Raja Ram & Quintessence’s Complete Island Recordings

June 5, 2017



Raja Ram & Quintessence’s Complete Island Recordings

Just released are the remastered
Island recordings of Quintessence (Move Into The Light, Cherry Red Records
under their Esoteric imprint ECLEC 22584). Complete with a single and
full-length live track from the Bumpers
compilation, as well as original art-work and photos, this double CD box is a
most worthwhile addition highlighting the period that was the English
counter-culture’s heyday as the 60s turned a corner into the 70s. They were
heady days indeed, in more senses than might first seem.

    In West London’s Ladbroke Grove the music
scene also saw Hawkwind, Pink Fairies, Skin Alley and Mighty Baby (who became
Sufi-inspired) among several others. On the same street was Marc Bolan when
still star-dazzled by the sky version (perhaps that’s why he never responded to
the band’s greetings?). Ron ‘Raja Ram’ Rothfield, interviewed here later,
placed an advert in March ’69 in Melody
—or was it a local rag, because the stipulations were living locally
and being a “Hip musician”! The Australian-born flautist and chime-percussionist
had just moved from New York,
where he’d had jazz training. Soon on board were Phil ‘Shiva’ Jones (vocals,
keys) a hit-maker with Australia’s equivalent of The Yardbirds, Allan Mostert
from Mauritius (lead/acoustic guitars, vina), American Richard ‘Shambu’ Vaughan
(bass), Yorkshireman Dave ‘Maha Dev’ Codling (rhythm guitar) a neighbour of
Phil’s, and Jeremy ‘Jake’ Milton on drums, a Canadian not so interested in the
religious side (trained as a jazz drummer, he later had success in a punk jazz
band with a relative).
    They lived in Blenheim Crescent, scene today of the
famous Notting Hill Carnival, but weren’t jumping on a bandwagon like some and
resisted for example the overtures of the Krishna Consciousness group: they
were living the broad local life-style after travelling the world. Their
Eastern names were bestowed by Swami Ambikananda, whose ecumenicalism was based
on Hinduism but embraced all universal faiths. Their ashram provided
choir-singing and Gopala (Codling’s brother-in-law) who created the stunning
album covers that were the most costly in the label’s history. First manager
Stanley Barr contributed some of his poems as lyrics. The band name was coined
by Raja Ram—in spite of having six members—who negotiated their first label
contract, which tripled Atlantic’s to Led Zeppelin, later in a neighbouring
studio during the recording of one of Quintessence’s albums.
    Within weeks of starting rehearsals beneath
a local fish ‘n’ chip shop, the buzz got round. Reprise stalked them for 4
weeks but baulked over artistic control. Chris Blackwell, owner of Island
Records, visited with Steve Winwood’s brother, Muff. Perhaps they’d heard the
vibe about shows at the Arts Lab in central London’s Drury Lane followed by a packed house at
the Roundhouse. They were offered £5,000, van, equipment, and gigs with the
NEMS Agency; the clincher was full artistic control including no-limit studio
time. The first producer, at Morgan Studios, was replaced early on by John
Barham, a student of Ravi Shankar who worked on George Harrison’s Wonderwall and film All Things Must Pass, during the two-week sessions. His technical
skill included structuring a couple of tracks, as the band were habitually
improvisation-led based on jazz, Eastern, and rock (sometimes blistering); pre-gig
they drew match-sticks for who’d lead some songs.
    In November 1969 In Blissful Company appeared, with booklet and gate-fold cover
illustrating their ethos and lifestyle. The opening chiming guitars of Giants,
based on the ancient pre-Anglo-Saxon legend, is a “surging, joyful bundle of
tautly-contained energy and swaggering guitar interplay between Dave and Allan”
reviewed Colin Harper, including backward-recorded overdub by Barham for a new
middle-section. The swirling lead guitar including wah-wah solo and vocals were
a live staple and the first four songs reflect this. Chant has oboe and
tambour, while the nine-minute closer ends with meditative ‘drone’ and ethereal
voice—actually several tambours played by Surya then slowed-down (also on the
second LP’s High On Mount Kailish). In 1971-72 Surya used to open their
concerts with Indian music, as this writer saw at Euston’s Friends (Quakers)
House. This LP is the seed for later styles in music generally such as
electronica, ambiance and drone.
    They were then influenced by The Grateful
Dead, who wanted Quintessence on the bill for their UK debut in May 1970, and
Jim Morrison collected all their albums on import—ironically as they used to
cover a couple of Doors’ songs in their first gigs. A leading journalist of the
time sparked interest when he said they were better live than The Doors. Bonus
tracks here are the single Notting Hill Gate—a punchier re-recording complete
with lighting-up of a spliff—and its non-album B-side, Move Into The Light,
more manifesto statements than a serious chart attempt. Picture sleeves came
out in Holland and Germany.
    Their eponymous second album in split-front
cover came out in July 1970, reaching #22 in the charts. Side one features one
of the most acid guitar solos of the era (Sea
Of Immortality; as does St.Pancras);
the only surviving full song from an abandoned opera about a journey from
Ladbroke Grove to India and Tibet
(High On Mount Kailash); and their debut live recording (Burning Bush). The
second CD continues with the original album’s second side: the haunting instrumental
Prisms (with Arcadian-like flute and echo) leading into the restrained guitar
solos of Twilight Zones and Buddhist-like Infinitum, plus another live
recording (St.Pancras). The LP flows without breaks to re-create their gigs. Added
is the Bumpers bonus of Jesus Buddha
Moses Guaranga, recorded in a London
Town Hall in March 1970
along with Burning Bush and St.Pancras, which has appeared on previous CDs but
is here in superb re-mastered quality. The audience included Townshend and Moon
in the sell-out, considerably expanded when filmed by BBC’s Disco Two programme.
     Their final Island album Dive Deep (March ’71, #43) opens with
the title track, which is more in the jaunty post-Quintessence mode of Kala,
for an otherwise more meditative (“moody” in journo’s parlance) six-track outing,
John Barham being involved this time with half of it. Shiva sees it today as
“the beginning of the end”, referring to band tensions but not the quality of the
entirely studio-based material, seeking to capture their live energy with the magical,
near-eleven minute Dance For The One. Sitar, tamboura, vina and shenai of The
Seer, and Epitaph For Tomorrow climbs again to their trade-mark electrical crescendo,
closing with Sri Ram Chant to leave Island on
a high. The latter prefigures some of their later RCA output and concerts when opening
with an Eastern performance with friends, some of whom appear here.
    According to some sources Island
still have a few unreleased recordings dating back to November 1969, and two
songs redone for the first RCA release. There is in existence, I found, an
Apple Studio acetate of these. After the first two Glastonburys (the band did a
partial re-union for their 40th anniversary festival), selling out
the Albert Hall in Dec.1971, major European festivals such as Kralingen, Swiss
T.V. at Montreux, BBC and Euro T.V. and over two dozen features in the major
music press, something odd happened when perspectives split. In the absence of
hits, the one crucial market left was America. Island’s Chris Blackwell
had brokered a deal with Bell Records including opening at the Carnegie Hall,
Quintessence offered an advance fee of £85,000 and Island £250,000. Raja Ram,
Jake and Allan thought it was an imbalance, Shiva and Maha Dev voted for it. In
mid-1972 the latter two got a phone call that they were sacked, as was the
band’s (second) manager and agency. By then Island
and their press department had clearly lost interest.
   Did the band think they were bigger than the
label, three meteoric years into their tenure, or just felt it was their due?
They soldiered on for most of the decade before winding-up, after venue owners
wondered when the singer and guitarist would show up! I’ve elsewhere
interviewed Shiva, Maha Dev and Jake, so here’s a rare chat with founder Raja
Ram to join some dots of the record so to speak {the textual dots are his!}:
formed Quintessence in Ladbroke Grove and had a great early break signing to Island, with full control, within weeks. What do you
recall from that exciting period?
Hi there, thanks for the
invite. Quintessence seems so long ago…I was living in Notting Hill in 68 (and
still in the same house after 50 years), it was the sixties, London was wild. I was earning my living as a
painter, making enough to scrape by and have a wonderful time with my family.
So I put an ad in Melody Maker,
“Wanted…Indian, Jazz, Rock band, musicians MUST live in the Grove.” 200 people
turned up, and in a few weeks of madness got together 5 other like-minded
So we practiced in a basement
in Portobello Road
and went on to do our first gig, in 1969 at the Arts Lab run by Jim Haynes. We
did six shows there, on Fridays and Saturdays, with a strobe, two black lights
and a 100 watt amp. We all took fudge and jammed [including] mantras we had
learnt. Shiva was a great singer, we just improvised and made up songs as we
went along…and the crowd loved it as we went on to bigger things.
Jake, you had a pre-Quintessence jazz background that is reflected in some of
the band’s styles, and played Montreux.
As far as jazz goes, I was in
the shadows of the giants, but a good experience. Oh yes, Montreux, we broke an
amp, the roady kicked me hard in the behind for some reason I never found
out…and the lake was beautiful.
the Island recordings have been re-issued by
Cherry Red, do you have any memories of that early period?
Island Records were [based]
just around the corner. Chris Blackwell was a visionary and he had all the
killer acts…we were down the list…but we made three albums there. It was fun
recording round the corner, and that was one of the first digital studios in
were one of the very first bands to experiment with electronics, perhaps
reflected in your later career?
Yes, we loved experimenting
with new sounds and electronics…You know we opened for the Floyd three times,
and the Who and Zep…part of the process and initiation…those were the days.
you have changed anything from those albums if you could?
No, we gave it our best at the
time…take after take.
were considered one of the best live groups of the era, two hours plus without
a support act I recall. How do you compare the band live with that recorded in
the studio?
Studio and Live are so
different. We did hundred of gigs, must have done, and I recall a few being
really good…most of the time. The sound wasn’t good in those days, in the
studio we had more control and I love recording… playing live always makes me
you think a successful single, as Hawkwind had, would have helped or changed
the last years?
The hits and stuff we missed
out on…Hawkwind deserved them. We really were underground, loads of shows,
every venue and festival, Glastonbury, Albert
Hall, Norwich
Cathedral…big venues and big crowds but underground, weird, and we sold
records. It was fun for the most part.
found a Quintessence acetate with an Apple studio label, perhaps that label and
George Harrison were a potential target after Island
via John Barham?
John Barham was a help, but he
couldn’t connect us with that world of the Beatles, we had to make our own way.
early European headliners, a US
tour fell through. What happened?
I went to New York [later] with
our drummer Jake to try to get a deal and met the ‘suits’ but they weren’t
interested in these Hippy freaks in India gear…It didn’t work, and I realised
with regret we could then never break the US scene…we had done the gigs and
five albums, it was time to quit. When I told the band they were pretty pissed
off, it’s all over.
sacking of the singer and guitarist was due to musical differences?
Yeah of course there were
musical differences. Shiv the singer liked to wag his finger, a preacher sort
of force that fed the crowd. Allan was moody, head down in all that hair but a
GREAT guitarist and he joined us when he was [only] 16.
after Island you changed to RCA, who rather
absurdly put you first on their short-lived subsidiary Neon.
Yeah, moving to RCA was a
gigantic mistake, but we had really bad cliché manager rip-offs. I was left
with a massive debt to pay off, which after 17 years was finally accounted for.
you ever considered a Quintessence reunion?
As far as a reunion, I would
rather carry a sack load of bricks and walk up Everest in winter backwards. No.
The future is so bright we need three pairs of shades.
has been your career since the late 70s split?
So it came to pass, the band
was folded. And for the next 8 years I left the music scene, even became an
envelope salesman…seriously…but that’s another story…In the 80s I bought a load
of electronic stuff…prophets, sequencers, drum machines, then later in 1988 I
met Graham Wood to form The Infinity Project, making 50 tracks for TIP which
became a label in 94. And my other parallel band, also on TIP, 1200 Micrograms,
Riktam, Bansi and C-hicago, totally psychedelic live rock we play all around
the world at festivals, for example the OZORA fest in Hungary for an expected
crowd of more than 30,000 people there, so exciting times for this 76 year-old…
are now renowned worldwide in psychedelic trance music, which developed from
the counter-culture of the late 1980s.
I formed Shpongle with Simon
Posford around 1994-95, and yesterday mastered the finished 6th
album, CODEX6, out this summer full of surprises, 20 or so live shows with
Shpongle including Mt Fuji and Red Rocks in Colorada, Earthcore in Australia check
it out…massive mind-blowing…So that’s what I am doing, and running TIP Records,
having so much fun DJing around the planet…Brazil is absolutely insane with
parties bigger and most times better, the Psychedelic Trance community is full
of love and joy and optimism. What a life, love to you all there, Raj.
thanks for your time and music, Raja, glad you have a groovy life!
– Brian R. Banks
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