Forty-four years is a long time in any job, but to make your living as a bass player for the best part of five decades is no mean feat. When those years include playing bass for the likes of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins and Gary Moore, it’s easy to see why Mo Foster has written a book about the music scene that spans his entire career.
British Rock Guitar is a semi-autobiographical history of the rise of rock music in Britain. As Mo explains: “It’s taken about 20 years to pull all the information together, talking to all the people who were there at the time. It’s a funny book because, well, musicians are a silly bunch in a way. They have a wonderfully surreal sense of humour, thanks to the world they inhabit. It’s full of funny stories and anecdotes, but it’s been seriously researched. The writing alone took two years.”
Launched last year, the book has been well received, with a launch party attended by a who’s who of British rock royalty. Writing the book has given Mo an interesting lens through which to view not only his own career and those of his contemporaries, but also the state of the music industry in the 21st century. Gone are the days of non-stop work, endless sessions and tours on a constant rinse-and-repeat cycle. “The scene is virtually unrecognisable now,” he says, with more than a trace of regret. “I worked out the other day that when I got started in London there were 92 studios. Now there are six. There was one I used to work at a lot called Scorpio. That’s now a Sainsbury’s on Hampstead Road. I go in there and in my mind’s eye I can see where the drum kit was, but I’m looking at a pile of cabbages. It’s very surreal.”
Although the studios are no longer as numerous or as varied, surely bypassing record companies and numerous other gatekeepers and getting music straight into the hands of fans is no bad thing? “I don’t know. It’s amazing what you can do these days with technology,” Mo muses, adding, “I recorded a reunion gig of my old university band. We got back together to play a 50th anniversary gig. As you can imagine we were pretty ropey after 40-odd years apart, but we got better and I recorded the whole thing using a MacBook. I mixed it and it all sounded great. Anyone can make a professional recording in their bedroom now if they know what they’re doing. But the key word there is ‘if’. If there’s nobody to learn from, how do you learn good from bad?”
As the founder of the first bass education course in the UK, at Goldsmith’s University, surely Mo advocates taking on a number of certificate and degree courses? “God no,” he says firmly. “I mean, who wants a bassist with a degree? I’ve never been asked to provide a certificate before doing a session. Session work relies on you getting to know people, being reliable, friendly and a good musician. And you learn that by playing with people, which goes back to what I was saying about the death of the studios. Back then there was a grapevine. You landed gigs through it and you might play three or four sessions a day, all at different studios with different drummers and guitarists. That’s how you really learn. Don’t just wait to be spoon-fed information.”
Despite the lack of a vibrant scene, Mo considers it a huge positive that musicians are now able to make music instantly accessible to the world, via platforms such as iTunes. But like many, he’s concerned as to how musicians will make a proper living when people can simply buy a couple of tracks for 99p, and not whole albums. But, as he points out, it’s not much worse than the old contracts that artists signed, which he characterises – with a little justifiable hyperbole – as evil. “The record industry, and life in general, is full of people who want to screw you over. It’s horrible but true. Those old contracts were awful, with artists getting a penny per record sold, and even less. I always advocate taking legal advice, because contracts are often written in a way to fool non-legal minds. Also, any working professional should seriously consider joining some of the organisations like BASCA [British Association of Songwriters, Composers and Authors] and the Musicians’ Union.”
Despite the often cut-throat nature of the industry, Mo managed to do more than simply eke out a living on the edges. After a brief stint as a laboratory scientist, he committed to music fulltime, and has made it his sole source of income since 1968. He beat off competition from the likes of John Paul Jones to play with Jeff Beck – a dream come true. Recording and touring with a slew of other top names was a large part of his work, which he always sought to diversify, often to combat the relentless nature of recording and touring. “You’d be busy with studio work, then get the call to go out on tour for however many months, then back into the studio. Sometimes I wondered why on earth I was putting myself through all this. That’s why I’ve done production, teaching, library music and the like, all to have something else to do and build up alternative revenue streams.” I jokingly ask if library music is some kind of relation to elevator music. “Oh no. Basically you compose and record music on a certain theme, or in a particular style, and they then syndicate it around the world. If it gets used on a documentary or something, then you get royalties from it. It’s been good for me. When the studio scene collapsed it became a good source of income, much like for other players who moved into the West End theatres at that time.”
When it comes to the actual art of playing, crafting and creating great bass-lines and improving as a player, what nuggets of wisdom can Mo offer to us work-a-day hacks from his career? “Most people don’t realise it, but the bassist’s choice of note dictates how music sounds, and what emotion it evokes in a listener. It’s important to understand that. Learn some theory, and also learn to play by ear: that is really crucial. Make sure that you don’t just learn bass-lines. Be sure to learn the melody of a piece, the chord structure and harmony, because understanding that opens up all kinds of options for your playing. Also I’d advocate learning to read music. Don’t do what I did and get found out by the MD during a recording session at Abbey Road with a 50-piece orchestra. I’ll never forget the sweat in my armpits when David Rose asked me to play the bass-line with the rest of the orchestra watching, and I had to bluff it.”
So with the session scene dwindling, what now? “Well, I’m still doing the odd session and recording new music. But I’m going to be doing speaking engagements to help promote the book. I’ve done a few already and they’ve gone down a storm.” With a lifetime of hard graft behind him, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather listen and learn from.