Graham Bonnet (Alcatrazz, Rainbow)

by Greg Prato

During the '80s, most hard rock/heavy metal singers looked identical. Early in the decade, the "David Lee Roth" look was in vogue. Several "Vince Neils" were spotted in the mid '80s, and countless "Axl Roses" came along in the wake of Appetite for Destruction. But you have to give credit to Graham Bonnet: you never saw him wearing make-up, mile-high hair, spandex, or a bandana wrapped around his forehead. As detailed below, Bonnet's look was modeled on a '50s film legend and a popular '80s cop show.

Oh yes, and Bonnet is also one heck of a singer, appearing on at least four albums that many consider to be '80s hard rock/heavy metal classics: Rainbow's Down to Earth, Michael Schenker Group's Assault Attack, and Alcatrazz's No Parole from Rock n' Roll and Disturbing the Peace. He's also an accomplished songwriter, co-writing the tracks on the latter three albums.

As a member of Alcatrazz, Bonnet and his then-mates (bassist Gary Shea, keyboardist Jimmy Waldo, and drummer Jan Uvena) helped introduce the world to two guitarists who would lead the pack by the end of the decade: Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai. Graham wrote with both of them during that transformative period when Steve and Yngwie were morphing into guitar gods, and has some interesting thoughts on their evolution.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): What are you currently doing musically?

Graham Bonnet: Well, at the moment, Mandy Wheatcroft, who's looking after my business in England, we're putting together an album that's like a special edition of tracks that have never been released. She's putting that together right now. And what we're going to do is put it on my site,, folks. [Laughing] How's that for a commercial? There are some songs that I've had, they've been put away on a shelf and have never been released. It's a mixture of different kinds of music, different kinds of styles, and it's really more where I'm at with my music, because I started off as doing R&B and more pop stuff and I was suddenly put into this bracket of being called a heavy rock singer, which is not what I wanted to do at first.

So this shows different sides of my singing and songwriting. It's kind of like Paul McCartney's albums when he went solo after he left The Beatles: a bit of reggae, jazz, a bit of everything.

So that's what's happening right now. We're putting that together and getting the booklet together with some photos and all that kind of stuff inside. It will be interesting to people who like what I've done in Rainbow or in Alcatrazz or other bands I've been in. It'll be another side for them to listen to.

Songfacts: How would you compare playing in the current Alcatrazz lineup to the '80s version of Alcatrazz?

Graham: Well, it's completely different. We have no keyboard player, so it's a smaller band of musicians. What we've done - a secret - is we've prerecorded keyboards. We play to a click track when we go on stage, because a lot of the music I made in the past has been very heavily keyboard oriented. So we've had to do that, unfortunately. Our keyboard player actually left - he went to get a real job, like big men do. He decided the music business wasn't for him anymore. He was our keyboard player and second guitar player. His name's John Thomas, and he's a really great guitar player and worked very well with our current guitar player, Howie Simon.

He left, so it's completely different. I often think about the original band, the first band we put together with Yngwie Malmsteen playing and then the second band with Steve Vai, and it was a completely different world then. It was very exciting, it was all new, and everybody's going, "Who are these guitar players?" But now there are so many guitar players that have that same kind of style, as well as singers who sing high, it's becoming done to death.

But I do miss that feeling of the first band. The first lineup we had was great, with Yngwie playing, and the second with Steve. Then the third one was with Danny Johnson who eventually went to play with Steppenwolf. Danny's a very bluesy player, so he found it hard to fit. He said: "I can't play all this heavy whittley whittley stuff." But he did. And he could. But a better job come along, so he went with Steppenwolf for about 13 years after he left Alcatrazz.

But the first lineup was a great lineup with Yngwie, because it was all new and fresh with this new guitar player, this young kid who everybody loved to death. I kind of miss that. It'd be nice to do it again, but I don't think that will happen. I don't think there'll be a reunion.

Songfacts: It's funny you said that - I don't know if I'm in the minority, but I actually prefer the Steve Vai lineup. I think the Disturbing the Peace album is an underrated '80s rock classic.

Graham: I like the second album best, myself. The first one was kind of a tester, because my idea was to put a band together that was kind of like Rainbow, basically. Rainbow Part II: keyboard player, guitar player who played like Ritchie [Blackmore]. Yngwie had been a big fan of Ritchie and people like Uli Roth, so he fit the bill perfectly. And when Steve came along, for me it was more interesting, because it didn't take the same kind of roads as so-called heavy rock would normally take, because he was from Frank Zappa and he had a different approach to music. He was very, very different, and I found it good fun to write tunes with him, because of the way he directed his arrangements guitar wise. And it gave me more space to write better melodies and think about better lyrics, as well. So I prefer the second album. That's my favorite album of all.

Songfacts: If you think of when that album came out, which was in 1985, when you compare it to some of the other hard rock albums at that time, I think that it was very unique and it had all well-written songs. It also sounded interesting - it didn't sound like all the other hard rock/heavy metal at the time.

Graham: I agree, absolutely. In fact, I spoke to Steve a couple of years ago and he said, "That's still my favorite album. Every song on there, I love." He says, "That's some of the best stuff I've done." And so, thanks, Steve, now you're a big guitar star! Because Steve went off on his own, as you know. He's doing very well.

Songfacts: Something else I've always thought that was also pretty cool about that era was your look at the time, which was totally different. I mean that as a compliment…

Graham: I didn't take it as an offense!

Songfacts: If you think back to 1985/1986, it seemed like the majority of heavy metal bands had spandex and huge hair.

Graham: Yeah. That was not where I was at. I got roped into being a so-called "heavy metal singer." When I was living in England, I was doing R&B and pop stuff, and I was very much into '50s music, so I had the suit and the tie and the bend-back hairdo from the 1950s. I was into that very much, the 1950s sort of thing.

I was given the chance with Rainbow and I went over there and auditioned with them. When they gave me the job, I wasn't sure I should take it, because I didn't think I fit in at all. I didn't want to grow my hair long, wear spandex and all that kind of thing. It's not me. I just didn't want to do that. That's a uniform I could never fit.

Songfacts: How did you originally cross paths with Ritchie Blackmore?

Graham: That was through Roger Glover. One of my friends, Mickey Moody, was playing for Whitesnake at that time, and I think Roger was producing their album. This is 1970-something. Mickey told Roger that I was doing some solo stuff, which was successful in places like Australia and New Zealand. Weird places - everywhere but England. Roger wanted to know what I was doing, so they invited me over to this chateau on the border of Switzerland and France, and they gave me a song to learn. I had to learn a song called "Mistreated," which I didn't know anything about. I didn't know anything about Rainbow at all, to be honest with you. So I had to buy the albums and learn one song as an audition.

Roger phoned me up and said, "Will you come over and do a song with us?" And so I went over there and sang at them and they gave me the job. That was it, really. Then I went home, thought about it, and I said to my manger, "I'm not right for this. I'm not like these other guys, long hair and all the rest of it. I don't fit." But I did in the end.

Songfacts: Would you say that played a part in your not staying very long in the band, that you felt like you didn't really fit with that band?

Graham: Yeah. It came to a somewhat slow end. Because Cozy Powell [drummer] left the band before we started rehearsing for the second album in Copenhagen, and rehearsals were with Bobby Rondinelli, the new drummer who came in. Cozy was a very close friend of me and Don Airey, you know. We're very close, and when he left, Don was threatening to leave. Ritchie didn't sometimes turn up to rehearsals, so it would be me and Don and Bobby Rondinelli there, and sometimes not even Roger Glover.

They'd look at each other, "Well, what are we doing?" "We're rehearsing for the next album." "Oh, okay." And we only had one song, just a song that Russ Ballard wrote, called "I Surrender." That's the only song we had. So we're sitting around looking at each other and Ritchie would come in for like half an hour and plonk on his bass pedals or whatever the hell, and then he would go. It was unproductive. The thrill had gone, so to speak.

Bobby Rondinelli really wanted to fix it and get on with it, but we just didn't gel and nothing was happening, so I went home. I went back to LA and the management called me and said, "What do you want to do?" I said, "Well, nothing's happening." I'd put down some backing vocals to the song "I Surrender," that's all I'd done on this album, because it was not going anywhere. So he said, "Do you want to sing the songs you like and have another singer sing the songs you don't like?" I said, "Well, there's no songs there. And two singers - no, that won't work for me."

So I left the band. That was it.

Songfacts: I've always wondered what a second Rainbow album would have sounded like with you on vocals, because I thought that lineup was headed in a pretty interesting direction.

Graham: The fun went when Cozy left. Because me, Cozy and Don, we were very close. When he left, it was not fun anymore. The only thing I did was backing vocals on one song, because that's all we had, and it was going nowhere. My manager, when I got back to LA, said, "You've got to go back." I didn't want to. I just didn't find it fun anymore. And if it's not fun, what's the point in doing it?

Songfacts: I understand. And then how did you cross paths with Michael Schenker and also sing on the MSG album, Assault Attack?

Graham: Cozy was in the band at the time, and he invited me down to I think it was The Country Club in LA. I went down and I saw the band play. I didn't know what was going to happen that night, but Cozy came up to me and said, "What do you think about the band?" I said, "Oh, it's great. Fantastic songs." I'd never met Michael before or any of the guys.

He said, "Oh, you like the band, do you? Do you want to be in it?" I said, "What do you mean do I want to be in it?" I said, "You have a singer." He said, "Well, yeah, he's probably going." So that's how that started. Gary Barden left the band or whatever happened there, I don't know the whole story. I don't know whether he was fired or he just left.

So then I went back home and a few weeks later I got some tapes from Michael signed "Urgent." There were three tunes on there that he wanted me to write words and melodies to, so that's what I did. And the next thing I know I was over in London doing rehearsals with the band for an album. I was suddenly in the band. It was out of the blue, really.

Songfacts: On the Rainbow album, you didn't write any of the songs, right?

Graham: No. Well, the melodies I did, but I was never credited for.

Songfacts: On that Michael Schenker album you had a much larger songwriting role.

Graham: Yeah. In everything.

Songfacts: How was it writing then, with Michael Schenker?

Graham: Well, he basically gave me the tracks and I went home... well, I wasn't at home. In fact, Roger Glover's house, of all places. I was staying there. I wrote most of the words there at Roger's house, sitting outside and drinking wine to get some inspiration, because I'd never actually written a whole album before.

It was quite a challenge, because Michael doesn't speak English too well. He couldn't write lyrics to his songs very well, and he gave me the job. He said, "Can you please write these, Graham, I can't do this, you know." So I ended up writing the melodies and everything. For me it was very weird to write words and melodies to songs that had an arrangement all there, and he had to fit in the lyrics and the melody. When I used to make up my own tunes before Rainbow, I'd write on an acoustic guitar and I knew where every part was going to come. But when a guitar player writes a piece, it's, "OK, where does the melody go? Where do I sing? Do I stop here, do I start here?" So it was a bit of a challenge. But Michael just said, "Do what you think. Come in wherever you want to come in. And then afterwards when we record properly, I will arrange my guitar parts around your vocal."

So it was a good challenge and Michael gave me a great job. And eventually it led to better things.

Songfacts: With Alcatrazz, how did the songwriting work?

Graham: Well, it was mainly me and Yngwie, the first version of Alcatrazz. I had ideas and I would play them to Yngwie and then he would embellish with his fantastic guitar playing. I'd say, "Okay, you take it from here." And it was usually me and him and sometimes the keyboard player, Jimmy Waldo. He would have ideas for an intro or a middle part to a tune, and that's kind of how it went. But it was mainly the two of us, me and Yngwie. I wrote the melodies, but we'd work out the arrangements together.

Songfacts: Would you want to set the record straight once and for all regarding if Yngwie is hard to work with or not?

Graham: He wasn't at first. [Laughs] But he became... he suddenly was engulfed by people telling him how wonderful he was. And when a kid is 19 years old and everybody's telling you how marvelous you are and you could be better than this, how you could be the next Jimi Hendrix, it was very tempting for him, and his ego suddenly inflated. He became not a band member anymore - he wanted to go off on his own. And eventually, he did. It just wasn't working. I could see it happening.

Songfacts: And how did you get in contact with Steve Vai?

Graham: Through Jan Uvena, our drummer. He heard that Steve had left Frank Zappa's band and he knew Steve. It was through Jan that Steve came along and we auditioned with him. I can't remember exactly how it happened, but I knew he was really interested in being in the band, because he liked the first version with Yngwie, the first version of the band. He was very excited to be part of the songwriting.

Songfacts: How would you compare songwriting with Yngwie to songwriting with Steve?

Graham: Well, with Steve it was more challenging, because he didn't do the obvious arrangements. At first I thought, "Oh, God, we're never going to get anything together." Then after a couple of weeks, it became easier and he would know what I was thinking and I would know what he was thinking. We suddenly gelled really well.

So at first it was hard, but then it was good. It took a little while, but eventually he knew what I was thinking and I knew where he was going with something. And Steve thinks those tunes we wrote together on that album were some of his favorite tracks ever.

Songfacts: Were there ever plans to record another album with Steve, or did he already hook up with David Lee Roth once the touring was done for that album?

Graham: We didn't start on anything. We were playing gigs and I didn't even know he was leaving. The band did, but I didn't. He said to the rest of the band, "Don't tell Graham yet," because we were still on the road, and he knew I'd be pissed off. And of course I was, I was very upset. "Oh, fuck." This is really going a good way, and then David Lee Roth saw him and he was invited along. And of course money speaks. He would get paid a lot of money, and the ultimate hippie suddenly turned into Mr. Givemethemoney. Steve was very hippie-fied: "The money doesn't bother me, it's the art." But then a better job comes along and, "See ya!"

Songfacts: Let's talk about memories of writing specific songs. If you want to start with the song "Dancer" from the Michael Schenker album.

Graham: That's about a girl called Toni Basil. "Oh, Mickey, it's a pity you don't understand" [the early MTV hit, "Mickey"], that girl. I met her back in the '70s when I came over here with my first wife. She was doing a TV show and she was a dancer. She had a group called The Lockers - it was this little team of dancers. And then she made this record that came out, and I couldn't believe it. She suddenly became very popular in England. So it's about her, "Dancer" is about her. How she suddenly became a star and how everybody adored her. I don't know where she is now.

Songfacts: And then what are some memories of writing the song "Hiroshima Mon Amour"?

Graham: I saw a movie when I was in school called Hiroshima Mon Amour [a 1959 French film]. We played in Japan a lot, and I thought this would be a nice little tribute to what happened. I was always horrified by what happened. And Hiroshima, my love, it was like, goddamn, you know, I didn't want that to happen again. So I read up a little bit about it, and that's how that came about. It was something I thought should never have happened. It was just a horrible thing. I couldn't believe that the Americans would do this, or anybody would do that to anybody. It was sort of a protest song in a way.

Songfacts: And what about "God Blessed Video"?

Graham: Oh, yeah. [Laughing] I was watching Duran Duran on TV, and I thought, "My God, what a great video, but what a crappy song." That's basically it. It was a gift that video came along and made these great videos of nice looking women in exotic places, but the song wasn't that good, and that's basically what it's about. It's like "Video Killed the Radio Star," if you remember that song. It was my sort of version of that, just saying, "Well, if you've got a great video, doesn't matter what the song's like. It'll help you a helluva lot."

Songfacts: And what about "Will You Be Home Tonight?"

Graham: That's about James Dean. I've read a lot of books about him, about his life and his death. There were a lot of people that were dying in cars, but this came to mind. So it's basically about him and the ride he took and how he had beer in the car and eventually was killed.

I was saying, "Don't drive drunk," basically. I'm not saying he was drunk, but be very careful when you do drive. In fact, that song was used by Mothers Against Drunk Driving back in the day, MADD. They used it on the radio, because that's basically what it's about, along with Jimmy Dean and his death.

Songfacts: Earlier, we were talking about your fashion back in the '80s. Would you say it was more James Dean or was it more Miami Vice?

Graham: It was Jimmy Dean, with a bit of Miami Vice thrown in. It depends on if I was wearing a Hawaiian shirt - which I dumped, eventually.

Songfacts: Would you ever consider writing or recording again with Yngwie or Steve Vai if the opportunity came up?

Graham: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Because no matter who they are now, they're still great musicians. Abso-fucking-lutely. I don't know if it will ever happen, because times have changed. People have gone their own way and everybody's got their own careers going, and now guitar players are even more successful than any singers or drummers or bass players. Guitar players are always going to be gods to people.

Steve and Yngwie have their own careers going, so I don't see where that'll ever happen. But I would invite them in if they wanted to knock on the door.

Songfacts: I sometimes wonder what Alcatrazz with Steve Vai or Yngwie would sound like if they worked on some new music together.

Graham: Yeah. I would love to do that. In fact, what's happening, it's not Yngwie or Steve, but Michael Schenker's been in touch with me, he wants me to do some live gigs. And out of the blue I got a call from an agent or a promoter or something, and they wanted to know if I'd be interested in doing this. It'll be interesting. I don't know what's happening with it yet - there's nothing etched in stone at the moment. But it was something that would be very cool.

Songfacts: I would also be curious as to what you could do with the classic Rainbow lineup. But I don't think that Ritchie Blackmore does rock music anymore.

Graham: I don't see that happening ever again. He's gone his own way again. He's got his own music he's gone into that he really loves to do. He was a big Jethro Tull fan, I always remember that, and he's gone that way with his wife, more so the medieval deal. He's found his niche, so to speak, and I don't see him ever going out there and playing "Smoke on the Water" or "Since You've Been Gone" again. It'd be great, though. I'd love to play with him again. He's a good friend and a good guy. I got to know him really well. He's not what people think he is.

Songfacts: Future plans?

Graham: I'm going to England next year. I've got a bunch of festival stuff I'm doing and possibly Don Airey will be joining me playing keyboards on some of the shows. It's something that I want to happen next year. But already things are being booked. So that'll be something interesting.

September 13, 2013
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 2

  • Donilo (serb) from ChicagoOne of the best vocals in rock n roll history. The Hiroshima song is a great dedicated song to the victims of the bombing thank you Graham for the history of rock you made in the past. Old fan since 1980 PEACE TO THE WORLD.
  • Tom from LondonReally cool. Love his honesty and respect for ex-bandmates. No bitterness, just humour and good vibes.
see more comments

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