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The troubled tale of Ten Years After: from Woodstock to the world

Ten Years After
(Image credit: Gems / Getty Images)

It was getting dark by the time Ten Years After took the stage at Woodstock back in 1969. The rain had come bucketing down mid-way through the afternoon, just as they’d been about to go on, drenching the stage and turning the site into a quagmire. 

The audience – variously estimated at between 350,000 and 500,000 – was wet, chilled and bedraggled; many of them were the worse for wear after three days in the open. The band weren’t in much better shape, having travelled overnight from St Louis, making the last leg by helicopter and then being cooped up on-site in the back of a trailer, waiting for the rain to stop. 

In the movie of Woodstock, the camera picks out the skinny frame of TYA’s Alvin Lee, his boyish face ringed by shoulder-length blond hair. “This is a thing called ‘I’m Going Home’… by helicopter!” he announces, and for a dozen seconds he rattles out notes on his trademark Gibson guitar that sound like a sustained burst of machine-gun fire. 

The band then kick into a breakneck boogie and the song takes off; Alvin spits out the vocals, filling in the spaces with more guitar salvos. The camera remains fixed on him; there are just occasional glimpses of keyboard player Chick Churchill, drummer Ric Lee (no relation) and bassist Leo Lyons, who is headbanging furiously. Alvin leads the song high and low, never letting the pace flag, until nine minutes later he builds to a final warp-speed cacophony. 

The crowd, their central heating now restored, erupts.

When the Woodstock movie came out in late 1970 (more than a year after the festival) it did for Ten Years After what Live Aid did for Queen and U2: transformed them into superstars. Suddenly TYA were the new heroes of British blues rock. Or, as Alvin puts it: “That’s when 14-year-old girls started showing up to our gigs with ice-creams.” 

Ten Years After had been in the vanguard of the second (heavier) invasion of the US by British groups, touring relentlessly and rapidly reaching top-of-the-bill status. “We had this thing – and looking back I’m a bit ashamed of it now – that we had to sting any band that went on after us,” Alvin recalls. “We used to go out of our way to blow them off and make them look bad. 

“It wasn’t so much playing well as going down well; we’d learnt that from our years on the club circuit. And there were a lot of bands in America who wouldn’t go on after us. At Woodstock, Country Joe whipped his equipment on before us because he’d played after us at the Fillmore East and died a death. We used to wear the audiences out. It really was a heads-down-let’s-go-for-it attitude. Leo used to shake his head off. That was fine on stage, but he’d do it in the studio, too. We used to have to gaffer-tape his headphones to his head.” 

Leo’s headbanging style even got him an offer from Frank Zappa to appear in a movie he was planning called The Choreographers Of Rock ‘N’ Roll. And the bassist reveals the secret of TYA’s vigorous live shows: “Ric and I egged each other on when we flagged. I’d yell: ‘Hit ’em, you bastard!’ And he’d shout back: ‘Fuck off.’” Leo would also spur Ric on by spitting at him – anticipating the punk movement by a decade – but the drummer never minded “because he always missed”.

Riding the crest of this high-energy wave, Alvin would sneer and pout outrageously as he tore through solo after solo. Even on the slower songs his bursts of notes seemed faster than mere human fingers could manage. No wonder the American media dubbed him Captain Speedfingers.

But behind the bravado that had propelled Ten Years After into the premier league was another, more insecure Alvin who couldn’t handle the superstar status that the Woodstock movie had bestowed on the group: “We’d been playing for the heads, the growing underground audience,” he recounts. “But then it got bigger, and people had to come to ice hockey arenas and stadiums to see the band. And we lost any contact with the audience.

I often wonder what the rest of our career would have been like if the Woodstock movie had used another song

Alvin Lee

“You had police with guns, and cotton wool in their ears, sneering at the band and looking for half a chance to beat up the audience. It was awful. It had all gone wrong and I was thinking, what the fuck am I doing here?” 

And the song that had made Ten Years After famous was becoming an albatross: “You’d walk on stage and people would be shouting for I’m Going Home, which was the last song. I often wonder what the rest of our career would have been like if the Woodstock movie had used another song. As it was, everything became focused on the last song, the high-energy number.” 

To make matters worse, Alvin was also becoming estranged from the rest of the band: “I think they began to resent me because I started to back off then,” he admits. “I couldn’t help it, I hated it. I used to go on stage and go: ‘dong!’ [mimes a big chord] and the audience would go: ‘Yeahhh!’ You could do anything. It was just crazy. It was horrible. 

“My problem was that I couldn’t communicate it to anybody. The band thought I was looney. I went into sulks and things like that. Maybe I should have tried to talk more with them, but it didn’t work for some reason. They started to get jealous because they thought I was being singled out to do all the interviews and the photo sessions. I wasn’t getting singled out. I was the songwriter, singer and lead guitarist, after all, so obviously I was the one they wanted to talk to.”

Alvin Lee onstage

(Image credit: Colin Fuller / Getty Images)

There was indeed resentment from the rest of the band. But it was born out of frustration rather than jealousy. Around the time of Woodstock, TYA’s management had decided to focus all the attention on Alvin. Fair enough, you might think, as Alvin was the frontman, guitar hero and pin-up. But Ric and Leo believed Alvin was temperamentally unsuited to the role: “I felt it would be too much pressure for Alvin, and told our manager, Chris Wright, that he was creating a monster he couldn’t control,” Leo says. 

Their misgivings were well-founded. At the very moment that Ten Years After should have been seizing the initiative, they were in fact losing the plot. On his own admission, Alvin retreated behind a wall of dope smoke. Whenever Ric and Leo, angry at being marginalised, managed to provoke a reaction out of Alvin it was invariably the wrong one. It created a rift. And the recriminations continuing to this day. 

What added to the bitterness was how close the group members had been up to then. Ric describes Alvin and Leo’s relationship as “a well-oiled marriage”. It dates back to 1960 when Leo started playing with Alvin, already a precocious guitarist, in local Nottingham band The Jaybirds. They even went through the classic 60s rock group apprenticeship together, playing a five-week stint at Hamburg’s Star Club in 1962 – just a week after The Beatles

“We stayed in a two-room apartment above a mud-wrestling/sex club,” Ric remembers. “The rooms were filled with bunks, and there were probably 10 or 12 people living there. I was 18, Alvin was 17, and we were exposed to prostitutes, pep pills and music 24 hours a day.” 

Alvin confirms that the Hamburg experience was “a real rite of passage. One day I went into the bathroom and there was one bloke sitting on the toilet, a guy in the bath and another guy washing his socks in the bath water. And all of a sudden another bloke runs in and fires a gas gun into the room. It was madness. There was also a scary side to it with the gangsters. One guy had this big welding glove, and when you used to see him going out with it you’d think: ‘Uh-oh, trouble’.”

When the band returned to England, Alvin bought his first Gibson ES335 – which would become his trademark guitar. Ric, who came from nearby Mansfield, replaced the previous drummer in 1965, and soon afterwards they brought in Chick Churchill on keyboards. The following year they started tapping into the burgeoning blues market in Britain that John Mayall had opened up. 

“I threw myself headlong into that,” says Alvin, who had grown up listening to his dad’s collection of pre-war bluesmen such as Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson and Josh White. But the jazzier influences in the group meant they were always, as Ric says, “a bit sideways-on to the blues”. 

That paid off when Chick got them an audition for London’s then legendary Marquee Club early in 1967, and equally legendary club manager John Gee was impressed by their version of Woody Herman’s ‘Woodchopper’s Ball’. To celebrate, they changed their name from the now outdated Jaybirds to Ten Years After – which Leo found while flicking through the pages of the Radio Times. 

Via the Marquee, TYA landed a spot on the 1967 Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival (which later became the Reading Festival), and got a standing ovation there in front of 20,000 people. Among them was noted blues producer Mike Vernon, who was there checking out one of his charges, Fleetwood Mac. Vernon later signed Ten Years After to Decca’s new Deram label (ironically, the band had recently failed an audition for Decca). 

In keeping with the times, TYA slapped down their first album inside five days. “Mike could see we were a bit radical as far as his kind of blues was concerned,” Alvin recalls, “but he basically gave us the freedom and said get on with it.” The album caught TYA’s raw, jazzy approach to the blues, which could be high-velocity, as on the opening I Want To Know, or slow, extended and mood-building, on the closing Help Me.

The record was rough and ready, but it attracted the attention of famed American promoter Bill Graham, who was looking for new bands to play his Fillmore venues in San Francisco and New York and figured there must be more where Cream and Hendrix had come from. 

In June 1968 Ten Years After started a seven-week US tour at the Fillmore West: “That first tour was great,” Alvin recalls. “We had such a good time out there. We lost around $35,000, but we got asked back so we knew we were on the way. The strange thing was that we had gone to what I considered to be the home of the blues but they’d never heard of most of them. I couldn’t believe it – ‘Big Bill who?’ We were recycling American music and they were calling it the English sound. And the American bands all had Fender equipment, which sounded really tinny compared with the juicy sound you get from Marshalls.”

We were recycling American music and they were calling it the English sound

Alvin Lee

Then, of course, there were the psychedelic delights of the West Coast. TYA had already been part of the London underground scene during 1967’s Summer Of Love; they had even made a whimsical, trippy single in early 1968 called Portable People, and played at the hip Middle Earth. 

Publicity shots of the time reveal TYA’s garish fashion sense: “Ah, Paisley shirts!” Alvin laughs. “That was my girlfriend, Lorraine. She was the wild one. She had me wearing my mother’s curtains for trousers, with those lampshade frills round the bottom. 

“I loved the underground,” he says. It was so experimental. Everything opened up, you could try anything. And by now the drugs were taking effect. That was all part of it – the opening of consciousness.” 

In America, you had to be careful not to find your consciousness expanded unwittingly. “There was one gig at the Fillmore West,” he remembers, “where somebody gave me this joint as we were going on stage. And I, Mr Bravado, had to have a toke. And it turned out to be angel dust. By the time I got to the stage my left leg felt a mile long. I hit the first note on my guitar, and it struck the back of the hall and I saw it bounce back hitting the heads of the audience and ricochet up into the roof. 

"And I was just standing there going: ‘Wow’. I don’t know how I managed to play, but I noticed at one point the band were looking at me strangely. After we finished the song I said: ‘What’s wrong?’ And they said: ‘We just did the same song twice!’. But the audience were in the same state. It didn’t seem to matter."

Needing a new album to promote, TYA hastily recorded a live album at a club called Klook’s Kleek in London. Undead caught the sweaty, small-club atmosphere and the band’s free-form approach to Won’t Be Wrong Always and Woodchoppers Ball, the moody blues of Spider In Your Web and a younger but already potent I’m Going Home

“Basically, that album put it in a nutshell,” Alvin reckons. “I was so happy with it. When I first heard it I thought, what are we going to do next? After that my attitude was, ‘Let’s go into the studio and experiment, because we’ve already made the ultimate album’.” 

That’ll be the not-so-subtly titled Stonedhenge, then, Ten Years After’s psychedelic blues album. “Pipes and stuff like that all over the place,” is Alvin’s recollection. “But it was very experimental in places. I was into my musique concrete phase. There’s quite a lot of [avant garde industrial composer] Todd Dockstader in there. It was still very underground at that point, and we were making music for that audience – for ourselves, really, because we were that audience too.”

After we finished the song I said: ‘What’s wrong?’ And they said: ‘We just did the same song twice!’

Alvin Lee

Stonedhenge could fairly claim to by TYA’s most innovative album: light and trippy on the insistent Going To Try and the bouncy Hear Me Calling, a positively spooky on A Sad Song. And despite the substances the band were tight and confident. 

Released in February 1969, the record set up Ten Years After for a momentous year. In fact Woodstock was just one of half a dozen festivals they played that summer, including Texas, Seattle and the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival – the only year rock bands were allowed in. At Flushing Meadow in New York they played alongside Vanilla Fudge and Jeff Beck

Led Zeppelin also turned up to check out the competition. In Richard Cole’s notorious Stairway To Heaven kiss-and-tell, the former Zeppelin tour manager relates how Jimmy Page was awestruck by Alvin’s playing. Much to the annoyance of an inebriated John Bonham, who suddenly lurched forward and threw a glass of orange juice over Alvin’s guitar, slowing up his fingerwork as the strings and fretboard got stickier. 

Alvin doesn’t remember anything being thrown, although Ric confirms the story. He also remembers a more amusing incident at the end of the show when he and Bonzo joined Jeff Beck for the encore: “There was Robert Plant, Rod Stewart, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and three bassists I think. Bonzo was beating out a riff on the drum kit, so I grabbed a floor tom and started thrumming hell out of it. 

"The crowd were going apeshit as we banged out a blues standard, and Bonham, who was already stripped to the waist, took off his trousers and underpants. He was sitting there naked, playing away. And the police saw him. And then I saw Peter Grant and Richard Cole spotting the police. The number fizzled out, and all I saw was Peter and Richard running on stage, each grabbing one of his arms, and his bare arse disappearing as they carried him off.” 

Alvin tended not to get involved in the rock’n’roll high jinks, however: “The reason I didn’t mix with bands like Led Zeppelin and The Who too much and go in for all that hotel wrecking was that I was a doper; I was always carrying hashish around, and in those days you could get 12 years if you got caught with a joint in somewhere like Texas. 

Even legal drugs such as alcohol could also be hazardous for Alvin, particularly if they were being brandished by someone like Janis Joplin. “She used to chase me around a bit,” he chuckles, “but I wouldn’t have it. She was just too dangerous. 

“There was a show we did with them at the Fillmore East and they were handing her bottles of Southern Comfort on stage and she was drinking them. I thought it must be something like sweet wine. She came off stage and grabbed my ass and gave me a bottle. So I drank it, and promptly collapsed and passed out in a quiet corner. When I woke up it was about five in the morning and there was just some guy sweeping up. I didn’t even know which hotel we were staying at."

In fact, on the Richter scale of rock groups behaving badly Ten Years After barely registered (“I tried to start a food fight one night, and everyone went: ‘Behave yourself’,” Ric admits). So it’s something of a surprise to find them appearing in the grossly overrated movie Groupie. In a scene that attempts to prove guilt by insinuation, Leo is seen with a young lady in a hotel coffee shop, ordering tea, while the soundtrack plays TYA’s Good Morning Little Schoolgirl

“Oh boy, was my friend Iris pissed off when she saw the movie,” Leo laughs. “Someone sent me a copy recently, and I watched it while hiding behind the sofa with one eye closed. But it’s pretty tame stuff now. The musical segments are worth watching, but Spinal Tap would be a better buy for the backstage antics.”

It was TYA’s Ssssh album, recorded just before they embarked on their US summer tour in 1969 – that included Woodstock and the other festivals – that opened up the rift in the band. The album itself wasn’t a problem. After the laidback trip of Stonedhenge, Alvin was up and flying again; his blistering solo on I Woke Up This Morning was a corker, and the reworked riff that anchors Good Morning Little Schoolgirl was tougher than the rest. The problem was the sleeve, which, in Ric’s words, “stuck it to everyone. We’d done a photo session together, and suddenly we were presented with the album cover with just Alvin on the front. And we went: ‘What the fuck is this?’” 

“This” was the new management strategy of putting the focus on Alvin. And Alvin admits the pressure got to him almost immediately: “There’s this story about how I nearly didn’t play Woodstock because I had a bad back. It wasn’t a bad back, it was a bad head. I couldn’t face the tour. I looked at the 13 week list of dates and thought, I’m not going to get through this. 

“I pretty much had a nervous breakdown at the beginning of the tour. I’d done five days of interviews before it started, I’d left my girlfriend back in England, and I really wasn’t feeling very capable. I just collapsed. It was our American manager, Dee Anthony [who went on to manage Peter Frampton], who got me through it. He used to give me all these pep talks – ‘Stay on the bus. It’s your music. Forget all the bullshit. That one and a half hours on stage is all that counts’. But I was still getting upset. I was still going on stage saying: ‘This is horrible’.” 

Nevertheless, the relentless schedule continued – successfully, too. The 28 US tours they notched up between ’68 and ’74 was unequalled by any other British band. And the albums got bigger. Cricklewood Green (not quite as exotic-sounding as Acapulco Gold or Lebanese Black, admittedly, but then the grass is always greener…), in 1970, cracked the American Top 20 and was TYA’s biggest-selling UK album, helped by the hit single Love Like A Man. Alvin remembers writing most of the songs in the taxi on the way to the studio.

Watt, released at the end of the year, failed to capitalise but Alvin finally got the time he wanted to write songs for the next album, A Space In Time and came up with the band’s biggest hit, the deceptively simple, catchy but left-field I’d Love To Change The World. It was a crucial opportunity for the band. 

“But by then I was too confused to take it,” Alvin says. “‘I’d Love To Change The World’ was a hit, and I hated it because it was a hit. By then I was rebelling. I never played it live. To me it was a pop song.” 

Even worse, Alvin vetoed the record company choice for the follow-up single, which annoyed the head of their US label, the redoubtable Clive Davis, who had earlier told the band: “Give me the tools and I’ll do the job”, and promptly made I’d Love To Change The World a Top Ten hit. 

Ric remembers being invited to a Columbia Records marketing meeting chaired by Davis, with all the radio promotions people saying that Tomorrow I’ll Be Out Of Town was a perfect radio cut. When Ric said the band didn’t want that as a single, Davis growled: “So why is that track on the album? If you want me to do the job, don’t give me the tools and then take them away from me.” 

“He’d been on our side up until then,” Ric says. “But after that the albums never sold as well and we never had another hit. If the artists didn’t co-operate, then the record company would simply move on to one that did; they weren’t going to wait around for us to get our act together. It was a lesson in reality.” 

Not that even Clive Davis could have done much with Rock And Roll To The World which was recorded and sold pretty much on auto pilot. And while Recorded Live fared better, it also highlighted the fact that the core of the set had remained unchanged since Woodstock four years earlier. “What’s the point?” was Alvin’s response. He didn’t have the inclination, he was miserable, and communication within the band was generally reduced to “shouting and screaming matches”.

Leo contends that Alvin in turn made the band’s lives a misery: “It stressed me out so much that I stopped trying to reconcile things. I still enjoyed playing live shows, provided there were no tantrums. If there were confrontations, I stupidly rose to the bait every time.” Amid such an atmosphere, the management kept their distance. 

Eventually TYA took a six-month break for the second half of ’73. Alvin recorded a solo album with gospel singer Mylon Lefevre (who had supported them on tour) at his newly finished home studio. “Mylon was great. He arrived and said: ‘Where do all the musicians hang out?’ I told him the Speakeasy. He went straight off, and came back about six hours later and said: ‘I got us a band.’ And in walked George Harrison, Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi! Mylon really had a silver tongue. He captivated everyone.” 

Harrison even goaded Alvin into putting on his own gig. Alvin: “He said: ‘I bet you couldn’t.’ And I did. I rang up and got a booking at the Rainbow Theatre. I had 24 songs that hadn’t worked with Ten Years After, and I rehearsed them with a band that included Boz Burrell, Tim Hinkley and Mel Collins.” 

The titles of the Mylon Lefevre album (On The Road To Freedom) and Alvin Lee & Co’s live In Flight both seemed to offer broad hints about Alvin’s intentions. But, surprisingly, there was a new TYA album in 1974, Positive Vibrations. Except that it wasn’t. 

Alvin didn’t seem to know what he wanted: “I did an American tour with Alvin Lee & Co. It was all new material; I didn’t play ‘I’m Going Home’ or any of that. We were playing little theatres, getting good reviews. But, to tell you the truth, I did miss the oomph of the audience. I’d got used to that. I mean, they enjoyed it and clapped and stuff, but there wasn’t the oomph there. Then I did a Ten Years After tour and got the oomph back.” 

Not for long, though. Another petulant spat resulted in a threat to put the band on wages. They limped through one more US tour before it all disintegrated. Alvin then embarked on a solo career as Alvin Lee & Co, the Alvin Lee Band, Alvin Lee & Ten Years Later and even plain old Alvin Lee. Meanwhile, the others got on with music-related careers – playing, sessions, producing, managing.

In 1983 Ric got a call from the Marquee presuming that Ten Years After would be playing at the club’s 25th anniversary celebrations. “I rang round the others and said: ‘I think we should do this’.” 

Alvin felt “it showed us we could do it. And it was fun, actually. We had one rehearsal in the afternoon, and then we plugged in and played and it was Ten Years After. That amazed me. And we thought that from that gig there would be a reunion. But it didn’t happen. It was a funny time in music. We weren’t legends, we were old farts.” 

Ten Years After petered out when the bickering started up again. It also hampered subsequent reunions at the end of the 80s and the late 90s which included a nostalgic appearance at the Woodstock 29th anniversary festival, billed as A Day In The Garden. Their reactions to that are revealing. 

Alvin: “It was a big disappointment. There I was, standing in a field that they tell me is exactly where it happened. But the people weren’t there, the vibe wasn’t there. It had nothing to do with it.” 

Leo: “It turned out to be a series of flashbacks for me. We were booked into what used to be the Holiday Inn, Liberty – Tranquility Base in 1969. I didn’t realise until I walked into the hotel bar. It stopped me in my tracks. I swear I could see and hear Jimi, Janis, Jerry [Garcia], Bob [Hite], all of them gone now. We were together in that room 29 years ago.” 

Ric: “Disappointing, really. We hadn’t played for a while. I was certainly rusty. The original thing was funky, this was all very clinical. It was like an MOR concert. Still, at least we had dressing rooms, which we never had the first time…”

It was a funny time in music. We weren’t legends, we were old farts.

Alvin Lee

For TYA it all came to a head at the last of a series of European festival shows in 1999. A vicious spat between Leo and Alvin buried any reunion hopes under a mound of perceived grievances on all sides. Alvin went back to his own band, while the others remained together, occasionally playing and recording with various American guitarists. 

However, the success of some Ten Years After reissues – plus a fine previously unreleased 1970 show at New York’s Fillmore East – prompted Ric, Leo and Chick to revive the band again in 2002. After Alvin turned them down again, they went looking for a new guitarist and found one via Leo’s son, who told them about a “shit-hot” guitarist he’d known at school, 25-year-old Joe Gooch. 

“Initially I was sceptical because of his age,” Ric admits, “but as soon as I saw him play I had no doubts.” A couple of European dates convinced all of the band that Joe was the man to replace Alvin. “He has his own style but he can still deliver all the Ten Years After hits,” Ric says. 

Alvin found the new Ten Years After situation “very sad. Ten Years After used to be a credible name and I was proud of it,” the guitarist says. “Now it’s just an embarrassment. I asked them to change the name slightly, so as not to confuse the fans, but they refused.” 

Alvin recorded an album with Elvis Presley’s original backing musicians, guitarist Scotty More and drummer DJ Fontana (“my teenage heroes”) in Nashville, titled In Tennessee, also reckons that “it’s a shame the new guitarist, who must be pretty good to play my licks, is copying somebody else’s style instead of playing his own music. If I had taken a job copying somebody else’s music when I was starting out there would never have been a Ten Years After."

This feature was originally published in 2003, in Classic Rock 56. Alvin Lee died in 2013. Joe Gooch left Ten Years After in 2014