After a brief holiday, Calyx – The Canterbury Website is back online at a new location.
On the circumstances of Larry’s departure from the band, Jane Alexander remembers…
There were ego clashes between Daevid and Larry, each wanted to play the ‘loudest’ !
Larry himself elaborates further…
Daevid and I had, or he more than I, had a personality conflict. I’m not sure what the foundation was, and I don’t know what other satisfactions or dissatisfactions there were, all the internal politics… We certainly didn’t know what we were doing very much, where we were going or why. But Daevid and I didn’t seem to see eye to eye. It may be that we both had strong opinions. I remember he was animated on stage, but I didn’t know he had lead guitar ambitions – I don’t remember him as an especially good guitarist. He was eccentric – Australian pop culture was not mainstream in my perception… Always a bit wacky – still is, I think !
Thankfully, there were no bad feelings in the long term…
Later, we kissed and made up. I saw him again a couple of times in Majorca, probably about two years later. He’d left the band by then, and it was fine – any hard feelings were long past. I then had no contact with him, or knowledge of him, for twenty years, and then one time, I can’t remember the exact year, I was visiting Jane and my son in Spain, she had some tape of this Gong group, so I kind of got reconnected with what he had been doing. I still don’t know much about it, but it was interesting to know he’d carried on.
What is Larry’s memory of Daevid as a character ?
He was already the beatnik guy – that was his tradition. Of course we also had a beatnik tradition in the States, but it didn’t really have a musical component, it was mostly poetry, I suppose. I don’t really know what was going on in England, but there certainly was a specific tradition over there that produced the many bands that have appeared since then.
What about his other ex-bandmates ?
I never saw any of them again. I used to work for a fledgling, floundering guitar pick-up company called LightWave Systems, who make infra-red transducer systems for basses and guitars, so I have some industry contacts as a result, and I sometimes heard that Kevin was in LA, but I never saw him. Some years ago, I bought “The Rolling Stone Encyclopaedia of Rock & Roll”, and it had a short blurb on the Soft Machine…
As for Jane, her own description of the individual Softs was interesting…
Daevid was a friend… Kevin was 100% into Kevin… Robert thought that he was the best drummer in the world !
Larry stayed on in London for a while… Remembers Jane :
I was still working for Mike. Larry got his draft papers and did an interview in London. He was chucked out of the interview ! Later the military sent him more draft papers that he never received because he had already been deported. When we were living in Ibiza, the Americans followed this up via the Guardia Civil, and Larry was interviewed by them. I went with him, as a witness. Years later, Larry went back to the US and was taken to court. I had to sign a testimony that helped get him off the hook – he was victim of a bureaucratic bungle, obviously.
What memories did Larry keep of his time in London after Soft Machine ?
I spent some time with Hendrix, both in Majorca and in London. We used to hang around with some guy over on Queensway, who had a house over there, a kind of hang-out pad, and all the American bands would come through – the Byrds, Mamas & Papas, Frank Zappa… I liked the Mothers of Invention, that was a band I thought were pretty good, though Zappa was a difficult guy. It wasn’t too far from where most of us were… We’d go over and see the Moody Blues and things, who were playing nearby, started a whole light-show thing… And then when Jimi Hendrix came over he was staying in a hotel just up the street there, and they had auditions for a bass player downstairs, I think. We were staying there too. I went down there, I didn’t audition, but… I probably could play the bass better than Noel Redding ! Anyway, that was an Anim connection. I knew him a little bit there, and I knew him over in Majorca when he was playing at some of those gigs over there… He was starting to get pretty messed up, he had a lot of bad company. Too bad – he was a great guitarist.
A few related memories of that period from Jane…
I remember David Crosby took us out to dinner one night. It was when our trial was on at the Old Bailey for the hash that the drug squad had planted on us – Larry and myself. I fainted in the restaurant, and when I came round David asked me if I wasn’t going to “eat my venison”. Of course I didn’t !
Mama Cass was also in London. I borrowed a book from her, “The History of Magic.” I found an anagram in the book… to be used to gain the affection of a judge. It said that the anagram should be written on parchment, but I wrote it on an envelope on the way to court, on the final day. I was fined one pound, and bound over for three years… I had already had trouble caused by my father, and had been fined £30 by a magistrates’ court. Larry was deported and returned to the Balearics – he says that he was “watched” at Heathrow airport when he left !
We were friends of Frederik and Nina van Pallandt, there was often music in their house… There was also music in Formentera where we spent a summer, coinciding with Dr. Sam Hutt, who was trying to help Syd Barrett come down to earth again – he was in a terrible mess, psychologically speaking.
Mike McClellan reconnected with Larry after his return from Europe in the mid-Seventies…
Larry looked me up when he came back from Europe, too. By that time I had a jazz trio – the Trio Nuages, after Django’s tune – where I played violin or clarinet, with a piano and a guitarist almost as crazy as Django himself ! Larry had us play at his second wedding, up near Santa Barbara, CA. It was in the late 1970’s or early 80’s. He married a PhD in, I believe, English. He was working as a gardener at the time – but an educated one, with class ! I haven’t seen him since then. I got involved with my own life, got a regular job and started having my own children after I became 50.
Larry had by this time moved on from any ambition to be a professional musician. Remembered Jane :
He kept playing, but not professionally. He went to Ibiza where there were many musicians… He had a guitar made for him when he was in London by a guitar maker called Zemaitis – a lot of musicians got guitars made for them by him. Larry still has his guitar, and I encouraged him to play again… It’s a fine instrument.
Sadly, Jane Alexander passed away in 2013. Larry Nowlin, as far as I know, is still with us, but to my knowledge hasn’t picked up his guitar again – at least not in public !
Larry’s perspective on Soft Machine‘s music in this early period, although he was only in the band for about three months – then left and never looked back – is very interesting. First we discussed his general perspective on the UK scene, coming from a very different musical environment in his native California…
At the time, we kind of vaguely knew the Beatles were English. We weren’t too sure what ‘English’ was – “some place over there” ! So they were there, but that was pop music, and we were kind of in a different tradition. There was a little more folk, but also a little jazz, a different American tradition than the rock’n’roll tradition out there.
How would Larry define his role in the band as instrumentalist, and the general musical approach ?
I was the lead guitarist – I think ! We varied a little bit, but I think that was my role. I also sang, a little bit, mostly back-up. I wrote one or two songs – we tried doing one, but it never went anywhere. It was really Kevin and Robert. Daevid would also throw in some. Each had his own personality stamped on it. Kevin was more pop, Robert was more rock’n’roll and jazz-tinged.
Then when Mike Ratledge joined, it went a little more in the fusion direction. Mike was a trained musician, you know, like most keyboardists are. And he could read music and play music and he had this kind of intellectual jazz thing. He’d do a lot of back-up, chordal stuff and give you that wall of sound on that little organ thing that he had. He would also play solos – they’d give him so many bars to solo on.
I asked Larry to elaborate on Mike Ratledge‘s personality and contribution to Soft Machine at this early stage, long before he’d become the band’s musical leader :
Mike was that class of English guy, a bit stiff-upper-lipped and all that kind of thing, but at the same time with a little touch of ‘hip’. And he was tall, dark-haired… reserved, I suppose, wry sense of humour, not loud or exhibitionist in how he manifested himself. But what I liked was, he gave us some good, solid, musical kind of background which I don’t think we had before he joined. Everybody else was pretty much self-taught, “pickers and grinners” as we used to call them, as opposed to being trained musicians. So I think his presence definitely helped with the musicianship a lot, and helped us give some form to the music.
What was unique about the band even then ?
I think the early Soft Machine was working hard to be competent, presentable band. Remember we are talking about teenage angst pop music, more about hormones than about music. Most the popular bands were pretty basic – Stones, Beatles, etc. The Yardbirds did have guitar players. Me ? Well, I was a wannabe. I think I played OK for the level of music we played, though I remember Mickie Most liked a solo I did during a practice session. Soft Machine was a kind of early “fusion” band, trying to blend elements of its various members. I think of them primarily as a pop band, with jazz, rock, pop, folk and bohemian elements.
We then turned to Larry’s equipment – what guitar(s) did he use ?
When I went over to Europe I had a Gibson L5, which is a really nice jazz guitar. I sold it, foolishly, in London. What happened was, somebody sat on it after one of our gigs, in the back of our van, and it got a crack in the back. I can’t remember if it buzzed a little bit or something, but anyway I went into some store in London and I traded it for two guitars, which they were more than happy to do ! So I took out a Fender Jaguar, and a Gibson-something that had double horns on it and a solid body.
Larry only played a handful of gigs with Mister Head, and then Soft Machine, but he stayed long enough to be part of the band’s first forays outside London…
Transportation was difficult for us. It was pretty much shoestring when I was with them. We didn’t have much money, we were scrounging along. It was pretty restricted to trying to get something going. We had a big Welsh guy who was our roadie – can’t remember his name. He was really hard to understand ! A West End, working class London guy. He was a guy that we knew, he started with us in Canterbury… Robert would remember him. A big guy, big nice guy, who humped the material around, loaded the van and set it up, and tried to keep all the mean drunks away from us, especially when we were out there with our flower pants on ! We tried to stay out of fights – that was always a problem, playing those little places. I remember almost getting into fights every time we played in these drunken, smokey clubs !
What about the music as experienced from the stage ?
My recollection, especially when we were playing around Kent, is that we would go from one song to another, playing short sets and ignoring the audience pretty much. Then by the time we played in Hamburg, we were doing a bunch of jamming, and long – what can I call them ? – blues, psychedelic passages. But Hamburg was a complete disaster. We couldn’t hear each other on stage, we didn’t have monitors pointing back at us. So we lasted about half a gig and had to make our way back. But it was basically a set-up problem – we didn’t know how to set up right, or they didn’t know how to, so… we figured that out !
Larry couldn’t remember much as far as what songs were played at that point, though he identified “Hope For Happiness” as a “foundation piece” of the set (but wrongly attributed it to Robert Wyatt rather than Brian Hopper), and titles like “I Should’ve Known” or “A Certain Kind” were familiar to him, but not “We Did It Again” or “Why Are We Sleeping ?”
We used to write the song list down on a little piece of paper, with the keys for each song also so we knew what key we were playing in – on those rare occasions when we were all in the same key at the same time ! And we’d tape the pieces of paper to the top of the guitars, so we could remember what the hell we were playing ! That was a traditional thing we did in the States, like if I had to capo up – we didn’t capo a lot in those days but occasionally you had to.
Of the band’s early days in Kent, Larry has few precise memories. He could only vaguely remember the pre-Soft Machine name Mister Head, nothing about The Bishops Of Canterbury (supposedly the name they used for the first gig with Mike Ratledge in Coombe Springs, August 1966), and was equally uncertain about the gigs mentioned in Wrong Movements – at the Herne Bay Jazz Club and The Beehive, where The Wilde Flowers had often performed.
I remember the name Mister Head, but I don’t remember if that’s what they used to be or they were debating what to call ourselves… The Beehive I remember, Herne Bay I don’t. We might have done a gig in Kent, I can barely remember doing a couple of strange gigs there, one of them near an army base… Then I think it was Daevid who came up with the name The Soft Machine, from Burroughs, or whatever it was. The Bishops Of Canterbury ? That one I certainly don’t remember being part of.
The one specific memory Larry has of Kent was one totally unrelated to music…
It was a fun time ! We were down in Kent, near Canterbury, in a house that Kevin Ayers had a connection to with the wife of some big gambling place [Jane Aspinall, Pye Hastings’ sister, then married to the owner of Howletts Zoo, John Aspinall]. It was a little bit out in the country, a nice, big house with enough bedrooms. And I remember Kevin used to like to go fishing. He’d get up early and he’d jump over some fences and find these little streams, and he’d come back with some trout, which he’d cook up for breakfast ! That was a curious little personality trait of his – amongst his other talents, he liked to go fishing and he knew how to do it, so he’d come back with fish, he was successful at it ! And we enjoyed the fish he’d bring back !
According to Wrong Movements, when the band moved from Kent to London during the Summer of 1966, Larry Nowlin stayed behind and would commute to London from Canterbury to rehearse. Larry, however, has a different recollection :
I did not stay behind. Canterbury was far from London ! We all moved up, spent some time at Robert’s in Dulwich. I stayed there for a while, then Jane and I rented a flat in Notting Hill Gate where Joy Bang, an American Starlet, had been living.
Wrong Movements also suggests that the band rehearsed in a room provided by Anim near their Soho offices, and occasionally in Dulwich. Larry remembers the latter but not the former.
In London it was hard to find a place to play, because of the noise – we were definitely an electric band ! And practice space for an electric band was a very big hassle, as was lugging equipment around. We stayed down at Robert’s mom’s house sometimes. There was a lot of music around in that house. Eventually we got a couple of flats and found a place to play. Not in Gerrard Street though, was where the office of Anim was, there was no rehearsal space there !
Larry was also vague about how the connection with Anim came about…
I remember us doing an audition or a little recording, though I think that was after we’d already been with Anim [probably the audition for Mickie Most]. It may have been Chris Lord and Jane who had this vague connection to Anim. Chas Chandler, the bass player with the Animals, was our connection initially, but our contact was mostly Henri Hemmoroid, as we liked to call him !
In fact it was, of course, Jane Alexander who was to thank for the Anim deal…
I was the link to Mike [Jeffery]. Mike was my boss. I told him about the Soft Machine and made that connection. I thought that they had potential. They were a cocktail – Daevid = Oz, Kevin = English and Larry = US.
Of course with both bands being managed by Anim, Larry crossed paths with Jimi Hendrix…
He was a phenom ! Groovy ! A very good guitar player who squandered it in the drug morass of the time.
What about Pink Floyd, who were akin to brothers for Soft Machine on the early London underground scene ? Larry has no memory of sharing the bill with them…
The Soft Machine may have – but I don’t think I was with them at that time. I don’t remember exactly. I do remember going and seeing them. They were doing kind of cutting-edge stuff – that was attractive to our sort of fusion side. Maybe we met a couple of them after a gig. There was some place not too far from Queensway where they used to play. I seem to remember it was a little hall, or a church. They were having those light-shows, with mirror balls and stuff like that… I liked them then – and still do now !
The turning point in Larry’s life, which ultimately led him from California to London and from the L.A. scene to Soft Machine and the Canterbury Scene, took place in 1965. Remembers Larry :
Mike McClellan had his accident – he was driving back from a gig, fell asleep in a big van he had, rolled in and rattled around in that thing and really scrambled his brains – he was bad ! His motor functions were very much disabled for a long time. We went over to see him at his mother’s house after he’d gotten out of hospital. He was trying to play the fiddle and he was pretty spazzed. It was sad. But he’s fought his way back over the years, he got married and had a kid and stuff. But back then it was a shock to us all – he was one of the guys, and it really took him out of things for several years. Then I lost touch with him, because I went to Pasadena City College for two years, then I went up to UCSB in Santa Barbara and graduated in ’65.
The course of Larry’s life in his early twenties was highly unusual among his generation, according to McClellan :
Many of us were in awe of Larry because he finished his college in 4 years, like one is ‘supposed to’ ! He did two years at Pasadena City College, and went on to the University of Santa Barbara and finished two years later. Then he went to Europe and did many crazy things, which you probably know better than I do ! He wasted his life after he graduated, while Sandy and I and some others did some of that before we graduated college – took me ten years to get a BA because I kept hitch-hiking around North America !
Indeed, in 1965 Nowlin left California, beginning what would turn out to be a decade living in Europe.
I and a bunch of other hippies got on a bus and drove around the country and ended up in New York, then went up to Vermont and kind of hung out between New York City and Vermont for a while. And then one day I got on an Icelandic Airlines plane flying over to Europe – landing in Scotland, actually. It didn’t cost much, I remember. I wasn’t too clear about what I was doing, to tell you the truth. I had a guitar, went over with a guy I’d met in Vermont, and then we bought a motorcycle in Glasgow, and ended up broke in London. Then we went to Paris and froze our asses off in Paris for part of the winter in some “flop house” with a tubercular guy coughing all night next door. Then we went down to Spain, and hung out in Spain for a while, mostly in Ibiza, where I would end up spending a lot of time, as chance would have it.
This is when fate intervened and Larry crossed paths with the Canterbury Scene in exile…
I was over in Majorca, visiting, on some occasion during that period, in early ’66 or somewhere around that, and there I met Daevid Allen [and Kevin Ayers], the guys that ended up being in the Soft Machine, who were there, I think, on holiday. I don’t remember exactly where we met, probably some club. I don’t know why, but for some reason, they said, ‘Oh, why don’t you come and join us ?’ I think we met through Jane Alexander, actually.
Jane Alexander was to be a pivotal character in the events which followed. Aged 23 at the time, Larry had met her in Majorca not long after arriving, and they’d begun a relationship. Beyond this, she was an interesting character in more ways than one. Explains Nowlin :
Jane was the daughter of a British Army general, Henry Alexander. She, I seem to remember, worked for Chris Lord, whom I met a few times. Lord Brothers Tours were cheap flights for working class Brits to go on holiday. They had started in Yugoslavia, on the Dalmatian coast, where Chris had spent some time as a student, and of course Majorca and the Canaries and all these other places that got in the ‘tour package’ map. I think he was an East End rags-to-riches guy – drove across the Sahara desert in a Range Rover with his girlfriend, and his hair turned from grey to brown again after that – or so he said !
I was later able to correspond with Jane Alexander, who set the record straight on a number of Larry’s memories :
I never worked for Chris Lord, he was a personal friend. I was working for Mike Jeffery. I had worked for him previously at the office of Anim, 39, Gerrard Street, as his PA. What happened then was, Mike needed a DJ in Majorca. He’d opened a discotheque, The Toltec, in El Terreno, Palma. I was bored with London life and wanted a change.
I couldn’t resist asking Jane if she knew whether any of the stories around Mike Jeffery (most famous, of course, as Jimi Hendrix’s manager), his ‘unusual’ business dealings and alleged links with the MI-5…
Probably exaggerated. However, Mike had met my father when he was in military intelligence – my father was a general. I do know that Mike was very tough about money, tough with Jimi from the start. “Hey Joe” was n°1, and Jimi was waiting to see Mike in the office… He told me that he’d seen a jacket in a shop that he liked, but he had no money to buy it. I told him to get the money from Mike … he did ! The last time that I saw Jimi, in Majorca – I’m vague about the year -, he told us that Mike owed him a lot of money and that if he didn’t pay up, he didn’t want to do the next US tour.
Had she met either Daevid Allen or Kevin Ayers before Larry met them ?
I met them around the same time. They were living in Deya. Daevid rented a house there with Gilli Smyth and her daughter. Robert Graves was living just outside the village. A lot of people rented houses there, mainly in the summer – artists, painters… A pleasant place to be in those days !
At one point they all went off to London with Wes [Brunson], who was backing them. I was still working as DJ at the Toltec. Wes was as nutty as a fruit cake ! He was very spaced out and flying high, he was very elated and dripping dollars ! He loved the idea of backing a pop group, etc., and living the “scene”.
Kevin and Daevid had recently befriended Larry, so he was a logical candidate for a position in the proposed band :
They already had the house in Kent. I’m not sure why they needed a guitarist, but they said, ‘Hey Larry, won’t you come along ?’
While I was never able to trace Phil Howard’s current whereabouts, I still had minimal documentation of his brief career before and after Soft Machine which I was then able to expand upon. Information about Soft Machine’s original guitarist was much scarcer. As it turned out, I didn’t even have his name right. Often spelled “Nolan”, most notably in Pete Frame’s Soft Machinery family tree, he is actually Larry Nowlin, and not much was said of him outside of being from California and having quickly left the band because, as Daevid Allen later explained, there could only be one lead guitarist in Soft Machine and Allen wanted the position !
I had few clues to trace Larry Nowlin to his current location, although a contributor to What’s Rattlin’?, Fred Hodshon, had mentioned having had dinner with him when he worked for a company named Lightwave Systems – so at least there seemed hope that I could eventually find him. In the meantime, I took advantage of the expansion of the Internet to google Larry’s name and see what came up. I had discovered Nowlin had had some musical association at one point with David Lindley, the leader of psych band Kaleidoscope and later a ubiquitous session musician and solo artist on the California scene. And bingo !, I came across a page mentioning a guitarist by that name, who it seemed could be the right guy. One Mike McClellan was discussing a ‘jug band’, whose name he couldn’t recall, which had been active in the Pasadena, CA, area in the early 60’s, playing at the Cat’s Pajamas club in Arcadia, CA, with a line-up of Marty Cantor (jug, 12-string guitar), Sandy Moseley (banjo, mandolin), Larry Nowlin (guitar) and McClellan himself (clarinet, fiddle, harmonica, 12-string guitar).
I managed to get in touch with McClellan, who had a lot to say on Larry Nowlin, so I’ll just quote at length from our correspondence.
Larry was a student at Pasadena City College when I met and played with him. That was back in 1961. I was a ‘star’ at the Cat’s Pajamas, a no-count coffee house that tended toward the more traditional folk music and jazz instead of the commercial stuff. There was a bunch of us that hung out there. I met David Lindley there, Roger Bush (who went on to record bluegrass with the Kentucky Colonels with Clarence White), and others now famous in their fields. Larry was learning to play acoustic guitar: blues, jug-band, bluegrass, whatever. I was about his age, just slightly ahead of him on the curve of music. Nevertheless, he had a dobro guitar before I did ! We were jamming all the time – music was our life then. I was trying to earn a living with it just out of high school.
David Lindley was a grade behind us, but very quick musically. David was a sideman with me at the Topanga Canyon Banjo & Fiddle Contest in the summer of 1961. I came in first or second on banjo, but didn’t place on fiddle. I don’t remember if or where David placed then, but he came in first for the next several years. When I played the Ash Grove around November ’61, David played with me and a guy named Phil Cleveland on the Friday and Saturday, and I was solo the rest of the week. In the Spring of ’62, I got a concussion and was out of music for a few years, but David went on with it with a fury. Larry did play with David – many of the Cat’s Pajamas crew did. Larry and Sandy Mosely (also in our jug band, and a fine 5-string banjo player who later was actually on some commercial folk albums) came up to see me right after my concussion.
I don’t yet remember the name of our jug band, but I do remember that when I finally got my drivers’ license, Larry, Phil Cleveland and I drove up Big Santa Anita Canyon in the Angeles National Forest. I had a big one-ton Chevy panel truck, we had our instruments (banjo, guitars, fiddle), we got out at the end of the road and walked down by a stream, where we all picked and grinned. Folks were walking by and they enjoyed it, as we did ! That was the Chevy in which a I went to sleep in and got my concussion after coming back from a gig in Santa Barbara.
It was Mike McClellan who eventually got me a contact with Larry Nowlin, and I was finally able to begin an e-mail correspondence with him, followed by a lengthy phone interview. Unfortunately, a plan to meet up when I visited California failed to materialise, but our exchanges were in-depth enough to cover the main facts.
I was born on February 14th, Valentine’s Day, ’44. I was a little young in my school group, by a year I think. A lot of us went to high school together. Al Marian and I grew up on the same block, and also another guy named Jim Terrell, who’s a fairly famous visual artist here in the States, doing light sculptures and stuff, he’s been in Time Magazine a few times – before they had Boyz n the Hood we were the boys on the ‘hood ! The Kingston Trio started it for most of us suburban kids. We were all hanging round the Pasadena area, just a bunch of young guys with different skills – or lack of skills ! – and enthusiasms, playing around the same music scene. It was strictly local – the greater Pasadena area. Mike McClellan, Sandy Moseley, Al Merian and I – none of us ever became professional, although Alan played classical guitar for a while. Southern California had a tradition of guitar ‘pyrotechnicians’ like Ry Cooder in those days. I’d say that musically, Soft Machine were about as accomplished as anyone I had played with at that time, although that may not be saying much !
As Mike said, we played at a place called Cat’s Pajamas in Arcadia, then the Ice House in Pasadena and the bigger one, the Ash Grove, somewhere in Hollywood, a lot of good players there, that was a step up – a real night club ! They had a lot of touring folk musicians of various kinds. I remember Reverend Gary Davis, I always liked him, he did street gospel stuff, with a big J-200 guitar, all by himself. Pete Seeger and all those kinds of people would play there in and out. There was a kid named Clarence White [later with the Byrds, etc.] there, and he was killed [in 1973], in a car accident outside a club – he was loading up instruments, and some car ran in the back of his car and squashed him.
And after I came back to the States years later – having lived in Europe from ’65 to ’75 -, I went down and saw Lindley play somewhere down in Santa Monica – McCabe’s, a club there. This was after he’d been playing with Jackson Browne and made some money for years, he was playing a little solo gig, and it was really funny – he was basically playing the same stuff that he was before, a lot better but basically the same stuff, so it was kind of interesting. He got this little band called El Rayo-X, a nice kind of skiffle, dance band – good little band. But when I saw Dave, he didn’t look too good, he looked like a junkie, I don’t know that he was or not, he just looked like it. But I don’t know, I never had anything to do with Jackson Browne or any of that pop stuff, over here, ‘cause I was away, and when I came back, my life kind of took a different route.
The next instalment of our story will look at Larry’s departure from California and eventual arrival in the UK via Majorca.
Arguably the most obscure, though by no means less talented, member of Soft Machine was Phil Howard, the Australian drummer who replaced Robert Wyatt in September 1971 and was in turn replaced by John Marshall who has more or less retained the position ever since. In fact during my research he is the one ex-member I never managed to locate, let alone interview (watch this space for an in-depth interview with original Softs guitarist Larry Nowlin !) In fact I am not even entirely sure he is still alive, although our good friend Leonardo at MoonJune told me he’d heard Phil was indeed still with us and living in his native Australia.
Retracing Howard’s career is, consequently, something of a challenge. To my knowledge, not a single interview of him exists, so we’re left with contemporary press coverage and accounts by his former bandmates to piece the story together.
The best starting point is probably Caparius – especially since that band is itself quite obscure, having left no recorded legacy despite being active for 18 months and boasting at one point a stellar line-up including Howard, Neville Whitehead, Gary Boyle (formerly of Brian Auger’s Trinity and later of Isotope) and Dave MacRae (later of Nucleus, Matching Mole, Mike Gibbs…).
I was able to interview several former members of Caparius, not least the band’s leader and founder, saxophonist Clive Stevens. I had a good starting point in a Melody Maker feature from April 1971, which I will now sum up. Aged 26 at the time, Stevens had grown up in Bristol, leaving to the USA in 1962 to spend a year at the Berklee School of Music (a classmate of his was future piano legend Keith Jarrett), followed by two years as army bandsman. After a period living in San Francisco, he returned to England in 1968. In the summer of 69, he rehearsed for a period with the band Dada led by guitarist Pete Gage, which initially included Neville Whitehead on bass. The pair began holding private improvised sessions on the side. Meanwhile, Stevens joined Manfred Mann’s Chapter III, and around October 1969 formed Caparius with, initially, Whitehead, Howard and Australian guitarist Peter Martin. The band’s name referred to the astrological signs of its members – two Capricorn and two Sagittarius.
Let us first look at Neville Whitehead’s background, which I learned through a long-distance telephone conversation with him. His musical career had begun in his native New Zealand, his first notable engagement being a stint with pianist Mike Walker’s trio, which acted as resident rhythm section for visiting foreign musicians, at Auckland’s leading jazz club at the time, the Montmartre, where he remembers first meeting Dave MacRae. He then moved to Sydney where he joined a jazz big band which backed the likes of Liza Minelli, Tony Bennett and Dusty Springfield. After a brief stay in the United States, he arrived in London around the late Summer of 1969, soon getting his first gig playing with saxophonist Don Rendell. Remembers Whitehead :
I had just arrived in London and was staying with [Nucleus saxophonist] Brian Smith in Gunnersbury Avenue, and Clive rang up one day and said to Brian, ‘Do you know of any bass players ?’, and Brian said, ‘Well, I happen to have one staying here with me !’ So that’s how we met, and we just clicked. He had just come out of Berklee and had brought back a whole pile of music that we played, and from there we started writing our music.
The band at this point was still unnamed and lacked a drummer. Around Christmas 1969, Neville Whitehead received a phone call from Peter Martin, a guitarist he had met when he lived in Sydney. Martin had just spent two years in Madrid studying classical guitar with Regino Sainz de la Maza and had decided to move to London. Remembers Whitehead :
Peter turned up from Spain, called me and I said to him, ‘What are you doing ? Come and have a play !’ Of course, having just spent two years studying with Regino Sainz de la Maza, his technique was just mind-blowing ! Then through Peter we got Phil [Howard]. He always played right on the edge all the time – he never took prisoners ! Sometimes it was magnificent because of that, forced you out there and… you played !
I was able to get in touch with Peter Martin, which was fortunate as he had more information than any of the others on Howard’s own background :
I first met Phil Howard in a country town in Australia called Cooma. I was playing my first out-of-town stint (I grew up in Sydney) in my first ‘real’ band. Phil was studying with Graham Morgan, who was playing at another club in this town. Graham Morgan was a well-known session drummer from Melbourne with some astonishing techniques. Phil was a high-energy drummer, with great hands. In much of Phil’s technique, I could hear Graham’s influence. I later caught up with Phil when I took a short Christmas break in England during my time in Spain. At that time he was gigging at the Latin Quarter in Soho – I think that was the name of the club. He had been in London a few years already, bypassing Australia’s larger cities and heading straight to London for his ‘fame and fortune’.
I had contact numbers for Neville and Phil when I arrived in London and visited them socially – separately. I was looking for accommodation, and Neville said there was a room where he was staying – a house in Uxbridge Road, Shepherd’s Bush, whose owners were supportive of our musical endeavours. Neville married the daughter some years later !
Of course it didn’t take long before we said, ‘Let’s have a play !’ Neville said he knew a good sax player [Clive] and I said I knew a good drummer [Phil]. We rehearsed in the basement flat of the house. The music was pretty much freeform from the start. As we tuned up, some phrases were played and responded to. Soon we were in full flight. A few ‘heads’ were submitted, which we used as starting points, but other times we would begin without a word being said.
Caparius played their first concert on March 8th, 1970 at the Lyceum, sharing a rather eclectic bill with the Spencer Davis Group and Principal Edward’s Magic Theatre. Ted Ward reviewed the concert in Melody Maker, calling Caparius “Britain’s answer to the Gary Burton Quartet” but expressed reservations about Howard’s style :
Howard, an outstanding drummer, is more of a jazz stylist, with plenty of tricky cymbal work but not enough straight-ahead skin-bashing.
Stevens picks up the Caparius story :
We played a concert in Hyde Park where we were spotted by the famous folk singer Rory McEwen. Because there was no music or group around anywhere close to what we were doing – we were arguably the world’s very first jazz-rock/fusion group -, he became enamoured with us and attempted to get us signed to Atlantic Records, being that the head of the label, Ahmet Ertegun, was a close friend of his. However, we met another producer called David Williams, who fell in love with the band and proceeded to sign us to NEMS Enterprises to record an LP for CBS Records. We recorded it at Sound Techniques in Chelsea, London. However, it was never released because the record company said it was too avant-garde and that they did not know how to promote such a new vision in contemporary music. I have cried myself to sleep ever since !
Stevens still has the original track listing, which was as follows :
Side 1 : 1. Stumble – 2. Nova ’72 – 3. The Parameters of Saturn
Side 2 : 1. Sorcery – 2. Romance de Amor – 3. Venutian Rhythm Dance
Some of the titles may not be unfamiliar to some – not only did “Nova ’72” and “The Parameters of Saturn” later turn up on Stevens’ first album as leader, 1972’s Atmospheres, (whose all-star line-up included the Mahavishnu Orchestra rhythm section of Rick Laird and Billy Cobham plus guitarists John Abercrombie, Ralph Towner and Steve Khan), but “Venutian Rhythm Dance” was covered by legendary pianist Bill Evans on his 1976 live album Montreux III, a duo with bassist Eddie Gomez.
Of the ‘lost’ album, Peter Martin reflects :
It wasn’t musically successful, to my mind. I remember the environment of audio separation – listening to each other through headphones – didn’t sit well with our need for, at times, intimate interplay. Like most musicians in the situation we were in, the budget wasn’t there to experiment with production techniques, and we didn’t have sufficient experience as a group in this environment.
None of the musicians seem to have kept a copy of the album in any shape or form, and it seems unlikely it will ever be heard again. Indeed, recalls Whitehead :
The tapes got lost in New York. What happened was, a fire hydrant got broken by a car running into it, and all the water went down off the street into the studio [where the tape was stored] and washed a lot of stuff out.
In spite of this setback, added with the lack of media attention, the members of Caparius began to branch out and play with other bands on the London jazz scene. In particular the Whitehead-Howard rhythm section joined the Keith Tippett Group in the Summer of 1970, both participating in September in the recording of the album Dedicated To You, But You Weren’t Listening, alongside guests like Gary Boyle and Robert Wyatt. Wyatt himself had recently asked Whitehead to play bass on his solo album The End Of An Ear, recorded in August (again at Sound Techniques). The incestuous connections between Caparius and Soft Machine didn’t stop there : with Wyatt intent on leaving the Softs after the band’s appearance at the Proms, Howard was one of the drummers auditioned as a potential replacement in August. Eventually, Wyatt was persuaded to stay. Elton Dean, who had also appeared on Wyatt’s album, took Whitehead and Howard as rhythm section for his own group, which he would later name Just Us.
Peter Martin was by now pessimistic about Caparius’s future prospects, and was the first to throw in the towel in late 1970, soon thereafter returning to Australia :
We did a few concerts and some college gigs… I suppose it fell into the art music category – it was experimental, maybe even innovative – those qualities that normally correspond to little broader public interest, even with jazz aficionados. It would be fair to say that my return to Australia included elements of homesick, but the fact that Caparius was not getting even marginal audience or industry acceptance made me realise I had to move on. I was broke, with little prospect. Although I was confident I would eventually get other gigs, I desperately needed a cash injection. Initially I intended to make some money in Australia and return to the UK. As it turned out, I fell into a successful career as a composer and arranger, and only made it back to UK as a tourist over the years.
Martin was replaced by Gary Boyle, and for a while Caparius continued as a quartet, with Whitehead now playing exclusively electric bass. However it was felt something was missing. Related Stevens in the Melody Maker article :
Every time I mentioned a keyboard player, Neville would go on and on about Dave [MacRae], this amazing pianist he knew from New Zealand. By some strange chance, Dave came over with Buddy Rich and stayed here. As soon as he played with us, we knew that was it.
The reorganised group played its first gig at Hampstead’s Country Club on 31 January 1971. Other gigs followed, in particular one, on 26 March, on the same bill as Come To The Edge (a group led by percussionist Morris Pert, who would later invite Whitehead to join his next band, Sun Treader) and Gilberto Gil (!) at the Northern London Poly, but despite the considerable potential of the new line-up, Caparius ground to a halt not long after. Reflects Whitehead :
Dave was good, but… When a band starts off, the reason they join together is because they have some mental connection together, and through that they create. That’s what makes it all work. And when that’s broken, it may survive, but it won’t have the magic. That’s what happened when Peter left.
Stevens decided to try his luck in the USA, making two albums for Capitol Records including the above-mentioned Atmospheres. MacRae joined Nucleus, the Mike Gibbs Orchestra and Matching Mole. As for Howard and Whitehead, they both appeared on Elton Dean’s eponymous solo album, recorded in May 1971. Howard then replaced Robert Wyatt in Soft Machine, while Whitehead reunited with Wyatt alongside Terje Rypdal and Wolfgang Dauner in the house band for the Berlin Jazztage festival in November 1971.
These were promising beginnings, but for some reason Howard quickly faded from the scene in subsequent years. After his premature exit from Soft Machine in January 1972 (this part, of course, is covered in the book), he did stay in Elton Dean’s Just Us well into 1972, but even in such a free-leaning group, his radical drumming style was more than some could handle, as journalist Steve Lake recalls :
I went to Ronnie Scotts [in July 1972] to see Just Us play opposite Weather Report, and Elton & Co had been fired after the first day ! The audience couldn’t handle the savagery of Phil’s attack, particularly. Just Us had shown up on Day 2 and were not allowed to play.
It is unknown whether Howard’s departure from Just Us later that year, to be replaced by Louis Moholo, was a direct consequence of this setback, but there is no record of him playing anywhere with anyone until a brief surprise reapperance in the Sinclair/Coxhill Band three years later, which performed a largely improvised set at the Reims Jazz Festival. Along with co-leaders Richard Sinclair and Lol Coxhill, the band included Dave MacRae and ex-East Of Eden violinist/saxophonist Dave Arbus. Then it’s another long gap until, in 1979, on a reissue of Soft Machine’s Fifth, Howard was reported as “last heard of working on a North Sea oil rig” ! When, in the early 2000s, I asked Dean if he had any idea where Howard might be, he said he vaguely remembered him moving to New York City, but had completely lost contact with him. The mystery remains unsolved…