“No promoter would book us; they just didn’t know where we fitted in… we were victims of being ahead of our time”: With a future Uriah Heep singer and rapidly changing style, were Lucifer’s Friend prog?

Lucifer’s Friend were one of the many bands to explode out of the Hamburg scene in the 60s. Fronted by future Uriah Heep singer John Lawton, their approach to music through the 70s was definitely progressive – but was it prog? In 2016, during a highly active reunion period, the Lawton (who died in 2021) and guitarist Peter Hesslein discussed the question.

Peter Hesslein delights in confusion. The Lucifer’s Friend guitarist chuckles at the way the band confounded their record label, Vertigo. “When we gave them our second album Where The Groupies Killed The Blues in 1972, they didn’t know what do with it. It was so different to our debut album – it totally baffled them.”

Hesslein’s attitude is typical of the German band who refused to conform by following what many might consider to be a sensible career path. He says that sense of being unpredictable is what inspired them. “Look at all of these very big bands, the ones who are considered to be commercial. You know what all their records have in common? They’re boring.

”Once you’ve heard one album from a band like that then you’ve heard them all. What they do is cover their own songs. These musicians are so safe that they’re utterly dull. I don’t know if we are a prog rock band – but what I do know is we have always been progressive. We have just tried to make every album completely different to what we’ve done previously.”

Norwegian solo prog musician and Kaukasus member Rhys Marsh agrees. “They’re fantastic musicians, and John Lawton is a superb singer! It’s really intriguing how they developed their sound during their first few albums, especially by the time they got to Banquet [1974], where they brought in so many different elements to their music, including a choir and strings – a quite bizarre yet amazing combination! Not sure I’ve heard anything quite like it, before or after.”

For the members of Lucifer’s Friend, the famed Star Club in Hamburg was a crucial training ground. “We all played there in the 60s,” says Hesslein. “I started off playing covers in different bands before forming German Bonds with Peter Hecht [keyboards], Dieter Horns [bass] and Joachim Reitenbach [drums]. What changed everything for us was hearing The Nice. After that, we all wanted to do our own songs, as well as arranging covers to challenge ourselves, rather than playing them straight.”

At the same time, vocalist Lawton had been in Hamburg fronting the British band Stonewall. “This was in 1969,” says Lawton. “But after we finished our commitments, I decided to stay on in Germany. I got some singing work, and then Tony Cavanagh – another English musician living in Hamburg – told me of this band who were looking for a singer.”

“John was recommended to us as exactly what we were looking for,” says Hesslein. “All we needed was a singer; we had already written and recorded a lot of tracks because we were able to get studio time through contacts. But what was missing was the right singer. As soon as we heard John we knew he was the man for the job.”

At the time the band were known as Asterix, although this was quickly switched to Lucifer’s Friend, and were seemingly no more than a studio idea. “It was more of a project than a band,” admits Lawton. “Their sound was a bit… well, gothic, really. You could hear a lot of Black Sabbath influences in there, and these certainly came across on the first album.”

What you hear was done straight off the cuff and got the right edge. That was typical of the way we worked. A lot of it was done spontaneously

John Lawton

But Hesslein dismisses the comparison: “I never liked Sabbath. I didn’t think they had a good singer and the guitarist didn’t impress me either. I know our first album was heavy, but I feel we had a lot more in common with Deep Purple then. I had met Ritchie Blackmore in the early 60s when he was playing in a band called The Three Musketeers – he was a guitarist I admired because he wasn’t following what everybody else was doing.”

But Where The Groupies Killed The Blues proved to be a completely different type of album. It swept the band onto a more adventurous path, one that was predicated by Hesslein’s growing interest in jazz fusion. “I liked rock bands where the musicians were all playing in a jazz style. Or when you’re a jazz combo bringing in rock rhythms. 

“I hated music that had simple chords. What I wanted was multiple time signatures and lots of chord changes. That’s why I loved bands such as the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return To Forever. What they were doing was unusual, and I tried as much as I could to bring this into Lucifer’s Friend.”

Lawton regards the album as a little too far ahead of its time for German audiences. “I love what we did, but I don’t think people were ready for it. It was just too quirky and unusual for fans who wanted the more straight-ahead hard rock or metal they understood. It was too off the wall for conventional tastes. The melodies were all there – although they’re not as obvious as previously.”

The band’s attention to detail comes through on the track Burning Ships, when Lawton’s voice sounds almost cracked. “That was deliberate. I recorded those vocals in one take at 4am, after we’d done a gig. The guys all felt the song needed a vocal delivery that was rough and tired. So, after we came offstage one night, we called up Conny Plank, who was co-producing the album, and asked if we could come over to his studio. What you hear was done straight off the cuff and got the right edge. That was typical of the way we worked. A lot of it was done spontaneously.”

Plank, of course, became synonymous with Krautrock through his collaborations with artists like Kraftwerk. However, both Lawton and Hesslein are keen to distance Lucifer’s Friend from that style.

I’m Just A Rock'n'Roll Singer did well for us in the States… however, we blew any chance of building on that breakthrough with Banquet

John Lawton

“We knew all those guys, naturally,” says the vocalist. “But we were never part of any movement like that. In fact, at the time I don’t think the idea of lumping together a load of bands because they were German and used synthesisers even existed. Every band was just seen as being unique, and what bands like Tangerine Dream were up to never made any impact on us.”

“I never liked what these bands did,” attests Hesslein. “For me, they sounded too German, and they were very obvious in the way they constructed songs. There was no ambition in the music. I respect the success they’ve had, and I agree they had talent. But they were happy to allow their careers to be linear, whereas I was always pushing for us to take risks and experiment.”

Inevitably, one consequence of their abiding dedication to going out on an artistic limb was that Lucifer’s Friend found it tough to play live. “It wasn’t tough,” corrects Hesslein. “It was impossible. No German promoter would book us because they just didn’t know where we fitted in. I suppose we were victims of being ahead of our time. But we never compromised.”

Typically, the band’s third album, 1973’s I’m Just A Rock’N’Roll Singer, was another change in direction. This time they went for a more American-friendly, hard rock approach, one that saw them actually make commercial headway.

“That one did well for us in the States,” recalls Lawton. “It sounded a lot more like bands such as Grand Funk Railroad, and therefore was a lot more accessible. However, we blew any chance of building on that breakthrough with Banquet.”

Released in 1974, with Herbert Bornhold taking over on drums, fourth album Banquet was again a far-reaching work, which this time introduced an orchestral feel. Hesslein is quick to acknowledge that this change in direction and sound was down to Hech.

We had a brass section in one corner of the room, a string section in another, and I was in a vocal booth. It was the only way to capture the atmosphere

John Lawton

“He was a classically trained pianist, and it was his idea to bring in a symphonic arrangement. When we put it to our label, they were rather worried, because nobody had tried to do it in Germany before. But they trusted us.”

“We recorded that album live in the studio,” says Lawton. “We had a brass section in one corner of the room, a string section in another, and I was in a vocal booth. It was the only way to capture the atmosphere. But it worked so well. It’s still my favourite Lucifer’s Friend album.”

Banquet illustrates the way in which the group’s influences were steadily widening. “We were listening to bands like Genesis and King Crimson, and they made their mark on us,” admits Hesslein. “But I was also really into film soundtrack music – and still am. I loved the way somebody like John Barry or Bernard Herrmann built their compositions. There was a lot of melody but also so many time changes. It was complex, but also highly atmospheric. That’s what I wanted to achieve with our album.”

Banquet is arguably the band’s finest record. However, it also effectively marked the end of their road. Lawton appeared on 1976’s Mind Exploding and left soon after to join Uriah Heep. Mike Starrs came in for two albums, Good Time Warrior (1978) and Sneak Me In (1980). Both had a disarmingly straightforward melodic rock style, somewhat at odds with the band’s prior diverse ambition. And after 1981’s Mean Machine, Lucifer’s Friend split up.

Lawton, for one, puts the band’s total passion for being overtly experimental down to the fact that in many ways, Lucifer’s Friend was a hobby for all of them. “We all had day jobs,” he laughs. “Some of the guys played with the James Last Orchestra, while I was hired by the Les Humphries Singers. Both of them were hugely successful in the mainstream, and so we could all earn a living outside of the band. It did mean we never had to go through the usual trials that young bands face, where they go out on the road with very little money. And it gave us a certain freedom.

There are enough big-time artists who are very dull. If that’s what you like to listen to, then good luck

Peter Hesslein

“As we never relied on money made from Lucifer’s Friend, it meant we could follow our own musical instincts. There was no pressure on us to conform to any label demands. When we got together to write, it was down to us what we did. Of course, we were contracted to Vertigo – but mostly they left us alone.”

“We were session musicians,” adds Hesslein. “That’s how we made money. I played on hundreds, maybe thousands of sessions. Most of the time I wouldn’t even know which artist I was working with. I’d go into the studio, play my part and leave with cash in my pocket. But it taught me discipline, and I feel that we all brought that focus with us when we wrote and recorded those Lucifer’s Friend albums.”

In 2014 the band reunited, albeit with Stephan Eggert replacing the late Reitenbach, and without Hecht, who had no interest in being involved. Now there are plans for a new studio album, and Hesslein has no doubt what fans can expect.

“Our philosophy has never changed. We will carry on doing what we feel is right, musically. Right now I can’t tell you what the next album will sound like. But then I couldn’t have told anyone how Banquet, for instance, would turn out before we went in the studio.

“As far as I’m concerned, we are progressive in a Lucifer’s Friend style. I am still inspired by bands who don’t stand still, but always look to expand and grow. There are enough big-time artists who are very dull. If that’s what you like to listen to, then good luck. But you won’t find us doing anything like this.”

If we had been more willing to fit in with what was selling at the time then I’m sure Lucifer’s Friend would have been so much bigger

John Lawton

But has this stubborn refusal to even consider adapting to the trends of the moment meant this band has never had the respect they deserve? Lawton believes so.

“If we had been more willing to fit in with what was selling at the time then I’m sure Lucifer’s Friend would have been so much bigger. But if we had done that, then you wouldn’t have had all this amazing music we came up with. Albums like Where The Groupies Killed The Blues and Banquet were probably ahead of their time. If anything, they were too progressive.

”That hurt us in some ways, but I wouldn’t change anything. I love what we did on those records, and now I think we’re finally getting some of the praise we were always due.”

Malcolm Dome

Malcolm Dome had an illustrious and celebrated career which stretched back to working for Record Mirror magazine in the late 70s and Metal Fury in the early 80s before joining Kerrang! at its launch in 1981. His first book, Encyclopedia Metallica, published in 1981, may have been the inspiration for the name of a certain band formed that same year. Dome is also credited with inventing the term "thrash metal" while writing about the Anthrax song Metal Thrashing Mad in 1984. With the launch of Classic Rock magazine in 1998 he became involved with that title, sister magazine Metal Hammer, and was a contributor to Prog magazine since its inception in 2009. He died in 2021