Tim Blake is one of the true pioneers of electronic prog. Perhaps best known for his celebrated solo albums Crystal Machine (1977) and Blake’s New Jerusalem (1978), he has also been a member of both Gong and Hawkwind, among various other collaborations. After joining Gong full-time in 1972, he was one of the first to bring synthesisers from the studio to the stage. Later, with Crystal Machine, he was arguably the first to use laser lighting as part of a rock concert.
He has continued to record and perform over the years, including a return to the Hawkwind fold in 2007 following his original tenure back in 1979/’80. Blake moved to France in the 1970s, where he continues to live a life of splendid isolation deep in the countryside.
Taking time out from feeding his chickens, he’s surrounded by a stack of synths, theremins, and all manner of electronic paraphernalia. In a jovial mood, he recalls some of the stellar sights and sounds of his career.
You emerged onto the scene in a time of upheaval – socially, politically, and culturally. What are your memories?
The big explosion was 1968. Here in France, in the spring, you had the great student uprising, and General de Gaulle left France. In fact, if the Communist party hadn’t turned around on the students, France would be a very different place today.
I left school in 1968, and my parents had made the choice to privately educate the kids they brought up. But it didn’t really work on me so by the time I was 16, I wanted out, and the school wanted me out too. So I was unleashed into the world that was bubbling up and exploding all around us and I went on to do a year’s performance art study.
I had been a choirboy, and played classical trumpet at school, so had already been very involved with music. I then did an apprenticeship in a recording studio in Barnet and trained myself as an engineer.
One of my colleagues at music school had been Celia Humphris and she came up to me one day and said, “Look, Tim, I’ve just accepted an offer to sing with a folk band called Trees.” More importantly, she said that Trees were managed by a group of people in Notting Hill Gate and that I had to meet them. They were really nice and probably the most important surviving member of that group is Bias Boshell, who’s worked with Barclay James Harvest and The Moody Blues. He’s a very well-trained classical music scholar, like a handful of others who have marked prog music in England – Emerson, Wakeman… I’ve always had great respect for those who work on paper, partly because I’ve never done it myself.
So there I am, doing sound and meeting these managers who have three or four groups, some of whom I worked for, such as Skin Alley and High Tide, who featured Thomas Crimble and Simon House respectively, later of Hawkwind. Virtually everybody I call friends in the music business are people I met at this time. Doing sound, I got to go to some good gigs, and it was hanging about with High Tide that introduced me to Soft Machine, and that resulted in me getting invited to work with Gong.
My generation, we had LSD, we had Jimi Hendrix, we had everything to change the world. We had been witnesses to huge changes in civilisation, and one of the things that was there was spacey music and, finally, electronic music. It was the music created during all this social change.
How did you first discover the synthesiser?
In 1968 you had the release of Switched-On Bach. The electronic music I was listening to at the time was pretty intellectual stuff, but then all of a sudden along came Walter [now Wendy] Carlos and everybody just looked at each other and said, “What the fuck is this?” Here was the new instrument that virtually no one’s tried. That’s where I got into actually creating music. Then when Tangerine Dream were recording Phaedra I was in the control room at The Manor, watching, and I was fascinated.
Although you and the likes of Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze enjoyed considerable success taking electronic music to a wider audience, Jean-Michel Jarre’s 1976 album Oxygene went stratospheric. Have you ever felt, “That could have been me!”?
It seems to me that the success of Jean-Michel Jarre has got nothing to do with synthesisers, or laser shows. It’s that he inserted into his music all the elements of French popular music, which he’s an expert in. If you actually listen to Oxygene, if you removed all the electronic instruments and had it played by a band of accordion players – very good ones, admittedly – it wouldn’t lose anything. In fact, in might end up better. But he captured the spirit of festive French music, really popular stuff, made it electronic, and the result can only be millions of sales.
You appear on all three albums of Gong’s Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy, by far the band’s most coherent body of work. Although a creative purple patch, it wasn’t without its problems, particularly interpersonal ones.
If I’m right it’s February 1972. If you look up the Rolling Stones concert at The Marquee and add on 24 hours, that’s when I arrived in France, because I’d gone to see the Stones with [Gong founder] Daevid Allen the night before. After I first met Gong as a band and listened to their music, once everyone had gone to bed, I sat down and wrote a song. It’s a song I really like, it’s on Blake’s New Jerusalem, and it’s probably the least performed of all the ones I do – Song For A New Age. It’s harmony, science and love, and I still believe that these are the three elements of the triangle that make our life up, the way we do things.
The period when we wrote Angel’s Egg is when Daevid wasn’t participating in the group in any way at all, and I think the only piece of music he brought into You was something he wrote in 1970. But Steve [Hillage] and I were improvising madly at that time. Then, a Gong show would start with me and Steve just going for it. We were absolute musical buddies at the time.
I fell out with Daevid. I have very high standards of being honest and he couldn’t meet those standards. I don’t like crooks and I ended up telling him. As Steve said in some interview I read, I have some very important points in our relationship with Daevid, they’re true, but I’m the only one to have these points of view. He said I must be very alone on that, and I am.
Gong suffers a lot from what I call the Winston Smith complex – people rewriting history. As a young man, I reckon Gong got the very best that I could give and I’m extraordinarily proud of the work we did in those days. Technically speaking, the best recording is probably Angel’s Egg because when I listen to it, it sounds exactly like Gong playing in their house, which of course is what it was. With You, it’s such amazing music, but I think we could have made a better recording. But we had internal problems by then and I think these were taking over. But I’m always happy to talk about Gong because it was a very exciting time in my life, and a very short time when you think about it, especially when you consider that I’ve been making music with Hawkwind for 12 years, possibly 13.
In 1975 you joined the line-up for Steve Hillage’s first solo album Fish Rising, recorded not long before your and Steve’s departure from Gong.
Fish Rising would probably have been a Gong album if we didn’t have the problem with Daevid. I’m the only one prepared to mention this. Just look at the band photographs after You. When I look at them, I see a whole load of people completely freaked out, as if we’d been done, and we had been. I get the feeling that if you compare Steve’s music – which is awfully good – before he met Gong and then go up to his fourth solo album Green, it sounds like I wrote it from beginning to end. All I can say is that he must have found some real inspiration in Gong and it managed to bring him out of his shell amazingly.
You also began work on what would become the Crystal Machine album while still a member of Gong, and it seems that the aftermath of the split spilled over into your solo career.
I had to leave Gong in ’75 because I was unable to have a good relationship with Daevid any more. I was fed up seeing the music I and others had written have the name on it changed at the last minute. He didn’t even belong to the group after ’73. His participation on Angel’s Egg and You was because we tolerated it and we shouldn’t have. Spiritually, the band broke up after that. It left me with a lot of negative contractual situations which were not conducive to me getting on with another recording career. So at first we just put everything into doing some shows with sound and light, and by the time we got to ’76, we put on our first Crystal Machine show in Vienna.
We’re talking impossible budgets here – working with synthesisers was already expensive, but fucking about with lasers? Forget it! It’s the best way to go broke that I know. I then cut up some recordings I had and put them together, just to show people what it sounded like – a demonstration tape. It hadn’t even occurred to me to make a record, especially as my Gong period left me in a lot of shit. But it got played purely accidentally to someone who offered me a licence on it and that’s how it started.
As soon as Virgin lost their exclusivity on me, I put all this out as a record and I’m glad I did. It sold a few copies and it made my reputation. But all the money I made from Crystal Machine and New Jerusalem was confiscated by a publisher who I never made a deal with, to pay off Gong debts. All my money bought was a set of trains and planes to keep Richard [Branson] happy.
Crystal Machine was released the same year as Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. Did you personally feel the impact of punk on your career?
We were ‘there definitely is a future’ whereas punk was ‘no future’. I remember meeting Sid Vicious in Barclay Records and he just seemed to be an oik who marched in and menaced everybody with a flick knife and I just don’t think that’s got anything to do with music or art. It didn’t do him any good, did it?
You headlined Glastonbury Fayre in 1979, topping a bill that also included Steve Hillage, Gong offshoot Mother Gong, and none other than Peter Gabriel.
I’m stood having a natter to someone and Michael Eavis walks up and says, “Right, production meeting in 10 minutes!” Then I found out I’d be closing the festival, playing after Peter Gabriel, and of course my ego was swelling! But that’s when the stomach cramps hit and it was the most terrifying performance of my life. I remember watching Peter and thinking, “Wow, that’s good!” and then rushing off to the Portakabin, getting changed and going back on stage. There are very few photos of it and I’ve never heard a recording of it. But it was a lovely festival, a fantastic moment, and we ended up having a ball. I’d love to return to Glastonbury one day but it doesn’t seem like the kind of festival that can fit people like me in any more.
It was around this time that you first performed with Hawkwind.
It was the ’79 10th-anniversary tour, which was actually ‘Hawkwind featuring Tim Blake’, which was an arrangement between our different record companies. It’s a friendship that goes back to August ’69.
A lot of things were going on between ’69 and ’71 but Hawkwind were still finding their way, and when they did finally start doing things – Silver Machine and the whole Space Ritual thing – I was in Gong. When Nik [Turner] left Hawkwind, which he did very well compared to how I left Gong, he had a record contract and I played on that record [1978’s Xitintoday, by Nik Turner’s Sphynx]. And when I’ve met up with Dave [Brock], we’ve always enjoyed seeing each other. I was surprised when I was invited to play with Hawkwind, but I didn’t hesitate and it was rather a joy.
When we were rehearsing and started to get the set together, Dave said, “This is where you’re gonna perform New Jerusalem and then after that if you play Lighthouse, we’ll join in.” I said, “You must be joking!”
Lighthouse has now been part of the huge Hawkwind repertoire since 1979 and I’m very proud of that. Good old Dave on his wedding day was singing it and I wasn’t even there!
Unfortunately, I left Hawkwind very rapidly on the Levitation tour, which was a bit of a shame as it was really rather good. We had something really good going with Ginger Baker in the band. But I had a personal disaster going on and I hadn’t really wanted to be on tour. I was expecting a child and the child was stillborn and my priority was simply not playing rock’n’roll. But I didn’t explain this to the others and they didn’t discover this till years later. I had a huge disagreement with Dave and the rest of the band after a show at Victoria Hall in Hanley, and I left the next morning and just went home.
What are your thoughts on the current music scene?
On my record The Tide Of The Century I talk about time as a wave, and we have a tsunami of right-wing thinking coming through the world right now. In France, the worst is still to come.
But what I’ve noticed is that the rise of these intolerable movements seems to come with a decline in invention in progressive music. I’ve participated quite a bit in progressive music in my life, and I’m certainly a child of the period when this was becoming a style. But where is the great progressive music now? What makes our glasses drop off our noses, and us say, “Wow!”? That hasn’t happened to me for quite some time. Who’s come along to replace Pink Floyd? Nobody. Is this a sign of the social regression we’re now beginning to see across Europe, where all of the values of the 60s and 70s are being thrown out the window?
The hopes and aspirations from this time have taken a beating. Is there a relationship? There must be. There’s a tiredness and we’re not leading people on to a new world any more. We’re letting a load of wankers take over who want to go back to an old one, and it’s possibly our fault.
As a Brit abroad, you’ve been affected by Brexit. Is this a manifestation of this backward slide?
I was one of over a million people banned from taking part in the referendum by the courts. In my opinion, if I’m not allowed to express myself then these people in England should not be allowed to change my future or put it in peril. I’m not going to have Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage telling me how to live. If I lose my European citizenship then my French residency won’t be worth the plastic it’s printed on. If I have to return to England, I’ll sue the government to buy me a house the same size as the one I have here, which would be millions because you guys are mad about the price of your property.
It’s also very difficult to work in England, which is why I haven’t been appearing with Hawkwind as much. The Brexit vote has pulled the plug out. You might never see me again, in which case it’s a case of, “Bye! Loved ya!” It might just come to that.
Rick Wakeman wore a cape, Keith Emerson wore a cape, Peter Gabriel wore a cape and you wore a cape. The list goes on. We languish in an epoch devoid of heroes – when we lost the cape, did we lose the plot?
There’s photos of me in a cape? Oh dear! I wore a cape because someone made me one and it would have been impolite not to wear it. We were a generation brought up on The Caped Crusader though, weren’t we? And as I’m living in the area where the Teutonic knights came from, I think it’s very appropriate. Maybe Boris Johnson should wear a cape. In fact, I think everyone should have a cape, don’t you?
See moonweed.free.fr for more information on Tim’s music.