An Interview with Bob Dylan's 1984 Drummer Colin Allen

1984-07-08, Slane Castle, Slane, Ireland

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I’m back! First let me thank everyone who jumped in with guest newsletters while I was on my DIY paternity leave - Rob Mitchum on Dead/Dead 1986, Tyler Wilcox on Oslo 1995, Adam Selzer on Rome 1984, Tim Edgeworth on Capitol Theatre 2017, Sara Hester on Germany 1998, and James Adams on the very first show of the Never Ending Tour.

My first “regular” newsletter back will come Sunday, but today marks the 36th anniversary of the final date on Bob’s 1984 tour, so I couldn’t wait to run this interview with that tour’s drummer Colin Allen.

Before Bob, Allen already had quite a career as a blues drummer around town, lodging stints with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Focus, and a pre-Police Andy Summers. In addition to his own bands, he’s written songs for Paul McCartney’s Wings, Fleetwood Mac, and others. Most relevant to his time with Bob, he had done a lot of work with guitarist Mick Taylor, both before and after Mick’s stint in the Rolling Stones.

Allen’s memoir From Bournemouth to Beverly Hills: Tales of a Tub-Thumper came out a couple years ago and is available at Amazon. There’s also a great and exhaustive biography at the website Bournemouth Beat Boom.

Now, my conversation with Colin Allen, conducted over email last month:

How did you get involved in the band? Was Mick Taylor the connection?

Yes, it was exactly that. Generally in the music biz, it’s who you know, not what you know, just as long as you are considered good enough to do the gig. Since playing together with John Mayall in ‘68/‘69, Mick and I never really lost touch and from time to time I found myself involved in various projects with him.

In ’82, I was living in Los Angeles, which had led to my playing that year and the following one with Mick and Mayall again in the Bluesbreakers Reunion band. When the Dylan European tour band was being planned, there I was in LA and relatively fresh in Mick’s memory, so he called to say Bob was checking out drummers and would I like to try out for the gig. I did and got the job, mostly, I think, ‘cos I had Mick in my corner. 

Were you a fan of Bob's prior? When he suggested something relatively obscure like "When You Gonna Wake Up," would have you have known it?

Fan would be a little strong, I was never a fan of much music that was reminiscent of the US folk scene - two exceptions being Joni Mitchell and Tim Hardin - but I of course knew of Bob. You can’t escape his songs. He was always on the radio and in the newspaper for one reason or another. The tour was to promote the Infidels album and luckily my flatmate had a copy, so I listened to that and of course knew a lot of his more popular songs. Anything I didn’t know could soon be learnt - his songs aren’t really complicated. He gave each of the band members about four cassettes full of his songs to help us along.

Several months earlier, Bob had played Letterman backed by an LA punk trio called The Plugz. I gather some people wondered if he'd tour with them. Were you aware of that performance? Was it discussed at all?

Yeah, I heard about the Letterman thing, and saw it a bit later. Only Bob knows what all that was about.

It wasn’t discussed at all, although my first day of playing with Bob, Tony Marsico was there playing bass. We didn’t say a word to each other - guess he wanted his Plugz drum partner Charlie Quintana on drums. He’d also been trying out for the gig, as had my friend Ian Wallace, who had previously toured with Bob. The second day at Bob’s house, [bassist] Greg Sutton was there and we immediately hit it off. Like myself, he had familiarized himself with the Infidels album, so any songs we played from that album sounded somewhat like the recordings, which may have been the reason we both got told the gig was ours.

When exactly did you know the job was yours? What did Bob say?

I found out the gig was mine on the second day, when I first met Greg. At one point, Mick disappeared into another room with Bob. When they reappeared, Mick walked over to me, bent down and said softly in my ear, “You’ve got the gig.” That was about it. Greg was told the same day. By whom I’ve no idea.

(The 1984 band. From left: Bob, Colin, Greg Sutton, Ian McLagan, Mick Taylor)

Can you say more about how the audition process went? I'm trying to picture what it looked like, who was there, how long it took, where, etc.

To meet Bob initially meant driving north along the Pacific Coast highway to his dusty ranch-like abode at Point Dume, about 2½ miles past Malibu. It took about an hour from my apartment I guess. Mick T greeted me as I got out of my car and took me into the house. I said Hi and shook Bob’s hand and proceeded to set up my drums with the rest of the gear in the kitchen area. Not much more was said to Bob. I greeted the bass player but that was it. Mostly I exchanged comments with Mick, who I hadn’t seen in quite a while.

I guess I spent about 4 hours in the great man’s company, running through songs. I don’t remember anyone else being there, although there could have been others in the house. I was ultimately asked to turn up the following day. I said okay and then left.

The rehearsals at Bob’s home only continued for about three days, mostly to find a keyboard player. Both Benmont Tench and Nicky Hopkins came along for a play but, for individual reasons, couldn’t accept the gig. Finally Ian McLagan came along and was a perfect fit - another old friend in the band.

Once Ian was in, the next phase of rehearsing took place at the Beverley Hills Theatre. It was always the same procedure, Bob starting up songs by strumming and the rest of us joining in. Sometimes it might be a Stones song just for a laugh. One time he started singing Boy George’s “Karma Chameleon.”

Basically, I’d say Bob was making a mental list of all the songs that found an acceptable feelgood level, organically, without any, “You play this and I’ll play that” approach - there was never any of that. Eventually I guess he thought he had a set list. Apart from a couple of things being dropped in the beginning of the tour, things stayed more or less the same, although there was always a chance of him wanting to play something off the top of his head. We played “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” a few times towards the end of the tour - never ran through that. “Señor” was another song that became a late arrival in the set. We also played “Lay. Lady Lay” just the one time in Spain - just played it in front of thousands. Also anything could happen during the encore section and often did. 

How are you coming up with drum parts? In many cases the arrangements are quite different than the studio recordings.

Drum parts aren’t something I ever gave much thought to - unless it was an odd time thing. Mostly I listened to what was being played and joined in - if it feels good, then that’s the drum part, apart from spicing it up a bit as you get used to the song. There were a handful of songs I counted in, but Bob started the rest by strumming his guitar. The band would then join in by playing their instruments’ signature intro licks, if any.

Although I’d be tapping the tempo on the hi-hat, I always waited for the first line of the song, so my backbeat on the snare drum was in the right place in relation to the melody. Artistes like Bob, who have spent a lot of time playing by themselves, can sometimes lapse and start singing without thinking where they are in the bar, which means the poor old drummer has to turn the beat around. I was determined that wouldn’t happen on my watch, and it didn’t.

Did Bob seem comfortable? He hadn't done a smaller-band tour quite like this in a few years.

Even in the beginning, when all kinds of stuff was happening – journalists saying how bad the shows were, etc. etc. – none of us had anything but a totally positive attitude. Those scribblers had no idea that we were making adjustments on stage as we were performing, on the edge, in real time. After about a week things fell into place, as we knew they would. Impossible to know what Bob thought; it was “here we go, see you at the end.”

What were things like backstage and on the road? Was everyone hanging out, or doing their own thing?

Backstage it was fun – lots of laughs, especially as the tour progressed. It was great having Santana on the tour; he and his band were great guys. Also nice to have our own tour plane, an old Vickers Viscount, so we were all together traveling as well, including promoter Bill Graham, also Bob’s sons Jesse and Jakob were along for the ride, plus Bob’s cousin, Los Angeles “Dentist to the Stars” Stan Golden, who was acting as the big man’s travel companion. The tour carried a table-tennis table, I believe, and, as I had played quite high level club TT for the YMCA as a teenager, I often played with various people including [Bill Graham] and a young Jesse Dylan.

Most nights Greg Sutton got a lead vocal slot (often on "Just Gotta Use My Imagination"). Why? Did Bob need a break?

One of the writers was a guy named Barry Goldberg, who I believe was a friend of Greg’s. He sang that on [almost] every show. I’m sure Bob was happy to take a break. How it came about, I’ve no idea. Greg was a really good singer and has written loads of great songs. He co-wrote the Sam Brown hit “Stop.” Joe Cocker has also recorded his songs.

Did you interact with Carlos Santana much?

No, I guess Bob invited him to come on with us for the encore, so he did just that and joined in. Other than that, we chatted occasionally, on the plane or backstage - he was very friendly. Somewhere in France, his three percussionists joined us on stage and did their collective thing on, “All Along the Watchtower.” Great fun.

In her memoir, Joan Baez described being frustrated with this tour - for one, she apparently had been told she'd perform with Bob a bunch, and didn't - and leaving early. Did you have much interaction with her while she was there?

I had no interaction other than the odd greeting with Miss Baez. As to her being part of the tour - that’s news to me. Her name was never mentioned, prior to her her first appearance, I think in Germany. She maybe performed at about four shows. I can’t remember her singing anything by herself. We sure as hell didn’t rehearse anything with her. She just came on stage, did a kind of impromptu duo singing thing with Bob, performed a bit of free form dancing whilst solos were played and that was it. All a bit superfluous really – but I would say that, ‘cos I was never a fan.

Anything in particular you remember about either of the final two shows, Wembley Stadium or Slane Castle in Ireland?

Well of course, Wembley was the big one. Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor and Carlos Santana on stage together, plus Van Morrison and Chrissie Hynde.

[Backstage,] I believe Mark Knopfler was there. I spoke briefly with former Traffic drummer Jim Capaldi. Tennis party-boy Vitas Gerulaitis was hanging round also. Pete Townsend was sitting next to my brother-in-law in the Royal box. He said he thought the band sounded like the Stones, which was not surprising, considering two former members were in the band. My dear old Mum backstage gave Mick Jagger a surprise kiss on the cheek - he recovered well.

Straight after the show, it was off to Luton airport for the flight to Dublin. At Slane Castle, the final show, we were again joined by Van the Man and also Bono, who apparently was living in the castle at the time.

Wait – how did your mom kissing Mick Jagger come about?

Apart from the lips, as you can see from the picture, I looked a lot like Mick. Backstage at the Wembley show and finding myself in close proximity to Mick, I decided to tell him I was annoyed not to have received payment for a session I had done for the Stones’ label. At the time (many years earlier), Mick had been producing tracks for a proposed album by former Mamas and the Papas singer John Phillips. As I was speaking on the subject with Jagger, my mother suddenly appeared next to me and after exclaiming, “There’s my son’s look-alike”, grabbed Mick and planted a smacker on his cheek.

Did you think that the album Real Live did the tour justice?

Not really. A few tracks were okay. There were other songs I always enjoyed playing. “Simple Twist of Fate” for example, I seem to remember us having a nice groove on that. “Every Grain of Sand” as well was usually good. In the encore section, we played “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” - that was a shuffle and could have been a nice addition. Only the last few gigs were recorded, maybe the best takes were the ones that got on. I guess Bob decided what should be on the album. Who knows – doesn’t really matter now - it’s almost 40 years ago and I didn’t get paid a penny for the recording anyway. There was something in the gig contract that stipulated any live recordings would not mean any extra remuneration.

When the tour ended, was there ever talk of more? Or was it known that that was it?

No talk, no nothing. We had no idea what the future held. I heard within about a week of the end of the tour that Bob was in the studio, fooling about with another bunch of musicians. Anyway, it was fun traveling around Europe with such a great bunch of people, and it’s not everyone who gets to play with a living legend, is it?

1984-07-08, Slane Castle, Slane, Ireland

Find the index to all shows covered so far in this newsletter here.