Drummer and lyricist
Thursday 31 August 2006
Philip Pyle, drummer and songwriter: born Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire 4 April 1950; twice married (three sons, three daughters); died Paris 28 August 2006.
A stalwart of the extended Canterbury music family, Pip Pyle drummed with Gong, Hatfield and the North and National Health, three of the groups which evolved out of the original Soft Machine and Caravan. Combining elements of progressive rock, jazz and a peculiar brand of Anglo-Saxon whimsy, these bands were mainstays of the underground scene throughout the Seventies and often drew bigger audiences in continental Europe than in the UK.
Pyle subsequently played with various groups connected to the Canterbury scene, like In Cahoots and Soft Heap, as well as leading Pip Pyle's Equip' Out and Pip Pyle's Bash. An early signing to Richard Branson's Virgin Records, Hatfield and the North reunited last year with a line-up of three of its original members - Pyle, the bassist and vocalist Richard Sinclair and the guitarist Phil Miller - and Alex Maguire on keyboards. Pyle died in Paris on Monday, two days after playing a concert with Hatfield and the North in Groningen, Holland.
He was born Philip Pyle in Hertfordshire in 1950, but soon became Pip. " My father changed his mind when I was two weeks old," he said. " Perhaps Philip was too long a word for him." Pip made friends with Phil Miller at kindergarten and also began banging on biscuit tins, a portent of things to come - on Gong's Camembert Electrique album (1971), he was credited with playing tables and chairs as well as drums. Mostly self-taught, Pyle formed Bruno's Blues Band with Phil Miller and his pianist brother Steve. The trio soon joined the bassist Roy Babbington (later of Nucleus and Soft Machine) and the singer Carol Grimes to become Delivery.
In 1970, the group recorded their only album, Fool's Meeting, but Pyle left after an argument with Grimes. He had a brief stint with the British blues band Chicken Shack and auditioned for Kevin Ayers, formerly of Soft Machine. Pyle had also befriended Robert Wyatt, the Soft Machine drummer, who asked him to come along to the Marquee Studios in 1971 to help out on the recording of Banana Moon, the solo album by Daevid Allen, another ex-member of Soft Machine. "There was a track which Robert, for some reason, couldn't face doing himself, so I did it," Pyle recalled. "That's how I met Daevid Allen and ended up joining Gong."
Pyle only stayed with Gong for eight months, but this was a productive time for the group, who lived in a commune near Sens, in France. They recorded Continental Circus, the soundtrack to the motorcycle documentary directed by Jerome Laperrousaz and Camembert Electrique, the album which made their reputation as cosmic rockers; backed the poet Dashiell Hedayat on the cult album Obsolete; and also appeared at the second Glastonbury Festival. Pyle left at the end of 1971 and was replaced by Laurie Allen and then Pierre Moerlen but he remained part of the Gong family and rejoined them in the Nineties. He also put in regular appearances at conventions and events organised by group members.
Back in the UK in 1972, Pyle worked with Paul Jones, the former singer with Manfred Mann, before reuniting with his erstwhile Delivery colleagues. With Dave Stewart - on heavily treated organ and Fender Rhodes - replacing Steve Miller, they became Hatfield and the North, after the first sign they used to see when driving to gigs up the M1. They signed to Virgin in 1973 and joined Mike Oldfield, Henry Cow, Gong and Robert Wyatt on the roster. Wyatt guested on "Calyx", one of the best tracks from their eponymous début recorded at the Manor studios near Oxford and released in 1974.
Pyle's already excellent playing blossomed further in Hatfield and the North and he was able to incorporate complex time signatures on compositions like "Shaving is Boring" and "Fitter Stoke has a Bath", one of several contributions he made to The Rotters' Club, the group's superlative second album, which charted briefly in March 1975 and inspired the Jonathan Coe novel of the same title. Pyle wrote a lot of the group's lyrics, including the quirky "Let's Eat (Real Soon)", their only single.
Hatfield and the North broke up that summer and Pyle freelanced with various jazz groups before in 1978 joining National Health, the group which, at various times, included Phil Miller and Dave Stewart alongside Alan Gowen (keyboards) and John Greaves (bass, vocals). Pyle played on National Health's three studio albums and also did session work on Neil's Heavy Concept Album, the 1984 spin-off project from the television show The Young Ones. That year, he also met the French pianist Sophia Domancich, who became his girlfriend and occasional collaborator.
Always in demand as the Canterbury scene drummer par excellence, Pyle toured and recorded with the Soft Machine alumni Elton Dean and Hugh Hopper, and his Gong colleague Didier Malherbe, and undertook a myriad other projects. In 1998, he finally issued his only solo album, entitled Seven Years Itch, which featured many of the musicians he had been associated with over the years.
"Sometimes even the simplest thing in music can be almost the most difficult," Pyle once said, talking about his drumming:
I've spent all my life trying to play a really slow, laid-back rhythm-and-blues shuffle like Jimmy Reed or something. Adrenaline usually seizes hold and ruins it. Technique, energy and exhilaration can be an obstruction sometimes. You just need to play what you hear in your head. Perhaps sometimes I think too much.
Pip Pyle was in a league of his own, writes Jonathan Coe. In the 1970s, when I first became aware of his playing, most other rock drummers just seemed to be holding down a beat. Pip was the only one who seemed to approach the drum kit as if it was a musical instrument. His playing could be light and feathery - one critic at the time, I remember, likened it to a grasshopper rubbing its legs together - but also wildly propulsive and exciting. At the same time, he could hold his own as a composer in some of the most musically sophisticated bands Britain has ever produced. And he was a wonderful lyricist - witty, sardonic, unpretentious.
In 2000 I wrote to Pip Pyle in France, where he had moved in the 1980s following a cross-channel love affair. I asked if I could quote some lines from his song "Share It" in my novel The Rotters' Club - the title of which he had unwittingly invented, since it was also the title of Hatfield and the North's second album. He seemed pleased by the hommage and thereafter, whenever I went over to Paris, I would try to squeeze in dinner or a drink with Pip.
He was terrific company, whether talking about music or books or politics or any of the other subjects in which he took such a keen interest. Neglected by the British public and press, he seemed to nurse no bitterness and revelled instead in the fact that his music was still very much appreciated in - among other places - France and Japan. He once told me of his delight in going on tour to Tokyo and discovering that a bar there had been named "Pip's" in his honour. He was even more delighted, on his next visit, to take a disbelieving female fan there in order to impress her, and discover that the place had been razed to the ground and turned into a McDonald's: it gave him a story he could live off for years afterwards.
Recently he had been touring Europe with a revised and rejuvenated version of Hatfield and the North. I learned of his death with the kind of stunned disbelief that hits you when the person concerned seemed to represent an unstoppable life-force. When I e-mailed Pip's friend and musical colleague Dave Stewart to say this, he replied:
Richard [Sinclair] said the gig they played in Groningen on Saturday night was the best they'd done with the revised line-up and that Pip played particularly well.
Afterwards they went out for a meal in good spirits and stayed up till 3am, so you know who would have been the last to bed! Sounds like his career ended on a high, happy note in the company of lifelong friends.
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