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Pete Brown: White Rooms & Imaginary Westerns, Part 2

Pete Brown: White Rooms & Imaginary Westerns, Part 2
Duncan Heining By

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1966 was an important year in British popular music. Bob Dylan, performing with the Hawks, was booed for "going electric" at Manchester Free Trade Hall. The Rolling Stones topped the charts for the first time with "Paint It Black." The Beatles, fresh from the John Lennon "Bigger than Jesus" controversy, released Revolver, their finest album. Jimi Hendrix was introduced to the public with the single "Hey Joe." And poet Pete Brown began a song-writing partnership with bassist Jack Bruce that would last forty-eight years.

Drummer Ginger Baker had contacted Brown with a view to him providing lyrics for his new supergroup with the idea that he and Brown would collaborate:

"It was Ginger that originally approached me when they formed Cream," Brown says. "They were all very intelligent guys and I wondered why they needed anybody. I tried to write with Ginger and with Jack but Jack and I had the chemistry."

Brown and Bruce shared a love of film, a major source of inspiration for Brown and they both loved jazz. "We loved a lot of the same music— Ellington, Mingus, Monk and whatever," he tells me. "There were underlying things that helped it a long quite a lot. The fact that he had been and was still a jazz musician—sort of—and Ginger always loved jazz and African music. After a little false start, it just worked." I asked how he and Bruce worked together.

"Sometimes together in the same room," Brown says, "with Jack on piano or guitar, though the riff for "Sunshine of Your Love" was on bass. Occasionally, I would come up with a lyric. He would usually see very quickly what to do with it. One of my favourite records we did was How's Tricks (1977). The title was based on this enormous poster he had of this Australian magician from the thirties or forties with all these images on it. We just needed to get that down in the right way and organise it rhythmically. Then Jack just did the music that was absolutely perfect."

With one or two exceptions, it was the Brown-Bruce collaborations that stood out on the four Cream LPs—songs like "Wrapping Paper" (their first effort), "I Feel Free," "Sunshine of Your Love" and, of course, their anthem "White Room."But, if anything, their partnership truly came together with Bruce's first solo album, Songs for a Tailor and its equally successful follow-up, Harmony Row. The former is a real meeting of minds. The filmic quality of Bruce's writing finding the perfect setting for the epic "Theme for an Imaginary Western" and for "Weird of Hermiston," "He the Richmond" and "Rope Ladder to the Moon." Add to that Chris Spedding's ability to play rhythm and lead lines on guitar simultaneously and Felix Pappalardi's wide-screen production and you have a classic. Intriguingly, "Rope Ladder to the Moon" was not originally written for Bruce at all.

"That was something I gave to Arthur Brown because Arthur's a friend," Brown explains. "In fact, I did a gig with him recently. But Arthur didn't know what to do with it. I got it back, gave it to Jack and he came back with that incredible music in about three days. Unbelievable."

Brown's poetry and lyrics are marked by his own distinctive store of imagery—cowboys, science fiction, politics, love, loss and betrayal—and his unusual approach to form, rhythm and line. These characteristics were well met by Bruce's own highly personal compositional style, drawing as it did on a range of musics from jazz, blues and rock to classical and Celtic musics. I suggested to Brown that Bruce's music already contained its own narrative structure and asked if that made it easier to write with him.

"Absolutely," he replies. "Jack's music was very compelling. It was not abstract. I could see it as being full of images. I have said this before but it was almost like I was translating something."

Brown's relationship with Bruce was not always easy. His biography, White Rooms and Imaginary Westerns, details their difficulties but also their mutual ability to overcome these and continue working together. Their last project proved a very positive, valedictory experience.

"I loved Jack. I'm mostly pretty easy to get on with—mostly," he says. "Jack was half and half and so we had times when we didn't get on but we always had this incredible chemistry. When we did the last record, Silver Rails, it was quite a big success and a labour of love. Because, unfortunately, he was running out of time, we just got on with it. There weren't any problems at all. It was a very rewarding experience. We knew he wasn't going to be around that long."

I ask Brown how he found the transition from writing poetry to lyrics in practice.

"When I started writing lyrics, I had written an awful lot of poetry," he tells me. "My chops were good. I had a lot of technique and given the right kind of stimulus I could find ways to do stuff. Some of it is very poetry-related and some of it isn't. Then, of course, you have to talk about the influence of the blues. The blues has its own form of poetry and, in some ways, its own forms of surrealistic poetry too. If you listen to people like Robert Johnson, Victoria Spivey and Sleepy John Estes, there's some absolutely wild stuff that's full of amazing weird imagery. That was always an inspiration, as well as more literary sources. But the blues meant as much to me as those sources did."

Brown's collaboration with Jack Bruce might represent the apex of that aspect of his work but there have been many other examples aside from the songs he has written for his own bands. Most recently, he has worked on the recent Procul Harum CD, Novum, as well as with Joe Bonamassa, Krissy Matthews and the Hamburg Blues Band. Going back in time, Brown also provided lyrics for Colosseum, Graham Bond and Dick Heckstall-Smith's first solo album, A Story Ended....

If Brown's transition from performance poet to lyricist was typically idiosyncratic, the same held true for his shift from poet/lyricist to rock musician. His first attempts with Brown's Poetry or, as it was sometimes known, The First Real Poetry Band failed to secure a record deal and, conscious of his own musical limitations, he had then tried working "with some guys at the same level as me musically." But, as he adds, "It didn't work -the people I got just weren't good enough."

All was not lost, however, and Brown soon found sympathetic—musically, at least—partners in guitarist, Chris Spedding, and saxophonist, George Khan. With the addition of Pete Bailey on percussion, bassist Butch Potter and drummer Rob Tait, Pete Brown and his Battered Ornaments were born. They were quickly signed up by Peter Jenner and Clive King of Blackhill Enterprises, organisers of the free Hyde Park Concerts of 1968-1975. That in turn led to a deal with Harvest Records, EMI's progressive imprint. The band's first album was released in June 1969 and they were due to appear on the same bill as the Rolling Stones a month later in the royal park. Despite the fact that this was his band, Brown says he was still reluctant to sing.

"They said, 'None of us can sing and you write the songs, so you can fucking sing them.' So, I was stuck with it. Quite honestly, I was thrown in at the deep end and, of course, in the end they fired me."

More than that, Brown's own band fired him on the eve of their performance in front of some three hundred thousand fans in Hyde Park there to see and hear the Stones. I had heard the group on the radio and was looking forward to hearing them live at the gig. However, the desultory, lacklustre band I heard bore no relation to the weird, off-the-wall music I was expecting. Brown might not have found his voice at that point but he was a far, far better front man than guitarist Chris Spedding. As he recalls:

"That was a mistake because I had a good act. I was good on stage. But they thought I was crap. Plus Spedding had this thing that he eventually got rid of people. He did it with other bands he was in. In a way, it was good because I had already met Jim Mullen and wanted to work with him. Luckily, I had some money and brought him down from Glasgow. We got together and started writing the stuff for Piblokto! and that was good. The chemistry was good and I started improving."

With their second album already in the can, the now Brown-less Battered Ornaments overdubbed his vocals and so ended that chapter in Brown's fledgling career as a rock musician. That said the songs on both A Meal You Can Shake Hands with in the Dark and Mantlepiece still stand up and I have more than a little affection for the former.

Brown took little time licking his wounds and quickly formed Pete Brown & Piblokto!, with Mullen on guitar, Rob Tait again on drums, Dave Thompson on keyboards and soprano sax and Roger Bunn on bass. That line-up produced one of the classic, underappreciated records of the period, Things May Come and Things May Go but the Art School Dance Goes on For Ever... It remains a personal favourite and features one of the best covers (by Mal Dean) of the era. The title track grabs you by the throat. It has energy, drive and power but also structure and form. The same applies to "Walk for Charity, Run for Money." This is music that someone has thought very deeply about. The contrast with the jazz-rock, filmic qualities of "High Flying Electric Bird" works well but then there is the folk-rock and blues of "Someone Like You" and "Country Morning." I suppose if I were to seek a comparison for this satisfyingly eclectic collection of music it would be with Family, albeit the standard of musicianship with Piblokto! was a notch or two higher. And, for one, I really like the sound of Brown's voice in this context.Almost inevitably, this is after all the story of Brown's life, Piblokto! did better in Europe than at home. Their second and final album, Thousands on a Raft (1970), has a number of fine songs—notably "Aeroplane Head Woman" and "Station Song Platform Two" (which would easily have found a home on a Jack Bruce record). Where it falls short of the standards set by Things May Come... is in a certain lack of variety and the long instrumental "Highland Song," though featuring some classy playing, takes up space that might better have been granted to one of two shorter Brown-Mullen songs. Late in the band's life, Phil Ryan (later of Man) joined on keyboards. He would later prove to be Brown's second long-term writing partner and they would go on to record four albums together.

As Brown wrote in his autobiography, White Rooms and Imaginary Westerns, "Graham (Bond) had been the first person to encourage me to sing and I wanted to repay his faith in me. Despite some mistakes, he was still a name and I was a semi-name."

With the demise of Piblokto!, Bond and Brown started writing together and formed a new band—Bond & Brown. They obtained a deal with Chapter One Records, an otherwise mainly MOR label, which hardly boded well. Listening to their one album, Two Heads Are Better Than One, I would have to say, "On this evidence, sadly not!" At times, the multiple voices and massed percussion suggest Dr John the Night Tripper— notably on "Lost Tribe," "Oobati" and "Macumbe" (from the "Lost Tribe" EP). But, overall, the songs simply do not pass muster, though "C.F.D.T. (Colonel Frights' Dancing Terrapins)" and "Mass Debate" would certainly do so in better company.

However much Brown clearly loved Graham Bond and felt a debt, his description of the keyboard maestro in his autobiography—"Clay Footed Idol"—seems to sum up the experience. By the end of Bond & Brown's short life, Bond's behaviour was becoming increasingly bizarre and difficult, behaviour exacerbated by his poly-drug use.

"It all fell apart, when we were on tour," Brown says. "We were in Leicester and an old friend of his turned up -a crazy woman. They took some very powerful acid together. Graham ended up playing nothing but feedback for the whole gig. The next day we went to Scarborough to do a gig and he collapsed. I realised that it was the end of it really. He ended up in hospital and couldn't work for a bit. So, I thought it was best to call a halt."

Brown took a brief break from the business and, over the next few years, worked as an A&R man and record producer, while continuing to write and perform poetry. And, of course, his song-writing partnership with Jack Bruce continued. The lure of the stage was, however, a constant pull and he worked on his percussion playing and had singing lessons, hence the beautifully ironic title of the 1977 compilation, Before Singing Lessons. His next two bands, The Flying Tigers and Back to the Front, featured multi-instrumentalist Ian Lynn. By his account, The Flying Tigers might well have been one of the most disaster-prone bands in British rock history but Back To The Front did quite well on the circuit. However, as Brown explains the timing was not good:

"It was punk time in Britain and what we were doing meant nothing at the time to record companies. When you look at that period it was a nightmare for British music because it was the first time that the business had invented something themselves rather than discovering it. It damaged British music so badly. They wouldn't have it that these people were so fucking awful. The upshot was that they destroyed the skill base of British musicianship for at least ten or even twenty years."

Though Back to the Front called time in 1978, the album they had recorded, Party in the Rain, did eventually come out in 1982 and it is a very good soul-jazz record with more than a hint of Steely Dan about it. However, by that point Brown was already working with keyboard player Phil Ryan and was embarking on one of the most musically productive periods in his career.

"Phil was one of my very best friends, possibly the person who got closest to me," Brown tells me. "He was in a great band called The Eyes of Blue and we both played at Middle Earth. Phil joined Piblokto! after Thousands on a Raft. To start off with, we would fight a little bit but gradually we became closer. Then, when he joined Man, Piblokto! broke up and I went off with Graham. We stayed in touch and, eventually, after my last full-time band, Back to the Front, broke up, I realised I needed Phil in my life. We got together and became a permanent song-writing team and later started making records. Phil and I were closer than most people. We had exactly the same kind of politics and anarchy. We thought a lot along the same lines and the four albums that we did was the best work that I have done so far."

Brown and Ryan also shared a love of film and, as with his partnership with Jack Bruce, the songs the duo composed have a similar narrative, filmic quality. The music on their four records together—Ardours of the Lost Rake (1991), Coals to Jerusalem (1993), Road of Cobras (2010) and Perils of Wisdom (2013)—operates within its own space and groove. Comparisons might be odorous, as Dogberry so rightly observed, but if we must -think of Steely Dan with maybe a hint of the The Doobie Brothers. Most of all, however, I hear more than a touch of Ryan's old band Man, with whom Ryan played on and off through the seventies. As it happens, Brown had contributed percussion to a couple of tracks on that group's Welsh Connection LP (1975).

Their last album together was Perils of Wisdom. Credited to Pete Brown & Phil Ryan with Psoulchedelia, the backing band's name describes the music well. Featuring some fine trombone from Annie Whitehead and sax from Lee Goodall, Psoulchedelia boasts a tight but supple rhythm section in drummer Jeff Allen, bassist John McKenzie and guitarist Alan Weekes. Equally impressive is the way Brown's voice intersects with backing vocalists Helen Hardy and Rietta Austin. Subjects range from petrolheads (Brown has never learned to drive) to consumerism to political corruption and love, all delivered with wry irony and, occasionally, anger. But what underpins songs such as "Don't Want Anything Old in My Life," "For You" and "Go Down Fighting" is a sense of Brown taking stock, reflecting on where he's been and on his determination to keep going, keep fighting. The perils of wisdom, indeed.

Brown will turn eighty on Xmas Day this year. 2019 was a tough one healthwise—a heart bypass, a bleeding ulcer and a small cancer, removed successfully. His desire to play, record and, most of all, perform is still powerful. Despite these ordeals, he still managed to contribute lyrics to projects by Joe Bonamassa and Carla Olson and saw out the year with gigs in London, Norway (with Krissy Matthews) and at home with the Hastings Allstars. To echo the title of a 'hen's-teeth-rare' Battered Ornaments single, this year looks good on paper.

Sadly, a completed film on Brown's life—White Rooms and Imaginary Westerns—awaits a distribution deal. However, there are plans for a new record and Brown hopes to get back on the road with a number of possible US gigs already in the pipeline. Most importantly, March will see the release of the Cream Acoustic Project CD and DVD. It's taken two years to bring to fruition, as Brown explains:

"It's Cream and Cream-related songs done acoustically and features probably the last performances of Ginger, alongside Bobby Rush, Joe Bonamassa, Bernie Marsden, Pee Wee Ellis, Deborah Bonham, Maggie Bell, Malcolm Bruce, myself and a cast of many others. Paul Rogers is on the record too."

As Brown once noted, "Things May Come, Things May Go but the Art School Dance Goes On Forever...." Rave on, Pete Brown. Rave on!

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