Something Else! Interview: Keith Law on Velvett Fogg, the influence of Bob Dylan + opening for the Moody Blues

Birmingham, England, was home to Velvett Fogg, a band that will forever go down in history for a couple of different reasons: To begin with, guitarist Tommy Iommi played in the group before joining Black Sabbath. Shortly after Tommy departed Velvett Fogg, the band cut an eponymous album that ranks as one of the finest statements of the psychedelic era.

Released in January 1969 on the Pye label, Velvett Fogg contains more than enough exciting elements that made and still makes the music so enchanting. Layered with hissing guitars, roving organ fills, seizing melodies, and eerie but electrifying vocals, the disc produces a haunting quality that occasionally brings to mind select samplings of the Doors, the Music Machine, and Iron Butterfly.

Guitarist/songwriter Keith Law was not a member of Velvett Fogg, but he was friends with the band, and submitted a trio of tracks to what would become their only full-length recording: The thick and heavy “Yellow Cave Woman,” the brooding acid-angled folk rock of “Once Among The Trees,” and “Within The Night” — a song that deftly shuttles back and forth between a compelling collision of spacy signals, twirling pop rhythms, and hard-driving jamming. Guided by imagination and innovation, these offerings stand in perfect sync with the rest of the songs on Velvett Fogg, which aside from equally strong material penned by the band are deft covers of Tim Buckley’s “Come Away Melinda” and “New York Mining Disaster” by the Bee Gees.

Prior to donating his talents to Velvett Fogg, Keith had already been performing in local bands and continues to create uniquely interesting music to this day. If you’re not yet familiar with Keith’s work, now is the time to tune in and turn on!

BEVERLY PATERSON: I understand you and Velvett Fogg vocalist and keyboardist Frank Wilson have teamed up and are preparing some new recordings. That’s exciting news! Please fill us in on all the details!
KEITH LAW: I made contact with Frank again, back in 2007, for the first time since 1969. I had been approached by a record company in Italy who were interested in more Velvett Fogg material. Frank wrote the music to four of my lyrics, and recorded demos of them. The songs were “Like I Know Johanna,” “Execution,” “Scandal” and Goblins & Kings.” Due to Frank’s business commitments we were unable to complete the album. However, in the future I am hoping we can finish the project.

BEVERLY PATERSON: As well, you’ve completed the opera Children Of Fortune, which you began working on back in 1973. What’s the story behind this project?
KEITH LAW: Children of Fortune was a follow up to Schizo Jimi: The Space Opera, which I wrote in 1972. In 1973, I started writing the lyrics for Children of Fortune, and wrote 5 songs, never completing it. By fortune, I came across the demo tape of Schizo Jimi, and realised it had never been uploaded to the PC, as it was recorded as an album and never split into individual songs — bearing in mind, we didn’t have the same technology then, as we have now! With modern software, I was able to split the songs, digitally. It was January of this year that I re-looked at both the space operas, deciding to publish Schizo Jimi, to finalize that project — and also to finish the story and lyrics to Children of Fortune. I was amazed at how easy it was for me to throw myself back in time, and capture the essence and mood of the first few songs, and to finish the opera. I wrote the final seven songs in just three days! Due to my current work on Schizo Jimi and other lyrics and songs, I have not found the time to write the music to Children of Fortune, but intend on doing so in the future. The story of Children of Fortune is however complete.

BEVERLY PATERSON Having your own recording studio, which you do, is definitely a benefit. Do you just record your own material or are you open to renting it out for other musicians to use?
KEITH LAW: I have a home studio, not a fully blown one, as any demos I make would be mastered by the record company, so no need for such professional equipment. I write songs for myself and other people, but mainly for myself. I have a website set up just for marketing my songs, and will also co-write with others if asked. However, I normally supply the lyrics, and allow others to write the music. Anyone is free to approach me for the use of any of my lyrics, providing of course they are not complete songs, already recorded or published. They can record any song, as a cover. Recently, a musician, wrote the music to two of my songs, for his psych-rock duo Clockwork Flowers, one of the lyrics I wrote specially for them. So basically, any of my songs, complete or not are available for recording or performing.

BEVERLY PATERSON: How many instruments do you play and which one do you like the best or are most comfortable playing?
KEITH LAW: I play guitar, and have a Fender Stratocaster, an Ovation Glen Campbell 12 string,
and just about to purchase a Gibson electric acoustic. I have also played keyboards, flute, and many other instruments on recordings. Not all that well, some of them, but good enough!

BEVERLY PATERSON: How did you get interested in music in the first place and what are your earliest musical memories?
KEITH LAW: I have been interested in music all my life since I was a child. Indeed, from five onwards, I was always inventing and singing little songs, and dreaming of being a writer! However the big break came when I was about 10 years old. My brother came home with a Spanish guitar. Many hours, weeks, months and years later, and with the help of numerous tuition books, I finally learned a few chords and solo pieces. I had always been singing songs I had composed and now, with this newfound skill, my composing took on a new dimension. My first influence was guitarist Duane Eddy, but my writing was greatly influenced by Bob Dylan, and John Lennon. I was fascinated by seeing older boys, playing guitars, in the school playgrounds, and thought: ‘I must be involved in this …’

BEVERLY PATERSON: What motivated you to start writing your own songs?
KEITH LAW: Listening to writers like Bob Dylan, made me realize how important the words were, and the way he wrote was so different to the middle of the road stuff that we had all got used to. No ‘moon in June’ in his lyrics.

BEVERLY PATERSON: What is your songwriting process like? Do you normally write the music or lyrics first?
KEITH LAW: I always write the lyrics first, or already have a title that will give me an idea for the lyrics. Once I’ve written the lyrics, I can usually see from their structure, and how the melody would go. It’s the lyrics that take the time — although having said that, I have had spells where I have a few songs in one day! I have kind of ‘blue’ spells when I write furiously, as I did whilst living in Spain last year, writing 50 sets of lyrics in the matter of weeks! Then I might go months without anything, however I usually stop writing to give me time to catch up with what I have already written.

BEVERLY PATERSON What led you to composing music for Velvett Fogg? Were you ever asked to join the band as a performing member?
KEITH LAW: I was in the Rum Runner, a Birmingham night club, one night, when someone told me that Velvett Fogg were looking for new material, and they introduced me to them. I arranged to meet them at their rehearsal place, Langley Baths. I went along the next day, and went through the following songs with them: “Yellow Cave Woman,” “Once Among the Trees” and “Within’ the Night” — and that was it! The next couple of days, they were in London recording. I was never asked to join the band, as I was always considered a writer, and not a musician.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Those three songs were definitely highlights, and that’s saying a lot because the whole album is a masterpiece! What was the inspiration behind these songs and how did the band go about picking them to be included on the record?
KEITH LAW: Thank you. I wrote “Yellow Cave Woman” in April 1967, and it was dedicated an artist girlfriend of mine, who had long yellow blond hair. I took her home one day, and my mother thought she looked like a cave woman. It’s as simple as that! The riff I wrote came about messing about with the bottom two strings of my guitar. I wrote “Within’ the Night” as I was influenced by the use of Indian type sitar music that was being used by the Beatles, and I wrote the riff with a sitar in mind. “Once Among the Trees’ was influenced by a novel I was reading about a prisoner escaping, and him feeling safe, once he was among the trees. As mentioned, I played the songs to the band at their rehearsal, and it was Frank Wilson who quickly worked them out on his keyboards. Within’ a very short time, the band were rehearsing them.

BEVERLY PATERSON: The cover of the album was really radical for its time — naked people! Was there really a big uproar over the photo and do you think that may have prevented the album from selling more copies than it should have? I personally think Velvett Fogg should have been a worldwide hit!
KEITH LAW: Wow, I wished it was a worldwide hit, and still do! Yes, the cover did cause somewhat of an uproar, as no one had done this before. There was another album, released year or two later, which claimed the first nudity — but I still think the Fogg album was the first. On a fairly recent re-issue in Italy, the photograph was adjusted to hide the nudity which seems a little odd, in these modern times. No, I don’t think the nudity prevented album sales, and indeed might of promoted more sales. I often wonder how many folk bought the album just for the cover and not the music. Perish the thought!

BEVERLY PATERSON: What was your initial opinion of the Velvett Fogg album and how do you view it today?
KEITH LAW: I was thrilled to bits when the album came out, as it was the first release of any of my songs. I thought that was it, I’d made it, and was saddened when the album didn’t take off as was expected. However I am delighted now, as the album seems to have reached cult status, and I am extremely proud that the album is still so popular and highly sought after. I was reading the other day that it was one of the most expensive and sought-after albums in the UK. It also amazes me that it seems to now sound better as time goes on, and that it doesn’t sound dated as many albums do.

BEVERLY PATERSON: You obviously still love and play psychedelic music. What is it that holds your attraction to the music? And how would you describe the music to someone who has never heard such sounds before?
KEITH LAW: Yes I do, and the attraction lies in the diversity of the music both lyrics and song. Music, pre-psych, was so middle of the road and basically pop. The lyrics were, as I said before, moon-and-June stuff and mostly boring. Psychedelic music allowed the writers and indeed the performers to push out the boundaries, and experiment with complicated lyrics and music. Psychedelic music created an atmosphere in your mind that was never before in music. Bearing in mind the word psychedelic suggests mind changing, and drug influenced, and indeed many an artist at that time were going thorough experiments with mind altering substances. However, psych music allowed the writers and musicians to introduce other music, such as Asian influences, into the structure of the songs, allowing even greater freedom of expression. As I said before, in my writing I was influenced by the Indian, sitar styles of music. How do you describe it to someone who’s never heard such sounds? You can’t. One has to grab hold of a few psych albums, listen, and blow your minds.

BEVERLY PATERSON: You were right in the midst of the transition from beat music to psychedelic music. How did you go about adapting to this new and wild music that seemingly every band was suddenly keen on?
KEITH LAW: That came about by the necessity to write original new material. Playing covers was fine, but the music was new and there not a vast number about. I was lucky to be in San Francisco, and witnessed the emergence of hippies and flower power and the music that flowed with it. When I returned to the UK, I was the only one to be wearing a kaftan, had longer hair, and write psych music. My first plan was to write that music and form a band to play it. Like Velvett Fogg, it was unique, amongst all the numerous pop and rock bands at the time. It was fairly easy to adapt, because every musician wanted to push out their musical horizons, and playing in a Psychedelic band allowed them to do so.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Let’s go back to the 1972 opera Schizo Jimi. We would love to hear you discuss it further.
KEITH LAW: I am very excited about Schizo Jimi, as I only discovered a demo tape of it in May. I have subsequently also found the master. It had been recorded as a one continuous track as each song linked to the next one as an opera would probably be performed. Back in ’72, we didn’t have computers and software, to edit and enhance tracks but, with today’s technology, I have been able to separate the tracks, into individual songs, keeping the master intact as a continuous work. Two tracks although written, were missing, but I am hoping to add those very soon. I wrote the lyrics for Schizo Jimi between February and October 1972, and recorded new videos this year. Schizo Jimi has already attracted the attention of people involved in the real space industry. The whole project has been widely applauded, and I am honored that so many people like it. I am hopeful that we can secure a release of the opera, and I am currently in discussions with record companies.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Have you toured much throughout the years? And do you have any special road stories you care to share with us?
KEITH LAW: Yes, I have — UK university and college tours, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Canada. There are so many special stories to tell, but perhaps not suitable here. [Laughs.] When on tour in Germany, our band van crashed off an autobahn near Hamburg, careening 50 feet down and embankment and into a river! We were helped out by truck drivers who had seen what happened, stopped the trucks and clambered down the embankment to help us. Although we had escaped without any injuries, the van being totally wrecked. All we were bothered about was fishing the duty freed cigarettes out of the river! We were very lucky that day. We had a Danish group drive all the way from Copenhagen so that we could loan their van. One band — I can’t remember who — decided to lock us in the toilets, and we had to shout for help, so that we could be released to perform our show.

BEVERLY PATERSON: How about just stories in general about hanging out with all those now-legendary folks you have played with and rubbed shoulders with?
KEITH LAW: My bands have supported many artists, for example Robert Plant and the Band of Joy, Slade and the Moody Blues a few times — including one special night when they had just got their first No. One hit single in the UK. My band The Williamsons supported the legendary blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson when he toured the UK in the mid-’60s. As a solo artist, I have supported the late legendry guitar player Bert Weedon. I spent many hours on holiday in Acapulco, speaking with the top Irish singer Daniel O’Donnell. Socially, I have hung out with Robert Plant and John Bonham. Before Robert was famous, I used to help him get into clubs, as he wasn’t known! One evening, I went to Wolverhampton Town Hall and I popped to the toilets. While I stood there, on one side was John Mayall, and on the other Eric Clapton! We used to rehearse in the same halls as Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osborne and Tony Iommi — who was once lead guitarist with my band Velvett Fogg. I met socially the late great DJ John Peel, who wrote the sleeve notes for Velvett Fogg. When in London recording, I was involved with Tony Visconti, David Bowie, Marc Bolan. I used to meet many artists in both the studios and the music publishers. I was also helped with a couple of my songs by Aaron Schroeder, who wrote several Elvis Presley gold discs. He asked me if I had a pen, I said “no,” and he replied: “Goddamn it, every songwriter should have a pen!” I also met and spoke with Jimi Hendrix in a Birmingham night club.

BEVERLY PATERSON: If you were given the chance to collaborate with any artist, who would you pick?
KEITH LAW: I have recently been working with younger people, duos, etc., and would collaborate more with the younger musicians, if and when asked. There is a young UK band called I Monster I would like to work with. Out of my peers, I guess working again with Robert Plant, David Bowie, Black Sabbath or Jeff Lynne would be fantastic, or any of the old rockers and psych artists.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Have you ever considered writing an autobiography? I encourage you to do so!
KEITH LAW: Yes, it has been mentioned that I should, and I am giving it serious thought,
but so far have not got around to it. I could do with a ghost writer, really, to put it together.

BEVERLY PATERSON: If you weren’t a songwriter and musician, what vocation would you pursue?
KEITH LAW: I’ve often wondered that! If I had to go into the armed forces, I would have chosen the Navy — even though I can’t swim [Laughs.] I also thought I would make a good detective, but I have never had to in reality so it has never been an issue. Guess I won’t be changing jobs now!

Beverly Paterson

Beverly Paterson was born the day Ben E. King hit No. 4 on the national charts with "Stand By Me" - which is ironically one of her favorite songs, especially the version by John Lennon. She has also contributed to Lance Monthly and Amplifier, and served as associate editor of Rock Beat International. Paterson's own publications have included Inside Out, and Twist And Shake. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.