The First Time I Met The Blues: Dennis Greaves

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Singer, guitarist, songwriter Dennis Greaves blazed a trail with Nine Below Zero from 1977 to 1982. He then helmed soul pop outfit The Truth until 1989. The following year he re-formed Nine Below Zero and still fronts them.

Who turned you on to music?
My two older uncles. They were in the first blues scene in the late 60s. They told me these tales of going to the Marquee. They had photos of The Action playing there, and one time they went to see John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – they announced Eric Clapton wasn’t going to be there, they had this young guitarist Peter Green with them instead; they were disappointed for all of a minute.

And your uncles’ records introduced you to the blues?
Yes, I still remember them. They had [Cream’s] Fresh Cream, [John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers’] Bare Wires, Ten Years After’s Ssssh and Cricklewood Green and a best of Freddie King. I wanted to play guitar like him – he was like the blues Hank Marvin – and I spent a lot of time slowing the record player down to 16rpm, which enabled me to learn his solos at half speed.

It all started for Nine Below Zero at the Thomas A Becket pub on the Old Kent Road in London.
It backed onto my school, so I’d come out of the school gates and go see the bands load in their equipment. You got everyone in there: villains, police, boxers, footballers, musicians, all drinking together. I asked Beryl, the lady who ran it, for a gig and we got our friends and family in, and then we got a residency and we were spotted by Mickey Modern there. He was working for A&M and he got us a deal with them, which was amazing.

It’s the late 70s, why not punk?
I didn’t like the clothes associated with punk, and at that time I found my dad’s old 60s suits in his wardrobe and I went along that route. But for me, there was a direct link between blues and punk. I loved the attitude of punk, that it allowed us to just get out and play every night and book gigs ourselves. London was vibrant at that point.

You performed on the first episode of The Young Ones.
It was a really, really amazing day. Suddenly we were at the forefront of alternative comedy, and on the TV it looks like a complete mess and total chaos, but I’ve never seen such prepared and focused young people. Everything was worked out to the nth degree. They were brilliant.

There was a direct link between blues and punk.

Cherry Red are putting out The Truth collection A Step In The Right Direction 1983-1984.
The Truth was my attempt at creating a London version of Tamla; I wanted to sound like a cross between Little Stevie Wonder’s Love A Go Go and The Equals’ I Get So Excited. We had hits with Confusion and A Step In The Right Direction, and our third single flopped. We got dropped, went to America and went a different direction.

Nine Below Zero have opened for a who’s who of musicians, including Chuck Berry at London’s 100 Club in 2008.
That was amazing. The soundcheck did it for me. He’d just flown in from Finland, insisted on driving himself to the venue, arrived tired, sat down and started playing Walter Jacobs’ Mean Old World. His guitar was going like a train. I was in the presence of a rock’n’roll legend and a blues master too. It was very, very special.

Then there was The Who in 1981.
Kenney Jones had just joined them, and we were in [London’s] Olympic Studios with Glyn Johns recording Third Degree. Kenney dropped by to tune up his snare and he introduced us to what he called ‘The Who’s drink’, which was brandy and Coke; we got The Who tour after that.

And Eric Clapton in 1993 and ’94.
Joe Cocker forgot to tell his band he was doing some shows with Eric Clapton, so we got the last minute call and at the end of the night, we’d all jam together. I was stood on stage next to Billy Gibbons with Richie Havens on drums. Eric gave methenodtodoasoloandI’dcram in every Freddie King riff I knew to try and impress him. Then we got 12 nights at the Royal Albert Hall in support of him.

Why did you to start Zed records?
I couldn’t get the record deal I wanted any more, so I formed my own, which enabled me to make the record I wanted to make and in the time scale I wanted to do it in. It enabled Nine Below Zero to make new material so we weren’t just living off the past, which is very important to me. We’re not a heritage act.

What does the future hold?
We’ve just made a new record. We recorded it at Glenn Tilbrook’s studio [45RPM] in Charlton, I’m really excited by it. We’ll be touring next year with the original line-up.

A Step In The Right Direction 1983- 1984 is out via Cherry Red in early 2016