From Mods to Mecca

Nostalgia has always been big business. Look how the Victorians ached for a romantic gothic past and the Edwardians for a rapidly disappearing bucolic world with the arts and crafts revival. To find my own past the subject of a nostalgic movement was for me a bit of a curiosity as earlier this year saw the release of Flashback (3rd edition), a magazine for folks for whom late 1960s prog rock was a great forgotten period of British music.

Flashback_Issue 3_Spring 2013

Its featured article was entitled, eye-catchingly, from Mods to Mecca. This arcane genre of music is not necessarily the realm of bald headed,  grey haired freaks, but apparently  people of all ages (mostly blokes I imagine). Richard Morton Jack, an Old Etonian who is in his early 30s, publishes the magazine dedicated to this prog rock period from about 1967-73 and wrote From Mods to Mecca a 39 page feature about my erstwhile friends and co-musicians of the rock group Mighty Baby which was born in 1967 out of the ashes of the great London 60s mod band The Action. Mighty Baby floundered in 1971 for many reasons which the article describes in detail.

Aside from whether you like the music, (you don’t have to) it’s an unusual story of how a group of musicians of mixed English backgrounds (middle and working class) met up in 1967 and after a jolly few years playing music just about everywhere and with everyone, ended up with firstly a real Sufi brotherhood in North Africa, meeting one of the truly great muslim saints of the 20th century, and subsequently going on the pilgrimage to Mekka. (Well three fifths made that journey.) The article, richly illustrated with photos and newspaper cuttings, is 99% accurate, historically speaking, unlike previous histories which were pretty fictitious and incomplete. Richard Morton Jack dug up things I had completely forgotten about and found photos I had never seen before. The band’s music was also featured in May this year on Stuart Macone’s BBC radio 6 show called appropriately The Freakier Zone.

To the establishment you can’t mention things like Glastonbury or names like Jimi Hendrix or George Martin in the same breath (or article in this case) as Islam and the Haj or Sufi shaykhs. Almost like oil and water. But Richard Morton Jack courageously tells the whole story and leaves the reader to judge for himself. I say the establishment, because when Cat Stevens was embraced by Islam (it’s interesting to phrase it that way round), the UK establishment did their best to slaughter him. Though well intended, Yusuf put his head too far above the parapet and just didn’t have enough media savvy to deal with it, but also Islam, the religion. was something not wanted in the public discourse as something rational and an option to be considered by ordinary people. So at every opportunity journalists (the voices of the ruling establishment) set out to trap him and resurrect all the old canards about oppression of women, the Satanic Verses issue, jihad and so on. I was personally present at a live BBC radio interview with Nicky Campbell, about Yusuf’s Bosnia War CD when his opening question to Yusuf was “how can you follow a religion that condones the rape of women?”  This gives you an idea of the deep seated hatred and ignorance of anything to do with Islam that is dormant in the British psyche and which I believe goes back to colonialist times when the British were heavily brainwashed against the Turks, Arabs. Africans et alia, just about everyone the British were colonising and whose lands they were plundering in the name of Christianity and progress. That’s another story but is the background to the Mods to Mecca narrative.

mb monmouth rd

Photo by the late Keith Morris 1971.  

To me it still seems impossible now, in fact almost miraculous, that this was to be our destiny – from just itinerant rock musicians to hajj pilgrims. The Flashback article reveals the complete story, which for me is both gratifying, shocking, sad and bizarre all at the same time. It’s from so long ago that it seems almost to be about someone else, not me. But in case anyone thinks it just happened out of the blue, let me put you straight. In fact the direction the music was taking, the chemistry of the band, the books studied on gigs and so on, all led to this amazing conclusion. Both a logical and a theological outcome. The music was the means to the end and let no-one tell you otherwise. Some say we arrived at the gates of a Islam in spite of the music. I beg to disagree. It not only took us to the gates, but through them and on right up to this day. I am the same person now as I was then with just less negative baggage and with accrued wisdom from the journey. Music is very powerful and a hot divisive topic amongst muslims but my experience convinced me that with a good heart, music can serve you and give an uplift and ease to the heart like nothing else. Of course it has a satanic side, what in the realm of human activity doesn’t, but to disparage music purely for doctrinal reasons is senseless. It’s another subject but not to be explored here.

For many years we were all frankly embarrassed by the whole thing and nobody wanted to talk about it. I think this was partly because of the horrendous collapse of our Sufi community in 1983 and the considerable antipathy toward its leader whose shenanigans had destabilised too many lives and families in the 1970s and a drama around which there was a kind of omerta, a traumatised silence. We didn’t want people to know what had been going on out of a sort of twisted shame. But this silence was also because the music Mighty Baby had been playing was nothing to do with commercial rock music but more of a mystical adventure set to music and words, which we knew few would understand. And it all got mixed up with what came later and all the Sufi capers. It had been a journey into the spiritual unknown for all to see. The story is spelled out in the song lyrics of the final album Jug of Love, and particularly in the lyrics of Martin Stone, the wizard front-of-stage guitarist. This final swan song of an LP told the story of the spiritual awakening of this pretty unknown group of musicians and what they were experiencing right at the time the record was being made. When it was released the record companies and music press unsurprisingly missed all these subtleties, but a recent review of the band’s last album that appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, when it was re-released on CD (and vinyl),  expressed it succinctly.

“Mighty Baby were original acid-country mystics: remnants of a great British mod band, the Action, that went psychedelic in the late Sixties, then turned down the amps and amped up the prayer. By the time of Mighty Baby’s second album, A Jug of Love, issued in Britain by Blue Horizon in 1971, most of the band members had converted to Sufism, the mystic Muslim sect, and the record is aptly meditative: slow, extended songs of self-examination sparkling with fireside harmonizing and the gently serpentine lead guitar of Martin Stone. Although Mighty Baby, as practicing Muslims, subscribed to a natural high, the record’s vibe is more stoned than sanctimonious, a trancelike blend of the Middle-era Floyd, the Byrds circa Ballad of Easy Rider and how, I suspect, the Grateful Dead sounded in early rehearsals for American Beauty. A Jug of Love, a big-money rarity for years, has finally been issued on CD by the Sunbeam label. It still overflows with sweet OM.” (David Fricke)

So in the last ten years I have grown to accept that period of my life, who I was, profane language and all. As far as nostalgia goes, I am not nostalgic for that time as it was hazardous and chaotic as well as exciting– creative and destructive simultaneously. Many of the people I knew and worked with from that time are now dead. They died from lifestyle poisoning. So don’t get too dewy eyed for this lost epoch. But reading about it might just open someone’s heart and mind all these years later and how remarkable things come out of the most unlikely situations. It did happen and it’s all true although the Flashback story is only part of the whole picture which will be told some day I hope.

If you are curious to read more about all this caper you can either buy the 208 page magazine or download a pdf from Several Mighty Baby albums are now available from Sunbeam Records in London and can also be downloaded from Itunes.

About Ian Whiteman

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6 Responses to From Mods to Mecca

  1. Arie Euwijk says:

    “The music was the means to the end and let no-one tell you otherwise”
    Thanks for this, it enlightens and enhances the story from Flashback (and other places) enormously. I understand the reluctance of you and others in telling the whole story (as you wrote earlier to me: “I save it for my book”) and so I’m glad that you now tell more than ever before.
    David Biassotti in Ugly Things no. 25 tells the story of Pat Kilroy and The New Age and thus the story of Susan Graubard too. Another beginning to a journey which converges with that of Mighty Baby in the Habibiyya, but what am I telling you, you know that 😉
    Anyway David wanted to write the story of The Habibiyya as well. But he had to give up this plan. Your colleagues from England didn’t want to be involved or interviewed, prob. the reason lies in much of the above. I had some personal contact with Susan Graubard some years ago and learned from her that it was really painful for her to go back to that time. I think she trusted David, as she was of course his main source for his article on The New Age, but he needed more than one voice. Richard Thompson likewise keeps silent on this period, btw
    So the way you now open up (is that the right English expression?) is appreciated! Not because it answers my need for sensation, but because it helps to understand the earlier silence and to get a truer picture of the journey you speak about.
    As it happens Linda Thompson has told more than ever before as well about this time in a very recent interview. Coincidence?
    So thanks again and I will wait patiently for the whole picture.
    Meanwhile there’s enough music to listen to again and again

    vriendelijke groeten
    Arie Euwijk

  2. Ian Whiteman says:

    Thanks Arie for that as I wasn’t sure how this would go down. There are many peculiar aspects to this history and I am cautious about naming names or making accusations but bitterness festers in the heart – Linda Thompson’s recent appearance on BBC Radio 4 proves that. High time some air was pumped into this story so we can all let it go as time is marching on and it’s all “negative baggage”.

  3. Keith Bickerton says:

    As someone who was lucky enough to see Mighty Baby (and Martin’s post Mighty Baby group Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers) many times live, I would like to comment about Ian’s article. At no point does Ian mention talent in his fascinating article (I think he is too modest), but Mighty Baby were truly unique and a constant joy to everyone who was lucky enough to experience them either live or on record, their music has an enduring quality of timelessness and this appeared to come from five equally talented individuals, combining together to forge something quite magical. The Habibiyya album is fabulous as well.

  4. Arie Euwijk says:

    I now understand from your blog “Mending fences, chasing demons” that this period will be attended in the documentary you mention.
    There’s something about (the music of) the Habibiyya I want to ask you.
    The following I asked on the Richard Thompson website
    – Ian Whiteman writes about the Habibiyya on his website: “Other concert appearances after this period were few. One was with the Habibiyya in Amsterdam with Richard Thompson on dulcimer and Evans on Mandola, AJ Pickstock and myself on Bina organ”

    Do you remember anything about this, e.g year or venue? Other gigs with them? Did you ever play with Susan Archuletta?

    This was the answer:
    “Richard Thompson: The venue was the Melkweg. I think it was an early evening show, something else was on afterwards. I played mandolin. The audience numbered about 60. I’d put the year at about 1974 or 5.
    I played informally with Susan Archuletta, mostly, I think, at weddings.”

    At the Institute of Social History in Amsterdam I tried to find out more about it a few years ago, as the archives of the Melkweg reside there. The early seventies however are incomplete, so I did not succeed.
    Only found one handbill which advertised a Richard Thompson concert in 1973, without any mention of others, let alone the Habibiyya.
    Is there a remote chance you remember the date/year or whatever detail that could help? Then I could go back to those archives for another, more informed search. The archives are expanded in the mean time, so the chance of finding something is now bigger anyway.
    Whatever I find will be forwarded to you, of course.

    Hope I don’t ask too much, apologies if I do

    vriendelijke groeten

    • Ian Whiteman says:

      It must have been about 1974, not too long after we all went to San Francisco in 1973. I thought the club was the Cosmos as I was in touch with Rishi the organiser, afterwards. But my memory could be faulty. I’m pretty sure Richard was playing an Apalatian dulcimer as I have a photo of us playing – all in turbans! I even have a recording of some if it but it is pretty dreadful, never, I hope, to see the light of day. After the album I never played with Susan again apart from some informal sessions in Berkeley.

  5. Susan Graubard Archuletta says:

    Wow. Your writing about this unusual time is quite moving and sensitively done. Reading your beautifully written article brings up many thoughts. The events and time of which you write are all locked up in my memories, but quite vividly. I remember happily meeting you in London in Westbourne Grove (or was it Terrace?), how we stayed with you and Christine and began to play spontaneous beautiful music, and meeting Roger and Michael and Martin, wonderful musicians. I remember so well the making of The Habibiyya album in London, and with caution I remember events we all experienced, both leading up to, and after making the album. I remember meeting Richard and Linda, all of us musicians with our first-born children, and teatime at the Rainbow Room, and so many things that I hope some day to write about. But since I left London, I have never had anyone to talk about these events with, to process the sublime and the forgettable, as no one that I’ve known here in California was there then. So reading your article makes me remember so much. I hope some day we can meet again, talk, and play more music together.

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