If you remember the meltdown of the '60s into the '70s, and the formation of John Peel's iconic Dandelion label, you'll doubtless remember (and with a degree of affection) the label's first signing. This was the ambitious and challenging experimental multi-media troupe Principal Edwards Magic Theatre, a somewhat unwieldy collective and a loose twelve-piece ensemble that epitomised the earnest, spirited, unpretentious ad-hoc "let's try it and see what happens" exploration, all the creative naïvete of the alternative/hippie culture, while chiming in with the academic pretensions and art-school intellectual sensibility - and concomitant strong self-belief - of the underground and early progressive movement. Although their point of galactic origin was Exeter University rather than Canterbury, they shared with the scene of the latter locality a certain quality of whimsical, wilful eccentricity, although in a slightly delayed temporal orbit from that role-model one might say (but they were the only band to be let through the barricades to play there during one of the Canterbury uni sit-ins). PEMT were a big draw on the burgeoning student/college circuit, needless to say. Much in the manner of many other ultra-creative bands of their time, PEMT were to split after a relatively short time (although this was chiefly for financial rather than artistic reasons). Out of the ashes in 1971 arose a slimmed-down - and Magic-Theatre-less - six-piece that recorded one album for Deram (Round One) before abandoning ship when they were deemed mildly out of step with prevailing musical trends.
For me, PEMT's creative flame burnt brightest on their debut LP Soundtrack, aptly titled since it quite literally formed the musical soundtrack for their ambitious multi-media stage show which incorporated "the works" - song, drama, mime, dance, a projected backdrop of psychedelic slides and theatrical lighting effects. As guitarist and writer Root Cartwright succinctly put it, the lyric content embraced "drama, fantasy, epic, tenderness, some quite profound ideas and maybe a bit of whimsy". Even by the free-thinking standards of their time, PEMT's music could be considered exceedingly eclectic, for everything and anything tended to be thrown into the mix - folk, psych, rock, classical, jazz, medieval and eastern music and the avant garde (but they could boogie too!). No one track could really be taken to summarise what the band was about, but perhaps the episodic storytelling of Sacrifice, with its delicate modal acid-folk with a medieval flavour yielding to thunderous rock gestures and a climactic guitar solo, makes for a good entry point to the weird universe of PEMT. Soundtrack's overtly theatrical narratives were complemented by extremes: the cool mystical pastoral of Enigmatic Insomniac Machine and a hip rockist take on a Shakespeare sonnet, with the epic ballad The Death Of Don Quixote stacked full of vivid, striking imagery and a plethora of cultural references.
Soundtrack's lavish, expansive gatefold sleeve afforded me hours of interest, as it reproduced lyrics and credits, identified every PEMT member on the photo spread, and gave an enticing flavour of the band's full-on live experience that made every gig such a happening event. PEMT provided some of the most memorable live gigs of my own formative years. I was fortunate to see them a number of times during the period when they brought their commune to live in a rambling old farmhouse near their adoptive town of Kettering, cheekily (and not entirely kindly) immortalised in song on album number two, The Asmoto Running Band. That album was a more polished affair production-wise (courtesy of Pink Floyd's Nick Mason), but its musical content seemed more wayward, less definitively mystical and mythical than its predecessor. One side was taken up with a linked concept piece on the theme of good guys (hippie commune) versus bad guys (property developers), rather obviously based on the band's then increasingly precarious tenure of the farmhouse. The second side consisted of five separate songs whose disparity made for less satisfying listening; best of these were live favourites Autumn Lady Dancing Song and Freef (R') All.
The band's two Dandelion albums have been available on CD intermittently for a few years, firstly on See For Miles and latterly on Cherry Red, but the title of this new set indicates that it's something of a completist's dream, since one whole disc out of the three is devoted to "hidden treasure" (radio sessions, a live recording and demos). The radio sessions - for Peel's Top Gear programme - typically showcased songs that didn't get to appear on record and which quite often were to prove more interesting than those which did gain a commercial release (King Of The being a case in point here). I'm glad to find three out of the four tracks from the band's 1969 session (complete with the notorious "Hilversum hum"), and the pair of tracks from the early 1970 session. The latter, we're told, are sourced from original master tapes (however this doesn't explain the absence of the remaining three tracks, nor the discrepancy in track titles compared with the listing for that session in Ken Garner's indispensable In Session Tonight book).
After the radio session extracts we get five tracks taken from the band's last ever live set, recorded at Hampstead Theatre in September 1971; these include stage favourites such as Weasel (In The Wardrobe) which were earmarked for a third PEMT album. By and large, there's more in the way of integrated loose-limbed instrumental improvisation than in the more consciously structured theatre-story pieces of yore, but these tracks nevertheless form a satisfying development from the band's previous work. Disc three concludes with a trio of "demos in search of a commercial single" including the catchy Rainy Day Anne and the shambolic idiot's hoedown of Ministry Of Madness. All of this extra material provides further welcome opportunities to appreciate the band's unique and pioneering character (it could be argued that of their contemporaries, at that time only the ISB, with projects like their "surreal parable in music and dance" U, were embracing the possibilities afforded by multi-media experimentation to any real extent). But even without us experiencing the visuals (sadly, virtually no live footage survives except for tantalising excerpts on an 11-minute French TV special), the two LPs that PEMT recorded for Dandelion remain impressive achievements. In our reassessment, we might also find some surprising pre-echoes of later bands (have fun spotting the thrusting theatricality of Siouxsie & The Banshees for instance!). In the end, guitarist and writer Root Cartwright's hindsight description of PEMT as "a glorious mash-up of musical and lyrical styles, dance, performance and spectacle, all created with minimal resources", can be seen as pretty much spot-on.
|Wizz Jones, Pete Berryman & Simeon Jones: Come What May||Pog: Little Trophies|
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