Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers, and Free Fusioneers: British Jazz, 1960-1975

Duncan Heining BY

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From Duncan Heining's Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers (Equinox, 2012) and is taken from from Chapter 11, "The Best Things in Life are Free," which discusses free jazz and free improvisation in British jazz. In this section, Heining examines the early work of the avant-garde group AMM and discusses its philosophy and wider influence on jazz and rock music."

This excerpt appears by permission of the publisher, Equinox Press. This material is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.

The story of Eddie Prevost and AMM Music is more problematic in terms of our subject matter. The original grouping of Prevost, saxophonist Lou Gare and guitarist Keith Rowe had formed in 1965 and had soon begun to move beyond the confines that might be suggested by the word "jazz." Rowe had been at art school in Plymouth with Mike Westbrook (Warburton 2001). In the late fifties, Westbrook formed a rehearsal band and Rowe was one of its first members. Westbrook was a little older than the other students having worked in accountancy and completed his national service by the time he started in Plymouth. According to John Surman then aged 15, it was Rowe who invited him to join the Westbrook band, while Westbrook recalls him arriving at the first rehearsal wearing his school cap (Shera 1966).

By 1962, Westbrook had decided to pursue a career in jazz and moved to London with both Surman, who was now a student in the capital, and Rowe joining him (Shera 1966, 10; Lock 1985a, b). Lou Gare joined Westbrook around 1963/4, by which time he was already playing with Eddie Prevost in a hard bop quintet. The other important figure in relation to AMM's early history was Lawrence Sheaff, who as it happened was also the bassist in Westbrook's band. While Westbrook's music has always contained elements of surprise and spontaneity and even though at that time he was viewed by some as the enfant terrible of British jazz, structure and form have been equally important elements in his conception of jazz. Rowe, Gare and Sheaff were, however, beginning to chafe at such constraints. In a Jazz Journal article on Westbrook and his musicians from 1966, Michael Shera noted, "Guitarist Keith Rowe is the first avant-garde guitarist I have heard, and he is an entirely convincing and exciting exponent of the genre." He was less taken with Gare, however, writing, "Tenorist Lou Gare can be an intensely moving and passionate soloist, though occasionally he lapses into a jerky and unswinging way of phrasing" (Shera 1966, 11).

Before the article had actually appeared, Gare and Rowe had left Westbrook to work with Prevost, and Sheaff joined them shortly afterwards. Jac Holzman's Elektra Records gave the group their first opportunity to record, which given the label's forays into avant-garde classical music and the use of synthesizers (for example, Milton Sobotnik, Beaver & Krause) is less surprising than it might first seem. If the group sat somewhat uneasily with the London jazz scene, they found some affinity with the new free jazz that was represented by the SME, and played several times at the Little Theatre Club. By this point, avant-garde composer Cornelius Cardew was also part of AMM and, for a brief moment, the group found some common ground with the burgeoning underground rock music that was making its presence felt. To be sure, any such interest (with the notable exception of members of the Soft Machine) was brief and ephemeral, but AMM did have some degree of influence on both Pink Floyd (through guitarist Syd Barrett) and on John Lennon, who recorded Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions and Wedding Album with Yoko Ono after exposure to AMM. Barrett was particularly taken by Keith Rowe's guitar playing, as Barry Miles notes:

This was free-form music at its cutting edge and to reinforce the sense of serious scientific investigation AMM played in white lab coats. The idea that all sound could have a musical value was absorbed by Pink Floyd who later took up the idea and spent hours using non-conventional sources to try and make an album. Some of the sounds AMM made were impossible to identify. Watching from the side of the stage Syd Barrett was intrigued to see that Keith Rowe achieved some of his special effects on electric guitar by rolling steel ball bearings up and down the strings to produce peculiar sounds. (Miles 2006, 56)

Miles adds, "Syd borrowed this procedure and later used it himself on stage." Miles cites Peter Whitehead's film of the group as an example of this, in which Barrett can be seen with the guitar laid flat in what Rowe called the "table top position" (Miles 2006, 56). Robert Chapman in an excellent biography of Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett (Chapman 2010) locates AMM clearly within the UK/London underground and quotes John "Hoppy" Hopkins:
My impression was that many people were open to lots of different influences ... There was a great deal of crossover. Musicians of one sort listening to what musicians of another sort were doing; black soul music, white rock and pop music, classical and serious avant-garde stuff, the Cornelius Cardew end of things. There were American jazz musicians visiting like Ornette Coleman and Steve Lacy. There was also the British jazz of course and there was AMM. Their music was so far out it was on the border between music and noise and street sound. Of all the music and groups and ideas from that era, the ones that have stayed closest to the original concept are AMM, who are still around today. (Chapman 2010, 96)

Chapman notes:

AMM played several significant gigs with Pink Floyd between March 1966 and February 1967 including the Spontaneous Underground events at the Marquee Club that took place between March and June 1966, gigs at All Saints Hall in Notting Hill, and the International Times launch party at the Roundhouse in October of that year. Syd also attended the recording session for AMM's debut album in June 1966. (Chapman 2010, 99)

And as Chapman also points out, the producers of AMMMusic (Elektra; ReR) were Hopkins, Peter Jenner, Ronald Atkins and Alan Beckett—each of whom were associated with the Floyd. Chapman also quotes guitarist Fred Frith of Henry Cow on the issue of AMM's influence and originality.

Prevost's essay "AMM and the Practice of Self-Invention" in No Sound is Innocent (Prevost 1995) provides a detailed outline of the group's history, its working methods and its unravelling in the face of ideological pressures stemming from the adoption of Maoism by two of its member's (Rowe and Cardew). It will come as no surprise that the group engaged in intense, internal discussions about methodology and philosophy. Their practice was informed by ideas as seemingly diverse as Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism and Marxism, but was never, until the conversion of Rowe and Cardew, driven by any one or combination of these. The spiritual and idealistic frameworks of Eastern belief systems might seem at odds with the rigorously materialistic ideas of Marx and Engels. However, those systems are also practices involving study, meditation, question and answer, paradox, contemplation and reflection. In a meditative or contemplative state, with or without artificial stimulant, thoughts and ideas are allowed to flow unrestricted without the kinds of self-censorship or imposition of structure or meaning that might apply in a more actively conscious state. This can present new possibilities and ideas and/or new configurations of more familiar ones. It may be true that these practices are essentially introspective ones. However, in their focus on meaning, purpose and, to use the Buddhist terms from the "Noble Eighthfold Path," on "right intention, right conduct and right effort," they also concern themselves with actions and consequences. In these respects, their function, alongside Marxism, in the context of AMM should be more obviously apparent.

Prevost reveals that the members sought to understand and appreciate the contexts—social, political, cultural, aesthetic and environmental—in which they and their music functioned. It is worth pointing out here that both ethics and aesthetics are located within the broader field of philosophical study of value known as axiology. Put simply, while ethics weighs actions, statements and ideas in terms of what is deemed "good" or "bad," aesthetics weighs art and its products in terms of what is considered "beautiful" or "harmonious." As the philosopher Don Ritter suggests:

By understanding the ethical consequences of compositional decisions and aesthetic judgements, artists and audiences can have increased responsibility for the propagation of ethical values, the concepts that dictate which behaviours we deem appropriate and which we do not. Without this awareness, a person might promote any value whatsoever through aesthetic judgements. Having an awareness of the influences and consequences of aesthetic judgements is desirable because it enables a person to promote specific values with intention. (Ritter 2008, 14)

Indeed, considered in such terms, the stance of AMM was most definitely an ethical one, though not in any formulaic sense. In practice, Ritter's comments convey very well the close relationship between these two philosophical disciplines and also the kinds of questioning that AMM, and others, were engaged in during the sixties. AMM, however, raised and tried to answer questions of value and practice with a degree of articulacy that grew from their own internal dialogue. In his sleevenotes to The Crypt on CD, Prevost is not just expressing the group's understanding with hindsight. His words state unequivocally how they saw the music they were making:

AMMMusic served no demand and it supplied no market. Neither did it swerve into the slip-stream of any cultural correctness. And although the experience of AMM informed the more jazz-like playing of my duets with both Gare and (later) Rowe, and also my work with other musicians, AMM could not, would not it seems, be made to serve the objectives of any reality other than its own. AMM was, and "is," both a medium for discovery and a mirror by which it could meditate upon things, but its concern was itself. (Prevost 1995, 10)

And while on an American lecture tour in November 1967, Cornelius Cardew addressed the key issues that—for him, for AMM and others—were raised by improvised music-making:

Written compositions are fired off into the future; even if never performed, the writing remains as a point of reference. Improvisation is in the present, its effect live on in the souls of the participants, both active and passive (i.e. audience) but in its concrete form it is gone forever from the moment that it occurs, nor did it have any previous existence before the moment that it occurred, so neither is there any historical reference available. (Quoted in Prevost 1992)

Cardew even argues, as others continued to suggest, that recordings of improvised music were pale reflections of the real event:

Documents such as tape recordings of improvisation are essentially empty, as they preserve chiefly the form that something took and give at best an indistinct hint as to the feeling and cannot convey any sense of time and place. (Quoted in Prevost 1992)

He continues by describing AMM's approach and its rationale:

Informal "sound" has a power over our emotional responses that formal "music" does not, in that it acts subliminally rather than on a cultural level. This is a possible definition of the area in which AMM is experimental. We are searching for sounds and for responses that attach to them, rather than thinking them up, preparing them and producing them. The search is conducted in the medium of sound and the musician himself is at the heart of the experiment. (Quoted in Prevost 1992)

AMMMusic certainly broke entirely new ground, and yet other material recorded at the same sessions suggest that the focus was softened to a degree for the Elektra album that was finally released. It is interesting to note that Cardew, somewhat ignorant of jazz, had thought that he was joining a "jazz group" with AMM. At this juncture, some jazz inflections remained and the origin of the sounds made are pretty clearly discernible. It is a remarkable debut, but The Crypt—12th June 1968 (Matchless; Matchless) is like nothing else. One gets used to hearing music described as "dark," "disturbing" or "disorienting." The Crypt session, though finally released way outside our period, stretches such words to snapping point. It is one of the most extreme examples of music-making. There are times when one can make out a sound and attribute it to a piano or saxophone but mostly it is a collage of sounds.

It is, as Prevost describes it, music without beginning or end and one can still hear its presence, rather than influence, in much that came later—in Paul Rutherford's Iskra 1903, perhaps, and in the growth of electro-acoustic music, perhaps, in the 1990s and the early part of this century. One is forced into analogy, as opposed to description, in discussing music like this. It disturbs in a way similar to the cut-up writing techniques of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin or the art of Max Ernst. It does not so much shock or force one to flinch or withdraw. Instead, like William Burroughs's Naked Lunch or Max Ernst's The Robing of the Bride, it holds you suspended in a kind of state of severe foreboding and remains with you, whether you wish it or not, when it is over.

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