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Flash Back: An Exclusive Interview with Ray Bennett

Let’s take a journey back in time as we dive into the golden era of progressive rock with an exclusive interview with Ray Bennett, the bassist of the classic progressive rock band Flash. Relive the glory days of the 1970s as Ray reminisces about their electrifying US tours, captivating gigs, and unforgettable experiences. From sharing the stage with legends like Black Sabbath and Three Dog Night to performing on The Midnight Special, Flash’s music and performances emerged during a distinct and unparalleled period in rock history, an era that will never be replicated. Think Like A Key Music recently put together a 3-disc collection, In The USA, that documents their US tours from recordings salvaged from audience and radio recordings. With the power of progressive rock still resonating decades later, this nostalgic trip down memory lane is a must-read for music aficionados and Flash fans alike.

Flash – In The USA: Live Recordings 1972-1973 CD set

TLAK: What was the experience like for your band during the first US tour?

Ray: On our first tour we had a brand-new hit single and a hit album, and they were going up the charts as we arrived in the summer of ‘72. When a new band on the US scene has that going on, all of a sudden itineraries get supercharged with big gigs, frequent radio interviews, promotions like the WLIR live radio broadcast that’s featured here, and TV shows. And of course, we had Capitol Records pushing us, so lots of advertising nationally. Capitol reps showed up at gigs. They worked local record stores and did whatever local promo they could. I can tell you that when all that attention kicks in it’s very intoxicating. We felt like we were on our own planet, living in our own time zone.  

TLAK: How did the crowd sizes and atmosphere at your US concerts in 1972 differ from your earlier UK and Europe gigs, and what was the effect of your rising popularity on the American music scene?

Ray: Huge enthusiastic crowds. We’d just played all over the UK and in Europe for several months nonstop. A few big shows but mostly small to medium gigs, and no hit record. The USA was now a totally different thing. 10,000, 15,000 and more sometimes. We’re on the radio everywhere. Even the smaller club gigs were not that small, and they were usually packed. Some outdoor gigs were huge Woodstock type events. And there were a lot of festivals that year. The summer of 1972 had almost every known band from Britain and the US on the road all at the same time.  

TLAK: How did the travel experience for bands touring the USA in the early 1970s differ from today?

Ray: One thing about touring the USA in the early 70’s that was totally different from today is that just about all travel was by plane. Long car trips rarely happened. That was true for many bands. We criss-crossed the country like mad spiders. The bookers would put us anywhere, wherever. Distance didn’t matter. Tickets were cheap. As foreign working visitors we got tickets at half price because we booked a full itinerary in advance. It was easy to change dates if you needed to in those days, and we often had to. The airlines were regulated and seemed far less predatory than they are now. Much more passenger friendly. Less crowded planes. More leg room! We spent an awful lot of time in airports and on planes. “I’ll have a Jim Beam and Coke thanks”.

One, perhaps two flights a day. Sometimes day after day without a break. Days off you’d try and get to be somewhere that was fun. We did usually. And it should be noted that often we got star treatment. I have no complaints about travel and hotels. But sometimes on a break we’d get stuck at a motel near an airport with a pizza joint, a Roy Rogers, and a gas station serving our needs. The Holiday Inn had a guy in the bar with an organ, a drum machine, and a sombrero. Once, in a joint like that, and at a loose end, we “borrowed” a piano from the lounge one afternoon and took it up to our floor to have a jam with. A roadie entertained us playing Beatle songs. Hotel management came looking for the piano and for a few minutes we wheeled it back and forth through an adjoining door between rooms as we opened doors to talk to them. “Someone heard a piano up here”.  “Really?”. We took it back down later.

Flash live on stage across America – Mike Hough, Ray Bennett (top), Colin Carter (bottom), Peter Banks

TLAK: Can you clarify the misconceptions about your band’s relationship with Capitol Records and your management?

Ray: There has been some inaccurate info written about the band since early internet days. That we were not treated very well by Capitol for instance.  Totally not true.

As I indicated above: they gave us a fabulous amount of support. During the summer of 1972 we were one of only four of their bands who were getting major promotion. A big billboard on Sunset Strip for example. One on the side of the Whiskey A Go Go. We had a Capitol guy travelling with us the whole time during the first tour. All through our relationship with them we were often visited on the road by one of their VP’s who paid careful attention to what was going on with us. He’d usually find the best restaurant in town to take us to.  

During a stopover in LA Capitol let us roam through their warehouse and pick out whatever albums and tapes we wanted. Pete had a large box of vinyl albums which he then carted around from place to place. When he got back to London customs charged him duty. I had taken only cassettes, so my stash was safely out of sight.

Another bit of misinformation is that the band ultimately failed because of “bad management”. Also not true. The management company was a well-financed and well-connected new company that gave us everything we needed. Random events and decisions along the way were often under discussion and disagreements happened for sure, but that’s normal, and anything serious was relatively rare. I cannot fault their good intentions, and their commitment to us was never in question as far as I’m concerned. The band blew itself up in the end and even after that happened the management was still open to us repairing the damage and getting it back together.

TLAK: There’s a recording of Flash performing at Ultrasonic Studios for a live radio broadcast. Do you have any memories from that particular event?

Ray: I couldn’t tell if the room was intended for concerts or if they were just improvising a space for us.  A fairly small room, no stage. But big enough for us to be comfortable. A few people, about twenty or so, were hanging out, some sitting on the floor at the far end of the room. A sizeably amount of empty space between us. How they got invited we never found out. I think we were quite loud, but what the hell, of course we were! Perhaps our audience had done this before and that’s why they kept their distance!

TLAK: Another recording featured on Disc One of Flash In The USA captures the band’s performance at the New York club, My Father’s Place. Can you share any memories from that show?

Ray: Before we got to this gig we had no idea what we were in for because of the club’s odd sounding name. Somebody’s house? Turned out to be a cool gig.

A friend of mine from Boston showed up and came around the back of the building yelling at us outside our dressing room window for me to get him in. “Hi Jeff, how are you doing?” I do remember liking the place. Nice atmosphere and a relaxed old fashioned roadhouse vibe. The James Cotton Blues Band opened for us. I have just the faintest memory of what it felt like on stage there.  Good crowd, quite packed.

Ray sporting the original Capitol Theatre t-shirt, 2022

TLAK: Flash also supported Chuck Berry at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NJ. Do you have any recollections from that gig?

Ray: Nothing really at all. Just a vague picture of being on a nice large stage. I wanted to see Chuck Berry, but that didn’t happen for some reason.

We played several gigs with him and never did see him play I don’t think. I still have the T-shirt from this gig. Funnily enough I recently found it. It’s now in my T-shirt drawer. I have a bag of early 70’s T-shirts packed away with my old stage clothes from that era. We all accumulated a collection of free gig T’s back then. Stones ’72 tour is a favourite of mine. Promo T-shirts were still a relatively new idea in the early 70’s.  

TLAK: There’s a story about Flash roadie George Mizer getting married at a gig in Indianapolis in December 1972. Can you share any memories from that event?

Ray: I was surprised that they wanted to do that. So was the audience, I think! Just goes to show; expect the unexpected on tour in the USA. No other memories of the gig at all.

Ray on the Midnight Special. Photo: George Mizer

TLAK: Flash appeared on The Midnight Special TV show, performing “Dead Ahead” and “Psychosync.” Can you tell us about that experience?

Ray: It was taped early in the morning. We were used to often catching early planes, but playing a show? Early for us for sure. Around 10am….ish. In a chair for make-up around 8.30-9.00 am.

Then we went out into the Johnny Carson studio at NBC and played live, all spruced up in stage clothes and fully awake. Surprisingly it felt fine and went well. No problem. No audience, just TV crew and our roadies. Audience noise was added later along with the very cool Jerry Lee Lewis intro. I wasn’t surprised that when our segment aired, they had cut away from our last song before we finished. Go to commercial! ……These Flash guys do go on!

TLAK: We recently unearthed a recording of Flash opening for Three Dog Night in Miami in October 1973. Do you have any recollections from that performance, or thoughts about the final weeks of the tour before the band decided to break up?

Ray: Absolutely nothing for this gig. I have memories of playing a huge stadium in Miami, but I think that was with Alice Copper on our first tour. Another story.

Before the band erupted into the impetuous mood that resulted in the split, we were actually playing incredibly well. Our tightness and power seemed to have increased.  Mike and I were playing even better together. He had phenomenal energy. I marvelled at how he kept it up. I distinctly remember being on stage during that period and looking over at Peter. We smiled at each other as we often did when we were playing (a sort of secret society smile), and I thought; damn we’re good. But it wasn’t those words. I didn’t really have any words.  Just a feeling. Hard to fathom now what was about to happen. Those last few gigs were really good.

Snapshot of band members Mike Hough, Peter Banks & Ray Bennett outside their plane – from Colin Carter’s archive

TLAK: Were you generally satisfied with your performances during the tours, both individually and as a band?

Ray: Oh yes, for sure I was happy. It was a huge amount of fun playing that stuff. We were doing exactly what we wanted, and it was working for us. I knew we were a unique and interesting band, and I was mature enough to realise that we were still finding our way. And that was just fine.  We had the confidence to do almost anything we put our minds to.  It got wild at times on stage, but that was pressure, I think. Lots of excess energy too.  We’d let off steam and jam and play around with the arrangements. But when it counted, we could be neat and tidy.  

Looking back now I would do some things differently, but that’s cheating isn’t it? However, there is one big thing that could have been a major move for the better. We ought to have had a permanent keyboard player. Now it seems so obvious that we should have kept to the sound that we had on the first album with Tony. Organ and piano. But at the time we didn’t care.  Tony didn’t want to join, and we couldn’t seem to find someone who fitted in so we just said fuck it, we’ll stay as we are. And we got used to it that way. Later Patrick Moraz wanted to join, but we turned him down. In the very beginning I was chatting with Jon Anderson and he suggested Rick Wakeman when Rick was rumoured to be leaving The Strawbs. We didn’t act on it and then Jon grabbed him for Yes. It seems so short-sighted now, but that’s what we did.

TLAK: In your experience, how did audience reactions vary across the United States during your tours?

Ray: I don’t think audiences are all that different anywhere. It does depend of course on what age groups we are talking about. And what kind of artist draws what kind of audience. Three Dog Night’s audience was a bit different from Alice Cooper’s. The former a bit older, and quieter.  But other than those major categories I think people react the same way everywhere. When they are moved and excited, they let you know.  

TLAK: Looking back, did you ever think that people would still be interested in hearing Flash’s tour recordings 50 years later?

Ray: Never ever thought much about the future back then. Pretty much always in the moment. I knew we had made our mark. As the 80’s progressed many prog bands disappeared, or couldn’t get booked, and the early 70’s was looking definitely like yesterday. But people remembered Flash, recognised me sometimes. It would pop up regularly. Later, in the 90’s, it seemed as if we had achieved something permanent when the great CD era first arrived and reissues poured out of record companies. Ours included. Quickly after that the internet revealed that prog fans had been there all along, we just didn’t know. They hadn’t forgotten. Plus, there were a lot of new younger fans. So that was a very nice transition to the present state of things.  

TLAK: Do you have any other thoughts or comments you’d like to share?

Ray: There’s always more eh? More memories for sure. I could go on!

But I’ll just add a thank you to all those who made these tapes in the first place and to all those who subsequently preserved the recordings. The contents seem like museum pieces now and they are in a way. Thanks to you Roger for curating this [Flash – In The USA] collection.

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