Gary Moore: Why He Dumped Heavy Metal For Blues

Bob Leggitt | Wednesday 7 October 2020
Gar Moore - Still Got The Blues

With huge success, in 1989 the long-time rock guitarist and singer Gary Moore made a dramatic decision to dump heavy metal and pitch head first into the genre of blues. The stark contrast in styles between his '89 metal album After The War, and his 1990 release Still Got The Blues, took many by surprise. But for well over a year before the release of Still Got The Blues, there had been signs that Moore was planning to jump ship on the circus of spandex and leather.

In 1992, Gary retrospectively admitted in a Guitarist magazine interview that he'd been two-timing heavy rock during 1989's After The War tour:

"I felt like I wasn't being myself anymore, like I was going through the motions... When I was in the dressing room before the show, I was just playing old blues things, and enjoying that more than the gig!"

Within the same interview, Moore credited Bob Daisley with the idea of making a blues album. But the shift was much more than a simple, one-man suggestion, and in this post I'm going behind the scenes to explore the transition period. Today, we might consider it brave for a guitarist with a metal fanbase to suddenly turn his back on his faithful. But as Gary later joked, the record company may well have seen the shift less as a risk, and more as a pre-nosedive opportunity to save an ageing rocker's career...

There had been a kinship between blues and heavy metal, dating right back to metal's roots in the late 1960s. But by the late '80s, the genres had drifted worlds apart, and metal had in fact become increasingly influenced by classical paradigms.

I recently reviewed Gary Moore's After The War album - released at the start of '89 as his final metal LP before the blues transition. After The War is an album which, despite some diverse ingredients, we'd categorise today as '80s metal. But Moore didn't see it that way at the end of '88. He saw two distinct camps of guitar player in rock-based music. Those, like himself, who played emotionally, through 'feel'. And a mechanical modern contingent who were basically playing by numbers. Who, exactly?... I will dish dirt in due course...

Upon release of the album, Gary Moore appeared to see After The War as a very earthy and organic product that was taking rock back to its past values and shunning the then current state of metal. In an epic 1989 interview for Guitarist magazine, Moore was clearly keen to distance himself and After The War from the archetypal metal of the day...

"What we have today is a set of very generic guitarists who have been through this process known as the Guitar Institute of Technology, and I am not a big fan of those... I think this sort of 'conveyor belt production line' of guitarists really haven't a lot to say for themselves."

It wasn't long before the references got a little more personal...

"I've got this nightmare of sitting at the Rainbow in LA, with Tony MacAlpine on one side and Vinnie Moore on the other, and listening to their ideas of how a guitar should be played! I hate the records that these guys make..."

Even at this early stage near the beginning of '89 (the magazine hit the shelves in mid February) there was a sense that Gary was not just tired of the direction in which modern metal was heading - but actually cheesed off with the heavy metal genre itself.

Tellingly, amid the same interview, Moore glowingly cited blues revisionist Jeff Healey as someone he could listen to all day. If ever there was a moment in time at which the arrival of Still Got The Blues was publicly heralded, it was when Gary Moore followed that comment with an unambiguous statement on Healey's See The Light album...

"It's given me inspiration... Thank god that blues is back!"

This, remember, was around January 1989 - well over a year before the release of Still Got The Blues. If you can get hold of the actual magazine - Guitarist, cover date March 1989 - grab it. The interview is long, and it covers a lot of territory. It's well worth a full read if you're interested in Gary Moore's genre shift.

Although there is a clear line in style between After The War and Still Got The Blues, there are still some consistencies. The main lead guitar sound is not significantly different, and you wouldn't expect it to be, since Gary Moore predominantly played a heavily overdriven 1959 Gibson Les Paul flametop across both albums. And whilst Still Got The Blues is a blues album, it doesn't shake off the sonic personality of '80s Gary Moore in the way the next album - After Hours - does. There are still remnants of '80s rock in there.

SGTB's first track, Moving On, seems heavily symbolic. It can be categorised as blues, but in tempo it's not a big step away from heavy rock. It's like the handing over of the baton. The halfway house, musically, between rock and blues, in which Moore ceremoniously ditches his recent past with thinly veiled lyrics.

We have to remember also, that across this dramatic transition, both Gary and his record company, Virgin, would have been apprehensive about losing the support of the existing rock fans, then failing to pick up enough new converts. Still Got The Blues was a raging success, racking up millions of sales, breaking the American market, etc, and it's tempting in the light of that to say they needn't have worried. But my sense is that the transition was a lot more choreographed than it looked. They didn't sit back and hope. They made it happen.

It was evident during the release interviews for After The War that Moore was speaking out to an audience of blues enthusiasts, and actively aiming to distance himself from his association with the heavy rock genre of the day.

In retrospect, when you read back through the After The War promos today, you get the sense that Moore was trying to get blues fans to buy a heavy rock album (with a bit of blues on it) - as blues fans had of course done at the very beginning of heavy rock itself. The Guitarist interview of early '89 was far from the kind of scripted, 'album-release whitewash', where everyone's on message and saying what they're expected to say. If there was a high point of risk, it was probably the release period of After The War. That was the point at which Gary Moore began to publicly reject heavy metal.

And there was some 'prep work' in 1989, which saw Gary working with blues and country artists - such as his appearance at Jam '89 playing classic blues covers with the likes of Jerry Donahue and Andy Fairweather Low. By the time Still Got The Blues came out, a lot of blues fans would already have been on board. Moore put in a lot of groundwork, which went under the mainstream radar, but certainly registered with the grass roots.

Still Got The Blues also mitigated its risk factor by hauling in a heavyweight complement of guests. The presence of Albert King, Albert Collins and George Harrison, no less, would undoubtedly have broadened the saleability of the album by some considerable margin. Not sure about anyone else, but Albert King and his trademark pipe were flown in on Concord for the session. Even the air travel was super-cool.

The blues categorisation on Still Got The Blues is at times very loose. That Kind of Woman is better categorised as heavy pop, and with the possible exception of Johnny Guitar Watson's Too Tired, it's the best-written song on the album. Better in my view than the star, title track, Still Got The Blues itself. George Harrison's songsmithery put the pedigree into That Kind of Woman, and Harrison also graces the number with some of his eminently tasteful slide guitar. The brass is great too. It's a belting track.

Appearing in 1992, Gary Moore's After Hours album showed greater blues sensibilities. And live on tour, those sensibilities were extended back across some of the music from Still Got The Blues. The version of Oh Pretty Woman from the Live Blues video and Blues Alive album, recorded in November '92, has a really cool duo of noted solo reggae singers - Candy McKenzie and Queen of Lovers Rock Carroll Thompson - on backing vocals. Listen to it a few times and then play the 1990 version from Still Got The Blues, and you really notice the lack of that powerful vocal support on the "No matter what I do" line.

Since a lot of guitar tech enthusiasts read this blog, I might perhaps also mention Gary Moore's rather eccentric amplification setup for that tour. He would use a really loud Soldano head, with a Marshall 4 X 12 speaker as a main output. However, since the decibel count was way into pain territory, the road crew would set up the stack in a completely separate part of the building, nowhere near the stage.

So that Gary could hear himself on stage, he'd connect a smaller Marshall Bluesbreaker cabinet to a lower-powered, 50 watt Soldano head. That would go on the stage itself, where you'd expect it to go. But the sound engineer would mic the Marshall 4 x 12 from the separate room, and route that to the PA. Result? Band on stage would retain their ear drums, but the audience would hear the rich tone of the mega loud stack, mixed down to a palatable volume.

So if you watch the Live Blues video, you'll be seeing a Bluesbreaker cab, but actually hearing the full blast roar of a 4 x 12 with a mega-cranked head. Now you know!

The success of Gary Moore's leap from '80s heavy metal, into the world of blues, spoke for itself. Some would say his blues was too... well, metally, for want of a better phrase. I know at least one blues fan who saw him live and was NOT impressed. Back in the day, Albert King diplomatically told Moore to cool off on the widdly-widdly a tad, so even among professionals there could be a little frustration. Especially since Gary Moore could play some of the most sensitive and expressive clean guitar you can imagine. But there was a place for that high-powered, technique-rich strain of blues, and I much preferred it to Moore's '80s stuff. If you preferred it too, officially, you have Bob Daisley to thank. But I rather think that the real architect of the transition was one Mr Jeff Healey.