Beyond the Seaweed Farm

Journeys Beyond the Seaweed Farm – Memoirs of the Expanding Flan

as collated by J P Collins

 

Preface

Archie Tump, also known as The Expanding Flan, passed away unexpectedly in May 1994. Through a connection with his second cousin once removed, I acquired several volumes of his writings, which I endeavoured to restore into some semblance of order. The sections I was able to recover from his belongings were in various states, some with the writing rendered unreadable and others with the pages either stuck together or covered with unintelligible gobbledegook.

It is the latter that I have reproduced here.

 

Acknowledgements

Heartfelt thanks to the real originators of this sorry tale, not least Steven Wilson, Malcolm Stock and Alan Duffy, who just might not be an imaginary friend.

 

1971

My first memories of Solomon St Jemain were not gained in the most salubrious of circumstances. I do remember staring upwards and thinking here was someone I would rather not bump into late at night. But then, nor would I have chosen to associate our first meeting with the unnerving experience of peeling my own mouth from a threadbare carpet, rousing my slumped body and discerning from the subdued voices around me that, somehow, three days had passed without my knowledge.

It quickly became apparent that I was in the way, but I knew there was little I could do about it. As I marshalled my bleary eyes into something approaching focus, I saw only a character looming darkly in front of me like a Hammer Count on his day off. “Who the fuck are you?” he asked, without really expecting an answer. Or at least waiting for one, as he stepped over me and went through the door I had been blocking.

St Jemain’s pressing need was to collect a guitar from the attic room of Mr Jelly (with whom I had been evaluating a number of alcoholic concoctions what seemed only a split second before), which was oddly fortunate otherwise we might not have met at all. Realising with quiet distress that this was in all likelihood the person Mr Jelly had suggested I might want to impress with my skills, I hauled myself to my feet.

By the time he emerged from the room, I managed to corral a few relevant things to say from the snatches of thought running roughshod across my still-surfacing consciousness. A flicker of recognition appeared on his face. “You’re the drummer,” he stated flatly, as he made his way back down the stairs with a gecko-skinned guitar case under his arm.

St Jemain’s abruptness phased me slightly at the time: I was only to learn much later that I had already been discussed, and indeed greatly missed, having already expounded on my competence and agreed to participate in rehearsals now several days in the past. No such coherent memories were yet to force their way back into my dimly lit awareness; however I did know that I was staggeringly hungry, so I made my way downstairs in the hope of finding some food.

These sterling efforts on my part were not in vain. As I stumbled into the kitchen, a kindly gentleman immediately handed me a freshly made cup of tea and some buttered toast, in testament to what must have been my appearance. Finding a seat at the table (no small challenge), I remained until I had worked through several more rounds: not least to get my thoughts in order, but also to repay in conversation the generosity of Timothy Tadpole-Jones, as my good Samaritan introduced himself.

Thus I learned the events of the last few days. Item one: becoming lost on my way home from central London, I had taken temporary residence in a house occupied by a locally renowned, but to myself unfamiliar, musical combo. Resident on the ground floor were the aforementioned Mr Jelly, bass player, and Sir Tarquin Underspoon, whose keyboarding ancestry I was told, claimed a very distant connection to Bach. Occupants of the floor above were Mr Tadpole-Jones, a shy maestro at most instruments but most likely to be found playing acoustic guitar; Sebastian Tweetle-Blampton III, whose prowess as sound engineer I was quickly to appreciate; and of course the brooding, charismatic Solomon St Jemain, front man and generally accepted leader of the troupe.

Item two concerned the small matter resulting in the demise of the previous drummer: something to do with a transport café, a supposed lady friend and a pack of sausages.

Several days after these initial encounters, and having decided (given that I had not already been thrown out) to hang around a little longer, I finally met Sir Tarquin. It was undoubtedly his musical prowess that first drew me to his door: from outside, my hand somehow restrained from knocking, I recognised the haunting notes of Molotov’s prelude in D Minor, which then segued into an evocative rendition of a Slovak folk piece. As I listened, it appeared that a cornered cat jumped onto the piano keys: a disembodied voice was crying in a most flustered manner, while the poor mog’s yowling and screeching were accompanied by several, clearly unsuccessful attempts to knock it from whichever perch it had managed to reach.

GET OFF! GET OFF! BANG! MIAAAAAOOOWWW!

The sound broke off and the door flew open almost simultaneously, revealing a highly perturbed and hair-raisingly skinny chap. He was wearing a long coat and looking this way and that, like the frontispiece of a macabre cuckoo clock. As he saw me, his mood shifted dramatically. “Drummer?” he asked, to which I meekly nodded a reply. “Fabulous,” he said, before inviting me into his room to discuss such things as global politics and the price of hake.

In the many hours of conversation that ensued, I did not once see a cat.

The first band practice I was to attend took place at a cellar bar in Soho which, I was told, had been very recently vacated due to complications arising from an unlikely bet and the subsequent ‘unveiling’ of a rather well known tabloid editor. Descending the steps of the now-defunct establishment I was greeted with the sound of multifarious instruments being tuned simultaneously. At least that was my initial impression. Luckily, I failed to comment before realising that I had arrived half way through what was an extended musical piece.

While this caught me somewhat by surprise, such was the nature of music in those times. Nothing was taken for granted, anything was possible, conventional structures were being done away with and the very boundaries of musicality were extending way beyond what had previously been considered possible (or indeed, advisable). Professional musicians across the country were throwing away their rule books and starting again, whether it made sense or not. Who was to say – for myself there appeared plenty to gain from simple participation. I can’t say I spared much of a thought for what might have been pushed aside.

Back in the cellar bar, I stood quietly next to S T-B as he played the mixing desk like a church organ. From within the cacophony I was able to pick out some of the themes espoused by Sir Tarquin a few days before, overlaid this time by Timothy Tadpole-Jones’ sitar. Mr Jelly was playing bass with his toes, and St Jemain seemed content to hold something of a rhythm with tambourine and voice. All in all, I said to myself, it was not an altogether unpleasant sound.

Nobody seemed to have any intention of stopping so I decided to seize the moment, as well as my drumsticks. I pattered out a random combination of beats on the edge of the stage which seemed to fit nicely enough, at first playing quietly and then with more urgency as I found a groove. Through the smokescreen of noise I saw clear shapes forming, jostling and buffeting against each other like the carriages of a cartoon train. All I had to do was hold on! HOLD ON! I was hitting anything within reach, even as a banshee wail escaped my lungs!

Returning to my senses, I noticed everyone else had gone quiet. “WHAT. WAS. THAT?” said nobody in particular.

“I don’t know,” I said, to nobody in particular.

I glanced at St Jemain, mistaking his snarl for a smile. “I have a van,” I said.

With this apparent, I was in.

 

1972

We – though I use the term guardedly, given my clear reputation as something of a malingerer – spent the year following my arrival building the profile of the (still-unnamed) band I had been lucky enough to stumble upon. There was scant time to do much else between the incessant rehearsing, development of new ideas and testing them out on the live circuit. Apart, that is, from the equally endless periods of loafing around, embarking down various recreational avenues and sleeping them off afterwards.

From a sonic perspective we drew from the widest possible range of influences, from central African cave songs to Inuit funeral poetry. Not everything worked, nor did anyone believe was it supposed to, as a spirit of experimentation outweighed any desire to impose any boundaries, musical or otherwise. We did, however, draw the line at washboard and spoons.

In the evenings we headed out to watch some stupendously talented performers – like Donovan, Soft Machine, Pink Floyd, acts we were lucky enough to call our peers. All the while we were carving an enviable niche of our own, as we honed our own skills. Initially, given the oft-addled state of the audience, all we had to do was turn up. But they, and we in turn, quickly became more demanding.

Several, now seen as classic tracks were to emerge from this period. Not least ‘Wastecoat’: a solo guitar vignette from St Jemain, employing a variety of guitar tunings, effects and methods of playing. We also incorporated poetry reading to lighten the mood, though the subject matter rarely achieved that. The centre piece of most gigs was undoubtedly ‘Ectoplasm Spasm’, proudly boasting a 14 minute instrumental solo: in part this was a flight of pure fancy, in part it was carefully contrived to ensure that every one of us had time to visit the toilet.

Of course, no band of the time would have been seen dead without a light show. In this regard we engaged the services of Linton Samuel Dawson, whose forté was manipulating an array of coloured oils to achieve a seamless harmony between his visual projections and our own musical soundscapes. Often operating in a near-trance, his works of unparalleled beauty were interrupted only when the whole affair (and sometimes Linton himself) burst into flames. In general most of the audience survived such incidents unscathed; indeed, scorch marks were to become a trophy for many of those who insisted on standing near the back.

These were exciting times, and few could help but be drawn into the tangled web of musical creativity and the substance abuse with which it was inevitably entwined. Alcohol-soaked, lugubriously drawn out days extended to weeks, passing in a slow-flowing blur of transitions between venues, agencies, parties and everything in between. From the public perspective, things unfolded with a swan-like timing that appeared perfectly serene on the surface, but below the water line our chaotic lives continued to kick along unabated.

We only came unstuck on rare occasions, such as when, due to an excess of costumes, we had to resort to multiple taxis to get to a venue on the Charing Cross Road. The traffic that evening was even more terrible than usual. It was customary to be a little late, but equally, it was generally seen as obligatory to actually attend one’s own sound checks. When we arrived there was barely time to plug in: as fortune had it however, an array of musical equipment was already set up so we went with that. Such was our attitude that we thought nothing of it, kicking off with a lengthy piece despite the fact that St Jemain was yet to turn up.

With Timothy Tadpole-Jones filling in on vocal duties until his lordship arrived, we played the performance of our lives! We swooped and we soared through prototypic versions of pieces that had yet to leave the rehearsal rooms, including what was to become ‘And The Swallows Dance Above The Sun’ and ‘Queen Quotes Crowley’. Clearly the music had its desired effect, as the crowd stood transfixed throughout. They didn’t even react as we took the decision to quit while we were ahead, given the continued absence of St Jemain.

As things turned out, we left not a moment too soon. Our departure was hastened by the arrival of another band (themselves even further delayed by the traffic) just as we came off stage, and the non- coincident realisation that we had been in the wrong venue all along. They did seem a little upset, all the more understandable given how we grabbed the last couple of bottles of their red wine rider as we left through the fire exit.

We found St Jemain at the house, himself not long returned having played a solo set at the right venue. His expression bore a strange resemblance to that of the band we had stood in for, which even the offer of free wine could not displace. As he brooded in silence, perhaps we were seeing the first signs of his discontent approaching, but we didn’t realise it at the time. Far too much was happening in the present, for anyone to worry about what the future might hold.

 

1973

Despite our collective desire to remain nameless, a band name was becoming a necessity, particularly given the request to tour in support of a number of our heroes at the Festival of Expanding Consciousness in Paris. The Edgar Broughton Band and Man were going to be there, and there was not one amongst us who didn’t see this as a big event. So we gave in to the demand and set about coming up with something appropriate.

This was no small endeavour, particularly given that our music had diverged significantly from its original roots since I had joined. Both psychedelia and eastern influences combined to form a mystical melange, which was difficult to articulate in words. As an homage to which and in keeping with the theme of the festival “The Incredible Expanding Mindfuck” seemed to resonate best, appropriately shortened (not least for our mothers) to IEM. This decided, we set about equipping the van for its journey across the channel: a complex task requiring new paintwork, faux-leather cushions and several hundredweight of silk.

Paris in the Spring… it did seem odd that, given the over-arching theme of the festival itself, the organisers refused to let us on stage until we agreed to play some short, ‘commercial’ numbers. Of course we agreed to this, and then proceeded to play a 40 minute long psychedelic improvisation. This opus was captured on cassette tape by Sebastian Tweetle-Blampton, and 11 minutes of itwere later released in all their glorious folly. Despite the name of the festival, few in the 60,000-strong audience seemed to want their consciousnesses expanding. Indeed, you can hear them booing if you listencarefully.

Still, we got a kick out of it – and it gave us the beginnings of an international reputation which we would later build on. Our pleasure following the festival was curtailed somewhat suddenly however, through circumstances that nobody could have predicted. The context was innocuous enough: late one afternoon, just as the sun began to cool and beneath the broadening shade of lime trees that were so typical of Paris, we were making final arrangements for a smaller, hastily arranged gig somewhere in the 17th arrondissement.

According to Sir Tarquin, things actually unfolded something like this:

Scene: A Parisian street with glass-walled bistros, an art nouveau metro station, large women with small dogs, noise, bustle and the occasional turd. Parked alongside the metro station is The Van, a trusty vehicle which has carried our perpetrators many thousands of miles around the London area and, for some inexplicable reason, to Loughborough.

Across the road is venue for the evening, a more bohemian looking café with small round tables spilling onto the narrow pavement.

The Van is positioned centre stage with The Metro behind; The Band are sitting at tables stage right; a number of Parisian bit players are milling about, laughing with gusto, kissing, waving arms animatedly etc.

Enter stage left: Gendarme, who approaches The Van and circles it appraisingly. He purses his lips as he considers the registration, paces the length of the vehicle as if measuring it out, and peers through the window, the beatnik sight of instruments, cushions etc. triggering a somewhat disdainful expression. Having considered his position momentarily, he pulls a notebook from his top pocket and extracts a pencil from his pantalons in a well-rehearsed, fluid motion.

Equally fluid is Solomon St Jemain, who rises from where he was sitting and approaches the gendarme. Theyexchange a few words. Hardly (so it appears to onlookers) waiting for an answer, St Jemain proceeds to the roof of The Van and sits cross-legged for a short while. M. le Gendarme continues, by turns, to berate and then ignore his quarry, who responds in kind, though the exact content of the exchanges is lost on the onlookers. This latter group is starting to grow, out of both curiosity and the certain feeling that something untoward is about tohappen.

Never one to pass on the opportunity to reach an audience, St Jemain rises to his feet. Through coincidence, serendipity or sheer bad luck, another police car traverses the scene. And stops.

The crowd grows. St Jemain builds on his theme. Les policiers deviennent de plus en plus agités.

“I WILL NOT BE MOVED!” cries our hero, even as the gendarmes surround the van and produce their weaponry. He moves. From van, and into police car. Without any further aggravation.

The 21 days St Jemain spent at the pleasure of our Gallic cousins turned out to be a blessing in disguise, given that during his incarceration he developed a considerable proportion of the ideas for our first album. Most poignant given recent events was perhaps ‘Nations at Peace’, together with fully fleshed out versions of ‘Gondola’, ‘Queen Quotes Crowley’ and ‘Ectoplasm Spasm’.

He was also to acquire a taste for tripe.

As soon as St Jemain was back in the UK, we converged on one of the country houses owned by the Underspoon dynasty to further flesh out and finalise the album. On arrival, I was somewhat taken aback to discover T T-J had arrived with his entire entourage of pet ferrets, which proceeded to terrorise anything they could find – not least the house cat, a rather oversized thing which had shown little intention to move until a few moments prior to their arrival.

This did not prove to be the most traumatic experience for the poor beast during our stay. In a moment of euphoric clarity brought on by a uniquely flavoured omelette, Sebastian T-B tied a dulcimer hammer to the cat’s tail, having carefully positioned microphones at strategic places around the house and up the stairs. The poor cat’s mood quickly shifted from one of disdain to genuine terror, as it realized it was not going to be rid of the bloody thing however much it twisted.

All the same the resulting sound was surprisingly rhythmic, and it was fortunate that Sebastian managed to get what he wanted in a single take. Not least for the cat.

 

1974-1975

1974 was a year in which. Not. Much. Happened. That is, before the incident with the shop.

The creation of recorded output at a prolific rate was a continuing theme; now I was settled in, the position St Jemain required of me included the ability to conjure up all manner of rhythmic accompaniments at will, to second guess his every thought, and not to rock the boat. All of which I was content to accept, if it meant I could stay. While not the most ambitious of people, I nonetheless believed that IEM offered the best chance of success I was likely to have.

Nor was I alone in such a belief. As I was learning, for all their talents and idiosyncrasies, the rest of St Jemain’s motley crew were similarly inclined to go with the flow. Not that it was an easy ride: when we weren’t composing or recording we spent time on the road, sleeping in either the van or one of the many esoteric bed and breakfast haunts that artists such as we tended to frequent.

To reduce the potential for claustrophobia we conjured a number of entertainments. Popular pastimes included enticing small furry animals into our grasp before testing their prowess in a maze carefully constructed by Linton Dawson; creating small explosive devices out of carefully blown eggs and warm paraffin; and an all-consuming obsession whilst on the road with pieces of paper with the word ‘towel’ written on them.

Not all of our adventures were an unmitigated success, however. And so I must set the record straight about what actually happened at the shop, given the quantity of adverse press coverage it caused, some of which was (to be fair) justified.

I am forced to acknowledge that, even as we released the latch, we should have realised something was amiss. We were aware that our good friend the owner would have been more than happy to accept an IOU pending payment for the bottle of Bells. We also knew that while the door might have been firmly bolted from the front, a key to the back door could be found behind the guttering of the downpipe in the backyard. Indeed, our only error of judgement was assuming that said owner was away on holiday, based upon which we quite unanimously agreed to enter the carefully boarded establishment.

Had we only left, there and then. But Mr Jelly’s idea that we should drink a toast to absent friends was met with unanimous approval. The second toast was to absent enemies, and the third to the general metaphysical concept of absence… The plan was not to stay, but what can one say when sometimes, there are little voices inside your head saying something should not happen, and other little voices saying the same thing should carry on, it is already probably too late. Particularly when the little voices in my head started arguing with Sir Tarquin’s little voices, which were being contradicted in equal measure by the little voices from St Jemain.

Suffice to say that after a number of bottles had been consumed, all with an appropriate IOU, we agreed we should not try to move too far until the morning.

What happened next we can only speculate upon: a reconstruction of events would likely see the rightful owner arriving a few hours later to discover five rather dubious looking types, thankfully fast asleep and surrounded by empty whisky receptacles. From our own, blissfully ignorant perspective, we opened our bleary eyes to the sight of several boys in blue who, like the actual shop owner, were in no mood to compromise.

What our good friend had failed to communicate (we were later to learn) was his rapid departure some weeks previously, due to involvement in a situation he felt wise to review from an overseas perspective.

For St Jemain, it was something of a surprise to see the inside of a prison again.

Despite the inevitable delay caused by court cases, time served etc, by January 1975 we had struck a deal with the Jefferson-Bryce label. The album release followed shortly after: ‘Ectoplasm Spasm’ emerged blinking into the sunlight, complete with 26-minute title track. Sales barely topped 1000, but the IEM became overnight sensations with the Paris underground.

Wanting to capitalise on the success, we immediately started developing themes for what would come next. Not least ‘Towel’, in homage to the 14 pieces of paper we had collected at that point. Indeed Solomon used one of them to write the words he spoke on the track.

 

1976

Coupled with the success of ‘Ectoplasm Spasm’, negotiations that had started with various labels, managers and other agencies finally came together in a one-hundred-and-ninety-date tour of Europe. No city was left untouched, though most agree the best gig by far took place in a remote barn 50 miles due south of Lodz.

It was on this tour I earned the nickname ‘Expanding Flan’, a story that merits repetition. A commonly held belief at the time was that certain kinds of mud, correctly applied, could be highly therapeutic to mind and body. A rest day in the south of France led us to a spa hotel offering such treatments; en route, it seemed like a good idea to enhance the experience with a number of alternative therapies we had procured from a swarthy looking type in back street Marseilles.

By the time I reached the treatment room, I confess to having difficulties focusing, though I judged myself in full control of my faculties – an error I was not to acknowledge until later. Entering a large bath of what looked like cattle slurry (and which didn’t smell that much better, to my addled sensory glands) I felt a certain unease. From where I was sitting it was plain that creatures in the muck were reaching out to envelop me and, I knew with absolute certainty, their solitary purpose was to attach themselves to my most sensitive parts and have their way!

As a result I was left with no choice but to take them on directly. I led the attack with appropriate zeal, cutting swathes through the tiny monsters and returning them to the hell-hole from whence they came.

At least, that’s how things appeared from my perspective. To colleagues, staff and bystanders in the street outside things unfolded somewhat differently – more like a half-naked man crashing through a window coated in green-brown gunk and landing in a small stone fountain. The icy water had a number of effects, bringing me to my senses and washing off the gelatinous goo, which was then whipped up by the fountain to form a creamy beige meringue with me at the centre. Exactly who coined the term ‘Expanding Flan’ I do not recall, but expanding flan I most certainly was.

Nobody in the band would deny that the extended tour took several years off their lives. Least of all St Jemain, whose habit of early rising became earlier and earlier, until he was getting up before we had even finished the performance of the night before. It was slightly alarming to see him heading off to do his ablutions in the middle of the set but fortunately we were able to accommodate this musically, and indeed his changing into a silk kimono became an expected part of the performance.

A number of dates of the tour were recorded, notably at the Élysées Montmartre and the barn in Poland that was, we believe by coincidence, demolished the day after (though some have said that certain tell-tale groans were evident on the master tapes).

The recordings were combined to form a double live LP called ‘My Head Has Not Become A Cricket Pitch (But Is Flying To Venus As We Speak)’, which was released at the end of the year. To our delight it sold better than ‘Ectoplasm Spasm’. The track ‘Mutate Baby’ quickly became our most requested live piece, not unsurprisingly given the amount of play it was garnering from a number of pirate radio stations.

By the end of the tour, despite the toll it had taken, we wasted no time before heading straight back to the studio and committing to tape some of the pieces we had been formulating both on- and off- stage. While the routine had become relentless to the point of gruelling, what St Jemain said still went – and nobody else was thinking too hard about the alternatives.

 

1977

Write, record, perform. Write, record, perform. Nothing more to add.

 

1978

Before a fall often comes the assumption that everything will maintain a steady course and all one has to do is keep the hand on the tiller. After a fall, the discovery that any change is, perhaps, for the best. But it is pointless getting too philosophical about this moment in our history, as that’s exactly what led to the fall in the first place.

Everything was going so well. We had a recording contract for three more albums, we were picking up regular radio play and our live performances were going from strength to strength, so we thought. We shared our time between our still-insalubrious house, various favoured drinking establishments, and recording studios that seemed only too ready to accommodate us (we were paying their bills, after all).

All the same, the road was most definitely becoming bumpier particularly for St Jemain. Most of us were content to keep on doing what we did well, not questioning too much in case we upset the golden goose. But while St Jemain certainly went through the motions, his increasingly withdrawn tendency, not to mention his habit of saying ‘um’ for no reason and his growing penchant for chewing small pieces of aluminium foil were all tell-tale signs that he was not completely happy.

Perhaps we should have taken more notice on the occasions when Solomon suddenly screamed, “I HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE!” and left the house, only to return several days later as though nothing had happened. For all we knew he was enacting episodes of performance art, for later use in his poetry. As for the rest of us, we had fame, we had money and we had each other – why rock the boat? As little was prompting us to look for change, so change came to us in a rather abrupt manner – as I will now recount.

On arrival at the 100 Club that particular evening we were accosted by a posse of spiky-haired, thuggish looking youths, who seemed intent on speaking to us, though we had little desire to talk to them. Without the slightest hesitation they followed us into the dressing room and started eating the sandwiches, talking and laughing as they went.

As St Jemain fumed, the rest of us shuffled and mumbled hoping the whole lot would somehow vanish. Frankly we did not know where to put ourselves, indeed for the longest time we weren’t even sure they were more than a figment of our imaginations. Finally, as one of the youths reached for yet another sausage and pineapple on stick, St Jemain snapped. “LOOK! WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT?” he screamed, his traditional glower replaced by what was approaching blind panic. Calmly, one of the types turned his head and said, “We’re the main band. We’re on after you.”

Most of us quickly realised at that point that turfing out the safety-pinned fellows was not an option, but St Jemain wasn’t having any of it. Indeed, he dispensed completely with the socially accepted nicety of announcing “Well, it’s you or me” and waiting an appropriate length of time. Instead, he turned his back (yes, his long, black coat tails did flick) and left, leaving the rest of us somewhat flummoxed.

We had little choice (we needed the money) but to go on regardless. I wouldn’t say we played the best performance of our lives that night. Looking back, it is evident that our whole raison d’être was on borrowed time, a fact that had already been taking its toll on Solomon. When we caught up with him later that evening, we found him tearing editions of Melody Maker into small strips which he was then rolling into pellets and lining up carefully in a row, before flicking them out of an open window. We sat and watched this ritual in silence, in part not knowing what to say, but also because it was strangely cathartic for all of us.

Finally, with no more pellets to flick, St Jemain stood up and with great effort, mustered his self control and started pronouncing something about going to France to find himself. He stood before us, tall and proud, and for a fleeting moment we recognised the St Jemain who had led us through so many years and countless experiences. “I declare,” he said with great effort… before deciding better of it. “Sod it,” he exhaled, grabbing his tobacco pouch and walking through the door, leaving behind the house, his band-mates, and everything he owned.

That was the last we saw of Solomon St Jemain for a long time.

 

1979

While we tried to keep things going, without a front man and lacking anybody else that could be called charismatic, it wasn’t long before we all went our separate ways. Timothy Tadpole-Jones and Sir Tarquin Underspoon retained a modicum of fame as a two-piece beat combo, while Mr Jelly found a job in a chip shop. Due to an unexpected bequeathment of a reasonable fortune I found I had no urgency to do anything, so I took up residence in a houseboat and drifted for a while.

Really.

Busking was never going to be my thing, but I did head into the suburbs on a number of occasions to participate in what was left of the club scene following the punk invasion. The few of us who remained true to our roots would gather at a number of establishments, scattered within walking distance of various tube stops across the North of London. One of the more frequented locations was the Green Dragon in central Ippenham, known by all as a den of iniquity and good music. It quickly became one of my more favoured establishments, not least because the owner was himself a drummer, which obviated the need to lug any kit.

Before long I established myself as a regular accompanist to the stream of irregular performers that would pass through its doors. On one such occasion I chanced on a young player, who was quietly cradling his guitar at the side of the stage. “What’s your name,” I asked. “Tree,” he said. “Tree what?” I said. “Porcupine Tree,” he responded, curtly.

I didn’t ask any more questions. But when he stepped up to perform shortly after, I found I didn’t need to. As he tuned his instrument there was no outer sign of zeal, nor arrogance. Just a sense that what he would play would be worth hearing.

And it certainly was.

What happened after that was very simple. We met, we talked, we got on, we started playing a few things together. I’m not sure how exactly things unfolded, but I do remember feeling a decided sense of rightness about introducing Tree to TT-J, Sir Tarquin and Mr Jelly, as demonstrated when we started to exchange ideas. The amount of genuine interest, and the care with which he pickedup our music was gratifying, and while his own music was unmistakeably Tree, there was plenty for the rest of us to get our teeth into.

While we had been off-circuit for some time we still had a number of outstanding invitations to perform, and Porcupine Tree kindly took it upon himself to make a few calls. It seemed barely a blink of an eye before we were hauling our equipment through the doors of a number of familiar haunts.

One thing we certainly were not was IEM, so once again we found ourselves without a name. When he had been asked what we were called (so Tree told us), he had assumed they meant his name.

Nobody had the energy, nor indeed the desire to say any different, so it stuck.

 

1981

It was four years before St Jemain finally returned. While his arrival was unexpected, I had been sending the occasional correspondence so I was not overly surprised when he turned up at the houseboat. He had no place to stay given that the house had long since been dispensed with, so I offered him a sofa in the studio, which he accepted without question.

St Jemain had changed, of that there was no doubt. His former aloofness had gone for good, but at the cost of a certain fiery spark. Indeed, his initial compliancy felt somewhat alarming – I spent the first few days waiting for him to snap out of it. Indeed, it was only much later that I finally came to terms with the new, malleable Solomon.

The other band members were of course delighted to re-acquaint themselves with our former front man. This did not mean we were immediately drawn towards a reunion: understandably perhaps, the ensemble felt in no rush to revisit what was now in the past. Seemingly, nor did St Jemain, who appeared content enough to go with the flow and join in with whatever made sense, if indeed it did make sense.

Most positively, St Jemain had lost none of his musical desire, nor as it would turn out, his creativity. He was quick to pick up a guitar, to speak over a melody, to offer constructive comment on some of the demo material we had been writing. Having satisfied myself that nothing untoward was going to happen, I introduced him to Tree.

The mix was explosive but not in a way anyone expected. The pair hit it off immediately, both in conversation and musically, with ideas sparking off each other like flint striking tinder. Over the weeks that followed we produced several hours of experimental tapes on the houseboat, not least a piece which gained the title ‘Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape’. It began with the realisation of a dream that Solomon had on his travels, “In which the whole world joins hands and becomes an enclosure into which no evil can penetrate.” Or something like that.

St Jemain’s new-born ethereal nature played off against Tree’s edgier, angsty youth, the latter so clearly illustrated with ‘Radioactive Toy’, described by Tree as a reaction to political boredom. “This piece could be about peace, love and harmony. Or it could be about nuclear genocide. You decide,” he said, with typically noncommittal defiance.

While Tree claimed to be helped in the ideas department by a fellow named Alan Duffy, we were never to meet him. We were, however, occasionally startled by Tree’s habit of engaging in quiet conversations when he thought there was nobody else present. At such times, the name ‘Alan’ was heard mentioned more than once.

Over the months that followed St Jemain’s gently heroic return, things settled into a not- uncomfortable groove. Before long the subject of IEM was finally broached: after discussion, we reached the simultaneous conclusion that running both projects in parallel would be a good wheeze. While “The Porcupine Tree Project” would take most of everyone’s time, IEM would run whenever there was a call on its services and it would pick up some of our more esoteric outputs.

To say this was one of the most creative periods of the band’s history would be entirely accurate. The houseboat became a residence for everyone, more because nobody thought to leave than any suggestion they should stay. Its makeshift studio was playing host to what were, in hindsight, some of the best recordings we have ever made. Nothing seemed impossible. The hours turned to days, nights, weeks and months, people seemingly sleeping where they sat, waking to pick up their instruments and continue where they had left off. And that was just to record one track.

Barely was there the time, nor indeed did anyone consider the necessity for such niceties as cooked food, illustrated by the cascade of packets and foil tins overflowing from the kitchen area. Hygiene had never been our strong point (indeed, I always felt it gave us a bit of an edge against whatever bugs were flying around). But to say things were getting out of hand would have shown true mastery of understatement.

We were oblivious of the mess. Unfortunately, the mess was not so oblivious of us, as it grew and evolved as if trying to catch our attention. Things reached a point when every surface was covered in some kind of foodstuff, interspersed with a dubious mixture of other detritus. At least we drew the line when it came to toilet habits, though the holding tank must have been reaching alarming levels towards the end.

As time passed and layer added to unsavoury layer, we were paying scant attention. What came next was hardly surprising, when one thinks of the overflowing ashtray that had been balanced on the plates, itself precariously perched on the stack of magazines loosely scattered on a pile of cushions. All it took was a single, nicotine-soaked stub, carelessly tossed, which caused the whole lot to topple backwards, delivering its load of hot ash into the gap between floor and wall.

Initially there seemed little cause for alarm. Indeed it was several minutes before we noticed smoke coming up through the floorboards. By that time there was already little we could do, given that the resulting fire was quickly spreading beneath our feet, along the oil-soaked hull of the houseboat.

Our attempts to put out the flames with anything we could lay our hands on had, to be fair, what could only be called mixed results.

Fortunately we were mostly in a state of relative coherence. Recognising the futility of our actions, we turned our attention to what could be rescued. Young Tree was first to seize the initiative, gathering several stacks of tapes and loading them into a bag before hot-footing it off the boat. Soon we were all grabbing anything that would move – instruments, furniture, books and so on, and hurling them physically out of the windows onto the bank, before beating a retreat and watching as the houseboat made its way to a watery Valhalla.

And that was that. For the houseboat, in any case.

 

1982-1983

Thanks to Tree’s efforts we had kept the majority of what had been recorded. At his own suggestion we retired to The Periscope Station, a studio in Devon inhabited by an assortment of musical cast- aways. Tree did once explain how he came to own said establishment, but I can remember little apart from some mention of a distant uncle and a tea shop in Rabat.

We took with us engineer and producer extra-ordinaire JC Camillioni, a long-standing collaborator with Tree, whose own post-psychedelic creations had left us all open-mouthed on first hearing.

Recording continued apace, employing the time and talents of whoever happened to be around, not least Alix whose laughter was captured for all eternity by JC following an incident with a fire hose.

By the spring of 1982 we had created far too much material to release all at once, so we did anyway. A 3-LP set of long songs, couplets and other pieces of whimsy was released on the Crumb label, entitled ‘Music To Blow Your Mind By’. The album was a huge success, helped no doubt by the increased visibility following media interest in the demise of the houseboat. Success which, I have to say, Tree was very quick to capitalise on, ensuring that the more forward-thinking radio stations had our entire back-catalogue available tothem.

The resulting radio play only increased demand on the live circuit, both for Porcupine Tree the band, and for IEM. Sheer logistics drove the decision to bring in additional musicians, and all of us quickly became accustomed to playing for one project or the other.

There were few places we would not go in the live set, as typified by a two chord thrash we built around Prince’s ‘The Cross’. Tree having reached the conclusion that Prince was in fact God incarnate, our own version reached a frenzied climax during which some members of the audience claimed to see celestial beings accompanying us on stage. We can only speculate on this.

The centrepiece of Porcupine Tree’s live set was undoubtedly ‘Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape’, which ended with St Jemain introducing the band and presenting his musical vision of the future – which would change from night to night. We also maintained the traditional IEM routine of including at least one Pink Floyd classic from the ‘Ummagumma’ period in the live show.

The demise of Linton Stanley Dawson came suddenly, in snow-bound Norway at the end of 1982. In truth, none of us expected him to last as long as he did. But the manner of his ending did take us by surprise, given that it didn’t involve setting himself alight; rather, he was found dead in his bunk having consumed some raw mackerel and an unseemly amount of vodka the night before. While the exact cause of death was never determined, the cook did at least have the decency to look a bit sheepish.

While the time on the road would have continued as long as venues knew we were available to play, we chose this moment to make our subdued way back to Periscope Station to assess where we stood and capture some of the ideas we had been developing. As a sign of the times we were tending towards shorter musical pieces, such as Tree’s ‘Radioactive Toy’, which we were planning to record early on for release as a single.

On the eve of the recording however, an unexpected piece of history came back to haunt Porcupine Tree the man, who woke (indeed, as we all did) to the sound of the studio door being kicked off its hinges accompanied by a cacophony of shouts and screams. Studio residents were treated to having rather bright electric torches thrust in their bleary faces. “ARE YOU PORCUPINE TREE?” came the inevitable question, to which just about everybody answered, “Yes.” The melee that ensued resulted in several rather confused members of her majesty’s constabulary, before Tree himself eventually resolved matters.

As Tree was being manhandled into a van, we finally determined he was being deported to Poland on a drug related charge. While undoubtedly a setback, once he was settled in his cell we agreed by post (which at the time was very efficient to Poland) that we would continue developing material for both IEM and PT independently, sending back and forth cassette tapes to enable Tree to add his own parts (studio facilities in Polish holding cells were also second to none).

Tree was released shortly afterwards.

 

1984

Despite (or perhaps because of) such incidents, when we regrouped in autumn 1984, the Periscope Station quickly regained its status as a sanctuary. It gave us some distance from the maelstrom of popularity and press coverage both Porcupine Tree and IEM were experiencing. But it wasn’t a panacea – particularly as we started falling into old habits as we tried to meet the growing demand (in both the UK and France) for new recordings.

While generating new material had never been a weak point for us, the general desire to do so was somewhat impinged by the fact we had no choice. The resulting creative block was overcome only when we decided not to do anything at all: within half an hour of sitting around Tree had become agitated to the point of distraction.

It wasn’t just the whimpering sounds he let out, but the way that he started pummelling himself with whatever came to hand (from candlesticks to pampas grasses, though even he drew the line at JC’s reel to reel tape recorder) that spurred the rest of us into action. As we restrained him, his cries gave way to gibberish, from which a number of streams of consciousness emerged almost simultaneously.

With Sebastian T-B taking copious notes, he was egged on by just about everybody as this state was undoubtedly preferable to dodging ashtrays and pieces of furniture.

The themes for ‘Tales from Jupiter Island’ were built out of these trails of musical thought. The initial plan was for a number of episodes, to be serialised across releases. Each described, according to Tree, “The life and times of the people of Jupiter Island as seen through the eyes of an earthling called Nigel”:

The curious creatures have but one aim in life; to tick off every page in the gigantic volume ‘5,000,001 THING TO DO WITH A HESSIAN SACK’ by Marjorie Peeps. They journey the universe with a copy of the book and a large supply of Hessian Sacks, hoping to chance upon situations the probability of which is somewhere in the region of a trillion-billion to one.

For example:

No 1,892,674: Using a Hessian Sack to quell 258 billion rioting Swahili quantity surveyors intent upon moulding a statue of an ant’s foot from a thirty-seven tonne lump of guano.

While I say ‘we’, it was very clear at this point where the locus of creativity was situated.

 

1985-1986

My last memory of those sessions at the Periscope Station incorporated the decision to release a live recording of ‘The Cross’. Following which, Tree said that he wanted to explore some new directions and we were welcome to hang around. As he didn’t seem that bothered one way or another, the rest of us ploughed our own furrows for a while.

My colleagues were quick to capitalise on this good fortune. Timothy Tadpole-Jones had been planning (in some detail) a visit to West Africa, though I think he was as surprised as anybody that it was actually to come about. Sir Tarquin took the opportunity to visit relatives, taking into account that one such sojourn could easily stretch into weeks, particularly if there was decorating to do. And Mr Jelly returned to running a chip van on the A38 north of Birmingham, to continue (so he claimed) his study into the profundity of human behaviour.

For myself, apart from welcoming the pause, I could invent no such grandiose plans. St Jemain had been invited to Paris for a series of poetry readings, that much I do recall, but why exactly I should find myself six months later accompanying him I do not know. Nor did I particularly care at the time, for it was a very welcome period spent in each other’s company working on a number of projects, as goes the cliché, ‘just like old times’.

Little did we know that Solomon’s presence was like a red rag to a bull for the French authorities. These usually uncoordinated institutions were on the point of drawing together a number of threads, including that of a certain so-called tax dodger and a certain inciter of riots, last seen sitting on the top of a van in 1973.

Any such concerns were far from our minds when, following a successful sojourn, we headed back to Devon. Porcupine Tree’s new band had been assembled from some of the musicians and freaks living and working at the studio. On arrival we mucked in, throwing together a series of experimental jams and preliminary sketches called ‘Cream Cakes For Everyone!’ – which would form the backbone of a new album.

These highly productive sessions were quickly followed by a UK tour, which culminated in a performance on the second stage at Glastonbury and a session for French radio. Unfortunately it was this latter which finally tipped off the French tax authorities, though we could not fault their taste in music.

At the end of the tour we returned once more to the Periscope Station, having procured the services of Sebastian Tweetle-Blampton to co-produce the album with Tree. We had just started to record the LP proper when finally St Jemain was tracked down and his presence was requested (quite strongly, though at least this time they left the door on) back in France.

Thanks to our habit of recording everything that emerged in the studio, we had plenty of demo material to be working with, though the loss of St Jemain at such a crucial moment could not help but affect morale. We were able to complete the three-part ‘Mute’ and ‘Music for the Head (Here)’ before most of us collapsed in a heap and left Sir Tarquin to catalogue everything that had been worked on up to that point, while Tree recorded a number of solo pieces including ‘Hole’ and ‘Message From A Self Destructing Turnip’.

What happened in the 18 months that followed, I have no recollection whatsoever.

 

1989-1990

On St Jemain’s release from incarceration we were able to complete ‘Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm’. The album was a mixture of old and new: as well as ‘Jupiter’s Island’ and the three-part ‘Mute’ trilogy, it included the classics ‘Nun’s Cleavage’ and ‘No Reason to Live, No Reason to Die’ from the old days. To be sure, the over-riding goal was to get the thing done – though we did indulge in shorter pieces such as ‘Clarinet Vignette’. For the latter we roped in an oboe-playing busker who we spotted in a nearby town. Oboe didn’t rhyme with vignette – that’s poetic licence for you.

Having completed the studio album, we managed to squeeze in a few live dates, including a set at the Greenpeace Fayre where we performed ‘The Cross’, ‘Hole’ and ‘Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape’. The twenty-minute set was captured by the No Man’s Land mobile studio: given the highly positive audience reaction, it seemed trite not to release it at the same time as the album. We also included ‘Daughters In Excess’, captured live on stage at Dingwalls, London – a piece fully intended to evoke the same sense of random wonder and energy we had instilled playing obligatory Pink Floyd covers over a decade before. To round things off, we also included the Élysée Montmartre version of ‘No Reason To Live, No Reason To Die’.

‘Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm’ was released as a double studio/live LP early in 1989. As well as excellent reviews from New Musical Express, many fanzines proclaimed it to be the finest example of modern psychedelia they had (yet) heard.

As always, our radio-fuelled following was hankering after new material, so we were urged back into the studio almost immediately. The result was the cassette EP ‘Love, Death And Mussolini’, containing some of the songs that didn’t quite make it onto the album. These included stage staple ‘Queen Quotes Crowly’ as well as ‘Hymn’, ‘Footprints’ and ‘Linton Samuel Dawson’, the latter written in tribute to the lightshow maestro.

Tree brought a level of professionalism that we would appreciate only once… we certainly didn’t appreciate it at the time. What we did understand was that here was someone who made things easier, whether it was negotiating tour dates or paying for the milk. Frankly we couldn’t believe our luck.

Following a handful of live dates, by the spring we decamped to Tree’s place, aka No Man’s Land Studios, to develop and record the new album, aided once again by JC Camillioni as producer and Sebastian Tweetle-Blampton on engineering duties. Only Sir Tarquin was temporarily absent due to an unfortunate incident (apparently involving rabbits), forcing Tree to draft in local performer Michel France on Piano.

Writing was divided between Tree and his imaginary friend Alan, and while the rest of us contributed whenever appropriate, our position as guest musicians was left in little doubt particularly when faced with Tree’s not-infrequent habit of playing us entire songs recorded entirely (including all instruments) by himself.

What we didn’t fully appreciate was how, by degrees, Tree was dragging us into a more modern world. In hindsight the signs were reasonably transparent: one of the first songs Tree played to us was called ‘The Nostalgia Factory’. He was quick to explain that it was tongue in cheek: “Too many so-called modern psychedelic bands reject technology in favour of recreating yesterday’s sound. To reject the sampler or even the drum machine is to deny the spirit that experimental music should always be made in,” he told us. “These musicians become nothing more than a nostalgia factory.”

Not all songs were quite so ripe with meaning: Tree and St Jemain recorded the piece of whimsy ‘Begonia Seduction Scene’ in a single take on Tree’s front lawn. But the deeper subtleties of tracks such as ‘It Will Rain for a Million Years’ were lost on us. This we took as a statement on the disastrous weather while we were recording, rather than what it actually was: a prediction of the future.

As the studio sessions neared completion, much to the chagrin of JC Camillioni we headed out on tour again. At the same time Tree compiled a double LP in cassette form, incorporating material already released on ‘Love, Death And Mussolini’ but with the additional compositions recorded at No Man’s Land studios during the summer. Rather cleverly – and again, isn’t hindsight a wonderful tool – this incorporated the majority of the rambling solos (inspired though they were), leaving a corpus of shorter, more modern, (dare I say) edgy numbers.

On our return from tour we did have a respite at the residence of Lord and Lady Blampton, which was still knee deep in redecoration. The west wing was complete and Lady B was working on the veranda, but dustsheets and ladders lined every corridor and stairway. The award for achieving the inevitable was bestowed on Mr Jelly, for getting his foot stuck in an ill-placed paint pot.

As our work was largely done, we spent much of the time playing croquet and singularly failing to make meaningful progress with the maids. Meanwhile Tree set to mixing what would become ‘The Nostalgia Factory’. As winter set in, we headed back to our various residences while Tree went off to Periscope Station to add the final touches.

Then it – and we – were done.

 

1991

‘The Nostalgia Factory’ was released to almost immediate acclaim. “A powerful development in Porcupine Tree’s sound,” proclaimed one reviewer; “Both the most peculiar and most accessible set of music the Tree has yet recorded,” said another. We had little time to bask however, as we had been invited to participate in that charity circus that was Live Aid. While of course the cause was important, we were not going to pass up on such an opportunity.

Though it so nearly passed us. Our transport, the faithful, cushion-lined van with which we had shared so many adventures, had seen better days to be sure – but never before had it failed to reach a venue. We were only two miles from Wembley when we heard what can only be described as a mechanical groan, followed by a rattle from somewhere underneath the vehicle… this, it transpired, was the drive shaft reaching a final impasse with the gear box, which seized up in turn, bringing the already-labouring engine to a halt.

We could have seen this as an omen, had we been concentrating on anything other than getting to the venue. Which we did, hauling every possible item of equipment behind us. Suffice to say that we made it, with only the final hiccup of getting past security without any form of identification. Luckily one of the orange-clad marshals recognised us, though given how we must have looked, pouring with sweat as we lugged guitars, amps, keyboards etc in the hot sun, one would hope that even the harshest of officials might have taken pity.

We finally arrived on stage to the roar of the crowd and a solitary hand wave from St Jemain, before launching into forty minutes of some of the best music we have ever played. The nefarious parts of our collective brain gave up their secrets, a pauper’s hive mind giving up its deepest memories. We soared, we plummeted into crevasses of darkness only to emerge even stronger into the light.

For those few minutes we were gods robed in earthly cloth, delivering up the goodness of what we created. And we were loved. We looked out at the masses in glory, and we drank from the vessel of their adulation. From the raised hands of the closest few, the wave of conversion rippled out across the crowd, until it reached the very furthest corners of the stadium.

Moving forward for a moment, Tree put one finger to his lips and the sea of people hushed as one. And then, he spoke.

“I HAVE NOTHING TO SAY. EXCEPT. I wanted this to be a whirling light from the other end of the stars,” he said. “I wanted it to sound like planets exploding and then on the other hand like a desert wind. Sometimes this is difficult.”

A vast cheer arose from the stadium. I have no doubt that from the outside the noise would have been deafening… but we heard only each other as we launched into a series of intertwining solos, playing our instruments like fleeting lovers. As each of us took our turn, nobody thought anything untoward as Tree left the stage for what we believed would be a brief moment. But when he failed to return I left my kit and went backstage to look for him. I am not sure why I felt so immediately certain, but quick was my realisation that I would not find him however hard I looked, not then nor ever.

I returned to the stage and shook my head at the others, whose resigned shrugs suggested they had already reached a similar conclusion. Then we finished the set, leaving the stage with a mixture of sadness and delight, a strange feeling of relief, and an ovation greater than ever.

As for Porcupine Tree, he was never seen again.

 

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