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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 Maker—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!}:

You 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 souls.

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.

Like 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.

Now 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 town.
You 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.

Would you have changed anything from those albums if you could?
No, we gave it our best at the time…take after take.

You 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 nervous.

Do 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.

I 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.

After 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.

The 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.

Soon 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.

Have 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.

What 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…

You 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.
Many thanks for your time and music, Raja, glad you have a groovy life!

- Brian R. Banks
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