The Outer Limits: How Prog Were Lucifer's Friend?

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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. This was so different to our debut album [self-titled, 1970], it totally baffled them.”

This is typical of the German band who refused to conform and follow what many might consider to be a sensible career path. Hesslein admits this sense of being unpredictable is what inspired the band.

“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 that 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.”

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.

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,” reveals 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 the covers to challenge ourselves, rather than playing them straight.”

At the same time, vocalist John 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 being exactly what we were looking for,” smiles Hesslein. “All we needed was a singer to complete the line-up. 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.”

Hesslein dismisses the comparison though. “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, and 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 this album as being just a little too far ahead of its time for German audiences.

“Look, I love what we did, but I don’t think people were ready for this. It was just too quirky and unusual for fans who wanted the more straight-ahead hard rock or metal they understood. This album 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 to do the vocals. 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.

“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 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 these bands 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, highlighted 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.”

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

“He was a classically trained pianist, and it was his idea to bring in a symphonic arrangement for Banquet. When we put this to our label, they were rather worried, because nobody had tried to do this 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. This is still my favourite Lucifer’s Friend album.”

Banquet reveals 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 the road for them. Although Lawton appeared on 1976’s Mind Exploding, it was his final album with the band – he 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 because of this, 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.

“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. So, when we got together to write a new album, 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 this focus with us when we wrote and recorded those Lucifer’s Friend albums.”

In 2014, the band reunited, albeit with Stephan Eggert replacing Reitenbach, who died a few years ago, 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.”

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.”

The compilation album Awakening is out now on Cherry Red. See the Lucifer’s Friend website for more information.

YOUR SHOUT!

They featured a future Uriah Heep singer, and their albums changed style at a dramatic rate. But were Lucifer’s Friend prog!?

“A bit less prog than say Wishbone Ash, slightly similar to Uriah Heep, when it comes to their early work.“ Tymon Frelik

“I enjoyed the title more than the band. Fun but not really prog.“ Bob Young

“Wouldn’t describe them as prog. Great debut album nevertheless!“ Harald Bjervamoen

“Hard rock at early period, then more and more funky/pop oriented. Not prog at all.“ Marcin Piwnik

“Purple/Heep clones. One fantastic album…” Kevin Parsons

“I think that they had a wide range of sounds. Banquet is prog to me.“ Jacques Artisto Jazzer

“Lucifer’s Friend - proggier than a lot of this metal they call prog nowadays!!!“ Wedgepiece

“Lol, saying they were not prog at all is wrong. Definitely a bit prog. See Where the Groupies Killed the Blues. Rose On The Vine, Mother, the title track, for example, are pretty prog to me.“ Alex White

“More Rainbow than Tull.“ Richard Wood

“Not at all. Never understood that to be honest. Some people even saying they were a krautrock band!?!? Moronic statements.“ Vedran Stimac

“They certainly had a very eclectic style…” Michael Edwards

“Not at all…” Jurgen Krauss

“Almost every album showed a different approach, certainly the ones where John Lawton was singing with the band. So they certainly were progressively minded, even if not all of those records sounded proggy.“ Mike Korlinski

“A poor man’s Deep Purple. They should’ve been bigger.“ Tony Accrocco

“Not as prog as Uriah Heep. And Uriah Heep weren’t very proggy at all.“ Ashford Simpson

“Never heard of them.“ Jake Edmunds

Banquet’s a fantastic album. Ticks all my prog boxes.“ Yoshi Udigowa

“They always seemed to be overshadowed by almost every other band from the era, so they never appeared to be making any serious headway. But they certainly had their proggy moments.“ Gary Craven