Chez Jacky (4)

softheadalbumThe best evidence of the privileged relationship established over the years between Jacky Barbier and the Canterbury Scene is the number of albums recorded, partially or in full, at his club. In 1978, Elton Dean and Hugh Hopper recorded the classic album by Soft Head, Rogue Element, there with Alan Gowen and Dave Sheen. Five years later, Hopper returned with Richard Sinclair, the former Caravan and Hatfield bassist and singer, to make a duo album which would remain unfinished and unreleased for over ten years: Somewhere In France. In 1993, Hopper also recorded several tracks at Jacky’s with singer John Atkinson and keyboard player Dionys Breukers which appeared on his Hooligan Romantics CD (the other tracks were live recordings from various concerts by Hopper’s FrangloDutch Band).

shortwaveSeveral tracks on the 1993 album by Short Wave, an all-star quartet consisting of Hugh Hopper, Pip Pyle, Phil Miller and Didier Malherbe, were taken from a concert at Jacky’s in late 1991, as were the already mentioned two live tracks on the original French release of Gong’s 1992 album Shapeshifter (the later US edition had different live tracks). And with the subsequent exhumation of some of Jacky’s fabled “war chest”, others have been added to the list, including the already mentioned Playtime by National Health and A Veritable Centaur by Soft Heap, plus part of a Hugh Hopper-Alan Gowen duo release (Bracknell-Bresse Improvisations), taken from recordings Hopper and Gowen made while the other half of Soft Head had returned to England.

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Jean-Pierre Weiller recording Soft Head

Hugh Hopper: There was a flaky promoter in Chalon-sur-Saône who booked Soft Head for three weeks of gigs in France. The middle week was cancelled so we went early to stay at Jacky’s, where we were booked to play at the end of the middle week. Elton and Dave Sheen decided to go back to UK for that week, so Alan Gowen and I went down with Jean-Pierre Weiller and the guy who owned the mixing desk, a friend of J-P’s. I think we did record some of the other gigs on that tour, but as we were playing three nights at Jacky’s and were comfortable there, it seemed like a good place to record. Actually, the house was pretty ruinous at that stage, not yet properly renovated, especially the bedrooms. We stayed at the Hôtel Lion d’Or in Saint-Gengoux because J-P, for one, was scandalized at the state of the accommodation.

A lesser-known fact is that one track on the About Time album by New York Gong, the band formed by Daevid Allen with young American musicians who would later form the collective Material (including bassist and producer Bill Laswell), was also recorded at À L’ Ouest of Grosne. The time was October 1979, when NYG were on a French tour which would end with the band going their separate ways.

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Daevid Allen and Bill Laswell, 1978

Daevid Allen: With New York Gong, wherever we toured, Bill Laswell and the boys always colonised the back of the band bus, where they drank weak beer and yet weaker coffee and kept up a continuum of sardonic Manhattan in-jokes at the expense of their entire environment. Their tough kid attitude kinda half-excluded me but entirely eluded Georges Leton and the French contingent, for whom I was a reluctant translator. But this was our initiatory visit, and we searched the agricultural darkness for many long hours until, by arrival time, the rear of the bus was a worryingly loud silence. Actually, I believe that if Humphrey Bogart had played bass, he would probably have been Bill Laswell ! A minimalist with words and notes alike, Bill’s every verbal intervention, despite a lurking metropolitan mundanity, nevertheless had a certain depth and weight that couldn’t be ignored. Silent throughout our progress thru that arcane maze of shrubbery north of Lyon, his entry into Jacky’s world was punctuated by just three words : “Is this real?” Hmmm… ‘Possibly not, cher Bill’, I thought. After all, the bizarre and marvelous induction of a jazz muso’s bar and club into a ghost town on the moon may have been a unique experience for five kids who had never suckled other than the chemically-challenged nipples of American industry.

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Aerial view of Bresse-sur-Grosne

But if Jacky’s place wasn’t actually in a separate dimension of its own, after a brief intro to the spectacular hospitality extended by Jacky himself, we soon were! He was a compact energetic terrier of a man, generous towards the artist and a true patron of the inspired instant. He also wielded a killer selection of very strong beers and specialist wines which oiled the social easel for the inevitable insider’s tour of portraits and posters throughout the building. Even so, the boys were less than impressed by the rather more rustic studio. Thus, with the absence of recognisable comfort factors in their bedroom and in the tiny village next morning, they were pretty edgy by the time I emerged for breakfast around noon.

NYgongDespite everything, the band survived intact until the gig, which was extremely well-received by the regulars considering they were more used to jazz than no-wave rock. The recording process, however, seemed to test Bill and drummer Fred Maher to the maxi. We needed an extra track for the New York Gong album and my maximum persuasive charms plus 2,000 milligrams of Korean ginseng could only persuade them to go for the one take of “O My Photograph”. which ended up on the record.

Thirteen years later, Daevid Allen, accompanied by a largely new Gong, would return to Jacky’s on May 1st, 1992, a performance which would produce the two live tracks of the band’s Shapeshifter album (and can be heard in full on this website). Gong would be back in Bresse-sur-Grosne just months later for a return engagement, and again for two sold-out nights, during 1996’s Classic Gong tour.

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Mark Hewins, Shyamal Maïtra and Hugh Hopper soundchecking before a Mashu gig at Jacky’s in November 1996 – Gong had performed in the same space just two weeks before !

Also worth mentioning were the birthday parties organised by Jacky from 1994 on every July 14th (Jacky’s birthday – he was fond of explaining that he was not only born on Bastille Day, but also in 1936, the year the Popular Front had come to power in France) in Bresse-sur-Grosne, where Hugh Hopper and fellow “Canterburians” often featured prominently. This provided them with an opportunity to jam with fellow musicians from different backgrounds, ranging from Didier Lockwood to pop singer Desireless (of “Voyage, Voyage” fame) and younger jazz musicians from Mâcon’s Crescent Club.

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Patrice Meyer and Pip Pyle, July 1999

This writer fondly remembers one such occasion in July 1999, when a one-time quartet of Hugh Hopper, John Greaves, Pip Pyle and Patrice Meyer took the stage on two consecutive nights, playing a repertoire taken from their various projects. This was the kind of unlikely combinations you could only see and hear at Jacky’s. Another memory, that of my final visit to Bresse-sur-Grosne, in October 2000 for the début concerts of John Greaves’ new electric trio, with Manuel Denizet, a drummer he had met at Jacky’s many years prior, and guitarist Patrice Meyer, with whom he had played for the first time, 18 months earlier, during the above-mentioned concert/jam. Just two examples of the many musical adventures born directly from chance encounters at À L’Ouest de la Grosne.

At the time of Jacky Barbier’s passing, in July 2002, Pip Pyle was about to return to the club to play with young jazz musicians he had been playing with on an informal basis.

Pip Pyle: When I heard that Jacky had died, I immediately suggested we turn the gig into a memorial evening for Jacky, inviting other musicians to take part. This would have been a great way to honour his memory. Sadly, his family vetoed the idea. Evidently they wanted to close the place as soon as possible…

Deprived of the chance to pay a proper tribute to his departed friend, Pip Pyle at least got the final word in this piece – his conclusion poignant in light of his untimely passing within a year of our interview taking place.

Pip98Pip Pyle: Jacky was always the king of winge, he really was, always going ‘Ah, c’est dur!’… But he was lucky in many ways. He lived there for 25 years, had a rent which was ridiculously low – I think even at the end he was only paying something like 500 francs a month, for a place that was really quite huge! He rented it from the local châtelain, and I know for a long time he paid 300 francs a month. It was basically squatted in! And he got to do up a whole roof and all that. So I mean, basically he had a fantastic house with a quite big space for a little club like that – he could get 300 people in there somehow. It’s my dream – I’d love to retire like he did, living in a big house with a room for musicians to play in… Can’t think of a nicer way to spend my old days!

 

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Chez Jacky (3)

Jacky Barbier’s insistence on stubbornly existing outside the “system” can be compared to the common distinction between city dwellers obsessed with vain, superficial and materialistic aspirations, and “countrymen” taking time to live and focus on what’s really important, namely life’s simpler pleasures. Surely, there is something simplistic about such an idealised image, especially when considering the frequent lack of any significant cultural life outside of large cities. A situation Jacky actively rebelled against, with limited means but infallible persistence.

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Didier Malherbe

Didier Malherbe: I think that what he liked was to open a place which would be friendly and welcoming, where people would assemble coming from tens or hundreds of miles, and would all converge to this small village.

John Greaves: The amazing thing about his club was, it looked like a complete ruin, and there were about three houses in the village, which was right in the middle of nowhere, and I mean nowhere… And yet, on a Saturday night, all these people would turn up! It was all quite mysterious.

From the musicians’ viewpoint, the central geographical position of Bresse-sur-Grosne made it an ideal stop on a tour, bearing in mind that it could never be a real money-maker.

Didier Malherbe: Gigs weren’t always well-attended, and Jacky never had a lot of money, so we never had a guaranteed fee: we would almost always get a percentage of the door.

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Gong 1992: (back) Keith Bailey, Daevid Allen & Shyamal Maitra; (front) Didier Malherbe, Pip Pyle & Graham Clark

To make up for this, Jacky was very accommodating on the choice of dates.

Pip Pyle : It was very flexible. Normally you only did gigs on Friday or Saturday, but we’d always have gigs somewhere on those nights, so we’d play there on a Monday night and there’d be, literally, 15 people, but we just wanted to go there anyway. Basically, we liked the place and we wanted somewhere to sleep the night, or a few nights, in which case we’d play every night. I think I played a gig there once and there were only five people. But then again, I played there with Gong, and I think it was the all-time record – apparently it was 340, Jacky said.

Hugh Hopper: There was a strong Gong fan base around there. The most I ever played to was when Didier was in the band – Equip’Out and Short Wave.

Although he was rarely able to pay bands substantial fees, Jacky would gladly host the musicians for a few nights if necessary. This meant substantial savings for his hosts – if they were willing to accept rather spartan accommodation.

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Jacky and John Greaves

John Greaves: We always stayed there, but we were always drunk! Not to beat around the bush, by the time we’d drunk the bar dry, we didn’t really notice if there were clean sheets on the bed or not, of if there was anybody else in the bed, of any sex, quantity or quality! That really didn’t matter!

Didier Malherbe: The rooms upstairs were like the equipment, he didn’t care much about that – he had bought some equipment once and for all in the early days and wouldn’t replace or renew it. We accepted this, and we did our best under these conditions, but it’s true that towards the end it was more than a little bit dirty, to be honest!

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Faton Bloom

The technical side of things was the same… There wasn’t a proper stage, and the PA was made in any old way, the monitors and microphones would never be changed, and weren’t exactly high quality. What money he was able to put aside was used to pay for a bigger mixing desk. But we managed, more or less. There was a sort of mutual tolerance between him, the musicians and the audience. It was all very laid-back!

NHplaytimePip Pyle: In the early days, he only had a couple of Revox tape machines and two microphones. We’d just set up the gear and play, and he only had two mikes, mixing on the fly. This is how we recorded the live tape that we used on the Playtime CD by National Health. Eventually he learned out of thirty years’ experience, and bought better equipment – in the end he had a 32-track desk – quite presentable! But I have to say, much as I loved him, I don’t think he had a particularly extraordinary talent as a sound engineer, but he had a lot of love for what he was doing. Sometimes he recorded some things really well, for example there’s a tape knocking about of Faton Bloom of which he was, quite rightly, very proud – it sounded fantastic.

The venue’s peculiar acoustics were another challenge, especially for certain styles of music, as became apparent when National Health first visited the club.

Pip Pyle : There was a sort of grandeur about National Health’s music, and I do remember, after having played the first set, thinking that the music sounded wrong for the club.

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Dave Stewart with National Health, March 1978

Phil Miller: Dave Stewart was still with us at the time, and he saw National Health as a much more orchestral sound, as opposed to a quartet playing tunes in a much more throwaway fashion, like we did later. Dave always wanted the stage to be set properly, and the music was written for a larger concert hall whereas, I think, when we played with John, Alan, Pip and I it was more suitable for smaller venues. It was more intimate music, more to do with interplaying, or trying to be at least. When we played ‘Tenemos Roads’ at Jacky Barbier’s… It doesn’t really work, it’s too small a room. Certain music works in certain auditoriums and not others, really. Like Magma wouldn’t be any good in a room that small, even if you could get them all in!

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Pip Pyle with Soft Heap, March 1982

Pip Pyle: So many times I’ve done a tour where it’s been, like, big halls with a big wedge monitor system, and then suddenly you’re at Jacky’s and… The sound there was right in your face, because of the low ceiling, exactly like a studio sound – a bad studio sound! Incredibly dead. If you played loud, it didn’t make any difference. Just a very unflattering sound. But it was very good for improvising, ‘cause it was very clear.

John Greaves cites the CD A Veritable Centaur by Soft Heap – an improvising outfit he had with Elton Dean, Pip Pyle and guitarist Mark Hewins – as the most musically successful recording he ever made at Bresse-sur-Grosne.

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Elton Dean and Mark Hewins with Soft Heap, March 1982

John Greaves: Soft Heap was perfect for Jacky’s territory. I think A Veritable Centaur is great. We’d done an abortive thing in Paris, in a studio near the Gare de l’Est… It was great to have Alain Eckert sit in with us too, we adapted – it was very monomaniacally free, improvised stuff. A few years later I returned with my own band, and it wasn’t a very good experience. It was a much larger band, and with that many people, you need to have a certain amount of… That was anything but an improvising band.

softheapCDMark Hewins: There is a track on that CD we named “Jacky’s Acrylic Coat”, after a jacket I had given him which was painted with acrylic paint – very colourful! The gigs were great and made quite an impression – they were still talking about them when I last played there with Mashu. They still had the photos on the wall in the sitting room.

Chez Jacky (2)

jackycolorThe likeable, affable Jacky Barbier was a man with a mysterious side, if you believe some of the myths that he seemed happy to help perpetuate. His decision to leave Paris, after a serious motorcycle accident, to settle down in a small village lost in the heart of Burgundy, seemed too extreme to some not to hide less honourable motivations.

Pip Pyle : I do know that at some point in Jacky’s life, he was a bit of a naughty boy, and I think him going out there… He was a kind of motorbike boy, Jacky, he had this accident, and I get the feeling that it was a kind of enforced move. This is what I heard. Only Faton really knew the dirt on Jacky, I guess, he really was a mate of Jacky’s, he knew him when he lived in Paris, before he went out there. Whenever I asked Jacky about his ‘bad past’, he’d always create a smokescreen and say something a bit surreal…

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Daevid Allen, 1978

Daevid Allen : Intriguingly, the prevailing whisper about Jacky’s past life was that he had been a Parisian criminal genius, now in requisite retirement due to some unmentionable gangland misdemeanour. Whatever it was, I was certain that neither Jack the Ripper nor Sherlock Holmes would ever have located him at his new home! Curiously it was always the middle of the night when we arrived chez Jacky. I wondered if it could only be accessed in total darkness. In any case, it was always reached laboriously via an arcane network of mysteriously similar long narrow roads with no obvious signature. Clearly there existed a secret knowledge that could comprehend its intricate web of occult landmarks, but it escaped me completely. I still have absolutely no idea how to find Bresse-sur-Grosne !

Admittedly, the way to Bresse-sur-Grosne wasn’t easy to find the first time around (or the next few times for that matter), but that was not enough to dissuade the “Canterburians”, having fallen in love with the place, from returning many times – the most frequent visitors being Pip Pyle and Hugh Hopper, with around twenty gigs each.

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Hugh Hopper at Jacky’s, 1978

Pip Pyle : It was smaller than even the Dutch clubs that we’d used to play with Hatfield, but I thought the place was just marvellous. He had a perfect niche – it was halfway between Paris and Marseille, so it became the norm to stop there on the way down South, or whatever it was, on every French tour I did.

Hugh Hopper : Jacky’s had a special atmosphere that made it attractive to revisit. The first time I went there in 1978, it seemed to be a magical place and collection of people, also really remote – deepest France, there weren’t any foreigners visiting or owning houses as there are now. Also, Jacky’s then-partner, Pascale, was a fabulous natural cook, and I also fancied her quite strongly! Jacky never really spoke English, and in fact it was there that I really started to improve my school French – having to speak it with Jacky and his friends.

Hugh Hopper would soon form a long-term friendship with Jacky, often returning to Bresse-sur-Grosne even when he had no gigs booked there.

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Hugh Hopper, John Greaves and Patrice Meyer performing at Jacky’s, July 1999

Hugh Hopper : I stopped there during a holiday trip with my wife later the same year, summer of 1978. I cycled to Jacky’s from the UK in September 1982, stayed there a few days. Also stayed there one Christmas with my wife and Nancy, our daughter – I think that was 1983, a few weeks after I had been there with Richard Sinclair. At the time, I’d given up music, but in subsequent years, I returned with a lot of different people, including Equip’Out, Patrice Meyer, Anaïd – a Sunday night, and no audience apart from an Italian band who were recording there -, Short Wave, Mashu… I remember driving there one winter with Patrice Meyer and Pip – terrible snow on the autoroute, and the accelerator cable broke on Patrice’s old Peugeot. We repaired it with a bass string and continued very slowly to Jacky’s!

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Hugh Hopper and Alan Gowen visiting a wine cellar in Beaune

For the Britons, staying at Jacky’s meant an opportunity to learn, with varying degrees of subtlety and restraint, about the joys of French gastronomy and its natural counterpart for many (especially in Burgundy!), wine.

Pip Pyle : We were usually there for week-ends, so there tended to be some fairly savage drinking stories, and a lot of those times we wouldn’t leave until we’d completely emptied his wine cellar. He probably had enough after a while – I remember when I returned for the 21st anniversary [in 1995], I went down to find that all the fridges had got padlocks on them. ‘The fuck’s goin’ on?’ He had put them on specially. And they were really big padlocks!

It has to be said that Jacky has perfectly sensible reasons to be wary of his visitors’ uncommon ability for alcohol consumption, judging by the drummer’s recollection of one of his first visits to Bresse-sur-Grosne.

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John Greaves and Pip Pyle performing at Jacky’s with National Health, March 1978

Pip Pyle : We’d arrived from Spain with what we initially thought was a 12-litre bottle of chianti, but turned out to be black market absinthe! That club in Barcelona was really a toilet, just terrible, and to make matters worse we’d been literally strip-searched in the dressing room at the interval by a dozen guardia civil – they’d had some money ripped off from the club and they thought that we did it, so we of course, quite truthfully, vigorously denied this… Anyway, we played the gig and I thought, ‘Well, this cunt of a promoter…’ I really wanted to have some kind of revenge on him, and I found this bottle, put it in my bass drum, left and got it back to the hotel, where we found it wasn’t chianti at all. You can imagine… We all got stuck into it, and the next day we were all no longer… I mean, John literally couldn’t walk, we had to carry him to the stage and put him in an armchair! Dave was white with fear. But it’s actually the only time ever that John played ‘The Collapso’ perfectly ! He couldn’t talk, couldn’t walk, but the part of his brain which involved reading music and playing his bass functioned perfectly! When we got to Jacky’s, after the enormous bœuf bourguignon, we got the bottle out, and Jacky went for it. We kept saying to him, ‘Take it easy, man, this stuff is dynamite!’ We left the next day and he was in hospital, having fallen down the stairs…

(As Pip himself noted while telling me this story, “a little poetic license may prevail”… Indeed, there are details that don’t quite match, since the Barcelona-Bresse trip can only have been the 1979 tour, which means no Dave Stewart and no “Collapso”! And other witnesses have a different recollection of the aftermath of Jacky’s absinthe intake which didn’t involve any visit to the hospital!)

1978_Barbier_JackysIt would be unfair to conclude, on the basis of such colourful anecdotes, that “Canterburians” only returned to Burgundy for the prospect of memorable booze-ups and unlimited access to Jacky’s wine cellar. Indeed, there were affinities on other levels, artistic and even philosophic. As a matter of fact, the Canterbury Scene has always been associated with qualities which could also be found in Jacky Barbier himself: the rejection of commercialism, never taking oneself too seriously, and a genuine sense of conviviality. These were values they would always remain faithful to despite the adversity or, worse still, indifference, thanks to his unwavering faith in the public’s ability to perceive this authenticity and embrace it.

Chez Jacky (1)

This is the first in a series of blog entries about Jacky Barbier’s club in Bresse-sur-Grosne, Burgundy, adapted from a chapter I wrote in a book about Jacky and the clubjackybook published in 2007, coinciding with a tribute concert in Nevers celebrating the fifth anniversary of his passing. The book had been in the works since 2005, and I was commissioned to write about Jacky’s special relationship with the Canterbury Scene. For this purpose, I conducted interviews with Pip Pyle, Hugh Hopper, John Greaves, Didier Malherbe and Daevid Allen, plus input from a few others. There is some very interesting material in there which has never been read outside France, and of course several of the interviewees have since passed on, so this is a mostly faithful translation with some adaptations and some unused material from the original interviews.

À L’Ouest de la Grosne was active as a music venue from 1974 to Jacky’s death in 2002. By the late Seventies it had become a haven for the increasingly marginalised musical styles that were progressive rock and jazz-fusion, and among the mostly French bands who performed at the club during that period were the likes of Zao, Art Zoyd, Surya, Édition Spéciale, David Rose, Neffesh Music, Univers Zéro, Vortex and their various offshoots.

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Jacky Barbier with Elton Dean, Dave Sheen and Alan Gowen during Soft Head‘s tour, May 1978.

In the spring of 1978, two major exponents of the Canterbury Scene performed at Bresse-sur-Grosne: National Health in March and Soft Head in May. Between them, they included most of the musicians then still active on the scene, outside of the better-known bands like Caravan or Gong (and its offshoots), who would usually perform in larger venues – although Gong would later play at Jacky’s too, as we will see later on.

Jacky Barbier had attended Magma’s earliest concerts in Paris in 1970, and Magma’s original pianist, Faton Cahen, would become one of his closest friends (and without doubt the musician most often booked at the venue), so he was familiar with the non-mainstream music scene. Any visitor who was ever granted the privilege of entering Jacky’s sound booth will remember the impressive collection of vinyl records which occupied an entire wall of the room. A connoisseur of music, a fan of jazz first and foremost but not exclusively, Jacky, although coming from the post-May 68 Parisian ‘café-théâtre’ scene, had not moved into music by accident, and his visitors would quickly notice that they no strangers in their host’s eyes.

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John Greaves

Hugh Hopper : He always made a point of introducing me to people as ‘of Soft Machine’, and was disappointed when younger visitors obviously didn’t know the band.

John Greaves : Jacky had a copy of Kew.Rhône [John’s legendary 1977 album with Peter Blegvad and Lisa Herman] and it was his bible – he played it very loud all the time to everybody, saying ‘This guy here is the guy who made it! Give him another drink!’… I remember being slightly embarrassed, as I always am…

While his knowledge of the music scene of the time was remarkable, Jacky Barbier’s interest in this music was by no means marginal in 1970s France.

Didier Malherbe : In the Seventies, if you were into not just jazz but also into so-called progressive music, Gong and Soft Machine were difficult to ignore.

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Phil Miller performing at the club with National Health, March 1978

As well as knowing these bands, Jacky was also aware of how unique they were even in the wider context of the UK music scene of the day.

Pip Pyle : When we played there the first time with National Health, he seemed very pleased to have us playing there. It meant something to him. He knew it wasn’t just some English bunch of total bozos!

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Jacky and Pip Pyle in the late 1990s

For the musicians booked to perform at the venue, and especially those who came from England, À L’Ouest de la Grosne was appealing in more ways than one. Quite apart from the warm and colourful personality of the host, the village was a haven of peace in the depths of the Burgundian countryside, far away from large cities, with their vain agitation and role plays.

Pip Pyle : If anything, Jacky would never be star-struck for anybody. It was nice, that completely non-star thing, it was just like just a club that you’d play, and then afterwards, when you were finished playing, you’d immediately start chatting with everyone in the audience. There was no dressing room anyway! So it was just hanging out and talking, and usually, at the end of the evening, unless it was a really successful night, you’d know the names of most of the audience. That’s what I call a very good environment for playing music. Some of the best gigs I’ve done have always been those kinds of gigs, where you know everybody and you’re just playing for them.

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Inside view of Jacky’s club, 1996, during a Mashu soundcheck

Didier Malherbe : Jacky was above all a great host, very humane and also very funny. As for just about everything else, he was clearly a dilettante. But, as I said, he was a great host, and that was the reason we kept coming back. The atmosphere was always nice, the meals were gargantuan and accompanied by copious quantities of wine… And you had Jacky himself, just listening to him tell his stories was really something special! He had kept from his past life as a comedian some very peculiar, uniquely Parisian intonations and expressions, and whenever he spoke, it was always very funny, very inspired.

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John Greaves performing at Jacky’s in July 1999

Jacky’s charisma took on an almost “exotic” connotation for his British visitors.

John Greaves : You know what a francophile I am. A francophile anarchist! Jacky represented all of that. You only had to look at him to know where he came from – that free-thinking, anarchist tradition. Somehow it was very obvious. People like him are rare – the true spirit, the true naïve… The fact that he’d managed to survive in this world, doing what he did, to the age he was [when he died], was a miracle in itself, really. The world needs people like him!

Going Mobile Mobile

NHcompleteThe first time I ever read about the Mobile Mobile was in Dave Stewart’s liner notes for The Complete National Health (still possibly the most prized item in my entire music collection) – the band’s first two albums having been recorded on it -, the reference made all the more intriguing by the repeated mention of an unnamed “famous rock star” being its mysterious owner.

Wrote Stewart,

[In March 1977], the kind-hearted Mike Dunne, custodian of a mobile studio named the ‘Mobile Mobile’ (yeah), who I met when playing on Hugh Hopper’s album “Hoppertunity Box”, took the view that we had a band, he had a studio, so why didn’t we record an album ?

(In fact the first time NH used the Mobile Mobile was in January 1977 to record a demo of “Tenemos Roads”, which marked the end of Bill Bruford’s tenure as the band’s drummer)

Stewart went on to explain that the studio was…

…property of a FAMOUS ROCK STAR. While the FRS battled to find musical inspiration in the Bahamas, Mike set about recording groups he liked at very reasonable rates, such as nothing.

I got to know more when I interviewed Hugh Hopper some time later and our conversation turned to Mike Dunne. Explained Hugh,

Mike was the assistant at Advision when we were doing Soft Machine things – probably “Fifth”, it was certainly “Six” cause we did “Six” at Advision – and I was doing “1984”. I became friends with Mike, and Gary Martin, who was the engineer. They worked together as engineer and assistant. I became friends with both of them. Outside of music we were actually very friendly – we used to go on holiday and things like that.

I was then finally told who the “famous rock star” was : Jon Anderson, lead singer with Yes. Anderson had hired Mike Dunne as sound engineer for his personal studio, first used to make his 1976 solo album Olias Of Sunhillow. The extensive booklet which came with the latter album included a photo of the production team with Anderson and his then-wife Jenny, plus Mike Dunne, Brian Gaylor and a couple of other guys.

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Any help in identifying who is who on this photo, apart from Jenny and Jon Anderson, would be most welcome !

Coincidentally, around the same time (April 1999) the above-mentioned Brian Gaylor got in touch with me – he told me he was involved in organising a secret 50th birthday party for Mike Dunne and wanted a contact for Hugh Hopper to invite him. I duly obliged, and since Brian’s name was familiar from the credits to the National Health albums, I took the chance of asking him about his involvement with the Mobile Mobile. Over a few e-mails I got to know quite a bit more about it.

Wrote Brian,

Around 1974, I shared a flat with Mike King, a maintenance engineer at Advision. I had been maintenance/sound engineer at Mayfair studios, but was now doing odds and sodds from home. Yes were recording at Advision, with Mike Dunne as assistant. Jon Anderson and I think Chris Squire were offered a deal on MCI equipment. Around the same time; Mike [Dunne] had a nasty accident on his motorbike, his leg in plaster. So Jon had an idea. Mike King organised cabling to enable the MCI stuff to be connected easily and laid out a plan, with Mike Dunne, to enable the MCI package to be broken down into discreet modules, enabling the entire studio to be dismantled and transported easily, making a mobile studio but not in a truck – Mobile Mobile was born !

oliasI was brought in to finish off wiring and help Mike Dunne, who stayed in the flat. The assembly was put together in Seer Green, Buckinghamshire, where Jon Anderson had a large house. I was retained as tech help and employed by Yes to help on their forthcoming US tour. We recorded “Olias” in Seer Green. I can’t remember much technical stuff apart from arranging a bowl of fake flowers to flash when the phone rang, and dressing a quadrophonic panner box in furry fabric to look like a rodent. Both were successful!

When the US tour started, Mike [Dunne] was given the remit to go forth with the recording equipment and make loads of money – which he singly failed to do, as everyone we recorded were ‘just about to get a deal’! We did have a good time, though. During this period we had the studio in a pig farm, an ex-mortuary – The Point, next to Victoria Station – and finally in Ridge Farm, which hitherto had been a rehearsal room, if a 16th century barn can be called that! This was a good way, thinking back, to waste my twenties.

hoppertunityboxHugh Hopper’s Hoppertunity Box was made during the Spring of 1976, while Yes were away on an extensive North American tour. Remembered Hugh,

We were always talking about doing something together. But I pushed him and he kept forgetting. Terrible memory, Mike! Then I met him one day in London, in Notting Hill, and I said, “What about this record ?”, and he said, “Oh, yes, yes…” So finally we did it. It was mostly done at a film sound studio, a lighting place actually, in London, called Lee’s studios, which was just a space that you could rent – a big, big space. That’s where Jon Anderson had installed it. Then it moved to a farm, a pig farm actually, near Tring, North-West of London, about an hour’s drive.

Through my intiial contact with Brian Gaylor I was able to get in touch with Mike Dunne. Regrettably, what should have been the beginning of a long, detailed and thorough interview petered out, for no particular reason – if I remember correctly, I sent him follow-up e-mails and got no reply. I assumed he was either busy with other stuff, or not as interested as I was. Sadly, both Mike and Brian have now passed away.

What exchanges we did have centered around his time at Advision. Wrote Mike,

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Yes recording Fragile at Advision, August 1971

I started there around 1970/71. I simply wrote and asked for a job – I’d been looking at other studios for a while. I started at £12 per week as a tea boy, and became Eddie [Offord]’s assistant within about a month. At that time it was one of the best studios around, and it was ‘hot’, so lots of good bands worked there.

You can’t separate Advision’s success at that time from the work of Eddie Offord, who had simply the best pair of ears around at the time. He created the Advision sound which was imitated for a decade. He was a greater engineer than the bands he worked with. I was lucky enough to be his assistant, and later his togetherness as drug abuse started to take over.

We then discussed his work with both Soft Machine then Hugh Hopper at Advision.

I had been a BIG fan of the Softs since the very beginning – after Hendrix, I probably listened to them more than anyone else in the late 60s. In fact we used Soft Machine compositions for our marriage in ’70 – we walked up the aisle to “A Certain Kind” played and arranged by my friend Robert Kirby! I knew more about the band than anyone else at Advision. Although I was happy to work with Eddie as assistant – and anyway they needed a studio employee on the sessions, as Eddie had left by then -, I was making my own way as an engineer.

1984“1984” was brilliant fun! Gary and I were as much into the loops as Hugh was. In fact, Hugh encouraged us to come up with as many ideas as we could, we did crazy things with tape machines and enjoyed every moment of it. The band sessions were some of the best I’ve worked on. Gary Windo was simply incredible. Another important thing for me was that at that time bands were really nit-picky and would spend hours doing take after take to get everything spot on, with a consequent loss of feel. Hugh, on the other hand, would often go for one or two takes if they captured the essence of what he was after.

We knew that we were doing something a bit different – lots of people thought it was amusical – and perhaps amusing. It’s for others to decide whether or not it’s groundbreaking. In fairness, the use of tape loops wasn’t uncommon at that time – we just took it a bit further than most.

Incidentally Gary [Martin] and I became great friends, even buying a house together. After a year or so in the house, Gary’s disenchantment with the business reached a peak and he moved to the country to make lutes – after which I never heard from him again.

Interesting stuff there – sadly, as I said, we didn’t get a chance to continue our conversation and discuss either Hoppertunity Box or the National Health albums.

Of the sessions for the eponymous NH album, Brian Gaylor remembered :

I hadn’t heard any of the music until we recorded it, but I loved the NH stuff. I used to have a tape somewhere of a Dave Stewart song called “Tenemos Roads” which I really liked… When recording, I’m pretty sure they would all play together. I remember being well impressed by the written scores for the music. Dave would often scurry around fiddling with people’s crotchets and semibreves before re-taking. There were some overdubs, but I’m sure the bulk of the performances would be in one take.

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Ridge Farm in the Summer of 1978

As for Of Queues and Cures,

It was the first thing we recorded on Jon Anderson’s 24-track MCI equipment when we moved to Ridge Farm. Then we had a cracking summer recording a reformed Bad Company and a reformed Roxy Music – Bryan Ferry wouldn’t take his swimming trunks off in the sauna! – and others.

Among the other albums Dunne (often with Gaylor) worked during this period were Steve Hillage’s Open, Mirage’s Now You See It (with Brian Godding, George Khan, Steve Cook and Dave Sheen), Van der Graaf’s Vital and Jon Anderson’s second solo effort Song Of Seven, as well as albums by The Slits and The Pop Group. Dunne appears to have subsequently retired from the music industry. In our initial contacts, Gaylor wrote to me that Dunne was “always very enthusiastic about the music, although he teaches these days” – but I’m not sure what he taught. As for Gaylor,

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Brian Gaylor

I’ve normally been on the technical side of things, usually studio maintenance, but I also played guitar in a band called the Regents – [in 1985] we did a song called ’17’ that got into the charts in the UK and bits of Europe. [In the late Nineties] I designed a big four storey complex in Acton, London, owned by Andy Morris who wrote/produced early (good) Lisa Stansfield songs.

Gaylor was subsequently involved in the building of yet another recording studio in Oxfordshire, as well as designing a revolutionary new kind of light aircraft – tragically, he was killed in a hang gliding accident in 2003. Mike Dunne passed away more recently, around 2014. I am happy to have had a chance of documenting some of their career for posterity but frustrated, particularly in Mike’s case, to have missed the opportunity of a more thorough discussion as there was plenty more to address.

Strange gathering at Wyndham’s Theatre

The topic has just come up again on the Canterbury Scene FB group, and I thought it deserved a blog post, which also seemed a good opportunity to take this blog into 2017 at last since, due to other work taking precedence, there have been no updates since late last year. Rest assured there’s plenty more coming, hopefully before the Summer.

Many readers will be familiar with the photograph below from the late Michael King’s seminal book Wrong Movements. It features assorted members of such notable Canterbury bands as Soft Machine, Matching Mole and Gong.

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Daevid Allen, Karl Jenkins, John Marshall, Bill MacCormick, Mike Ratledge, Robert Wyatt, Elton Dean and Francis Monkman

The caption in the book stated that the photo had been taken in Paris – which as we’ll see would turn out not to have been the case. The confusion was probably due to the photo making its first appearance in a French music monthly, Best, in its January 1973 issue. This particular issue had lengthy interviews with Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper (interestingly missing from the photo) and Robert Wyatt, which were said to have been conducted in London (and in Hugh’s case, in his houseboat on the Thames estuary) in June 1972.

There are several things about this photo which are puzzling. The presence of Karl Jenkins places the scene in the second half of 1972, as he had joined Soft Machine in June. On the other hand Francis Monkman, a founding member of Curved Air, joined forces with Robert Wyatt for a Peel session in December, and when I interviewed him for the booklet to Robert’s Solar Flares Burn For You CD, which contained this session, his recollection was that Robert had called him out of the blue to record it, so I was inclined to place the scene in December 1972, still believing the photo to have been taken in Paris. This would have made some sense, as Soft Machine were in Paris for a TV appearance on Pierre Lattès’ Rockenstock programme that month. This was also roughly when Bill MacCormick was briefly a member of Gong, staying at their hunting lodge in Sens for a few days until he decided not to join, and when Robert Wyatt came to Paris for yet another Rockenstock shoot as a guest with Hatfield and the North. Still, in this context I could not think of a reason why Elton Dean would also have been present.

Queries to the various musicians appearing on the photograph returned no memories of how or why such a gathering would have taken place. Robert Wyatt is seen in cheerful mood alongside Mike Ratledge and Elton Dean, both of whom he would later blame for his ousting from Soft Machine, when the atmosphere during the joint Softs/Mole tour of Benelux in September 1972 has been described as rather tense. And seeing Daevid Allen alongside Karl Jenkins and John Marshall, from a very different Soft Machine to the band he’d helped form back in 1966, is an almost surreal sight.

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Inside Wyndham’s Theatre

An interesting clue came with the photo’s appearance in the booklet for the 2007 reissue of Soft Machine’s Fifth. The caption mentioned that the photo had actually been taken at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre, near Leicester Square. This makes much more sense, since there were two special joint CBS-sponsored concerts with a triple-bill of Soft Machine, Matching Mole and Elton Dean’s Just Us in London (King’s Cross Cinema) and Oxford in July 1972. This photoshoot could conceivably have been arranged with a view to promoting them – although why the results would only have appeared some six months later in a French magazine seems strange, unless the shoot was arranged specifically for it. This may seem unlikely, except that the author of said article, Hervé Muller, mentioned in the introduction that his original intention was to write an overview of the entire Canterbury scene, only to find his interviews with Ratledge, Hopper and Wyatt so interesting that he chose to make them the sole focus of his piece. The ‘all-star’ photo would have made perfect sense in the context of Muller’s original idea, though.

CBSflyerAnyway, the logical conclusion would be that this was shot sometime around late June 1972, either for the Best article or to promote the upcoming joint gigs. Francis Monkman, although he had yet to undertake any musical collaboration with Robert at that point (he was still in Curved Air until the autumn, and indeed was to tour North America with them during July, returning to the UK in August to headline the Reading Festival), had been a friend and supporter of Soft Machine since 1969. As for Daevid Allen, there was little Gong activity during the second half of June, which also happens to be when Charles Hayward replaced Mac Poole on drums, so he may have been in London for auditions.

An interesting footnote is that Best ran another photo from the same shoot, which is less commonly shown. Here it is below. This raises an additional mystery, as there is a 9th person in this one – presumably the one on the top left corner, assuming the top right one to be Daevid Allen. Could this possibly be Hugh Hopper ? Yes, it definitely does look like it could be him… So he was there after all !

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