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Bill Bailey: “I got a tremendous amount of pleasure out of listening to the Buzzcocks or the Clash, but playing the piano gave me the same sort of thrill”

Bill Bailey
(Image credit: Christie Goodwin/Redferns)

“Listening to the Top 40 in the 1970s was like going on some strange, eclectic journey,” laughs Bill Bailey. "You”d have the Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band next to Jean-Michel Jarre next to Emerson, Lake & Palmer next to the Muppets next to Donna Summer next to the Sex Pistols.

"I”m not one of those blokes that goes on about things being so much better in the old days because, most of the time, they weren’t. They were rubbish. But when it came to music, I do think that the charts exposed you to a much greater variety of styles.

“There is lots of brilliant, groundbreaking music being made today, but the charts feel far more… homogenised. I miss that feeling of watching Top of the Pops on Thursday night and thinking, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’ It was musical madness!”

Bill Bailey grew up in Bath, surrounded by music and musicians. His mum listened to the crooners on Radio 2 all day, every day; Dad liked nothing more than loading his favourite classical albums onto the family record player; Grandad was a jazz pianist who loved Oscar Peterson; his uncle sang in a barbershop quartet; and his cousin was a classical trumpet player.

"You can imagine what it was like at Christmas,” says Bailey. "About 30 of us, stood round the piano in the living room. Naturally, I wanted to get involved and started picking out tunes on the piano. Turned out I was quite good at it, so my mum decided to send me for lessons.

"My first tutor was the typical strict, older lady who concentrated on technique and finger exercises, but the music teacher at school had a totally different approach. He had a great love of music and felt that enjoyment should be rooted in what you were playing. I remember being tremendously encouraged by what he said and it spurred me on. It made me want to be a better musician.”

By his teenage years, Bailey was getting into some seriously heavy stuff. "Chopin’s Nocturnes, Debussy, Satie, Mozart’s sonatas, those huge Rachmaninov concertos where your hands seem to sweep over every one of the piano keys. Yes, I loved rock music and punk, and I got a tremendous amount of pleasure out of listening to the Buzzcocks or the Clash, but playing the piano gave me the same sort of thrill.”

The 1970s was also an era of musical comedians. Jasper Carrott, Billy Connolly and Max Boyce mixed up jokes, banter and songs on the folk circuit, while mainstream telly gave ample airtime to the likes of Victor Borge and Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song.

"Victor Borge was a huge influence,” admits Bailey. "Here was this fantastic pianist making fun of classical music. You weren”t supposed to take the piss out of classical music. It was sacrilegious! So, by the time me and my mate started a comedy club in Bath, bringing in a musical element didn’t seem like such a silly idea. Music is a very direct emotional tool. You can make people happy, sad, thoughtful, sleepy… and it can make people laugh.”

Bailey immediately noticed that instruments seemed to have their own humour hierarchy and set about learning to play as many of them as possible.

Once you’ve learned a few instruments, you automatically start thinking about the most ridiculous juxtapositions of instrument and song. Metallica on car horns. A dub reggae version of the Downton Abbey theme. Bagpipes for a yoga retreat.

"If I was at somebody’s house and they had a flugelhorn or a mandola sitting in the corner, I wanted to know how it worked. How did it make you feel? Could I get a tune out of it? Once you’ve learned a few instruments, you automatically start thinking about the most ridiculous juxtapositions of instrument and song. Metallica on car horns. A dub reggae version of the Downton Abbey theme. Bagpipes for a yoga retreat.”

Are there any juxtapositions that haven”t worked? Einstürzende Neubauten on glockenspiel? Enya on kettledrums?

"When I did the Royal Variety Show in 2012, I came up with the idea of playing Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture on car horns. But as soon as I started rehearsing, I realised it was physically impossible. My body simply could not move fast enough. I ended up looking like a contestant in one of those game shows where they fire foam balls at you. If you listen to the version that went out, we slowed it down a touch, which just about saved me from a dislocated arm.

"Exploring all these different instruments also allows me to think about music in a broader sense. On the face of it, music is this strange, abstract noise, yet it’s able to express the most profound human feelings. Bits of wood and metal that can sing to you.

"I suppose the best example of that is when I did the live show with an orchestra. To stand in front of all those instruments and feel them move the air. You begin to notice instruments with different personalities and the different personalities that are drawn to them. I felt part of something very special and came away with a tiny glimpse of music’s power… the power to bring people together and carry us away to new worlds.”

Did he feel that same power when he was whirling around the stage on Strictly Come Dancing?

"Yeah, kind of. Dancing is an expression of emotion. Think about how you feel when you’re at a gig and your favourite song comes on. There are times when I”m listening to music and I HAVE to move. The right combination of melodies, harmonies and rhythms is very difficult to resist.”

In a 30-plus-year career, Bailey has tackled music by some of his favourite bands - check out his ‘Kraftwerk’ version of The Wurzels hit, The Combine Harvester - and lined-up alongside Biffy Clyro, Anthrax and Killing Joke at Sonisphere. Does he ever wish that life had taken him down that road? A prog rock maestro with a studio full of platinum albums?

"There was a brief period with the school band when it got serious. I had three keyboards up on stage and we were playing a few prog rock covers. One lad managed to get hold of a smoke machine and that was it. I even thought about getting a cape. We were ready for world domination.

"Oh, well… at least there’s still time to play bagpipes at a yoga retreat.”

 Bill Bailey's top 5 favourite musical instruments

 1. Mandola

I do have a deep love of stringed instruments. The mandola is similar to the mandolin, but it’s got a richer sound that allows you to use it as a solo instrument.

“I always think the mandolin is a bit too high and thin to use on its own; you really need something to accompany it. If you’re a half-decent guitarist, you could have a stab at the mandola.”

2. Gibson SG

“Ah, this is a thing of beauty. Quite rare, too. The 1968 off-white version. My wife bought it for me as a present after she noticed me watching some AC/DC footage. It’s light, it sounds amazing and is probably one of the easiest electric guitars to play.”

3. Homemade Bible guitar

“This is one I had specially made for me. It’s got a cigar box-shaped body that is actually made out of the cover of an old Bible. Just four strings, tuned to 5ths. It creates this gorgeous warm sound and is just the best fun to play. The 5th tuning feels quite intuitive and you quickly find yourself picking out a lot of blues chords. Blues on the Bible!”

 4. Saz

“The saz is a three-stringed Turkish instrument with a long, thin neck and a pleasing, teardrop-shaped body. It’s got a very hard, resonant sound that really cuts through. Mine is a Greek version, so it’s got the double-stringing of a bouzouki.

“When I’m learning a new instrument, I do listen to the great players, but only after I”ve had a go myself. Figure it out, get to grips with some chords and melodies, then see how the pros do it.”

5. Yamaha Tenori-on

“A typically incredible piece of Japanese electronic weirdness. It’s about the size of an iPad and packed with LED buttons that can be used to trigger different sounds. As well as creating musical patterns, you get a visual pattern with the LEDs. You can "see” the piece of music you’ve written. Great for live shows.”

Bill Bailey’s En Route To Normal UK tour starts on 12 December 12 in Plymouth.