Elton Dean – Sorely Missed (by some more than others!)

In which The Author doesn’t see the
finest sax player since Coltrane

I’ve been having a nostalgia trip tonight, watching old clips of bands on YouTube. I came across a French TV recording of The Soft Machine from 1970: Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper, Mike Ratledge, Lyn Dobson and Elton Dean, performing before a live audience.

On referring to Michael King’s invaluable book Wrong Movements: A Robert Wyatt History (SAF Publishing, 1994), I found that this gig took place on 2 March 1970 – just over a fortnight before my fourth birthday. Scary!
Over a quarter of a century later, in the summer of 1996, my then-girlfriend Sam H. and I were staying in a B&B on Crouch Hill in north London. Sam was working in the residential home with her clients, but I wasn’t allowed to stay in the house as I hadn’t been vetted by social services, so we booked into a B&B for three nights. At the time, the area was just starting to become a trendy place for the yuppies to move to – but still retained a little of its old self. There was a pleasant scattering of interesting shops and pubs amongst the high street giants. At one end of Crouch Hill is Highgate Cemetery, the site of pilgrimage for Marxists the world over. At the other end is Finsbury Park Mosque, most noted for Abu Hamza and his jihadist propaganda. In the ideological clash of fundamentalisms, Crouch End is pretty much ground zero.
It was Thursday afternoon, and we were killing time. Independence Day had just been released in the UK, so we killed a couple of hours watching Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum’s hi-tech reworking of H. G. Wells in Muswell Hill. After the film we went to Sam’s favourite restaurant, the Satay Malaysia in Crouch End. In spite of Sam’s best efforts, I abstained from the chopsticks and filled myself up with a staggering assortment of exotic dishes, washed down with beer and hot sake. The whole thing cost us £40 – a terrifying sum for a meal ten years ago, when one was used to fish and chips, or a pub lunch for a lot less than a fiver.
Then we adjourned to the pub along the road. I’d probably had it in the back of my mind that the King’s Head is a famous jazz venue, but it only occurred to me as I was perusing the list of gigs at the main door.
‘Bloody hell! Elton Dean’s Newsense are playing tonight!’ Sam looked as blank as a woman nine years my junior, brought up on heavy/glam rock and recently converted to dance music, should look in such circumstances. ‘Elton Dean,’ I insisted. ‘Ex-Bluesology, ex-Keith Tippett, ex-Soft Machine …’
There was still no glimmer of recognition in Sam’s eyes, so we went inside and bought some drinks. I’d never been in the place before, but I had been in the Four Bars in Cardiff several times. This pub reminded me of the Four Bars, only upside down – to get to the band, you had to go down into the cellar, instead of upstairs. The bands played in a room behind a heavy wooden door, and through the timber I could hear Newsense kicking some severe free-form arse. Admission to the gig was £4, and we listened at the door for a few moments, before Sam made a constructive suggestion.
‘Let’s go back upstairs and come down again when they’ve finished the soundcheck.’
I knew then that any effort to convert Sam to free jazz was a hopeless mission.
‘They’ve been on stage for half an hour,’ I replied sadly.
‘I’m not paying four quid to listen to that rubbish!’
So we went back upstairs and carried on drinking instead. It was pointless even suggesting going back to the heavy wooden door which held such mysterious sounds in check.
Some time during the course of the evening, Sam was approached in the pub toilets by a rather large and very frightening lesbian – whom she subsequently swears she’s seen in the pages of one of my fetish books. There were a couple of scary Sapphists in the place that night, so it’s possible, I suppose.
Ironically, I was on the phone to Sam a few months later, with Third playing on the stereo in the background. She actually liked the slow part of ‘Out-Bloody-Rageous’, as it made her think of the music they play in chill-out rooms in dance clubs.
Whether the part about the lesbian is true or not, the fact is that Elton Dean passed away a couple of years ago. Now I’ll never get to see the man whom some critics say was the best sax player since Coltrane – and all because Sam thought their set was a soundcheck.
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