November 1999 A4 44 pages
LA NEU CAPTAIN TRIP?!
original (last 32 copies)
Example article extract
of cosmic ragas & druid rituals,
exploration into the history of one of Britain's most extraordinary underground bands.
Often misunderstood, unclassifiable, and always out-on-a-limb, the Third Ear Band have been an inspiring enigma since their inception in the 60's. In fact, my first encounter with them was circa 1971 or 1972. My brother Steve bought their debut ALCHEMY because it was on Harvest (he was into Deep Purple and Pink Floyd at the time), but such a music, being acoustic and "dissonant", eluded comprehension. Such is the nature of Third Ear Band music, it cannot simply be understood, it has to be absorbed and nurtured in the psyche, it has to reach your third ear!
It was much much later, after discovering the likes of Popol Vuh, Univers Zero, Art Zoyd, Between, etc., all of which would get the Third Ear Band name-dropped in reviews, that they were given a second chance. Their soundtrack to Roman Polanski's film "Macbeth" acted as a much more accessible step into their unique music. Inevitably, what was once bizarre and incomprehensible became a favoured music, one that still challenged, but was now invigorating.
Over the years I've written articles on many of the important innovative bands that have challenged and rewarded in this way. On a number of occasions I've managed to tie-in such features with interviews, reformations, back-catalogue reissues and such-like. I'd often wanted to do this with the Third Ear Band, and have tried to establish contact with their long-standing main-man Glen Sweeney. But he remains elusive, and there had been little documentation on their history in order for me to do a reasonably accurate history. But, thanks to a CD+book release from Italy NECROMANCERS OF THE DRIFTING WEST much of the mystery has been uncovered. After reading the book (written by Luca Ferrari), I thought no article was necessary any more. Though, encouraged to do so, I've gone ahead, as such a remarkable story needs retelling!
Giant Sun Trolley and The Hydrogen Jukebox
Born in the twilight years of the London underground scene, there was the unlikely named duo Giant Sun Trolley, who consisted of Glen Sweeney (percussion) and Dave Tomlin (guitar, violin, voice). Apparently, during 1966, they played at the UFO club on a regular basis, as well as at some special events featuring the likes of Bob Cobbing and musicians that formed AMM. As one thing leads to another, with regular gigging, Glen Sweeney was asked to fill-in as drummer with another band and, totally off-the-cuff, he fitted in. When asked to join the band on a regular basis, Glen agreed on the basis that they changed their name, and thus (taking their name from an Allen Ginsberg book) they became the Hydrogen Jukebox. It would seem that the line-up consisted of: Glen Sweeney (percussion), Barry Edgar Pilcher (sax), Dick Dadem (trombone) and Clive Kingsley (guitar). "Jazz of Tomorrow" was the billing of the gig when Glen joined the band, and in that we could read that these were some sort of free-jazz outfit. There again, maybe not. Thus, Glen was (for some time at least) playing in two bands, both of which fell apart after the UFO club closed down in October '67.
The Electric Ear
There's some bizarre story about a friend who had a spectacle case with an ear in it told in Luca's history on the band. Yet there other theories as to where the name the Third Ear Band came from. I always thought it was some Eastern mystic thing!
It seems that the band actually formulated quite by accident, Glen Sweeney and Clive Kingsley (from Hydrogen Jukebox) were joined by Paul Minns (oboe) and Ben Cartland (violin) and hit it off with a new radical formula. After playing just once at the Drury Lane "Arts Lab" in January 1968, they were invited to play three nights a week. They improvised and made it up as they went along. Such freedom of expression gave them the impetus to explore ever further. After this, other regular spots and events followed, and notably they caught the attention of John Peel. Just as things were going really well, disaster struck! After a "The Tribe Of The Sacred Mushroom" concert at the Middle Earth club (July '69), Kingsley's guitar and amplifiers (along with much of Sweeney's drum-kit) mysteriously disappeared. Resigning to the fact that they couldn't afford new equipment, Kingsley first stepped-out, and the rest of the band saw this as a sign to venture elsewhere.
Some acoustic Alchemy
So, a new formulation resulted: The all acoustic Third Ear Band! With: Sweeney (hand drums), Minns (oboe), Cartland (viola), and newcomer Richard Coff (violin). The radical new brand of improvised music that came out of this soon caught the attention of underground promoters, and notably one of the managers of Blackhill Enterprises, who had been signing-up artists to EMI's new Harvest label. And, it wasn't long after this that they were in the studio at Abbey Road, along with John Peel, recording their debut album ALCHEMY. Apparently, the quartet had become so tight and rehearsed in what they were doing that, the basic ideas for the LP were decided over a week-end. But, this experience wasn't without its casualties, with Cartland departing after his desire to play keyboards on the album was rejected. So, hastily, they drafted-in cellist Mel Davis. Also featured (on one track: Lark Rise) was former Jukebox violinist Dave Tomlin.
The resultant album was one of the strangest to emerge on a rock label in that only aesthetically was there any rock sensibility to it. Moreover, it sounded like a futuristic music, with bizarre counterpoints in the sound and hybrids of Eastern and Western rhythms. Such an idea (in 1969) was completely new, and to do it totally acoustic - now that was the real stunner! Deep, very deep, so intuitively controlled and also so mysterious, the qualities of Third Ear Band music were to prove extremely influential in the European avant‑garde and rock underground. Sweeney's beats intoned the pace, sometimes restrained, sometimes intense, about which cello and violin intone melodies against each other (as if Varese was interpreting baroque music), twisting about and/or reverberating (with strange harmonic resonance) against each other, with Minns oboe often acting as the lead focus. The monumental Egyptian Book Of The Dead sounds like some medieval folk dance twisted into a hypnotic tranced mantra, plodding forlornly as though it's going to collapse and keel over, but of course it doesn't and instead writhes into an intense finalé. Oh, and let's not forget John Peel's memorable jaw-harp playing on the spritely Area Three. Fresh and vital, still, 30 years on!
June saw the first big outdoor festival at Hyde Park (organised by Blackhill Enterprises) with the Third Ear Band playing ahead of Blind Faith. This was to be the first of many such events, where they would tactfully be placed as the opening act, to the likes of The Rolling Stones, King Crimson, Alexis Korner, et al. In their ranks at this time was the classically trained (and since much esteemed) cellist Paul Buckmaster. He never stayed for long, and was soon in turn replaced by one Ursula Smith. An interesting quote is that they were described (in the Financial Tmes!) as "a strange Oriental cacophony, surely designed to lull the audience to sleep". Apparently, despite these being difficult times for the band, numerous concerts ensued, including gigs in Belgium and Holland, a 25 date UK tour in early 1970, topped-off by a gig in Paris.
This experience of heavy touring had spawned a lot of new ideas, and their second album reflected this. Untitled, though often referred to as "The Four Elements album" due to its four tracks: Air, Earth, Fire, and Water, this is what I would class as the definitive Third Ear Band sound, subdivided into its four distinctive facets. Air writhes twisted amongst itself, with unusual echoed percussion and stochastic and scampering strings, whilst Earth is "traditional" in feel and laid-back with pacey summits at the centre and end, and Fire contrasts in a roaring frenzy, followed by the light and plaintive Water. It amounted to a more vital immediate album, and for many a favourite.
Apparently, now a sore-point from those times, was the over-use of psychedelic drugs, which began to take its toll on the band's sensibilities. It wasn't helped either by the fact that already Harvest Records were tiring of the underground scene, in that it was a media that they couldn't control. Thus promotion on their second album was very lax. Despite this, another tour venturing on to the Continent ensued, as well as radio and TV appearances, and various other special events. One thing I'd really like to hear is their work at the Groupe Recherchés Musicales in Paris with Bernard Parmegiani. Surely this would be a weird experience!
Also from this time (July 1970) is the recording of the "Abelard & Heloise" (now documented on the NECROMANCERS OF THE DRIFTING WEST) the soundtrack to an Ernst Fuchs animated film, which remained unreleased until 1996. Now we can all hear this remarkable lost "third" album. Suitably the music became more fluid and reflective, undeniably Third Ear Band, yet with a greater cross-pollination of ideas. The opening track (no titles are given) is a gentle lilting 13 minute excursion that amounts to a gleeful dance topped by entwining violin and oboe. Next, things get darker (as we move very close to Between's EINSTEIG) as a few shorter "vignettes" take us to other realms. A distinct character in all this is the cello and violin intoning against each other on the borderline of melody and avant-garde dissonance. It's extraordinary really, and I'm sure such inflections in the music would make some shudder. But, the thing is - it works!
Article by Alan Freeman
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