Alvin Lee and Ten Years After
"Back in those days we thought we could change the world".
Although it is somewhat expected, it's really a shame when a really solid and popular band of a particular period finds itself shuffled to the back pages of music history. But that's what has happened to Ten Years After. They worked the clubs of London, made a record that caught airplay in San Francisco and leapt to the attention of famed concert promoter Bill Graham who invited them to tour the U.S. and then a rocket ride to superstardom resulting from the performance of a lifetime in front of well over 400,000 people at Woodstock. It all seemed like gravy for them from that point, but a few years and a few albums later they disbanded and went from a solid British blues-rock act to a footnote. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here.
The nucleus of the band was formed by a 13-year-old guitar player from Nottingham in the U.K. named Alvin Lee (born Graham Barnes) and friend Leo Lyons, a bassist, in 1960. Lee began his musical education by playing the clarinet but switched to the guitar when he stumbled upon his parents collection of old blues and jazz records. But it was the arrival of rock and roll that changed his perception of music and provided an influence that was to be the base of his sound through out his career. Guitarists like Chuck Berry and Scotty Moore would provide his musical stepping-stone.
According to Lee, once he decided that music was going to be his career, nothing else mattered. "I just couldn't take school seriously: I had this guitar neck with four frets which I kept hidden under the desk. It had strings on it so I would practice my chord shapes under the desk and that's about all I did at school." The singular obsession paid off. His early band, The Jaybirds, were popular locally and had achieved success at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany where they followed The Beatles there the same year. In 1966, the band relocated to London, permanently added keyboardist Chick Churchill and Ric Lee (no relation) on drums and changed their name to Ten Years After. In interviews later, Lee said that the band was named Ten Years After because they were 'ten years after Elvis'.
As the band picked up a bit of a reputation as a solid rock and roll band in the London scene at clubs like the UFO and Middle Earth, they found themselves in the enviable position of holding down a resident gig at the Marquee Club, one of London's premier rock clubs. Catching the ear of promoters, the band was invited to the Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival in 1968. This gig led to their first record deal, signing with Decca Records. Although their debut disc did not sell well in England, it did receive airplay on underground radio in San Francisco where it was a huge hit. It was also heard by legendary concert promoter Bill Graham who immediately contacted the band and invited them to tour the United States in 1968. (the band eventually toured the United States an astounding 28 times between 1968 and 1974).
American audiences were stunned by the rapid fire and yet soulful playing of Lee and word of the guitarist began to spread amongst guitar fans, critics and the general rock and roll crowd resulting in sold out show after sold out show.
But the bands biggest break came about when they were asked to play at Woodstock. Ten Years After electrified the crowd with an 11-minute version of their signature song "I'm Going Home" which, thanks to the film 'Woodstock', brought the band international acclaim. Lee worked the crowd like he was playing in a small club, giving the sense of an intimate and up close performance, eyes closed and yet fingers flying as in a trance, blasting his way through an absolutely smoking blues-rock shuffle with over the top leads. It was a spectacle that propelled them into the permanent record of rock history – a once in a lifetime execution that had a bottom end sound thick and heavy enough to power a big block v-8 engine and ferocious, shrieking leads that could practically set your hair on fire.
When asked about playing in front of the crowd at Woodstock, Lee said "I just play to the people I can see. So it's almost like you are playing to the first few rows of the crowd. You can see the faces of the first hundred people, but then it becomes a blur as the crowds disappear over the hill."
From Woodstock the band began playing stadiums and arenas around the world. Lee has said many times that although he was appreciative for the fame that the band found as a result of their performance at Woodstock, he missed playing in smaller venues. Even, at times, he sounds as if the experience was somewhat bittersweet. "It wasn't until the movie came out that it all changed for us. Some people say it was the start of Ten Years After, but in another way, it was the beginning of the end."
The band released 'Shhh' following Woodstock, which made it into the Top 20 in the U.S., and their follow up 'Cricklewood Green', which contained the hit 'Love Like A Man', hit number #4 on the charts. To complete their Decca contract, the band released the album 'Watt' and then signed to Columbia. Once with a new label, the band began to move away from their grungy, blues-rock sound and into a more mainstream direction. Their gold selling album ' A Space In Time', released in 1971, contained perhaps their biggest hit, 'I'd Love To Change The World'. But subsequent albums proved less successful and Lee began to tire of the direction the band was headed.
Ten Years After split up in 1974 after the release of 'Positive Vibrations'.
Lee recorded the highly acclaimed country rock album 'On The Road To Freedom' in 1974 with gospel singer Mylon LeFevre and rock luminaries like George Harrison, Steve Winwood, Ronnie Wood and Mick Fleetwood. On a dare, Lee formed Alvin Lee and Company to play a show at London's Rainbow Room and ended up releasing the concert as a double live CD titled 'In Flight'. Through the remainder of the 70's, Lee released a few other solo albums and recorded a few tracks for Bo Diddley's "The 20th Anniversary of Rock and Roll ' all-star album.
The 80's were a time of continued solo work and contributions for fellow musicians including collaborations with Rare Birds Steve Gould and a lengthy tour with John Mayall and Stones guitarist Mick Taylor filling out his band.
The band did reunite in 1988 for a European tour and to cut the album 'It's About Time' in 1989. But they split again for good following that album. In 2001, Ric Lee was preparing the back catalogue for release when he came across the 'Live At The Filmore East 1970' tapes. He approached Lee about reuniting to support the disc, Lee declined. The rest of the band thought otherwise and together with guitarist Joe Gooch, hit the road as 'Ten Years After'. They have been touring since and released a new disc called 'Now' in 2004 and a new live disc, 'Roadworks' in 2005.
Lee himself is not thrilled with this arrangement and quotes like "They have decided to tour under the name of Ten Years After which I don't think is very cool. To be honest, they have had to do that as it's the only way they can get any work," show that there is still a certain amount of resentment with his former band mates. But Lee, still considered a formidable guitar player keeps himself busy recording and touring as a solo act.
So from a young idealistic band that truly believed that they could change the world to superstars in rock and roll and back, Ten Years After survives, albeit in somewhat different forms. If you spend some time reading the back pages of the music history books and sniffing around the dusty discount bins at your local CD shop, you might be amazed at what you can find.