The Magic of Pink Floyd, the Music of Phosphene: Interview with Broadcaster, Writer and Musician John Cavanagh
by anna battista
Did you ever tried to look at the world through a kaleidoscope? Through its lenses reality is distorted in favour of an Alice in Wonderland effect, images split into hundreds of micro-images, which reflect themselves on the mirror-like walls of the kaleidoscope. A good example of what we're talking about would be that particular and very famous album cover with a kaleidoscope picture of four guys dressed in late '60s/early '70s attire who look quite serious and perhaps a bit scary. While looking at it you have the impression you're having an acid-induced hallucination. After all, the '60s/'70s were the years of LSD experiments, of Timothy Leary and of the Beats. But those were also the years in which seminal albums were released, such as Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (Columbia, 1967), with a kaleidoscope picture of the band on its cover, that very famous picture we were actually talking about.
Now stop thinking about kaleidoscopes and Pink Floyd's album covers and relocate yourself to a quiet café in Glasgow's West End. Outside people are walking along Byres Road: there are students going to the near uni, mums and dads pushing prams going to the botanic gardens, people doing the shopping and office types out for their lunch break. But inside everything is quiet and cosy as we chat with John Cavanagh, radio broadcaster for BBC Radio Scotland, ex- member of Glasgow based band Electroscope and founder of his new band, Phosphene. John is actually also a writer; his book The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, an analysis of Pink Floyd's first album, was released last year by New York based publishing house Continuum Books. The 125-page volume tells the stories behind some of the most famous Piper songs, such as "See Emily Play", "Matilda Mother", "Bike" and "Interstellar Overdrive" and includes interviews with Nick Mason, Jenny Fabian and Vic Singh among others.
"I was asked to do the book by the publisher David Barker from Continuum Books," John explains. "David was given my name by Neil Robertson, Belle & Sebastian's manager. I explained David that I had never written anything of more than 900 words. I did stuff for fanzines, the odd bit for Scotland on Sunday and a few reviews, but I had never written anything longer. David was very happy about it because he didn't want rock journalists writing a standard book about a band. He was looking for real enthusiasts, people who had a connection to music, maybe because they were in a band, they wrote about music or were broadcasters. So I accepted to write the book, but the first thing I did when I started working on it was thinking about the fact that a lot of the people who would have read the final product would have already read other books about Pink Floyd, so I wasn't going to write for a beginners' audience, I was going to talk to people who knew quite a lot about the subject. I also read other books about Pink Floyd and some of them don't have any original interview material, they just steal bits from other people's works and I thought that wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to use this chance I had been offered to get to the real people and find some stuff that hadn't been in the public domain before."
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is written in the style of a radio programme, with John letting his interviewees talk freely about a recording, a track or a particular memory. "I ended up doing 22 interviews for the book and when I finished the first chunk of a few thousands words I sent it to the publisher," John says. "He came back to me and said what I had written felt like a radio documentary and I explained him that was the way I had assembled it: I interviewed people and, as I would transcribe the various interviews, I would divide them into rough subsections putting bits and pieces that were pertinent to a subject all together. What I think distinguishes my style from the style of a lot of journalists is that I tried to keep the voices of the people I interviewed, even the rhythm of their speech. For example the way Nick Mason says words like 'absolutely' in a sentence. I wanted to keep that mannerism as much as I possibly could, so that readers could get a flavour of what the people I interviewed sounded like, but on paper. That's probably why the book comes out a bit like a radio documentary. But I spent quite a chunk of my life making radio programmes, so the book bears the imprint of my experiences in radio broadcasting."
John presented the book to an enthusiastic audience last November in Glasgow's venue/restaurant/record shop Mono. On that occasion he tried presenting his work while recreating the atmosphere of a real '60s happening: after John read a few extracts from the book, he played, helped by Teenage Fanclub, a few Pink Floyd covers. "What I wanted to do at the book launch was doing something that people would remember, rather than be this bloke who turns up with this book and very dryly reads parts of his work and then asks people for questions. When Pink Floyd's album came out, happenings were quite popular; you would always have poets, musicians and people doing light shows all working together, think about the International Poetry Reading that took place in 1965 at the Albert Hall in London featuring Allen Ginsberg and Alexander Trocchi among the others. I had the idea for the event in Mono after speaking to its owner Craig Tannock at a gig. I spoke to him about the book which at that time was in the printing stage and he sounded very excited. He loves The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and wanted to do something in Mono when the book was out. During a further chat with him, Craig told me 'wouldn't it be great if we could have some live music and have a band playing?' Now when many people think about the first Pink Floyd album they tend to think of 'Interstellar Overdrive' as a sort of proto-kraut rock, as long improvising instrumental music, while I think of 'Piper' as something very diverse with a lot of different influences in it such as pop. The band Craig initially mentioned me was a band that I thought would play more of the interstellar side and not so much of the pop side. So I suggested him Teenage Fanclub and Craig told me to ask Norman Blake. I did and Norman accepted to do it. That night, while we were playing 'Chapter 24', I looked at Norman and I thought 'This is great fun!' The amount of feedback we had since the show confirmed that it was a good idea to make a happening. I even had a little bit of feedback from Jenny Fabian, the author of Groupie, whom I interviewed for the book. I've known Norman Blake and Gerry Love for a long time, but I was really really excited when they accepted to take part in the event with me. I was very very grateful to them and it was wonderful."
People researching for a book often find amazing things about the topic they are investigating; more often they also discover things that might put them off the topic they are researching. While working on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, John found a pleasant surprise. "The real gem I discovered was Vic Singh, the album cover photographer," John says, "I had a number and I assumed it was an agent's number. I called and said 'I'm trying to get in touch with Vic Singh the photographer' and he goes 'Hello, this is Vic…' Vic has never spoken to any Pink Floyd books before because for a long time he shielded away from stuff that he felt was to do with nostalgia. Anyway, whether it was the time I called Vic, my approach or something about the sound of my voice on the phone I don't know, but he decided he wanted to talk to me and we've actually been pals since then. Vic has subsequently done the cover for my new album and this is the first cover he's done after the Pink Floyd's cover, it is just fantastic! I was disappointed though about the fact that I didn't manage to speak to Norman Smith for my book. He produced The Piper at the Gates of Dawn but doesn't talk about his work with the Pink Floyd at all. Unfortunately later on relations between Norman and the band, mainly between Norman and Waters, soured after Syd left, so Norman doesn't talk about that time and that's a shame because people have rewritten it saying that Norman didn't understand the band and that they didn't get on with Norman and so on. The truth is that later on there were problems with Norman, but when they made that album, Norman did understand them, they got on great with him and it was a really wonderful working partnership." John might have missed the chance to interview Smith, but he managed to get in touch with other people, among them also Nick Mason, Roger Waters and David Gayle, the latter put John in touch with somebody else who put him in touch with somebody else till there was a sort of chain reaction and John discovered someone nobody knew, "I ended up finding a woman in Spain who had never been named in any Pink Floyd's books before and she came up with a story about Syd and her climbing into London Zoo at night to visit Guy the Gorilla in the dark," John recounts, almost moved by the memories, "I think that's a lovely image, there's a wonderful innocence and naivety in this story."
Yet there's something you naturally wonder after you've read John's book: would he ever like to meet Syd Barrett? "I did not make any attempt to meet Syd Barrett and I would never do it!" John exclaims, "I think it is very unfair of people who want to write about Syd Barrett to try and foist themselves upon him or foist things they write on him upon him after they've written them. I do think that if Syd Barrett, or rather Roger Barrett because he doesn't call himself Syd anymore, wants to see what's written about him there are plenty of sources who can get the stuff to him and I would like to think that if somebody would give him my book, he would see that it reflects his other interests, it's about the magic he brought to other people who were outside their music and about his elemental feelings for nature and for trees in particular. I'd like to think that if he read my book he would see that I tried to present the readers a young Roger Barrett who wasn't just a mad genius who had written an amazing album."
Towards the end of the book, John states he will never get tired of listening to The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and he seems to really mean it. "There's a great freshness to it," he claims, "I find that I've listened to music for such a long period of my life and I'm always listening to music and always looking for new things. There are some things that I think we discover and enjoy for a while and then we confine to the back of a shelf and maybe we don't hear them for several years. Then we dip into the back of the shelf and we find that album from 1991 or 19-whatever-happens-to-be and it's like discovering an old friend. But there are a few albums and singles I've always gone back to and 'Piper' is definitely one of them, its freshness will last forever."
Talking about albums, we should mention that John released quite a few of them. He first started his career as musician in the duo Electroscope together with Gayle. The band lasted four years, from 1996 to 2000, releasing three albums and quite a few singles and EPs. "Electroscope happened spontaneously when we were trying out a bit of equipment to record a surf guitar band from Newcastle called the Interceptors," John remembers, "Gayle and I were going to record them using old valve equipment that we had because we are both retro technology fans, and we love valve tape machines and the old bit of junk. We were going to try this machine and Gayle said, 'Oh why don't you go and get your clarinet' which I hadn't played for many years because I had been stopped by having whipping cough just at the cusp of my early teens and that affected me from breathing and blowing the instrument. I said I couldn't do it and eventually played the Farfisa keyboard and suddenly we improvised for four or five minutes, looked one another and said 'That was fun! Let's do more of that…' So we came up with the name Electroscope and carried on from there. Gayle was more into doing the arrangements and I was more into doing the layers of sound and I think that by the time we got to our second album that worked really well."
After Gayle moved down to England, they both started recording separately, John under the name Phosphene. "We're still in touch all the time," John underlines, "I've heard the tracks for Gayle's solo record and I think they're great and they will appeal to people who like Empress or that kind of thing. For what regards Phosphene, I released an album a couple of years ago and also a few remixes I worked on with Mount Vernon Arts Lab's Drew Mulholland. I have a new album out now, Projection, with a cover courtesy of Vic Singh as we said earlier on. The album was released on Jeffrey Alexander's Secret Eye Records. I've known Jeffrey from The Iditarod band in Providence, Rhode Island, for quite a few years. At the start of 2003 he got in touch with me because they were coming on tour with a marvellous singer from Oxford called Sharron Kraus. So I decided to send some of my stuff to Jeffrey purely as 'here is some stuff to listen to'. Jeffrey got in touch with me after a while and told me 'since you sent us this, we've had it on the car, we've had it on the stereo, please can we do a record, maybe a compilation of B-sides?' and I replied him that I didn't actually have enough stuff out to have a compilation of B-sides, but I could have done a completely new album and he accepted."
John started working on the new album while the first one, Infrasonic Waves (Ochre Records) was coming out. "I'm not somebody who can sit down and just go 'Here are some tunes!' They need to happen whenever they happen. So I started this album when the other one was finished. One of the things included in the new album is the track 'This is not a Woodstove'. It is a recording of a woodstove sent to me by two American doctors who study pataphysical phenomena. I met them on a cruise ship when I was doing a holiday feature for the BBC. I got involved in an interesting discussion with them and they told me they would send me a tape at the end of their trip, but it wouldn't appear till they would go to their winter home which was in the Mojave Desert. That was in May and in November a tape turned up: it was a recording of a woodstove and of the wind blowing across its chimney making this incredible modular sound. These people were investigating the tape and I contacted them and asked if there was any copyright on it and they said no, so I could use it for whatever I wanted to do. I thought it was a beautiful sound, so I used it for a track. The two doctors are actually acknowledged on the track, though we couldn't credit the composer because it's a woodstove! Another track which is included in the record is an instrumental piece called 'Alex Trocchi's M.U.', the whole title is 'Alex Trocchi's Methedrine University'. It was inspired by Barry Miles' biography of Allen Ginsberg which includes a wonderful section about the time when Alex Trocchi lived in New York and ran something called the Methedrine University: lots of meth-heads would go there completely hipped up and entirely focused on speeding off their brains and they would paint these incredibly detailed microscopic accurate things on these old chunks of driftwood. If they couldn't paint a piece of driftwood or didn't have a purpose to paint that day or didn't have anything creative to do with their energies, then they would go out and clean the gutter with a toothbrush! The track is an intensely noisy instrumental which I looped up in an old synthesiser called a VCS3."
One of Phosphene's collaborators, as John told us, is Drew Mulholland from Mount Vernon Arts Lab. One of their first collaborations was an Electroscope/Mount Vernon Arts Lab recording of Geoff Goddard's "Sky Men." "Drew got in touch with me when I was presenting weekend shows at the BBC," John remembers, "He wrote me because I played be-bop records on my show and he had never heard anybody playing be-bop on radio since he was a boy. He just wrote saying 'that was great, do you have a tape of Bill Nelson's Northern Dream album?' That record was at that time completely unavailable and hugely rare and Drew had a copy of it, so he did a tape of it and sent it to me. After that I would occasionally be in touch with Drew, then several years later I bought a nice single by a band called Mount Vernon Arts Lab. I had no idea who it was. I bought the record, put it on and thought it was great. Only afterwards I discovered it was Drew. He later on collaborated with Electroscope and when the band split up, I still kept on seeing him. He actually encouraged me to play him my tracks because I had been recording stuff on my own and hadn't played it to anybody. He usually gave me advice on my recordings and really encouraged me to get moving rather than just sit home and make tracks without playing them to people. Drew was very helpful and, when he wanted to make his next album, I helped out because I have some old mics and things which were good for his recordings. Drew has got a new record out at the moment under the name Mount Vern Astral Temple, it is entitled Musick That Destroys Itself and Norman Blake worked on it. The first 500 copies came with a free disc with a live set recorded when Mount Vernon Arts Lab supported Stereolab in 2001 at a local venue called The Arches."
Apart from Drew, John has got another faithful collaborator, Raymond MacDonald, through whom he met another of his favourite musicians, Lol Coxhill. "I met Raymond through Drew when I was recording some tracks for Mount Vernon Arts Lab's album The Seance at Hobs Lane. It was quite funny because Raymond was talking about psychedelic records and said something about this terribly obscure records that he hadn't heard for about 15 years by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band and I reached down to where he was standing and picked up something and said 'you mean this one?' and he just said 'I can't believe that!' and we just hit it off. In that occasion I gave him a copy of the first Phosphene album. At the time Raymond was doing a show with Lol Coxhill and I've always been a Coxhill fan. After the show, Raymond played my album to Lol. When he told me about what he had done I was really afraid and told him 'you played something I've done in front of the mighty Lol Coxhill!' but he reassured me saying he had liked my stuff. I thought this was amazing, so I asked him if Lol would have considered playing on something of mine. He said yes, so in the end I sent Lol some of my tracks and on one Saturday in 2002 I actually met him and recorded with him and Raymond six tracks. I must admit I'm really fond of the final tracks we did on that day, I think they're great and actually we have enough material now for a mini-album which is currently looking for a home."
Earlier on John told me about his fondness for vintage gear and old mics, but the best piece in his collection is a Farfisa Compact Duo organ which was once owned by the Pink Floyd. "It came to me when it was being sold on the Internet by Brian Eno," John explains, "Brian Eno got it from a guy called Bill Kelsey who's now sadly dad, but his son Marlon still works for Eno. Bill was the Pink Floyd's sort of gadget boffin and he would make up bits of effects and bits of stuff for their live sets in the late '60s and early '70s. When he went to work for Eno, he took the organ with him. I've actually got a film of it with the Pink Floyd in the Syd-era, I've also got a couple of photos of it on stage. Most Farfisa organs were pale grey with a black band around the middle, but this one is charcoal grey, it's a sort of early model of the organ and it's quite distinctive for that reason. Eno used it on two of his albums, on tracks on 'Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy' and 'Another Green World'. The organ comes with a certificate from Eno which says where it came from and now it has been restored and it works, but it doesn't appear on my latest record because I have only restored it a few months ago. The interesting thing is that the guy who fixed it found a plectrum inside. Syd wasn't much of a plectrum guy and Eno doesn't strike me as much of a plectrum guy. I can only assume that it may have come from David Gillmore. I also found on the front panel of the organ, on the little metal panel at the side of the lower manual, 'accord to progression' written in pencil marks. I played that progression on another organ and thought it was 'Saucerful of Secrets' the title for the second Pink Floyd album, but it was actually the prototype version of 'The Massed Gadgets Of Hercules' and this was the organ part for the end of it which must have been pencilled down there by Rick Wright when they were rehearsing the track in the first place. I remember I was home because I had lost my voice and wasn't feeling very well when I discovered this, but I felt like phoning everybody to tell them what I had found!"
John recently did a programme on BBC Radio Scotland celebrating 25 years of Scottish broadcastings featuring the music of all the bands the channel played from Aztec Camera and Orange Juice on. Other radio highlights by John are a programme about the folk song revival and a series of programmes in which he usually spends half an hour analysing a specific song. But while he's busy with his radio broadcastings, John is also working on Phosphene's new projects. "After the album with Coxhill is released, I want to collaborate with other artists. At the moment I'm working on a track with Bridget St. John, a marvellous singer and songwriter who was the person who inspired John Peel to start a record label back in the '60s. Bridget lives in New York in Greenwich Village and is still singing. I'd just like to do more one-off collaborations with other musicians and having more guests on my tracks. I've got a few names in mind that I want to work with, so let's just hope it will happen," John concludes. After John finishes his cappuccino recharging his batteries at the end of this long chat, we say goodbye and I head for the local underground station wishing I had Phosphene's new album in my portable CD player and a kaleidoscope in my pocket. They would be the best tools to turn this boring reality into a magic world.
Phosphene's page: www.phosphene.debrett.net
To order John Cavanagh's book The Piper at the Gates of Dawn visit the site www.continuumbooks.com