“Alexis Korner”

2007 re-mastered CD Liner Notes

by Neil Slaven


To be Alexis Korner required balls of steel. They were necessary to bolster the mental strength he needed to stand upright in the howling winds of possibility and disaster that generally prevailed. He’s become inured to inclement weather. Sometimes, to see him about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, only to emerge with the prize, was like watching a Saturday-morning serial at the flicks, as each episode ended with a promise of certain death for the hero, only for the handsome devil to be rescued to fight again the following week. And Alexis was a handsome devil.


 He guarded his secrets well, the mechanisms by which he kept himself afloat. One was the ability to spot a good wheeze in the making, a gig or a record date that would attract the extras, the hotels, the meals, the revels that made the gypsy life bearable. Another was not to get bogged down in the detail, because things always worked themselves out in the end. Worrying only impended the enjoyment. Time and again, and it’ll happen here, he threw people into imposible situations just to see how they would acquit themselves under pressure. He, of course, functioned under the same pressure virtually every day of his clamorous life.


 Nineteen seventy was a good year for Alexis, although it may not have seemed so some of the time. His band New Church was a success on the Continent, but work permit trouble over Danish guitarist Peter Thorup’s entry into Britain hampered home gigs. The principal reason for optimism was the creation midyear of the Collective Consciousness Society – or CCS -  the brainchild of bandleader and arranger John Cameron and RAK label boss Mickie Most. Since Alexis’s manager, Phil Roberge, was already negotiationg with Most over a recording contract for the Korner/Thorup duo, the installation of Alexis as the front man and figurehead of CCS brought two projects to a satisfying conjunction.


 In the studio control room, two men’s aspirations were realised: John Cameron was inspired by the recent success of US trumpeter/bandleader Don Ellis, who with his 21-piece orchestra had made stomping big band music acceptable to the Haight-Ashbury generation, while Mickie Most would add another arrow to his impressive quiver of hits for one-year-old label. Ellis called his music “a new way of swinging” and that was something worth emulating. An album was recorded between May and September 1970 but more importantly, a first single, a daringly big and beaty version of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, entered the Top 30 in the first week of November and stuck around until January 1971. Later, it would become the theme tune for a reinvigorated Top Of The Pops.


 One reason the CCS album sessions took so long was that in August, Alexis, pianist Chris McGregor and bass player Colin Hodgkinson jetted off to Bermuda to cut an(other) album. Alexis spent a lot of time rustling up recording work, but once in a while something dropped into his lap and this was one of those happy circumstances. This project emerged from the fevered brow of Jean-Paul Salvatori, a Corsican who used his loaded ladyfriend’s money to learn about record production while spending time in some of the most expensive studios on both sides of the Atlantic. He also decleared himself as “an Alexis Korner fan in a fierce way”. Ah, those mad, romantic French! The ZBM Studio may not have been a state-of-the-art facility, but it was in Bermuda and that was a principal plus-factor.


 Colin Hodgkinson had been the latest recruit to New Church, brought in for a December 1969 gig in Hamburg when Andy Fraser’s commitment to Free meant he was unable to make the date. Born in Peterborough in October 1945, Colin had begun messing around with a guitar after seeing Bill Haley & The Comets in Rock Around The Clock. Then, a few years later, he saw a local group called The Rebel Rousers, whose bass player, Rex Gates, took the lead in a version of the Duane Eddy hit that had given the band its name. “The minute I heard that instrument, I wanted to play it,” Colin told Pete Bell, “it was like that.” Gates would later change to playing drums and was in a trio with Colin when they went North to play at The Starlight in Redcar.


 There he met saxophonist Ron Asprey, then in a band called River’s Invitation. The two hit it off and spent time at Asprey’s Middlesborough home, as Ron helped Colin to learn to read music. They got jobs in the Eric Delaney Band and spent the summer of 1969 playing a sixteen-week summer season at the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth. In their afternoons the pair would go down to the theatre and record ideas and tunes on a Grundig tape recorder. They left Delaney in September and rented a room together in Earls Court. Ron knew Ray Warleigh, then in New Church, who told him of Alexis’s need for a bass player. A tape of one of their Bournemouth recordings was sent over for Alexis’s approval, which duly arrived.


 “He thought this was great and he asked me to join. The first gig we did was in Vienna. I said, ‘When are we going to rehearse?’ He said, ‘I’ll sort something out, you’ll be alright.’ There were two thousand people there. I’d never met the band. In the end, there was no rehearsal at all. I just got out there and went on. And he said, ‘You know, a bit Bluesy, just follow and you’ll be okay.’ I said, ‘What do you want me to play?’ He said, ‘Anything you like.’ I couldn’t believe it. So we got playing and I’m following this stuff… I’m pretty edgy, of course, because I’d never done it before. And then he suddenly said, ‘Let’s have a bass solo.’ Now I didn’t really do them, but he just announced it. I’d been messing about with a couple of Robert Johnsons by then and I’d been experimenting with ‘32/20 Blues’, so I just did it and it went down really well. And I often wondered later, ‘Is this great psychology on his part, or is he just really loose?”


 Looseness was a quality that informed pianist Chris McGregor’s approach to music, which combined the principles of free Jazz as practised by Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor with the Kwela music of the townships of South Africa, where he was born on Christmas Eve, 1936. He began music lessons at the age of five and took a Bachelor of Music degree at the University of Cape Town. While there, he became involved with the local Jazz scene that flourished in clubs like The Ambassador’s and The Vortex. In 1962, he took a band to a Jazz festival in Soweto, where he met musicians Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo and Mongezi Feza.


 The following year he put together a big band that he called The Blue Notes, which, in 1964, he brought to France to play at the Antibes Jazz Festival. Winning approval there, the band based itself in Zurich for a while, before moving to London in the Autumn of 1965. Through the rest of the 60s, the original members of The Blue Notes went their own ways, forming new alliance. McGregor began to collaborate with John Surman, Evan Parker, Marc Charing and Harry Becket, and in 1969 put together the Brotherhood of Breath, an amalgam of British and South African musicians. Why he should choose to jet off to Bermuda to make an album with Alexis is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the temptation of a fortnight of sun and sessions was an offer he couldn’t refuse.


 Just to give the pot a vigorous stir, an American guitarist, Larry Power, and drummer, Jack Brooks, were flown in to vamp when ready.


 That was bizarre,” Hodgkinson later told Alexis’s biographer, Harry Shapiro, “it was done in the basement of a radio station. We had a couple of weeks out there, swimming in the morning and working in the afternoon. A strange album for me, not really a Blues album at all.” Talking with legendary NME writer Roy Carr after the album had been recorded, Alexis thought that the producer “…has done a lot for my limited techinical abilities…he hears things in a different way from how I hear them. It’s got to the point where Jean-Paul has got me doing things that I haven’t done before.” Hmmm, sounds ominous.


 Okay, let’s be honest. No matter how beautiful the setting, and even though the snorkelling was doubtless enjoyable, this was never going to be a benchmark in Alexis’s recording career. His evident willingness to expolre uncharted – if not forbidden – territory was commendable, and typical of a man who was always open to the experimental rather than the mundane. Alexis’s comments to Roy Carr were characteristically honest – his technical abilities were limited. But in being coaxed to do things he’d never done before, he’d perhaps opened himself up to a betrayal of trust by his self-confessed “fierce fan”. It was a well-known fact in Alexis’s world that, on the whole, fans should know their place. No matter how benevolent the intention, to impose impossible challenges on a talent you professed to admire, wasn’t a recipe for success.


 The intention seems to have been to fashion a sandwich of bizarrey eclectic songs within slices of Alexis’s usual fare, The Blues. Big Bill Broonzy’s Stum Blues and That’s All, a somewhat secularised Gospel song, find him at ease with his material. Even so, he seems to step over an invisible boundary in the latter songs when he admits, “I really dig all that eclectic stuff like hell, but then I also dig this shit because we play it so well.” The record opens with his rather self-conscious version of Vera Hall Ward’s Black Woman, first collected in the field by Alan Lomax in 1948. Lomax recorded her and it again eleven years later, under its more general title, Wild Ox Moan.


 That’s as much Blues as was allowed on the album. Therefore, with the exception of Nick Drake’s Saturday Sun, songs were provided by the artist, the producer and their associates. Frankie Diamond, “an angel in blue jeans,” scuttled along amiably, constantly threatened by relentless percussion while telling the story of a gambler “in every way a winner, from his forehead to his feet.” A bit pendestrain by comparison but making a virtue of brevity, Clay House Inn sells itself as a venue (possibly musical) for all-comers – “high or mighty, thick or thin, sure to be somewhere we can fit you in.” Continuity wasn’t helped by drummer Brookes, whose constant paddling around his kit (very much in vogue, unfortunately, due to Blood, Sweat & Tears) was often more distraction than accompaniment.


 Elsewhere, Alexis doesn’t sound entirely comfortalbe as he talk/sings his way through the producer’s You Can Make It Like You Want It To Be, which reaches its climax in a welter of choral harmonies, including plank-spanker Joe Walsh, apparently. Once again, its message of homiletic profundity is very much of its time and at odds with today’s cynicism and worship of self. Sadly, the title works equally well as a paean to social responsibility or a justification for personal aggrandisement. Moving along, there seems to be a partial tribute to The Band in Gold, but Alexis wasn’t Levon Helm or Richard Manuel.


 Not for the first time, Chris McGregor’s sorta-Gospel piano chords are deployed to introduce Nick Drake’s Saturday Sun and Alexis puts in a good job, even though the arrangement hinted at a little more portentousness than he was generally willing to deliver. Both McGregor and Brooks are in maximum-fidget mode for I Don’t Know, a Korner-Thorup song which Snape would revisit a couple of years hence. Alexis was responsible for both Am I My Brother’s Keeper and Stop Playing Games, and this must be where he was doing things that he hadn’t done before. It’s worth remarking that he didn’t do anything like this again. And you can read what you will into that.


 In its newly-augmented form, this Expanded Edition gives a broader and more balanced picture of Alexis’s music at that time. It would apper his visited Bermuda more than once, and that his subsequent visit(s) produced rahter more of the sort of material we’ve come to expect from him. It Could Happen To You and The Same For You appear to be rough mixes of two more band songs, with the latter containing elements that could even be associated with Captain Beefheart. Love Is Gonna Go, with Colin Hodgkinson’s bass keeping time, is one of three tracks previously heard on Boolteg Him, the others being Mance Lipscomb’s Evil Hearted Woman and an almost jolly version of Hell Hound On My Trail, sung by Peter Thorup. Thorup also takes the lead on James Tayor’s Lo & Behold – another number later recorded by Snape, and included on Accidentally Born In New Orleans (check out CMDDD 1479).


 The Thief is an intriguing song, dramatic in both its message and its performance, that Alexis would cut again in 1973 with a string quartet, as one side of a single released only in Germany. To these ears, it’s probably the best track here. Closely followed by his version of Muddy Water’s Louisiana Blues, with tasteful slide guitar and violin (the latter possibley wielded by Nick Pickett). That leaves relaxed run-throughs of Make Me A Pallet On The Floor and Doggone My Goodluck Soul, the latter sung to the tune of Corrine Corrina.


 On his return to the UK, Aleixs dived back into the CCS schedule. By the times his Bermuda album was released – on the Metronome label in West Germany, in June 1971, and a month later on RAK in the UK – another CCS single, Walking, had already made the Top 10, and sessions had begun for a second album. Interestingly, one of the songs was called Chaos, Can’t We Ever Get It Back. We can only wonder where the idea for it came from.


Niel Slaven


“Alexis Korner”