ZANI Point Their Finger at Dennis Greaves of Nine Below ZeroWritten by Matteo Sedazzari
© Words - Matteo Sedazzari
“My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure.”
As stated by Alfred Lord Tennyson in his poem about the Arthurian legend Sir Galahad. Galahad noted for his chivalry, bravery and virtue, and with his traits, as the legend goes, to be one of only three people to see and touch the Holy Grail. Like a lot of legends and folklore,
certain concepts have come to be synonymous aspects of modern living, and The Holy Grail, and the quest is certainly no exception. As the terminology is seen as the journey to success, and the ultimate goal is to find the Holy Grail which, like the legend of Sir Galahad, can only be found from courage and belief.
For many artists, and in this case musicians, who want to reach the ultimate goal, the journey can be long, dangerous, lonely and gallantry and belief is required at all times to overcome these obstacles, you have to be tough on both outside and inside, with a strong element of sensitivity. Greaves certainly fits the criteria of Sir Galahad, as he is leading the life he wants to lead, and he has worked and fought hard to get there and stay there. Furthermore, by all accounts, he is a tough kid from the streets of London
A chirpy front man and guitarist, always looking sharp from his first publicity shoot, donning an Italian cut sixties suit to the present, walking around Soho in a dark brown leather duffle coat, turning heads with his strut. A strut, that when he is on stage with his guitar, he enthrals and entertains the crowd, as he is no pretender, with the trade mark gap between his teeth and the face of a handsome boxer, Dennis Greaves is a man that is respected and admired in the world of music.
Nine Below Zero were forged in 1977 in South East London as a blues band, Stan’s Blues Band, with Greaves, vocals and guitar, Peter Clark, bass, Kenny Bradley, drums and Mark Feltham, harmonica. In their late teens and early twenties, and the year being that of the punk explosion, the birth was 1976 (I suppose there are purists who would say it was 74 or 75) you wouldn’t be mistaken to think these boys had got it all wrong, surely punk. No, from the onset these boys were influenced by the original blues of the US, the blues explosion of 68 and the pub rock sound of bands like Dr Feelgood. However, there are similarities between punk and blues, music formed out of oppressive times, giving your peers a voice, simple musical structure but powerful and inspiring, songs about everyday life, dress ethnic that goes against the norm and music offering an escape out of a humdrum world, all pure and honest, and stimulating to any young person.
Two years later, Stan’s Blues Band became Nine Below Zero, (named after Sonny Boy Williamson II song) got a manager, original Mod of the sixties and London musician, Micky Modern , and signed to A & M Records, and a change in the rhythm section. From 1980 to 82, Nine Below Zero became a hugely successful band, chart success was moderate, yet gigs at major venues across the country became sell outs. Their fan base was broad, blues and rock fans, original and 2nd generation Mods and students. I saw them at Guildford Civic during this time, and it was a passionate and powerful performance, which ended with a minor stage invasion, in which I participated, much to the annoyance of Mark Feltham, as we kept knocking into his box of harmonicas on stage right, he smiled at my friend and I, but deep down you could tell he wanted to clump us. Coupled with Nine Below Zero appearing on the first ever episode of the surreal and wayward comedy, The Young Ones (9 November 1982) a show about a collection of rather bizarre students living in London, Neil the Hippy, Vyvyan Basterd, Rik the angry young man and Mick, the cool leader.
The Young Ones became a huge success, and launched the careers of the creators and actors, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer and Ben Elton, who went on to become household names. In addition each episode would have a band perform at a musical interlude, bands such as Madness, Dexys Midnight Runners, The Dammed, Motorhead and a few more great bands, and at the end of 82 it seemed that Nine Below Zero would be a huge chart topping act. However they split up the following year, many cite that their third album, Third Degree, didn’t achieve the success they desired and they became disheartened. Greaves wasted no time in forming The Truth in 1983, which went from Mod soulful pop sound to American Rock, these musical genres do overlap and are related in some form or another. The Truth got a top five hit in the US R ‘n’ B charts, whilst their debut single "Confusion (Hits Us Every Time)” was a top thirty hit in the UK in the summer of 1983, they disbanded in 1989. However The Truth did reform for a few gigs last year. During this period, Greaves’ partner in crime, Mark Feltham, established himself as a major Harmonica player for many artists and bands, and he is going strong today, working with the likes of Roger Daltrey to Oasis.
In 1990, Feltham and Greaves, after much persuasion, decided to do a 10th anniversary show (even though they formed in 1977) at the Town and Club, Kentish Town (now called The Forum), in October of that year. The gig was a success and Feltham and Greaves got the Nine Below Zero bug and reformed with a new rhythm section Gerry McAvoy and Brendan O’Neill. Feltham left in 1992, and was replaced by German born Harmonica player Alan Glen, who left in 1995, replaced by Billy Boy Miskimmin, with Feltham returning to the fold in 2001 who has been there ever since.
Since their reformation Nine Below Zero have grown from strength to strength, in terms of new material, sell out shows across the world and some amazing support slots, be it Ray Davies to opening for Chuck Berry in 2008 at the 100 Club . They are a band which commands a lot of respect due to their showmanship and musicianship, a truly unique British blues sound that has elements of rock, punk and soul, all from the streets of South East London. As stated earlier, Greaves is an exciting front man, a real character of the British music scene with an impeccable dress sense, a cheeky smile, and it was a real pleasure to hook up with Dennis at Toffs Fish and Chip shop in Muswell Hill, where he chatted about his career, his love for Italy, the Spurs, the blues, England’s chances in the World Cup and much more.
ZANI - You are on tour shortly supporting the legendary Stranglers... In the past you have opened for great acts: The Who, The Kinks, Eric Clapton - all a fuelling experience no doubt ?
Dennis Greaves - I have got a story for each one of them. When we toured with The Who, it was Kenney Jones’ (former Small Faces) first tour, and I used to stand by the side of the stage and watch the band. It was great for a twenty year old boy to watch his idols, and also to learn stage craft from them. Then one night when we were playing, I looked over to the monitor desk and Pete Townsend was watching us. And he said to us afterwards “God, you remind me of us, when we first started”. That was lovely, the same with The Kinks, watching Ray Davies perform every night, and seeing the friction between the brothers Dave Davies and Ray, which was very creative and energetic. We got on well with the Davies brothers, even though they are Arsenal supporters, and I am Tottenham, we had a lot in common. Our parents used to live a few miles from each other, in Muswell Hill and Tufnell Park.
The memory I have of Clapton is when we all jammed at the end. I had Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top on one side, and Clapton on the other side, Clapton nodded me to do a solo, so I did every Freddie King lick I knew. I was more concerned about impressing Eric Clapton, when I should have been facing the audience. Wonderful memories, and now we are out with another iconic band, The Stranglers.
ZANI – Sounds brilliant and wonderful for any musician who is a fan of these artists. Nine Below Zero are renowned for your live energy, do you still feel the same onstage passion from the early days ?
Dennis Greaves - I think the people that come and see us would say so. That’s why we are still around, part of the longevity is the attitude, aggression and the energy we play with. I think if we were just plinky plonky and going through the motions we would get sussed out, we are a very honest band.
ZANI – Nice to meet honest musicians who care about their art, I understand Hollywood star Bruce Willis played harmonica with you last year.
Dennis Greaves - He was in London, he wanted someone to jam with and we got the call that was lovely. He’s down to earth, I think he was a musician before he became an actor and Hollywood star; he is very comfortable around musicians. Very lovely guy, I know it sounds corny, but he was.
ZANI – What was his harmonica playing like, was he any good ?
Dennis Greaves – He was very good, he has studied it, knows his Muddy Waters’ stuff, knows who plays harp when, why and where. He’s a man’s man.
ZANI - I heard that you are going on tour later in the year with the original Nine Below Zero line up ?
Dennis Greaves – Not so much the original line up, but the classic line up, and we are going out on the road in autumn of this year. I formed a band with Peter Clark, Kenny Bradley, Mark Feltham and myself. Three of us went to Woolworth school, behind Thomas a Beckett pub on the Old Kent Road. Clark and Bradley left the band, and the line up going out this autumn is Brian Bethell (bass) and Mickey Burkey (drums), me and Mark on harmonica. This is the line-up that was on The Young Ones.
ZANI – A truly iconic line up and I remember you on The Young Ones. Look forward to seeing you on tour. You started your own label ZED records, I believe in the late 90s.
Dennis Greaves – What happened was we just couldn’t get the deal we wanted from the major record companies, and the business was changing. Rather than stand still, we were keen on producing new material as often as we could, so we formed our own label which allowed us to put out six or seven albums, CDS, and now streaming
ZANI – And streaming has now been accepted by the charts, so you might get a top ten or twenty album.
Dennis Greaves – You never know.
ZANI – Going back to your early days with Clark, Bradley, and Mark Feltham. You formed Stan’s Blues Band in 1977, which I am sure you remember well, which is smashing a myth as it was perceived back then that teenagers learnt 3 chords and formed a punk band, especially around London. But I bet you loved punk at the time.
Dennis Greaves – Oh I did. I witnessed my mates at school, almost overnight, going from flares, desert boots and long collared shirts to punks. We were all hippies, listening to Pink Floyd, Status Quo and Led Zeppelin. Then one night they went down the Vortex or the Marquee, and came in the next day in black jeans, leather boots and jackets, with a different outlook and a different hairstyle. I loved what Punk did and I loved the music, but I didn’t want to play it. I was in love with Muddy Waters, as much as I was in love with The Sex Pistols. I didn’t see a change in attitude between the two, I was thoroughly taken by the blues and, as I said, I loved punk. Went and saw The Stranglers at The Roundhouse in their early days, I was over the Marquee all the time, saw the early Jam, early AC/DC. Just before it cracked on, it was so great to go to a live gig in London.
ZANI – I discovered AC/DC late in life, around 2005, Bon Scott era, and fell in love with them. What a great blues band they are, and often overlooked.
Dennis Greaves – Great three piece boogie band at the beginning, they blew me away when I saw them for the first time, what they did with the two guitars, Malcolm and Angus Young, the two brothers, it’s a bit like Ray and Dave from The Kinks when they sing, and Phil and Don from The Everly Brothers. There is something about brothers, when they sing and play together, there is some unique sound and situation going on, and I love it.
ZANI - Early influences I understand were white blues, Chicken Shack, Fleetwood Mac before you discovered black blues like Otis Rush and Albert Collins?
Dennis Greaves – Yes, was into the white stuff through my uncle, before I looked at the songwriting credits and saw King, Morgan Field, Reed, and names like those. Then I went back and I was into the blues boom of 1968, then further backwards, John Mayall, The Graham Bond Organisation, search right back to the early folk blues. Didn’t have the internet back then, would have been educated a lot quicker.
ZANI – The South Bank Show did a special on new British Blues in 1981, which featured Nine Below Zero, Dr Feelgood and you stated that you were carrying on the British blues tradition, from The Yardbirds, early Stones to Dr Feelgood. Did you think you were the new voice of blues ? I am not disputing what you are saying .
Dennis Greaves – No, I felt at the time I was. I felt after Dr Feelgood, Nine Below Zero were the next important British blues band, and funny you should mention the South Bank Show, I didn’t think there was anyone who could take our place, apart from The Strypes.
ZANI - That was my next question, The Strypes and also you have The 45’s ,
Dennis Greaves – Oh yes and The 45’s. Helped them out, played with them and put them on in a couple of shows in London. I think both bands are really healthy and good for Nine Below Zero and Wilko Johnson.
ZANI – We’ll have a quick chat about Wilko later, but I understand his love for suits and your dad’s wardrobe made you go down the sixties suit look, which is Mod.
Dennis Greaves – My dad had kept all his suits from the sixties, and around 1975, 76 I started to look towards that. Also there was an amazing second hand shop in the Old Kent Road, opposite the Thomas a Beckett, I used to go to and the Salvation Army shop. You could get some amazing shirts for twenty pence, and suits for a pound. Still love 2nd hand clothes shop, my wife runs one in Deptford High Street which is great, if something good comes along, she rings me up and I come down and get it.
ZANI – I also love 2nd hand clothes shops. OK, Wilko...? How is he? Think you played a benefit with him in Essex a while ago?
Dennis Greaves – Played with Wilko a little while ago, also played with him in Watford, he looks great and playing the best he has ever played, well I think. Long may it continue and hopefully we can see him again and again and again. He is a legend, I have always championed Wilko, and he is one of those great rhythm and blues songwriters.
Getting back to my clobber, I discovered Max Cohen, he was a tailor in Aldgate East, before they flattened it. I went to see him in 78, 79 when I got married to get a wedding suit, I told him I had heard he had some old patterns, and he did, on the top shelf of his shop, he reached up and brought down original ‘60s patterns. I got a few lovely mohair suits from there, so did the rest of Nine Below Zero, lovely suits for about £60.00
ZANI – You don’t seem to have put much weight on, do those suits still fit you?
Dennis Greaves – No they don’t, I have put a bit of weight on, but I am not too bad. But not as good I would like to be, I can’t get my 79 clobber on (laughs out loud).
ZANI – Know the feeling, I hated being skinny in my youth. Talking about classic stuff, your guitar rig is Gibson and Marshall, was that your first rig, did you have the money back then?
Dennis Greaves – What I did originally was buy the £20.00 to £30.00 guitars, then I got to a period of time where I thought I have got to buy a Gibson guitar. Used to go into a music shop in Catford, kept playing this Cherry Red 335 for weeks and weeks, and God bless my dad, he was a black cab taxi driver, and it was the first time the family had any money when he was cabbing, before that he was a silk screen printer.
He said to me about the Gibson, you like that, I said yes, but it was about £450.00. Then he went to the airing cupboard and pulled out £500.00 cash, he had been saving up for a holiday. He said “Here you are son, go and get it”, so that was my first Gibson 335, which I played on Live At The Marquee. I was using Kelly amps before I could afford Marshall. Still use them both, and Marshall and Gibson have been fascinating to me, I have bought a few Fender strats over the years, just purchased a Fender Telecaster, which I am enjoying playing.
ZANI – You certainly have a passion for guitars, and a good understanding. On Nine Below Zero’s website you state you like Italian women, Italian food, Italian clothes, apart from that what is about Italy you particularly like, favourite place, and do you fancy Italy or England in the World Cup ?
Dennis Greaves – I do love Italy, I love the food, their wines, the clothes, the sights I suppose it’s my fantasy world. I do want England to do well in the World Cup, I am little worried about Roy Hodgson, I was very underwhelmed when he was appointed. I am dreading the World Cup to be honest, the heat and the humidity.
ZANI – I think both Italy and England are going to suffer due to the climate, and it will favour Costa Rica and Uruguay more. I think anyone would be a fool to under estimate Costa Rica, they will go all guns blazing to beat England or Italy.
Dennis Greaves – You are right
ZANI – As you mentioned earlier, you are a Spurs fan. As you have roots in South London, how come you never supported Millwall or Charlton Athletic, or even Palace ?
Dennis Greaves - I was born in Tufnell Park. When I was about six, mum and dad bought a ten pound ticket to go to Australia. We were just about to emigrate, but a flat came up in the Elephant and Castle, so we moved from North London to South East London. Although my parents didn’t think they had many prospects here they bottled it right at the last moment, so we moved to the Elephant. All my mates at school were Millwall. I do go to Charlton now because I live nearby but I love my Tottenham.
ZANI – You could have been an Oz watching Australian rules football. Anyway, as the story goes, the original Mod from the sixties, Mickey Modern , spotted a row of scooters outside your old regular gig haunt the Thomas a Beckett on the Old Kent Road and curiously wandered in and ‘discovered’ you, is that how it happened ?
Dennis Greaves – That is what happened. Across from Thomas a Beckett is Burgess Park, which every now and then has a fun fair. Mickey Modern took his daughter to the fun fair, then took her home, came back to the pub, ordered half a lager and lime and watched us. He said he thought we were amazing, never seen anything like it in his life and told us he could get us a record deal, and we were like, OK mate, it was one of them. But he did, he was true to his word, and took us to A & M records, we got a record deal, we hadn’t even written a song. A & M were really up for it, and taking risks back then. Record companies don’t take risks these days, but they enabled us and nine months after playing the Beckett, we were playing at the Odeon, thanks to their vision, went out with The Kinks, The Who, as we chatted about at the start of this interview . Been playing ever since and really grateful to Mickey.
ZANI - Like it. You clearly have a strong bond with Mark Feltham.
Dennis Greaves – We are like brothers, love hate relationship. He is a brother to me, and I am a brother to him. We have fallen out in the past, don’t think we will do it again. When we were young we were feisty, we came from the streets of the Elephant and Castle, Bermondsey, we don’t fuck about. But we have a lot of love in us, and when you get older the love comes out.
ZANI - Was that your intention to have a harmonica player as a full time member, very rare, even Dr Feelgood didn’t, front man Lee Brilleaux did the Harmonic.
Dennis Greaves – Yes it was, I thought rather than get another guitarist or keyboard, I would go for a harmonica player and it really established our sound. Mark Feltham is the best, and he is playing amazingly at the moment, really learnt his craft.
ZANI – A definite icon of British music, and he seemed to have played with everyone. Did Mark Feltham really stay in his room for years learning to play the harmonica?
Dennis Greaves – Yes he has played with everyone, and he did stay in his bedroom mastering that instrument.
ZANI – Just like Bobby Fisher and how he learnt to play chess.
Dennis Greaves – He didn’t stay in there all the time, he used to love putting his flares on and going to the disco and having a dance. He even had the afro haircut because he had lovely black curly hair. Until he met me, I changed his life, played him a Dr Feelgood record and that was it. He played me The J. Geils Band and Charlie McCoy, we were very good for each other, complete opposites, and it worked.
ZANI – It sure does. Your second band, The Truth, it is often said you were trying to slip neatly into the vacuum left by The Jam splitting up, is that true?
Dennis Greaves – Yes it is. That was the record company’s fault Warner Bros, to push us in that hole, we weren’t ready, we were developing. I fell in love with the Hammond organ on Third Degree, the last Nine Below Zero album on A & M. I met Mick Lister, we instantly wrote songs together, we had a nice affinity, it was good. But then we were forced into the hole The Jam had left by the record company…. supposedly. We weren’t going to be like The Jam, we were nothing like The Jam, we just needed to be developed and we never were. So we had to run off to the US and start again.
ZANI – The Truth did well in the US ?
Dennis Greaves – We had a hit with Weapons of Love, we had a rock field at the time and I fell in love with the Free, I was riffing out. Ended in LA for six months, recorded an album and got into the American engineering side of things, I love the sound the engineers do over there. It was a lovely lesson in American engineering and sound quality.
ZANI - Let’s go back to Nine Below Zero and your performance on The Young Ones. That was an iconic moment
Dennis Greaves – Wasn’t it just.
ZANI – It was Rik Mayall’s suggestion?
Dennis Greaves – He saw us on the college circuit, which Nine Below Zero was always on at that time. He invited us on the show and when we got there, there was a bloke warming up the audience and it turned out to be Ben Elton.
ZANI – Loved The Young Ones.
Dennis Greaves – We were the forefront of this, we saw all these blokes nutty and crazy but very intense. Excellent people and they knew where they were going, and they got there.
ZANI – That’s when the BBC took risks, just like the record companies did back in the day.
Dennis Greaves – The BBC won’t do that now, they need to go out and get some fresh and wonderful writers that do exist. Same as the record companies, we seem to have lost our creative way. Britain has always been so marvellous in the creative industry, but we have lost our bottle. The government at the moment, they don’t like creative people either.
ZANI – Too right, we are losing a lot, like The Marquee has gone, which has been part of many people’s lives, fans and musicians like Nine Below Zero, Live At The Marquee. Many of the great live venues are going, landmarks, part of history.
Dennis Greaves – That’s why we played The 100 Club. I played The Half Moon Putney, we sold it out. But it’s under threat, that’s why bands like us go back, get bums on seats, so they can sell loads of beer, make some money so they can continue putting live acts on.
ZANI – You show case new bands at The Pelton Arms in Greenwich?
Dennis Greaves – That’s my local boozer, I go and jam there with Glenn Tilbrook from Squeeze, all the local musicians hang out there, I even DJ’d there on New Year’s Eve. The pub reminds me of when I started. The club I do is The Riverside Club, it’s all the young bands that ask me for gigs that I come across, who I think are marvellous so I put a night on there. They meet the management of the pub, and they can take a gig on there anytime in the future. Gives them a leg up
ZANI – Nice concept. Have you ever thought about writing a book about the blues and its influence on British Culture?
Dennis Greaves – Maybe one day, who knows.
ZANI – Final question, If you were a guitar effect, what would you be and why?
Dennis Greaves – I would be a tremolo, and then I would be played by Bo Diddley.
A fan through and through of the blues, and music in general. Greaves is certainly an enthusiastic and strong minded man, with charm and grace. Self-educated in terms of music and life, and that is admirable. In addition, this year may be the year to celebrate the classic Nine Below Zero line up as Universal Music have re-released and re-mastered two of their albums Don't Point Your Finger (1981) and Third Degree (1982) originally released on A & M. Sometimes it is good and healthy to remember and celebrate former achievements, but not to dwell on them, and Greaves certainly doesn’t do that, as he seems to always be pushing Nine Below Zero to the next level or test, as well as enjoying the experience. His inner strength can handle any hurdles because his strength is that of ten, because his heart is pure.
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