In 1985 I moved to Manchester from my sleepy backwater in Derbyshire and became so engrossed by the buzz of the city, the music, the culture that I forgot to leave for the next 13 years. Manchester in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties was all about a thriving gigging scene, and I certainly partook of this aspect hungrily, but just as (if not more) important was my own musical ‘education’, provided in a very large part by an extraordinary record library.
The Manchester University Precinct was open to the general public and at the time, lent out primarily vinyl (with a few cassettes). You could see it as at that time the physical embodiment of today’s scratch and sniff streaming culture – I’d leave there every few days with a bundle of records under my arm, take back to my university digs, transfer to cassette and peruse at my leisure. When I spoke at the Canterbury Sound day last October, I put together a collage of those albums which were purely the ‘Canterbury’ element of what I borrowed – an extraordinary collection in its own right. But I also explored existing interests such as King Crimson, Hammill/VdGG, Jethro Tull, explored some lesser known prog diversions and had my first delvings into contemporary British jazz. If I went down a few cul de sacs, so be it, at least I knew a bit more. I can’t stress how much of a privilege it was to have all of this music at ones fingertips – it shaped not only the next 3 or 4 years but opened up avenues for so many more…
I can’t remember when I got hold of Third, but I am guessing it was within a couple of months of arriving in Manchester. It had been borrowed on the back of the Daevid Allen/Soft Machine connection – I was already a converted Gongfreak thanks to ‘You’, ‘Angel’s Egg’ and both ’77 live compilations. But ‘Third’ was something entirely different – austere cover, muted production, flattened sounds – this was ‘serious’ music. My best friend from school had gone off to work in Stockton on Tees for a year – I visited him during a week off, and without transport or much brass and in a freezing cold house, have an abiding memory of being huddled in front of a cassette player playing ‘Third’ on repeat. I didn’t initially ‘understand’ ‘Facelift’ as its dissonance was neither the primeval screams of Van der Graaf nor the considered deconstruction of Fripp, and ‘Moon In June’ was entirely outside my comprehension at first in terms of what vocalists were meant to ‘do’, but I was soon converted. Reams have been written about ‘Third’ elsewhere, not least by myself, but I can still pick it up any time I like, immerse myself in it and still be totally enthralled – my number one album still.
I’d arrived in Manchester with Peter Hammill’s ‘Enter K’ on cassette, and after having already tracked down most of the VdGG albums previously, I could have been excused in believing that the Hammill solo ego was an inferior parallel project. The first few albums I heard, all mid-Seventies VdGG-fallow period (‘Silent Corner’, ‘Chameleon’, ‘In Camera’) quickly started to suggest more depths, but ‘Over’ from slightly later on bowled me over. This is a ‘concept album’ in as much as all its songs (‘Autumn Song’ excepted) are on the same theme – the utterly consuming break-up of a relationship and I totally tuned into its vibe years before I could truly emphasise with its content (when I did, I found the album unlistenable). It also benefits from a higher than normal quotient of guitar-backed songs, for me, Hammill at his finest: ‘Alice’, ‘(On Tuesdays She Used To Do) Yoga’ and the totally nihilistic ‘Betrayed’. Every song on ‘Over’ is a minor masterpiece, from the punky opener ‘Crying Wolf’ through to the sliver of hope offered by ‘Lost and Found’, set as the morning after to the VdGG track ‘La Rossa’, where the author had contemplated the consummation of a platonic friendship. For years ‘Over’ was my favourite album, it’s still very high up there, and a delight to hear ‘Yoga’ performed live just a month or so ago.
The appearance of ‘Larks Tongues In Aspic’ may not be a surprise to anyone with a smattering of knowledge about music in the progressive/experimental sphere. I’d heard Crimson first at school, when a classmate with elder siblings old enough to have witnessed the 70s prog explosion first hand had recommended. Having bought ‘Three of a Perfect Pair’, at that point a new release from local record emporium ‘Hudson’s’, I’d been a bit perplexed – was this prog? It seemed more ‘new wave’ to me, and even wilfully weird – for the moment I only really ‘got’ ‘Industry’, a precursor to later interest in the likes of Bourbonese Qualk and 23 Skidoo, who were part of the ‘industrial’ wave of the Eighties. But at least it got me going: most of the rest followed quickly from a new resource (see below), favourites being ‘Discipline’ and the wonderfully experimental ‘Starless and Bible Black’ but the best was ‘Larks Tongues’, brimming with tightly orchestrated dissonance, killer riffs and beautiful melodies. A toss up between ‘Easy Money’, with its unparalleled guitar solo and ‘Part 2’ for the highpoint. Another credit too for Bill Bruford, who would continue to figure a lot in future playlists.
Perhaps the germination of ideas for the fanzine Facelift came not just with ‘Third’ which opens with a track of that name, but the next three albums which form the next choice. All are roughly contemporary releases following the break up of the classic Trilogy era Gong line-up – one could also include Gong’s ‘Gazeuse!’, Steve Hillage’s ‘Green’ and Tim Blake’s ‘Crystal Machine’. I’d shared a room for a year at University with Joe (more of whom later) and we’d driven each other mad with our polar musical tastes. We’d then gone off to pick fruit together in Herefordshire in the summer of ’86 and on a tinny cassette player played around the nightly campfire I think I probably further drove him (and others) even more bonkers. ‘Now Is The Happiest Time of Your Life’ is simply the hipp(i)est album there could be: three classic 3/4 time signature ballads from the Allen acoustic guitar: ‘Why Do We Treat Ourselves Like We Do’, ‘Only Make Love If You Want To’ and ‘Deia Goddess’ – the latter identifying Allen’s Majorcan residence, whilst elsewhere there is much evidence of the Allen buffoonery masking more serious messages (the biting ‘Poet for Sale’) and an early drone based track (‘I Am’) with glissando and space whisper. Masterful stuff before things got darker with ‘N’Existe Pas’, ‘Playbax’ and before they completely unravelled at the start of the Eighties. ‘Time Is The Key’ is the second album going under the name of Pierre Moerlen’s Gong, and it reflects more of a solo project, with the superb side long suite on Side 1 an orgy of tuned percussion with Moerlen working his way through the extended kit semi-orchestral style. Spliced in the middle of it all is the wonderful pseudo-muzak piece ‘Supermarket’ with its mindboggling dexterity, whilst ‘Ard Na Greine’ and ‘Fairie Steps’ are just beautiful melodies. Side Two is more funked up and shows the other side of Moerlen’s compositional style, even fitting in a completely incongruous (but memorable) Allan Holdsworth solo on ‘Arabesque’. This was my introduction to a whole genre of music involving Moerlen, various other ‘Strasbourgeois’ and offshoots from the likes of Bon Lozaga, Gongzilla et al which has endured until this day (two of my reviews this year could broadly fit into this category).
‘Bloom’ on the other hand is just an album of pure joy. Best described as unfettered funked up jazz fusion, Didier Malherbe wouldn’t have known that he wouldn’t release another solo album for a further 10 years but he makes this one count. Didier’s Indian and South American influences are well documented, and later the doudouk would dominate his performing repertoire, but for the moment this is just deliciously groovy Gallic electro jazz with Didier soloing gloriously on tenor sax. An album I’d return to over and over if I needed a mood boost. Probably deserving an entry in their own right, Didier’s Hadouk Trio in the Noughties became pretty much my favourite band, with a series of stunning albums corrupting the jazz genre through exotic instrumentation, Didier primarily with the Armenian wind instrument doudouk, the genius Loy Ehrlich through kora, hajouj and multiple stringed and keyed instruments, and my introduction to the hang via Steve Shehan. One of my proudest moments is helping to bring Didier and Loy over to perform to a sell out crowd in Hebden Bridge in 2011.
And so to Ozric Tentacles. Derivative and samey? Or for me one of the most inventive, prolific and hearteningly underground projects of the last 30 or more years. Another housemate in Manchester arrived one evening with a vinyl copy of ‘Pungent Effulgent’, which had just been released back in 2009, and I also remember the good chaps at Decoy Records, Manchester’s pioneering jazz and roots record shop before the bomb, raving about the fact that they’d found a band whose main man Ed Wynne was Steve Hillage and Tim Blake rolled into one. After the clean-cut production of ‘Pungent’ I remember being profoundly disappointed the first time I saw them live at the Treworgey Tree Fayre in Cornwall in 1989 (and that festival is a whole other story), but later could put this down to the nature of the beast (both the stage they were playing on, the temporary Wango Riley’s, actually the back of a truck, and Ozrics’ notoriously free live sets at the time). My interest continued to escalate however, firstly the classic ‘Erpland’ double album and countless subsequent gigs in the next couple of years, and secondly the Ozric cassettes, of which ‘Tantric Obstacles’ forms a part. Back in Decoy records, I’d been made aware of a 6-tape collection of pre-Pungent recordings, with brightly covered, photocopied covers and inlays, each filling 90 minutes or so of wildly diverse sounds and influences. Licking my wounds after a relationship break up in a bedsit in South Manchester, the £24 for the set was a small fortune (I was paying only £25 a week in rent and struggled to muster even that) but I took the plunge, and using a cassette machine of just as poor sonic quality as the recordings themselves, took about 6 months to emerge out of the other side. It also corresponded to a time when I really got stuck into producing Facelift, with issues 2 and 3 appearing during that time, and the Ozrics provided the musical nutrition. An interview for the mainstream newspaper I was working for followed (a bizarre experience with the band getting slowly stoned during the interview whilst watching ‘Blind Date’ in their dressing room), I’ve bought everything they’ve done since, and was even witness to a sort of reunion last year at Kozfest – periodically I’ll dig out an album then slowly work my way through their entire catalogue. Of the 6 cassettes, ‘Sliding Gliding Worlds’ is probably the most diverse and best produced but I struggled to get beyond the punchy ‘Tantric Obstacles’ particularly one guitar passage in ‘Sniffing Dog’, for many a month.