Bernie Marsden / Farewell To The Quiet Legend

In a world full of egos and flash, Bernie Marsden was an unassuming giant of rock who preferred to let his guitar do the talking. His passing on the 24th of August has left a hole that none could hope to fill, but the legacy of his music will be something that will genuinely echo down generations to come, the songs he wrote and his fretwork loved by countless thousands.

Bernie Marsden – 7 May 1951 – 24 August 2023

Words: Paul Monkhouse

That offers some comfort for the many of us who are feeling this loss deeply, but for anyone who has ever had the privilege of meeting him, the fact that such a warm and generous man was also one of the finest guitar players and songwriters this country has produced, this opportunity to sit down and truly think about Bernie is both heartbreaking and a blessing.

Born on the 7th of May 1951 in Buckingham, the young Bernie had soon been bitten by the bug of rock ‘nʼ roll, the excitement of watching Marty Wilde, Joe Brown and Cliff Richard on the television, something that had him hooked straight away. He had the fortune of seeing some touring artists play locally, and from that moment onwards, his mind was made up about his future path.

Bernie Marsden and Joe Bonamassa at Abbey Road Studios_photo by Christie Goodwin
Bernie Marsden and Joe Bonamassa. Photo: Christie Goodwin

After begging his parents for a guitar, he was given an old acoustic and spent endless hours learning how to play it until his fingers bled, but with his surprise mastering of television tunes, they agreed to buy him an electric one.

Joining his first band The Jokers, aged fourteen, Bernie soon got a great reputation, his focus on his guitar and playing something that became the core of all he did. Forming his own band Skinny Cat, three years later, life on the road became a near-constant draw, and he started plying his trade far and wide as the outfit ventured outside their own home county.

More gigs followed, and a show with a young Gary Moore inspired him further, Bernie witnessing the young Belfast boy’s incredible talent was a spur to develop his own skills. With a first, ill-fated professional engagement as an early guitarist with UFO in 1972, there was still time to endorse others whilst he was going through terrible times. The suggestion of Michael Schenker as someone who should join the band set both the London rockers and the German six-stringer onto a path that would change the world.

Happier times beckoned as his joining Cozy Powell’s Hammer provided a friendship that would last until the tragic death of the hard-hitting drummer. Powell opened some additional doors that would prove incredibly fruitful, including the chance to be part of post Deep Purple outfit Paice Ashton Lord.

Hugely respected, life then brought the biggest choice of paths yet, and either would have brought fame, but only one led to immortality. A deep bond friendship forged with Jon Lord led to the renowned keys player taking the guitarist along with him to meet his former Purple colleague David Coverdale, who was in the process of getting together a new band, Whitesnake.

Forming the heavy blues rock outfit meant turning down the audition for Wings and the opportunity to work with early hero, Beatle Paul McCartney. It was one of those sliding doors moments, and to see what would have happened there was a fascinating prospect, but life was just about to take off into the stratosphere.

Whilst it took a little time for the line-up to settle down, the Coverdale/Marsden writing team clicked immediately, the Saltburn-born singer seeing the magic there and an instant bond of respect and appreciation reaped huge dividends.

As well as his phenomenal playing and writing skills, Bernie impressed hugely with his vocal chops, and it’s a huge testament that Coverdale stepped back and let Bernie take the lead on tracks on both Trouble and Lovehunter.

Bernie Marsden. Photo: Chris Griffiths
Bernie Marsden. Photo: Chris Griffiths

The next few years would see the band grow from nothing into world-conquering behemoths, and a huge key to that success was the songs. Whilst fellow guitarist Micky Moody brought some titanic playing and writing to the pot, it was Bernie’s knack with a huge hook or melody that led to classics like the titular Trouble, Come On, Walking In The Shadow Of The Blues and Sweet Talker.

Of course, the trio of Coverdale, Marsden and Moody created Lovehunter and Fool For Your Loving, but even these monsters were eclipsed by one song that was to become not just the biggest in their catalogue but one of the greatest rock anthems of all time.

Released in 1982 on the Saints And Sinners album, Here I Go Again was an instant hit, cracking the UK Top Forty and instantly finding a place in the hearts of all who heard it. Sadly, this was to be the last Whitesnake album that Bernie would play on, poor decisions driven by bad management seeing what is seen as the classic line-up being torn apart and the end of an era.

The song would be re-recorded and released on the massive 1987 album, but this time with John Sykes and Adrian Vandenberg. This gave it an even bigger audience, but nothing could take away the magnificence of the writing and guitarwork that imbues the original with so much heart.

After his departure from Whitesnake, Bernie went on to form Bernie Marsden’s SOS and Alaska, both of which this writer saw and enjoyed immensely, but sadly, neither really took off.

More success was found in 1986 when he hooked up with old ‘Snake pal Neil Murray and, ironically, his six-string replacement in Coverdale’s outfit, Mel Galley in MGM, later hooking up with another former bandmate to form The Moody Marsden Band.

Soon after, M3 were born, changing to The Snakes and then Company of Snakes in some sort of Spinal Tap-like alterations, eventually changing their name back to M3 before they split in 2006, having played all over the world to thousands of ecstatic fans.

Outside of his time with bands, Bernie enjoyed a flourishing solo career that began with the much-lauded And About Time Too in 1979 and the follow-up Look at Me Now, equally well-received by critics and fans alike.

With work on film soundtracks, two Shakespeare plays at the National Theatre, writing for Joe Bonamassa, playing with Elkie Brooks and a career highlight as part of Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band, amongst other achievements, he was always in demand.

Bernie Marsden - Joe Bonamassa. 2020
Bernie Marsden – Joe Bonamassa. 2020. Photo: Eric Duvet

“I am truly heartbroken,” said Joe Bonamassa. “Bernie Marsden was the kindest soul. I met him on May 4, 2009 at my Royal Albert Hall debut. A big moment for me. After the show he approached me and was the first person to say ‘Great gig…Hi, my name is Bernie Marsden.’ I was in awe of him as I was in awe that entire day.

“There would be many wonderful times with Bernie to come. As our friendship has grown over the past 14 years, I have found Bernie to be a great encourager, a confidant, a brilliant writer and most of all…a dear friend. He was “the best of the best” and championed so many young careers while being such a brilliant musician on his own. I never saw him happier than the time we camped out at Abbey Road Studios for a month writing music together for what would become the Royal Tea album. So much talent wrapped up in such a wonderful human being.

“Humble, kind and larger than life, I will always cherish my time with him and regret the moments we won’t have together. This is such a great loss to me personally and a tremendous loss to the music world. He was a superstar in every imaginable way.

“My sincerest heartfelt condolences go out to Fran and his family.”

Bernie Marsden
Bernie Marsden. Photo: Sally Newhouse

Throwing the spotlight on his beloved blues, he became increasingly involved with exploring and highlighting artists, playing with Honey Boy Edwards, Louisiana Red and John Jackson, amongst others. With an album of Rory Gallagher tracks under his belt, most recently, he went on to solo release Kings that highlighted the work of BB King, Albert King and Freddie King.

Continuing in the same vein, Chess and Trios became his last two albums, and all three showed his extraordinary feel.

When news of his passing at home, his wife Fran and daughters Charlotte and Olivia by his side, broke on Friday, the outpouring of love and tributes came as a tidal wave.

Amongst countless others, David Coverdale tweeted his thoughts, saying, “A genuinely funny, gifted man, whom I was honoured to know & share a stage with”, later on tweeting. “Once A Snake…Always A Snake.”

Pat McManus (who had toured with Bernie when Alaska went on the road with Mama’s Boys) said on his Facebook page, “Bernie was a special kind of guy, a beautiful guitar player and boy could he write a great song.”

Many of Bernie’s adventures are brought to life in his must-read autobiography Where’s My Guitar?, and you get some measure of the man through those storied and wonderful pages. Always a great presence, I last saw him backstage with Pat McManus, Neil Murray and Danny Bryant at Hard Rock Hell – The Blues in Sheffield five years ago, and he greeted me like an old friend, his ability to make you feel like one of the family a special and wonderful thing.

Bernie Marsden. Photo: Eric Duvet
Bernie Marsden. Photo: Eric Duvet

Along with MetalTalk Editor Steve, we were recently meant to be going to Bernie’s house for breakfast and an interview for a feature on him, but sadly, schedules caused delays, and it never happened. But whilst we may have missed this opportunity, we’ll always have the memories.

A player of supreme feel and subtle touch, a brilliant songwriter and one of the most humble, amusing and warm people you could ever hope to meet, Bernie was one of our very best.

Do yourself a favour, put on anything he ever played on, lift a glass and remember the extraordinary man and his music.

Bernie, thank you for it all. You will be forever in our hearts.

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Comments

  1. I saw Bernie at Pontypridd muni South wales as i live a few miles away ,what a great night he was brilliant and his warmth and sense of humour was fantastic , im so glad i was there RIP a rock legend ❤️

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