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Soft Machine: Hidden Details album review; Soft Machine Live at the Trades Club, Hebden Bridge 9 November 2018

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The idea of strolling to your local venue to see the Soft Machine is something I would have considered preposterous when I first heard the ‘Third’ album back in 1985. Yet here I was seeing the band for the third time in 18 months, promoting their new album ‘Hidden Details’ to a sell-out audience at the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge.

‘Hidden Details’ has been in my possession since September and rarely far from my CD player since. Yet I’ve been waiting for the time, space and context to include a review of it on the Facelift blog. The impetus has finally come from this rousing gig, epitomising a surprisingly fresh direction for the band.  Whilst albums from the Soft Machine Legacy, the name under which this outfit toured and recorded as part of an evolving dynasty from previous line-ups involving Elton Dean and Hugh Hopper , were worthy enough, recent tours had given a sense that this band was tightening up its identity with careful selection of archive tracks from ‘Third’ through to ‘Bundles’ to suit its melodic motifs and rocky grooves. ‘Hidden Details’ adds the final pieces of the jigsaw through the authoring of a cohesive set of new tunes. My own feeling on hearing ‘Hidden Details’ for the first time, was that the band almost felt a sense of responsibility to live up to their newly shorn name. Chatting to saxophonist Theo Travis at the gig, the only member of the band who doesn’t hail from band line-ups in the early to mid Seventies, he echoed similar sentiments.

The opening bars of the eponymous title track which opens both the album and live sets are quite startling: the dissonant angular guitar theme with which John Etheridge launches affairs is untypical of the Soft Machine from any of its eras and as such is an almost a statement in itself – this rumbustious track, powered by Roy Babbington’s growling fuzz bass and John Marshall’s omnipresent drumming makes it clear that this is not a band to rest on safe ground. If Travis sets his stall out for the album with a rousing tenor solo, it is if anything surpassed by the Frippian high notes at the end of Etheridge’s finishing shot.

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But this is just for starters.  With a set list which includes at least half a dozen tracks played from ‘Hidden Details’, the majority of which add rather than detract from the overall impact, it’s clear that certain elements from the previous repertoire had to give, and the chief casualty appears to be some of Etheridge’s stately guitar themes from ‘Softs’. And so convention is swiftly discarded, with even ‘Life on Bridges’ with its memorable anthemic melody played in triplicate in unison by guitar, sax and bass, dissolving into a ‘Fletcher’s Blemish’-like mess. Whilst not played live, there are further sonically uncompromising tracks on the album such as ‘Ground Lift’ and ‘Flight of the Jett’ which confirms that the band are not content to hide behind an undoubted gift to craft beautifully accessible melodies.

That said, there remain instantly identifiable Etheridge tunes, ‘Heart Off Guard’, with wonderful Travis soprano soloing over acoustic guitar; whilst the more electric ‘Broken Hill’, aired memorably live, contains perhaps the most evocative Etheridge guitar theme of the album. Elsewhere, ‘One Glove’ sits somewhere between the heavy rock grooves of ‘Seven’ and various post-Softs compositions from Hugh Hopper, with strutting guitar and sax to add. This one went down a storm live with Roy Babbington in his element.

Three tracks which the band were already playing in their repertoire prior to ‘Hidden Details’ are included on the album and are now staple parts of the set list– all are distant nods to the past, with ‘The Man Who Waved At Trains’ one of many tracks to benefit from Travis’ dexterous flute, plus two parts of ‘Out-bloody-rageous’, the latter introduced through an innovative triggering of samples and effects from the keyboard of Theo Travis;  followed by the track’s main theme duetted by guitar and sax – Travis’ solo is a joyous romp through a much loved Softs ‘standard’.

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The live set is completed by other notable pieces carefully picked from the discography – the funky ‘Gesolreut’, a highlight from their gig in Manchester a year ago, ‘Chloe and the Pirates’, which started a much-deserved encore, Hugh Hopper’s ‘Kings and Queens’, beautifully crafted, and a medley including ‘Tarabos’ and the inevitable set ender ‘Hazard Profile’. The latter two were separated by a quite unexpected, lengthy and almost angry drum solo from John Marshall, quite remarkable in its dexterity, almost a raging against the years.

It was interesting seeing the band in a small provincial environment, subtly different from the more metropolitan audience I saw the band last play to where the audience was consistently appreciative throughout, but never quite lost their cool. The Trades Club audience are a fickle lot, took a while to warm up and then seemed to be colossally won over by the end with a noisy primal adulation which I think took the band a bit by surprise. John Etheridge is a charming, self-effacing, slightly mischievous front man, taking time between each tracks to ingratiate himself gently with the audience – with lovely references to both how tonight contrasted with the band’s seamless, non-verbal interactions in the Seventies, (Mike Ratledge was outed as only ever having spoken to an audience once, when an entire rig went down!); or somewhat closer to home relating the story of the band’s extended trip that day from Scotland to the night’s accommodation, including an only too familiar stakeout close to the venue on a single track road where two vehicles (one belonging to the band) refused to budge for the other. It seems almost patronising to mention the band’s vintage (Marshall and Babbington are in their late Seventies) but to produce musicianship of this demanding nature on a regular basis with set lists lasting up to 2 hours cannot pass without mention – it was an admirably high class performance.

Final word must go to ‘Hidden Details’ – a hugely impressive album whichever way you look at it. After you’ve worked your way through many of the tracks described above, you’re left with a final couple of pieces, not contained within the live set but well worth waiting for. ‘Fourteen Hour Dream’ is a weaving piece which jams lightly around a fine Babbington groove with superb flute from author Theo Travis. There are hints here of Seventies band Catapilla or perhaps more pertinently, the Forgas Band, and strange to say that Etheridge’s subtle, understated guitar licks are amongst my favourite moments from him on the album. The vibe is continued in more meditational mode on the lovely dronish ‘Breathe’, and one could not find a greater contrast with the album’s opening salvos. Perhaps the only evidence on view that the band are considering winding things down – let’s hope not just yet…

www.softmachine.org

www.moonjune.com

www.theotravis.com

www.johnetheridge.com

 

Gigs…Albums…Projects

Update 21 October

A few items of news have come in since this article was last posted back at the start of September.

Phil Miller Memorial Concert

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A hotly anticipated memorial concert for Phil Miller will be held at London’s Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston,  on Sunday, January 6th, 2019. Many musicians familiar to readers of this blog are due to appear – news of acts and tickets will appear in the next few weeks at the excellent Phil Miller legacy site 

Lapis Lazuli

Superb Canterbury band, now a four piece, release their 5th album ‘Brain’ on 30th November hopefully to be followed by a tour. One confirmed gig is in Bristol at Crofters Rights http://croftersrights.co.uk/ on 7 December.

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You can pre-order their album here 

Syd Arthur

Canterbury’s other current mercurial sons are apparently on a sabbatical, with a couple of members newly introduced to the joys of parenthood. However, I understand that Matthew Watkins, author of the unique history of Canterbury ‘You Are Here’ reviewed here, is curating a series of archive releases by the band (and there are some very fine cuts to choose from there)

Yamma

Yamma, who I described as a ‘pop-up’ band in my review of Kozfest here have happily decided to continue their good work – the band, which includes singer/synthesiser player Cary Grace, Mike Howlett, Graham Clark and Zorch twiddler Basil Brooks have a gig at King Arthur’s in Glastonbury on 10 November

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Richard Sinclair

News since the first post of Richard Sinclair’s appearance on an album by the O.A.K band from Rome. Richard appears on an album described as a Progressive Rock Opera dedicated to the life of Italian philosopher and monk Giordano Bruno, who was burnt alive at the pyre as a heretic in Rome 418 years ago – other guests include Sonja Kristina of Curved Air, Dave Jackson of Van der Graaf Generator and the late Maartin Allcock of Jethro Tull/Fairport Convention.


richard sinclair.jpgLots of links to get a fuller flavour of this:

http://www.oakgiordanobruno.eu (information on the album and the whole project)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfgvlt9alv4 (promo video of the project)

https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=oak%20oscillazioni%20alchemico%20kreative (

http://www.oaksound.com/it/ (band website)

The album is available from the links above or via Amazon

Billie Bottle 

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‘The Other Place’, the latest album by Billie Bottle  (major collaborator with Dave Sinclair in recent years) is almost upon us – full details of the project here with a startling teaser called ‘Plebs’ described by a few online as ‘Slapp Happyesque’ available to listen to here

Invisible Opera Company of Tibet

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And finally, for the moment, news of a further gig by that living slice of Camembert, The Invisible Opera Company of Tibet, who play the Prince Albert in Brighton on 24 November.

Tickets here:

 


 

Original Post September 4, 2018

News of autumn tours in the UK by Caravan and the Soft Machine, a rare Stewart/Gaskin gig plus the recording of a new Gong album got me musing about quite how much new stuff there is currently happening…

In the absence of any recognised forum for forthcoming gigs and albums (although the excellent Calyx Canterbury internet resource has a gig page here and the Gong Appreciation Society does also regularly update its gig page here , here’s an attempt to sum up what I know about (with a request to let me know what I may not know about).

Soft Machine

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…are already 5 dates into an extensive 50th anniversary tour (the anniversary being of the release of their first album, rather than the band’s inception, which was actually 2 years earlier) to promote their new album ‘Hidden Details’, which on a few initial listenings (review soon) sounds like a startlingly strong release. A number of dates during September in Germany, Italy, Austria, Holland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are followed by 12 dates in the USA and Canada before launching a 10 date UK tour in November from Canterbury. Then back to the States in the New Year. There is an excellent new Soft Machine website at www.softmachine.org which includes a tour blog

Caravan

… have their own 50th anniversary mini-tour of the UK in November (maybe more dates will be added), mainly in the south of England. In fact you have a unique choice to see Caravan and Soft Machine on consecutive nights if you’re willing to travel the length of the country, the most insane combination being the Soft Machine in Kinross on 8 November, followed by Caravan in Herne Bay on the 9th, a mere 504.9 miles! You could then pop back up north to see Kavus Torabi DJing in Halifax on the 10th (see below)

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Caravan will continue their tour in the New Year, hopefully visiting Poland in January and Germany in May. Updated details on the official Caravan website at https://officialcaravan.co.uk/

Geoffrey Richardson is currently working on a new album for Cherry Red provisionally entitled Nethersole Farm’, Jan Schelhaas has a new album available via PledgeMusic entitled ‘Ghosts of Eden’ , and with the news that Pye Hastings has relocated back to Canterbury from Scotland, hopefully there is a real chance of collaborations with Geoffrey and the boys at some point in the future.

Gong

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After a series of UK festival gigs this summer, following visits to Finland & China, are currently creating material for a new album, the second from the Kavus Torabi-led line up that produced the brilliant ‘Rejoice I’m Dead’! They are also touring Japan and Canada in the autumn, augmented by Steve Hillage (a hint of this was given when I saw them at Beatherder performing, sans Hillage, part of ‘Fish Rising’). These gigs are in October and November respectively – details at https://www.gongband.com/shows/

The new album will hopefully be released in 2019, and be followed by gigs. One date already confirmed is at the Madhatters Music festival in Devon next May

In the meantime, individual Gong members all have solo projects, which I am hoping to write a feature on in a future blog.

Kavus Torabi embarked on a series of solo gigs last spring to back his mini-EP Solar Divination, featuring, perhaps surprisingly a new direction partly performed on harmonium. He also continues to do DJ sets with Steve Davis with an extensive series of dates detailed here: Kavus has a number of excellent albums available with his own separate band Knifeworld.

Fabio Golfetti, having recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of the seminal Violeta de Outono debut album and its follow-up Em Toda Parte with a remastered release of both on Voiceprint, continues to create new material with both Violeta and his own Invisible Opera Company of Tibet. He also has a project with his son Gabriel called Lux Aeterna which has an album’s worth of often excellent material

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Dave Sturt does the occasional gig with Gong violinist Graham Clark and has an excellent solo album ‘Dreams and Absurdities’ available here . He is also performing one gig (alongside Theo Travis) to celebrate Bill Nelson’s 70th birthday in Leeds on 1 December – details here:

Ian East has numerous non-Gong projects and an extremely innovative album entitled ‘Inner Paths’ available here

Dave Sinclair

Released his latest solo album, the crowd-funded ‘Out of Sinc’ earlier this year and maintains a website detailing forthcoming gigs, projects and his extensive back catalogue at  http://www.dave-sinclair.com/

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Richard Sinclair

Richard Sinclair is actively gigging over in Italy where he now resides – word is that he is potentially producing new material which may be released next year under the project title ‘Kent’. Some Italian gigs are listed on the Calyx gigs page:

Dave Stewart/Barbara Gaskin

As mentioned, the duo performed an extremely rare UK gig in London on to launch the release of their latest CD ‘Star Clocks’. A couple of Japanese gigs follow in October 20th & 21st 2018 – full details of both here:

Ultramarine

Ultramarine, who collaborated with Robert Wyatt (on ‘United Kingdoms’), Kevin Ayers (on ‘Hymn’) and assorted other luminaries such as Jimmy Hastings and Lol Coxhill, release their new album Signals Into Space on Les Disques du Crepuscule in November. After a lengthy hiatus, the duo have been recording again in the last few years, and this excellent sounding project breaks out of some of the minimalism of later projects to merge the ambient vibe of ‘Every Man’ with some of the jazzy feel of ‘Bel Air’. It also features ex-Bill Bruford’s Earthworks saxman Iain Ballamy. It’s amazing to think that it’s 25 years since ‘United Kingdoms’

Wizards of Twiddly

who backed Kevin Ayers for a couple of heady years in the 90s, but who remain probably my favourite ever live band, are taking the chance to celebrate their own 30th anniversary in their native Liverpool. Much more to come, but their annual December bash in Liverpool is on December 14th with the promise of further gigs in the New Year.  If you’ve never tuned into their madcap world, a good recent taster might be here https://vimeo.com/139203907

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Lapis Lazuli

After premiering material from their forthcoming album at Kozfest (reviewed here) the band went into Big Jelly Studios in Ramsgate, and spent 3 days recording the 6 new tracks that will make up the new album mixed by guitarist Neil Sullivan and produced by Al Harle.  As with most of their other recordings it’s predominantly live with additional overdubs. Release date hopefully in December followed by gigs. There are also several videos in the pipeline (for a flavour see here)  including the release of an improvised session from a few months ago.

Galen Ayers

Kevin’s daughter Galen now lives in the US and has recently released an album called Monument. She has also been seen recently in duo gigs with Bridget St John (who did a couple of memorable duets with Kevin in the early Seventies, notably ‘The Oyster and the Flying Fish). She hopes to bring the duo to Europe next year, funding permitting.

 

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Please let me know anything I’ve missed and I’ll do my best to update this post.

Phil Howitt, September 2018

Canterbury, Deià and Tomás Graves – a Mallorcan adventure

Any student of Gong and the Canterbury scene doesn’t have to delve far, when following the history of the genre, before stumbling on references to Mallorca, or specifically, Deià, a small village on its west coast. In my case the introduction to Daevid Allen’s  solo work was the 1977 album ‘Now Is The Happiest Time Of Your Life’, complete with flamenco intro, a track called ‘Deià Goddess’ and a drone named ‘I Am’, announced via a mule’s plaintive bray recorded outside Daevid’s then residence. It remains one of my favourite albums (see here).

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Back cover to 'Now Is The Happiest Time Of Your Life', Daevid Allen

Deià was not only the village where Daevid, Kevin Ayers and Lady June had houses at various points, but it was home for significant early sabbaticals for Robert Wyatt and Didier Malherbe in the Sixties, and the place Richard Sinclair headed for after the break up of his relationship and Hatfield and the North in August 1975, an episode chronicled in detail in an interview in Facelift Issue 10. Somewhat more recently Deià was also the place Ultramariners Paul Hammond and Ian Cooper gravitated towards in the early Nineties following the receipt of their advance for ‘United Kingdoms’ (an album on which they collaborated with Robert Wyatt and Jimmy Hastings), giving up their day jobs to do so. Once in the village they met Lady June and were directed to Kevin Ayers’ house, a meeting that led to their collaboration on the reworking of Ayers’ song ‘Hymn’.

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Postcards from Lady June, mid 1990s

Completely coincidentally, I have an indirect personal connection to Mallorca. My partner Georgina used to live on the island in the early Nineties and her daughter Rosana was born there. Soon after we met in 2005 both disappeared off to the island for the summer to stay with Rosana’s father, Miguel Angel, and I had the chance to go out too. A hire car enabled us to attempt a somewhat ham-fisted pilgrimage to Deià, where the intense heat drove us into a terraced café that would later host Kevin Ayers’ wake, followed by a quick stumble down what turned out to be the ‘Clot’, which housed both Allen’s and Ayers’ abodes, before ending up down at the Cala, a windswept and refreshingly undeveloped beach. Despite being largely unaware of these details at the time I vowed to return to explore properly, but the nearest I got to this was in 2016, when the onset of a serious illness scuppered the chance of visiting the island again on the day we were due to fly out.

In the meantime, the resurrection of my interest in writing about the Canterbury scene in 2016 coincided with me tracking down a book called ‘Tuning Up At Dawn’ by Tomás Graves. Tomás is the son of novelist Robert Graves, and like many of his siblings is also a writer, having published several books including Bread and Oil, regarded as an authoritative examination of Mallorcan and wider Mediterranean culinary traditions and cultural change. He is also, as we’ll see, a musician, as well as a publisher and printer. Prior to Tomás’ book, the main sources of information about the Canterbury/Deià connections were primarily Daevid Allen’s autobiographical ‘Gong Dreaming 1’ plus various newspaper/magazine articles (including some in Facelift). ‘Tuning Up At Dawn’ is a holistic assessment of musical history in Mallorca, but which includes as its first two chapters an account of the author’s early years growing up in an environment receptive to the influx of bohemian emigrees, and then more specifically examining those from the Canterbury axis. Without trying to spoil what should be an essential item on the bookshelf for all readers of this blog, there are nuggets in there about what the initial connection with Canterbury was, and a nickname for Robert Wyatt by which he was known to the Graves family during his first extended stay, alongside some of the more familiar accounts regarding the Daevid Allen’s original ‘seed vision’ which sparked the whole Gong mythology, and the story of Softs benefactor Wes Brunson, the original ‘Stoned Innocent Frankenstein’.

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By another coincidence it turned out that Tomás is a neighbour of my stepdaughter’s father Miguel Angel, and mutual friend of several of my partner’s old associates and friends from Palma nearly 30 years ago (including an artist called Eli Sanchez, who recalls being a dancer at a Kevin Ayers/Daevid Allen gig on the island as a 14 year old, at an event we dated as probably 1975). And so I set up tentative plans to meet Tomás should the opportunity arise once in Mallorca.

In our extremely humble abode, a barely converted shepherd’s hut, in blindingly close heat (our task was to look after an enthusiastic dog with a penchant for identifying our children’s sandals as surrogate dog toys – local shoe-selling market traders benefitted as a result) we spent happy days on the beaches at Cala Mondrago, Es Trenc and Cala d’es Mor, and baked-out evenings looking up at a vast, starlit sky, enjoying the first of the season’s shooting stars, listening to the music emanating from across the fields from Porreres, which was ‘in fiesta’, part of a competitive inter-town phenomenon which Tomás describes in his book.

Having acclimatised to what would be our surrounds for the next 10 days, we had another stab at discovering Deià. This was an hour’s worth drive up on the north west coast of the island, nestled within an imposing mountain range above the cove. Despite what appear to be some fairly major traffic-easing infrastructure upgrading, including a colossal tunnel north of Palma through the mountains to Soller, even I could tell that Mallorca was busier than 15 years or so, and one result of this was that on arriving in Deià, and just beyond la Casa de Robert Graves, now a tourist attraction, we found that the road to the Cala was subject to a police road block, apparently as the result of the new-found popularity of the restaurant which provides the portal to the beach on account of it being one of the locations for the recent massive TV hit ‘The Night Manager’.

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Georgina and myself, outside the Bananamoon Observatory, Deià

And so we parked up a little closer to the village, and, it being lunchtime, headed for a shaded spot to cool off. After an excellent lunch at Sa Font Fresca we wandered down the neighbouring ‘Clot’, the narrow lane which meanders towards the Cala, safe in the knowledge that Daevid Allen’s old residence, the second ‘Bananamoon Observatory’, would be the last house we’d find (just in case we were also armed with various identifying pictures of its glorious bouganvillea, courtesy of a post from Brian Abbott). Brian had also told us that Lady June had lived in the flats somewhere to the left – it was from C’An Renou that I’d received a whole host of postcards, tapes, artwork, her trademark calendars and entertaining correspondence at various points in the 90s. In amongst the odd café, the Deya Archaeological Museum and various quaint and characterful cottages, one of which sported a huge whalebone in its tiny garden, we would have also passed Kevin Ayers’ old house – something to check out next time, maybe.

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Looking beyond The Bananamoon Observatory, Deià to the church on the hill

From the ‘Observatory’, through the magnificent flora, it is just possible to see the church, occupying, as is almost always the case with Mallorcan ecclesiastical settlements, pride of place and imposing its image on all that it looks down upon. Here, we had been led to believe, was a graveyard where various luminaries were buried, although a quick Google search revealed that the local cemetery was in fact at neighbouring mountain village Valdemossa, casting temporary doubt as to whether we would definitely find what we were looking for. A tiny graveyard, almost an afterthought alongside a fairly substantial church, initially did not reveal what we were looking for, although I did muse as to whether the Biblioni family plot had any connection to guitarist Joan who performed the magnificent Flamenco Zero on the aforementioned Daevid Allen album.

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Kevin Ayers headstone, Deià churchyard

Then in a far corner, looking back on the village, we found a stone dedicated to Juan Graves, author and brother of Tomás, alongside that of their mother Beryl, Robert Graves’ second wife, and then down a short set of steps, a more ‘bohemian’ corner containing plaques for Kevin Ayers, his long-time guitarist Ollie Halsall and artist Mati Klarwein, amongst other colourful commemorations containing names I didn’t recognise. Others looking around the graveyard appeared also not to be there by accident. Ollie Halsall’s stone has two guitar dials attached to it, although one is currently missing, it would appear.

I’d contacted Tomás on our arrival in Mallorca, hoping to fix up a meeting – he’d suggested that we come along to his fortnightly gig at a restaurant in another central Mallorcan town, Campos, and have lunch together, towards the end of our stay, which was greatly looking forward to. Then, thanks some unwitting miscommunication from our part, we were cooling off back at base after a day out at the beach a few days after our Deià, and a car pulled up containing none other than Tomás Graves!

Tomás turns out to be an understated but extremely convivial man in his mid-Sixties (he is the youngest child of Robert Graves, fathered as the author approached a similar age). Born and bred in Mallorca (although some of his schooling was in the United Kingdom) he is passionate about Mallorcan tradition, food and culture in all its forms and a proponent of social justice more widely. It may have been the twinkle in his eye, but he reminded me slightly of satirist Peter Cook, albeit a somewhat leaner version… The impromptu visit was probably the best environment in which to speak to Tomás – he admitted the chapters in ‘Tuning Up At Dawn’ were very much anecdotal, rather than a posthumously researched chronology – as a young teenager in Deià when Robert Wyatt and then Daevid Allen arrived in the village the passages he writes in his chapter ‘The Road From Canterbury’ are the recall of someone who grew up with these exotic external influences as normality.

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In conversation with Tomás Graves, Porreres, Mallorca

Conversation developed organically, as likely to veer off into discussions of his mutual connections with my partner Georgina, or a general commentary on Mallorcan culture, as much as pandering to my own Canterbury trainspotting needs. But we did talk about Didier Malherbe – how he’d turned up on in the village on his motorbike having travelled from Paris. Tomás still has a Cine8 film of his brother (Juan) and Didier larking around by the sea which he later sent me a copy of.

We talked of him witnessing Didier teaching himself the flute perched on the horizontal bough of a carob tree and the development of the sheep hut in which he lived within the Graves’ land, and Tomás later accompanying Didier, Gilli Smyth and Orlando Allen on bass when they performed at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival as it briefly decamped to Deià in the mid-Noughties. Of Lady June and her tiny flat in Deià which consisted of barely two rooms, one of which was stuffed full of her artwork, but which nevertheless appeared to always be crammed to the rafters with party-goers. Of doing his O Level Media project (over in England) and being able to choose for his resources back in Deià no less than Daevid Allen himself and his huge stash of International Times; being sent the ‘Love Makes Sweet Music’ single in a brown paper wrapper decorated by Daevid’s handwriting and pre-Gong drawings of his Captain Capricorn figure.

We also talked of Richard Branson’s relationship with Deià and the island, and hotels changing ownership as much as a consequence of dissolving personal relationships (some involving musicians) as of business sense. Of his first hand experience of Mati Klarwein’s construction of his huge artwork masterpiece ‘Annunciation’ which was later shrunk to form the album cover for Santana’s ‘Abraxas’. We also talked about Tomás’ plans to film a documentary about Kevin Ayers, his life in Mallorca and related topics, currently thwarted because a. Spanish television companies approached do not regard the subject matter ‘Spanish’ enough and b. because of the exorbitant price of re-screening archive video clips demanded by the appropriate record companies with who copyright resides.

Tomás has a keen personal involvement with music on the island which informs his writing – and is best known for his longtime involvement (on bass) with the band Pa Amb Oli  (which provides most of the original Catalan title of his first book) but actually trained formally from the age of 7 with Bartolomé Calatayud, the Dean of classical guitar in Palma. He is a much called-upon guitarist for various projects: he cryptically mentioned that his band just recently been asked to provide backing band for what he called a ‘karaoke’ project for various visiting musicians, with a cast that has since been revealed to include Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream, Bob Geldof, Damon Albarn and Paul Simonon, on the occasion of the 50th birthday party of the latter’s wife – the deal was that Tomás and co would choose the songs and the guest musicians would provide the vocals.

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Tomás con Gas: Steve Lambert, Gus Pollard, Tomás Graves - Ca'n Serraller, Campos

The gig we eventually saw on Saturday was an extension of his Tomás Con Gas duo with singer Gus Pollard, now augmented by guitarist Steve Lambert. Gus and Steve have personal connections to Daevid Allen and Kevin Ayers respectively which I won’t go into here. Under more baking sun, and accompanied by the best food on the island, the threesome worked through 3 sets of approaching an hour each, encompassing an eclectic and comprehensive mix of folk and blues covers from Little Feat to John Martyn via Curtis Mayfield, a meticulously arranged and performed set, featuring a wonderful voice (Gus), some fine picking (Steve) and accompanying guitar and harmony vocals from a very assured Tomás. A joy to behold as the musicians sang for their dinner and more.

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Gus Pollard, Tomás Graves 

This was almost the perfect way to finish our holiday before we left the next morning: a fantastic meal set against a most agreeable musical backdrop, and further vignettes of Mallorcan life shared as the day wore on. And more than a hint that this might not be the end of the story…

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Kozfest 2018

If the only certainties in life are death and taxes, then the only givens at a Kozfest appear to be that a. that at some point you’ll hear ‘The Glorious Om Riff’ being performed on site and b. you’re likely to get passed every few minutes or so by someone wearing a ‘Camembert Electrique’ T-shirt.

As a veteran now of the last three Kozfests  I’d like to add a couple more: c. you’re likely to see Mike Howlett and Graham Clark popping up in guest capacity with numerous bands; and d. you’re going to get covered in orange clay dust following a torrential downpour.

Precisely what Kozfest – A Psychedelic Dream Festival is to you depends on your own personal take: despite the festival capacity being a relatively tiny 500 it takes on many forms. For many it’s a grungy post-Hawkwind vibe, with low-slung basses and leather-clad outfits; for others it’s a chance to fraternise with other grizzled survivors of the free festie movement. You can add into the mix in 2018 a new element: a doomy psych feel  as demonstrated by Saturday headliners, the Cosmic Dead, all flailing hair, dark clothing and unrelenting barrage of noise with few chinks of light permitted.

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The Cosmic Dead

For me, this time around, the Kozfest experience was partly about mingling – the more you go to Kozfest the more connections you appear to make. My 9 year old son came away with a more rounded musical education than me, and I’ll unashamedly admit that in between having a bloody good chat with familiar faces such as Jonny from GAS and Shankara Andy Bole, and making some lovely new connections with Gong violinist Graham Clark and Invisible Opera Company of Tibet luminary Brian Abbott, that my own musical landscape was dominated by those numerous Gong connections which have always drawn me to the festival. I’ve described Kozfest’s unique winning formula in terms of its setup and scheduling when reviewing previous editions, so please refer to them for a fuller flavour than what is written here.

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The author, Graham Clark, Brian Abbott

I’m afraid to say that in amongst my own general mayhem I missed out on seeing previously loved Kozfavourites Deltanaut and Beastfish (whose keyboard player and good friend Mick West, died earlier this year), and caught only snippets of the splendid Deviant Amps, old punky faves Back to the Planet, the folky festival uplift of Flutatious and the band of star bass player Tom Ashurst (he of last years Ozric pop up band, but this year reinvented as a startling guitar soloist with UBOA). I only heard what sounded like a splendid Mugstar performance through the trees from my tent in the Friday headline slot and had left camp complete with soggy gear before Kangaroo Moon and Ed Ozric’s Noden’s Ictus headlined on Sunday night, but for what I did see, well here goes…

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I’d been most excited by the appearance of Canterbury’s scandalously hidden secret Lapis Lazuli, and I was not to be disappointed. I don’t know if by Sunday evening Kozmic Ken was still of the opinion, expressed after their set on Friday, that they’d been the best band of the festival, but I certainly was. This extraordinary quartet of musicians had the confidence to perform an hour’s worth of entirely new material, and they were certainly like nothing else on the bill. Kozfest prides itself on its ostentatious display of the full gamut of psychedelia: be it spacey drones, bubbling keyboards, or driving rhythms interspersed with guitar heroics. But Lapis Lazuli peddle something rather different, and I go back to drummer Adam Brodigan’s take on psychedelia aired at the Canterbury Sound day last October: to bombard the listener with so many ideas, changes and effects that the listener is transported somewhere else entirely during the course of their set.

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Lapis Lazuli

Generally Lapis tracks clock in at around 20 minutes, although there are so many twists and turns that they might get through 10 distinct themes in that time. In fact, for what will be their first album without saxophonist Phil Holmes, they managed to race through a good 8 or 9 different tracks,  but unlike their performance in Canterbury, where they replaced Holmes’ lines with midi’d effects, mainly through the guitar, here the overall sound was more of a guitar power-quartet, tuning into a myriad of styles, the most prominent of which is funk. It’s also a band that appears almost without ego: four very gifted musicians pulling together consummately in weaving their way through a mesmeric, tightly written series of compositions.

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Neil Sullivan, Lapis Lazuli

At times the gear shifts are so complex that one can only laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all. A nominal front man might well be Luke Mennis, by far the youngest of the quartet – the Lapis may get through their fair share of bass players, but they are all ridiculously talented: Mennis adds a certain visual presence through an engaging hyperactivity. If I can’t quite describe Lapis Lazuli’s music then that’s in one part testament to their own bloody-mindedness in defying categorisation and in another proof that Brodigan’s vision is being achieved: you are spat out at the end of a set not entirely sure what’s happened, except that an awful lot has. I can’t quite believe this band were off my radar until less than a year ago – each of their 4 albums to date has been stunning, and No 5 sounds like it will be maintaining their own exemplary standards.

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Lapis Lazuli

On arriving on site on Thursday night, we’d headed up to the festival’s main drag, not expecting to witness anything in particular (the music doesn’t start until midday on Friday) but ended up not just watching an old Jimi Hendrix concert on screen  in the tiny Wallys Tent (more of which later) but also talking to various luminaries in the GAS tent. One, I realised later was none other than Basil Brooks formerly of Zorch – it turned out that he was due to play on Saturday in a band calling themselves Yamma – this had the stellar line-up of Cary Grace (American singer and synth player who has appeared in various guises in the last few Kozfests, notably in 2016 with Steffe Sharpsrings on guitar), Brooks, Graham Clark (on guitar) and Mike Howlett. An impromptu supergroup if ever there was one.

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The Yamma effect!

A mid-afternoon set saw the crowd in Judge Trev’s tent in chilled out mode and the sounds initially reflected this: building layers of keyboards, effects, the WX7 of Brooks (an instrument I think I’d last seen Didier Malherbe play in the 90s) and subtle guitar themes under Howlett’s hypnotic bass lines. This moved on in the last third or so of the gig to a memorable blues based piece which brought out the best in Cary Grace’s vocals, with some superb inflections, as well as some outstanding touches from Clark’s guitar – this was high class work and I was surprised to hear later that this quartet was a pop-up band working their way through material together for the first time ever, all in an live environment too.

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Cary Grace, Yamma

The rest of Saturday drifted past, kids were put to bed, and just before midnight I found myself wandering back up to the site hoping to catch Shankara Andy Bole’s interpretation of ‘Nosferatu’, something he’d performed last year, but which I’d missed. This was staged in the aforementioned ‘Wallys Tent’, capacity around 20, most of whom were horizontal. Thanks to gremlins the actual film never cranked up, despite various scurrying about by others off-stage, leaving Andy and right hand man Brian Abbott to perform an hour-long continuous piece based on triggered loops from the Bole guitar, with additional themes and treatments.   Andy Bole has an extensive back catalogue of material, most of which I am not (yet) familiar with, but what I can tell you is that he crafts universally beautiful music with a glorious sense of space and imperceptible changes in direction. He is also renowned as a bouzouki player and whilst I don’t think this made an appearance during the set various nods to its tuning were exercised. I haven’t ever watched Nosferatu, but am passingly familiar with the story: what was surprising was that the music was uplifting rather than doomy or terrifying – the duo admitted later that they’d gone off on a completely different tack than intended: whether this was as a result of the lack of visuals wasn’t clear. Whichever way, the result was sublime, and alongside the Lapis Lazuli gig a clear highlight of my Kozfest 2018.

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A ripple of anticipation went around the Planet Gong and Kozfest Facebook groups when the line-up for Sunday’s Judge Trev tent went live, showcasing as it did a whole host of Gong-related acts: The Glissando Guitar Orchestra, Sacred Geometry Banned, Magick Brothers, Invisible Opera Company of Tibet and Kangaroo Moon, punctuated by the Gong-ish Sendelica and the more folky Flutatious in mid-afternoon. I missed the first two bands: the Glissando Guitar Orchestra, based around the Seven Drones recorded by Daevid Allen are the perfect Sunday morning tonic after a hard Saturday night’s partying and were quite a spectacle when I saw them in 2016. I’m still not entirely sure about the make-up of the Sacred Geometry Banned who I’ve managed to miss every time at Kozfest (we were packing up our tent at the time), but based on the excellent quartet of Sacred Geometry albums going under the banner of Microcosmic, the band presumably also set out a spacey template for their audience to chill out to. When we finally arrived on site, it was in time to see the wonderful Magick Brothers, sadly reduced to a duo since the death of Daevid Allen but today augmented by various guests.

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Magick Brother Graham Clark

Magick was indeed the word to describe my first live viewing of ‘Why Do We Treat Ourselves Like We Do’, the opener from my favourite Allen solo album ‘Now Is The Happiest Time Of Your Life’, superbly sung here by Mark Robson over his own piano accompaniment. Other superb renditions followed of Robson’s interpretation of ‘Wayland Smithy’ the perfect vehicle for both his penny whistle, probably his finest suit, and Graham Clark’s virtuoso violin. Other tracks included ‘Herbaceous Border’, plus a fiery version of the road protest song which I recognised but can’t at this minute put a name to, complete with apology from Robson for ruining the peaceful Sunday afternoon vibe, and, blessed be, ‘Wise Man In Your Heart’ replete with its trademark bassline performed by the bass player from the original version on ‘Good Morning’, Mike Howlett. Brian Abbott also appeared on guest guitar for the Brothers – of the many gigs I’ve seen by this band, this performance was my favourite…

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Mike Howlett guesting with the Magick Brothers

And so, finally (for me), the Invisible Opera Company of Tibet. If the Magick Brothers carry forward the Allen acoustic vibe, then the Invisibles rock it up. I didn’t see the full set as we were in a queue for food and listening from a distance, but the way my son shot off into the tent told me that the Om Riff was getting its final incarnation of the weekend as the Invisibles joyously rumbled through ‘Master Builder’ with an extended line-up including Andy Bole, Mike Howlett and Graham Clark. I think by this point they’d already performed ‘You Can’t Kill Me’ but thankfully I was witness to a triumphant finale, a rousing version of ‘We Circle Around’ and finally, courtesy of a manic cameo from Tim Hawthorn on vocals, ‘Bad Self’ from the ‘Jewel in the Lotus’ release. A great finale to our festival as we said our goodbyes, admired the sunset and watched others doing the same, then rather misguidedly hit the road before Kangaroo Moon in order to ‘miss the traffic’ on our way back up north. Two hours surveying the centre of Stafford in all its minutae at 2 in the morning allowed to reflect at our leisure as to quite what a poor decision that had been….

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All photo credits Anne Roberts & Georgina Filby

 

 

Gong at Beatherder Festival, Friday the 13th of July

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A couple of years ago, whilst teaching in a secondary school in North Yorkshire, I was struggling a bit to convince a group of disengaged 15 year olds that IT and Computing might be where it was at in terms of their education. In a brief moment of clarity, I devised a task to create a website for a fictitious music festival of their choice. The students decided this would be based loosely around the Beatherder festival, located a few miles down the road over the border in Lancashire. Beatherder had been on my radar several times over the last decade, mostly through my stepdaughter Rosana (below), who’d graduated from being a punter there in her teenage years, on to an inspired but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to win a photo competition for tickets (by posing on the local rock outcrop the Hawkstones sat on a toilet which had been inexplicably concreted to said rocks 350 metres above sea level a few decades back), to this year helping to launch the festival on the main stage as a member of bonkers and monstrously loud 30-strong percussive Hebden Bridge outfit Drum Machine.

phil rose drum machine.jpgFor me, I’d tended to avoid Beatherder like the plague, precisely because it appeared to be something of a coming of age festival for younger residents of most of the neighbouring Northern mill-towns, all of which seemed to empty of youth over the relevant weekend. And also because of the very real prospect of bumping into students whilst we were collectively letting our hair down, so to speak.

So, how did I find myself at Beatherder 2018, you might ask? The simple answer is courtesy of Gong, who somewhat late in the day were announced as headliners for the ‘Perfumed Garden’ stage, a relative oasis within the general melee of the festival at large. Beatherder is well named, a systematic rounding up of likely types with a mission to pummel them into submission through various degrees of dance-based electronica (if various other excesses didn’t get to them first). In amongst 10 or so stages of varying ferocity (the ‘Fortress’ and the ‘Factory’ looked particularly scary), it was rare to catch anything resembling what might class as conventional instrumentation in amongst the knob-twiddlers and DJs. Or at least that was the case beyond the main stage, which (and I’m showing my age here) was also the only stage to display billings which meant anything to me – with Morcheeba, Orbital (who looked to be a class above most other things at the festival), and, ahem, S Club 3 all appearing. In addition, during the course of making an arrangement for Saturday, I’m fairly sure I uttered a phrase I have never said before in my life (nor am likely to ever again), namely “I’ll see you at Boney M”.

For all the said ferocity of the music, the general vibe was pretty convivial, if a little full-on – I’d been expecting plenty of lairyness, but given that it was impossible to wind down any time before dawn due to the ongoing onslaught of beats, I was up and about long enough presumably to get a bona fide warts-and-all impression. What was definitely the case was that at a particular point on Friday evening, in the run up to midnight, a certain ‘type’ of punter started drifting towards the Perfumed Garden. Whether they were aficionados, Gong-curious, or purely accidental tourists, this domed tent, with its own chill-out café room adjoined,  filled up rapidly, increasing tenfold from the previous act, a rather excellent  and questioning funk-based outfit called Barry Gammon and the Midday Incident.

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A brief chat with a few of the band members prior to the event revealed that the band had only left London in the early afternoon, been held up inevitably on our creaking motorway system and had just enough time to soundcheck and down some snap before their witching hour appearance. Launching into ‘You Can’t Kill Me’ and following up with ‘Kapital’, there was no better evidence that they now seamlessly switch between the new and the old, sequencing tracks composed 45 years apart with  gusto, spike and menace, Kavus Torabi tossing his wild hair and flashing his eyes around the tent to welcome all and sundry to the fold. The 2016 album ‘Rejoice, I’m Dead’ has now been around for long enough to allow a sober assessment of its merits beyond any initial euphoria about a new Gong release, and in my opinion still represents arguably the band’s finest moment since the Trilogy era – only ‘Zero to Infinity’ comes close. That was reflected tonight in a set list that contained 3 tracks from it, (plus ‘Eternal Wheel’, Fabio Golfetti’s contribution to ‘I See You’, the album this line-up made their collective debut on with Daevid Allen. )

By accident or otherwise (Gong’s normal sound guy was absent tonight, as was their mindboggling light show), the ‘in-house’ sound tonight was VERY beat-heavy, allowing Dave Sturt’s bass to thunder as never before, whilst Cheb Nettles’ polyrhythmic drumming also enjoyed a sharp focus. Ian East’s sax also cut through the dense mix at times, but the uninitiated might not have realised what guitar heroics they were missing, particularly on ‘Rejoice!’, not only on the stupendous double guitar solo which for me was the highlight of the last album, but also in the introductory call-and-response section with sax which was reduced in the sound mix to only half its normal impact.

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But these anomalies were only probably (train)spotted by us purists – this band have a unique ability to transcend pretty much anything around them with their renditions of two Gong classics, ‘Master Builder’ and ‘Selene’. The former is currently enjoying arguably its best incarnation, with an extended and evocative crescendo, buoyed by Torabi’s alternatively subtle inflections and crashing chords on guitar, even before the band reach the ‘IAO’ chant in 5-part harmony. ‘Selene’ was simply mesmerising, also elongated and appropriated for this band’s dronish version – this one really did take me somewhere else entirely… And, most unexpectedly, the band performed a quite stunning version of the riff from the first track on Steve Hillage’s ‘Fish Rising’ – Fabio Golfetti later revealed that this had been chosen because it had previously been on the Gong set list not long before Daevid Allen imploded the ‘You’ line-up in the mid-Seventies.

The band finished with ‘Insert Your Own Prophecy Here’, fast developing into an anthem for this particular band. This is a far from flawless composition but it has some truly memorable moments, firstly where the guitars of Torabi and Golfetti alternate chords in a striking passage, then gloriously when drummer Cheb Nettles adds his falsetto scat singing to the final theme. Whilst the crowd had thinned a little towards the end of their 90 minute set, festival crowds being more transient than your regular gig crowds, the band were fabulously received, as they fully deserved (although I was asked during ‘Selene’ by one audience member if the band really were singing about sardines (!), whilst another punter never really quite got over Steve Davis being in the audience, making something of a show of himself in the process – the punter that is).

Chatting to the band afterwards, it was revealed that there are some very welcome developments – whilst there has been no major tour this year, the band have played at a choice selection of festivals far and wide: most notably in Finland and China. There are a couple of UK festival dates to come in Cheltenham and Kent, before tours in Japan and Canada later in the year with Steve Hillage on board`. Even more excitingly, the band are currently writing new material, to be recorded as an album in November, hopefully to come out in 2019 (with gigs to follow?). Part of a new vocal line had been sneakily tried out during ‘Prophecy’, Ian East later revealed.

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Whilst the bulk of the band hit the road back down to London in the wee small hours, Kavus Torabi stayed on with Steve Davis to perform one of their eclectic DJ sets 24 hours later on site, by which time I’d long since retreated back to home comforts. But not before accidentally bumping into one of those scholars mentioned at the top of this review during a relatively benign drum and bass gig on the main stage. He looked at me in sheer consternation, jaw dropping to the floor, as he blurted out “What are you doing here, sir”, before scuttling off, perplexed, into the safety of the masses… Proof that education does occasionally have its place…

20 albums that changed your life – Part 3

Between 1985 and 1989 I lived in Victoria Park/Longsight in Manchester, within half a mile of two major alternative gigging venues, the International and the International 2. Over those years I saw a number of my heroes, including Peter Hammill, Robert Fripp, Gong Maison, Here and Now, Ozric Tentacles and Loose Tubes, the amazing 20-strong young turk British jazz big band, three of were playing with Bill Bruford. In the very early days I was also lucky enough to see many local bands there for nowt thanks to an enlightened policy to allow up and coming bands to showcase there on a Monday night. A mile in the other direction was the University of Manchester Students’ Union which had 2 (later 3) venues and simultaneously at weekends put on a variety of gigs. I remember one particular season where a series of bands went out for £1.50 a go, including then indie-darlings The Primitives as well as the more grebo-oriented Pop will Eat Itself and Gaye Bykers on Acid, which did little for me but were as close to my own more psychedelic tastes as it appeared to get. My tastes were still narrow enough to be at many gigs mainly as a result of mates’ interests rather than my own (and that extended to many a good night at the Boardwalk, an embryonic indie venue just off Deansgate). The Band on the Wall, where I frequently went to sparsely attended jazz gigs on a Thursday night, usually bringing down the average age by 30 years, was much more my musical cup of tea.

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Anyway, once more in the company of housemate Joe, I remember attending a ‘Christmas Ball’ at the University, no doubt in the company of a largely comatose beer-swilling audience, and being unexpectedly poleaxed by a Scottish band neither of us had previously heard of. Intermittently illuminated by a fierce strobe light show, this crew-cutted, polo-necked quartet, all monochromatically dressed (although I can’t remember whether it was in black or white) chugged out a buzz-sawed, reverb-heavy sound entirely irecoil.pngn keeping with the bewildering light show behind them; the aural assault softened by the beautiful harmonies of the two lead men Derek Mackenzie and Colin Angus. This was The Shamen, playing material from ‘Drop’, and was finally the psychedelic music I’d been waiting to hear live. Joe was similarly blown away – around this time he had started or was thinking of starting his fanzine ‘Recoil with fellow housemate Gav.

The Shamen were filed away as people he wanted to interview, and whether by design or otherwise, the next time the Shamen came to town, they ended up staying en masse in our grungy 7-bed house (there was no living room), finding space on the floor around the drum kit at the end of Joe’s bed. By this time Derek had left the band, leaving brother Keith on drums, Pete Stephenson on keyboards and  Angus, with  Will Sinnott having joined on bass. The Shamen were also by this time starting to experiment with house rhythms through existing instrumentation, and through their regular visits to Manchester over the next few years, we got to experience their controversial video backdrops, their music which was slowly morphing into electronica, their altering consciousnesses, and changing line-ups as all original members bar Angus dropped off. I’d moved out by the time the band had started to get popular acclaim with ‘Move Any Mountain’ and later ‘Ebenezer Goode’ and looking back at the stuff which followed ‘Drop’, it sounds very much caught between two stools, but being in the thick of it at the time was so exciting. ‘Drop’, meanwhile, is a much more consistent album, classic psychedelic pop with two fine voices and some superb songs, amongst them ‘Strange Days Dream’, and the anti-Falklands war anthem ‘Happy Days’ – I return to it often.

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Between 1990 and 1993 I worked full time at a free Manchester entertainments newspaper, Up Town, which was lucky enough to be in circulation right through the ‘Madchester’ phenomenon and was underpinned by dubious ethics in terms of in-house professionalism whilst providing an outlet for a whole army of volunteer writers and photographers. My job here wasn’t actually as a journalist, and in any case the music covered was more likely to be the Stone Roses (whose first ever interview appeared in the newspaper) and Happy Mondays but thanks to one particularly progressive editor, I managed to squeeze in interviews with Dagmar Krause, Peter Hammill, Courtney Pine … and the Wizards of Twiddly. The latter were a ubiquitous presence in Manchester and Liverpool at the time, their daft name and gaudy graffiti-like posters arousing mine and others cuwizards tshirt.jpgriosity, accentuated by the appearance of a demo cassette ‘Kitchen Sounds’ at the Up Town office. And that was all it took to be totally sold on the band – ‘Independent Legs’, followed (I still have the T-shirt – in fact I wore it whilst cycling the length of the country a few years back) and I saw them all over the show for the next 10 years – PJ Bells in Manchester was a regular haunt (although I have no recollection of the gig interrupted by the Fire Service described here), The Witchwood in Ashton, St Helen’s Citadel, Glastonbury, Sefton Park, then later a triumphant tour and series of gigs with Kevin Ayers where they did an hour of their own unfathomable material before backing Kevin for an hour of his. As for their music, well it was once described as “jazzy TV themes gone haywire, loon tunes about vegetables, yobboik punk numbers, outrageous guitar heroics and the most blissful sixties-drenched pop.” and I couldn’t have put it better myself… My favourite ever live band.

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Having shown a bit of interest in the Wizards and raved about them also in Facelift, I became unwittingly (and welcomingly) a repository for similarly off-the-wall music – I somehow got on the mailing list for the wonderful psychedelic label Delerium (which introduced me to the music of Porcupine Tree, Dead Flowers and Electric Orange), but also received cassettes from the likes of the Great Imperial Yoyo (‘Blink’ is a Camembert Electriquesque masterpiece), psychedelic dance pioneers Time Shard … and Kava Kava. I can’t remember the name of Kava Kava’s first cassette and no amount of Google searching will locate it. I did have a later CD version of it which was inside a car which got stolen a couple of years back (and I’m particularly gutted about that). All I can tell you is that it was unpronounceable and was subtitled ‘The Cosmic Wobble’ which is why there is a picture of their even more startling ‘You Can Live Here’ album here. In fact their last full album ‘Maui’ is probably their masterpiece. The band were a fearsome blend of initially messy guitar, hyperactive drumming, Pat Fulgoni’s unsurpassable blues voice (he later became a go to guy for drum and bass vocal samples), and killer funk rhythms which gradually got tighter as the band evolved. Quite why ‘Maui’ wasn’t an intergalactic success I’ll never know. I frequently scan gig listings (as I do with the Wizards) just in case they decide to reform – if they do I’ll be there..

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For 5 years in the early Nineties I lived in another house share in Chorlton, Manchester with some of the same crew who’d lived in the bombsite we’d hosted the Shamen at towards the end of the 80s. Facelift was going from strength to strength, as was Recoil, and disparate sounds continued to permeate between the various rooms in the house. One such which grabbed me was that of The Guitar and Other Machines, introducing me to the work of the Durutti Column. The Duruttis (ostensibly a duo of guitarist Vini Reilly and drummer Bruce Mitchell) were the unlikely darlings of Factory head honcho Tony Wilson, unlikely in that they were so completely out of kilter with all other Factory acts, or indeed the entire Manchester music scene. Whilst Reilly’s gaunt appearance and well-publicised drawling, tuneless vocals might have have had some common ground with it, the music emanating from his guitar (and keyboards) was (and remained) something of such breathtaking beauty that every subsequent album became a ‘must buy’ whilst the prior catalogue was tracked down in haste. Reilly’s gift is as the purveyor of soaring, semi-classical works of religious intensity – ‘The Guitar’ is listed here because it’s the first album I came across, and like all other albums is a mixture of inspiration and flaws, but it is rather good, with the duo of tracks: ‘Bordeaux Sequence’ and ‘English Landscape Tradition’ amongst the most well-spent 10 minutes you’ll ever experience. I’ve been lucky to witness the Durutti Column in a selection of memorable Manchester locations: the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester Cathedral, and even in the splendid Whitworth Hall with the rays of sunset pouring gloriously into the venue, exorcising memories of some disastrous final year university exams in the same room a few years previously!

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From a different time, genre and source comes Fred Frith’s ‘Gravity. At Facelift in the early 90s I was being sent not only lots of old newspaper cliippings which ended up as the Facelift ‘archive’, and tapes and CDs to review, but also, courtesy of like-minded and altruistic readers, various bits of music to intended to further my own musical education. If you follow the path through my own musical tastes, I had graduated from heavy metal to progressive rock, to experimental music, to jazz crossover – always wanting to go a stage further. I’d sort of reached a dead end with freely improvised jazz, whilst taking the step from Soft Machine to Henry Cow didn’t completely grab me. But somewhere in the middle was the tape sent to me of ‘Gravity’. Fred Frith’s unique guitar style, matched to some semblance of accessibility was embellished by a nod to European folk traditions, whether faux or otherwise. ‘Gravity’ is a standout masterpiece of extended instrumentation with a perverse twist on folk sounds, backed by a whole host of Rock in Opposition musicians including the Muffins and Samla Mammas Manna. The album opened my ears enough to check out a whole genre of RIO work, not least Frith’s involvement with the superb Art Bears trio (with fellow Cow-ers Dagmar and Chris Cutler), and the utterly bonkers Skeleton Crew with Tom Cora playing wonderful grating cello alongside a host of homemade instruments. This education continued with the likes of Nimal, Curlew, Samla, and more recently Iva  Bittova, which I’m sure was entirely the intention of the enlightened soul who sent me the cassette, whose identity I have unfortunately forgotten!

 

20 albums that changed your life – Part 2

 

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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

3 albums

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.

tantric obstacles

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.