Shooting at the Moon – The Collected Lyrics of Kevin Ayers (Faber Music)

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Perhaps it’s surprising there’s never been a Kevin Ayers biography. In many ways, of the all the Canterbury scene artists, Kevin was the one flecked with stardust, the one who (almost) transcended into the mainstream. Yet in most Canterbury scene accounts Kevin is almost forgotten, his exposure limited to his involvement with Soft Machine’s pioneering psychedelia, or perhaps to the lunacy of the Whole World. Conversely you will often come across people outside of the scene who have an attraction to Kevin without any affinity to where he came from musically.

The closest there came to a biography was Martin Wakeling’s ‘Why Are We Sleeping’ fanzine, and because Martin became a close friend around the time of Facelift’s infancy, I received a kickstart education in Kevin’s history, his foibles and his tendency to disappear to the sun at the point at which he was just about to assume star status. Kevin collaborated with contemporary musicians I knew and loved in the Nineties: the Wizards of Twiddly and Ultramarine, and through the former (who had become his backing band) I attended many gigs which combined consummate musicianship with his own languid charm. I was aware anecdotally that this didn’t reveal the full story and by the  last time I saw him, in 2006 in, of all places a snooker club in a fairly rough suburb of Manchester he had retreated so far into his own bubble that the only lights he would allow were those from the emergency exit door. It was still a fabulous memory. In the last few years I’ve become fascinated by the Deia connection which embraced principally him and Daevid Allen but also many others with Canterbury scene connections, and so soon after a recent visit (where I chatted with people who knew him well) it feels particularly relevant to see this compendium.

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Photo: Claude Gassian

So – whilst ‘Shooting At the Moon’ is not a biography, it is at least a long overdue recognition of Kevin’s talents by someone in the best position to appreciate them – Kevin’s daughter Galen, herself a musician, now based in the States (she has recently released an album called ‘Monument‘). Various interviews surrounding the release of this book have painted a warts-and-all picture of the relationship between Galen and her father, or more pertinently the reality of propping up a character whose disarming demeanour masked a considerably more complex story. This is not an attempt to either hide or embellish the complexities of Kevin’s persona, it is instead a charming coffee table selection of lyrics from all Kevin’s solo albums, beautifully presented, with as many lyrics as possible presented from Kevin’s beautiful own handwriting (whether or not these were transcribed at some point for such a purpose as this book, an aide memoire for concerts, or even originals is not clear, although there’s a fascinating amount of material that was clearly work in progress at some point).

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Photo: Ronald Kienhaus

The book is full colour, softback with lavishly reproduced publicity photographs, photostrips, marketing material, press clippings and some clearly from Galen’s and others’ personal collections. Each album is represented chronologically, a song to each page, with each release accompanied by at least a couple of artefacts and preceded by a quote, either from Kevin or his collaborators. Galen sought out fans’ feedback around 6 months ago about what Kevin meant to them and some of these thoughts are collated at the back of the book as well as various artefacts such as gig tickets which arrived presumably at the same time.

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Photo: Claude Gassian

There are introductions to the book, an eloquent summary by John Payne, a succinct and loving note from Robert Wyatt, and some personal thoughts from Galen, although her personal mark is in fact all over the project in its lovely presentation, alongside some touching photographs of her and Kevin together in her childhood. I suspect if Ollie Halsall had still been alive, he would also have contributed – pictures of his collaborations with Kevin are conspicuous and the Deia connection is captured pictorially on many occasions.

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with Galen Ayers

And if I’ve not commented on the lyrics themselves, then I’ll leave them to you in their entirety to peruse and dissect: often their languid nature mirroring the laid-back nature of the songs; the lapse into silly ditties Syd Barrett style (although Kevin’s were always more knowing); the occasional wry philosophy; the stories of the bon vivant and the lover in his many guises; the cod-tropicana; and the blues-tinged self-references. The one time I did meet Kevin at close quarters, for his live session with the Wizards at BBC Radio 5 with Mark Radcliffe, in one of the most memorable musical evenings of my life, he was effortlessly charming, witty and somewhat baffled by the hectic nature of the furore he had created around him. He craved privacy but attracted adulation. I hope he would be proud of the body of work preserved so lovingly for him here.

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Order signed copies of ‘Shooting At The Moon’ at

http://www.galenayers.com – where you can also buy Galen’s album ‘Monument’

Alternatively order direct from the publisher at

http://fabermusicstore.com/Shooting-at-the-Moon-0571541291.aspx

or

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0571541291/

 

 

 

Steve Hillage Band and Gong, Liverpool O2 Academy Saturday 23 November

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Steve Hillage

After a 3 gig taster in the summer, the Steve Hillage Band set out on a much larger tour in early November, this time with a twist – not only would the current Gong band be the musicians backing Steve and Miquette Giraudy for their extended 2 hour sets each evening, but Gong themselves would be the support act each night. Interestingly enough, this reverses the scenario from exactly a decade ago when Steve, who was then Gong’s guitarist, promoting the ‘2032’ album, did the support act to Daevid Allen’s Gong with a Steve Hillage Band consisting of himself, Miquette, Mike Howlett and then Gong drummer Chris Taylor.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a bad gig in Liverpool – I suppose part of that experience is that whilst I’ve  dropped in on many gigs casually in Manchester over the years, every trek down the M62 has been for a special event of some sort.  Plus audiences here seem determined to have something of a party. There’s certainly little standoffishness. The O2 Academy is somewhat more welcoming than its sister venue than the Ritz in Manchester– queues are more manageable, security almost human and the venue, upstairs on a sticky dance floor, somewhat less congested, to the extent that it was possible to navigate around to different spots in front of the stage without seriously cheesing off your fellow gig-goers.

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Kavus Torabi

Gong sensed it too – relatively early in the set Kavus Torabi, already beaming from ear to ear, was encouraging the audience to levitate the dance hall and ‘lose their shit’. The band played for an hour but it felt like longer – it was certainly intense enough for one to have quite legitimately wandered away at the end of their set being satisfied with the evening’s events on Gong’s performance alone. The band played 5 tracks, the new opus ‘Forever Reoccuring’, imbued with transcendental atmospherics and a lovely new twist where vocals (whose lyrics I could not fully decipher) embellish the rising mid-piece section; a rather splendid version of ‘Rejoice!’ where Kavus pulled out an extraordinary guitar solo; ‘You Can’t Kill Me’ with an unexpected highlight when Dave Sturt’s bass sound packed in, memorable because of his bisonesque re-joining of the fold once order was restored (“I WAS quite angry”, he later told us); ‘Sawtooth Wake’, a polyrhythmic assault on the ears interspersed with some sweet multi-harmonised vocals; and finally ‘Insert Yr Own Prophecy’ which appears to have become the set-ender of choice, particularly with ‘Master Builder’ off the menu, for reasons which will become obvious. Personally I’d have selected ‘The Elemental’ as my closer and worked backwards – its guitar crashing and discordant vocal harmonies are completely the calling cards of this particular band.

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Ian East

 

There are interesting parallels here from a gig I saw in Liverpool in the Nineties where the Wizards of Twiddly played a solo set and then backed Kevin Ayers for the main event. There was a clear contrast then between the Wizards’ madcap lunacy and Kevin’s languid tunes, and whilst there is less distance between Gong and Steve Hillage Band in terms of genre, Gong were also clearly not out to make up the numbers: their performance was a total barrage on the senses: cacophonous, embracing and utterly uplifting – if Kavus had indeed helped to levitate the building it would also have taken a small army to scrape the audience back off the ceiling.

Not that there was much respite. Assembled in pretty much the same order on stage, the core Gong band were augmented in the centre by Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy (on keyboards) for the main event. Set against a mesmerising backdrop of visuals and some fairly intense strobes, the Steve Hillage Band continued an all encompassing sound built around Steve’s effortlessly fluid and often blistering guitar work. If I can’t recall note for note the entire setlist, there was familiarity everywhere: entire swathes of ‘Fish Rising’; big chunks of ‘Green’, some of the celebrated ‘covers’ such as ‘It’s All Too Much’ and ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ and more novel outings such as ‘Om Nava Shiva’, ‘The Fire Inside’, the jaunty ‘Motivation’ and a rousing ‘Light In the Sky’ (with Miquette exuberantly conducting the crowd for the chorus).

 

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Steve Hillage, Kavus Torabi, Dave Sturt

It was great to see Ian East’s array of instrumentation and the sound of flute and tenor sax breaking through the melee – there was one memorable moment where I was thinking ‘that sounds like a bassoon’, before realising that, of course they were probably Lindsay Cooper’s lines from ‘Fish Rising’,  perfectly captured; other lines dextrously mimicked Dave Stewart’s keyboard work on the original. Elsewhere Kavus’ intricate dual guitar lines with Steve Hillage proved just how tight this band is. And every time you looked stage right there was Fabio Golfetti, implacably conjuring up the atmosphere on glissando guitar. We were musing later on in the pub (with some of the band) on the phenomenon of the glissando sound: I regard it as a gift from Daevid Allen to an entire genre of music – this otherworldly, evocative sound underpins so much music I listen to that it’s almost become a soundtrack in its own right (or as Billie Bottle recently put it, in relation to Brian Abbott, ‘a heavenly chorus (of teapots)’) The assembled number agreed that Fabio’s work in this regard is only rivalled by Daevid’s own. It’s funny what personal recollections you come away from gigs with, but another memento was when most of the band seemed to congregate around the drum kit which, due to the visual projections at the time, placed  Cheb Nettles at the base of a pyramid – intentionally or otherwise this seemed symbolic  in terms of his phenomenal contributions to the band’s base.

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Miquette Giraudy

In terms of tracks: well, the ‘Dervish Riff’ weaved away as bewitchingly as ever, ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ truly wigged out in its instrumental extension, but for me the highlight of the set was ‘Ether Ships’, in its remarkable simplicity and intensity – Steve, with his head slightly cocked to the side, subtly building up the anticipation rave style – it was as if time was suspended for a brief moment whilst we were working out which way things would break. If ‘Master Builder’ was the expected encore, it did not disappoint, less grandiose in its airing than the current Gong’s version, but memorable as all members of the band (bar the drummer) out front, singing the IAO chant well into the main riff. And, as this audience clearly weren’t willing to let the band go even at this late stage, they finished off with ‘Never Glid Before’, an instrumental version of almost deranged tempo, gradually upping the ante to its glorious conclusion.

Back down in the foyer, punters were gathered in front of the GAS stall, reinforced with extra personnel and artefacts, Kavus and Dave Sturt mingling amongst them and spreading the bonhomie of an extraordinarily upbeat night. Later in the nearby pub Ma Egerton’s, just a hint that the band were starting to wind down a little towards the end of what must be a gruelling night after night schedule, nice chats with Dave and Kavus (who was fighting off adulation from all-comers), a brief word with Ian East in amongst a small collection of Gongheads including several Kozfest veterans and Tom Ashurst who has recently shared bills with both Gong (at HRH Prog) and Here and Now. Finally, a long conversation with Fabio Golfetti, with whom I have been corresponding for 30 years (with the promise of more to come). And I might even have spotted Cheb Nettles briefly, but one can never quite be sure….

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with Fabio Golfetti

Invisible Opera Company of Tibet: Jewel in the Lotus 25th Anniversary issue – interview with Brian Abbott

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When the Gong Appreciation Society branched out in the early Nineties to provide an excellent record label covering Gong and related acts, one of the first releases to appear was a short CD of studio pieces credited to the Invisible Opera Company of Tibet entitled ‘Jewel in the Lotus’, alongside a lengthy live track featuring Daevid Allen as a ‘guest’. The band also took their place at Gong 25 in London during 1994 in that 2 day celebration of Gong and its wider family. 25 years on and the album has been re-mastered and re-released with several key differences – in fact almost half of the material here is new. Its curator and ever present band member, Brian Abbott is justifiably proud of a release which brings together the entire original recording session. He kindly agreed to answer a few questions relating to this release and the band in general.

As we mentioned  in our review of their live CD ‘Surfing The Wave of the Mystery’ earlier this year, the term Invisible Opera Company of Tibet has special significance for Gong fans: references to it occur as far back as the early Seventies. I asked Brian as to his understanding of the term. “I believe it’s always been a part of Daevid’s mythology and the whole Gong story. According to Daevid’s  ‘Gong Dreaming 2’  book The Invisible Opera Company of Tibet are a group of ethereal lamas through which the Octave Doctors broadcast their music. They are said to reside in a cave high in the Himalayas.  They are a conduit through which the Gong vibrations issue forth.”

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Invisibles flyer of unknown vintage from the Facelift archives

The first time I came across the term in a gigging context (or something approximating it) was also the first time I saw Daevid Allen perform – live in April 1988, soon after his return from a long exile in Australia. In an extraordinarily transformative gig, set somewhat anachronistically against the backdrop of the Afro-Caribbean ‘Hummingbird’ club in central Birmingham, with hefty bouncers everywhere and the constant clank of beer glasses, this was far removed from not just any preconceptions one might have had that Daevid might be about to launch a new Gong, but also from practically anything we’d heard from the Daevid Allen repertoire, although it gave some indication of what he might have been up to during his ‘exile’. I can remember the gig vividly over 30 years on, with Elliett Mackrell (later of Kangaroo Moon) on violin and Wandana Bruce on harmonium and voice whilst Daevid predominantly sang simple ballads and devotional chants, interspersed with the odd rather more humorous sample-based material. I can still remember the audience, many sitting cross-legged, listening to this very gentle music, whilst incense chugged out from stage. There was a fourth member too sat in the gloom to the right of stage: I vaguely remember him being introduced as Brian Abbott, a name which did mean something to me at the time (for reasons which will become clear), but as he was playing tablas, (and as we all know Brian is a guitarist), it was only a recent email exchange which confirmed that it was indeed Mr Abbott on percussion.

A series of gigs in 1988 and a number which followed were billed as the Invisible Co-opera. Brian’s name was already familiar to me as the custodian of GAS from what I had also mis-remembered as Ottery St Mary in the West Country (something I’ve just realised I’ve convoluted that from the fact that Harry Williamson recorded a musical interpretation of his father Henry’s ‘Tarka the Otter’ book in Devon). Brian takes up the story: “I started running GAS in 1981.  Everything then was with Gilli and Harry in North Devon.  Initially I just made contact on a friendly basis, (and) went up to stay a few times.  They were putting together Robot Woman 1 (LINK) at the time.  They had a few cassettes that they did via mail order.  Ark Redman was doing that from Ox’s Cross where they all lived.  So in 1982 they were leaving for Oz and the cassette side of things would stop.  I said I would carry it on and we then between us came up with a whole load more GAS tapes for the catalogue.  I ran it as a mail order business from 1981-1988.  I didn’t make any personal money from it but just ploughed back what little money there was into it to keep it going.  In 1988 I just felt I had done my time with it and it was time to pass it on.  I was not sure who was going to be my successor but I had a lot of communications with Rob Ayling and he seemed very keen to do it, the rest is history.” In fact my own first contact with GAS would have indeed been with Brian as, somewhat wowed by Didier Malherbe’s ‘Bloom’, I began a lifelong quest to get his entire discography, starting with the GAS cassette release ‘Melodic Destiny’. But back to 1988…

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Letter from Rob Ayling (GAS) re: Daevid Allen's workshops, 1988 or 89

“When Daevid first arrived in the UK in 1988 he stayed with us in a large communal farmhouse we were all living in (in) Devon.  There was then the first self initiation workshop at Monkton Wylde Cour in Dorset.  Also the first gig at Exeter Arts centre which I organised.  It was billed then as Daevid Allen and friends and it was mostly acoustic.  I played tablas and acoustic guitar.  (We played) songs that morphed into Gongmaison, old Gong songs and sacred chants.  It was sold out. Then Didier came on board when they were in the South of France.  I could no longer continue as I had work commitments at that time.  So very quickly The Invisibles became Gongmaison.” I can remember the bafflement I felt when the original workshop fliers were posted out to GAS followers, both in terms of the content and the prices, but also the excitement as the project progressed to an intensely claustrophobic but exhilarating gig in an upstairs room at the Swinging Sporran in Manchester in 1989 involving Daevid, Graham Clark and Didier Malherbe, and then on to Gong Maison in Manchester and London and onwards – by the time they played at the Going Going/Gong Maison gig Sonic Relief in October 1990 (where I interviewed Hugh Hopper) I’d seen the band a numerous times.

In 1992 Brian resurrected the Invisible Opera Company of Tibet band, but even prior to this there had been other developments involving the project name in other parts of the world. An album simply entitled ‘Invisible Opera Company of Tibet’, and actually dating back to 1987 had appeared from Australia as one of the first releases on Voiceprint Records (the label formed by aforementioned GAS successor to Brian, Rob Ayling) in a collaboration involving predominantly Daevid and Russell Hibbs, but also Gilli Smyth and Harry Williamson. Meanwhile, from Brazil, Brian had been in contact with Fabio Golfetti, these days, of course, Gong’s guitarist. “During the time I was running GAS Fabio was in communication a lot and he sent me cassettes and flexis and albums and this was by The Invisible Opera company of Tibet (Tropical version).  I remember thinking then this really has the Gong vibe, I was very impressed.  When the Australian version released their album I was also made aware of an American version.  I know they did one cassette album. It was 1992 when I had the calling to create a UK version of the Invisibles. Daevid loved it and gave it his blessing.  He loved the idea of all these different bands existing all over the world working under the same banner. It’s an interesting concept.”

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Tim Hawthorn at Kozfest, 2018

On ‘Jewel in the Lotus’, Brian is joined by Jim Peters (keyboards, flute and vocals), Steve Hickeson (drums)  and Tim Hall (bass/vocals), and this is the band I would have seen at Gong 25 alongside other notable performers. “For the most part it was the ‘Jewel’ line up.  Ali Young used to be the dancer with the band but went on to pastures new.  At that gig it was Jackie Juno who debuted with us as dancer, then became (our)  backing singer.  She became the main singer in 2008 when we relaunched the band”. Whilst I would obviously have seen Tim Hall alongside the others at Gong 25, it has taken me a while to piece together his pedigree: at the first Kozfest I went to in 2016, I was aware of a rather wizardly figure appearing on stage as guest vocalist for a band called Shom (he rather stole the show), then as a solo artist Tim Hawthorn at a later festival for a performance I missed. Things only fell into place for me when he sprang on to stage with the Invisibles in 2018 for a manic rendition of ‘Bad Self’, which of course he wrote and sang on ‘Jewel’. I could be forgiven for the confusion given the fact that he goes under several names and even more styles – another early GAS CD release is the beautiful acapella ensemble ‘Silver On The Tree’ alongside other Glastonbury luminaries; he also performs with The Archetypes and has some lovely samples, most notably a cover of Robert Wyatt’s ‘Sea Song’ plus a number of traditional tunes including ‘The Snow It Melts The Soonest , which counts amongst the most beautifully sung music I have ever heard.

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Brian Abbott

Whilst I enjoyed ‘Jewel In The Lotus’ in its original format, the remastered and elongated version for me, (shorn of the bonus live version of ‘We Circle Around’ featuring Daevid Allen which didn’t entirely sit comfortably with the separate studio material), turns it into a significant coherent project in its own right. The strength of the opener ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, is such that it took me several listens to get beyond it – it is a Buddhist chant which I’d seen Daevid (and Brian) perform in 1988, here turned into a blisteringly rocky number, inspirationally seguing into a version of ‘Master Builder’ which is amongst the very best versions of this track heard performed. This is quite brilliant. ‘All Coming True’, with vocals by Peters, and Tim Hall’s ‘Mysteries’, new for this edition but familiar from somewhere are good rousing knockabout stuff perhaps in the vein of some of Keith Bailey’s stuff with Here and Now (the sleevenotes make a reference to Britpop, which probably does it a disservice). ‘Bad Self’ is a vehicle for Hall’s latent punk sensibilities – a daft OTT performance which is wonderful fun.

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Invisibles in full flow, mid Nineties

The other track from the original ‘Jewel’ is the reggae piece ‘The Size of Minus One’, which is really where I started to sit up, for it is the first of three really excellent dub pieces, which get progressively better. ‘Minus One’ is a turbo -charged number, well paced  with crashing cymbals, echoey top end drumming and a slightly otherworldly soundscape powered by the unmistakeable sound of the glissando guitar, a lesser spotted beast in the world of reggae, but as Steffe Sharpstrings has proven with Here and Now and his various dub projects, a perfect accompaniment. Even more crystal clear are the two vocal dub tracks, both featuring sweet and beautifully harmonised vocals. Both are adapted in somewhat unlikely fashion from traditional tunes – the first a pagan chant entitled ‘Goddess Dub’, the second, the achingly delivered ‘Om Tara’ presumably from Buddhist origins. Both feature guitar chops and tasty licks, roaming bass and nice keyboard touches and effects. Beautifully manicured, these tracks are as slick and refined as one could hope. Perhaps it is because these tracks haven’t been heard before, but after ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, these are the two I’m continually returning to.

Of the revamp of ‘Jewel’, it felt to Brian like unfinished business – the original recordings had been laid down in only 2 days with many elements done in a single take on a very limited budget. “It had been in the pipeline for a very long time.  Dave Kendall the engineer was never happy with the mixes due to the constraints of time and money.  So it was something that both Dave and myself have kept simmering away, doing bits and pieces here and there.  Eventually realising this was the 25th year we decided to bring it out with all the tracks from the session.  I am very proud of it now as its been lovingly restored and polished !”

The CD comes with equally lovingly curated artwork, a trifold with photos and extensive written memories from three of the musicians plus the producer – a fitting
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Invisible Opera Company of Tibet 2019

At this point it seemed relevant to ask about the current state of IOCOT – 25 years on, how has the band evolved. Recent additions have been drummer Matt Jackson and also Viv Goodwin-Darke joining from Devonian neighbours Magic Bus, joining Brian, Jackie, bass player Phil Whitehouse and keyboard player Julian Veasy. “At this point it is fair to say – find me a band that hasn’t had its ups and downs.  There have been a lot of musicians over the years that have been within this collective, too many to list here. From its interception in 1992 to the present day we have been gigging and producing music.  There have been fallow periods and difficult times but there has always been a presence. At present there is whole load of new material being written by all members of the band (with) lots of different styles emerging, it’s very exciting.  (We are) just about to start editing the new studio album called ‘the Bardo of Becoming’ based on the Tibetan book of the dead and our journey from death to rebirth.  It will be something very different, exciting and challenging.  Hopefully lots of gigs.  We’ll also be doing the Bardo live. “

All of which could include future appearances at local festival Kozfest where Brian has had a presence one way or another in each of the first 10 years’ events. “Kozfest is a wonderful gathering of likeminded souls.  Initially there was this poster circulating on Facebook with Ken asleep in a chair at a festival dreaming of all these bands that were listed around him.  Lots of people commented saying the bands they would like to see.  This soon became a reality, Kozmik Kens Psychedelic dream festival.  I said we would love to play that.  Us and a whole roll call of bands.  Because I play guitar with another band (Global) we have alternated every year since and have played them all.  Feels like home!”

Thanks to Brian for answering my questions. Lots of information about Brian and the Invisibles and a link to purchase to purchase ‘Jewel in the Lotus’ can be found at www.brianabbott.info but the CD will also be available at www.planetgong.co.uk and  www.burningshed.com

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The Invisibles play a Winter Solstice gig on 21st December 2019 in Glastonbury.

Invisible Opera Company of Tibet Discography

1993 Live /studio cassette (“just found a box of new/old stock!)

1994 The Jewel in the Lotus CD (Gas records)

1994/5 Totally Bananas live cassette

2000 Open for Issness (Un released album)

2006 Totally Bananas CD

2011 Live at Sonic Rock CD

2013 Tried So Hard 7” single

2014 Songs from the Temple of Now CD

2019 Surfing The Wave of the Mystery – Live at Kozfest 2018 CD

2019 The Jewel in the Lotus (25th anniversary edition) CD

 

Love from the Planet Gong – the Virgin Years 1973-75 – 13 disc box set (Universal)

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I’ve resisted the lure of the box set for years.  But it’s fair to say that as a regular peruser of the various social media platforms covering Canterbury scene music I’ve rarely seen a level of excitement to parallel the arrival of ‘Love from the Planet Gong’. This 13 disc box set is the baby of Jonny Greene, custodian for practically as long as I can remember of the Gong Appreciation Society and responsible at www.planetgong.co.uk for the hub which perpetuates the wider Gong global family story even beyond Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth’s physically departure from the Planet. This box set concentrates on a particular slice of Gong history, namely the classic Trilogy era, as well as ‘Shamal’, the album which immediately followed Daevid Allen’s departure.

I’d possibly not realised that this 4 album cycle, which most regard as containing the highpoints of Gong’s career (although that does a disservice to the wonderful ‘Camembert Electrique’) was completed in less than 3 years. It is published courtesy of Universal, or more accurately Virgin, whose confusing tussle for Gong recording rights with Byg/Charly has baffled Gong fans for generations. It’s a massive undertaking, to the extent that this box set is so stuffed with extras that even the ‘core’ albums are padded out with bonuses to reach their digital limits enabling the extra albums to be purely devoted to live performances.

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As my own copy arrived rather late in the day, at the tail end of a gargantuan effort at GAS HQ to mail out individual copies of what appears to be a rather popular release, I was already hearing whispers as to what the highlights might be. Chronologically first, but at the same time hard to top, is the remastered version of ‘Flying Teapot’. It’s not putting too much of a gloss on this to say that on first play I was literally hearing elements I’d not been aware of before. Hand drums, female backing vocals, piano are previously unheralded elements of the trilogy album which often receives the least play: if ‘You’ has always been the pinnacle of the Trilogy era to me, and ‘Angel’s Egg’ its swirling predecessor, then ‘Teapot’ often gets overlooked. Where ‘Camembert Electrique’ was punky, and ‘You’ psychedelic, then ‘Teapot’ is very much the jazzy one: Didier Malherbe’s fluent saxophone work is extraordinary, Daevid Allen’s vocals roll along sleazily but at the same time Tim Blake’s ‘Octave Doctors’ reveals itself in a new sonic glory – with genuinely innovative sounds, let’s not also forget that this predates ‘Flute Salad’ as the first solo piece from an individual band member.

Whilst ‘Angel’s Egg’ and ‘You’ also are remastered, there is less of a marked distance from the originals, and so the magic bullets are elsewhere – on ‘You’ it’s an extraordinary demo of ‘A PHP’s advice’ which stopped me in my tracks – this intricate trio version of guitar, bass and vocals is a sonically cut down version of relative complexity which without doubt tops the original which I’ve always regarded as somewhat throwaway. Similarly ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’, possibly superior to its later New York Gong incarnation ‘Hours gone’, is a rousing piece dominated by Tim Blake’s unexpected and cacophonous harmonica.

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On ‘Angel’s Egg’ it is ‘Ooby Scooby Doomsday’, previously buried for me on a taped version of the ‘Live Etc’ album, but actually a quite remarkable track in its own right, lyrically closer to Magick Brother/Mystic Sister -style anti-system posturing, and musically to ‘Camembert’, but benefitting from the Trilogy line-up for its full-blown instrumentation. It’s a lost Gong classic which is at the same time catchy, sophisticated and rather silly. Another highlight is a bonus on ‘Flying Teapot’, the ‘Radio Gnome Premix – Story Narration’ – a self-explanatory spoken word introduction to the gnomic cosmology which previously appeared on the ‘Mystery and History’ double CD of oddities, complete with a brief snippet of verse which I’d previously failed to identify as being from the voice of the much beloved oddball Lady June.

‘Shamal’ has always been the odd one out in terms of Gong albums for me. Whilst ‘Gazeuse!’ And ‘Expresso II’ are not everyone’s cup of tea (although I love them both) they are at least homogenous percussion-dominated jazz-rock of the highest order. ‘Shamal’ on the other hand sits somewhere between this and the ‘Trilogy’ material, complete its own whimsical (but not entirely successful) lyrics. It was really nice to hear this again but testament to the fact that it doesn’t quite match other Gong albums in that it had been so long since the previous time. Highlights are the funk bass of Mike Howlett on ‘Cat in Clark’s Shoes’ and the title track; some very Gallic jazz-rock which gives a hint of where ‘Bloom’ himself might be heading on ‘Chandra’; whilst ‘Mandrake’ serves as a taste of what was to come with later Pierre Moerlen-led projects.

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We’re then into confusing territory for Disc 5 onwards in that parts to me were instantly familiar but I couldn’t always put my fingers on from quite where. The previously mentioned ‘Flowers’ and ‘Ooby Scooby’ were, for the unitiated, ‘lost’ studio tracks which had previously appeared on Virgin’s double ‘Gong Live Etc’ compilation, alongside various snippets of live gigs from, amongst others, the Bataclan, Roanne, Edinburgh, the Marquee and a BBC radio session. What discs 5-12 largely do is source the original concerts for each of these and reproduce them in their entirety, with added tweaking and compiling. Disc 5 is predominantly BBC Radio sessions, the first of which appeared on the ‘Pre Modernist Wireless Radio’ release from 1997, although the better half of that particular CD (with Kevin Ayers as guest) predates the Virgin years and so is not present here. In fact the highlights on this disc are the early January 74 session, with excellent clarity and fine performances, particularly on the jazzy ‘6/8 Tune’.

‘Live au Bataclan’ of course appeared in the first wave of CD releases on Mantra in the Nineties, but even that was truncated – this version is much expanded across a couple of disks. There are high points here, but as they are generally trumped by the next concert document I’ll neatly skip to ‘Roanne’. At this point you might, like me,  have been starting to get a touch of Gong-fatigue. But I have to say that the ‘Roanne’ gig is something else. Although sampled briefly on ‘Live Etc’, this did not include the ‘Other Side/Dynamite’ medley which represents amongst the most extraordinary 20 minutes I have heard Gong perform. Apparently captured at a small intimate venue on the Manor Mobile’s first outing, this feels almost like a ‘live in the studio’ project, announced exultantly with a ‘Hare Ganja’ shout by Daevid Allen before morphing into a quasi-religious incantation which is quite remarkable. All the other classic elements are here: swirling keyboards, ethereal space whisper, soaring saxophone, acute guitar interjections, all-encompassing drumming and warm, shifting bass. It all feels somewhat otherworldly as the piece morphs into ‘Dynamite’, with Didier Malherbe’s repetitive sax response to the main chant taking us almost back to the Soft Machine’s ‘We Did It Again’ mantra. More familiar ground elsewhere after this initial peak, but mention for the ‘Ooby Scooby’/’Est-ce que je Suis?’ segment, which stands up well against a particularly approximate version on ‘Bataclan’ which was rather spoiled by Daevid Allen’s jarring French accent. Interesting that the latter track was resurrected wholeheartedly for this live band having been initially aired in the very early 70s (and captured several times on the ‘Eclectique’ album), another punky dispensation.

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The Hyde Park live CD is rather nifty as it features the band in full promotional glory – a precious document of the full ‘You’ band playing ‘You’ material. Particularly excellent here is ‘A Sprinkling of Clouds’ – largely absent from the band’s set list when I eventually got to see them in the Nineties (unlike practically any other Trilogy track), presumably because Tim Blake’s involvement was essential for any authentic performance. This airing is a masterpiece.

The penultimate discs are the one which catches the band in a brief moment of time between ‘You’ and ‘Shamal’ with Steve Hillage centrestage – this is not only an opportunity for the band to air those ‘Shamal’ tunes, but is almost a double header as the band work their way through a significant part of ‘Fish Rising’. Given that the band is clearly in transition, it is the ‘Fish Rising’ pieces which seem more coherent in a band context, and highlights the fact that perversely there was probably a shorter hop to this Steve Hillage solo album (which of course included many ‘You’ members) to ‘Shamal’. It also feels particularly relevant at present – as I write, the current Gong band are backing Steve in his first major tour as the Steve Hillage Band since the Seventies, themselves playing many tracks from ‘Fish Rising’. Disc 13 is, of course a DVD of Quad mixes of seminal album ‘You’ which will unfortunately require far more sophisticated equipment than I can do it justice with.

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Now: the paraphernalia – the box set comes in, well a box, about 10 inches square, containing 4 separate inserts. Two house the various discs, both in  cardboard trifolds, the first containing discs 1-6 (essentially the four studio albums, the BBC live sessions and the first Bataclan disc), encased in the a reproduction of Daevid’s Flying Teapot Spotters Scroll, the second containing the remaining live CDs, plus the ‘You’ Quad mix DVD in a backpocket, these encased within various artwork including the ‘You’ cover, a Virgin press release circa ‘Angel’s Egg’ and a reproduction of Daevid Allen’s conviction certificate for dope possession in Oxford from September 1974. A further 36-page paper booklet entitled ‘lyric booklets and lyric sheets’ contains not just full lyrics but what I believe are most of the original inserts, including character casts and stories and the pink Pocket Introduction to the Planet Gong A6 booklet which you are encouraged to cut out, fold and staple! You’ll hopefully forgive me if I can’t pinpoint the exact origins of everything within this and the main booklet – everything within here has weaved its way to me at some point in assembling my Gong and Canterbury archive (for which I am indeed grateful) but as I do not have any of the original vinyl LPs I can’t tell what comes from where. No matter, for it is all now generally available to you via the box set.

The main 68 page hardbacked book is the chief exhibit, however. Starting with an extraordinary quote from Daevid Allen which I’ve not seen before essentially pinpointing the start of the Gong vision to him smoking ‘West Indian grass’ in 1961, rather than the oft-mentioned ‘seed vision’ chronicled in his first ‘autobiography’ ‘Gong Dreaming 1’, it continues with considerable commentary from Jonny Greene, much from a personal perspective, both initially as a fan, then from the viewpoint of a life fully invested in the Gong story; some splendid photos I’d not seen before; all of the original album front and back covers in full colour; and particularly valuably, contemporary thoughts from principally Mike Howlett, Tim Blake and Steve Hillage, (and also from the ‘switch doctor’ himself Venux de Luxe). Most startling is the account (from both sides) of the events which led to Tim Blake’s departure from the band which is disarming in its honesty.

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The tracklistings detailed both on the back of the entire box set and within each CD trifold are reprised in much more detail within the hardbacked book, including writing and performing credits and in particular some fabulous commentary from Mike Howlett, who not only reflects on the origins of each recording and gives anecdotal detail about their circumstances, but how he has painstakingly remixed many of the performances to balance out the sound levels, alongside remastering by original producer Simon Heyworth. This is possibly the crowning achievement of the box set, in providing clear sonic improvements to even ears as untutored as my own.

You’ll hopefully forgive the fact that this review not only does not dissect each CD on display in its full minutae – whilst I’ve been listening to all parts of it in varying amounts for a month or so, I know that I will only truly get to know it well over time. It’s an exhaustive and often exhausting chronology, with enough subtle differences as it progresses to start to get a handle on the staged (but in reality relative rapid) transition from Teapot to post-Trilogy eras, with changing personnel, sounds and ultimately styles. Those of you buying it direct from Planet Gong/GAS are rewarded with a few rather nice extras: a full-size teaspotters scroll poster, a reproduction of the ‘You’ mandala in colour, some promotional stuff for both SHB/Gong and Utopia Strong tours, and 3 rather nice stickers for your collection. And the knowledge that in buying directly from the Planet Gong you have in some small way helped to support the surviving musicians from this most extraordinary musical era.

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Utopia Strong; Kavus Torabi/Steve Davis, Golden Lion Todmorden 8 November 2019

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There’s a very fine ‘Fry and Laurie’ sketch from the late Eighties where an old man in a care home, played by Hugh Laurie looks back on his life regretfully, listing all the things he’s never done (‘never watched a woman urinate’, ‘never killed a man’, ‘never ridden a camel’, ‘never had oral sex’ etc). As his demands for this to be rectified get ever more insistent and surreal (‘I want to drink milk from the breasts of a Nepalese maiden’) he’s put firmly in his place by Stephen Fry’s camp carer ‘Brian’, who suggests, in his passable Yorkshire accent, that such outlandish things could never happen in Todmorden, where the sketch is set. I suspect this is the first (and probably only) ever mention of Todmorden in a skit and was certainly the first time I’d heard of the place.

30 years on and surreal would be the operative word here. It’s scarcely more credible that my local boozer (I now live in Tod) should be hosting the launch of an ex-world snooker champion’s first ever tour as a practicing musician, alongside the lead singer of Gong and a pipe player from the experimentalists Coil. Or that I should be ‘raving’ at 1 in the morning to tunes including Magma offshoots whilst Steve Davis and Kavus Torabi punch the air exultantly from their slots behind the decks.

But that’s the nature of this bizarre and extremely memorable gig. I’ve extolled the virtues of the Golden Lion as a venue elsewhere, as well as Steve Davis’ close connection to the current Gong and the wider field of experimental music and so shall concentrate on the evening: principally Utopia Strong, the 3 piece containing Davis, Torabi and Mike York, as well as the unexpected delights which followed.

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The Utopia Strong produce great washes of sound, a mix of electronica, and both electric and acoustic instrumentation, somewhat tripped out but at the same time disquieting, not safe enough to be background music and also not totally relying on beats to sanitise it. When I discussed the fact post gig with Kavus that I hadn’t heard any of the tracks on the album performed (I’d been particularly been looking forward to hearing ‘Brainsurgeons’ and ‘Do You Believe in Two Gods?’ it became clear that I’d misunderstood the process – the music is completely improvised, starts from a blank canvas every time, and therefore every performance is unique. If I’ve got this right, the genesis of each piece is a series of initial module sounds triggered and compiled by Steve Davis, here seated studiously stage left, squinting at the mass of wires in front of him, and possibly to a lesser degree from Mike York stage right. Kavus’ job is to add electric guitar, sometimes crashing, sometimes picking, sometimes glissandoed, plus hefty washes of harmonium, voice or the gong-like crescendo of a single cymbal. Mike York adds a descant recorder or, best of all, what appeared to be an uillean pipe into the mix. All elements can be looped and effects abound, particularly reverb. Behind it all is a bubbling, swirling light show, the overall ambience accentuated by the intensity of Davis’ and York’s concentration and Kavus’ occasional wild gestures.

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The audience was a fairly typical Golden Lion crew, not all entirely there for the merits of the music (although the reasons for that will become more clear as this review progresses), some rapt in appreciation, others taking the chance to rattle away noisily towards the back of the room, illiciting some strong reactions from at least one aggrieved punter. This wasn’t a problem until the music dipped more into quieter reflective passages, at which point the general babble could be construed as being just damned rude. The music built organically, unexpectedly and there were several small conferences between Kavus and the other band members mid-piece before things moved off in new directions. Like all improvisations there’s a hit and miss element to the final results, but this was ultimately intense, trippy and totally immersive, not always comfortable listening, but certainly transportative.

A quick check in at the sound desk where we grabbed a few words with Kavus but things were already moving on. Steve Davis, as apparently he did last time he DJd at the Lion, had agreed to take on all comers down in the pool room, and so a memorable half an hour or so ensued in an extremely convivial but rowdy back room downstairs. Did Steve win all his frames? Probably not, given the occasional crowd cheer which raised the roof, but his involvement was genuine and a joy to witness. One of his challengers was an old cricketing colleague of mine who confessed he’d been practicing all week with the game plan of potting a ball from the break, then clearing up all the balls. This cunning plan came to a sticky end as soon he lost the toss to break. Meanwhile we were chatting to Mike York about his pipes, which he identified as actually being border pipes from the West Country, partly inflated by mouth but mainly through bellows pumped via an elbow. He’d not been happy with this particular section of the Utopians’ performance although it had been one of the more stand out moments for us.

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But once again things were moving on. Whilst the room upstairs that hosted Utopia Strong is tiny and at best hosts around 80 people, the downstairs bar opens out nicely, funneling the audience past the bar towards the DJ booth, with a space towards the side complete with sofas and armchairs producing a warming living room feel. Not that many people remained seated for long. The Torabi/Davis set is hugely eclectic, upbeat and danceable as long as your feet are prepared to move in a multitude of directions: there were tracks from Talking Heads and the Beatles, Magma’s near neighbours Offering and Weidorje, a personal blast from the past in Spacemen 3, a spot of Utopian Strong themselves from their album plus all manner of weird and wonderful stuff not (yet) on my radar. Possibly the most enjoyable DJ set I can recall hearing, all fuelled by a febrile atmosphere, lots of bonhomie and plenty of drink imbibed from both audience and performers. Things were still showing little sign of abating as we left a couple of hours into the set. Outlandish things do indeed happen in Todmorden….

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Thanks to Annie Roberts for many of the pictures (the better quality ones!)

Buy the Utopia Strong album at https://theutopiastrong.bandcamp.com/album/the-utopia-strong

 

 

 

 

 

Henry Cow – the World is a Problem – Benjamin Piekut (Duke University Press)

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In the early days of producing my fanzine Facelift in 1989 I made the cardinal error of publishing something which suggested Henry Cow might be part of the Canterbury scene. I probably wasn’t even aware of doing this until a letter arrived from their drummer Chris Cutler which politely but firmly admonished me for such a suggestion, before offering support for the ‘zine and putting me on the mailing list for his Recommended Records label and distribution network. Ultimately this opened up a whole new musical world for me: Skeleton Crew, Fred Frith’s ‘Step Across the Border’ and ‘Gravity’, The Art Bears and The Work, much of which was more accessible than the Henry Cow I already knew, whose music was and remains something of a mixed blessing to me.

Henry Cow may indeed not be part of the Canterbury scene but what is indisputable is that the paths of musicians from both genres intertwine inevitably, be it from the days of the Ottowa Music Company ensembles in 1971-2 which involved Dave Stewart; to John Greaves’ involvement in National Health (alongside Georgie Born) and Soft Heap; to Hugh Hopper’s work with Lindsay Cooper; Geoff Leigh’s connections with Phil Miller; plus of course the fact that Robert Wyatt unforgettably co-fronted Henry Cow for a heady few concerts in 1975. Facelift published interviews with Dagmar Krause and Peter Blegvad but also gave column inches to Jakko’s involvement with the Lodge (alongside Blegvad and Greaves), Lindsay Cooper’s ‘Oh Moscow’ and much much more. And so this is why this remarkable 500 page tome from Benjamin Piekut can be viewed as an almost a parallel narrative to that of the Canterbury scene and you don’t have to be a Henry Cow expert (I am not) to fully appreciate the story.

This biography is many things but its main strength is as a chronicle of the band’s extraordinary history which spanned barely a decade, meticulously researched from a vast array of sources, not just from the music papers of the times but via interviews with the musicians, plus access to private musicians’ notes, diaries and minutes from the band’s many documented meetings. This, alongside the fact that a significant number of Henry Cow members and associates were at the book’s launch in London suggests that this is a history with involvement of differing degrees from various members of the band, and it would appear that few stones have been left unturned in attempting to produce a definitive biography.

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Secondly it’s almost a sociological study of a band who very much set out to be different not just musically but also politically – their creation of difficult, questioning music was not just a function of the considerable musical talents of several significant intellects (the band initially emerged from the university of Cambridge), but of a desire to function as a band somewhat differently from the norm.

I was aware that Henry Cow were keen on documenting their own history, often in situ, but having read little of this other than what came my way as archive clippings from the 1970s music media I learnt a lot which surprised me (but maybe not others) – such as the functioning of a band as a collective with its own payroll incorporating a small army of assistants as equal members (roadies, technicians, administrators). Frequent allusion is made to group meetings which decided every facet of the band’s existence, both musicially, ideologically and logistically. Piekut makes much of the term ‘contraviviality’ – his argument is that the tensions within the group, as well as their constant struggle to survive economically contributed to the efficacy of the music and in some cases may even been embraced as an essential part of the band’s existence.

‘The World is a Problem’ also, perhaps unwittingly, contains the best description I have yet seen of the machinations of the embryonic Virgin empire – the context being how Henry Cow benefitted from the setting up of a label which had a surprise success with ‘Tubular Bells’, which for a while at least helped legitimize the support for non-commercial outfits such as Kevin Coyne, Gong, Hatfield and the North as well as Henry Cow.   That said, Richard Branson, as is well chronicled elsewhere, had little personal interest in either the Cows’ or other roster bands’ music and ultimately Henry Cow began to regard Virgin Records as part of the ‘problem’. There are also interesting passages covering crossovers with Virgin label mates Faust, and much later Mike Westbrook’s ‘Orckhestra’, plus the development of ideas which would eventually culminate in the Rock in Opposition movement involving European likeminds, plus Chris Cutler’s ‘Recommended’ mail order and record label outlets. This is an intensely serious book about what would appear to an intensely serious band, but the mood is occasionally lightened through descriptions of the band’s early Dadaist theatricals, such as a performance where the band staged an argument on stage, then split into splinter groups who performed separately from that point onwards.

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There are heavy going chapters debating exactly the nature of Henry Cow’s improvisational elements, their ongoing ideological ideas and how they fitted into a bewildering spectrum of politically far left experimental musicians, particularly their involvement in Rock for Socialism in 1977. To the casual cynical observer it might appear that Henry Cow created the perfect alchemy to ensure their indisputably marginal audience: extreme music (either intricately composed or uncompromisingly improvised) fringe politics and an alienating intellectualism which is alluded to often within the book (by members of the band) as ‘pompous’. But heartwarmingly this briefly struck a chord in Italy, where the band played to probably their most appreciative audiences, at politically-motivated events where there was the additional novelty of entering a world with little tradition of rock gigs. Elsewhere there is an entertaining discourse about how the band felt about punk, an intellectual analysis which would probably have baffled most of its proponents, and there is a particularly gem unearthed in that Fred Frith was once considered as a producer for the Sex Pistols.

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There are also detailed descriptions (and transcriptions) of particular musical pieces that thread their way through explanations of various time signatures – perhaps somewhat unnecessary given the fact that for the small number of people for whom this is essential information may well have already worked it out for themselves. Even if this is in fact necessary to paint the full picture of what the Cow was actually all about, then these extended examinations are of course much less interesting to this reader than the ‘personal’ stuff – the musical tensions that led to particular members leaving the band at various points; Dagmar’s ongoing battles with both health and the practicalities of taking her young son on tour; the various couplings between wider group members; the assimilation then rejection of the Slapp Happy band of Peter Blegvad, Anthony Moore (Dagmar of course remained and became the band’s focal point); the tensions in the core inner circle of Hodgkinson, Cutler and Frith and how it came to be balanced gender-wise by strong feminist personalities in Lindsay Cooper and Georgie Born. And finally, the changing in dynamics within the band over the recording of what eventually became  the album ‘Hopes and Fears’ (credited to the Art Bears)  and its role in the group’s subsequent disbandment.

Piekut is careful not to deviate much from a script that looks at the activities of the Henry Cow musicians purely from within their lifespan of Henry Cow alone – Geoff Leigh and John Greaves for example, drop off the radar pretty much the moment they leave the band. In that regard, for the Canterbury scene student that is perhaps a little frustrating given subsequent collaborations with musicians we all know and love, but an alternative covering the entire Cow legacy, given that this is already a substantial book, would have entailed a monster. One other criticism might be that whilst Piekut often navigates carefully through the musical scores, and has a clear picture of the personal qualities of the indivduals in the band: Tim Hodgkinson’s intellectual vision; Cutler’s work ethic and charisma; Greaves’ sense of fun; Dagmar’s physical fragility, there is barely a mention of each members’ musical ‘voice’. This for me would always be the starting point: Fred Firth’s dissonant multi-instrumental virtuosity; Chris Cutler’s butterfly drum patterns, John Greaves’ warm human bassplaying, Dagmar’s extraordinary mastery of everything vocal from the serene to the guttural and so on. Perhaps too, within the 100 or so pages of references, bibliography and indeces space could have been found for a timeline which in particular would have enabled the reader to keep pace with the various personnel changes within the wider Cow collective.

These, however, are minor criticisms – this remains a remarkable project: compelling, unique and requiring considerable powers of concentration and assiduousness – somewhat like the band themselves.

Thanks to ‘Banana Steve’ for procuring this book for me at the October book launch in London

‘The World Is A Problem’ is best ordered from RER Megacorp (because that way the author will see the best rewards for his work)

Soft Machine: Band on the Wall, Manchester, 17 October 2019

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I wouldn’t want people to think that my social life is a little one-dimensional, but when rifling through my coat pockets before setting out for Soft Machine’s latest gig in Manchester last night I pulled out the ticket for Canterbury Sound gig at the Gulbenkian in Canterbury in June and realised that the last time I’d donned my gig-going leather jacket in anger was also for a Soft Machine gig.

And so for the fourth time in a couple of years (5 if you count the Kozfest performance in 2018 that I heard through the trees – it could have been 6 if you factor in the HRH Prog gig next week that I have tickets for). Same line-up, familiar ground – how could they possibly keep it fresh?

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The answer is of course obvious: these are consummate musicians for whom no two performances are the same, constantly pulling new rabbits out of the hat in terms of the back catalogue and lucky enough (if that’s the right term) to have an extremely strong album in ‘Hidden Details’ to continue to promote.

For once we arrived at the venue in good time, and were able to make our way almost down to the front of the stage, directly in front of John Etheridge. It struck me that in all my many hours of witnessing musicians at the Band on the Wall, some since its relaunch, but most particularly in the Eighties and Nineties, I have rarely been able to witness musicians at such proximity. With a perfect view of guitarist and the wonderful drumming of John Marshall it was a privilege. Starting with the relatively benign ‘Penny Hitch’, the band were soon ripping into ‘Hidden Details’ and it was here that the band’s abilities to surprise were encapsulated. This particular track has quickly become like an old friend with its reassuringly angular introduction but as it centres around an extended Etheridge solo, and because no two solos are the same, this felt like hearing the piece anew.

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‘Fourteen Hour Dream’, a lovely most un-Softs like flute-driven ramble, made its appearance for the first time, the two ballads ‘Heart Off Gold’/’Broken Hill’ genuinely brought a tear to the eye, preceded by a quite wonderful solo filled with Spanish guitar inflections; there was a beautiful version of Hugh Hopper’s ‘Kings and Queens’; and ‘Burden of Proof’, a Legacy number, was dedicated to Allan Holdsworth’s daughter Lynne, who was once again in the audience.  The rasping ‘Gesolreut’, the ever-moving ‘Nettlebed’ from ‘Seven’ (which opened the second set) and ‘One Glove’ from Hidden Details kept things moving at a bluesier, rockier tempo, underpinned by Roy Babbington’s bounding bass.

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But the piece de resistance was ‘Hazard Profile’. I think I’ve heard this every time the Softs have played in recent times – it’s an obvious set-closer, a killer riff and general crowd pleaser. But this was something different: tonight performed with possibly the most jaw-dropping guitar solo I have ever seen, even though by this time we’d moved further back from stage. Starting low-end and filthy it gradually built into a quite mammoth investigation of the fretboard, brought to its conclusion in expert style by Theo Travis’ keyboard chords.

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The two encores (the reception was so enthusiastic it could quite easily have extended to more) were, a little strangely, ‘Chloe and the Pirates’, but more expectedly ‘Out-Bloody-Rageous’ which is fast becoming the band’s calling card, although I genuinely think they’d forgotten to play it during the main set.

Above all it was Etheridge’s engaging patter which propelled the night along with obvious bonhomie. I’m sure his quips are not all off the cuff, but they are natural and often hilarious: allusions to Roy Babbington’s need to continue gigging because of a large number of children, Theo Travis’ proclivity for different instrumentation being so great that he’d brought a Black and Decker Workmate on stage, or comments about not vacating their stations for the first encore ‘because we’re too old to get off stage easily’, or even a reference to ‘One (G)love’ being a typographical error. I’m sorry John if I’ve revealed all your best lines, but this was gentle self-deprecatory stuff which enhanced the experience. I don’t think the Band on the Wall was full, but, shorn of the seating area from last time (after all if three septugenarians can keep it going for over 2 hours, then why not their audience?), the atmosphere was electric: other than Etheridge the band generally keep masks of inscrutability, but John Marshall broke out into broad smiles at times, not only whilst interacting with Etheridge, but also, as with the rest of the band as a delighted response to the general adulation.

We were lucky enough to grab an extended chat with Theo Travis and John Etheridge afterwards: both revealed their love for the Band on the Wall – in particular John helped me recall, from nowhere, a gig in the early Nineties(?) where he’d gigged with In Cahoots keyboard player Steve Franklin and ‘Rock School’ bassist Henry Thomas. And I talked with Theo about his superb work with Gong for ‘Zero to Infinity’ and his connection to Steven Wilson. Two masters of their art amongst a band of jazz-rock deities. I’m already looking forward to the next time…

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