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UK guitar great Michael Chapman dies aged 80: Thurston Moore, Ryley Walker and Steve Gunn lead tributes

Michael Chapman in the studio in 1978
(Image credit: Estate Of Keith Morris / Getty)

The English guitarist and songwriter Michael Chapman passed away at home aged 80 on Friday, according to his record label, Paradise Of Bachelors. A post on his Chapman's Instagram states:

“It is with regret and indescribable sadness that we must tell all of his friends that Michael Chapman died earlier today at home. Andru Chapman, Michael’s wife and inspiration will of course appreciate her privacy during this period of loss. Please raise a glass or two to a gentleman, a musician, a husband, a force of nature, a legend and the most fully qualified survivor.”

Chapman was born in Leeds in the north of England in 1941. He spent his teenage years playing jazz and learning guitar by ear. He trained as a teacher, before a 1960s trip to Cornwall – a coastal county on the UK’s South West peninsula – led to him leaving his first profession to pursue music. 

“I had an art college education and on a rainy night in 1966 I went into a pub in Cornwall but I couldn’t afford to pay to go in," he once recalled. “I said, tell you what, I don’t want to stay outside in the rain, I’ll play guitar for half an hour. I’ve been at it ever since.”

Chapman played venues throughout the area and eventually picked up shows in London and further afield, before signing to EMI’s Harvest label (home to the likes of Roy Harper, Deep Purple and Pink Floyd) in 1969.

Early in his career, he was frequently lumped in with the busy London folk scene of the 60s and 70s but never considered himself a true folk artist, or a Londoner – instead making his home in the industrial city of Hull, in the north of England. 

His outsider status may have prevented Chapman from becoming a household name, but he crossed paths with many major artists across his 50-plus years playing and performing. 

Elton John reportedly wanted Chapman for his band (producer Gus Dudgeon approached him about it, only for Chapman to recommend Davey Johnstone), while he recruited a pre-Bowie Mick Ronson to play on his acclaimed second album Fully Qualified Survivor. A gardener, at the time, Ronson played with a band called the Rats on the side.

“I asked him to tour with me,” Chapman told the Guardian’s Andrew Male in 2017. “He said: ‘I’m not leaving the Rats.’ So David Bowie turned up, took Mick, took the Rats, turned them into the Spiders from Mars…”

There’s more where that came from: Hendrix reportedly played his Martin D-18 at a London club show, while Chapman went for a nap in his car. He met a young songwriter called Nick Drake after a show one night and offered to put him up - and the pair jammed until 5am.

In the 90s, Chapman discovered fans and contemporaries among US avant-garde groups and other influential alternative bands of the era. Sonic Youth came to a show, telling him his 1973 record Millstone Grit was a key influence on the band’s “feedback extravaganzas”.

The meeting sparked a friendship and collaboration with Thurston Moore that would last to this day. Pelt guitarist Jack Rose and Bill Callahan toured with Chapman. Kurt Vile and Lucinda Williams covered his songs.

In 2017, Chapman enjoyed something of a renaissance when guitarist and songwriter Steve Gunn (formerly of Kurt Vile) produced his album 50. The two would work together again on 2019’s True North, which would become the storied guitarist’s final album.

Numerous players have been expressed their sadness at the passing of the enigmatic Chapman. 

Thurston Moore posted a video of Chapman performing at his home in Northern England, saying: “And this is the last time we saw you by the fire. We got to know England when (and because) we got to know you. Thank you hero. Rest In Ecstatic Peace Michael Chapman (1941—2021)”

Ryley Walker shared two images of the pair on tour – eating pizza and crammed into a car with their instruments.

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Meanwhile, Steve Gunn shared some images on Twitter and penned a short but meaningful note on Aquarium Drunkard, saying of his friend and collaborator: 

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“I’ve learned so much from him… I’ve been with Michael on a broken-down bus in the Bronx, on high-speed trains in Switzerland, on a bumpy flight over Spain. I’ve been a passenger in his Jaguar, speeding down the A1. 

“Bleary morning meet-ups, clutching guitars and what else we had. Weary cups of coffee in American diners. Shuffling to the next gig. Late nights, always magic. Open bottles, open-ended conversations, old and new memories, and music – the music. 

“I’ve absorbed it all. It’s been an honor to know him, or even just to be in the room when he was playing. I know so many of his stories and songs by heart now. I cherish them. I will miss him dearly.”

No cause of death has been revealed. Chapman leaves behind his longterm partner Andru Chapman.

Matt Parker

Matt is a freelance journalist who has spent the last decade interviewing musicians for the likes of Total Guitar, Guitarist, Guitar World, MusicRadar, NME.com, DJ Mag and Electronic Sound. In 2020, he launched CreativeMoney.co.uk, which aims to share the ideas that make creative lifestyles more sustainable. He plays guitar, but should not be allowed near your delay pedals.