Sometimes, it’s like an idea for a feature just falls out of the sky and lands fully-formed on the pavement in front of you. Some of you will no doubt be aware that I have been making reference to Original Peter, the 1970 UK Jazz track by The Mike Westbrook Concert Band, for quite some time now – as well as continually mentioning it in features and columns, I once even got it played on BBC 6 Music – and that in the past I had often speculated on the content of the much talked about but little seen television presentation for BBC2, which I had assumed was long lost with only a Radio Times billing and a handful of murky stills remaining as evidence of the hallucinogenic mayhem. As you will find out, I later discovered entirely by accident that it wasn’t so long lost after all, and after watching it and genuinely having to have a good sit down for ten minutes afterwards, I knew that I had to get this out as a self-published piece straight away – both to capture the exhilaration of finally finding it and before some other opportunist chanced upon it and just posted the link for Likes and Retweets. If anyone was going to break the news of the emergence of The Original Peter, it had to be me. Of course, some people did try to pass this off as their own find and even their own work, but yah boo sucks to them frankly.
I later chose The Original Peter as part of my evening’s viewing for my appearance on Perfect Night In, causing presenter Neil Perryman to complain that Original Peter itself is lodged in his head to this day. You can hear – and see – that here. Meanwhile you can find an expanded version of this piece, with some new additional background detail and much more on tantalising lost glimpses of television and radio of days gone by gleaned from flicking through back issues of Radio Times, in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
For some reason, the late sixties and early seventies in particular seem to have been full of musical acts who are held in high regard now but went almost unnoticed at the time. When you look into it more closely, though, it invariably turns out that they had a much higher profile than anyone might reasonably have expected, and the reason why they’ve since been largely forgotten becomes clear. The most significant indicator of their popularity is usually how often they turned up on television and radio, and as most if not all of that will usually have long since been wiped, there’s never really been that much around to remind people. They had their moment in the centre of attention, and everyone moved on, without much evidence of their fleeting fame ever remaining.
Part of a movement that could loosely be termed ‘Prog Jazz’ – blending modern jazz styles with avant-garde and psychedelic influences from the Pop Art scene and acts like The Beatles and The Jimi Hendrix Experience – pianist Mike Westbrook had intentionally moved into the live pop circuit in 1967 with his ‘Concert Band’. This outfit could vary wildly in size, although mainstays included saxophonist Mike Osborne, bassist Harry Miller and vocalist Norma Winstone. Signed to Decca’s ‘progressive’ imprint Deram – where, significantly, their labelmates included Cat Stevens, David Bowie and Amen Corner – they released a series of albums culminating in 1970’s Mike Westbrook’s Love Songs. A remarkable set somewhere between a Michael Caine film soundtrack and Mr. Benn incidental music, the whole album is a minor masterpiece though particular highlights include moodily exuberant opener Love Song No. 1, Winstone yodelling sternly at a wayward lover in Love Song No. 3, and the celebrated Original Peter, in which a catchy abstract funk riff is repeated into a hypnotic dance groove. There was also a single released to accompany the album, featuring a shorter and faster take of Original Peter with the bass funked up and electric piano hammering to the fore, backed by hallucinogenic travelogue The Magic Garden, which doesn’t appear to have been directly inspired by The Magic Roundabout but frankly may as well have been.
Original Peter, in case you were wondering, was the closest thing that there ever was to a ‘Prog Acrobat’, who would frequently perform his countercultural handstands as part of music and arts happenings; indeed, on the back cover of Mike Westbrook’s Love Songs, there is a frankly alarming photograph of him spinning around on his hands while the band play on obliviously in the background. To call The Mike Westbrook Concert Band’s live shows ‘multimedia experiments’ would be selling them somewhat short, as at any given time they could include theatrical special effects, pyrotechnics, tightrope walkers, high divers, animal acts, back projections, magic tricks and more often than not their gymnastically-inclined associate, all of which were carefully planned and choreographed to fit around the music. The overall effect was apparently basically akin to a giant psychedelic circus, and if you stumble across an online discussion of the album, chances are you will find someone with hazy and slightly bewildered recollections of having seen this dazzling spectacle on television. This, I later discovered when trying to pin down details of something else entirely, was as part of the BBC2 arts show Review; and, not unreasonably, I assumed at the time that this would have been yet another of those long-wiped appearances that nobody at the time imagined anyone would ever want or need to see again.
As some of you are probably already suspecting, Review was exactly the sort of late-night arts show that the Monty Python team took such great delight in subverting and undermining, usually in the brazen knowledge that one or more of them would be appearing on one or more of such shows later that same week. Devised to take full advantage of BBC2’s recent move to colour broadcasting, it ran weekly from September 1969 through to December 1972, when it was decommissioned to make way for a series of individual focused arts strands. Presented at that point by the urbane James Mossman, Review was a good deal more high-minded than many of its peers, preferring to concern itself with heavyweight literary criticism and stage plays, although there were lighter moments including an in-studio concert by the pioneering jazz-rock outfit Nucleus, and a poetry competition judged by George Martin and Mike D’Abo. And they did not come much lighter than the ‘entertainment for television’ devised by Mike Westbrook in conjunction with John Fox, better known as the prime mover in performance art troupe The Welfare State. It’s worth noting at this juncture that The Welfare State, Mike Westbrook and indeed Original Peter himself were scarcely off television and radio or the ‘culture’ pages back then, which makes it all the more significant that most people reading this quite probably have little idea of who any of them were.
During the March to April 1970 sessions for Mike Westbrook’s Love Songs, The Mike Westbrook Concert Band, The Welfare State, Original Peter and a whole host of other long-forgotten performers and speciality acts including the esoterically named likes of The Amazing Mas-Kar, The Edmund Campion Gymnasts and, erm, ‘Cherokee Indian Joe The Great Leaping Bison’ (we can probably safely assume that he wasn’t) took part in an ambitious small screen extravaganza somewhere between a progressive rock concert and a down-at-heel carnival, which was captured by the Review cameras in all of its chaotic glory. The film was first broadcast on Saturday 25th April 1970, as part of an edition that also featured a report on the Hayward Gallery’s major retrospective on reclusive photographer Bill Brandt, and was subsequently selected for the highlights special Summer Review on 22nd August, where it appeared alongside a lively interview with William Hobbs, ‘Fight Director’ at the National Theatre. We can only hope that he wasn’t the sort of individual to take his work home with him. Shortly afterwards, the ensemble took the entire spectacle on the road as the centrepiece of their lengthy ‘Earthrise Tour’, which must have caused no little alarm for audiences in search of rock posturing, lengthy soloing and the usual hard and heavy ‘serious’ early seventies clichés. By the time of the repeat showing, the album and single were both on general release, but despite considerable radio support – notably from Radio 1’s Jazz Club which featured them in session twice, as well a feature on the tour on Radio 3’s Jazz In Britain (on another edition of which the Concert Band essayed an early version of Westbrook’s next album Metropolis) – it does not appear to have vastly improved the commercial fortunes of either.
With tastes and fashions changing, and Mike Westbrook himself promptly leaving Deram and heading off in a more conventional jazz-rock direction, Mike Westbrook’s Love Songs soon faded into musical history and drew little interest outside of the jazz fraternity; even the exhaustive artist-by-artist guide to the sixties-to-early-seventies beat/prog/psych/folk boom The Tapestry Of Delights could find literally nothing to say about the album other than that it was “jazzy”. More recently, however, the album has started to become regarded as something of a forgotten classic, particularly since Original Peter showed up on the first of the splendid Impressed With Gilles Peterson compilations. One of its most prominent champions has been Jonny Trunk of Trunk Records, who named his range of record bags after Original Peter. When I appeared on Jonny’s radio show to talk about Top Of The Box, the conversation got around to the Review appearance and the fact that I had recently discovered that it still existed in the BBC’s archives. Various attempts at getting to see it, however, had drawn a blank until – literally by accident – I clicked on the wrong link on YouTube and found that the programme’s original director Tony Staveacre had uploaded his copy only hours beforehand. One of those incidents that really does make you believe in the interconnectedness of things. Either that, or that I’ve previously invested far too much time and effort in searching for it.
You can watch the entire performance below, and it really is much wilder than it’s actually possible to make it sound. It begins with cardboard cutouts of the band being carried through the streets and lowered into the venue, where they promptly transform into the actual musicians in full flow, and while they thunder through their numbers including spirited renditions of The Magic Garden and Original Peter, we are also treated to wrestling, acrobatics, trampoline acts, puppet shows, hallucinogenically-lit fire-eating, live painting and tattooing, film montages satirically juxtaposing Richard Nixon and Edward Heath with Victorian dancers, pet food cans and The Woodentops, and lifesize playing cards doing lord alone knows what, and of course some of that fabled hand-balancing. Apparently, when she was shown the film recently, Norma Winstone had to confess to having absolutely no recollection of it whatsoever. It must have been quite an evening.
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You can find an expanded version of this feature, with much more about tantalising scraps of information about the late sixties arts scene gleaned from old newspapers and magazines, in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
The $1,000,000 Collection is a feature looking at some of my favourite examples of sixties UK Jazz cover art, including a couple of Mike Westbrook albums; you can find it here.
You can hear – and see – me talking about The Original Peter as part of my appearance on Perfect Night In here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.