Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Alec Palao, Man Of Many Musical Hats

Playing bass with the Chocolate Watchband, San Diego, 2015. Photo by David Greenfield.

Alec, thanks for taking the time to share your musical journey with “It’s Psychedelic Baby Magazine” readers.  You are recognized by music fans for your prowess at conceiving and producing reissues and compilations, searching tape vaults, annotating tracks and writing liner notes for releases, as being a top notch sound engineer, and as Jymn Parrett of the “Garage Punk Hideout” has commented “Alec Palao is one of rock’s great gentlemen.”  

When were you born and where did you grow up?  What role did music play in the Palao household?

Born in north London, just as ‘Love Me Do’ was entering the UK charts in late 1962 so you could say I was “subliminally programmed.” My dad loved pop music and so I was aware of it more or less from birth. He fancied himself a bit of a DJ and so he had two record decks and a Ferrograph (reel-to-reel tape machine) installed in the living room. Unfortunately, as toddler I “posted” a lot of his 7” vinyl through the slots in the floorboards – including a few rare beat records, I’m sure! His big favourite was Buddy Holly, and if I had to name a song as my earliest memory, it would be ‘Peggy Sue’ played at excruciatingly loud volume, to my infant ears at least.

When did you learn to play music and what was your first instrument?  How did you acquire it?  What was your inspiration to play?  What was the first song you learned to play?

From the age of ten to eighteen I attended a boarding school in Letchworth, about forty miles north of London. Great place to go to come of age as it was co-educational and pretty progressive. I took piano lessons for a couple of years there, as we had a piano at home, but it was my friendship with other nascent music fans that really spurred me to start playing music - as well as the advent of punk rock. Even before then, after graduating thorough glam – Sparks,  Slade and Roxy Music were my favourites – I really focused on 1950s and 1960s rock, and tried to hear and find out everything I could, because it all just sounded so fantastic. My early efforts on the piano were trying to master boogie-woogie or things like ‘At The Hop’, enthusiasm trumping technique, for sure.

What was the local scene like where you grew up?  Were you involved in or influenced by it?

Well, at school there were lots of older kids who looked down at us youngsters and listened to progressive rock like Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis in the dormitories while furtively smoking cigarettes. In fact I still can’t stomach much of those group’s later catalogues because of that experience, although of course Syd-era Floyd is mandatory, early Yes is OK, and I do maintain a soft spot for the first Genesis album, the one that sounds like the Zombies. The guys above me in school were condescending about my interest in 50s rock’n’roll or the Monkees, but when punk came along, the tide turned and me and my friends could laugh at them, as “their” music was suddenly yesterday. My closest pals however were all really turning onto rockabilly and doo-wop, and I shared their interests equally, along with contemporary things like the Jam, Stranglers, Clash etc. However the most influential thing in my musical education came from a chap at school who in 1977 played me Nuggets. I borrowed the record and wore it out – this was the greatest music of all time, with the exciting frisson of psychedelia and 60s experiment, but with as much of the energy I was hearing in new wave.

What was your first band?  How old were you?  What type of music did you play?  Did you play original or cover material?  Did you play any gigs?

At school, from 1977 on I played in a succession of groups: piano, drums, and finally bass, using borrowed instruments, as I could barely afford to even buy records in those days. The most significant of these was called the Bourgeois Cliches (after a line of Ringo’s in A Hard Days Night). We did ‘Dirty Water,’ ‘Gloria,’ ‘Hey Joe’ and other garage-type stuff – unusual stuff for teenagers in suburban England of the time (1980), but then Nuggets really had struck a chord. When I left school the next year, my school friends and I formed the Sting-Rays, which was an amalgam of our mutual love for rockabilly and 60s punk. I was 18, the others were a year or two older than me, and what we lacked in technique, we made up for in enthusiasm and a tremendous amount of energy in live performance, fuelled I might add purely by our love of the music and the desire to match the mayhem we heard in the wildest rockabilly and garage records. Right from our first rehearsals we were doing covers of the Elevators, Remains, Doors, Peanut Butter Conspiracy and others, as well as more obscure things we gleaned from Pebbles and the like – ‘I Want My Woman,’ ‘Blue Girl,’ ‘How Much More.’ Our own songs, at least the ones I wrote, had additional, perhaps more diverse influences, from Gene Clark or Love to Wire and the Buzzcocks. We also hated dumbed-down, novelty lyrics: we had to sing about something. The Sting-Rays were together for five years, and underwent a few line-up changes – I played drums for the first few years (standing up, Moe Tucker style) before moving to guitar. We toured the UK and Europe several times, opened for the Cramps, Pretenders and Bay City Rollers (seriously!), and shared the stage on countless occasions with the only like-minded groups in the UK at the time, the Milkshakes and Prisoners. We made a bunch of singles and EPs and five albums, and there is a distinct progression audible on our records when I listen today – as time went on, my love of 60s folk-rock really started to move the songwriting away from the more raucous garage/rockabilly stuff. Recently, someone told me the Sting-Rays “were either loved or loathed”, which I take as a backhanded compliment, because we certainly marched to the sound of our own drum. We were never enough of one “thing” – garage, rockabilly, punk or whatever – to please the crowds in the usual manner, so most of our fans tended to be broadminded outsiders like us.

Sting-Rays show in Berlin, 1985. Photo by Manuela Calchini.

When and why did you relocate to the US?  

Just before the Sting-Rays split in 1987, I had realised my long-held dream of visiting the US, spending several weeks in California with friends that I had met in London over the previous years. Thanks to the music, I was already primed to fall in love with San Francisco, but it was after that trek that I firmly resolved to move to the Bay Area. Even discounting the music, everything about America just seemed more colourful and larger than life. Having graduated from the University of London, I was selling records on a market stall in Camden Town with not much else going on. I had formed another, all-original, band with a couple of the guys from the Sting-Rays, the Charity Case. We played around and made a 7” single, but the pull of the West Coast was too strong. Also, my girlfriend of the time really wanted to move with me, and that was the extra push needed. I arrived on American shores in October of 1988.

1988 (AP on right). Photo by Joe Dilworth.

In 1990 you co-published Cream Puff War magazine to chronicle the musical history of the Bay Area.  Would you tell us a bit about the publication?  How many issues have been published?  When was the latest edition?  Will the magazine ever appear again?

The minute I got my feet on the ground, I decided I wanted to find out everything I could about the Bay Area 60s sound. I already knew a lot from collecting records and mags like Who Put The Bomp, but I was curious to meet some of the movers and shakers of the vintage scene. Of course, my heroes were people like the Watchband, Beau Brummels, Oxford Circle, Frumious Bandersnatch and the like, so initially I got a very condescending attitude from the older folks I talked to, who just couldn’t understand why I cared about such obscurities instead of the Dead, Eddie Money or Journey. I ran into Jud Cost who was a fan of the Sneetches, the band I had joined after moving to the Bay Area, and we decided to collaborate on a magazine dedicated to the more esoteric yet no less worthy highways and byways of Bay Area 60s rock’n roll. The first interview subjects were easy – the Great! Society and Mystery Trend had long been on my radar, and of course Shake Some Action-era Groovies was something that loomed very large in my musical upbringing. It was thrill to become friends, and later play with, Cyril Jordan from the Groovies, and the reaction to the mag was very positive. We did a second issue in 1993 that was a lot more in-depth, with features on the Charlatans, Watchband and others. 

Apart from a reprint of CPW #1, that has been it. I had designed the whole thing on an early Mac and realized for my part that while it was fun to do this, the fanzine format was a little limiting for what I really wanted to do – create records. Unlike mags like Ugly Things, we didn’t include any advertising, which is what is required to keep a publication solvent.

The Sneetches, 1990 (AP to left). Photo by Erik Auerbach.

How did you become involved with Ace Records, UK?  What was your position with the label?  What was the first project you were involved with?

The Sting-Rays released several records on Ace’s Big Beat subsidiary, and we knew of co-founder Ted Carroll as we used to frequent his fondly-remembered vinyl emporium, Rock On. We used to hang around the labels offices in Kentish Town, using the photocopier to make gig fliers and stealing the biscuits (ie cookies). However, by getting to know everybody there, Ted and Roger Armstrong got an inkling of my love of 60s rock, and so I helped advise on a couple of Big Beat releases including the Chocolate Watchband’s 44 compilation. A little later, my first compilations (circa 1985) were from Major Bill Smith’s Texas stash, including an album of Larry & The Blue Notes. Even though I had moved to the US, I kept in touch with Roger in particular, and after he saw a copy of Cream Puff War, he suggested I look into the possibility of reissuing material by the musicians I had been in touch with. 

Your “Nuggets From The Golden State” series, released on Ace’s Big Beat Records imprint is one of the most respected series of garage/psych music releases by single as well as various artists.  What was the inspiration for this incredible series? 

As mentioned above, Cream Puff War had been a great initial outlet for my passion for the Bay Area scene, but I have always felt it a duty to turn people on to the riches that populate popular music’s past. With both issues of CPW, we included a flexidisc with unreleased tracks by the artists featured within, which went down very well. I always made a point of inquiring after unreleased material with my various interview subjects and as well as scouring the record stores and swap meets with a vengeance, I also made friends with some local collectors, and acquired a lot of knowledge that way. So when Roger from Ace offered to bankroll a series of compilation CDs, I dug right in, and right away brainstormed a dozen or so volumes, just on what I knew existed.

When and what was the first release in this series?  How many volumes have been issued to date?  How did you locate the bands and decide which merited release?  What are some memorable experiences related to the series?

The initial releases were a bunch of Autumn Records related stuff, the first being the Beau Brummels’ Autumn Of Their Years set in 1994, and the first time a lot of their outtakes had been issued. Going through the Autumn tapes was my first major foray into a tape vault. Immediately after this I did a bunch of work based on the catalogue of Leo Kulka’s Golden State Recorders. I have already been fascinated by recording technology and I soon realised that vintage studios (or the owners thereof) was where I might find the gold, along with label owners or producers. I love musicians, but they are rarely the best custodians of their own work! So there were packages based around local labels like Fantasy / Scorpio and Hush, or studios like Bill Rase’s Sacramento operation. I had some thematic ones in mind too, like The Berkeley EPs collection, that drew together some of the rarest releases of the era. And there were several single artists packages intended from the start, the most significant was the first official issue of the original Charlatans. Subsequent volumes I am also exceptionally proud of are those by the Oxford Circle, Kak, Frumious Bandersnatch, She, Ace Of Cups and more recently, the Stained Glass.

It’s been a while since I counted the specific amount of volumes under the “Nuggets From The Golden State” banner, and some have been deleted, but to date I think it totals about thirty discs. The criteria for anything I do is based around historical significance, musical quality and rarity. I relish the challenge of officially issuing material rumoured to exist or only available upon horrible-sounding bootlegs, like the Charlatans, or creating “new” albums that shine a light on a neglected artist, or neglected era of an artists career. Such was the case with the Sons Of Champlin’ Fat City, which is comprised of  an unreleased album recorded in 1966-67 for Frank Werber’s Trident Productions. Getting to know Frank, an amazing cat who had turned three frat boys into the biggest sensation of the late 1950s (the Kingston Trio), was amongst the highlights of my tape sleuthing career. He was out of the biz and domiciled in the wilds of New Mexico, but after some gentle romancing, Frank invited me down to check out what he might still have and it turned out to be an embarrassment of riches, all stowed in the vault of an old post office. So much good stuff – the Sons, Mystery Trend, Blackburn & Snow, We Five plus a lot of client tapes from his studio including Grateful Dead, Sly Stone and Quicksilver items to name just a few.

You have been nominated for Grammy awards for Best Liner Notes on more than one occasion.  What releases did these liner notes come from?  But you are known for writing more than liner notes.  What are some of the publications you have written for and what are some of the topics you have written about?

The Best Album Notes nominations I have received were in 2011 for in The Music City Story, a box set of R&B and soul from a Berkeley label that was another holy grail I managed to luck into (funnily enough, amongst a thousand reels of doo-wop and funk I discovered a rare demo session by Big Brother & The Holding Company, of all people). In 2013 the nomination was for the notes for my reissue of Country Joe & The Fish’s Electric Music For The Mind And Body, which was a pleasant surprise as the Grammys doesn’t recognize psychedelic music very often. And 2014 was for the notes to I’m Just Like You: Sly’s Stone Flower 1969-70, a compilation of Sly Stone related productions I assembled with the help of the great man himself – now that’s a story!

Outside of Cream Puff War and the occasional few paras for books that collate work by various different writers, in truth I haven’t done much writing outside of liner notes. Occasionally I have done articles for Ugly Things or the like but to be honest I’d prefer to be off in search of another tape vault. Rather than be a commentator, I like to be the person whose work gets commented on.

Your work on the Zombies catalog is renowned and the 1997 box set Zombie Heaven is still one of the benchmarks by which individual artist box sets are judged.  What was the genesis of this project?  Would you describe the process you followed in compiling and releasing the 4 CD, 119 track collection?

With the Zombies at the launch of the Zombie Heaven box set, London, 1997.

The Zombies set came about because Ace happened to have a good relationship with the owners of the Zombies’ catalogue, a music publisher who handles a lot of jazz copyrights. A causal conversation with Roger from Ace about this got me thinking, and when I proposed an all-encompassing box set, rather than baulk as most other labels would, he told me “go ahead.” Being a major Zombies fan, I had already mapped out the basics of the set, aiming to at least get the correct mixes in place. What Zombies masters were available in the CD era tended to be very poor, 70s era remixes and phony stereo that did not match the quality of their original mono singles. I also knew that judging from the stray tracks and anomalies within their discography, some in-depth research was required. So we focused on session reels, acetates, demo tapes and any other places where there might be more Zombies music, and I was stunned, not only by how much stuff I found, but also the unerring quality of everything, even the roughest home tapes or radio appearances. More importantly, the guys in the band, to a man, were some of the sweetest and most supportive artists I have ever worked with; no egos, and a genuine enthusiasm for my enthusiasm for them. Everything fell together perfectly, and even today when I think about Zombie Heaven, I realize that the Zombies are one of only a few acts in the history of popular music whereby you could squeeze their entire works into a set and yet have it remain a satisfying listening experience from start to finish.

Since 1998 you have been involved in the Rhino Records’ Nuggets box set series.  How did you come to be involved?  What was your role in expanding Lenny Kaye’s original 2 LP set Nuggets into the 4 CD box set Nuggets: Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968?  What was your favorite part of working on this box set?  Would you share a couple of your favorite tracks?

It’s a interesting story. Even before I embarked upon compiling the Nuggets From The Golden State series for Big Beat, I was friendly with some people who worked at Rhino like Bill Inglot, who helped facilitate accessing certain catalogues like Autumn. But I got involved with the Nuggets box because while working mail-order, selling records and CDs,  a frequent customer was Gary Stewart, then the VP of A&R at Rhino, and so he became aware of what I had been doing for Ace and my intense interest in 60s garage and psych. Gary was the one who produced the Nuggets box and suggested basing it on the original album, with the best of the genre spread across the other discs. He asked me what I thought should be included, and then enquired, do you know anyone that can write? I pitched myself in an honest fashion, and therefore got to contribute an essay about the global influence of the original Nuggets, as well as providing a lot of hard factual info for the track notes.

You have been a part of several other parts of the Nuggets box set series.  Which projects have you been involved in and what role did you play?  Would you share some recollections from your involvement with the series?  Do you have a favorite among the Nuggets releases?

After the first Nuggets box came out, the response was extremely strong, and I soon heard from Gary that he intended its sequel to be vintage  “nuggets” from around the world. There was a group of collectors and aficionados that he tapped to suggest items for inclusion, and in fact at one point we had a meeting at Gary’s house in LA with myself, Mike Stax, Bill Inglot and a bunch of other knowledgeable folks that felt like a rock’n’roll version of the movie Twelve Angry Men, with everyone lobbying for their favourites. I would say that quite a few titles on there are down to me – the Mockingbirds, We All Together, the Mascots. More importantly, Gary felt I had contributed enough to the set in all areas - writing, licensing info, hard data etc - that I should get co-production credit for Nuggets II. Sacriligeous maybe, but I think in some ways it’s almost a more enjoyable listen that the first Nuggets set. The subsequent Children Of Nuggets set, of 80s-90s era revival bands, was not something I would have dreamed up by myself, but when asked, I was happy to help assemble it.

On the other hand, the Love Is The Song We Sing overview of the Bay Area 60s scene that I put together in 2007 was never intended to be a Nuggets volume – after all with the inclusion of things like ‘White Rabbit,’ it would hardly constitute a bunch of garage rarities. However once they agreed to do it, Rhino felt they needed to add the sub-title San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970 to help market it, which I was fine with, as after all this was in the fortieth anniversary year of the Summer of Love, and record labels like Rhino always need an angle. As to that box, I am inordinately proud of it, as unlike the other Nuggets boxes for Rhino, it was essentially my vision throughout, though Hugh Brown the art director really helped make it look so handsome. That Love Is The Song We Sing subsequently received a nomination in the Best Historical category at the Grammys really meant a lot, because of this. The ensuing Where The Action Is: Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968 box was suggested by Rhino because of the reaction to the SF set. I was happy to be intimately involved – and receive another nod in the Best Historical category – but it was not 100% my baby.

(I might add that Grammy nods are very nice, largely because you are being judged by your peers in the industry, but really, I am not hung up on credentials. I get as much juice from an complimentary e-mail or someone telling me “I really liked that comp you did,” as I do from any “official” recognition).

How do you normally become involved in a musical project?  Do they usually begin with an idea you have?  What is the typical process of turning an idea into a release?  Would you share some stories of how you became involved in particular projects?  How long does a project normally take? 

There can be a lot of ways that a reissue project or a compilation gestates. In the early days of doing things for Ace, I would brainstorm compilation ideas based on what I knew about labels, artists, or other factors related to a historical scene. The San Francisco Bay Area was an easy subject of course, because it had a resonance in the larger music scene as a whole, but also there were plenty of easy-to-access sources of repertoire. If you have an idea, the next thing to do is to assess how easy it might be to assemble, given who controls the masters. Often this will be the first stumbling block, if they are unknown or prove unwilling to license (hence the proliferation of bootlegs in the garage/psych market). The next important point is the material ie are there tapes, what is the quality, and how can I get at them. Is the artist, producer, label owner or any other interested party around to contribute information and visuals to the package? It is rare that all three of these aspects fall together seamlessly, but it does happen. 

I should mention that I am probably unusual in the back catalogue / reissue world in that, with certain exceptions, I handle every aspect of a release I work on. This entails: coming up with the idea; figuring out who owns it and working out a deal on behalf of Ace or whichever label it might be for; transferring the tapes and editing/mixing them where necessary, interviewing the participants and writing the liner notes; scanning the pictures and other visuals; providing text audio and visuals to the label and then overseeing the design and final mastering. I can’t think of anyone else who does to this to extent I do, though most reissue types would find some of the processes tedious. But by overseeing every step of a reissue along the way, I can stay in control of it and more or less keep it in line with what I had originally intended. I can also then speak with absolute authority about how a particular record or set of recordings was made, having manhandled the nuts and bolts myself. A happy by-product of doing my own tape transfers is that I can often “compile out of the vault,” as Ace likes to call it. In other words, you might come across some strong stuff while looking for something else or just doing a methodical tape trawl, and all of a sudden a project presents itself. Such a case is the Dan Hicks’ Early Muses comp, a demo album I found amongst the Trident tapes that is pure vintage Hicks, recorded while he was still with the Charlatans. As I knew Dan and he was agreeable, that was a fairly easy collection to get out there. 

Conversely, a project that took many years to come to fruition was the release of the Rationals’ great mid-60s sides for A-Square. I first spoke to Jeep Holland, owner of the masters in 1997, and while he admitted he had been harassed by other reissue labels for the A-Square stuff, it turned out that he was a fan of Ace Records and therefore willing to listen to my proposal for both Rationals and a various A-Square collection. Sadly he died shortly after, and the materials went into limbo for several years. His brother Frank took over the estate and eventually I was able to meet with him in person in New Hampshire to reiterate my interest in reissuing his late brothers productions. I had an opportunity to look over what tapes there were, and then on a subsequent visit got to copy the masters. All this took about a decade to accomplish, and while Frank Holland was amenable to letting us use what he had, several of the Rationals’ Cameo-Parkway masters were now owned by ABKCO ie Allen Klein’s organization, who were notoriously difficult to license from. It took another couple of years of legal to’ing and fro’ing before we finally got those cleared. I’m sure Scott Morgan was doubting I would be able to pull it off, as he and I had been in discussion about the Rationals even before I had reached out to Jeep.  Thankfully he is a trusting and patient fellow, and Think Rational is one of the most pleasurable comps I have worked on. Plus Ace now owns the A-Square masters, so the guys will get paid - all’s well that ends well.

The past couple of years has seen the realization of the reissue campaign of Sky Saxon and The Seeds with five titles released between 2012 and 2014.  What was the inspiration for the reissues?  When searching the tape vaults how do you decide which takes to include?  How did this project compare to your experience working with The Zombies catalog?  What were the highlights of The Seeds’ reissue campaign?

It seemed to me that the Seeds were the last of the iconic garage outfits to be in need of an overhaul of their catalogue – and a reappraisal of their unique place in the rock n roll firmament. Like most children of punk rock, Seeds records always struck a chord with me because I could relate to the intensity and power of the minimalist approach. Ace had a good working relationship with GNP Crescendo, owners of their catalogue, who are still very active as a record company, so I explained my ideas to Neil Norman, son of founder Gene Norman, who had taken over the running of the label. I suggested revamped versions of each album with remastered sound, along with whatever bonus tracks we could find to include. He liked the idea but was hesitant to let me get into the tape vault at first - yet I won him over and we are both glad we did, as the session tapes threw up some really great stuff that Neil admitted he was not aware of. The Seeds were prolific in the studio, often recording a title on three or four different occasions, and it was fascinating to discover Sky sang live on almost every take, and he was always “on” – so there was a lot to choose from. We located the original mono masters that had not been used since they were first issued – and which sounded a lot more powerful, especially on the earliest sessions – plus unreleased tunes, and also the Raw & Alive album without the overdubbed screams. I had an inkling we would come across some of these things, but I was still surprised at the quantity of material to go through, so in that manner, it did bear a resemblance to the thrill I had gotten with the Zombies tapes. Hearing the Seeds at work in the studio, without Sky’s eccentric overdubs and flower-power gibberish, really affirmed my understanding of them as a crack rock’n’roll band. One highlight was the incredible fifteen minute long full take of ‘Evil Hoodoo,’ where they do not let up from start to finish.

When did the idea of a film about The Seeds come to you?  How long did you work on Pushin’ Too Hard and what was your role in the movie’s production?  Would you describe some of the challenges to finishing the film and how you overcame them?  How involved were the members of the band?  The film received a very warm response to its limited screenings.  Are there plans for further theatrical or DVD release of the film?

It took about seven years from the start of filming to the theatrical premiere last summer (2014), but luckily the work on the movie dovetailed with the reissue series and in fact both processes threw up things that benefited each other. Neil Norman already knew that he wanted to make a movie about the Seeds – he’d directed other documentaries on GNP Crescendo artists like Rusty Warren. However I think when he saw my enthusiasm for the Seeds and my understanding of their importance – plus a certain objectivity, given that I was not the record label that owned their material – it spurred him to put it into motion, and thus I became the producer / writer / principal researcher etc. The main challenge we had was finding vintage footage – there’s quite a bit that exists, but it tends to be of the same couple of tunes. There were also some interview requests that were turned down – Neil Young, Ray Manzarek – but I think who we do have talking in the movie adds a certain amount of eloquence you might not expect. Iggy was particularly good on explaining the importance of the Seeds, and Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys, the Bangles, Johnny Echols of Love and others all weigh in very well. I did meet with Sky – he was on board with the project and in fact I was getting ready to fly out to Austin to interview him when he passed. And while I went to Michigan to film Rick Andridge, he was already in an advanced state of dementia so we could only get some shots of him playing drums - very sad. Rick’s voice is on the soundtrack though, thanks to the good graces of my friend Jeff Jarema, who provided the audio of a phone interview he did back in the 90s. As to Daryl Hooper and Jan Savage, they have been just fabulous, with Daryl’s collection providing a large part of the visuals that you see in both the movie and the reissue CD booklets. Currently we are still showing the movie at theatres across the country, and plan to take it to the UK in the spring on 2016. So a blu-ray or DVD will probably not happen for some time. There will however be a soundtrack CD coming soon, which includes more unreleased Seeds gems.

Big Beat Records is certainly not the only label you have worked for. What are some of the projects you have worked on for other labels?  Do you have any idea how many releases you have been involved in over the years?  The number of credits listed for you on is simply mind boggling.  Do you have time for any hobbies outside of music?

To answer your last question first: not too much! Music is an all-consuming passion, and as Sly once told me, “you can take drugs away from me, but don’t take music, ‘cuz then I’ll die.” But I like to hang out with my wife, go out to eat, or stay home and watch old movies and TV shows. Plus I read a fair amount, and keep up on the news. I have probably been involved with a few hundred releases over the past two decades, but the ones I really count are those that I have completely supervised (compilation, audio, liner notes etc). I would say that the list of those is probably getting up to well over a hundred at this point. Ace / Big Beat is the main resting place for these projects and my loyalty fully lies with them, as it should, because first and foremost they give me an autonomy that I don’t think anybody else would be willing to. Most other labels I have been involved always have someone looking over your shoulder. In the US however, Light In The Attic are the closest to Ace because of their commitment to quality, and they have a great marketing / distribution set-up which is so important in this age of diminishing sales, particularly for back catalogue. The Sly Stone package (referenced above) I did for them was a lot of fun, and no other label outside of Big Beat would have let me do the recent Kitchen Cinq anthology in the way LITA did. Rhino is more or less defunct as far as physical is concerned, but there are some other hip US labels I have done stuff for, like Omnivore (for whom I have produced packages on Darondo, Alex Chilton and Ron Nagle).

You have been spotted playing on stage with such bands as The Chocolate Watchband and the Beau Brummels.  How did you manage this?  Would you describe the experiences?  Is there anyone else you have appeared live with that our readers may be familiar with?

Yes, I am a groupie – not only do I reissue them, I play with them! I used to joke this was the ultimate in “archive research” that you could do on an artist. Seriously though, these situations happen organically. I always strive to remain convivial with anyone I work with, and in doing so I have become good friends with many musicians I have admired from afar. So when the opportunity to perform with someone like the Watchband, it’s almost like you are a pal helping out. I have to say, the thrill of performing with Dave Aguilar and company is one that never diminishes. The new augmented line-up with three original Watchband members, Daryl from the Seeds, and yours truly on bass is something that would have been inconceivable to my teenaged self when first listening to Nuggets all those years ago. Similarly, Sal Valentino and the other Brummels are folks I’ve known for a long time and so playing with one or more of them is natural, but nevertheless a high honour. I have also been a Flamin’ Groovie on at least one occasion (and played with Cyril Jordan in the Magic Christian for several years), and backed some other heroes and heroines on stage, such as Kevin Ayers and Sharon Tandy. I’m a current member (on keys and bass) of the Rain Parade, who I’ve worked with in other capacities. Loved their records when I was still living in the UK, so that’s a lot of fun. But perhaps the most significant is the band I also currently work in, Powder, with my dear friend Rich Martin, whose vintage recordings I have helped bring to light back in the 1990s. With the new Powder, I have really gotten back into songwriting and also, as an adjunct, recording. So we are finishing up a new album engineered at my home, and its something that I am exceptionally proud of.

Magic Christian, 2005 (L-R Prairie Prince, AP, Paul Kopf, Cyril Jordan). Photo by Chet Helms (yes, that Chet Helms).

What are some of the reissues you are working on that we should be on the lookout for?  Are there any future projects you can give us a heads up about?

There are always many pots cooking on the stove: ones about to come to a boil are a Sonics vinyl box set for Etiquette (another group I am so grateful to be friendly with), plus for Big Beat are Golden State Psychedelia, the latest in the Nuggets From The Golden State series, and Kinked, a compilation of vintage Ray Davies/Kinks songs and sessions. Plus a Paris Sisters anthology, four volumes of 60s soul label Loma, more Zombies on vinyl and an expanded version of the Jim Dickinson cult classic Dixie Fried. The late great Sean Bonniwell of the Music Machine bequeathed his tapes and copyrights to me and a couple of friends – yet another humbling high honour - and so we are planning to continue to celebrate his legacy with from that amazing stash including Sean’s psychedelic soundtrack work. Finally, there a particular set of repertoire on the horizon that I am truly thrilled about, as its something I’ve been daydreaming about since before I came to the US – can’t spill the beans just yet, but I know you and your readers will be into it!

With Keith Olsen, Mark Landon and Ron Edgar of the Music Machine, 2012.

There are hundreds of other things I would love to ask you about, but instead I’d like to ask if there is anything about yourself, your music, upcoming releases or anything else we haven’t discussed that you’d like to tell “It’s Psychedelic Baby Magazine” readers?

Well people often ask, when are you going to run out of things to reissue, or, if they are less polite, resurrect from the grave. My stock reply is there I would need several lifetimes before I would be done re-presenting – or presenting for the first time – great moments from popular music’s past seventy-odd years. So you won’t be rid of me yet . . .

Again Alec, thanks so much for taking time from your hectic schedule to give our readers a look inside the music industry from your unique perspective.  

At the Fonda Theatre, Hollywood, 2013. Photo by Harold Sherrick.

Interview made by Kevin Rathert/2015
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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Repeated Viewing - The Three Sisters Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2015) review

Repeated Viewing - The Three Sisters Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – CD, 12” – Wil-Ru / We/Me Records

Alan Sinclair has been around for several years at this point making his own patented version of the dark wave ambient sound that so many people have been biting over the last few years.  Sinclair on the other hand is no simple Carpenter worshipper, his love of the giallo, ambient, rock and horror genres all seamlessly blend together in Repeated Viewing.  He’s released a ton of stuff over the years digitally, but only recently during the horror boom that’s happening, has he finally started to receive a little bit of the much deserved attention that he has coming his way and started to get physical product out into the world.  He’s got a ton of releases in the works and I think one of the things that helped him finally garner attention from labels was this first release of some of his soundtrack work,in this case composed for the 2015 Daire McNab film The Three Sisters.  I’ve got to be honest and say that I’m not super familiar with either the film, or McNab’s work.  What I am familiar with is Repeated Viewing’s abilities when it comes to amazing composition and arrangement, honing his abilities over countless releases and years locked in experimental seclusion.  Even considering all of this, The Three Sisters OST is an absolutely monumental step forward for Repeated Viewing as a coherent and cohesive collection of tracks; especially highlighted by the track sequence, which was obviously done to fit the moving images it was written to accompany.  The Three Sisters perfectly showcases not only the hauntingly beautiful melodies that Repeated Viewing is known for while allowing him to channel his innermost giallo/horror vibes, but also the incredible breadth of sounds and emotions in between that he’s likewise more than capable of.  Opening with the six and a half minute “Main Titles” (Three Sisters) synthesized bells ring and echo out of a forbidding darkness before being joined by a bellowing low end and guitars.  Drums slowly slip themselves into the mix, dragging things into a lumbering convulsing procession before the song literally just explodes into a universe of sound.  The guitars screech and pop, rising and then dipping back in the mix, a sinister slinking synthesizer looms and threatens below the entire composition; the sound slowly taking on a more and more hideous and threatening form.  The main theme of the song begins to grow and then waver in the guitars and keys, threatening at times to almost disappear before the choir of sounds seem to convalesce into a perfectly conceived apex of sound, joining together in a unison call to dark gods and the ancient ones.  The end of the song almost reminds me of something from one of the Phantasm movies, a perfectly executed arpeggio repeating behind a droning choir of ethereal voices, tied together by an extremely minimalist Carpenter rhythm.  “Heartbeat” is the first song that should make it quite apparent you’re not just listening to any old horror soundtrack, that Three Sisters is something different and unique.  The haunting piano line that opens and repeats throughout “Heartbeat” is damned near perfect, and the almost Friday The 13th use of the vocoder – or what I assume is a vocoder at least – is genius.  The piercing calls of distorted breath are extremely unnerving, especially as they’re floating above a rising chorus of keys crawling up to the top of the mix, and finally fading away into nothingness.  “Alone At Midnight” is a great example of how much influence Sinclair pulls from Italian giallo and avant-garde horror soundtracks.  What starts as a seemingly random clamoring of sounds and blips, is slowly joined by a reticent drum track and a drone of bone shaking bottom-end.  It really sounds like it could have been pulled out of some Dario Argento library music, the obviously analog sounds battling for space in the chocked and dense jungle of noise.  Growing more emphatic the farther it progresses, “Alone At Midnight” slowly begins to take its’ enigmatic shape.  The shift at three minutes in, and the proceeding forty seconds though, is something that could have been pulled out of a number of killer Cannon or Hammer horror films. A screeching organ drifts off slowly in the mix as “Alone At Midnight” comes to a close leading the listener to the humming opening notes of “She Hears Him”.  Growing from the low bellowing tones of what sounds like a distorted organ or something, “She Hears Him” slowly begins to unhinge, little by little at first, tiptoeing along at a menacing pace. You almost feel like you’re peering through the eyes of a voyeur, slowly stalking their victim the sublime sounds in their mind growing darker and more intense with the passing of the seconds before fading slowly and giving way to the sound that follow it.  If “She Hears Him” reminded me of a stalking track then “Gunter’s Sympathy” takes things to a whole new level.  Growing from another echoed repeating sound very reminiscent of Manfredini’suse of vocal sampling on a plethora of Friday The 13th releases, the keys begin to slowly invade the soundscape, and their rhythmic pulsating finally almost overtakes the echoed cry desperately repeating in the background.  An ominous choir of voices extremely reminiscent of Carpenter’s work on Prince Of Darkness or Seagrave and Myrow’s work on Phantasm joins the demonic symphony and then suddenly sputters out into nothingness, spiraling back into the mysterious ether from whence it came.  “He’s Here” is intense and driving from the very get go; pulsing arpeggiation cycle in the background of a truly demonic sounding howl of low-end keys that rise like smoke and steam from a crack in the earth into the very depths of hell.  It’s clear that things have just been warming up as the song begins to move in a much more threating direction, the sounds becoming increasingly despondent and atonal before again metamorphosing back into the repeated sounds of the synthesizers that close out the track.  The haunting bells of “Resistance”hiss and breathe with cracks like a dirty tape crawling atop the seemingly placid surface and are joined by a rising wail of distortion and brain rattling guitars bubbling up from the depths of the mix.  Suddenly, the track erupts into an explosion of live drums, guitar and dissonant keyboards franticly jangling and screaming in the recesses.  “Resistance” could be just as at home in any of Elite Entertainment’s late 80’s action films as it would in an mid-80’s slasher flick, or The Three Sisters itself, at least I assume the latter.  The full rocking sound of “Resistance” quickly dissipates and gives way to the ephemeral smoking tendrils of sound of “Childhood Fantasy”. Again proving that he’s just as at home with the more avant-garde side of composition and arrangement as he is with precise, infectiously repetitive themes and suites, Sinclair introduces a horrific sounding carnival organ into the muddied concoction of harsh despotic sounds.  A single piercing note undulates and warbles, the other instrumentation and themes coming and going like ghosts in a haunted house the whole time.  While it may not be the most ‘fun’ song on the album, it’s most certainly one of the most unnerving, and I dare you to stick on “Childhood Fantasy” late at night all alone and switch out all the lights – because I guarantee it will creep the hell out of you.  “The Escape” is another long movement, around seven and a half minutes.  These elongated compositions seem to be, or at least in my opinion, where Repeated Viewing really shines the brightest.  His ability to grow a song from slow starting seeds and ideas that blossom into fully realized and multi-instrumental arrangements across an expanded time pallet and scene are what really set Sinclair’s work apart for me.  He obviously takes his craft more seriously than a lot of the other people who set out to write much more upfront and hokey or intentionally retro synthesizer music.  And there’s nothing wrong with that kind of music, I personally love a nice cheesy synth, but that’s not necessarily a good game plan and it doesn’t always work.  When that’s the case the list of people to call upon who still work inside the industry and accompanying genre is extremely small, but Repeated Viewing should be near the top.  His ability to weave altering emotions, build and drop suspense at will is unbelievable, and it’s easy to see, especially when listening to tracks like “The Escape”.  Rising and building for nearly four minutes before it’s joined by any percussion, I’m not sure how the rhythm becomes so increasingly emphatic over that period without their being an abrupt or jolting shift.  I’m not even really sure how Sinclair peels the layers back once more revealing the innermost core of the song, and then almost instantaneously introduces a host of live instruments without it sounding like a completely different song, but how he manages to shift the mood to a completely triumphant and celebratory one from the dirges of the most ominous of threats is absolutely spellbinding!  There are those who will likely be turned off by some of the more rock influenced angles, upset it’s not completely synthesized sounds and solely electronica but they will be the minority and have obviously missed the point. Repeated Viewing does much more than imitate John Carpenter or rehashing ideas already done to death, but instead incorporates many more of the actual sounds that you would find in just about any horror or action soundtrack from the mid-80’s.  For me, it’s just another thing that makes Repeated Viewing’s music truly unique and an absolute pleasure to listen to.  “The Creator” is a quick reminder that you are indeed listening to a horror film soundtrack.  The dissonant discordant synth tones and disembodied percussion that start “The Creator” quickly grow into a full-fledged monster.  At a minute and a half “The Creator” begins to absolutely bleed giallo influences all over the place.  You can hear some amazing Lucio Fulci and Stelvio Cippriani proclivities melded with what I would definitely call a Chuck Cirino influenced style and tone.  “The Creator” sounds like it might work in Chopping Mall if you found the right scene. Like a song drug straight out of the 80s, although it’s a bit more dark and forbidding than Cirino’s compositions for Chopping Mall, “The Creator”defies time so deftly it could inevitably easily find a good home there.  The CD release of The Three Sisters motion picture soundtrack is finished out by a series of four remixes by various and pretty well-known faces in the ‘ horror soundtrack’ and accompanying genre/community.  The first is a remix of the opening “Main Titles” by Umberto, who is a ridiculously talented musician in his own right without a doubt, standing heads and tails above most of the rest of the recently arrived competition inside the horror music scene.  He does not disappoint here, stripping away nearly two minutes of the original six and a half minute arrangement. In doing so, Umberto strikes at the very core of the original composition and crafts something new and amazing from it, something unholy and dark, forbidding and sinister.  If you’ve ever stared pensively over the side of your bed wondering what horrors lie only inches from your face as you sleep beneath the slim covering of your sheets dangling like curtains to hide the hell beneath, than “Three Sisters” (Umberto Remix) should sound very familiar.  It’s as if my childhood nightmares were perfectly encapsulated in escalating outbursts of synthesizers, taking shape and eventually a physical form before your very eyes as the song progresses.  Reaching a frenzied peak of noise and commotion “Three Sisters” (Umberto Remix) finally breaks and rolls back in a wave of echoes and keys, only to be quickly replaced by the haunting tones of the “Gunter’s Sympathy” remix provided by none other than Vercetti Technicolor.  I’m not even going to get into a huge sidebar about how amazing Vercetti is or how it’s the solo project of the Giallo Disco label owner, how you can get his albums digitally for free from his Bandcamp page or anything like that.  What I will get into, is how Vercetti is able to cast a dreamy shadow of dark foreboding over the original version, making it even more ethereal and ghostly.  The ephemeral form of “Gunter’s Sympathy” (Vercetti Technicolor Remix) pays much less homage to the Phantasm influences you could originally hear, and instead replaces them with a healthy helping of Carptenter-esque avant-garde sounds, tones, and drone notes wafting listlessly in and out of the mix.  Nearly doubling the length of the original track, this is one of the rare occasions - where even though I love the original track, I think the remix might actually be a marked improvement; expanding the core idea of the song and allowing it more ample time to breathe.  “He’s Here” the Antonio Maiovvi’s None More Cosmic Mix on the other hand is the weak link in the chain here for me.  This is surprising as Maiovvi’s music is usually right up my alley, but in his more club-beat version of “He’s Here” I can’t help but feel like he stripped the heart right out of the track.  Maybe it’s the fact that I love the original so much, but I don’t think that the None More Cosmic Mix quite lives up to its name or does proper justice to the original.  The one thing I can say is that Maiovvi truly makes it his own, and it sounds much less like a remix than a completely new composition based on elements of the original tune.“Resistance” is given a new treatment by Night Sequels who I think much more aptly approach the tune and transform it into somewhat of a more club friendly sounding version of its predecessor. Half way through the song I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, and then, exploding in a synthesized glitter of disco lights and glass floors I was rocketed onto the dance floor.  The remix feels funky, not forced, dancible and yet not tampered with.  I definitely prefer the original version of “Resistance”, but the new direction for the song that Night Sequels pulled off is pretty impressive in its’ own right.  All in all Three Sisters is without a doubt one of the most interesting soundtracks I’ve ever heard offered up and the remixes filling up the extra space on the CD was a really nice touch as well in my humble opinion, making this more than worth the admission price.  I love to see excess space filled up with something interesting or entertaining, and the four tracks at the end of the CD definitely qualify as all of that and more.  I recently finished up a small Q+A with Alan Sinclair AKA Repeated Viewing and I was informed that the Three Sisters soundtrack is going to be released on 12” vinyl by We/Me Records unfortunately excluding the four remixes.  However, vinyl enthusiasts fret not!  The ever amazing Sinclair has your back in the form of the Three Sisters Remixes 12” that is going to be coming out on Disko Obscura in December.  There’s a host of other Repeated Viewing releases in the works but I’ll talk more about all of that in my interview with him.  In the meantime The Three Sisters will operate as a perfect primer course of what to expect from Repeated Viewing and wet your pallet to get in on some insider info…  So what are you waiting for?  This had to have taken you the better part of a year to read! Get off your guff, listen to some tunes, and make sure to score a copy soon.  There’re only 300 copies of the CD and I’m pretty sure the vinyl’s going to be even more limited–read as: do not sleep on this release, it will sell out.  Make sure to keep an eye out for the interview coming soon and further reviews too, as I’m going to be on Repeated Viewing like white on rice from now on!

Review made by Roman Rathert/2015
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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Nik Turner’s Intergalactic Arkestra - Space Fusion Odyssey (2015) review

Nik Turner’s Intergalactic Arkestra - "Space Fusion Odyssey"

Mr. Turner’s discography takes more turns and detours than the M1 under construction in the summer, but this is approximately his 12th solo project, not to mention several dozen other releases under a plethora of names, many legal variations of ‘awkwind. Always surrounded by the cream of the crop, Turner has outdone himself this time, garnering support from guitarists Robbie Krieger (Doors), Steve Hillage (Gong), and John Etheridge (Soft Machine), legendary jazz drummer Billy Cobham (Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra), Amon Düül II founder John Weinzierl, and many more. The self-descriptive album title suggests this will be a seamless marriage between the space rock and jazz fusion styles that have been prevalent throughout his 50-year career.
        “The owls are not what they seem” (as David Lynch warned), but they sure sound like they’re swooping in to kickoff ‘Adjust The Future’, a frenetic rush of muscular bass, nimble-fingered guitar soloing, and dizzying synth flourishes that all demonstrate where Ozric Tentacles found their influences. Octogenarian Gongstress Gilli Smyth also drops by to add her inimitable space whispers around Turner’s serpentining sax.
Squawking sax adds an eerie vibe to the Eastern-flavoured ‘Hypernova’, and ‘Pulsar’ serves up some tasty jazz fusion licks and appropriately spacey synth bubbles. Elsewhere, ‘An Elliptical Galaxy’ is an air guitarist’s delight, with more free-skronking, jazzy sax from Turner, while the short-but-sweet ‘A Beautiful Vision In Science Forgotten’ adds a funky backdrop to the outer space flashes from oblivion.

While vinyl junkies will salivate over the packaging (a 12-panel poster fold-up houses starburst-coloured vinyl), real fanatics will opt for the CD version which includes practically a second album’s worth (over 35 minutes) of bonus tuneage spread across four new tracks! Ms. Smyth jostles you from a narcoleptic daze to space-whisper sweet nothings in your ear throughout the sexy, saxy skronking ‘We Came In Peace’, ‘Interstellar Clouds’ is a wah-wahlking, talking funk machine, and you get eight-and-a-half more minutes of floating, Eastern-flavoured navel-gazing with ‘Chapter 2’ of ‘Spiritual Machines’. I even thought I heard a sitar strolling around in there for added comfort and Turner’s dancing flute provides some additional head maneuvering!

  All told, another fantastic outing from Turner and his crew of superstar guests – be sure to catch Turner and his live band performing highlights from the release on his current US tour.

Review made by Jeff Penczak/2015
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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Mick Softley: A Rebel Life With Friends And Music

“Music is the world’s essence. Culture is the musical rhythm through which the world grows” (Aleksandr Blok). It engages many emotions and when touches us may stimulate exploration. Such is this journey, with friends of a minstrel who chose not to fit any foisted construct—including that of the music biz—but to go his own way. Never wavering from the bohemian life of his songs, Mick Softley epitomises the 60s and traits of the English spirit.

    He influenced Donovan and many others as well as being promoted as the new Bob Dylan (whose birth year he shared). Living the rebel life from the outset, his lyrics went for the jugular more than the American dared. Softley’s father worked as a mechanical engineer from East Anglian tinker ancestry; his mother from an Irish Catholic farming background qualified as a nurse and assisted the famous Pankhursts of the Women’s Suffragette Movement (her son’s stamp album was from their mail, even the Emperor of Ethiopia; he precipitously swapped it for a tuck-shop drink). His first school was run by nuns but preferred his own playground in nearby Epping Forest, though probably in the choir because classically trained, and a Jesuit College in Tottenham didn’t result in priesthood because he was more interested in girls he told one interviewer. An avid swimmer, the local pool’s lifeguards doubled as evening club bouncers so he was able to see Ken Collier and skiffle bands that were all the rage. His attitude to music changed with Big Bill Broonzy 78s—similar to Beau with Lead Belly—and so the teenager taught himself country blues on a mail-order guitar.

    Inspired by James Joyce, the 18 year-old quit his factory job with £50 savings and motor-biked with a friend to Spain in 1959, then hitch-hiked to Paris and lived above a bookshop. He sat with Beatnik writers like Corso and Burroughs, but they soon paled compared to the ex-pat music community there such as Sandy Denny and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. He busked with two later folk legends: the pre-ISB banjo man Clive Palmer and Wizz Jones. The latter recalls that when walking down the Champs-Elysees they saw a Union Jack on a building: ‘Look at the state of that flag, Mick” to which he responded “Follow me”. The two blue-jeaned vagabonds marched up to the posh receptionist who asked “Can I help you?” to which Mick curtly responded “The flag!” “Pardon?” “The flag—it’s dirty, a disgrace! As a patriotic Englishman I find it extremely embarrassing and offensive. See to it immediately!” “Yes, sir, of course” and they trooped out. Passing by a week later it had been cleaned and restored! “With a hilarious cheeky persona and wonderful voice,” Wizz recalls, “the French loved him. He was always a joy to play beside in those days”.
In Paris, 1960.

    When in Blighty he ran the Spinning Wheel in Hemel Hempstead, a tiny but raucous club where he encouraged the stage-shy Maddy Prior (she still remembers) before Steeleye Span fame. It was in that town that Wizz first met Softley through mutual friends who used to make an annual pilgrimage to Cornwall in the spring and summer (Clive Palmer resided there too).  The Home Counties was both base and a rich folk network where Softley’s “biting political songs [and] anarchic attitude were the bench-mark,” a reputation extending to “rambling ways and roving eye” (Terry Cox). One evening, sitting around suggesting titles for Mick’s first album, a popular crooner’s ‘songs for swinging lovers’ came up. Wizz Jones suggested a play on it, as there was much talk then of the campaign for nuclear disarmament.

    The angry Romantic’s boldly-voiced blend of protest, travel and travails of love—more a Shelley than Keats, mixed with Byron—first appeared on Songs For Swinging Survivors (Columbia 1965). Its ironic title, hirsute cover shot on a smouldering Essex rubbish tip and uncompromising sleeve-notes, heralded the new scene. The producers cherry-picked a single-day’s session at Bond Street’s Advision studio (“a lot of personal hells”)  featuring covers of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Billie Holiday, plus the first Vietnam protest song ‘The War Drags On’ and ‘Goldwatch Blues’ about the exploitative workplace. Donovan covered these, though the elder Softley was aggrieved when presented with a contract to sign before even being asked if could be used. This is how Donovan put it to me a few months ago:

    “Mick was a pal who helped me as did Mac [Keith ‘Mac’ Macleod] with
    my early guitar studies. Perhaps Mick showed me how to D tune when I
    learned his ‘The War Drags On’ which was influenced by Buffy Sainte
    Marie’s ‘Codine’. We all listened to Buffy. Mick was a character indeed
    and had some fine ways in his playing. I learned Wiz [sic] Jones songs
    from him too. Mick was a guy to listen to in the early scene ... I guess I
    helped Mick to record his first album, introducing him to producers Peter
    Eden and Geoff Stevens, the two who discovered me. Thanks boys and
    thank you Mick, you are one of a kind.”        

The charting Dave Berry covered one of Mick’s unrecorded songs as a B-side, ‘Walk Walk Talk Talk’, arranged by an A&R rep and they never met the singer informs me. In November the same year Immediate issued his ‘I’m So Confused’ / ‘She’s My Girl’, the A-side about organised religion no doubt with his parents in mind. These first electric band recordings continued a year later with Mick Softley and the Summer Suns’ ‘Am I The Red One’ / ‘That’s Not My Kind Of Love’ on CBS. Both A-sides often appear still on compilations. His close friend ‘Mac’ Macleod, who’d given up his record shop job in St.Albans to play second guitar on Donovan’s first UK tour in ’65, recalls that this “strange, quirky masterpiece echoes his schizophrenic life which was unpredictable and erratic to say the least”.

    Softley’s wife Maureen and young son Matthew (a daughter arrived later) lived in Hemel Hempstead. Wizz with his wife and child were in difficult circumstances living in a VW camper, waiting for the spring to decamp down to Cornwall, so Mick’s family made room for them. Mick had a market-stall selling foam rubber and the house was full of the buzzing of an electric cutter and blaring rock music. “I plan to be a millionaire by the time I’m thirty!” he used to declare, so time was running out. When that didn’t quite go to plan he also opened a home-made wine shop, which he locked up one afternoon and never returned to.

    Mac first met him soon after leaving the Merchant Navy in ’61, either at the Spinning Wheel or in one of St. Albans’ two clubs where Mick “performed one of his unique shows, with his vintage Gibson Kalamazoo and amazing voice I was immediately impressed”. Donovan’s sidekick left after their ’65 tour for three years in Scandinavia, then on his return Softley reappeared at his club-like home in French Row, St. Albans. In July ’69 Mac, with percussionist Candy Carr, were invited to join Donovan (who also encouraged Softley to record again) at his Skye retreat to prepare for an upcoming American tour.

    Just before they left Mick turned up at Don’s home in Little Berkhamstead, and as Mac was having problems getting a US visa he decided to stay in England and form Soft Cloud Loud Earth (a nod to Mick’s paganism?). Enlisting Mike Thomson on bass and a drummer, the pair started rehearsing but Mick’s behaviour was becoming rather erratic and needed kid gloves, Mac recalls. The rhythm section couldn’t handle it and pulled out before even gigging. So they reverted to an acoustic duo as Soft Cloud in September, with lauded concerts at the Roundhouse and Zig Zag benefit with Fairport Convention at the Dunstable Civic Hall the next month:

    “We always went down very well, but it was an ordeal never knowing
    what Softley’s state of mind was going to be. He had a propensity for
    surveying the audience with a lingering, threatening stare which really
    made me feel hot under the collar. The demise of Soft Cloud came a
    short time after, when Mick was called to the studio to record Sunrise.”

Mac, understandably, thought he’d be involved but the upcoming producer Tony Cox preferred his own sessioneers; Mac realised his friend was more of a one man show anyway. Softley told the inaugural Zig Zag that the sessions were strictly professional, without stimulants, because respected word and music craft (another factor is that he didn’t know the renowned musicians). Not one photo exists of Soft Cloud nor recordings apart from some home demos at French Row—one of these has surfaced on Youtube, a storming version of Mick’s later single ‘Time Machine’. As Mac put it:

    “Despite Mick’s mercurial character, we had some great times playing
    together and I regret that Soft Cloud didn’t progress any further. He
    wrote some excellent songs and it would have been interesting to see
    how the collaboration could have developed.”

Mac formed the Danish psych legends Hurdy Gurdy (he is Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man) and was in early Argent. He also appears on the recently discovered Attic Tapes by the late John Renbourn before his debut album. Acclaimed by musical peers then and since, his Incredible Musical Odyssey retrospective garnered excellent reviews in 2003.
    In the summer of ’69 they walked into the Wellington pub and started up—not chuffing the landlady as it actually was the gig of Rory McNamara! A few days later he re-met Mick, worked on some songs including Woody Guthrie, and busked together in Leicester Square in between gigs during that winter. Nigel Hyams, who has worked in films and television ever since, first saw Mick one Sunday in 1968 or ’69 playing at the Green Dragon in London Colney village: “as we approached I heard one of the most incredible voices belting out an amazing version of ‘Aquarius’; there against a pillar stood this rather short guy with a wizard-like beard, playing an old Gibson. I did think, and still do, that Mick’s voice and delivery is up there with the very best of the best”.

    Through a mutual friend, Dennis Garlic, they became friends. Softley lived a nomadic life between England, Holland, Denmark and the so-called Gypsy Festival in the Camargue (he was like a human internet in those days). Back from his travels, many hours of deep conversation and music were enjoyed at Dennis’s flat in Beaconsfield Road St. Albans. Signed to CBS, Nigel recalls that the singer was later desperately trying to get his songs’ copyright back which he eventually achieved, much to his relief. “He was never mainstream, and hated the way they commercialised his music”. When Nigel, Dennis, Satch Niemiec, and Colin Geraghty played in the area (Scott’s Wine Bar; Adelaide; Fleur de Lys etc) Mick might show up and play an impromptu guest spot: “It was always so incredibly uplifting to hear that powerhouse of a voice, and catch up on things afterwards”.

    A problem developed at Scotts: it became too busy and people stayed too long!! The owners wanted to open the basement as a burger bar instead (were they time-travellers from the future?). When Mick heard this after returning from abroad, he insisted they all go down there. He was dressed in his full “wizard” outfit: long black cape with a mystical symbol on the back, long flowing hair and very long wizardy beard. He talked to the owners and, basically, put a spell on the venue so that it would never have live music there again unless it was by them. It has changed ownership many times, says Nigel, but the curse seems to have held ever since.
    By the time Softley’s first CBS LP Sunrise came out in 1970, the singer had spent the advance on a transit van—the one featured on the cover—to facilitate a bohemian life from a vacant plot in sleepy Flaunden. The label seemed to have been searching for an English Bob Dylan as Donovan went his way. Marc Brieley for example was signed for a couple of albums but also eventually left the music business in 1973. Marc tells me he never met Mick Softley, being in Al Stewart’s circle around that time.

    Street Singer the next year was more of a return to his roots, including the evocative natural home of ‘Goldwatch Blues’. When Rory McNamara was busking in Portobello Road one day his friend Mick was heckling in the crowd. The CBS photographer turned up with some of The Byrds, who were then label-mates; Rory handed over his Framus guitar so Softley could pose on what eventually became the Street Singer cover. Rory appears on the right, with curly hair. In Wimbledon later Rory said he planned to busk on the continent. Mick lent him his little 1930s Gibson for luck, ‘I’ll come and get it when I need it’. Eighteen months later he appeared out of the blue on his friend’s doorstep in Amsterdam, and they went out busking…for a few months. Now living in California and gigging across the states with two great recent CDs available on his website, Rory McNamara fondly remembers a major musical influence and generous spirit.

    Softley’s final CBS album, Any Mother Doesn’t Grumble (1972), was the most lavish and best known, but all are hypnotic trips: emotional story-telling like soul-experiences via one of the era’s most melodically strident voices carries a song to its own place, unimaginable by anyone else. Reviewers noted its “majestic feel, creating images of awe-inspiring vastness”, which is not mere hyperbole. There is an intense beauty in all his work, as if illicitly overhearing inner thought.

    He told Melody Maker about hating the music business and couldn’t respect anyone in it, with the possible exception of Ritchie Havens. “The rest are incredibly sick, just singing about themselves in a life that just ain’t real. The pop business is a bloody great cardboard pyramid, and they live in it. It’s so banal it’s absurd!’ Brave words in an era of singer-songwriters like James Taylor and John Denver, though Cat Stevens eventually had his own doubts, when the media spotlight preferred to focus on the ‘safe’ rather than more demanding contemporaries such as Softley, Wizz Jones, Kevin Coyne, John Martyn and Roy Harper. Protest against injustice and exploitation of person and environment, social hypocrisy in life and love, celebration of what others condemn, all and more permeate his songbook in a heady brew.

    By then he’d appeared on two CBS samplers (Together; Rock Buster), picture-sleeve singles around the world especially in Europe, tours supporting Steve Miller and Mott the Hoople (which he liked and likened to a road-sweeper clearing the ground for the main act!), Radio One’s Sounds Of The Seventies, French T.V.’s Grande Affiche, top billing at one of the first Roskilde festivals, and interviews in all the leading music papers including the first Zig Zag. Even CBS must have finally realised they had not so much a flower child as a loose cannon liable to go off at any moment.

    Nigel Hyams recalled that his friend was becoming “more and more allegorical in his speech and acting quite unusually. I still have a long letter from him that is almost impossible to understand. He also sent me what appeared to be the copyright to ‘Birdy Birdy’. I’m not sure whether it was a gift or not, but I still have it”. There are some parallels with the memories of Wizz Jones about this time too. Their paths crossed several times over the years in Holland, France and Belgium, and from Paris came a poignant letter from Mick recounting how he’d met his estranged wife in an unsuccessful attempt to rekindle their failing marriage: “By this time Mick’s mental state was deteriorating due, I’m convinced, to too much cannabis imbibing”. (If this is so, then it may add a regrettable footnote to what Mick told the press about his initial CBS recording sessions. The nomadic life perhaps took its toll too.) A few years later they’d wake in the morning to see Mick’s van parked outside but he would never come in, only occasionally knocking on the door asking for a glass of water. “We had some wonderful times, and I find it very sad that we lost touch and that he never achieved the success he deserved.” The same can be said of Wizz, Mac, and Rory McNamara, except that their reputations continue deservedly high in folk circles.
    Softley’s only live recording is one track on C’est La Fete a Malataverne (Expression Spontanée ES6) with Alexis Korner also and, appropriately, well-known French political musicians. The idea of Pierre Toussaint, it was held in the troubadour south but the artistes centred round his Le Bourdon club in Paris. Attended by 12,000 people, it had local support and is still recalled fondly. By the end of his CBS contract, Softley was abroad for longer periods. McNamara met up again in 1977 when Mick was living in Haarlem near Amsterdam. After a few years busking outside the music scene, disliking others “making money out of what I do…that’s why I’ve avoided a proper career”, he released two vinyl LPs and a cassette via Doll Records of Zurich: Capital (1976), Mensa (1978), War Memorials (1985), his last recording. A couple of songs are in French, sounding as if from the medieval troubadour age of which he seems more a part of. The first (which starts “Arrows forged…”) was recorded in three days in Germany and mastered in Holland the same month. Nothing else is known about these ultra-rare recordings.

    However, Mick did have the master tapes but never the required equipment to transfer them (a second-hand machine he bought didn’t work), according to fellow-musician and artist Simon Rackham. He has put the last album very recently on Youtube for everyone to enjoy, with the artist’s permission and blessing. There is also a short mockdoc by Phoenix and Moore there, adding to the myth if not the legend. Peter Frame included him in Rock ‘n’ Roll Landmarks of the UK and Ireland (1999), having booked Mick as the headliner (over Wishbone Ash) at the first birthday party bash of his famous Friars club in Aylesbury.

    Mick Softley was one of the victims of the County Court rulings in the 1980s against travellers, so moved to Northern Ireland the year before his last album, occasionally surfacing at the Belfast Folk Festival. Around this time (dates are difficult to pinpoint for such memories) Nigel Hyams received a tape copy of a Doll recording from the artist which he thinks was made in Enniskillen (War Memorials?) when they met for the last time in French Row. To this day he feels “very lucky to have shared some times with Mick Softley” and “wishes him well in every way”. Melissa Softley believes her father’s first stroke was around that time, and he unfortunately suffered another a few years ago while cycling around town, confining him to a nursing home ever since. It’s believed, from friends there posting news on a Facebook page devoted to him, that the local council sequestered his belongings from his council home (which may have included the Doll master tapes). While gardening there and researching Einstein whom he greatly admired, he’d written and published several books of poetry on four computers. From childhood, books were always close to his heart.

    As one CD reissue says, Softley was “far too original to be categorised and bar-coded by the faceless suits running big record companies”. Kris Needs has called him “criminally overlooked”. A box-set is overdue to say the least. As friends movingly show us—and my gratitude to each of them here—there is a symbiosis of music and life lived to the full with its own integrity, which of course had fall-out in areas such as family as the artistic life often does. His originality deserves wider appreciation for what certainly has resonance just as much now as then.
Please contact Ian at if you have any Doll recordings or information for our ongoing project. Thank you.

Article made by Brian R. Banks/2015
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