Dennis Greaves – Nine Below Zero
Dennis Greaves: ‘It’s a feel thing’
Nine Below Zero first came to prominence as the ’70s turned into the ’80s with their punked-up version of R’n’B. Their first album, Live at the Marquee, established their high-energy live reputation and their second album, Don’t Point the Finger, proved they could write their own stuff too. In the wake of the remastering and re-release of their first three albums, the original line-up are back out on the road, so it seemed like the right time to catch up with lead singer Dennis Greaves.
SF: Over thirty years after Live at the Marquee was released how does it feel to be back out there?
DG: You know what, it all seems like yesterday, it’s really fresh still. I think if it was tired and exerting you’d feel it, but with the line-up that we’ve got now, which is everybody from At the Marquee, except Brian on bass, he joined just after; I think with all the original members it gives it a certain edge and it feels really good. Haven’t played with Micky the drummer for 30 years – the last thing we did was Gravesend in 1982. So we got back together and the magic was there. After about 20 minutes of rehearsals everything fell into place. Hard to explain really.
It’s a no-nonsense attitude. It’s like Mike Tyson, going out with just a pair of boxing gloves, no socks, pair of shorts, just ready to box. No fanfare and dressing it up. My genre of music – blues and jazz – I think you get better as a craftsman. It’s like seeing an old carpenter at work. They make it look easy. Don’t forget – we never had any hit records, so nobody’s waiting for one song. It’s quite nice that they’re not waiting for the one hit you had and are not interested in the rest. Nine Below Zero is a cult act.
SF: There was Dr Feelgood before you and perhaps a bit of The Jam at the same time. Did you feel you fitted in with anything at that time?
DG: No, there wasn’t anyone. Don’t forget when we were playing everybody had a Yamaha DX7 synthesiser and there was a lot … it was like when The Smiths came out in ’83, what a breath of fresh air jangly guitar and great lyrics and melody were. I think when we came out Kajagoogoo were starting, y’know! We were very much on our own. Dr Feelgood were on the circuit, Elvis Costello and Squeeze had gone into arenas, so we were just a band playing what is American folk music, but playing it in our own punky version. The Jam split up just as we got to know them. We did a CND rally on the Embankment with them and before that I went to see them up in the Edinburgh Playhouse. We had a night off, so I went to see the boys, but by the end of 1982 they’d split up. So we were very out there in the midst of ’80s Spandau Ballet.
SF: You were sort of the anti-New Romantics then really.
DG: Absolutely, but there’s always something for everyone, isn’t there?
SF: Listening to your first three albums, I’m not sure if you can sing songs like ‘Homework’ and ‘Stop your Nagging’ any more.
DG: Absolutely. When you listen to some of them old blues classics about stalking outside schools looking at schoolgirls, I’m not sure it’s totally PC. When you’re young you don’t notice that, but when you get older it’s just not correct.
SF: Your early albums just crackle with energy. How do you get that energy going again?
DG: Weird innit? I don’t know really. Like I said earlier – the sort of music we play and the musicianship … we effortlessly do that and make that energy just by technique. Just by being able to play our instruments at this level. I suppose it’s like a reggae band, they’re never going to lose that that feel. It’s a feel thing.
SF: Do you see yourselves primarily as a live band? Do you think that’s where you’re at your best?
DG: You could call it a mistake or you could call it fate, but by having a first album be a live one … you see, we weren’t ready to go in the studio to write songs. We’d just been signed and we looked at all our favourite ’60s bands – The Yardbirds, The Animals and all our heroes – and we thought the best thing to do was to quickly do a live album and capture what we’ve got and go on from there. In hindsight though, it gave us a huge stamp of being a live act. I don’t have a problem with that really. I haven’t quite captured in the studio what the band’s about live, so I sleep easy with that.
SF: It’s interesting that the record company are putting out both versions of Third Degree.
DG: Yeah, it’s really interesting. One’s over-produced – polished – and one’s under-produced and rough as anything. Quite weird really.
SF: Do you have a preference or do you think the proper album’s somewhere between the two?
DG: I totally agree. The proper album’s the two of them mixed up. I feel some of the tempos are too fast and I’m not singing as best as I could’ve done at some points, the harmonica’s out of tune because back then the harmonicas were made of wood and we would have to soak them and I always remember when we were tuning up we would have to tune sharp or flat and then we would tune by ear, so we were always battling these things. Now harmonicas are made of graphite and stay wonderfully in tune, so we don’t have that problem so much. Little things like that really. We were talking the other day and we were thinking of doing a sort of ‘that was then and this is now’, best-of album, so we might go in and re-record. Pick some diamonds up and re-record them plus some new self-penned songs and maybe revisit some of the great standards that we played live, but never recorded.
SF: That’s a good idea.
DG: I think so, yeah. The music business has changed and for us to go and do a new self-penned album, for us to put it out and probably be ignored and maybe one or two tracks played on Spotify, because of people’s attention span and people aren’t buying physical any more. If we do this project and put it out on vinyl, digital and a digi-package sort of thing … I think we have to think like that now. You look at a lot of bands now – they put out an EP. U2 had to give their album away and Foo Fighters are doing the same. If those guys at that level are having to do that then people who are at the level Nine Below Zero are have to think of another way of putting our product out to people. You need a story. For us to go and do some new tracks we need a vehicle to put it on.
SF: The other alternatives are things like Kickstarter and Pledgemusic I suppose.
DG: I don’t like that so much. I heard the Blow Monkeys are doing that. The first time I heard of anyone doing it was Marillion doing it about 10 or 15 years ago. I wouldn’t go down that route personally. I don’t think I want to ask our fans to pay for our next project up front. I know people do and it is a way of doing it, but it sticks in my gullet a bit. I heard that one band had fans in the studio, but sometimes you don’t want to be in the studio with a band. Serious arguments going down about arrangements and how to do things … it’s very intense. It’s like going round with a man fixing a gas boiler – you’re just standing there looking at him.
SF: You’ve got a very defined image – it’s a bit Krays, it’s a bit Jam. Was that a deliberate decision?
DG: No. What it was … I found my father’s ’60s clothes fitted me and I went to the Salvation Army and Crampton Clothing down the Old Kent Road and bought suits for £2 and it was an economic thing. New Boots & Panties where the Blockheads … I used to go there … that was over by Victoria Station. It was funny: half of it was women’s underwear and the other half was dead man’s clothing. We used to find these places and you could kit yourself out for a fiver – shoes, suit, ties. We’d just left school and there weren’t much money around and it wasn’t till we noticed there was a few people looking like us and we were looking like them. It was just the times. The Salvation Army was fantastic for second-hand clothes.
The great thing about Nine Below Zero was that we couldn’t get into the dressing room because the crew was doing the same – putting their suits on. After they’d got the gear in they’d be in there putting their suits, shirts and ties on. They used to dress up for the gig like we did. It was a lovely period.
SF: What was the reason for getting the original band back together now?
DG: [The drummer] turned up at one of our gigs a couple of years ago, so all three drummers from Nine Below Zero were all in the same room. And Micky expressed an interest in getting back playing again. On the 30th anniversary of Third Degree in 2012 we did a show at Islington Town Hall. The first set we played with Brendan, which was an hour of Nine Below Zero without Third Degree, then the second set we played the whole of Third Degree with Micky. We really enjoyed it and enjoyed each other’s company. One version of Nine Below Zero was coming to a natural end and nothing was contrived: it all just happened.
SF: With rock’n’roll being what it is you’re lucky you’re all still alive really.
DG: We said that: we may as well do it while we’re all alive! I’m 57, I think Micky’s 54, Mark’s 58 and Brian’s 62, but we’re all still kicking. Lots of our peers are dead – drink or drugs or bad health.
SF: I suspect you’re under-rated for your guitar playing as well.
DG: My harmonica player was telling me that today. He said, why aren’t you this or that? I said, I don’t know. I’ve had some lovely comments about my sound. I play a Gibson 335 through a Marshall JCM800 with a 4x12 cabinet that Alvin Lee gave me in the ’70s. I plug in and there it is – it’s just amazing. It’s all vintage equipment – just like the player!
Nine Below Zero are currently on tour