"Girls talk to me when I play": Chris Spedding took up the guitar nearly seventy years ago and he's still in demand

Chris Spedding studio headshot
(Image credit: Andy Holdsworth)

Who’s played with Elton John, Bryan Ferry, Paul McCartney and The Wombles? As one of the world’s most versatile guitar heroes, Chris Spedding has defied easy categorisation over his storied 60-year career. His eightieth birthday rolled around in May, but the Derbyshire-born virtuoso with the silver quiff still enjoys recording and touring, adding tasty, understated licks to whatever project comes his way. “I always try to inject some Spedding element, to make it different,” he says with a smile.


You started playing violin when you were nine years old. What made you switch to guitar? 

I grew up in a household where opera was always on the radio. My mother sang in the local choir, my father played organ in church. That’s why I chose violin. I had an aptitude for it, but my heart wasn’t in it. When I was twelve I heard skiffle, and Elvis singing Hound Dog. I thought: “What am I doing with this rubbish violin?” Girls talk to me when I play the guitar. 

Were any of your neighbours worried about you becoming a juvenile delinquent? 

Listening to rock’n’roll would be the same as if your precious young son suddenly decided to listen to gangsta rap. So people in my town would say: “We’re very worried about Chris” [laughs]. 

In the early seventies, when you were an in-demand session guy, what was a typical week like? 

I might do a session for some middle-of-the-road artist like Petula Clark in the morning, then play with John Cale in the afternoon. I could take the lick of the day – whatever guitar thing I was working on – and fit it into both. Nobody would know. Who was going to buy Petula Clark’s record and John Cale’s record, and say: “Hey, I recognise that lick!” So when people say: “You’re very versatile, playing with all these different artists,” the opposite is true. I just played the same thing. And never got caught out. Until now.

Any memories of working with Harry Nilsson? 

I’d heard stories about the John Lennon ‘lost weekend’ with Harry – partying and all the craziness. But there was none of that in the studio. Harry was very focused. There were some great players there – Peter Frampton, Herbie Flowers, Ringo. But those were the days where you’d sometimes do a hundred takes; tape boxes everywhere. Then usually, after listening for hours and hours, through all the takes, they’d go: “I think we got it on take two”. 

What do you recall about your hit single Motorbikin’? 

I’d done some work with [producer] Mickey Most on a Donovan album, and we hit it off quite well. So I went back to Mickey with this idea for a song, Motorbikin’. It was almost like one of those Hollywood scenes, where he was sitting there smoking a cigar, with his feet up on the desk, saying: “That’s gonna be a hit record, son!” By the end of that week we’re in a studio cutting it. And it was a hit. 

How did you come to make the first demos for the Sex Pistols? 

Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren had a shop called Let It Rock, and she used to make fifties-style Teddy-boy clothes for me. Chrissie Hynde worked there too, and she invited me down to the 100 Club to see the Pistols. There were no A&R guys, just about fifteen die-hard fans. And only about half that by the time they finished, because they’d frighten people off. 

After, I went to a rehearsal and listened to their whole repertoire. We recorded No Feelings, Pretty Vacant and Problems. It was fascinating to be around them, because they were teenagers and I was in my thirties. I didn’t really identify with all the angst of the punk rock thing, but I loved the energy. After we made the demos, [producer] Chris Thomas got interested. And they were totally into Chris, because they were secretly big fans of Roxy Music. That all comes out later on, that they like music by these super-boring old farts [laughs].

Didn’t you have the opportunity to own the master tapes of those Pistols demos? 

I didn’t really trust Malcolm McLaren. I thought he was sort of a spiv. So before I went in the studio, I said: “I’ll give you my time and my expertise, but I won’t get stuck with the bill.” I thought I was being really smart. In fact, if I’d have paid for those sessions I would have owned the masters, and would have probably made quite a killing out of it. 

What do you recall about working with Paul McCartney on the music for Give My Regards To Broad Street? 

We recorded in Air Studios, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven, because the people in the studio were Paul and Linda, George Martin producing, Geoff Emerick engineering and Ringo playing the drums. I was the only non-Beatle there! On the film sessions, in the downtime we jammed on Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Elvis; nobody dared to do a Beatles song. But I’ve thought: “If only those jams had been recorded, it would’ve been total gold.” And it would’ve made the movie fantastic. But nobody was going to tell Paul that. 

Is it true that you have an avid Japanese fan who comes to all of your gigs? 

Yes, his name is Toshio. I first met him when I was touring Japan in the nineties. By 1992 he’d started doing a fanzine. And then when the internet started he made it into a website. Thanks to Toshio, I had a website before I even had a computer

You look amazing for almost eighty.

I’ve done all the naughty things that I shouldn’t have done, back in the seventies [laughs]. So the way I live now might seem to be boring. But I like it. I live by the south coast, in an apartment overlooking the beach. Very sedate. And every now and then I get to go out and play some rock’n’roll.

Chris Spedding will be performing with Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of The Worlds in 2025. Tickets are on sale now

Bill DeMain

Bill DeMain is a correspondent for BBC Glasgow, a regular contributor to MOJO, Classic Rock and Mental Floss, and the author of six books, including the best-selling Sgt. Pepper At 50. He is also an acclaimed musician and songwriter who's written for artists including Marshall Crenshaw, Teddy Thompson and Kim Richey. His songs have appeared in TV shows such as Private Practice and Sons of Anarchy. In 2013, he started Walkin' Nashville, a music history tour that's been the #1 rated activity on Trip Advisor. An avid bird-watcher, he also makes bird cards and prints.