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Authorised release 2007
The story behind the Caves tapes
I had long been aware of Ollie Halsall's brief association with the extraordinary John Otway (1979 UK & US tours & album 'Where Did I Go Right?'). I managed to contact Otway through a mutual acquaintance and asked him if he might have any tapes, photos or whatever. Otway's response was typically bizarre: "Yes" he probably had some photos somewhere and would "try and dig them out" (not yet forthcoming).
As for tapes, he very kindly sent a live set recorded' in a pub, somewhere' featuring Ollie on guitar & piano. John apologised for the sound quality ("I hate live recordings anyway"). On the evidence of this tape, Ollie was clearly enjoying himself and providing the usual unbelievable embellishments to Otway's material.
Not many will be aware, incidentally, that some of John's present repertoire dates back to their collaboration and that Ollie co-wrote, with John, many of the songs that were to end up on the Otway & Barrett album 'Way & Bar'. Otway is still gigging regularly. Go and see him - he is a one off, a total genius. And his current accompanist Richard Holgarth is excellent. John also sent a collection "of Ollie's demos" .
I have to tell you that I couldn't bring myself to play these for some three or four days for fear of disappointment after all, surely they could only be poor quality acoustic versions of old Patto, Boxer or Tempest songs, or perhaps some sort of avant-garde ramblings, couldn't they? (The track listing revealed them as not being the great lost Robert Fripp collaboration of 1972).
Otway said that Ollie gave him the tape in 1979 as an example of what he had been doing and suggested they might want to use some of the material. It ,vas hardly encouraging that John had not in fact, ever used any of it and, indeed, had not played it since.
There was always the possibility, remote as these things usually are, that this unassuming tatty little black cassette could contain something really good. The impossibility that I had, in fact unwittingly stumbled across the equivalent of the 'Holy Grail' never really occurred to me.
Having summoned up the appropriate mental state, I finally played the tape. These are almost certainly studio recordings - and I say that because we are talking 1979 and earlier, and the home recording revolution had hardly begun. Some may have been at least partly home produced - Pete Townshend was producing remarkable 'sound on sound' (which is not as sophisticated as true multi-track) recordings on a Revox stereo tape deck as far back as 1965.
The sound quality ranges from fair to near-perfect and it is in stereo. Furthermore, it is multi-tracked - with Ollie playing an array of parts (including piano, synthesiser, bass, drums and saxophone!) in addition to the usual 'guitar/vocal'.
There are no great surprises in the keyboard department which is, perhaps. a shame because I have never heard him repeat the quite incredible piano technique displayed on Patto's 'Roll 'em Smoke 'em...' album.
The drums were Ollie's first instrument and he plays in that distinctive' nondrummer' style reminiscent of Paul McCartney.
I'm not 100% sure about the saxophone, although I know he could play it - as indeed he could the violin (not however, featured here). Ollie was an accomplished bassist and, beautiful examples of his distinctive style and tone can be found elsewhere on many of Kevin Ayers' albums including 'Deia Vu' (although uncredited) and 'Sweet Deceiver'.
Perversely, Ollie played bass on John Cale's 1985 European tour with a lesser mortal in the guitar seat. Apparently, this was a purely financial arrangement since Ollie couldn't get a gig elsewhere at the time, but I suspect it may have owed something to Cale's surrealism - he once confiscated the drummer's cymbals for one performance, insisting that the musician was paid "to play the drums!"
Sound technician and guitar 'roadie' Roy Wood, who related this tale, insists that Ollie 'recycled' his broken guitar strings by tying knots in them! Whilst there could be an element of 'leg-pulling' here, such practices may not be that unorthodox for someone who learned to play the vibraphone at the age of 14 on a paper cut-out of a piano keyboard or who, reputedly, spent his share of Patto's recording advance on a Persian carpet!
There are twelve songs, fairly obviously in chronological order (in terms of both composition and performance). Remarkably, they fall in such a perfect sequence it is hard to imagine them not being intended as a complete album.
If this had seen the light of day at the time, it could easily have been a chart album. (If memory serves me correctly, there was still some semblance of a music scene in those days!)
Most significantly, we are not talking 'jazz-rock' or the more obscure side of Mr. Halsall's extraordinary talents. What we have here is Ollie Halsall - the , singer-songwriter'
We shouldn't, of course, be too surprised by that in itself since Halsall wrote or co-wrote most of the Timebox, Patto & Boxer material and half the Tempest 'Living in Fear' album - and often sang the lead. (Jon Hiseman cited Ollie's vocal ambitions as the reason for his departure from Tempest in 1974 - which is a little odd since he immediately took a supporting role with the Soporifics).
And, of course, W A WS recent and invaluable 'trainspotter' epic lists Halsall as co-writer of much 'of Ayers later material.
Indeed, such is the extent of Ollie's involvement in the album' As Close As You Think' (including lead vocal on his own composition 'Never My Baby') that the credit 'Kevin Ayers featuring Ollie Halsall' might almost be reversed!
Something different tends to happen, however, when writers perform their own material as a solo effort, and the results here are deeply revealing. These are '3-minute pop' masterpieces which owe far more to Lennon & McCartney than to John Cale and the rest of Ollie's more indulgent associations - but more of that later.
So, here is a track-by track review of what I can now perceive only as the long lost solo album 'Lovers Leaping' (the most obvious title track) - I hope that, like those foretastes of Beatles albums in Melody Maker we used to eagerly devour weeks before we actually heard the music, this piece conjures similar anticipation.
'Stepping Out' - CHORDS
|Bbmaj7 Am7 |Dm F
|Bbmaj7 Am7 |Asus4 A
|Gsus4 G |Fsus4 F
1. 'Hey, Hey, Little Girl' - an up tempo rocker (as they used to say!). This is wonderfully primitive two-chord tune over the riff from' Judy in Disguise with Glasses' (remember that?) among others. It could well date from that period (1968) as Ollie complains that "You don't like my little brown books - you say they make you think!".
There is a brilliant saxophone solo which could be the work either of a virtuoso or an absolute beginner - both of which could apply equally to Halsall.
2. 'Come on, Let's Go' - Tinkly piano intro and plenty of' shoobedoos' and' ooh aahh' backing vocals here, with a chord change I've only previously heard attempted by Felix Mendelssohn!
The first guitar solo is featured and you won't be disappointed. The style and sound give it away as a 1976 recording, but it could well have been conceived much earlier.
3. 'Back Against the Wall' - This is the first one that really grabs your attention. Electric piano, drums and 'scat' guitar/vocal introduce a very solid piece of seventies rock. It's 'Patto meets Lennon' in a powerful vocal performance. "Got my back against the wall, that's all, that's all".
Some lovely saxophone lines feature in this incredible arrangement and, just when you thought it couldn't get any better, there's a pure Patto vintage guitar solo. Absolutely wonderful - a hit!
4. 'Crazy When I Fall in Love' - Probably the least successful of the bunch, but a wonderfully enthusiastic performance all the same. Ollie swaps saxophone and Chuck Berry guitar solos with himself over some fairly rudimentary drums and the whole thing just about hangs together.
5. 'Door to Door Daughter' - Ollie relates a rather unhealthy interest in the paper delivery girl, to a Bo Diddley rhythm! Somewhat unsettling to say the least. but a superb production with lovely twiddley guitar bits. Halsall's incredible sense of time is demonstrated by the remarkable way he scans the line "I love your door to door daughter" at the end.
6. 'Travelling Show' - A beautiful slow piano ballad, worthy of Macca himself, as Ollie reminisces of 'New York, Paris & Rome'. It may not have been immediately obvious, but McCartney was in fact Ollie's greatest influence.
Remember he came from the immediate postMerseybeat, art school scene and has nodded in the direction of the' fabs' on more than one occasion - notably Timebox's 'Gone is the Sad Man' and covers of 'Paperback Writer (Tempest) & 'Hey Bulldog' (Boxer).
Ollie desperately wanted to portray 'Paul' in the Rutles, alongside Admiral' John Halsey's 'Ringo'. The US backers needed a 'star' however, and the part of 'Dirk McQuickly' was taken by Rutles creator Eric Idle himself Ollie had to settle for the 'walk-on' part of Leppo (original bassist 'Stuart Sutcliffe').
But Halsey recalls that, when it came to recording the soundtrack, Idle couldn't quite handle the vocals parts so, Ollie, as well as creating the amazing BeatIe guitar pastiches, also sang 'Paul's' part, speeded up slightly. In this and other respects, Halsall's contribution the Rutles project has never been fully recognised.
1. 'Lovers Leaping' begins with a heavy echoed drums. Then in comes the most gorgeous guitar riff. Brilliant vocals throughout and some extraordinary George Harrison guitar, straight off the Beatles white album. Stereo guitars join in a duet rather than a solo. All in all, probably the best of the crop.
2. 'Stepping Out' - This is a real revelation. You may be familiar with Kevin's live and recorded versions of this song ('Diamond Jack . . . ' & ' As Close as You Think' albums) but this original predates them by at least 4 years. Intriguingly, whilst leaving the chorus virtually in tact, Kevin chose to rewrite the verses entirely. The original lyrics here stand as an extraordinarily, poignant and deeply personal statement:
in this pond (Deia?) thinks that they know me.
Heavy stuff alright, and we are privy to a remarkable insight into the character of someone I have increasingly come to regard very much as a latter-day musical Pierrot. (It's infuriating why, in the second line of Ollie's chorus, he insists on rhyming 'four' with 'you' instead of something more obvious like' door' or, for that matter, why he doesn't simply repeat the first line, like Kevin does!)
3. 'You Need a Friend' - Another Deia song with tales of the' After Lunch Bunch'! I wonder who they were? perhaps they also comprise the 'Fools after midnight'. This is the suspended chord sequence that everyone who has ever presumed to compose on a guitar with any serious intent must have 'discovered'. Nonetheless, I've never heard it put to better use. Great song.
4. 'First Day in New York' - Things are really hotting up with the following trilogy. First, a brilliant rock piece which you could easily imagine in the context of live band. Absolutely corking fiery guitar solo with more than a touch of Richard Thompson about it.
5. 'Airplane Food' - Logically, this might have preceded the "first day in New York". It starts with quite the best airplane take off noises - courtesy of Fender Stratocaster tremolo arm - that I've ever come across, as Ollie takes us on a quite terrifying journey. I was sure this was going to be 'Sausages' (which deals with the same subject) from the unreleased Patto album but, no, it's an almost punk-like tour-de-force in which Ollie "could do with some airplane food" and, furthermore, would like to "see the stewardess in the nude" - Nothing wrong with the rhyming dictionary here!
Halsall flies "ten miles high" (presumably aviation had advanced somewhat since the Byrds came to London in 1965) and in the middle of it all he finds time for not just a guitar solo but actually a Halsall 'guitar primer'! A simple 5-note phrase repeated over and over again and getting progressively faster and faster until it becomes one of the sort of lunatic figures he first became famous for. It's almost like Ollie is saying 'look, this is how you do it!' (and it does work, try it).
At an imperceivable join, a bottleneck guitar takes over and screeches to staggering climax. If you have ever presumed to take any of the current crop of guitar virtuosi seriously, then listen to this.
6. 'Summertime Kids' -A gently rocking Summer anthem with a lovely bass pattern underpinning some wonderfully arranged guitars. Ollie sings of the Summertime Kids who have to "paint your eyelids" - just an old hippy at heart! Towards the end he throws in a final short but exquisite Patto-esque solo and I can almost hear him laughing. A perfect end to a very near perfect set.
Even being as objective as I possibly can, I have to rate this as one of the finest 'albums' I have ever heard. It is, of course, full of the usual enigmas surrounding Ollie's life and poses more questions than it solves: How could material of this standard be totally overlooked by the industry; why didn't Ollie, or someone on his behalf, seek to exploit his talent to anything approaching its potential: and, if he wasn't interested in commercial success, then why go to the trouble to make such superb demos: and where are all the other examples he must. surely, have left behind?
These recordings might need a little enhancement to bring them up to scratch, but there are techniques available to do this [Splendidly done on the final album by Martin Mitchell at Moor End Studios].
I am almost convinced that this (more so perhaps than the unreleased Patto album) would be a viable proposition for one of the reissue labels.
This is an important musical document, not simply because it is a damn good album, but because at last we have a totally accessible vehicle for Ollie's unique skills - a fitting epitaph for tile greatest rock instrumentalist this country has ever produced.
Barry Monks, March 1994
Thanks to Nick Saloman, Harald Luss and Ayers' sound technician Roy Wood for source material and, of course, to Otway for looking after the recordings for so long!
Article first published in Why Are We Sleeping magazine No.6, August 1994