While sessions for Space Shanty were underway at various London studios, auditions for a permanent keyboard player were organised. Roadie Steve Gannon remembered Steve Hillage auditioning various keyboard players at Ken Colyer’s Studio 51 club, one of whom was Patrick Moraz, formerly of Mainhorse and later of Refugee, Yes and the Moody Blues. The position was eventually filled by Valentine ‘Val’ Stevens. Remembers Eric Peachey :
He came along to the audition, and he had a good feel, and seemed to fit in quite easily. It was a very different approach to Dave, more rocky, more open. He was very keen to learn the material, and so we spent a few weeks rehearsing it up. He was a quick learner – he got it very quickly.
Although virtually unknown in the UK, Stevens had an interesting background, primarily in Toronto, Canada, where he’d spent most of his early life. Although born in Linz, Austria (on January 18th 1948) to post-war Russian immigrants, he and his family had moved to Canada when he was 3. Stevens was exposed to a lot of music during his childhood and his first instrument was the accordion. At 15 he left home.
I roamed the streets of Toronto, frequenting the local coffee houses and discotheques of Yorkville Village, Toronto’s version of New York’s Greenwich Village, where a lot of bands played. This was the Sixties in all its glory, and some of the best years of my life. I met some musicians and was offered to play in some coffee-houses. I didn’t like the accordion, so I rented an organ, which was way cooler, because I liked the sound of Booker T and the MG’s “Green Onions”. Shortly thereafter, I decided to form my own band and called it The Weepers. We played at the Chez Monique coffee house and soon the proprietor, Monique, who was 5 years older than me, became my girlfriend. Needless to say, we were now the house band ! Chez Monique venued a lot of bands and musicians who subsequently became famous. Some of them were Rick James, Neil Young, Steppenwolf, David Clayton-Thomas and so forth, and I was hanging with and jamming with most of them.
Soon The Weepers changed names and became The Power, and became very popular in the Toronto area.
At first, we hired a black singer, Eddie Spencer, and then we replaced him with a white singer, Grant Smith, who had a lot more stage presence. Within a year or so, The Power with Grant Smith became Toronto’s number one band, and we started touring with a lot of name acts i.e., Ike and Tina Turner, Junior Walker, The Dells, Wilson Pickett, and so on. We toured in Canada and throughout the United States. We did the R&B circuit and when we played in Greenwich Village, Tony Orlando offered us a recording deal.
This marked Stevens’ recorded début, released in early 1968 :
We recorded Spencer Davis’ “Keep on Running” with an r’n’b edge to it, and on the B side I co-wrote a song with Grant Smith called “Her Own Life”. We continued to play to large crowds and opened up for Steve Winwood, Janis Joplin, Rare Earth and so on. But, as time passed, we were becoming a lounge band playing cover tunes. I craved a more original band direction because by now the musicians I originally associated with were becoming household names, so I left.
While trying to figure out his next gameplan, Stevens needed money, and so…
I put together a jazzy trio with a couple of guys and started playing the club circuit around Toronto and Montreal. Being a Hammond B3 player, by now I’d developed my chops to play left-hand bass and bass pedals, being influenced by the organ jazz greats of the 60’s, Jimmy Smith, Richard ‘Groove’ Holmes, Jack McDuff and so on. I’d now become quite proficient at the keyboards and I was also starting to sing – because no-one else did – and the Val Stevens Trio hit the road.
The trio, however, met with only limited success, and Stevens felt frustrated by the comparative achievements of some of his former bandmates.
Shortly after my departure from Grant Smith and the Power, other members had left and started their own band, Motherlode, and soon had a hit on their hands, “When I Die”. Now I was starting to feel like a loser. My career had hit a stalemate, and Toronto was such a small musical town, especially back then… So, in desperation, I started accepting gigs with a variety of ‘has-beens’ just to get some money rolling in, but my internal pressures were starting to mount big time… I had to get away !
This was when a plan came together to leave Canada and move to England :
My girlfriend at the time was a dancer and she wanted to go to London to study with Matt Maddox and join the ballet company, Ballet Caravan, that was doing a European tour. For me, that was a coincidental opportunity to get away. In celebration of a new gameplan, I had a party at my house and a few hours into it the police busted down the doors and threw all ten of us in jail overnight for possession of less than a gram of hashish that they found on a coffee table ! I told my lawyer that I had already booked a flight to London and told him to stall the court case as long as possible. So I flew to London. When I got there, my girlfriend basically declared she had moved on, so I was on my own. I didn’t know anyone, and couldn’t even understand what people were talking about !
It was now early 1971 and Stevens placed ads in Melody Maker, the leading British music weekly, leading to him joining two bands prior to Khan.
The first was Clown, who were putting together an album and planning a tour. I didn’t last long with them because it was too ‘English folk’ for my taste. I then joined another band, Tucky Buzzard, but didn’t last long with them either because it was too ‘Stones-y’ – they were managed by Bill Wyman – and too flashy and showy, and I wasn’t into jumping around on stage. We did do some gigs, then they rented an abandoned university somewhere in Penzance as a seclusion to write songs for the new album. I wrote the music for one of their songs – which I discovered years later was on the next album they did – and never got credit for it.
Then in early 1972, Stevens auditioned for Khan, whose music he immediately liked.
This was definitely very appealing to my musical tastebuds. They auditioned quite a few people and chose me. The album had just been recorded, so I had to learn the music super-fast – two weeks – because of an upcoming scheduled tour. Needless to say, although I was excited to play with this band, learning this complex album was a daunting requirement, especially when my attorney declared that I come back to Toronto for about four days to appear in court with my nine other co-defendants.
Stevens was almost out of Khan as soon as he’d joined, but luck was on his side :
I and the other defendants were in the courtroom, and our attorneys were conferring with the judge. My attorney came back and told me they wanted to continue the case at another date because one of the defendants couldn’t show due to another conflicting case hearing. At that moment I was just in utter disbelief and told my attorney that I couldn’t be flying back and forth from England and that I had an upcoming tour to deal with. He responded, “Well, you can plead guilty”, but I told him, “I’m not guilty !” Realizing the checkmate, I then asked him what the consequences of declaring guilt would be. He responded that it was a $50 fine and a criminal conviction that could be pardoned after 5 years. In glee, I jumped out of my seat and yelled out to the judge, “I’m GUILTY your honor, I am GUILTY !”… What a joke !
And so Stevens was back in London, with his first concerts as Khan’s keyboard player less than two weeks away…