Interview in MINT Magazine (Germany), Vertigo Special Issue, October 2019
by Markus Hockenbrink
Label-founder Olav Wyper called them Vertigo’s Best Band, but the big breakthrough never came about for Cressida. Nonetheless, the Brits’ only albums have long claimed legendary status among progressive rock fans, their UK first pressings are among the most sought after Vertigo titles.
Markus Hochenbrink met with Cressida’s bass player Kevin McCarthy and drummer Iain Clark for a chat about late hours in Hamburg’s legendary “Star Club”, celebratory messiness with Ozzy Oybourne and poetic justice, which was 40 years in the making.
Translated from the original German article
Iain and Kevin, how did you get in touch with Vertigo back then?
Iain Clark: Ossie Byrnie, the man who was virtually responsible for the discovery of the Bee Gees, signed us as a band in the beginning. Ossie had just produced two of their biggest hits in Australia, and when they moved to England, he joined them. The Bee Gees got signed by Robert Stigwood shortly after, and Ossie took on Cressida.
Kevin McCarthy: I think nobody in the band can really remember exactly how he got wind of us. In any case, one day he rocked with his big Rolls Royce up at Kensington church hall, where we were rehearsing. At this point, the band had only existed for eight weeks at the most, but obviously he must have liked what he heard. That was in December 1968, a month later we signed with him. Like so many other bands we were pretty starry-eyed when it came to paperwork. We were just happy to get signed at all, and had not dreamed of getting a solicitor to check the small print. It only dawned on us much later that it was not the fairest contract, something that even happened to the likes of the Beatles.
Did Ossie Byrne introduce you to the then newly founded label?
Clark: Yes, and what you’ve got to know is that we were tied in with him twofold. Ossie was our producer and at the same time our manager as well. In his former role he reached out to labels with our demo tapes. The first one to show interest was Jac Holzman’s Elektra. That really impressed us, because they had already signed the likes of The Doors, Love and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Elektra were the be-all-and-end-all in coolness. I’ve kept the diary with the entry of the date on which Holzman would personally visit us in London. In the end it never happened, because at that same time Ossie was also in touch with Olav Wyper, and he just signed us with Vertigo, without asking us about it. At this point we had never really heard much of Vertigo and only knew that it was conceived to be the progressive rock division of Philips.
Back then, was Progressive Rock something tangible for you? Or, more importantly, did you perceive your music as progressive?
McCarthy: I’ve asked myself this question too, thinking back. I guess the genre was not yet established back then, even though the label was already using it. Regarding Cressida and our self-image: we just made music that we liked and even later never really used the term Progressive Rock.
Did you get a taste of the legendary freedom Vertigo gave its artists and appreciate it?
Clark: Definitely, yes. We got to record our first album in the brilliantly equipped Wessex studios, which at the time had the UKs first 16 track mixing desk. A few weeks before us, King Crimson had recorded their debut there, another good omen. I should also say that we were well prepared to record our songs live in the studio, we had been a well rehearsed live band, despite maybe lacking some charisma.
And Germany, of all places, supposedly was responsible for that, at least in part?
Clark: Indeed, because just like the Beatles, we had been booked for a number of gigs at Hamburg’s Star Club. Later on we played for two weeks in Munich, and then for two in Zurich. On one hand we made great memories in those days, but I also remember well how mercilessly we were passed through back then. In Hamburg, we played six sets, 45 minutes each, back to back, with 15 minute breaks in between. It was even worse in Zurich. We played at the famous Hirschen Club for half the night. After the week we had agreed with the promoter, who also was the landlord for our apartment directly above the club, charged that much for food and accommodation, we had to perform for another full week just to pay off our debt with some petrol money left in our pockets. Apparently, in those days this was a common trick with many British bands. But there was however at least one good outcome from the whole experience after all of that, our live repertoire was good to go.
In those days, how did you define success for yourselves?
McCarthy: I’d say like everyone else. First and foremost we wanted to get signed and release an album. We didn’t think much farther than that, we certainly did not think about making a lot of money. Being in a band was just better than any odd job.
Your first album was released 1970, supposedly the label was quite happy about sales, do you know more about that?
Clark: Not much more. I think they told us the album had sold fairly well at the start, but I can’t recall it in detail. I believe about 14,000 copies sold in the first few months, not the world, but still pretty decent. Our problem was something else: We just did not get enough live gigs, which traditionally boost album sales. Just a few years ago I read an interview with Olav Wyper and this had been evident to him as well.
Why was it so difficult to get live shows?
Clark: That was probably down to our contract. Ossie Byrne just wasn’t a good manager. He did not know how to promote a band with a record deal, and did not get us a professional booking agency. He wanted to do it all himself, so without much ado declared Michael Rosen from the band Eclection to be our booker and tour manager.
Was there no help from the label?
McCarthy: No, we were barely in direct touch with Olav Wyper, the exchange always went via Ossie on our side and via Wypers assistant Dick Leahy on their end. Of course that was totally in the interest of the management.
No-one interfered in your creative decisions though?
McCarthy: No, nobody. When it came to music, we had free rein, anyhow, the label had already heard our demos, so they must have known what it would mean having us take over the studio. Basically, those were mostly re-recordings which, thanks to our new keyboard player Peter Jennings, put the songs onto a whole new level. There was only one suggestion to maybe give a shot at producing a single. Whether it was the label or Ossie who proposed it, I can’t recall. Singles were not our strength though, we were proud of being known as a classic album-band anyway, and therefore being taken more seriously creatively. So our approach was rather half hearted and in the end the attempt at a single, ‘Situation’ never got released.
How about Verigo’s other bands at the time, did you feel close to any of them personally or artistically?
Clark: Sure, we were interested in who else was on Vertigo. Rod Steward and Black Sabbath were pretty well known already. I knew of Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum, I guess I was a fan, and we had been touring with May Blitz and Manfred Mann. Other than that, we had nothing much to do with the other bands, aside from the occasional Vertigo Nights, which the label staged in London.
You had also been touring with Black Sabbath, are there any memorable anecdotes you can tell?
Clark: I remember one occasion! We were in Brussels and all sitting in a restaurant. That was around the end of the tour, autumn 1970, and suddenly news broke from somewhere that the second Black Sabbath album had just made it to number one in the English charts. The band completely lost it at that point. They did not exactly tear the place apart, but they did things with food, for which it was definitely not made for. I felt the scene was a bit embarassing, seeing I was of the opinion that as a British band you had to behave. (laughs).
McCarthy: Ozzie had a habit of messing around with food back then. I can remember being on tour with May Blitz and him putting a baguette in his trousers, before climbing up on stage and joining them. Goes to show he was a born entertainer even then (laughs).
Black Sabbath’s success in the 70s was huge, but brought along all the stereotypical excesses: Drugs, willfully wasted studio time, personal relationships breaking down. In hindsight, are you relieved that this sort of fame was not yours to have? Or is there also a little bit of envy, because you might have missed out on something exciting?
Clark: To a certain degree I did get a taste of that lifestyle. When Cressida ended,I joined Uriah Heep, recording an album and touring, and they had been noticeably more successful than us. With Cressida I had been used to polite applause, whereas the crowd went crazy at Uriah Heep shows. I was not part of the band long enough to live through their biggest hits, but was also spared the tragedy surrounding David Byron. But envy? No, I don’t think I was envious. I found my pleasure in making music and playing for an audience who appreciated it. Looking back I believe you can’t ask for more in this business.
A musical adventure you have pretty exclusively to yourselves was playing a show behind the Iron Curtain. How did that come around?
Clark: One evening, after a show in London’s Marquee Club a young couple came backstage to talk with us. They asked if we would be interested in playing a show in Czechoslovakia. At first we thought they were joking, but not long after that we received an official invite to a state sponsored Beat Festival in Bratislava.
And you just went along with it?
Clark: Exactly. Travelling to Eastern Europe impressed me hugely, you know, back then it was an absolute exception for kids in the West. (ponders) It’s very cliched of course, but Czechoslovakia seemed really grey to me. The whole city of Bratislava appeared to have very little colour. In effect, the people living there thought us fascinating. We wore our hair to our shoulders and were wearing colourful clothes that were the trend at the time. When we crossed the street it’d really happen that old ladies discreetly poked us with their fingers, as if to check if we were real. The festival took place on the university campus, and despite only a few students speaking English, the atmosphere was very warm and pleasant. I have only remote memories of the gig itself. All the more surprising was when, many years later, a photo of us on stage in Bratislava appeared. There aren’t many live photos of us at all, but this one is pin sharp.
You did not run into any problems with the authorities?
Clark: Only indirectly. There was an official invite after the concert and there, the mood was completely different altogether. The authorities had taken over the students area, locked out the students and raised toasts to brotherly friendship and so on. It felt unpleasant. I remember stepping onto the hallway later that evening and seeing a bunch of students waiting behind a locked glass door. I went over and opened the door, as they had asked. When we came back to the reception room together, all the officials disappeared into thin air at once. It was like, that was the signal that the real party can start.
When your second album was released early 1971, Cressida was already all over. Why did the band have no future?
Clark: Without regular gigs there was just not enough money to live from the music alone. Album sales just were not enough to stay afloat and sometimes I also think the problem was our band’s personality. Our stage presence was not highly extravagant, compared to people like David Byron, Rod Stewart or even Ozzie Osborne, that was pretty obvious. During my time with Uriah Heep it became obvious that it’s extrovert guys like Byron that excite crowds, Cressida just did not have that to a great extent.
McCarthy: At the same time, I’m convinced that this would have changed if we’d have had more time and more gigs. Uriah Heep were up on stage six days a week at that time, for us it was two or three times a month.
Your career may have been short lived, but both Cressida albums are perceived to be masterpieces among Vertigo connoisseurs nowadays. When did it become apparent to you that a certain cult was surrounding your music?
Clark: I only came to understand that forty years later, when I wanted to sell my LP collection to a record store in Reading called Pop Classics. The owners were kind enough to point out the fact that Cressida had become a real insider tip.
Why in god’s name did you want to sell your LP collection?
Clark: Why? The LPs took up a fair amount of space, and like most other people I had long got used to CDs. I had indeed owned a few LPs that never got released on CD, but I worried that they’d all just gather dust and lose their value eventually. My record player was long out of use and I was curious what I’d get for the collection.
What did it consist of?
Clark: There were around 600 LPs from that time, among them many Vertigo swirls and the two Cressida albums, each one fivefold. Roughly half the records were in near mint condition, because I only ever put them on once when I dubbed them onto tapes. Unfortunately, the lavishly designed covers were showing some wear and tear, which is hard to avoid when moving house. Still, based solely on my verbal accounts, the record dealers got in their car and drove 600 miles to see me in Scotland and check out the collection. I think they were really on a quest for unreleased Cressida material. Progressive Rock had become such a popular genre for collectors.
And, did they discover anything?
Clark: Not right away. But with some effort I was able to track down the demos, which Ossie Byrne used to send to the label. The people at Pop Classics then helped me to digitalise the recordings and with the help of the Record Collector Magazine this became the limited vinyl LP Trapped in Time: The Lost Tapes. And as that came together, I was asked if we’d consider a reunion show, to celebrate the occasion.
Were you all still in touch with one another?
Clark: No, not really. When the band broke up, we scattered to the winds and lost touch with one another. Because we couldn’t get hold of any of the other members, our vocalist Angus Cullen and I had set up a custodial account for the royalties from CDs reissues which had been released on the Repertoire Records label. On the occasion when contact was finally re-established over the lost tapes, I was pleasantly surprised that everyone was up for playing one final reunion concert in London. Our guitar player John Heyworth was the only one not there, as he had sadly passed away not long before then.
And on 2nd December 2011 Cressida was back on stage, after more than 40 years of abstinence, how did that feel?
Clark: Fantastic! It was a magical night and the perfect finish to our career, which had previously felt was unfinished. Two years later, instigated by Mikael Akerfeldt of Opeth, who was a big fan of ours, we performed one more time, at a sea-going festival called Melloboat.
Does that mean that, if the stars align, another final concert would be conceivable, maybe even in Germany? It wouldn’t have to be a six hour show at the Star Club.
McCarthy: (laughs) I’m up for it. However I live in Los Angeles, Iain is in Scotland and Angus in France. So whoever wants to put it together will need to come up with a few plane tickets!