Record By Record, Murphy By Murphy

Elliott Murphy

Taken from Crossroads magazine, Elliott writes about each of his albums.


On January 2,3 & 4, 1973 we played a three-night stand at the Mercer Arts Center in New York with my band Elliott Murphy’s Aquashow and somehow my brother Matthew and I got the Variety magazine critic to come to the show. He gave us a great review that I showed to Paul Nelson, the legendary rock critic who went to school with Bob Dylan, and was now working for Mercury Records. On Jan 14 & 15 we played two more nights at the Mercer Arts Center and Paul Nelson was there, bringing writer Bud Scoppa with him. Bud wrote a great review of the show for Penthouse magazine and sometime after that Mercury offered us a record contract, although not a very good one. We auditioned for Peter Siegel, head of A&R at Polydor Records and told him we were about to sign with Mercury Records and so he offered us a slightly better deal and we took it. By April I was in Los Angeles trying to record my first album but finally we recorded at the Record Plant in New York City (The New York Dolls were downstairs in another studio recording their second album). Of all the great musicians who played on Aquashow I was mostly impressed with Frank Owens who played piano and organ and had played on Like A Rolling Stone. But I never thought I sounded much like Bob Dylan until the famous Rolling Stone Review came out calling me “the new Bob Dylan” and then the shit hit the fan and everybody in the music business wanted to know who I was. My hero Lou Reed came to see me play one night at Max’s Kansas City and said I needed a new record company and introduced me to his manager Dennis Katz who arranged for RCA to buy my contract from Polydor for over one hundred thousand dollars. In nine months my life had changed completely and the hopes and dreams I expressed in Last of the Rock Stars had become reality.


Actually, Lou Reed was going to produce my second album himself but something happened and I wanted to go to Los Angeles anyway because for me it was the city of pop rock dreams. Paul Rothschild (Doors, Janis Joplin) produced the album and I stayed in the Beverly Hills Hotel for months sometimes passing Liz Taylor and Lee Marvin in the Polo Lounge. Jim Gordon (who co-wrote Layla with Eric Clapton and later he lost his mind and went to prison for killing his mother) played drums. I had a drink with Tom Waits and The Eagles were supposed to sing background but never showed up. We had to remix Lost Generation because RCA thought it was too depressing. I think my favorite songs are Visions of the Night and History both written for Geraldine. Sonny Landreth played slide guitar on a few tracks (he’s now with John Hiatt) and it was his first paying session ever. I reminded him of that when I saw him a few years later and we both laughed. I may look like Jesus on the cover but that was neither my idea nor my role model at the time. 


This was supposed to be my “prodigal son returns home to New York” album and I guess it is. We recorded in Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village and much of the soul of the album is thanks to Ernie Brooks and Jerry Harrison, ex-Modern Lovers both. Steve Katz produced (Blues Project, Blood Sweat and Tears, Lou Reed) and brought ex-Velvet Underground legend Doug Yule to the sessions who played guitar and sang and my friend Billy Joel played piano on one song Legendary Jazz bassist Richard Davis played the Upright Bass on You Never Know What You’re In For. Perhaps Night Lights has my favorite cover, shot on Times Square at 6 AM on a Sunday morning. Diamonds By The Yard only has three chords – perhaps my proudest achievement. Lady Stilletto was homage to Patti Smith who was also recording in Electric Lady Studios but Stilletto is also an anagram for St. Elliott!


I was so impatient for “something big” to happen and so I changed managers and record company (Columbia) and countries and went to London to record. English studios were famous for their big rock sound at this time and also for affordable string arrangements and choirs. I had lunch with Harry Nielsen and ex-Rolling Stone Mick Taylor played some guitar. I’ll never forget when he walked into the studio carrying his own amp to use on his solo on Rock Ballad. When I heard the Sex Pistols say, “fuck” on British TV I knew the music world was going to change. There was a punk revolution on the way but I had a song called “Anastasia” who was the victim of another revolution. Phil Collins played drums and told great jokes.

AFFAIRS (1980)

In the early eighties my brother Matthew and I decided to start our own label but we didn’t have much money so this was just an EP – six songs – but we were off to a good start. I would deliver the albums myself to astonished record stores. Affairs was my first album that Change Will Come appeared on and that song was my anthem for myself. The cover was shot on my bed in Gramercy Park and I was just waking up and grabbed the big harmonica I kept by the bed. The girl on the cover is another story…


By this time I had a really good band with Richard Sohl on keyboards (Patti Smith Group) and Tony Machine on drums and of course Ernie Brooks on bass. We recorded most of Murph The Surf in New York in two days and it had lots of success in Europe, nearly going gold in Italy. Mick Rock who did so many great David Bowie and Lou Reed photographs did the cover. The Fall of Saigon is probably my favorite song and I love Peter Gordon’s clarinet. 


By this time my ex-band mate Jerry Harrison was a big star in Talking Heads and was interested in producing me so I flew out to his hometown of Milwaukee and hung out The Violent Femmes. To this day I don’t like the sound of the drums or the synthesizers and would love to remix Milwaukee someday. Nevertheless, I was nominated for a New York Music Awards “Best Album” and Out For The Killing received a lot of airplay on radio in the U.S. In France it was my first album for the New Rose label and the beginning of my long friendship with Patrick Mathe. I suppose Going Through Something is the story of my life and everyone else who lives under the rock ‘n roll spell…


Back to New York and again at the Record Plant Studios, which closed shortly afterwards. I think half of the songs are fine but I should have worked more on the rest. Anyway, I had just stopped drinking and so my mind was still a big pickled. Blondie Chaplin sang on The Eyes of the Children of Maria and now he sings with The Rolling Stones. Maybe one day I’ll get Keith Richards to play on an album. The cover was shot in Sete at George Brassens grave.


Ernie knew this little recording studio right next to The World Trade Center in New York with a Topless Bar just next store and we spent a lot of time in that bar watching the dancers and talking about…big production ideas. To me this album was like a novel, all the songs connected to one another in some way. I finally, got my long time pal David Johannsen (New York Dolls) to sing and play harp on Blues Responsibility because I always thought he was a bluesman at heart and Brian Ritchie (Violent Femmes) did a few guest appearances as well. The late Richard Sohl really played some beautiful piano. The summer after the album came out I took the band to the Montreux Jazz Festival.


Originally my special guest guitarist for the Hot Point Festival in Switzerland was going to be Richard Lloyd (Television) but a week before we were to leave he fell off his bicycle and broke his wrist so at the last minute Chris Spedding agreed to fill in. Incredible audience, over 10,000 people, and Spedding’s solos are so well constructed that I can still hear them note for note. We only rehearsed twice and Garland Jeffries was a special guest as well but chose to leave his songs off the album. Hopefully he’ll join us on an upcoming reissue. I once asked Spedding why his hands barely moved when he played guitar and he said that he fda was a lazy musician so if a note was too far away he didn’t play it. English humor!


Finally, I was working with a label (New Rose) where I could release what I wanted and so I started looking through old tapes, mostly outtakes from the 70’s for this “rest of” collection. I still remember writing the Madelyn on a Wurlitzer Electric piano out on Long Island while my mother sat nearby and watched TV. A real letter I received from a fan in the 70’s inspired Fan Mail.

12 (1990)

The concept for 12 was to write all the songs and record them in one place at one time very live. I had just moved to Paris and was so excited about being here that my energy level was very high. Everything was recorded in the loft I was renting near Bastille. All the performances went directly to DAT – no mixing and all the vocals were live as well. We shot the cover on Ille St. Louis. Some say it’s my best album but I think it was an important turning point in my development as an artist. My son Gaspard was born at the same time. Let it Rain might be my favorite track. Ernie found this incredible sound engineer Roger Robindore who handled the daunting technical hurdles of this album. My last vinyl release before CDs took over the world and On Elvis Presley’s Birthday was my farewell to my father who had died many years before.


The video for the title track is really good and was directed Argentinean Max Ruiz. My second EP after Affairs. My favorite line: “If poets were king…nothing would get done until very, very late in the afternoon.” That’s the story of my life. Basically, this was the after-shock of 12.


This is a “best of” with some interesting live and rare tracks. My last album for New Rose – we had a great run together. Some good live performances with Brian Ritchie and drummer Jesse Chamberlain who sadly passed away a few years ago. I still miss him.


I went off to Belgium and the legendary ICP studios where I was allowed to pick my dream team of musicians. I had seen drummer Andy Newmark with Brian Ferry and bassist Chuchu Merchan with the Eurythmics when my brother tour managed both acts and brought their high-priced talents to Brussels. We all thought Love to America would be a big hit and again, did a video. Sadly, neither Radio nor TV agreed. The fans seem to either love or hate this one but the title track of Selling The Gold is one of my best-constructed songs. I didn’t expect Bruce Springsteen to sing a whole verse on Everything I do (Leads me back to you) and when he called me at 4 in the morning to tell me he had just done it I was sound asleep and thought it was a dream.


This was my 80’s “Best Of” by the indie Texas label Dejadisc who selected the songs. I always thought the 80’s were low times for me and I was surprised that they came up with so many good tracks for this collection.


I think I regained control of my music and career with this one. We recorded it at my home on rue Beauregard in two little rooms. Great fiddle playing by Nils de Caster from Belgium and some very surreal lyrics in songs such as Made in Freud and O Wyoming. Beauregard was my first recording with guitarist Olivier Durand who has proved to be an incredible musician and friend. I wrote many of these songs on a cross-country tour of the U.S. the year before with my wife and son. Mark Kerr (whose brother Jim is in Simple Minds) did some beautiful background vocals. The bells were recorded one evening when I put a microphone outside my window.

APRIL (1999)

By this time Olivier and I were playing a lot of duo shows all over Europe and really enjoying our nightly duel of acoustic guitars and luckily someone made a fine recording of a show in the east of Germany. Finally, I showed my love for covers and April is full of them. Musicians of my generation usually began playing covers live in small clubs and in a way that’s where my rock ‘n roll heart still lies. Nothing gets more real.


I was back in New York visiting my family and Ernie convinced me to do some recording with Olivier and “the genius” Kenny Margolis on keyboards. Kenny was in Mink Deville and Olivier knew him when they both played with Little Bob some years before. Kenny said he use to come see me play at his college in New Jersey in the 70’s and I was his hero. That made me laugh. Put it Down is over ten minutes long and I wrote it in Toulouse a few months earlier and we recorded it in one long take with no mistakes. Long songs never scared me.


Ian Matthews (Fairport Convention & Matthew’s Southern Comfort) and I had been travelling the same singer/songwriter road for years but we only really met once a few years before we began this duo recording. He was more of a folk artist then me because I’m a rocker at heart and I think we complimented each other’s talents. La Terre Commune was done so fast with no rehearsal, which probably saved us lots of arguments. I love Iain’s singing on Fading Fast, the ultimate singer/songwriter lament. My best song is probably Navy Blue inspired by Brel’s Port of Amsterdam. Ex-Roadrunner Florent Barbier did an incredible job both playing drums and mixing this album. Iain couldn’t speak a word of French but he found the title for the album on a fountain in Le Havre.


For me, this was third in a trilogy that began with Beauregard and continued with Rainy Season. We recorded in Le Havre at Florent’s studio and ate in the same Pizzeria almost every night. This was my first album with Danny Montgomery, a great U.S. Drummer also living in Paris who played with Percy Sledge and Ray Charles. Why are drummers always so funny? Originally I was going to do a soul album but finally I had enough songs of my own. The alternate title was The Heartbreak Club and Marc Ginot who lives in Montpellier and has done many covers for me shot the cover. Chloe, who worked for New Rose did the design and I think its once of my best.


Just a few extra original and covers added onto Soul Surfing. And then there was Ground Zero which was inspired by visiting the site of the attack on the Twin Towers just a few months after it happened and seeing all the heartbreaking little signs families posted on walls in the faint hopes of finding lost fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers… Oliver wanted to add his own feelings as well and his verse (in French) is very, very strong.


This album was so recent that it’s hard to be objective but I do know that I instinctually wanted to do a double CD even before I had all the songs. Perhaps this is the smoothest recording by “The Rainy Season Band” and it was done in a short time for so many songs – twenty two! Cindy Bullens added so much with her backing vocals and Oliver on the baritone guitar. I am still empty and have hardly written a song since. I think my next album will be a blues album titled Murphy Gets Muddy. You know, if a rock star lives long enough to get honest he becomes a bluesman anyway.

There were some other albums of mine that didn’t really come out in France.  Diamonds by the Yardwas a 70’s “best of” that came out in the US in the early 90’s and Unreal City was a combination of 12 and If Poets Were King again in the US.

The Vintage Series, Fans CDs and Live “Bootlegs”

I knew that rock ‘n roll had entered the museums when I went to the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame dinner some years ago in New York. Rock Critics sound more like historians then fans now and the Universities are trying desperately to put a respectable face on rock ‘n roll and blues. I don’t know what Elvis Presley or Howling Wolf would think of all of this but I decided the time was right for me to dig into my vaults and let my fans see where I planted the seeds of my own history. I always wanted to release the Aquashow & Just A Story From America Demo Tapes because so much had happened in between those two albums. The fast train from innocence to decadence although I was probably neither one. The Night Lights Band was released as a Fans Only CD called City of Romance some years before but I finally found the original tapes from a live show in Cleveland in 1975 and the sound quality is much better. We were real punks before anyone even knew what punks were. Hello Long Island is taken from a radio broadcast shortly after the release of Aquashow when my brother was still playing bass with me. The next two releases will be The Murphy’s, an excellent quality demo recording of songs from Aquashow and Lost Generation with just me and my brother and friend George Gates on guitar and Gramercy Park, a collection of rare demos from the late 70’s and early 80’s including songs I wrote for an exhibition by photographer Peter Beard. The plan is to do 10 Vintage series and then offer a package to put them all in with an booklet of extensive notes and photographs. Basically its an Internet only sales available on my website but perhaps they’ll turn up in stores as well. Much of this was inspired by my fans, my night lights, who had started their own Vintage series with Live At The DominoYou Can’t Go Home AgainCity Of RomanceNights Of Saint GeorgesSome Songs To Sonneville and Eldorado 81Last of the Rock Stars is a double live from a recent Spanish tour, half with a full band and half as a trio with Kenny Margolis and Olivier Durand. My German label Blue Rose has started its own “live bootleg series” and Solingen is from a trio tour with Iain Matthews and Olivier Durand while Wredenhagen is with Olivier and Danny Montgomery on drums.

And now…

This has been quite a trip down memory lane for me: so many albums, so many great musicians and opportunities both taken and lost. But for me its all one album, one continuing piece of work composed of the small steps that make a lifetime. My songs are so personal, maybe too much, that I guard them preciously and its why I’ve always had difficulty writing for other artists. I’m very grateful that I’ve come this far after having been through so much and yet I can honestly say that I’m still inspired nearly every time I pick up a guitar, strum a few chords and words fly into my head like butterflies, like crows, like ghosts. Writing fiction keeps me sane and after Cold and Electric (a rock ‘n roll novel) and CafĂ© Notes (short story collection) I hope to have a new novel Poetic Justice out soon. Rock ‘n Roll is my addiction and Literature is my religion but you, the public who has supported me through good times and bad, are indeed my greatest treasure and I am forever in your debt for your belief in my music and your support. The question still arises: Am I the last of the rock stars? And I hope that the answer still lies many, many years ahead…buried in the past.