Monday, 17 February 2014

Jazz, LSD & Lightshows in Australia: Graeme Lyall, Gordon Mutch & Psychedelia '67

 Though the later half of the 60's and the rise of psychedelia in Australia has been relatively well covered it is surprising to find both Peter Mudies "Ubu Underground Cinema" and Iain McIntyres "Tomorrow is Today" - both comprehensive to a sometimes exhaustive level in their documentation of the period - omit any reference to Graeme Lyall's 'Psychedelia '67. Strangely there has been no subsequent documentation or even mention of it anywhere. Performed in September of 1967 at the Cell Block Theatre in Sydney and The Canberra Theatre in Canberra, it was arguably the first large scale, self consciously (and self avowedly) psychedelic total environment to take place in public in Australia. Conceived as a three part jazz suite based on the movements of an acid trip, it was performed by the the crème de la crème of the Sydney modern jazz scene in collaboration with the extended Ubu Films group handling live light and film projections.

Graeme Lyall started off in Melbourne in the late 1950's playing tenor sax in the rock and roll group The Thunderbirds whilst being actively involved in the modern jazz boom that had emerged almost in tandem with the rock n roll craze, Moonlighting at the Embers nightclub and the Jazz Centre 44 (sitting in on their Sunday afternoon sessions, in-between matinee and evenings shows with the Thunderbirds) Lyall was a part of the small exodus to Sydney that took place in 1960 (fellow Jazz Centre habituates such as Horst Liepolt, Stewie Speer and Keith Hounslow also made the migration north) and commenced studies through the Sydney Conservatorium. He naturally fell in with the El Rocco scene (Sydneys more successful, long running equivalent to the Jazz Centre 44) and performed on Judy Baileys "My Favourite Things" (CBS, 1965), the compilation Australia Jazz '67 (Columbia, 1967), Don Burrows ‘2000 Weeks’ (Columbia, 1969) the Charles Munro Jazz Orchestras "Count Down" (EMI, 1969), and John Sangsters "The Joker Is Wild" (Festival, 1968).

The musicians who participated in ‘Psychedelia’ included all those above whom Lyall had been playing with in Sydney; Don Burrows (clarinet and alto flute), Charlie Munro (alto saxophone) John Sangster (vibraphone) Judy Bailey (piano) along with Neville Blanchett (trumpet), Bob McIver (trombone), Barry Stewart (drums), and Cliff Barnell (bass). All had been influenced, to varying degrees, by the new thing that had been coming out of America over the decade, and ‘Psychedelia’ seems one of the more audacious, large-scale flirtations with free jazz and improvisation at that point in Australia.

Though the music had been scored by Lyall the 'jazz happening' was very much a three way venture between Lyall and lighting artist Gordon Mutch, along with classical concert promoter Donald Westlake;

Gordon Mutch, an active and ever present footnote throughout the 1960's underground scene in Sydney, hasn’t had much concretely written about him. As a teenager he had moved from Perth to Sydney and fell in with the bohemian milieu of the Bodgies, Widgies and The Paddington Push that defined the late 1950’s/early 1960's in parts of Sydney. Principally involved in the theatre scene (including the controversial debut staging of Alan Seymours "The One Day of the Year") his approach mutated between '63 & '65, becoming more probing and free form and less involved with the theatre per se, as generally was taking place with his associates Albie Thoms and Clem Gordon - he was involved with, among others, The Human Body, Ken Kerney, Black Allen, Ubu Films and the PACT Theatre. A jack of all trades he pursued film making with the experimental short Hallucegenica ('68) and he unsuccessfully attempted to make a feature length film, Once Around The Sun an experimental document of the Ourimbah Pop Festival (recently completed by David Hugett in 2012) as well actively working as a painter and amateur musician. His friendship and musical collaboration with Indigenous folk singer Black Allen transformed into more urgent expressions in the early 1970’s as both became key figures in the burgeoning anti-Nuclear movement, instrumental in the formation of Australian Greenpeace.

Donald Westlake, much older then either Lyall or Mutch, was a transplant from the upper crust of 1950's Perth society who had become the principal clarinet player for the Sydney Symphony and a lecturer at the Conservatorium. Though all the contemporary news reports paint him very much as the odd man out, ‘the straight cat’, he was relaxed enough to involve himself in the project (and likely had a keen eye for business if the audience figures were anything to go by…)

The key concept for the 'jazz rhapsody' was the recreation/exploration/evocation of an acid trip. A tired idea, even then, I suppose it was a convenient vehicle for Lyall to stake his own generational and social connection with what was 'going on' (he was only 25 at the time) The relative size of Sydneys music community ensured extended connections of some in the jazz scene, like John Sangster, with the counter culture. That is to say jazz was a part of the counterculture, one of the many threads in the fabric. Jazz had yet been neutralised from youth culture - it still remained in currency. Albie Thoms, one of the principal figures in Ubu, talked about their light shows being “an extension of jazz improvisation, the idea rather then the music,” (he also lived in the same building as Sangster - upstairs from the El Rocco club) Lobby Loyde described his experiences touring Sydney with The Wild Cherries in 1966, “The Sydney crowd was very interesting…People in Melbourne talked about Sydney as this kind of uncouth place, but I found the psychedelic crew up there were way harder and more bizarre…Every time we went to Sydney to play I’d fall into the bad company of all these musicians who were playing jazz and the early sounds of the Sydney underground. They’d pass you silly cigarettes and pieces of blotting paper and say “Try this man!”.…I am ignorant of the history of LSD in Australia though it presumably started, like overseas, as ‘medicine’ open to high end doctors that slowly spread outward as word spread (LSD was not banned in Australia until '68, I think) If the likes of Peter Sculthorpe were receiving LSD therapy in Hobart circa '62 (care of Dr. Bert Engisch, a strange footnote of Tasmanian ‘society’, he was also doctor to the Drysdales) you would think that it would have well and truly penetrated Sydney at that time, and would’ve been truly ingrained by '67. I wonder who the anonymous participant in the LSD trial that provided the ‘insights’ that inspired the structure and style of Lyalls writing really were…?

(above articles taken, with thanks, from the Clem Gordon archives)

The enthusiasm for events like this hadn't really taken off yet when Psychedelia was staged. It was amongst the very first wave of ‘happenings’ that took place in Sydney in mid 1967, in the two weeks that followed two other ‘happenings’ organised by the Ubu group took place (the ‘Id Benefit’, to raise funds for members of the Id who had been busted for weed, and the ‘Explosion Factory’ at the Cell Block Theatre). ‘Psychedelia’ was a harbinger of what would come, between ’69 & ’71 (the ‘peak’ period) Ubu were staging their own ‘Intergalactic Festivals’, as well as running their lights shows as a successful for hire business (as were other lighting artists such as Ellis D. Fogg) The chronology for immersive sound & light environments ("son et luimeres") is patchy at times but the practice slowly emerged across '67, though they only really took off as a 'thing' in '68, initially limited as an accompaniment they served as an augmentation or auxiliary aspect of an entertainment environment (see such as Ginza in Melbourne, Foco in Brisbane, and The Factory discoteque in Sydney) Arguably, and lacking any other documentary evidence at present, Psychedelia '67 was the first performance in Australia of a total light & sound environment. The emergence of ‘multimedia’ events in Australia was as a logical extension of the theatre (ie. Opera, musicals, amateur theatre, the ballet etc. the older forms of sound & vision) Relatively modern crossovers had been taking place as far back as 1948 with the early modern jazz pianist from Melbourne Ron Loughhead purportedly staging a ‘bebop operetta” for a modern jazz group and contemporary dancers along with a twelve voice choir, and by the late 50’s Peter Sculthorpe had been creating musique concrete soundscapes to accompany the radio plays of Catherine Duncan in the ABC Studios in Launceston, and Josef Stanislaus Ostoja-Kotkowski was extending his explorations in set design for opera and ballet into independent explorations of electronic music and light & laser art in Adelaide. 

Beyond the newspaper clippings I have no idea what the event actually looked or sounded like. I suspect that the pithy summation of one reviewer, damning with faint praise in declaring it a “light show and some jazz music,” is likely the closet to the truth. Part of the suite did make it to record, 'Psychedelia Pt. 3', the extended 10 minute piece was the opening track on The Grame Lyall Quintet (Columbia, 1969) The album strangely features trombone as well as Lyall playing “electric” saxophone, but none of his top shelf friends are present though the line up did include notably Dave McRae (one of the numerous jazz musicians who left for the UK he played with Matching Mole and Nucleus) and Bob McIver (an American GI who had played with Bryce Rhode) Due to the scarcity of Australian modern jazz recordings I haven’t had the opportunity to hear this either.

I wonder if part of the reason this small chapter in the emergence of psychedelia in Australia has been overlooked/out of sight was partly because of a latent snobbery projected from the central cities. The majority of the newspaper articles on the event seem to have been only written up in Canberra, and then only due to the enthusiasm of their author, Gerry Raffaele, the music writer in the 60's for The Canberra Times. Much younger and open minded in compared to say the staid likes of Fred Blank and Romola Constantino in the Sydney Morning Herald, he had a diverse taste for music (his ‘top discs’ for 1966 is an interesting, forward thinking collection; Ravi Shankar, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones were listed alongside more obscure but interesting choices such as modern jazz pianists Judy Bailey and Denny Zeitlin, folkie Doug Ashdown as well as Ike & Tina Turner and Frank Sinatra?!)

Canberra’s sidelining is understandable given its current state, but during the 1960's and 70's it was an important contributor to Australias post-1960’s cultural evolution, hosting a range of important cultural festivals (for example The Aquarius Arts Festival and Australia ’75 amongst others) and progressive modernists (for example Don Banks and Larry Sitisky taught composition at the university - Banks also assisted in establishing Canberras first electronic music studio in 1972, or Stephen Jones and his important explorations into video art)

At any length it stands as an interesting episode in the tricky, interconnected world of art and music in Australia.


Eric said...

The photographer Robert Walker ('Life at the Cross', 'Entertainment Arts in Australia', etc.) took a series of photos of the musicians rehearsing 'Psychedelia '67', probably in Sydney. The negatives are among Walker's papers, donated to the Art Gallery of New South Wales by his family. There are also photos of El Rocco, taken for but not used in 'Life at the Cross'.

Garry Raffaele said...

I wrote 3 pieces on Psychadelia in The Canberra Times, apart from the Pop Cult review. Good memories!
Garr Raffaele