Khan : a history (Part 8)

The final episode in the brief existence of Khan lasted only three months but is one of the great what-if’s of the Canterbury Scene. Despite a series of one-off collaborations over a full decade (1968-78), this was the only band led by Steve Hillage and Dave Stewart as equal partners. For reasons which we will detail below, this lasted only three months and left no recorded legacy – although of course Hillage’s 1975 solo album Fish Rising can be partly seen as a postscript to Khan II.

In 1977, Hillage explained his vision for Khan II :

After the release of Space Shanty I became dissatisfied and decided to change the group completely in preparation for the next album. I got Dave Stewart to join permanently because Egg had gone into a decline, and I changed bass players, and got in a guy called Nigel Griggs. Eric was still on drums – he’s a very good drummer actually. I also wrote a whole lot of new music, which was much more powerful than the stuff on Space Shanty, and most of that eventually turned up on Fish Rising.

In the liner notes to the 1978 reissue of Space Shanty, he added :

I felt the inspiration to write a new set of music – a new and spacier music – and also a desire to find a deeper basis for my activities.

His old friend Dave Stewart was to be a key ally in this quest :

I was looking for something. Dave, whom I knew very well and with whom I had great musical communication, was part of the equation – but I needed other things as well.

Eric Peachey describes how the new band was put together :

Steve and I decided to keep the thing moving, and reform. And Dave Stewart was suddenly available and said he would join. We had to capitalise on that – it was a golden opportunity. Dave was a real idol – I was in total awe of that guy. A master musician, and he wanted to play with me ! I was really, really excited by that.

We had to find a bass player. Again, we advertised, went through countless bass players, and Nigel came along. His background, I think, was playing in pop groups and cover bands, I think. A very different player to Nick. And he fitted in personality-wise. Very nice guy.

Hillage concurs :

He was very good. He was a mild and gentle fellow, in contrast to the tempestuous Nick. He provided me with support in the quest for a new sound.

Peachey’s description of Griggs’ background falls somewhat short of doing justice to his career thus far. He had been active in music since 1963 alongside his brother Paul in The Cortinas, then Octopus, the latter releasing an album, Restless Night, in 1971. However by 1972 the brothers’ partnership had finally come to an end. Remembers Griggs :

Octopus had finally broken up at the beginning of 1972, and within just a few days – early February – I found myself in Los Angeles with the ‘flamenco rock’ band Carmen. I returned to England in July and played briefly with a band called Dizzy. It was after this that I joined Khan. I must have answered an ad or something, and got the gig – I don’t remember much about it…

Griggs’ view of the creative process in Khan II reflects the shift to a shared leadership between Hillage and Stewart :

I always thought of Khan being Steve’s band, but in the day-to-day workings of the band, nobody was dictating or being overly dominant, and certainly the essence of the music was coming from both Steve and Dave, who were obviously working well together.

In August 1972 the new line-up set to work, but in less than ideal conditions, Peachey remembers :

We started rehearsing in my basement. We didn’t have any money, we were all broke. We couldn’t afford a rehearsal room. It was a shoestring set-up. But the new music was good, strong material. It was slightly simplified – still complex, but it had more form, a lot more so than the previous material. It was a progression. I felt we were moving on.

Khan II : Steve Hillage, Dave Stewart, Nigel Griggs and Eric Peachey

Griggs remembers that early rehearsal period :

I was a newcomer and completely unaware of their history, and never had the time to really get to know them, but I had a lot of respect for all three of them – we talked the same language, and I felt I had adapted to it well. I genuinely liked the guys and felt it was a fairly easy going but very committed approach which suited me. I loved all the complexities and time changes. Carmen had been a useful experience in this regard.

I remember taking the passenger seat out of my Mini – or was it the 1100 ? – just to get my Fender speaker box in, then each morning I would drive up to London from Hatfield for rehearsals. At lunchtime we’d take a break at some greasy cafe where apparently Pink Floyd often hung out. Then back to rehearsals, and writing out all this music just to be able to play it.

Speaking of the repertoire, Griggs had interesting memories and notes that are helpful to get a fuller picture of where the band was at, musically :

I have in front of me my Khan music, most of which I wrote out at the time from Dave’s and Steve’s instructions. Much of it written as actual music, the rest as chord and time structures from which to work out one’s part.

“I Love Its Holy Mystery”
“Madman’s Rap” [in 9 parts !]
“Driving To Amsterdam”
“(Son Of) There’s No Place Like Homerton”
“Cumulonimbus” / “Lobster In Cleavage Probe” (2nd half)
“Third Eye” [looks like only a working title]

“Telstar” / “Wonderful Land” – which we played as encores to a stunned audience !

“I Love Its Holy Mystery” was performed by Gong in the Spring of 1974 then expanded to the classic “Solar Musick Suite” on Fish Rising, but it is unknown whether any of the other tracks are early versions of known Hillage songs. It is known that “The Salmon Song”, the Fish Rising outtake “Pentagrammaspin” and the riff from “Electrick Gypsies” all dated from the Khan II period as, it seems, did Gong’s “I Never Glid Before”.

Dave Stewart had little to say about these long forgotten work-in-progress titles :

“Cumulonimbus” was a composition by Steve. Unfortunately I don’t remember anything about it, but I’m sure it was, like all his Khan material, excellent. Sounds like we segued the two pieces together – “Lobster” would have been totally instrumental, starting with the 11/8 / 17/8 cycle.

Although of the Space Shanty material only “Driving To Amsterdam” features in the list above, Griggs remembers playing most of the other tracks too.

I had a listen to the album – the first time in many years, 6 tracks of which most were familiar. We were playing all these except “Mixed-Up Man Of The Mountains” – I don’t remember that one. I think I learned all these without music, then as we worked together on the new material, everything was written down. Live, I remember we played 5 or 6 pieces mostly from the album, plus an encore.

Having learned the album simply by listening to it, the music in my book is really all the newer stuff, most of which I doubt we played live.

The notes for “Madman’s Rap” are a good indication of how complex some of the material was :

A) guitar opening echo phase, sustained A
B) piece in D in 4/4, piece in 6/4
C) vocal tune 4/4, 7/4, 12/8
D) build up in 10/8 and 14/8
E) mad vocal section – every bar different !
F) mad chorus 12/8, 8/8, 9/8
G) greasy guitar tune in Eb
H) heavy section in 6/4, 13/8
I ) echo section in D 5/4, F#m 12/8
J) same as opening – half speed

Of the actual setlist for the very few gigs Khan II performed, Griggs remembers :

We had 5 pieces, each about 15 minutes long, plus an encore. From what I can remember we sat reading music throughout most of the performances, simply because it was impossible to remember !

It has proven impossible to unearth any precise details of that band’s performances apart from the very last at London’s Kensington Town Hall (more on that below). The only other concert known for certain to have taken place was in Cambridge, probably sometime in September or October 1972. Remembers Griggs :

I remember this gig because we weren’t happy as they wanted two 45-minute sets, which didn’t really work for us.

Fisher House, Cambridge

Roadie Steve Gannon remembered a little more…

That was at Fisher House. I remember it was very small and lit by candles. I think Jack Monck was also playing, with a small group which may have included Fred Frith and Chris Cutler of Henry Cow.

Jack Monck, formerly the bass player in Delivery and later of Radar Favourites (and still involved in the Canterbury Scene to this day with The Relatives, which currently feature Phil Miller), frequently promoted shows at Fisher House.

I and others, including the drummer Twink and people from Arjuna health food shop, ran the 10p Boogie weekly at Fisher House, a small hall in the centre of Cambridge from sometime in 1972 for a year or two, with breaks. The idea was really that entrance was cheap. Twink and I were the rhythm section, and we jammed with various people but we also booked bands when available to relieve the monotony ! The Hatfields definitely played there, with Dave Sinclair and also Robert [Wyatt] for some songs. Henry Cow also played. I had an occasional band with Fred Frith and Chris Cutler doing some of my and Fred’s songs and we played there, but can’t remember which night. I also played there with Rocks Off but that was a bit later, after I had moved back to London. Other gigs included Steve Miller/Lol Coxhill/Laurie Allan and Global Village Trucking Co several times.

Whether there were more than two gigs is difficult to establish. What is sure is that by late October, Steve Hillage was no longer seeing a viable future for Khan. The band had rehearsed their new repertoire with the hope that Deram would pick up on it and offer to produce a second album, which would have given the band a much-needed shot in the arm. Alas, this was not to be. A lack of support from manager Terry King seems to also have factored, as Hillage explains :

He thought my music was becoming very uncommercial, too Soft Machiney, so the money dried up. I got a bit down in the dumps and eventually blew the whole thing out.

Peachey remembers how difficult it had become for Khan to keep going at this point :

Steve and I, at the end, were hanging on by a fingernail. For us to progress, we needed things like foldback, a decent PA, reasonable transport… Steve had this little beat-up old A-35 van, which was breaking down very regularly, and a tiny little ancient car we used to drive around in. At that stage, we just needed an injection of money, maybe £10,000 or something like that, to get us out there, get the album recorded, maybe a tour, or whatever. Peanuts, absolute peanuts ! I forget what the overall investment was from Terry King – maybe it was £15,000 or something like that, I shouldn’t think it was much more than that, over that period. In terms of most bands, not a lot of money at all, when you think of the potential that was there. But he pulled the plug, he wouldn’t actually finance us anymore.

Explains Hillage :

I seem to remember that Deram wanted to hear new material before committing to a second album, and any advance would have to wait. This was the economic basis behind Terry King’s lack of funding assistance. I was convinced that the new “spacier” approach would be very successful and we carried on developing new material for the putative second album. Also, despite the fact that Space Shanty was not a big-selling album, Khan had started to gain a good reputation on the scene and there was every reason to carry on. I remember the period rehearsing at Eric’s as a very happy time, despite my underlying feeling that I was creatively lacking something.

The latter remark suggests that lack of faith and support from management and label was not the single reason for Hillage’s decision.

Although we put a lot of energy into the project for a few short months, at the back of my mind was a voice encouraging me to go and work with some other groups as a guitar player, picking up experience without the pressure of running my own group.

Ad (in Dave Stewart’s own handwriting) for Henry Cow’s Cabaret Voltaire residency, which hosted Khan‘s final performance on October 27th, 1972

Hillage insists he had no back-up plan when he decided to fold the group, but one presented itself very soon :

The day after I disbanded the group, Kevin Ayers asked me to join his band because I’d got friendly with him as well. So I never really stopped working… The day after Khan’s last gig I did a rehearsal with Kevin and went on the road with him three days later. He had already recorded most of Bananamour by the time I joined him, but he had a few tracks he wanted to do with me. I did “Shouting In A Bucket Blues” which I was very pleased with – I like my guitar playing on that – and I did a few bits on other tracks. But it was all over very quickly and I went on to become involved with Gong.

Looking back, Dave Stewart was fatalistic :

We did a handful of gigs, after which Steve broke the band up. It was a lot of pressure on him… He would stay up all night writing the charts. Terry King’s management had a strong leaning towards the you-do-all-the-work-and-I’ll-take-the-commission style, and I always thought his permanent suntan made an interesting contrast with Steve’s deathly pallor. So it wasn’t a big surprise when Steve announced to us that he was off to France to play guitar with Kevin Ayers, and Khan was to be “diskhantinued”.

Peachey was somewhat less philosophical :

It was like, I came home one day and there was a note saying, ‘Sorry mate, I’m going off to France…’ That was a shock. It was terribly disappointing. But I understood. I mean, at the time I was a bit resentful – it was ‘Oh, my God !’… But thinking about it, it was inevitable. Just the strain of trying to keep the thing together, on a shoestring… It really was, then, because we couldn’t get anybody else interested and we couldn’t afford to record the material. The pressures, those final six months or so, I think just sort of broke Steve. He’d tried everything, he’d done everything, worked his butt off, quite frankly, and we all had real fatigue, nervous exhaustion, whatever you want to call it.

Yet, he insists, it seemed there might be light at the end of the tunnel :

I always felt that if we’d had that little bit of push, it would have made all the difference. There was a lot of interest in Germany and abroad, from the first album – not so much in the UK, but abroad there was, and this had filtered through. Just that little push… So near, yet so far… Well, of course Steve went on to do great things !

Peachey’s assessment of his time with Khan is typically modest :

Being a drummer by default, almost, having accidentally become a drummer, and working with Steve and Dave, musicians of that calibre, I was very much aware of my own shortcomings as a player. Now, I knew I had a reasonable feel and I had a certain approach, but I always felt that, because of my lack of technical ability, I was falling short of the music.

Many, of course, will beg to disagree – not least Hillage, who has repeatedly praised his playing and even mentioned (five years after Khan’s break-up) considering working with him again.

As for Nigel Griggs, the newest member, Khan was, it seemed, over as soon as it had begun :

Steve called me to say that he couldn’t get the support from the record company for the next album, that he was sorry but it was over… After Steve’s phone call I never spoke to or saw the guys again. I suppose I hadn’t been in the band long enough to mourn over it for too long, but I was disappointed. After 8 years in The Cortinas/Octopus, I was suddenly realising how hard it was for bands to stay together. I accepted the break-up as final, and it never occurred to me that there might be other possibilities with it. I suppose only Steve, and maybe Dave, knew what was really going on – whether Steve just couldn’t see a future for it, or whether his ‘musical heart’ lay elsewhere… Whatever, without the record company support, it was over.

Griggs went on to find acclaim with the band Split Enz, but only after 3 more years in bands that never made it :

By Christmas 1972, I was in Ireland with the most ludicrous of all bands, Wigs In The Green, which lasted precisely 4 weeks. I was then reunited with my brother Paul in Kincade, which lasted a couple of years. By the end of 1974, Kincade was history (thank God), and I was driving taxis. In 1975, I joined Ilbarritz in the South of France, with a French singer – members of the Pretty Things were involved with the recordings, I got involved and spent two years with them, along with Irish guitarist Ed Deane, before the band folded late in 1976. Back to England and in April 1977, I met Split Enz.

fishrisingadFor Hillage began a period of playing other people’s music [Kevin Ayers] or working within a democratic band [Gong] but all hope was not lost for the unrecorded Khan II material.

When I first met Daevid Allen in Autumn 1972 he was in the process of agreeing the deal with Richard Branson that eventually led to Gong signing with the new Virgin label. I also met Richard Branson socially, and he told me that his partner Simon Draper wanted to speak with me. Simon knew about the situation with Khan and that I’d decided to stop the band. He said he was interested in me as a solo artist for their new label. I was encouraged by this, but told him that I really wanted to wait a while and see where things would lead with my new relationships with Kevin Ayers and Gong. He said that when I was ready I should call him. In spring 1974, while we were working on the Gong album You, having now become a Virgin-signed artist with Gong, I told him I was ready. This led directly to Fish Rising.

Thus ended the little-known but eventful saga of Khan, an unlucky band whose leader, thankfully, went on to an illustrious and successful career, but whose early steps produced music that is fondly remembered and a classic album that is still a very rewarding listen over 40 years later.


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