SB & Q: Biography of the Band
It's difficult to write much about the Sutherland Brothers as people. Of the fact that they were a great band, there is absolutely no doubt. They wrote some of the great songs of the seventies and their music was a soundtrack to a generation of rock fans. To hear them play live was an experience to relish. Their songwriting consisted of clever wordplays, wonderful expressions of emotion and a fusion of the folk idiom with rock music. However, the group tended to let the music speak for them; they were not self-publicists and apart from an occasional photograph on an album cover, there was little information made available about them.
Iain Sutherland (17.11.1948, Ellon) and Gavin (6.10.1951, Peterhead) enjoyed their early years in the north-east of Scotland, where their father was a musician in a dance band called The Melody Makers. Various other family members were musical too, so they were brought up to sing, play instruments and listen to American jazz and traditional Scottish folk or religious music. Then in the mid fifties the family moved down to Stoke-on-Trent, where the tastes of friends and the pop input of Radio Luxembourg added to the variety of their musical influences.
Initially, Iain, who had been writing songs while in his teens, had formed a group called the Mysteries in the early sixties, before he and Gavin teamed up to go off to London to seek their fortune in 1970. There, their manager decided they would be called A New Generation, much against the band's better judgement. The group featured Iain on guitar, Gavin on bass, Christopher Kemp on keyboards and John Wright on drums. They recorded three singles for the Spark label (one, Heartbreaker, under the name The Baby) and also did a few sessions at the Maida Vale studios for John Peel's programme. Smokey Blues Away turned into a minor hit in the UK and was released on Imperial in the United States.
Wanting to move away from their existing management, they plied their wares around several record companies. Muff Winwood, formerly of the Spencer Davis Group, listened to a demo and immediately gave them a recording contract with Island Records. The original Sutherland Brothers Band involved Gavin and Iain, alongsideTheir first album gained a following for the band because of wonderful folk-rock tracks such as The Pie, which perhaps struck an affinity with many of its listeners because of its subject matter.
By the time their second album was released, the Sutherlands were proving themselves to be a strong pair of songwriters with exceptionally tight vocals. Their voices harmonised beautifully and their songs had a splendid lyrical quality. If anything, having lost the two members of the original, folkier Sutherland Brothers Band, their problem was in getting together a group of musicians to perform the songs live that they had recorded with session musicians in the studio.
Joining with Quiver
In the meantime, Quiver was a group that had produced a couple of albums for Warner Brothers, but appeared to be going nowhere, mainly because they lacked good songs and a distinctive vocalist. They had the distinction of being the first group ever to perform at the Rainbow, Finsbury Park, where they supported The Who. However, they needed to look at how they could develop their undoubted musical skills using decent material.
Thus, in 1973, was the marriage of the two groups set up. SB&Q was formed and five great albums followed. An outstanding touring band, they worked hard to produce a good live sound that had audiences on their feet. They spent a number of years on the road, both in Europe and the United States, where You Got Me Anyway was a top twenty hit.
Chart success in their own country was harder to come by and although Dream Kid got plenty of radio play, it didn't get the sales it deserved. Album sales, however, remained respectable amongst the group of fans who acknowledged the talent that was bursting to be recognised. Then along came Rod Stewart. He had followed their songwriting skills for some time and wanted to record Sailing (taken from their first LP). As with his many other (mis)interpretations of people's songs (q.v. Van Morrison's Have I Told You Lately and Tom Waits' Tom Traubert's Blues), he went for the simplistic, but the result was a massive hit. In 1975, it made number one and stayed 11 weeks in the charts. A year later, on the strength of its use over the titles of a TV documentary on the Ark Royal aircraft carrier, it re-charted, making number three and staying in the charts for 20 weeks.
In the meantime, the group were heading towards something of a dead end. Their deal with Island Records had reached an end, with their fourth album not even getting a US release and singles foundering just outside the charts. They were seriously considering winding up the group on the basis that more money could be earned from songwriting and session work than from being in a single unit. A new manager changed everything. Nick Blackburn brought both enormous encouragement and a deal with CBS. This resulted in a less intellectually inspired album, but with a major hit. The Arms of Mary reached number 5 in the UK charts and has remained a favourite for MOR audiences ever since, appearing on compilation albums and ensuring a guaranteed royalties payment that's as good as a pension fund. The song was also recorded by the Canadian group Chilliwack in 1978.
After one major tour to back up the hit single, things started to fall apart. Perhaps it was because the hit single had attracted an audience that was at odds with the spirit of the group's music or perhaps there just wasn't a genuine prospect of maintaining the impetus of further hits. Either way, the follow-up album resulted in a number of singles being released, but without success. The ascent of punk meant the death of this fine group. Two more great albums, under the Sutherland Brothers name followed, but thereafter, it was the end.
In 2019, Cherry Red Records brought together all eight LPs released by the band in its various forms and added material that had only been issued on singles. They created a Box Set which contains eight CDs in slip cases, with each cover replicating the original LP. There's a 32 page illustrated booklet annotating the band's history and including up-to-date interviews with the four main band members.
After the Group
The brothers had built a small studio, "Sweet 16" in an outhouse of Iain's house, and this became a focal point for Stoke's thriving music scene. Iain Sutherland brought out two fine albums in the early eighties. He and Gavin also contributed vocals to an album by Any Trouble in 1984, as well as a Clive Gregson solo LP, but Iain subsequently concentrated more on songwriting than performing. He acknowledges his Scottish roots as being influential in the style and content of many of his songs. "There's a lot of sea in our blood," Iain told Q magazine in 1994. Although he said he missed the "unique adrenaline rush" of a gig, he got his satisfaction out of getting a song he'd written down on tape. He enjoyed living the quiet country life in Staffordshire, but after having contributed little bits to some of Gavin's solo CDs, Iain put together the delightful Back to the Sea in 2015. Although a further release was certainly intended, illness prevented the conclusion of the project and Iain died from cancer on 25 November 2019, aged 71.
Gavin had a brief sojourn playing bass with Demon in 1984/5, after being asked to help out by drummer John Wright who had gigged with the brothers in their earlier years. He also brought out a solo album for a Dutch label in 1982, but was shifting direction from performer to producer. Interestingly, the album has a sound that is not unlike that of Gerry Rafferty in some of its tracks. He did some touring with boogie-woogie piano player Terry Butters, with whom he's kept close professional contact over the years, in a group called the Red Sierras. Although he kept writing songs, he allowed other aspects of his working life to dominate. By the late 90s he was involved in an audio production company, making adverts and jingles for local TV and radio, as well as producing music for movies, although he has eased away from media work now. A second CD came out on Corazong Records and a third, having sold out in CD format is currently still available to download from Gavin's website. 2013 saw the release of his fourth solo CD, Tango at the Lost Cafe. He has a fascination for the local history of the area he stays in (North of Scotland) and has written or edited books on the subject. He managed a community studio in that area and spends a lot of time recording music by himself or other local players. Fairly recently, he produced an album by fiddler Duncan Wood and Cathal McConnell of Boys of the Lough fame. It's a CD of traditional Scottish and Irish songs under the title Auld Spring Gies Nae Price. Gavin has also toured the west of Scotland and the Western Isles with Duncan, performing a mix of traditional Scottish music and some of Gavin's songs. Most recently, a stream of CDs emerged from what is clearly a very productive period in Gavin's life: A Curious Noise (2015), Wireless Connection (2017), and A Traveller's Tales (2019). He also released a downloadable EP of songs after reuniting with people from the first group he played in - The Red Sierras.
Bruce Thomas (14.8.1948, Stockton-on-Tees) left the band in 1975, before their real fame broke. He moved on to play with Elvis Costello & The Attractions on a number of their albums, as well as playing for Paul McCartney, Suzanne Vega, The Pretenders and Billy Bragg. His book, The Big Wheel is something of an exposť of the rock music circuit and the kind of life band members faced. It's a thinly disguised description of touring with Elvis Costello and is quite entertaining. Canadian, Cal Batchelor also left the band, virtually at the point of merger, so he wasn't involved in any of the SB&Q's recordings. He went on to work with Kevin Ayers, Al Stewart, Ronnie Lane and Kicks before returning to Canada to form his own band.
Drummer John Willie Wilson (8.7.1947, Cambridge) stayed with the band till after Down To Earth, when he found it difficult to maintain satisfactory communications while he stayed in London and the brothers were based in Stoke-on-Trent. His early work had been with Cochise, who produced two tasty albums, before he moved onto Quiver. After SB&Q, Wilson worked with the touring version of Pink Floyd, performing The Wall, as well as playing on Dave Gilmour's first eponymous solo album. Apart from running a London pub, selling car stereos and writing TV jingles, he has performed with a range of artists and worked with a number of musicians, including Tim Renwick, Snowy White and Clem Clemson in The Dolphins blues band. More recently, he worked with The Coyotes, a country music band. He then teamed up with Tim Renwick in a band called the Bucket Boys playing lively gigs around the Westcountry. Their excellent CDs are available from the group's website, price £11 each. See Record Listings for track details. That group has now stopped playing due to the ill health of their lead singer, so Willie has now formed another group - a trio - with the aim of keeping performing around Cornwall.
Peter John Wood - sometimes referenced as Woods - (born Middlesex, 1950) played keyboards for SB&Q and was responsible for those marvellous trills on live performances of Real Love. He also moved on to play in Natural Gas, Rivits and then the Bleeding Heart Band on Pink Floyd's The Wall tour. He was co-writer (with Al Stewart) of Year of the Cat. He stayed in the music business as a session musician, backing, amongst others, Al Stewart, Carly Simon and Cyndi Lauper but, sadly, allowed drink and drugs to take over his life. They were the cause of his death - although suicide was the official verdict - in December 1993. For more details on the many recordings that Pete Wood contributed to, see Miguel Terol's excellent webpage.
Tim Renwick (7.8.1949, Cambridge) was an astounding guitarist, taking live performances to heights that most groups could never achieve. He went to the same school as Syd Barrett and Roger Waters, before joining Little Women, then Wages of Sin. He had been a support musician for the second Cochise album, while a member of Junior's Eyes, the group that were the session musicians for David Bowie's Space Oddity album. After touring with Bowie, Renwick moved on to become part of Quiver. Since his departure from SB&Q, he has had a prolific career as a session and touring musician with a number of top acts. His spectacular guitar solos have featured live or on album with people such as Mike Oldfield, Procol Harum Pink Floyd, Elton John, The Bee Gees, Tom Jones, Eric Clapton, Celine Dion, Al Stewart and Mike Rutherford's Mike & The Mechanics. A much fuller listing of Tim's various collaborations is available on this dedicated website. Now living the secluded life in Cornwall, Tim first teamed up with Willie Wilson in a band called the Bucket Boys and three excellent CDs are available from the group's website, price £11 each. You can also obtain Tim's own fine CDs of instrumentals - Privateer and, most recently, Vintage Blues Guitar - from his website. See Record Listings for track details. Tim is now working with a female vocalist, with plans to perform around the south-west of England
Since leaving the original Sutherland Brothers Band, Kim Ludman has worked as a session musician for Island Records, worked in several bands, built his own studio and is currently singer & guitarist for Out of the Blue (website here). Neil Hopwood moved on to join the Irish group Dr Strangely Strange, playing psychedelic folk-rock in a style similar to the Incredible String Band. Apparently, he was recruited out of the audience during a gig. He then moved on to join Lip Service, a Midlands-based pop group before doing a load of session and touring work. More recently, Hopwood, now going under the forename Fred, rather than Neil, has been involved in the Uttoxeter band scene, as drummer for the Zydeco Brothers and for the Vice-Bishops Blues Band, amongst others, all around the Smalltown Music record label..
I believe it to be more than merely a desire to live in the past that drives fans to think fondly of the music that The Sutherland Brothers produced over the seventies. The move towards a retrospective view of rock music may yet encourage a regrouping and tour. Now that CBS has re-issued many of their albums, as well as a great compilation CD, this may also stimulate a demand for the group to make appearances, in some form or other. We must wait and see.