Oberon in studio © 1971 Nick Powell
One of the most overlooked bands in the history of psych/acid folk. Oberon released an amazing LP back in 1971. Collector and writer Hans Pokora got us in contact with all the members of the band and here is the whole story behind their LP for the very first time.
Firstly I would like to give thanks to Hans Pokora for providing this contact. There is not much known about 'Oberon' and I'm really happy the story will be told in the following interview. First let's start with your home town. Where did you grow up and what are some memories and influences on you as a child and later as a teenager?
Robin: I come from an army family so we moved around a lot. Boarding school was the more permanent home, and certainly a major influence. Music was a large part of this and I sang in school choirs from the age of about 8. With daily church services – twice on Sundays – there was plenty of singing to do.
Julian: My childhood in Northampton was unremarkable except that I had a rich fantasy life (I invented lots of stories). My father was a violinist and I remember asking him if I could learn to play. He set up lessons for me with a wonderful russian emigre who told me that I should make the violin sing like my voice. Later, as a teenager, the classical music that I was playing was in one box and the music on the record players was in a different box. At that time they seemed to be worlds apart and I wanted to experience as much of The Who, Hendrix, Jethro Tull, King Crimson as possible-any bands that had significant electric lead guitar lines.
Hugh: I grew up in Cambridgeshire but we all went to school in Oxfordshire, by the time Oberon recorded I'd left school. The band were school friends and I stayed in touch, sending lyrics by post. My influences at the time were e e cummings, Dylan Thomas, I was just discovering British traditional music, Bob Dylan, first King Crimson record and (most of all) I was influenced by Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band… and I was going through the drug-taking phase of my youth.
Charlie: Chris and I shared a study at school and we used to spend most of the time listening to music. Pentangle, Renbourn and Jansch would have been the biggest influence I think along with Sandy Denny, Fairport/Fotheringay and Incredible String Band. I remember seeing all those bands with Chris at Oxford Town Hall, but it’s been a long time since anyone played that venue, sadly. Chris used to like Nick Drake and Leo Kottke, there was a californian band called It’s A Beautiful Day who had a wonderful violin player and for me, Debussy and Faure were in the mix.
Jeremy: I lived in Berkshire and when I was 8 my parents sent me to board at a choir school in Oxford to see whether I might be musical. I loved the music there and I did all the vocal and instrumental music on offer and became a fairly proficient pianist. As a teenager at Radley College in Oxfordshire, I continued with all the classical music, became interested in sound recording and listened to King Crimson, Pink Floyd, ELP, The Who, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.
Charlie: Chris Smith was born in 1953 and the Family home was at Chapel-En-Le Frith in Cheshire. He started playing guitar in his early teens and was self taught. At the time Oberon were playing, Chris’s main influence was John Renbourn and his favourite album was ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’. Like Renbourn, Chris was equally at home on acoustic and electric guitars.
Chris and Charlie made the annual pilgrimage to RFH in London to see Pentangle (Jansch was of course another guitarist who Chris admired greatly), and they were lucky enough to see Renbourn playing in a small church in Oxford. Other players Chris listened to included, Nick Drake, David Gilmour, John Fahey, Stefan Grossman, Leo Kottke and of course John Williams and Julian Bream. I remember going with Chris to see a magical Julian Bream concert one summer’s evening in the Chapter House at Salisbury Cathedral. The world was alive with wonderful acoustic guitarists in those days.
Were any of you in any bands before forming 'Oberon'? Was there anything released or perhaps unreleased?
Robin: No bands although a lot of solo guitar and singing, like many teenagers.
Nick: Chris and I started off together in Henry Gunn's band, when we must have been about fifteen and played our first gig at Heathfield school. We then left Henry (I think over some stupid disagreement with Charlie, who was playing keyboards, but I can't remember what). We then had our own band playing Cream and John Mayall covers etc, which I'm pretty certain had Hugh on bass. We supported Henry's band in the Radley theatre, I remember (and I think - may be wrong - that Robin played acoustic stuff between the two bands). Then it was a while before Chris and Charlie asked me to join Oberon, in our last year.
Julian: I was in a school band with the drummer Alex Cooper, and we played as loud as we could get on Burns guitars. I'm sure there was plenty being released, but it was probably testosterone and definitely not vinyl.
Hugh: Various school combos… with me usually on bongos and improvising lyrics. At one time Julian and I were in a (very short-lived) band called, I think, 'The Purple Greenhouse'.
How did you all got to know each other and decided to form a band? Is there any special background for choosing the name 'Oberon'?
Oberon © 1971 Nick Powell
Hugh: Friends in an English boarding school. Can't remember who thought of Oberon… I think 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' was my idea (Oberon being king of the fairies in the Shakespeare play). The record for me conjures summer evenings when we were seventeen, jamming on the school playing fields, especially with Robin, Charlie & Chris.
Charlie: I think that Henry Gunn was probably the catalyst. He was in the same house as Hugh and Robin, who had been close friends since they started at Radley, and Chris and I played in his band. I had a great friend called Mike Ewart in that house, so got to know Hugh early on. Robin I maybe knew less well as he lived in The Mansion because he was a clever fellow. Julian and I both played in Sim Jauncey’s band and I guess Jeremy, Julian and I knocked around in the Music School regularly. Nick, Chris and I were all in the same house.
I may have got this completely wrong, but that’s my distant memory.
Robin: I can’t remember how we all got together. I don’t remember playing music with any of the band in other formations before ‘Oberon’, although I was a good friend of Hugh who wrote the lyrics. Not sure about the reason for choosing ‘Oberon’. My guess is that we were more attracted to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ as a title for an album, and the name ‘Oberon’ followed that.
Nick: We were all at school together...
Julian: At Radley College In Peter Way's English class there were several aspiring poets. I don't remember who came up with the name, but I suspect that Robin, Charlie and Chris Smith were involved.
Jeremy: Along with Jan, I was a fairly last minute addition to the line up – I think the guys decided that they’d like to have some more harmony vocals and a bass player. I didn’t play bass or any other sort of guitar at this time but loved what the band were doing so much that I bought a bass and learned how to play it in the two weeks before we made the album. I also remember our manager, Roly Errington, driving me to London in his mini van in the pouring rain so I could buy my bass VOX AC30 amp from ‘Orange’, a second hand music store in Tottenham Court Road.
Where did you write first songs together?
Charlie: I don’t have a clear memory of that. I used to write bits and pieces most of the time. I remember writing the music for the school play Death of a Salesman and probably just kept going! In terms of the material, my memory is that Hugh wrote the lyrics first and we wrote the music to fit these. He had left school the previous year so we didn’t have much opportunity to work together. Every now and again, these wonderful lyrics would appear in the post, carefully written in his recognisable hand. No email back then!
Nick: I didn't write for Oberon
Hugh: Can't remember
Charlie: Chris wrote two of the tracks on the Oberon album. He wrote ‘Time past Time Come’ when we were staying in a cottage in North Devon overlooking the river Taw.
Band in garden © 1971 Nick Powell
You recorded only one album, which was released on 'Acorn' label. What can you tell me about this label? Was it your label and you selfreleased it or what?
Jeremy: It was self-released but recorded by Colin Sanders who ran the local Oxford Acorn label. We printed up 99 copies of the album because this was the maximum number you could have without paying some extra tax. As far as I know, Colin only did a few other recordings for his Acorn label in the early 70s.
Charlie: Colin Sanders, our engineer, started SSL as a side line as he needed a recording/mixing desk for Acorn Records. I think SSL took over much of his time fairly soon after we worked with him. He died about 10 years ago in a plane crash near Oxford. By that time, Acorn was long gone and SSL had become the most successful high end sound desk manufacturer in the world – they were exporting large numbers of desks to Japan and the States by the late 70s/early 80s. I met him again shortly before his death. He said he would far prefer to have been running a record label. He remembered us well, a very sweet man.
Where did you record the album and what are some of the strongest memories from producing and recording it?
Nick: At school in the summer holidays. Mainly first takes - almost all of them, I think, which is astonishing.
Julian: We stayed after the end of one school term, I think it was Summer, and practised in the classroom where the album was recorded. Charlie, Robin and Chris Smith came up with most of the material and it was initially voice and guitars. During rehearsals the band members played along until we found parts that fit. Being pretty excited at the prospect of recording an album, we'd also vociferously support a drum groove Nick played or a bass line that Jeremy came up with.
Chris guitar © 1971 Nick Powell
Jeremy: It was the first two days of the summer holiday and most of us had left the school the day before but we stayed on to make the album. We used two prefab classrooms called N1 and N2. We had been rehearsing beforehand in one of them and Colin set his gear up in the other one. The weather was great, we took breaks lying around and posing for photos on the school cricket pitches outside and I think we even did some swimming and pub visiting in the days before Colin arrived. I guess all the arranging had been done in the rehearsals so we minimised the hours of recording. (The usual story for bands on a budget)
Recording studio sketch © 1971 Robin Clutterbuck
Robin: Recorded in a classroom at Radley in summer, after the end of term before we all went our separate ways. I attach a sketch which I made at the time showing the set-up. E = engineer; M = Manager (Roly Errington); D = Drums (Nick, in the storecupboard); B = Bass (Jeremy); G = Guitar (Chris); S&G = Singing and Guitar (Robin at left, Jan right); V = Violin (Julian); F = Flute (Charlie). Doodles require socio-psychological profiling . . .
What lineup did record it?
Julian: Charlie, Nick, Jeremy, Jan, Chris, Julian.
Jeremy: Charlie Seaward (Flute, Guitar & Vocals), Julian Smedley (Violin & Vocals), Chris Smith (Acoustic and electric guitars), Jeremy (Bernie) Birchall (Bass), Jan Scrimgeour (Vocals & Guitar), Nick Powell (Drums or Percussion as it says on the album!)
Hugh Lupton was the lyric writer on the original songs but didn’t perform on the album.
I would love if you could comment each song from the LP...
Robin: Closely linked to the Fairport Convention version released in 1969. Actually ‘Nottamun’ (i.e. ‘not a man’, not Nottingham).
Nick: note Nottamun (spelling wrong on rereleases) Town
Jeremy: Actually, the spelling was wrong on the original release!
Julian: I was totally ignorant of Cecil Sharpe, or the extensive archive of British Isles folk music that he'd undertaken However, I assume that we learned Nottamun Town from his collection.
Charlie: This is Chris’s guitar solo that he wrote about his dog, a German Pointer.
Robin: Beautiful piece by Chris – always admired his guitar skills.
Julian: I seem to remember that this instrumental was a fully-conceived guitar piece that Chris brought to the group.
Robin: For me, the most exciting track – lots of interesting ideas and changes of mood. Medieval?
Hugh: I think Charlie sent me the metre for the chorus in gobbledygook (he'd already got a melody) and I found words to fit it…. not my proudest moment as a lyricist!
Julian: We all knew that Charlie was a gifted flautist and he had a beautiful interpretation of the Claude Debussy piece, so it was natural to feature that on the album.
Charlie: Colin Sanders wanted to rerecord Syrinx, and as far as I remember, I came down to Oxford and recorded it in his little studio.
Julian: Arguably this is George Gershwin's best known song. I hadn't seen the film version of Porgy and Bess when the album was recorded, and I don't know who amongst us knew the song, but it was one of the first songs people would learn on guitar back then.
Jeremy: Lovely falsetto singing from Julian and inventive flute playing from Charlie on this one with a great impro from everybody at the end.
Time Past, Time Come
Charlie: The inspiration for the title of Time Past Time Come, at least, came from the first of Eliot’s Quartets, Burnt Norton. The opening line is “Time Present and Time Past are both perhaps present in time future.” It is perhaps the most completely realised of all of the tracks on the album. As with much of the music Chris wrote, the beat does not always fall where expected but because he was more interested in melody lines than rhythm, this is not obvious to the listener.
Robin: Another beautiful piece by Chris – my favourite.
Nick: Only comment really is that my favourite track is Time Past, Time Come (which I didn't play on).
Hugh: This is the one track I still love… beautiful, yearning melody… I listen to to it at intervals of about five years and am swept back to a time when we were young and everything seemed possible… & it makes me sad that Chris died so early.
Robin: The city in Lord of the Rings, but Hugh's lyrics are more suggestive than derivative.
Hugh: This was originally a setting of Tolkien's words, but there were copyright issues so I wrote new words to the original metres… the title is all that survived of the first version.
Julian: This was one of the grand conceptual visions that the whole group participated in. Hugh wrote lyrics for some sections and we all regarded this as the grand opus of the album! At times it was close to being a freely improvised piece, but, more accurately, it was a patchwork quilt of pieces with an improvised connective tissue.
Nick: It would have been great to do a second take of Minas Tirith's drum solo!
Robin: Written by Hugh in memory of James Gardiner, who had left the school the previous year and died of heatstroke somewhere in the Middle East I think. The death really shocked us. I remember singing this to his parents – his father had been a teacher at the school.
Hugh: I wrote this about James Gardiner, a guy who'd left school the previous year and died of heat-stroke in North Africa… Charlie set it to music.
Julian, Jan, Charlie © 1971 Nick Powell
I think that you were mostly influenced by a traditional medieval music. I really like the sense of humour on some of the songs. Was there any concept behind making this album?
Hugh: It's a sort of composite of what we were listening to at the time.
Robin: Of its time?
You named the album 'Midsummer Night’s Dream'. Would you like to tell us more about this, probably Shakespeare influence? I would also like to ask about the cover artwork.
Nick: Robin did the cover - great job, too, as it is so recognizable
Robin: I designed and illustrated the album sleeve. If you look closely the album is actually ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream’. This was a typo! The font is ‘Cooper Black. I was really keen on mythical literature like Beowulf; also ‘The Hobbit’, ‘Lord of the Rings’, Alan Garner and Mervyn Peake. As for artists, I liked the work of Aubrey Beardsley, Gustave Doré, Richard Dadd and Samuel Palmer – all fine detail and quirky subject matter – and like most people at the time I had Alan Aldridge’s work on my wall. Black and white saved money on printing, but I also liked the impact – there’s only black and white, no greys.
Did you do any shows and if so where did you play and with who?
Nick: Various - the School one being the most notable. I'd love to hear the truth about supporting the Pretty Things, though...
Nick drums © 1971 Nick Powell
Jeremy: There were some summer gigs outside with poetry readings but the big one was in a hall called ‘School’ which Oberon shared with the Poet Laureate-to-be, Andrew Motion. In 2011, I rediscovered my recording of this gig and it has now become another limited edition vinyl which we released for the band’s 40th anniversary. There are 40 copies, it’s called “Oberon Live Spring 1971” and occasionally one comes up on ebay.
What can you tell me about the scene from your town?
Jeremy: We were all in our various different parts of the UK in the school holidays but Oxford was the place where we could get to occasional good gigs in term time. I lived in a country area where there was nothing happening at all.
Charlie: I remember seeing Pentangle, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch along with Sandy Denny, Fairport/Fotheringay and Incredible String Band with Chris at Oxford Town Hall.
Julian: Northampton was a working class town in the 60's. From my perspective it was without a collective aspiration to be much of anything. On breaks from school I started going to a folk club called the Dun Cow in Daventry in Northamptonshire. I'd heard singers at the club who's singing sounded unaffected, compared to my classically-trained baritone. Several years later, I became more involved in the folk scene and that led me away from classical music towards the musical styles that I now play.
How would you describe the English folk scene that was going on back then?
Robin: Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Incredible String Band – a great time!
Nick: Fairport and Pentangle were the two big influences
Hugh: Eclectic… but it was later that I got involved with it. We were just schoolboys going to occasional concerts. It was a time when the boundaries between classical, folk, jazz, early music, and rock were breaking down.
Are there any folk bands, that are still pretty much undiscovered by collectors and you perhaps know anything about them since you were in this scene?
Robin: Well, not exactly folk (and not undiscovered), but I remember going to see King Crimson and Jethro Tull in Oxford at about this time. Also John Renbourn, of course.
Nick: Not that I know of.
Hugh: They don't get more obscure than Oberon! But try CMU (Contemporary Music Unit), The Sun Also Rises, and Vashti Bunyan.
What happened after the 'Oberon' for you?
Robin: No bands but a lot of solo singing, acapella groups and choirs.
Nick: No serious bands until I formed Howling Owl a few years ago - second album recorded but not released yet.
Hugh: Became a storyteller & writer… and still write song lyrics.
Charlie: Wrote songs and jingles, played keyboards and wrote material with two bands: Lost Jockey and Man Jumping.
Nick: Chris wrote music independently immediately after Oberon, but never played live as far as I know. Post Oberon, he went to work up in Manchester as an accountant and although we had lost touch for a while, he wrote to me over a number of years in the late 70s and sent me various tapes of music he was writing and performing which he’d recorded on his four track reel-to-reel (sadly he asked me to send them back and I didn't make copies). It wasn't like Oberon's music, but more noodly electric/acoustic, with lyrics (though I can't remember if he sang on them - I doubt it, because I never heard him sing in any of the bands I played in with him.) We met up in the 80s - he came to stay in London - and he was obviously in a poor state, had alopecia, and not very happy. That state lasted a while, and then we heard he had died. I don't know the circumstances, unfortunately. Almost everyone likes his track Time Past, Time Come very much. He was heavily influenced by Pentangle's two guitarists, John Renbourn and Bert Jansch.
Julian: I graduated from the University of East Anglia in 1973 with a BA in Fine Arts. Sadly the music department there no longer exists. Classical vocal study hadn't prepared me for the music that I was interested in playing and there were some offers of work in London in groups that sounded exciting. I decided to make a double-neck guitar after a music director/friend hinted that he was looking for someone who could play both bass and guitar and used it to play in a trio on the Kenneth Williams radio show. That led to other studio work for the BBC. Also, I had a friend from university- Brian Bowles, and together we formed a violin and guitar duo, drawing heavily on the vocal styles of the Mills Brothers, Dan Hicks and the dazzling instrumentals of The Quintette of the Hot Club of Paris. We busked on the London Underground, found a weekly gig at a crepe restaurant and added singer/actress Sue Jones Davies and upright bass player Richard Lee for week-end busking on the Portobello Road. In time two managers introduced themselves and convinced us that our band could secure a recording contract. They shopped us to several record labels and we ended up signing with Decca records as the Bowles Brothers Band. About this time we met the colourful and eccentric Viv Stanshall and Neil Innes and subsequently recorded with both of them. For a while all was rosy, but then Malcolm McClaren's brain child, punk music, soon caused our group to be seen as unfashionably 'retro' and although we took our music seriously, we couldn't shake the 'novelty' label. I felt drawn to learn about the roots of jazz in America. In 1979 there was an opportunity for me to move to the Pacific Northwest in the U.S., so I took the plunge and left England.
In Bellingham, WA, I played with several groups, learned about Jazz music, taught violin lessons, started producing records for independent artists and then moved to Berkeley, CA where I joined Clubfoot Orchestra and the Hot Club of San Francisco. I started a business scoring music for corporate media, gigged as a musician, and took a position as sound engineer in an audio post facility. With the death of my father in 2002 I decided to leave that position and concentrate on playing jazz violin, which I continue to do now.
Jeremy: I went to Durham University where I performed a lot and created ‘musique concréte’ tapes in the excellent electronic music studio there. After a few years at BBC Radio as a sound engineer, features producer and composer at the Radiophonic Workshop, I left to be a freelance musician. I was an original keyboard playing member of The Lost Jockey with Charlie but subsequently started singing with the band and writing songs and jingles for others also with Charlie. After a few months I got an opportunity to join Groupe Vocal de France in Paris which paved the way towards a singing career which has survived the intervening thirty years - I am lucky enough to have a low bass voice which is a comparatively rare commodity.
Over the years I have sung live and recorded with most of the leading groups specialising in both early and contemporary music, including the Taverner Consort, Tallis Scholars, BBC Singers, Polyphony, Deller Consort, Tenebrae, English Concert, Singcircle, London Sinfonietta Voices, Groupe Vocal de France and the Harp Consort. I got very involved at one point with singing solo parts in John Tavener pieces and one of these pieces ‘The Veil of the Temple’ is seven hours long and we performed it overnight in London, Amsterdam and New York. Another ‘Theophany’ required me to multi track my lowest notes onto tape and as producer of the project I had to find a way for the conductor, the late Richard Hickox, to synchronise it to a live orchestra. There were many other gigs – The Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, Royal Festival Hall, The Barbican and around Europe too with notable ones in Paris, Athens and Berlin.
In 2000 I was a founder member of the a cappella crossover group ‘The Shout’. This iconic group created it’s own brand of a cappella music theatre and often did commissioned site- specific pieces which were mostly in unlikely places like the rooftops of London’s southbank complex, around, on and above the River in Stuttgart, in a gas holder in Amsterdam, a harbour in Stavanger and synchronised to a firework display around the Danube in Linz with an audience of 130,000 people – for some reason we haven’t done much since the banking crisis! (www.theshout.org)
Since 1976, I have sung bass and directed ‘The Demon Barbers’ vocal cabaret group. After many years on the road we have eventually achieved a small amount of recognition by performing Lorin Maazel’s ‘1984’ at Covent Garden and Valencia opera houses. (www.demonbarbers.net). As it turned out, I then started singing regularly at the Royal Opera House and more recently at ENO too.
Other things include running my own location recording company where I help other singers and groups make CDs. I’ve also worked a lot as a session singer and have made more than 250 CDs ranging from early and contemporary music to opera, pop music and Hollywood film scores, which include The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Pirates of the Carribean, Spongebob Squarepants, The Revenge of the Sith (Star Wars) The Golden Compass, Angels and Demons, A Christmas Carol and Crimson Tide.
What occupies your life these days?
Robin: 41 years on? Making music is therapy.
Nick: Work - I manage a business centre - and the band
Hugh: see 14
Julian: My wife and musical partner, Alison Odell and I now live in Shoreline, WA. With three grown children, there's time once again to concentrate on music. I feel fortunate to have a full schedule of concerts, recording projects, a music teaching job and several arrangements that I'm working on. This month I'm writing music for a production of Bertolt Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle, then I'll record a CD with Scrape, a Seattle-based string orchestra that plays contemporary compositions. Performances include a concert with The Greg Ruby Quartet and rehearsals for the launch of a new vocal-instrumental group The Palace Thieves.
Jeremy: Singing in operas at ROH and ENO, singing on film and computer game sound tracks and engineering, producing and editing CDs with singers and singing groups. After completing their debut CD, I launched a new World music vocal fusion band last year called YANTRA. I’m singing in this one too along with an Indian tenor and Bulgarian soprano and we're planning to start promoting and gigging this year. (www.yantramusic.net)
I heard something about reunion…
Nick: You missed it..
Hugh: You missed it! You'll have to wait until the 50th anniversary in 2021.
Jeremy: Unfortunately I missed it too but there’s one of Nicks’ photos here so you can see what some of us look like nowadays.
Thanks a lot for sharing your story with me. I'm really happy another brilliant group will be remembered forever. Would you like to send a message to It's Psychedelic Baby readers?
Jeremy: Hi PsB readers. Many thanks for taking the time to read through the reminiscences of our school days over 40 years ago. 1971 seems like an age ago now but I hope it gives you as much pleasure as it has for us trying to remember what happened then. There can’t be many bands that have to wait forty years for their first interview so many thanks to Hans and to Klemen at PsB for the opportunity.
Interview made by Klemen Breznikar/2013
© Copyright http://psychedelicbaby.blogspot.com/2013