I woke up this morning to the sad news that Gilli Smyth, founding member of Gong and space whisperer extraordinaire, had passed away last night. I had seen her countless times with Gong over the past twenty years after she’d rejoined the band, the last occasion in Paris in 2012 – when she and Daevid toured Europe with the line-up which, with the addition of Kavus Torabi, has since taken over the Gong banner – when it seemed obvious it would be her last tour with Gong.
While working on the book I exchanged e-mails with her and she replied at length to my questions on minute details of the Gong saga, evidently keen to set the record straight on facts and ideas that were of prime importance to her as an artist and person. One aspect we touched on that didn’t really find a space in the book was her history and early career prior to Gong, which even her book Politico-Historico-Spirito did not really address. So that was my first question, to which she replied :
My early professional history is quite brief. I did three degrees at London University, then went to France and met Daevid, more or less as I was just out of college. I had always done poetry and acting, and when in a couple of roles I brought the audience to a “pin drop”, I knew early on that was to be my destiny.
I told her I had read that while a student she had edited a university magazine that caused controversy to the point of articles being written about it in mainstream newspapers. I asked if she could elaborate on her early “artistic” and.or militant activities…
I was always intensely “political” and in fact was expelled from a Catholic convent at the age of twelve for refusing to say I was – as a woman – an original sinner and for questioning their beliefs. As editor of Kings News – college newspaper of Kings, London University – I did publish political/feminist stuff which in the early Sixties was “shocking”. There was still the hangover from Simone de Beauvoir being imprisioned for “perverting public morals” with her book The Second Sex. Two horrible tabloid neewspapers, Daily Mirror and the Daily Express, ran articles of the same kind on me, that the government should not waste money – I was on a grant – sending slags like me to college, assuming I was living a wild life, which I wasn’t. These newspapers were sold everywhere and it was one of the worst times in my life, seeing them sold on every newsagent and having no right of reply. People forget how tough it was for us then… The reaction of the dean of women students at college was to call me in for a talking to and suggest I cut my long hair off “because it gave people the wrong impression”. No concept that these were serious political ideas of women.
How, then, did she end up living in Paris, where she eventually met Daevid ?
In fact instead of the wild life, I was extricating myself from an unfortunate student marriage I made, and ran to Paris to avoid legal custody problems. The judge’s attitude at the time was that I must be unstable and immoral to want to leave a firm marriage with a guy with a good job. I hid in Paris with my baby, sometimes homeless, bought an old condemned boat from a gipsy, José, for $20, begged, etc., until I got a job at L’Institut Britannique, affiliated to the Sorbonne. A really contradictory time it was, but I learned to survive on hardly any money – very useful for a life with Gong ! Paris was a haven of tolerance compared to the uptight English, as the black musicians from the U.S. also found.
In the early days of Soft Machine (and later with Daevid’s Banana Moon band), she was only marginally involved and only made sporadic appearances. Where was she at in her own artistic life ?
I was “entourage” in so far as I was not a musical member of the Soft Machine band. It was a different style of music to what I was actually engaged in. So at that time I was mainly a writer. I produced a couple of books : Nightrogen Dreams, Outposts, Mind Book… Lots of single poems in magazines, newspaper articles etc. I did poetry performances, and two or three times with Soft Machine – Roundhouse, a boxing ring in East London, the name of which name I forget [Deptford], etc. I was going to do something with Soft Machine on the famous occasion at the Palais des Sports that turned into a riot [January 1971].
I was also curious to know more about her family background, having seen her described as a “Welsh poetess”.
My passports are English and Australian, but my family is in fact deeply Welsh… We are Morgans and the Morgan family goes way back to ancient times !
My sincere condolences to Gilli’s children, relatives and friends at this sad time. May they be comforted in the knowledge that she lived her live to the full and left an indelible mark on the lives of many who were touched by her art.
Next in our series of classic Canterbury scene covers is the magnificent debut album by National Health. As with both Hatfield and the North covers, once again Laurie Lewis was entrusted with shooting the photos for both the front and back cover.
The album had been recorded in April 1977, shortly about Alan Gowen and Amanda Parsons had left the band, with both agreeing to stay on for the duration of the sessions. National Health however were still without a record deal at this point, and by the time the deal with Charly Records was finally signed the band was down to four members, and only they appeared on the photos, which were taken in December 1977.
The front cover was a rather obvious reference to the band’s name. Dave Stewart in those days wore cheap glasses provided by the British NHS so they bore the mention “National Health”, and the band was named after them.
The cover photo showed the band visiting an unidentified patient. A review suggested – not entirely ironically – that, with such talented musicians taking so long to secure a record deal, said patient was probably the British music industry !
There is a darker undercurrent to the photograph as it was taken (on December 6th) at St. Bartholomew’s hospital in London, which happened to be the same hospital where Alan Gowen would die some three and a half years later.
No such thing was on Pip’s mind however when I asked him to remember the photo shoot.
Laurie set the shot up, he managed to blag some sister at a hospital to let us come into the ward for a shoot. No mean feat when you think about it… ‘Excuse me, do you think I could just bring in this rock’n’roll group and their children into your ward of very ill people and do a photo session for their album ?’ Laurie always had the gift of the gab for anything like that !
Who is supposed to be the patient in the bed ?
Why all the ugly gifts ?
Well, you always bring gifts to hospital, so we bought all this junk instead of grapes and magazines. I wanted to take this much further, with like hoovers, blow-up dollies, golf clubs etc. But perhaps we would have been shown the door before we even got through it !
Why is Dave the doctor ?
Well, he looked like one ! He rolled up with a stethoscope.
Who is the guy with the nurse ?
Pretty sure that was Laurie Lewis’ dad.
And the nurse ?
I think she was a real nurse in the ward. She was working…
Laurie’s dad is talking to a couple…
The lady with the blurred face was probably just a visitor. We all had to keep quite still because Laurie always used a slow lens speed if possible.
The boy sitting behind you looks familiar…
It’s Sam, and I think maybe Alice is concealed behind him.
What about the guy in the red jacket ?
I don’t know, maybe a friend of Laurie’s ?
It appears what became the front cover was initially intended as the back cover, and for the front, the band toyed with the (rather silly) idea of using the picture of an elf (a phonetic play on “National Elf” !). Thankfully they changed their minds, decided the hospital shot would be the front cover, and another shoot was set up, this time at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, on December 21st.
Remembered Pip :
The “joke” as such, was instead of having the band shot on stage it would be role reversals and we’d be the audience. And the nurses – the National Health ! – would be on stage… Obviously Ronnie’s was a convenient place to shoot in the daytime when no-one was playing. Laurie and I knew Ronnie Scott a bit so we just asked him if we could use it.
Ronnie Scott himself sat at the piano, and the club’s doorman played the drummer. The bass-playing nurse was not an actual nurse this time, but Soose, Dave Stewart’s girlfriend who did the lights for the band on tour.
Pip Pyle, Dave Stewart and Neil Murray are seen sitting at a table applauding and cheering, but the fourth figure with his back to the camera whom one would assume to be Phil Miller isn’t actually him – Phil never showed up so his “part” was played by someone else with long hair, possibly a lady. Coincidentally, a year later a similar situation arose for the Soft Heap cover, when Elton Dean turned up late and a random passer-by was asked to stand in for him, conveniently wearing a hoodied coat !
Rick Chafen, who later organised National Health’s US tour in 1979, had a funny anecdote about the t-shirt Neil Murray is seen wearing on the front cover :
I had a friend who ran a record store when the National Health album finally came out, and he made a shirt pretty much like the one Neil is wearing. I met Neil after [National Health and Steve Hillage’s] Lyceum show, and mentioned that I had a friend who’d made a shirt just like his. “I doubt it,” he replied. “I’m wearing it backwards for the photograph !”
J’étais le 26 juin l’invité de l’émission Rockoscopie animée par David Taugis sur Judaïques FM, qui avait déjà consacré son émission à mes livres sur King Crimson et le Rock Progressif. Cette fois, le thème était évidemment L’Ecole de Canterbury, avec quelques extraits musicaux assez brefs, histoire de donner priorité à la discussion. (Dans la rubrique “réécouter les dernières émissions”, choisir celle du 26 juin.)
One of the most obscure bands in Pip Pyle’s résumé has to be All Wet and Dripping – so obscure in fact that despite my best research I am still unable to assign it a precise date. My best guess is the Spring of 1972, sometime between Pip’s return from playing with Gong in France and the formation of the new Delivery which by the year’s end would turn into Hatfield and the North. I had come across a reference to a band called Short Back And Psycho, which turned out to refer to the same band, only the name appears to be that of one of their pieces, not the band itself.
I first discussed the band with Pip himself when I asked him about some of the names in the credits for the Hatfield albums. One person mentioned was Geoff Bevan who was credited with providing the band’s PA. Explained Pip :
Geoff did indeed make the PA. I met him when I played with a group from south London called All Wet and Dripping. They played sort of Soft Machine-influenced, complex material that was quite interesting but not particularly well-played. I was more impressed by their gear, H1H amps and a ‘Zoot Horn’ PA system and stage speakers. It transpired that the PA was made by their roadie, Geoff. He was a real ‘gear nerd’, and the first person to design a PA that didn’t need a crossover unit between the horns, mid and bass bins, which cut a lot of cost and reduced the size and weight of the PA. So when we got our deal with Virgin, we got him to build our PA which was pretty much the dog’s bollocks at the time.
(I’m not sure how familiar some of you, whether native English speakers or not, are with the phrase “the dog’s bollocks”, but it basically means state of the art. I wouldn’t have guessed from the literal meaning !)
I told Pip I had read the name All Wet and Dripping, but in relation to fellow drummer Charles Hayward – it was supposedly a band he’d been in post-Quiet Sun, around the time of his stint with Gong. Could this be the same band, possibly after Charles left ? Replied Pip :
Well, actually, come to think of it, I think Charlie did play with them, but I don’t remember if it was after me and on my recommendation – like Laurie Allan, I certainly recommended him to Gong, something Daevid never really forgave me for because he hated his playing ! But whichever way the events occurred – I know the chronology is important to you but you’re are dealing with a blitzkrieg memory -, it was certainly the same band.
Elaborating on his comment that the music was “not particularly well-played”, he added :
I don’t say that they were bad, but I suppose I was a little spoilt playing with such good other musicians ! I think I went to about 5 or 6 rehearsals. They attempted a recording once, I think. No gigs, though.
The latter statement, as we will see, would prove incorrect. But before we return to Pip, here’s what Charles Hayward could remember when I next contacted him :
Short Back and Psycho was the other name. Pip and I played one gig together with the band, in Bishop’s Stortford in a pub with a crane holding up the back wall. I think I was in the band first and then joined Gong, and Pip came back to England and met up with the group, then we seemed to alternate for a while – mostly rehearsals, maybe no gigs and only rehearsals, I can’t remember – but neither of us seemed to be really at home in the situation.
Charles concluded with what, in Pip’s case, sadly turned out to be prophetic words :
Say hi to Pip – it’s been over 30 years but it feels beautiful that we’re both still playing… until we drop !
I submitted Charles’ memories to Pip who commented :
Well, there you go ! Just about everyone has a better memory than me – I’m puzzled as to why you ask me anything, I’ll only get you into trouble ! Nice to hear from him anyway, I sent him a mail back. I always liked his playing.
In fact I do vaguely remember playing with him, but not with that group. Also that it was good because we have such contrasting styles. Obviously it would have been at the Railway Hotel, where Steve Miller ran a club between about 1970-73.
More on that club in the previous blog post…
By a remarkable coincidence, not long after these exchanges with Pip and Charles I received an e-mail from Garry Whannel, who it turned out was none other than the guitarist in All Wet and Dripping. Garry was of course totally unaware of the above correspondence when he commented on the “obscure bands” section on Calyx :
Not too surprised at the omission of the really obscure All Wet and Dripping, for whom drummer Charles Hayward and Pip Pyle both played – together at one memorable gig in Bishop’s Stortford at the Angel Underground. The other members of the band gradually drifted out of music – I was the guitarist and now work at the University of Luton.
Garry provided the band’s line-up and sketched out a bio which confirmed most of the facts I had obtained from Pip and Charles :
Frank Trembath – keyboards and guitar Garry Whannel – guitar Doug Newton – bass Charles Hayward – drums
and then Pip Pyle – drums
It grew out of a previous incarnation, Catalysis, that rehearsed a lot and gigged only one or two times.
All Wet and Dripping existed in 1971-2, if memory serves, and didn’t do many gigs. I think Pip played with us between Gong and Hatfield and the North, and I think Charles left us to play briefly with Gong – but memory is hazy for all the usual reasons.
Our road manager built us a sound system tailored to our vocal-less monitoring needs, in an early incarnation of the company Zoot Horn who went on to provide gear to many bands including Soft Machine.
I took the chance of asking Garry more about that PA. This prompted a related memory :
Charlie Watkins of WEM devised a strange PA system with giant wooden horn speakers, which was tested in a cinema in south London with a dozen bands and their roadies (including the Strawbs), looking on. We were all a bit sceptical. I was there with Geoff Bevan, so I guess he had started making speakers himself by then, and was using a curved wooden projector on the front of his speakers which he later dropped. He built a sound system for All Wet and Dripping. As we were entirely instrumental, there were no vocal mikes, and so the stage speakers were in effect a monitor system – we each had three speaker cabinets behind us, one from guitar, bass and keyboards. All had their own volume controls, so each musician could set their own balance.
Returning to AW&D’s history and musical style :
We were described somewhere – I think on one version of Pete Frame’s family tree – as “short-lived and more than slightly crazed” – they might well say that, I couldn’t possibly comment. “Short Back and Psycho” was one of the compositions. We had no vocalist, which didn’t add to our minimal commercial appeal. Charles Hayward did utilise a pre-recorded tape collage as part of a drum solo, known as “The National Anthem of the State of Catatonia”, and we were joined by Charles’s brother, a poet/performance artist, for one gig. We tended to play in one continuous set without pauses, ending in a high-speed montage of cuts between different rhythms.
The music was influenced by, among others, Soft Machine, and Charles Mingus – we used to play a rock version of Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus”. Then again, we ended one set with a short version of “Hernando’s Hideaway” from the musical “The Pajama Game”.
After Pip left, we rehearsed with various drummers including Phil Howard. I seem to remember Chris Cutler listening to one of our tapes and working out the arcane time signature quicker than anyone had before, but sadly we never played with him.
Amidst disagreement about whether to get a new drummer with the same material, or start from scratch with new material, I left sometime in late 1972, and was replaced by Charles Bullen in a renamed band, Radar Favourites, before Charles Bullen and Charles Hayward left to become two-thirds of This Heat.
(Note : In fact the genesis of This Heat was a little more complicated. It had its roots in several distinct projets – Dolphin Logic, the improvising duo Bullen and Hayward had formed in 1974, the final [1974-75] line-up of Radar Favourites with Geoff Leigh and Cathy Williams after Gerry Fitzgerald and Jack Monck had left and had been replaced with Bullen and bassist Alan Muller, and an aborted attempt at a live incarnation of Quiet Sun with Hayward, Bullen and Bill MacCormick – when the latter failed, This Heat inherited a QS booking which became their début gig)
In our continuing online ‘conference call’ I submitted Garry’s info to Charles Hayward, who wrote back :
Very glad Garry got in touch – he has a much better overview on that group, including the names of the group and tunes. I left a couple of messages for Frank Trembath but got no reply.
A note on Charles Bullen – he and I were super close during this time and I got him into Radar Favourites because he was my favourite guitarist in the whole world. This was after Gerry Fitzgerald left.
In order to narrow down the chronology of all this I asked Charles when he’d joined and left Gong, based on the available chronology of gigs. Came the reply :
Metz [July 1st, 1972] was the first gig I did with them. Magma played as well, we seemed to do a few gigs with them or the night before or after. Gong was a completely different – and much better – group when Gilli came back. I think the ‘floating anarchy’ thing needed her energy to really take off. The gigs seemed more numerous than listed, but everything was full on for me, I was trying to work out exactly what I was doing, what music to make. When I came back to Britain, I resolved not to be in somebody else’s group but get something real together with collective ownership at the core.
Chronologically, it was after Gong that I started playing with Charles Bullen in Dolphin Logic and Radar Favourites. During that period, early 1975, Quiet Sun reformed to make “Mainstream”. Looking back all of this stuff was a bit piecemeal – really, I was working towards This Heat. When Charles and I met Gareth, who was Radar Favourites’ manager for a brief time, everything fell into place.
I shared all this with Garry and asked if he could provide more info on their dealings with Phil Howard and Chris Cutler :
Phil Howard was never in the band. We did rehearse with him once. As far as I can remember, it was when Pip Pyle had gone off to launch Hatfield and the North, Charles Hayward had gone to Gong. We were searching for a new drummer. We were huge Soft Machine fans, but I can’t remember at all how we came to meet Phil Howard. We had some difficulties with the polyrhythmic swash of his stye, and apparently he found some of our more spiky asymnetric time signatures difficult. Anyway, it was a one-off.
I remember meeting Chris Cutler and playing him some of our stuff, but we never actually played with him, which is a shame, because next to Charles Hayward, he was my favourite drummer at the time.
(Interesting side note is that in the 80s, for several years, Tim and Lindsay from Henry Cow lived in the same street as me, and I never knew until afterwards. One of my fellow media academics, Georgie Born, also used to play with them. We were always slightly over-awed by Henry Cow, who, more than everyone else, seemed to be “real” musicians !)
I also pointed to an apparent contradiction in Garry’s assertion that he had “left sometime in late 1972 and was replaced by Charles Bullen in a renamed band, Radar Favourites”. This would imply that Charles Hayward had returned to AW&D after touring with Gong ? Replied Garry :
When I left, the two remaining members were Doug Newton (bass) and Frank Trembath, who started as a guitarist, and then took up electric piano and organ. Frank then formed Radar Favourites with Charles Bullen and Charles Hayward. At some point, Doug was dropped as bass player, but I am not sure when. And then Charles Bullen and Charles Hayward became 2/3 of This Heat. Frank and I subsequently recorded a demo version of their first album, in Frank’s studio, using my 4-track TEAC.
To complete the picture, I asked Garry about the precursor to AW&D, Catalysis… He explained :
Catalysis were formed by Frank and myself in 1968, with Doug Newton on bass and a drummer called Bill. It was really a learning experience – we were learning to play our instruments and to interact and improvise. We were pretty poor until near the end of All Wet and Dripping, when we suddenly got quite good. With the drummer we had before Charlie, we weren’t really getting anywhere. We did a gig at Bedford College which was OK, but pretty inept – no worse than some other bands around, but certainly nothing that won us any more gigs.
I don’t remember how we found Charlie – he was a bit younger than the rest of us. A terrific, muscular drummer, who gave the sound so much clarity and power – a joy to play with, really. We played with him at Wimbledon Art College and played pretty well, even though a power cut in the middle disrupted the set sequence a bit.
But Charlie always had several irons in the fire and was pretty committed to a more avant-garde approach. He went off and we auditioned ten drummers, of whom almost the last was Pip. One of them was Phil Howard, whom Doug, our bass player, heard in a break on the phone to his partner saying he was having trouble with the time signatures, which amused us later.
Pip was fun to play with and he taught us “Shaving is Boring”, but I am not sure we ever really bonded. He did get us the gigs at the Angel Underground. We played a couple of times there – nice publican who bought us a tray of sandwiches ! The first time we played there was the one time we performed with both drummers. By the time we were set up we occupied about 30% of the floor space. It was probably our best performance – shame no-one taped it !
Then Charlie was back around, and for a while we used them both, until Charlie pulled out of a gig at a day’s notice and we had a bit of a row. The double drummer sound was pretty interesting, especially given the different styles, but I am not sure that either Charlie or Pip were ever comfortable with it.
Fairly soon after that Pip left, and Frank and I disagreed over strategy – I wanted to get a drummer quickly and continue with the same material, Frank wanted both a new drummer and new material. So I left, to get into electronic music – I built a studio at Dartington Arts College in Devon, with a Moog and an ARP. Frank went to Radar Favourites. They used to do the Tubes number “Slipped my Disco”. Then the two Charlies left to form This Heat.
What we sounded like ? No vocals, a lot of odd time signatures – improvised passages growing out of riffs; some free improvised sections. Some sections were like the middle of the Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive”; some were like light jazz à la Chick Corea. We ran numbers together rather in the fashion of Soft Machine in the “Volume Two” era when Robert Wyatt was still with them. Raucous – even our version of Mingus’s “Faubus Fables”, which we used to refer to as “Led Zeppelin plays Mingus” !
We practiced improvising in 5s, 7s and 9s quite a lot and had done since we started. But often, the time signatures derived from Frank’s quirkily syncopated style of writing, and he didn’t always write with a specific time signature in mind. His number “Gout” – people never agreed on what time it was in. I recall it as 4 bars of 7/8 followed by 4 of 6/8. We had a piece called “Houndstooth Cheque”, which had three parts – the first in 11/8, the middle free and the final part in 6/8. I began writing a piece in 27/8 which I still tinker with occasionally, but haven’t yet realised more than fragments on tape. Phil Howard had a lot of trouble with it, and only Charlie ever really nailed it.
I asked Garry about his other experiences with Canterbury music, and he remembered his first time seeing Soft Machine perform :
Never saw the pre-Hugh Hopper line-ups. The first time I saw them was the gig at the Royalty Theatre off Ladbroke Grove [March 1st, 1969]. Egg were on the same bill. After that, I saw the majority of their London gigs until Robert Wyatt left. I particularly liked the Albert Hall Proms concert, which I had on tape for a few years before the tape was lost. The band did not like having to play for exactly one hour, and had technical problems, but I thought it was the tightest version of “Esther”, with the best drum solo. The seven-piece was exciting but messy – I always thought the four-piece with Elton Dean delivered the material best. As so often in music, there was a frail synthesis between people pulling in opposite directions which worked well. By contrast, I have always found the John Marshall period quite dull.
Saw Caravan a few times and remember them much less clearly. Also Delivery. The sound was not great in those days – all volume and no clarity.
Later, Geoff [Bevan] did some roadying for Hatfield, and I was roped in as assistant. So I remember seeing them, travelling in vans, and sitting around in dressing rooms. We liked them, but always thought Robert Wyatt’s voice was a great asset for Soft Machine and Richard Sinclair and all the others did not compare. I always liked Richard as a person – he was once very kind to me when I was very low and thinking of giving up playing, and he persuaded me not to. It was only a short conversation, and I am sure he forgot it very quickly, but the ‘never give up’ spirit stayed with me.
Speaking of which, and returning to Garry’s musical activities post-AW&D :
The best music I was ever involved with came in the mid-70s, after All Wet and Dripping had ceased, and possibly after Radar Favourites had ceased as well. Frank and I got together in his studio and recorded four numbers – three of his, one of mine. I played guitar and bass, Frank keyboards and synth – no drummer. There was a certain amount of overdubbing. I seem to remember using Doug’s Fender Precision bass and Hugh Hopper’s fuzz box, which was in the Zoot Horn Sound workshop for repair at the time. Anyway, it was an exceptionally good bass sound.
Were there any contacts with labels towards signing a recording contract ?
No, we were hopeless at the business side. We were more focused on getting gigs, but didn’t really know how to do that, either !
While researching my book I was lucky to exchange e-mails with Dez Quarrell about the musical activity in Bishop’s Stortford, the city where Pip Pyle and brothers Phil and Steve Miller grew up and first played music together in the band that would become Delivery. As it turned out, Bishop’s Stortford remained a rallying point long after these musicians had moved to London and elsewhere. Bands like Hatfield and the North, Gilgamesh, National Health and Rapid Eye Movement played some of their earliest gigs at the Angel Underground and parent venues, and Dez’s account below offers many priceless anecdotes and little-known facts, most of which didn’t fit in the book but have found a proper home, I hope, on this blog.
Dez Quarrell : I’ve tried to put back together the Bishop’s Stortford timeline as best as my memory will recall – it went as follows…
In 1968-69, the Rambling Jack’s blues club was held in an upstairs room above an old open-fronted stabling in the courtyard of the old coaching inn, the Railway Hotel. Steve Miller set up the club and booked the best bands from the British ‘blues boom’. I was too young to blag my way in, but can remember being very envious of my elder brother getting in to see Mick Abrahams’ new band Blodwyn Pig.
In 1969-70, the musical focus moved to Rhodes Hall, a large hall attached to the birthplace house of Sir Cecil Rhodes – the dodgy British colonialist responsible for the worst excesses of the British Empire in South Africa. These weekly gigs were run by an arch money-grabber called Reggie Reed, who carried on Cecil’s record of exploitation. One band had to jack up his Jaguar and remove the tyres, travel a respectable distance away into the countryside and ring Reggie from a callbox, and a position of strength, before receiving their fee in grubby notes. Well, so the story went, it might not have been true, but it’s definitely good enough to be true !
Most of these gigs ended up in fights on the dancefloor between the greasers – bike boys – and local travellers – Romanys. When the lights dimmed, you made for the nearest emergency exit and ran. I can never remember any encores ! Bands I can remember performing were Black Sabbath, Mott The Hoople, Audience, Mighty Baby and the only one with a vague later Canterbury connection, Yes, with Bill Bruford on drums.
Meanwhile, big plans were afoot just across the road at the old Maltings buildings – a major arts centre was planned to transform the crumbling group of Victorian industrial edifices. The centre was to be called Triad because there were three buildings : a large central one, flanked by two long, thin drying houses. Initially there was a lot of community support and effort to get the whole thing up and running, but it was a massive job. The two flanking buildings were the first to be renovated, called Millars One and Millars Three. The big central building was planned to house a large theatre and concert hall with seating for 650 or so – it never quite happened, and now it houses an indoor bowling green, offices, a taxi firm, a little greasy spoon café, and a lot of still derelict space.
Anyway, Millars One was to contain a hall with stage and capacity 250/300 and a licensed restaurant on the ground floor at the riverfront car park end of the building, with a dance hall/rock, pop and jazz performance space above. Millars Three was to house a dance studio, a studio theatre and a base for a local theatre in education group. A lot of volunteer work went into the initial clear-up and decoration. My schoolboy band was given two small rehearsal rooms to tidy up and paint and decorate in return for free rehearsal space. Meanwhile, a group of fans and local musicians started the job of tidying and decorating the restaurant and performance space above in return for being allowed to run a regular club there on Sunday nights – later Sunday and Wednesday nights. The club opened in 1970 and was called Millars One, after the building, not Steve, although I’m sure he was involved !
The club featured an eclectic line-up of folk, rock, jazz and poetry, but regularly featured two major local bands : Steve Miller’s Delivery and CMU. Other acts featured were Steve Tillotson, an original member of T-Rex, poet Adrian Henri, Steve Tilston the folk singer, Kevin Ayers and the Whole World – featuring Mike Oldfield, Lol Coxhill, David Bedford, etc. -, Keith Tippett, Van der Graaf Generator, and quite a lot of local rock bands and pick-up groups.
Lol occasionally guested with Delivery, and then became a regular as a solo performer and in a duet, firstly with David Bedford (“Pretty Little Girl Come Walking In The Woods With Me” and “Don Alfonso the man from Oxo” regularly brought the rafters down), and later duets with Steve. There was quite a lot of experimentation going on Roger Odell, inspired by Miles Davis’ album “Bitches Brew”, brought together a double quintet called 360° Inter-Planetary Solar Complex on a number of occasions to play some Miles-like material. Each time the line-up varied, but I seem to remember Pip being present on one occasion.
The club evolved to be run by the local agency which handled Delivery, CMU, etc. Run by brothers Chris and Mark Harrison and Dick Offer, they were called Aardvark and based in Chuch Street, Bishop’s Stortford. These were heady days ! CMU got a contract with Transatlantic Records, took the Purcell Rooms on London’s South Bank and the Edinburgh Festival by storm and appeared on BBC2’s “Late Night Line-Up”. Delivery did a couple of Radio One sessions and got their recording deal [with B&C]. I remember Pip sporting the Larry Smart painting on his bass drum for the first time, his fabulous double kit, and then his disappearance and replacement with Laurie Allan from Formerly Fat Harry.
After CMU‘s first album “Open Spaces” the band split. Musicologist Ed Lee, taking Terry Mortimer and James Gordon to form Trident, while Roger Odell took the name CMU with guitarist Ian Hamlett for a short-lived jazz fusion outfit featuring Steve Cook on bass and Frank Roberts (later a Robert Wyatt sideman) on keyboards. After Frank left, the band took a solid step towards rock. Larraine rejoined on vocals, together with vocalist/composer Richard Joseph and organist Leary Hasson from Marsupulami, and recorded their second album “Space Cabaret”.
About this time, Carol left Delivery, and after a gig or two, Phil was spirited off to join Matching Mole. I can’t remember where Dyble, Coxhill & the Miller Brothers came into the timeline, and have a hazy memory as to whether or not they played a gig at Millars One – things changed very quickly. Around this time, Steve joined Caravan for “Waterloo Lily”.
One of the last gigs at Millars One was Kevin Ayers with the Bananamour group featuring the wonderful Archie Legget. Millars One went on until early 1972 when the arts centre manager, Ted Smith, much more a classical music man, took control of all the programming at the centre.
Around this time, Aardvark got the call to book the Music In The Moat concert at the Tower Of London. The original line-up sent the New Musical Express into ecstasy – I think they called it a bill made in heaven : John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, CMU and a reformed Delivery. Alas, Mahavishnu Orchestra had to pull out and their place was taken by Barclay James Harvest – oh well !
Just after the Moat gig, I left school and joined CMU as a roadie. By 1972/3, the music had returned to the Railway Inn, in the same room as Rambling Jack’s. The club, now named the Angel Underground, was run by Aardvark. It featured the usual suspects plus regular performances by Carol’s new band Uncle Dog, a young Henry Cow, Alan’s band Gilgamesh, Judas Priest – we had them, and Barbarella’s in Birmingham took CMU in an odd exchange ! – and two bizarre outfits called Brewer’s Droop and Gnome Sweet Gnome – what happened to them ?
In 1973, CMU split and I moved to Cambridge. While there, the band I was working with shared a bill at the Architecture School’s Red Event with the Global Village Trucking Company and Jack Monck’s band.
When I returned to Bishop’s Stortford in Spring 1974, music promotion had returned to the hands of the sharks at Rhodes Centre, and Roger Odell and I decided we’d strike a blow for the common musician and start a musician-run club. We approached the new landlord of the Old Maltings public house located in the restaurant section of Millars One at Triad, and we’d got our venue. All gigs were free, but I took a hat collection with a recommended donation of at least 30p each, and we took a percentage of the landlord’s bar take. Roger was then working in Mecca clubs in London in cover bands and wanted a hobby band to keep him sane, and my band needed somewhere to play. It started with Roger’s projects supported by my bands, and as other local bands got to hear about it they came along too – at least they weren’t being ripped off by a promoter ! And it was a place to try out new material.
George Khan’s Stagecoach came along, Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd came to blow, as did Jimmy Hastings, Steve Marriott of the Small Faces and many more rock and jazz players – London was only an hour’s drive away.
About this time, Roger formed a more stable unit called Tracks, which would in the end evolve into Shakatak. Tracks’ first line-up was a much more jazz-fusion centred band. Roger played drums, Steve Miller played piano, Phil Miller and Keith Winter on guitars and John Culleton on bass. Soon Steve dropped out and was replaced by Bill Sharpe on keyboards, and Ian Hamlett joined on guitar. Eventually the band would drop down to just Keith Winter on guitar. Bass players changed quite often – one notable bassist was ZTT guru Trevor Horn.
In 1975, the Triad Arts Centre went into voluntary liquidation, but we headed up a user group and the liquidator allowed us to continue with a bring-your-own-beer bar. We went one step forward from the two nights a week we had been running and ran 7 evenings and 2 lunchtimes. There was a folk night, a poetry night, trad jazz night, be-bop night, even an old folks singalong night, all with bring-your-own-beer and a hat collection. Alas, we were so successful that a commercial buyer was found for the centre, but they let us stay on for our Sunday jazz/rock sessions.
In 1976, National Health got in touch and wanted to do a pre-tour warm-up in front of a friendly audience, and they came and played I think their first gig in the concert hall to a fantastic reception. I can remember being amazed at Bill Bruford‘s flight cases. This was the real big league ! They were supported by a rather interesting folky fusion band featuring Rick Biddulph, but I can’t remember the name of the group [Crass Stupidity – ed.]
There was a hiatus in 1977 when I’d moved to Harlow and started a shortlived venue downstairs at a pub called The Orange Footman, Jazz at the Club. It only lasted six weeks but featured some great music from, among others, Henry Lowther’s Quarternity, Stan Sulzmann, avant-garde drummer Eddie Prévost featuring a marvellous young bassist Marcio Mattos, and my old friend Steve Cook came along with another old pal from Seventh Wave (whom I’d been a roadie for too), Peter Lemer, in a three-piece completed by John Marshall. That must have been June, because Steve tried to get me to come back and roadie for a trip to Paris he was just about to make, which became Soft Machine’s “Alive and Well In Paris”. Thank heavens I kept my dayjob – there wasn’t much future with that band !
In 1978, I moved back to Bishop’s Stortford and I re-started the club Sunday evenings at Triad on the same basis as before – hat collection and part of the bar take. Initialy it was just Tracks and an American band called Antares – with Jamie Snead and Kevin Flanagan, while they were students at Cambridge – on alternative weeks.
Sometime in May or June 1981, we borrowed the big hall again for a benefit for Alan Gowen‘s widow Celia after his sad demise. It featured Pip Pyle, Steve and Phil Miller, Lol Coxhill, Steve Cook who’d played in Gilgamesh and Tracks – Roger Odell and Alan were old mates when Alan lived in Harlow just down the road. I think Rapid Eye Movement played too, but I can’t honestly remember.
By 1981, Shakatak had started to take off, and Pip was back on the scene living in Hatfield Broad Oak. He’d got lots of ideas he wanted to explore and he became virtually resident at the club for a while. Rapid Eye Movement, the best band ever to leave no trace, played about every fortnight – Pip experimenting with clap-track, syn-drums and all manner of electric stuff and recording devices. His other band with Elton and Marcio Mattos were regulars too.
We had by that time an educated audience that didn’t object to free music and Mark Hewins‘ first outing was long remembered by all present – he spent most of the night playing his guitar with one of the metal posts that provided the superstructure of the building !
Pip always had many stories while leaning against the bar – exploding toilets that had them evicted from small Paris hotels in the middle of the night (I seem to remember he was much in awe of Mark’s explosive techniques !), Pip’s retaliation for Elton pissing in his wellies at a party at Hatfield Broad Oak by shitting into Elton’s saxello in the back of a London taxi cab…
I don’t know if I ever believed them, or for that matter even questioned their veracity – Pip was a great storyteller, that’s how I’ve earned my living these past years so that’s one professional praising another ! What I’d give to still hear him telling his tales now…
Late in 1981 or early 1982, Triad changed hands again. Danny Kersey, the old manager, moved to a nightclub in Stanstead Mountfitchet, about six miles away. We moved the club there for a few weeks, but it didn’t work – a few miles too far, I suppose !
Finally, a word from Dez about his own musical activities…
I played bass and my long-term collaborator was Tony Watts on guitar. We used to watch Phil Miller’s hands like a hawk to see the exotic chord shapes to try and use later ! Steve Miller was very encouraging. When we were about 14, he came along and jammed with us at Triad playing the Steinway in the concert hall. Our best exploits were later in the field of latin jazz, playing Antonio Carlos Jobim numbers.
J’étais récemment l’invité de l’émission Les Oreilles Libres sur Radio Libertaire. Au programme, discussion autour de L’Ecole de Canterbury avec, au programme, quelques classiques et autres perles méconnues… L’émission peut être réécoutée en cliquant sur ce lien.
What did you do, musically or otherwise, while you were in London ?
I was looking to expand my musical horizons. I had the fortune to play with some fine musicians in London and outside the city. Daevid Allen recommended me for a band in Norfolk, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing with them. I played a couple of gigs with some blues musicians on the recommendation of Dick Heckstall-Smith and played a very short jam with Caravan.
How did that come about ?
Through Neil Murray. Neil told me that Caravan might be looking for a bass player and being the generous person that he is, he researched and gave me a phone number to contact Caravan. I spoke with Pye Hastings on the phone, and after a nice chat he invited me to a concert that they were playing in London. Pye left a ticket for me in the box office. I showed up early as requested and announced my arrival to the theatre personnel. Dave Sinclair came out to greet me and asked me if I was the American bass player whom Pye had spoken with. I assured him that I was and he was very friendly and accompanied me backstage.
Since Dave was present, this would have to have been the “Canterbury Tales” tour in November/December 1976, which featured him as special guest with the then-current line-up of Caravan which had Jan Schelhaas on keyboards. Do you remember that dual keyboards line-up ?
December sounds correct – I do recall it was near Christmas time. It is quite possible that David Sinclair played a couple of compositions with the band. My instinct says that he did play and played some compositions from the “Land of Grey and Pink” album. Intellectually I cannot say for sure, because it was a long time ago. However, I would have to say that it was quite likely that he played with Caravan that night. I do remember someone playing an organ that sure sounded like David Sinclair. It was a very nice concert. It was good to see the original members perform, but I must confess it was not my favourite period in Caravan’s music.
Backstage before the concert, I was introduced to Pye and we sat down and talked for a brief while. I really liked Pye and found him very considerate. He suggested that I come out to their rehearsal space to play and meet the rest of the band. A trip was arranged and I boarded the train to Canterbury on a very cold afternoon. I remember the cold because my fingers were frozen and that numbing feeling is still very present in mind today. When I arrived the band were in their final break and ready to go home. I was greeted by Pye, who asked me if I wanted to play and we both played as a duo for a while before Richard Coughlan, the drummer, joined us, and we had a short jam. They already had their bass player [Dek Messecar], but I had a great time playing with these two wonderful personalities.
What about the band Daevid Allen recommended you for ?
I can’t remember what they were called. It was a trio of guitar, drums and bass. We played in a barn on the farm with no heat. It was cold, but a great experience. The music was very interesting, and we composed about a set of music that was bit like Gong and Matching Mole.
How come Daevid knew them ?
When I was in Miami, I corresponded with Daevid and told him of my plans to go to Europe to play music. He suggested that, once I settled down, I write to him and he would try to assist me in my search for musicians. Once in England, I wrote to Daevid, who told me of these dedicated musicians who were looking for a bass player. I was very much inspired by his accurate portrayal of these determined and talented musicians. This band seemed to personally know Daevid. I do not remember much else about them other than I think of that experience fondly.
Did you ever play with Alan Gowen while staying at his home ?
Yes, after he left National Health. We also talked about recording together in the future.
Just the two of you ?
Mostly. I remember playing with a drummer, but I cannot recall his name. But for the most part, we played as a duo.
Did you just improvise, or play any composed material ?
We improvised al lot of the times, but we also did some compositions. We would work on some compositions that I would bring in. I also played compositions by Alan. One that comes to mind is “Play Time”, which later appeared on the second Gilgamesh album. It was originally faster in tempo, different bass line and a bass solo. This solo came to be when we were playing and Alan casually looked over and said “solo” !
Did you play with any other bands during your stay ?
I played with several punk bands and some free jazz musicians. But because of my work permit situation, it was very difficult to join a band and get any type of wages. I had to view this period of my musical career as an education. I am extremely happy for the experience and to have had the privilege to meet so many wonderful people.
After a year, I left England to resume my musical studies in the States. Upon graduation at the conservatory I was in touch with Phil Miller, whom I also met during my stay in London. Phil remembered me from those days in Tooting, and it was through Phil that I became reacquainted with Pip.
When National Health finally toured in the States in late ’79, with Alan Gowen back in the line-up, did you attend any of the gigs ?
No. We spoke of National Health’s upcoming tour. I was playing with Absolute Zero at the time in Gainesville. Alan made plans to call and visit us in Florida. Unfortunately, I found out later that the tour had its difficulties, and thus no visit.
Thank you for sharing these memories. It’s great to learn more about what Alan was like as a person and as a musician. Is there anything else that comes to mind when you think of him ?
Alan struck me as an individual who constantly challenged himself. He would practice religiously every afternoon, starting around 1pm till about 5 or 6pm. His voracious appetite for creating new sounds, improvising and composing new music was ever present.
On several occasions, I talked with him on business matters regarding my experiences in England and, later, the musical vision of Absolute Zero. He would proffer sage advice and conclude with an honest assessment of the issues. He was knowledgeable and experienced with the concerns of a musician/band that chooses music over commerce. Alan was never negative in his points of view with me, but he stimulated a healthy discussion that were realistic and solution oriented.
Alan was a strong, passionate, intelligent and a caring person. These attributes, coupled with a great sense of humour and musical talents, make him an unforgettable friend and human being.