Jeff Christie had flown in, intending to record an album at Long View as well. Jeff was also keen to learn more about flamenco music from Carmen.
   At the invitation of Paul, Jeff ended up playing on some tracks on The Gypsies.
   However, disaster upon disaster soon befell Carmen, leaving them no option but to split up.
   Paul Fenton 1975The band was informed that a scheduled tour with the Rolling Stones had been cancelled, Brian Longley decided to quit as manager, they lost their recording contract, and Paul suffered a severe injury while riding a horse at Long View Farm, an accident from which he took a long time to recover.
   After recuperating, Paul recalled:" I'm also a cabinetmaker. I was at Tony Visconti's house one night when we were working with him, making him some new cabinets when Paul McCartney came by.
   "They were working on the orchestrations for 'Band On The Run'. McCartney asked me if I'd like to join Wings.
   "I thought to myself that I couldn't do that, I thought of these people I loved, who had worked so hard, and I just couldn't be disloyal.
   "I had left a very successful pop band, and I drove an Aston Martin. I loved that car, but I sold it so I could stay on with these people. I guess I did the right thing, although I sometimes kick myself for it."
   However, for Paul, the story has a happy ending.
   While with Carmen, Paul had also joined Marc Bolan's T Rex band as a drummer, staying with them until Marc's death in 1977. T Rex's first album with Paul as drummer was Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow.
   In the autumn of 1997, original T Rex band member (recently deceased) Mickey Finn (who had been with the band since the days of Tyrannosaurus Rex) and Paul were invited to appear at a specially organised show at Cambridge to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of Marc Bolan's death.
   When Mickey, Paul and Marc's son Rolan appeared on stage, the audience went wild. A decision to reform T Rex was inevitable, and today, the band regularly tours Europe, performing to sell-out audiences.

Paul Fenton drum solo

   It's almost come full circle for Paul, who's back to giving his all on stage, drumming up a storm on great rock and roll songs. He even has the opportunity to show off on a drum solo, during the show-stopping 20th Century Boy.
   Paul is still regarded by Christie fans as part of the classic Christie line-up, and in 2009, thrilled audiences when, after almost 40 years, teamed up with Jeff's Christie band to play on Yellow River at a gig in Germany.
   Enjoying life, it certainly couldn't be better for this humble and affable Yorkshireman.
   And the Aston Martin? It's now a Mercedes.