A mystery unveiled : original Soft Machine guitarist Larry Nowlin (1)

While I was never able to trace Phil Howard’s current whereabouts, I still had minimal documentation of his brief career before and after Soft Machine which I was then able to expand upon. Information about Soft Machine’s original guitarist was much scarcer. As it turned out, I didn’t even have his name right. Often spelled “Nolan”, most notably in Pete Frame’s Soft Machinery family tree, he is actually Larry Nowlin, and not much was said of him outside of being from California and having quickly left the band because, as Daevid Allen later explained, there could only be one lead guitarist in Soft Machine and Allen wanted the position !

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David Lindley (far right) with Kaleidoscope in 1968

I had few clues to trace Larry Nowlin to his current location, although a contributor to What’s Rattlin’?, Fred Hodshon, had mentioned having had dinner with him when he worked for a company named Lightwave Systems – so at least there seemed hope that I could eventually find him. In the meantime, I took advantage of the expansion of the Internet to google Larry’s name and see what came up. I had discovered Nowlin had had some musical association at one point with David Lindley, the leader of psych band Kaleidoscope and later a ubiquitous session musician and solo artist on the California scene. I had made contact with Lindley in 2000, and he was kind enough to reply but couldn’t be of much help regarding Larry’s present-day whereabouts –

He really disappeared about 35 years ago, and I have no idea where he is or what he’s doing. I know lots of people, and to keep track of all of them would take ten lifetimes, and I only have one !

Fast forward a few years, and thanks to a Google search I came across a page mentioning both Lindley and Larry Nowlin – it was written by one Mike McClellan, who was reminiscing about an unnamed ‘jug band’ he had been in which had been active in the Pasadena, CA, area in the early 60’s, playing at the Cat’s Pajamas club in Arcadia, CA, with a line-up of Marty Cantor (jug, 12-string guitar), Sandy Moseley (banjo, mandolin), Larry Nowlin (guitar) and McClellan himself (clarinet, fiddle, harmonica, 12-string guitar).

I managed to get in touch with McClellan, who had a lot to say on Larry Nowlin, so I’ll just quote at length from our correspondence.

Larry was a student at Pasadena City College when I met and played with him. That was back in 1961. I was a ‘star’ at the Cat’s Pajamas, a no-count coffee house that tended toward the more traditional folk music and jazz instead of the commercial stuff. There was a bunch of us that hung out there. I met David Lindley there, Roger Bush (who went on to record bluegrass with the Kentucky Colonels with Clarence White), and others now famous in their fields. Larry was learning to play acoustic guitar: blues, jug-band, bluegrass, whatever. I was about his age, just slightly ahead of him on the curve of music. Nevertheless, he had a dobro guitar before I did ! We were jamming all the time – music was our life then. I was trying to earn a living with it just out of high school.

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Smog City Trestle Hangers, September 1961, with David Lindley (left) and Mike McClellan (right)

David Lindley was a grade behind us, but very quick musically. David was a sideman with me at the Topanga Canyon Banjo & Fiddle Contest in the summer of 1961. I came in first or second on banjo, but didn’t place on fiddle. I don’t remember if or where David placed then, but he came in first for the next several years. When I played the Ash Grove around November ’61, David played with me and a guy named Phil Cleveland on the Friday and Saturday, and I was solo the rest of the week. In the Spring of ’62, I got a concussion and was out of music for a few years, but David went on with it with a fury. Larry did play with David – many of the Cat’s Pajamas crew did. Larry and Sandy Mosely (also in our jug band, and a fine 5-string banjo player who later was actually on some commercial folk albums) came up to see me right after my concussion.

I don’t yet remember the name of our jug band, but I do remember that when I finally got my drivers’ license, Larry, Phil Cleveland and I drove up Big Santa Anita Canyon in the Angeles National Forest. I had a big one-ton Chevy panel truck, we had our instruments (banjo, guitars, fiddle), we got out at the end of the road and walked down by a stream, where we all picked and grinned. Folks were walking by and they enjoyed it, as we did ! That was the Chevy in which a I went to sleep in and got my concussion after coming back from a gig in Santa Barbara.

It was Mike McClellan who eventually got me a contact with Larry Nowlin, and I was finally able to begin an e-mail correspondence with him, followed by a lengthy phone interview. Unfortunately, a plan to meet up when I visited California in 2006 failed to materialise, but our exchanges were in-depth enough to cover the main facts.

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The Kingston Trio

I was born on February 14th, Valentine’s Day, ’44. I was a little young in my school group, by a year I think. A lot of us went to high school together. Al Marian and I grew up on the same block, and also another guy named Jim Terrell, who’s a fairly famous visual artist here in the States, doing light sculptures and stuff, he’s been in Time Magazine a few times – before they had Boyz n the Hood we were the boys on the ‘hood ! The Kingston Trio started it for most of us suburban kids. We were all hanging round the Pasadena area, just a bunch of young guys with different skills – or lack of skills ! – and enthusiasms, playing around the same music scene. It was strictly local – the greater Pasadena area. Mike McClellan, Sandy Moseley, Al Merian and I – none of us ever became professional, although Alan played classical guitar for a while. Southern California had a tradition of guitar ‘pyrotechnicians’ like Ry Cooder in those days. I’d say that musically, Soft Machine were about as accomplished as anyone I had played with at that time, although that may not be saying much !

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Another band featuring a young David Lindley (left), the Mad Mountain Ramblers, performing at Cat’s Pajamas, Arcadia, CA, sometime in 1961

As Mike said, we played at a place called Cat’s Pajamas in Arcadia, then the Ice House in Pasadena and the bigger one, the Ash Grove, somewhere in Hollywood, a lot of good players there, that was a step up – a real night club ! They had a lot of touring folk musicians of various kinds. I remember Reverend Gary Davis, I always liked him, he did street gospel stuff, with a big J-200 guitar, all by himself. Pete Seeger and all those kinds of people would play there in and out. There was a kid named Clarence White [later with the Byrds, etc.] there, and he was killed [in 1973], in a car accident outside a club – he was loading up instruments, and some car ran in the back of his car and squashed him.

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El Rayo-X, 1982, with David Lindley (far right) and drummer Ian Wallace (second from left)

And after I came back to the States years later – having lived in Europe from ’65 to ’75 -, I went down and saw Lindley play somewhere down in Santa Monica – McCabe’s, a club there. This was after he’d been playing with Jackson Browne and made some money for years, he was playing a little solo gig, and it was really funny – he was basically playing the same stuff that he was before, a lot better but basically the same stuff, so it was kind of interesting. He got this little band called El Rayo-X, a nice kind of skiffle, dance band – good little band. But when I saw Dave, he didn’t look too good, he looked like a junkie, I don’t know that he was or not, he just looked like it. But I don’t know, I never had anything to do with Jackson Browne or any of that pop stuff, over here, ‘cause I was away, and when I came back, my life kind of took a different route.

The next instalment of our story will look at Larry’s departure from California and eventual arrival in the UK via Majorca.

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The Phil Howard enigma

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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.

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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…).

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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.

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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 :

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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 Graham Morgan, who was playing at another club in this town. Graham 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 Graham’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.

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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 :

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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.

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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…

A closer look at the cover of Hatfield and the North’s “The Rotters’ Club”

frontcoverFor many the defining work of both Hatfield and the North and, possibly, the Canterbury Scene as a whole, The Rotters’ Club was, like its predecessor, housed in a memorable cover designed by Pip Pyle’s friend Laurie Lewis, who went on to design quite a few striking album covers for a wide range of artists well outside the Canterbury Scene realm.

The basic premise of the cover was the existence of an actual organisation named “The Rotters’ Club“, which wasn’t quite as fictitious as it may have seemed – begun as an informal partnership between Pyle, Elton Dean, road manager Benji Lefèvre and guitarist Bernie Holland (of Jody Grind, Hummingbird and Jeff Beck’s “Diamond Dust” fame) as a banner for all sorts of extreme practical jokes, it eventually morphed into an occasional gigging band, most memorably for a Christmas gig in 1977 involving Dave Stewart, Gary Windo and assorted members of Patto.

To return to the front cover, the idea was that the Club would receive fan mail, which would be answered by a beautiful young secretary identified (thanks to her signature) as Ruby Crystal, who happened to resemble a famous Hollywood actress. The resemblance was not accidental, as Laurie Lewis explains :

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A colorised version of the original Joan Crawford photo.

The cover was based on a glossy photo of Joan Crawford. I’d been to see an exhibition of the great Hollywood photographers, and was lucky to shoot (with permission) many of the prints on display, using a black umbrella over the shoulder in order to avoid reflections in the glass. I found an attractive image of her lying on a beach signing autographs over her own portrait. That became the basis of the sleeve. Naturally she was signing her own name, so I substituted the name of a family friend, Ruby Crystal.

Of course, the name “Ruby Crystal” was an in-joke, since Matching Mole’s 1972 album Little Red Record (with a pre-Hatfield Phil Miller on guitar) had vocal contributions by someone using that alias. It was later revealed that she in real life was none other than film actress Julie Christie, a close friend of Robert Wyatt and Alfreda Benge (Ruby Crystal was Alfie’s nickname for Julie, and Gloria Gloom was Julie’s for Alfie).

Instead of photos of herself, Hatfield’s Crawford lookalike was shown signing a photo collage which was fully revealed on the back cover, and is described by Lewis as…

backcover…another, more complex collage of images, using a close up of the actress’s hand signing an unholy line-up of suspects, against another dramatic sky, this time in monochrome with demons from the first album, as a vague nod to continuity, and a nymph on a winged horse seeing them off. At street level, a seaside outing of 1920s workers congregate with the band as children, looking every bit a bunch of Rotters. Someone observed : ‘Sergeant Pepper meets The Bash Street Kids‘ !

Also of interest is a photograph which was used for promotion at the time and later appeared in the CD reissue of the album, showing Hatfield in somewhat luxurious surroundings. Below is an alternate shot from the photo session :

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L-R : Phil Miller, Dave Stewart, Richard Sinclair and Pip Pyle

There was an interesting background to this particular shoot, as Lewis remembers :

In 1973 I’d stayed in Manhattan and made a series of pictures of life on the street at night, returned to London and tried selling them to the Sunday Times Magazine. The editor was enthusiastic, but said he couldn’t use them, because “we already did America last year”… However, he was looking for a photographer to shoot a series on the new hotels being built on government grants in London around this time – not particularly exciting, but it was an assignment… Later, when Hatfield were looking for a location for The Rotters’ Club group portrait, we waltzed into one of those hotels, which provided a suitably incongruous backdrop. Not having time for permissions, we breezed in and quietly shot it.

When we discussed details of the sleeve, Pip Pyle insisted on his great memories of this and other photo shoots :

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The cover for 1979’s Afters compilation, featuring the ‘motorway picnic shot’ described by Pip.

Laurie’s photo shoots were always a lot of fun, because he always had enough cheek to charge in somewhere like a 5-star hotel and just charm someone to let us move into the poshest lounge for a shoot, or the motorway picnic shot with the Hoover and stuff.

I also asked Pip about some cryptically worded credits on the back cover, like a thank you to “the staff at Hatco“. What exactly was Hatco ?

Just a joke name for the all the people, musos, roadies, record company, agency and umbrella for all the projects we did. It never was an official de facto business – similarly “Tedious Enterprises Inc”. However, Dave did get a Hatfield and the North bank account, of which I was co-signatory, for all group business. He even got us registered for V.A.T – a feat in itself since filling in the forms alone was as complicated as nuclear physics ! He certainly was the most organised accountant I’ve ever come across, his tour accounts were so detailed, neat and correct. Even a packet of chewing gum bought on expenses, had a separate entry. Almost an art form !

Another interesting reference was to various band roadies, including “Benj & Tony”. Of course “Benji” is none other than the above-mentioned Rotters’ Club founding member Benji Lefèvre, formerly a roadie with Delivery, Soft Machine, Nucleus and Matching Mole (who named “Brandy As In Benj” after him), who since 1973 had graduated to working for Led Zeppelin. He however still found time to reunite with his old mates. Remembered Pip :

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Pip and Benj during National Health’s Belgian tour of February 1978

Benj did quite a few gigs with Hatfield, and there are some legendary stories of the mayhem he inspired on the road that would fill several chapters in any book – but I think I’ll keep them for my book of ‘road stories’ which I plan to write when I can’t hold a drum stick anymore ! But he was on the Zeppelin payroll, so it was never a sure thing that he could make it. Besides, it wasn’t fair to Jack [Balchin] and Rick [Biddulph] who were stalwarts of the group, although I always did my best to get Benj along because he was so outrageous and funny. Tony Wiggins was a roadie who worked with the Softs, and he worked with us spasmodically from the start of the group. He was more of a “tour manager” than roadie, and became known for rushing around with a clipboard, bribing custom officials and so on.

Laurie Lewis would of course go on to design the cover of National Health‘s first album and contribute the band photograph for the back cover of the second, Of Queues And Cures, the background to which will be covered in a future blog entry.

Gilli Smyth 1933-2016

gillismyth1979I woke up this morning to the sad news that Gilli Smyth, founding member of Gong and space whisperer extraordinaire, had passed away last night. I had seen her countless times with Gong over the past twenty years after she’d rejoined the band, the last occasion in Paris in 2012 – when she and Daevid toured Europe with the line-up which, with the addition of Kavus Torabi, has since taken over the Gong banner – when it seemed obvious it would be her last tour with Gong.

While working on the book I exchanged e-mails with her and she replied at length to my questions on minute details of the Gong saga, evidently keen to set the record straight on facts and ideas that were of prime importance to her as an artist and person. One aspect we touched on that didn’t really find a space in the book was her history and early career prior to Gong, which even her book Politico-Historico-Spirito did not really address. So that was my first question, to which she replied :

My early professional history is quite brief. I did three degrees at London University, then went to France and met Daevid, more or less as I was just out of college. I had always done poetry and acting, and when in a couple of roles I brought the audience to a “pin drop”, I knew early on that was to be my destiny.

I told her I had read that while a student she had edited a university magazine that caused controversy to the point of articles being written about it in mainstream newspapers. I asked if she could elaborate on her early “artistic” and.or militant activities…

I was always intensely “political” and in fact was expelled from a Catholic convent at the age of twelve for refusing to say I was – as a woman – an original sinner and for questioning their beliefs. As editor of Kings News – college newspaper of Kings, London University – I did publish political/feminist stuff which in the early Sixties was “shocking”. There was still the hangover from Simone de Beauvoir being imprisioned for “perverting public morals” with her book The Second Sex. Two horrible tabloid neewspapers, Daily Mirror and the Daily Express, ran articles of the same kind on me, that the government should not waste money – I was on a grant – sending slags like me to college, assuming I was living a wild life, which I wasn’t. These newspapers were sold everywhere and it was one of the worst times in my life, seeing them sold on every newsagent and having no right of reply.  People forget how tough it was for us then… The reaction of the dean of women students at college was to call me in for a talking to and suggest I cut my long hair off “because it gave people the wrong impression”. No concept that these were serious political ideas of women.

How, then, did she end up living in Paris, where she eventually met Daevid ?

In fact instead of the wild life, I was extricating myself from an unfortunate student marriage I made, and ran to Paris to avoid legal custody problems. The judge’s attitude at the time was that I must be unstable and immoral to want to leave a firm marriage with a guy with a good job. I hid in Paris with my baby, sometimes homeless, bought an old condemned boat from a gipsy, José, for $20, begged, etc., until I got a job at L’Institut Britannique, affiliated to the Sorbonne. A really contradictory time it was, but I learned to survive on hardly any money – very useful for a life with Gong ! Paris was a haven of tolerance compared to the uptight English, as the black musicians from the U.S. also found.

In the early days of Soft Machine (and later with Daevid’s Banana Moon band), she was only marginally involved and only made sporadic appearances. Where was she at in her own artistic life ?

I was “entourage” in so far as I was not a musical member of the Soft Machine band. It was a different style of music to what I was actually engaged in. So at that time I was mainly a writer. I produced a couple of books : Nightrogen Dreams, Outposts, Mind Book… Lots of single poems in magazines, newspaper articles etc. I did poetry performances, and two or three times with Soft Machine – Roundhouse, a boxing ring in East London, the name of which name I forget [Deptford], etc. I was going to do something with Soft Machine on the famous occasion at the Palais des Sports that turned into a riot [January 1971].

I was also curious to know more about her family background, having seen her described as a “Welsh poetess”.

My passports are English and Australian, but my family is in fact deeply Welsh… We are Morgans and the Morgan family goes way back to ancient times !

My sincere condolences to Gilli’s children, relatives and friends at this sad time. May they be comforted in the knowledge that she lived her life to the full and left an indelible mark on the lives of many who were touched by her art.

 

A closer look at the first National Health album’s cover

Next in our series of classic Canterbury scene covers is the magnificent debut album by National Health. As with both Hatfield and the North covers, once again Laurie Lewis was entrusted with shooting the photos for both the front and back cover.

The album had been recorded in April 1977, shortly about Alan Gowen and Amanda Parsons had left the band, with both agreeing to stay on for the duration of the sessions. National Health however were still without a record deal at this point, and by the time the deal with Charly Records was finally signed the band was down to four members, and only they appeared on the photos, which were taken in December 1977.

The front cover was a rather obvious reference to the band’s name. Dave Stewart in those days wore cheap glasses provided by the British NHS so they bore the mention “National Health”, and the band was named after them.

national_health_LP

The cover photo showed the band visiting an unidentified patient. A review suggested – not entirely ironically – that, with such talented musicians taking so long to secure a record deal, said patient was probably the British music industry !

There is a darker undercurrent to the photograph as it was taken (on December 6th) at St. Bartholomew’s hospital in London, which happened to be the same hospital where Alan Gowen would die some three and a half years later.

No such thing was on Pip’s mind however when I asked him to remember the photo shoot.

Laurie set the shot up, he managed to blag some sister at a hospital to let us come into the ward for a shoot. No mean feat when you think about it… ‘Excuse me, do you think I could just bring in this rock’n’roll group and their children into your ward of very ill people and do a photo session for their album ?’ Laurie always had the gift of the gab for anything like that !

Who is supposed to be the patient in the bed ?

No-one, really.

Why all the ugly gifts ?

Well, you always bring gifts to hospital, so we bought all this junk instead of grapes and magazines. I wanted to take this much further, with like hoovers, blow-up dollies, golf clubs etc. But perhaps we would have been shown the door before we even got through it !

Why is Dave the doctor ?

Well, he looked like one ! He rolled up with a stethoscope.

Who is the guy with the nurse ?

Pretty sure that was Laurie Lewis’ dad.

And the nurse ?

I think she was a real nurse in the ward. She was working…

Laurie’s dad is talking to a couple…

The lady with the blurred face was probably just a visitor. We all had to keep quite still because Laurie always used a slow lens speed if possible.

The boy sitting behind you looks familiar…

It’s Sam, and I think maybe Alice is concealed behind him.

What about the guy in the red jacket ?

I don’t know, maybe a friend of Laurie’s ?

It appears what became the front cover was initially intended as the back cover, and for the front, the band toyed with the (rather silly) idea of using the picture of an elf (a phonetic play on “National Elf” !). Thankfully they changed their minds, decided the hospital shot would be the front cover, and another shoot was set up, this time at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, on December 21st.

Remembered Pip :

The “joke” as such, was instead of having the band shot on stage it would be role reversals and we’d be the audience. And the nurses – the National Health ! – would be on stage… Obviously Ronnie’s was a convenient place to shoot in the daytime when no-one was playing. Laurie and I knew Ronnie Scott a bit so we just asked him if we could use it.

Ronnie Scott himself sat at the piano, and the club’s doorman played the drummer. The bass-playing nurse was not an actual nurse this time, but Soose, Dave Stewart’s girlfriend who did the lights for the band on tour.

national_health_back

Pip Pyle, Dave Stewart and Neil Murray are seen sitting at a table applauding and cheering, but the fourth figure with his back to the camera whom one would assume to be Phil Miller isn’t actually him – Phil never showed up so his “part” was played by someone else with long hair, possibly a lady. Coincidentally, a year later a similar situation arose for the Soft Heap cover, when Elton Dean turned up late and a random passer-by was asked to stand in for him, conveniently wearing a hoodied coat !

Rick Chafen, who later organised National Health’s US tour in 1979, had a funny anecdote about the t-shirt Neil Murray is seen wearing on the front cover :

I had a friend who ran a record store when the National Health album finally came out, and he made a shirt pretty much like the one Neil is wearing. I met Neil after [National Health and Steve Hillage’s] Lyceum show, and mentioned that I had a friend who’d made a shirt just like his. “I doubt it,” he replied. “I’m wearing it backwards for the photograph !”

Radio show #2 (in French)

J’étais le 26 juin l’invité de l’émission Rockoscopie animée par David Taugis sur Judaïques FM, qui avait déjà consacré son émission à mes livres sur King Crimson et le Rock Progressif. Cette fois, le thème était évidemment L’Ecole de Canterbury, avec quelques extraits musicaux assez brefs, histoire de donner priorité à la discussion. (Dans la rubrique “réécouter les dernières émissions”, choisir celle du 26 juin.)

All Wet and Dripping – obscure even by Canterbury standards…

pip1973One of the most obscure bands in Pip Pyle’s résumé has to be All Wet and Dripping – so obscure in fact that despite my best research I am still unable to assign it a precise date. My best guess is the Spring of 1972, sometime between Pip’s return from playing with Gong in France and the formation of the new Delivery which by the year’s end would turn into Hatfield and the North. I had come across a reference to a band called Short Back And Psycho, which turned out to refer to the same band, only the name appears to be that of one of their pieces, not the band itself.

I first discussed the band with Pip himself when I asked him about some of the names in the credits for the Hatfield albums. One person mentioned was Geoff Bevan who was credited with providing the band’s PA. Explained Pip :

Geoff did indeed make the PA. I met him when I played with a group from south London called All Wet and Dripping. They played sort of Soft Machine-influenced, complex material that was quite interesting but not particularly well-played. I was more impressed by their gear, H1H amps and a ‘Zoot Horn’ PA system and stage speakers. It transpired that the PA was made by their roadie, Geoff. He was a real ‘gear nerd’, and the first person to design a PA that didn’t need a crossover unit between the horns, mid and bass bins, which cut a lot of cost and reduced the size and weight of the PA. So when we got our deal with Virgin, we got him to build our PA which was pretty much the dog’s bollocks at the time.

(I’m not sure how familiar some of you, whether native English speakers or not, are with the phrase “the dog’s bollocks”, but it basically means state of the art. I wouldn’t have guessed from the literal meaning !)

I told Pip I had read the name All Wet and Dripping, but in relation to fellow drummer Charles Hayward – it was supposedly a band he’d been in post-Quiet Sun, around the time of his stint with Gong. Could this be the same band, possibly after Charles left ? Replied Pip :

Well, actually, come to think of it, I think Charlie did play with them, but I don’t remember if it was after me and on my recommendation – like Laurie Allan, I certainly recommended him to Gong, something Daevid never really forgave me for because he hated his playing ! But whichever way the events occurred – I know the chronology is important to you but you’re are dealing with a blitzkrieg memory -, it was certainly the same band.

Elaborating on his comment that the music was “not particularly well-played”, he added :

I don’t say that they were bad, but I suppose I was a little spoilt playing with such good other musicians ! I think I went to about 5 or 6 rehearsals. They attempted a recording once, I think. No gigs, though.

charleshayward71
Charles Hayward in 1971

The latter statement, as we will see, would prove incorrect. But before we return to Pip, here’s what Charles Hayward could remember when I next contacted him :

 

Short Back and Psycho was the other name. Pip and I played one gig together with the band, in Bishop’s Stortford in a pub with a crane holding up the back wall. I think I was in the band first and then joined Gong, and Pip came back to England and met up with the group, then we seemed to alternate for a while – mostly rehearsals, maybe no gigs and only rehearsals, I can’t remember – but neither of us seemed to be really at home in the situation.

Charles concluded with what, in Pip’s case, sadly turned out to be prophetic words :

Say hi to Pip – it’s been over 30 years but it feels beautiful that we’re both still playing… until we drop !

I submitted Charles’ memories to Pip who commented :

Well, there you go ! Just about everyone has a better memory than me – I’m puzzled as to why you ask me anything, I’ll only get you into trouble ! Nice to hear from him anyway, I sent him a mail back. I always liked his playing.

In fact I do vaguely remember playing with him, but not with that group. Also that it was good because we have such contrasting styles. Obviously it would have been at the Railway Hotel, where Steve Miller ran a club between about 1970-73.

More on that club in the previous blog post…

garrywhannel
Garry Whannel in more recent times

By a remarkable coincidence, not long after these exchanges with Pip and Charles I received an e-mail from Garry Whannel, who it turned out was none other than the guitarist in All Wet and Dripping. Garry was of course totally unaware of the above correspondence when he commented on the “obscure bands” section on Calyx :

 

Not too surprised at the omission of the really obscure All Wet and Dripping, for whom drummer Charles Hayward and Pip Pyle both played – together at one memorable gig in Bishop’s Stortford at the Angel Underground. The other members of the band gradually drifted out of music – I was the guitarist and now work at the University of Luton.

Garry provided the band’s line-up and sketched out a bio which confirmed most of the facts I had obtained from Pip and Charles :

Frank Trembath – keyboards and guitar
Garry Whannel – guitar
Doug Newton – bass
Charles Hayward – drums
and then Pip Pyle – drums

It grew out of a previous incarnation, Catalysis, that rehearsed a lot and gigged only one or two times.

All Wet and Dripping existed in 1971-2, if memory serves, and didn’t do many gigs. I think Pip played with us between Gong and Hatfield and the North, and I think Charles left us to play briefly with Gong – but memory is hazy for all the usual reasons.

Our road manager built us a sound system tailored to our vocal-less monitoring needs, in an early incarnation of the company Zoot Horn who went on to provide gear to many bands including Soft Machine.

zoothornI took the chance of asking Garry more about that PA. This prompted a related memory :

Charlie Watkins of WEM devised a strange PA system with giant wooden horn speakers, which was tested in a cinema in south London with a dozen bands and their roadies (including the Strawbs), looking on. We were all a bit sceptical. I was there with Geoff Bevan, so I guess he had started making speakers himself by then, and was using a curved wooden projector on the front of his speakers which he later dropped. He built a sound system for All Wet and Dripping. As we were entirely instrumental, there were no vocal mikes, and so the stage speakers were in effect a monitor system – we each had three speaker cabinets behind us, one from guitar, bass and keyboards. All had their own volume controls, so each musician could set their own balance.

Returning to AW&D’s history and musical style :

We were described somewhere – I think on one version of Pete Frame’s family tree – as “short-lived and more than slightly crazed”  – they might well say that, I couldn’t possibly comment. “Short Back and Psycho” was one of the compositions. We had no vocalist, which didn’t add to our minimal commercial appeal. Charles Hayward did utilise a pre-recorded tape collage as part of a drum solo, known as “The National Anthem of the State of Catatonia”, and we were joined by Charles’s brother, a poet/performance artist, for one gig. We tended to play in one continuous set without pauses, ending in a high-speed montage of cuts between different rhythms.

The music was influenced by, among others,  Soft Machine, and Charles Mingus – we used to play a rock version of Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus”. Then again, we ended one set with a short version of “Hernando’s Hideaway” from the musical “The Pajama Game”.

After Pip left, we rehearsed with various drummers including Phil Howard. I seem to remember Chris Cutler listening to one of our tapes and working out the arcane time signature quicker than anyone had before, but sadly we never played with him.

Amidst disagreement about whether to get a new drummer with the same material, or start from scratch with new material, I left sometime in late 1972, and was replaced by Charles Bullen in a renamed band, Radar Favourites, before Charles Bullen and Charles Hayward left to become two-thirds of This Heat.

(Note : In fact the genesis of This Heat was a little more complicated. It had its roots in several distinct projets – Dolphin Logic, the improvising duo Bullen and Hayward had formed in 1974, the final [1974-75] line-up of Radar Favourites with Geoff Leigh and Cathy Williams after Gerry Fitzgerald and Jack Monck had left and had been replaced with Bullen and bassist Alan Muller, and an aborted attempt at a live incarnation of Quiet Sun with Hayward, Bullen and Bill MacCormick – when the latter failed, This Heat inherited a QS booking which became their début gig)

In our continuing online ‘conference call’ I submitted Garry’s info to Charles Hayward, who wrote back :

Very glad Garry got in touch – he has a much better overview on that group, including the names of the group and tunes. I left a couple of messages for Frank Trembath but got no reply.

A note on Charles Bullen – he and I were super close during this time and I got him into Radar Favourites because he was my favourite guitarist in the whole world. This was after Gerry Fitzgerald left.

In order to narrow down the chronology of all this I asked Charles when he’d joined and left Gong, based on the available chronology of gigs. Came the reply :

Metz [July 1st, 1972] was the first gig I did with them. Magma played as well, we seemed to do a few gigs with them or the night before or after. Gong was a completely different – and much better – group when Gilli came back. I think the ‘floating anarchy’ thing needed her energy to really take off. The gigs seemed more numerous than listed, but everything was full on for me, I was trying to work out exactly what I was doing, what music to make. When I came back to Britain, I resolved not to be in somebody else’s group but get something real together with collective ownership at the core.

charleshayward75
Charles Hayward during the sessions for the Quiet Sun album, 1975

Chronologically, it was after Gong that I started playing with Charles Bullen in Dolphin Logic and Radar Favourites. During that period, early 1975, Quiet Sun reformed to make “Mainstream”. Looking back all of this stuff was a bit piecemeal – really, I was working towards This Heat. When Charles and I met Gareth, who was Radar Favourites’ manager for a brief time, everything fell into place.

I shared all this with Garry and asked if he could provide more info on their dealings with Phil Howard and Chris Cutler :

 

philhoward
Phil Howard in 1971

Phil Howard was never in the band. We did rehearse with him once. As far as I can remember, it was when Pip Pyle had gone off to launch Hatfield and the North, Charles Hayward had gone to Gong. We were searching for a new drummer. We were huge Soft Machine fans, but I can’t remember at all how we came to meet Phil Howard. We had some difficulties with the polyrhythmic swash of his style, and apparently he found some of our more spiky asymnetric time signatures difficult. Anyway, it was a one-off.

I remember meeting Chris Cutler and playing him some of our stuff, but we never actually played with him, which is a shame, because next to Charles Hayward, he was my favourite drummer at the time.

(Interesting side note is that in the 80s, for several years, Tim and Lindsay from Henry Cow lived in the same street as me, and I never knew until afterwards. One of my fellow media academics, Georgie Born, also used to play with them. We were always slightly over-awed by Henry Cow, who, more than everyone else, seemed to be “real” musicians !)

I also pointed to an apparent contradiction in Garry’s assertion that he had “left sometime in late 1972 and was replaced by Charles Bullen in a renamed band, Radar Favourites”. This would imply that Charles Hayward had returned to AW&D after touring with Gong ? Replied Garry :

When I left, the two remaining members were Doug Newton (bass) and Frank Trembath, who started as a guitarist, and then took up electric piano and organ. Frank then formed Radar Favourites with Charles Bullen and Charles Hayward. At some point, Doug was dropped as bass player, but I am not sure when. And then Charles Bullen and Charles Hayward became 2/3 of This Heat. Frank and I subsequently recorded a demo version of their first album, in Frank’s studio, using my 4-track TEAC.

To complete the picture, I asked Garry about the precursor to AW&D, Catalysis… He explained :

Catalysis were formed by Frank and myself in 1968, with Doug Newton on bass and a drummer called Bill. It was really a learning experience – we were learning to play our instruments and to interact and improvise. We were pretty poor until near the end of All Wet and Dripping, when we suddenly got quite good. With the drummer we had before Charlie, we weren’t really getting anywhere. We did a gig at Bedford College which was OK, but pretty inept – no worse than some other bands around, but certainly nothing that won us any more gigs.

I don’t remember how we found Charlie – he was a bit younger than the rest of us. A terrific, muscular drummer, who gave the sound so much clarity and power – a joy to play with, really. We played with him at Wimbledon Art College and played pretty well, even though a power cut in the middle disrupted the set sequence a bit.

But Charlie always had several irons in the fire and was pretty committed to a more avant-garde approach. He went off and we auditioned ten drummers, of whom almost the last was Pip. One of them was Phil Howard, whom Doug, our bass player, heard in a break on the phone to his partner saying he was having trouble with the time signatures, which amused us later.

pippyle1971
Pip Pyle in 1971

Pip was fun to play with and he taught us “Shaving is Boring”, but I am not sure we ever really bonded. He did get us the gigs at the Angel Underground. We played a couple of times there – nice publican who bought us a tray of sandwiches ! The first time we played there was the one time we performed with both drummers. By the time we were set up we occupied about 30% of the floor space. It was probably our best performance – shame no-one taped it !

Then Charlie was back around, and for a while we used them both, until Charlie pulled out of a gig at a day’s notice and we had a bit of a row. The double drummer sound was pretty interesting, especially given the different styles, but I am not sure that either Charlie or Pip were ever comfortable with it.

Fairly soon after that Pip left, and Frank and I disagreed over strategy – I wanted to get a drummer quickly and continue with the same material, Frank wanted both a new drummer and new material. So I left, to get into electronic music – I built a studio at Dartington Arts College in Devon, with a Moog and an ARP. Frank went to Radar Favourites. They used to do the Tubes number “Slipped my Disco”. Then the two Charlies left to form This Heat.

What we sounded like ? No vocals, a lot of odd time signatures – improvised passages growing out of riffs; some free improvised sections. Some sections were like the middle of the Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive”; some were like light jazz à la Chick Corea. We ran numbers together rather in the fashion of Soft Machine in the “Volume Two” era when Robert Wyatt was still with them. Raucous – even our version of Mingus’s “Faubus Fables”, which we used to refer to as “Led Zeppelin plays Mingus” !

We practiced improvising in 5s, 7s and 9s quite a lot and had done since we started. But often, the time signatures derived from Frank’s quirkily syncopated style of writing, and he didn’t always write with a specific time signature in mind. His number “Gout” – people never agreed on what time it was in. I recall it as 4 bars of 7/8 followed by 4 of 6/8. We had a piece called “Houndstooth Cheque”, which had three parts – the first in 11/8, the middle free and the final part in 6/8. I began writing a piece in 27/8 which I still tinker with occasionally, but haven’t yet realised more than fragments on tape. Phil Howard had a lot of trouble with it, and only Charlie ever really nailed it.

I asked Garry about his other experiences with Canterbury music, and he remembered his first time seeing Soft Machine perform :

softeggmiddleearthNever saw the pre-Hugh Hopper line-ups. The first time I saw them was the gig at the Royalty Theatre off Ladbroke Grove [March 1st, 1969]. Egg were on the same bill. After that, I saw the majority of their London gigs until Robert Wyatt left. I particularly liked the Albert Hall Proms concert, which I had on tape for a few years before the tape was lost. The band did not like having to play for exactly one hour, and had technical problems, but I thought it was the tightest version of “Esther”, with the best drum solo. The seven-piece was exciting but messy – I always thought the four-piece with Elton Dean delivered the material best. As so often in music, there was a frail synthesis between people pulling in opposite directions which worked well. By contrast, I have always found the John Marshall period quite dull.

Saw Caravan a few times and remember them much less clearly. Also Delivery. The sound was not great in those days – all volume and no clarity.

Later, Geoff [Bevan] did some roadying for Hatfield, and I was roped in as assistant. So I remember seeing them, travelling in vans, and sitting around in dressing rooms. We liked them, but always thought Robert Wyatt’s voice was a great asset for Soft Machine and Richard Sinclair and all the others did not compare. I always liked Richard as a person – he was once very kind to me when I was very low and thinking of giving up playing, and he persuaded me not to. It was only a short conversation, and I am sure he forgot it very quickly, but the ‘never give up’ spirit stayed with me.

Speaking of which, and returning to Garry’s musical activities post-AW&D :

The best music I was ever involved with came in the mid-70s, after All Wet and Dripping had ceased, and possibly after Radar Favourites had ceased as well. Frank and I got together in his studio and recorded four numbers – three of his, one of mine. I played guitar and bass, Frank keyboards and synth – no drummer. There was a certain amount of overdubbing. I seem to remember using Doug’s Fender Precision bass and Hugh Hopper’s fuzz box, which was in the Zoot Horn Sound workshop for repair at the time. Anyway, it was an exceptionally good bass sound.

Were there any contacts with labels towards signing a recording contract ?

No, we were hopeless at the business side. We were more focused on getting gigs, but didn’t really know how to do that, either !