Bill MacCormick interview | Quiet Sun, Matching Mole and 801
Bill MacCormick is an English bassist and vocalist most well known for his work in bands such as Quiet Sun, Matching Mole and 801.
Where and when did you grow up? Who were your major influences?
Born in London in April 1951.
Older brother Ian went on to become the Assistant Editor of the New Musical Express in circa 1971. He wrote under the name Ian MacDonald (that way he could review things I was on!) and later wrote ‘Revolution in the Head’ about the Beatles (4 editions), ‘The People’s Music’, ‘The New Shostakovich’ (2 editions). He committed suicide in 2003.
Went to Dulwich College in 1963 (a ‘public school’ which, in England, is a private school) where I met Phil Targett-Adams (now Manzanera. His mother was Colombian and that is her maiden name). Ian also went to Dulwich (1961).
Grew up watching ‘Ready Steady Go’ on TV and other pop music programmes. First records bought were singles and EPs by The Shadows then moved onto the Beatles, Beach Boys, Tamla, Soul, R&B, Folk music, etc. My uncle played us a lot of classical music (Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc.,). Ian got into things like Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis which I also listened to.
In 1966 my mother met Honor Wyatt. They both were teaching assistants at Dulwich College Preparatory School. Honor was Robert’s mother. We were invited to a party in Kingston in August at a place owned by Idries Shah of the Sufis where we first heard Soft Machine (it was their first gig under this name). Idries Shah was a friend of the poet Robert Graves who was a friend of Honor’s which was why they were asked to play. I’d never seen a band live before and it was amazing.
The Softs were living at Honor’s house at 48, Dalmore Road, West Dulwich near to Dulwich College (and on my route to school). Honor invited Ian and me and my parents round for dinner one day. An interesting culture clash for my very straight parents and the members of Soft Machine and their girlfriends. Ian started writing Robert letters about music and he sent back postcards (still have them somewhere) and then I started calling in on the way back from school where I’d stare at their equipment (they used to rehearse in the front room much to the annoyance of the neighbours) and then go upstairs and drink tea and chat to Robert and listen to music, mainly jazz. Ian used to have long talks to Daevid Allen (interview) about all sorts of esoteric stuff.
As a result my musical education was radically and swiftly broadened. We were lucky to have a very good record library nearby and soon Messiaen, Berg, Pharoah Sanders, Ornette Coleman, etc., was being played at home along with Rubber Soul and other mainstream pop.
Meanwhile, Phil T-A (as he was known) had bought a red Hofner Galaxie electric guitar and was playing with some friends of his at school but, about this time, we started hanging out and the idea of our own group emerged.
In college you had a project that later became Quiet Sun.
The band Phil and I formed in late 1967 (I was the singer) was called (courtesy of my brother) Pooh and the Ostrich Feather. We messed about a lot with various other guys until someone told us about a young man in the year below who had his own drum kit. His name was Charles Hayward (interview). We invited him round to Phil’s mum’s house where he set up a huge, red glitter, double bass drum Premier kit. He immediately became a member of the band. Charles was already a great drummer having been given lessons for some time. We found another guitarist and a series of bass players and rehearsed a variety of material: ‘Somebody to Love’ by the Jefferson Airplane, ‘Spoonful’ (Cream |Ginger Baker interview; Jack Bruce interview), ‘Born in Chicago’ (Paul Butterfield), ‘7 and 7’ is (Love | interview), i.e. a range of songs from our favourite bands. Two guys raided the science block at school and we soon had our own psychedelic light show. We played our first public performance at a thing called the ‘Summer Miscellany’ which was a general arts show put on by the boys in the Great Hall at Dulwich. We played three songs including, for the first time, an original called ‘Marcel my Dada’ written by Charles and Phil. We would regularly play around the school in various rooms and halls taking over the Swimming Baths Hall (drained during the winter) on several occasions and playing to several hundred kids from schools around the area. We also played some church halls and at parties.
I left Dulwich in July 1969 having deliberately failed my final exams so I wouldn’t have to go to University as my parents hoped. Ian was, by now, at Kings College, Cambridge where he last for a year before he came down to join the NME.
During this time I followed Soft Machine round every gig they played in and around London. They had spent most of ’68 in North America supporting Jimi Hendrix on an interminable tour and, when they got back, Kevin Ayers disappeared and Hugh Hopper (and, for a time, Andy Summers later of The Police) joined. I generally spent most of my time and my little money buying albums, going to gigs and reading the Melody Maker. Robert came back from the US with a list of bands we had to listen to: Spirit (interview), Mothers of Invention, Velvet Underground, CTA (as they were then known, later Chicago) and we had already latched onto the Airplane, Quicksilvers, Dead, Love, Doors as well as being swept along by the Beatles, Pet Sounds and other stuff.
Phil left Dulwich in December 69 and we both got temporary jobs whilst working out what to do next. Charles had another year at Dulwich. I fancied being a drummer and bought a drum kit and, for a time, we carried on with Pooh with two drummers. Then Charles left school and we concentrated on trying to get a proper band together. We advertised for a keyboard player, bass player and sax player. Dave Jarrett, who had also been to Dulwich but was several years older, answered the keyboard problem, a guy fresh out of the British Army briefly became the sax/flute player (he left because he needed to earn some serious money) and no-one answered the bass player ad. We had a bass guitar lying around so, in order for us to be able to rehearse, I started to learn the bass lines. The instrument seemed to suit me so I stuck with it and became the permanent bass player.
Richard Williams wrote a short piece about us in the Melody Maker after hearing a demo tape we recorded (one piece by Phil, another by my brother). Warner Bros sent us off to a rehearsal studio in the country where we recorded some more demos but, ultimately (mid ’71) we were running out of steam and options and money. We had, however, played a gig at Portsmouth Polytechnic supporting Symbiosis in which Robert was playing. At the end of the gig we were invited on stage to jam with them. Robert had never heard me play but something caught his eye because, when he left Soft Machine and Quiet Sun broke up, he asked me to join the as yet unnamed Matching Mole. Phil, in the meantime, had answered the famous Roxy Music small ad in the Melody Maker (and the rest of that is history).
In 1975 you released Mainstream.
In September 1974 (Matching Mole broke up in September ’72, later that year I was briefly a member of Gong [for about a week] and then really did nothing apart from play on two tracks on Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets) I had decided to give up on music and I went back to college to get the exams I had failed deliberately in 1969. The plan was to go to university to read politics and I had a place at the London School of Economics. Half way through the first term Phil announced his plans for his first solo album (Diamond Head) but said he wanted to record a Quiet Sun album at the same time. Basically, we would go into the studio at about 10 pm each night and work into the early hours. We managed to get hold of Dave Jarrett and did a few rehearsals (which sounded remarkably good) before starting in Studio 2 at Basing Street Studios. John Wetton very generously leant me his white Fender Precision for the duration. Because of the time constraints most of the tracks were first or second takes. Eno and my brother would hang around to make useful comments and Eno introduced Dave Jarrett to the joys of synths. Most of the tracks were ones we had played as Quiet Sun back in 1970/71 but ‘Wrong Rong’ was a piece Charles had written late on and we had never played this as a band. We needed some more music so Charles played the piano track, did the singing and added some drums. Other than that I was the only other person who played throughout the song and the solo in this song is probably my favourite piece of my own bass playing. The whole time was hugely enjoyable and fuelled by nothing more than large quantities of rather stewed black coffee. We were seriously indebted to the engineer Rhett Davies who did a fabulous job on both albums.
The cover was done from a Cambridge friend of my brother’s, Nigel Soper, who was a graphic artist (he designs high end art and photography books now). Quiet Sun refers to an astronomical event Ian saw written about somewhere entitled ‘The International Year of the Quiet Sun’, i.e. a time when solar flares were rather restrained. Nigel found the picture for the cover in an early 20th century French book and the picture was supposed to indicate the relative size of an asteroid or something like that to the city of Paris. He hand coloured it and we all loved it.
“Mummy was a Maoist, Daddy was a running dog capitalist lackey of the bourgeoisie”
You wrote the song ‘Mummy Was an Asteroid, Daddy Was a Small Non-Stick Kitchen Utensil’. Writing and playing such music requires a fair amount of theoretical knowledge. Are you a self-thought bass player? And how did you choose the title for that song?
All of us taught ourselves to write our musical ideas down ‘properly’ but any knowledge we had was gained from music theory books. Charles was the only member of the band who had lessons and who could read a music score (for percussion at least). We did things like get the scores of classical music from the library and read those whilst listening to the music. It helped give us a basic grounding in music theory (though my brother took this a lot further). I ‘learned’ to play bass by playing the parts of the Quiet Sun tracks which required a reasonable amount of speed and dexterity (I used to sit and do scales for hours) but I rarely picked up on the basic rock and roll and blues bass parts that most people started out from. I had to learn some these in a rush a bit later on. There was no need for these in Matching Mole and I was happy just make up bass parts as I went along. Hugh Hopper, when Mole did their last tour supporting Soft Machine in summer ’72, helped me with some exercises he used but these really were aimed at either speed/accuracy or interesting scales rather than ‘the bass line for a three chord blues goes like this’.
‘Mummy’ was originally entitled ‘Dog’ (I still have the original handwritten score somewhere). When we were in the control room at Basing Street the title ‘Mummy was a Maoist, Daddy was a running dog capitalist lackey of the bourgeoisie’ came into my head. My brother shook his head and the next moment the final title was being scrawled on a piece of paper. No idea where it came from except that I was reading a lot of Philp K Dick sci-fi at the time so we’ll blame him.
Debut by Matching Mole was released in 1972. Matching Mole’s Little Red Record followed shortly.
When Robert invited me to join his new band the line-up was to be him, me, David Sinclair (who had recently left Caravan) and Phil Miller ex-Delivery. We rehearsed in a small mews house off Portobello Road that Robert had bought. We played all sorts of things: some of David’s Caravan material, ‘Moon in June’, ‘Beware of Darkness’ by George Harrison, ‘Las Vegas Tango’ by Gil Evans and some parts written by Robert and Phil which eventually found their way on to Mole 1. New Zealand born keyboard player Dave Macrae popped by on occasions. We were offered some studio time by CBS in their old studio off Oxford Street and started recording at the end of December ’71. In the meantime, someone stole my lovingly restored Fender Precision and the only bass I could find in London was a Gibson EB3. We recorded through January and February in a dreadfully cold studio where the multi-track kept going wrong. We often had to move to another studio near Marble Arch to keep going. In addition, there was a miners’ strike and there were regular power cuts. We were still finishing off the album in early March because of all of these problems.
We started playing live on the 22nd February and soon found the money available in Europe was far better than in the UK, often ten times better. We played in Holland, Belgium and France as much as possible and supported John Mayall on his UK and French tours. Dave Macrae replaced David Sinclair early on (though we played a few gigs with both of them) and soon everyone (but, looking back, not Robert) was writing material for the band. Robert asked Robert Fripp to produce the second album and he came down to see us rehearse a few times. Unfortunately, at the time, Phil Miller seemed a bit in awe of Fripp and this affected the recording of at least one song. We went into the new, heated CBS Studios for the first time on 14th August ’72 and recorded the album in nine days breaking off to play the Bilzen Jazz Festival in the middle. I asked Eno to do the synth effects on ‘Gloria Gloom’ having met him when I went to see Roxy recording their first album at Command Studios. He was happy to oblige and, I may be wrong as they had the same management company, but it seemed this was the first time Fripp and Eno had worked together. We were helped out by the Mutter Korus on several tracks: actress Julie Christie (my teen heart throb and the ‘Flora Fidgit’ of the title track), Alfreda Benje, ‘Alfie’, Robert’s then partner now wife (Gloria Gloom) and David Gayle a friend of Julie and Alfie’s. [Alfie was Julie’s best friend and Julie came to see us play on several occasions which was quite disconcerting for me. ‘Gloria Gloom’ was Julie’s nickname for Alfie and Flora Fidget Alfie’s nickname for Julie].
Phil’s apparent issue with Fripp came to a head on the track ‘Flora Fidgit’ where, with the technical wizard Fripp looking on, Phil found it difficult to play the guitar part (which is missing on the album). Looking back I feel more could have been done to put Phil at his ease and, frankly, none of us really helped. But there you go. Anyway, the album was finished on 31st August, we played the Queen Elizabeth Hall to a sell out crowd, went to Europe and supported Soft Machine around Belgium and Holland and, on the morning after the last show in Groningen, Robert announced he was winding up the band. To this day I don’t know why. We had lots of dates booked in the UK and Europe, a good new album awaiting release, some good coverage in the press and were doing the business on stage. Phil and I toyed with the idea of keeping something going but he eventually went off to join Hatfield and the North and I auditioned for and was accepted by Gong but not for long (see above). After a week staying out in the middle of France at the end of October with only the clothes I stood up in and with no French to speak of I called it quits and came home.
I’ll have to check on the names for the artwork but Little Red Record’s design came from a People’s Republic of China postcard Robert had found somewhere which was entitled ‘We are determined to liberate Taiwan!’.
“Chaotic, on occasions, self-indulgent”
How would you describe the style of Matching Mole?
Chaotic, on occasions, self-indulgent, on occasions, really quite good on other occasions…
How about 801?
The 801 project was really just a way of filling in time in the summer of ’76 pending the completion of Listen Now. Everyone, except Lloyd Watson, was involved on that album and when Phil said ‘why don’t we do some gigs?’ it seemed like a good idea. We rehearsed at a studio in Island’s offices in Hammersmith but, prior to that, Phil, Eno, my brother and I went down and stayed in a small house near Ludlow in Shropshire and we kicked around ideas for songs. We put together a short list of material from Phil’s, Quiet Sun and Eno’s albums and then I suggested ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ when we were trying to come up with something different. EG Management, Roxy’s managers, put together appearances at a series of festivals in France together with three in the UK. France, though, was where the serous money was. Then there was a riot at a festival in Orange and all the other festivals were banned. Because of this, and to make financial sense of the project, Phil got the Island Mobile down to the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. We recorded the concert and basically mixed it in about a week and it was released about six weeks later. It still sells surprisingly well and the recent double CD boxed set seems to have gone down well.
What are some interesting stories from playing with Matching Mole and Quiet Sun?
As they say about Vegas, what goes on tour, stays on tour. Every band had its good and its bad moments (except the 801 when it was all good). Mole did great gigs at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, Olympia in Paris, Greens Playhouse in Glasgow and the QEH in London.
Our appearance at the Reading Festival was pretty poor. I got catastrophically drunk in Amsterdam once (that was enough), resisted the efforts of the road crew to get me stoned (again in Amsterdam) and had my hand held before the gig at the QEH by Julie Christie which made me more nervous than going on stage. Other things happened at other gigs. But we won’t go into that.
What happened after the 801?
After the 801 I continued working with Phil and Eno. I played on some tracks on Before and After Science and some other stuff which appeared on Music for Films. I also did a session with Eno and several members of Can at Basing Street Studios but I have no idea what happened to that. We basically jammed for a couple of hours.
When we finished Listen Now, on which I played throughout and co-wrote several songs, in 1977 we toured with another version of the 801 with Phil, me, Paul Thompson from Roxy, Dave Skinner on keyboards and another ex-Dulwich boy, Simon Ainley on guitar and vocals. He had been the singer we plucked from nowhere to sing on Listen Now. We did a month’s worth of touring round the UK, recording the gig at Manchester University where Andy Mackay and Kevin Godley and Lol Crème (10cc) guested. Eddie Jobson appeared when we played at Hull and did ‘Out of the Blue’. Then I wrote and played on Phil’s album K-Scope but, just as we were finishing that the word came that Roxy Music were reforming and the album was finished in a bit of a rush.
In the meantime, Simon Ainley had gone off to join a band made up of yet more ex-Dulwich musicians. The band was called Random Hold and it had been formed by David Rhodes (who went on to work extensively with Peter Gabriel) and David Ferguson. I knew all of them and was eventually persuaded to join the band and pay for all of the expenses. We struggled to get any interest until a friend, Alan Jones from the Melody Maker, came to see us rehearse and two weeks later he printed an enormous article, both centre pages going onto a third, which changed everything.
Suddenly everyone wanted to be our friend and I negotiated a recording contract with Polydor with a large advance. A few days after we signed we played a place called the Rock Garden in London and Peter Gabriel, his manager Gail Colson and the manager of Genesis, Tony Smith, turned up. Gail became our manager and we signed a publishing deal with Tony Smith. Peter wanted to produce our album but we needed to record his own album (‘Games Without Frontiers’, ‘Biko’) and though we spent a week with him playing some of his new material we were eventually produced by Peter Hammill (Van der Graff Generator) who was also managed by Gail Colson. We spent two weeks at Startling Studios (owned by Ringo Starr and previously owned by John Lennon. It was where the video for ‘Imagine’ was filmed) and then moved to another place to mix the album. Peter Hammill took too much control of this process, in my opinion, and I left him to it. The album was not as good as we hoped and, after touring supporting XTC we were dropped by Polydor. A small label in the US picked up on us though and we supported Gabriel in the UK and North America on his 1980 tour. He introduced us every night and was very good to us but, when we got back, the two Davids sacked me which was not a clever move as I was still owed a lot of money. I cleaned out the bank account (with Gail and Tony’s approval) and the band folded.
A double album was later released on vinyl and in 2001 I organised the release of a double and single CD which comprised the studio recordings, all of our demos and stuff recorded live in Ottawa and Philadelphia. 2,000 of each were pressed and they sold out. They are no longer available.
Although the two Davids had sacked me it wasn’t personal and I helped produce some demos for David Rhodes before he went off to join Gabriel and I managed a new version of Random Hold after being asked by David Ferguson, but I had lost interest and, in 1981, I left the music business and went into politics. I was employed by the Liberal Party until 1989, then became a director of a market research company which did all of the Liberal Democrats research. In 1988, after contracting pneumonia, I was diagnosed with a blood condition called haemochromatosis which has caused me several other problems and I was forced to retire. Since then I have self-published two books about the First World War, a subject I have been interested in for the past 25 years. I also helped Phil Manzanera with his web site on occasions.
“Robert, along with my brother, were the two most important musical influences on me.”
What was it like to collaborate with Robert Wyatt? What exactly happened after the accident?
Robert, along with my brother, were the two most important musical influences on me. I can never thank him enough for having sufficient faith in me to be a member of Matching Mole. I would have left the music business in 1971 except for him. Working with Robert was always fun and funny. Lots of laughs off stage and fantastic enjoyment on stage. We see one another every now and then but it’s like we’ve been in touch regularly whenever we meet. Last time I saw him was after he’d been given a Gold Badge by the British Academy of Songwriters and Composers. We sat outside his hotel overlooking Green Park and talked for a couple of hours. As ever, fun and funny.
After Mole broke up Robert did some one-off gigs with people like Kevin Ayers, Hatfield and the North and Francis Monkman (ex-Curved Air). Alfie then got a job in Venice working on the Nick Roeg film ‘Don’t Look Now’ (starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland) and Robert went with her. He took a small portable keyboard on which he wrote several of the songs that would later appear on Rock Bottom. We exchanged postcards and I pestered him a bit about reforming Matching Mole which he eventually agreed to. By the end of May, the new line-up, Robert, me, Gary Windo on saxes and Francis Monkman got together to hear Robert’s new material. We also had a meeting with Richard Branson about signing to the new Virgin Records. A few days later, Saturday, 1st June, Robert went off to a party in Maida Vale for Lady June and Gilli Smyth. I was invited but didn’t go. I was called the following morning to be told Robert had fallen out of a window. My first instinct was he must be dead because I thought he fallen out of a window in Alfie’s flat. She lived on the 22nd floor of a building called Hermes Point north of Notting Hill. Then I remembered the party and discovered he’d fallen three floors into a basement, narrowly missing a set of iron spiked railings. He was so drunk he was very relaxed when he hit the ground otherwise he’d probably have died. His spine was severed quite low down. He was taken to a specialist spinal hospital at a place called Stoke Manderville in Buckinghamshire, I visited as often as possible but I couldn’t drive and it was three train journeys and a long walk. On the other hand, I had nothing else to do. I stopped playing, got some dead end jobs and, the following year decided to resume my education until rescued by Phil Manzanera.
In 1975 I was very fortunate that, after the Quiet Sun/Diamond Head sessions, Robert, who appeared on Diamond Head, invited me to play on Ruth is Stranger Than Richard soon afterwards.
We had a great week up at the Manor in Oxfordshire with Laurie Allen, Gary Windo, George Khan and Eno and that confirmed to me I should give music another try. Soon afterwards I started working with Phil Manzanera and my brother on the songs that would form Listen Now. I last played with Robert in about 1978 when I played on a single he did for Rough Trade: ‘Caimenera/Arauco’. It was basically just Robert, me and Harry Beckett on trumpet.
What’s your opinion about current music?
Although, for reasons not entirely clear to me, some of the stuff I have been done has been tagged as ‘progressive’ I have never really been into that sort of music. Indeed, I didn’t really listen to much rock music throughout the 70s when I was active. Lots of other stuff: jazz, classical, world music. As time has passed I have found less and less to interest me in current music. Stuff like Radiohead and Coldplay I enjoy but not a great deal else. What saddens me beyond belief though is the decline in American black music. After the stellar wonders of Stax and Tamla and the rest, the recent dreadful sexist, misogynistic crap that stands to represent Black music is a terrible let down. I am sure there is certainly some good and interesting music being made out there somewhere but now, in the main, I prefer to read and write.
Was there a moment in your life when you realized music is what you want to do for the rest of your life?
Seeing Soft Machine for the first time at the Idries Shah party was one of those moments as was attending the 14 Hour Technicolour Dream at Alexandra Palace in 1967. But what made me determined to be a professional musician rather than to play about at it was attending the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music in June 1970. Jefferson Airplane played and dozens of other groups but it was so bloody uncomfortable and the conditions so bad I vowed that if I ever went to another music festival I would be on stage and not in the audience.
You had been working with several other well known Canterbury musicians. Is there a particular project or person you liked working with the most?
Every project I’ve been involved in was special in some way and brought its different rewards. I’ve been fortunate to play with some fantastic drummers – Robert, Charlie Hayward, Simon Phillips, Paul Thompson, Dave Mattacks, Bill Bruford amongst others – and enjoyed every minute of it. Matching Mole was fantastically liberating. 801 started taking me into rather more ‘normal’ bass playing territory. Overall, Robert and Phil Manzanera are the two musicians I have worked with most and, I suppose, there must be reason for that. Perhaps they just couldn’t get rid of me.
Thank you again for your time and effort, Bill. Would you like to share anything else that I didn’t ask?
I think I’ve probably written way too much already.
– Klemen Breznikar