Clem Cattini Interview by Travis Marc. 2015
British drumming icon Clem Cattini was kind enough to give us some of his time recently to do the below interview. Clem is on record for playing on over 44 British number one singles and was part of the group ‘The Tornados’ who were the original backing band for Bill Fury. Clem also became one of the most in demand session drummers from the 1960’s onwards and has played and recorded with artists such as Lou Reed, Cliff Richard and The Kinks (just to name a few). Here’s what Clem had to say.
Let’s start at the beginning. What initially made you want to play the drums?
Truthfully, I never really had any real desires to start playing and actually started as a joke after I saw the movie ‘Blackboard Jungle, which Bill Hayley had done the music for. Myself and two of my friends (who happened to be guitarists) went to go and see the film and after it finished and we were leaving the cinema they started joking around and saying that we should form a rock n roll group, and that I should play the drums. So, I said ok and the rest is history really. At the start (with the first group I was in) I was originally playing skiffle board but I progressed from there and eventually started playing the drums.
When would you say that you really started taking it seriously, rather than just doing it for fun?
I was working at quite a fancy place in London called The 2i’s Coffee Bar and a lot of the big stars from that time would often come and do shows there. Myself, and Brian Bennet were kind of like the house drummers at the venue so I think I started really taking it seriously around then. Before this I was working for my father at his restaurant and we had a bit of an argument the one day so I quit and became and decided to become pro from there.
In my opinion, you’re like the UK version of Hal Blaine as you’ve played drums on over forty UK number one singles. What do you regard as your first big break?
That’s such a big compliment I must admit, thank you. Well, I was really enjoying myself with the group that I was playing with at the time so I just decided to stick with it. I got myself a copy of the Buddy Rich drum tutor book and started practicing all the rudiments from there etc. My first big break was really just working down at the 2i’s Coffee bar. After that, I got a nine month tour with a comedian named Max Moore and it kind of snow balled from there. I was then offered a position with a guy name Terry Dean who was a mega star in those days and it kinda just kept going.
Can you tell us about about what the session scene was like back when you were coming up (the 60’s and 70’s). Was it very competitive in regards to other drummers trying to get the same work?
I was really lucky because I was only about seventeen year old at the time and because of the constriction laws plus the fact that I have flat feet I didn’t have to go to the army while a lot of my friends and peers had to, or were enrolled already. I offered to go in for three years purely to study music but because of my flat feet, I was regarded as a liability and they didn’t want me. So I really didn’t have to compete with to many people because there just weren’t that many people about.
I understand that you were initially on Jimmy Page’s shortlist when he was considering drummers before starting Led Zeppelin? Can you tell us a bit about that?
I was with a group called Johnny Kidd and the Pirates and had first worked with Jimmy when he was about fourteen years old. Jimmy worked in a band that used to support us, and because of his musical talent he started to work on a lot of the sessions that I was on. His manager, Peter Grant phoned me one day and said that he wanted to take me for lunch because he had a proposition for me, but because of my session commitments I just never had the chance to meet him for lunch. Anyway, about nine to twelve months later I heard Led Zeppelin on the radio. I ran into Peter Grant a short while after that and asked him if the proposition he had originally mentioned involved the band and he said that it had and that I was on Jimmy’s original shortlist for potential drummers. That’s just life though you know. In fairness I couldn’t realistically have seen myself doing it and travelling up and down the country for months on end because I was doing so many other things and had my own family by this time, plus while I could’ve been living in a mansion right now had I actually done the gig the truth is that you can only drive one car at a time, sleep in one bed at a time, and only live in one house at a time, so I have no regrets. Plus, I never originally started playing the drums to make money anyway, I don’t think any of us do. We do it because we love it and it feels good and we just want to play.
When I met you in person a few weeks ago I asked you if Keith Moon was really as mad as everyone says that he was. Away from our brief chat then have you got any personal kind of stories that you could share with us regarding late great drummers such as Keith Moon, John Bonham or any other really notable drummers?
Brian Bennett and myself kind of grew up together and had worked together at ‘The 2i’s’, he was with Marty Wild and I was with Bill Fury and although our careers kind of went parallel to each other until Brian joined ‘The Shadows’ and became a star. The nearest I got was while I was with ‘The Tonados” which shot up very high but came down very quickly too ha ha. The thing with drummers is that you don’t really get the opportunity to hang out with each other a lot because the band or artist you’re working with usually only need one drummer, where there are usually more than one guitarist on a lot of sessions etc. So yeah, funny situation because although I ran into all these guys and we spoke etc, none of us really got to close because we were always on the road doing our thing with the artists that we were playing with.
Out of all the artists that you’ve played and recorded with, what work do you think you’re most proud of and why? (Clem has played on over 44 UK no 1 singles for those who weren’t aware).
I think that Hurdy Gurdy Man by Donovan is something I’m fairly proud of, simply because people keep mentioning it to me and that they didn’t realise that I was the drummer on it. I was also in the orchestra on Top of The Pops for roughly twelve years and had the experience of backing artists such as The Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder which was great. For me, it’s really a case of – I did what I did as best as I could do it, and tried to play as well as I could depending on what the situation was. My philosophy was always one in which my attitude was that the day I thought I was good enough would be the day I’d give up.
Who would you say your influences are, both back then and now?
Elvis Presley’s drummer Ronnie Tutt was obviously a huge influence on me because most of the records we had in England at the time were American records and Elvis was the biggest star during that period. Buddy Rich was of course another one and I would’ve really loved to play in a real big band like he had. Today’s guys would have to be drummers like Gavin Harrison, Elliot Henshaw and Steve Gadd. Oh, Ralph Simmons is another great player. Thomas Lang, Steve Smith and Dave Weckl,. There’s so many great drummers out there and you could learn something from all of them. Steve Smith recently did a book all about British Rock Drummers and I’m really honoured to be featured in there. I really appreciate how good some drummers are and it’s amazing how great their technique is but I think that a lot of young drummers need to spend some time focusing on feel again as you need to be able to play with songs and make it feel good too, not just play chops all over the place. We’re drummers and grooving is our job.
Do you still spend a lot of time playing, and if so what do you like to play?
No, not really. I have a few problems physically now days. I have arthritis in my hands and arms, and recently had a hip replacement so it’s a little tricky trying to work the hi hat pedal. I’m also at an age where I can’t really carry a lot of my gear around anymore. So I think it’s time to say goodbye really. Again, there are so many good drummers out now that there’s no real need for me. I’ve always been very grateful to have done the things that I did and make some of the contributions people tell me I made. It was a complete honour being able to play with some of the amazing musicians that I got to play with. I feel really lucky.
What advice would you give to somebody who wants to start drumming and doesn’t know where or how to start?
You should get yourself a good teacher. I taught myself because when I started playing there were really no teachers about, so I got myself a practice pad and a Buddy Rich tuition book and just tried my best, but now there are some really great teachers in this country so there’s really no reason not to get together with one for a bit of guidance and help. Away from that there are no quick fixes, you simply have to practice ! When I started really getting into it, I was practicing around five to six hours a day because I had made the decision to try and get better. The best practice of course is when you’re actually doing it too, so get out there, play and do whatever you can to spend time with your instrument.
What would you say has been the best piece of advice you have ever received?
‘Ignore the string players’ ha ha – just kidding. When I first started I met a guy named Nicki Wilson who was a musical director. He was very good to me and actually said to me that no matter what the situation as long as I keep my eyes on the MD and make them feel good that everything else would be fine. It’s all about making people feel comfortable. Another thing I would say would be to get yourself a metronome. It’s so good for you, and helps you relax. Keep your ears on what the bass player is doing and you should be able to lock everything in together. You want it to feel good. Oh, and remember – less is more.
If you could do it all again, would you change anything?
As I’ve already said, I’ve been so honoured to do the things I’ve done. So no, I wouldn’t change a thing. Perhaps I’d think a little more about the money side of things, but apart from that I wouldn’t change a single thing. I’m a strong believer that you should always honour your decisions, it says a lot about you as a person.
(Clem in his HeyDay)
Any last thoughts or advice?
If you’re going to play an instrument you should enjoy it because it’s truly a wonderful gift to be able to do it. Stick with it, practice and forget all the unimportant stuff. Yes, you need technique but you should know when to use it, but more then anything just enjoy yourself. Oh, and remember that when you’re doing interviews that although you can sometimes say something as a joke that there is no tones regarding jokes in print, so just be careful what you might have to say sometimes.
Please note that we do not own any of the images used in this interview and they remain the property of the photographers that actually took them.