Khan : a history (Part 1)

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Steve Hillage on tour with Kevin Ayers & Decadence, December 1972

Being Steve Hillage’s first band and its one album Space Shanty a notable item in Dave Stewart’s copious discography, reconstructing the history of Khan was very much on the cards while researching the book. However, I quickly found out that, in its day, that band was virtually ignored in the UK music press. Indeed, there was an almost total absence of any contemporary press coverage of its activities. All I could find was a short review of one of the gigs Khan played with Caravan on their shared Spring 1972 UK tour. Nothing else – just ads for the album and tour dates.

Thankfully I didn’t start out completely empty handed. There was line-up information in Pete Frame‘s Canterbury family tree and Hillage interviews from later in his career provided further information. But that still wasn’t enough to tell the story. So I proceeded to try and get in contact with former members of the band.

I think it was through Jack Monck, who had played with him in the Jon Owen Band (formerly of Global Village Trucking Company) that I got in touch with drummer Eric Peachey and interviewed him in London in late 2000. Then I exchanged e-mails with Steve who was very helpful, and is quoted extensively in the book. Later, the development of the Internet made it easier to locate people and I was able to get in contact with other ex-members, including original organist Dick Heninghem, his replacement Val Stevens and the bassist for the final line-up, Nigel Griggs, who had subsequently found success with Split Enz. The one I never managed to speak to was Nick Greenwood, Khan’s original co-leader, whom I was told wasn’t keen to be interviewed, which an unanswered e-mail confirmed. I was also lucky to be in touch with Steve Gannon, who worked as roadie for the band for much of its existence [he sadly passed away in 2014]. More on them later.

The result was much more material than I could possibly use in the book, so I’m going to share the excess stuff here, which for true fans of Hillage and Khan is hopefully of high interest. In this first instalment I’ll look at Steve Hillage’s activity between his departure from Uriel (Summer 1968) and forming Khan (early 1971).

Most of the information I originally had came from an excellent interview with ZigZag from February 1977 in which Hillage explained :

There came a certain point when the rest of [Uriel] decided to quit school and concentrate on the group full-time. But being the kind of serious guy in the group, I didn’t want to leave school. I wanted to go to university. So I left Uriel, although I continued to play with them on a part-time basis […] On leaving school I went to university at Canterbury.

A frequent misconception is that Hillage left Uriel [which as you surely know became Egg following Hillage’s departure] as a result of moving to Canterbury, but this wasn’t the case. As Steve wrote to me :

For the period from September 1968 to July 1969 I was still at school [in London], having left the band because I did not want to leave school. I took my A-levels exams in May/June 1969.

As for the exact reason why he decided to continue school, his 1977 interview didn’t tell the full story. 25 years later, he offered a more complete picture of the decision process :

Originally we [Dave Stewart, Mont Campbell and Steve] were all in the same year/same class. That’s how we met. However, because I was born in August I was younger than the average age of my year. At age 14 my parents, who come from an academic background, decided with the school for me to have an extra year, so after that point I was one year below Dave and Mont. [In 1968], Dave and Mont sat their A levels, but as a “revolutionary gesture” they purposely failed them so that leaving school early would be easier for them. All they wanted to do was to do music. As my parents were from an academic background it was impossible for me to follow this route which is why I left the band.

During his final year at the City of London School, Hillage reunited with his former bandmates on a number of occasions. The most famous was of course the Arzachel album, which the foursome recorded under pseudonyms (as Egg had just signed with Decca), but Hillage also sat in with Egg a few times during their residency at the Roebuck in London between May-July 1969. In the 1977 interview he also mentioned doing “a few concerts with a 12-string guitar”. The repertoire was :

…mostly covers, but some bits of original material – it is possible that some of these little ideas found there way into Khan.

Towards the end of the summer of 1969 Hillage moved to Canterbury to begin university. It is important to mention that what came to be known as the “Canterbury scene” wasn’t yet called that.

I had been unaware of the fact that it was the home town of Caravan and the Soft Machine, which were two bands that I (and Dave and Mont) were big fans of. I chose to go to Canterbury University for purely academic reasons.

It didn’t take long for Steve to catch up on the local scene, as he recalled in 1977 :

The day I arrived I saw the Soft Machine’s van parked there ! I thought, ‘What, are they playing here ?’ And then I found out that Hugh Hopper’s parents lived on the university campus, and I eventually sussed the whole thing out. When I met them all I really got involved in the whole scene.

Soon after arriving, Hillage became acquainted with the local band Spirogyra, and one of its members in particular :

I quickly found out that there was a vibrant musical scene at Canterbury, and that a number of my fellow students were aspiring musicians and singers. Barbara Gaskin was a singer and she was my girlfriend while I was at Canterbury. All the musicians at the university soon got to know each other and a kind of loose musical community was formed. Various jamming events occurred. Prominent in the university music scene were Steve Borrill, a bass player, and Martin Cockerham, an acoustic guitarist and singer/songwriter. In fact Barbara and I came to share a house with Steve Borrill in the old part of Canterbury – St Radigund Street. Although I was a close friend of the band, folk-rock wasn’t really my cup of tea, so I wasn’t really a member.

The most prominent Canterbury-based band at this time, however, was of course Caravan, and in due course Hillage also became friends with them :

I found myself very quickly transformed from being a fan of Caravan to them treating me as a musical equal. It did a real lot for my confidence, and of course this experience influenced my Khan adventure.

However, as he explained in 1977…

Having started playing around with various musicians from Caravan, I got into jamming with people again, but because all the Canterbury musicians were already in groups I had to go to London to find people to form a group.

While at Canterbury, Hillage had accumulated a substantial backlog of material, a lot of which would find its way into the Khan repertoire.

I spent many hours writing material while at Canterbury university. Some of it was really psychedelic and weird and never made it onto the Khan album. I wrote and arranged a lot of it on my own with my guitar and music writing paper. I think it would be fair to say that most of the complex “Canterbury-style” musical arrangements were written by me on my own, but some of the more rocky stuff [on the Khan album] was created in collaboration with other members of the band – notably Nick Greenwood.

Forming a band wasn’t Hillage’s priority when he began looking for a record deal, as he explained in 1977 :

To be honest I originally wanted to make a solo record. Caravan got me a deal with their management [Terry King] and record company [Deram], which was very kind of them, but the deal was to the effect that they wanted me to form a group rather than make solo records. So I met various musicians and we formed a group called Khan.

In December 1970 Hillage left Canterbury, moved back to London and made a demo of his material with the help of his former Uriel bandmates – Dave Stewart, Mont Campbell and Clive Brooks.

It was recorded at Decca studios (8-track) to good professional standards. It was made after Terry King became involved and I assume it was his company that organised paying for it, possibly by also involving Decca whose label Deram I eventually signed for. I think it was only 4 songs. I had prepared all the parts in advance so the demo recording was quite quick, with just a few days of rehearsal prior to recording. It was enough to get me a record deal. It’s hard to remember, but I think 3 of these 4 songs appeared on the Khan album, virtually unchanged from the demo. It’s possible a copy of the tape exists somewhere.

Indeed, I later learned that the tape was still safely stored in the Decca vaults, although for some unexplained reason none of the material appeared on the 2007 reissue of Space Shanty. The tape, I was told, did contain an otherwise unknown song and some of the material had Barbara Gaskin contributing backing vocals. It seems a safe bet that some (or hopefully all) of that demo will appear on the forthcoming mammoth Steve Hillage boxed set, due for release later in 2016, which is said to include much rare material, some of it dating back to 1969.

The original line-up of Khan, formed in the early Spring of 1971, would turn out to consist of three musicians – Nick Greenwood, Dick Heninghem and Eric Peachey – who already had a substantial shared history, and this (including Greenwood’s Cold Cuts album) will be the focus of the next instalment.

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2 thoughts on “Khan : a history (Part 1)

  1. saw Khan in 71 supporting our very own local heroes Climax Blues band at the Victoria Hall in Hanley, then two weeks later it was caravan at the Place , great time for Canterbury music, got both albums,

    Like

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