Kevin Armstrong signed to EMI as a solo artist in the early '80s, but fate had other plans for him. Finding himself at Abbey Road studios with David Bowie, an afternoon’s recording catapulted the guitarist to world’s grandest stages alongside some of the biggest names in the business from Iggy Pop to Sinéad O'Connor. Telling it all, autobiography 'Absolute Beginner' is the story of what it takes to survive as a self-taught musician, with a glimpse into the backstage world of the artists Kevin has worked with. We sat down for an extended chat with the player and learn his fascinating story. Real wild child; Eamon O'Neill.
Hi Kevin, how are you and what have you been up to recently?
I'm good. I'm doing various things. I'm mostly doing interviews about the book at the moment, but I am working on solo material, and a follow up to my 2019 album. That and just doing other sessions and things, just little bits and pieces. I've been doing a few gigs this year mostly with different bands, one-off gigs; the latest of which was Glen Matlock. If they're one-off gigs, that also involves a week of learning before you get to do the gig, so I've been doing a lot of playing lately.
In terms of gear, what are you using these days?
There's a bunch of things I've got here. I use a '50s Telecaster for a lot of things, although I don't take that out the house so often these days. I've got a Custom Shop Les Paul, a little pimped up, and this Strat which is just a thing I'm trying to make into a good guitar. I've changed the pickups, I've changed the finish, I've changed the bridge; I've just done everything to try and make it into a decent guitar, and it's still a work in progress.
Do you still have the Fender Strat that you used at Live Aid in 1985?
No, that one's been going doing the rounds for a while. I actually let it go because after that I had a vintage '62 Strat which was really nice, which I was using with Iggy Pop on the road in the '80s, and it got stolen. An empty box arrived home from LAX to London with the guitar missing. The Live Aid one, I then met Bowie in Gothenburg and I had the Live Aid Strat with me and I said; "listen, this guitar I lost was under-insured. Would you mind signing this so I can sell it precisely for that, and then that means I can recover some of the value and get something decent?" And he said "yeah", and there's a picture of us, of him signing it for me, and it's been doing the rounds ever since. I think the last time it sold for like fifteen grand or something.
We're here to talk about your book 'Absolute Beginner'; why was now the time to tell your story?
Well, the trigger for it was really Bowie dying; that and me going back to being Iggy Pop's bandleader in 2014, which was a great second time around for that. It really was a brilliant opportunity, and then expecting to see Bowie somewhere on the road as we used to, when he turned up just to say "hello" or come to a gig. When he died, I thought, "well, it's now time to tell my story", because I haven't really done anything about that up until now. There was a long period of my life when I ran a studio and was a producer, and I didn't really talk about that phase of my life. There was a whole load of musicians in context I knew, who had no idea really about that, and I just thought; "well, these people are starting to disappear now, and I'm probably starting to disappear myself too soon, and so it's time to tell the story, isn't it?"
When did you begin writing it?
I just started writing in downtime on the road with Iggy Pop, in cars and in planes and in hotels, and just started splurging out stuff. Then gradually I managed to organize it into a timeline and a book and did some rewrites and it just took a number of years, but that's that's how it happened.
I love the self-effacing by-line, which is; "the world's best least-known guitar player"!
That's actually not me. I didn't come up with that. A friend of mine came up with that, and I put it in the text and the publisher liked it, and I sort of left it there. I'm not particularly boastful about skills and things like that or very confident about it really. It's a sort of thing that addresses the imposter syndrome of getting up on a festival stage and thinking half the audience are a better musician than you. You can never stop that in your head, except to say that, well, I'm standing here, and you're not.
You're in good company, for Bruce Springsteen talks about the exact same thing in his book.
Well, I think it's quite common among performers. I think it's that demon that says; "are you supposed to be here? Are you really good enough for this?" It can either be an enemy that stops you doing things, or you can just recognise it for what it is. It's a way of encouraging yourself.
'Absolute Beginners' was when you first worked with Bowie; what was that first session like; did he sit down and show you those unconventional chords?
Yeah, he played that to me the day we met. He said; "I've got this thing", and all I helped him with that song was to realise that he'd finished it, just to say; "we've definitely finished this, all you need to do is repeat this section or put this here or whatever". So I think that was the reason why we carried on working, because the day I met him, I was able to contribute something to what he was doing. But the song was all him. I mean, that's a great, typical Bowie curveball that no one else would do. And it's great.
I've learned a lot of Bowie songs over the years and it's like; "why does he go to this chord?!" It's genius, obviously, but I think that shows the difference between him and us.
Well, absolutely. I think that's just where the originality comes from, taking those leaps and little dangerous things that no one else would do. He said, during his life that music per se wasn't the motivating force in his life; it was about art, and it was about other things, and it was about making a splash doing something. It could have been painting or it could have been anything else, but the fact was, he was a brilliant songwriter. I've performed some of his songs pretty much stripped down with one guitar and a looper, and they are absolutely amazing. They're just amazing songs, and he had his sense of melody; his top lines, were just absolutely unlike anyone else.
I think people forget how much brilliant material Bowie had in that later period of his career.
It was great for me to be involved in a late period, with such a great song that was late in his career, because obviously, I was a fan from a long time back, and at that point, no one was sure what kind of a force he was. There were lots of times in his life when he wasn't particularly well regarded, or he was doing stuff that wasn't changing the world, but 'Absolute Beginners' as of itself, still stands up as an actually brilliant song.
What did you use on the recording; is that an acoustic in the verses?
I think it's just a clean guitar. We just tacked that song on to the end of this demo session we did with him on the very first day I met him. It was literally done in half an hour at the end of the session, and yet, the minute we heard the playback, everybody in that studio knew that that was something amazing that we just made.
We have to talk about the Live Aid performance, and I mean, Bowie looked amped! Was he on something?!
I don't think so I honestly, even though there's a story in the book about that, and about the fact that he may still have been dabbling that point. But I don't think he was in any way strung out or anything. Live Aid, I think he was just generally - like the rest of us - caught up in the adrenaline. That's what it was. We were all pretty hyped up to be there.
Yeah, you all look so happy to be there, and you look to be totally enjoying it.
Well, it was just amazing. We all knew what a door it was opening for all of us young musicians. Many of us knew each other and had worked together before, and it was just such a surprising place to find ourselves, suddenly at the center of the attention of the entire music world for a few minutes. Everybody in the world was watching that, and we knew that. What was nice of him as well was to name check us all during that short period that we had on stage.
I was just about to mention that. I mean, because obviously, with total respect to the band, it's David Bowie who they're there to see, isn't it?
It was nothing to do with us, I mean, they weren't there to see us. We were as excited as the fans were to see him play that day, but it was just, he knew we weren't getting paid for that, and we'd flung it all together very quickly, and so that's why he named checked us. I'm sure it was just like; "this is my payback to you guys. I'm going to introduce you all in front of the world".
I'm sure you have lots of stories in the book, but what was it like backstage seeing the likes of Freddie Mercury and Paul McCartney there?
We were just wandering around with our eyes sticking out of our heads really. I mean, I'd played a few gigs before in my life, obviously - I'd been with Thomas Dolby and I'd had a bit of experience of playing gigs and things - but nothing on that scale. I mean, just the sort of enormous excitement of it. There was the recording session of 'Absolute Beginners', the official recording session after we did the demos, which was before Live Aid also, so I had a taste of that thing of being in an environment that just crackled with an enormous amount of famous people in the same room together.
So you were used to being around big stars?
I was in a room with Mick Jagger and Jerry Dammers, and Rick Wakeman, and Bowie and all these people who were around for that day in the studio making the ['Absolute Beginners'] film soundtrack, so I already had a little taste of how heavy that was; that thing of just being around so many interesting people. And Live Aid was, for sure. I mean, everybody was excited that day, I think because it was such a rivalry-free kind of environment. Everybody was there for a cause, and I think that really was the difference. that it wasn't a commercial event; it was like; "let's really celebrate who we are and try and make a difference to something".
Was there anybody you really wanted to talk to backstage?
No, there was nothing like that. We were enjoying our position there. I actually left after we played. I didn't stick around for the 'We Are the World' moment on stage, which I could have done. I was entitled to do that, but I didn't do it. Part of that world - and I think that's why I've remained a sideman - is so exhausting; everybody's so 'on' and in your face all the time, and I just felt tired. I felt really happy but exhausted after it, so I left the place not long after we played actually.
What a memory to have though.
We were very, very excited. I'd had several several portentous dreams before Live Aid itself, of getting up there and not knowing how to play anything, doubled over in pain and being removed by some roadies and sent off into a life of ignominious exile for the rest of my day! But of course that didn't happen. We did rather well!
Moving on, and you also worked with David Bowie on his 'Outside' album in 1995 , and there's some great tracks on there.
Again, it was a very late period thing. He rang me because the title song was originally my song. I co-wrote the song 'Outside' without really realising it. It was just a thing I was playing at soundcheck at a Tin Machine soundcheck, and I remember him saying; "oh, can I have that please?", and then we worked it into something for Tin Machine, which was an experimental kind of piece. Then Tin Machine finished, and I didn't hear from him again for a couple of years, and then he phoned me out of the blue and said; "that song of yours is now the title track of my new album; would you like to come and play some guitar on some bits?" So it was just literally a couple of hours with him and [Brian] Eno in London.
What songs on 'Outside' did you play on?
I played on 'The Heart's Filthy Lesson', and 'Thru' These Architects Eyes', which I love. That's a great song which has grown in stature over the years. It was interesting session. That was the last day, so from 'Absolute Beginners', which was the first day I met Bowie, to 'Outside', which was the last time I saw him.
That's kind of poetic.
Yeah. I mean, what changed, if I think about it and that time is, although I sort of helped him knock together 'Absolute Beginners', he never offered me a writing credit or anything, but there was no beef about that or anything; it was just like; "wow, I've got this opportunity". By the time it came to 'Outside', I actually own half the song. I mean, his people tried to buy it back off me several times, but I've said no. I've kept my interest myself.
You mentioned Tin Machine, and it's one of those things that's been viewed as almost a folly, ever since.
I think in a career like his, you can afford an off day. If it was an off day for people, then it was an off day, but I think he was unafraid of taking risks all through his career, and that's why the quality of his work varies. So whatever you think of Tin Machine, at the time, and even I as a putative sort of extra member of it wasn't entirely sure it was the right thing for him to do. It was quite a difficult project personally, in terms of personalities and things. It had a fair amount of friction about it. It was quite anxious in a way, and it was certainly loud and chaotic, and I thought; "is this the right thing for him to be doing?" But actually, in retrospect, you listen to the things and they sound brilliant; year after year, they get better, a bit like Stooges records and things like that. They just seem to get better as the years go by.
You went from Bowie's commercial peak to Iggy Pop's and the 'Real Wild Child (Wild One)' era. They're ironically, eras that don't seem to get as much respect as the before and after.
Well, I mean it depends on your on your perspective and your age. In a way for me, listening back to 'Blah-Blah-Blah' [1986 Iggy Pop album], it definitely sounds dated in terms of the production technique, but there was no drama. It wasn't really a band album, for instance it was a drum machines, it was programmed stuff, and it was put together by a small number of people playing individually. Even though we we had a good stab on the tour that followed, in making those songs into band songs, so maybe they sounded great that way.
So 'Blah-Blah-Blah' is an album of its time?
It's so it's dated, but for people who are not from that era and not experienced in what came before and after it, it's stripped of that context, in terms of production styles, or whatever else. It just stands on its own merit, and some of the songs are really good; it's almost like a sort of lost Bowie album, in a way. As far as for it being Iggy's most commercial album, again I had nothing to do with Iggy's career before then, so I've no idea what stage he was at, at that point. But it turns out that David decided to help him at that point and give him a leg up, and he paid for that record, and I'm sure he helped negotiate the deal with A&M in America. Iggy was about to take an upswing at that point, so lucky me!
Did you come to work with Iggy Pop because of the David Bowie connection?
Absolutely. It was Bowie. He called me and invited me to come and play on 'Blah-Blah-Blah', so I just did. Again, it was a series of things like, Steve Jones [Sex Pistols] was supposed to do it, and he did one track in California, 'Cry For Love', and then he couldn't make it to Europe. For some reason he wasn't allowed to come out to Europe, so I got a call. I was just someone Bowie thought of straightaway who might be able to do it. Then when we did the record, Iggy said to me; "would you come out on tour with me for a couple of days, to tour this record:" So of course that I jumped at that, at that led me off into Iggy's orbit.
There's something about the main guitar lick in 'Real Wild Child (Wild One)', and it's almost discordant in places.
It was, and this is an interesting point. I do talk about this to other musicians. In a twelve-bar - that's what 'Real Wild Child' is - he wanted me to come up with some guitar theme for that, so I played the lick, and then I, as a guitarist, I would move it up to the next position, but he said; "no, keep it the same". So in other words, only the chords change [around the lick]. It was Bowie's idea just to keep doing the same thing, and I just said; "well, that doesn't change with the chords, but I'm just going to dig in and do it". Of course, that's what makes magic, is those kinds of things where you just break the rules, and somebody knows what rules to break.
I love the outro solo too.
That's entirely me. That was entirely like; "well just do something here". So that was my thing; just play it, you know? There's all that sort of pentatonic E stuff, but that was me showing them who I am.
Some of the phrases are so memorable; I can sing them in my head right now and I've not heard the song in a long time.
Yeah, sometimes when you're playing a solo, even if it's a live take, a one-take thing, you can come up with a little ear worm that works and you hear it and you think; "oh, that's great". There was no thought in it. I was just reaching and that's what happened. Sometimes you get you strike it lucky.
Iggy Pop has been frequently cited as the greatest front man of all time; what has it been like to watch that every night?
The first time around when I played with him, he'd married Suchi [Asano], and he was so as a married guy, and he had the little college boy haircut and he had a major record label, and there was a little influx of interest in him, so for Iggy, I think he was kind of going straight a little bit, in terms of his personal behaviour for sure. He was looking after himself, he was healthy, he was doing ballet exercises, and he wasn't really drinking. We smoked a bit of dope at the beginning of the tour, but he soon stopped that altogether. So he was personally in quite a good place in terms of his health and his mental health.
Did that positive space affect Iggy's live performance?
The front man thing, what people don't realise about him is how much he thinks about that beforehand. So his wildness - and it looks like wildness - it's a product of craft; it's not just a guy freaking out. Make no mistake he's a strategist, and he knows what he's doing. He knows how to do that, and he's developed those skills to an almost magical level where he can literally walk onto a stage in front of 30,000 people, raise his arms, and they go crazy. He's really developed that personal charisma thing to a high level.
You mentioned that you're worked with him again in 2014; what was the difference between then and that early period?
Well, I suppose, simply speaking, it's crossed over into legendary status. The first gig we did on the 'Blah-Blah-Blah' tour was in a fish restaurant in San Diego, and the last gig I did with him was in front of 40,000 people, so he's a legend now; that's what the difference is. He's comfortable with who he is; he's got nothing to prove, except that he can keep going, and he just enjoys the performance aspect of it for sure. We had a great time. This five year stint I did with him in recent years, it was absolutely brilliant. He was an absolutely reliable performer, and I think even in the mid-period; where he got banned from Glastonbury for inviting 300 people on the stage and they stole all the microphones and pissed everywhere. I think those days are over now. He really understands that he's not Iggy Pop from 1969, clearly, but he can still show you who he is in a reliable way. He has more of a professional approach to it now, but there's nothing wrong with that because he still turns out brilliant show every time.
Were you with Iggy when he was working with Queens of the Stone Age man Josh Homme?
Over the period where he worked with Josh Homme, we stood down for that 'Post Pop Depression'  album. We got invited to the Albert Hall, and Josh came to see us, and we were working with him in L.A., and then we handed over to Josh really for that for that album and that period. Then we got back on the horse. We went on again until 2020, and we did another two years with him. What killed it in the end was COVID and Brexit, basically. I mean, he went he did this other side project and album called 'Free' , which was him doing a more or less recitation poetry, then he put together this little French band to do a theatre tour of that, but that coincided with COVID and a change in rules about cabotage and carrying equipment and being in Europe and the tax changes and everything else, so it just made sense for him to carry on with that band.
I completely understood that. We're still in touch, and he's still very complimentary about what we did, but I completely understood why he just carried on with that group.
In a way, that's given you time to work on the book.
Yeah, I don't bemoan these things. Opportunities come and go as a sideman, and you've got to realise it's the artist that's important and they might need your one minute, and they might not need you the next minute. They've got their reasons, and often very good ones. I know that I'm very proud of the work we did from 2014 to 2019. We were a very, very solid band, and we did some great stuff. You can see it out there on YouTube. Part of me was a little disappointed to finish with him, but you move on to pastures new, so I've finished my book and I managed to get a solo album out and I'm working on a new one. Lots of good things are happening.
To work with such huge names, you've got to be very happy and proud with what you've achieved.
As I get older it comes into focus more how fortunate I've been really, because all of us have these demons and; "are we good enough?", and "what are we doing next?" and all the rest of it. But looking back, you suddenly reach a point where you think; "oh, actually, there is a story, and I have been very lucky". I mean, I think about the list of significant people in my life musically that I've collaborated with, and they're all interesting; Sinéad [O'Connor], Morrissey, Bowie, Iggy; these are interesting people, and I couldn't have picked a more interesting list if I'd have had any actual control over it.
Sinéad O'Connor sadly passed away recently; how did you come to work with her?
I'm a good friend of John Reynolds, and he was the father of her firstborn and her husband and her drummer and producer. He and I live near each other in London, and I got to know John really well just just from drinking in the Cow in Notting Hill. He used to have me come and play some sessions on things. I also joined a little singing group - which I talked about in the book - with Brian Eno. He has a little acapella singing group that meets socially in the studio and sing songs, drink wine and have a laugh. That was a really interesting period of my life.
So that led to a gig with Sinéad?
Yeah, I just bumped into someone at Eno's thing who said; "oh, Sinéad's looking for a guitar player, would you like to come in and meet her?" And knowing John already, I just thought; "yeah, that's really interesting". At that time, I was producing. I had my studio and I hadn't done any high level live work for a number of years, but I thought that this sounded interesting. You have to learn when you're a sideman sometimes what people want and what they don't want, and what Sinéad needs from a band is to be almost as invisible and opaque as possible. It's a very interesting exercise in minimalism, being in her group. Also, there's the built in thing with Sinéad that she is a person with issues. She's always had issues, everybody knows that.
What was she like as a person?
Everybody knows that she's brave, and interesting, and talented, and vulnerable and unpredictable, so all that's built in, but having said that, I found her very kind, and a sweet person and very funny as well, and I was very sad when she she died in such sad circumstances. Clearly, she still was having a lot of suffering in her life. So sad.
Is there anyone you'd like to work with that you'd like to, or anyone you came close to, but it didn't quite work out?
I always wanted to work with Van Morrison, just again, throwing yourself into the fire sort of thing of difficulty, because some of the people I've worked with have got a reputation for being difficult. It's never bothered me. I liked that situation. Those kind of artists are often the most interesting to work with, as long as they're not, you know, abusive, or there's some situation where you shouldn't be there. I think I pride myself on being a person who tries to understand what people need, and how to accommodate them without being confrontational. A few things haven't worked out. I didn't work out well with me for Paul McCartney, and I wish it had because I'm a huge fan. I wish that had gone better.
The Van Morrison thing could happen yet.
I would have liked to work with Van Morrison, but I think it's a little late now. Some of the people I know who have worked with him, many have come out damaged and, uh, not very enthusiastic about the situation.
Other than that, I very nearly got to work with Tom Jones this year. I got considered to go on American tour with him, and I think the fact that American visas now are expensive and employer specific, I think I probably made that tip that towards getting an American guitar player, but I would love to have gone.
Aside from the book release, what's coming up for you?
I've got a couple of book launches; one in here in St. Leonard's in East Sussex, and one one at Heddon Street in London; the place of pilgrimage where the Ziggy Stardust picture was taken, at a cafe there, which I think I might do a book launch in there. Then in March next year, I'm back on the road with Lust For Life tour with Clem Burke and Glen Matlock and Katie Puckrick singing. Apart from that, I'm working on a new album and maybe another book; it's more of a tourette's version with all the things I left out the first one!
Kevin Armstrong's 'Absolute Beginner: Memoirs of the world's best least-known guitarist' is released on 17th October 2023. Click here to order.
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