The Blues met the world’s most reluctant rock star to hear about his long-standing illness, the “c*nts” in the industry, why Sting is like a Russian prince and how bad blues sounds “like when you fart in the bath”…
Chris Rea laughs in the face of media training. As he slopes into the man- cave of his Berkshire home and clicks on the kettle, it becomes gloriously apparent that this man does not give one solitary shit. Exhibit A: his clothes. In a paint-spattered Adidas vest and rumpled combat trousers, you really do have to remind yourself that this is a millionaire rock star, not his skiving gardener.
“There’s a certain discipline about being a rock star,” says Rea, parking himself in a swivel chair and sparking a cigarette. “And I don’t have it. If I was a rock star, I wouldn’t have let a photographer in here, dressed like this. I’d have been down the hairdressers. You try and get Sting to do something without 15 advisors. These boys are like Russian princes…”
Exhibit B: his workspace. As a rock journalist, my travels have led me into hotel rooms, backstage areas and tour buses whose sheer squalor would make those women from How Clean Is Your House wince. But I’ve never seen a room as crazily cluttered as Rea’s bolthole. Like the bedroom of some eccentric adolescent lottery-winner, every surface groans with bric-a-brac. CDs. Motor racing gloves. Gold discs. Hacksaws. Plectrums. Die-cast toys. Wine. Aftershave. A vacuum cleaner (unplugged). Even the floor: watch your step or you’ll tread on the Fender Strat played on 1989’s The Road To Hell (the album whose multi-platinum sales mean he can afford all this).
Depending on your point of view, it’s either an extension of the mind of a scattershot genius – or a complete shit-hole. “I’m always surprised when people want to see this room,” chuckles Rea. “Why would they want to fucking see this? Look at it! There’s shite everywhere! My wife comes in here and goes, ‘When are you going to do something about this bloody room?’ But I can’t help it. I’ve even slept in here before…”
Above all, Rea’s refreshing point-blank refusal to give a fuck is evident in his plain-spoken interview manner. Though there’s a certain sleepiness about the 64-year-old’s movements, what he actually says is often dazzlingly witty and unflinchingly honest, even when talk turns to his long-running dance with cancer. It makes him a gift for a journalist – if less so for a photographer. “You can have one more,” he snaps when the posing gets too much. “And that’s it.”
Although our allotted hour covers plenty of ground, we’re officially here to discuss La Passione: a loving remake of the Formula 1-themed film score that Rea originally wrote back in the mid-90s, shortly before it was wrestled off him by the record label and (he says) thoroughly ruined.
“Day one, the damage was done,” he sighs. “All it was meant to be was one hour of a little boy’s dreams. And I had things I wanted to do with the guitar that hadn’t been done before. Like, there’s one number called Olive Oil, where I was actually playing slide guitar in the same scale as a saxophone.
“But then in came millions of executives from America. So in the end, it fell flat on its arse. And it came out the same week that Britpop took off. Blair had just won the election. Oasis. Spice Girls. So something a bit Fellini-ish – about a little boy who loved red cars – went straight over the top. It was like, ‘Well, don’t you have a 335 guitar with a Union Jack on it?’”
You could have protested, surely. You must have had some clout.
“I never did have enough clout. I never had the confidence. My career started on the back foot.
I was 22 before I even picked up a guitar. So I missed what I now see, looking back, as vital years. I had a date with my now-wife in 1968, and it was the same night as Cream were on at the Albert Hall. When you look back and see how Clapton is playing then, and you hadn’t even picked up a guitar in your life – it didn’t help. I was always behind. Always.”
You’d never guess from his virtuoso slide skills, but it’s true: Rea was a chronic late- starter. Born in Middlesbrough in 1951, to Anglo-Italian parents (his father ran a booming ice cream business), he drove local bands to their gigs but says he had “no ego” to perform. Aged nine, his head was filled not with guitar heroes but F1 drivers, especially the doomed German ace Wolfgang Von Trips (a central figure in the film of La Passione).
“I’m in Middlesbrough,” he remembers. “A steel town. There were no colours. Everything was black and white. Cold. Grey. Then all of a sudden, I’m put in a car with the rest of the family, taken to Italy. It was my LSD. Because perceptively, you lived your world in five miles square. To be taken out of it, shown the factory where Ferrari made cars, was just mindblowing.
“We had a little black-and-white TV,” he continues. “There was a race on, live from Monte Carlo. And I heard these words: Von Trips. ‘What’s Von Trips?’ ‘Ah, he’s a German count, he lives in a big castle’. He was like Darth Vader. Like, ‘Wow, who is this man?’ That was it. Sold down the river.” Has modern motor racing lost its romance?
“Oh yeah. And a lot of its technique and bravery. You see them now, knocking each other with their wheels. In those days, if you did that, you didn’t just go into a run-off area. You died.”
Sure enough, Von Trips met his end on September 10, 1961, smashing his Ferrari into the barrier of the Monza circuit in Italy (and killing 15 spectators in the process). It took another seminal figure to spark Rea’s belated interest in the blues. He nods at the poster of Charley Patton on the wall: “It was him. My God. I heard him accidentally, on me mam’s radio in her bedroom. She had double- mirrors, really kitsch 50s things. You’d use it when you were going out on Saturday night. She had an alarm radio, always coming on at the wrong time.
“It was just one of those unbelievable sliding- door moments. I heard this fella, and his voice sounded like my voice. I’d always thought, ‘Well, I could never be a singer with this horrible voice’. I hated it. Absolutely hated it. Still do. But he sounded like the same kind of thing. I didn’t know black American terms: a boll weevil or turnpike blues. But there was an emotion that clicked with me. I became fascinated with gospel blues. I still play more gospel than Chicago. I very rarely go anywhere near that speed, aggression, Clapton thing. Someone once reviewed me, saying the testosterone was missing from my blues solos, because I don’t do Chicago. It’s just alien to me.
There’s a certain discipline involved in being a real rock star, and I just don’t have it.
“Back then, me dad had an old Italian guitar that was just on the wall. It’d been there all my life. I got it down. Got a nail varnish bottle – me sister’s – and I started on a single string. I’d never done a blues scale. I’ve never been taught anything. I even got kicked out of school. The next week, I was the proud owner of a Hofner and a Laney amp. And that was it. Off we went.”
Most aspiring musicians would be turning backflips if their debut single was a transatlantic hit, yet in a hint of ructions to come, Rea despised 1978’s Fool (If You Think It’s Over). “Absolutely. Wrong key. It ended up being this huge California thing. It’s the only track I never played guitar on, which tells you something about the spirit of it. On top of that, it was just a huge hit. So there was nothing I could do. It was like, ‘This is not me!’”
The superstar years of the 80s weren’t him, either. Today, Rea paints his commercial peak as an exhausting tug-of-war between his pursuit of the blues and the meddling executives trying to mould him into a slicker proposition. “Well, it was everybody,” he remembers. “Dire Straits. The Police. Everybody who was having it away at that time. You did what you were told, because you were part of a huge company. You were a business. It was like me dad’s ice cream business, except it was Chris Rea’s LP business.
“You say that word ‘blues’ to anybody in the business – and they fucking run a mile. It’s unbelievable. I had a lot of trouble with Road To Hell. We’d actually recorded the next album – Auberge – before, as an agreement with Warner Brothers. So if Road To Hell didn’t work – and they said it won’t – we would jump straight away to Auberge and forget about it. Of course, the beginning to Road To Hell is a gospel-blues thing. Warner Brothers went, ‘This is going to be over in five minutes’. But I did stand me ground, and it went No.1.”
Even then, Rea refused to capitalise, notably snubbing a shop-window set for MTV Unplugged. “It’s one of the biggest career mistakes I’ve ever made. I’d be so much more wealthy, because of America. I was offered one of the first ones. But I saw Eric Clapton on it, and it reminded me of Pebble Mill At One. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want anything to do with this’. Because he’s like God to me. And he’s going [moans sluggish version of Layla]. So I turned it down. I should have had an older brother who said, ‘Fucking do it’. Every time I see a car that’s too much money, I definitely regret it, just for five minutes.”
Do you remember the first time you were able to afford a Ferrari?
“Yeah. It was instant disappointment. [Pink Floyd drummer] Nick Mason said to me once, ‘Chris, do yourself a favour. Stop trying to make excuses about all this. You’re a sad bastard. It could have been heroin. But it’s red cars.’ And he was right. There was nowhere to drive the fucking thing. Y’know, you put it in your garage. You didn’t want anyone to know you had it. Then you take it out, and you couldn’t find anywhere you could do more than 40 miles an hour. I’m a competent driver. I’ve raced at Monza. But it’s a terrible thing. Blues guitar and motor racing bring out real testosterone in some guys.”
Royalties also paid for this house, back in 1993. Why not the standard rock star mansion in London?
Rea shrugs: “I didn’t have that much money. It took a long time for me to get clear. We amassed over £320,000 in debt to the record company. It wasn’t until Dancing With Strangers  that we actually turned the page. At that point we had children and we needed normality for them. Here, no one knew who the fuck I was, because I’m not Cliff Richard or whatever. One of my younger daughters, they’d get them to write an essay about ‘What does your dad do?’ so they could get a handle on the kids. And she thought I was in the motor business, because there was always cars in the yard, oil around, and whatever.”
You didn’t mind when all of the hysteria fell away, then?
“Not at all. I took it rather better than some of them I could tell you about, who had nervous breakdowns because they’re not the king any more. I found fame really annoying. Anything to do with ‘celebrity’, I just don’t get.”
You must have had some A-list jams in this room, though?
“No. Rock stars don’t talk to each other. They’re too important to talk to another one. They’ve all got their own little palace, their own universe, of which they are the head. So how can they possibly go to somebody else’s universe? They can’t handle it. I will one day write the book that shows just how massive some of these egos are. Because I was a slow success, I was meeting people socially whose records I had at home, who were now talking to me on a what-strings-do-you-use level. And very few of them have not disappointed. [Pink Floyd’s] Dave Gilmour is the only one that [hasn’t disappointed]. That paints everyone else as a cunt. Which they are. But Gilmour is fabulous.”
If not exactly a social hub, this house has been the headquarters for Rea’s own Jazzee Blue record label, conceived in the post-millennium as a means to escape the creative handcuffs of the majors. “I was a big fan of the guys in New York who had labels for a certain kind of music. That’s what I hoped Jazzee Blue would be: somewhere where musicians came and made a record. I’d had enough of all the other shit. Because Stony Road  was not compromised in any way whatsoever, [the label] walked away from it. Yet it went gold. Which surprised me. I never expected that.”
Rea seems proudest of his Jazzee Blue-era output, though he’ll admit the modern industry is no picnic. “I didn’t know at that point, that the business was dead and gone. I made that record Guitar Unlimited , which was the pinnacle of my life: to make a record with an eight-piece guitar orchestra. They were geniuses. And fucking nothing happened!”
Does the work you’re proudest of tend to underperform commercially?
“Oh yeah. I mean, Michael Parkinson, he told me to do Guitar Unlimited. Then he came to me and said, ‘The executives [at BBC Radio 2] say I’m not allowed to play anything more than three minutes any more.’ So Guitar Unlimited was out of the window.”
Some people had nervous breakdowns cos they’re not the king any more. I found fame really annoying.
This house has seen hard personal times, too. I start telling Rea that I only want to broach his long-running battle with abdominal cancer if he’s comfortable to do so, when he interjects: “I don’t give a fuck. Today, I haven’t got a bad stomach. I haven’t got diarrhoea. You become conditioned. You accept your illness is normality and when you’re not ill, it’s as if you’ve won the lottery. Today is fabulous. If it was pissing down, it’d still be great. And I worried about today. Because of not knowing what your body is gonna do, because I haven’t got a pancreas. I’m thinking last night, ‘What pills should I take, in case I can’t do this interview because I’m sat on the loo?’”
Yet there are also fringe benefits, he says. “I’ll never forget it: Robert Ahwai [guitarist] came to see me in hospital. There had always been this big argument with him about what was blues and what wasn’t. And he looked at me and he said, ‘Well, you’ve now got a licence to sing the blues.’
“Before I was ill,” continues Rea, “I was extremely intolerant. I was very aggressive. I’d survived this terrible pop thing, so I became mega-paranoid. Hard to work for? Very. Somebody new came into the band just after Road To Hell, and the other lads had T-shirts [with a photo of a smiling Rea] that said, ‘This is what he looks like when he’s happy.’ Because I was just grumpy all day long. Nothing was good enough.”
On the flipside, Rea admits, the resulting fatigue forces him to work in bursts. “I get up at seven. I’ll listen to what’s on the digital tape machine, see what I did yesterday. I might do a bit of painting, writing and reading. By the time six o’clock comes, I’m knackered. I can’t control my energy. But the next Chris Rea release will have a major gospel- blues [vibe] on it.”
How do you think it’ll fit into the modern blues landscape?
“Me and the modern blues scene,” sighs Rea, “we have difficulty getting on. I sometimes get the feeling that it’s all sixth-form college: ‘Oh, you shouldn’t do that.’ A lot of modern blues is academic. It’s what someone else did. But the blues is one of the biggest examples of evolution. It’s in constant change. You can’t document it and say ‘stop’. It should be free. When I brought Blue Guitars out [in 2005], the singer from one of the top blues bands in Italy – apparently – said to me, ‘It’s not the blues.’ So I went and watched him, to see what he was getting at. And it was just [sings 12-bar dirge], ‘Well, I woke up this morning…’ in an Italian accent!
“And,” he continues, “[modern blues] has become some kind of technical thing. I’m fed up now of seeing, ‘Oh, this guitarist is faster than that guitarist’ – that’s got nothing to do with the fucking blues. Then you get guys who come along like Allman’s nephew [Derek Trucks]: now that’s good. Fuck me. That’s what blues should be: something you haven’t heard before. The other stuff can get a bit like… you know when you fart in the bath? These scales get so fucking fast. Musically, emotionally, it ceases to do anything.”
The guitarist Robert Ahwai came to see me in hospital. He said, ‘Well, you’ve now got a licence to sing the blues.
Do you ever feel bad for today’s generation of musicians, though, that they’ll never be able to afford a place like this?
“I do feel sorry for them,” he nods. “I know there’s one or two – I’ve tried to get deals for them – and they’re not going anywhere. There’s one a year, maybe, that does. Last year, it was the fat ginger lad [Ed Sheeran]. Then the country and western girl singer [Taylor Swift].”
Chris Rea, though, is free to continue his deep exploration of the blues, financed by the quaint concept of enormous fuck-off royalties. As we pack up, there’s time for one last question – and we can’t resist asking about his 1986 yuletide mega-hit, Driving Home For Christmas. Will it make you wince or give you a buzz when you hear that while turkey shopping this December?
Rea smiles: “I do regret that I never got it to Van Morrison, because that’s who I wrote it for. I thought he would have done a marvellous job. But I can’t knock it. I always think, if I don’t hear Driving Home For Christmas, it means I can no longer go on holiday…”
La Passione is out now via Jazzee Blue/Universal