the machine gun company
THE MACHINE GUN COMPANY was one of the most important, and enjoyable bands of my career. Its longest serving member, saxophonist Geoff Hawkins, came with me from my first ever band The Blues Committee. The Machine Gun Company was a natural musical extension of The Blues Committee as far as I was concerned and Geoff was really the musical link and inspirational motivator.
He and I have known each other since we were about 19 years old and we met while both working at the same timber mill (in the offices) – Baynes in Reading. I lent Geoff Mezz Mezzrow’s book ‘Really The Blues’ and he told me many years later that he thought that Mezzrow’s book had cleared (or clouded?) the air for both of us. Read about Mezzrow and his book @
I had found Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker myself – both extremely cool cats – but Geoff introduced me to Ornette Coleman, who radically changed both our listening and future musical directions. Geoff was on to him right from the start in the late fiftes. If it hadnt been for Geoff I would probably have still been listening to Barney Kessel and struggling to play bop.
After the demise of The Blues Committee I pursued a solo career – I spent 6 hours a day learning Blind Boy Fuller songs and playing acoustic country blues. I recorded “Out Of The Shades” with Derek Hall in about 1965 and was working in folk clubs and festivals. The acoustic British Blues Boom was in full swing and i was part of it and getting press. In 1968 I was contacted by producer Peter Eden who had bought a copy of ‘Out Of The Shades’ and had just produced Donovan’s first record. He asked me to record for Pye records which culminated in “Oh Really!?” released in 1969. i signed a five year contract with Pye who shortly after started their “progressive” label Dawn – which I was then assigned to. For my second record i had already decided i wanted to move away from the blues genre and start writing my own songs, inspired by my friends at the time Michael Chapman and Ralph Mctell. We toured as a trio from time to time and I shared many all night sessions at Les Cousin’s folk club in London’s Soho with both of them.
Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks was released in 1968 and it was (and still is) one of my favourite records and it enhanced my appreciate of acoustic bass. On Astral Weeks you could actually hear the bass. Through Peter Eden I met a lot of the then current young jazz musicians because he was working with them. I had heard Chris McGegor and his Bluenotes at Reading University and I was a regular at Ronnie Scott’s Old Place. For ‘Do I Know You?’ that second record I asked Peter to book the South African Harry Miller on bass for me. We recorded the album at Southern Studios and it was the start of a long relationship with first Harry and then later Louis Maholo and Mike Osbourne. Recording with Harry helped me to realise the value of musicians who could improvise and that songs could exist in a broader context than the usual folk or pop construction and that they could be musically more experimental than those genre normally were.
After ‘Do I Know You’ came ‘Trout Steel’ and I really called on the assistance of Peter and his jazz connections. We hired half of Mike Westbrooks band, Mike Osbourne, Alan Skidmore, Tony Jackson plus I invited Geoff, Stefan Grossman and another local to Reading folk musician Bill Boazman to join me in an experimental folk/jazz session. Since Astral Weeks I had also stumbled on Sonny Sharock’s “Black Woman’ and Pharoah Sanders’ ‘Tauhid’ and of course I was a huge fan of Tim Buckley. The dye was cast and if we glanced back we would all turn to salt.
Solo acoustic live performance was becoming a musical frustration for me and I started to do gigs in duo with Bill Boazman or with Geoff on sax but folk clubs were not places I could do that – only on the festivals. I played the Hollywood Festival which was the Grateful Dead’s first gig in the U.K. ( http://www.ukrockfestivals.com/Holly-fest-menu.70.html ) with Geoff and Richard Williams writing in the Melody Maker said
“..In retrospect the most interesting sequence of music…was not the Grateful Deads British debut…it was a quiet unassuming appearance by guitarist Mike Cooper, accompanied by a wild and woolly tenor player named Geoff Hawkins….Mike Cooper should be heard more often! ” (Richard Williams – Melody Maker) and I believed him.
On tour in Belgium one evening Bill Boazman and I had happened upon a concert of ‘Free Jazz” – i think it was in Ghent. What I do know is it was Peter Brozman, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Paul Rutherford, Paul Lytton, Paul Lovens etc..the whole European free improvising crew. I bought Brozman’s ‘Machine Gun’ l.p. and decided I needed a band but people who could improvise. I called up Geoff and he suggested a keyboard player Alan Cook and a jazz drummer from Oxford, Tim Richardson. I knew a bass player, Les Calvert, from one of the local pop/r&b/soul bands The Memphis Gents. We started to rehearse and Machine Gun Company was born.
This band, with the addition of Bill Boazman, was the band I would record most of my third record ‘Places I Know’ and all of the ‘Machine Gun Company’ album with. Those two records were conceived as a double album aimed at covering the wide range of music I was interested in and gently leading the listener from the more accessible ‘Places..” with its arrangements by Mike Gibbs ( the album includes Tony Coe amongst its distinguished session musician ranks) into the more (for the times) extreme areas of ‘Machine Gun Company”.
That never happened and they were released as two separate records a year apart. I was getting a lot of support from people like John Peel and indeed a lot of radio with the band but my recording contract with Pye Records expired and no offers were forthcoming for another from elsewhere. I was without management, the folk scene and I were not really interested in one another and gigs were becoming a problem. We played a few but not enough. I decided, wrongly, to take a more commercial ( I thought) direction and I dropped the more extreme edges of the music and we became more of an ‘americana’ west coast type of band with the lead guitar of Bill more to the front. We recorded some songs and did some live gigs but I was not able to hack it as a band leader and an agent/manager and eventually Machine Gun Company slowly faded away and I moved to Europe. The clip below, ‘Morning Glory’, is from a live recording, on cassette, of the latter stages of the band and features Geoff on sax. The photo below is in the 100 Club in London.