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Quintessence: Spirits From Another Time 1969-1971 (2016) review

Quintessence: Spirits From Another Time 1969-1971 (Hux Records, May 2016) 
This album is Hux Records' 150th release and also their most ambitious project by far.

A Jewish flautist from Australia, jazz trained in New York, arrived in west London’s Ladbroke Grove and placed an ad for musicians in Melody Maker in March 1969. The result, a multi-cultural band added to Ron Raja Ram Rothfield: vocalist Phil ‘Shiva’ Jones (Australian of British ancestry) from a hit band Jimmy Page saw down under, Jeremy ‘Jake’ Milton (drums) born in England (to Canadian parents) who grew up in West Africa, Richard ‘Shambhu’ Vaughan (bass) from America, 16 year-old Allan Mostert (lead guitar) from Mauritius, and art teacher Dave ‘Maha Dev’ Codling (rhythm guitar) from Leeds. Sixteen weeks later, Chris Blackwell of Island Records visited their rehearsal in a basement of a Notting Hill fish ‘n’ chip shop. At 2am he doubled Warners’ offer, with full artistic control including album sleeves and unlimited studio time, to sign them.

    In August the cosmic surfers were recording their debut album issued in November and touring Europe the next month. Their Euro film debut saw Montreux’s programme enthuse: ‘One of the best bands in Europe. Individually they sparkle, collectively they shine…When the year has ended Quintessence will be one of the biggest bands in the world’. Heady stuff even for those days, and the music fitted perfectly.

   Quintessence (‘the fifth substance of the four elements latent in all things’) didn’t need the BBC because their live reputation catapulted them chart-ways before Progressive or New Age had even been coined. As Chris Welch put it at the time, to a stunned public, the mighty Quins were better live than the Doors. Band and listeners felt the albums were restrained compared to the concerts, but this new release of studio tapes captures their energy that resulted in a renowned symbiotic jamming style live. Verse, chorus, middle eight, verse for three minutes—no way, this is propulsion, as adventurous as any. As we hear, ‘We can’t use that start again, just let us blow!’ Jake recalls that, although in the best of the time, the studios weren’t geared for live recording: so rhythm tracks first then solos and vocals after, ‘never quite the essence of the band’ he regrets. Pre-gig, matchsticks decided who would write the set-list. Alan and Jake usually decided the opening mode or scale and preferred an unnumbered set-list, ‘unlike one or two others’. Jake says the freer style wasn’t a problem, as he and Ram came from jazz backgrounds that shaped their approach along with listening to Indian music like Pannalal Ghosh, Coltrane or a bit later the Grateful Dead (Dark Star was a big influence for Jake and Alan) played in the tour wagon.   

    Mostert’s range from spiralling acid (but always controlled) to bird-of-paradise-like solos, Maha Dev’s pumping rhythm guitar sometimes as twin lead, the heavy bass (remastering shows its power) allied to fluid drumming augmented with hand-percussion and flute, highlights a leading band at their zenith. (Jim Morrison bought all their albums on import.) Jazz and blues tropes, driving rock, psych, meditation, pioneer electronica, drone, almost choir-like harmonies, audience participation that was meaningful not moronic pap—and all that could be in one song! The idea was to replicate a sound of mesmerising intoxication as identification (not projection) with the audience who participated sometimes with their own instruments. A celebration unifying mind and body that was spiritual and at times celestial, as one reviewer noted. (Association with George Harrison’s Radha Krishna Temple was a myth; like their Swami the band were ecumenical, sharing variant paths; he also advised against drugs). This is bliss music as it should be: vibrant soul-energy, essence, a thanksgiving free and unadulterated.    
    Disc one opens with their famous single, Notting Hill Gate—was it only export picture-sleeve copies that started with the spliff lighting intro?—but in its first-time full, unfaded-out state with a more tripped-out vocal and sitar by a guest before the guitarist took it up himself. Island’s studio was in the heart of where the band lived, London’s bohemian centre. A rehearsal nearby at All Saints Church (site of Hawkwind’s first gig) featured in a counter-culture documentary. No better statement of time, place and band: for this is a trip not only in music but also time dimensions.

    Brahman, which would be on their third album Dive Deep (March 1971 reaching number 43), is here a fourth take of an often-worked song with a middle jazzy riff written by Shiva and different guitar solo. One of the joys of this release is Allan Mostert’s extended solos that were a live delight but rarely on recordings (we now see due to vinyl’s space limitations). His acid- swirler building to a head-topping crescendo on Sea Of Immortality (oddly absent from Island’s compilation Oceans Of Bliss in the 90s) is one of the greatest of the period and here unabridged: this release features two more classic versions of the ‘celestial wine filling you with divinity’. Musical breadth also permeates two seven-minute plus takes of Only Love (Can Save Us), first heard with added live material on the second eponymous album which in June 1970 reached their highest charting of 22 during 4 weeks. This is another testament to their meteoric rise in spite of never appearing on John Peel’s show and only one In Concert recording, in November 1970.

    Many of their best songs here include an even more epic (longer than on the third LP) Epitaph For Tomorrow. Twin guitars are more to the fore, as is the bass, with more fiery solo over a driving rhythm including a rare glimpse of Shiva’s Hammond playing. His favourite track from the debut album (In Blissful Company 1969), Body, has here been wonderfully salvaged from the March 1970 St. Pancras concert that featured on a previous Hux release. Thumping bass, soaring flute and a cloud-bursting solo with wah-wah ends because the tape ended, as the compere explains. Timeless time-travelling.

    A couple of unfinished snippets include a baroque harpsichord piece (for an aborted opera, as was High On Mount Kailash) and Hari Om chant introed by Mostert’s improvisation. This chant briefly appeared faded on the fourth album Self (RCA in May 1972 with one side live at Exeter University, reached 50 but oddly in the chart for just one week) but here has multiple backward percussion melded with funk guitar. Also unreleased on disc two is Tree Of Life by a four-piece and a rare vocal from Dave Codling, reminding a little of Kala (Shiva’s and Dave’s post-Quins band) or Pearl And Bird by Mostert on the debut platter. Self reappears with Codling’s You Never Stay The Same (retitled Vishnu Narain on that later fourth album and same take as a single b-side), this time with vocals by the guitarist and backing (ashram?) singers. Colin Harper speculates that Self on RCA has smuggled-out Island tapes; the label has no multi-tracks of the LP in their archive but does have a complete set for the follow-up Indweller (RCA 1973). Cosmic Surfer b/w Wonders Of The Universe actually exists as an Apple Corps Ltd green/white labelled acetate, so perhaps George Harrison was approached by the band’s management?

    The second version of Only Love is a great find—an outtake possibly eclipsing the classic album track!—with chugging second guitar, hypnotic vocal, Raja Ram’s flute and bells and another high-inducing lead solo brilliantly underpinned by the drummer. The 1970 album track was tape-spliced together by producer John Barham, who worked with George Harrison, Ravi Shankar, Radha Krishna Temple and most of the Apple roster including Lennon’s Imagine, Kala, and films by Jodorowsky and Preminger. Marwa, later on his solo album Jugalbandi (Elektra 1973), is based on a six-note Indian raga, but here uses harps, piano, cello, flute and tablas with a dreamy vocal recalling Vedanta story songs.
    A new mix of Wonders Of The Universe later used the next year on Self appears, and Maha Mantra (90 seconds on the second LP) is here in its full six-minute version with the band’s Swami-Ji (Swami Ambikananda 1934-97) and ashram singers who at one time featured Lene Lovich of later punk fame. This evocative chant kirtan (on Youtube from a BBC schools documentary film) shows the spontaneous and indeed joyous empathy. Also unreleased is Sunlit Kitchens, featuring the band’s poet-lyricist and first manager Stanley Barr reading over a mantra. Shiva requested this and Hari Om to be included: his kindred album with Ralph ‘Rudra’ Beauvert, who runs the excellent band website in Switzerland, is highly recommended (Eclectic Records, 2005). Twilight Zones reappears from the second album, but instead of a meditative mellower is here delivered as a Hendrix-style trio, fuzz bass and all! The closer, Move Into The Light, was the never-played-live B-side to the Notting Hill Gate more fuzz-laden single of January 1970, here reprised (in take 13) with Simon Lanzon (later of Donovan’s band and Chumbawamba) guesting on keys and new Shiva double vocal (baritone to falsetto perfectly pitched) added to the voiceless surviving take with a percussion jamboree longer than the track-time. Three tracks have added new parts by Shiva or Dave Codling. Shambhu, who wrote Ganga Mai, sums up the experience: ‘Certainly our music has been an education and joy to us, and if it can be a joy to other people then its cool’. 

    Digitised to high quality resonance at Abbey Road Studios by Cormac O’Kane, his booklet insights alongside Colin Harper’s technical notes to each song (not in track sequence, a minor gripe) with Shiva’s and Dave’s input, will delight aficionados. Thanks to Hux, thirty reels of thirty-minute tapes were found that also had a Mott the Hoople track and one by an unknown singer (when delivered by Universal, one was missing and six not approved for licence) revealing an incredible labour of love as the label’s ‘most ambitious project by far’ marking their 150th release. Not only has the label released two same-period live CDs of the band (one has already sold out) but also the Rebirth anniversary gig at the 40th Glastonbury Festival and all extant recordings of the follow-up Kala.
    Such labels as Hux, Angel Air, Cherry Red and Talking Elephant are like life-blood for music lovers of bygone periods. For current (future?) music you can pledge for a buffed strat signed on one string, a stuffed stiff stoat with the stuffing stuffed back in (hole signed), a pair of shoes (worn), a signed saucepan lid (not a kid), meet and cheat, limited edition bedpan (cracked) with certificate (signed, cracked) etc. Maybe if existed back then in an age when ticket agency sharks hadn’t yet replaced touts, you might have got a joint (not roast), commune invite, access for nirvana (a realm, not band), but no, the music world like life was different and all the better for it. Such things weren’t even seen on the future horizon where earth-like Trappist One located in the constellation of Aquarius. This release from another time-zone seems in another part of the universe too.

    It is not too extravagant to say that when Quintessence split so did an era. First Barham left, Gopala went from cover designer to Shiva’s roadie, then Raja Ram (or the band depending on the version told) sacked Shiva and Maha Dev after a highly publicised UK tour of cathedrals (the BBC televised one), twice selling-out the Royal Albert Hall, Hyde Park with Soft Machine, an 18-date tour of Europe and label move to RCA (Ram declined Blackwell’s brokered deal with Bell that scuppered a first US tour). One of the craziest decisions in rock history, although there was individual tension over musical policy before the ‘rump’ band fizzled out around 1980. At their height they twice appeared on the forerunner of OGWT, a documentary (New Horizons), the Glastonbury and Kralingen (Holland) Festival films, Montreux, and in over 20 leading music paper interviews in three years. As Colin Harper rightly notes, without their charismatic vocalist and one of the circuit’s leading guitarists, it was like Free without Rodgers and Kossoff or Jethro Tull without Anderson. Not the same appeal or success.

    There is a surprising footnote to the band’s studio life. A BBC producer Peter Carr says Jake Milton coined the title of the famous late-night music series The Old Grey Whistle Test, after a Soho studio desk guard who’d whistle tunes he liked during the night sessions when the band left in the morning. Jake’s then-girlfriend, Gloria Wood, was a BBC music researcher at the time and she told this story to a DJ. Jake confirms, though ‘most people are unaware of the dig at the music biz implicit in the title’! He was a much-in-demand session musician (e.g. Syd Barrett at Abbey Road) and for gigs, from Mick Wayne (Junior’s Eyes that became Bowie’s band for Space Oddity 1969), The Glands with Eric Clapton in the autumn of ’65 (they played Greece which they drove to in a Ford Galaxy), and the house band (with Gordon Edwards of The Pretty Things) at the Arts Lab, where Quintessence was later filmed and Allan blew the amps. He went onto indie success including US tours with his brother Ted in Blurt (on Factory Records etc); a rave review in NME says they blew Joy Division off-stage, and were compared to Beefheart and Tom Waits.

    Raja Ram flamboyantly stormed the early psy-trance music scene (which like Steve Hillage he still continues) in Shpongle. He also made many films of Quintessence, recalls Jake, still unseen in the public domain. Mostert started Blissticket and his Inside World appeared on Burning Shed in 2003. Living in Spain, he performs award-winning fusion music across Europe with his wife. Shiva as a sound therapist and inner faith minister tours the USA with his healing and meditation workshops involving the didgeridoo as an aid to breathing exercises. He still performs at Australia’s most prestigious big festivals with the country’s legendary Unknown Blues Band.   

    Maha Dev (who reformed Quintessence for anniversary shows recently) went to LA during the first wave of punk and formed Made in Japan with bassist Bobby Asea (ex-Cyclops) and Barry Paul (Savoy Brown; Heavy Metal Kids). They opened for Love and other greats as well as on The Damned’s first US tour in 1977, while appearing in the cult horror film New Year’s Eve (1980, Cannon Films). Their 7” Instant Hit b/w You Never Had It So Good (1979) has just been released by Hozac Records in Chicago (HZR-178) to some success: see the Single Cream section of Record Collector (May 2016), ‘a crisp nugget of prickly pop pleasure’. A new video is being recorded stateside in the spring.        

    Underground music today seems to mean ‘on its way to success’, but back in 1970 it meant a life-style and vision. Some bands lost their first fan-base when in the charts, others were just too good to be mainstream. In truth, Quintessence were never underground in the modern sense: they arrived immediately at the forefront, when the measure was gigs and media coverage not puerile gong evenings. They were counter-culture, then and now. If you were around in 1970, this is unmissable. If you weren’t, it’s well-worth checking out where the period was at, musically and culturally: an atmospheric time-capsule that hasn’t dated at all and repays opening and exploring. A double vision of spirits from another time.

Many thanks to Jake Milton, Dave Maha Dev Codling, and Phil Shiva Jones for their kind assistance.

Review by Brian R. Banks/2016
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting article. Great band! Thanks to Hux Records