"Family definitely ran out of steam". Roger Chapman in The Prog Interview

Family
(Image credit: Getty Images)

As a teenager Roger Chapman would take the mic “for a laugh” when the dance band at his local palais ran through some of the rock’n’roll hits of the day. He tried to emulate the likes of Little Richard, Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry, but he never dreamt that he would become a singer, let alone one of the most original vocalists of his generation. Chapman sang with bands on the Leicester gig circuit, including the Rocking Rs and The Exciters, then in 1966 he joined rhythm and blues band The Farinas who soon became Family. Over the next seven years Family developed through the psychedelia of their debut Music In A Doll’s House (1968) into one of the most imaginative and respected groups of 70s progressive rock era. Their wide stylistic remit encompassed rock, folk, blues, jazz and eastern influences. They went on to release another six albums, and their singles the Strange Band EP (1970), In My Own Time (1971) and Burlesque (1972) all entered the UK Top 20.

When Family split in 1973 Chapman and guitarist John ‘Charlie’ Whitney continued, initially as a duo, and took a rockier route on their 1974 album Chapman-Whitney Streetwalkers. The line-up morphed into the five-piece Streetwalkers, who toured extensively in the US and UK with The Who, 10cc and Wings, but didn’t achieve the success that their albums had promised and they split in 1977. 

Chapman recorded a debut solo album Chappo in 1979 and has since been a popular live draw on mainland Europe, particularly in Germany, with his backing group The Shortlist. His most high-profile guest spot was singing Shadow On The Wall on Mike Oldfield’s 1983 album Crises, which was also released as a single. Family reformed in 2013 and played concerts and festivals on and off until 2016. Chapman had been gigging regularly before the pandemic and in 2021, at the age of 79, he released the acclaimed Life In The Pond, his first solo studio album since One More Time For Peace in 2007, which was expanded and reissued as Peaceology seven years later, and the 2009 compilation Hide Go Seek.

Roger Chapman

(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

How did you get to join The Farinas?

Quite a few bands in Leicester asked me to join and I sang with them, although I didn’t stay long; I’m not sure if it was my personality. I was in the building trade, a steel fixer, and one day Charlie Whitney and [saxophonist and vocalist] Jim King came on the site and asked me to join The Farinas. So I said yes because they really were the main chaps in Leicestershire. I knew them fairly well and I had a tendency to jump onstage and join in without being asked, which obviously endeared me to them [laughs]. And [bass guitarist] Ric Grech had been in my previous band The Exciters. We were then called something silly – The Roaring Sixties – then Family.

One of Family’s main trademarks was the group’s adventurous arrangements, which date right back to Music In A Doll’s House. Were you consciously trying to sound different?

In about early ’67, we got picked up by John Gilbert, who wanted to manage us, and he moved us all into a house in Chelsea. We started writing our own songs and of course we had to write our own arrangements as opposed to playing other people’s songs and copying their arrangements. And this became Music In A Doll’s House. We didn’t know what we were doing, we were just arranging these things the way that we liked them. There were three or four of us involved in writing songs and the one who had the most input had the most say in what they wanted to hear. From my side there was more rock’n’roll; Charlie was more West Coast; Jim would be jazz.

We were manipulated quite a bit by John, but in a good way. I won’t take anything away from him. We were quite intelligent people, just naïve in a musical sense. He put us in Olympic Studios, and the sort of people recording there were The Stones and The Beatles, Hendrix and Traffic. I think [Traffic guitarist] Dave Mason was brought in to produce because we were pals, not to order us about, but a good producer does have to have lot of willpower. He has to put up with personalities and what’s going down, but we were actually quite an easy bunch of people to work with. Then there was Jimmy Miller, who produced a couple of tracks as well. But everyone had to remember that people liked us because we were playing the songs that we had arranged, so they weren’t going to alter them much.

You played the Middle Earth club in ’68. Were you influenced by the underground culture?

It wasn’t an influence on us; we were already there. Pink Floyd were in it about a year before we were, but we were all part of that same kind of culture. I used to like those gigs. We were playing our strange arrangements – although they weren’t to us – and various bands said, “How do you play that music?” But it was just natural. 

The early 70s was a time when people were listening out for something new and you could have a hit record with an intense and uncompromising song such as In My Own Time. Did you think that maybe your music could cross over into the pop mainstream?

There was almost an obsession those days that you didn’t put singles out, or if you did it wasn’t your fault. It was a really strange idea. People might say, “Oh you’ve sold out.” I’d say, “Why do you think we release records? Not to hide them under the bed, we put them out to sell.” We put out the Strange Band EP with The Weaver’s Answer on the A-side. I think our record company, Reprise, thought that The Weaver’s Answer could get on the playlist better. 

With In My Own Time Charlie and I thought this could be a good single. We did the intro twice on the first recording [he sings it], and the record company said, “You can put it out but just do it once, it will be too much for DJs to get into.” So we said, “All right, we’ll sell out.” [Laughs.] It was specially edited for radio play, but we kept our original arrangement live and it became a hit.

In the Speakeasy one night Ritchie Blackmore said to me, “How do you write these hit singles?” I said, “I don’t write hit singles, it’s other people who make them into hits. I just write songs.” And Purple went on to write their own hit singles. But then the more I think about it, the less I know.

You’ve said that your lyrics to one of Family’s signature songs The Weaver’s Answer came from literary influences and acid. Was that something you used to take to unlock things creatively?

In California they might take some acid and see if they can write a song, but definitely not in my case. It was nothing to do with being creative, you just took these things to get off on them and to go out. The thing is, when you come back from the club you’re still on it for a bit, so if you try to go to sleep instead of getting to sleep you start getting creative.

I was an avid reader and things I must have read as a kid had stayed in my mind and all of a sudden they were coming out. I started to write it one night and we had a gig somewhere up north next morning and I finished it in the van. 

Family

(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Some people have said, with regard to your voice, that you could’ve achieved the level of success of someone like Rod Stewart or Van Morrison. Do you ever think about your career in those terms?

I only think about it when I read it. I mean, a lot of these guys have respect for what I have done as a singer; they know that I can seriously sing. But I’ve never really wanted to become a star and I’ve shied away from it at times. I’m just Rog up the street – that’s okay for me. 

Not everyone likes the tone of my voice, but there is nothing much I can do about that. I’ve had people trying to get me to change the way I sang and I thought, “No, I’m not having that at all.” And maybe my approach was like an evangelical preacher down south: you will listen or fuck off [laughs]. 

Your voice has an astonishing vibrato. Did you cultivate that at all?

It was just the sound that came out. I didn’t have a clue that it was there. And when we were making …Doll’s House, about halfway through the album the management brought various popular DJs of the day. And they said, “Wow, your voice!” And I said, “Oh, what have I done?” And all of the sudden they were telling me how different I was.

I couldn’t even hear it on the playbacks. I didn’t think my voice is strange, I was just singing songs. I could be melodic, quite gentle at times, which I was obviously very capable of doing. And then once I’d got on stage and with certain particles ingested, I’d get a lot more enthusiastic [laughs]. Which frightened some people, who thought it was just over the top. In retrospect I’ll agree that it was rather over the top at times. But I just do what I do and try not to injure anybody mentally or otherwise.

When Family split up in 1973 you and Charlie initially carried on as Chapman Whitney. Had you already discussed that option?

I think we had started to record while all what was happening. We were already writing and I’d also recorded some solo material with Jim Cregan producing. It was an ongoing thing; we would just get together every couple of weeks and see what we’ve got. Then Reprise asked us if we wanted to make an album of the songs and it went from there.

Family’s final album It’s Only A Movie has its admirers but it felt like you might be running out of steam… 

Oh, Family definitely ran out of steam and that’s why it folded. It went from being really different and creative to being too ordinary. I like a bit of rock’n’roll myself, but it lost all the good intentions. Booze had also become a big thing and booze doesn’t do your shows any good at all. 

Family

(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

The music that you and Charlie made in Streetwalkers seemed really to be an extension of the funkier style that Family played on Burlesque.

From being Leicester-ites, Charlie and I fell into this whole culture of musicians who were living in London. And whereas for the past seven years in Family you only heard each other playing and got used to that, these guys were different – I wouldn’t say better, but different. After we recorded the album [Chapman-Whitney Streetwalkers] the record company asked us to promote it and we played a show in town and it went very well. We decided to carry on as a group, then Bob [Tench] joined on guitar and vocals and we got Nicko [McBrain, who would later join Iron Maiden] on drums and a guy called Tim Hinkley on keyboards.

Streetwalkers had a more direct sound. I don’t know why it happened like that: maybe it was just Bob’s fiery guitar. As a solo singer I’ve always enjoyed it when people joined in on singing. Jim, Ric and I all used to share vocals in Family and Bob has a fantastic voice. It was like soul singers on a rock base. I think it was quite different for its time. 

You wrote songs with Charlie Whitney for 11 years. Can you describe how the chemistry worked between the two of you?

Charlie would come up with these difficult and magical chord sequences that were just outrageous, and I had some lyrics and just sang a melody straight through them. I could do that without even thinking about it. Maybe if he had been with a more classical person there might have been a more classical direction to these chords. I was the simple one! I had one talent, he had the other, and we merged together very well, it seems.

Did it to come as a surprise when Mike Oldfield asked you to sing Shadow On The Wall?

Mike had said to this pal of mine, would I like to sing on the album? And I said, “Yes, I’ll sing on anything, really.” I’ve always been like that, it’s just interesting. I met Mike and gave him a couple of my albums, Hyenas Only Laugh For Fun and Chappo. He sent me this riff and it was quite like the sort of music I like anyway. I went to his studio and he gave me an old fag packet with some words on it and we created Shadow On The Wall. And thankfully it went into people’s consciousness and became a huge hit. I was very grateful for that.

Is it true that Oldfield auditioned as a bass player for Family?

When I went to the studio, we were going through certain things and Mike was a little strong, pushing it a bit and I was getting a bit edgy, as you do. He said, “You’re getting the hump, aren’t you? Well, I owed you that because I went for an audition with Family and you blew me out.” [Laughs.] That must have been in 1971 when John Weider left and John Wetton joined. I didn’t remember that, but anyway, good on him!

Why do you think you’ve been so popular in Germany as a solo artist?

The countries in Eastern Europe liked me as well. I don’t know, maybe it’s just my attitude: maybe they just like the freedom of speech more. But I’m grateful for it. In Germany they give more room to do things that are a bit further afield musically. Just because you’re not on pop TV or radio doesn’t mean that you’ll be counted out. 

Family

(Image credit: Gus Stewart/Getty Images)

Did you enjoy the Family reunion? Prog saw you in 2013 at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. It sounded great and there was a lot of love in the room.

The really emotional part for me was the first two dates, being on stage and recollecting [with] Charlie and Jim and Ric. In retrospect that’s when we should’ve finished. But we got quite a few more offers to go out and do gigs. In rehearsal it sounded like this fantastic orchestra playing Family tunes, it really did, with all the intricacies worked out properly, and adding some musical elements. But some guys wanted us to tear the place up. [Back in the day] we were not thoughtful, we just played it, drunk or stoned. But by the time we got into our 60s and 70s the idea was to make it musical, not trying to rip the ceiling down, and some people didn’t get with it. They were saying, “This is not what Family used to be.” I’m sorry that I couldn’t be sick on the front row, but there you go. [Laughs.] 

One review of Life In The Pond stated: “The band are excellent.” But isn’t it just you and ex-Family multi-instrumentalist John ‘Poli’ Palmer?

It’s all programmed. The only three musicians on it are me, Poli and Geoff Whitehorn [from Procol Harum] on lead guitar.

Did you work that way because of the pandemic?

Not really, we started it in late 2019. We’ve always been close and recently Poli joined my band – Roger Chapman, Family And Friends. He has a studio in Putney. I said, “I’ve got some new stuff, I’d like to come over and demo some things.” The first song I took over was [opener] Dark Side Of The Stairs. We put it down and said, “This is great, shall we do a few more to see what happens?”

We wrote all the songs together, and did the arrangements and production ourselves. Geoff came in later because we needed a live guitar player. Poli can also play drums, and we’d be doing the songs and saying, “If we were on stage now we’d be doing this,” and we started to add that sort of element into the production. Because the thing I realise is that most of the albums I make don’t get what I do onstage, because I’m more conservative when I’m in the studio. When I’m free and open I can go anywhere. I’m being big-headed, but my timing and tuning is second to none. That’s why it sounds real because Poli and I were making it sound like a band. The only difference is that nothing’s out of time. [Laughs.]

What sort of things inspire your lyrics nowadays?

I never chose to be a songwriter, but thoughts and images came to me and thankfully still do. It may seem a little far-fetched at times, but they are mostly things that have stirred me through the day, although they might be subliminal thoughts, some of them. I’ll just watch TV, see the news and read the papers about all the arseholes that are out there. Writing all this down is the way that I can have a go at them. 

Do you have any plans to play this new music live?

I’m sure lots of people would like me to and I’d like to myself, but I can’t be bothered with booking things in until there’s a definite future. I’m just pleased to get this album out and it’s got a great response from all over the world. The guys from the label Ruf Records seem have a lot of faith in me, and if it does well I’ll bask in the glory. I’ll go to my pub and let everyone buy me a drink. 

Mike Barnes is the author of Captain Beefheart - The Biography (Omnibus Press, 2011) and A New Day Yesterday: UK Progressive Rock & the 1970s (2020). He was a regular contributor to Select magazine and his work regularly appears in Prog, Mojo and Wire. He also plays the drums.