Hurdy Gurdy Man, by Steve Hillage

1976 was a year of new beginnings for Steve Hillage. After spending three productive years with Gong that yielded the Radio Gnom trilogy (Flying Teapot, Angel’s Egg and You), the previous year proved quite a turbulent one for the band with a revolving door of musicians leaving and entering the lineup. Towards the end of 1975 the band was in the process of recording their next album Shamal with a drastically changed cast, but Hillage did not feel comfortable with the markedly new jazz rock leanings of the band, led by drummer-extraordinaire Pierre Moerlen. Hillage had the utmost respect for Moerlen, but he missed the psychedelic influences and hippie vibe of Daevid Allen who left early in 1975. Hillage said of that period: “The thing that became awkward and eventually intolerable for me was that in the absence of Daevid Allen, who founded the band, and Gilli Smyth and Tim Blake, who were also key members of the group, Virgin Records tried to manipulate a situation that Gong would somehow morph into my backing band. The reason I had joined Gong and the reason I felt that it had enriched my musical and personal life was because the band was a community.”

Steve Hillage Gong

Steve Hillage with Gong

Hillage already released one solo album on Virgin Records while with Gong, the fantastic Fish Rising, a psychedelic-progressive record that included tracks he honed for a few years since his work with Khan, the short-lived band he formed before joining Gong. A couple of personal favorite tracks on that album are Solar Musick Suite and Salmon Song. One of Hillage’s signature sounds comes from a technique dubbed as Glissando, which he described: “Glissando involves stroking the strings with a metal rod. It’s different from using a bottleneck in that you put the metal rod on the strings and stroke the strings right there on the neck. It interacts with the harmonics of the guitar to produce a unique unearthly and angelic sound. Daevid Allen of Gong developed it after seeing Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd doing it with a Zippo lighter.”

Steve Hillage L Tour

Steve Hillage during the L Tour

Early in 1976 Steve Hillage was ready to start working on his second solo album and was looking for a producer. Unlike Fish Rising  which he self produced with no time pressure, the next album would have more visibility after he turned a solo artist and would have to be cut quicker. Through the record label a contact was made with Todd Rundgren, in whom Hillage found a kindred spirit. Hillage was familiar with a number of albums Rundgren released in the early 70s, including his double-LP solo Something/Anything with the hit Hello It’s Me. But it was the album Initiation that Rundgren released with his band Utopia in 1975 that caught Steve Hillage’s ear. The album included the 35 minute epic A Treatise on Cosmic Fire, after a book of the same name by occultist author Alice Bailey. The complex use of synths, most of them played by Rundgren, and the great sound and production of the album were what Hillage was looking for: “Personally, I thought that side two of Todd’s record Initiation, which got very bad press, was a very fine piece of synthesizer work.”

Steve Hillage Todd Rundgren

Todd Rundgren with Steve Hillage

In May 1976 Hillage traveled for the first time to the US to meet Rundgren in his Secret Sound studio in upstate New York. There he met Rundgren’s band Utopia, a group of musicians able and quick to learn the new music Hillage brought with him. Utopia consisted at the time of Kasim Sulton on Bass, John Wilcox on Drums and Roger Powell on Keyboards (a year later Powell would play on David Bowie’s tour that resulted in the live album Stage). In the March 1977 edition of the electronic music magazine Synapse Hillage said: “Those guys are really first-class electronic musicians each in their own way. Just being around them I learned a great deal. It was a very illuminating experience. In many ways the record was a question of: I had all these ideas and sounds and I wanted them to help me get them on tape. Roger Powell is a great synthesizer player. He has a complete mastery of the instruments.” The album included the 12-minute space jam Lunar Musick Suite with a guest appearance by trumpeter Don Cherry, a contact that was made through composer Carla Bley with whom Cherry played at Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra.

Utopia 1976

Utopia: Roger Powell, John Wilcox, Kasim Sulton, Todd Rundgren


The resulting album L was released on September 24th, 1976 and became Steve Hillage’s most successful album. It peaked at number 10 in the US charts and yielded two singles, both covers. The first was George Harrison’s Its All Too Much from 1967 and the other Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man from 1968.

Steve Hillage L front

When Hillage was back from the US after he completed recording the album, he quickly assembled a touring band to promote it. The result was a stellar lineup that toured the UK, Europe and US in the second half of 1976 and early 1977. The band consisted of Clive Bunker, former Jethro Tull drummer who played on all their early recordings up to and including Aqualang, bass player Colin Bass, who went on to join Camel on their albums I Can See Your House From Here (1979) and Nude (1980), guitarist Christian Boule, Phil Hodge on keyboards, Basil Brooks from the unique all-synth early 70s band Zorch on synths and flute, and girl friend Miquette Giraudy on synths.

Steve Hillage L Band

L Touring Band: Miquette Giraudy, Steve Hillage, Phil Hodge, Christian Boule, Clive Bunker, Basil Brooks, Colin Bass

The band had only a month of rehearsals before a high profile debut show at the Hyde Park as part of a free concert headlined by Queen. The tour went through Europe, followed by a two-month US tour as opening act for the then-huge ELO. Coming back to the UK the band recorded their final show at the Rainbow Theatre in London on March 26, 1977, from which a number of tracks appeared on the Live Herald album, including Hurdy Gurdy Man

Live Herald - front

Hurdy Gurdy Man was written by Donovan and released as part of his 1968 album The Hurdy Gurdy Man as well as a single that year. Prior to writing the song Donovan participated in the famous trip the Beatles took to India in 1968 to study under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. That trip yielded many great songs by the Beatles that ended up in the white album, and for Donovan it produced the affectionate Jennifer Juniper, written about Jenny Boyd, Patty Boyd’s sister. Hurdy Gurdy Man was partly written there, although Donovan’s memory is unclear on the point. Maybe it is the elevation up there while meditating, or just the usual earthly causes of too much drugs and alcohol. Donovan: “I’m not sure if I wrote that song in India or on the beach in Jamaica. I’m pretty sure it was in Jamaica, were we had very good Ganga that year and somebody gave me 110-proof rum. I fell asleep on the beach and went into a dream in which I saw a cross-legged figure coming over the ocean:
“Thrown like a star in my vast sleep
I opened my eyes to take a peek
To find that I was by the sea
Gazing with tranquility”

Now you have to mix that up with the Indian trip because a crossed-legged figure is really a yogi. And we did go to India, and maybe Maharishi comes into it a little bit.”
When asked about who the Hurdy Gurdy Man is, Donovan replied: “I am the Hurdy Gurdy Man. But also the Hurdy Gurdy Man is all singers who sing songs of love. The Hurdy Gurdy Man is a chronicler, The Hurdy Gurdy Man is like a bard, and the Hurdy Gurdy Man is any singer-songwriter in any age, whether they were in Ireland or whether they were in the streets of New York during the sixties.”

Donovan’s version has a brief guitar solo, which may be the thing that caught Steve Hillage’s attention. Donovan claims that it was originally planned for Jimi Hendrix to play it but he was not available, and the solo is played by a young Allan Holdsworth. Jimmy Page recalls that Jeff Beck recorded a guitar track that was not what producer Mickie Most wanted and a session guitar player named Alan Parker actually played on the track. Hillage talks about how he decided to cover the song in the book that accompanies the career spanning 22-CD box set: “The idea of covering Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man came to him after discovering a little shop in the old part of Lyon while on tour with Gong in May 1975, where a master craftsman built classic hurdy-gurdies still true to their 15th century design. Steve spent an afternoon playing the instrument, becoming entranced by the combination of  the tuning wheel and the droney sound.” Hillage took Donovan’s song to a whole new level with his version, and the live version from Live Herald is my favorite. It starts with the spacey arpeggiated Castle in the Clouds, which transitions beautifully into the first verse of Hurdy Gurdy Man. The arrangement is quiet interesting, with various key and tempo changes and guitar solos supreme and a surprising ending. Here is a live version from that tour in 1977, recorded in Germany:

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Thrown like a star in my vast sleep
I opened my eyes to take a peek
To find that I was by the sea
Gazing with tranquility


‘Twas then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man
Came singing songs of love
Then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man
Came singing songs of love


“Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy gurdy” he sang
“Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy gurdy” he sang
“Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy gurdy” he sang


Histories of ages past
Unenlightened shadows cast
Down through all eternity
The crying of humanity


‘Tis then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man
Comes singing songs of love
Then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man
Comes singing songs of love


“Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy gurdy” he sang
“Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurd
Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy gurdy” he sang
“Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy gurdy” he sang


Here comes the Roly Poly Man
He’s singing songs of love
“Roly poly, roly poly, holy poly poly” he sang
“Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy gurdy” he sang
“Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy gurdy” he sang



Categories: Song

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7 replies »

  1. Very thorough. Hillage is as fabulous and inventive guitarist. A couple of his albums have appeared at Vinyl Connection, but not L.
    Hope your piece inspires folk to check his work out further.

  2. Nice blog, thanks. I enjoyed this piece about Hillage, which led to my ordering a copy of Donovan’s autobiography.

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