In Sounds From Way Out: ‘Underground London’ reviewed

❉ The sounds which inspired the British 60’s counter cultural movement.

El Records has always been about eclecticism and this new compilation, Underground London, fits rather perfectly into that.  It is an interesting mix of the words and music which helped shape the counter culture movement of the late 60’s.  The 3CD set includes works from the Beat Poets, pioneers of electronic music, pieces of avant-garde classical music, a broad range of pioneering modern and free jazz, with an of Indian raga and a slice of acoustic blues thrown in for good measure.  This is an illustration of the kind of sounds which inspired those who created and shaped the art and music of the late 60’s.

One thing to consider is that this was a time when there wasn’t a lot of musical choice available to the British public.  Radio didn’t represent even the broad spectrum of pop music of the time, let alone devote itself to music from the margins.  Unlike today where an artist can put out a piece of music which is accessible to anyone across the globe with the right access, these were times when the kinds of music outside the mainstream would be shared by individuals with their friends.  It might not even be easy, or cheap, to acquire and few people would have the means to copy the music.  Consequently reaching its audience could take months and years to achieve its full impact.  The track listing reflects this with the tracks mostly ranging from the late 50’s through to the early 60’s.

This is one of those occasions where reading the book of notes that accompanies the set makes the whole experience of the music far more understandable.  The opening essay includes quotes from some of those who influenced the whole British counter cultural scene. It points out the genesis of these being the CND movement, the poetry journal Tree (which presented the work of the Beat Poets for the first time in the UK), and the importance of Art Schools as both a democratising force and a different space in which a broad spectrum of people came together avoiding the more traditional avenues of either work or the more rigid world of university academia.  This would eventually blossom into the scene which produced publications such as The International Times music events such as the UFO club and the 14 Hour Technicolour Dream which ultimately birthed the summer of love.

The discs themselves mix the styles up throughout each taking you on a journey through the sheer variety or ideas and expressions those looking for inspiration, much of it from America, where the worlds of San Fransisco’s City Lights Bookshop and the jazz clubs of New York offered far more excitement than post-war Britain.

The majority of the tracks are jazz records but some of the most ear grabbing tracks are those from the other genres represented.  The poetry and spoken word focuses on some of the leading lights of the Beat Generation.  Ginsberg’s reading of America does, as with a lot of his work, come to life in his reading.  Like much of his work his performance add something extra to the words when heard as opposed to merely reading them on the page.  Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Dog is equally illuminated whereas the Jack Kerouac readings are backed by musical accompaniments which give his prose additional swing, illustrating the innate rhythms in his writing.

The classical and electronic pieces provide a similar kind of punctuation to the jazz.  Daphne Oram’s The Ocean is typical of her strange electronic world whilst György Ligeti’s Atmospheres will be familiar to anyone whose seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, although shorn of its visuals its innate strangeness is more apparent.  Other pieces from the leading lights of the avant-garde in John Cage and Stockhausen, provide similar strange counterpoints.

There are many of the usual suspects from the jazz scene one would expect to find here.  Tracks from Ornette Coleman, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, and John Coltrane are all present and familiar. Yet the most interesting pieces are from the slightly lesser lights – the kind many a more casual listener may not be so familiar with.  Their approach and the moods vary considerably from Eric Dolphy’s Left Alone featuring some lovely flute figures, Jimmy Giuffre’s take on Carla Bley’s Jesus Morning sounds like it could easily have been recorded decades later for European label ECM and not 1960’s New York – its placing alongside Ravi Shankar’s gorgeous 28 minute North Indian Raga Jog on disc 2 only succeeding in bringing out the relaxing moods further.  Chico Hamilton’s take on Miles Davis’ A Rose For Booker disc 3 is another of the more gentle joys found here.

Yet it’s some of the more out there pieces which grab attention.  The choice of Cecil Taylor’s take on the standard Love For Sale, recorded in 1959, indicates the directions he would later take his playing.  In what should be familiar territory Taylor takes his soloing off somewhere else completely.  His accompanists continue within the strictures of the piece whilst Taylor seems to orbit somewhere above or around them.  Yet this is nothing compared to Albert Ayler’s take on one of the classics in the Blue Note Records canon, Moanin’.  Taken from a performance in Stockholm, it begins with the familiar melody before Ayler takes off.  Like John Coltrane, Ayler didn’t so much use his saxophone as just a musical instrument but as an expression of himself.  Whereas his later work can sound like a full on aural assault hearing it breaking out from a structured tune makes it feel almost more remarkable.  For those familiar with his work, it slowly morphs into the familiar “sheets of sound” but it’s the journey he takes the listener on, writhing further and further away from the melody which makes it so arresting.  The somewhat crazed reaction from the audience throughout, indicating the sounds of minds literally blown.

After the initial introduction, the notes on the individuals who made each of the pieces help contextualise the music contained here.  When I saw the inclusion of Miles Davis’ Flamenco Sketches from Kind Of Blue – the album even people who don’t really care for jazz might include in a tasteful record collection – it felt like something more worthwhile was probably sacrificed in the name of something familiar.  Reading the notes, it felt very justified in its conclusion.

London Underground is a varied look at the many styles and sounds which helped give birth to the words and music of the British 60’s counter cultural movement.  You can see it as a peek into the collections of the people who created this but it also serves as a pocket guide to the other worlds of words and music which operate outside what is considered the mainstream.  This is the stuff which opened minds and ears and the fact that, over 50 years on, some pieces still sound challenging is a tribute to their creators.  If you’re prepared to take the trip, this is a very interesting ride.


❉ ‘Underground London – The Art Music and Free Jazz that Inspired a Cultural Revolution’ (ACME353CDT) is out now from El Records, part of the Cherry Red Group. RRP £12.99. Order directly from Cherry Red Records HERE.

❉ Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

❉ Peter Robinson is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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