September 3, 2019

There is surely no doubt in any rock fan’s mind – when they write the final roll call of great frontmen, that of David Coverdale will be very prominent. In this interview, first published in the final issue of Rock Society magazine, David spoke about his remarkable career journey. ‘Here’s an interview for ya!’…

As I sit by the phone, waiting for David Coverdale to ring to discuss Whitesnake’s new album Flesh & Blood, I am toying with the notion of conducting the whole interview without ever mentioning the words ‘Deep Purple’. Then I think, nah … and the phone rings. Every classic rock fiend knows Coverdale’s name, but which of his bands springs first to your mind? 1970s monsters Deep Purple mks III and IV, with the youthful Coverdale as their new signing, or 1980s juggernaut Whitesnake, founded and led by a new and confident Coverdale with industry experience and the vision to succeed? Incredibly, the youngster was with Purple for only three years until they self-destructed in 1976, but Whitesnake has been a going concern in some form or other, always with Coverdale at the helm, for just over 40 years. This has been a fruitful few months for the ‘Snake too, with their unplugged ‘Acoustic Tracks and Ballads’ box set Unzipped released last October and new album Flesh & Blood hitting the streets in May.

In actual fact, although the band has been touring on and off all the way through, new Whitesnake material had been scarce until recently. After 1989’s Slip Of The Tongue, Coverdale embarked on a series of related and unrelated projects, and although the lines became blurred in places, the genuine article didn’t reappear as a studio entity until 2008 with Good To Be Bad, followed in 2011 with Forevermore. Both of these featured the twin-guitar attack of Reb Beach and Doug Aldrich. Coverdale revisited his roots with a well-received album of covers from his tenure in Deep Purple (named The Purple Album) in 2015, in which Beach was twinned with Joel Hoekstra, and the same pairing features on the new offering. Coverdale is as enthusiastic as ever about the new material, and pays special tribute to the band.  The drum stool is occupied by stalwart Tommy Aldridge, who has occupied that position on-and-off since 1989’s Slip Of The Tongue, with Michael Devin on bass and Michele Luppi on keys. Aldridge has the distinction of being the only member of the current band to be older than the venerable front man, which is a recommendation in itself, as Coverdale favours ‘younger’ musicians these days. The reason he gives is typically down to earth: “I find it’s very important for me not to be stuck with old farts like myself! I need fresh people around me to inspire me; I stopped years ago being the youngest member of my band! Tommy Aldridge – and we’ve worked together way over 30 years now – has a slight advantage on me in terms of age, but the rest of them are all young’uns, relatively.” ‘Relatively’ is the word, as none of them is younger than their mid-40s, but then what is classic rock without classic musicians?

Although Coverdale was the youngest member of Purple when he joined in 1973, it wasn’t by much – their new signing on bass and vocals Glenn Hughes was only a month his senior, but had already been fronting Trapeze since 1969. Until then, Coverdale’s musical endeavours were painted against a genuine grim-up-north backdrop. “I was an art student until I was 16 or 17, and then working in local bands, all of whom were excellent. My talent seemed to be older than me, so I was regularly sought out by the more mature bands in the area, which was great for me, because they knew how to make, like, 50 quid a week. There was economic difficulty in my Mam and Dad’s home, my Dad was unemployed in his 40s for the first time since he was 14 years old, and my Mam was doing 2 or 3 jobs. I wasn’t on a grant; that’s why I left art school, so I could get a job in a fashionable boutique – well, for the north of England – for Redcar! – so I could help out financially at home. And what had happened, before my audition, one of the young people who worked in the store brought in Deep Purple’s Machine Head, and also You Are the Music…We’re Just The Band, by Trapeze. The girl I was cohabiting with at the time, when I was playing it, listening to Glenn’s unbelievable voice, kind of looked at me as if to say I don’t know why you’re bothering – he had the looks and everything!”

“Not a lot of people know this, but I was absolutely, hopelessly in love with the very first Allman Brothers album”

Nevertheless, despite having an experienced and supremely talented front man already on their books, Purple were looking for a twinned vocal setup, so Coverdale was given a shot. Coverdale had been in a band named The Government that had once supported Purple, but still he credits Purple’s drummer Ian Paice for his discovery and Cinderella rise from unknown Yorkshire part-timer to fronting one of the biggest rock bands in the world. As can be imagined, applicants were not in short supply and included some well-known names. “They were all going in, or their assistants were going in, and taking floor-to-ceiling stacks of requests to join Purple,” as he recalls. “Ian Paice was the one who picked up this armful of tapes that contained my stuff and was listening to it – that must have been so painful – and he called Ritchie Blackmore and said yeah, I’ve found somebody who’s interesting, he’s got a sense of humour! He sent a picture of himself as a boy scout (‘cos I didn’t have anything else), and said dear Deep Purple, as you can see, I’m always prepared! So Ritchie said, well what’s the voice like? He said well the tone’s spec, but he’s rat-arse drunk! And that was Paicey’s words, Ritchie’s words to me.” Glenn Hughes has previously gone on record as saying Coverdale was the only guy they auditioned, or needed to, and he got the job. Coverdale continues, “There are obviously a lot of cloudy, selective memories and images from all of us, just part of being a human being, but I can remember Glenn being a little bit late because of London traffic and bursting through these doors with his sunglasses half hanging off and this gorgeous lion’s mane, and it was just, “Ohhh, sorry I’m late old chap!”, absolutely kick-ass.

David Coverdale – he’s not intimidating, he just carries a sword in a cane like the rest of us…

All ancient history now of course, but Coverdale was set on a trajectory for life. Within a year of his last gig with Purple, he brought out a solo album named White Snake. This followed Purple’s template of a single guitarist, namely Micky Moody, but it was only when Coverdale teamed Moody with Bernie Marsden that the Whitesnake entity really came together. “Not a lot of people know this,” says Coverdale, “but I was absolutely, hopelessly in love with the very first Allman Brothers album, and it set the blueprint for Whitesnake in some ways. Look at Whitesnake, Micky on slide, Bernie on kind of Dicky Betts, bluesy, obviously raunchier guitar – and of course when Jon Lord came in and Paicey on drums, it was a total fulfilment. I don’t want two guitar players who play the same, I want an orchestra there, and this time we’ve really achieved it with Reb Beach and Joel Hoekstra.”

Unlike the classic Thin Lizzy mould then, where Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson were so telepathically linked that their harmonies sounded like one guy playing two guitars, the key for Coverdale is in contrasting styles. “They are super-balanced; they’re both guitar slingers, but Reb (the dark one) is just like a wild thing, we have to put some restraints on him and throw him some fresh meat and bacon! But Joel (the blonde one) is incredibly musical; his parents were classical musicians, so he has just been surrounded with music.”

The new material also introduced a new writing partnership in Beach and Coverdale, forged over the pain of surgery. “Before I committed to Frontiers to actually make a new album, I already had plans to go in and have knee replacement surgery ‘cos I couldn’t walk any more. I said this is going to be a year of recovery, but give me a little time over Christmas to think about this. So I flew Reb in. I had already known through sitting down with Joel that we could write music together, but in all the times I had spent at my studio with Reb, we’d never really jammed a new tune. There was never any need for it really. But this is the first time since the early Whitesnake that three of us have written together – two songs on the album are the three of us writing.”

Coverdale seemed to be keen on creating a cohesive musical identity in the early days, and the classic lineup of Coverdale, Jon Lord, Neil Murray on bass, Moody and Marsden recorded five studio albums between 1978 and 1982, firstly with Dave Dowle behind the kit, then with ace Deep Purple sticks man Ian Paice. He retained Lord and Moody for 1984’s Slide It In, but every other position was reconsidered, with different band members appearing on versions of the release tailored for different global markets. Then came the seminal 1987 album, in which a completely new and apparently rejuvenated Whitesnake started reworking older numbers, notably Here I Go Again, and hitting their superstar stride in the process – but apart from Coverdale, the band was basically a pot-pourri of guest musicians and sessioners.

“Reb (Beach) is just like a wild thing, we have to put some restraints on him and throw him some fresh meat and bacon!”

Hit single Here I Go Again, co-written by Coverdale and Marsden, had first appeared on 1982’s Saints And Sinners. Record label head David Geffen had got it into his head that Whitesnake should record updated versions of a couple of their classic numbers, and personally requested Here I Go Again and Crying In The Rain, both from the same album. Coverdale was sceptical. “I was very reluctant; I’m not Mr. Nostalgia by any stretch – but it was probably the best decision I’ve ever made, to go through with that. I wanted to revisit Crying In the Rain though, because Neil, John and I had written an astonishing centrepiece for Cozy Powell’s drum solo. Beautiful, symphonic stuff which took the song to levels that I would have hoped the Saints and Sinners version did.” Although guitar wizard John Sykes, who had first blown minds with his death-defying speed licks as a member of Tygers of Pan Tang before taking a turn in Thin Lizzy, was the official axe-slinger on this album, Coverdale wasn’t totally convinced by his level of commitment. “Here I Go Again became the singularly most successful song that Whitesnake has ever done, and continues to be, and it grows consistently. There was no compromise in my vocals; there’s a great solo. John was definitely not into it, so I had to replace his solo with Adrian Vandenberg’s melodic piece. Crying In the Rain as I say, I wanted to do – but instead of Cozy, God rest his soul, it became Tommy Aldridge’s symphony for his explosive drum solo.”

It was Here I Go Again that turned out to be a veritable gold mine though. In addition to the original version, which is a classic in its own right, and the 1987 rendition with a completely different band, they also reconvened with a slightly amended lineup to produce a single edit. All three versions have been massively successful, and I dare say a fair bit of psychological profiling could be carried out by dividing the population along the lines of which version they prefer – and then an acoustic version with Adrian Vandenberg on guitar also appeared on the unplugged Starkers In Tokyo live album, which has now resurfaced as part of the Unzipped box set.

Unsurprisingly, for Whitesnake’s next album, Slip Of The Tongue in 1989, the powers that be started scouring the band’s back catalogue for another diamond in the rough that could be polished to a new level of shiny. Inevitably, their gaze fell on one classic number: Fool For Your Loving from the 1980 album Ready an’ Willing. A Coverdale/Moody/Marsden classic, the original is good on so many levels; not only is it a great song well sung, it’s those small nuances: Neil Murray’s short note staccato style dovetailing with Paice’s swing and high hat subtleties, with tom and bass drum fills through the fade out. Melody, lyrics, a punchy backbeat, tasteful Marsden guitar solo – another golden egg-laden goose, surely. Or not …

“Where I did fight was Fool For Your Loving,” recalls Coverdale, “that was one I definitely did not want to do. Geffen thought that lightning would strike twice. I’m really happy with our 1980 version; I thought it summed up Whitesnake at its pinnacle in the early years. Ready an’ Willing and Come And Get It were two of my faves – I redid Blindman on Ready an’ Willing, ‘cos the band were just so good; that was from my first solo album, which I made for like ten pennies. But I was furious. I was working with a video director at the time to do a kind of 21st century blues band background on a song called Judgement Day. We had the whole video setup, with almost dystopian images for the video. Everything had been set up and the set had been built for that, and I’m saying no, I can’t do Fool For Your Loving. We had fabulous new music, I didn’t even want to do that song. And this is the absolute truth, I’m at the record plant in Los Angeles, the studio, to finish off mixing, and I had the president of Geffen Records, the head of radio, the guy was liaising with MTV, my manager Howard Kaufman, who was the best, and his right-hand radio guy,  and they’re all in my office at the studio, saying, we all feel the same David, this should be. Oh my God, I had to call the band and say you’re not going to believe this – and to a man, Tommy, Steve, Rudi and Adrian were all devastated. But I said you know, they really believe in it. It did very, very well and we did a shed load of sales of course, but in those circumstances, that was probably my biggest regret of revisiting the past.”

Whitesnake, 2019 variant. Probably not pictured enjoying a joke… (Photo: Tyler Bourns)

At the end of the accompanying tour, Coverdale abruptly pulled the emergency cord on the Whitesnake freight train and the band split. His plan was to break away and do something different, which included a high-profile collaboration with Led Zep legend Jimmy Page, but he hadn’t counted on just how closely associated he had become with the Whitesnake name. It was his band, he had formed it to play out his own musical vision, and as he grew in confidence and economic gravitas, he had taken bold decisions in hiring and firing. The result was that the project had morphed from a cohesive band unit into a nebulous cloud of musicians orbiting Coverdale’s centre of gravity. A new, short-term Whitesnake was put together to tour in support of a new Greatest Hits album, but no new material was on the cards. Coverdale had apparently shaken off the shackles of Whitesnake – so when he called up his comfortable collaborator Adrian Vandenberg with a view to putting a solo album together, there was a shock in store.

“I called Adrian and said do you want to come over and help me write a solo record? I’d had the go-ahead from the powers that be, and then, over a period of 10 years, everybody I was working with, all of the executives at EMI, became more of a revolving door than Rainbow or Whitesnake ever was. And each time I’d have to reintroduce myself to these guys. We’d just come off a huge, overproduced Whitesnake Slip Of The Tongue album and tour, and very similarly with Coverdale Page. So Adrian and I talked about doing something that was more organic, more street.”

Coverdale’s personal life was starting to come together in comfort; he was ensconced in Nevada with his future third (and present) wife, author Cindy Barker, and parenthood beckoned once more. Apart from Vandenberg, Coverdale had surrounded himself with a completely new set of musicians, underscoring the fact that, whatever it may have had in common with Whitesnake, this new musical project was going to be something separate and distinct. Once again, the cards fell crooked. “We were pregnant with my son Jasper and I was trying to stay as close to home as possible. So I’m working at a studio in Reno, we’re almost done, and then these three big shots from London flew over. I’ve had this fabulous catering brought in, we’re listening to the music, going wow this is great, blah blah blah, and then they said, we need to talk. So everyone else was excused and the four of us just sat there, the three executives and me, and they said, we want this to be a Whitesnake album. And I’m going – but … but it ISN’T!”

“I’ve seen myself without makeup on TV and it was ghoulish! That beautiful British tan we all have…”

The mind runs to the huge imaginary scene with the violins, where our hero has to choose whether to take the money and run, or sacrifice his career for the sake of artistic integrity. In fact the scene never played out that far, because Coverdale realised they had him over a barrel. “I said, I don’t know what to do. There are definitely some songs on there, Anything You Want, Can’t Stop Now, You’re So Fine, that would easily sit on a Whitesnake album; there are also some songs I wouldn’t have considered. But my contract referred to me as ‘David Coverdale, known as the artist Whitesnake’, so contractually they could do that. So I sat with the guys, and I think it was Denny Carmassi who said why don’t you make it David Coverdale and Whitesnake? As if it’s like a solo-artist-with-band album? It was tough; all I could do at that time was just make the guitars and drums a bit louder, and some of that didn’t really serve the songs.” And so it was that the album was released in 1997 as Restless Heart, by David Coverdale & Whitesnake.

“Okay, get that next interviewer in, now!!”

Having been frustrated and compromised in his solo endeavours on this occasion, Coverdale had another go, which eventually surfaced in 2000 as Into The Light, which this time was successfully released under his own name. One result of this has been to show up the folly of trying to force Restless Heart into the Whitesnake mould, of which Coverdale says: “If you listen to it, you will hear that it’s more of an accompanying album to Into the Light. It has more in common I think.”

Whitesnake were bobbing in and out of existence throughout this time, producing the aforementioned unplugged album and touring extensively. Another full live album was released in 2006 with some new studio tracks tacked on to the end, but it would be 2008 before a new, full album of Whitesnake material would appear – the first bona fide Whitesnake album since, unbelievably, 1989’s Slip Of The Tongue, and the two had no band members in common. From this time onwards though, some measure of cohesiveness has reasserted itself, with at least some band members appearing on all of the four most recent albums. In fact, apart from the addition of an official keyboard player in Michele Luppi, the new record features all the same members as The Purple Album, marking the first time two consecutive Whitesnake albums have featured the same band since 1982.

One thing that is noticeable about the new Flesh & Blood material is how upbeat and jolly it all is. The videos are a direct link to the past as Coverdale fits snugly into his 1980s sparkly jacket without a squeeze, sporting the same massive hair, but grinning into the camera with undisguised mirth. What happened to the intense and angst-ridden, moody troubadour of old who, like a drifter, was born to walk alone?

“Well a lot of that was photo sessions, because I don’t really like photo sessions, and that continues to this very day,” he explains. “You know, looking like a girly man. However, it’s an evil necessity. I’ve seen myself without makeup on TV and it was ghoulish! That beautiful British tan we all have. It’s very funny, somebody came on to my wife’s Facebook and said thank God for you – he was a miserable ass before you! We both just cracked up! But literally, I’m one of the most optimistic people I know; I take the challenges and I recover. I think it’s part of my life’s journey. But you know, those were just ‘get me laid’ pictures. And they did!”

And right there, we have the elements that seem to have divided his life into two halves – the overtly lusty hair-metal poseur of old has morphed into an overtly lusty, hair-metal married man. Towards the end of the album is an acoustic guitar love song named After All, which breaks the Whitesnake mould to some extent, as he describes: “If you remember, a lot of the Whitesnake identities start off soft and then explode in. Perfect example of course was Here I Go Again, but before that, Ain’t Gonna Cry No More – I’ll start writing these things then suddenly remember I’d better get the band in! It became a very strong part of the Whitesnake identity, but a lot of people tend to favour that more sensitive chap, when I sing in my lower, softer voice. After All was the first song that was written, before there was even a concept of doing a new Whitesnake studio album of original material. Joel had flown down to stay with me for a couple of days after the 2016 tour and one of our plans was to do Whitesnake Unzipped, with string quartet and orchestra, to do Is This Love, Still Of the Night, Slow and Easy, the big Tarzan chest beaters – they were all basically written on an acoustic guitar. I write pretty much all of my songs regarding my relationship with my wife Cindy, and that song is something that I had percolating for a while – and Joel came in and added that beautiful bridge which gave me the inspiration to create those lyrics. You know, Cindy and I are 30 years together, so we’re coming into what one would call the late fall or winter of our relationship. Joel’s music and his performance inspired, ‘Summer turns to fall and winter comes to call, and we’ll still be standing tall after all.’ So there are no drums on that track; we decided to just keep it as this beautiful love song.

And so closes the latest episode in the ongoing soap opera that is Whitesnake, which seems to be relaxing the melodrama and taking on a more comfortable, homely feel. The kid from North Yorkshire is now a settled, married elder statesman of the rock fraternity, still living the dream, and the freight train rolls on. That’s not to say he has ever grown up, or ever will. Every kid wants to be a train driver don’t they?

(Thanks to Brian Stroud for his assistance with this feature)