Going Mobile Mobile

NHcompleteThe first time I ever read about the Mobile Mobile was in Dave Stewart’s liner notes for The Complete National Health (still possibly the most prized item in my entire music collection) – the band’s first two albums having been recorded on it -, the reference made all the more intriguing by the repeated mention of an unnamed “famous rock star” being its mysterious owner.

Wrote Stewart,

[In March 1977], the kind-hearted Mike Dunne, custodian of a mobile studio named the ‘Mobile Mobile’ (yeah), who I met when playing on Hugh Hopper’s album “Hoppertunity Box”, took the view that we had a band, he had a studio, so why didn’t we record an album ?

(In fact the first time NH used the Mobile Mobile was in January 1977 to record a demo of “Tenemos Roads”, which marked the end of Bill Bruford’s tenure as the band’s drummer)

Stewart went on to explain that the studio was…

…property of a FAMOUS ROCK STAR. While the FRS battled to find musical inspiration in the Bahamas, Mike set about recording groups he liked at very reasonable rates, such as nothing.

I got to know more when I interviewed Hugh Hopper some time later and our conversation turned to Mike Dunne. Explained Hugh,

Mike was the assistant at Advision when we were doing Soft Machine things – probably “Fifth”, it was certainly “Six” cause we did “Six” at Advision – and I was doing “1984”. I became friends with Mike, and Gary Martin, who was the engineer. They worked together as engineer and assistant. I became friends with both of them. Outside of music we were actually very friendly – we used to go on holiday and things like that.

I was then finally told who the “famous rock star” was : Jon Anderson, lead singer with Yes. Anderson had hired Mike Dunne as sound engineer for his personal studio, first used to make his 1976 solo album Olias Of Sunhillow. The extensive booklet which came with the latter album included a photo of the production team with Anderson and his then-wife Jenny, plus Mike Dunne, Brian Gaylor and a couple of other guys.

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Any help in identifying who is who on this photo, apart from Jenny and Jon Anderson, would be most welcome !

Coincidentally, around the same time (April 1999) the above-mentioned Brian Gaylor got in touch with me – he told me he was involved in organising a secret 50th birthday party for Mike Dunne and wanted a contact for Hugh Hopper to invite him. I duly obliged, and since Brian’s name was familiar from the credits to the National Health albums, I took the chance of asking him about his involvement with the Mobile Mobile. Over a few e-mails I got to know quite a bit more about it.

Wrote Brian,

Around 1974, I shared a flat with Mike King, a maintenance engineer at Advision. I had been maintenance/sound engineer at Mayfair studios, but was now doing odds and sodds from home. Yes were recording at Advision, with Mike Dunne as assistant. Jon Anderson and I think Chris Squire were offered a deal on MCI equipment. Around the same time; Mike [Dunne] had a nasty accident on his motorbike, his leg in plaster. So Jon had an idea. Mike King organised cabling to enable the MCI stuff to be connected easily and laid out a plan, with Mike Dunne, to enable the MCI package to be broken down into discreet modules, enabling the entire studio to be dismantled and transported easily, making a mobile studio but not in a truck – Mobile Mobile was born !

oliasI was brought in to finish off wiring and help Mike Dunne, who stayed in the flat. The assembly was put together in Seer Green, Buckinghamshire, where Jon Anderson had a large house. I was retained as tech help and employed by Yes to help on their forthcoming US tour. We recorded “Olias” in Seer Green. I can’t remember much technical stuff apart from arranging a bowl of fake flowers to flash when the phone rang, and dressing a quadrophonic panner box in furry fabric to look like a rodent. Both were successful!

When the US tour started, Mike [Dunne] was given the remit to go forth with the recording equipment and make loads of money – which he singly failed to do, as everyone we recorded were ‘just about to get a deal’! We did have a good time, though. During this period we had the studio in a pig farm, an ex-mortuary – The Point, next to Victoria Station – and finally in Ridge Farm, which hitherto had been a rehearsal room, if a 16th century barn can be called that! This was a good way, thinking back, to waste my twenties.

hoppertunityboxHugh Hopper’s Hoppertunity Box was made during the Spring of 1976, while Yes were away on an extensive North American tour. Remembered Hugh,

We were always talking about doing something together. But I pushed him and he kept forgetting. Terrible memory, Mike! Then I met him one day in London, in Notting Hill, and I said, “What about this record ?”, and he said, “Oh, yes, yes…” So finally we did it. It was mostly done at a film sound studio, a lighting place actually, in London, called Lee’s studios, which was just a space that you could rent – a big, big space. That’s where Jon Anderson had installed it. Then it moved to a farm, a pig farm actually, near Tring, North-West of London, about an hour’s drive.

Through my intiial contact with Brian Gaylor I was able to get in touch with Mike Dunne. Regrettably, what should have been the beginning of a long, detailed and thorough interview petered out, for no particular reason – if I remember correctly, I sent him follow-up e-mails and got no reply. I assumed he was either busy with other stuff, or not as interested as I was. Sadly, both Mike and Brian have now passed away.

What exchanges we did have centered around his time at Advision. Wrote Mike,

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Yes recording Fragile at Advision, August 1971

I started there around 1970/71. I simply wrote and asked for a job – I’d been looking at other studios for a while. I started at £12 per week as a tea boy, and became Eddie [Offord]’s assistant within about a month. At that time it was one of the best studios around, and it was ‘hot’, so lots of good bands worked there.

You can’t separate Advision’s success at that time from the work of Eddie Offord, who had simply the best pair of ears around at the time. He created the Advision sound which was imitated for a decade. He was a greater engineer than the bands he worked with. I was lucky enough to be his assistant, and later his togetherness as drug abuse started to take over.

We then discussed his work with both Soft Machine then Hugh Hopper at Advision.

I had been a BIG fan of the Softs since the very beginning – after Hendrix, I probably listened to them more than anyone else in the late 60s. In fact we used Soft Machine compositions for our marriage in ’70 – we walked up the aisle to “A Certain Kind” played and arranged by my friend Robert Kirby! I knew more about the band than anyone else at Advision. Although I was happy to work with Eddie as assistant – and anyway they needed a studio employee on the sessions, as Eddie had left by then -, I was making my own way as an engineer.

1984“1984” was brilliant fun! Gary and I were as much into the loops as Hugh was. In fact, Hugh encouraged us to come up with as many ideas as we could, we did crazy things with tape machines and enjoyed every moment of it. The band sessions were some of the best I’ve worked on. Gary Windo was simply incredible. Another important thing for me was that at that time bands were really nit-picky and would spend hours doing take after take to get everything spot on, with a consequent loss of feel. Hugh, on the other hand, would often go for one or two takes if they captured the essence of what he was after.

We knew that we were doing something a bit different – lots of people thought it was amusical – and perhaps amusing. It’s for others to decide whether or not it’s groundbreaking. In fairness, the use of tape loops wasn’t uncommon at that time – we just took it a bit further than most.

Incidentally Gary [Martin] and I became great friends, even buying a house together. After a year or so in the house, Gary’s disenchantment with the business reached a peak and he moved to the country to make lutes – after which I never heard from him again.

Interesting stuff there – sadly, as I said, we didn’t get a chance to continue our conversation and discuss either Hoppertunity Box or the National Health albums.

Of the sessions for the eponymous NH album, Brian Gaylor remembered :

I hadn’t heard any of the music until we recorded it, but I loved the NH stuff. I used to have a tape somewhere of a Dave Stewart song called “Tenemos Roads” which I really liked… When recording, I’m pretty sure they would all play together. I remember being well impressed by the written scores for the music. Dave would often scurry around fiddling with people’s crotchets and semibreves before re-taking. There were some overdubs, but I’m sure the bulk of the performances would be in one take.

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Ridge Farm in the Summer of 1978

As for Of Queues and Cures,

It was the first thing we recorded on Jon Anderson’s 24-track MCI equipment when we moved to Ridge Farm. Then we had a cracking summer recording a reformed Bad Company and a reformed Roxy Music – Bryan Ferry wouldn’t take his swimming trunks off in the sauna! – and others.

Among the other albums Dunne (often with Gaylor) worked during this period were Steve Hillage’s Open, Mirage’s Now You See It (with Brian Godding, George Khan, Steve Cook and Dave Sheen), Van der Graaf’s Vital and Jon Anderson’s second solo effort Song Of Seven, as well as albums by The Slits and The Pop Group. Dunne appears to have subsequently retired from the music industry. In our initial contacts, Gaylor wrote to me that Dunne was “always very enthusiastic about the music, although he teaches these days” – but I’m not sure what he taught. As for Gaylor,

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Brian Gaylor

I’ve normally been on the technical side of things, usually studio maintenance, but I also played guitar in a band called the Regents – [in 1985] we did a song called ’17’ that got into the charts in the UK and bits of Europe. [In the late Nineties] I designed a big four storey complex in Acton, London, owned by Andy Morris who wrote/produced early (good) Lisa Stansfield songs.

Gaylor was subsequently involved in the building of yet another recording studio in Oxfordshire, as well as designing a revolutionary new kind of light aircraft – tragically, he was killed in a hang gliding accident in 2003. Mike Dunne passed away more recently, around 2014. I am happy to have had a chance of documenting some of their career for posterity but frustrated, particularly in Mike’s case, to have missed the opportunity of a more thorough discussion as there was plenty more to address.

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Strange gathering at Wyndham’s Theatre

The topic has just come up again on the Canterbury Scene FB group, and I thought it deserved a blog post, which also seemed a good opportunity to take this blog into 2017 at last since, due to other work taking precedence, there have been no updates since late last year. Rest assured there’s plenty more coming, hopefully before the Summer.

Many readers will be familiar with the photograph below from the late Michael King’s seminal book Wrong Movements. It features assorted members of such notable Canterbury bands as Soft Machine, Matching Mole and Gong.

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Daevid Allen, Karl Jenkins, John Marshall, Bill MacCormick, Mike Ratledge, Robert Wyatt, Elton Dean and Francis Monkman

The caption in the book stated that the photo had been taken in Paris – which as we’ll see would turn out not to have been the case. The confusion was probably due to the photo making its first appearance in a French music monthly, Best, in its January 1973 issue. This particular issue had lengthy interviews with Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper (interestingly missing from the photo) and Robert Wyatt, which were said to have been conducted in London (and in Hugh’s case, in his houseboat on the Thames estuary) in June 1972.

There are several things about this photo which are puzzling. The presence of Karl Jenkins places the scene in the second half of 1972, as he had joined Soft Machine in June. On the other hand Francis Monkman, a founding member of Curved Air, joined forces with Robert Wyatt for a Peel session in December, and when I interviewed him for the booklet to Robert’s Solar Flares Burn For You CD, which contained this session, his recollection was that Robert had called him out of the blue to record it, so I was inclined to place the scene in December 1972, still believing the photo to have been taken in Paris. This would have made some sense, as Soft Machine were in Paris for a TV appearance on Pierre Lattès’ Rockenstock programme that month. This was also roughly when Bill MacCormick was briefly a member of Gong, staying at their hunting lodge in Sens for a few days until he decided not to join, and when Robert Wyatt came to Paris for yet another Rockenstock shoot as a guest with Hatfield and the North. Still, in this context I could not think of a reason why Elton Dean would also have been present.

Queries to the various musicians appearing on the photograph returned no memories of how or why such a gathering would have taken place. Robert Wyatt is seen in cheerful mood alongside Mike Ratledge and Elton Dean, both of whom he would later blame for his ousting from Soft Machine, when the atmosphere during the joint Softs/Mole tour of Benelux in September 1972 has been described as rather tense. And seeing Daevid Allen alongside Karl Jenkins and John Marshall, from a very different Soft Machine to the band he’d helped form back in 1966, is an almost surreal sight.

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Inside Wyndham’s Theatre

An interesting clue came with the photo’s appearance in the booklet for the 2007 reissue of Soft Machine’s Fifth. The caption mentioned that the photo had actually been taken at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre, near Leicester Square. This makes much more sense, since there were two special joint CBS-sponsored concerts with a triple-bill of Soft Machine, Matching Mole and Elton Dean’s Just Us in London (King’s Cross Cinema) and Oxford in July 1972. This photoshoot could conceivably have been arranged with a view to promoting them – although why the results would only have appeared some six months later in a French magazine seems strange, unless the shoot was arranged specifically for it. This may seem unlikely, except that the author of said article, Hervé Muller, mentioned in the introduction that his original intention was to write an overview of the entire Canterbury scene, only to find his interviews with Ratledge, Hopper and Wyatt so interesting that he chose to make them the sole focus of his piece. The ‘all-star’ photo would have made perfect sense in the context of Muller’s original idea, though.

CBSflyerAnyway, the logical conclusion would be that this was shot sometime around late June 1972, either for the Best article or to promote the upcoming joint gigs. Francis Monkman, although he had yet to undertake any musical collaboration with Robert at that point (he was still in Curved Air until the autumn, and indeed was to tour North America with them during July, returning to the UK in August to headline the Reading Festival), had been a friend and supporter of Soft Machine since 1969. As for Daevid Allen, there was little Gong activity during the second half of June, which also happens to be when Charles Hayward replaced Mac Poole on drums, so he may have been in London for auditions.

An interesting footnote is that Best ran another photo from the same shoot, which is less commonly shown. Here it is below. This raises an additional mystery, as there is a 9th person in this one – presumably the one on the top left corner, assuming the top right one to be Daevid Allen. Could this possibly be Hugh Hopper ? Yes, it definitely does look like it could be him… So he was there after all !

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Larry Nowlin (5) after Soft Machine

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’ !

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Daevid Allen performing with Soft Machine in Chelmsford, February 1967

Larry himself elaborates further…

Daevid and I, 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.

dallen68What 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 ?

VARIOUS - 1992I 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.

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Frank Zappa

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.

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Mama Cass

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 !

Nina en Frederik van Pallandt
Nina and Frederik van Pallandt (Nina & Frederik) in 1967

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.

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Larry Nowlin in 2014

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.

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Jane Alexander in Ibiza, 2010s

Sadly, Jane Alexander passed away on August 11th, 2013 – by a sad coincidence the birthday of her and Larry’s son Silas. 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 Nowlin (4) on Soft Machine in 1966

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Soft Machine in 1967 : Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge and Daevid Allen

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.

softhoepla67How 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.

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Mike Ratledge

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.

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Producer Mickie Most

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.

gibsonl5We 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 !

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Hamburg’s Star Club, where Soft Machine played their first concert outside the UK on 11th September 1966

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.

Larry Nowlin (3) and the birth of Soft Machine

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Coombe Springs

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.

 

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Owner Franco Bevan (with actress Lynn Ashcroft) at the opening of the Beehive, May 1965

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…

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Kevin Ayers

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 !

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Joy Bang

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.

 

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A teenage Robert Wyatt (left) with his parents George Ellidge and Honor Wyatt and (right) his half-sister Prue.

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 !

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Henri Henriod

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 !

 

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Jimi Hendrix with manager Mike Jeffery

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.

 

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An early Pink Floyd performance at UFO

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 !

Larry Nowlin (2) : from California to Majorca

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 :

uscblogoMike 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 !

icelandicIndeed, 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.

dallen67
Daevid Allen

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 :

NPG x163478; Henry Templer Alexander by Walter Bird
General Henry Alexander in 1962

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.

mjeffery
Mike Jeffery

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 ?

robertgraves
Robert Graves

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 ?’