Friday, 25 October 2019

Quintessence – Spirits From Another Time 1969 – 1971

Stuart Penney

If, like me, you file your records/CDs in strict alphabetical order, I’m guessing the section marked “Q” is very sparsely populated indeed.  Only five “Q” names grace my shelves and you can probably guess what they are. That’s right, it’s Quatermass, Queen, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Quiver and Quintessence (those Quarrymen bootlegs are filed under “Beatles”, since you ask).  Of those five, the one that gets the most needle time by far is undoubtedly the magnificent and timeless Quintessence. 
For those of us who were buying records in the late 60s and early 70s our first introduction to the band was almost certainly via the 1969 Island budget sampler LP Nice Enough To Eat. Here, for the giveaway price of 14s/6d (72½p), nestling among new and exciting offerings from Fairport, Tull, Free, Mott and Crimson was the Quintessence track “Gungamai”.  But in their haste to get Nice Enough To Eat into the stores, Island made a few schoolboy errors with the sleeve notes (see footnote for more details). 
Such confusion aside “Gungamai” (or “Ganga Mai” to use the later, correct, title) with its overtly Indian overtones was an attention-grabbing departure from the other prog/folk/blues fodder on Nice Enough To Eat and it was the start of a love affair with Quintessence which outlived the band’s brief five album lifespan and endures to this day.

When I read that almost everything on Spirits From Another Time is previously unreleased I was initially concerned it might turn out to be a ragbag collection of unfinished and/or inferior material.  I needn’t have worried. Most tracks are extended versions of familiar songs, or powerful alternate takes/versions and it all stacks up well up against the band’s official Island catalogue. 
This collection was compiled and curated by redoubtable music historian Colin Harper who also provided the 16 pages of closely typed and insanely detailed sleeve notes.  Harper scoured the archives of Melody Maker, NME and other music papers to come up with a wealth (and I mean dozens) of contemporary ads for Quintessence gigs, showing them rubbing shoulders and sharing stages with familiar (and some not so familiar) names of the day.  Just about every prog/folk/psych band of note is mentioned here and it’s enough to send any early 70s rock historian into a nostalgic tailspin.
Raga rock and Indian music in general enjoyed a brief but significant period of popularity in the late 60s, with everyone from the Beatles down dabbling in meditation and other spiritual pursuits.  Ravi Shankar had long been the darling of the folk and classical music crowd, of course, and things reached an unlikely climax in the summer of 1969 when the Radha Krishna Temple took their George Harrison-produced “Hare Krishna Mantra” Apple single to number 12 in the UK charts.  It’s probably no coincidence, then, that John Barham, the man who produced the Quintessence Island albums also worked as arranger on those Radha Krishna Temple recordings, as well as some of Beatle George’s own albums. 
With their flutes, sitars, tablas and none-more-hippy “Only love can save us” lyrics, Quintessence occupied a similar area of Indian influenced devotional music which tapped into prog rock, hypnotic psychedelia and went on to evolve into electronic dance music and trance.  The main difference being they were much louder with a clearly defined high energy rock sensibility and could often be found playing free concerts in and around Ladbroke Grove. Although based in Notting Hill, Quintessence was also a truly international band with front man Phil “Shiva” Jones and flautist Raja Ram both originating from Australia, while other members hailed from America, Canada, Mauritius and Yorkshire.

The opening track “Notting Hill Gate” sets the mood with the timeless lyric “We’re getting it straight in Notting Hill Gate.  We all sit around and meditate” and the original In Blissful Company recording is extended here by a full minute to include previously unheard references to their home turf of Ladbroke Grove.
The guitar dexterity of Allan Mostert and Maha Dev was always one of the main Quintessence drawcards for me and it’s here in abundance, with almost every track featuring a glut of fierce wah-wah guitar set among the blissed-out flutes and sitars.  Nowhere is this more evident than on “Epitaph For Tomorrow”, an 11 minute plus epic instrumental jam with west coast-meets-live Cream overtones.

More blazing guitar work appears on “Body”, a rare concert track recorded at St Pancras Town Hall in 1970.  This is one of the highlights of Disc One and shows the band were a live act to be reckoned with.
*Quintessence pictured in 1970

Disc Two opens with an alternate take of “Sea of Immortality” from their self-titled second album.  Very different to the released version, it features yet another quite extraordinary guitar solo. “Tree Of Life” is a previously unheard song with modern overdubs, while “Marwa” explores the Indian raga form to the full.  

“Only Love” is perhaps the, ahem, quintessential Quintessence track with every element in place.  Raja Ram’s ethereal flute leads off this alternate take before the “we’re gonna come together” mantra takes over and the song settles into a hypnotic groove of guitar and tabla, gradually speeding up to a frantic and chaotic climax.  If I had to choose one track to represent the sound and style of Quintessence it would be this one. 

While very much of its time, this music is timeless, unchanging and stands up to repeated listening.  Together with the three Island albums Spirits From Another Time should form an essential part of the Quintessence catalogue.

Quintessence played the first two Glastonbury festivals in 1970/71 and were truly representative of the ideals the event was founded on.  You might want to think about that today as you queue for the iPhone charging tent.
Cat No. (Hux 150)
Keen-eyed record collectors with too much time on their hands will have noticed that the label and back cover of the 1969 Island sampler LP Nice Enough To Eat claims ”Gungamai” was taken from album Island ILPS 9113 Quintessence.  That information was incorrect on several counts: 
1. ILPS 9113 was John and Beverley Martyn’s album Stormbringer
2.The debut Quintessence album was Island ILPS 9110Q In Blissful Company
3.The second, self-titled Quintessence album (Island ILPS 9128) would not appear until mid-1970
4.Finally, when the track in question appeared on In Blissful Company it was titled not “Gungamai” but “Ganga Mai”

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