THIS PAGE LAST UPDATED : 01 janv. 2003
SKIP BATTIN INTERVIEW
BARRY BALLARD, who conducted the interview way back in 1976, has provided BYRDS FLYGHT
with his original file, so it is now much more easy to read. Thanks Barry
This interview was conducted in London on Wednesday 22nd September 1976 and first appeared in Omaha Rainbow 11 published in December of that year.
Skip Battin's musical career has been fairly varied to say the least. He's played country and western, rock 'n' roll, folk rock, you name it, but he has lately come to rest at what is commonly described as country rock, playing bass for The Burritos. He has a remarkable ability to recall in great detail his musical past, a talent that made the interview a joy to do. I'm sure I could have spent twice as long with him. Anyhow, without more ado we will start with none other than Earl Mock and the Mockingbirds.
Earl Mock and the Mockingbirds was Tucson, Arizona in 1955. Earl was one of the respected guitar players around town. I wasn't a professional musician then but wanted to be, so I was following the local groups in Tucson while I was still at college. I used to hang out around and sit in and all that, but I'd never played a professional job until Earl gave me my first chance. He asked me if I wanted to join and play rhythm guitar and I was really eager to start out, so that was my first group…Earl Mock and the Mockingbirds.
Was the music they played straight country?
Straight country and western. All the country and western hits. We had a repertoire of probably two hundred songs and we played all over the southern Arizona area. We played for rodeo dances, beer bars and the like.
Was country music strong in Arizona then?
Oh yes. This was before Presley had really started out so it was all straight country and western. I played rhythm guitar and actually stepped right into a lead singing role. It didn't last too long though. The money wasn't too hot, but I didn't mind at the time because I was still in college and it was just spare money to me.
I wasn't really making a living from music then. Earl was though, and the money wasn't quite good enough for him, so when he got a chance to go into a six night a week job he had to take it and the Mockingbirds had to break up. I don't think that it even lasted a year. Earl played lead and he was an older fellow. I think that he was probably about forty-five at the time.
Country music was the first thing that I ever played and country music was the reason I got into music in the first place. I was listening to the radio and picking up on that sound while I was I High School in the early fifties when rock 'n' roll hadn't begun. The area that I went to school in, in Ohio, was very conservative and on the radio in those days were just people like Patti Page so I used to go up and down the dial looking for something more interesting and I found country music. I used to pick up stations from a long way away and every night I'd sit in my room and listen to stations coming out of Texas and out of the south. Del Rio, Texas was one. They had a transmitter across the border in Mexico and I think they were something like a million watts. They weren't governed by the FCC or anybody and they used to play country music all night long. I got very familiar with it. People like Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, the Wilburn Brothers, Webb Pierce and Faron Young. I had a real good background because I'd learnt all the songs. I must of had a background of about one hundred songs when I joined Earl Mock. It was just perfect and I loved it. Earl got this job in a honky-tonk and it wasn't but about a couple of months later that the lead singer and the rhythm guitar player in that group left and I was able to step into what I considered was a real professional job. It was a six day a week, five hour a night job.
Were you still at college?
Well there was year that I didn't go to college (smiles broadly!) and this was in there. I started playing really every night and making a living at it. This was in 1955 and about that time Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash began to happen. It was really an exciting time. I worked in that club for about a year and I really got a good background in music and how to really play in a band, although it was only a three-piece and had no drums or bass. It had a steel player, Earl played lead and I played rhythm. It came the time when that band had to be disbanded because the club was going to be pulled down to make way for a parking lot for a shopping centre.
There was this kid… I called him a kid because he was about 17 or 18 and I was 22. His name was Gary Paxton and he used to come in all the time. Gary was into rock 'n' roll and Presley and he and I teamed up and formed the Pledges. We called ourselves the Rockabillies for a while but changed it to the Pledges and made our first record. We had a drummer and a sax player and Gary played lead. We got a rhythm guitarist called Bobby Verbosh and that's when I switched to bass because we didn't have anybody that could play it so I had to learn. This would be about '57 or '58. That when I bought the bass I have now, the one I use every night. Many times I've thought of retiring it, putting it up on a wall over a mantle but I always go back to it although I've had several other basses meanwhile.
How long were you in the Pledges?
Not very long. We made two sides which we did in Phoenix for a local label called Rev. The next time we went up to record though it was just Gary and I. We did four sides along with our drummer who we took with us. We released a record on Rev under the name Clyde and Gary. When we were the Pledges Gary wrote a song called 'Betty Jean' which we went up to audition along with a couple of other tunes.
They said that 'Betty Jean' was the best one we had but it was not good enough for an 'A' side. We went back to Tucson and wrote a song between us called 'Her Bermuda Shorts' which we thought was great! We drove up to Phoenix and played it for them and they said 'OK' and that we could record the two songs. Those were the two songs that we put out; 'Her Bermuda Shorts' on the 'A' side and 'Betty Jean' on the 'B' side. We went back later and cut another four sides, two as Clyde and Gary, one of which was 'Johnny Risk' written by one of the people at the record company.
Needless to say the Pledges didn't happen and Clyde and Gary didn't happen, but then they released the other two sides that we had cut, 'It Was I', which Gary had written, and 'Lunch Hour' which both Gary and I had written.
A lot of time passed. When the Clyde and Gary record came out and didn't happen I went back to school and got a job in the radio station in Tucson as a disc-jockey. I must have had a lot of energy at that time because I was doing a lot of things.
I was a disc jockey twice daily, four in the morning until seven and then another shift in the afternoon, and I was going to school in the afternoon. I then decided to get a band together. Gary had cut out because he thought nothing was going to happen so he left for Oregon, but I got this band together and kept the name the Pledges. We worked in a nightclub in Tucson playing rock 'n' roll. We were the first rock 'n' roll band in Tucson and we were playing six nights a week. In those days I was really burning the candle at both ends. The radio station was KMOP in Tucson playing country and western, so I was country and western on the radio and rock 'n' roll at night.
In the middle of all that though I got a surprise package in the mail. A new Skip and Flip record, along with a letter which said 'Hope you don't mind but we've sold the master to Brent Records in New York City, which is a subsidiary of Time Records." Now Time Records had the Belltones hit record called 'I've Had It', so I was pretty thrilled at that because it looked liked we were on the way with a national label. They said " Hope you don't mind the name change, but you are now Skip and Flip." That was 1959.
Bob Shad, who owned the label, had decided to change our names. They did things like that in those days! Well that record happened so Gary came back from Oregon and we started going on the road. The Dick Clark Show, we played that thing three or four times a week. It was quite a thrill to watch the show and hear my voice on it. We went out on the road and Skip and Flip lasted. We had 'It Was I', 'Fancy Nancy' and 'Cherry Pie'. We toured for about three years…'59, '60 and part of '61. In those days they had caravan tours which had all these artists all riding together. Freddy Cannon was on it, Duane Eddy, Frankie Ford. We did four or five of those tours with all these people who had records out. Jerry Keller was another. In those days the big time was having one hit record, unless you were Frankie Avalon or Bobby Rydell who were the real big timers who had a string of hits
Weren't you replaced in Skip and Flip though?
Actually Gary was replaced. Gary got fed up for some reason during the later days of Skip and Flip, although I didn't blame him because I was fed up too, but I wanted to keep things going even if we didn't make much money. Gary left and was replaced by Dave Marcell. On those tours there used to be a band and on one tour there was Dickie Doo and the Don'ts - remember him?
Well on the tours I played bass and Gary played guitar and we would take a drummer from the band. Now the band would back all the acts plus do their own show, but we would just use the drummer, who was Dickie Doo. Johnny and the Hurricanes were on tour with us a couple of times I recall, but in each case we would still remain a trio. We never did have our own drummer. Anyway, Dave Marcell replaced Gary for a while and another replacement was Johnny Leonard. After we had quit, Gary picked it up again some time later and did a Skip and Flip record with a guy called Rod Marshall and they had one release. Johnny Leonard was the guitar player I had in the Pledges at the time 'It Was I' came out. Dave Marcell was a fellow that I had met in Hollywood. Although I was living in Arizona still, I worked quite a bit out of Hollywood. I also met Kim Fowley about that time. He walked into a recording session one time in Hollywood when Gary and I and Sandy Nelson were just banging around. They used to give us a studio to use anytime that we wanted to, just to play around in and Kim walked in one day. We immediately took a liking to him and he talked his way into managing us although we did have a New York manager at the time. We were getting a little fed up with our manager though as new acts sometimes get with their managers, especially if you have a long distance relationship. So Kim talked his way in and we took him to New York. The feathers flew there of course because Kim was such a young upstart. So were we all! But the relationship with Kim has lasted.
So after Skip and Flip where are we?
1961, and there was a little dry spell there for about a year. There wasn't anything happening in Tucson any more so I moved out to California. I wanted to get into acting but I found myself leading a band for about four years, up to '65. I called the band Skip and the Flips, using the name to its full advantage, and worked all over Southern California. We made a pretty darn good living at it, and as we strove to continue to make records I fell in with a couple of guys who owned Indigo Records. They had Kathy Young and the Innocents and I became part owner of the record label with them. We used to record all the time and put out all kinds of records by all kinds of names.
The Flips though were Johnny Leonard, Billy Mundi on drums, and Don Preston was one of the guitar players. Billy was with me for a long time. We also had a sax player named Dick Gabriel who was one of the original members of the Pledges. Carl Radle played bass for a while and I played piano, although there were a lot of people in and out of the group. The band would play the hits, the rock 'n' roll hits, which was what kept us busy, kept us going. We played six nights a week and we made pretty good money. It was good although it was a bit frustrating because I did want to make records and I did want to go out on the road. Nothing much happened for a while, then the Beatles happened in '64 and right on top of that was the Byrds.
I remember the first night I saw the Byrds…there were two big moving events during that time that changed my life. They were seeing 'A Hard Day's Night' and seeing the Byrds at Ciros, which was really the clincher. We got out of our suits, out of our slicked down hair, out of doing jukebox songs and started doing original material. We had the idea that we wanted to do electric bluegrass, 'bluegrass rock', after seeing the Byrds doing electric folk. I'd always liked bluegrass from my country days.
You mentioning the Beatles remind me to ask you about turning down the rights to some Beatles' songs.
Well I don't know if they were really available. It wasn't really a turn down as such, but we just thought we had the chance to secure the rights to 'Please, Please Me' from Vee Jay Records. I had heard the record but wasn't sure about it because it had already been released in America and it hadn't happened. None of us really had a lot of interest in it at that time. This was before the Beatles happen of course. We did decide to go for it though because we could have had it for nothing at the time, but we found out that it really wasn't available anyway. It was right after that the Beatles happened and Vee Jay had that record out within a week or so. It would have been on Invicta if we had got it.
Anyway, seeing the Byrds just blew my mind completely and I freaked out. I became a freak. I changed my style of clothes and style of life overnight. Billy Mundi was also into it, but the rest of the guys in the band were a little skeptical about changing the image and getting out of the pattern of things. Although we had only achieved mediocre success we were making a living from it. Well, it turned out to be two for and three against. Right away our jobs became fewer because we could no longer be acceptable in the juke box situation that we were in. Billy and I started getting through a lot of different musicians and we struggled through some pretty hard times.
We did record for one of those one-shot labels under the name Skip Battyn and the Group before just calling ourselves the Group for a little while. We were doing original material and some Dylan material, but there wasn't a living to be made out of it. We were trying to copy the Byrds but do it a little more bluegrass. At one stage we had Steve Young on guitar, who was a real good picker, fingerpicking style, and who's doing pretty good on his own now. I was playing twelve string and we were doing a lot of Beatle tunes and Byrd things. It wasn't happening though and it just petered out. Billy got into some touring groups as a sideman. I began to get another group together who were called the Evergreen Blueshoes, which almost did it. The Evergreen Blueshoes were a really good group but the shame of it was the album that we recorded did not really project what the group was into musically, because the record company wasn't quite sure how to handle us. The way we wanted those songs to go down was all in our heads and I was quite disappointed in the way the actual album turned out.
How did you find the personnel?
Al Rosenberg and I had played together on a session at some time or another and he was like Steve Young in that he was a finger picker as well as a flat picker. He was into country and he wanted to switch over to electric so he was ideal because I was electric and wanted country. At that time the best musicians available were in the bars, so we started hounding the bars where they were playing, looking fore the right guys. We came up with Lanny Mathijssen and Kenny Kleist who played organ. They were both in the same band and they had a drummer as well. As the group was about to break up anyway we managed to salvage three people from it. Lanny and Kenny were really good musicians who had just been playing around the clubs. After a while the drummer left but we managed to get Chet McCraken just before the album was due to be recorded. We played for about a year and a half in a place called the Topanga Corral which was the only place in Southern California where you could play new music. It was very successful. They liked us and we liked them, so we were there for a long time. It was there were really got it together for the album. When the album came out and it didn't happen it was a blow to everyone as we'd put a year and a half into it and that really broke up the group.
There's one track on the album you co-wrote with Kim Fowley, so presumably by then your relationship had developed into a song-writing one.
That's right, but it was just starting then. That track, 'the Everblue Express', was quite an ambitious undertaking. It was taken from 'Mars' from 'The Planet Suite'. We used a heavy fuzz tone guitar to do the cello parts and used a lot of organ to do the violins. Kim wrote the talk-speech theatrical part which I over-dubbed on. 'The Raven' is taken from Edgar Allen Poe. When we went out in person to promote the album we did the album from beginning to end without any breaks. One song just led into another, but I've got some practice tapes at home which are better than the album itself.
After the group folded I met up with a jazz guitar player who wanted to play rock…here we go again! We introduced each other to our backgrounds and we got into that, but there wasn't too much of a market for that either. But we had a lot of fun. We never really played any gigs, just played every day in my studio. His name was Art Johnson and he's still around Los Angeles. He's a session man now, doing real good. During that dry spell I was starting to get into doing session work, maybe two or three session a week but I never really wanted it, was never fond of doing it.
But you met Gene Parsons at a session, is that right?
Yes that's right, but I don't even know who the artist was. Gene was the drummer on it and I was the bass player. It was just a few months later that he asked me to join the Byrds. I had met Clarence through maybe a year or so earlier because he was a friend of Al Rosenberg. Al, Clarence and I had played together for a few days around the house. We were going to sign a recording contract as a trio - this was before the Evergreen Blueshoes. When Gene asked me whether I was interested in playing bass for the Byrds I jumped at the chance. The Byrds had been in my head all the time and it was a case of wanting something real bad over a long period of time. I fell into a religion at that time, a very positive religion, which to me is more a practice in a philosophy than it is a religion, and it's a chanting. I started doing it about a week before Gene called me, so I became a believer and I'm still doing it.
What was the feeling within the group at the time you joined?
I got the impression it was not an upward feeling, it was more a downward feeling if anything. Gram Parsons had left right after 'Sweetheart Of The Rodeo' and McGuinn was trying to bring it back into a pop direction. The group wasn't a popular working group or anything and the records weren't selling either. The work was starting to get less and less also. I'm not saying I had anything or much to do with their comeback, but we did make a strong comeback right away. A big thing that was going for us at the time I joined the group was the 'Easy Rider' thing. 'Ballad of Easy Rider' was one of the most popular things we did on stage. The album that turned the whole thing around for us though was 'Untitled'. That album achieved a lot of success and we went on to become a very hot live performing act, although we never really had a big selling album after that one. We were always far more successful with the live shows than we were with record sales. 'Untitled' wasn't a difficult album to record, but we did take our time over it and were careful with it. It was my first experience in the studio with unlimited time and we were able to do what we wanted and how without too much pressure.
The follow-up album, 'Byrdmaniax', was not what it could have been, was it?
On that one I think we went a little overboard in the fact of taking a long time and spending a lot of the record company's money. The group were in Europe when the album was released and we heard the final mixes in Holland. It was somewhat of a disappointment for us. We had done a dynamite cut of 'Jamaica, Say You Will' which Jackson Browne had played piano on, and it was not even used. He had come in and taught us the song and Gene, Clarence, Jackson and I laid down this beautiful track which was really hot and very tasty, but for some reason it was considered the demo.
It seems to me that the songs you and Kim wrote were not typical Byrds' material.
We had that problem. Kim and I definitely had our own style which didn't mesh as well as we would have liked but at the same time that gave birth to me having a solo album. The next Byrd album that we cut was really a reaction to 'Byrdmaniax'. We came over here to England and did one of our own in eight days just to show everybody that was what we wanted to do, to get down to business and do it. Perhaps we over-reacted and maybe we could have made a better album. 'America's Great National Pastime' was the single in the States and it did have some success and it was the most accepted Byrd single in a few years. The idea for the song came from a Coke ad on TV that Kim had seen. He called me on the phone saying he had this great idea for a song and we actually wrote it on the phone in about fifteen or twenty minutes.
You started on your solo album when you were still in the Byrds, didn't you?
Right, summer of '72. We took that summer off and I secured this record contract with Signpost Records who were distributed by Atlantic. We did the album and two weeks later after it was released Signpost went out of business.
'America's Great National Pastime' had created an interest in Kim and I as a writing team so we took our best songs and put them together as a demo tape. Signpost, who had already shown an interest, said 'OK, let's do it.' I called Billy Mundi back from New York to do the tracks and Jimmi Seiter, Clarence and Roger were all involved. Gene was gone at the time. Most of the songs were already written but we did write some especially for that album. 'Captain Video' is, of course, directed at McGuinn, but he liked it and laughed. By the time the Byrds went back on the road in the Fall Gene had dropped out and we had John Guerin. He was heavily into studio work and there was a period when John couldn't make all the dates so we had to use other people. Things started happening to us in early '73. David Geffen from Asylum was wanting to put together the original Byrds and there was a lot of pressure on Roger to do so. He went with it and I left the group at his request because he was going to replace me with Hillman, and Mike was going to come back on drums.
When I left the Byrds there was only one tour left to do and that was just a two or three day tour of the East Coast. Clarence called me after the first gig and said 'Oh man, it's over.' and it was. He was quite upset and thought that Roger had made a big mistake, and evidently he did. I had left the Byrds in March of '73 and I was happy to be off for a while because I had been working pretty hard for about four years. I took about eight months off and just played around my local area with friends that I knew. Jim Moon lives close to me and we'd go over to Spanky's house as she had a studio. I used to keep my bass in the car and any night of the week when I didn't have anything else to do and I felt like picking I drove over there and there was always something going on. During that summer I took a little diversion and built a house in Topanga Canyon. I built it to live in but somebody came along and offered to buy it, so I sold it and built another one.
So how did you come to join the New Riders?
Ron Rainey at Magna had booked the Byrds and he also booked the Riders. When David Torbert left he said he had just the right person and came to me and asked if I would be interested. Well it sounded good and I went up and saw them at Winterland and it was country rock and it was exciting. I was itching to get back on the road again because I had finished the house and been off long enough. Even my wife had noticed I was getting itchy to get back playing on stage in front of an audience once more. I continued to chant and things kept falling in the right way. The Riders had just released a live album, so there were a few months to go before we went into the studios. I just picked it right up in January and we did 'Brujo' in the Spring.
Is 'Big Wheels' autobiographical in any way?
It's semi-autobiographical. I never actually had a jeep, but it's a nice story. We got the idea from 'Singing Cowboy' and the competition they held. I saw the results on TV where the guy was chosen, but I never heard anymore about it. I made some inquiries and they had shelved the idea. After 'Brujo' we kept gigging around until it was time to do the next album, which was 'Oh What A Mighty Time', one of my least favourite albums. None of the Riders had that many tunes on the album because Bob Johnston came into the picture at this point. He had his own ideas and brought most of all the songs in, and that's the way he wanted to do it. Bob is a great leader and a very likeable guy, everybody likes him, but he had his own ideas about where the Riders should be and how they should be produced and it didn't work too well on this album. Bob did unite the Riders though and we got fully behind him, we believed in him, and the Riders still believe in him enough to have another go at it with another album.
How did your current gig with the Burritos come about?
That came up around Christmas time last year after I had been two years with the Riders. It was an OK two years, but I really did miss the people I had known for a long time. Going into a Northern California situation from a Southern California situation I was really ready to come back. When Gene popped the question, so to speak, I thought it was probably where it was for me, so I came back and did the one album. I told the Riders in January that I wanted to leave. They were just going into the MCA contract and they felt it would jeopardise the position with MCA if I didn't stay and do that album, which I was more than happy to do. At one time I was in both groups, but we did that album and I think it's the best Riders' album I've been associated with. We did the final tracks and mixes on that and then I drove right down to Los Angeles and started in on the Burritos album.
During this time Kim and I didn't have any time to write at all. I don't think 'Airborne' really represents what we do on stage, and I feel that perhaps we missed it this time. I'm a firm believer in a group taking the material for the next album and doing it as much as possible because a tune really grows in time. You can't really go into the studio and have the song complete if you learn and record it there. Time after time this has happened where I've done that and then gone out on the road. Six weeks later the song is a different piece of material. We never really got the chance to do that with 'Airborne'. As soon as we get back to the States we've got one more short tour to do, then we are going to take the month of December to write and woodshed the next album and perform it over and over again. Then maybe at the end of January or February we'll go in and really have a representative album.
Finally, how are the Burritos doing in the States?
We're doing very fine, very good. There's a lot of legend attached to the Burritos and we owe quite a deal to that legend to sustain it, to maintain it and keep it current. It's a double thing. You've got to maintain the legend that's been before you because it is the reason you're there, and it's the reason you've got to work on the future too. The amazing thing is that the three groups I've been in, starting with the Byrds, have all been big in the East and so-so in the Mid-West and West. I've had the same audience for years now.
In the future there'll be an amazing Flying Burrito Brothers album coming out, and watch out for a Skip Battin album. I don't know when or how, but it will be when we get a break. Kim and I will be writing and I've met one person up north, Bob Hunter, who is an amazing lyricist and he and I have started to write some things together, one tune so far. Between writing with Kim and Bob Hunter I'm looking forward to doing a solo album sometime in 1977 aside from the Burritos.
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