A tribute to Mick West 1/4/1968-31/3/2018

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It speaks volumes of the man and his impact on music in Hebden Bridge that I heard Mick West (aka Michael Linden West) far before I ever saw him or got to know him. In the summer of 1999, having just moved to the Nutclough, I started to hear the most marvellous live music performed from an adjacent house’s cellar. Lengthy, spiky Balkan instrumentals, played at breakneck speed by a cast of many with audibly consummate musicianship – I never got to hear them play in the flesh, nor get their name, but it didn’t surprise me to find out later that they were one of the many outfits Mick was playing with. Mick must have been involved in scores of bands over the years but most of the onesI got to hear him with seemed to have slightly bonkers names: Beastfish, Abrasive Pheasantsthe Electric Brains – all suggesting punk sensibilities to go with his effortless command of a range of instruments and styles.

I got to know Mick at the weekly Open Mic Nights at the Stubbings in the mid-2000s , a glowering, moody presence (or at least that’s how he liked to portray himself), who combined an off-the-wall choice of songs with superb delivery and a wicked sense of humour. I discovered that in amongst his encyclopaedic musical interests we both had a compulsive obsession for all things to do with the Canterbury music scene, Gong and Van der Graaf Generator. So much so, that although we never exchanged many words at the time, on more than one occasion I’d be completely disarmed by a track he plucked out of nowhere to perform, which would have meant little to anyone present except me. On one occasion it was Daevid Allen’s ‘I Am A Freud’ (original here), a satire on psychiatry, transposed from its original fairground organ to Mick’s acoustic guitar and containing the memorable line ‘It’s rather naughty to be forty and still not sold’; the other Peter Hammill’s ‘Time For A Change’, (original here) where Mick’s falsetto acted out the role of a headmaster asking a little boy what he wanted to be when he ‘grew up’. I can still remember the shivers going down my spine.

 

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Beastfish, 2017 – Mick West is far right

Mick performed at mine and Georgina’s engagement do in 2006 – making light of a haphazardly arranged musical evening to croon away over a dodgy PA with his usual blend of soulful singing and crazed tunes, with his trademark cover of ‘Poisoning the Pigeons in the Park’ taking centrestage. Returning to the tapes of these earlier this week, I realised he’d also performed equally inappropriate material including the theme tune to Prisoner Cell Block H, plus another Tom Lehrer tune extolling the perils of marriage! They brought the house down… He later performed a duet (on violin) with old friend and collaborator Paul Weatherhead. In what seems now doubly poignant, another performer that night was Josh Phillips, a good friend of Mick (they recorded music together as the Tropes), who tragically died, also way too young, a couple of weeks later.

Lots of things make me smile when I think about Mick – Saz’s ‘glam’ party on the Nutclough in 2005 when half of the Hebden menfolk turned up in drag – I have an indelible memory of Mick fast asleep in a chair in the early hours, his ‘skirt’ ridden up around his knees. Or when he recounted the tale of confiding to a fellow Hebdenite about being worried that he displayed many of traits of Asperger’s syndrome, only to be approached the next week by a friend concerned that he’d been given an Asbo, the Hebden rumourmill having gone into overdrive. His self-appointed ‘office’ at Marcos cafe where he’d enjoy a morning (or afternoon) coffee. Or at the height of the Happy Slapping fad – when tagged by a few strangers in Hebden, Mick, being blissfully unaware of the meme, had taken it at face value and slapped back even harder!

photo 2017 by Pam West

mick west beastfish hpinkMick was an understated musical genius – there will be many musical projects I simply didn’t hear about from his many years as a performer – I saw him mostly as keyboard player with the Electric Brains, performing in a variety of guises with the Ukrainians  (for whom he is credited with playing mandolin, guitar, piano, trumpet, duda, oud, cello and euphonium!) and heard more recently that he’d worked with Damo Suzuki from Can, and allegedly turned down a job as bassist with New Model Army. When I did finally did get to see him again it was with the wonderful Beastfish at Kozfest down in Devon, reviewed here. In fact he was due to play with them again over Easter in Glastonbury. He was so versatile and creative.

I didn’t get to know Mick as much as I’d have liked to – other people I know had that real privilege. There were always plans to swap more tapes, books, and go to gigs together that due to my own disorganisation didn’t materialise. But we’d chatted recently and were equally excited about him playing at Kozfest again this year. He had a clever, sardonic wit that showed not just in conversation or when performing but also in his postings on a variety of forums and social media outlets under a series of pseudonyms – showing a wry, generous, self-deprecating humour that was very much the antithesis of today’s keyboard warrior. As has been said elsewhere, you’d struggle to find anyone with a bad word to say about him. Mick, you will be missed in so many ways…

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Mick in Abrasive Pheasant mode

posted by Phil Howitt, April 2018

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‘L’École de Canterbury’ by Aymeric Leroy – a review by Marc Hadley

Note from Phil Howitt: One of the reasons that the Facelift blog has gone a bit quiet since Christmas is that I’ve been in the privileged position of helping to fine-tune the translation of Aymeric Leroy’s definitive Canterbury scene history ‘L’école de Canterbury’. This magnificent 700-page plus book has been out in French since 2016 – there are advanced plans now to publish an English language version in the not too distant future.

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In the meantime, I’ve had some really nice correspondence with Marc Hadley, who offers his own lengthy thoughts on the French version of the book below. Marc will be familiar to many blog readers as one of the last musicians to work with Phil Miller (with the Relatives) but is also an esteemed ethnomusicologist!

Marc would welcome feedback (via the blog) on his review, the book and the themes discussed in both.

All images reproduced here are taken from ‘L’école de Canterbury’ with kind permission

‘L’école de Canterbury’ is currently available to buy here

 

 


L’École de Canterbury -Aymeric Leroy  -Review by Marc Hadley

 

Clarification: the review text is the French edition, but the author plans to publish an English version soon. I might anticipate that the English edition emerges with revisions and tweaks.

This eagerly-awaited book- the first all-embracing account of what some people call “The Canterbury Scene”- is highly ambitious in its scope. Most works of this type focus on a single band or artist, and document or comment on their career trajectory and legacy. “L’École de Canterbury” presents the history of an entire subset of English 1960’s/70’s “Art Music” and follows a “musical tree” from its roots (Daevid Allen, Robert Wyatt, The Wilde Flowers) and original trunk (the prototype Soft Machine manifested by Allen, Wyatt, Ayers and Ratledge) to its evolving system of stems, branches and interweaving twigs and leaves. It’s a weighty volume and represents the culmination of years of research; a secure work of history founded on authentic and cite-able sources; and can credibly claim to be a work of Musicology into the bargain.

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Robert Wyatt

Aymeric Leroy’s oeuvre is subtly provocative from the title and the jacket artwork onward. He has chosen to define the entity known as “The Canterbury Scene” by using the word “School”, as in a ‘school of thought’, a creative cluster such as The Bloomsbury Group and The Pre-Raphaelites. Historically, it has been quite normal within Musicology to highlight certain traditions or sub-traditions in places or times where key individuals formed a creative hub whose influence then spread and evolved via its disciples. However, Leroy is possibly the first author to assert such a status for the music and musicians who have until now been informally categorised as “The Canterbury Scene.” Some of those involved in it have denied there actually was a “scene” at all. Other music ‘consumers’ and critics have commented that the ‘Canterbury’ label is arbitrary and lazy (coined by the Music press) as the geographical connection of the principal actors to the Cathedral City is marginal, and the notion of a clear stylistic musical kinship between bands like Caravan, Gong and Soft Machine is impossible to sustain.

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The controversy is sustained by the book’s jacket artwork: a panel of four album covers. Leroy is running a set of flags up the pole atop his castle keep. He asserts a catalogue of works that constitute the artistic cannon of Canterbury (a subject over which debate still rages on Canterburian internet chat forums.) Furthermore, the selection implies that Soft Machine’s “Volume Two”, Caravan’s “if I could do it all over again”, Hatfield & The North’s “Rotter’s Club” and Robert Wyatt’s “Rock Bottom” are the School’s finest achievements.

 

I happen to largely agree with Leroy’s aesthetic choices; and I agree that all the material (personal biographies, interviews, commentaries, critiques, studio and radio broadcasts, song lyrics) and the legacy of songs and pieces that withstand the test of time generally supports his thesis that there exists this distinct musical School at work in the UK’s “counterculture” between 1960-82. Furthermore, some individuals and time periods within the development of The School were particularly significant. We learn that places like Cambridge, France, The Netherlands, Hertfordshire and London made their formative contributions to the flowering of the movement just as potently as Canterbury: but the cathedral city has become a “brand” that we’re stuck with.

 

Leroy clearly appreciates and explicitly articulates the social construction of the Canterbury School in justifying a corporate identity for these musicians and musical auteurs. Particularly interesting is the light shone on apparently disparate stories; crucially, we see that the connections between bands like Gong, Matching Mole, Delivery and Hatfield & The North were not exclusively musical, but arose via friendships- the musicians we are reading about so often preferred to play with or recruit people they knew. Thanks to the insights provided by “L’Ecole de Canterbury”, I begin to understand why as a teenager I was instinctively following Gong, The Hatfields, Caravan, Kevin Ayers, The Soft Machine… and why these acts were often sharing the billing at the gigs I attended.

 

Trying to draw concrete links between the different musical works purely via assertion of musical similarities (which would have to be backed up by complex analysis and score extracts) would be a much less successful enterprise; yes, there are a number of common musical traits that one might try to list and demonstrate, but beyond citing “use of distortion on organ and bass guitar”…” complex time signatures”…”use of the voice as an instrument” and so on, the arguments can become too tenuous: many of these  simply can’t be inferred across the whole diverse Canterbury stage, and while some are demonstrably present there, they are also present within Prog Rock and early British ‘Fusion jazz’. A future discussion theme must surely be, “which of the commonly-cited musical traits are indisputably unique to “Canterbury”?

 

This oeuvre will be the primary source for historical record and critical evaluations of the music in the decades to come. Perhaps its main achievement is to have provided a reliable set of musical biographies of the bands and artists set within a well-researched chronology. Those who love this music must offer Mr Leroy a vote of thanks- he has been the first to accomplish what would have been a daunting task for any musical author or musicologist.

 

It is of course somewhat frustrating that the Canterbury story has had to wait so long to be told, and rather revealing that the author (who has in the past been the main archivist of the genre via his ‘Calyx’ website) is not English- perhaps the quirkiness, humour, inventiveness, originality, and self-deprecating nature of the music are things that are more appreciated by cultural outsiders. It’s true that Canterbury music was sustained commercially by international interest- if it had depended on domestic record sales and gig fees alone, the Canterbury Scholars would have starved to death.

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Caravan

A propos of the commercial aspect of “The School”, it is highly relevant from a historical viewpoint that we learn more about the interplay between Art and Enterprise, as economic and commercial factors undeniably impact upon the music as constructed not only by the authors and players but also by the entrepreneurs involved in its production and marketing. Leroy does for the first time provide us with an overview of these relationships- for example, the relationship between Richard Branson’s Virgin Records and artists such as Gong, Robert Wyatt and Hatfield and the North. In my own research I have noted that it is quite difficult to retrieve sales data for the records made by the artists and bands;  it would be most interesting to see an appendix included within future editions showing the sales volumes for particular releases, illustrating what numbers of albums were sold during the seminal development period (1966- 1980?) and how the listenership subsequently expanded (or not) following the advent of the CD format. Anecdotal: during a telephone conversation I had with Richard Sinclair in 2013, he told me that “The Land of Grey & Pink” had since its release nearly 40 years ago sold 3 million copies- but yet he personally had never gained significant financial benefit.

 

In this edition Leroy addresses a readership who are versed in the jargon of the (French) Rock and Jazz ‘scene.’ But of course, we should probably assume for the future that regardless of in which language the majority of readers engage with this book, it will tend to attract the kind of people who know what a ‘Jam’ or a ‘quarter inch jack’ is. In general, his account is valuably enhanced by inclusion of reviews published as the works were being performed and recordings commercially released. There is a recurring pattern; mostly, the Melody Maker’s Steve Lake is quoted as a supportive voice, and Ian Macdonald of the NME frequently sounds a dismissive note [this is a pity- I have come across some well-written and authoritative reviews of ‘Canterbury’ recordings by Jazz critics.] Alongside these are more often than not a digest of the main French rock critics too.

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Kevin Ayers and the Whole World

A degree of ‘Franco-centricity’ lives in the centrepiece of Leroy’s chronicle- the portion of the 1974 chapter covering Robert Wyatt’s “Rock Bottom”. A certain intensity and engagement with the subject in the writing here that tells us that for him, Wyatt is the most significant player in the whole saga, and that Rock Bottom is “one of the most profoundly original works of its time.” So, he goes to some trouble to translate English phrases such “to hit rock bottom”, “the last straw” or “the straw that broke the camel’s back” into their French equivalents.

 

Thanks to this commentary, I’m struck by the textual aspect of the album, whose lyrics draw upon the uniquely English weirdness articulated by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Words are used randomly, chosen as much for their sound as anything else- but the ‘nonsense’ of words or phrases somehow conveys new or alternative meanings through odd juxtapositions. Wyatt is drawing on his experience of vocal improvisation and walking a path first trodden by American “Beat Poets” (one thinks of Ginsberg, or Kerouac’s evocations of improvisatory Jazz poetry,) but also on the European Art experimentations of Dada and Surrealism. The words respond to or feed the unsettlingly odd musical atmospheres of the album. The Canterburian musicians who accompany Wyatt are well-versed in sympathetic improvisation, thus their contributions all reinforce the vision and the musical achievement.

 

The synergy between words and music heard in ‘Rock Bottom’ is quite exceptional within the “Canterbury Cannon. Leroy rightly highlights the contributions of Alfreda Benge; this is right, but commentators could take this further. There is a predominance of male voices and, dare I say it, a very “male” form of music-making in this genre, but Alfie brings something into the album mix here which makes it stand out: her background as a visual artist has a potency, but more simply, she brings an intuitive femininity into the music. Another rare example of this introduction of “otherness” into the soundscape is Dave Stewart’s use of the Northettes in his arrangements for both Hatfield and the North albums. And as a request posed to future scholars of this field, might I ask for more female voices to be added to the pool of recollections that are used to colour in the personal and social context for the music and those who were involved in it?

 

However, as someone of dual heritage struggling with erudite vocabulary and sentence constructions on almost every page as I read through the work, I found myself addressing an issue that has long puzzled me: how did the idiosyncrasies of English culture and language as manifested by “Canterbury” even cross The Channel?

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Matching Mole

Take the case of Leroy’s detailed commentary on Hatfield & the North’s second album… the whole idea of “The Rotter’s Club” is peculiarly rooted in certain British educational cultures (‘Public School’, or ‘Grammar School’ as beautifully evoked by Jonathan Coe’s novel of the same name) and there can be no exact French equivalent. It takes a rather neat exposition by Pip Pyle (in a few sentences drawn from an interview) to explain the concept in French (or indeed, a form that any non- ‘Anglo’ could understand.) However, when we reach Leroy’s description of the introduction to Dave Stewart’s “Lumps” (again, the relationship between ‘lumps’ and ‘mumps’ necessitates a skilful linguistic autopsy) we find a familiar simile deployed: “The first few seconds… are the musical equivalent of an elephant in a china shop”(un magazin de porcelaine). I got his meaning immediately- here is one of many colloquialisms that English and French share across the apparent geographical and historical divides: the minor difference being that china shop destructions in Britain are usually committed by bulls.

 

And if I may continue to play the French riff (which will probably be in 11/8 time using a Lydian augmented scale) I would highlight another overlooked aspect of the Canterburian heritage that is authoritatively covered in this book: the French role in the development of what is usually considered quintessentially English music. We learn of the early Soft Machine expeditions to the Cote D’Azur and other touring and broadcast opportunities within France- the quartet got their first taste of fame over the Channel, at a point when they were struggling to get a paid gig in a pub in their homeland. UK immigration officials changed History by refusing to let the (Australian) Allen back into Dover, unwittingly instigating future outbreaks of Gong-ism throughout the Universities of The British Isles, and the induction of a number of significant French musicians (Malherbe, Moerlen, Bauer etc) into the Orchestre Invisible De Thibet. Many of us feasted on Camembert Electrique, and in the 21st century we discovered a wealth of French TV recordings of Hatfield and The North, Caravan and Matching Mole that still survive- without them and You-Tube, there would be scant video record of these landmark artists.

Another theme that would form an interesting future discussion topic could be that that “Canterbury” was the only English Rock/crossover music genre in which home-grown musicians mingled with European players (although clearly in other genres there was and is a clear mingling of Brits with Americans.) At the same time, I find myself writing about this sub-genre of British ‘popular music’ at a time when issues of the UK’s connection or disconnection with

 

Europe- and, behind that, issues of identities and autonomy with the UK’s constituent nationalities- have become a very live and bitterly-contested arena. In this context, there are voices who assert markers of “Englishness” or “otherness” without themselves having a clear or coherent notion of what “English” means either historically or culturally. I might therefore urge my fellow-citizens to take more of an interest in The Canterbury Scene than they have previously, for here may lie an art-form that is, alongside some of its “Prog-Rock” cousins, unusually and very particularly ‘English.’ Or is it?

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Steve Hillage

I think there is certainly a problem that the English themselves need to address in the course of time: why hasn’t this chronicle been attempted by any native journalist, scholar or musician? Might it be because, for various reasons, there would have been no money in it… a perception that such a work wouldn’t attract a wide enough readership? And if not, why not? The Island race have missed a trick here…in any study of an “Arts & Humanities” topic, there are assets that an ‘outsider’ perspective brings to the table, but there are also insights that are best supplied by ‘insiders.’ Sure, Leroy has tried hard to address this by providing a wealth of interview material with the main actors, but I think when a writer is offering critical assessments, an insider perspective really helps.

 

From an insider musical and cultural perspective, there are some aspects of this creative school that could have been covered in more depth. Leroy does bring a lot of detail about the British Jazz scene of the 1960’s and 70’s into the narrative– inevitable, given that so many of the musicians involved in “The Canterbury Scene” were recruited from the ranks of Britain’s brightest and best jazz players.

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We should also remember that at least two British Jazz musicians– John McLaughlin and Dave Holland-  played a central role in the US Jazz fusion movement, and influenced a particular set of emerging UK guitarists and electric bassists. Allen, Wyatt, Elton Dean and others were immensely inspired by the “free” periods of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. Phil Miller’s inspiration for “Underdubs” was the intricate and complex melodic invention of Charlie Parker themes like ‘Donna Lee.

 

There was a strong and demonstrable influence on these players (and on the musical ‘authors’ such as Allen, Wyatt, Ratledge, Richard Sinclair, Phil Miller, Pip Pyle) from American Jazz. Some names are mentioned- obviously Miles Davis, for example. But I know that Pyle was greatly inspired by Tony Williams…that Miles albums like “In a silent way” and “Bitches’ Brew”, and others by Chick Corea or Herbie Hancock can be heard reflected in moods, grooves and textures in passages from “Third”, “Matching Mole”, “Hatfield and the North.” To be fair, in one of the later chapters journalist Steve Lake is quoted pointing out the crucial influence of Tony Williams’ “Lifetime” and other seminal US jazz figures- but here, Leroy is relying on prominent Music critics, not his own knowledge of Jazz.

 

At the same time, there was an equally important strand of ‘Canterbury’ drawing on “Classical” sources and Art Music of the 20th century. The influence of Stravinsky looms large if we listen, but also read first-hand accounts of Wyatt and Pyle’s youthful listening (in my conversations with Phil Miller, he cited his deep interest in Bartok and Bach), but there are only a few references to Stravinsky et al in Leroy’s commentary. This can be forgiven if we consider that much has already been written on the general subject of UK “Prog Rock” and its use of classical models of deep structure, arrangements and instrumentation- for example, “Rocking The Classics” by Edward Macan details such appropriations by Genesis and Yes, but also cites Egg and Dave Stewart.

 

Richard Sinclair was a cathedral chorister, and Mike Ratledge was an organ scholar- but the subliminal influences of world-renowned British choral and organ music traditions are not discussed, even though many commentators have felt a certain ecclesiastical flavour in “Canterburian” music (however, those distinctly Baroque inflexions also occur throughout UK Prog Rock.) Via the music of Egg, Mont Campbell (who was himself studying formal composition and was the grandson of British composer Martin Shaw) was something of a mentor to Dave Stewart, whose writing and arrangements brought a wealth of complex ideas into the early 1970’s sound stage and of course into the Canterbury canon via Hatfield & the North and National Health. It is worth noting that Martin Shaw had an involvement in the restoration of Purcell’s repertoire to public performance in the early 20th century and its renewed popularity- and was also a professional church organist.

My own instinct as a musicologist is to compare certain miniature choral interludes within Hatfield & The North’s pieces with the lyricism of Vaughan-Williams’ “On Wenlock Edge”- suffused as that work is by a Ravel-inspired modal harmonic texture that we now characterise also as “Jazzy.”

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If I have any other complaints these might include a few sins of omission in placing some of the music and lyrical material within a broader cultural context of the UK that I remember growing up in (that being the period during which most of the work was released.)  This placing of a musical trajectory within contemporary social and political contexts is accomplished particularly well in “Out-Bloody-Rageous”, Graham Bennet’s 2005 biography of The Soft Machine. I would have liked more commentary on the correspondences to the acid surrealism of Terry Gilliam and various references via lyrics and song titles to Monty Python sketches…not to mention the kaleidoscope of other icons or objects of scorn referenced within the Joycean stream of consciousness that is Pip Pyle’s  “Fitter Stoke has a bath.”

 

There is a lack of discussion of the nurturing role of the major British poet and novelist Robert Graves,  whose home in Deya, Majorca, played an important role in these Canterbury Tales- early on, when the young Robert Ellidge stayed there (Wyatt’s parents were personal friends)…and where Daevid Allen also formed a part of that unconventional Balearic “salon”…in that Mediterranean setting, we can well surmise that Allen and Graves would have shared enthusiastic dialogue on the subject of pagan mythologies, Gods and specially Goddesses. Deya was where Allen retreated when “Gong went wrong”, and spawned his beautiful but melancholy solo album,”Good Morning.” And finally, after the Hatfield & the North split in 1975, Richard Sinclair went to Daevid’s place in Deya to hide and recuperate.

 

The events and developments described are covered across a time period of almost 20 years. The assembly of all the material must have posed a formidable task. Leroy chooses to organise it in a chronological way; this is perfectly logical and provides the reader with a narrative to follow. This is such a wide-ranging and ambitious project in both concept and execution that any further complaint seems churlish- HOWEVER!- the book as a work of reference is somewhat “clunky”. There isn’t a thematic overview or a way of easily browsing the content via “categorical” headings- rather, the chapters simply cover the events of the years onward from 1960. There is no easy way to view what each chapter deals with, other than refer to the indexes at the end of the book (Bands, Musicians and Albums are indexed, by name.)

 

This musical commentary and collective biography is the beginning of a process of evaluation of Canterbury Music. There are a lot of themes still to be examined, in formats that have a much more open architecture and adopt more lateral terms of reference than the work presented here by Mr Leroy. That said, we cannot take him to task for omissions: the book as published runs to over 700 pages with appendices. Had Aymeric cast his net any wider, we would be dealing with a huge two-volume tome.  Unquestionably, thanks to his dogged research, meticulous archiving and sheer hard work and persistence (knowing full well that writing a book on a subject like this cannot possibly generate an appropriate financial reward for the amount of time involved) the foundations of future appreciation and scholarship are now in place. Bravo, Aymeric- formidable!

 

Soften the Glare (featuring Bon Lozaga) – ‘Making Faces’

One of the real perks of running Facelift Magazine back in the Nineties was having carte blanche to follow the paths of various bands and their musicians and often ending up somewhere entirely unexpected. Judging by social media posts in today’s fangroups, a decent percentage of Canterbury purists might well have been appalled by this divergence as the fanzine consequently gave column inches to the free jazz noodlings of the likes of Keith Tippett’s Mujician or the ambient/techno wigouts of the Orb. Really for me it was mainly taking the opportunity to appropriate some very fine music into the magazine whilst sharing the joy of following those links.

 

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Somewhere along this route, I was privileged enough to get on the mailing list of LoLo records, a label set up by Bon Lozaga and Jim Loretangeli over in the States. As any Gong student will know, after Daevid Allen left the mother ship in 1975, the leadership, personnel and ultimately direction of the Gong band metamorphosed through various instrumental phases via Steve Hillage and Didier Malherbe’s stewardship, before ending up as a ‘Strasbourgeois’ orgy of tuned percussion led by Pierre Moerlen, the last one standing from the ‘Trilogy’ line-ups. The Pierre Moerlen strand continued until around 1981, adding his name as a prefix to the Gong name and under this monicker he continued to release sporadic albums over the next couple of decades until his untimely death in 2004.

Pierre Moerlen’s accomplices during this period varied, but certain key personnel kept popping up: principally bassist Hansford Rowe, but also brother Benoit (also on tuned percussion) and Mireille Bauer.  Allan Holdsworth too added his signature soloing, not least on ‘Expresso’ from ‘Gazeuse’ and ‘Soli’ from ‘Expresso II’. With Mike Oldfield and the Stones’ Mick Taylor also cropping up on PMG albums, one could perhaps be excused in not seeing beyond the guitar of these stellar turns. So it was probably not until a brief flurry of albums on the LoLo label between 1993 and 1996 that I began to fully appreciate the work of Lozaga, who in terms of Gong appeared as early as ‘Expresso II’ but also appears as an integral part of ‘Live’, ‘Time is the Key’ and ‘Leave It Open’, primarily on rhythm guitar.

If you’ve come across any of the LoLo records, they’re most likely to be the ones which came out under the name Gongzilla, in particular ‘Suffer’ and ‘Thrive’. Both were percussive-heavy, heroically guitar-riffed and very fine indeed, reuniting the likes of Lozaga, Rowe, Holdsworth, and Benoit Moerlen. For me, however, I probably spent even more time listening to the two ‘solo’ Bon albums ‘Full Circle – Coming Home’ and ‘To the Bone’ – two highly polished guitar trio albums (with Rowe and drummer Vic Stevens)  showing subtlety and expression alongside the expected driving rhythms. Both served to show what a very fine composer and soloist Lozaga is. I remember noting at the time in Facelift 16 that often Lozaga “takes Allan Holdsworth’s style, slows it down and manufactures it into something (even) more eloquent” – bold words indeed in retrospect! He also had an equal hand in the much more reflective ‘Project Lo’ (with label co-founder Jim Loretangeli) – an album which also never strayed too far from the CD player in around 1994.

bon lozaga                     Bon Lozaga

And so a gap for me (in so many ways) through the Noughties, until, picking up on some old threads, or more likely revisiting those 2 Bon albums, I came across and sourced a third (or possibly fourth) solo album ‘Traces of Chaos’ in early 2017 (it had been released in 2016). This album possibly even trumped the other two, from the superb Hendrix-inspired pastiche “Gypsy King” (featuring credible Hendrixesque sounds, sampled spoken word recordings and a most unexpected flute solo outro), to the Mahavishnu cover ‘Can’t Stand the Funk’, to many sublime originals, most notably ‘Say What You Mean’, with its utterly beautiful melody closing the album out in a stately manner. However, nestled in amongst what is essentially an album which is easy on the ears (in a positive way) are a couple of almost incongruously brutal numbers called ‘Controlled Chaos’ and ‘Schoulars Bend’. Both of these took some of the thunderous drive of Gongzilla and metalled it out even more, in a high-powered trio format incorporating bassist Ryan Martinie and drummer Mitch Hull.

Which brings us to Soften the Glare. ‘Controlled Chaos’ in particular turns out to have been a spoiler for ‘Making Faces’, the debut album by the band, On the face of it Soften the Glare could be seen as being predominantly a vehicle for the rather talented Martinie – it’s him doing the press interviews, stripping down to a pair of shorts for most of a burgeoning video archive, and generally strutting his stuff in both sonically and visually. Whilst it’s true that Lozaga definitely solos for the band less than for albums under his own name, that shouldn’t belittle his impact.  The band’s calling card is the rolling out of his consistently filthy riffs, delivered nonetheless in a pristine manner which should not be a surprise to anyone who heard the superbly production values of the Gongzilla albums.

stg trio pic.jpgTrue, it’s Martinie’s hammerblow bass which provides the intros and driving forces to 2 of the showpieces of the album ‘Mission Possible’ and ‘What Chandra Sees’, but elsewhere there are some quite ridiculously complex compositions – ‘Turn Around’ or ‘March of the Cephalopods’, in particular. The latter is videoed here and is mighty impressive, grin-inducing in its sheer bloody-mindedness and might win you over straight away, but if not, head for ‘Segue’. ‘Segue’ appears to be a cover of sorts of ‘Into The Sun’, from Bon’s first solo album ‘Full Circle – Coming Home’ but if you are expecting the beautiful central guitar melody, one of that album’s highlights, prepare to see it obliterated by an equally memorable but quite unseemly riff. This shows the band’s other side – gorgeous lush sounds, subtle moments, just waiting to be ripped apart by those killer guitar chords. Bon even pulls out one of his meticulously crafted solos here.

I’m still working through this album and appreciating its many virtues – the funked down and discordant rhythms of ‘Happy Weird’; ‘or Conscious  Sense of the Present’, with tuned percussion effects – this should probably have been given the name of the next track ‘All Mixed Up’ as it jumps through a variety of different grooves, including some quite cheese-curling Casiotone melodies. But on the whole this album is a tremendous, powerpacked romp which I’m happy to say was my first purchase of 2018. I hope the rest of the year is as much fun…

You are Here – an accelerating history of Canterbury… by Matthew Watkins

I got hold of this remarkable book at the Canterbury sound event back in October (as well as meeting its author, Matt Watkins). Having finally had chance to sit down and read through ‘You Are Here’ I should say that it’s every bit as mind-blowing and informative as I had hoped.

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The premise of the book is both unique and bizarre but at the same time guaranteed to draw in any regular readers of this blog. Matt Watkins is, as readers should already know, a champion of Canterbury scene music, as evidenced through monthly podcasts Canterbury sans Frontieres and Canterbury Soundwaves. I also got the impression at the Canterbury Sound event, when he (reluctantly) delivered his talk at the end of the day regarding the development of an interactive ‘Canterbury scene’ Google Map, that he could well be the glue which binds together a modern-day Canterbury music scene within the city. But even that doesn’t really tell the whole story – he is at the same time both a doctor in mathematics and simultaneously immersed in counter-culture throughout the city (and I expect, beyond). He somehow manages to blend the two  – for example whilst searching on Youtube late one night for a Lapis Lazuli live performance of their wonderful opus ‘Alien’ online a month or so ago, I happened across a most unexpected 30 minute presentation of Matt delivering a talk, in a club, about, ermm…. aliens – this started from the point of view of examining historical media perceptions of aliens right and continued at some pace through to alternative perceptions of reality, Terence McKenna et al (at which point I beat a retreat to bed, my mind fried).

Anyway, I digress. ‘You are Here’ is essentially a study of Canterbury from the year dot to a specified date and time in August 2014. True to his mathematical roots, Matt constructs a perfect spiral timeline (the book’s byline is  ‘an accelerating history’), with segments devoted to each time frame varying from two-page spreads down to graphic-novel-type panels, several per page. Initially this means that the timeframes are large (the first being 14 billion to 11 billion BC), but then incrementally shrink (e.g. 1109 to 1292 in medieval times, 1867 – 1897 in the 19th century), to segments of hours, then minutes, then seconds as the book reaches its rather frenzied conclusion.

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What this means for the reader is that what starts out as essentially a superb historical document from the Roman era forward, setting out the premise for Canterbury being a totally critical centrepoint for religious and political machinations within England, inevitably becomes something else, as time ‘speeds up’ . From a purely ‘sceneist’ point of view, the segment of time devoted to seminal Canterbury musical activity, let’s say between 1960 and 1972, is condensed to a mere 3 pages. The accelerating nature of the timeframes means that roughly half of the book is devoted to Canterbury in the new millennium, which by extension means that it’s an autobiographical account of life in the city. Matt’s own personal interests and perspectives become relevant here. There’s a fair amount of commentary, or at least noting, of counter-culture,  streetlife, local politics, corporate machinations, and their impact on the local environment, alongside the prevailing themes of history and religion, and in that regard the latter half of the book put me in mind of CJ Stone’s excellent ‘Fierce Dancing’ book, another example of where an account of (counter) culture was to some extent overtaken by the process itself. For those of you who are students of ‘modern’ Canterbury music, the likes of Syd Arthur, Lapis Lazuli and other of the many innovative musicians that are carrying the torch forward in such an inspired fashion, the extended sections afforded to the era from 2010 onwards allows for many references and a myriad of information regarding their activities – all good news…

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And so, what until, let’s say the 1990s, is largely a fascinating historical document, is overtaken by an exploration of the minutiae of one community’s day to day life, and then to being a progression to one person’s conscious thoughts, before ending up as an extremely scientific description of how the sound of a church bell is transmitted across milliseconds of time.

Baffled? Well, all I can say is the piece is a remarkably cogent project that manages to tick many diverse boxes: meticulously researched ancient to mediaeval history, an account of social development through the 19th and 20th centuries, cultural changes in the 21st and latterly a chronicle of one person’s inner thoughts as the reader is hurtled in a rather panicked fashion towards an uncertain conclusion. There’s even a Daevid Allen-like vision at the book’s denouement, which although somewhat incongruous in amongst the general scientific dissection of the closing chapters, adds a further unexpected twist.

Utterly unique, this book is also embellished throughout by beautiful line drawings of many of the key historical events described in the book, some the recreations of artists’ impressions and photographs, as well as, I think some completely original material. Some of these (the musically related ones of the likes of Steve Hillage, Kevin Ayers, Caravan and the Wilde Flowers) you might have seen reproduced already as part of the sparse publicity surrounding the book launch (it’s not officially out until February). The illustrations are largely from Carol J Watkins, who also happens to be Matt’s mother. There are also a series of appendices giving a key date timeline, maps charting the changing topography of the city, and a list of important musical events and releases.

 

Details of how to get the book (pre-release copies) are at http://youareherebook.com/ – dive in before the official launch date in February!

Soft Machine – Band on the Wall, Manchester – 23 November 2017

Even though this band has been touring for a number of years as ‘Soft Machine Legacy’ there’s an undeniable frisson in going along to see a band called simply Soft Machine for the first time in your life, having pored over their various incarnations from a distance only, for much of the last 30 years.

 

softsSoft Machine, who dropped the ‘Legacy’ part of their name a couple of years back, these days consist of 3 Seventies veterans (John Etheridge, Roy Babbington and John Marshall) as well as Theo Travis, Legacy member for a decade but also Gong’s post-Didier saxophonist in the Nineties. Understandably the setlist takes as its starting point the mid-Seventies jazz crossover material, most particularly the ‘Softs’ album, but liberally samples music from the Soft Machine discography from  ‘Third’ onwards, as well as showcasing strong newer material from the Legacy albums.

The band played two extensive sets, the first interrupted by a brief (and thankfully not serious) medical emergency in amongst the crowd , and worked their way through ‘Bundles’ (the track), and a lovely ‘Song of Aeolus’ from ‘Softs’, interspersed with tracks from more recent Legacy material from ‘Steam’, the superb ‘Voyage Beyond Seven’ from the ‘Burden of Proof’ album, and a very fine set-closer from ‘Live Adventures’.

John Etheridge looked surprisingly youthful, grinning toothfully through an unruly mop of hair, and constantly engaging in languid banter with the crowd and other band members. John Marshall, hidden behind his compact drum kit was mesmerisingly tight, a master technician. Roy Babbington grooved away in acres of space over on the right hand side of the stage, and Theo Travis, alternating between tenor and soprano saxes, flute and keyboards, provided much of the texture for the band one way or another. He has an almost chameleon-like quality to meld into whatever genre he’s doing – stepping into pseudo-Ratledge keyboard meanderings in places, taking up keyboard lines on his flute on others, or brassing out on tenor sax. It’s hard to equate this sometimes with his existence as a mainstay in the somewhat more frivolous Gong all those years ago – he’s just a consummate performer all-round.

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Theo Travis – photo Simon Kerry

The main focal point, however, was undoubtedly Etheridge, his fluidity undiminished through the years, and whilst ‘Aeolus’, to these ears’ might have benefitted from him sustaining his notes a little more on this anthemic guitar track, some of his unfettered soloing elsewhere was truly mindboggling. He even threw in an observation about Karl Jenkins’ tunes requiring him to replace upper parts of his fretboard on a couple of the pieces performed tonight.

If the first half of the set perhaps saw the band continuing to assert its new identity, the second half unashamedly played to its legacy. Starting with another ‘Softs’ album anthem ‘The Tale of Taliesin’ and continuing later with ‘Out of Season’, the band also tackled Bundles’ ‘The Man Who Waved At Trains’, with Travis operating solely on keyboards, before screaming into the highlight of the night – ‘Gesolreut’. Introduced through an outraged and dissonant guitar line, this was a highly funked up version punctuated by saxophone squawks. It brought the house down.

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John Marshall – photo Simon Kerry

I never thought I’d get to see ‘Outbloodyrageous’ from the iconic ‘Third’ album performed live. It’s surely part of the Crown Jewels of the Canterbury scene, and if nothing for me would quite match the rendition on ‘Third’ or the recently unveiled video here,  this version was mighty fine, the Dobson/Dean duo line tackled dextrously on soprano sax and guitar. The only problem that this version, introduced via sampled keyboard loops from Theo Travis, ended far too soon! Would love to hear a full rendition…

The finale was a medley of material from various sources (including ‘Seven’), featuring solos from John Marshall and Roy Babbington and ridiculously prodigious call and response lines from guitar and sax to end the gig on a high. Except that a half-hearted attempt to leave the stage prior to an encore proved fruitless, and soon the band were kicking into ‘Hazard Profile’. The instantly recognisable main theme (let us not forget based around the riff from the Nucleus track ‘Song For The Bearded Lady’ featuring John Marshall and in later incarnations Roy Babbington) morphed into the guitar solo section – with a twist. Allan Holdsworth’s original guitar lines were swiftly forgotten as thunderous, dirty bass lines from Babbington underpinned a most unEtheridge atonal guitar solo – as Theo Travis struggled to rein the piece back in with keyboards. A marvellous conclusion to a fine gig.

One last thought: there’s been a lot of heated debate on music forums about whether this band should go out under the name Soft Machine – for me it’s all a bit too precious. Soft Machine’s music has always been a broad church, taking a route no doubt unintended at its inception, but no less worthy for that. For the many of us unlucky enough not to see the genesis of the band (or indeed any live incarnation until now) our views don’t have to be coloured by chronology: my own personal listening was started by the albums of ‘Third’ ‘5’, ‘Seven’, ‘Bundles’ and ‘Softs’, and I love pretty much all of them, even though the latter 3 are streets apart from Volumes 1, 2  or ‘Jet Propelled Photographs’. Who am I or anyone else to tell 3 Soft Machine stalwarts from the early Seventies that they shouldn’t perform as a band called Soft Machine playing Soft Machine tracks that they in many cases wrote or performed as Soft Machine members 40 years ago! And if the use of the name adds a few extra bums on seats (tonight was sold out), supports the musicians we love, and incentivises them to carry on, then why should any of us be complaining?

 

 

 

 

Caravan – Bury Met Arts Centre – 18 November 2017

Despite it being only 20 or so miles down the road, it’s been a good couple of decades since I’ve been to the Met Arts Centre at Bury, or come to that, Bury itself. The last time was to see and interview Didier Malherbe on his second visit to the town with guitarist Pierre Bensusan. At least that’s my excuse in failing to find the venue easily, despite the fact that in the early 90s I delivered there every other week, and saw numerous gigs there too. It took a while to realise that the various bouncers, taxi drivers and other unsuspects who we’d asked for guidance were very kindly all directing us towards the ‘Metro’ – the tram system that takes everyone OUT of Bury. The penny finally dropped  when we made our final wrong turn and descended an escalator towards the tram platform itself.

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Caravan: Geoffrey Richardson, Mark Walker, Pye Hastings, Jim Leverton, Jan Schelhaas

Meanwhile over the other side of the bus terminus Caravan were starting a set which would last almost 2 hours. I’d also not seen them for over 20 years, lost a little track of what they’re up to, but was intrigued to find that they were not only embarking on an 8-date tour of England, but had comfortably sold out the gig in Met, a beautiful old municipal building split into elevated seating and a large standing area in front of it.

This band features sole original member Pye Hastings; multi-instrumentalist Geoffrey Richardson, (who pointed out that he had been with the band a mere 46 years, on and off); keyboard player Jan Schelhaas, stalwart of late Seventies line-ups; Jim Leverton, ever present on bass since the mid-Nineties; and Mark Walker, filling the drummer’s seat since the death of Richard Coughlan.

As we were catching our breath, the band raced through a few old standards including ‘Land of Grey and Pink’ and ‘Golf Girl’ but for me really found their feet when starting to stretch out instrumentally – their version of ‘Love in Your Eye’ from ‘Waterloo Lily’ was quite inspired, the first time I’ve heard it live, and segued into the groove from ‘For Richard’, the first to really get the crowd moving.  The Caravan crowd is an interesting one: whilst I expect to see more earnest jazzheads at the Soft Machine on Thursday, and Gong attract a patent collection of tripped out bohos (myself included), Caravan audiences occupy a safer middle ground: middle aged couples, old rockers sporting a range of band T-shirts encompassing everything from the Stranglers to AC/DC, and small groups just out for a good night out (and providing an annoyingly noisy backdrop over the quieter numbers).

And so this set the tone for the night: a real mix of old and new tunes, ballads and extended grooves. I’d never seen Geoffrey Richardson perform before with the band – my Caravan education, like many, started with listening to the classic first three albums on LP, but for me also continued with then seeing that same quartet of Sinclair/Sinclair/Hastings/Coughlan reform in the early 90s for live gigs. So forgive me for not previously having a first-hand appreciation how Geoffrey became the focal point for the band both sonically and visually in the mid-Seventies. Tonight he was impossible to take one’s eyes off: effortlessly switching from viola, to lead guitar, to flute, to penny whistle, to mandolin – always beautiful understated interjections before moving on fluidly to the next passage. Even that doesn’t tell the whole story – amongst the most memorable moments for me were his viola picking on, I think, ‘Nightmare’, a solo on the spoons, or providing extra percussion elsewhere on a cowbell!

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I’d been so mesmerised by the prowess shown by Geoffrey that I was almost oblivious to the talents of bass and keyboards, but increasingly as the night wore on their talents came to the fore: Schelhaas moving beyond the expected recreation of Dave Sinclair’s sublime solo lines on the ‘classics’ to a real honky-tonk vibe, whilst Leverton, solid as a rock, produced a lovely rounded bass tone to provide the ballast on the extended numbers in particular. Drummer Mark Walker provided a vibrant presence behind the sticks with added backing vocals – here was a man clearly enjoying himself!

I reckon on reflection that the band performed a total of 5 tracks from the new album ‘Paradise Filter’ – best for me was the surprising menace of ‘Dead Man Walking’, whilst ‘Farewell My Old Friend’, written in memory of Richard Coughlan, felt personally poignant in a week when I found out about the sudden death of a friend. Other tracks returned to the band’s apparently perennial financial bad-luck (‘Fingers in the Till’) and, perhaps more flippantly, medical tribulations (‘Trust Me I’m A Doctor’). But probably the best was saved to (almost) last with a superb and unexpected version of the aforementioned ‘Nightmare’ plus the rousing finale ‘9ft Underground’ – as good as ever.

It was mentioned that Caravan are a mere 6 months away from collectively celebrating their 50th birthday – it all started at the Beehive in Canterbury, the location of which was pointed out to me in my trip down there last month. Plans are afoot for a celebration – watch this space (or more accurately https://officialcaravan.co.uk/) – but in the meantime try to catch one of their remaining gigs this tour.

 

(Thanks to Geoffrey Richardson for enabling me to get to this gig after a bout of personal incompetence!)

God Song – a Phil Miller tribute by Henk Weltevreden – as read at Phil’s funeral (27 October 2017)

(Musician, author and good friend of Phil Miller, Henk Weltevreden read out this lovely touching tribute at Phil’s funeral on 27th of October 2017. It’s reproduced here with the kind permission of Henk, and Phil’s widow Herm)

God Song – After Life

phil miller funeralHere’s a fairytale, for you Phil, a little creative act from my side, as a Thank you So Much, for all you gave me, in my life, your sounds, and for a warm, a very warm friendship. Here are some words. For you only.

We met when I was 16, that’s 50 years ago. You’re my number 1 longterm friend, for ever. We played Gary Burton music, one of your favourites at that time. Some years later I gave a Hatfield record to Gary Burton personally, in Boston. He smiled. Quite often life shows a cycle. Sometimes life is linear because I’m convinced that the biggest luck for you is Herm.

Some years later, we shared a room, staying at Daevid Allen’s home in Sens, during an early Hatfield tour of France. Over hours of conversation, you analysed the creation of your songs Calyx and Underdub, how it came about. We agreed, for a big part, it is by coincidence.

Tomorrow, at the end of the afternoon, you will be walking in a heavenly atmosphere, strolling on a beautiful road, flowers, perfume, left and right a country side full of weed, free bags of it, all over the place. You’re holding your guitar, it’s a country without carnet papers, no work for Benj here, no passport needed, no wifi, no income tax. But, you’re a bit nervous, because you have to hold and show a stamped certificate proving it was you Philip Paul Brisco Miller who wrote God Song.

 What on Earth are you doing, God?

Is this some sort of joke you’re playing?

Is it ‘cos we didn’t pray?

Are you just hot air, breathing over us and over all?

Is it fun watching us all?

Where’s your son? We want him again!

Dear Phil, I know you wonder, you doubt, will He, the Big Man be furious?

And then, all of a sudden, you see a bar. Right there, along that road.

There’s Pip, waving at you, cheerful, holding a triple times five Belgium beer. Also Hugh is there, mister Hopper, and Elton, Lindsay Cooper, brother Steve, Daevid Allen, Kevin Ayers, Alan Gowen, and of course Lol.

Pip is yelling ‘hurray! Phil! Here! Where is Benji?’

‘Oh well,’ Phil says, ‘he is still too busy, maybe next year, or another ten-twenty years from now. Who knows. God knows. Chance mate. It’s all chance.’

Pip is smiling, having a great time, free drinks.

Pip’s thinking God Song:

‘And next time, you send your boy down there
Give him a wife and a sexy daughter

Someone we can understand.’

Hugh Hopper points at the counter. ‘There Phil, that’s where they check your documents. This here, it’s only a waystation. And, more important, if you want to get on, along the road, you have to choose only the single happiest memory of your life, all other memories will be gone, forgotten. And then you vanish to whatever unknown state of existence…’

Phil is doubting, he likes this bar here.

Elton looks a bit angry. Too much memories.

‘I don’t wanna enter that door,’ he mumurs, ‘stupid  Brexit. It’s also boring here, bloody Heaven,  I want a Hexit, out of here.’

Phil is hiding his certificate about God Song, slighty nervous. All of a sudden he regrets he has no carnet papers. Where is Benj?!

Pip takes a gulp, smiles and points at his selfmade poster behind the bar. It says:

God is dead, but just to be sure, I hate him.

Dear Phil

It does matter anyway

We’ll meet again some other day

The time has come to leave you

There’ll will be a way to reach you.

 

Henk Weltevreden (27th of October 2017)