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John Cavanagh (Piper author) - July 25th 2003 - with Brain Damage Print E-mail
John Cavanagh, author, "Piper At The Gates Of Dawn" book. Interviewed by Matt Johns, Brain Damage, 25th July 2003

John Cavanagh, author of Piper At The Gates Of DawnPictured here, John Cavanagh: "Vic Singh did a session with me using the same prismatic lense he employed for the Piper cover shots and I'm using his images on the next Phosphene record. We rather entered into the spirit of the whole thing!"

BD: Why Piper? What is so special about it?

John Cavanagh: Piper has been a "constant" in my life since I discovered it at the age of ten. Some records are favourites for a while, then get lost and maybe rediscovered, but there has never been a time when Piper has been far away from me. It's magical, experimental, life-affirming and, if you haven't heard it, you need to!

BD: How long have you spent working on it?

John Cavanagh: I started in the summer of 2002 and finshed by the end of January 2003.

BD: How much of the story did you know before starting the book?

John Cavanagh: Piper has been covered by so many Pink Floyd books, documentaries and press pieces to some degree, but I've often felt the view is coloured by what happened later. I still hear people saying "oh, they were all off their heads on acid", which is rubbish! For one thing, aside from Syd, the others were a very straight bunch and for another, you can't make an album like that unless you're absolutely on the case.

BD: Has your enjoyment of the album increased with a greater knowledge of the background?

John Cavanagh: Even though I know the thing back to front, I really had to listen with fresh ears and be very analytical when I was writing about it and, rather than tiring of it, I found I was actually getting more out of the songs... the tubular bells and electric piano on Chapter 24; the visceral mono mix of Pow R Toc H...

BD: How did you get some of the normally reluctant or reticent interviewees involved?

John Cavanagh: Getting started with some people was quite difficult. What I had to get across was that I wanted to come up with something a bit different and not just re-hash the usual "mad Syd" stuff for the 97th time. Once I'd convinced a few, initially sceptical, people, I found that they would pass me another 'phone number and so on and suddenly it would lead in a new direction.

BD: Who was the most illuminating and co-operative interviewee?

John Cavanagh: I couldn't name just one. The first interview I recorded was with Vic Singh, who shot the cover of the album. I hadn't seen Vic's story in any Floyd material before, so I was really excited to have a completely fresh story for starters. He turned out to be such a good guy and I'm in touch with him regularly now. That was a lucky start.

What I admire particularly about a lot of the people I talked to is that they are still so creative and alive to the here and now. We hear of so many burn-outs and casualties amongst '60's people that it's so inspiring to find Hoppy, Peter Whitehead, Jenny Fabian, Duggie Fields and so on, not only sharing illuminating memories, but also with great forward momentum.

BD: Were you sorry that Norman Smith wouldn't talk about the recording sessions?

John Cavanagh: That's a regret, for sure. I have a great interest in the developing recording technology of that era and the people who pushed forward the boundaries of what could be done with tape - people like Delia Derbyshire, Joe Meek, Terry Riley - and Norman is one of those figures who made important advances in the studio. I tried to get this across to him in a letter forwarded by one of his EMI colleagues, but I guess he's just had enough of recounting old stories. I'd like to think I could've offered him some questions he might have enjoyed answering, but for now I guess that remains a matter of conjecture!

BD: What were the most surprising revelations?

John Cavanagh: Without giving too much away, Norman Smith's performing involvement came as quite a surprise and the George Harrison connection to the sleeve image was totally new to me.

BD: You have covered in some detail, events not covered elsewhere (the Hendrix 1967 tour, for example). Was this a deliberate ploy, or a happy accident?

John Cavanagh: As a fan, I've snapped up books and articles on Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett. There's one volume I have (although I won't name it) which, as far as I can see, holds no new material at all: it's just a journalistic excercise in collating quotes from old interviews. I wanted to get as far from that as possible. Of course I had to use quotes from some archive sources - that was inevitable, but I attempted to have as much fresh new content as I possibly could. My thought was this... potential buyers of a book on one album are likely to be at least fairly dedicated fans who, like me, have read what has gone before and I don't want those people to feel short-changed with too much of that sense of deja vu.

BD: Was it difficult tracking down details of these events and the key people involved in them?

John Cavanagh: 1967 is a long time ago and, in the book, I acknowledge 3 other works which been very helpful to me, namely David Parker's "Random Precision", "In The Flesh" by Glenn Povey & Ian Russell and the Vernon Fitch book called "Pink Floyd - The Press Reports (1966-1983)". All of those were invaluable in pinpointing things like what the band's live schedule was like during specific session dates.

As far as tracking people down is concerned, I started making features at the BBC before the days of the internet and before I had any profile thanks to radio shows, so bashing the 'phones and following up leads is an old skill I had to revive! Some happy chance connections came along too, for example when I spoke to the ex-Buckingham Palace guardsman who dropped out of the army and subsequently shared a flat with Syd and, later beat poet Alex Trocchi, or the guy who played in the pre-recorded tape inserts at Games For May.

BD: How much did other accounts or books govern the path you took with the story?

John Cavanagh: Although there have been many fine accounts of that era, I tried not to get carried along by any particular voices I'd already heard and to keep looking for a little bit more. The context of the time is very important to me, as is a sense of the visual. When Duggie Fields told me about a flat that he, Syd and many others shared in London's Cromwell Road, I wanted to convey some feeling of what the place looked like. Hoppy's account of life in Wormwood Scrubs is also an important perspective on the mood of the day.

BD: You interviewed Nick Mason, obviously at some length. Did you approach others in the band?

John Cavanagh: I have a friend and colleague who co-wrote a song with Rick Wright, but although he tried to help me in making contact, that never got off the ground and the message which came back to me from Roger Waters' tour manager was that his schedule was too full to allow space for an interview. However as Nick Mason's recollections are very sharp, I was most fortunate to get him.

BD: How much co-operation did you receive from the band and their management?

John Cavanagh: It's stating the obvious to say that Piper is distinctive in the Floyd canon because of the line-up change that followed. What also changed was the management, as Peter Jenner and Andrew King opted to go with Syd. Both Jenner & King gave marvellous overviews and were very helpful, but I felt that contacting, say, Steve O'Rourke would have been straying somewhat off-topic. Same applies to David Gilmour. I have no idea how many people approach Pink Floyd's management and request interviews, but I suspect it's rather a lot, so I followed my own route.

BD: Did you consider trying to meet Syd/Roger Barrett, as others have done in an attempt to get some kind of "connection" with him?

John Cavanagh: Emphatically NO! If Mr. Barrett doesn't see people related to his time in Pink Floyd, why would he want to see people writing about those times? I think there's a bit of ego thing with journalists (and I'm not a journalist, as I'm often at great pains to point out) who go around thinking "I'll be the one" and, perhaps, view a meeting with Roger Barrett as a bit like bagging some sort of trophy. I'd rather distance myself from that. Of course I'd like to think that, if he ever saw what I'd written, he might enjoy it, but my guess is that if he wants to see any new books, he will and if he doesn't then no one should be forcing them on him.

BD: John Peel, a fellow BBC employee, and long-time friend of Floyd: was he any help with your research?

John Cavanagh: John Peel is a helpful and highly approachable man, but in this context his old colleague Pete Drummond was the one who had the rare story to tell, so rather than trouble John to recount his memory of the Technicolor Dream, I went for Pete talking about his role as compere of the Hendrix package tour in late '67.

BD: Any significant or interesting info, anecdotes, or trivia that was left out due to space constraints?

John Cavanagh: I recorded something like 22 interviews and some of these wandered well of the track at times, but the stuff which was pertinent to Piper all ended up in the book.

BD: Did the set, smaller than normal format of this series of books give you any headaches fitting the essential parts of the story in?

John Cavanagh: In radio, I've always had an overall sense of the structure of the programme. Although I had no experience writing anything longer than 6-900 words, I brought that to the book in the way I edited and divided the interview material as I went along.

Call it beginner's luck or whatever you want, but once I'd put it altogether, I was within about 300 words of the upper limit I'd been given by the publisher!

BD: Has your research given fresh perspective on the changes in the band (the departure of Syd and the search of their new direction, to the success of Dark Side Of The Moon, the growth of stresses within the band that lead to The Wall and ultimately the split of the band)?

John Cavanagh: I'd say that the blueprint to all of the above is there in Piper. Already there's a leaning towards rock spectacle, strong and differing personalities, the convergence of pop and avant garde... essentially, all the ingredients that would make and break relationships within the band. The thing about Piper is that in finding their distinctive voices within the structure of the band, they probably had a lot more fun making the record.... although there are different influences, it all pulls together in such a cohesive way.

BD: Do you have any interest in covering other momentous periods in the band's history?

John Cavanagh: Much as Piper would be with me on that desert island, my interest in Pink Floyd is much wider than their very early stuff, so yes, certainly.

BD: Has your music, with Phosphene, been influenced by the Floyd sound?

John Cavanagh: Inevitably! Trying to be a copyist is pointless and a bad idea all round, but there are certain sounds (the Farfisa Compact Duo organ, for example) that I'm always drawn to. I'm also very interested in the experimental side of Pink Floyd... I'd love to hear the music concrete things they were trying out prior to Dark Side, for example.

I used to be in a duo called Electroscope and we covered Chapter 24. I've recently recorded a version of Syd's song Rats for an album in the "Have You Got It Yet?" series.

BD: What other projects do you have in mind, or are actually working on?

John Cavanagh: There'll be a new Phosphene album in the autumn on an American label called Secret Eye records and I have another recording - enough for a mini-album - which is looking for a home. The latter is a collaboration with two saxophonists: Lol Coxhill and Raymond MacDonald. This was tremendous fun... Lol is an old favourite of mine and has worked with artists ranging from Rufus Thomas and Otis Spann to Bridget St. John, Kevin Ayers and the Damned.

I'm always around doing stuff at the BBC (last week I was reading some Baudelaire poetry for Radio 3 and there's a series on classic songs coming up next!), but as far as writing is concerned, this is new territory for me so I'll just go forward with an open mind and see what happens!

 
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