I saw Brand X twice in the late ‘70’s at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles. As it turned out, these were rare chances to see this band in concert, delivering blistering performances of some of the most progressive jazz-fusion ever created. Many fans like me learned of Brand X via Phil Collins who played drums on most of their early work, and even sang on a few tracks. What we learned though, was a whole lot more about jazz-fusion, and the amazing musicianship shown by all members of the band. In the final portion of this series, Part III, let’s cover the early years of Brand X and hear from Robin Lumley (keys) and Percy Jones (bass) – core members of this fusion super group.
After their formative years jamming all over London – each participating in the Lancaster / Lumley albums, the guys set out to make the first Brand X recordings. First an introduction to both Percy Jones (bass) – Robin was profiled in Part II:
In his debut work with Brand X, Percy Jones sounds like a musician who had been playing for years with a fully realized and unique style, even before his vinyl debut. His innovative playing on electric fretless bass is fluid and harmonic and in addition to Brand X, he has played alongside other similarly talented artists, including Steve Hackett, Brian Eno, David Sylvian, and more.
About Percy, Robin declares: Gareth Percy Jones (that’s his real name in full) is at once a modest man, not blowing his own trumpet (or should that be bass?) and also an extremely talented and innovative musician. When I first met him in 1972, he was already experimenting with his bass. He had a Gretsch semi-acoustic at that time and had removed all the frets. He also had an accelorometer for measuring standing waves in buildings, which he was using as a pick-up! He invented all kinds of outboard boxes connected to his bass which he christened AMOS, (analogue Modification of Sound). He was a genius well in advance of everybody else. He worked out a style of bass-playing which leaves [the others] far behind! The bass playing coming from Percy was an art of harmonics and subtle textures. In future musicology he will be named at St Percy of Llandrinod Wells, the patron saint of bass players! I am in awe of being privileged to have worked with him!
Of his musical origins, Percy says “I grew up in Wales, and did not study music formally. My mother gave me a few basic piano lessons when I was young, but in the early 60’s in Wales I don’t think there was anyone teaching electric bass! I listened to records, learned from bass players I liked – early on it was R&B – Georgie Fame’s band – Cliff Barden (early 60’s) and he made a big impression on me. Charles Mingus later – I got into that immediately. I always loved the sort of spontaneity in his music and his playing – some of it sounds like compositions but still off the cuff – very edgy – which is something in music I’ve always liked.”
As Brand X prepared the debut release, the band became a foursome – of Robin, John, Percy and Phil.
D: Jack Lancaster (winds) who played with the band members on the Lancaster/Lumley releases, only joined Brand X for a couple of tracks on their debut. I asked Jack, “after so much early collaboration, how did it come to pass that you were not a full time member of Brand X?”
Jack: At the time that Brand X formed I was snowed under doing solo stuff and working as a producer for Phonogram and Polydor in Milan, Krisma with Hans Zimmer on Keys and Amsterdam. Robin gave me the lead on Kayak and I also did Rick van der Linden, and Jan Akkerman. Oh! and then there was Aviator which Robin produced and is just about ready for a Gonzo re-release. That was me, John G. Perry, Mick Rogers and Clive Bunker. There was just too much going on for me to have been an on-going part of Brand X.
D: What was the origin of Brand X?
Percy: There was a guy who was a roady for us we called “sheds” – and one night he said, “I hooked up an audition with Island Records.” So we went and played for Rich Williams and Danny Wilding who were from Island, and they really liked it and signed us up, which was a good shock to all of us. We rehearsed for weeks and months actually before doing the first record – and they were paying for all of that rehearsal time.
We then recorded a set for Island which had vocals on it. It was okay but was not breaking any new ground – sounded a bit like Average White Band and we wanted to be different. They did not release it at the time. So, we decided to change direction a bit and do an instrumental record. To do that we needed a personnel change also – we invited Bill Bruford down to play drums, and he came, but turned it down – because at the time he was spread a bit thin. Danny said we should try this guy out who played with Genesis. Phil came down and that worked out musically and he was into it. And luckily Charisma records took over and got the unreleased recordings from Island.
Robin: After we signed to Island, the group was a soul/funk outfit and the 4 of us (who became Brand X) were dissatisfied with the tunes. Then Tony Smith (Genesis manager) came along and suggested that the 4 of us signed to Charisma.
Percy: We landed a publishing deal with a company called Fuse Music. Fuse gave each of us 200 quid as a publishing advance. I looked in Melody Maker the same week and a guy had an ad in there that he was selling a Fender precision fretless for 200 quid. It was really in great condition except for some Guinness stains on it so it seemed a really good nick. So I spent my advance on the bass (I think Goodsall bought a fur coat). I developed a relationship with this instrument – there were all sorts of things I could do on it potentially that I could not do on the old Gretsch.
[Ed: Percy had started out with a hollow bodied fretted bass called the Gretsch. He modified it by filing down the frets at the top of the G string, and experimented with accelerometers and other innovations at the time]
Percy: With the Fender, I could express myself a lot better – you could slide harmonics, invert chords, start with two notes – a major interval, then slide up and two more notes at a minor interval. Things like that it was just a much more expressive instrument for me – I’d always loved the upright bass, but liked the volume and tack that you could get with a fretless. It was qualities of both – it was fortuitous that I got the advance, and found that bass.
We had 3 or 4 weeks before recording Unorthodox Behaviour so I started practicing on the Fender. I used that Fender on all three of those first records – and switched to the Wal fretless bass for Masques (band’s forth record.)
[Ed: the band went on to record a second studio release, Moroccan Roll, released in 1977 which sports a proper vocal contribution from Phil Collins, and deepened their fan base. Morris Pert (percussion) joined the band for that second album and became a full time member of the ensemble.
The band followed that release the same year with one of the most amazing live albums of the decade, Livestock. Some of the live dates they captured were with Phil Collins on drums – others with Kenwood Dennard on drums. I noted to Robin that “Ish” from that live release is surely one of their greatest works:]
Robin: Nice of you to say it! As a matter of fact, I think the high water mark (as you put it) was a constant one – being in Brand X and reveling in the friendship and musicality of the other 3 members.
D: Robin, in 1978 you went on break from Brand X for project work?
Robin: 1978 was when Tony Smith decided I had a lot of production offers and, looking for a career which went beyond being in a band, I took a year or so off from performing and produced Isotope, Bill Bruford, Jack’s Solo album, Rod Argent, Orleans and of course, Brand X itself (Masques). Peter Robinson was always a great friend and he joined Brand X as keyboards player. In 1979, it was decided it might be fun if I came back and joined up with Peter as a keyboards duo on stage. Which turned out to be special fun!
D: Did you have a sense that Brand X was something beyond straight jazz-fusion – was that intentional or an artifact of the jamming or musical influences? Looking back now, how do you view the band and their success?
Robin: Brand X’s music was something that we all wanted to play. It never tried to be different or to become a bridge between rock and jazz – we just liked it! In addition we coupled with a really bizarre sense of humor (just look at our song titles)! [Ed: titles like: “Disco Suicide”, “Smacks of Euphoric Hysteria” come to mind…]
My musical life during the 70’s/early 80’s was being in a heady awesome feeling, that working with sooooo many talented persons with whom I felt in awe. I never did figure out how I had been so blessed!
Percy: I think we did some good stuff – though I rarely listen to it. In the band I’m in now we do “Nuclear Burn” (first track of the Brand X debut.) So I had to listen to it and refresh my memory. I look back on that stuff and think – we did some creative things – and then in some parts I think, “why did I do that”! I think the band was original, had a good energy and everybody was committed to doing it. Phil was a great drummer and I had a great time playing with him – he was a very musical drummer and would use spaces – we used to do a lot of sessions together back then – called out as a rhythm section. I’ve not seen him since the early 80’s. The big disappointment with Brand X was not getting any royalties – the old management group claims we built up quite a debt but they won’t account for it.
D: What are you up to today?
Robin: I am a full time author today – just now working on the story of a ships cat! Simon was the first feline to win the Animal VC in 1949. And then next, I am doing a history of the Falkland Islanders resistance movement during the 1982 Argie occupation.
Percy: I am forming a new band – the core is bass, drums, guitar – and we are using a Theremin or saxophone depending on who’s available. There’s some great musicians living in Brooklyn – doing day jobs. We are almost at the point of being ready to record. If the opportunity comes up to play live we will, but getting gigs with this type of music is like pulling teeth these days!