The band that emerged from the dismembering of the Drama Band we called Big Sur, named after the wild coastal region of Central California redolent of Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac and the wide-open spaces of our shared sense of a mythical America. Initially no more than a theoretical extension of Robin’s guitar and my bass for the few weeks that it took to conjure dreams into auditions, a form and substance emerged remarkably quickly as the Melody Maker small ads did their magic. First of all, PJ on vocals, 4-string guitar and songwriting and Len on bongoes joined us from Goldsmiths’ and South-East London School respectively. But it was at this point that the key member of the next few incarnations of Robin’s and my musical collaboration and beyond came into the circle. From Halifax in West Yorkshire, Keith Washington was an English student at London University. He played a 12-string acoustic guitar, he had a fine singing voice and he wrote songs. Keith’s sense of humour, his tolerance of the circuitous routes whereby we arrived at our musical solutions and his sense of his own place in the setup from the start sealed the deal. And overall shared good will, mutual regard, respect for each other’s distinctive abilities and a readiness to just let the sum of the parts find its own level and outlet produced something of real musical value.
Big Sur’s music was airy and expansive, strummed and plucked on acoustic guitars with primitive contact mics fitted, a homemade lap-dulcimer, a mandolin and a bowl-backed Greek bouzouki that I’d brought back from Cyprus. Initially, we occupied the same whimsical, genre melting-pot territory as such contemporary ‘weirdfolk’ outfits as the Incredible String Band, Comus, Dando Shaft and Doctor Strangely Strange, Robin’s gnomish musical imagination and my rather self-consciously off-the-wall lyrics pushing the direction. As time passed musicians came and went as ever, particularly drummers/percussionists and with them the style morphed and evolved according to what characteristic each brought into the band. But the core of Big Sur comprised Robin on ‘string-driven things’ (guitar, mandolin, the bouzouki and the dulcimer), Keith on 12-string guitar and vocals, PJ on his 4-string guitar and lead vocals, myself on bass guitar and various whistles and Len on bongos and hand-drums.
The great virtue of the band was this readiness on the part of its members to adopt and adapt. Robin’s strange serpentine melodies and surreal lyrics – the weirdfolk touchstone with its compound of surreal whimsy and degree-level high-brow melded with Keith’s romantic and very hooky ballads. There was, during the earlier times at least, a real honesty and authenticity to our aims and achievements. Our overall approach didn’t arise from the wilful eclectic perversity that had so many of the cross-genre bands of that time disappearing up their own musical orifices; we were genuinely intrigued and excited by the possibilities of synthesising diverse influences. Which is not to say, however, that we were guided constantly by a corresponding awareness of the need for an element of structure and discipline. Rather sadly, and definitely counter-productively, such concepts were seen as belonging to the old order and so we were driven more by an uneasy balance of organic process and chance. But that collective sense of there being nothing so unfashionable, so off-genre, so outré that it wouldn’t be up for consideration was very liberating. And so Robin’s extraordinary multi-movement galactic dream In Space sat comfortably alongside Keith’s lament for stalled romance Going Wrong. And my apocalyptic World War X1 might follow comfortably Robin’s entirely wacky Adult Tree Ballad.
Gigs were spasmodic (and sadly the Marquee managed to bill us as ‘The Big Fir’!) But the Oval House continued to provide us with hospitality and having it as a headquarters enabled us to work on content and presentation. Nick Condron’s friend Robin Murray-Rogers stuck with us and we continued to feature a light show. Robin’s multi-instrumentalist brother Jed joined briefly on various keyboards and Alison Martin’s words and movement contributions maintained a link with the Drama Band’s espousal of mixed-media performance.
With a base, we were also able to make overtures to those that we thought might be able to advance our cause. For a short while we had the attention of the Waldman brothers, the hard-headed duo behind the legendary Middle Earth club in Covent Garden at which both the Nervous System and Tintagel had had regular bookings. There was talk of management and a publishing contract with Middle Earth Music, the publishing arm of the record label that they set up following the demise of the club. They put a few prestigious gigs our way (including an appearance as ‘The Big Fir’ in support of their star outfit the Writing on the Wall at the Marquee). But we fell just short of signing the contracts that they’d already written up after a chaotic session convened to seal the deal. Equipment shed sparks everywhere; we managed to generate no sparks at all.
So as we fizzed and crackled, misfired and stalled the usual bail-outs took place. Much as with Pete Currie and I three years previously, Robin and I stayed constant, as did Keith, and gradually what passed for balance in the resolutely asymmetrical Big Sur was restored. However, the absurdity of a band name known only to readers of Jack Kerouac and/or Henry Miller or to backpacking Californians escaping the city became apparent to us. The usual list-making took place and after pondering such dope-derived options as Ra, Penguin Dust, Sleeveless Tree, Toadwater and Vacuum Shoes, we reverted to Tintagel, picked ourselves up and motored on.
At around this crossover point, as a result of a contact made concerning a record he played on his show, BBC DJ Pete Drummond took an active interest and soon became a very practical friend of the band, featuring us on two of his late night Radio 1 Sounds of the Seventies. There survive rickety recordings of a couple of numbers, both taped with a cassette recorder mic placed next to a portable radio at the time of the programme’s transmission. In Space is probably the most representative of them all in its fruit salad of influences and inspirations. It’s very much of its time: the product of a generation still breathing in the fumes of that heady herbal mixture of West and East – of the likes of Lewis Carroll, Arthur Rackham, Isaac Asimov, and Tolkein blended with cod Zen, the Beats’ take on the Sanskrit Vedas and the fragrance of patchouli oil and the Bengali bong. Here it is, filtered somewhat through GarageBand, but still sounding very much as though life is imitating art and the signal is being downloaded from some distant star cluster. Keith Washington is singing the lead with harmonies from Robin, myself and supplementary guitarist Kent Parker. I’m playing a very battered bamboo whistle, its dividing strands held together with cellotape and with four tracks available to us Robin has dubbed on a slide solo from a zither made out of boxwood and mandolin strings. Robin and Kent are playing acoustic and electric guitars and I’m playing my Hofner ‘Violin’ bass.
Recording at the Beeb’s famous Maida Vale studios – all functional uniform grey 8-track reel-to-reel tape recorders clad in mellow-grained wooden cabinets – was exciting. Following the broadcasts we waited for the high-tide to bring in messages from stunned listeners and competing record producers. But like yesterday’s local broadcast news our 15 minutes of psych-folk floated up into the ionosphere, ending up, appropriately enough, somewhere in space.
We re-trenched at Oval House for a while before having to relinquish our small corner of the premises to a mime troupe who were actually getting regular work. Gigs for us were by now fewer and further between and when we did pull in the odd prestigious ones, technical problems caused by terminal equipment decay and narcotic confusion generally rendered them patchy at best. But, as ever at that time, we were simply unable to draw a pragmatic distinction between the cheerful, hazy, fume-filled chaos of our daily lives and the ordered routines of practice and performance. A few decent gigs lifted spirits and aspirations a little. But rehearsals in Robin’s tiny bedroom in Goblin City, the shabby Victorian villa he shared with his two brothers, descended all too often into giggling cacophony within which only we could hear the sound of the lost chord.
By the end of 1970 the elusive charms of 30-minute acoustic jams fuelled by marathon smoking sessions began to elude even the musicians adrift inside them. So in a burst of unaccustomed energy and resolve, we brought in three new recruits – Vern Cochrane, an American drummer with his own kit, a van and high-credibility shoulder-length curly hair plus full beard; Steve Moorby, a young guitarist/vocalist of prodigious ability, and Jenny Holland, a Californian flautist/vocalist on the London leg of a home university scholarship to study ancient Greek music. For a while it worked startlingly well and with the musical blandishments brought in by Steve and Jenny, we levered ourselves up and out of our Wonderland whimsy and into something with a real cutting edge. Steve’s stinging, light-gauge string guitar work, reminiscent of up-and-coming Richard Thompson (although entirely of Steve’s own generation) brought a rock front line sound to the band for the first time. And Jenny’s enormous positivity and sharp musical intelligence imposed a discipline and structure that we’d pretty much lost.
The core of the band. This was taken shortly before Vern Cochrane and Jenny Holland joined, From left to right: DJ, Steve Moorby, Keith Washington, Robin Stone.
Apart from a couple of quirky arrangements, our material was still all self-written. Keith and Robin provided the bulk of the songs, with Robin using some lyrics by me. Within a week or two of Steve’s joining Tintagel, I gave him the words of a song I’d just written. Called Drunk in a Gale, it depicted via a series of vaguely apocalyptic images the existential distress that was at the centre of so many songs at that time. The melody and arrangement that Steve provided fitted the narrative perfectly – in fact, arguably, it lent a dignity to the somewhat overwrought words that they didn’t really merit! And from that point a creative deal was sealed and the nomenclature ‘Moorby/Jones’ appeared at the bottom of a rising pile of typed-out manuscripts.
Rocking hard, but still with quirkiness in full flow, we managed a couple more Radio 1 broadcasts, this time on Jon Curle’s late night show Nightride. We also got through to the semi-finals of the prestigious national annual Melody Maker Rock and Folk contest, beating bands across the country to the punch and for a while it seemed very much as though we might be insinuating our way back into the commercial-but-with-credibility stakes. Writing contracts signed with folk-rock band Lindisfarne’s publisher Hazy Music for Keith, Robin and Steve and I seemed to confirm the upward trajectory. Barbara Hayes, the chain-smoking Central Casting one-woman dynamo behind the operation fought our corner for several heroic months, pinging her various lines of communication along the complex network of DJs, A&R men, producers and agents that linked the vast jungle-floor tangle of bands and singer/songwriters with the movers and shakers at the top.
Sadly, events sometimes run counter-intuitively to deeper currents and for all of the advances that these few months produced, the sum total of the disparate parts, musical and, increasingly, inter-personally, didn’t gel for long and once again the band began to falter. Musical allegiances once strong and friendships once binding began to unravel. Keith’s subtle, melodic, well-crafted songs were increasingly out of kilter with the edgier, rockier direction in which we were moving and in one of those cowardly coups managed by ‘phone call and letter, he was dropped from the lineup. However, there was no clear consensus as to what that new direction should constitute and with Jenny’s departure for Greece in pursuit of her studies, Vern’s divisive manoeuvrings and Robin’s increasingly fragmented commitment to a common cause, Steve and I (also conscience-stricken about the dismissal of Keith) found ourselves increasingly uncomfortable within the band. Time passed; the gigs dried up; the Hazy Music contracts were discontinued; the increasingly recalcitrant Vern was dumped, and rehearsals at Goblin City became increasingly directionless and fragmented and then increasingly infrequent. Robin took a musical break in a function band with brother Jed on the Isle of Man and with his departure Tintagel died quietly and undramatically, leaving just Steve and I, a songwriting duo without a band.