I only possess one Magic Muscle album (Laughs and Thrills) and it’s not even very good – a scrappy compilation of early live tracks cobbled together from different gigs – but then again, Magic Muscle were essentially a live band, and, more than that, a way of life.
The reason they are here is twofold: first, because they supported Hawkwind on the legendary Space Ritual tour and share with the original “People’s Band” (as well as the Pink Fairies, the Deviants and Welsh hippies Man) a whole-hearted commitment to free festivals, benefit gigs, and all the causes one generally associates with the Alternative Society; and second, because they used to live in our family friend John Orsborn’s house on Cotham Brow, a place which plays a central role in the alternative history of Bristol.
John Orsborn was an artist and beatnik, responsible for helping to set up the original Arnolfini gallery on the Triangle in the early 1960s. According to Edmund Gordon in The Invention of Angela Carter, “John styled himself a painter but he never sold enough canvasses to make a living from it…” He was also a serial philanderer: among his successful “conquests” was Carter, with whom he had a brief and passionate affair (passionate for her, anyway – John didn’t fancy her much, Gordon claims). He’s immortalised, rather unflatteringly, in one of Carter’s Bristol novels (Shadow Dance) as Honeybuzzard.
The real John lived with his long-suffering wife Jenny and son Carl on the top floor of the large detached house at 49 Cotham Brow while the rest of it – including a coach house at the back – they rented out to the many students, claimants and misfits who passed through Bristol at the time. The large basement functioned as a multi-purpose rehearsal space/crash pad/drug den and the constant fear of police raids meant that there was “a very elaborate means of entry into the house, but freaks in the know could slide down the disused coal-shute (…) soft-landing on surrealist pillows like a trip out of Alice in Wonderland.” (quote from www.achingcellar.co.uk/pages/tree/magic_muscle.htm)
Out of this wild, semi-communal scene, in which the great and good of Bristol bohemia – artists and antique dealers, academics. poets and jazz heads – would mingle with the counter-culture, jamming, painting, tripping (above all tripping) Magic Muscle didn’t so much spring as slowly, organically coalesce. Their name was taken from a Captain Beefheart song, a reference to the male member which was entirely in keeping with the phallocentrism of the times. Magic Muscle were, apparently, more than happy to play “benefits with benefits”, supported by charitable young women who, on failing to attract one of the Hawkwind entourage, would settle for a magic muscle of the Bristolian variety. Feminism would come later.
Through the ranks of Magic Muscle passed Bristol music fixture Huw Gower, Adrian Shaw (later to play bass in Hawkwind) Simon House (later to play violin and keyboards with Hawkwind AND Bowie) John Perry (later of the Only Ones) and, incredibly, a young Simon Cowell (so incredible it’s not actually true, but it does enable me to include his name as a tag alongside the key words Hawkwind and LSD, which gives me a perverse if childish pleasure).
In the summer of ’71 Magic Muscle played the first Glastonbury Fayre, and from jamming with the Pink Fairies and Hawkwind, they found themselves touring with the latter on the back of their surprise hit Silver Machine. A record contract beckoned, but a demo they sent to Island Records was rejected and then lost. By the end of ‘73 singer Rod Goodway was in hospital with hepatitis and Magic Muscle (Mark I) had fizzled out.
However, the legend refused to die, helped by the total dearth of recordings. Magic Muscle was a name you whispered in reverent tones in the pre-Internet, pre-CD days of the late 70s when we were grocking on all that shit. By the turn of the 90s Goodway had re-formed the band with the “classic” line-up of Gower, Shaw, House and Twink (ex-Pink Fairies & Pretty Things) on drums. That is one shit hot outfit, and they cut a pretty good album, One Hundred Miles Below, live in Bath, followed a few years later by the equally accomplished Gulp, which Simon House once again dignified with his violin, the way he dignifies every record he plays on, from early heavy prog craziness in High Tide, by way of Hawkwind (Warrior On The Edge, Quark Strangeness and Charm) to David Bowie’s Lodger and Stage, although obviously playing with Bowie was a bit of a step back after playing with Hawkwind. As for John Orsborn, artist and raconteur par excellence, he was a regular visitor throughout the 70s to our flat on Hampton Road, and later, in the 80s, to our house in Bishopston. At the end of that awful decade, as if to say “things can only get worse” (which they did, for another seven or eight years) he had a stroke and died. I took him for granted back then, as you do, but I miss him now.
Post-script: no sooner had I finished the above than I received news that John’s widow Jenny had also just died of cancer, so this post is in honour of her. Rest in peace, Jenny and John.
M is also for:
Paul McCartney, McCartney II (go ahead, sneer if you want – that’s because you haven’t heard it. A brilliant album, full of gorgeous miniature masterpieces of electro-pop)
McDonald & Giles, McDonald & Giles (ex-King Crimson, sounds a bit like Atom Heart Mother-era Floyd, played by better musicians).
Shelagh McDonald, The Shelagh McDonald Album/Stargazer (aha – the Bristol connection rears its Bumpkinish head again. Shelagh was a folk rocker, sounded a bit like Joni Mitchell, dropped acid and disappeared off the music scene for ever after, leaving these two rather fine, but – I can’t help thinking – slightly over-rated albums).
Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Love Over & Over (for my money, the best of the McGarrigle Sisters albums, not that I’ve heard them ALL. One of them mothered Rufus Wainwright, but hey – no-one’s perfect).
Don McLean, American Pie/Don McLean (except perhaps Don McClean, who for two albums WAS perfect, and if you disagree, it’s because you can’t see beyond the overplayed title track of the first album to the genius of Vincent, Dreidel, or Pride Parade).
Tony McPhee, The Two Sides of Tony (T.S) McPhee (one side is grumpy, misogynist blues from an embittered Groundhog, the other half is a side-long synth suite which sounds like something a primary school child would come up with. Yes, it’s THAT good!)
Gwen McRae, Rockin’ Chair, Something So Right, Let’s Straighten It Out, Melody of Life (four albums of Ms McRae – not enough! Rockin’ Chair is the one with 90% of Me is You, while Melody of Life has All This Love That I’m Giving).
The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs (about a third of which are forgettable, a third are “quirky” in quite a good way and a third are achingly beautiful).
The Mandrake Memorial, The Mandrake Memorial (I think this is a quite highly regarded psych album but I’m not sure and I don’t feel like putting it on to see what it sounds like, or even check it out on Google, so you’ll just have to take my word for it).
Manassas, Manassas (Stephen Stills side-project, with Chris Hillman of the Byrds/Flying Burrito Bros. Never more than pleasantly melodic country/rock really, it veers worryingly close to Exile on Main Street territory at times).
John & Beverley Martyn, Stormbringer (worth it for Go Out & Get It and the title track alone, two great examples of what they now call “folk-funk”)
John Martyn, Solid Air (this is after he dumped his wife as a musical collaborator, before she dumped him as a wife-beater. A simply brilliant album, with more essential folk-funk e.g. Bad Dreams By The Sea).
Curtis Mayfield, Roots, Curtis Live, There’s No Place Like America Today (three well-crucial albums from the ex-Impression & Minister of Super-Conscious Soul)
Melanie, Candles in the Rain (quite honestly, pretty awful, apart from Lay Down, which is dancefloor-friendly hippy gospel in the Oh Happy Day/early Glasto days vein).
The Meters, Rejuvenation (the very embodiment of funk)
Midlake, The Courage of Others (my daughter likes this, and so do I. Who DOESN’T like nu-folk?)
Steve Miller, Circle of Love (includes Macho City, which clocks in at around 16 minutes, and has raised many an approving eyebrow when I copy David Mancuso and play it in a DJ set).
Father John Misty, Fear Fun (see Midlake, although this is less folky than the Fleet Foxes, who he used to play drums for)
Prince Phillip Mitchell, Top of the Line (contains I’m So Happy, which is all you need, or need to know. It also has a great cover, the impact of which would be massively reduced on a CD case, where you might be able to see his fur coat and ridiculous over-sized sunglasses, but you wouldn’t immediately clock the mastiff and the Mafia bodyguards in the background).
Essra Mohawk, Primordial Lovers/Essra Mohawk (singer-songwriter with the Frank Zappa seal of approval, so clearly talented and incapable of error. The first album is brilliant, in a kooky/quirky, Carole King kind of way, while the second is funkier and more polished but still intermittently strange)
Janelle Monae, Archandroid (because I liked Tightrope, for about five minutes. Then I decided that Pharrell Williams was better).
Michael Moorcock & Deep Fix, The New World’s Fair (Simon House on violin again, dignifying another Hawkwind spin-off album with his unique ability to actually play his instrument).
Van Morrison, Moondance, His Band & The Street Choir, Tupelo Honey, Saint Dominic’s Preview, Veedon Fleece, Hard Nose The Highway, Irish Heartbeat (every one a winner, and not an Astral Week in sight!)
Moment of Truth, Moment of Truth (at the interface of Philly soul and disco, which is better than being at the interface of an Apple Mac or even a PC, and much better than being a hundred feet underground at the coalface, chipping away at the black stuff, mining hunks of funk and soul).
Jackie Moore, Make Me Feel Like A Woman (I’ve tried to get rid of this album but I can’t. It’s not like I ever PLAY it, but I know it’s good, I know that Jackie Moore is one soulful lady… I should just go and put it on now. Yes.)
Lee Moses, Time & Place (great, “lost” soul album, half of it “deep soul” which is like Otis or James Carr, only better, and half of it “psychedelic soul”, including an incredible version of Hey Joe which is worth the price of admission alone)
The Mothers (of Invention) Before they became FRANK ZAPPA and the Mothers, the Mothers were simply the Mothers, or Mothers of Invention (in case anyone thought they were the Motherfuckers, which of course they were). Zappa was not exactly first among equals – he wrote the tunes, paid and led the band – but on paper at least they were a BAND, and they cut some seriously good shit, which I would talk about at greater length if I hadn’t already expended nine hundred words or more on the infinitely inferior Magic Muscle (who didn’t even manage to cut one album at the height of their “fame”). But fear not, Mothers fans – I’ll make up for I when I get to Z, and give you the lowdown on EVERY SINGLE Zappa/Mothers album I own.