Bernie Marsden Interview – Beauty Of The Beast
Add another 1959 Gibson Les Paul to the legend…, Bernie Marsden tells Michael Stephens all about his Beast ’burst, its 2013 Gibson replica and the real truth about that Eric Clapton ‘Beano’ rumour…
We all know about the apparent ‘mojo’ of 1958-1960 Gibson Les Pauls. Initially poor-sellers, sunbursts – ’bursts for short – have become fabled in the hands of legendary players. Eric Clapton and his Beano LP. Peter Green’s (and later Gary Moore’s) Greeny. Jimmy Page’s #1 and #2. Duane Allman’s ’59 cherryburst. Billy F Gibbons’ Pearly Gates, and many more. Whether it’s rarity or something special about the build, ’58-’60 Les Pauls have now become the most sought-after electric guitars in the world.
Now you can add another to the list – ‘The Beast’ belonging to Bernie Marsden. In 2013, Gibson recreated the guitar and named the result the Collector’s Choice #8 1959 Les Paul ‘The Beast’. Despite the $11k price-tag, the 300 Beast replicas sold out immediately. With 40 years as a top and arguably under-appreciated player, Marsden has his own respect among blues-rock cognoscenti – but what of Bernie’s Beast Les Paul, used from early days in Wild Turkey, Babe Ruth, ’70s sessions for producer Mickie Most and onto Whitesnake, where mega-hits Fool For Your Loving and Here I Go Again were played and written on this very guitar? The Beast has a fascinating tale… and it’s one which crosses paths with other fabled ’burst stories.
The Beast is a ’59 – to some the most hallowed year of all, which is partly down to the medium depth neck profiles
Like most of his peer group, Bernie Marsden was first inspired to play the guitar by seeing the Shadows on television and, later, the Beatles. He had a Hofner Colorama, but soon decided he wanted a Gibson Les Paul. ‘There’s a picture on my website of me holding an early guitar of mine,’ he says, ‘but it’s not a Gibson – it was a Grimshaw copy. I just pretended it was a Gibson.
‘I was mad on Peter Green in my teens. I actually bought that Grimshaw from Jim Marshall himself in Bletchley, on hire purchase. I looked at a vintage ES-335 the same day, but I turned it down – Peter Green didn’t play those, so I wasn’t interested. Curses! I just wanted a Les Paul, or something that looked like a Les Paul.’
When Marsden got his first big break with UFO in 1973 (before Michael Schenker joined), he was mainly using a Fender Stratocaster, an SG Les Paul and a Gibson Firebird. ‘And I got my first genuine Gibson Les Paul at the time, also… but not the Les Paul. The first I had was a reissue, a refinished Gold Top. I didn’t know that at the time, but it obviously was, as it had a wraparound bridge. Then I got a three-pickup Custom, just like Peter Frampton’s, as I really liked the look of that guitar. But soon I was out of UFO and joined Wild Turkey [founded by ex-Jethro Tull bassist Glen Cornick] and I found The Beast.
Sheer playing time has worn away the lacquer and rounded the binding
‘This guy Martin [“Mart”] Henderson showed up to a Wild Turkey gig one day and just said to me, “I’ve got a guitar you might like.” He got it out of the case and, obviously, it was marvellous. I asked him how much he wanted, but his price was just impossible. He was a drummer himself, not a guitarist, but he collected Les Pauls. He was a Wild Turkey fan, so he came back to another gig the next week saying we could do a part-exchange. He didn’t seem to be a particularly money-orientated guy, but I told him: “Look, I don’t even have half the money.”
‘But Mart came back to the next gig at the Marquee and got backstage at the end, before the encore. He had the guitar again and just said, “Look, try it. I want to hear you play it.”’
Even on that first Wild Turkey encore, Marsden says his newly-acquired ’59 sounded far more aggressive than any other guitar he’d ever played: ‘The rest of the band thought I’d turned up my amp by about 5 notches! It was just a great-sounding Les Paul. It was a brilliant way of selling it to me, really. So I swapped him my black Les Paul Custom and a Stratocaster I had… I still owed him even after that, but he just said I could pay him when I had the money.
‘It had Schallers on it when I bought it, but I always thought they just looked a bit ugly. So I changed them to Grovers at first, but I got some original Klusons eventually, and that’s what it’s had for many years. Mick Ralphs of Bad Company [a friend and ex-flatmate of Bernie’s in the early ’70s] was notorious for taking stuff off guitars – a pickup here, a pickup there. But he was very good at it, and I never have been. So I didn’t mess with The Beast too much. I couldn’t be bothered! But I’ve still got the 40-year-old Grovers I did have fitted. But nothing’s changed since.
‘You can see in the pictures that the bridge appears original. Other than the tuners, it’s all original – as it was when I bought it.’
The Beast and The Beano?
Marsden saw Mart Henderson again, around a year later. ‘That’s when the first mention of Eric Clapton came up,’ recalls Bernie. ‘He told me that, apparently, it was a Blues Breakers Les Paul… but I’d already heard that that one had been stolen. But in 1974, this wasn’t such a big deal, anyway. There were lots of sunburst Les Pauls knocking around. I remember that Spencer Davis had one, which he was advertising in one of the West End shops for the princely sum of £225! Although that was something of a king’s ransom in those days. [Editor’s note: it would be £2000 today, a bargain for a ’58-’60 sunburst.]
‘But the Eric story was a good story, so I decided: well, I won’t say it is, I won’t say it’s not. So, yes, it was me who really perpetuated the story of what the guitar might be.’
However, it wasn’t only Bernie Marsden who thought his guitar was just maybe the Les Paul that Eric Clapton had played on the John Mayall and the Blues Breakers ‘Beano’ album. By the time Marsden had joined Cozy Powell’s Hammer – that’s The Beast all over Top 10 hit Na Na Na – others were commenting too. Powell’s ex-bandleader Jeff Beck turned up to an early Hammer show. ‘I was really excited to meet Jeff, first time in person, and he asked to see what I was playing,’ says Marsden. ‘As soon as he opened the case, Jeff goes: “Oh, was this Eric’s?” I just replied, “Maybe.” I honestly didn’t know.
‘Then, a few years later, I was doing a solo record and Jack Bruce was in the studio with me, and he said, “That looks familiar. Was that Eric’s?” So they both said the same thing on sight. Now, Jeff and Jack both knew Eric’s guitars better than me, so I started thinking: well, maybe this was Eric Clapton’s.’
The name of The Beast also came from Marsden’s days with Cozy Powell. ‘I can’t be sure who it was now,’ recalls Marsden, ‘but I fired into a solo and somebody said; “That guitar sounds unbelievable.” And I think I just replied, “Yeah, it’s a beast, isn’t it?” And Cozy would soon ask when recording tracks, “where’s The Beast?” It just stuck. It’s nothing to do with devil worship, I can assure you!
‘But Don Airey [keyboardist in Hammer and later in Whitesnake] still refers to it, I think, as “Eric”. “Where’s Eric?” he says. Now, whether that’s how the EC fanzine [Where’s Eric?] got its name, I really don’t know. It’s quite funny, really. But I can’t emphasise enough how this wasn’t a big deal in 1974, trading guitars around. There wasn’t the kudos there is now. If you had a guitar that used to belong to, say, Jeff Beck, people would just say, “Oh, nice.” Not “Oh, wow!” But it’s all changed in 40 years. I guess Cadillacs were quite ordinary when they came out. Now, if you have a ‘50s Cadillac, it’s treasure.’
The Beast was Marsden’s Whitesnake guitar from their formation in ’78 to his departure in 1982
The Number Of The Beast
With a serial number of 9-1914, Bernie’s Beast is a 1959. Clapton’s Beano LP was almost definitely a ’60, due to Eric’s recalling of its ‘very slim’ neck. Marsden says he’s never openly claimed it’s the same guitar as the Beano Les Paul, nor did he deny it. And it wasn’t until last year, 2012, that Bernie found out more about the provenance of The Beast.
‘It was December 2012, at the Classic Rock Awards, when I again saw Mart Henderson. And he finally explained. He said he bought The Beast from Andy Fraser of Free. And that Andy had bought it from Paul Kossoff. And Paul Kossoff had got it from Eric Clapton… so there you go, that’s the apparent connection.’
This is, possibly, the true history of The Beast. Kossoff and Clapton became friends when Free supported Blind Faith on their US tour of 1969. It’s known that Koss swapped a black three-pickup Les Paul Custom for a ’58 sunburst of Eric’s on that tour – not the Beano Les Paul, as that was stolen in 1966. The ’58 itself was auctioned by Christie’s in 2000, but maybe the ’59 Beast came from another Clapton/Koss trade?
This possibility gains some further legs, courtesy of The Police’s Andy Summers. In an interview he gave in the late ’90s, Summers stated that after Clapton’s Les Paul had been stolen, he’d sold him his own ’59 sunburst. If this was the guitar that eventually became known to be The Beast, then its star-studded past becomes even more illustrious.
The Beast isn’t played so much these days – as with any 1959 Gibson Les Paul sunburst, it’s incredibly valuable. However, it still enjoys significant outings. It’s on Bernie’s solo album due out in 2014, with guests including Whitesnake’s David Coverdale, Don Airey, Ian Paice and (hopefully) Joe Bonamassa. ‘It’s the solo guitar on four tracks – and believe me, you can tell which four.’
It’s also been played by Bonamassa, now a close friend of Bernie’s, who Marsden has guested with on JB’s ever-bigger UK shows. ‘The real pleasure now is hearing others play it,’ says Bernie. ‘When Joe played it, I finally got to hear it as a listener, y’know? When you’re playing live, you never really hear what a guitar sounds like. But in Joe’s hands, it sounded great. I know Joe told Gibson, “I’ve just played the greatest Les Paul I’ve ever known.” And now, here we are, with Gibson making a replica.’ (The story of the new #8 Beast replica is outlined below.)
Whatever its provenance, the Beast has become its own legend. Bernie recently played a low-key UK store demo when one fan emerged from the crowd and said he’d pay £100 extra to charity just for a photo of himself with Bernie and The Beast. Photo done, a cheque was written. ‘Things like that are lovely. I don’t think I can ever sell this guitar,’ says Bernie.
Bernie with the original (left) and the replica (right)
The Nature Of The Beast
The Beast was Bernie’s main guitar for most of the 1970s and early ’80s, including his days with Whitesnake. Bernie wrote the music for Here I Go Again on The Beast, and although he wasn’t even in the band when it was re-recorded for Whitesnake’s 1987 album – single and album went to no.1 in the US – The Beast has undoubtedly paid its way in songwriting royalties. But why is it so special?
‘I’m sure 90 per cent of it is psychological… a bit like an old pair of jeans or favourite shoes that don’t wear out,’ Bernie admits. ‘But it does sound amazing – it’s like a large truck coming at you! ‘It was the whole thing, really. The pickups, the weight? Those weren’t things that anyone cared about back then. When I first got it, no-one talked about the weight of a Les Paul, whether it was 7lbs, 8lbs or even 9.5lbs. It was just a guitar I wanted.
‘We live in different times now,’ Bernie smiles. ‘People sometimes say, “Oh, why didn’t you buy more ’59 Les Pauls?” I didn’t need to. I had the Les Paul that I wanted, it sounded great, and that was it. Why get another – just to sit on a stand behind me? I can only play one guitar at a time.’
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