Inspired by the rebellious sounds of pioneering rock ’n’ rollers such as Bill Haley and Little Richard, the barnstorming British drummer Tony Newman developed a slashing, swinging, hard-driving style that met the considerable demands of the breakneck creative pace set by standard-bearers of the U.K. rock music scene during the 1960s and 1970s.
Having cut his teeth on the pulse-pounding jazz, soul, and rock ’n’ roll madness of Sounds Incorporated, the Southampton, Hampshire, native attracted the attention of rock royalty such as David Bowie, Jeff Beck, Marc Bolan, and the Who. By the mid-1970s, Newman’s professional and personal life was off the hook. His phone rang incessantly with calls for recording and touring opportunities, while his frenetic playing and lifestyle were accompanied by an increasing dependence on illicit substances.
A change of scenery was sorely needed. A move to Nashville in the ’80s rescued this Baby Boomer from becoming another self-inflicted casualty of the chemical, cultural, and psychosexual blitzkrieg known as the classic rock era. “Getting sober was ridiculous,” Newman says. “I was working with Crystal Gayle and experienced times of sheer terror. You take away the alcohol and drugs, and the fear comes in. It was almost paralyzing. You had to overcome that. I was grateful to have a gig. [Gayle] had so many hits it’s ridiculous. It was very fortuitous.”
Newman has long since turned his back on his near-suicidal extracurricular activities, and the seventy-four-year-old drummer remains active to this day, telling us of the likelihood he’ll be gigging with Chicago lead guitarist Keith Howland and bassist/vocalist John Cowan (New Grass Revival, the Doobie Brothers). With Newman, anything and everything is possible.
MD: You once said you escaped into music because of some difficulties at home.
Tony: Yeah. It was like primal scream therapy. I would disappear into the drums for hours and hours. It all started in about 1953, I suppose, when I heard Louie Bellson’s “Skin Deep.” I liked the early Bill Haley stuff too. I was in the Boy Scouts, very briefly, and they held dances. They had a drumkit at this hall, but no drummer. I don’t know what the hell had gone on. But I sat down and that was it. I remember my left leg aching after I played, but apparently I could play. Eventually I got a drumkit out of my paper round, and I turned professional when I was seventeen and joined Sounds Incorporated.
MD: You had a very exciting style, even at that early age.
Tony: The amazing thing about Sounds Incorporated is that we joined Gene Vincent. All of a sudden we had a world-class rock ’n’ roll act, and that band got elevated immediately. It was very odd with them, though. One moment you would be poppy, and the next we would get booked to perform with Mary Wells, Ben E. King, the Shirelles, and Sam Cooke. Charts would be sent to us, or we would be fully rehearsed before the acts came to England. But after Gene Vincent, his manager, Don Arden, said, “I’m bringing in Little Richard and I want you to play for him.” A clock inside of me got switched on when I first heard [Richard’s] “Lucille.” That was it. I couldn’t do anything else but play drums and exciting rock.
MD: What happened with the Little Richard gig?
Tony: Richard came in with Billy Preston [for a European tour in 1962] and we had all these Quincy Jones arrangements, all these gospel songs, which weren’t easy to play. But the first night we played with him was just insane.
MD: What was going on to cause such a stir?
Tony: Everyone thought this was going to be a gospel tour. We did too. Anyway, we were playing a riff, waiting for [Richard] to come on stage. He was actually in the balcony, with a cape on. He leaps off of the balcony with this ridiculous cape flying behind him and then lands on stage. Forget the gospel stuff—we knew we were going to rock. Billy Preston’s organ was screaming. It was a recipe for madness.
MD: After Sounds Incorporated, you joined the Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart on vocals?
Tony: Actually, from 1965 till 1969 I did sessions with Cliff Richard and Cilla Black and was their personal drummer. I’d also worked with Petula Clark, Tom Jones, lots of people. Jeff called me, I suppose in 1969, and wanted me to play with him. He loved what I did.
MD: Some say the Jeff Beck Group was the prototype for Led Zeppelin.
Tony: The Jeff Beck Group was managed by Peter Grant, who was also Led Zeppelin’s manager. Bonzo [Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham] and I went out on the town, and that was the last time we ever did that together. We were mad. [Bonham] actually gave me one of his Ludwig kits, and I used that for a while with the band May Blitz.
MD: What were some of the early impressions of the Jeff Beck Group?
Tony: I remember we were in New York and were supposed to do Woodstock, but Jeff went back to England, freaked out because his girlfriend was supposedly having sex with the gardener. We never did Woodstock. Also, having just done a religious tour with Cliff Richard, the first thing I noticed was that Rod [Stewart] was very concerned about image and how he looked. He loved [Mick] Jagger’s poses on stage. He also loved Sam Cooke. Rod would take the best of both of those and put it in himself.
Jeff thought that Ronnie [Wood, bassist] and Rod should join the Girl Scouts. [laughs] Rod and Jeff would never look at one another on the stage. If they shared a mic it was back to back. Nicky Hopkins [piano player], who was in the band, said, “You wake up every morning and you don’t know if there’s going to be a band left.” We were never close as people.
MD: Your playing in that band is pretty powerful, though.
Tony: One of the beats, on “Plynth (Water Down the Drain)” [from 1969’s Beck-Ola], I think it was, was inspired by listening to Edwin Starr’s “25 Miles.” I actually lifted it. I knew Ginger [Baker, Cream], not well, but we both loved Phil Seamen, who was out to lunch but was a great player. I would see him play on Saturday nights at the Marquee Club in London, and he would give me a lesson before the set; he’d be banging chairs and kicking the tables. Phil did beautiful doubles, and singles too.
MD: He had his troubles, didn’t he?
Tony: Oh, Lord, yeah. Everyone was doing smack—heroin. I did things myself and it was a disaster.
MD: Did you have a drug habit?
Tony: I’m a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. I started to drink when I was thirteen and I liked the effect, but I couldn’t play drunk. However, Gene Vincent gave us a hit of speed before our shows. It was like a hallucinogenic for me. When you’d tour America, there would be groupies and all the dealers who put out cocaine and smack. There I was, doing it.
MD: How far down that path were you when you joined the Jeff Beck Group?
Tony: I would go down to the pub, smoke dope and maybe have some pills every now and again. Nothing outrageous. Interestingly, some time later I saw Woody [Ron Wood] with Charlie Watts and the Rolling Stones, and they asked me, “What the f**k!” Like: What happened to you? I said, “It’s a really strange thing. I took a trip in 1978 and woke up playing brushes with Crystal Gayle in the 1980s.”
MD: When did you finally break free of your addictions?
Tony: I got sober in 1983, and that’s when I took a one-way ticket to Nashville. Funny thing is, I’ve been fortunate in my accounts. In that sense my life has been blessed. I mean, one day I’m working in the studio and I get a call from David Bowie: “Can you come and do this?” I left the band I was in, Three Man Army, to join Bowie.
MD: What can you tell us about working with him?
Tony: We were working on the Diamond Dogs album when David asked me: “I’m doing a theatrical tour of America. Would you like to come on tour with us?” We went to New York, and we were there for a month, rehearsing every day. I had no idea of David’s repertoire. He was ever so nice. When I was in the studio with him he never, ever told me what to play. He’d give me scenarios of what he wanted me to imagine as I was playing drums. One of the scenarios, for “Sweet Thing,” was that he wanted me to imagine I was a teenage French drummer, watching a guillotining for the first time.
Tony: Yeah. I’ll never forget that. But for the tour Toni Basil came in for the choreography and there was a stage manager, someone we called “Nick the Russian” [Nick Russiyan]. He was actually a Broadway stage manager. When we came to the show it was enormous. Bowie had these colossal sets. It was like a Broadway show, on the road.
We recorded the [David Live] album in Philadelphia, but I was doing so much blow that I didn’t know what was going on when I got on stage. I sat down and played—a basket case. Apparently we did another night, which I have no idea of. I thought I played dreadfully on both nights. I was doing a lot of cocaine and sharing it with a lot of other people. It was getting pretty bloody mad. I’ve never listened to [David Live]. I couldn’t face listening to it. Then, apparently, they remixed that and my son called me from England and said, “You ought to have a listen to this. You use a double kick and everything on it.” I got a copy and read the liner notes, and I think David remarked that the drums were great both nights.
MD: You thought you’d ruined it.
Tony: Absolutely. For f**k’s sake, let’s get through with this. Around then my wife at the time, Margo, had gone nuts in England. I got her to come to New York to see John Lennon’s doctor, and he said she needed to go to the sanitarium. She brought two of the kids, and so they came on the road with me. The English bass player Herbie Flowers said he’d thoroughly had enough of [touring] and was leaving. For some reason I left too. [Bowie guitarist] Earl Slick and the manager would call me, “Please come back.” But I was so into my addiction that I didn’t want to do it anymore. I had burned myself out on it.
I was so sad when David died. I’d seen him a couple of times after I left. The show went on, obviously, and it worked out great. I always wanted to make amends to him for being so selfish. I was always professional and showed up and did my job prior to this. But all of a sudden the drugs had gotten to me and I went nuts. Horrible. I left my wife and kids and I was sitting in a flat in London drinking special brew and this Victorian laudanum called Dr. J. Collis Browne’s cough mixture. I lost my drums in some deal around the time I was in the band Boxer. I had nothing. I’d get this little bottle, shake it up, put it in a pint glass, and drink it. Within about ten minutes the chloroform hit me and I would be euphoric, followed by ten hours of heroin buzz.
MD: How do Marc Bolan and T. Rex figure in all of this?
Tony: Herbie Flowers called me and said, “Marc Bolan hasn’t been on the road [for a while] and he really could do with a drummer. Will you come over?” I said, “I haven’t got a drumkit.” He said, “I’ll make sure they rent you one.” I went over to the studio and made the drums sound pretty nice. I had a wonderful gig. I loved [Bolan]. He and I were great buddies. I think Marc Bolan was one of the greatest acts I’ve ever been on stage with. He had so much charisma. I’m really sorry he died. It was a great tragedy.
MD: Let’s return to your wife. You’re saying she had mental issues?
Tony: Yes. She was very ill. She’d been a session singer, the epitome of the Liverpool sound. She’d do three or four sessions a day. Unbelievable. She died [in 2016]. We had been divorced forever, but she was a good woman. What had happened was I’d just left her, and the kids had an awful time. At one point she was diagnosed with osteoporosis and she was taking medicine for her pain, which turned out to be an antidepressant. It was like she woke up and was happy again. I was thrilled. I mean, I was someone who tried to kill himself every day for twenty-seven years. Someone, actually it was George Harrison, said to me, “Life is very fragile. It’s like a drop of dew on a lotus leaf. You touch the leaf and you only have to move your hand and [the dew drop] will fall off.” I thank my higher power for the privilege of having people like what I do. I’ve had a great life. And I’m still here. [laughs] Holy smokes! I must be doing something right.
Tony Newman plays Pearl drums and Sabian cymbals and uses Vic Firth sticks and Remo heads.
At times aggressive and at others fully dynamic, these vintage performances remind us of why Tony Newman was in such high demand.
Sounds Incorporated “William Tell” (from Sounds Incorporated) /// Jeff Beck Group “All Shook Up,” “Spanish Boots,” “Plynth (Water Down the Drain)” (Beck-Ola) /// Donovan “Barabajagal” (Barabajagal) /// May Blitz “Snakes and Ladders,” “In Part,” “8 Mad Grim Nits” (The 2nd of May) /// David Bowie “Moonage Daydream,” “Sweet Thing,” “Aladdin Sane,” “Big Brother” (David Live) /// Three Man Army “Polecat Woman” (Two) /// Boxer “Shooting Star” (Below the Belt) /// The Who “Amazing Journey,” “Cousin Kevin” (Tommy original soundtrack recording) /// T. Rex “Jason B. Sad” (Dandy in the Underworld) /// Crystal Gayle “Easier Said Than Done” (True Love)