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Renaissance fans all over the world have for a long time wondered what this gifted pianist has been doing in the years since he left the band. Now John Tout tells us of his early days before Renaissance and reveals insights into his involvement with albums such as Imagine and Argus as well as the Renaissance years.
Opening Out: At what age did you first have piano lessons and can you remember what your piano teacher said about your progress?
John Tout: I started piano lessons when I was eight years old. I had been wanting to play the piano since I was four years old, but we couldn't afford a piano. So when I was eight, my dad bought a piano for 20 pounds. It was a nice piano too. It was all mahogany and had been inlaid with mother-of-pearl and it had those brass candlesticks that came out. Actually it wasn't mahogany, it was walnut. When I was four, I used to pretend I was playing piano on the table. I used to go (demonstrates) like that when listening to records and stuff. Yeah, I started when I was eight and I had a teacher called Miss Salter. She was an old lady -- very Victorian -- and she always wore a white blouse with a brooch. She had pins in her hair with a hat.
Exactly, a thin small version of Mrs Doubtfire. She was quite strict and I never practised. I used to practise ten minutes before she came which was very naughty of me. But I did enjoy it. She taught me how to play. We never went in for any exams or anything. She never said anything [about my progress]; I suppose I wasn't really concert pianist material.
I think a lot of Renaissance fans would disagree with that.
Unfortunately I never had any theory. I was just taught how to read music and play the piano. I had lessons for eight years and then I stopped when I was sixteen because we moved and so she couldn't come anymore. Around about that time I was joining my first group. The first thing I did with anybody was with a friend of mine at school called Robert Allen. He wanted to be a drummer and he used to come round to my house and he used to play on biscuit tins and anything we could lay our hands on. We used to do things like selections from South Pacific and we would try and jazz them up a bit and have great fun. He later on did become a drummer, but I lost contact with him because he moved and never left a forwarding address and I've often wondered what happened to him.
Did you listen to classical music from an early age as well as 60s pop music?
Yes I did because my father played the violin, very badly I might add, but we always had classical music in the house. When I was at school and started having music lessons, the piano teacher was an Austrian bloke called Dr Prinz and he was a peculiar chap. He was of the opinion that anything after the baroque period, i.e. anything after Bach, wasn't music. So it was a very peculiar way to teach people music I thought. One day he asked all the class to bring in a record that they liked and I brought in a piece by a chap called Honegger, who is a bit avant-garde (laughs). It was a piece called Pacific 231 which is impressionist music. It is supposed to describe the journey of a train from beginning to end and I thought that was really exciting, lots of discords and wierd harmonies. Anyway, he screamed and shouted and he said (raises voice), "Take this away. This is not music; this is terrible" (laughs). So as I say, he was very very old fashioned. I like the Russian composers and I liked things that excited me because baroque stuff was a little bit on the tame side. It's all very formal and I liked the more adventurous sort of music.
In regards to 60s pop music, who did you like from that era?
Oh gosh! Well when I was sixteen to eighteen I liked Rhythm and Blues. I particularly used to go for people like Georgie Fame and Zoot Money. It was the organs that intrigued me. I used to love the Hammond organ. Jimmy Smith was my favourite; he played jazz and I used to just love that sound that he got on the Hammond organ. I used to like Tamla Motown. It's still one of my favourites - soul music, blues and jazz really. I used to like jazz that swung; I didn't like the avant-garde stuff and I didn't go for Ornette Coleman or these people that used to go (makes vocal jazz lick) all over the place. I liked something that had a bit of form to it; I used to love swing and I still do. I used to go and see Zoot Money and Georgie Fame at the Flamingo in the West End of London. That's the sort of music I used to go for. I wasn't so keen on the poppy stuff.
When did you join your first band and what were they called?
I joined my first band I suppose when I was eighteen or nineteen. I knew some people who knew some people who were in an Irish showband. The band was called The Walkers. I had an organ and they said, "Why don't you come play with us?" I said, "I can't play with other people," but I took my portable organ down. It was called a Bird and the legs came off. It had two keyboards. I wanted a Hammond but I couldn't afford it. So I got this cheap thing and the next thing I knew I was on stage in all the Irish dance halls playing Country and Western and a bit of soul. I was in them for quite some time and it was great because I used to get paid. I couldn't believe it. The next group was a bnad that we formed ourselves called The Collection. And there again we used to cover all the soul numbers, things like "Walking The Dog" and "My Girl." We did quite well. We used to play in South London a lot; we were quite well known in that area. That lasted a few years and then I went on to Ruperts People. We used to play some of our own numbers because Rod Lintern our guitarist used to write. We still did a lot of covers - Jimi Hendrix numbers. We went to Beirut for six months which was a bit weird. It was a bit of a con; some entrepreneur or another decided he was going to manage us and he sent us to Beirut. We were playing in a hotel, with a light show, which is where I met Miles Copeland who later managed us. He was at the American University of Beirut and he decided he was going to manage us and do a light show and have go-go dancers. I suppose that was the flower-power era, lots of light shows and cosmic things. That's how I met up with Miles Copeland. Later, having played with Rupert's People for quite some time, Rod Lintern had heard that this group called Renaissance were looking for a keyboard player because John Hawken was leaving to join the Strawbs. He made me go for the audition and I got it. I was really surprised and that's how the Renaissance thing started.
Did Rupert's People record any albums?
No, we never recorded an album but we did a couple of singles. I think one was called "Hold On" which was a Rod Lintern composition and there was one called "Prologue To A Magic World" and it was about Alice In Wonderland. It was that magical era when everyone was writing about love and peace and nice gentle little songs.
When did the involvement with the John Lennon album Imagine come about?
That was when I was with Rupert's People funnily enough because Rod Lintern knew the Kinks. The two brothers lived just round the corner from him. He also knew a guy called Mal Evans who was a Beatles' roadie. John Lennon had this idea. It was just after he had bought his house at Tittenhurst Park in Surrey and he had this idea that he wanted to do an album with all sorts of different people. Just drag them off the streets and ask them to come in and play. Because we knew Mal, Mal said to Rod, "Why don't you come down and bring as many people as you can." So we all went down to Tittenhurst Park and sat around waiting to be called. It was a very nerve racking experience. I didn't want to do it of course but I was sort of dragged into it.
Was the track you did "Crippled Inside"?
Yes it was. That's the one that I worked on just bashing out chords. They put me down as a guitarist. That was an administrative error on somebody's part. It wasn't anything serious, it was just John Lennon doing his usual/unusual stuff.
Did you get to talk to him at all?
Oh yeah, I did meet him and I met Yoko too. She was actually very nice and very friendly towards us all. We all used to eat in a big room. They would serve up lunch and dinner. It was a nice atmosphere. People were just lounging around smoking joints as it was in those days. It was a good experience and it was fun.
On Prologue, songs like "Sounds Of The Sea," "Kiev" and "Bound For Infinity" had some wonderful classical style piano intros. Were you aware then that what you were playing was different from other bands' keyboard players?
No, I wasn't aware at the time. I just played what came naturally really. It didn't seem as though it was different to me. I just liked classical music and the idea of Renaissance originally was to feature so-called classical music and that appealed to me, which is why I joined in the first place. So thinking about it, I could have been aware, not particularly consciously. It was something I enjoyed, playing classical music. It's funny really because I like soul music and I was playing soul music for a long time. I suppose the opportunity to do something a bit different came and I took it and carried on.
What was your approach when reproducing the orchestral parts, when Renaissance played without an orchestra? I'm thinking about "Scheherazade" especially.
Ah! Now "Scheherazade" would be a good example. I think we had recently acquired a synthesizer, the Yamaha CD80 and a smaller monophonic synthesizer called a Pro-Solist which had some brass, flutes and woodwinds on it, which at the time I thought were quite authentic. We had also got a string synthesizer, so I was playing piano, string synthesizer, the Pro-solist and the CS80. At one time we hired a Mellotron as well, for voices, for a choir. I got the scores and followed them as closely as I could. So rather than just holding chords down I would try and follow the string arrangements. I tried very hard to put in all the relevant parts. They couldn't all be put in of course but I chose the outstanding parts and did the best I could to give the atmosphere of the orchestra.
How did you feel about doing concerts with symphony orchestras when your piano playing was integrated into the orchestral sound?
Oh playing with a symphony orchestra was absolutely incredible! It was probably one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. It's a completely different approach. You have to follow the conductor. You have to be very aware of what's going on around you. I enjoyed it, it wasn't difficult because the orchestral arrangements were all done around us. I would play just as I normally would. It was just embelleshed and orchestrated around us. It was a very thrilling experience to play with an orchestra, definately.
How did the exchange of musicians happen when you played on Wishbone Ash's Argus on "Throw Down The Sword" and Andy Powell played on Ashes Are Burning?
We were both managed by Miles Copeland. They had written the song "Throw Down The Sword" and they thought they needed organ on it and asked me to do it. I think it was Miles' idea to play on each others' albums. It wasn't very difficult, just bashing out a few chords. They wanted something to fill it out and make it sound a bit grander and then we asked Andy Powell to play on one of ours.
Had you not thought of the idea of Annie doing a voice solo, or did that come later?
That happened later yes indeed, because we didn't have electric guitar on stage. Somebody said to Annie, "Why don't you do a bit of improvisation?" That's the first time she had ever done anything like that and she enjoyed it, and we kept it in.
The synthesizer sounds on Novella were quite dark sounding. Do you think it was a good blend of piano and keyboards?
Yeah I think it was. I was very anti-synthesizers. I just wanted to play the piano but I was talked into trying to be a bit more adventurous and once I'd got the hang of it I started to actually enjoy it. You can add more colour with synthesizers. "The Sisters" was the one particular song that was a bit of a breakthrough, because that's the first time I'd ever tried to orchestrate something myself and I think it came off quite well. It was exciting because it was a bit of a challenge and I think it did work.
What musical projects have you been involved in since you left Renaissance?
First of all let me explain that I didn't play for for ten years because my sister died and I had a bit of a block against playing. She was a piano player too and we used to play together. I was in therapy for three years. That was seven years after my sister died and I suddenly realised something was wrong because I was just staying in bed and I didn't want to get up and do anything. A friend of mine recommended a psychologist to me. I went to see him and a lot of things came out then. Basically what I was doing was blocking off everything to do with music; because my sister had died I thought the music had to die as well so I just shut myself away. I didn't do anything at all. So for ten years I didn't do anything at all. I started playing again when some very good friends of mine who live in Worthing bought a piano. I went down there and her husband said, "Give us a tune." I'd taken some music down to try this piano out for them as they wanted to know if it was any good or not. They encouraged me to start playing again so that's when I realised I could actually take back all the stuff that I'd buried.
I tried a few things with Terry [Sullivan] that never quite came off. I'm talking about quite some time ago now. Terry was writing and we used to work on a few songs, but they never actually got released or came to anything. There again it started me playing, although I was still very nervous and lacking in confidence. So I didn't do a lot really. As a matter of fact I've started again now. Terry's working on an album and I've been going down there. I've played more. I've started practising again, which is something that I left off doing and another thing that I'm doing is with a friend of mine -- funnily enough he was in Renaissance for a while -- called Peter Finberg who plays guitar. He's also a computer programmer and he sold me this computer with a sound card in it. I'd recently bought a Kurzweil which has got a really great piano sound in it and of course it's MIDI. He set me up with this sound card and I can record straight onto the computer. He's a songwriter too and I've been playing on his songs. He's very good at putting down bass and drum lines and we add the stuff over the top, so I'm doing a lot more than I was so I'm a bit more active now.
Which is your favourite Renaissance album and why?
Well that's a very difficult question of course. I've got three albums that I really like. Obviously A Song For All Seasons is one of them. I think personally my favourite album would be Novella mainly because there was a lot of piano on it. It was the time when I was beginning to write properly and I enjoyed composing. I was quite pleased with "The Captive Heart" because we just went into the studio and I just had the chords written out and I just basically improvised with Annie singing and we just went in and did it. "Can You Hear Me Call" was another epic-type thing with very exciting orchestrations there again. "Midas Man" I personally think could have been a single. I was quite pleased with that too, using the synthesizer again which I wasn't used to but I thought it came off quite well. "Touching Once (Is So Hard To Keep)," another orchestral epic-type number. I used to enjoy the longer ones better than the short ones, because there's more scope for passages of music. On Scheherazade, "Trip To The Fair" is another one of my favourite numbers. So I would say, Novella, Scheherazade and A Song For All Seasons.
What are your hopes and plans for the future?
Ah! Well my hopes and plans for the future basically are to get back into music again because I've been out of it for so long and Terry's been encouraging me. There are a couple of things in the pipeline coming up. At the moment I'm working as a temporary Telex operator which, although I quite enjoy, is not as satisfying as playing music. What I plan to do this year, when I've got the time is go to evening classes and brush up on my theory and teach piano. That's what I've decided I would like to do. I've been helping a young girl who lives in the same block of flats. She's learning piano and she often knocks on my door and says, "I'm in trouble, can you come and help me?" I've helped her a few times and explained things to her. That's when I thought I'd be quite good at teaching. I've got a lot of patience and I'm very good with people. I like to make it fun. Those are my immediate plans for the future. Change my job and become a piano teacher. And of course continue and hopefully get back into composting and playing again.