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the Pale

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Francis Monkman / Procol Harum

'... Hot-Mixed to the Brain ...'

The UK's Francis Monkman, an enviably compleat musical all-rounder, talks fascinatingly to Roland from BtP about rock music, 'classical' music, and all points in between ... including his various Procol path-crossings and his opinion of The Prodigal Stranger.

Growing up in the provinces, far from the beat-group circuit, the highlight of late childhood Sunday afternoons for me was listening to John Peel's radio shows, the seminal Top Gear and In Concert: Procol Harum were always the most keenly anticipated, of course, but I also scanned the Radio Times excitedly for forthcoming sessions by Kevin Ayers and the Whole World, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah band, and Curved Air.

As an impressionable young pianist of sorts, I was no doubt influenced in numerous ways by everyone I heard on these shows: but hindsight assures me that it was Brooker, Fisher and Reid who really taught me to listen; it was Kevin Ayers's 15 year-old bass-player, one Mike Oldfield, who interested me in taking up the bass guitar; and then it was Curved Air who encouraged me to lay hands upon a violin, whereon, to this day, the first eight bars of Vivaldi is all I can play (and that excruciatingly!).

Something about that long baroque-&-roll instrumental suggested to me that there was an implicit similarity of approach between Procol Harum and Curved Air: in fact all the compositions on their début, Air Conditioning, were harmonically substantial, all their words were out-of-the-ordinary. That impression of kinship was affirmed when the two bands toured together in the Seventies; and it was cemented twenty years on when Curved Air's violinist, Darryl Way, surfaced as the arranger of the two finest songs on The Symphonic Music Of Procol Harum.

Like Procol Harum, Air Conditioning seemed to start at the top; unlike Procol Harum, Curved Air did not tempt me to buy everything they brought out after it. But I did play that first album to death. The spiral credits on the picture vinyl album fascinated me, especially the improbably-named singer Sonja Kristina and drummer Florian Pilkington-Miksa [I was sure this latter was an anagram, but of what? 'Kropotkin's filling-mania'? 'Informal okapi-tinklings'? 'Sink to familiar plonking'? none of them seemed terribly likely]; while muso Francis Monkman sounded like a Renaissance man after my own heart, weighing in on 'lead guitar, organ, piano, Mellotron, electric harpsichord, special effects equipment and VCS3 synthesiser'!

It seemed to me that Monkman was responsible for much of the Air's delightful hooligan element, but various glimpses of him through radio and the rock press in next few years suggested that he was perhaps starting to mellow somewhat: following a spell with The Shadows and appearances on records by Kate Bush and BJ Cole, he next appeared in Sky alongside Herbie Flowers and 'classical' players John Williams and Tristan Fry ... but the bits I heard didn't entirely succeed in reviving my youthful appetite for extended rock instrumentals.

Imagine my surprise when Miguel Terol of the excellent Musicians' Olympus website asked me if I knew about the real Monkman / Procol Harum connection, and told me I ought to listen to Francis's new album, 21st Century Blues. Before I go any further, I have to remark that this proved to be one of the most exciting and surprising records that I've heard for many years, and it made an investigation of 90s Monkman, (facilitated by his ample generosity and e-mail volubility!) a high priority.

Most Procoholics first heard your playing on Curved Air's Air Conditioning album. Could you comment on the influences in that band and on that album?

Francis Monkman
Originally, the guitar-bass-drums threesome that I'd got together with Rob (Way) and Florian teamed up with Darryl and his keyboardist / pianist friend Nick to form the group Sisyphus (Uphill Work would have made a good first album title, no?): and while our influences were more along the Hendrix / Cream line (although we were well aware of the US scene, Rob being a US national), they were particularly into Spirit, Spooky Tooth, people like that: early exponents of the 'subtle (and not-so-subtle!) riff'. So more than anyone, I'd say Spirit were a great influence: when I listen to Hide and Seek that reminds me of that influence - although the track itself sounds quite unlike Spirit!

How do you react to the 'classic-rock' tag that people applied to Curved Air after Vivaldi and Procol Harum after A Whiter Shade of Pale ?

Classic-rock can mean so many things, right? There's the LSO doing Beatles songs; or one could equally justifiably label the avant-garde influence that Phil Lesh (who was studying with Berio) brought to the Grateful Dead, as 'classic-rock'! [Worth reading their manager Rock Scully's book, Living with the Dead I think it's called - it's a gas! Obviously, though, it's an increasingly steep gradient downwards after about 1970, and painful stuff by the end ... apparently Stockhausen (acolytes in train) once turned up to see the band, at some remote beer-hall in Bavaria, or wherever. Up till that moment, the audience had consisted of a half-dozen bemused-looking 'lederhosen' in the front row!]

For me it's a synthesis - you synthesise what you consider to be the most relevant ideas of 'classical' (pick an era, country, or better still, all eras, all countries!) music with what you consider to be the most relevant ideas of 'rock music'.

So what's your own musical training?

I studied with the late Geraint Jones at the Royal Academy of Music; we kept in touch until his passing a year or so ago. He and his wife had been close friends (among a handful or so, I understand) and mentors to Ralph Kirkpatrick, who I always regarded as my spiritual teacher of the instrument (despite only having met him once). I won the Raymond Russell Prize in 1969, had a most-enthusiastically-reviewed 'début' recital at the Purcell Room in 1976, but there seems to be little place in the 'musical world' for those who seek to cross, and indeed build, bridges!

Were Curved Air aware of Procol Harum in their formative years?

Of course, how could we fail to be? I'm sure AWSoP holds a special place in all our hearts, and I guess I could say that's one reason I'd have found it difficult to play it every night, if I'd joined the band. Wouldn't have wanted to spoil it for myself - very selfish, eh? But apart from that, Robin Trower's use of lead guitar over 'classical-style' backing was one of my first important influences: even from his few seconds' solo on Quite Rightly So (a copy of which I still have, I just checked!) one could tell that a whole new thing could evolve, still needs to, I'd say!

Listen to The Prodigal Stranger from 1991: that's how the Trower / Procol thing evolved.

I must say (though of course wish I didn't have to) that, while I agreed with many of the sentiments being expressed, I found the Prodigal sound somewhat too 'post-seventies' for my taste. I'd better explain - I think there was a change in the way people listened to rock music, started maybe before the sixties were out. Before that, R&R was 'hot-mixed to the brain', I remember it was a long time before I even realized what a bass-guitar sounded like! And then, you'll recall, everyone wanted to hear the bass, hear the drums, hear everything, and from that moment it's been a journey 'back' towards 'listening to a sound-picture', in which everything can be safely 'filed away' as understood! I think sound is a hard way to take people by surprise (as happened with the early R&R, even more with 'psych / prog' as it was in 1966 - 68); now of course one can use a (suitably-tasteful) fuzz guitar to sell a chocolate bar!

That said, when I turn to Stoke Poges and Albinoni I immediately find myself reaching for the volume control (ie, up!): it immediately refreshes my memory about the way PH used single-note guitar with orchestral effect, sets me thinking again. I have to say I was less taken with the Blue Danube: perhaps I'm spoiled by familiarity with performances by the pianist Josef Lhevinne of the (almost unplayable) Shultz-Evler arrangement. Of course, it was sad that one who had won youthful prizes in his native Russia for performances of The Emperor should have ended up unable to resist the endless calls for this warhorse, but ... it's stunning. Someone should have told Procol that to make a Viennese waltz 'lilt', the second beat has to be played early, nearly an eighth-note early - try it!

But I'll be investigating further!

I have to say that until about age 12 I was a Brahms and Beethoven fan (father's influence) and it wasn't until 1966 that I rather grudgingly woke up to pop music (mother's influence!). Gradually the 'grudging' bit got winnowed away and it was Procol Harum that absolutely kindled my keen, enduring interest. But whereas for me 'serious' music had been a kind of all-in-one mush, it was actually pop music that interested me in hearing the individual instruments. Maybe knowing the names of the players in various groups got me interested in trying to hear analytically, what notes they were playing and in what way ... I'd be glad to get back to the ability to listen to the wood and not the trees in a way, and interestingly the way you've produced 21st Century Blues does compel that sort of listening.

Great, glad it works that way for you, that's definitely intentional! I think the 'analytical journey' is one to be taken in all fields of life - e.g. I loved the aroma of pines (and related evergreens) since childhood, but I was 'subconsciously unwilling' to spoil the totality of the experience (even to the point of 'not really knowing' where it was even coming from!) by following it up (as I've done since) with a certain amount of 'research' and investigation. Closer to our musical discussion, it's also the reason that many 'untutored' musicians, drummers especially, are reluctant to learn to read music. Of course one risks losing something!

I remember that Bob Siebenberg of Supertramp, a huge BJ Wilson fan, was contemplating writing an article on Barrie's technique for 'Beyond the Pale', which would of course have been very interesting: but in the end he decided he 'didn't want to look the gypsy in the eye'. One respects that!

Francis Monkman circa 1971

In Zen study, they describe the beginner as standing next to the master, the journey of learning seen as a full circle away from, and back to, complete naturalness and spontaneity. I think 'the world' went on such a journey of discovery, starting as you say in the late sixties - before that, I'm sure it never occurred to anyone to listen to music other than as an essentially undifferentiated whole!

And, refreshed, enlightened and tutored by the experience, maybe it's now ready to 'fall off the log' and rejoin the beginner - as you point out, 21st Century Blues is 'a challenge' in this direction.

The most important thing is that life, the universe itself, is absolutely new at each instant. If one can find this truth in one's own being, then all is, I believe, possible. After all, the sun sheds 'the same' light each day, without becoming bored by the experience ...

How did the Procol / Air tour(s) come about, and what memories, musical or social, do you have of those times?

We supported Procol on our first US tour, maybe second too: I think I was too busy just trying to keep my head above water to remember many specifics!

But you know, maybe it's to do with Aquarius being back, the need to 'pick up the pieces', that I find I have very powerful memories in the form of feelings, how it felt back then. And one thing about the music, how it had this powerful quality of mystery to it, that seems to have been lost.

Maybe it's time for it to come back again; sometimes when I play through an old WEM amp, or something, I get a blast of it. (Not that digital ain't the way forward, etc, just that we all need reminding, I guess, 'what this whole thing's about'! I got a blast of that same feeling, hearing Happy Trails on CD for the first time.)

Social feelings, well I'll leave you to guess that one!

There will be hundreds of Procoholics who agree about 'this powerful quality of mystery ... that seems to have been lost'. As Keith Reid says, 'We had something special, where did it go?' It could be the zeitgeist or it could be (sad to say) that we were so much younger then ...

Well, well, maybe I'm an unreasonable optimist, but I've no truck with this 'age' thing - in so many ways I feel younger now than I did then! My firm belief is that there was a powerful existence created on the mental plane, and shared by an increasing number of 'heads', who could tune in to something that, while sharing attributes of a 'zeitgeist', was (and will be again, now Aquarius is back - though I'm sure there are still some rocky waters to be navigated) quite considerably more, sufficiently much so as to launch a (brief) period of creativity quite unprecedented on this planet, at least for some hundreds of years. A 'renaissance', indeed!

How did you come to audition (if that's the right word) with Procol Harum when they were contemplating their own renaissance?

... As I remember, it must have been 1975, and I think it was in Sussex. A farmhouse, anyway (maybe Gary's?), with the barn converted for use as a large practice-area. One enduring memory (shush!) for me is the size of the bar of d*pe on somebody's amp-top - it matched the amp's profile so nicely! I remember thinking, "Ah, now that's a successful band!"

Does that 'shush!' mean 'don't publish'?

Always happy to contribute good PR for this powerful and useful medicine!

I spent a pleasant day with the group, who were looking for a new keyboard player (Mick was the guitarist by then, that's probably the reason my name was suggested). We passed a pleasant day together, but probably felt we had different paths to follow. Certainly I was none too keen on going on the road just then!

Relating back to that 'analytical thing' - I frequently found myself 'embarrassed' in professional situations, by the extent to which I'd managed to keep favourites 'undifferentiated'! So I'm fairly sure, when I went to see Procol Harum that day, that when it came to the (I suppose inevitable) 'bash' at AWSoP, I found myself struggling to see it 'from the other side'! Likewise, when I played on that Pepper film thing, I'm sure (Sir) George Martin was amused that I didn't know the (simplest possible) pattern that opens Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, having left that firmly in the realms of 'naive experience'. (My shame at having contributed at all to that particular sell-out (to which I can only plead that we had no idea quite how appalling it was to be) remains undiminished.)

A similar example, for me, is the Country Joe track [At the Court of the King] on 21st Century Blues: that remained for me completely untouched, just that marvellous moment in Monterey Pop. Then, in order to re-create it, I had to dissect it, I hadn't even been aware of its fundamental bi-tonality, till then. During recording, I found a Farfisa compact, found that that piercing stringy sound, (actually a mixture-stop) sounds a fourth above pitch - maybe that was how Country Joe and the Fish came about the thing in the first place! Anyway, glad to say it hasn't spoilt it for me!

What else happened on the Procol day?

We played a little, but most of the day was spent sitting around vibing out the situation. I'm sure they vibed out that I wouldn't have been happy going on the road, all that stuff. Also probably, that I'm simply the kind of guy that likes to form bands with people, rather than join existing outfits, can't help it.

What about your Manzanera tenure? (interestingly, Francis followed Eddie Jobson into Phil Manzanera's band, while Eddie followed Francis into Curved Air: and Jobson himself was invited to play with Procol Harum in the era that Monkman was considered, but instead joined Frank Zappa)

The nearest I came to 'joining' a band was with 801, simply because Phil and Eno already had the creative side worked out - I liked it, and was happy to add what was needed, but I always saw it as a 'supporting role'. The Shadows, of course, that was just 'public session work'.

When you say you found Sky somewhat bland, I guess you never heard Dies Irae, or maybe even Fifo! Actually, Sky was a powerful subversion of MOR, so much so that I'm convinced there was a deliberate move, come the third album, to conform to 'the obvious', so I quit. People (many no doubt expecting, at least in the early days, to see 'John Williams and friends') were totally, literally, blown away! (And we were loud, too.) The Sky concerts were really something. Now, the Sky CDs (1 & 2) can be, and are, listened to quietly by those 'not wishing to be disturbed', but when you turn them up real loud, the sheer sound obliterates the personalities, if you get me. [Incidentally, few Palers could resist the chord-sequence that sustains the slow movement of Sky's aforesaid Fifo]

It's a great shame that no-one ever got to hear Mick Grabham's Guitar Orchestra play live. I think that Pomp and Circumstance would have been tremendously exciting. What are your musical links with Mick Grabham?

We played some nice stuff, we were on quite a few sessions together back before Mick joined Procol Harum, but I couldn't tell you how many or what they were! In retrospect, I can see that the only way I could function playing one session after another was to block out all traces as I went along!

Are you still in touch with the other Curved Air people?

I saw Sonja a couple of times recently. You may know we're currently building an 'official' Curved Air site, nothing too elaborate ...

But yes, Florian, Rob and I (and another 'space' guitarist) got back into jamming (starting late eighties). There's a Jam CD (I'm even planning to release it), that gives an idea what we were up to - Flo and I are agreed, it changed our lives! (No more regimentation!).

This Jam CD is a flawlessly telepathic set, all first-takes recorded without consultation: the accent is on ensemble work rather than on personal virtuosity, though there's quite a bit of that about too.

The Jam CD's powerful moody stuff, all right. We played that one during the Gulf doo-dad, tanks rollin' cross the TV screen. I thought of calling the whole thing A Strange Music, after Robert Hunter's 'poet's response' to the same (posted on the Dead's site). Everything you hear was first time, as played, no prior agreement on anything. On a couple of the tracks, as you can hear, we just all started playing simultaneously!

I see that Florian is credited with lending cymbals for 21st Century Blues: other than that the sleeve credits are a bit unhelpful. Are you going to tell us who's playing on the album?

The band's identity, I'm sorry to say that's gotta remain secret - though not for too long, I hope. I'm loath to accept, by default, any credit that's not mine, but I'm determined for people to get a chance to hear the CD with 'no preconceptions at all'! I'm sure you're familiar with the problem, once chiefly the province of the classical world, but now that most of the good rock stuff's classic as well, everyone has the same problem!

As stated above, this is a most intriguing album, consistent, insistent, demanding, rewarding: on first hearing one is confronted by a wash of rock noise that differentiates on subsequent listenings (it's incredibly moreish) until each track eventually stands out strongly. Poisonality, the nine-minute opener, is outstanding; The Delta Bitstream Blues has a manic edge that reminded me crazily of Vivian Stanshall; there's a waft of pastoral in Another Day, whose female vocal is far-and-away the clearest sound on the album; there's a Crimso feel about the guitar riffing of Heard in Dreams; 21-bar Blues is just what says it is; one could imagine the Four Guitarists of the Apocalypse belting out in any stadium or shaking any college hall-of-residence; faint Itchycoo voices decorate Harvest Time, and there's a frenetic trash-pop feel to Rinky-Dink Public School (for all the overall wildness of the collection, this title comes with a donnish footnote, explaining that a 'public' school in the UK is in fact private); it's not by any means an all-guitar album, however: keyboards hover and whirl in Acid Casino (Beefheart was here?) and there is a superb sound-wash padding Found in Space. Splurting synth-bass introduces Dispossession Blues (remember Kevin Ayers's Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes?) , which climaxes in inspired fashion nine whole minutes later. 'If truth came home to roost, where would it lay its head?' asks the last song, which BB King will cover one day, not that he needs to, given the quality of Monkman's own guitar-playing. I can't help suspecting that he plays all the instruments, in fact. But enough about this ... at nearly 80 minutes long it's the best value CD I have ever encountered and it presents a wall-to-wall work-out for viscera, cerebellum and psyche!

The ultra-distorted vocal, as well as the title, reminds me of Twenty-first Century Schizoid Man. Is any of that deliberate?

No deliberate Crimso reference, gotta say. My main 'influences', as a result of a 'first-time-in-thirty-years' trawl back to my formative rock roots (in early '97), were the 60s SF psychedelic bands, Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe & the Fish, Beefheart too, a few tracks of Jefferson Airplane (though not really an SF outfit), that sort of thing. I guess that's why the American thing's quite strong on it, and I'm pleased and gratified that it seems to be connecting there first!

The West Coast influences were very much subconscious; that was the great revelation of hearing that stuff again, and finding that influence surfacing in the material that I then 'just picked up my guitar and played'. 21st Century Blues was written, ready to record, in the Spring of 1997. The idea behind Heard in Dreams is along those lines ...


21st Century Blues presents some fairly extreme soundscapes!

You might be interested to know that 21st Century Blues was 'home-brewed', using Ensoniq's Paris system, quite stunning. George Chkiantz (co-producer) was equally impressed with it, and he's 'famously hard to please'. Just ask any number of your favourite bands! Procol fans might be interested to know that George was tape-op on Whiter Shade of Pale.

You know, I'd hoped to find a singer (but then, where's there room for any more 'tunes'?), but then I realized that it was going to be very difficult to communicate the inflexions and emphases that I hear in the words, so in the end it just had to be 'me telling my story', the best way I could!

That's apart from Jools [Julia Rathbone, vocalist also heard on Monkman's 1981 Dweller on the Threshold, as are Darryl Way and ur-Crimso Mike Giles] of course, who leavens the undoubtedly gritty fare with both charm and quality of her voice. It's just so good to have the feeling each time, on thinking "could we have done that better, or differently", that "no, wouldn't change a thing". So, all in all, I 'wouldn't change a note', had I the offer of the best singers in the world!

It's an almost unbelievable contrast with the material on your Virtual Classics Library CD (Music House MHS 15) (decorous neo-baroque tracks 'of stature and importance' in various TV-friendly edits, ('recorded at Lansdowne Studios, although, like all library music, in the shortest possible time') with titles like High Definition, Sinfonietta and Top Priority (the last, adopted as the theme tune for the BBC's prestigious Dimbleby Interview programme) or your organ recital (a live CD that tackles some of the heaviest and most demanding items from the cathedral repertoire)

I was sorry not to have had time for the other two Canonic Variations, but it would have meant leaving out the final fugue (the Toccata's often played on its own, as I'm sure you know), and I felt it needed 'championing'. I had intended to play the Reubke Sonata (ideally suited to that instrument), but felt that the one evening available for preparation wasn't sufficient to get to grips with the thing, and program upwards of a hundred carefully-selected registration changes!

I imagine you've always been interested in this bewildering range of musical fields! I remember asking Terry Riley to autograph my vinyl Rainbow in Curved Air, and admitting that I only got into his style of minimalism on learning that you'd named your band after his composition.

I don't know if you know, but I've been in occasional touch with Terry since he came and played In C with orchestra (!) at a gig we put on. (Obviously, I was there on synths). Apparently, he's not forgotten the experience! I sent him 21st Century Blues, along with a harpsichord CD I'd made. Anyway, I was pleased to be able to clear my conscience for borrowing his name (and making money on it etc!).

The harpsi CD features delicate, intricate readings of some well-known and some recondite 17th & 18th century pieces, and makes one re-consider applying the word 'virtuoso' to anything much that goes on in the name of 'rock': this finger-busting stuff is all the more amazing considering that it emanates from the same man whose raw energy galvanises the 21st Century Blues album.

So what's next on the Monkman agenda?

I can't quite believe my oversight, but I seem to have forgotten to mention the 'new' Curved Air (Alive, 1990) CD that I'll be pressing soon, complete with the first (and specially-written) number in the set we did. However, if it goes out like this, it'll need a 'Warning / Disclaimer' blazoned all over it, as you'll hear the sound is awful! (but very atmospheric) - a few bars into the second number, all's fine! Turns out there's a clean copy of the same number, from the other gig we did (a few weeks later). I'll be weighing continuity / atmosphere / playing against sound quality, I can see ...

Alive 1990 presents several other Procol / Air similarities: everyone available from the original line-up convenes to re-interpret the best of the old compositions, which, thanks to their integrity and independence, still sound every bit as good in the 90s ... in fact the singing is better, the instrumental playing every bit as detailed ... former personal frictions are forgotten ... a few discreet bits of sequencing technology now allow studio arrangements to be delivered live ... new material is written specially ... the devotees go wild ... the band leave them hungry for more ... OK, starving ...

The Curved Air gig's the original line-up, but Rob Martin only joins in on Vivaldi -- the rest of the bass part (along with other 'incidental' parts) was sequenced, Florian played with the click in cans. The whole thing revolved around a TV show (a series called, I think, Bedrock), which itself fell through, for some reason or other. So we ended up doing the Town and Country 2 gig, which was fine, and another at the Dome, Tufnell Park, which was beset with enough technical problems etc to prevent its being a truly 'enjoyable' experience.

So for yourself: you remain equally committed to the 'two cultures' without actually acknowledging any useful difference between the terms?

Well it's a funny thing, you know, but just the other day, (finally - my vinyl single's got countless 'entry points' to confirm!) I latched on to what it was that turned me on about the guitar break on Quite Rightly So. Not the notes themselves, particularly, although I'd stand by my half-remembered assertion that they were in classical, rather than blues, style. Nor the sound, particularly, though it's a great fuzz sound, so - what?

Then it hit me - it's because the guitar break's over a bridge passage (just four bars, with one modulation) that in essence comes from the language of 'classical development' (ie that moment where sonata form says "now we're going for it"), and therefore quite unlike the usual guitar solo on verse or chorus, in its emotional effect.

Much classical development uses fugal technique (fugato, imitation), thereby implicitly acknowledging fugue as the parent of development - in the hands of Bach it becomes the very language of musical development itself, and no other composer catches, for example, that moment of 'impending karma', 'all-or-nothing', that the dramatic needs of film have required composers for that idiom to seek, with some success.

Maybe some future 'A' level syllabus, huh?

Thanks, Francis!

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