Phil Miller

The very sad news emerged yesterday that guitarist Phil Miller had died after a long illness. I wanted to pay tribute here to Phil’s unique talents – both as a guitarist and a songwriter.

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His CV almost reads like a wishlist of  seminal Canterbury bands: first Delivery (with, amongst others Roy Babbington, Pip Pyle and Lol Coxhill), then Matching Mole, followed by Hatfield and the North and National Health. He later spent 30 years fronting his own band In Cahoots, itself a stomping ground for many of the scene’s key players: Elton Dean, Pip Pyle, Richard Sinclair, Hugh Hopper amongst them. He also briefly co-led Short Wave with Pyle, Hopper and Didier Malherbe and had a unique duo with equally dextrous long term collaborator Fred Baker. He was an understated giant within the scene and whilst his trademark calling card was those tortured electric solos, he was a fine rhythm guitarist and a brilliant songwriter – two of the scene’s anthemic pieces, Matching Mole’s God Song and Hatfields’ Calyx were his.

I saw Phil perform on many occasions, and looking back at a feature which was published in the nascent Facelift website where I asked regular contributors  to identify their top 5 gigs, Phil Miller appeared in the nearly everyone’s lists in various guises (and three times in mine! ) in the Hatfields, National Health or most notably In Cahoots. My own favourite gigs included the ones below:

  • In Cahoots at the Band on the Wall – my first live exposure to ‘Canterbury scene’ musicians – I remember being astonished that his first solo album (‘Cutting Both Ways’) managed to garner so many of my heroes, but then to see them live with a line-up that also included so many of my heroes, hitherto just names on record sleeves or recognisable musical styles through my speakers completely blew my mind. The idea of seeing Phil Miller, Pip Pyle, Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean all on the same stage was almost incomprehensible as a Canterbury novice – I was sold for life.
  • In Cahoots again, this time as part of one of very many memorable Sonic Relief showcases at the Brixton Fridge. Sonic Relief tapped into a brief moment in time when progressive music, particularly at the psychedelic end, started to become an acceptable musical format again at the start of the 90s – billings included Gong, Caravan, Ozric Tentacles, The Orb and Tim Blake. In Cahoots were the support act for Caravan on one fine evening – was this their biggest ever audience? So heartwarming to see their music watched and appreciated by a large, lively crowd.
  • The Miller/Baker duo, not just for a gig we put on in Manchester (more below) in 1993, but as part of an extraordinary double header with Mark Hewins and Hugh Hopper at the Vortex in Islington.
  • And finally, with Short Wave, a Canterbury supergroup if ever there was one and whose album we reviewed here Having witnessed a superb gig down in Chester, we saw them in their element at Gong 25, where for us anorakked Canterbury aficionados, they represented an unofficial highlight.

Phil managed to combine an understated personality with a quite towering stage presence – I won’t be the only one who associates his meticulously constructed guitar lines with his pained expressions as he eked out another gut-twisting solo from a seemingly bottomless well. I must have met Phil on half a dozen occasions, but it’s probably testament to our mutual shyness and reserve that I couldn’t ever remember what we talked about… Nick Loebner got much further than I with an excellent interview for Facelift here

In the autumn of 1993 a few Manchester friends (Martin Wakeling, editor of the Kevin Ayers fanzine ‘Why Are We Sleeping’, regular Facelift scribe Nick Loebner and my long-term gigging partner ‘Long’ Dave Wragg) and I concocted a plan to bring Phil and In Cahoots bass player Fred Baker to Manchester for a duo gig – this on the back of their superb album Double Up which saw them perform Miller classics such ‘Calyx’ and ‘Underdub’ alongside many fabulous new compositions for double guitar or guitar/bass. We managed to procure a venue for nothing, got lots of free publicity in the arts/entertainment magazine Up Town I then worked for, got a preview in a rival magazine City life, listings in the Guardian and sold tickets in the legendary and supportive Manchester jazz/roots record shop Decoy. Phil and Fred had kindly agreed to bring their own PA.

miller & bakerWe then sat back and waited for the tickets to sell. It was a long wait. The venue, although on the circuit for rock music, was a bit off the beaten track, set back in the gloom from Piccadilly station. Charlie, who owned the Star and Garter, had given us the venue for nothing, no doubt intending to make his money back on drinks. His generosity didn’t extend to heating, because in his eyes the hordes of people we’d promised him would warm up the large room we were using with body heat.

I reckon we packed in about 50 punters. It was a magical night – I caught one chap crying in the toilets because he’d finally got to hear ‘Calyx’ live. Phil and Fred played beautifully with their almost telepathic understanding. A testament to Phil in that he offered to take a cut on his and Fred’s tiny appearance fee because of the low turn out.  We of course refused – it was a privilege to have him performing for a few select aficionados, but indicative of the everyday travails of innovatory British jazz musicians.

I can’t remember the last time I saw him – I don’t live in Manchester any more and have fewer opportunities to go to London, and I suspect gigs were getting thinner and thinner on the ground. ‘Conspiracy Theories’, admittedly a few years back, was right up there with the best of his output and showed him still in his element as a unique songwriter and guitar voice.

Phil was a colossus within the scene – he’ll be sorely missed.

3 thoughts on “Phil Miller”

    1. Yes, it’s a real hammerblow. You’re right – your top gigs included both a National Health one and In Cahoots. Just musing last night – Phil appeared to have played with pretty much everyone worth their salt, and I’m sure that it was a case of people wanting to play with him as much as the other way round.. I’ve even got a vague memory of him appearing with Kevin Ayers at Gong 25 as a guest – or does my memory betray me?

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    2. Thanks for the touching thoughts on PM Tho’ I never got to witness him in the flesh I’ve been listening to his musics for over 40 years. A real adder of supreme value sadly gone, but so well remembered.

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