Mood music for the meth-lab

GRANT SMITHIES
Last updated 05:00 16/06/2013
Roy Phillips

Crystal clear: Musician Roy Phillips is happy to be associated with TV’s Breaking Bad.

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Drums tap and tickle; strings swoon and sigh. The bassline sounds slightly furtive, like it's sneaking down an alley after some clandestine shagging in a backstreet hotel. A Hammond organ starts out purring like a cat before unsheathing its claws and tearing up the upholstery. And the singer is one Roy Phillips, who sounds like a man ascending to heaven slowly, enjoying every new inch of elevation.

On A Clear Day, from The Peddlers' 1968 album Three In A Cell, is a song with the power to take the top of your head clean off. That's why it seemed a perfect fit when it appeared in the last series of Breaking Bad, soundtracking a scene where Walt and Jesse toil away amid Bunsen burners and bubbling beakers, cooking up a bumper batch of methamphetamine.

Still, you have to wonder what the singer would make of his song becoming meth-lab mood music. "Actually, I think it's great," says Phillips, from frosty Canterbury. "It's a strange way for people to rediscover your music, but I'm not complaining, because that TV show made sales of old Peddlers records go crazy again."

Now 72, Phillips moved to New Zealand in 1981. He gave Auckland a shot, but didn't warm to the place, so headed north to run a cafe in Paihia for eight years. He spent time in Queenstown before moving to Christchurch in 2002 to marry his wife, Robyn. "The move was perhaps bad timing, given the earthquakes," he deadpans. "Our driveway is still tilting up at a 45-degree angle. But I'm happy here, making music in my home studio and doing occasional gigs."

Roy's backstory deserves a book. His childhood piano teacher, Ada "A Sharp" Sharp, was run over and killed by a No 5 bus. Peddlers' drummer Trevor Morais previously took over Ringo Starr's still-warm drum stool when Starr exited Rory Storm and The Hurricanes to join the Beatles. Meanwhile, Phillips and bassist Tab Martin worked for pioneering English producer Joe Meek, who recorded a host of eccentric pop gems at his home studio in London's Holloway Rd before using a borrowed shotgun to kill his landlady and himself.

Phillips once backed Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Gene Vincent on guitar, before being introduced to the Hammond B3 organ by Manfred Mann. It was love at first sight. "With the tone-wheel and the valves and the use of harmonics, you could make that Hammond talk! I had wah-wah pedals fitted on mine, much to the disgust of organ purists."

The Peddlers formed in Manchester in 1964 and were once managed by Joan Collins' dad, Joe. The Rolling Stones were fans. Princess Margaret, too. "Our background was jazz and blues, but we decided to make a new sound, and it took off after we got a residency in The Pickwick Club. We played a lot at Ronnie Scott's famous jazz club, too. He said we gave a whole new meaning to the word ‘crap', but at least we turned out to be popular crap!"

An old review in The Times talks of The Peddlers being unfairly dismissed as squares when they were in fact "singularly suave pop-jazz minimalists". Roy lets loose a big gravelly laugh. "That's a bit Rudyard Kipling, isn't it? Ha! But yes, we got respect from our peers. Bill Wyman from the Stones used to do things with us, and Hendrix's percussionist. When we played, the Stones and Status Quo would show up, Cliff Richard, Lulu, you name it."

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The Peddlers also worked with Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughn before they split in 1976. Then, to his great surprise, Roy Phillips kicked the bucket.

" I vividly remember the morning I died. It was 1994, and I was up in the Bay of Islands. The phone rang before dawn and, when I answered, the person said, ‘You're supposed to be dead!'

Apparently someone phoned a radio station back in England and said this old organ-plonker had shuffled off his mortal coil, so my death got reported on the evening news. People from all over the bloody globe started phoning up, and I'd pick up the phone and howl like a ghost.

 It's like that old saying: Jazz isn't dead; it just smells funny. I wasn't dead; I'd just moved to New Zealand! The only thing that pissed me off was a couple of uncomplimentary obituaries . . . Being insulted after you're dead's all very well, but no-one should have to read an insulting obituary when they're still alive!"

- Sunday Star Times

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