Friday, January 8, 2021


 Another good (wo)man done gone....

And another footle into the corridors of my consciousness, this probably little known name leaving a big gap in my vault of sounds and scenes. Possibly best known as one of the three frontline vocalists in 1970s soul-funksters Kokomo, she was a hell of a lot more than just that.

Flashback to the early mid 70s. Still at school, if towards the later stages, my musical tastes were broadening. As a boarder at a UK private school on the south coast of England, we were effectively imprisoned for weeks on end, albeit with some scant day release visiting rights into the surrounding community. An enlightened housemaster was keen to make our education rounder than just the slog toward university entrance grades, and arranged for occasional school trips to cultural events. This had included Steeleye Span the year before. I was keen to expand this idea, and had persuaded him of the virtue of Procol Harum, necessitating him listening to a record, and he signed my pass out. Astonishingly, he then, without even the presumed mandatory check, allowed me out to visit the Eastbourne Winter Gardens, where the Naughty Rhythms Tour was dropping by. Naughty Rhythms? This was three bands touring together, taking turns to top and bottom the bill, the bands being the chalk, cheese and chowder of Dr Feelgood, Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers and Kokomo. I was a huge Chilli Willi fan, quite liked the cut and thrust of the Feelgoods, but was then unfamiliar with Kokomo. A bit like the Average White band, said friends, but with better singers.

It was a terrific show. I may have discussed it before. The Willi's were great, as expected, Dr Feelgood solid dynamo's, but Kokomo had me completely flummoxed. Loads of 'em, crammed on to the stage, with a hefty waft of Motown/Stax chops that was outwith my then comfort zone by a mile. Yet I was entranced.  Sure, I knew of some of the members, the second guitar and bassist, Neal Hubbard and Alan Spenner, both ex-Greaseband and the man on saxes and flutes on nearly every then current record needing a parp, from Clannad to Bad Company, King Crimson to the Stones, the mighty Mel Collins, that being sufficient to defuse any innate prejudice against the style of music. But it was the vocals that stood out, four singers, three at the front, rounded out by those of the fella on keys. The three at the front were Paddy McHugh, Frank Collins and the person I am writing mainly about, Dyan Birch. Taking turns at lead and backing, each had a distinct personality and, collectively, a stunning ensemble hit.

But it wasn't the first I had heard of them. A dimly recalled hit single of a few years before betrayed a similar sound. That song, Friends, had been a favourite of mine, by short lived band, Arrival, the self-same trio, along with Tony O'Malley, who had also joined Kokomo, as the aforementioned fourth singer and piano player. Having enjoyed that song, with Birch singing the lead, McHugh and Collins alongside a then additional female singer, I was ready to enjoy their new direction.

Birch was born in Liverpool in 1949, it being realised early on that she, McHugh and Collins had something. After Arrival had left the building, the trio and O'Malley expanded the concept, in London, and, in truth, had greater expected of them than was ultimately delivered. Hot on the heels of the AWB blazing a UK blue eyed soul strain, with a stellar range of musicians backing, including also Jim Mullen as lead guitarist, later a bigger name in jazz, they never quite staked their claim. True, it was a time of change, with the long hairs of prog rock gradually being sidelined by the more adventurous turks of pub rock, ahead of then being totally, if temporarily, blown out of the water by punk. For a ten piece band playing melodic, soul-infused rock, this had them somewhat out of time. A slightly diffident first release, Kokomo, in 1975, was followed by the more confident Rise and Shine, three years later. By now I was in London, and caught them a number of times, in pubs and clubs, as well as seeming to be the perpetual support act for as number of lesser bands. Mullen had left, his jazzier noodling actually a distraction, and the band seemed more focussed. But it couldn't and didn't last. Even the kudos of the band having been absorbed into Bob Dylan's Desire recordings couldn't sustain them.

Thereafter came a number of rests and reunions, lasting until the death of Alan Spenner in 1991, he and Birch having been partners. The years that followed kept she and the rest of the 'girls', as O'Malley affectionately called the trio, busy, on the sessions circuit, working with and for Bryan Ferry, Terence Trent D'Arby, Alison Moyet and many more, a delight being to spot them, unexpectedly, on Top of the Pops, sashaying around behind any number of other performers. 

Kokomo again rose from the ashes in 2008, but Birch's health was failing and her voice beginning to go. She retired from the band in 2014, a victim to the COPD that eventually finished her off, this year. Kokomo continue sporadic performances, now down to Collins, McHugh and O'Malley, fleshed out by a roster of exemplary sidesmen and women, if, when possible, often also featuring a returned Jim Mullen, Alan Hubbard, Mel Collins and percussion superwoman, Jody Linscott, herself an original. At no performance does a mention of Dyan Birch go unmade, with tributes to her part in the story and legacy of the band. Truly, the voice of an angel, singing, below, Aretha's song of the same name:

As an afterword, here's and interesting piece I dug out, relating the the period between Arrival and the establishment of Kokomo. Likewise a set of great video interviews with Frank Collins, that go into some depth his shared history with Birch. 

R.I.P., Dyan.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

In Memoriam: Three Crims


Since its formation in 1968, King Crimson has gone through many different lineups and musicians, and over the years, there has been some sort of official differentiation between “members” and additional musicians who recorded and/or toured with the band, although some people moved between the two statuses. In 2020, we lost three musicians affiliated with King Crimson, two full members, and one who declined the rights and privileges, such as they are, of that status. Two of those remembered here were involved in 1970, the third played during the more recent configuration of King Crimson, from 2013 until his death earlier this year.  

King Crimson: Cadence and Cascade

Gordon Haskell was a school friend of King Crimson leader Robert Fripp, and played with him in a band when they were teenagers, before moving on to become the bass player in the band Fleur de Lys (and, apparently, briefly sharing a flat with Jimi Hendrix). They also acted as a house band for Atlantic Records, which gave Haskell the opportunity to work with noted producers, including George Martin, Arif Mardin and Glyn Johns. He recorded a solo album in 1969, but it went nowhere. 

Meanwhile, his old friend Robert was having problems of his own. After recording In the Court of the Crimson King, a legitimate classic, and touring behind the album, both Ian McDonald and Michael Giles left the band. Then, singer/bass player Greg Lake quit, planning to form Emerson, Lake and Palmer. After hiring, and then sacking, the still unknown Elton John (who got paid £250 for not working) as the vocalist on Crimson’s second record, In The Wake of Poseidon, Lake ultimately agreed to sing on the album (in exchange for Crimson’s PA equipment), but there was one song that Fripp felt wasn’t right for Lake. He approached Haskell, who recalled, “I straight away, without any hesitation, said ‘absolutely not’. I was totally R&B oriented and it wasn’t my sort of music. I didn’t like King Crimson. Anyway, after a while I said I’d think about it, and my wife got to work on me because she wanted a regular income so in the end I joined.” Haskell sang on one song, “Cadence and Cascade,” which is a beautiful ballad, beautifully sung, as you can hear at the link above. 

After completing Poseidon, Fripp regrouped again, adding more musicians, who began work on Lizard, which was jazzier and more avant-garde than the two prior records, and it was not a good experience for Haskell, who sang and played bass on the album. He didn’t like the music, noting that “At the end of one song, ‘Indoor Games’, I just burst out laughing. You can hear it on the album. They thought it was really freaky, that I’d understood the lyrics and my part – but the truth of the matter is, it was a lousy song, the lyrics were ludicrous and my singing was atrocious so I just burst out laughing. And they thought it was wonderful!” Haskell left the band, acrimoniously, during rehearsals for live performances, and later King Crimson for royalties. 

After leaving King Crimson, Haskell struggled for years, before having a hit single in England, “How Wonderful You Are” in 2001 and he followed that up with a successful album, Harry’s Bar, in 2002. His next record was not as well-received, and he was released by his label after a dispute. From then on, Haskell continued to release music without much success, and wrote an autobiography, The Road to Harry’s Bar. 

Haskell died from cancer on October 15, 2020 at the age of 74.   Announcing his death, the official King Crimson website noted, “The experience was not a happy one for Gordon and he bitterly regretted his decision to join,” and that Haskell had “come to detest” the song “Cadence and Cascade,” which is a shame.

Keith Tippett also played on the Poseidon and Lizard albums. Allmusic’s biography of Tippett states that he “held an unparalleled place in British contemporary music,” due to the breadth of his collaborations, the variety of music he wrote and performed, and the influence that he had on other musicians. Tippett's work ranges from free improvisation as a solo pianist and with duos and small groups, to compositions for, and performances with, contemporary classical groups and large-scale works for Jazz Orchestra. 

Tippett (whose last name was actually Tippetts, which he changed for the delightful reason that he was tired of seeing his name on posters with the apostrophe after the last “t” and not the “s”), was a classically trained pianist who had formed a jazz band, the Keith Tippett Sextet, which released its first album in 1969. Other members of that band included Elton Dean, later of Soft Machine, and Mark Charig and Nick Evans, who also contributed to King Crimson albums. Tippett was hired to play piano on Poseidon (including some pretty playing on “Cadence and Cascade”), and along with Charig and Evans, played on Lizard and Islands. His influence in King Crimson increased over time, and he claimed that Fripp offered him co-creative control over the band if he would join full time. However, as he remembered, “I didn’t want to join King Crimson, not because I didn’t like King Crimson, I had great respect for the band, but I wanted to be doing other things, I didn’t want to just go out on the road for eighteen months. I had too much love for the sextet and it would have taken me away from the jazz scene.” 

One of those things was to put together a 50 piece band, Centipede, that included members of his jazz band, along with members of Soft Machine, King Crimson, and other bands that skirted the progressive rock/jazz genres, along with students from the London School of Music. It released an album, Septober Energy, produced by Fripp (who had appeared live with the band, but was not on the album), in 1971. Melody Maker wrote about this album, “In this one piece he has done more than almost anybody else that comes to mind in breaking down barriers in rock, jazz and classical music” The album was, however, not commercially successful, probably for the reason that it broke so many barriers.

Tippett continued to perform and record improvisational and avant-garde jazz music and jazz/rock with various combinations of musicians, including many from the Canterbury scene, until fairly recently—his discography as a leader and sideman is vast. 

Tippett succumbed on June 14, 2020 to a heart attack after two years of recurring illness at the age of 72.

After disbanding a version of King Crimson in 2008 and playing with various Crimson-related musicians before briefly retiring, Fripp decided to form a new King Crimson lineup, this time with three drummers. One of the drummers was Bill Rieflin, who had played with, among others, Ministry, KMFDM, and R.E.M. after Bill Berry left the band. Although mostly known for playing industrial and darker rock music, his stint with R.E.M. and his work on other projects demonstrated the wide scope of his talent. In addition, he was a prolific session musician, recording with artists from Nine Inch Nails to experimental rockers Swans and pop singer Robbie Williams. He released his first solo album, Birth of a Giant in 1999, which included contributions from Fripp and Trey Gunn, who was in King Crimson at the time. 

Over the years, Rieflin, who also played keyboards and other instruments, had collaborated with Fripp in a number of different projects, and participated in Fripp’s Guitar Craft project, about which he stated (before joining Crimson), “I couldn't possibly describe in any detail the impact this has had in my life; I can say that it was and continues to be significant. Were I to say "life-changing," this would be true, but it wouldn't begin to communicate the depth of the experience.” 

So his inclusion as part of the new “seven-headed monster” configuration of Crimson, along with Fripp, Tony Levin, Mel Collins, Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison (who had played in prior versions of the band), and Jakko Jakszyk, was not surprising. I saw this band play in 2014 and was blown away by the power and intricacy of the percussion work (as well as by the rest of the band, of course). Here’s a video of the three drummers, with Rieflin in the center, “soloing” during rehearsals in 2014, highlighting how they play both in unison and separately.

Rieflin took a “sabbatical” from the band in 2016, but returned in 2017 to create a “Double Quartet” formation, but rather than have four drummers (that would be crazy, right?), he focused on “mellotron, keys and fairy dusting, rather than using drums as a main instrument.” He didn’t appear on the autumn US tour in 2017 (when I saw them again, and they were, again, great), but returned in 2018 before taking another sabbatical in 2019. Rieflin died on March 24, 2020 from cancer at the age of 59.

Sunday, January 3, 2021


The saying always was that only the bad girls liked the Rolling Stones, which then needed a whole further category for the Pretty Things, as their reputation made the Stones, by comparison, seem like Herman's Hermits. With longer hair, tighter trousers and a r'n'b* so raw it could make you flinch, these 60's rockers were making hell long before Jagger et al were shocking the nation. How was it that I, at the age of eight, could be their number one fan?

I should add I probably wasn't, but they certainly made an impact on my formative and future tastes. I may have stated here before how recorded music first entered my reckoning, my elder sister coercing my parents into the purchase of a dansette record player. It was either second hand, or on special offer, as it came with a stack of 45s, many of which I have to this day. Mostly staid early 60s fare, Bobby's Darren and Vee, the big O, Gene Pitney, some Elvis ballads and probably an early Beatle or two. But within the stash of paper sleeved parlophones, derams and regal zonophones, there was a cardboard sleeved disc. With photos of scowling youth on the cover. Two tracks on either side! This was an EP.

I played it to death, the two main cuts, 'Rosalyn' and 'Don't Bring Me Down' being peculiarly affecting. All snarled vocals, rudimentary backing and more attitude than was ever allowed back then. Already a precocious reader of the musical press, having access to the Disc and Musical Echo, I learnt about the band. In truth I only cared about the singer, Phil May, having, probably,  a big pre-teen crush. He had the longest hair in London, I learnt, that being enough for me, shackled then in to my schoolboy compulsory short back and sides for a good many years yet. However I also being confused by one of the band having a beard, something I associated with jazzmen and my brother, and being the opposite of cool. Even discovering this was Dick Taylor, who had left the Rolling Stones nascent line-up to form this band, still sat oddly. He just looked so old.

The years went by and I became a teenager. I was now a creature of underground tastes, 'underground' the name for proto-progressive and heavy metal: hard rock as we called it. Whilst I learnt Phil May still had the longest hair in London, their first wave had peaked, necessitating a huge change in direction. I confess I was no longer on the bus at this stage, as, whilst familiar with S.F. Sorrow and Parachute, I had bigger fish to fry. S.F. Sorrow may have been the first rock opera, but I was busy listening to Tommy. The Pretty's just became another rock band on the fringes, well regarded, prolific, a bit like Savoy Brown, just nothing to bother my ears with. I even caught them live, in the 70s, if by mistake. Newly signed to Led Zeppelin's Swansong label, the one with the logo of Robert Plant with wings, a rumour spread that Zeppelin would be playing London's tiny basement Marquee Club, as a support to their new signing. Well, the Pretties played, but nobody else. Silk Torpedo was the album being promoted. I didn't buy.

I guess David Bowie gave me my renewed interest, his Pin Ups album including both the songs I had loved so much from the EP. I should declare here I abhorred these Bowie versions, my inner rock snob near fully formed, having 'preferred his earlier stuff' of Hunky-Dory. This also gave me the opportunity to whip out that EP and play it loud to my largely indifferent friends.

Years go by, decades go by, marriages, children and respectability wax and wane. And still the Pretty Things play on. It was probably about 2012 I started again to go to festivals, my tent having had a good rest for most of the decade or so ahead. One such was Lunar Festival, 2016, at Tanworth-in-Arden, near Stratford-on-Avon. One of the clinchers of my going was that the Pretties were on the bill, the other being it's nearness to where I was living. The hippy years had come and gone for the band, fame had further beckoned but never quite delivered, and they were reliant as much on their longevity as their talent. Back more to a more bluesy garage band clatter, wailing harmonica, black suits and skinny ties, they were distinctly survivors. May and Taylor, the latter back in the band having passed on some of the hippy dream, the front men alongside some younger blood, some of whom had been with the band for decades. Taylor, still with beard, looked positively ancient, but kept a tight hand on the tight Chicago blues, whilst May, thinner on top, a little paunchy, sang like a man possessed. It was wonderful, my day capped by being able to thank Mr May personally for his years of my musical pleasure, he happy to roam the crowd after the performance. 

I think it was 2019 I learnt the pair were beginning to wind down the band, emphysema playing havoc with May's singing. But there remained a promise of a lower-key acoustic version remaining a possibility. So it was a shock to learn of May's passing, in May, aged 75. Not covid, praise be, but from complications of hip surgery. Hardly rock'n'roll but hardly surprising. Making then for a surprise, as that promised material appears, the first couple of tracks a week after his death, the rest of the album, 'Bare as Bone, Bright as Blood', dropping in September. Well worth a punt.

R.I.P., big fella!

(*That's R'n'b not r'n'b, definitely not!!!!)