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My Time With CMU

Before 1968...

The factor which triggered all the later events was coming to know Terry Mortimer. 

He entered my life as a 17 year old student who came to an evening class I was giving at the Banbury Tech (more formally known as the North Oxfordshire Technical College and School of Art).  This was in 1962.  He sat at the back with a friend, and as they were forever conferring, I decided that I hadn’t gone over very well.

I was wrong. Apart from bringing us into contact, the class also led to my being offered my first teaching job at the College. After a year at the College I moved to Banbury from Oxford and one dark night in November 1963, there was a knock at the door. It was Terry with his friend Pete, who ran an R and B  band called the Soul Stirrers.  They wanted a bass guitarist.  I used to play string bass (including in Mecca Ballroom bands, but had sold it to pay for a visit to try to win the approval of my first wife’s parents – unsuccessfully, for which she still hasn’t forgiven them!). I hadn’t got one, but as they had plenty of gigs and I now had a wife and baby Sarah, I went out and bought one.

In the summer of 1964 I moved on to the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology – it included the art school which became widely known as the place where Sid Barrett of Pink Floyd was a student.

That autumn I heard that Terry had left Banbury to make his way in the London music scene and wrote him an encouraging letter. 

Finally a reply came beginning “Dear Ed, Sorry I have delayed a bit in writing...” – this was May 1968 !  I invited him to come over, thinking he could do a couple of GCEs and do a few gigs.  He arrived and we played.  I went straight round to the Head of Music, Norman Hearn, and said he must hear a possible A level student. Though Terry had no formal qualifications in music, Norman took him at once. Terry went on to get an outstanding mark at A Level and to be offered places at York University and Goldsmiths’ College.

Formation of the group

I was turned on to music by hearing radio programmes in honour of Charlie Parker and Django Rheinhardt.  So it was natural that I should begin by trying to play jazz guitar.  At an early point I started to broaden my interests, originally from the inspiration of James Payne, a Nottingham musician, whose “progressive jazz” group I joined. He had a musical view way ahead of most people and introduced me, among other things, to the contemporary classical composers such as Bartok, and to Northern Indian Classical music.  I remember attending a concert by Ravi Shankar when he was unknown to Westerners; along with my friend, drummer Les Shaw, I was the only non-Indian in the audience. They were very welcoming, and we found our responsiveness, coming from jazz performances made us very popular.

So at quite an early stage I found myself moving away from the rather narrow attitudes which were often found then (and since) among British jazz musicians. By 1968 I had been seen as a heretic for some eight years, so I was very receptive to the exciting fusions and new influences which seemed to appear almost daily.  I had already written some of the pieces which we later played in CMU. I always see Gulf Stream (1966) as the turning point.

The great thing about Terry was that he had the same musical attitudes. So, as well as having been a star R and B guitarist, he had got deeply into the jazz of the 60s, and had discovered composers such as Bartok and Debussy.

By this time I was getting divorced and had moved into a single room in Emery Street. (It’s a place mentioned at various points in James Gordon’s novel, Rocky Foundations, and it’s a real street, only minutes from the College – so close that in fact once, after a rather heavy night, I got up at 8.56 and was in the classroom four minutes later!). Terry moved into the same house. 

This was the start of one of the most exciting periods in my life.  We were constantly picking up the guitars, improvising, devising new pieces and exploring new approaches to improvised and planned composition. (I am also instructed by my second wife, Frances, to point out that at least a little of the excitement of the time arose from the fact the she appeared on the scene).

It was clear that we needed to form a band. A bassist was easy – fellow musician Adrian Kendon also lived in Cambridge, and was attracted by the fact that I was very interested in linking jazz and English folk music; he was less enthusiastic about my growing interest in Rock. (Adrian later went on to become a very respected jazz musician and teacher, notably at Chichester College).

That left the problem of a drummer. Adrian said he had heard of a man in Bishop’s Stortford who was very good.  He was.  His name was Roger Odell. 

Roger was above all very responsive and insightful to the needs of this experimental music.  I can’t do better than to repeat James Gordon’s words that he “played like a wizard, in any time signature, with split-second sense of timing, and a cast-iron ability to hold a tempo in his head” (Rocky Foundations, page 66). It’s not surprising therefore that he later went on to a distinguished career, notably with the group Shakatak.

Roger was undoubtedly one of the great formative influences in my musical life.  His insight into drumming was profound, not only as rhythm but as using a vast range of subtle textures.  His sense of minute divisions of time opened my eyes, and made it possible for me to develop an emphasis on rhythm which has ever since permeated my composing, writing and teaching.  At least as important, his constant pressure towards the highest professional and technical standards transformed my music making from something insightful and intuitive but loose and unpolished into a result more worthy of being called “music”.

The next big issue was vocals.  Jazz groups overwhelmingly create instrumental music, which has always been my greatest interest.  But in rock groups the singer is usually king.  In this case the word should be “queen”, as we had started to work with Sally Knox, then a student in Cambridge, who I have always thought to have immense talent, and whose singing has at times moved me deeply.

I also came across a fellow lunatic, also working at the Tech, called James Gordon, who was then singing in local groups.  We gave him a try, and so began an episode of anarchy, which he still brings into my life at intervals.  His book, though a work of fiction, is very accurate in essence when he describes how “these solemn jazz musicians...had descended from the clouds to tackle a song that was not even rock, but pure pop entertainment” (Rocky Foundations, page 39).  At that point my own attitude, like that of so many jazz and dance music players, had been very censorious towards vocalists (jokes such as “What’s the difference between the baby and the bandleader?...) and towards “the commercial” – again in James’ words: “This is a serious musical group, not a Mickey Mouse theatrical turn” (Rocky Foundations, page 38).  Just how far I then advanced can be heard on the Sounds Like tapes (see elsewhere on this site).

Despite the comments I have made above, though, this situation already carried the seeds of its own destruction.  We had a jazz female vocalist, a rock and comedy male vocalist, and four jazzers.  One (Adrian) was not really interested in moving away from his jazz base, Roger was in a middle state, Terry was moving increasingly towards contemporary jazz, and I was moving away from jazz into a wider, and essentially composed view of music.

Sally was replaced by Roger’s wife, Larraine.  The excitement grew and the number of practices increased.  Our aspirations grew.  New material was introduced, first to fit the needs of the singers ( I have written very few songs, relatively), and then to the changing focus of the instrumentalists.  My music retained a folk or even classical basis, whereas the interests of Roger and Terry were better served by a more clearly contemporary and jazz-based style.

Even the name changed. I had originally thought of The Camshafts.  This was the sort of name groups had (rather than the Ed Lee Quartet).  Partly it was a sort of bawdy joke (CAMbridge SHAFTS – in the sexual sense); this appealed to me as a man once more “on the open market”.  But it was also suggested by a conversation with an engineering student. It is a shaft which has “cams” – as the dictionary says “a device for converting regular rotary motion into irregular or reciprocating motion” [“There you go again”, as Ronald Regan said !].  The notion of the regular being turned into the irregular, or the eccentric (in both senses), seemed to me very much what I and the group were about.

To quote a greater writer “What’s in a name?” to which the answer is “a lot” – imagine if in the same play Romeo had had to woo a lady called Gaye Shortbuttock.  More seriously, names can undoubtedly encapsulate essentials.  “The Beatles” was an apt name for a group which had plenty of power, but also an eye (ear?) for humour.  So “Camshafts” for me summed up a union of something very basic and physical with elements of intellect, even if it was somewhat askew. This is or was something like me.

The name was not to be.  The group decided that Camshafts was too coarse, and decided on the Contemporary Music Unit, in its turn seen as far too formal and abbreviated in its turn to CMU.  This was meant to be a temporary name, until we thought of something more apt. It is clear with hindsight that our inability to find an agreed name reflected a more fundamental issue of a lack of agreement about the nature and target of what we were doing. More of that on another occasion.

Rock fans will know that one of the great dates of the music’s history was 14 February, 1970, the date of the Who’s live concert at Leeds University. The week before the band was CMU.  Someone put a home tape recorder in front of the band. The results can be heard on this site. (http://www.elmvillagearts.co.uk./free-downloads/the-leeds-concert.php)

It was not an occasion, unlike the event the following week, which went down in musical history.  But it was even more important for us.  Things had reached a point at which we could not continue on the same basis. We either had to go on, or let the project go. The next day we listened to the tape and decided that giving up was not an option. It was a turning point in the lives of all of us.

Until recently this was the only recording of Camshafts material. Many pieces were therefore absent. I have now remedied this, and the repertoire I would have liked to have developed is available on this site in the Shop. Two pieces were recorded but cannot be made commercially available for copyright reasons ( I would have to pay to record my own themes, even after 40 years of being left dormant– aspiring composers and songwriters be warned!) The pieces are described in the Notes.

The CMU at the Dog and Pheasant tracks

In his book Rocky Foundations James Gordon describes how the band changed from the line-up and conception which is heard in the CMU Leeds concert, to the music embodied in the CD Open Spaces.  As I have said previously, the account is fictional – one should not derive any conclusions about the actions and psychology of the various people involved and assume them to be accurate – but in broad terms it mirrors what happened. It is an interesting study in the rise and fall of an enterprise, and of the ways in which creative personalities can interact.

I described in part 1 of this account how the line-up was changed.  The second set of tracks in this series, CMU at the Dog and Pheasant, (released September 1, 2009) shows how profoundly this affected the music.

Of my compositions only one (Little Miss Julie) remains, out of the six items. This had become such an effective final number because of the highly imaginative and virtuoso solo by Terry Mortimer, that it would have been hard to find a better one.

The remaining instrumental numbers Electrical Phenomena and Patterns of Time are by Roger Odell, who had started to find his own creative feet. The latter also started to draw in the singers, to lessen the divide between instrumental and vocal items (remember that the group started out as a sort of jazz group).

Half the set are now songs.  Clown (my theme, James Gordon’s words) brings in the zany element which has always been a part of James creative (and actual!) personality.   Think Again is entirely James and reflects the underlying seriousness of his work.  Mystical Sounds features Larraine Odell and shows her, too, venturing into creation, together with her husband, Roger.

The mood of the instrumentals has become much more intense and reflects
a growing interest in “free jazz”.  The lyricism of the earlier repertoire is now lacking. Listeners must decide how the relative intensities of the Leeds Slow and Lonesome Blues and that of these numbers compare. 

The guitar sound is now more uniform. Whereas my sound and Terry’s contrasted, there is a much greater affinity between what he does here and the soloing of the newcomer, Ian Hamlett – indeed at times, it would be hard to say who is doing what.  The playing is certainly much more jazz-oriented, and moves into the chromaticism of the modernists of the period.  Though reverberation and delay effects are used, that most characteristic rock timbre, distortion, is not – a significant shift in direction.

The exclusive use of the bass guitar severs any direct link with earlier jazz, and permits a more convincing use of rock and funk elements. There is certainly a creative input, rather than a simple foundation, and I like to think that the solo on Patterns of Time is as well-structured and convincing, in its own radically different style, as the beautiful examples of jazz soloing which Adrian Kendon created at Leeds. (Sadly, it was not possible to get the best of these, on Past Midnight, to a technological standard suited to the Internet).  A noticeable move towards the influence of rock is heard in the use in the bass solo on Patterns of Time of feedback to create sustained notes and dramatic power

The impact of the band on its audience is audible on the tracks – and it is worth bearing in mind that some of the most enthusiastic comments which you hear come from “dyed-in-the-wool jazzers”.

So this is a band which was still developing, and was growing in its technical skill and power to excite, even though with hindsight one can see the emergence of the forces which were to cause the break-up.

MY TIME WITH CMU -3

The CMU at the Tech CD is the third and last of the surviving live recordings, and is the last record we have of the band before its studio debut with Open Spaces.

It was recorded by a supporter of the band, Chris Crutchley, and provides the last recording of the group before its first recording Open Spaces, in 1971.  The concert was part of a festival to celebrate the opening of the beautiful Mumford Theatre which took place over a week at the end of the Autumn Term, 1970.

It shows a band growing steadily in technical competence, and consolidating approaches to be seen in the third of the series of recordings, CMU at the Dog and Pheasant.

The emphasis of the band had by then become increasingly vocal – on this occasion James Gordon was most featured, though in reality in performance there was a greater balance between him and Larraine, on the lines to be heard on CMU at the Dog. 

I still provided the instrumental themes, though except for Gulf Stream, none of the old favourites, even Little Miss Julie, are to be heard. The style, though certainly not standard rock, had now strongly moved in that direction, with elements of funk as well.

There were various shifts in instrumentation.  Everyone who was not actually playing (usually the singers) was deployed at times on percussion. Terry started to use his first instrument, the piano (his second, the guitar, was not exactly a filler!) and I, always one to surprise, used the tenor recorder (on Ivory Coast). 

Ivory Coastshows where my own interests were moving to. It was an exploration partly of African drumming with its mixture of 3 beat patterns.  But much of the piece is inspired by free jazz approaches, creating intensity through the exploration of sound textures. 

I have always maintained that any sound source is in principle acceptable a medium for composition – the problem is to create something relevant, and  of depth and value.  Thus I have certainly faced unpopularity (especially from jazz fans) for using the banjo, and also the Watkins Copicat Echo Unit. Yet the latter was used to amazing effect by Terry Mortimer in Little Miss Julie

Ivory Coast also revealed another aspect of my creative personality, which later found fuller expression in various words and music ventures.  This was the desire to create pieces and especially improvised solos which were not only coherent in musical terms, but were dramatically structured.  My bass solo on Patterns of Time in the Dog and Pheasant performance is such, and far from the use of the instrument in the driving and pounding Rhythm and Blues bands of the 50s.  On Ivory Coast I use the normally very genteel tenor recorder as a sort of primitive flute, to create a solo full of primitive effects, suggesting the rain forest , but also an emotional climate reminiscent of that created, for example, by the Expressionist painters.  I find it interesting that, in both cases, the bulk of the solo was never written down, but was created on the spot, by relinquishing conscious control and allowing the subconscious mind and memory to flow out. 

In the rhythmic section of Ivory Coast, we hear Terry on piano. This is the only occasion on which he is deployed in this way in the CMU recordings. In a way that fact is a foretaste of the situation that, outside of a very limited part of the jazz world, his creative ability as a pianist, which is stunning, has rarely been recognised or captured in recordings. I have always felt that, whereas his work for institutions such as the National Theatre was undoubtedly very competent, no director ever seemed aware of the power and intensity which he can generate both in his piano music, and as a performer in certain types of role.

James Gordon, too, is shown to be growing creatively at this point.  His lyrics are very strong, but he was increasingly developing a range of personae. One, heard from the start, was a wild sort of rock singing, at times akin to a blues “holler”.  But on Think Again, we hear a maniacal, almost psychotic persona, which had already emerged in his direction of Clown.

A Straight Case of a Gas is a piece in which I mix musical elements, in this case,
an almost swing band first section with a solid rock second part. As ever, Roger’s drumming was essential to the convincing realisation of the concept.  It should be noted that I consider Roger’s greatest gift not to be his outstanding technical skill, but his capacity for insight into what sort of rhythm was required. It indicates a rare and wide-ranging musical sensitivity.

In this, as in the other tracks, the difference of timbre and guitar personality between Terry and Ian is much less marked than that seen earlier between Terry and Ed. Does the latter work, can it work? Possibly the music of Duke Ellington provides an answer.  However, I think it is fair to say that at certain points (Think Again, Gulf Stream) Terry’s depth of musical insight (on his second instrument ! is still clearly demonstrated.

This concert illustrates the fact that the band was trying to remould itself, and to change the repertoire to reflect the change of balance in creative input which was occurring.  For myself, though Straight Case is a pleasant enough number, I don’t think it equals the pieces heard on the Leeds tape, which were being set aside.

The move away from the original project is clearly illustrated in Gulf Stream   The bass and drum solos had by now been shortened, as a concession to the fact that the target audience was no longer jazz fans, who expect solos from all members of a group, but a wider rock following.  Yet who would wish to lose the beautifully conceived Adrian bass solo, and the wit of Roger’s performance, to be heard on the Leeds tape ?

The final pieces, Clown and Chantecleer, were later to be included on Open Spaces, to which I now turn.

Once again, the events depicted in Rocky Foundations give us the basic truth, not certainly, such as would be valid in a court of law, but which definitely identifies the key events and motivations.
First, the events in brief.

After the Leeds concert we had decided to see how far we could go, and in the summer of 1970 James and I gave up our work at the Tech.  In fact, I took two years’ unpaid leave, which turned out to be a wise move, as things turned out.

It was an eventful time. First we played at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, getting some very good reviews. In the autumn my first book, Music of the People, was published.At that time it was a ground-breaking work, not least in its coverage not only of earlier popular (or if you prefer “folk”) music, but of modern styles.  This was a very suspect activity to the many people who thought of the latter as hopelessly commercial and valueless. These days, after some 30 years of academic studies, the book would be seen as far too personal, idiosyncratic and unscholarly in approach. 

We conceived the idea of creating a show to illustrate the book, starting with the Middle Ages and ending with reggae.  This was premiered in the Purcell Room in October 1970.  The final element of the performance was what we hoped would be a pointer to the future, the title track of the album Open Spaces, which created a series of landscapes, originally as part of an early form of art installation, by Peter Hibbard, an assistant to the sculptor, Henry Moore.

On the strength of this we approached Transatlantic Records, who were suitably impressed and signed us. 

As James’ book shows, these various successes exposed the differences of purpose between the members of the group.  Terry, for example, and ironically in view of his later success in the theatre, saw the proposal to push the Festival Hall programme as going way off course from his own aims, which remained in jazz and other forms of improvised music.
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My own views were in some respects along similar lines.  I no longer had a leading voice in the performance, and when we came to the point of recording, the pressure of the record company was towards a lighter sound, with Larraine strongly featured. It is clear that Henry, Voodoo Man, Japan and Mystical Sounds provide a mixture of  pleasing music, and a rather zany element, but don’t reflect my interests then, or indeed before and after.  On the other hand, there might have been some possible link between Mystical Sounds and my more folk-aligned interests.

Clown  remains on the programme and is symptomatic of James’ sense of theatricality underpinned by a philosophical seriousness.  This is also true of Chantecleer. 
The passage of time has shown that such approaches are ones that I can strongly relate to. But really such music is aiming in a different direction from the ones I have so far mentioned. Even if the group had all been happy with this, it is clear that the record company, though folk-aligned, was in the long run profit-orientated and risk-averse, positions which have never been my style (and at my age I am unlikely to change !).

As I have notedabove,  Open Spaces was created as part of an art exhibition (it was in fact a room full of statue-like figures which rocked if you touched them).  It had to be produced and performed to a recordable standard quickly.  Terry and I therefore went for what might be seen as the musical equivalent of journalism, deploying a variety of techniques which we had developed with the group. One, for example, was the solo using an echo unit.  Another was the “guitar percussion” ending, originally created on Osiris. For me, the problem in offering Open Spaces as the flagship piece is that (as I feel that the recordings which you can hear on this site prove) the originals have greater intensity. Open Spaces gets dangerously close to being a pastiche of ourselves, when we were already moving on artistically.

The remaining piece, Slow and Lonesome Blues, also fails to match earlier versions, one of which can be heard in the Leeds concert.  Partly, I think this was due to the fact that Ian Hamlett, who took my place on guitar, had a very different personality. He was happiest with funk and funk influenced jazz, such as In A Silent Way.  I certainly have no quarrel with such masterpieces as music, but one must be what one must be, and so there is a recurrent element in my music which is passionate, violent, and concerned with intensity, aggression and dissonance.  I don’t think Ian ever really related to this or wished to. 

But putting those questions aside, I think that the piece demonstrates an essential problem which underlay the whole project.  The live performances have many rough elements, some of which certainly needed to be avoided in a recording.  But they have great energy and conviction, as well as an element of surprise.  The whole African American tradition is closely related to dance, and the live performances definitely make you want to move. Roughness can sell, even at the international level, as the early recordings of the Rolling Stones show. But I think that such an approach was alien to the commercial and even aesthetic attitudes of both the company and the producer, and we failed to press this view.

It is almost inevitably difficult to keep the energy of live performance in a studio, but it can be done. But the very aim with Open Spaces was to sanitise and make polite, so that all those details which make music expressive, moving and indeed foot-tapping were squeezed out.

My apparently amazing decision to leave at the seeming moment of consummation of all our efforts (along with James and Terry) is therefore less surprising.  The recording threw into stark relief the differences of aims and values between the members.  In my case, very early in my musical career, I had had the drive to compose and to shape musical events.  I had always been concerned to play exciting and rhythmic music.  At the same time, for some 15 years I had spent a lot of time playing commercial music which I did not like, in order to earn money.  It now looks fairly logical that I did not wish to give up the one in order to do the other.

In Rocky Foundations, the record company director, Zak argues that the album should concentrate on vocals and when some members demur, says at various points “ you are by no means immune to the laws of supply and demand...you’ve got to take commercial aspects into consideration...vocals are bound to be sexiest... you’ve got to walk before you can run” (pages 432-4). 

Clearly, to live by an art, you must sell something to the public. To make a lot of money and be a big name, with few exceptions, you have to sell what a lot of the public want.

But if you are a writer and your real wish – no, internal need – is to write poetry, you will only do this by writing poetry, not a bonkbuster.  The latter will not hone your poetic skills, and it will give your public an expectation which will be bitterly disappointed if your next work is a volume of sonnets.  If you have a view on the world, you can only follow it, working out as best you can how to reconcile this with the need to earn a living, the wish to marry and all those other realities which we must take account of.

For me, it became clear that the days of Three Part Work and Osiris had already been left behind, because of changes within the group. They would certainly not have returned ever, if we had gone for and sold a commercial image.

In fact I doubt that such an enterprise could have been successful, even if we had focussed on more conventional songs and had been clearly fronted by Larraine.  This is because, as I see it, the uniqueness – and the group was unique – came from the fact that the group was a meeting of talented but in many ways ordinary English people, such as Roger, Larraine, and Ian, who got mixed up with a trio of equally English eccentrics.  To try to sell Larraine as some sort of sex symbol was completely to misread her. Her attractiveness as a performer lay in the fact that people could identify with her – she had been a secretary, she had a warm and appealing personality and expressed pleasing ideas through the medium of a voice which was equally warm, and good to listen to.. 

Her appeal was offset by being placed alongside the Voodoo Man lunacy of a James Gordon.  Added to this, Terry was at that time a fairly reserved personality – but if you gave him a stage and an instrument and he could electrify an audience (and still can). 

Underpin all this with the unfailing competence of Roger and you have a strange but attractive mixture.  But in Roger’s case too, it would have been an utter waste to have him tapping out discreet rhythms on light pieces. His superiority over the many others who can fulfil such tasks lay, as I have said before, in his depth of insight, and his ability to generate a vast range of imaginative and exciting rhythmic experiences. 

What the album offered could have been created by any group of competent musicians. What the tapes show is what the album almost completely suppressed – the experience of watching people perform who were constantly pushing the limits, who were constantly imaginative, and who were completely committed to every note they played. I believe that such things get across, almost mystically, to an audience roughness and mistakes are outweighed by the sensations of the moment.

I think that, even if not fully consciously, I  realised during the recording process that somehow these very real but hard to articulate elements had been abandoned, and would continue to be so for commercial reasons; so there was no point in continuing.  What makes life worth while, but the big moments ? These need not be in art, nor are they for most people.  But we had had the privilege of being able through our music,  to create such moments for ourselves and for others.  Who would wish to eat stale bread after tasting wild strawberries ?

After the breakup of the group, James, Terry and I went on to form a new group, Trident. It was shortlived and not commercially successful. However during that time we created four singles which were not released, but which still, I think, stand the test of time. You can read about this venture, and hear and download the singles by clicking here: The Trident Singles