The Phil Howard enigma

Soft Machine, September 1971 : Hugh Hopper, Mike Ratledge, Phil Howard and Elton Dean

Arguably the most obscure, though by no means less talented, member of Soft Machine was Phil Howard, the Australian drummer who replaced Robert Wyatt in September 1971 and was in turn replaced by John Marshall who has more or less retained the position ever since. In fact during my research he is the one ex-member I never managed to locate, let alone interview (watch this space for an in-depth interview with original Softs guitarist Larry Nowlin !) In fact I am not even entirely sure he is still alive, although our good friend Leonardo at MoonJune told me he’d heard Phil was indeed still with us and living in his native Australia.

Phil Howard with Hugh Hopper

Retracing Howard’s career is, consequently, something of a challenge. To my knowledge, not a single interview of him exists, so we’re left with contemporary press coverage and accounts by his former bandmates to piece the story together.

The best starting point is probably Caparius – especially since that band is itself quite obscure, having left no recorded legacy despite being active for 18 months and boasting at one point a stellar line-up including Howard, Neville Whitehead, Gary Boyle (formerly of Brian Auger’s Trinity and later of Isotope) and Dave MacRae (later of Nucleus, Matching Mole, Mike Gibbs…).

Clive Stevens

I was able to interview several former members of Caparius, not least the band’s leader and founder, saxophonist Clive Stevens. I had a good starting point in a Melody Maker feature from April 1971, which I will now sum up. Aged 26 at the time, Stevens had grown up in Bristol, leaving to the USA in 1962 to spend a year at the Berklee School of Music (a classmate of his was future piano legend Keith Jarrett), followed by two years as army bandsman. After a period living in San Francisco, he returned to England in 1968. In the summer of 69, he rehearsed for a period with the band Dada led by guitarist Pete Gage, which initially included Neville Whitehead on bass. The pair began holding private improvised sessions on the side. Meanwhile, Stevens joined Manfred Mann’s Chapter III, and around October 1969 formed Caparius with, initially, Whitehead, Howard and Australian guitarist Peter Martin. The band’s name referred to the astrological signs of its members – two Capricorn and two Sagittarius.

Neville Whitehead

Let us first look at Neville Whitehead’s background, which I learned through a long-distance telephone conversation with him. His musical career had begun in his native New Zealand, his first notable engagement being a stint with pianist Mike Walker’s trio, which acted as resident rhythm section for visiting foreign musicians, at Auckland’s leading jazz club at the time, the Montmartre, where he remembers first meeting Dave MacRae. He then moved to Sydney where he joined a jazz big band which backed the likes of Liza Minelli, Tony Bennett and Dusty Springfield. After a brief stay in the United States, he arrived in London around the late Summer of 1969, soon getting his first gig playing with saxophonist Don Rendell. Remembers Whitehead :

I had just arrived in London and was staying with [Nucleus saxophonist] Brian Smith in Gunnersbury Avenue, and Clive rang up one day and said to Brian, ‘Do you know of any bass players ?’, and Brian said, ‘Well, I happen to have one staying here with me !’ So that’s how we met, and we just clicked. He had just come out of Berklee and had brought back a whole pile of music that we played, and from there we started writing our music.

The band at this point was still unnamed and lacked a drummer. Around Christmas 1969, Neville Whitehead received a phone call from Peter Martin, a guitarist he had met when he lived in Sydney. Martin had just spent two years in Madrid studying classical guitar with Regino Sainz de la Maza and had decided to move to London. Remembers Whitehead :

Peter turned up from Spain, called me and I said to him, ‘What are you doing ? Come and have a play !’ Of course, having just spent two years studying with Regino Sainz de la Maza, his technique was just mind-blowing ! Then through Peter we got Phil [Howard]. He always played right on the edge all the time – he never took prisoners ! Sometimes it was magnificent because of that, forced you out there and… you played !

I was able to get in touch with Peter Martin, which was fortunate as he had more information than any of the others on Howard’s own background :

Phil Howard

I first met Phil Howard in a country town in Australia called Cooma. I was playing my first out-of-town stint (I grew up in Sydney) in my first ‘real’ band. Phil was studying with Graeme Morgan, who was playing at another club in this town. Graeme Morgan was a well-known session drummer from Melbourne with some astonishing techniques. Phil was a high-energy drummer, with great hands. In much of Phil’s technique, I could hear Graeme’s influence. I later caught up with Phil when I took a short Christmas break in England during my time in Spain. At that time he was gigging at the Latin Quarter in Soho – I think that was the name of the club. He had been in London a few years already, bypassing Australia’s larger cities and heading straight to London for his ‘fame and fortune’.

I had contact numbers for Neville and Phil when I arrived in London and visited them socially – separately. I was looking for accommodation, and Neville said there was a room where he was staying – a house in Uxbridge Road, Shepherd’s Bush, whose owners were supportive of our musical endeavours. Neville married the daughter some years later !

Of course it didn’t take long before we said, ‘Let’s have a play !’ Neville said he knew a good sax player [Clive] and I said I knew a good drummer [Phil]. We rehearsed in the basement flat of the house. The music was pretty much freeform from the start. As we tuned up, some phrases were played and responded to. Soon we were in full flight. A few ‘heads’ were submitted, which we used as starting points, but other times we would begin without a word being said.

Caparius played their first concert on March 8th, 1970 at the Lyceum, sharing a rather eclectic bill with the Spencer Davis Group and Principal Edward’s Magic Theatre. Ted Ward reviewed the concert in Melody Maker, calling Caparius “Britain’s answer to the Gary Burton Quartet” but expressed reservations about Howard’s style :

Howard, an outstanding drummer, is more of a jazz stylist, with plenty of tricky cymbal work but not enough straight-ahead skin-bashing.

Stevens picks up the Caparius story :

We played a concert in Hyde Park where we were spotted by the famous folk singer Rory McEwen. Because there was no music or group around anywhere close to what we were doing – we were arguably the world’s very first jazz-rock/fusion group -, he became enamoured with us and attempted to get us signed to Atlantic Records, being that the head of the label, Ahmet Ertegun, was a close friend of his. However, we met another producer called David Williams, who fell in love with the band and proceeded to sign us to NEMS Enterprises to record an LP for CBS Records. We recorded it at Sound Techniques in Chelsea, London. However, it was never released because the record company said it was too avant-garde and that they did not know how to promote such a new vision in contemporary music. I have cried myself to sleep ever since !

Stevens still has the original track listing, which was as follows :

Side 1 : 1. Stumble – 2. Nova ’72 – 3. The Parameters of Saturn

Side 2 : 1. Sorcery – 2. Romance de Amor – 3. Venutian Rhythm Dance

cstevenslpSome of the titles may not be unfamiliar to some – not only did “Nova ’72” and “The Parameters of Saturn” later turn up on Stevens’ first album as leader, 1972’s Atmospheres, (whose all-star line-up included the Mahavishnu Orchestra rhythm section of Rick Laird and Billy Cobham plus guitarists John Abercrombie, Ralph Towner and Steve Khan), but “Venutian Rhythm Dance” was covered by legendary pianist Bill Evans on his 1976 live album Montreux III, a duo with bassist Eddie Gomez.

Of the ‘lost’ album, Peter Martin reflects :

It wasn’t musically successful, to my mind. I remember the environment of audio separation – listening to each other through headphones – didn’t sit well with our need for, at times, intimate interplay. Like most musicians in the situation we were in, the budget wasn’t there to experiment with production techniques, and we didn’t have sufficient experience as a group in this environment.

None of the musicians seem to have kept a copy of the album in any shape or form, and it seems unlikely it will ever be heard again. Indeed, recalls Whitehead :

The tapes got lost in New York. What happened was, a fire hydrant got broken by a car running into it, and all the water went down off the street into the studio [where the tape was stored] and washed a lot of stuff out.

kitdedicatedIn spite of this setback, added with the lack of media attention, the members of Caparius began to branch out and play with other bands on the London jazz scene. In particular the Whitehead-Howard rhythm section joined the Keith Tippett Group in the Summer of 1970, both participating in September in the recording of the album Dedicated To You, But You Weren’t Listening, alongside guests like Gary Boyle and Robert Wyatt. Wyatt himself had recently asked Whitehead to play bass on his solo album The End Of An Ear, recorded in August (again at Sound Techniques). The incestuous connections between Caparius and Soft Machine didn’t stop there : with Wyatt intent on leaving the Softs after the band’s appearance at the Proms, Howard was one of the drummers auditioned as a potential replacement in August. Eventually, Wyatt was persuaded to stay. Elton Dean, who had also appeared on Wyatt’s album, took Whitehead and Howard as rhythm section for his own group, which he would later name Just Us.

Peter Martin was by now pessimistic about Caparius’s future prospects, and was the first to throw in the towel in late 1970, soon thereafter returning to Australia :

We did a few concerts and some college gigs… I suppose it fell into the art music category – it was experimental, maybe even innovative – those qualities that normally correspond to little broader public interest, even with jazz aficionados. It would be fair to say that my return to Australia included elements of homesick, but the fact that Caparius was not getting even marginal audience or industry acceptance made me realise I had to move on. I was broke, with little prospect. Although I was confident I would eventually get other gigs, I desperately needed a cash injection. Initially I intended to make some money in Australia and return to the UK. As it turned out, I fell into a successful career as a composer and arranger, and only made it back to UK as a tourist over the years.

Gary Boyle

Martin was replaced by Gary Boyle, and for a while Caparius continued as a quartet, with Whitehead now playing exclusively electric bass. However it was felt something was missing. Related Stevens in the Melody Maker article :

Every time I mentioned a keyboard player, Neville would go on and on about Dave [MacRae], this amazing pianist he knew from New Zealand. By some strange chance, Dave came over with Buddy Rich and stayed here. As soon as he played with us, we knew that was it.

The reorganised group played its first gig at Hampstead’s Country Club on 31 January 1971. Other gigs followed, in particular one, on 26 March, on the same bill as Come To The Edge (a group led by percussionist Morris Pert, who would later invite Whitehead to join his next band, Sun Treader) and Gilberto Gil (!) at the Northern London Poly, but despite the considerable potential of the new line-up, Caparius ground to a halt not long after. Reflects Whitehead :

Dave MacRae

Dave was good, but… When a band starts off, the reason they join together is because they have some mental connection together, and through that they create. That’s what makes it all work. And when that’s broken, it may survive, but it won’t have the magic. That’s what happened when Peter left.

Stevens decided to try his luck in the USA, making two albums for Capitol Records including the above-mentioned Atmospheres. MacRae joined Nucleus, the Mike Gibbs Orchestra and Matching Mole. As for Howard and Whitehead, they both appeared on Elton Dean’s eponymous solo album, recorded in May 1971. Howard then replaced Robert Wyatt in Soft Machine, while Whitehead reunited with Wyatt alongside Terje Rypdal and Wolfgang Dauner in the house band for the Berlin Jazztage festival in November 1971.

Kicked out of Ronnie’s… Just Us in 1972 : Elton Dean, Jeff Green, Nick Evans and Phil Howard

These were promising beginnings, but for some reason Howard quickly faded from the scene in subsequent years. After his premature exit from Soft Machine in January 1972 (this part, of course, is covered in the book), he did stay in Elton Dean’s Just Us well into 1972, but even in such a free-leaning group, his radical drumming style was more than some could handle, as journalist Steve Lake recalls :

I went to Ronnie Scotts [in July 1972] to see Just Us play opposite Weather Report, and Elton & Co had been fired after the first day ! The audience couldn’t handle the savagery of Phil’s attack, particularly. Just Us had shown up on Day 2 and were not allowed to play.

howard4It is unknown whether Howard’s departure from Just Us later that year, to be replaced by Louis Moholo, was a direct consequence of this setback, but there is no record of him playing anywhere with anyone until a brief surprise reappearance in the Sinclair/Coxhill Band three years later, which performed a largely improvised set at the Reims Jazz Festival. Along with co-leaders Richard Sinclair and Lol Coxhill, the band included Howard’s former Caparius bandmate Dave MacRae and ex-East Of Eden violinist/saxophonist Dave Arbus. Then it’s another long gap until, in 1979, on a reissue of Soft Machine’s Fifth, Howard was reported as “last heard of working on a North Sea oil rig” ! When, in the early 2000s, I asked Dean if he had any idea where Howard might be, he said he vaguely remembered him moving to New York City, but had completely lost contact with him. The mystery remains unsolved…


3 thoughts on “The Phil Howard enigma

  1. I did not know that there was a Soft Machine connection with Clive Stevens! Great to learn.

    Too bad we’ll never hear Caparius!


  2. Great post. It’s a shame that the tapes recorded by Caparius are probably gone forever. I too wonder what happened to Phil Howard.


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