The Rhythm Section
Bassist John Greaves & Drummer Pip Pyle | National Health
Is the National Health coughing up blood? Tony Bacon gets to grips with the current state of the queues and cures. Music for liver salts. The Greaves-Pyle team of whitecoats gives a semi-exclusive interview to a private patient.
National Health are a very good group — you'll already know keyboardist Dave Stewart through his fine Music features that grace our pages every month. A distinct case of nepotism? No such luck. Bassist John Greaves and drummer Pip Pyle are prime candidates for the continuing story of the rhythm section - not least in that they are both excellent musicians, in the fullest sense of the word.
John Greaves started playing bass guitar in his native north Wales when a position became vacant in his father's dance band. 'I started when I was about 14,' John recalls, 'the bass player he had was about 65 and about to snuff it. So my father figured well, buy the kid a bass. Within about three weeks I was playing in the band — C and G and that in appropriate places.'
Nonetheless this mind-expanding introduction to the wonderful world of popular music proved useful in its insistence on John's learning to read. 'I already had a reasonable knowledge of music from piano lessons that were rammed down my throat. I started off with great enthusiasm, really wanting to do it because my old man was a piano player, and I wanted to do something "special". But for the whole of my life I've had a bitter resentment for my piano teaching, which took away every ounce of importance. I did it for about five years and I was bored stupid, I got worse and worse and all my enthusiasm for it had gone. It was only the opportunity of doing the work with the dance band at the same time as the Beatles thing was happening about thirty miles away that let me really start to get into it.'
Then came the traditional 'where am I, what am I doing' period, when John left the dance band (and school) and ended up going to University at Cambridge. And met 'the Henry Cow lot,' as he puts it.
'That was a great shock to me,' John laughs. 'I'd never heard anything like it in my life — didn't like it very much, something very peculiar going down there. This Henry Cow was just Tim (Hodgkinson) and Fred (Frith) at this stage, and I just went down and saw these two sort of weirdos playing this bizarre stuff down in a basement. I was attracted by it enough to do a few rehearsals with them, and it just went from there and got more and more interesting. That's in fact when I got into learning to play the bass properly - the whole history of Henry Cow was always writing stuff that nobody could ever play, that nobody could actually quite get together. If we got together again now, then maybe we could play the stuff we were playing in 1971 pretty amazingly. But it certainly was great, just from the technical thing of getting chops together — it was a totally uncompromising writing.'
Henry Cow's first album, The Henry Cow Legend (Virgin V2005), eventually appeared in 1973 (having been recorded at The Manor in the early summer of that year) to a mixed critical reception. 'It was only a convention of the time that Henry Cow chose to call itself a rock band,' says John, 'very rarely was it such a thing. In fact it became increasingly less so as the years went by. It was an electric band, I suppose we made a fairly conscious choice about that, but you could have seen us in a different sphere altogether. After we'd finished being students and all that, we could have gone into the area of people like Tim Souster and Roger Smalley, the establishment art... whatever that is. Who, by the way, I think produce some very nice stuff.'
But no, Henry Cow decided they were going to tackle the rock circuit and, although they didn't exactly take it by storm at any stage, they certainly found themselves in some strange situations. Like playing support on a European Captain Beefheart tour, post Magic Band era. 'That was great to do,' John remembers, 'whether people liked us or not, it certainly stimulated them. Whether or not it stimulated them to utter loathing... it did quite often!'
I wonder whether John considers that he and Chris Cutler, Henry Cow's drummer, formed a rhythm section. 'From time to time we would, to use that phrase, "lock in", and when it worked between Chris and I, I think it was in terms of two very strong tensions, it was never anything like the comfortable rhythm section you can hear conventionally, bass player and drummer working very smoothly together - which is beautiful to hear. But Chris and I were never like that. Ever. We never gave each other anything, really, to hold on to. But for the most part Henry Cow stuff didn't lend itself to that kind of treatment, that kind of separate rhythm section work. Chris would orchestrate his parts mostly, certainly in all the rhythm music, and there would be long periods and processes of him working out fairly detailed parts which, in fact, he would stick to. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't - but I don't want to be negative about it, I think sometimes it was incredible.'
John claims that after leaving the Cow in mid 1976 he didn't play bass at all for two years, apart from on his Kew.Rhone. album (Virgin V2082), made in collaboration with Peter Blegvad in October '76, and recorded at Mike Mantler's Grog Hill Studio in Woodstock, New York. 'There I was more of a player of parts that I'd written. I just thought of myself as the bass player for that session, that was the only thing that I'd done as a bass player in that period. I don't really feel like that was part of my progress as a bass player, although it was certainly progress as a composer.'
Musicians on the Kew.Rhone. project included host Mike Mantler, Carla Bley (contributing tenor on two tracks), and the amazing drummer Andrew Cyrille. Greaves stresses the importance of introducing diverse elements into his music - Cyrille being a good example of this particular approach. 'The compositions were fairly quirky little songs with elaborate, strange time signatures — very European. Then I brought in this sort of mad free-jazz drummer and laid that on him, making him sweat! I felt very embarrassed — here's one of the greatest drummers in the world sweating over these parts I've just given him,' he laughs. 'And I think the result is fantastic, something that you wouldn't get normally.'
John then explains the connections that have brought him to National Health, and to date. 'It's quite an amazing thing actually, we've known each other for years — Dave I've known longer than anyone else, but our paths have crossed so many times. Pip in fact lived in Cambridge pretty much the same time that I was there, we've known each other for a long time. It was a real revelation the first time we played, because as I say I hadn't played at all really since Henry Cow. I was very nervous - because I hadn't thought, and I still don't think, of myself fundamentally as a bass player. But we came together, and it was so nice to play with Pip, his whole kit kind of surges forward as one mass. Absolutely perfect for me, it has everything of the looseness of the great jazz players, and at the same time it was like boom! - there. Which was great for me to get stuck in with because I'm a very loose player myself, some of the things I play are quite risky. The chances of losing it, of blowing it completely, are quite high! That's what I like.'
Pip Pyle started playing drums around the age of six or seven, in the company of his next door neighbour who fancied himself as a guitarist - bashing out stuff" like Freight Train into the early hours. The first band I was in was with Phil Miller (National Health's guitarist), his brother Steve and a bloke called Jack Monk, bass player.'
This eventually became Delivery, with Roy Babbington replacing Jack Monk — just prior to this, however, Alexis Korner had been responsible for Pip turning pro. 'He asked me to do a tour of Czechoslovakia, at which point I immediately quit art college and... the tour never happened. It was when the Russians moved in... so I left art college just to go on the dole, Jack left the group and Roy Babbington joined.
Pip's next band was Gong, which he joined in 1972 through a connection with Robert Wyatt, previously with Soft Machine, of course, and at that time drumming for Matching Mole. 'Cos I'd recently run away with his wife,' Pip reckons. 'He introduced me to Daevid (Allen) who wanted a drummer for some sessions, and from that I joined Gong and went to live in France for a year or so. I eventually left Gong because Phil (Miller) had just split with Matching Mole, they'd folded up, and he was anxious to get a group together with Richard Sinclair — and that was Hatfield And The North.'
After a quick succession of keyboard players, including Phil Miller's brother Steve again, and Richard's brother Dave Sinclair, the Hatfields settled down with Dave Stewart twiddling the ivories and, with Phil Miller playing guitar, they became, in a sense, an embryonic National Health. The Hatfields made two fine albums, Hatfield And The North (Virgin V2008) and The Rotters Club (Virgin V2030). But back into Pip Pyle's history book for a moment.
'During the time I was with all these bands,' he says, 'I did as much playing as I could with other bands, a bit of playing with Robert (Wyatt), with his band Symbiosis. I joined Chicken Shack for a bit, and I was in a very silly group, Paul Jones' group, that had Roy Babbington on bass and Gary Boyle on guitar, Dave MacRae on piano, and Graham Prescott on violin. It was wonderful apart from we never got any gigs. Paul was always going down on his knees and reciting Ulysses or something. No, what was it,' he asks, gazing round the room. 'Wordsworth. That's it. He picked the musicians for that band — it never really happened.
'We did quite a few gigs, but they were all pretty disastrous, the only bits I enjoyed were the instrumental bits,' Pip laughs. 'So anyway, as you know, Hatfield split up. When that happened I piddled about, I've still got this band that I got together with Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper and Alan Gowen — it was Keith Tippett before but he's gone a bit... he's getting his own stuff together — so I did that, that was called The Weight-watchers, I'll be doing an album with them soon, we're now called Soft Heap.'
Pip didn't in fact come straight into the National Health drum seat, the original line-up included Bill Bruford in this capacity. But by the time the first album (National Health Affinity AFF6) appeared in early 1978 Pip had replaced Bruford. Original bassist with the healthy ones was Mont Campbell, who had been in Egg with Dave Stewart. Then came Neil Murray, who's now with David Coverdale's White Snake. 'Neil's a very good bass player,' remembers Pip, 'really is shit hot. Presented with a part he'd play it extremely well, and find the best way of doing it - it would be like that,' he bangs the table, 'it would fit in very nicely. But when John came into the group he got the parts, got the hang of them, and then started taking great liberties with them. For me it was fantastic, it really brought the whole thing alive, because after all you can play something perfectly so many times, and then it gets to be a bit of a yawn. You say: Well, I can carry on doing this indefinitely. You can lose the spark.
'But it only takes a few notes here and there to really bring it to life. It's the hardest thing in the world, in structured music, to somehow be able to make something a little bit loose, to project your own personality and interpretation on to it. That is very hard to do; not only has John done that, but he writes music which is also quite structured, but gives you the freedom in order to be able to do that. I find it's the hardest thing in the world to write a fairly arranged piece where you've got room to actually show that you're not just fulfilling a function to make the piece work, you're actually given the chance to get your end away and play. It sounds the simplest thing in the world to do, in fact it's the hardest.'
Personal histories over and done with, the page lunges dramatically into a meaningful question and answer section. Pip mentions that Andrew Cyrille, the drummer on John's Kew.Rhone. album, is one of his inspirations.
PP: He doesn't play drums like a drummer does; you hear him with Cecil Taylor, right, and he plays drums more like a keyboard and Cecil plays keyboard more like drums. And the combination is absolute magic. You know it frightened me even thinking about what Cyrille was doing, he was... colouring. He was playing time, but the metre was so fast that the only way you could actually think about it was to divide it up into a slow 4, which was at least half/half time, to begin to get into the feel of what he was doing. Because he was all over it, he was playing at the speed Cecil was playing.
TB: Does he think at that speed, I wonder?
PP: I don't think he thinks at all, it's completely intuitive, and spurred on by someone like Cecil whose rhythm sense is easily the most developed of any pianist I've ever heard — easily, far and away, he leaves everyone else behind. It's the most devastating combination, you really have to sit down to recover from it, otherwise you'd be completely... frightened. I saw those two at Ronnie Scott's for five nights on the trot — people were running away! The staff were fighting! It was as if a bomb had been dropped on the place. They were on the same bill as Joan Armatrading, she was supporting — this fantastic combination, Joan Armatrading and Cecil Taylor! All these people had been watching Joan Armatrading and they've suddenly got Cecil Taylor on stage, it's like somebody's thrown a bomb in the place. But it was incredible, it really was. Andrew Cyrille is definitely, for me, one of the greatest sources of inspiration. It maybe doesn't come to the fore in National Health, but he's special. I don't really think of him as a drummer.
TB: Well you don't have to sound like somebody just because they inspire you.
JG: Right, if somebody asks you who your influences are as a musician, you can say, well, Marcel Duchant, James Joyce or something, I don't know. For me, actually, that's as valid as anything else.
PP: Yeah, it's fairly interesting to know who you admire, etcetera, but whether that actually comes out... you might have just read something by someone, someone who's got a particular attitude, which might wear off on you as much as actual musical ideas. My inspiration is Enid Blyton — fascist moralist! (laughs) There's no vice in music!
TB: Okay then, so who do you admire?
JG: Marcel Duchant (laughs). And er, let's see, let's see. That wonderful fucking sculptor in Liverpool, Charles Alexander, let's give him a plug.
PP: Yeah, he's great (laughing).
JG: Played a lousy gig afterwards...
TB: Tell me about your approach to drumming, Pip (without laughing at all).
PP: I take as much trouble as I can to tune a kit, obviously that makes a lot of difference. However good your touch is you can't make a kit which is tuned like a mattress sound wonderful, right? You've got to know a bit about that. The hardest thing about drumming is knowing how to tune a kit, and getting everything conveniently between your legs. I had a double kit once, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn't really get round it. When you've got a double kit it's quite a nice kit, but your hi-hat's about 20 feet on your left and your ride cymbals somewhere over on the right — I find I can do as much with a conventional three-drum-and-bass-drum kit, which I use at the moment. I can do almost as much on that as I can on a large kit. Most of the time with this group I'm using cymbals, snare, bass drum and hi-hat; tom toms are used when I feel that they're necessary. But with a large kit and someone who doesn't know how to handle it, the temptation is to start on the left and end up down on the right.
JG: Can I inject a little anecdote about the drummer with the Beefheart band on the tour we did? This was after the Magic Band split, so they'd got a bunch of LA session people. And the drummer, he's got the lot. It was obviously in the rider in the contract that the rostrum had to be set up with so many drums, and he's got three toms on this side and two on this side. And he was a very bad drummer. He was not a good drummer.
PP: He wasn't Art Tripp.
JG: By anybody's standards he was just not there. There were a couple of other guys in the band who were very good, but not him. So, there's this archetypal sort of drum break, and it was the only trip in the music where they wind up with this 7/4 bar, because he had to get round the whole kit! He had to get round the whole lot!
PP: Yeah (laughing), that's an easy trap to fall into. It is actually quite hard to get round the kit and play a 4/4 break if you do insist on using all the drums. You've got to do at least two crotchets on one of the toms. I'm sure that's why the four drum kit is the most acceptable, because you start on the snare, you know, do a crotchet on there, a crotchet on the top, left tom, top on the right, and you're away by the time you're round. But it's the whole thing of what are drum breaks for? They're supposed to be musical, you don't have to get round them all — you can do it on one drum if you want a rhythm, or whatever. With the actual mechanics of moving from one drum to another you've got to use what drummers call paradiddles, which are sort of double beats which leave your left hand... loose. So with three drums you can do any amount round the kit, providing you've always got the fingering - it's unhappily called fingering, not arming - and having three drums doesn't really impose a problem if you know your way round. You can do an awful lot with three drums and a bass drum — use the bass drum as well.
TB: Cymbals are very important in your playing - what set-up do you use?
PP: They're Paiste and Zildjian. I use Paiste hi-hat cymbals — Soundedge, a Paiste crash cymbal, two Zildjian ride cymbals, a Chinese cymbal that isn't Paiste or Zildjian, a silly cymbal which sounds like a metal ashtray every time you hit it, a little Zildjian splash cymbal, and that's about it. My favourite Zildjian ride cymbal got stolen, much to my chagrin. There's no chance that I'll ever get it back, it was beautiful. You could get so many tones out of it, depending on where you hit it. I've tried hundreds of cymbals but I can't find anything like it. I like to use the bell of the cymbal, if you're using a big round cymbal the overtones sort of build up if you're playing ride, so I find that playing it on the bell, or close to the bell, gives it a percussive feel. But with the cymbal I had before you could, depending on how near you got to the bell, get a completely different sound out of it. The new Zildjian cymbals... sure, they're alright, but they don't have the variety of sound that the Turkish ones had. They're made in America at the moment, they're not handbeaten or anything like that. But I'd say that Zildjian and Paiste are the best cymbals that are about — Zildjian are hardier than Paiste, Paiste tend to split. In fact my hi-hat cymbal's splitting at the moment - they're much more fragile.
TB: Circumference splits?
PP: Yeah, I think it's to do with the metal that they use. Zildjian are generally thicker than Paiste, Paiste are usually pretty thin and they give a sharp sort of sound. Zildjian are richer, stronger. But both have got their advantages. I use a Paiste ride, flat top, which is a cymbal that gives little overtone, it's very percussive. First stroke and it just sort of tings away. On the other end of the scale you get a Zildjian cymbal which, if you play it on the rim, it'll pick up and pick up the overtone until you've got this general atonal kind of ring, which can get a bit overpowering. It depends what sort of music you're playing.
TB: What about bass, John?
JG: Well, the only significant thing about my bass is it's a very old Fender Jazz, originally, and it's split in stereo. The Fender pickups, now wound together at the top end as double pickups, and the Precision pickup, which I put on when I was with Henry Cow because I was using more effects than I do now, enabled me to have two sound sources. If you wanted, you could have this or that pedal on one channel, and another on the other. Doing that, the most effective thing about it was winding up using two volume pedals. Firstly, you can change the sound just like that, immediately, without having to touch anything with your hands. Also you get very instant fading-in of the top and bottom ends, whichever you wanted to use. And that's the only sort of special thing about the set-up which I've got. The amp is really good, it's a Fender Bassman 100 top, you get a solid amp with just the right amount of amp distortion on it. I like distortion, I've never really managed to get a clean sound together, I like things to have that cut and be able to sing and last.
TB: It's strange, you don't seem to get that characteristic toppiness of the Jazz bass, it's usually a pretty bassy sound that you get.
JG: What, on stage or on record?
TB: Probably more on stage.
JG: Well that's probably because of the Precision pickup, then. I mean obviously the main thing that you want to get when you're playing bass is the fundamental bass characteristic which has got to be there, on the floor, coming up through your feet. And clearly the most difficult thing is to get that without losing everything in a horrible wash of nothingness where you can't hear anything at all. That's what people have been trying to get, and are still trying to get; the kind of precision at the top end and the basic warmth at the bottom end. That's what I'm trying to achieve, and most of the time we do. But simply from the economic point of view there are very strong limitations on that. It comes to what we can do with the PA — the sound we get on stage I'm always-happy with, I couldn't play if we didn't, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the sound out front is good. And that means we have to invest more and more in getting a better PA system. We do it bit by bit, and I think bit by bit it gets better. It's only over the last six months that things have got better, as we put in little ideas and work them out.
TB: How involved do you get with miking your drums, Pip?
PP: A geezer who actually knows how to amplify drums is somebody who really knows his fucking onions. I'll always bow down to someone who thinks he knows what he's talking about. If I get the impression that he doesn't know, then I'll tell him what to do, because I've had quite a lot of experience. When you've got confidence in someone you don't argue. I've been mixed by lots of people and have only ever met one person who I feel really knows what he's doing. I'd let him do anything, and that's Benjy. He actually works for Led Zeppelin, he's a mate of mine. He used to be our roadie and occasionally he roadies for us now. He just sort of goes bang, and the mike goes there. He can get a good drum sound with a crap PA, he knows exactly what to do. Drums in themselves are a headache, then you add all the other instruments and to actually know how to do all that is an art — it's become an art, never used to be. I could tell you what I know but it'd be a yawn and a half; different people have different ideas.
TB: What does Benjy do?
PP: I'm not even quite sure, but I know that he takes all the equalisation out and then puts bits in that sound right. Most people start flat and add things, he actually takes everything away, minus, and then puts things in. I've listened to other bands that he's mixed — I've never really liked Led Zeppelin but I went to see them and just enjoyed it because it sounded so good. If the music had also been good I would have been completely knocked out. That show was held together by Ian and Benjy — he was mixing the sound, Ian Knight doing the show. The music was here and there, Jimmy Page was out of his box, but it sounded great. Fantastic sound. Benjy was sitting there and he was doing his phasing and stuff on the drums and he made a real show, that's what rock music's all about in that sense, putting it over.
National Health now have additional problems in their stage sound with the addition to the ranks of Georgie Born playing cello and Lindsay Cooper on bassoon and oboe — none of these particularly easy instruments to amplify.
But doubtless these problems will resolve themselves. With a second album (Of Queues And Cures Charly CRL5010) about to be released, the band are in a stronger position than ever before to positively exploit their many talents and to make a success of National Health.
John: 'I think there's still that looseness and freedom, but I think there's enough security between us for us to be able to do things that eight times out of ten arrive at the same place at the end of a bar, you know?'
And Pip: 'With structured music, if there's going to be a most exciting moment it's going to be writing it. Then you work it out, and then you've got to live with it. And if you're working on the road all the time you've got to make something of it. If National Health is going to hold together and continue to be a good group, I think it's going to be interpreting that in as many ways as possible.'
Interview by Tony Bacon
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