“The council turned the power off in the middle of Out Demons Out. We carried on, and David Bowie is happily shouting his head off with me… We both received letters from the council, banning us for life”: Edgar Broughton has mellowed, but not entirely

Edgar Broughton
(Image credit: Press / Al Stuart)

Founded in Warwick in 1968, the Edgar Broughton Band came to embody a distinct facet of the British counterculture. Their intense songs often dealt in socio-political issues, earning them a reputation as a confrontational bunch with a happy habit of extending the middle finger to authority.

Led by singer/guitarist Rob ‘Edgar’ Broughton, with brother Steve on drums and bassist Arthur Grant, their music was just as uncompromising. Psychedelia, heavy rock, beardy prog and experimental folk were locked in an uneasy embrace, usually crowned by the kind of low vocal rasp that saw Broughton routinely compared to Captain Beefheart.

Signed to Harvest, the progressive arm of EMI, they quickly became known as a “people’s band,” playing free festivals and a steady stream of benefit gigs for any number of worthy causes. Arrests, fines and court appearances were not uncommon during the Edgar Broughton Band’s 70s heyday, though nothing appeared to dissuade them from their objectives. Their fanbase only became more committed, while the anthemic Out Demons Out (inspired by The Fugs’ mock exorcism of the Pentagon) sought to unite the disaffected in a way that was both cathartic and convivial.

They issued a string of ambitious studio albums along the way, from 1969’s deeply weird Wasa Wasa to the strings-enhanced sophistication of 1971’s Edgar Broughton Band and on through the more expansive terrain of Oora (1973) and Bandages (1976). The band finally bowed out in 1982 with Superchip, a mostly synth-led concept piece about sinister governmental control.

Broughton spent much of his subsequent time as a youth and community worker in south London, reviving the EBB only occasionally for live gigs. They reformed in earnest in 2006, with Broughton’s son Luke as an extra player, prompting a steady run of shows that lasted another four years.

Broughton Snr has been active as a solo artist ever since, though his recorded output has been disappointingly thin. He’s now started putting that to rights with the remarkable Break The Dark. Largely recorded at home during the Covid lockdown, it’s an unexpected treat, reliant on electronica, minimal guitar textures and strings.

I think some of it’s beautiful. There’s some dark stuff in there, but there’s real hope as well, I think

He’s been judicious with hired help, bringing in EBB’s Arthur Grant, cellist Calle Arngrip and distinguished producer John Leckie (who began his career as a tape op on Wasa Wasa) to handle the mixing.

“Getting John involved was really special,” Broughton tells Prog. “I can honestly put my hand on my heart and say this album really was a labour of love. And I think some of it’s beautiful. There’s some dark stuff in there, but there’s real hope as well, I think.

”For the last couple of years, until very recently, I’ve sort of worked at it as a day job. I’d get out of bed, cross the room, turn the laptop on and start. Sometimes I’d just be there in my pants!”

How did Break The Dark take shape?

I wanted to do something different. There’s traces of the Edgar Broughton Band in there, but this was really a kind of reinvention. I’ve always loved electronic music and programming and messing around with stuff – it felt like time to combine it all. I also wanted to send out several messages that might take some consideration. Sort of positive, but also realistic. There’s such a mixture of subjects, from ballads to quite political stuff to very personal things. There’s a song about Steve, for example. [Steve Broughton passed away in May 2022.]

Is that In The Half Light?

Yeah. The middle part has a kind of guitar solo and a drum, almost like a ghost drummer that suddenly starts playing a second kit. Quite heavy. I tried to make it sound like how Steve would’ve played it.

How did recording at home affect your approach to these songs? 

Having no studio costs brought a certain freedom. It allowed me to scrap and revisit songs. The Sound Don’t Come, for example, is about Mick Farren. I did a gig at London’s Borderline [July 2013], where Mick was also playing with his band, survivors of The Deviants, that whole crew. I knew him from way back.

He’d reviewed a box set of the Broughtons and said it was “inane hippie nonsense.” I thought that was a bit naughty, so I was determined to go up to him at this gig, with my little bottle of brandy, and say, “Mick, you look terrible. Oh man, what’s happened to you? Would you like a drink?” It was mostly thought of in fun. But when I saw him, he had an oxygen bottle with him. He could hardly talk. He went out onstage, they started some music, I heard a bit of a verse, then they stopped. Mick had collapsed. He died onstage.

So I wrote this song, but it wasn’t working. In the end I made this really sketchy thing with a quiet vocal as a guide. I still wasn’t sure it was good enough to be on the album, but John Leckie said, “This is great, this could be a single!”

You mentioned Break The Dark’s political edge. Were you always politically engaged?

I think so. For an artist – and I use the word loosely – it’s important to know where you stand and what you believe in. I grew up in a socialist household and I’ve always valued what I’ve got and cared about people who haven’t got anything. I like to think that I’ve championed the underdog wherever possible.

Was that something you wanted to explore when you started the Edgar Broughton Band?

It was partly about me feeling that I was a square peg in a round hole and I wanted to explore why. I was a bit sort of bolshy at school and everywhere, really. I was quick to express my opinions and challenge people. When we started the band, and after we’d moved on from loving The Shadows and blues and stuff like that, it crept into my writing.

I started to improvise things like [14-minute opus] Dawn Crept Away, from Wasa Wasa. Not so many years ago, somebody asked our guitarist, Andrew Taylor, what it was all about. He said, “It’s some kid screaming his head off in pain.” That’s the kid I was. I was really mixed up and out of kilter with most everybody else, including other musicians, who would’ve said I was a punk if the term had been invented. From when I was a kid onwards, I suffered from depression and little panic attacks. 

And did being in a band help express those issues?

Yeah, it did. It gave me a place to be, amongst my peers. Finally, I had found a sort of niche in life. By the time we played Hyde Park to all those thousands of people [June 1969, headlined by Blind Faith], I was at home – that was my living room. I was absolutely comfortable there and I loved it.

Musically, what prompted that switch from blues to something heavier, weirder and more psychedelic?

I loved the sound of the blues – Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters – and I could emulate it in the same way that Eric Burdon could. But then there was that kind of revolution that started on the west coast of America, where people started to write stuff that was pertinent to their lives. I think that’s when the switch happened.

It seemed almost necessary, or incumbent upon me, to start writing poetry about how I saw things, as opposed to just keep singing the blues. I’ve always had a thing about being a museum. In the early days, me and the guitarist used to go to the Rose & Crown in Warwick. There was a chap there with elbow patches and a regimental tie. I looked at him and said, “Y’know what, I will never, ever be like that.”

You were often associated with other so-called ‘community bands’ like The Deviants, Pink Fairies and Hawkwind, but there was always something very other about the Edgar Broughton Band.

Compared to most of them, we had melodies, along with things like Love In The Rain, Out Demons Out and stuff that was sort of pseudo metal. We had Evening Over Rooftops and Hotel Room, which Tony Blackburn played five times in one week. He said, “I’m not sure I like these people, but I love this record!” We were blown away by that. 

Whereas The People newspaper was saying things like, “They’ve just come back from playing in Germany. They should go back and stay there. We don’t want them in this country.”

Did you feel much affiliation to progressive music?

We did. But we didn’t try to be like any of those bands at all. The BBC did a thing called Heavy Metal Britannia [2010] and they also did a prog one. And I was in both of them. They said it was because they didn’t really know which we were. I thought that was rather nice, actually, because I think there’s some Edgar Broughton Band stuff that’s really prog in that early era of the band.

But there’s something else as well, which I think is very eclectic. And much more attuned to people like The Fugs or Pearls Before Swine. I love Balaklava [1968] – that was very influential. So it really was a mixture. But I certainly would identify with prog bands. We felt part of that movement.

You also explored that other prog signifier: the concept album. 1982’s Superchip imagines a dystopian future where people have been implanted with microchips...

Yeah, I think that’s as close as we got to a concept album. Some of it forecasts certain things that have actually happened since; all kinds of bits and pieces. I think it was ahead of its time in a way. Certainly in terms of a group of people who only want to rip the world off and exploit us all.

You’re probably best known for 1970’s Out Demons Out, which became a kind of communal exorcism at live shows. Was that song an experiment to see how far you could blur the distinction between band and audience?

Sometimes it really was. I remember playing a festival in Germany, at the Aachen football stadium [Aachen Open Air Pop Festival, July 1970]. Some police were in the directors’ box with infrared binoculars, while others were in the stadium, dragging people out by their hair for smoking dope. A young woman came past me with her head bleeding, with two great big coppers marching her out. 

So we did Out Demons Out as soon as we went on, pointing to the cops in the directors’ box. And the crowd all started to turn and point too. Over and over again, in English, I said: “Unless you stop doing what you’re doing, nothing else will continue. And the whole crowd will resist what you’re doing.” The police stayed there for about 10 minutes while the crowd was shouting, “Out Demons Out!” and in the end they gave up and walked down the stairs. After that, they were as reasonable as you might expect at any festival.

So we used to do that. We’d sometimes direct it at something that was going on, or in a town where something was a big issue. But at the same time it was a cathartic thing, almost a sort of exercise for people.

Didn’t David Bowie get involved at one point?

We knew David from when he had his little Arts Lab in Bromley, with people like the Strawbs and that sort of crew. We once shared a bill at the Dome in Brighton [1969]. I just remember hearing Space Oddity [while] backstage, and we all went out there to listen to this thing. Just this little beautiful guy sitting on a stool, singing, by himself. It was absolutely spellbinding.

David came onstage with us at the end to do Out Demons Out. The council turned the power off in the middle of it, because we’d overrun, but we carried on with drums and tambourines and congas. And of course, Dave is happily shouting his head off with me at the front of the stage. Afterwards, we both received letters from Brighton council, banning us for life from ever appearing at the Dome again.

We went to see lots of gigs of David’s and I nearly got to play on one of his albums, on Candidate [from 1974’s Diamond Dogs]. But he had a bit of a breakdown and went to Switzerland instead.

Did you enjoy all that confrontational stuff?

I did. There was this phrase going around when I was a kid, very Victorian: “Be seen and not heard, speak when you’re spoken to.” To my parents, that was anathema. That was absolutely the wrong thing to say about anything. And of course, in a rock band, there are loads of opportunities where you can say, “I’m not having that – that’s not right.” 

We just addressed things that we thought were really unfair. Some people took it a bit seriously. They thought we were politicians, or we aspired to be. It was all like, “What are you going to do next, Edgar?” “Well, we’re not going to storm the Bastille! We’re a rock band!”

But we just happened to espouse these particular views about certain things, like we supported Release [legal advice charity for those charged with drug possession]. We did hundreds of benefits, which made people in the business say: “You’ll ruin everything. You’ll never get gigs, because you play for free too much.” It was ludicrous. What’s wrong with free music?

Back then you were mobilising your fanbase and creating a community, which is an idea that many artists have since adopted in the internet age. You were way ahead of the curve...

Yeah, I think we were, certainly in terms of little publicity things. We used to carry cans of paint in boxes and give them to people. Hence, throughout the UK, there is still the odd bridge or wall with “Out Demons Out” written on it. I quite like that. But if we’d had the internet that would really have been something.

One notorious example took place at Keele University in 1970. What happened that night?

There were massive demonstrations going on at Kent University in Ohio, where the National Guard had shot and killed some students. And Keele, in solidarity, were putting together a series of sit-ins and asking bands to play for them. The problem was that we played in what was a newly refurbished refectory. We gave out all this paint and the students covered it with graffiti.

And I have to say – and I did say this in court later – that it was the most intelligent graffiti I’d ever seen. I knew it was a bit cheeky, but I asked the judge if I could have a copy of the evidence photographs, which he didn’t like at all. But we didn’t care.

We went to court for free concerts as well, like at Redcar and Brighton. Poor old EMI. They must’ve been tearing their hair out over us, but little did they know that we were paving the way for them having to deal with the Sex Pistols in the future.

After the band split for a time in the early 80s, you became a youth worker at Wandsworth Borough Council. What did you learn from that experience?

Working with people, you do start to learn at least what somebody might be going through. You become more sensitive to things and less judgemental. And I think that gives you an edge. One of the highlights was when some kids came to us and said, “We want a radio station.” So we got a licence, put a studio together in Wandsworth and for three years we ran Fundamental FM, managed by young people.

We used to get top DJs on Saturday nights. We won the first Philip Lawrence Award For Crime Prevention by young people. And we had a visit by Princess Anne. [Respected current affairs broadcaster] Trevor McDonald did an interview and we did breakfast telly. It was a really successful thing. There was also a stage when I was part of a couple of guys running young men’s groups, exploring the issues of being male and all kinds of stuff.

So how did that period influence your return to music later on?

Well, I didn’t really leave music. We were still functioning as the Edgar Broughton Band; but I think, if it influenced anything artistic in me, it’s Break The Dark. I didn’t want to be that shouty Edgar Broughton any more. You don’t really want to sit down on a Sunday afternoon and listen to an album that’s too raucous.

Maybe when you get older, you do calm down – although there’s bits of me that haven’t at all

I wanted to make something that you can listen to anywhere. And I think all the experience of that work changed me quite a lot. Maybe when you get older, you do calm down – although there’s bits of me that haven’t at all. Unfortunately, perhaps! But there are parts that really have. And it came from a lot of those experiences of working with people and thinking about a better way to communicate.

And you’re planning to take Break The Dark on the road?

Yes. At the moment, it’s about what’s affordable and practical and achievable. I’m certainly looking at something in April, where I’d like to work with a cellist and my son Luke, and perhaps a couple of other people. More of an ensemble, a quartet or quintet. Maybe even with no drums – maybe programmed stuff. I want it to be quite different from anything I’ve ever done before. I just don’t want to rock out with a strap around my neck, y’know.

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.