Colin H on Quintessence
I see a yawning chasm marked ‘Features’ that needs to be populated. Here’s a piece I wrote on Quintessence which appeared last year in ‘Record Collector’…
Some bands struggle for years for attention, but not Quintessence. Within weeks of forming, in April 1969, they were a word of mouth sensation. Chris Blackwell and Muff Winwood of Island Records dropped into a rehearsal with a chequebook and an artistic-freedom guarantee. Sorted. Quintessence were huge on the European live scene for three years and, in retrospect, were the last great hurrah of ‘the sixties’. By mid 1972, after four albums and two singles, the original six members had split in two – recording one more album each, as Quintessence and Kala respectively, before all involved slipped into obscurity as swiftly as they had appeared.
Quintessence, like Hawkwind, Marc Bolan and the Third Ear Band, were a product of London’s Ladbroke Grove scene, but few were locals.
Ron ‘Raja Ram’ Rothfield, an Australian conservatoire and jazz trained flautist, had met American bassist Richard ‘Shambhu Babaji’ Vaughan in Greece, both moving to London in 1968. Phil ‘Shiva’ Jones, also Australian, had recorded downunder as Phil Jones & The Unknown Blues, enjoying an Aussie hit with ‘If I Had A Ticket’ on Festival Records in 1967, following it with Leadbelly’s ‘Pick A Bale Of Cotton’ – a TV clip of which can be viewed online. After a third band single and two Phil Jones solo efforts in 1968, he moved to England, following dreams of a spiritual master. This master, duly found, was Swami Ambikananda – who gave most of the future Quintessence their spiritual names and played a key role in their philosophy and lifestyle throughout.
Raja Ram had placed a ‘musicians wanted’ ad in Melody Maker in March 1969, specifying ‘jazz/rock’. Two hundred people responded, from which Ram secured the services of: Jeremy ‘Jake’ Milton, a jazz-proficient Canadian and former member of Junior’s Eyes, on drums; Alan Mostert, a teenage prodigy from Mauritius, on lead guitar; and Dave ‘Maha Dev’ Codling, a Brit – at last! – on rhythm guitar. Alan’s school friends Dave ‘Ned’ Balen and ‘Surya’ would also end up in the Quintessence extended family – the latter playing tamboura on the first two LPs and the former playing tablas on some of the albums and also accompanying Alan in a sitar/tablas support set before many Quintessence shows in their 1971-72 period.
A fluid, mellow-toned, Grateful Dead influence would dominate Alan’s playing in due course; for the time being the Jimi Hendrix sound was where it was at, spiced with a fascination for Ravi Shankar.
Raja Ram had two key criteria in putting his dream band together: one was their soul, the other their postal code:
‘I wanted them all to live in the same area of Ladbroke Grove,’ he told the NME, ‘as there’s a great neighbourhood atmosphere round here and I wanted to keep that in the group. I wanted to be able to get together easily and just wander in and out of each other’s houses… I believe that we’re all trying to find God. I wanted to get away from the worldly scene, the everyday hassle.’
By the time of the first Quintessence gig advertised in the mainstream music press – an ‘Implosion At The Roundhouse’, 22 June 1969 – Quintessence were signed to Island, had bought a van, were getting five gigs a week via the NEMS agency and were sharing bills in London and beyond with the likes of Free, Family, Pink Floyd, Mott The Hoople. They would soon be recording In Blissful Company, with their very own George Martin, a gifted arranger/producer named John Barham, who would later work on several George Harrison albums.
‘Giants’, the album’s opening track, co-written by Raja Ram, Shiva and manager Stanley Barr, was the Quintessence manifesto in four and a half minutes – a surging, joyful bundle of tautly contained energy and swaggering guitar interplay between Dave and Alan, musically redolent of The Smiths at their most barn-storming and polemical. Lyrically, we are introduced to a mystical past where ‘superhuman’ giants roamed, a hint of the Old Testament Nephilim or the ancient ‘Entish’ giants of Britain referred to enigmatically by Anglo-Saxon chroniclers, from which seed JRR Tolkien memorably created the tree-herds of Middle Earth. At once, the world of Quintessence was a rollercoaster ride of mystery, intrigue and excitement. It made you think. And it rocked.
The studio ‘Giants’, compared to the live versions now available, illustrates Barham’s skills. In concert, the song was two verses providing a vehicle for extended improvisation; in the studio, however, Barham manipulated its slightly half-baked form to create a tightly constructed instrumental section around Alan’s lead guitar, including a suitably spooky backwards-recorded overdub, changing tempo and mood, before returning to the rollicking verse chords, over which (in the absence of more lyrics) Phil vocalised in falsetto. In effect, Barham pulled a rabbit from the hat and created an identifiable middle-eight and a pseudo ‘B section’ for the song, which ended by ascending into a euphoric major key crescendo before the jam faded away. (Phil would, thrillingly, create genuine B and C sections to the song when he re-recorded it with collaborator Ralph ‘Rudra’ Beauvert in the 2000s, for one of three splendid albums to date of songs old and new released as ‘Shiva’s Quintessence’.) In Blissful Company was written, recorded and released (in November 1969) within seven months of the group forming: a remarkable achievement.
John Barham would be integral on two and a half of Quintessence’s three Island LPs, honing their onstage magic into sublime studio sculptures, with inspired touches like, on the first album, the addition of oboe and female choir on ‘Chant’ and slowing down a tambour on tape to create a mesmerisic drone in ‘Midnight Mode’:
‘John was exactly what the band needed to express the best of Quintessence,’ says Phil. ‘His extraordinary ability to retrieve and create sounds out of the ethers took our music to a more elevated dimension. He was a huge boost to our production and remains a good friend of mine to this day.’
Among the earliest journalists supporting Quintessence were Richard Williams and Rob Partridge – each later crucial in the early careers of future Island artists Roxy Music and U2. But word soon spread. 1970-72 delivered an onslaught of national music press coverage: in Melody Maker, NME, Disc, Record Mirror and Sounds alone, album and news coverage aside, Quintessence would enjoy no less than 17 concert reviews and 19 interviews, with further interviews in Zigzag and Beat Instrumental. Quintessence were very quickly a band of the people, and the people bought the music press in their tens of thousands.
In Blissful Company was, in every respect, a landmark achievement. A gatefold with die-cut booklet, it would be Island’s most expensive album packaging. With its Indian god cover art and interior photos of the extended Quintessence ashram, Quintessence represented to the public an alternative way of being. And they all looked very happy.
In January 1970, a consciously punchier new recording of band anthem and album track ‘Notting Hill Gate’ (‘We’re getting it straight in Notting Hill Gate / We all sit around and mediate…’) was issued as a single with non-LP track ‘Move Into The Light’ on the flip – a surprisingly poppy, Beatle-esque effort, with John Barham on treated piano. Collectors should note that the single was also issued on Island in both Holland and Germany, in two unique picture sleeves.
A hit single may have cemented the Quintessence cult with the masses but, as Phil suggests, it wasn’t high on the agenda:
‘Quintessence was a live jam band with strong audience participation. The thought of a pop single was not high on our list of priorities – although we had songs (‘Cosmic Surfer’ and ‘You Never Stay The Same’) that, with the right promotion, could have been on the charts. We thrived mostly on the spontaneous energy derived from our live concerts.’
In March 1970 a gig at St Pancras Town Hall, with Pete Townshend and Keith Moon in the audience, was recorded by Island and filmed for BBC’s Disco 2 (see panel). A full performance of ‘Jesus, Buddha’ from it would quietly slip out on the Island sampler Bumpers later in the year, while John Barham would deftly select two instrumental jam extracts to weave into the self-titled epic that became the second LP, another elborate package, released in June 1970 and managing No.22 on the UK chart. By that stage Quintessence had supported CCR at the Albert Hall, the Who at Lancaster University and the Grateful Dead on their first UK gig, at the Hollywood Festival (see panel). Further festivals around Europe , including Montreux and the ‘Dutch Woodstock’ at Kralingen, followed in June and July, with the first of many BBC radio sessions also in July.
It looked as if Quintessence were on course to fulfil the expectations of their label and audience. One still-born goal they set themselves was an opera/oratorio, requiring an Indian orchestra and Tibetan musicans, based on a spiritual journey from Ladbroke Grove to the East. ‘High On Mount Kailash’ on the second album would be the project’s sole survivor.
A little bit of history was made in September when Quintessence, caught by a passing BBC new crew, opened a little festival, the very first, for a diary farmer in the Glastonbury area called Michael Eavis. The main sttraction had originally been the Kinks, but Eavis gave a guileless interview to the Melody Maker which resulted in the headline ‘Kinks For Mini Festival’. As he later recalled: ‘The Kinks probably read that and thought it sounded a bit low rent for them. Next thing, I received a letter from their management with medical certificates saying that all four of them had laryngitis. That’s quite improbable, isn’t it?’
The Kinks’ agent nevertheless offered him (Phil’s Blenheim Crescent neighbour) Marc Bolan for the same money: £500. No doubt he saw Eavis as a gift, for Bolan was as yet still warbling in the wilderness. Quintessence and everyone else on the bill made do with £15 each. Around 1500 people turned up to this laid-back proto-‘Glastonbury’. A year on, in the event immortalised on film as Glastonbury Fayre, it would be around 12,000, and once again Quintessence would be playing.
Phil ‘Shiva’ Jones has great memories:
‘The first two Glastonbury concerts were amazing, especially the second one. The word had got out that this fantastic music festival was happening and thousands of people travelled from near and far to be part of a very special event. Having the opportunity to be back for their 40th anniversary as the only artists to have done the first, second and 40th was an honour. The added bonus was to reunite with John Barham at the concert and, following that, for him to produce the live album Rebirth: Live At Glastonbury.’
Sure enough, Phil and Dave – by then living an Atlantic Ocean apart – reunited as Quintessence for a genuinely one-off performance at the 40th Glastonbury, with John Barham delighted to see the show and to mix the superb Rebirth, cross-fading in some new studio pieces, giving the album a feel similar to the segued live/studio feel of 1970’s Quintessence LP. A BBC Yorkshire crew also chronicled the reunion in a short documentary, while Michael Eavis himself can be seen enjoying ‘Dance For The One’ in a cameraphone moment online.
Writing in Music Now in September 1970, after pulling a record-breaking 2,500 people to London’s Lyceum, Dai Davies noted how far Quintessence had come from their Ladbroke Grove origins in a year: ‘They would still like to do Grove gigs,’ he wrote, ‘but they doubt if there is a hall big enough.’
There was every reason to believe that 1971 would see a major commercial breakthrough. A return visit to Lancaster University in February was memorable: headliners the Kinks hadn’t bothered to turn up which meant Quintessence played, and were paid, twice; while the opening act was an unashamedly unfashionable rockabilly revivalist called Shakin’ Stevens who would strike UK chart gold 10 years later.
Dive Deep, the third Quintessence LP, had been recorded at Island’s studios at a time when Led Zeppelin were working on their fourth album. One of them would go on to be very successful; released in March 1971, promoted with a city hall tour, a BBC radio session and another appearance on TV’s Disco 2, the other one managed a surprisingly modest No.43 chart placing.
Flagged as possibly featuring a side of live material from London’s LSE (there’s no evidence any such concert took place within the relevant timescale or was taped if it did), Dive Deep was wholly a studio effort. John Barham, sacked by Raja Ram, was only involved in three of the six tracks – including the 11 minute ‘Dance For The One’, with lyrics from manager Stanley Barr, a smouldering, dark masterpiece redolent in mood and ambition of something in between Roxy Music’s similarly epic ‘If There Is Something’ and Zeppelin’s ‘Achilles Last Stand’. ‘Brahman’ and ‘The Seer’ were likewise slow-burning, moody creations which reward repeated listens. ‘Epitaph For Tomorrow’ (title track of the first Quintessence CD, a pre-remastering era comp on Demon Records in 1993) and even the Barham-produced ‘Sri Ram Chant’, at eight minutes apiece, felt a tad stretched.
On May 30 1971 two Quintessence concerts at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall were recorded by Island. Compared to the gritty St Pancras set of March 1970, the QE Hall shows – released by Hux Records nearly 40 years later, alongside the St Pancras recordings, as Infinite Love: Live At Queen Elizabeth Hall 1971 (2CD) and Cosmic Energy: Live At St Pancras 1970 – reveal a more sophisticated, richer sound. Partly this was a musical evolution, partly technical: they had monitors, a better PA and Island now had a 16-track mobile facility. These albums are essential in appreciating the magic the band had as a live experience, and particularly Phil’s quality as a vocalist and crowd motivator.
Presumably a full live album was planned at the time, but the plan had a flaw: soon after the shows, Raja Ram effectively decided that Quintessence were bigger than Island.
Island supremo Chris Blackwell had negotiated a US deal for the band with Bell Records, allowing widespread distribution for their records there for the first time – although Jim Morrison of the Doors, for one, had enthusiastically bought all their albums on import. Phil and Dave voted for it; the rest turned it down.
‘Our first date would have been at Carnegie Hall,’ said Phil to Chris Welch, for his sleevenote to Repertoire’s Dive Deep remaster in 2005. ‘Yet the guys said ‘no’ purely for monetary reasons. They wanted a bigger advance. Chris Blackwell put a big effort into getting the deal and he was pretty upset when the band turned it down.’
The raw statistics of their music press coverage is telling: during the 18 months of 1970 into 1971, there were 26 national reviews and features; during the last half of 1971 there were precisely two. Clearly, Island Records, and their press department, really had thrown in the towel.
In hindsight, the US licensing decision probably cost Quintessence a career that may have lasted for decades, like that of the Grateful Dead. It’s a tragedy that they would never play a single show there.
Nevertheless, the band’s UK concert popularity rolled on, including festival spots at Weeley in August and the Who’s Oval Cricket Ground Bangladesh benefit in September (following hot new crowd-pleasers Lindisfarne on both occasions). A couple of college gigs in November were interesting curios: Roxy Music, the sound of Island Records’ future, supported them at Colchester, while a University College London gig was notable in being an anti-Margaret Thatcher show, a good decade before such things were commonplace. On this occasion, the NUS were railing against some party-pooping measures being introduced by Mrs Thatcher, Minister for Education.
November 1971 also saw the release of ‘Sweet Jesus’, an unlikely non-album debut single for RCA, with (literally) iconic picture sleeve. The B-side, ‘You Never Stay The Same’, would reappear as ‘Vishnu Narain’ on the subsequent RCA LP Self, released in May 1972. Hippy cohort Stanley Barr had recently been replaced as manager by one Bill Shepherd, a sharp-suited businessman. Intriguingly, as Raja Ram revealed to the NME in November ’71: ‘We’ve already been working on [Self] for about a year, because we started recording it before Dive Deep. We feel we don’t want to rush it because we want to make it our best…’
Half the album had been recorded at Exeter University in December ’71 – the ‘Freedom’ and ‘Water Goddess’ sections of the now epic onstage ‘Giants’ jam, a decent glimpse of the Quintessence live experience, at last making it onto vinyl.
A self-promoted concert at the Royal Albert Hall on December 20 1971 (with future punk star Lene Lovich in the backing Ashram choir) saw out the year, with the president of RCA in attendance and exited at the prospect of his new signings playing in the US sometime soon.
Featuring ‘Cosmic Surfer’, the great Quintessence single-that-should-have-been, Self managed only one week at No.50, although BBC2 broadcast a concert from Norwich Cathedral during its month of release.
Part of a UK cathedrals tour, Melody Maker’s Mark Plummer was impressed: ‘Maybe Jesus would have thrown the whole lot out of his Temple,’ he mused. ‘Although somehow the event seemed to carry more of the Christian message than the usual service could ever hope to convey.’
If all seemed like bliss in May, it had turned pretty sour by June. Dave received a phone call from Raja Ram saying that he and Phil were no longer required. The rump of the band retreated for a month to get it together in the country. Raja Ram gave long interviews to Melody Maker and NME in which he gave the very distinct impression that Phil and Dave had chosen to move on themselves, through ‘a misunderstanding over musical policy’.
‘Who knows why things happen?’ says Phil, 42 years on. ‘Suffice to say that bands, like many other social groups in life, have their factions, and dynamics can change from week to week. That week the anti-Shiva and Maha Dave faction won out and the rest is history. It was definitely a shot in the foot for Quintessence, as the band lost its momentum and faded into obscurity.’
Ram had also sacked the band’s management and agency, while the new quartet Quintessence had lost no time recording a new LP, Indweller: ‘Everything’s falling into place,’ Ram declared. ‘We’re doing our own management, we’re doing our own bookings, and we’re booked up to the end of the year. Fees have gone up, the attendences have gone up. The vibes are better than they’ve ever been ever in the group.‘
All of this was, alas, hopelessly misguided.
Indweller, an introspective swansong as it transpired, appeared in January 1973. From the cover photo inwards, it seemed to be a diminished entity. (Incidentally, as with the second and third Island LPs, Indweller was also released as an 8-track cartridge.) A month later, after one more interview in the NME, the band disappeared forever beneath the music press radar and fizzled out at some indeterminable point in the mid ‘70s. Phil and Dave had already got a new band, Kala, together which would record one album, one single and a couple of compilation album live tracks at the Marquee for the Bradley’s label, owned by ATV Publishing, and go through their own miasma of line-up antagonisms and label interference before imploding – a story told in detail in the notes to Hux CD After Quintessence: The Complete Kala Recordings 1973 (2010).
Kala ended up victims of circumstances beyond their control; Quintessence, alas, were authors of their own demise. Phil, however, remains stoic:
‘Based on what people have shared with me over the years, Quintessence was a catalyst that helped to expand some of the listeners’ spiritual horizons. Fans have told me that Quintessence literally changed their lives. To look back and see how much people got out of Quintessence is really humbling. It was undoubtedly the intense passion and devotion of our spiritual teacher, Swami Ambikananda, that inspired and enabled us to go out into the mainstream rock music arena and lyrically express the uplifting concept of spiritual self-realization.’
Raja Ram is currently a cult figure in dance music; Maha Dev, having operated the creditable ‘Maha Dev’s Quintessence’ in the north of England in recent years, is currently illustrating a children’s book for Disney, In The Closet, Under The Bed, and recording a new album for WarnerChappell with his 1980s American band Made In Japan (stars of 1980 film New Year’s Evil); while Phil ‘Shiva’ Jones keeps the flame with an inter-faith ministry and sound vibrational therapy workshops across America – periodically recording new music with old friends and, in 2011, even accepting an invitation to fly across the Pacific and reunite Phil Jones & The Unknown Blues for a one-off performance at Australia’s legendary Byron Bay Blues Festival. This time he had a ticket.
Quintessence On Film
For an act which never appears on BBC4 clip shows, a surprising amount of Quin film survives. Best known is the scintillating eight-minute ‘Freedom’ on Nic Roeg’s Glastonbury Fayre film of 1971, demonstrating how Quintessence could move an audience to some kind of rapture. Rock Fieber, the little-known German edit of the 1970 Kralingen Festival film Stamping Ground, approaches ‘Giants’ the other way: removing the epic interior and editing together instead three minutes of the mother song from the top and tail of the performance.
As for Quintessence at the BBC, the Erasing Angel has been (almost) merciless: while none of their radio sessions or concerts appear to survive at source and nor, officially, does anything visual – a visual record which once included two performances on Disco 2 (May 1970 and April 1971) and an April 1972 concert from Norwich Cathedral – all is not lost. While the second Disco 2 was probably performing tracks from Dive Deep, the first was an independently-filmed broadcast of ‘Jesus, Buddha’ and ‘Sea Of Immortality’ from the St Pancras Town Hall concert of March 1970. The two-song film was also shown around this time at cinemas and colleges, and consequently survives at the BFI. Despite what the BBC database suggests, a couple of minutes of ‘Jesus, Buddha’ from this source, along with exclusive footage of Quintessence recording at Island Studios, also appears in New Horizons, an 1970 documentary on the Notting Hill counterculture still extant at the BBC. Similarly, a blistering 20 seconds from Quintessence’s opening slot at the 1970 Glastonbury Festival survives in a BBC regional news report, later used in Julien Temple’s retrospective Glastonbury: The Movie.
Most excitingly, Quintessence were among several acts (the others being José Feliciano, Grateful Dead, Black Sabbath, Black Widow, Mungo Jerry, Traffic, Family, Colosseum and Free) filmed by Greg Bailey/Solus Productions for the BBC at Newcastle-Under-Lyme’s Hollywood Festival in May 1970. While the film was never edited for broadcast it remains intact at the BFI. Sooner or later, the two institutions might notice and do something about it…
Swiss TV broadcast the band’s show at the 1970 Montreux Festival, which very likely survives, as may half-remembered performances for German and Dutch TV that same year. Almost miraculously, though, the longest Quin performance currently circulating (viewable online) is one filmed with primitive video equipment by Jack Moore at a September 1969 Hyde Park free concert. Watching the 16 minute ‘Giants’ with a largely static camera and the visual imperfections of age is like peering through a portal to the past – fascinating!
Independent documentary filming of Quintessence took place during July-September 1971, but sadly the film-maker, Freddie Robertson (who fell out with Raja Ram), has proved untraceable. Of two ITV shows filmed in 1971 – Freedom Roadshow for Granada and God Rock for LWT – the latter survives, with Quin miming to ‘Jesus, Buddha’ and ‘Dive Deep’ while Phil sings live. The producer’s miming dictat so annoyed Alan Mostert he refused to ‘play’ lead guitar, hence the unhappy looking fellow standing behind conga drums while Maha Dev gamely fingers the notes.
The Unreleased Quintessence
As buyers of tombstone-esque box sets from Universal (Sandy Denny, John Martyn, Traffic on the way) will have worked out, Island Records didn’t throw much away. Luckily, that includes hours of Quintessence.
In 2009 Hux Records, with the happy endorsement of Phil Jones and Dave Codling, licensed from Universal two and a half concerts: the findable half of the March 1970 St Pancras Town Hall concert which had yielded the instrumental excerpts ‘St Pancras’ and ‘Burning Bush’ on the 1970 Quintessence LP along with the hitherto mysterious live version of ‘Jesus, Buddha’ from the 1970 Island sampler LP Bumpers; and two exquisitely recorded shows at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall from May 1970, intended for a live album that was consequently forgotten about when the group moved to RCA. The resulting Hux albums (interest declared: I was the annotator), with nearly two hours 40 minutes of music, doubled at a stroke the amount of original line-up Quintessence on record.
Along with various chants and extemporised sections, the live albums added one wholly new composition to the canon, ‘Meditations’ – otherwise known only from Phil and Dave’s post-Quintessence album with Kala.
The Island studio vaults contain several further unreleased titles: ‘No Masters’ from 11/69; ‘Do’ and ‘Green To Red/Red To Green’ from 2/70; ‘Tree Of Life’ from 2/70; ‘Marwa’ from 7/70 (an elaborate track that producer John Barham recalls writing); ‘Witchseason’ from 8/70; ‘Sri Ranakkuhna’ from an unknown date; and versions of two tracks which were subsequently re-recorded for RCA (‘Wonders Of The Universe’ and ‘You Never Stay The Same’).
Add to this numerous alternate takes of material from the three Quintessence Island albums, an unreleased version of ‘Wonders Of The Universe’ from the QE Halls shows (which needs the bass digitally fixed from multi-track) and what would appear to be the missing half of the St Pancras concert (a reel noticed subsequent to the 2009 releases), and there would appear to be one more lavish Quintessence album waiting to happen. Alas, that – increasingly and unknown to most consumers – it’s exceptionally difficult for third party labels to acquire licenses from the three remaining major labels these days. Requests can take, literally, years. And, regrettably, the more material that gets swallowed up by the three majors, the less accessable huge tracts of cultural heritage become. Still, you never know.
Quintessence UK Discography
70 Island WIP 6075 Notting Hill Gate/Move Into The Light £7
71 Neon NE 1003 Sweet Jesus/You Never Stay The Same (p/s) £15
71 Neon NE 1003 Sweet Jesus/You Never Stay The Same £6
69 Island ILPS 9110 IN BLISSFUL COMPANY (LP, gatefold,pink label with white ‘i’ logo) £80
70 Island ILPS 9128 QUINTESSENCE (LP, pink label with white ‘i’ logo) £60
71 Island ILPS 9143 DIVE DEEP (LP, inner sleeve, pink rim palm tree label) £50
72 RCA SF 8273 SELF (LP) £20
72 RCA SF 8317 INDWELLER (LP) £15
Kala UK Discography
73 Bradley’s BRAD 302 Travelling Home/Still Got Time (p/s) __
73 Bradley’s BRADL 1002 KALA (LP) __
Important Various Artists Albums
70 Island IDP1 BUMPERS (2LP, contains live version of ‘Jesus, Buddha’) ___
73 Bradley’s BRADB 40001 BRADLEY’S ROADSHOW (contains two live Kala tracks) ___