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“You Didn’t Look Like a Drummer” (Part 2) - An interview with John Marshall.


by Trevor Bannister

March 15, 2019

In the second part of his interview with guest contributor Trevor Bannister John establishes himself on the 1960s London jazz and session scene and gets the call from Soft Machine.

You Didn’t Look Like a Drummer: Part 2

Our generation was very lucky. It was the Zeitgeist in the arts and there was so much exciting cross-fertilization of ideas. It was a case of, ‘do your own thing’, but ‘get it together’. The other great thing was the opportunity to play, which is so lacking now. I was very adaptable, liked different things and got to play with just about everybody which was fantastic. I could be depping in Acker Bilk’s trad band one night, playing with John Surman at Ronnie’s ‘Old Place’ the next and accompanying a singer at the new club in Frith Street the night after. I even played with Indo-Jazz Fusions to a crowd of 250,000 at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival on the same bill as Bob Dylan. The truth is that I get on with so many people and I’m good at juggling.

Dave Morse helped me tremendously to get to grips with what was happening in London and to learn ‘my trade’ with gigs. You soon realise that it’s case of ‘wheels within wheels’; being in the right place and at the right time to meet the right people.  I worked with a group called the Trebletones backing the singer, Helen Shapiro and then found myself doing a lot of Jamaican ‘Bluebeat’ things with Tony Washington, a piano player; ‘Bluebeat’ had a particular rhythmic feel. One day we got a call from the fantastic guitarist Ernest Ranglin who was producing a session at Olympic Studios, then near Baker Street, for the singer Millie Small. I was totally overawed by all these heavy-weight session guys. We did about six different titles that day and one of them was ‘My Boy Lollipop’. It came out soon after and reached #2 in the UK charts. I remember hearing it on the radio and telling my girlfriend of the time, ‘That’s me!’

‘Fat’ John Cox had a fantastic band at the Café des Artistes in Fulham Road; a heavy-weight band with Tony Roberts and Ray Warleigh on saxes, Chris Pyne on trombone, Peter Lemer on piano and Danny Thompson on bass.  They played a lot of Mingus numbers which I absolutely loved as he was a great favourite of mine. All these guys doubled as members of Alexis Korner’s band and it was through them that I joined Alexis to fill-in while his regular drummer went to the States for a few months. Herbie Goines, a very good singer was on vocals and apart from the blues we did some interesting instrumental things.

When that finished, Chris Pyne, put a word in for me when Eric Galloway, the resident big band leader at Butlin’s Filey, needed to change drummers mid-way through the summer season. That was a brilliant move. It was a very good band and it had an enormous pad; I remember that Eric pulled out things on the last night that we’d never seen before.  You can either treat those gigs as a bit of a holiday or you can do some work. I chose the latter and used the time to polish-up my reading, a decision which truly paid off when I got back to London. Following a call from guitarist Phil Lee I played a gig with Graham Collier’s band, which worked out really well as I could read and take care of everything. Graham’s original material had a Mingus feel and used lots of different time-signatures, which was unusual at that time and which I liked very much. The line-up was pretty fluid as Graham was always looking for good new players, but at various times it included Phil Lee on guitar, Harry Beckett or sometimes Ian Carr on trumpet and flugelhorn, John Mumford, Mike Gibbs or Nick Evans on trombone, Elton Dean or Stan Sulzmann on saxes and Frank Ricotti on vibes. Karl Jenkins was a major addition to the band – a phenomenal talent! He played piano, baritone and soprano saxes and oboe. I can’t think of anyone else, and there aren’t many, who can play the oboe with such energy and expression, and yet he’s very self-deprecating about his oboe playing. I listen to some of the things he played then and think, ‘Crikey, he’s fantastic!’

I’ve already mentioned the peculiar ‘wheels-within-wheels’ that operate within the jazz scene – here’s another classic example. I first played with Jack Bruce in the Mike Gibbs Orchestra on its first gig at Lancaster University –that was one hell of a band! Amazing! EVERYBODY was in it! EVERYBODY!

Around that time Karl and I had an occasional group. Ian Carr, who often depped for Harry Beckett in Graham’s band and who we also knew from Mike’s Orchestra, liked Karl’s compositions and what we were doing.  Having decided to leave the Rendell/Carr Quintet he asked us to join him to form Nucleus, which, as you might say, worked out pretty well.

Jack would sometimes dep with Ian, so as well as the Gibbs’ connection, we also got to know each other through Nucleus. When Jack was setting up his first solo album, ‘Songs for a Tailor’, he called me, along with guitarist Chris Spedding, another alumnus from Nucleus and the Gibbs’ band, to do a couple of tracks. From there he formed his quartet with the incredible Graham Bond alto and organ. He could play them separately, or at the same time! We had a fantastic time, but it was a stormy set-up. Jack was notably unpredictable, and Graham became so impossible that in the end Jack had to get rid of him. Everything was going along nicely with the three of us when Corky Laing and Leslie West from Mountain arrived from the States to record in London. Jack phoned one Monday afternoon to say that he was folding the band and joining them. That was it!

He wouldn’t have realised at the time, but he actually did me a favour, as it meant that I was free to join Soft Machine. That evening Soft’s manager, Sean Murphy, approached me at Ronnie’s, where I’d ended up after calling into a Gerrard Street pub where Carl Palmer was doing a drum clinic for Paiste Cymbals. ‘Would you like to join Soft Machine?’ he asked. ‘OK, let’s see what happens,’ I thought to myself. That was in 1972; forty-six years later I’m still finding out!

In truth, I didn’t know much about Soft Machine and when I asked around about the band, the answer always came back that it was ‘on its last legs’. Their most recent tour of Maison de la Culture had ended on a sour note when the audiences regularly walked out in protest at Elton Dean and Phil Howard playing free. There was a sort of funereal atmosphere when I met Elton, Hugh Hooper and Mike Ratledge for our first rehearsal, but things picked up after that. We finished recording the 5th album, played a Sunday lunchtime concert at Chelsea Arts College and then hit the road with three weeks in Italy before moving on to France.

A personal disaster struck in southern Italy. My wife Maxi and I had decided to take-in the sights around Naples before the second leg of the tour and stopped at a little restaurant for a seafood meal – she contracted typhoid and I got hepatitis. I didn’t feel at all well, but somehow got through the tour. Maxi came back to London via Munich, in order to organise moving home to Southfields from Highgate. How she did while being so ill I don’t know – then after the move she was admitted to St George’s Hospital in Tooting. 

Elton left and Karl Jenkins came in. His focus was moving more and more towards composition and so we saw the need for a new soloist to cover the gap left by Elton. That’s when Allan Holdsworth joined Soft Machine.
We first met at a Musicians’ Union Workshop shortly after he came down to London from Bradford – he’d just recorded a great album, “’Igginbottom’s Wrench” with his band ‘Igginbottom – and I asked him to play with us. Karl re-wrote the entire book with new pieces of his own, plus some nice pieces by Mike Ratledge like ‘The Man Who Waved at Trains’, which is on our new album ‘Hidden Details’.

We set off on our first tour of the States in 1975 with a new sense of focus and direction. Sadly, our record label, Columbia, decided to choose a moment midway through the tour to cull bands rated at less than ‘mega-status’ and pulled the funding. We covered the east coast and made some great fans who turned up in droves with their vintage albums to be signed when we went back for the Fiftieth Anniversary Tour of 2018, but never got to the west. Meanwhile, our gear was stuck in the States and ended up being impounded by Customs so you can imagine the shenanigans in trying to get it back. There was a lesson in all this; if you want to be ‘gigantic’, you’ve got to have a singer, unless of course, you’re Weather Report or John McLaughlin. Soft Machine didn’t carry that sort of weight.

The tour however, served to raise Allan’s profile and he became such hot property that Tony Williams wanted to sign him for Lifetime. To everyone’s relief he announced that he would stay with Soft Machine, only to change his mind a few days ahead of our next tour. Sean Murphy found a note on his office desk – ‘Gone to the States. Allan’.

‘Allan,, we’re supposed to be starting a tour at the end of the week!’ I explained when I called him in the States.‘Gazeuse!’ came the reply in his broad Yorkshire accent (‘Gazeuse’ was Allan’s favourite epithet. He’d found on a Perrier bottle, liked the sound of it and used at every opportunity.) ‘Gazeuse. What’s happening? I’m here.’ We had to cancel the tour. But the upshot was that Allan recommended John Etheridge and ‘the rest’, as you might say, ‘is history’.

John Marshall in action with Allan Holdsworth, Pat Smythe and Daryl Runswick at Chateauvallon in 1974.

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