As I’ve mentioned several times previously (most notably in Not Born Beautiful), I’ve never knowingly been involved in the Aberdare drugs scene, even though I spent many years on the periphery of it. Purely by dint of drinking in The Carpenters Arms during the 1980s and early 1990s, when the air was always thick with aromatic smoke, I must have been passively wasted on a number of occasions.
I admit that when I was younger, like most of us, I didn’t know my limits. From time to time, of course, things can still get out of hand. (Personally, I call Coors Light ‘the Weeping Angel of beers’ – because it creeps up when you’re not looking and then robs you of hours of your life.)
On the whole, though, my wild days are long behind me. It’s been a very long time since I’ve woken up in a strange house, with no recollection of getting there and even less idea of how to get home. Fortunately, as I told you last week, There’s An App For That now. It’s also possible that I’ve been spiked a couple of times (see The Truth Is Out There), but when it comes to mind-altering substances I’m a man of simple tastes.
A pleasant session in the pub, with good company and intelligent conversation (all too rare these days, alas), possibly rounded off by one from the top shelf before closing time, will do me nicely. My monthly prescription from the surgery papers over the cracks. Between them, these two weapons keep the Black Dog at bay most of the time.
When it comes to the company I keep, that’s a different story. Many of my friends like a smoke. Some of them (mostly the younger ones) are into pills as well. Quite a few people I know, around my own age or a bit older, like to explore Inner Space through hallucinogens. On the other hand, I know a few younger people for whom cocaine is as much a part of their weekend routine as beer is of mine. I’m also sad to say that I’ve lost a couple of mates through heroin (or its repercussions) over the years.
The ironic thing, then, is that I’m really into the music, books, films and art of the so-called ‘psychedelic subculture’, without ever having had my soul psychedelicized. (I’m not sure whether that’s really a word. However, it appears in The Chambers Brothers’ amazing freak-out song ‘Time Has Come Today’, and that’s good enough for me.)
I grew up in the tail-end of the ‘flower power’ era, so I probably absorbed some of the music from TV and radio when I was a kid. Even though we were strictly a Radio 2 household, the Johnny Mann Singers’ 1967 version of Jimmy Webb’s great ‘Up, Up and Away’ must have featured on the air at some point. It’s one of the few pop songs which I still associate with my early childhood.
I once asked Mother what it was like to be living in Aberdare just as the Swinging Sixties were about to explode. (Mother was born in 1943.) She told me, only half-jokingly, that it was pretty much like being in the early 1950s, but without rationing.
In most cases, if you came from a working-class family in an industrial area, you went straight from school to work without a gap. As I’d suspected, here in South Wales – where even the late 1980s felt like the late 1950s, as I remarked in No Laughing Matter – teenagers didn’t really exist. Unless you were in a large city, where there was a decent ‘scene’ of discotheques and boutiques and gigs, the 1960s largely passed you by.
You have to remember that the BBC didn’t have a dedicated pop music radio channel until 1968. Just hearing the latest beat combos involved trying to pick up one of the pirate stations, and their signals were greatly attenuated by the time they got this far. If, like Mother, you were married with a young child, the Summer of Love was something that happened to other people.
Martin H., who was born in 1950, had a slightly more adventurous teenage career. He was initiated into rock music and mind-altering substances by some older mates who’d gone off to university and fallen headlong into the counter-culture. I still find it ironic that he and I were in London at the same time in the mid-1980s, but we didn’t become friends until much later, when we’d returned to Wales. We often wonder about the sort of adventures we might have had together in a parallel universe where we’d met at the time. That’s Quantum Mechanics for you (again…)
Anyway, as I think I’ve recounted previously, the first band I got into of my own volition, so to speak, was Hawkwind. I was reading Michael Moorcock’s novels at the time, and I knew that he’d been involved with the band on and off since the beginning of their career. I came across their LP Live 1979 on cassette in Woolworth’s one day, and decided to buy it. It wasn’t what I’d expected at all. It was an odd blend of riff-driven rock (epitomised by the songs ‘Motorway City’, ‘Brainstorm’, and their famous hit ‘Silver Machine’), and space-age synthesiser music, like the disturbing ‘Spirit of the Age’ and the haunting ‘Lighthouse’:
A couple of weeks later I bought Levitation, which turned out to be the band’s most recent release. While staying with family in Carmarthen over the Xmas holidays, I found Doremi Fasol Latido and Hall of the Mountain Grill in the town’s record shop. They were more like the sort of ‘space rock’ I’d imagined. At about the same time, I got hold of Peter Nicholls’ massive Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which contained an extensive entry on the relationship between SF and music. Some of the acts it namechecked were easier to get hold of than others. Woolworth’s had a few Pink Floyd LPs, so they were straightforward enough, but another band which tickled my fancy was a bit more obscure.
Luckily, I had an unexpected ally: Touch of Gold Records, at the top of Victoria Square in Aberdare. Phil S., the owner, was a tall bespectacled guy with longish hair, and his buying policy was nothing short of eclectic. I was in there after school one afternoon, waiting to meet Mother for the weekly Tesco ordeal, browsing through the LPs on display. To my amazement, I came across Magick Brother/Mystic Sister, the overlooked début LP by semi-legendary Anglo-European hippies Gong. It was about a fiver, and worth a punt, so I picked it up.
If Hawkwind and Pink Floyd were Stoner Rock, Gong were undoubtedly Acid Rock. I knew nothing about them to begin with, apart from the fact that their main man Daevid Allen had been a founder member of Soft Machine, back in the day. (This information came to me courtesy of Pete Frame’s indispensable book Rock Family Trees, which was also in my collection by this time.) The sleeve design was bizarre, to say the least:
I remember customising the cover of my A Level Biology folder in a similar style, with text following strange paths and little cartoons dotted around the place. It certainly distinguished it from the rest of the pile when we all gathered for our practical sessions on a Thursday morning.
If the sleeve was weird, the music was in a similar vein. Even though it had been recorded with a loose set of pick-up musicians, rather than a working band, it was obvious that Mr Allen had partaken of more than his fair share of illicit substances. The music fell between Syd Barrett’s more whimsical moments and some of the surreal incidents of The Goon Show. Try this, for example:
It wasn’t until much later that I learnt that Daevid Allen was a lot older than the rest of the hippy musicians I’d been listening to. In fact, he was born in 1936, which made him older than The Beatles, never mind Pink Floyd and their immediate contemporaries. An expat Australian, he’d knocked around with the Beat Poets for a while, then teamed up with the so-called ‘Canterbury Set’ – Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Hugh and Brian Hopper, Pye Hastings, Richard Sinclair, David Stewart, and a number of others. These guys had drifted in and out of a local band called The Wilde Flowers for a few years, before giving rise to The Soft Machine and Caravan.
The Soft Machine (they still had a definite article in the early days) became a key element of the London psychedelic scene, playing alongside The Pink Floyd (who also had a definite article in those days) on a number of occasions. They were managed by Chas Chandler, and toured as part of a package with The Jimi Hendrix Experience; my friend Julian C. saw them on three consecutive evenings at three different South Coast resorts, when he was backpacking with some pals after leaving school.
They cut their eponymous first LP while in the USA in 1968, also as part of a Chandler package tour, and even released a single which failed to trouble the UK charts at all. This tour took its toll on Kevin Ayers’ physical and mental well-being, and he quit to get his head together when they returned from the States. Their second LP, therefore, featured a stripped-down line-up of Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, and returning Wilde Flower Hugh Hopper; this core trio somehow managed to stay intact for a couple of years. In fact, as Mr Frame’s book makes abundantly clear, Soft Machine had a fluid and ever-changing line-up throughout the 1970s.
In 1970 they ‘borrowed’ some horn players from Keith Tippett’s band, notably Lyn Dobson and Elton Dean (see Elton Dean – Sorely Missed), the latter staying with the band well into the decade. Their brand of music was huge in France for some odd reason, and they even appeared on a French TV show, with this seminal line-up of Wyatt, Ratledge, Hopper, Dean and Dobson:
Soft Machine became a mainstay of UK jazz-fusion throughout the 1970s, until finally running out of steam in 1981. Their last LP under that name was The Land of Cockayne, which I bought in the old Virgin store in Cardiff when I was seeing Lisa (which puts it some time during the autumn of 1983.) By then, the Welsh musician and composer Karl Jenkins was at the helm, all the original members having drifted away at various times. Of the other players, only guitarist Allan Holdsworth and drummer John Marshall had served time with the earlier incarnations of the group. Noted jazz and bluesmen like Dick Morrissey, Ray Warleigh, John Taylor and Jack Bruce came in to help, and the result was a spacious, laid-back jazz soundscape very different from the frenetic fusion of the early 1970s. Just listen to Mr Holdsworth’s quicksilver licks on ‘Sly Monkey’, the penultimate track:
Caravan pursued a more conventional rocky path, producing several albums of laid-back, slightly jazzy progressive rock, and touring extensively. People came and went as they evolved musically, and several bands branched off from this trunk: Egg, Uriel, Hatfield and the North. The English comic novelist Jonathan Coe took his title The Rotter’s Club from a Hatfield and the North tune, and his books often feature the music of the Canterbury Scene and its offshoots as notional soundtracks to key incidents.
Caravan headlined the Summer’s End festival at Lydney in Gloucestershire in 2012, and The Tangent (see Our Friends in the North) played the same weekend. For some inexplicable reason, considering that I’m connected to both bands via Facebook, I didn’t know about it until after the event. Story of my life…
Kevin Ayers’ musical career post-Soft Machine was a bit more chaotic, rather like the life of the man himself. He put together a sequence of bands over the years, never staying with any one group for very long before taking time out and starting again. He was a very respected musician and songwriter, but never quite managed to make it into the top flight. When he worked in the recording studios of London in the mid-1980s, Martin H. picked up all sorts of music industry gossip. He reckons that the reason why Kevin Ayers never made it huge in the UK was because he was carrying on with Richard Branson’s partner. It’s no secret that Mr Ayers was a ladies’ man (to say the least!), which makes this version of events quite plausible.
Which brings us to Gong. Well, what can I say that hasn’t been covered online already? Daevid Allen settled in France after his Soft Machine adventures, found himself at the nucleus of an ever-changing group of similar-minded hippies, and embarked on a long musical career chronicling the mythology of the Planet Gong. This world is populated by the Pothead Pixies who travel in flying teapots – well, you’ve got to have something to go with the flying saucers, haven’t you? – to occasionally visit Earth.
This idea lies at the heart of Mr Allen’s bizarre musical concept. Part Buddhist philosophy, part SF fantasy, part surreal nonsense, the Gong saga unfolds over numerous LPs by several bands (some of which didn’t even feature Mr Allen himself), a few websites, and at least one book.
For some unknown reason, in 1990, Gong even made an appearance on UK television. A late-night ITV music show called Bedrock (geddit?) used to show recordings of live shows. My friend Neil J. used to tape them regularly, regardless of who was on. Sometimes they were instantly forgettable, and he’d tape over them straight away. Other nights, they’d be little gems, like a Caravan gig – or this extraordinary performance by Gong:
Now, here’s the weirdest thing of all: I absolutely love this band! Unlike their main man, I haven’t been stoned before (at least not knowingly), but I love the craziness and sheer daftness of the whole performance. In fact, as I said earlier, I get vicariously high on the books, the films, and especially the music of the psychedelic 1960s and 1970s. On the other hand, many of my friends who do indulge in the demon weed, as well as other substances, simply don’t get it at all.
There are exceptions, of course – Jock loves Gong as well, having discovered them independently of me. Martin H. is a big fan of Kevin Ayers. Liz and Nigel like Caravan. I turned Gene and Paul E. on to The Soft Machine quite a few years ago.
For the most part, though, even people who claim to be into Stoner Rock can’t get into it. Maybe there’s something altogether too ‘English’ about it; ‘Stoner Rock’ is often associated with tedious American bands like The Grateful Dead, The Eagles and others of that West Coast ilk. I much prefer the quaint, whimsical, often downright daft nature of the British scene – it’s a tradition that reaches right back through British culture to Lewis Carroll and further back again. My friends just don’t ‘get’ it in the same way. I’ve never been able to figure out why.
It’s a mystery.
Vicki F. and I used to belong to a Yahoo! newsgroup about the Canterbury Scene and its offshoots. It seemed that every few weeks the news came through that one of the stalwarts had been taken from us. Like Mr Allen, some of them were a good bit older than the hippy guys they teamed up with. Others were far too young when they left us. Elton Dean died in February 2006, aged 60. Pip Pyle, the drummer at the televised Gong gig, and who was also in Hatfield and the North, died in August 2006, aged just 56. Hugh Hopper died in June 2009, aged 64. David Bedford, who played in Kevin Ayers’ first post-Soft Machine band The Whole World before orchestrating Tubular Bells and becoming a respected composer of classical and popular music, died in October 2011, aged 74. Lol Coxhill, who played sax in The Whole World, died in July 2012, aged 79. Kevin Ayers died a year ago today, aged 68. Richard Coughlan, Caravan’s drummer for many years, died in December last year, aged 66. A few of them had obituaries in the papers. Kevin Ayers’ death was actually reported on the Radio 4 news, which was testament to the regard in which he was held in certain circles.
I hadn’t intended to mark the anniversary of Kevin Ayers’ passing when I started this, to be honest. How’s this for a coincidence?
I’d been listening to Gong over the weekend after a daft incident in Cardiff when I was there with Martin a couple of weeks ago. Maria and I went for a pint outside The Duke of Wellington while Martin went shopping. While we were there we were captured by a mad, pissed Irishman who decided to tell us his life story. He was in his early forties, and was the son of hippy parents who’d taken him to the 1971 Glastonbury Festival (when it was a much smaller affair than the corporate extravaganza it’s become in recent years.)
Out of interest, Maria looked up the line-up on her phone, and found that Gong had played. This amused her greatly, as she’s always found the whole idea of Gong hilarious (to say the least.) I decided to dig out my copy of Camembert Électrique and look at the sleeve again while I listened to the digital version from my hard drive. (My amplifier seems to have died a death for some unknown reason.)
I found myself wondering how old Daevid Allen was, so I looked him up on Wikipedia. I was shocked to find that he was 76 last month – and he’s still going strong. That’s fair dinkum, mate!
While I was checking the dates of the musicians who’ve passed away just now, I realised that it’s exactly a year since Kevin Ayers went to play at the Great Gig in the Sky. This entry has taken an unexpected course as a result.
We’re approaching the fortieth anniversary of the show which he performed at London’s Rainbow Theatre on June 1, 1974. This was intended to be his ‘comeback’ gig with his new band The Soporifics – themselves a mighty combo of Ollie Halsall on lead guitar, Archie Legget on bass, Eddie Sparrow on drums, and John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick on keyboards – with Liza Strike and the Chanter sisters, Doreen and Irene, on backing vocals.
To add to the fun, he was joined by Mike Oldfield (who had played bass in The Whole World when he was just sixteen), his old Soft Machine chum Robert Wyatt, synth pioneer Brian Eno, and the former Velvet Underground members John Cale and Nico. The gig was recorded for posterity, and I’ve got a vinyl copy of the LP at home. It’s another one that dates from the time when I was seeing Lisa, over thirty years ago.
Get ready for some more premature deaths, boys and girls. Nico died in 1988, aged 49, after a long solo career and an even longer drug habit. Ollie Halsall died in May 1992, aged only 43. He’d been one of the guys responsible for bringing The Rutles to musical life. He had a drug habit as well. Archie Legget died of throat cancer in July 1994. His online obituary didn’t give his age.
Thankfully, the others are still going strong. In fact, channel-hopping to Radio 2 last week I heard Mike Oldfield’s new single. It’s probably the only time I will hear it, to be honest. He hasn’t troubled the charts for years. John Cale, Robert Wyatt and Brian Eno occasionally put out LPs, and seem to have assumed the mantle of ‘respected elder statesmen’ of British music. They’ll go over the heads of most youngsters, of course. Nobody wants to listen to a record by guys in their late sixties, do they?
And that’s partly the problem these days. The all-pervading cult of Yoof in all areas of life has sidelined guys like these, who’ve been writing and performing for nearly as long than the combined members of One Direction have been alive. Good on them for standing firm, ploughing their own distinctive furrows, and refusing to be manipulated by the record industry. Long may they continue to do so!
To finish off, here’s Kevin Ayers And The Soporifics, with Mike Oldfield contributing a riveting guitar solo, recorded at The Rainbow Theatre on that historic evening nearly forty years ago. It’s a song called ‘Everybody’s Sometime and Some People’s All the Time Blues’. This much is certain – there’ll be one helluva gig in the sky…