In October of 1972 the original lineup of Curved Air decided to call it quits. After 3 years of existence and constant touring, supporting and performing alongside acts such as Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull and Deep Purple, the founding members were exhausted by the rock n roll experience. Guitar and keyboard player Francis Monkman said: “We were all dead beat. We’d just been told that if we toured the U.S. three more times before next spring, we might just about break even. Head against a brick wall, the image that came to mind then.” Bassist Mike Wedgwood added: “It was a very intense band, musically, personality-wise and on the road. We were in a world of fast cars, stage-door exit madness and wild clothes.” That was the end of a brilliant and unique line up in that golden period of progressive music, the year they released a masterpiece called Phantasmagoria. This is its story.
The origins of Curved Air began with the band Sisyphus, with Francis Monkman and bassist Rob Martin, who were joined by drummer Florian Pilkington-Miksa and violin player-extraordinaire Darryl Way. Years later Way recalled his first meeting with Monkman during a visit to a music store in pursuit of an electric pick up for his violin in the late 1960s, quite an innovative device for its time: “Francis Monkman happened to be in the shop and he heard this great big noise coming from a tiny violin and he was very impressed. He was at the Royal Academy of Music and I was at the Royal College of Music and so that’s how we got together.” Monkman and Way all both came from a classical training background, but were enamored with the thriving experimental rock music of that era. Way remembers: “We were all inspired by the music that was happening around us, at that time there was The Nice with Keith Emerson and he was obviously leading towards classical music, and King Crimson with Robert Fripp … there was a feeling amongst us crossover musicians that we had that little window of opportunity to get involved in popular and rock music, and that was the liberating thing for us.” The combination of classical and rock music would become a major trademark of Curved Air’s music.
In 1969, on a request from Galt McDermott (who wrote the music for the musical Hair), they became the pit band for the play Who The Murderer Was. Looking for a front woman, they heard a member in the cast of Hair and asked her to join the band. Enter Sonja Kristina into the Curved Air universe. Prior to her part in Hair, Kristina used to sing in folk clubs around London: “I was a real hippie with bare feet, and I was out all night playing guitar at squat parties and just living a hippie bohemian sort of existence.” The group picked up an interesting name, influenced by a modern classical composition called Rainbow in Curved Air by minimalist composer Terry Riley. Monkman participated in the London premiere of Riley’s best known composition, In C.
The band’s debut album, Air Conditioning, was released at the end of 1970 and was quite a success, reaching number 8 in the UK charts and including the now classic piece Vivaldi, written by Daryl Way. The following year they released their second album, named appropriately Second Album. This release made it to number 11 in the charts and included their sole charting single Back Street Luv. Their progressive rock leanings were evident on the epic track Piece of Mind. Monkman said this was his first attempt at composing something more extended than a ‘song’. Kristina on the song: “We were doing quite complex music in the show, as we were doing Piece of Mind which Francis Monkman had written. It is a fantastic piece with lots and lots of musical changes and beautiful words that he wrote.”
Released in April of 1972, their third album Phantasmagoria continued the trend started with the previous albums and became their most ambitious set of songs, showcasing the writing and performing talents of all members of the band. The opener, Marie Antoinette, tells the story of the rise and fall of the last Queen of France before the French Revolution. Kristina: “The Sixties were revolutionary times. Marie Antoinette was a symbol of social divisions that create unrest and the catalyst for change and evolution.” From a collection of live TV performances, here is the band in their 1972 incarnation playing the song on Belgian TV.
The band was at the peak of their success in 1972, appearing on many TV shows. The album’s title track was performed on Austrian TV just before the band broke up in October of that year. The title of the song and the album was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s longest poem Phantasmagoria. The name means a sequence of frightening or fantastic images as in a dream. The lyric sheet contains a quote from the poem:
“Oh, when I was a little Ghost,
A merry time had we!
Each seated on his favourite post,
We chumped and chawed the buttered toast
They gave us for our tea.”
Bass player Mike Wedgwood dishes out great lines on his instrument on this track. Wedgwood was a new recruit, joining the group just before the recording of the album. Years later he recalled his audition with the band: “I went to an audition with Sonja Kristina, Francis Monkman, Darryl Way and Florian Pilkington-Miksa that was an unforgettable experience. I’d never played so loud in my life (and probably never will – Curved Air were measured the second loudest band in the world soon after I joined!). I was given a complicated written line in a complex time signature to play on the spot and got through it somehow, then began to relax a bit when we started playing improvised pieces and a couple of their numbers.”
Not many rock acts in general, and progressive rock in particular, had front female singers in the early 1970s, or any female musicians for that matter. Renaissance with the angelic Annie Haslam comes to mind, but the two bands were as different in style as their singers. Still, the song Not Quite the Same reminds me of Renaissance, with its classical orchestration and its rhythm.
We come to my two favorite tracks from the album. The first is the 8-minute epic piece, a magnificent concoction created by Francis Monkman called Over and Above. Jazz percussionist Frank Ricotti can be heard prominently on this track playing Xylophone and Vibraphone, instruments you do not usually hear in popular music. Around the time of recording the album Ricotti was in Jazz orchestrator Michael Gibbs’ band, a connection to Monkman, who stated: “One thing I remember though, playing Over and Above at a festival in Germany, pre-dawn, and then watching the light come up during the instrumental, and, hey, we could suddenly all see each other, all 50,000 of us! That was a moment I’ll never forget. Jazz, well, I got that via the Softs (though I’d always liked Monk, some Brubeck, then Mike Gibbs).” Certainly, this is a great combination of jazz and symphonic rock with brilliant parts written for brass instruments.
The last piece for this review is the only one composed by Sonja Kristina. Her folk roots have not yet surfaced within the band’s classical infused rock repertoire and were overshadowed by the output of the two main songwriters Monkman and Way. Melinda (More or Less) was first introduced to the band a couple of years earlier while they auditioned Kristina. She wrote the song in 1967 when she was 18 and performing in small folk clubs. She was the main lyrics writer in the band, but that song was the first composition of hers that the band recorded. The pastoral song gets a perfect treatment by the band. Francis Monkman plays beautiful harpsichord lines in the background and Darryl Way shines with his violin accompaniment and solo. One of the greatest parts of the song is the interplay between the violin and flute, played by one Annie Stewart who I could not dig any info on. And then of course there is Sonja Kristina’s acoustic guitar and voice. I can definitely hear this song being performed solo by her in a cavernous folk club in 1967.
The album was recorded at Advision Studios in London, a mainstay recording facility for many progressive rock bands such as Yes, Gentle Giant and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It was produced by Colin Caldwell who also worked with the band on their two previous albums Air Conditioning and Second Album, as well as Anne Briggs’ excellent album The Time Has Come in 1971. The cover art was illustrated by John Gorham, with beautiful lettering and a hooded creature smoking a hookah out in nature. Phantasmagoria was released in April of 1972, entering the UK charts on May 13 and climbing to no. 20. The band went on small tour of the US and UK and performed on a few TV shows.
By the end of the tour to promote Phantasmagoria Monkman and Way wanted out. Kristina remembers: “They were moving in completely different directions musically, and as far as production was concerned, they couldn’t agree so they both each produced their own sides of Phantasmagoria. Once we’d finished Phantasmagoria, released it, and taken it out in America, they’d had enough of touring, so they decided that they were going to go off and concentrate on their own musical preferences and tastes.” All band members continued a rich musical career in the 1970s. Francis Monkman participated in the excellent super group project 801 with Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno. In 1978 he found success with classical guitarist John Williams and the band Sky, playing a perfect blend of classical and rock music. Daryl Way formed the band Darryl Way’s Wolf and in 1978 contributed his excellent violin skills to the folk rock masterpiece Heavy Horses by Jethro Tull. Mike Wedgwood stayed with Curved Air for one more record, Air Cut, and in 1974 joined Caravan, releasing a number of albums with them. Drummer Florian Pilkington-Miksa played with the likes of Kiki Dee and Al Stewart.
And Sonja? She formed a new lineup of Curved Air including wiz kid Eddie Jobson. After one more album the label dropped the band and she found herself with a child to support and in need of a job. She found one as a croupier at the Playboy Club after an audition she vividly described: “You had to stand on a little stage in a swimsuit or a bikini and they would assess us, and then we had to do an intelligence test because we were auditioning to be croupier bunnies as opposed to cocktail bunnies. I did that for nine months.” She did not meet Hugh Hefner, but the experience influenced her increasingly sultry stage performances when she formed yet another incarnation of Curved Air with future husband Stewart Copeland of Police fame.
Phantasmagoria remains my favorite album by Curved Air. Mike Wedgwood said of the album: “Phantasmagoria is in some ways the most challenging album I’ve been on.” It was an end of an era for the band members, as Francis Monkman summarizes: “Well, I think, looking back, that Phantasmagoria represents a very honest picture of the nightmare existence we were having. Not the gigs, which were the best part, but increasingly most else. Plus the nightmare of sensing the beginning of the change from ‘dawn of a new future’ to ‘back in your boxes’.”
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