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Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Feeling the Blues

Legendary British guitarist Bernie Marsden looks back on his career, the musical form and playing music on cellphones

Written by Ektaa Malik |
January 17, 2019 5:36:08 am
Bernie Marsden in Delhi (Tashi Tobgyal)

Wearing a flowery grey and white shirt — which we assume is Hawaiian, and are later informed that it’s Indian — Bernie Marsden is very much at ease in the rather bland surroundings of an upmarket hotel in central Delhi. Having flown in from London, a flight on which he “wrote something very beautiful, which my daughter liked, and has had no sleep as there was a baby on board”, Marsden is a welcome departure from the typical rockstar persona. Words like “legend”, “famous” and “rockstar” are often associated with him, given the fact that he has played the guitar and co-written many songs along with David Coverdale (formerly of the band Deep Purple) for the British rock band Whitesnake.

Over the years, he has played for and with the ilk of Ringo Starr, Sting, Van Morrison, Freddie Mercury and Bryan May of Queen, among others. “I am 67 years old, and legend comes from leg-end. The last, old ones, trust me that’s all there is to it,” shares Marsden, who was born Bernard John Marsden in the small town of Buckingham in South-East England. This is Marsden’s fourth visit to India, and the first musical tour. Marsden would be playing at the Jamgarh Music Festival, a multi-city musical extravaganza featuring Indian indie band Terra Rosa Gypsies and Spanish Flamenco group Las Tablas, among others.

Marsden started playing when he was 15, “all because of The Beatles”. He says, “I grew up in a very small town, with 3,000 people, and everyone knew everyone. Back then, one had to get a job when you were 15-16. I saw The Beatles on TV and was like this looks cool, I want to do that. That’s how I started to play.” Marsden, who till date remains a self-taught guitarist, adds, “These days, it’s easier, with all the stuff available online. In my days, you bought a record, slowed it down to half speed and listened to the sound multiple times — all because you wanted to learn the guitar part. This was how you ruined all your records, but you learnt to play the part. Young people nowadays are much more clever, they pick up things quicker. Perhaps, that’s why us older guys are still around, as we did it the hard way. But in the end, you have to write good songs, if I didn’t do that 40 years ago, I wouldn’t be sitting here, no matter how good I was on the guitar.”

Marsden co-wrote many of Whitesnakes hit songs, including charttoppers such as Here I go again, Fool for your loving, Lovehunter and Walking in the shadow of the Blues. Straddling two very distinct worlds, songwriting and playing the guitar, was a happy incident. “I started writing mainly out of frustration. I was 16 and in a band with really old guys — they were 23/24. Imagine,” he says, adding, “They would play all the hit parade stuff, and I didn’t like it one bit. I then thought I could write songs like these. Looking back, some of the songs that I hated were actually very good pop songs. I just didn’t like them, I was into Blues from a very early age.”

In the Marsden story, Blues is something one keeps coming back to. The connection between the musician and the musical form is hard to miss. In fact, the “King of Blues” himself, BB King, called Marsden “one of the few white people who can feel the blues”. “BB King had said this on a radio station in Germany. And I did not know about it till 10 years later; I was very touched,” he recalls.

Still going strong after a career spanning five decades, Marsden has seen the musical world morph from vinyl records to super-slick five inch cellphones and wireless headphones. “It has changed a full 360 degrees. In my days, when I was a famous rockstar, you made an album, and then you toured to promote it. These days you just tour, I think the album is now incidental. A pop star today can sell out 25,000 tickets everyday if he or she wants. Joe Bonamassa, an American Blues rock guitarist would perhaps sell out 5,000. There is no need to make a record nowadays. Back then, if you didn’t have record deal, you were a nobody,” he says.

“And the biggest change of all — it’s the way people are listening to music — the cellphone. Earlier it was a process, waiting for the record, going to the store, buying it and then playing it on a vinyl player. The real sound was and is, still very much different, than what ends up playing from the phone,” he signs off, and just then a Hindi film song starts playing on a cellphone on the neighbouring table. “Those are the phone blues,” he says.

The Jamgarh music fest is on at Dehradun on January 18, Gurgaon on January 19 and Goa on January 23-24

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