Luke Morley: "To our punters, Thunder is their football team"

Danny Bowes and co. know exactly what their fans want, and don’t fail to deliver in the Welsh capital at their biggest show of their current tour

Giving it everything: Thunder play a typically exuberant set.
(Image: © Kevin Nixon)

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Thunder’s guitarist and songwriter Luke Morley sits forward on the sofa, smiles gently, and quotes another one of rock’s everymen. “As Phil Collins says, there’s no point in trying to convince people you’re an arsehole if you’re not.” And Morley, clearly, is not. The epithet is delivered in a deep, no-nonsense south London accent. From what Classic Rock sees today, this whole band really are as down to earth as they come.

We’re backstage in their dressing room at Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena. This is the sixth show of the 11-date UK tour in support of Rip It Up, another solid set of bluesy/heritage rock tunes that’s earned the band warm reviews and a Top 3 hit on the UK album chart (only 1992’s Laughing On Judgement Day – the one with Low Life In High Places and A Better Man on it – did better). It’s another fruit from the band’s unexpected autumn bloom. The tour’s selling out, from Manchester Apollo to Newcastle City Hall, and the Motorpoint’s the biggest room on the route. In a few hours’ time they’ll give 5,000 people the Thunder experience.

Danny Bowes – that charismatic, wiry silver fox – sits beside his friend of 40-plus years. “When you come to a Thunder gig, you know you’re gonna get a good show, and that you’ll get put through your paces. You’ll have to sing, dance, scream, clap, and you’ll go home bloody exhausted, having had the experience. That’s what we do. We want it to be a show. And we’re hands on with the fans, we don’t shy away from them – we do the meet and greet, the VIP package.”

Today, bands do have to make themselves available like that. In the 70s, 80s even, much of the great bands’ allure lay in their aloofness, their otherness. “You can’t really do that now,” offers Morley. “In the 70s there wasn’t social media, camera phones, there was only really Top Of The Pops, and radio seldom played bands like Sabbath, Zeppelin, Purple. People had to go and find them. The fact we’ve been available is really important. It’s like the relationship people have with their football team. To our punters, Thunder is their team. It’s difficult to relate to a geezer in huge platform boots covered in make-up! Our fans get up close and see we’re a normal bunch of geezers who are mates that are in a band.”

Sign of the times: the meet and greet

Sign of the times: the meet and greet (Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

VIP meet-and-greet, wherein die-hard fans spend extra money to get a load of the soundcheck, get a few songs played just for them, and get some time with the band. And they’re great at it, natural, friendly, normal. Guitarist/keyboardist Ben Matthews seems genuinely enthused when one fan presents him with an ancient cassette of their first album to sign. Bassist Chris Childs happily signs LPs and merch, drummer Harry James gladly poses for pictures. Morley and Bowes engage with these people like they’re chatting in the pub. Someone (don’t think it was Phil Collins) once said that sincerity’s everything – if you can fake that you’ve got it made. That’s not what’s happening here. This is honest.

“Can I wear these, or is it smart-casual tonight?” Chris Childs is wary of putting his foot in it

“Can I wear these, or is it smart-casual tonight?” Chris Childs is wary of putting his foot in it (Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

They’re better now than they’ve ever been,” says one dad in the VIP queue. He’s flanked by his wife and son, resplendent in signed Thunder football top. “There’s not one bad song on the last two albums. And the thing is they’re like you or me. They’re normal, ordinary blokes.”

A female fan gets her vinyl copy of Rip It Up signed by all five members. She’s usually a metal girl, but loves this band because “you can’t put them in any one genre. They just play good songs and they’re a great live band. Ozzy’s great on record, but can’t really sing live any more. With these, it’s like they’re playing the record. And you can’t get close to some bands, but with these you can.”

Her boyfriend, an impressively built fella with a plaited beard, is more your punk type, but was converted to Thunder by their headline set at last year’s Steelhouse Festival. “Danny won me over,” he says, “He’s not just a singer, he’s a real performer, a showman.”

And mischievous. Backstage Bowes admits Thunder were early adopters of the meet and greet. “We were looking for victims,” he says. “It was a great way to meet ladies. We were all young and single when we started the band. But also,” he says, shifting gear, “your audience tells you the good stuff, tells you the bad stuff. It’s really good market research.”

He’s a shrewd man, Bowes. A data fiend, he knows from their online stats that Thunder’s audience skews 68 to 32, male to female. He exercised that part of his brain when he quit the band in 2009 to become an agent. With no plans to record again, Thunder regrouped for some shows in 2011, and two years later they were the first of three acts on a package tour with Whitesnake and Journey. They were at this very venue when they sensed a sea change. “When we did that tour, we were opening” says Bowes. “We were on at quarter to seven, and we were shocked by how many people were there in Thunder T-shirts, singing all the words, especially in Cardiff. It was after the show here that Luke turned to me and said that we should make another record.”

“We asked for a dressing room with chairs!”

“We asked for a dressing room with chairs!” (Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

“We walked on and after the first song,” recalls Morley, “I think it was Dirty Love, and the roof came off. We couldn’t play for a couple of minutes because there was this standing ovation. Later on that evening half as many people were there for Journey. I felt a bit sorry for them, it wasn’t the best bill for them.” (“They wiped the floor with them,” the 11-year-old’s dad told Classic Rock earlier in the day. “And Coverdale too. The place went mental for them.”)

From there came this unlikely recording comeback. With two splits and tapering album sales behind them, 2015’s Wonder Days surpassed all expectations. With a new deal with earMUSIC and the affirmation of that Journey tour, Thunder were re-charged, hitting the Top 10 and taking on more headline stadium shows. Rip It Up has done even better. They played their first Australian dates this year, the UK tour’s a hot ticket, with the rest of Europe to come.

Today’s soundcheck is all the more important because the show’s being filmed. Behind the stage, video techs work at monitors and cameramen perch above the mixing desk and the foot of the stage, preparing tonight’s shots. As Bowes will tell the packed audience later tonight, the director wanted them to film the Hammersmith Apollo show (you can imagine the reception that gets here in the principality), but there was only one place they could choose (again, as you can imagine, that statement’s a winner). The tour manager tells us it had to be here. “It’s the biggest venue on the tour and it’ll be the loudest audience!”

Stand and delivered: (l-r) Harry James, Ben Matthews Chris Childs, Danny Bowes and Luke Morley

Stand and delivered: (l-r) Harry James, Ben Matthews Chris Childs, Danny Bowes and Luke Morley (Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

Showtime’s drawing near now, Ben Matthews and Chris Childs say hello, and we leave the band to it. There’s no booze in their room, just water and fruit. From soundcheck to now, the mood has been friendly, mature, collegiate. Bowes heads off for his pre-show shower to warm up his voice, and Morley ponders a nap. We’re jokily assured that back in the day, many’s the time they’d be wasted on the dressing room floor, then, given the 10-minute-to-stage warning, come alive with adrenaline, then get back on it at the aftershow. Years later, they’re older. Married. “Now,” says Morley, “it lives or dies by the music. The songs get written and recorded, we go out and play them live. It’s really that simple.”

A few hours later and The Motorpoint Arena is rammed, animated and ready for Friday night. Tour support Cats In Space have warmed the appreciative crowd with their catchy, harmony-rich AOR set. The house lights dim to expectant cheers, Kool & The Gang’s Jungle Boogie blares from the house PA, Samuel L Jackson intones Ezekiel 25:17, and the path of these righteous men is set.

Thunder kick in with Rip It Up opener No One Gets Out Alive. Their sound is down – loud, clear and punchy – and when the curtain falls and Danny Bowes comes running in from stage right, it’s on. Testament to their current confidence, four of the first five tunes are from the two newest albums, including The Seeker-esque The Enemy Inside, and a cracking Resurrection Day. Chris Childs and Harry James are a subtly brilliant rhythm section, and, swapping from keyboards to guitar throughout the night, Ben Matthews remains Thunder’s secret weapon.

(Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

The seasoned, gyrating showman Bowes leads proceedings – part rock star, part aerobics instructor, part Redcoat at times. At his bidding the arena screams, jumps up and down, waves its arms in the air. Then he says it’s time for a thank you. “Were you here in 2013?” he asks, alluding to that fateful Journey/Whitesnake show. At least two thirds of the place erupts in the affirmative. “Then it’s your fault we came back and made albums. Thank you Cardiff!” And to Cardiff’s resounding approval, the band break into a muscular performance of Right From The Start.

Morley may profess to his normalcy, but the left-hander’s guitar playing is as solid as his songwriting. He wrings real emotion from his Strat here, and later, on Don’t Wait For Me, takes centre-stage for a long soulful solo, staring up into the rafters and bathed in five jade spotlights, a downswing of his axe guiding the group to the song’s final beat. At the aftershow, more than one group of people will be overheard agreeing he’s on the best form anyone can recall.

Beneath sheets of blinding white light Thunder crack open Backstreet Symphony. It’s Bo Diddley with balls, Aerosmith on 11. Ahead of Higher Ground, Bowes plays the Freddie Mercury ‘I sing whoa/you sing whoa’ participation card, and wins. At one of the song’s later choruses the band drops out completely save Harry’s gently metronomic hi-hat, the singer flips the mic to the audience who, in their thousands and without missing a beat, fill in the gap – ‘I don’t want to spend my whole life in this town…’ The lighting rig shoots dots of light their way. “You look bloody lovely,” says the singer, meaning it. Hoary rock‘n’roll arena tropes these may be, but not everyone can pull them off with such thrilling aplomb.

Special guest Lynne Jackaman joins the band for She Likes The Cocaine

Special guest Lynne Jackaman joins the band for She Likes The Cocaine (Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

Another showbiz bit Bowes does: he looks at the stage floor, side-on to the crowd, shaking his head with cod disappointment at their lack of noise. He waves his palm upward, egging them on to make more. The hand movement gets more erratic, until 5,000 pairs of lungs are blasting the stage. He does this on the inevitable Love Walked In and a forest of arms shoots up, their glowing phones capturing the moment they’re missing. Some headbang, others bogle.

Live, Rip It Up is a pleasing mash-up of Bad Company and Bowie, I Love You More Than Rock ‘n’ Roll a hot-rodded Honky Tonk Woman. Before Wonder Days we’re treated to Bowes’ ‘magic finger’ (“Where it points, hysteria follows”). And sure enough, as he points across the audience, the entire crowd across his digit’s trajectory fling their arms in the air, cheer, scream, whatever. It’s amazing to watch. Singer Lynne Jackaman briefly joins them to recap her impressive cadenzas on She Likes The Cocaine. A huge Dirty Love, the song Morley says took the roof off here four years back, gets a huge reception. “You’re on film!” says Bowes, “Go mad!” Cardiff’s in the palm of that magic-fingered hand, and duly obliges.

“Oh, I bloody love him so much,” says the tearfully happy blonde lady while tottering for the exit soon after. The house lights are up and the place is emptying. The two friends holding her up agree, they both bloody love Danny too. At the after-show there’ll be more signings, more photos, and happy banter between band and fans. Some 28 years and 11 albums in, Bowes surveys the room, and confides. “We get such fantastic loyalty. We’re very grateful and humble – you don’t ever, ever take this shit for granted. You have to remind yourself where you could be.”

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Grant Moon

A music journalist for over 20 years, Grant writes regularly for titles including Prog, Classic Rock and Total Guitar, and his CV also includes stints as a radio producer/presenter and podcast host. His first book, 'Big Big Train - Between The Lines', is out now through Kingmaker Publishing.