06 Neil Murray interview on progressive jazz-rock period 1973-77
by on November 18, 2023 in Career Prog/jazz-rock
Bruford rehearsals 1977

Bruford rehearsals 1977 with modified Fender P bass

On Canterbury Website: https://www.calyx-canterbury.fr   Follow link to Musicians

This interview with Neil Murray was conducted by e-mail in May 1997 after Neil spontaneously offered his help for this site.

Your bio mentions that your first band was with Peter Blegvad and Anthony Moore. Can you tell me more about it?

At St.Christopher School in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, where I was from 1962-68, I had started playing drums in a very small way, and it wasn’t until Peter arrived in (I think) 1965 that I had someone to jam with, mostly on Doors numbers and 12-bar blues copied from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and various UK ‘Blues boom’ bands. Anthony Moore’s father was a teacher there for a few years, and though Anthony wasn’t a pupil at the school, he was around a lot of the time and joined in this little band, though I can’t remember who played bass. I started playing bass in my last year there, but only played on maybe one song when I returned to St Chris while Peter was still a pupil – he’s a year younger than me. Peter had a green Gretsch Double Anniversary guitar, which wasn’t very good for blues or psychedelic rock, and I remember that we went by train to south London to buy a Vox AC30 amplifier that everyone plugged into!

What was the band called?

I suppose there were other names, but of course the one I recall is Slapp Happy and the Dum-Dums, though in fact Slapp Happy was referring to Peter’s girlfriend, who was possibly going to sing with us but didn’t, and the Dum-Dums were the musicians.

Were there any similarities between the music you played and Peter and Anthony’s later work?

By 1968, when I would return from the London College of Printing to jam with the band and play at end-of-term concerts, Peter had influenced us away from blues/rock towards Soft Machine/Pink Floyd experimental music, which mostly consisted of trying to play ‘We Did It Again’ (Soft Machine) as loudly, distortedly and repetitively as possible so as to annoy the audience as much as possible! Already I felt that what Peter and Anthony were into was a bit avant-garde for my taste, which lay more with Cream, Hendrix (who Peter loved) and other conventional rockers. He was more of a Beatles fan than myself, but we didn’t try to play many of their songs apart from ‘Rain’ and an attempt at ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. He was a big Bob Dylan fan, who I don’t like at all.

Did you keep in touch with Peter and Anthony in subsequent years?

I stayed in touch with Peter for about 5 or 6 years after leaving school, though as our tastes developed, we had less in common musically and artistically – I studied graphics and typography (‘commercial art’ as it used to be called) whereas he was much more talented and adventurous as an artist and illustrator, poet, songwriter etc. I saw him with Faust at the Rainbow Theatre in London, but maybe only a couple of times since then, though I’ve often meant to go to his gigs in recent years. I was never particularly close friends with Anthony Moore, so I doubt if I’ve seen him since 1970, though I sometimes go back to school for their annual Old Scholars get-togethers. When I edited the school magazine in 1967 I devoted the whole centre section of about 8 pages to a surrealistic story in drawings by Peter, which some of the older ex-pupils thought was in bad taste!

Who was in Gilgamesh when you joined? Already Phil Lee and Mike Travis? Who did you replace? What sort of material did you play?

Yes, Phil Lee, who joined at the same time as I did – I think they had tried Allan Holdsworth who was fantastic but couldn’t read music – and Mike Travis, and I was replacing Steve Cook who came back into the band after I left (and later married Jon Hiseman’s sister-in-law). Most of the tunes on the first Gilgamesh LP are ones that I played during my year (1973) in the band.

Was Gilgamesh part of a particular musical scene at the time? Were you friendly with other bands?

There were a lot of other jazz-rock bands around then such as Isotope, Nucleus etc, and there were various pub venues where you could hear those kind of bands, which is where most of the gigs I did with the band took place. I guess that the other musicians, being from the jazz scene originally, knew a lot of the other players, whereas I, being younger and only just learning about jazz, didn’t have much contact with them. They would go to jazz concerts or to Ronnie Scott’s Club more than I would and were often playing in other jazz bands anyway. Gilgamesh was not a professional band – you couldn’t make a living from playing solely with them – the music was too uncommercial.

How did the “double quartet” gigs with Hatfield and the North happen? Was the music in any way the “shape of things to come”, the “rock orchestra” sort of concept of National Health? Did any of the music played at these concerts turn up on a later album in one form or another?

I think Dave Stewart could tell you more than I can – I don’t think I had met any of Hatfield & the North until we started rehearsing the double quartet. Likewise, I’m really not sure if any of the music was used later – I should imagine so. From what I remember, there were similar elements to National Health, with Alan’s bits being more jazzy, with loose jamming parts, and Dave’s being more modern-classical-influenced and very structured. It was very powerful when all eight musicians were playing simultaneously.

What were Gilgamesh’s activities during the two years you were in the band? Approximately how many gigs did you play? Did the band look for a record contract? Overall, would you say the band had a sort of “cult following” or something like that? Do you have any idea whether tapes of Gilgamesh’s BBC sessions have been kept by any of the other members, and could eventually see the light of day?

We mostly just rehearsed, with only about 20 gigs in the year that I was with them. We made demos that were used to eventually get the deal with Caroline Records, but I don’t think we did enough gigs for us to get a ‘cult’ following – the playing was a bit too conventionally jazzy for ‘Canterbury’ fans. I never had a copy of the BBC tapes, but perhaps Alan Gowen’s ex-girlfriend Celia who is now married to Rick Biddulph would have a copy.

Did you leave Gilgamesh in late ’74 then joined Hammer, or *to* join Hammer? In other words, why did you leave? Why didn’t you stay when you briefly rejoined?

To clear things up, I left Gilgamesh to join the Hendrix-type band Hanson in November 1973 because although it was pretty simplistic rock, it allowed me to get that side of my playing out, and it was an actual professional band that had a record deal with ELP’s label, Manticore (we were supposed to open for them on tour, but it didn’t come about), and the chance to record an album ‘Magic Dragon’ in Los Angeles. Also I wasn’t really a huge fan of Phil Lee and Mike Travis’ style of playing, which was a bit too far away from the simpler music I liked, while not being as exciting as John McLaughlin or Tony Williams. I enjoy jazz-rock when played by bands such as Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Return To Forever but most of the British players of the 70s didn’t grab me. Dave Stewart’s compositions and playing were much more interesting than most of the other ‘progressive’ music that was around then, and he wasn’t trying to be a copy of an American band.

I actually joined Hanson then rejoined Gilgamesh because the keyboard player didn’t like my playing, then when he left after a couple of weeks I rejoined, which understandably meant that I wasn’t very popular with Alan for a short time. When Hanson broke up the following summer because Junior Hanson was put in jail in New York (!), I spent a lot of time practising and did a few gigs substituting for Clive Chaman in Cozy Powell’s Hammer. Clive had helped me a lot with my playing in ’72/’73 and had recommended me for the job with Hanson – he played their first album ‘Now Hear This”. I sat around for about six months until playing what turned out to be Hammer’s last shows in February 1975. I can’t remember very well, but I may have done a bit of rehearsing with Gilgamesh during 1974, and I think they wanted me to rejoin, but I was more into the rock side of things – my dream would have been to play with Jeff Beck.

As you can see, I was not really the perfect musician for a ‘Canterbury’ band, but perhaps I brought something different to National Health, though I think I was sometimes thought to be too aggressive a player.

In 1975-76 you were in Colosseum II alongside Gary Moore, Don Airey and Jon Hiseman, and seemed to be on the verge of a successful career on the hard rock scene. Yet this only happened a couple of years later as you surprisingly left that band to rejoin Alan Gowen in National Health. Why such a move?

I would call Colosseum II a jazz-rock band, though obviously more rock than jazz. What happened was that due to pressure from their label, Bronze Records, myself and the singer, Mike Starrs, were fired from the band in the summer of 1976. The band then did demos with their new bassist, John Mole, but were dropped anyway by Bronze! They did sign with MCA Records and had reasonable success with 2 albums, ‘Electric Savage’ and ‘Wardance’. Mont Campbell had just left National Health so I happened to be available at the right time.

What are your memories, musical and non-musical, of playing in National Health? You certainly moved to another style, and a much higher profile, in later years. Do you still like that sort of music, though, with much more of a progressive/jazzy style?

My memories contain rather conflicting impressions, and I realise I may be committing sacrilege by daring to criticise some of your favourite musicians! There was a strong anti-establishment, rather ‘hippy’ bias within the group especially from the ex-Hatfield guys – less so with Bill Bruford, obviously. There was a tendency towards feeling that if a band was successful then it couldn’t be any good; and vice versa, if a band like Henry Cow was doing very uncommercial music and playing free festivals, then they were more praiseworthy.

Technical facility in music was rather frowned on, rather it was better to struggle to play something that wasn’t expected or easy to listen to, though in fact that often became as predictable as doing standard blues or jazz ‘licks’. I thought Dave Stewart wrote some very interesting ‘songs’, though after one had mastered the complexities of reading the parts he had written for you there wasn’t much that one could add of one’s own style. The other guys’ compositions had more areas in them which allowed more freedom, but frankly there wasn’t enough mastery of ‘feel’ for the more ‘jamming’ parts to be really comfortable, in my opinion. I wasn’t particularly turned on by the bits that were difficult just for the sake of it, but I enjoyed the memorable tunes and interesting arrangements. There were definitely some time-changes that were in the songs just to be clever, and I personally prefer music that has more ‘groove’, whether it’s jazz, rock or funk-influenced. However I do think that the most ‘English’ and ‘cerebral’ portions of the music were the most successful.

We made almost no money from gigs, and obviously had to spend a lot of time rehearsing, and luckily Dave was good at organising what tours that were possible, though by 1977 the audience for that kind of music had become pretty small. However good the compositions and musicians were, it wasn’t possible to make a living from it, and it was rather depressing to play to small audiences who were either interested in getting stoned or analysing every note for deep significance. I (probably quite rightly) feel that I was too mainstream in my musical and lifestyle tastes for some of the band and the audience, though it’s interesting that later Dave became quite a bit more commercial with his projects.

I listen to some ‘fusion’ music these days, but I’m not a follower of the progressive scene. I know there are some fantastic players, but a lot of it sounds old-fashioned to me. There’s a lot of bands in all styles of music that I would enjoy playing with (or have played with – I hardly ever listen to anything I’ve done after it’s finished, and there’s not much that I have played on that I think is much good) but I don’t want to sit at home and listen to that same music for pleasure.

Under what circumstances did you decide to leave National Health to join Whitesnake?

I first played with Whitesnake just to help them audition a drummer, through my friendship with Bernie Marsden from Hammer days. They already had a bass-player, but he decided to return to playing with Frankie Miller, so they asked me to audition properly, with another (better) drummer who I had worked with a little before. I felt guilty about leaving National Health, but John Greaves was a much more suitable person for Nat. Health, both musically and pesonality-wise. I wanted to play with a band that had more in common with my blues-rock roots (though there are some jazz-rock influences on the first Whitesnake album) and that had the potential to attract a much bigger audience, though the band started off playing very small clubs.

Did you remain in contact and/or friendly with any of the ‘Canterbury scene’ musicians you worked with in the 70’s? Were you still in touch with Alan Gowen at the time of his death in 1981?

I haven’t really stayed in touch with the other members, though I shared a flat from 1985-1988 with Amanda Parsons (now Amanda Evans and not doing anything musically), and I bumped into Pip Pyle at a Paris airport a couple of years ago. Occasionally I receive letters regarding royalties etc. from Dave, but I’m sure the other members have had no interest in any of the bands I’ve been in since leaving. I had talked to Alan Gowen in the months before he died, but I was busy touring with Whitesnake, so I didn’t see him as much as I should have.

Have you seen and/or heard the recently released “Missing Pieces” CD made from previously unreleased National Health recordings, some of which feature your playing?

I’ve been looking for the CD but perhaps it’s only available in specialist shops or huge megastores, and I haven’t found it yet.

(c) 1997 Calyx – The Canterbury Website

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