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Quintessentially a cosmic trip

Quintessence © Colin Lourie

Featuring a new interview with Phil Shiva Jones of Quintessence and  
Australian 60s legends The Unknown Blues 

© Dave Codling

In one street in the bohemian centre of probably the most cosmopolitan city of the day, six musicians of five nationalities formed a band dedicated to the celebration of spirituality in music. Only two knew each other before, yet within weeks the most important label’s owner visited their rehearsal under a fish and chip shop and signed a three-album contract with music and cover freedom, culminating in selling out the Royal Albert Hall twice. The period is as easy to guess as the scenario is hard to believe. The story, however, isn’t just a band history—without precursors—but more a way of life reflecting a new era of awareness which endures into the present day.

   The ’60s hit America when close to half of the citizens were under 25 years-old, so a sea-change was probably inevitable there. It soon blossomed abroad as musicians gathered to forge their own style and vision. Ron ‘Raja Ram’ Rothfield, born in Melbourne to Jewish parents, first learned the violin but changed to flute when in Ibiza in ’61, taking a music degree in it before moving to New York four years later. There he studied jazz with Lennie Tristano at a dollar a minute, “which was worth it”, and performed with American guitarist/bassist Richard ‘Shambhu Baba’ Vaughan. In April 1969 they settled in London’s Ladbroke Grove and advertised for musicians with the proviso that they must also live in W10.

    A couple of streets away lived Phil Jones, who as a child sang what he later discovered were African-American spirituals as if from a previous life. First touring in a boys’ choir he became a teenage star in his native Sydney fronting the Unknown Blues on vocals and mouth harp. The school quintet soon got a debut hit single and national press praising their authenticity as Australia’s first blues-rock band. After five singles the soon-to-be-christened Shiva Shankar literally dreamed of finding a master in England, the land of his ancestors (his father had Welsh origins, mother from Irish and French). In 1968 he paid his way there as a singer on a cruise-ship then worked in a picture-frame factory when he saw a Melody Maker ad for a singer. When first meeting the house guru he was greeted with “Good to see you again”.  

    Two hundred replies further resulted in the enrolment of the 16 year-old Allan Mostert (lead guitar; sitar) from Mauritius, Maha Dev (Dave Codling rhythm guitar) from Leeds—who gave up his art teaching job in St. Albans —and a Canadian Jake Milton (drums), said to have been in Junior’s Eyes though eludes their histories; he lived in Shepherd’s Bush but promised to move. Their Oxford Gardens house soon became a meeting-place for 30-40 musicians, poets including Stanley Barr who wrote lyrics and became their manager, artists like Gopala (Maha Dev’s brother-in-law) who lived in the same street and later designed their albums, and a guru who had a life-long influence: Swami Ambikananda (1934-1997). This clairvoyant spiritual teacher guided them in a non-denominational universal faith, though each was on their own path. He bestowed spiritual names based on individual characteristics: Shiva was the patron God of yoga and the arts who lived an ascetic life on Mount Kailash, and both Maha Dev (Maha-great, deva-god) and Shambu were associative names for Shiva.

Shiva and Swami

    It was a vibrant, less self-conscious version of Greenwich Village at the heart of England’s counterculture where lived Hawkwind, Pink Fairies, Skin Alley, Cochise, Quiver, Steamhammer, Third Ear Band, and Tyrannosaurus Rex among others (Shiva sometimes wondered why Bolan never said good morning). Round the corner Mighty Baby’s commune embraced Sufism. The underground scene was the labour ward for nascent progressive music as we know it today. Quintessence (“the fifth substance, apart but derived from the four elements composing the heavenly bodies, latent in all things”) played their first gig (like Hawkwind Zoo) at All Saints Church off Portobello Road thanks to the friendly vicar, where 400 souls crammed in due to word of mouth. A show at the Camden Arts Lab was filmed. Songs destined for the first album were premiered: Giants, Pearl And Bird, Ganga Mai plus the odd Doors track. In June they first appeared on posters (as Shiva and the Quintessence) for Implosion at Camden’s former locomotive depot the Roundhouse, another area embedded in their history. Several early gigs were benefits, for example in aid of Release which helped people on drug charges, and hippydom’s International Times who interviewed them in August ’69. This communal band never forgot these roots.

    The Quintessence sound immediately fused elements from psych-rock, jazz and blues to Indian raga in true progressive style. New Age before coined, it was extended just as the oft-cited Indian connection was but one influence with Japan, Tibet and western music in a free-form collage. The plan was to replicate the sound in listeners’ heads, they said, a mesmerising intoxication not as a projection but identification with the audience seen as participators in the experience, to which each musician contributed and shared ideas. Their many early interviews (Zig Zag, The Times, Time Out etc) focused on this—with the ethos of the Grove from where it stemmed—which they called a mind and body dance, a physical and mental (spiritual) celebration. Never overserious but a joyful buzz whereby time structures and chord modulations frequently shift around a central riff, a spiritual Can that “ebbs and flows, coils, surges and ripples, occasionally with infinite beauty” wrote a reviewer at the time. The wave was certainly fast moving.

    While rehearsing under a fish and chip shop, word reached Island’s Chris Blackwell and Muff Winwood who came to listen. Perhaps they’d seen Raja Ram’s illustrated interview in Time Out when still a counterculture mag. It was July, sixteen weeks into the band’s career: a contract was offered on the spot. When Warners-Reprise—among at least six dorsal-finned labels—also dined the band in veggie restaurants, Island immediately doubled their offer. Fortunately—Reprise was responsible for some great talents leaving the music biz such as Nick Pickett—Quintessence considered Island the place to be, incredibly offering the new act unlimited freedom. The leading NEMS agency soon signed them for the Roundhouse (again), prestigious Speakeasy, Reading Uni with Pink Floyd, and a high-profile free concert at Hyde Park with Soft Machine, Deviants, Edgar Broughton, and Al Stewart, filmed by Jack Moore of the London Arts Lab collective. It was rumoured Jefferson Airplane were lined-up but couldn’t get work visas. Quintessence entered the studio in August during the heady summer of ’69.

Quintessence © Colin Lourie

    That November saw In Blissful Company, a seven-tracker featuring early progressive instrumentals like Midnight Mode’s slowed-down recording of a tamboura. Two months later a debut single Notting Hill Gate c/w Move Into The Light opens with a clear statement (someone dragging on a joint) for a faster more fuzz-laden manifesto than the LP track, like the album’s opener Giants recalling the mythic race in Anglo-Saxon chronicles influential on Tolkien. 

Ganga Mai soon appeared on the first Island sampler. Setting their stall out early, the songs stayed integral (but never the same) throughout their career. The inner sleeve shows the in-house ashram under an ancient tree; their poet-manager stands seventh from the left and the Swami smiles with Shiva. With a glued-in booklet, the first copies had a 50 x 65cm colour poster of Krishna for what was Island’s most expensive cover production.

    An interviewer learned that making music is a spiritual experience, like holy work, described even then as “trance music” decades before the genre appeared. “Our music’s highly improvised and celestial…for example Indian instruments have an amazing subtlety, really on subtle planes”. A concert is not only a giving out but also receiving of energy, a circle is created like feeling completely charged after a switch turns. Euphoric crescendos in a kaleidoscope of sound melt to leave space for reflection, before building up again with another instrument for melodic and dynamic variety in a rare rapport that they sought to transfer to the colder platform of vinyl. It’s not hyperbole to say that the joyous intensity, on good days, produced something close to rapture for audiences. This exaltation is often described by John McLaughlin as “an entering of spirit” which led to his Mahavishnu Orchestra. Communication (“A lot of bullshit is said about the difficulties of communication, but Van Gogh had it harder than any of us have it today”) reaches a point where there ceases to be an audience and a performer wrote Bob Partridge (Time Out Nov. 1969), “a state of being such that the people are the body and the band are the voice of that body. It becomes a celebration. For this reason I believe that sooner or later they must emerge as one of the truly great groups of our time”. Within two years Quintessence was being called the greatest live act on the planet.

    That month they debuted at St. Pancras (Camden) Town Hall, an important venue in their career, in aid of the underground paper Gandalf’s Garden. Their furthest-to-date gig was at Sunderland’s Locarno supporting Free (returning to headline there two months later), then London University for what must have been the last days of psych with Eire Apparent and Octopus. At Hammersmith Town Hall they played with the Radha Krishna Temple riding high on their George Harrison-produced hits.  Many associate them with Quintessence but in fact the relationship wasn’t exactly harmonious. Krishna Consciousness devotees warned fans that they were being led away from spirituality, and would button-hole the musicians backstage to try and claim them for their own. This fundamentalist approach was shared by the Jesus freaks, but the band said they weren’t evangelists, everyone finds their own path, unified but different too for each band member. “God is God, whatever name is used, a universal concept”.

    Swami Ambikananda, who occasionally attended rehearsals and concerts, taught that Krishna and the Hindu pantheon, Christ—as a pre-Church prophet of love and wonderment—Moses, Buddha and other apostles were on the same journey of spiritual enlightenment. The band’s deep respect endures today, Shiva in 2005 describing him as a constant shining spiritual sun, a master of spiritual psychology able to create a mirror effect for one’s self, the good and the bad. Allan Mostert recalls that it was a high just to be in his presence, and remains the most important experience in his life. Swami-ji, as he was known, didn’t conform to any stereotype: he recommended that the group stop smoking, except Maha Dev, “he must smoke!” The guitarist’s father had been a fireman in the war and believed that the son had been a pilot killed in a plane fire before this incarnation. When he smoked in the tour van they all crowded round him!

    In March 1970 Quintessence returned to St. Pancras Hall to record live for Island, a standard policy of the label then, also filmed by Solus Productions who were friends with Jake Milton. BBC 2 expressed interest in a cinema release of the footage. In spite of the band rarely touring on a daily basis—they preferred time to write, practice, meditate and explore other art forms—their rise was still meteoric. Exactly one year after the band-forming ad they supported Creedence Clearwater Revival for two nights at the Royal Albert Hall, also filmed by the BBC. Two weeks later they were invited to play at Montreux, to be aired on Swiss TV; a London show that month may have been filmed by Dutch and German TV. The Montreux programme enthused about “one of the best new bands in Europe today. Individually they sparkle. Collectively they shine…When the year has ended Quintessence will be one of the biggest bands in the world”—not bad for a European debut.

    Early that summer they appeared on successive days at two of the greatest festivals, at Bath (with Fleetwood Mac, Soft Machine etc) and second-billing to Traffic on the final day at the Hollywood (Midlands) Festival that had one of the most stellar bills ever witnessed. This was filmed by Solus for an unfinished Beeb documentary, though they broadcast them at the ubiquitous St.Pancras Hall for BBC2’s Disco Two: Sounds On Saturday. Down the road at the Lyceum a new record attendance was established.    Though audiences wouldn’t notice, festivals created a tricky problem to overcome. At Hollywood they had to follow Black Sabbath, which Allan recalls was near-catastrophic because the negative vibes didn’t help getting into their own mood. Due to come on after Deep Purple—probably at Aachen in 1970—the Black (K)nighters went well over time against etiquette, then Blackmore poured petrol on the stacks requiring the fire brigade and police. Quintessence played 20 minutes before the authorities cut the electricity, but continued with percussion which sent the crowd wild. The organisers convinced the police that the band should continue to allow fans to wind down naturally—so the power was put back on! The absence at such events of sound-checks (Hare krishna was a convenient one) didn’t help either, especially for larger bands. But the Quins played happily with very diverse groups such as the Who more than once, Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople, and Shakin’ Stevens. It’s rumoured that Pink Floyd avoided playing with them because of their own audience reaction.

    In June Quintessence’s self-titled second album was released with reviews referring to it by the back-cover’s motto: “Be This Dedicated To Our Lord Jesus”. Its lavish multi-colour gatefold, designed by Gopal Das, was split-fronted to open into a triptych as a shrine for candles and incense—if sounds quirky today, one might wonder what purpose was intended for other covers?! The two album sleeves cost Island £2,000, a huge amount then. The opener Jesus Buddha Moses Gauranga leads into one of the most stunning guitar solos of the whole era, a classic acid-swirler building to a head-topping crescendo on Sea Of Immortality live in the studio. It fits well with Burning Bush and storming St. Pancras from that venue capturing their fire (Jesus Buddha…live was put on the double-sampler Bumpers and later a bonus track on Q’s CD). Interspersed with the confident rockers and chants (Maha Mantra was recorded with the ashram choir; video of this recording still exists) were instrumentals combining Indian instruments and electronics, among the most atmospheric ambience yet recorded. Prisms, for instance, was among the pioneer multi-recordings.

    Every title describes what the song is about and intended to achieve. The first two albums highlight the production and tighter arrangements of John Barham, a classically trained composer with several film scores to his credit (Preminger, Jodorowsky) who also worked with Ravi Shankar and George Harrison’s Wonder Wall and All Things Must Pass projects. He released his own album Jugalbandi (Elektra 1973) with Ashish Khan. His first Quintessence session had to be interrupted when he and the drummer indulged in a more potent than usual hash cake! In a recent interview Barham said he’d bought again all Quintessence’s work on CD. The album was their most successful, reaching #22 during four weeks in the charts.

    Mixing of studio and live exemplified their energetic improvisation; each song had a beginning and end with lyrics and jamming as a bridge. Before a gig they drew straws to see who led certain songs, creating freshness for them and the audience. No two concerts were the same. Raja Ram graphically described it as “like letting a tree grow: you prune it, tend it carefully, cut out the rotten parts, and don’t put too much manure round the bottom!” The collective result was compared to Grateful Dead—Mostert too was linked to Jerry Garcia; both used modal scales—but their repertoire was wider. Flute and bass fused Indian and jazz which, combined with subtle blues or acid guitar and choir-like range of the vocals, sparked a trance-like experience, a truly cosmic trip.

Raja Ram and Shiva in 1969

    Straight from the studio they headlined at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall with tour prices (even at civic halls) kept as low as possible, sometimes only 50 pence. After a Dudley Zoo bash in aid of the WWF, they took the same stage as Floyd, Soft Machine, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat and T. Rex in front of 100,000 heads at Kralingen in Holland. Their track Giants exists separately to the festival film Stomping Ground. Rave reviews in Switzerland, France (including a circus event!) and Germany (two T.V. slots) culminated at the Aachen Festival, probably the greatest ever on the European continent, with Traffic,  Deep Purple, If, Free, Floyd, VDGG, Taste, Kraftwerk, Can, Amon Duul, Krokodil and many others. In July a Sounds of the Seventies session was recorded at the Aeolian Hall and aired twice (the same rare accolade repeated a few months later) then at the Paris Hall for Sunday Concert with John Peel (there’s an odd absence from his shows). Origins weren’t forgotten for a free concert outside Wormwood Scrubs prison with Hawkwind and prominent placing on the first Glastonbury Festival attended by 1,500 people when performers were paid the princely sum of 15 quid. Recording then started for their next album.

    In March 1971 Dive Deep was “dedicated to the Divine Mother of the Universe”. With a multi-colour mandala and ecumenical shrine on the reverse, it reached #43. Again Allan Mostert’s sitar and vina highlighted his multi-instrumentalism, a winning formula that this time left out live material for a more meditative approach. The summer saw another shift in approach, coinciding with less touring when Circle Management took over (and later organised a cathedral tour). 

© Jane Stevenson

The band was now able to afford a full P.A. and microphone system which brought new logistics to the six-piece. The guitar volume had been the standard 7-10 max and this needed turning down to a more manageable 1.5-2 volume. The wild guitar was thus removed—by this time Mostert preferred a less distorted sound favoured by the Grateful Dead and The Band anyway—but allowed vocals, flute and hand-percussion to be more clearly heard. Audiences assumed Shiva and Ram were the band-leaders but that was only because they could move around the stage more easily; there was no upstaging. As festival footage shows, sometimes their stagecraft had the drummer centre-front with the guitarists behind. Integral to the free-form style was being able to attune to where the others were taking songs for the collective mix.

    Exploring rock motifs with other styles resulted in extended three-hour shows with twenty-minute encores. A gig with Hare Krishna devotees could be followed by the ashram choir, or Allan on sitar with friends as an opener. I recall this at the Friends (Quaker) Hall in Euston Road when equally split between ragas and electric, with tapestries draped over the amps and light-show by the legendary Barney Bubbles (1942-83) completing the ambience. A school-friend of Allan’s, Ned Bladen, guested on tablas and became a feature when the sound became more percussion-driven, as on Dive Deep and Glastonbury ’71 surrounding the double bass-drum with Jake Milton an underrated master in rhythm patterns. A promo leaflet called it music and lights from the spheres.

    Tony Stewart (Sounds Feb. 1971) pointed out that some bands settled into an easy pattern of giving audiences what was expected without variation due to critics’ need to pigeon-hole groups, but Quintessence was an extension of their individual personalities representing the position reached in their own existence, what another scribe described as “the first musicians to dedicate their music to God since Haydn”. It was “a subtle, tasteful blend of most of today’s musical styles”, “a soul-enriching experience quite unforgettable… for those in blissful company, thanks to Quintessence”, not the usual critics’ response to be sure. Concerts were total experiences on several levels but sometimes had quirky side-effects, as when banned from Bristol’s Colston Hall because joss sticks deemed a fire hazard to be confiscated—cigarettes however were allowed. The same happened at London’s Speakeasy club.

    Apart from another BBC2 TV appearance and the Camden Festival that combined music with films, the band rested until the second Glastonbury Festival in June where Freedom appears in the film of the by-now famous event. (They even helped to build its famous pyramid stage.) London Weekend Television filmed them in the studio for their awful-titled God Rock series broadcast in July, one of the band playing a different instrument in protest against having to mime (only the vocals were live). A German tour was followed by the legendary Weeley Festival, whose line-up simply beggars belief, and a Bangladesh benefit at the Oval sports ground with The Who and Faces which turned out to be the mighty Quins’ last festival show. 

    By then Island despaired of a hit and a majority vote of the band rejected their US deal with Bell (Island’s famous Bumpers wasn’t even issued in the US), so switched to RCA in the hope of a first stateside tour. A new single, the non-album Sweet Jesus / You Never Stay The Same (a different mix to the LP) was brought out on the subsidiary Neon in November. 

This was double-edged as Neon never had enough backing for just eleven LPs and a minor hit single in its one year existence. Quintessence were disappointed, Shiva recalls, “not a smart decision on [RCA’s] part”, and certainly deserved more as an international name-band. In December they were recorded by RCA at Exeter University, then headlined a sell-out 6,000-seater Royal Albert Hall for what was to be the high watermark. The ashram choir shared the stage—just as well the venue had its own backstage cook—while in the audience was the ambassador of India and president of RCA, who said he wanted them to play the equivalent Carnegie Hall.

    Early 1972 saw dates in Europe (Zurich was recorded and privately issued), Scandinavia and another Sounds of the Seventies. The same month that the BBC broadcast them at Norwich Cathedral, Self was released in June to critical acclaim. Partly recorded before Dive Deep, some of their finest work opens with Cosmic Surfer (a modern take on God as cosmic dancer), the classic single never issued. Somebody else had the same idea: there exists a two-sided acetate of it b/w Wonders Of The Universe, mysteriously with Apple Corps Ltd on the white and green label. Did someone approach George Harrison before signing the contract to RCA? For the album the guitarist’s favourite solo appears on his composition Vishnu Narain, and Raja Ram experiments with wah-wah pedal for flute. The bassist thought the live second vinyl side was an average gig but the confident energy shows them at their peak (the 14-minute Water Goddess is a retitled Ganga Mai). New Musical Express welcomed their extended live sound at last for “a remarkable album [that] illustrates their strength as songwriters with the studio side,” a fair statement that the label reprinted for a Rolling Stone ad. The album immediately entered at #50 for one week then inexplicably disappeared from the ratings.

    And then a bombshell hit. Without notice, Shiva and Maha Dev were sacked that month when the vocalist was the iconic frontman and guitarist receiving plaudits as one of the country’s unsung aces. It seems ironical that the pair had been the only ones who voted for Island’s US deal when all their contemporaries had deals there, so “we were out in the cold as it were”.  Some were pulling in different directions by then, when increasingly loose jamming required chanting as the rhythm section never established a modus operandi to get out of the occasional cul-de-sac.

    Raja Ram claimed that after two managers there was a £13,000 debt in spite of their hard work, so perhaps it was an attempt to streamline costs (though Shiva never got his keyboards, congas or even microphone back). But they had also received a substantial advance from RCA, by which time Ram had moved out of the Grove to Kensington. His wife Sita took over bookings and the quartet raised their fee for what was described as “more celestial, spacey and musically economical”. When the four-piece turned up at venues they were asked “Where’s the singer?” because there was no official press release. Lined-up to conclude Reading Festival in August, Ten Years After lived up to their name so no time was left for the headliners!

    The new album Indweller was released in December on RCA proper but, for the first time since the debut, failed to chart in spite of a tour in February. Previously sales were steady and good enough to delay recording the next LP, but this changed in the RCA days. The 10 tracks were in the same mode but missed a stand-out track along with the variety and depth of the absent vocalist and guitarist. Ram admitted that the band “staggered on”, Sita sometimes joining on keyboards, until fizzling out somewhere in Germany in 1980. Jake Milton—who stayed on the fringe of the band’s spirituality—formed an avant-garde punk-jazz trio Blurt with his brother Ted, to rave reviews like NME saying they blew Joy Division off-stage. Mixed with existentialist poetry inspired by Bukowski and compared to Beefheart and Waits, they recorded three studio and a live in Berlin for Factory Records.

    Within weeks Phil and Dave formed Kala, named after a manifestation of Shiva, and able to display their own tour bus in the Grove. Phil even appeared in one of Michael Caine’s films when a new friend turned out to be his manager needing a long-haired hippy! Circle Management contacted the guitarist saying that ELO wanted to recruit him but he was already committed to Kala who’d signed to Bradley’s Records, a subsidiary of ATV. Agents, however, were loath to book them because Phil’s absence from Quintessence was misinterpreted as blowing out gigs when in fact due to the mismanagement of Ram. It speaks volumes that, with many friends from the ’60s, the singer hasn’t spoken to him since the day he heard the news.

    Kala issued one eponymous LP and 7” in 1973. Some songs originally earmarked for Quintessence were now in a more structured form Shiva told me: “Kala has tighter arrangements and a stronger rock feel. I wrote songs that could not be performed by Quintessence and that allowed me to use my voice in a different way, tapping into my blues and rock roots”. The sound partly reprised his early years in Australia with a blues and slightly country influence, overlaid with more generally spiritual lyrics. In the late sixties he liked Steve Marriott’s Small Faces, Yardbirds, Zombies, Animals, Hendrix and The Band after buying as a teenager the latest records of Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers and Beatles. “The moving into blues and R & B brought me to my style in Quintessence” that’s remained ever since, a breadth shown as a big fan still of Dion, Nat King Cole and Del Shannon among many others, along with early Baroque and also Indian classical music. This eclecticism is a trait of most of the great singers in popular music’s history. Perhaps surprisingly, he no longer has any vinyl or even his own recordings, “things seem to disappear as time goes by”.

    He produced the Kala album at three studios with John Barham, who’d been sidelined from Q’s later albums by Ram. Guests included Carol Grimes and, in unfortunate circumstances, Les Nichols (Methuselah, Pavlov’s Dog, Leo Sayer etc) replaced Codling. For the first time each got their own writing credits since Quintessence had a policy of group compositions irrespective of individual contributions. The writing was on the wall, however, when the label illicitly replaced the LP’s eastern cover with a self-detested promo-image of the singer. After Codling, the band demanded more than their 300 quid a week so, due to a lucky coincidence, were replaced with visiting members from his Unknown Blues for a tour which featured on a live sampler Bradley’s Roadshow with Paul Brett’s Sage and Hunter Muskett, the three bands chosen to launch the label. Recorded at the Marquee in March 1973 and produced by Keith Relf of The Yardbirds and Medicine Head fame, it remained hard to find.  

    Probably unsurprisingly for a label named after a hotelier, policy soon changed to a preference for singles and Shiva to jump aboard the glam bandwagon. He recently told Professor Cornelius, “The thought of putting on a glitter suit and copying the trends of the time was nauseating to me. I just couldn’t go from the creative expression of Quintessence to that… Money and fame weren’t my motivation”. So Bradley’s took the van and equipment back from outside their Blenheim Crescent home in a fit of pique and refused to release him from his contract, forcing him to work in a rural dairy farm without other means of livelihood. The Goodies (who did an asinine anti-Krishna ditty on their Dandelion single) and Sweet Dreams provided the label’s hit-fodder until it ceased in 1977, as unnoticed as their roster in the media during its tenure. In 2010 Hux Records issued The Complete Kala Recordings remastered with two new mixes, unreleased live songs, and an informative booklet of the fine band’s ill-fated brief history.

    Quintessence’s albums are rarely out-of-print somewhere in the world. A compilation Epitaph For Tomorrow was made by Edsel in 1994, and Island issued Oceans Of Bliss which, incredibly, omitted the stunning Sea Of Immortality. Drop Out released Self and Indweller (1995) as a twofer with one track missing that shouldn’t have been, Sai Baba, which extends their pantheon. In 2009 the consistently excellent Hux—their booklets are essential reading—resuscitated the legendary St. Pancras 1970 concert, i.e. the material left off the second LP. Cosmic Energy has a 20-minute Giants Suite in full-flow plus five early and new songs from the Queen Elizabeth Hall a year later. Released simultaneously was Infinite Love, the rest of the second show from two same-day solo performances. Over 2½ hours of prime Quintessence on a double CD captures them at full tilt with favourites varying in style and length each time. This fine cross-section, which omits Wonders Of The Universe because blighted by an out of tune bass, includes the only recording of Meditations before the Kala LP. Why Island didn’t issue it as a live double to recoup outlay remains a conundrum. “In those days the music press was all-powerful,” recalled Chris Welch, “I earnestly commended the populace to see them [and] flew in the face of prevailing opinion when daring to proclaim they were better live than the Doors”.   

    Their later careers continue to be creative. Raja Ram turned to the electronics of psy-trance and strutting histrionics of Shpongle in Arthur Brown-like flamboyance, where the lasers, smoke and mirrors reflect his personality in interviews as if reverting back to pre-Q Roland. Maha Dev briefly formed Samsara then released a solo album before moving to America and various music projects. After returning home he formed a new Quintessence recapturing the original ethos. Initially auditioning on bass before switching, Allan Mostert’s spontaneous styles avoided cliché yet he’s one of the period’s most underrated guitarists, reflected in the Melody Maker review of the second album: “Its main function will be to elevate the lead guitarist to hero status”. An early Hendrix influence changed when Jake brought the latest Grateful Dead LPs to the house. His subsequent career developed as a vocalist with the ’90s trio Blissticket that evolved from a heavy acid grunge (Brave New World) to a more JJ Cale-feel on Magic Love. Prana (Monsoon Moon, Wirikuta Healing) culminated with Inside World on Burning Shed Records in 2003. The multi-instrumentalist lives today in Spain and as a duo with his wife plays at world music concerts.

    In the ’80s Phil Shiva Shankar Jones almost signed to Elektra for his Room 101 band. In 1995 he moved to New Mexico (which once attracted D.H.Lawrence and Malcolm Lowry for different reasons, and where Shambhu had lived since the ’70s) for a new path as a sound vibration therapist and inner faith minister—with a difference. Since schooldays he had Aboriginal friends and, after England, interest in their unique didgeridoo rekindled, in fact transformed his life he says. Touring America he links the didge with its (and his) spiritual origins as The Yoga of Breath and Sound—the instrument is a logical extension of breath control that underpins all yogic meditation and, of course, fine singing—for workshops at universities, churches, meditation groups, hospitals and alternative health centres. This uniquely personal yet shared creativity recalls Swami Ambikananda’s “Find your purpose in life and fulfil it.” Some of Quintessence still stay true to their beliefs as a process of selection, the fruit of a lifetime’s experience.

     He has worked with Rudra Beauvert, a highly-regarded musician in Switzerland for his electronic projects on a kindred path. In 2003 they issued Shiva Shakti which revisits five Quin classics beginning with the first single and new songs by both composers, merging the inspirational sound of the east with the Euro-rock innovation of the west. Two years later appeared the double CD Cosmic Surfer as Shiva’s Quintessence. Maha Dev returns on guitar and vocals, plus guests from America (Ronnie Levine; Jenny Bird etc.) and Shiva’s son Krishna Jones, who also features in the acclaimed reunion of Unknown Blues. Side one addresses the geo-political climate of global life, a warning message mixing humorous satire with important views on today’s pervasive political/personal delusions when narrow mind-sets fuel destructive, fear-based agendas. Change starts with the individual.

    Insightful tracks (Reptilian Corporate Sign Language, Hollywood Guru Show, Everything Is Weird) highlight truths in clever poetry that would grace any manifesto against today’s conspiracy of alienation. New Age Breadhead may be a side-ways glance to who broke-up the original band. Interspersed with ballads is Didgeridoo Medicine Man, which reminds this reviewer of John Fiddler’s recent work: a simmering boogie beat with meaningful sense-of-life lyrics. CD two returns to the Quins’ song-book from Giants and Ganga Mai to Cosmic Surfer and Hallelujad. Hail Mary and Sun were written for Quintessence but never recorded, the former featured at the Albert Hall and the latter in Kala’s set-list. The chants are some of the best anywhere, pure lifters for listeners seeking genuine inspiration. An excellent compilation, with two new tracks, was issued as Shiva Quintessence’s Only Love Can Save Us (Hux 2011).  

    In 2010 Rudra Beauvert was instrumental in relinking Dave Maha Dev Codling’s new Quintessence with Shiva as guest for a moving 40th anniversary Glastonbury Festival, released as Rebirth (Hux) and once again produced by John Barham. Eight songs, including the first single with added lyrics in a punchier boogie rhythm, are featured with four new studio tracks entitled Sattvic Meditation Suite, where the haunting When Thy Song Flows Through Me sets the scene for Glastonbury Dawn, Sunrise, and Mendocino Bay. Rebirth is a fine revisit to the repertoire of one of the leading bands of the era. The buzz of the occasion can be seen on video at Mooncow and the Inside Out broadcast of November that year when Shiva re-met Dave Codling (with the local BBC station) in Yorkshire after 35 years.

    In 2012 the Unknown Blues reformed for two lauded shows at Australia’s prestigious Byron Bay Bluesfest in front of over 100,000 people. The lead guitarist, Chris Brown, had been in Kala at the Marquee and the friends first played music on the same stage at the age of 15. Literary agents in New York have approached Phil for a book of memoirs, meanwhile he is working on a new album with American guitarist Frank Evans, Rudra Beauvert, and John Barham from the early days that may appear later this year. “We are creating a nice energy together,” the singer says, “with a spiritual coffee house vibe”, so it sounds well worth looking out for.
    Every band story has its highs and lows of course, but history as seen today has unjustly side-lined acts like Quintessence while raising rather ordinary names, in stark contrast to contemporary memories. There was originality in massive doses, so when Cream, Taste, Beatles and Badfinger split no one would even think to clone themselves as Curd, Tasty, Sadfinger or the Bootles ad nauseum. Other names also define the epoch. In 1970-72 Quintessence appeared in the five leading music magazines regularly with no less than three dozen interviews and concert reviews alone, plus Zig Zag, Beat Instrumental and several underground periodicals as well as the infamous News Of The World. The sensation of 1970 euro-debuted at Montreux, sold out the Albert Hall single-handedly, and graced the inaugural Glastonburys, where their return as special guests for the 40th anniversary is a testament to their standing. 

    In hindsight the absence of stateside exposure probably scuttled what could have placed the innovators-never-imitators among the elite, as happened to many bands (Medicine Head, Groundhogs, Edgar Broughton Band, Stray…) just when the initial impetus sought new challenges. It’s said that Jim Morrison owned all their albums on import. The division that greeted Island’s late US offer first showed the cracks, but the label could have issued Cosmic Surfer as a single or a full live album, both of which aided stablemates Free in similar circumstances. These factors—along with the crazy decision to split the band at its zenith, confirmed by their last album—cost Quintessence a global stage along with a career of decades like the Grateful Dead, whom they resembled but with an added original dimension. Due to Shiva, Maha Dev, Rudra Beauvert and also Hux Records, the band with a message continues to enliven generations...surely the essence of music and life.

With grateful thanks to Shiva ( for sharing his invaluable insights, and Rudra for kind assistance and permission regarding his astounding Quintessence archive at .

*Most of the photos has been taken from

Interview made by Brian R. Banks/2014
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

First heard Quintessence when my older brother brought their album home (the second album). I thought it was hokey back then, but something made me remember the album - in the 1990s! Anyway, I have a couple of their albums now and they are on my iPod. Great sound, great feeling.