Doin’ Alright: Tim Staffell Talks

As the former singer and bassist in Smile, last year’s Queen biopic has led to renewed interest in Tim’s music.

Although it divided critics, Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) features two outstanding aspects, the first being Rami Malek’s powerhouse lead performance, the second being Tim Staffell’s powerhouse lead vocal. Afforded the chance to re-record sixties rocker Doin’ Alright, Staffell reunited himself with Smile bandmates Brian May and Roger Taylor. Smile, a blues rock trio, were signed to Mercury Records, inviting the bandmembers the chance to record their output at Trident Studios. As is the nature of rock and roll, the trio found themselves at a precipice, Staffell quitting the band in 1970 for Humpy Bong, leaving May and Taylor to team up with committed Smile fan Farrokh Bulsara. Re-christening himself (to Freddie Mercury) and the band (to Queen), Bulsara led the band through a myriad of bassists before nineteen-year -old electronics student John Deacon fitted himself into Staffell’s four-string role. You’ll have to watch the film to find out the rest!

Staffell’s led an impressive trajectory by himself, delving into projects as a model maker, designer, animator and commercials director. Music remains part of his life and past collaborators have included Bee Gee drummer Colin Petersen, Pink Floyd guitarist Snowy White, Mott The Hoople keyboardist Morgan Fisher and veteran producer Richard Lightman. aMiGO, Staffell’s first solo album, is being re-released by MOSCODISC; his second, TWO LATE, was released in 2018.

Your connection to Brian May predates Smile. How did you two meet?

Brian and I were pals at the Hampton Grammar school. That’s how we got to form 1984,as you probably know. It’s interesting about the bands. There were two school bands, one was called 1984 and The Others. 1984 was Brian,me, John Sanger, Dave Dilloway and then there was The Others with Paul Stuart, Simon Philips and others. Paul Stuart and I work together now, he was the singer with The Others. It’s taken a long time, but he’s as much as part of the mythology as I am, and people haven’t figured that out yet!

Is it true that 1984 played on the same bill as Hendrix and Floyd?

Yes, we did. There was a concert called “Christmas on Earth Continued”. I might have a poster or an ad for it. These little posters find their way back to me over the years, I can’t see it on my computer. It’s not in miscellaneous. It was some point in 68, in the Olympia Theatre.  Floyd were on it, Traffic too. I imagine it was Syd, must have been. Was it Smile or 1984 at Chelsea Art School at Floyd’s first gig? I’m kind of confident in my memory, but not always so sure. But it must have been Syd Barrett we played with at those gigs. [Editor’s note: The London Festival “Christmas On Earth Continued” happened in 1967, not 1968, but did feature Jimi Hendrix, Traffic and Barrett led Pink Floyd]

As an Irishman, it would be remiss not to ask about ‘Don’t You Be Too Long’ with folk star Jonathan Kelly. What was that like?

Fantastic! John was one of the seminal influences, very close friends with him, he opened my eyes musically. I had just left Smile, a  parochial rock trio. And you know, I haven’t played too much rock since. The ways the other guys flourished with Freddie, I think I flourished with John. It moved from horizons, introspective horizons, I blossomed with Kelly and his articulacy. I was deeply moved by Jonathan. Now he’s ill, and in some distress, I often a little nostalgic, he’s clever as anything. Colin Petersen was involved, he and his wife were the prime movers. Initially, Colin was the drummer, soon moved on to session players. After that, I  soon joined the band Morgan, later returned to John Kelly and his band Outside. It had Snowy White, an amazing guitar player.  Snowy has fantastic phrasing as a musician, he really knows his way around.

As a bassist, what was Roger Taylor like to play off of?

Very interesting question. Impossible to say, and I say that because my favourite bassists and drummers play completely differently to the way we did. Perception is completely different as then. I don’t think we thought of it as a rhythm section. I think of other bands, things like Vanilla Fudge, three soloists doing their own thing. I know what bass playing is nowadays, so different to what we did. Now a tight unit. Rhythm is much more sophisticated. I went to jazz fusion after Smile. With Jonathan Kelly, we took our cues from The Crusaders, drummers like Steve Gadd. That’s where we were playing by the mid seventies.

To go back to your question, I think the thing is to lock into the kick drum. I saw myself as almost a jazz bassist, moving all lover the kit. Then I moved on into a different thing. On my albums, I’m trying to emulate Steely Dan.  Rock bass playing is fine. I couldn’t cope with jazz fusion bass playing, I play it on some tracks on my album, and  struggled I tell you [laughs].

‘Doin’ Alright’ offers remarkable insight from such young writers. How did you come up with the lyric?

I don’t know, no idea. Perhaps these things benefit from hindsight and comparison. Lyrics have always been very important to me. Thank you for the compliment, but I’m not sure the words are evidence of the human condition. I like to think of myself as a good lyric writer, but you’re right, they’re good words. Must have broken up with a girlfriend, feeling reflective and hopeful. I ditched personal writing for a long time and moved into pontificating. My experience in Morgan was almost as a classical librettist. Morgan Fisher gave me complex part sto write to, and on reflection I think I did some good stuff there. I’ll put my hand up and say some of it was pretentious, but there’s a lot of very good tongue in cheek work.  I was very proud of the two albums, I really like The Sleeper Wakes. We recorded both albums in Rome, they really got into our stuff there. I love Italy.

When we did Doin’ Alright  for the film, I can’t take too much authorship for that. Because it was a complete hybrid, all composited, of all the versions of the song. I like to think I’m a good singer, there were a lot of decent singers in the sixties, thinking back. A great raft of singers. Terry Reid, Chris Farlowe, I liked some of Paul Rodgers’ stuff, all of those singers, great British rock vocalists. And, there was Freddie Mercury as well, even if he wasn’t overtly a rock singer. Put it this way, if the others were rock vocalists, he was a rock singer, far beyond any of that, breathy, aggressive stuff, even though he could do it.

Richard Lightman co-produced aMIgo. How did you collaborate on the album?

Richard and I had a band in the seventies, a band called Tailfeather. I’m not sure we did much recording, about  half a dozen tracks come to light. We gigged, decked together between Tailfeather and aMIgo, but always had this notion when the opportunity arose to work together. For that album, I was picking through the best of the last thirty years.  There are two Tailfeather tracks. Those were, FYI, Stray and Country Life. I think they open the album!

You reunited with guitarist Brian May on that record. How was that?

We revisited Earth and Doin’ Alright. I switched Doin’ Alright for more of a country vibe. I love country music. All these versions, we could release an EP of Doin’ Alright. Queen did it, Smile did it, there’s aMigo, the Bohemian Rhapsody cover and now I’m revamping it again with my band. That’s five, that’s an EP! I talked to my wife last night about good songs. It’s about life in them. If the’re good, they can switch to any genre. It’s all music anyway!

As for the film, the exposure its given me has far exceeded my expectations, I need to make reference to the pedigree. We’re doing the Queen Convention later, so I think I’ll play Earth. And I’ll do Earth differently, as an acoustic track. I think it could really work as an acoustic track. With harmonies, of course!

You have an eclectic CV outside of music. Were you involved with ‘Thomas The Tank Engine’?

Yes.I was involved, but never met Ringo [laughs]. This was at a time when I wasn’t making enough from being a full time musician. For twenty, thirty years, a  huge part of my life working was in tv and film making models, directing commercials, best fun ever! I can’t think of a better job than Thomas The Tank Engine! I worked on the set, really only on the first series, but I like to think we set the style. Developing that style and the rest was copied after that. I think Kevin Godley was involved. The company that made the original theme tune, that wonderful “doo de doo doo”, I think  that was Julian Campbell and Kevin Godley. They were a jingle company. I don’t think they use the music anymore.

‘Two Late’ is your most recent work. What was that like to record?

Again, Richard. My oldest son plays on it. I say that because my son is such a great drummer. He was witness to my musical education, the fusion and the jazz. I didn’t have to look anywhere,  I’d grown a drummer. Two Late started  only a couple of years after aMIgo, it took a long time to finish. We only mixed it last year, I’m so glad we did,  it didn’t have the refinement. aMIgo was the best stuff over thirty years, Two Late was completely new. All in the last ten years, eight even.

You’ve hinted at another solo album. Is there anything you can admit to We Are Cult?

What can I say? The working title is No Margin. Stems from the fact that there’s little margin for error. What we do is often the charm set of serendipidity. This time the songs are much more personal, have gone back thirty years for one song, which was never recorded. I’d like to record one of Paul Stuart’s songs. aMigo was kind of rock, Two Late is a little more jazzy, and No Margin will go as far as I can go with jazz sensibilities. All my albums are song albums, songs and interpretation. It’s not so much about performance, a lot of great rock is about the energy. This is different, I don’t have that kind of energy [laughs]. Might even do a Kickstarter, then find a way to record it. Realistically, this might be the last one.

❉ Tim Staffell – ‘aMIGO’(Remastered Special Edition) is released 12th July 2019, MOSCODISC MOSCD4016.

❉ Eoghan Lyng is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His writing has also appeared in Record Collector, CultureSonar, Punk Noir Magazine, DMovies, Phacemag and other titles.

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