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Days In the Life

      Days In The Life - Jonathon Green
Voices from the English Underground 1961-1971

Dans cet ouvrage publié en 1998 aux éditions Minerva, Jonathon Green part à la rencontre du Londres "underground" des 60's. Il brosse le portrait d'une ville et d'une génération à travers une sorte d'abécédaire kaleidoscopique et les souvenirs d'une centaine d'activistes majeurs de cette période dont Robert Wyatt...


...Pendant ce temps, que se passe-t-il dans cette Angleterre, justement? (...) Dans le courant de cette nouvelle culture, Marc Boyle présente un light show en compagnie d'un groupe nouvellement formé, de retour des Baléares où ils ont pas mal expérimenté ce genre de choses (c.à.d. de fameuses substances): Soft Machine. De leur côté, des gens comme Miles, Jack Henry Moore, Jim Haynes, créent un certain nombre d'entreprises formant petit à petit le noyau d'un underground vivant, avec des magazines, un hebdo (International Times), et surtout, un endroit sur Southampton Row appelé à devenir l'épicentre de toute une révolution en Grande-Bretagne : UFO. C'est un sous-sol d'assez bonnes dimensions, où l'on peut faire un peu de tout: projections des films de Jack-Henry Moore et Yoko Ono, diapositives organiques de Marc Boyle sur des corps féminins en mouvement, et bien sûr, beaucoup de musique. Trois groupes s'y illustrent régulièrement: le Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band de Vivian Stanshall, et Neil Innes, héritiers à l'anglaise des Village Fugs de New York; le Soft Machine, première mouture; et Pink Floyd...

Alain Dister - ROCK CRITIC Chroniques de rock'n'roll (1967-1982)


Robert Wyatt words about...


It all started for me in the 50s when I was a jazz fan. I still am. That was my underground. That was the life I discovered outside the prescribed life. I was born in 1945, left school in 1960. I hadn't got enough exam results to get any particular job so I worked in lots of things. The place where culture and politics seemed to meet for me was always centred around black music. Jazz in the 50s. That's the romantic period for me. To me protest music was Max Roach, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Mingus. I didn't understand folk music, I didn't even like the songs at the Aldermaston march. I knew about jazz, I wasn't particularly well read, but I knew the sleevenotes of about twenty LPs backwards and could spot a new bass player on the New York scene as quick as anybody.

 Mods: 'Something very sharp'

The big difference between the trad jazz people and the modern jazz people, which is where the word 'mod' really comes from - the modernists who went to modern jazz gigs - was that the mod thing tended to be more working class or East End lewish, whereas the trad thing tended to be public school dropouts - much more English, people leaping up and down to trad jazz, already the thing of being ostentatious in dress, whereas the modernist thing was very much not ostentatious. Somebody else might notice how you had your tie, someone who knew about things like that, but it wasn't ostentatious. But we did want to function as a parallel world.

 Light-shows: 'You had to have things going "Pow!"'

Mark Boyle was burning himself to pieces doing these experiments with different coloured acids. You just saw him with these goggles, looking alI burnt and stuff, high up on some rigging. He used to play tricks, he used to make bubbles corne out of people's flies and things. You couldn't see exactly what he was doing from on stage, but the atmosphere was good.

The Floyd always had their own lights people, but no one else did and Mark used to do the place, not particularly the groups, but the walls, everything. The light-shows meant that what we shared with the Floyd was that as personalities you could hide and the overall group effect could be more important th an the individuals. The normal thing would be that there would be a focus on one or two individual performers, even in the R&B bands, the lead guitarists would get that focus. Whereas we and the Floyd would hardly be recognised off stage, nobody knew what they looked like through the light-show. The anonymity of light-shows was nice - the fact that you were almost in the same swirly gloom that the audience were in was relaxing and you could get a nice atmosphere going.

 The Deviants : 'The Worst record in the history of man'

I didn't know MickFarren well and I don't think he particularly welcomed what he thought we [the Soft Machine] represented. But I certainly admire him because he was a sort of protopunk and saw elements immediately that were false. He heard the false notes being rung all around him at a time when people thought it was all in tune.

 The 14-Hour Technicolor Dream: 'Everybody I'd ever known swam before my eyes'

I got a short-back-and-sides haircut and a suit and tie to do that gig. That was my avant-garde gesture. The Floyd had those pyramids as far as I recall. They were doing very slow tunes.

 The Pink Floyd: 'What we wanted was an avant-garde pop group'

The Pink Floyd were with a lovely bunch of people, Blackhill, and they were very nice and I think they were an honourable exception to the shady rule about managers. I think they were nice people and really cared about the people they worked for. I think that most of were less lucky than that.

 The Soft Machine: 'The only other bloke In Kent with long halr'

In Canterbury I got into a local sort of beat group, the Wild Flowers. The name had nothing to do with flower power; we lived in the country and Hugh Hopper had a book called Wild Flowers and I think he thought it up. Wild Flowers was the beginning of what became the Soft Machine. Hugh Hopper's brother Brian, who played saxophone, was a friend of Mike Ratledge and when Mike Ratledge came back from university and wanted to play, we were the only people there to play with. So he joined the band, playing piano. But nobody in the band was trying to do the same thing at alI, which is why it was quite original and why, after a couple of years, it fell apart. It was a constant process of disintegration really, getting in new people to fill the gaps. Which in the 60s was rare, because most bands were quite stable. I talked to Nick Mason of the Pink Floyd about that once. I said, 'How come you lot have stayed together so long?' and he said, 'We haven't finished with each other yet.' But it kept changing, we kept on tinkering with it and tinkering with it and throwing each other out of it and leaving it until eventually alI the kinks were ironed out of it and in the end it became a standard British jazz-rock band. I don't know what happened in the end. I stopped listening after a while - I stopped listening before I even left.

When we came up to London there were two connections: Daevid Allen had the connection with people like Hoppy. The other connection was Kevin Ayers, who played bass guitar and wrote songs. He was the only other bloke in Kent with long hair.

The name Soft Machine came through Mike Ratledge. He had books like V and alI that kind of thing. I knew the name was taken from Burroughs but I don't think it intrigued me enough to get a copy. Wild Flowers more or less became the Soft Machine. We trickled up to London and then regrouped, one by one.

Kevin Ayers was important in that he knew the AnimaIs office, where Hilton Valentine and Chas Chandler were already starting to manage, and they signed us up really on the basis of Kevin's songs. They were looking for something commercial. Chas was always looking for Slade, and eventually he found them, meanwhile he had to put up with people like us and Jimi Hendrix. Shortly after we joined Chandler Hendrix came to London and musically that was tremendously important for lots of people. For me too, if for nothing else than that what he let Mitch Mitchell do on drums gave me space for what I wanted to do on drums. We were using a lot of jazz ideas on drum kits that there hadn't been room for in the constricted time-keeping stuff I'd been doing before. Of course this was quite the opposite of what Nick Mason was doing with the Floyd: he was a kind of ticking clock there - which is just what they needed. For electronic rock his approach was more suitable - uncluttered. People like me and Mitch were probably too busy, but at the time it seemed exciting. So Kevin actually got us a deal and turned us into a group that had a manager and so on. He liked bossanova and calypso. Ray Davies and the Kinks, who started using stuff like that quite early on, were a big influence on him. One record company bloke told us, 'I don't know whether you're our worst-selling rock group or our bestselling jazz group.'

 The Speakeasy: 'There was a good deal of excess'

The Speakeasy was exactly the kind of place that I saw as really unpleasant. There was a sense in me that while I was flourishing as a member of the late-60s culture, this very thing that was flourishing was squashing something that I felt was really more oppressed. Rock groups meeting in expensive clubs that are difficult to get into... what's all that crap? It was exciting and it was interesting, there were lots of new scenes, but it's very very hard to think it as underground.


When you arrived at UFO, early on, they were usually playing Monteverdi or something. I was probably more awestruck by the place than most of the punters, who I felt took it for granted.
It wasn't any easier playing UFO than the circuit, but the demands our own. We were able to develop our own idiosyncrasies. Our management had immediately put us on the road on a circuit where you had to play for dance audiences. We weren't very good at that. So the great thing for us about UFO was that the audiences weren't demanding in the same way. They were sitting about, most of them were asleep as far as I could see. The very things that were our faults on the regular circuit - that of alI the bands playing 'Midnight Hour' or 'Knock on Wood' on any particular evening we would play it worst, if we played it at all- became bonuses at UFO. We couldn't play that stuff, or if we did people didn't realise that was what we were playing.

 Conclusion: 'Some kind of golden age'

I think in the end that by not beating the system we strengthened it. In the end the culture we were involved in was an Anglo-american cultural narcissism revamped, and if you look at it from the point of view of world culture it actually reflected the power structure, the extraordinary media power of the English-speaking West. With the best will in the world the people involved might have thought that they were providing an alternative, but they were simply making the Establishment more flexible. So I'm not at all surprised that we have proceeded to vote in lots of incredibly right-wing and chauvinistic governments. I don't see that as a reaction to the 60s, but as a direct result. What a pathetic thing to think: that you can just blow the castles down.