For more than a year now, musicians unable to play live shows have been forced to use virtual venues, performing everything from solo acoustic shows filmed with a shaky iPhone to full-blown professionally shot band concerts on large stages. It also means that Ric Lee, drummer for classic rockers Ten Years After, has to give drum lessons to his students two days a week over Zoom. And it’s not quite the same.
“It’s awkward at times. Zoom isn’t really designed to [convey] the frequency of musical instruments. There’s drop outs, delays, and then you can’t hear each other!” Lee laughs from his home in England. “But I’ve got a good bunch of kids, and we make it work.”
He also hopes to return to touring soon to support two projects: a deluxe edition of the band’s last studio album, A Sting in the Tale (Deko) with bonus live tracks, and his autobiography, From Headstocks to Woodstock. Both are now available in the United States.
Lee adds that the tracks on A Sting in the Tale are more “radio friendly” than some of the band’s previous efforts (though what radio stations would be playing new music from Ten Years After are, unfortunately, few).
“A lot of our tracks over the years have been pretty long, so the record company would always have to make edits to send to radio stations,” he says. “And what else is new with this record is that all four band members have been involved with all the writing. Previously, it was Alvin Lee who did everything.” The current lineup includes original members Ric Lee and Chick Churchill (keyboards), along with Marcus Bonfanti (vocals/guitar), and Colin Hodgkinson (bass).
The origins of Ten Years After began in the mid-1960s. After various members played in bands including Jaybirds, the Bluesyard, and the Ivy League, manager Chris Wright told the quartet of Ric Lee, Chick Churchill, Alvin Lee (vocals/guitar, no relation), and Leo Lyons (drums) that they needed a better name. And while some sources claim it was a tribute by Alvin Lee to Elvis Presley’s breakthrough year of 1956, in Lee’s book, he mentions it was far more random.
He says that in 1967, Lyons picked up a copy of Radio Times—then the UK’s only radio/TV listing publication, and two program names stood out: Life Without Mother and Suez: Ten Years After (a documentary about the tenth anniversary of the 1956/57 Suez Canal Crisis). The immediately chose the latter as their new moniker.
The hard rock/blues rock band gigged and recorded consistently, but it took their incendiary performance of Alvin Lee’s “I’m Going Home” from the Woodstock movie to bring them to prominence. In his book, Ric Lee describes something of a chaotic scene on the ground involving disorganization and inclement weather, with Ten Years After the first band to play a full electric set after an August 17 rainstorm.
At that point, it was just an odd gig for many of the acts. It wasn’t until the concert documentary movie was released in 1970 did Woodstock really become “Woodstock.” Lee remembers attending the premier at a Los Angeles theater with the rest of the group and many of the other featured acts. It was only then that he realized the fortunes of the band were about to change.
“The movie did absolute wonders for us. When ‘I’m Going Home’ finished, the whole cinema gave us a standing ovation. It was unbelievable, it was gobsmacking!” Lee recalls. “And from there on in, we were flung onto the world stage and playing the Enormodomes, from playing to 6,000 people at the Fillmore East to Madison Square Garden with 20,000 people. And two nights at the Albert Hall in London instead of one. Same at the Budokan in Tokyo. We’d never played Japan at all until then.”
Later, they scored an unlikely hit with the psychedelic/socially conscious “I’d Love to Change the World,” the lead single off the band’s 1971 album A Space in Time and the band’s only Top 40 hit. “Chrysalis [Records] is doing something really nice for the 50th anniversary of that album this year, and it was a watershed for us, especially with Alvin’s writing. He was hitting the peak,” Lee says. “And Clive Davis had signed us to Columbia. He said ‘Give me the material, and I’ll give you a gold album.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”
But so had something else, and that was how the band’s management and label—with presumably some complicit behavior from Alvin Lee—was pushing him as the star/guitar hero of the group, at the expense of the other three members. Ric Lee says things came to a head when the cover of 1969’s Shhh featured only Alvin Lee on the front cover and the group on the back.
“That kind of upset us, and management were definitely in the vein of pushing Ten Years After as a ‘guitar hero’ band, which I guess we were,” Ric Lee recalls. “But still, the band was the sum of the parts rather than just any one part. Alvin was obviously the star of the show and had a lot of charisma. If you and I were in a room with a few other people having drinks and Alvin walked in, you’d know immediately that he had that something.”
Lee says the band “learned to live with it,” but did successfully push for all the group to do to at least a few of the interviews with the music press. The original quartet broke up in 1974 with one later reunion, but then all four came back from 1988-2003, after which Alvin Lee left (he died in 2013 after complications from surgery).
As for performing in Houston over the years, Ric Lee has one memory that jumps out immediately. But it's a sticky situation. “I do remember Houston! One afternoon, I came out of the shower in the hotel room and went out into the street. And it was so humid, I felt like I was back in the shower again!” he laughs. “I should have just stayed there!”
For more on Ten Years After, visit Ten-Years-After.co.uk
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