Bev Bevan

These days Bev Bevan is a particularly happy man. He sits in front of a color TV, minus the sound, in his hotel room a good two dozen stories above the streets of Manhattan and cracks a slight, almost hushed grin. On the other side of the room a friend of his recalls the ovation Bevan received after his rousing solo the previous night at the Meadowlands across the river in New Jersey.

For over ten years the drummer of the incredibly successful Electric Light Orchestra, more commonly known as ELO, Bev Bevan has now found another band in which to play drums—Black Sabbath. The decision to go on the road with Sabbath has been one of the most important decisions Bevan has had to make since joining Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne, and forming ELO back in 1971. Drumming with Black Sabbath has re-energized a career that, just a little more than a year ago, looked as if it might be coming to an end.

It was then that Bevan, in the midst of preparing to go on holiday in Spain where he owns a house, agreed to do the European leg of the Black Sabbath tour in place of ailing drummer Bill Ward. For Bevan, it was the chance to play on a stage again, to go on the road and perform in front of people. It was something he might never have had the chance to do again with Electric Light Orchestra, if Jeff Lynne, the group’s driving force, chief songwriter and main opponent of touring, had his way. So Bevan packed his bags and off he went. No question about it, Bev Bevan is indeed a happy man because of it.

Bevan’s career extends well beyond his tenure as the drummer for Electric Light Orchestra. Before that, he played with the Move, a highly popular British band in the mid and late ’60s that released cleverly crafted pop songs from albums that oozed with eclectic experimentation. Bevan had come to the Move from outings with numerous bands in the Birmingham area, among them, Carl Wayne & the Vikings, and Denny Laine & the Diplomats. Bevan’s drum style in these bands could be categorized as energetic, authoritative, and even frenzied at times. In short, it was a far cry from the way he played with the Electric Light Orchestra on some ten albums and numerous world tours. During our conversation Bevan explained the reason behind his change in drum styles, elaborated on his role with Black Sabbath, and talked about why ELO is, most likely, a dead issue.

 

RS: Let’s start off by talking about how you came to join Black Sabbath.

BB: Well, let’s see. I got a telephone call totally out of the blue from Tony lommi, Black Sabbath’s guitar player and an old friend of mine, before the band went on its European tour last year. Tony asked me if I would help the band out and fill in for Bill Ward, Sabbath’s drummer, who had just completed Born Again, the band’s new record, but didn’t feel up to the rigors of touring. So I said, “Yeah, I’d love to. Why don’t you bring me over a tape of the new album.” As soon as I heard the material on the album, I really loved it. I’ve always been a big fan of Sabbath, as well as a big fan of Deep Purple, and with lan Gillan joining the group, it really excited me because it sort of combined the two. Besides, like I said, the music on Born Again appealed to me very, very much.

RS: How did you prepare yourself to go on the road with Black Sabbath on such short notice?

BB: Every day before we left, I would spend time with a pair of drumsticks and the tape, and just sort of bang away. There was a lot to learn, as you might imagine. There was so much old stuff, and then of course, there was the material from the Born Again album. Some of the arrangements were really quite complex, too. Bill Ward played real well on the Born Again album, but he just wasn’t physically together to tour and carry on with the daily activities of being in a band. It’s a shame, really.

RS: Going on the road can certainly be a strain on a person.

BB: I know, and that worries a lot of people— friends of mine, my wife. But I’ve never been into drugs. I’ve always been into sports: soccer, squash, tennis. Actually, squash is my game. Sports have kept me pretty sane over the years, I’m glad to say.

RS: Was it difficult for you to make the transition from ELO to Black Sabbath?

BB: I think it was fairly easy to adjust because the guys in the band are quite easy to get along with. I’ve known Tony for a long time.

RS: Did you have to alter the way you play drums in order to fit into the Black Sabbath scheme of things?

BB: Yeah, I would have to say so. I sort of switched back to the way I used to play. The way I’m playing now with Black Sabbath is really my true, natural style of drum playing—loud and heavy. I was brought up in Birmingham, England, along with such other drummers as John Bonham, Carl Palmer, Graeme Edge, Bill Ward and Cozy Powell. Birmingham, for some strange reason, produced that school of heavy, loud drummers. I also had to get back in shape; I had to get into the frame of mind of playing drums every day. Physically, I had to get myself up to doing that.

RS: If indeed that is your most “natural” way of playing drums, why didn’t you play that way all the years you’ve spent with the Electric Light Orchestra?

BB: Well, with ELO I was very restricted in terms of my drumming. It didn’t start out that way, actually. But over the years I’ve felt more and more restrained, and of course my drumming reflected it. See, the ELO material we recorded was so complex, not necessarily in the arrangements, but in the amount of stuff that actually went on the record by the time we were done recording it. There were usually so many instruments and so many things happening that the drumming simply had to be kept simple and uncomplicated. I was keeping time. That’s about the bottom of it. I mean, that’s all I was usually required to do—keep time and hold the whole thing together. When Tony phoned me, I asked him what sort of set Black Sabbath did. Well, he told me and he said I’d get to do a drum solo with the band. I said to him, “A drum solo! I haven’t done a drum solo in ten years!” It took a while for me to get used to it. But I love doing it and I’ve begun to feel real confident again. Doing the solo is really a lot of fun, you see.

RS: Speaking of ELO, what’s happening with the group now?

BB: Very little, actually. There’s no touring planned, and I’m quite sure there never will be. At least I don’t think there ever will be. There could be another album, however.

And if there is, I’ll probably play drums on it.

RS: Why won’t ELO tour anymore?

BB: Well, basically the band is led by Jeff Lynne, and he doesn’t want to tour. It’s as simple as that. I think the rest of the guys wouldn’t mind touring. But I mean, Jeff never did like touring, and now he can actually afford not to do it if he doesn’t want to.

RS: But you, obviously, enjoy touring and want to continue touring. Isn’t that right?

BB: That’s true, yes. For me, touring with Black Sabbath is a lot more fun than touring with ELO because I get to play a lot more. I’m actually a featured instrumentalist with Black Sabbath, whereas with ELO I wasn’t. So, for my ego, this gig is much, much better, [laughs]

RS: Let’s go back to the early days for a moment—before Electric Light Orchestra and before the Move—all the way back to your time spent as the drummer for Denny Laine & the Diplomats. There was one gig in the early ’60s in which you guys opened for the Beatles. And after the show, Paul McCartney came backstage and congratulated you on your drum solo. Paul said to you something like, “Our drummer couldn’t do that solo in 5/4 time like you did.” How did you react to that compliment?

BB: That was during the height of Beatlemania, a long time ago. You couldn’t hear anything they played, actually. It was just all screams. We were just struggling to break outside the Birmingham area at the time. We were playing local pubs, you see, and things like that. Opening up for the Beatles was really a big deal, as you might well imagine. And for any of the Beatles just to speak to us, let alone offer any sort of praise, why, that was enough to keep my head swelled for about six months.

RS: It didn’t seem Paul thought too much of Ringo as a drummer by saying what he said.

BB: No, apparently not. And from what I’ve read, which has been a whole lot, about the Beatles, I get the impression Paul wasn’t too fond of not only Ringo as a drummer, but also George Harrison as a guitarist.

RS: What did you think of Ringo as a drummer back then? Was he a big influence?

BB: Aside from the fact that he was in the most important band in the world and he was so visible, I liked Ringo’s style because I thought it fit in just right with what the Beatles were doing at the time. But like I said, it didn’t matter what he or anyone else in the band played live, because you couldn’t hear anything anyhow. I even doubt, although I can’t be certain, that he even thought much about his playing. Because later on, when I was playing with the Move, which sort of turned into a real teeny-bopper type of band in its later days, there’d be all kinds of crazy, screaming girls at our shows. It was a fact that you’d worry more about what you were going to wear rather than what you were going to play and how you were going to play it. So I can imagine that Ringo must have gotten caught up in that, too.

RS: Who were some of your early influences?

BB: My very first influence was Tony Meehan from the Shadows, an English group that never really caught on in the States, but were very popular in England. He was the only drummer whose name I actually knew. The Shadows was the first band I saw perform on television. There was no one to watch at the time and try to emulate. I used to buy a lot of jazz albums and listen to them. I got into Buddy Rich and Joe Morello. But that wasn’t much help. I remember going to a Joe Morello drum clinic. The guy was absolutely brilliant. He demonstrated things like a one-handed roll that nearly made me want to give up playing the drums.

RS: Going back to the Beatles one more time, I find it rather interesting that you had that experience with Paul in the days of Beatlemania, and then in the mid-’70s there was more than one critic who wrote that, if the Beatles had remained a band, they would sound very much like Electric Light Orchestra.

BB: That was a real compliment directed particularly at Jeff’s songwriting, I think. Jeffs one big influence was definitely the Beatles, above all else. He would subconsciously ask me to play things like Ringo would have played them had he been the drummer for ELO. Or he’d say things to me like, “Try to sound like Ringo did on ‘Strawberry Fields.’ ” So I think it’s true about us sounding like the Beatles and the Beatles like us, if they were still together making records.

RS: That explains why you were essentially a timekeeper in ELO, doesn’t it?

BB: Yes, it does. It got more and more that way, too. The last album, for instance, which was Secret Messenger, really pissed me off because there’s a drum machine on that record, as well as me. You can be sure that it wasn’t my idea to use one. I asked Jeff to credit the machine on the album so people knew it wasn’t me playing, and he did that for me. Drum machines are great; they can do things that humans can’t possibly do. But there’s no soul to them—no soul whatsoever. Drum machines produce a very sterile sound.

RS: Compared to ELO, what are your recollections of the days you spent drumming with the Move?

BB: It was an incredibly full four years I spent with the group. We had about ten hit singles in Great Britain, and each one was so different in terms of style. We had a lot of personnel changes, too. We started out as a great band; this was even before we had a record deal. We were incredibly tight and had a really strong image with everyone wearing sort of gangster suits and guys up front sort of doing Motown dance steps and vocal harmonies. It was a real great band to play drums for. See, I had much more freedom and scope to do what I wanted to do. There was a period, like I mentioned before, where we got into a teeny-bopper type of thing with “Flowers In The Rain” and songs like that. We were overtaken by events, really. We were more thrilled, it seemed, with being on Top Of The Pops every week. I mean, we started off as sort of a progressive underground sort of band. But one thing the Move lacked was consistency.

RS: Which was the general reputation the band had here in the States.

BB: Exactly. I can’t believe the following the Move still has here in the States, considering we never really sold very many records here. It’s amazing. It really is. We started off the same time as Cream—almost to the exact week. We started doing the same clubs. But Cream went one way—basically to America—and the Move stayed in England and became sort of a pop group. I guess that’s the best way to put it.

RS: From a drummer’s standpoint, wasthe transition from the Move to Electric Light Orchestra a dramatic one, not just technically speaking, but personally speaking as well?

BB: It just wasn’t a whole lot of fun playing with a bunch of cellos and violins all the time. Sometimes they seemed to get in the way, if you ask me.

RS: I have to ask you: Why then did you stay with ELO, or even join it in the first place? It seems as if the band was everything you weren’t, and vice versa.

BB: Well, I thought the idea of Electric Light Orchestra was one that really stood a good chance of making it in America—something the Move never accomplished. The Move did one tour of the States. That was in 1969. From that came what was probably the best Move album we ever did—Shazam! If we had persevered, we could have made it, but the heart had gone out of the band by then.

ELO, on the other hand, was exciting. It was such an unusual outfit. Playing with it would be a challenge, I thought. It really was a different kind of band.

RS: That explains why you joined the band, but it doesn’t explain why you continued to stay with the band.

BB: I did sort of enjoy touring with ELO. When I got on the road I had more freedom in my playing. The times I felt most frustrated with the band were in the studio. I remember touring with Deep Purple. I would stand in the wings and watch Ian Paice play “Smoke On The Water.” I’d say to myself, “Boy, I would love to have recorded that song.”

One thing about touring and playing with ELO in its earlier days was that it was very difficult to hear everything that was going on. It got to where I’d just play with the bass player and guitarist, and just sort of hope the others were keeping time with me. It was a very confused period. But as we got into the third and fourth albums, we got pretty tight on stage. I really enjoyed the tours of America during those days. It was during the third album that we started using a big orchestra on record. It was something like a 40-piece orchestra—really quite big. It sort of mellowed our sound on record. But as a performing band we usually kept it down to around seven people. I personally think we peaked as a band around the time of A New World Record. The band was really quite good about that time. After that it got a little bit out of hand. I mean, we did the spaceship tour in 1978, which was a brilliant spectacle and amazing visual thing. But it wasn’t much fun in terms of playing. We were stuck inside that spaceship and the sound was really bad. I always got a lot of bounce back. It was also very hard to establish some sort of rapport with the audience because I felt cut off from them. I could hardly see or hear the people. We only did one tour after that. That was two-and-a-half years ago. It was the last tour we did, and will probably remain the last tour for reasons I spoke about before.

RS: What about the time spent in the studio recording ELO albums? What kind of work technique did you have in formulating drum parts for Jeff Lynne’s songs? Did you have the freedom to do pretty much what you thought proper and right?

BB: No, not really. That was very, very frustrating. I mean, I never enjoyed making ELO albums that much, because there wasn’t enough scope for me to put stuff in. Jeff would always want the basic structure of the song done first: drums, bass and maybe some rough keyboards. I never knew where the vocals would come in. It was very hard to put in breaks and things. We never recorded live. There were so many things going onto the tracks—choirs, orchestral parts, more keyboards, more orchestral parts. It would have sounded pretty silly if I played busy. It would have sounded terrible, as a matter of fact. So it was better to keep the drums simple. It was very frustrating.

RS: Were you responsible for the sound of your drums?

BB: Well, to an extent, yes. The first few days in the studio were usually spent working on the drum sound and getting it right. I’d have to leave the technical parts to the engineer and to Jeff as well. But I’d keep on playing for a half hour or so, and then I’d listen back and say, “Well, the bass drum could be a bit brighter here, or the snare could have more depth.” We’d do that until we got the sound we wanted and everyone was happy with it.

RS: Did you ever play to a click track in the studio?

BB: Yeah, all the time with ELO. That drove me crazy. You start worrying about the bloody click track rather than the music and the feel of the song.

RS: It sounded to me as if there was a lot of double-tracking going on with the drums. In fact, I might have even read that somewhere. Was there?

BB: Yes, there was, and again it made for keeping things simple. See, you can only successfully double-track drums on single beats. You double-track a roll, and it simply doesn’t come out right. It sounds like someone falling down the stairs or something. I think just about everything on Out Of The Blue and Discovery was double tracked—every snare drum beat and every tom-tom beat. It meant going back in and playing everything stroke for stroke ex actly the way I played before. That took some doing, as you can imagine.

RS: Do you use the same kit in the studio as you do on stage?

BB: No, I don’t. I’ve got a kit that I use in the studio and one that I use when I play live. I always use a much smaller bass drum in the studio because it’s much easier to control, and I get a punchier sound with an 18″ bass drum than a 26″ bass, which is what I used on stage. I always take a half dozen snare drums with me in the studio, and I always use a wooden-shell snare drum. Again, I find it easier to control, especially in terms of rattles and stuff which can ruin a take. And I’ve always used Slingerland drums, although I’ve always had a preference for Rogers foot pedals. Since I’m so heavy footed, I tend to break other brands of pedals, or else I bend them up. I have my own drumsticks constructed by Slingerland as well: double-ended ones, with no acorn on them. I tend to break regular sticks.

Bev Bevan

RS: Can you recall your very first kit? Was it a Slingerland?

BB: The very first kit I ever owned was made by a company called Broadway. Few people have probably ever heard of it. But after my Broadway kit, I got a set of Ludwig drums. Finally, in 1969, I bought my first Slingerland kit. It was when I was in America. I bought it at Manny’s in Manhattan, as a matter of fact.

RS: What track on an ELO album would you consider a fine example of your drum style and drum playing?

BB: It would probably be on an early album. I think “Fire On High” might be good, although I haven’t played it for years. It’s on the album, Face The Music, I believe. It’s the instrumental that begins the album. I think that track is quite good. I didn’t have many restrictions on that, and it does sort of have a heavy riff running through it. The song had a lot of nice gaps in it where I could do some fills and things.

RS: From the research I’ve done, it seems as if there was one time in your life that you believed one could learn virtually any instrument, but with drums it had to come naturally. In other words, drummers are born, not made. Do you still believe that?

BB: I think so, yeah. Drummers are definitely a different breed; they’re different from all other musicians. I mean, I don’t even have the first notion about music theory. Whenever I’m playing my drums and someone in the band says something like, “I think I have to change the E to an A,” I wind up saying, “What? What are you talking about?” Everyone else can talk music, but generally drummers can’t, unless, of course, they play another instrument, which I don’t. But drummers, I think, must have a natural sense of rhythm. I know people who can’t even clap in time. It’s really amazing. If you don’t have a natural rhythm, a natural sense of time, it would be pretty stupid to try to learn how to play the drums.

RS: How did you begin playing drums?

BB: My father was a drummer, actually, but he died when I was ten years old. So I really can’t consider him an influence or anything. But I got involved in a school band and it felt right sitting behind a drumkit. I felt like I belonged there. I didn’t take lessons. I don’t think lessons are a particularly good thing.

RS: And why’s that?

BB: It’s probably okay if you just want to read the dots and do sessions. But if you want to go out and really express yourself and stamp your own sort of style on a piece of music, I think lessons could very well hold you back. I could be wrong, of course. But I think if you stayed away from lessons it would probably be best.

RS: How much of a rapport do you usually try to maintain with the bass player you’re performing with?

BB: A lot. I’ve always looked for a strong relationship with the bass player. And now with Black Sabbath, it’s actually quite easy to accomplish, because Geezer Butler is such a great bass player and all-around musician.

RS: You’ve mentioned John Bonham, among other great rock drummers, as having been from your hometown of Birmingham. Was Bonham a close friend of yours?

BB: Yes, he was. I thought John was the greatest rock ‘n’ roll drummer ever. The power the man had was quite extraordinary.

RS: A lot of your American fans probably don’t know that you wrote a book —The Electric Light Orchestra Story— a couple of years ago, mostly because it was never published in the States. How did the idea to write the book come about?

BB: Towards the end of the ’70s, unlike the earlier part of the decade, Electric Light Orchestra got real laid back and didn’t do much—one album every 18 months, and the occasional tour. So I found myself with a lot of time. And since I’ve always enjoyed writing, I’ve always kept diaries and have done a few record reviews and things like that for newspapers mostly in England, someone suggested that I do a book. Well, it seemed like the natural thing to do. We had just finished that awful thing we did with Olivia Newton-John, Xanadu. Don’t get me wrong. She wasn’t awful; she’s great. But the project itself just didn’t quite make it, if you know what I mean. So I certainly had the time to do the book. I suppose it could have been more detailed and I could have laid more things on the line. But it was basically a fun project. It’s a “fanzine” type of book—nothing really heavy, just fun reading.

Bev Bevan

RS: In the prologue of the book, you mention that being in the music business as long as you have, you’ve changed considerably. How have you changed both as a person and as a drummer?

BB: What I wrote, I’m afraid, might have been an over-exaggeration, now that I think of it. It was just a general growing up that I was referring to. That, plus things like being able to afford nice things that in the past, before the success of ELO, I simply couldn’t. And I meant a growing confidence with people and life in general, I suppose.

As for drumming, I don’t think I’ve matured quite enough, actually. When I started out playing drums, I was thought of as being really hot. And then in the ’70s I slowed down quite a bit. I’d like to get that reputation back. I mean, I’m enjoying my drums and playing them more now than I’ve done for many years, which at my age is an exciting thing to say. And I think because of that, I’m playing better than ever. The album title of the Sabbath record, Born Again, really does a good job of describing me. We’re doing Black Sabbath music, and Black Sabbath is the name of the band, but with me and Ian in the band, it’s really like a new group, isn’t it? Even when we play Black Sabbath’s old material in concert, it’s like brand new stuff to me.

I like to tell myself that I’m finally out of the rut and the stagnant period I sort of got myself into in the ’70s, from a drumming point of view. I like to think that my best years as a drummer are still to come.