Spirogyra are one of the prime examples of British psychedelic/acid folk. They released some of the most unique and amazing albums in the genre and their story is very interesting. What we have here is an interview I did with the mastermind behind the project, Martin Cockerham. He shared all the great stories, that happened to the band and he revealed, that something new is going on. "Lost"1970's recordings of the band have been found. Also a new line up and album is coming for 2013. More in the interview.
Spirogyra was formed as a duo in Bolton, Lancashire in the summer of 1967 by you and Mark Francis. I want to ask firstly about your childhood and teen years. Where did you grow up and what are some memories and influences from those early years?
I was born on Ilkley Moor ba tat – in the Yorkshire Dales! But I grew up mainly in the New Forest in a village called Nomansland from 4-10 years of age. My first school was the Nomansland village school and after that I went to school at Salisbury cathedral. - Bishops Palace School. My Dad was a great jazz pianist and he had restaurant and hotel in Salisbury town square. Later he opened a cellar jazz club also, but he was too soon for the big club boom that came in the 60's and he went bust. We moved back to Yorkshire – Saltaire, at the beginning of 60's and that's where I was when the Beatles started. Their first single ‘Love Me Do’ just started to be played on Radio Luxemburg almost the same day I started listening to the radio and popular music age about 12 I guess. In fact I liked them before I heard the music when the dj’s were talking about this exciting new band called ‘The Beatles’! However, I soon became more of a Stones fan in the early days until around 1966 when the Beatles surged far ahead in terms of being progressive and psychedelic. The Stones were left behind and I never liked the Stones one iota after Brian Jones died. I went to Salts Grammar school. After that I spent 2 years in South Wales, in Creigiau - a small village near Pentyrch, Glamorgan.I went to Whitchurch Grammar school where I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying for 2 years!! I don’t know how – but I did manage to get 9 ‘O’ Levels, failing only French. Which goes to show – never try to learn French from the Welsh!
My family moved to Bolton Lancashire in 1966, when I was age 16 - to the sounds of 'Revolver'! I formed the Bolton version of Spirogyra with Mark Francis in the summer of 1967. At the end of 68 I took a gap year and hitch hiked around Europe to Israel. I stayed in the caves on Crete and then a kibbutz in Israel and Jerusalem. When I was too broke to get a ticket home I got a job as a terrorist guard in the Sinai desert. I ended up camped between the Isreali and Egyptian army near the Suez canal just when they started another war! I escaped by hitching a ride on the back of a tank heading to the war – then turned right before the canal and finally after a string of adventures too long to recount here, got a ship back to Marseilles. Then late summer 1969 I went to Kent University in Canterbury. That's where and when (1969) I formed the classic Canterbury version of Spirogyra.
From where did you and Mark know each other and how did you come to an idea to form a duo?
We were in Bolton school together. A good school for wizards as both Gandalf and I went there amongst others! Of course I was a new boy in the school – but the word got out that I was a drummer. Fellow school boys Mike Stone and Mark Francis were needing a drummer for their ‘Cream’ style blues band and they asked me to join. I named the band 'William Shakespeare's Magical Miracle Makers'. During those days the lead guitarist, Mike Stone taught me how to play guitar as I was a huge Dylan fan and I started by learning his songs. Around then I got heavily into ‘The Incredible String Band’ which influenced Mark Francis and I to start Spirogyra as a folk duo in 1967.
What would you say was the scene in your town back then?
Those were cool years everywhere...flower power. We had a good scene in the new Octagon theatre Bolton. They had a Saturday morning 'Bluesology' sort of open mike event. Mark and I featured at that a few times 68-69. Later Canterbury Spirogyra played there many times. We also staged a whole Dramatical Musical production there. A week of our own show 'Home in the World'. Sadly, so far as I know it was neither filmed nor recorded! We had many fans in Bolton, and in Norwich where Julian was from and in Canterbury especially. Also we got major support in Holland mostly due to a man called Frank Van Der Meiden who with Max, our manager, arranged all our many tours there.
You went to the University of Kent at Canterbury and in December 1969 you expanded the band to include fellow students Barbara Gaskin (vocals), Steve Borrill (bass guitar), and Julian Cusack (violin).You were soon spotted by student union entertainments officer Max Hole, who offered to manage you and got you a recording contract with B&C Records. Tell me about those early days of Spirogyra. What do you remember from playing together before releasing an album?
I started the Canterbury Spirogyra with Julian Cusack. We were both students at Kent University in Canterbury in our first year and we were both in the same college - Keynes College boarding there too during that first year. Julian, who had been classically trained in piano and violin, and I decided to get together 3 songs for the College folk club. It was quite a happening scene the folk club in those days 1969 and the 60's folk/acoustic music craze was peak booming. Julian and I turned up at the folk club - this is October 1969.
Julian and I are due to appear somewhere in the middle of proceedings. Just before us Max Hole plays - He’s the new students’ union social secretary and gives a good turn on the guitar with a couple of ‘Who’ songs. But nobody (including us) is quite ready for the decided bringing down of the house that Julian and I manage to achieve. We receive a standing ovation and encore and plough into what is to become our standard encore song over the next 5 years – a song called ‘The Forest of Dean’ written primarily by myself with a middle 8 melody contributed by Mark Francis. This song has a simple sing-along at the end and we have the words written up on a piece of card with my best friend Paddy, also from Bolton School, engaged to hold it up at the appropriate time. The result is a standing ovation and the complete devastation of all competition at the folk club, which is so total that Max, there and then, resolves to give up folk singing and go instead into management.
Shortly after that Julian and I put on a huge ‘Spirogyra’ event in Keynes College. In the intervening time we’ve been advertising for musicians and practicing with them. So I decide to put on a ‘happening’ and see what comes out of it. The result was a big success and to quote from Rick Biddulph’s article in the University Press describing the event. “It’s a great start to the year and all credit to Martin….”
After the concert Julian and I decide to narrow down the band to the musicians we like best. The other two are Steve Borrill on bass, an older tall and thin student with tremendously long hair and a great musician. The last to join is Barbara Gaskin, a stunningly beautiful and charismatic girl with a beautiful voice. She’s a friend of Steve Hillage, another musician at the University, who also played at the big ‘Spirogyra’ birthing event. He’s already in a London band called ‘The Egg’ and an extremely brilliant and creative guitar player and song writer. It was Steve Hillage who introduced Barbara to me as a potential singer. Barbara is a celestial and beautiful English girl of the sophisticated southern variety (from Hatfield). An English literature undergrad, and the sort of quality person who made England excel throughout time. A beautiful vocalist and person beyond comparison. “Spirogyra’ was blessed indeed to have landed Barb.
At this time in my life, I’m furiously writing songs for the band whilst going through various girlfriends and the associated heartache. It’s a highly creative time in my life and sometimes I write a whole song in a day. Other songs evolve over a period of weeks into long changing epics. These are the days of psychedelic folk and I’m constantly pushing the boundaries of what one can do with a folk song, trying always to go into new and uncharted territories, often using strange open tunings I come across myself. I would advise that you listen to the music along with reading this. The music is the constant background to my life from this point on (actually since 68) and you can glean a lot about the things I was going through by hearing the music and reading the lyrics.
Meanwhile, Steve Borrill, who is an older student in his last year, is already renting a beautiful large ramshackle house down in the centre of the town of Canterbury, just near the cathedral’s back gate -The Bishop’s School gate. A fantastic location, and cheap, with 5 bedrooms. The whole band re-locates to this house at 5 St. Radigund’s St. whilst I find another house a little further down the same street, right next to the river. Barbara, Steve Hillage, Julian Cusack and his girlfriend Sarah and Steve Borrill and his girl friend Helen all live in the house. Then there’s Pete Rhodes, an artist and student at the local Art College and a great friend and philosopher. The house is a fantastic place to be, with all kinds of ‘cool’ young people constantly dropping by, such as the guy who first played Jesus in ‘Hair’, whose name escapes me, and other musicians like Ian Drury who was one of Pete’s teachers at the art college. Ian hadn’t yet got into being a performer himself and I remember him sitting in the corner listening as we rehearsed. I've been told by progressive music experts that actually Spirogyra was maybe the first 'punk' band although we never got that category as it was just one of the elements of our sound.
The band rapidly progresses to build up an impressive repertoire of new songs, mostly written by yours truly in my pangs of love of late teens and deep philosophical search for ultimate truth. Before long, in the summer of 1970, I’m given a room in 5 St. Radigunds also, which is actually the nicest room, having a balcony overlooking the grape vine above the courtyard. It is actually the best room in the house, but the snag is that its next to the only bathroom and everyone has to go through my bedroom to get to it. I don’t care because it’s a great fun house to live in with constant visitors and a great location right in the epicenter of town near the Kings School Gate to the Cathedral.
Meanwhile Max Hole has become our manager, and is starting to get us gigs, beginning at the University itself and then increasing to Universities and Colleges around the country. We do a fantastic concert at the Gulbenkian theatre in the University itself. And another at the famous 'Foundry' in Canterbury town. Max usually gets us gigs as the ‘Kent University band’ – which helps to get gigs in the beginning at Universities, but later on we get branded as a ‘University band’ which gets us put, at the time, in a narrow category, and probably backfires on our chances of more immediate success. We travel all over the country in Steve’s little green transit van. We’re joined by Pete Bell as our roadie and sound engineer. Steve and Pete make all our PA equipment themselves! Our progress is rapid and we start to play really well as a band with lots of live practice. You'd have to say that Max as our manager is one of the main elements of our success, not just as a booking agent but as a general glue and good times creator for the band.
Their manager as shown on the flier of the gig was Max Hole. He is now rated by Billboard as the most powerful music biz executive in the world outside America. He's currently Chief Operating Officer of Universal Records International. He was also the producer for the band.
Around this time, we do two-demo recordings at the music room in Keynes College engineered by Pete Ball. These recordings are used by Max to seek out a recording contract for the band, which he succeeds in doing with Sandy Robertson and ‘September Productions’. These early recordings are subsequently to be stored in the attic of Pete’s friend and to spend 30 years unheard until they resurface and are issued as the ‘Spirogyra’ 4th album ‘Burn the Bridges’ and largely with thanks to the work of Barbara Gaskin in making it happen. All the recordings are done live without the benefit of multi tracking. It’s essentially the band playing in a room and the sound being mixed live into stereo onto a Revox 2 track tape recorder. None of the vocals are done later as overdubs. As a result the recordings tend to be much more vibrant and alive than the modern approach used these days which is often to do everything to a click track layer by layer. Our early recordings, including the first 3 studio albums, were never done with mechanical time or click tracks. We speed up or slow down as the feeling grabs us and the result is apparent, and full of passionate intensity.
Of special note is the fact that some of these early recordings were as yet unreleased - but may be coming soon on a new Spirogyra album featuring unreleased songs and recordings from 69-74. The album includes some of my earliest songs. There’s also another album, hopefully to be completed - of songs that would have made up the next album after 'Bell Boots & Shamble' if we had still had a recording contract. But we didn't and the times they were a changing! That is an album all recorded live at the peak of the acid folk era 1973!
Our touring extends all over the country so this prompts us to request a Sabbatical leave of absence of one year from University to see where the music career takes us. We begin to tour Holland, Denmark, France and Germany also. I’m actually ready to drop out altogether from University, and in fact soon do so along with Max, but in order to keep Julian and Barbara who do not want to dropout altogether, we instead take a sabbatical years leave from College. Looking back on it we were so unbelievably lucky and blessed then that all our college was paid for by the state as well as living expenses. In those days everything was so cheap and it’s long before today’s horrendous things like VAT and council tax and busy body government and cameras everywhere! Our student days were nothing but bliss practically, although one did have to do a modicum of study, it rapidly paled into insignificance compared to the huge cultural circus going on all around. Even we could see, with rising unemployment and the like, that students were coming out of University fully qualified, but no jobs to be had. We rather fancied jobs like the Beatles thanks very much!!!
Whose idea was it to name the band "Spirogyra" and what's the background of the word?
It was my idea. First I thought of 'Amoeba' as a primordial elemental living organism! Then I thought since 'Spirogyra' is that too - plus multi celled, and a band, that it was more appropriate.
So, in 1971 your debut, titled St. Radigunds was released. What are some of the strongest memories from producing and recording this LP? The title of the LP was named after the street that your student house was located, right?
Martin Cockerham, Barbara Gaskin with Steve Borrill and Julian Cusack
St. Radigund's was produced by Robert Kirby, who also produced Nick Drake. It was recorded in Sound Techniques Studio London where Nick Drake and the Incredible String Band recorded with the same engineer - Jerry Boys. As to the name of the album - we all ended up living at 5 St. Radigund's street in Canterbury so we named the album after the street. Memories of recording it are mixed. It was very exciting being our first experience in a real recording studio. On later albums I tended to try to tone down my pushy vocals and have more of Barbara – but there are many Spirogyra fans who like St Radigund’s the best for this very reason! Its rated very high by critics on the charts of acid folk albums of all time. In the top 5.
What can you say about the concept behind the album and what can you tell me about your songwriting, by that I mean what are some inspiration themes, that influenced you to write?
The songwriting was constantly evolving...mostly love and spiritual esoteric themes about mystical visions of the future and the search for the purpose of life as well as world revolution. A tortured Dostoyevski type genius I was called...I was very mentally tortured for a while by having taken enough mescaline to douse 10,000 horses all in one go in Isreal. I went to heaven and I went to hell then I remained suspended between..eventually I decided it had to be heaven - so off I went. I left all my family and dearest friends behind and how and why I’m still not sure.
"Old Boot Wine" followed and your sound changed a lot. What can you tell me about it?
It was adding Mark Francis and having less Julian Hence less violin. On Old Boot Wine we changed to Max as producer. We liked Max as producer. He created a good vibe in the studio. I guess I tried to tone down my aggressive vocals a lot on ‘Old Boot Wine’ and have more of Barbara. We probably felt it might be more popular! But these days I meet many people who liked that early intensity in Spirogyra.
Your last album from that period was back in a vein of the first one, but this time only as duo between you and Barbara...
Barbara and I were gigging as a duo at that time...the others only joined us for recording. I wrote all the songs for ‘Bells Boots & Shambles’ staying in the basement cellar flat of Austin John Marshall on Battersea Bridge Road, London. The recording itself was done in Morgan Studios which was about the best studio in London at the time. The whole experience of recording that album was fantastic and it could make an article in itself.
How about some concerts? You were very well known and had some kind of underground following if I may say so. Please tell me with who all did you play and what are some favourite memories?
Arnhem, Holland March 16, 1974
Martin Cockerham: Acoustic Guitar, Vocals, Songwriter
Barbara Gaskin: Vocals, Electric Piano, Tambourine
Rick Biddulph: Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Bass
Jon Gifford: Sax, Clarinet, Flute, Harmonica
We got lots of good gigs in colleges and universities all over Britain and also in Germany and Holland and Denmark and France. All of this was due to our manager Max who moved up to London and joined Geoff Jukes in an agency managing Camel and Spirogyra amongst other bands. Max was a major part of the band. A dynamic guy with a great sense of humour and always fun to be around. He kept us all together as long as possible. But Julian was determined to go back to university, probably because his father would have killed him had he not! So he left the band. After that I added Mark Francis back into the band for a short time…but he also was not free to stay as he was still in Bolton. Steve soon became restless, so it ended up being just me and Barbara touring around England doing gigs. The others still joined us for recording. Then I added Rick Biddulph and Jon Gifford to the band. In my own opinion that was the best band....that last foursome of the classical period. You have to listen to the Spirogyra album if I manage to get it out which features that band from 1973-1974 to realise how good this band was. The main strengths were that Barb took to electric piano and she was getting good. Jon Gifford was brilliant on sax, flute, clarinet and harmonica and so was Rick Biddulph on various guitars and bass! Rick later played with Richard Sinclair of Caravan and so did Steve Borrill and Barbara - in Hatfield and the North.
Then for some reason even I don't know..but mainly because I was somewhat mentally searching from taking psychedelic drugs (only once I should add – in Israel in 1968) so that I just had to search out the meaning and purpose to life. So I went off to Ireland and travelled by horse and cart alone and I ended up going to India for 3 years staying at holy places there and becoming a strict monk with no drugs, no sex and no rock and roll! I became such a devout monk that I pretty much cut off all my family and friends links back in England. Even when a few times someone wanted to visit me in India I was no longer free to make my own decisions being a monk in a monastery and had to ask permission for them to stay and it was always denied if they were female!
When I came back in 1978-79 I quickly contacted Barbara who came back from India too. We started working on a new album 'Seer's Songs' in 1979. But before we had it finished she got invited to sing with Dave Stewart on the song 'Its My Party' - it went to number 1 for 17 weeks (longest number one in British history). After that she was rushed into a totally different reality and the result was that we never got to complete the new Spirogyra album we had been working on. After that time froze over and I escaped to the island of Bali where I stayed 4 years - then to California and Hawaii. Long story!
Best memories - oh that's a difficult one. It was all good memories. Actually the best memory of all was recording 'Bells Boots and Shambles' with Max and Barbara and gigging with Barbara, Rick and Jon since we got on a lot better than the original. There was some tension of egos in the original, but with Rick and Jon and Barb it was all bliss. It seems tragic that such bliss should be so short lived. But the times and destiny did not sustain us. We were destitute with no more recording contract and no money to pay the huge London rent. Every month we were on a cliff hanger about where the money would come from. The times moved on and we were washed down by the tide. Luckily we still have some recordings from then that survived by a miracle. I think the next album to 'Bells Boots And Shambles' would have been the best, had we had a record contract to do it professionally. Anyway.. It exists only by high magic. (Vintage bootleg wine - special reserve).
Were you connected with members of Comus, since musically you are very close in my opinion?
No – not at all, although some of the other band members may have known them. But I didn’t even hear of them until they resurfaced many years later!
Our best other musician mates were Dr. Strangely Strange and later with Richard Sinclair of Caravan. Also we were mates with Ian Drury and Steve Harley and Steve Ashley of Albion Country Band. I met Marc Bolan and Cat Stevens as my flatmate in London knew them well -John Marshall. He got me a job making the first music video for Black Sabbath and Ozzie. He made the first Jimi Hendrix film also. I also was very lucky to become quite good friends with Paul and Linda McCartney In fact Paul was quoted in the London evening standard as saying that I inspired the writing of one of his songs - 'One of these Days' on the day we first met on a summer's evening in rural Sussex. Paul once gave me alone a private concert in George Martin's studio in London. He played me 'Blackbird' 'Yesterday' and then he played me the first song he ever wrote on his actual first ever guitar - which he had in a special small room in the studio. It was classic. George Martin was a bit pissed off waiting for Paul to record his new Pipes of Peace album at the time!
On that other question - Spirogyra did gigs with some great bands and I can't remember all of them by any means. The ones that stick in my memory are: The Who - a massive gig with just Spirogyra and The Who in Canterbury. Rod Stewart and the Faces. Traffic with Stevie Winwood a huge gig at Leeds University, Quintessance, ummm "he blew his mind out in a car ma”. And lots of other hard gigging folkies of the time like Mike Chapman, John Martin, Magna Carta, Arthur Brown etc.
Around 1973 you started to experiment, but that was not released on an album, but these days you have issued privately new editions of old Spirogyra material and some previously unreleased work. What can you tell me about this and how many material is still unreleased?
This pic is 1972-74 Spirogyra: Martin, Barb, Rick and Jon. I am trying to release at some point an album of that Spirogyra line up live recorded in 73-74 doing the songs that I wrote as a follow up to the ‘Bells Boots & Shambles’ album. Unfortunately we no longer had a record contract at the time. But in my opinion it would have been, or will be, our best album! Barb and I started an album in 79’ but never finished it on account of her hit record and my constant travelling. But the last thing she ever said to me in person was "Martin keep writing" - So I followed her advice. I kept writing a new album of songs every 2-3 years. Even when I injured my wrist in America and could not play guitar for 10 years I continued writing songs on keyboards...but I never had money to record any of them properly. I was always living down and out. For almost 2 years I lived in a remote semi jungle in Hawaii just on wild food with not a penny. Those were my Tarzan years! After 15 years in Hawaii I got tired of hearing Bob Marley and realized that the only way I could realize my music dreams was to return to Europe. So I left ‘paradise’ and returned to hell – London!! Things did not go well for a long time, although Mark Francis and I started writing songs together again. Apart from that there was little help coming and I fell sick with TB in Hackney, London. I was in hospital for months on deaths door. After that my lungs were scarred with fibrosis and since then I was always exhausted and out of breath. It didn’t stop me singing or writing songs though!
You reunited with Mark Francis using your original Spirogyra name, and from 2004 to 2006 you recorded a new album which was released in 2009, entitled Children's Earth. At the same time another new album called Rainbow Empire, while officially your solo release, featured the same collaborations. Would you like to say a few words about it?
I did them both on a shoe string budget. There's only a few copies left of these and a vinyl album we did called - Spirogyra 5. Pending a future re-recording, re-mixing or mastering to get them up to a higher standard when there is money to do it on a top level. But of those efforts I am very happy with the 'Rainbow Empire' album. It has good song writing collaborations with Mark and Robin Runciman and lots of great musicians on it including Mark Francis - and best of all it is recorded live old style.
Another project you have is "Iskcon" and "Krishna Colours". Would you like to share a few words also about this?
I joined Iskcon in Vrindavan, India in 1975. I was initiated in Vrindavan by the Hare Krishna founder guru: His Divine Grace AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. I was his driver in India for a while and had much chance to be in his company - about 108 times in all. He taught me so many things. I travelled all over India extensively opening up Hare Krishna in its rejuvenated form. Subsequently I opened the first Hare Krishna temple in Bali and other ones in Hawaii, Ireland etc. Sometimes I did that, but other times I went into country retreat for inspiration to write songs. After Prabhupada’s departure in 1977 the Hare Krishna movement gradually changed from the raggle taggle gypsy version I joined in the beginning, and became much more orthodox and institutional. Meanwhile, I myself returned to my natural liberal, laissez faire state about spirituality. I’m not a one to idealize a world with only one faith, nor a garden with only one variety of flower! I have a huge variety of friends with many different views on life. I take people on a one by one basis. I believe in the basics like re-incarnation, karma, the gods, vegetarianism, yoga, mantra etc. These are all major tenets of my life. But I'm a very free spirited person and not much into rules and regulations. I like kings and queens who can unite people, and make decisions immediately, much better than endless laws, politicians and gurus who separate everyone!
Krishna Colours is a band I have with an Indian musician named Amit Swami. Its mostly bhajan and kirtan, but with very original melodic music. We will be recording our second album this winter 2013.
What are you currently up to and what are perhaps some future plans?
I'm working on plans for 3 new Spirogyra albums in 2013/14 - one with a new Spirogyra and also releases of old material.
My other project now is a major motion picture movie. It is a 3 part trilogy like star wars or Lord of the Rings or Mahabharata. It's an epic fantasy movie, with music and comedy. Just working on writing the script at this stage. Also trying to set up eco-villages - organic artist/yoga/old style farmer communities. Its a typical magic martin cocktail!
Thanks a lot for taking your time! Would you like to share anything else? A message to It's Psychedelic Baby readers?
See you on the psychedelic, light side of the moon, my friends!
Spirogyra web site:
Interview made by Klemen Breznikar/2012
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