Budgie rocker Ray Phillips: 'Metallica helped save me'

By Chris Wood
BBC News

  • Published
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After a 50 years music career, Phillips expresses disbelief people still talk of Budgie now

Statues of angels are dotted around the room and ambient music plays as one of the original rockers describes how "spiritualism guided me through life".

The peacefulness is a world away from the ear-splitting songs associated with Ray Phillips who played drums for one of the original heavy metal bands.

Budgie formed in Cardiff in 1967 and influenced acts such as Metallica - who covered two of their songs.

But classical music fan Phillips is far removed from the genre's hell-raisers.

"It was after five pints of Brains SA, I decided to smash a shop window in Cardiff and steal a guitar for Tony [Budgie's guitarist Tony Bourge]," Phillips says, describing his "most colourful moment".

"But I ran straight towards the police station. One punch from the copper and I landed on the cell bed.

"It was the best night's sleep I had in ages."

The band was perhaps most famous for Breadfan - a song Metallica covered in 1988, and royalties from which helped rescue Phillips from financial ruin.

"It's strange, I never considered us mega rock stars, but it started when I was 18 and I'm 70 next birthday and still having this conversation," he says.

"It had a massive impact on a lot of bands, including Metallica, Megadeth and Van Halen who say we influenced them."

After leaving leaving Budgie in 1974 having grown disillusioned, he set up new band Tredegar in 1982 but lost £40,000 he ploughed in for recordings and promotions.

Image source, Getty Images
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Original Budgie line-up: Phillips, Burke Shelley and Tony Bourge

"It was a dream of mine and a time I was in a really dark place," he said.

"I was walking down the road thinking I was better off dead, but the moon was out and I saw my shadow come alongside me and out in front of me."

But royalties from Metallica's Breadfan cover - once a live set favourite - for "thousands and thousands of pounds" started arriving.

He was saved from financial ruin and went out and bought two BMWs - that was before Budgie's Crash Course in Brain Surgery also appeared on Metallica's 1998 album Garage Inc.

"Budgie wrote great songs, abstract songs about life," he said.

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Uneasy times: Phillips had a difficult childhood while, as a drummer, he feels uncomfortable fronting album covers

He adds: "Music today is just rubbish, people don't write about stories, history, politics any more."

But he joked: "Breadfan is about nonsense. Burke wanted to write a song about nonsense."

While spiritualism has helped him make sense of the world, many aspects of his 50 year music career are a contradiction.

He was the heavy metal pioneer who preferred listening to classical music while Budgie's soft name was chosen to be opposed to its sound.

Now 69, he believes he has been guided to help find his place, an old farmhouse in the hills above Tredegar in south Wales he has rebuilt.

But his early years in the Cardiff suburb of Ely were marred by violence at home and his memories of school are of being "punched on the back of the head by my teacher until I cried".

He ran away from home and withdrew from an education system where "you were told, you were told, you were told", until a moment, aged seven, that changed his life.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
While most comfortable on the drums, Phillips has fronted a number of bands since leaving Budgie

"It was about 7am and I walked from the house down a lane and on a tump overlooking Cardiff... I saw heaven," he said.

"The middle of summer and the light, the mist off the water, the lilies, butterflies, dragonflies and cobwebs all in one place.

"I thought 'that's what heaven looks like'."

This was his first experience of spiritualism and despite being told "you're dull, you're stupid" at school, he described a second incident when he walked around the yard and a voice in his head said "you'll be a musician".

He believes his mother knew, and before she died of cancer when he was 18 she spent £100 buying him a drum kit.

Image caption,
Ray Phillips now lives in the countryside and records in a studio in his house

After leaving school barely able to read, Phillips did 18 jobs in two years.

But it was after placing an advert in the window of Gamlin's music shop in Cardiff, his life changed.

"Two weeks later, I had a knock on the door from a guy in Buddy Holly glasses who said 'hi I'm Burke'," he joked.

"I looked at him and thought 'yeah, you're not wrong there'."

It was Burke Shelley, who formed Budgie with Phillips and Tony Bourge.

While music journalists called them one of the loudest bands around, Phillips said they "didn't get it" and the sound "like a herd of elephants walking" just developed.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The name Budgie was chosen to be "diametrically opposed" to the fast music the band played

It was not even an outlet for his troubled youth, as he added: "I listened to a lot of classical music as a child.

"I didn't think you played drums, you played music.

"I looked at the drums like a bass guitar and copied what Burke played like an orchestra."

Spiritualism guided him and he knew he would meet his wife during a gig in Tredegar, aged 19 - and Phillips is still with Carol 50 years on.